by Stephanie Cowell
“The world will be saved by beauty,” Dostoevsky once said. I try to remember that when I find the life of a professional writer difficult. Before writing I was a classical singer and for a brief time an actress and I have spent many hours (likely weeks if you add up a lifetime) complaining about the angst of a life in the arts…the insecurity of creating art, the insecurity of selling it. Oh the hours I have wasted!
My mother (who was an artist) used to say, “Art is cake. People buy necessities first.” She was a child of the Depression and what she spoke was true. Most people will not buy a book if they need food – though I despair if anyone gives me clothes instead of books or music for a birthday.
We complain most about making our work known. Without huge amount of publicity and media, few people will know of the existence of a work of art, few people will hear of an artist or a performance or a writer. Sometimes a work slowly becomes known by its own virtues. Moby Dick sold a handful of copies at first as did Walden. But if Jane Austen had given up trying to publish an early version of Pride and Prejudice, we would not have it today. Most art makes little money; Shakespeare sold Hamlet for probably ten pounds, enough to support a family in very modest circumstances back in 1602 for a few weeks.
I cannot imagine a life without the poems of Gerald Manley Hopkins, whose work was never published in his lifetime and had perhaps seven readers before his death.
So the other day when my friend and I were bewailing the difficulties of the artist, we suddenly began to imagine a life without any of the arts, if it were all sucked away in a sort of black hole.
We saw ourselves returning to a house without any books on the shelves; no one would ever again live through the worlds of Charlotte Bronte or John Steinbeck. The words would all disappear from my many editions of Shakespeare. There would be no movies in the theaters or DVDS; Star Wars would not exist nor A Room with a View. We would live our lives without concerts, opera, without the symphonies of Mozart, the quartets of Beethoven, the folk ballads and church music. Handel’s Messiah would never be heard again. Museum walls would be blank; no one would know the work of Claude Monet, medieval Arabic art, a Greek statue. Paintings by my parents and husband would fade from my walls. Across the world, all the great architecture from the Taj Mahal to the great Italian and English cathedrals would vanish into the air.
So I returned to my new novel in progress because I loved the story, and without pouring my spirit into it, it would not exist for me, for itself, for others. I think with a painful shudder of how wars or floods have desecrated art. In Florence’s Santa Croce, they tried to piece together fallen fragments of the Cimabue cross damaged by the flooding Arno. Can we recreate the Buddhas of Bamiyan?
My friend and I thought for only one terrible moment about such a world. It would be a wasteland. And yet over so many dinners we have complained, all my friends and I.
“The world will be saved by beauty,” Dostoevsky said and to that I add amen. From the first cave drawings and poems etched in clay, it has been so. It is so for me. And sometimes I would rather have a book than bread.
About the author: Historical novelist Stephanie Cowell is the author of Nicholas Cooke, The Physician of London, The Players: a novel of the young Shakespeare, Marrying Mozart and Claude & Camille: a novel of Monet. She is the recipient of the American Book Award. Her work has been translated into nine languages. Stephanie’s new novel on the love story of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning will be published in 2014. Her website is http://www.stephaniecowell.com