The Found Voice: Writers’ Beginnings
Book by Denis Sampson
Oxford University press (167 pages)
Abstract: The Found Voice: Writers’ Beginnings by author Denis Sampson uses the means of literary biography and criticism to do something rarely attempted – understand how a key creative period establishes the authoritative voice of a unique artist. The essays which explore this hidden process of the writer writing focus on some of the major writers of recent times: V. S. Naipaul, J. M. Coetzee, Alice Munro, William Trevor, and Mavis Gallant.
Using Denis Sampson’s own words in the Prologue, we get a clear sense of what he is doing in this short (167 pages) but intense examination of five major writers: “My intention is to focus on a crucial moment in the formation of their artistic identities.” Sampson goes on to explain that he will uncover the “original energies and artistic goals that fused at this moment.” While each author is distinctive, Sampson often detects similarities in their development.
Denis Sampson’s Discoveries
One of the key influences on each author is their early upbringing and the re-imagining of their first homes and surroundings. Both Naipaul and Munro build their first stories on facts and memories of their childhood homes and neighborhoods.
Naipaul considers Miguel Street as his first true work of fiction. This street becomes a key “cultural” location for Naipaul’s observations and memories of his young life in the city of Port of Spain where his Trinidadian home was located. He begins to form his fictional persona with this collection of short stories published in 1959. Sampson expands on how this happens and indicates that both Joyce (specifically Dubliners) and Hemingway (The Killers is mentioned) had subtle influences on the developing Naipaul. He notes “Miguel Street presents a Caribbean version of Joycean “paralysis”.” I found it interesting to see another Joycean characteristic, i.e. the importance of leaving home and writing from afar. Later Naipaul wrote, “The book was done intuitively and out of close observation.”
Alice Munro began to write novels early in her career but gave them up. “I could not learn to think that way,” she later explained. Her voice developed through her early poetry and her memories of her early home experience in a rural town in Ontario. What becomes clear is that her roots provided her with the “foundational material of her self-definition as an artist” to quote Denis Sampson. I was surprised to find that the influences on this Nobel Prize-winning author are so varied: Lucy Maude Montgomery (especially Emily of New Moon), Emily Brontë (Wuthering Heights), Eudora Welty, and even Joyce (again). She was fascinated with the way these authors were able to employ description that evoked the scene in superb colour. She emulated this kind of style and states that in her story The Peace of Utrecht from Dance of the Happy Shades (1959) she found her voice; it became a “breakthrough” for her as a writer of fiction.
Sampson goes on to treat three more authors and their development: the Irish writer William Trevor, Canadian writer Mavis Gallant, and South African author J. M. Coetzee. What is fascinating is the pervasive influence of Proust on most of these authors. Naipaul, in his Nobel acceptance speech, quotes from Proust and states that “I have always been moved by intuition alone,” a sentiment with which the other authors would probably agree. And they would also probably agree with the sentiment expressed by Eudora Welty in The Golden Apples that her writing comes “out of the whole fund of my feelings, my responses to the real experiences of my own life.” The Found Voice is a thoroughly interesting book that helps us come to an understanding of how an author creates a work of art with a distinctive literary voice.
NOTE: Denis Sampson will be the keynote speaker at our Academic Day at Concordia’s School of Canadian Irish Studies on Monday, June 12, 2017. The theme of the day will be “Found Voices” and students’ work in French and in English will also be featured.