Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 66

Trepidations — Subtle principle — Perverse imagination — Are they mine? — Another book — How hard! — Agricultural dinner — Incomprehensible actions — Inmost bosom — Give it up — Chance resemblance — Rascally newspaper.

‘An author,’ said I, addressing my host; ‘is it possible that I am under the roof of an author?’

‘Yes,’ said my host, sighing, ‘my name is so and so, and I am the author of so and so; it is more than probable that you have heard both of my name and works. I will not detain you much longer with my history; the night is advancing, and the storm appears to be upon the increase. My life since the period of my becoming an author may be summed briefly as an almost uninterrupted series of doubts, anxieties, and trepidations. I see clearly that it is not good to love anything immoderately in this world, but it has been my misfortune to love immoderately everything on which I have set my heart. This is not good, I repeat — but where is the remedy? The ancients were always in the habit of saying, “Practise moderation,” but the ancients appear to have considered only one portion of the subject. It is very possible to practise moderation in some things, in drink and the like — to restrain the appetites — but can a man restrain the affections of his mind, and tell them, so far you shall go, and no farther? Alas, no! for the mind is a subtle principle, and cannot be confined. The winds may be imprisoned; Homer says that Odysseus carried certain winds in his ship, confined in leathern bags, but Homer never speaks of confining the affections. It were but right that those who exhort us against inordinate affections, and setting our hearts too much upon the world and its vanities, would tell us how to avoid doing so.

‘I need scarcely tell you that no sooner did I become an author than I gave myself up immoderately to my vocation. It became my idol, and, as a necessary consequence, it has proved a source of misery and disquietude to me, instead of pleasure and blessing. I had trouble enough in writing my first work, and I was not long in discovering that it was one thing to write a stirring and spirited address to a set of county electors, and another widely different to produce a work at all calculated to make an impression upon the great world. I felt, however, that I was in my proper sphere, and by dint of unwearied diligence and exertion I succeeded in evolving from the depths of my agitated breast a work which, though it did not exactly please me, I thought would serve to make an experiment upon the public; so I laid it before the public, and the reception which it met with was far beyond my wildest expectations. The public were delighted with it, but what were my feelings? Anything, alas! but those of delight. No sooner did the public express its satisfaction at the result of my endeavours, than my perverse imagination began to conceive a thousand chimerical doubts; forthwith I sat down to analyse it; and my worst enemy, and all people have their enemies, especially authors — my worst enemy could not have discovered or sought to discover a tenth part of the faults which I, the author and creator of the unfortunate production, found or sought to find in it. It has been said that love makes us blind to the faults of the loved object — common love does, perhaps — the love of a father to his child, or that of a lover to his mistress, but not the inordinate love of an author to his works, at least not the love which one like myself bears to his works: to be brief, I discovered a thousand faults in my work, which neither public nor critics discovered. However, I was beginning to get over this misery, and to forgive my work all its imperfections, when — and I shake when I mention it — the same kind of idea which perplexed me with regard to the hawks and the gypsy pony rushed into my mind, and I forthwith commenced touching the objects around me, in order to baffle the evil chance, as you call it; it was neither more nor less than a doubt of the legality of my claim to the thoughts, expressions, and situations contained in the book; that is, to all that constituted the book. How did I get them? How did they come into my mind? Did I invent them? Did they originate with myself? Are they my own, or are they some other body’s? You see into what difficulty I had got; I won’t trouble you by relating all that I endured at that time, but will merely say that after eating my own heart, as the Italians say, and touching every object that came in my way for six months, I at length flung my book, I mean the copy of it which I possessed, into the fire, and began another.

‘But it was all in vain; I laboured at this other, finished it, and gave it to the world; and no sooner had I done so, than the same thought was busy in my brain, poisoning all the pleasure which I should otherwise have derived from my work. How did I get all the matter which composed it? Out of my own mind, unquestionably; but how did it come there — was it the indigenous growth of the mind? And then I would sit down and ponder over the various scenes and adventures in my book, endeavouring to ascertain how I came originally to devise them, and by dint of reflecting I remembered that to a single word in conversation, or some simple accident in a street or on a road, I was indebted for some of the happiest portions of my work; they were but tiny seeds, it is true, which in the soil of my imagination had subsequently become stately trees, but I reflected that without them no stately trees would have been produced, and that, consequently, only a part in the merit of these compositions which charmed the world — for the did charm the world — was due to myself. Thus, a dead fly was in my phial, poisoning all the pleasure which I should otherwise have derived from the result of my brain-sweat. “How hard!” I would exclaim, looking up to the sky, “how hard! I am like Virgil’s sheep, bearing fleeces not for themselves.” But, not to tire you, it fared with my second work as it did with my first; I flung it aside, and, in order to forget it, I began a third, on which I am now occupied; but the difficulty of writing it is immense, my extreme desire to be original sadly cramping the powers of my mind; my fastidiousness being so great that I invariably reject whatever ideas I do not think to be legitimately my own. But there is one circumstance to which I cannot help alluding here, as it serves to show what miseries this love of originality must needs bring upon an author. I am constantly discovering that, however original I may wish to be, I am continually producing the same things which other people say or write. Whenever, after producing something which gives me perfect satisfaction, and which has cost me perhaps days and nights of brooding, I chance to take up a book for the sake of a little relaxation, a book which I never saw before, I am sure to find in it something more or less resembling some part of what I have been just composing. You will easily conceive the distress which then comes over me; ’tis then that I am almost tempted to execrate the chance which, by discovering my latent powers, induced me to adopt a profession of such anxiety and misery.

