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So close to catastrophe, I glimpse an even more desperate parallel self

Well, that’s it, the book is done and you will hear no more about it from me in this column. Apart from this. It so nearly didn’t get done. Or, to be precise, so nearly didn’t happen.

Let me explain. The writer, these days, trusts to the computer, to the internal movements of electrons, rather than to the physical reality of ink pressed on to the paper by effort of hand on pen or hand on typewriter key. This has its advantages and its drawbacks. You know what the advantages are so I won’t go into them. Ease of editing, basically. The drawbacks: for one thing, the computer offers too many opportunities to slack off. Anthony Burgess once made the point that you couldn’t say you had been writing if there had been no clatter from the study all day. Industry should make a noise. Nowadays, you can make exactly the same noise looking for exotic pornography as you can when seeking, through your deathless prose, to purify the dialect of the tribe.

The other drawback is that, once you start relying on electrons, you enter the quantum universe, where things behave strangely and can wink in or out of existence unpredictably.

Vanishing act

Which should give you a clue as to where this is heading. An early adopter of computer technology – I was programming in Basic and Fortran on the school computer (a behemoth of a tele - printer, basically, connected to a central intelligence in Reading, if that is not a contradiction in terms) in the mid-1970s – I know about the importance of backing up, the ephemerality of electrical essences. You can leave your manuscript in a taxi or, as in Thomas Carlyle’s case, have an illiterate housemaid use it to light a fire but if you’ve backed it up, you’re laughing, right? And I back it up here, I back it up there. I back it up sodding everywhere. External hard drive, memory stick, Dropbox account, that should cover it.

Ah, yes, but it all depends what you’ve backed it up with, doesn’t it? So when, one morning, the morning I was due to hand over the first proper draft (and I was on time! When has a book ever been handed in not only on time but a little bit early? And who would have bet on me to be the first person ever to do it?), I cracked open the plastic piano and clicked on the master folder in which lurked my deathless prose. I was a little perturbed to discover that half the files in it had simply disappeared.

“A little perturbed” is one way of putting it. “Feeling as though the very fabric of the universe had suddenly unravelled” is another. There are no words accurately to describe my sensations. When P G Wodehouse’s heroes have a setback and everything goes black or they quiver like an aspen in the breeze, these are deliberately debased comic tropes. But they have to have been debased from something, something that expressed a closer connection to lived experience, and the sensation of having lost about 50 per cent of a book, an irreplaceable 50 per cent and, moreover, a book that had to be handed over on that day for it to be published at all, produced a physical sensation of horror unlike anything I had felt ever before – apart from the time my first child, recovering from a fever, aged about two, had a seizure, her eyes rolling up in her head, and for all the world looking as though the life was swiftly ebbing away in front of me. Even then, an instinct to command the situation kicked in and 999 was called, the frantic mother was soothed, for someone has to be in control, and everything turned out OK. Here, there was every indication that everything was fucked up for good.

No accidents

As it turned out, the back-ups were fine and I sent them off immediately before my computer could eat any more of them. This is the interesting thing: I don’t believe it. We all make narratives of our lives, or experience them as such, and in terms of narrative, my easy recovery of the files doesn’t fit in.

This does not feel right. I have not written a book before; therefore, I should never write a book or, just as I am about to send it off, it should be snatched away by electronic whim. Or, as in the multiple-universe theory – a spin-off from quantum theory – there is a universe, now, in which I am wandering, hollow-eyed and desolate, wondering how to pay back my advance and contemplating the ruin of my reputation. And also wondering if I was subconsciously responsible – like the writers who leave their manuscripts in the back of cabs. There are no accidents. Reader, if you visit that universe, be kind to that wretched unfortunate, and put some money in the paper cup he is holding out in shame and need towards you.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the political cartoon?