Inside the writer's studio: Diana Fuss's book looks at where the work gets done
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 8 June 2004)

Virginia Woolf said that there's little to learn by observing a writer at work, since everything significant happens inside the writer's brain. Not so, says Diana Fuss, an English professor at Princeton, the author of a captivating new book, The Sense of an Interior: Four Writers and the Rooms That Shaped Them (Routledge). If you stand back and study the working environment, she demonstrates, you'll discover there's plenty to learn.

Fuss combines her knowledge of literature with a shrewd understanding of that currently fashionable subject, the design of interiors. She sees a writer's office as a stage animated by books, artifacts, machines and furniture. She treats these objects of cultural memory and private fantasy as metaphors that will, when understood, deepen our knowledge of a writer. "A writer's domestic interior opens a window onto both author and text."

Her choice of subjects shows ingenuity and curiosity. She studies Emily Dickinson, who spent her adult life secluded in an upstairs room of her parents' house in Amherst, Mass.; Sigmund Freud, who wrapped his Vienna consulting room and nearby writing study in a cocoon of civilization, represented by antique sculpture and exotic rugs; Helen Keller, who lost both sight and hearing as an infant and yet mastered her environment as confidently as she mastered the English language; and Marcel Proust, who spent 13 years writing Remembrance of Things Past in a cork-lined room at 102 boulevard Haussmann near the Gare Saint Lazare.

Visiting their private spaces, Fuss pokes around like a detective, uncovering the strategies her writers used to satisfy their psychological as well as physical needs. Often she argues with the glibness of biographers who have been there before. She rejects the standard view of Dickinson as an eccentric recluse who suffered from agoraphobia, the fear of public spaces. A unique artist, Dickinson doesn't deserve medical labels that dismiss her way of life as neurotic. Fuss says her retreat into her home and her bedroom was partly motivated by episodes of temporary blindness and reflected less a fear of exteriors than a fascination with interiors. Her room was a private world, not a prison. It was big, light and airy. She saw mountains in two directions, and she could see and overhear walkers on the street below.

Still, the word "shy" hardly begins to describe her habit of speaking to most friends and relatives from around corners or through doors that were only half opened. On the other hand, the 10,000 or so letters she wrote suggest that she greatly enjoyed at least one form of profound human contact; her 1,775 poems indicate that she correctly chose the environment that would best help her work.

One of Freud's patients called his office, with its many sculptures, an "Aladdin's cave of treasures." But the objects in this cave had a particular quality. Whether genuine antiquities or modern copies, they usually expressed his preoccupation with death. He became a collector shortly after enduring his father's death, and the objects he chose often carried permanent echoes of that trauma. "Death-deliria," as Freud called it, dominated his offices. His consulting room had Egyptian scarabs, Roman death masks, Etruscan funeral vases, bronze coffins, mummy portraits etc. In the study next door where he wrote, he positioned some of his favourite figurines to face him on his desk, a silent audience he confronted as he wrote his books.

I like The Sense of an Interior best when Fuss deals with Keller, partly because Keller was so original and compelling a figure and partly because Fuss has obviously fallen in love with her story. Keller's famous teacher, Annie Sullivan, taught her to read and write by tracing letters on the palm of her hand; later, Keller worked with raised lettering, Braille and ordinary typing.

In the beginning she mastered her bedroom while mastering English, writing in what she called "object sentences." Sullivan wrote words in raised letters on cardboard, attaching them to the objects they described. One day Keller pinned the word girl on her dress and stood in the wardrobe, arranging other words to spell out "girl is in wardrobe." Eventually she learned to put all the items around her in sentences.

Keller, as Fuss says, built a complex inner life around touch and smell, her dominant senses. She claimed she could hear with her feet and her skin. Sitting on the floor (or lying on a Japanese tatami mat, her favourite bed), she could identify all the vibrations of the house and understand how people were moving around her, recognizing them by smell and footstep. She and Sullivan could speak to each other from across the room by tapping in code on the floor, the one picking up the vibrations created by the other. Keller turned her body into what she called a "vibrascope" and preferred indoors to outdoors because her system of sensing worked best within four walls.

Fuss visited Proust's apartment, photographed it, and provides a chart showing the placement of every table and lamp. He brought to it as much of his late parents' furniture as he could accommodate, and as he worked (writing through the night, usually in bed) he could take in at a glance both his father's velvet library armchair and his mother's grand piano, maintaining close visual connections to the past he was recalling and reshaping.

One of Dickinson's poems says "Remembrance has a Rear and Front. / 'Tis something like a House ...." So, said Freud in 1917, is the structure of human emotions. He pursued that simile until it turned into an explanation of his system: Compare the unconscious, he wrote, to a large entrance hall, where impulses jostle one another like a crowd of people. Next door is a drawing room, where consciousness resides. On the threshold between stands a watchman (he's the superego) who examines these mental impulses and refuses to admit those that displease him.

The rooms of the writers Fuss has chosen all fit into a similar pattern. They attracted ideas and thoughts, assessed them, and admitted some but not the others. As Fuss so thoughtfully depicts them, those rooms were both factories for the production of prose and theatres of conflict and resolution. Interiors, she argues, give shape to imagination.

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