I’d been thinking recently that, on that far-off day when I published something and became a revered – and still no doubt very reclusive – prose stylist, I should write a series in which I take pieces written by our most admired men/women of letters and edit them into bearable prose. You know, in a kind of bitterly satirical way.
Anyway, since our friend The Argumentative Old Git pointed me in the direction, I thought I’d take on a writer or two from this short series in The Guardian, in which writers (rather conveniently for my purposes) consider the notion of their own failure.
So, for your delectation, here’s Julian Barnes (the first few paragraphs, at least), in his version and mine. You can vote if you like. (Occasionally, you will notice, I just stick in nonsense as a stylistic placeholder. I’m not thinking of their ideas for them as well).
When I was growing up, failure presented itself as something clear and public: you failed an exam, you failed to clear the high-jump bar. And in the grown-up world, it was the same: marriages failed, your football team failed to gain promotion from what was then the Third Division (South). Later, I realised that failure could also be private and hidden: there was emotional, moral, sexual failure; the failure to understand another person, to make friends, to say what you meant. But even in these new areas, the binary system applied: win or lose, pass or fail. It took me a long time to understand the nuances of success and failure, to see how they are often intertwined, how success to one person is failure to another.
I was a tardy arrival in literary London – in my late 20s when I started freelancing, my early 30s when I got my first desk job. It was a largely male environment, and far more competitive than I had imagined from the outside. I looked around and fairly soon identified those I admired and those I didn’t. I needed both role models and failure models: one sort to imitate, another as warning. There were a fair number of failure models on view: the drunk, the incompetent, the placemen and the pompous. I was astonished to find that it was possible to spend your life surrounded by great literature and remain (or become) paralysed by snobbery. One senior literary gent took me to his club for lunch, and on the steps afterwards, apropos of nothing except a display of his own worldliness, explained that one should never “pursue an illicit liaison” within the space “from the Embankment to the Euston Road, and from the Gray’s Inn Road to Regent Street”. It was for such advice, I reflected, that young men take up book reviewing.
When I was growing up, failure was something clear and public: you failed an exam, you failed a blah-tum, you failed to clear the high-jump bar. The grown-up world turned out the same: you failed a blah, then your marriage failed, until failure became your blah-tee blah-tee dum.
Failure could as well be private and hidden: there was emotional failure, moral failure, sexual failure; there was the failure to make friends, the failure to understand others, the failure to say what you meant. But even then, the same binary system applied: win or lose, pass or fail; and it took me a long time to understand the nuances, to see how the two were often intertwined, how one person’s success could be another’s failure.
I was a tardy arrival in literary London: when I started freelancing, I was in my late 20s; my early 30s, when I got my first desk job. It was a largely male environment, far more competitive than I’d have imagined. Some people there I admired and some I didn’t. I needed both: the former to imitate, the latter to act as warning. And there were more than enough of those – drunks, placemen, incompetents; it astonished me you could spend your life surrounded by literature yet at the same time remain (or become) paralysed by snobbery. One senior literary gent who took me to his club for lunch explained on the steps afterwards, apropos of nothing except a display of his own worldliness, that “should one describe a parallelogram from Embankment to Euston Road, and from Gray’s Inn Road to Regent Street, within the bounds of that figure one should never pursue an illicit liaison”. It was for such advice that young men took up book reviewing.
I reserve the retrospective right to tinker compulsively with word order.