Writing the Soul

The eyes, some say, are the windows of the soul. Maybe. But what about writing style? What does that reveal about the writer’s soul? Does a man’s syntax afford us a glimpse of his heart? Does the way a woman wields a semi-colon reveal the contours of her conscience?

I ask this because, on more than one occasion, I have been surprised by meeting an author whose writing style I either loved or despised. The surprise came when I realised that they were nothing like they appeared to be on paper. Their authorial voice bore little or no relation to their actual voice.

This, of course, is not always the case. Fierce writers often turn out to be fierce people – and vice versa. Pyetr Turgidovsky would be a case in point: he is every bit as spiteful and mean in person as he is in prose. In other cases, though, we have to accept that there is a discrepancy. The Swedish writer Lars Shloek, for instance, writes beautiful lyrical sentences; soft as spring blossom and warm as a newborn puppy. Lars himself is by all accounts an obnoxious philanderer.

The critic Lise Raussenan, meanwhile, has penned some of the cruellest reviews I have ever read. Her style is brilliant and compelling; fizzing with vituperative rage and uncontrolled passion. In person, however, she is rather sweet and demur. ‘It’s just the way I write,’ she explains: ‘not the way I am‘.

Following Dangerous Recipes

There’s a school of thought, a mightily popular school of thought, which claims that great art springs from a place of darkness and struggle; that a genius is essentially a tortured soul; that one has to lose oneself in order to find oneself; that creativity flourishes only when someone has ‘been through it’ (whatever it is). The Flight of the Dusky Duck, a new novel by Alex Gronsky, perpetuates this well-worn myth.

It happens, of course it does. But it just as often doesn’t happen. Take Anton Perwahlsky, for instance: all the right ingredients mixed together in the right way. Madness, ambition and an immense will to create. The result: tedious nonsense. On the other side of the boat, Mr Alexis Pathenikolides: a dull man who creates twisted and troubled works. A genius hiding in an accountant’s clothes. Or to put it another way, a highly professional and deeply capable writer whose ability to organise the chaos raging inside of him makes him what he is. And when I say ‘chaos raging inside of him’ I do not mean to pretend that this makes him an irregular human. Chaos reigns within us all.

My fear is this: that young writer’s will read The Flight of the Dusky Duck and assume that externally-expressed pain is the norm. Worse still, that it is expected. That unless one is seen to suffer as a person, one’s work will suffer. This is clearly not the case. One can be a bore, outwardly, and still bear fruit. God bless the artists who simply ‘get on with it’. Other recipes may contain more spice, but they cannot guarantee a lasting flavour.

Oppositions Dictate Experience

Little is known of Pyetr Turgidovsky’s romantic history. One presumes, at first, that he would have had little, if any time for warm human relationships. His novels do a mighty fine job, after all, of proving that such things are futile, impossible, nugatory: barren. And yet one might argue that a misery such as his must be fuelled by a sense of something lost; that someone so unhappy must have been touched by the warm hands of joy at one point or another. Oppositions dictate experience, do they not?

Enter Elena Pitchovnik, the first woman I know of who claims to have had a relationship with Turgidovsky. Admittedly it was a short-lived one (four and three-quarter days) but it was nevertheless, by her account, ‘deep, sweet, intense and, at moments, thoroughly romantic’. So what went wrong? ‘Nothing,’ she writes, ‘ought to have gone wrong. Happiness was there for the taking. It sat on the wall like an egg holding a spoon, crying to be cracked’ (her simile, not mine). ‘But Turgidovsky is allergic to happiness,’ she goes on, ‘he refuses to let himself be seduced by a beautiful life. He fears the effect of it too much. He fears his art will suffer, so he takes it in his arms for a few days only, then drops it, like a baby, back into the mud’.

Oh yes, the old Art V Happiness debate. Nothing new there. Does honest-to-God cheerfulness really cramp a writer’s style? Not necessarily, though it depends somewhat on the characters in question. Some writers will cope better than others. Turgidovsky clearly doubts his ability to keep going under the monumental stress represented by happiness. But who’s to say he’s ever given it a proper go? It’s dangerous territory, I admit, and I’d be the last person to push the great Russian nihilist into doing something he – and we – might regret for all time. On the one hand, he might learn to love mankind. On the other, we might never see another novel like The Lunatic  or Delicious Air of Life. It’s a tough choice.

Tomorrow, Tomorrow

One of the many stories buzzing like a restless bee around the flower-bed of the internet at present is that of writer Jean-Pierre Sertin’s so-called ‘tomorrow rant’ which took place during an interview with a Hungarian literary journal last week.

First things first. Why is Sertin doing an interview with a Hungarian literary journal, despite promising me, several times, that I was ‘next on his list’? I announced the possibility of a Sertin interview back in July, but still no news. Why hast thou forsaken me, Jean-Pierre?

Secondly – what is this ‘tomorrow rant’ and how did it come about? The answer to that is simple and – though you may read the story elsewhere – allow me to summarise the situation for you here.

