A young woman reviewer of my latest novel, Reality and Dreams, complained that some of my characters are “nasty.” I should have thought they were far worse than that; they are downright insufferable, even outrageous, and are supposed to be. I don’t know why it is, but even in these feminist days, there exists a body of ladylike reviewers (and perhaps readers, although I put in a query here) who feel that women writers should write novels of boring virtue. I have always marveled when people have described to me, either in fiction or in real life, a creature who “hasn’t a mean bone in her body,” or who is “incapable of a mean thought.” Who are these freaks of the human race, and where? I have never met them and hope I never will, arch-hypocrites as they most certainly are. One product of an immaculate conception in the history of religion is surely enough. And besides, to be “incapable of a mean thought” would surely cut us off from that imaginative empathy with the weaknesses of others that makes our imperfect world go round. Even that great English writer of the last century, Cardinal J.H. Newman, declared he could not conceive a novel without sinful characters.
I had an editor at one of my English publishers who leaked information to the press–mostly the diarists–that I wanted to keep to myself. He always denied it was he who had done so. Therefore, I employed a technique we used during the war–when I was in the Foreign Office–to sniff out a leaker. I fed that editor disinformation, and fed it to him exclusively. Sure enough, it appeared in the papers as valid news, passed on by Bigmouth. Lesson: Don’t confide in editors.
When I wrote my first novel, I had an editor in London who was deeply, distressingly, alcoholic. Eventually, he was fired. He gave an interview about me 35 years later, full of wild and chronologically impossible inventions. Was his memory impaired by alcohol, or had he been harboring some grudge for 35 years? Who cares?
I often think of the most charming editor of my life, the late Blanche Knopf of the Knopf publishing house. I was working in New York for a few years when I knew her. How she loved to meet me for lunch, and I, to meet her. She was always covered with diamonds, but somehow discreetly. Her clothes were Dior and Balençiaga. (“I don’t care,” she said, “if people don’t know they are haute couture, so long as I know.”) She had spotted and published 18 or 19 Nobel Prize-winners. She always wore her rosette of the Légion d’Honneur, which Gen. Charles de Gaulle had bestowed on her on the occasion of the liberation of France by the U.S. Army. (Blanche was there.) She put all her heart into the encouragement of my writing, for which I will always remember her with gratitude. I was the last author to talk to her, as she lay dying in her New York apartment. I was at East Hampton that weekend, right on the sea. I called to find out how she was. “Blanche,” I said, “if I hold the receiver out of the window here, you could hear the sea.” I held it out for a little while; then, when I got back to Blanche, she said, “Yes, I could hear the sea.” She died that afternoon.