Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Archive for March, 2009

Flaubert’s Parrot – Julian Barnes – A Review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on March 30, 2009

I have always kept away from biographical novels. This tendency to shun is especially pronounced  if the biographee is a writer. The only biographical work revolving around the life of a writer that I have read is Irving Stone‘s  “The Sailor on the Horseback” – which dealt with the life of Jack London. There are reasons for distrusting this genre of writing. Firstly, it has been my belief that biographical novels about writers can be better appreciated if and only if one is familiar with almost the entire oeuvre of the biographed writer. And in general my reading has been so limited and even within that so dispersed that I can never claim to have covered a meaningful share of the output of any known writer to appreciate the biography of that writer. Secondly, any life is so vast and so complex, that I was not willing to believe in the capability of a biography to capture this complexity in all its richness and detail. Thirdly, there has been an inclination to minimise my curiosity in a writer and countervail it with an enhanced curiosity in the written – this was driven by a belief that the latter will always be more interesting than the former. Lastly, I was also driven by the belief that biographies don’t make for entertaining reads when compared to general fiction. (Mis) guided by these reasons, I for a long while assigned a significantly lower priority to biographies on my reading lists. With the reading of Julian Barnes‘s “Flaubert’s Parrot“, – a biography of Flaubert, I have been conclusively proven wrong on all the counts

It is generally acknowledged that Flaubert is one of the key figures in western literary firmament. James Wood (considered as one of the most eminent critics in English literarture today) credits Flaubert with two important trends. Firstly, of bringing into prominence the first person indirect narrative style and secondly that of introducing the concept of flaneur –  an idle man-about-town – who does the detailed observation and narration wherever there is a need and especially in those situations when the need for authorial presence is forced to be minimal. Barnes highlights a third dimension:  Flaubert‘s pronounced impact in making the transition from romanticism to realism in fiction.  “Flaubert’s Parrot” – is the fascinating biography of this key figure

Written in the form of reminiscence of one Dr. Braithwaite – the book is full of wonderful details about Flaubert and written in an easy, lucid and humorous style. What makes the book fascinating is the meditative quality of Barnes‘s writing which not only captures Flaubert‘s life in its essence but also brings out the originality and freshness of his own thoughts and interpretation around the role of a host of peripheral aspects that surround the life of a writer e.g. critics, friends, family, life experiences, influence of other writers, political climate, personal philosophy, likes, dislikes etc. Barnes‘s quality of abstraction to present the essence and not drown the readers under a mountain of facts makes this book a superbly engaging read. As one reads through the book, one cannot but notice the great sense of reverence and love Barnes holds for his subject and the resulting thoroughness of his research. If I were forced to pick one shortcoming of the book, I would unhesitatingly say that Barnes could have dealt in more detail the third dimension that I alluded to above. For an uninitiated reader the key motivation and joy of discovery would probably also lie there

I would recommend this wonderful book not only as an introduction to Flaubert ( which indeed it was for me) but also an introduction to Julian Barnes the writer. Of Barnes large output, I have managed to read “Arthur and George” and “Cross Channel” in the past and now “Flaubert’s Parrot” — all three have been wonderfully entertaining and enriching reads

One sign of growing up is the ability to recognise past mistakes and biases and make suitable amends. I now have an altered view that well written biographies can make for thoroughly enjoyable reads. However, since one swallow does not make a summer and to test the view that biographies do make for interesting reads, I have now managed to lay my hands on Angus Wilson‘s biography of Charles Dickens viz. “The World Of Charles Dickens” –  I hope, I will be rewarded in equal measure

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The Comfort Of Strangers – Ian McEwan – A Review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on March 17, 2009

It is normally said of doctors that in their journey to becoming what they are, they have a mandatory quota of patients for sacrifice before the God of “Professional Competence”. Looks like writers too follow this path. In the case of a writer’s journey it is the valuable readers time that gets mounted on the sacrificial altar. Why do I say this? Over the weekend I read an Ian McEwan‘s earlier novel viz. “The Comfort Of Strangers”  and felt it was an effort  and time misspent. Without a doubt McEwan is a favourite writer of mine and I consider him to be one of the best today. Yet I could not get to see anything worthy of an elevated read in this book of his.

