Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Education Of A Writer

To the hurried soul, I offer my sympathies and the following list:

1. Book of Disquiet
2. Don Quixote
3. Hamlet
4. Mrs. Dalloway
5. Ulysses
6. Ada or Ardor
7. Century of Humour
8. Complete Works of Saki
9. Niels Lyhne
10. Dead Souls
11. Jane Eyre
12. Golden Bowl

For the cultured ones, I have a tale to offer. Suffer me for the aging through this story might prove worth it.

I recently brought upon myself a terrible onus and couldn't sit still without completing the descended task. It was at once presumptuous to accept responsibility for collating the list and due justification, and stimulating to study the tell of putting together such a necessary array. I cannot sufficiently describe the torment of the past few weeks and it is not imagined pain. It was visible to those who looked long enough including the two squirrels outside my window.

While the education of a writer is vital for everyone, as vital as is the education of a reader or a cook, not everyone is out to be an author nor needs to. A cook is not your award-winning chef, but basically someone who knows their way well around the kitchen to cook up a delicious meal. So be it with everyone being a writer. This is largely missed in the current education system as is missed the vital training to be a cook. I can't say much about the making of a reader because we do read (technical and academic books for exams) but how much do we pause (which is the most vital element in all reading) is a number I can never ascertain. We certainly aren't trained to read like a writer as Francine Prose recommends.

All my appreciation for literature came well after my school days though I have been reading since I was nearly 6 or so. My father considered it best to start putting together a library in the hope that we would organically fall in love with words. I don't think that that is what got me to read. The tales of the world were Siren calls. The possibility of tales in Russia, India, Japan and every faraway land brought an extra tinge of blue to my sky. Having read these tales, I simply had to know how to tell a tale. I also loved the smell and taste of words as they danced their way out of my mouth. So, in summary, the ability to read, write, count and cook are vital for life and the ability to see is vital for love.

So I wish to fill the gap left for ages in the complete education of a man destined to love the letters. Be forewarned, this is not for the basic education of a writer but for one who enjoys writing and wishes to be well rounded. Nevertheless, a student well into his teens could also benefit from this journey. One might ask if this is a journey all genres of writers should take and I am tempted to say yes. And I will. Yes. I think every passionate writer will benefit manifold by embarking on this journey in true earnest. While true education of a writer starts early from rudimentary combining of letters to constructing coherent sentences to being able to say what one means, such a journey, as described in this post, is best started when one has had some experience in this world and has managed to muster a vocabulary sufficiently strong to reduce the shuttles one might need to make between book and dictionary. This varies from one individual to the other. For some, that age might be 18 and for others it might be 12. Let us leave it to an opportune moment in that window of half a dozen years.

Before I introduce the apostles, I must re-introduce the reader to the one who motivated me to assemble this list. Gustave Flaubert's words ring euphoniously true in my head. The frequent reader of this blog would be familiar with the following quote:

Commel'on serait savant si l'on connaissait bien seulement cinq a six livres: "What a scholar one might be if one knew well only some half a dozen books."

I thought that 6 might be just a little less and 12 would be a better number (coincidentally, there are 12 months). Given an average life of 48 years beyond 18, that allows for 4 repetitions of each of these books. I would consider that sufficient pilgrimage for this lifetime.

I shant be going into the details and deliberation on each book. That I will present in a longer and more serious article. Nevertheless, I shall pause long enough to let the reader know why I picked each of these books and what one can expect from each.

  1. The Book of Disquiet - Fernando Pessoa. If there is one book that you must read from this list and expect to gain a lifetime's education in seeing, feeling and converting them as approximately as possible into words, then it is this book. Pessoa is an unheard of author and this book is originally in Portuguese. I have a translation by Richard Zenith and it is splendid. Pessoa is extremely sensitive to the world around him without being too absorbed in himself. His reflections are unique and extremely well articulated. His choice of words are splendid making you chide yourself for not having thought along those lines.

  2. Don Quixote - Miguel de Cervantes.This book is highly recommended by all the lists compiled to identify the best literary books. I have read it in parts and found it delightful. Cervantes' ability to weave in humour while making an important point distinguishes him from all those snobbish writers who believe that to be light is to betray literary worth. This too is a translation of the original in Spanish.

  3. Hamlet - William Shakespeare. This needs no introduction though it was difficult to pick one from amongst the bard's works. I cannot consider myself well equipped to jostle my choice against the opinions of another. I wanted to pick a serious work of his with some of his best lines. After a fair amount of research, I settled for Hamlet.

