I’ve been thinking about this one for a while; how to frame and explain what seems a rather esoteric idea. It goes something like this…
If I had been born in the Netherlands during its Golden Age, if I had studied painting and produced work for the exploding population of middle-class merchants seeking work of less religious and more domestic themes, and if I had I been a genius, I could have painted something like Rembrandt’s Woman Bathing. I could never have painted Vermeer’s Wine Glass.
If I had been developing television series for the BBC in the 1980s – and had been hugely talented – I might have come up with something like the Singing Detective; I would not have been able to conceive Smiley’s People…
I glimpse in these first works, dim and incomplete, qualities that are deeply and personally felt, superior reproductions of my own semi-conscious preoccupations and sense-tones: I see aspects of myself expressed better than I could ever say them.
And this is not the same thing as admiration or enjoyment, or even quality. I stand stunned before the works of Proust, Fra Fillippo Lippi, Miles Davis, as acts of skill, as vast intellectual and emotional accomplishments, yet I do not encounter myself in their works, I am located outside the perimeter, gaping in. Passages of HP Lovecraft, on the other hand, echo to me the histrionics of my own prose, and sometimes even my gloomier suspicions about the world. It unnerves to identify more with the tormented Rhode Island racist than with, say, a genius such as Joyce.
We don’t choose the works in which we recognise ourselves (I say we, assuming that others may have the same eerie experience). A work resonates with private truth or it does not. In Gunter Grass’s Tin Drum – the film when I was a child, the book as an adult – I found what seemed the perfect ensign for how I imagined the best my fiction could aspire to, not because it was the best I’d ever read but because I sensed, radiating through it as a kind of palimpsest, qualities that felt intimately familiar. For the good and bad.
There are some geniuses that can produce both kinds of work: King Lear, for me, reads like my darkest, most pagan inner voice speaking direct, human truth. Julius Caesar, whilst magnificent, seems beamed from another thought-world entirely. Titian and Dylan also achieve this, I think.
These thoughts are instinctual and inconclusive; could we each amass a tribe of these avatars, on a separate shelf, and say ‘over there is the great work, but here is the work – good and bad – that explains me to myself’? And if you could do that, would you show anyone, or would you box them in the cellar?