Monday, August 08, 2005

An artist of his own life

I would not trust a writer further than I can throw a piano. Well, of course not really, mostly they seem to be charming people but today I was musing about the fact that so many writers seem to have been utter bastards in their private life (while browsing in that blessed place the "book storage" of the Student Library). Looked up Larkin and Waugh among others. Besides a compulsion to create, many artists have great personal ambition and also a certain insecurity of personality (this I idealistically associate with utter bastardhood). Above all, life is their material, friends and loved ones or bits and pieces of them may end up as text which can be a cold, offhand process for those concerned. It is such a curious profession - as a grateful member of the audience I don't protest but the price seems at times very high.

An interesting process: your life and your experience is your material and you create something out of it - what is the relation then of your art with your personal life as it is, and must be, something separate? I suppose the answer is infinitely individual, the degree of dissociation is not a constant but surely there has to be a degree of dissociation. So no perfect artists of their own lives - not if you are one... (Hmm, I wonder if the distinction is really a meaningful one - the point is polemic, a beginning of a discussion, rather than a statement of fact or reality.)

7 comments:

helsinkian said...

Separating the author from the book is an interesting issue. I've always thought that the moment you start writing fiction it's totally up to you how much of the book is true or how much it has in common with your life. Most readers don't know most writers personally, I hope - so usually you can only guess which character in a work of fiction bears resemblance to someone in real life.

Of course it is a big ethical question if a writer wants to use a character's real name or not. Still, you can write a book about yourself using your real name and the end result doesn't have to resemble reality at all. I think you're right in that authors often end up hurting others who are or think they are being portrayed in a book. Yet I can't stop admiring writers - to me a book must be worth it if it's good. If I ever came to write fiction myself, my views might become more nuanced on this matter.

I've been contemplating buying Dutch, the partly fictional yet serious political biography of Reagan. Right now I feel I wouldn't have time to read that book in a long time so I haven't bought it yet. I don't know, that's also an ethical issue, writing a biography of someone and then deciding to add a touch of fiction to make the story better. That in itself, a scholar turning the biography into a work of art, is another interesting way of writing with its own ethical problems.

stockholm slender said...

Well, to me the distinction and the connection between an artist and his/her work is very interestng. How does one relate to one's work once it's done? For non-artists it is much more uncomplicated. I am now reading Eagleton's English Novel which is quite enjoyable (although most of the failings of the novelists relate to the fact how non-marxist they happen to be...) - anyway, about several writers he mention quite interestingly that they see art as a problematic attitude to life, as a non-selfevident response to experience.

stockholm slender said...

Well, heavy going indeed: with many novels you need to reach the end of the book to get the author's intention, with James the same is true with individual sentences... The qualifications are endless and by the the time you reach the end of the sentence you have forgotten the beginning, or so, at least at the moment, he thought.

helsinkian said...

Yeah, I felt reading German helps a lot in reading Henry James. But many novelists in English write long sentences; it's all about pacing the reading. Reading small portions at a time goes pretty well. It's probably not a book to be read in one night. That's the kind of prose that is close to poetry.

stockholm slender said...

Yes, finishing a chapter is hard work but it does leave a sense high art. Still, I just wonder can these minute actions and thoughts really be so significant, so determined, can the text meaningfully hold James' vision... Not well put: I don't really know, yet, what I think of him, except that it's confused. (Dear me, qualifications abounding, is it catchy???)

helsinkian said...

I think Henry James created a world of his own. In a sense all writers do that but since his style of writing is so distinct it sets him apart from so many other authors. The Ambassadors was really quite a read and it's probably because it's one of the high points of his late career.

I have The Europeans and The Aspern Papers in my shelf waiting and I'm really curious as to how much his style changes over the years. My guess is that something similar happens with James as with the Finnish author Volter Kilpi so that the late work especially stands out from the scene. These are the kinds of authors everybody loves to talk about but reading them can be quite a challenge.

James did write in different genres. It can also be that many who like The Turn of the Screw don't necessarily like The Ambassadors and vice versa. I don't know why but I was instantly drawn to the title The Ambassadors. Somehow I think American expats even more than other nationalities stand out as ambassadors for their country. But then I never felt as Finnish as when living abroad.

stockholm slender said...

I believe that only in his late novels in the early 1900's the style was this baroque and oblique. I am often exhausted by the greatest classics, so I suppose that's a good sign then that a mere conversation in a restaurant interrupted by a dash to a jewelry store made me throughly tired though convinced that it all was very, awfully significant. In many ways I prefer middle brow novels: they don't suffocate you. Maybe should write something about Shakespeare later: Hamlet just scared me, the most real text I have ever read... He did even the breathing on reader's behalf, very terrifying!