copyright © 2007
in The Guardian
6 January 2007
One of the biggest problems for any writer
is, considering its importance, one of the least discussed:
the extent to which what we write can or should be a direct
reflection of our own experience. The writer of fiction is supposed,
traditionally, to make things up, but turns out to be rather
uninventive: that's his third wife he's trashing in his third
novel, his fourth in his fourth, and so on. The greater the
novelist, the worse he seems to be at disguising his own majestic
appearances in his fiction.
In Chapter One, a great "violinist"
gets out of bed and brushes his teeth, thinking his great "violinist's"
thoughts, before ringing his agent to bite her head off. Just
as there have been novels in which the author has forgotten
and inadvertently changed a character's name, presumably there
are others in which the novelist has forgotten the profession
of his stand-in, so that the great "violinist" of
the first chapter has morphed into a great "prize-fighter"
by the middle of the book, and we are never quite sure whether
he is on the way to the Carnegie Hall or Madison Square Garden.
At the other end of the spectrum we find the
poet, writing a lyric poem, which is something we traditionally
understand to reflect the poet's own experience, feelings and
preoccupations. But it might not be like this at all. What the
poet might be brilliant at intuiting and expressing is what
everybody else feels at a given moment. Speaking for herself,
the poet may detest flowers and everything to do with them,
but speaking for others she infallibly hits the nail on the
"I read your poem," said a friend
some years ago, pausing before adding solicitously: "Are
you all right?" The answer is almost always in my view
"Yes". However depressing the content of the poem,
if you've managed to write one, and get it published, then you
are going to be in a good mood (at the very least about that
one important thing). So it is that a last line, expressing
the deepest spirit of depression, may be written in a mood of
complete professional elation.
What's going on is a simultaneous introspection
(supposing the poem to be based on one's own, as opposed to
someone else's, feelings) and purposeful tinkering. If the feeling
described is one of depression, it cannot logically be experienced
to the point of paralysis in the act of composition. There must
be some kind of excitement of the faculties, some spirit egging
us on, saying "That's good! ... No, that's not it ... That's
got it precisely."
This must be the case even for a writer like
Paul Celan, in those moments when he is putting the words down
on paper. It must have been the case (to take another suicide)
for Sylvia Plath when she was writing "Daddy" - indeed,
you may feel that you can hear that triumph in the poem itself.
It carries its own sense of an extraordinary feat pulled off
- a sense that perhaps runs counter to the ostensible meaning
of the poem.
Somewhere between the novelists who turn out
not to be writing fiction, and the poets who enjoy this suspicious
ability to express the most extreme emotions, we find those
purveyors of "creative non-fiction" - memoirists,
travel-writers and so forth - who swear blind that what they
are telling us is true, but whom we suspect of having embellished
and rearranged the facts, bringing to their books the shaping
spirit of the novelist.
In a sense, as readers, we must be grateful
to them, at least when they spare us the tedious aspects of
their experience. Most travel involves a great deal of tedium.
If this is to get between the covers of the book, it must somehow
be transmuted into exciting tedium, glamorous boredom, fascinating
uneventfulness. Or it must be gone, passed over and dismissed
in a sentence, before it drags the book down with it.
Every writer is his own first editor, and must
make it his job to spare us the unnecessary details. But there
is a kind of editing (I am thinking of the great tradition of
Graham Greene and VS Naipaul) in which the removal of minor
characters from the story enhances its fascination, because
the narrator comes across as a solitary figure, and the reader
is allowed the privilege of sharing his solitude.
What the reader wants to feel is that the writer
has undergone this gruelling experience for his, the reader's,
benefit alone. So, if the accompanying wife or mistress has
been magisterially edited out, that suits the reader very well,
even though he may not be aware of the erasure that has been
made. In one sense, the effect of the book may not correspond
to the circumstances of its writing: the whole thing may have
been rather less heroic than has been implied. But in another
way the reader has been well served: the writer has thought
of our interest, and our interest only.
Many writers of non-fiction feel that they
are entitled to rearrange events, or more or less invent conversations,
in order simply to keep the ball rolling. But this is silent
editing of a different degree, and it carries with it, in my
view, an eventual penalty. Trivial as each individual rearrangement
or embellishment may have been, in the long run these little
acts of deceit add up.
We hear one false note, and let it go. We are
too charmed by the performance we are witnessing. But then another
of these false notes sounds, and then another. We begin to understand
that we are being (sort of) lied to. And so our whole reading
of the book, our overall attitude to the author, becomes affected.
If he was asking to be taken seriously, we quietly, perhaps
even unconsciously, refuse to grant him his wish. We put him
in some other less welcome category: that of the comic show-off,
the miles gloriosus or boastful soldier of the old drama.
Exaggeration is itself an idiom, and some writers
who exaggerate everything for comic effect nevertheless achieve
a kind of truthfulness. We adjust our response, we allow for
the exaggeration, indeed we delight in the style with which
it is carried off. At the same time, what we are reading about
comes across as true. There is no question of anyone being deceived.
Indeed it is the very truthfulness of the performance that makes