For nearly fifteen years I wrote hundreds of letters that weren’t from me. They ranged from perfunctory thank-you notes and expressions of condolence, to extensive correspondence with the great and the good: politicians, newspaper editors, bishops, members of the House of Lords. The procedure I followed with a more intimate letter was to type it up, double-spaced in large font, and print it out. My employer — the sender of the letter — would then copy it painstakingly on to embossed notepaper using a Mont Blanc pen and blotting paper, signing it with a flourish at the bottom.
Aside from the correspondence, I wrote a great many newspaper articles, speeches, the occasional poem, and several books. The books generated many reviews and profiles of the man whose name appeared on the cover. A number of literati entered into correspondence with the ‘author’, unaware that the replies also came from a hired hand. We make a great team, the author often said. And we did. When he was pleased, I too was pleased. We worked well together, and on the whole I was a willing partner, interested in the job and fascinated by the psychological processes involved on both sides. Over the years I learned a great deal about vanity, the desire to belong, the lengths a man will go to in pretending to be something other than he is. And the lengths a woman will go to in colluding with the pretence.
How I met my employer is a long story, and here I need to shorten it. Briefly, then, we met through my interest in Russian, and my work as a translator. It happened in 1981. I’d travelled down from St Andrews in Scotland to help him in his efforts to buy a series of paintings of Palestine by Leonid Pasternak, whose memoirs I had recently translated. I explained that Pasternak’s daughters, Josephine and Lydia, had vowed never to sell their father’s paintings. But he took no notice.
‘You don’t understand,’ he said. ‘I have to have them. It’s imperative. They remind me of my childhood, my homeland. It’s all gone now, all destroyed. I have to have those pictures.’
I had never met anyone so strange and flamboyant – like a rare and tropical bird. His plumage was a wonder to behold; when he flapped his wings the lining of his jacket dazzled and glinted like a prism. He wore a large sapphire in his lapel, a vivid silk tie, one pink sock, one green. There were two gold watches on his right wrist and a platinum one on his left, and on his fingers a collection of jewels – rubies, emeralds, diamonds.
We went to Oxford to see Josephine Pasternak. She was an erudite and determined woman, not easily impressed, but in the presence of this exotic creature she became girlish and coquettish. To my amazement, she sold him the paintings.
Afterwards he took me to London in his chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce. During the journey I said very little but as we neared London he asked about my life and what had led to my interest in Pasternak. He listened intently and then surprised me by saying that he had always wanted to publish foreign language books and that I must come to work in his publishing company and manage the Russian list. There had to be a catch. If you have three children under five it is possible to believe that you will never work again, that you will never read anything other than bedtime stories. And yet here I was being offered an interesting, brain-alive job, working from home in my own time, as much as I could manage to fit in with the children. There was no catch, at least none I could see. The salary would be £5,000 plus expenses – ‘All my girls start on five thousand a year, isn’t it?’ – and I was to begin straight away. I was to travel from Scotland to attend editorial meetings, work for a day or two a month in the London offices, and the rest of the time I could be at home and keep in touch by telephone. It seemed too good to be true. We shook hands on it in the back of his Roller.
He then told the chauffeur to take a detour to his offices where he would show me round. ‘You are going to enjoy working for me. I have a good feeling about it. My motto is when we work, we work, and when we play, we play. That way everybody is happy, isn’t it?’ There are terrible complications in the English language when it comes to inviting someone to agree with you. Most languages make do with a one-size-fits-all solution but in English there is no single phrase that can be used on all occasions to mean ‘isn’t that so?’ And so the unsuspecting are ensnared by opting for a simple isn’t it? when actually what is needed is an aren’t they? or didn’t she? or can you?
We arrived in a spacious penthouse overlooking the heart of Soho. The first thing I noticed were the pictures on the walls – not the gentle landscapes of the Holy Land I might have expected, but an assortment of naked or semi-naked women and several large cats clawing their way out of gilt-edged frames. But the centrepiece, mounted on the wall behind the leather-topped desk, was not a painting at all: it was a huge tiger skin complete with head. Apart from the fact that it was dead, it seemed very alive, its bold orange and black stripes setting the wall ablaze.
‘You like it?’ he asked, motioning me to sit down opposite him at the desk. ‘I call him Kaiser. You know what is Kaiser?’ And then, as if it explained everything, he added, ‘My father fought on the side of the Germans in the First World War.
‘I identify with the tiger,’ he said, without a hint of abashment. ‘The tiger eats everything, but nothing eats him. He will even eat a crocodile if he wants to! He is King of the Mountain, King of the Forest, King of the World.’
He drew himself up, regally, in his chair. The tiger’s head was just above the talking head, its eyes shining brightly, curiously round and manlike. For just a second, in that little corner where fantasy and reality collide, the two heads merged and became one.
‘What would you like me to call you?’ I asked as we shook hands on parting.
‘You can call me what you like,’ he said. ‘I shall call you Beloved – all the girls who work for me are Beloved – but you can call me whatever you want.’
‘In that case,’ I said, ‘I shall call you Tiger.’
‘I like it,’ he said, and kissed my hand.
