table of contents
November 2000

The Diary of Sebastian Lord

AP: Memphis. Died: Sebastian Lord, age 57, of congestive heart failure. Lord was the author of two Pulitzer Prize winning novels, Angelica and The Swine and the Shepherd, and many other critically acclaimed novels. He was found dead in his apartment and appeared to have been dead for several days. Neighbors say that he was a very private person with few local friends. Mr. Lord had resided in the Memphis area since retirement twenty years ago. His former wife, Elizabeth Bennet, is a noted author of historical romances set in Regency England.

Olga Swenson grunted as she read the newspaper article. “Ha!” she said to herself. “Few local friends indeed. He had a friend alright, a friend named Muscatel. Fancy him being a writer. Who would have guessed it?” She set down her paper and rang up Helga for a spot of gossip about her least favorite and now former tenant.

Richard Elmore looked up from his paper and looked towards his pretty wife Veronica. “I see that Sebastian Lord is dead.”


“That’s right, he’s a bit before your time.” This wasn’t the first time that Richard spoke those words in that tone to his wife. He had difficulty coming to terms with the fact that marrying a trophy wife much younger than himself necessarily meant that there were many life experiences that they didn’t have in common. Being a perceptive man except in his personal relationships he didn’t realize how much his annoyance showed.

Richard went on to explain. “Sebastian Lord was THE author twenty years ago. He was the golden boy of literature. He turned out one brilliant novel after another and then, all of sudden, he stopped writing and everybody forgot about him.”

Veronica, who was much brighter than her husband realized, said, “That’s odd. You would think that if he were that good people would keep reading him. Do you think that they will have a Sebastian Lord revival now that he’s dead. They do that with painters. Painters get their reputations back after they die.”

Richard shrugged his shoulders. “Perhaps,” he said. “We still have the publishing rights for most of his books. It would be a good thing for us if he did make a comeback. I’ll talk to Roger about it.”

He fell silent. Veronica recognized his abstracted look. It was the face he wore when he was thinking of something very clever. Veronica was never quite sure whether she loved him for his wit and intelligence or whether she hated him for his infuriating patronizing.

Elizabeth Bennet made an annoyed noise when she read the article over breakfast. “Bother. I suppose I will have to fly to Memphis to collect his effects and wind up his affairs. He can’t have any other heir.” Suddenly, inexplicably, she started crying, dripping tears into the cereal.

Georgiana started when she read the article. “Mother will be so unhappy,” she said to herself. “I’d better give her a call.”

From a Parade interview with Amelia Melkinthorpe, Sebastian Lord’s English teacher at Ryder Junior High.

“As a boy he wanted to write very badly and he did. Write badly, I mean. His sentences were always awkward, his characters were inconsistent, and his plots were preposterous. He tried so hard but no matter how hard he tried his stories just weren’t very good.”

The End of Creation, from Art and Spirit, Essays on Creativity, Reginald Bentworth, Professor of Literature, Fairview College.

“Few artists retain their powers for all the fullness of their lives. The ending of the powers of creation is so often the occasion for tragedy; the artist, intoxicated with the delight of expression, must face withdrawal from that sweetest of all drugs. Some meet with a gradual decline. The vitality ebbs away; originality fades. The tragedy of many is that they endlessly rehearse the triumphs of yesterday, producing hollow husks, unable to admit to themselves that the effortless ease of maturity is gone. For some the end is sudden. The original ideas no longer come. Technique vanishes. The words on the page that once enchanted fall leaden and awkward. What is the artist to do when the power that defined his life vanishes? Some few can move on; the easel is put away and the dust cover is put on the word machine. A requiem is said for that which was and the artist returns to the life of ordinary men. Most struggle in denial; the flesh is whipped to produce that which the spirit will not yield. Their efforts do not create art, only tragedy. The struggle may indeed be great art but it is art that is lived and not told. The tale must be told by another.”

Sebastian Lord, in the writer’s forum issue of the New York Review of books

I simply couldn’t write anything worth reading until I was 27. Some writers improve steadily until they reach a plateau. That wasn’t the case with me; nothing seemed to work. I wrote one novel after another and they were all simply dreadful. None of them were ever published and none of them ever will be; I’ve burned every one of them.

It was as though I had to get all of my bits and pieces together before I could write successfully. I remember quite distinctly the day that it all came together. I was sitting there, struggling over some bit of rubbish that I was trying to write, when it hit me. “I don’t have to write this kind of trash,” I said to myself, “I can write a good book.” And I could. Whatever block there was in my soul that had stopped me from writing melted away. It was as if a switch had been thrown from off to on.

I threw away the manuscript that I had been working on and sat down to write the sort of book that I knew I could write. Nine months later I had written Angelica.

