Author Archives: Edward Colley

Poison pens: When writers’ friendships turn sour

When writers’ friendships fall apart there is often acrimony and – being writers – details of their differences and bitterness are sometimes committed to print. How voraciously we gobble up these traded insults, verbal dust-ups and flurries of bitchiness!

It’s been going on for ages. William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were great pals until the former insisted on getting solo billing on the collaboration that resulted in Lyrical Ballads.

Ernest Hemingway was notoriously unkind to former buddy F Scott Fitzgerald. After a toxic combination of jealousy, alcohol and money parted the pair, Hemingway spoke openly of Fitzgerald’s marital difficulties and artistic struggles – and publicly called Fitzgerald a “moaner and a sissy”. 

Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson feuded publicly after Wilson described the former’s translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin as “uneven and banal.” Nabokov fired back that Wilson was a “commonsensical, artless, average reader with a natural vocabulary of, say, 600 basic words.”

Sisters A S Byatt and Margaret Drabble have never really been friends. They haven’t seen eye to eye since childhood, the latter once saying: “It’s sad, but our feud is beyond repair.” Sad indeed – the sisters are both in their 80s.

Paul Theroux’s long-term friendship with his mentor Vidia Naipaul ended with the American author being snubbed by Naipaul as they passed in a London street. Theroux paused to chat with his old buddy, Naipaul coldly mumbled a grudging response and moved on without stopping. This was in 1997, some 31 years after the pair met at an academic outpost in Uganda when Theroux was 26 and the Trinidad-born writer 34.

In the London street Theroux had asked the recently remarried Naipaul why he hadn’t responded to his last note to him. “Take it on the chin and move on,” said the departing Naipaul.

But Theroux didn’t follow that advice. He nursed the insult, brooded over it and, eventually, wrote a book because of it. Is ‘Sir Vidia’s Shadow’ an account of true friendship won and lost? Or is it a literary exercise in revenge – an attempt to erase the humiliation he felt at Naipaul’s treatment of him?

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In days of friendship – Paul Theroux, left, with his mentor V S Naipaul.

As San Diego Reader critic Judith Moore wrote: “I can’t help but believe that the Naipaul whom we meet in ‘Sir Vidia’s Shadow’ is a creature born from Theroux’s wounded feelings.”

For the most part Theroux’s account casts his pal in a favourable light, only occasionally – and subtly – alluding to Naipaul’s legendary and undisputed nastiness. It is only towards the end of this fascinating account of an intense and complex relationship that mud-slinging, however disguised it might be, is evident.

Theroux admired Naipaul immensely, feeling gratitude for the encouragement he had given him in his early writing days. He recognised Naipaul as a brilliant writer who could also be an enthralling companion. Because of this, it seems he attempted to make himself blind to Naipaul’s many flaws – misogyny, racism, meanness and countless forms of rudeness, from the blatant to the subtle.

To put up with all that and, when in Naipaul’s company, to remain an uncomplaining, uncritical friend through three decades creepingly paints a picture of a rather pathetic and needy old dog who keeps coming back wagging his tail no matter what beating or scolding it has suffered.

Theroux is at pains to disguise this, but the evidence builds throughout the memoir. The American elevated Naipaul onto pedestal, took the kicks and was rewarded with a cold rebuff on a London pavement.

Apart from Naipaul’s parting words on that day there is nothing from him here to explain the reasons for that brush off or as to why he turned against his protege. It is clear that Theroux believes Naipaul’s haughty new wife bears much of the responsibility. He finds very little that is favourable to say about her.

The book, by design not accident, builds a picture of Naipaul as a deeply flawed individual notwithstanding his literary brilliance. But what of the book’s author? I’m a long-standing fan of Theroux’s work, greatly enjoying his reportorial travel writing and occasional brilliant novel (The Mosquito Coast for example).

But these days, the term ‘unreliable narrator’ has begun to creep into my assessment of Theroux, fuelled by observations of his behaviour in his travelogues: remaining wisely silent while others prattle out gauche comments; being non-judgemental while those around point fingers; not grumbling like the whining tourists he encounters, and so on. Can anyone be this benign and uncomplaining? Well, they can in print – it’s a kind of artistic licence I suppose. Few, after all, would paint themselves in a bad light.

