This piece has also been published on the Dodo web site. Sam asked if I’d write something about writing my book.
I’m never sure if it’s a good idea for writers to start writing about their writing. A single sentence and I’ve already mentioned writing, in the abstract, three times. So somebody suggested to me that instead of writing about The Eleventh Letter I write something that connects with it. What a good idea: to shake the envelope and see what drops out.
To begin with: The Aspern Papers. Henry James’s story has an inward movement, the kind I found myself repeating as I wrote The Eleventh Letter. A current places the past inside, not behind. Aspern’s papers are in a palazzo, in the hands of a lover, in a drawer, in secret, in a place behind a locked door. Why does the nameless narrator want Aspern’s papers? Why does he crave them? Somebody tells him: ‘One would think you expected to find in them the answer to the riddle of the universe’.
In The Eleventh Letter Chris is driven to expose a secret. He finds only traces of it caught up in every aspect of his life, like particles of something in his life-blood. Its closed-off heart is somewhere only ghosts can take him. It always beats just outside of him, just outside of the moment. Some secrets, the kind that draw Chris in, aren’t there to be stated. They drive the story on.
There’s always a lot about ourselves we feel we don’t know for sure. I’m as interested in this as when I began writing The Eleventh Letter – and writing it has taught me that secrets can be felt. If you follow your desire there might be no dead ends.
Secrets can do things to us. They’re there to surprise, chill, worry, seduce, lure, daze or frustrate. In the end, if you insist on knowing, you run out of people to ask. Everybody dies or gets fed up repeating the facts. Who can tell you the answer to a family secret? But we consider these things and we imagine answers. We conjure up conversations out of the past.
Ghosts: we summon them up out of our desire. We can write them. The ghosts in The Eleventh Letter all feel believable to me. Traces of selves; the halves and halves of halves of selves. There are selves, fractals, shards, opposites, entirely other selves and shattered selves in all of us.
This leaves me thinking of Eden, a gorgeous French film I watched as soon as it was released. Paul, whose film it really is, feels less himself as his career as a DJ disintegrates. Like Chris in The Eleventh Letter he’s after something. He wants money from his mother, coke, records, not to be alone, perhaps. We see Thomas and Guy-Man from Daft Punk whisper and plot and play … they do things very differently. They’re interested in destiny. We see their satisfaction when a track does the trick and gets everyone dancing really hard. They make music. We never see them shaded by their visors – the helmets they’re famous for wearing. This is a film about exposure – maybe the perils of over-exposure to dreams of ghosts. Paul plays music as if it’s sand running through his fingers and it runs out on him. Daft Punk, they become Daft Punk. There’s nothing cryptic or melancholy about Da Funk, it makes you want to dance. But for a film, that wouldn’t be enough. Films need ghosts.
And then there’s Ghost Dance, the Ken McMullen film.
PASCALE OGIER [looking like Helene Cixous, speaking in French]
Do you believe in ghosts?
JACQUES DERRIDA [looking like a red rag to all kinds of bull, holding a pipe, speaking in French]
That’s a difficult question. Firstly you’re asking a ghost whether he believes in ghosts. Here the ghost is me. Since I’ve been asked to play myself … in a film which is more or less improvised … I feel as if I’m letting a ghost speak for me. Curiously, instead of playing myself … without knowing it … I let a ghost ventriloquize my words or play my role … which is even more amusing. The cinema is the art of ghosts, a battle of phantoms. That’s what I think the cinema’s about when it’s not boring. It’s the art of allowing ghosts to come back. That’s what we’re doing now.
In The Eleventh Letter I used a screenplay to introduce two ghosts. Forms and bodies are very important to me. Psychotherapists talk about a process called ‘containing’, and a novel is one way of containing the forces and energies of sentences, characters and situations so that they can come together and make things happen.
Henry James intrigues me because of the things he allows to happen in his writing in order to contain. James is a ghost-friendly writer, like Daft Punk are ghost-friendly musicians. They know how to make something happen because they are bold, clear and decisive. They know how to contain ghosts, rather than be over-run by them. In a phrase or a riff; in a piece of punctuation or a rhythm; in a nameless narrative voice or by turning on a vocoder. The Aspern Papers uses simple repetitions to carry the energy of a conversation: ‘To which I replied that that would depend upon the amount of pleasure I should get for it.’ Or parentheses to explain something, letting the same voice say more, but in confidence: ‘I remained a while longer, wandering about the bright desert (the sun was pouring in) of the old house …’.
The screenplay parts of The Eleventh Letter let Louise and Simon speak directly. It came to me out of a dream. Dreams are the most elastic and imaginative containers for the elusive parts of my life, the parts I barely know. Contradictions are no problem. The other day I had a dream with almost everyone I have ever known in it, and with me as every age I have ever been. I was angry and I was sad. Dreams leap across time. This one followed on from two dreams a month ago. One involved my father. There was a kind of closed planet, all grey as if in a kind of a mist, and a whispering voice: absolute rage, absolute anger. The next night there was a dream of my mother, a similar planet and a similar voice: absolute sadness, absolutely gone. In the first dream I felt so angry I could gasp, and afterwards, as I awoke I felt ashamed. In the second dream I couldn’t breathe for tears and when I woke all I wanted was my mother.
This dream I just had, of almost everyone I have known enjoying a childish party, took place in the field-like garden of the farmhouse my aunt and uncle lived in when I was very young. Dreams are made without distinguishing between what did and what might have happened. I remember being told that I painted a line around that farmhouse, on the inside, with a spray canister of black paint. And I saw, many times, a home-made Super 8 film called Laggan Water of my parents, Fiona, the au pair, and my aunt and uncle, having a water fight in that field-garden. The film begins with somebody dipping their hand, it’s a woman’s hand, into a blue paddling pool and splashing water (at someone, I assume). All we see is the hand. I wish I had that film now but it’s lost apart from somehow being in me, and somehow reappearing in the dream I have just described. Who filmed it?
This is what I mean by an inward movement to the past. They’re all dead – or in Fiona’s case lost. There’s nobody to ask and nothing factual for me to learn. I can, however, recognise a confused kind of pleasure playing out amongst them. Experiencing that as a child I would have been baffled. Maybe they wanted the fun to go on and on. When I painted that line inside the house (my father had to redecorate every room) it certainly looks like I didn’t want to stop either.
But we need to stop. You can’t keep craving.
In The Eleventh Letter Chris doesn’t know when to stop. He has his supervisor, who knows better to help him, but there are a whole host of ghosts on his trail. He has his notes and his writing. He can see how Kate’s obsession with Jack France, and Louise’s with Kate, have played out. But he can’t do anything about his obsession with Louise, any more than his father could deal with his untoward feelings towards his young niece, Maria. Chris has seen the newspaper cuttings of his father’s trial. He follows the wolf-man story in the newspapers he reads in Pisa. But he doesn’t pay enough attention to his desire – until he writes The Eleventh Letter.
I hope this tells you something. I’ve been to James’s house in Rye and sat in the garden on a hot afternoon, wishing I could lie there on the grass as the sun went down. I could weave that memory together with Laggan Water.
The Eleventh Letter helped me understand how powerful ghosts are. They can prevent us feeling things as we might, or they can let us feel things more for now.
It makes sense, I suppose, to have also had a soundtrack.