I used to write under my own name at first, but I never got anywhere. People in the business, by which I mean agents and publishers, always advise you to write what you know, but they don't really mean it. Or at least, they only mean it if it happens to coincide with market requirements. I used to write stories about the people and situations I saw around me, and I might as well have been writing about the surface of a billiard ball.
My life was too ordinary, that was the problem. I lived in the southeast of England, in a lower-middle-class community. I was happily married, with two children.
It was an old schoolfriend of mine called Ivan Lem who changed my luck. I knew he'd gone into publishing after he left university, but we hadn't seen each other for about ten years. We were reunited at the funeral of another old schoolfriend, who died of prostate cancer at the age of forty. Ivan and I were both turning forty that year too.
The funeral took us back to the town where we both grew up and went to school. We recognised each other in church, and gravitated towards one another at the cemetery. Afterwards, we went to a pub where we used to drink when we were in our teens.
Ivan was thoroughly pissed off with his working life, completely cynical about the publishing industry, and thinking of going it alone as an agent. He asked me if I was still writing, and I told him I was, but not with any success. He was a commissioning editor now, he explained, but he hastened to make it clear that he couldn't get me published, because his firm dealt mostly with technical books. He was well placed to offer me some advice, however, and that's what he did.
At his prompting, I described the novel I was working on at the time, entitled The Old Lady. It was based on a woman called Elsie, who used to live next door to us - my wife Susan and I - when we first moved to Steepleton in Kent. It described how she grew older and more frail, moved into an old people's home, and eventually died: how she fought to retain her independence, but lost the fight in the end, and how her family coped, especially her daughter.
Ivan dismissed the book as unpublishable. "It's too downbeat," he said.
"I know it's not very glamorous," I replied. "But this is the kind of thing people have to deal with in everyday life. Everybody's got an elderly relative to worry about. And we're all going to get old and die, assuming we don't die young."
Ivan just kept shaking his head. "You're not Chekhov, Henry. And even if you were, Checkhov probably wouldn't get published these days."
"But people must want to read this kind of material. They always used to. Victorian novelists used to write about mainstream life: love, marriage, money, morality..."
"You ought to write an Aga-saga."
"I don't want to write an Aga-saga. I want to write a proper novel."
"The proper novel is dead, Henry. The public may still want to read it, but the public isn't in the publishing business. You're not dealing with the public, you're dealing with publishers. And publishers aren't interested in fine writing, they're only interested in saleable ideas."
"So what's a saleable idea?" I inquired.
"Simple. There are three subjects that always sell: sex, violence and sleaze. That's the formula. You can dress it up as literature if you like, so long as you've got at least one of those ingredients. Without them, forget it."
"But I've got to feel comfortable with what I write. If I wrote a book with loads of filthy sex in it, what would people think of me?"
"That's no problem," said Ivan. "Get yourself a pseudonym."
Which was how I began my split life.
I put The Old Lady on one side, chose myself a pseudonym, and started work on a novel entitled Sex, Money and Sleaze - a selling title if ever there was one. The first agent I approached with my synopsis and first chapter asked to see the whole thing, took me on within six weeks, and placed the novel with a publisher within half a year. You may even be familiar with it: it was quite famous for a while. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and they made a film of it. The film flopped, though.
To an extent I felt as if I'd turned my back on my ideals, but there was no denying that the money came in handy, and at least I was now in print. My intention was to establish myself with two or three sensational novels, then go back to the stuff I really wanted to write, starting with The Old Lady. Perhaps in years to come people would talk about my work in terms of two distinct periods - the early novels more brash and commercial, the later ones more subtle and insightful, a little bit more difficult, but ultimately more rewarding.
When Sex, Money and Sleaze was published I took some time off work, on the advice of my agent, to attend book-signings and give readings here and there around the country. I was a bit worried that someone from my "real" life, the life I shared with Susan, was going to turn up and recognise me, but nobody did.
One evening I was on my own in a hotel bar in Norwich, having a quiet drink and reading, when a woman's voice said "Do you mind if I sit with you?"
I looked up and discovered an attractive woman with short blond hair smiling at me. She was dressed like a businesswoman, wore glasses and looked about thirty. She spoke with a German accent.
She seated herself, and told me she had been at my book-signing earlier that day. I couldn't remember her at all. She adored the book, she added. "You are so outspoken about sex," she said. "I admire that."
I kept expecting her to get up and go away, but she didn't. She kept smiling and looking straight into my eyes. Once or twice as we spoke she leaned across the table and lightly touched me on the arm. It dawned on me that she was giving me a come-on.
"I think you are surprizingly shy," she said, "for the author of such a novel."
I could feel myself blushing. "The novel's a great deal more interesting than I am."
"Oh! Now I am disappointed. Then you were putting on an act?"
"That's right. I made it all up. I just let my imagination run riot."
"No," she said, "I think you are being clever with me. I think a writer writes what is real. Your modesty is the act."
I glanced at my watch. "You'll have to excuse me," I said. "It's eight o'clock, and I always ring my wife at eight. Just to see how the children are getting on."
"Okay." She was completed unabashed. "I will wait for you."
I could have just slipped away to my room, I suppose. I did ring Susan, and told her I'd just met a peculiar German woman in the bar, who wouldn't stop talking to me. I didn't describe the German woman in any detail. Then I went back, half expecting her to have vanished. But she was still there. She'd bought me another drink.
After that I began to respond to her flirtation. She invited me back to her room, and I accepted. In some obscure way I felt obliged to live up to the impression created by my novel.
Greta - that was her name - was married too. Her husband was a partner in a design consultancy, and spent a lot of time abroad. Greta was a travelling rep for a tile-and-glass manufacturer. As a rule they only saw each other at weekends: sometimes not even then. They had no children. They both wanted a family, but not yet.
At first I used to see her once every couple of months. Later it was more like once a week. When my career as a novelist took off, I gave up my job, and there were plenty of excuses for me to be away from home. Sometimes we spent an afternoon together, sometimes a night; sometimes it was in a hotel, sometimes in her house. We didn't always make love. These things begin with an outburst of physical passion, but if they last for a period of time they soon get weighed down with emotional complications, everyday considerations, domestic trivia. We had our arguments. She sometimes accused me of exploiting her, which wasn't really fair, because she was no more prepared to leave her husband than I was to leave Susan and the kids. We genuinely cared for each other, but we both had other commitments. We simply stumbled along from one encounter to the next, never quite sure where we were going. It lasted for ten years. They went by surprizingly quickly.
At the end of the ten years Greta had hardly changed. She used to work out regularly, and she was very careful about her eating. Her hair was now dyed blond rather than natural, and a certain muscular toughness had replaced her youthful elasticity, but at a quick glance you might still have taken her for a girl in her late twenties.
Susan was the opposite. As the years went by she got plumper and rosier, like a ripening apple. She was older than Greta, but it took longer for her hair to go grey. She was less interested in sex, more in kisses and cuddles; the kindest, gentlest soul on the face of the earth, and the best mother. She was intelligent, but completely unintellectual. She never read any of my books, whereas Greta read them all carefully, and rather to my irritation came out with disconcertingly insightful remarks about them.
As for me, I could feel myself turning from one person into another as I made the train journey from Susan to Greta, or back again from Greta to Susan. With Greta I lived out the persona I had created for myself in my novels: sexually experienced, worldly-wise, ironic and clever. With Susan I was still my old self. I dug my vegetable patch and cut the lawns, cooked, helped out with the children, read my books morning and evening. We hardly ever went out.
I began to develop different habits in my two different lives. When I married Susan I gave up smoking, and with her I remained a non-smoker. But with Greta I smoked cigars. And with Susan I drank beer, whereas with Greta it was red wine and brandy. I spoke to people in different ways, too. I suppose that's a common experience. But if I went into a restaurant with Greta and there was something wrong with the food, I would complain immediately, whereas with Susan - although we hardly ever went to restaurants - I would never dream of doing such a thing.
