Monday, 14 January 2008

Literature Overkill!

Trying at the moment to write something worthwhile about the US Presidential Election primaries, but ennui gets the better of me. Instead, several pieces from The Guardian and one from The Independent since the New Year, now all those soul-destroying articles on the themes of "Best Books of 2007" and "Top Xmas Books" are out the way. First, one on the power of reading:

The reading cure: The idea that literature can make us emotionally and physically stronger goes back to Plato. But now book groups are proving that Shakespeare can be as beneficial as self-help guides. Blake Morrison investigates the rise of bibliotherapy
The Guardian: Saturday January 5, 2008

At a reading group in Birkenhead, nine women and two men are looking at Act 1 scene 2of The Winter's Tale, in which Leontes and his wife Hermione urge their guest, Polixenes, not to rush off back to Bohemia. Some of the language is difficult to grasp: what's meant by "He's beat from his best ward"? or "We'll thwack him hence with distaffs"? But thanks to the promptings of the group leader, Jane Davis (from the Reader Centre at the University of Liverpool), Shakespeare's meanings are slowly unlocked, and discussion ranges widely over the various issues the passage raises: jealous men, flirtatious women, royal decorum and what to do with guests who outstay their welcome.

The rise of book groups is one of the most heartening phenomena of our time, but this is an unusual one, including as it does Val and Chris from a homeless hostel, Stephen who suffers from agoraphobia and panic attacks and hasn't worked for 15 years, Brenda who's bipolar, Jean who's recovering from the death of her husband, and Louise who has Asperger's syndrome. Most of the group are avid readers but for one or two it's their first experience of Shakespeare since school.

Under the umbrella of Jane Davis's "Get into Reading" scheme, there are now around 50groups like this across Merseyside: groups in care homes, day centres, neurological rehab units, acute psychiatric wards, cottage hospitals, sheltered accommodation and libraries; groups for people with learning disabilities, Alzheimers, motor-neurone disease, mental health problems; groups for prisoners, excluded teenagers, looked-after children, recovering drug-addicts, nurses and carers; groups that are small - no more than 10 - so there's a sense of intimacy.

The educational backgrounds vary widely but there's no dumbing down in the choice of texts - The Mayor of Casterbridge, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Rebecca, Great Expectations, Adam Bede, Jane Eyre, Of Mice and Men, Kes, even Robert Pirsig's The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance among them. The usual pattern is for a complete book to be read aloud, cover to cover, at weekly sessions, which for a group spending an hour a week on a Dickens novel can mean six months devoted to a single work. Nobody is pressured to read aloud, but if and when they do the boost to their confidence can be striking.

These reading groups aren't just about helping people feel less isolated or building their self-esteem. Nor are they merely a pretext, in an area of high unemployment, for giving the experience of working as a unit. More ambitiously, they're an experiment in healing, or, to put it less grandiosely, an attempt to see whether reading can alleviate pain or mental distress. For Kate, who has suffered from severe rheumatoid arthritis for 30 years, the answer is clear: "Reading pushes the pain away into a place where it no longer seems important. No matter how ill you are, there's a world inside books which you can enter and explore, and where you focus on something other than your own problems. You get to talk about things that people usually skate over, like ageing or death, and that kind of conversation - with everyone chipping in, so you feel part of something - can be enormously helpful." Others say the same: "I've stopped seeing the doctor since I came here and cut down on my medication"; "being in a group with other women who have what I had, breast cancer, didn't help me, but talking about books has made a huge difference."

Medical staff tell stories of the remarkable successes they've seen: the neurological patient who sat in a group saying nothing for months, then after a reading of George Herbert's poem "The Flower" ("Who would have thought my shrivelled heart/Could have recovered greenness?") launched into a 10-minute monologue at the end of which he announced "I feel great"; the brain-damaged young man whose vocabulary significantly increased after he joined a book group; the husband caring for his disabled wife whose exposure to poetry has proved not just a respite but a liberation. To outsiders, the outcomes might seem small, but to the staff and patients concerned they're huge breakthroughs.

Crochet or bridge might serve equally well if it were merely a matter of being in a group. But as Judith Mawer of the Mersey Care Mental Health Trust explained, focusing on a book is the decisive factor: "People who don't respond to conventional therapy, or don't have access to it, can externalise their feelings by engaging with a fictional character, or be stimulated by the rhythms of poetry."

One particularly successful initiative has been reading poetry to and with dementia patients, some of whom have lost all sense of who and where they are but can recite the words of a poem learned at school 70 years ago. As Get into Reading worker Katie Peters describes it: "One lady was shouting and swearing at anyone who approached, and when I mentioned poetry told me in no uncertain terms to go away. But as I sat and read poem after poem, she visibly relaxed, her mood changed completely and she happily chatted about the poems to other residents.

"Nurses tell me that patients seem less agitated after our sessions. There is something about poetry, not just the rhythms and rhyme but the way it provides an opportunity to hold a thought together through time, that really helps, even with people who are not natural readers." Katie's experiences echo those of Oliver Sacks with patients suffering from severe Parkinson's disease, who found that "people who could not take a step could dance" and "people who couldn't utter a syllable could sing".

"One sheds one's sicknesses in books," DH Lawrence once wrote, and the people I met on Merseyside agree with him that books - good books, anyway - are a form of therapy. "Prose not Prozac" is the prescription. Literature not lithium. A talking cure in the presence of Keats, Dickens or Shakespeare rather than a physician or psychiatrist.

Bibliotherapy, as it's called, is a fast-growing profession. A recent survey suggests that "over half of English library authorities are operating some form of bibliotherapy intervention, based on the books-on-prescription model". That's to say, an increasing number of people are being referred by their GPs to the local library, where they'll find shelves or "reading pharmacies" set aside for literature deemed relevant to their condition. Lapidus, an organisation established in 1996 "to promote the use of literary arts in personal development", has played a key role in bringing together writers and health professionals; as has the current editor of the Poetry Society's magazine, the poet Fiona Sampson.

Bibliotherapy might be a brave new word but the idea that books can make us better has been around for a very long time. Matthew Arnold and FR Leavis temporarily hijacked it when they argued that great literature - "the best that has been thought and said in all the world" - can make us morally better, by kindling "our own best self". That idea disappeared with the Holocaust, when immensely civilised and well-read men brought up on Schiller and Goethe proved capable of the most barbarous acts. But the idea that books can make us emotionally, psychologically and even physically better goes back to the ancient world.

Plato said that the muses gave us the arts not for "mindless pleasure" but "as an aid to bringing our soul-circuit, when it has got out of tune, into order and harmony with itself". It's no coincidence that Apollo is the god of both poetry and healing; nor that hospitals or health sanctuaries in ancient Greece were invariably situated next to theatres, most famously at Epidaurus, where dramatic performances were considered part of the cure. When Odysseus is wounded by a boar, his companions use incantations to stop the bleeding. And the Bible has the story of David calming Saul: "And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, David took a harp, and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him."

By the Renaissance, the idea that poetry and song could "banish vexations of soul and body" was well-entrenched - to the point where Thomas Puttenham argued, in The Art of English Poesie, that the poet must "play also the physician and not only by applying a medicine to the ordinary sickness of mankind, but by making the very grief itself (in part) cure of the disease". What Puttenham meant was that the writer should use "one dolour to expel another", the sad cadence in a line of poetry allaying the burden of pain or depression in the reader, "one short sorrowing a remedy of a long and grievous sorrow".