  4. Mrs. Dalloway - Virginia Woolf. Her very opening is splendid enough to keep re-reading this delightful tale. Ms. Woolf's writing is spectacular and very British. That adds to the beauty of it all. I have enjoyed her stream of consciousness writing and the blog's reader would have seen some samples of my own.

  5. Ulysses - James Joyce. This is one book I have picked purely on the advice of Nabokov. He strongly recommends this and considers Joyce to be one of the few genius writers in the English speaking world. I have immense respect for Nabokov and willingly took his advice.

  6. Ada or Ardor - Vladimir Nabokov. Perhaps no list of mine could be complete without the magic of Nabokov. This work is his personal favourite and having glanced through it, I can see why. The delightful play of words in the setting of a strange family. One will do well to enjoy the fruits of the hypertexting labour that is Ada Online.

  7. Century of Humour - Edited by P. G. Wodehouse. Towards the end of this post I shall explain my statistical basis for choosing this book. But there is reason beyond that as well. This book compiles some excellent short stories and humourous ones at that. Mr. Wodehouse's choice is pretty good and none of the stories are remotely disappointing. They are best not pitted amongst themselves but studied individually to learn the craft of weaving humour into literature.

  8. Complete Works of Saki - H H Munro. This was my first love. I have spent hours leaping across empty rooms reading his lines with summoned baritone. Saki made me fall in love with words and the magic one can conjure with them (when rightly employed - don't blame me for spells crashing down on your head). I cannot, out of loyalty and certainty, exclude this book from my list. I believe that a young student should be introduced to Saki and made to gargle his phrases. Never spit it out! If only we had teachers who could understand Saki and bring home his worth.

  9. Niels Lyhne - Jens Peter Jacobsen. Another popularly unheard of writer. He is Danish and comes highly recommended by none other than Rilke himself. I have also read his stories and another friend of mine, a more disciplined and beautiful reader, vouches for the goodness of this particular book. I willingly submit to the wisdom of Rilke here and to my meagre experience with Jacobsen's works.

  10. Dead Souls - Nikolai Gogol. Another Russian master. I have read his short stories and Taras Bulba. I was convinced and converted. He is an excellent writer and this particular book is a wicked take on the feudalism then present in Russia. He is an amazing writer of great talent (and I subscribe to Nabokov's distinction between a genius and a talented writer. More on that, later).

  11. Jane Eyre - Charlotte Brontë. This book is amazing in its passion and language employed. I might have picked Jane Austen's works but I felt that I needed both the power of language and the passion of a writer to be visible on the pages. After due deliberation I chose Jane Eyre. It also came in gold gilded pages to me from someone with a golden heart.

  12. Golden Bowl - Henry James. This is the climax in James' career and style. I did my research on this book and his other works before deciding to include this one. The complexity in the story and the style makes it belong to this list. James Wood (author of How Fiction Works) too feels that Henry James brings an eye which isn't the detailed microscopic eye of Nabokov, but of a fabric vital to writers.

In collating this list I had a few broad criteria. I needed literature representing a good segment of the English speaking world. I was willing to include translations as long as they didn't exceed 33% of the total list (Book of Disquiet - Portuguese, Don Quixote - Spanish, Dead Souls - Russian and Niels Lyhne - Danish). I also wanted to have shorter works but didn't want them to exceed 25% of the list (Book of Disquiet, Century of Humour, Complete Works of Saki). I also wanted humour to be an integral part of the list (Don Quixote, Century of Humour, Complete Works of Saki).

Believe me when I say that I rummaged through a list of over nearly twice as many books including translations (Glass Bead Game - German, for instance which finally lost out as did The Master And Margerita - Russian). Of course, you must have noticed that I haven't added Madame Bovary (French) by Gustave Flaubert himself. I had included it initially before realising that Lydia Davis' translation was something I needed and it wasn't really available here. That is why I restricted the translations to 33%. Translations are a funny beast. They gain their strength both from the original author as well as from the translator but their weakness comes solely from the translator's abilities. I read Ms. Davis' article about her experience in translating Madame Bovary and I decided to wait for the book to arrive. Perhaps Niels Lyhne will make way for Madame Bovary.

The route on this journey is simple. Read through each book slowly and patiently. If there is a word whose meaning you do not understand, find it out. Keep a notebook (or several of them with one per author) and collect phrases that you like along with the name of the book and page number. In another notebook, try to use these phrases in at least five different situations/scenarios. If a sentence is long, break it down into bite-sized portions and understand how the coherence is maintained over the length.

After each chapter or 30 pages, write a paragraph about anything (or a similar topic as in the book) in a style nearly identical with that of the author. The paragraph should appear as if the author him/herself had written it in his/her younger days. Study where you possibly differ. Do not rush to create your own style of writing. Start my imitating and you will hear a clear voice soon.

