Friday, July 27, 2018

What Elizabeth Taylor - The Novelist! - Tells Us About Writing in "Angel"

In Angel, novelist Elizabeth Taylor gives us a biography of a fictional Edwardian writer, Angelica Deverell, her heady rise and disastrous fall. Angel is not a genius, she is not even talented. She writes verbose, flowery, ludicrous, deadly serious tomes full of aristocrats tippling champagne and enchanting royalty with their exquisite beauty, wearing crimson velvet evening gowns and losing their virginities in games of poker. She dislikes reading, claims her main influences as Shakespeare and (a mispronounced) Goethe, disdains research, and absolutely refuses to have a copy editor touch The Lady Irania or An Eastern Tragedy. When she tires of European aristocrats, she simply sets the story in ancient Greece or a harem in a vague location in the East; as she claims "Human nature never changes," such new settings require no study. Her long-suffering editor is forced to invent a Mr. Delbanco, the "man behind the scenes" who serves as a scapegoat for every decision that brings down Angel's wrath. Her books sell: the public devours their escapism and the critics howl over their absurdity. Angel, having no sense of humor, least of all about herself, believes the critics to be insanely jealous of her literary prowess and to have thus marked her as an enemy. In old age, she takes to paying off the ever mounting bills with signed first editions of her works.

Taylor's magic in Angel is to present the reader with an extremely eccentric, morally vacuous, undeservedly self-righteous, and totally untalented character, a writer whose books really are plainly and simply bad. And since Angel doesn't have the smallest capacity to laugh at herself, the critical barbs and ridicule are horrifically cruel. Yet Taylor isn't cruel to her creation. She parades out this figure and refuses to lampoon her. The reader doesn't get impatient, in part because Taylor's style, elegant, yet clean, with an ever so slightly acerbic edge, is quite pleasant to read, but also, and more importantly, because Angel - in modern terms, profoundly 'unrelatable' - is plumbed to her very depth. It becomes difficult to laugh at her, no matter how many times she describes things as "corruscating," when her suffering is so vividly described, when her success, soon and irrevocably quashed by a hairpin turn in taste precipitated by World War I, blooms into failure and leaves her mouldering away in a decaying mansion, sparring with a cranky chauffeur and trailing around in fungus-infected evening gowns.

For writers, Angel has a message it would do us well to heed, for in it, Taylor reminds us that the throes and struggles are hardly proof of genius, or even workaday competence, but part and parcel of the writing process, whether the end result is Hamlet (Angel considers those who mock her "those who would sneer at Shakespeare because they could not write Hamlet themselves") or utter junk. Depictions of great writers and artists, whether in literature or film, often forgive monstrous behavior, fruitless self-destruction, neglect and cruelty of all sorts, as the worthwhile price for the works of genius bequeathed to posterity. That's bunkum as those miseries are the stuff of human life, not genius, the stuff of life, rather than creation. The same behavior can as easily yield trash as treasure, more easily trash, if we're going to be honest. Taylor, in depicting Angel barbed with foibles, follies, caprices, and freakishness, but with wildly different results, reveals the hubris and absurdity of our notions of literary genius. Angel's eccentricity - and her monstrousness is more aesthetic, nowhere on a par with the evil antics of, say, Rimbaud or the titillating scandals of George Sand - is considered absurd because her books are dreadful; if she were churning out the likes of The Age of Innocence or Howards End, the same eccentricity would be imitated and coddled. 

Thus Angel becomes an exercise in humility, not merely on a metatextual level, as one of the great English novels of the twentieth century, but also because it patiently and almost tenderly extracts the canker from the flower of genius. It is not how much one suffers, not how hard one works, not even how much money one makes or how many celebrities want to meet one, but a complex alchemical process that might produce a literary philosopher's stone... or else, nothing but dross and singed, foul-smelling dregs. 

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