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Rancour
An essay by Tim Parks








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What the gods most required of man was recognition. But it wasn’t enough to extort this with divine manifestations. Already the first to assume human forms, the Olympians complicated matters by appearing as beggars, or strangers: Zeus at the court of Lycaon, Dionysus at the house of Icarius. Certainly it’s a tough proposition to treat every panhandler as if he might be God. Clearly one was only a step away from the wearisome modern demand that one recognize the divinity in all men. In this respect it has to be granted that writers are more accommodating. Or you could say rather that they take fewer risks: they rarely turn up without a visiting card. So it was that the day I met V.S.Naipaul his books were everywhere in evidence.

Unrecognized, the gods wreaked the most appalling revenge. But Naipaul had long gone beyond that. He had been awarded the Commonwealth Prize for Literature, hence was firmly placed in the Pantheon. At the conference, where he talked about his work, and then the celebratory lunch where we sat opposite each other, he expressed eloquent opinions on racism and evil authority, earnest comments on his native Trinidad. But what was most evident was how much he was revelling in the buzz of recognition, a god listening to the chatter of human worship. I found him entirely charming. And at the same time couldn’t help remarking that in all the writers I have met there is this extraordinary gap between what their work appears to be about – impeccably commendable – and the driving impulse behind it, an unslakable thirst for recognition.

Why did I start writing, then? Or, to put it in a slightly more complicated way: how is it that one knew one wanted to be a writer without knowing what writing meant, without appreciating what kind of recognition it was one yearned for? Was there, in the beginning, a clear vision of self as writer: a grown-up, glamorous, guru figure in some foreign villa somewhere? Or simply an impulse: write. How difficult it is to establish this point! All I really know is that, both spiritually and technically, it began with copying. And, notoriously, with copying authors I didn’t understand: Samuel Beckett and Henry Green. One could have copied writers one understood better: Graham Greene, Anthony Powell, people whose themes and moral engagement were clear enough. But perhaps it was exactly the combination of being immensely excited by something without in the least understanding it that drew me to Beckett and Green. They were divinities for me. I was in their thrall. How many years would it be before I realized that this is the only relationship a writer really wants with his readers?

At the university we were allowed to submit a piece of ‘creative writing’ for possible bonus points in our final exams. I wrote a few pages entitled ‘The Three of Us’. My first production. It was dismissed with a D. Curiously, I cannot recall being greatly upset by this. I simply thought: One day I shall bury you all. Was this the first time I framed those words for myself, words since repeated, though rarely shared, a thousand times? I cannot recall. But no doubt it was the same sense of self against the world that, again without for a moment understanding why, responded so warmly to the unexpected and unchristian outbreaks of Beckett’s narrators. I remember in particular a few lines in From and Abandoned Work: ‘Whereas a bird now, or a butterfly, fluttering about and getting in my way, all moving things, getting in my path, a slug now, getting under my feet, no, no mercy.’ And he hits out with his stick. Or there is the brutal clarification that closes the first paragraph of Malone Dies: ‘Let me say before I go any further, that I forgive nobody.’

That writing is a phenomenon often galvanized by anger is evident enough. How rancorous Shakespeare’s plays are! How Hamlet raves and Lear rages! And Swift and Pope and Byron, and Dickens too in his way. Only those who do not understand what a central part such emotions play in life, could consider Eliot’s description of The Waste Land as ‘one long rhythmical grumble’ reductive. What is not so clear is the nature of the writer’s rancour, where it came from, what it is about. Could it be this matter is taboo?

The Cambridge Board of Examiners failed to discourage me. After a few postgrad months at Harvard I tired of studying other people’s writing and embarked myself on a novel. It went through a very distinct Beckettian phase, followed by a very distinct Greenian phase. Perhaps not insignificantly it was called ‘The Bypass’. I gave it to a lady tutor who found a very kind way of telling me she thought it awful. I remember her asking me why I so obsessively used demonstratives and disorientating word orders. The answer, of course, which I didn’t give, was that Green used them. But at that the time I had no idea why. the divinities I was copying were a foreign land to me. I was like someone repeating words in a language that, not only does he not know, but is not even learning. I shall bury you all, I thought, leaving this nice lady tutor’s house. I must have been past thirty before it occurred to me that precisely this angry impulse was the foreign country I had been setting out to discover. And it wasn’t foreign at all. Just dark. ‘Luke,’ says Darth Vader, ‘you do not know the power of the dark side.’ And how right he is.

