Monday in Piss Street

a short story

I live in a shit-hole. Lying here ain’t good. My bed stinks. I fart loudly and crawl through the thug of it and go to the kitchen. I can hear me mum snoring from here. It’s a small place. Yeah, course it is. Cockroaches nyere-nyere me as they scatter away. They feel safe, I reckon. At home. I open the fridge. There’s lots of space in our fridge. Green muck too. Fuck! The milk’s off. I drink from the sink tap. Tastes like Draino. What day is it? Shit! I’ve got to go to the dole office. There’s this fat fag creep there who looks at me like I’m a Macca’s burger with fries on the side, like that chick in that ad on TV. Hope I get the swami girl. She’s got Milo skin and eyes like mud cake. I shower, feel like a dump, take one. The Dettol soap is a nail clipping but it still strips every bit if moisture out of my skin. Me mum believes in squeaky clean. That and smack. Yeah, I know.

I can hear Scotty scratchin’ at the back door. I let him in and find a rusty can of four-bean mix in the cupboard, behind the tea bags she steals from the motel down on Cowper Road. A job she’s got, three days a week. It used to be two days but she gave the manager a blowjob and got three. That’s what I reckon. I open the can with a bread knife and Scotty and I share it. I go into me mum’s room and scratch around in her side drawer and – bingo! – find a twenty-dollar bill. Fuckin’ awesome. She’s dead to the world. I cover her up properly after starin’ a bit.

On the floor I find a belt to use as a lead for Scotty. We go to the shitty local con store; mum keeps telling me I need to think about the future. I’ve got to get some dog food. The chink sits behind mesh wire the thickness of pencils. I slide two cans of Chow, a Snickers bar, and a half litre of milk at him. He doesn’t look at me. I was 5 cents short on a packet of bbq chips once and he wouldn’t let me have them. I broke his nose, the slanty-eyed prick! Now there’s this fuckin’ pencil mesh everywhere. He gives me $1.50 change and I feel like punching him again. He knows it too. Fuckin’ reffos. Robbing us blind! Scotty craps on the footpath. I don’t have a placky bag with me, never do, so I shove it into the gutter and get dogshit on my stubs. Bloody hell! I find a patch of grass inside a car tyre, push it aside, and try to wipe me toes clean with it; fuckin’ jeez, I must look like a spazo dancing or somethin’. Scotty barks. Shut up ya dick! I see a couple of white haired geros up ahead. They stop talking and cross the street. “What are ya lookin’ at, ya coupla cunts! You’ll be dead before me. I’m just walkin’ me dog! Sa free country!” They scurry on a bit, as fast as their skinny little bandy legs can carry them. Ha! Makes me want to vommi. The pricks!

Charlie finishes serving a chick with her skirt up her crack. “Morning, Bo. What can I do for you”. He looks at me. I look at him. He knows what I’m goin’ to say. “Me mum’s still sleepin’ it off and there’s no food in the joint. I gotta go to the dole office. Can I have a burger?” “What about your mum?” he says. “Yeah,” I say. “Can ya make it two?” He looks at me like his shit don’t stink but he bailed me out once so mum says I can’t give him no lip. I gotta swallow it. Feels like nails. He goes to make the burgers. I stand and wait. I look out through the big window onto the street and see that pansy from the pub on the corner; the pub where they do prissy shows watched by chicks in merks and blokes with haircuts. I looked through the window one night at a couple of guys in frocks telling jokes about god and the prime minister. The crowd was lapin’ it up. Some sort of code, I reckon, like commi shit or somethin’.  The sissy-boy’s with his dicky little benji-dog. He bends down and picks the stupid mut up as good ol’ Scotty yaps fit to split and goes for his ankles. Rip him to sheds, Scotty! Little Scotty won’t leave him alone and his fluffy mut yaps in his arms. I’d laugh if I had the energy. Charlie gives me the burgers and I say “Thanks” like me mum said I had to. Scotty keeps barkin’ and jumpin and the sissy-boy…”Hey!” The cunt’s tryin to kick my dog. “Hey! Shit face! What the fuck do ya think ya doin’?” I run right up to him and stand right up to the prick with my chest in his face. He looks like he’s goin’ to shit himself. “You tryin to kick my dog? Hey!? Hey!? Ya fuckin’ cunt! Kick my dog and I’ll smash ya fuckin’ face in!” The fag tries to speak, “Well I’m not going to push a dog away with my hands, am I?” “What’s that supposed to mean,” I scream at him. “You tryin to be some kind of smart arse? Hey!? Hey!? Are ya!? Hey!?” and the cunt turns and walks away. “I’m askin’ ya a question, dum-fuck. What’s a poofta like you tryin’ to kick me dog? Hey!? Fuckin’ nancy-boy, take-it-up-the-arse, shit-pusher! Go on, answer me fuck-face. Poofta!” I yell and it feels real good. He’s shakin’ and can hardly walk straight. And then he stops and turns his lilly-white pansy-boy-face, white as froth, and says to me somethin’ like if I wanna insult im or somethin’ I’ll have to find somethin’ diff’rent than what’s true. What?! “What did you say!?” I scream. I don’t know what he’s tryin’ to say. “What the fuck!” I yell spit on his nose. “Ha!” I scream but the feel-good stuff’s oozin’ away and I hate it, but he’s still shakin’ huggin’ his stupid dog. I can taste his fear and it tastes good, salty-sweet. I’m runnin’ out of words. He walks away. “Ya fuckin’ cunt!!” I scream. My face is burnin’ and the heat in my body and lumps in my throat choke me, and I so fuckin’ hate it – “I fuckin’ hate it!” I scream at the sky; when smartarse pricks throw words at ya that don’t make sense. “Aaah!!” And I hear a few doors open and close. “What the fuck are you lookin’ at” I bellow at whoever can hear. But, I scared him shitless didn’t I? Yeah, the prick. Scotty is pullin’ on my belt, with his tail down and pullin’ away from me. “Come here! Ya my fuckin’ dog! Mine! Come here, ya prick.” And I can’t yell anymore and I walk away draggin’ Scotty like a pyjama bag I saw a kid with once on TV.

I sit under the concrete steps that go up to the freeway and try to stop the drummin’ in my ears. I eat my burger. It helps. Scotty looks at me like he doesn’t know nothin’. I give him a piece of bun. He eats it. I still feel hot but it’s goin’ away. I walk up the stairs to the freeway, and along the footpath to the park and let Scotty off the lead. He doesn’t know what to do. “Run, ya prick,” I say. I walk over to a tree and lean against it listenin’ to that drummin’ again. It’s getting fainter I think. A poxy bloke in a suit comes up to me and says, “Hey, pretty boy! Want to make a bit of money?” “Fuck off,” I say but it sounds weak. It comes out like I’ve got a cold, or somethin’. “What do you say to twenty bucks for a blowjob?” he says with just a slit on his shiny face, like we’ve done this before. “Fuck off,” I say again. More like a whisper this time. But I think about the money and how I can get the bus to the dole office, and maybe, some food for tonight. I gotta think of the future, like me mum says. “Fifty,” I say. “No blow, just a hand.” “OK, twenty though,” he says. “Fifty or nothin’” I say and make it like I don’t care.

