Tim Parks


(From: Adultery & Other Diversions by Tim Parks)

Back to Part I

     Michelangelo, as 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.

      "Style" —thus 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 about love!

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