1. In Kassel to drink whisky and flaunt my expensive silk garments before the foul scum of North Hessen (actually, though i wouldn’t want to live here again, i enjoy the contrast to Munich with its Lederhosen-clad BMW-driving managers). i had almost no work in December so managed to finish 4.5, my temp memoir. It’s i think as good as it will get in this form, but still kind of shit and worthless drivel, with the same problems as The Better Maker – too closely-tethered to fact, too circumscribed by the dull protagonist (i.e. me). The prose is perfectly serviceable, it’s often funny, but it lacks a commanding sense of things, a purpose to draw all these episodes together into a single shape. As one of my test readers, Bonehead, wrote: “Is hard to view your life in terms of a singular or a few singular goals which is how fiction trends to be pinned. It’s easy if you’ve survived a war or been an addict or something but if your life has been the standard quest for enough money to survive that’s more difficult to dramatise.” (sic where necessary)

2. i’m half-way through Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, which i began with the idea of getting some insight, but inevitably there was none to be had, except that i’m no Nabokov. It is a beautiful read, and while i could do all kinds of fancy prose, i could not match his casual mastery of judgement and observation; and against this calm aristocratic distance, prose is of little value anyway (i wonder, could a memoir work without this Olympian distance?). A view of the world emerges from one’s character and background, so it isn’t too surprising that Nabokov often reminds me of Proust’s world of cold & energetically decadent aristocrats. Character & background can’t be faked or laboured at in writers’ workshops, and i think if you have the impetus to write, technique will take care of itself (typically, most writers forge a style in millions of words of juvenile letters and works they sensibly discard).

3. Bonehead also wrote: “I think your big challenge will be pinning yourself down and trying to understand the meaning of this period of your life in terms of some wider personal context, conflict or quest. That is the golden thread that could be drawn out of every page to give the reader a handrail through the oblivion. Without that, it’s a journey that starts and ends, circumstantially rather than emotionally.” Though i finished these jobs in March 2009, i still see them from within the matrix of this elberry life, and cannot get outside to view it sub specie aeternitatis, as part of a completed whole. And when i consider scenes from my last life, i see them in relation not only to that completed tale, but in relation to this and the others (where i can draw connections), and so i could probably write a purposeful memoir of that life, but not this.

For me, art is in part an attempt to attain the vision sub specie aeternitatis, to get at least momentarily outside of the maelstrom of daily becoming and chance. One cannot arrive at a still being, but at least many completed becomings may offer a wider perspective; so when i am frustrated that i haven’t had a good writing run since i wrote most of my short stories over about 6 months in early 2003, i then reflect that in at least one other life my 30s were a fallow period where i felt my fire had banked and nearly died, later to burst into open flame. And in another sense, i feel that the completed tales of Lear, Sir Gawain (of Green Knight fame), William Stoner, Almasy, John Grady, offer themselves to the reader as a vicarious life lived and understood, inasmuch as one may understand any life (perhaps, as TS Eliot said, great poetry communicates before it is understood).

4. One of my ex-students, Bettina, gave me a copy of John Williams’ Stoner for Christmas, saying she kept thinking i must read it. i had already read it and have a copy, so i will give my old one to an ex-teaching colleague when we meet tomorrow, keeping Bettina’s for myself. Juniper (with whom i am staying) asked what it’s about and i said vaguely, A guy who works at a university, has a horrible wife, dies. But it’s a great book because of the way it’s told.

The book itself tells you that this is an unremarkable life, offering nothing beyond an ordinary human life:

Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.

“or their careers” quietly tugs at the reader, and then one goes back to “associate themselves”, and perhaps one then sees it as a counter-work to the confessional literature of the era (the 1960s), and the burgeoning selfishness of our time. Stoner himself is a plainly decent man, who has no grand ideologies, does not advertise himself; he is just an ordinarly good human being – in a time where morality has been corraled and subjugated to political movements, where one is expected to have a creed, to be loudly & fashionably (meretriciously) moral. Williams’ novel is of a piece with its hero; it’s enough to present a life as a completed whole, and a pattern will emerge, the more powerful as it is unstated and perhaps even develops without the author’s volition or design.

In order to write fiction or even memoir, i think one needs a sense for this completed whole, not to get bogged down in the detail and uncertainty of mortal life. This is something one just has to have, and perhaps even too much conceptual intelligence will just get in the way (i think of George Steiner’s well-written, crafted short stories, which as he admits, read like a theorem). Doubly ludicrous, then, when novelists give their opinions about politics, as if they have anything worthwhile to say on the subject.