1. “When Writers Hate”
Morrissey is right, we hate it when our friends become successful. Gore Vidal is even more honest, confessing, “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” Near the end of the film Sideways, the rivalrous friendship of Jack and Miles is echoed by the novel Miles has assigned one of his young pupils to read aloud, John Knowle’s 1959 A Separate Peace, a tale of envy, perhaps even murderous envy, between schoolboy friends. Shakespeare’s Iago is envy on two legs. Adrift in a life before talking cures, support groups or good yoga, Cain walked alone with envy.
In life and art, friendship often oscillates between admiration and envy. Two recent shows at New York’s Museum of Modern Art showcased the reciprocal rivalry between Picasso and Matisse, as well as Cézanne and Pissarro. The 2004 documentary DiG!, chronicles the not-so-friendly rivalry between the bands The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols. When envy worms its way into writing, particularly into the novel, subject and medium collide. Writing is envy’s preferred medium.
Writing slides someone else’s thoughts through our brain, and those thoughts come through the public medium of language. In the incomplete neuroscience of thought, writers and visual artists can admire and envy each other: humans may think more quickly through images, but, some contend, we think more specifically through language. And when we do think visually, we don’t necessarily see another artist’s brushstrokes, another photographer’s composition. When we think verbally, however, we think through the shared property of words and the evolving codes of language. Words are only made by humans, whereas the stuff of visual art—color, texture, scale, shape, line, etc.—partially pre-exist in the world. When this latent alterity of language is combined with the novel, which many regard as the ideal genre of the self, we hold in our laps the perfect testing ground for one of life’s dirty little secrets. We hate it when our friends become successful. We do, at least a little.
2. The Envy Map
Jon Canter’s recent novel Seeds of Greatness is a new variation on the ancient theme of friends who complement and compliment each other in public while seething with envy in private. But unlike envy in life, envy in writing needn’t be silent and doesn’t remain unconfessed until the friends are too old to care. In The Information, Martin Amis, that high priest of envy, concludes, “When writers hate, it all comes down to something very simple. His word against mine.” In each of these British novels, two men in their forties reminisce about their youth with a friend from whom they are now separated by different income brackets and social spheres, with the smarter one underemployed and unheard of and the talentless oaf a rich celebrity. Worse, in each case the less successful and poor character is offered money to write about his celebrity friend.
Writing is also the largest facet of envy’s green jewel in Sir Vidia’s Shadow, Paul Theroux’s revealing memoir about his apprenticeship to, friendship with, and eventual rejection by Nobel laureate, V.S. Naipaul. Where envy and writing are shaped into plots of money, sex and fame in the fiction of Canter, Amis and Mordecai Richler (see below), their treatment in the non-fiction of Theroux and also of Amis (in his memoir Experience) moves the philosophical aspects of language and property into the courtroom and the archive, with spurned writers denied access to their own writing and ex-friends suddenly invoking copyright (the writerly equivalent of a divorce lawyer) over yesterday’s affectionate letters.
Mordecai Richler’s two best novels, St. Urbain’s Horseman and his swan song Barney’s Version, lay envy down as one of the boundaries between self and other. In the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre or Jacques Lacan, the formative influence that one’s identity has on another’s, the mutual influence that I have on you and that you have on me, is referred to as alterity. In Richler’s novels, the border guards of alterity are trigger happy. In St. Urbain’s Horseman, the film director Jake Hersh is torn between two friendships soured by envy, an old friendship which finds him envious and a new one which finds him enviable. Three novels later, in Barney’s Version, friendly rivalry possibly becomes murderous as the TV producer Barney Panofsky reconciles himself to a maturing life which may no longer include the arguably immature writer Boogie Moscovitch.
3. The Art of Anxiety
In The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom argues that great writing creates a double-edged respect as it both inspires us to write and simultaneously reminds us—no, shows us—that others write better than we do. Among the arts, perhaps only music shares such an easily traceable anxiety of influence. Thomas Bernhard’s novel The Loser (a story of pianist envy theory) imagines two pianists meeting Glenn Gould: “Glenn destroyed our piano virtuosity at a time when we still frimly believed in our piano virtuosity …. it was dead from the moment we met Glenn”). Kathryn Harrisons’s title Envy: a Novel is redundant by two words. The novel is envy’s homeland.
