Give me the glass, and therein will I read…

I’ve been thinking about this one for a while; how to frame and explain what seems a rather esoteric idea. It goes something like this…

If I had been born in the Netherlands during its Golden Age, if I had studied painting and produced work for the exploding population of middle-class merchants seeking work of less religious and more domestic themes, and if I had I been a genius, I could have painted something like Rembrandt’s Woman Bathing. I could never have painted Vermeer’s Wine Glass.

If I had been developing television series for the BBC in the 1980s – and had been hugely talented – I might have come up with something like the Singing Detective; I would not have been able to conceive Smiley’s People…

I glimpse in these first works, dim and incomplete, qualities that are deeply and personally felt, superior reproductions of my own semi-conscious preoccupations and sense-tones: I see aspects of myself expressed better than I could ever say them.

And this is not the same thing as admiration or enjoyment, or even quality. I stand stunned before the works of Proust, Fra Fillippo Lippi, Miles Davis, as acts of skill, as vast intellectual and emotional accomplishments, yet I do not encounter myself in their works, I am located outside the perimeter, gaping in. Passages of HP Lovecraft, on the other hand, echo to me the histrionics of my own prose, and sometimes even my gloomier suspicions about the world. It unnerves to identify more with the tormented Rhode Island racist than with, say, a genius such as Joyce.

We don’t choose the works in which we recognise ourselves (I say we, assuming that others may have the same eerie experience). A work resonates with private truth or it does not. In Gunter Grass’s Tin Drum – the film when I was a child, the book as an adult – I found what seemed the perfect ensign for how I imagined the best my fiction could aspire to, not because it was the best I’d ever read but because I sensed, radiating through it as a kind of palimpsest, qualities that felt intimately familiar. For the good and bad.

There are some geniuses that can produce both kinds of work: King Lear, for me, reads like my darkest, most pagan inner voice speaking direct, human truth. Julius Caesar, whilst magnificent, seems beamed from another thought-world entirely. Titian and Dylan also achieve this, I think.

These thoughts are instinctual and inconclusive; could we each amass a tribe of these avatars, on a separate shelf, and say ‘over there is the great work, but here is the work – good and bad – that explains me to myself’? And if you could do that, would you show anyone, or would you box them in the cellar?



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15 responses to “Give me the glass, and therein will I read…

  1. Captain Ned

    I’ve been thinking about this eloquent post for a couple of days now, although it seems longer than that. I’m not sure if I’ve ever recognised myself or a ‘private truth’ in a work of art in the way that you describe, but, after being prodded into reflection, I realise that there are books, paintings, films, that have struck in me feelings somewhat similar, although less uncanny, perhaps. What I have in mind goes beyond admiration, even of the most fervent kind (for example, my love of Bleak House or Tokyo Story); it’s the thought that, yes, this is the kind of art I would one day like to produce. The likelihood of my literary efforts ever being able to attain the brilliance of Under the Glacier, Cosmicomics or Tristram Shandy is, of course, remote. It’s even less likely that I’ll make films like Syndromes and a Century or La regle du jeu, compose music like the Goldberg Variations, design a building like Christchurch, Spittalfields, or execute images like the Disasters of War. But I can’t help it; as I think about these works and a few others, it’s as if I’m travelling across a network of tracks I want to expand. This is not something I feel with regard to a whole host of other masterpieces I might recognize as being better in many ways; as you say, it’s not something we choose, and I don’t suppose any of it can be explained. I think now that I’ve long been susceptible to this type of feeling (although it could be an illusory kind of memory that’s at work here), but, previously, I haven’t thought deeply enough about it for some sort of semi-coherent understanding to emerge.

    I’ll never be an architect or a composer; I dabble with paint from time to time, but purely as a hobby; I dream of being a film director, but I’ve never got around to even attempting to realise that dream. But I have just finished writing a novel. One reason that your post has disconcerted me so much, eb, is that, regardless of its merits and demerits, what I’ve written is utterly different from any of the books which have given rise to the feeling of recognition I’ve been on about; its stylistic and intellectual ambitions/pretensions plough a far-removed field. Is there such a gap between the kind of writer I picture myself wanting to be and the kind of writer I reveal myself to be in practice? It’s my first attempt; perhaps as I progress (if I progress) I’ll become a more Sternian, Calvinoesque and Laxness-like writer (can anyone be all three?). But is this something I should strive to be? Strive to avoid becoming? Or should I just shrug and carry on regardless?

