the frustrated writer

– Synopsis –



A man, recently retired after many years in business, discovers the complete manuscript of a novel that he had written more than thirty years earlier, when he was in his mid-twenties.  Having convinced himself over the years that the novel was not very well written, he is sure that it will embarrass him now.  Nevertheless, he knows that he will never destroy the manuscript and thus waste all that past effort and perseverance.


He notices that the typewritten manuscript is in a bit of a mess: some pages are covered with handwritten changes, while others look as if they have been freshly typed.  He remembers that he had been in the process of revising and retyping the manuscript when life suddenly got busier, and when house and family and job all became higher priorities.  With plenty of time on his hands now, he decides to complete the job; to tidy up the papers, retype them on his laptop and thereby preserve the novel.


As he prepares to retype the manuscript, the man recalls the background to his novel and the derivation of its title.  Back in 1975, there had been reports in the press of a warming in relations between the Republic of China and the USSR.  As an ardent right-winger at the time, he wanted the novel to act as a warning of the threat that such a development could pose to the West.  Called ‘The Olive Branch’, to signify the metaphorical token of peace that had been exchanged between Peking and the Kremlin, and set a few years in the future, it related what could happen if the two Communist giants combined and colluded to dominate the world.


The man sees at the beginning of the manuscript that he had dedicated the novel ‘To Bill, for all his help’.  A friend since childhood, Bill had agreed to comment on the novel as it developed, but the man remembers with regret that it had been a thankless task for his friend, Bill’s comments having been frequently ignored or rebuffed by his arrogant younger self.


He proceeds to retype the manuscript, completing one or two chapters each day.  As he does so, he reveals not only the text of the original novel, but also his views on the writing and on the characters he created over three decades before.  As he goes along, his anger at the way he snubbed Bill back then becomes apparent.  Slowly, too, he unveils details of his present life with his second wife in their home in the heart of the Georgian New Town of Edinburgh.


The original story opens in early June 1980 with Jeff, the central character, a second-year student at Edinburgh University, relaxing on a beach on the River Forth close to Edinburgh.  Jeff witnesses the immense destruction wreaked all along the Forth estuary from a sudden missile attack by the combined Communist powers.  He is befriended by the gatekeeper of the estate on which the beach lies.  Together the two men join the local volunteer defence unit to help thwart the expected invasion force.  It is here that Jeff meets and seduces Sue, a vivacious nineteen year-old from a well-to-do suburb of Edinburgh.  But all does not go well for Jeff after that.  By the end of Part One, separated from Sue, stranded on a tiny island in the middle of the Forth, slowly coming to life after a savage attack the night before, the other members of the defence unit either murdered or captured by saboteurs, he watches as invasion warships amass on the horizon.


The man has mixed feelings about that first part.  Although he is initially concerned about the style of writing, variously describing it as old-fashioned, melodramatic, verbose and flowery, he finds that it matures rapidly and that he is gradually drawn into the story, eager to learn what happens next.  However, he is critical of his choice of central character, wondering why he had cast a nice, middle-class boy from London, rather than a rough, local, working-class lad, like himself.  He thinks that Jeff comes over as a bit of wimp, that the story resembles a ‘Boy’s Own’ adventure, and that the lovemaking scene between Jeff and Sue is cringeworthy and gratuitous.  He is scathing about the inclusion of other characters, particularly the commander of the defence unit and the local Army General, whom he refers to as ‘a pair of old, posho queens’, and he calls Sue ‘a jolly hockey sticks type’.  He knows that these criticisms stem from his lifelong loathing of the bourgeoisie.  He realises that his younger self was much more tolerant than he is now and probably shrewder, deliberately including the types of characters who would be familiar and acceptable to the novel’s readers.  Realising, too, that he is preserving a thriller and not the dense political diatribe that he thought he had written, he becomes more settled with the writing, the characters and the obvious stereotyping.


Before he begins to retype Part Two, the man finds a photocopy of some notes he had prepared for Bill, detailing the amendments that he had planned to make when he redrafted the manuscript.  Contrary to the man’s earlier misgivings, the notes confirm that his younger self was prepared to listen to and act on suggestions and criticisms.  He also finds several letters from publishers to whom he had submitted Part One.  When he reads one particularly encouraging letter, he is deeply disappointed because he didn’t go on to complete the redraft and to re-submit the work all those years ago.