I used to sit on the train coming home from seeing Greta, and I could feel myself getting older, more round-shouldered, flabbier. But I was thinking more deeply too, becoming calmer and less selfish. In some ways it felt as if a weight was being lifted from my shoulders, or I was regaining my senses after a spell of delirium. Travelling in the other direction, though, I could feel myself becoming more lively, outgoing, attractive to women. I used to glance at myself in a mirror or a shop window before I got onto the train, and again after I got off. It was like looking at two different people.
This sense of double identity became
more and more acute as time went by, and eventually reached a
I had been leading my double life for ten years. During this period I had followed up A Book about Money and Sex with another five novels under my pseudonym. All of them did well, but each of them was more dishonest than the one before. My original plan, to establish myself first, then go back to writing the novels I really wanted to write, had come to nothing. Instead my pseudonym acquired a persona of its own, and every time I sat down to write it was that persona - an intensified version of the one I adopted with Greta - which took control.
To celebrate our ten years together, I managed to arrange things so Greta and I could go away together for a week. I told Susan my publisher was taking me to the Frankfurt Book Fair. In fact I never went to book fairs or signings any more, but she wasn't to know that. We really did fly to Frankfurt, though, which enabled me to send some authentic postcards and make some authentic phonecalls.
But the week wasn't a success. For one thing Greta went to visit her family, who lived about fifty miles from where we were staying, and of course I couldn't go with her because they didn't know anything about me. She was only gone for a day, but it made us both feel awkward, because it brought home the false position we were in.
In any case, the reason I made such an effort to spend a whole week with Greta was that lately we had been going through what they call a rough patch. She'd been complaining that I only visited her for a few hours at a time, and then all I wanted to do was make love, as if she were a prostitute. But spending a week in one another's company proved more difficult than either of us expected. You would have thought that after ten years we would have known each other fairly well, but we didn't. It was the first time I realised how fanatical Greta was about her looks. She went out running twice a day, morning and night, and she also made at least one lengthy visit per day to the hotel gym. She went through lengthy routines with her skin, nails and hair; and she scarcely ate enough to feed a sparrow. If she had a dessert with her supper, she paid for it with half an hour of situps and stepups before bedtime. She looked askance at my hoggish appetite, my reluctance to exercise, and my slovenly habits around the bedroom. Before long we started to bicker.
At the end of the week came an outburst. We were packing our things when Greta sat down abruptly on the end of the bed and started to cry. When I put my arm round her and asked her what was the matter, she complained that she was thirty-seven and she didn't know where her life as going any more. Was she ever going to have children of her own?
Then it came out. She had just discovered - the day before our holiday began - that her husband was in love with a younger woman. He'd had affairs in the past, but this was different. This time he wanted a divorce.
She asked me if I loved her, and I said yes. But then she asked me if I was prepared to leave Susan, to which I could only answer no. It had always been our understanding that she wouldn't leave her husband and I wouldn't leave Susan and the kids. But Greta was having a crisis, and the old understanding wasn't enough any more. She suddenly started passing hurtful remarks about my novels. She said there were no moral values in them. She said all the sex-scenes were based on things I'd done with her. She said none of the female characters were convincing; in fact none of the characters were convincing at all, apart from the main ones, and they were all egotists just like me. I didn't really understand other people: I was too self-absorbed. Real people didn't act like that, or speak like that. Everything I wrote was written for effect. None of it came from the heart. It was all trendy crap.
She finished by throwing a vase at my
Greta didn't come back to England with me: she went to stay with her parents instead, and I caught the return flight alone. We made it up before we parted, but all the same it seemed clear to me that the affair was coming to an end.
When I got back to Steepleton I made the short walk from the railway station to my house without paying much attention to the world around me, preoccupied with thoughts about my week abroad. But as I turned into my street I looked up. There was an ambulance standing outside my house with its back doors open.
Cathy, my next door neighbour, was at the end of her drive smoking a cigarette. I hurried up to her, feeling queasy with guilt. Something terrible must have happened while I was away.
