A novel ending

The column Finishing off a novel - particularly the world's greatest - always leaves Howard Jacobson in a state of existential crisis. Will the bright lights cure him?
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I'm in trouble. I've just finished a novel and don't know what to do with myself. I've suffered the Two Tense Weeks waiting for agents and publishers and loyal advisers to confirm what I already in my heart of hearts knew - that it's the greatest novel that's ever been written. They've done that now. Not only the greatest that ever has been but the greatest that ever will be. Well done, Howard. But that only makes it worse. What do you do with yourself when you've just written the greatest novel that ever has and ever will be and you have to go through another nine months of only a few of you knowing?

You jump on a jet to Sydney, that's what you do.

It was my wife's idea. She could see I was suffering. Finishing a novel is like losing your entire family at sea. One minute you are surrounded by those you love, laughing and dancing on a heaving deck, the next there's just you strapped to a little rubber raft, alone on a wide, wide sea. Cold and blubbering and consumed with guilt. For it was you who bought the tickets for the voyage.

"Go to Sydney," my wife said. "Take a break."

She of course was the one who needed the break. I was burdening her with my listlessness. Buying her presents that were really for me. The last straw was the complete Solti Ring Cycle in an irresistibly sensuous deep Valhalla-blue flip-top box. Whenever I finish a novel I buy my wife a complete Ring Cycle. The thinking behind it being that at last I have the time to sit and listen to the whole thing chronologically, starting from the dwarf Alberich ogling fully-grown Rhinemaidens, and going through until the gods are decimated. Not that I ever manage it. A man who has just finished a novel is in no condition to concentrate on Wagner.

The thing about Sydney is that I cannot be trusted there, emotionally. I fall apart in Sydney. Too many memories. Sydney was where Australia started for me. First time across the Equator, first job, first academic office with my name on the door, first lots of things. I was 22. And whenever I go to Sydney I want to be 22 again. So if somebody who has my interests at heart actually recommends Sydney as a cure, I must be in a bad way. The principle of one nail driving out another is being invoked. Go be 22 again - it might help you to act your age.

All else being equal I'd have stayed in Melbourne at least until the Boxing Day Test Match at the MCG. But the cricket has become a fiasco. You'd only go if you enjoy seeing big kids beating up little ones. And there are other reasons to skip Melbourne. It's too slow. It takes an hour to buy a bagel. First the shop assistant has to ask you how you are. So intimately curious - "How are you?" - that for a moment you wonder if in some other place - Sydney, say, in 1967 - you were sweethearts, lovers, husband and wife even, and she's been thinking about you ever since. Until you realise that she wouldn't have been born in 1967. Then you have to wait until she washes her hands, puts on a new pair of antiseptic plastic gloves and finds the tongs. Then she has to punch the word bagel, together with its precise denomination - onion, poppy seed, garlic - onto the screen of her computerised cash register, which tells somebody watching at the other end that a person who claims to be quite well, thank you, is at this very moment buying a cinnamon and almond bagel for which he has tended a $50 note, serial number GG 955648724, from which the change will be $49 and 10 cents. Then you have to promise to have a good day - what's left of it.

You don't get that in Sydney. In Sydney they throw the bagel at you.

So I fly out of one and into another and oh God, it's as good as I remembered it was the last time. There's the Bridge showing off its dolphin back and there are the pointed Alberich ears of the Opera House and there's the sun hurling spears of light into the harbour. You can smell Sydney. Burnt baby oil. Sweet and rancid all at once. It's fucked, of course, as people who live in Melbourne are quick to tell you. "Sydney? Fucked!" By which they mean it's fast, callous, ill-planned, opportunistic, on edge, greedy. Wonderful.

You want something a little more measured? Go to Basingstoke. Go to Melbourne, for that matter. Melbournians like to describe their city as "liveable". I've caught myself using the word. "It's so liveable here." And it's true. Melbourne is a highly liveable city. You can live in it. But who wants to live when you can LIVE?

Have I said that that's another thing that happens when you've finished a novel - you start talking about LIFE? You become an existentialist suddenly. Not surprising. Everybody you cared for has perished at sea; the burden of continued existence is on your shoulders now.

I got plastered on my first ever night in Sydney. I was met off the boat, taken to my professor's house, introduced to my new colleagues, and plied with dry sherry from a 10-gallon drum. Four hours into my first academic job and I was flat out on my professor's bathroom floor. Well, I'm not going to make the same mistake this time. This time I head straight for the Bayswater Brasserie where the writerly Sydney Rhine maidens and novelists hang out. And guess what? They've all just finished a novel too. So we get plastered together. But today I don't end up on anyone's bathroom floor but my own. Maturity, I call that. I'm getting there,I'm getting there. Tomorrow, if I hold my nerve, I'll be 23

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