Joanna Kavenna on ‘The Birth of Love’

Joanna Kavenna’s first novel Inglorious – about a thirtysomething urbanite’s escape from city life – won the Orange Broadband New Writers Award. Her new book The Birth of Love is quite different but equally brilliant – interwoven stories exploring motherhood, often quite bleak and dystopian, featuring four characters (including real Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis) across multiple time zones.

Find out more about the novel in this Q & A with Joanna …

Why did you want to write ‘The Birth of Love’?

The idea for my book first came to me in the crazy-beautiful-annihilating months after I gave birth to my first child. Everything I had known before had been blasted to pieces and, in the middle of the debris, was my wonderful, precious son. The landscape around me seemed to have altered; when I went out for a walk I saw the usual motley array of humanity – people who looked robust and joyful, or disappointed and alone, and I thought that everyone around me, even the lost and mad, had been brought into existence by a mother who had lived through the suspense of a pregnancy, and the agony of labour, and who had loved her baby beyond measure – and I had never really understood this before.

[blog] birth of love 200And I started to think that there is a grave paradox within human existence, that we come from such love, the unconditional love of our families, and yet we manage to construct or foster systems of domination and violence, bind ourselves with ‘mind-forg’d manacles’. I found I wanted to write about four characters who exist in different periods of history, but who are linked together across hundreds of years, and who each in their own way set love and belief against impersonal annihilating systems of dogmatism and control.

I wanted to write, too, about certainty, really about the madness of absolute certainty, because it also struck me in that wonderful, strange period after the birth of my son that all my previous certainties had been blasted apart, and also that every zealot, every ideological tyrant had once been a tiny baby, knowing nothing of the world except the smiling faces of his or her parents, and it struck me as rather absurd that anyone should set themselves up as a grand authority over anyone else, when we all come from this mysterious process, this miraculous sparking of life within the human body.

So I think I wanted to write about the struggle – it seemed to me the defining struggle of human life – of unconditional love against angry dogmatism.

The character of Dr. Semmelweis is heartbreaking. Do you think he is overdue re-examination? Why did you think it important for him to be included in the novel?

In the early months of motherhood, and then during my pregnancy with my second child, I read a lot of histories of childbirth, accounts of labour in different eras, writings on motherhood and fatherhood. So I found out about this extraordinary man, Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor who realized that childbed fever – a deadly illness at the time, which struck women just after they had birthed their babies – could be prevented simply by doctors washing their hands. He suggested every doctor must wash their hands in chlorinated lime solution, and he was pilloried by his colleagues. They said he was insulting them, that he was suggesting they were unclean, and he was generally ignored. In Vienna he was ignored, at least; in his home city of Budapest he had more success promoting his theories.

Semmelweis could not bear the certainty of those doctors around him who would not do this small thing, who were so adamant that they were right to ignore him. He drove himself mad, trying to convince his colleagues, and died in an asylum, ranting about a ‘massacre of mothers.’ And it was later proved that Semmelweis had been right, and that those doctors who had refused to believe him had indeed caused the deaths of countless women.

This struck me as such a forceful and tragic story … I kept reading about Semmelweis and so when I came to write my novel it seemed inevitable that he should be a character in it.

Bridget’s birthing experience is incredibly graphic. Was it important for you to write it this way? Why?

I’ve always been interested in myth and part of what I am trying to do as a writer is to write about the epic in the ordinary. The struggles of so-called ‘ordinary’ life are far more compelling to me than tales of kings and knights and classically ‘heroic’ quests. And I think, for most women, childbirth is an epic process; it’s their trials of Hercules, and they have to use all their courage and strength to get to the end. So Bridget is faced with agony and danger – the agonies and dangers of an ordinary birth – and she has somehow to struggle through.

I didn’t want to write about my own particular experience of birth, though of course I do understand what Bridget is going through in terms of pain and anxiety. But I didn’t want it to be ‘my birthing story’, so I tried to combine several births I had heard about from friends, and I added in odd details that people had told me – often complete strangers, shop assistants, or people on buses, who saw me with my small children and suddenly came out with these fascinating memories of their own experiences.

Your vision of 2153 is quite bleak. Do you think that the authoritarian control over childbearing you depict in the future could be easily realized?

To me it is absolutely a fantasy. I have no idea what might happen in the future. I set this section of my book in the future because I wanted to create a very extreme society of a particular sort. So I realized it either had to be set in the future or in a parallel universe. I went for the future.

