How to write

Anyone who plans to write seriously might read The Master of Petersburg by Nobel-prizewinning South African novelist J.M. Coetzee. I picked it up because it was about my hero Dostoevsky, returning to Peterburg to grieve the death of his politically radical stepson. I expected to scoff at Coetzee’s hubris.
Think about it. How would you venture to portray a transcendent genius, using his own medium no less, let alone get inside his head: “Oh Fyodor, you have such dark thoughts!”
Some of the holes I’d have fallen into: I’d have painted a panoramic vision of the high and low life of 19th century Peterburg, with a nod to the vastness of the country whose blood was spilled building it; I’d have grappled with somehow conveying the Rusianness of the characters; I’d have tried to show Dostoevsky directly involved in the writing process; I’d have overdramatized in vulgar ways his epileptic fits and their effect on onlookers.
Not how a master like Coetzee does it. Not even bothering to ever name Dostoevsky, he takes us directly inside him. Everything is the writer’s internal world and his body’s experiences. (The narrative could easily be changed to first person, except that it might add a touch of off-putting narcissistic self-absorption to the desperate writer’s grief.) We encounter only what Dostoevsky registers as he moves within his restricting globe of grief: the cast of characters is tiny, the geographical area confined to roughly the same neighborhood of Peterburg as Crime and Punishment. Coetzee barely mentions the “color” details that would identify the people or the city as Russian.
Instead we take Peterburg and Russia and genius for granted because we breathe them with the air Dostoevsky breathed, even if he sometimes wished for another destiny. The content is so personal yet universal, the writing so intensely alive that the occasional superfluous word or patch of stilted dialog feels like a slap in the face. How could a writer as good as Coetzee ever slip?
It turns out The Master of Petersburg is about the terrible prize a genius pays to create transcendent art: It involves living each moment with an intensity the rest of us couldn’t tolerate. The rest of us are cowards.

Going Home

At the downtown Belfast hotel I checked the Bangor phone directory. One of the women who raised me was back living in the tiny terrace house where she was born. The second woman’s husband was listed at the address near the railway station where I lived till I left home when I was 17. The next day, a Sunday, I took the train to Bangor, 13 miles away.
Growing up I was obsessed with widescreens. First the slightly wider screen that mutilated standard formatted movies by cutting off the tops and bottoms for the sake of size, later the much wider CinemaScope screen for which movies were specially filmed. My only doodle for the first 30 years of my life was the oblong CinemaScope screen, with the top and bottom edges curved inwards to suggest a vast object with the center receding into the distance. Idiotic psychotheorists might assume that repeated image was a phallic object; I think I never had the patience to learn to draw any other simple object. I was obsessed with widescreens because I longed for space, physical and emotional.
Along with the CinemaScope screen came the CinemaScope music extension that accompanied the 20th Century Fox logo, an expansive trumpet voluntary. A culture vulture in my late teens and into my twenties, my head was devoted to the films of Ingmar Bergman, but my heart was with the mediocre versions of popular bestsellers that the Fox movie factory churned out with diminishing success. I mean Peyton Place. So I always imagined that after fifty years, the first time I came out of the Bangor railway station and stood at the top of the steps that led down the street where I grew up would be a Peyton Place moment, the CinemaScope trumpets blasting to remind me to feel heightened emotions.
Nothing. The railway station and area around it were under construction and I had to walk around where the steps had been to get to my street. To the right, signs of urban decay on Main Street, but also human beings, never there on the deserted religious Sundays of my childhood. More shops at the top of my street than there used to be including, God help me, a Chinese food place. I don’t think there was a Chinese food place in the whole of Northern Ireland when I was growing up.
I crossed over into the dip to get a better view of the house where I grew up, still there on the other side of the street slightly up the hill. No signs of life in the house, but I felt like a loitering criminal, scared someone would come out and recognize me. Everything quiet.