Alexander McCall Smith: Life’s great unanswerable questions

Some years ago, on a book tour, I was invited to speak at a community college somewhere in the northern United States. I would like to be able to remember where this college was, or what it was called. I remember neither of those details. I should also like to be able to recall which state it was in, but find myself unable to remember that either.

Before I am accused of insensitivity, I might say in my defence that some places in the United States do look very similar to other places in the United Sates. In a country as large as that, it is easy enough to forget where you are, as W.H. Auden remarked in his poem On the Circuit. “God bless the lot of them,” he wrote, “although I don’t remember which was which: God bless the USA, so large, so friendly, and so rich.”

The students at this college were a polite and attentive audience, as they usually are in the United States. At the end of the talk, though, they were invited to ask questions. Silence ensued, as it often does in such circumstances. The talk had been about being an author and what was entailed in writing books. The class was an English one, and the students were encouraged to write. The topic was therefore relevant to their course and might reasonably be expected to inspire a question or two.

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At last a hand went up at the back and a young man broke the silence. “Have you suffered?” he asked, giving the word suffered its full value.

The question took me by surprise and it was a moment or two before I was able to work out why he should have asked this. It had something to do, I thought, with the notion that books come from suffering, and that a relatively trouble-free life is no background for literary composition.

In a sense that is true – many books do come from authorial unhappiness. An equable temperament, accepting of whatever life brings, does not necessarily prompt one to write.

The student’s question may, however, have come from somewhere quite different. He might have been so accustomed to the familiar tone of the misery memoir that he assumed that anybody who wrote a book would, by that very fact, be one who has suffered some calamitous misfortune.

He might be forgiven for that impression; there are numerous books today that chronicle unhappy or unresolved lives and the undoubted suffering such backgrounds involve. Perhaps this student thought that I had simply omitted to mention the suffering that I must have experienced in order to be a writer. As Gore Vidal said of Solzhenitsyn, gore vidal, which apparently means in Russian, “He has seen grief”.

As it happened, it proved rather difficult to answer the question.

I could not claim the sort of suffering that fuels misery memoirs. Moreover, I belong to a generation that has never had to fight a war and has, by and large, in this country at least, had many advantages. So suffering in that sense was not something of which I could boast.

As to other forms of suffering – the sort of suffering that comes from existential angst – while some may experience that, I never had – not really. So eventually I said, “Frankly, no, I haven’t really suffered.”

He nodded, perhaps that was what he thought all along – that I had not suffered when I should have suffered.

Perhaps he concluded that any advice I had given about writing was by that fact rendered nugatory – because who should pay any attention to an author who had not suffered?

The talk over, I was escorted to my car by the principal of the college. As we walked along the corridor, one of the students followed us from the lecture room. Coming abreast of us, she announced that she had had a question that she had not had the opportunity to ask in the lecture theatre. I assured her that I would be happy to answer it now.

Her question was every bit as surprising as the question about suffering, perhaps even more so.

“Do you like eating wild mushrooms?” she asked.

I glanced at the principal, who remained inscrutable.

I was on my own.

“It depends,” I said. “I’m a bit wary about wild mushrooms.”

That was a truthful answer. You have to be very careful with wild mushrooms.

The young woman smiled.

It seemed that she was satisfied with this answer, and so she said goodbye and disappeared back down the corridor. I said nothing to the principal. I felt I had strayed into an absurdist play, something dreamed up by Ionesco or Beckett.

As I was driven away, I reflected on these two questions, but particularly on the second. What should have possessed that young woman, apparently rational and in a state of sobriety, to ask me, a complete stranger, whether I liked eating wild mushrooms? Was it simply genuine curiosity, or was there some unspoken agenda, perhaps a criticism?

It suddenly occurred to me that she might be talking about magic mushrooms, and I, in my naivety, had not tumbled to that. Was it therefore an invitation, an offer of a chemical experience? But then would such an invitation have been issued in the presence of the principal of the college who might be assumed to take a dim view of magic mushrooms being bandied about on the campus?

I think about that strange visit from time to time.

In this life we are occasionally asked questions we cannot answer, or cannot answer in the way perhaps expected of us. Such questions remind us that people sometimes talk to one another in terms that one side of the conversation may not understand. Perhaps that is what afflicts us now. That is what I think, but I also think I might be missing something about this encounter. But what? Complacency? Perhaps the answer was staring me in the face. Perhaps there was a line or two of Burns that could be the key. O wad some Power the giftie gie us …