I’m in despair. My first novel is stuck in the first chapter. The writing is mundane. The adjectives are repetitive. The characters are shallow. No one, not even me, will want to read the thing in its present state. My dream of becoming a published writer and achieving recognition is crumbling. I'll perhaps die after leading a fearfully long and pointless life.
But what is life? Isn’t it, as Vladimir Nabokov says in his memoirs Speak, Memory, “a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness” – only a flash of blinding whiteness to fill the nonsensical space between birth and death! Why, then, bother with fame? Why aspire to become great?
Everyone Dies, OK?
Nabakov’s literary excellence could not rescue him from finally being claimed by the silence of the grave. Another consolation is that even the godlike Toni Morrison will die someday. One of the most gifted authors of our times is doomed to share the inevitable fate of this unpromising writer. Ah, the sweet comforts of sadistic revenge!
But even then Ms Morrison will leave behind prized possessions – the world of her novels. Her characters will continue to whisper and laugh and cook and love. Yes, Toni Morrison will live, after all! No such immortality awaits me.
Imprisoned by Dark Forces
The peculiar melancholia that usually accompanies a young writer with grandiose aspirations has invaded my inner self. I’m now under attack. Where does the escape lie? To keep writing? Perhaps I’m not to be an author. What then? I cannot do anything else. In that case, should I slash my wrists? Well, no. I’d probably botch the job anyway.
Books as Last Resort
Are books a refuge from the bitter realities of writing? I took another look at Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace that, indeed, provided a welcome distraction. But just as Andre, long believed to be dead, returns home from the war, his wife dies – the sweet Little Princess! This sad twist to the plot curdled the soul, and more chunks of pessimism swelled in my being. Of course, there is always Jane Austen. But after reading her novels so often and reciting her finer passages so frequently, I have grown immune to her wits. Re-readings of Mr. Collin’s proposal to Lizzie no longer send butterflies chirping inside my heart. Too much of Jane Austen has dulled me to her intelligence.
Other Sad and Beautiful Books
Turkish author Orhan Pamuk is in vogue. My Name Is Red, in all its elegance, did swell my spirits. But then there’s the scene where a man, sitting in an Istanbul cemetery, starts crying when contemplating whether he is still at life’s starting posts (after all these years) or had reached the end of the journey. Hmm. What to read then? Shakespeare is a possibility, but his language is so beautiful that even the comedies are heart-breaking. Most likely my discontented soul quests for some earthly nourishment – something shallow, yet enchanting; something familiar, yet refreshing; something moving, yet cheerful.
I knew it was time for Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy.
Here is a novel with more than 1,000 pages. It has pangs of unrequited love. It has two lovers and their failed affair. It has the agony of a courtesan. It has flashes of tender but repressed gay desires. And yet the novel is merry – easy for the senses and sunny in tone, the right prescription for an overcast mind.
Re-Reading a Novel
The embrace of A Suitable Boy is like coming home. Having read it twice, it is like a lover. I know every mole and crevice of her body and can recognize her tender moments as well as the mood swings. Reading it is akin to making love to an old flame: the passion is missing, the heartbeat is normal but there is familiarity, comfort, and warmth.
Seth’s masterpiece does have its flaws. It is too long. It has too many sub-themes. It has too many people. There is predictability in the prose. There is dissatisfaction with its plot. Worse, it aspires to be Jane Austen but never reaches her heights. But the drawbacks only make it dearer. It makes Seth less great and more humane, while providing pedestrian writers like me with hope. If Vikram Seth can do it, so can I!
As I once again hear the comical-but-adorable Mrs. Rupe Mehra commanding her younger daughter that “you too shall marry the boy I chose,” my shoulders quiver and my nose turns red. I am laughing!
Suddenly it is clear that all will end well. I’ll live. I’ll laugh. I’ll read and I’ll write… my bloody novel.