Literary style is what you see before you when you open the first page of a book, particularly a literary work. Literary style (or ‘writing style’ or ‘literary voice’ or the ‘writer’s voice’) is the way a writer uses words in sentences.
2. Why do writers employ a literary style?
Style is the fundamental way any writer expresses themselves. In order to express oneself, one has to choose ones words. in choosing certain words over other words one is employing a style. One’s style makes one unique. Style is a literary fingerprint, a verbal DNA. Stlye describes a writer’s individual use of sentences, what words they choose and how they choose to use them. A writer’s style is how their particular choice of words flows in their sentences. It’s pretty easy to see the differing styles in different writers. Choose your favourite writer and look and see whether or not their sentences are on average short or long, whether they use a lot of allusions or metaphors or external historical or scientific data or not, whether they use a lot of local colour, whether their work is filled with precise emotional or external factual data or not, whether their language is complex or not, whether they use a lot of irony or wit or not. Writers make these many word choices in order to tell their individual stories to best effect, to most powerfully depict their characters, to drive their plots on, to inform, challenge, educate, entertain, mystify and impress their readers. Writers strive towards developing their own unique style for several reasons. The most obvious reason might be their desire not to sound like other writers, but the main one is to properly express their own unique voice, what exactly is happening and how exactly it is happening in the lives and minds and hearts of the people in the worlds they are describing and in the stories they are telling. All the other aspects of writing: character, plot, sense of place, time, pacing – all these form the threads that make up the unique fabric of a writer’s style.
3. How important is literary style?
From what we have been talking about it’s clear that style is not some superficial aspect to writing. Style is substance when it comes to writing. It is the most immediate, most accessible part of any book, article, poem, play, or script. It’s what greets you when you start to read. It is that aspect of the writer’s art that takes you through a book of 100 thousand words or an article of 500 words. Thus it’s critically important to develop your style. You cannot write without style. You develop your plot through using literary devices delivered through your style. You describe your characters through style. You hold the reader’s attention by showing that here is a writer like no other, and your individual voice is a voice that the reader wants to listen to as they tell a story in a way that holds their attention through good or bad, through triumph or disaster, through suffering or joy. All of the above is achieved by the use of style.
4. How do I develop my style?
You develop your literary voice by practising and listening to your own inner voice. You also develop your voice, and by this I am speaking of your writing style, by being clear on what you have to say, by developing the story you want to tell, by carefully researching your subject, by making careful notes, by working out plot, characterization, pacing, by making a plan that works and sticking to it. It takes time and it takes patience.
5. Okay, but is there a method for developing style?
Other than a willingness to work at it, and seek to continually to improve your work, working towards perfecting the various aspects of story, plot, finding the right word in the right place and building from there, reading and learning, there is no known methodology for creating one’s own unique style. It can be said that one’s style finds you, rather than the reverse. The only way this can happen is by writing, and, as has been said before, writing is largely rewriting.
Writing is difficult, but its also something so basic to who we are as intelligent beings, that despite its difficulty, its something literally anyone and everyone can grasp. Art happens when the writer expresses something unique that emerges from the self and says something more than the contents and the tropes and methods learned from the craft. A craft on the other hand is a series of techniques to efficiently and easily perform a task, in this case the ancient art of writing. This being said, it is imperative that any aspiring writer learn the craft of writing. Just as potential martial artist must learn their craft in a dojo, or a potential musician study their instrument of choice and learn from mistresses and masters of the art, so too a potential writer needs to learn about how to write in order to write well. This tiny primer will help one take the first steps.
What is Creative Writing?
Creative Writing has its origins in our ancient practise of storytelling and poetry recitation. Creative Writing communicates what it means to live in the world in all varieties and forms. Creative writing helps us understand the world and it helps us describe our own and others experiences of living in the world. Its useful and life enhancing and good for us all.
2. Writing is for everyone.
Writing and storytelling is an art and a craft that has been practised for millennia. It can be practised by anyone who wants to be a writer. Writing is both an art and a craft. In other words, if you are interested in getting to know the world of writing a little better and try it out, there are certain skills one can learn and develop that will help one to express oneself more clearly and easily. Developing these skills takes time and practise, like any craft. From the craft of writing we can then work at developing our artistic gifts.
3. Find your space.
Have some place where you can write in peace and quiet. It’s difficult to work in a place with lots of distractions. Once you find your space, work out a schedule you can live with, and stick to it.
4. Schedule time.
Writing takes time and effort. Writing is often re-writing. Because it takes time and patience to grow your art, it’s important to schedule quality time outside our busy lives to make time for ourselves to be creative.
5. Get a Notebook.
Bring your notebook everywhere. What we write is a record of our lives, our thoughts, our hopes and our dreams, and starting with a notebook we can build these stories. A notebook is the indispensable tool for every writer. Write down thoughts, impressions, dreams, useful facts, memories, ideas for stories, poems, screenplays, theatre pieces. Remember that your notebook is your own and keep it private.
6. Go to open-mics, gigs, and writing groups.
Meet and associate with other writers and artists. Don’t isolate. You learn quickly from the example of others, also there are many courses and regular readings out there to test your work and see how it is received by an audience. Take your time and go to a few, and when you feel ready go up and read a poem or a short piece of fiction in front of a group.
