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

Thursday, 29 January 2009

What character would you like to be?


250px-SlartBartFast One of the few bonuses that 2008 presented my wife and I was the return of Sky TV. We don't have a satellite disc. We receive our TV channels through cable but when NTL was taken over by Virgin there was a falling out with Sky program providers. Virgin dug their heels in and so we lost all the Sky channels. So, no Lost, Bones, Battlestar Galactica and no Stargate. Ah well. But at the tail end of the year the two kissed and made up and just like that we got all our channels back and a couple of extra ones, SkyARTS1 and SkyARTS2. Very nice. In our old flat we did have Artsworld as it was known then and I loved it even if it didn't have the biggest output.

Anyways, we takes what we gets and we don't complain.

One of the shows is The Book Show, presented by Mariella Frostrup, she of the throaty voice, who I remember from The Little Picture Show back in the nineties. Now The Book Show is a fairly glossy affair and all the guests I've seen have been the big names, the ones whose books you'll find in the supermarkets heavily discounted but still more than I'd care to pay.

That said the programme's still worth a watch. They always do a segment where a famous author shows us round their workspace in fact sometimes these get slipped in as fillers during the day to round up programmes to an hour. I did a blog on that months ago but for some reason it's a subject I never tire of. And the show always ends the same way, with each of that week's guests telling which character from fiction they'd like to be and why. On the whole the choices have not excited me overly much and have all been reasonably predictable – Jane Eyre, James Bond, Mr Darcy – but after one show my wife asked me, "Well, who would you pick?" And I sat and I sat and I sat and do you know I couldn't think of anyone. Well, that's not true. I could think of characters I was like or empathised with but none I'd like to be.

And then it came to me. In a flash. As it were. Slartibartfast!

H2G2_UK_front_cover Slartibartfast, for those out there who have either not heard the radio shows, read the books, seen the TV programmes or sat through the film adaptation is a character in Douglas Adams' 'trilogy in five parts' The Hitch- Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a Magrathean who had just been woken up from a five million year nap when he's introduced in the book.

Slartibartfast is a member of a race who create designer-planets. His favourite part of the job is designing coastlines, the most notable of which were the fjords found on the coast of Norway on planet Earth:

'Did you ever go to a place … I think it was called Norway?'

'No,' said Arthur, 'no, I didn't'

'Pity,' said Slartibartfast, 'that was one of mine. Won an award you know. Lovely crinkly edges. I was most upset to hear of its destruction.'

Why I thought I'd like to be him is that he's very much a backroom boy. He has a job he enjoys and gets on with it. He's a little distracted; at least that's how both Bill Nighy and Richard Vernon play him. (Much I as enjoy Bill Nighy as an actor I actually think Vernon does a better job myself.) Still, after five million plus years I'd expect to be a bit doty.

The thing is, having had time to think about it and taking the whole thing far too seriously when I did, I'm not convinced that Slartibartfast is who I'd like to be. He's more positive that someone like Krapp but I still think he's someone I'd expect to be as opposed to someone I'd like to be So, I went and sat in front of my bookcases and had a think.

i050818ziggy You know, I've read a lot of depressing books in my life. I'm really not drawn to anything remotely feel good. Even the comic books I read. Take Ziggy for example. I love Ziggy. Unusually for me he's an optimistic chappie. But where I relate to him is that life confuses him when it's not actively conspiring against him. That I get. And as I get older – and hence more Slartibartfastian – it seems to be getting worse.

The novels I found my hand reaching for were mostly ones I read many years ago, The Outsider and The Plague by Camus, Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, Nausea by Jean-Paul Satre, Arrival and Departure by Arthur Koestler, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse, The Trial by Franz Kafka, Hunger by Knut Hamsum and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey and if there is one thing that to a greater or lesser extent the characters share its that they look at life from the outside. As a writer I've always felt apart. Every social situation I get involved in I find I sit back and observe hoping to catch a glimpse of that elusive wee bugger, truth.

The only contemporary novel that wound up in my pile was Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson and again the protagonist finds herself in a world that doesn't make sense to her.

2945452888_bbee99c9df So, I wasn't any further forward and then I noticed a clump of novels by Richard Brautigan and there it was: The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966, to give the book its full title. Yes, that was it. I'd like to be the librarian, the narrator of the book, the hero if you like.

