So here is another of my favorite quotations. Towards the end of his life the French novelist Flaubert wrote:
All my life I have tried to live in an ivory tower. But a sea of shit has beaten at the base of it for so long that it has undermined the foundation.
That’s what he said as best I can remember. Gustave Flaubert was born in 1821 into an affluent family, his father a successful country doctor. They lived in a chateau on the Loire river, where Flaubert would return for long stays whenever the world got too much for him. Most of his writing was done there.
Well, I too have known that sea, but in my case, born to Yorkshire/Lancashire parents from the core of working-class England, and raised in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada’s largest steeltown, I’ve spent most of my adult life out on that sea in a small boat, just trying to stay afloat.
Once I saw an ivory tower in the distance. During three years at York University in the 1970s, while still working at insurance claims from May to September, I even got close to it.
I had gone back to school at age 29 with the intention of getting into law school, but my encounter with the literature of the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries quickly changed my mind. Now I wanted to study, write and teach fiction and poetry.
Contrary to popular belief, the study of literature offers better over-all understanding of the world than the other sciences. ‘Other sciences’ I say, for I consider the study of literature to be both a psychological and historical science. And there is SF where all the other sciences are explored. Many scientists mock SF, but those who do have obviously read little of it.
Though I was a B student at best in elementary and high school, often lower, when I got to university I got high marks. I won an award in my second year that might have helped me into grad school, except that in the 1970s many Canadian universities were cash-strapped. I was informed that no money would accompany the award that year.
Meanwhile I developed a talent for innovative, grass-roots literary criticism that enthused some professors. Three of them urged me to enter graduate school. The ivory tower looked like it was in reach. For a few years I dreamt of a life inside the refuge of university.
In my third year I won an award that did have money attached, but there was one catch – you had to enter grad school immediately to claim it.
I was raising children now and my debts were climbing. Wages in the insurance claims field were rising and I was getting job offers. Thinking that I would pay off my debts in 5 yrs, then return to school, I forsook my 1978 award money and set out to sea again. I would never see land again.
Am I sorry about that? Not really. The world of books – all the arts and all the sciences – remained open to me. Ever since the working class got a toe-hold on education in the nineteenth century, some of us have fought to remain part of the world of learning. I’ve been told that my father, who worked all his life as a machine operator and mechanic, always had a book in his hand when he was alone (he died when I was 5, so I hardly got to know him).
Yes, all my life I’ve read history, literature, physics and astronomy, biology, geology, psychology and anthropology. If you look at the page on this site titled For Madmen Only (an essay on the problematic ending of the book Steppenwolf) you will see that I’ve never stopped writing ‘literary criticism’.
For Madmen Only once had a following. When Yahoo (once one of the most reliable of webhosts) hosted this site, that essay received 5-6 visits every week, for several years. But since I switched to WordPress, those readers, whoever they were, seem to have been lost (though just recently the page has started to get occasional visits).
The investigation of accidents and injuries teaches you a lot about the world too. I had the great fortune to work with, and learn from insurance adjuster John Pinkerton (no relation to the Pinkerton detective agency). John was a detective of the first order and helped me to become one too.
Without insurance investigation, my novel The Birdcatcher would not exist. Though it has yet to make me any money, my book sales always falling short of expenses (in 2008-2010 there were many weeks when I was breaking even), it remains dear to me. I’ve never doubted that it is an important book and it may prove that after I’m gone.
When I think of the authors I owe the most to – Joseph Conrad, Dickens, Hemingway, Isaac Asimov and Cordwainer Smith – I see that I have riches of another kind. Conrad died of a heart attack at age 66, Dickens wore himself out with his prolific writing and public speaking and died at 58; Flaubert was gone at 58 too. Hemingway, with his kidneys failing and going blind, shot himself at 63, and Cordwainer Smith, after completing his first and only novel – the wonderful Norstrilia , in my opinion the best SF novel ever written, died suddenly of a stroke at only 53.
Meanwhile, I’m now 76 and my writing is gaining steam, or at least it was until my dear wife fell into the dark chaotic last stages of Alzheimer’s. I had to put 3 novels on hold while I cared for her, but I’m getting back on track now. At least one of them should make it into print, maybe all of them if I last long enough.
So, although I’m never going to reach that ivory tower – it’s nowhere to be seen now – I suspect that some of my books and stories will get there one day.