Monday, 15 March 2010
Why Do I Write?
A friend of mine asked me yesterday why I was so interested in writing. The honest answer--that I eventually gave, after some empty theorizing--is that I don't know. That's one of the purposes of this blog, to arrive at a more helpful answer.
I read two books this week, which both offer up different reasons for writing. Let's see:
David Lodge-- Author, Author
David Lodge is a clear example of why I need this blog. I read a lot of his books a few years ago, and I remember loving them. What they were about, and what I liked, I have no idea.
This book is a novelist's biography of Henry James--a novelist. That makes it, somehow, both fact and fiction. Like the title doesn't really suggest, there are two authors in this book.
HJ. I've never yet read HJ, but I do intend to. Relevant to this book's plot is his inimitable but difficult prose style. Beautiful, unrealistic, and not "for the likes of us," says his loyal servant. "Them books are Literature."
As a reader, I already feel trepidation at those words. Heavy prose is not usually for the likes of me, either.
DL, the other author in this book, is the opposite, on the prose scale. Even though he interrupts his own narrative near the end, to share his thoughts on the moving end, he is very difficult to pin down in this book. It's odd, when he has written every word, he is telling me the story, and yet I don't even notice him doing it.
George Orwell said, "good prose is like a window pane." Lodge, then, writes good prose. Great prose, even. I struggled trying to figure out what it was I like so much about how he writes, until I read GO's quote while flicking through another book.
What I like about how it's written is how it doesn't seem written at all. A simple maxim, maybe, but worth repeating to myself. What I like about how it's written is that it doesn't seem written at all.
One thing I did notice the author doing is choosing which events to show, and when. When telling the story of a life (rather than a strict biography) you need to miss out a lot. It stuck out to me, because some of the things I expected to be there were glossed over or ignored. I would have liked to read about more of James' younger life--how he earned his reputation; and more of his later life--the writing of his 'great' works and his letter-burning depression; and more of his relationship with his brother.
But Lodge was right to leave these bits out. At least, what he leaves in makes for a moving and charming life, on an honest scale. The book opens and ends with James on his deathbed. His delirious mumblings lend a significance to a couple of names that surprise his secretary and servants. But we go back in time, get to know a younger James, and these friendships--Du Maurier and Fenimore-- are revealed as sweet, complex, and hugely important to the man.
The reader is in the privileged position of knowing how it will all end up, unlike the characters. James suffers as his playwright ambitions flounder again and again. He can't hide his jealousy as his far less literay friend, Du Maurier, achieves the success and money with his novel, Trilby, that James himself should deserve.
We know that Du Maurier's book has given us the name of a hat, and the phrase 'in the all together,' but is itself forgotten. James' works, often greeted by lukewarm critics, if greeted at all, are now considered classics, the original psychological novels. It's an irony that makes the sadness of the friendships in the book somehow more acute.
I'm aware that I get involved in what I read easily, and that was definitely the case here. It's a good thing, though, and I'm starting to pay attention to the mechanics of it. I'm shown characters that I slowly begin to genuinely care about, and it is slowly revealed that they genuinely care for each other. There's other stuff, but that's what it boils down to.
It wouldn't happen if I kept thinking about the author, how and what they were 'trying' to achieve. God bless clear prose, then.
And I'm not so turned off reading James, really, despite my fears about how he writes. He is Lodge's idol, and I think I can guess why. Clear prose is like a window pane, and as such, it's only as good as what it shows you. Human events, the beautiful things people think and feel about each other. James says in this novel:
"Consciousness is my religion, human consciousness. Refining it, intensifying it--and preserving it."
OK, he puts it a lot better than I did. But that's to be expected.
George Orwell-- Animal Farm
GO sticks to his own advice here. Fairy tales need the clearest prose of all. And he extends this clarity to what he writes about.
His characters are simple, but no worse for it. Thet don't have to be complicated to be involving, they are archetypes we can easily relate to. Not every story is a fairy tale, but maybe that's a good place to start?
It doesn't take long to get to know these well-named animals. Is it the opposite of the Lodge/James 'consciousness' approach? There is no complex psychology, subtly shifting relationships, or insights into the consciousness or thought habits of anybody.
The lens is drawn away, the scale is increased. The same patterns emerge on a different level: we have politics, subtly shifting principles, and insights into the inevitable corruption of power.
It's not the opposite of the consciousness approach, then but a less personal, human version of it... but I'm not sure how much I believe that. It's not true of what I got from this book, anyway, allegory or not. Listen:
"The really frightening thing about totalitariansim is not that it commits atrocities, but that it attacks the concept of objective truth: it claims to control the past as well as the future."
That's what Orwell says of this book. But that fact is not independent of the human scale, and nor does it trump it. It can only be rendered on people (and by people, I clearly mean animals.) The real sadnesses in this book are the misremembering of Snowball, through the pigs' changing of the past, and the misplaced faith and effort of Boxer, as his loyalty and honesty are exploited.
It's in these parts that the book really takes off, and makes me angry and upset with what I read. It is when Snowball's friends are slowly convinced, step by step, of his evilness, that any truth in Orwell's allegory are really driven home. Driven home, you see? Home being where it matters; home being where we feel things, on the personal scale.
I still don't know why I write. I know that clear prose that makes me forget I'm reading what somebody has written allows me to concentrate on the parts of a book that I think matter: and that these parts include good people caring about each other succesfully or otherwise.