Listening to the audiobook of John Le Carré’s A Legacy of Spies as I drive home from work, I am startled by an extraordinary passage in which George Smiley is reflecting with his protégé Peter Guillam on their past as spies, and the reasons that guided him through the Cold War. At one point, near the end, the normally composed George Smiley utterly loses his cool, in what would appear to be a tirade against Brexit and Brexiteers, and little Englanders of all description:
‘So was it all for England, then?’ he resumed. ‘There was a time, of course there was. But whose England? Which England? England all alone, a citizen of nowhere? I’m a European, Peter. If I had a mission – if I was ever aware of one beyond our business with the enemy, it was to Europe. If I was heartless, I was heartless for Europe. If I had an unattainable ideal, it was of leading Europe out of her darkness towards a new age of reason. I have it still.’
It is impossible to ignore Teresa May’s ‘citizen of nowhere’ jibe lodged in there.
Are these the views of the fictional George Smiley, or are they shared by his creator, John Le Carré? The answer is not hard to find. In an interview with the BBC from 7 September last year to mark the launch of the new novel – a kind of coda to The Spy who came in from the Cold – Le Carré said:
“It was terribly hard to write this book during the period of Brexit and the ascendancy of Trump, and I’d like to think that Smiley was aware of the sense of aimlessness which has entered into all of our minds – we seem to be joined by nothing but fear,” he said.
“Smiley, who has spent his life defending the flag in one way or another, feels alienated from it, feels a stranger in his own country, and that’s why we find him and indeed leave him in a foreign place.”
Yes, George has abandoned the UK, and lives in Freiburg. He feels alienated by Brexit Britain, as so many of us do.
Alienated and bewildered. How to account for the fact that Jacob Rees-Mogg, ‘a pantomime toff with unpleasant hard-right convictions’ according to the New Statesman, is the favourite of Conservative Party members to be their next leader, and thus, presumably, our next prime minister?
Desperate times indeed. Within the European Union, Britain would have been able to help shape the destiny of Europe, as George Smiley envisaged. Russia, for example, doesn’t give a toss about little England, but would listen to the UK within a powerful European Union. Outside of the EU, we will be marginalised by world leaders, ignored by the developing world and become an offshore tax haven for billionaires floating off into the North Atlantic. Goodbye to George Smiley’s ‘new age of reason.’
Three and half years ago on this blog I wrote about Adam Phillips’ book ‘Missing Out’, which explains how not getting what you think you want might actually be what you want. In the current issue of the LRB, Phillips reviews a new biography of Proust (Proust: The Search, by Benjamin Taylor), and we discover that for the author of A la recherche, the act of desire is what matters, not the attainment of the object of desire. Maybe we shouldn’t bother with trying to fulfil our desires, or achieve our dreams: maybe the beauty of harbouring a desire is simply that – it fills our hearts and minds while it is a potentiality, but the moment we achieve it, win it, possess it (in Proust’s diction), its lustre falls away and we are, more often than not, left bereft, and in mourning for something we we never truly possessed. In other words, the slow burn of unfulfilment is preferable to fulfilment itself.
In the review, Phillips writes:
‘Marcel often intimates with his preachy irony, that we should actually work as hard as we can not to get what we think we want. We do this automatically, it seems, but we need to put our minds to it, because the one belief we appear to be unable to give up on is the belief in the importance of satisfaction. We can’t think what else to do with our wishes other than try to satisfy them.’
‘The desire to make your dreams come true is a fatal misunderstanding. You have to find something you really want to do and find ways of not doing it. You have to find someone you really want in order to get over wanting them.’
But here’s the interesting part: what is being ‘reached for’ in Proust – the obscure object of the author’s desire, if you will – is, according to Phillips the invisible book within the book – the one that is being described in the writing, and which is and is not the book that we are reading.
Phillips expresses the idea as follows:
‘. . .Proust’s readers never get to read the book Marcel is going to write; we only get to read the book about the book he may write. Marcel’s book, as opposed to Proust’s, is an emblematic object of desire; we are curious about it, but we can never have access to it.’
