Anyone who plans to write seriously might read The Master of Petersburg by Nobel-prizewinning South African novelist J.M. Coetzee. I picked it up because it was about my hero Dostoevsky, returning to Peterburg to grieve the death of his politically radical stepson. I expected to scoff at Coetzee’s hubris.
Think about it. How would you venture to portray a transcendent genius, using his own medium no less, let alone get inside his head: “Oh Fyodor, you have such dark thoughts!”
Some of the holes I’d have fallen into: I’d have painted a panoramic vision of the high and low life of 19th century Peterburg, with a nod to the vastness of the country whose blood was spilled building it; I’d have grappled with somehow conveying the Rusianness of the characters; I’d have tried to show Dostoevsky directly involved in the writing process; I’d have overdramatized in vulgar ways his epileptic fits and their effect on onlookers.
Not how a master like Coetzee does it. Not even bothering to ever name Dostoevsky, he takes us directly inside him. Everything is the writer’s internal world and his body’s experiences. (The narrative could easily be changed to first person, except that it might add a touch of off-putting narcissistic self-absorption to the desperate writer’s grief.) We encounter only what Dostoevsky registers as he moves within his restricting globe of grief: the cast of characters is tiny, the geographical area confined to roughly the same neighborhood of Peterburg as Crime and Punishment. Coetzee barely mentions the “color” details that would identify the people or the city as Russian.
Instead we take Peterburg and Russia and genius for granted because we breathe them with the air Dostoevsky breathed, even if he sometimes wished for another destiny. The content is so personal yet universal, the writing so intensely alive that the occasional superfluous word or patch of stilted dialog feels like a slap in the face. How could a writer as good as Coetzee ever slip?
It turns out The Master of Petersburg is about the terrible prize a genius pays to create transcendent art: It involves living each moment with an intensity the rest of us couldn’t tolerate. The rest of us are cowards.
At the downtown Belfast hotel I checked the Bangor phone directory. One of the women who raised me was back living in the tiny terrace house where she was born. The second woman’s husband was listed at the address near the railway station where I lived till I left home when I was 17. The next day, a Sunday, I took the train to Bangor, 13 miles away.
Growing up I was obsessed with widescreens. First the slightly wider screen that mutilated standard formatted movies by cutting off the tops and bottoms for the sake of size, later the much wider CinemaScope screen for which movies were specially filmed. My only doodle for the first 30 years of my life was the oblong CinemaScope screen, with the top and bottom edges curved inwards to suggest a vast object with the center receding into the distance. Idiotic psychotheorists might assume that repeated image was a phallic object; I think I never had the patience to learn to draw any other simple object. I was obsessed with widescreens because I longed for space, physical and emotional.
Along with the CinemaScope screen came the CinemaScope music extension that accompanied the 20th Century Fox logo, an expansive trumpet voluntary. A culture vulture in my late teens and into my twenties, my head was devoted to the films of Ingmar Bergman, but my heart was with the mediocre versions of popular bestsellers that the Fox movie factory churned out with diminishing success. I mean Peyton Place. So I always imagined that after fifty years, the first time I came out of the Bangor railway station and stood at the top of the steps that led down the street where I grew up would be a Peyton Place moment, the CinemaScope trumpets blasting to remind me to feel heightened emotions.
Nothing. The railway station and area around it were under construction and I had to walk around where the steps had been to get to my street. To the right, signs of urban decay on Main Street, but also human beings, never there on the deserted religious Sundays of my childhood. More shops at the top of my street than there used to be including, God help me, a Chinese food place. I don’t think there was a Chinese food place in the whole of Northern Ireland when I was growing up.
I crossed over into the dip to get a better view of the house where I grew up, still there on the other side of the street slightly up the hill. No signs of life in the house, but I felt like a loitering criminal, scared someone would come out and recognize me. Everything quiet.
Lean with ear lobes curled like bacon fried to within an inch of its life; early baldness in the genes; parsimony born of deprivation; anger, anger, anger leeching into every human exchange but rarely surfacing except in tight threats to “correct” others. My picture of the Northern Irish Protestant man. If you want to see examples, check out the actors who play Belfastmen in The Fall, the excellent BBC thriller with Gillian Anderson playing a British detective.
Then check out the actors playing Catholic IRA sympathizers in James Marsh’s film Shadow Dancer. A different race. I remember them with full heads of hair, sensual, redder-faced (all that booze), and strangely, in my memories less angry than the Protestants I grew up with. God knows the Catholics are supposed to be the angry ones, and they’ve proved it. Maybe their deadly anger seems less threatening to me because it was always taken for granted. (We stole their country.) Northern Irish Protestant men had less justifiable reason for their anger, except perhaps hatred of the Other.
It seems to me that Northern Irish Protestant men’s anger is rooted in having to maintain an indefensible position, which destroys self-respect: an alcoholic arguing that booze played no part in his three DUIs; a pornophile arguing that the young models in a world of shattered personal boundaries, drugs and prostitution aren’t harmed by doing what he watches.
When I moved to London, I found that most English didn’t know the difference between Northern Ireland and Ireland, and maybe you don’t. Northern Ireland was colonized by Scots and English Protestants in the early 17th century, an attempt to quell rebellion against English control. The Irish of course continued to rebel. And the colonialists, not exactly the cream of society, were as brutal and ignorant in Ireland as anywhere else, the natives treated as disposable savages. I’ve been called Paddy plenty of times by English yobs.
Despite the brutalities on both sides down the centuries, this seems the basic truth to me: the Northern Irish Protestants don’t belong there. Maybe that denied knowledge and the bone-deep manipulations of self that denial requires, is the basis for the anger I remember in Northern Irish Protestant men.
