What is Failure? - A short story confronting this question.


What is Failure?

The question I am concerned with is the meaning of failure and what it means to be a writer. In order to confront these questions, I wrote the below short story What is Failure? and tried to answer these questions as raised by reading Roberto Bolaño’s Henri Simon LePrince.

Short Story

An old man sat in a corner in the overcrowded market, quietly looking after an oft-overlooked shop, the same way he had been doing for the past 20 years. His stall was covered in dust, and the so-called ‘antiques’ he sold seemed to be indistinguishable from all the other shops around his, except perhaps for the fact that his business was even lesser. To veterans of the market, it seemed as if he had always been there, smoking a pipe at times, reading a newspaper or simply looking around at the nearby crowd. His beard had grown long and white, his face was covered in wrinkles and yet his eyes were still bright. They gleamed with a curiosity that maybe even children might not have today, and he was always aware of what happened around him in the market. Everyone in the market gossiped about how he was the one example who definitely should not be copied, mocking him and calling him a free guard. But they would never have guessed – why he had taken care of that shabby stall for 20 years…

In the evening, just like every other day, he went home after packing up his things and saying goodbye to the nearby stall-owners. He hadn’t sold a single item that day, again, yet he didn’t really seem to mind. Reaching home, a small form ran out of his house and leapt up into his arms. He carried his grandson Miles in his arms, lovingly rubbing his head, and walked in to see his daughter and her husband, who were visiting.  He laughed and asked them, “Jane, Dave, you guys came for a visit? Why didn’t you call yesterday? I would have brought some food home for all of you.” Jane smiled and said, “Dad, Miles was missing you today so we decided to come over. It’s alright, we already ate.”

“Oh, so this little rascal missed me, did he? And how did he come to miss me all of a sudden?”, he said, holding Miles up by his arms and asking him. Miles answered, clearly excited, “Grandpa, I want to listen to the end of your story, please! It’s so exciting, and you haven’t told me anymore for so long!”

“Alright, alright, I’ll tell you. Let’s go in into the study, shall we? To pick up the world of Alfram and Jarin once again. Dave, Jane, you guys know where everything is, right? I’ve gotten old, so I’ll go and tell him my story, and you guys can have some tea or something, alright?”

Without waiting for an answer, he walked to the study, carrying Miles in his arms; clearly intent on satisfying the child’s curiosity. Jane and Dave looked at each other, then Dave sighed and both of them went into the kitchen. They set the water to boil, and then walked back to the study door, and listened through it; only to hear the voice of an old man telling a story in an earnest voice, while an immature voice intercepted with sounds of assent and shock – clearly expressing his emotions at the story. Dave softly murmured, “Miles is already 8, Jane. We really need to stop letting him see your father so often. Mind you, the old man isn’t bad; but these are Miles’ growing years, and everyone he meets can be a huge influence on him. And frankly speaking, you father is a bit of a failure. If Miles gets too influenced by him and loses himself in flights of fancy and leading such an ambition-less life, then we really won’t be able to regret. So, wouldn’t it be better if we reduced their interaction a bit instead?”

Jane said, “I know what you mean, but he is my father you know. They have the perfect right to meet each other. Plus, he’s not really that bad. He used to be quite something back in the day, it was also after meeting my mother that he…”

“Isn’t that in itself enough of a problem? If he learns how to change his entire life on the basis of a few words said by a girl he just met, then how is that any better?”

“Mind your words! That’s my parents you’re talking about!”

“And that’s our child! Jane, think about it!”

“…Alright, I’ll try talking to Dad about it.”

After this, they went back to the kitchen and got the tea to drink. Jane decided to carry in a cup for her father as well, and softly opened the study door while carrying the tray. “Dad, here, have some tea.”

The man shushed his daughter and looked at Miles, who was sleeping in his arms. Jane said, “Dad, Dave and I feel that maybe you guys shouldn’t spend so much time together. Miles is 8 now, and he should spend more time studying.” The old man looked at his daughter, and then at his grandson, and then said, “Ah, I must not infect the kid with my being a loser, huh.” He lovingly stroked Miles’ head, and said, “There was a time when I wasn’t considered a failure, you know. Back before I met your mother. Did I ever tell you the whole story? Let me tell you today.”

The couple exchanged glances and took a seat on the couch in the study.

The old man started talking –

“21 years ago, I was a popular writer who had won several awards for my novels. I was at the top of my profession, and I was considered to be one of the most promising writers in my generation, and many people were just waiting for me to win the Nobel Prize. Those were heady days, and I’m not afraid to admit that the praise had gone to my head. There were no longer any critics in the country who dared to criticize my work, at all. So, of course I ended up thinking that my novels were perfect, and that I deserved everything I got – that it was due to me. In the midst of all this, on an evening in a bar, I met your mother. She was dazzling – not only beautiful but shining with a kind of confidence that was almost material in nature. That was the first time I had ever met a woman who left me dazed. And not only was she pretty, I had heard that she was the daughter of the owner of the most prestigious publishing house in the country and using that as her backing; she had been making a name for herself as the newest and most severe critic in town. We talked for a long time that night, about anything but work. We met up again and again for many weeks, but we never talked about anything related to work. Until one day, when I asked her to marry me and she said yes. That day, I finally asked her – what did she think about my novels? She asked me if I was prepared for the truth, and on acquiring my assent, she told me that they were lacking – in one particular way. They were lacking in experience – it seemed as if the author did not know how the characters would truly feel. Naturally, given my overwhelming success till that point, that really hit my soft spot and I almost couldn’t believe what I had heard. I stormed off in anger that night, and I didn’t meet your mother till the next day – and I told her then one simple thing. I told her – Alright. I believe you. From now on, I’ll live in this world. I’ll learn who people really are. I’ll gather my experience. And till then, I won’t waste my time with writing anymore. Do you dare to follow me? And you know what, she did.”

