Thursday 14 December 1995
It occurs to you, as you stand in the draughty doorway, watching Pinter and his 20-strong cast at the read-through, that it's a bloody big book to reduce to only a few weeks' drama. Then you learn the shocking truth: that they intend to zip through the whole thing in exactly two hours on New Years' Eve. As feats of editing go, this is like putting out the whole Ring cycle as a three-minute single. (It also occurs to you that dramatising a book via a screenplay is asking for trouble. In Pinter's treatment, originally written for Joseph Losey, the first five pages are all camera directions and no dialogue.)
What, I asked one of the production team, was the biggest problem transferring the great Marcel's exquisite sensibility to the ether?
"All the sex," came the reply. "We had to do lots of rustling."
Sex on the radio, she explained, is a problematic business, because you have to imply so much through mere silences and tiny squeaks. Period-costume sex is easier because you can suggest that crinolines and pantaloons are being rudely adjusted all over the set. Hence the entire cast of A La Recherche were holding things called "practice skirts" to rustle whenever things were heating up. "It's the only time," said the Radio 4 lady, "you have to put on more clothes to make love convincingly."
One thing puzzled me. What about the scenes of Sapphic rapture between, say, Albertine and Andree? Did they have a different rulebook for lesbian sex on the radio?
"It's a grey area," said the Radio 4 lady. "We usually settle just for lots of giggling."
Since the TLS broke the news that TS Eliot's The Waste Land plagiarised an earlier work, Madison Cawein's Waste Land, I've been trying to summon the courage to ask Valerie Eliot, steely relict of the great man, what she thinks about it all. But since the whole point of Eliot's poem is that it's a ventriloquial collection (it was originally called He Do the Police in Different Voices) of fragments, allusions and quotations from centuries of literary history, it seems a bit academic to go on about just one of its sources. And frankly it would take nerves of steel to confront Mrs Eliot, a rich widow of formidable toughness at whose raised eyebrow strong men quake.
So I'll just pass on a story she told, the last time I saw her, about her late husband.
"Can you guess," she asked, "which was the fastest poem Tom ever wrote?"
No, we chorused, we couldn't.
"It was 'The Journey of the Magi'," she said triumphantly. "He came back from Mass, had a large gin and tonic and wrote the whole thing in eight minutes flat."
Now there's a literary scoop for you.
Nice to hear Melvyn Bragg back on ankle-biting form when greeting Peter York on Monday's Start the Week. He responded with crushing disdain to all York's amusing pronouncements about the importance of the Eighties, the changing Zeitgeist and all that palaver; and when the former style guru tried a last-minute recap of his arguments, he was greeted by an embarrassing silence, into which Bragg grated: "Well, if anyone can make anything out of all that, they're welcome to it." Oo-er, missus.
I wondered if York was keen to get his own back when launching the book- of-the-TV series at a champagne brekkie in the National Portrait Gallery on Tuesday morning. We didn't have to wait long.
"I was recently interviewed," said York, "by a very eminent writer who claimed to be in denial about the Eighties. And I looked at his hand-made shoes, his Savile Row shirt, his immaculate suit and his dinkily spotted red hankie, and thought, 'Well, you've done all right out of the Eighties, mate.' "
Mate? Blimey, guv'nor. Is this any way for the godfather of the Sloane Rangers to comport himself?
John Mortimer's court wig, Evelyn Waugh's ear trumpet, Beatrix Potter's calling card and Vita Sackville-West's gardening book (1951) are among a hundred quasi-literary items up for grabs at the Almedingen Auction on Monday, proceeds to the Royal Society of Literature. Among all the association copies, first editions, revised manuscripts (PD James's working notes for Original Sin look like an unusually avant-garde bit of concrete poetry) and mutually appreciative fan letters, there's an item of pure poison.
It's from Alfred Knopf, head of the top-ranking American publisher, to one of his authors, Louis Golding, and it is toe-curlingly direct: "Now that we are about to publish The Prince or Somebody, I think that in fairness to myself and you, I ought to tell you that I think it is a disgracefully bad book ... I want this opinion to be a matter of record before the book comes out, because, of course, the mere fact that I am ashamed of you for having written this book and offered it for publication does not necessarily mean that the public won't buy it ... We would not want, under any circumstances, to go on with you here or in London, for you have completely destroyed our belief in you ..."
Mr Golding's reply is not recorded. But anyone with an ounce of self- respect would surely have emigrated to the Sudan the next day.
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