His little dick is hot is my hand but it doesn’t take long, thank kryst, and no way did I let the faggot touch me. No way. He messed his expensive shirt which made me smile which gave him the wrong idea. I wiped my hands on the grass and took off with my bus money. Needle-dick loser. I took Scotty home. Me mum was still dead to the world. I put her burger in the fridge. I took the bus to the dole office.

I sat on the bus next to a chick with really big knockers, a green t-shirt and cut-off jeans. I said, “G’day.” She looked up from her phone. Nothin’. What is it with chicks who won’t even say g’day. Stuck-up bitch. I gotta get myself a phone. Yeah. The fat creep isn’t on duty today. Yeah, but the swami girl is. I wait and let some nuf-nufs go before me so I can get swami-girl. I sit at her desk. She’s really pretty and has a purple scarf-thing over her black hair.

“Hi, Bo. How you been going?”

“OK.”

“Just, OK?”

“Yeah.” I hand her my form.

“You’ve been to see all this people; all these jobs?”

“Yeah, course.”

“If I rang some of these people, they’d remember you?”

“S’pose not.” I ain’t stupid.  “They see heaps of fuckers.”

“How’s your mum?”

“OK.”

“Still working her two days a week?”

“She’s not working. Hasn’t worked in months”

“I thought she was at the motel two days a week.”

“Nah, when it came to pay day the prick wouldn’t pay her. Sack’d her.” Can’t tell swami-girl the truth, mum said.

“I see.” She goes down the list of interviews I’ve done, well, done some of ‘em. She looks at me like she likes me. I like her too. She’s wearin’ lots of flowing clothes so I can’t get the jist of her body, but I bet it’s alright. I start imaginin’ her black swami bush between her legs and I get a hard-on. I wanna touch her. I look at her hands and she’s wearin’ a few rings. She’s not supposed to wear stuff like that at work. Ya can get smashed fingers from some prick who’d cut your hand off as soon as look at ya. They’d fetch a bit, I reckon. She looks at me. I look at her. The kind of too-long look you see sometimes in movies. I reckon she likes me for a fact. “Nice rings,” I say. She looks at her rings and takes them off. Fuck! Why she do that for? “I was just lookin’.” “Sure,” she says but you can see she’s scared a bit. Stupid bitch! She looks at me again and there’s somethin’ she wants to say.

“It’s fuckin’ OK, alright?” I say.

“Is it Bo?”

“Ye-ah!?” What’s she getting’ at?

“You’ve got to think about the future, Bo.”

“Yeah well I am! Me mum says that shit all the time. I wanna get a phone.” I think about that loser in the park. I gotta get a phone. She’s lookin’ at me. Now, I don’t know if she likes me or not. This is what I don’t get. Chicks look at ya and ya know what they want, and then they look at ya again and it’s different. Or they look at ya and ya know what they want, so you do it, and then they scream at ya, call you names, and piss you right off.

But she signs my form and I say, “Thanks.”

“Say Hi to your mum,” she says. “Next!” she yells.

I go into the city to make me feel normal. When you’re in the city ya can be anyone walkin’ around. I look at them and they look at me and see what I see, just pricks walkin’ around being normal. I breath normal. I break the fifty at Maccas but know I have to get some food for tonight. I like this feeing, this doing stuff for me mum. I walk past a posh supermarket and think, I can go in here, and so I walk in. I look at security and he looks at me. Shit! There’s so much light, so much stuff. I look at all the packets on the shelves and don’t know half of them. There’s a whole room full vegetables. It’s like a farm or somethin’. Don’t know half of them either. What are ya supposed to do with ‘em? I look for the can section and pick up two cans of spaghetti. Me mum loves spaghetti on toast. I see all the bread on a huge table. What is all this shit? Bread’s bread. I take one that looks like real bread, a square one, and the skinny guy at the check-out looks at me as if I’ve forgotten somethin. “What are ya lookin’ at?” I say. He looks away and then back at me and says, “Nothing at all, mate. Nothing at all.” And it’s like I hear the words he’s sayin’ but it’s not what he’s sayin’ and I can feel my ears burnin’ and that thumpin’ again. “How ya goin’?” It’s the security guy with a weak little smile on his puss. And more words but it’s not what he’s sayin’. What the fuck is he sayin’? And I want to scream so fuckin’ loud and punch his fuckin’ prissy face, cut his cock off, and shove it up his arse, but there’s so much fuckin’ light in here. I can feel it like sunshine and I say “Fine, thanks,” and it comes out like it isn’t me and I suddenly don’t know where I am. This skinny guy is handin’ me some money. “Here’s your change.” I look at it. I take it. “Don’t forget your stuff.” What? I take the bag and head for the street. I can feel security followin’ me. What did I do? What did I say? The world’s a mess and I have to side-step a man with a broom. “Fuck off!” I yell at him.

I get home and walk inside. Nothin’ but stink. And mess. No sound. I put the grocery bag on the table. It takes me five goes to find the toaster. I want to do this for me mum. I plug it in. I’m gonna make me mum some spaghetti on toast.  I can’t find a pot so I use a fryin’ pan. It’s got stuff stuck to it but there’s no washing stuff so, fuck it. I ring-pull the spaghetti and tip the sloppy stuff in the pan. I turn on the gas. I put two slices of bread in the toaster and push the level. Bang! There’s a flash, sparks, and I nearly shit myself. Fuck! Is that supposed to happen? I push the lever again. Nothin’. Again. Nothin’. Again. Nothin’. My jaw aches. Again. Nothin’! I yank the toaster from its socket and throw it into the lounge room. It hits the floor and a shower of crumbs flies up like a bomb’s gone off. I have to keep doin’ somethin’ or I’ll explode. A cup of tea. I’ll make me mum a cup of tea. Yeah. I search through the cupboards. Nothing but shit and stuff. Stuff and shit. Where’s the fuckin’ tea bags? I smell smoke or somethin’ and I turn to see the spaghetti burning in the pan. I grab it and throw the whole fuckin’ lot in the sink with all the other shit. I stand there with my mouth shut tight, tryin’ to steady my breathing. The thump-thump-thumping is deafening. I want to scream but me mum’s still asleep.

