The writing life, p.1
The Writing Life,
About the Book
What does it mean to be a writer?
Where does writing begin? Is there a writing self that is different from the visible and public self? What are the writer’s responsibilities – to his work, to himself, to the world he is part of? From Henry James and Dickens to Patrick White and Christina Stead, from Shakespeare and Charlotte Brontë to Thomas Mann and Proust, David Malouf offers us a writer’s reading of some of our best-loved writers that will send us back, with renewed insight and pleasure, to Jane Eyre, Kipling, Kafka, and of course to the works of David Malouf himself.
About the Book
Writer and Reader
When the Writer Speaks
‘The Most Beautiful and Purest Mirror’
The Art of Love
A Company of Egos
Reading the Signs: Jane Eyre
‘Drift, Wait, and Obey’: Kipling and the Great Game
Marcel Proust – The Book
Proust’s Belles Lettres
The Middle Parts of Fortune – Her Privates We
The Quick of Things: Lawrence and Walt Whitman
Perilous Tension: The Young Desire It
Les Murray: Lunch and Counter Lunch
The Book of Saints: Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot
Christina Stead at Eighty
Timon in Centennial Park
Escaping the Circle of Hell
A Last Fling
Index of Searchable Terms
About the Author
Also by David Malouf
Loved the book?
For Deborah Rogers
The pieces in this collection were produced over a period of more than forty years, some of them as articles and reviews in newspapers or magazines, others as public addresses, others again as formal introductions to classic texts. I am grateful to my various literary editors, George Munster, Paul Carter, Peter Craven and Michael Heyward, Shelley Gare and Luke Slattery, James Ley, and to the commissioning editors of the Oxford Classics, New York Review Books, the Modern Library, the Folio Society and Text. I should also thank Meredith Curnow and Patrick Mangan at Random House Australia for the care and attention they have given to bringing these pieces together so that they speak to one another in what for the reader, I hope, will be an engaging conversation.
I have dedicated the collection, with great affection, to my agent, Deborah Rogers, who died earlier this year.
WRITER AND READER
AS WE COME TOGETHER this Sunday morning at the opening of yet another Adelaide Festival Writers Week, the 22nd now in a long biennial series, it is worth asking what it is that draws so many of us back, and has done over such a long period. What do we expect of it? What do we get out of it? What should we get? And what do we mean by ‘we’?
Well, writers, of course, but even more essential to the event are readers, and we are all first and foremost readers.
But let’s begin with the writers – those among us who find ourselves here because we write and publish books.
If you glance about you’ll recognise the writers among you from the photographs on the back of their books. You’ll also see, beyond that, what you know of them, or think you know, from what you’ve discovered between the covers of those books; from the worlds they have created, and seduced you into entering and making your own as you follow the lure of their voice.
But already there we are talking about two different aspects of the writer. On the one hand there’s the writer you see sitting over there to the left or hanging about, drink in hand, at the edge of the tent, actually present in the flesh. Who can be stared at or engaged in talk, and who, when he talks back, has opinions, some of them not at all what you might have predicted. He’s been brought here in fact to do just that: to present himself through talk. He’s a fair bit heavier than you imagined, and shorter, and older. She’s changed her hairstyle from her last photograph. He’s a bit distant – you’re prepared to be generous and put it down to jetlag. She’s overbright. Too eager to be liked. Already you’ve begun to adjust a little the image you’ve formed from the voice on the page. (In fact, the voice too is different from the one you heard in your head. That accent!) Because that other, imagined version of the writer is one you have made up out of your reading; out of the close relationship that has grown up over the long hours of your being closeted together, sometimes in bed, and from the special intimacy that develops between the writer’s writing-self and your reading-self as you let him lead you deep into the world he is opening up; as he makes you a secret sharer in an experience that is like nothing else you have ever known. And now here he is! The man behind the voice.
Well, not quite. In fact, not at all.
As every writer knows, there’s a gap, a mysterious and sometimes disturbing one, between the writer’s daily self, his walking and talking self – the one who goes shopping or to the pub, the lover, father, ex-Marxist or lapsed Catholic who out of conscience, or as a good citizen, belongs to Amnesty International and subscribes to the Smith Family, who speaks up for the poorest and weakest among us, and against the shabby evasions of men in public office – the mistreatment, say, of refugees – and the self that gets the writing done. As there may be a difference – but I’ll come back to that in just a moment – between you, each one of you, and that other agency in us that I referred to as the reading-self.
Henry James, who thought a good deal about every aspect of the writing life, and especially of the mysterious relationship between the writing-self and what I’ve called the walking and talking self, dramatises all this very brilliantly in one of his late short stories, ‘The Private Life’.