Sebastian Lord in the Nathan Childers retrospective issue of the Varinoma Quarterly.

I always felt that I deserved some credit for The Beekeeper’s Daughter. Nathan Childers and I were chatting one evening over a bottle of port. The conversation turned to deals with the Devil as a recurring theme in literature. Every author, it seems, has to do a Deal with the Devil story.

Nathan objected that the theme was a cliche; the Devil always loses by some trickery on the part of the hero. Why, he asked, should the Devil make such deals if he never collects.

I suggested in return that the story would be fresher if the Devil offered his gifts without any strings. The gift needn’t be poisoned in the ordinary sense – The Monkey’s Paw doesn’t need to be rewritten one more time. Let the gift be more than the protagonist can handle; the Devil collects when the protagonist ruins his life.

Nathan was intrigued. He asked for an example. “You and I are established writers,” I said. “What if the Devil approached someone who was struggling and wasn’t making it. What if he were offered ten years of brilliance but only ten. After the term was up he would revert to what he was before.”

Nathan demurred. “The idea has merit,” he said, “but you don’t need the Devil. He’s just a bit of operatic melodrama. If you must have him, let him be offstage. Let the offer of the gift and its acceptance be implicit. Focus on what happens in the fall when the gift goes away.”

The character of Aaron Bergman was born that evening.

“Deals with the Devil” from “Morality and Ethics in Folklore”, Aaron T. Witte, Varinoma Press, San Luis Obispo, 2000.

The traditional “Deal with the Devil” is unabashedly pre-Christian and non-Christian, with roots planted firmly in the childhood of Man and of Law. The formula is simple: The Devil offers wealth and worldly benefit in exchange for the protagonist’s soul. The deal is traditionally sealed with signatures in blood. The aftermath is that the Devil’s goods are spoiled goods and the protagonist escapes by a bit of word chopping trickery.

Explicit formal consent is essential in these stories. The vampire cannot enter your house without an invitation and the devil cannot claim your soul without your formal agreement. The letter of the law is everything here. The vampire gains entry with your invitation even if you were unaware of his nature. The Devil has an absolute right to your soul even if you didn’t understand the terms of the deal. There is no room for justice or fairness, only formal law. This absolutism of the Word in all of its rampant literalism is a primitive morality, one much favored by children, the unforgiving, and early common law.

A striking feature of these tales is that the Devil is always cheated; he never collects his victim’s soul. In them the absolute authority of the Word is never questioned. Instead the Word is defeated by turning it against itself; escape is found in the ambiguity of legal language. One can read these fables as morality tales, advisories teaching the formalism of the Law must be accepted but not its apparent consequences.

None of this is Christian. The Christian Devil, the Great Tempter, does not ask for consent. Assent alone suffices, assent that need not be explicit or even understood. The Devil, so to speak, does not offer gold for a signature in blood; he does not need to. Instead he offers it freely, in the hope that it will incite the greed that silently damns. All gold is tainted. The Devil’s desire is that we will excuse the taint in the blindness of greed.

Thus it is with racial justice. The white Euroamerican aceepts his privileges of time and place, arguing when challenged that neither he nor his ancestors held slaves or killed Indians. His defense is that he never to past crimes. He did not. None-the-less by accepting the indirect gains thereof he has assented to them.

From the Intelligencer

Birth notices: Born October 12 to Elizabeth Bennet and Sebastian Lord, a daughter, Georgiana, seven pounds eight ounces, at the Our Lady of Incredible Chastity Memorial Hospital. Mother and daughter are resting in excellent condition.

From “Caught between Dawn and Dusk, the autobiography of Georgiana Bennet”, Varinoma Press, San Luis Obispo, 1994

Every year mother would take me to Memphis to visit father. I hated those visits. Father lived in a squalid room and was seldom sober. We never stayed long but mother insisted that we go. When I complained she told me that she understood my unhappiness but that I would thank her for our visits when I was older.

When I was fourteen I challenged her and asked why she had married that horrid man. She told me, “Georgiana, your father is a wonderful man. His heart was broken though. He put it away in a box and has hidden the box in a bottle.” I didn’t understand her answer but I realized for the first time that mother loved father, that she had always loved father.

Excerpt from “Text and the Dialectics of Self Revelation”, Aaron Twitte, Varinoma Quarterly, vol XXIV.

The dogma that text speaks for itself, that it is independent of the author once it is committed to print, is surely incorrect, at least in human terms. Of necessity the author reveals something of himself in the act of composing text. In turn the reader is tempted to read between the lines to discern what the author has revealed. We shall argue here that this temptation is natural and, indeed, a necessary aspect of reading. The so called fallacy of auctorial intent is in itself a fallacy.

