mercoledì 8 settembre 2010

A Physician Examines His Novels


BUSSUM, the Netherlands — When Hans Keilson’s first daughter was born, in 1941, he was in hiding in the Netherlands. A Jewish doctor from Germany who had published a novel in 1933 and seen it banned months later, he fled the Nazis in 1936, when he was forbidden to practice medicine. The Nazis soon occupied the Netherlands too, and the woman who became his first wife, a German Roman Catholic, pretended the child’s real father was a German soldier.

HANS KEILSON, a Jewish doctor, psychoanalyst, poet and novelist who fled Nazi Germany
After the war the mother was regarded with distaste by her Dutch neighbors until Dr. Keilson could make her parentage clear. Now 100, he said he felt no sadness then for a purely practical decision.

“I did so consciously,” he said in an interview at his home here, where he practiced child psychiatry for many years. “It was just a consequence of the way I lived my life, and I accepted it.”

Dr. Keilson devoted his life to his patients, many of them Jewish children traumatized by the war and separation from their biological parents, some of whom the Nazis had murdered. He wrote a groundbreaking and widely translated study of “sequential trauma.”

But he wrote novels and poetry too, and it was an extraordinary and puzzling surprise for him, he said, when last month in The New York Times Book Review, Francine Prose, reviewing “The Death of the Adversary” and “Comedy in a Minor Key” — two of his novels written more than 50 years ago — called them masterpieces and labeled him a genius.

Dr. Keilson, hunched with age and recovering from a hip operation — “I’m 100 years old and 8 months, and the last 8 months have been the hardest,” he said — is lively, considerate, articulate in German and Dutch. When pressed on personal issues, like his religious beliefs, he dodges and weaves, asking counterquestions like a good psychoanalyst, or quoting poetry.

He remembered vividly the day that the old patriarch editor Samuel Fischer called him into his office to say that S. Fischer Verlag would publish his first novel, “Das Leben Geht Weiter,” or “Life Goes On.” Alfred Döblin, a prominent novelist of the time, was in the waiting room, and Dr. Keilson said impishly, “I thought that Döblin is in good company here.”

But Dr. Keilson also remembers his editor’s words after his book was banned. “He said to me: ‘Get out of here as quickly as possible. I fear the worst.’ ”

Unable to practice medicine, Dr. Keilson worked as a sports instructor at Jewish schools and as a musician. He had met a graphologist, Gertrud Manz, and in 1935 showed her a sample of Hitler’s handwriting.

“She said, ‘He’s going to set the world on fire.’ You know what I said? I said, ‘You’re crazy.’ ”

“I was so German,” he said. “I thought they would not do this to me. I am one of them.” But he soon realized that Germans no longer recognized him as part of themselves. He remembered a literature class in which he read a poem by Heinrich Heine, who was born Jewish. The class president stood up and said: “We refuse to talk about this. This is not a German poem.”

His teacher was devastated, Dr. Keilson said, adding: “But I knew this was the beginning. Our paths were separate.”

In 1936 Dr. Keilson left Germany for the Netherlands with Miss Manz. They could not marry in Germany because he was a Jew, and they couldn’t marry in the Netherlands because they were German; they finally married after the war. Then, disgusted with Pope Pius XII — “who seemed to think Stalin was more important than Hitler,” he said — she converted to Judaism.

“She is buried at a cemetery in Amsterdam, and when I die, I will be buried with her,” he said.

He met his current wife, Marita Keilson-Lauritz, in 1969. They married a year later; now 75, she works as a literary critic, specializing in gay literature. They also have a daughter, and Dr. Keilson has three grandchildren, all girls.

His daughters, he said, are the ones most thrilled with the new attention on him from an unexpected place, the United States, where his novel “The Death of the Adversary,” published in German in 1959, was published in English in 1962 to warm reviews but soon disappeared.

That novel, with its 1962 cover and somewhat stilted translation, done originally for a British publisher, was just reissued by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. It will be on the New York Times paperback best-seller list in the Book Review of Sept. 12. Farrar has also published the first English translation of “Comedy in a Minor Key,” a novella from 1947.

