LOCKDOWN IN AMSTERDAM – Toby Quinn’s Online Corona Novel
The Amadeus Effect
Breaking news from Amsterdam: Full o’Bull has just tested positive. Not to Covid-19, mind you, but to that mysterious, debilitating disease that afflicts a great many members of the literary community worldwide: writer’s block.
“Don’t tell him I told you,” his wife said to me. “And he may not even admit to it. But maybe you can help.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” I said, putting on a grave face.
She’s nice, Full o’ Bull’s wife. She really is. And she is clearly concerned about the poor fellow.
When you are a successful author like me, people are always asking you for advice about writing. Where do you get your inspiration from? Do you have a morning ritual? A favorite pen? And yes, the question has come up countless times: do you have any tips on how to overcome writer’s block?
But I’m afraid I don’t. In fact, I’m probably the last person you should ask. For me, writing has always been ninety-nine percent inspiration and one percent perspiration. All I have to do is switch on my laptop and start typing. Once in a while, I get ahead of myself and trip over my own words – that’s where the one percent perspiration comes in. But writer’s block? Sorry, folks, but it’s easier for me to imagine what it’s like to be an asthmatic dromedary or a head of broccoli than what it’s like to be at a loss for words.
I know how hard it is to let go of the romantic notion that an artist must suffer to create good art. It’s part of a broader view of the human condition that can be summed up in the slogan: no pain, no gain. Well, dear people, that may be the mantra of sadistic fitness instructors and grim-faced preachers trying to promote their own inability to enjoy themselves as the key to leading a meaningful life, but just because the words rhyme, doesn’t mean they’re true! I prefer to follow the example of the birds and the bees, the flowers and the trees. Seeking pleasure and avoiding pain works just fine for me. And judging by my sales figures and the rave reviews I keep getting, it works just fine for my readers, too.
I have more bad news for the no-pain-no-gain school of thought: you can’t use your slogan to cheer up tormented artists without committing a heinous crime against the fundamental rules of logic, by which I mean that just because an artist is hurting doesn’t mean they’re on the right track. The painful truth is that most pain won’t get them anywhere.
And so it can come to pass that a lazy bum like me can whip up one bestseller after another (i.e. no pain, gain) while someone like Full o’ Bull will work his ass off for years and end up with nothing but writer’s block (i.e. pain, no gain).
Does that sound unfair? Of course it does. Welcome to the universe, my friends.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t sympathize with my host. And I did promise his wife that I would see what I could do. Besides, we need to consider the possibility that I am to blame for his creative impasse, at least in part.
To begin with, you know what they say about guests and fish losing their freshness after three days. I may be a lovely person to be with, but when days become weeks and weeks become months, anyone will drive anyone up the wall, as we have all come to discover during this endlessly protracted lockdown.
What’s more, Full o’ Bull has had to clear out of his study to accommodate me. Deprived of his work space, he has become an exile in his own home, a wandering Jew, as he jokingly calls himself – which is okay for him to say, as he is of Jewish descent, his wife has informed me.
This sense of uprootedness has been reinforced by the letter he got from the CEO of the publishing consortium, indicating that because of the corona crisis, the focus for now would be on the most easily marketable books, putting work like his on hold. Already homeless in his own house, now there may not be any room for him in his publishing house either!
Some of you out there may be thinking that all this talk of homelessness is in bad taste, that Full o’ Bull should count his blessings and man up. After all, there is a slight difference between stirring porcini into a risotto and rummaging through a trash can. And even if we do allow for the metaphor, if Toby Quinn can open his laptop and start writing wherever and whenever, then why can’t Full o’ Bull?
But now you’re not being fair. Just because I’m in constant touch with my inner muses doesn’t mean all writers are. Virginia Woolf didn’t write A Room of One’s Own for nothing. To many of my colleagues, their work space is the holiest of holy sanctuaries, the only place in the whole wide world where they can find the peace of mind that they need to find their inner voice. Having to give up their space can be a huge deal for these delicate creatures.
Over the weeks, I’ve seen Full o’Bull become increasingly irritated and jittery. He will join his wife at the dining room table, where she has set up her office, hoping that her diligent and industrious vibe will rub off on him. But her line of work requires the occasional phone call, at which point he will heave another one of his passive-aggressive sighs, pick up his laptop and sink down onto one the sofas in the living room, only to bounce right back up again to go and make more coffee.
Don’t let appearances fool you: while it may look as though Full o’ Bull is desperately trying to get down to work, in actual fact he is doing everything he can to avoid it. Now Dr. Toby may not have a cure for writer’s block, but he does know that procrastination can be an early symptom. When left untreated, it can lead to the development of hobbies, parasitic growths that feed on their hosts’ precious time and sap them of their creative energy. In Full o’ Bull’s case, we can distinguish at least four of such hobbies, and they’re fairly serious, I’m afraid.
Although a self-professed early bird, he will waste the first hour or so of every morning catching up on the latest news on my dear darling president Donald Trump. Shaking his head in disbelief, he’ll keep switching back and forth between CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post until he is so shocked and appalled that he needs to clear his head before he can get down to work. And what better way to clear his head than by walking to the market, at the same time attending to his second hobby, wondering about what to make for dinner.
Don’t worry folks, it’s nothing like the wet market in Wuhan. You won’t find fearsome horseshoe bats fluttering around in wicker cages, or blood and guts dripping down from every vendor’s counter. From what Full o’ Bull tells me, it’s strictly fruit and vegetables with maybe some olives and cheese along the way. And because it’s out in the open air, he feels it’s safer than the supermarket, especially in the morning when it’s still relatively quiet.
When he gets back from the market and has given his hands a good wash, he’ll potter about in the kitchen for a bit, maybe starting on a few things for that evening’s dinner. As I’ve said, he’s an okay cook, so I’m not complaining, but if I were one of his essays waiting to be written, I’d be thinking: what’s that salsa verde got that I ain’t got?
Nor does a return to his laptop guarantee a return to work. He may first sneak another look at CNN or The New York Times, hoping for more breaking news. Or else he’ll make time for his third hobby, the free online Italian course that he and his wife have been keeping themselves busy with on a daily basis – which seems a bit odd, considering that Italy was the first country to be declared a no-go zone.
Last but not least, Full o’Bull loves to play the piano. “It’s mostly classical,” he said to me with an apologetic shrug on the day I moved in, automatically assuming that a cool dude like me wouldn’t be a fan of the genre, which isn’t that far off the mark. Thankfully, his Yamaha upright has a silent mode – he’ll put on headphones so that the rest of the household can only hear him pressing down the keys and not the actual notes that they produce. In fact, I have yet to hear him play acoustically. He’s a bit shy about performing in front of strangers, I think, but something tells me he is secretly hoping I will ask him to one day.
For now, I’d rather just watch him play, although sometimes it’s hard not to crack up. His scowl and his hunched shoulders make him look just like the cartoon that I found on his desk, a self-portrait as an angry young man at a typewriter (a typewriter?! – the last time I saw one of those was at my grandmother’s house), determined to conquer the world with his brilliant prose. Now he’s just an angry old man playing the piano, and playing it only for his own… shall we call it enjoyment?
Although Full o’Bull’s spirits were already low and my entrance into the household provided an additional source of stress, one thing kept him from throwing in the towel, and that was the feeling that we were all in this together. As Madonna dreamily mused in her bathtub full of flower petals (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5UYU4Slh34I) Covid-19 didn’t care how rich or famous we were, or how funny, or whatever; no, Covid-19 was the great equalizer.
And so it appeared to be with Full o’ Bull and me. The essay collection he had been working on for three years was being shelved, my grand tour of the Netherlands and Belgium to promote the Dutch translation of Revenge of the Optimists had fallen through. The virus was hurting us both. We were in the same boat, or so it seemed.
But then came the phone call from my American publisher, commissioning me to write this online novel. I was no longer an unfortunate fellow writer stuck in Amsterdam with nothing to do, I was now the young literary hotshot Full o’ Bull never was, occupying his work space and sitting at his desk while raking in the dough with yet another bestseller. This, I’m afraid, is what has broken the man’s spirit.
Think about it, my dear friends: the very words you are reading right this very moment are directly responsible for Full o’ Bull’s current creative impasse. Or we might say: one man’s blog is another man’s block!
Yesterday evening, as I came bounding up the stairs with a great big smile on my face after yet another fantastic session of writing to join the family for dinner, Full o’Bull was just coming out of the kitchen with a pan of steaming potatoes and we almost collided in the hallway. For a moment we just stood there, Lockdown in Amsterdam becoming Showdown in Amsterdam. As he glowered at me through the steam, I thought: “here we go again”. I had seen that look countless times before. In fact, you might call it the story of my life.
Once at a party many years ago, a girl said I reminded her of Mozart.
“You mean the Mozart? As in Wolfgang Amadeus?”
“The very one.”
“Whoa,” I said. “I may be a rising star, but let’s not get carried away, shall we?”
“Actually,” she said with a wry smile. “I was thinking of Mozart as portrayed in the Hollywood blockbuster Amadeus.”
“Aha,” I bluffed, not having seen the movie. “Okay…”
Mistaking my changing facial expression for disappointment, she burst out laughing. “I’m sorry. Have I offended you?”
I had completely forgotten about this cryptic little exchange until a few years later, when during one of my book-tours I was channel-hopping in a hotel one evening and chanced upon a costume drama that turned out to be the movie in question.
The first thing that struck me about this Mozart character was that he seemed just like your typical American brat. If it hadn’t been for the wig and those funny eighteenth century tights he was wearing, he could have been one of those clowns at a cookout who delights in setting everybody’s marshmallow on fire. And that was me? Whoa indeed.
In the movie, Mozart enjoys taking the piss out of Salieri, an older contemporary composer who is fiercely jealous of him. In one particularly humiliating scene, Mozart is fooling around on one of those funny little pianos that they used to play back in those days. To the merriment of all the lovely ladies who have gathered round, he does a wicked imitation of Salieri, who happens to be looking on from a distance, from behind a mask.
The big winner at the Academy Awards back in 1985, Amadeus was the last film ever to receive a double nomination in the category Best Actor, and for just this once, Salieri beat his rival to win the Oscar.
When the movie was over, I was in a pensive mood. So it wasn’t so much my brilliance as my assholishness that had reminded the girl at the party of Mozart. It isn’t often that someone puts me in my place, and I liked her all the more for it. What a shame that we hadn’t exchanged phone numbers. In fact, I retroactively fell in love with her. I even tried to track her down – not obsessively, it’s not in my nature to obsess over a girl, but still, I did make a few inquiries.
Now that we’re here, I might as well give it one more shot: Dear girl, wherever you are, if you happen to be reading this online novel: yoohoo, here I am! Locked down in Amsterdam. Once this corona business is done and over with, will you marry me?
All joking aside, being compared to Mozart threw a new light on the way people react to me, going all the way back to my earliest childhood. I suppose it all began with my older brother Steve, who resented me for being born, as older siblings often will. To this day, he is still a bit sore about having to share “his” planet with his happy-go-lucky kid brother.
In kindergarten, it was Joey McArthur, who for some reason hated me so much that one day he took a black crayon and drew a big X on the drawing I was making. Rather than being upset, I burst out laughing, which pissed him off all the more, to my even greater delight, an escalating back-and-forth that I took note of and would learn to exploit as I grew older.
In third grade, it was a kid who envied me for being so much better at acquiring the most sought after baseball cards, even though he spent way more money on them. In high school, I became my best friend Tom’s worst enemy after going all the way with Lizzy Franklin, the girl he was secretly in love with. And the list goes on and on.
As I go cruising through life whistling a merry tune, someone will always be glowering at me from the sidelines, green with envy. It’s like a chemical reaction, as if I absorb all the lightness, the sweetness, the brilliance that is available in the space that we share, leaving my jealous rival with the sourness, bitterness and gloom. And it works both ways: the deeper their scowl, the brighter my smile.
In honor of the movie – and the girl who called my attention to it – I have come to call this phenomenon “the Amadeus effect”. The more I “salierify” someone, the more that person will “amadeify” me, and vice versa. Like I said, it’s the story of my life. And now it’s happening again, here in Amsterdam, between Full o’ Bull and me.
Is there a way to call a halt to this process, or better yet, to reverse it? Can I help “desalierify” poor Full o’ Bull, so that he can overcome his writer’s block and carry on with his essay collection? Or is the Amadeus effect a force of nature beyond our control, in which case the noble thing for me to do would be to pack my bags and leave? That would be such a shame, though. I’m so comfortable down here in Full o’ Bull’s basement study, and I’m having so much fun writing this novel.
Here’s the thing though, if I do decide to stay. Lockdown is offering us a near perfect laboratory situation in which to study the Amadeus effect, pitting a Mozart and a Salieri against each other over a prolonged period of time with very few extra variables to complicate matters. From a scientific as well as a literary perspective, it’s a unique opportunity. How unethical would it be to fan the flames rather than to douse them?
It’s a tough call. As human beings, we should all be rooting for Full o’ Bull. He’s a decent chap who is having a rough time and deserves a break. But as a writer, I can’t help hoping things will get worse rather than better. What about you, my dear readers? Be honest. Doesn’t mayhem make for more enjoyable reading than harmony?
Hark! While my fingers have been dancing happily over the keyboard of my little laptop, hopefully to the merriment of all you lovely ladies and gentlemen who have gathered round, upstairs poor old Full o’ Bull is sitting all alone at the piano, hammering away in silent mode, so that the only thing the world can hear is the effort, not the music.
Beethoven, Moonlight Sonata, third movement (presto agitato)
– T. Q.
(coming up next – Chapter 4: Fake Fiction)