It should be understood, however, that the revelation of self present in text is never complete or accurate. The author cannot choose to conceal himself completely nor can he choose to reveal himself completely. In this regard works vary. The uncertainties of discerning the man behind the mask in reading the novel are notorious. The inferences are based on the indirect evidence supplied by the choices. The author does not (usually) intend the text to be an act of self revelation.

Some texts, in particular the personal journal or the diary, are natural venues for self revelation. These fall into two classes, those written with a view to an audience, and those which are not. Those written with a view to an audience are necessarily compromised as acts of self revelation. The mere knowledge that one’s writings will be read inevitably lead to the author writing as a self that wears a public mask.

One might suppose that texts written without a view to an audience might be more certain as acts of self revelation. This is not so. We, all of us, practice self deception, and even the most forthright and insightful must express and attain our insights through the fog of language. The personal diary offers little except, perhaps, in the hands of a rare genius.

From a review of Angelica in the Varinoma Quarterly, volume XV, by Richard Armstrong.

Angelica may be the finest novel produced in this century. Sebastian Lord has mixed sentiment and realism in a delicate balance. The reader who demands plot and action will be more than satisfied. The reader who reads for richness of character and depth of insight can return again and again to Angelica with the certainty that each reading will offer new rewards. The connoisseur of style will appreciate the precision of wording, the effortless ease with which each word and each phrase falls into place. Sebastian Lord has achieved that which Shakespeare is credited with, writing for the masses and the literary elite in one and the same work.

From “On The Scene”, a newspaper column in the Intelligencer.

Yours truly made the scene, the blowout party that Barrymore Books held for the release of Sebastian Lord’s latest blockbuster, A Rose in Tuscany. All the in people were there in the ballroom of the Metropole. The champagne flowed freely. Sebastian Lord was Mr. Champagne himself, bubbling with excitement and charm.

From “The Rose of Tuscany and other frauds”, Justin Geste, Varinoma Quarterly, vol XXIII.

“The Rose of Tuscany” is the latest offering from Sebastian Lord. It is a best seller. The literary establishment fawns over it. It is, I regret to say, an ersatz novel written by a man who hasn’t an honest intellectual bone in his body.

It is an open secret that the best seller is a genre in its own right, one with a rigid set of conventions to be observed, a genre no different in its essential nature than the Western, the Murder Mystery, or the Regency Romance. The dirty little secret of literary criticism game is that the high lords of literature are no more immune to the dubious charms of the best seller genre than the masses. The prostitute of literature flashes her thigh and the professor’s eye tracks the tantalizing flesh in synchrony with the eye of the push cart vendor.

Sebastian Lord is no street walker. He whores for the elite and hucksters his image to the masses. He has found a formula for pandering to the masses and the literary snobs, all in one package. This is the trick: The elite professes to believe that the fine novel – one worthy of inclusion in the canon – offers deep ambiguous insight into the human condition. That too is a genre. Sebastian Lord’s genius lies in fusing the two genres together to produce a remarkable new genre – elite cotton candy. Remarkably, the man is quite unaware that he is a fraud. He believes his press clippings and his reviews, quite satisfied with himself as a writer, a man who has invented a literary version of the pet rock in the firm belief that he is sculpting the Pieta.

Letter to Varinoma Quarterly, vol XXIV

Justin Geste is that worst of hack reviewers, the man who hides his lack of talent by spewing acid sniping. His “remarkable new genre” is a characterization that fits Shakespeare as well as Sebastian Lord. Sebastian Lord has written a brilliant novel illuminating the feminine viewpoint. Justin Geste cannot understand it because he is a misogynistic boor.

Drink champagne for success, whiskey for failure, and Muscatel afterwards. — Street proverb.

From Dustman’s Concise Guide To Modern Authors, Hamilton & Burstein, London.

Bennet, Elizabeth, author of historical romances set in Regency England. Widely considered to be the literary heiress of Jane Austen. Elizabeth Bennet was the wife of the American author, Sebastian Lord. Her literary career began after their divorce and her move to England. Time and Tide is generally considered to be her finest work, comparable to Pride and Prejudice.

From an interview with Elizabeth Bennet by Rachel Bloom on the talk show, “The authors speak”.

RB: Tell me about Sebastian Lord. You and he were childhood sweethearts, weren’t you?

EB: Oh, yes. We met in Junior High. From the moment that we met we both knew that each of us that the other was the only person that we would ever love. We went to the same high school and the same college. After we graduated we worked together.

RB: But you didn’t get married right away, did you?

EB: No. Sebastian simply wouldn’t get married until he was established as a writer. That didn’t matter to me and he knew it. It mattered to him, though. I couldn’t change that; it was a part of what and who he was. I loved him for what he was, not for what I wanted him to be.

RB: It must have been a great relief when he had his first success.