The image has a hint of homeopathy about it - like curing like - and just as homeopathy is regarded with suspicion in conventional medicine, so bibliotherapy is bound to strike sceptics as a form of quack medicine. But considerable research has been carried out over the past 20 years which seeks to prove the healing capacity of the arts in general and literature in particular. A study in Alabama demonstrated how depressives treated via bibliotherapy had less chance of relapse than those given medication. At Kings College, London, Gillie Bolton has explored the use of writing with a range of palliative care patients and teenage cancer sufferers. Other studies have explored the links between involvement in the arts and longevity; between "verbally revealing it all" and fighting off infections; between the generally calming effect of books - relatively few of which are so bad that we want to hurl them across the room and - and lower levels of cardio- vascular disease. An Arts Council report of 2004 cited 385 references from medical research on the positive effect of the arts and humanities in healthcare, among them "inducing positive physiological and psychological changes in clinical outcomes, reducing drug consumption, shortening length of stay in hospital ... and developing health practitioners' empathy".

The scientific evidence is far from conclusive, nevertheless. Raymond Tallis, author and emeritus professor of geriatric medicine at University of Manchester, has been enormously impressed by Jane Davis's work, but notes that most of the published research "consists of equivocal findings in fourth-rank journals", adding: "I have been a medic too long to be easily persuaded of the wider role of literature in healing. No one sends out for a poet when they are seriously ill." However, even he concedes that "my last boss before I became a consultant was hugely helped in his last weeks by reading War and Peace, when he was attached to a diamorphine pump." Tallis also acknowledges that reading might be therapeutic in a variety of ways, not least in easing depression: "the pleasure of escape into a parallel world; the sense of control one has as a reader; and the ability to distance one's self from one's own circumstances by seeing them from without, suffered by someone else and gathered up into a nicely worked-out plot - somewhere around here is the notion of the Aristotelian purgation and Sartre's idea of 'the purifying reflection'."

Perhaps the most convincing argument for the effectiveness of bibliotherapy comes from writers themselves. There's the case of George Eliot, for example, who recovered from the grief of losing her husband George Henry Lewes by reading Dante with a young friend, John Cross, who subsequently married her. "Her sympathetic delight in stimulating my newly awakened enthusiasm for Dante did something to distract her mind from sorrowful memories," Cross later wrote. "The divine poet took us to a new world. It was a renovation of life."

John Stuart Mill enjoyed a similar renovation after the "crisis in my mental history" which he describes in his Autobiography, a crisis that began in the autumn of 1826 when "the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down [and] I seemed to have nothing left to live for". Then one day "a small ray of light broke in upon my gloom. I was reading, accidentally, Marmontel's Mémoires, and came to the passage which relates his father's death ... A vivid conception of the scene and its feelings came over me, and I was moved to tears. From this moment my being grew lighter. The oppression of the thought that all feeling was dead within me was gone. I was no longer hopeless: I was not a stock or a stone."

What cured Mill was an account of death; what eased Eliot's mourning of her husband was a journey through Dante's Inferno. If books are to be therapeutic, it seems, it's because they take us to dark places rather than bright ones. As Thomas Hardy recognised, "If a way to the better there be it exacts a full look at the worst." Hence Davis's preference for classic texts which address existential concerns, not anodyne pep-ups. Medical staff attached to her scheme have occasionally worried that such and such a poem or passage might "make things worse". But what does "worse" mean when you're talking about people on a psychiatric ward? One elderly patient became distressed during a reading of Burns's "My love is like a red, red rose", but insisted on staying there, through the tears, and professed herself "much better for it" afterwards.

Hardy's famous quote comes from a sequence of three poems, "In Tenebris", which he wrote in 1896-97, when his spirits were brought low by the excessive optimism of his peers. To Hardy, hell was other people being cheery - "the blot seems straightway in me alone .../one born out of due time, who has no calling here". And yet he derives consolation from the very pessimism or "unhope" that weighs him down:

Wintertime nighs;
But my bereavement-pain
It cannot bring again:
Twice no one dies.

Each of Hardy's "In Tenebris" poems has an epigraph from the Psalms. And far from being a simple glorification of God, the Psalms are often engulfed by despair: "my heart is smitten, and withered like grass"; "attend unto my cry; for I am brought very low". Yet reading the Psalms or Hardy or Gerard Manley Hopkins's "terrible sonnets" can be cathartic. By attending to the cry of another, we articulate our own cries, frame them, contain them, and feel less stranded. "I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day," Hopkins writes, in his anguish:

What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! What sights you, heart, saw, ways you went!
And more must in yet longer light's delay ...

Though Hopkins plumbs the depths, he writes so searingly of his torment that the poetry becomes a cauterising iron to burn away his pain and ours, and to "leave comfort root-room" in which to grow.

Hopkins knew that not everyone will have experienced the "cliffs of fall,/Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed" which he describes: "Hold them cheap/May who ne'er hung there". But even those of a sunny disposition will find his sonnets illuminating, an insight into the mind of a fellow creature, and an expansion of their own empathic powers.

This is surely the other great therapeutic power of literature - it doesn't just echo our own experience, recognise, vindicate and validate it - it takes us places we hadn't imagined but which, once seen, we never forget. When literature is working - the right words in the right place - it offers an orderliness which can shore up readers against the disorder, or lack of control, that afflicts them. Most misery memoirs fail in this respect - they invite readers to be prurient rather than to identify, exaggerate where no exaggeration is necessary, and are too clamorous to grant the space to contemplate and withdraw.

In The Prelude Wordsworth speaks of certain memories or "spots of time" - "scattered everywhere" - which have a special place in the life of each man and woman, and which it is our task to recover: not as an act of nostalgia but because they help repair and (the word John Cross used) renovate us if we find them.

There are in our existence spots of time
That with a distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, when, depressed
By false opinions and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier and more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse, our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
A virtue by which pleasure is enhanced,
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen ...

The most consciously renovating or therapeutic writer I know is Ted Hughes - surprisingly, perhaps, since in his lifetime he seemed to friends, and accused himself of being, a man in denial. But he not only considered individual works of his medicinal - "It is a story intended to cure the mentally sick," he said of his children's book The Iron Man - but defined poetry as "nothing more than a facility for expressing that complicated process in which we locate, and attempt to heal, affliction - whether our own or that of others whose feeling we can share. The inmost spirit of poetry, in other words, is at bottom, in every recorded case, the voice of pain - and the physical body, so to speak, of poetry, is the treatment by which the poet tries to reconcile that pain with the world."

When Hughes describes poetry as consisting of "things we don't actually want to say" but "desperately need to share", he is talking as a writer, not a reader. But the inseparability of reading and writing is something which Proust acknowledges when he defines the book as a "sort of optical instrument which the writer offers to the reader to enable the latter to discover in himself what he would not have found but for the aid of the book". It's often said that books "take us out of ourselves", but in reality the best literature is surreptitiously taking us inside ourselves, deeper than we might have expected or chosen to go.

The self can get help from a book, then. But the best kind of help doesn't necessarily come by way of self-help books. Nor are the books which make us feel good usually feelgood books. That's the problem with most of the bibliotherapy schemes that have been set up in the UK so far. It's commendable that Kirklees, Calderdale, Neath and Ayrshire - to name just four such initiatives - should have thrown their weight behind bibliotherapy. But too often the prescribed "literature" in local libraries consists only of leaflets, or references to useful websites, or books written by "eminent therapists or former service-users" which are worthy, practical-minded and dull. There's no recognition that people in trouble need more than the right labels. As one of the reading group in Birkenhead explained: "I would never have gone into a library and asked for a self-help book on depression. I was feeling bad enough as it was, and that would have made me feel worse. It's being in a group and talking that helps." And, of course, using imaginative literature - poetry and fiction, not self-medicating pamphlets.

