It’s 1991 and the recession is beginning to bite. Publishers’ accountants are staring at unearned balances, and reputations – for being artistic, for having introduced a ‘new voice’ or style – are about to be shown up for what they are: froth on the daydream, in the unforgettable (and pretentious) words of the French surrealist writer Boris Vian. Everywhere, writers are talking of TV opportunities – or even, as rumour has it that Paramount are about to open a London office, the true daydream, that of the Hollywood blockbuster.
Is the novel dead? Certainly, it appears to have run out of gas; and apart from Martin and Salman and Bookeritis on the part of editors increasingly glued into conglomerates, there’s a flat, weird feeling as culture dies and money, grim reaper of the literati, stands in the corner of every room, scythe swinging at the ‘lady novelist’, the hyper-sensitive or those, in publisher-speak, who were ‘badly agented’ last time round – in other words paid an advance that their rapidly remaindered book failed to earn back.
What to do? As a fellow-writer in the same predicament puts it, each time you pay a bill it’s like breaking off a piece of the fireplace – or cornice – or bedroom door: the house, mortgaged to the hilt and beyond, is consuming itself in order to keep us all alive. Soon, to pay off the debt, the estate agents will have to be called in – and when the debt is paid off, there won’t be much more left than the pile of ashes in the hearth.
The phone rings as I’m coming down the stairs of the narrow – but thankfully appreciating in value – little house in Notting Hill. It’s a grim day in February, the worst season for showing prospective buyers the property: even if I force the reluctant out into the communal gardens and point at the snowdrops prettily blooming in a Valentine shape on the slight mound I sometimes imagine is the grave of a previous unsuccessful author, there are more c
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It’s 1991 and the recession is beginning to bite. Publishers’ accountants are staring at unearned balances, and reputations – for being artistic, for having introduced a ‘new voice’ or style – are about to be shown up for what they are: froth on the daydream, in the unforgettable (and pretentious) words of the French surrealist writer Boris Vian. Everywhere, writers are talking of TV opportunities – or even, as rumour has it that Paramount are about to open a London office, the true daydream, that of the Hollywood blockbuster.Is the novel dead? Certainly, it appears to have run out of gas; and apart from Martin and Salman and Bookeritis on the part of editors increasingly glued into conglomerates, there’s a flat, weird feeling as culture dies and money, grim reaper of the literati, stands in the corner of every room, scythe swinging at the ‘lady novelist’, the hyper-sensitive or those, in publisher-speak, who were ‘badly agented’ last time round – in other words paid an advance that their rapidly remaindered book failed to earn back. What to do? As a fellow-writer in the same predicament puts it, each time you pay a bill it’s like breaking off a piece of the fireplace – or cornice – or bedroom door: the house, mortgaged to the hilt and beyond, is consuming itself in order to keep us all alive. Soon, to pay off the debt, the estate agents will have to be called in – and when the debt is paid off, there won’t be much more left than the pile of ashes in the hearth. The phone rings as I’m coming down the stairs of the narrow – but thankfully appreciating in value – little house in Notting Hill. It’s a grim day in February, the worst season for showing prospective buyers the property: even if I force the reluctant out into the communal gardens and point at the snowdrops prettily blooming in a Valentine shape on the slight mound I sometimes imagine is the grave of a previous unsuccessful author, there are more complaints than expressions of admiration. ‘What is this?’ demands a rich Brazilian, pointing at the strange square hole I too have only noticed for the first time, up on the wall next to the French window. The grille, fluttering with cobwebs that Mrs Drake’s long feather duster has clearly never reached, looks like something out of a Colditz documentary; and as it’s cold today it is also painfully evident that air is entering the sitting-room at liberty. ‘What indeed?’ I say – but the millionaire has already gone. I pick up the phone. ‘Is this Emma?’ The voice is American, low and, if not exactly husky, somehow familiar in its ‘I’m speaking very softly because I’m incognito’ timbre. Can it be Lauren Bacall? But I don’t know Lauren Bacall; and even though I have a script for a vampire film under consideration at the BBC, I somehow doubt that Betty Bacall would be cold-calling me for a part in it. But where on earth have I heard this voice? ‘This is Jacqueline Onassis,’ the voice says. ‘Oh HELLO!’ I hear myself replying with a sort of desperate heartiness. The saying that if you throw enough mud at the wall some of it is bound to stick, comes back to me as I struggle for composure in the face of this unlikely communication from the far side of the Atlantic. As I try to remember which synopsis I sent in that direction, a whole host of embarrassments present themselves. Was my casually aimed mud pie a nerve-tinglingly erotic follow-up to Jane Austen’s Persuasion? Or was it Memoirs of a Corgi, a brisk satire on Court life and the Royal Marriage? No, that would surely not be sufficiently American for the firm of Doubleday, whence my caller is speaking so compellingly. Well then, could it be . . . ? ‘You mention HUGH.’ The voice is low and penetrating. ‘You knew him? You knew Hugh?’ Of course. I feel relief, accompanied by a sick dread that I may actually have to write the book I outlined. Its subject was my own family, its title too shaming even to begin to recall. I’d written a portion of it – or had I? Visions of the green and purple hills of my childhood home in the Scottish Borders, rendered in prose similar in hue, rise in front of me and then thankfully fade away. Surely, the limp and boring offering that was my ‘book about my family’ couldn’t possibly interest anyone in the vibrant, modern US of A? And surely not, of all people, the ‘editor’ who now hangs on the line, breathy and expectant. ‘Yes, I knew Hugh,’ I say, like an automaton. And, upping the stakes despite myself, add ‘He was a cousin. Hugh was the son of Laura, a daughter of . . .’ My voice tails away, as the circumstances of this painful submission return with full force. A table at a restaurant in Fulham Road swims into view . . . a man with a cheerful, impish expression, tucking into haddock fishcakes . . . and Decca – Jessica Mitford – lighting up her fiftieth menthol cigarette and warming to her theme. ‘SUCH a good idea,’ Decca cries, and her husband, the fishcake eater Bob Treuhaft, nods enthusiastically. ‘We’ll ask Renée Golden – she’s the agent, well she’s an attorney but I keep forgetting and calling her an agent, to sell it for you. You’ll be HUGELY rich in no time at all.’ ‘Renée will sell it – make no mistake about that,’ Bob agrees. ‘Don’t leave out the Princess Margaret bits,’ Decca puts in, brisk and businesslike as usual. ‘Yanks love Royalty. Make her a secret spy or something.’ ‘I was going to write about the Industrial Revolution,’ I say lamely. ‘My great-grandfather more or less invented chlorine, you see.’ ‘The Americans will never have heard of your family,’ says Bob as a plate of summer pudding is dumped in front of him. ‘Yes, Renée will MAKE people excited,’ Decca agrees. ‘Even if they’ve never heard of one, they do love Hitler and the Queen and all that sort of thing.’ Now, at any rate, someone has heard of Hugh, I reflect, as the scarlet of my first reaction to the telephone call drains from my face, to be replaced by a ghastly pallor I can see in the mirror over the table where I stand, attached by the phone cord to the most famous woman in the world. ‘I LOVED Hugh!’ sighs the voice, which seems now to have become no more than a wisp of vapour rising from the underworld. ‘And he’s your cousin. This is going to be such a wonderful, wonderful book.’ ‘Oh, so you . . . ’ I stutter into the black bakelite receiver, its surface now greasy with anxiety and sweat. ‘You’ve read . . .’ ‘I think your grandmother was a fascinating and beautiful woman,’ Jackie – am I really to call her that? – says, and, vain as are most writers, I feel a surge of love for the woman I now see to be the most discerning – and sadly underrated – editor in the business. ‘If,’ I say humbly, my vision of the subtle and profound work on which I am to embark now releasing a cloud of reckless happiness, ‘if I could possibly make the book a little bit personal? I mean, rather than just a history of . . . of the Industrial Revolution . . .’ ‘YES, YES.’ The respiratory sounds accompanying my new employer’s enthusiasm lead me to wonder whether a recent photograph of Hugh, seen exiting from the Ritz Hotel at 4 a.m. on the occasion of Mrs Onassis’s visit to London, had really signified what Hugh himself had announced widely – a night of passion and delight – or had in fact been an evening discussing old times, when Jack had been alive, as the newspapers rather primly reported. ‘You should be personal,’ the voice says – and, like an auditory equivalent of the Cheshire Cat’s grin, it lingers after an unmistakable click. Jackie has rung off. She wants my book to be as ‘personal’ as I desire. I’m Marcel Proust – or the author I much admire, depicter of family scenes both invented and true, Sybille Bedford. Decca – and through her the mysterious Renée Golden – have brought me fame and fortune. I am made. Renée Golden rings that evening to announce she is arriving shortly in London from LA and would like me to put her up (my aunt obliges in the end). ‘I’ve had a good conversation with Jackie . . .’ she begins, and goes on to assure me that my holiday problems are now at an end. ‘You’ll summer at Hyannisport no doubt.’ And, wistfully, ‘Right up to Labor Day.’
