A homage to Kubrick that makes me cringe before the god of shame
Celebrated novelist Howard Jacobson's most recent novel is Man Booker-nominated 'J'. He has also written 'The Finkler Question', published to great acclaim in 2010. An acerbic critic and broadcaster with a passion for literature and art, he is known for his ebullient wit.
Saturday 11 September 1999
And I've never been much of an admirer of Kubrick anyway. All lens and no trousers. Spectacular shots but nothing to chew on, unless you happen to be a gadget or future freak. Light on ideas, I've always thought. Hence the mysterious private life. People who are light on ideas frequently closet themselves away to suggest hidden depths. There never was a hermit yet who had a lot to tell the world, nor a man with a busy brain who shunned company.
For me, the most interesting person to turn up on telly in the course of the week's Kubrikfest was Alan Conway, the confidence man who for years passed himself off as the reclusive director, exciting people who should have known better with half-promises of stardom. Died from a heart-attack, a few months before Stanley died of his.
So just who was aping whom? Alive, Conway had an engaging manner and a touching melancholy-mischievous smile. You get to learn about human nature when you trespass on its credulity. Certainly more than you learn sequestered in Hertfordshire tending the lonely flame of your own genius. He seemed wistful about his success, sad for us that we put up so little resistance, that we wanted fame and fortune so badly we'd trust anyone who was offering.
I say "us" advisedly. It shames me to admit this, but admit it I must - I too was one of Conway's gulls. For a brief hour I allowed the less authentic though more philosophical of the two Stanley Kubricks to spin my universe giddy, like a globe of the world on a geography teacher's desk. Here is how it happened.
I was appearing on The Late Show, one of several critics discussing a new play by Arthur Miller. A play about a fantasist, as it happened. But I am not going to dwell on coincidences. No higher being was controlling this, unless it was Pudor, god of shame. To my credit, I was unmoved when the producer of the programme ran breathless into the studio immediately after transmission to say Stanley Kubrick had been watching, had enjoyed the show, was on the phone "Right now!" and was asking for me. I'm one of those people who want for nothing in the moments following an appearance on television. Stanley Kubrick? How could Stanley Kubrick add to my stock of satisfactions? I had just addressed the nation on the only subject I cared about. I had pronounced on a work of literature and the British people had listened. Enough. "Kubrick Schmubrick," I said. "Get him to leave a number."
And I rang him back first thing in the morning? Hi, Stanley - Hi, Howard? Trust me, I did not. Nor the morning after that. If you want to know, I forgot all about him. It was only when I ran into someone from The Late Show that I even remembered I had his number in my wallet. But that's all the god Pudor needs, the narrowest lattice of opportunity. I rang, got a recorded message in an accent more Purley than Brooklyn - the butler, I decided - left my number, waited, and later that same day found myself perspiring into my phone while a director whose judgement I had never valued told me how much he admired my work. You want to see me cringe? I'm cringing now. Yes, I fell for the flattery. Yes, I thought I was about to be made an offer I could not refuse. But worse, I spoke these words: "And I, of course, am a lifelong fan of your films, Mr Kubrick."
It's the lie I can't forgive myself for. Not the giddy expectations, not the churning sensation in my stomach, but the lie. I'd like to say I was merely returning compliment for compliment. Acting out of good manners. You get my shtik, I get your shtik. But the truth is, I spoke words which had not a grain of truth in them because I wanted to snuggle close to celebrity, to dollars, to a reputation for which, when I was myself and not the dupe of fame, I didn't give a fig.
Not only am I not a "fan" by nature, I hold it as a matter of fervent principle that fanship is demeaning and ungodly. Admiration for the vitality of someone else's intelligence and imagination is another matter. I buttonholed the novelist Milan Kundera on Charing Cross Road once, told him he had given me more pleasure than any writer living, shook his hand, would have kissed him had he let me, and walked on. I felt good after that. Disinterested commendation, you see. From which you look for nothing in return. Whereas Alan Stanley Conway-Kubrick was beckoning from the bowels of the bitch- goddess Success, out of whose rump, suddenly, I couldn't take my nose. And you definitely don't feel good after you've been in there.
Now you know the worst. Almost. When I never heard from Conway again I smelt a rat and wrote to Kubrick through my agent, thanking him for his interest if indeed it was him I had spoken to, and warning him of an impostor if not. Still holding out half a hope, you see, for nothing I wanted or esteemed.
Recalling it, I die again with shame.
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