What the gods most required
of man was recognition. But it wasn't enough to extort
this with divine manifestations. Already the first to
assume human forms, the Olympians complicated matters
by appearing as beggars, or strangers: Zeus at the court
of Lycaon, Dionysus at the house of Icarius. Certainly
it's a tough proposition to treat every panhandler as
if he might be God. Clearly one was only a step away from
the wearisome modern demand that on recognize the divinity
in all men. In this respect it has to be granted that
writers are more accommodating. Or you could say rather
that they take fewer risks: they rarely turn up without
a visiting card. So it was that the day I met V.S. Naipaul
his books were everywhere in evidence.
Unrecognized, the gods
wreaked the most appalling revenge. But Naipaul had long
gone beyond that. He had been awarded the Commonwealth
Prize for Literature, hence was firmly placed in the Pantheon.
At the conference, where he talked about his work, and
then the celebratory lunch where we sat opposite each
other, he expressed eloquent opinions on racism and evil
authority, earnest comments on his native Trinidad. But
what was most evident was how much he was revelling in
the buzz of recognition, a god listening to the chatter
of human worship. I found him entirely charming. And at
the same time couldn't help remarking that in all the
writers I have met there is this extraordinary gap between
what their work appears to be about — impeccably
commendable — and the driving impulse behind it,
an unshakable thirst for recognition.
Why did I start writing,
then? Or, to put it in a slightly more complicated way:
how is it that one knew one wanted to be a writer without
knowing what writing meant, without appreciating what
kind of recognition it was one yearned for? Was there,
in the beginning, a clear vision of self as writer: a
grown —up, glamorous, guru figure in some foreign
villa somewhere? Or simply an impulse: write. How difficult
it is to establish this point! All I really know is that,
both spiritually and technically, it began with copying.
And, notoriously, with copying authors I didn't understand:
Samuel Beckett and Henry Green. One could have copied
writers one understood better: Graham Greene, Anthony
Powell, people whose themes and moral engagement were
clear enough. But perhaps it was exactly the combination
of being immensely excited by something without in the
least understanding it that drew me to Beckett and Green.
They were divinities for me. I was in their thrall. How
many years would it be before I realized that this is
the only relationship a writer really wants with his readers?
At the university we were
allowed to submit a piece of `creative writing' for possible
bonus points in our final exams. I wrote a few pages entitled
“The Three of Us”. My first production. It
was dismissed with a D. Curiously, I cannot recall being
greatly upset by this. I simply thought: One day I
shall bury you all. Was this the first time I framed
those words for myself, words since repeated, though rarely
shared, a thousand times? I cannot recall. But no doubt
it was the same sense of self against the world that,
again without for a moment understanding why, responded
so warmly to the unexpected and unchristian outbreaks
of Beckett's narrators. I remember in particular a few
lines in From an Abandoned Work: `Whereas a bird
now, or a butterfly, fluttering about and getting in my
way, all moving things, getting in my path, a slug now,
getting under my feet, no, no mercy.' And he hits out
with his stick. Or there is the brutal clarification that
closes the first paragraph of Malone Dies `Let
me say before I go any further, that I forgive nobody.'
That writing is a phenomenon
often galvanized by anger is evident enough. How rancorous
Shakespeare's plays are! How Hamlet raves and Lear rages!
And Swift and Pope and Byron, and Dickens too in his way.
Only those who do not understand what a central part such
emotions play in life, could consider Eliot's description
of The Waste Land, as"onelong rhythmical grumble"
reductive. What is not so clear is the nature of the writer's
rancour, where it came from, what it is about. Could it
be this matter is taboo?
The Cambridge Board of
Examiners failed to discourage me. After a few postgrad
months at Harvard I tired of studying other people's writing
and embarked myself on a novel. It went through a very
distinct Beckettian phase followed by a very distinct
Greenian phase. Perhaps not insignificantly it was called
"The Bypass". I gave it to a lady tutor who found a very
kind way of telling me she thought it awful. I remember
her asking me why I so obsessively used demonstratives
and disorientating word orders. The answer, of course,
which I didn't give, was that Green used them. But at
the time I had no idea why. The divinities I was copying
were a foreign land to me. I was like someone repeating
words in a language that, not only does he not know, but
is not even learning. I shall bury you all, I
thought, leaving this nice lady tutor's house. I must
have been past thirty before it occurred to me that precisely
this angry impulse was the foreign country I had been
setting out to discover. And it wasn't foreign at all.
Just dark. "Luke," says Darth Vader, "you do not know
the power of the dark side." And how right he is.
Over lunch that day, Naipaul
claimed that he knew he was going to be a writer from
the beginning. He would never have done anything else.
Not even temporarily. Not even part time. He was a writer
and that was that. I remarked that if they hadn't published
him, he would have been obliged to do something else.