The novels are partly autobiographical, sparse but intricate and psychologically compelling. “The Death of the Adversary” portrays Jewish life in Germany as the Nazis gain control, but the words Jew, Germany and Hitler, referred to as “B,” never appear. The protagonist, a young Jew, feels distanced from both his own people and current events. He develops an intimate obsession with B, understanding that, as Dr. Keilson said, “B needed the Jews to project onto them what he dislikes in himself.”

He wrote about 50 pages of the novel in the Netherlands before the German occupation; buried them; then finished it years later.

“Comedy in a Minor Key” is dedicated to the Dutch couple Leo and Suss Reintsma, who hid Dr. Keilson in Delft after he treated their daughter. The novel is about a young Dutch couple who hide an older Jew, who unfortunately dies, of natural causes. Because of their carelessness in dumping the body, they must go into hiding themselves.

Dr. Keilson worked with troubled Jewish children in hiding with foster parents, which formed the basis for his later research. After the war he stayed in the Netherlands, requalified as a doctor and became a psychoanalyst.

It is his scientific work that has defined his life and in which he takes most pride. Now, however, after Ms. Prose’s judgment, he said, “It’s hard to give a kosher answer.” But later he said, “My work as a psychoanalyst is more important than my writing, and I mean this honestly.”

Dr. Keilson has one battered copy of the first edition of his first novel, “Life Goes On,” which focuses on his father, Max, and mother, Else, as Max’s textile business suffers between the wars, and German politics turn rancid. He would love his first novel translated too, he said: “Then you would have my whole biography.”

One of the most moving scenes in “The Death of the Adversary” is when the protagonist watches his father packing his battered old rucksack for exile. The father packs the son a suitcase, for more civilized train travel, with the implicit plea that the son leave quickly, before it is too late.

Dr. Keilson did leave, but his father — “a decorated veteran from World War I” — did not want to go. His parents followed him a few years later. But they were too old and ill “to really sense the situation,” and he said he did not press them hard enough to hide. Like most Jews in the Netherlands, they were arrested and deported; they died in Auschwitz.

Even at 100, Dr. Keilson blames himself for failing them: “My parents were the basis of my life. I still feel guilt over my parents, and it never ends.” Then later, he said, “Sadness is the basis of my life.”

In 1997 Dr. Keilson wrote a poem, “Dawidy,” in part about his father.

Recall and forget. In the dregs of history
there is no other measure for flight and death.
Beginning is like the end: no stone, no grass gives tidings.
Destroyed and past, meaningless, unending pain,
orphaned, what’s left: as if he’d never been, my father —
called Max, but later bore the imposed name Israel,
with dignity.
Did not tell me much, I didn’t ask him enough.
No traces left in the vast smokestack of the skies —
speechless heaven ...

Is he angry with God? He said, “A God, if there were a God, would work in such a way that I wouldn’t have to be angry about what’s happening in the world.”

Asked if he believed in God, Dr. Keilson answered with lines from another of his poems:

Jews in this world are a dirty heap of cheap money long devalued by God. He does not rescue us, he throws us away, he calls us back, we pay all the debts.

Told that his answer seemed evasive, he laughed and said, “And it is.”

The excerpts from Dr. Keilson’s poetry were translated from the German by Victor Homola of The New York Times and Katharina Paul.

La novela y sus símbolos, según García de la Concha

El presidente de la RAE analiza cinco obras contemporáneas

El presidente de la Real Academia Española también llora. Mientras leía Sefarad, la novela de Antonio Muñoz Molina, se hartó de hacerlo. Víctor García de la Concha (Villaviciosa, 1934) se sorprendería más tarde al saber que fue uno de tantos. "Descubrí que había casi una cofradía de los que lloraban por Sefarad", confesó ayer en el Círculo de Bellas Artes, durante la presentación de su libro, Cinco novelas en clave simbólica (Alfaguara), en el que desmenuza cinco obras contemporáneas: La casa verde (Mario Vargas Llosa, 1965), Cien años de soledad (Gabriel García Márquez, 1967), Volverás a Región (Juan Benet,1967), Madera de boj (Camilo José Cela,1989) y Sefarad (Antonio Muñoz Molina, 2001). "A pesar de las diferencias entre ellas, tienen un denominador común: las cinco son historias intrincadas, selváticas y que desafían al lector", observó Mario Vargas Llosa, uno de los autores que apadrinó la presentación del ensayo, al que asistió Ignacio Polanco, presidente del Grupo PRISA, al que pertenece EL PAÍS.

