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Vol. 10 No. 13 · 7 July 1988
Diary

Burning Letters

Julian Barnes

2380 words

When policemen first started to look ridiculously young, I can’t say it bothered me (besides, it’s good for them to be younger – fitter, keener, less cynical). I found the problem came when airlines began employing pilots whose voices hadn’t yet broken. There you are, huddled in your seat, trembly with fear and booze, and instead of being greeted by unflappable, grey-haired Captain MacIntyre, noted survivor, you get the reassurances of someone who graduated only last week from Lego to a 747 cockpit simulator. At such moments time moves with a charmless jerk. It did the same the other week while I was reading the personal ads in Private Eye. In what we may as well call ‘the old days’ there used occasionally to be coded pleas from girls needing money for an abortion. Nowadays they’re advertising for everything, and requesting sums it’s less easy to unravel. In this issue of the Eye, for instance, there was a ‘handsome’ student seeking £1,999 o.n.o.; a ‘desperate’ ex-RN officer wanting £10,000 sponsorship for a degree; a similarly ‘desperate’ Kate also needing £10,000; a ‘good-looking, tall, slim, erudite gentleman, 28’, trying to raise £20,000 to save himself from the effects of the Wall Street Crash; a musician who had fallen over his drums requiring £450 for a ‘new mouth’ (this was the only one that made me feel briefly Gettyish); and £300 wanted – sex and precise reason unstated – to ‘save face’.

Are we to applaud these venture capitalists for their enterprise, or reflect that Ian McEwan’s prediction in his novel The Child in Time has come true, and Mrs Thatcher has finally introduced official begging to this country? But the small ad which surprised – no, shocked, enraged – me, ran as follows: ‘Creative writer aware of imminent stardom seeks £500 donation for Amstrad PC. Box 2290.’ There are several things wrong with this cheeky demand: the words ‘creative’, ‘stardom’, ‘donation’ and ‘Amstrad PC”, for a start. And shouldn’t an awareness of ‘imminent stardom’ suggest the word ‘loan’ rather than ‘donation’? Unless this is another Thatcherish lesson: don’t be grateful to those who first helped you. Sighing like a wind-tunnel, I reflected that my own first novel was written on a £30 typewriter and received an advance of £750. So today’s ‘creative writer’ with a £500 Amstrad will, by my – and no doubt his – calculation, expect an up-front of £12,500.

When you start out as a writer you imagine – no doubt from having read biographies, which rarely deal with the failed or the forgotten – that a ‘literary career’ is somehow a smooth, orderly, ever-upward business. You little realise how much it is a matter of hops and starts, surprise promotions and seemingly unmerited stagnations: how much it resembles, in fact, the rest of life. Of course, your career is to some extent affected by the sort of work you produce: but there’s also a patterning imposed from outside. You are expected to be ‘promising’, or ‘established’, or unjustly neglected, or stupidly fashionable, or prematurely dead, or a grand old man, or at least something that can be labelled. (The pianist Andor Foldes once remarked in interview that since he was neither a child prodigy nor an octogenarian he ‘just had to be good’. But ‘good’ isn’t good enough as a category.) Last year’s promotion of Anthony Burgess to official Grand Old Man was a case in point. After years of getting respectful, rather than ecstatic reviews, and of writing the sort of books which perhaps aren’t naturally suited to the British book-reader, Burgess suddenly turns 70 and produces an autobiography. Overnight, there he is: the Grand Old Man. But I bet he didn’t feel a gear-change inside.

Most writers will tell you they don’t think about their careers as careers, or their place in the pecking order, or the size of a contemporary’s advance, and this is just as well. That’s to say, it’s just as well they claim this (we don’t altogether believe them), because if they admitted to such questionings – am I ‘promising’? am I ‘established’? am I neglected? is he/she overrated? – they would quickly decline into paranoia. When Robert Frost died, John Berryman’s first response was

It’s scary. Who’s Number One? Who’s Number
One? Cal’s Number One, isn’t he?

– which at least has the virtue of transparency. But as we modestly (and necessarily) insist that we’re just writers at work on our next book, that we’re sure X’s latest is jolly good even though we haven’t yet got round to it, and that Liverpool are the best club side in Europe, Brian, we can’t help being impinged upon, being made to realise that writing, alas, isn’t just a seamless embrace between writer and reader. The other day, for instance, I turned up the following harmless statement about myself:

Barnes, Julian 1946-

Julian Barnes intends to keep his manuscripts and typescripts in his own possession for the foreseeable future [information supplied by the author, March 1987].

I thought that sounded a bit pompous. Who does this guy think he is? Who cares about his scraps and scribblings? To my relief, I discovered that this stuffy formulation turns out to be a standard cataloguing expression in the Location Register of 20th-century English Literary Manuscripts, recently published by the British Library.* I share the phrase with Timothy Mo, Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro and Craig ‘Hurricane’ Raine; also with William Boyd, who, unlike the rest of us, adds of his manucripts that he ‘would be “very reluctant” to allow any access to them’. (This sounds pretty suspicious – what’s Boyd trying to hide? Ah, maybe his stuff isn’t in his own handwriting ...)

