At Free Love Corner

Jenny Diski

  • Literary Seductions: Compulsive Writers and Diverted Readers by Frances Wilson
    Faber, 258 pp, £12.99, October 1999, ISBN 0 571 19288 2

Reading, according to Barthes, is like those other solitary occupations, praying and masturbation. Certainly, there are those who are troubled when they come across people publicly performing the act of silent reading. When the youthful Augustine found Ambrose reading without moving his lips, he made every effort to excuse his mentor:

Perhaps he was afraid that, if he read aloud, some obscure passage in the author he was reading might raise a question in the mind of an attentive listener, and he would then have to explain the meaning or even discuss some of the more difficult points ... Perhaps a more likely reason why he read to himself was that he needed to spare his voice, which quite easily became hoarse. But whatever his reason, we may be sure it was a good one.

Bookish children are advised to get their noses out of a book and take some fresh air. (As a troubled adolescent myself, reading obliviously in the midst of a performance of family life, I was given knitting needles and wool.) And I suppose reading is, as Barthes said, a form of playing with oneself, but it is also a way of committing oneself to the vision of an invisible being. To non-readers it looks like a way of disengaging from the world, and especially from the time-and-place-bound reality in which they are obliged to live. Readers are escape artists, deserters. You can’t do anything else when you read a book. Listen to the radio and you can iron or cook. Watch television and you can (and must if you are to stay entertained) converse. But when you read you make it clear that you have withdrawn your attention from those around you. Perhaps your interest and concern. Who can tell? You are not available. The ability to be physically present but not actually there is a disturbing reminder that people who are supposed to love and care for you live inside their own heads and that their thoughts are their own. It can be a worry.

And those writers, what are they up to, also sitting alone, making or remaking worlds that are not present, for unknown readers to step into? Solitary writers, solitary readers, unsocialised, silent, engaging with each other by means of the page. It is, when you come to think of it, a bit creepy – a relationship of intense absence. The external observer’s fear is of a spiralling down into obsession and madness on the part of the reader who lives only between the covers of a book, or the writer whose entire existence takes place between her sentences. Kafka disappeared into the very letters of his words: ‘I can’t understand it and I can’t believe it. I live only here and there in a small word (“thrust” for instance) in whose vowel I lose my useless head for a moment. The first and last letters are the beginning and end of my fishlike emotion.’

Seduction is a process of leading astray, and all writing, Frances Wilson contends, attempts to seduce, to distract the reader from the world around him to the world on the page. Her conviction that all seducers have themselves been seduced leads to the notion that writers, having been ensnared by writing, become compulsive wordsmiths whose aim is to entice readers of their own. In this view publishing is a kind of write slave trade. The smitten reader willingly confuses the writer with the writing. Having read ‘Lady Geraldine’s Courtship’, Browning declares in his first letter to Elizabeth Barrett: ‘I do, as I say, love these books with all my heart – and I love you too.’

Those rare, and usually misbegotten, occasions when the reader and writer approach each other directly are what interest Frances Wilson. Not the intriguing abstraction but the literal seduction of specific readers and writers. Her book is, in fact, a series of stories about the love lives of writers, a clutch of reader/writer romances which, she believes, transcend the more usual physical ways in which people find themselves attracted to each other, a set of doggedly described mini-biographies which anyone halfway interested in literature would know already. In an initial compilation chapter Caroline Lamb falls for Byron, and Elizabeth Smart for George Barker, while Mary Godwin and Shelley shadow the literary love of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller, Robert Graves and Laura Riding, Nadezhda and Osip Mandelstam, W.B. and Georgie Yeats all get chapters to themselves. Since some of her cases come close to the pathological, and most are ineffably silly, there is nothing instructive about reading or writing here: only the posturings of people trying to live up to a fantasy of the writer’s life and how it should be conducted. But writers are only writers when they are writing; their own inaccessibility to their writing selves makes them edgy, so the gaps are often filled in with some grandiose or quaint notion of a writer’s life. They need to be read, not paid attention to.

Wilson does not suggest that all writing achieves its aim in seduction. There are compulsive writers, and there is Henry James, for example, who apparently does not qualify.

No one has, as far as I know, ever found The Golden Bowl a seductive read or had their head turned by a browse through James’s works in a bookshop. James’s readers feel the nervousness in his prose; his portentous style bespeaks his terrible awareness of the appeal of writing, which could suck him in like quicksand. In literary seductions there is a violent intimacy to the reading process, and in his obfuscating and anxious style James avoids this possibility, keeping his readers at arm’s length.