Let me elaborate: in Proust’s book, the character of ‘Marcel’ describes himself as writing a book, or as wanting to write a book, which describes the social world with which he is obsessed. ‘Marcel’, needless to say, is a fiction – composed as an adjunct or alternative to the ‘real’ Proust. The book the fictional Marcel is writing will never be written or read. It is the invisible book at the heart of Proust’s fiction. Not the book we hold before us, but its shadow. In another sense, it is the book that Proust ‘desired’ to write, rather than the book he in fact wrote. What resonance this has in marking the distinction between the books we set out to write, the books we might have written, and the books we actually complete; the books we experience as unfulfilled desire, and the books which are, however unsatisfactorily, ‘fulfilled’.
Since I began teaching creative writing, some fifteen years ago, I have become accustomed to the sad refrain from younger writers that although they fervently wish to write – or perhaps ‘become a writer’, which may or may not be the same thing – they don’t have anything to say.
It was with some pleasure, therefore, that I noted, during my leisurely (i.e. very slow) re-reading of Proust, the following passage:
‘. . . since I wanted to be a writer some day, it was time to find out what I meant to write. But as soon as I asked myself this, trying to find a subject in which I could anchor some infinite philosophical meaning, my mind would stop functioning, I could no longer see anything but empty space before my attentive eyes, I felt that I had no talent or perhaps a disease of the brain kept it from being born.’ (The Way by Swann’s, Lydia Davis translation).
But interestingly – at least for my purposes – the suggestion is made that the answer to his lack of inspiration might be found in the things around him, the very things, in other words, that are distracting to him:
‘ . . . suddenly a roof, a glimmer of sun on stone, the smell of the road would stop me because of a particular pleasure they gave me, and also because they seemed to be concealing, beyond what I could see, something which they were inviting me to come and take, and which despite my efforts I could not manage to discover . . . I would concentrate on recalling precisely the line of the roof, the shade of the stone which, without my being able to understand why, had seemed to me so full, so ready to open, to yield the thing for which they themselves were merely a cover. Of course it was not impressions of this kind that could give me back the hope I had lost, of succeeding in becoming a writer and a poet some day, because they were always tied to a particular object with no intellectual value and no reference to any abstract truth. But at least they gave me an unreasoning pleasure, the illusion of a sort of fecundity, and so distracted me from the tedium, from the sense of my own impotence which I had felt each time I looked for a philosophical subject for a great literary work.’
It is noteworthy here how Proust (through his young protagonist, Marcel) disavows any connection between these ‘objects with no intellectual value’, and his frustrated desire to write. For it is that very particularity, that sense of thingness (which always, as Proust suggests, is a cover for something else, something ineffable) that so often provides the starting point for a writer, if only he or she would look.
‘No ideas but in things’: the line by William Carlos Williams has been taken up as a mantra by teachers of poetry to students obsessed, like the young Marcel, with trying to convey deep philosophical concepts, and instead sinking in a morass of tired imagery, expressed through endless clichés of emotion and language.
I think this is the notion I was trying to convey in my post of 29th August. You can simply be drawn in by some aspect of the inanimate world without knowing why. Not that everything is a metaphor, precisely, nor even that every object is a cover for something else (Borges reminds us that a stone might want just to be stone, a tiger a tiger), but that, using Ricardo Piglia’s thesis of the short story as an analogy, every account, every story conceals within it another telling, a secret story, and it is the quest for this other story that leads young Marcel, in his walks with his grandfather near the beginning of A la recherche du temps perdu to understand that this great, almost suffocating desire to be a writer – a desire that one observes (though perhaps in a less astutely articulated form) in many young students of creative writing who likewise find difficulty in finding subject matter to accommodate their ambitions – might encounter a solution by looking at ‘things’ in the world, rather than heading straight for the ‘idea’.
