Book lovers were up in arms at the news. What does she mean? Is it even allowed (for authors to retire)? Won’t we get to read new works? Go and read the old books anew, Munro told them. “It’s nice to go out with a bang,” she said. Then, that very same year, Alice Munro, won the Nobel Prize in literature. But she hasn’t picked up her pen since she called it quits.
Just like her, the American author Philip Roth has also left his writing behind him. Now his leisurely days are spent swimming or watching baseball matches. Roth downed his shutters in 2012 and hasn’t ventured back. “Enough is enough,” Roth said in an interview to a French magazine. And in fact Munro, while announcing her retirement from writing, mentioned Roth, saying that she was inspired by his decision to call it a day.
What could be the reason for this turning away? Aging perhaps? Munro had said somewhere that her memory is not sharp as it used to be. But could this be the only cause?
Perhaps what Roth says in his interview with the French magazine is actually what this is all about. In this interview the author of American Pastoral and a host of brilliant works asserted, “I no longer feel this fanaticism to write that I have experienced in my life.”
That does ring a bell somewhere for truly, this whole business of dipping into experience to produce one finished manuscript after another defies rationality, and has the flavour of fanaticism if you like. And indeed this may not give pleasure for a lifetime.
The most cinematic of departures from the literary life was that of a Frenchman. His hundred line poem Le Bateau Ivre was recently turned into a poetry mural, painted on the walls of Rue Férou in Paris. Arthur Rimbaud was just a lad of twenty when he bid adieu to poetry. The dreamy eyed Bohemian vanished from the streets of Paris at that `tender’ age, promising never to write again.
The year was 1876. Enlisting as a soldier with the Dutch army he boarded a ship to Java. In a few months he deserted the Dutch colonials and managed to secure his passage back to France. From there he went on to Cyprus and Ethiopia looking for jobs. Finally Rimbaud landed up in the Ethiopian city of Harar where he got involved in gun running and the coffee trade.
At an age when poets write hardly anything noteworthy, this young absinthe drinking libertine had penned some of the most memorable lines of verse and then vanished into self imposed exile. This was such a strange course of events that volumes had been written about it. The French poet René Char engaged with Rimbaud’s exile long after his death in this famous poem, which went:
“You did well to leave, Arthur Rimbaud! Your eighteen years refractory to friendship, to malevolence, to the idiocy of Paris poets as well as to the purring of the sterile bee of your slightly mad Ardennaise family, you did well to cast them to the winds of the open sea, to the knife-edge of their precocious guillotine. You were right to abandon the boulevard of idlers, the estaminets of piss-lyres, for the hell of fools, for the commerce of the sly and the good-day of simpletons...”
Those were the stories of retirement and self-exile. Now it’s time to talk about the hermits. Hermits among authors who haven’t severed their connections from the life of letters but preferred to remain invisible.
Pynchon and Salinger
Thomas Pynchon’s name springs to mind. A master of postmodern fiction yet nobody seems to know the real person. Is there a real Thomas Pynchon or is someone else hiding behind that smoke screen of a name? Perhaps it was JD Salinger (Catcher in the Rye) who had written some of those books using the Pynchon name?
Like Pynchon, Salinger too was a recluse. Shielding himself well from media glare, he spent his whole life away from the public gaze. Dropping off all radars two years after the publication of Catcher in the Rye (1951) Salinger would rarely be spotted except by friends and neighbours. Leave alone interviews, even getting hold of a picture of the author was so difficult that it made editors lose their sleep.
And so it is with Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Jr. Interviews, book releases or the prospect of basking in the limelight doesn’t seem to move him at all. Holed up in some secret corner of America, he goes on producing mind boggling works of postmodern fiction – The Crying of Lot 49, Gravity’s Rainbow among others.
Is Pynchon CIA? Perhaps he is the Unabomber? Wild speculations surrounding this enigmatic author bubble up from time to time. Adding grist to the rumour mills the Soho Weekly News once published a piece suggesting that it is J. D. Salinger using the Pynchon name. “Not bad, keep trying,” was Pynchon’s cryptic response.
Writer or performer?
A few years ago Amitav Ghosh, in a longish blog post about literary festivals, used the word tamasha saying that tamashas do not attract him at all. He argued that with literature becoming a kind of tamasha, thanks to festivals, it is getting embedded in the broader culture of public spectacles and performances, so much so that writers are beginning to forget that the act of writing is what matters most.
As more and more channels of communication between writer and reader are opened up it becomes possible for the reader to exert an increasing influence on the writer. In Ghosh’s words, “to expand the points of direct contact between writers and the public is also to increase the leverage of the latter over the former”. This in the long run could affect creative freedom.
Ghosh’s post generated a lot of controversy. A section of new authors believes that litfests, book readings and similar events is good for publicity and perhaps helps them get readers. Some do like to attend these programmes and in certain cases it is impossible to avoid these.
Ghosh has himself acknowledged the fact that nowadays most authors have become habituated or are contract-bound to present themselves at book readings, book signings and more. But still there remains some leeway, a modicum of choice and some room for manoeuvre.
Maintaining a distance
Which brings reclusive South African author, J. M. Coetzee and the world-renowned Samuel Beckett to mind. Both of them won the Nobel Prize. Coetzee was so determined to keep his distance from the publicity bandwagon that this twice Booker winning author never went to collect the prize. And Beckett didn’t even turn up to pick up his Nobel.
Beyond the pressures on creative freedom there could be one other reason why some writers prefer to disengage from their audience. This stems from the realisation that readers will sometime mix up the author’s life with his books, leading to serious flaws in evaluation of his work. While it has been said time and again not to look for the creator in his creation, easy access to the author makes people search for parallels between his life and his novels, and if no such parallels are to be found then the writing gets the blame.
There is nothing unjustified in people’s expectations. The audience wants to watch in extreme close-up how a timeless work is born, how the flames of creation mould and forge great literature. But no one but the author really has any right to step into that secret chamber where the fires burn.
If someone does obtain an entry through subterfuge, what he will find there is not the recipe for literary creation, rather his eyes blinded by light, his brain cooked by the heat, will see cryptic patterns and shape-shifting forms dancing an indecipherable dance from which meaning cannot be teased out.
For even the writer, when he emerges from his dungeon (or barsati) would find it hard to explain how great works are created. Perhaps that is why the hermits among our authors, instead of wasting time on fruitless endeavours, prefer to continue with their work. To drag them out of their solitary preoccupation and ask them to sing and dance is surely not a worthy enterprise.
Rajat Chaudhuri is a Charles Wallace Fellow and the author of three works of fiction.
(A version of this piece written in Bengali was first published in Anandabazar Patrika.)