Reality bites

The writer enters a hermetic, imagined world when writing a novel, and leaving it can be traumatic. Justin Cartwright describes the shock of re-engaging with the real, and worse, the commercial
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The Irish critic and novelist, John Banville, wrote recently that "one of the prime difficulties for the novelist is that he must work within the delusion that life as human beings live it is a fair representation of reality." I have always been been a little wary of the threnody on the writer's lot. In the scale of things, writing is a pretty good life. At its best it is almost perfect, despite the sense of homework never quite done.

The Irish critic and novelist, John Banville, wrote recently that "one of the prime difficulties for the novelist is that he must work within the delusion that life as human beings live it is a fair representation of reality." I have always been been a little wary of the threnody on the writer's lot. In the scale of things, writing is a pretty good life. At its best it is almost perfect, despite the sense of homework never quite done.

For nearly 18 months I have been wrapped up in a novel, and for those months I have devoted myself to it for six days a week. It has been a wonderful time, lived surprisingly fully through the lives of imagined people. But when I read John Banville's words the other day, they struck home, because, having just finished a novel of family, I seem to be in a strangely detached state. (Please note, I don't expect you to feel sorry for me.) While I was writing the book, I found myself increasingly believing in the world I was imagining. The characters became almost excessively real to me; quite often I had tears in my eyes as I wrote.

Now that that world has been closed down, I have the feeling that I must in some way keep true to the characters. I have even taken at times to using the word "like", like sprinkling it promiscuously into my conversation, as one of my characters does. Another of my characters - gently disintegrating - tends to look dyspeptically on people in the street and on the Tube. I have found myself doing the same, as if his existence were more powerful, you could say more real, than my own: this morning in his honour, I could barely restrain myself when I heard a man on a mobile explain the wonders of detoxing himself by cutting out coffee. I could hear the word "bollocks" percolating upwards in my character's tones.

My problem now is what to do having finished a novel. My own human qualities seem to have been leached out. I feel faintly ashamed of this admission; it seems so self-indulgent, so literary in the most pejorative use of that word. But I am undeniably suffering a minor crisis having lived so fully, although vicariously, for the past 18 months. Jonathan Franzen described the writer's state as one of angry and frightened isolation; there is something frightening about finding that the world you have inhabited and the preoccupations you have been indulging, are not shared by anyone else. I once tried scuba diving and surfaced to discover that the boat, which I imagined was not far above, was not there at all. This is what I am experiencing in my own life.

Yeats famously wrote: "The intellect of man is forced to choose/Perfection of the life, or of the work." And John Updike prefaces his new short story collection by saying that he had always intended to immerse himself in the ordinary, in the belief that careful explication would make it extraordinary. Neither of these two great men's aphorisms is entirely true. For a start, there is no realistic choice between the life and the work. In my experience they are irredeemably blurred, even fused; the work affects the life, and the life affects the work.

Recently in a radio discussion about real characters employed in fiction, I was reminded of Elizabeth Bowen's remark that there is a huge gap between what ordinary people - her choice of words, not mine - and writers regard as real people. All writers learn very quickly, if they didn't know it instinctively, that fiction is a paste-up job, and the only source is not "real" life, but life as transfigured by the imagination. And it is this which suggests to me a degree of false modesty in Updike's words. Writing convincingly and movingly about the ordinary is just as much an act of the imagination as writing about - let us say - a tiger in a lifeboat.

The writing is one thing and the publication - the public humiliation, the examination, the promotion, the competition for awards - is another thing. I, for instance, was genuinely shocked - I had a migraine for three days - when my book White Lightning failed even to be long-listed for the Booker Prize. Did they not understand that I had put my life into that book, my mother's life, my own contradictory relationship to South Africa and to art? Apparently not. I had dark thoughts about the judges, under Lisa Jardine, in feminist cabal, thinking "pale and male". At the same time I understood with my rational mind the arbitrary nature of judging.

Not long ago somebody wrote to me on a subject of interest to both of us and mentioned, as if in passing, the "cheerfully dismissive" review I had given his only novel. I couldn't remember what I had said in any detail - five years had passed - but clearly he could. Still, I understand exactly his bitterness, because the belief that somebody has misunderstood or misrepresented you, works like malaria in the system: just when you think you are over it, you succumb to another attack.

Why should critics launch attacks on other peoples' work? It is part of the process - a novelist friend of mine describes it in this way: "While you are writing, each day you start thinking about your characters in the shower, but the moment that the book is finished, you enter the industrial phase." This phase includes the critical ordeal. The problem is that the reality which the critic is faced with, a bound work of a hundred thousand words or so, is a very different reality from the one the writer faces for a year or more. For all that time, the serious novelist has been wrestling with a kind of truth, a kind of reality if you like. The critic is usually wrestling with a deadline.

An interesting book, the correspondence of William Maxwell, a fabled New Yorker editor, and Sylvia Townsend Warner, an English novelist, has come my way. Maxwell describes to her the writing of his 1948 novel, The Chateau: "I had a perfectly wonderful time writing it. The pleasure lasted twelve and half years and I never wanted to be writing anything else." I see now, clearly and for the first time, that you can become totally caught up in a book, and that finishing it can be a little death. (Michael Holroyd recently described finishing a biography as a bereavement.) And I see that the period between delivery and publication is a limbo, as the writer changes - in defiance of the laws of biology - from butterfly back to pupa.

If you are a writer, you are aware that out there there is a dammed-up desire to write. Everyone wants to do it (everyone in London N1 anyway). Sometimes this urge to self-expression is confused with the desire for a change of lifestyle or the need for therapy. But the myth endures that writing novels is going to make you rich, successful and fulfilled. In fact what marks good writing, I have come to believe, is a compulsion to try to reach the essence of things, what Banville calls pure ideas and unmediated expression. It's a doomed task, but the closer to the essence of things the writer gets, the closer he edges towards literature.

The idea of one day writing a novel is a powerful and persistent fantasy. It is a bit like the idea of suicide: a comfort to know that there might be, in extremis, a way out of "real life". It has taken me long enough to realise that in some ways writing the novel is the easy part. The question that is seldom acknowledged is what the writer's relationship with the real world is - if there is a real world - when he finishes.

I am aware that this may not seem like much of a problem in the real world - if there is one - but to me it seems to be a very real problem in the world into which I have once again been disgorged.

'The Promise of Happiness' by Justin Cartwright will be published in August by Bloomsbury

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