The book is set in an unnamed but popular tourist city in which Colin and Mary are spending their holidays. Mary is married with two children but estranged from her husband and Colin is her lover. During their time in the city they meet up with a bizarre couple – Robert and Caroline. Robert spent a significant part of his childhood in England and is the son of a diplomat. He grows up in a utterly male dominated family in which women are treated as second rate subjects. These ethos get reflected in his relationship with Caroline whom he treats with utter contempt. Added to this is the sexual perversity of their relationship which adds an ineluctable degree of horror. Robert and Caroline have reached a stage of perversity where the joy in physical relationship goes beyond infliction of pain and tends towards derving satisfaction in killing and death. It is at this stage in their relationship that Robert and Caroline meet the attractive Colin and Mary. Robert uses his trademark forcefulness and hints of violence in subjugating their new found friends. In the process Colin is killed by Robert for the satisfaction of Caroline with Mary as the drugged witness to this murder. Prior to the killing, Caroline does explain to Mary in fair amount of detail their motivation which is never revealed to the reader. But it is too late: for the explanation is immediately followed by the murder of Colin. Both Robert and Caroline escape and Mary is left distraught. That in sum the plot of the book

While McEwan does a brilliant job in building an atmosphere of macabre, alarm and the impending disaster, this entire verbal effort becomes effective only when the reader on his part is willing to very generously suspend her disbelief. That to me is definitely not a sign of an elevated writing and more often than not it leads to an unenjoyable reading experience. Viewed from this angle “The Comfort Of Strangers” is a very poor read despite my admiration for McEwan as a writer of very evolved capabilities. One thing is for certain: I would not recommend this book of McEwan to anyone who wants to get introduced to his oeuvre –  for there are gems of his which are worth expending a reader’s valuable time, money and effort. I would recommend this book to only those readers  of McEwan who are academically curious to understand his trajectory in maturing as a writer.

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Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro – A Review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on March 13, 2009

Every man must do two things alone; he must do his own believing and his own dying – Martin Luther –  German priest and scholar

If death is a final reality, why do we get so passionate about aspects of our living? This question is a perennial resident in my mind. Depending on the mood it either lies dormant and allows me a good night’s sleep or it gets so focused at times that it keeps me awake. The more I think of it the more enigmatic it becomes.Yet there are two thoughts I employ as answers to wriggle out of this perturbing and tricky question: One is to tell myself that maybe death is not the final reality. The second is that maybe the joy of a life well lived is so very sublime and so very fundamental to our being humans that it makes sense to be absolutely passionate despite the knowledge of this final reality. In other words I tell myself that living is more important than dying and hence it does not matter what this final reality is. But why these leading sentences? I have recently read Kazuo Ishiguro‘s “Never Let Me Go” and found that the central themes of his latest novel to be revolving around death, dying, longing for life and recall of memories of life gone by. Themes that resonate quite well with my own thoughts

Set in an unspecified time in modern day England,”Never Let Me Go” is the recollection by Kathy H of her schooldays at Hailsham and coming of age along with her close friends Tommy and Ruth. The tragic thing is that Kathy, Tom, Ruth and all her friends and acquaintances are clones. They have been brought into existence and reared with the express purpose of being organ donors with little or no choice. Yet for a large part of their lives their purpose on earth and the sorrowful end they are going to put to is never made clear to them. As a result they grow up in an environment of partial information and rumours only to end up building a foggy view of their futures. Yet as they inexorably move towards their predestined future, they too grow up with aspirations, feelings and motives like ordinary human beings and that is what makes their lives so tragic for readers. Towards the end all the clones become donors. Some survive multiple donations and many don’t. Clones who want to delay their inevitable denouements a bit can opt to become carers who provide support clones who already are donors. Humans are involved in their lives mostly as guardians and managers of the special schools where they are groomed. Miss Emily and Marie Claude are two of the guardians who promote a social movement which demands that clones be treated more humanely. They manage to garner support for building institutions like Hailsham where certain liberal impulses like introduction to art to these clones are permitted. As time passes by Kathy moves on to become a carer waiting for her end. Her good friends Tommy and Ruth meet their natural ends by donating their organs in front of her eyes and in her knowing. But in the process they also uncover their destinies and what they are meant for. What makes the book so very tragic is that these near know all clones ultimately succumb to their destiny like cattle lined up for an abbattoir without a murmur of protest