This two-volume register is a project engendered by the Strachey Trust and given memorable impetus by Philip Larkin at the 1979 Standing Conference of National and University Libraries. It covers 20th-century British literary authors whose manuscripts are held in publicly-owned collections in the British Isles (private collectors, no doubt burglar-wary, on the whole declined inclusion); and there are notes of holdings in foreign libraries. ‘Manuscripts’ also covers letters, tape-recordings, photographs, ‘personalia’ and floppy disks from Amstrad PCs. The whole thing is extraordinarily thorough: it will delight the heart and ease the mind of every literary biographer in the country. As a browser, I poked about in it with some interest, noting, for instance, that most of Susan Hill is in the Susan Hill collection at Eton College Library, and that Andrew Motion wrote a letter to E.M. Forster in ‘?1970’ which is under ‘restricted access’ at King’s College Cambridge. But as a writer, listed – however laconically – in the catalogue, I pondered its two volumes with welling unease.

The first thing that strikes you is the haphazardness of manuscript survival. If you correspond, for example, with the London Magazine or Carcanet Press, then your letters probably inhabit archives in Leeds or Manchester respectively; while if you were approached by Susan Hill to contribute to her anthology People, your dealings with her almost certainly repose in Eton College Library. But most people and most institutions don’t keep correspondence: which means that the writer is primarily defined less by the nature and interest of his or her letter than by the acquisitiveness (or far-sightedness, or tenderness) of its recipient. I told one novelist of middle years how he was represented in the Register: by one exchange with the BBC (1960-62), one postcard to Miss Patten of Penguin Books (1968), five assorted letters (1968-81) and three letters to Susan Hill in the Susan Hill collection at Eton College Library. He responded that he’d probably written ten letters a day for the last twenty or thirty years: what, except chance, lay behind the institutional survival of these dozen items out of sixty or more thousand? Or take that Andrew Motion letter to E.M. Forster. Intrigued by its restricted access (‘Deer Mr Foster, Pleaze would you sponsor me to right a v. long pome for the skool mag? Yours, Motion A., Big House’), I asked the poet if he could remember what it was about. Indeed he could: Motion had grown up in the house at Stisted, Essex which Forster describes in his biography of his aunt Marianne Thornton (there was a brick in the pantry with ‘Charles Morgan Forster’ incised upon it). Since Forster was about the only writer the teenage Motion had heard of, he sent news to King’s College of this extraordinary coincidence: ‘I thought he’d probably want to know about it,’ the present-day Motion explained. His letter was never answered, because Forster died a couple of days after receiving it (and Motion has subsequently been teased for killing off the novelist by suddenly bringing up the distant past at the wrong moment). Now, most people will find such a letter at the very least an interesting ‘association item’, as booksellers have it, and be pleased at its preservation; Motion, on the other hand, said he’d be ‘embarrassed’ to think of anyone reading it. But think how easily it might not have survived. Had Forster lived a few more days, he might have answered Motion’s letter and thrown the original away. In which case the exchange would be represented instead by a spidery card from King’s College (‘Short of funds. Regret cannot sponsor poem. EMF’).

To which, of course, the literary biographer would no doubt fairly answer that this proves how much more we need to keep all possible correspondence: the greater the survival rate, the greater the chance that the writer will be justly represented by a cross-section of his or her manuscripts. This isn’t enough, though, to dispel the unease: it rather increases it. When writers complain about biography, when – as J.D. Salinger did with Ian Hamilton – they take every legal step to prevent themselves being written about, when they destroy their own manuscripts, ask for their letters to be returned or better still burnt, it’s usually concluded that they have ‘something to hide’. Well, of course they do; though no more, I’d guess, than anybody else. Yet privacy is held to be ultimately impermissible to writers. You publish a book, and find you have stumbled into some curious contract which you haven’t read but which has been stamped with your signature in your absence: the deal seems to give anyone the right to find out anything about your life whether you like it or not. The Strachey Trust, for instance, was charged with ‘the searching out by all available means of manuscripts’, and there’s something chilly about that ‘all available means’.

So, for instance: Andrew Motion becomes a successful writer, whereupon he discovers that an adolescent letter of his is being safely kept in King’s College Library awaiting some mid-21st-century biographer of unknown sympathy (‘It was in 1970 that the young Motion’s shameless careerism first became apparent. On this occasion, however, his blandishments went unanswered, and many blamed him for the death of E.M. Forster’). When I first read of the octogenarian Somerset Maugham having ‘bonfire nights’ with his secretary Alan Searle at the Villa Mauresque, I thought him a mere senile arsonist: now I judge him not only within his rights but distinctly sane. Writers may indeed want to prevent the exposure of some bit of moral or sexual delinquency, but more likely their destructive behaviour springs from a simple desire to maintain the primacy of their work, to fight off what they see as the inevitable reductivism of literary biography, however sympathetic its intention might be. The aged novelist capering round a bonfire is, however grotesquely, defending his magic.