Finally, an insight from Jane Smiley, in her 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, which drily sets to rest the maddening condition familiar to all writers of wanting to start a piece of writing, but managing to find any number of things to prevent them from doing so:
‘My definition of “inspiration” is “a condition of being stimulated by contemplation of the material to a degree sufficient to overcome your natural disinclination to create.”’
Yesterday evening in my native town, or village, as I still think of it (although it has grown since my departure to something more town-sized), I went into the corner shop that I used throughout my childhood for buying sweets –fruit salads and blackjacks (four a penny); barley sugar sticks; and best of all, those thin wormlike strands of sweet coconut-flavoured pretend tobacco, wrapped in waxy paper, called Spanish Gold –which I am certain could not be sold to children today. Old Mr J, the shopkeeper, had very bad teeth and no doubt had been on the Spanish Gold all his life. But the stuff obsessed me, and moreover fitted in perfectly with my career plans: to be a pirate, to ride wooden ships on the Spanish Main and do other exciting pirate stuff. So yesterday, after the Wales-South Africa rugby match, which I have watched at his home with my elderly father, I go back to the shop for the first time in many years, to be served by a man a little younger than myself (the original Mr J’s grandson), and I am at once inside a time warp. I am six years old and using up my entire shilling allowance on sweeties. Old Mr J is leaning over me with his blackened stumps and national health specs and calling me ‘the young doctor’, while stuffing a white paper bag with teeth-rotting goodies. Driving back to Cardiff I am in a kind of self-induced trance, in which I am trying to distinguish between the things that actually happened in that (by now mythical) sweet shop, and the things that my memory has conferred upon it over the interceding years. I realise then that the shop has also entered my personal dreamscape.
And later, as so often happens, a kind of answer arises in the book that I am reading. Or else, I contrive to find a corresponding thesis in what I am reading that maps almost perfectly onto my experiences in my childhood home town. Propped up in bed on Sunday morning, reading The Witness, a novel by Juan José Saer originally published in Spanish as El Entenado, or ‘The Stepson’ – and beautifully translated by Margaret Jull Costa – I follow the hazardous experiences of the young narrator, an unnamed cabin boy on a sixteenth century Spanish expedition, who is captured by Native Americans on the River Plate. The Native Americans (or Indians, as they prefer to call themselves in Latin America), while exceptionally courteous to the cabin boy himself, are about to cook and eat his shipmates, when he experiences a moment of clarity:
I think that was the first time – aged all of fifteen – that an idea with which I am now familiar first occurred to me: namely that the memory of an event is not sufficient proof that it actually happened, just as the memory of a dream that we believe we had in the past, many years or months before the moment in which we remember it, is not sufficient proof that the dream took place in the distant past rather than the night before the day on which we recall it, or even that it occurred before the precise moment we state that it has occurred.
And how often has that happened? You dream a dream, and are certain that you have dreamed it before: or else, even as you are dreaming it, you have the sensation that you are re-dreaming a dream you had many years before? It then seems almost as if the world you enter in dreamtime is a continuum that exists with or without your participation, and when you dream you simply dip into it, witness (that word again) whatever happens to be occurring at that precise moment. But – and this is important – you remember part of the dream landscape from previous dreams, and you waken with a feeling of déjà vu that makes you feel as if you had just returned from a familiar place. Sometimes, like yesterday evening in the sweetshop, it is as if that place exists neither in reality nor in dream, but some place in between.