And then I remember. And the thought is like sunshine, like a birthday present. It could be happiness, even. The thumping stops and I suddenly want to laugh. The burger! I’ve got a burger in the fridge. Me mum’s burger. It’s there. Just there in the fridge. Me mum was right. I thought about the future, I’ve got this burger and now everything’s OK. This new feeling is strange, but kryst, it feels good. I’ll take her a nice burger. I get it out, un-wrap it, and find a clean plate, well sort of. I put the burger on the plate and take it into me mum. She’s still asleep. I get a little closer and I reach down to wake her like I always do. There’s vomit on her check and I can smell a different stink. What is that? I touch her shoulder and it’s like touching the toaster. Is this dead? I stand there. Me mum’s dead. I hear myself saying it. Me mum’s dead. I don’t know what to do. It’s like she’s been turned off, or something. What am I supposed to do? Dunno. I eat her burger.

Us by David Nicholls

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British novelist and screenwriter, David Nicholls.

I love this book. It’s rare to find a laugh-out-loud read these days, but this is one of them. It’s a first person narrative of Douglas Petersen, a bio-chemist, and a man who always just seems to miss out on being, cool, mainly because he just doesn’t know what cool is; he doesn’t get most things. That’s certainly what his son, Albie, would say although he probably wouldn’t be so kind. The third component of Us (2014) is Douglas’s wife Connie. She’s an artist and an ex-hippie and is definitely cool. She wakes him up one morning and tells him that she might want to leave him. They embark on a (possible) remedy: a Grand Tour of Europe, and drag a reluctant Albie along with them. This is the Us. This trio. However there is another narrative interspersed with the Grand Tour: how Douglas and Connie got together in the first place; and many more incidents of their life together. You get to know these three very well. It’s really a portrait of a marriage.

It’s divided into many small chapters, 180 in all, which in itself, propels the reading along; ‘I’ll just read the next chapter before I walk the dog’; ‘I’ll read this short one before I start dinner’; ‘Just one more, it’s short, before my afternoon jog.’ And why do you want to do this? Because you love Douglas. He’s a gem and he talks to you as if you’ve known him since kindergarten. Us became my very early morning read when a trip to the loo erased all efforts to go back to sleep. But, so I didn’t wake the sleeping one, I tried to curtail my laugh-out-loud to something like, laugh-in-loud, but stifling a laugh-out-loud made my body behave like a trampoline-in-use and the mattress was forced, of course, to follow suit, so allowing the sleeping one to sleep didn’t work. I was banned from reading Us in bed. But that’s OK; you can get through a short chapter while waiting for the jug to boil, during a TV channel promo, even while stirring the custard.

The key to the humour is Douglas himself. He doesn’t quite know what to say when staring at a painting (I like that blue bit.); he feels inadequate to say what he likes about a piece of music (It’s loud, isn’t it?); and contemporary dance (Do they have to throw themselves against a wall?); and books (Erotic realism? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?); and food (flaccid courgettes in a green-grey water sauce made from water.).

David Nicholls also has several screenwriting credits including Tess of the D’Urbervilles‘ for the BBC in 2008,  Far from the Madding Crowd in 2015, and he wrote Patrick Melrose (2018), the television series based on the novels by Edward St Aubyn. He has penned several movies including the adaptations of his novels, Starter for Ten, and One Day. He also trained as an actor at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama but never quite made it in that field because, as he admitted, he wasn’t very good at the basic stuff, like standing still and moving from A to B. However he must have picked up some performance skills since his appearance at the recent North Cornwall Writer’s Festival had the audience in stitches as he read from his latest book, Sweet Sorrow, a passage devoted to the pitfalls of first-time kissing.

Us is currently being filmed in various location in Europe for the BBC. It stars Tom Hollander and Saskia Reeves with a script by Nicholls. However, a release date has yet to bee announced.

He’s a busy man and novel writing has to be squeezed in between big budget movies and television drams; he’s written five novels, so, for me, four to go.

You can watch an interview with David Nicholls about this book, Us, here.

You can buy the ebook, or other formats, here where you can also ‘look inside’ before you buy.

Unfettered and Alive: a memoir by Anne Summers

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Anne Summers: journalist, feminist, and writer. “If we constantly rewrite history to fit how we see things now, we forget how things used to be and, equally important to future scholars, how we used to see them.”

Anne Summers and her publishers have produced a handsome book, and it begins, unusually, with a letter to her thirty-year-old self: Dear Anne, and so, consequently, it’s written in the second person; and it sets the beginning as at that time, when she was thirty, and summarises what went before which was told in her first autobiographical work, Ducks on the Pond 1945-1976 (1999).  So this, a re-cap, is a neat and imaginative way to catch you up, especially if you haven’t read the earlier work; which is, by the way, now only available on Amazon US at $115.64 for the second-hand hardcover, which is cheaper than the $191.89 for a second hand paperback! However, if you can’t find a copy anywhere else, here’s the link.

For someone who, from an early age, felt profoundly at odds with what the Adelaide world of her Catholic childhood promised her: an identity based on a man and the success, or otherwise, of their children and a future slowly fading into cranky old age and invisibility, she has stubbornly and courageously shunned all of that and forged her own path that has turned out to be something like an open-ended roller-coaster. It’s a crackling tale: ecstatic highs and scary lows; and all along the way the reader gets an insight into the characters she engaged with and the history we all lived through, all in a chatty and self-effacing tone that has you barracking for her as she strides around yet another corner into the unknown, including South Africa, the badlands of western Pakistan – without a hijab, and later as Chair of Greenpeace International which took her, well, everywhere.

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Anne Summers at the National Press Club during the 1980 CHOGM meeting in Australia directing a question at British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. photo: Allan & Unwin

The personal is also covered. Her uneasy relationship with her parents, especially her father; the painful rediscovery of her paternal grandfather; there’s treachery and betrayal from colleagues and friends; a health scare; and finally meeting the love of her life, and that started in the photo-copy room! He’d been around all along!

The political years of this chronicle cover Fraser, Hawke, Keating, Howard, and Rudd/Gillard/Rudd: a turbulent, often frustrating – for us, I mean – but never a boring time in Australian politics. Of special note is her calling out the appalling misogyny Prime Minister Gillard received at the hands of the shock jocks, political opponents, and a particular, but faded, cartoonist. Her insights and insider status make fascinating reading as seen from her media perspective (her attitude to Keating changed; her attitude to Howard didn’t); and then in the middle of all that her successful empire building (and spectacular fall!) at the top of the media tree in New York “…if I can make it there, I’ll make it …..” you know how it goes! Well, she did and then, almost immediately, she didn’t!

But when down, or idle – something she hates – an opportunity passes her window or, more usually, she creates one, and so grabs it with both hands and she’s off again!

Running through all of this, is her strong advocacy for the rights of women; their professional fulfilment, all their wishes, needs, and ideas taken seriously, and the universal understanding that they make mistakes but deserve to, and be allowed to, try again. What a rich, informative, and fulfilling read this is.