There are plenty of other reasons for my own anger.
Until I read Colin Broderick’s book That’s That I didn’t know how little I know about the subject on which you might suppose I’d be an expert. I didn’t even know whether to call myself a Prod or a Proddy (Proddie? I believe the name appears only in the plural in Colin’s book, so he was no help.) I knew to call him and his people Micks but I didn’t know what they called me. How could I, when we had nothing to do with each other? Not a conscious decision we ever questioned, more something bred in our bones.
Unlike Colin, I was born in Belfast. He was born in Birmingham, England, although his parents moved him back to their Northern Irish home when he was two months old. Discovery of where he’d been born was enough for his schoolboy fellow Catholics to accuse him of being one of the hated English.
I could fill a book with what I don’t know about Northern Ireland, the place I lived until I got out when I was 17. Until recently I thought the Battle of the Boyne, a victory by William of Orange which Ulster Orangemen celebrate with an inflammatory parade every July 12, took place in Holland! Until I read Colin’s book I didn’t know that Northern Ireland measures roughly only 60 by 60 miles. I thought it was quite a large country, almost none of which I’d ever visited. (How in God’s name could I have so little curiosity about the place where I grew up? One reason: I was trying to forget it.)
Until I read Colin’s book I didn’t know not only quite the extent to which Northern Irish Catholics’ hatred of the Brits consumed them, but also how Northern Irish Catholic nationalists despised Irish Catholic nationalists from the south, responsible for abandoning them to the Brits. (We Prods didn’t hate the English, we just thought they were sissies. On the first of my only two visits back to see my family, they melted into puddles of embarrassment in the drizzle at the airport because I’d got into the habit of carrying an umbrella. Real Ulstermen didn’t carry umbrellas. Though I could write another book listing the ways in which most of the men I grew up with didn’t and don’t fit my notion of what a real man is.)
I’m not entirely stupid. I have a summa cum laude degree from Columbia and two master’s degrees to prove it. I have perfectly logical—almost perfectly convincing—explanations for why I’m so ignorant about a topic on which I should be an expert. And I can explain at least one of the reasons I assumed Colin Broderick and I must have a lot in common. We are agreed on the truth about the topic on which Northern Irish Catholics and Protestants so bitterly disagree. I, a Northern Irish Protestant, had no right to be in Northern Ireland. MORE TO COME
I meant to begin with a few sentences written by another author, and briefly fool you into thinking I’d written them. The author is Colin Broderick; his book is That’s That, a memoir of growing up in the Northern Irish Troubles. My purpose was to prove that despite the differences you may see in us—the overriding difference being that he’s Catholic and I’m Protestant—we were more similar to each other than to anyone who wasn’t raised in Northern Ireland. But although I read That’s That with the express purpose of finding those sentences that would prove our similarity, I couldn’t find them, not on any of Colin’s 359 pages. Not a sentence that I could honestly pass as entirely belonging to me. There were too many differences, almost all created by how our country raised us.
Maybe I haven’t thought this subject through sufficiently (or ever could). Which is what I was taught by the country where I grew up: Thinking strongly discouraged, but if you must think, don’t talk about what you think. Or write about it. Not if you were a Protestant from the North. If you were a Catholic from the South, you could at least churn out masterpieces. All you risked was being banned or sent to hell.
Yet on a personal emotional level Colin Broderick and I are as similar as twin brothers raised under the same roof (except for minor differences such as sexual preference and the 30 years’ age gap). We grew up giving the finger to the British government -controlled education system that prohibited us from learning the history of our country. Our Irish mothers stuck to their traditional role of cooking and cleaning, talking to us only to issue mostly empty threats about what would happen if we didn’t stop doing what they said it was wrong to do. (At the end of Colin’s book his mother finds her voice at last, rather too conveniently for the shape of the memoir, I thought. Colin’s Dad is a silent unexamined presence; mine was that depressed skeleton in the corner after he retired as a postman.)
Colin and I took it for granted that a blackout binge was a rite of manhood to be sought out as early as you could fool the bartender about your age, not that they ever much worried about checking. (I spent the first few pounds of the advance on my first novel Aubade sampling every drink my best friend and I could think of at a pub on the Bangor seafront.) Colin and I early discovered the joys of jerking off, and indulged frequently despite the punishments we assumed were inevitable: he feared eternal damnation, I thought I’d grow an extra testicle every time I had an orgasm. And we’re both angry little buggers. But more of that later. MORE TO COME
I remembered the Belfast railway station as a lofty Victorian-era iron-and-glass terminus where I’d bought my first whisky at the age of 14 or 15, a walk from the city center across a bridge over the Lagan. When I was a child horses still pulled coal carts over the cobblestones. Today’s station (the last time I was back in 2000) was a simple walk from my hotel to what looked like a flimsy small-town bus station for the poor and the old in a car society, no pub that I remember noticing.
I’d taken the train from Bangor to Belfast when I escaped from the house, to a picture in one of the big Belfast cinemas on a Saturday afternoon, or maybe on my half-day after I got a summer job when I was 14 in a tiny general store. Or maybe I went to spend the money I’d stolen from the till on a cheap record player at Smithfield Market. A few times I got to travel alone late at night to the Ulster BBC (I think on Ormeau Avenue) to rehearse and play troubled children in radio plays. After my voice broke (I started making strange grunting choking noises at unpredictable moments) I auditioned for adult roles, but with no guidance I chose for my audition an American poem that included the words “on glory of split bourbon float.” I pronounced “bourbon” as if it were a French king, and I swear I heard a man in the control booth having hysterics. As usual, ignoring the laws of consequences, I continued hoping to be called for an adult part.