Jane Davis would like the scheme she's created on a Merseyside to be adopted throughout the country. With 2008 designated the Year of Reading, and Liverpool the 2008 European Capital of Culture, it's an opportune moment. If she's evangelical in the cause (she also runs the excellent quarterly magazine the Reader), that's because of the almost religious role which books have played in her own life - notably, Doris Lessing's novel Shikasta, reading which, as a young woman, pushed her "into something like a nervous breakdown. I felt so disturbed by it that I wrote to Doris, care of her publisher, blaming her and asking for help. She wrote back telling me to read more and offering money for books if I needed it. 'I am not your teacher but you need to read,' she said. I was a single mother living on social security but in the end I decided what I needed wasn't Doris's money but a public library. And, for me, the clue of Shikasta - that life is serious and you have to do something with it - was a life-saver."

Books don't always save lives: writing about the Holocaust didn't prevent Primo Levi from ultimately committing suicide; and the reading - or perverse misreading - of The Satanic Verses led to the deaths of innocent people. But literature's power to heal and console outweighs its power to do damage. Hector, in Alan Bennett's The History Boys, puts it beautifully when he describes how, in the presence of great literature, it's as if a hand has reached out and taken our own. That's the hand which Davis is trying to extend.,

Next, an article on evoking memory in literature. One of the hardest tasks I think in fiction (in books, television, radio, film etc)is evoking the past. The same goes for non-fiction as well!

Look back in wonder: What is the nature of memory? And can it be captured in literature? Craig Raine considers the most successful attempts at doing so, from Wordsworth's 'spots of time' to Proust's tea-soaked madeleines
The Guardian, Saturday January 5, 2008

In A la recherche du temps perdu, Proust says many acute things about memory - about physical memory in the body, for instance, in Du cote de chez Swann . One thinks of Robert Frost's "After Apple-Picking": "My instep arch not only keeps the ache, / It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round."

Proust is good, too, on memory's inaccuracy and its arbitrariness. Think of Albertine's wandering beauty spot in A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs or Marcel's observation in Le temps retrouve that one forgets the duel one nearly fought but remembers the yellow gaiters one's opponent wore as a child in the Champs-Elysees. A strikingly dramatic but implausible illustration, this, where sartorial details, revers and darts and flares, are given a Wodehousian precedence over world events. Less good, though, than Henry V's prediction that soldiers at Agincourt will remember their part in the battle "with advantages".

I prefer, too, TS Eliot's more sober sense of arbitrariness in the "Conclusion" to The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism:

Why, for all of us, out of all we have heard, seen, felt, in a lifetime, do certain images recur, charged with emotion, rather than others? The song of one bird, the leap of one fish, at a particular place and time, the scent of one flower, an old woman on a German mountain path, six ruffians seen through an open window playing cards at night at a small French railway junction, where there was a water-mill: such memories may have symbolic value, but of what we cannot tell, for they come to represent the depths of feeling into which we cannot peer.

They are, then, these memories, super-charged with sensation. Can we describe this sensation - of significance, of occluded feeling? Can we say what it means?

Proust is interested in the particular sensation that accompanies remembering. The tea-soaked madeleine loses its force when it is repeatedly tasted. Tom Stoppard recorded something similar in the first issue of Talk magazine when he wrote "On Turning Out to be Jewish" (September 1999). He meets in Czechoslovakia a woman whose cut has been stitched decades before by Dr Straussler, the father he never knew: "Zaria holds out her hand, which still shows the mark. I touch it. In that moment I am surprised by grief, a small catching-up of all the grief I owe. I have nothing that came from my father, nothing he owned or touched, but here is his trace, a small scar." A moving moment. But Stoppard has recorded unsentimentally that its power to move diminishes every time he tells the story.

Is the sensation simply nostalgia - like the nostalgic regret of Nicholas Bulstrode in Middlemarch for the time when he was an effective methodist preacher in Islington's Upper Row with an ambition to be a missionary? Or is it something more profound - like Proust's meditation, in A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, on his Aunt Leonie's sofa in the brothel? On that same sofa, Marcel has first experienced love with a girl cousin. Proust gives us a stereoscopic irony as the seedy and the pre-sexual amalgamate. There seems to be a hidden message in the coincidence. Is the coincidence merely a coincidence? Or has the coincidence been arranged? Elements of this supernatural innuendo emerge repeatedly in Nabokov's Speak, Memory . General Kuropatkin is showing the young Nabokov tricks with matches on a sofa, when he is summoned away: "the loose matches jumping up on the divan as his weight left it." Fifteen years later, the disguised, fugitive general asks Nabokov's father for a light ... Nabokov says the true purpose of autobiography is "the following of such thematic designs through one's life".

In Book II of The Prelude, Wordsworth writes about significant yet insignificant memories as "spots of time":

There are in our existence spots of time
Which with distinct pre-eminence retain
A vivifying Virtue, whence, depress'd
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse, our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repair'd ...

This is not so much an explanation as a statement of intrigued bafflement: "the hiding places of my power / Seem open; I approach and then they close." And the example that Wordsworth gives is interestingly drab. It has a few meagre components -a "naked Pool, / The Beacon on the lonely Eminence, / The Woman and her garments vex'd and toss'd" - and its power is largely retrospective. It is "in truth, / An ordinary sight". Looked back on, though, the dreariness becomes a "visionary dreariness" that Wordsworth would need colours and words unknown to man to paint. The discrepancy here, in Eliot, and in Proust, is between the original experience and that experience when it is hallowed by remembrance.

The effect is something like cropping in photography. At the beginning of The Waves, Virginia Woolf gives us the childhood memories of Rhoda, Louis, Bernard, Susan and Neville as highlights, ordinary epiphanies: Mrs Constable pulling up her black stockings; a flash of birds like a handful of broadcast seed; bubbles forming a silver chain at the bottom of a saucepan; air warping over a chimney; light going blue in the morning window. These mnemonic pungencies are different from the bildungsroman of Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as that novel gets into its stride. They resemble rather the unforgettable anthology of snapshots Joyce gives us at the novel's beginning - a snatch of baby-talk; the sensation of wetting the bed; covering and uncovering your ears at refectory. Or Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March, when Augie is a kind of ship-board unofficial counsellor, the recipient of emotional swarf: "Now this girl, who was a cripple in one leg, she worked in the paint lab of the stove factory"; "He was a Rumania-box type of swindler, where you put in a buck and it comes out a fiver". Cropped for charisma.

Of course, memory itself is naturally cropped, as Stendhal records in Chapter 13 of Vie de Henry Brulard, where he notes that some memories are undated, vivid as fragmented frescoes, but surrounded by the blank brickwork of oblivion. Actually, anything fragmented, as the romantics knew from Percy's Reliques, is granted a penumbra of suggestion that we mistake and read as vividness of outline.

Memories are more effective than memoirs. Isolation counts for more than continuity. The Paris of Hemingway's memoir A Moveable Feast (1964) is less vivid than the same material telescoped in the earlier "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" (1961).

This is A Moveable Feast:

All of the sadness of the city came suddenly with first cold rains of winter, and there were no more tops to the white houses as you walked but only the wet blackness of the street and the closed doors of the small shops, the herb sellers, the stationery and the newspaper shops, the midwife - second class - and the hotel where Verlaine had died, where I had a room on the top floor where I worked.

It isn't just the clumsiness of the triple "where". It's the automatic, sentimental cliche that poisons A Moveable Feast - the flyblown yellowed poster, the unknown girl at the cafe "with a face fresh as a newly minted coin if they minted coins in smooth flesh with rain-freshened skin, and her hair was black as a crow's wing and cut sharply and diagonally across her cheek". Nostalgia, as Kundera redefines it in Ignorance, is "the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return". In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway fails to return to his past, he is exiled from his memories, because his prose is writing itself and he is having a hard time keeping up.

