Apr 152011

Re-reading Valery Larbaud’s essays, I was reminded of “Consolation”, a prose poem by the Londoner writer Logan Pearsall Smith:

The other day, depressed on the Underground, I tried to cheer myself by thinking over the joys of our human lot. But there wasn’t one of them for which I seemed to care a hang–not Wine, nor Friendship, nor Eating, nor Making Love, nor the Consciousness of Virtue. Was it worthwhile then going up in a lift into a world that had nothing less trite to offer?  Then I thought of reading–the nice and subtle happiness of reading. This was enough, this joy not dulled by Age, this polite and unpunished vice, this selfish, serene, life-long intoxication.

Larbaud borrowed the expression “unpunished vice” to title his volume on Anglophone literature, a book he prefaced by an extraordinary essay on reading, on the joys and dangers of this vice / passion. I promise to attempt later some translations in upcoming posts … Since none of these essays have yet been translated in English.

Apr 042011

Yesterday I started a new project, writing again. It is always intimidating, frightening and exhilarating at the same time. Intimidating, because suddenly I am not sure how to handle it, how to start, and I rewrite the first sentence about twelve times, until I finally decide that I should write the second and the third and come back later to that first one, or I’ll never move on. The reality is that what is first today will almost for sure not be in two years, when I’ll get closer to the finish line. I may change the sentence, or more likely paragraphs will get shifted around, and this idea/fact only appear on page two or three, if at all. But if you are not sure how to proceed, hanging on those first words feels good, it feels like you are working, a good reason not to forge ahead: the first sentence is shaky, I need to make it sound, forceful, attractive, to retain, on those few syllables my reader. Well, I’m not writing fiction, and even if I would love to see on the page some of my best writing, my readers will be holding to the book mostly because of its subject, not because of me. So if indeed I need to encourage them in their endeavor, to not scare them away with wobbly sentences and cloudy arguments, my opening is not as vital as it would be if I was a novelist.
Intimidated, I’m also frightened. And this time not by details of style, but by the ‘big picture’: will I be able to carry on this work? How am I going to gather all the material I need? Organize it and present it?  Fit it in a form and with a tone that not only satisfy me but also the reader? One of the challenges I’ve always faced writing biographies is keeping some balance, presenting my vision, my interpretation of my subject without obstructing the view, without prohibiting other interpretations. What is difficult is to defend without arguing, to defend without appearing too partisan. And the balance is essential if I want my work to be taken seriously: an obviously biased work will discourage readers and disqualify the author (i.e.me…).
But it is also exhilarating: to tackle new materials, to enter a new world and pick up the writing where I have left it, about a year ago, when completing the preceding biography… And that’s why, despite all the obstacles, hurdles, headaches and heartaches, I keep doing it. And the Anne Sexton quote that appeared on so many literary blogs last week seems resonates deeply: “When I am writing, I am doing the thing I was meant to do.”