Every great writer is a great reader. Use your local library. Read often and for long periods. Familiarize yourself with as many writers, thinkers, muses, as you can. This experience will deepen your knowledge not only of the world (which is important for your writing) but will show you how other writers approached various subjects, and help you avoid pitfalls.
8. Keep a healthy work life-balance.
If you take to writing, it can be a fascinating, fulfilling, and a demanding occupation. Remember to keep a good balance between your social and private life. Stay healthy, sleep lots, eat well, and avoid unhealthy lifestyles.
9. Write a certain amount you have already decided upon each day, and then stop.
It’s best to stop each day at a high point. Make a note of where you stopped, date it and continue from that point the next day, or when you decide to.
10. Take regular breaks from your writing.
It’s healthy and good for your work to take a break. Then, after the break, go back to the manuscript with fresh eyes, and, most importantly, a refreshed brain and body.
11. Take Writing Courses.
It’s a good idea to do writing courses; many are excellent and helpful. The important thing to always remember is to develop your own style. The only way to develop your own style is to write, and keep writing, and not give up.
12. Have fun.
Writing is probably one of the most
fulfilling, delightful, mysterious, fascinating, and educational of
occupations. Never stop enjoying it.
I am a bit worried about what I am writing at the moment. People see me spend long stretches working, and ask me in a roundabout way actually I am working on, and I don’t really want to say. There are two reasons for my uncool evasiveness. Firstly I only have a few central ideas and a new raw stylistic idea for what I am working on, and the newness of these ideas are a little scary. So my evasiveness is borne of insecurity.
Secondly the actual plot of what I am working on is something of a moving target these days. this also is new. Generally, I am the type of guy who sits down, makes a plan, then executes it. I mean its not that I usually know every plot move, but I generally know. So I am doubly insecure, in as much as I am not sure where I am going or how long it will take.
This leads me to the third question I get asked:
‘When are you going to be finished?’
‘How long is a piece of string?’ I say, meaning I don’t know and I worry when actually I will be done.
My novel started out as a nice respectable middle aged crisis type book with a few literary and thriller elements attached. Now, three major drafts later and three years later, it has become a monster. Now its got more to do with horror and thriller elements than the tame reflective rather self absorbed piece I started out working on. And as I go through drafts and as it subtly changes me, I become more and more uncomfortable with how raw and visceral the book is becoming.
It also makes me think about the art and craft of writing. Where am I going with all this work, all this drafting and redrafting and rewriting? Is there a point when one runs out of ideas, a limit to the amount of books your produce before you begin to be a cliché? Someone who produces a slim tome every eighteen months to keep up with contract requirements? What’s the point of writing?
I don’t have and don’t really want an answer to that question. But I do think once you learn about writing, the craft, how to plot, how to pace, the elements of story, using different types of styles for differing elements of a text, you find that having the craft is not enough. One wants to go deeper, certainly I do. One throws away language games and well worn plot clichés to get at the core of things.
I think that writing is an act that leads one to shed elements of a false self and it leads you to ones core, that’s if you want to go there. J D Salinger famously stopped publishing because he wanted his writing to be as free of the demands of others as possible. The thread or piece of string one leaves down as one journeys through the labyrinth of words is just long enough to get to the centre. That’s how long the string is.
I hate sharing personal information. I feel deeply uncomfortable doing so. But it is important. So here goes. I happen to be a writer. This is not by choice. I tried everything not to be a writer. In my early youth I tried a career in religion, which gives one access to lots and lots of books, which is very cool. It also gives one a room of one’s own, also cool (ask Virginia Woolf), an opportunity to meditate (which I like a lot), a very comfortable middle class existence (I’m from the middle classes), as well as a comprehensive training and educational background (I took full advantage of all available libraries). I was not good at attending college, but I did okay with exams. I was expected to be an academic. But I wanted to write, which is not the same thing. I found it difficult to fit into any one academic discipline. I would also like to lightly mention in passing that my brand of religiosity included my joining a monastery, running retreats and giving sermons and being generally incredibly busy with people, which was very difficult for me. I was an odd monk, I must confess. I didn’t like the costume (originally what is now a monks robe was originally the normal clothing of peasants – the hood being a sack for your stuff). I thought it rather elitist and divisive. Also on a general level both back then and now, one would never think it, but I wasn’t comfortable around people. I also found I could be too blunt for people. I offended folks by my excessive straightforwardness, which was taken the wrong way quite a lot. The other thing was I could not stop writing. Poems, articles, stories, essays – I couldn’t stop. Then after a few years I stopped believing in God, which was a devastating and deeply depressing experience. Christianity, at a certain point made no sense. It had its origins in older religions, which in turn had its origins in older myths. It was all clearly made up. I found my true calling was to atheism and publishing poor quality youthful short stories and poems. I quit being a monk. I tried academia but disliked both it and academics. I married, and then, to support my new marriage, I tried being a respectable civil servant with a good job and a house and a pension and serious prospects in the field of computer programming. Though I had hardly seen a computer before becoming a civil servant, I found I had a talent for programming them. I loved taking them apart and reassembling