During a house party at a Swiss hotel, the narrator is sent upstairs by an actress friend to fetch a manuscript from the room of a writer, Clare Vawdrey, who is engaged in writing a stage-piece for her. When he gets to the door of the writer’s room, and knocks and enters, he is astonished to see that the desk is occupied by the writer himself, who is sitting quietly at work there in the dark. Astonished because he has just left Vawdrey, who is a very sociable character – ‘loud and cheerful and copious’ is how the narrator puts it – on the terrace below. When he tells his friend next day of this strange apparition, she asks what it looked like.
‘It looked like the author of Vawdrey’s admirable works,’ he tells her. ‘It looked infinitely more like him than our friend himself does.’
‘Do you mean it was somebody he gets to do them?’
‘Yes. While he dines below and disappoints you.’
‘Disappoints me, disappoints everyone who looks in him for the genius that created the pages they adore.’
What the narrator of ‘The Private Life’ has discovered is an explanation at last for the gap he has always felt between the impression Vawdrey makes, his social self, which is entertaining enough but conventional – his opinions, the narrator tells us, are ‘sound but second-rate’ – and the admirable works.
The social self is a front, a ‘dissimulation’ the narrator calls it. Cover. Behind which the real writer can hide. The writer is two different people. One sits below, keeping the company ‘spellbound with talk’; the other is a creature of solitude, of the inner life, sitting quietly upstairs and working in the dark.
Of course it is the writer’s daily self that lives the life and has the original experiences. But it is some other agency in him, wha
The truth is that it is the writing that shapes and leads the writer, not the other way round. The writing-self grows out of the writing and grows with it – that is what we ought to mean by a writer’s ‘development’ – and a good deal of all this has to do with the creative action of language itself, though by language I mean something very different from the words a writer may have at his disposal for talk.
Dr Johnson tells us of his friend Oliver Goldsmith that he ‘wrote like an angel and spoke like Poor Poll’. He was describing an exaggerated case of what I think is general: the gap between writing and talk, but even more the gap between the language of writing and the language of talk.
In talk, language is at the service of what needs to be said. In writing, language is an active agent in what gets said. That is why writers are so wary of talk. They know that if you allow what wants to get written, what needs to get written, to be expressed in the serviceable language of talk, the writing will not happen. Talk will already have moved in and done the job, blocked out forever what the writing, in its own more hesitant way, was about to reveal.
So what does all that say about occasions like this? That the writer cannot come out and present the writing-self, or that he can do it only in a teasing and unsatisfactory way. Partly because his own relationship to it is teasing and mysterious, but also because he does not need to. It has already presented itself on the page. The most he had to do is, in the vice-regal sense, represent it, well or badly. The best we can hope for is that when we listen to a writer reading we may catch, somewhere in the timbre of his voice, in an unusual emphasis or catch of breath, a reaffirming echo of what we have already apprehended from the page, and then go back to the page for the real thing.
So suppose we try rethinking the whole thing and consider this as a Readers Week; as an occasion where what readers come to discover is something about themselves and one another. To look about, for example, and see who it is that a particular writer has drawn together as a company; who it is that constitutes the scattered and, to the writer, unknown band, large or small, of his readers; those who, in reading, have had drawn out of them by the writing something particular and unique that tells them more clearly who they are. Mightn’t we, as readers, in looking about at these others who make up that company, discover something about our own reading-self? What engages and interests it. What moves and delights it.
Reading is such a solitary activity: we can only fully respond to a book, enter into its world and allow it to uncover itself to us, by an act of the solitary self. That is why the relationship between the reader and the writer, as he exists on the page, is so intimate, so individual. But it is an experience we share with others, a whole invisible company, whose reading-selves have led them in the same direction and to the same page.
This reading-self is enticed by reading, and subtly drawn out of itself. In revealing to us the shape of our feelings, the possible life that is in the world around us, by leading us into new worlds of the imagination, what we read reshapes and changes us. What it leads us to is a future self; a self of growing perception and more complex understanding; one that is more open, more imaginative, less judgemental than our walking and talking self; one that sees in a larger way what the world might be and our own life in it. It is a self that can rise to the privilege of being the intimate, and equal, of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Emily Brontë, Conrad, or any other writer we put ourselves, for a time, in close and challenging contact with.
Of course not all reading is of the same kind. Some reading is serious – that is, fully engaging – most reading is not. But there are books out there that in the reading of them create a richer self in us, and there exists in us this other, reading-self that is sought out by such books and appealed to, worked on, recreated; a reading-self that is not merely passively fed but which demands nourishment so that it, in turn, can nourish us.
