Jun 292012

If, as you quote, ‘You must absolutely be disloyal to be a good writer’ (Somerset Vaughan? You mean Maugham?) then it rather suggests that to be a writer you must turn yourself out of hearth and home and live as a vagabond – using internet cafés to post the latest chapter of your magnum opus or your latest avant-garde incoherence and curling up each night in a cardboard box (should you be so lucky) free at last. And the smell?


We are misled by books and presumably even more by kindles because the stink of the author has been wished away, reduced to leather, ink, paper, plastics, electronics. Writers must have their distinctive smells; a life at the desk or in the gutter – depending on your authenticity as a writer. What would have hit your nostril as you burst in on James Joyce en famille? And even more disturbing/terrifying what would have assailed your nostrils if you had happened to bump into Walter Benjamin in those moments before he committed suicide in the Pyrénées on the French/Spanish border. The mind reels. It’s as though smells have the ability to cut through the sanctity of our illusions, our best wishes. No wonder priests incense the altars, even the congregation, everybody within reach. And I always thought (though without putting it into words till this moment) that Somerset Maugham was entirely fishy, quite literally that of the rotting ocean, the whiff of some archetypal fishwife gutting fish (and you if you’re not quick on your feet) in one second flat – a grim smile on her face.


Recently, in Florence, I heard Michael Ondhaatje and Kieran Desai discussing something the organisers of the conference called vagabond literature. It was the case that the need to translate slowed the proceedings but after some interesting accounts of their ‘roots’ in India and Sri Lanka, their migration first to the UK and then on to North America where they simply morphed into successful novelists. As they went on they had less and less interesting things to say. Ondaatje in particular looking bored and Desai beautifully decorative and trying hard. And the image of a couple of spoilt rich kids began to dominate my reactions to them. Obviously I should have got up close and had a good sniff to find out what they were made of. If in fact they could still be identified as human. Instead I wrestled with possible questions to ask them but then it was all over and we drifted out from the palazzo into the warm evening to wander and chat. But not about smells.


What is the stench of over-privilege? Is it dry or wet or simply out of this world? Something from the far distant reaches of the universe? Occupying the eternal? Do gods smell?


Life smells.


You neglected to demand the answer to a question but I shan’t let you off so easily. Where are you digging? Do you have characters/plots in mind for the grave, sorry I mean novel?