A novel is not a scratch card or a buried archeological treasure; it has no prior existence waiting to be uncovered. The novelist, like the wayfarer in Antonio Machado’s poem, has to make the way by going. In the case of my novel, Lux, the going took seventeen years. It began with that single word, Lux, written in a new notebook on 30 December 2000. The word had a charge that I felt might lead me on into a story and into a world. It was the name of the sixteenth-century poet Thomas Wyatt’s beloved falcon, to whom he addressed a poem while in prison. He envied her her freedom and felt the difference between her loyalty and the conduct of his fair-weather friends. The name plays on the light of its Latin meaning and also on the luck that was such a fugitive feature of Thomas Wyatt’s eventful life.
George Herbert, in his sonnet ‘The Holy Scriptures (1)’ writes of the Bible: ‘O Book! infinite sweetness! let my heart/ Suck ev’ry letter, and a honey gain’ . . . In the long-established practice of lectio divina, by which a passage of Scripture is read, re-read, dwelt-upon – almost dwelt within – words are warmed into revelation by slow, patient attention. But the benefits of such a long dwelling are not confined to lectio divina. In my case, the slow writing of Lux was closely allied to the experience of slow reading. Certain words and phrases in Wyatt’s poetry dwelt and persisted in me and in some sense generated the whole book. ‘The longe love, that in my thought doeth harbar/ And in myn hert doeth kepe his residence’ is the start of one of Wyatt’s translations from Petrarch. Those two syllables, ‘longe love’, sink themselves into the mind and occupy it. The process of being occupied – pre-occupied – by the words of Thomas Wyatt led me ultimately, via his translations of the Penitential Psalms, to a narrative structure that included the Scriptural story of David and Bathsheba.
I am not recommending slow writing as a general habit – publishers would despair if it became one – nor is it always my practice. I have poems that took me fifteen years to write and others that were the work of an afternoon. But when it came to writing Lux I had no choice: I was obliged to take my time. There are movements in favour of slow cooking, slow radio, and Martin Hyland, Professor of Mathematics at King’s College Cambridge, has attempted (without much success) to convince students of the benefits of slow mathematics. But the predominant thrust of contemporary Western life is towards the instantaneous and the reactive: messages are pinged to and fro without the time for reflection and digestion that a handwritten, snail-mail correspondence allows. Slow writing – like long exposure photography – can bring about a sense of saturation in the material, where the time taken in the making is experienced as present in the outcome.
Dwelling takes time. It is not an end-gaining activity in which a acquires b, but a transformative and relational one in which a is changed – quite probably into something quite unanticipated. It involves a process of passive attention: waiting, without necessarily knowing what for – a quality that Ben Quash, in his book of that title, names as abiding.
St Augustine observed that ‘the reward of patience is patience’ – a reward that only the unconditionally patient could want. More commonly patience is practised in the hope of some other kind of reward – such as permission to be impatient again. It is a fine line between fruitful and futile patience, the one being the travesty of the other. They simultaneously resemble one another and differ utterly, as do a living body and a corpse. I have long been fascinated by the sullen figure of Dürer’s Melencolia, glowering balefully at the large, solid polyhedron in front of her. Encumbered as she is, her gaze at the obdurate object suggests one mode of creativity (with which melancholy has a long association). One hopes that Dürer’s figure is, ultimately, going to crack it. But this is not inevitably the case. In Kafka’s bleak story, Before the Law, the persistence of the man from the country who seeks to enter the door to the Law is revealed to be futile. After a lifetime and a fortune spent waiting for permission from the doorkeeper, the man is definitively refused admittance and the door is shut. Something more than just patience may have been required of the man. He has lacked the courage to act and enter the gate that was in fact always open, albeit guarded by the doorkeeper. When the eyes of the man from the country have grown dim with age he can perceive ‘a radiance that streams immortally from the door of the Law.’
If the word Lux was the object at which I gazed, it was an object which hummed with an inner life that I could sense. If the word were a house with shuttered windows, there were threads of light escaping from the shutters and it was those threads that led me on.
Samuel Johnson, in his famous letter to Lord Chesterfield, writes about the (mere!) seven years during which he worked on his Dictionary, ‘during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties of which it is useless to complain . . . The Shepherd in Virgil grew at last acquainted with Love, and found him a Native of the Rocks.’ I am not devoted to difficulty and in the course of seventeen years there were distractions and periods of incapacity that stalled me in ways that felt entirely unhelpful and were simply a nuisance. But there were other difficulties – the ill-health of self and others, the pain of bereavements – that I refuse to demean by describing as interruptions or obstacles; they are part of the fabric of life and in some ways they inform the novel. One advantage of slow writing may be that the work is more open to receiving and being changed by what occurs during the process of its making. That said, if I have a choice, I hope my next book won’t take so long.
Elizabeth Cook’s Lux is available now from Scribe Publications