Saturday, July 12, 2014

Stendhal, the Urgency of Prose, and a Place in which to Write

There is a place, beneath the thick leaves of a mangrove tree, where the water is still and clear, where amidst the detritus of dead leaves and submerged roots, the burnt orange of lobsters scuttle, and tiny schools of silver fish flash and dart beneath the surface. It is a place of stillness; removed from the perpetual shrill and clang of the modern world. One must kayak there, for the intermittent shallows would ground a deeper-draughted vessel. But this is as it should be. For the clamor and roar of mechanized engines would be deplorably intrusive; there is, instead, only the occasional cry of nesting seabirds and the plaintive squawks of their young, the soft murmur of water against the hull, and the hum of insect life that thrives in stagnant pools. It is a place to ponder and muse. A place to write in one's head, or scribble on damp paper (that must be subsequently confined to waterproof bags for the homeward journey).

Stendhal wrote The Charterhouse of Parma (of nearly five hundred pages in length) in just 53 days. He closeted himself away in rented lodgings in Paris, barred the door and gave instructions to all callers that he had departed for the country to shoot. And he wrote, in all furious haste, the novel that Balzac later called 'a great and beautiful book.' Begun on the 4th of November, 1838, the novel was completed on the 26th December of that same year, and delivered to Stendhal's friend Romain Colomb in the form of six 'enormous exercise-books' with instructions to find a publisher. While this might be considered a exhausting tempo of composition, even for the most prolific of writers, Stendhal valued prose that was urgently compelling and free from artifice - an imperative served by writing unconstrained by editorial revision.

For myself, the decade of endeavor (that has, at long last, come to a happy conclusion - with Killing the Bee King now available online in all requisite formats) seems an interminable stretch in comparison. And Stendhal's strategy certainly holds appeal - this notion that one can avail oneself of an uninterrupted place,  removed from the larger world, and write with unimpeded ferocity. For, while I have not the happy talent to write bountiful prose unneedful of editorial red (my mistakes are indubitably many), there is something intriguing about the fresh exuberance of Stendhal's approach. Granted, despite Balzac's favorable review he did allow himself some criticisms of Stendhal's work; criticisms that the latter took sufficiently to heart to undertake unprecedented revisions (being, as he was, a writer who disdained wasting time on second thoughts, or drafts for that matter); rewrites that were, however, later abandoned due to ill-health. Stendhal's manner of work, imbued with a fervent spontaneity, seems to find echo within the personalities of his primary fictional characters: Fabrizio del Dongo, and his aunt, the Duchess Gina Sanseverina, are governed not by reason or cool expediency, but by their passionate natures, and thus present a stark contrast to the timid calculations of the courtiers by whom they are surrounded.

But one must, of course, have the place and the time - free of the entanglements of life and work. Stendhal's fifty-three days of frenetic writing was wrested from quotidian obligations (just as our own might be); plagued by debt, the French author had, with sour disgruntlement, accepted a post of consul at the port town of Civitavecchia. The Charterhouse of Parma was penned while on extended leave from his consulship - having been granted a month, he took (thanks to ministerial favor and influence) two and a half years. With full pay as opposed to the conventional half. Stendhal's literary stars had indeed aligned!

While Stendhal had his Parisian retreat at 8, rue Caumartin, I have developed the improbable notion that this outlying mangrove island is the place in which the Muse might visit me; in the secluded quiet, free of the tempestuous racket that defines regular hours, with only the seabirds for company. Here, my mind can turn unfettered to the maritime adventure which waits on the peripheries: to a new assemblage of characters who begin to take nebulous shape, to the sharp tang of salt and the gentle warmth of a sea-borne breeze, the flap of canvas sail, and the rattle of a loosed anchor chain, of the heavy humidity of tropical islands, and the heady lure of the exotic spice...a new novel awaits!

And, inspired by Stendhal's masterful work and his focused dedication to the process, I am hoping the undertaking will not require the decade devoted to the first; perhaps, with acquired experience, the second novel will be written with an improved ease and fluency, that, true to Stendhal's mandate, exude an intensity of prose free of contrivance or artifice. Assuming this waterlogged writing retreat of limited accessibility, my Muse will have to be content (as will I) with intermittent visitations; my character is insufficiently stalwart to endure the requisite 53 days of kayak living - not to mention the innumerable pages dropped and blotted, forming nests for shadowy ocean-dwellers, or fodder for scavenging nest-makers. No, Stendhal's locale seems far more pragmatic than my own. A much better place for the penning of a marvelous new novel. But perhaps mine might find its sandy beginnings in this quiet place - where, along with the lobster hatchlings  and baby frigatebirds, a literary work might be born.


  1. Dear PJ,
    Who is to say that the gestation period for every masterpiece is the same? By the same token, no two labors are identical. The nature/nurture elements are both unique and symbiotic in complexity, and we can only rely on experience and expectations when composing new work(s). Nonetheless, I have every confidence in your process and prowess as a beautiful writer. I have just begun reading 'Killing the Bee King' with GREAT relish, and it was well worth the wait! Whether you are nestled in a kayak, musing with the mystics or tapping away on your keyboard, I trust that your free flowing form would even amaze the explosive Stendhal! ;-0

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    2. Stendhal may have penned his novel down in 53 days, but what do we know of its gestation time? Those untold nights of insomnia, days of consulship boredom, blessed moments of perception that PRECEDED his self-imposed imprisonment, a lifetime wasted with tedious Civitavecchian courtesy calls and petty back-office intrigue...
      I very much doubt that the struggle spanning those forbidding (and alluring) wastelands between a novel's inception and its publication can be measured in time - reason why novelistic activity often runs counter to 'the tempestuous racket that defines regular hours'. When all is said and done - and reworked to perfection - time is absolutely nothing. Even ten years is nothing; nothing if not a testimony to your stamina, PJ.

      Whereas a novel - now THAT is quite, quite something. And if "Killing the Bee King" has been improved since the version I read, which seems an astounding accomplishent in itself, it surely isn't 'just' something, but a must-read! My heartfelt congratulations, PJ Royal!!!

      Oh and don't forget to take mosquito nets with you...

    3. Thank you, thank you, my dearest friends! Shari and Pim, I would be bereft indeed without your warm and gracious support! May all writers be so fortunate as to enjoy such - being a long and arduous road as it is, this literary endeavor of ours. I hope that I can, always, be as a strong and as staunch a support to the both of you! Much love to you both! PJ
      p.s yes an ample supply of mosquito netting might be in order!

  2. Replies
    1. Dear John - thank you so much, dear Sir, for stopping by, and leaving such a lovely comment behind you! Please come warm yourself by my humble literary fire any time - you are always most welcome!