Wouldn't he? An animated discussion then developed as
to whether it was possible for a writer of talent not
to be recognized. And if I insisted, enlisting Thomas
Gray, that it was indeed possible, then this no doubt
was out of the same immodesty that inspired Naipaul to
insist that it was not. He genuinely could not imagine
a world where his genius would not be recognized. In this
he showed himself more confident than the Olympians. But
I was thinking of the years between 1979 and 1985. A bedsit
in Acton. Two rooms rented from a retired Pole in Kensal
Rise. A novel called "Promising", never published; a novel
called "Leo's Fire", never published; a novel called "Quicksand".
Never published. A novel called "Failing". Never published.
Enough rejection slips to paper Buckingham Palace. "It
is a gesture of religious faith," I insisted — growing
extremely heated and perhaps rather shrill — "to
assume that we live in a world where everything receives
its just desserts." Naipaul smiled and, very charmingly,
changed the subject. Clearly he did have a religious faith.
In himself. For which I envy him.
Those who are most easily
and swiftly successful - and so ultimately have less opportunity
to develop — are those whose innate anger is skilfully
and unimpeachably directed at what is widely perceived
to be a proper object of anger. Aside from all the politically
engaged fiction the English have produced this century
and last, one recalls with some amusement the year three
of the six shortlisted novels for the Booker Prize found
cause to feature the Holocaust. Sadly, this honourable
directing of negative energy has never worked for me.
I did once translate a book by a survivor of Birkenau.
But though I sometime wept as I transcribed what I had
to, I could never feel as much anger towards the Nazis
as one feels, on occasion, for the obtuseness of a colleague,
or wife, or child, or editor. Or indeed for Naipaul's
complacency over that lunch. One's condemnation, no, one's
horror of torturers, murderers, exploiters of every kind
is so automatic and complete that it hardly seems worth
dramatizing. What would that bring us aside from the reassuring
reflection that we still feel 'the right way' about things?
"I have written a very angry novel," a contemporary tells
me in the Café Rouge on the Old Brompton Road. And he
begins to give me the details of the Nestle scandal. As
if the point of Hamlet were that 'there is something
rotten in the state of Denmark'. The newspapers would
have told us that.
It was not so much that
I was undiscouraged in those early years, as undeterred.
Humiliation seems to spur me on. The more birds and butterflies
and ducks ("ducks are the worst," says Beckett) get in
my path, the more wildly I flail about with my stick.
Even though, if I look back, it is with some amazement
that I see myself embarking on — what? — the
sixth novel, the seventh, with each collecting twenty,
perhaps thirty letters of rejection. Perhaps my wife's
faith was important. So much so that one wonders now if
one will ever be able to forgive her the generous and
self-effacing part she played in what was about to become
a career. For finally, perhaps convinced that I was never
to be published, I turned my attention to my family, some
events in my childhood. And at last the breakthrough came,
and came where, in terms of personal relationships, it
was most embarrassing. Before its acceptance, however,
that novel too went through the familiar round of rejection
letters; to kill the meantime I concocted a crime thriller
which hinged on the irony that while the hero, desperate
for some kind of recognition, condemns the world for its
obtuseness, he himself becomes involved in theft, kidnap
and murder. Clearly the fellow is loathsome, as the Olympians
likewise were hardly fair in obliterating people who could
not see that a beggar was a god. Yet character and circumstance
were so manipulated in this dark comedy that it was hard
not to feel that the protagonist was right about those
around him, and that in a way a world so stubbornly complacent
could expect little better than to fint itself castigated
by such an anti-hero. I finished this exercise in displaced
rancour at about the time the novel based on my family
came out. The latter was generally applauded gfor its
exposure of a gauche and potentially harmfulkind of evangelism.
Apparently its heart was in an acceptable place. Only
a decade later, when it was published in Italy, did I
have the shock of coming across a reviewer who put a shrewder
finger on the matter: "This novel", he wrote, "has the
assurance of someone with a smile of revenge on his lips.
He who observes and proves able to tell his story is always
the winner over those unable to tell."
How eager the world is
to set up writers and artists on their pedestals! The
Pulitzer. The Booker. The Prix Goncourt. To see them as
a force for good. The Commonwealth Prize. The Nobel Prize!
Inherently liberal, liberating! The courageous writers
of Eastern Europe under Communism! What a gift the Rushdie
affair has been for the person who endorses this kind
of vision! The writer as a champion of human freedom!
When the irony is that, beside the criminal, the artist
is the first to take liberties, often at the expense of
others, as Rushdie took ( and I have taken, indeed even
now am taking) a lot of liberties with what others hold
sacred. The artist is the first to appropriate the world
for his own purposes. Implicitly, often unconsciously,
he claims direct contact with some absolute that lies
beyond the public good. However much lip-service may be
paid at celebratory lunches.