The cover page of 'The Blue Book: A Writer's Journal' by Amitava Kumar. (By Arrangement)
In his introduction, the author says that he shares in this book the writings and sketches and paintings that have occupied him while he wrote his novel, A Time Outside This Time. He was practising his art, mostly watercolours and sketches, so this book is an illustrated journal for the period he wrote his book.
In the first place, it’s a display of many gifts: his eye for lines and colour, his ear for words, and his sense of balance between art and text. In the second, it’s an interesting exercise, for it forces a different kind of intimacy with the writer/artist. Both writing and art are intensely personal, but it’s clearer from art than from writing that the important thing is not reality but how the artist sees it. That tells a lot about the artist, or the writer, for that matter.
It’s a small book, sprinkled lightly with insight, with moments of intimacy and of honesty. For instance, when he speaks of his children, the weight of his bonds is evident. Early on, he mentions that he noted some years ago that, while there’s a word in English for a man who loves his wife too much, there’s none for one who loves his children too much…
He speaks about learning to write and paint at the various residencies he’s done. His entry on the one in Marfa, Texas, meant mostly for artists, is most revealing. The late David Foster Wallace preceded the author by twenty years, and wrote, while he was there: "The whole Trans-Pecos is haunted. Some of this is the high desert, where nothing has a shadow and storm clouds seem just out of reach. Some of it is quiet, which is so profound it has its own hum…" What struck me was something towards the end of this passage from Wallace: "It is country that wants nothing from you, where it is impossible to take yourself seriously..."
Some of Wallace’s thoughts affected him profoundly, not when he was writing, but when he was painting. When I read this, it seemed strange at first, but then it fell into place when it became clear how much words and art affect each other.
Having written a few books, I spent some time with the chapter, Writing a Novel. The author begins with an interviewer in which the interviewer asks him what he’s searching for, and his reply is: "Language. Language to name emotions, places, people." That is so spot-on. That search often fails, in that a fine strand of emotion turns into lead when you put a word to it, but when it does work, it lifts your spirits immeasurably.
But it’s more than that. It’s also a search for the elusive quality of integrity, whatever it is that tells you that your work hangs together. That requires patience: in the author’s words, "Writing begins with waiting."
Going through the book brought to mind other writers who have illustrated their own books: examples range from Devdutt Pattanaik to James Thurber to Antoine de St Exupery. St Exupery’s The Little Prince came to mind immediately, with its spare writing and haunting pictures.
I’m no art critic, but it struck me that not all the pictures included in the book are worthy of being there. There’s talent, of course, etched clearly over all the work, but not all of it seems consistently good. If there’s something to be learnt from the not-so-good work, well, I didn’t get it.
On to other journals. John Steinbeck wrote East of Eden in a series of notebooks. He’d usually write about 1,500 words every day, five days a week. He wrote the book on right-hand pages only, and, on the left, a daily journal in the form of a letter to his friend and editor, Pascal Covici. These letters were published as another book, Journal of a Novel.
Right at the end, after the book is all written, is the inevitable encounter with the editor. In Steinbeck’s words, "You came in with a box of glory and there you stand with an armful of damp garbage." Steinbeck didn’t take himself too seriously.
Comparing Journal of a Novel with this book would be, at the very least, idiocy. For all that, I must say that when I was done with the book I couldn’t help notice the rarity of wit and humour in this book, and wish the author had paid more heed to Wallace’s words about taking oneself seriously.
The Blue Book: A Writer’s Journal
pp. 153, Rs.699