Over lunch that day, Naipaul claimed that he knew he was going to be a writer from the beginning. He would never have done anything else. Not even temporarily. Not even part time. He was a writer and that was that. I remarked that if they hadn’t published him, he would have been obliged to do something else. Wouldn’t he? An animated discussion then developed as to whether it was possible for a writer of talent not to be recognized. And if I insisted, enlisting Thomas Gray, that it was indeed possible, then this no doubt was out of the same immodesty that inspired Naipaul to insist that it was not. He genuinely could not imagine a world where his genius would not be recognized. In this he showed himself more confident that the Olympians. But I was thinking of the years between 1979 and 1985. A bedsit in Acton. Two rooms rented from a retired Pole in Kensal Rise. A novel called ‘Promising’, never published; a novel called ‘Leo’s Fire’, never published; a novel called ‘Quicksand’. Never published. A novel called ‘Falling’. Never published. Enough rejection slips to paper Buckingham Palace. ‘It is a gesture of religious faith, religious faith,’ I insisted – growing extremely heated and perhaps rather shrill – ‘to assume that we live in a world where everything receives its just deserts.’ Naipaul smiled and, very charmingly, changed the subject. Clearly he did have religious faith. In himself. For which I envy him.

Those who are most easily and swiftly successful – and so ultimately have less opportunity to develop – are those whose innate anger is skilfully and unimpeachably directed at what is widely perceived to be a proper object of anger. Aside from all the politically engaged fiction the English have produced this century and last, one recalls with some amusement the year three of the six shortlisted novels for the Booker Prize found cause to feature the Holocaust. Sadly, this honourable directing of negative energy has never worked for me. I did once translate a book by a survivor of Birkenau. But though I sometimes wept as I transcribed what I had to, I could never feel as much anger towards the Nazis as one feels, on occasion, for the obtuseness of a colleague, or wife, or editor. Or indeed for Naipaul’s complacency over that lunch. One’s condemnation, no, one’s horror of torturers, murderers, exploiters of every kind is so automatic and complete that it hardly seems worth dramatizing. What would that bring us aside from the reassuring reflection that we still feel ‘the right way’ about things? ‘I have written a very angry novel,’ a contemporary tells me in the Café Rouge on the Old Brompton Road. And he begins to give me the details of the Nestlé scandal. As if the point of Hamlet were that ‘there is something rotten in the state of Denmark’. The newspapers would have told us that.

It was not so much that I was undiscouraged in those early years, as undeterred. Humiliation seems to spur me on. The more birds and butterflies and ducks (‘ducks are the worst,’ says Beckett) get in my path, the more wildly I flail about with my stick. Even though, if I look back, it is with some amazement that I see myself embarking on – what? – the sixth novel, the seventh, with each collecting twenty, perhaps thirty letters of rejection. Perhaps my wife’s faith was important. So much so that one wonders now if one will ever be able to forgive her the generous and self-effacing part she played in what was about to become a career. For finally, perhaps convinced that I was never to be published, I turned my attention to my family, some events in my childhood. And at last the breakthrough came, and came where, in terms of personal relationships, it was most embarrassing. Before its acceptance, however, that novel too went through the familiar round of rejection letters; to kill the meantime I concocted a crime thriller which hinged on the irony that while the hero, desperate for some kind of recognition, condemns the world for its obtuseness, he himself becomes involved in theft, kidnap and murder. Clearly the fellow is loathsome, as the Olympians likewise were hardly fair in obliterating people who could not see that a beggar was a god. Yet character and circumstance were so manipulated in this dark comedy that it was hard not to feel that the protagonist was right about those around him, and that in a way a world so stubbornly complacent could expect little better than to find itself castigated by such an anti-hero. I finished this exercise in displaced rancour at about the time the novel based on my family came out. The latter was generally applauded for its exposure of a gauche and potentially harmful kind of evangelism. Apparently its heart was in an acceptable place. Only a decade later, when it was published in Italy, did I have the shock of coming across a reviewer who put a shrewder finger on the matter: ‘this novel,’ he wrote, ‘has the assurance of someone with the smile of revenge on his lips. He who observes and proves able to tell his story is always the winner over those unable to tell.’

