Like J. R. Hartley before him, Chad Kroski has joined that curious rank of authors invented to promote the use of telecommunication devices. A select fellowship, and an unfortunate one; I fear that Kroski and Hartley might have little to talk about when they meet for the annual cheese-and-wine this Christmas, other than the remarkable rise of their respective publishing careers. Kroski is that rarest of men, a man who according to his biography was born in Kentucky and yet appears in every other way to be entirely German. “Ich war in Kentucky geboren.” Of course, you were Chad, of course.
I have no problem with invented authors; some of my favourite's have never drawn breath, and let’s be clear what you’ve begun reading about here; I’m not writing about pseudonyms but entirely fictional characters whose literary careers are created and fleshed out to give a framework to their work. I am also writing about longing, but I will get to that later, and it will serve you well to wait for it. Such is its nature. I want you to long for my longing for longing.
Now, to illustrate what I mean by ‘fictional authors’ let us consider those astounding beasts Archy and Mehitabel who first began writing in 1916 upon the typewriter of Don Marquis and were published in the New York Evening Sun. Archy was ‘once a vers libre bard’ who died and was reincarnated as a cockroach in Marquis’s study. Mehitabel was an alley cat who claimed to have once been Cleopatra. From this strange perspective Archy typed their poetry, unable to operate the shift key in sync with the letters and so produced masses of lowercase verse:
boss i am disappointed in
some of your readers they
are always asking how does
archy work the shift so as to get a
new line or how does archy do
this or do that they
are always interested in technical
details when the main question is
whether the stuff is
literature or not
(from ‘mehitabel was once cleopatra’, 1927)
Despite Marquis’s many attempts to kill Archy off in his column, the duo outlived him (transmigration being a key element of Archy’s character he was always able to reappear as another cockroach after Marquis had stamped on him). We are not supposed to believe that these poems are the work of Don Marquis, even if we rationally believe them to be so, they are the thoughts and philosophies of a cockroach and a cat:
their own point
of view about
civilization a man
thinks he amounts
to a great deal
but to a
flea or a
human being is
good to eat
(from ‘certain maxims of archy’, 1927)
With this in mind, let’s return to Kroski, whom one might infer would give a mosquito very little to feed on. Perhaps you’ve seen the advert; a bar, a young couple on a date, things aren’t going too well. She spots a book in her date’s bag, the writer’s name emblazoned large on the front cover: CHAD KROSKI. She excuses herself from the table, goes to the toilet, takes out her mobile phone device and searches for Kroski on Google. Suddenly they have something that connects them; his gullibility, her willingness to lie and their shared sense of things not really mattering as long as they both get to have sex later that night. Kroski is born.
The facts of his life seem to vary greatly, Wikipedia suggests he was born in Rustavi, Republic of Georgia on February 16, 1972, whereas his own CV suggests Lexington-Fayette, Kentucky, USA on April 13th 1974. Whichever version of Kroski we look to believe, it is vital that he at least spent the majority of his life in America, it is also vital to believe in his suffering, his love of Nabokov, Kant and you guessed it, Kerouac.
But his closest peer is surely J.R. Hartley; that loveable soft-focus old man trudging the streets of 1980s England in the Yellow Pages adverts. The advert was first screened in 1983 but by 1991 it was indeed possible to find a copy of Fly Fishing by J.R. Hartley: Memories of Angling Days on the shelves of most bookstores. By 1995, the fictional fly-fisher had also published a work on golfing.
In case you don’t remember, the advert ran as follows: Old man enters several bookshops and asks for a copy for Fly Fishing by J.R. Hartley. In shop after shop he is told that they don’t have a copy of it. Old man returns home disheartened, where his daughter hands him a copy of the Yellow Pages. From the comfort of his armchair he rings a bookshop and asks if they have the bok, and indeed they do. They ask for his name to reserve the book for him, and he gives it: J. R. Hartley. Tears well in the corners of eyes across the nation…
The similarity of the two adverts is uncanny. They are both advertising commodities that give access to information (like the book, of course, though often we forget that), but the differences between them are also disturbingly stark. Hartley’s product is the end to what seems like an Homeric quest around the bookshops of an English county; Kroski’s is a way of tricking someone into a quick shag. The Yellow Pages does not give any guarantees that Fly Fishing will be available; the mobile phone with access to Google actually does. The internet has come to mean that we can find scant information on anything in seconds, even if it doesn’t exist. Indeed, we can find it 41,600 times.
But the girl’s knowledge of Kroski is not the same as having read him. It is cheap, it is empty, and yet she returns to the table able to talk about his work and save the course of the date. Hartley’s quest is what is important, and it is this longing that is lacking from Kroski’s incarnation, and a signifier of a problem, which we all now face.
