Books: Brilliant Creatures — Chapter 2 |
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Brilliant Creatures: Chapter 2

~ two ~

ou don’t take sugar, do you?’ shouted Janice, not so much asking a question as stating a fact — as well she might, because she had been making Lancelot cups of coffee for many months. Her excuse for forgetting such things was that he wasn’t normally supposed to be there. Actually nowadays he was usually there all the time, having discovered that to take up his privilege of staying away was tantamount to removing his finger from the dike. Not for the first time he pondered the easy, imperceptibly divided stages by which he had progressed from valued counsellor, meeting Victor over lunch at the Garrick or at carefully planned planning meetings complete with agenda, to hapless dogsbody moving one step ahead of catastrophe, with nowhere to park and haunted by a secretary whose fog-horn voice was a warning that something enormous was travelling just behind it.

‘This came,’ yelled Janice, vaguely waving a manila folder before putting it down in front of him. ‘From that chap in Los Angeles. You said you wanted to see it.’

Focusing on the front of the manila folder helped blur the image of Janice going away, so that she looked merely like a hessian-wrapped bale of sponge rubber floating out of the room under its own power. A typed label said: ‘A World History of the Short, by Ian Cuthbert’. Just under that it said ‘An Expanded Synopsis’. Lancelot did not want to see that word ‘synopsis’. At the very least he wanted to see a label saying ‘A First Draft’. Lancelot had already seen a synopsis of this book and did not really want to see another, however heavily revised. Ian Cuthbert had been given an advance of several thousands of pounds for this book during the initial flurry of activity when Lancelot had joined the firm. One of several old friends from whom Lancelot had made the capital error of commissioning books, Ian Cuthbert was a particularly flagrant proof that in such circumstances the possessor of a wayward temperament, far from nerving himself to behave more predictably for friendship’s sake, will actually become less pindownable than ever.

‘In A World History of the Short’, Lancelot read for what seemed the hundredth time, ‘the course of history is traced in terms of what has been achieved, attained, distorted and destroyed by one type of man — the short man. At first seeming to be the kind of humorous tour de force that would ordinarily be expected from so irreverent and variously erudite an author, the book will quickly reveal itself to be as deeply serious as its tone is gay ...’

An unfortunate word in Ian’s case, thought Lancelot: a book so shamelessly devoted to its author’s physiologically based obsession should not be an indulgence of his psychosexual quirks as well. Lancelot skipped the rest of the blurb cum preamble — which occupied two, or more like one and a half, A4 pages — and sampled the synopsis proper. There was scarcely a phrase he did not recognise at a glance.

‘... that Keats and Pope were not the only short poets ... Horace, too, was of small stature ... arising in the case of Alexander of Macedon ... Pippin the Short. Would Napoleon have invaded Russia if he ... Orde Wingate ... Lord Nelson ... Babyface Nelson ... in Andrei Bely’s great novel Petersburg[1] the hero’s father, Apollon Apollonovitch Ableukhov, is specified as being 56 inches high ... Mozart, Wagner, Stravinsky ...’

‘Irreverent,’ said Lancelot to himself. ‘God what an out-of-date word.’ He added half a cup of caffeinated low-quality coffee to the cup of decaffeinated high-quality coffee already in his system. Nowadays he did not drink alcohol in the mornings, with the result that during the period before lunch he was no longer able to identify interior disquiet as anything else except interior disquiet. Unless he missed his guess, this revised synopsis was actually shorter, if he could use that adjective without nausea, than the previous version. Skipping like a flat stone over smooth water, he read on.

