Men of Letters (The Bastard 1)

Is Wdj Szesz our most prolific contemporary European novelist? To be honest, I’ve never stopped to count all the words that flow like fierce lava from his volcanic writing hand. All I know is that he is one of those writers who does little else but write. The process of putting words down onto paper is, for him, much like breathing in and out. He does little else.

Much the same has been said of that great nineteenth century storysmith, Honore de Balzac. Prolific barely covers it: Balzac’s way of working shames us all. Flooding his heavy body with thick black coffee, he would often write for ten or more hours at a time, producing several novels a year.

On top of this he was also a keen letter writer. In the words of Aldous Huxley: ‘Ladies were constantly writing to him; and he, with that ardent and romantic boyishness which went hand in hand with his rather cynical knowingness, responded enthusiastically‘. More’s the pity, thought Huxley, for that time might have been better spent writing more serious prose. Long letters to Madame Hanska were a drain on his creativity, if not his life; the moral of the story being that any aspiring writer ought to keep correspondence with female admirers ‘as brief and as formal as courtesy will permit’.

Or should they? Not if Boris Yashmilye has anything to do with it. For him, writing letters is just as, if not more interesting than writing novels. ‘A letter,’ he has written, ‘is the perfect story. One writer, one reader: the ultimate set-up’. Note that he says ‘story’; for like many writers, Yashmilye doesn’t approach his correspondence in any casual spirit. Writing is writing: one doesn’t let up on the quality, however many people may be reading the results. You may use the same skills, the same methods, the same variety of approaches in a letter as might do in a novel. Why not?

Letters are in themselves stories, but – like stories – they also contain stories. Which brings us to The Bastard, Yashmilye’s new novel; a collection of stories which are, in fact, letters. Missives masquerading as narratives; tales pretending to be epistles. The letter and the novel come together in gloriously messy harmony. Has Yashmilye taken time out from ‘serious work’ to scribble lengthy messages to female admirers? Certainly. And was that time wasted? Not on this evidence it wasn’t…

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