I like sequels to stories, even if they are written by someone else, and I like reading different perspectives on the same story, like Joan Aiken’s brilliant and startling Jane Fairfax which gives us the reverse image of Jane Austen’s Emma, but I like these sequels and new perspectives only so long as nothing in the original story is contradicted, even if it might have been, we discover, only partially understood. I first wrote a story about two sisters, Hillary and Bridgid, about twenty years ago, mainly to use the spelling of the name Bridgid that, when I came across it, reminded me of my childhood fascination with the name Hillary. When I used the names again for a later story with sisters in it, this did some of the work all by itself of fictionalising what started out as a little bit semi-autobiographical. Hillary and Bridgid were becoming real characters, with a life beyond the stories they were in. This made the facts of any stories they were in unalterable truths, for me as the writer of them, and the writer of any potential sequels. But now I have revised the last chapter of The Bedmaking Competition, the novella that tells five of the stories from Hillary and Bridgid’s lives, for a second edition, and what I had written about Molly and Fred in the first edition is completely contradicted by the second edition. Two versions of the same scenes are now in print, one no longer true, one a new truth, overwriting the first version. This breaks my own rules so completely that I can’t even think of it as cheating. I think it only felt possible, and even necessary, because I’d sort of cheated when I’d made up the adolescent Molly and Fred in the first version, a version in which they were never really quite real characters. I needed Bridgid not to be winning as a sibling by having children, I explained to my own children, when I found myself having to account for Molly’s coldness and Fred’s dishevelment. I must have been reading too much Virginia Woolf, the diaries, not the novels, in which she is always measuring herself against Vanessa and in her own mathematics always coming out with Vanessa as the winner because Vanessa has children. But I was right to feel embarrassed by the characters of Molly and Fred, not because they were too fictional, but because they weren’t fictional enough, they were nothing but convention, a cartoon of adolescence lifted from parenting guides that never did anything to improve my own parenting, or my writing. So I made up a new Molly and Fred for a second edition of the novella, taking the starting points of their characters as they had been written into the early stories when they were small children and following Molly’s word-play as a toddler through to an adolescence in which she speaks only in Latin, an ambition not completely unrelated to my own adolescent intention to grow up and raise children speaking only Latin. Fred’s early insistence on wearing dresses is followed through to his adolescent sense of style, though it is a silk jumpsuit, rather than a dress, he is wearing in the revised version of the hospital scene. There were still limits, though, to what I could invent, including the constraint the revision still shared with the first version of the scene, that the dialogue had to match up with the dialogue in a story that has never been published, which tells the story from the point of view of the woman Bridgid and Hillary’s mother had run off with all those years ago. This is who comes into the hospital room, very briefly, when Fred and Molly have just arrived, and when she first sees Fred, she thinks he must be the son she believed Bridgid and Hillary’s mother was pregnant with, all those years ago when their father came after their mother and broke up this affair. So she still has to say, “he’s the boy,” and then, later, “you’re his mother” in this version of the scene, just as she does in the other version of the scene, and just as she does in a story that will probably never be written, but tells what are, for me, still unalterable facts in the fictional world of Bridgid and Hillary.
If life isn’t drained of meaning as you get older, why do so many novels end when the characters are still young, why does a Shakespearean comedy end with the marriages of one young character to another, and all their lives ahead of them? It is true that a tragedy isn’t drained of meaning any more than a comedy is, or not for the audience of a tragedy, but for the characters in a tragedy their lives are drained of meaning - whose life could be more drained of meaning than King Lear’s? Yet a tragedy seems at least as meaningful as a comedy, and even perhaps more meaningful than the Shakespearean romance I hope to be the pattern of my life, when all losses are restored, all relationships are renewed, all daughters are found and wives are turned back from stone. I don’t know whether regret is less meaningful than hope, or relief less meaningful than anxiety, but perhaps longing is the most meaningful of all these feelings, looking both forwards and backwards, because, when you long for something, isn’t this more than hoping for something in the future, aren’t you longing for something you lost that you might hope to restore?
