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     Volume 5 Issue 116 | October 13, 2006 |

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On Being a Writer

(Continued from last week)

In one of his early books James Joyce wrote of the difficulty for him or his hero of the English language. "That language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit…. My soul frets in the shadow of his language."

James Joyce was an experimenter in pure form, form divorced from content. And the James Joyce point about language is not the one I am making. I never felt that problem with the English language-language as language. The point that worried me was one of vocabulary, of the differing meanings or associations of words. Garden, house, plantation, gardener, estate: these words mean one thing in England and mean something quite different to the man from Trinidad, an agricultural colony, a colony settled for the purpose of plantation agriculture. How, then, could I write honestly or fairly if the very words I used, with private meanings for me, were yet for the reader outside shot through with the associations of the older literature? I felt that truly to render what I saw, I had to define myself as writer or narrator; I had to reinterpret things. I have tried to do this in different ways throughout my career. And after two years' work, I have just finished a book in which at last, as I think, I have managed to integrate this business of reinterpreting with my narrative.

My aim was truth, truth to a particular experience, containing a definition of the writing self. Yet I was aware at the end of that book that the creative process remained as mysterious as ever.

The French critic Sainte-Beuve thought that the personal details of a writer's life made clear many things about the writer. This method of Saint-Beuve's was bitterly assailed by Proust in strange, original and beautiful form, part autobiography, part literary criticism, part fiction called Against Sainte-Beuve, where the criticism of the critic and his method, releasing the writer's love of letters, also releases the autobiographical and fictive elements of the work.

"This method," Proust writes (in the translation by Sylvia Townsend Warner)and he is talking about the method of Sainte-Beuve, "ignores what a very slight degree of self-acquaintance teaches us, that a book is the product of a different self from the self we manifest in our habits, in our social life, in our vices." And a little later on, Proust elucidates: "The implication [is] that there is something more superficial and empty in a writer's authorship, something deeper and more contemplative in his private life…. In fact, it is the secretion of one's innermost life, written in solitude and for oneself alone, that one gives to the public. What one bestows on private life in conversation, however refined it may be…is the product of a quite superficial self, not of the innermost self which one can only recover by putting aside the world and the self that frequents the world."

And it is curious yet not really surprising that almost the same thought about the writer's writing self should have been expressed by a quite different writer, Somerset Maugham. In his fictional portrait of Thomas Hardy in Cakes and Ale, Maugham, by a wonderful stroke (which earned him much abuse), showed the tragic novelist of Wessex to be in his private life extraordinarily ordinary, and for that reason mysterious. "I had an impression"this is Maugham's summing up "that the real man, to his death unknown and lonely, was a wraith that went a silent way unseen between the writer of his books and the man who led his life, and smiled with ironical detachment at the two puppets…."



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