My Purple Scented NovelIan Mcewan / History & Fiction
My Purple Scented Novel
A Short Story
Ian McEwan is the bestselling author of seventeen books, including the novels Nutshell; The Children Act; Sweet Tooth; Solar, winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize; On Chesil Beach; Saturday; Atonement, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and the W. H. Smith Literary Award; The Comfort of Strangers and Black Dogs, both shortlisted for the Booker Prize; Amsterdam, winner of the Booker Prize; and The Child in Time, winner of the Whitbread Award; as well as the story collections First Love, Last Rites, winner of the Somerset Maugham Award, and In Between the Sheets.
ALSO BY IAN MCEWAN
First Love, Last Rites
In Between the Sheets
The Cement Garden
The Comfort of Strangers
The Child in Time
On Chesil Beach
The Children Act
My Purple Scented Novel
A Short Story
A Vintage Short
A Division of Penguin Random House LLC
Copyright © 2016 by Ian McEwan
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, and distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited, Toronto.
Vintage and colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
This work was originally commissioned for the illustrated book of Thomas Demand’s exhibition “L’image volée,” published by Fondazione Prada, Milan, in 2016, and appeared in The New Yorker on March 28, 2016.
Vintage Books eShort ISBN 9780525564584
Series cover design by Linda Huang
About the Author
Also by Ian McEwan
My Purple Scented Novel
You will have heard of my friend the once celebrated novelist Jocelyn Tarbet, but I suspect his memory is beginning to fade. Time can be ruthless with reputation. The association in your mind is probably with a half-forgotten scandal and disgrace. You’d never heard of me, the once obscure novelist Parker Sparrow, until my name was publicly connected with his. To a knowing few, our names remain rigidly attached, like the two ends of a seesaw. His rise coincided with, though did not cause, my decline. Then his descent was my earthly triumph. I don’t deny there was wrongdoing. I stole a life, and I don’t intend to give it back. You may treat these few pages as a confession.
To make it fully, I must go back forty years, to a time when our lives happily and entirely overlapped, and seemed poised to run in parallel toward a shared future. We studied at the same university, read the same subject—English literature—published our first stories in student magazines with names like Knife in Your Eye. (But what names are like that?) We were ambitious. We wanted to be writers, famous writers, even great writers. We took holidays together and read each other’s stories, gave generous, savagely honest comments, made love to each other’s girlfriends, and, on a few occasions, tried to interest ourselves in a homoerotic affair. I’m fat and bald now, but then I had a head of curls and was slender. I liked to think I resembled Shelley. Jocelyn was tall, blond, muscular, with a firm jawline, the very image of the Übermensch Nazi. But he had no taste for politics at all. Our affair was simply bohemian posturing. We thought it made us fascinating. The truth was that we were each repelled by the sight of the other’s penis. We did very little to or with each other, but we were happy to have people think we did a lot.
None of this got in the way of our literary friendship. I don’t think we were properly competitive at the time. But, looking back, I’d say that initially I was the one who was ahead. I was the first to publish in a real, grown-up literary magazine—The North London Review. At the end of our university career, I got a good first, Jocelyn got a second-class degree. We decided that such things were irrelevant, and so they turned out to be. We moved to London and took single rooms just a few streets away from each other in Brixton. I published my second story, so it was a relief when he published his first. We continued to meet regularly, get drunk, read each other’s stuff, and we began to move in the same pleasantly downtrodden literary circles. We even began at roughly the same time to write reviews for the respectable national press.
Those two years after university were the height of our fraternal youth. We were growing up fast. We were both working on our first novels, and they had much in common: sex, mayhem, a touch of apocalypse, some violence, some fashionable despair, and very good jokes about all the things that can go wrong between a young man and a young woman. We were happy. Nothing stood in our way.
Then two things did. Jocelyn, without telling me, wrote a TV play. That sort of thing, I thought at the time, was well beneath us. We worshipped at the temple of literature. TV was mere entertainment, dross for the masses. The screenplay was immediately produced, starred two famous actors, was passionate about a good cause—homelessness or unemployment—that I had never heard Jocelyn mention. It was a success; he was talked about, noted. His first novel was anticipated. None of that would have mattered if I had not, at the same time, met Arabella, an English rose, ample, generous, calm, a funny girl who remains my wife even today. I’d had a dozen lovers before then, but I got no farther than Arabella. She laid on everything I needed by way of sex and friendship and adventure and variation. Such a passion was not enough in itself to stand between Jocelyn and me, or me and my ambitions. Far from it. Arabella’s nature was copious, unjealous, all-embracing, and she liked Jocelyn from the start.