them. I had fun with technology. I used trawl thru computer junk, build a PC, and give them as gifts to friends and people who needed them or didn’t have a personal computer of their own. I also took full advantage of the company library and I learned a few programming languages and made a bit of money. The thing was I still longed to write. Actually at the time I was writing, particularly Sci-Fi, but it wasn’t enough. It was hunger inside me to do more and be more, and though I was naturally good with languages, though I could put ideas, even coded ideas, together easily and quickly, I simply could not take the soul crushing drudgery of working in a corporate setting. The dishonesty, the politics, the lack of challenge, and most of all having to deal with people on a day to day basis, which is by no means my strong suit, I began to drink heavily, and it was a miracle I wasn’t fired for being repeatedly drunk on the job. I remember coding multi-million pound systems while being drunk. I remember compiling reports for accountants, or even writing reports, again while being ‘compromised’, a euphemism one hears in US cop dramas for being under the influence. I was becoming addicted. I found a few brandies relaxed me sufficiently to focus on the task at hand without being unduly anxious while in the company of others, which I disliked. I was earing a lot of money, more than my boss at the time. A therapist I had at the time challenged me. She said if I continued drinking and coding, alcohol would destroy my mind. Those were her words. I realized my misery, my depression and hopelessness I was dulling with drink. I was also becoming very unhappy in my marriage. So I quit. I sold my house and made some money, bought another house, became a landlord, and, with no prospects I started writing novels. My wife at the time started publishing my own work and those of other writers. For the most part my books did modestly well. I had found who I was. I was a member of the tribe of writers. I think this is a crucial thing. Every person needs to find who they truly are, especially as an artist. And we are all artists, everyone. Its not a New Age blanket terms like, for instance, us all being ‘beautiful and unique snowflakes’ or ‘find the genius inside you’. No. We are all creative beings, potentially. Again my trouble being around people reared its head. I was swamped with people. Readings, writings, publications, trips to other countries doing launches and so on, began to take their toll on me. My marriage began to really crater. My wife at the time had her own troubles, deep troubles, and I found no matter what I did I could neither help her or myself. I suffered a major depressive episode and after three years and several disastrous misdiagnoses and horrible medications on the part of therapists and psychologists, I left my wife. Then she took her life just under a year after I left. The horror. As I said in her obituary, this is the single greatest loss of talent and potential the Irish publishing scene has suffered in a generation. It came as a devastating shock to me and to those who loved her, a sorrow of immeasurable proportions. I did not understand her condition. In the aftermath it has been explained to me. Now I understand. I have moved on. But I have not forgotten. Now I continue to write, because I am a writer. This is my story. Tell someone yours today, or even write it down. I find it horribly difficult, but its liberating.
Facebook, as Ms. Tina Turner would say, is simply the best. If one were to come up with a more ingenious idea for a social media platform, I could not improve upon Facebook. It has become the communication platform for over two billion users of all ages (as of 2017). I would guesstimate it’s superceded only by email, the smartphone and the television in popularity and use. Facebook is so clever in its design, it actually employs all the features of email, the phone and the television, having within its increasingly matrix like structure, all kinds and sorts of channels and groups and live video feeds, as well as online chat, facetime and the capacity to call any one user or group from anywhere to anywhere, just so long as you have a Facebook account and an internet link. Its scope is unlimited as it transcends national boundaries, political parties, religion, or age. After live video, pictures, speech, music and the billions of words typed into the Facebook, it is only a matter of time before we all log into Facebook with a retinal scan, post comments via voice recognition software, and chat with Mom or our boyfriend via live holographic interface. Like the web itself, the phenomenon of what happens on Facebook is simply astonishing. Births, deaths, marriages, and events of international and national importance are shared and discussed with forensic detail all times of the day or night. Its also a huge online gaming platform. For instance, every second there are twenty thousand people using it, and, as a result of this level of usage, its functionality is constantly being worked upon.
This is the era of privacy, or the lack of it. For instance I am typing this on WordPress. Above the screen where I type these words, the wordpress program has worked out my location to within a metre or two. When I press ‘Update’, that location is confirmed public for all to see. This is cyberspace, where everything is connected and everything leaves a data trail. The first rule of forensics is that every action leaves a trace. Its interesting. We are surrounded by cheap but sophisticated technology. If your cell phone locates you twenty four seven, and Amazon knows what books you buy or search for, and Google knows your searches and your location, as well as your email address book, then Facebook knows your friends, what you are interested in, and what you and your friends look like, your every action leaves a searchable forensic data trail, forever. A data trail exists now for everything we do. Saying we have nothing to fear if we do no wrong is the first and last cry of an authoritarian state. Privacy is not a privelige. Facebook (and the other aforementioned companies) were founded in the USA. In the USA there are very weak privacy laws. Privacy isn’t codified either in the Constitution nor the Bill of Rights. When you post pictures, then FB owns your image. In fact it has been pointed out the reason why Facebook is free to join is simply because the psychographics and data amassed by one’s posting activity on FB actually makes you and I their product.
What is Facebook?
Facebook is a place to connect virtually. Facebook is the biggest metadata marketplace on the planet. FB is a blogspace, a place where religion is practised, a human rights platform, a place where missing persons are searched for (and found), a marketing tool, an advertising goldmine, a political forum, a dating and sexting site, and somewhere you can meet new people and talk about how much you like puppies or porn or classic science fiction. There are so many new people on facebook – people with lives and biographies and loves and hates and favourite music and bands and websites and marriages and divorces and children and billions of pictures of cats and babies, all there for you to explore. Its absorbing, and creates an increasingly complete dossier available to FB sales and marketing for every FB user. As an inveterate snoop, I have whiled away whole evenings just browsing through all of the human Facebook drama. I can only imagine how useful and lucrative it must be for FB itself. So what does one do on Facebook? You make ‘friends’ on Facebook. Right now you can have up to five thousand ‘friends’. Interestingly one of the many signs of modern loneliness (an experience which is quickly becoming a social epidemic in our ever connected wired up urban and suburban world), is when you have far more friends on FB than you have in real life. Virtual friends will never supercede human contact. Nevertheless, when the platform gets even bigger, along with bandwith and personal and corporate computers growing ever more powerful, I am sure the friend-number will increase. Its scope is, really, unlimited. Right now its worth $403 billion, which is a simply astounding number, considering this is 2017 and it was only founded twelve years ago, its becoming an internet in and of itself, rather like Google, except its not Google. Google is focused on information. Its founders are interested in designing Artificial Intelligence. Facebook is about people, and thats why it is talked about so much. Google, so much a part of the very substance of much internet work is simply a piece of the architecture upon which the web is built. Facebook provides the places we meet people. Facebook is kind of like a city, whereas Google is rather like the State wherein the city has been built.
Whats On Your Mind?
Facebook wants to know whats on your mind. The above question, along with a text box and a facility for posting pictures and videos appears at the top of one’s personal feed. So, straight away we have a means to speak our minds and possibly be heard by, well, everyone. One can also see whats on other peoples minds, from just how much they don’t like Donald Trump, to holiday photos, to photos of meals and fleatrap hotels, to medical updates, to whines about hangovers and boyfriends, to adorable baby seals and crazy stunts, and of course bazillions of puppy and cat videos. It’s incredible. Its an information overload of unprecedented proportions. All of life trots across ones FB webpage. That, and the chance to go wandering around others’ lives becomes an all consuming and vastly time-consuming interest. This is especially the case if you start commenting or posting status updates of one’s own, and the dynamic of posting and reposting status updates becomes a kind of game of reciprocal virtual ping-pong that has no beginning or no end. It goes on an on like a Wagner Opera. Every time we post something, well it’s forever. Every post and comment and ‘like’ is there – forever. Even the things we delete are ‘remembered’, and everything we say -it says something as much about ourselves as it does about the topic of our post. Did I mention data analysis? Everything we type is analysed. Every contact is analysed.
And stored And calibrated. Profiles are built. Our styles of commenting are analysed. Our photos, our arguments – all stored. Those we friend or unfriend or block is part of our profile. I recently unfriended a rather unpleasant FB friend and was reminded by FB on my ‘feed’ that they ‘noticed’ I unfriended someone. But don’t worry, I was told. FB won’t tell this third party I unfriended them. they’ll keep mum. How reassuring, I thought. How kind, even.
Don’t forget too, that all the main security services of the world are here too. All the big names, and a few unnameables. They keep a vigilant watch over every single user – for freedom demands that kind of eternal vigilance. Oh, and data is shared by international agreement. Everything is logged and stored. I don’t think its an exaggeration to say that privacy is now something we tell ourselves we have. But we don’t. If the Internet is forever, then Facebook is the Hotel California. You can log out any time you like, but you can never leave. Your page is there for you long after you deactivate your page. All you got to do is log right back in and your stuff is there for you. Thats great, right?
I Can Stop Using Facebook Anytime I want, I just ‘Like’ it
Facebook is both addictive and its evolving, like a hive or a virtual lifeform. Its tools are becoming more and more refined and those aspects of it which serve no purpose are removed or corrected. They got an army of programmers and analysts all over that platform. Two aspects of FB though I bet will never disappear. One is the capacity to comment on posts, and the big second is the ‘Like’ Button. I think few of us really acknowledge the creeping aspect of ones attachment to using the Facebook platform. You get your account and you start off small. One post here. One ‘Like’ there. One picture of your lovely girlfriend on holiday, and then the ‘Likes’ start coming. You got a new job, or in my case, get published in a prestigious journal and you humblebrag about it and then people start ‘Liking’. The most powerful virtual tool right now is the Facebook ‘Like’ button. One ‘ Like’ and you get a little endorphin kick. A dose of Oxytocin (aka the ‘hug drug’). Facebook is liking. One can keep contact with old friends without the huge time consuming committment. One can go finding out stuff – satisfy our infomania. One can quantify our friendship quotient and fill the deepest need we have in this increasingly atomised culture – the need to belong, to be part of a group, to have that deep sense of support and contact. Facebook be loving us. Don’t go, it says. Thus to leave Facebook in the light of the social, interpersonal, political and cultural advantages it offers as a free platform, is a huge emotional wrench. It is no exaggeration to say that Facebook is addictive. It should come with a warning. Like sugar, the most addictive substance on the planet, Facebook is sweet and reassuring and omnipresent. And it’s truly a demon one has to exorcise from one’s system once one decides to leave.