At which astonishing statement one can only raise an eyebrow and congratulate Wilson on her good fortune in having avoided falling head over heels for an obfuscating and anxious other at whose arm’s length one longs to be. Seduction, as anyone can tell you who has observed the improbable loves of their friends and acquaintances, is in the eye of the seductee. Frankly, if it’s a toss up between Henry James and Anaïs Nin, Wilson’s prime example of a compulsive, seductive writer, I’ll swoon for over-anxious Henry any day. But Wilson makes no demands about the quality of the writing or the discrimination of the readers she chooses to discuss, and this leaves one even more puzzled by her project.

The division between the difficulty of writing and the seductive/compulsive writer is absolute. ‘Not one of the writers in Literary Seductions experienced for long the debilitating agony of confronting himself, day after day, before a blank page.’ Conrad was another unseductive writer: ‘I sit down religiously every morning. I sit down for eight hours every day – and the sitting down is all ... I write three sentences which I erase before leaving the table in despair ... I want to howl and foam at the mouth but I daren’t do it for fear of waking the baby and alarming my wife.’ In his place we get Anaïs Nin, a virtual bulimic of writing, whose reader ‘may not like her writing, may not think it good or even interesting’ but who, it appears, responds ‘orgasmically’, though why this should be so is not clear. Calling the Nin reader ‘perverse’ fails to clear up the mystery, unless a rejection of one’s own critical judgment is the definition of the seduced reader, as when Nin’s literary agent, William Burford, remarks of her prose: ‘all these marks of a second-rate writer are made oblivious by the sincerity of her effort.’ Similarly, reading Henry Miller is, in Wilson’s view, ‘as boring as being stuck with a braggart at a party ... all this indulgence at the expense of good writing, plot development and subtle characterisation.’ So when the two most tedious writers in the world get together, there is a frenzy of mutual scribbling and reading, or, as Miller called it, a ‘literary fuck fest’.

Again, Laura Riding’s prose, after she had given up poetry, ‘becomes as enjoyable as reading the telephone directory, and the only viable response ... is to throw oneself out of the window in sympathy’, while Robert Graves displays the indiscriminate compulsion to write that defines the literary seducers. They don’t suffer from writer’s block or the fear of it, like the non-seductive James or Conrad.

Writer’s block is as natural for writers as vertigo is for climbers: defeating the fear is part of the triumph. Graves felt too comfortable with writing, not sensing its strangeness, dangers, or pitfalls, and he consequently wrote too much ... Harold Bloom suggests that he can never be more than ‘a good minor poet’ because of his ‘distrust of figurative language, and his powerfully reductive tendency to historicise and literalise every manifestation of the Goddess he could discover, whether in life or literature’.

So with the writing itself dismissed as mediocre and irrelevant to Wilson’s purposes, we are left with the doings of the protagonists, the more or less histrionic love affairs, on which we are asked to focus. The literary endeavour they all have in common is nothing more than the cable through which electricity runs. Interesting, if the reader does not know about Laura Riding and Graves leaping from their various floors, or Georgie Yeats trapping herself into automatic writing in order to distract W.B.’s attention from Iseult Gonne, but not that interesting. And as useful as a lives of the saints that doesn’t bother with the theology. But when, as with the Mandelstams, something more is going on than the mere carryings-on at Free Love Corner, the project falls apart. Is Wilson’s seduction theory enough to describe Nadezhda Mandelstam’s literal absorption of her husband’s poetry and commitment to its survival? Literary groupies are one thing, the survival of the work quite another. Wilson recognises a difference. ‘Nadezhda followed Osip’s lead not because of his authority but because she was already seduced, and her seduction by his poetry had nothing to do with him. Mandelstam’s poems had an objective existence for them both, and it was for the sake of the poetry that they would each sacrifice themselves.’ Mandelstam himself is clearer about their motives and their context: ‘What he must not do on any account is to seduce people. The poet is only human, like his fellow men, and thus he cannot know more than others.’

Yet even here Wilson insists on mythologising. It doesn’t matter much if Laura Riding is seen variously as Sappho leaping from her rock and Athena jumping out of Zeus’s temple: that is to say, one doesn’t really care. But you do mind when the Mandelstams are immersed in ancient Greek honey. First, Nadezhda is a modern Echo, though a redeemed version: ‘Ovid’s tale is tragic because Echo’s containment of the words of Narcissus is seen as being devoid of pleasure or reward. This was not so in the case of Nadezhda Mandelstam.’ Soon she is Orpheus, living ‘in the shadows after his death, singing his songs. And in gazing so hard at her loved one in the books she then wrote about him, she lost not only Mandelstam but also herself.’ And finally, she becomes Persephone to Osip’s Hades, with Demeter played by Akhmatova. Wilson wonders who or what we desire when we read or write. Some of us evidently desire romantic biography more than either the reading or the writing.