Maybe on those late night train journeys I hoped for a replay of what I’d read about in the racier but unsuccessful alternative paper to our stodgy Bangor weekly The Spectator. A disgusted reader reported coming across two men in an otherwise deserted carriage, one hiding on the floor, another feeling his crotch. I’m sure that letter fueled my already busy masturbatory fantasies, but I doubt I’d have gone through with a similar opportunity if it had been offered to me. Once, sitting near the front row at the Adelphi cinema on Main Street in Bangor, a man had felt my crotch. I knew what I was getting into when I sat next to that young man: lust radiated from his tight light-colored trousers, his knees spread wide. But I chickened out and fled.
Not soon enough to avoid the couple in the foyer. “There’s that thing,” the woman said. I ignored them, my cheeks burning, afraid to make eye contact in case I knew them, which would entail unavoidable unthinkable shameful consequences. One night in a BBC rehearsal studio, the juvenile lead walked over to me and thrust his crotch an inch away from my face in full view of the rest of the cast while I sat on the floor. I kept my head bowed until he moved away, but I remembered wondering where we’d go to do it. The lavatory, I supposed.
That day back in Bangor in 2000 for the first time in 30 years (longer, more like 40 years, since the last time I only came back to Northern Ireland as far as Belfast) I found myself in another lavatory in an arcade on Main Street. I’d had a hefty slice of Christmas fruitcake with marzipan paste and white icing hard enough to break a tooth on (yummy) and needed to go. When I came out of the stall there were too many idling men and two policemen hovering, as if deciding who to confront. I made brief cool uninterested eye contact, a good thing to do whether you’re guilty or innocent, washed my hands and left. In a stationer’s store on the same side of Main Street (it was a Sunday, but to my astonishment the shops were open, the street far busier than it had ever been on a weekday when I was a kid) I noticed a solitary copy of Gay Times. But as I left a hostile voice said to its female companion: “As long as he’s not gay.”
On second thoughts, it’s vast progress for that shite to openly acknowledge even the possibility that a son of his might turn out gay. MORE TO COME
The last time I went home to Northern Ireland was in December 2000 from San Francisco, and that was the first time since 1970, just before I moved from London to New York. In 1970 I was in Belfast only for the day, under the radar, to interview the wife of a psychiatrist, never mind why. I told no one this was the city I’d been born in.
We made the TV news when the evening plane returned to Belfast for an emergency landing. The young reporter for the Belfast Telegraph who interviewed me after we slid down the chutes got my last name wrong, and invented the words he put in my mouth, every word, comma and full stop. I supposedly told him the air hostesses stayed cool as cucumbers (the only one I noticed was shaking) and an old lady knitted calmly as we landed (old ladies with knitting needles risked becoming dangerous projectiles in a crash).
I stayed frozen from feeling during the landing, able to hold and comfort a small girl as we waited in the drizzle for the buses to take us back to the terminal, until she remembered she’d been told to avoid contact with strange men. I was still frozen when I went back in 2000 from my home in San Francisco. I went back to see the place where I’d grown up because that’s what you’re supposed to do, and a trainee at a therapy internship had assured me I had unfinished business there, and I thought maybe, just maybe, I might surprise any surviving family.
I’d booked a room in the Belfast city center for four nights, though I ended up staying that long only because I’d prepaid the hotel and the penalty to change the plane ticket was too high. On the two mornings I no longer wanted to be there I watched from my window as Protestant schoolboys trudged through the rain to Inst, the downtown grammar school where boys are offered an excellent education. I went to a grammar school in Holywood, between Belfast and Bangor, the seaside town where I grew up, and mostly refused the good education it offered.
I was born a 15 minutes’ walk from that Belfast hotel, in the Midnight Mission on Malone Place on October 20, 1939. I may yet go back for good: You can rent a three-bedroom terrace house for £600 a month on Malone Place these days, about a quarter what it costs to rent a studio apartment in San Francisco, which is becoming uninhabitable for anyone but the permanently wealthy and the temporarily rich IT workers. But the Midnight Mission is gone since 1981. It was founded in 1860 to provide a home for the night to the women and girls found by charitable ladies in the Belfast pubs. Later a room was set aside for the confinements of unmarried mothers. But my mother was not homeless or unmarried or drunk when she gave birth to me in the Midnight Mission. MORE TO COME
Can a book be a cause célèbre if you can’t talk about it? My first reaction when I read that an academic had called my first novel Aubade “Kenneth Martin’s cause célèbre” in his treatise on queer literature was “news to me ” or “paper refuses nothing. ” I still spend a lot of time picking apart my ingrained cynical reactions to get at truths that tend to be complicated. It’s that awful uneducated response I still indulge in too often, born of too much too soon (along with too little), or Northern Irish cynicism (born of deprivation), or even up-close acquaintance with the ethics of the English popular press (though that’s more of an excuse than a reason).
When I sold Aubade and moved to London, the English teacher who made my life bearable amidst the fear and torpor of the middle forms stayed in touch with me. She told me that the headmaster had announced in assembly that Upper Sullivan pupils were forbidden to read Aubade. What did he threaten them with? Expulsion? “It’s understandable,” May explained. “Think what an effect Aubade could have on a youngster.”
Think of the contortions that statement contains. She condoned me, a 16-year-old boy, writing and publishing the book (a thrill, echoing her own dreams), but not the content of the book.
