When the pen is the sword

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In Black Swan Green, David Mitchell writes, "If you show someone something you've written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin and say, 'When you're ready.'" (p. 183.)  Funny that creative writing should make the author so vulnerable, but my own experience confirms his observation.  The act of writing a novel, for example, seems to arm everyone around the author, while transforming the surroundings into a battleground where the pen is not mightier than the sword.

I recalled the Black Swan Green quote when reading Too Close to the Sun, Sara Wheeler's biography of Denys Finch-Hatton.  Wheeler is open about her dislike of Karen Blixen, who -- by memorializing her love affair with Finch-Hatton in Out of Africa -- is the only reason anyone recalls Denys Finch-Hatton today.

Wheeler's distaste for Karen Blixen spills over into gratuitous pot shots about her writing: "[Karen Blixen] liked sweep and grandeur, and later imbued her tales with it (often with little substance beneath the glittering surface)."  (p. 125.)  This remark is typical of Wheeler's regard for Karen Blixen, and every time I stumble on another Wheeler's tossed-off, untutored literary judgments, I feel more empathy for Karen Blixen, lying in her coffin, with Wheeler gleefully wielding the stake overhead.

On the other hand, I also feel sympathy for Wheeler.  Her subject, Mr. Finch-Hatton, died without leaving any substantive written record of his existence.  While this silence might be one reason why no one previously published a biography of him (despite the lapse of more than 70 years since his death and Wheeler's biography), Wheeler isn't dissuaded.  She grunts through three years of research, until she comes "to see the lack of material not as a biographical handicap but as a cipher for the unknowability of anyone else's inner life."  (p. 3.) 

In other words, she begins a process of rationalization to stave off the certainty that she's been wasting her time, chasing a phantom.  Thankless task, biography writing.  As thankless, no doubt, as literary criticism.

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This page contains a single entry by Maya published on March 4, 2009 9:00 PM.

Pondering the nature of humanity -- province of the rich? was the previous entry in this blog.

"Dear God, please make me stop writing like a woman." is the next entry in this blog.



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