The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences & Observations of Peter Leroy

by Mark Dorset


  The Author as Other, a Case of Displacement

William Gass (many thanks to Suzanne Nixon for bringing this to my attention):

If I began a book imagining a young man (such as myself) writing a book, then who is writing the book he is writing?  ’Tis still “I,” of course, who else could it be?  But it is not the “I” I am, with my beliefs and degrees, it is one of my other selves who has always thought it would be fun to be generous instead of stingy, friendly and open instead of suspicious, a bit of a believer instead of a snarly skeptic.  I enjoy double-anonymity, having invented the author of my book as well as the author in it.
introduction to the Dalkey Archive edition of
Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds
In Midnight Oil, V. S. Pritchett wrote:
A writer is, at the very least, two persons.  He is the prosing man at his desk and a sort of valet who dogs him and does the living.  There is a time when he is all valet looking for a master, i.e., the writer he is hopefully pursuing.  [PURCHASE OPPORTUNITY]
   I think—I contend—that every writer achieves this separation to some degree, creating an alter ego who does the writing, and those who do it most successfully find that the writing self leads them to discoveries they would not have made on their own.
   Why do they do this?  Why create another self to do your writing when you already have a perfectly good self who does the living?
   Here is my answer to that question: another self is a means to a better understanding of the truth, the essence, the fundament, the heart of what oone has to say and to a more honest and complete expression of it.  Most of us avoid that honesty, perhaps without even being aware that we are.  Why?  Pick one: 
the pursuit of “a higher truth”
   Here is William Butler Yeats on the subject:
A poet writes always of his personal life, in his finest work out of its tragedy, whatever it be, remorse, lost love, or mere loneliness; he never speaks directly as to someone at the breakfast table, there is always a phantasmagoria.  Dante and Milton had mythologies, Shakespeare the characters of English history or romance; even when the poet seems most himself, when he is Raleigh and gives potentates the lie, or Shelley “a nerve o’er which do creep the else unfelt oppressions of this earth,” or Byron when “the soul wears out the breast” as “the sword outwears its sheath,” he is never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast; he has been reborn as an idea, something intended, complete.  A novelist might describe his accidence, his incoherence, he must not; he is more type than man, more passion than type. . . . He is part of his own phantasmagoria . . .
“A General Introduction for My Work”
   And here is Marcel Proust:
Sainte-Beuve’s great work does not go very deep. The celebrated method which, according to Paul Bourget and so many others, made him the peerless master of nineteenth-century criticism, this system which consists of not separating the man and his work, of holding the opinion that in forming a judgment of an author—short of his book being “a treatise on pure geometry”—it is not immaterial to begin by knowing the answers to questions which seem at the furthest remove from his work (How did he conduct himself, etc.), nor to surround oneself with every possible piece of information about a writer, to collate his letters, to pick the brains of those who knew him, talking to them if they are alive, reading whatever they may have written about him if they are dead, this method ignores what a very slight degree of self-acquaintance teaches us: that a book is the product of a different self from the self we manifest in our habits, in our social life, in our vices. If we would try to understand that particular self, it is by searching our own bosoms, and trying to reconstruct it there, that we may arrive at it.  Nothing can exempt us from this pilgrimage of the heart.  There must be no scampling in the pursuit of this truth, and it is taking things too easily to suppose that one fine morning the truth will arrive by post in the form of an unpublished letter submitted by a friend’s librarian, or that we shall gather it from the lips of someone who saw a great deal of the author.
“The Method of Sainte-Beuve,” in Contre Sainte-Beuve
(translated by Sylvia Townsend Warner)
   Now I want to tell you a story, or at least summarize a story for you.  It’s not mine.  It’s “The Private Life,” by Henry James [PURCHASE OPPORTUNITY]:
It begins, “We talked of London face to face with a great bristling primeval glacier.” As is often the case in James’s stories about writers, the story is told by an unnamed narrator who observes the exalted master from a position lower on the ladder of literary success.
    A group of Londoners were vacationing in Switzerland, after enduring what James calls “the modern indignity of travel—the promiscuities and vulgarities, the station and the hotel, the gregarious patience, the struggle for a scrappy attention, the reduction to a numbered state.”
    They were staying at a “balconied inn . . . on the very neck of the sweetest pass in the Oberland . . . for a week.”
    They were “Lord and Lady Mellifont, Clare Vawdrey, the greatest (in the opinion of many) of our literary glories, and Blanche Adney, the greatest (in the opinion of all) of our theatrical.”
