Books: Cultural Amnesia — Heinrich Heine |
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Heinrich Heine (1797–1856), one of the greatest writers in German, spent only the first third of his mature creative life being a great writer in Germany. Already famous for both his poetry and his prose, he went into exile in Paris in 1831, never to return. In 1825 he had volunteered for the Christian baptism that a Jew then needed if he were to gain German citizenship; and he had incurred the derision of some of his fellow Jews as a consequence; but it was his revolutionary political opinions that made emigration advisable. In Paris he continued with the travel journalism that he had already pioneered as a serious form, and added a body of miscellaneous writings recommending a closer identification of French and German intellectual achievement. On whatever subject, he wrote a clear prose whose wide-ranging play of thought has never gone flat: on every page will be found something relevant now. As a cosmopolitan democrat he eventually incurred the disapproval of the more incendiary revolutionaries, and might easily have died in a duel. Instead, he was condemned to the long agony of spinal paralysis, which kept him in bed for the last seven years of his life, during which he wrote and published books and collections that can be seen in retrospect to express the romantic age at its height. His status as a displaced person, and a prophetic statement—that those who burn books will one day burn people—combined to place him, politically, a hundred years before his time. Nietzsche thought him second only to Goethe among the German poets. Beginners who start with his poem about the slave ship (“Die Sklavenschiff”) will get the immediate and correct impression of a brave liberal intelligence combined with a vaulting lyric gift. Both characteristics transferred readily to his prose, making it one of the first and finest models for what we now see as desirable in literary journalism.

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I take pride in never being rude to anyone on this earth, which contains a great number of unbearable villains
who set upon you to recount their sufferings and even recite their poems.

THE JOKE STILL rings true. Hearing a man recite his poems unbidden remains even worse than hearing him recount his sufferings. So Heine’s sarcastic crescendo is as funny as ever after more than 150 years. But the statement as a whole has been overtaken by time. The possibility of choosing not to be rude has long vanished. It was already vanishing when Yeats said, “Always I encourage, always.” A few years later, and Yeats’s prominence on the radio would have ensured that the heaps of unsolicited manuscripts he was already receiving would have increased to teetering hills that he could no longer consider being polite about. The mass media, even when a literary figure did his best to avoid their embrace, eventually made it certain that there could be no natural, human connection between the illuminated exemplar and the solicitous disciple. There is no real relationship, for example, between ordinary letters and fan letters. In the pre-celebrity-culture world, an important writer received a lot of letters, but they all, in some way, had to do with his work, even when the correspondent’s own work was the subject under discussion. Later on, in the celebrity age we now all inhabit, the fan letter is connected only with the addressee’s fame: it has nothing to do with his achievement. If it has, it is not really a fan letter: it is an ordinary letter buried in the pile of fan letters. Circumstances dictate that it will be buried deep.

A woman much more original than she is often given credit for, Greta Garbo was one of the first international celebrities to spot what was going on. Joan Crawford answered every fan letter she was ever sent: she was under the illusion that they were ordinary letters, and that there were just a lot of them. Garbo never answered a single fan letter in her whole Hollywood career. She ordered them destroyed before they reached her. The few that did reach her she threw into the fire. She was acting on the defensible assumption that they had already done their work simply through having been sent. She also showed acute insight in divining that there was no appropriate response. The sort of person who might send a fan letter would take any form of personal reply as the beginning of a relationship. It was not given to one person to maintain even a small proportion of those possible relationships in a single lifetime. Dismissing the prospect was thus the only way of dealing with it. As the most famous woman in the world, only Garbo could know that the sole means of behaving politely was to subtract herself from the whole monstrously amplified anomaly.

