Portrait of the Writer as a Young Writer

Sometimes an idea floated harmlessly through the room. It was like a small white bird. It meant no ill-will. It only wanted to help me, dear little bird. But I would strike at it, hammer it out across the keyboard, and it would die on my hands.

Ask the Dust

Thus, poor Arturo Bandini, hapless young want-to-be writer at his typewriter. The semi-autobiographical novel of the struggling writer is a genre unto itself, and can be done badly. But clearly, when Fante writes “overwhelmed with grief for Arturo Bandini”, he is seeing ironically and from a distance. It would be wrong to see the book as ‘about’ a writer: it is not ‘about’ anything, not representing some fixed time and place and reality (other than its formal vehicular shaping which requires a content to proceed); rather, it is a direct impressionism of writing itself, the words do what the words can do, the attentive reader is given the experience of writing, reading, and that same distanced irony that evaporates the heavy weight of registers which may be assumed serious, literal. It is ‘playful’ (and not in the connotative sense of the dominant literal discourse) and light and true to the sadness of living. The small extract here contrasts that very possible lightness , the generosity of a benevolent world, with being squashed by the hammer blows of literalism. It is like offering love and being punched in return by a fearful thug.

Arturo can be very nasty, very spiteful, swinging between the rectitude hardwired by believing the Catholic mythos, violent and vile ill will, oceanic grandiosity, lust, obsession, self-disgust, guilt, and the chronic awareness of death and decay: the young man is made of humanbeingness, and the writer catches it superbly so that this is not a story with a consistent narrative author-ity in the classical sense, but the voice of a particularly honest author. Almost every sentence contains a sensuous image. While Arturo is in dread of the dust, desert, ghostly emptiness of everything, of time’s indifference, his eye for a face, a touch of skin, an ankle is immanent all the time; his own innards, gases in the stomach, acids in the gut; his sensitivity to the disgusting all around, in him too, attest to a realism that is not contrary to but completive of the metaphysical impulses, the Voltairian, the Nietzschean, the mathematical and formal.

What if, he, Los Angeles, California, the World do not exist? What if all the stories are just stories made of words, words that we believe are Truth, absolutes, totems to live by? The novel’s its own Ulysses in which every thing is tried in the tyranny of syntax, thoughts until a breakthrough, a clarity and cleanliness if not realised, promised:

And then like a dream it came. Out of my desperation it came – an idea, my first sound idea, the first in my entire life, full-bodied and clean and strong… But it was not thinking, not cogitation. It simply moved of its own accord, spurted out like blood.

He is writing here about writing, the novel is a torture chamber of words to come to the words that matter at last.

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