Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Carlyle on Carlyle

It’s been a while since I wrote anything about my studies into the works of Thomas Carlyle. That’s because it’s been ages since I even looked at them, or at least looked at them enough to find something to draw from them.

Last Friday, at a moment when I just didn’t feel like working, I went to the Carlyle Letters Online site and browsed. I looked at the year 1826, which was before he gained notoriety. I probably should have gone back to 1823, since that’s when he was probably working on his first major work. I forgot the chronology when I began looking.

But TC didn’t disappoint me in 1826. In a letter dated 31 July 1826 to William Tait, Carlyle talked about his then-current work, a translation of some German novels, but with lots of biographical information and commentary added. He was talking about this in letters in January that year, and every month down through July. On January 7 that year he said this about it to his fiancée:
Tait the [book]seller is writing to Germany for more matter: I expect to be very busy for the next three months. I pray Heaven the thing were off my hands; for it is a sorry piece of work at the best, and written nearly altogether for the “lucre of gain.”
Having read a hundred or so of Carlyle’s letters, trying to pick the times when he would have been busy writing a major work, I can say that for every book he seemed to have this hate affair with it. He said the book marred his health. He said the book was not going well. He said he might not finish the book. He said the book probably wouldn’t sell even if he did finish it. He said, as he neared completion, that he was glad to be about rid of it. I want to scream out, “Hey Tom, if you hate writing so much, why do you do it?”

But, I suppose it wasn’t writing he disliked; it was the process of turning research into a finished product that someone would print and others would buy and read. I’m not sure I can relate to that, but I can sort of see where he’s coming from. It’s not my experience, but could well have been his.

So in the July letter to Tait, Carlyle wrote this.
I this morning send off the last eight leaves of Ms. for our German Book; and as the Printers have only about ten sheets remaining to compose, I calculate that the whole matter will be off my hands in a few days.
I am happy to tell you that this work, which has given me some unexpected trouble, also gives me some unexpected pleasure, and that at the present moment I am far better satisfied with the general structure of it than when you first proposed the business I could even hope to be. What its fate with the reading world may be you are better able to predict than I; but at all events, I think we may offer our Book to the Public as a thing fulfilling what it promises; giving real German Novellists, the highest to be found in that country; and on the whole offering a considerably truer and more comprehensive glimpse into German Literature than any other yet offered in England.
So it seems, by the time this work was down to checking the galley proofs, that Carlyle found something to be pleased about. I’m glad of that. I would hope that most writers, when they come to the end of a work, will be able to say they can look back and feel it was a worthwhile project and something they can be proud of.

Me? I'm at the beginning of a project. The last seven days I started three novels, not really knowing which one I'm going to write next. I also thought I might start one non-fiction book and put that beside the novels, pick one project, and run with it. But whichever one I do next, I don't believe I'll ever regret writing it, or even express to another an exaggerated claim of wanting to be done with it. All things I have written so far have come closer to thrilling me, rather than wearing me down. May it always be so.

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