The question of being prosecuted for obscenity was raised only once with me, and that was regarding my second novel Waiting for the Sky to Fall. The night I went to hear my publisher’s and agent’s verdict on the novel, they asked me to change the number of male brothels mentioned in the book to just one. I have no idea why that would have made a difference, and in the end they didn’t pursue the change.
Offhand I can’t think of anyone directly addressing the content of Aubade with me around publication time (certainly not at the queer parties to which I was introduced, where it was a given in those men’s lives). One lodger in a rooming house I briefly stayed in when I first moved to London dug out The People interview and suggested I move to the colonies.
The reporters or TV personalities who interviewed me mentioned Aubade’s content (a schoolboy falls in love with an older student). Dot dot dot. Nothing more. One reporter dared to suggest that we were over-encouraging our young people to express themselves. No elaboration. At most they called the book “powerful.” One TV interviewer said it was the kind of book she’d hide in a brown paper cover. Quickly move on to calling me an infant prodigy or an angry young man. But absolutely no discussion of homosexuality, because it was disgusting and illegal and I was jailbait.
And to prosecute an adolescent or his publisher for obscenity would raise more issues than anyone wanted to air in public. It went against the prevailing narrative about the vice of homosexuality, in which perverted adults corrupted the young, or cruised public lavatories. Rent boys didn’t count, because they were the lower orders, and public schoolboys grew out of it.
Can a book be a cause célèbre if you can’t talk about? Of course. Hard for me to admit it, since I live my life fighting the denial I learned in the land of denial. The most important things aren’t necessarily those you talk about. And a lot of people, including in the corridors of power, were certainly talking. But I didn’t know about it.
I’ve been reading Edna O’Brien’s memoir Country Girl. We lived parallel lives in London in the 60’s, with countless connections, though we interacted directly only in two phone calls about an issue of The Observer Magazine I was writing. Country Girl is crafted with exemplary care, rich with meticulous detail about Catholic Ireland and the wild natural world of O’Brien’s childhood. I was floored by the late chapter “The North,” less memoir than first-rate journalism, about the troubles in that part of Ireland where I was born and grew up. O’Brien describes her childhood as dark, but it was drenched in a knowledge of Ireland’s history and culture denied to me in my Protestant schooling and family. O’Brien has devoted her life to literature and been justly feted. I couldn’t have written her book. But I wouldn’t want to.
In The Memoir and the Memoirist, Thomas Larson distinguishes between autobiography (“The author’s purpose is to set the historical record straight, an idea based on the assumption that there is a single record and that the person who lived it can best document it”) and memoir: “The memoirist, then, is one who while and after she writes realizes the existential limitation of memoir. … What the memoirist does is connect the past self to—and within—the present writer as a means of getting at the truth of his identity.” I’d add making an ultimately futile attempt to get at that truth.
Country Girl is billed as memoir, but it’s autobiography. Maybe part of the trouble is that O’Brien wrote it for the wrong reasons: “I was reluctant to write a memoir, but my agent, Ed Victor, was greatly enthusiastic and eventually managed to persuade me that I should do it. I mistakenly believed that it was going to be an easy journey.” So there was no pressured need to attempt to understand the mess of events and identity.
O’Brien is indeed a great prose stylist, but here the novelistic method seems off. Time and again she describes a particular moment in exquisite but questionable detail. Did birds really fly and dip with a jauntiness on that particular Christmas season morning so long ago? Did she make a note of it? On a childhood day were birds for miles around really making their evening excursions, swooping down into the rain barrel where midges had swarmed? Is she 100% sure of that?
O’Brien has been praised as “an exemplary female survivor.” Country Girl is full of suffering, but no attempt to place that suffering in a social or political context, discuss how that context has changed, or suggest that O’Brien’s view of herself or others has changed over time. (My take is that we change the narrative of our lives every second we live.) O’Brien’s husband is depicted as a villain, and the court hearing for custody of her two sons a nightmare stacked against her. But she did get custody. Which was always likely, because in those days courts still assumed kids would be better off with their mothers. Later, when O’Brien sends her sons to boarding school, she describes her decision as reluctant and the parting as “well nigh unbearable.” But she doesn’t take us through her reasoning in making that decision, though we learn about “the leaves on the trees turning russet” that day 50 years ago. The book ends on a note of unconvincing epiphany, the way main characters in novels tend to walk away down an autumnal avenue or the Elmer Bernstein music swells at the end of a Douglas Sirk melodrama to nudge us into feeling.
Though maybe not for the intended reasons, O’Brien’s book was salutary reading for me. I was shamed to be reminded of the disrespect with which I treated literature for so many years, and glad to know that plenty of people behaved worse than me in 60’s London. But O’Brian’s life comes across as unexamined, which can’t possibly be true. She tends to focus on what they did to her. I tend to focus on what I did, to myself and others. Maybe when I’m listening to the interesting chaos in my head, I could go a little easier on myself.
Brodsky says old men can only write a memoir or a diary. I tried a few sentences of a memoir, but making sense of the noise in my head felt too much like hard work. My days are full, I’m too busy for a diary. For years now I can only write if there’s at least a faint suggestion that someone might be interested in reading what I write. But a website blog needs content, which felt enough like an editor calling with an idea to get me going.
The posts come easily, though while I’m writing each post feels like the last I’ll have enough ideas to fill. I post Monday mornings. By Monday afternoon I’m writing another in my head. All I need is an idea and an opening sentence. But it always feels like the last idea I’ll have.
So far problems with self-disclosure haven’t stymied me: I’ve avoided thinking about it.
