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22 June 2022

For the first time in my professional life, I am defeated by a book

I have a reputation for being welcoming of unconventional novels, but this one proved too much even for me.

By Nicholas Lezard

A bruising day; first I overslept despite having gone to bed at 8.30 the night before. I had spent the evening doing some editing work for a friend but she needed it done quickly, so I had to turn the radio off not long after Jonny Bairstow started hammering the ball into the stands for England in the Test against New Zealand at Trent Bridge. Afterwards I tried to block out the news so the highlights on BBC Two would surprise me, but I switched on the radio again by mistake during the news and when they said “cricket” the tone of voice told me England had won.

Before I turned the lights out I started an aggrieved correspondence with a publisher who owed a small but to me non-trivial sum of money. They’d said, after I’d asked why I hadn’t been paid yet, that they’d pay me at the end of the month, as was their standard practice; I said “the words ‘on delivery’ carry a certain weight with me”, and showed them a screenshot of a recent email from them. I will not go into the sordid details but tempers flared on both sides, and they eventually paid me, but closed with the words: “We will thank you never to get in touch with us again.” Deal, I thought, but I can’t say either of us covered ourselves with glory. Such is the life of the freelancer.

I mentioned this exchange to my friend D— and she said her sister worked in the film industry, and the runners there are on a grand a week even if they’re just making the tea. I went to bed and had a little cry, but she added she wouldn’t do their job for anything, so I dried my tears and had a nap.

[See also: A vomiting cat and a reader, of sorts, in the village shop. Country life isn’t dull]

Another weight lifted off my shoulders was an email from the literary editor of another magazine who had sent me a book to review about two months ago. Maybe more. I will not say what it was, but suffice to say it was very big indeed and also written in verse. He had commissioned me to review it because I have a reputation for being unintimidated and often even welcoming of unconventional novels, but this one proved too much for me. I would read a few pages and then my attention would start wandering. What am I going to have for dinner tonight? Can I manage without a haircut/doing the laundry for another week?

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The book followed me around. That is, I would take it with me from room to room; and then on my trip from Brighton to Oxford and back again. I would do this to show I wasn’t ignoring the book, and had the discipline and professionalism to tackle it. My friend A—, who owned the house I was cat-sitting for, saw it when she met me off the coach; she couldn’t have failed to, the plastic bag it was in had split open. She had read it too for her work.

[See also: I have become a cat-sitting Robinson Crusoe, and I no longer want to be rescued]

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“Oh God”, she said when she saw it. I nodded.

In the end things got so bad that I found myself ringing EDF to discuss the money I owed them instead of sitting down to finish the book. It’s a pity because it has not been written by an idiot or someone who can’t write; far from it. Which makes it worse, somehow. But I would occasionally read a few pages of Ulysses for light relief, and to depressurise. Anyway, the literary editor emailed me to acknowledge his correct suspicion that the book had defeated me – the only time this has happened, I think, since my first paid book review appeared in 1985 – and that he was going to send me another, shorter one. God bless him and all understanding souls like him.

I am bracing myself for the forthcoming heatwave, which should be over by the time you read this. I like living by the sea and knowing that if things get really bad I can go for a swim, but then I also know there is more chance of my flying to the moon and back than having a cooling dip in the English Channel. I have invited my children down for the weekend if they want to splash about and escape the heat, but they said they will only jump in if I will. I said OK, but I had my fingers crossed behind my back when I said this. As they have known me for some time I suspect they know this too.

Meanwhile, scaffolding has gone up outside the house I live in. This is necessary maintenance, and hats off to the landlords, but it means I am having to keep the bedroom curtains shut. It is one thing being the Naked Neighbour in the window when the window opposite is a long way away, and another being the Naked Tenant in the Squalid Bedroom when there are people who can literally press their noses against the window-glass if they want to. So that’s one means of ventilation closed to me, during daylight hours at least.

It’s getting warmer as I write. Maybe I should go for a dip in the sea at some point. I don’t have any swimming trunks, though. Where does one get swimming trunks? I presume not Oxfam. But at least I have some upper body strength now, after carrying that bloody book around all that time.

[See also: With little left to be proud of in this country, at least we still have county cricket]

This article appears in the 22 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Britain isn’t working