As I read the book I could not stop thinking about the role of free will and if ever we humans unlike the clones can live life on our terms. As we live through our times and our age, we too get caught up and manipulated by vested forces that prompt us ever so subtly for a self serving purpose. To think and protest not only appears impossible but also futile. I hit upon this feeling when I read what Miss Emily says to Kathy and Tom at one stage while explaining a few puzzling events in their lives: “I can see,’ Miss Emily said, ‘that it might look as though you were simply pawns in a game. It can certainly be looked at like that. But think of it. You were lucky pawns. There was a certain climate and now it’s gone. You have to accept that’s how things happen in this world. People’s opinions, their feelings, they go one way, then the other. It just so happens you grew up at a certain point in this process“.  A quick glance of the last two hundred years of our own history is an ample proof to this – we all get sucked into the themes of the age without being aware of it – it just so happens that we just grow up at a certain point in this progress of history

Ishiguro is a like a hangman – gradually tightening the noose of sadness, despair and tragedy round the readers neck. For the first hundred pages of the book one does not even get a sense of what one is getting into. The story that gets laid out appears commonplace and at many places pointless. However, as one starts to get hints of what one is getting into, all that has transpired so far starts to acquire a bigger purpose, hue and gravity. Ishiguro paints a very distressing picture and does so with consummate skill, mastery and absolute control. The trademark first person narrative in the form of Kathy’s haunting narration of her memories is brilliant,contained and mature and the portrayal of loss and grief is starker than what one gets to witness in his other classic “The Remains Of The Day“. I can’t explain why but my vote for the better of his books would still be for “The Remains Of The Day

Of the many functions of fiction,  reminding a reader not only of his essential nature (that of being human) but also the degree of the alignment with his nature is probably the most critical one and Ishiguro‘s fiction does that to all his readers in a style that is inimitable and uniquely his own. Viewed in a different way, “Never Let Me Go” is not about clones but about us humans and our own true nature and predicament viewed from the medium of clones

There is a general feeling among writers that once they are done with a book they would not want to revisit it again. This is a thought very well echoed by John Dos Passos when he said that there is a great sense of relief in a fat volume. I guess as a rule that is also true for readers of books – I mean how many people have read a “War and Peace” or “The Brothers Karamazov” the second time? However, a rule is a rule only when there are exceptions to it and there will be books which both writers and readers would revisit again and again. And in that line of revisitable books Ishiguro‘s “Never Let Me Go” and “The Remains Of The Day” will stand in the forefront

AfterwordNever Let Me Go – by Ishiguro, Arthur & George – by Julian Barnes, The Sea – By John Banville, The Brick Lane by Monica Ali and On Beauty – by Zadie Smith were the finalists for the 2005 Booker — what a tough job the judges would have had in deciding the winner!

BTW, The Sea – By John Banville was the winner

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Northern Lights – Philip Pullman

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on March 6, 2009

We are all subject to the fates. But we must all act as if we are not or die of despair – Sarafina Pekkala (The good witch in Nothern Lights)

Over a period of time reading acquires a biologic function akin to hunger. One experiences intense pangs and to calm them one reads and feels satiated. There is an immediate period of inactivity and the cycle starts once again all over. As one progresses through these cycles the quality and shades of hunger changes quite dramatically. The need for intellectually refined fodder keeps growing. One starts becoming choosy and careful and almost certainly insular, directional and opinionated in picking what one wants to consume. The earlier arbitrariness and abandon in the choice of books starts narrowing down. The twilight period of uncertainty and hesitation between two reading bouts with respect to the choice of an author and a book grows – atleast that has been my experience. For every book I pick and read to the end, there are atleast two I leave in between in the hope I will revisit them for completion. This is not bad in itself. It is helping me become a better picker of books. And that is a great faculty in itself. It is in one of these twilight periods of book selection that I managed to lay my hands on “Northern Lights” – The first part of Philip Pullman‘s fantasy trilogy viz. His Dark Materials

My own exposure to the classical fantasy fiction has been limited to sections of C.S.Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, Tolkien‘s Hobbit, and a couple of books of J.K.Rowling‘s Harry Potter SeriesNorthern Lights has been a tentative venturing out of this comfort zone and a welcome consequence is that I have managed to expand this zone by a wide margin

