Lives of the Civil Servants: The Choices We Make

Jesse Browner


We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come. —Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being


had an unfortunate physical reaction to an article I read last summer in the Nation. The essay, by Scott Sherman, was an overview of the life and work of British novelist and critic Geoff Dyer, a writer whose work I greatly admire. I began to read with gusto, but I was only a paragraph or two into it when I started to feel sick. I thought at first that it must have been something I’d had for lunch. I pressed on. The essay begins with a portrait of an artist who has, against all odds, succeeded in living out his youthful fantasy of a carefree bohemian existence, unburdened by responsibility or specialization, and has been rewarded with fame, glamour, and the admiration of his peers. Apparently Dyer has found a way to live as free as a butterfly, and get paid to do so. Sherman keeps pounding on the word “freedom” as if it were a stubborn nail: “freedom to write what he pleases…freedom to ridicule academia, freedom to travel the world.” My head began to ache as it slowly dawned on me that my rising nausea had been brought on not by something I’d eaten, but rather by something I’d read. This was confirmed when Sherman quoted Dyer boasting, “As I grew older I came increasingly to feel that my working life should be virtually synonymous with living my life as I wanted.” My cheeks burned; my head swam. I felt as if I had been called out and publicly slapped in the face.

Few novelists set out aspiring to a career in the civil service. I was no exception. At twenty-two (roughly the same age as Dyer when he read the William Hazlitt essay that inspired his life of flânerie), I was safely ensconced on the Lower East Side in Manhattan, living out the full-blown bohemian template in a $180-a-month tenement apartment on East Twelfth Street. I scraped together a living reading manuscripts and screenplays and writing synopses for a talent agency, rarely working more than three or four hours a day. I spent the rest of the daylight hours translating French literature and writing fiction. My best friend and roommate distilled absinthe in the bathtub, which we broke out once a year at riotous all-night readings of René Daumal’s A Night of Serious Drinking. I roamed the streets of Alphabet City after midnight with my friends—dancers, poets, musicians, and directors—cadging free drinks and blackened bluefish from the waiters and bartenders we knew in every dive. (And they were real dives in those days.) It was the life I presumed I was born to live, and there was no reason to assume it need ever come to an end.

But then one day I met a guy at a party who did some freelance work for a large international organization. He said the work was easy and remunerative, and that freelancers were often paid a full day’s wage just to wait around for two or three hours for something to happen. It sounded right up my alley; I sat for an interview, passed an informal translation-editing test, and went to work. Everything I’d been told turned out to be true: While at times there was serious, challenging, and very interesting work to do, at others I could show up at the office, read or write the morning away, and be sent home with a handsome paycheck. I did this very happily for two years as I wrote what would become my first published novel.

And then the organization I worked for offered a competitive international exam for a staff position in my office; it was the first time such an exam had been given in ten years, and would probably be the last for many more. There was no reason not to take it. More than six hundred vetted candidates sat simultaneously for the exam in New York City, London, Nairobi, Bangkok, and, I think, Lima, Peru. Since the job is one that essentially exists nowhere else but at that particular organization, my two years’ experience gave me a superlative advantage; I aced the exam and was offered a job from which I could never be fired. I took it.

In the beginning, it was everything I’d hoped for—almost an old-fashioned sinecure of the kind you read about in Chekhov. With the exception of ten very busy weeks a year, I worked no more than a few hours a day and then went home to write. And they paid me much better than anyone with my qualifications had any right to expect! But over the course of the following decade, for a variety of reasons that I won’t get into, my workload gradually but inexorably increased, to the point where it is now full-time all the time. It happened so imperceptibly, however, that I was like the proverbial frog in the pot of slowly heating water. By the time it dawned on me that I was no longer a writer with an interesting part-time job but a full-time civil servant who wrote in his spare time, it was too late to jump the pot. I had two children, a nanny, a mortgage, and an old- fashioned pension waiting for me down the road. It was safe to say that the days of absinthe and Daumal were behind me for good.

I want to state for the record that my job is in no way Dickensian. After twenty years in the civil service, I still find it daunting, intellectually rewarding, and occasionally even exhilarating. My colleagues are top-tier linguists from all over the world, each with a unique but equally sinewy story to tell, who take justifiable pride in having conquered a very competitive profession. I count myself lucky to work among them, earning a good living in an environment of tireless intellectual inquiry and international solidarity. Still, according to Scott Sherman, Geoff Dyer spends his days “wandering through Paris with a joint in one hand and a desirable woman in the other; enjoying himself on the beaches of Mexico and Thailand; reading a book on the waterfront of New Orleans; strolling through the Pushkin Museum in search of works by Gauguin; or taking the bus to Franco’s ‘Valley of the Fallen’ near Madrid.” And the reason I had felt so ill when I read this was that my gut reaction was “That could have been me! I wanted to wander, and stroll, and enjoy myself, and take buses!” But I hadn’t done any of those things. Instead, I had made a choice to live a different way and am now a civil servant with a very happy family and a dog, both of which I would be loath to give up.

It is true that I am a civil servant who recently published his fifth book; it is also true that Sherman believes that Dyer has spread himself too thin and has written only one “first-rate” book. But I take little satisfaction in any of that because I am not sure that I have written even one first-rate book, and it is just possible that I might have if I had spent a little more time wandering Paris stoned and sexually depleted, instead of getting up at four every morning to squeeze in two hours of writing before walking the dog, making breakfast for my daughters, seeing them to school, and striding briskly off to the office, where I was recently promoted to chief and where I keep a money tree on the bookshelf.

It is at this point that a more ambitious intellectual than I—someone like Dyer, actually—would begin trotting out all sorts of learned sages, from Montaigne to Lewis Hyde, to back up an eloquent and stylish apologia. The Hazlitt quote that jump-started Dyer’s wanderlust might do the trick: “I have loitered my life away, reading books, looking at pictures, going to plays, hearing, thinking, writing on what pleased me best.” But if any young writer were to ask me the best way to live and work, I would have to shrug my shoulders and say, “Don’t ask me.” As a matter of fact, the young hero of my latest novel has a favorite aphorism to which he turns at just such a moment of existential doubt: “I cannot accept myself as I am but, ultimately, I am resigned to accepting this inability to accept myself as I am.” I am not entirely sure what it means, but it sounds like something I might say to any aspiring author foolish enough to come to me for advice. (Dyer wrote that, by the way, in Out of Sheer Rage.)