Friday, February 11, 2011

A SINGULAR WORK

Like so many others I have been laid up with the flu this week. I did a lot of reading. Mostly what I have been reading is 'Anna Karenina' by Count Leo Tolstoy, perhaps the greatest novelist who ever lived. It is not the first time I have read it, of course, and I really did not intend to write anything about it. What more, after all, could one possibly write? In the back of this volume alone there are over 150 pages of critical essays and author biography. There are extracts from letters, diaries, and newspapers. There is an essay by Fyodor M. Dostoevsky (perhaps the second greatest novelist ever - I say perhaps because when you set yourself up as a target someone will usually take a shot at you). There is an essay about 'Levin and Social Chaos' and another about Tolstoy's 'Physical Descriptions'. All very interesting and all very daunting for the writer of novels.

I say 'daunting' because once we have read such a work of singular greatness, how are we supposed to sit down and write anything at all from our own limited talents and means? I am amazed, again, at the texturing of each chapter as characters are revealed along with their motives, their 'nature' and their flaws and foibles. How Levin and his philosophy of simple living counterweights Anna and the others who are caught up in complex moral situations.

Tolstoy himself was attempting to live his life more and more simply, even attempting to give away his work and any rights to his work. (Strenuously opposed by his family). And at last giving everything up and deciding to become a wandering ascetic; and being at the Astoapovo train station on his way out when he contracted the pneumonia that would kill him. (His journey took him farther than expected, I guess). Simplicity is what led him away from the Orthodox Church and to write 'The Kingdom of God is Within You'. When he was excommunicated a band of followers sprang up around his 'beliefs', which irritated him no end. The banning together of followers was not the point! What one should look for in life, in belief, and in writing, is one's own life, belief, and talent. That is something singular; not something that calls for gathering together.

By the end of last year I had finished up all the short stories I had been working on; the nonfiction book 'American Masters'; the novel 'The Struggle' and a couple of screen plays. I wanted to finish those things so that I could begin this year to work on a singular work. One that only I can write. One that only I can struggle with and sweat over and agonize with as I try to top even the great Tolstoy. So, that's where I'm at - two months in.

I hope your work is going well also,

Jim

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