‘... can thus be regarded as a sign of Franco’s success in coming to terms with his psychological make-up ... from Lenin to Yezhov ... Stalin, on the other hand, not only appeared as a tall man in the official portraiture — which would probably have been careful to represent him in that manner even without direct intervention from the Kremlin — but stood on a box behind the parapet of the Lenin mausoleum when taking the salute in Red Square ... in the early years of his popularity Alan Ladd stood on a box but there is some evidence that as his power increased, the heroine was obliged to stand in a hole ... the obvious relish Montherlant takes from describing Saint-Simon as unusually small ... Balzac, Claudel, Péguy ... Caruso, Bjoerling ... Bernard Berenson ... the horizontal direction taken by Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie architecture was one of the two possible reactions to his physical stature, the other being, of course, the projected mile-high skyscraper ... classic paper by Ernest Jones on the chess-player Paul Morphy shows the danger of an exclusively Freudian approach in a case where surely Adler’s emphasis should be paramount even if not exclusive ... Beerbohm, Kipling, T. E. Lawrence, Lawrence Durrell ...’

Lancelot closed the folder and shifted it to one side. Plainly at this rate Ian’s manuscript would never be forthcoming. As well as almost wholly lacking the brilliance for which its author was supposed to be famous, the synopsis, under its doggedly frolicsome tone, had the unmistakable dead ring of lost conviction. Lancelot remembered tales of a famous author-about-town whose last book, published incomplete after his death, had been coaxed from him chapter by chapter, one payment at a time. But in that case the payments were fractions of a hypothetical advance which had never been given in the first place. Ian’s advance had been enormous. A World History of the Short was a standing reproach to Victor Ludorum, a blatant reversal of the sound business principle by which authors must deliver a manuscript now in order to be paid with inflated currency later.

Lancelot, who had read modern languages at Oxford, could remember the day when Ian Cuthbert had been the most promising talent in a Cambridge so full of promise that it had made Oxford feel provincial. Ian’s contemporaries had plotted to take over the British theatre and in a remarkably short time they had actually done so. But their mental energy had seemed like indolence when you looked at Ian. He had worn his overcoat like a cape and talked about what Gide had said to Roger Martin du Gard as if he had been there to overhear it[2]. He had published in the Cambridge Review an article on Empson that not even Empson could fully understand. Balthus had given him a small drawing[3]. Yet for some reason the whole frostily coruscating galaxy of Ian’s creative intellect had remained locked in its closet. While less gifted deviants came out and conquered, Ian went further in. At the height of his influence as a literary taste-maker he was already notoriously difficult to deal with. He was responsible for the most nearly successful attempt to revive the reputation of Denton Welch[4], but his own book on Welch materialised only as a pamphlet. Officially appointed by the relevant public agency to edit a comprehensive magazine of the arts, he was like a general with a million tons of equipment pinned down on the beach by nothing except an excess of opportunity. The magazine used up the budget for a dozen issues without appearing once. Similarly his thrice-renewed three-year contract with one of the fashion magazines engendered little except legends about the size of his emolument, which was increased from generosity to extravagance in an attempt to make him produce more, and then from extravagance to munificence in an attempt to make him produce anything. At the editorial working breakfasts — there were always at least two of the titled photographers present to capture the scene for posterity — Ian spat witty venom through clenched teeth, poured nitric acid on other people’s ideas and died of love for a young painter called Monty Forbes, whom he wooed by telling obscure stories about Cocteau and Radiguet[5]. Ten years later he was still in love, still unrequited, and could scarcely be depended on to turn up for his own funeral. Lancelot was on the verge of admitting to himself that A World History of the Short had been a mistake from its inception. Ian’s sense of humour, though real, was anything but genial, and only a comprehensively forgiving spirit could begin to get away with an idea in such bad taste. Probably it wasn’t even much of an idea, though they had laughed heartily enough while hatching it, and three different television comedy teams had since endorsed their judgement by mounting sketches based on the same notion. Now Ian was sitting in Los Angeles, the huge advance long spent. The time in Los Angeles was three hours behind New York. Lancelot didn’t want to think about New York. In his room at the Casa Perdida Motel on Santa Monica Boulevard, Ian would be staring now at the pasteboard wall, while no doubt the stabbed corpse of some forgotten young actor floated outside in the swimming pool, whose surface would be thinly rippled by the drip of water from a green plastic hose uncoiled arbitrarily across the neon-lit concrete.

