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.”

Mar 242011

When Polly Andrews, one of the young women portrayed in The Group, is faced with a sudden and astonishing marriage proposal, she first thinks of all the reason to refuse, all the reason why this would not work. And one of her first thought is for the apparent lack of common book culture with her groom-to-be:

«What bothered her most was the thought that she and Jim had so little in common – a phrase she kept repeating anxiously to herself. Outside the hospital, they had not a single common acquaintance. And as for those old friends, the characters in books – King Arthur and Sir Lancelot and Mr Micawber and Mr Collins and Vronsky and Darling Prince Andrei, who were like members of the family – why, Jim seemed hardly to recall them. When she mentioned Dr. Lydgate tonight, he confessed he had never read Middlemarch – only Silas Marner in school, which he hated. He could not read novels, he said and he had no preference between Hector and Achilles.»

In the end, she accepts to marry Jim, and unfortunately Mary Mc Carthy ends the novel before the reader knows if Polly’s concerns were justified or not. Meanwhile, it is the first time I remember encountering the question: would my literary culture go with yours? Something to ponder, definitely…

Feb 192011

This summer, thanks to another blog, I discovered Wordle. This online program allows us to create “word clouds” from a list pasted into the generator’s window: once the cloud is generated one can apply different fonts, layouts, color scheme, and tweak it until satisfaction, and then the image can be saved as a pdf, printed, etc.. I did it with a list of words I created when starting to work on one of the projects that occupies my time right now. Why this list? Because I wanted to have an idea of the vocabulary used in a series of poems I was studying, envisioning that I could add as a constrain on my own creation the sole use of those words. I dropped that idea, keeping only the form as a working tool, but I kept the list, as it drew a world in which I had to try to imagine living. Hence my enthusiasm when I discovered Wordle, a way to visualize the words, to play with chance (we do not have any control on the way the words are arranged, nor on the size of the font for each one), and to have in front of me (literally propped up on my desk) the roots of my work. Because, if I am not going to use these words specifically, the world they point to is the one I want to decipher, and bring to verse, the visual is here a strong support to focus and think. I have to admit that I have always be fascinated by the visual representation of ideas, and always dreamed of using programs such as Mindmanager to map out my work. Unfortunately, I was never able to make it work for the kind of writing I do, and kept jotting down notes on pieces of papers strategically placed around my computer… Today I found another word cloud generator, Tagxedo, a bit more complex than Wordle but with more options to compose the cloud, and maybe more importantly more options to save it (from Wordle you can only create a pdf or print) : the image you see here was created with Tagxedo and saved as a JPG. Go ahead, try it, and create your own mental maps…