Art, not chance

Photo: Hugo Glendinning

April Fools Day, 2000. London
I am nearing the end of a project which I began in late 1996 in Chicago. It will be finished here in London. My third novel is set on the margins of history: Greece in the age before the Trojan War and Europe from 1937 to 1971, which is within living memory.
Between these periods is a three thousand year gap, which has worried me since the beginning of this project and worries me now. I am thought of as a historical novelist. The new book deals in those events which leave no clear trace in the historical record and which take place in the dark territory beyond our knowledge of the past. It has proved a bewildering and gruelling place to travel. Bad roads. No map.
The book will be called “In the Shape of a Boar”. It begins with the hunt for the boar of Kalydon, which was undertaken by the fathers of the men who fought at Troy. For me, that means the moment just before European history began. The second part of the book is about a twentieth century Romanian-Jewish poet, loosely based on Paul Celan, who flees Czernowitz in 1941 and travels to a part of Greece, formerly Kalydon, now called Agrapha (it means The Unwritten Places) where he becomes involved in the hunt by Greek partisans for a Nazi officer. Later he writes a poem out of his wartime experiences. It is published to great acclaim but it rests on a version of the poet’s life which cannot be verified. If it was a painting, one would say it lacks a provenance. It has no history. What can we know of such events? I’m trying to write a book which will put this question honestly: a historical novel with a three thousand year hole where the history should be.

April 2, London
Sunday is a bad day to work. Catholic time was lumpy and bumpy with Saints’ days and holidays and festivals and what-not. Now we have Protestant time, which is smooth and streamlined for maximum efficiency. It lacks texture.
I want to finish a scene which I thought I would finish yesterday. My protagonist, Solomon Memel, has spent the war in Czernowitz, Romania and in a labour camp in southern mainland Greece (the region where the original boar hunt took place). There he has composed most of the poem for which he will become famous. The ending of the poem will conflate his participation in the hunt for a Nazi officer and the killing of the boar by the Greek heroes. The book’s first hundred pages have retold the myth, and the next hundred allude more or less explicitly to the double-action of Sol’s poem. This scene is near the end of the modern strand which accords almost, but not quite, with what the reader has been led to expect. Sol must escape from the camp and join the hunt for the latterday ‘boar’. So far, so simple. At this late stage in the narrative I have very few choices left to make. I’ve boxed myself in (although I know that one of the walls I’ve erected is false) and I want the story to feel inevitable, as though nothing but these events can now happen because this story was scripted three thousand years ago.
The problems are expository. This section must be rooted in Sol’s consciousness, and this gives me no credible narrative presence through whom to give the context in which the action takes place. This is basic stuff. Hollywood films of the 1950’s used to solve this problem by scrolling a potted history down the screen: “It is 1369 and the peasants are revolting….” In the scene I want to write it is September 1944 and German defeats in Romania (a historical irony I would like to use, but cannot) have triggered a long-anticipated military withdrawal. Sol is in a camp on the western slopes of Mount Zygos, which divides the lagoon of Missolonghi from the site of ancient Kalydon. The geography is almost identical to that in the ancient Greek section, so that much is clear.
Nothing else is. Sol has talked in general terms about these events in an interview which will take place later but has already been reported in the book. I don’t think that will be enough. Historically, the details of the withdrawal are complicated, involving shifting alliances between the different groups of partisans, the abandonment of an anti-partisan campaign (Operation Verrat: a Franco-German pun too apt, or pat, for me to use) some haphazard score-settling (which shades into the opening shots of what will later become the Greek civil war), and a fair measure of chaos. Sol does not speak demotic Greek and has spent a year in a labour camp. He cannot know any of this. I cannot see how to present the events of this section as anything other than random eruptions of violence. My own limited experience tells me that this is, faute de mieux, truthful. But it feels lazy.