Arriving in Tiger’s publishing house for the first time was like turning up in someone else’s dream. It seemed a very long way down the rabbit hole. There were no familiar points of reference, no compass bearings. It felt high-voltage and slightly dangerous. The first thing to notice was that there were abnormally high levels of emotion – lots of spirited laughter, shrieking and embracing. The atmosphere seemed to teeter on the edge of hysteria, and it was hard to work out the sounds. Were they angry, or were they just loud? None of it made sense to begin with. It did not seem to accord with any place of work, real or imagined. I suppose I had the mistaken idea that only clever serious people worked with books, and that they probably operated in a quiet, meticulous and, well, bookish manner. I had pictured earnest men of letters, old-fashioned gentlemen, slightly tweedy and with pale skin that was seldom exposed to natural light.
In fact the building sizzled with youthful vigour, in the shape of stunning, sophisticated young women. They had patrician accents, exceptional poise and uncommonly long legs. Their skin was not pale but healthy and bronzed. And there wasn’t a man in sight. Indeed the mythical Martian, if he had happened to drop in, could not have imagined that women had ever been oppressed, or that their role had once been secondary and passive. Here in this office, in 1981, women ruled. Yet there were no bluestockings, only silk stockings.
The premises were in a run-down part of Soho and extended in a ramshackle way over two buildings, separated by an Italian restaurant and a hairdresser’s salon. A faint odour, a mixture of garlic and hair lotion, hung in the air. The offices covered four floors, with staircases slightly aslant and walls off-centre. The furnishings were quite shabby and a layer of black London dust rested on the surfaces. Everywhere there were piles of books and high-rise manuscripts. And, curiously for a publishing house, there were clothes suspended in doorways and draped from light fittings, as if the premises might actually be shared with a dressmaker. Boas and belts hung on the backs of chairs, and on several doors there were coat-hangers bearing evening gowns and stylish jackets. In the loo I found underwear, tights and nail varnish.
Tiger had a conglomerate of companies connected with publishing, fashion, films and theatre. He had been dubbed ‘a cultural tycoon’ by The Times newspaper and he lived up to this dubbing assiduously. The ethos in the empire was not one of profit and loss, but of name and fame. Like its proprietor, the publishing house was sui generis, and it had a reputation quite disproportionate to its size. It was known to be radical and risk-taking. Tiger took chances with books and seemed to act mostly on impulse. He would meet people at parties and sign them on the spot. Sudden ideas were converted into improbable publishing ventures, and books were invented that ought never to have existed. He acted speedily and never flinched from taking a decision. He loved controversy, courted it indeed, and any whiff of scandal merely strengthened his resolve to publish. ‘Let them sue! Let them sue!’ he would say, rubbing his hands together. ‘But I am a fighter, and I fight to win!’ Tiger basked in this image, and we basked in it too. By association, we felt as if we were also fighters, that we too would win, and although at editorial meetings there was hardly ever a discernible rational plan, the atmosphere was highly charged and there was a lot of heady talk about noble ideals. There was, too, a good deal of frivolity, but the frivolity was curiously serious, and much of the time we behaved as if we might be engaged in decisions of supreme importance.
‘Do you like my girls?’ Tiger asked not long after I had started my new job. He was wearing crocodile-skin shoes and odd socks in purple and yellow. ‘They are amazing, isn’t it?’ His girls were scarcely ever out of the gossip columns and they always knew somebody who knew somebody. Their most important work, as Tiger himself affirmed, was done out of office hours – at dinner parties, first nights, charity events, gallery openings, fashion shoots and hunt balls – for they ensured that news of his latest exploits was trawled through London’s most fashionable hotspots. The smart outfits hanging from the office doors began to make sense.
I was introduced to Cosima, Selina, Lucinda, Davina, Samantha and two Sophias. There seemed to be a conspicuous homogeneity of Christian names. Surely there ought to be a collective noun for this phenomenon, I thought, this concentration of cognates. An assonance perhaps? An artillery? I then met Andrea (a Baroness) and Sabrina (an heiress), and in due course, Alethea, Nigella, Eliza, Candida, Mariella, Zelfa, Georgia, Henrietta and Arabella. It was a lot to take in, the sort of list I would have been made to learn by rote at school, like books of the Bible or irregular Latin verbs. When walking around London, I sometimes recited the names to myself, trying to fix them in my head, marvelling at the sound patterns they made. After a while I found it was possible to turn them into the wonderful metrical patterns of English poetry – for example, you could get a perfect trochaic tetrameter if you started with:
Cosima, Lucinda, Georgia
as in The Song of Hiawatha:
By the shores of Gitche Gumee
By the shining Big-Sea-Water.
It was clear that I did not belong in this world. I was looked upon, with some justification, as one of Tiger’s whims; I lived in Scotland after all, and I turned up only for editorial meetings, staying for just a few days at any one time. Even then it was clear that I was just passing through this foreign land – I was in it, but not of it. Besides, I didn’t know anyone. Not even anyone who knew anyone. It was a strange place for me to dip into and out of, and its sheer otherness never lost its impact. At home in Scotland, there were two small children and a baby, the centre of my universe. But in the London office I never mentioned the fact that I was a mother. I was at pains to fit in, and I sensed that talk about children would not be wise. I therefore pretended to be someone else, someone I was not.
My work as a translator fed into this pretence. To be any good as a translator you have to do a kind of disappearing act. I liked being invisible, absorbing the text and living with it a little, then turning it into something new – unique but not original, creative but not inventive. As the years passed, I moved sideways and took another sort of invisible presence, one that also tried to catch the voice of the author and be a conduit for his creation. I became Tiger’s ghost.