“But Dad, you really just left writing? And ended up handling an old store in the market? Didn’t you ever think of going back?”

“Who said I never planned to go back? As a matter of fact, I had always planned to go back after I got enough experience, but I decided against it 5 years ago.”

“5 years ago … when mother died?”

“Exactly. She told me something when she was dying, you know. Something very important. She told me – it never mattered to me whether you were a shopkeeper or a best-selling author. All I wanted for you was to make sure you lived in the world, to make sure you were true to yourself. That garbage that works in the market isn’t what you were meant to write and you know it. I just wanted you to know – if you write the true stories you’ve always wanted to write one day, even if the whole world does not accept them, I will. Because you’ll be writing what you want to write, not what panders to anyone else. So, I’ll be watching over you, Jack. Don’t let me down, okay? After that, how was I supposed to start writing again?”

At this point, the old man seemed to be slightly choked up, Jane was already sobbing, silently and even Dave looked solemn.

“So, my dear daughter, that’s why I’ve never published again – yet. My stories that I tell Miles are the real ones I want to tell, you see. But as a matter of fact, I have a book that I’ve written – this time a true reflection of my writing – that will be published in a few days. You can read that if you want. But this whole story was actually just me giving you a reason to not keep Miles from me, really. I just wanted to tell you that failure isn’t decided by the world. It’s only decided by the person who failed. To me, the days when I was successful in the eyes of the world was when I was the biggest failure in the world. And today, when I can truly express myself in my writing, when I can live free and happily – is when I’m really a success. I only wish your mother were still here to see this day, that would have made it perfect. But she’s still looking out for me from above, so she’s always near me.”

Dave, who had been quiet all this while, suddenly spoke, “Success and failure aren’t decided by the world, but by the person themselves huh… Father-in-law, if you can just teach Miles that in all the time he spends with you, I believe he’ll be forever indebted to you. We spoke unnecessarily, please forgive us. Could he stay here tonight? Jane and I will go out for dinner instead.”

“Alright, no problem. I’ll take care of him. You kids have fun.”

Jane and Dave left the house quietly, and Dave told his wife quietly, “Your father is a brilliant man. And your mother must have been even more brilliant.”

Jane said, “I’ve only just realised it myself. And to spend the years looking down on them…” She sighed. “Let’s just go, Dave. Miles should be lucky to interact with him more.”

Academic Discourse

In Henri Simon LePrince, everyone considers the protagonist to be a failure. He is a “failed writer, barely scraping a living in the Paris gutter press, and his stories and poems (which the bad poets regard as bad and the good ones don’t even read) are published in provincial magazines.” (Bolaño 23) His manuscripts are always rejected, and even on getting chances of being successful, such as when he is approached by the collaborationists (Bolaño 24), he refuses to go along with their wishes and does as he feels is right. Similarly, in my story, the old man was once a bright star in the writing world, but just because he was not following what he truly felt was right, he gave up on his success on listening to his wife. Both my story and Bolaño’s seem to suggest that failure is also an important option, especially when you choose it. As long as you can be true to yourself, then failure and success is not left to the world to decide, but only to yourself.

Similarly, the young lady novelist in Henri Simon LePrince told the protagonist that if he was to just avoid showing his character, his personality in his writing, which in her words had something which “most people find repellent.” LePrince agrees that that would indeed be the solution, but also knows he would not follow it. (Bolaño 30) Similarly, for several years, the old man in the above story had been writing for the market, instead of letting himself show in his work which was the cause of his popularity. In his case, his wife persuaded him to go on the same path as LePrince in a way, to express himself through his writing. Thus, both stories have a protagonist following a path of writing, and a lady who tries to persuade them to change that path. But both protagonists end up walking on the path of letting themselves show through their writing by writing what they want to write. Thus, it can be inferred that a meaning of the way of being a writer is to write what you want, and to freely express yourself through that writing.

The role the women played in the stories is also worth discussing. In Bolaño’s story, the young lady novelist is trying to convince Henri to work according to the writers and the editors, and to hide his own self and avoid showing it through his writing since his self is somehow repellent to other people. It seems as if she also fell in love with Henri. He trusts that it is indeed a solution to his problem yet refuses to change his way of thinking, instead preferring to hope that his ‘bad writing’ can also help to show which writing is truly ‘good’. In my story, the old man’s wife, who is also in love with him, is trying to convince him that his writing does not have a reflection of himself, that it is not what he truly wants to write. She tells him that his work is popular because it is based on what the market finds to be good. But she wants him to turn to the path of a writer where he can freely express himself through his writing. He believes her, and spends many years simply living life, experiencing its vicissitudes in order to gain enough depth of experience and character to write interesting stories with a reflection of himself on them. Both these female characters are in love with the male protagonists and are trying to help them by convincing them to change their paths, yet the young lady fails and the old man’s wife succeeds. You can also draw upon this to say that free expression of one’s character through one’s writing is the true path of being a writer.

Both the avoidance of failure and becoming a true writer are easily achievable through the simple goal of being true to oneself. If one is true to oneself, one can reach upon the path of being a real writer, freely expressing one’s character and experiences through one’s writing. At the same time, it also allows one to realise that success and failure should not be measured as per the material terms of the world, but rather according to one’s own feelings. In fact, when it comes to being a writer, failure only means failing to be true to oneself. Thus, both these questions really have the same answer – to be true to one’s own feelings and express them freely.



















Works Cited

Bolaño, Robert. “Henri Simon LePrince. Last Evenings on Earth. Translated by Chris Andrews, Vintage-Random House, 2008.