Lucy Caldwell: The Story So Far...

We have precise languages for describing how televisions work, but we cannot explain why hearts break
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The Independent Online

For as long as I can remember I've wanted to be a writer, and I've never really questioned why I write. It can be hard and solitary and lonely, but you assume that once the book's written - and published - things will get easier.

But no: my resolve was severely shaken this week when the reading I was scheduled to give was cancelled when precisely one person turned up. That solitary audience member was my friend Leo, who, being a poet, could commiserate. He escorted me to a suitably dismal backstreet pub, which, with its frosted mirrors and red-lacquer ceilings and wooden booths, could have come straight out of a Patrick Hamilton novel, and ordered us G&Ts. For once, the gift of the gab failed me: it was a dreary Tuesday afternoon in a nondescript part of London and nobody cared about my book. Disconsolate, I mused on the greats - like Joyce, and Beckett - and wondered about the setbacks they'd had, and whether they'd ever doubted themselves.

In a happy case of literary serendipidity, John Huston's adaptation of Joyce's short story "The Dead" was showing at the NFT. I remembered reading Dubliners as a teenager; the strange, dislocating sense of sadness that swirled and descended, intangible as mist, when I finished the book, although I was too young, really, to understand what it was or why it should be so. Huston's adaptation, intricate and unflinching, was one of the best films I've seen in a long time.

Afterwards, I felt a slow, creeping sense of despair. I thought of being little, pleading with Mum to tell me what flavour of ice cream she'd choose if she were me: I didn't care what I had so long as it was what someone else would have chosen. An early intimation, I suppose, that you can never really know, or know what it's like to be, someone else; not a mother, sister, even a lover.

We have precise languages for describing the calibration of a car engine, or how televisions work, but we cannot explain exactly, or definitively, what it feels like to have a broken heart; or how hearts break, and why. And that's when I remembered, and the moment of remembering was lucid as a Joycean epiphany: that that's what books are for, because they let us apprehend - however fleetingly, however vaguely and distantly - what it means to be a person, connected to other people.

Storytelling is a way of knowing that we're not as alone as we think, or fear. And the relief I felt reminding myself of this was no small consolation even for such a melancholy day.