It will be argued that Heinrich Heine was not Greta Garbo. But he practically was. Heine was famous on the scale of Byron and Victor Hugo. If there could be a twentieth-century equivalent to his kind of literary prominence—you have to imagine a Philip Larkin as famous as Jeffrey Archer—he would be snowed under with correspondence that had no clear instigation except his fame. As things were, the flow of attention was on a scale that, though great, allowed him to think he still had a choice. Even in retrospect, however, it is remarkable that he chose not to be rude. His nature must have been uncommonly sweet. It might also have been perilously gullible. The sheer volume of correspondence with which any literary figure, no matter how obscure, is nowadays inundated has the dubious advantage of uncovering a full taxonomy of the literary aspirant. The correspondence from the obvious maniacs bears a disturbing resemblance to the correspondence from the apparently sane. The disturbing element springs from the dreadful suspicion that the normal-sounding ones might not be quite all there either. Leaving aside the typical appurtenances of the nut letter—the many closely written or typed pages, the numerous cut-out inserts, the documentary evidence to illustrate some rankling item of litigation—the things that the psycho supplicants want are wanted also by the sane. They want you to read a manuscript. Often the manuscript is huge, but they want you to read it. Some of them, verging on the nutty, want you to help write the next draft. A few, nutty but perhaps not irreversibly so, will generously suggest that after you have arranged for its publication, the title page might carry your name. A very few, nutty on a career basis, will insist that it carry both your names, and there will be the occasional one—the supreme nut, the dingbat in excelsis—who thinks your next book should carry his name. Backing up all these suggestions, in all their varieties, will be the general argument that the publishing industry, as at present constituted, is not favourable to the individual talent. The publishers have formed a conspiracy against any fresh voice.

To the occasional sane-sounding letter informed by the same assumption, it is possible, if one has the time, to reply with the truth. The truth ought to be so obvious that it needs no pointing out to anyone not mentally unbalanced, but there is always the chance that your correspondent has lost his judgement temporarily just from the fact of knowing you, and knowing you to be a writer—as you yourself might temporarily lose your judgement just from knowing somebody and knowing him to be a doctor. If you have ever found yourself describing your symptoms to a new acquaintance who had until then been under the impression that he was meeting you in social circumstances for a few drinks, you will see how it happens that people who have been in your life for years—good, solid friends, sometimes—can be struck simultaneously with the unfortunate urge to write (the sudden disease that Dr. Johnson, following Juvenal, called scribendi cacoethes) and the capacity to forget common manners. Anyway, whatever the reasons, and without warning, someone you thought you knew well is telling you that he requires your assistance in getting his manuscript past the usual barriers thrown up by publishers to ward off original talent. It is made clear that a recommendation, to your agent if not to your publisher, is the very least favour expected. What do you say?

You say the truth: there are no such barriers. Publishers are in business to publish a marketable manuscript, and go to some expense employing professional readers in order to ensure that such manuscripts may be found, among the mountain ranges of unmarketable ones. (A single glance at the clogged throughput of this traffic in any publisher’s office would be enough to convince the independent onlooker that the old saw about the average novel is nothing but the truth: the average novel does not get published.) Recommendations never work: publishers are too well aware that whoever does the recommending might be under pressure, and anyway an author’s personal marketability is no proof of his capacity to detect it in others. You might be sincerely passionate on behalf of a friend, but sincerity will not do: a good publisher will sometimes be prepared to lose money on a writer he believes in, but not on one that you believe in. Just making these simple points will take you at least a page of prose, which will make you impatient of lost time, so try to remember that it’s your friend, and not you, who has tested the friendship. Blame him, not yourself. Getting harder not to be rude, isn’t it? Things will be easier all round if he has included his manuscript, because the awesome bulk of its presence will help you reclassify him in the screwball category where he belongs.

For a close friend, a phone call is probably the best way out of it. Don’t hesitate to sound as if you are too short of time to write. You are: you are a writer, and so time spent writing without financial reward is time worse than wasted—unless you are writing for pleasure, which in this case you most certainly aren’t. For everyone else, a form letter is probably the best course. It should say that you get hundreds of such requests. You won’t be exaggerating by much: over a lifetime, even the most determinedly hermetic poet will receive a few score unpublished novels and autobiographies, which can find their way to an igloo, a shack in the desert, a hut on the beach. Make the point that publishers do not listen to recommendations, they employ readers: and add the point that agents almost invariably do not. This will defuse in advance the standard hint that if your correspondent could be recommended to your agent it would smooth his path. If the unjustly neglected manuscript has not turned up with the first letter, it will almost certainly turn up with the next, so to ward off that dreaded eventuality your first letter should make the crucial point that you are under legal advice not to read unsolicited manuscripts. If this is not strictly true, it ought to be; because if you sought legal advice, that is the advice you would get. Anyone self-obsessed enough to hand you his manuscript is more than self-obsessed enough to sue you if he thinks a future work by you is based on his idea. In Hollywood, which has a full century of experience as the laboratory for every legal aspect of handling literary property, no written material, in any form or at any length, is ever dealt with for five minutes unless the legal rights attached to it are beyond dispute. There is nothing perverse about such caution. It is the logical consequence of everyone—including your admirably sane friend—honestly believing that the idea he just wrote down is unique.

