When I was first starting off as a writer, endings of novels were always a problem with me. For some odd reason, I tended to end all of my novels with the death of the protagonist, to the point where my agent at the time would laugh in despair over this peculiar habit (and spend five years trying to get one book after another of mine placed with a publisher), while the sound of his laughter diminished accordingly until there was just a thin impatient smile several inches beneath his monocle. When I dragged Tolstoy into the conversation it fell on deaf ears. In fact, I alluded to this strange habit in my first published novel where, I’m pleased to say I did not kill off my main character, an émigré Russian writer with a long-suffering agent, and nor have I done so since. There is definitely a limit to what readers will stand for.
My youthful reasoning behind this quirk was that, well, the story was over and why not just kill off the guy we’ve been reading about all this time. Make it final. I mean, when the story of your life is over you die, right? You don’t hang around to see if there’s going to be a sequel, though the words you’ve uttered and the deeds you’ve done may well have consequences that outlive you. You just won’t be around to witness the anguish and tears.
I’ve reached a very obvious point, and in fact reached it several years earlier, in understanding that a good ending to a novel is really just a new possibility. Not necessarily an obvious one (And the door opened onto a new day. Dolores greeted it without ever looking back once at the misery of her past life.), but rather a scene gently laced with the sea-foam of ambiguity. Let the reader decide what was about to happen, and thus your book can enjoy its afterlife of the mind. As we say in screenwriting, come late into a scene and get out early. And though my first novel, The Man from Marseille, does not include the death of the main character, Alex Ostroff, it very nearly killed off any chance of it being published. For what I’d done with the ending was to show that what the reader had just read was nothing more than fiction. And no one likes to be reminded of such a thing, especially the editor who was about to offer me a contract.
At the time, we were back living in the States after several years in the UK. Five years earlier we’d quit our teaching jobs at a Westchester County private school on the brink of bankruptcy, gathered our saved treasure (i.e. not a lot, considering my top salary at said school was a grand $9200 per annum, and my wife’s considerably less) and, after careful screening by the UK’s Home Office, and the granting of our green books which would lead to residency after a period of time, flew to London, ostensibly for a year. Back then in the US it was impossible to get an agent without having first been published, and of course it was impossible to publish without an agent. I’d been told this Catch-22 rule many times, and it still made no sense to me. I’d get a few bites here and there from agents, but nothing stuck, except for the person at William Morris who spilled an entire cup of coffee on my typescript and returned it without apology. I figured that it would be a bit easier in London. Or at least very different. Tea would be the critical medium.
I also knew that, in the UK at that time, novelists did far more than just write novels. Many, if not a majority, also wrote radio plays, TV plays and sometimes stage plays. It was the golden age of television there, and writers such as Tom Stoppard, David Hare, Simon Gray, Harold Pinter, Dennis Potter, and novelists Beryl Bainbridge, William Trevor, Malcolm Bradbury, along with many others, were writing for the medium. Having acquainted myself somewhat with what one-off (i.e. stand-alone) plays had been broadcast on British TV through the series published by Methuen in Britain, two weeks before we left I wrote a 50-minute teleplay; 50 minutes being, back then, the BBC standard for the stand-alone piece. In those days, British TV consisted of three channels: BBC1, BBC2 and ITV, a commercial, independent network broadcasting programs created by various smaller regional companies such as Grenada and Anglia TV. Everyone had (and still has) to own a television license, which then cost £65 per year (it’s now £145.50), and purchased at the post office. If you didn’t have a license, then, like something out of a World War II movie, vans with little swirling antennas on the roof patrolled the streets and byways of Britain. Men in dark suits would knock on your door, prepared to dole out the requisite punishment.
During our five years there we lived variously in Earls Court in London, then Lyme Regis (more or less around the corner from novelist John Fowles, by reputation a knotty and difficult man, who extended his professional kindness to me on a few occasions), then, for over four years, Cambridge. Within our first month of living in Earls Court (populated then primarily by Australians and prostitutes), I sent my script off to the top eight or nine theatrical and TV agents, and was taken on as a client by one who had been in the business since 1931, and whose brother had been part of the acting cabal that included Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier, before falling to his death from the transatlantic liner SS Paris, an end that provided much speculation as to whether murder had been involved or merely a little too much drink and a slippery deck.
My agent knew everyone in the business, especially dead people, and she had wonderful stories of Noel Coward and Sybil Thorndike, among others. Her company had at one time even represented some of Bertolt Brecht’s works, and had she told me that, yes, she’d also represented the works of Richard Brinsley Sheridan I probably would have believed it. She very much liked my TV play (“I was quite taken by it, I must say,” flashing a genuinely warm and optimistic smile) and proceeded to send it out. And, oh by the way, she was associated with a literary agent handling fiction and nonfiction, should I need his services.
Perfect: now I had two agents. And so I proceeded to write unpublishable novels wherein the protagonists dropped dead on the last page, and TV plays that, though unproduced, had caught the eye of certain people in the business, and would later earn me my first screenwriting commission. Which of course came to nothing. But that’s the nature of the business, and another story altogether.
Anyway, the day I received notice that a publisher was finally interested in buying one of my works we were in the States and about to return to England, in fact the very next evening, to spend the next three or four months in Hampstead, in north London. There we lived around the corner from John Le Carré and Judi Dench, whom I once encountered in the supermarket as she heaped her wagon, to much speculation on our part, with at least forty rolls of toilet paper.
