There's no hiding from fame

For some, celebrity is their reason for living. But not for the refuseniks. By Peter Popham
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Samuel Beckett was staying with his wife Suzanne at a hotel south of Tunis in October 1969 when the disaster struck. A telegram arrived from his French publisher, Jerome Lindon. "Dear Sam and Suzanne," it went, "In spite of everything they have given you the Nobel Prize - I advise you to go into hiding..."

Deeply distressed, Beckett responded by confining himself to his hotel room. "But with dozens of journalists milling around," writes James Knowlson in the new biography, Damned to Fame, "... it soon became obvious that something had to be done." Jerome Lindon flew out and "negotiated a gentlemen's agreement with the press that they should be allowed a few minutes to take photographs, provided that the publicity-shy author was allowed to remain totally silent. Three days after the award, then, Beckett made an appearance ... smoking a cigar, with his hair cut very short ... he sat down, looking ill at ease, said nothing, and puffed away at his cigar. The cameras whirred, and, before the cigar even had time to burn down a single centimetre, he was whisked away and back to his room."

Samuel Beckett is the presiding deity in the pantheon of anti-fame: the swelling ranks of writers and other creative types who are celebrated for their works but almost equally celebrated for rejecting celebrity: slamming the door in the face of fame, spurning interview requests, sedulously resisting all attempts to inveigle them into explaining themselves.

Beckett is the archetype of all such refuseniks, not only because he was a towering genius but because he was also stunningly photogenic: huge, piercing pale blue eyes, a tomahawk of a nose, a sensual, secretive mouth; and the etching of the years only made him craggier, more noble-looking. That face combined with his stubborn silence created more of a Beckett mystique than any number of spell-binding public appearances could have achieved.

But Beckett's attitude to his fame, as the relative abundance of photographs of him make clear, was positively rapturous compared to that of other modern writers. The only available photograph of the American novelist Thomas Pynchon dates from a school yearbook of 1953: a buck-toothed teenager wearing a scowl and a crew-cut peers into the camera. Ten years later, when Time decided to run a piece on this rising literary star, a photographer for the magazine visited the address in Mexico City he had been given. A tall man answered the door and told him that Pynchon would be back around 5pm. Returning at that time, the photographer discovered that the room had been emptied of possessions. He realised that the person who had spoken to him must have been Pynchon. That supposed sighting, 33 years ago, was the last to date.

J D Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye, who gave his last interview in 1980, has been almost equally elusive. In Salinger's case there is a self-destructive element to his urge to disappear. His works were getting shorter and shorter even before he went to ground, but he seems to have stopped writing altogether many years ago. Instead he now visits public libraries, where he digs up whatever he can find on JD Salinger and destroys it. It would be interesting to know what he intends by this, but he is unlikely to furnish an explanation.

Neurosis on this scale, however, is exceptional. Pynchon continues to write and publish, albeit at heroically long intervals. Cormac McCarthy, the best-selling author of All the Pretty Horses, shuns publicity of every sort, and when elected to the Writer's Hall of Fame in El Paso, Texas, the town where he lives, he followed Beckett's example and sent a representative to collect the honour. But in other respects McCarthy appears to live a full and normal life.

The same applies to Patrick Susskind, the Bavarian author of the chilling best seller, Perfume, who lives quietly in Munich, speaks excellent English and has a group of fiercely protective friends, and never, never talks to journalists.

Submission to the demands of celebrity is a form of surrender, and the only way to ensure that nothing of importance is yielded up is to yield nothing. In The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, Evelyn Waugh delineates the nightmare that all shy writers must fear. Written at a time when BBC Radio profiles of cultural personalities were still a novelty, it opens with the arrival of a journalist called Angel to interview Pinfold, a novelist. During the meeting, Pinfold is overwhelmed by the impression that Angel is an enemy who wants to take something away from him; afterwards, he enters a state of lethargy and paranoia that nothing can shake. Cormac McCarthy's shyness towards the media, according to his brother Dennis, is "almost like a superstition. He's afraid he'll ruin whatever he's doing." No writer can avoid going through a medium to reach his public, but for Beckett and the rest, whose point in common is the intense seriousness with which they regard their work, the medium needs to be as pure and transparent as possible, so that the words as written can prevail. Because after all it is not fame as such that they fear to be damned to - otherwise they could simply destroy their work after writing it - but fame for the wrong reasons, for the trivial incidentals of biography.

Van Morrison, perhaps the only rock star who shares this morbid fear of celebrity, is notorious for the tongue-lashings he gives to the rare journalists permitted to attempt to interview him; and when an unauthorised biography of him appeared this year, he contemplated buying up the entire print run.

But what Morrison craves is not obscurity, but unmediated contact with his audience. In 1983, a teacher in Somerset called Andy Lock wrote to Jim'll Fix It asking Morrison to play at his wedding. There was no response, but then late on the afternoon of the wedding day, out of the blue, the Man showed. "He stayed about an hour, very nervous," Lock recalled. "We talked to him for about 40 minutes about anything, all sorts... Quite difficult - how do you talk to somebody like that, when you've been listening to their music for years?"

Additional research by Tommaso Nelli.

Tomorrow: inside PR's black hole.