Tim Parks


(From: Adultery & Other Diversions by Tim Parks)

     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.

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