I’ve been coming to the end of a piece of work. When I say ‘end’ I do not of course mean THE END. I mean my novel has to be prised from my limpet-like grip and handed over to the next stage of its development, being edited. For me my novels never really end. If I pick up one of my published ones, which I do from time to time out of a combination of curiosity and vanity, I usually immediately find bits I want to change. Often it’s the first sentence! So basically for the last couple of weeks I’ve been in the death throes, as my partner drily calls it. Or, as I would put it, since I believe that melodrama is not useful at this stage, wrestling with a giant squid. When I have ripped one tentacle from around my waist, which is telling me I have never understood the basics of punctuation, I find another smacking me in the kisser and telling me shame and humiliation await.
I wonder if there’s a writer in the world who thinks of their work. It’s great. It’s finished. I’m happy to hand it over to my adoring agent/editor/public. If they do exist I would meet them with about the same enthusiasm that Dr Who would feel at meeting a Dalek. In fact my preference would be to feed such a writer immediately to that giant squid as a tasty apéritif.
Fortunately, I have managed to find lots of juicy quotations by famous writers fed up to the back teeth with their work and filled with self-loathing. Why is it I wonder that other people’s self-loathing is always so much more entertaining than my own? So here are some to reassure you and make you laugh if you too are at the squid-wrestling phase of your work. I’ll tell you who they are at the end. First a very famous Frenchman on the subject of returning to his writing:
1.‘We are obliged to revive our suffering with the courage of a doctor who is about to give himself a dangerous injection.’
Well, he is French after all. And here is another famous French author:
2.‘My accursed ****** (name of book) torments and confounds me … I am utterly weary, utterly discouraged. You call me master – what a sorry master I am. There are moments when it all makes me want to die like a dog.’
Now a bored Russian:
3.’Now I am settling down again to dull commonplace **** ********, (name of book) with the sole desire to clear a space quickly and obtain leisure for other occupations.’
And here’s a self-loathing one:
4.‘My soul has wilted from the consciousness that I am working for money and that money is the centre of my activity. This gnawing feeling… makes my authorship a contemptible pursuit in my eyes; I do not respect what I write.’
Finally here is an extremely gloomy Englishman:
5.‘By comparison with the lyric poet’s or the painter’s, the novelist’s life is a despairing one. A work which takes him so long a time, a time that has to be measured in years rather than months, that has, therefore to be written against so many varying and warring moods, how can it ever attain the satisfactory unity of a poem or a picture? His passion may give him moments of contentment or even happiness, but he is aware all the time of how this love affair will close. This is not a marriage: this is a passion doomed sooner or later to end. It already contains the hatred and dryness of heart that will succeed it.’
Aren’t they a cheerful lot! Here we have a dangerous injection, torments, discouragement, boredom, a wilting soul, doomed passion and my personal favourite – dying like a dog. So, if you’re in difficulties and failing to achieve that elusive ‘satisfactory unity’ for your book, take heart because you are in very good company. My advice? KBO of course. Surely, no one ever told you it was going to be easy? If they did, now’s the time to sue.
After all that gloom and doom here’s a more philosophical quote to end on which always cheers me up:
‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’
Are you at the squid-wrestling stage of a project? Any tips on prising those tentacles loose?
1. Proust on returning to you know what; 2. Flaubert on writing (Madame) Bovary; 3. Tolstoy on Anna Karenina; 4. Chekhov; 5. Graham Greene.