Three recent moments.
One. I was reading an article a week or so ago about Cy Twombly’s working methods during the 1960s in Rome. Apparently he’d pin rolls of canvas to the walls of his studio and work on them without any very clear idea of what he was doing: daub, scribble, sign, quotation: the elegant graffiti – signifying and non-signifying – for which he’s known. When the canvas was covered, he’d look at what had been done, then select the pieces that had potential and cut them out, discarding the rest. The cut-out pieces would be pinned back on the walls, without stretchers, and the work would continue.
Two. In a different context, I was thinking last weekend about possible covers for the Salt collection and wondering if we might be able to use one of Giuseppe’s paintings. It struck me that, although a whole painting might not be what we needed, a detail might. What happened as I selected sections from paintings I loved, and thought I knew, was that the sections began to seem enough, began to seem greater than the whole.
Three. I checked up to see if anyone had left comments on Asylum, where John Self interviewed me about Little Monsters, and I found two posts, from Colette Jones and Tricia Dower, wondering aloud about what might have been lost, both in terms of material and in a larger sense, in the fairly radical editing I talk about having put the novel through.
In the first instance, Twombly must have consciously adopted redundancy as part of the process. In the second, I experienced the pleasurable surprise of seeing familiar landscapes from a different angle, which valued their incompleteness. In the third, the whole business of what we do when we edit was brought into question. Do we do what Twombly did – extract what there is of worth from the inchoate writing on the wall? Which is good. Or do we fail to see the whole because we’re attracted by the simpler forms and contrasts of a fragment, and actually prefer the incomplete, and privilege it? Which may not be.
This is a preamble to something that happened last Friday. I was working on the revision of a novel I’d drafted, redrafted, finished and set aside two years ago, only picking it up again recently, after Sam Humphreys, my editor at Picador, had read the book and made, as usual, dozens of pertinent and immensely helpful suggestions. We’d talked about these over tea, in a mood of collaboration and, in a sense, negotiation, although clearly with the same end in view. After which, I set to work happily, cutting here, expanding there, clarifying, cutting to the chase. But throughout this, something, almost suppressed, continued to niggle – a comment Sam had made about one of the four or five main characters, a man called Giacomo. The comment? “What’s Giacomo for?”
I’d answered this at the time, I’d thought to my own satisfaction, but as I moved ahead, from the first chapter to the second, from the second to the third, I found myself thinking more and more, well, yes, what is Giacomo for? And now I know the answer. I don’t know. I mean, I can see what he does, and who he knows, and I can see that certain aspects of the plot are made simpler by his presence. But I don’t know what he’s for. Because, deep down, he isn’t for anything – he was just fun to write. So it’s bye-bye Giacomo.
This is a Twombly moment.