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2011 Australia Day postage stamp featuring Dr Anne Summers AO.

I’ve known Anne for a few decades usually meeting with mutual friends over a sumptuous meal and a bottle of good red wine or three but I wasn’t prepared for the breadth and depth of her worldly participation nor her personal honesty.

I find scheduling reading time a sign of a good book; but you’ll also need to schedule a breather now and then. Don’t read this in bed. You’ll never get to sleep.

You can find the book here, and the kindle version here. For Indonesian readers you can find the book here.

Be very careful when Googling Anne; you’ll undoubtedly get the English Ann Summers (Ann, no ‘e’) who is a designer and marketer of raunchy women’s underwear.

 

 

The World Broke in Two by Bill Goldstein

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American academic, Bill Goldstein is the founding editor of the books site of The New York Times on the Web, reviews books and interviews authors for NBC’s “Weekend Today in New York.” He is also curator of public programs at Roosevelt House, the public policy institute of New York’s Hunter College.

Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster, and the year that changed literature.

In January 1922 Adeline Woolf, everyone called her Virginia, turned 40 and was very sick with influenza that prevented her from writing; T. S. Eliot, everyone called him Tom, 34, had been over worked, unhappy, in therapy, but now quietly confident since he had started writing again but fearful of returning to the Bank that trapped him between the concrete and the sky; E. M. Forster, called Morgan, 43, was sexually and artistically frustrated; and D. H. Lawrence, called Bert, 36, had the threat of his books being banned  (Women in Love, 1921, ” … ugly, repellent, vile”), and a libel suit against him so wanted to know “For where was life to be found” and thought by going to a quiet place by himself he might find it: Ceylon, New Mexico, or New South Wales.

All four had achieved some degree of literary fame: Woolf had published two novels and the third, Jacob’s Room, was waiting for her final revisions, however her illness kept her away from her work. Eliot had published successfully The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock in Poetry magazine in 1915 and had been a regular contributor of reviews and essays, primarily for The Times Literary Supplement right up to December 1921. Forster had achieved great success with a series of novels, usually about the English abroad, beginning with Where Angels Fear to Tread in 1905 but by 1922 nothing had appeared after the very successful Howard’s End in 1910. Lawrence was more infamous than famous and had had Women in Love published in June 1921. It garnered bad reviews, and low sales. This added to the outrage caused by its prequel, The Rainbow, 1915, when it was withdrawn by the publisher after it was banned under the Obscene Publications Act. Lawrence had also characterised in the latter work, an acquaintance, Philip Heseltine, and thought he had disguised him enough, but Heseltine was not fooled and threatened legal action.

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Adeline Virginia Woolf 1882 – 1941

For all four writers 1922 did not begin well.

Artistic endeavour is always trying to solve the problems of the art form itself. How does a writer write an autobiography and make it interesting without using the boring phrases, “Then I went …. she cried and so I said …., Then I said, and he went ….”? Novelists for centuries have been using description and dialogue to draw a character; but in an autobiography how do you create an image of the narrator? There must be another way. Yes, there is, and one of the first writers to find another way was James Joyce who began his autobiographical novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) like this

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.

First of all he writes not in the first person, but in the third (very radical, this is an autobiography, remember) and the above opening is not dialogue, it is prose; it’s not said by the protagonist but by the narrator using the language that the little boy, James, might use to describe what he sees and what he sees is himself! It’s as if the third person narrator is not some all-pervasive, god-like know-it-all but an imp sitting on the shoulder of the little boy seeing the world through his eyes and hearing the thoughts in his head. This literary device has become known as free indirect discourse, or as the literary critic of The New Yorker, James Wood, calls it, ‘close writing’; and it’s as common today in contemporary fiction as Vegemite is for an Australian breakfast. But it can’t be used in the first person. Or can it? Now, there’s a challenge for an adventurous writer!

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Edward Morgan Forster 1879 – 1970

Painters  sought to bypass the ‘real’ bit in order to paint, say, serenity, by trying to paint serenity with just the paint on the canvas, not trying to be something else, a face, a landscape, to ‘portray’ serenity. In other words, they painted not what they saw but what they felt. Writer’s similarly de-focused the ‘real’ bit and concentrated on, not what the characters did – the plot – but what the characters felt and thought. The plot became internalised.

Before January 1922 was over Eliot and Lawrence had succumbed to the influenza that brought Woolf so low and was rapidly becoming an epidemic to rival the devastating outbreak of 1918-19 that killed more people than the Great War. At least for Eliot the influenza kept him away from the bank and, despite the disease, hard at work on his long poem. His ill wife, also being absent, was yet another and usual worry out of the way.

On his way back to London from the unsuccessful trip to India Forster bought and read Proust’s first volume, Swann’s Way in French. He was “awestruck” and marveled at Proust’s use of memory to drive the narrative. Later in the year as the weather warmed he used Proustian ideas, and a poem by J. R. Ackerley, Ghosts, to impinge on him the truth that there is life after tragedy. His tragedy was the slow death of his unrequited lover in Egypt, whose death he almost wished would be sooner than later, as he was slowly re-reading the abandoned pages of his Indian novel, making notes and yearning for his tragedy to be behind him.

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Thomas Stearns Eliot 1888 – 1965

Woolf, with her illness almost past, read Proust too, in the spring while working on an essay about reading and dabbling with a minor character from her first novel, The Voyage Out, Clarissa Dallaway, weaving her into a short story called Mrs Dallaway in Bond Street.  Woolf too was enthralled with Proust’s use of memory to evoke the current state of mind of a character. In the opening scene of the short story, which eventually evolved into the novel Mrs Dallaway, Woolf has Clarissa arrested by the chiming of Big Ben which announces the convergence of the past and present, not only in the character’s mind but also on the page. Very Proustian! Clarissa Dallaway in Woolf’s first novel is described by the narrator but Woolf was determined in this one, this modern one, to have Clarissa think everything the reader needs to know about her. As Woolf wrote later to a friend, she didn’t mind being sick as “Proust’s fat volume comes in very handy.” Woolf, who wrote that she wanted to write like Proust, didn’t of course, but it was because of him that she began to write like herself again.

Joyce, for her, was different. Woolf and Joyce were both British, they were both the same age, and Joyce in 1922 had “a novel out in the world, a massive – expensive – box of a book”, Ulysses, and Woolf had not published a novel in two and a half years. She was jealous. Besides, Ulysses didn’t impress her. She thought it was “underbred” by a “self-taught working man.” What she failed to realise was that Joyce had a degree, she didn’t; it was she, not him, who was self taught.