Detoxing From facebook
Lastly, aside from the vast, vast, waste of time that is Facebook, Facebook makes one jealous. Perhaps ‘envy’ is the right word. Perhaps both. Facebook is saddening. We ‘see’ that version of others’ lives on Facebook and we want what they have. People can’t help humblebragging. Let me unpack that. For instance: recently a ‘friend’ mentioned he was logging off FB because he had to take time out to edit his recently completed novel, which sends a message of success to all the other FB writers out there, and makes me anguished personally as I take forever to finish anything, what with my sitting on my bum thinking all the damn time. Another talks about how busy she has been of late and in sweet terms – and then agave sweetly apologizes to her Facebook friends beacuse she was away on a fabulous holiday with her new lover. Another posts pictures of their new baby, another talks about her new job or that particular prestigious poetry journal she got into, another is busily trekking across France, another is writing a blogpost. And on and on. Nobody wants to talk about daily disasters. Moreover, people seem to be living the lives of movie stars and celebrities. No one seems to be failing or screwing up, like we all fail and screw up – far more than we succeed. And this is the problem. It creates a culture of competition, of a sense of inadequacy and consequent over compensation that has been commented on and analysed by many, many psychologists and podcasters and online journals (GO GOOGLE). Of course, ones self-worth should have nothing to do with the lives of others, that is, in an ideal world. Perhaps if we focused our energies on real life, none of this would happen. Perhaps if we stopped Facebook, went cold turkey and supported each other in coming off this addictive virtual experience, we might take the energy we are using online and made more creative uses of our lives. Maybe. Peace. O.
Aside from being a huge fan of the Alien franchise, over the last months I have started stargazing. Despite the endless rain we have in Kerry in South of Ireland, the night sky down here is mainly free of light pollution, that is when those clouds finally clear. Given a fairly clear night, an hour or two without rain, a warm coat, some gloves and a bit of hot whiskey, fun can be had (sadly Im on a diet – so no whiskey). Also, and most happily, my landlord has a pretty cool telescope. We spend hours looking at the moon and Saturn and occasionally a tiny Mars appears. There are countless stars out there and just staring into a telescope gives one and incredible rush of transcendence. There before one’s eyes are actual proof of other galaxies and other planets and other constellations. Call it a Galileo (remember what happened to him?) moment but we humans sometimes forget how small we are and how vast it all is out there. I find I love to look out through a telescope as opposed to looking into a computer screen. I find it wonderful to sit out on a clear night and allow my eyes to become accustomed to the dark after countless hours of artificial light. After a while the clouds disappear and I look up.
So many stars. Satellites come out at night. It’s fantastic. It’s literally a trip. Try it. Bring the kids. Bring your friends. Go up a hill at night and look at the sky. If you have a telescope all the better. But even with the naked eye looking at huge boiling stars lighting up the night sky millions or billions of light years away, is the most fun you can ever have without spending a cent. For me it’s a consciousness expanding exercise. One theory postulates that we occupy only one of multiple universes, how many we just don’t know. In this particular universe some say there are a hundred billion galaxies. Others say its two hundred billion. Others again say there are five hundred billion galaxies. (I got these figures from a google search, so many results emerging I don’t see how I can provide links to same). When you take the difference between one and five billion, it becomes clear just how much about the universe we just dont know. Also, I think that even if we don’t agree on the number of galaxies in the known universe we can say this. There are almost an uncountable number of them and as such there must therefore be an uncountable number of stars in the each of those galaxies. Right now its an unknown, but a immense number.
If there are a vast number of stars, then there has to be even more planets. Planets form usually from the leftover parts of stars (how planets form), so for every star, there are usually a number of planets rotating around them. Then notion then that we are alone in this incredibly vast, impossibly complex universe, that humanity and the dolphins and the great apes and so on are the only sentient creatures, well anywhere, is so vastly improbable as to be at this stage funny. Its an extension of the junk science isolationism and anthropocentrism we see pervading our culture at present, to think this universe is especially for us and we are alone in it. Though without an ET we got no proof, its also equally true its a mighty vast universe with just one planet that supports life. To me the geeks and conspiracy theorists will be proven right in time, the tinfoil hat wearing brigade talking about other worlds and alien visitations, however hilarious and at times, and, well a bit deranged, have a valid point. Its most theories that fit way outside the accepted agreed pool of belief systems are treated as a bit crazy, but the more one looks out on a vast canopy of stars the more one sees, well more stars. How is it possible we are alone in all of this? Furthermore if we are alone (unlikely), why are we killing each other for real estate or belief systems? We have unlimited places out there to make a home and live in peace. If anything the wisest course of action is to recognize how limited resources are here, treat this beautiful planet with love, and set about recognizing the dangers of overpopulation, and finding new homes elsewhere rather than killing other people simply because they dont have the same god or their ideology doesn’t match yours. The truth is maybe out there?
There are few extraordinarily gifted people people out there who can also be described as really good people. They exist of course, but Marcel Proust, a true artistic genius, was one of them. Kind, sensitive, thoughtful to a fault, a good and faithful friend and an extraordinarily generous man with his time and money, Marcel Proust deserves the title of being ‘extremely cool’. And his books have few peers in sheer scale of writing and breath of vision. They are extremely long, indeed an enormous committment, but the rewards far out weigh the effort in time and patience spent in reading these wonderful books. Forgive me if I sound as if an assumption is made here about prospective readers of Proust. As so much of contemporary culture is about instant rather than long term reward, I am advocating something somewhat counter cultural here. hence my caveat.
