What would Nabokov do?


The editor of the magazine was apologetic but firm. The column I had just sent him, while containing some good bits, was self-indulgent.

“Too many notes,” he added, a politic reference to Amadeus that framed him as the tone-deaf Emperor and me as a misunderstood Mozart. But beneath the self-deprecating and flattering allusion was a clear message: if he was going to pay me from the royal mint I needed to play his tune. And his tune involved me removing about a third of the notes.

My response was appropriately Wolfgang-ish. I flung my wig across my hovel, downed a flagon of sack, threw the flagon after the wig, and rolled out into the street where I stalked the cobbles moodily until my stockingless shins and mittenless fingers began to freeze. Then I went home and conceded that while the piece was a tad frenzied, I didn’t know how to shorten it by a third without leaving it a limbless, bleeding torso of a thing. (You can see how upset I was: in a single paragraph I had turned a musical metaphor into an anatomical one.)

In the end the editor relented and the self-indulgence went plinky-plonky-tra-la-la into the world as I had written it. But it did get me thinking about the nature of column writing, and the fine line between self-expression and self-indulgence. And this week those thoughts have crowded around even more urgently, because this week is my first anniversary with The Times. For a full year I have danced around that line, sometimes indulging my readers, sometimes myself, but never quite sure which is which.

I understand, of course, that good writing is a conversation rather than a soliloquy. They’re my words but they’re your eyes and brain and heart. Still, it’s a tricky conversation, not least because the subject matter is so determined to float just out of reach: the zeitgeist is, after all, a geist. But perhaps the fundamental slipperiness is that columnists are employed to express opinions, and opinions are really just emotions strapped into a corset, given a stiff drink, and shoved out onto a spotlit stage. And emotions, even those prettied up and made to look like objective truths, are still a terribly diaphanous currency.

Ten years ago it was easier. I was a young columnist possessed of a vast collection of flashy phrases and a very limited knowledge of my self, and the result was eloquent pandemonium. This week I reread some of my old stuff and found my 25-year-old self to be the sort of man-child who is droll for about 15 minutes but whom you then want to thrash with a rolled-up newspaper. It wasn’t the jokes or the overcooked prose that annoyed me. It was the conviction with which I stated opinion as fact, the free and easy confidence of a medieval alchemist pronouncing about the nature of living on a flat Earth around which orbits the sun.

Then again, perhaps this is the purview of youth. Not that I’ve grown up much, mind you. The old show-offy temptations still sing their siren song. For example, in the social media age there is the temptation to chum for likes, retweets and all those other digital pings that promise infinite, hollow affirmation. Every week I fight the urge to write a column with the ultimate click-bait headline, say “Zuma And Zille in Shock Sex Romp at Satanic Bafana Ball”. Naturally the piece would be a fiction about a liaison between Primrose Zuma, Trompie Zille and a stash of hash kept in a soccer ball under the Van Staden’s River Bridge. But readers would discover this only once they’d clicked on the story in their millions and made me the trendiest trender on Trend Mountain.

Likewise there is the temptation to be too clever, to indulge in word games or to hide coded messages inside a particular paragraph. Nabokov, you remind yourself, was fond of acrostics: why shouldn’t I slip one into a column? Yet one unwieldy, forced or unwelcome Nabokovian dalliance is terminal. Flow is broken. The eye stutters on odd syntax.

But I am learning. Someone suggested to me recently that a column, however beautifully or carefully it is written, or however full of truth it might be, is just a picture drawn in the sand above the waterline, made to be enjoyed and then washed away. The desire to pin down thoughts, to write something that will stand, objective and permanent, is dwindling. They say the more you learn the less you know. For me, the more I write, the less I have to say.

Still, the self-indulgent urge is hard to shake. Which is why I’ve hidden an acrostic in here. I couldn’t resist. But I promise I’ll grow up one day.


First published in The Times and TimesLive


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