Our partnership produced lots of newspaper articles, interviews with well-known figures and several non-fiction books. But although they brought Tiger a sense of fulfilment, there was no lasting contentment. Eventually he became convinced that the way ahead for us lay in a different sort of publication. Interviews, journalism, book reviews were all very well, but the real test was the novel.
‘We need to evolve,’ he said.
I did not demur.
It is 1994 and we are in Tiger’s house in France. Tiger believes that France is the best place in the world to create a work of art. ‘We will have everything we need – the best food, the finest wine, a high-tech music system, a studio to work in, the fresh Dordogne air.’
How to write a novel? How to write someone else’s novel? These two questions seem absolutely central. I wonder how I have arrived at this point without actually meaning to.
‘What sort of novel are we thinking about?’ I ask.
‘We are thinking about a beautiful novel, very beautiful,’ he says, and he looks somewhere into the middle distance, smiling rapturously, already transported by the sheer imagined beauty of it. ‘And it will have a beautiful cover. We will make sure of that.’ He taps out the last six words on the table.
‘But what genre are we talking about? Are we thinking of a romantic novel? A thriller?’ (These conversations are always conducted in the first person plural. The idiosyncratic use of pronouns is part of the charade and has become second nature.)
‘It will be thrilling, oh yes. And also romantic. Very romantic. Oh, yes.’
‘So, a love story then?’
‘But of course! It has to be a love story. People associate me with love. I am famous for love.’
‘What sort of love story do we have in mind?’ I ask, as if we are discussing wallpaper or home furnishings and he has to pick one from a limited range. ‘Is the love requited or unrequited?’
‘Definitely requited. Oh yes, very requited.’
‘And who are the characters?’
Even by our standards this is becoming an odd exchange.
‘Sweetie,’ he says, his tone long-suffering as if humouring an imbecile. He takes hold of my hand in a kindness-to-dumb-animals sort of way. ‘It has to be the love between a man and a woman. Do you think I could write about poofters? No, it has to be a man and a woman – a beautiful woman and very sexy. There will be lots of sex, but very distinguished. We will do the sex beautifully. Isn’t it?’
‘Long? Short?’ I’m feeling desperate now.
He strokes his chin, weighing up the possibilities. ‘Not too long, not too short.’
‘And do we have a storyline? Do we have any idea of what it is about?’
‘Of course, Beloved! I have thought of everything.’ He squeals the last word in a spasm of exuberance. ‘Let me tell you the idea. It is very simple. There is a man . . . he is like me somewhat . . . he is married . . . he falls in love with a woman . . . there is a huge passion . . . and then . . . well, we will see what happens after that, isn’t it?’
There is another pause while I weigh things up. Then: ‘Does he tell his wife? About the huge passion, I mean.’
‘Darling, are you mad?’ Tiger points a finger to his temple and screws it from side to side. ‘Why would he tell her? Why would he hurt her?’
How to proceed? Write what you know, they always say. But what did I know? Suddenly I knew nothing. In a bid to avert panic I decided to make a list of things in my favour. The list was not long but it was a start:
- I have written a lot already (just not a novel).
- I have read lots of novels.
For the first of these to count as an advantage you have to believe that all writing comes from the same place. I’m not sure that I do believe that. Writing prose is not writing fiction. The most I could hope for was that the experience of writing journalism, literary pieces, book reviews, and so on would act as some sort of training ground for writing a novel.
As for reading a lot, there is, sadly, no causal connection between the fact of having read fiction and the ability to write fiction. I know this at an instinctive level, and I think perhaps I have always known it, but this did not prevent me gathering together dozens of novels and taking them to France in my suitcase. It was an eclectic heap, selected from my shelves of paperbacks at home. I did this partly in the hope of discovering how to write a novel, and partly because I thought the systematic approach might compensate for lack of inspiration. The next two days were spent dipping into books by Penelope Fitzgerald, Anne Tyler, Carol Shields, Beryl Bainbridge, Alison Lurie, Anne Fine, Jennifer Johnston. At the end of the second day I realized that I had been reading only women writers, surely a foolish exercise if I was to learn to write like a man. For the next two days, fighting off a slight feeling of frenzy, I read William Trevor, John Updike, Ian McEwan, Tim Parks, John Banville.
What I discovered was that when time changes are handled well, you scarcely notice them; as a reader, you are perfectly happy to move through days and weeks and years, in either direction, provided your author has a safe pair of hands. The devices are subtle — the judicious use of a pluperfect tense, for instance, or the foreshortening of a character’s history. The same applies to point of view: the narrator — even when the story is told in the first person — has various tricks up his sleeve to allow the reader to know what the other characters are thinking and feeling. And the handling of dialogue was a revelation. Critics are fond of saying, ‘The dialogue doesn’t work,’ but when it works well it is, paradoxically, a kind of dialogue that people believe is spoken, or feel comfortable with, not what actually is spoken, which would not work at all. Often the very best dialogue is not in the least authentic.
I needed a beginning, a middle and an end. I needed them badly. I also needed at least two characters in order for the story to function at even a basic level – the main character, who was to be ‘our hero’, and the woman with whom he was to fall in love. The man, according to Tiger, was married, so perhaps his wife would also play a part in the story? Which made a total of three. Three characters don’t sound terribly daunting – not as daunting as, say, four – but three characters can be quite daunting enough, especially when none has yet taken shape.
From one or two remarks Tiger had made I had a hunch that he already identified with the main character in the book. Confirmation came from an unexpected source, an interview with Tiger that appeared in the Scotsman newspaper around that time.
. . . His whole demeanour suggests passion constrained. He cannot sit still for long. He talks quickly, almost imploringly, and the words tumble over each other . . . From now on he is going to be a novelist. This is what is fresh. This is what is now. ‘It is not going to be a beeg novel . . . It will be more a philosophical and a literary book. It’s about my love of women and what would happen – what the consequences would be of such a love if . . . well, anyway, it’s about a man who loves two women.’
‘My love of women.’ There, I knew it. A dead giveaway. If it was a slip, it was surely a telling slip. There was now little doubt in my mind that Tiger saw himself as the protagonist. In some ways this simplified things – at least there was an abundance of source material to work on. But I soon realized that the fictional version of Tiger would have to be based on his own self-image. He could not be, like the most interesting characters in fiction, seriously flawed. No, our hero would have to be sensitive, compassionate, successful in business, of strong moral fibre, devout, impassioned and wise. He would probably also be something of a self-styled philosopher and he would have to have a great capacity for love.
And so, to work. I sketched out a plan in which the main character would be a wealthy businessman whose ordered life would be turned upside down by an extramarital affair. This would arrive like a bolt from the blue and would coincide with a crisis in his life – the death of his beloved mother. I tried this out on Tiger. He pulled a face. Something wasn’t right. It wasn’t immediately clear what it was.
‘Darleeng, PLEEEase, do we have to have the death?’ He spoke imploringly, drawing out each word.
‘You don’t like the death?’
‘I don’t like the death.’
‘Well,’ I said, caught a little off-guard, ‘I do think we need to have some sort of crisis, and a funeral is always quite a good focal point in a novel.’ Then, gaining in confidence, ‘Also, the emotional upheaval associated with bereavement would be a neat way of allowing the affair to take place. It would make it more understandable in a way.’ Now the coup de grace: ‘I mean, we don’t want to make him an uncaring bastard who cheats on his wife, do we?’
The mention of an uncaring bastard would surely be enough to win him round, but instead he pulled another face. I wasn’t sure what was bothering him. He stroked his lower jaw and made a prolonged moaning noise, the sort you might make when someone is sticking a needle in your arm. Eventually he said, ‘It’s no good. We have to find another crisis. You see, my mother is still alive and, well, I don’t want to upset her.’
This was endearing in its way, but not endearing enough to jettison the planned death. By now I had convinced myself I needed this death. We seemed to be nearing the edge of the unsayable, but I decided to say it anyway. Gently but firmly, I suggested that it was important that the life of the main character was not matched in every single aspect with his own, indeed, it was essential that it wasn’t; that the proposed book should be, in essence, a work of imagination; that it would be a pity if the critics dismissed it simply as a replica of his own life rather than a serious literary endeavour; and that it could quite properly reflect his own concerns whilst at the same time retaining its own artistic integrity. After which, he agreed – albeit somewhat ungraciously – to the death of his mother.
For the next week or so, I tried to free up the flow by telling myself that it was just another job that had to be done, that none of this mattered, that I was free to write anything that came into my head. But the fact that I was writing with a mask on bedevilled the whole process.
I decided to call the main character Carlo – I had once known an Italian student named Carlo – and make him a successful advertising executive living in London. The novel would begin with Carlo’s return to his native Italy to attend his mother’s funeral. The reason for giving him dual nationality was twofold: it fitted very generally with Tiger’s own background, and it would act as a metaphor for further conflict and dichotomy. The trip to Italy was surely a stroke of genius: it would allow for our hero’s journey in all senses – physical, mental, spiritual and emotional. It would also enable the affair to take place in the hot and steamy Mediterranean climate and, finally, it would conveniently provide the backdrop of Catholicism – Tiger’s professed faith – which would in turn introduce the familiar tensions between faith and reason and passion. I warmed to my theme. So far, so good.
Predictably, I agonized about the opening line. Again, it is a matter of confidence and belief. When you are searching your mind for that first sentence it is difficult not to be assailed by truths universally acknowledged and the similarity between all happy families. And easy to think that anything less brilliantly epigrammatic is small potatoes. The opening line also marks you. It can imprison you in a style and tone that are not easily shaken off. I pondered the possibilities, weighed and considered, wavered and faltered to the point of paralysis. Eventually, desperately, I wrote the first sentence: ‘Carlo surveys the land of his birth and contemplates death.’
It would do. I tried to think myself into what I imagined Tiger’s style might be, but the more I searched for his voice, the more I caught my own breaking through; the more I tried to realize his literary aspirations, the more my own seemed to intrude. The novel did not grow organically; it was force-fed and boosted with steroids. Set pieces and ruminations on the human condition were thrown about like salt. It became a stilted, studied thing. I was consumed by doubt. The characters were not ‘real’; they were mouthpieces for various ideas, which shoved them around and kicked them to the ground. André Gide said something to the effect that the true novelist listens to his characters and watches how they behave, whereas the bad novelist simply constructs them and controls them. Without a doubt, I was constructing and controlling.
Almost the one thing I didn’t mind was that it was to be a love story. After all, what else is there? It’s only half a life without love. And a novel would be surely nothing without it. The prospect of writing about love was even faintly appealing. It is one of those eternal themes that can be endlessly reworked. But every silver lining has a cloud; as I had feared it might, love was coming perilously close to denoting sex.