All of which brings the reader to the question of balance in ’Sir Vidia’s Shadow’. It is, after all, written entirely from Theroux’s point of view; Naipaul is tantalisingly mute.

“He [Naipaul] was always the one who said you have to tell the truth [in writing],” Theroux once remarked. Later, after Naipaul’s death in 2018, he said that he believed his book to be “an unsparing and accurate portrait of the man, minus the instances of racism and physical abuse that I was forbidden by lawyers to publish.”

Responding to a critic’s referring to Naipaul’s “great modesty”, Theroux said: “In 30 years of knowing the man I was never privileged to observe this. I mainly saw his sadness, his tantrums, his envy, his meanness, his greed, and his uncontrollable anger. But I never saw Naipaul attack anyone stronger than himself; he talked big and insultingly but when he lashed out it was always against the weak: people who couldn’t hit back, the true mark of the coward.”

The critic, Ian Buruma, countered: “If Naipaul was quite the monster he describes, why did Mr Theroux spend decades of his life fawning over him? But then the demolition of an idol by a disillusioned worshipper is never an edifying sight, and in the case of an ageing writer a trifle undignified too.”

theroux copy

Paul Theroux: Unreliable narrator or truth-teller?

’Sir Vidia’s Shadow’ divided opinions but sold in great numbers nevertheless. The British writer Lynn Barber summed-up the to-ing and fro-ing in 2000: “I’ve never known a book to divide people so strongly, between the Naipaul-is-a-shit and the Theroux-is-a-shit camps. The American critics uniformly took the latter view and Theroux’s name in the States is now mud. Theroux believes there was an orchestrated campaign against him, but that’s probably his paranoia. Naipaul stoutly maintains he has never read the book. Anyway, it’s a wonderful book, a modern true version of the sorcerer’s apprentice.”

Just over a decade after this was written there was, it appears, some kind of reconciliation between the two writers. In 2011 the novelist Ian McEwan nudged Theroux and Naipaul, after 14 years of frostiness, to shake hands at the Hay literature festival. A partial thaw ensued and the pair appeared to be were reconciled in 2015 when they met at a literary festival in Jaipur. Theroux’s admiring speech about Naipaul’s ‘A House for Mr Biswas’ (comparing the author to Dickens) brought tears to the eyes of his former nemesis.

Brilliant and beastly: the enigma of VS Naipaul

Reading Patrick French’s hefty biography of VS Naipaul brought back memories of my once playing Mahjong with incipient conjunctivitis; the game was challenging enough without the tile details going in and out of focus.

French’s writing style in general has little appeal for me – a little dry and academic and when he presents, as he often does in this tome, a lengthy, name-dropping paragraph, the hotchpotch of third-party comments and attributed quotes undermines clarity. Things become a little blurred – my response was often to skip ahead.

french bookPloughing through ‘The World Is What It Is’, I was also reminded of a lecturer long ago who recited his words of wisdom to us students while absently leafing through the pages of a newspaper. Like that academic, French is not, for me, a natural at engaging with his audience.

Published in 2008, this authorised biography of the Nobel Prize-winning author covers Naipaul’s life from his birth in1932 to his second marriage in 1996. The author, who won the Booker Prize for his novel ‘In a Free State’ (1971), died in 2018.

The biography’s title derives from the opening of Naipaul’s book A Bend in the River (1979):

The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.

The sentence, channeled through a fictional character, tells us much about the author’s view the world and his fellow travellers.

While French’s is not a hagiographical work, he is not overtly critical of his subject who was, it is clear from this book and other accounts, a difficult person to like.

Naipaul’s intelligent, unassuming wife Pat remained pitifully loyal to the author even though he treated her like a lowly servant.

You behave like the wife of a clerk who has risen above her station,’ he once cruelly barked at her. And then, in a moment of self-pitying regret, he wrote to her: ‘I love you, and I need you. Please don’t let me down. Please forgive my occasional lapses. At heart I am the worthiest man I know.’

His ‘occasional lapses’ included habitual visits to prostitutes, furious and violent domestic outbursts, a perpetual haughtiness and taking up a long-term intimate association with another woman who became, effectively, a second wife. This was how he treated  his nearest and supposedly dearest. Others, friends, associates, publishers who crossed him and so on found themselves subject to the notorious Naipaul ‘blank’. They simply became non-persons; he did not just cut them, he did not notice them.