How eager the world is to set up writers and artists on their pedestals. The Pulitzer. The Booker. The Prix Goncourt. To see them as a force for good. The Commonwealth Prize. The Nobel Prize! Inherently liberal, liberating! The courageous writers of Eastern Europe under Communism! What a gift the Rushdie affair has been for the person who endorses this kind of vision! The writer as a champion of human freedom! When the irony is that, beside the criminal, the artist is often the first to take liberties, often at the expense of others, as Rushdie took (and I have taken, indeed even now am taking) a lot of liberties with what others hold sacred. The artist is the first to appropriate the world for his own purposes. Implicitly, often unconsciously, he claims direct contact with some absolute that lies beyond the public good. However much lip-service may be paid at celebratory lunches.

Michelangelo, as we know, was convinced that the figures he sculpted were already present in the rock. He merely used his chisel to expose them. Wasn’t this, like Naipaul’s, a religious faith? In himself. The world was as he saw it. If matter wasn’t simply submitting to his genius, then in some way it was co-penetrative with it. Self annexes other and annuls it. How absurd! Yet if you’d been there at the first unveiling of his David, stood stunned in the piazza before a muscular beauty that had all the elegance and clarity of classical proportion, but throbbing too with a wholly new and vibrant sense of life, you wouldn’t have argued with the artist. You wouldn’t have wanted to sift through the lumps and shards on his studio floor to see whether there mightn’t have been some different, perhaps even better sculpture to be made out of that same piece of rock. For you are convinced, seduced, dazzled. Michelangelo is right, you say, this is how life is, the figure was in the rock.

Art is coercive. It rearranges our mental space, imposes a vision. Rational argument is bypassed, forgotten. So that with the best art one suffers a sense of inevitability – which is exactly the experience of the seduced at the moment they succumb. How can one open a novel of Thomas Bernhard and not be immediately and completely compelled by what suddenly seems the only possible response to a world wallowing in hypocrisy? How can one read the ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’ without feeling, while the enchantment lasts, that this is the perfect, ultimate and only important statement on the relationship between mortal man and immortal artefact?

Art is ‘liberating’ in the sense that it frees you from the grip of whatever other vision you were previously in thrall to. Subjecting you to another. In a process not unlike the now popular serial monogamy. Thus Beckett seduced me, Green seduced me. No one made English prosody more triumphantly his own than Henry Green, with his strange deployment of articles and demonstratives, the bizarre but entirely convincing way he could make life regenerate itself around his wayward syntax. What I had sought to copy, then, in those early days, without being at all aware of it, was a powerful act of seduction. One man’s making the world in his own image, declaring it thus. As a greenhorn might copy a Casanova. Or Zeus a Titan. This to compel the recognition that I had been compelled to give to others. One might, looking back now, have sought to gain it merely by offering people what one thought they wanted. Pleasing the crowd. And perhaps I have tried this from time to time. But the truth is that at the very best such a policy can only bring praise. Not recognition. For real recognition involves the reader’s wholehearted endorsement of my, truly my vision. Not his consumption of something he already knew he wanted. What god would ever pander to the way man saw things? What mortal, in the long run, would feel happy with so accommodating a divinity. Thus the only important reading experiences are those where one sets out with scepticism, only to find oneself enchanted, overwhelmed by a vision that demands our acquiescence. And one’s problem, perhaps, when first one sets out to write, is that one doesn’t really have anything so grand as a vision. Few ever do. So one copies, learning hopefully from the tension between oneself and one’s model. Later it will be a question of learning not to copy yourself.

