The poor smelled, and there was nothing to be done about it.  “Middle-class people believe that the working class are dirty,” George Orwell recalled, “and, what is worse, that they are somehow inherently dirty.”  His childhood nightmare was having to drink from a vessel touched by the lips of a presumed social inferior.

I had never known that kind of handicap.  I felt quite at home in seedier, seamier company than would suit most people I knew.  Dirt did not bother me in the slightest.  Very likely, a socialist would credit the environment into which I had been born—a Moscow literary milieu that was allowed the privilege of following the precepts of an aristocratic culture leveled half a century earlier—for the fact that, even as an adult, I could go for weeks without a bath, that I did not feel the need to trim my toenails or to cut my hair, and that, to this day, it would not occur to me to mind about drinking from somebody else’s beer mug, even if the somebody in question had neither teeth nor a title.  The aristocracy in Russia, insulated from the front-lawn barbecue of bourgeois attitudes by the veranda glass of autarchic backwardness for much longer in the day than its counterparts in Britain and elsewhere on the Continent, did not feel that the lower classes smelled.  It was the middle classes that smelled, and it was precisely this olfactory disturbance that social barriers, though rendered ever more permeable by historically known events, had been raised to keep down.  If the peasant girl smelled like anything in Tolstoy, it was freshly churned butter, or wild strawberries, or, at worst, laundry starch.  And if the streetwalker in Dostoyevsky was ever dirty, she was bound to be cleaner than any of her clients.

I had never used a fish knife in the 48 years just recently computed.  I did not mind whether the bottle on the table held whisky, vodka, or cognac.  I left neither core nor seed when I ate an apple or a pear, and the heavenly Beatrice, l’Amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle, of my life had been a prostitute who was working flats when we met, only a grade or two above streetwalker in the hierarchy of vice in turn-of-the-century London.  Evidence of this kind, I felt, made me an exception among the exceptions, these last belonging to the category of educated, well-adjusted, and otherwise normal people set apart from the rest by their unwillingness to work—that is, to earn a living in any conventional sense.

Orwell, who is ever on my mind as the model of what a man of letters can achieve if only he quarrels with all his friends, was actually quite a prolific writer.  Perhaps industry, like squeamishness, had been, from the start, a part of his class-conditioning.  Yet in the end, he overcame this too, and became cognizant of the absurdity, first remarked upon by Mark Twain for the edification of an earlier generation, of positing any formal distinction between work and play:

Is it work to dig, to carpenter, to plant trees, to fell trees, to ride, to fish, to hunt, to feed chickens, to play the piano, to take photographs, to build a house, to cook, to sew, to trim hats, to mend motor bicycles?  All of these things are work to somebody, and all of them are play to somebody.

Hence, when I speak of earning a living in any conventional sense, I skirt over the whole issue.  The narrow category of people I refer to as the exceptions may be said to be engaged in lifelong play simply on the basis of their income-tax returns, in that, whether they take photographs or feed chickens, none of them has ever earned very much money doing it.

So, in a world peopled by ants, I saw myself as the maverick grasshopper.  It may be remembered that the emotional pintle upon which the plot of Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge turns is the hero’s refusal to get a proper job—or, at any rate, a job his fiancée would deem proper enough for him, and his decision to go east, there to drink green tea with turbaned charlatans and to assert his individuality in a myriad other ways irritating to her and deeply puzzling to their social circle.  But, as grasshoppers go, Maugham’s nonconformist seems to have been something of a Johnny-come-lately.  The largest sum I earned as a writer—less than what I would later stake at roulette in a single evening—was the modest advance from a kind publisher for an autobiography I had written while in my 30’s.  There are different ways in which people want to please, or at least not to disappoint, their peers, their parents, and the women they hope to marry one day.

Vaudeville, which, unlike literature, is concerned with rules rather than exceptions within the human ant heap, would have us believe that there are two invariant types of man vying at any one moment for the hand of every desirable woman.  One is the broadly positive, respectable type, a gentleman through and through, or so he seems, a model of the usual bourgeois virtues.  Usually, he is the one with a somber necktie on weekdays and a cabled crewneck on weekends, the one who kisses the girl good night on the doorstep, the one who meets with her parents’ approval; and it is no coincidence that he is in full-time employment.  He lives like the rest.  The other type is the handsome bounder, who emerges as an abrasive dreamer, an abusive hankerer after the higher truths, a transvaluer of values with an apparent tendency to self-destruction.  His manner is direct; his dress, proletarian; and it is no coincidence that, like Maugham’s Larry, he is jobless.  He lives, you see, on the razor’s edge.

The dark horse of the vaudeville naysayer turns out to be a winner and in the end gets the trophy, while his rival, the vaudeville gentleman—weak, cowardly, hidebound—is edged off his pedestal of eligibility by the exigencies of plot to which he is often comically unequal.   But, as I said, insofar as it hopes to decipher even the lowest and most trifling truths of life, literature must break away from vaudeville and draw on the exceptions.  And my observation of this very lifelike and real triangle suggests that, of the two men vying for the hand of the desirable woman, neither is typically in full-time employment.  If anything, the woman is.