Times have changed. Digital clocks can’t be rewound.
Instead, the battery runs out and has to be replaced. It’s worse than the
pendular grandfather that tolls the hour, or the irrepressibly cheerful cuckoo.
Better to bring back the sundial, and laugh at the gilded butterflies, as the
shadows lengthen, the shadows of the helpless, the shadows of deeds not done,
the shadows of lofty words not acted on... (JP Botul,
Editorial, Le Journal, New Years Day)
My morning newspaper is a workaday local journal without allegiances to any political party or creed. It is only inadvertently mendacious. Outside working hours, the editor, JP Botul, thinks of himself as a neo-Gnostic ‘reconciling through tacit knowledge the carnal and the spiritual’, but on the job he’s pragmatic, aspiring to keep to the bare facts, knowing the cost of being sued, or worse. His first job was as a pétanque reporter in Lyon, and on one occasion he imagined the results and was fired.
JP Botul writes most of the copy, supplemented by features from syndicated columnists, and local amateurs (they come free). A cautious man, he sleeps eight hours a day and doesn’t dream. On waking he notes down counter-thoughts to the Montanist cult in the mountains near Bugarach, who believe if the things of the flesh are sublimated you become a pure spirit and can live forever on love and air.
How do I know so much about him? His profile is so low readers only know his name. Indeed, like Voltaire’s God, if JP Botul didn’t exist, he would have to be invented. But I’m no fiction writer, and wouldn’t take that risk. He exists for me as a friend. We meet at night outside the journal office when my writing isn’t going well, and he’s having a smoke.
Our conversations are prolonged if I bring him a cigar. The bigger the better. A fat Havana sees us into the small hours. JP talks like he smokes, slowly, thoughtfully, keeping both alight with flickers of self-amusement. His main interest is in how long the ash on the cigar can be retained without tipping it. I’ve seen him pull on the soggy stub with the ashes formed still intact, a horizontal extension like ectoplasm or Fats Waller’s ‘vanished love I can’t forget’ (‘Smoke Dreams of You’). A circus act as impressive as putting the yoke of an egg back into its shell. At first I didn’t like to interrupt him for fear of disturbing it, but I soon discovered his composure allows for that eventuality. Holding the cigar vertically, he indulges my intervention with a concentrated stillness that wills the ash to stay put. It falls at the last gasp. And he disappears back into his office.
As writers we are opposites, if not equal. JP’s a working man who lives off his journalism, and I’m part of an elite who doesn’t. He’s read widely, and couldn’t care less. While I crave readers, like a thespian seeking applause. But he is the purist, wanting his ripostes to the Montanists to be read by the happy few, while I’m all for compromise and want my chronicles to be accessible to the masses. What makes us the two sides of the same writerly coin is that we both want what we don’t have, and do nothing about it. And it is enough because ‘not having’ nurtures the want we want, elevating it to the status of the unattainable. If our lives were the other way round it would be the same. We both adhere to the Monroe doctrine: ‘If you get what you want, you find you don't want what you wanted at all’ (There’s No Business Like Show Business, 1954). Our unrequited wants are the two sides of a see-saw and we sit on the fulcrum, balancing them, sharing the ups and downs of the literary life. So we’re formulating a mutually agreed ABC for the ‘have nots’. For example, letter B:
Basculate backwards and forward but don’t stay in the same place.
Battle against self-imposed restrictions that impose themselves under pressure from outside forces, sacred and profane. Leave the state of your soul to your friends, and ‘what the reader will think’ to your enemies.
Be a freelance of the spirit.
Be independent from the market and its fictions in order to avoid the fears it engenders, and their attendant constraints.
Be the slave master of the free-for-all that is narrative. What goes in or out is up to you, for better or worse.
But the be and end all is you mustn’t be one of those unreliable narrators. Don’t be afraid to write about what evades full knowledge and understanding (not necessarily related) to make a story of it, and if it rings true so much the better. Readers will make up their own minds. That should make them feel better. And if it is at your expense, so what?
We agree that most serious writers don’t know what they’re doing. Whistling in the dark, or is it the dark that is whistling in them? Who knows. After the work is abandoned to the eyes of others, one can speculate. Wallace Stevens thought writing was all about ‘nobility’ and ‘the violence within protecting you from the violence without’. But he wasn’t quite showing his hand, as usual. The same could be said for Rilke, possibly because, as a German speaker, he couldn’t decide which Hand. Not showing your hand is an art all sensible writers cultivate. My favourite is posing the right palm in a waistcoat pocket like Napoleon Bonaparte, the author of one bad novel.
‘Thinking continually of the truly great’ is the surest way of believing you’re Stephen Spender. I prefer Joe E. Brown’s ‘Nobody’s perfect’ in Some Like it Hot (1959). It is the kindest thing you can say about humanity. For instance, JP Botul and me, despite our unworldly pretensions, have our poses for posterity. JP has attained the anonymity that Samuel Beckett sought, and didn’t achieve (instantly recognisable from the publisher’s photograph, frozen birdman with beak on breast). JP is so inconspicuous in his grey overalls that you could mistake him for the office boy, who joined the firm at fourteen and is now near retirement. While I’m, in Botul’s words, ‘A crown of white petals like Picasso’s poet, a flowery hat like James Ensor’s self-portrait, and one leg shorter than the other like Byron, though only by two centimetres, so Augustus doesn’t limp’. He exaggerates, but it’s for my obituary.