we know, was convinced that the figures he sculpted
were already present in the rock. He merely used
his chisel to expose them. Wasn't this, like Naipaul's,
a religious faith? In himself. The world was
as he saw it. If matter wasn't simply submitting
to his genius, then in some way it was co-penetrative
with it. Self annexes other and annuls it. How absurd!
Yet if you'd been there at the first unveiling of
his David, stood stunned in the piazza before a
muscular beauty that had all the elegance and clarity
of classical proportion, but throbbing too with
a wholly new and vibrant sense of life, you wouldn't
have argued with the artist. You wouldn't have wanted
to sift through the lumps and shards on his studio
floor to see whether there mightn't have been some
different, perhaps even better sculpture to be made
from that same piece of rock. For you are convinced,
seduced, dazzled. Michelangelo is right, you say,
this is how life is, the figure was in the rock.
Art is coercive.
It rearranges our mental space, imposes a vision.
Rational argument is bypassed, forgotten. So that
with the best art one suffers a sense of inevitability
-- which is exactly the experience of the seduced
at the moment they succumb. How can one open a novel
of Thomas Bernhard and not be immediately and completely
compelled by what suddenly seems the only
possible response to a world wallowing in hypocrisy?
How can one read the `Ode to a Grecian Urn' without
feeling, while the enchantment lasts, that this
is the perfect, ultimate and only important
statement on the relationship between mortal man
and immortal artefact?
Art is `liberating'
in the sense that it frees you from the grip of
whatever other vision you were previously in thrall
to. Subjecting you to another. In a process not
unlike the now popular serial monogamy. Thus Beckett
sduced me, Green seduced me. No one made English
prosody more triumphantly his own than Henry Green,
with his strange deployment of articles and demonstratives,
the bizarre but entirely convincing way he could
make life regenerate itself around his wayward syntax.
What I had sought to copy, then, in those early
days, without being at all aware of it, was a powerful
act of seduction. One man's making the world in
his own image, declaring it thus. As a greenhorn
might copy a Casanova. Or Zeus a Titan. This to
compel the recognition that I had been compelled
to give to others. One might, looking back now,
have sought to gain it merely by offering people
what one thought they wanted. Pleasing the crowd.
And perhaps I have tried this from time to time.
But the truth is that at the very best such a policy
can only bring praise. Not recognition. For real
recognition involves the reader's wholehearted endorsement
of my, truly my vision. Not his consumption
of something he already knew he wanted. What god
would ever pander to the way man saw things? What
mortal, in the large run, would feel happy with
so accomodotating divinity? Thus the only important
reading experiences are those where one sets out
with scepticism, only to find ourselves enchanted,
overwhelmed by a vision that demands our acquiescence.
And one's problem, perhaps, when first one sets
out to write, is that one doesn't really have anything
so grand as a vision. Few ever do. So one copies,
learning hopefully from the tension between oneself
and one's model. Later it will be a question of
learning not to copy yourself.
But we have still
to place that rancour. For it is only rudely disguised
in righteous anger, only crudely parodied in reductive
comedies about criminal fellows who cannot bear
the world's not being as they would wish it, that
long list of literary villains, so close, one always
feels, to their creators. At that celebratory lunch,
Naipaul politely enquired about my own writing and
I made the mistake of concluding my brief reply
with the self-regarding remark that: "The reviewers
are generally kind." He was on to this weakness
in a flash. "You read reviews, then?" he asked.
"I never do. After all," he smiled, "one knows the
quality of one's work without them." And what has
occurred to me, mulling over this conversation through
the years, is that one of the problems every divinity
must face is this: why do I care to be recognized
by these people who are inherently incapable of
appreciating my true worth? Why bother with their
reviews? And all that anger the gods displayed when
recognition wasn't forthcoming, mightn't it perhaps
have been at least partly directed against themselves
for having wanted such a ludicrous thing in the
first place? Could it be that Naipaul was unhappy
with how happy he was to be lionized at conference
lunches? A situation he would doubtless have satirized
were he writing about it. Was he furious, perhaps,
to find himself human? Is this the artist's
true pathos? One creates a world and still
one is human. Is this the source of all his rancour?
Or might we alternatively suggest that Naipaul's
withdrawal, his not reading reviews, was made possible
precisely by the fact that the world was seeking
him out. He was already recognized. In this sense
perhaps we guarantee a god's absence when we praise
him with regularity. For few divinities will bother
to go on manifesting themselves once their supremacy
is established: Most notoriously Jehovah. What we
will never know is whether this recognition has
reconciled them to their existence.
It is in his dealings
with the public that the ambiguity and essential
fragility of the writer's position is revealed.
When Rousseau's Thérèse bore him children, he immediatly
had them removed and deposited at the local foundling
hospital, nor does this appear tó have caused him
any great suffering. But when a musical score he
had written was rejected, he recalls: "Deeply distressed
at receiving this verdict in place of the praises
I had expected, and which were certainly due to
me, I returned home sick at heart. Tired out and
consumed by grief, I fell ill and for six weeks
was not fit to leave my room." But one needn't look
so far to see that behind, or perhaps I mean alongside,
all that is beautiful and moving in art, all that
is genuinely worthy, all that truly opens the heart
and lifts the spirit, lies a suffocated scream for
recognition. A London paper's diary tells me how,
on receiving a miserable review, Jeanette Winterson
went along to the reviewer's house and shouted abuse
at her on her doorstep. A contemporary describes
a party where he was harangued by Malcolm Bradbury
for a bad review he had written two years before.
