A Surfeit of Lampreys

From Graham Greene's Ways of Escape --

"With a novel, which takes perhaps years to write, the author is not the same man at the end of the book as he was at the beginning. It is not only that his characters have developed -- he has developed with them, and this nearly always gives a sense of roughness to the work: a novel can seldom have the sense of perfection which you find in Chekhov's story, 'The Lady with the Dog.' It is the consciousness of that failure which makes the revision of the novel seem endless -- the author is trying in vain to adapt the story to his changed personality -- as though it were something he had begun in childhood and is finishing now in old age. There are moments of despair when he begins the fifth revision of Part One, and he sees the multitude of the new corrections. How can he help feeling, 'This will never end, I shall never again be the same man I was when I wrote this months and months ago.' No wonder that under these conditions a novelist often makes a bad husband or an unstable lover. There is something in his character of the actor who continues to play Othello when he is off the stage, but he is an actor who has lived far too many parts during far too many long runs. He is encrusted with characters. A black taxi-driver in the Caribbean once told me of a body which he had seen lifted from the sea. He said, 'You couldn't tell it was a man's body because of all the lampreys that came up with it.' A horrible image, but it is one which suits the novelist well."

Horrible indeed: a lamprey resembles a phallus with teeth. Here is some further encouraging marine biological imagery, from Lorrie Moore's story "How to Become a Writer."

"Thank god you are taking other courses. You can find sanctuary in nineteenth-century ontological snags and invetebrate courting rituals. Certain globular mollusks have what is called 'Sex by the Arm.' The male octopus, for instance, loses the end of one arm when placing it inside the female body during intercourse. Marine biologists call it 'Seven Heaven.' Be glad you know these things. Be glad you are not just a writer. Apply to law school."

5 thoughts on “A Surfeit of Lampreys”

  1. Greene envisions himself being devoured by his own characters in the form of lampreys — like something out of Dante, no?

  2. Dash of Saffron

    I'm afraid applying to law school isn't quite the panacea that Lorrie Moore makes it out to be… One finds that at the end of it, like at the end of the novel, he is a changed man; one finds that he cannot make a good husband or lover (see the divorce rate of law school students!), etc. etc. Maybe this is just natural progression of life and not a function of writing. What a dreadful thought! But if it is true, then I say choose the profession that makes you happiest at that particular moment, since you are doomed, ultimately, to change into a person you don't recognize, and doomed to make a bad husband or unstable lover. Well then, carry on . . .

  3. Successfully (whatever that may mean) or unsuccessfully, we all overact the part of our favourite character in fiction.

  4. Cynthia Ozick on Isaac Babel — "… coiled in the bottommost pit of every driven writer is an impersonator — protean, volatile, restless and relentless."

  5. E. L. Doctorow — “It may be the peculiar fate of the writer that after a lifetime of writing he becomes mysterious to himself, his identity having dissolved into his books.”

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