Sunday, February 9, 2014

Under Less-Than-Ideal Circumstances

Hungarian author and screenwriter János Székely (1901-1958) who wrote under the ironic (as you’ll see) name “John Pen,” would leave his New York City apartment mornings for aimless walks during the course of which he would be seen by passersby muttering incessantly to himself; in fact he was “writing” his novel Temptation, a work of 250,000 words composed in its entirely without once taking pen (or any other implement) to paper. Having walked the streets for miles and hours in an apparent daze, he’d return home and rattle off some 9,000 perfectly composed words to his devoted wife, who’d take them down in longhand (and in Hungarian) first before typing them with two forefingers.
The resulting novel—a picaresque Bildungsroman covering two decades in the hardscrabble life of a Hungarian bastard, has been described by one reviewer as an “overheated” fusion of Charles Dickens and Vicky Baum, and by another as containing “a bit too much of everything, although it is by no means dull reading.” In fact the pages of Temptation turn as swiftly as those of any novel I’ve ever read, making me wonder if there may be a correlation between the method of the novel’s composition and the relentless forward momentum of its prose.
I’m reminded of other works composed in unusual ways or under unorthodox circumstances. Hans Fallada’s The Drinker—written on a sheet of paper in two weeks while its author was incarcerated in a psychiatric facility—comes to mind, as does Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, composed as a letter to Lord Alfred Douglas while he was in Reading Goal for “gross indecency” (joining the list of great literary works written in prison, including Don QuixoteLe Morte D’Arthur, Pound’s Pisan Cantos and Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers).
Then there are covert literary undertakings, like Curzio Malaparte’s Kaputt, his surrealistic WWII novel smuggled in bits and pieces throughout Europe in a secret lining of the author’s coat and in the soles of his boots. But the award for “Best Smuggled WWII Novel” goes to Jan Peterson, who smuggled his Our Street, written in 1934, past S.S. guards and out of Nazi Germany by baking it into two cakes. Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, Mbeki’s The Peasant Revolt are a few of many literary works for which we owe a debt to their smugglers as well as to their authors.
Then there are the works of physically challenged authors, like Christy Brown, whose cerebral palsy spared only his left foot, with which he typed his first novel (Down All the Days), and Jean-Dominique Bauby, who, suffering from locked-in syndrome and unable to move any other part of his body, “dictated” his memoir by winking his eye.
What’s interesting (if not surprising) about all these books is the urgency informing their prose. Making me wonder—as I sit here with all my faculties and extremities functioning, at my cozy desk in my quiet home with my calming view of a pristine lake—if writers write better or best under less-than-ideal circumstances, if, to write our masterpieces, “ideally” we need some impediment or opponent to push against—whether the opponent is external or internal: incarceration, incapacitation, a broken back, a Berlin Wall, a gun to the head, or just our own self-imposed draconian constraints or methods.
What do you think? What are some of the constraints you work against, by choice or otherwise?