(What's below is the first of three connected contributions, namely, what's below and then the second part, called A Bout of Existentialism, and then the third part, Jealousy Ill Suits a Waiter)
Edwin Block had taken a house overlooking the sea.
This change in setting had been at the behest of his editor, the incomparable Mr. Sams, with the purpose of helping him complete his latest literary endeavor, a novelization of Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and had been selected for its location not five miles north of Hadrian’s Wall. It was the editor’s sincere belief that being in such close proximity to this relic from the Age of the Antonines could not help but inspire his charge to channel the poet Ovid, who had been quite a sensation in his day, or so Mr. Sams had heard. A tall task, some would argue, for a writer whose previous high-water mark was the tea-cosy thriller The Butler Knocks But Thrice, which one prominent critic described as “something far less than Christie”. (“Still, there it is,” said Block at the time, “me and Agatha Christie.”) It should be noted that through this belief, Mr. Sams exposed a naivety incongruous with his reputation, for the fact of the matter was that Edward Block cared little for history, less for Rome, and not a cat’s bollocks for Hadrian or his blasted pile of stones. What made Edwin Block tick was money, and nothing got the public dipping into their wallets like a good sword-and-sandal epic.
The project had certainly received enough attention in the press. There were some, mostly academicians and bookish types, who took a dim view of the proceedings. Block wasn’t surprised. Their verbal slings and arrows proved to be rubber-tipped, for Edwin Block understood better than anyone the maxim that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Still, he had to admit he was hard-pressed to find the advantages in a prominent Oxford professor referring to him as “Edwin Schlock” in an Atlantic Monthly piece about the “contemporary blockbuster”.
But wherever money and attention concentrate there are sure to be admirers as well as critics. After a profile of the writer had appeared in Vanity Fair (with, amongst other things, a full-page photograph of Block in a wind-tunnel, his shirt inexplicably unbuttoned to his navel, bearing the caption “Intellectually Stimulating”) he was paid a personal visit at his Long Island residence by an obscure Danish Countess, who professed to be “much interested in writings, and all manner of these things.” Though certainly older than Block by a few years, she possessed a vaguely royal attractiveness; Block was reminded of a more fragile Jacqueline Onassis, and spent much of the afternoon sifting through her ungrammatical English and trying to turn the conversation to matters sexual. Unsuccessful, he nevertheless earned a devoted fan, and promised to personally mail Ms. Rasmussen an autographed copy of the novel as soon as he received the first batch from the printer.
Of course, before any book could be sent it first had to be written. This was the part of being a writer Block liked least. There was something about the blank page – with its infinite possibilities for giving form to his inner creative voice – that made him desire a stiff scotch and water. This he now poured for himself, consuming the drink in what some people might describe a “desperate” gulp, before settling down to work. Luckily, he was not adrift without oars. Mr. Sams had faxed him a list of directives drawn up by his publisher’s marketing department in New York to aid him in his quest. Directive number one: ‘Lose the declining and falling’.
“Won’t that prove rather difficult?” asked Block, who had phoned Mr. Sams in confusion. “I mean, we’ll need another title, won’t we?”
“Keep the title,” said Sams. “Marketing says that’s very important. Anyone calls you on it, just say you were being ironic. That’s a direct quote, Eddie: ‘I was being ironic’.”
Block frowned into the receiver. “This sounds like it’s going to require revisions.”
“What revisions? A war comes along, Rome kicks some ass. Easy!”
“What’s this about here?” Block ran his finger along the print. “Directive number three: ‘Push Caesar’s love life’.”
“I know, I know…” said Sams. “I told them you’re not a sex writer, but they insisted. It seems a couple of studios are already jockeying to get the rights to this thing, but they want a part where they can cast a strong, female lead. Don’t worry about turning anyone on. Just get Caesar in the bedroom once in a while and let him do his thing.”
“But Julius Caesar’s dead before any of this takes place.”
“What do you mean he’s ‘dead’?”
“I mean he’s not alive.”
“What about Cleopatra and Mark Anthony and that bunch?”
“Antony,” said Block.
“What’s that, a Jersey accent?”
“That’s his name,” said Block. “It’s right here in the footnotes.”
“Aw, crap! Look, I’ll call you back…”
There was a click, and the line went dead. Block put down the receiver and went back to his desk. The screen was just as blank as he had left it. “Screens,” thought Block.
Procrastination is surely an underrated form of genius, for when a man desires not to do something his ability to invent distractions, excuses and self-deceptions surpasses the most fertile minds of Literature’s canon. So it was that Edwin Block developed the theory that a stroll through the country, perhaps even down to the seaside to imbibe its salty air, would do his constitution a world of good. And since he was already out (or would already be out; Block was nothing if not forward-thinking), it certainly wouldn’t hurt to visit the nearby village – an enchanting little hamlet with a name like ‘South Wussex’, or something – and introduce himself to some of the locals. If this was to be his home for the next year, he had no intention of spending that time in isolation. Having adapted Bleak House as a romantic comedy for Warner Brothers only a few years back, Block was not unacquainted with the character of the rural English village; he knew that most people would already be out at the pubs this time of night, those quaint, one-room watering holes with their hearths roaring in the corner, their peasants singing ‘Lish Young Buy-A-Broom’ to the ghosts of their dead uncles, and those curious names that were little more than a combination of two unrelated animals, like ‘The Fox & Hedgehog’. Though experience had shown that with Edwin Block, one drink led to two, and two drinks to twenty, he was not in the least bit worried that this eventuality might interfere with the writing process. Quite the contrary, science had proven (and Block was nothing if not a believer in science) that alcohol actually lowered inhibitions, and inhibitions were one thing Block needed decidedly less of at the moment. No, pubs were quite good for one’s writing. Shakespeare wrote in pubs.
