I picked up a copy of Bolanos 2666 yesterday and powered through the first section. I like it. it’s good to have something, fiction, that I want to read, and to feel my reading skills, my critical reading skills, kicking in. As a consequence of our recent discussions about Foster Wallace etc I also started watching interviews with writers I admired, Barth, Gaddis etc along with some I’m not particularly into.
Now I have to admit the whole process has been basically painful. I was obsessed with some of these writers in my twenties and early thirties and I also wrote pretty obsessively. I was always working on something, from the age of twenty-two onward, short stories and then increasingly novels. I haven’t written anything at all, or really read anything for the past two and a bit years since I finished The Begging Letter, which I kind of rushed to get done anyway. Now, I can forgive myself this given that in the last three or so years I’ve separated from my now ex-wife, gone through the divorce, moved house seven times, been back and forth to Japan three times , re-married, worked full time and also wrote Classless.
The problem is that I’m now happy, happy in a way I imagined was constitutionally impossible for me, and all my writing and reading was fuelled by unhappiness. A couple of year s ago I had a breakthrough and in some ways I simply allowed myself to have what I wanted. Previously the motor for much of my investment in writing was the fantasy that one day I would publish something and that finally I would be able to have my desire. Then, instead of endlessly pushing fulfilment into the future in order to give the present some direction, my mind some traction, I decided to have it in the here and now. In this sense I’m finally living, fully and unproductively in the world, as opposed to my productive half-life of writing.
Going back to look at and think about fiction again has brought back ugly memories and sentiments, the first of which is a kind of desolation at other people’s success, that cold, depressive down-rush at the sense of all the time you’ve squandered fruitlessly while other people were using their talents more wisely. What do I have to show for that twenty years?
Now I’m really not very competitive, not envious, or so I like to think and certainly in terms of say, other Zero writers, I feel nothing but pleasure at the ways they are prospering: yes, yes, this is exactly the kind of public intellectual culture I want to have in the U.K., but all this generosity of spirit is facilitated by the fact that they don’t write fiction and I have no aspirations to being a critic. Somehow in fiction other people’s success, other peoples ability does seem to steal from me, to reduce me, to make me feel less consequential, makes me want to attack and defeat them as a way to restore my self-esteem. I remember walking through Hyde Park in Leeds 6 one summer as the relationship I was in was reaching it’s grinding nadir: there was a younger couple in front of me, walking down the path, holding hands. They might as well have had them clamped around my heart: they didn’t, couldn’t know of course what awful pain it caused me to see their simple, standard display of happiness and connection. A more generous soul than mine might have found some affirmation in it: love exists! But it simply oppressed me.
The larger question is, to what extent do I want to get back into all that, to what degree do I have any aspirations to be anything? I don’t want that to sound maudlin, and nor do I want to sound self-regardingly enlightened by saying that it’s not, but in some ways for me fiction and writing are like an old, bitterly adversarial relationship that I’m well out of. Yet, I am feeling a desire to read again, to talk about fiction again (I confess I’ve really enjoyed thinking about Wallace, for years I talked about nothing but fiction, but again these weren’t happy years) even in this blog I scarcely mention it and one of the things I’ve enjoyed about the blogosphere is that it has forced me to engage with a whole range of subjects and positions (and people) I wouldn’t otherwise have got involved with. The past two years is the longest period in twenty years that I haven’t been working on something, the only period in the last decade where that something hasn’t been novel-length. Yet in another way I have completely forgotten about this whole period, in fact I view it largely as time of error, a long, purgatorial questing after myself, and one which I’m happy to just dismiss.
So several other, more minor questions also present themselves to me: should I go back to fiction in a serious way both as a writer, reader and more exhaustingly of all as a thinker and a talker about it given how consumed by it I’ve been in the past? Can I get over the worst aspects of my associations with writing and reading,? Should I start writing seriously again given that it hasn’t been a joyful process for me and will stir up all kinds of emotions I’d hoped to leave behind? Can I forge some new kind of relationship over time with writing itself? None of this maters outside the confines of my own life, but I feel in some ways like a recovered alcoholic (which, actually, I also am, more or less). Everything I wrote was always finally about the desire to stop writing and just live: the smart answer here is that they’re not mutually exclusive, but for me they were, the consolations of writing stood in the way of me fully taking hold of my own life, indeed I often half-consciously forced myself into interpersonal unhappiness as a way of strengthening the hold fiction had on me: if I made it my salvation I would finally get good at it.
But again perhaps a new phase is a starting, a new way of assessing, addressing and overcoming old selves, affects and attachments, re-writing the self by writing again. Now I know that no-less-a-luminary than Zadie Smith said that writing shouldn’t be a form of therapy but for me it can't be otherwise. Maybe it’s time to go back, rethink, re-learn, start at the beginning again. You hear the siren song that seems to be drawing you away from your life, from your own best interests, that wants to catch up a part of you and narrow the arena of your concerns, to pull you back into yourself and keep you there for years, time ticking by, nothing concrete in terms of money, or security, or comfort to be gained, depending on the ever-depleting patience, the good graces of those closest to you.
So no, of course not, it’s foolish.
And yet, maybe.