Tiger was obsessively concerned with its place in the novel. Each day when I returned from the studio he would ask, ‘Have we done the fucky-fucky yet?’ I counselled against it, as anyone in my place would have done, suggesting that discretion was the better part of ardour. But he pooh-poohed and said that a novel by him would be unimaginable without sex.
‘Beloved, we need the jig-jig! Don’t you see?’
He laughed and clapped his hands, willing me to share his enthusiasm. But I didn’t see.
I held out for a long time, pointing out that countless authors had believed they could ‘do’ sex in a novel and had ended up falling into a terrible black hole. I reminded him of the Literary Review’s Bad Sex Prize, awarded annually by Auberon Waugh, a friend of Tiger’s and a man who had made it his mission to discourage the tasteless and perfunctory use of sexual description in the modern novel. Surely he agreed with Bron? I argued that sex in the novel was nearly always bad sex, and that it was best avoided. I said that not even fine writers could manage it without sounding ridiculous or absurd or embarrassing.
‘You are talking like a nun!’ he said. ‘What’s got into you? Trust me, beloved, we will do the sex beautifully! It will be very distinguished.’
The literary treatment of sex is beset with vexed questions. First there is the problem of getting the characters to take their clothes off – buttons and zips and hooks can be so awkward, and you couldn’t ever allow a man to keep his socks on. Then there are the body parts which either have to be named (very unwise) or else replaced with dubious symbolism. And what about the verbs, the doing words? How can you choose to make people enter, writhe, thrash, smoulder, grind, merge, thrust – and still hope to salvage a smidgen of self-respect? Not easily. If you doubt me, try it. The sound effects are even worse – squealing, screaming, the shriek of coitus. No, the English language does not lend itself to realistic descriptions of sex. We are too used to irony. The alternative is to use metaphors, but metaphors are just asking for more trouble – all that edge of volcano and burning fire stuff.
What to do? What to do? Then, a sudden flash of brilliance, and I knew what to do. Tiger had an abhorrence of bodily fluids. His hatred of people who coughed or sniffed or spluttered was legendary. Provided that the sex scenes could be made sufficiently liquid, he might decide to abandon them altogether. Nil desperandum. Bodily fluids would be my deliverance. I set about my purpose with a devil-may-care recklessness.
Strong and gentle as the waves, he swells and moves towards her like the sea to the shore. He dips and dives, eagerly but hesitantly, still fearing rebuff, until that moment of absolute clarification, when her ardour too is confirmed beyond doubt. Her lissom limbs quiver and enfold him into the sticky deliciousness of her sex.
Of course, one thing led to another, and it was hard not to get carried away. Tiger, far from feeling squeamish, seemed relieved that at last the lovers had got down to the business. I pressed on, telling myself it was a means to an end. He would soon change his mind. Every new splash or splosh was a fresh hell. But still Tiger held out. There was no capitulation. In fact he was exultant. He opened a bottle of Château Margaux and we drank to sex. ‘Bravo!’ he said – his highest accolade. This wasn’t working out as planned. I would try one more act of sabotage. I had to make certain this time. Go for broke:
They play with each other like wet seal pups, their bodies making succulent, slipping sounds. With his tongue he caresses her and spins a silver spider’s web from the threads of her wetness. The pathway to heaven pouts like the calyx of a flower turned to the sun, the inner petals drenched in nectar. Her beautiful mound rises and falls as she rubs herself against his chin.
As she trembles and gasps and comes, he feels a surge of happiness and an infusion of supreme power. Her juices trickle down like a cluster of stars from the firmament. He can do anything now. He is God in one of his incarnations, spreading love and joy. Her amber thighs rear on either side like the waters parted for Moses. He rises and enters her.
At least four things happened as a result of all this incontinence. Tiger was overjoyed; he raised my salary; the Sunday Times described the novel as ‘a strong contender’ for the Literary Review’s Bad Sex Prize; and my teenaged children were mortified.
The novel was launched in the spring of 1995. It was a glittering occasion with all the usual suspects, beautiful creatures plucked from London’s fashionable set. Tiger had a well-deserved reputation for throwing the best parties in town. Lots of glamour and glitz and permanent tans. People asked if I knew Tiger and if I had read his novel. Afterwards I returned to Scotland and waited for the patter of tiny reviews. On the whole, the critics were kind; there was scarcely any venom, and derision was reserved for the sex scenes. According to the TLS reviewer, ‘It is only in these scenes that the author comes close to losing control of his spare, precise prose.’ The Sunday Telegraph reviewer wrote, ‘I prefer to forget those brief, explicit embarrassments,’ while another review was entitled simply: ‘LESS SEX PLEASE.’
In the summer of 1995, just a few months after the publication of Tiger’s first novel, we were back in France. We were there to begin another novel. It was difficult to feel cheerful about the prospect. Indeed I could scarcely bear the idea of going through the whole process again. But Tiger had other ideas. We had had one of those ‘repetitive strain’ conversations in which Tiger did a lot of repetition and I took the strain.
‘If we do just one, nobody will bloody believe us,’ he said.
‘What do you mean exactly?’ (I often asked this.)
‘What do I mean?’
‘Well, what is it that nobody will believe?’
‘What is it that nobody will believe?’
‘Yes, what is it?’
