|Throes of creation by Leonid Pasternak|
So Mac, what have you been reading lately ? Another Russian ? Another difficult Modernist ?
Not at all, I have been reading an unpublished novel written by a friend.
Ah ? was it good ?
Well, I always feel a bit awkward reviewing or commenting a work by someone I know and admire. When I don’t like his writings, I better shut up or I risk losing a friend. When I celebrate it too much, I will not come over as a trustful critic. Remember Maxime du Camp’s scathing critic on his friend Flaubert’s Temptation of Saint Anthony? Did their relation no good.
Can your friend write ?
You bet ! I am always awed by his reviews which he writes in a style I so envy. He is a keen critic too, intelligent and well read. It is a rare occasion that a talented writer allows you to read an unpublished work and comment on it. One needs to grab these opportunities with both hands.
What’s it about then ?
The novel is about a guy named John Tweedy who wants to write a novel. In the introduction he is in a pub amongst friends : Desmond, June, girlfriend of Desmond, Raphael and Henry, two drinking partners. John is nursing a cut in his hand.
John is pondering the fact that he does not know what to write about. His friends gently mock him :
“Can’t do any writing now can you, or anysing else,” he said sarcastically, glancing at him with a leer.
June eyed John shrewdly. “Nothing yet?”
John shrugged, drawing the smoke deep inside his lungs, every cigarette a small consolation: not long now.
“I don’t know why you don’t just start,” she said. “Can’t be that hard, surely.”
“He has no idea about what to write,” said Raphael, turning the page. “A writer with no idea.” He snorted.
In the following lines and the first chapter we meet another John with other friends.
This John has no cut in his hand. We don’t know if this a fictional John made up by the other John, or an earlier John in an earlier life which he remembers. The pub friends in any case are not there anymore and will not reappear in the novel, they belong to another reality.
Wow, meta ! So it is a story within a story ?
Worse, it is story about a story in a story. The second John, the one with no cut in the hand, remembers other friends, travels to Greece and Morocco in earlier days, his student time and so on. In the beginning you have to flip back a few times to get your bearings but soon enough you get the hang of it. It is technically very well done. But it is written in the book : “Plot and story, the two driving forces of literature”
A book about a bloke writing a book…
It is an exercise really, a finger warming. The author says it himself : "I wrote it basically as a technical exercise for myself to see what writing a novel involved. I remember I had just read Forster's Art of the Novel and was trying to apply some of the things I had learnt from it"
And so he does. Remember how Forster explains that you have to tell a story to your readers, take advantage of people’s primitive curiosity to keep their attention. Doing what Sherazade did in the 1001 nights…
But what about the story then ?
Well there is quite a lot : It is the life story of a genius writer named Mortimer, there is a murder mystery, a theft of a Matisse painting, there is love, sex ( both gay and straight ), enough to keep you busy. I guess there is also a lot of personal stuff in the novel. There always is you know. And the book mirrors this by intertwining fiction stuff with ( fictional ) biography stuff.
The story is also full of loose ends…Why did Mortimer ( who is gay ) marry ? Who killed Mortimer ? Who stole the Matisse ? Why did Mortimer stop writing serious stuff ?
But all that is part of the creation of the novel. Here is another quote out of the book : “Writing a novel is a puzzle you have set yourself and which only you can unravel”.
Written well ?
Once again, the guy writes like a dream. But the whole book, with one exception, comes over as if it is written tongue in cheek. The author is like the very smart kid at the bottom of the class who has grasped the lesson way before the others and is showing this off by making fun of the course and the teacher. The sex scenes for instance or the accents of the characters or the awkward moments between gay and non-gay characters have a comic gloss which is caused by exhibiting too much expertise…
You said with one exception…
Yes, in chapter 8, the author lets his full talent rip. It is just awesome. As a reader you are blown away. It is as if he said, enough played, lets rock and roll…really wow. I had to comb my hair again after finishing that read.
And how does it end ?
Well, right in the middle of the story, we get back to John 1, the one with the cut hand, he is still in the pub. The last line reads : John said, “I have an idea,” and finished his drink. The cut on his hand twinged as he watched them.
The whole novel we realize now, is a brainwave of a few seconds which explodes as an idea for a book in John’s mind. It has a bit of an Ambrose Bierce “occurrence at owl’s bridge” effect or Golding’s Pincher punch. The cut in the hand replaces Pincher’s boots, to squeeze the elapsed time of the novel to just a blitz of the brain. All the loose ends are there because the writer has now to set himself to work to unravel the puzzle for his readers. Well done really.
Final thought ?
Well, I liked it and the book reads like a train. There is a lot of interesting stuff about books and writers and readers and so on, stuff that appeals to me. The technical exercise in the book too, is worth studying for the Author has assimilated his Forster well and shows it off. And then there is the unbridled talent which sweeps through that chapter 8, which stuns you. Imagine that this writer would find his Karamazov subject…