Thursday, June 24, 2010

How a novelist finds her subject

As I work on the edition of Mrs. Dalloway, I have been trying to read all (or many 0f) the books that she read while writing. Today’s reading has been in Percy Lubbock’s The Craft of Fiction, a critical work on the novel on which Woolf took copious notes. I particularly love this gem, in which Lubbock limits his scope, turning away from a study of inspiration and toward a study of form:
How a novelist finds his subject, in a human being or in a situation or a turn of thought, this indeed is beyond us; we might look long at the very world that Tolstoy saw, we should never detect the unwritten book he found there; and he can seldom (he and the rest of them) give any account of the process of discovery. (23)
It’s a lovely and wise sentiment: even if we could reconstruct a novelist's whole world, we will not have solved the mystery of creativity and discovery. I believe it.

Except that, it must be that I also don’t believe it. After all, am I not combing through diaries and letters, history books, reviews, reading notes, and the books she read themselves in an attempt to pin down the source of every little thing I can in Mrs. Dalloway? It’s like creating a relief map of 1925 in which the only raised layers would be the ones that contributed to this one particular masterpiece of a novel.

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