On Matters That Matter

The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones

To Write Or Not To Write

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Victor Hugo once said: “If a writer wrote merely for his time, I would have to break my pen and throw it away.” Great novels are not dated in any essential sense as they capture the timeless human condition and longevity is the ultimate test for them. A vexing question for writers is as to why they write and what they seek to achieve via writing. In this post I’ll take some authors and present their views on the writing process and elaborate on how they look at what they do.

J.D. Salinger in a 1974 telephonic interview given to the New York Times from his home in Cornish, New Hampshire, said: “There is a marvellous peace in not publishing. It’s peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”

When he gave the interview it was about nine-and-a-half years since he had published his last novella ‘Hapworth 16, 1924’ in The New Yorker magazine in June 1965. The interview in 1974 was also his first since 1953, when he gave one to a 16-year-old girl of a high school newspaper in Cornish.

Salinger, who died aged 91 in January this year, blasted his way to literary fame and cult-like devotion with the 1951 publication of The Catcher in the Rye. “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” That’s how the frenetic three-day account around Christmas of Holden Caulfield began in the modern epic that is the benchmark against which all coming-of-age novels are measured.

Salinger remained a unique celebrity after the novel in the sense that his absence from public life further fuelled the curiosity around his life and works. Salinger was an extremely private man and after Catcher he devoted himself to creating fiction that centred on religion and ‘exposed the spiritual hollowness’ in American society (from http://www.deadcaulfields.com/; a website dedicated to the life and works of Salinger). To this end he collected characters from his early stories and bound them together into a single family—the Glass family. He described the family of seven children and their parents Les and Bessie Glass as ‘settlers in twentieth century New York.’

Salinger said: “I think writing is a hard life. But it’s brought me enough happiness that I don’t think I’d ever deliberately dissuade anybody (if he had talent) from taking it up. The compensations are few, but when they come, if they come, they’re very beautiful.”

In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting the Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera discusses graphomania (a mania for writing books). The author recounts his encounter with a garrulous taxi-driver in Paris. The driver has chronic insomnia (Has had it since the war when he was a sailor and his ship sank. He swam three days and three nights before being rescued). In his extra time he writes and is working on a book about his experiences.

‘“Are you writing it for your children? As a family chronicle?’

He chuckled bitterly: ‘For my children? They’re not interested in that. I’m writing a book. I think it could help a lot of people.’

That conversation with the taxi driver suddenly made clear to me the essence of the writer’s occupation. We write books because our children aren’t interested in us. We address ourselves to an anonymous world because our wives plug their ears when we speak to them.

You might say that the taxi driver is not a writer but a graphomaniac. So we need to be precise about our concepts. A woman who writes her lover four letters a day is not a graphomaniac. She is a lover. But my friend who makes photocopies of his love letters to publish them someday is a graphomaniac. Graphomania is not a desire to write letters, personal diaries, or family chronicles (to write for oneself or one’s close relations) but a desire to write books (to have a public of unknown readers).”

This is another quote by Kundera: “The irresistible proliferation of graphomania shows me that everyone without exception bears a potential writer within him, so that the entire human species has good reason to go down into the streets and shout: we are all writers! For everyone is pained by the thought of disappearing, unheard and unseen, into an indifferent universe, and because of that everyone wants, while there is still time, to turn himself into a universe of words. One morning (and it will be soon), when everyone wakes up as a writer, the age of universal deafness and incomprehension will have arrived.”

In the afterword of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a novel that unfolds on a summer motorcycle trip undertaken by a father and his son and becomes ‘a personal and philosophical odyssey into fundamental questions on how to live’ author Robert M. Pirsig says: “Certainly no one could have predicted what has happened. Back then, after 121 others had turned this book down, one lone editor offered a standard $3,000 advance. He said the book forced him to decide what he was in publishing for, and added that although this was almost certainly the last payment, I shouldn’t be discouraged. Money wasn’t the point with a book like this.

That was true. But then came publication day, astonishing reviews, best-seller status, magazine interviews, radio and TV interviews, movie offers, foreign publications, endless offers to speak, and fan mail… week after week, month after month. The letters have been full of questions: Why? How did this happen? What is missing here? What was your motive? There’s a sort of frustrated tone. They know there’s more to this book than meets the eye. They want to hear all.