Las cinco coinciden también en la creación de una geografía imaginaria, construida a partir de la realidad. Cela alquiló varios veranos un chalé en una de las bravas playas de la Costa da Morte para empaparse de las leyendas, mitologías, costumbres y personajes que luego retrató en Madera de boj. García de la Concha asistió en primera línea a los coletazos finales del proceso creador de la obra del Nobel. "Me quedé pasmado de que un hombre de su edad tuviera aquella riqueza léxica. Bajo la máscara de hombre duro, es una gran confesión de amor a la Costa da Morte", aseguró.

Benet aprovechó sus dos años de experiencia como ingeniero mientras construía una presa en León para urdir Volverás a Región, una novela de digestión difícil incluso para un lector "perseverante" como Vargas Llosa. "Las frases me seducían pero me era casi imposible mantener la atención en aquella prosa laberíntica", confesó. Así que el autor de La fiesta del chivo agradeció el efecto tentador que le causó el ensayo de García de la Concha: "Me gusta mucho la crítica que incita a leer los libros que critica. Este libro tiene este mérito".

Antonio Muñoz Molina, que se definió como un lector de "ochomiles" -que también admitió sus dificultades para escalar la obra de Benet-, desveló su deuda de gratitud con La casa verde, una de las novelas que le cambió la manera de ver el mundo y la literatura. Porque a ambas cosas aspiran los autores. "A contar la realidad del mundo y una construcción que está por encima del mundo", dijo el autor de Plenilunio. "El punto de encuentro entre el cuento y el relato del mundo es el simbólico", agregó.

Esos nexos son los que disecciona García de la Concha. Con gran fortuna, a juicio de los dos novelistas que le acompañaron. "Joyce decía que el novelista aspira al lector ideal aquejado del insomnio ideal. De repente encuentras ese lector que te devuelve tu libro porque lo ha leído nota por nota", elogió Muñoz Molina.

Cien años de soledad no cabe en cien años. Su lectura, sin embargo, no chirría por ello: el tiempo literario no es rehén del reloj. "El tiempo novelesco es algo que se alarga, se demora, se inmoviliza o echa a correr de manera vertiginosa. La historia se mueve en el tiempo de la ficción (...) con una libertad que nos está vedada a los seres de carne y hueso en la vida real", ha escrito Vargas Llosa en otra ocasión. Ayer reiteró esta idea: "El tiempo es una invención, igual que se inventa el narrador".

Mario Vargas Llosa escribió La casa verde removiendo los recuerdos de "una choza prostibularia, pintada de verde, que coloreaba el arenal de Piura el año 1946". "El espacio", explicó ayer, "no nace accidentalmente sino del recuerdo de experiencias vividas". Igual que Cien años de soledad, que arranca de un viaje de García Márquez con su madre a Aracataca para vender la casa donde nació. Allí, al ver el abrazo entre su madre y la boticaria que lloran durante media hora, le surgió la idea de contar "todo el pasado de aquel episodio".

giovedì 2 settembre 2010

Don DeLillo : "La fiction aide à voir. Et à s'interroger"


Depuis la mort de Saul Bellow et celle de Norman Mailer, un "trio de vieux maîtres" domine le paysage littéraire américain : Philip Roth, Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo (1). Ce dernier n'est pas le plus vieux (il est né en 1936), mais il est certainement – ex aequo avec Roth – le plus sauvage. Peu d'interviews, peu d'apparitions publiques. Aux dires d'un critique anglais, il porterait même sur lui, parfois, un petit carton où l'on pourrait lire "I do not want to talk about this" ("Je ne veux pas parler de ça") qu'il brandirait, selon les besoins, pour décourager les importuns ou esquiver les questions gênantes.

