Writers, Visible and Invisible

Writers are hidden beings, says the winner of the 2008 PEN/Nabokov Lifetime Achievement Award

Writers’ invisibility has little or nothing to do with Fame, just as Fame has little or nothing to do with Literature. (Fame merits its capital F for its fickleness, Literature its capital L for its lastingness.) Thespians, celebrities and politicians, whose appetite for bottomless draughts of public acclaim, much of it manufactured, is beyond any normal measure, may feed hotly on Fame – but Fame is always a product of the present culture: topical and variable, hence ephemeral. Writers are made otherwise. What writers prize is simpler, quieter and more enduring than clamorous Fame: it is recognition. Fame, by and large, is an accountant’s category, tallied in Amazonian sales. Recognition, hushed and inherent in the silence of the page, is a reader’s category: its stealth is its wealth.

And recognition itself can be fragile, a light too easily shuttered. Recall Henry James’s lamentation over his culminating New York Edition, with its considered revisions and invaluable prefaces: the mammoth work of a lifetime unheralded, unread, unsold. That all this came to be munificently reversed is of no moment: the denizens of Parnassus are deaf to after-the-fact earthly notice; belatedness does them no good. Nothing is more poisonous to steady recognition than death: how often is a writer – lauded, fêted, bemedalled – plummeted into eclipse no more than a year or two after the final departure? Who nowadays speaks of Bernard Malamud, once a diadem in the grand American trinity of Bellow-Roth-Malamud? Who thinks of Lionel Trilling, except with dismissive commemorative contempt? Already Norman Mailer is a distant unregretted noise and William Styron a mote in the middle distance (a phrase the nearly forgotten Max Beerbohm applied to the fading Henry James). As for poor befuddled mystical Jack Kerouac and declamatory fiddle-strumming mystical Allen Ginsberg, both are diminished to Documents of an Era: the stale turf of social historians and tedious professors of cultural studies.

Yet these eruptions of sudden mufflings and posthumous silences must be ranked entirely apart from the forced muteness of living writers who work in minority languages, away from the klieg lights of the lingua franca, and whose oeuvres linger too often untranslated. The invisibility of recently dead writers is one thing, and can even, in certain cases (I would be pleased to name a few), bring relief; but the invisibility of the living is a different matter altogether, crucial to literary continuity. Political shunning – of writers who are made invisible, and also inaudible, by repressive design – results in what might be called public invisibility, rooted in external circumstance: the thuggish prejudices of gangsters who run rotted regimes, the vengeful prejudices of corrupt academics who propose intellectual boycotts, the shallow prejudices of the publishing lords of the currently dominant languages, and finally (reductio ad absurdum!) the ideologically narrow prejudices of some magazine editors. All these are rampant and scandalous and undermining of free expression. But what of an intrinsic, delicate and far more ubiquitous private invisibility?

Vladimir Nabokov was once an invisible writer suffering from three of these unhappy conditions: the public, the private, the linguistic. As an émigré fleeing the Bolshevik upheavals, and later as a refugee from the Nazis, he escaped the 20th century’s two great tyrannies. And as an émigré writing in Russian in Berlin and Paris, he remained invisible to nearly all but his exiled compatriots. Only on his arrival in America did the marginalising term “émigré” begin to vanish, replaced first by citizen and ultimately by American writer – since it was in America that the invisible became invincible. But Brian Boyd, in his intimate yet panoramic biography, recounts the difficulties, even in welcoming America, of invisible ink’s turning visible – not only in the protracted struggle for the publication of Lolita, but in the most liberal of literary journals.

