Constraint, ii

26 January 2010

For those of you who were interested the last time I wrote about Javier Marías’ reading at New Haven & the constraint (at least that’s what I called it) that he employs, here’s another account of the same event by Andrew Seal at Blogophia Literaria:

Finally, he [Marías] offered an interesting account of how he writes. After a page is finished—I don’t believe he said “perfected,” but he could have, not because he was less than humble, but because that would be an appropriate verb for his writing—he will not add new material or subtract anything from it to restructure the shape of the narrative. He says he will make continuity corrections (switching a Thursday to a Tuesday), but he doesn’t change what he has written if doing so might make things more convenient for the novel at a later stage; if Marías didn’t think of it the first time, he has to write his way around it at the point in the narrative when it becomes necessary to do so. If it might help, for instance, that a character knew something 20 pages earlier than when Marías thought about it, all the worse for the character—and for Marías—he described this method as “suicidal!” He sticks to this principle, he says, because he wants to parallel the conditions of knowledge in real life. Not knowing something when you’re twenty has actual consequences, no matter how much you might wish you had known that thing now that you’re thirty.

I’d wished before I could have been there to ask Marías in more detail, but a stereoscopic report of the answers he gave is the next best thing. It’s fascinating to see two people give such different accounts of the same thing — I know I’m reinventing the Rashomon wheel here, but still.

Seal doesn’t mention the typewriter, which honestly was the first thing that caught my eye in Crowley’s version, but his account is a nice answer to my nagging skepticism over what had before sounded to me a little like a Kerouackian scroll, writing without revision. I wrote before that the essential unit of Marías prose was the long, baroque, redoubled sentence; later I emended that to the paragraph; but now, knowing that he ‘perfects’ or ‘finishes’ a page & then moves on, it’s easier to read the long paragraphs as ‘pages,’ & the effect of the way he writes that I keep trying to describe is the same, a kind of working-out or working-through of a thing, turning it around & around in hand & reconsidering it & then setting it down & moving on to the next. And I still think the typewriter is an especially good vehicle for this kind of writing, the way the sentences are set down immovably & you have to work out what you want to say before diving into them.

All of this, at any rate, reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend a few days ago that turned to the idea of writing in darkness. A couple of lines from a letter Diderot wrote always come to my mind —

“This is the first time I have ever written in the dark . .. not knowing whether I am indeed forming letters. Wherever there will be nothing, read that I love you.”

— Diderot, letter to Sophie Volland, June 10, 1759

— but also got me thinking about Nicholson Baker, who told the Wall Street Journal that he writes essentially the same way that his protagonist writes in A Box of Matches, at 4 a.m. on an old laptop with the background black & the letters dark blue, the screen lowered so that it’s grazing the tops of his knuckles, staring into a fire; darkness writing. For The Anthologist, though, he’d recorded a few hundred hours of tape narrating as the titular poetry anthologist & then transcribed it, to try to get the voice right.

Method of composition leaves its mark on writing — whether we write it out in longhand, whether we assemble on notecards, whether we dictate or record our own voices or type out & refuse to change pages once they’ve been perfected. I remember reading once, years ago, Walker Evans’ introduction to an edition of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men that talked about James Agee’s ‘night writing’ . . . ah. Here it is, from google books:

Night was his time. In Alabama he worked I don’t know how late. Some parts of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men read as though they were written on the spot at night. Later, in a small house in Frenchtown, New Jersey, the work, I think, was largely night-written. Literally the result shows this; some sections read best at night, far in the night. The first passage of A Country Letter (p. 34) is particularly night-permeated.

— “Forward,” p. vi

You could make method a kind of performance art, define in advance a method of composition for each novel, suited or at odds with the project, to capturing the voice or produce something different from what you’d written before. Dictate one novel via telephone, assemble the other out of napkins, type the third on Cormac McCarthy’s typewriter, bought at auction, write the fourth with nothing but a quill pen, the fifth into your second language & then retranslated. I don’t know if constraints of writing method are the same as constraints as in Georges Perec — but aren’t the rituals of our national writers, reported on wide-eyed by journalists in the Wall Street Journal, already performative?

(Speaking of that article, headlined — really? — “How to Write a Great Novel,” here’s Margaret Atwood treating the question with the appropriate level of seriousness:

“Put your left hand on the table. Put your right hand in the air. If you stay that way long enough, you’ll get a plot,” Margaret Atwood says when asked where her ideas come from. When questioned about whether she’s ever used that approach, she adds, “No. I don’t have to.”)