I’m always a little hesitant to speak about the books I’ve read. And that’s because there are so many books I haven’t read. Compared to a lot of authors I know, I get through an embarrassingly small number of books. The reason is that I read painfully slowly. Sentence by sentence, word by word. And I go back and re-read sentences just to make sure I’ve really understood and appreciated them. When I’m sure there’s no one listening, I like to read out loud, rolling each word around my mouth. And when I can’t read out loud, I read just as slowly, rolling the words around in my head.
I can certainly list a few of the novels I’ve read and loved recently: Extinctions by Josephine Wilson, A Burning by Megha Majumdar and La Vie Devant Soi (The Life Before Us) by Emile Ajar. And a couple of months ago, I attended a fabulous series of online conversations on Hemingway—a companion event to the brilliant three-part PBS documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. After the first episode, I immediately ordered the Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. (650 pages of microscopic font!) Ken Burns said his favourite is ‘The Killers’ and I think it’s mine too.
I’ve recently read a lot of works of both non-fiction and fiction related to the subject of my novel, Small Acts of Defiance, which is set in Nazi-occupied Paris. One tiny book that not many people might have heard of, but that I can strongly recommend, is Address Unknown by Kathrine Kressmann Taylor, published in 1938. It takes the form of a series of letters between a Jewish man in San Francisco and his former German business partner in Munich. In under 100 pages, it paints a stark picture of how Nazism, anti-Semitism and other forms of extremism can seep like poison through a society. It is a compelling treatise on the power of words when used as weapons.
I’m currently doing some preliminary research for my next project. I’ve started by reading various pieces to try to get an insight into people who think deeply, obsessively about something—be it art, or language or people. A few pieces I’ve loved and found very useful are The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, Huis Clos (No Exit) by Jean-Paul Sartre and, for those who read French, Les Mots de Ma Vie by Bernard Pivot.
I also recently discovered an absolute gem of a book by Simon Leys—originally written in French, but published in English in 2007 by Black Inc. It’s title alone had me hooked: Other People’s Thoughts: Idiosyncratically compiled by Simon Leys for the Amusement of Idle Readers.
Here are just a few of the quotes that spoke to me as a reader and writer:
Buying books would be a good thing if one could also buy the time to read them in; but, as a rule, the purchase of books is mistaken for the appropriation of their contents. —Schopenhauer
The ordinariness of human lives can never be a measure of the effort it takes to keep them going. —Balzac
The greatest service that great artists offer us is not to give us their truth, but ours. —Alexandre Vialette
This final quote is particularly relevant to my new project—for which I’ve been trying to gain an insight into the process of painting portraits and self-portraits. I’ve started my research with two wonderful books—A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits by Laura Cumming and Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud by Martin Gayford. In the latter, Gayford gives a detailed account of his conversations with and observations of Freud, gathered over the more than eight months he spent sitting for his portrait.
In reading about Freud’s approach to the creation of his art, I’m finding fascinating parallels between the process of painting and that of writing. Gayford describes Freud looking very closely at his sitter: he measures, hesitates, reconsiders, observes again, contemplates, and finally brings his brush to the canvas and makes a single mark. He does this over hundreds of hours, one stroke at a time, until there are thousands and thousands of individual strokes, each one translating a thought, a visual sensation, an observation—juxtaposed and layered like the individual words a writer lays down on paper, carried out with the same precision, till the portrait is complete.
On the impossibility or inadvisability of trying to put into words the creative act, Freud relates a Picasso anecdote. When a woman asked him about a painting he was working on, Picasso curtly replied, ‘Don’t speak to the driver!’ I tend to agree; though I’m not sure if that’s because I think the driver shouldn’t be distracted, or because, as is my case, the driver is afraid to admit that, at this precise moment in the journey, they have no idea where they’re going, or even where they are.
As most writers will have experienced, sometimes research for fiction can take you along unfamiliar, unlit roads and into neighbourhoods that are most definitely not in fiction-land. Some recent research led me into some pretty impenetrable scientific publications on the effects of frontal lobe trauma, expressive aphasia and the role of the posterior superior temporal sulcus—all in an attempt to learn a little more about how we express our thoughts and emotions, how we perceive ourselves and others, and whether, in fact, there is such a thing as a constant ‘self’ to be perceived.
Flipping through Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, I came across an interesting quote on the subject of character, which he defines as:
a bundle of habits and tendencies and interests, loosely bound together and dependent, at certain times, on circumstances and context. The reason that most of us seem to have a consistent character is that most of us are really good at controlling our environment.
And that got me thinking… what happens when our environment spins completely out of our control like it has in the past year and a half? I wonder what effect the pandemic has had on our sense of self, on our ‘character’, on our stability? Might it have altered our ability to have a consistent character, to keep our bundle bound? Or in the restrained, pared-back conditions that were imposed by lockdowns, masks and social distancing, have we been controlling our immediate environment so closely that our identities have been reinforced?
I very recently read something more personal that made me further question this notion of a constant ‘self’. Just a couple of days ago, an old friend sent me a photo of a letter I’d sent her from Paris in December 1986. It was just before my first Parisian Christmas. I read the words scribbled on airmail paper with a blue biro that was running out of ink. ‘Tonight I’m hanging up some home-made Xmas decorations. We’ve started a rough plan for a book we’re writing together on Australia and I’m battling to enrol in a uni course for next year. I’m still writing my story about the old woman.’ All these years later, I can’t remember having written those words, or that never-started book on Australia, or that never-completed story. In fact, I’m not sure I really remember being that ‘me’, that former self.
I guess that’s why it’s important to make portraits, to write about ourselves and others, and later, to read what has been written. Perhaps it helps us to see ourselves as we are, and to remember all those other ‘selves’ we’ve been.
Michelle Wright’s debut novel, Small Acts of Defiance (Allen & Unwin, June 2021; forthcoming in North America), is set in Nazi-occupied Paris. Fine, her collection of award-winning short stories, was published in 2016.