So it was that later that evening, with the countryside trod and the sea air sniffed, Edwin Block made a beeline for the nearest drinking house. This he located mere seconds after arriving on the outskirts of town, if a town the size of South Wussex, or whatever it was called, could indeed be said to possess “outskirts”. It was a painfully cubic structure of red brick that had shunned the time-worn inspiration of the animal kingdom and derived its moniker instead from two seemingly random, inanimate objects, namely “The Harpoon and Barrel”. Upon further reflection, Block was able to identify a vaguely nautical theme underlying the choice, a theory which was proved correct as he entered the establishment to find a bevy of nets, rods, reels, and framed photographs of deep-sea trawlers adorning the walls, not to mention the sizeable stuffed swordfish which dangled from the ceiling rafters, mouth agape. On first spying the beast, Block felt a flutter pass through his stomach; its eyes seemed to be looking directly into Block’s, its terrified expression warning him to turn back now and walk out the door, before it was too late. But while Edwin Block knew little of superstition and even less of the sea, he felt the omens of a swordfish could be safely dismissed as specious.
Block took a seat at a corner table that afforded him a commanding view of the room. One could have debated the benefits of such a position. Of the twenty or so tables that filled “The Harpoon and Barrel” only three were populated, and these by a singular type of man, whose scruffy beard, weathered face and knee-length slicker made him seem more like a prop – placed there specifically to add to the general ambience of the place – than a real customer. “Bluff old salts” is how Block would have described them had they been characters in one of his novels.
A waiter came around to take Block’s order. Acknowledging the universal distaste for tourists, Block did his best to go local:
“I should fancy an ale,” he said.
“What sort of ale should you fancy?” asked the waiter, coming as close as anyone ever has to verbally rolling their eyes.
Block ignored this and affected deep consideration. “I think a pint of your finest ale should do nicely.”
“A pint of our finest ale,” said the waiter. “Certainly, sir. May I compliment the gentleman’s taste.”
Block allowed him to do so, and marveled that a young man so recently removed from his teenage years could be possessed of so much jaded contempt.
Faced with these inauspicious surroundings, it was fortunate for Block he had not come empty-handed. Indeed, tucked away in a pocket of his overcoat was the second volume of Gibbon’s classic history. Block was embarrassed to admit that in the six months since the novelization was first proposed he had progressed no further in his reading of the original Decline and Fall than the midpoint of chapter seven. But it wasn’t that the exploits of Maximin and Balbinus had bogged down a mind unequal to their comprehension (as his critics would no doubt suggest if they ever learned of his ignorance). No, Edwin Block’s crisis was not intellectual, but moral. Exactly when it happened Block could not say, but he suspected it had started as early as the first sentence; pouring through Gibbon’s learned treatise, marveling at the style and wit with which that giant of the Enlightenment brought to life fourteen hundred years of human history, not to mention the painstaking research that had been required to render it accurate (the footnotes alone made Block tremble), had caused a subtle but profound shift to take place in the way he viewed his life’s work. Quite simply, Edwin Block was ashamed. For the majority of his life he had viewed the enterprise of writing solely by its potential to make him money. Any notions of beauty or artistic merit were quickly dismissed; indeed, it was only when Edwin Block discovered the secret that it was the truly mediocre writers who ascended to fame and fortune in their own lifetime that he seized upon it as his chosen profession, and guarded his profound revelation by adopting the air of a pompous, pseudo-intellectual. Rather than bringing about his ruin, it was absolutely crucial to his success that Block allow the sycophantic praise of his fans to warp his self-perception, for only by maintaining the illusion that he possessed some unique talent or gift could he keep the public from realizing he was nothing but a glorified huckster, with little more to recommend him than his ability to lift a pencil.
And it may not come as a surprise, based on such evidence, that Edwin Block had never been much of a reader. Perhaps that was why his introduction to Gibbon had rattled him so deeply and totally. Faced with the product of a lifetime’s passionate labor, how could he bear the thought that on his deathbed he would have little to look back upon for solace than tawdry, supermarket filler like Unclasp Thy Bodice?
His ever-slowing pace, then, was not a matter of indifference, but of survival. Every newly read chapter of Decline and Fall was a fresh crack in his once unshakable self-confidence; his will to continue, the very future of the novelization, hung in the balance, and Edwin Block simply could not afford at this point to develop a conscience and walk away. For in the rarified world of the rich and famous, even the most celebrated author earns a comparative pittance, and Block’s lifestyle – filled as it was with perversions and creature comforts that would have made a sultan blush at his immodesty – kept him trapped in a perpetual, financial purgatory.
There were alternatives to hawking mass-market bilge – turning over a new leaf, for example. But looking around at the sad and bleary faces in “The Harpoon and Barrel”, Edwin Block knew he could never condescend to join their ranks. After all, the rich and poor partake of the same vices, but it is only those with money whom society forgives. Block did not bother waiting for his drink, which the obstinate young waiter still had yet to bring to his table. He no longer required its bracing effect. A decision had been reached, and while it may have done little to soothe the pangs of remorse he felt, it was nevertheless final and irrevocable. Never do anything halfway, his father had once told him. For better or worse the die had been cast, and Edwin Block was prepared to meet his fate with stoic resignation.
He returned home well after sundown. As if awaiting his arrival, the phone began to ring the second he came through the door. Block went into the kitchen and picked up the receiver. It was Sams again, calling from New York.
“So,” said Block, “have you sorted out our Caesar problem?”
“I’ve got one word for you,” said Sams. “Flashbacks!”
Flashbacks indeed. Edwin Block hung up the phone, went immediately to his desk, and began to type.
There's more to this story . . . Look for part two to appear soon . . .
[Forever after at http://eyeshot.net/adaptation.html]
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