I am more than half way through Anna Karenina now, and I had an ongoing draft blog about several things that struck me. However, this morning I read Tolstoy’s description of an artist letting visitors into his studio to look at his latest painting. Tolstoy writes about the moment that the artist, unveiling the painting, sees it anew from another’s point of view. “…he saw it with their indifferent, estranged, new eyes and found nothing good in it.” He saw banality and a “heap of defects”.
The idea of their attention excites the artist, the smallest praise, the slightest suggestion of defects affects him deeply and alters his own judgement of his work. The fact that he had assessed his visitors fairly accurately on sight and knew that they were unlikely to offer him constructive comments does not alter their effect on him.
Although Tolstoy is talking about painting, every word can be translated to written work. Since I started writing I have been baffled at how one day you can read a piece you have written and be surprised how well it reads and a few days later the same passages will strike you as banal or defective in some way. Pick up the book a year later and you could have either of these reactions. It is as if some malign optician is forever changing your glasses until you have no idea when you are seeing straight.
In October I will be meeting a reading group to discuss a novel about an opera singer I published in 2008 (Unseen Unsung). I will have to re-read it. Will I be appalled, amazed, embarrassed? I really wish I knew.