Lawrence left England in early 1922 for Ceylon, but found it unsatisfactory, then Perth, Western Australia, very unsatisfactory, then Thirroul, south of Sydney, where he transferred his thinking back to what he called his ‘interim’ books, short stories and journalism. Could he write a novel like those, in a month, or less, using nothing but what he had around him, namely Frieda and himself, and what he thought and felt? He decided to give it a go and the novel Kangaroo was born, but this too stalled. It was the third novel in a row that got ‘stuck’. However, without the help of Proust, Lawrence turned to memory, and chapter 12, the longest in the book and the only one not set in Australia, describes the fear he and Frieda experienced at the outbreak of World War I (she was German and had abandoned her first husband and children; he was excluded from service because of his frail body). Lawrence had instilled in his protagonist, Richard Somers, a ‘fear’, exemplified by the vastness of the Australian continent, and it was Lawrence’s explanation of this fear, via his personal experience, his memory, that ‘unstuck’ his progress, and he got the thing finished.

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David Herbert Lawrence 1885 – 1930

T. S. Eliot finally saw his long poem, The Waste Land, the poem that had battled with his job, his contemporaries, his wife, his past, and his health, finally published. Goldstein spends a lot of time, too much you may think, on the procrastination, arguments, letters, late replies, betrayals, that stall the publication; and all concerning people, publishers, agents, friends, supporters, who want it published.

For a year that started badly for all of them, 1922 ended like a new dawn: Virginia Woolf had a new novel, Mrs Dallaway; E. M. Forster was well on his way with his Indian novel, the one that had caused him so much anguish, A Passage To India, (1924), and would become his most celebrated; D. H. Lawrence had written a new novel, very different from his previous works, no sex, but had also been vindicated by the courts: The Rainbow and Women in Love were judged not obscene, although some passages were, but the press-obsessed trials led to a resurgence of sales and interest in his work; and T. S. Eliot finally saw his long poem in print, and received the accolades he thought it deserved.

For readers who are interested in literature and its history this book is a must-read. Goldstein has sculptured a surprising and complex narrative, esoteric and detailed, yes, but intriguing, stimulating, and fascinating.

In the year 1922 these four writers, for various reasons, had already been chipping away, with varying intensities, at a ‘crack’ in the English literary world, hoping their artistic challenges and vaguely-inspired experiments would lead them in a new and exciting direction. Then came the thundering blows of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past and Joyce’s Ulysses which, along with The Waste Land, caused the ‘break’ and English literature did indeed cleave in two and took off in a new direction. However, the ‘piece’ that remained behind kept the majority of readers with it and it was those readers who demanded, and got, a whole array of plot-based genres, the names of which you can see topping a multitude of racks of books in any sizable book shop today; and over there in the corner of the shop topping a not insubstantial, but nevertheless alone, book-stack is another sign: literary fiction.

You can find the book in various formats here.

Don’t be Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Virginia Woolf, 1902

Virginia Woolf, 1902

In London on 7 February 1910 a telegram was received from Sir Charles Hardinge, the Permanent Under-Secretary of Foreign Affairs, by the Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet and the captain of the H.M.S. Dreadnought, the flagship of the British navy, then lying off Portland, Dorset. It informed him that Prince Makalin of Abyssinia and his party were arriving in the afternoon and were to receive every attention. When they arrived by private train carriage they were received with an honour guard and taken ceremoniously on board. The chatter of the dusky-skinned entourage was completely unintelligible although one of the party, Prince Mendax, wearing a sky-blue silk robe, beard, jewels and a turban, constantly murmured “Bunga bunga” which their interpreter explained was Abyssinian for “Isn’t it lovely?” They refused all refreshments which the interpreter again explained was due to their religious beliefs as they could not be served food or drink with the naked hand. Gloves were not available.

A few days later the officers and crew of the Dreadnought were amazed and dismayed to learn, via the Daily Mirror, that it was all a monumental practical joke and the Royal navy was pilloried and laughed at for weeks in the national press and at every dinner table in the land. It has become known as the Dreadnought Hoax and was reported all over the world.

One of the hoaxers, Prince “Bunga Bunga” Mendex, was, in reality, a young girl who was quoted as saying “I found I could laugh like a man easily enough but it was difficult to disguise the speaking voice. As a matter of fact the only really trying time I had was when I had to shake hands with my first cousin, who is an officer on the Dreadnought, and who saluted me as I went on deck. I thought I should burst out laughing, but, happily I managed to preserve my Oriental stolidity of countenance.”

This young lady was the 28 year old Miss Adeline Stephen, who two years later married and became Mrs Woolf. We know her better as Virginia.

The Dreadnought hoaxers. Virginia Woolf far left. 1910

The Dreadnought hoaxers, 1910. Virginia Woolf, far left.

Apart from being a practical joker, Virginia Woolf was a very beautiful woman. This is certainly not how we think of her today but all the people who wrote about her, and there were many, used adjectives, especially those that knew her well, like, beautiful, mischievous, intelligent, talkative, and inquisitive. She would say things like, “You said you went for a walk, but what made you go for a walk?” When out walking herself with a friend she would see a farmer tossing hay and say, “Look at that farmer pitching hay. What do you think he had for breakfast?” It was this inquisitiveness that made her attend to everything you said to her; and attend with real interest. When you talked to Virginia you always felt that you were intently listened to, and, once literary fame came into the picture, you didn’t even mind that she was mining you for information, words and reasons for human behaviour; in fact, you were flattered that such a famous and beautiful woman was hanging on your every word; gazing into your eyes and eagerly waiting for your next pronouncement. Of course under such scrutiny, if you simply said ‘I don’t know’ you could be sure that she would lose interest immediately and seek someone else’s company. She had a habit of forcing you to search your brain for the right words, because nothing less than the right words were always expected.

She was tall, with a thin face, slender hands and always wore shapeless clothes of indeterminate colours: fashion was of no concern to her.

She was born Adeline Virginia Stephen in 1882 but almost immediately was called Virginia despite the confusion of initials with her elder sister, Vanessa. She came from a good family of landowners and was well but home educated. She was the third child of her father’s second wife and an incident with her half-brother, George Duckworth, was to have a profound effect on her.

