Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Shakespeare & (some Scottish) Company

The sun was balanced on the tip of the Eiffel Tower like a big orange ball on the nose of a seal.

I was heading down the river to see fellow Glaswegian writer Lesley McDowell at an event at Shakespeare and Co, the quaint Dickensian bookshop on the Left Bank that, if I'm not hauled out of it, I'd happily burrow away inside for days on end.

By the time I'd walked from the Louvre to the Ile de la Cite, the sun had fallen off its perch and the bells of Notre Dame were pealing out the hour - 7 o'clock. I'd meant to get there earlier but I'd lingered on the bridges as the sky turned to pink champagne and there is a tangible fizz about the city.

Silly me. The bookshop was packed out. I'd have to scramble upstairs where they'd packed in late stragglers. I'd hear, but not see, the event. This is when it's good to be small and quietly stubborn. I bent my knees behind a large, seated American and tried to hide behind a bookstack. And yay, the writing gods were on my side. Two friends spotted each other across the room and the seat in front of me was free - just in time.

Lesley and American author Dan Bullen were here to talk about their books on the love lives of writers - legendary liaisons like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Henry Miller and Anais Nin. Why, asked Lesley, had so many brilliant, intelligent women thrown themselves with such abandon and been 'steamrollered' by ruinous relationships with male writers who lived for their art? Her answer is that they were not victims, but volunteers. They knew what they were doing and the pay-off was worth the pain.

Desire and writing are so intertwined that each feeds off the other. These women had ambitions for their writing; they ached and yearned for a writing partner and sought out such men as part of the fulfilment of their dreams. A deeply passionate relationship with a powerful male talent inspired and drove them, boosted their confidence and writing - and their careers. It is not, said Lesley, a view that will warm feminist hearts, but it's probably the truth.

These were vampiric relationships, on both sides. Dangerous liaisons that often burned themselves out with tragic results: breakdowns, suicide, alcoholism, abortion, abandoned families... leaving vast wreckage in their wake. But the perilous journeys resulted in some great art.

These writers were living out a great, passionate experiment that fuelled their fiction - and made myths of themselves in the process. They lived it and dissected their experience, sacrificing normality to create their art. 'Art' was the excuse for a lot of bad, selfish behaviour.

So was their art - all the groundbreaking books and the great explorations of human (and uncharted female) experience - worth the pain and wreckage of themselves and the innocents around them? Can even great art justify that?

Where are these mythic creatures, these creative couplings today? Who are our passionate writer-explorers? The boundary breakers, the dangerous ones, the lethal liaisons? Would it even be possible to cultivate the myth of yourself in the age of Facebook, Twitter and the Daily Mail? To live riskily, wildly, sordidly even, to make your life an experiment so that you could write about it and perhaps add to understanding of what it is to be human?

I took my glass of wine outside after a chat with Lesley, my book signed, and tried to imagine what Sartre and De Beauvoir, Plath and Hughes, Elizabeth Smart and George Barker, would have made of - could have been - in our era? Maybe we'll only find out once those writers are dead - or will it all disappear with them into the ether?

Dan Bullen, as an American, seems sure of the answer: 'America wouldn't stand for it.'


  1. You're having an enchanting time. I know the spot well. Amber and I stayed round the corner at Hotel Esmeralda --- and we were inspired to write!! Best wishes

  2. I'm loving it. Thanks so much for your kind wishes. I looked in on your blog and just read your last post, A Story Wrought In Glass - beautifully written and so true about history being written by the winners. I'll have a good read tomorrow.