There really hasn’t been any ‘all’ to tell. There were no deep manipulative ulterior motives. Writing it seemed to have higher quality than not writing it, that was all.”

The last author that I want to consider in order to approach the writing process is the 2006 Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk. I discovered Pamuk late and was blown away by My Name is Red. The novel is set in Istanbul in the late 1590s. The Ottoman Sultan commissions a great book: a celebration of his life and his empire, to be illuminated by the best miniaturists of the day. The novel opens with the murder of one of the artists and the mystery behind it sustains the pace and some of the tension in the plot. However, the murder is the backdrop from where the author enters into a meditation on art, love, artistic devotion and the conflict between East and West.

My Name is Red is a first person narrative; the titles of the chapters tell you who is doing the talking. It works brilliantly as you get to see how the same event is perceived by different people. The novel surgically opens and reveals the entire panorama of human relationship and motive. For instance you get to see the novel’s love story from the perspective of Black as well as Shekure (the man and the woman).

My Name is Red was translated by Erdag M. Goknar. The recent works of Orhan Pamuk are translated by Maureen Freely, a US journalist, translator, author, and professor who grew up in Turkey and now lives in England. In a review for New Statesman Freely said of My Name is Red: “More than any other book I can think of, it captures not just Istanbul’s past and present contradictions, but also its terrible, timeless beauty. It’s almost perfect, in other words. All it needs is the Nobel Prize.”

Dick Davis in a review for the Times Literary Supplement wrote: “Heartbreakingly persuasive… This novel is then formally brilliant, witty and about serious matters. But even this inclusive description does not really capture what I feel is the book’s true greatness, which lies in its managing to do with apparent ease what novelists have always striven for but very few achieve. It conveys in a wholly convincing manner the emotional, cerebral and physical texture of daily life, and it does so with great compassion, generosity and humanity.”

Pamuk himself has given less weight to the murder mystery and the East-West question and has called the arduous work of the miniaturist, the artist’s suffering, and his dedication to his work as the central issues of My Name is Red. The stories within the narrative of the old masters of Herat and of the great Bihzad are fascinating. Even towards the end Pamuk makes the reader marvel when Master Osman gets completely lost in admiring the illuminated pages of yesteryears and when the other miniaturists lose themselves while remembering the long days of their apprenticeship in the Sultan’s workshop. Pamuk has the gift of offering the reader any number of diversions to savour even when the tension of the plot is approaching boiling point.

‘Sirin falling in love with Husrev by looking at his picture is the best-known and most frequently illustrated story in Islamic literature’ and Pamuk uses it as a model for many scenes, gatherings, and stances in the novel. In a similar manner Pamuk sketches the character of Shekure so brilliantly that it becomes possible to fall in love with her just by reading.

In Pamuk’s words: “My book really has only one center, one heart: the kitchen! It is the place where Hayriye seeks to influence Esther the clothier with gossip and food; Shekure, too, comes downstairs to the kitchen to advance her intrigues, send off letters and notes, scold her children, and supervise the cooking. The kitchen and all that it contains are the platform on which everything stands.”

Pamuk captures the essence of a writer’s occupation in his book Other Colours: “In order to be happy I must have my daily dose of literature. In this I am no different from the patient who must take a spoon of medicine each day. …To read a dense, deep passage in a novel, to enter into that world and believe it to be true—nothing makes me happier, nothing more surely binds me to life. …If my daily dose of literature is something I myself am writing, it’s all very different. Because for those who share my affliction, the best cure of all, and the greatest source of happiness, is to write a good half page every day. For thirty years I’ve spent an average of 10 hours a day alone in a room, sitting at my desk. If you count only the work that is good enough to be published, my daily average is a good deal less than half a page.

…But please don’t misunderstand me: A writer who is as dependent on literature as I am can never be so superficial as to find happiness in the beauty of the books he has already written, nor can he congratulate himself on their number or what these books achieved. Literature does not allow such a writer to pretend to save the world; rather, it gives him a chance to save the day. And all days are difficult. Days are especially difficult when you don’t do any writing. When you cannot do any writing. The point is to find enough hope to get through the day, and, if the book or the page you are reading is good, to find joy in it, and happiness, if only for a day.”

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