The telephone rang on Janice’s desk. Temporarily putting down the kind of housebrick-thick paperback novel which records how the rape of a Choctaw squaw eventually leads to the foundation of a vast industrial empire, she picked up the receiver and bellowed into its mouthpiece as if it were a cave in whose depths children missing for several days might possibly have taken shelter. ‘If you don’t mind waiting just a moment, I’ll see if he’s available.’ Draping her free hand loosely across the mouthpiece, instead of plunging the whole apparatus into the bucket of kapok which would have been the minimum required to dampen the clamour, she yelled intimately: ‘It’s that Brian Hutchings person you were supposed to see this morning.’

Lancelot was indeed meant to be seeing Brian Hutchings that morning, but was not at all surprised to hear that Brian Hutchings would not be turning up until about lunchtime, which meant that Brian Hutchings would be putting in an appearance somewhere around the middle of the afternoon, it he showed up at all. But this time he was almost bound to make it, the number of postponements and cancellations having grown to the point where even Brian showed signs of being shame-faced. Not in his face, of course: like all literary men who erect sloth into a moral stance, he made sure that his features conveyed little beyond a sneer of contempt for the petty workings of the quotidian world. One of Lancelot’s best ideas, an iconography of modern literary London, had been made dependent on Brian’s producing a set of captions and some kind of loose narrative to link the visual material. For an averagely industrious writer it would have taken two weeks. Brian, with his prestige as an untrammelled literatus on the line, had stretched the business out into a second year.

‘You will try to make it no later than three, won’t you?’ pleaded Lancelot. ‘Because we’ll need some time to look at what you’ve done and give some thought to what still needs doing.’

‘Yeah. I’ll be there. Don’t go on about it.’

‘I’m not really going on about it, just pointing out that there’s an element of time.’

‘You can always forget the whole thing. I don’t like being badgered, OK?’

After several apologies Lancelot managed to secure what sounded like a measure of forgiveness. He got the phone back into its cradle with the same air of relief that one feels when a large fly finally uses the Open part of the window as an exit instead of the closed part as a sounding board. The time he had set aside for coping with the threatened Brian interview he reluctantly decided to spend on yet another tentative investigation of the virtually terminal damage which circumstances seemed to have inflicted on the Gillian Jackson project and beyond that on himself. The whole affair was waiting for him in a large box-file on the top shelf of a low, special set of shelves, crammed with almost nothing but bad news, which crouched to his left and demanded attention with such insistence that the uproar had become self-defeating. The Gillian Jackson box-file had everything in it except something you could publish. It had an outline, lists of chapter headings, photographs of the potential interviewees, magazine tear-sheets of variously sumptuous lay-outs evoking the splendour in which the interviewees lived, a sheaf of memos from Victor telling him to get on with it, and an apple core. This last item was withered and shrivelled in a way that Lancelot was tempted to feel should be regarded as symbolic of the whole undertaking. He removed it without even bothering to wonder how it had got there. He had been leaving things lying around lately. Luckily he did not smoke.

The idea, otherwise known as the concept, was simple, or at any rate had been meant to be. Gillian Jackson, star agony columnist and the most famously intelligent beauty of the day, would interview all the other famously intelligent beauties of the day on the subject of the way they led their lives. Lancelot tried to avoid using the term ‘lifestyle’ in conversation but had little doubt that it would eventually be prominent in the book’s attendant publicity material and perhaps even the title. Yet the idea was strong enough to survive the inevitable hazards. If it turned out that the celebrated ex-wife of the multi-millionaire pop singer led no life at all beyond the effort involved in picking up the telephone to order room-service, that would not especially matter, since any conversation involving Gillian, provided it was long enough, would be automatically marketable. If, on the other hand, the interviewee was someone like Elena Fiabesco, the relatively impoverished aristocrat who managed to live like an empress through sheer improvisational ingenuity, then to that extent the book would be genuinely instructive. It would be a picture book with substance. Failing that, it would be a picture book with style. At the moment it was a picture book with nothing. Victor had agreed with alacrity to the suggestion that Gillian Jackson should write a book. Indeed it had been Victor’s idea that the advance should be so large. Several months went by before it became clear that Gillian Jackson was constitutionally incapable of asking anybody a question. All she could do was answer letters. Unfortunately the approximate target date for publication was by then irrevocable. The book had to be ready for press in the early autumn after the imminent summer, and already it was spring. A manuscript of some kind thus became an indispensable requirement. Since Gillian Jackson could not be expected to supply it, her share of the work would have to be ghosted.

