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Jewish World Review
March 24, 2009
/ 28 Adar 5769
Short works of genius that cheer up the writing profession
Being a professional writer is a hard life. Producing a book, especially a long one, is a severe test of courage and endurance. For even after a successful day of writing, one must begin again the next morning, the blank sheet of paper in front of you: a daunting image to start the day, the mind empty, the brain groaning. I know. I have been at it for the best part of six long decades, and the number of books I have written is creeping up to 50. Several are over 1,000 printed pages. Think of the agony! I have no complaints, really. I have made a good living, and received more than my share of praise. But I like to mull over the special compensations which occasionally reward authors.
I am thinking particularly of those works, always short sometimes very short which are written on impulse, usually in record time, and which somehow hit a mark, right on target, bring unexpected fame and fortune, and live on to delight people long after the lucky author is mouldering away. A good example is Dickens's A Christmas Carol. He wrote it over two or three weeks in October and November 1843, when he was supposedly overwhelmed by producing on time the monthly numbers of Martin Chuzzlewit. It was causing him trouble, was selling fewer copies than he had hoped, and to turn aside from it and venture into a completely new field of a short Christmas romance, with ghosts and what-not, must have seemed a mad thing to do. But Dickens suddenly had an overwhelming desire to 'do something for the poor'.
The written text, headed by Dickens, 'My own and only MS of the book', he presented to Thomas Mitton, his lawyer, to whom he was particularly indebted at the time. It was bought, in the 1890s, by J. Pierpont Morgan, and is now in his library in New York. The library has produced a sumptuous facsimile edition, of which I am a proud owner, and this shows how Dickens wrote it: all in one go, hurriedly, with many corrections but these done at the time, so writing and revision was one continuous process. Every line is spontaneous, and inspiration leaps from each page. Yet, while writing it all day, Dickens was pondering over it much of the night. He says he 'walked thinking of it 15 or 20 miles about the back streets of London. Many and many a night after all sober folks had gone to bed.'
The success was instant. Thackeray called it 'a national benefit'. Jeffrey, editor of the Edinburgh Review and a Scots judge, told Dickens his little book 'has done more good than a year's work by all the pulpits and confessionals'. An American factory owner, as soon as he finished reading it, gave all his workers a day's holiday. Strangest of all, Carlyle, dyspeptic and curmudgeonly, ordered a large turkey and (said his wife Jane) was 'seized with a perfect convulsion of hospitality and arranged two dinner parties'. The Carol has been read and recited and acted and sung and filmed and televised perhaps more often than any other work of fiction. Yet oddly enough Dickens was out of pocket at the time. The initial sale was 6,000 copies, for which he received £150. It was pirated, Dickens sued the pirates, they went bankrupt, and he had to pay his own costs of £700. Yet its popularity was a joy for the rest of his life, and it remains his most read work, and enjoyed, too, by people of all ages. I know bits of it by heart. It is much more subtle than it seems. Its notion of time, for instance, implies that the past is not unchangeable, and that past, present and future interact. It is a profound philosophical statement of anti-fatalism.
A similar, invigorating example is Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, in my view the best short book ever written for boys of all ages; ladettes, too, I suppose. This was written on impulse too, in a flash, in a cottage in Braemar, almost within sight of Queen Victoria's Balmoral. He wrote a chapter a day for 15 days. Then, suddenly, he got stuck in chapter 16. This was August 1881. He couldn't finish it, and the book, until he went to Davos in the winter. But while he was in full flow, he read aloud each finished chapter in the evening to such as were staying in the house Gosse, Sir Sidney Colvin, etc. He had a great sense of drama, and while he read he swayed rhythmically. One listener said: 'His fine voice, clear, and keen in some of its notes, had a wonderful power of inflection and variation.' What magic to hear this enchanting, flawless work, read by the tall, slender, fragile author, as he produced it each evening a unique literary event, like listening to Homer and his lyre.
Of course, plays are more likely to fit into this category than novels or even stories. Plays, if you examine them closely, contain very few words, for the pauses and the action take up a lot of the playing time. If they are comedies, where pauses are so important, and silent comic business so vital, even fewer words are necessary. If one is looking for a perfect comedy, one need go no further than The Importance of Being Earnest. It was written at No. 5, The Esplanade, Worthing, in August 1894, and I think it gave Oscar Wilde more pleasure than any other of his works. It is, somehow, pure, simple, innocent and harmless. It is as far removed as humanly and spiritually possible from the evil which was beginning to surround Wilde and was, within a year, to overwhelm him. Moreover, it is delightfully funny, and actors enjoy playing it as much as audiences love seeing it. Wilde himself found it hilarious while writing it, and laughed a lot, out loud, as Dickens did when in comic spate. Wilde said that, while he was still jotting out the lines, the pages lay 'in Sibylline leaves about the room'. Arthur, his butler, had 'tidied them up twice' and 'made a chaos'. But, Wilde added, the result was itself 'rather dramatic', and he concluded: 'I am inclined to think that Chaos is a stronger evidence for an Intelligent Creator than Cosmos is: the view might be expanded.' So it could, indeed. I do not know exactly how long the play took to set down. Thirty working days, perhaps? Rather less, probably. But its joys are endless. The TLS recently devoted an entire article to the way in which Edith Evans, as Lady Bracknell, pronounced the two words 'A handbag?'
It is true that hugely successful plays are often written at even greater speed. NoŽl Coward dashed off Hay Fever over a weekend, I think. Still more remarkably, Blithe Spirit took him only five days in 1941, 'perhaps the darkest period of the war', he recorded. It gave him pleasure, made people all over the world laugh until their sides ached, and had the longest run, at that date, of any play put on in the West End, a record not beaten till the 1970s.
My final example is not quite so obvious. The background to Chaucer's writing of The Canterbury Tales is not known, though we can date it to about 1387. What is clear to me, however, from a lifetime of reading it, is that the Prologue was written after Chaucer had put down the Tales, or most of them anyway. He originally planned a bigger work, for each of the 31 pilgrims was to tell four stories. In fact only 23 pilgrims tell stories and there are only 24 altogether (Chaucer himself tells two). In the process Chaucer conceived the idea of his brilliant verse portraits of the people, and by the time the bulk of the storytelling was done he was itching to carry out his new and brilliant idea. So he did, and wrote (I think) at breakneck speed, and produced one of the most marvellous works in any literature. These pictures of a cross-section of English society in the last days of Edward III are as good as anything in the Italian Renaissance, and as literature were not to be equalled until Shakespeare. What a lightning triumph! Makes you want to be a writer.
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03/11/08: What is a genius? We use the word frequently but surely, to guard its meaning, we should bestow it seldom
03/03/08: Fiction as a crutch to get one through life
02/26/08: Impatience + Greed = Trouble
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05/23/06: A downright ugly man need never despair of attracting women, even pretty
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02/21/06: The Rhino Principle
© 2009, Paul Johnson