A Cathedral Full of Fire

Emma Brockes, “Michael Cunningham: A Life in Writing,” The Guardian 5 February 2011 (Guardian Review p.12)

…It is Cunningham’s project too, the pressure of which he feels, particularly after finishing a novel, when the terrible gap between what he hoped he’d produce and what he wound up with becomes apparent. Because, he says, one tends to value the things one isn’t good at, he has a fantasy that one day he’ll find he has written “some kind of vast epic novel that would include the Crimean war and interstellar space travel” rather than his usual slim volume of the interior lives of ordinary people.

“Like my hero Virginia Woolf, I do lack confidence. I always find that the novel I’m finishing, even if it’s turned out fairly well, is not the novel I had in my mind. I think a lot of writers must negotiate this, and if they don’t admit it, they’re not being honest. You have started the book with this bubble over your head that contains a cathedral full of fire — that contains a novel so vast and great and penetrating and bright and dark that it will put all other novels ever written to shame. And then, as you get towards the end, you begin to realise, no, it’s just this book. And it has its strengths, it has its virtues, but there’s nothing about the Crimean war, there’s nothing about interstellar travel. It says what it says and that’s it. And it joins all the other books in the world.” …