The man who would never write like Balzac

The man who would never write like Balzac

From the Spring/Summer 1975 issue


The young man, who was thirty and turning prematurely bald, now knew that he would never be a writer like Balzac, Eliot or Dostoevsky. That’s what he’d wanted, thought could happen and imagined — long days and nights in his drifting fantasies — actually happening. But now he understood, as his mother, sister, cousins, friends and employers had warned, the signs always having been there, his stories beside Les Contes Drolatiques, his novel beside Middlemarch, notes from his underground alongside those of Dostoevsky — never! He would never be a writer like them.

The final realisation came as he stared at a sentence in the Eliot masterpiece: “The Vicar’s frankness seemed not of the repulsive sort that comes from an uneasy consciousness seeking to forestall the judgement of others...” He gasped. Not that it was the most extraordinary observation about human behaviour he’d ever read “... an uneasy consciousness seeking to forestall the judgement of others...”, but the inevitable arrangement of the words, the desire to say something sweet about a character and doing so by pointing firmly yet sadly to the flaw in others, the sheer confidence of its gentle tone, its truth — why! he could relate it to himself! — all these elements in the sentence seem to crown fifteen years of reading that had grown from excitement with other men’s works into a suspicion of his own. It was a shattering discovery. As can be imagined.

For what were its implications? What truth about himself was now revealed to him? He didn’t really understand life, that! That was what his discovery meant. Those breathtaking perceptions about human motivation? The glowing metaphoric descriptions of character? He had produced none of them.

“I’m a fool, an idiot,” he complained to his father. “I can’t look at events and pair them off and extract their significance and link them and see cause and effect. A blind man! What else can it mean? A blind man!”

His father listened, kindly, as they walked home from work. Both were silversmiths, a dying craft, and both had the look of gloom and neglect belonging to men who pursue a love in its last gasps. “That’s what’s done it,” said the son, “this trade, this, this worn out, outdated, over-mechanized profession. We break our fingers and hearts turning silver by hand while the bright boys, the young lay-abouts, make shit by machine. And what’s the result? No time, no energy, no love left for anything. Who can be a writer in conditions like that, I ask you?” “Patience,” said his father, “patience. You had two plays on the radio, a story in the Evening News, you did a couple of reviews for the Hackney Gazette, patience.” “Patience, patience, patience! My plays were half hour nothings at lunchtime, my story was a bigger nothing about something that happened at work, and who reads the Hackney Gazette? You want me to feel proud of that? Fifteen years of writing! Fifteen!” “Shaw started writing plays at forty.” “Shaw was Shaw! Stop telling me about Shaw all the time.”

But few discoveries are ever final on first unearthing, especially one as distressing as that made by Constantine Lander—the young man’s name. We delay facing such truths, find what excuses we can to forget them; and we’re given straws, inevitably, or we make them, to clutch at and help us evade those truths. A straw was what Constantine found on arriving home to their Council flat in Hackney, in the shape of a letter from a little magazine called ‘Peoples Poems’. It read: “Dear Mr. Lander, your poem ‘The March of Dust’ reached us after redirection, we’ve changed address. But can we say at once we think it’s splendid, just what we look for. Hackney is a borough rich in people’s struggles, and poems of people are what we print. More power to your elbow.”

The note slightly dampened his pleasure at acceptance. He read it, perplexed, aloud to his parents. “Rich in people’s struggles? What are they talking about? My poem’s not about that. I’m a socialist, maybe, a humanitarian, if you like, but I didn’t write a poem about people's struggles.”

He’d written, in fact, five verses with eight lines in each about the dust that had gathered on their silver work which fewer and fewer people could afford or cared to buy. He’d felt deeply though not originally. The poem had competence but monotony. “He’s complaining!” said Mr. Lander senior. “What matters if they understand or they don’t understand? They were touched. For the wrong reasons or not the wrong reasons they were touched! Whoever understands what the artist really means?”