A hatchet job on Naipaul’s disagreeable qualities could fill a book. French’s commendably objective approach brings balance but there is no getting away from unpleasantness of the person under scrutiny. To take our minds off personality issues, French dwells at length on rather fringe and uninteresting threads – largely irrelevant family background and affairs, political machinations in Naipaul’s birth country of Trinidad, the humdrum details of foreign trips and so on.

Academics and professional reviewers will argue that such detail is necessary and required in a thorough biographical work. But that doesn’t make them any the less dull for the ordinary reader.

There is much here, rightly, about Naipaul’s output. The author’s work divides opinion among readers but I fall into the fan camp having enjoyed both his fiction (particularly ‘The Enigma of Arrival’) and non-fiction (‘An Area of Darkness’).

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Patrick French

But French’s accounts of the critical reception of each book is exhaustive to the point of being exhausting. And this is where some of those confusing paragraphs tend to crop up. Like many biographers, French has laboured long on thorough research, having had complete access to the Naipaul archives at the University of Tulsa and spent many hours  conducting face-to-face unrestricted interviews with his subject. The word count demonstrates that French wants us to know how industrious he has been but the extraneous detail is overwhelming and of little interest to anyone not engaged in writing a dissertation on Naipaul.

Critics universally lauded ‘The World Is What It Is’ on its release in 2008 so my comments here are very much against the current. I admire French’s achievement in writing this comprehensive biography but I am left with little sense of really knowing or understanding the man who is its subject. Naipaul once remarked ‘whenever we are reading the biography of a writer … no amount of documentation, however fascinating, can take us there.’ 

Given Naipaul’s nature – elusive, mistrusting, narcissistic, aloof, judgemental – perhaps it is unavoidable that little of the real person comes across. Perhaps there was no real person. Perhaps the man was unknowable, even to himself. An enigma.

Stirring tales inspired by wagging tails

“Scratch a dog and you’ll find a permanent job.” –  humourist Franklin P Jones.

Authors have to scratch a living as well, yet many of them find cuddle- time with a canine friend a perfect antidote to hours tapping away at the keyboard. Here are a few authors with a pooch under the desk…

stephen king

King pictured in his Bangor, Maine home office with Marlowe in July, 1995. Picture: Jill Krementz.

If it’s good enough for British royalty, it’s good enough for king of horror and suspense Stephen King, who shares Queen Elizabeth II’s love for the diminutive corgi.

Virginia Woolf loved cocker spaniels and her beloved dog Pinka was often by her side. She also wrote Flush: A Biography, a half-fictional account of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel, which was named Flush. Woolf once said: “This you’ll call sentimental, perhaps, but a dog somehow represents — no I can’t think of the word — the private side of life…the play side.”

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Steinbeck with his faithful friend Charley, the French poodle.

You probably know that John Steinbeck loved his poodle Charley, because Travels with Charley is all about him and Charley going on a road trip.

But his setter Toby deserves a special shout out too, because Toby ate the first draft of Of Mice and Men, meaning that Steinbeck had to start over from scratch: “My setter pup, left alone one night, made confetti of about half of my [manuscript] book. Two months work to do over again. It sets me back. There was no other draft. I was pretty mad but the poor little fellow may have been acting critically.”

Steinbeck’s French poodle, Charley, is proof that dogs are the cure for writer’s block. When Steinbeck felt like was out of ideas, he loaded Charley into his pick-up truck and drove across the country.

Pumpkin was Kurt Vonnegut’s yappy, shaggy little dog and near-constant companion. Vonnegut himself once said: “I cannot distinguish between the love I have for people and the love I have for dogs.”

gertrude stein

Stein (left) with Toklas and Basket.

Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B Toklas had an affinity for white poodles, who were always named Basket. The pooch would be bathed in sulphur water each day and then Stein would make it run in circles in the yard until it was dry.

Tail end words from comedian Groucho Marx: “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”

No snowflakes in the torture chamber

‘We don’t want to hear it’ is a cry shared by
over-sensitive souls and despots

In these days of hurt feelings, so-called snowflakes, the perpetually offended and those who see a slight or an infringement of their rights at every turn, it is sobering to reflect on the experiences of lives in less tolerant societies where issues such as freedom of expression or no-platforming are entirely in the hands of a government or military regime rather than a disgruntled student body or an online petition.