Il y a donc quelque chose d'inespéré à être en face de lui, en plein mois d'août, dans les bureaux de son agent new-yorkais. D'inespéré mais aussi d'inattendu, voire d'incongru, quand la conversation s'engage sur... les rideaux de douche ! "Combien d'anneaux tournent dans le vide sur la tringle ?", demande DeLillo. "Souvenez-vous : Anthony Perkins s'avance, avec son cou d'échassier et son profil d'oiseau. La pointe du couteau pénètre dans le corps ruisselant de Janet Leigh. Elle s'agrippe au rideau de douche qui s'écroule avec elle. Ne restent alors que le couteau, le silence et... ces anneaux qui tournent sur eux-mêmes indéfiniment. Mais combien y en a-t-il ? Quatre, cinq, plus... ?"

Avec un plaisir évident, DeLillo se repasse la scène du crime dans Psychose, d'Alfred Hitchcock. Il a toujours été passionné par le cinéma. Dès les années 1960, on lit dans ses nouvelles l'influence de Godard et des réalisateurs européens. Son premier roman, Americana (Actes Sud, 1992), met en scène un jeune homme qui abandonne tout pour se consacrer à une oeuvre cinématographique d'une infinie complexité...

Or voilà que, récemment, l'écrivain est tombé en arrêt devant 24 Hour Psycho, une oeuvre vidéo de Douglas Gordon inspirée de Psychose. "C'était il y a quatre ans, au Musée d'Art moderne de New York, raconte-t-il. Je ne suis pas un inconditionnel de Psychose. J'ai même toujours eu du mal à prendre au sérieux la relation entre Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) et sa mère. Mais cette vidéo m'a fait un tel effet que je suis retourné la voir trois ou quatre fois. Et je dois dire qu'elle a complètement changé ma perception du temps."

Dans l'oeuvre de Gordon, le film d'Hitchcock a été ralenti de manière à étirer sa projection sur 24 heures consécutives. Que voit-on ? "Le mouvement des yeux dans leurs orbites osseuses, un muscle sous la peau, le grain du tapis et... ces anneaux de rideau tournant dans le vide." Bref, une forme de "vie engourdie", faite de moments infinitésimaux et "impossibles à déceler à 24 images/seconde, ce qui est, je crois, la vitesse à laquelle notre cerveau traite les images".

DeLillo explique que, dans cette oeuvre, "moins il y avait à voir, plus on regardait intensément et plus on voyait". C'était d'ailleurs le but du jeu : "Voir ce qui est là, regarder enfin, et savoir qu'on regarde." A l'en croire, ce serait "fou ce à côté de quoi on passe dans des circonstances normales. Fou ce qui se produit en une seconde". Est-ce déstabilisant ? "Au contraire ! C'est comme si vous voyiez tout pour la première fois." Cette aventure s'est révélée si marquante que DeLillo a décidé d'en faire un livre. Un ouvrage mince (140 pages) qui contraste avec ses romans comme Libra (Stock, 1989) ou Outremonde (Actes Sud, 1999) et que l'on ne saurait trop recommander à ceux qui souhaitent s'arracher momentanément à l'accélération générale du monde.

Attention toutefois, le livre n'est pas "facile". Sa forme en déroutera même plus d'un. Disons qu'il s'agit d'un triptyque où, dans l'épilogue et le prologue, un homme qui n'a pas de nom raconte sa découverte de 24 Hour Psycho. Entre les deux, inscrit dans une temporalité plus longue encore - "celle des ères géologiques", de ce "temps énorme qui nous précède et nous survit " -, DeLillo insère un étrange récit, l'histoire d'un jeune vidéaste un peu déjanté, Finley, qui veut à tout prix réaliser un film sur Elster, vieux retraité du Pentagone et ancien conseiller de la Maison Blanche sur la guerre d'Irak. Les deux hommes se retrouvent dans un désert de l'Arizona où ils sont bientôt rejoints par Jessie, la fille d'Elster. Le trio parle, boit, s'observe. On comprend que le film ne se fera pas. Le tout prend un tour sombre sur lequel plane l'ombre de Beckett ainsi que mille questions dont DeLillo lui-même "n'a pas les réponses".