It was true. Constantine relented. Wasn’t it another acceptance? Perhaps it always starts slowly. His elation grew. At first he was sheepish and modest, then boisterous and backslapping, then jubilant. His first instinct was to write. It suddenly seemed a power was in him that could help him wield those heavy, daunting weapons: the blank white page and the black-inked pen. He went to his study at once, reached for both, and with a thrilling smile on his lips began a sentence:

“Lester Conrad confronted his father with piety and pain and said ‘you know what, dad, I’ll never be a Balzac or an Eliot or a Dostoevsky!’”

It was to be a first novel, autobiographical. But the sentence failed to please him. He was about to cross it out and start another when he cautioned himself. “Uh-uh! Careful Connie my boy. Let the thought settle. Don’t rush. You have time. All the time in the world. Force your idea into shape at an ill-judged moment and it’s lost. Forever.” With which he screwed up the white sheet, threw it into the basket and, still jubilant, decided instead to go downstairs and phone through the news of the published poem to his girlfriend, a rather lachrymose Jewish girl whose plain looks limited her choice of possible husbands but whose main attraction for Constantine was her enthusiasm for the arts which she expressed with a coy bewilderment that he mistook for perceptive awe. She was impressed and succumbed to an unscheduled date for a meal in a Chinese restaurant where he met her with flowers.

Even his mother, as he was changing, seemed to be affected. “All right, so he may be a writer, one day,” she conceded, but being too sober to leave it at that aided the warning: “Only I’m telling you, even I know, one poem doesn’t make a harvest.” “She means one poem doesn’t make a poet,” said her husband. “I mean one poem doesn’t make a harvest,” she insisted. “She means one swallow doesn’t make a spring,” said her son. “It’s summer,” corrected the father. “It’s a harvest,” said the mother. And they spent the next half hour untangling that confusion which of course led to others and a quarrel about what an unhappy life the husband had given the wife. 

February, a hovering bleak and yellow month with no claim to either winter or spring. was coming to its end. A straw can’t keep an honest man afloat. Constantine, in his euphoria, had forgotten what ends-of-months brought. On about the first of each of them he sent out his literary work to half a dozen different magazines and kept a special book in which was noted what went where, and when and how much postage cost. so that in this way he never sent the same thing twice to a magazine nor nagged the editor too frequently. One gloomy and foggy evening, huddling into his large ex-army coat from a February damp, he arrived home to a rejection slip. Depression began. Two nights later, the weather as bleak, he came home to three more rejection slips. The next night saw another and four days later, the last. That evening seemed one in which surely he must finally face the truth about his meagre talent. He imprisoned his father in his little room and read aloud to him the quotation from Middlemarch, another from Balzac and another from Dostoevsky. “So! Aren’t I right? People! How have I been looking at people? If I can’t writ like Dostoevsky it means I don’t understand people. How can a man live like that? How have I managed to live like that? All these years? What sort of relationships have I imagined I've been having with men? Mistakes! Everything I’ve done, all my opinions, all my decisions, all my loves — mistakes!”

It was a time of great anxiety for him as it is for all of us when we discover that we will never write like Balzac, Eliot or Dostoevsky; or compose like Vivaldi, Bach or Mahler; or write poetry like Shakespeare, Milton, Blake or the beautiful boys Shelley, Keats and Dylan Thomas. Sad times, full of despair and melancholy. A man needs great comfort and consolation then. 

But do we ever know what to say? “There, there, you may not be Balzac but you’re like — like — like a primitive Jack London.” Or, “you may not be a second Dostoevsky but you’re a first Lander.” Lander! Constantine Lander! Perhaps it’s little wonder he was tempted to believe himself destined for high literary achievements with a name like that. Not that his mother hadn’t warned about it: “He’ll be a God-knows-who-to-think-he-is mess,” she complained at the insistence of his father to so name him.

But Constantine’s father, the cause of his and — according to Mrs. Lander — much other trouble in the family, had declared: “A man ought to have a distinctive name, something he can stand up in!” “Boots!” she hurled back, “give him boots to stand up in. But a name covers him all his life. You know what they’ll call him at school?” she continued, “Connie! Connie and I won’t be responsible, Give him the name of Martin. He'll be a silversmith, like you, it’s a good name.”

