Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 8 May 2008

You probably think this blog is about you (part two)

Part One

Writing is a very personal thing. I write to work things out. I write a sentence, maybe a paragraph, and I look at it and say to myself: "Does that make any sense? Am I saying what I mean here?" I've just done that here. I know each and every word very well. I use them regularly and I have full confidence in every single one of them to deliver my precise meaning every time I use them. And that's fine when it comes to simple sentences. Once we get onto broader topics, once we start incorporating figures of speech, everything starts to get that bit fuzzier.

Writing is an act of vanity because it presumes that other people will want to read what's just been written. On the whole I'm not a vain person. I like my clothes to match when I go outside but really that has nothing to do with vanity and everything to do with not drawing attention to myself. When it comes to my words, I would really prefer to distance myself from them, as if they would lose credibility if you someone knew I wrote them. Larkin managed to survive the revelations about his lifestyle and attitudes but look how poor Gerald Ratner's empire crumbled when the press got a hold of him by the short-and-curlies. Some blog writers are very up front, they post all sorts of details about themselves so that it's hard to see where they end and the writing begins. I suppose, in their minds, there's no distinction and one flows naturally into the other.

I expect, for some, blogs are like chapters from ongoing autobiographies. The thing about autobiographies, even those covering several volumes, is that they can only deal with the highs and the lows; the mid-range, day-to-day, what-I-had-for-breakfast stuff has to get dumped and yet so much of what makes up our lives is, well, beige. Other than to illustrate my point I would never think to mention in a post that I need a haircut or that my eyes are especially itchy today.

All biographies are fictional in that they present an incomplete and skewed picture. You get to read what the author decides is relevant and what ends up on the page is only ever as accurate as an individual's memory will allow. This is something I discuss in my second novel, Stranger than Fiction, that all our remembrances are concoctions, part fact (the things we remember accurately) and part fabrication (the bits we have to make up to make the memory flow smoothly). The fabrications are usually things like: Did she say, "Oh, that's fine," "Yes, that's fine," "That'll be fine," or something else along those lines? At the end of the day, does it matter? Yes and no. Only one of them will be factually accurate, the way it was said, with all the right inflections. Only one of them will be the truth but any one of them will do. "Good enough for government work," as my wife is fond of saying.

The writer Beckett has never shied away from incorporating what Matthijs Engelberts calls "autobiographical residue" in his works. In the late play Ohio Impromptu Beckett settles his protagonist in "a single room on the far bank. From its single window he could see the downstream extremity of the Isle of Swans." This clearly confirms the location as Paris where Beckett lived for the greater part of his life. On the table there is a "Latin Quarter hat" which is significant because Joyce used to wear a hat like that. This makes the Isle of Swans doubly interesting because Beckett and Joyce used to go for walks together on this Parisian islet and yet the character in the play has moved there hoping that relief "would flow from unfamiliarity". Is Beckett talking about his motivation for moving to Paris in the first place in 1928?

It’s all guesswork. In his early works he used locations around Foxrock, the Dublin suburb where he grew up, in fact I own a large-format book called The Beckett Country by Eoin O’Brien that devotes 400 pages to highlighting the various Irish locations that crop up throughout Beckett’s works. At the end of the day these are just settings and one should avoid the temptation to read too much into them. In The More Things Change I set the action in Victoria Park in Glasgow and then modify the facts to suit my story, e.g. I needed the pond to be kidney-shaped so it became kidney-shaped.

Settings are one thing as are props but once you start to study Beckett in depth it is impossible to ignore the amount of autobiographical snippets that keep cropping up in his writing. I could give a character a beard – I’m familiar with being bearded – but that doesn’t mean that character is me; lots of people have and have had beards. It is one thing a character having the characteristics of the author, it’s another thing having them mimic the persona of the author. I could have a character say, "Genocide is a good thing," but you shouldn't read too much into that.

