On a distinctly drizzly Wednesday evening in February a friend of mine looked at me and said: ‘Only those who risk reaching too far, find out how far they can reach.’
My first thought was ‘why is it that my friends speak in epigrams?’ followed by the rather acid judgement that this particular friend had just reached too far, and was about to discover quite how uncomfortable risking too much can be.
My friend (whose real name I’ve chosen not to reveal, but let’s pick one at random and refer to him as Bill) was, if not drunk, certainly very, very relaxed, especially considering the situation. The previous day had been a gloriously sunny one, London’s cruel annual spring joke – raising hopes before dashing them with a summer of drizzle. I had certainly fallen for it, and in a greatly optimistic mood sent Bill a chirpy text message congratulating him on having his work published in the first edition of what was clearly going to become a literary review magazine of international scope and seriousness. My message read (and this is important): ‘I’m afraid I’m busy tonight but it looks like I’ll see you tomorrow (I’ve just met the editor [of said magazine] and saw your name on the list of contributors).’
To this fairly innocuous message, I received the response: ‘Oh sweet Jesus.’
Blind to the motive behind the panic I questioned his reaction. The only response I received was: ‘Good god, the odds!!’
Now, call me naïve, but this did not start alarm bells ringing. Nor did the fact that Bill was uncharacteristically quiet throughout the brief time we stayed at the launch. Perhaps he was nervous about his piece, I thought, before considering his general confidence in his writing, and deciding that this was unlikely. Maybe he was humbled by the hundreds of hipsters who were squeezed into the long, narrow room. He had, after all, previously described himself as standing lemon-like amongst hipsters who were ‘all swaying to music only they could hear’. It even crossed my mind that he might be preoccupied by the shelves of beautiful books, trapped in a confined space with so many carelessly dangled glasses of red wine.
It did not, not for a second, enter my head that he might be plotting our ensuing conversation. ‘How to phrase it?’ he must have been thinking; ‘Which sounds better, I wonder?’; ‘Annabel, I’m so sorry, my humblest apologies, I don’t know what I was thinking’; or, ‘You’ve gotta believe me, I really thought you’d never see it…’
In the end he opted for, upon leaving: ‘Damage control, this is simple damage control,’ before reading out loud (very loud) his article, in which he recounted, word for word, one of the most intimate moments of our friendship. By the time he’d finished I had no idea where we were, and nor did he.
Now, don’t be mislead, this is not an article of anger, but a discussion of the relative virtues of humility and arrogance. Those looking for a tale of thwarted love and bared hearts should look elsewhere. The response that I’m looking for (and you may not think at this point that it’s the most exciting one) is not ‘Tell us what was in the article, goddamit!’ but the more reflective and enquiring: ‘Now let us think, did his piece display great arrogance, or was it in some ways rather humble?’ On the one hand, how many men would have the guts to tell the whole world about the moment in which they were rejected by the ‘goddess-of-[their]-idolatry’? (And yes, he did stumble over that bit, it was just too embarrassing, even for him). But then, on the other, how many men would be arrogant enough to have the guts to write about it? And how many humble men’s best excuse would be: ‘Well, probably the wise thing to have done would be to have used the name Lucinda.’
I mean, honestly? Couldn’t he have even tried to placate me and suggest that the best thing to do would maybe to have not written the article at all?
Instead of saying this, I raised an eyebrow, which made me intensely aware that he’d just read out loud something about a ‘speck’ in my eye (a speck that I’d never noticed for God’s sake – now that’s disconcerting). At least, upon seeing said raised eyebrow, he had the nous to backtrack:
‘Well, when I realised that you were actually going to read it, my two halves detached themselves momentarily and the conversation went as follows:
Disembodied half one: “What were you thinking?”
“I don’t know,” responded disembodied half two, “I wasn’t really thinking at all.”’
At that point the only thing to do was laugh. And it was funny, it was genuinely funny. But where is one allowed to draw the line? Reality and fiction is hardly a new topic in literature; writers can only write brilliantly about what they know, but what happens when what they know affects other people? In a century obsessed by a right to information, it seems that anything goes, but where’s the merit in stripping nature naked? The writer is awarded full marks for arrogance if they break down boundaries, fearlessly going where none have gone before, bringing to society’s attention that which it was previously scared of, but the motives for so-called bravery can be awfully murky, and the boundary between arrogance and bravery is an extremely fine one. Certainly the qualities are often confused. This is dangerous when bravery is a quality that is lauded by both authors and their publishers (who knows why?) and so often concerns a subject that tickles the public’s imagination for reasons that may be less than salutary.
