It so happened that the other night I went to listen to Hanya Yanagihara have a conversation,on stage, with a Swedish journalist (Björn af Kleen to be exact).
On my way there I was reading A room of one’s own by Virgina Woolf, a reread that seemed fitting during #readwomenmarch. As I listened to the conversation on stage, in my head I kept comparing and contrasting what was said with what I had just read(and not just because Jude in ALL is obsessed with his apartment).
Woolf,in her classic essay, points out that very little art would be achieved if there was a lack of means and that women, back then, rarely had any financial independence. Yanagihara told the story about how her editor, who she in every way loves and admires, wanted to cut 300 pages from A little life. “Which 300 pages?” she asked to which he responded “I don’t know, just cut 300 pages”. The fact that he couldn’t specify the pages or give any artistic reason made her dig in her heels for her vision. She had a “actual” job so could afford the integrity. Suffering for your art is one thing, but if your art should suffer for your life? I’m not sure that’s a good strategy.
In a passage Woolf writes that women so rarely write about men, or from the man’s perspective as opposed to men who frequently wrote female protagonists. Luckily, that has changed since 1929. A little life is the story of four men and their interconnected lives. One of the statements that Yanagihara wanted to make with the book is that friendship is gift but also a work in progress. The reason for choosing men is that was more interesting as we live in a gendered society where one half of the populations is never taught to speak about emotions despite having just as many of them; when so much must be left unsaid how do you communicate?
A writer that both Woolf and Yanagihara mentions is Jane Austen; many of us come back to her again and again. Woolf retells the story of an Austen that never traveled and lived a lonely life where nobody ever knew about her writing. A great story, but as someone how has read “Jane Austen-a life in small things” and books with her collected letters, I must point out that it’s just a story. Which doesn’t take away from Austen’s oeuvres one bit. That she had support from her family, traveled around visting relatives, enjoyed nice dresses and the odd glass of orange wine doesn’t make her less of an artist, and her struggle was still uphill for most of the way as a female artist in that time. Yanagihara spoke of Austen’s lovely descriptions of furniture and finery because they do say so much about a character; saying that things tell a story isn’t materialistic. I always think of it as setting the scene(and frankly I always thought Balzac the master of it). Yanagihara spends a lot of time on interior and art; things she loves and as an editor for a magazine has seen a lot of. Write what you know is a classic piece of advice to authors,no?
But the interiors of successful and creativ New Yorkers isn’t the point with A little life, nor the part anyone ever has a problem with. It’s the darkness, the self-harming and the abuse that bothers many. I’ve always defended, or sided with, Yanigahara on that point, These things happen in the world and therefore they have a place in art. If you wanted to read something to feel better then you should have realized just a few pages in that this wasn’t gonna be it. What warmed my heart, and made me sad at the same time, was to hear about many people having gotten in touch with her and telling their own similar stories, how what happened to Jude has happened to them. She does also give some insight into Jude’s refusal to talk about it; his secrets are his own, they are like the only family he has and as corrosive as they are he cannot let go.
What always did wonder about was how she could do so without judgement and in such detail. She did do research and her very professional attitude towards the human body, she says, comes from her father who is an oncologist. She has spent time in hospitals with him growing up and always taken an interest in his work. When you spend time close to sickness and death you feel differently about it, approach with less fear and more calmness.
And what about the length? Why didn’t she just cut those 300 pages? Well, then it wouldn’t have been size of a life, or had space to talk about the little things. We would not have stayed with Jude for all that time, just like his friends do. Those 720-ish pages are a gift and a work in progress.
Things mentioned in this post;
A little life by Hanya Yanagihara
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