Books: At the Pillars of Hercules — Introduction to the Picador Edition |
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At the Pillars of Hercules — Introduction to the Picador Edition

A good screenplay writer writes fragments as if in the knowledge that eventually it is the fragment that will live. But he can’t tell which fragment it will be, so he puts everything he has into them all. In The Manchurian Candidate George Axelrod gives Angela Lansbury a moment to ice the nerves, when she tells Laurence Harvey, ‘I never knew it would be you.’ She means that when she joined the plot they didn’t tell her that the post-hypnotically programmed assassin would be her son. They didn’t tell her that he would be the sleeper.

I never knew that my early critical bits and pieces would be the sleepers. One hesitates to imply that they are bound for immortality, or even that they have lasted in any integral sense: but there always seems to be a new generation of students — real students, the ones who don’t need an exam to keep them reading — who seek out my first collections of criticism in second-hand bookshops and bring them to be autographed at book-signings. They hang around afterwards. I recognize them: they are the way I once was. Just from the way their clothes look slept in you can tell that they write in margins and fill endpapers with notes. Having hustled a second glass of the cheap white wine, they want to quarrel with some phrase that I long ago forgot I ever wrote. They’ve got it there, underlined, with three exclamation marks to indicate disbelief. They want to argue the point. They all have different points they want to argue, but on one thing they agree: they don’t think I wasted my time writing this stuff. They think I wasted my time writing anything else.

It’s the most frustrating brand of flattery, but there might be something to it. Some of us are the most ourselves — perhaps the nearest to being ourselves we will ever get — when talking about someone else. Certainly a magnificent detachment was an ideal I could never cultivate in my self-imposed role as the Metropolitan Critic. That was the title I gave my first collection in 1974: in 1995 (acting in response, as we say in my television production office, to several letters that flooded in) I reissued it with footnotes designed to mitigate its follies. This second collection likewise was left behind with my first publisher and went out of print for a length of time that should have ensured its irretrievable burial. But if there was a market for the reissue of the first volume, then the second might have the same chance of resurrection, especially since it contains, on the face of it, fewer excesses crying out for an appended disclaimer. The danger here might be that I was getting duller as I cleaned up my act.

Yet I can’t remember putting any conscious limit on my determination to let enthusiasm rip. My aim was still, as it still is, to emulate Eugenio Montale’s desired quality for writing about art: seriata scherzevole a playful seriousness. It was just that by this stage I had accumulated enough experience of verbal aerobatics to pull out of the stunt before my smoking trajectory intersected with the ground.

In all other respects, the opportunity offered me by the London literary editors — overqualified, confident and mischievous to a man, especially the women — was too good to miss. Anything I felt like throwing into the review, they would print. Over the top was exactly the way they wanted me to go. As long as they understood it themselves, no reference could be too obscure or allusion too fleeting. In those days the reader, if he encountered something on the page that he could not immediately understand, was still trusted to renew his subscription. Kenneth Tynan accused me of having invented Gianfranco Contini but he knew that he was joking, just as he knew that showing off is a part of the theatricality and that theatricality is a part of this kind of writing. All you have to remember is that you’re not the whole show. I sometimes think, looking back, that solipsism made my admiration for others seem the more selfless — with the concomitant benefit that I could do a hatchet job without being thought of as having laid claim to a monopoly of objective truth.

Some wishful thinking there, perhaps. A piece like the one on Lord Longford was designed to sting. I thought he was dangerously wrong. (Adding insult to injury, I also thought, during my long campaign of mockery against him, that by pointing out the essential hubris behind his vaunted quest for humility I was helping to save his life: I still believe that if he had secured Myra Hindley’s release he would have been lynched along with her.) But the urge to excoriate was always tempered by the likelihood that you might bump into your victim in some salon, if not saloon. The Modish London Literary World (a term from Dr Leavis’s demonology that I took delight in misappropriating whenever possible) still had finite boundaries, in which I was as pleased to feel at home as only the interloper can be. Of the writers still alive at the time I wrote these pieces, I knew several well and physically met almost all. Their corporeal presence thrilled me even when I had reservations about what they had become. Robert Lowell I thought the most frightful ass (an estimation he reciprocated with all the strength of the dollar) but it was his wonderful early poetry that I remembered after I had finished laughing at his absurd professions of helplessness. Lillian Hellman was plainly as corrupt as the corpses of whichever defenceless animals had provided her fur coat, but Dashiell Hammet had once loved her and no doubt I would have too, putting her unrepentant Stalinism down to playfulness. Gore Vidal was dangerously sardonic but charming beyond belief. And to meet a man like Philip Larkin at the peak of his career, fully aware of his own faults yet guarding his greatness like a sacred mystery, was to experience hero worship in its purest form. There they were, all around me. I loved it all. I thought it would go on like that for ever.

As things turned out, my days in Soho were already numbered. In the Greek Street pub that gave my book its name I eventually, and none too soon, had to face the possibility that I was drinking myself sick. Aided by public demand, I took the decision to quit cold. Subtracting myself from temptation with a headlong retreat to respectability, I left the Modish London literary World, never really to return. Television became my stock in trade. Instead of the writer I might have been and my friends generously expected me to be, I became a different kind of writer altogether, and there are those who doubt whether I am any longer a writer at all. Married to a scholar whose solid brilliance chasteningly reminds me that to serve literature entails self-denial, I am obliged to consider that self-display can go only so far. But there was a time when I made it go as far as it could, and today, when I write outside television at all, this is still the kind of writing I most like to do: with a heart less light now, yet with the same conviction that in response to the writing of others the self will be revealed most usefully, whether in praise or blame. It would be better, of course, to leave the self out of it altogether, but I never had the option, only the wish — and if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

— London, 1997