Sertin is well-known for taking on more projects than he can handle – and for getting frustrated with those who point this out, as this poor Hungarian interviewer did. What annoys him most, it seems, is the suggestion that he doesn’t finish things: an accusation he usually rejects with the claim that he does finish things, only very slowly. This was, in fact, a reply that his interviewer was happy to accept, before adding ‘Still, there’s always tomorrow, huh?’

For one reason or another, this comment tipped the otherwise placid Sertin over the edge. ‘Tomorrow! Oh yes, tomorrow!’ he cried: ‘tomorrow I will rise with the larks, put on my finest suit and run to my desk in the woods with a charming and humble confidence as becomes a man of literary talent such as myself. There, in the woods, words will spill from me, spill like water over a fall, a gush of words, falling over, page after page, notebook after notebook. I will not stop! I will go on and on! The ideas will be relentless. The prose will be purple, mauve and violet. I will do a hundred things at once. I will write a poem whilst making love, a novel whilst cooking lunch and an opera whilst on the phone to my sister. I will give everything, every last drop of blood and sweat. There will be no telling where my body ends and the text begins. Tomorrow will be the dawning of a new era I tell you: a new bloody era!’

And so on and so forth. Apparently he went on like this for a good half an hour, before falling off his chair and mumbling something about missing his morning coffee (which he can always drink tomorrow, after all).

Afternoon Man

We’ve explored his breakfast, morning and lunch: now the question on everyone’s thin winter lips is ‘what does Turgidovsky do in the afternoon?’

Well, the forty-seven minute writing bursts continue, with a break at three fifty-four for a spot of rook hunting. Turgidovsky loves rooks deeply, more deeply than any human he has ever met, yet admits that ‘guilt is a powerful drug’ – which is why he shoots them, taking care to ensure that their death is slow, painful and perfect literary source material. He also regrets – and, in turn, derives pleasure – from stamping on shrews, elbowing calves and picking off wrens with a bow and arrow he made as a child.

It doth arrive as no great surprise that dusk is Turgidovsky’s favourite time of day. ‘It brings out the dreamer in me,’ he once wrote: a statement that might just as well be translated as ‘it brings out the nightmarist’ (if only that were a word). He likes – or likes to dislike – watching the ‘gold git of a sun’ set whilst standing knee-deep in a trough of pig’s urine and munching on pinecones. Don’t we all?

For dinner Turgidovsky treats himself to his second least favourite foodstuff. I cannot say what this consists of. Marshmallows, maybe?

More on the Turgidovsky Day

After a heavy breakfast, the shit-eating scribbler of St. Petersburg (otherwise as known as Pyetr Turgidovsky) makes way his to work through nineteen boggy fields and one shallow but increasingly putrid swamp, riding a unicycle with a punctured tyre. His workplace consists of an abandoned barn, shared with thousand rats or so: ‘the perfect conditions,’ writes the Russian, ‘in which to create a masterpiece’.

He writes in forty-seven minute bursts. If he goes overtime he punishes himself by ringing his mother, who is guaranteed to remind him of everything that could possibly go wrong with an old woman’s gall bladder. If she isn’t in, he rings the talking clock, which has much the same effect.

Between periods of writing, he often washes his beard in orange juice. On other occasions he throws a needle into a nearby haystack and sees if he can find it. Once he snorted a line of pigeon droppings and had a hallucination about winning the Nobel Prize for Peace (‘the most frightening experience of that week’ he later called it).

For lunch Turgidovsky eats peaches, plums and, on Thursdays, pears. He also eats cheese, which he simply can’t abide.

After lunch, he returns to his desk and starts writing again.

Confused Creeds and Damaging Dogmas

The age of innocence is behind us. Writing as entertainment, as timeless art, as unsullied by doctrine, as a harmless leisure activity – all of this is beyond us, lost like a daft dog in the fog of the past. It is now a given that novelists have a hidden agenda. What a dangerous gang of desperadoes these writers are! It is not writing that drives them: it is instead the opportunity to spray about the nascent dregs of their scrambled ideologies like so much farmer’s pesticide. The age of the organic ideology is far away in the future. Writing at present is contaminated by a plethora of mind-bending chemicals: a noxious fusion of confused creeds and damaging dogmas lurking beneath the ripe surface of every sharply printed book.

(Johannes Möeping, here)

Whenever I read this, I wonder how it is that I never got round to writing that phrase – ‘lost like a daft dog in the fog of the past’ – myself. Sometimes I wonder whether I did, and whether Möeping stole it from me, but I’ve yet to find any evidence of this. Could I have said it one evening, after a glass or two of bilberry wine? One has to be careful when drinking with literary critics. If you’re not careful your wise words will be taken from you and printed within the week in someone else’s article. It’s like they say in Southern Poland: don’t mix Marxist critics with bilberry wine unless you have a very clever lawyer.