She lost. It was surprising and, we’d better add, unusual. It may never have prevented trouble from eventually happening among them but she rarely lost the battles with her husband. And that he did always lose to her never failed to amaze him.

“Men,” Mr. Lander would say to his son with whom he had a gorgeously rich and relaxed relationship, “men for some strange reason forever feel guilty. Why? Did they commit some monstrously evil crime or something? Carry it with them right over the centuries? From male gene to male gene? A mystery! Except to a woman. She seems to know about it! Instinctively! A man can walk through the door, innocent! completely! of everything! eager even to embrace his wife, and yet if the mood takes her — say she’s especially irritated on that day for not being a rich lady or something — so she can give him a look, such a look, out of nowhere, out of the bottom of her five thousand year old soul, dragging up what Cain did, and Atila and Ghenghis Khan and Neville Chamberlain all in one hateful moment.”

Mr. Lander may never have become used to it but — and this touches the seed of our story — he’d found the way to live with it: either by going out to friends or filling the little council flat with them. And they discussed. Wives, wars, life, literature — their topics were abundant. And it was the inheritance from that multitude of evenings, in the flat filled full of friends, which became Constantine's target for the pained arrows of his frustration. For what was balm to the troubled father led, curiously and with sad irony, to a troubled son, a once-loving-son who remembered those evenings he loved, where stories were told, art debated and every possible theme argued over again and again. 

Mr. Lander, to whom each fresh example of feminine resentment was a source of renewed bewilderment, used these gatherings to continue his ruminations upon wives and the female temperament. Pretending to talk to his son alone he'd affect, nevertheless, the public tone for the benefit of his friends and, with obvious relish locked in his complaints, he’d rhetorize: “I’m not saying men are all lovely but, I don’t know, men forgive each other more readily. Your mother, hard-working, devoted, one-hundred-per-cent-dependable, can forgive no-one anything: not God for the world, not her parents for making her a woman. not me for being a man, not even herself — for putting up with everything. Have you noticed? You come in and say what a lovely day it is outside and she’s got so much into the habit of expecting catastrophe that she clicks her tongue and says ‘I knew it'd be’. ‘But Selma’ I say, "a lovely day, I said lovely day’. ‘Don’t talk to me about lovely days’, she says, "have I got pleasures? Blessings? A new gas stove?’ No logic. No concentration. You'd think she's a fool the way she talks, your mother, but she’s no fool. She has only one fault. Me! I'm the crack in her make-up. She doesn’t like me. It's no joke living with a woman who doesn’t want you near her and holds you responsible for war, famine and pestilence.”

His friends listened — he was something of a prize for them — while he pretended he didn't know they were listening. And he spoke with a luminous energy which never failed to hold the attention of his son for whom it seemed that to be able to talk like his father was to be in command of great powers. And in that, that concept, in the marshalling of words lay power, in that fragile concept was the root of Constantine’s problems, as we'll see.