‘What is it? I’ll tell you exactly what it is. I’ll tell you exactly what nobody will believe. Nobody will ever believe we can do another one. Isn’t it?’
‘Well, is that really so important?’
‘Is it important? Is it important? Darling, what’s the matter with you? What’s got into you?’
‘Well, is it important? What people think, I mean.’
‘I don’t believe I’m hearing this! Of course it’s important. They won’t take us seriously! Don’t you see? They will think the first one was a fluke!’
I set about the second novel with a joyless heart. This only made things worse because Tiger loathed low spirits in others. It was joie de vivre he loved – he often said so – and he could not bear even the slightest lack of enthusiasm for something he favoured. Whenever he detected reluctance on my part he would put on his evangelist hat and set about converting me. Before too long it would usually strike me that the idea I was rejecting was preferable to the process of indoctrination, so I would cave in.
With this new novel he had explained that I could have carte blanche – ‘You can do whatever you like,’ he had said, and he clapped his hands together like a pair of cymbals, sealing his lavishness. He then sat back in his chair and smiled benignly. His expression was one of utter benefaction. It was not possible for a man to be more reasonable.
But it wasn’t true. It turned out there was a requirement, though to hear him, you might easily have imagined it was nothing at all. He was talking it down so much – ‘It’s just a small idea, that’s all, it’s not anything big’ – and as he continued it got so very small that I imagined it as a tiny dot on an old television screen, disappearing into the void. Alas, this scarcely-a-requirement-at-all, this small thinglet, this little idealet, slowly began to take on monstrous dimensions. As before, there were to be two women and a man. The man, so Tiger explained, was to be the lover of both women, and each woman would be aware of the other and quite relaxed about the sharing arrangement. The women were to be cousins who had been born on the same day – ‘Under the same star sign, so they’re more like sisters,’ said Tiger. Sounds quite manageable so far, I thought. There followed a lot of eager talk about how very close sisters can be, how twins can feel each other’s pain, how they seem almost to inhabit each other’s bodies. ‘It’s like they’re one person, not two,’ he said.
‘Yes . . .’ I said, beginning to wonder where all this leading, looking out for the catch. I was not prepared for what came next.
‘So,’ he said, clasping and unclasping his large soft hands, working up to the pièce de résistance, ‘when the one girl gets orgamsi the other gets orgamsi also!’
‘How do you mean exactly?’ I asked. I felt sure I had missed something. I took a few moments to consider the possibilities before venturing, ‘Are we talking about simultaneous orgasm?’
‘Precisely!’ he purred in a go-to-the-top-of-the-class way. ‘Simultaneous orgamsi. You’ve got it! Bravo!’
But I knew I hadn’t got it. Not really anyway. As far as I was aware, simultaneous orgasm happened – if it happened at all – between the two principal players, as it were. It was not something that could be dispensed at will to a third party, not even a close cousin.
‘And how do you see that working exactly?’ I asked, matter-of-factly. We might have been discussing a new business plan or profit-sharing scheme. ‘Is the man stimulating both of them in such a way that they climax at the same time?’
Wrong question. Tiger smote his brow with the palm of his hand. It was his God-protect-me-from-imbeciles gesture. ‘Daaarleeeng, you don’t understand!’ He was right. I didn’t. I had led a sheltered life. ‘The women are not together! They are miles apart!’ He was shouting now. He always shouted when stupid people failed to grasp the essential point.
‘I’m afraid,’ I said – and for once perhaps I was a little afraid – ‘you’re going to have to spell it out. I don’t quite get it.’
He rose from his desk and started pacing up and down, his body language a narrative in itself. He enfolded himself in his own arms and rocked slightly from side to side, the way a man might move about a padded cell, trying to control the violent turmoil within. He fixed me with a look that said, how can you be so dim? The explanation when it came was bad-tempered and delivered de haut en bas. The gist of it was that the two women would be so closely harmonized, so much in tune with one another that, even if they were separated physically, even by oceans and by continents, they would be capable of experiencing the heights of pleasure at the same time. As he spoke he became more and more animated, his tiger eyes shining brightly in his head, his whole body in motion, semaphoric, balletic. And since I had been so obtuse, he did not mince matters. The speaking got plainer. To remove any lingering doubt he spelled it out: ‘Look, it’s simple! If one woman is in London, say, and the other is in New York, when he is fucking the one in London, the one in New York feels it in her fanny also!
‘Now do you understand?’ he said, regaining his composure.
‘I understand,’ I said.
I sat alone in the studio wondering what to do, how to begin. It was a blow to be required to write another novel, especially so soon after the first. I felt curiously depleted, emptied of the will to repeat the exercise. If I was to commit to another novel, I would have to move away from what I saw as the flat, two-dimensional, soulless canvas. It had to be something layered and fully imagined, something more from the heart.
Then again, whose heart? Can one write from another person’s heart? I am not sure it can be done. You can get all kitted out, only there’s nowhere to go. Personal experience, which includes the imagination and what feeds it, is essentially the base people write from. And personal experience is highly specific, each take on the world unique. You cannot write another’s experience, only your own. Of course you can try, but it will always be in some sense attenuated. Without a doubt there is something intrinsically contradictory about ghosting a novel. It is possible to fake fiction, but it is difficult to see how it can be meaningful or eloquent. You have to write from inside your own skin, otherwise there is too much of a psychological struggle. It’s like trying to fake sincerity.
