Estelle Neethling - 2011-01-06
Literary history has shown that writers come to their profession via diverse walks of life. Mine was a case of edging inexorably towards it along strange byways. I finally found my “voice” late in life, in my fifties.
According to some opinions a human being’s true passion is usually the thing you are most excited about before the onset of adolescence. If this were true, I might have become an artist. I was always drawing as a child and could while away many an hour with a pencil and paper. The passion waned, probably because there was no available art tuition in the small Free State town where I grew up. But lack of encouragement was the main reason. I couldn’t, for instance, find anyone to sit for me long enough when I became older and wanted to draw “live”. My late father, bless him, was the only one willing to indulge me. But only for a few short spells. After ten minutes or so he would become bored and wander off.
My other great love was the written word, but, by default and mainly because of economic necessity, I landed up in the legal world.
My “apprenticeship” in preparation for the world of letters was ad hoc and ongoing. It was served through reading, listening and attempting to write publishable material in my spare time. Fortunately the legal arena, despite being a cold, calculating place, is peopled by attorneys and especially advocates who are generally excellent at expressing themselves – in speech and in writing. Some even chided each other by quoting obscure, but ironic, verse as part of legal positions taken!
So, fate was kind and conspired to “keep me in the loop” while I was earning my daily bread. After yet another failed attempt at having an article published in the 1980s when I was in my thirties, I sighed a sigh of frustration in the far reaches of the night and promised myself: one day you will have something worthwhile to write about. Few things could equal the thrill of seeing my first article in Die Burger’s Saturday supplement many moons ago.
While life – weird and most often not so wonderful in my case! – interfered with my dreams, I became aware of literary highlights that kept the fire going for me. From time to time I read passages where the pen seemed to lift off and the spirit of the writer took over, rendering the words invincible in my memory and part of my internal life. I have read such passages, and practically stopped breathing.
One of those moments “happened” in the concluding pages of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina when one sees Anna’s state of desperation through the eyes of the onlookers on the railway platform just before she throws herself in front of a train steaming into the station. I’ve since observed this technique practised by other writers, but never with such mastery. I read and reread it and the atmosphere of her desolation is still with me today.
Another was Flaubert’s description of the doctor’s hands in Madame Bovary. Vivid as if I were there watching the doctor at work, decades ago.
Then there is Isaac Bashevis Singer’s line in Shadows on the Hudson where his main character derides a friend because of his inability or unwillingness to appreciate the beauty of the moon on a particular night. His indignation became mine.
The writing techniques of the classic writers seem to me to have been ousted by the functional, simpler words, the more succinct sentences of today. Brevity has become almost a goal unto itself. And yet, those timeless luminaries were the ones who inspired me most.
These gems are rare, but are also to be found in music and in other forms of art. There are a few exquisite notes in the slow movement of Boccherini’s cello concerto, performed by the late Jacqueline du Pré, when I could swear I hear the breath of her life.
I have heard, only occasionally, a singer perform a passage where it seems to me the connection between the artist’s own emotion and that of the composer seem to align perfectly, as if they have become one.
I’ve asked myself at such times: Is this when art becomes truth, or when truth becomes art?
There appear to be aspects of pure passion, intent, talent, humility and soul that come together when art reaches its zenith. Ego – an important component, within reason, in the artist’s makeup – seems to vanish from the equation at such times.
Recently when I sat between two rocks on the beach, surrounded by the blue of the sky and the water, with no other human being in sight, I imagined being left isolated on this earth. It isn’t difficult for a childless woman to think such thoughts because, as opposed to a mother with children, my “line” ends with me. I thought, how small we are, and yet how huge our capacity for thought and creation.
Would my voice trail off and my story end if there were no other people around me? Probably so, because behind each “creation” is a person wishing to be heard, wanting others or another to feel what he or she is feeling.