In The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera argues that the novel, almost every novel, is not simply the portrait of a character or characters, but rather a portrait of the self, of capital-I Identity. Writing of mind, heart and, crucially, genre, he says, “What is the self? How can the self be grasped? It’s one of those questions on which the novel, as novel, is based.” True, and in the innumerable variations of narrative this portraiture is often rendered by the contrast of two comparable but distinct characters: Hamlet and Horatio, Achilles and Patroclus, the good cop and the bad. In The Enamoured Knight, Douglas Glover’s loving examination of fiction in general and Cervantes’ Don Quixote in particular, he catches this notion of variations on one identity within a single novel with the lovely phrase “character gradation.” Characters are often versions of each other.
Whereas the other novels under discussion depict friends drawn to each other in their twenties before being wedged apart by success as they approach forty, Jon Canter’s Seeds of Greatness forges its paired friends in boyhood. The novel’s opening sequence finds them aged eight, with the extrovert Jack (a future TV talk show host) somehow conning free chips from an immigrant worker at a fish-n-chips restaurant. The fries are free, and Jack’s charm is partially stolen from the introverted David, a self-confessed “parent pleaser” and A-student. Of course David the introvert is our narrator:
After three weeks, Jack asks the moustachioed man his name. It’s George…. Six weeks later, a joke: ‘That’s a big moustache, George. What do you keep in there? Haven’t got any chips in there, have you?’…. Jack smiles at the cleverness of his joke. I say nothing. On the way to the window, not two minutes earlier, I’d wondered out loud if George had any chips in his moustache.I’m not asking you to feel sorry for me. I’m just saying. I understand that I made my remark to Jack off camera, as it were. I didn’t say it to George, under the lights, where fame is won.
This episode encapsulates their near and distant futures. As teenagers, when they fall into a brief love triangle with the same woman (with David’s side of the triangle clearly the shortest) she says that the two of them together “make the perfect man.” They need each other, personally and then professionally. And need ratchets up the envy.
As they approach mid-life, with its crises and cramps, as their friends begin to die, the successful Jack finally envies the under-employed David: “But Jack, cruelly, is now convinced that mine is the life he should have led.…My book-lined cottage, my roadside vegetables, my sea, my freedom from the pressures of success: he wants what I’ve got. Doesn’t he understand how desperately I want what he’s got?” But of course David only envies Jack his successes, not his failures: “The more Jack tells me, the more excited I get. I enjoy Jack’s disaster, as any friend would. All friends, surely, are schadenfreunds. But there’s admiration too. I’m remembering why I like him.” Consciously, David has trouble admitting that his envy-driven schadenfreude extends to appreciating Jack’s early death, yet Jack’s death affords the bright and Cambridge-educated David his one and only career advancement in life, namely the chance to write Jack’s official biography.
The conceit of the nested biography shifts Canter’s debut novel from the wide genre of the envy novel to the sub-genre of the envy-and-writing novel, the exposed envy novel, the envy-gone-public novel. David is not simply the first-person narrator of the book we read; he’s also the first-person narrator of the book he’s writing. Naturally, David writes about himself as well: “For this book, as is already plain, is as much about me as Jack. This is the story of Jack and me. There’ll be bits about me but all those bits will lead to bits about him.” More so than manuscripts or journals, books involve ownership and legal rights. Each of these issues—alterity, envy, and ownership—are revealed in the novel’s opening lines: “I’ve got a life but it’s not my own. It belongs to Jack Harris.” Until given a contract to write about his celebrity friend, David’s writing to-date had all been almost exclusively private, by preference. He describes the limited circulation and appeal of the four articles he has written for a Bob Dylan fanzine: “Maybe two hundred people have read them. And that makes me happy. I only want them read by the few who love Dylan as much as me. Success would be a failure.” Before his death it is Jack, not David, who tries to draw David out with his other private writing project, a play about Matisse and Picasso. Work on this play, which is largely a fantasy for the author but is of course a resonant intertext for the reader (concerning as it does the famous Matisse-Picasso rivalry), sits stalled in David’s imagination until wealthy Jack books David off work, installs him poolside at his mansion and thrusts a laptop into his hands.
