The American Poseur’s Journal | Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook

This section of Doris Lessing’s novel The Golden Notebook actually made me laugh aloud. She offers a wonderful parody of “a young American living on an allowance from his father who works in insurance”; the section recalls William Gaddis’s similar send-ups in The Recognitions (and again links the two novels together in my consciousness).

[The right side of the black notebook, under the heading Money, continued.]

Some months ago I got a letter from the Pomegranate Review, New Zealand, asking for a story. Wrote back, saying I did not write stories. They replied asking for ‘portions of your journals, if you keep them’. Replied saying I did not believe in publishing journals written for oneself. Amused myself composing imaginary journal, of the right tone for a literary review in a colony or the Dominions: circles isolated from the centres of culture will tolerate a far more solemn tone than the editors and their customers in let’s say London or Paris. (Though sometimes I wonder.) This journal is kept by a young American living on an allowance from his father who works in insurance. He has had three short stories published and has completed a third of a novel. He drinks rather too much, but not as much as he likes people to think; takes marihuana, but only when friends from the States visit him. He is full of contempt for that crude phenomenon, the United States of America.

April 16th. On the steps of the Louvre. Remembered Dora. That girl was in real trouble. I wonder if she has solved her problems. Must write to my father. The tone of his last letter hurt me. Must we be always isolated from each other? I am an artist – Mon Dieu!

April 17th. The Gare de Lyon. Thought of Lise. My God, and that was two years ago! What have I done with my life? Paris has stolen it … must re-read Proust.

April 18th. London. The Horseguards’ Parade. A writer is the conscience of the world. Thought of Marie. It is a writer’s duty to betray his wife, his country and his friend if it serves his art. Also his mistress.

April 18th. Outside Buckingham Palace. George Eliot is the rich man’s Gissing. Must write to my father. Only ninety dollars left. Will we ever speak the same language?

May 9th. Rome. The Vatican. Thought of Fanny. My God, those thighs of hers, like the white necks of swans. Did she have problems! A writer is, must be, the Machiavelli of the soul’s kitchen. Must reread Thom (Wolfe).

May 11th. The Campagna. Remembered Jerry – they killed him. Salauds! The best die young. I have not long to live. At thirty I shall kill myself. Thought of Betty. The black shadows of the lime trees on her face. Looked like a skull. I kissed the sockets of her eyes so as to feel the white bone on my lips. If I don’t hear from my father before next week shall offer this journal for publication. On his head be it. Must re-read Tolstoy. He said nothing that wasn’t obvious, but perhaps now that reality is draining the poetry from my days I can admit him to my Pantheon.

June 21st. Les Halles. Spoke to Marie. Very busy but she offered me one of her nights for free. Mon Dieu, the tears stand in my eyes as I remember it! When I kill myself I shall remember that a woman of the streets offered me one of her nights, for love. No greater compliment has been paid me. It is not the journalist but the critic who is the prostitute of the intellect. Re-reading Fanny Hill. Am thinking of writing an article called ‘Sex is the Opium of the People’.

June 22nd. Café de Flore. Time is the River on which the leaves of our thoughts are carried into oblivion. My father says I must come home. Will he never understand me? Am writing a porno for Jules called Loins. Five hundred dollars, so my father can go hang. Art is the Mirror of our betrayed ideals.

July 30th. London. Public Convenience, Leicester Square. Ah, the lost cities of our urban nightmare! Thought of Alice. The lust I feel in Paris is of a different quality from the lust I feel in London. In Paris sex is scented with a je ne sais quoi. In London it is just sex. Must go back to Paris. Shall I read Bossuet? Am reading my book Loins for the third time. Pretty good. Have put, not my best self, but my second-best self into it. Pornography is the true journalism of the fifties. Jules said he would only pay me three hundred dollars for it. Salaud! Wired my father, told him I had finished a book which had been accepted. He sent me a thousand dollars. Loins is a real spit in the eye for Madison Avenue. Leautard is the poor man’s Stendhal. Must read Stendhal.

Came to know the young American writer James Schaffer. Showed him this journal. He was delighted. We concocted another thousand or so words, and he sent it to an American little review as the work of a friend too shy to send it himself. It was printed. He took me out to lunch to celebrate. Told me the following: the critic, Hans P., a very pompous man, had written an article about James’ work, saying it was corrupt. The critic was due in London. James, who had previously snubbed Hans P., because he dislikes him, sent a sycophantic telegram to the airport and a bunch of flowers to the hotel. He was waiting in the foyer when Hans P. arrived from the airport, with a bottle of Scotch and yet another bunch of flowers. Then he offered himself as a guide around London. Hans P., flattered but uneasy. James kept this up for the two weeks of Hans P.’s visit, hanging on Hans’s every word. When Hans P. left he said from a steep moral height: ‘Of course you must understand that I never allow personal feelings to interfere with my critical conscience.’ To which James replied: ‘writhing with moral turpitude’, as he describes it – ‘Yeah, but yeah, I see that, but man, it’s communication that counts – yeah.’ Two weeks later Hans P. wrote an article about James’ work in which he says that the element of corruption in James’ work is more the honest cynicism of a young man due to the state of society than an enduring element of James’ view of life. James rolled on the floor laughing all afternoon.

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