Monday, June 25, 2012

"But What Will I Write?"

I’m reading Simone De Beauvoir’s roman à clef, The Mandarins, right now—and I say roman à clef partly to sound superior, snotty, and French, and partly because, well, that is what it is. In it, she fictionally depicts the lives of some Parisian intellectuals at the end of World War II. And, because I looked it up on Wikipedia, and Wikipedia knows all, I can break it down for you a little bit more: the character Henri Perron is thought to be Albert Camus; Robert Dubreuilh, Jean-Paul Sartre; and Anne Dubreuilh, Simone De Beauvoir.

Et voilà!

So, now that we’ve gotten this far, perhaps I can get to the point. Henri, who is also the editor of a leftist newspaper called L'Espoir, has recently published a critically acclaimed novel and has announced his plans to write a “light novel.” Of course, the more he talks about this, the more everyone gets excited and asks him a lot of questions about this “light novel.”

Too bad he doesn’t have the first clue what it’s about.

Now, bear with me, as I’m certainly no French intellectual—I know, I know, you’re shocked!—but my favorite aspect of the book so far is Henri’s inner struggle with self-definitions. Is he political, or is he a writer? Is he both? And his bigger question, considering how much he and everyone he knows has changed since before the war, is:

What in the hell will he write about, the past or the present?

So I might not be a post-WWII French intellectual, but anyone who defines oneself as a writer could likely identify with these nagging questions. You ask me what I’m writing, right now, and while on one side, the honest answer is, I’m writing Groupons five days a week and some blog posts here and there; the other, equally honest answer in my mind, is that I’m writing much more. I am writing scribbles of thoughts in a journal; I am constructing ideas and sentences in my head that may or may not ever make it on a page; I am questioning multiple times a day, “What will I write?”; and yes, I am writing Groupons and blog posts.

Yet still my head alternately feels too full to narrow down an idea or too empty to write anything at all. This has been driving me absolutely out of my mind, until I read the following passage, and I suddenly calmed the fuck down.

An excerpt from The Mandarins:

Henri imagined a solitary country home, pine trees, the smell of the scrub. ‘But what will I write?’ He continued walking, his head empty. ‘The trap is well laid,’ he said to himself. ‘Just when you think you’re escaping, it slams down on you.’ To recapture the past and preserve the present with words is all very fine. But it can be done only if there is someone to read them; there’s no sense to it except if the past, if the present, if life counts for something. If this world has no importance, if other men mean nothing, what point would there be to writing? There would be nothing left to do but yawn in boredom … Only there isn’t time enough for everything, that’s the tragedy of it. Once more the refrain began repeating itself insistently in Henri’s head… What was he to do? Give in? Not give in? Get involved in politics? Write?

He went home to bed.

I can only wonder if this “light novel” of Henri’s will ever even happen. That’s the problem with questioning yourself so much, isn’t it? After awhile, the only thing you have energy to do is go to bed. But maybe, later on, all that questioning will lead to action, and you’ll write something better, and more worthwhile, than you ever imagined.

After all, Camus wound up winning the Nobel Prize in literature. But it wasn’t for his novel. It was for his political essay, Reflections on the Guillotine.

Maybe I should start telling everyone I'm in the midst of writing a light novel. Next step, the Nobel Prize!

Just a thought...

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