Being intent on getting the job done makes you concentrate on the technical problems, but it leaves no room for the spirit of the thing. You report for duty each day and you hope that the target number of words will be written. You consider the architecture of the book, the dramatic structure, the characters, the voice. The trouble is that you don’t believe the voice, and you don’t quite trust the characters, and you certainly don’t suffer with them. This time I wanted to change all that. I wanted the writing to be alive at the centre, not just a technical exercise. I wanted it to be something that sprang from my own energy. I had to write about something that moved me.
In 1987 I read Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time, a chilling piece of fiction that starts with the disappearance of a young child, Kate, while on an ordinary shopping expedition to the supermarket with her father. The assumption is that the child has been snatched, but there are no clues, no leads, no ransom demand. No body is ever found. When I was reading The Child in Time, my own daughter Kate was just seven years old and this no doubt led me to identify even more closely with the story. The book addresses larger political and social themes, but over time I forgot them. What held me, and continued to hold me, was the personal story of grief and anguish. I was struck by the way in which happy lives can be turned by a single moment in time into the bleakest of landscapes. Ian McEwan’s spare prose is perfectly honed to capture the essence of despair and the concomitant disintegration of ordinary lives. It is a consummate execution of sorrow, perhaps the cruellest sorrow of all. It seemed to me the grief was almost too sharp to be borne. I was tormented by the book, and it went on haunting me for years.
The snatching of a child — how could one bear it? How could one go on? How might one go about surviving a loss of that order? At that point, in 1987, during the immediate aftermath of my marriage breakdown, I felt stripped bare by events and had the instincts of a nervous animal protecting its young. It was difficult to dislodge a vague sense of calamities to come. I could drive myself mad with imagined tragedies. They arrived in my mind in no particular sequence, and no effort of will seemed strong enough to keep them at bay. It felt like continuing to throw up long after you believed you’d finished.
Eight years on I sat in the cool blue light of the studio on a hillside in the Dordogne, and as I looked beyond the trees and back in time, the scent of that fear came wafting back. It had lost its sharpness, but I knew it was still fetid in the memory trenches. I would start Tiger’s second novel with the disappearance of a child and see where it led. I opened the laptop on the desk and typed the first paragraph:
The summer’s afternoon when it happened was to be etched, as if by a splinter of glass, in the hearts of all those who were there. The memory was validated by pain and the sharp sounds that broke a perfect Sunday in two. It was like a pencil snapping, and its jagged edges stuck out, waiting to snag anyone who came near.
A week or two later, the nuts and bolts were in place. The setting, the main characters and the voice had all been decided, though there was a whiff of compromise about all three. I had started out in the first person, hoping to achieve the immediacy and conviction that can come with a first-person perspective. But it felt too personal, too intimate, and I soon abandoned it for the third person. I had also thought of setting the story in Scotland, but that too would have been too subjective, and besides, Tiger would have hated it. Although he claimed to love Scotland, it was purely an abstract love, for he regarded it as a curious foreign land, quite inscrutable, and much more ‘abroad’ than further-flung places. So instead I chose a sleepy Oxfordshire village in middle-class England. This is not my territory at all, but it allowed me to make one of the characters an academic at Oxford University (my daughter was there at that time and I had come to know it a little), and also to set a dramatic scene in the Ashmolean Museum (where I had first seen paintings by Pasternak). I drew up a list of main characters: the two married couples, their remaining two children, the vicar next door and his long-suffering wife.
One of the more pressing difficulties with the book was that I did not feel confident about being able to fulfil Tiger’s orgasmic stipulation. I had hinted to him that there might be complications in the literary execution, but he continued to regard it as a sine qua non of the action. I had been proceeding on the assumption that Tiger’s idea was a male sexual fantasy. Men love the idea of having a third person in on the act – or so women think. A little elementary research, however, led me to believe that it was not an absolutely standard male fantasy, yet I still thought it would be best to treat it as fantasy in the novel. I broached this line of reasoning as delicately as possible, but Tiger was having none of it.
‘What nonsense!’ he said.
‘But surely, it’s the only way,’ I said. ‘Otherwise it won’t be plausible.’
‘How can it be plausible if he doesn’t do it? It can only be plausible if he does do it. Why don’t you see that? We have to make him do it.’
There was a lot at stake here. I had to hold my ground.
‘If he just thinks about it,’ I said, ‘if it stays in his head, then it will be more convincing. People have all sorts of strange fantasies. The imagination is a weird place. I think we can make it work at that level.’
‘But who are we going to convince if it’s all in his head? It will only convince him! And what’s the good in that? He has to do it! It has to happen! For people to believe it, it has to happen! Isn’t it? What’s the matter with you? What is this nonsense?’
His heart was clearly set on it. The book would be a travesty without it – Hamlet without the Prince. Much of his eagerness, I believed, could be put down to his identification with the protagonist. As had happened first time round, he was projecting himself into the principal role.
Each day after I had finished in the studio he would ask for a progress report. ‘Have we reached the orgamsi yet?’ he would enquire with dispiriting regularity, although it is only fair to say that the question never seemed salacious or even coarse. It was more like a child asking that familiar question from the back seat of the car: ‘Are we nearly there?’ If I even hinted at possible difficulties, he became downcast for a moment or two before firing questions in rapid succession, all of them beginning with ‘but’ – his way of seeking reassurance.
