In the penultimate chapter, Roberts throws a London lunch party for 20 pals and calls it La Fête de l’Amitié. This book itself is a kind of Fête de l’Amitié, a salute to various loving friends and friendly ex-lovers. Devoted Roberts fans will read this and enjoy imagining how charming it would be to be her friend. Any reader new to her work should ignore Negative Capability and start with those difficult novels.
One of my Mum’s other great sayings is “let not the sun go down on your wrath”, which she pilfered from the Bible. It may have been cathartic for Roberts to write this, and it may have got her through her year of surviving, but it leaves a bitter aftertaste. The off-hand dismissals, the throwaway snipes, the fact that future potential agents are reduced to being Lily-2, Lily-3, Lily-4 (I am sure they all had names and beliefs and longings of their own; most humans have) all contribute to a book which seems to miss its very title. The point of negative capability is empathy. We do not judge, we allow the other to be other, we gift them the mystery of themselves.
In less able hands a book like this could seem like an exercise in self-indulgence, perhaps not helped by the fact that there are a fair few trips to the second homes of “old leftie” friends. What rescues Negative Capability from this is Roberts’s self-deprecating humour and the sheer sumptuousness of her prose. She writes with such lyrical precision, such an eye for the luscious detail, that her journey from despair to something like hope feels for us like being a guest at a stupendous banquet.
Still, ever the creator, she can’t help wondering whether she mightn’t be able to make something out of the ‘destroyed pieces’ of herself. The something is this book, and what a thing it is: brave, naked, defiant and exquisitely written. What could so easily have become a score-settling whingefest instead takes flight and turns into a touching and joyously clear-eyed account of what it means to be an artist. Not that it’s just about writing — far from it. Nature, food, romantic love, loss, the slippery world of the imagination and the enduring and restorative nature of friendship are among its themes.
If someone had told me a month ago that I would find, during this lockdown, such solace and pleasure in a book about the drama of one woman’s quotidian and interior life, I might have shaken my head: ordinary sadnesses are supposed to seem trivial now, bashed into shape by the horror of the times. But of course this is not the case. Roberts’s wisdom worked on me like a spell: her growing awareness that there is no making a pattern of life; the sense that we can control relatively few of the things that are most important to us. Our adventures – our love affairs, our marriages, our struggles at work and at home – go on, unabated, irrespective of Covid-19. A sense of perspective, as Roberts repeatedly shows, is no cure at all for heartache.