    Of Clare Vawdrey, James writes: “(This celebrity was ‘Clarence’ only on the title-page.) . . . He never talked about himself; . . . He differed from other people, but never from himself . . . and he struck me as having neither moods nor sensibilities nor preferences. . . . I never found him anything bu loud and liberal and cheerful, and I never heard him utter a paradox or express a shade or play with an idea.”
    Blanche Adney “had settled it for him that he was going to write her a play and that the heroine, should he but do his duty, would be the part for which she had immemorially longed.”  At dinner she asked him “if he really didn’t see by this time his third act.”
    “To her appeal about their third act he replied that before dinner he had written a spendid passage.”
    “Before dinner?” I said.  “Why, cher grand maî tre, before dinner you were holding us all spell-bound on the terrace.” . . . He looked at me hard, throwing back his head quickly, the least bit like a horse who has been pulled up short.   “Oh, it was before that,” he returned naturally enough.
    “Before that you were playing billiards with me,” Lord Mellifont threw off.
    “Then it must have been yesterday,” said Vawdrey.
    But he was in a tight place.  “You told me this morning you did nothing yesterday,” Blanche objected.
    “I don’t think I really know when I do things.” He looked vaguely, without helping himself, at a dish just offered him. . . . “My dear fellow, I’m afraid there is no manuscript.”
    “Then you’ve not written anything?”
    “I’ll write it tomorrow.”
    “Ah you trifle with us,” I said in much mystification.
    He seemed at this to think better of it.  “If there is anything you’ll find it on my table.”
    [The narrator goes up to Vawdrey’s room and opens the door.  He finds the room dark and is about to strike a match when he realizes to his surprise that a figure is seated at a table near one of the windows.]
    I retreated with a sense of intrusion; but as I did so I took in more rapidly than it takes me to express it, first that this was Vawdrey’s room and second that, surprisingly, its occupant himself sat before me.  Checking myself on the threshold I was briefly bewildered, but before I knew it I had called out: “Hullo, is that you, Vawdrey?”
     He neither turned nor answered me, but . . . I definitely recognized the man whom an instant before I had to the best of my belief left below in conversation with Mrs. Adney.
    [The next evening, he describes what he saw to Blanche Adney.]
    “It looked like the author of Vawdrey’s admirable works.  It looked infinitely more like him than our friend does himself,” I pronounced.
    “Do you mean it was somebody he gets to do them?”
    “Yes, while he dines out and disappoints you.”
    “Disappoints me?” she murmured artlessly.
    “Disappoints me—disappoints every one who looks in him for the genius that created the pages they adore.  Where is it in his talk?”
    “Ah last night he was splendid,” said the actress.
    “He’s always splendid, as your morning bath is splendid, or a sirloin of beef, or the railway-service to Brighton.  But he’s never rare.”
    “I see what you mean.”
    I could have hugged her—and perhaps I did.
    “Well then, my dear friend, if Clare Vawdrey’s double—and I’m bound to say I think that the more of him the better—his lordship there has the opposite complaint: he isn’t even whole.”
    We stopped once more, simultaneously.  “I don’t understand.”
    “No more do I.  But I’ve a fancy that if there are two of Mr. Vawdrey, there isn’t so much as one, all told, of Lord Mellifont.”
 I considered a moment, then I laughed out loud.  “I think I see what you mean!” . . . I read in a flash the answer to Blanche’s riddle.  [Lord Mellifont] was all public and had no corresponding private life, just as Clare Vawdrey was all private and had no corresponding public.
    [The following evening, Vawdrey does read a scene to Blanche Adney, and the narrator later asks her] “Is the scene very fine?”
    “Magnificent, and he reads beautifully.”
    “Almost as well as the other one writes!” I laughed.
   One more example, a truly amazing one.  Here is George Steiner on the Curious Case of Fernando Pessoa [PURCHASE OPPORTUNITY]:
    It is rare for a country and a language to acquire four major poets on one day. This is precisely what occurred in Lisbon on the eighth of March, 1914. . . . It remains one of the most remarkable phenomena in the history of literature.
    Looking back on the event (in a letter of 1935), Pessoa tells of “a trance whose nature I cannot define. . . . My master had appeared inside me.” Alberto Caeiro wrote thirty-odd poems at commanding speed. These were followed, “immediately and totally,” by six poems by one Fernando Pessoa. But Caeiro had not sprung into being alone. He had two principal disciples. One was Ricardo Reis, and then [as Pessoa himself put it]:
    Suddenly, in antithesis to the appearance of Ricardo a new individual burst impetuously onto the scene. In one fell swoop, at the typewriter, without hesitation or correction, there appeared the “Triumphal Ode” by Alvaro de Campos—the ode of that name and the man with the name he now has.
    I created, therefore, an inexistent coterie. I sorted out the influences and the relationships, listened, inside myself, to the debates and the difference in criteria, and in all of this, it seemed to me that I, the creator of it all, had the lesser presence. It seemed that it all happened independently of me. And it seems to me so still.