All good writing needs very robust imagination and fantasy fiction stretches that need for imagination like no other genres of fiction. Writers of this genre create worlds, objects, characters and imagery – which don’t exist- but in ways that engenders comprehension, acceptance, sympathy and association in readers. The need for captivating story telling even while dancing on the borders of the believable – unbelievable is at its most demanding. The more the writers are able to play on the reader’s inherent ability to suspend disbelief, the more their chances of success in producing a lasting output. It is this ability to suspend disbelief on readers part that saves writers from explaining the mechanics of a potion’s workings, the improbability of a bear talking or the ability of a broom stick to levitate. Pullman excels in every department of fantasy fiction

In Northern Lights, Pullman introduces fascinating yet unique and wonderful concepts like Daemons, Dust and Alethiometer. Pullman never explains the complete nature of these. He keeps them sufficiently vague and open to interpretation. As I understood a daemon of a child could be a representative combination of innocence, character, mood, personality. In children a deamon aptly assumes various forms depending on the situation indicating the moldable nature of children. While in adults it settles on a particular form and remains same forever till death. The Dust is the cosmic power that has a hugely transformational impact on daemons and therefore assumes an untold significance for the forces that manipulate the power structures within society e.g. the organised religion, the scientifc bodies, university boards with massive budgetary powers. The Alethiometer is the machine that indicates truth and is believed to be working to the forces of the Dust. As I read through the book I started to conclude that Dust is the collective knowledge in nature that transforms us and also has all the hints to ascertain the ultimate truth (whatever that means and maybe). In some sense the Dust enables us to lose our innocence and repeat the original sin in biblical terms

At its core Northern Lights is a journey of daring adventure of Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon to save her abducted friend Roger and others from the hands of the General Oblation Board (Gobblers). The gobblers are led by fascinatingly beautiful Mrs.Coultran who is the biological mother of Lyra.  Mrs Coultran is funded by the powerful Presidium which is the governing body of church. The gobblers are in the quest of magical Dust which they believe has no impact on children and their deamons. The Dust appears to have a huge role in the settlement of the form of the daemon as children mature into adults. The presidium wants to separate children from their deamons thereby isolate them from the impact of Dust and enable them retain their innocence and not relive the original sin. It is for this reason the Gobblers (and by implication the organised religion) want to abduct and experiment on children and their daemons. Through the narrative Pullman makes it clear that in the past organised church performed such acts in bringing up castrati singers needed for church music.   While Pullman portrays that as the position of the organised church and Mrs.Coultran as its representation, he also builds a countervailing force of rationality in the form of Lord Asriel whose quest for Dust is to understand its significance.  Lord Asriel is the biological father of Lyra. The powerful forces of male and female, rational and irrational, faith and heritic, the constructive and destructive, the evil and good, the selfish and the generous are represented by Mrs.Coultran and Lord Asriel. The rest of the characters that one comes across in the book get aligned with these forces. Lord Asriel gets banished to the cold climes of Svalbard where he is imprisoned but continues to do his research on Dust. Besides saving children Lyra also extends her adventure to reunite with her father and hand him over the Alethiometer – which she believes will aid the rational quest of her father. In her journey she is helped by gypsy families whose children are also victims of gobblers, good witches, Iorek Byrnison – the bear prince. Towards the end and to the utter dismay of Lyra,  Lord Asriel gets ready to experiment on Roger and his daemon, the friend for whom Lyra has undertaken her journey in the first place. As I mulled over it, I felt that this may be a representation of the ugly and blind application of rationality and science to understand the truth at the cost of humans. This is very similar to extreme forms of religious dogma applied in the name of understanding the truth which cause untold suffering . At their extremes, applied science and religion seem to have the same harmful outcomes. Is that what Pullman was hinting at? I am not sure if I know that yet. May be the sequels viz. “The Subtle Knife” and “The Amber Spyglass” will clarify that for me

Pullman maintains a gradual pace while building his dark and scheming world full of characters with their ulterior motives and devious purposes.The tension and tempo are palpable through the book and make for quite an enjoyable read. Pullman admits to being influenced by an essay titled “On the marionette theatre” by Heinrich von Klast. Out of curiosity I read this essay and was surprised to see an almost verbatim representation of the behaviour of the bear described in this essay finding a place in his book

Overall,  Northern Lights makes for a wonderful read and I am looking forward to completing the trilogy and reassess my opinion on a much larger scheme of understanding