April 4, Swimming Pool
I am swimming, but not well.
I swim fifty 25m laps Monday to Friday between 12.10 pm and 12.35 pm. I swim front crawl. The leading hand enters the water, pulls down, then back, then in towards the body, which rolls. Your head turns with it, angled so that a low wave forms in front of you. Your mouth surfaces in the following trough and you breathe. Your other hand rises, enters the water, pulls down and back, and so on. Legs: constant four stroke butterfly kick. Nine gulps of air get me from one end of the pool to the other.
Front crawl demands concentration. Arms, legs, shoulders, mouth, lungs, and heart have to synchronise otherwise you run out of breath and sink. Quite small technical errors amplify very quickly  and make things harder. You have to balance lung capacity, heart-rate, and muscle strength. Front crawl is good because it does not allow you to think about anything other than front crawl.
But today I am not thinking about front crawl. I am thinking about my editor, Neil, with whom I am going to have lunch. I am also thinking about the deadline for my book. Or, to be more precise, the fifth deadline for my book. Neil is worried because he has no MS. The publishing house is committed to putting out this book in September of this year. One can already order it on I have to reassure Neil that, come what may, he will have a completed MS by the end of this month. I have no idea how this will happen, but this is the fifth time I’ve extended the deadline and I’ve now run out of road.
Neil, I think, will not reassured by anything I tell him. The only thing which will reassure him is a completed MS. In his heart of hearts he knows everything will be fine, but this knowledge is unhelpful at this particular point in the ‘being fine’ cycle. Neil edited my first book in 1991 after another editor sat on it for eight weeks and did nothing. We went through it three times in the ten days remaining to us, working from 8.30am till 9.00pm, at which point Neil would go home and I would work on the rewrites until the early hours. The next morning we would start again. I owe Neil.
On the other hand, I’ve been writing this book for four years. Do I really want to rush the last thirty pages to make a publication schedule? The public doesn’t read the schedule, only the book. My name is the one on the cover.
And on the other ‘other hand’, should I be taking four years over a novel of 300 pages? It seems I’ve been writing this novel forever. Perhaps I would continue indefinitely unless forced to stop by some outside agency such as falling under a bus, or being crushed beneath a fifty kilo block of frozen urine dropped from one of the 747’s which circle my house like reviewers, or by being told to finish it by Neil.
This what I think about as I swim, badly, up and down the pool.

April 7-11, Turin
This I should not be doing. Not now. Perhaps not ever. Some months ago I accepted an invitation to the Turin Biennale, thinking, I suppose, that my book would be finished and my wife and I could stroll around an Italian city or two being artistic and buying designer lighting fittings, the lire being so weak against the pound, etc.
This is not how it’s worked out. The festival is two weeks-worth of events stretched over a month. It is in chaos. Carla, my Italian publisher, meets me with a car at Linate and we drive to Turin. Hotel reservations are lost, events disorganised, and everything is late. I should have cancelled the whole thing, but press interviews and a couple of presentations in Milan have been tacked on to the back of the trip. My second book came out in December last year, when I refused to go because I was supposedly finishing the current book. Dumping out of the festival means dumping on my publishers, who I know and like. The simplest course of action is not simple. So I’m here, and hating it. All I can hear is very loud ticking.
One bright spot is the presence of David Mitchell, a young writer whose work I admire. He lives in Hiroshima and is here with his partner, Keiko. We drink enough to have several more or less irony-free conversations about what we both do, which is write novels. It strikes me that it’s hard enough to talk truthfully about the business of writing when one’s interlocutor actually practises the subject at hand. What hope a multilingual audience with induction-loop gizmos feeding a surreally inaccurate simul-translation into their ears? This the event in which I and nine other writers are supposed to participate.
The first person to speak wrote the screenplay for “Life is Beautiful”. Mister “Life is Beautiful” talks about his work for fifty minutes without stop, then leaves for the airport. Perhaps the script for a screwball comedy set in a Bosnian rape camp urgently requires his presence elsewhere. Anyway, most of the audience takes the opportunity to escape. I don’t blame them. I wish I could escape too.
Later that night I get a call from my wife. Her father is very ill and I should probably get back sooner rather than later. I’m on the next plane out.
Never wish for what you want.

April, various places in London
My father in law is dying. I am very close to him. I am finishing the book. I’m not sure how these three statements can coexist. Two thousand words have to go down every day to give myself a chance of making the deadline. Some days I am in my house only for an hour or two. There is no time to read anything I’ve done, and no point either: there’s no time to rewrite it if it’s wrong. The first hundred pages of this book took a little over two years to write. The last hundred have to take a little under three months. I have two weeks of that three months left. The suspicion that I’m throwing away three and a half years work grows with every day.

Saturday, April 29. 5.21pm
I finish.

