Unfortunately, writing about cab driving can be as boring as driving a cab sometimes is; what is the point of recycling essentially meaningless encounters? Especially ones that have no issue apart from the successful conclusion of a journey – or a shift. People often say to me that driving must be a great job for a writer . . . all that material! I usually reply that writing is a great job for a writer and, if they persist, observe that, in a cab, you never really get the whole story, only the (excluded) middle without beginning or end. I guess you can invent, or at least imagine, the top and tail, but why?
Today, for example, I pick up three junkies in the Cross and take them to Oxford Street. The one in the front, improbably Dostoevskian with his swart skin and long greasy black hair, takes out a matted, filthy comb and does his hair in the sunshade mirror; then rubs his cheek and examines the forefinger of his right hand, compulsively, over and over again. What I am to do with him? When they get out there’s an overweight man with really bad Parkinson’s waiting and he shakes companionably all the way to Cleveland and Elizabeth . . .
What about the blind woman from Persia, with her dark, beautiful, sightless eyes gazing liquid into mine?
And yet – writing and driving are inextricably bound together for me, if only because, not long after I first (unhappy day) fell into the job, a friend in NZ wrote and asked me if I would put together some material gathered on the streets of Sydney for a possible book. He was anticipating including it in a series of disparate volumes published by an entity to be called Right Here Books. I drove and wrote all through my first stint as a cabbie and duly sent the typescript off to him; retaining for myself a photocopy which, since it was made on heat sensitive paper, has faded slowly to blank over the years.
The proposed book never appeared and I’m grateful for that. Much later, in the new century, I started up a weblog, called dérives, and pursued that assiduously for quite some time before tiring of the sound of my own voice, or perhaps of the voice of the persona which, half unconsciously, I manufactured in order to tell those particular tales. Now this self-imposed task has inadvertently led to a resurrection of that persona, that voice, and I’m as weary of it now as I was previously.
When life fails us we turn to art, isn’t that so? Or is it? Either way, I’ve found that my initial scepticism with regard to Senor Cortázar’s Hopscotch has mutated into something more like – not belief because he won’t allow that or rather, will not permit suspension of disbelief – but fascination. This began when I started to fall for La Maga, the Montevidean heroine who is, to some extent, based upon Andre Breton’s Nadja (and may well have had, like Nadja, a counterpart in so-called real life); but it really took hold while I was reading Chapter 28, perhaps the longest in the book, in which, during a typically 1950s bohemian party (drinking, smoking, arguing, listening to music), La Maga’s sick child Rocamadour dies, her ex-lover Horacio, the Argentinean, discovers this fact and does not tell her.
Instead, in a clandestine manner, he informs others among the guests and, while waiting for her to wake him (except he will never wake again) for his 3 a.m. dose of medicine, initiates a discussion of the absurd. It’s absolutely gripping in such a way as to focus the attention on much else in the book that seemed, up until that point, merely random, even indulgent. It is, I think, not so much a novel with the frame attached as one that trails behind (includes within) the materials out of which it has been made, and that includes, paradoxically, much that is germane along with some (rejectamenta?) that is not. Now I’m content to wander the effectively infinite labyrinth of its 564 pages until I find a way out.
Nor has the redoubtable Sir Toss let me down. The old charmer has a wonderful facility with words and, emotionally, seems note-perfect. This because, I would say, he does not lie. Maybe cannot lie. That’s of course a big claim to make in a period during which it is fashionable to assert the relativity, the essential truth-less-ness, of any exercise that uses the slipperiness of words to communicate with others. But these are letters, written without too much reflection and posted (that word) immediately after composition – or are they? Toss used letters as a form of diary-keeping and instructed his wife Edith to copy portions of those he sent her while away into journals so he could consult them later. He also made copies (how laborious would that have been?) of letters before sending them and I believe this volume, impeccably edited by Jill Trevelyan, is substantially drawn from archives of such things that Edith kept.
So if it is truth it‘s certainly not unmediated and quite possibly intricately constructed with an eye for posterity . . . still, I would maintain that Toss was able to preserve a kind of innocence, perhaps above all an innocence of seeing, that never failed him. Here he is on Monet’s late Water Lilies: Painted and painted until the paint had a texture like tangled string in the thick parts. How he had worked! The result is visionary. Turner did not reach such a position. I could not, for the moment, look at Cézanne in the next room . . . if Cézanne could have lived till 1920 and seen such paintings . . . he would have had to modify his statement that ‘Monet is only an eye – but what an eye!’ The eye has gone far beyond itself, & looks back from a place far in vision to what it was once like to be an eye.