"Who is it?" I said. "Who's the ambulance for? Is it one of the kids?"
"No," she said, sparing me no more than a quick glance. "They're all right."
Oh God, I thought, it must be Susan.
"Is it Susan?" I said.
She glanced at me again, impatiently. "No, she's all right. It's him." Then she looked at me properly for the first time. "Who're you, then?"
I opened my mouth, but no words came out. Her question had a strange effect on me: just for a moment, I really couldn't remember who I was. I felt dazed. What had she said? It was him? What did she mean?
A half-formed idea came into my mind that perhaps Susan was leading a double life too: perhaps she had another husband while I was away. But just then the front door opened and out came two ambulancemen with a stretcher between them. In the stretcher was a heavy-looking middle-aged man, his face grey and clammy with pain, his eyes shut. The face was my own.
Everything seemed to be happening in a dream. Behind the stretcher came Susan, white as a sheet. She looked at me as she passed, but didn't take me in at all. Her eyes immediately went back to the man in the stretcher. The ambulancemen loaded him into the ambulance, and she got in too. The doors shut, and the ambulance drove off. I heard the siren starting as it reached the main road.
"Where are the children?" I said to Cathy.
"I've got them," she said.
"Can I see them?"
She stared at me. "You? What for? Who're you?"
"You know who I am," I protested. "I'm - I'm -"
But I couldn't say who I was. I felt myself becoming as insubstantial as a
ghost. Cathy flicked her fag into the gutter, glanced at me again
without much interest, then went into her house and shut the
door, as if she'd lost interest in me or simply forgotten all
about me. I thought of knocking, but I already knew
it wouldn't be any use, and the anticipation of failure
scared me. Not being recognised would be bad enough, but what if
nobody could hear my knock? What if they opened the door and
couldn't see me?
I walked back to the railway station and managed to get a taxi, which drove me to Ladyhurst, where the hospital was. When I reached the hospital it turned out I didn't have enough cash for the fare, so I had to pay by cheque. The name in my chequebook, I discovered, was no longer my own: it was my pseudonym.
Partly because of this, I didn't go into the hospital. Who could I claim to be? What relationship could I claim with my former self? But what really frightened me was the possibility of meeting Susan. She hadn't recognised me at the house. She probably wouldn't recognise me here either. She'd give me that blank look again, as if I didn't exist. The memory of it chilled me.
I walked around till I found a hotel, and booked a room for the night. I registered under my pseudonym, of course. The young man on the desk recognised it. It turned out he'd read my last book but one. He tried to strike up a conversation, but I wouldn't let him. The last thing I wanted was to talk about my writing. Besides, the young man - although he seemed pleasant enough in other ways - had a large pimple in the middle of his left cheek, a big white spot surrounded by a red inflammation, and the sight of it was unbearable. I hurried away to my room.
But my room was unbearable too. It was neat and functional, with green stripey curtains, green stripey wallpaper and a green stripey bedspread. I imagined other people staying there, watching the television, or ordering room service, or having sex in the bed, or having a shit in the ensuite bathroom. The banality of that room, of the hotel and its guests, struck me as insupportable. There was something sinister about it, as if an unseen force was at work, draining all the purpose and value out of human life.
I rang the hospital. I had to pose as my own brother before I could persuade them to tell me anything. Apparently I was "comfortable". Having learned that much, I sat up in bed and watched the television till I fell asleep.
I woke at three in the morning. Death was in the room with me, and I experienced a spasm of pure terror. The light was still on, but no darkness could have been more horrible, more empty, more meaningless than the sight of that neat, well-decorated little room, with the television set still jabbering in the corner.
I pulled myself together, picked up the phone by my bed and
called the hospital. The nurse who answered told me to hold on,
and I listened to her footsteps receding into the distance. I
imagined a drab passage floored with linoleum. After a long wait
someone else's footsteps came back. A man with a Nigerian
accent picked up the phone and told me that unfortunately my other self
I had passed away a few minutes earlier.
