Writers in love with other art forms

Vladimir Nabokov chasing butterflies near his Swiss home in 1966

In the last summer of his life Norman Mailer felt he had the face he deserved and the solitude he craved. He was living alone in a house in Provincetown not far from the one he’d rented when he came out of the army in 1946, the little cabin where he began writing The Naked and the Dead (1948). In 2007 I went to Cape Cod and spent two days interviewing him for the Writers at Work series in The Paris Review. When I came to the kitchen table on the second morning, he was drawing faces on oyster shells, the faces of Greek gods. I’ve got one beside me now as I write: the face of Zeus traced out on a bumpy shell.

I asked him which of the other art forms he thought being a novelist was closest to. “Acting,” he said.

Why? “Because it’s the same work. A novelist and an actor have to know how to inhabit characters.”

So, which actor do you admire most? “Warren Beatty,” he said. “And not for the obvious reasons.”

The exchange stuck in my head because of what it says about Mailer’s humour and a novelist’s task overall. I would venture that every novelist has another art form that he thinks explains his own technique or dignifies his own style. We all have our shadow art, the one that isn’t ours, the one we might covet, feeling it knows something about us. Sometimes the novelist becomes a critic of that art and a very good one – as Graham Greene did of film, or Julian Barnes of television – but, most often, he or she will just imbibe it secretly, knowing that the novels could be enriched by the rules of the other art form.

Long before I was a writer, when I was just a haphazard reader and a dreamer of stories, I learnt about an influential book by Harold Bloom. The Anxiety of Influence, published in 1973 when I was five years old, is taken up with the terrifying influence of poets on each other. The book’s title became a kind of sob that writers and critics would deploy when discussing the agony of writing. Poor novelists: they could only sit at their screens wailing inwardly at the realisation they would never be Henry James or, more upsettingly, that they were already Henry James but not as good.

I never believed it. I don’t believe in the meteoric culture of anxiety generally. Obviously, some people have it, some people are crippled by it, but most of the novelists I’ve ever known are in love with influence. They thrive on it. Mailer’s feeling about acting was that the good actor’s typical experience and process gave courage to his own: if you could walk on a stage and be someone else for three hours, plumbing the depths of a soul and a history not your own, then any good novelist would want to examine how that is done. Half the job of a working writer is to seek and maintain his own affinities. You’ve got to know where to lay your empathy and why. And you’ve got to know how to recognise the kind of material that releases your imagination. You don’t always find those things in other novelists: often, indeed, it will be the artist in the next field, the craftsman, the expert, the sportsman, the hero in another line, who will pump fresh air into the recesses of your talent.

. . .

It is clear from Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir Speak, Memory (1951), that the writer captured an affinity each time he caught a butterfly. He was an eager lepidopterist from the age of seven. “If my first glance of the morning was for the sun, my first thought was for the butterflies it would engender.” We could speak all day of Nabokov’s delicacy, his splendid ascending power and the beauty of his prose when it spreads its wings. And when he describes the art of butterfly collecting, it feels to me that he is describing writing itself. “The soaking, ice-cold absorbent cotton pressed to the insect’s lemurian head; the subsiding spasms of its body; the satisfying crackle produced by the pin penetrating the hard crust of its thorax; the careful insertion of the point of the pin in the cork-bottomed groove of the spreading board; the symmetrical adjustment of the thick, strong-veined wings under neatly affixed strips of semi-transparent paper.” Here a man who is learning from his hobby.

Henry James cared for painting in a way that distinguishes his work. It is not by mistake that his most famous novel is titled The Portrait of a Lady (1881). Where some novelists give us their main characters in one go, telling us how they look and how they exist and what they are, James achieves clarity only in layers, in strange lighted moments, and in enigmas. “Even in the greatest portraits we find a gate we cannot open,” writes Michael Gorra in Portrait of a Novel, his 2012 book on James’s masterpiece. “There is always a limit to what we can know of the sitter, to how far we can read the soul in the face; the Mona Lisa’s smile provides but the most obvious example.”

James understood how his love of painting could give him clues about how to render character and situation. He came to London hungry to see paintings and buildings, in Paris and Rome he was the same, and one could argue he got something from Tintoretto that he could never get from any novelist. James, the novelist they called “the master”, never forgot seeing Tintoretto’s “The Crucifixion of Christ” in San Cassiano church in Venice. It took him to “the uttermost limit of painting; that beyond this another art-inspired poetry begins, and that Bellini, Veronese, and Giorgione, and Titian, all joining hands and straining every muscle of their genius, reach forward not so far but that they leave a visible space in which Tintoretto alone is master.”

. . .