  2. @Ned; it’s 4am for me. Short answer: carry on regardless. Long answer will be coming tomorrow. In the meantime, thanks for such a thoughtful post. One thought I have, for both of us; get rid of the self-denigrating sub-clauses (‘ambitions/pretensions’, etc). Accept that you want to make good work and don’t apologise for it. I am certain that every artist you mention had the same doubts that you describe for yourself. And tomorrow (when I’m sober) I will elaboate…

  3. mishari

    I glimpse in these first works, dim and incomplete, qualities that are deeply and personally felt, superior reproductions of my own semi-conscious preoccupations and sense-tones: I see aspects of myself expressed better than I could ever say them.

    I’d say that sums up my own experience perfectly. It’s why I feel drawn more powerfully to some works than others, almost as if we see parts of ourselves in these potential, alternative mirrors. It has litle to do with the ‘superiority’ of the work qua work, it’s more a sense of ‘recognition’ or affirmation or something inexpressible but nonetheless very real…

    Excellent piece…

  4. Thank you very much, Mishari.

    ‘It has little to do with the ’superiority’ of the work’

    Exactly. As I’ve said, I’m often a little put out by the works that trigger this recognition in me. Art doesn’t only reveal to us the qualities on which we’re comfortable reflecting.


    I’m particularly interested in this –

    ‘what I’ve written is utterly different from any of the books which have given rise to the feeling of recognition’

    I have had a similar experience and feel it’s a very encouraging sign; you have your own voice. Often, when I’ve enjoyed a novel or been struck by its techniques/style, I’ll write a short story in an effort to emulate or test that style. What comes out always, despite the stylistic insertions, plays along the same themes and preoccupations. I don’t know how much you’ve written prior to this novel but I’m sure you will find, or have found, that you have an awful lot to say about a very specific set of themes. I say ‘carry on regardless’ because, in my experience, whenever we speak we speak in our own voice. Whether you aspire to be more ‘calvino-esque’ etc, my feeling is that whatever you consciously attempt to do, your work will only become more CaptainNed-esque.

    From reading your posts at PH, GU etc, I get the impression that your literary education is very thorough and well-learned, unlike mine, so can I assume you’re familiar with (I think) Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence theory? I’ve found it very useful when trying to navigate the area where a work or artist one identifies with or admires stops being an inspiration and becomes a kind of threat, the work seeming so powerful or complete that one’s own work feels insubstantial, even trite. I’m not sure most of us ever quite sever the cord that ties us to these core-inspirations, but by returning to challenge their power in the attempt to create original work, and by speaking in our own voice, we strengthen as artists. If that makes any sense.

  5. “here is the work – good and bad – that explains me to myself”
    I think that’s a wonderful way of describing works of art that have that particular appeal. I usually say to people who disagree “Oh, it just strikes a chord with me”, but it’s more than that because they do nourish you and it’s quite true that those are the works from which you learn who you are.

    And I agree that this is not the same process as developing as a writer. You write what you’re able to write, and I’m not sure that reflecting too much about influences and personal themes is very helpful. Being daunted by greater talents certainly isn’t!

    Something I have noticed, though, is that often people are writing as their slightly younger self. It’s as if it takes a few years for experiences to be absorbed, and then they come out in the work even if your conscious self has moved on as the time has passed. So the person who writes is not quite who you are now, and may seem a bit of a stranger.

  6. HenryLloydMoon

    This Martian popped round one Saturday morning. I thought he’d come for a drink of water. I was just about to inform him that I didn’t condone character-buiilding Bob-A-Job weeks for a proto-fascist organisations when he said, “Got any CDs?”