L'Irak a beau être là en filigrane, on est loin des grands livres prémonitoires (Mao II, Outremonde, L'Homme qui tombe...) où DeLillo prenait à bras-le-corps les problèmes contemporains du monde et de l'Amérique - ces romans "chauds" où il semblait avoir prévu le terrorisme, le 11-Septembre, l'anthrax... et qui ont fait dire à certains critiques qu'il savait "prévoir" les Etats-Unis comme personne. Cela le fait rire. "Je ne suis pas extralucide, dit-il. Un écrivain sent certaines choses avant les autres, peut-être. Dans Point Oméga, je montre justement que la fiction, l'art en général, aident à voir. Et à s'interroger : que perçoit-on du monde finalement ?" Finley, lui, dit qu'il voit des mots, seulement des mots.

Et ce Point Oméga du titre ? Un coup de chapeau au jésuite et paléontologue Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. "Je l'avais lu jeune, je l'ai relu pour ce livre. A ses yeux, le point Oméga marque l'ultime étape de l'évolution de l'homme. L'idée que notre conscience arrive à un point d'épuisement au-delà duquel ce qui suivra pourra être ou une crise ou quelque chose de sublime et d'inenvisageable."

Difficile de ne pas voir dans le personnage du prologue - comme d'ailleurs dans celui d'Elster, qui a exactement le même âge que l'auteur - un double de DeLillo lui-même. Difficile de ne pas ressentir la mélancolie inquiète qui sourd de cette réflexion sur le temps et la perte. Mais DeLillo n'en parle guère. Il préfère évoquer son enfance. Ses souvenirs de petit garçon italo-américain dans le Bronx. "Mes parents venaient des Abruzzes. Nous vivions à onze, trois générations, des oncles, des tantes..., entassés dans une minuscule maison du Bronx. Personne n'en souffrait, on n'avait connu que ça. Mais quand je suis venu à Manhattan, à 21 ans - c'était exceptionnel : dans une famille italienne de l'époque, on ne quittait pas le clan si l'on n'était pas marié -, ça a été quelque chose d'énorme. Un voyage aussi important que celui de mes parents qui arrivaient de leur pauvre village d'Italie."

Quarante ans d'écriture et quinze romans plus tard, il semble encore émerveillé d'être devenu ce "vieux maître" de la littérature américaine. "C'était si important, pour moi et mes parents. D'où le titre de mon premier roman, Americana. Aujourd'hui, c'est beaucoup plus dur d'être un jeune écrivain. Je pense que ce livre ne serait plus publié. Je ne pense même pas qu'un éditeur en lirait 50 pages. Il était surécrit et nécessitait beaucoup de retravail. Mais les éditeurs de l'époque étaient plus tolérants, ils donnaient leur chance à des auteurs qu'ils jugeaient prometteurs. Aujourd'hui, ils sont pressés - c'est pour cela qu'il existe des cours d'écriture - et le marché s'est tellement rétréci..."


Point Oméga, de Don DeLillo. Traduit de l'anglais (Etats-Unis) par Marianne Véron, Actes Sud, 140 p., 14,50 €.

(1) Ce trio est celui dont parle le magazine Time dans son numéro du 23 août sur le romancier Jonathan Franzen. En réalité, il pourrait être élargi à un quintette incluant notamment des écrivains comme Thomas Pynchon ou Cormac McCarthy, eux aussi nés dans les années 1930.

Florence Noiville

Terry Pratchett: 'I'm open to joy. But I'm also more cynical


'Discworld's creator on his new novel, living with Alzheimer's – and why he should be allowed to decide when to end it all

Aida Edemariam

When, not very long ago, Terry Pratchett's father was given a year to live, Pratchett père took it, on the whole, philosophically. Father and son had plenty of time to "have those conversations that you have with a dying parent", and to reminisce about his father's time in India during the war. At one point, said Pratchett, in last year's Dimbleby lecture, his father suddenly said, "'I can feel the sun of India on my face,' and his face did light up rather magically, brighter and happier than I had seen it at any time in the previous year. If there had been any justice or even narrative sensibility in the universe, he would have died there and then, shading his eyes from the sun of Karachi."

If the universe refused to display narrative sensibility, then Pratchett Jr would: that moment returns early in his new novel, I Shall Wear Midnight, in which a gruff, essentially kindly old man is vouchsafed a vision of youth and sunlight (though, instead of Karachi, the sunbeams glint off a leaping hare) and expires as he describes it. Even Pratchett knows this is a tad too neat, however, so, this being Discworld, his fantasy kingdom on a flat planet sailing through space on the backs of four elephants who in turn stand on a giant turtle, Death makes a lugubrious wisecrack about it: "WASN'T THAT APPROPRIATE?"