When Slartibartfast first meets Arthur Dent he tells him his name is not important although he does reveal it when pressed at the end of the chapter. The librarian in The Abortion never does and no one, not even the beautiful Vida, the girl "with a Botticellian face and Playboy furniture legs" who becomes his lover, refers to it. That appeals. I always hate with relationships how you feel duty bound to provide a potted history of your life. Vida – and by extension we readers – learns very little about the librarian before she decides to sleep with him and then move in with him. Very 1966.

Essentially the librarian has been a drifter:

'I kicked around a lot: canneries, sawmills, factories. A woman supported me for a couple of years, then she got tired of it and kicked my ass out,' I said. 'It was all pretty complicated before I started working here.'

How he ended up as the librarian was simply that he was in the right place at the right time:

'The fellow who was here before me couldn't stand children. He thought they were going to steal his shoes. I came in here with a book I'd written and while he was writing it down in the Library Contents Ledger, a couple of children came in so he flipped, so I told him that I had better take over the library and he had better do something that didn't involve children. He told me he thought he was cracking up too, and that's how I got this job.'

That did happen to me once – it was a drycleaners and not a library more is the pity – but it pleased me nonetheless. I'd popped in to see a friend, his shop girl hadn't turned up for work and as he was stuck on the front desk and couldn't do any work out back I offered to cover the till. The next thing it became a part-time job, then regular and finally – and we're talking about only a few months – my friend left and I became the manager. A bit like the librarian in The Abortion, all my previous work had been in very different jobs, offices in my case, so this was quite refreshing although eventually I packed it in and went back to another office job purely for the money.

Not all of Brautigan's characters are as laid back as the librarian but that's probably the quality I would long for myself. I'm really not a laid back character. Up tight, that's me. Which makes me wonder why Slartibartfast jumped to my mind because he's not really laid back. He'd found a job that he likes and so when it came to the replacement Earth and he got landed with Africa as opposed to Scandinavia he was a bit miffed about the lack of, for want of another word, "crinkly" bits. So I guess I want to be a laid back backroom boy. Yes, that sounds about right.

Anyway, I've prattled on enough. I'd be interested to hear which character in literature you would like to be and why. This is not a meme by the way. You are under no obligation to pass this on to anyone. It's just a bit of fun for a change.


Dave King said...

Snap! We,too, have cable T.V. It was N.T.L. and then it became Virgin. We, too, lost Artsworld and some other bits and pieces. Recently I discovered that we now have Sky Art1 and Sky Arts 2 - discovered, because they don't tell you these things, communication is zilch. Like you I have been enjoying The Book Show. There have been some other goodies, too, Faith in the Frame, being one. Like you I thank the Lord for small mercies - and hope they grow bigger in time. Have no idea which character I'd like to be, though. I've quite worn a bald patch on the top of my bonce, worrying about it.

Jim Murdoch said...

It is hard to choose isn't it, Dave? I think the thing that got me was that I still wanted to hang onto what I thought was intrinsically me otherwise why not pick Superman for God's sake? I'm not always happy with the limitations of my character but the thought of not being me sits uncomfortably. Perhaps if I knew that someone was going to step in and be while while I was away being someone else and I could go back anytime I wanted I could cope.

Dominic Rivron said...

Interesting challenge. I can't decide between Ishmael (of Moby Dick fame) and Lord Peter Whimsey. To go on an adventure with Queequeg and survive, or court and win Harriet Vane?

It got me thinking about the character I'd least like to be. Probably Gregor Samsa.

Sorlil said...

I would love to be Sherlock Holmes. Is it a worry that I've picked a man?! lol.
Really, I love his character. He's super-intelligent of course, a London gentleman yet also lives in the exciting and dangerous nether-world of crime and perpetual mystery. Impeccably dressed yet an utter slob at home with a housekeeper to keep him in order. A talented violinist, as logical as they come and yet has his indulgences (opium). Emotionally independant and entirely self-reliant. To me, Jeremy Brett is the most faithful Holmes according to my reading of the stories - he is Sherlock Holmes.

McGuire said...

God, I don't know, possibly Don Quixote, the Knight Errant (noble idiot) and Saviour of injustice (deluded madman), prone to adventure and tragic failure. I loved that epic, although I have never finished it, though one day I will, right now I'm happy to dip in and out of it.

