Author Archives: Edward Colley
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.
Ploughing 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’).
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.
“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…
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.”
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 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.”
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:
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 fresh 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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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, Thurber, 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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
“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 going 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.
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.
My 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’.
The 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.