Death of an Author

I was sent to live with this writer, William Mason, when I was still very young.  He was some distant uncle of mine on either my mother or father’s side.  I wasn’t clear which one.  He wasn’t known as a famous writer back then.  None of his work was published until after his death, when the managers of his estate collected all of his voluminous notes and scattered manuscripts, and some sharp editor went to work trying to wrestle it all into some more consumable form.  During his lifetime, however, he lived off a substantial inheritance that he had received at some point and he lived quite comfortably without being published or making any money off of his writing.

In fact, it was probably in light of his secure financial position that I was sent to live with this uncle.  The day I arrived, he sent a driver in an old black Hudson to pick me up from the bus station.  The driver dropped me at the curb in front of the house.  It was just beginning to rain.  As I got out and stared up at the tall Gothic facade brooding among a yard of dark trees, my uncle’s manservant promptly appeared with an umbrella over my head, and he followed me up the walk with it.  He was very tall and he had to bend deeply to keep the umbrella near my head.  All the while, the rain pattered against his own back, and he maintained the same grave and silent frown on his face.

I was taken directly to my uncle’s library, where he spent most of his time working on his writing.  It was a dark, stuffy chamber.  There were bookshelves along every wall and the shelves reached high up into the darkness farther than I could see.  The only light was from a dim desk lamp on a desk in the middle of the room.  There my uncle sat huddled in this little pool of light, writing something with a fountain pen.  I could tell from the cramped way that he held his hand that he was writing something in a tiny, tedious script.  He would spent hours every day filling each page with hundreds upon hundreds of tiny, tedious words, outpouring the feverish machinery of his relentless train of thought, and then he would hold each page briefly up to the light before blowing on it softly and then setting it aside to let the ink dry.

He rolled back from his desk, and I could see that he was in a wheelchair.  His grey hair was long and ratty in places and balding in others.  He took a pair of spectacles from his desk and put them on as he wheeled over towards me, and he perched them on the edge of his nose as he leaned forward to study me as though I were an exhibit of some sort.  There was a long, awkward moment of silence.  I wasn’t sure if I needed to say something.  Finally he made a grunt, evidently satisfied by what he saw, and he said, “You must be hungry,” before wheeling back to his desk and leaving his manservant to attend to me.

He continued to be just as cold in all the years that I lived with him, growing up.  We rarely ever had normal, casual conversations.  Instead he would impart “lessons” or offer “instruction” meant to be edifying for my “constitution” and beneficial in reinforcing the fiber of my character.  His lower lip would always seem to protrude petulantly when he used these words and he would pat the stomach of his dark blue vest and roll away with an immense air of self-satisfaction.  Once, I was sitting on the floor at his feet listening to one of these lectures of his, and he managed to roll over my fingers as he started away.  There was a sharp snap and I cried out.  “The floor is no place for civilized people to keep their hands,” was all that he had to say.

He made efforts to get his work published.  He didn’t need the money, but he wanted the prestige, the validation.  Sometimes, behind the closed door of his office, I could hear him having long, one-sided arguments with his manservant, who also managed his professional affairs, contacting publishers and submitting his work to different markets.  The argument was always the same.  He was convinced that the manservant wasn’t doing enough, wasn’t going about things the right way, wasn’t contacting the right people.  The manservant bore these harangues in silence and, I imagine, with the same stiff frown that he always wore on his face.

As a result of his lack of publication, my uncle’s family looked on his writing with condescending amusement.  To them, it was just some eccentric pastime that he puttered away at, something to keep a rich old man from feeling useless.  They would come by the house and find him in his office, and they would smirk and shake their heads and refuse to take him seriously.  “For Heaven’s sake, you should let some light in here,” they would tell him.  He would just scowl and try to dismiss them, insisting that he was busy working, but they refused to respect that and instead went on about getting lighter drapes and window fixtures for his gloomy office.  Even the lilting cadence of their voices seemed to shed unwanted light about the house.  My uncle seemed smaller, sillier, when they were around and I know that he burned with resentment at every minute that he had to endure in their presence.

