............ .........commentary............








Is it not fabulous to discover a new writer, or a new magnificent work from a familiar writer? This has happened to me many times; most recently a few weeks ago. Scanning fast along the bookshelves of the Huntingdon Oxfam shop, while the guy there tried to throw me out so he could close for the day, a shabby little paperback caught my eye. The title on the spine was illegible, but the author's name was clear enough: Truman Capote. I hadn't been especially impressed with his 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' - although it was good, refined, intriguing, unusual, it didn't strike me as outstanding; same for several of his short stories (though maybe I was too young when I read them). I bought the 'Oxfam' book anyhow, more perhaps for the charity than the book (it was only 69p)- though a book trader once advised me: 'It's not what you buy that you regret, but what you don't buy.' Subsequent experience has confirmed to me the wisdom of that advice, regarding second-hand books, at any rate. And this Capote instance would have been a case in point.

Except that I bought it. It's interesting about Capote though, because having read several of his works some years ago and thought nothing in particular of them, I still held the notion that he was an important writer. So being an inveterate book collector - although, I like to think, a discriminating one - this impression about Capote had prompted me to glean a few relevant tomes over the years: one, a 630-page biography by Gerald Clarke (no relation, ha ha), another, a 250-page biography of his childhood years by Marie Rudisill, an aunt of his who wrote articles about antiques - and a couple of other books written by him: 'In Cold Blood' (probably his most famous) and 'Music for Chameleons' (a volume comprising stories and essays with a superb introduction by Capote himself). But the title I unearthed in Oxfam was in fact his first novel 'Other Voices, Other Rooms' written at age about 23. It was, unlike the rest of his work that I've read, outstandingly well written - I don't mean fancy-literary, quite the contrary: I mean natural, unstilted, and apparently spontaneous with quirks and imperfections (possibly ingeniously calculated) - and in this instance, though well down to earth, having a touch of the mysterious, the magical, the surreal… as so neatly depicted in the picture below. Although in a league altogether different from Dostoyevsky or Kafka - ie, as perhaps Gerald Scarfe is different from Turner, say - this kind of art is rare and special - that is, Capote's writing.

cap'The Grass Harp', on the other hand, like his other work (I suspect, having read only some), is fine 'nice' writing, well-honed and flowing; and is a fine 'nice' story; but in no way exceptional. I'm not over-keen on 'nice' writing, but I suppose 'The Grass Harp' is pretty good - like 'Other Voices, Other Rooms' he apparently spent 2-years on it - and in fact the story is familiar; I must have heard it as a radio play probably back in the seventies when I used to listen to radio a lot, because I definitely hadn't read it before a few days ago.

There are quite a few authors whose first novel is in some way remarkable, and like 'Other Voices…' can well be described as a unique work of art. Then, alas, everything they subsequently write… may not exactly be second rate, necessarily… but lacks that 'spontaneity', that freshness of their first achievement. Doctorow's 'Ragtime' is an example, and Segal's 'Love Story'; Webb's 'The Graduate'; Levin's 'Rosemary's Baby'; Salinger's 'Catcher in the Rye', James Vance Marshall's splendid 'Walkabout' - (I'm not sure about some of those being a 'first', but there are many more - they're just what popped into my head straight away. I'm not saying these are necessarily brilliant stories, just that they're written so well  - no, that's not the word: superbly is better.

These are novels that contain the deception of artlessness (never mind whether the author - like Capote - dedicated years to creating and sharpening). But everything their authors produced afterwards was mediocre in comparison, maybe too well written - unless I've missed some, like I'd missed Capote's first. I'll try his 'In Cold Blood' next - which I read just the first dozen or so pages of a few years ago then stopped. Curiously, this happened too for that all-time masterpiece 'Lolita', which luckily I soon picked up again, for it is a work of literary art like no other - and again the only truly outstanding work its author produced (I rate it along with the Dostoyevkys on my shelf). I can only explain my caprice (of stopping after a first few pages) as being due to intellectual mood or some equally obscure phenomenon - or maybe pure indolence! Some works of art might require a slight effort to get started with (though I think not those I mention here today), but the rewards can be tremendous.

When you get to my stage of having glanced at least briefly at most authors' work - at any rate those who are supposed to have produced anything worthwhile - then to suddenly discover an old unnoticed gem is quite an event. I only hope there are others. But I wonder if after an initial success, an author can become somehow spoiled, self-conscious, over ambitious… and instead of writing naturally as for their first or early work, they try too hard and smother their talent.

It reminds me of the bloke who remarked on his hundredth birthday that if he'd known he would live so long he'd have looked after himself better. Most probably, of course (taking the idea seriously, as is not intended), had he looked after himself 'better' he'd have got it wrong and died much sooner - because calculated 'art' is in no way equivalent to spontaneous ART. To quote Hesse (from memory): "No true act, my friends, was ever performed by he who first asked: 'What am I to do?'"

I think anyone who practices an art: writing, music, painting… while quite young, and does so incessantly, obsessively, persistently - and perhaps lovingly - stands a chance of producing at least one worthwhile result; though I suppose a certain special quality of observation and imagination might also be required. I didn't include Kerouac in that list of successful first works because most of his work after his masterpiece 'On The Road' are good and often deeper, while his first published work 'The Town and the City' is, in my view, poor - at least in comparison with 'On The Road' which was his second and one that will certainly stand the test of time (it already has!).

