From the archive
[Joseph Conrad and I] agreed that the general effect of a novel must be the general effect that life makes on mankind. A novel must therefore not be a narration, a report. Life does not say to you: In 1914 my next-door neighbour, Mr. Slack, erected a greenhouse and painted it with Cox’s green aluminum paint…. If you think about the matter you will remember, in various unordered pictures, how one day Mr. Slack appeared in his garden and contemplated the wall of his house. You will then try to remember the year of that occurrence and you will fix it as August, 1914, because having had the foresight to bear the municipal stock of the City of Liege you were able to afford a first-class season ticket for the first time in your life. You will remember Mr. Slack — then much thinner because it was before he found out where to buy that cheap Burgundy of which he has since drunk an inordinate quantity, though whisky you think would be much better for him! Mr. Slack again came into his garden, this time with a pale, weaselly-faced fellow, who touched his cap from time to time. Mr. Slack will point to his house wall several times at different points, the weaselly fellow touching his cap at each pointing. Some days after, coming back from business, you will have observed against Mr. Slack’s wall…. At this point you will remember that you were then the manager of the fresh-fish branch of Messrs. Catlin and Clovis in Fenchurch Street…. What a change since then! Millicent had not yet put her hair up…. You will remember how Millicent’s hair looked, rather pale and burnished in plaits. You will remember how it now looks, henna’d; and you will see in one corner of your mind’s eye a little picture of Mr. Mills the vicar talking — oh, very kindly — to Millicent after she has come back from Brighton…. But perhaps you had better not risk that. You remember some of the things said by means of which Millicent has made you cringe — and her expression! … Cox’s Aluminum Paint! … You remember the half-empty tin that Mr. Slack showed you — he had a most undignified cold — with the name in a horseshoe over a blue circle that contained a red lion asleep in front of a real-gold sun….
And, if that is how the building of your neighbour’s greenhouse comes back to you, just imagine how it will be with your love affairs that are so much more complicated….