In "The Snows of Kilimanjaro", on the other hand, the detail is seen and hand-picked:

There never was another part of Paris that he loved like that, the sprawling trees, the old white plastered houses painted brown below, the long green of the autobus in that round square, the purple flower dye upon the paving, the sudden drop down the hill of the rue Cardinal Lemoine to the River, and the other way the narrow crowded world of the rue Mouffetard. The street that ran up toward the Pantheon and the other that he always took with the bicycle, the only asphalted street in all that quarter, smooth under the tyres, with the high narrow houses and the cheap tall hotel where Paul Verlaine had died.

By 1964, Hemingway has forgotten the flower dye and the round square. His memory fails. So his memories fail.

Nostalgia, of course, has a meaning less connected with suffering and more with emotional indulgence. As in, "they wallowed in nostalgia". Here the territory is thick with shared memories, with mnemonic solidarity. For example, Ursula in Women in Love remembers "the servant Tilly, who used to give her bread and butter sprinkled with brown sugar". In one of Edna O'Brien's novels, the heroine sits on the step of the back door, eating sugar on bread.

In Le temps retrouve, Marcel floats a theory of involuntary memory which he opposes to the willed act of memory. The theory is founded on three rapidly consecutive examples less famous than the madeleine in Du cote de chez Swann

Two uneven paving stones outside the Princesse de Guermantes's mansion recall two particular paving stones in the baptistry of San Marco in Venice. The " ting" of a teaspoon against a plate recalls the noise of a railway man's hammer testing the wheels of the Paris train as it stood outside a wood - when Marcel (20 pages earlier) reflected on his lack of talent for literature, a verdict based on his apparent indifference to nature. "I am in the midst of nature. Well, it is with indifference, with boredom that my eyes register the line which separates your radiant foreheads from your shadowy trunks." Now the formerly tedious scene dazes Marcel with its previously unmentioned specifics - opening a bottle of beer, hearing the tapped wheels. The experience is experienced with its accessories. And, lastly, the texture of a napkin brings back the very texture of Marcel's bathing towel at Balbec. The napkin contains the towel, which contains an ocean green and blue as a peacock's tail - the ocean since involuntary memory never recalls the indefinite article.

Involuntary memory, in this account, restores reality in its entirety, and is therefore a form of resurrection. It is, further, a kind of "immortality". Marcel, accordingly, feels joy that makes death a matter of indifference to him. His faith in his literary talent is restored by the intensity with which he recalls these essentially banal experiences.

The idea is shared, or perhaps borrowed, by Nabokov, a much greater writer, in Speak, Memory:

I see again my class-room, the blue roses of the wall-paper, the open window. Its reflection fills the oval mirror above the leathern couch where my uncle sits, gloating over a tattered book. A sense of security, of well-being, of summer warmth pervades my memory. That robust reality makes a ghost of the present. The mirror brims with brightness; a bumblebee has entered the room and bumps against the ceiling. Everything is as it should be, nothing will ever change, nobody will ever die.

In Nabokov's account, memory is complete, beyond process, exempt from change. The reasoning here is coherent.

Proust's exposition of "fragments of existence withdrawn from Time" is somewhat muzzy by comparison:

The truth surely was that the being within me which had enjoyed these impressions had enjoyed them because they had in them something that was common to a day long past and to the present, because in some way they were extra-temporal, and this being made its appearance only when, through one of these identifications of the present with the past, it was likely to find itself in the one and only medium in which it could exist and enjoy the essence of things, that is to say: outside time.

In any case, Proust's laborious explanation is partial. He has not elucidated the mechanism of memory properly. The mystery that needs explanation is why the recalled experience should bring such acute pleasure when the actual, original experience was "tedious", and therefore unapprehended.

Proust's "answer" is that we experience intimations of immortality. It is possible, though, that we simply enjoy the act of remembrance - and that this requires no explanation. It is a fact, the way we are, part of any human being's hard-wiring.

On the other hand, the pleasure is extraordinary. It is comparable to "the constant readiness to discern the halo round the frying pan or the likeness between a weeping-willow and a Skye terrier". That simile from Nabokov's The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is a clue to the true nature of memory's mechanism.

Memory is like metaphor in its operations. Memory is sexual in its operations. In English we speak of "coming" when we speak of orgasm. "I'm coming" means that the sexual partner is arriving at the predestined place, the site of pleasure. The journey can be long or short but the elusive destination is known in advance.

The words Marcel uses to describe the pleasure that accompanies his three involuntary memories are "a shudder of happiness" (" avec un tel fremissement de bonheur "). Not that this is explicitly or exclusively sexual. The word fremissement can be applied to fear, anger, as well as pleasure. It is, too, according to my Petit Robert, a light ( leger ) sensation, rather than Eliot's "blood shaking the heart". The other word Marcel uses is une joie . In French, another word for joy, jouissance, is also the word for coming, for plaisir sexuel . Jouissance seems less pedestrian than "coming". But having an orgasm - or orgasme - is parvenir a la jouissance . And parvenir means to arrive at a predetermined point.

In English we use the French word "parvenue" to suggest someone who is socially ambitious, someone who has only recently achieved social prominence, social heights - an assiduous social corkscrew, someone who isn't a someone, but someone who is a nobody. "One of the low on whom assurance sits / As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire."

Our other word, also French, for such a person is an arriviste - someone who has just arrived at the desired destination.

I suggest that the pleasure, the joy really experienced by Marcel, and by the rest of us, is bound up with the sensation of imminence, suspense and arrival - common to sex and simile.

The pleasure experienced by Marcel is primarily the actual act of remembrance, and only secondarily in the recovered detail of what is remembered. In each of these three involuntary memories, Marcel experiences a delay. The paving stones are like ... what? The teaspoon is like ... what? The texture of the napkin is exactly like ... what? Marcel claims the recall is instant, but it isn't. As he tests the uneven paving stones, he has to repeat the initial movement exactly:

Every time that I merely repeated this physical movement, I achieved nothing; but if I succeeded, forgetting the Guermantes party, in recapturing what I had felt when I first placed my feet on the ground in this way, again the dazzling and indistinct vision fluttered near me, as to say: "Seize me as I pass if you can, and try to solve the riddle of happiness I set you."

The pleasure of memory is the pleasure we experience when we read a good simile - the pleasure of difference between the two things being compared, the pleasure we take in the justice of the comparison and the sensation of comprehension. Every good simile is a kind of riddle: X is like Y. Why is X like Y? The mind sifts the evidence for and against, seeking the evidence for. Marcel solves the riddle of what the paving stones remind him of. He arrives at a solution, he comes to the destination, to the only conclusion retrospectively possible.

At its most banal, this process is what Bloom experiences in the "Lestrygonians" episode of Ulysses when he tries to remember a name across 20 or so pages. Finally, it comes to him: "Pen. Pen. Penrose." The itch is scratched. The search has come to a conclusion.

At its most complex, it is Molly's recollection at the end of Ulysses of losing her virginity to Bloom on Howth Head. Whereas in Proust, the present provokes a specific memory of the past, Molly's memory of Howth is underlaid with an earlier memory, and, surrendering to Bloom, she surrenders also to an earlier lover:

yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another ...

Molly's first proper kiss and her first full act of intercourse are conflated. Lieutenant Jack or Joe or Harry Mulvey (Molly can't remember his Christian name) is twinned with Leopold Bloom. Memory as multiple orgasm, so to speak.

Nabokov began Speak, Memory with a phrase that was later lifted by Samuel Beckett and vulgarised in Waiting for Godot : "The cradle rocks above the abyss." (In Beckett, "we give birth astride the grave". Twice.) The word "remember" is itself an implicit rejoinder to death. Its etymology counters dismemberment. It is very rare therefore to encounter a flat rejection of memory such as Ursula Brangwen's in Women in Love

She wanted to have no past. She wanted to have come down from the slopes of heaven to this place, with Birkin, not to have rolled out of the murk of her childhood and her upbringing, slowly, all soiled. She felt that memory was a dirty trick played upon her. What was this decree that she should 'remember'! Why not a bath of pure oblivion, a new birth, without any recollection or blemish of past life.