I didn't go to the funeral, in fact I didn't make any attempt to reintroduce myself to my family. I couldn't face it. I went to London instead, found myself a flat in Wimbledon, and tried to carry on with the half-life I had made for myself under my pseudonym. My publisher still recognised me, so did my agent, and so did all the people I had met through them.
I saw Greta a few times more, after she got back from Germany, but things between us soon fizzled out. Her husband was divorcing her, and for some reason that made her react against me. Similarly, the fact that I no longer had access to my wife and children made me react against her. Both of us felt it was time to start again.
But starting again turned out to be a problem in my case. I couldn't write any more. At first I thought it was just a minor problem. I planned new novels - in fact my plans were far more detailed than ever before - and I started work on them. I ground out the opening chapters on a laptop in my flat, slowly and painfully, sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph, slavishly following the plans I had made, without any sense of imaginative excitement or spontaneity. Then I went back over those opening chapters and revised them. I rewrote them over and over again until they were perfect. I did this because I couldn't think what else to do. I didn't know how to continue. I couldn't find a way forward. Eventually my heart would fail me and the new novel would be abandoned.
Finally I went to see my old friend Ivan Lem, who was running his own literary agency by this time. He knew me by my pseudonym, of course: he seemed to have forgotten the different name I used to have when we were at school. We hadn't seen much of each other during the ten years since he persuaded me to change my style of writing, but he had been following my career in print, and he was able to diagnose my problem immediately.
"You've burnt yourself out," he said. "Once you abandoned the subjects that really interested you, it was bound to happen. I could see it coming in your last couple of novels."
"But you told me I had to write about sex, violence and sleaze," I reminded him, "otherwise I'd never get published."
"That's perfectly true," he replied, "but I never said you'd be doing yourself any favours artistically. Never confuse success in the marketplace with success as an artist. It's better to struggle than give up your individuality. You should've stuck to your guns."
I almost felt like punching him on the nose, but he redeemed himself by offering me some practical help.
"If you're really stuck," he said, "why don't you
come and work for me? I've got more manuscripts coming in than
I can handle. I've been meaning to take someone on for ages.
And it might interest you to see the publishing industry from the
So for a couple of years I read the work of unpublished hopefuls for a living. It was a depressing experience. There were so many of them, all so desperate for recognition. I read first novels about first love until I was thoroughly sick of them. I read covering letters and synopses and opening chapters until my head swam and my eyes wouldn't focus any more. In the end I was just like everybody else. I glanced at the synopsis, and if it wasn't a "selling idea" then I didn't go any further. It isn't the quality of the writing that matters, or it isn't any more.
Then one day, someone told me I ought to take a look on the Internet. It was the next big thing in publishing, they said. All the major companies were looking into it. More and more people were buying their books on the Web instead of going to bookshops; and new writers were bypassing the usual channels, selling their work direct to the public via their own websites.
So I took a look. It was true: people were publishing themselves, typesetting their own books on their computers, getting them printed and bound in small cheap runs, promoting themselves on the Internet, and in some cases making a profit out of it. A lot of the material was unpublishable, but some of it was good, and one book in particular caught my eye. I sent for it, and read it all the way through one night. It was called The Old Lady. It was about an old lady called Elsie getting older, losing her independence and dying. It wasn't a great book, but it was a good one: funny in some parts, moving in others. It was the book I'd always wanted to write, and the name on it was my own, or rather it used to be my own.
I brought the book to Ivan\'92s attention. He didn't realise it was anything to do with me, of course. He agreed it was well written. As a first novel from an unknown author it would have been unpublishable, he said: the subject was too downbeat. But since it had already enjoyed a modest success on the Internet we could probably do something with it. He left me to make contact with the author.
That was how I came to reintroduce myself to Susan. She was the one who had launched the book on the Internet. After she was widowed, she had to decide what to do with her husband's unpublished manuscripts. There were six novels, all handwritten: he only owned a portable typewriter, and not being much of a typist he only used it for synopses and opening chapters, reasoning that he could type the rest later on, if anybody showed an interest. Nobody ever did. But Susan read all the novels through, and since all of them made her laugh and cry - perhaps partly because she knew the author, and the events on which his work was based - she decided they were too good to rot in a drawer.
