Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Literary Imperative for the Sensual Life

I have been writing all my life in one form or another, but have only lately consciously recognized the literary imperative for a sensual life. I believe that in order to truly immerse the reader within a particular setting one must recreate that environment from the senses out. We experience our particular environment in an intrinsically visceral way: the pungent, almost earthy aroma of freshly-ground coffee beans, the sour heat of tom yam soup, the almost painfully delicate beauty of Mozart's divertimentos, the soft warmth of a newborn's skin...these sensory encounters make our world come alive for us, brightened and enhanced through the lens of human experience.

While writing The Goodwin Agenda one of my primary goals (other than writing a suspenseful, character-driven narrative that was true to the larger historical trends of the time) was to quite simply make my readers feel like they were there : in the dark slipways of Paris where rotting vegetable scraps stewed in icy puddles, where garlic and onion flavored stew as well as breath, where the cold of a particularly harsh winter crept through the rags of the poor, and where the cacophony of street sellers and the clatter of carriage wheels dominated the auditory scene.

Wolfe Trant, one of the primary characters, had spent years bare-knuckle boxing, and he was particularly attuned to physical nuance - it had become an occupational necessity: to determine from an opponent's expression, or way of moving, his subsequent strategy within that particular conflict. Wolfe's sensory world, if you will, became concentrated and focused to such a degree that everything else dropped away. That is the experience that I was attempting to create for my readers - a sensual immersion in nineteenth-century Paris and London; where the sights, smells, sounds and tastes evoke a particular place in time, where they wrap sinuously around the characters (and by extension the reader), providing the context, the ambiance.

I think that young children naturally live a highly-sensory life, perhaps an important part of that is the ability to live very much in the moment; splashing joyfully through recently formed puddles, the creamy deliciousness of ice-cream on a hot we get older I think we become more removed from our immediate sensory environment. We are rushing through a life increasingly crammed full of obligations and appointments, and perhaps, for the writers of us, there is a literary imperative to stop and smell the roses. How else can we find the words to describe the sight and sound of things if we do not fully experience them ourselves?

Of course a reader's expectations and desires are as varied as there are writers to satisfy them, and we are all, fortunately, formed from a different mold. There are many writers who eschew the more detailed sensory narrative and are no less powerful in their depictions for having done so. I, personally, have found it an imperative to literally close my eyes and imagine myself in my character's circumstance. When Primrose was battling Monsieur Gubrient in her boudoir, the knife blade between them, my impressions were of the wet drip of sweat and makeup (Gubrient was 'old school' at this time - still wore face powder and rouge), the hot coppery spill of blood, the slippery fight for possession of the knife, the gasp and heave of shortened breath, the smell of fear...the distant tinkling of someone playing the pianoforte and the occasional sprinkling of laughter and conversation.

So I raise a glass of particularly fine merlot in a toast to the sensual life - valued not only for its own enrichment, but also perhaps for the inspiration it provides to us writers; because we cannot merely look, listen, feel, taste and smell - we need to do so acutely and we need to do so with a considerable degree of awareness. Only then perhaps might we be successful in putting it into words.

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