“Mistakes” he was saying to his father, “everything I’ve done, all my opinions, all my decisions, all my loves — mistakes! I mean why did you call me Constantine in the first place?” he moaned while, grief being one thing and order another, he still placed his rejection slips in the neatly kept file and filled in his little book of literary loss and achievement. His unsuspecting father, not realising the depth of his son's angst, answered with blithe humour: “Funny thing you should ask, I was thinking about it only the other day and I couldn't remember. Perhaps I was just fed up with David and Geoffrey and Ruth.” “Ruth? You were going to call me Ruth for God's sake?” “Don’t get upset. We thought you were a girl.” “What would you have called me had I been a girl?” “Alexandria.” “God in heaven, pop. They'd have called me Alec at school. A boy’s name. I was called Connie as a boy and as a girl I'd have been called Alec. You were determined to make a mess of me.” “Constantine the Great I was thinking of.” “And Alexandria the Great also I suppose. Why did you think I was a girl anyway? You couldn't tell?” “I could tell, but I wasn't there. When I rang through to the hospital the nurse said you were a girl and by the time I'd 'phoned round the family and said we had an Alexandria they rang back and said they had made a mistake you were a Constantine.” “How could they make such a mistake? Maybe I'm mixed up and I'm not yours.” “Idiot!"”, said his father, “you look like me don’t you?” “No I don’t!” said his son. “Look at us. Your hair is reddish brown, mine's jet blackish. You've got large pop eyes, I've got narrow Mongol eyes. You've got a fine Roman nose, mine's hooked. You're small and fat, I'm tall and lean. Where's the resemblance?” “You're tall because you had milk and I didn’t.” “I'm not yours at all. Ruth! Christ!” “I said I didn’t want to call you Ruth.” His father was becoming fed up with years and years of discussing this wretched name. “Why you asking me about names, now, when it's thirty years old?” “For Christ's sake dad! Because I never will be a writer like Balzac, Eliot or Dostoevsky. that’s why!” His son’s voice cracked and suddenly became shrill. He seemed about to weep. What was this? From one moment of high laughter to one where could it be, that behind the cracked voice was a broken heart? “Never, never!” said the cracked voice, “not if I live to be a hundred and fifty I'll never write like any of them.”

His father could see absolutely no connection between the fact of his distressed son’s name and the distressing fact of his son's small talent. “You led me to expect too much from myself, that’s the connection,” his son, with unworthy self-pity cried out. “No one should have to live with a name like that.” “That's a very serious accusation” his father replied, ‘very serious. And if that's what I've done then I've got a lot to answer for and it makes me very sad. But is it the name? Honestly? You certain of it?” “No. it's not the name”, said Constantine, who was basically a sensible and honest man, too honest, in fact, as we know. “Of course it’s not the name. But the name is a symbol, it's not an accident, it’s a symbol! Of the flat. The whole inflated atmosphere of this flat, filled with people. always filled with people, cronies, talking about great writers, as though they were old and wise friends whom it had been your blessed fortunes to know. ‘Scholem Asch!’ you'd say. ‘now there’s a writer’. And then one of your old cronies with leather patches in his elbows, what's his name?’ “Pavel Slansky”. “Slansky, that’s him, Slansky would say ‘poh! Asch! a provincial! T'll give you one Kafka for all of Asch’s work”. “What did Slansky know about literature!” said his father, suddenly flooded with delicious memories of literary squabbles. “And then you'd all set-to and pull the masterpieces to master-pieces, reading selections, from here from there, great diamonds of prose and revelation, and the room would throb and glow AND I GREW UP IN ALL THAT BRILLIANCE!” So that was it: the quarrels from which the father ran away, led to soirees to frustrate the son.

Mr. Lander was astounded. Words, which should have been uttered in a state of exultant gratitude, emerged from his beloved offspring in a state of harrowing desolation. And it was not over, this lamentation, this recitation of regrets, this perverse accusation of death through literacy.

“What other world could there be? What other blessings, honours? ‘To command words!’, how you'd say it, in such reverential tones. ‘To command words! Ah! There!’ And you'd sit thinking about it, lost in wonder. and my young eyes with their young, vulnerable heart would look at your faces, radiant! incredulous! Deep in contemplation of all that words had ever communicated from one great man to many men, and I would sit, shivering, thrilled. ‘He that is without sin among you let him cast the first stone’—”  “Let him first cast the stone’. his father corrected. and added, “what a concept!” “There you go!” Constantine raged on. “‘What a concept!’ That's what you always said, muttering among yourselves, smug that you knew ‘their’ literature as well as your own ‘What a concept! What a paralysing. breathtaking idea! And look how a mere twelve words have cocooned the idea!”

“Thirteen”. “Thirteen, then.” “And not cocooned. I never used that word. Slansky used it. He liked it. ‘Cocooned!” His father spat it out as though he were back in the old days proudly pitting his vivid feeling for words against those of his friends. “Since when do words cocoon an idea? They contain ideas maybe. contain. But that would have been too simple for Slansky. He always went in for fancy sounds instead of crisp meanings. Not me. Me. I liked honest words. Words contain ideas, words convey ideas, worlds carry ideas, but—” “Words! Words! Words!” His son wrenched back the drift of his complaints. “Did you have any idea what effect words had on me? Did you ever stop to think what the effect was on a young boy to hear read out, in heart-breaking tones, that description of the last moments of a man who thought he was going to be executed?”