Heine, with his fatal pride in his own politeness, sounds as if he might have trouble with modern autograph hounds. In his day their activities were restricted by limitations on transport, and on the technology to follow through after an initial refusal. Today, an autograph nut can travel hundreds of miles in a short time to catch you at your latest location before you can move on, and has several routes through which to forward his requests. He doesn’t even have to confront you in order to pester you to distraction. A modern Heine should be smart enough to keep his own address out of Who’s Who. He should also keep his agent’s address out of it. (Anyone who needs his agent’s name in Who’s Who is lucky to be in Who’s Who in the first place.) But his publisher, unless instructed not to, will forward requests from autograph freaks, and is even morally obliged to if they are marked “Personal: Please Forward.” Straightforward requests for an autograph to add to the correspondent’s world-beating collection can be binned with a clear conscience if a self-addressed stamped envelope is not included. If there is an SASE, there is probably also a heart-rending account of how little time the correspondent has left to live, owing to a progressive disease inexorably depriving him of the strength to do anything except (he forgets to say the next bit) send mad requests for autographs to every minor celebrity on Earth. After struggling with his conscience and losing, Heine will probably send off his name. After struggling with mine and winning, I usually bin the letter and keep the stamp, but that’s probably why I haven’t written anything as tenderly humane as “Das Sklavenschiff” lately. All letters from dealers, SASEs included, should be burned immediately, as if infected. As a clue, people asking you to sign first-day covers are always dealers. Never believe they are philatelists. And anyway, how sane is a philatelist?

Met in person, autograph hounds are a big problem with no easy solution until your fame fades, whereupon their absence might make its disappearance less painful. Even when his worldwide instant recognition factor was at last blurring at the edges, Cary Grant, if asked for an autograph, invariably said “Go get Elvis Presley’s.” He was being courageous even in those days, and today it would be folly to turn down any such request so abruptly, because there is now no way of knowing how many of the people you rebuff are homicidal maniacs—all you can be certain of is that there are far more of them about. It is sometimes wise to cut things short when assailed by an aggressively rude man, but never when he has a child with him. Though he may demand that you sign everything including the child, a man shamed in front of his offspring won’t forget it, and you should try to follow the rule of never making an enemy except deliberately. Of the regulars who hang around the stage door, the door of the Ivy and any other door that a celebrity might come out of, the genuinely banged-up man in the wheelchair should have your signature, for what it is worth. (If it is Madonna’s it will be worth a substantial amount: but yours he might conceivably want for itself.) The others are merely head cases and if you waste time standing in the rain to write in their books, so are you.

When asked to sign his own books, Heine will be on safer ground. If someone bearing a well-thumbed copy of an author’s book conveys the impression that the addition of a signature to its flyleaf or title page will raise it to the status of the Rosetta Stone or the shield of Achilles, the author will find it hard to disagree. But Heine will need to keep his wits about him. At book signings, and especially after readings, there will be people in the queue carrying every book he ever wrote. Most of them will be genuine admirers, but some of them will be dealers, and it is often hard to tell the difference. Either way, they should be sent to the end of the queue, so that people who have actually purchased your book are not kept waiting. When the person with the teetering armful finally gets his turn, the question arising is no longer about whether to sign, but about how. For safety, the author should put the current date after his name. Harold Pinter once asked a man who proffered a first edition of one of his early plays for signing: “I suppose if I didn’t date this,” (pause) “it would look as if I’d signed it at the time,” (pause) “and that would make it more valuable,” (pause) “wouldn’t it?” The man could not disagree, and Pinter wrote the current date. Heine might not mind helping a dealer make money, but most authors do: they remember too vividly how little they earned from an entire print-run to enjoy seeing some stranger cash in from a single copy of it.

