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Writing a Novel

It is June. This is what I have decided to do with my life just now. I will do this work and lead this life, the one I am leading today. Each morning the blue clock and the crocheted bedspread, the table with the Phone, the books and magazines, the Times at the door. It does not help to remember Rand Avenue in Lexington and old summer rockers still on the gray, dry planks of winter porches. A novel is always written on the day of its writing.

I begin, seeking distance, imagining or pretending to imagine thus:

She often spent the entire day in blue, limpid boredom. The caressing sting of it was, for her, like the pleasure of lemon, or of cold salt water. This lovely boredom one saw in her eyes, in those pleasant, empty, withdrawn and peering eyes—orbs in a porcelain head. At such times she looked her best, very quiet, her face harmoniously fixed, as if for an important camera. Her skinny brown cat stared at her, hardly blinking. His yellowish-gray gaze was very like her own. They looked at each other, unseeing, into a mirror of eyes, before the cat fell asleep, his lids suddenly closing, tightly, quickly, strangely. ‘That cat has been here with me for seven years and has never looked at television. They are indeed a different species,’ she thought.

Then she took a cigarette from the pocket of the smock she was wearing. She drew on it, as if it were opium; adding to the opium that was within her, the narcotic of her boredom, as we are told we carry our own heaven and hell within us. Immaculate drugs, hazy drifts of dreams, passivity pure and rich as cream.

After a dreamy day, she went into her nights. Always she insisted they were full of agitation, restlessness, torment. She was forever like one watched over the whole night in the deepest sleep, who nevertheless awakened worn, with a tremor in her hands, declaring the pains, the unutterable, absorbing drama of sleeplessness. The tossing, the racing, the battles; the captures and escapes hidden behind her oily eyelids. No one was more skillful than she in the confessions of an insomniac, in those redundant yet stirring epics, which she intoned with the dignity of ritual, her hypnotic narration like that of some folk poet ‘steeped in the oral tradition.’ ‘Finally, sleep came over me. … At last. … It was drawing near to four o’clock. The first color was in the sky. … Only to wake up suddenly, completely.’

Unsavory egotism? No—mere hope of self-definition, the heroism of description, the martyrdom of documentation. The chart of life must be brought up to date every morning. ‘Patient slept fitfully, complained of the stitches. Alarming persistence of the very symptoms for which the operation was performed. Perhaps it is only the classical aching of the stump.’ ”

An impasse. How can she, opiumstill, a dramatic star of ennui, with catlike eyes and abrupt disappearances, begin, continue? Her end is clearly too soon at hand. On the next page, verisimilitude would not be outraged to find her dead. Not smiling perhaps, as they say suicides smile, but reflective, sunk in last thoughts. Her still gaze would be downward, as if she, who knew nothing of literature, were thinking of poetry or philosophy.

Lasst uns lauten, knien, beten,
Und dem alten Gott vertaun!

Soon I abandon the languid girl. My mind is elsewhere. I have taken a journey in order to write my novel in peace. A steamy haze blurs the lines of the hills. A dirty, exhausting sky. Already the summer seems to be passing away. The boats will soon be gathered in, ferries roped to the dock.

A new scene: A short pear-shaped man came onto the stage for his lecture. He is the author of two peculiar novels, some shorter fiction of an in-between length difficult to publish, and a number of literary essays. All of his work is strikingly interesting and odd. His essays are gracefully and yet fiercely written, with the same teasing moil of metaphor found in his fiction; but of course their meaning is clearer and people are inclined to prefer them to his pure works of the imagination. His opinion is different: he feels his essays are works of the imagination but that somehow in the end they do not fully reward their hurting effort. They live and die in a day, a week at most. The orange, black, and yellow wings of opinion make a pleasant, whirring sound, dip down, soar up ward, and then disappear, their organic destiny achieved.

His mere name on the page can make you tremble if you are interested in him. Movement, agitation, somber explosion of thought and feeling—complicated learning and an aggressive, poetic style. He has no remarkable popular reputation. Only the most curious and the most alert care about him, but they care with some vehemence. He is enormously ambitious, resolute, assured, and seems not to know that he is rumpled, lumpy, looks far older than his forty-one years. His clothes are a scandal.

A pert-faced, slim wife, with very short hair, came into the hall with him. She sits down on the aisle in a row near the front, but not in the very first rows. The wife smiles a good deal and appears to be proud, but with moderation. Her smile disguises the frowning dilemma that never leaves her thoughts: the mathematical estimate of his talents, which are not precise in her mind, to be weighed against the score of his defects—acerbity, impatience—which are.

