My Father Had an Alter Ego Who Rang Up Women to Ask Them Which of Their Breasts Was the Heavier

By French, Sean | New Statesman (1996), February 26, 1999 | Go to article overview

My Father Had an Alter Ego Who Rang Up Women to Ask Them Which of Their Breasts Was the Heavier


French, Sean, New Statesman (1996)


There are certain people who always have the same thing said to them. Mordecai Richler has written an amusing article (reproduced in the current edition of Prospect magazine) in which he complains about having to go around publicising his books and the various travails, inconveniences and petty humiliations that are involved. He mentions the classic, cliched question that readers ask authors: "What do you write with?"

The article leaves a slightly sour taste. Many writers would respond that Richler should think himself lucky to be limoed around cities across the western world by publishers who consider his books worth publicising. The majority of people who write books can't find anybody to publish their book, let alone publicise it once it has been published.

And I've always thought it a bit unsporting to mock readers for asking the old chestnut about whether you write on a word processor. First, because they've probably reacted the way most of us do if we meet someone we admire, which is to go blank and then blurt out something a bit foolish. Second, authors may well get bored with the details of how they go about their pathetic, lonely business day after day but the way they write happens to be interesting. In a letter to his brother, Keats wrote about how he would like to have witnessed the scene when Shakespeare wrote "To be or not to be". It is worth knowing, to name a few examples I know off the top of my head, that Nabokov wrote his novels on little index cards while standing at a lectern, that Iris Murdoch wrote in pencil in exercise books, that A N Wilson writes his books in bed (I did my A-level revision in bed, which was not so much a working method as a form of nervous breakdown). For better or worse, I find it impossible to read the late novels of Henry James - I was tempted to stop there, but I don't find them impossible to read. They just take an awfully long time, with many false starts - I find it impossible to read them without imagining him walking up and down his study in Lamb House dictating those baroque winding sentences to his secretary, Miss Bosanquet.

There isn't exactly a question that people ask me but there is something that people frequently say to me. I'll make the most routine observation and they'll say in some heavily sarcastic tone: "Ah! I sense a column coming on. …

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