But you won't find many great works of any art from people who didn't spontaneously practice while in their youth. Capote was writing day in day out from when he was ten. Speaking of 'Other Voices…' he said in his intro to 'Music for Chameleons': "…others dismissed the book as though it were a freakish accident: 'Amazing that anyone that young can write that well.' Amazing? I'd only been writing day in and day out for fourteen years!"

I, on the other hand, remember writing when I was ten - I remember because I was given a massive old typewriter for my tenth birthday. But everything I wrote was criticised and rubbished - not, I hurry to add, by immediate family who were fairly indifferent - but particularly, and consistently, at school. Although one might totally reject such an institution (which inwardly I did even at age ten - not surprising when I look back), it can still have a powerful impact on self esteem. At least, it did for me, because concerning writing I recall when I was about twelve, thinking 'What's the point?' and then deliberately, defiantly even - as though with a purposeful effort and doing so against my will - not writing a thing from then on. This surely would have been almost anyone's response to persistent discouragement and ridicule of one's meagre attempts to create.

After that I next took up the pen (that is, in any literary sense), when I had to write essays at University when I was 28 - far too late to be of any use - and that was just essays, nothing genuinely creative. I recall too, the essays were badly written, though must have conveyed what was intended well enough to pass the course. After all, it wasn't a course on creativity.

Maybe all kids aspire to some kind of artistic or creative pursuit? And maybe only middle-class or Jewish kids are encouraged (or rather: not actively discouraged as I was, and most of my peers too probably) - because, as we all know, there are precious few from any other echelon of society who achieve in any of the arts (or, for that matter, in much else).

* * * * * * *

THESE are a micro-representation of the plethora of uninvited musings that invade my brain on a 24-hour basis, so it often seems. Much of the time, happily, my muse is engaged in contemplating what might be termed the banalities of the everyday outdoors: fields, woods, sea, cloud formations (which are frequently spectacular yet scarcely, I feel, noticed by the mass of frenzied commuters who seem focussed on nothing but their destination).

In contrast, the true diversions - for me - are the wealth of highly fascinating and unusual ideas that emanate from dreams, waking or sleeping (as Proust so clearly recognised). Diversions, because they are unreal when it is reality I seek. For instance, last night I dreamt that I was on my way to work (odd when I 'escaped' from formal employment 16-years ago). I had taken the train - just a few stops - and then had to walk. This wasn't in London, rather somewhere undefined on the south coast. But while I was walking I forgot the way - since it was more usual for me to drive. So then I had to go back for my car, which I pictured in my mind as I walked back towards home. Then when I arrived at the end of my road, I remembered that I'd moved house and it had slipped my mind. I realised at the same time that I'd changed my car and it was no longer the one I had imagined. But where did I now live? Luckily, I was able to remember the newer car clearly, though where had I parked it? Not at home - wherever that was. In a quiet, tree-lined road; a leafy suburb of… Another blank. Now I was taking a short-cut; it seemed familiar, a muddy path winding between trees; I leaped several wet patches. Now a grass area, then houses, a road… Is that my house? No, maybe it was once but not any more… but where…

And so on. So much for the dream. Then for some obscure reason I remembered a television play. (I can't for the life of me see the link!). I think it was one of those masterful 'Wednesday Play''s of the 70s. Remember them? Weren't they brill? And weird! Though maybe this was some other play, because it was so sinister and tense compared with the usual bizarre nature of a 'Wednesday Play' that I can't see it as one. Anyhow, the play followed the highly ritualised, daily routine of a taciturn and lugubrious school teacher - who looked remarkably like James Joyce in that sinister pose with hat moustache and glasses. He had become a kind of robot: he got up in the morning, folded everything neatly and made his bed… all his actions excessively punctilious and exact, everything precise and in order at precisely the correct time. He left for school where he performed his 'duties' with ruthless, almost brutal exactitude, and at the end of school he returned home, hung-up his coat, everything orderly and proper… but on this particular day something had finally clicked in his brain, since what happened next was quite a shock… But let me say first that on reflection it had become increasingly obvious as the play progressed that for all his conformity and order this guy was pedantic to the point of insanity, and was living on a razor edge where over the years he'd slowly, without realising it (probably, like all of us - yours truly excepted!), climbed, and from where, now, precarious and severely unbalanced, at any moment was about to plunge. It was the wondering of which direction his plunge would take that kept us at the edge of our seats. So, with the same meticulous attention to detail, he sat at his desk, opened a drawer, removed a cloth which he laid neatly out before him on the table, then the pistol - which he checked briefly - lifted to his temple, and with the same blank expression he'd carried throughout the play, pulled the trigger: Bang! And his head fell, with a loud clunk, onto the cloth, blood effects, the lot… End of Play.

I could swear I hadn't reflected on that since around the time I saw it. Yet all that flashed through my mind this morning, and did so in less than a second. Why? Who knows? Reflecting on the dream took a bit longer, and I could fill in a lot more detail if I was to write it up - as the actual dream, that is, not as a 'story' designed to intrigue.