"All writers are vain, selfish and lazy," George Orwell famously declared, "and at the very bottom of their motives lies a mystery. Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand." Orwell's unsparing description would be a perfect epigraph to David Leavitt's new book about a writer writing about writing.
Martin Bauman - self-loathing, gay, Jewish and with a profound ambivalence towards sex - is the book's narrator. Eli Aronson - self-loathing, gay, Jewish and Martin's lover for much of the book (although he prefers sex with women) - is also a writer, but not as successful as Martin. Liza Perlman is a celebrated writer who, like Martin and Eli, is homosexual, Jewish and has problems with her self-esteem. The novel begins in the late 1970s, with Bauman attending the writing classes of Stanley Flint, a volatile literary publisher. Eager for approval, Bauman falls immediately under Flint's spell, and we follow him into a publishing desk job and then on to literary fame. Meanwhile, Reagan has become president, conglomeration is sweeping through the publishing industry and the HIV virus is beginning to terrify and kill in equal measure.
The novel takes us back to the themes of earlier Leavitt fictions - death by serious illness, infidelity in homosexual relationships, the difficulties of artistic growth - and we are immersed in the claustrophobic minutiae of the young writers' friendships and lives. Martin, Eli and Liza are neurotic, histrionic and manipulative. While they lack a capacity for detailed self-examination, they dissect, with a steady hand and eye, the pathologies of others. These emotional viscera are then mixed with gossip and small talk to form the bulk of the narrative.
There is a wonderful, languidly conversational quality to much of the writing. There is also a deep seam of irony in the book.
Just at the point when I thought that it had become unbearably parochial, Bauman declares that "no city in the world is more provincial than New York; nor is any realm of the city more provincial than literature, nor is any community more provincial than one composed of writers who hob- nob with editors, and are to some degree homosexuals".
At times, it feels as if Leavitt is using his unquestionable literary gifts to manoeuvre his readers into despising his characters, and even the book itself. Speculation about authorial motive would be risky were it not for the existence of Leavitt's other confessional books. His novella, Arkansas, related the story of a young writer called David Leavitt who is indicted for plagiarism by a poet whose life he appropriates in fiction. In fact, Leavitt was famously sued by Stephen Spender, whose life he allegedly plundered in his novel While England Sleeps.
The events of Martin Bauman also take place on the boundary between autobiography and narrative, between reportage and satire. At one point, a work produced by one of the characters is described as "an interrogation of the self and the border territory between fact and fiction". It will do as a fair representation of this self-reflexive book: whenever the self is interro- gated and held up to the light, masochism and venality shine through.
Reading Martin Bauman is, in the end, rather like eavesdropping on a series of expensive therapeutic monologues, in which a discerning and successful writer, unable any longer to grasp why he works, decides to demonstrate to the analyst his desire to return to pure writing, free from the demands of commercial success or reader expectation.