Shortly before her death, Susan Sontag said ‘that somewhere along the line, one has to choose between the Life and the Project’. Hilary Mantel quoted her in the third of this year’s Reith lectures, while she was talking about the life of playwright Stanisława Przybyszewska; a woman whose life might have been longer had she been slightly less diligent in her pursuit of her project.
Hilary Mantel in 2010 (Chris Boland [CC / Flickr])
Having spent a substantial amount of time and effort writing stories that, judging by the comments that you don’t see, are read by more spambots than people, the question of how much of the life should be devoted to the project struck a certain chord with me.
This train of thought runs on an entirely different track to my last pontification on Mantel’s Reith lectures, and I thoroughly recommend listening to the lectures themselves:
Lecture 1: The day is for the living: podcast and transcript.
Lecture 2: The Iron Maiden: podcast and transcript.
Lecture 3: Silence grips the Town: podcast and transcript.
Lecture 4: Can these bones live? podcast and transcript.
Lecture 5: Adaptation: podcast and transcript.
Animation by detail
Any writer of fiction will have wrestled with the problem of how to breathe life into the figures we conjure from our imagination. A biographer’s subjects once breathed for themselves, but they don’t spare her from the problem. Too much detail, too little detail
Portrait of Susan Sontag in 2009 by Juan Fernando Bastos (Wikimedia commons)
or the wrong choice of detail will deprive the biographer’s subject of a second life on the page as thoroughly as if he were a figment of the writer’s imagination.
Mantel has spent much of the last decade writing her trilogy of Thomas Cromwell novels, from his rise to immense power under King Henry VIII to the same fate he’d arranged for many other inconvenients: he was executed for treason. Mantel has taken on the challenge of both the novelist and the biographer so perhaps it’s no wonder that her lectures are suffused with the Sontag’s choice: how far do we allow a project to take over our lives?
At first glance, Mantel may not be the obvious person to ask that of. She has two Booker prizes and a Damehood to her name, is a well enough regarded public intellectual to be invited to give the Reith lectures, and presumably the success of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies has left her more than comfortable financially. Her project appears to have set up her life in a way that most of us can only dream of.
Before writing her off as being too successful to talk about the travails of a struggling artist, we should remember that she was writing for decades to reach that position. While her previous novels were well regarded by critics, it wasn’t until she was well into her fifties that she achieved the prominence she enjoys now.
Robespierre’s last victim
She must have spent much of her life in a situation that anyone who has embarked on any project of ambition can relate to: wondering whether a project that’s likely to sink without trace is worth the time and effort it demands. Wondering whether anyone will read that half-written novel or set eyes on that half-finished sculpture.
Stanisława Przybyszewska (Hansah [Wikimedia Commons])
Mantel’s third lecture explores that wondering not through her own experience, but through the tragic life of Stanislawa Przybyszewska. Born in 1900 as the product of artist’s affair with a famous but married playwright, Przybyszewska spent her childhood in Paris and Vienna before returning to her native Poland. After a brief marriage to a man who died of an overdose, it’s perhaps understandable that she closed the door on the world around her and immersed herself in history.
Przybyszewska devoted herself to writing a historically accurate play of the life of Maximilien Robespierre, one of the leaders of the French Revolution of 1789. For Przybyszewska, the project became an obsession and life an inconvenience. She neglected her health, prioritising morphine over food or warmth. As her health deteriorated, her play grew until she finally completed a document that was so comprehensive that it would have taken fourteen hours to stage in its entirety. It was rejected repeatedly, then her heart was further broken when it was staged but edited down to five hours.
Przybyszewska, Mantel tells us:
…couldn’t see the difference between the truth and the whole truth: for her, to omit was to falsify, and because she was anxious never to mis-state, she overdetermined her direction and her method. (Lecture 3)
She died at the age of 34, consumed and destroyed by the project:
Multiple causes of death were recorded, but actually she died of Robespierre. You don’t want to work like that, be like that. You hope your art will save you, not destroy you. But
it’s a sad fact that bad art and good art feel remarkably the same, while they’re in process.
Maxmilien Robespierre in 1790 (DIREKTOR [Wikimedia Commons])
The resurrection project?
Her short life is, Mantel tells us, ‘an awful warning’ to any of us who are tempted to cede too much of the life to the project:
If anyone thinks writing is therapy – I beg them to look at this life. (Lecture 3)
Mantel’s lectures are peppered with hints that she has struggled to avoid, if not dying of her subjects, of allowing them to take over too much of her life. Most writers talk about their characters, but Mantel repeatedly refers to her own characters as ‘the dead’. She opened one lecture:
St Augustine says, the dead are invisible, they are not absent. You needn’t believe in ghosts to see that’s true…if we want to meet the dead looking alive, we turn to art. (Lecture 2)
Many writers will admit to a degree of obsession with their work. It may or may not be healthy, but sometimes you have to step beyond the rational to pursue the project that refuses to co-operate. However, I’ve never before heard a novelist talk about how we ‘chase the dead, shouting, ‘Come back!’’ (Lecture 2).
Mantel was of course speaking metaphorically, though I found I couldn’t avoid thinking about Beyond Black, one of her earlier novels that sees a woman called Alison physically tormented by the shades of men she knew as a child. I had the sense that there are times when Mantel feels that Thomas Cromwell and his contemporaries treat her as those
Portrait of Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein the Younger (Dcoetzee [Wikimedia Commons])
ghosts treated Alison.
Yet while Mantel warned us not to follow Przybyszewska in abandoning the life for the project, she did not say that we should abandon the project altogether for the sake of the life. Mantel’s decades of pursuing the project did, after all, cumulate in success. She is warning us that the project is not a substitute for life and that if we’re tempted to regard it as therapy for the tribulations of life, we should keep poor Stanislawa Przybyszewska in the front of our minds lest we follow her example.