Marcel and Marcel – A life poured into a Novel
Marcel Proust poured his life into his novel Remembrance of Things Past, or, as in the original French, A La Recherché du Temps Perdu. From his life he composed so many unforgettable characters, living breathing people filled with ambivalent, sometimes clashing ambitions and sexualities, contradictory longings and sometimes devastating losses. These lives lurk within those famous long lyrical beautiful tortured sentences. There is the erudite eccentric homosexual Baron De Charlus, quoter of Balzac with a fixation for sado masochistic practices in male brothels. De Charlus pursues the gifted musician Morel, who eventually betrays him. Then there is Baron de Charlus’ nephew, Robert de saint Loup who though homosexual, courts and eventually marries Gilberte. Gilberte, with whom Marcel himself was once in love, is daughter to the coquette Odette. Odette is wife of the aesthete socialite, the fascinating and tragic Charles Swann, who risked exclusion from society for Odette, the woman he loved. Marcel, the “I” of the novel, the complex neurotic gifted sickly self-doubting central fictional narrator, has his own share of tragic love affairs. He falls passionately for the bisexual Albertine, whom Marcel jealously tries to control and possess completely. Albertine flees her captivity and dies tragically, something Marcel could never get past. There are other people too: the Guermantes family, the Verduins, Marcels parents, and the brilliant artist Elestir, among many others.
These characters are composites from Marcel Proust’s own life. In detailing their lives, Proust draws from the content of his consciousness, mixes compassion with irony, beauty with pathos, wit with savagery. This style and vision makes his novel addictive reading. It is surprising that there haven’t been more movies about the novel as Proust writes cinematographically. I know of two myself: Jeremy Irons in Swann in Love, and Time Regained with Emmanuele Beart, Catherine Deneuve, John Malkovich and Vincent Perez. Both are fine movies.
Reading Marcel Proust’s Novel
Reading Proust is looking into the mind of a writer/narrator with a fetish for exactitude, an eye for emotional and physical detail that borders on obsessive compulsive. And this is why any at attempt at summarising A la Recherché du Temps Perdu is to subtract story from style, which is to miss out on one of the most unforgettable reading experiences one could have, no small loss in any lifetime. For Proust style is integral to substance, and the substance of the story is time, each moment of consciousness and identity being abolished by the next, time as death and rebirth captured and recalled and reborn in the truth of art. His work is filled with hilariously comic scenes of French society at the turn of the twentieth century. It is peppered with devastating ironies, depicting moments of extraordinary beauty and pathos and savagery. It has all the grasp of humanity, all the clarity and vision and beauty that only a mature artist can bring to a work at the height of their powers. It’s also in seven parts, and is three thousand pages long.
Marcel Proust (1871-1922) came to write A la Recherché only after an equally long journey of self-discovery. It is this journey which is the novels subject. Marcel Proust was the son of Adrien Proust, an eminent physician of provincial catholic descent, and Jeanne Weil, of a wealthy Alsatian Jewish family, born in Auteil, in France. He attended the Lycee Concordet (1882-89), which happily afforded a more relaxed regime than some of the scholarly Schools of the Quartier Latin, which served this sensitive person well. His school reports and essays and letters all speak of someone who loved reading and conversation, who avoided discord at all costs, who sought the companionship of his schoolmates and wrote for class magazines. His early childhood memories were recreated in A La Recherché in parallel with an intricate portrait of society life. One of his earliest memories forms the opening sequence of the novel, that of falling asleep at night. He speaks of dreaming, shifting consciousness, like a teleportation device taking one to other times and places. And yet he longs for the comfort of his mother’s goodnight kiss, his shield against night terrors. In parallel to his own private world, he draws in society too in the person of a family friend, Charles Swann, and later on in life hearing of Swann’s desperate pursuit filled courtship and eventual unhappy marriage to the unfaithful courtesan Odette de Creacy. Swann had met Odette years before at the Verduin salon, filled as it was with countless tiny torturous rubrics and rituals of propriety and nasty controlling gossip. Swann was based on the real life Charles Haas. He, Haas, was born approx. 1833 and was also a habitué of literary salons and artists’ studios. Haas, like Swann, was a Jewish dilettante who was well received in French high society. But Swann, unlike Haas risked his status and reputation for Odette de Creacy. Unfortunately the marriage was not a happy one. Proust did not intend to use Haas at all in the novel and actually gave Swann a very different personality than that of Haas. He said he found that Haas “was present at the conception of my Swann” (Corr vol XII p.387)
People like Haas, whom Proust met superficially or intimately, attached themselves to his memory and imagination, clinging like marker buoys to deeply submerged fragments of memory of his past life. These fictional people play out the tragicomedy of their lives as Marcel strives to find himself within this world of French high society.