Shopping through the list of available female ghost writers who would also be socially acceptable among the upper-crust and media-star interviewees, Lancelot had quickly realised that effectively there was no such list. The socially acceptable ones were short of reportorial experience and the ones who knew how a tape-recorder worked would have small chance of coaxing from a nuance-conscious interlocutor anything resembling an air of complicity. Really the only suitable candidate was Serena Blake. At one time briefly Lancelot’s mistress, Serena was a recognised adornment in the grander drawing-rooms. She wore clothes well, could talk polite rubbish endlessly at the dinner table, and managed the difficult trick of generating a certain air of originality while being so short of negotiable attainments that she had to scratch for a living. By now in her middle thirties and still intermittently subsidised by a succession of short-suffering lovers, she had tried various things from writing fashion features to running a patisserie, but the thing she tried most often was suicide. She had wrists like a World War I battlefield. She had looked, however, very pretty as she lay back in the heaped pillows of the private hospital room where Lancelot went to see her.

‘Darling, I just couldn’t do it. I’d be terrible. I’d utterly muck up all your deadlines and probably wouldn’t get anything out of them.’

‘All you have to do is get them talking and out it will all spill. You’re one of them, you see. Whereas Gillian isn’t really. She’s Got No Background.’ Lancelot made a mouth with this last sentence to show that it wasn’t his opinion. It was his instinct, but not his opinion.

‘I haven’t either.’

‘Yes, but you’re not worried about it. That’s why they’re all so relaxed while you’re around.’

‘Even though I’m slashing my wrists all the time.’

‘At least they know that while you’re doing that you won’t have time to stab them in the back.’ Lancelot was rather pleased with himself for this and was even more pleased when Serena said she’d give it a try. She extended her bandaged arms to him. As he kissed her and breathed among her short strawberry blonde curls, Lancelot wondered why their affair had lasted only a week.

It was not long before he was reminded of the reason. Serena was so completely disorganised that things which had already been done came undone when she was in the vicinity. How had she ever managed to write those fashion features? Time after time he sat with her to plan interviewing forays and to draw up lists of questions to be asked. Time after time she had come back with notes she could not read or tapes in which well-bred banalities were interrupted by nervous giggles or separated by a long hiss.

For the rest of the morning and most of lunchtime Lancelot shuffled the transcripts of Serena’s touchingly thin interviews into various permutations and combinations. Whichever way he organised them they gave the same effect as an access television programme put on by a consumer group of deaf-mutes staging a protest against dishonest plumbers. It was high time to start admitting to himself that Serena would have to be taken off the case. Doubtless there was some other task she could be given: he didn’t want to be responsible for dumping her altogether. Perhaps she could help with the research for Lady Hildegarde Plomley’s projected book about famous poets and novelists who could draw. This was an idea with everything, except that Lady Hildegarde, the actual writer, had no time to do the actual writing, being far too busy with an extensive television series about Victorian prime ministers. She wasn’t writing that either, but her co-writer had first call on her services. The only drawback with regard to Serena’s taking over the research was that Serena knew next to nothing about literature. As he scooped away at a pot of cottage cheese with chives he decided the difficulty could be overcome by supplying her with lists. That left only the question of who should draw up the lists.