“A Constance Garnett translation from the Russian”, his father said, as though still engaged in a different conversation: “Dostoevsky? A genius!”

But his son, in relentless mood, refused to let go. He moved sharply around his little room in their council flat, picking up stray books, placing them back in their meticulously alphabetical order, and stormed on: “How you curled that description lovingly round your lips. ‘Genius. A real genius. Now there was a genius’ you'd say. It was like giving me a fever. I couldn't sleep after those sessions. I'd lie in bed imagining myself sitting at a desk, scribbling away at great speed, tossing page after page across the room, indifferent to order, abandoned to a frenzy of inspiration, and I'd see groups of people, like your old cronies, even you, sitting and reading my chapters from my books with my name on them, in those same heartbreaking tones and sighing as though there was absolutely nothing else of such Importance in the whole world and saying about me ‘now there was a man who could write’”. Constantine was in a fever about his fever. “My one and only image of approval, a sitting group of old Jews, nodding, eyes on fire, lost in thought, smacking their lips as though literature were food.” He stopped his wild moving and abandoned himself to the visual picture he'd created of his own impossible future, while his father, watching him carefully. like a victim uncertain which way the predatory animal will next spring, waited until the future’s impossibility sank pitilessly into his son who then cried out: “Look what you gave me. The sight of mountains I couldn't climb! Multi-coloured horizons I could never reach! A passion, a love, a — a — ” , here he was lost for the third word. “—never to be fulfilled. consummated.” 

His father’s astonished and very unhappy concern took a brief and traitorous break at that moment to consider that perhaps with such a purple use of language it was inevitable his son, his poor. intelligent, good-natured, witty, not-bad-looking-and-unmarried son would never be a writer. And then he said it, by way of helpless consolation, and wanting to bite his tongue even as he was saying it, he said: “But perhaps you are a kind of primitive Jack London.” He could not have offered anything more profoundly depressing. Not that Jack London wasn't a good writer, he was, but he was himself a primitive. To tell his son he might be a primitive primitive! What's that for paternal consolation? Especially to a son for whom there was no consolation. “But I don't want to be a primitive Jack London, dad” he cried, “I want to be a Balzac or an Eliot or a Dostoevsky!” “Well you're not a Balzac or an Eliot or a Dostoevsky!”, his father cried back, “so pull your socks together and grow up and make peace with yourself and enjoy life a little. You're thirty and you're not married and you haven’t been farther than Paris and who knows what'll happen?”

Not even Mr. Lander could see the complete logic of what he’d said but he felt it was absolutely imperative to shout back something at his fast fading son. No matter what, but something, and shouted. It seemed right but it failed. His son wept. It was an embarrassing sight, a thirty year old son weeping, and tears from so deep down, not mere face-tricklers but great heaving, helpless tears drawn up from such a depth of unhappiness that Mr. Lander felt his son to be a stranger, since surely no one living in his house, for all its hard times and the relentless fears for the future which his ill-lucked wife took from room to room with her, and the faults of neglect which all parents, even the wisest, are guilty of at some point along the line — despite all this — nothing had happened to cause a son of his to erupt from a bottomless misery such as these uncontrollable tears now revealed. Surely.” Was he a monster, this father? had he beaten, denied, bullied, black-mailed? Joy! He'd only ever given joy and shown tolerance, and shared loves, and indulged.

But these were real tears. With such private pain convulsing Constantine, Mr. Lander tenderly felt it more delicate to leave the stricken man alone with his awful discovery. So he went from his son’s room, a bit of a sanctuary actually, where he often came for a chat and to compare notes on a day's work or an evening's reading, he went from it creeping away as though from a sleeping. ailing child, saying, “I'll be downstairs if you want me.”

