The ruthlessness of art

Janice Pariat | Updated on July 27, 2018 Published on July 27, 2018

In the first place: It is tough, yet imperative, to be ruthless about your time, to carve out those quiet hours from a day that makes many demands on you.   -  ISTOCK.COM

What are the demands that art makes on a writer? What does the writer do about it?

Earlier this year I was in conversation with Sebastian Faulks at The Hindu Lit for Life Festival. We chatted about his most well-known novel Birdsong, his experience of writing two very different literary homages — Ian Fleming and PG Wodehouse — and how he once played cricket in Chennai. At some point I picked out a line from his non-fiction book The Fatal Englishmen that served to describe Christopher Wood, a young Englishman who moved to Paris to become an artist. “He possessed,” the line read, “at an unconscious level, the ruthlessness that art requires.”

“What,” I asked, “is this ruthlessness that art requires?”

Faulks’s answer was eloquent, insightful.

“You have to concentrate on what you’re doing to the exclusion of all other things,” he said. Especially for writers with a day job, it was about being ruthless with time. “Don’t take work home with you. Be ruthless about the weekend. Don’t go out, don’t go to parties, say no. Don’t keep up with your old friends, don’t develop your relationship with your new boyfriend or girlfriend.”

Was he being tongue-in-cheek or entirely sincere? Probably both.

He went on to say how especially when you’re young, no one, painters, writers, quite believes in themselves. “You think, who am I? How can I possibly do this? You must have this extraordinary self-belief to tell the world ‘I will show you, I will do this’, but the only way you can do that is by… sometimes behaving quite badly as far as other people are concerned, by putting yourself and your art before them.”

At first, I thought there wasn’t much more to add. I agreed. It is tough, yet imperative, to be ruthless about your time. To carve out those quiet hours from a day that makes many demands on you. It is true also that it takes a certain dogged determination to publish that exceptional book, to paint that unforgettable picture. And as far as what “behaving quite badly” entailed, I took it to mean what Faulks touched upon — to prune, often and judiciously, time with family, partner, friends, in order to write.

Recently, though, with the publication of my novel The Nine-Chambered Heart, this has acquired new meaning. I’ve come to realise that putting yourself and your art before other people doesn’t only pertain to time. My book is a series of recollections by nine people about a woman — the same woman — who they have loved or who has loved them. Some sections are closely mined from experience, or as Geoff Dyer says, the writing is “an inch from life”, and a few past loves have recognised themselves in the pages. One said he was touched, and strangely honoured. Another texted: “Reading you. In tears.”

“That bad?” I asked.

“That good.”

Later, when we met, he admitted he was uncomfortable about some details but said, “If it’s a beautiful work of art, I’m ready to forgive the artist anything.”

An ex-partner I met in London last month was less clement.

He’d bought the book, newly out in the UK, excited to have it signed the next day, but had read “his” chapter, and felt outed by a particular line. He was upset, angry. Some might say, at this point, an apology from me would have helped soothe things over. But, wretched as I felt, I didn’t say sorry.

And I’ve been thinking about why.

Perhaps writers suffer what I call the Fitzgerald syndrome.

In Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, Fitzgerald’s character narrates the story of his life with Zelda. How he won and lost her and won her back again. “Later,” adds Hemingway, “he told me other versions of it as though trying them for use in a novel.” Is this what writers do? Try parts of real life for use in a novel so that, even if just in their heads, it undergoes transformation. There is distance, a separation, and hence no need for an apology.

In an article for The Guardian, Guy Kay speaks sternly of novelists using real-life characters as a “dramatically expanded perception of entitlement, and of eroded privacy”. Perhaps. But the perils in an argument such as this is that it calls for confinement around what people should or should not write. Even with best intentions, this is, as we know, a dangerously slippery slope.

Would an apology, I wondered, have meant diminishment?

Not for me. But my book.

Because it’s imbued, not so much with inviolable aesthetic sacredness, but the heartfelt attempt to arrive at a truth. Not one that’s grandly universal, but intimately for the character and for myself as a writer. Every line that survives the edits counts, because each carries the intention, in Hemingway’s words, to be “the truest sentence that you know”. It isn’t easy. Sometimes it pains as much to write as to read. This is what I’d add to Faulks’s answer. That the ruthlessness of art is also to place on the page words about people you’ve loved, still love — and to do so despite knowing you may not be forgiven.

Janice Pariat   -  BLink


Janice Pariat is the author of The Nine-Chambered Heart; Twitter: @janicepariat

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Published on July 27, 2018
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