There are a few authors you read that seem to compel you to write. You read slowly, softly, feeling every word. And then you nod, you agree. The emotions are beautiful, at times you believe you too have some of them, but those words, that language, the way to weave all those things together, beautifully, poetically is a gift! After reading those authors, you feel compelled to try to write even though you feel short of words to express yourself adequately. And then it hits you well and truly that writing is difficult. And the more you read, the more you realize your limitations.
This must sound selfish - this reading of books and constantly comparing, measuring myself against the level or intensity or clarity of their thoughts. Does it hint towards a deeper desire of being able to express myself as precisely and beautifully as all those writers that I read and admire? Or is it not just a way to appreciate the nuances better? Isn't it that when you pick up the pencil to sketch, you observe better and recognize the effort in a painting? When you begin to learn a sport yourself, you better appreciate the performance of its top players, and the super-heroic stuff that they manage to do. When you yourself try to cook, you better appreciate the mastery of certain recipes and chefs and the way they can make food intensely flavorful yet retaining its lightness. Or trying to learn chords on a guitar, you open up new heightened senses to the music you hear. May be, it is about walking in their shoes for a little distance. May be, it is just that trying to write, makes you appreciate the terrain from where the writers send their messages better. Or helps you recognize that what seems effortless, is not really so.
It is ironic that these thoughts were inspired by a translated book. A few weeks ago, I read ‘Autumn’ by Karl Ove Knausgaard. It is a collection of little personal essays on objects, written to his unborn daughter. The collection is part of a Quartet. Perhaps the first one to be translated. He decided to write about something every day to introduce the unborn child to different things in this world. A sort of personal notebook, a mini encyclopaedia, a personal take on everyday objects. Most of the time the objects are sort of departure points to convey other thoughts. And it is beautiful.
Other couple of authors that evoked similar feelings recently are Elizabeth Von Arnim (my recent reads include Elizabeth and her German Garden, Vera, Solitary Summer, The Benefactress) and Simone De Beauvoir (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, again, a beautiful translation). Both of them are new discoveries for me, and very pleasing ones. With Knausgaard, Von Arnim and De Beauvoir, I can (somewhat) identify with the feelings they go through. Even if I have not felt it expressly, I seem to know what they are saying. Some of those emotions might be around me as a fog, but they have converted them into something physical, actual, real, tangible by verbalizing it. They speak to me, and they seem in a similar realm and world, although on a much different plane.
Contrast them with two other writers I revere, and read recently more from. Against a similar backdrop as Knausgaard's Scandinavien landscape, I recently read Isak Dinesen's collection of stories, Winter's Tales. A superb book. Similar to her Babette's Feast, the stories are not commonplace. They are filled with a lot of wisdom, and level of feeling and insights that make you wonder about how intensely a human being can feel, observe and recreate that reality for you. And you wonder whether you can ever do even a little bit of that?
Similarly, another of my recent reads - a collection of stories by AS Byatt – Elementals, was another other-worldly sort of writing. A unique set of stories, rich and colorful - a beautiful collection. It is similar to her Matisse Stories, delectable morsels of short stories. There are water nymphs, ice princesses, people walking out of their own lives, and people lost in nightmarish realities. Dream-like low-probability sequences. The starkness of these stories pretty much keeps the excitement up throughout. Every emotion is heightened, deeply felt and seemingly new.
Where the first three (Knausgaard, De Beauvoir and Von Arnim) talk about life as we know it, or even if we don’t know it, my pattern-seeking mind finds enough in these authors to paint corresponding instances from my own life and colors in its paintbox. Smaller, much smaller emotions/experience, may be quite dull and blunt against their sharpness but corresponding nevertheless. However with Dinesen and Byatt, there is no pattern I can fit them in. And throughout the stories, my mind keeps working frenetically in the background, looking through the repository of lived experiences to find anything corresponding; but nothing emerges. Except perhaps a few dreams. But dreams are received, not lived through with any control of your own reactions, they are quite random, and weird and alien. So is in Dinesen's and Byatt's stories, there is so much alien emotion. And hence it is all the more wonderful. It is all the more engrossing because the mind has to work a lot to create the new frameworks and reference points for the worlds they portray.
Another way of looking at it could be that Von Arnim, Knausgaard and De Beauvoir are talking about personal experiences. About life as it happens to you, me or them. About the inner human landscape. While Dinesen and Byatt go into these specific realities, and worlds, that, I am sure could exist, but in a low probability/ unlikely sort of way. In the way that I am sure one could perhaps come across a beautiful blossoming pink tree while on a walk through the bush. You’ll be intrigued, delighted, full of wonder when you spot one. But more often, you'll be looking at greens of different hues, shapes and sizes. And green is what you end up calling the forest.