“I still shiver with shame,” she wrote many years after the incident, “at the memory of my half brother standing me on a ledge, aged about six or so, exploring my private parts.” Then, many years later, when her father lay dying from cancer three floors below, George would fling himself on her bed, kissing and hugging her, aged in her early 20s, “to console her”, he later said. Quentin Bell, her biographer and nephew, would write, “in sexual matters she was from this time terrified back into a posture of frozen and defensive panic.”  She briefly considered accepting Lytton Strachey’s proposal of marriage knowing that he was homosexual so she thought a simple brother-sister sort of marriage may be preferable to one that included the ‘horror of sex’. She wanted to be married, since being a spinster was considered a failure and finally accepted the proposal of Leonard Woolf and they were married on August 10 1912 after an engagement that, her sister wrote, was “an exhausting and bewildering thing even to the bystanders.” Virginia said to him “I feel no physical attraction to you, … and yet your caring for me as you do almost overwhelms me. It is so real and so strange.” They were planning a honeymoon in Iceland (how metaphoric) but settled for a Mediterranean one instead. Michael Holroyd wrote,

“There seemed some unfathomable inhibition that made male last, even when compounded with love, if not horrific, quite incomprehensible to her. The physical act of intercourse was not even funny: it was cold. Leonard regretfully accepted the facts and soon brought the word in line with the deed by persuading her that they should not have children. It was a sensible decision for, though she could never contemplate her sister’s fruitfulness without envy, children with their wetness and noise would surely have killed off the novels in her: and it was novel-writing that she cared for most.”

Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf, The Hours, 2002

Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf in The Hours, 2002.

In 2002 the film The Hours was released with much fanfare and a stellar cast. It was written by David Hare and based on the Michael Cunningham Pulitzer Prize winning book of the same name, which in turn used Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway (1925) as the core of the film about, not only Virginia Woolf and the writing of the book, but also its effect on two women. one in the 1950s and one in the 1980s. Readers can find Mrs Dalloway curious, annoying and tedious but when you read you must not let the words wash over you as one lets light from a fire without looking into the flames; into the beauty at its core.

Her novel of 1928, Orlando, is dedicated to Vita Sackville-West, Woolf’s friend, neighbour and sometime lover and tells the story, over a period of 300 years, of the romantic adventures of a man called Orlando, who suddenly, miraculously, half way through the book becomes a woman. This is revealed in the film version, starring Tilda Swinton, as Orlando with his long, straight, reddish blond hair gazes at himself standing naked in front of a full length mirror and seeing the reflection of a long, straight, reddish blond haired naked woman staring back saying, “Same person, different body.”

Vita Sackville West

Vita Sackville-West, the inspiration for Orlando (1928).

Virginia confessed her affair with Vita to her sister Vanessa and in a letter to Vita describes the moment.
“I told Nessa the story of our passion in a chemist’s shop the other day. ‘But do you really like going to bed with women’ she said – taking her change. ‘And how’d you do it?’ and so she bought her pills to take abroad, talking as loud as a parrot.”

Uncharacteristically a lot happens in Orlando but it’s not plot that interests Virginia Woolf ( “facts are a very inferior form of fiction”) but the feelings, nuanced emotions that precede the action, or arise because of it; she was more interested in, not the ‘What’, but the ‘Why’, and, more importantly, how one                                                would describe that ‘Why’.

Leonard and Virginnia Woolf photographed by Vita Sackville-West, 1926

Leonard and Virginia Woolf photographed by Vita Sackville-West.

Nowhere is this more evident than in her novel (most call it her masterpiece) To the Lighthouse (1927). The very title is full of expectation and when the possibility is revealed to little six year old James he is transfixed, incapacitated with the joy of it. This is the opening, including the title which is really part of the first sentence.

“To the Lighthouse
“Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,” said Mrs Ramsay. “But you’ll have to be up with the lark,” she added.
To her son these words conveyed an extraordinary joy, as if it were settled, the expedition were bound to take place, and the wonder to which he had looked forward, for years and years it seemed, was, after a night’s darkness and a day’s sail, within touch. Since he belonged, even at the age of six, to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, with their joys and sorrows, cloud what is actually at hand, since to such people even in earliest childhood any turn in the wheel of sensation has the power to crystallise and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests, James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy stores, endowed the picture of a refrigerator, as his mother spoke, with heavenly bliss. It was fringed with joy.”

And what is illustrative, most of all, of her genius, and her deep and all-consuming curiosity of human intention and behaviour, and her determination to create art, is that by the last page the lighthouse itself disappears into a mist and we, the readers, along with the remaining onlookers in the house, can only assume that they have arrived.

Leonardo de Vinci fought tooth and nail to acquire a particular block of marble, also much coveted by, his rival, Michelangelo because he knew that inside there was a statue of David and all he had to do was chip away the extraneous rock to reveal the body within. If Virginia Woolf were present it would be the act of chipping the marble and the chips of marble lying on the floor that would attract her interest and not the finished, polished figure.

Janet Vaughan (a medical scientist and friend) had this to say about Virginia Woolf and ‘genius’.
“Well, it’s a sixth sense. It’s somebody who jumps a gap which other people would need a very, very solid bridge to walk across. She didn’t do it as a scientist might, she did it by interpreting what she saw and what people might be thinking and how they interacted with one another. But she had this quality of jumping gaps.”

And similarly Vita Sackville-West describes it thus: “I always thought her genius led her by short cuts to some essential point which everybody else had missed. She did not walk there: she sprang.”

But it’s the adjectives ‘mischievous, witty, warm and humorous’ that are most intriguing. She loved to tease and teased most those she was most fond of; and those teased seemed to love it and certainly were not offended by it since the teasing was done with such warmth.

In the early 20s Virginia Woolf used the name of writer Berta Ruck (albeit mis-spelt) on a minor character, and a subsequent tombstone, in her novel Jacob’s Room (1920). Angus Davidson, friend, literary critic, and manager for a time of their publishing house, The Hogarth Press, said this was done unwittingly. This is hard to believe as the name Berta Ruck is quite distinctive and her name and the names of her novels were emblazoned on the tops of London buses. However Ms Ruck was a writer of a very different genre than Virginia’s. She wrote romantic stories and almost seventy novels (Khaki and KissesLove on Second Thoughts, etc) where beautiful young women were treated dismissively by fathers, brothers and men in general but who fell in love with one of them and lived happily ever after. One can imagine Virginia Woolf thinking this scenario extremely unlikely and with a name like Berta Ruck, and the married name of Mrs Onions, perfectly ripe for mischief. Ms Ruck, however, did not see the humour in the incident and with urgings from her indignant husband, wrote to Woolf in sorrow and indignation threatening legal action. Virginia wrote back rather sarcastically, “I am more pleased than I can say that you survived my burial. Never will I attempt such a thing again. To think that you have bought my book.” It took Ms Ruck eight years to discover the slight so Woolf could hardly have taken her seriously. However they ‘made up’ via correspondence and almost a year later Ms Ruck got her own back by becoming the success at a party, attended by Virginia, by singing a very risqué song, “Never Allow a Sailor an Inch Above Your Knee.” Virginia was reported as being “filled with amazement and delight.” All animosity was forgiven.