5. “Poor Character and the Fear of Desertion”
[Cool image of an Amis reader]
Publicity and privacy are also the contested spheres in Martin Amis’s masterpiece The Information. All of Amis’s life-long themes are brought to a sustained boil in this alternately hilarious and piteous story of envy, friendship and failure: the rivalry of his earlier Success, the public ambitions of London Fields, and the vengeance of Money. The Information involves the collision of the failed writer Richard Tull and the internationally successful writer Gwyn Barry, so the information is mostly about writing (and money, and influence and self-worth) and just a bit about sex. When Richard calls on “his oldest friend,” he must “present himself to the security cameras” and then is “always flattened” by “Gwyn’s setup…. The pressure of all that Gwyn had….everything had been so much nicer, he thought, in the old days, when Gwyn was poor.” Gwyn’s wife is as chiding as his house, a “celebrated knockout of limitless fortune and imperial blood whom Richard knew and admired and had recently taken to thinking about every time he came.” But worse, far worse, than Gwyn’s titled wife, his staff domestic and literary or his house and its perpetual improvement by one “knighted architect” or another are Gwyn’s successful (but dull) books: “Gwyn in Spanish (sashed with quotes and reprint updates) or an American book-club or supermarket paperback, or something in Hebrew or Mandarin.” Gwyn’s books taunt Richard with more than just their remuneration: “Gwyn’s world was partly public. And Richard’s world was dangerously and increasingly private.” For the plot’s shift into second gear, these public and private realms intersect. Because he needs money and exposure (hoping the latter will help him sell his own books), Richard accepts an assignment to write a long profile of Gwyn, a “long in-depth piece about what it’s like to be a very successful novelist.” Urging him to take the piece, Richard’s agent cajoles him by saying, “It’ll show everybody how unenvious you are.”
In The Information, envy is not a flaw in one character, but rather a universal ill. Even the landscape, Amis’s beloved London, is a jealous one: “London traffic lights are the brightest in the world, beneath their meshed glass: the anger of their red, the jaundice of their amber, the jealousy of their green.” Richard’s reduced life—his self-induced ill-health, his crumbling marriage, his besieged finances—even leave him envious of the inanimate world. Revisiting a train station he remembers for its chronic cheerlessness and ambitiously grey Britishness, Richard is revolted to see its new cappuccino bars and chic boutiques: “Richard didn’t like it. He wanted everything to stay down in the world—with him. Envy and schadenfreude and invidiousness: they arise from poor character, but also from a fear of desertion.” And of course this urban landscape includes people, and Richard’s career of dedicated writing and near-silent publication leave him vulnerable to contrast and envy: Richard “would not mind being poor if no one was rich, who would not mind looking rough if no one looked smooth, who would not mind being old if no one was young.” Sadly, disastrously, Richard minds very much that his old friend is doing so well.
The combination of malice and friendship is not unique to Richard. Part of Richard’s inadequate living is earned at a vanity press with an admiring boss who, Richard suspects, “curiously… loved him but wanted to destroy him.” The commingled feelings that Richard has for his rival Gwyn are similarly amorous and annhilatory: “Not for the first time he wondered if—thanks to an impossibly humiliating complication—he was queer for Gwyn in some way.” Their competition, like their possible union, is not limited to writing or even to romance, as the duo regularly compete at tennis, billiards and chess. When they roll all three events into a triathlon of humiliation, a surprised Richard claims, “It’s strange. Whatever happens, we balance each other out. We’re like Henchard and Farfrae. You’re part of me and I’m part of you.” Pointedly, Gwyn does not agree.
6. Envy Gets Experienced
Early in Amis’s 2000 memoir Experience, riding prominently in the book’s plump substrate of footnotes, we meet an abstract disquisition on envy and writing long before Amis recounts his public falling out with long-term friend and fellow writer Julian Barnes. Reacting to the envy which many saw directed at him for his lucrative sale of The Information, Amis argues:
Actually there’s a good reason, a structural reason, why novelists should excite corrosiveness in the press….When you write about a painter, you do not produce a sketch. When you write about a composer, you do not reach for your violin…. But when you write about a novelist, an exponent of prose narrative, then you write a prose narrative. And was that the extent of your hopes for your prose—bookchat, interviews, gossip? Valued reader, it is not for me to say this is envy. It is for you to say that this is envy. And envy never comes to the ball dressed as Envy. It comes dressed as something else: Ascetism, High Standards, Common Sense.