To me it’s not entirely bleak, because although the future society I portray is very oppressive, there is a small group of people who refuse to accept what is happening around them. This came naturally from Semmelweis – where you have a man who was regarded as a lunatic by the doctors of his age, and yet it transpired that he was right, and his medical peers were mad to ignore him.

So in 2153 I wanted to look at another sort of sanctioned madness – a hyper-scientific view of the world which has got completely out of hand. Effectively the science has become a religion, and the scientists have become priests of this religion. They believe man is engaged in a war against nature, that nature must be controlled by science. It has become illegal for women to become pregnant and to birth babies naturally. Instead everything is controlled in laboratories – this way you have no surprises, you can create precisely the sort of human being you want.

Despite this, a woman becomes pregnant. With some friends, sh
e goes to an abandoned island to birth her child in secret. She and her friends are afraid the whole time – of being caught and punished or killed, of the child being destroyed as ‘imperfect’ and so on. Despite their fears, they are greatly moved by what they witness, an ordinary birth which has become – for them – an improbable miracle. And it gives them hope …

Do you think that men and women may respond differently to the issues raised in the novel?

I don’t quite know. To me the central themes of my book are not ‘gendered’ at all. Both men and women love their children beyond measure. Both men and women have to find ways to live for themselves and their families, despite the regimes and orthodoxies which may seek to control them.

The whole business of trying to find your way in life, of trying to work out what to believe, how to sift through the babble of contradictory voices telling you what to think – that applies equally to men and women. I think sometimes childbirth gets written about as a ‘women’s issue’, whatever that means, because it is women who physically birth children. But of course we all come from this process, and fathers who observe the births of their children are profoundly moved, shocked in a different way from the mothers but still completely transformed all the same. They go through their own initiation rite; they stand transfixed, watching their child emerge …

Do you think having your own children has influenced the way you have written your book?

Well it was very much written in the midst of early motherhood – I began it when my son was a small baby, reading and writing while he slept on my lap, and then I finished a first draft just before my second child was born – my daughter – and then I was rewriting that draft with her as a newborn, sleeping again on my lap.

I’m glad I wrote it during this time because although I was often very tired, I was in touch with a sense of deep strangeness, of the bizarre beauty of the whole thing – I was breast-feeding my children or pregnant, so I was physically very much involved in this process of creating and nurturing children. And that changes you a lot, and it’s astonishing – I see it now – how you forget it, how the memory of what it was like physically and emotionally fades.

Also for me it was a very different way of writing, technically. Prior to this novel, I always wrote on a computer. With The Birth of Love, I was so often writing with babies asleep on my lap, or next to me, so I had to write longhand, and the whole thing was written in notebooks and only typed up at the end.  Also, because I was writing in very intense bursts, always with this sense that at any moment the baby might wake, I would be prevented from continuing, I was much more focused than I usually am. I couldn’t move, half the time, because I didn’t want to disturb whichever baby was asleep on me, so it was a bit like being tied to a desk, perhaps ..!

I don’t know if this is the best way to write in general, but I think for me it was the only way I could have written this book, at this time, and so it was a necessary experiment.

What were your influences in writing the novel?

The usual ones really – Knut Hamsun, Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain, D. H. Lawarence, Mark Twain, Joseph Campbell, William James, Iain Sinclair, Charlotte Bronte, Katherine Mansfield, Robert Musil, Albert Camus, Saul Bellow, Philip K Dick, Jens Bjorneboe, Margaret Atwood and so on …

Do you feel a particular affinity to or sympathy for any one character? Why?

I sympathise with various characters in different ways, for different reasons. When we first meet Bridget she is a mother of one, preparing for the arrival of her second child, with a great deal of excitement and trepidation mingled. And I remember that state very vividly – being heavily pregnant with my second child and wondering how on earth I would manage with two children under 3, whether I would be a good enough mother, a patient enough person.

I was very moved by Semmelweis’s story when I read about it – by the way he persisted even in the face of general condemnation or indifference, and the way he felt so horribly guilty about the women he had infected with childbed fever, before he knew how it was spread, and so incredibly angry about the further lives that were lost because his colleagues wouldn’t believe him.

I wanted to give him a friend, someone who listened to him – and so I created the character of Robert von Lucius, a man who visits Semmelweis in the asylum during his final days, and becomes convinced that Semmelweis is right, though too late to save his life.

Then there are the prisoners in 2153, who haven’t done anything morally wrong, but again they are confronted with authority figures who invert everything, who tell them their love and compassion for others are in fact crimes against the social order.


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