It helps that no matter how much tweaking I do after I write the first draft on Tuesday morning, I seem to forget what I’ve written when I close my laptop. I can’t obsess about what I’ve obliterated from memory. Which circumvents worrying about how I’ve violated that long list of things I’d forbidden myself to write about.
I’m a therapist. I’m trained not to talk about myself. Which is convenient, since I’m somewhat lacking in basic trust. Which is inconvenient, because it would seem to severely constrict my choice of things to write about. (When I used to write journalism I didn’t write about myself because I had nothing to say about myself, not because I didn’t want to write it.) I’ve told only one therapy client that I used to write fiction, and that’s because he’s a writer and I worried he might come across the republished books and think I’d been sneaky. (Decades ago, when I was doing a training internship, a client kept asking me to help him find an agent, so I suppose he knew I’d been a writer. In those days I was too green to handle the issue. I just ignored his requests.)
Who am I when I write? Therapist? Writer? I have no trouble calling myself a therapist because I have a license. I’m in considerable doubt about whether I’m a writer, not least because I don’t do it very often, not least because what I earn from writing wouldn’t feed a spoiled San Francisco mutt. Not that I earn much doing therapy. (How much I don’t earn from therapy was on my list of things not to write about.)
My truth is that the urge to write words that might get published is akin to a porn star exposing every orifice for a close-up. Once I start it’s hard to stop and I don’t obsess about the consequences. Writers (and porn stars, I think) need that sliver of ice in their hearts that Graham Greene referred to. I have that sliver, but mostly regarding myself rather than other people, at least nowadays. There’s a certain callous willingness to exhibit ourselves, and we’re only harmed by it if we think we are. Humans resemble onions with an infinite core. No matter how publicly revealed or degraded we are, however many layers are exposed, there is always more that no one will ever know. We’re only vulnerable if we think we are.
I couldn’t have written my first novel if I’d allowed myself to think about the consequences (what people would think of me) if it got published. I couldn’t have written my first novel if I’d allowed myself to think about the consequences if it didn’t get published. (Why am I indulging in this irritating mannerism that Didion uses to pad her sparse pages?) These days I’m more willing to admit to myself that there will be consequences. I’ll deal with it.
Stephen Sondheim said he’d have trouble if you asked him to write a love song, but no trouble at all if you asked him to write a love song about (here I’m inventing the details) a woman in a green hat sitting alone on a bar stool in a dive on 54rd Street at 5:45 p.m. on a Thursday and repeatedly glancing at her cellphone.
I’m horrified when my writer clients tell me the hoops they have to go through to pitch an idea to the New York markets, the tiers of editors who have to approve it, the way writers are forced to shape a pitch to match editors’ attempt to depict a reality they’re inventing. “A second-rate boxer,” a London Sunday Times editor would tell me on the phone. I’d call a boxing magazine to get a suggestion, call the man to ask him if he’d cooperate and the date of his next fight, then call the editor back to assign a photographer. (Actually that was one of the rare stories that had to be rewritten. “It’s reported,” the editor told me on the phone. “It needs to be written.” That’s all.) Usually the story went into the magazine or paper with not a comma changed, not a fact checked as far as I knew. Oh, a subeditor once called me for an extra line to fit the space.
So once upon a time I was spoiled as a journalist just as I’d once been spoiled as a fiction writer. Since I wasn’t used to generating ideas I stopped writing when I moved to the U.S. and the requests for my writing dried up. (I did other things: eleven years in under- and grad schools, years of writing psych research papers in that awful clunky pseudoscientific jargon psychologists use—nearly as bad as the impenetrable stuff English Lit majors at Berkeley turn out these days. Enough to stop anyone writing decently.)
I’d written nothing for years apart from a few radio perspectives and an unsold piece about trying to learn Russian, until Jay Jenkins called and told me he wanted to republish Waiting for the Sky to Fall, which of course required a new intro from its not-yet-extinct author. (He added republishing Aubade seemingly as an afterthought.) He suggested a website, a website needed a blog, which needed content in case anyone ever wanted to read it. I’d thought of blogging before, maybe calling it The Psycho Therapist, but blocked on the issue of confidentiality. What my clients tell me stays told only to me. I don’t like the idea of using even disguised clients to illustrate therapy issues. I don’t even like the idea of discussing therapy issues. I’m too involved in the day-to-day details, working in the trenches. (Which is one of the reasons I have GRUNT tattooed on my left calf.)
And I was trained not to talk about myself. MORE TO COME
Socialite Elizaveta Stackenschneider was a fervent admirer of Dostoevsky, a frequenter of her Peterburg salon, but in her diary after his death she called him “a petit bourgeois … the most profound thinker and a writer of genius … he will always regard 6,000 rubles as a vast amount of money.” At the time 6,000 rubles was enough to buy a year of decent living in Peterburg.
Based on what it bought for me, the most money I ever earned from writing was the £100 advance I earned on the British edition of Aubade, less 10% agent’s commission. Five years later I earned more for a few days’ part-time work on the pieces I wrote for the London Sunday Times Magazine, and it was never enough. But everything in my life followed from, depended on, that first £90. Without it I would probably have gone mad.
I once mentioned to a university lecturer friend how that first advance had bought me sanity. He didn’t approve of the way my writing had evolved or of the superficial man he judged I’d become, and thought my contribution to literature would have been greater if I’d stayed in Northern Ireland. (I doubt if misery and lack of insight would have been an easy sell.) “I can see nothing of Aubade in you,” he sniffed. I told him I’d take sanity any day.