On Tuesday at five I do a reading in the library of the University of Cartagena – whose most famous alumnus was Gabriel García Márquez – and learn from one of the Profs that there is a crypt in the bar of the Santa Clara Hotel that appears in the author’s novel Love and Other Demons. The Santa Clara is in the old quarter, not far from the university. After a drink with the Profs I decide to go and investigate. The Santa Clara was once a convent, and has been converted into one of the most luxurious establishments in the city. A tribute to Gabo by Boyd Tonkin puts it thus:
‘The lovely 16th-century convent, once also a hospital, has a crypt. In 1994, by then living again in the city of his youth and his dreams, Garcia Marquez published Of Love and Other Demons. That novel, as much an impassioned evocation of Cartagena as the better-known Love in the Time of Cholera, tells of a young journalist sent in 1949 to the newly excavated site of Santa Clara. He has to investigate the miraculous skeleton of a child marquise, dead 200 years but now exhumed with a 22m “stream of living hair the intense colour of copper”. A mood of febrile gothic menace pervades the tale, although the walled city it conjures up could hardly be more topographically exact . . .’
When I arrive at the Santa Clara, a white-coated lackey, with top hat to match, opens the door for me. I tell him I’ve come to see the famous crypt. He shows me it. Here it is.
The drinks in the Santa Clara are Chelsea prices. But the bar is vast and cool, so I sit there for a while and soak in the wealth. When I leave, I pass other, smaller, boutique hotels and very chic eateries with exotic names. I walk past a group of six young English tourists – three of each gender – who resemble the cast of, well, Made in Chelsea. ‘Oh don’t let’s do the walking game, Fiona,’ says a boy with a kiss curl. He wants to sit down. Fiona wants to go on, see if they can find somewhere more to her liking. I wander down the street a while, marvelling at the extent this part of town has been gentrified. I return past the group. They have sat down. The boy with the kiss curl has got his way.
When I wander into Getsemaní, the difference is striking. There is much more shit in the street. More dogs too. The square at La Santisima Trinidad is packed with a different sort of company: Colombians – both locals and tourists – and budget backpackers. Perhaps a few middle aged men, like me, with nostalgie de la boue.
On the southwest corner of the Plaza a man sits outside a bar. A discreet bar, I might add, which looks kind of empty. I’ve seen the man sitting here before. I couldn’t help but notice him. He bears a keen resemblance to Leonardo di Caprio. He sits outside in an armchair, pulling on a fat cigar. At his feet lies a British Bulldog. The dog looks like he might fancy a cigar as well.
We nod a greeting to each other the second time I pass. The third time I stop and speak to him.
‘Are you the owner, or do you just look like it?’
He smiles. ‘I am the owner, yes.’ He is of medium build, blonde hair with a side parting, friendly face, perhaps too innocent looking for this game, but I might be mistaken. He stands up to shake my hand.
‘Hi, I’m Nicholas. Pleased to meet you.’ The accent is very slight, Nordic, possibly German, but possibly Swedish.
‘Richard. And who is your friend?’ I gesture down at the pooch.
‘Ha ha. He is my partner. His name is Socio. Which in Spanish means partner.’
‘How old is he?’
‘How does he handle the heat?’
‘He does OK.’
I want to ask what the local strays make of Socio, but it’s too early for that.
‘Looks like a nice bar,’ I say. ‘Thanks,’ he says. I peer inside. There are three tourist on stools at the bar. I’ve been past here half a dozen times and it’s the first time I’ve seen anyone inside.
‘I’ll come and have a drink, but need to get some food first.’
‘Ah, we do food normally, but with this electricity cut, it’s not possible.’
‘That’s okay. I’ll see you later’
I go to eat at Trattoria di Silvio, at a table on the pavement across the narrow street, fifty metres up from the square. I have just finished my pizza when the second electricity cut of the evening strikes. You can’t see much at all. I have a candle at my table. The three Portuguese at the next table do not and are still eating so I pass them my candle. A few minutes later the waitress brings me another. Nicholas walks past with Socio. I wave at him and he calls back a valediction. I guess the second power failure has proved too much for him. Pity. I would have liked to have heard his story.
Like the other up-market bar across the square, his business is unlikely to fare well while the shop next door sells beer for 2,000 pesos (60p) and half bottles of rum or aguardiente for a couple of quid apiece. But if, as seems likely, Getsemaní eventually becomes more gentrified, following the lead of the historic centre, Nicholas will be in business. At the moment that seems a long way off.
