Every book is a kind of encounter, an encounter with the mind of the writer and whatever it is about themself that they choose to reveal. Some reveal more than others. Some reveal themselves by accident, or unintentionally, trying to disguise themselves in the intricacies of their stories. Yet the writer is always there, waiting to be revealed in the rhythm of their words, in the parts of the story they feel to be important. In the case of Rebecca Solnit there is no thin disguise of fiction; if anything in her personal essays she is quite palpably present, as though you are watching her through the false privacy of a webcam she doesn’t know is operating. Except she does. It is a brave way of writing rarely seen, brave and honest and vividly intelligent. I always feel my mind has been expanded when reading Solnit, like the world I have been watching so jadedly has suddenly revealed an scene of such impeccable beauty that I revel in it like a child. It is rare to encounter writing which affects me so forcefully.
In The Faraway Nearby, Solnit explores a duo of personal dramas which shaped a period of her life: her mother’s descent into Alzheimers and her own, almost simultaneous, encounter with cancer. Both events had a profound effect on Solnit’s experience, both events serve now as fodder for her relentless exploration of the world, of herself, of human experience. There is, always, so much packed into these short essays by Solnit that it is breathtaking, impossible to condense into a pithy (or not) little review. The tracks her mind follows are extraordinary: the delivery of an abundance of apricots stripped from her mother’s tree lead her to Alzheimers, to her difficult relationship with her mother, the way it had shaped her, her disappearance into books which leads to books which include doorways as means of escape or deliverance or discovery, to the merits of reading, to what it means to read and to write, to Frankenstein, to ice and glass, to Iceland, to darkness and light, to isolation, to leprosy. To each subject Solnit brings a sharp eye and an intelligence which, frankly, dwarfs the capacity of most.
What strikes me most about Solnit’s writing, aside from her crippling intelligence and precision skill, is how so often she puts into succinct words the things I find most difficult to express. Like here, when she talks of writing:
“Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them. Matter that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure, that I ordinarily can’t imagine saying them to the people to whom I’m closest. Everyone once in a while I try to say them aloud and find that what turns to must in my mouth or falls short of their ears can be written down for total strangers.”
This feels so true, and it is so true of my own experience. I have always, I think, found it most powerful to express myself in writing. Verbal communication, to me, seems so awkward, so fraught with the unsaid with the said so filled with alternate and unstated meaning, that words turn to ash in my mouth and it is easier, or more true, to say nothing. And there is always that feeling that if you said what you really mean, if you talked about the things that really mattered, that either you would be most likely greeted with silence or incomprehension and having taken the trouble to speak either of those responses would simply confirm to you that verbal conversation was empty pushing you further down the route of silence. Well, perhaps that’s why I’m here writing about it to strangers rather than discussing it with the people close to me.
Solnit sees, she sees and expresses so skilfully that my burgeoning desire to write essays may have died on my fingers. It is often, as an aspiring writer, hard to read someone who has such an admirable skill set that it’s intimidating. Yet as a reader, Solnit is a wonderful read. I’ve read A Field Guide to Getting Lost, which is somewhat less personal than this, and both are excellent reads, but somehow The Faraway Nearby is just that little bit more brilliant. What Solnit has to teach us about art, about sorrow, about reading, about solitude, about friendship cannot be described in this blog so my advice to you is just go out and read it. You won’t be sorry. I’ll leave you, here, with another example of her extraordinary writing.
“In darkness things merge, which might be how passion becomes love and how making love begets progeny of all natures and forms. Merging is dangerous, at least to the boundaries and definition of the self. Darkness is generative, and generation, biological and artistic both, requires this amorous engagement with the unknown, this entry into the realm where you do not quite know what you are doing and what will happen next. Creation is always in the dark because you can only do the work of making by not quite knowing what you’re doing, by walking into darkness, not staying in the light. Ideas emerge from edges and shadows to arrive in the light, and though that’s where they may be seen by others, that’s not where they’re born.”