The Pleasures Of Books Never To Be Written

In ‘The Flaubert Apocrypha’ (from: Flaubert’s Parrot, Vintage International, New York, 1990, pp. 115-116), Julian Barnes writes:

If the sweetest moment in life is a visit to a brothel which doesn’t come off, perhaps the sweetest moment in writing is the arrival of that idea for a book which never has to be written, which is never sullied with a definite shape, which never needs to be exposed to a less loving gaze than that of its author.

I cannot now find a definite citation for this claim but I distinctly remember reading the results of a study which claimed that loudly proclaiming–to all and sundry–the undertaking and commencement of some virtuous course of action correlated quite significantly with the non-completion of that work. As the theory went, when such announcements were made, they were typically greeted with cries of congratulation and adulation from friends and family, which were all too eagerly lapped up in lieu of doing the actual work. That’s where things stayed–why bother with doing the hard yards when you could have the glory, in advance, for free?

The pure mental indulgence of a fantasy for a book could be a similar ‘accomplishment’: the conjuring up of a vision of a literary masterpiece, perfectly conceived and imagined, every component of it resting in artfully arranged relationships with every other, flawlessly executed, with no blemishes present or visible. All that comes between the initial foggy gropings and the ‘final product’ is elided–it is but a short, sharp movement from the time the vision first hove into view to an indulgence and wallowing in the adulation and appreciation that greets its completion. The perfections of the initial idea are preserved through the ‘process,’ magically transmuted into an enduring ‘finished product’ with none of the vexing, terror-inducing anxiety and frustration that is its usual accomplishment.

I wonder if this is why Barnes describes the sensation made note of above as ‘the sweetest moment in writing’: for what could be more pleasurable than to contemplate the initial object of the love-gaze: the idea, the hook, the story, the thesis, the parting of the clouds to reveal the treasure–and to then lightly skip over the dirty business to lift that gaze and direct it upon that distant place where after passing through the Magic Factory it emerges, complete with cover and spine? Perhaps this sensation is animated by a recognition of the pains glimpsed but not felt; what could be sweeter than that?

Barnes alludes too,  to those works that are ‘never sullied with a definite shape,’ never ‘exposed to a less loving gaze.’ He is right, of course; these are the sweetest pleasures of all, the ‘ideas’ you hold in reserve, unwilling to let this distinctly inferior world have any truck with them whatsoever.

Note: I was reminded of this passage by an essay in the Paul Horgan collection I cited here yesterday, which includes an essay titled ‘Preface to an Unwritten Book.’ That composition was meant to substitute for a book because of its alternative offerings: ‘citations’ rather than ‘examinations in depth.’

On Failing In Our Own Style

In Flaubert’s Parrot (Vintage International, New York, 1990, pp. 39) Julian Barnes writes:

But then Ed Winterton liked to present himself as a failure….

His air of failure had nothing desperate about it; rather, it seemed to stem from an unresented realisation that he was not cut out for success, and his duty was therefore to ensure only that he failed in a correct and acceptable fashion.

We are reminded, in many walks of life, that it is not only winning that is important, we must lose, if such is our fate, with dignity too. This ‘American academic,’ whose biography of Edmund Gosse will almost certainly never be completed (perhaps because the weight of its own ambition drags it down and renders onward movement impossible), has found his own unique realization of that state of grace–a state not suffused with bitterness and resentment. Success is not imminent; failure is highly probable; better to not rage against the dying light if that rage were to result in further indignities being heaped upon an already bowed head, a knee already bent.  Cut the line; sink gently to the bottom.

A realization that many dreamed of projects–members of the dreaded ‘bucket list’–will not ever be made manifest is sometimes said to dawn in ‘middle age.’ (The scare quotes indicate that ‘middle age’ is not a precise chronological quantity.) Then, our bodies betray us with ever greater frequency, we realize–thanks to a clear remembrance of the past–that a pattern of behavior we have been trying desperately to modify has been an ever-present feature of our selves, and that new habits are increasingly harder to form. Self-improvement becomes intractable; we become tired of the role of Sisyphus we have been cast in. We had imagined for ourselves an endless and infinitely renewable plasticity; we had extended ourselves and pushed against the bounds of our being and capabilities; but we find familiar barriers blocking our path onwards and upwards.

Under such circumstances Ed Winterton’s strategy is an eminently respectable one–even if not beloved of those who compose inspirational quotations for calendars and internet memes. At some point, we cease the straining and start to find greater comfort in homilies that urge us to accept ourselves for who we are, to not live for the future, but for the present. These now appeal to our sensibility–a more ambitious version of which had scorned them in the past. Now they appear to speak to a truth previously unglimpsed.

The notion of ‘a correct and acceptable fashion’ for failure introduces a wrinkle of course. It is unclear whose standards of correctness and acceptability we are to follow as we decide to settle for failure. Surely, we cannot imitate and emulate other failures; they are failures after all. The ambiguity of such a description provides hope then for one last signature gesture. If we are to fail, then we must fail in our own distinctive style; we must choose its manner and time and mode of expression. (Remember the bit about unhappy families being unhappy in their own particular way.) If we cannot succeed, then let us not at least fail at failing.