Later in the same book, Amis echoes his fictional Richard Tull even more directly, theorizing that envy “sounds like a vice of sophistication, but I think there’s something primitive in it. It has to do with fear of desertion.” Desertion and its opposite scenarios—acceptance, invitation, communion—are in fact part of Amis’s family trade. Before Booker Prize winner Kiran Desai’s recent ascent under the shadow of her mother, (Booker-nominee) Anita Desai, Martin and his father Kingsley Amis offered the almost unique combination of a parent and adult child publishing regularly and in tandem. Here was not the one-off novelty novels (those publisher’s safe bets) of David Updike or several of Mordecai Richler’s children. Martin and papa Kingsley spent decades publishing books and articles alongside each other, enduring some of the same reviewers, working for the same magazine editors and even sharing the shame agent (more on that below). Kingsley’s recently published letters occasionally find him admiringly envious of his son’s rising fame and money. In a 10 May, 1979 letter to his chief interlocutor and “Inner Audience” [see below] Philip Larkin, Kingsley writes, “Did I tell you Martin is spending a year abroad as a TAX EXILE? Last year he earned £38,000. Little shit. 29, he is. Little shit.” Five years later, writing again to Larkin on 8 February, 1984 (after his longest silence between books), Kingsley confesses, “Of course Martin Amis is more famous than I am now.” But, crucially, this envy is one side of a coin with admiration on its reverse. In a 1993 letter to Paul Fussell (author of the important The Great War and Modern Memory and the incisive Class), Kingsley pays Martin one of this highest compliments imaginable, naming him as part of his “inner audience”: “My Inner Audience did I think consist chiefly of [Philip] Larkin and [Robert] Conquest, especially Larkin. More lately I have added Martin.” Son and father managed to temper their envy with admiration over the years, but not son and friend Julian Barnes.
In the fictional The Information, Martin Amis suggests “writers who hate” pit “his word against mine.” The publication of The Information put Martin Amis in exactly that kind of battle with his ex-friend Julian Barnes. Before placing the novel, Martin left his long-time agent Pat Kavanagh, who happens to have been Julian Barnes’ wife. Writing of that departure in Experience, Amis resigns himself to one of the most devastating compound adjectives imaginable for a letter: “I have in front of me Julian Barnes’s friendship-ending letter.” Continuing, he confesses, “The letter made me question the substance, let alone the value, of the friendship it cancelled.” This tone of desertion, however, is quickly replaced by a litigiousness that finds angry writers quick to assert ownership. Bringing the reader in as close as can be permitted legally, Amis says, “I have before me Julian Barnes’s letter of 12 January 1995. Technically this piece of paper is my property, but the text is Julian’s copyright.” Legally unable to give us both sides of the story, Amis publicizes his originally private reply: “The letter I wrote to Julian is his property but my copyright.” If he bothered to read Experience, at least Julian Barnes would be able to see this public snubbing in a book. Paul Theroux only found his in a (used) book catalogue. Skirmishing, Amis and Barnes lobbed harsh words then publicly quarantined them with copyright. In the fall-out between V.S. Naipaul and Theroux, Naipaul actually sold their textual records of private envy and public affection.
7. Envy for Sale
Unlike the literary friendship of Amis and Barnes, two writers of similar ages who enjoyed comparably successful careers, the friendship of Paul Theroux and V.S. Naipaul began as a clear apprenticeship, with the unpublished Theroux seeking advice, encouragement and recognition from the already successful Naipaul. The two met in Uganda in 1966 where Theroux, 23, was teaching university and Naipaul, nominally aged 34 but in temperament much older, arrived as a vaguely defined visiting professor. Naipaul gave opinions, not classes or lectures, and Theroux was one of the very few who withstood and even sought his harsh judgements. Quite simply, Naipaul—his presence, his advice and the wilful gravity he commanded—helped Theroux become a writer. Simultaneously, Theroux generalizes and recollects: “Friendship is plainer but deeper than love. A friend knows your faults and forgives them, but more than that, a friend is a witness. I needed Vidia as a friend, because he saw something in me I did not see. He said I was a writer.” Ultimately, but finitely, their friendship would span three decades, five continents and more than three-dozen books between them.