Beckett not only used detail and locations from his life, he also grafted in references from the bible, philosophy, psychology and Classical literature. In a letter of 11 April 1972, Beckett wrote as follows:

I simply know next to nothing about my work in this way, as little as a plumber of the history of hydraulics. There is nothing/nobody with me when I'm writing, only the hellish job in hand. The 'eye of the mind' in Happy Days does not refer to Yeats any more than the 'revels' in Endgame (refer) to The Tempest. They are just bits of pipe I happen to have with me.

I can relate to that. To get a complete picture of me, you need to be aware of the society I’ve grown up in and the things I’ve experienced, the films I’ve seen, the books I’ve read – all of this has a bearing on who I am. Let’s consider a single sentence from the opening paragraph from Living with the Truth:

All his affairs had long been in order, down to the milk money put aside in the saucer souvenir on the kitchen window sill; a piece of memorabilia from the past, once perhaps a vessel for an honourable purpose, but now simply where he kept the milk money.

Nowadays it’s unusual to get milk delivered but when I was young is was common place. Even though the book is set roughly in the mid-eighties I decided to have my protagonist get his milk delivered. That he would choose to have his milk delivered also indicates something about him, that he’s not comfortable in the modern world, that he is happier clinging onto the way things were. As I put it later in the novel:

Nostalgia – sounds like an ailment, a sickness of the soul perhaps.

The saucer souvenir is straight out of ‘Mr. Bleaney’:

'I'll take it.' So it happens that I lie
Where Mr Bleaney lay, and stub my fags
On the same saucer-souvenir…

This again says something about the man, that he might well be Bleanyish in nature. What no one would guess is that one of the first gifts my present wife gave me was a saucer souvenir so, even though that was not in my mind when I first wrote the sentence (I never even knew her at that point), every time I read it I’m reminded of her. Its meaning has deepened.

In his letter to Timothy (2:20) the apostle Paul wrote this:

In a large house there are vessels not only of gold and silver but also of wood and earthenware, and some for an honourable purpose but others for a purpose lacking honour.

Paul is talking about people and how a young Christian should watch his associations. This reference implies that my protagonist is at least familiar with the scriptures but it also exposes the fact that I, as the author, may be reasonably well versed in the scriptures. It doesn’t make clear whether either of us was or is either a practising Christian or even a believer. I might've simply stumbled upon it in a book of quotes though. The subtext here is that if something as simple as a saucer souvenir can have lost its standing then what about its owner, is he an honourable or a dishonourable man? And, if you lack honour does that automatically lead to dishonour or is there some middle ground? We're not writing about Klingons here. Well, you need to read on to find out.

The simple fact is that I wrote that paragraph and I inserted whatever "bits of pipe" I had lying around into it to make it work. As you witness the character develop it’s easy to see him as a patchwork man, assembled from things I am and things I've known and then exaggerated; he’s a caricature trying to fake it as a real person. The protagonist of my first novel is not me though. He’s about twenty years older than the man I was when I started work on the book. I called him Jonathan Payne.

In exploring the life of Jonathan Payne I’m not exploring myself but I am exploring a self and I’m doing that by referencing what I know of my own self and life experiences. In examining another personal resonance is inevitable, literally we try and understand the character by comparing him to who we are and what we know. We translate him. I have never been to a prep school nor did I even know what one was when I first read Catcher in the Rye but I didn’t need to know to get what was important in the book.

When Sara Willis Parton published her first novel, Ruth Hall, under the pseudonym, Fanny Fern, she wrote in the preface the following:

I present you with my first continuous story. I do not dignify it by the name of "A novel".

Ruth Hall has been described as "part autobiography, part wish-fulfilment, part lie of omission, part public shaming". It's the wish-fulfilment part that interests me. A man is more than the things he has done. We also have to factor in the things he aspires to or, at the very least, the things he expects to get around to. Who do you see when you look in the mirror?

In the next part of what is getting to be a very long post I'm going to focus on Krapp's Last Tape and the notion of a projected or imagined biography.

Part Three

Samuel Beckett by artist Alex Martinez. Notting Hill, London


Brady Frost said...

