ON MADNESS, MELANCHOLIA, PANIC AND FEAR

There’s nothing like starting the New Year in the way you intend to go on. A bit of a clear out today and I’m not good at it. I pick things up look at them and can usually come up with 10 good reasons to hold onto them and 4 to let them go. But today sorting through some of my many …

img_1391 … many …

img_1394… notebooks. I came across a handy post-it note with this quotation scribbled on it.

“Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how those who do not write compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in the human situation.”

GRAHAM GREENE

I don’t know how many years ago I scribbled this down. I might even have used it in the blog before. It obviously rang bells. It still does. And there it was waiting for me to read on 6/1/2017. Well, it is Epiphany, after all.

My problem with this time of year is that usually it’s the longest I go without writing. From about half way through December my concentration breaks down because there are too many things to do and think about. And one thing I do know is that the longer I go without writing the more my anxiety and fear grows. Not enormously but insidiously it all ratchets up a couple of notches. Coming back to it I have to circle it a bit, make coffee, make tea, hoover, do the washing up, stare out of the window. There are always pine needles to sweep up. It’s a way of drawing back down to me the zeppelin that is my work in progress because sometimes it can seem as if it has floated far, far away and is quite happy where it is with absolutely no inclination to come back down to me at all. In other words it is ignoring me.

Robert Burton, who wrote the huge tome the Anatomy of Melancholy which was first published in 1621, was himself prone to depression. When badly effected he would go to Folly Bridge near his college Christ Church in Oxford and hearing the ribaldry of the Thames bargemen would be thrown into a violent fit of laughter. I wonder if comedians do particularly well in January.

Personally, I have never been so happy to be out of one year and into another. So a Happy New Year to you all and a Happy Epiphany. Here’s hoping 2017 isn’t as bad as 2016 suggests it might be and that there is less madness, melancholia, panic and fear. Now wouldn’t that be nice? And good luck with the  pine needles. I’m usually still picking mine off the floor in the middle of August.

WRESTLING WITH A GIANT SQUID aka FINISHING MY BOOK

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.’

SAMUEL BECKETT

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.

A MOST WANTED MAN

I went to see the film A Most Wanted Man this week; I’d put it off because I couldn’t bear the sadness of seeing the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman. But the draw of two greats, le Carré (who wrote the book the film is based on) and Seymour Hoffman, was always going to get me there eventually. Needless to say it’s a fantastic film and Seymour Hoffman is wonderful in it. I love le Carré and I’ve always had writer-envy for the magnificently tough way he ends his novels. They are so bleak; bracing doesn’t even begin to describe them.

Here’s a clip of le Carré talking about A Most Wanted Man.

In 2005 the Crime Writers Association marked its Golden Jubilee by presenting The Dagger of Daggers to him for The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (Spy). I voted for him.  Apparently he won by a country mile.  In the same year, I was in the audience when he appeared on stage to wild applause after a screening of The Constant Gardener at the London Film Festival. He seemed rather touchingly embarrassed by his reception which was pretty close, in levels of enthusiasm, to George Clooney’s when he appeared after the very well-received Good Night and Good Luck.

I first read Spy in my early teens, around the time I read The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and Cancer Ward by Solzhenitsyn. Oh, those happy teenage years! Spy is the only one I have re-read regularly. I’ve tried The Catcher in the Rye but never managed to get to the end again. I think I’d need to be on Prozac to go anywhere near Cancer Ward. But Spy is such a brilliant, bitter, bleak book.

William Boyd wrote an excellent article in The Guardian in which he suggested that the ending was even grimmer than I’d thought. Could that really be possible? Spoiler Alert if you haven’t read the book. Boyd writes that when Smiley calls to Leamas (astride the wall) from the western part of Berlin, ‘The girl, where’s the girl?’ It’s not because he wants to check that she is alright, it’s because he wants to make sure that she’s dead because she knows too much. Smiley wants Leamas back but not her. Liz is actually  lying dead at the bottom of the wall. Leamas then drops back down on the eastern side of the wall to his own certain death. They turned it into a suitably gritty film with Richard Burton and Claire Bloom.