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Writers on Writing – Part II

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on March 5, 2009

There was a brief period of madness and false hope in my life when I hoped and desired to be a writer. Thankfully, I seem to be over with it now. But now I am envious of all who can write and write well. Not a day passes by when I am not reminded by a stab of jealousy of what I could not and most probably would not be.  Although disappointed at the lack of this hoped metamorphosis, I continue to be fascinated, curious and impressed with the craft of writing. There is something divine, magical, gifted and blessed about it. Therefore, I have now decided to settle down for the next best thing – that of being a discerning reader. However, in line with my curiosity, I once in a while get hold of material that throws light on the agonies and ecstasies of the art of writing. A significant benefit of internalising these insights is that (collectively) they act as a mental compass that allows one to embark on a journey in the rough terrain of fiction. To be aware of the lay of the land prior to the commencement of the journey makes the journey bearable and hopefully pleasant –  especially when such a journey is interminable and an end in itself

Here is the second part of a collection of thoughts on the craft of writing by people who practice it –  sourced from Paris Review Magazine and Guardian

Where does the dialogue come from?
Eudora Welty
: Familiarity. Memory of the way things get said. Once you have heard certain expressions, sentences, you almost never forget them. It’s like sending a bucket down the well and it always comes up full. You don’t know you’ve remembered, but you have. And you listen for the right word, in the present, and you hear it. Once you’re into a story everything seems to apply – what you overhear on the city bus is exactly what your character would say on the page you’re writing. Wherever you go, you meet part of your story. I guess you’re tuned for it, and the right things are sort magnetized — if you think your ears as magnets

What is the greatest essential of a story?
Frank O Connor: You have to have a theme, a story to tell.Here’s a man at the other side of the table and I’m talking to him; I’m going to tell him something that will interest him. As you know perfectly well, our principal difficulty at Harvard was a number of people who’d had affairs with girls or had had another interesting experience, and wanted to come in and tell about it, straight away. That is not a theme. A theme is something that is worth something to everybody. In fact, you wouldn’t, if you’d ever been involved in a thing like this, grab a man in a pub and say, “Look, I had a girl out last night,under the Charles Bridge.” That’s the last thing you’d do. You grab somebody and say, “Look, an extraordinary thing happened to me yesterday—I met a man—he said this to me—” and that, to me, is a theme. The moment you grab somebody by the lapels and you’ve got something to tell, that’s a real story. It means you want to tell him and think the story is interesting in itself. If you start describing your own personal experiences, something that’s only of interest to yourself, then you can’t express yourself, you cannot say, ultimately, what you think about human beings. The moment you say this, you’re committed. I’ll tell you what I mean. We were down on the south coast of Ireland for a holiday and we got talking to this old farmer and he said his son, who was dead now, had gone to America. He’d married an American girl and she had come over for a visit, alone. Apparently her doctor had told her a trip to Ireland would do her good. And she stayed with the parents, had gone around to see his friends and other relations, and it wasn’t till after she’d gone that they learned that the boy had died. Why didn’t she tell them? There’s your story. Dragging the reader in, making the reader a part of the story—the reader is a part of the story. You’re saying all the time, “This story is about you—de te fabula.”

That’s a very classical view of the work of art – that it must end in resolution?
Katherine Anne Porter
: Any true work of art has got to give you the feeling of reconciliation – what the Greeks would call catharsis, the purification of your mind and imagination – through an ending that is endurable because it is right and true. Oh, not in any pawky individual idea of morality or some parochial idea of right and wrong. Sometimes the end is very tragic, because it needs to be. One of the most perfect and marvelous endings in literature – it raises my hair now – is the little boy in the end of Wuthering Heights, crying that he is afraid to go across the moor because there’s a man and woman walking there

And there are three novels that I reread with pleasure and delight – three almost perfect novels, if we are talking about form you know. One is A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes, one is A Passage to India by E.M.Forester, and the other is To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Everyone of them begins with an apparently insoluble problem, and everyone of them works out of confusion into order. The material is all used so that you are going toward a goal. And that goal is the clearing up of disorder and confusion and wrong, to a logical and human end. I don’t mean a happy ending, because after allat the end of A High Wind in Jamaica the pirates are all hanged and the children are all marked for life by their experience, but it comes out to an orderly end. The threads are all drawn up. I have had people object to Mr.Thompson’s suicide at the end of Noon Wine, and I’d say, “All right, where was he going? Given what he was, his own situation, what else could he do?” Every once in a while when I see a character of mine just going towards perdition, I think, Stop, Stop, you can always stop and choose, you know. But no, being what he was, he already has chosen and he can’t go back on it now. I suppose the first idea that man had was the idea of fate, of the servile will, of a deity who destroyed as he would, without regard for the creature. But I think the idea of free will was the second idea

