Saturday, March 24, 2012

`You Always Have to Work on Sundays'

Out of context the interviewer’s question is almost moronic: “Do you think living and writing conflict?” V.S. Pritchett was a gentleman and defined himself as “a man of letters,” and answered the question thoughtfully: 

“I have always thought that life and literature are intermingled and that this intermingling has been my quest.” 

Readers and writers alike are susceptible to the notion of literature as something exalted, an activity that exempts them from life and its workaday strictures. Books and life, like conjoined twins, can be separated but seldom survive the surgery. On the one hand, you get sticky hothouse orchids; on the other, lifeless transcriptions. A reviewer recently praised a work of fiction for being “unsullied by life, mere life,” and held up the unreadable Raymond Roussel (Impressions of Africa) as a model for writers to emulate. Pritchett, a working-class kid without a college degree, wrote a great life-infused novel (Mr. Beluncle) and four lesser ones, hundreds of great stories and essays, and, among many other things, rereadable studies of Chekhov and Turgenev. The interviewer asks why he was attracted to the Russians and Pritchett replies: 

“What I particularly like about them is their naturalness and clarity. They are preindustrial people outside the European structure; their novels flow from the emotions of the people, their characters, and what they feel—not grandiose emotions—the sort of things we all feel, which come to the surface in the daily course of life. Clarity is very important to me. When I began to write I went in for dramatic, extravagant images and descriptions. But now I think clarity is everything—I seek to keep the cutting edge clean.” 

I can think of readers and writers, including the reviewer mentioned above, who would find Pritchett’s explanation incomprehensible. “The sorts of things we all feel,” to them, makes no sense, and “clarity” is a bourgeois artifact. Pritchett, age ninety at the time of the interview, was still writing almost daily. It’s work: 

“It’s simply because journalism does that to you. You always have to work on Sundays, so therefore that makes up the week. It makes you quite different from anyone else. You don’t get a mid-week day off by law. And I find writing takes a long time. I write most days. I didn’t write yesterday. I think I tried to write the day before. I don’t think it is a good idea to write if one doesn’t have anything to say.”

Of course, that doesn't stop some people.

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

Count me as one of your readers who finds Pritchett’s “explanation incomprehensible.” Clarity is one of those fuzzy words that can mean anything to anybody. Are we talking about enlightenment or detail, purity or plainness? Is he saying Russian is a more exact language than French, or that pre-industrial people are naturally more expressive of their emotions than Europeans? It’s all abstraction piled on stereotype, opinion paraded as fact. Of course, this is just the sort of obscurity called for when a journalist asks you a gotcha question.

One of the basic qualities of words is their multi-valence; it’s one thing as a writer to shape squishy materials into firm communication, to cultivate nuance and precision and referentiality, quite another to pretend that it isn’t all a colossal ego game of persuading (even manipulating) others to pay attention to them, or, almost as commonly, to believe the lies they’ve been paid to carefully record. It doesn’t matter a whit whether readers are wise to the scam, that’s the beauty of it. But sometimes I wonder about the reader’s responsibility in all this. Are we not better than drivers, thinking those going faster than us are lunatics and those going slower are idiots?