From a Novel in Progress

James Wood

I denied my father three times, but he only died once. The Obituaries Editor of the Times was responsible for my first denial. I was living in London with my wife, Jane Sheridan, and things were not going well. At University College, where I was teaching philosophy, I had become one of those figures whom students romanticise and sometimes pity. I didn’t have the proper qualifications, and the classes I gave were printed on the curriculum brochure in a different coloured ink from the main lectures. Insultingly, the university paid me by the hour! The faculty was beginning to look at me as if I were dead, the students as if I were somewhat grotesquely alive, but it amounted to the same thing.

I was in debt, and my childhood friend Max Thurlow offered to help. He is now a successful, what you might call intellectually deluxe columnist at the Times – the type who mentions Tacitus or Mill every other week – and knew that the newspaper prepared its major obituaries in advance of the subjects’ deaths, and that most of them were written by freelance contributors. So Max mentioned my name to the appropriate editor, Ralph Hegley, and said that I could write obituaries of philosophers and intellectuals. Hegley asked to have lunch with me. We met at a restaurant in Covent Garden – expensive Italian, snowy tablecloths, steamroom hush, Pompeian ruins of cheese on a silent trolley. We sat at a window table. On the street, where the cars were parked in convoy, a traffic warden was going from car to car, pen in hand, like the waiters soliciting orders inside the restaurant. Hegley had a huge head, was middle-aged, sickly lugubrious, pale. He was finely dressed in a double-breasted suit as thick as a straitjacket, and a rich silk tie plaited in a fat junction. But he wore oddly childish shoes, soft and rubbery as slippers. ‘I have bad feet,’ he explained, when I glanced at them.

‘I’ll order for you if you don’t mind,’ he said. ‘There are certain do’s and don’ts at this restaurant. It takes years to acquaint yourself with this little civilisation.’ As he said this, he looked around with a strange contempt on his face.

Hegley explained that freelancers wrote advance obituaries of selected ‘candidates’. He was especially interested in philosophers who were known to be unwell, or rapidly declining with age. He became impatient, and irritably coaxed the loose change in his trouser pocket as he put names to me.

‘How’s Althusser? And that other chap in Paris, the Romanian, Cioran. I hear he’s not too well, it’s the Romanian genes. Any Americans? We tend to miss ‘em, then we have to do a rush job once they’ve gone. I don’t like rush jobs. That’s for other papers, all right? Oh, and we need someone to update our Popper piece; pep it up a bit. I’ve heard he’s a wee bit poorly.’

Catching on, and knowing nothing about the apparently welcome illnesses of various world-philosophers, I invented several ailments.

‘I’m told,’ I said, ‘by various colleagues at UCL, that Gadamer is not very well.’

‘Jolly good. Add him to the list.’ As usual when lying, I felt warm, light-headed.

‘And Derrida has never had tremendously good health. That’s well known.’

Is it? Right, let’s snatch him before he . . . self-deconstructs – isn’t that his word?’

I left lunch with four commissions – Cioran, Popper, Derrida and Gadamer – each paying £200.

But I never wrote one of those obituaries. Other things got in the way. I have been trying to finish my PhD thesis for eight years, and I seem to have a distaste for finishing things. For two years now, I have been neglecting the PhD for a private project which is called the ‘Book against God’ (BAG). In it I copy out apposite anti-religious quotations, and develop arguments of my own about theological and philosophical matters. It has swelled to four large notebooks. It has really become my life’s work, as far as I am concerned. And whenever I was about to begin one of those damned obituaries, I found myself drawn to some crucial novelty in my BAG, and the day would disappear into theology and anti-theology.

Eventually Hegley got tired of waiting, sent me an irritable letter. It had been three months, he complained, and he had received nothing. Should he still consider me as the writer of the proposed obituaries? I don’t cope well with pressure. I was keen to stay on Hegley’s order-form, and suddenly I realised that the most decisive way both to explain my tardiness and to appeal for sympathy would be to tell him that I had been lately dealing with my own, rather proximate obituary: I told Hegley that my father had died a month ago, and that I had not had an ungrieving minute to deal with the work in hand. Hegley wrote back with his condolences. Of course I should take as much time as I wanted with the pieces.