Writing novels is quiet work: it can reveal astonishments but it doesn’t usually proceed from them. Maybe that is why novelists are so often attached to second art forms that wear their physicality or their beauty outwardly. Ernest Hemingway considered bullfighting an art form and, indeed, he thought writers should be more like toreadors, brave and defiant in the face of death. For Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima it was the art of the samurai – he loved the poise, the nobility, the control, tradition, all things you would say of good prose – and he died in a ritual self-killing. But most novelists take their influence seriously without letting it take over. They are emboldened by a love of opera, as were Willa Cather and the French novelist George Sand, or by modernist painters, as Gertrude Stein was, each of these brilliant women finding in the spaciousness and drama of the other art form an enlarged sense of what they themselves were setting out to deal with on the little blank page.

The American novelist Don DeLillo experiences that kind of correspondence with performance art. His great epic novel Underworld (1997) features an artist, Klara Sax, who likes to paint on the sides of decommissioned B-52 bombers. In his 2007 novel Falling Man, we meet an artist who likes to comment on current society by hanging upside-down from a bridge. Another art form can explain our anxieties as a novelist as much as it can enhance our sense of what’s interesting. The British novelist Nick Hornby finds as many revelations in rock music as he does in contemporary fiction. Kazuo Ishiguro is drawn to film noir and out-of-the-way stylistic masters in film.

The other art form is often the key not only for the writer writing but for the reader reading. The influence isn’t a source of anxiety in most novelists but a source of pride, a source of hope and sometimes dignity. The English novelist EM Forster had a passion for music that helped him write. One feels the charge and the echo of many great composers in his novels (he also wrote the libretto for Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd) and for him it was not just a shadow art form but an ideal to strive for. Music was Forster’s portal into the sublime. “The kingdom of music is not the kingdom of this world,” he wrote in A Room With a View (1908). “It will accept those whom breeding and intellect and culture have alike rejected. The commonplace person begins to play, and shoots into the empyrean without effort, whilst we look up, marvelling how he has escaped us, and thinking how we could worship him and love him, would he but translate his visions into human words.”

And so we have it: the non-anxiety of influence. I was a fan of ballet as a child and sometimes my limbs remember the old technique, the musicality, the lightness and the strength, when I’m bent over a paragraph. I wasn’t even a teenager when I went to see a production of Giselle by Scottish Ballet at the Gaiety Theatre in Ayr. It was oddly defining: the theatre was dark and the stage was very close, I could smell the resin on the dancer’s shoes, an audience of girls with their wondrous eyes, and me, beyond the pale, watching a gothic romance unfold not 10 miles away from the rough school I attended. Albrecht, the young duke, is lured by these ghostly women to dance himself to death. I later learnt that the novelist Victor Hugo had provided the inspiration for the original scenario but, even at the time, I saw myself as a library-haunting young man who wanted to write himself to death. What dancing gave me was not an idea, really, but an atmosphere: it showed me how to create within an economy of clean gestures. Giselle was not just about a doomed love affair but about the insatiable life of the imagination itself. Classical dance, in the circumstances, offered a pleasingly extreme way into the mindset of artists and creators, and I became for a while a totally willing abandonee to the Scottish Ballet. But all the while I see I was just learning. It was my shadow art and it offered – as the theatre still offers – a ridiculous schooling in the impossible.

I thought it might be nice to put all this to the test with novelists. Professional writers are used to the public event, we do dozens of them every year, mostly talking about our latest work or joining panels. I know from private conversations that novelists often light up fully when not talking directly about their own work. Their passion emerges when they talk about that second art form. I’m Professor of Creative Writing at King’s College London these days and it is in collaboration with the English department there and the King’s Cultural Institute, that I’ve organised a series of events where novelists talk about another art form. Kazuo Ishiguro almost never does public events but he’ll be appearing on May 1 to talk about film. Throughout May we’ll hear Lavinia Greenlaw on television, John Lanchester on video games, Sarah Hall on painting, Alan Warner on pop, finishing with Colm Tóibín talking about opera on May 22. Fans of Tóibín’s novels will know his coastal landscape of mind and memory, and when he talks about opera he takes us back to the Theatre Royal in Wexford, that “sacred space” where he first heard opera.

For Forster, the love of a second art form was a shoot into the empyrean but for most of us it’s just a little lift, a brief transport into the secrets of the sublime, viewed from a helpful distance. That’s what all novelists get from their second art form: a spot of help and a ton of joy

Tickets for The Joy of Influence: Six Novelists on Another art form, curated by Andrew O’Hagan in collaboration with the King’s College London English Department and King’s Cultural Institute, are free but booking is essential. Details at www.kings culturalinstitute.eventbrite.co.uk

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