But we still have to place that rancour. For it is only rudely disguised in righteous anger, only crudely parodied in reductive comedies about criminal fellows who cannot bear the world’s not being as they would wish it, that long list of literary villains, so close, one always feels, to their creators. At that celebratory lunch, Naipaul politely enquired about my own writing and I made the mistake of concluding my brief reply with the self-regarding remark that: ‘The reviewers are generally kind.’ He was on to this weakness in a flash. ‘You read reviews, then?’ he asked. ‘I never do. After all,’ he smiled, ‘one knows the quality of one’s work without them.’ And what has occurred to me, mulling over this conversation through the years, is that one of the problems every divinity must face is this: why do I care to be recognized by there people who are inherently incapable of appreciating my true worth? Why bother with their reviews? And all that anger the gods displayed when recognition wasn’t forthcoming, mightn’t it perhaps have been at least partly directed at themselves for having wanted such a ludicrous thing in the first place? Could it be that Naipaul was unhappy with how happy he was to be lionized at conference lunches? A situation he would doubtless have satirized were he writing about it. Was he furious, perhaps, to find himself human? Is this the artist’s true pathos? One creates a world and still one is human. Is this the source of all his rancour? Or might we alternatively suggest that Naipaul’s withdrawal, his not reading reviews, was made possible precisely by the fact that the world was seeking him out? He was already recognized. In this sense perhaps we guarantee a god’s absence when we praise him with regularity. For few divinities will bother to go on manifesting themselves once their supremacy is established. Most notoriously Jehovah. What we will never know is whether this recognition has reconciled them to their existence.

It is in his dealings with the public that the ambiguity and essential fragility of the writer’s position is revealed. When Rousseau’s Thérèse bore him children, he immediately had them removed and deposited at the local foundling hospital, nor does this appear to have caused him any great suffering. But when a musical score he had written was rejected, he recalls: ‘Deeply distressed at receiving this verdict in place of the praises I had expected, and which were certainly due to me, I returned home sick at heart. Tired out and consumed by grief, I fell ill and for six weeks was not fit to leave my room.’ But one needn’t look so far to see that behind, or perhaps I mean alongside, all that is beautiful and moving in art, all that is genuinely worthy, all that truly opens the heart and lifts the spirit, lies a suffocated scream for recognition. A London paper’s diary tells me how, on receiving a miserable review, Jeanette Winterson went along to the reviewer’s home and shouted abuse at her on her doorstep. A contemporary describes a party where he was harangued by Malcolm Bradbury for a bad review he had written two years before. An editor tells me how the great Thomas Bernhard wrote to his paper demanding to be reviewed because he was, in his own words, ‘the best novelist since the war’. And even the marvellous Calasso once asked me to translate a letter for him in which he complained about a virulent and obtuse review he had received. Though of course he never sent it. For the truth is that a divinity does not and must not stoop to such things. If one has (alas!) no thunderbolt at one’s disposal, a lofty silence is the only resource. Though offhand I can think of two writers who have killed themselves for lack of recognition: Richard Burns in England, Guido Morselli in Italy. If you have the stomach for it, a gesture of that kind will certainly compel some to take you seriously.

Gloucester to Prospero. Gabriel to Anna Livia. Belacqua to the Unnameable. That there is a natural trajectory in a writer’s production seems obvious enough. One begins in a whirlwind of describing telling evoking. The world is so fresh, so interesting, so urgently in need of our engagement. But once the most obvious material is exhausted, what then? My first unpublished attempt, ‘The Bypass’ was all spoken in the northern intonations of my infancy. I was then weary of that. My first published novel spoke of the Christian charismatic movement in the sixties. I could hardly tackle that again. The second featured an office in Acton where I had worked, a secret love affair. Acton is not a place to revisit and one secret love affair is surely enough. So on and on. Marriage will offer much material. Children. In my case people write to me regularly asking for a third book on Italy. But I feel Italy has had more than its fair share of my attention. One can of course go out and seek material. A novel about Christ’s disciples? A novel about the moon landings? But after this has been done once or twice? There comes a point where the mind grows more interested in the way it deals with materials than in the materials themselves. For there have been so many. Or rather, the mind begins to appreciate that the materials cannot be understood separately from its own operations upon them. It starts to claim hegemony, demand the upper hand. There is an entirely natural inward-turning in a writer’s later development. Not a withdrawal from action, but a penetration of what lies behind all action: the seductive, luminous, coercive, shadowy, genial, and rancorous mind.