Apply counter styles to the author you are reading. Periodically in your study, use shorter sentences where s/he uses longer and conversely without losing meaning. This allows you to create similar impact without losing literary value. Shortening a sentence is not the same as summarising. Please bear in mind that the effect and taste has to be maintained. Where the author is grand, be direct (you might think that the effect is then lost, but not necessarily) where s/he is terse, be verbose.

Study the spell of phrases and styles in a dark room. Read the words aloud in three different styles - in dry monotone, with due theatrical intonations and with the simplicity of someone reading it the first time. Study the effect it brings and understand what breaks through the barriers of the reader's ability (to read in different tones).

Combine random but fairly representative paragraphs from each of these authors to notice how they mingle and depart. This helps study the choice of words for the desired tell.

And last but surely not the least, practice writing, every single day. Keep building your vocabulary (there are several sites which will deliver you a word per day). Use them differently in unexpected settings. Create games where you can study the possibility of using fruits to describe the weather and metals to describe moods and so on. Enjoy every one of these authors and enjoy writing, too.

There might be other books that are great. There might be other works of the chosen authors that might be better. All that I have mentioned belong to the genre of fictional prose. Questions are bound to be raised - "What if I care only about poetry?" "What if I wish to be a sci-fi writer?" "What if I like John Updike better?" "What if I wish to write like Jack Kerouac?" The only answer I have is to once again recommend this study with an assurance that you will be a different person at the end of it and will be able to write as you please and read whomsoever you want. This is not the only list of books you should be reading. Read any other book too. Poetry should be read and studied regularly too (and I might put up a separate list for that) but I do not distinguish severely between prose and poetry beyond Coleridge's pithy summary:

I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is, prose, --words in their best order; poetry, --the best words in their best order.

Compiling any list is a task fraught with debate and I am tired. I can assure with all my life's breath that these books, when studied well, will make a wonderful person and writer out of the reader. That is a certainty (please read Sir Quiller-Couch's Art of Writing to understand why). If after appropriate study you do not find your writing significantly (not marginally) enhanced and affected, do let me know and I assure you that I will not utter a word from that day. I will also take this post down.


  1. Hats off to the honest, extremely sincere effort!!
    The amount of toil and research put together to bring out this writing is bound to be a treasure for writers...and a true pleasure for solely-readers like me.

  2. I dont see Dostoyevsky...and I personally believe he is a finer writer than Gogol- ofcourse opinion again!

  3. Wow! I actually have two people who have read this post!

    Dear P,
    Thank you for your generous words. This is definitely a list for readers too. Just that they don't have to "study" these works.

    Dear K,
    Long time, my friend. How are you? Dostoevski and Gogol fought long hours with each one replacing the other for a while. Finally, Gogol won for the following reason: D focuses too much on the soul-searching whereas Gogol focuses on the cleverness of the mind.In the translations I have read I haven't found a great expression or phrase that D employed whereas I have found a few gems in Gogol's. I nearly picked Turgenev in lieu of either of them because I thoroughly enjoyed his Home of the Gentry. Maybe I should have... Dunno. Oh! Don't get me started!

  4. This is a gorgeous posting and its a delight. One thing though, Pessoa is far from being an unknown writer. he is regarded as one of Portugal's greatest authors and is held in very high regard. he published works under several heteronyms especially poetry. The most well known of these is The Collected poems of Alvaro de Campos Vol 2 1928 - 1935. Pessoa's unique literary legacy lies in his claim of personal irrelevance in the shaping of authordom.

    I think your essay is a very interesting and engaging departure point for an in depth conversation about authorship and writerly identity...

  5. Dear BI,
    Welcome to this blog. Thank you for your generous words. About Pessoa, no one I have met here in India know about Pessoa. Very very few people even include him in their list of great authors. I have the poetry collection you mention, too. In Portugal he is undoubtedly famous and cherished, but in most other places he seems to be unheard of.
    Yes, there is so much to discuss about that and the pressure to keep this post short forced me to not go into discussions which would have made an evening warm. :-) Once again, thank you for your kind words.

  6. Anonymous1:56 PM

    Am convinced that you ought to start writing elaborate essays as posts in your blog again, beyond and outside of all the pithy poetry, sweet and beautiful on twitter.

    - Parvati

  7. Anonymous9:52 PM

    Your handwriting :-o ! - needs to improve...not so your analytical abilities. I miss Alvibest reviews of books, writers etc etc. Certain things in this world shouldn't seem buried alive :-((