The problem was, each of them had been submitted, first to every likely agent and then to every likely publisher in the country, without any success. So what was she to do? The kids had grown up and left home by now. She had a part-time job, but it was only three mornings a week. She decided to publish the books herself.
At first she was going to do it the conventional way, having them privately typeset and printed, then trying to place them in as many bookshops as possible; but in order to prepare the manuscripts she bought herself a computer, and once she'd got the computer she discovered the Internet. She learned HTML, and set up her own website. She made contact with other writers and literary organisations on the Net. She entered some of her husband's short stories and poems in competitions: they won three and came second in five others. She used the prizemoney to advertise her website in little magazines. Gradually things began to take off. By the time I made contact with her, The Little Old Lady had already sold more than a thousand copies, and she was about to launch her second title.
I became Susan's agent, and eventually her friend. Never her lover. She had a new boyfriend in any case, an art teacher from the local school, called Simon. He thought she spent too much of her time poring over her dead husband's writing, instead of getting on with her own life. Personally I could never see it that way, and even Simon had to change his tune once things started to take off.
Susan had changed. She was tougher, more organised, far more independent. Widowhood, and the struggle to get her husband's work recognised, had seasoned her. Even after I came along, she still made all the major decisions - about films, television serializations, documentaries, and later the publication of her husband's journals, short stories and poetry. She was the one who insisted that all his books must be printed on recycled paper, for example. It was what he would have wanted, she said.
I was the one that wrote his biography, though. I like to think it helped establish his reputation as a writer once and for all. It was surprizing, when I came to write about his early life, how completely I had forgotten it. I had to do almost as much research as if I had never met him.
When I look back at the biography now, I'm inclined to think I exaggerated his unworldliness, his indifference to fame and wealth. I daresay he would have taken them if he could have got them. But I was fixated with the differences between his life and my own. I made him as out a bit of a saint, unjustly neglected by the literary establishment. It didn't do his reputation any harm, or the sales of his books. Having been completely ignored during his lifetime, his work has probably been overpraised since his death.
Susan herself is the one who's really indifferent to fame and money. She still lives in the same house, a semi-detached in Steepleton, not far from the railway station. She says it's where she's been happiest and feels most at home. Besides, it's taken her all these years to get the garden how she wants it.
One evening I was standing with her on the pavement outside her house, on the point of saying goodbye. We were within a few feet of the spot where the ambulance stood, on the night when I watched myself being loaded into the back. It was dusk. In the distance, an ice-cream van was playing a jangly version of "Greensleeves".
"Do you think I look like him?" I asked suddenly. "Some people say I do."
She looked at me and laughed. "No, not really," she said. "I can see the resemblance, but not really. And you're certainly nothing like him as a person."
"How do you mean? Was he that much nicer than me?"
She squeezed my arm. "No, you're quite nice," she said, "and he could be difficult to live with at times."
"Could he? You never told me that while I was writing the biography."
"No. Out of loyalty, I suppose. But he was terribly stubborn, especially about his writing. He would have divorced me like a shot if I'd ever tried to make him stop. And he never let the children disturb him or anything. If there was a domestic crisis, I just had to deal with it myself. And then of course he used to get frustrated. He saw himself as a writer; he was convinced that his writing was worthwhile; but he couldn't get anyone else to take an interest. It made him angry and bitter, but he wouldn't give up. He used to take his feelings out on me and the kids at times. I used to hate it. Why couldn't he just forget it, and make do with being ordinary? That was why I never really read any of his stuff till after he died."
She smiled ruefully.
"I mean, in the end you've got to ask
yourself what all that dedication was for. I love his books, but are they worth a lifetime of frustration? Where did it get him?
He never published anything while he was alive. Not a thing.
Wouldn't he have been happier if he'd spent a bit more time
with me and the kids, instead of locking himself away in his room
like that? There's more to life than writing, after all.
There's a real world too."
© 1999 by Edward Picot