Constantine Lander, who'd never wept before, continued weeping a long time. But as he wept he moved around his room as though forcing himself to conduct a normal life while this temporary aberration passed through him. He tidied papers fruitlessly in that way surely all great writers tidied fruitlessly — not that he had as many papers as they, still, it kept him busy, sustained the illusion of a literary activity. And then he picked up a silver candlestick which he'd made in the style of art-nouveau for his girl friend and began to polish it ready for a surprise presentation, his tears lessening but his chest heaving, still. It helped him not. On the contrary, the action, as though given a special clarity by his tears, sharply focused a new perspective on both art-nouveau and his girl friend: he cared little for the coy, sentimentally lush tempers and lines of either.

Then, just when he thought the weeping was done, he came across his file of printed rejection slips and began to weep afresh, feeling ashamed but feeling perhaps he ought to feel such shame since you never knew when it would come in handy. Which thought brought him to an abrupt halt. What a callous thought, he thought. Have you no respect for your own tears but that you must see them as a possible object for a future passage of prose?

At once he grabbed for some paper and his pen. new, strange, could it be ecstatic feeling overcame him; a delicious cleansed emotion. Release, like the sudden flooding of a landscape with sharp light after the horrendous storm had passed. He was convinced that now, at this very moment. he was possessed of his first ever and real fever of creativity. And it would all make sense, a wonderful poetic sense: that on the very day when he'd finally confronted himself, confessed. owned up with such simple honesty that he was not, emphatically not, a literary genius, he’d become one. It happened like that, he thought. Fate, Its strange tricks. Like people winning the football pools in the very week they'd lost their copy coupon, or hadn’t bothered, out of a sense of futility, to check. One was always reading about such things in the biographies of the great artists — how their talents were stumbled upon by accident or had been reached through devious, unrelated ways, or been practised in the first instance for the wrong reasons: as a joke, to please someone else. for a competition, to replace a sick friend. And there it was! The discovery! The thrilling revelation of one’s own abundance of jewels and juices. ‘Abundance of jewels and juices’ he wrote down on a piece of scrap paper specially set aside for just such jewels and juices. And then he began: ‘Conrad Lester confronted his father in despair and said: ‘oh, father, I know it, now, I'll never be a Balzac or an Eliot or a Dostoevsky.’ It was to be a novel of discovery.

Then he stopped, sucked his pen, glanced at his list of jewels and juices to see how soon and which of them he could use in this. his first ever and real fever of creativity, then muttered to himself: “Conrad Lester? What's that for a name?” and scratched it out, then the ‘oh’, then the names ‘Balzac. Eliot and Dostoevsky’ replacing them with Austin, Stendhal and Tolstoy, which he also crossed out deciding to write a longer list from which he'd later choose the three most stunning names — Chaucer, Dickens. Defoe, Mann, Hardy, Lawrence. Chekhov. James, Turgenev, Goethe, Kafka. Moore, Meredith, Hemingway, Gogol, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Babel, Woolf, and Proust — until the long list with its weight of genius brought him to a halt and his heart into a very weary. empty state. He crossed out everything. screwed up the first sheet of his first ever and real fever and confronted a new and blank page. ‘Leonard Constantine faced his father in despair and cried—’ he wrote. But that page too. after protracted. careful contemplation, he screwed up. Putting some of his first real fever into the effort of throwing the paperball across the room. And there it was again. The blank page, a third one. ‘Leonard Lester... ’ he wrote. And at that name too he looked for a long time. but now with no feeling whatsoever for it, or his story. or his fever, which blessedly had passed, until even that small beginning he scratched out.

A writer, he thought, mustering what he secretly knew to be dead ashes of consolation. a really great writer must not be afraid to change or edit his ideas. And he sat, oh, one full hour staring at that third blank sheet — or almost blank sheet for it did have a scratching on it — and drew much comfort from its expanse of white: a thrill even. which all great writers will tell you of — though some find confrontation with such blankness the most terrifying moment in their work: upon such endless white must be written — Literature.