Is a novel drained of meaning in the last few chapters, I asked in the last post, but a novel so often ends with the characters marrying, or established in life, their life charted, the trajectory set. Life is so full of meaning when you are young because you are still making up the story of your life that later you live out. Full of meaning, and full of anxiety, because what if you make the wrong choices, and set up a trajectory you have to follow through into a life you make for yourself that you don’t want to live? You have to think that, if you never know what the consequences of a decision will be, then your future won’t depend on the choices you make so much as it will on how you respond to the outcomes you couldn’t have anticipated, that you will go on making choices all your life and you might as well think, for instance, of your marriage as an arranged marriage even if you arranged it yourself, when you were so much younger you might as well have been someone else. This isn’t true, though, your future does depend on the choices you make, even if you do have to go on, and on, making more choices. Being more than halfway through my life now I am living through the consequences of decisions I made when I was young and exhilarated and wanted to be committed irrevocably to a path, almost any path, that I couldn’t turn back from. And now I cannot turn back, I cannot undo the consequences of choices I made, and I will never have the chance to make some of the choices I failed to make, I will never be able to live my twenties differently, and my children’s adolescent years can never be lived again, and I will never be able to have a dog as a child, an argument I knew made sense when I made it as a child to my parents who didn’t want to have a dog and always told me I could have as many dogs as I wanted when I grew up.
Does meaning drain out of life as you get older, Agnes Callard asks, and nearly all the respondents say no, except for some of the younger ones, and me. I answered emotionally, not logically, and even as I was answering yes, I was thinking but is a novel drained of meaning in its last few chapters? Is a sonnet drained of meaning after the volta? When we think of an untimely death, we think of someone dying too young, before they have lived the story of their lives, but the Romans were as likely to think of an untimely death as a problem of overliving, the idea that you could live past the time you should have died. Call no man happy until he is dead, as if life were a story and you could go past the happy ending to a time when everything that made sense - the marriage to Darcy, the saving of Wilbur the pig - has become a source of regret, a dirty pig-sty with a demented, old pig, covered in cobwebs. What do we mean by meaning, narrative integrity? A sense that it matters what we do? An emotional depth or resonance to the details of how we live? Regret is an emotion that has at least as much aesthetic depth as hope. Perhaps we can live on, suffused with regret, like a beautiful sonata. Maybe thinking of life in terms of an aesthetics of emotion, rather than in terms of narrative and narrative structure, is a way of living in the present, rather than towards a future that is always diminishing.
Once I made up a philosophy thesis topic for a fictional character, an aesthetics of emotion, an impossible thesis he would never complete, but no more impossible, really, than a philosophy thesis on music as the expression of emotion. Whether there can be any logic to it or not, listening to music seems like the experiencing of emotion, or a movement through emotions, or, rather, emotion as movement, emotion understood as a movement through time. And, obviously, though very strangely, as the movement of pitch through time. Somehow, we hear notes, and the movement between notes, as emotion and what it makes me wonder today is whether the opposite must also be true and every emotion must have its musical equivalent. If a kind of transcendent, god-like composer were able to tune in to our every emotion, could every one of us be supplied with the musical score of our every moment? If it were as mechanical as that, I suppose there wouldn’t even be a need for the god-like composer (though what a way to think of God!), it would just be a matter of coding, any computer could do it. But are we always feeling emotions, or do we occasionally feel emotions in bursts of song like bursts of bird-song punctuating the day? Would the music-generating translation-programme be a constant play of music, or long stretches of silence with longer or shorter, louder or softer musical interludes? Is “neutral” an emotion, and does it have a tune to it, that would play for much of the day? Is “neutral” really contentment, a contentment that isn’t being attended to? And what makes me think I am without feeling for most of the time, or neutral in feeling, or even contented? Is this really true or is it just another example of my absence from myself, my lack of attention, and am I really roiling with feeling all the time that I could notice along with my thoughts, if I took to watching? And what kind of person would I become then, monitoring my emotions and counting my thoughts, and would I have to write everything down? But I cannot write down my emotions because I cannot write music, and even if I could, the music that has actually been written is perhaps less a record of emotions the composer actually felt than a creation of new emotions, emotions that could only be created by music, and then created again in whoever listens as if they are emotions of their own. How strange that is.