There’s a phrase in Julian Barnes’s 1991 novel Talking It Over that has stuck in my mind all these years even though I’d forgotten the plot—“Everything Starts Here.” Before consulting my Vintage paperback from 1992, all I could recall of the book was that it’s one of those intimate “relationship” novels where people with very-British names wind up fighting in a French village. The the book reminded me that it’s a love triangle told from the perspectives of Stuart, Oliver, and Gillian.
“Everything Starts Here” is the title of a chapter that begins in the voice of Stuart:
But then Gillian came along, and everything starts here. Now. I love that word. Now. It’s now now; it’s not then anymore. Then has gone away. It doesn’t matter that I disappointed my parents. It doesn’t matter that I disappointed myself. It doesn’t matter that I couldn’t ever get myself across to other people. That was then, and then’s gone. It’s now now.
I do remember the impression this passage made, since Stuart is right away earmarked to be the triangle’s apparent loser. How foolish to think that (a) a person can change who you are and (b) that “then” will never come back to photo-bomb “now.”
But “Everything Starts Here” was always the phrase I’d write or type in a journal after some hiatus—whether days, months, or years. From David Roberts’s biography of Jean Stafford, I learned that “whenever she tried out a new pen or a new typewriter, or just wanted to get started anew, she wrote out the same incantation: This is the day when no man living may ’scape away.” The line is from the fifteenth-century play Everyman, the medieval morality play where it is spoken by Good Deeds.
Everyman and Everywoman need to (probably wrongfully) believe that Everything Starts Here or we’d never be willing to attempt going forward in a new way. I vividly remember a scene in a goofy comedy from the 1970s, The Gumball Rally, where Raúl Juliá plays a suave and sultry Ferrari racecar driver who pulls off the car’s rear-view mirror, explaining “the first rule of Italian driving: what’s behind me is not important.”
Behind this blog is Sketches by Baz, which was inspired by Charles Dickens, who liked to serialize things and understood creative expression in terms of having once been down and out. SBB started with the idea that I would serialize my novel Blue Heron Quartet, but I ran out of chapters so I started writing essays. Demands Fabulous Fees is inspired by Muriel Spark, who also understood creative expression in terms of having been down and out once, twice, multiple times.
When Spark began publishing in the 1950s, she had to fight to get paid for her well-received books—even to be taken seriously as a top author at her own publisher. It wasn’t just that she was a woman, but she didn’t come from the right social class. At that time, the “authoresses” publishers loved were upper-middle-class because it meant that they didn’t need the money. Spark worked and fought hard to articulate and then defend her view of the world; she’d never change a word in any solecism identified by minions at her publisher. She had faith that her readers would always know what she meant.
In any event, Sketches by Baz has moved itself here, where everything starts. I don’t think the perspective is much different, but then “That was then, and then’s gone. It’s now now.” §