At the beginning of Part Two of the original novel, the story is fast-forwarded six months to a snow-covered woodland, where a leaner and more rugged Jeff, now a Resistance fighter, takes part in another successful partisan operation against the Communist invaders.  The story then backtracks, narrating how Jeff escaped from the island and was reunited with Sue; how the couple were rescued from the clutches of Chinese soldiers by an enigmatic character called Minto; how Minto went on to form a Resistance unit and to recruit others to it; and how he met another Resistance leader, a charismatic, young priest called Father O’Malley, with whom he planned and executed a series of combined Resistance operations.  In the course of the story, Sue, having revealed that she is pregnant, returns to the safety of her mother in the suburbs, while Minto forms a romantic attachment with one of his recruits, Pat, a feisty girl from the local village.  On the wider front, the Communist regime is badly rocked by a concerted Resistance counterattack throughout Britain, and there are the first signs of American involvement in the struggle.  Part Two ends on New Year’s Eve with Jeff, having battled through a snowstorm to visit Sue and her newborn baby, being captured by the Communists.


Throughout Part Two, the man alternately praises and castigates the novel.  At various points, he accuses it of reading like Enid Blyton, of going though a ‘Swallows and Amazons’ phase, of being contrived, and of having a Barbara Cartland moment (when Minto makes love to Pat in the woods).  At one stage, he becomes so fed up with the writing that he has to give himself a good talking to, reminding himself that he should be preserving, not criticising, and telling himself that he should lighten up.  After that pep talk, he begins to enjoy the story, particularly the way in which the narrative pans back and forward between the micro and macro levels.  He realises that he remembers almost nothing about the latest chapters, so that when he types them, it is as if he is reading them for the first time.  By the time he reaches the end of Part Two, he really does want to read on.  He is also immensely proud of his younger self for his stamina not only in getting to that stage, but also in going on to finish the novel.


Much of Part Three of the original story finds Jeff in the dungeons of Edinburgh Castle, now an Interrogation Centre, where he is subjected to unspeakable torture and misery at the hands of his Russian captors.  Chief among the latter are Nikolai Krakov, a kindly, old man, who runs the Interrogation Centre, but who is entirely ill-suited to his job, and Krakov’s depute and polar opposite, the abhorrent Leonid Bukolskovitch, to whom Jeff eventually and painfully divulges his secrets.  The penultimate chapter, which takes place in March, draws together many strands of the story: a combined Resistance and American onslaught – the Spring Offensive – gets underway across Britain; Jeff sinks into a deep coma, out of which there is little hope of him emerging alive; Sue and her mother, who have been inmates of a Detention Camp for Women, awake to find that the camp has been deserted by their Chinese guards; as the American invasion force, aided by Father O’Malley and Minto, closes in on Edinburgh, Krakov is ordered to evacuate the Interrogation Centre, destroy its records and exterminate its prisoners; disobeying the last two of those orders, he kills Bukolskovitch and then himself; and Jeff wakes up momentarily to glimpse an American soldier before slipping back into unconsciousness.  The final chapter sees a wheelchair-bound Jeff in a military convalescent home.  It is early summer, he has survived, but he is haunted by the memory of his betrayal of his comrades.  His remorse turns quickly to joy when he is visited by Minto and Pat, and he learns from them that no-one in their group came to harm.  In the closing scene, Jeff walks with difficulty on his new artificial leg on his way to see Sue at her mother’s house.  It is exactly one year to the minute since the horror began.


At the beginning of Part Three, the man is keen to get on and complete the retyping of the manuscript now that the finishing post is in sight.  With few criticisms to offer, his mind wanders occasionally as he recalls exotic places that he has travelled to over the years, some past demons, his struggles to get where he is and his recent illness.  Soon, though, he is delighted and exhilarated by the writing, which he likens to Solzhenitsyn.  One passage, in particular, he calls a ‘tour de force’, and he describes the penultimate chapter as ‘intricately woven’.  He also finds himself actually worrying about Jeff’s plight.  When he turns breathlessly to the final chapter, it occurs to him that no-one, not even Bill, had ever read the last part of the novel.  When he types ‘The End’, it is a poignant moment for him.  He is happy because he has succeeded in preserving the novel, but he is also sad because no-one had ever seen how good it was.



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My Blog - writer's block
The Barman (2009)