Unfortunately, the memory of her is clouded by her diaries which record her mental suffering and her depression even though her husband, and editor, went to great pains to explain; “…diaries give a distorted and one-sided view of the writer, because, as Virginia Woolf herself remarks, one gets into the habit of recording one particular kind of mood – irritation or misery say – and of not writing one’s diary when one is feeling the opposite. The portrait in therefore from the start unbalanced.”

Her bouts of illness sprung from the effort of writing, and in particular the exhaustion from finishing a particular work. Her headaches would begin and if left unchecked, she would lose coherence of speech, and her brain would race with images and noises (birds crying out in Greek) and delusions (King Edward VII, among the azaleas, swearing in the most foulest language). Complete rest and quiet would eventually restore her normal life but her recovery would be ridden with doubt and worry about the worth of her just-completed work. Praise and encouragement were oxygen to her.  So eventually with Leonard’s care and concern, her own courage, immense courage, she would roll up her sleeves and begin to write again, knowing that creation was hard, completion fearful, and a bout of madness inevitable.

Portrait of Virginia Woolf, 1939 by Gisele Freund.

Portrait of Virginia Woolf, 1939, by Gisele Freund, two years before her death.

And then this: her final piece of writing; a short letter to her husband, written on the day she died.

Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that — everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.

She then put on a hat, a coat, grabbed a walking stick and headed to the river. There she put down her stick, took off her hat, put rocks in her pockets and disappeared into the water. When Leonard found the letter, he, along with the house keeper, Mrs Meyer, searched the house, the grounds, and the surrounding countryside and when they found her stick and hat assumed the worst. Three weeks later her gruesome body was found by children as it bumped against the bank of the river many miles downstream. She was 59.

Remember Virginia Woolf as a beautiful and intelligent woman, a prankster, a great and innovative writer, the creator of the outrageous Orlando, and the cheeky biographer of Flush, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s little cocker spaniel; she was a curious and inquisitive human being, a tease, a lover, and a writer who launched modernism on the literary world. And remember that when her little nephews, nieces, and their friends were preparing for a party who was number one on their invitation list?

“V-i-r-g-i-n-i-a!” they would shriek with delight, because Aunt Virginia always made them laugh. Virginia Woolf, 1927

 

 

Virginia Woolf, 1927, aged 45, the year To the Lighthouse was published. 

 

 

I Saw a Woman Walking in the City

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I Saw a Woman Walking in the City

Paris Review Interviewer to Truman Capote, Issue 16,1959:

“You recently published a book about the Porgy and Bess trip to Russia. One of the most interesting things about the style was its unusual detachment, …”

What would a detached narrator sound like?

She came out of the house with some definite purpose in mind. I knew it was Sondra because of the way she walked: like walking on too-far-apart paving stones, striding. It was a warm day, peaceful, with a sky the colour of blue-milk. A little breeze that seemed to say “See, I knew I could make it better.”

She seemed to be looking for something in the garden; or looking for a place to put something. Meanwhile I was looking for Billy. I was sure he was seeing Millie behind my back. He was my age, twelve, but still a baby in the way he sulked, inveigled, and pouted, but under my gaze he was under my power. I knew this. It felt good but it didn’t feel nice. I liked that. Sondra knew this about me and thought it scary. I thought she was a bitch. She liked being nice; I liked being feared.

###

I saw a woman walking in the city.

She walked with purpose,

with a face like intention.

Most other pedestrians were walking in the opposite direction,

against her, but making room, so focused was she,

and faster too; even those in front,

walking her way, swerved as they felt her striding down on their backs,

like radar.

 

I saw a youngster walking in the city

who saw the woman too and followed with intention.

Craved such purpose, such instruction, such rights

that if all the youth in the city followed suit

and made their goals her goal, their lives, her life, then

no matter what roots, what seeds, what route,

all would be well and content and precise,

even men.

###

So, there it is. A line in a magazine. A thought. A process. A piece of prose that didn’t work. Another piece of prose that didn’t work but turned into verse that did. A poem.

The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs by Damon Galgut

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The South African writer, Damon Galgut

Don’t worry if you are woefully unread in South African literature, so is the South African writer Damon Galgut.

“Local writers are trying to escape a rigid set of moral gestures, if I can put it like that, which have imposed repetition upon us. Perhaps cliché is nothing more than the weight of the past pinning down your mind. In this sense, imaginative freedom is a way of finding the future, though it isn’t so easy to do.”

In other words, Galgut is looking out from South Africa not looking at it. However, there is a tone to his work that can easily be linked to his country, his continent: a tone that is built on the black and the white, the long distances, the heat, the poverty, the seemingly political ineptitude and the sense of people struggling to live a life they want but never seem to get. Most, but not all, of his male protagonists are slight in stature, indecisive, confused, loners with an ambiguous sexuality. Patrick Winter, the first-person narrator in Galgut’s 1991 novel, The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs is one such protagonist. He is also mentally fragile since his compulsory two-year stint in the military where he became not only horrified by death and boredom but he attained a sense of hatred and terror at things like the insistent regularity of bathroom tiles and the rigid diagonals of sunlight. He takes Valium twice a day.

He travels to Namibia by car with his mother to see her black boyfriend who is politically activated in the first free elections in Namibia, formally South West Africa, where Patrick did his mandatory South African national service one year earlier and, now on this trip, he constantly wonders if the locals he meets may have been the same people that he shot at; that shot at him. It’s a story about a child and his mother; she, extroverted, thrives to belong “but her glamorous strivings were hollow’’; he, introverted, convoluted, his “patterns ran inward, spiralling endlessly towards a centre that didn’t exist.” They, tragically for both of them, belong together.

This book fell out of print but it was Galgut’s shortlisting for the 2008 Man-Booker prize with his novel The Good Doctor (2003), and subsequent fame, that gave him the opportunity to refine the text for the inevitable re-print. He was never quite satisfied with the original text: ‘discordant’ he called it.

“I woke to the sound of a pig being killed. I sat up rigidly in bed, not moving till the noise suddenly stopped. Then I got up and dressed and went outside. I had forgotten this about the farm. Its calendar runs on slaughter.”

This is typical of Galgut’s prose: stark statement of fact, short clear sentences without any mention of what the narrator feels; but the arrangement of such words, sentences, creates its own feeling, supplied significantly by the reader. Galgut draws the scene, we colour it in.

I once heard an ordinary female tourist talk about the end of her wonderful and surprising holiday on a foreign isle and her inevitable return: “Home I go,” she said, “to crawl back under my rock.” For all Patrick and his mother’s yearnings and plans this is what will happen.

“I sat down on a swing and rocked myself to and fro. In a little while, I knew, I would walk back up the road to the hotel, and we would pack our bags and go, and our usual lives would resume.”

The promise of travel and the lure of a foreign place is rarely fulfilled, it takes courage to stay out from under that rock; and Galgut by writing about this makes us aware just how rare and courageous it is.

You can find this book here.