Opening Address, Adelaide Festival
Writers Week, 2006
What is it, and how do we come by it?
‘EXPERIENCE DOES IT,’ Mrs Micawber tells the ten-year-old David in a tearfully confidential moment in Dickens’ David Copperfield – or, to give it its full title, The History and Experience of David Copperfield the Younger.
Mrs Micawber is quoting her ‘dear papa’, and as usual she gets it wrong. The sober and abstract experientia docet of the Latin, which might be rendered as ‘we establish a truth by testing it’, crosses the cultural barrier in poor faded Mrs Micawber’s creative mishearing, as a recognition, very English and down-to-earth, of the way Life, that hard task-master, takes us by the scruff of the neck and shakes into even the most wilfully resistant of us an understanding of what it is and can do. When all the teaching and preaching and thinking and theorising in the world has failed to knock sense into our head, experience does it.
Goethe, who had a vast appetite for life, for adventures of the mind, and of the eye and heart, recommended that we should throw ourselves into experience as into an element like the sea. Generations of romantics, from Rimbaud and his contemporaries in the 1880s to the Beat poets of the 1950s and the rock-and-rollers and hippies of the 1960s, for whom intensity was all and risk served only to increase it, leapt at his advice, and a good number of them, as he warned, broke their necks. Not everyone is possessed of a Goethe’s boundless vitality, his rigour and rude health and resilience.
So what is experience and how do we come by it? How much of what we experience is direct, the impinging on our senses of actual objects, phenomena, events, and how much comes in a more oblique and subliminal way? In flashes of intuition or insight. As glimpses of a reality we had not known we had hit upon till it was there in our head. Glimpses we get while we are ‘looking away’. Or from whatever other-world we are in when we are asleep and dreaming, or awake and dreaming, or when our mind is idling through a task like ironing, or weeding the garden or writing; or when we are absorbed in the wordless, thoughtless, unbodied world of music.
There is a moment early on in David Copperfield when young David, on one of his visits to the Micawbers in the King’s Bench Prison, is sent upstairs to borrow a knife and fork from another inmate, Captain Hopkins. When he comes away it is with more than he was sent for:
Captain Hopkins lent me the knife and fork with compliments to Mrs Micawber. There was a very dirty lady in his room and two wan girls, his daughters with shock heads of hair. I thought it was better to borrow Captain Hopkins’ knife and fork than Captain Hopkins’ comb. The Captain himself was in the last extremity of shabbiness, with large whiskers, and an old brown greatcoat with no other coat below it. I saw his bed rolled up in a corner; and what plates and dishes and pots he had, on a shelf; and divined (God knows how) that though the two girls with shock heads were Captain Hopkins’ children, the dirty lady was not married to Captain Hopkins. My timid station on the threshold was not occupied more than a couple of minutes at the most; but I came down again with all this in my knowledge, as surely as the knife and fork were in my hand.
This is an exemplary passage. Everything in it is relevant to the moment of insight or vision, to the mere glimpse that by some mysterious process (God knows how) becomes knowledge, becomes experience: the ‘threshold’ – which is not so much a crossing point to a further room as to a further mind space; the observer’s ‘timid station’ there – a state of passive receptivity in which intuition works in no time at all, ‘a couple of minutes at most’, so that what the eye records (the shock heads of the girls, the dishes and pots on the shelf) and what he ‘sees’ (that sudden apprehension) are of the same consistency, a
The older David Copperfield who is recalling this is a writer, and his younger counterpart works like the writer he will become. Writers have a particular interest in experience and how we come by what we ‘know’; how, in the light of it, we may teach ourselves to act more wisely, or more cautiously or with a greater awareness of the consequences of what we do; how to deal with what life and living does to us. In this, writers are not much different from anyone else, but because of the work they do may be more self-examining and enquiring than the average man, more inward and analytical; and none so subtle, or with a more scrupulous appreciation of the distinctions and mysteries of the business, than Henry James.
In a famous essay on The Art of Fiction, James, in accepting the proposition that ‘one must write from experience’, goes on to ask: ‘What kind of experience is intended, and where does it begin and end? Experience,’ he insists, ‘is never limited and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider’s web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue. It is the very atmosphere of the mind.’
It is important to see what James is suggesting here. Experience as he conceives it is more than an accumulation of informative occasions or interesting facts or perceptions, or of real happenings encountered by the self as it moves through place and time. It is a capacity to respond to what the world presents us with; to absorb, to register; and this capacity will be great or little according to each one of us. So he can go on, ‘When the mind is imaginative – much more when it happens to be that of a man of genius – it takes to itself the faintest hints of life, and converts the very pulses of the air into revelations.’