I can see why an 18-year-old equated success with money: with, for example, enough to eat. And I can see now why I had no hope of achieving the modest financial success of British authors who managed on a book club sale here, a BBC adaptation there, once in a blue moon maybe even (a house!) film rights! The best bet was a staff job on a newspaper with novel writing on the side. Nobody spelled out to me the basis for my limited financial prospects, why I wasn’t going to sell book club or film or foreign rights in Catholic countries: I’d written a book about a subject that was too disgusting for the mass public to even mention, that described a relationship that was illegal, feelings you should be ashamed of even if you admitted to yourself that you had them. And how could anyone get their head around the book being written by a 16-year-old boy? What were the publishers thinking?
Very few of my readers were primarily seeking literary fiction (even those a small group then as now). My readers were closeted queer men desperate to have their feelings and identity validated or their existence at least acknowledged. I heard from only a handful who dared to write me carefully worded letters. The sad thing to me now is that I wasn’t able to think this through, to feel validated myself because I’d given a gift that meant a lot to strangers. I was too busy scraping a living.
Which means I might as well have called this post The Years of Not Writing. Isn’t most (all?) good writing a response to what our betters have written? “The paradox is that the more indebted the artist,” Joseph Brodsky wrote, “the richer he is.”
I remember doggedly working my way through Dostoevsky in Penguin Classics when I was 20, living my own version of Raskolnikov’s life on the streets of London, not Peterburg. (His name is tattooed in Cyrillic on my neck.) I’ve heard writers talk about their immediate connection to Dostoevsky, but at that age I read to make sense of the sentences, nothing more. I’d have needed help to appreciate his wild comedy of tragic humans in extremis.
At least I had an idea that I was missing something important, a residue of that bookworm child back in Ulster. What followed in my twenties was a classic defense: When I realized that I couldn’t match my early success, I stopped respecting what I knew I couldn’t do. Or mostly convinced myself that it wasn’t worthy of respect. As a journalist in London I read only for information. I read about books.
As a student in my thirties in New York I took literature courses for a requirement or an easy A. I knew what to say about the books but I read without pleasure. Though I remember one day sitting on a bench in the sun on the Columbia campus, grinning ear to ear as I turned the pages of One Hundred Years of Solitude. I’d rediscovered that good books can be fun, which means that reading had become a chore. But Solitude is the most accessible and instantly rewarding of great books, daring a reader not to be delighted.
After I moved to San Francisco in 1981 I tried to make up for the years in school by “living,” a lot of it repetitive and wasteful. I’ve calmed down a bit, but I can rarely focus on a book for more than 90 minutes. Part of the trouble always was that I thought something great was happening someplace else and I’d better go and find it, though I rarely knew where to look.
What got me back to reading was my rediscovery of Europe after the years in school. For a while I wanted to be an old man in Prague, where I’d first been in 1968 to cover the Russian invasion, 30 or 40 years later maybe wandering on the islands in the Vltava with a big dog. So I gravitated to the language and its literature. Russian language and literature were just a hop away, and I’ve stayed there, feeling like that 20-year-old struggling in a London night class with the Russian alphabet on the flimsy pages of a textbook imported from Moscow.
Fiction leaves you behind if you don’t keep up, though not as far behind as poetry leaves you. These days I tend towards nonfiction, towards what I can or could do. I’d still rather read Brodsky on Mandelstam’s poetry than try to truly read the poetry, but Nadezhda is totally my cup of tea.
After Aubade was published I rejected it; when it was first republished a quarter century later I acknowledged its worth. After I wrote Waiting I defended it; now I’m wary about telling my new publisher how I really feel about it.
I can’t think of myself as an adult when Aubade was first published. Just turned 18, my editor Jack McDougal treated me as an adult, listening with apparent respect to my spoutings about Art and Literature and all the great books I was going to write. I can only think he hid any doubts because he truly believed in my talent, and he’d made it clear he wanted a second book as soon as possible. In truth I was whistling in the dark, hiding my fears and misgivings, though I knew how difficult writing had become for me. I reacted against Aubade’s raw emotionality. It told too much about me. I was a teenager, I wanted to be cool.
As I wrote Waiting I had to believe it was going to be a success, which entailed it being a “good” book. After the literary success of Aubade I wasn’t trying to attempt a commercial potboiler. (Just as well, since for years I remained remarkably naïve about the basic concerns of the popular reading public: when a Sunday Times editor told me he was assigning me a story about a miser who’d died with a lot of money in the bank because people always liked to read stories about money, it was news to me.) When I wrote Waiting, I was in the position I’d been in writing Aubade, except I lived in a room in Goldhurst Terrace, London, rather than Dufferin Avenue, Bangor, Northern Ireland: penniless, rejecting what little help anyone offered, with no options I was aware of except to become a successful writer. In Dufferin Avenue, I believed absolutely in what I was writing (or did I? some nagging memory just surfaced); in Goldhurst Terrace I used sleight of mind to ignore my doubts about the quality of what I was writing.
The respectful or enthusiastic reviews of Waiting outnumbered the bad, but secretly I took the bad to heart, because Aubade‘s ecstatic reviews were missing this time. But I stubbornly hid my doubts; if I downplayed Aubade’s qualities, Waiting might seem less disappointing. So when someone introduced me to the playwright Terence Rattigan at a party as “Kenneth Aubade Martin,” I corrected him with “Kenneth Waiting for the Sky to Fall Martin.” Either way, Rattigan barely acknowledged me.
Over the years I started to assume that Waiting’s bad reviews were valid. I circled the book for a long time before I picked it up again after 50 years. I’ll finally admit that reading it was an excruciating experience. I can’t forgive those characters for their bored indifference to the mind’s riches. Today I have young therapy clients who feel the same ennui, and I can understand and empathize with them. But I find it hard to forgive myself for writing that book that reflected the way I once felt. I’m not sure why.
