It is cold midwinter and the line from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’ — “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” — repeats itself in my mind, for in the misery of our discontent with the weather, we dream of the forthcoming flowery future when our world will be a perfumed paradise. Discontent with one’s present situation — with its attendant belief that the current distress will surely pass and we will come to a happy time — is a basic condition of human existence that affects every aspect of life. There is always some feature that torments one’s body or one’s soul in the present for which doctors and priests console us with opiate prescriptions that promise future health and eternal happiness. There is no work we do — even as artists — which, when finished, does not leave us painfully frustrated that we could have done it better.
The great writers were not exempt from this feeling; indeed, the best of them suffered acutely from it. In 1865, two years after he’d begun War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy wrote in a letter, “What I have published in the past I consider a mere trial of the pen, a rough draft; what I am publishing now, although I like it more than my previous work, still seems weak. ... But what’s to follow will be — tremendous!” Eight years later, glancing at his novel for a new edition, he wrote, “I find War and Peace utterly repugnant now. ... I can’t tell you the feeling of repentance and shame I experienced, as I scrutinised many passages!”
A month later, he wrote how, on rereading Alexander Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin, he was so possessed by inspiration that, “Involuntarily, unwittingly, not knowing why and what would come of it, I thought up characters and events... and... the result was a novel which I finished in draft form today, a very lively, impassioned and well-finished novel which I’m very pleased with and which will be ready in two weeks’ time.” This was an early draft of Anna Karenina, written in seven days in March 1873, and Tolstoy was so inspired by the initial excited impulse, which is felt by the creative mind when — following the discontent of thinking the previous work a flop — the ideas seem to flow with the rush of a cascading stream after a heavy rain and a lush narrative springs to life, that he thought he would finish it in a fortnight. But 32 months later, in a November 1875 letter, Tolstoy wrote: “My God, if only someone would finish A. Karenina for me! It’s unbearably repulsive.”
Discontented with War and Peace and Anna Karenina to the point of being ashamed of them, two years later Tolstoy felt a renewal of confidence and, beginning to have an intimation of a brilliant new work, wrote, “Many very important things have become completely clear to me, but I can’t express them yet and am searching for words and a form.” Convinced that one’s talent is superior to what is evidenced by one’s published work, the writer is filled with a new dream of a work which will exhibit that superiority in all its dazzling glory.
Tolstoy’s younger contemporary, Anton Chekhov, recorded a similar experience in his letters. “I have a talent for disliking this year what I wrote last year, and I have the feeling that I’ll be stronger next year than I am now.” To another correspondent the same month, he wrote, “Everything I’ve written to date is nonsense compared with what I would like to have written and would be overjoyed to be writing.”
Tolstoy’s younger contemporary, Anton Chekhov, recorded a similar experience in his letters. In his early years, driven by an urge to write a novel and believing that he had “a marvellous theme”, he wrote in a letter that he felt a “passionate desire” to work on it, but he was “afraid to go on.” He stated in the same letter, dated October 1888: “I have a talent for disliking this year what I wrote last year, and I have the feeling that I’ll be stronger next year than I am now.” To another correspondent the same month, he wrote, “Everything I’ve written to date is nonsense compared with what I would like to have written and would be overjoyed to be writing.”
Tolstoy’s English contemporary, George Eliot, was similarly disappointed with what she had written before her masterpiece Middlemarch, and said in a letter dated August 1863, “My own books scourge me.” The success of Middlemarch won her high admiration and made her very rich, yet in a letter in January 1875, she said that though such success was the best motive to write more, “I am suffering much from doubt as to the worth of what I am doing.”
Other writers — Joseph Conrad and William Faulkner among them — who deservedly reside among the immortals in the literary pantheon, have written about their sense of failure. Conrad even expressed his discontent with Lord Jim.
In an interview given a few months before he died in 1962, Faulkner described the discontent experienced by most writers: “I think that no writer is ever quite satisfied with the work he has done, which is why he writes another one. If he ever wrote one which suited him completely, nothing remains but to cut the throat and quit.” As to his own work, he said that the novel he worked the hardest on, and which caused him “the most anguish” — The Sound and the Fury — filled him with “the most painful failure”, as if he’d fathered a “child who is an idiot or born crippled.”
Well, this has turned out to be a lousy column, though when I began it I felt sure it was going to be one of my best. I promise the next one will be tremendous!
The columnist is a poet, novelist and literary critic. His works include the novel The Murder of Aziz Khan and a collection of short fictions, Veronica and the Góngora Passion. He is Professor emeritus at the University of Texas
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 18th, 2018