Thomas Barnard, writer


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The Autograph

     I was twenty-six at the time and thought I was a writer, anyway I was all the time writing on something or other, though I hadn't quit my job or done anything lunatic like that.  I thought it was enough that I had joined The Order of the Frustrated Artist without joining the Order of the Starving Artist as well.  But you can't do these things by halves, and maybe that's what stands between me and my heroes.  I was still young enough (and maybe you never get old enough) to be filled with awe for my literary heroes - Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, and also "X."

     "X" was living on the Côte d'Azur, as many writers do when they can afford to, usually later in life.  Somerset Maugham lived there for a good many years, as did Graham Greene and H. G. Wells; Yeats died there in 1939.  And in 1976 I went to Ville­franche where "X" was living, in hopes that I might get a glimpse of my minor god.  Writers I saw as minor gods, something more than tree gods or river gods, mind you, but a lower order of god, neglected, like a middle child.  Still the progeny of Zeus, of course, who in modern times took the form of a spray of boiling deep fat when he mated with the voluptuous waitress. 

     Anyway, when you're still young and naive, you think, my heavens, how creative these writers are!  All these stories coming ex nihilo like Athena from the head of Zeus.  But this thinking doesn't last forever, and later you come to realize this is a lot of rubbish; that stories were hash and rehash.  Rehash and more rehash.  Consider: even Shakespeare was forever buffing up some old twice-told, threadbare tale.                          

     So writers weren't so much gods as scriveners, record keepers, embellishers, who noted down the antics of the greater gods, the men of action.  But in 1976, at twenty-six, I was filled more with admiration than thought, and was more action than reflection.  I thought I might catch a glimpse of the great "X" as Faulkner had glimpsed Joyce at a café near the Place de l'Odéon.  Or make a fool of myself and get drunk like Scott Fitzgerald, who paraded around Doubleday's mansion on Long Island when Joseph Conrad made his trip to America.

     "X" was seventy-six, having been born with the century, and alone, never having married.  Recent interviews with him indicated a relatively healthy man coming to terms with death, which was never very far off in his writings.  I mused about that.  None of us really knew death, though we all wrote about it.  We saw death, even caused it.  Who of us hasn't stepped on ants?  Or taken a paper towel and crushed a wasp when it was sitting on a windowsill in all its complacent glory, or killed a sparrow with a BB gun?  Almost all of us have witnessed death on television - Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, for example.

     So, we have seen it; we have caused it.  But I am suspect of those who say they have died on the operating table and come back to tell about it.  That's not death.  Kubler-Ross is a wacko.  Death is death.  The end.  Fini.  Kaput.  I submit one can't know death; it's impossible.  But one can see it; one can see its approach.  That's about all we can know.

     "X" saw it coming, and like I say, seemed pretty well adjusted about his approaching demise, saying death was easy, the hard part is the ego having to give up its own special identity and become part of the background again.  Just as animals urinate to mark out their territory, as homeowners argue over whose side of the lot line the fence was built on, as nations cling to their borders, we all cherish that which thrives inside our boundary, our cover of epidermis.  Even in death we try to keep it separate with a coffin, which was why "X" was going to have his ashes spread over the harbor of Villefranche.  He said that sometimes it seemed silly enough to fight for the integrity of a body during its life, but he certainly was not going to fight for it after his death.  What utter nonsense.  He planned to rejoin the big scheme without delay.

     Although many writers go mystical in old age, "X" didn't, but he did write about the need for love.  Actually, what he wrote about was the failure to find love to fill the awful need for companionship against the coming blackout.  Sometimes the failure seemed to lie with the individuals he wrote about; sometimes it seemed to lay outside the individual, with the stars, the whole nature of the universe, as in his story, "An Infinitesimal Event." 

    His novel No Meeting of the Minds was my favorite.  A story of the passion of two attorneys who worked for the same law firm.  The bodies met often in deliciously described passages of salacious delight.  In fact, at age thirteen No Meeting of the Minds was one of my favorite books for which I read only the "good" parts.  So naturally, later, I avoided his books, thinking 'X' to be merely a pulp writer.  But later still, on a friend's recommendation, I went back and read the whole thing, even between the "good" parts, which by this time looked pretty tame.  It seemed strange that the preferred smut entertainment of puberty had turned out to be the favorite story of adulthood.  Somehow, it seemed to me a reinforcement of the greatness of his writing.  Projecting into the future, I figured this novel would turn out to be the main spiritual enrichment of my old age.

