A Unique Talent

‘A popular man. Yes, Paavo Laami was a popular man. Popular with all. A real knack for popularity, on the coat-tails of which I rode a little shamefully, though not without the man’s encouragement. For he was, above all, a great encourager. He never really grasped the fact that his was a unique talent, you see, and laboured under the impression that anyone could write like him if they set their mind to it. Because writing came so easily to him, he presumed it came easy to everyone. Ha!’

Johannes Speyer on Paavo Laami. One of many revelations from Chapter Three, Part Three

At Home(s) with Paavo

It has been said of Paavo Laami that he had at one time six residences in the same city. None of them very large, admittedly, which suited his needs perfectly. He intended, after all, to use each space for one purpose alone. In one flat he slept, in another he wrote, in a third he read, in a fourth he ate, in a fifth he made love, and in the last he entertained. Every now and again the function of the residences would shift: the house in which we ate become the house in which he made love, the apartment in which he wrote became the apartment in which he read, and the studio in which he entertained became the studio in which slept.

When the primary function wasn’t changing, the decor was. He was always repainting, buying and selling artworks, moving around furniture, creating partitions, installing cupboards, reshaping windows and removing carpets. Hardly anything stayed long enough to consider itself settled.

These six residences, I should add, were not close to each other. They were, instead, scattered across the city. He engineered it in this way so that he never belonged in any particular part of the city. He was, he maintained, Viennese; he refused to be claimed by any one neighbourhood.

At this point I must remind the reader that I began this post with the lines ‘it has been said’. When I asked Johannes Speyer, a close friend of Laami’s, whether the above was true, he was, at best, skeptical. He added, nonetheless, that after his first successes as a novelist (his novel, The Phoenicians, was something of a runaway hit) Laami went through a phase in which such projects (or indulgences, if you will) were ‘by no means untypical’. As Speyer put it: ‘He put all his money back into his art, which was a wonderful idea, were it not for the fact that he produced no art at all. No art on paper, that is’.

Non-Standard Text

Writers are, I believe, undecided on whether becoming a ‘standard text’ represents a great compliment to their novels, or an honour to be treated with some suspicion. Paavo Laami is said to have fallen into a tantrum upon hearing that his novel, East Atlantic Foxtrot, was deigned to be ‘compulsory reading’ on the national literature syllabus. ‘Just what I need,’ he fumed, ‘a generation of schoolchildren cursing my prose’. ‘No one should be made to read my work,’ wrote Gretchen Haldt, whose 1986 work Consider Me Quasimodo suffered a similar fate: ‘nor am I, in any shape or form, a “classic”. The very thought of this sickens me…’

There are other writers, however, for whom appearing on a syllabus would represent a career-high. This was definitely the case for Laurence Havello (1949-2011) one of the few novelists to openly seek ‘standard text’ status. Friends and family tell of how Havello was ‘desperate to see his books studied at schools’. So desperate, in fact, that he took to including sample questions at the end of his novels, or adding footnotes which drew the reader to themes and leit motifs. Of course, by making the writerly process so transparent, Havello took away a good deal of mystery which attracts people to literature. In the words of one critic ‘Havello sought to simplify work that was already simple: a complex process, yielding completely pointless results’.

Miss-written in the Sky

It is in acting out of character that we reveal our true selves. Or something like that. At any rate, I’m always interested in how my favourite Johannes Speyer stories are the ones which, on the surface, seem to say little about the ‘essential character’ (or essentially ‘perceived’ character) of the great man.

I have said before, no doubt, that Speyer was not a man of action. And yet at the same I keep referring to him as the Father of Active Reading. ‘I don’t go out much,’ he said to me once, not long before he died. It was an understatement. He barely left the house.  But when he did, well: that was when things happened.

Consider the sky-writing incident. How old was Speyer when he did this? I can’t recall, but he was no spring chicken. He wasn’t even an autumn chicken. Low on funds, energy and time, his sudden decision to stage a major active-reading-skywriting project took most people by surprise. Not least the skywriters.

Skywriting is some skill, sure – but there’s no denying the vast majority of what gets written in the sky is the most banal sort of tripe. A company name, a short message of love, contemporary lingo – it’s hardly poetry, is it? Speyer had noticed this, and he was determined to change it, whatever the cost (and trust me when I say that the cost was high. Sky high). So he commissioned what is, I think, the longest piece of skywriting to date; the first sentence of Paavo Laami’s famous novel The Phoenicians, in its entirety.

In its entirety? I lie. It wasn’t quite the whole first sentence. The unfortunate skywriter in question misread his instructions and missed out a comma. This sent Speyer into a rage. He cursed the pilot a thousand times. He refused to pay up. He cursed the pilot a thousand times more. He wrote letters to skywriting magazines (of which there are a surprising amount) vehemently protesting his case. Not for a moment did he reflect on the near triumph of his project.  Not for the first time (see here) he allowed a small piece of punctuation to ruin everything.

It’s a pity, for like I said, the project was almost an absolute triumph. Despite the mishap, he had created a thing of no uncertain beauty. Paavo Laami written in the sky! Wonderful. To Speyer, however, there was no such consolation. When he did crawl out of his shell and set about making things happen, it really was a case of all or nothing. There was to be no compromise. Not on his watch.

Obsessed with Obsessions

I daresay this irony is no less obvious than the one against which I railed at the weekend. Nevertheless it stands – and several people have been keen to draw my attention to it.

In his article exploring the silly obsessions of great writers, it seems that Michael Rosinith reveals a tendency to obsess in a manner that some might call silly. He appears to espouse serious themes, whilst waging his own ‘peculiar vendetta’ against, for example, anagrams. He is inclined to draw our attention throughout to irksome details simply to tell us that they are irksome. We might never have noticed them otherwise – now we cannot see past them. Now who’s being silly?

Another complaint about this article is the lack of clarity with which Rosinith tackles the pupil-teacher problem. Paavo Laami (who, you may recall I once saw fall down a flight of stairs) is castigated for obsessing over an old biology teacher. No attempt is made, however, to explore the specific circumstances. Rosinith seems to work on the basis that all such ‘vendettas’ are, by their very nature, of the paltry sort: that this must be a gripe – and nothing more. All in all his obsession with obsessions blinds him to the great range of silliness that can be contained therein (from a tiny little to a hefty lot). We must in turn wonder whether there was in fact anything at all silly about Laami’s dislike of his biology teacher (a hard task when the actual facts are not forthcoming).

My final thought, which pushes the argument in neither one direction nor another, concerns Rosinith’s curious eschewing of what I would consider the very best example in the Laami canon. Why no discussion of the transsexual scientist from his 1975 novel, Nothing Delicious? This would not only strengthen the case of Laami’s obsession, but suggest a darker, perhaps more ‘serious’ source to it.