The author begins to speak of his obsession: the theoretical problems of contemporary fiction. In his life he is a man of reason, bound in his spontaneous actions and in his deliberated decisions to a loose, but genuine, reverence for cause and effect. There are times when he grows short-tempered because of the ignorance or bad character of many people. Then he angrily asserts the laws of cause and effect, and he accuses with a good deal of arrogance.

Fiction is another matter. He cannot, for us, for himself, accept a simple, linear motivation as a proper way to write novels, involve characters. He does not at all agree that if the gun is hanging on the wall in the first act it must go off before the curtain comes down. No, the ground has slipped away from causality. Muddy, gorgeously polluted tides of chaos, mutation, improvisation have rushed in to make a strewn, random beach out of what had not so long ago been a serene shore, bordering a house lot always suitable for building.

He accepts, embraces, adores the fragments of life. But he studies them with great sternness, with a clean, sharp rigidity, and in this way he puts together fictions that are new, difficult, obscure, and “really good.”

As they are going home after the lecture, his wife says to him, “Is it actually OK to write stories about writing?” She has overheard this whispered remark during the question period. Fiction about fiction—Borges, etc. The skepticism thrills her, even as it brings on a little squeezing of her heart. He must not fail, and yet she feels perversity in him, nagging withholdings, a stingy reluctance to redeem his narrative promises. For instance, he has written a story about her mother, a woman he despises. Somehow it angers the wife that her own mother, the creator of brutal emotions in the heart of the author, the vigilant, dirty-fingered, blue-haired mother has come out like a beaded purse, pure design.

Now, all writing is about writing, especially poetry,” he answers thoughtfully, without rancor. After all it is the question. His wife, he knew, read a great deal, but never willingly. She reads as you keep the store for the good of the family: his work, those he has praised and learned from, those he disapproves of seriously.

One evening they went to hear a large, handsome English poet, first-rate for a long time, his career arching from the Georgian to the very moment of his appearance. In his scattered, fascinating remarks about his own work, the poet spoke in a hospitable manner of Frost and Ransom. Later, at the reception, a student tried to approach the poet. “I didn’t know you particularly admired Frost. Wouldn’t have thought it somehow,” the young man said. “I don’t,” the poet said. “Not in the least. And Ransom only with reservation. Still if you name one, you must name two. One lone name out of a national tradition, even a dreadfully short, patchy one, is no go. Arouses suspicion, doesn’t sound genuine.” The author’s wife liked that. She has a feeling for paradox and for unfriendly appraisals.

The odd thing is that I have taken the two, husband and wife, from life, but they have come out false to their real meaning. The writer is not a fraud but a genius, a rare creature out of nowhere—actually from Shaker Heights around Cleveland, like Hart Crane. His seriousness, excellence, eccentricity stir my feelings. His wife is agreeable, sociable, but her “reality” and her lack of ostentation, her simplicity, her way of puncturing pretension are not the sly and cunning moral virtues I have made them appear. Those ideas of hers have nothing to do with literature, with the novel. Her husband rightly goes his own way.

But how is the man’s genius to be made manifest—at breakfast, making love, engaging in his ruling passion which is writing? How is his art to become real in my novel? What is a writer’s motif, his theme song, except stooped shoulders, the appalling desolation of trouser and jacket and old feet stuffed into stretched socks. And women writers, of course, interest me more since I am a woman. Remember what Sainte-Beuve said about George Sand: “A great heart, a large talent, and an enormous bottom.”

An unhappy summer, and yet not a happy subject for literature. Very hard to put the vulgar and common sufferings on paper. I use “vulgar and common.” in the sense of belonging to many, frequently, everlastingly occurring. The misery of personal relations. Nothing new there except in the telling, in the escape on the wings of adjectives. Pleasant to be pierced by the daggers at the end of paragraphs.

The phlox blooms in its faded purples; on the hillside, phallic pines. Foreigners under the arcades, in the basket shops. When you travel your great discovery is that you do not exist. I have for a long time had the idea of a sort of short-wave autobiography, one that fades in and out, local voices mixing with the mysterious static of the cadences of strangers. Truth should be heightened and falsity adorned, dressed up to look like sociable fact. Nevertheless, a memoir, a confession, is not as easy as it seems. It is not necessary for an autobiography to “have had a life”—that we accept now. Pasternak’s line: To live a life is not to cross a field. The “not” perplexes me. Life is to be seen as climbing a mountain? That we can agree to because of the awful strain of the climb and at the top many of the same wild flowers as in the field below.

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