Joyce spent twenty-nine thousand hours writing Ulysses. Vonnegut spent twenty-three years writing Slaughterhouse Five. Hemingway rewrote The Sun Also Rises fifty times. “Really great fun,” Wodehouse said of his time in a German internment camp.
When he was twelve years old, Dickens worked in a shoeshine factory. “There was no childhood in my childhood,” said Chekhov. Huckleberry Finn was handwritten on unlined paper. “I wasn’t even bothering whether I understood what I was saying,” Eliot said of writing The Waste Land. Virginia Woolf first attempted suicide in 1913. “The melancholia of things completed,” Nietzsche spoke of.
Verlaine shot Rimbaud. Byron walked with a limp. Dryden was beaten up by the prime minister’s thugs. Dostoyevsky was sent to Siberia. Defoe didn’t publish a novel until he was sixty. Hammett stopped writing at thirty-nine. Faulkner received a D in English at the University of Mississippi. Fitzgerald dropped out of Princeton. Dorothy Parker was fired from Vanity Fair. Graham Greene was sued for libel by a six-year-old.
Chandler lived with his mother. Kerouac lived with his mother. Roland Barthes was hit by a truck. Frank O’Hara by a Jeep. Nathaniel West died in a car wreck. Thomas Hardy’s first three novels did not sell. Milton made five pounds from Paradise Lost. Beckett’s Murphy was rejected forty-two times. Lord of the Flies was rejected twenty-one times. Near death, Gogol burned his own manuscript. Sappho’s poetry was burned by the Church. Dante was banished from Florence. Ovid was banished from Rome. Walter Benjamin died by suicide. Hart Crane died by suicide. Joseph Conrad shot himself. Kafka sold insurance.
After the publication of Moby-Dick, Melville took a job as a cargo inspector. Reading the Scarlet Letter to his wife, Hawthorne cried. Jack London overdosed at forty. Zeno hanged himself at ninety. At fifty-nine, Virginia Woolf jumped into the river with a pocketful of stones. Faulkner fell from a horse. Joyce lost all of his teeth. Milton was constipated.
Try to imagine Sisyphus happy. At best it’s “the happiness of being sad,” as Victor Hugo defined melancholy. “What are poets for?” asked Hölderlin. Li Po drowned. So did Shelley. When F. Scott Fitzgerald died, no one attended his funeral. “The poor son of a bitch,” said Dorothy Parker.