What changed was that we had a child, a boy named Matt, on whose first birthday Arabella and I were married. My Brixton room could not accommodate us for long. We moved farther south, deeper into the postal districts of southwest London, first to SW12, later to SW17. From there, one reached Charing Cross by a twenty-minute train ride, which itself began only after a twenty-five-minute walk through the suburbs. My freelance writing could not support us. I found a part-time teaching job in a local college. Arabella became pregnant again—she loved being pregnant. My college job turned full-time just as my first novel was published. There was praise; there was mild damnation. Six weeks later, Jocelyn’s first novel was out—an instant success. Though it didn’t sell much more than mine (in those days, sales hardly mattered), his name already had a ring to it. There was a hunger for a new voice, and Jocelyn Tarbet sang more sweetly than I ever could.
His looks and his height (Nazi is unfair—let’s say Bruce Chatwin, with Mick Jagger’s scowl), his high turnover of interesting girlfriends, the beaten-up MGA sports car he drove fed his reputation. Was I envious? I don’t think so. I was in love with three people—our children seemed to me divine beings. Everything they said or did fascinated me, and Arabella continued to fascinate me, too. She was soon pregnant again, and we moved north, to Nottingham. With teaching and family responsibilities, it took me five years to write my second novel. There was praise, a little more than last time; there was damnation, a little less than last time. No one but me remembered the last time.
By then, Jocelyn was publishing his third. The first had already been made into a movie starring Julie Christie. He’d had a divorce, a mews house in Notting Hill, many interviews on TV, many photographs in lifestyle magazines. He said hilarious, scathing things about the prime minister. He was becoming our generation’s spokesman. But here’s the astonishing thing: our friendship did not falter. Certainly, it became more intermittent. We were busy in our separate realms. We had to get the desk diaries out well in advance in order to see each other. Occasionally, he traveled up to see me and the family. (By the time of our fourth child, we had moved even farther north, to Durham.) But usually I was the one who traveled south to see him and his second wife, Joliet. They lived in a large Victorian house in Hampstead, right near the heath.
Mostly, we drank and talked and walked on the heath. If you’d been listening in, you would have heard nothing between us to suggest that he was the star and that my literary prospects were fading. He assumed that my opinions were as important as his; he never condescended. He even remembered my children’s birthdays. I was always installed in the best guest room. Joliet was welcoming. Jocelyn invited friends around, who all seemed lively and pleasant. He cooked big meals. He and I were, as we often said, “family.”
But, of course, there were differences that neither of us could ignore. My place in Durham was friendly enough, but child-trampled, crowded, cold in the winter. The chairs and carpets had been wrecked by a dog and two cats. The kitchen was always full of laundry, because that was where the washing machine was. The house was afflicted with many ginger-colored pine fittings that we never had time to paint or replace. There was rarely more than one bottle of wine in the house. The kids were fun, but they were chaotic and noisy. We lived on my modest salary and Arabella’s part-time nursing. We had no savings, few luxuries. It was hard in my house to find a place to read a book. Or to find a book.
So it was a holiday of the senses to pitch up at Jocelyn and Joliet’s for a weekend. The vast library, the coffee tables supporting that month’s hardbacks, the expanses of dark polished oak floor, paintings, rugs, a grand piano, violin music on a stand, the banked towels in my bedroom, its awesome shower, the grown-up hush that lay around the house, the sense of order and shine that only a daily cleaning lady can bestow. There was a garden with an ancient willow, a mossy Yorkstone terrace, a wide lawn, and high walls. And, more than all this, the place was pervaded by a spirit of open-mindedness, curiosity, tolerance, and a taste for comedy. How could I stay away?
I suppose I should confess to one solitary strain of dark sentiment, a theme of vague unease I never gave expression to. Honestly, it didn’t trouble me that much. I’d written four novels in fifteen years—a heroic achievement, given my teaching load and hands-on fathering and lack of space. All four were out of print. I no longer had a publisher. I always sent a finished copy of my latest to my old friend with a warm dedication. He would thank me for it, but he never passed comment. I’m quite sure that after our Brixton days he never read a word of mine. He sent me early copies of his novels, too—nine to my four. I wrote him long appreciative letters about the first two or three, then I decided for the sake of our friendship’s equilibrium to respond in kind. We no longer talked or wrote about each other’s books—and that seemed fine.
* * *
So you find us past midlife, around the age of fifty. Jocelyn was a national treasure, and I—well, it was wrong to think in terms of failure. All my children had processed or were processing through university, I still played a decent game of tennis, my marriage, after a few creaks and groans and two explosive crises, was holding together, and the rumor was that I’d be a full professor within the year. I was also writing my fifth novel—but that was not going awfully well.
And now I come to the core of this story, the seesaw’s crucial tilt. It was early July and I headed from Durham to Hampstead, as I often did straight after marking finals papers. As usual, I was in a state of pleasant exhaustion. But this was not the usual visit. The following day, Jocelyn and Joliet were going to Orvieto for the week and I was going to house-sit—feed their cat, water the plants, and make use of the space and the silence to work on the meandering fifty-eight pages of my novel.
When I arrived, Jocelyn was out running errands and Joliet made me welcome. She was a specialist in X-ray crystallography at Imperial College, a beautiful, sleek woman with a warm, low voice and an intimate manner. We sat drinking tea in the garden, swapping news. And then, with a pause and an introductory frown, as if she had planned the moment, she told me about Jocelyn, how things were not going so well with his work. He’d finished a final draft of a novel and was depressed. It had failed to measure up to his ambitions, for this was supposed to be an important book. He was miserable. He didn’t think he could improve it; nor could he bring himself to destroy it. It was she who’d suggested they take a short holiday and walk the dusty white tracks around Orvieto. He needed rest and distance from his pages. While we sat in the shade of the enormous willow, she told me how downcast Jocelyn had been. She had offered to read the novel, but he had refused—reasonably enough, for she’s not really a literary sort of person.
When she’d finished, I said airily, “I’m sure he can rescue it if he can just get away for a while.”
They set off the following morning. I fed the cat, made myself a second coffee, then spread my pages on a desk in the guest room. The huge, dustless house was silent. But my thoughts kept returning to Joliet’s story. It seemed so odd that my ever-successful friend should have a crisis of confidence. The fact interested me; it even cheered me a little. After an hour, without taking any sort of decision, I wandered toward Jocelyn’s study. Locked. In the same open-minded spirit, I wandered into the master bedroom. I remembered from our Brixton days where he used to keep his marijuana. It didn’t take me long to find the key, at the back of his sock drawer.
You won’t believe this, but I had no plan. I just wanted to see.
On his desk, a huge old electric typewriter hummed—he had forgotten to turn it off. He was among the many word-processing holdouts in the literary world. The typescript was right there, in a neatly squared-off pile, six hundred pages—long, but not vast. The title was The Tumult, and underneath I saw, in pencil, “fifth draft,” followed by the previous week’s date.
I sat down in my old friend’s study chair and began to read. Two hours later, in a kind of dream, I took a break, went into the garden for ten minutes, then decided that I should get on with my own wretched attempt. Instead, I found myself drawn back to Jocelyn’s desk. I hesitated by it, then I sat down. I read all day, paused for supper, read until late, woke early, and finished at lunchtime.
It was magnificent. By far his best. Better than any contemporary novel I remembered reading. If I say it was Tolstoyan in its ambition, it was also modernist, Proustian, Joycean in execution. It had moments of joy and terrible grief. His prose sang more beautifully than ever. It was worldly; it gave us London; it gave us the twentieth century. The depictions of the five central characters overwhelmed me with their truth, their brightness. I felt I’d always known such people. Sometimes they seemed too close, too real. The end—a matter of fifty pages—was symphonic in its slow, unfolding grandeur, sorrowful, understated, honest, and I was in tears. Not only for the plight of the characters but for the whole superb conception, its understanding of love and regret and fate, and its warm sympathy for the frailty of human nature.
I stood up from the desk. Distractedly, I watched a battered-looking thrush hopping backward and forward across the lawn in search of a worm. I do not say this in my defense, but, again, I was empty of schemes. I experienced only the glow of an extraordinary reading experience, a form of profound gratitude familiar to all who love literature.
I say I had no plan, but I knew what I would do next. I simply enacted what others might only have thought. I moved like a zombie, distancing myself from my own actions. I also told myself that I was just taking precautions, that most likely nothing would come of what I was doing. This formulation was a cushion, a vital protection. Looking back now, I wonder if I was prompted by rumors of the Lee Israel forgeries, or by Borges’s “Pierre Menard,” or Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. Or an episode in a novel I’d read the year before, The Information, by Martin Amis. I’m reliably informed that Amis himself derived that episode from an evening of drinking with another novelist, the one (memory fails me) with the Scottish name and the English attitude. I heard that the two friends entertained themselves by dreaming up all the ways one writer might ruin the life of another. But this was different. It may sound improbable, given what followed, but on that morning I had no thoughts of causing Jocelyn any harm. I was thinking only of myself. I had ambitions.
I carried the pages into the kitchen and tipped them into a plastic bag. I took a taxi across London to an obscure street where I knew there was a photocopying shop. I came back, returned the original to Jocelyn’s desk, locked the study, wiped my prints off the key, returned it to his sock drawer.
Back in the guest room, I took from my briefcase one of my empty notebooks—I’m always given them for Christmas—and got to work, serious work. I started making extended notes for the novel I had just read. The first entry I dated two years in the past. I deliberately strayed from the subject several times, pursued irrelevant ideas, but kept coming back to the central line of the story. I wrote at speed for three days, filling two notebooks, sketching out scenes. I found new names for the characters, altered aspects of their pasts, their surroundings, details of their faces. I managed to work in some minor themes from my previous