A TALE FOR OUR TIMES
or THE PROFESSOR UNLOCKED
Once upon a time there was a very well-known publishing firm called Pedigree Publishers who received a large amount of manuscripts every day. Their policy was to treat every unsolicited novel with completely scrupulous fairness, i.e. they left them in a cupboard for three months unread and then sent them back with a kind note saying that the work did not fit their present requirements.
One day, however, one work slipped through the net and was read. Not only read, but read with interest. Why this particular one was scrutinised when so many were not was a question that nobody at Pedigree could ever work out. Maybe because it was bound in the choicest leather? Maybe because it had, intriguingly, a hotel bedroom key sticking out of it, as if it had been used as a bookmark?
Whatever the reason, someone at the firm read "Final Solution" by Theodore Glazebrook, and thought it was interesting enough to pass on to someone else, who liked it and passed it on, and after a while everyone said to their surprise that they had enjoyed it. The subject of the novel was unusual. It was philosophy. The hero of the novel was a professor of philosophy who was nearing the end of his tenure and about to retire, and becoming increasingly aware that although he had read a good deal and thought a good deal, he had contributed nothing usefully original to human knowledge at all. So in his last years, when philosophers normally cruise towards their retirement date, impressing a few choice undergraduates with their personal memories of A J Ayer, Professor Horace Trandle had suddenly redoubled his philosophical efforts and had, to his own surprise, worked out the meaning of life.
What this unique discovery meant to Horace, and how he coped, formed the body of the novel.
"It's very intriguing," said the boss.
"It's got terrific possibilities," said the senior editor.
"It's as if Alain de Botton had had a novel plot written up by Amis," said a lady editor who could only talk in terms of other writers.
"Kingsley or Martin?" said someone.
"Both," she said.
"OK," said the boss. "Let's get him in and have a look at him."
For you must know, dear reader, that for a book to succeed these days, not only must it read well, but the author must look the part and come over well on TV. Alas, Theodore Glazebrook was, like his hero, an elderly professor who did not come over well at all.
"We like the book very much, Professor," said the boss, "but I am afraid we cannot publish it as it stands. It does not have any sex scenes. Without sex scenes, it will not stand a chance."
This was the usual way to get rid of an author who did not look good on TV. But to their surprise Professor Glazebrook said he would go home and write the sex scenes they required. And he did. And something which had been locked up in Professor Glazebrook for years was released, and the sex scenes were passionate and wonderful.
But the most interesting thing was that he did not incorporate them into the body of the novel, but wrote them as separate small chapters at the back of the book, with instructions to the reader to turn to one of these sex scenes and read it every time he or she felt the lack of a sex scene in the novel. To an academic, it had the same function as a series of footnotes, but the publishers felt it actually worked rather well and they published the novel as it stood.
It was received ecstatically by the critics. Some of them thought the treatment of sex was ironic, and some thought it was very avant-garde, but they all loved it, even if the philosophical side of the novel rather escaped them.
"Your book has been so successful, we would like to take you on full-time, Professor," said the boss of Pedigree. "The only thing is that we want to employ you full-time as a writer of sex scenes. For our other novelists. You have got the knack and they haven't. We send you the novels, you write the sex scenes. That's how we plan it."
"So you don't want another novel from me?"
"It would not suit our present requirements," said the boss.
"OK," said the Professor, "I'll do it."
It wasn't exactly what he wanted to do, he thought, but you have to be philosophical about things.
The Independent May 2005