Henry Green stopped writing in his fifties. A heavy drinker, he seems to have spent most of his time running the family company or chasing women. His favourite activity he described as ‘romancing over a bottle’. Joyce turned away from evocation of the world to evocation of the processes by which the world is evoked. Beckett steadily peeled voice from voice, posture from posture, heading for silence at the same speed as the frog who always jumps half the distance that remains between himself and his goal. No one better than he dramatizes the irony that while the sort of consciousness writing encourages is one that counsels suspicion of self and of words, still one wishes to be recognized for having articulated that fact. ‘No future here,’ comments the narrator of Worstward Ho. And goes on: ‘Alas yes.’ But for recognition of the artist’s essential rancour and its intimate relation to his genius for coercion, the greatest example remains The Tempest, a title that speaks worlds. People like to forget what an angry, punitive, even cynical fellow Prospero is. How quickly he dismisses his daughter’s brave new world! ‘One more word shall make me chide thee, if not hate thee,’ he tells Miranda when she appeals for Ferdinand’s life. His magician’s spells, however beautiful, are designed to bind not please. And if, unlike Malone, Prospero does at the end forgive, how grudgingly it is done. And that only when every enemy is dead or in his power, only when the gesture of relinquishing power provides the final claim to superiority, the ultimate demand for recognition.

‘Style’ – thus Proust, in Contre Sainte-Beuve – ‘is the transformation thought imposes on reality.’ I’m at my desk. About to start again. To attempt that transformation again. What shall I write about? Two or three reviews of my last book concurred in describing the main character as ‘unappealing’. Dear, dear. As Richard III, as Prospero, as Raskolnikov, as Mr Rock, as Molloy, Moran, Malone. People like to forget. But appealingly aware of being unappealing, I had thought. And aware again of how little awareness helps. I stare at the screen. Shall we proceed with this tail-chasing? Aware of wishing to claim recognition for being aware that an appealing awareness of being unappealing does not help? A deep breath. Writing, I tell myself, staring at the screen, involves a complex movement of the spirit in which one is simultaneously aware of the most sublime and the most base. Another deep breath. The impulse to comfort and the impulse to truth were ever at loggerheads, I reflect, still wincing from those reviews. Another breath. ‘Impose’ surely, I remind myself, is the key word in Proust’s formulation – the transformation thought imposes on reality. Again a breath. Until all at once, birds in my path! Ducks! A great flapping and squawking. For I’m reminded of how at the end of that famous lunch with Naipaul I heard the author lean over and say softly to his official hostess that his expenses claim would be arriving shortly. All moving things in my path! Although it seemed he’d arrived chauffeur-driven in a car they’d sent some considerable distance for him. What other expenses could he possibly have? And gossiping over this matter with others at the conference as (however unappealingly) one will, I discovered that the great man is a stickler for expenses. A terrible stickler. Down to the very last penny, I was told. And had been paid for his performance too! Whereas my little talk merely allowed me to waive some paltry fees. Oh, but how well sour grapes can be relied upon to stir the soul! Have at you, quackers! A great flourish of the stick. Or wand. I shall bury you all, I decide. Let’s write about love!


Copyright © Tim Parks 1998

Rancour appears in Tim Parks’s collection of essays, Adultery and Other Diversions.

This essay may not be archived or distributed further without the author’s express permission. Please read the license.

This electronic version of Rancour is published by The Richmond Review by arrangement with the author and his agent.

All rights enquiries to Antony Harwood, Gillon Aitken Associates, 29 Fernshaw Road, London SW10 0TG Tel. +44 171 351 7561 Email: <ant@antonyharwood.com> – please mention The Richmond Review when making rights enquiries.

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