A young writer’s first love and first novel are so often indivisible

[J. Maclaren-Ross, 1955] 

            In 1958, over sixty years ago, an eighteen year old getting over a nervous breakdown embarked upon his first novel. Do I recognize my own teenage self,  ‘A’, the unnamed first-person narrator of The Summer Ghosts?           

            On reflection, now that I’m eighty plus, the nine published books that made up my ‘novelistic’ or novel-writing life, don’t seem at all like fictions, if they ever truly were. Those nine distant novels seem more clearly and closely to resemble a kind of extended documentary film; with hindsight, I can see that they comprise partial elements of a continuing autobiography – interlinked and rather intimate personal chronicles covering the period from the late 1950s to the early 1980s.            

In fact I hardly felt impelled to invent ‘plots’, for stories just seemed to happen and I simply had to coax them into being: all I needed to do, apparently, was observe and describe. This may sound naïve, and perhaps not the best route for a fiction-writer, but I was young, after all; in any case looking back at this stage of the literary journey, I’m a long way beyond embarrassment. 

In 1962, my graduation year, one astute French film critic, the excellent Robert Benayoun, wrote an article attacking “such very young old men as the leaders of the Nouvelle Vague”. They did not, he considered, possess “the normal qualities of youth”. These Benayoun defined as “naiveté, idealism, humour, hatred of tradition, erotomania, a sense of injustice”. 

As for ‘those’ words: in the late Fifties, the forbidden four-letter stuff never appeared in print, and certainly not in full. You might, back then, occasionally find so-called outspoken novels that included expletives. These when they appeared were spelt only with dashes, e.g. f––, though for some obscurer Freudian reason the dreaded C-word was typographically impermissible, even in abbreviated form.  Julian Maclaren-Ross had ingeniously transcribed ‘fucking’ as ‘flicking’ in some of his Second World War tales of army life, but these had been long out of print and didn’t resurface until well after the millennium, when that estimable author was himself rediscovered, reprinted and biographied. Writing of his own army experiences in The Naked And The Dead (1948), Norman Mailer, just as carefully if more notoriously, wrote ‘fugging’. That bold and outspoken novel became a bestseller in America and its young author was duly lionised, yet the printer-soothing and censor-pleasing coinage seemed somewhat coy even then: by the end of a very long book, a plethora of fugs had become an irritating verbal compromise, evasion not solution. It seems that upon being introduced during a New York party, the ever-outrageous Tallulah Bankhead greeted Mailer: “So you’re the young man who can’t spell fuck.” Splendid stuff, apocryphal or not! 

I was recently cheered to find the 1903 Preface (“Written Twenty Years After The Novel”) which Huysmans added to a reprint of his continuingly controversial, much praised and vilified novel A Rebours. He begins thus: “I suppose all men of letters are like myself in this, that they never reread their works once they have appeared. Nothing in fact is more disenchanting, more painful than to examine one’s phrases again after an interval of years”. Quite so, yet he continues: “Now, sadly enough, I endeavour to recall, as I turn over the pages, what precise state of mind I could have been in at the time I wrote them.” An impossible project, of course, though to confront one’s younger self or selves might prove an interesting attempt at a belated literary critique. Perhaps the effort might prompt some salutary reflections, but a degree of detachment and a measure of energy and humour would be required and during these pandemic days life seems too short and uncertain to be looking back.

 See also Summer Ghosts in the Novels Section