As the pressure group PEN International points out, writers and journalists around the world are targeted – and in some cases hounded and murdered – for their peaceful pursuit of free expression.

“Authoritarian governments are becoming increasingly emboldened and are targeting writers and journalists in ever greater numbers. Some are paying a heavy price for merely carrying out their work,” said Salients Tripathi, Chair of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee.

I’ve been researching this topic after reading about the experiences of a Kenyan who was incarcerated, tortured and jailed on a trumped up charge fundamentally because his attitude didn’t tally with that of the authorities.

Wahome Mutahi’s Three Days on the Cross, published in October 1991, is presented as a fictional account of everyday brutality by the security forces in Moi regime Kenya. But the scenes of torture at the hands of members of the notorious Special Branch are drawn directly from the author’s own experience following his arrest in October 1986.

Mutahi (1954 – 2003), a journalist and novelist widely read in East Africa, was known to be opposed to the brutal regime of his country. In 1986, during a clampdown on Wahome Mutahiintellectual activities he was arrested and jailed. He was charged with neglecting to report a felony thus being guilty of sedition.

His captors said he knew people who were publishing seditious material – material critical of the government. The allegations were false; he didn’t know anyone engaged in such activities – he was a journalist on The Nation, just writing.

Special Branch officers went to his Nairobi office one Sunday morning and took him to the city’s Nyayo House, a respectable-looking office building for the police. But in its basement were interrogation rooms, cells and barbaric torture chambers. He was held there for 30 days accused of being involved in an organised movement.

In conversation with Paul Theroux (recounted in Dark Star Safari), Mutahi recalled telling his accusers: “If you have evidence against me, take me to court. That made them very angry. They stopped talking to me. They stripped me naked and beat me – three men with pieces of wood. They demanded that I confess.

“Then they stood me in my cell and sprayed me with water. My cell was about the size of a mattress. They soaked me – water was everywhere. Then they locked the door and left me.”

In the windowless cell Mutahi could not tell if it was day or night. “I was still naked and really cold, standing in the water, in the darkness. I don’t know how much time passed – maybe 12 or 15 hours.”

Then the door suddenly opened and he was brusquely asked if he had anything to say. He said no and was left again for a long time before the door opened once more and the same question was fired at him, eliciting the same response.

“I came to a situation where I was living in a nightmare. I hallucinated. I saw food in patches on the floor.” Waking from a fitful, troubled sleep, Mutahi was desolated to find himself ankle deep in water and shivering, not able to stand or sit. “My feet were rotting. I was on the point of a breakdown. I thought of suicide. When a week passed they must have thought I was dying because they put me in a dry cell.”

Three Days on the Cross by Wahome MutahiBut the interrogation continued. He was blindfolded and taken to another room. After many sessions, Mutahi realised he was weakening and that he would rather serve a specific sentence than suffer not knowing when his confinement would end. And so he signed a ‘confession’. “I was given 15 months. It was something definite – not torture any more.”

Everyone who found themselves in such situations, said Mutahi, eventually pleaded guilty under interrogation, “provided they didn’t go insane first.”

The term ‘snowflake’ is pejorative and unhelpful especially when applied generally to students and millennials (though some of the more extreme proponents of safe spaces and no-platforming perhaps deserve a little ribbing).

Nevertheless it’s clear that there is an increasing tendency to shy away from some of the less pleasant realities: law students excused lectures on sexual abuse for example or medical trainees allowed to opt out of witnessing distressing procedures.

Such over-sensitive souls refuse to hear an opinion contrary to their own and in this, in a horrible irony, they link to those despots around the world who find ideas with which they disagree frightening and threatening. They don’t want to hear – and for them the solution is not a safe space but a torture chamber.

Want to learn more?