At this point the arrival of Brian Hutchings was announced. The announcement was made by Janice, who had just received the information on the telephone. Lancelot was still recovering from the blast when Brian walked in, but he had the presence of mind, before ushering his guest into seclusion for what could easily be an embarrassing colloquy, to instruct Janice not to disturb him with any phone calls unless they emanated from New York, a large city on the eastern seaboard of the United States. He decided once again not to specify Samantha’s name, in case Janice should at some time repeat it within earshot of his wife — i.e., anywhere in the metropolitan area. As usual Brian was impressive for his air of lean fitness, an effect which became doubly striking when you found out that he made up with a surplus of alcohol for a deficiency of solid food and took no exercise beyond random fornication. He was very good-looking if you didn’t mind the built-in sneer. Very few women minded it at all. Lancelot disapproved of him on all levels and from every viewpoint, but admired his knack for remaining apparently, and probably really, untroubled in the midst of catastrophe — a reversal of the usual liberal tendency to panic about the unimportant.

‘Heard your girl telling you I was here,’ said Brian, when they had withdrawn into the adjacent conference room and spread the meagre contents of the relevant box-file on the big table. ‘How do you stand the row she makes?’

‘She’s quietened down considerably,’ said Lancelot defensively. ‘I took her into a field and we had a little talk.’

‘Hasn’t made her bum any smaller. Is this all the stuff?’

‘Yes,’ said Lancelot, ‘but what we want are the captions to go with it. What have you brought?’

From a limp Indian leather briefcase Brian produced a few sheets of paper, some of them typed and the rest handwritten. Lancelot got the sense that an intention to turn all the handwritten pages into typewritten ones had been hastily put into practice and only partly fulfilled. Some of the sheets of paper had circular stains on them, which when handwriting was involved seemed to entail an always noticeable and often radical redistribution of ink. But at least there were signs of some kind of writing having taken place. After excavating a valley full of sand it is better to unearth an isolated shard than nothing at all.

The Egyptian analogy kept coming back to Lancelot on those occasions, frequent in the next hour, when Brian had trouble deciphering his own hieroglyphics. But there were whole stretches of time, often extending as long as four or even five minutes, when the process of matching what had been written to what had already been decided ought to be illustrated seemed almost orderly. Brian really did know a lot. Group photographs of poets leaning together outside pubs in Soho and Fitzrovia had evoked from Brian some bitter samples of his famously sardonic running commentary on the vanity of bardic ambition. It was a rule in these precious items of iconography that first-rate literary figures were rarely seen together. Each first-rate literary figure was to be seen only with second-rate literary figures. Thus Dylan Thomas was supported by obscure BBC radio producers and various Welsh camp-followers who had come up to London for the weekend and stayed to go broke along with their hero. ‘It is not entirely certain,’ ran one of Brian’s captions, ‘whether the Ewan Gareth Davies who later claimed ownership of the dishevelled locks second from left was a minor academic or an academic miner.’ Lancelot laughed dutifully at this, while tacitly deciding that for libel reasons it would have to be struck out. The same applied to some scathing resumes of what had gone on long ago during visits by ageing, now almost ancient, American beatnik poets to the Albert Hall. Brian had not been present but he had the knack of making you glad that you hadn’t either. He was especially unforgiving about Allen Ginsberg’s beard, much to the fore in photographs otherwise featuring British avant garde poets with such meta-American names as Horowitz. The whole ambience was irredeemably dated — much more so than any preceding period — and Brian knew exactly how to pile critical contempt on top of fate’s decree. It would be a pity to lose any of that but the lawyers would be hovering and these particular photographs were essential if the book were to appeal to anyone at all under forty. Somehow Brian would have to be persuaded to take a rather more yielding view. The trouble was that Brian, who openly despised almost every poet of the modern era, secretly despised the few exceptions.

‘You don’t seem to have actually written much about Tambimuttu,’ said Lancelot tentatively, congratulating himself on being so direct. In fact Brian had obviously written nothing whatsoever about Tambimuttu, but by making the statement conjectural Lancelot had left the possibility open that something relevant might yet be lurking among the papers and had thus put the onus on Brian to be fully explicit.