What actually happens – the story of the novel
The subject of A La Recherché du Temps Perdu is Marcel’s own evolution from sickly little boy to the artist who succeeds in his ambition to write a great work. The moment which gave the narrator Marcel the inspiration to begin the work is depicted at the end of the book. Here Marcel, now approaching middle age, is late for a musical soiree and is asked to wait in the library of the fictional Princess de Guermantes. The butler brings tea and cake. Marcel has at this stage in his life achieved the highest social acceptance. As he sits waiting, dipping his madeleine cake in tea, he unexpectedly has a climatic moment of realisation. He has a moment of involuntary memory. Memories of childhood wash over him. Suddenly he realises what he must do. He has found the great work he must write. The work is himself, his own journey. Edmund White in his fine book on Proust comments that perhaps “the strangest drama in Proust’s life is the transformation of little Marcel – the dandy and partygoer, the time waster who at thirty- four had managed to do little more than write a slim volume of short stories and two translation of Ruskin – into the great Proust, who wrote one of the longest and most remarkable novels of all time.” (Proust p.82) And now because of his crippling health problems, his ambition to succeed is also a race to against time to write, a race against death.
It is this ironic circular movement, this beginning and end, whereby Marcel in discovering his calling as an artist has to leave society, that make A La Recherché du Temps Perdu so memorable. He has to leave his life, or what he thought to be his life, and recreate the true life. He has to rejuvenate impressions suppressed by time, to recompose life and bring him back to his self, his boyhood and the love and companionship as he originally knew them. For Proust one creates fiction to recreate the truth, to resurrect it from the tomb of time where all things die. The work of the artist is the discovery of life hidden beneath self-love and intellect and habit, the underworld of life unseen because of the mundane and the ritualised. Ironically enough, the Guermantes salon where Marcel has his library insight is initially shown as a place of intelligence and poetry and high art. It is the initially the perfect circle for the fictional Marcel to revolve within. Moreover Marcel falls in love with the Duchess de Guermantes, but gets over it when he meets her in society after a trip to meet Saint Loup in his garrison town. Gradually Marcel’s disillusionment at the hollowness and vanity of Guermantes’ society surfaces. This fictional experience parallels Prousts deepening adult disenchantment with society, something that grew as became ever more upwardly mobile in society. As a boy he had suffered his first asthma bouts, a condition that was to debilitate him for the rest of his life. His childhood holidays (1880-89) were spent at Illiers and Auteuil or at seaside Normandy resorts with his grandmother. These childhood holiday scenes later became the Combray holiday scenes of the novel. During this time, as he played along the Champs-Elysees, he meets and falls in love with a little girl named Marie de Benardaky, just as in the novel the fictional Marcel meets and falls in love with Gilberte Swann, daughter of Charles and Odette. It is through Marie and other such children whose parents were society hostesses that Proust became as he grew older a habitué of some of the most exclusive drawing rooms of French society. Despite his chronic and recurrent ill health, Proust spent a year in the army (1889 to 1890), studied and took licences in law in 1893, and literature in 1895 at the School of Political Sciences. In 1896 he published Les Plaisirs at les Jours (Pleasures and Days), a selection of poignant stories already published in such magazines as Le Banquet and La Revue Blanche. Already he had begun to write the somewhat disjointed but brilliant novel Jean Santeuil (published eventually in 1955), which coincided with his increasing ill health, his gradual withdrawal from a society he could not tolerate.
The Dreyfus Affair and Withdrawal from the World
This world weariness reached a high point with his involvement in the Alfred Dreyfus affair. Dreyfus (1859-1935) was a Jewish army officer unjustly imprisoned in Devil’s Island for spying. The affair was highly controversial, and spilt France into two highly contentious factions. It also alienated Proust from his father. Proust assisted Dreyfus’ lawyer and organized petitions on his behalf. Again his sensitivity to rejection and abandonment, which probably lent itself to his extraordinary graciousness and wit and skills at mimicry, came to the fore. Though Proust was not blackballed in society because of the Dreyfus affair, he did lose friends and was subjected to snide remarks because of being half Jewish, though he protested himself to be catholic. In reality he was agnostic. More than anything it was the bigotry and anti-Semitism of French society which led to his final withdrawal from it. This need to find oneself in the world of society, to find acceptance in it, and consequent failure and retreat and disillusionment, rises and disappears in cycles throughout A La Recherché. Indeed Proust, now that he had no salon world to comfortably retreat into (aside from the very occasional sortie), truly feared his own destiny as a writer. He feared rightly that in beginning the great work he so longed to write it might take everything he had in life. Consequently it would have been easier to dither. Then he might at least continue to live, be among the beautiful creatures of desire that populated high society, write brilliant pastiches of Balzac and Falubert, translate the art critic Ruskin’s works as he had in younger days, and have something akin to a life. But he didn’t. He took the plunge and wrote on. The first volume, Swann’s Way was rejected by the highbrow publishing house, Nouvelle Revue Française on the recommendation of Andre Gide, who thought that a snob like Proust could contribute little worthwhile to literature. Proust’s housekeeper, Celeste Albaret, thought that the manuscript had not even been unwrapped, let alone read. Gide was later to apologise, and radically changed his views after actually reading the manuscript. After the initial rejection by the NRF, the courageous publisher Grasset published Swann’s Way in 1913. Further negotiations between Grasset, Proust and the NRF led to a simultaneous volume being brought out, Within a Budding Grove, for which Proust won the Prix Goncourt in December 1919. Three more volumes came out during Prousts lifetime: Le côté de Guermantes I (October 1920), Le Côté De Guermantes II – Sodome et Gomorrhe I (May 1921), Sodome et Gomorrhe II (April 1922). The NRF in collaboration with Robert Proust, Marcels younger brother, published the final volumes – La Prisonnière (1923), Albertine Disparue (1925) and Le Temps Retrouvé (1927).