Their friendship advanced through phases of “mutual rescue” and into genuine generosity. Early on, Theroux wrote a critical book to introduce and promote Naipaul’s work. Naipaul helped Theroux through a divorce. In England, Naipaul admitted Theroux into his most intimate of rituals, inviting him to proofread the final copy of his novel The Mimic Men, and, even more delicately, allowing him to listen as he edited by reading a draft aloud to his first wife, Patricia Hale. This sitting room threesome is suggestive of a love triangle to at least one of them, as well as to the reader. The young Theroux would, over the decades, travel an arc of lusting after Naipaul’s wife then pitying her her husband’s publicized affairs to writing her obituary in the Daily Telegraph (at Naipaul’s request). That last touch illustrates how routinely and how naturally theirs was a friendship of texts, of words exchanged and kept. Over the years their letters and manuscript critiques brought them together until, shortly after Theroux’s invited obituary, a book seller’s catalogue finally and irrevocably tore them apart.
In the light of this comparison, Theroux shares some of the passive qualities of Jon Canter’s David Lewin, accommodating his more authoritarian friend. Naipaul’s singularity of vision guided Theroux’s writing, establishing him early on as the “inner audience” discussed by Paul Fussell and Kingsley Amis. Affectionately, Theroux recounts, “The push of his dignity, the force of his friendship, made me think of him vividly whenever I wrote anything. He hovered over my desk; he was the reader over my shoulder.” So when the friendship began to sour, when Theroux began to see Naipaul’s deceptions and manipulations, his greed and pettiness, he found himself unable to vent secret misgivings in print, even privately: “That was why I never contemplated writing about him, because writing meant scrutinizing character and giving voice to feelings of disappointment and being truthful.” Yet each is a writer, and theirs is the business of letting genies out of bottles.
Perhaps if Theroux had been a playwright as well as a novelist and non-fiction writer he’d have better predicted his excommunication by Naipaul and the book seller’s catalogue that would reveal it. If only he’d paid attention to the props, he might have caught a whiff of his own hubris and glimpsed the eventual snub that awaited him. Famously, the two exchanged sustaining letters from year to year, country to country, job to job. Speaking of his time in Africa and Singapore, Theroux describes how he hung on Naipaul’s letters: “During this period I had no telephone, I had no other close friends…. The mail was everything. Face to face, anyone can say he is your friend and can promise to write faithfully, but the test of friendship is the letters themselves, the fondest proof that you are remembered.” Praising the ascendant Theroux for finishing The Mosquito Coast, Naipaul writes, “Your energy is amazing; you seem vitalized by all your many successes. I run across your name and your books everywhere and I always feel slightly proprietorial.” With the heat of envy, its open flame or smouldering coal or rogue spark, that proprietariness would engulf the friendship, the voluntarily public friendship.
If nothing else, Sir Vidia’s Shadow is, save its masturbatory opening chapter, an excellent portrait of not just one but two writing lives, their successes and failures. Those few young writers who toss off a bestseller before graduation needn’t bother reading of two different writers constantly chasing money, recognition or contemplative time and space, but the majority of us can take solace in these rare confessions of fear, injustice, and despair. Theroux accurately charts the differences that rural and urban poverty make to a writer (space and quiet for the former, smaller rooms but better dating for the latter). The poorly paid stimulation of book reviewing is examined repeatedly by Naipaul and Theroux. Journalism and teaching are honestly described as financially sustaining but creatively draining. And here, at last, there’s honest talk about writing and money. Always in search of a sustaining buck and some empowering fame, the two writers didn’t just exchange fortifying and confessional letters; they rented them out for reproduction in The New Yorker.
If they were willing to rent, surely the right price would have them sell. Eventually Naipaul moved from “proprietary” pride to proprietary profit. Naipaul saved Theroux’s letters to him and they were eventually sold with his papers to the University of Oklahoma at Tulsa. For his writing of Sir Vidia’s Shadow, Theroux was denied permission to see his own letters! That fact, added in a footnote, would surface after Naipaul’s killing blow. After more than thirty years of friendship, not long after the death of Naipaul’s first wife, the two friends met once to share the stage at a writer’s festival. Otherwise Naipaul stopped returning letters, messages and invitations. Theroux could tell himself that their friendship was in a cold spot, not an ice age, until he happened to glance through the catalogue of a book seller who specialized in first editions.
#366 THEROUX, Paul. Fong and the Indians….This copy is inscribed by Theroux to writer V. S. Naipaul: “For Vidia/ & Pat/ with love/ Paul….$1500.
#337 THEROUX, Paul. Sinning with Annie….His first collection of stories. This copy is inscribed by Theroux to V. S. Naipaul in the month of publication: “To Vidia & Pat/ with love/ Paul.”….$1500.
One can’t be certain that envy was the only mortal threat to the friendship. However, everyone can see that the friendship was more than just killed; its corpse was ransomed off. Naipaul, profitably clearing house of letters and inscribed first editions, and then Theroux in the writing and publishing of Sir Vidia’s Shadow— each sold their old friendship. Amending Amis, they know that “when writers hate” it isn’t just “his word against mine;” it’s “his word against mine” on the auction block and in the bookstore.
8. Crimes of Envy
Mordecai Richler’s two best novels, the courageously honest St. Urbain’s Horseman and the tear-jerking Barney’s Version, each use envy in their sustained, consoling and varied examinations of alterity and adult life. Released in 1971, St. Urbain’s Horseman is nothing short of a case study in alterity (although alterity in the classic you-make-me-I-make-you mode of Sartre, not the anthropological othering of Emmanuel Levinas and company). The story begins with the wealthy and successful filmmaker Jake Hersh awakening in the middle of the night to wonder where Dr. Mengele is hiding. Not wanting to disturb his young family, Jake retreats to his attic aerie with its “wall clock that had been adjusted to show the time in Paraguay—the Doktor’s time.” Simpler matters than vengeance keep Jake involved in overlapping spheres and liminal borders. He may keep a clock set to the Doktor’s time, but he needs no clock to remind him of the time difference between his adopted country of England and his native Canada. This dualistic geography is populated by characters influencing one another overtly. Rising in the morning, Jake’s wife Nancy is introduced in a contest “between bassinet and toilet—the baby’s needs, hers.” The newspapers that arrive to the family doorstep carry news of Jake’s court trial (on charges of indecent assault) with his co-accused Harry Stein, “the fall guy.”
Each of Jake’s principal relationships in the novel repositions the borders he has around himself, and no force shifts that border more than envy. In a flashback to his Montreal youth, Jake and others meet by chance for “an absolutely marvelous afternoon, maybe one of the most enjoyable of Jake’s life. No longer boys they were but, mercifully, not yet full-grown men either, envy-ridden….In the years to come expectations would contract, success or failure would divide them.” And indeed success divides Jake from Luke Scott, the playwright with whom Jake had moved from Canada to England to conquer stage and screen: “When the summons from on high finally came it wasn’t from Columbia…Neither was it Jake they wanted, but Luke….It was then that the two friends, seemingly inseparable partners, came unstuck.” On the opening night of a play of Luke’s that succeeds in part because of unacknowledged help from Jake, Jake stands back, “Sullen and envy-ridden, but stimulating pleasure.” At dawn, when phone calls start arriving from the press, Luke invites Jake to impersonate him for one interview. By that point, however, Jake “doesn’t feel like playing.”