This worked so well that I told a similar lie a month later, after I received a letter from the Inland Revenue about outstanding taxes payable on various part-time jobs I had had over the years. Usually I ignore these kinds of communication, but I opened this one to find myself summoned to attend a ‘hearing’ in Wembley. There I would be ‘assessed’ by government auditors. If there were any extenuating circumstances, a reason for the tardiness of my payments, I should explain myself in writing, and this letter would be read out in my defence at the hearing.

This was how I found myself about three weeks later, sitting at an unnatural table – that caramel-municipal sheen found in so many offices – opposite four men in suits, one of whom was reading out my letter. It explained that due to the recent death of my father, and the heavy business related to the tidying up of his estate, I had fallen behind in the paying of my taxes. I was truly sorry to have found myself in this position but the last three months had been a period of grief and shock as well as distraction, and might I presume on the leniency and compassion (this word underlined) of the assessors to grant me another six months to get my taxes in order? This was read out in a flat, bored voice so that, if one closed one’s eyes, one would swear that the reader – a terribly thin man – was simultaneously doing something else. I kept my eyes down, and strove to appear slumped in grief.

The stay of execution was granted. Of course, my father was alive then. I had calculated that an extreme measure would work. I would not have written those letters had I known that my father would indeed be dead within a year of my writing them.

But we can’t schedule our sins.

The third of these ‘denials’ (as I now think of them) took place after my father’s death, and was not a lie, but by then it felt like one. When I told Jimmy Madeiros, the manager of the Underground Porter-Packer division at Harrods, where I worked for a few months, that my father had recently died, and that therefore I couldn’t continue with the job, I was telling the truth. But it felt like a lie because I had the sense that he didn’t really believe me. So I felt a bit cheated. When I’m not lying I almost think I should get credit for it; it is like that wise saying in the Talmud – ‘the thief who lacks an opportunity to steal feels like a honest man.’

As I said, Jane and I were having difficulties in London. Money difficulties, certainly. She taught the piano at the Guildhall (she still does), and got occasional lump sums when she played a recital. I had my shillings from UCL – when they felt like employing me. We had a pleasant small flat, owned by Jane, in the hilly area of Islington. It was the top floor of a gabled Victorian house. From the high window you could see half of the policeman’s helmet of St Paul’s dome, and further on, a glimpse of Parliament’s spires, and its loyal river selflessly flowing between its crowded banks. At dusk, holding a drink by the window and waiting for Jane to return home, I loved to see the city streetlights arrive in amber hesitations. But London was swallowing everything we earned. My extravagant tastes were surely not helping. For these I blame my late father.

In 1959, Father, who had been teaching theology at Durham University, resigned his job and became a priest. He was bored with teaching and keen to have a parish. He took command of a little church in the village of Sundershall, about ten miles west of town. No doubt he reckoned that the difference between a university lecturer’s salary and a vicar’s stipend was small enough that no sudden impoverishment would consume his family. But my parents’ finances were sickly; in my memory Father seems to be continually driving into town to meet ‘the bank manager’, to arrange for ‘another lease of life’. Though my parents weren’t ascetic, indeed they were quite worldly by instinct, our life was materially thin, strained through the sieve of their finances.

All that necessary rationing produced extravagant tastes in me, and an avoidance of the ordinary wherever possible. For instance, I never blow my nose into a handkerchief, because the nasal trumpeting has always sounded plebeian to me. (I clean my nose quietly and secretly.) I like beautiful objects, rich foods, rare atmospheres. It sometimes seems to me that I’m on a quest to naturalise and enhance all the textures and substances with which I grew up: where my parents had a reproduction of a Russian icon, I yearn for the real thing; where they wore nylon, I will wear cotton; their wool must become my cashmere, and their méthode champenoise only ever my Veuve Clicquot. I can’t divorce this impulse from my secularism. The secularist, as I certainly consider myself, has a duty to be worldly, to take the pagan waters at spas of his own choosing. Don’t I have Nietzsche, one of my favourite philosophers, to support me? And Camus, the Algerian bather-seducer. It was my parents’ duty, as Christian models, to stifle their appetites in preparation for eternity’s fattening. As far as I’m concerned, the secularist, who has only this life to live, should stretch and warm his worldly hours, and make a long summer of every season. Now it’s true that in my present circumstances, while I write these memoirs, living alone in this rather vile bedsit – all day the traffic pounds past my window – I do not have much opportunity for extravagance; but my day will come.

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