I sit on the edge of the square and soak in the spirit of the place. The smell of marihuana sits heavy on the air. I will be leaving Cartagena in the morning. Three old aguardiente drinkers sit to my right. The black one has two teeth, perched at opposite corners of his mouth. He laughs wheezily and without cease, and on one occasion bursts into raucous song, which his two companions applaud ecstatically. The thinnest one – they are all three skin and bone, but this one is so thin he could snap – is shaped like a question mark and drags his foot when he moves, in the manner of someone with terminal liver disease. He calls out every few minutes for música música, looking around the square desperately to see whether his plea will be heeded in some quarter; and the third, the most desperate of these three musketeers, is too far gone to do anything but gurn like a cretin at the world passing by – if indeed he can see it. The three eventually stagger off into the night, moving with extreme difficulty, as though struggling against the tide of life, towards a sea of oblivion. I have a sudden vision of Macbeth’s three witches, and imagine the crones reincarnated as these three Caribbean drunks, wrecked beyond pity or purpose.
Like most people with an interest in the subject, I read Will Self’s article in last Saturday’s Guardian on the Death of the Novel with a strong sense of déja vu. The novel has ‘died’ so many times already it must be truly sick and tired of being dead. Following the Washington Post’s recent revelation that poetry is dead also, should we be concerned?
Readers of Blanco’s Blog will be familiar with the writer’s various tussles with the novel, not simply the discomfort imposed on the reader by having to wade through so much baggy stuff in order to consume the kernel, so to speak – if there is one – but also the demands made on the author in struggling to keep the damn thing fresh and alive, when it should just lie down and die.
Will Self’s argument, fluently expressed – although, as usual, not only hyperbolic, but perhaps a tad Thesaurus-retentive (e.g. Most of it is at once Panglossian and melioristic) – moves towards its expected conclusion with unerring certitude: the novel is dead; long live the novel:
The form should have been laid to rest at about the time of Finnegans Wake, but in fact it has continued to stalk the corridors of our minds for a further three-quarters of a century. Many fine novels have been written during this period, but I would contend that these were, taking the long view, zombie novels, instances of an undead art form that yet wouldn’t lie down.
Insistence on the death of the novel (never mind of its author) was once answered quite superbly by a character in Don Delillo’s The Names (my favourite of his), who expresses the idea of the novel’s zombiehood thus, and I cannot think of a greater or more delicious challenge to any would-be novelist:
“If were a writer,” Owen said, “how I would enjoy being told the novel is dead. How liberating, to work in the margins, outside a central perception. You are the ghoul of literature. Lovely.”
This morning, after a restless night, I spent a couple of hours picking up books from the shelves around my room, almost at random, dipping into them, dropping them on the floor, where I will find them later and replace them, equally randomly, between new and often unsuitable neighbours. Sometimes I stop and write down a line or two in a notebook, then move on. When I look at the notebook some days from now, I will be curious to know what the point of all this is.
Following a recent discussion about writers who stop writing, and of writers who kill their darlings (see last post, 1 Jan), I start thinking about the Mexican writer and photographer Juan Rulfo, and return, in my grazing, to Pedro Páramo, a brilliant and perplexing short novel, which, on its appearance in 1955 made such a profound impression on the Hispanic literary world, from Borges to Asturias to García Márquez. (Readers of Spanish can find the latter’s account of his discovery of Rulfo’s book here).
I read Pedro Páramo some years ago and return to it now with curiosity, because my memory of it, I discover, is as vague and dreamlike as the book itself.
According to Susan Sontag, in her introduction to the English translation, by Margaret Sayers Peden:
Rulfo has said that he carried Pedro Páramo inside him for many years before he knew how to write it. Rather, he was writing hundreds of pages and then discarding them. He once called the novel an exercise in elimination.
