Well-Read Lovers; Constant Rejection


Ask The Paris Review

This week we asked our friend Angus Trumble to give us the benefit of his wisdom—and received an embarras de richesses. Thanks to all for your questions and to Angus for his answers; there was none we could bear to cut. By day Angus is the senior curator of paintings and sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art. By night, and sometimes also by day, he blogs on such topics as the euro crisis, the Ladies of Bethany, and his own globe-trotting adventures.

Dear Angus,
Do the best readers make the best lovers? Would you be more likely to break up with someone if they never read, or read all the time?

I am flattered that you feel I have the necessary qualifications to provide an accurate answer to this question. In my experience, the well-read can be excellent lovers, although there are times when a specific literary prompt may inhibit the natural flow, as for example when one’s partner genuinely believes himself to be some sort of Vronsky, when in fact he lacks the magnificent build, military bearing, disposable income, or even the remotest capacity to smolder. I can quite confidently say that it is unlikely that I would ever commence a relationship with a person who never read, which removes the need to break up with him. My parents’ marriage survived a period in the late fifties, when my mother read the complete works of Sir Walter Scott, evidently led in his direction by a genetically encoded taste for the lowering mist, gloomy crags, and bloodstained crofts and glens of the Highlands of Scotland. On the whole, therefore, I am for readers—although it is also true that I would immediately eject anyone whom I caught in bed with a romantic novel by the late Dame Barbara Cartland.

Have you ever had a story accepted for publication through a slush pile?

As a matter of fact I have, although it was a book review and not a story. My first long article for The Times Literary Supplement was entirely unsolicited and dealt with what struck me at the time as a wholly new and remarkable historical analysis of, of all things, the epidemiology of the Black Death. To my astonishment, in due course this offering propelled me onto the front cover, together with an enormously magnified photograph of a plague-carrying flea. So there is hope.

What should you do if you don’t like a book halfway through? How do you know when you should give it up?

For years, far too many years, I fell into the dangerous trap of being determined to finish a book despite having reached the conclusion half way through—or at the very least having become deeply suspicious—that in all probability this would not give me pleasure or profit. Yet essentially I am an optimist, and therefore, I suppose, when faced with undeniable evidence that a novel in which I am immersed is, for example, a bleak and depressing saga of frustrated sexual longing and entirely populated by characters of scarcely conceivable dullness, part of me hopes that twenty pages hence there awaits bright flashes of comic genius that may yet salvage the experience. Optimistic though I continue to be, from the vantage point of comfortable middle age I can now say that this is never true and that certainly the healthiest, most sensible, and efficient strategy is to abandon ship.

I’ve always wondered this and have a feeling you might be able to answer. Why don’t men wear nail polish? In a day when silk scarves and eye makeup are widely accepted for men, why haven’t they yet caught on to the best in decorative fashion?

Goth community and a growing number of men also indulge in the use of clear lacquer, usually the finishing touch in that soothing experience, the professionally administered manicure. My old friend the actor Barry Humphries finds it is more convenient not to remove his scarlet nail polish between appearances as Dame Edna Everage than to have it reapplied every time. Also, much depends upon context. Brightly colored nail polish would not strike one as especially surprising when worn by an haute couturier or a society hairdresser of the caliber of the late Alexandre, who for many years did Garbo, Callas, the Begum Aga Khan, et cetera. However, eyebrows would certainly be raised if, appearing before the United States Senate Armed Services Committee, a chairman of the joint chiefs of staff elected to set off his uniform with some bright or amusing shade of Melon of Troy, Vixen, Catherine the Grape, or I’m Not Really A Waitress.

Will you read the Steve Jobs biography?


How do you keep writing if your work meets constant rejection?

I take it that this is a genuine cri de coeur and not a merely hypothetical question. As I am sure you are aware, and are no doubt regularly irritated by being reminded of by cheerfully prospering friends who do not themselves nurture even the slightest inclination to write anything other than a check, most professional writers encounter periods of neglect, indeed many are obliged to cope with total obscurity, poverty, and worse—unless you are the late Dame Barbara Cartland, and I do not recommend imitating her atrocious novels, which stand in relation to literature as nuclear waste to champagne. As with any other artistic vocation, there is an element of drive and of persistence and of real and pressing need that keeps the creative engines running, and will, with luck, sustain you in the midst of successive disappointments. Not long ago I was asked to speak at a memorial service in London for the English painter John Hoyland, a man who throughout his career experienced wave upon wave of rejection and disappointment. He never stopped painting. He never altered the way he did his work, other than in response to his own lights. He felt, in the face of almost insuperable obstacles, that he simply had to push on. And, to his infinite credit, he did. I hope that you may yet feel that you can do the same.

I started writing poetry at fifteen, and in my twenties I wrote short stories. Now I’m back to poetry. All the ideas for stories get pushed aside while poetry stands sturdy. Any way to balance them both? —Gareth Eoin Storey

Is there any particular reason why you feel that your work in these different genres needs to be balanced, one with the other? It may well be that poetry and short fiction assume greater or lesser importance from time to time, if only as a natural consequence of working hard at each. If that is true, and those ideas for stories get pushed aside, be sure to hang onto them until such time as they will no doubt come in handy. I should say, though, that I am singularly ill-equipped to comment upon matters poetic, because my own efforts in that department are simply appalling. Indeed, if poetry is music set to words, as a dear friend of mine lately suggested, then I am afraid I have Van Gogh’s ear for it. Good luck, though.

I am lost in my mid-twenties; writing, graduate studies, full time job, et cetera. In order to relax, I walk my dogs for about three hours a day. Could you possibly recommend any writers who have a particular passion for dogs and writing about them? Also, while we’re at it: Are you currently reading any South African authors outside of our big two? I’d like to gain the outsider’s perspective!

With thanks,

An eccentric aunt of mine once gave me a copy of King Solomon’s Ring by Konrad Lorenz, about which I remember very little, except that it was all about the relationship between animals and people, and fascinated me at the time—I was twelve. Lorenz wrote another book about dogs, Man Meets Dog, but I gather his various speculations about the evolutionary biology of the dog are now considered daft, or at the very least have long since been overtaken by new work. No doubt others will correct or confirm this. As for South African authors, Lorin tells me he can wholeheartedly recommend Damon Galgut, The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs, The Good Doctor, et cetera. By coincidence I was myself in Cape Town only four months ago, so perhaps I cannot quite claim to enjoy the outsider’s perspective, as you so charmingly put it. At any rate, Cape Town is spectacularly beautiful. You must go there.

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