Of course, Lawrence had a low opinion of Proust: "too much jelly-water: I can't read him." As did Evelyn Waugh, who wrote to Nancy Mitford (March 16 1948):

I am reading Proust for the first time - in English of course - and am surprised to find him a mental defective. No one warned me of that. He has absolutely no sense of time. He can't remember anyone's age. In the same summer as Gilberte gives him a marble & Francoise takes him to a public lavatory in the Champs-Elysees, Bloch takes him to a brothel.

Nor was Joyce keen to be matched against Proust. On October 24 1920, Joyce wrote to Frank Budgen:

I observe a furtive attempt to run a certain M Marcel Proust of here against the signatory of this letter. I have read some pages of his. I cannot see any special talent but I am a bad critic.

On the whole, though, Proust's influence makes itself felt wherever memory is important.

In spite of his confession in 1948 that he hadn't read A la recherche, Waugh's Brideshead Revisited (1945) is clearly influenced by an idea of Proust's novel. Not only is there a reference to Charlus - the toady don Mr Samgrass spends "a cosy afternoon with the incomparable Charlus" - but there are several uncharacteristic extended metaphors stretching for a paragraph at a time. Uncharacteristic of Waugh - and though a famously Proustian trope, one less frequent, it is my impression, in the later volumes of A la recherche, where the sentences themselves are pithier, more Waugh-like. And Charles Ryder, Waugh's narrator, encapsulates his theme at the beginning of Book 3: "My theme is memory ... These memories, which are my life - for we possess nothing certainly except the past - were always with me. Like the pigeons of St Mark's ..." An extended metaphor ensues. Is it a coincidence or a Freudian slip that the pigeons are situated in San Marco, a locus central to Le temps retrouve

I should say, too, that Virginia Woolf's The Years - with its time range from 1880 to 1937, its repeated motifs, its chronological gaps during which characters alter dramatically - was an attempt to emulate Proust in English. Delia's party at the end of The Years gathers all the narrative's aged sur- vivors in one place, just as Proust assembles his survivors at the Princesse de Guermantes's, where their aged appearances are ironically and famously described as fancy dress - an extended conceit that begins brilliantly but soon shows signs of strain, like a man with asthma holding his breath.

Of course, Virginia Woolf idolised Proust: on May 6 1922 she wrote to Roger Fry:

Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly get out a sentence. Oh if I could write like that! I cry. And at the moment such is the astonishing vibration and saturation and intensification he procures - theres [sic] something sexual in it - that I feel I can write like that and seize my pen and then I can't write like that. Scarcely anyone so stimulates the nerves of language in me: it becomes an obsession. But I must return to Swann.

Fulsome praise, though in October she is still on volume one. Three years later, on February 9 1925, Woolf tells Margaret Llewelyn Davies that she's only read three volumes. No obstacle to her claim on April 21 1927 to her sister Vanessa that Proust is "far the greatest novelist".

She seems, however, never to have actually finished reading A la recherche . In a 1928 newspaper piece, "Preferences", she writes: "I have also bought and propose to read should my life last long enough the final volumes of Proust's masterpiece." ( Le temps retrouve was published in 1927.) On April 27 1934, she tells Ethel Smyth she's reading Sodom et Gomorrhe . And on May 21 1934, again to Ethel Smyth: "I cant [sic] write myself within its arc; that's true; for years I've put off finishing it."

And yet in April, May, June of 1929, her three-part essay "Phases of Fiction" claims that Proustian psychology is an advance on Henry James, while adding the qualification that the "expansion of sympathy" is almost self-defeating. Everything in Proust, however trivial, provokes an extended meditation. "Proust is determined to bring before the reader every piece of evidence upon which any state of mind is founded." The risk is that the commentary is surplus to requirements, that there is no hierarchy of importance - that the footnotes bury the trickle of text, as it were. "We lose the sense of outline."

How do we account for Woolf's high opinion of Proust if it is so precariously founded? It is partially explained by this hyperventilating assessment to Fry on October 3 1922:

One has to put the book down with a gasp. The pleasure becomes physical - like sun and wine and grapes and perfect serenity and intense vitality combined. Far otherwise is it with Ulysses : to which I bind myself like a martyr to a stake, and have thank God, now finished - My martyrdom is over. I hope to sell it for pounds 4.10.

For Virginia Woolf, Proust was a way of putting her rival Joyce in his place - and a way, too, of acceding easily to the preferential judgments of homosexual Bloomsbury.

One is queasy, however, at her little litany of praise - grapes, Evian water, pinot noir and the seafront at Cannes! - because its blowsy imprecision suggests impeccable ignorance. And although her essays refer often to Proust, one sometimes wonders if she had read as little as Waugh.

Beckett wrote a brief (and intermittently unreadable) monograph about Proust and Krapp's Last Tape is a kind of dwarf A la recherche, shrunk in the wash. On the one hand, there is the unforgettable (but ironically forgotten) physical memory of the black ball in the dog's mouth: "a small, old, black, hard. Solid rubber ball. (Pause.) I shall feel it, in my hand, until my dying day." On the other hand, there is the hypnotic memory of the punt and the girl. Ruth Miller, an early Bellow biographer, remembered Bellow reading to her the passage in Le temps retrouve when Marcel is stuck in his train in a field. In Herzog, Herzog persecutes his friend Nachman with "the engine of his memory". And The Adventures of Augie March owes a debt to Proust as well as a more obvious debt to Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the American vernacular. When Augie announces that he "will go at things" in his "own way", "free-style", and that his memories will be set down as they arrive, "first to knock, first admitted", he is not in fact going at things entirely in his own way. It is also the Guermantes' way, Swann's way, and Proust's way - the way of involuntary memory.

From Memory: An Anthology, edited by Harriet Harvey Wood & AS Byatt (Chatto & Windus, pounds 25). To order a copy for pounds 23 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0870 836 0875

I also saw this about anonymity in writing. It rings a bell to someone who is semi-anonymous with this blog!

The great unknown: From Jonathan Swift to Joe Klein, writers have gone to great lengths to hide their identities and cannily exploited the ensuing public speculation. John Mullan on how anonymity is often a sure route to notoriety
The Guardian, Saturday January 12, 2008

Many of the great books of English literature were originally published without their authors' names. It is one of the most frequent facts about literary works from before the 20th century, yet it is rarely thought worth a comment. We have forgotten that the first readers of Gulliver's Travels or Sense and Sensibility had to guess who their authors might be, and that writers like Sir Walter Scott and Charlotte Brontë went to elaborate lengths to keep secret their authorship of the bestselling books of their times. From Spenser and Donne to Dickens and Tennyson, most of the great names of English fiction and poetry used anonymity at some time.

Anonymity is not necessarily a matter of literal namelessness. Often it is difficult to distinguish between an anonymous and a pseudonymous work. Robinson Crusoe was published in 1719 without an author's name, but its title page declared it to be "Written by Himself", so we might say that it appeared under the pseudonym "Robinson Crusoe". When Thackeray used a pseudonym like Michael Angelo Titmarsh on a title page he was advertising the fact of a disguise to his readers, almost prodding them to imagine who the author might really be. If a pseudonym like "Currer Bell", used by Charlotte Brontë, signals that the true author is in hiding, you might say that the work is anonymous.

