Saturday, February 18, 2006

To see and to seek

Guardian, in publishing an extract from Written Lives by Javier Marías, broaches the very relevant issue of keeping a writer's face in mind when reading a text.

It is very important for me to know the person I am reading, and the closest the reader comes to is having the writer's portrait in mind. How do texts shape up in our minds when the picture of their creator accompanies their reading, is a question worth pondering.

I can say that the savage intelligence of The God of Small Things struck me harder because I had seen the fiercely intelligent face of its writer. Similarly, Mrs. Dalloway became a song of beauty not only on its own accord but also because of the near maternal regard that I came to develop for Virginia's soft features during the reading of the book. That combined with the details of her tragic life enhanced the book's enigmatic quality.

The list goes on. As I read The Master, Colm Toibin's rotund frame seemed like a prerequisite for the gentle flow of words that sailed smoothly across the pages. Henry James's dramatic life turned into a silent plea for mercy in Toibin's hands.

In a tautological coincidence, James's face kept me warm company when I read his heart wrenching The Altar Of The Dead and the autobiographical Daisy Miller. The above-mentioned article, referring to him, says:

But the gaze is frighteningly intelligent, for it is an intelligence turned outwards, far more inquisitive than that of his philosopher brother, whose face, at first glance, seems, erroneously, to have more personality: you have only to look at their eyes to see this, William looks straight ahead, almost without seeing, Henry [on left] is looking to one side, doubtless seeing even what is not there.

I am sure I can think of many more instances if I delve into it, but these are the ones that immediately spring to mind.

This fascination stems from a need to seek a release in the face of dramatic twists in plotlines. When Richard throws himself off the window in The Hours, you cry not only for him but also for that fount of painful creativity from which Michael Cunningham bore this character.

At such moments, it becomes imperative to see, and hence to know those wise men and women who induce such devastating effects in us.

3 comments:

gibberhans gotsy said...

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gibberhans

optimism said...

I don't know if you've read about what the deconstruction school of thought (Jacques Derrida and the like) has to say about reading. I for one belong to it and have no idea what my favourite author looks like.

Vikram Johri said...

I get what you are referring to, optimism. in many cases, the wondrous beauty of the text has propelled me to go on reading a book regardless of the historical context or even "the author's face". to that extent my readings are logocentric.

but it's equally true that i do look out for subtle ways to dispel the anxiety, if you will, of reading that which churns the soul. In such instances, each and every device is a relief, including supposedly nebulous comforts derived from authors' visages.