    Thinking that he was probably going to take them back home (and that’s the last I’d see of them), I saw a unique opportunity to introduce other worlds to our musical culture, and promptly unpacked my boxes of music. Soon the garage floor was awash with albums, some with near-opaque plastic cases from the early days of the format when mastering hadn’t quite come to terms with digital technology; some pristine and unscarred – probably freebies.

    I chose a pot-pourri of twentieth-century excellence: Blood On The Tracks, Revolver, Pet Sounds. A good showcase for Western sounds, both adult and teenage angst, and major-chord harmonies. He seemed hesitant. Perhaps he wasn’t convinced; perhaps he thought I was being tight. I pulled out my trump card: Astral Weeks. That’ll make him feel at home, I thought.

    As we were leaving the garage, it occurred to me that I should have been more generous, so I quickly snatched a stray Mail On Sunday Mozart compilation from the deck. He left looking rather puzzled.

    I spent the next week pondering on this, and decided to be better prepared for when the next stellar voyager happened by. I ripped a few of the discs I couldn’t bear to part with onto my hard disk in a lossless format.

    The next Saturday, wouldn’t you know it, back comes the little Martian asking for “More CDs.”

    “I’m sorry I lumbered you with a kind of Mojo-Q-Uncut version of earthling music,” I said. “I’ve found these for you. These are mine.”

    I proceeded to tell him about the conviction I once had that I was the only British-born teenager in London irremediably hot-wired to Asbury Park, NJ.; of how just one track of The Wild, The Innocent And The E Street Shuffle could electrify me for the rest of the day; of how Terry Reid’s River could unlock rarely visited realms of my psyche where untapped supplies of Groove were stored; of the fractal textures of Tomita’s renderings of Debussy when under the influence of LSD…

    I’m not sure how much of my chuntering he understood. He looked as uncertain as before, though I thought I detected a glint of gratitude as he toddled off.

    I later heard from a friend that his parents had beaten him for bringing back infertile plastic discs when he’d been expressly asked to go on an agricultural sampling mission.

  7. @zeph

    ‘You write what you’re able to write’

    Beautifully said. I think a lot of aspiring authors would save themselves a great deal of time and anguish by recognising this as early as possible and, without fear or complaint, surrendering to the principle absolutely.

    ‘often people are writing as their slightly younger self’

    When the Gunter Grass-was-in-the-SS story broke, John Irving wrote an article defending him; the one phrase I remember (and his principle argument, extended to a rather comical extreme) was ‘writers take a long time to absorb experience’. I find this is true (full disclosure: I was never in the Waffen SS).

    ‘they come out in the work even if your conscious self has moved on as the time has passed’

    I think they come out because the coscious self has moved on. It can be maddening, when trying to address a current preoccupation or interest, that the richer thoughts so often look back to distant events. Some artists, I think, never leave the confines of a few early, founding experiences. Expecially, as is possible with Grass, if the founding event has never been consciously assimilated.

  8. @HLM

    Welcome, welcome!

    I’ll post a more thoughtful reply just as soon as I’ve absorbed the information that you met a martian. You’ve hit another of my preoccupations: the gulf between personally-beloved music (not always the greats) and universally-acknowledged masterpieces to which we must all submit…

  9. HLM: a great encounter! and as good a use as any for a Mail on Sunday Mozart compilation.

    ExitB: this is a subject dear to my heart, being one who’d always rather sit and think about writing than get on and do it. The other thing I was going to say is that I don’t think any writer, even a great one, is aware of all the themes that run through his or her own work – or at least not until late in life. It’s the stuff you didn’t realise had crept in which in the end will form the identity of your work. And perhaps some of that has come from the material on the favourites shelf or that secret second life in Asbury Park.

  10. A wish expressed and fulfilled — ; ) — thank you, EB. I’ve only just found this very good new entry. Not enough time to think about it at present, sadly … I’ve been fighting off a virus making the rounds, … winning, so far … but the battle has slowed me down.

  11. No problem, acacc-etc. This was based in part on the first post I wrote for a BaronCharlus blog (now deleted) that no one ever saw. Looking forward to your thoughts. Get well soon!