A most notable and poignant example of such defence occured in 1985. In his speech to the 1979 Standing Conference (reprinted as ‘A Neglected Responsibility’ in Required Writing), Philip Larkin the librarian argued for the ‘meaningful’ and ‘magical’ value of all literary manuscripts: a writer’s letters and diaries, he said uncontroversially, ‘add to what we know of his life and the circumstances in which he wrote’. But Larkin the poet (and Larkin the human being) gave instructions that his diaries be destroyed after his death: and so they were, vanishing into the document-shredder of the University of Hull. The biographer who will need to salvage this self-torpedoed section of the life is none other than Andrew Motion.

The only small addition I can offer the impeccable Register is over the entry for Compton Mackenzie. The compilers rightly list a large manuscript holding by the Humanities Research Centre at Austin, Texas. But since they include ‘personalia’ among their categories, they should know that Austin also owns the pair of bedsocks that Mackenzie died in: a particularly fragrant relic, somehow. Intrigued to sniff out the current going rate for such items, I rang up the modern first-edition and manuscript dealer Rick Gekoski. Suppose, I said, I had the socks Auden died in, properly authenticated, what might I get for them? He thought it over, and made his offer. ‘Nothing.’ Hmm. Nothing? Well, what about T.S. Eliot’s death-socks, equally authenticated? ‘Nothing.’ So my own socks, were I to die in them tomorrow, would be worth less than nothing? ‘No, just nothing.’ Gekoski once sold Tolkien’s Oxford gown for about £500, but literary relics have to strike a particular note of appositeness. ‘Socks are hard,’ he said, while fairly pointing out that second-hand clothes weren’t his main line of business. When I tried to press him further (Kipling’s socks, Forster’s socks, Motion’s socks), he explained: ‘It’s all a question of at what point the bookseller feels humiliated by what he’s buying.’

Casting around, I did get him to admit he might pay two or three hundred for Joyce’s smoking-jacket, and maybe £20 or so for that tie Eliot was always photographed in. ‘I know,’ I said, thinking I’d hit a winner: ‘what about Auden’s carpet slippers?’ ‘Nothing. But you might get something from someone.’ I suppose there might be a podophile book-dealer around, but I’m not risking any possible posthumous humiliation. I haven’t decided what to do with my manuscripts, but I’m certainly telling my literary executor to burn my socks.

Send Letters To:

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Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Letters

Vol. 10 No. 22 · 8 December 1988

I am glad to think that my ‘piece of information’ has been logged by David Sutton (Letters, 13 October). I am not exactly sure, though, what he means by future editions of the Register being available ‘online’; I suspect that this will be of little benefit to those of us out in the sticks. In the meanwhile, readers might like to hear somewhat sooner of another ‘piece of information’ that’s come to light since I last wrote and which, again, is not in the two volumes as published. Indeed, scores of pieces. It perhaps says something for literary – and even political – history that company records should receive scant attention. Among the Armstrong Whitworth papers in the Tyne and Wear archives are brilliant ones by John Meade Falkner which touch on matters not entirely business; and even those show all the sense of human nature and its strange workings which makes his fiction remarkable.

Montagu Bream
Chinnor, Oxfordshire

Vol. 11 No. 17 · 14 September 1989

The correspondence about John Meade Falkner (Letters, 16 March) prompts me to note that the 100 volumes of Bishop Hensley Henson’s journals, in the Dean and Chapter Library at Durham, are not listed in the Register. Was an atheist in charge?

Not only do these contain vivid glimpses of Falkner. They provide an unusual perspective on life towards the end of the last century and during the first half of this one. There is surely a need for a re-edited selection: the three volumes published in the Forties, though highly entertaining, do not contain all the colourful anecdotes. The Journal begins at much the same time Trollope stopped, and could be said to continue his spirit.

Charles Welldon
Hazlemere

Vol. 10 No. 15 · 1 September 1988

To bring a prosaic note to Julian Barnes’s brilliant account of the recently published location register of manuscript ‘material’ (LRB, 7 July), may I point to an instance indicative of the volumes’ ad hoc compilation. Stimulated by the recent World’s Classics edition of John Meade Falkner’s The Nebuly Coat, I looked up his entry only to find that the remarkable manuscript memoirs – drawn upon by Christopher Hawtree in his introduction – were not listed, despite his assertion of their being held by a public institution not famed for its obscurity. Incidentally, wasn’t E.M. Forster in Coventry at the time Andrew Motion’s letter arrived at King’s? Who knows: had he returned to read it, he might have been stimulated to write the long-awaited seventh novel.

Montagu Bream
Chinnor, Oxfordshire

Vol. 11 No. 6 · 16 March 1989

The correspondence about the papers of John Meade Falkner not listed in the Location Register (Letters, 8 December 1988) prompted me to see whether the volumes contain reference to his material among the Blackwood’s files at the National Library of Scotland. They do not. Whether it is a comforting thought or not, these papers show that publishers have always been dilatory in their habits. It is extraordinary that The Lost Stradivarius sold scarcely two thousand copies in the first fifty years of its existence. But, then, the Great War drew a veil over so much Edwardian fiction. There is surely a thesis to be written on the Nelson Library, which gives a marvellous survey of that world.

Frederick Barker
Newbold Heath, Leicestershire

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