This post raised some very good questions for me. I'm not sure what my blog would be considered, it definitely isn't purely biographical. I omit so much because of what certain information could be worth to the right people, and that information is the sort that I wouldn't want the wrong people getting their hands on. For example, my job plans. If I'm about ready to switch jobs, but it isn't solid yet, that would be bad info for someone from my work to run across when they google my name. What about specific details on my upcoming projects? When they get closer to completion, maybe, but why give away all of your best ideas before they are finished?
This post, more than anything else, really made me stop and thing about the self-inflicted gag order I've been suffering from for the last month or so.
The confrontation of realization is bittersweet.

Jim Murdoch said...

Interesting response, Brady. I tend to keep biographical data to a minimum on my site. It's not the focus of the blog so it can only be distracting. As for details of projects I'm working on, again who is to say I'll ever finish this fifth novel? I barely talk to my wife about what's going on in my head.

Ken Armstrong said...

I think it is crucial that a little of yourself goes into your writing. I have written many things where nothing of myself went in and those pieces are all the worse for that.

My favorites are the ones where I see that little bit of me hidden away in there, giving the thing a better essence - a bit like putting some real vegetables in a store-bought sauce.

The trick, I think, is not to feel obliged to tell anyone which of the bits are real. Keep the buggers guessing.

Jim Murdoch said...

I'm not so sure it's crucial, Ken, but it is inevitable. There are so many things in my books that no one but me will recognise. There's even a sentence out a Star Trek episode somewhere in there but I doubt if I could find the damn thing myself.

Fiendish said...

The Beckett part of this intrigued me. It may indeed be that Beckett chose Paris as a setting because it represented the motiviation of unfamiliarity for him - but to me, that means nothing.

I think that too often - especially when fiction (and particularly poetry) is being taught in schools - there is a focus on the external life of the writer so as to better understand the content of the writing. I'm never really sure if that's relevant. If the truth of the situation is not communicated through the writing and the writing alone, surely the writer has failed. We cannot be expected to know their history.

If it's not on the page, it's nowhere. The writer must find distance between themself and the work.

I don't expect or want my writing to reveal or conceal anything about myself. It does, naturally; but I would be very unhappy if people read into my fiction only as an expression of my own character. The writing must take precedence over the writer.

Fiendish said...

I just wrote a really long comment and it somehow disappeared, so here is the condensed, slightly crestfallen version:

As a student of English (just in school, that is) I find the focus far too often sways to the personal life of the writer. We are asked to understand writers' work in the context of their lives. This, for me, is unnecessary, and misses the point in a monumental way. If the writer needs to be analysed to understand the content of the work, then they have failed to communicate the point on paper. If it's not on the page, it's nowhere. Give the reader what they need in words: that's your job.

Quite apart from which, this technique of "everything is autobiography" also fails to include writing which quite genuinely is not autobiographical. I've led a hugely boring life, so none of my writing could be said to be based on my actual experience, and I would feel uncomfortable with anyone trying to assess my feelings or aspirations from reading it.

Turned out quite long anyway in the end. Nice post :D

Jim Murdoch said...

Neither of your posts vanished, Fiendish. I've turned on moderated comments so that's why you didn't see the first one right away. Anyway, I've posted both of them now.

I do think that too much time is spent looking at the lives of writers. Students of Beckett are obsessed with any scrap of information they can find about him and it's easy to get caught up in it.

As for what we end up writing and what our readers take from it, well, that's another thing entirely. Our readers bring so much of themselves to the work. If there are gaps then they fill them in.

Dave King said...

A really interesting post. I look forward even more to the next. One aspect which interests me particularly is that of false memory, the memories we think are ours, whereas in actual fact they have been given to us by parents or others. This is an issue which I have tried to deal with (to my own satisfaction) in the poem which forms my surrent post. I look forward to Krapp's Last Tape.

Jim Murdoch said...

Enjoyed your post, Dave. I've left a comment.

Angel said...

Very interesting post! I happen to think that it can be the routine, boring details that can sometimes reveal the most about a person, and shouldn't always be overlooked when writing.

Take care,

Jim Murdoch said...

I agree, Angel, it's like the point I make about the saucer souvenir. Most readers will pass over that without considering it and yet it is one of the first clues in the book as to the character of the protagonist. Thanks for your comment. Always nice to see a new name.

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