SECOND THOUGHTS – THE HINDU
Fondling the details
BY NAVTEJ SARNA
At the Jerusalem Book Fair, where he won the Jerusalem Prize, British novelist Ian McEwan's interactions threw light on his “enduring love affair with the novella” and the mechanics of his writing.
The literary café is the most exciting part of the biennial Jerusalem Book Fair. In this open, informal and civilised space — in fact, so civilised that it has a working coffee counter right next to a makeshift stage — take place the encounters with the literary giants of home and abroad. I was witness to one such interaction last week: The man on the spot was Britain's foremost writer today: Ian McEwan, winner of the Jerusalem Prize, and the man who expertly drew him out, with an understated knowledge of literary technique and rapier sharp wit, was Meir Shelev, himself a renowned Israeli novelist.
McEwan's response on being given the Jerusalem Prize was suitably self-deprecatory, as if constantly looking back over his shoulder to make sure that the judges had not made some mistake. He paid homage to other recipients before him, people who had “rearranged his mind.” The list that begins with the philosopher Bertrand Russell includes Simone de Beauvoir who provided special insights into relationships and Isaiah Berlin who had shown the “dangers of Utopia” as well as fiction writers Arthur Miller and Milan Kundera whose fiction “swayed and entranced him”.
From the prize itself to the city after which it is named was a natural jump. Shelev trawled out the not-so-complimentary reactions to Jerusalem of some famous writers. Herman Melville, on visiting Jerusalem, said that “Jerusalem is surrounded by cemeteries and dead people are its strongest guild.” Actually, though Shelev did not venture that far, Melville said much more and his descriptions would never make it to a tourist brochure. He thought that Jerusalem looks at you “like a cold, gray eye in a cold, old man……Stony mountains & stony plains; stony walls & stony fields; stony houses & stony tombs; stony eyes & stony hearts. Before you and behind you are stones.” Gogol was so affected by the city that on his return he burnt the second half of Dead Souls. McEwan agrees that the city has a “sense of echo” and could well destroy his novel in progress. Like a sudden journey, which can startle you with a new insight into life and make everything written earlier sound meaningless and trite.
However, the city's preoccupation with religion does not get to him. Ever the outspoken rationalist, he proclaims his atheism and the absence of any divine force dictating the affairs of men. “Most things that happen in life are random. You may not have been born if, say on one evening in 1948, your mother had decided to stay in and wash her hair instead of going out to a party where she met this nice young man.” Much in the same manner, he proclaims, the novel is constructed of a series of coincidences that enable the interaction between characters and move the action forward. When the conversation turns, as inevitably such conversations turn nowadays, to the issue of the survival of a novel, McEwan offers an irresistible rationale for its survival: “Human beings are social animals, profoundly curious about each other's lives. The novel is a kind of higher form of gossip and is sustained by our curiosity about others. It satisfies our gossipy instincts. Jane Austen was the greatest and most gossipy of novelists.”
But it is of the novella, a form with which he has had “an enduring love affair,” that he talks enthusiastically. It is this genre that he enjoys most; even On Chesil Beach is only 39000 words long; it enables the writer to move the story ahead at a tremendous speed, leaving no place for sub-plots. In a way he is a miniaturist: a confined place — whether in space or time — seems to bring out the best in him, the little visual detail, the description of every half-movement, the cranking up of the literary tension, bit by bit.
As he admits elsewhere, he has always kept in mind Nabokov's directive to “fondle details.” So he plays around with sentences, replaces one word with another, polishes passages until it seems that they were always meant to be as they finally appear. The process is as much for the pleasure of the writer as it is for the reader; in fact, it is a “self-pleasuring act.” His literary career began with two collections of short stories and whimsically he muses that that is where it may well end: “Writing a novel needs stamina. I find it exhausting to be in the foothills of a novel. In my eighties, I see myself folding completely into the novella, then into the short story, then perhaps into haiku.”
On the mechanics of writing, the tiring “procedural questions”: he likes to think of every novel as his first. The exhausting post-book activity, when the author has to peddle his book in the manner of a salesman of glass tiles¸ deadens the book in the author's mind. He is then free to move on. That's McEwan's preference too.
He likes gaps between books, he “tries to let some life go by.” As he said in an interview some time ago: “I'm very cautious about starting anything without letting time go, and feeling it's got to come out. I'm quite good at not writing. Some people are tied to five hundred words a day, six days a week. I'm a hesitater.” When he does start writing, it is a tentative process - putting down fragments¸ introducing characters to see what they would do. He is elated by surprises, the surprise of a particular adjective appearing before a noun or a character making a sudden move; “in fact”, he says, “a character should surprise you.” As one would expect, McEwan writes down ideas, images, and phrases as they come in a spiral notebook. He relates how once, when writing notes in a café, he lost his notebook, leaving him with a feeling of tremendous loss. Until one day, eighteen months later, the notebook landed, in a brown envelope, with a thud on his doormat. On re-reading it, he discovered that it did not contain a single worthy thought!
As I left the café, I bought not one of his famous novels but a collection of early short stories, In Between the Sheets. I'm only half way through it, and I certainly don't want to hurry him along to his eighties, but so powerful is his short stuff that I look forward to the time when Ian McEwan will “fold into the novella.”