Thursday 25 May 2017

Television review: The Moby Dick of success, and the triumph of failure

* Giles Coren: My Failed Novel, Sky Arts
* Bridget and Eamon, RTE 1

Bridget and Eamon
Bridget and Eamon
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

It was Herman Melville who said, "he who has never failed somewhere, that man can not be great". And Melville spoke with authority on this matter, because his career as a novelist was largely a failure.

Artistically of course, it was an earth-shattering success, but when you read that Moby Dick was "coolly received" at the time of publication, that they only started to realise it was a great novel about 30 years after the author died, you weep for the man.

Melville, for any writer, is a kind of a giant of failure, the Main Man. But failure in the arts is so common and so crucial, it seems strange that we even bother mentioning the few successes that happen from time to time, be they commercial successes but artistic failures, or artistic successes but commercial failures, or that most supernatural thing, the artistic and commercial success.

Giles Coren achieved an artistic and a commercial failure with his novel Winkler, published in 2005, and in the first programme of a Sky Arts series on creative catastrophes of various kinds, he went back in there to inspect the damage.

Coren is a talented fellow who writes mainly about food - I recall in particular a debate he had on TV with the designer Wayne Hemingway, in which Coren is speaking of his love for various kinds of offal, while Hemingway, who is more of a baked beans man, is protesting in his broad North of England accent: "but it's not nice". Or rather, "but it's not naaiiiice".

But what Coren would love most of all is a novel with his name on it, that is brilliant and that sells millions. Not much to ask really, for a bright chap who can write well and has enough of a reputation to have his first work of fiction published with an advance of 30 grand.

But it didn't happen for Giles, and as he investigated his own disaster with the assistance of successful novelists such as Howard Jacobson, and aspiring novelists at the University of East Anglia, two things above all began to emerge - it wouldn't have been a failure if it hadn't been published; and devastated though he was at the time, he shouldn't have given up.

So this is the dark place in which the novelist lives, a place in which the rejection of your most cherished work can be the best stroke of luck you'll ever get, in which no amount of public humiliation should distract you or discourage you.

Or you might like to try comedy writing for RTE, where the conditions are not dissimilar, and yet in this too there can be a kind of heroism.

In Bridget and Eamon last week there was a scene which may be recognised in 30 years or so as a kind of pay-off for whatever suffering went into it. Jennifer Zamparelli as Bridget is going insane due to lack of cigarettes. She is unable to go out and buy cigarettes because she and Eamon and their friends have barricaded themselves in their 1980s house, hiding from the TV licence inspector, but that's not important.

Bridget sits down, gathers herself somehow and in the calm voice of a person who has finally discovered the truth about herself, this is what she says: "Everyone knows I smoke ... Bridget ... choppy-changy hair, glasses ... keeps a good house, six to eight children, smokes ... what am I without a fag?... only a small minded-woman with notions".

Not only was it a great scene, but in the desperate nature of Bridget's addiction to cigarettes we recognised the broader condition of the political class at this time - except Bridget had her moment of self-knowledge, whereas the junkies who have gathered around Leinster House are at that stage which an addiction therapist would describe as "out of control".

Do not watch these people any more, you are only enabling them. After the election I wrote that they were already working on the next one, that they were so far gone there was no way they could wait another five years for it.

Looking at the pleasure they derive just from talking about the Ceann Comhairle, I'd give it five weeks.

Sunday Independent

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