An editor tells me how the great Thomas Bernhard
wrote to his paper demanding to be reviewed because
he was, in his own words, "the best novelist since
the war." And even the marvellous Calasso once asked
me to translate a letter for him in which he complained
about a virulent and obtuse review he had received.
Though of course he never sent it. For the truth
is that a divinity does not and must not stoop to
such things. If one has (alas!) no thunderbolt at
one's disposal, a lofty silence is the only resource.
Though offhand I can think of two writers who have
killed themselves for lack of recognition: Richard
Burns in England, Guido Morselli in Italy. If you
have the development. Not a withdrawal from action,
but stomach for it, a gesture of that kind will
certainly compel some to take you seriously.
Gloucester to Prospero.
Gabriel to Anna Livia. Belacqua to the Unnameable.
That there is a natural trajectory in a writer's
production seems obvious enough. One begins in a
whirlwind of describing telling evoking. The world
is so fresh, so interesting, so urgently in need
of our engagement. But once the most obvious material
is exhausted, what then? My first unpublished attempt,
"The Bypass" was all spoken in the northern intonations
of my infancy. I was then weary of that. My first
published novel spoke of the Christian charismatic
movement in the sixties. I could Hardly tackle that
again. The second featured an office in Acton where
I had worked, a secret love affair. Acton is not
a place to revisit and one secret love affair is
surely enough. So on and on. Marriage will offer
much material. Children. In my case people write
to me regularly asking for a third book on Italy.
But I feel Italy has had more than its fair share
of my attention. One can of course go out and seek
material. A novel about Christ's disciples? A novel
about the moon landings? But after this has been
done once or twice? There comes a point where the
mind grows more interested in the way it deals with
materials than in the materials themselves. For
there have been so many. Or rather, the mind begins
to appreciate that the materials cannot be understood
separately from its own operations upon them. It
starts to claim hegemony, demand the upper hand.
There is an entirely natural inward-turning in a
writer's later development. Not a withdrawal from
action, but a penetration of what lies behind all
action: the seductive, luminous, coercive, shadowy,
genial, and rancorous mind.
Henry Green stopped
writing in his fifties. A heavy drinker, he seems
to have spent most of his time running the family
company or chasing women. His favourite activity
he described as `romancing over a bottle'. Joyce
turned away from evocation of the world to evocation
of the processes by which a world is evoked. Beckett
steadily peeled voice from voice, posture from posture,
heading for silence at the same speed as the frog
who always jumps half the distance that remains
between himself and his goal. No one better than
he dramatizes the irony that while the sort of consciousness
writing encourages is one that counsels suspicion
of self and of words, still one wishes to be recognized
for having articulated that fact. 'No future here,'
comments the narrator of Worstward Ho. And
goes on: "Alas yes." But for recognition of the
artist's essential rancour and its intimate relation
to his genius for coercion, the greatest example
remains The Tempest, a title that speaks
worlds. People like to forget what an angry, punitive,
even cynical fellow Prospero is. How quickly he
dismisses his daughter's brave new world! "One more
word shall make me chide thee, if not hate thee,"
he tells Miranda when she appeals for Ferdinand's
life. His magician's spells, however beautiful,
are designed to bind not please. And if, unlike
Malone, Prospero does at the end forgive, how grudgingly
it is done. And that only when every enemy is dead
or in his power, only when the gesture of relinquishing
power provides the final claim to superiority, the
ultimate demand considerable distance for him. What
other exile for recognition.
Proust, in Contre Sainte-Beuve—"is
the transformation thought imposes on reality."
I'm at my desk. About to start again. To attempt
that transformation again. What shall I write about?
Two or three reviews of my last novel concurred
in describing the main character as "unappealing."
Dear, dear. As Richard III, as Prospero, as Raskolnikov,
as Mr. Rock, as Molloy, Moran, Malone. People like
to forget. But appealingly aware of being unappealing,
I had thought. And aware again of how little awareness
helps. I stare at the screen. Shall we proceed with
this tail-chasing? Aware of wishing to claim recognition
for being aware that an appealing awareness of being
unappealing does not help? A deep breath. Writing,
I tell myself, staring at the screen, involves a
complex movement of the spirit in which one is simultaneously
aware of the most sublime and the most base. Another
deep breath. The impulse to comfort and the impulse
to truth were ever at loggerheads, I reflect, still
wincing from those reviews. Another breath. "Impose"
surely, I remind myself, is the key word in Proust's
formulation—the transformation thought imposeson
reality. Again a breath. Until all at once, birds
in my path! Ducks! A great flapping and squawking.
For I'm reminded of how at the end of that famous
lunch with Naipaul I heard the author lean over
and say softly to his official hostess that his
expenses claim would be arriving shortly. All moving
things in my path! Although it seemed he'd arrived
chauffeur-driven in a car they'd sent some considerable
distance for him. What other expenses could he possibly
have? And gossiping over this matter with others
at the conference, as (however unappealingly) one
will, I discovered that the great man was a stickler
for expenses. A terrible stickler. Down to the very
last penny, I was told. And had been paid for his
performance too! Whereas my little talk merely allowed
me to waive some paltry fees. Oh, but how well sour
grapes can be relied upon to stir the soul! Have
at you, quackers! A great flourish of the stick.
Or wand. I shall bury you all, I decide. Let's write