Peter Popham: The week I discovered how the other half lives

Acquaintances greet news of your success with studied indifference, or slightly mechanical satisfaction

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The Independent Online

Everyone has been talking about celebrity since the Leveson Inquiry opened, about the stresses and strains of fame, so here is what it is like to be on the first rung. I recently published a book. By a happy fluke the timing turned out to be good. The publisher's publicity team knew what they were doing. And for a journalist like me, there was a strange, looking-glass moment when I found myself switching from being the asker to the asked, from the interested to the interesting.

In a short time your diary fills up with readings, interviews, book signings: not many, not starry or splashy, but enough to keep you interested, gratified and essentially glued to the spot. You develop new pastimes: keeping your website freshly fuelled, keeping tabs on the book's subject so you can add new lines to your talks – and compulsively checking your Amazon page to see how you are doing in the rankings, and how your friends and enemies are doing. The dire Gore Vidal dictum keeps returning to mind: "It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail." My book may only have inched up to number 2,451 in Amazon's hit parade – but poor old X has plummeted into the twelve thousands!

You didn't write the book out of vanity, but its warm reception is hugely enjoyable, like Christmas arriving out of season. But, simultaneously, you learn about the chilly underside of that cosy glow. At the book's launch my son gave me a card which read "Congratulations" then, in small letters underneath, "Now I feel even more of a failure. Thanks a lot". It was a joke but the nerve it touched was real. Acquaintances greet news of your success with studied indifference, or slightly mechanical satisfaction, or signs of incipient panic; your pleasure unlocks closets full of other people's frustration. Useless to point out that the achievement has been a hell of a long time coming, or that it's not making you rich, or that the acclaim means next to nothing to you. You will not be believed.

Perhaps it was partly for reasons such as these that Samuel Beckett, despite waiting decades for the Godot of literary success to turn up, was so firm in his refusal to perform the normal authorial undertakings when it finally did. In a newly published volume of his letters, his partner Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil wrote to Editions de Minuit, publishers of his novel Molloy, in 1951 to explain why the book is not to be entered for a prize. "What he dreads above all," she wrote, "is the publicity which would then be directed ... at the man himself... It is impossible for the prize-winner ... to refuse to go in for the posturing required by these occasions."

This was not mere shyness, or mulishness, or misanthropy, let alone false modesty. Beckett regarded his compulsion to create as a sort of illness – he compared the process of writing to vomiting or excreting – and of the cordial gratifications of fame he wanted no part. The old eagle knew a thing or two.


After all these years, an email from Aung San Suu Kyi


The best thing that happened to me all week was getting an e-mail from Aung San Suu Kyi, the subject of my book.

Biographies of living people come in various kinds: the hagiography, the carefully detached but nonetheless officially-sanctioned biography, like that of Steve Jobs, the muckraking hatchet job as patented by Kitty Kelley. My book on Suu Kyi was different from all these in that for the entire period of research she was incommunicado, under house arrest. I had interviewed her years before for this newspaper, but now I had no way of letting her know what I was up to, let alone interviewing her again.

When she was finally released one year ago I went back to Burma intending to tell her about the project but was expelled before I could do so. When I at last managed to pay her a visit in March she was friendly but made clear that she preferred to stay aloof from the book.

In her message to me this week she wrote "It is difficult to read, let alone assess, a book about myself", and I entirely see what she means. However, she concluded with the words "perhaps we shall meet again in the near future?" I hope we shall. We have things to talk about.


Peter Popham is the author of 'The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi'