Saturday, 15 November 2008
I went last night to the launch of George Szirtes' collected poems, a reading at the Savile Club on Brook Street followed by dinner in the very grand chandelier-hung dining room.
At the reading George asserted that novelists were liars and poets told the truth.
He then read a marvellous poem called and about esprit d'escalier, the French phrase for the brilliant rejoinder you only think about when you are going down the stairs leaving the conversation. In his poem he is on the top deck of a bus when he speaks aloud that I-wish-I'd-thought-of-that-at-the-time remark, and realises that the man sitting behind him is doing the same thing, and looking out of the window of the bus the whole street is full of people saying aloud what they wish they had said.
During the Q&A after the reading, I resigned myself to asking a question about the influence on his work of living in East Anglia for many years , and waited until dinner to refer to the remarkable event in which everyone on the street and on the bus was suddenly saying aloud their esprit d'escalier which he could not have invented not being a lying novelist. George had the good grace to burst out laughing. At this point we were joined, in a case of dinner musical chairs, by the poet Ruth Fainlight, who is married to the novelist Alan Sillitoe (happy 80th, Alan).
I have nothing at all against anyone saying that the novelist is a liar, since this is demonstrably true, but I could not quite understand how in the case of the poet, his imagination produces truth and in the case of the novelist, lies.
George maintained that the poet is solipsistic, always writing about himself and his attempt to understand why a cup is a cup and not, say, a saucer. When a novelist tells lies, he is asking the reader to willingly suspend his disbelief, to believe that the lies are true; he invents cups that aren't there. When the poet lies, the lie is obviously a metaphor, and is not to be taken for reality, it's a vehicle to say something else. The novelist, however, is trying to hoodwink you into believing that there is a cup, saucer, entire dinner service, real and actual.
But by this time we had eaten some very good duck with mashed potatoes and drunk a lot of wine and I went home. I hope George himself will be along in a minute to sort things out further.
and there he is in the comments, below and at greater and very interesting length, at his place