To see how much anonymity has mattered to writers you only have to browse in the nine large volumes of Halkett and Laing's 1882 Dictionary of the Anonymous and Pseudonymous Literature of Great Britain. This lists in double columns over thousands of pages works in English that were first published without their authors' names, but that have since been attributed to particular writers. Why was it so important to so many authors to remain unnamed? The perplexed compilers of the dictionary guessed that the usual motive was "some kind of timidity, such as (a) diffidence, (b) fear of consequences, and (c) shame". Yet this does scant justice to the ambitions of some of the authors who used anonymity. Pope's "The Rape of the Lock" and Byron's "Don Juan", both originally anonymous, were hardly works by timid writers. Fielding's Joseph Andrews and Wordsworth and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads, authorless in their first editions, were not published diffidently or fearfully. Indeed, in these cases as in many others, the authors did not really expect to remain hidden. If you follow in any detail the use of anonymity by literary writers - satirists, poets, dramatists and novelists - you will find that only rarely was final concealment the aim. Provoking curiosity and conjecture - highlighting the very question of authorship - was more often the calculated effect.

Anonymity was sometimes elaborately achieved. Jonathan Swift arranged for a sample part of Gulliver's Travels, transcribed in another man's handwriting, to be dropped in secret by an intermediary at the house of publisher Benjamin Motte. It was accompanied by a letter from one "Richard Sympson", supposedly Lemuel Gulliver's cousin, offering the whole of the Travels for publication in return for £200. Motte was told that, within three days, he should either return the "Papers" or give the money "to the Hand from whence you receive this, who will come in the same manner exactly at 9 a clock [sic] at night on Thursday". Motte bravely accepted the mysterious offer and a few nights later he duly got the rest of the book. Soon afterwards, Swift's friend and probable co-conspirator Alexander Pope discussed the business with the puzzled publisher, pretending to be equally mystified. He reported the conversation in a letter to Swift: "Motte receiv'd the copy (he tells me) he knew not from whence, nor from whom, dropped at his house in the dark, from a hackney coach." The author himself had returned quietly to Dublin to resume his duties as Dean of St Patrick's Cathedral.

All Swift's satirical writings first appeared anonymously or pseudonymously, and it is possible to detect in the manoeuvres over Gulliver's Travels a playful, even childish, delight in surreptitiousness. Remaining unknown as the creator of Gulliver was not what he expected. He was already a renowned satirical provocateur. Poet and playwright John Gay was soon writing to Swift about readers' attempts to attribute Gulliver's Travels: "nothing is more diverting than to hear the different opinions people give of it, though all agree in liking it extreamly. 'Tis generally said that you are the Author, but I am told, the Bookseller declares he knows not from what hand it came". Surmises about the likely author were part of the stir that the book caused. It was written to cause a fuss, to be talked about.

Swift's anonymity was also a creative resource. He liked to make trouble, and anonymity helped him to do so. His satires were let loose without any marks of "true" intent. They were presented as if they had been composed by the strange, deluded personae whom Swift invented for each occasion: Gulliver's Travels is left to be told by Gulliver, who has seen the disgusting, bestial Yahoos, and seen himself in them. Undeceived from his previously complacent faith in modern civilisation and in himself, Gulliver finally opts to live in a stable, with herbs stuck up his nose to keep off the stink of encroaching humanity. Swift might have wanted readers to be able to infer his authorship, but he would not let them hear his voice. All his satires were such anonymous fake books. The most famous is probably A Modest Proposal, whose anonymity was part of its deadly effect. After a few paragraphs lamenting the numbers of the Irish poor and their children, the proposal is made:

I shall now therefore humbly propose my own Thoughts; which I hope will not be liable to the least Objection.

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my Acquaintance in London; that a young healthy Child, well nursed, is, at a Year old, a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome Food; whether Stewed, Roasted, Baked, or Boiled; and, I make no doubt, that it will equally serve in a Fricasie, or a Ragoust.

The shock of this idea, "humbly" offered "to public Consideration", is made by the tonelessness of the prose, a medium in which anything becomes thinkable. The piece has a horrible life because there is no trace of its author.

Anonymity cannily exploited could become a kind of game played with readers. This seems to be acknowledged by the title given to the author of the best-selling literary works of the early 19th century, the so-called Waverley Novels. Their anonymous author was called "the Great Unknown" and there was feverish speculation about his identity. He was, of course, Sir Walter Scott, and we now know the lengths to which he went to preserve his incognito. Believing that his handwriting would be recognised in the print-house, he had collaborators copy out his novels before they were submitted to the publisher. He kept the circle of those who knew the secret as small as possible. His son-in-law John Gibson Lockhart said that even five years after the publication of Waverley, Scott's wife was the only member of his family who knew that he was the author. When the subject of "the Great Unknown" came up at breakfast one day, his 16-year-old daughter Anne joked that the hidden author was Scott's friend James Ballantyne. Scott claimed 13 years later, when he finally confessed his authorship, that even then only 20 or so people were "participant of this secret".

There are many stories about Scott's mischievous enjoyment of his anonymity. One day in 1819 some American tourists turned up at Abbotsford, the author's home, and, in conversation with Scott's house-guest John Ferguson, implied that they took the Laird to be the author of the novels. Later that evening, as they went in to dinner, Ferguson remarked to Scott that the tourists had been "in quite a mistake" in their comments on the resemblance between Abbotsford and the baronial houses in the Waverley novels. "They evidently meant all their humbug not for you," he is reported as saying, "but for the culprit of Waverley, and the rest of that there rubbish". The author was highly amused and Ferguson's blunder led to his "formal initiation" into the mystery.

Others had their hunches fended off. This meant lying upon occasion. When the publisher John Murray wrote to Scott in 1816 as the author of Tales of My Landlord, which included Old Mortality, he replied, "I do not claim that paternal interest in them which my friends do me the credit to assign to me". When questioned directly, Scott would always deny being the author of the novels. His anonymity fuelled the interest of readers. As Lockhart put it, "his name loomed larger through the haze in which he had thought fit to envelop it". It was also creatively useful. Scott's novels have a first-person speaker who constantly draws on his picturesque local knowledge. His achievement was, like Thomas Hardy after him, to make the places he knew seem known to his readers. His anonymity was a way of turning his personal experience into impersonal fiction.

Scott owned up to his novels in 1827, in suitably dramatic style, at a theatrical fund dinner in Edinburgh. Responding to a toast that named him as the author of Waverley, Scott confessed that he was the same. His avowal was reported in newspapers, and in turn a newspaper account was prefixed to his Chronicles of the Canongate, published later in the year. The decision to drop his disguise was not made suddenly. In 1826 the collapse of the publishing firm in which he had invested much of the profit from his novels had brought him close to financial ruin. Like the other partners, he was personally liable for the company's losses. He now needed his name to sell his way out of his acute financial difficulties. He confessed in his Introduction to Chronicles of the Canongate that "it was my original intention never to have avowed these works during my lifetime". Circumstances compelled a change of mind. One of his money-making plans was to produce a collected edition of his works, and he had to claim those works as his own. "The author, so long and loudly called for, has appeared on the stage, and made his obeisance to the audience".

Scott's case illustrates a paradox that we find over and over again: the anonymous writer who does not truly attempt to remain unknown. For the most part, he enjoyed the speculation his anonymity attracted. "I have seldom felt more satisfaction than when, returning from a pleasure voyage, I found Waverley in the zenith of popularity, and public curiosity in full cry after the name of the author". English (and Scottish) literature is full of similar cases - of authors who went to great lengths to maintain anonymity, but thereby promoted their readers' interest in the authorship of a work. The main lesson is a simple one: that anonymity is most successful when it provokes the search for an author.

This odd logic is not unknown to modern readers. In the 1990s, anony-mity sealed the triumph of a novel that reawakened such old habits of reading. Primary Colors, published in the United States in January 1996, was a roman-à-clef. In this type of fiction characters are recognisable as versions of certain real people. Primary Colors, subtitled "A Novel of Politics", told the story of Jack Stanton, a Democrat contender for the American presidency, as he fought his way through the primaries that would decide his party's nomination. Stanton - governor of a small Southern state, serial adulterer, barbecue addict and former draft evader - corresponded in every known detail to Bill Clinton. The novel was proclaimed on its jacket "a savvy insider's look at life on the stump" and was immediately recognised by all reviewers as an account of one phase of Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign. It was most unusual in that its author was unknown. Its cover announced that it was "by Anonymous".