It was the otherwise audacious New Yorker of the 1950s that rejected a chapter of Pnin, the novel chronicling Nabokov’s helplessly charming and self-­parodying alter ego, “because”, according to Boyd, “Nabokov refused to remove references – all historically accurate – to the regime of Lenin and Stalin”. (The phrases in question included “medieval tortures in a Soviet jail”, “Bolshevik dictatorship” and “hopeless injustice,” characterisations which the editors apparently regarded either as excessive or as outright falsehoods.) Certainly the politically expelled chapter did not languish in invisibility for very long; and as for Lolita, decades after its electrifying and enduring triumph it burst out once again, dazzlingly, in the title of Azar Nafisi’s widely admired memoir linking Lolita’s fate to the ruthless mullahs of Teheran. (Still, even today, even in New York, one can find a distinguished liberal journal willing to make a political pariah of a writer: an instance of ordinarily visible ink rendered punitively invisible.)

And here at last is the crux: writers are hidden beings. You have never met one – or, if you should ever believe you are seeing a writer, or having an argument with a writer, or listening to a talk by a writer, then you can be sure it is all a mistake.

Inevitably, we are returned to Henry James, who long ago unriddled the conundrum of writers’ invisibility. In a story called “The Private Life”, Clare Vawdrey, a writer burdened by one of those peculiar Jamesian names (rhyming perhaps not accidentally with “tawdry”), is visible everywhere in every conceivable social situation. He is always available for a conversation or a stroll, always accessible, always pleasantly anecdotal, never remote or preoccupied. He has a light-minded bourgeois affability: “He talks, he circulates,” James’s narrator informs us, “he’s awfully popular, he flirts with you.” His work, as it happens, is the very opposite of his visible character: it is steeped in unalloyed greatness. One evening, while Vawdrey is loitering outdoors on a terrace, exchanging banalities with a companion, the narrator steals into Vawdrey’s room – only to discover him seated at his writing table in the dark, feverishly driving his pen. Since it is physically impossible for a material body to be in two places simultaneously, the narrator concludes that the social Vawdrey is a phantom, while the writer working in the dark is the real Vawdrey. “One is the genius,” he explains, “the other’s the bourgeois, and it’s only the bourgeois whom we personally know.”

And lest we dismiss this as merely another of James’s ghost stories, or simply as a comical parable, we had better recall that celebrated Jamesian credo, a declaration of private panic mixed with prayerful intuition, which so many writers secretly keep tacked over their desks: “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 statement ends, memorably: “The rest is the madness of art.”

The madness of art? Maybe so. But more likely it is the logic of invisibility. James has it backwards. It’s not the social personality who is the ghost; it is the writer with shoulders bent over paper, the hazy simulacrum whom we will never personally know, the wraith who hides out in the dark while her palpable effigy walks abroad, talking and circulating and sometimes even flirting. Sightings of these ghost writers are rare and few and unreliable, but there is extant a small accumulation of paranormal glimpses which can guide us, at least a little, to a proper taxonomy. For instance: this blustering, arrogant, self-assured, muscularly disdainful writer who belittles and brushes you aside, what is he really? When illicitly spotted facing the lonely glow of his computer screen, he is no more than a frightened milquetoast paralysed by the prospect of having to begin a new sentence. And that apologetically obsequious, self-effacing, breathlessly diffident and deprecatory creature turns out, when in the trancelike grip of nocturnal ardour, to be a fiery furnace of unopposable authority and galloping certainty. Writers are what they genuinely are only when they are at work in the silent and instinctual cell of ghostly solitude, and never when they are out industriously chatting on the terrace.

What is the true meaning of “the madness of art”? Imposture, impersonation, fakery, make-believe – but not the imposture, impersonation, fakery or transporting make-believe of inventive story-telling. No: rather, art turns mad in pursuit of the false face of wishful distraction. The fraudulent writer is the visible one, the crowd-seeker, the crowd-speaker, the one who will go out to dinner with you with a motive in mind, or will stand and talk at you, or will discuss mutual writing habits with you, or will gossip with you about other novelists and their enviable good luck or their gratifying bad luck. The fraudulent writer is like Bellow’s Henderson: I want, I want, I want.

