Today’s sermon: On sharing the planet with an immortal

Today’s text is taken from Nicholson Baker’s U&I (pg 20, in its cute little US Random House hardback), which I happened to leafing through yesterday for some other reason, when I came across these lines:

Updike was much more important to me than Barthelme as a model and influence, and now the simple knowledge that he was alive and writing and had just published one of his best books, Self-Consciousness, felt like a piece of huge luck. How fortunate I was to be alive when he was alive!

I remember being struck by this when I read the book before, because that is what I had thought, too late, on reading the obituary of Samuel Beckett, when I was 17. I was suddenly struck with the fact that I had been alive, on the planet, at the same time as this person, and with what a huge privilege that was. Beckett would go on being read down the ages, and people in the future would pause from their reading, look out the window and wonder what the world was like,  back then, that it could have produced such a response – and I knew. I was there! (Okay, I wasn’t alive when he was writing most of what people would be reading, down those ages, but that was only half the point: I was enviable. I was to be envied.)

The thought, the memory, passed, and I got on with whatever I was doing, but then that evening, as I was doing the ironing, I watched the BBC4 documentary ‘American Master: A Portrait of John Adams’, during which it was mentioned that Adams was the most performed living composer, and it struck me, again, as it had not struck me since Beckett, that here was someone I was privileged to be sharing the planet with: him, creating, me, listening.

Which is not just to say that I love Adams – he would be on my Desert Island Discs, let’s say, but not the disc I’d save from the waves – but that I appreciate the additional dimension to his music available to me by virtue of the fact that I respond to it as someone breathing the historical air. I have even got to see him conduct (Nixon in China) and I was reminded of the joy of seeing him bounce around, enthused by and enthusing his own music, by the sections in the television programme in which we saw him rehearsing young musicians in Shaker Loops. I envied them their intimate experience of the music, and the mind that made it, and I thought of Beckett directing Godot, and then the secondary thought that there is perhaps something suffocatingly male about this aspect of creativity – you create something, and then you encourage/bully others into the full realisation of it, like Orson Welles with his train set. (Of course, there’s collaboration, but it’s not collaboration I saw in Adams, and I’m not sure how much there was in Beckett, and this thought will have to be developed another time.)

To clarify: there are writers, and musicians, who I feel respond far more directly to that shared air, and to whom I respond far more intimately-historically (Geoff Dyer, in words, James Yorkston or Jenny Lewis, say, in music) but these people, to me, came out of the shared air in the first place. They speak intimately to me, largely because we come from the same time and place. They are historically determined, ineluctable responses to the specific conditions of the culture.

Likewise, there are writers and musicians who will surely last down the ages, but who (to my mind) are less grounded in the specifics of time and place – Javier Marías, as I mentioned in a recent post can be read, with no loss of joy, in the afterlife; and in music perhaps Steve Reich springs to mind. When I read or listen to them, I read them as I would a classic. As far as I’m concerned, their book, or piece, could have come from any time in history, and I would respond to it in the same way.

But Adams, like Beckett, splits the difference between these two extremes. There are writing for the ages, but they are writing from my age. People, I think, could feel about me as I feel about Shakespeare, or Woolf – god, I think, I wish I’d been there, then, reading it, seeing it, hearing it, when they were making it.


A humorous, bathetic post-script. I had a similar thought on the death of JD Salinger, when I read that he was a subscriber to the TLS, for which I had written a few short book reviews. My god, I thought, perhaps he had read something written by me!

To which the only possible response is that of Alice to Christopher Robin.

“Do you think the King knows all about me?”
“Sure to, dear, but it’s time for tea,”


  1. thoughtsatintervals

    A really interesting post, thanks! I wonder if we feel this way because we want to feel some sort of shared pride, however irrational it might be, in the time in which we live? A reassurance that we, as a species, are still capable of producing great works of art just like the masters of previous centuries.

    I think José Saramago is the one who invoked this feeling in me, but perhaps too much sadness as well. Roughly a year after discovering his books, he sadly died, which seemed like a real loss, and that despite his old age, to me at least he had passed away too soon.

    On a happier note, it’s nice to find a fellow Javier Marías fan. I uploaded a review of The Infatuations to my blog yesterday, which you might be interested to read:

    Best wishes,

  2. Jonathan Gibbs

    Andrew, thanks for the comment. Never got on with Saramago myself, I’m afraid. I like what you say in your review about Marias occupying the subjunctive mood. I sometimes imagine what it would be like if you drew a flow-diagram of one of his books… following each possible avenue from one thought before backtracking to take the next. He’s a writer for whom the operative word is ‘or’.

  3. Pingback: Today’s sermon: What is art for? A response, in part, to Raymond Tallis’s Summers of Discontent | Tiny Camels / Jonathan Gibbs

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