Issue 118, Spring 1991
It was a glorious early summer, all blossom and cuckoos. Lynne served herself gin and cider and sternly pronounced that she was not, in future, to be crossed. Neither of us attributed her condition to alcohol. We slept in the same bed and I clasped her for comfort. There was a half-hearted resumption of marital duty or pleasure. I snored. I was banished to my study couch. Soon the spare bedroom was fitted with a bed and a wardrobe and a chest of drawers, and I lay awake long in it, listening for sounds of distress from the master room, working out the plots of three novels.
A novel is primarily an entertainment that should primarily entertain its author. I felt guilty each morning after breakfast when I mounted the stairs to my study, there to be entertained. I was juggling with words in the service of diversion while suffering I could not well understand proceeded with the housework below. The Germans, and especially Thomas Mann, use the term Künstlerschuld—artist’s guilt—to designate the writer’s gloom at his own frivolity in a world that performs dull useful work and is unhappy about it. My Künstlerschuld was highly personal: I had to force myself to temper it with the reflection that I was trying to earn a living. Lynne reminded me of this when she occasionally cried upstairs that she could not hear the clatter of the typewriter. She would not accept that writing is nine parts brooding and one part clattering. I finished Inside Mr. Enderby in late June. Enderby’s comic failed suicide was an attempt to exorcise Lynne’s uncomic one. I sent the typescript to Janson-Smith, keeping no copy for myself. I had never made copies, even in Malaya and Borneo. I had a naive trust in the mails. Janson-Smith thought the book was too lavatory-obsessed to be easily publishable. I had better write something else.
I dug out the yellowing typescript of my old novel The Worm and the Ring and began to rewrite it. I tempered its heavy Catholic guilt with an attempt at humor. I finished it in a summer month and sent it to Janson-Smith. Janson-Smith then took it, along with Inside Mr. Enderby, to James Michie at Heinemann. He showed the lavatorial novel to him first. Michie neither accepted nor rejected it: he thought it might be publishable some day, though under a pseudonym. “What else do you have?” he asked. It was as if I were a brand name for mass-produced toilet articles. Janson-Smith gave him The Worm and the Ring, which was considered immediately publishable, meaning some time in 1961. Roland Gam, the senior editor of Heinemann, who had rejected the work in 1954, now thought highly of it. I was paid another advance suitable for the era of Ford Madox Ford and D.H. Lawrence.
When my half-yearly royalty statement arrived, I groaned at the apparent impossibility of earning a living as a novelist. My first novel. Time for a Tiger, had sold five thousand copies, and I had foolishly assumed that its sequels would do at least as well. But The Enemy in the Blankethad been suppressed because of a libel suit, and Beds in the East seemed, to the superficial reader, to offer nothing that Time for a Tiger, had not already provided. The first book of the trilogy sold moderately well because it purveyed sad humor in an exotic setting: it was something of a novelty. It also informed, in the manner of heightened journalism, about the conditions of life in a far country rent by an ideological war. When book buyers buy books, they look for sex, violence and hard information. They get these from Arthur Hailey, whose characters discuss problems of hotel management while committing adultery before being beaten up. Readers interested in a novelist’s Malaya got all they wanted from Time for a Tiger. The third book seemed supererogatory and it sold fewer than three thousand copies.