‘Wasn’t sure that the pictures of him were quite absurd enough,’ said Brian with quiet defiance. ‘We only need one of him wearing the suit and then in the others he should be in that national dress thing that they get themselves up in, what’s it called, a scrotum?’

‘A dhoti.’ Lancelot was impressed, for the nth time, with the way Brian made dereliction sound purposeful, as if what looked to the casual eye like total inefficiency were really part of some long plan. He remembered, better than if it had been yesterday, an occasion some ten years back when a diaphanous pamphlet of Brian’s short stories, published under Brian’s personal imprint, had been recommended among the current artistic events in an arts round-up column of a magazine to which Lancelot had been adviser. Lancelot could still recall the name of the magazine but could not, strive as he might, remember what the column had been called. Something monosyllabically spondaic. What’s In? Up Now? And the pamphlet’s title, what had that been? Anyway, it was felt at editorial level that Brian should be given assistance in the task of making sure that those few people who wrote to him at the Perihelion Press requesting a copy of the pamphlet — The Day, that was it — should actually receive the advertised item in return for their money. It was called a Credibility Operation. The mere offer of assistance had been enough to arouse Brian’s witheringly expressed defensiveness, but what impressed Lancelot was not the pitch of invective so much as the sheer amount of time Brian had been able to expend on the logistics. With three unpaid but enslaved girl assistants on tap, it took two days to acquire envelopes slightly bigger than the pamphlet. Envelopes slightly smaller than the pamphlet had materialised promptly enough. In fact if Lancelot had not providentially arrived the pamphlet would probably have been trimmed to fit them. But it had taken a further stage — in which a hundred envelopes large enough to hold framed wall paintings by Paolo Veronese[6] had been duly purchased, brought to the office and compared wonderingly with the object meant to go in them — before envelopes roughly the right size were finally acquired. All available cash having thus been exhausted, it was another day before an expedition was ready to leave the office in search of postage stamps. The post office was just around the corner but unfortunately the corner took the form of a public house. A second expedition had to be fitted out in order to find the first. Remembering all this, Lancelot became abstracted, giggled when he came to himself, and said: ‘We’ve made some progress.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘I mean I’m delighted with what you’ve done, honestly. It’s really terrifically funny and brilliantly interesting. But we do need to close those gaps quite soon or we’ll miss the revised publication date.’

‘Would that matter so much? What’s the hurry?’

‘It’s already been in the catalogue twice. You get libraries budgeting for these things and if they don’t turn up the firm’s credibility sags.’

‘Not much of a reason to get your knickers in a twist.’

Lancelot could either agree and half-make his point or disagree and see his point forgotten in the resulting argument, so he agreed. Having established between them that all was going well in spite of the world’s folly, they packed up the work, Lancelot having first, by way of Janice, ensured that Brian’s scraps of paper were photocopied and the copies placed carefully in the box-file, which thus became one of the few box-files on Lancelot’s disaster shelf to have gained weight through any other reason except memos from Victor. It was a small plus but at least it was not a clear minus. That made it a large plus. Lancelot was still palely aglow from it when, having shown Brian out, he returned to his office and was informed by Janice that someone calling herself Samantha had telephoned but that she, Janice, had put her, the said Samantha, off, on the grounds that he, Lancelot, had left instructions that he did not want to be distracted, hadn’t he? And no, there hadn’t been any mention that she, this Samantha person, had been telephoning from New York, although come to think of it there had been a sort of international effect on the line. Yes, she, Janice, was ready to concede that she, Samantha, had telephoned him, Lancelot, several times in the past, but she, Janice, could scarcely be expected to remember one name among a stream of others, and anyway he, Lancelot, had said nothing about making an exception for a familiar name, only about a possible call from New York. Which hadn’t, Janice reminded him in the voice of a toast-master talking to a crop-duster, been mentioned.

Read on: Chapter Three