Pratchett, when he arrives at his idyllic local pub in Wiltshire, turns out to be full of this type of humour – deliberate, slightly coercive, very self-aware. He seems a man used to being listened to: his sentences unspool evenly, sometimes a shade irascibly, from beginning to end, often as anecdotes topped and tailed and full of random facts, gloried in for their own sake – annual expenditure on farmers' boots in the 19th century; the ubiquity then of shoe trees; did you know that in Victorian England, most of the women read and most of the men didn't?

Partly, though, this is because he's been writing all morning: I Shall Wear Midnight, a young adult novel, was launched in central London at midnight on Tuesday, but, as has been the way throughout a career that has so far produced 50 novels (38 of them set on Discworld) and generated more than 65m book sales – Pratchett is already 60,000 words into the next book.

And for the last two and a half years, ever since he was diagnosed with posterior cortical atrophy, a rare form of Alzheimer's, and lost the physical ability to write, he has dictated those words into voice-recognition software. At first, in fact, he talks to me about the machine as if I am a machine (which is not entirely unwarranted: there is a tape recorder sitting on the table between us). ". . . And the nice thing is, contrary to what you might initially expect, comma" – we both burst out laughing – "yes, sorry about this, full stop."

Pratchett has announced that his new book will be the last in his Tiffany Aching series (Aching is a young witch), and the novel, a bridge between childhood and the adult world, is full of worldly darkness – death, domestic abuse, old women's corpses being eaten by their pets, depression. "I'm a fantasy writer," he says. "Called a fantasy writer. But there's very little, apart from one or two basic concepts in I Shall Wear Midnight, which are in fact fantasy. You have sticks that fly, but they're practical broomsticks, with a bloody great strap that you can hold on to so you don't fall off. And you try not to use them too often."

Aching is, in effect, a young social worker, and much of her supposedly witchy wisdom comes simply from being near to people in the moments when others are not, or from making mistakes. At one point, in exasperation, she gets her familiars, the Nac Mac Feegles, to whizz around a depressed woman's very messy kitchen and clean it up – succeeding only in terrifying her.

"Tiffany's parents got it right," says Pratchett, sounding for all the world like a promoter of Cameron's Big Society: "mobilise the village to deal with [somebody like that]." Aching has First Sight and Second Sight (and occasionally third and fourth) – but they are, respectively, "seeing what's really there, rather than what you want to see," and "thinking about what you are thinking": self-awareness by other names.

Pratchett knows there are strict rules about making things so dark when you are writing for children – "a child's instinctive grasp of narrativium [sic] is that this has got to end well" – but he is also very clear that, while his witch can take away physical pain (she draws it out into a ball, then dumps it), she cannot, and will not, take loss, sadness, or grief.

"I've lost both parents in the last two years, so you pick up on that stuff," says Pratchett. "That's the most terrible thing about being an author – standing there at your mother's funeral, but you don't switch the author off. So your own innermost thoughts are grist for the mill. Who was it said – one of the famous lady novelists – 'unhappy is the family that contains an author'?"

He doesn't say it in so many words, but that must also be combined with grief for the loss of his ability to write longhand, or type with anything other than one finger at a time (although, weirdly, he is still perfectly able to sign his name — "the bit that knows how to sign my name is an entirely different bit of the brain"); the grief of knowing that while he may have years yet, most of his other mental faculties will go the same way. But probably not suddenly.

"Every day must be a tiny, incrementally . . . incremental . . . incremental . . . – he stumbled over a word; you must write that one down," Pratchett says with a dark, almost-laugh. (Having been a journalist himself, before becoming a PR in the nuclear industry and thence a novelist, he rarely passes up a chance to remind you that he knows how journalists work) ". . . incremental . . . change on the day before. So what is normal? Normal was yesterday. If you lose a leg, one day you're hopping around on one leg, so you know the difference.

