On beauty

I’m currently trying to read Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, which is beautifully written but maddeningly detailed (although that’s a bit like saying Woody Allen is neurotic). A recent Powell’s review of Baker’s new novel A Box of Matches highlighted the question of what makes things beautiful. This was strange because by coincidence “Alfie”, the classic 1966 Michael Caine film about the Cockney Lothario, was on TV the other night, I hadn’t seen it for years, and there’s a fantastic line about beauty near the end of that: “It ain’t through the eyes that you feel beauty; it’s how the heart hungers for something that makes it beautiful.” I think that stands up by itself, but what makes it even better is how it comes out of the mouth of a man you’d never expect to make that sort of observation.

Anyway, regarding Nicholson again, it was interesting to read that the main character is an early riser and likes to sit by an open fire and stoke it with apple cores and other items, because according to a recent Baker profile/interview in The Guardian, that is exactly how he goes about his writing (not chucking it on the fire, but getting up early, etc). This in turn reminded me of Russell Hoban, who often gives his main characters the same chaotic workroom full of books, videos, posters, stones, CDs and sheets of yellow paper that he himself lives and works in. Some people might say that starting with yourself, your own immediate person and environment, is a rather boring and unimaginative approach to writing, but anyone who’s tried to write will know it’s such a difficult, intense and lonely endeavour that you very often find yourself coming back to you – your abilities (or lack of them), your motivations, the fine details of your life – which, on the basis of truth being stranger than fiction, are not necessarily any less interesting than the sort of details you come up with off your own bat. Perhaps the test of this approach though is whether you can take off from the base of yourself into something completely separate from yourself, like a jazz musician launching from a set theme into an improvisation. This analogy was spontaneous but not arbitrary – I speak as a guitarist of nearly 20 years’ standing. The trouble is I often find myself writing like a guitarist, i.e. putting on a record, playing along for a bit, making a cup of tea, playing some more, putting on another record, making another cup of tea, and then finding that several hours have passed and I haven’t got any writing done… what’s it all about, eh, Alfie?