  12. Captain Ned

    @ exitb
    Sorry about the delayed response, but when the Prince calls for chants royals… well, you’ll know yourself, judging by your excellent contribution, which must have taken some work.

    I haven’t written anything of substance prior to my novel, the genesis of which was serendipitous. I was watching a TV documentary which made brief mention of a couple of historical figures and their escapades, thought it was interesting, did some cursory research, and decided here was material for a novel. It was lucky that this idea struck when it did; I was approaching the end of my studies without the faintest notion in my mind of what to do next. What I will say in relation to the book’s themes and style is that though I’m reasonably happy with the result, I feel pretty sure that if I try following it with something similar, I’d be going down a dead end; I just can’t see it being more than a one-off. Perhaps worrying about being more Calvinoesque, for example, is just my clumsy way of casting about for alternatives. Obviously, I’ll need to think more deeply about it than this – but I’ve only just finished my first effort, so there’s no hurry.

    I don’t know about having had a thorough education. I did Eng Lit as an undergraduate, and then did a brief, enjoyable but somewhat lazy postgraduate degree. That’s the extent of my education, and it’s superficial in many ways. Take the Anxiety of Influence theory. I’d heard of it, but I’ve never read any Bloom. Study of theories and critical approaches often amounted at university to no more than familiarising yourself with second-hand accounts – so we’d be given texts like Eagleton’s ‘Literary Theory’ to grub up on Russian formalists, New Critics and formerly fashionable French theorists, etc. We weren’t asked to read any Russian formalists, New Critics or formerly fashionable French theorists; first-hand knowledge was not deemed necessary. Of course, had we so wished, there was nothing to prevent us from reading this kind on our own initiative – nothing to stop us except all the other reading/skim-reading we had to do, not to mention the claims of far more important non-academic activities, mainly involving alcohol. Even with novels, poems etc., we didn’t have the opportunity to read them with particularly great attention (except during the holidays), because there was always the knowledge that an essay would have to come out of it by the end of the week. In practice, this often meant that I’d have a vague idea of what I was going to write about a particular book before I’d even started reading it. It’s not that I’m jaundiced about higher education, because I enjoyed my experience of it immensely. But I think people have to be realistic about what a humanities degree can do. It can’t, by itself, make you ‘educated’ in any meaningful sense of the word – at least a BA won’t do that – there’s too much ground to cover in too short a time. What it might do, if it’s of any use, is to point out certain interesting avenues, which you may choose to investigate further of your own volition. And you don’t necessarily have to do a degree to have them pointed out to you in the first place.

  13. @Ned

    Many thanks for the insights into your working process (plus the follies of an Eng-lit curriculum).

    It sounds like you have an admirable, far more level-headed attitude to writing than I. I think I’d rushed through two different MSs before even stopping to think about research, structure, or giving myself space and time to develop. That all came later. I admire your capacity for research; it’s one of the things I find most difficult and a reason I’ve not attempted any historical fiction although I have several pet subjects I’d love to fictionalise. As I’ve said, I suspect that, as you write more, you will discover your themes, rather than choosing them. Regarding your Calvino reference, I also find it important to have some new discovery or influence to spur me on when beginning a new project although I have learned that I more often that not return to a few founding texts (as outlined in the above post). Do you intend to take your MS further (i.e. to an agent?).

    I studied theatre, not literature, and only developed an interest in literary history and theory due to the seminars of a particular lecturer in my final year. I still circle around the themes he introduced me to in most of my work. Later still I (re)discovered a taste for writing something longer than a song lyric. I didn’t begin reading ‘literature’ until about ten years ago (if I wanted to write, I reasoned, I should read some books), and have always admired (with a touch of jealousy) those whose educations allow them to navigate the periods, regions, theories and categorisation of literature with such ease. Makes talking about it at parties far easier.

  14. Captain Ned

    It’s with an agent now; I await a response. I may be waiting some time…

  15. @Ned

    best of luck. But, yes, if you expect a long wait then you won’t be disappointed. Everyone I know that writes suffers months-long waiting periods for even the most cursory feedback. That said, if the agent is interested, you will quickly move up their to-do list.

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