There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Pact of the damned: The Devil's Own Work (Valancourt 20th Century Classics) by Alan Judd (first published 1991)



The Devil's Own Work (Valancourt 20th Century Classics) by Alan Judd (first published 1991).



Serious and popular 20th century authors living on the Mediterranean coast? E. Phillips Oppenheim, Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, Anthony Burgess, Gore Vidal. They all began with serious artistic intentions and were buried as millionaires. Is there a hint of brimstone and Satanic pacts? These are all favorite writers for me, and who could blame them if they signed in blood? Certainly it is a better fate than scribes today flogging their wares via Twitter and Facebook.

The Devil's Own Work (Valancourt 20th Century Classics) by Alan Judd (first published 1991) is about the torch-passing of such an ungodly and destructive pact between and old writer and an ambitious young writer. With this inheritance comes enormous sales, critical adulation, and decades of existential dread.

Judd's novel recalls the economy of Greene's late gem Dr. Fischer of Geneva.  

There is real aesthetic spareness here: a thousand page opus is reduced by mastery of abstraction to a tenth of that length. Careers and marriages begin, grow, are thwarted, and devolve. Or perhaps the word should be "degenerate."

There are delightful little supernatural grace notes: when the young author is thinking about writing, he and others in the room can hear nib scratching paper. Later, a typewriter tapping.  

In his afterword to the new edition Judd says he wrote The Devil's Own Work to rid himself of Ford Madox Ford's authorial voice after writing the great novelist's biography.

Strange the turns of artistic continuity and coincidence. And lucky the reader who reaps the recompense


Jay
2 October 2018




* * *



....that night I took the book for signing all appeared as usual. We talked over coffee and I gave him the book. He had met the friend it was for and so said he would add an inscription of his own.

I sat in the tubular-framed chair and Edward sat at his desk, his swivel chair turned side-on and his pen above the open book. He had paused while thinking what to say and my eye wandered round the white walls and the shelves of shiny books. I never could get used to the room being so antiseptic, so lacking in human warmth. I heard the scratching of pen on paper and looked back at Edward. His pen was motionless an inch or two above the open page yet the scratching continued. I looked around the room for some other source of noise but it was impossible to believe it was anything else. It had the rhythm of someone writing rapidly and regularly; I could tell long and short words and punctuation marks. The paper sounded coarse and the nib cruder than a modern one, like the sort you used to have to dip in the ink, or like a quill. The silence that always inhabited the room served to emphasize the thin, unremitting scratching.

Edward remained immobile, his pen still poised above his own open book. He held the page flat with his left hand and on his face was an expression of abstracted absorption. It made him look extraordinarily young, his cheeks smooth and boyish. It reminded me of Chantal when I had observed her playing the piano in her parents' flat. She was not an experienced pianist and she had not known she was being observed; her face had shown an intense listening vacancy, remote, unselfconscious, like Edward's now. When she saw me she was for a moment lost and confused, then irritated, finally briskly dismissive of her efforts.

"What's that noise?" I asked Edward.

He started as if someone had slapped his face and for a moment seemed not to know where the question had come from. "What noise?"

My impulse was to apologize but I felt suddenly guilty and I wanted to justify myself. "That scratching. I could hear someone writing and I thought it was you but you weren't moving."

He stared at me. "You heard it?"

"Yes. Pen on paper. I'm sure that's what it was."

"How long for?"

"The last minute or two. Since you've been thinking what to write."

"Can you hear it now?"

"No."

He looked down. "It only happens when I'm thinking." He quickly wrote an inscription in the book and handed it back.

"But what do you think it is?" I persisted.

He stared at me in a way that made me feel uneasy, as if he were someone assessing my future without any reference to myself. The blue of his eyes so enhanced their expressiveness that it took very little to make them intimidating.

"Have you eaten?" he asked.

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