The Madness of Art

 

Author, Author by David Lodge

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British Writer, David Lodge

When the Irish writer, Colm Tóibín, was working on his (masterpiece?) The Master (2004), about the American-English writer Henry James, he visited Lamb House, HJ’s East Sussex home in the town of Rye, and met 3 other writers all doing exactly what he was doing: researching HJ. There has been a resurgence in interest in Henry James usually considered an obtuse fiction writer but a recognition that his most alluring characteristic is that he was, like most literary greats, a writer like no other. The English writer, David Lodge, also produced a book on HJ in 2004 which seemed to have sunk from view since Tóibín’s effort was so successful: it was shortlisted for the Booker-Man Prize in 2004. Lodge’s story focuses on the same events, and in particular James’s unsuccessful foray into the theatre, as Tóibín’s, but it is a very different novel.

Lodges’s story is more old-fashioned in the sense that he puts HJ in the midst of his history setting up a life of work, friendships, and his exhausting social life, into which then Lodge plunges the unsuspecting, and dare I say it, theatrically naive writer to surround the reader with an understanding of the great cataclysm that befell HJ  and his subsequent inability to come to terms with what had happened: failure.

 It is not enough that one succeeds – others must fail.

However, Lodge has a more nuanced ambition: the juxtaposition of a literary figure and his sense of his own talent against the success of his peers, and in HJ’s terms, his inferiors. James had a contemptuous attitude towards his contemporary, Oscar Wilde, whose unprecedented theatrical success was a claw in his side, made more painful by the success of An Ideal Husband, an early performance James attended on the opening night of his own fateful play Guy Domville. He hurried from the thunderous and appreciative applause of Wilde’s audience to the jeering ‘gods’ of his own. HJ was deeply humiliated by the audience’s reaction to his play. Guy Domville only lasted three weeks and was, ironicly,  replaced by Wilde’s even-bigger success, The Importance of Being Earnest. Wilde’s subsequent fall, social disgrace, trial for sodomy, and imprisonment were his just desserts in James’s mind even if they were, not for low-brow literary frippery, but for ‘outrageous and disgraceful conduct’; James’s own sexual proclivities were always buried deep and, it is surmised, never allowed expression. However it was the popular successes of his good friends, George Du Maurier and Constance Fenimore Woolson  that really contrasted HJ’s failure and showed his idea of friendship to be constantly compromised.

It was Wilde who quipped

Anyone can sympathise with a friend’s success, but it takes a truly exceptional nature to rejoice in a friend’s failure;

which he topped a little time later with,

It is not enough that one succeeds – others must fail.

Gore Vidal, that Wilde-ish American, rephrased it in the late twentieth century as

Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something inside me dies.

HJ’s close friend, George Du Maurier, was famous as an illustrator for Punch magazine and only turned to writing a novel, Trilby, because of failing eyesight: he dictated the text to his wife. Trilby was, by today’s jargon, a blockbuster, on both sides of the Atlantic, in print and on stage; a level of success that Du Maurier never quite understood. Neither did HJ. The Trilby hat, the phrase ‘in the altogether’ and the name ‘Svengali’ are all due to George Du Maurier, who is now forgotten; his name only lives on in that of his grand-daughter, the novelist Daphne Du Maurier (1907 – 1989), author of Rebecca and Don’t Look Now.

henry-james-at-his-desk-1900
Henry James at his desk, 1900. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize three times.

Henry James had many female friends but his closest was Constance Fenimore Woolson (grand-niece of James Fenimore Cooper). She, as did Du Maurier, considered HJ as a writer of the highest order and was always self-deprecating about her own short stories and novels which sold much better than HJ’s; he agreed with her but never said so. He was always haunted by her suicide – she fell from her apartment window in Venice to the payment below – in the fear that it had something to do with her un-reciprocated love for him.

In both Tóibín’s and Lodge’s accounts the failure, and in particular the doomed opening night, of Guy Domville is the focus, although Tóibín places it near the beginning, while Lodge puts it near the end. Both also are deeply interested in HJ’s recovery and his return to prose-writing. However Lodge’s structure of the event wrings every bit of drama there is. He alternates the thoughts and utterances of the audience members– HJ’s friends and allies – on the opening night with James’s actions and thoughts as he dresses and prepares for the evening, sits through a performance of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, – which he hates and thinks is crass and silly, and then hurries to St James Theatre to be on hand, if required, for the curtain-call. It’s a very effective use of dramatic irony – the reader knows what the protagonist doesn’t – and when George Alexander, having just taken his own curtain call, beckons the unsuspecting James onto the stage, HJ assumes it has all gone well (readers mentally yell, ‘No, James! No!’); but when his presence in the spot-light elicits a volley of abuse from the cheap-seats he is confused and to make matters worse bows not once but twice causing the rabble to ramp-up the volume of their displeasure. The already humiliating moment is compounded by Alexander who then makes a fawning and apologetic speech about him promising ‘to do better, next time.’ Despite mixed reviews – and positive ones from the youthful but the then unknown H.G Wells and George Bernard Shaw – no report, vocally or in print, avoided the mention of the reaction from the ‘gods’, and the play was doomed.

Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something inside me dies.

What Lodge is getting at is summed up thus,

Something had happened in the culture of the English-speaking world in the past few decades, some huge seismic shift caused by a number of different converging forces – the spread and thinning of literacy, the leveling effect of democracy, the rampart energy of capitalism, the distorting of values by journalism and advertising – which made it impossible for a practitioner of art of fiction to achieve both excellence and popularity, as Scott and Balzac, Dickens and George Elliot, has done in their prime.

And the result of this was a growing craving for un-intellectual entertainment. Lodge is referring to, of course, the difference between what today we call popular fiction and literary fiction.

The plot of Guy Domville angered the public the most: an eligible bachelor, a Catholic, plans to enter the priest-hood, but he is the last of his line; he discovers that he is loved, decides therefore to marry, then realises his intended is loved by another; he fosters that relationship, succeeds, and then joins the priesthood anyway. The End; three acts and over two hours to finish as it began, and no happy ending. To James it was a serious dilemma, skillfully presented as art, to the public it was boring.

 

The effect of such an event on a writer, his work, his sense of himself, and his friendships is what makes this novel so engaging. It’s one of the most enlightening works on success, failure, and friendship and any reader interested in such things should read it no matter what their artistic bent.

 

The review of Author, Author in The Independent in 2004 puts it succinctly;

 

Lodge deploys all his seductive storytelling craft to explore not merely the life and art of James himself, but the fate of any proud writer in an age of hype and spin.

 

David Lodge’s Author, Author is an immensely enjoyable work; I scheduled reading time – always a good sign.

The kindle and paper editions of Author, Author are available here.

I leave the last word to Henry James: We work in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.