Thursday, July 31, 2008

Archive of the Day

The first two paragraphs of The Unquiet Grave, a little (150 pp.) gem of a book by the acerbic, quotable, strict Cyril Connolly (writing as "Palinurus"):
The more books we read, the sooner we perceive that the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence. Obvious though this should be, how few writers will admit it, or having made the admission, will be prepared to lay aside the piece of iridescent mediocrity on which they have embarked! Writers always hope that their next book is going to be their best, for they will not acknowledge that it is their present way of life which prevents them from ever creating anything different or better.

All excursions into journalism, broadcasting, propaganda and writing for the films, however grandiose, are doomed to disappointment. To put of our best into these forms is another folly, since thereby we condemn good ideas as well as bad to oblivion. It is in the nature of such work not to last, so it should never be undertaken. Writers engrossed in any literary activity which is not their attempt at a masterpiece are their own dupes and, unless these self-flatterers are content to write off such activities as their contribution to the war effort, they might as well be peeling potatoes.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

As someone engaged in trying to write what I hope is something that will give pleasure that outlasts a decade or two, I understand this, but I also feel that such self-seriousness can undermine endeavors. Colette once told a writer that the worst thing he could do was to be literary, and I think that may be the best advice of all to someone trying to do just that. Get out of your own way, and just try to write. It's hard enough as it is. Also, EM Forster in his Aspects of the Novel warns against straining for Experimental Greatness, as it will not endure. Now, that's his tea-cozy side talking, I know, but I think the less one tries to get up a masterpiece, the better for everyone involved, writer and reader. Unless, ok, we're talking Ulysses. And, ok, The Portrait of a Lady. But most of us aren't either of those folks. Defeatist? Maybe. Too modest? Maybe. But Connolly's talk reminds me of Nietzsche and Simone Weil and Thomas Merton--the dour talk of the spiritual extremist, warning that it's all or nothing, forgetting that most of us will never be able to reach their heights or lay themselves as low.

6:22 PM  

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