If all this is so – and it is so – then how might a young would-be writer aspire to join the company of the passionately ghostly invisibles? Or, to put it another way, though all writers are now and again unavoidably compelled to become visible, how to maintain a coveted clandestine authentic invisibility? Don’t all young writers look to the precincts of visibility, where heated phalanxes of worn old writers march back and forth, fanning their brows with their favourable reviews? Isn’t that how it’s done, via models and mentors and the wise counsel of seasoned editors? “I beg you,” says Rilke, addressing one such young writer, “I beg you to give all that up. You are looking outwards, and of all things that is what you must now not do. Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody. There is only one single means. Go inside yourself. Discover the motive that bids you to write; examine whether it sends its roots down to the deepest places in your heart, confess to yourself whether you would have to die if writing were denied you. This before all: ask yourself in the quietest hour of the night: must I write? Dig down into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be in the affirmative, if you may meet this solemn question with a strong and simple ‘I must’, then build your life according to this ­necessity.”

Thus the poet Rilke, imploring the untried young to surrender all worldly reward, including the spur, and sometimes the romantic delusion, of Fame, in order to succumb to a career in ectoplasm. Note that he speaks of “the quietest hour of the night”, which is also the darkest, where we do what we can and give what we have. The madness of art – and again I willingly contradict Henry James – is not in the art, but in the madding and maddening crowd, where all manner of visibilities elbow one another, while the ghosts at their writing tables sit alone and write, and write, and write, as if the necessary transparency of their souls depended upon it.

If you detect in these paragraphs a tone of confident authority, it is because I am myself an invisible of long standing. If you have read this far, the thought may have occurred to you: that you have never before seen anything else by this writer, and why? I put in evidence a letter, received only today, from my cherished London literary agent – a royalty report, no cheque attached, all advances unearned, all balances zero. (Ah, the airy, ineffable zero! Not for nothing did the philosophical Greeks snatch out of the void this numberless nullity!) I am fortunate enough to be tolerated: no agent or publisher has yet decided to dump me, as any persistent, consistent drainer of profits deserves.

Perhaps there remains, contrary to received opinion, an eleemosynary strain among publishing pundits, by which they are impelled, on rare occasion, to rise to a magnanimity only a little lower than that of the angels: they will publish a writer not merely against the odds, but even when a negative outcome is positively predictable. Since this, I observe, is not the lot of most invisibles, it may serve as inspiriting if, for the moment, I give up the ghost, materialise into visibility, and tell a long-ago confessional tale.

Like tricky though hapless Jacob in the Bible, I first wooed Leah while desiring Rachel. The wooing of Leah took seven years, the wooing of Rachel another seven years. Leah was my first first novel. Far too ambitious, it was abandoned after 300,000 words. Rachel was my second first novel, even more afflicted by ambition, and was completed at more than 800 pages. The wages of frenzied gluttony – 14 years had flown away. One afternoon, on the very day I finished typing the last sentence, I posted my second first novel to an editor who plied his trade in a New York skyscraper. Back came the manuscript in the mail, with 100 pages all marked up in red pencil – and a note. The note read: “If you do everything my red pencil suggests, and of course there will be more in this vein, we will accept your novel for publication. But if you decline to follow my red pencil’s indispensable advice, then we will decline to publish.”

Fourteen years gone! Outrun by the cohort of my generation, I lusted for print as Jacob panted after Rachel. To the editor I wrote: “Seven years have I labored for these words, and yet another seven years; so I say unto you, Nay, not one jot or tittle will I alter or undo.”

To which the blessed editor replied: “OK, we’ll take it anyway.”

He died suddenly and young, at 42 – I have survived him by decades – and by then I had praised him a thousand times over. And a thousand times over he admonished me: “You think I’m a great editor only because I never edited you.” It is axiomatic, I am obliged to add, that my second first novel (balances zero) has never once met the eye of another living mortal.

And that is how one diffident, obsequious, self-effacing writer became ferociously invisible, at home among the ghosts. And so she remains.

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