Or: One Reason It's Hard to Write
On a dark wintry morning I woke up early (under the banks of darkness a grim dawn shone in the depths below) and while a multitude of misty figures and signs still crowded under my eyelids, I began to dream confusedly, tormented by various regrets about the old, forgotten Book.
—Bruno Schulz, “The Book”
We know it's there, the Book, we know we've even seen it, but we never can quite lay our hands on it. This is true for readers and writers alike. Even if we think we've accepted that we won't find it, and put it out of our minds, sometimes, between sleeping and waking, it haunts us.
The quote above is from a collection of interconnected stories that form a novel: The Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass by Bruno Schulz. I was introduced to his work too many years ago to think about, by my favorite teacher at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Deborah Eisenberg, but I read this particular story for the first time today.
The Book... Somewhere in the dawn of childhood, at the very first daybreak of life, the horizon shone with its gentle light. It lay in its full glory on Father's desk, whilst he, silently engrossed in it, patiently rubbed with a licked finger its ridge of decals until the blank paper began to mist, to blur, and loom with blissful anticipation. Shreds of tissue-paper suddenly began to peel away to disclose a mascaraed, peacock-eye rim, and my swooning gaze fell into a virgin dawn of godly colours, into wonderful dampness of the purest azures.This is the Book as it appears to us in childhood, when all possibilities seem limitless, before we understand stories are written by people as imperfect as ourselves, when it still seems as if they might be direct portals to a boundaryless paradise, and so they are.
Oh, the wearing away of that film! Oh, that invasion of splendour! Oh, blissful spring! Oh, Father!...
Father would occasionally get up from the Book and leave the room, and I was left with it, all alone. A wind moved through its pages and visions arose. And as the wind silently turned those pages over, blowing the colours and figures away, a shudder ran through the columns of its text, releasing flocks of swallows and skylarks from among the letters. It rose into the air, scattering page after page; it gently suffused the landscape, which it saturated with its colours, or it slept and the wind quietly blew it around like a cabbage rose, its leaves parting, sheet after sheet, eyelid after eyelid, each one blind, velvety and lulled to sleep, concealing deep within its azure pupil, its peacock core, a screeching nest of humming-birds.
It reminded me of Ann Patchett's description of the novel that lives inside you when you first conceive of it, and what happens when you have to write it:
During the months (or years) it takes me to put my ideas together, I don’t take notes or make outlines; I’m figuring things out, and all the while the book makes a breeze around my head like an oversized butterfly whose wings were cut from the rose window in Notre Dame. This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.
And so I do. When I can’t think of another stall, when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing – all the color, the light and movement – is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s my book.
When I tell this story in front of an audience it tends to get a laugh. People think I’m being charmingly self-deprecating, when really it is the closest thing to the truth about my writing process that I know.
—Ann Patchett, from "The Getaway Car" in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage.
I'm guessing the people who laugh at this story aren't writers. Or they haven't written enough to realize that that feeling, or some version of it, is likely to keep coming back to them forever. You'd think you might get a pass after, say, your sixth novel. (That's how many Patchett has written.) No.
It's a bleak story, but also comforting. Having that feeling doesn't mean you're not a writer. It doesn't mean you are, either—but pushing on in spite of it does.
That feeling doesn't come from incompetence but from the fundamental inadequacy of words to convey, as Schulz says, that radiant and "unnameable thing" that we all sense, but can't quite comprehend, or even touch—except briefly, every once in a while. We keep reaching for it, because what else is there to do? We know it's possible because we have glimpsed it. Maybe while reading a Bruno Schulz story.
What could the pathos of adjectives or the haughtiness of epithets avail in the face of that measureless thing, that magnificence beyond reckoning? The reader, at all events, the true reader on whom this novel relies, will surely understand when I look deep into his eyes and shine there with that same radiance. In that brief but forceful look, that fleeting grip of the hand, he will apprehend, accept, anticipate. And he will close his eyes in rapture at that profound recognition; for do not we all, under the table that separates us, hold one another secretly by the hand?
—Bruno Schulz, “The Book”
|Heorhiy Narbut, illustration for The Crane and the Heron and Bear 1907|