*I’ve been writing my family book for some time now, and sending wodges of it to Jackie. Although I’m grateful to her in the extreme for saying I can make the book as ‘personal’ as I like – and thus consider her almost the perfect recipient of the reminiscences-cum-family history now taking shape on the page – I’ve noticed I tend to keep quiet when people ask me who I’m actually writing this for. ‘Jacqueline Onassis, as it happens’ can bring sniggers, even contemptuous comments; in the case of Mr McLaren, the Bank Manager, the hearty tone of his early morning call is tinged with disbelief, of an ‘If you’re writing a book for Jackie Onassis I’m signed up by the Queen of the Fairies’ variety. More worryingly, there has been a long period of silence from the offices of Doubleday – or from the yacht hung with Renoirs and Toulouse-Lautrecs where I read of Jackie on occasion, late summer sun combated by the blackest of dark glasses – or indeed Hyannisport, where Renée Golden, deep in her own imagining, has placed Jackie and myself in eternity. I am writing to my own satisfaction: my grandmother, a ‘famous beauty’, was not unlike the fascinating widow of the late President, I conclude: like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, she loved to encourage the adoration of the world while insisting on seclusion and total privacy. I’m pondering on history’s cruellest trick, its inability to give an idea of how people spoke – was my grandmother’s voice quiet, almost ghostly but with a troublingly sexual undertow, like Jackie’s? – when the phone rings. I lift the receiver unthinkingly. And I hear those cadences, as unmistakeable as Mr McLaren’s. (It’s evening, explaining my rash approach to the telephone: I know to the minute when the Bank Manager goes home, to oversee, as he sometimes laughingly informs me, the maths homework of his daughter.) ‘Is this Emma?’ comes the voice that pauses and swoops like a swallow, waits for its moment of revelation and then falls into a swoon of non-saying, of a listening silence that encourages the maddest of confidences. ‘I just want to say what a wonderful description of landscape you have written – around your home in . . . in . . .’ ‘Scotland,’ I answer, the crimson unrolling like a strip of ceremonial carpet from my neck to my cheeks. How clever, how discerning, of this woman – who, for all her sophistication and world travel, is after all not English, let alone Scottish – to appreciate my descriptive powers. ‘I’m glad you like it,’ I say modestly. It takes me at least three or four minutes to understand that Jackie is trying to tell me something else altogether. The long and short of it is that she – or maybe someone else high up at the publisher’s office – doesn’t like my efforts so far at all. The book is meant to be a history of my family . . . the famous voice goes down a few more octaves and then does its disappearing-under-the bedclothes act. I can hear only faint sighs and moans in the ensuing silence. I clear my throat, as if this brisk sound can somehow rise to hit the satellite and clear up both Jackie’s larynx and the misunderstanding, as I see it must be, over the nature of my book. ‘And when you write of your grandmother Pamela’ – the manatee’s subaqueous whisper recommences as I stand in my first-floor kitchen looking out on an autumnal evening, leaves on the chestnut trees dying along with my hopes for a sum that will satisfy Mr McLaren – ‘when you write of her casket . . . Casket means coffin to me.’ Jackie’s voice soughs in the branches of the trees. A new silence ensues; there is a murmur to say goodbye – or was that the equinoctial gale outside building up with the aim of removing the tiles from the roof just a few feet above my bed at the top of the house? Whatever the case, I spend the evening in a silence almost equal to Jackie’s. How could she not like the opening of my family book with its sharp, sardonic portrait of a dinner in 1911? Easily, the voice of truth answers from inside me. It’s deadly boring, that’s why. It takes me some hours and conversations with friends to come to terms with the fact that (a) the first chapters will have to be rewritten; and (b) there is at the top of the contract (I hadn’t bothered to read it) a small paragraph spelling out the expected content. There is nothing personal mentioned therein. ‘So you don’t have a leg to stand on,’ one of my more down-to-earth friends remarks. The night which follows this debacle is on a par with the storm that rages outside. The tiles and slates tumble merrily from the roof just above my head as the visions return: the casket; Jackie; old film footage of the assassination of JFK. The shame and horror – how could I have used the word ‘casket’: surely I knew it would awaken terrible memories for my poor editor – are intercut with my own insignificant but real horrors of the coming day. How can I write the very book I’d said I didn’t want to write – namely a history, without feeling or personal reminiscence of my own family? How could I not have understood what they really wanted? Do they even know themselves? I lie awake until the great winds subside, and under my stripped roof I wake again immediately to await McLaren’s morning call.
