James Lasdun's new book provides an undiluted account of the 'rich awfulness' of being stalked, writes Malcolm Forbes
James Lasdun's latest book is a chilling, ongoing account of being stalked
Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked
In Ian McEwan's 1997 novel, Enduring Love, two men who joined forces in a failed attempt to save the life of a third are flung together a second time when one of them, still shell-shocked from the ordeal, sees the other as a means of alleviating his trauma. However, it isn't long before Jed shelves his grief and gratitude and develops new, more intense and entirely one-sided feelings of attraction towards his saviour, Joe. Jed suffers from de Clérambault's syndrome and his obsessive love turns him into a stalker. His mission is to wrest Joe from his girlfriend and his adherence to the rational world of science, and deliver him instead into his waiting arms and convert him to God's love. "Accept me, and you'll find yourself accepting God without a thought," he urges. "Show me your fury or bitterness. I won't mind. I'll never desert you. But never, never try to pretend to yourself that I do not exist."
London-born author James Lasdun found himself on the receiving end of similar delusional entreaties from one of his former creative writing students. His account of years spent as a victim of "verbal terrorism" at the hands of a woman whose obsessional love soon soured into obsessional hate is expertly chronicled in Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked - the title of one of many chilling exhortations from the countless emails Lasdun was bombarded with. The book is incredibly candid, with Lasdun's dirty washing well and truly aired, and at one juncture Lasdun justifies his warts-and-all approach: "My interest here is in presenting this case in all its rich awfulness, not in preserving my dignity."
As with Joe and Jed, everything begins fairly innocuously. "Nasreen" (Lasdun has changed all names to protect the innocent, or in this case, the guilty) is a keen student who shows remarkable literary potential. The course ends and they engage in email correspondence - he charmed by her talent, fascinated by her Iranian background and flattered by her coquettish behaviour; she, unbeknownst to him, in thrall to his literary guru status.
But when Lasdun doesn't fall for her blandishments, the content of her emails becomes hostile, mostly anti-Semitic. Lasdun admits to being "bewildered, stunned, appalled" but despite the blatant harassment and undiluted vitriol, is shocked more by the tone of her missives rather than her perverse accusations.
Her "fugue of hatred" changes key in accordance with her volatile mood-swings, the mud-slinging sliding into crazed potshots. "Boycott this man, for God's sake. He's the reason behind terrorism," she writes. Presumably for self-styled verbal terrorists, it takes one to know one.
Lasdun stops writing but keeps each email with a view to future court action. Undaunted, his erstwhile devotee ups the "asymmetric warfare". One email stands out for containing the crux of her hatred: "I will ruin him."
Nasreen changes tack by waging a smear campaign to besmirch Lasdun's reputation. Taking advantage of the anonymity and "amorphousness" of the web, she doctors his Wikipedia page, slanders him in an Amazon review and even writes directly to Lasdun's employers, both college principals and literary editors, to hysterically denounce him as "a plagiarising sexual predator".
Too canny to actually issue a death threat, Nasreen still manages to shake Lasdun by launching death wishes - "I hope your kids die". And yet despite consultations with the FBI, a NYPD detective and a private security firm (the latter offering, through careful euphemism, to break Nasreen's legs) Lasdun remains hamstrung, told that the chances of securing a conviction are slim. And so the "psychodrama" continues, unhindered, and as Lasdun becomes increasingly depressed, anxious and paranoid, he begins to believe that his stalker will triumph by sheer force of attrition.
There is a moment in Lasdun's novel Seven Lies in which the protagonist remembers being bullied in his youth, labelled "Sloth" after unwittingly describing himself as one, and when sloth-paws are graffitied around school he partly blames himself - "They were the proliferant, bitter fruit of a tree that had its roots in my own being". The attack recorded here is all too real, with Lasdun having done nothing to provoke his antagonist's ire. He has been brave to confront his demon and it is the succession of blunt truths and open-heart confessions that makes his memoir such an engrossing read. Assailed by a fresh onslaught of unabridged poison-pen letters, we flinch and share Lasdun's sense of foreboding, but as with a car crash, find ourselves unable to look away or scroll on.
However, Lasdun must have decided early on that a tale that dwelt purely on his persecution ran the risk of self-aggrandising his plight or wearing down his readers.
Therefore, spliced with the drama of his personal story is a series of gimlet-eyed reflections on various topics as diverse as madness, post 9/11 Middle Eastern politics and the more insidious, indeed injurious, latitudes afforded to us in the internet age.
"There would be the armature of the case itself," Lasdun writes, synopsising his book, "but beyond it, if I could get it right, would be a larger story woven from memories, journeys, portraits, observations - all the stray psychic material that had been drawn into orbit around the drama."
He certainly gets it right. Such tangents are richly edifying and provide welcome relief from the claustrophobia of his tribulations which, though intriguing, are ultimately variations on the same theme.
We are told of two trips Lasdun made, both journalistic assignments, one across the United States by train, the other to Jerusalem, and each takes the form of a key artery from which pulse many diverting and interlocking strands: thoughts on Palestinian refugee camps, a fresco cycle in a Provence church, "the austere regime of boarding school", DH Lawrence in New Mexico, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and even Tintin.
What's more, it is in these offshoots that we are reminded that novelist Lasdun is also a prize-winning poet: Egyptian Arabic sounds to him like "some plectrumed instrument being played with sudden, savage virtuosity"; narghiles have "long, coiling, tail-like tubes", the smoke "bubbling through the murky stomachs of water".
If there is fault to be found with the book it lies more in Lasdun the reader than Lasdun the writer. We read Nasreen's early emails and can spot the malignant germ, the clear imperfect imbalance of an unhinged mind. The tell-tale hints stick out like jagged barbs - "you love me james" and "I Google-stalked you … gain" - and yet Lasdun professes to feeling only "wary" and refuses to cut the connection.
The alarm bells don't ring loud enough when her flirting gives way to gossip and lies, and the tiny trickle of emails turns into a thick torrent, dozens per day, his gentle reproofs unable to stem the flow.
We can't see the appeal in this "fascinating friend" and become frustrated at his naivety and squandered time. When Nasreen starts a romance with an academic and forwards Lasdun their emails we have to wonder why he decides "to ignore this little undercurrent of weirdness" and not sever all links.
By the time he does stop writing it is too late. At the end of the book we learn, with amazement, "the saga has entered its fifth year". Still he is being hounded. "I will not let you go" runs the heading of one email earlier on, and it would appear she has kept her word.
This means no peace of mind for Lasdun and no cathartic release for the reader. When Lasdun says at one point that he prefers to write books that owe their existence to "an irresistible internal necessity" we realise this is one such book. Give Me Everything You Have is as compelling as it is terrifying, a book Lasdun had to write, perhaps as a way of dealing with the fact he has still not been set free.
Malcolm Forbes is a freelance essayist and reviewer.