Sometimes he would take this resentment out on me.  He began to taunt me with the fact that my parents had abandoned me to his care.  I had come there under the impression that my parents had died and that I had come to stay with him as an orphan.  He forcefully disabused me of this notion.  He showed me letters that they had written to him.  They went on and on about their happy, carefree lives.  They described beaches, sunsets, warm tropical places where they basked in childless luxury.  He read page after spiteful page of these letters.  I tried to defend them.  I had been sick often as a child and they hadn’t known what to do; they hadn’t been prepared to take care of me; they would have been there if they could.  But he brushed aside each of these excuses with a slow, triumphant shake of his head until there was nothing left but the pitiless fact that they just didn’t care enough to raise their child.

So I grew up like this.  When I was about sixteen, my uncle became seriously ill.  Some sickness that he had harbored in his chest for years finally caught up with him and he took to his bed.  The manservant called in the doctors and there were grim, whispered consultations in the hallway.  Finally I was told that he wanted to see me one last time.  His eyes followed me intently as I came to the side of his bed, and he reached out his hand to me and struggled to speak.  He wanted me to get rid of all the manuscripts stored in his desk in the library.  “Burn them,” he said.  “I was too hard.  There was no forgiveness there for anyone.  People want passion.  They want life and entertainment.  I gave them … I gave them …” He clutched my arm and pulled himself up, his eyes wide and wild, “I gave them nothing!” And he fell back against the pillow, all the breath and life gone out of him, his eyes staring ahead empty.

It was his most human moment.  It was the closest that we had ever been, and I noticed for the first time how bright and blue his eyes were.  I had never really looked into his eyes before.  I knew then that I couldn’t do what he asked.  I couldn’t burn his books.  I couldn’t throw away all those years of work. I knew then that he was wrong.  He had to be.  I could see it there in his eyes.  I knew that there was something there, something in all those pages of cramped, urgent writing.  We just had to find it.


4 thoughts on “Death of an Author

  1. Wow. So vivid. I can see all of this. And with the setting, and the uncle/his garb/his mannerisms, I get a very early 1900s kind of vibe from this. Not sure if that's the case, but that's how I picture it.

    Now then… a shout out to the real MVP here, the manservant, who put up with a lifetime of thankless crap.


  2. This is so poignant, Bryan. The dark anxiety dream of the dedicated and alienated writer, turned into a drama between the two sides of his psyche, imagining the worst or almost beyond.

    Will be instantly appreciated by every reader within whom lurks a solitary scribbler riddled with self-doubts. Me, for instance!

    And how many of us don't imagine ourselves as “successful authors”? The hype of the age almost demands that we do. According to the ratcheting-up demands of our not-so-civilized civilization, we must excel visibly, palpably, make pretty speeches while clutching our awards. Every Olympic medal, every Oscar . . .

    “He wanted the prestige, the validation . . .” because it would hurt when “they would smirk and shake their heads and refuse to take him seriously.”

    But of course our scribbling is necessarily solitary. And everyone who pursues art, sport, wealth like someone driven is actually driven. And what drove them to it isn't a pretty sight.

    And we (I ought to say “I”!) harbour the gnawing sense of being half-crazy, no use to anyone. Have I anything to offer my children and grandchildren, I mean to day, I mean by seeing them, travelling the distance which separates us? Must I measure my work (scribbling, planning editing) in terms of its value to anyone else?

    Consciously, in the light of day, we are controlled, we have sane answers to such questions.

    But the unconscious, uncontrolled, throws up its doubts all the same. Which can only be assuaged with some kind of justification.

    “I knew that there was something there, something in all those pages of cramped, urgent writing. We just had to find it.”

    As it happens, I've been planning a post (& beating myself up for not getting on with it) which tries to offer a safe harbour for these anxieties. That's a wrong metaphor, but I don't want to start writing it here.

    So, anyhow. I liked it very much.


  3. Thanks. I totally agree with your assessment, and I look forward to your “safe harbor” post. This sort of thing is always an interesting topic to me, obviously, and I think we've discussed it some before. There always a kind of balancing act. On the one hand, you have to write with an audience in mind. You have to invite them in, give them the details and information they need, try to keep them hooked, keep it interesting and entertaining enough to keep them invested. But on the other hand, you can drive yourself crazy if you become TOO concerned in what other people are going to get out of it. It's like you have to do it for them but at the same time also try to keep doing it just out of your own love for doing it and the satisfaction that you get out of it, and you just have to move forward on faith that it might do something for someone else.

    It's tricky. I can see that it's been on your mind lately as well, with the changes you've been making and different things that you've been trying. I definintely look forward to what you have to say in your post.


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