Writing secrets of 14 world class authors

Anthony Trollope was at his desk, pen in hand, from 5.30am every day. In contrast William Styron habitually slept until noon and then lay around in bed for another hour ‘thinking’ before going anywhere near his typewriter. For Philip Larkin the ideal time for writing was after doing the washing up in the evening while Truman Capote could not compose a single paragraph unless lying down. These insights into the daily rituals of notable writers are given in a (now dormant) blog called ‘The Daily Routines’ which I stumbled across recently. Here are some gleanings from this entertaining blog:

Anthony Trollope
Every day for many years he woke in darkness and wrote from 5.30am to 8.30am, with his watch in front of him. In his autobiography Trollope said he required of himself 250 words every quarter of an hour. If he finished one novel before 8.30, he took out a freshanthony_trollope piece of paper and started the next. For many years the writing session was followed by a day job with the Royal Mail postal service. Under this regime, he produced 49 novels in 35 years. Having prospered so well, he urged his method on all writers: “Let their work be to them as is his common work to the common labourer. No gigantic efforts will then be necessary. He need tie no wet towels round his brow, nor sit for 30 hours at his desk without moving, as men have sat – or said that they have sat.”

Ernest Hemingway
Another early riser, when working on a book or story he would write every morning as soon after first light as possible. He said: “There is no one to disturb you; it is cool and you warm as you write. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and you know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.”

John Grisham
The author of numerous legal best-sellers also former the habit of being up with the lark. When he first started writing, Grisham says, he had “these little rituals that were silly and brutal but very important. The alarm clock would go off at 5.00am and I’d jump in the shower. My office was five minutes away. And I had to be at my desk, in my office, with the first cup of coffee, a legal pad and write the first word at 5.30am, five days a week.” His goal: to write a page every day. Sometimes that would take 10 minutes, sometimes an hour. Often he would write for two hours before he had to turn to his job as a lawyer, which he never especially enjoyed. Interviewed in 2008, Grisham recalled that in the Mississippi Legislature there were “enormous amounts of wasted time” that would give him the opportunity to write. “I was very disciplined about it,” he said, before quickly conceding he doesn’t have such discipline now: “I don’t have to.”

Kingsley Amis
The Lucky Jim author would rise late, breakfast and get to his desk at about 10.30am, still in pyjamas and dressing gown. “And the agreement I have with myself is that I can stop whenever I like and go and shave and so on. In practice, it’s not till about 1.00pm or 1.15 that I do that. Then I emerge and nicotine and alcohol are produced. I work on until about 2.00pm or 2.15, have lunch, then if there’s urgency about, I have to write in the afternoon, which I really hate doing. But then the agreement is that it doesn’t matter how little gets done in the afternoon. And later on, with luck, a cup of tea turns up, and then it’s only a question of drinking more cups of tea until the bar opens at 6.00pm and one can get into second gear. I go on until about 8.30 and I always hate stopping.”

Stephen King
“There are certain things I do if I sit down to write,” he said. “I have a glass of water or a cup of tea. There’s a certain time I sit down, from 8.00am to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning. I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places.”

Will Self
Using a manual typewriter, he writes first drafts as early in the morning as possible. Once the first drafts are 80% complete he’ll start on a second so that “there’s a conveyor belt of drafts in progress: this helps me to grasp the totality of the book. I accelerate towards the end, usually because I’m on or past my deadline.” Of a writer’s life he adds: “I have a healthy appetite for solitude. If you don’t, you have no business being a writer.”

Gunter Grass
When working on a first version he would write between five and seven pages a day. “For the third version, three pages a day. It’s very slow.” When in the day does he write? “Never, never at night. I don’t believe in writing at night because it comes too easily. When I read it in the morning it’s not good. I need daylight to begin. Between 9.00am and 10.00 I have a long breakfast with reading and music. After breakfast I work, and then take a break for coffee in the afternoon. I start again and finish at 7.00pm.”

James Thurber
Near blind in his later years, Thurber would write in his head and dictate the passages from memory to a secretary. Interviewed in the 1950s he said: “I never quite know when I’m not writing. Sometimes my wife comes up to me at a party and says, ‘Dammit, turber 2Thurber, stop writing!’ She usually catches me in the middle of a paragraph. Or my daughter will look up from the dinner table and ask, ‘Is he sick?’ ‘No,’ my wife says, ‘he’s writing something.’ I have to do it that way on account of my eyes. I still write occasionally – in the proper sense of the word – using black crayon on yellow paper and getting perhaps 20 words to the page. My usual method, though, is to spend the mornings turning over the text in my mind. Then in the afternoon, between two and five, I call in a secretary and dictate to her. I can do about 2,000 words. It took me about 10 years to learn.”

