‘I can’t be bothered with this anymore. See you.’
(Gunter Klipps, Not Much of Anything)
Best closing line of the year? Quite possibly.
I should add, of course, that this is not a reflection of my own mental state. There is more – much more – to come from me.
The question of creating – or recreating – difficult (or merely peculiar) circumstances in order to achieve greatness is, of course, a thorny one. In my last post I seemed to praise Jean-Pierre Sertin for setting himself challanges: for imposing deliberate (and carefully managed) restrictions on his literary freedom. I might have cited other writers: Tosca Calbirro, for example, whose last novel was written on a dress, or Laura McLarne, who recently sealed herself into a stone coffin in order to pen a collection of sonnets (Letters from the Grave; Inkspot Books, 2010).
One might argue, however, that more than a smatter of self-indulgence surrounds these projects. This is not to say that they aren’t interesting. Who can blame Calbirro for giving a dress a go? I, for one, admire his pluck. The more literature looks beyond the covers of the common book the better. But doesn’t part of us still wish that he had done this not because he wanted to, but because he had to? To put it another way – was Calbirro’s project driven by eccentricity or necessity? Did he choose the dress because there were no other conceivable options, or because it was something that no one had ever done before? Do we read Laura McLarne’s poems differently knowing that she actually spent time in a stone coffin? Did she write them differently? Could other writers have done a better job imagining the experience than actually living it?
Some people are sticklers for authenticity. They like their artists to have been through real, not imagined (or, more often, manufactured) difficulties. We write of authenticity’s stamp – but does it have a stamp? Does the mark it leaves represent a significant advance on that left by less authentic methods? I hesitate to provide an answer to this question: I’m not even sure that there is one. The means by which one creates an effect will always raise questions – but it is the effect, the final effect, that we must judge, ultimately. The question, then, is whether the means should have any bearing on the effect.
The rest is a deliberate silence.
Whilst we’re on the subject of means (see here and here) I may as well throw out another advert for Jean-Pierre Sertin and Intercuttings. Natalie de Roquet, as we have seen, wrote her work under pressure; pressure which, significantly, was enforced by an outside source (her malicious husband). Sertin is one of many writers who chooses to put pressure on himself. We live in a society in which so many people like to make things easier for themselves: god bless artists, therefore, for being so difficult.
As you probably know by now, Sertin’s work covers many forms, all of which involve a range of restrictions. Take p.52 for instance, his novel, which consists of fifty-two examples of p.52 from fifty-two otherwise non-existent novels. Or the infamous Intercuttings, which cut two (very) short stories together so as to make them virtually unreadable. Sertin’s mind is that of the poet whose freedom exists within tight forms: only here, caught in a position of immense pressure, does his creativity flow. Circumstances allow him to work in whatever way he wishes too. Wise artist that he is, he chooses to flood the works with spanners. He sets himself challenges, without which he would have no direction. To make his project clear, he needs to complicate things.
[A so-called seasonal poem from J-P Sertin:]
There’s a daft bar called Bohemia,
I never entered, but I know:
Daftness hangs ’round all the bars that called themselves Boho.
So there he said, and I agreed
So off we duly went –
And in Boho a super-daft old afternoon we spent.
At the very least this explains why Sertin hasn’t been seen around The Crippled Bee for a few weeks now.
Further thinking on this topic leads me to reconsider artists working within specific means. And the one that leaps most nimbly into the forefront of my agile mind is my old friend Natalie de Roquet.
Trapped in a suite of rooms, lonely and paperless, this enterprising woman scrawled on her bedroom and bathroom walls a story of superior grace and power. In doing so she created something much more fascinating than what might have appeared had she a sheaf of two of your finest paper. The challenge set by her peculiar circumstances prised opened her mind like a oyster – and what delights, oh what delights, slipped out!
How could one – or, more accurately, could one – replicate de Roquet? One cannot, must not, should not attempt to imitate her circumstances in order to approach her art. Which is to say: please do not lock a woman in a room in the hope of her creating a similar masterpiece. Aside from the fact that the act would be illegal, we must rememeber that De Roquet was a rare bird: the circumstances helped her art, but she was also best placed to take advantage of them. Put most of us in the same position and we’d be hard pressed to come up with anything half as good.
For more on de Roquet, see here. For more on artists and their means, join us later.
If I only had the means, he said, if I only had the means, greatness would be within my grasp. Give me an orchestra, that I might write a symphony. Give me a hundred dancers, that I might stage a ballet. Give me a film crew that I shoot a movie. Give me twenty canvasses taller than horses, that I might paint a mural. Life would be the subject: life in all its colours and shades. Life in all its highs and lows. Everything and nothing. How great it would be! How great I could be, if I only had the means.
She scratched her nose and smiled. A great artist, she said, a great artist works within whatever means he or she has. Prove you deserve the means before you dare to ask for them. Master your whistle and I shall give you a drum. Master your drum and I shall give you a trumpet. Master your trumpet and I shall give you a flute. Master your…
But he was no longer listening.
(From a Livonian folk-tale)
‘Don’t write unless you have something to say’. Here it is: the ruddy cheeked bouncer standing at the gates of literature; the steely eyed sentence passed down by every amateur judge that there ever was. Advice, they call it, their foreheads furrowed as deep as the farmer’s new field. Give them five minutes and they’ll be at it again; their fingers stroking their stony chins; counsel dispensed at the rate of forty clichés an hour. ‘Better say nothing than say something stupid’. Another pearl. You slip it into your handbag, as if it were a tissue. For there’s nothing like empty advice to console you in your darkest hour.
From Michael Rosinith’s review of certain Swedish and Danish novels…