When writing is a pain

The urge to say something which has never been said before.

by Alessandro Zaccuri

Culture 13 May 2021

Writers have their own idea of failure. They contemplate ruins where others admire monuments. They lament the shipwreck, while on the dock, everyone salutes the happy arrival of the ocean liner. They declare themselves defeated when it seems that they have finally made it: the book they have just finished is precisely what was expected of them. But the opposite is also true. When they are really sure of themselves, writers ignore failure and don’t let anybody sway them. Herman Melville knew very well that he had written Moby-Dick (and that Moby-Dick was the powerful anti-novel we know it is) and did not intend to worry about its commercial failure. That indefinable and magnificent book came after a sequence of novels—from Typee to White-Jacket—that readers valued because apparently they told stories of adventures, and we continue to read them nowadays mainly because they help us delve deeper into Melville’s masterpiece.

The story of the metaphysical duel between Ahab and the Whale was published in 1851 and for more than half a century, it was considered an elaborate oddity. A couple of years after the fiasco, Melville distilled in Bartleby, the Scrivener a sort of miniature Moby-Dick. Like Ahab, the inscrutable Wall Street clerk was also obsessed with his ideal of absoluteness, which no longer consisted of challenging God, but rather hiding from his gaze by using his obscure job as a copyist as a shield. Humiliating himself in the eyes of the world, in short, but methodically: Triumphing through defeat. The words that Bartleby repeats every time a different task is proposed to him, “I would prefer not to,” can be interpreted as the insignia of all literary failures, perhaps juxtaposing them with a few lines from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot: “That is not what I meant at all; / That is not it, at all.” And a little further on, even more explicitly: “It is impossible to say just what I mean!”.

For writers, failure lies precisely in this impossibility that becomes a necessity. There is something that needs to be said but has not yet been said. Not with the words that the writer is seeking, at least. There are others, available and perhaps effective, but they do not interest the writer. If a writer uses them, they do so out of resignation and weakness, sometimes out of desperation. This is the subject—if it can be called that—of Worstward Ho, the formidable piece of prose by Samuel Beckett from which Steve Jobs extracted, misrepresenting it, the famous quote “Fail again. Fail better.” The fragment is stripped of any optimistic momentum once it is put back into its original context, where it is a disembodied voice that unrelentingly returns to the inevitability of failure. Not only “Fail better,” therefore, but also and more often “Fail worse,” in a continuous contrast between what can be said and what cannot: “On. Say on. Be said on. Somehow on. ‘Til nohow on. Said nohow on. Say for be said. Missaid. From now on, say for missaid.”

The matter is much less abstract and much less brainy than it might seem. To quote Eliot again (from the drama Murder in the Cathedral,) even the writer knows no more treacherous temptation than “To do the right deed for the wrong reason.” “The greatest treason,” as the poet defines it in rhyme, is primarily committed against oneself, against one’s own writing intents. As a matter of fact, one does not fail and is not defeated as long as one perseveres. However, the possibility of capitulation can never be ruled out. Thus, at the end of the 19th century, the Italian writer Giovanni Verga abandoned his project of the Ciclo dei Vinti, of which only the first two novels remain, I Malavoglia and Mastro-don Gesualdo, today rightly considered essential. He left the third book, Duchessa di Leyra, unfinished, and returned to the elegant settings that his audience had already proven to appreciate in the past.


Francis Scott Fitzgerald also celebrated his failure in his unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, which has a recognizable antecedent in a 1936 text, The Crack-Up, which contains one of the most fitting metaphors of defeat ever conceived. On the threshold of 40 years old and mired in the mediocrity of Hollywood, the former whiz kid of This Side of Paradise compares himself to “a cracked plate, the kind that one wonders whether it is worth preserving.” Even if you decide not to throw it away, “it will not be brought out for company, but it will do to hold crackers late at night or to go into the icebox under leftovers…

The collapse described by Fitzgerald is not exclusively literary. No less devastating for him is the decline of his marriage to Zelda, in an intertwining of life and art that alone would be enough to show that art can never be completely isolated from life. After all, this is why, over time, Beckett’s writing became increasingly essential, until it took on the supernatural allusiveness of a text such as Worstward Ho. And this is also why literary—or, better, editorial—failure can be lethal. In the past century’s Italian literature, a prime example is the story of Guido Morselli. In 1973 he committed suicide at 60 after the major Italian publishers had rejected his novels. Published posthumously, those same books subsequently granted Morselli critical notoriety of the utmost prominence.