Truman Capote
Interviewed in 1957, the author said: “I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand. Essentially I think of myself as a stylist, and stylists can become notoriously obsessed with the placing of a comma, the weight of a semicolon – obsessions of this sort – and the time I take over them, irritate me beyond endurance.”

P G Wodehouse
After rising at 7.30am, breakfasting and walking the dog, Wodehouse would be at his desk by 9.00. His study was a spacious, pine-clad room overlooking the garden. His writing methods had not changed in years. He would sit and brood in a favourite armchair, draft a paragraph or two in pencil, then move to the typewriter. In his last decade, Wodehouse could still average 1,000 words a day where, as a younger man, he had often written 2,500 words and more in that period.

Arthur Miller
“I wish I had a routine for writing,” the playwright said in 1999. “I get up in the morning and I go out to my studio and I write. And then I tear it up! That’s the routine, really. Then, occasionally, something sticks. And then I follow that. The only image I can think of is a man walking around with an iron rod in his hand during a lightning storm.”

Roald Dahl
Settled into a writing career, Dahl lived on a farm where he raised livestock and bred greyhounds. His routine was to write from 10.00am until noon, spend the afternoon tending his animals and return to his writing again from 4.00pm to 6.00. His writing was far from effortless; it was not unusual for him to spend six months working on a single short story.

Wiliam Styron
The Sophie’s Choice author followed an unconventional routine: sleep until noon, read and think in bed for another hour or so, lunch around 1.30pm, run errands, deal with the mail, listen to music, daydream and generally ease into the idea of working until 4.00pm. Then up to the workroom to write for four hours, perfecting each paragraph until 200 or 300 words were down. After that, cocktails and dinner with the family and friends at 8.00pm or 9.00 and stay up until two or three in the morning, drinking and reading and smoking and listening to music.

Philip Larkin
“My life is as simple as I can make it,” he said in 1982. “Work all day, cook, eat, wash up, telephone, hack writing, drink, television in the evenings. I almost never go out. Writing is in the evenings after washing up. It’s a routine like any other. And really it works very well, I don’t think you can work on a poem for more than two hours. After that you’re Philip-Larkingoing round in circles and it’s much better to leave it for 24 hours by which time your subconscious or whatever has solved the block and you’re ready to go on. The best writing conditions I ever had were in Belfast, when I was working at the university there. I wrote between 8.00pm and 10.00, then went to the university bar till 11.00, later playing cards or talking with friends till 1.00am or 2.00. The first part of the evening had the second part to look forward to, and I could enjoy the second part with a clear conscience because I’d done my two hours. I can’t seem to organise that now.”

 

The Daily Routines blog by American author Mason Currey is no longer updated but can be found at: https://dailyroutines.typepad.com/daily_routines/

• For insight on authors and their working methods try: How I Write, The Secret Lives of Authors, edited by Dan Crowe, and On Writing by Stephen King.

Reading from the sick bed

Sickness, recovery, recuperation. At such times what sort of reading material do you reach for? The question arose for me after I returned from the other side of the world with an injury which will keep me virtually housebound for some months.

At first, stupified by antibiotics, I felt too dazed to read anything more demanding than the opening credits of an old movie on TV. But as strength and interest returned little by little it was the old and familiar which I sought out – the literary equivalent of comfort food.

waugh bridesheadMy first choice was Evelyn Waugh’s magnum opus Brideshead Revisited, a novel which has long been in my top five and to which I was returning for the fourth or fifth time – unwise perhaps in view of the old maxim ‘never go back’. Turning to the first page, I hoped my experience would not mirror that of the author who was reportedly “appalled” after re-reading the work, finding “distasteful” the book’s “rhetorical and ornamental language”.

On this reading I did find some of Charles Ryder’s internal monologues a bit overcooked and descriptive passages occasionally a tad florid – but those are mere quibbles. Overwhelmingly I was once again dazzled by the beauty and clarity of the narrative. Testimony to its potency is plain when viewing the impeccable 1983 11-episode TV series based on the book in which large passages of Ryder’s narrative, together with countless dialogue exchanges, are lifted verbatim from the pages of the novel.

The story arc, from sunlit carefree days in 1920s Oxford to the spirit-sapping gloom of the 1940s war years, is superbly handled by the author through a central character who is invested with qualities of detachment sufficient to lend an objectiveness to the first person storytelling.