Years later, as Jake makes a good living and Luke makes a fortune, admiration and envy fuel Jake’s imprudent friendship with Harry Stein, a misanthropic but highly intelligent bookkeeper. When Harry comes to Jake’s expensive house to extort payment for a debt of Jake’s cousin’s, he surreptitiously burns a cigarette scar into the chair he’s offered: “Why, the bastard, Jake thought, with sneaking admiration, he did it on purpose.” When Jake tries to expand this admiration into friendship, Harry originally rebuffs his advances, saying “Come off it. I amuse you. You enjoy hearing my prison stories. I’ve got the courage to do things you only dream of.” Harry’s pranks and schemes extend and augment Jake’s. Where Jake makes an obscene phone call to scare off another suitor interested in Nancy, Harry disrupts a plane flight with a telephone bomb threat. When Jake is a houseguest he peeks in a laundry hamper to see a woman’s lingerie; when Harry is a houseguest at Jake’s, he reads Nancy’s love letters. Just as Jake’s departure from Luke occurs during Luke’s prankish invitation for Jake to imitate Luke, so too does Harry’s friendship-ending crime hinge on his impersonation of Jake. When Jake is away for his father’s funeral (another influence dying), Harry asks to borrow Jake’s house to impress women.
For Richler, envy is the pry bar with which a character tries to lever his identity closer to that of another. The novel’s eponymous horseman is Jake’s older cousin Joey, an itinerant and mysterious man whom Jake idolizes: “he realized that ever since he had turned down the film in Israel because, to his mind, it was an offense against everything his cousin stood for, the Horseman had become his moral editor.” Fittingly, Richler dramatizes this moral inquiry with legal trials. In St. Urbain’s Horseman, Jake stands accused with Harry, who is both alter ego and antagonist. In Barney’s Version, the hero Barney Panofsky stands accused of murdering his own alter ego and antagonist.
Where Canter’s Seeds of Greatness is a novel masquerading as a biography, Richler’s novel Barney’s Version pretends to be an autobiography in which Barney, a self-confessed “impenitent rotter” attempts to “rewind the spool of his wasted life.” Central to that life are his three wives, his three children and Bernard ‘Boogie’ Moscovitch, a writer friend from Barney’s bohemian Parisian youth. Boogie remains Barney’s “anointed one” and “the most cherished friend I ever had. I adored him.” Comments of Boogie’s would “propel” Barney “to a library, educating me.” To others, both in the impecunious Paris set of their youth and then later back in North America, Barney’s adoration is too extreme, too envious. Barney is accused of “trailing after Boogie like a poodle,” of “worshipping” him, of “acquiring some of his gestures” and of being “like the player piano. Always playing somebody else’ music because you have none of your own.” Twenty years later, Barney’s wife Miriam will accuse him of “still trying to please Boogie.”
Barney, for all his faults, at least recognizes that his moral infidelity, his vulnerability to the gravity of another, is not limited to Boogie, but extends also to the woman he loves. Richler, updating his phrase “moral editor” of twenty-five years prior, depicts Barney, “Rereading this old letter of mine recently, I suffered one of my frequent attacks of spiritual voice-mail: Miriam, my conscience, tripping me up again.” Barney recognizes (if a little too late), that his self is stranded without his love’s: “O, Miriam, Miriam, my heart’s desire. Without her, I am not only alone but also incomplete.” Envy can be the cry of incompletion.
The central trial in St. Urbain’s is a trial of union: is Jake like the accused Harry and unlike his family and the law-abiding citizens of his native Canada or his adopted London? In Barney’s Version, the envious but self-honest Richler protagonist stands on trial alone, accused, in this case, of murdering the friend he so envies. Crucially, almost comically, no corpse is ever found: Barney’s murder is so much a murder of himself that his trial proceeds despite the absence of a murdered body. While this may make for a weak legal case, it makes for good suspense as we enjoy the double question of Barney’s murderousness and Boogie’s loyalty. When Barney finally claims to “get down on paper what I’ve been avoiding until now” he clarifies “I didn’t lie about those last two days with Boogie, but neither did I tell everything. The truth is, the Boogieman who came to me to kick his habit was no longer the friend I revered.” He also isn’t so friendly. In the novel’s possibly murderous climax, Boogie challenges Barney: “I’ll tell you what’s pathetic. Pathetic is a man so empty that he needs somebody else’s achievements to justify his own life.” By then Barney is financially successful and Boogie has not attained the artistic success he promised in his youth. Each of them hates the other for his success and his failures.
