Why ‘Under the Skin’ author Michel Faber is one of the best writers around

Celebrating the reclusive author whose words have been transformed into one of the year’s most beguiling movies.


Sophie Monks Kaufman


The baffling and brilliant Under The Skin has finally arrived in UK cinemas. Critics have been falling over themselves to praise Jonathan Glazer’s direction, Scarlett Johansson’s central performance and Mica Levi’s hypnotic score. All coalesce to create a spellbinding and moving yet ineffable piece of cinema that stands apart from conventional narrative storytelling. But there is a name that is routinely checked in the biographical detail of the film then left to fade into comparative anonymity. It belongs to Michel Faber, author of the 2000 source novel.

No doubt this is a state of affairs that suits the 53-year-old. A warm and illuminating 2011 profile by The Scotsman describes him as, “so reclusive he makes the Loch Ness monster look like an extrovert”. In his own words, he is a “privacy junkie” who gets “peopled out”. He is driven to write (and edit music) for personal reasons rather than a need for public recognition and it’s hard to know how he would feel about an attempt to single him out. Yet his lexicon of alienation is so enlivening and so unparalleled that I – as a superfan – cannot watch the narratively altered but tonally loyal screen adaptation without considering Faber’s superlative source.

When I first discovered Michel Faber I was startled by the clarity of his prose. His stories seem to possess a higher knowledge of how to communicate. It’s an outsider’s knowledge. As with Patricia Highsmith, his characters operate at a cool disconnect. When in ‘Andy Comes Back’, a short story in the 2005 collection ‘The Fahrenheit Twins’, Andy awakens from a five-year coma, he describes his wife’s emotional reaction with comic bemusement: “She reached across the bed and embraced him awkwardly, like a member of the Royal family embracing a deformed child.”

Yet where Highsmith’s character are detached of their own lofty volition, Faber’s are united in coming from a place of misfortune, their detachment at once fated and often a trait they try to suppress. This suppression is epitomised by the moments in Under The Skin when Scarlett Johansson starts awkwardly trying to deprogramme her deadly nature. It seems like this kind of fight is a real and constant one for Faber himself. Not one against his desire to get Glaswegians into the back of a transit van, but one against the abstract enemies of cynicism and depression.

Faber spent the first seven years of his life in Holland and cannot remember any of it. Relatives inform him that home life was not good. Seven to 33 was spent in Australia where he worked as a nurse and prodigiously created manuscripts for no purpose other than to sit in his table drawers. He met the love of his life, Eva Youren. Under The Skin is dedicated to her “for bringing me back to earth”. Youren convinced him that his writing belonged to an audience and he duly began to type up his work and submit it to publishers.

In 1996 he won the MacAllan Scotland on Sunday Short Story Award for ‘Some Rain Must Fall’, the title tale from a 1998 collection. Like so many of Faber’s stories, Some Rain Must Fall distributes clues about the source of mysterious horror in tiny perfect measures until it all comes together and abruptly ends. Haunting content and storytelling economy combine to staggering effect.

Not one to be bound by one written form, Faber made his biggest mark in 2002 with an 850-page Victorian epic, the dirty, brilliant, multi-character spiral, The Crimson Petal and the White. It became a bestseller and Faber got a taste of the internationally-touring celebrated author’s life. It was not to his liking. His head has been back in his shell ever since.

A handful of beautiful, rich interviews are lightly scattered across the internet, and for those curious to hear an accent produced by living in Holland, Australia and – for the last 20 years – Scotland, this reading from the 2010 Edinburgh Book Festival is worth a listen. It also features this revealing line: “Most true things are corny, don’t you think? But we make them more sophisticated out of sheer embarrassment. Simple truths with complicated clothes on.”

This is the core reasoning behind Faber’s technique. He accesses deep emotions with otherworldly sophistication, getting to narrative meaning by carefully building crisp observations on top of one another, allowing the relationship between them to create a sense of eeriness. Glazer has noted and re-calibrated this technique, trading on visual and aural arrangement where Faber uses words. Consider Johansson staring at both human tragedy and sexual excitement with total blankness. This is classic Faber. His formal composure is so shockingly still and perfect that the job of reacting like a messy human falls to the audience and in a way that promotes self-consciousness. What are we feeling and why?

Posing these questions is not a matter of robotic genius but one of extreme psychological organisation for a man who, like us, is in possession of immense sensitivity. Faber is a man who builds up fictional universes through structural understanding and rigorous application of detail. He is a man who recognises that writing is self-involved and now only does it in bursts because he wants to dedicate his headspace to Eva who is dying. He is also a man who has struggled with the idea that literature has any meaning. “It didn’t stop anything bad happening in the world,” he has said.

It is to provide a small counter-argument to this deprecation that this article has been written. With his striking renderings of disconnected states Faber has forged the antidote – a connection – for people in strange emotional relationships with their environments. The film is a credit to his sensibility and vice versa. In capturing and bottling the essence of Faber’s prose, Jonathan Glazer has brought something wonderful, unusual and sensual to cinema audiences.

Published 17 Mar 2014

Tags: Scarlett Johansson Under the Skin

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