Primary Colors was on the American bestseller list almost from the moment it was published - as a kind of succès de scandale. It was as if the author needed to hide because he or she was well-known to those depicted in the book - because he or she was breaking confidences and passing on secrets. It is narrated in the first person by Henry Burton, who has been charmed by Stanton into working on his campaign. The novel aims to bring to life the seductive appeal of Stanton/Clinton. Henry is not only a witness to the deceitfulness of this consummate politician, he is also a bemused expert on his strange magnetism. Much of the initial speculation about the book's authorship settled on the character of this narrator, who, despite being nominally black, was agreed by most American journalists to be based closely on Clinton's young adviser George Stephanopoulos. Soon Stephanopoulos found himself having regularly to deny his authorship as the book's success became inseparable from speculation about who had written it.

By the end of January, Larry King was devoting an hour-long CNN programme to the different possibilities. By February, Random House's initial print run of 60,000 hardback copies had been increased to over half-a-million, and paperback rights had been sold to Warner Books for $1.5 million. It was widely publicised that not a single person at either publishing company knew the identity of the author. Daniel Menaker, senior literary editor at Random House, told the press that his editorial discussions with the author took place via an agent's fax machine. He and Harold Evans, head of Random House, were thanked in the book's acknowledgements as "some people who don't know who I am".

Journalists speculated about the author's identity on behalf of the readers. Who could have known enough to have written the novel? Its appalled yet fascinated depiction of the contradictory qualities of Stanton/Clinton - his sincerity and his duplicity, his moral fervour and his faithlessness, his political intelligence and his dangerous stupidity - could only be the creation of someone who had been very close to the man who became president. Primary Colors had rediscovered the speculation that anonymity could fuel. Every new guess in the press as to the name of the novelist seemed to confirm his authority and help his sales (a month after publication, producer and director Mike Nichols was buying the film rights - from he knew not whom - for $1 million).

Handwriting analysis finally solved the puzzle. The Washington Post obtained an early draft that included handwritten notes. An expert compared these with samples of handwriting by political journalist and Newsweek columnist Joe Klein. Handwriting has always been the truest proof of authorship. Fanny Burney, the earliest major woman novelist, was an unknown when she wrote her first novel, Evelina, but she had been amanuensis for her father, Charles Burney, whose General History of Music had recently been published. Fearing her usual handwriting was known to printers and publishers, she copied out her novel "in a feigned hand". When Charles Dodgson answered letters addressed to him, via his publisher, by his pseudonym, Lewis Carroll, he would have either a friend or the publisher copy out his response so that the admirer would not receive a specimen of his actual handwriting.

The Washington Post duly declared Joe Klein the author of Primary Colors. The same day, Klein called a press conference at Random House and announced, "My name is Joe Klein and I wrote Primary Colors". At first he seems to have expected other journalists to be amused - he arrived to make his announcement with a joke-shop fake nose and moustache. Instead he was greeted by something close to indignation. A portentous editorial in the New York Times solemnly declared that the behaviour of Klein and Newsweek editor Maynard Parker, who was in on the secret, "violates the fundamental contract between journalists, serious publications and their readers". Klein's other employer, CBS News, "accepted his resignation", its president telling staff that he was "deeply troubled to learn along with the rest of you that Joe had not been truthful with us or, more importantly, the public".

Many were shocked that Joe Klein had denied his authorship on air to America's leading news broadcaster Dan Rather. But such untruths go with the game of anonymity: Walter Scott had publicly denied his authorship of the Waverley novels to the Prince Regent himself. At dinner, the prince had called for a toast to "the author of Waverley", while looking "significantly, as he was charging his own glass, to Scott". According to Lockhart, Scott replied "Your royal highness looks as if you thought I had some claim to the honours of this toast. I have no such pretensions."

The tricks that anonymity made possible for him would certainly have shocked the New York Times. Scott even wrote a review (anonymous, naturally) of one of his own novels, Old Mortality. The review drew attention to guesses about authorship. Pronouncing Waverley, Guy Mannering and The Antiquary (Scott's first three novels) to be "the work of the same author", it wondered about this author's motive for "preserving so strict an incognito". It also handled him with a critical severity unmatched in most contemporary reviews. "Probability and perspicuity of narrative are sacrificed with the utmost indifference to the desire of producing effect," it grumbled. "Against this slovenly indifference we have already remonstrated and we again enter our protest." When Anthony Burgess tried the same trick in 1963, reviewing in the Yorkshire Post his own novel Inside Mr. Enderby, which had been published under the pseudonym "Joseph Kell", he was sacked by the paper.

Anonymity can be teasing, but there have been famous hidden authors who really did wish to stay hidden. When Cambridge don Thomas Gray published his "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" he told the publisher to print it "without my Name", but with "a Line or two to say it came into his Hands by Accident". Gray was morbidly sensitive about being identified as an author. Though the Elegy became the most frequently reprinted poem of the 18th century, Gray never officially attached his name to it. A century later, his fellow academic Charles Dodgson acknowledged his authorship of the books published under the name Lewis Carroll to a large circle of friends and acquaintances, yet made desperate efforts to preserve his incognito. He tried to get Oxford's Bodleian Library to delete cross-references between his two names. (The library refused.) He protested to George's bookshop in Bristol when its catalogue named him as author of Through the Looking-Glass, demanding that they "forbear from printing his name in connection with any books except what he has put his name to". He harassed various other writers who published the old news of Lewis Carroll's true identity. In 1890, he printed a circular declaring "Mr Dodgson . . . neither claims nor acknowledges any connection with any pseudonym, or with any book that is not published under his own name". Any correspondence addressed to "Lewis Carroll" at Christ Church, Oxford, where he lived, would be returned unanswered accompanied by this notice.

Traditionally, this desire to avoid any public identification as an author has been associated with female writers, up to at least the 19th century. Yet female modesty, examined closely, often seems something more playful or manipulative. Take the manoeuvres of Fanny Burney. She had gone to great lengths to get her novel Evelina into print, while keeping her identity hidden. Her 19-year-old brother Charles first approached the bookseller Thomas Lowndes "in the dark of the evening", disguised in hat and old greatcoat, and going by the name of "Mr King". Once Lowndes had accepted it, her go-between became her cousin Edward, under the name "Mr Grafton". Lowndes had to write to him at Gregg's Coffee House in Covent Garden, which was run by two of Burney's aunts. There is more than a hint of pleasure taken in the subterfuges by the author.

Evelina was an almost immediate success and there was widespread speculation about its authorship. We have a record of some of this in Burney's own excited, delighted journal entries:

"Lady Hales spoke of it, very innocently, in the highest terms, declaring she was sure it was written by somebody in high Life, & that it had all the marks of real Genius! . . . Lady Hales added he must be a man of great abilities! - How ridiculous!"

Burney listened to the foolish speculations of her bluestocking acquaintances with private delight. "Ha! Ha! Ha! - that's my answer. They little think how well they are acquainted with the Writer they so much honour." Burney was not to be the only accomplished woman to hear her books being attributed to men. When George Eliot (the pseudonym of Marian Evans) published Adam Bede in 1859, her true identity was known only to a very few. Eliot reported that a friend, Agnes Owen, had unknowingly discussed the story with her and "thought I was the father of a family - was sure I was a man who had seen a great deal of society etc." Her error seems proof of Eliot's creative achievement.