These days my hero is Andrey Platonov. A few others of transcendent talent who suffered under the Soviet boot taught me humility about writing and the rest of life, and helped me gain perspective on my talent and efforts. (I just read A.O. Scott’s review of The Place Beyond the Pines, in which he mentions Bradley Cooper’s restless and resourceful talent. To be called restless and resourceful is the highest praise I’d ever aspire to.)
I’ve always been embarrassed by Aubade and Waiting for the Sky to Fall, but for different reasons and at different times.
Twenty-five years ago an agent who had the idea he could sell the movie rights to one of my novels (he couldn’t) told me I seemed to be embarrassed when he mentioned Aubade. I was. I was squirming, but now I can’t figure out why, at that particular time. I’d been embarrassed many years before, to the point where I even denied writing it, because in my twenties I was trying on a heterosexual identity and had internalized a lot of homophobia. It wasn’t until I moved to the U.S. when I was 30 that I got caught up in the spirit of the times and fully came out. Except when for some reason it wasn’t convenient. As a journalist I trod an uneasy path between denial and making a point of choosing gay men to write about, their sexuality a given only worth mentioning in passing.
Yup, it’s complicated. A 16-year-old boy who wrote a book that gave comfort to many might have been a gay icon. If I’d been rich, or protected by a powerful family, or didn’t have to earn a “respectable” living. I was reckless, but not that reckless. I’d known that writing a gay novel was a huge risk in that climate where queers were still regarded as perverted things, but I also sensed the queerness was what would make the book get noticed and maybe published. At 16 I was desperate. I’d left school, I’d missed going back for an A-level year to get into university and there was no money to support me at university even if I got a full scholarship. There were no options. Everything depended on the book getting published. (I benefited from the law that may help a cowardly writer seem brave, the law of delayed consequences. You weren’t immediately held accountable for what you committed to paper. In the days of www. that law may no longer apply.)
And when I got the advance there was no question that I’d get on the boat to England. Let me tell you what I was escaping. A sister made a weak attempt to keep me at home. “If you stay you’d have everything you want,” she said. “Enough money for your own razor and your own radio.” MORE TO COME
Reviewing additions to the “literary failure memoir” genre in the 3/25/13 New Yorker, Giles Harvey concludes that the authors are making an inordinate fuss over their failure to succeed at a career in which success is unlikely (since the career barely any longer exists), and that some are such poor writers they don’t deserve to succeed. Redemption, even learning, seems to be lacking.
Doubtless some will read my previous post (“Good writing done me in”) as an apology for poor writing skills, a dismissal of knowledge and craft in the service of letting it all hang out, and terrible advice to school kids who need to learn the best possible communication skills.
Not so. I’m arguing that it’s useful to match degree of craft to purpose in writing. When I gave up fiction for journalism in the early 60s, a lot of people castigated me for selling out. (I castigated myself.) But I needed to eat (and wanted to drink, oh yes). Some of the best writing I ever did was reporting for the Sunday magazines, helped enormously by the scrupulous writing skills I’d taught myself for fiction. (It must be hard for today’s North American writers in all genres to believe that my fiction and journalism usually went straight to the printer with not a comma changed or a fact checked, even with a lead time of six weeks: editors had learned to trust me (but my sentences were simpler then–my 16-year-old self would have been horrified at the idea of parens within parens).) It was unthinking prejudice that led some to assume attempting to write fiction was always a more worthwhile pursuit than making a career in journalism. I’m not sure many would make that mistake these days. (Though you’d be surprised how some envy me for having novels published when they never pick up a novel and know nobody who ever reads novels.)
Expertise in basic skills is useful for any writer, and essential for the wretch on fire with a passion for writing. Nothing will stop the truly passionate from learning what they need to learn. But every kid in any class might learn to value any attempt they make at writing for the gifts it might bring, some unknowable at the time of writing: I think every kid through every stage of development, however clumsy the attempts at writing, should save every word in a time capsule to open periodically through life to help him understand where he came from and who he is.
We forget who we were, especially who we were when we were very young. I had no memory until I read Aubade thirty years after I wrote it of how angry I was as an adolescent. I had no idea when I wrote Aubade and my headmaster banned it that one day teachers would recommend it to their students as the “ultimate gay young adult novel” (because it was written by a young gay adult). We can never know how valuable our words, however clumsily shaped, may one day be to us, or even to others.
These days I sometimes recommend that psychotherapy clients start journaling in search of (to help create) that authentic self they can respect, but find so elusive. I ask that they not shape the writing. I suggest that when a thought seems worth it they jot down key words, phrases, on their phone or laptop. Don’t “write,” lose the restrictions. Match means to ends.
When I was 16 I behaved very differently. Before I wrote my first novel Aubade the summer I left school, I studied two thick manuals by Uzzell on the technique of the novel, and both Fowler books. (You’re reading this blog and don’t know who the Fowlers were? Enough of that 16-year-old schoolmarm remains in me to tell you to look it up.) All that studying (which I’d refused to do in school) resulted in a novel that the London Sunday Times later called “maturely sophisticated in style and structure.” (Which was probably what got it published and saved it from being rejected as filth. Though that happened: Dot, the woman who ran the railway station bookstall in Bangor, the Northern Irish town where I grew up, ordered some copies to make a few shillings and then sent them back when she read what she called “the dirtiest book I ever read.” Lives were sheltered in that benighted decade of the 50s.)
