I recently finished the novel The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel, author of the wonderful Booker Prize-winning, best-selling, made-into-a-movie Life of Pi. It left me unsatisfied and confounded. Then I came across a review in The Guardian mirroring my feelings. The reviewer, Alice O'Keeffe, made an interesting observation:
Perplexed by this strange, faltering novel, I turned back to Life of Pi, Yann Martel’s 2002 Booker prize winner, to remind myself what the author is capable of. I was struck by this passage, in the “author’s note” at the beginning (the “author” is a character in the book, so the note is presented as part of the story): before “the author” began work on Pi, he tells us, he was trying to write “a novel set in Portugal in 1939”, but he abandoned it, as “there comes a moment when you realise that… an element is missing, that spark that brings to life a real story… your story is emotionally dead, that’s the crux of it.”
At a time when I was struggling with a short story of my own that had “an element missing”, it gave me pause. I had been writing this story on and off for a couple of months, in idle moments snatched from work days, housewifery and visitors. My brain was buzzing with ideas for other stories, poems, and paintings, but I wanted to focus on this one story and get it done, before moving on to something else.
I had been reasonably pleased with my writing and after a stalemate on how to craft the ending, had had a brilliant idea that would nicely tie in with the theme and give the story more depth. It would be sharp and thought-provoking and right on target. Or so I thought.
When I started rewriting the story, everything collapsed. It was like dough that had been near perfect but was now ruined by overworking. It was a mayonnaise-in-the-making to which you had added too much oil in one go. It was a fresh watercolour painting in which the colours were becoming dull and dirty from overpainting. A poem that in rethinking had slipped form its tightrope and came crashing down.
It was, in other words, a mess.
In the midst of all that creating, I was left bare-handed, bare-hearted and depressed.
Ever hopeful, I will not delete my story, although I probably should. For the time being it will go in the drawer of delinquencies, where I keep my half-formed, crooked specimens like the formalin-jarred teratologies of an avid embryologist.
It is small comfort that a novelist of Martel’s stature can suffer similar gestation woes. Learning that the Queen of England has a headache does not make yours any less painful or at least annoying. It is just one of the paradoxes of a creative life, “the agony and the ecstasy”.
It is what it is and one learns to live with it. I would rather have aborted art than no art at all.
*(from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge)