Marc Quinn and I were dining on a ceviche of local fish at the Explora Hotel on Easter Island. I can’t tell you anything more about this, the remotest permanently inhabited place in the world, because I’m embargoed by the magazine that paid for my trip.
Ah yes, it is as if that famous Pacific island, a tiny bit of volcanic Connemara, cut off from the Hibernian main and flung down in tens of thousands of square miles of cobalt-blue Pacific, were ringed by giant statues; stone heads displaying a monumental ataraxy. And that were you to ask one of the gentle Polynesian natives who exactly these megaliths depicted, they were to reply: “We call that one ‘Conde’ that one ‘Nast’ and those two over there ‘World’ and ‘Traveller’.” But then, those who live by the junket also die by it, wouldn’t you say?
I digress, we were eating our ceviche, and I started chortling at my recollection of a line in Martin Amis’s novel The Information. When Amis’s protagonist – failed Modernist novelist Richard Tull – is mulling over famous, literary cases of impotence, he observes, apropos of the principal characters in George Eliot’s magnum opus: “And as for Casaubon and Dorothea, it must’ve been like trying to fit an oyster into a parking meter.”
I laughed, in part because I’ve always thought the image to be at once supremely just and totally outrageous — and therefore the very acme of the absurd; and also because Martin himself vouchsafed to me that he’d had it off Christopher Hitchens, in that charming way that writers admit to each other their little apropriations and, ah, thefts. Marc laughed, too, but only because he was certain that he’d heard the gag before — not the reference to Middlemarch, mind, but the insertion of the crustacean into the metal slot — although not attributed to either Amis or Hitchens.
Having decided that the image was altogether too fundamental to have been coined by any one person, we began to consider its aptness. Could one not say of impotence that it was, rather, like trying to fit a parking meter inside an oyster? And anyway, was it not also possible to imagine a parking meter into which it would be easy to shove one, two, and indeed many, many oysters? How would one feel, if one were to prise open an oyster, and find lying there, in its opalescent, pillowy flesh, a small — and yet beautifully formed — parking meter?
As to why all this should have occurred to me there, on Easter Island, at that time; it was because I’d made the mistake of taking Middlemarch away with me. Not having read English Literature at university (a solecism that, I am well aware, places me well beyond the pale so far as a goodly swath of that laughable community “English literary critics” are concerned), I had never read Eliot before. Coming to her prose in middle age, I was finding it tough going: the lengthy animadversions, the faintly pious authorial voice, the suffocating religiosity of her heroine. In all, I was finding reading Middlemarch like … Well, like trying to fit a parking meter inside an oyster.