“The practice of writing the short story disciplined me,” he said, “and made me see the need to disappear and to leave my characters the freedom to talk at will, which provoked, it would seem, a lack of structure. Yes, there is a structure in Pedro Páramo, but it is a structure made of silences, of hanging threads, of cut scenes, where everything occurs in a simultaneous time which is a no-time.”
Rulfo’s life, as well as his book, has become legendary. He left behind only around 300 pages of writing; but those pages, according to García Márquez, are as important to us as the 300 or so extant pages of Sophocles – an extraordinary claim, you might think. Rulfo published his books in early middle age (there is a collection of short stories, translated as The Burning Plain, and another short novel, Ell gallo de oro), but for the next 30 years he did not publish anything, although he had taken up photography in the 1940s and continued taking (and occasionally publishing) pictures throughout his life. He was an inveterate traveller, and drinker. He destroyed the long awaited second novel, La Cordillera, a few years before his death at the age of 68 in 1986. Since his death his widow has overseen the publication of his notebooks, and fragments from the unfinished novel, although, as she confesses in her introduction to the notebooks, Rulfo would not have approved, and that she felt she might be doing “something awful” in publishing them.
Juan Rulfo explained his long literary silence in an interview as follows: “Writing causes me to undergo tremendous anxiety. The empty white page is a terrible thing.”
For the past few years, whenever people ask me the dread question of ‘what are you working on’ I have mumbled something about a novel called The Blue Tent. The truth is, I have been writing TBT, on and off, since 2006, although the process has been interrupted by other projects, including a memoir and a couple of volumes of translation. However, the writing and completion of the novel has always re-emerged as a pressing need, like an addiction, or (I imagine) a particularly demanding affair with a psychotic lover. I had to get the book done. I needed to have completed another novel (note the pseudo-retrospective quality of this thought). I finished the first full draft in September 2012 and have been revising, when time allows, ever since. The Blue Tent became my secret life. My closest friends even knew it by name, but none of them had read a word of it. I became irritable when not working on it, and fractious when I was. At times I would resort to talking the book up: writing it, I told myself, I would discover what kind of a writer I really was: it would even, after a fashion, make me whole.
The Blue Tent started out as a modern fairy tale about the attempt of an individual to understand the weird and incomprehensible events that begin to overtake his life after a tent appears in the field next to his house. But in the end the activity of writing the novel became contiguous with the inability of the protagonist to act within the story; his torpor began to mimic my own. It was a mess.
Yesterday, in the early hours of New Year’s Eve, I was lying awake, as so often occurs, pondering yet again the structural perversions wrought by the unruly novel, and I realised, after an hour and a half of twisting and turning, that I would have to get up and write things down. This is a familiar pattern. At a quarter to five I made tea, and then ascended to my study in the loft.
But this time, rather than work on the novel, I read through the notes I had made on it over the years and realised that the book was fucked. FUBAR. I didn’t love the story any more; the characters didn’t interest me (and even if they interested other people, I was not inclined to keep working with them); the premise was interesting but essentially it was just an idea that could have been developed in any one of a thousand ways. The way that I had chosen to develop the idea had brought me to a dead end, and I was stuck. The feeling in my gut told me, without hesitation: Stop it, just Stop.
Feeling a little dizzy at the ease with which I had reached this decision (such moments come with the force of a revelation, even if, when you think them over afterwards, the thought has actually been on a slow burn for months, or even years) I googled ‘abandoned novels’ and the first article to come up was Why Do Writers Abandon Novels? – by Dan Kois in the New York Times. It begins as follows:
“A book itself threatens to kill its author repeatedly during its composition,” Michael Chabon writes in the margins of his unfinished novel Fountain City — a novel, he adds, that he could feel “erasing me, breaking me down, burying me alive, drowning me, kicking me down the stairs.” And so Chabon fought back: he killed “Fountain City” in 1992. What was to be the follow-up to his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, instead was a black mark on his hard drive, five and a half years of work wasted.”
I felt better already. Schadenfreude. I hadn’t wasted that long. Not five and a half years. Not really. I’d written 60,000 words and done numerous drafts, some of them longer, but Chabon had written 1,500 pages, and was probably working on it full time.