Though how anyone without a good shorthand note or a tape recording can set down all those conversations in such detail is a mystery. But the suspension of disbelief is a necessary requirement when reading first person fiction – all narrators, it appears, being blessed with perfect recall!

The butler didn’t do it

That suspension becomes trickier when an unreliable narrator enters upon the scene, as happens in my follow-up choice of sick bay reading. This was my third encounter with Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. An art gallery ticket tucked into the pages revealed that I last read it on holiday in August 1999. (The find instantly brings back a memory: witnessing a total solar eclipse from a Bavarian hillside, the sudden gloom silencing the chattering birds.)

Twenty years is a long time between readings but I’d always thought of this novel as a reliable favourite. This time though, I was a little less enchanted. On previous readings I was clearly not irritated by the narrator’s fastidious, very correct, rather Edwardian style of writing. This is of course deliberately and cleverly done by Ishiguro to paint a picture of the anachronous and insular nature of Stevens, the central character, who knows very little of ordinary life outside the confines of the great house in which he serves as butler.

Stevens is not at ease with himself as a human being, preferring to live as a virtual automaton. He has suppressed emotion and personality, shunned close relationships and excused himself from most kinds of normal life in favour of a Quixotic crusade to become the ultimate man servant – the personification of his interpretation of ‘dignity’.

kazou remainsThe preservation of dignity, according to Stevens, is akin to “not removing one’s clothes in public”. It’s an odd remark but it tells us that Stevens isn’t comfortable stepping outside his professional persona for fear of losing respect; he has locked himself inside his ‘dignity’ and can’t find a way out – even if he wanted to. This detachment has built up a cold shield around the butler – one which Miss Kenton, the housekeeper, tries in vain to penetrate. Her timid romantic overtures – bringing flowers to his pantry, teasing him about the sentimental novel she finds him reading – freeze and snap in the permafrost of Stevens’s aura. Miss Kenton gives up, leaves service and marries.

Years later Stevens, still serving at Darlington Hall, Oxfordshire, travels to Cornwall to seek out Miss Kenton (now Mrs Benn) in the hope of luring her back into service and – though he cannot admit this to himself – reignite his relationship with the housekeeper on an altogether more personal level.

When Stevens writes: ‘No doubt, she is pondering with regret decisions made in the far-off past that have now left her, deep in middle age, so alone and desolate’, it is quite early on in the book and the reader has yet to discover his true nature. But we are being misled – as we find later – for here he is unconsciously considering his own position. Further into the novel, when Stevens’s achingly poignant backstory has been revealed, we are quite sure that when he quotes Mrs Benn as writing in her letter: ‘The rest of my life stretches out as an emptiness before me’, it is a misattribution and it is his own bleak future which is being contemplated.

Hardy, Chandler and back to Waugh

So The Remains of the Day stays in my top five and I will one day again revisit Brideshead, though, by that time, I will probably need to have it read to me! Number three, currently on the nightstand, is Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge to which I return for the umpteenth time. It’s my favourite Hardy novel (with Tess close behind) and it never fails me. At root I suppose I have fairly unsophisticated  tastes when it comes to entertainment. With books, plays or movies, I like a beginning, a middle and an end – and a cracking good yarn in between. The Mayor of Casterbridge delivers on all counts.

There’s some snobbishness about Hardy’s novels (the author regarded himself as a poet first) which I fail to understand. Dickens, Trollope and Thackeray all get the nod of approval. Even Stevenson and Conan Doyle are lauded. But for some reason Hardy gets the raspberry. Well let them sneer. I shall continue getting great enjoyment from rereading the Wessex novels whether in sickness or in health.

I reckon I’ll need two more ‘comfort food’ books to see me back on my feet. So after Hardy it will be a complete change: Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely, another of my top five and my favourite Philip Marlowe novel. The film of the book (released as Murder, My Sweet in the USA) features the excellent Dick Powell as the down-at-heel Shamus. Forget Bogart – for me, Powell was the best Marlowe to grace the screen. A great book and a fab movie!

Leaving LA, it’s back across the pond to Britain for my final restorative read – The Sword of Honour trilogy by Evelyn Waugh. When I first read these wartime novels I had to buy them separately – and I still have the copies. But now Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen and Unconditional Surrender are available in one volume and if you haven’t read them, plan to do so. You won’t be disappointed.

mayor philip sword

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