Most writing is done under some sort of pressure. If we don’t have publisher’s deadlines, we make personal deadlines. We need a structure, usually, to keep us in check. We may not want anyone breathing down our necks, but a faint wind blowing in that region has never harmed any of us.
Some writers, of course, are inclined to become obsessed with structures and restrictions. Jean-Pierre Sertin comes to mind, with his indefatigable p.52, or his multifarious Intercuttings. I am reminded also of the French writer Jacques Jouet (a member of the great Oulipo) who once sought to compose a verse of a poem between each stop of the Metro in Paris. There are, of course, many others.
Then there is Boris Bash-Benver, author of Tripulation. That novel, as you will know, uses an irregularly shaped page to deal with three narratives at once (‘Three-mendous’ was how one newspaper reacted). A couple of years ago, however, Bash-Benver struck upon the idea of composing a short novel during a twenty hour plane journey from London to Melbourne. He convinced himself that such specific conditions and restrictions would produce the best from him. His talent would be examined and would, he guessed, triumph. He presumed that his plan was almost guaranteed to suceed.
Need I say it didn’t? Bash-Benver’s aeroplane novella may have got off to a flying start – but beyond that, nothing. One sentence, in fact, was the sum of it. ‘Travel is misery’ he wrote, before eating four packets of duty-free wine gums and falling asleep in front of the in-flight movie.
Still, as first lines go, I’ve seen worse. At the least, ‘travel is misery’ offers a much-needed antidote to that hoary old chesnut ‘travel broadens the mind’; bane of every essay-writing schoolchild. Bash-Benver’s ‘travel’, however, probably refers to a narrower definition of the word. He is not thinking, one supposes, of floating down the Nile on a barge playing dominoes with Lady Barkingham’s maidservant, but of dull hours passed in airport lounges and check-in queues, only to find that your seat is right in the middle of a family of eight children, all under five. Conclusion? Art can flower under difficult conditions – but you mustn’t bank on it.