     Anyway, with my pal Ben I traveled to the south of France.  We went to Villefranche where "X" lived, and there, in my high school French, queried, "Où habite l'écrivain célèbre, 'X'?"  And we were told.  My pal Ben wouldn't go along to look at my writer-god.  He thought I was ridiculous, puerile.  That was kid stuff - going to see heroes, going to the street to watch the President go by.  Kids did that - they went to see Bozo the Clown and Ronald McDonald.

     Nevertheless I went.  And as I climbed up the street leading to his house I came up behind a hunched-over old man.  I hurried past him, but out of my peripheral vision I thought I glimpsed something familiar.  I stopped at the end of the block, pulse rate up, blood testing my vascular tolerances, and looked back.  The jacket photo had been the same for the last fifteen years - an ageless sage, the philosopher-soldier, like "The Man With The Golden Helmet." 

     Now he looked vastly older.  Fragile, caved-in; you could see the lost mobility.  A tattered coat upon a stick was the way Yeats described it.  He carried a newspaper.

     I opened with: "Hello, are you 'X'?"


     "I'm an admirer of your work."

     "Oh, thank you."

     "In fact I was rather hoping to see you."

     "What?  Before I died?"  Somehow, I didn't expect this.  It was more than I could hoped for in my wildest dreams.  You could see me say to my friends, "I saw 'X' on the street in Villefranche.  I said I was hoping to see him, and he said, 'Before I died?'"  Death was always just around the corner in his books, his main theme.  Everyone would get a kick out of that.

     I didn't know what to say.  I suppose I must have assumed some stupid expression because he said, "Don't worry, it won't happen right now.  Help an old man up this curb, would you?"

     The stairs were steep as were the hills around the Mediterranean.  I don't know if he really needed my arm but I gave it to him anyway.  I walked up the street with him, and he didn't make any signal for me to get lost.  I secretly hoped something else might come of the conversation.  Something I could use later on, me a kind of vampire of experience, like all writers.

     A bicycler passed us, and "X" said, "There are a lot of cyclists around here.  In America, I guess you have runners."

     "Yes.  We have a lot of joggers."

     "That's it, joggers.  Right.  We have them, too."

     I was disappointed; we had gone all the way from the summit of death to the valley of the mundane.  At least I'd been able to correct him about the word "joggers."  Maybe the word would turn up in a story and I could tell some future lover about it, just after the storm of lust had passed over us, and we were in our ease.

     As if to prove him out, a man in jogging togs turned the corner in front of us, ran towards us, and passed us by.  Maybe this was a coincidence, but I saw it as power; this was a man who could make coincidences.  And I thought about this.  Of course, if a writer had any power, it would be the power of coincidence.  It was rife in Dickens.  Necessary to speed story-telling. 

     "See, I told you we had them, too."

     "Right you are."    

     We talked about the town, the climate (the principal reason he had settled here after living all over the world), and the view from his apartment.  Would I get to see this view?  That is what I wondered.

     When we got to his apartment building he asked if I would like to come up for tea.

     Would I?

     We walked upstairs two flights.  He went so slowly I wanted to carry him up so I could see his apartment without delay.  We went past a room with bookshelves and a table, which I gathered was his writing room.  No rug on the floor.  Barren.  Bookshelves everywhere.  When he died there would be a field day here for the Ph.D.'s.  They would catalogue the whole thing, and send the manuscripts off to some library like the Beinecke at Yale.  There was a gold mine here, I could see that.

     The livingroom was brightly decorated; a woman's hand had been at work here.  He took me over to the windows overlooking the Mediterranean and I could see the harbor, and the yachts, and the white villas with the red tile roofs.  I envied him his apartment.