‘But they’re not serious, these difficulties?’
‘But we can solve them, no?’
‘But we don’t have to abandon the plan?’
‘But we will finish soon, isn’t it?’
Tiger was obviously keen to break new ground, in the sense that our hero, and he alone, would be capable of producing this amazing synchronous effect on two women in different parts of the globe. Of course, illusions have to be rendered, but how do you stop yourself from pricking them? As I understood it, the joint cousinly climax was contingent upon the exceptional closeness of the women in question, so, unless they were both virgins, not to mention unlucky in their experience of lovemaking, they must surely have climaxed concurrently before. With someone else. Someone other than our hero. And if not, why not? Thus the armature of contrivance kept breaking through, and I was continually hampered, not by a failure of nerve exactly, rather by humility before ordinary reality. An inbuilt crap detector is an awkward piece of equipment for any woman trying to carry out this kind of mandate for a man. Yet it had to be done, so I pressed on. The hero in John Banville’s Shroud says, ‘I cannot believe a word out of my own mouth,’ and I suppose I had arrived at a similar position.
In the circumstances it was not an easy matter to deliver quality orgasms to those taking part in the story. And so, a compromise was reached, though it had all the drawbacks of a trade-off and no obvious benefits, at least not for Tiger, whose high hopes were cruelly thwarted. The idea of the two families remained, but I simply could not effect the needful with grown-up, sexually mature, sane adults. So instead, and in a spirit of greater realism, the cousins – together with their fanciful frolics – were switched to the younger generation.
This is how the ground was prepared: establishing the bond early on allowed it to be infinitely strengthened by the disappearance of the young boy – the brother of one of the cousins. Ordinary life is suspended after the tragedy and the days seem to merge one into another. The adults are so busy coping with their own grief that the girls – by now fifteen years of age – are left to get on with life and their own feelings largely by themselves. They befriend the boy next door, only son of the vicar who is helping the bereaved parents, and gradually they retreat together into their own world, all three bound by a common neglect.
Tiger did not conceal his disappointment. It was absolute and comprehensive.
‘But they’re children!’ he scoffed. ‘Why are we writing a children’s book?’
‘It’s not remotely a children’s book,’ I said, slightly horrified. ‘It’s an adult book with children – young adults – in it.’
‘They are children!’ he insisted. ‘They haven’t even done it before!’
‘That’s the beauty of it,’ I said, glimpsing a straw that might be clutched, ‘they’re not yet set in their ways.’
‘And they’re doing it all together! They are not apart at all. We agreed they would be miles apart! We’ve made it into an orgy!’
So sudden, this prudery. So unexpected.
‘Well, it’s hardly an orgy,’ I said, trying to placate. ‘They are just feeling their way. It’s a kind of innocence in fact. And anyway they love each other.’
This was desperate stuff.
Tiger was not to be appeased. He scowled as he read the passage again. Then came another objection, overlooked the first time.
‘We don’t even say that the girls have orgamsi together. At the same time. Why don’t we say it? How can people understand if we don’t say it? We have to say it.’
And so we said it, but it was a terrible let-down for Tiger. It was not at all what he had dreamed of. The pinnacles reached were not transatlantic, and our hero, far from being a representation of the author, was a sixteen-year-old spotty youth.
I finished the book at home in Scotland. I travelled to London and handed it over, glad to be free of it. When I arrived back in St Andrews a few days later, a large package was waiting for me. The covering letter informed me that the author had delivered his typescript and it was now ready for editing. Could I kindly turn it round as quickly as possible?
The party to launch the book was a bizarre event for me. People asked if I’d read the new novel, and what did I think of it. Sometimes I said, yes, and that it was very good, and sometimes I said, no, but I was looking forward to it. What I said didn’t matter, I told myself. But later that same evening it did matter, because Tiger took me by the arm and introduced me to one of the guests, a well-known (but not to me) literary agent.
‘This is my editor,’ said Tiger to well-known agent.
‘But she told me five minutes ago she hadn’t read your book!’ said well-known agent to author.
‘Bloody hell, if she hasn’t read it, I’m in trouble!’ said Tiger. Awkward laughter all round. Our alliance was a curious compound and we were held together by its strange elements.
The reviews of the new novel were mostly kind; by far the most interesting and favourable review came from the novelist Alice Thomas Ellis. In the Literary Review she wrote:
[The author] has an uncanny awareness of the atmosphere of loss, how it affects the bereaved and those on the periphery . . . he knows how people gather ‘in small groups, like vultures sensing the presence of death. They discussed and told what they knew and what they did not know, and felt the particular dismay reserved for other people’s misfortunes.’ He knows that Kate moves in a ‘sort of sepia fog’ and he knows about the ‘huge surge of happiness’ that overwhelms her when she sees a child in a party of schoolchildren and mistakes him for her son. ‘For the rest of her life that feeling did not come again, neither in its intensity nor in its immediacy.’ This is heartbreaking.
Tiger was thrilled with this review and read it out to me on the telephone. I too was pleased, but I also felt something else – something akin to shame and compunction. For I knew from a newspaper article that some twenty years before Alice Thomas Ellis had lost her son, aged nineteen, in a freak accident. Suddenly, this fictional account of loss struck me as a trivial counterfeit. I had believed all my adult life that writing was important, that the novel mattered, that the reader should be able to trust the author.
Now I had sullied that belief.
Image © Jeanne Menjoulet