However, late or even post-mortem rediscovery cannot be automatically relied upon. It is always possible to get revenge like the one that John Williams’ Stoner had (published without much success in 1965, re-discovered at the beginning of the twenty-first century to become a global bestseller, so much so as to achieve the title of ‘perfect novel’,) but this does not mean that all the books that have been forcibly not published or possibly mistreated are actually misunderstood masterpieces. In an even broader sense, failure to publish is not in itself a sufficient sign of failure, nor is the infamous blank page syndrome. On the contrary, it is not uncommon for a work to be endangered not by a shortage but by the excessive exuberance of the material that accumulates. This happened to Wonder Boys, the 1995 novel thanks to which Michael Chabon managed to overcome the trauma he had suffered due to the refusal of Fountain City, a book of over 1,500 pages he had worked on for a long time. The protagonist of Wonder Boys, Grady Tripp, was a writer who, in turn, was trapped in a project that had become gigantic but which the author had trouble abandoning. Impersonated by Michael Douglas in the film of the same name directed by Curtis Hanson in 2000, the character helped place the category of the beautiful loser back into the mainstream at a time when the very idea of failure was considered unacceptable.

Chabon probably did not know that Italian literature also had its own Grady Tripp. His name was Stefano D’Arrigo, and for almost 20 years, he spent his life writing an amazing book—more of an epic poem in prose than a novel—entitled Horcynus Orca. To help him complete it, the greatest publisher of the time, Arnoldo Mondadori, paid D’Arrigo a sort of salary, meant to be a generous advance on sales, hoping it would be consistent with the work’s value. Unfortunately, this was not the case: published in 1975 and supported by an unprecedented marketing campaign, the book never reached the general public. This does not mean that Mondadori was wrong. George Steiner was convinced that Horcynus Orca was extraordinary, even more complex and irreplaceable than James Joyce’s Ulysses. It is no coincidence, probably, that D’Arrigo’s mammoth novel can be considered as a Mediterranean re-write of Moby-Dick: Like a mad rush towards disaster, “inside more inside, where the sea is sea.”

D’Arrigo, just like Melville, did not give in to defeat. In 1986 he published a much shorter novel, Cima delle nobildonne, a meditation on the placenta: the origin and the unknowable. He did not act, in short, like Franz Kafka or the Latin poet Virgil, who, at their deaths, tried to order the destruction of their unpublished works. Neither of them got their way, although for very different reasons. Max Brod, the friend to whom Kafka had entrusted his manuscripts, refused to burn the marvelous unfinished manuscripts of The Trial, America, and The Castle. He got them published, handed them over to us as grateful readers, and in the unfinished works we can see one of the main reasons for Kafka’s greatness. We do not know how the stories of Josef K., Karl Rossmann, and land surveyor K. end, and that is why these stories never cease to fascinate us. Above all, they never cease to be open to interpretation, which is the real wealth created by failure (success is in itself unquestionable and on its own level; only failure can be continuously questioned and re-examined).


As for Virgil, tradition has it that he was not pleased with his Aeneid. Not of its general structure, which performs all too well the task of glorifying the origins of the gens Iulia, the legitimate descendant of a power that had been handed down from the rubble of Troy to Emperor Augustus. On that front—on the front of the perfect match between expectations and result—Virgil was sure that he had not failed. But there were still some incomplete verses in the poem, some stumped hexameters that humiliated his pride as an artist. Therefore, according to the legend, Virgil would have wanted the manuscript to be burned. Augustus himself took action to change the course of events and proposed an agreement: if the Aeneid was delivered to him as it was, including its shortcomings, he would have granted freedom to Virgil’s slaves. By then on his deathbed, the poet accepted the barter that only the pride of an emperor could conceive. This time, the advantage for us as readers is twofold. Firstly, because we can read the Aeneid, but also because the Austrian writer Hermann Broch composed his most important novel, The Death of Virgil, based on this story. A beautiful and crazy book, as invariably beauty is a bit crazy. Reading it, one is convinced that for a writer, the only way to fail lies in the prudence that distracts him from himself, in the mortifying wisdom that prevents him from daring to do what is impossible. “Best worse no further,” Beckett would say, “Nohow less. Nohow worse. Nohow naught. Nohow on. Said no-how on.”