     I looked away from the Mediterranean scene and scanned the bookshelves.  I saw my favorite, No Meeting of the Minds and eager to pay a compliment, I said, "I like this one a lot.  Surely one of the masterpieces of twentieth century literature."  I could have said it was my favorite, that I'd read it eleven times, that I thought it the masterpiece of twentieth century literature.  But we always hold back a little something to protect ourselves from possible ridicule.  If I had said it the masterpiece of twentieth century, he might disagree, favoring one of his others, or knowing him, somebody else's.  And no one wants to contradicted when they lay on that kind of praise, so we qualify our remarks, add ice and soda water.

     He looked at me with a grimace-smile and said, "Yes, I worked hard on that one."

     "I was surprised by the American setting."

     "I spent some time in Hollywood writing a script of one of my novels, and well, you pick up things.  I visited a niece of mine in Sausalito, and local color never hurts."

     "Well, your effort paid off," I said, trying to butter him up some more.

     "Did it?" he said, and then looked down, and frowned, and then looked out the window.

     Perhaps because I was a stranger, perhaps because he was getting on in years, he took me into his confidence.  "Well, I tried to make the best of a very bad situation."

     I couldn't say, "What was that?"  That would have been too intrusive, I said instead, "Oh," hoping that he would continue.

     "I was in love with the girl in the book.  Her name was Marsha.  Marsha, Marla, close, huh?  Lazy, really.  Well, we weren't lawyers, we were working for British Intelligence.  I thought there were already enough spy stories around.  My father was a barrister, so I reckoned I would borrow on that experience, which I knew something about."

     The novel was about a pair of lawyers who fell in love during the trial of their client, a carpentry contractor who had a disagreement with an owner over the scope of a job - hence the title.  But after the lawyers fell in love, "X" smashed their marriage to smithereens with dual first person narratives which showed that neither of these two had a clue about what made the other tick.

     "Borrow here, borrow there, that's what writing's all about.  It's a story of passion.  So, you find a framework, a vehicle to work it out in.  Lawyers, like intelligence agents, have suspicious natures.  Go to any divorce attorney when you're having marital problems, and the first thing he'll suggest is to get a detective to find out who is the other man or the other woman."

     "So you were both working for British Intelligence."

     "We were, yes.  We were on the same side; we worked together.  Someone saw Marsha with a fellow from the other side.  So, I was assigned to investigate my partner.  Always an ugly duty, but uglier still since I was involved with her." 

     Then he corrected himself, rewrote the dialogue, "Since I was in love with her.  But unlike the book, I had no desire at all to investigate; I had no desire to find out anything.  I was forced into it; my superior insisted.  Well, I thought maybe I might be able to protect her.  But underneath it all, I felt it would come to no good for me, and once I got started, that was to prove out.  There were so many unexplained facts, and I was unable to disengage my paranoia.  Not about her loyalty to the state, about her loyalty to me.  The man she was seen with did turn out to be from the other side, and evidently he had something on her.  While I'm not totally sure even now, I don't think there was anything of a romantic nature between the two of them, he was just her contact.  But she became more and more remote.  And remoteness is the enemy of love.  I saw her meet with this other fellow, and I figured something was going on between them."

    Yes, I remembered the story.  How Robert had gone to his wife's psychiatrist because he wanted to check out this fiend of a shrink, this mastermind of adultery, who he thought had ruined his marriage.  And his innocent wife had been so happy, thinking he was trying to work out the problems of their marriage.  Briefly, their sex life improved, but Robert never figured out why.  The irony.  That was "X" at his best.

    "Now, of course, I'm sure the meetings with this other fellow were simply to work out the plans to defect.  You know, I wondered endlessly about why she defected.  Did she have a Russian parent?  Was she born in Russia?  I felt for certain it was something I didn't know.  I don't think it was ideological, though maybe she even kept her beliefs hidden.  Fantasies about all that fueled the engine of my imagination for years, all of my life, really. 

     "So I pursued relentlessly, jealously, thoroughly, trying to keep my queries casual, but it didn't work.  She asked me what I was trying to get at, pointblank, and I told her what I knew, but promised I would keep her cover.  But she didn't trust me, so she bolted for the other side.  For all I know, she's still over there.

