Does all this make sense to anybody?
I had a letter from a reader asking whether I considered writing an art or a craft. He had been reading a novel of mine, I'm not sure which one, The Dangerous Edge, I think. I try to answer all the letters, and I answered this one, though perhaps not at the length the question deserved. I have always considered literature the highest of the art forms because it takes one further outside himself than any other and keeps him there longer. Now not all writing is literature, obviously. Literature has to be specifically tried for, it seems to me. The power and emotion, the impact of a story, is supposed to be valid no matter when it is read or by whom. It is supposed to have multiple levels of meaning and effect. It is supposed to illuminate love, manhood, courage, fear--whatever the writer has put into it. It is what comes out from deep inside him, as opposed to something that he happened to jot down. But it is also a craft, and very much a craft. The writer has to have all the proper tools, and he has to hit the nail squarely on the head. Very often I read something and say to myself, this guy doesn't know how to do what he is trying to do. He may be a very sincere artist, but he doesn't have enough craft. I once got into this discussion with a famous French chef, Andre Daguin who had a two-star restaurant in Auch and whose job it was to delight at least four of the five sense of each of his guests each night. Into this he put immense care and imagination. But he is a plain spoken man and he was unwilling to call haute cuisine an art, a word he seemed uncomfortable with. A craft, he said. But on his level he perhaps met the definition of art I have tried for above. Over the years I often thought so.
Does all this make sense to anybody?
Dan Cordtz has written me about Manchester's biography of Churchill. Said I might be particularly interested in the section about Churchill's experiences in World War I. In fact I know about those for the following reason.
Some years ago in Nice we were looking for bookshelves. We found one in art deco style in a brocanteur for I think $500, one of it shelves being full of books in English from the 1920s. I saw immediately what the books were and got out my money. The owner said the books were extra. Who wants a bunch of foreign language books 60 or 70 years old, I said. Finally I convinced him they were worthless, gave him the $500, and collected the books, and the art deco piece was delivered later. There were 20 or more books, many by Dos Passos, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Archibald MacLeish, Zelda Fitzgerald and others all inscribed to "Gerald and Sara." Some of the others were children's books in which the Murphy children had scrawled their names, and Gerald Murphy had written his name and address in certain others. I concluded that the piece itself had once stood in the Murphys' house in Antibes.
Among the books was a single volume from Churchill's 6 volume, History of World War I, the one covering the year 1915. I read it avidly for I had never read a thing about 1915. I was looking for trench warfare information but there was none. Instead it was the personal account of Churchill's attempt to force the Gallipoli invasion into existence over the objections of the generals and admirals who were intent only on undermining him. Finally a version of Churchill's plan went forward, by then truncated and too late, a half baked version, doomed to certain failure. A fiasco ensued, tens of thousands of men killed, for which he was blamed, and he was forced out of the government, his career ruined. The story is beautifully, movingly told. He is suffering, he bleeds all over the page. To me a terrific story and terrific book. So it is thanks to Gerald Murphy that I already knew about Churchill in World War I.
There is a corollary I should report as well. I took the signed books back to America and contacted a rare book dealer, the one who advertises in the NYTimes Book Review every Sunday, for I thought the books might be worth money. The woman there had never heard of the Murphys who had attracted all these literary lights plus Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Picasso and others to their Antibes house in the 20s. She offered me nothing. She did call back the next day very excited, asking to see the books, but by them I had decided to keep them.