April 30 – May 2
The moment when you end a long project feels like nothing much. It grows more significant in the period afterwards. ‘Ending’ means that certain kinds of textual operations will cease and what these might have been only becomes clear by looking back over what you’ve done – and noticing the mistakes. I am in the revision period. There is no time for major rewrites, and certainly no time to add any more to the text. It’s cut or do nothing. Perhaps this is why I get the idea that I should lose one of the time-frames in the second part of the book.
There are three time-frames. The first runs from 1938 to 1945: Sol in pre-war Czernowitz, the German occupation, Sol’s flight to Greece, his capture, then escape at the end of the war and participation in the hunt for a Nazi officer. The second runs from 1947 to 1954: Sol lives in Paris; Die Keilerjagd is published to initial indifference then great acclaim; a ‘footnoted’ edition published by Jakob, his old friend from Czernowitz, appears – and appears to discredit Sol’s role in the Greek hunt for the Nazi officer. Sol’s reputation is eventually restored and he is rehabilitated, but doubt lingers over his life during the war. The third frame covers a few weeks in 1971, when Ruth, Sol’s lover from Czernowitz, arrives in Paris to shoot a film based on Sol’s poem; Sol’s relationship with her and Jakob is re-examined, and Sol’s role in the hunt. The truth seems to come out although the last line twists that ‘truth’ inside out.
These three time-frames are intercut with one another in reverse chronology. A scene in the 1970’s offers a version of events, which is modified by the version offered in the 1947-54 section, which is countermanded (or not) by the narrative of what happened during the war, which raises a question to be ‘answered’ in the following 1970’s section. The effect is of working through the accretions of meaning (and falsehood) to reach forward for the next incident in the story. It’s not quite as schematic as that but it is quite intricate. I think I want to cut the second of these time-frames. I’m not sure why, or how to do it without the structure breaking down the middle. It would create a lot of narrative problems and, as I’ve decided not to fold flashbacks into the sections, there’s no way to relocate the cut material into the remaining two time-frames.

May 3
Is there a word for the line of hunters which gradually encloses the ground in which the quarry is thought to be hiding, forms a circle, than advances on its centre? I read it somewhere, once.

May 11
Meeting with Neil, who has now read the MS. I present my plan to Neil. Neil counsels against it, with some vehemence. I argue it through with him.
When I get home I see what I should have seen immediately. It’s an insane idea. But I had the thought in the first place for a reason: the book’s not quite right. I know this is true, and I know that given three or four weeks of reflection I could make the correct decisions. The book I want to write is present in the book I have actually written. But where?
The story in Part One (the hunt for the Boar of Kalydon, retold, plus footnotes) should be clearer. Also, there’s a problem with the tonal discrepancies between the three time-frames in Part Two. They should be differentiated, not separated (they are versions of each other) and all must relate to the narrative of the hunt (in Part One, which retrospectively becomes a prose version of Sol’s poem or an artefact derived from it) and the accompanying footnotes (which similarly become Jakob’s footnotes). Both elements of Part One contain information which modifies how we see the story in Part Two. They re-read it, but only in retrospect, becoming that re-reading only when presented with the material that contextualises them in turn. The real meaning is always one jump ahead. It’s a kind of narrative sleight of hand. The point about this is that tone becomes very important. For reasons I’ve never understood, fundamental problems (in the narrative, or among the characters, or wherever) surface first in the tone. I think as the narrative voice lifts off the material in which it should be immersed it starts to sound shrill and needy. Miners used to carry canaries underground to act as sensors for fatal gases. In stories, the canary is the tone. It squawks and dies. The problems in Part One don’t bother me because that’s something I know I can fix, but those in Part Two are worrying. It might be irremediable, whatever it is. I start going over the MS.

May 15
Very strange. A newspaper article runs a piece on the ‘rediscovery’ of the Roman poetess Sulpicia. Sulpicia’s few surviving poems have been published several times. I have an edition and pull it down to discover that there’s a poem about boar-hunting, which includes the word ‘indago’. An ‘indago’ is a ‘line of hunters which gradually encloses the ground in which the quarry is thought to be hiding, forms a circle, than advances on its centre’. The translator explains this in a note. He himself uses the word ‘tinchel’, which he found, he says, in a novel by Sir Walter Scott. This is not the word I read once and have forgotten. I have still forgotten that word. ‘Tinchel’ goes in; Part I, page 1, para 2.

May 19
There’s a period in which the work you’ve done settles within you. The relative costs in time and effort between this or that element fall away. Your self-regard sinks. The ‘parts you love’ take their place among the parts of the book. Your criteria change. The writer of a book has no raison d’être from the moment the text is completed but most hang on. It seems to take a few weeks for the book’s re-writer to strangle his or her predecessor. At the moment I’m not sure if I’m doing the choking or being choked.

May 24
All the editing that is going to be done has been done. [Later note: I will add another 839 changes at the page proof stage]. The book has to be copy-edited, a process which will be complicated by the presence of the footnotes, and this has to start now. The problems in Part One have been solved (more or less) by reversing the drift of explanatory material towards the back of the section and placing this stuff at the front, which is where readers will find it useful. The tonal shifts in Part Two have been much harder to iron out. There seem  to be a lot of different causes (implied flashbacks creating ‘false’ time-frames, accidents of wording seeming to know more than has so far been narrated, varying distances between narrators and material) but they all signal strain within the narrative framework as a whole. My instincts about three time-frames being one too many seem to have been right, but the structure needs re-engineering, not cutting. I get to work on that and the tone-problems start to disappear. Two paragraphs vex me in particular, which is usually a sign that the major problem is being solved; the residual anxiety has to go somewhere.