Fast forward to the 90s, and a New York agent explained to me why the treatment I’d written for a nonfiction book wouldn’t sell. “But it’s so well-written,” I complained. “Oh, well-written,” she said dismissively. (She’d been the same notoriously demanding Ph.D. student who gave me an unprecedented A+ in a lit course at Columbia.) Or to psychology grad school, where I couldn’t understand why a peer got an A for a paper that was full of typos and grammatical errors, whereas I got only an A-.
I was still focused on form, not content, and it took me a long time to begin to understand why murky clunky detouring allusive writing got the praise and my clear prose was rejected. For years I supposed that the murk was designed to disguise a lack of content, but eventually I was willing to admit that my transparent prose only served to reveal the thinness of my ideas.
To write most sentences is to lie by omission. To select x number of words is to choose not to tell the whole truth. Even if we knew it, even if such a thing exists, even if we always know what it is that we know.
In twelve step programs they say that “More will be revealed.” In my twenties huge chunks of my earlier experience were unavailable to my consciousness. It’s unclear to me that I deliberately suppressed the early experience. Maybe more likely, I was too busy creating an identity I could live with to handle, integrate, the early experiences into my view of the world. I’ve known men, not me, who woke up one morning at the age of 24 and realized that they were gay (or longed for monogamy, or didn’t want children) but with no memory of ever having considered such a possibility before that morning.
When I was in school I was bullied. I don’t recall ever saying that before. I felt (feel?) so much shame about it that I couldn’t tell even a therapist. However, in school I also bullied. That, unlike being bullied, was something I only remembered, admitted to myself, quite recently. I could write a thousand pages about how those experiences have formed my character and influenced the way I behave towards others. But I don’t think I bullied because I was bullied. I bullied because it was part of my nature.
I’ve written that in writing Aubade I wrote everything I knew. But I didn’t. The book was thought of as daring, but I left out what I was ashamed of, or what even that reckless child knew would be considered beyond all acceptable thinking in that place at that time. So I lied by omission then, and maybe later I lied deliberately through shame.
When I was a teenager writing fiction I was constantly told (accused!) that writing came easily to me. When I started writing for the quality London Sunday newspapers I struggled to the point where people watching me said I should find another profession.
My first three novels came fairly easily, for different reasons. When I wrote Aubade I wrote all I knew. I didn’t have to choose what to say about the experiences/feelings/competing beliefs/responses to other writing that flood my brain these days. Writing my second and third novels I wanted to produce x number of words so that I could get the contracted advance and eat.
Of course I was spoiled by writing a highly praised novel at age 16. I expected writing to come easily, and I didn’t have the inner resources (or respect for the work) to fight to succeed when it got hard.
I started out with more respect for journalism, not least because I could earn £20 more for a piece in the Sunday Times or Telegraph magazines than I got for the advance on my first novel. I wasn’t writing to formula and had no idea how corrupt many Fleet Street journalists were about stretching the truth until I started working alongside them. I was willing to pound the streets (I once interviewed every tenant on every floor of every building on both sides of an entire block in Soho) and struggle to craft a story from what I believed to be the absolute truth. Journalism only came easily to me when I lost respect for my assignments: when I moved to New York, twice a year I’d get sent to Hollywood to interview stars such as Julie Andrews and Rock Hudson. That was when I truly wrote to formula.
These days (these last few years) I read almost nothing but 19th and 20th century Russian history and fiction, part of my struggle to learn the Russian language that I’ll probably still be engaged in the day I croak. Which has taught me respect for suffering and genius. While I wrote the new introduction to Waiting for the Sky to Fall I was also reading Thomas Larson’s The Memoir and the Memoirist, with its useful distinction between autobiography and memoir. I thought of writing a memoir about how I became who I am, but I cringed at the difficulty of handling the interactions between the three main things that shaped me (no, pounded me into shape). Maybe three books that covered the same years? Maybe three long parts of the same book? That would truly be opening a vein, and at the very least bloody hard work.
When Aubade was last published in 1989 an interviewer wrote that “even by the most objective standards, Martin’s life was dreadful. His family was not just poor; they were destitute.”
I was shocked then (we’d never discussed poverty in the interview, so he based his assessment on what I’d written in the new Introduction), and shocked just now when I dug out the interview to check what he’d said. What he wrote stung so badly that I softened it in memory. “Objectively” maybe what he wrote was right, based on what I’d written, but the data I remembered and my feelings about the data didn’t coincide. Growing up I felt the effects of poverty on my sister far more than I felt them on myself. And if we were that poor, how could I afford even the few books I mentioned in my last blog?
Now I remember that before I wrote Aubade I studied the craft of fiction writing in two books I ordered that were imported from the U.S., written by a man called Thomas H. Uzzell. (They’re still available on Amazon.) But how did I hear about those books? Maybe in some monthly magazine for writers? Books and Bookmen? So I had money for those. And earlier I wrote about my adolescent torpor/depression. But I had the energy to study those books. All my energy was in fact focused and contained around that one objective: I was going to be a writer.
The money thing is partly explained by the way poor people have to operate. My family spent what they had when they had it. They’d learned that present needs (some wants) wipe out long-term goals. You can’t save for the large economy size because you need the small size now. You may have no furniture in your home in the projects but you do rent a large-screen TV. I once pretended to my family that I’d saved fifteen shillings, then when they told me they needed it I pretended I’d lost it.
A reviewer once wrote that my first novel had “a tiny arena but intense truthfulness.” When I was sixteen all the energy I had was focused on that ambition to be a writer and I went about it the only way I knew how, however self-ill-advised that turned out to be. I wrote all I knew as a sixteen-year-old, and though I knew so little, it turned out seeming consciously economical and complete.