Kois’ article surveys a number of writers’ views and experiences of abandoning a novel – or rather, putting it out of its misery. If something is making your life a misery, “erasing” or “burying you alive”, isn’t it merely an instinct for survival to kill it before it gets you?
Stephen King (as so often) had useful advice on the topic: “Look, writing a novel is like paddling from Boston to London in a bathtub,” he said. “Sometimes the damn tub sinks. It’s a wonder that most of them don’t.”
And then of course, while acknowledging that the book is not turning out as you might have wished – feel it sinking, to follow King’s analogy – you start making compromises with yourself. If you have a publisher and agent waiting for you to deliver, the pressure is on. You begin looking for arguments to convince yourself to let the book go, to just finish it, find a vaguely unsatisfactory resolution (one less unsatisfactory than all the others), publish it – if anyone wants it – and be damned.
But this is not an option. It would plague me forever to let a book go out in that state. While, on the other hand, the sense of liberation that has accompanied the killing of my darling is something to be cherished. This ‘failure’ feels, in fact, nothing like failure at all: it feels like being unchained from a madman.
In the meantime I will take Samuel Beckett’s advice, and learn to fail better next time.
Every story encompasses a world. Every story accounts for a series of actions, whether experienced or imagined. The story, if it is any good, also contains within it a substratum, or an undertow, through which the reader is guided towards some underlying truth – or the possibility of a truth. This may consist of a paradox or even a seeming contradiction, but it will, in some way, be traced or suggested by the contours of the outer story.
This notion, at least, can be applied to the short story. When it comes to anything longer I tend to balk. Today on the Guardian website, I read an article about the new novel by the admirable Donna Tartt, a monster of a book at 771 pages, and I recall what Italo Calvino once wrote:
‘Long novels written today are perhaps a contradiction: the dimension of time has been shattered, we cannot love or think except in fragments of time each of which goes off along its own trajectory and immediately disappears. We can rediscover the continuity of time only in the novels of that period when time no longer seemed stopped and did not yet seem to have exploded, a period that lasted no more than a hundred years.’
I don’t know whether or not I entirely agree with this, but the idea of time progressing as a linear continuum does seem to be tied to a social structure where roles (including that of the author) were more fixed, sedentary things. The author proclaimed his (and it was usually a his) authority through texts permeated with the authorial voice, and which sustained that voice, gave it credibility as a constant over a period of calculable time.
And who wants that authority? Not me. Not I, even. Which is why, on days like today, the simple rigour of the short story seems so much more appealing, and far less tiring.
Wikipedia’s entry on itching goes as follows:
Itch is a sensation that causes the desire or reflex to scratch. Itch has resisted many attempts to classify it as any one type of sensory experience. Modern science has shown that itch has many similarities to pain, and while both are unpleasant sensory experiences, their behavioral response patterns are different. Pain creates a withdrawal reflex while itch leads to a scratch reflex.
My own scratch reflex has been horribly over-employed these last two nights. I wonder if it has anything to do with a change of climate, being currently in a temperate dry place rather than the cold wet place where I normally reside? I came here to do some work, and while I have managed to do a fair bit of writing, I have probably done just as much scratching, often in the more personal or inaccessible zones of the body. I haven’t scratched like this since having scabies a long time ago.
The doctor back home told me it might be a side-effect of the medication I am on (great, I thought, another side effect to go with the fatigue, loss of appetite, anaemia, depression and rage). He also told me – get this – to try not to scratch.
Well, as you can imagine, I laughed like a cretin, since the very essence of having an itch is – as the Wikipedia entry makes clear – to activate the scratch reflex. You think, I’ll just give it a little scratch, and the next thing you are at it like a monkey. When you use your fingernail to scratch the spot where the irritant is, you not only remove the irritant but you irritate a whole shedload of other nerve endings. This means your itch itches more, hurts more, and you consequently scratch more. So my doctor’s advice was actually very helpful, if only I was able to heed it.