9. The Anxiety of Envy
According to Milan Kundera, the novel is one illustration of the self. The Venn diagram is another. With Sartre or Lacan or Jung, friendship or enmity or love can be neatly mapped by a Venn diagram, with its overlapping circles, its neat depiction of inclusivity and exclusivity, similarity and difference. As Jon Canter’s David says of his romantic relationship, “When I love her, I don’t know where I end and she begins.” With envy, one certainly knows where one ends and the envied begin, precisely because we want to be shifting ourselves more their way. When we envy we enact a proxy theory of friendship, as if each friend is an advance scout or research lab or drawing board for the kind of self we could and maybe even should be, and yet simultaneously we are reminded of how certain the borders are between who we are and who we want to be. Beware the anxiety of envy.
I really enjoyed this.
Thanks, Brad. Each of these novels is impressive, but so is Theroux’s _Sir Vidia’s Shadow_ (aside from the first chapter). I’m generally not as fulfilled by non-fiction, but it’s fascinating.
Fascinating read. The Amis family presents a particularly interesting insight into envy, I think; you’re supposed to wish for the success of your children but what happens when they actually achieve it, and then go on to outshine you?
And what about the reverse – the children of well-regarded writers who themselves went on to unremarkable writing careers? Envy of the old man you can never top is an old story, I suppose, but I wonder if anyone has ever written about it. I can’t think of any off the top of my head.
I enjoyed your attention to the span of time and the variety of form in regards to a theme that appears perennially in art as a means to tell story.
In case anyone is interested, in 2007, The Great Books Foundation issued a story anthology titled The Seven Deadly Sins Sampler. Edith Wharton’s “Roman Fever”and Tobias Wolff’s “Smokers” are the two shorts that represent envy in their estination. Even Deadlier, the follow-up collection, includes Krakatau, by Jim Shepard and Weekend, by Fay Weldon.
As I grew up I regularly atended confession to tell the priest my sins. As we drove to the church, my mother would “help” me remember my misdemeanors. Envy was a big one!
Later, a wise person told me that envy was simply a human response to desire, an expression of what a person wants more of in their life, that envy was entirely for this purpose.
The notion of envy is intrigues me to say the least. Thank you for this post. I have much more to consider.
So sharp, so much extension. I like the world the essay creates even though I don’t know many of the novels. The insight in #9 is especially striking.
For some reason, as I read this, I thought of the Enneagram, a system of looking at personality types. The Enneagram has its roots in Sufi writings, but was further developed by Jesuits and is now used in some schools of counseling thought. According to the Enneagram, the type 4, the “Artistic” personality (which includes many writers) is thought to be most prone to Envy.
Jodi, I like your comment about envy being “simply a human response to desire.”
For the past few days, I keep coming back to this piece. I love how you discuss envy and anxiety separately, then bring them together in closing.
Though I mainly write poetry, writing for me is in any form an act of transference. I find all of us tend to compartmentalize different moments of transference, whether we write or not. We may realize such things as when at work, I am a cynic and voice of subterfuge in the back of the room; in the evenings at the bar, I am a friend and listen through sips and smiles; at home alone with my wife, I am a forgetful fool. As you discuss, when writing and particularly in novels, each of these characters can be established individually, and interact with one another.
The same way I might say that I wish I was more like I am around my wife when I’m at work, the characters as parts of self develop desire or envy for the actions of the others. Again, this is vital to any type of writing as it creates at least an underlying sense of conflict.
I enjoy that you establish a definition for anxiety here too, as nothing disconnects a person or character more than the feeling of anxiety. It can be the very base of a character’s hubris, or even the source that drives a character to take a specific action. In writing and when useful, anxiety allows us to turn off the outside world and focus on the work before us. There is of course a balance to maintain, too much of the emotion and the work fails, the self shuts down.
Coming from a poetic standpoint, I find there are many corollaries to what you discuss in this essay and persona based collections of poetry. I feel there is a growing trend in modern day poetry to speak through a persona or character, or several personae. The main difference I find though is that the poet eventually lets the mask slip between self and persona, i.e. John Berryman’s Dream Songs, or more recently Shahid Reads His own Palm by Dwanye Reginald Betts. Thank you for sharing this piece.
Thanks, Ian. Excellent comment.