The other day I went to see Blithe Spirit, a play that has some claim to delivering the greatest ratio between the time spent on bringing a drama into existence and its subsequent run in the theatre. "I shall ever be grateful for the almost psychic gift that enabled me to write Blithe Spirit in five days", Noël Coward wrote. "It fell into my mind and on to the manuscript". Actually, both by Coward's account and that of Joyce Cary, who was with him at the time, it took six days – but he still can't be accused of dragging his feet. And, when he did finish it, it had fallen so neatly that no corrections were needed. Despite some misgivings about its frivolity on the subject of death, the play went on to run for nearly 2,000 performances. Presumably, playgoers liked its insouciance about bereavement – or the implicit assurance that there would be life after death, and that evening wear seemed to be the dress code on the astral plane.
The creative myth here is a familiar one – that of an unlaboured birth, with the speed of composition being read as indicative in some way of the integrity of the finished product. It struggles, naturally, with another received opinion about creativity which honours the process of revision and polishing. But rapidity of creation is far more appealing to us. It suggests somehow that work wasn't involved at all, but some more instinctive process. Coward says "it fell" – though since he dutifully sat down at the typewriter each day from eight until one and from two until seven it's clear that a fair amount of pushing took place as well. Part of Coward's desire, though, is to wipe the sweat and blood off the business – to suggest that he was more midwife than straining mother.
To my mind he didn't push quite hard enough. If, like its first audiences, you had to pick your way through bomb rubble to watch it, I imagine its frivolity might seem quite daring – the stiff upper lip curled into a mocking smile. But, 70 years on, it seems clear that Coward was beginning to flag by Thursday afternoon (he eventually finished it at 6.30 on Friday). The play doesn't end so much as fizzle out, with a lot of onstage pyrotechnics to conceal the fact. Another week, possibly even two, would have done it a world of good – or persuaded Coward to abandon it altogether, of course. Because one virtue of fast working is that writers don't have time to get sick of what they've written. That was certainly true for Georges Simenon – a writer whose rate of production made Coward look comparatively sluggardly. Simenon aimed to write a novel in just 11 days (not counting a bit of rudimentary revision and slimming down), saying that he wouldn't be able to stand the strain if it took him any longer. Curiously (or perhaps knowingly) he compared the stress of composition to the debilitating effects of Dr Jekyll's transformation into Mr Hyde – alluding to another famously rapid-fire creation.
Robert Louis Stevenson is said to have produced the first draft of this classic novel in just three days – occasionally taking time out to read what he'd done to his family and then dashing back to his study to write in a frenzy. This is another variation on the myth: the kernel for the story had come to Stevenson in a dream, so the speed of composition has a sense of scrabbling urgency about it, the need to fix the tale on paper before it evaporates entirely. The process of writing is a kind of violent purge of the imagination, involving lots of sweat and a kind of transported frenzy. In Simenon's case what was expelled was, to a degree, even treated as a kind of excrement. He didn't have his corrected manuscript retyped because, he said, he couldn't bear to look at it again, so instead the marked manuscript was photostatted and dispatched to the publishers that way. No real difference – in these three instances – as far as the speed of composition goes. But perhaps its telling that the work which has survived best (and will most likely survive into the future) is that where the author took longer on the rewrites than the write.
Uncharted territory for the literary traveller
Talking of authors' names, here's one that I doubt is talked of with familiarity in many households – that of Boleslaw Prus. Prus is the author of The Doll, "19th-century realism at its best" according to the poet Czeslaw Milosz, and one of the recent additions to New York Review Classics, a really interesting and eclectic list. One has to hope that the quality of the translation isn't represented by an early sentence in Stanislaw Baranczak's introduction, which tells us that the novel "had to weather a cold reception before it became what it is today, one of the few most loved and continually reread classics of Polish literature". That isn't the only aspect of the book that aroused mixed feelings when it came through the letterbox, though. Because while it is in theory admirable to make our reading less parochial, and to open up central Europe for the literary explorer, in practice the spirit sinks a little at the thought that the territory of one's ignorance has just been enlarged. On Monday, Boleslaw Prus's name meant absolutely nothing to me. It was, to borrow Donald Rumsfeld's phrase, an unknown unknown. Now it is a known unknown and can't be made unknowable again. And although unknown unknowns are undesirable and even hazardous in counter-intelligence, they're something of a comfort in intellectual life. If I'm realistic, I think it's unlikely that I'll ever get round to reading The Doll. But it'll take a while to shake the faint sense that I should.
A new chapter for Booker judges
I fulfilled the final duty of a Booker Judge this week, helping to plant 13 saplings at The Woodland Trust's Heartwood Forest near St Albans, to represent the 13 books on the longlist. In about 10 years time they'll form a small grove of hazels clustered around an oak marker post. I guess the planting of trees is partly intended as symbolic reparation for the acres of woodland consumed annually by the publishing business, and it turned out to be satisfying, fraught with ideas of futurity and the slow, steady creativity of nature. You do wonder, though, whether it will make sense in 10 years time as the connection between books and lumber steadily weakens. This year, for the first time, the Booker judges were issued with Kindles, to minimize the sorcerer's apprentice flood of proof copies that begin to come through the door round about now, a development that last year's judges regarded with some envy. I have a feeling that its effects won't only be to free up floor space, either, since all the titles that are read electronically will appear in an identical format. We didn't, of course, judge the books by their covers, but the feel and look of a novel, the quality of paper or the appeal of a particular typeface, can't help but impart a little spin to your first reaction. The Kindle provides a more level playing field. To really roll it flat all they need to do now is delete the author's name from the title page.