When I was about 12 years old, I remember being confused by the consideration of writing as art. I had seen modern dance, heard classical music, seen paintings and statues at the Musee D’Orsay in Paris – these, to me, were Art. Masterful, contrived, and purposely evocative, these pieces were easily accessible, a direct conduit between object and emotion.
You did not need to know that Van Gogh painted “Starry Night” to be dazzled by the yellow star-suns and the swirling, enveloping sky. You did not need to know the title of Mozart’s “Requiem” to be taken adrift upon the crest and crescendo of the violins; the haunting, slow undercurrent of the brass band. Dance, arguably the most engaging art form, the most primordial and human, needs no explanation – you watch and are carried along, heart beating a little faster, in tandem with that of the breathless but weightless figures on stage.
Writing seemed different. It was awkward, complex – it needed to explain itself, to over-compensate. It was esoteric and exclusive – you needed to understand, attempt to breach, with your mind, the fortress of syllables, find the black box of meaning. It’s difficult to read – in all senses of the word. I was unimpressed – Art, to me, was something you did not have to struggle to comprehend; it could make you struggle in other ways, make you anxious or uncomfortable with what you see, what it brings to the forefront of your mind.
Some people may stand in front of a painting, or an exhibition, and – particularly with modern art – say “I don’t get it.” This implies a certain innate factor, which one either has or doesn’t – faced with a Jackson Pollock, or a Paul Klee, some scoff while others marvel.
You can’t ‘not get’ writing – it’s literally explained, right there, on the page. If you can read, if your lexicon is big enough, you get it. How can this be art? How can something that takes so much effort to access, a compact, layered expression placed at the end of a labyrinth thought, be art?
As I read more, and grew older, I realized that my conception of art – as instinctive and thoughtless – was terribly wrong; disrespectful, even. The artist placed himself in his work, and I refused to get to know him, setting the standard of art at the equivalent of a perfunctory exchange about the weather.
You cannot come up to art, say “How do you do?”, and walk away if the answer does not move you. It dawned on me that art is about questioning and continuously trying – you need to converse with it, get the feel of it between the folds of your mind, the electric tips of neurons.
Art itself often defies explanation, and writing is not exclusive to it – writing is meant to, in the first place, communicate; be it a feeling of loss or the fact that passengers should ‘mind the gap’ on the London underground. When does communication – a tool – transcend its practical nature and evolve into art?
I couldn’t tell you, exactly. A few days ago, renowned author and Nobel Prize laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez passed away. He had been reportedly suffering from Alzheimer’s for a long time, his glowing mind slowly losing wattage until, dim and flickering, it succumbed to the curious darkness of death. I was thus prompted to return to my old copy of Love in the Time of Cholera, a semi-autobiographical depiction of how one can be tenacious both in love and in suffering. I have read three of Marquez’s books – enough to have achieved an admiration of his work, enough to duly mourn the death of the origin of such magical work.
This is not a throwaway adjective: Marquez was renowned for his flowery, labyrinthine style of writing, which effortlessly joined the fabulous with the finite, the wonderful life of the mind with the wrenching actuality of our slow, mundane existence.
Magical realism, it is called – a seeming oxymoron, but one which Marquez managed to apply to perfection. This is surprising, if one considers that prior to his career in fiction Marquez was an established journalist – one would imagine that journalistic writing (more in time with the likes of Hemingway) stands at the opposite end of the spectrum to Marquez’s comma-ridden, achingly beautiful sentences.
Yet the attention to detail, the nuance, the ability to continue the thread of a story with countless characters, each of which takes a divergent path transcends any fantastic turn of phrase and makes his books cohesive and inspiring. Marquez wrote, in the Art of Fiction, that writing is naught but ‘carpentry.’
His writing was not – it was sculpture, which stands on the other side of the fine line between building something for use and building something for admiration (though the two are not mutually exclusive). He is an artist of the highest degree – see, here, how he extracts, from the stiff marble block of character, a figure, frozen in an act of supposed banality:
‘There was no sleeper more elegant than she, with her curved body posed for a dance and her hand across her forehead, but there was also no one more ferocious when anyone disturbed the sensuality of her thinking she was still asleep when she no longer was.’
Sleep – so humdrum, so still, so incredibly non-evocative, became active, enlivened. Marble became human became dancer, typed letters became images, attachments. And that’s art, really – the transformation of something still into something that moves.