The Power of the PEN: Antonio Munoz Molina
Right in front of me, on a crowded subway train, a woman is reading Marcel Proust. I have never seen her before, and most likely I will never see her again after one or the other of us gets off the train. Yet I have the feeling of having met a silent accomplice, someone with whom I share a secret, a hidden treasure. She smiles faintly as she reads, unaware of my looking at her and remote from the clanking noises of the train, pleasantly alone in spite of the crowd that surrounds her. I recognize the smile on her face, and would like to make out which of the volumes of In Search of Lost Time she is reading at the moment. But I don’t want to seem obtrusive, even creepy, as I am not in a Latin country, and I have learned that in the United States, you should not stare at people the same way you could in Spain or Italy.
What exactly is prompting her to smile? I can’t help wondering. Who, among the many memorable characters invented by Proust, is she reading about? What faraway place has she been transported to? As the number 6 train rushes downtown, so absorbed in the words written by someone a century ago, she won’t even raise her head when the train screeches to a halt at 59th Street. This is the subtle power of the pen—one of them at least. The image of someone reading a novel on the train is more or less commonplace these days. Yet, when you come to think of it, it is a kind of miracle as well.
At the moment the woman opened the book and plunged into her reading, some sort of cosmic yet invisible shift took place. She is no longer on the train on this workday morning. She has fled, at least partially, to a different country. She is surrounded not by solemn, sleepy New York subway riders, but perhaps by the haughty guests at an elegant Parisian dinner. She is living in this present moment, between 8:50 and 8:55 A.M., and at the same time in the half-imagined, half-remembered evening Marcel Proust wrote about, and also in the actual time during which Proust—asthmatic, insomniac—was writing, when day was undistinguishable from night because the thick curtains were always drawn. A dying man trying to put off the end so that he could finish the same novel this lady in front of me reads so effortlessly. Even with a smile on her face. Maybe she’s finding out some truth about herself. Maybe Proust is influencing her ideas on love or jealousy, is modifying the way she perceives the passing of time or the nature of memory. Had I not read Proust myself, would I be able to notice smells and flavors and sounds the same way I do?
Does writing change anything? It is easy to generalize when all these big questions are raised, but as a writer of fiction, I’m not personally fond of general ideas and solid statements. I see this woman in front of me and I know how profoundly her actual life is being transformed by the pages of a novel. Like radio waves, the ripples of writing expand invisibly and constantly in all directions and they are even more powerful because they reach us at our innermost self. You cannot fully read a book without being alone. But through this very solitude you become intimately involved with people whom you might never have met otherwise, either because they have been dead for centuries or because they spoke languages you cannot understand. And nonetheless, they have become your closest friends, your wisest advisors, the wizards that hypnotize you, the lovers you have always dreamed of.
When I was twelve, a white-haired novelist who had written in French and who had died at the beginning of the twentieth century changed my life forever. Reading Jules Verne’s novels, I fell under the spell of an imaginary world, adventure stories and cartoons far beyond the actual experiences of my life, yet more exciting and full of promises than anything my own life could offer me at that time. The world was wider than the small and backwards Spanish province I was born in, and the lives I came across in those novels appealed to me far more powerfully than any personal expectation I could figure out for myself. There was something more for me to learn in those books—the very fact that someone had imagined and written them, this man with a white beard who very soon became a kind of father figure for me, a hero to model my own future after. I would never be a farmer like my father and my grandparents were. I would not work as a clerk in a store or an office. What this man did, I would do. Come what may, I would write books.
For the last thirty-seven years I have been trying to fulfill that childish whim, and I don’t know whether something I have written has brought about a small, enduring change in the life of my readers. Judging from my own experience as a reader, I always try to follow this maxim: Be careful what you write and how you write, because you never know who might read your words, how and where they are going to resonate. In the late ’30s, Cyril Connolly was painfully aware that by writing a couple of lines in an article he might send a young man to die in the Spanish Civil War. Very often, writers complain bitterly about the futility of their solitary endeavor, but our contemporary world, for better or for worse, was created by the writing of at least two self-absorbed graphomaniacs: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Karl Marx.
The train has come to a bumpy stop and at last the lady in front of me raises her eyes from Proust as if awaking from a pleasant sleep. Now she looks at me and there is a flash of curiosity and then recognition in her face as she stealthily takes in the title of the book I am reading, which happens to be Aharon Appelfeld’s The Story of a Life. For a second, our eyes meet before I get up and leave the train at 51st Street—two fellow Freemasons exchanging a secret signal in an unfriendly environment, both of us temporary exiles, seeking shelter in other people’s memories or fictions.