Your choice is a fine one Jim, forgot about that character, haven't read 'Hitch Hickers guide...' since High School. Fond memories.

Or, possibly, Oskar Matzerath, ' I remained the three-year-old, the gnome, the Tom Thumb, the pigmy, the Lilliputian, the midget...' Something about being a cynical nihilistic intellectual petulant child appeals to me.

Paul said...

That's a great choice, The Librarian. I've always thought that book one of his most challenging, there's a kind of despair lurking all the way through it, even though the idea of the Library is beautiful. I've been re-reading "Paradise Lost" lately and reading Satan's speechs out loud is an amazing thrill. Can I be him?

Ken Armstrong said...

I love my Sky Dish. My favorite is FilmFour. God be with the days when they didn't even have ad breaks in the films but it's still good.

I always think I'd like to be characters in books who are writers. John Irving has done a few, Garp for instance or the guy in 'Widow for one year' (I think). Those characters had *bad* lives in many ways but, hell, they made their crust writing their stuff and that has always drawn me in.

Jim Murdoch said...

I was watching The Book Show yesterday and one of the guests when it got to this point in the show noted just how many literary characters have miserable existences to save us having to have them. So I think that Lord Peter or Holmes would be a much safer choice for me.

As for your choices, McGuire, I suspect you're falling into my trap of wanting to hang on to a bit of the old you.

As for your choice, Paul, what can I say?

And, Ken, I don't think Garp would be such a bad person to be. Not so sure about the crazy mother mind.

Rachel Fox said...

All your ideas are fascinating...Sorlil's especially...always surprising, that lassie!

I think it's got something to do with the kind of books I read but I can't think of one character I would like to be. Either that or I have no imagination. What I can offer though is this from Don Paterson's 'The Book of Shadows' (Jim's comment made me think of it):

"To renounce not the self, but your self; somehow a very different proposition."

Maybe I'd like to be that's just weird! No really...for all my crap...I think I just like to be me.


Jena Isle said...

Hi Jim,

You've been to places through your readings. I marvel at the books you have read - almost all topics and genre.

Some books that stayed with me - although I can't remember all the chapters - are War and Peace, Battlefield Earth, Trinity and Where Eagles Dare. I have read two unique books "I am the Cheese" a psychological thriller and Sophie's World" , now I forgot who the authors are.

I read just to enjoy and I can't remember the details later.

Anyway, I might evoke a laughter from you when I say , I would like to be Master but full of wisdom. ( was there a book written for star wars?) I have the complete series from 1 to 6 with me .

I always enjoy your posts, they're very well written. Have a blessed weekend.

Dave King said...

Yup, possibly related to that, I find that when writing about a someone, say from my past, and wanting to change the name to protect the innocent, I find it extremely hard to do that. It doesn't ring true and I am not comfortable with it. And as for changing their gender - as I once tried - well, forget it!

Catherine @ Sharp Words said...

Jim, I'm loving the idea of you as Slartibartfast (especially running the Bistromathic).
I haven't got a clue which character I'd like to be in literature though - unless it's perhaps Thursday Next, who can jump around in other novels; that way I'd get to visit them all.

Art Durkee said...

Who I would like to be?

Tarma (Mercedes Lackey's Oathbound series of stories and novels)

Who I probably actually am?


Ah well. None of us are what we want to be, I suppose.

Jim Murdoch said...

Now you're getting all philosophical on me, Rachel, and this was just going to be a bit of fun for once. So, I'm not biting the bullet – you can just be you. I'm sure very few other people would be up to the task.

I honestly don't see you as Yoda, Jena, but I suppose that's the point of this so who you wish to be you be.

In all honesty, Dave, I've never set out with a character based on someone I've known. As I've written I've grafted on characteristics that one could attribute to someone I've known but other than identifying me in my writing I'd put money on no one being able to point to a character and say, "That's me, isn't it?"

Catherine, that was one of the ones I got wrong. I thought my daughter would love those books and she simply couldn't get into them. I think that's a good choice for any writer.

And, Art, okay, so I had to look up the books and I'm not surprised to see you pick a character from a fantasy novel nor was I surprised to see you pick a woman. If women had not had such a bitch of a time over the years then I would have happily gone with a woman myself. As for you being 'Gandalf' – only on the board game my friend.

Conda V. Douglas said...

Oh, what a great question and post, Jim! And Slartibartfast! One of my all time favs.