Some authors are armoured against signing anything at all except the initial presentation copies, and when a successful author finds out how valuable that makes them, he might cease doing even that much, and just include a card. (The best method anyway, because it means that the recipient, if he wants to, can sell the book without embarrassing you both.) Another famous playwright of my acquaintance was once given free board and lodging by the illustrious director Mike Nichols in Los Angeles, and wanted to pay back his host by presenting him with a full set of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time novels, which Nichols much admired, and presumably would have admired even more if he had been regaled with a set of first editions all signed by the author. At great expense and trouble, the famous playwright got a set of firsts together, but Powell would not sign them. He was well aware of who was asking and of whom the gift was for, but his pen stayed in his pocket. That was his principle and he stuck to it, even though a set of first editions of A Dance to the Music of Time which had provably passed through the hands of the famous playwright, of Mike Nichols and of Powell himself would have been an association copy fit for a museum. It could have been, however, that Powell was afraid of exactly that: becoming a museum piece. There is something unsettling about being sought out for one’s name; as mummies in the mummy cloth are wound, one feels wrapped up in documentation; breathing comes hard. I quite understand why some writers try to get out of public life altogether. Perhaps Heine today would take J. D. Salinger’s route to privacy, although Heine’s blessed sense of the absurd—still scintillating after all this time—might tell him in advance that solitude is no guarantee of being left alone.

But really there are no rules except rules of thumb, and for a quiet life it is probably better just to sign everything put in front of you, even bare skin, and try to think of something useful while you are wasting the energy. After all, back there at the start you wanted to be well-known. Even Heine did. He just didn’t want to pay the price of being a good poet: hearing bad poetry. But if he had built up an infallible early-warning system to ensure that no ninny could ever reach him he would have been less human than he was, and therefore less of a poet. So it all worked out in the end. It usually does. Unless you actually get killed, you have handled fame as well as can be done. At the Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide I once saw George Harrison staving off the autograph hounds with the brilliantly enigmatic explanation “It’s Thursday.” I thought it a marvellous technique: funny enough to satisfy the normal, and plausible enough to soothe the sort of psycho who had already accounted for John Lennon. George Harrison did as good a job as an unmanageably famous man can do to stay sane. But the man who broke into his house and stabbed him to the point of death had never stayed sane at all.

If Heine were here with us, he would have something new to write about, and it would be edifying to hear his conclusions. My own guess is that he would find, now as then, no alternative to being polite, while being obliged to admit that some of the unbearable villains nowadays come armed with more frightening weapons than the well-rehearsed grievance and the tritely rhymed poem that doesn’t scan. The admission would soon lead him to the real subject: what happens to the women. Heine had a tender heart, and for any man with one of those the real and abiding questions about modern fame concern the completeness with which it takes famous women back to the primeval forest. There are some famous men who pick up a female stalker: but there are no famous women who do not pick up at least one male stalker, and very famous women pick them up by the platoon. The only reason you hear so little about the restraining orders the women have to take out is that they are doing their desperate best not to attract any more copycats. Stalking is mainly a male preserve because, for men, love is an aesthetic event in the first instance. Though the stalker’s mentality is a long way from the mentality of a lyric poet, it is not impossibly far. Stalkers are murderers—they all are, without exception—whose killer instincts are triggered by beauty. Garbo guessed that fact by another instinct, the one for survival: through those finely flared nostrils, she had correctly sensed that a man ready to rob a woman of her peace would just as easily take her life if given the chance. Heine’s politeness depended on the idea that it is right to be nice to strangers. It is a civilized idea, but it is not always correct, because life is not always civilized. Once upon a time, it never was, and being rude to strangers was the only way to stay safe. The truly awful thing about the celebrity culture is how far it takes us back.