‘For some time past I have given up reading almost entirely, owing to the dread which I entertain of lighting upon something similar to what I myself have written. I scarcely ever transgress without having almost instant reason to repent. To-day, when I took up the newspaper, I saw in a speech of the Duke of Rhododendron, at an agricultural dinner, the very same ideas, and almost the same expressions which I had put into the mouth of an imaginary personage of mine, on a widely different occasion; you saw how I dashed the newspaper down — you saw how I touched the floor; the touch was to baffle the evil chance, to prevent the critics detecting any similarity between the speech of the Duke of Rhododendron at the agricultural dinner and the speech of my personage. My sensibility on the subject of my writings is so great that sometimes a chance word is sufficient to unman me, I apply it to them in a superstitious sense; for example, when you said some time ago that the dark hour was coming on, I applied it to my works — it appeared to bode them evil fortune; you saw how I touched, it was to baffle the evil chance; but I do not confine myself to touching when the fear of the evil chance is upon me. To baffle it I occasionally perform actions which must appear highly incomprehensible; I have been known, when riding in company with other people, to leave the direct road, and make a long circuit by a miry lane to the place to which we were going. I have also been seen attempting to ride across a morass, where I had no business whatever, and in which my horse finally sank up to its saddle-girths, and was only extricated by the help of a multitude of hands. I have, of course, frequently been asked the reason of such conduct, to which I have invariably returned no answer, for I scorn duplicity; whereupon people have looked mysteriously, and sometimes put their fingers to their foreheads. “And yet it can’t be,” I once heard an old gentleman say; “don’t we know what he is capable of?” and the old man was right; I merely did these things to avoid the evil chance, impelled by the strange feeling within me; and this evil chance is invariably connected with my writings, the only things at present which render life valuable to me. If I touch various objects, and ride into miry places, it is to baffle any mischance befalling me as an author, to prevent my books getting into disrepute; in nine cases out of ten to prevent any expressions, thoughts, or situations in any work which I am writing from resembling the thoughts, expressions, and situations of other authors, for my great wish, as I told you before, is to be original.

‘I have now related my history, and have revealed to you the secrets of my inmost bosom. I should certainly not have spoken so unreservedly as I have done, had I not discovered in you a kindred spirit. I have long wished for an opportunity of discoursing on the point which forms the peculiar feature of my history with a being who could understand me; and truly it was a lucky chance which brought you to these parts; you who seem to be acquainted with all things strange and singular, and who are as well acquainted with the subject of the magic touch as with all that relates to the star Jupiter or the mysterious tree at Upsal.’

Such was the story which my host related to me in the library, amidst the darkness, occasionally broken by flashes of lightning. Both of us remained silent for some time after it was concluded.

‘It is a singular story,’ said I, at last, ‘though I confess that I was prepared for some part of it. Will you permit me to ask you a question?’

‘Certainly,’ said my host.

‘Did you never speak in public?’ said I.

‘Never.’

‘And when you made this speech of yours in the dining-room, commencing with Mr. Speaker, no one was present?’

‘None in the world, I double-locked the door; what do you mean?’

‘An idea came into my head — dear me how the rain is pouring — but, with respect to your present troubles and anxieties, would it not be wise, seeing that authorship causes you so much trouble and anxiety, to give it up altogether?’

‘Were you an author yourself,’ replied my host, ‘you would not talk in this manner; once an author, ever an author — besides, what could I do? return to my former state of vegetation? no, much as I endure, I do not wish that; besides, every now and then my reason tells me that these troubles and anxieties of mine are utterly without; foundation that whatever I write is the legitimate growth of my own mind, and that it is the height of folly to afflict myself at any chance resemblance between my own thoughts and those of other writers, such resemblance being inevitable from the fact of our common human origin. In short — ’

‘I understand you,’ said I; ‘notwithstanding your troubles and anxieties you find life very tolerable; has your originality ever been called in question?’

‘On the contrary, every one declares that originality constitutes the most remarkable feature of my writings; the man has some faults, they say, but want of originality is certainly not one of them. He is quite different from others — a certain newspaper, it is true, the — I think, once insinuated that in a certain work of mine I had taken a hint or two from the writings of a couple of authors which it mentioned; it happened, however, that I had never even read one syllable of the writings of either, and of one of them had never even heard the name; so much for the discrimination of the —. By the bye, what a rascally newspaper that is!’

‘A very rascally newspaper,’ said I.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32