Througout A La Recherché the narrator Marcel continually has the ambition to write a great work ever drawing him on. This desire remains despite his misgivings over his talent, and even though ironically his ambitions in society if not in love, are continually satisfied. In real time, for Proust it was the death of his parents, his father in 1903 and his mother in 1905 that ironically set him free both emotionally and financially to write. Proust lived within a cycle of dependency, especially with his mother. Just after his mothers death Proust wrote to the Comte de Montesquiou (the basis for Proust’s Baron De Charlus character) saying that with his mother’s death “My life has now forever lost its only purpose, it’s only sweetness, it’s only consolation. I have lost her whose unceasing vigilance brought me in peace and tenderness the only honey of my life” (Selected Letters 2:208). He sought that peace and tenderness in many forms, in the character of Albertine, the thinly disguised feminisation of Albert Agnoscelli, Prousts secretary and great passionate unfulfilled love. Albertine is first depicted as the leader of a group of girls running on the beach led by Albertine. Like Albertine in the novel, Agnostelli was held captive by Proust, fled from his possessive love and dies tragically. Albert Agnostelli died in a plane crash in 1914 during a time when Marcel saw that millions were about “to be massacred in a war of the worlds comparable to that of Wells” (Corr. Vol XIII, p 283). The death of Albert occurring at the outset of war, led Proust to the second great shipwreck of his life after the death of his parents. For him this death, like his mother’s death, represented the loss of love, loss of everything. It was a desperate passion, an unspeakable unfulfilled desire that Proust projected onto his secretary. With Albert dead as in the novel, he felt himself to be a spent force. His passion and desire and jealousy of Albert were thwarted, as it was always thwarted in life, this time by death. Beauty is lost as love is lost, and though Proust was at the height of his powers as a writer, he stopped writing for a time to heal from such a devastating shock. Just as it was Prousts discovery of John Ruskin’s art criticism back in 1899 that led him to abandon Jean Santeuil, so too during this terrible crisis, it was the spiritual discovery that there was no region of the soul that could not be penetrated with the clear light of art that led Proust to return to work. Proust depicted these scenes of irrevocable loss in the latter part of A La Recherché du Temps Perdu, echoed as they were by other irrevocable losses through the novel of other characters as part of the inescapable truths of life, the emptiness of love and friendship, the ambivalence of desire and sexual attraction, that snobbery and cruelty are as common as beauty and kindness. The only champion against the ravages of time lie in the memories of loved ones and places and interactions stored in involuntary memory. There, outside time, life remains inviolate, beauty and truth becomes sustainable whereas in time it disintegrates. From the first pages of the novel, where through the eyes of the fictional Marcel one relives his childhood longings for his mothers goodnight kiss which was his shield against the terror of abandonment, we experience a hypersensitivity, a sense of dread and abandonment which never left him. It returned in later life as lovers left him, or friends and relatives died, whether naturally or as part of the thirty six million casualties of the First World War. But one of the novels deepest truths is the emptiness of friendship and love, as Beckett writes “Friendship according to Proust, is the negation of that irredeemable solitude to which every human being is condemned” (Proust p. 63) Ironically though, Proust both in life and in the composite fictional Marcel remained a faithful friend, and betrayed no one.
Towards the end of the novel after Albertine’s flight and death and Marcel having spent some time in a sanatorium, he meets Baron de Charlus, now physically ruined by his sexual inclinations, betrayed by his beloved Morel and by the Verduins, his friends. Charlus begins to enumerate all the dead they both once knew: “Continuing to speak to me about the past, no doubt to prove to me that he had not lost his memory, he evoked it now… by reciting an endless list of all the people belonging to his family or his world who were no longer alive…with satisfaction at having survived them” (A La Recherché Vol. 6 p.211). This incident forms an initial link to a chain of events of memory that makes Marcel realize that the beauty and truth of the past still lives, and he begins the work of writing A La Recherché du Temps Perdu.
The novel has Prousts own homosexuality projected onto it, something that conspired along with his disillusionment and half Jewishness to producing a work written from the perspective of the outsider who ironically, is still fully accepted in society. It is precisely because of Marcel’s sense of otherness that allows him such a lucid deeply sensitised view of the society he grew up in. His fair minded exploration of all aspects of human nature, the beautiful and the bestial, broadened the range of his work, making A La Recherché du Temps Perdu into one of the greatest novels in all aspects of sexual love and of human nature. It is filled with brilliant insights into the nature and vanities of human love and sexuality, and profoundly influenced novelists and artists from Samuel Beckett to Virginia Woolf.
Proust died on Saturday November 18 1922 of complications brought on by bronchial pneumonia. He died feted as a man of letters, still helping his friends and fretting over the as yet unpublished sections of his novel. He died a fulfilled person after years of apparent failure and anonymity. He died with a reputation that was to expand to astral proportions. He had succeeded in his ambition to write a great work, the sheer originality of it, along with his celebration of the extraordinary nature of everydayness, makes A La Recherché du Temps Perdu a true classic, a truly universal novel.