Claiming Her Back

Richard Lea, “The Truth About Memory and the Novel,” The Guardian 14 June 2012

[…] The US novelist Francisco Goldman admitted he also called Say Her Name, his portrait of his late wife Aura, a “novel” as a way of avoiding the memoir police, but for him the moments he invented were more than just artistic licence. By making up something that Aura really would have done, or finding exactly the turn of phrase she would have used he was in some sense claiming her back.

[…] In Say Her Name, Goldman examines his late wife’s unpublished fiction, looking for clues to her life in her drafts, her notes. Barthesians may shake their heads at this all-too-human reaction to the death of the author, but perhaps the fact they were still unfinished holds out the hope that these stories contain traces of the author that can still be made out, that the memories which had in some way inspired them can be caught before they have made the transition into fiction.


Bernard Comment, “Bernard Comment: I Write Fiction, to Engrave Time,” The Guardian 14 June 2012

The practice of writing résumés, or the more recent example of Wikipedia, is as chilling as taking an X-ray, when all that remains is a skeleton. In these documents, the hazy tide of a life is reduced to a few dried-out drops — dates, diplomas, geographical locations, professional history – and you can’t find any of that complex, contradictory, muddled pulp that is memory, with its radiant points and its miserable moments, its pride and its shame, its desires and its remorse — not to mention what’s entailed by the Portuguese word “saudade,” that is, nostalgia for what was, but also for what wasn’t and could have been.

Woolf’s Dumb Dummy Copy

Karyn Z. Sproles, Desiring Women: The Parthnership of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West (University of Toronto Press, 2006. 151-152)

In preparing for the publication of To the Lighthouse, the Hogarth Press made a dummy copy of the novel to see how it would look. Blank inside, but in all other respects identical to the real thing, the dumb volume was sent by Woolf to Sackville-West inscribed ‘In my opinion the best novel I have ever written.’ Instantly regretting this gesture, she wrote: ‘Dear donkey West, Did you understand that when I wrote it was my best book I merely meant because all the pages were empty? A joke, a feeble joke’ (9 May 1927, 3:372). Sackville-West responded: ‘But of course I realised it was a joke; what do you take me for? a real donkey?’ (10 May 1927, 195; emphasis original).

Sent under the cover of a legitimate book jacket, Woolf’s blank book might be her best work. What is not written might be the only place in which to read her desire. The letters speak of this struggle. They demonstrate it best when describing seemingly mundane events of their daily lives, which both women do with an eye for comic detail that sometimes obscures the profoundly symbolic nature of the scenes they describe.

…They tease about ‘dumb letters’ — letters that speak not of desire but of the banal details of their lives apart. Woolf writes that hers ‘is not a dumb letter. Dogs letters are’ (15 Jan. 1926, 3:230). Responding that she had arranged to meet Woolf later that week, Sackville-West writes: ‘So you see that if my letters are dumb, my actions aren’t’ (17 Jan. 1926, 86). Speaking louder than letters, actions facilitate desire. Letters are dumb, silent, on the subject.

A Garden Shed

Elizabeth Day, “Sadie Jones: ‘You Imagine a Cathedral and on the Page it’s a Garden Shed’,” The Observer 1 April 2012

“I’m never happy with what I’ve written,” she says. “You imagine, before you start, there’s a cathedral, and the moment it starts on the page, it’s a garden shed. And then you just try to make it the best shed you can.”

Things Not Said, Actions Not Done

Gabriel Josipovici, “Learning From the Master,” The Irish Times 18 December 2010 [a review of Colm Tóibín’s All a Novelist Needs: Colm Tóibín on Henry James]:

“…I do, however, have to take issue with Tóibín and with James himself on one important point. In an essay on the meaning for the novelist of Lamb House, his Sussex retreat in his later years, Tóibín quotes a letter James wrote to his friend Grace Norton about the heroine of A Portrait of a Lady and her relationship to the real-life Minnie Temple: ‘I had her in mind and there is in the heroine a considerable infusion of my impression of her remarkable nature. But the thing is not a portrait. Poor Minny was essentially incomplete and I have attempted to make my young woman more rounded, more finished. In truth everyone, in life, is incomplete, and it is [in] the work of art that in reproducing them one feels the desire to fill them out, to justify them, as it were.’

Tóibín is so taken with this formulation that he repeats it verbatim in one later essay and paraphrases it in another. But what artists say about their work, even artists as self-aware as James, is, as Tóibín knows all too well, not necessarily the truth. It seems to me that both James and Tóibín in The Master are using their art not to round out and fill out a portrait left incomplete by life, which sounds more like the sort of aim Oscar Wilde might have expressed, but to bring home (to themselves, to the reader) the mystery of that life. That is why each of the great last novels ends not with resolution, not with final understanding, but with the sense that something which could be said in no other way has, remarkably, been said by the accumulation of things not said, of actions not done. That is why James’s greatest short story, The Turn of the Screw, ends so magnificently and so mysteriously: ‘I caught him, yes, I held him — it may be imagined with what a passion; but at the end of a minute I began to feel what it was truly that I held. We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped”. …”