Bill Buford

The twentieth century has tolerated a number of mythologies about the role of the writer, and one of the most commonplace is the writer as inspired genius. The inspired genius theory of literary creation has given licence to all sorts of abuses of what we normally regard as civilized conduct: heavy drinking, running around with women or men or both, beating up our friends, excesses of every description, and, in general, acting in a pretty obnoxious way. There is, however, another, much less recognized category of deviant behaviour, and one that explains a great deal about the literature and literary reportage that this century has witnessed: the writer as lunatic.

The writer as lunatic differs from the inspired genius in a number of ways. Most importantly, perhaps, lunatic writers tend not to abuse those around them: the abuse is directed squarely at themselves. In thinking this exceptional, I should note that I’m assuming most of us go out of our way not to get killed; we look both ways before crossing the street, and if we’re ever unfortunate enough to face a man with a gun (or for that matter, a tank) we know what we want to get very far out of his way. This is not true of the writer as lunatic. For example, ten years ago, James Fenton went to Indochina to see the fall of Saigon. Just days before the North launched its invasion in the South, James Fenton could be seen strolling casually into an area occupied by Vietcong soldiers, sharing a coconut with them while noting the sound of approaching South Vietnamese army vehicles on patrol. And when Siagon did eventually fall, he not only joined in the looting of the US Embassy, but, on hearing that the first North Vietnamese tank had appeared in the city, rushed out of his hotel, flagged it down, and hopped on the back. This I regard as lunatic conduct. Another example is Ryszard Kapuściński, one of the most gifted writers of reportage today. Ryszard Kapuściński has not only spent most of his adult life looking for national disasters, but he also has the uncanny knack – unintended, I trust – of bringing them with him. When he arrived in Zanzibar, the revolution broke out; fleeing to what was then called Tanganyika, he encountered a coup. He was in Angola when it was attacked by South Africa, in Burundi where he was meant to be executed by a firing squad, in El Salvador during the war with Honduras, in Uganda witnessing Idi Amin’s maddest moments, and in Iran when the Shah finally decided that it was time to go abroad.

Fearing that an army might descend on my doorstep, I’d think twice before inviting a man like this over for dinner. For it’s obvious that Kapuscinski, too, is a lunatic. And it’s equally obvious that there are other writers like him, each sharing a common feature: the compulsion to seek out political crises.

Literature and politics are meant to be incompatible partners, but consistently writers keep getting involved in political issues. This is in part, as Nadine Gordimer describes in her essay  ‘The Essential Gesture’, because they have no choice: there are certain demands society makes on the author that, regardless of the difficulties they occasion, have to be met. But a writer who jumps on tasks, or one who travels thousands of miles to stand before a firing squad, has certainly sought his difficulties more than they have sought him. There is, I suspect, something else at work.

Fenton mentions that his journey started on the day Auden died, and the coincidence offers some interesting comparisons. For Auden’s generation, Spain was more a cause than a country, and the Civil War itself a crusade in which the political issues were urgent, unambiguous and defined. But Auden accounts for his going to Spain mainly because, as he says in a letter cited in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, ‘The poet must have direct knowledge of major political events.’ He never mentions the Spanish cause. He went to Spain because he felt it was essential, as a writer, to be there.

The value of literature is not merely in its worth as an imaginative construct, but in its relationship to the political event, of history, to what’s out there. Nadine Gordmer cites Camus –  ‘It is from the moment when I shall no longer be more than a writer that I shall cease to write’ – and the aphorism can apply equally to virtually ever contributor in this issue: from Salman Rushdie’s creed – ‘Keep grinning. Be bloody-minded. Argue with the world – to George Steiner’s terrifying Conversation Piece.’ And it also applies to James Fenton, determined to find out what happens after a communist victory: a literary lunatic who visited places he wasn’t meant to, but returned able to satisfy a need for a narrative answerable to the world.

Writing in the Cold
Jackdaw Cake