June 1-10
Editing saves books. Copy-editing saves authors. All writers have their bad habits: words and phrases they overuse or misspell, syntactic structures they lean on too heavily. Copy-editors find and eliminate them. Mine is Roger Cazalet, who I’ve known for ten years and who copy-edited my last book (eight hundred pages long, also very late). We agree that the footnotes (only 107 of them, but containing just over a thousand references to Greek and Latin texts) can be checked for consistency of form, but not for accuracy. They are the main reason that the first part of this novel took two years to write. Checking them would take a full-time researcher between three and six months.
A copy-edited text is always a shock. You can’t believe that there can be so many things wrong with anyone’s MS, let alone yours. A copy-editor’s remit encompasses the odds and ends mentioned above, grammatical errors, errors of meaning and sense (“His eyes ran after her….” Do eyes have legs? eg), typos, inconsistencies (always lots of these), and passages which no-one in their right mind would let through because they’re terrible. A copy-editor produces a style-sheet to regularise the spelling of character’s names and places. In addition to all this, Roger has to make sense of my make-it-up-as-we-go approach to footnote conventions. The logical relations underlying footnotes are a minefield even when they’re consistent. Mine are not. Roger works in light pencil but even so a page with over two hundred marks on it looks very very bad. All my own work.

June 11
Roger has now been through the complete text. We sit down together to go through what he has found. There’s a trick to this kind of work. Two imperatives have to be balanced: to maintain concentration and to keep moving. It’s all too easy to spend twenty minutes arguing over a semi-colon. It’s just as easy to miss the one semi-colon that really matters. Copy-editing is about diligence. Five or six hours is the most that can be done in a day; after that you start to miss things. Time pressures have forced us to split the MS into four discrete parts which we rotate between us. The idea is to produce an almost clean MS that can be put into production immediately. For each part we follow the same procedure: Roger reads the draft MS, marks it up, discusses the marks with me and I key the changes we agree into the computer to produce a final MS. The fact that all four parts are always at different stages of this four-stage process (or eight; we go through the MS twice) quickly creates a logistical nightmare. But the MS is getting better. I can see the images more clearly.

June 24
The second round of changes to the footnotes to Part One are not going to make it into the final MS. I’ll have to add them at the proof stage. [Later note: these will be in addition to the 839 changes mentioned in the May 24 entry.] Everything else is in. I link the computer files, which have working titles such as “Agraphos 1-4”, “Cynegeticus 001-003”, and “Sus Graphophagus Version Two Revised”, and hit ‘Print’.
Writing this book has been quite unlike my experience with my first two novels. Both of those were more excessive, the language and story more baroque, with hundreds of characters and minutely-detailed plots. This book is less than half the length and it’s misled me from the start. Only now can I see the story that I always wanted to tell. There were several periods when I had little or no idea where it was going and had to continue blind in hope of reaching familiar terrain. In situations like that, questions of the project’s value are so far beside the point that you don’t spare them a thought. There is only the drain of one’s energy and the expenditure of effort. You give and give; the book gives nothing in return. The only consolation is that this is a problem for the writer – not the book. The book gets itself written, knowing that it must also get itself read.

June 25
My computer has crashed twice in the last twenty-four hours. I know how it feels. A paragraph at the very beginning of Part Two is on its very last rewrite. It’s tricky 1) because the imagery must link thematically with the final paragraph of Part One (a single page, or three thousand years, earlier), 2) because it must establish the modern idiom after the ‘mythic’ idiom of the Ancient Greek section, 3) because it must plant an image I want to return to about sixty pages hence, 4) because it must introduce my main narrator, who has his eyes closed while he is made-up in preparation for a TV interview and so, 5) cannot see anything, and 6) because the English language is poor in both the areas of vocabulary that I consequently need most: sensation-words like ‘tingle’ and prickle’ and colloquial names for the curves and creases of the face. He can feel unguents and ointments (both words are outside the range of the paragraph’s idiom) being applied by the make-up girl and he can hear her movements. He can’t see anything and to resort to interior monologue so early in the section is unthinkable. I need, in particular, a word or phrase for the sides of his neck when his head is tilted back. The throat would be at almost full stretch. The neck would be bowed along its length and that carries the hint of tautness that I want. But there’s no noun. Hump? Swell? Ridge? All wrong. It’s already the next morning: time to stop. It’s a truism that works of art are abandoned, not finished. An artist’s most vital relations are not with his work, but its failures. I’ve rewritten this paragraph eleven times.

July 11
I handed in the MS to Neil Taylor at Weidenfeld and Nicholson on June 26. Since then I have rewritten the ending again and made 2-300 minor changes. [Later note: actually over 800, see earlier entries]. I am going to add them to the proof pages, which will be couriered to me tomorrow. I am going to describe them as “corrections”.