Burney searched out the experience of hearing Evelina talked of by those who had no idea she was its author. In her journal she admits prodding a friend into praising it and reading aloud from it. "I must own I suffered great difficulty in refraining from Laughing upon several occasions." Anonymity could be an enjoyable game. Close family friend Samuel Crisp guessed, and told first Burney's father, then Dr Johnson's friend Hester Thrale, then Burney's godmother Frances Greville, a noted intellectual and poet. "I Grinned prodigiously . . . I sha'n't undeceive him, at least till he has finished the book." Meanwhile, Mrs Thrale recommended the book to Burney's own (still ignorant) stepmother, and even lent her a copy: "how droll!", Burney exclaimed to her journal. Burney relished introducing the topic of the novel without owning up to it: "there is no end of the ridiculous speeches perpetually made to me" she told her sister and confidante Susanna.

An unknown author could not always expect to overhear praise. Soon after the anonymous publication of her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, "By a Lady", Jane Austen visited the local circulating library with her sister Cassandra, who knew of her authorship, and their niece Anna, who did not. Anna came across a copy of Austen's novel, "which she threw aside with careless contempt, little imagining who had written it, exclaiming to the great amusement of her Aunts who stood by 'Oh that must be rubbish I am sure from the title'".

Austen's relations did, however, occasionally enjoy the mischief her anonymity could make. Another niece, Fanny Knight, set her suitor James Wildman to read his way through her aunt's novels without letting him know the identity of their author. Believing that "all young Ladies" should be perfectly good, he did not think well of their flawed heroines. Fanny reported his ridiculous opining to her aunt. "Have mercy on him, tell him the truth & make him an apology," wrote Austen, evidently amused. It is the only time we hear her asking for her identity to be revealed. Fiction-loving Fanny, Austen's favourite niece, was using the novels to find her po-faced lover out. "When he knows the truth he will be uncomfortable. - You are the oddest Creature!" exclaimed Aunt Jane, with what sounds as much like pleasure as disapproval. As she knew, mischief and modesty could go together.

Anonymity by John Mullan is published by Faber & Faber on January 17, price £17.99.

Finally, if all the above has inspired you to write and make a fortune from it, some words of caution...

The Big Question: What should you do if you want to get your first novel published?
By Boyd Tonkin, The Independent, 4 January 2008

Why are we asking this now?

Former retail manager Catherine O'Flynn from Birmingham has won the Costa First Novel Award for her fiction debut, What Was Lost, after the manuscript was rejected by 14 literary agents. The novel, set in the kind of Midlands mall where she worked, also reached the longlists of the Orange and Man Booker prizes. Her victory will revive the hopes of the thousands of wannabe novelists who, in spite of the huge odds stacked against them, bombard agents and publishers with their creative offspring. Also this week, J K Rowling – another survivor of multiple rejections – broke down in tears during an ITV interview when she returned to the flat in Leith where she lived while writing Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. End-of-year statistics showed that the final novel in the septet, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, sold more than 4 million copies in the UK alone during 2007.

So will fiction ever make a writer rich?

No. No. A thousand times: no. Even successful career novelists earn infinitely less from their writing alone than the rumours would suggest. As Martin Amis pointed out during one of the periodic media squalls over his large advances, a hefty-sounding deal averaged out over the time that a book or three takes will often result in something closer to the annual salary of a provincial solicitor. And that's for the starriest names. Many illusions about the wealth of up-and-coming authors arise because the media publish wildly exaggerated estimates of the sums involved. Next time you read about a "£1m advance", try dividing by 10 – at least.

If it works, could you give up the day job?

Almost certainly not. For briskly marketed and well-reviewed debutants, we're usually talking about the sort of adult pocket-money that a bedroom eBay business might easily exceed. The few exceptions take the form of chance lightning-strikes, usually with a bidding auction involved, or carefully-planned new brands in mass-market genres such as crime. Plenty of acclaimed writers of fiction never give up their previous occupation, or else acquire a new one (in teaching or journalism, for example).

I still want to try. Where can I get the best advice?

Be wary of creative-writing courses offered as part of local adult-education programmes. In many cases more therapy than apprenticeship is involved – unless you trust the tutor.

In contrast, established MA courses in universities will demand strong evidence of talent and commitment (even if part-time) but should deliver a climate of encouragement and serious advice, both artistic and professional. What no course can ever do is guarantee eventual publication: no, not even the legendary star-factory at UEA in Norwich.

Several reliable guides can keep your head out of the clouds and your feet on the ground. The annual Writers' & Artists' Yearbook (A&C Black) and The Writers' Handbook, edited by Barry Turner (Macmillan), always offer solid information on the state of the market and the changing requirements of agents and publishers, along with those all-important contact details.

Among the many authors who offer help to their aspiring peers, no one has a better record than former publisher Alison Baverstock: check out the new edition of her Marketing Your Book (A&C Black). The question of who precisely to approach (publisher or agent, and which ones?) and how to do it will vary from case to case. One size does not fit all.

Aren't unsolicited works automatically rejected?

Always check whether newcomers can even make it through their door. Horror-stories do abound of future bestsellers batted back unread. One recurrent media trick involves sending some classic work to the gate-keepers of literature and then scorning their ignorance when it comes back with a standard rejection letter. Budding writer David Lassman did this last year when he sent out chapters from Jane Austen novels. Only Alex Bowler at Random House wrote back warning that "there is such a thing as plagiarism". Does that mean that no one else who replied could spot an Austen? Worse, probably: they hadn't even read the work.

But tales of slush-pile to stardom do come to light, don't they?

Indeed so, but remarkably few. Businessman Paul Torday, a fiction debutant at 60, only heard from the agent Mark Stanton six months after submitting the manuscript of his Middle Eastern comedy of manners, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. It was worth the wait. After hardback success and discussion on radio and TV, the paperback edition of his novel has sold 160,000 copies since June.

On the whole, smaller agents and publishers will deal with a lower volume of submissions and may have more time for cold-calling manuscripts. But make sure that they have in the past accepted the kind of fiction that belongs on the same planet as yours.

Is it worth trying to self-publish, or using a vanity publisher?

Some old-style vanity houses were outright crooks. Some are wholly respectable businesses that exercise quality control but ask authors to bear or share the costs.

And look beyond the misleading "vanity" label. Self-publishing and book-packaging offer different kinds of do-it-yourself arrangements, and many gifted authors have benefited from them. When I judged the Booker Prize, a beautiful and moving self-published novel reached our long-list: Mirage by Bandula Chandraratna. Never shun the option of DIY. Just avoid the sharks.

What about publishing on the internet?

It's a false dichotomy: print and online publication will work best in tandem. Print-on-demand houses can ensure that your digitally-stored masterwork can come to market in paper garb whenever called for, and in the right numbers. Again, the standard guidebooks will tell you where to look.

As for online publication as a route to riches: beware the hype. The idea of a fast blog-to-book track for tomorrow's bestsellers has been touted for years, but the few genuine hits have come from "memoirs" real or imaginary (starting with Belle de Jour).

If the mere theoretical availability for your work is all you crave, just upload your 21st-century answer to War and Peace on to a personal website and sit back happy to have "published" it. But if that level of exposure could satisfy you, you probably wouldn't have read this far.

Should I bother to try to publish my novel?


* Hundreds of first novels appear each year. Some do well, and not all of their authors are young, beautiful or already famous

* No agent or publisher ever knows for certain what will work. Their doors, and minds, must stay open out of self-interest

* Beyond the traditional houses, digital media have widened the choices for DIY publishing and greatly improved its status


* Serial rejection and long months of disappointment await for the vast majority of wannabe novelists

* Writing your book, and making sure that friends and family can read it, might amount to as much authorship as you really want

* Far too many published novels clog an overcrowded marketplace. Even if you made it into print, your book might well sink without trace

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