"The last test I did was the first where I wasn't as good as the previous time. I actually forgot David Cameron. I just blanked on him" – this time the laugh contains, what – a kind of ironic approval? "What happens is, I call it the ball bearing. It's there, it just hasn't gone into the slot." He cannot begin to do tests that require him to scribble shapes, but asked to list names of animals, "I industriously say more than you can possibly imagine" – you can just see the pleasure of the earnest nerd in school – "and we go on for a little while until she smiles and says, 'Yes, we know, we know.'

"And then there was the time with dear Claudia with the Germanic accent – which is always good if someone's interrogating you – and she said, 'What would you do with a hammer? And I said, 'If I had a hammer, I'd hammer in the morning. I'd hammer in the evening, all over this land.' And by the end I was dancing around the room, with her laughing. The laugh will be on the other foot, eventually, and I'm aware of that. But it shows how different things can be: I can still handle the language well, I can play tricks with it and all the other stuff – but I have to think twice when I put my pants on in the morning."

How does it change his sense of self? "Well – no one's policing their own minds more than an author. You spend a lot of time in your own head analysing what you think about things, and a philosophy comes. I think – this is going to follow me for ages – I'm open to moments of joy: the other day, it was just a piece of rusty barbed wire in the hedge. Something had grown over it, and the whole pattern, the different shades of brown, the red – everything made a superb construction. And I was just happy that I'd seen it. But then I think – and it may just be because I'm 62 – it's also made me more . . . cynical? About government. And more sure, which is why I'm doing the Dignity in Dying."

For nearly as long as he has been public about his illness, Pratchett has been public about his wish to choose when he goes, and his puzzlement that British law does not see the sense of his position. "I feel embarrassed that people from this country have to go, cap in hand, to die in Switzerland. Apart from anything else, it makes it a rich man's – or a soon to be much poorer man's – possibility." And people have to go earlier than they intended. "Exactly."

He has a lot of time for the law in Oregon, where doctors can give a terminally ill patient a "potion to take when life gets too bad. I believe something like 40% or more of the patients die without taking it. Which means that every day they're thinking, 'Hmmmm – today's worth living.' And then one day they don't, and they die. That seems to me a very human thing, and a very good thing, because they can think, 'OK, that's sorted, I've got the potion, now I can get on and try and get the most out of life.'"

Ideally, Pratchett would like things to be even more official than that: there should be tribunals – here he leans forward, looking intently at me over his glasses – of mental health professionals, lawyers etc, all over the age of 45, who would question the patient and try to ascertain that no one was coercing them, and that the choice was not "a passing fixation".

But that's incredibly difficult; in illness you're often dealing with depression. "Yes. Yes, I know. I know," he says impatiently. Of course he knows. "Nothing I can say or devise, and nothing anybody else can say or devise, is going to be perfect. But anything is better than some poor half of a couple in some house, devising something with ropes and pulleys, saying, 'If he pulls this and we use that . . .' – that's obscene."

Currently, that half of the couple can, in theory, be prosecuted for murder. At least with a tribunal, "it would mean that whoever is left behind is at somewhat less risk – they're probably still at some risk, but at least there would be some proof that the situation was there."

Part of me wonders if the publicness of Pratchett's discussions might, on some level, be trying to achieve this too – getting us to act as an unwitting tribunal and witnesses, if or when the need arises. What does Lyn, his wife of more than 40 years, think of all this? "I think my wife takes the view that . . . Actually, I think in her heart of hearts she takes the view that a hand will come out of the sky with a big flask, saying, 'Just the stuff you were after.' I think she takes the view that, um . . . that she would look after me. And I have not said to her – I have absolutely not said to her – 'I want you to do this, or I want you to do that.'" What about his daughter (Rhianna, 33, a successful games scriptwriter and, as she describes herself on her website, "general narrative paramedic")? "My daughter thinks, 'If Dad wants it, that's OK.' I don't think she has any particular interest in seeing me lying there like a baby."

That was certainly the way he felt about his own father. It was even, it seems, something his father wanted. Had it been legal, Pratchett says, and "if he could have sat up in bed and said goodbye, I'd have pressed the button. I wouldn't have been able to see for crying, but I would have considered that a duty."

• I Shall Wear Midnight is published by Doubleday at £18.99. To order a copy for £14.99 with free UK p&p go to or call 0330 333 6846.

• This article was amended on 2 September 2010. The original referred to Nac Nac Feegles. This has been corrected.