Thursday, March 08, 2007

Novel writing and the Myth of Sisyphus


Two novels that I'm looking forward to read are Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Amitava Kumar's Home Products.

Professor Kumar, who is soon going to start his book promoting pilgrimage to Delhi and Bombay, has already set the ball (talking about the creative process behind his first novel) rolling with his article in The Hindu, How to Write a Novel.

Being an accomplished writer of creative non-fiction, his take on his own struggles, both internal and external, in the process of writing his novel is extremely instructive and entertaining. Entertaining because that is his art. But the piece is not just about how he came to write the novel but also how unfinished the work seemed to him each time he made an attempt to change things, to improve things:

For the next few months, I didn't write anything new. And then I returned to write two quick drafts by the following summer. It must have been around this time that I pasted in my journal a portion of a review by James Wood: the critic had narrated a story by Chekhov about an actress, Katya, who has discovered that she has no talent. She asks an older family friend for help and advice: "Tell me, what am I to do?" The man tells her he doesn't know what to do. And then, he says at last, "Let us have lunch, Katya."

Beneath the pasted note, I have made a note about endings, and how one shouldn't insist on "closure". But isn't it probable that my eye had snagged on the heroine's confession of failure at the only thing she most wants to do?

And yet, I remember being happy every time I wrote a new draft. Each time I would think that the job had been done. But it wasn't. It would never be. It is possible I wouldn't have been able to write the book if I had known this from the beginning. My diligent editor cut out more than twenty thousand words; in the months that followed, I wrote new opening and closing chapters. I felt that things were coming together nicely.

But another year would pass, and I'd go through half a dozen more drafts, before the editor and I were happy with what we had. I had never worked harder on a book before, and still a book as a finished object remains an elusive thing for me. Full of mystery and beauty, and the result of extraordinary luck.


A book as a finished object remains an elusive thing for me, he says. That is very honest, and that reminds me of the myth of Sisyphus, which for Camus, through his philosophical essay of the same title, represented man's futile search for meaning, unity and clarity in the face of an unintelligible world. Can't the situation of the absurdity of a writer's struggles be seen akin to the situation of Sisyphus, "a figure of Greek mythology who was condemned to forever repeat the same meaningless task of pushing a rock up a mountain, only to see it roll down again."

Professor Kumar describes how he had to rewrite and rewrite and redraft the manuscript over and over again. Hard work. So did Kiran Desai and Vikram Chandra. Each took seven years to finish their second novel.

Perhaps Prof Kumar is right when he says that each book is "the result of extraordinary luck". But what is most honorable in a writer is the struggle, the toil, he puts in to achieve that thing of beauty. In his essay's conclusion, Camus said: "The struggle itself is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy." I imagine all writers happy, including Kiran, Vikram and Kumar, practising their craft day after day, in their studies, in hotel rooms, in cafes, in libraries, and wherever else.

1 comment:

Poons said...

I BEGAN writing my novel Home Products in the summer of 2003, a few weeks before my wife gave birth to our first child.
But even before I began work on the book I bought a black hardcover sketchbook. In its pages, I started writing down whatever I liked in what I happened to be reading. Among the earliest journal entries is the opening line of a review that had appeared, in the New York Times, of the film "The Hours". This was also the opening line of a novel by Virginia Woolf. I cut it out and pasted it in my journal. "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself."
There are no notes around that neatly cut out quote but I can imagine why it had appealed to a first-time novelist. You read Woolf's line and are suddenly aware of the brisk entry into a fully-formed world. No fussing around with irrelevant detail and back-story. And I began to write various opening lines.
Read more How to write a Novel