All I could do last night was take a valium and keep my hands clenched together under the pillow, in an attempt to exercise the kind of self-control that would do credit to a monk dedicated to obliterating the demands of the flesh.
There is, I suspect, a literary aspect to this scratching business. In fact the whole thing reeks of metaphor, if only because writing itself at times resembles an act of scratching. Initially one writes in order to relieve an itch. However once the process has begun, the initial itch is replaced by something quite monstrous. Then we find it impossible to stop scratching. I wonder if this has anything to do with being on the seventeenth draft of a novel?
I suppose it’s inevitable that we return to the same themes again and again in the course of a writing career, particularly – as is inevitably the case – the same damn things keep cropping up.
Take illness, for example. From an early age, I linked illness with storytelling. My father was a GP, my mother had been a nurse throughout World War Two, both in London during the Blitz and in what was then called ‘The East’. I grew up listening to medical stories. In the village I would hear people talking about their illnesses. Sometimes I would hear their views (when they didn’t notice I was there) on my father, of what a fine gentleman and doctor he undoubtedly was, but of how they ‘wished sometimes he would take a firmer hand with people and tell them what was what’. I, as his son, had evolved a somewhat contrary impression, but that, of course, is to be expected.
Walter Benjamin speculates somewhere about the possible relationship that exists between the art of storytelling and the healing of illness. I know what he means, and have been circling around it, on and off, all my life, much of the second half of which, thus far, I have spend as a chronic, or recidivist patient.
Many, or most of my favourite writers, have been consistently and wretchedly ill, or bed-ridden, or rather, have spent long tracts of time in bed. Coleridge, De Quincey, Stevenson, Proust . . . I am well aware that, like myself, this list (which could be greatly extended) includes those who are termed to have ‘self-inflicted’ illnesses brought on by their vices or addictions. But until last week I had never read Virginia Woolf’s wonderful little essay ‘On Being Ill’. If indeed it can be called an essay, rather than a series of digressions on a theme. I found a very attractive edition, published on nice paper, by The Paris Press in 2002, with an Introduction by Hermione Lee, which I can recommend.
The essay was first published by TS Eliot in his New Criterion magazine in January 1926, despite his unenthusiastic response to it. The essay was, we learn from Woolf’s later correspondence, written in bed, never a bad place to write, I find personally. But Woolf was concerned: “I was afraid that, writing in bed, and forced to write quickly by the inexorable Tom Eliot I had used too many words.”
“Writing in bed” continues Hermione Lee in her Intro, “has produced an idiosyncratic, prolix, recumbent literature – the opposite of “inexorable” – at once romantic and modern, with a point of view derived from gazing up at the clouds and looking sideways on to the world” – and here I am reminded of E.M. Forster’s memory of Cavafy, as of a man ‘standing [or lying] absolutely motionless, at a slight angle to the universe.’ “Illness and writing are netted together from the very start of the essay.”
But is writing in bed for everyone? How about novelists, the novelists of Big Books? Can you imagine Balzac, for instance, writing in bed? Certainly not: he would rather be charging apoplectic up and down the drawing room, tearing down the curtains and writhing on the floor chewing the carpet.
No, Virginia, has strong views on the ill-wisdom of composing entire novels in bed:
“Indeed it is to the poets that we turn. Illness makes us disinclined for the long campaigns that prose extracts. We cannot command all our faculties and keep our reason and our judgment and our memory at attention while chapter swings on top of chapter, and, as one settles into place, we must be on the watch for the coming of the next, until the whole structure – arches, towers, and battlements – stands firm on its foundation.”
Monsieur Proust, however, might have been inclined to disagree.
If you google ‘writing in bed’ a surprising number of articles appear, including one from a blog by Chris Bell (from whom I borrowed the image of Mark Twain) and by Robert McCrum, about whom I have many reservations, but am open-minded enough to leave this link.