One of the jolliest pieces of news in the last week is that the Lady Novelist (emboldened by the recent biographic triumph of one Dr Biswell) has successfully flogged a biographic project to Jonathan Cape. She is proposing to spend the next couple of years hand in hand with the painter Edward Burra, one of the most amusing people who has ever drawn breath. She, i.e., I, is proposing to enjoy every minute. The only downside I can think of is that Burra’s prose style (a mad, idiosyncratic cocktail of women’s magazines, the Police Gazette, and Polari) is so infectious that it may not be possible lightly to discard it.
I already have a serious problem; I have written down an account of Burra’s arrival in New York which begins with a story so wonderful I may as well share it –
Conrad [Aiken] met him at the Customs displaying the most awful mess of Woolworth underwear mixed up with paints and French and Spanish novelettes which was passed by the Customs officer, an enormous Irish Yank. But as Ed stooped to close up his bag, a large bulge in his hip pocket betrayed a considerable bottle of whisky. The officer leant over and without a word tapped the bottle with a pencil. But Ed didn’t even straighten up, he leered round at the cop and said in that withering voice, ‘It’s a growth‘. Conrad said the chap was completely broken, he just got very red and wandered away.
That’s all very characteristic. But what follows, in my own, personal, draft chapter, is the following: ‘The Aikens, having got him through customs, expected to take him home, but Burra had other ideas … A large car drew up with a shadowy lady in the back, and bore him off into the city. They had no idea where he had gone, who with, or why.’ The trouble is, this is incredibly plausible (Madame Incognita is identified as Olivia Wyndham, society lesbian and junkie, a very good friend of Burra’s, then living with a black girlfriend in Harlem as a sort of born-again English lady). Only I cannot work out where I got this from. The dark thought crosses my mind; did I dream it? Am I starting to live Ed’s life for him? I am, after all, a novelist. I think there may be more than no difficulties of this kind before I am finished.
While I am delighted to be engaged with this project for its own sake I have an extra reason to be pleased with it: people in the university world have recently been asked to describe their jobs. We have had quite a lot of intelligent help in how to fill out the 30-part form, but the experience has been lowering to a degree. Take the words ‘progress’ (a verb), ‘innovate’, ‘deliver’, ‘assess’, ‘monitor’; apply at random. The aspect of this whole exercise which has been the most depressing is that it is so constructed that it is absolutely impossible to tell on the basis of these forms who is actually good at their job, and who is total crap. What does ‘achieving benchmarks of excellence’ actually mean?
The world of literary publishing is by no means devoid of nonsense, but there are certain cardinal simplicities. You write a book. You take total responsibility for what is between its covers. Somebody either buys it or they do not. If they have bought it, then the public to whom it is offered either buy it or they do not. And although there are aspects of buying and not-buying which are at the moment problematic and complex for reasons of the overall economics of the book trade, there is not a vestige of margin for altering your position in the marketplace by bullshitting about delivering excellence. As a metalanguage of —- I hesitate to call it even management, because that isn’t how really good managers talk, in my experience —- rises around us, destroying the meaning of every words (such as excellence), which they adopt, there is a sort of comfort in knowing that unlike the average soft-bodied creature of the coral reef which is academia, I can survive without my protective cloud of ink. And what’s more, I know what Ed would have said about it all. ‘Well if you want to know dearie I thought the whole thing was deadly. I particularly dislike talking about ‘Art’ or ‘myself’ & being questioned. Nobody ever gets very Far. They should have learned that by this time youd think.’ How right he was.