I love this quotation from le Carré about spying and writing:

Graham Greene once referred to the chip of ice that has to be in the writer’s heart. And that is the strain: that you must abstain from relationships and yet at the same time engage in them.There you have I think the real metaphysical relationship between the writer and the spy. JOHN LE CARRÉ 

If ever there was a quote to launch a hundred PhDs surely that’s it. There’s a scene in A Most Wanted Man which reminded me of it.  A young man who’s spying for Günter Bachmann, the character played by Seymour Hoffman, says that he’s frightened, that he can’t do it anymore. Bachmann says, ‘Look, into my eyes,’ and then pulls the young man into his arms. He places his hand against the side of his face. It’s pure seduction; the only thing missing is the kiss.

And this is the other  thing about le Carré; he is a seductive writer. His characters are not simply chess pieces to be moved about. He has compassion for them. He draws you in and makes you care about them and then delivers those brilliantly bleak endings. My top three favourite le Carré books are The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and A Perfect Spy.  If having to make a ‘desert island’ choice I’d probably take  A Perfect Spy, a brilliant book on fathers and sons, on love and betrayal.

After the film, on the way home on the bus, we had one of those conversations about what makes Seymour Hoffman such a good actor. I know that analysing acting can lead one straight to hell via Pseud’s Corner but so what, it’s fun to do. We came to the conclusion it had to do with his lack of vanity, his vulnerability and of course his intelligence. What a great actor. It’s a mesmerizing film. Go see it.

Do you have a favourite le Carré book? Which one would you take to a desert island and why?

Here’s the link to the William Boyd article:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/jul/24/carre-spy-came-cold-boyd

SAM AND THE FIREFLY

Sam and the Firefly by P.D.Eastman

Sam and the Firefly by P.D.Eastman

One of the benefits of working in a second-hand bookshop  is that on occasion a dusty old friend appears in the form of a much-loved book from my childhood. Last week it was SAM AND THE FIREFLY by P.D.Eastman. Did I resist the temptation to buy it? Reader, I certainly did not. On re-reading it I realised that one of the reasons  I love it so much is because it is a fantastic story about the power of words. For those of you who don’t know it. Sam is an owl who teaches Gus, the firefly, to write letters in the sky with the light from his body. Gus, hyperactive and mischievous, becomes drunk with enthusiasm for words. Basically he just goes nuts for them:

Why! We made WORDS, BIG WORDS!

Say, I LIKE this game!

I want to do it again this word trick is fun.

Come on. Make MORE words”

After rushing about the sky writing lots of different words, Gus, a classic example of a reckless friend who will get you into trouble, zooms off and starts using words to trick people. He has become drunk on his own power. When he’s warned by Sam he ignores him. His downfall comes when he crosses out the HOT over a hot dog stand and writes COLD instead.

Gus trapped by the angry Hot Dog Man

Gus trapped by the angry Hot Dog Man

The customers walk away and the hot dog man gets very angry and traps Gus in a jam jar. He puts him in the back of his truck and drives off with him. The truck gets stuck on a railway line and a train is coming. Sam smashes the jar, Gus is released and writes STOP STOP STOP in the air and so averts a terrible accident. Naughty Gus is now the hero.

“Yow Wow, Gus!” called Sam

At last you did a GOOD trick.”

Of course, in a way, every writer is a Gus. At some point she or he, like him, has gone bonkers for the power and beauty of words. If fiction writing is a kind of trick, it’s a very difficult trick to pull off well. Every writer, or this one at any rate, is aware of the invisible contract which connects her to her readers. Good trick or bad trick? Well, readers, reviewers, family and sales figures can offer up very different answers to that question.

Sam urging caution

Sam urging caution

It could also be argued that it is useful for every writer to have a Sam. Write with no caution at all or with too much of Graham Greene’s famous ‘chip of ice’ in your heart and people are likely to be upset. Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote My Struggle, a series of six books which exposed the private life of friends and family. For them presumably his books were a very bad trick indeed. The series has been translated into 22 languages and has sold 450,000 copies in Norway, a country with a total population of only five million. Knausgaard said of the books:

“This was a way of saying no, I won’t behave, and for the first time in my life I will say exactly what I mean.”

For his devoted readers the books are a marvel; Gus that pesky firefly would surely have approved. The more cautious Sam, on the other hand, would probably be tearing his feathers out.

P.D.Eastman wrote this brilliant book to get children interested in words and writing. It certainly worked for me. I thought this ‘word trick’ was so much fun that approximately thirty years after I read SAM AND THE FIREFLY I was a published writer! Re-reading it now reminds me not to forget my inner Gus, the part of me which wants to play, the part which wants to roll around in words and just have fun. Do you have a much-loved book from childhood ? What is it? What makes you love it?