*A year has passed. The struggle to satisfy Jackie is on a par with the bright, frightening images on TV of conflict and its ambiguous results. Am I writing the kind of thing she will like, once the personal has been taken out? Does the fact that my great-grandfather put up the tallest chimney in the world, higher than the Pyramids even, seem likely to turn her on? I falter, run out of ammunition; finally, after four months, I give up in despair and fax her with the news that I can’t see myself going on with the book. The Glasgow chimney subsides; the ghost of my grandmother, waiting in the wings to be reintroduced to the story, fades in the morning light. I know now: I wasn’t meant to write about my family this way. ‘Unless’, a voice murmurs from the pile of bank correspondence on my worktable, ‘you pull yourself together and find a new, cleaner and clearer way. After all, it’s an interesting story.’ ‘Or is it?’ the other voice says. Then comes another ghostly voice, that of Jackie herself: ‘It’s going to be a wonderful, wonderful book . . .’ That was about all that came of my family book – except for a friendly call from Jackie once I had resigned from the job. ‘We’ll start our courtly dance,’ came the breathy tones. And, as Renée Golden reported the next day, ‘She said you were wonderful.’ So, apart from knowing how wonderful my book might have been, and how wonderful I am after having failed to deliver, exactly where do I stand? What is the courtly dance and how does it end? ‘With you flat on your back,’ the inevitable friend remarks. By March some of my ‘gumption’ – a word I shall learn to dread later when attempting, equally foolishly, to satisfy an American publisher with a replay of Gone with the Wind – returns to me and I decide to try with the family book again. ‘Just write it,’ other bored and exhausted authors snap at me: sympathy for my predicament is rapidly running out. ‘For God’s sake, start at the beginning and go on until the end. And do a new outline. That’ll pacify them.’ And so it did – though the courtly dance turned out to be more a game of musical chairs than a quadrille in the end. My new outline was as clean and clear as anyone could have hoped for, and Jackie accepted it. But – and there seemed to be steps involved in this dance which I simply hadn’t learned – the book was cancelled anyway. The new delivery date was declared unacceptable. So that was that. I cannot say whether I believe a good and interesting book would have resulted from my new outline. Perhaps, as Renée, now bravely relinquishing the Hyannisport dream for ever, suggested in a note shortly after, they simply decided they didn’t want the book any more. Perhaps Jackie sensed my difficulty in writing about my family without including myself in the narrative and believed that the new outline she had accepted wouldn’t really work. It was impossible to come to any firm conclusion. ‘I’m con-cerr-ned for ye,’ Mr McLaren says with a touch of warmth in his voice, as the raw spring of 1993 sets in. ‘It’s the interest rates, ye ken.’ ‘Offer them something else,’ says my friend. ‘You could do a biography of Princess Margaret. You could even do the Queen Mother at a pinch.’ ‘I’ll think of something,’ I say.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 4 © Emma Tennant 2004
About the contributor
Emma Tennant has written novels, memoirs and books for children, also a screenplay Frankenstein’s Baby, about a man who falls pregnant. Her most recent novel is Felony, an investigation of the crimes and misdemeanours behind the writing of The Aspern Papers. She is currently at work on a screenplay about the American invasion of Britain.