Thursday, 19 November 2009

How to Write Like Proust

The writer of the greatest novel of the 20th century, In Search of Lost Time, did not care about writing instruments. Mont Blanc have named one of their limited edition fountain pens after him and a fine pen it is. Yet the 925 sterling silver Marcel Proust pen with its rich decorations, 18-karat gold nib and the writer's engraved signature, though a work of art, is a far cry from the writing instruments Proust actually used. He said:
Some people need a beautiful pen to write with, but all I need is ink and paper. If I didn't have a pen holder I would manage with a stick.
The French novelist used Sergent-Major nibs, "plain and pointed" as Marcel's housekeeper, Celeste, describes them, "with a little hollow underneath to hold the ink". He bought stocks of them, several boxes at a time, and attached them to penholders which were nothing more than "little bits of wood with a metal holder for the nib - the ordinary kind used in schools". Nothing like Mont Blanc.

 Involved intimately in the process of writing, a writing instrument ceases to be an object but becomes a conduit for ideas, Mike Sharples writes in his How We Write: Steinbeck looked for the perfect pencil for years; Rudyard Kipling used only the blackest of ink believing that a pencil is only good for reporting. Perhaps the disposable nibs and the humble penholders of Proust represented his aversion to sensory distractions from the outside world.

How to write like Proust? Start with eliminating all sensory distractions. The self-effacing wooden penholders and modest nibs of Proust evoked no sensation, no tactile pleasure, no visual delight - left the creative process uncluttered by their material existence. Secluded in his bedroom, Proust, like Descartes, thought that the "only way to achieve thought is to numb sensation".

Celeste Albaret, Monsieur Proust (as told to George Belmont), trans. Barbara Gray, Collins & Harvill Press, 1974; Mike Sharples, How We Write: Writing as a Creative Design, Routledge, 1998.