My agent asked me to have a drink with him at his London club, named after the 18th century playwright and poet Richard Savage, who was notorious for having murdered a man in a tavern, shared poverty with Samuel Johnson, and who died impoverished—another unhappy ending—in a Bristol jail. My agent and I had warm gins-and-tonic while we sat in deep leather chairs. “You see,” he said, his monocle now hanging from a ribbon around his neck, “your editor—the fellow who’s interested in your book—nice chap—isn’t completely sure about the ending of the thing.” He gazed at me with his watery blue eyes. “Allow me to put it bluntly: how flexible are you willing to be?”
Privately I thought: Believe me, I will do anything I can to get published. I will even wear underpants on my head. “I’m open to discussion,” I said.
“Good. Because you have a meeting with him on Friday.” I had been back in London for something like twenty-four hours and already I was preparing to meet an editor. Twelve years, twelve novels, and finally it had arrived. It was like a kind of death. I’d overdrawn from the bank of expectations, and the whole thing now seemed a little unreal, as though it were an event taking place after I’d been buried and forgotten. The emotional detachment was spectacular.
The publisher was located in the same building it had inhabited since 1768. They had published, in the authors’ lifetimes, Jane Austen, Goethe, Melville, Darwin’s Origin of Species, and, most famously, the works of Lord Byron, whose memoirs were considered so scandalous that the publisher himself set them ablaze in the fireplace in the same room where, on Friday, I sat down with my editor and an elderly Welsh woman, also an editor, to discuss my manuscript.
“It’s the ending,” my editor said.
“I mean,” the Welsh woman leapt in, “what does it all signify, really? Can you explain it?”
I tried feebly to explain my reasoning, and in the process convinced myself that this was perhaps the shittiest ending ever written to a book, save for those in which I’d killed off my protagonists.
“Well we can’t publish it as it stands,” my editor said. “Unless, of course, you have an alternative ending that we find satisfactory.” I should add at this point that I was being paid a grand total of £850 for my work, around $1600 in those days.
And then, magically, within seconds a new ending came to me. It was just there, in the air, waiting for me to pluck it, hold it in my hands, open my fingers and show them what I’d found. I pretended it had always been an alternate ending for me, that I thought it might be a bit obvious, a little cinematic. Which it was, and why it ended up being the final scene in the screenplay. It was a done deal. A year later the book was published in the UK. And then the next year in the U.S., where to my surprise it was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review. And some months later slipped out of print.
Though hardly a senior citizen, I have become aware that I have lived more than half my life, and I’ve come to realize that mortality—at least intimations of it—is that gray cloudlike structure that’s been hovering over the horizon and not just a smudge on my office window. I can say in all honestly that I’m both old and youthful enough to know, without having to Google it, exactly where the title of this piece comes from, because I’ve known since I was a teenager. I suppose that dates me, as well. But then, again, my generation has always refused to grow up entirely, for better or for worse.
I recently read in the New York Times that people over 50 are much happier about their lives than one might have expected. This goes against all reason, especially for those of us in the post-World War II generation who, after suffering the indignities of having to squat under our desks in anticipation of the A-Bomb (which gave me actual nightmares as a child), went on to enjoy the fruits of the Sixties, not to mention the weeds, the mushrooms, the chemicals, and all the rest of the medicine cabinet. The idea that it could get any better than that was beyond comprehension. And the music was great, of course.
However, there really does come a time when The End becomes a silent companion, like T. S. Eliot’s “third who always backs beside you,” whether guardian angel or portending shade we do not know. Knowing that there really is an end—something we never considered when we were eighteen and an hour into the anarchic glee of a Who concert—bears a double edge. It’s a reminder that what we do every day really does matter; and that, in the end, it all disappears. Consider the quote from The Book of Common Prayer, which served as epigraph for my novel Breathless:
We have left undone those things which we ought to have done;
And we have done those things which we ought not to have done;
And there is no health in us.
This is the time of life when I suppose people begin to take stock, to look back and gaze at the piles of sins, the wasteland of wrongdoings, the footprints of wrong steps we’d left behind. In short, we’re now looking towards that ending and realizing in the process that this isn’t a bad place to be, but that the end has to be a moment grounded in everything we’ve done before, that has a rightness to it; just as the ending of a novel should seem to us, after perhaps a moment of surprise, as the only correct one.
As a Jew I’ve never been aware of any kind of afterlife, which suits me just fine. The idea that death has any sort of coda, especially one with such dire extremes as advertised by other religions, has always struck me as horrific, especially since I was taught that life is what matters, not the really long bit that comes after. I think complete expiration has a lot going for it, just as I think a life lived with a sense of mercy, empathy and justice is exceptionally important. A good life, a worthy life, is also one in which the memory of those lost remains alive within us. That, for me, is what constitutes an afterlife.
The real lesson of having the end in sight is to understand the certainty of it. “Everything Ends” was the tagline to Alan Ball’s HBO series “Six Feet Under,” and his final episode showed us that vividly and emotionally. One thing we learn, though, as we move towards it, is that we have nothing to lose. We’ve staked our claims to whatever we do in life, we’ve attached our names to things both good and not so great, and now is the time for risk-taking. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done… Maybe it’s why the artists among us, writers and filmmakers, painters and musicians, can now seize all the chances we’d been wary of taking in our palmy youths and do the things we might, in the end, regret not having attempted. It’ll make the ending only that much more worthwhile.
Causes J.P. Smith Supports