August 12, 2018

"I felt it as artificial, that sitting down to write a book."

"And that is a feeling that is with me still, all these years later, at the start of a book—I am speaking of an imaginative work. There is no precise theme or story that is with me. Many things are with me; I write the artificial, self-conscious beginnings of many books; until finally some true impulse—the one I have been working toward—possesses me, and I sail away on my year’s labor. And that is mysterious still—that out of artifice one should touch and stir up what is deepest in one’s soul, one’s heart, one’s memory.... Artificial though that novel form is, with its simplifications and distortions, its artificial scenes, and its idea of experience as a crisis that has to be resolved before life resumes its even course. I am describing, very roughly, the feeling of artificiality which was with me at the very beginning, when I was trying to write and wondering what part of my experience could be made to fit the form—wondering, in fact, in the most insidious way, how I could adapt or falsify my experience to make it fit the grand form.... 'I had an impression'—[Somerset Maugham wrote about Thomas Hardy] —'that the real man, to his death unknown and lonely, was a wraith that went a silent way unseen between the writer of his books and the man who led his life, and smiled with ironical detachment at the two puppets….'"

From "On Being a Writer" by V.S. Naipaul from the April 23, 1987 issue of The New York Review of Books. (Naipaul died yesterday.)


southcentralpa said...

Can't find my copy of the ODQ, but I always enjoyed this description of Hardy as a novelist (especially "Jude the Obscure" IIRC) : "It takes on the tone of the village atheist lecturing the village idiot."

rcocean said...

I was surprised at the popularity of the Thomas Hardy at my local library - then realized he was the "anti-Victorian" and had a lot of female centric novels.

I still like him though.

He gave up "artificial" novel writing for the even more artificial epic poetry.

tim in vermont said...

That excerpt is exactly how I feel about writing. The more you think about it, the more you realize how fundamentally dishonest it is, and as some great writer once said, "the only decent and moral motivation to write is for the money," or something like that.

Ralph L said...

My brother had to read The Mayor of Casterbridge for school and hated it. Fortunately, I forgot Hardy had written it and enjoyed Tess and Far From the Madding several years later.

Maugham's wicked send up of Hugh Walpole at the beginning of Cakes and Ale is priceless. "Myrick Land asserts that Cakes and Ale ruined the last 11 years of Walpole's life and destroyed his reputation as a writer."

Maugham denied that Thomas Hardy was the inspiration for the other unflattered character in the book, but people assumed he was.

tim in vermont said...

Maugham denied that Thomas Hardy was the inspiration for the other unflattered character in the book, but people assumed he was.

Thereby inventing the "unreliable narrator."

The Magician by Maugham is great just for the forward. It turns out practically the whole novel was based on a guy with whom he was a houseguest, and the guy used to regale him with fantastic tales every evening, Marlowe style, I guess, and Maugham wrote them down and strung them into a book. I never read the novel, but it was the best forward of a novel I have ever read. Laugh out loud funny, to me anyway.

The man, whose name I can't remember, really fumed about it for a while, writing literary magazines, and Maugham didn't deny it, but towards the end of his life, he accepted the novel as a sort of fame and record of his life.

buster said...


The quote is from Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy. Can't remember who the atheist and idiot were.

rhhardin said...

It seems to be navel gazing.

Try One Writer's Beginnings by Eudora Welty.

William said...

I always thought that Jude the Obscure referred to the younger brother of Jesus. He truly was obscure. Who even knew that Jesus had some younger brothers. That must make for some monstrous sibling rivalry when your older brother is God. When you stop to think about it, we do partake of some divine qualities albeit in a runt of the litter type way. That's kind of the theme of the novel........If Jesus really did have some younger brothers, I think the Church is really overplaying that Virgin thing. That's probably why Jude is so obscure. The priests say that when the Bible says brothers they mean it in a metaphorical, brotherhood of man kind of way. But they would say that wouldn't they?

southcentralpa said...


thanks. "village atheist" and "village idiot" are types. Hardy's omniscient narrator takes on the aforementioned tone ... (just in case you're weren't making an esoteric joke)

buwaya said...

I was never a fan of Thomas Hardy.
I am a fan of his satirist, Stella Gibbons ("Cold Comfort Farm").

rcocean said...

Maugham is a 2nd rank novelist (as he admitted) but he's fun to read. I like his prose style. Clear and concise.

Caroline said...

It was Tolstoy who taught me that the novel can convey more real meaning that historical documentation.

Tina Trent said...

Naipaul likely died of disgust.

Kassaar said...

It was Chesterton.

Ralph L said...

`Hardy became a sort of village atheist brooding and blaspheming over the village idiot.'

From Kassaar's link

Ralph L said...

Notice it's over, not to.

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Tina Trent said...

If only we had listened to Naipaul. He must not be forced down the wormhole.