     "She said she didn't love that other fellow - oh, I don't know."  His left eye had a watery glint.  I couldn't look at him.

     I really wasn't ready for such revelations.  I never knew what to say when they happened, so I kept my mouth shut.  I was the wrong guy for this.  I was here for an autograph and some story I could tell back home.

     "I drove her to the other side - relentlessly, unthinkingly."

     "But she worked for the Russians, you were only doing what you had to."

     "Had to?  Why?  When I think about it now I'm inclined to think that it's good to have a couple of double agents around.  I don't want the Russians to be misinformed.  Misinformation is a dangerous condition, especially since the advent of nuclear weapons.

     "So you see it wasn't that I left the situation as Robert did in the book.  It was I that drove her away.  I could have been more adroit.  I could have suspended all the questions about the man.  I could have monitored it.  Fed her information.  There were so many ways I could have handled it to work things out, maybe I could even have defected with her.  But unerringly I chose the one way things could not work out.

     "And what was the end result?  What did I get out of this?  I won, what do they call it?"  He scratched his head and looked out at the harbor, "Oh, what do they call it?  The something or other prize.  The..."    

     "The booby prize?"

     "Yes, that's it.  The booby prize.  I got a novel out of it, some money from the novel, some more money when they made a movie out of it, a little fame.  Who cares?  I've never had a great need for money.  I'm an old man.  Madame Pomeroi helps me around here.  She and her husband live downstairs.  She arranges for cleaning women, typists.  She's a nice person; she's a wonderful person.  But you see...well...

     "You know, the thing about writers is that they're always doing therapy.  So, from square one you know they're working on some frustration, some unhappy event, some irritation.  What I'm saying, I guess, is that they're always a little suspect."


     What was I supposed to say?  What could I say?  I suppose it was a wonderful confession for the biographers, but what did he care about biographers?  The vultures of literary research would have eons to pick away at his stuff, his 'oeuvre.'  Meanwhile, the meter was ticking for a vulnerable human being.  For me, it was the painfulness of that title - No Meeting of the Minds.  On the cover of the book, such an adroit and seemingly studied humanity.  A concocted disaster for the publishers while the author meanwhile tanned himself on the Riviera.  Sure.  Like fun it was.

     But 'X' was an unearthly, ashen white, and I've worked it out - the only reason he told me all of this was because he didn't know me.  I was like the stranger on a plane flight to whom you relate the story of your life because you will never see them again.  That was me:  I counted for nothing.

     Looking around the livingroom I speculated that Madame Pomeroi was the feminine hand behind the bright and flowery decoration.  But bright and flowery wasn't "X".  He could be found in the spartan study, the room with no rug or carpet.  But for now, for the moment, he sat in the corner in a chair that wasn't really him, in a room that wasn't him, which seemed to emphasize his isolation.  Obviously he had a lot in common with the character from the book.  The facts that he related differed from the story of the novel, but he was little removed from it.  And certainly this was his greatest virtue as a writer: he had the knack of conveying how inescapable the situations of life are.  Mask them however you like - make the spy a lawyer, make the lawyer a psychologist - our passions grab us by the neck and drag our bodies along behind.

     Anyway, he agreed to autograph my copy of the book, which I had brought along against just this possibility.  So I took it over the next day and eagerly told him of my ambition to be a writer, and he sighed, "That'll use up some of your hours."  He was, however, now totally recovered from the previous day's upset, and I could see he was going to be British stiff upper lip about the whole thing.  As he inscribed the book he said, "If you're going to do it, you may as well do it as best you can.  But ..." 

     He handed me back the book, which carried this message: "Don't take writing too seriously or it'll come home to haunt you.  Or I will.  Best wishes, 'X'."

     Haunt me?  That didn't make any sense.  I didn't know what to do with that.

     Sure, on the surface it looked like a sloppy sentimental contradiction in terms, but I don't think 'X' was capable of harmless throwaways.  Think about it: for a writer not to take writing seriously is not to take life seriously, and this is impossible for a writer.  But leave it to a tortured soul like 'X' to have me doing the loop de loop on the racetrack of some unresolvable conundrum. 

     That was his idea of humor.