‘You shouldn’t have written it,’ I said, but I was smiling, I’d already conceded it, or almost.
‘Yeah, right Loon,’ (he calls me Loon, don’t ask why), ‘you gotta give it to me, seems like I made a good decision telling you doesn’t it?’ He lolled his head back slightly and raised an eyebrow: ‘I mean, I had to tell you; it was a gamble but I had to tell you. I knew you’d either hate me forever, or think this was kinda charming.’
I rolled my eyes: ‘Charm is a dangerous game to play,’ I said, and left it at that.
He gave me his copy of the magazine and told me to read the article, with the codicil: ‘There’s a fascinating exegesis on voice to be found inside.’
I waved the comment away over my shoulder. On the bus on my way home I received the message: ‘Let me know what you think. Read it drunk.’
I didn’t have to, just responded: ‘Very funny, kinda sad, 9 out of 10 if that doesn’t do your ego too much harm’.
‘Also come on: pretty flattering?’ was the instant reply.
‘Be careful, you have to stay on the back foot for at least one evening’.
‘You missed your chance to keep me on the back foot, dear Loon. I’ve decided that you are in fact delighted by this essay. Also, it’s a fascinating exegesis on voice.’
Was I, or was I not, delighted by this essay? Bill had (has) the aforementioned disconcerting ability to notice things that have flown under the radar of self-consciousness. Perhaps I was delighted. It certainly was flattering. Perhaps it was I who was the arrogant one, allowing my ego to be stroked by public praise. Yes, it was true, I was the arrogant one: in not being genuinely offended I had exposed my petty vanity. But how much was this to do with arrogance, and how much to do with circumstance? I was pleased, and I was flattered, but not perhaps for the motives the reader is likely to assume, and certainly not because I was involved in some strange and manipulative game of one-upmanship with Bill. I may have been delighted that the world (or a very small segment of it at least) would soon hear all those compliments that are too embarrassing to read-out-loud or re-write-down. Really and truly my delight was because I knew that very small segment of the world contained someone I haven’t yet mentioned, and that this person (call him Bateman) would more likely than not read Bill’s ridiculous eulogy, made ten times more effective by its author’s genius for story telling and sense of humour.
Whilst cycling towards the launch I saw Bateman crossing the street. Never before have I felt so rabbit-like. I stopped where I was, gaze fixed on an orange bollard at my feet, as I avoided frighteningly possible eye-contact and tried to suppress a wave of nausea. It was one of those moments when all the hackneyed human reactions you’ve read about but never quite believed (going weak at the knees, crying from happiness, swooning in terror), suddenly seem more than just literary rhetoric. I felt like something large and metallic had grabbed hold of my insides. The reason was – you probably guessed it – that Bateman happened to be a man I was in love with. He was a man, moreover, who had recently ended our relationship with a rather convoluted but unambiguous announcement that he didn’t love me back.
The idealised heroine of Bill’s essay may have been nothing like the woman writing this article, but what does that matter when the essay’s audience contained someone who’d made it clear that however many specks dotted my eye, he wasn’t interested in standing around counting them? Surely it couldn’t be bad for him to read about the idealised me? I was being arrogant because I’d been humbled, and realising as I did so, that it’s pretty difficult to be one thing or the other all of the time, or perhaps even any of it.
This may be rather disconcerting for a neat idea of how the world should be, but it comes much closer to how things really are. The same goes for writing. As an author you have to genuinely believe that what you’re creating is the best that’s ever been written, and simultaneously the worst. This is something that Bill is fond of declaring, and I’d hazard a guess that he goes so far as to extend it into the way he lives his life. Perhaps this is why I found, upon finally opening the magazine he’d given me, that upon said arrogant article (which amounted to nothing less than a humble act of public self-humiliation), in a deliberate debasement of his own ‘fascinating exegesis on voice,’ he’d scrawled: ‘And I hope you know that I’d still quite like to kiss you.’