But isn’t it going to be difficult for the Negro writer to escape provincialism when his literature is concerned with minority?
Ralph Ellison: All novels are about certain minorities. The individual is a minority. The universal in the novel – and isn’t that we’re all clamouring for these days? – is reached only through the depiction of the specific man in a specific circumstance

What do you mean exactly by “control”?
Truman Capote: I mean maintaining a stylistic and emotional upper hand over your material. Call it precious and go to hell, but I believe a story can be wrecked by a faulty rhythm in a sentence – especially if it occurs towards the end – or a mistake in paragraphing, even punctuation. Henry James is the maestro of the semicolon. Hemingway is a first-rate paragrapher. From the point of view of ear, Virginia Woolf never wrote a bad sentence. I dont mean to imply that I successfully practice what I preach. I try, that’s all

Are there devices one can use in improving one’s technique?
Truman Capote
: Work is the only device I know of. Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade, just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself. Even Joyce, our most extreme disregarder, was a superb craftsman; he could write Ulysses because he could write Dubliners. Too many writers seem to consider writing the writing of short stories as a kind of finger exercise. Well, in such cases, it is certainly only their fingers they are exercising

Do you enjoy writing? What is its particular pleasure?
John Dos Passos: Well, you get a great deal off your chest – emotions, impressions, opinions. Curiosity urges you on – the driving force. What is collected must be got rid of. That’s one thing to be said of writing. There is a great sense of relief in a fat volume

John Banville: Civilisation’s greatest single invention is the sentence. In it, we can say anything. That saying, however, is difficult and peculiarly painful. Whether we are writing a novel or a letter to our bank manager, we have the eerie sensation that we are not so much writing as being written, that language in its insidious way is using us as a medium of expression and not vice versa. The struggle of writing is fraught with a specialised form of anguish, the anguish of knowing one will never get it right, that one will always fail, and that all one can hope to do is ‘fail better’, as Beckett recommends. The pleasure of writing is in the preparation, not the execution, and certainly not in the thing executed. The novelist daily at his desk eats ashes, and if occasionally he encounters a diamond he is likely to break a tooth on it. Money is necessary to pay the dentist’s bills

Amit Chaudhury: I still find it difficult to believe that I’m something called a ‘novelist’; but this hasn’t stopped me from dreaming, frequently, of alternative professions: second-hand bookshop owner; corporate worker; cinematographer. There are many reasons for this unease. One of them is a fundamental discomfort with narrative itself, and involves admitting to yourself that you derive your basic pleasure not from knowing what happens next, but from arrested time or eventlessness; this makes you constantly wish, as you’re writing, that you were elsewhere, or it makes you work to make the novel accommodate that impulse. Another reason is the professionalisation of the vocation, so that the novelist is supposed to produce novels as naturally, automatically, and regularly as a cow gives milk. In such a constraining situation, money can certainly be a compensatory pleasure; so can that paradoxical and sly addiction, failure

Joyce Carol Oates: To me, who has written for most of her adult life, in a number of genres and with wildly varying degrees of “enjoyment” and/or “misery”, it’s likely that writing is a conscious variant of a deep-motivated unconscious activity, like dreaming. Why do we dream? No one seems to really know, just as no one seems to really know why we crave stories, even or especially stories we know to be fiction. My experience of writing – of writing these very sentences, for instance – is invariably a blend of the initially “inspired” and the more exacting, or plodding, execution of inspiration. Most writers find first drafts painfully difficult, like climbing a steep stairs, the end of which isn’t in sight. Only just persevere! Eventually, you will get where you are gong, or so you hope. And when you get there, you will not ask why? – the relief you feel is but a brief breathing spell, before beginning again with another inspiration, another draft, another steep climb. “I always say, my motto is ‘Art for my sake'” – these words of the young DH Lawrence in a letter written before the first world war are probably as reliable as any

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