I grew up in a seaside resort on the East coast of England. It is a sizeable town running into another sizeable town, but without much else around it for a radius of over 40 miles. The time at which I am writing about is important to me because it was that marvelous stage in any person’s development when they begin reading and discovering the outside world properly for the first time. There are certain books that a lot of people seem to read at this age; The Catcher in the Rye, Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Bell Jar, Brighton Rock… It’s a much bigger list, but it seems that some, or all, of these tend to be read by people at the same stage in their development. I suppose they form part of our collective consciousness, though undoubtedly these books vary from generation to generation. Walter Scott is no longer on that list, but probably was still read by most people at that age twenty years earlier. However, more importantly I feel, there are those books that we come across separately. Those accidental finds on grown-up’s bookshelves, in libraries, in second-hand bookshops. These are the things that we read which do not comprise that collective reading-list but which form part of the idiosyncratic map of reading which will shape the unique direction of our thoughts in later years. I am always struck that these early years of serious reading seem to remain the most important, the books upon which we base any later thoughts. I come to read things now and still relate them back to the books I read in these first few years, and so these curious accidental finds take on significance greater than they perhaps usually ought. I digress.
At this time, the town where I was living had only one bookshop. It also had a WH Smith, but this was the time when they were at their lowest ebb, the branch only having one shelf of books devoted to glossy volumes along the lines of Poems to Save your Failing Marriage, and Limericks your Cat Might Like. Most of my reading took place in the poorly (or rather oddly) stocked local library, which held three biographies of Radclyffe Hall, which I read from cover to cover, but no single copy of The Well of Loneliness. I only discovered the lesbian novelist at all because the library only offered a single six-foot square bookcase with a laminated yellow label marked LITERATURE, and as these books took up more space than the single copy of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, I assumed she must be a one of the most significant English authors of the twentieth century.
Briefly, a second-hand bookshop opened, just off the promenade. It can only have lasted there a year. In it I discovered Graham Greene, Shelley, Pope, Balzac and also I think, Archy and Mehitabel. I was reading Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying and I once summoned up the courage to ask if I could volunteer there, only to be told by the owner that he “couldn’t employ a chimp” – a statement I have never quite understood. However, before this descends into the purely confessional and I begin to recount the hours spent before the bathroom mirror wondering if I did indeed look like a chimp, I shall reach my point. In this bookshop I also discovered Bertrand Russell. The book I remember most is The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism which for reasons that I can’t remember, led me to try and track down a copy of Russell’s fictional work: Satan in the Suburbs and Other Stories. I still have the piece of paper upon which I scrawled the title in red biro, it has remained in various diaries, pockets, notebooks. On the reverse are a few jotted train times out of the seaside town to Liverpool. There is also a little sketch of a map, though quite what it is directing towards is unclear; some kind of giant malformed egg, by the looks of it. The book of course was never in the secondhand bookshop, and the bookshop in town told me it was out of print. I began the trudge of J.R. Hartley, scouring shelves whenever I visited a new place. The internet was still in its infancy, and I don’t suppose I came to use it until three or four years later. What developed was a kind of longing, a hope that one day I would accidentally find the book. There were many things like this; bands which had a strange and uncertain existence, films with lines in them which were lost once they had been said. The world was full of mystery, and it was possible to experience longing for lost and rare books.
This isn’t merely nostalgia, nor is it neo-luddism, it is just the fact that longing is an important experience. Being without knowledge is the greatest impulsion for finding out more. Through looking for Satan in the Suburbs I encountered a hundred-or-so other books more widely reaching than this slim volume of stories turned out to be; and the time spent allowed consideration to occur; there is a reason why Satan stayed with me, whereas other books did not. The piece of paper remained in my pocket for so long, because I wanted this thing more than any other. What I knew of it seemed more important that a lot of other things, but it was only through the time spent looking for it that I was able to realize this.
In 2000, Spokesman Books reissued the collection of stories. By then the internet was advanced enough for me to be able to obtain a copy via Amazon, I think sometime in 2001. The thing was, the idea of the book was better than the reality, the years spent thinking about its central premise ended up being more formative than reaching the abrupt answer of the book.
The point is, that if J.R. Hartley were alive today and looking for Fly Fishing he would not need to trawl around the bookshops of England to find it, and that isn't altogether a good thing. On abebooks alone he would have a choice of 56 different copies, ranging in condition and priced between £2.98 and £25.50. He could find it in seconds, just as the girl can find Kroski in seconds as well.
There are 41,600 entries for Kroski on Google already, and only 16,500 for Hartley.
Where has longing gone to?