And yes, I have the same problem you do Dave--if I try to take a character too close from life--then I get all balled up in how that person truly IS. It works for me to do what Jim does--instead of creating characters out of whole cloth, I patch them together.

As to my character? One of Terry Pratchett's. I like to be a witch, any witch, or Death, or another cool character, but I suspect I'm Rincewind.

Jim Murdoch said...

I suppose, Conda, that both Slartibartfast and Death have a certain bewilderment about them that appeals which I imagine comes with advanced age.

Conda V. Douglas said...

Yes, Jim, I love that about them both--although I faintly recall being confused about human behavior starting when I was...way young? It's only gotten worse.

isabelle said...

Hello Jim, I'm currently reading Brautigan's Revenge of the Lawn stories and really enjoying them. So far , my favourite is 1692 Cotton Mather Newsreel,it perfectly captures the exhileration of childhood imagination and the line, 'Her garbage had lied to me' are so spare and yet in the context of the story, speak volumes.

As for a character, gosh that's hard. I like the sensual nihilism of Helen ( in Helen and Desire )but on the other hand I've always admired the containment of Miss Amelia ( The Ballad of the Sad Cafe).She always reminds me of a russian doll, somehow of a woman trapped inside a manly womans body, and at the very middle, a hidden vunerability. I'm not saying I'd like to be either of these characters for a lifetime, but a week in their shoes would show me a lot of things I expect.

Terry Heath said...

I'm always in awe of your posts, Jim. They remind me of the old idea that "writers write". You're certainly prolific.

Anyway, the question you pose is a fun diversion but I'm fairly stumped. For some reason my choices are leaning toward fantasy lit today, which makes me wonder if I'm looking for an escape. At first I was thinking I'd enjoy being Peter in "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" but then suddenly that wasn't good enough and I thought of Gandalf from "The Hobbit" and the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. I just think it would be cool to be a wizard, and especially such an honorable and wise one!

Jim Murdoch said...

I'm glad that everyone else has found this as tough as me. I like your suggestion, Isabelle, and I think that really sums up one aspect of why we read, to be someone else (or at least to be inside their head) for a little while and then having the comfort of slipping back into our comfortable selves.

And, Terry, thanks for that. The fantasy wing has been reasonably well supported. Funny that no one chose to be Harry Potter but then I guess adolescence is adolescence no matter what abilities you have, eh?

Art Durkee said...

The subtext is that somehow fantasy (or other "genre") are somehow judged as lesser than mainstream fiction, which in its own way is just as "escapist" if not more. The idea that hard-nosed realism must be somehow more authentic than the experience of fantasy is questionable at best, absurd at worst.

On the other hand, I could be Philip Marlowe, observing life's absurdity from the sidelines.

Jim Murdoch said...

That was not the subtext, Art. My first choice was a science fiction character and that is not exactly held in high regard by many. I would have thought you knew me well enough not to suggest that. There are lots of genres I don't read because the subject matter doesn't interest me. There are many works of literary fiction that I wouldn't touch with a bargepole. I just noted that Gandalf had cropped up twice. As it happens so did a couple of detectives, three now in fact.

Art Durkee said...

Jim, my thoughts were prompted by some others' comments, not directly by yours. It was the equation of fantasy = escapism that irks me. My only point was that literature = escapism, whether it's fantasy or Pynchon. Some folks still seem to think that fantasy equates with escapism and James Joyce doesn't. I don't see the difference.

Terry Heath said...

Now that you mention it, Harry Potter would be perfect! Actually, if you had asked which author we would like to be then J.K. Rowling comes to mind . . . or I'd at least like to have her level of creativity!

Steve Kane said...

Slartibartfast is, without a shadow of a doubt, the best name ever created for a fictional character.

Who would I be? Who, indeed. That is a tricky one. All my favourite characters suffer terribly one way or another, such is my taste for bleak, depressing or blackly comic novels.

One character does spring to mind, though: William of Baskerville from Umberto Eco' The Name Of The Rose. I'd love to A) be that clever and B) rummage around a labyrinthine medieval library.

Jim Murdoch said...

Steve, I've got you sussed - you just want to look like Sean Connery.

Steve Kane said...

And why not? The ladeez lurve Mr. Connery. But don't underestimate my fantasies of getting lost in an endless maze of leather-bound tomes.

Ping services