Thursday, August 16, 2012

Unlike Hillary Hahn

I've been thinking lately about the idea of the virtuoso, who I'll define as someone with advanced command of technique and subtle interpretive powers that are used in service of art. Hillary Hahn, virtuoso violinist, is who got me to thinking about virtuosi. For the longest time I considered Hahn in her role as precocious prodigy, the young lady with the big talent. Then I read a couple of articles she wrote about playing violin in general and about playing the Schoenberg concerto specifically, and I realized that Ms Hahn understands her craft at a very detailed level, but her understanding goes beyond mere technique, encompassing whole worlds of emotion and possible interpretations of the pieces she plays. In short, I realized that she wasn't just a prodigy, but that she'd become a virtuoso (by my definition at least). I'm thinking about Hillary Hahn lately because she's just released an album of improvised music that she recorded with a prepared-piano player. I've not heard the album yet but I grow ever more tempted. But this is not a post about Hillary Hahn and Hauschka (the pianist).

Sometimes I think of myself as a virtuoso writer. The greatest thing about being a writer is that it offers tremendous opportunities to learn humility, so that whenever I start to think of myself as a virtuoso, something happens to let me know that I'm not one. Life is fortunate like that, eh? But even if I'm not a virtuoso, I still sense (or delude myself into thinking I sense) the possibility of becoming a virtuoso. I might be able to develop my technique and sensitivity to the human condition enough to be really really good at this. Maybe. I'm not sure, however, if I know what such virtuosity would really look like.

Like Hillary Hahn, I play violin. Unlike Hillary Hahn, I'm not very good at it. There is an unbridgeable gulf between the best violin playing I'll ever manage to do and what Hahn already does at her young age. She's aware of aspects of playing and music that will remain invisible to me forever, and I know it. I like to think that I'm aware of aspects of fiction writing that are invisible to most writers, but I have no way of knowing that. Humanity has an almost infinite capacity for self-delusion. To repeat myself, being a writer offers tremendous opportunities for learning humility. For a couple of years, say 2008 and 2009, I was certain that I was writing fiction that was as good as anyone else's. At some point I discovered the flaws in my work while simultaneously discovering a bunch of novels that were well beyond me in terms of technique and emotional depth. So there I was again, just a hack. I'm much better as a writer now than I was then, but I still think I'm just a hack (except during those bright shining moments when I'm sure I'm a virtuoso, of course).

If you were to ask me what my Ideal Writer looked like, I couldn't tell you. I don't like the idea of an Ideal, anyway. Haydn is different from Bartok but both of them were virtuosi composers, and both of them, as it happens, had their limitations and their flaws. So virtuosity, apparently, is not the same as flawlessness, except when it is, which means during a performance. Though that's not true. A brave, risk-taking performance where some of the risks don't come off successfully can still be a virtuoso performance. And "come off successfully" will mean different things to different readers and all of that relativism. I'm also not foolish enough to equate "virtuosi" with a mere list of writers I like.

Possibly I think that the virtuoso requires a connoisseur in order to exist, which makes me a snob, doesn't it? Probably.

Do I have a point here? No, I do not. There's something beneath all of this consideration of virtuosity that I've been doing lately, but unfortunately I haven't uncovered it while writing this essay. Perhaps I'll try again and do better. There is something important here, though. Maybe it has to do with the growing feeling I have that, as I get better as a writer, I am actually less in control during the writing than I used to be. When the writing has that "spark," I seem to be writing less carefully, with less concern about technique. I don't know what that means. If it means anything except that I'm getting older and less bound by rules and possibly guided more often by instinct than any kind of clear vision. It's like I'm a painter who only looks at the canvas out of the corner of his eye, as if a good look at the work will somehow spoil it. Which seems antithetical to my idea of what a virtuoso is and how he works.

Also, would a virtuoso writer necessarily be a virtuoso reader? I don't know. Certainly non-novelists seem to have better insight into the novels they read than novelists do. I don't know what that means, or even if I'm right about that.


  1. What would a virtuoso of writing look like? What would be comparable to Picasso's draftsmanship or Hahn's skill (I saw her when she was sixteen, flawlessly sawing her way through Bach's Sonatas and Partitas)?

    According to Ben Jonson, Shakespeare wrote single drafts of his plays, no revisions, no words marked out. He may well have composed entire plays in his head before writing them down. Plenty of poets were similar, although with dinky little lyric poems, not bloody Hamlet!

    I am often amazed by the ability of a real hack like Balzac, who could sit down and bang out - or whatever sound a quill makes - an entire coffee-fueled masterpiece and just send it off to the printer. Of course his stinkers were produced the same way. Many of Samuel Johnson's great Rambler essays were under-the-gun first drafts, too.

    The peculiar French writer Nicholas Retif de la Bretonne, who had been apprenticed as a printer, was apparently known to finish pieces on the printing press itself, in movable type, which means he "wrote" with everything backwards. That demonstrates a kind of virtuosity, I guess.

    You have plenty of other interesting ideas here, too, but I will restrain myself.

  2. Comparing a writer to a composer is maybe valid, but comparing a writer to a performer is probably iffy, no matter how fine Ms Hahn's Bach is (and it's mighty fine).

    Picasso's pencil sketches are wonderful, so full of life and motion. So there's something here, maybe, about being able to improvise something well-formed and sublime, yes? A finely-honed instinct for composition? Mozart allegedly composed in his imagination while playing billiards and then wrote it all down later, complete. (Though Constance apparently threw out reams of Mozart's rough drafts after his death in order to help that myth along.)

    But back to writing: Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying more or less straight through, I think, where Sanctuary was heavily revised. If you think Faulkner was a virtouso, does that make AILD less virtuostic a performance than S? Not that you claimed any such thing. Nabokov wrote quickly, didn't he? Pnin was dashed off while he was trying to find a publisher for Lolita. I have no idea how much Nabokov revised, but we all know how much he planned in advance, right? Though you can't--I don't think--plan prose, and virtuostic prose is a must.

    I'm very interested in the question of how good a reader a writer must be. Which might get us into Bloom's ideas of a literary history of influence-through-misreadings. Maybe.