Gissing, Orwell, Kafka, Lawrence: What do these distinguished authors have in common? They all produced a lot of great work, certainly, but surely their most important unifying quality is that they were all younger than me when they died. I have now lived longer than a lot of people who achieved a lot more than I am ever going to achieve. Taking into consideration how much time I have already wasted and how much time realistically remains – and how much of that remaining time is likely to be wasted – then that situation is unlikely to change. Even if I devoted every available remaining hour in unswerving devotion to this unrequired and rewardless task, it would still be impossible to ease the margin of defeat and offset the overwhelming backlog of lost time. It is no longer possible to measure my own lack of progress by that of other authors who started ‘late’. I have now surpassed them all. When ‘they’ talk about an author’s career taking off, and their ‘finally’ producing the work for which they are rightly revered, the author is always at least ten years younger than I am at time of said ‘take-off’. There are others who seemed old when I was young, who started to produce work at a sensible age and have continued to produce it; they have been old for a long time, whereas I have been young for a long time, because I haven’t started yet. I have spent twenty-five years preparing to start. And it’s not as if I haven’t spent all this time struggling with literary endeavor; it’s just that I haven’t finished anything. Well, that’s something: a point from which to recede.
I seemed to have always been the same age.
Then I looked in the mirror and saw a tired
and devious old man gazing warily back at me.
An old man, alone in a room, masturbating over a memory,
fantasizing about women who have forgotten about me,
and brooding over deliberately missed opportunities.
A shadow of my former shadow
slowly becoming invisible, turning gray.
Unfortunately, nobody noticed
that I never went away.
I recognize the ideal,
of what I’m ideally working towards,
but I’m incapable of realizing it.
So why not satisfy myself
with what I imagine
I’m capable of doing
rather than actually doing it?
That seems like a reasonable solution.
But isn’t that what I’ve been doing all along:
basking instead of striving;
recognizing what I’m capable of
and settling for less?
Which is actually a long process
of resigning oneself to failure:
basking in the glory of potential
and potential glory,
until potential is dead.
If the amount of time I ‘put in’ were commensurate with actual finished product, I would have amassed a substantial body of work by now, several groaning shelves worth, if not of a Jamesian or Dostoevskian amplitude, then at least in the Flaubertian range. Although, admittedly, most of the time that was supposed to be spent immersed in disciplined endeavor has been lost in a haze of abstraction. All these thoughts and memories – all these notes – will perish with me, and maybe that’s for the best. Why save them from inevitable oblivion? If only to bespeak the gulf between what one imagines one is capable of and what one actually is capable of, and the folly of continuing to work on something when one knows in advance that it is a failure. Who am I kidding? The only person I’m kidding is myself. Nobody else is invested enough to be in on the joke.
Instead of doing my own work,
I took a long hard look
at somebody else’s work,
in the hope of being pleasantly relieved
by how bad it was.
But, much as I tried to deny it,
it was undeniably good.
And it pours out of him
like a gusher from a golden fountain
that never stops flowing.
Compared to this strained trickle
from a blocked and rusty faucet.
I take consolation
in how much it has cost me,
as if that might somehow redeem it.
Which, of course, it doesn’t.
But I don’t have much else
to take consolation in.
I can feel time passing me by,
speeding up as I slow down,
creating the kind of deceptive, reflexive glory
that happens when the speed of the past
overtakes the slowed down present.
I was riding into the promise
of a life without limits,
infinitely rich with possibilities,
when the future suddenly turned into the past.
And looking back upon it,
it wasn’t hugely satisfying.
Shakespeare, Proust, Kafka, Camus, Orwell, Gissing: What do each of these distinguished authors have in common? They all produced a lot of great work, but surely their most important unifying quality is that they were all younger than me when they died. I have outlived Keats by a quarter of a century: that’s a morbidly sobering thought. But let’s leave poets out of this. In the time it took Balzac to write 91 novels, covering every aspect of the human condition in its myriad complexity, I have produced two very slender volumes of poetry, addressing a rather more limited sphere of activity… or rather inactivity.