    Pseudonyms, noms de plume, anonymities, and every mode of rhetorical mask are as old as literature. Motives are manifold. They extend from clandestine political writing to pornography, from playful obfuscation to deadly serious personality disorders. The “secret sharer” (Conrad’s familiar), the supportive or threatening “double,” is a recurrent motif—witness Dostoyevski, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Borges. . . . Multiplicity, the ego made legion, can be festive, as it is in Whitman, or darkly self-ironizing, as it is in Kierkegaard. There are disguises and travesties that the most minute scholarship has never pierced. Simenon was unable to recall either how many novels he had begot or under what early and multiple pseudonyms. . . . As Rimbaud proclaimed, in his instauration of modernity, “‘Je’ est un autre”: “‘I’ is another.”
 “Foursome: The Art of Fernando Pessoa”
The New Yorker, January 8, 1996
   As I was compiling this entry in the Topical Guide, I found myself, inevitably, I suppose, considering my own case in the light of the foregoing.
   For very many years I have wanted to write a topical autobiography, to record my life and thoughts in a catalog.  I have never seemed to be able to find the time.  I now forced myself to face this possibility: Perhaps I will never write that book.  Having confronted the possibility that I will never write that book, I was able to entertain the additional possibility that I would instead find someone else to write it.  It would then not be a topical autobiography.  It would be a topical biography.
    I was astonished that it had taken me so long to realize that I needed someone else to write what I wanted to write.  I knew the many examples of others who had taken this route, Pessoa, Kraft, that crowd.
    Now that I have allowed myself to consider the possibility of my employing another author, I think I can see the many ways in which my self was standing in the way of what I wanted to do.  There were all the motives of self-aggrandizement, of course, and then there were all the motives of self-defense.  I need someone else.  At least I think I do.  I may.  I’m not quite sure.
    I am going to invite you to follow the path that I traveled.
    First, let me see if I can rediscover my discovery so that you will see how I came to it, just in case it may be of use to you.
    There was, first, the context, the state of mind that impelled me to this discovery.  It was characterized by a more or less constant state of annoyance: the annoyance arising from my not doing the writing that I wanted to do, not making the work that I wanted to make.  Then came the understanding that the excuses I gave—not enough time, too many other demands, the need to make money—were false.  Well, not entirely false, of course.  I really do not have enough time, there are too many demands on my time and energy, and I do need to make money, but I could have found some time, at least a little time, when I could have done a little bit each day and I could have squeezed what I wanted to do in among the things that I had to do without making it impossible to do them all.
    The real reason was that I didn’t think I was going to do a good job.  Let’s put that more strongly: I was afraid of doing a bad job.
    So.  If I am going to decide to have someone else do the writing, all I have to do is find someone who could, and would, do the work.
    I generated some anagrams of my name.  An anagram makes an excellent pseudonym, or an excellent name for an other, because it allows you to demonstrate, should you ever choose to do so, that the other is you.  This is what I got, or at least what seemed useful among the anagrams for Mark Dorset:
Mort Drakes
Dram Stoker
Mark Strode
Drake Storm
Mr. Ad Stoker
Mr. Ado Treks
Rod Strek, M.A.
    How would these people be different from me?
    Dram Stoker might be a descendent of the author of Dracula, a moody fellow, dressed in black, subject to persecution paranoia.  Why would he choose to tell my story?
    Mort Drakes would be a back-slapper, a salesman of some kind, secretly sick of his work.  Why would he choose to tell my story?
    Mark Strode might be a private eye.  He might have decided to investigate me just to display his skill, to show how much he could uncover about even a run-of-the mill person.
    Drake Storm might be an actor, or an actor-slash-waiter, and possibly gay. 
    Mr. Ad Stoker might be an undertaker or a pawnbroker.
    Rod Strek, M.A., would, of course, be the chairguy of the highly regarded creative writing department at Southwest Midwest University.
    They began to interest me.  I thought I would set them a trial of some kind, an audition, to see who would get the job.  (If, indeed, I do decide to have someone else do it.)
Rod Strek, M. A. Advertisement

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A Topical Guide to the Complete Peter Leroy (so far) is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, dialogues, settings, and businesses portrayed in it are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. 

All rights reserved. No part of this guide may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author

Portions of A Topical Guide to the Complete Peter Leroy (so far) were first published by Voyager, Inc., as part of The Complete Peter Leroy (so far).

The illustration at the top of the page is an adaptation of an illustration by Stewart Rouse that first appeared on the cover of the August 1931 issue of Modern Mechanics and Inventions. The boy at the controls of the aerocycle doesn’t particularly resemble Peter Leroy—except, perhaps, for the smile.