EB: It was. I was so happy for him – and for me.

RB: And yet you left him.

EB: I had to. Whatever it was that made him a great writer suddenly left him. He couldn’t live with that; it meant that he couldn’t live with me.

RB: You’ve become a real success in your own right. Tell me about that.

Short review of Ironsmith in the Varinoma Quarterly.

Sebastian Lord’s latest novel, Ironsmith, is a surprisingly pedestrian novel for a writer of his stature. He has given us twelve beautiful novels in the last ten years. We can only hope that in his next work he will return to the standard he has set for himself and us.

Sebastian Lord,
Memphis, Tennessee

Dear Sebastian,

It pains me to write this but we really cannot see our way clear to publish Journeyman. As you know, Ironsmith was both a critical and commercial failure. Frankly, we would not have published it if the author had been anybody besides yourself. Journeyman is no better; it reads like a bad rewrite of Angelica.

You have no greater admirer of your work than myself. You have written brilliantly. You can write brilliantly. I have every expectation that you will write many fine novels in the future. We want to publish those novels. I really am afraid, though, that we can’t publish this one.

Please don’t take this to heart. Every writer goes through a dry spell when nothing seems to work. They work through it and you will too. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help.

Your friend,

Richard Elmore,
Acquisitions Editor,
Barrymore Books

Conversation between Elizabeth Bennet and her attorney upon the occasion of her divorce from Sebastian Lord.

“Fred, I want you to arrange an annuity for Sebastian. Set it up so that his creditors can’t touch it.”

“What on Earth for? Both of you are rich. His share of the marital property is more than enough for any man. You don’t owe him anything.”

“You don’t understand, Fred. It doesn’t matter how much he has now. It won’t last. He’ll drink it up and throw it away. He won’t stop spending until he hits bottom and I don’t think he will stop drinking even then. I want to be sure that when he hits bottom there will be something there for him. I couldn’t bear to know that he was living in the streets.”

“You still love him, don’t you?”

“I think that I will always love him but I won’t let him drag me down into the hell he is making for himself.”

Elizabeth Bennet
The High House
Lower Dorking,
Sussex, England

Dear Ms. Bennet

You asked how Sebastian Lord is doing. He drinks steadily. He is dirty and lazy. He doesn’t take care of himself. He hasn’t changed since you last saw him. As far as I know his health is good – the Devil takes care of his own.

Olga Swenson

PS: Thanks for the check.

Richard Elmore,
Barrymore Books

Dear Richard,

As you know Sebastian has come to the end that we both expected and feared. While I was going through his effects I discovered a diary that he kept. As you might expect, it’s quite bitter and dark. I am not a judge of these things – you know what I write and prefer to read – but it seems to me that it is publishable.

I should prefer to respect the privacy of the dead and Sebastian’s above all. I think, though, that Sebastian had one last book in him, one that was better than any thing he had written, and one that he did not know that he was writing. I think that he would have wanted that one last success and I want to give it to him.

I understand that Barrymore Books is planning a Sebastian Lord revival and a reissue of his novels. His diary might be a worthy addition. In a way it is more him than anything else he has ever written. Please let me know what you think.


Elizabeth Bennet

Fragment from the diary of Sebastian Lord

Elizabeth brought Georgiana to see me today. Something has changed; Georgiana has always detested me but today she pitied me. She asked me to come home with her and Elizabeth. I told her that I couldn’t, that I loved her and was giving her all that I had to give and that the only thing I had left to give her was my absence.

The Diary of Sebastian Lord, review by Nathan Childers

I knew Sebastian Lord; we were friends in his glory days. His talents burst into bloom mysteriously and faded just as mysteriously. For ten years he wrote brilliant novels that any author would have been proud to have written. If they were overly praised while he was writing they were undeservedly forgotten after he stopped.

The Diary is not one of those novels. It is not a chronicle of success. He did not start it until after his gift had failed him, his wife had divorced him, and he had lost all his money. For twenty years he subsisted on a pension from his former wife, drinking Muscatel and writing in his damned diary.

Above all it is an expression of the angst of the creative writer who must write and cannot. He had ten years of success, ten years of “the cursed gift”, and then it was all taken away from him. He couldn’t go on; he couldn’t build a new life; no matter how much he drank he couldn’t forget what he had been.

Without intending to he posed a question that no writer wishes to hear. Was it worth paying twenty years of hell for those ten glorious years of champagne? Was his diary worth what he paid for it? What is life worth? What is Art worth? What price will you pay in Art for life? In life for Art? Sebastian Lord did not ask the question; he did not even think of asking the question. He lived the question and his life was the answer.

This page was last updated November 6, 2000.
Copyright &copy 2000 by Richard Harter

table of contents
November 2000