Time to Be in Earnest
As usual, it has been a busy Christmas week with our apparently traditional sickness but also, happily, a lot of pleasant conversation and the acquisition of delightful new books (my family and friends certainly know my love language!). I’ll get around to telling you about the new additions to my TBR stack, but for now I want to talk about a particular title that I finished a few weeks ago and am finally taking the time to review. If you’ve read it, I’d love to hear your comments. Don’t the final days of the year seem particularly suited to discussing memoirs?
“I write, therefore I am” encapsulates the theme of P.D. James’ Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography. A writer’s life overflows with non-writing related activities and people, and yet every moment contributes something to the writer’s soul and becomes part of her river of expression. James has seen some empty stretches, but they weren’t wasted; she insists that “nothing that happens to the novelist ever is.” Her excellent prologue sets up the book this way:
The past is not static. It can be relived only in memory, and memory is a device for forgetting as well as remembering. It, too, is not immutable. It rediscovers, reinvents, reorganizes. Like a passage of prose it can be revised and repunctuated. To that extent, every autobiography is a work of fiction and every work of fiction an autobiography.
And so, though she has never been a diary-keeper, she decides to attempt an occasional memoir of her 77th year, beginning with that birthday. The result is an intelligent collection of personal anecdotes, historical recollections, and insightful commentary on literature, religion, society, and various other subjects.
She records, for example, her initial reaction to the news of Princess Diana’s death:
The process of beatification was well under way by the end of the day and will no doubt continue. There was something so horribly appropriate about the manner of her death, and I have the feeling that we were all involved in a Greek tragedy with the whole country as the Chorus. Beautiful, willful, complicated, destructive and doomed, it is hard to believe that she could have found happiness. Her comfort was always in the love of strangers and, if she most wanted that love to be intense, personal and universal, today, at least, she would be satisfied.
A lifelong Anglican, James takes pleasure and solace in that historic liturgy. Summarizing a lecture she gave at Cambridge, she explains what she sees as “the desiderata of liturgy”:
that it should be intelligible, which didn’t necessarily mean that it should be modern and up-to-date; that it should be capable of being spoken aloud in church by priest and people; that it should reflect doctrine; and lastly, but not least important, that it should be written in memorable language. Words in their beauty, their simplicity, their numinous power should be capable of so entering our consciousness that we do not need to remember them, search for them or concentrate on them, but rest confidently on their familiarity to bring us into the hoped-for communion with God which is surely at the heart of prayer and worship.
So it is no surprise that regarding Bible versions she remarks: “Every morning throughout my school life I heard a reading from the King James Bible. There was, thank God, no Good News Bible, a version which is very bad news for anyone who cares for either religion or literature.”
This opinion reflects her comments about the preservation and evolution of language, another subject on which she has been invited to lecture during her memoir year:
…preserving a language doesn’t mean resisting change. English has from the beginning been a hybrid; brought to Britain by the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, influenced by Latin and Greek, enriched by the Danes and French-speaking Normans, given strength and beauty by Tyndale’s translation of the Bible and Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer. To preserve a language is not to guard it jealously against any alien influence but, in the words of Chambers Dictionary, “to keep safe from harm or loss; to keep alive; to keep sound; to guard against decay.” A living language responds to the aspirations and needs of each generation but the changes should enrich and not impoverish. We debase our language if, while inventing new words to meet new techniques, we lose that nice precision of definition in vocabulary and construction which makes English an exact as well as a versatile language.
Such preservation of language depends largely on a society’s emphasis on reading, a way of life she says is “so important, so necessary to the nourishment of mind and spirit that I feel that it should be as seriously ceremonial as a church service.” Her ideal setting includes “a comfortable chair with back and arm support,” “good, well-directed light,” and “silence and solitude.”
I find in recent years that I read far less new fiction and more nonfiction, particularly letters, biography and autobiography, history and diaries. This is nothing to be proud of; I ought to tackle more new fiction…I like to have one old favourite and one new by the bedside.
A novelist’s memoir naturally can be expected to include ruminations on various aspects of the literary world. James obliges, with comments on the difficulties of awarding literary prizes (“the worst way of arriving at the ultimate shortlist of some five or six is for each panel member to nominate his or her favourite)”; what makes a successful literary festival (“access,” plus local enthusiasm: “there is never a welcoming atmosphere if residents feel that the festival is not for them”); why she writes detective stories (“it didn’t occur to me either to begin with anything other than a detective story” since they had “formed my own recreational reading in adolescence,” and “I love structure in a novel and the detective story is probably the most structured of popular fiction”); and the moral responsibility of the novelist (“the intention of any novelist must surely be to make that straight avenue to the human heart”). She also offers excellent advice for reviewers (“always read the whole of the book before you write your review”; “review the book the author has written, not the one you think he/she should have written”; “be scathingly witty if you must and can, but never be deliberately cruel”; and “try to believe that it is possible for people of whom you disapprove to write a good book”); as well as principles for aspiring novelists (beginning with “read widely, not in order to copy someone else’s style, but to learn to appreciate and recognize good writing,” and “increase your vocabulary; the raw material of the writer is words”).
Between these discussions are notes of her daily activities and random reminiscences of her childhood during the inter-war years in Britain and her decades as a public servant. She also reveals why we’ll see no more Cordelia Gray novels (hint: see her manifesto to television producers and directors), and describes a perfect day as a museum visit and an excellent lunch served out-of doors, followed by an evening of reading (just tell me when and where to pick you up, and I shall gladly join you, friend!). Overall, James’ “fragment” provides a necessarily limited but captivating record of the experiences and ideas of one of the sensible and gifted novelists of our age.