Watching David Mitchell at Bookcourt last Friday I wondered if he’d had a stutter. Maybe in childhood. A debilitating stutter. On the syllables “f” and “c” particularly. Each time one of these sounds arose during the reading he closed his eyes and pursed his lips. During these pauses it seemed like he was telling himself some mantra he’d developed, some trick, to make it through to the other side of the phoneme.
A friend of mine has a stutter. She told me once that this is a technique: To see the sound coming, plan for the syllable to arrive in your speech, know that “click” is on its way and prepare to pause and speak it.
I imagined Mitchell as a sensitive and intelligent child, unlistened to, made fun of, forced into the closed walls of a room in his parents’ house or a library. I imagined him finding salvation in books where words were the words of others, uninterrupted. I imagined him discovering writing in just that way, scribbling syllables seamlessly with a ferocity that could only be paused by a lack of ink or paper or sleep.
This biographical scene, true or not, speaks well to Mitchell’s style in “Cloud Atlas,” the only novel of his I’ve read. Obsessively linguisized the book is told with many voices, some of which use constructed dialects that only someone preoccupied with the flow and sounds of words could put together. Whether Mitchell’s ventriloquism is a strength or a flaw, it’s certainly gimmicky. And while the book was entertaining and had some interesting themes it smelled to me of trying-too-hard.
Except for the second (and maybe the fifth) of its nested novellettes. The second section is a series of letters from a young, down-and-out English composer to a scientist friend. The scene is Belgium in the 1930s and the writing is sheer beauty. I finished the book because I felt loyal to this one section. I wanted the 500 page pyrotechnical “Cloud Atlas,” named for the composer’s masterpiece, shrunk to a novella of just this section. The characters, the colors, the story, and the moments are wonderful.
And Mitchell had a certain wonderfulness about him at the podium. Some wonderful moments were jewels of deprecating humour (Britishly-spelled), but there was one spectacularly human moment, a beautiful moment, when a baby in the crowd made some sort of noise, a giggle or a plaint, and the author’s eyes lit up and passed over all the Brooklynite adult faces–the plaid shirts and business suits, leather shoulder bags and flip-flops and blackberries, mussed hair and thick-rimmed glasses–to a Brooklynite child held in the arms of a simply-dressed young mother. Mitchell asked that the mother not feel embarrassed and to allow any noise the child might make. It was his Mitchell’s face that was wonderful in that moment, delighted at a wink of innocence among the waves and waves of adulthood caught in adulthood’s tragedies.
As he read from “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” my mind wandered. I’m not sure if this was his or my fault. I listened to the way he said his words as opposed to the words themselves and the story they carried, which is what he seems to want us to do with his writing in “Cloud Atlas.” He does this to his own detriment I think. He has an ability to highlight the human, as he did with that baby, but he loses this in his worries about language.
I listened for his stutter the whole time. The story of his telling his stories was much more human and engaging than the trivial (as my girlfriend put it) vignette from the book.
The Q&A section was similar. His responses to most questions drifted back to language. He emphasized the beauty and importance of how things are said by characters, not what is said and how that relates to his life, which is what the crowd seemed to want more.
Mitchell did mention a few interesting writerly habits. He said he writes letters to himself from his characters. This is definitive of his style in “Cloud Atlas,” which is driven by first-person accounts. Three of the five sections could reasonably be called correspondence.
This comment added a new dimension to the biography I’d constructed for him. I imagined that, in his stutterer’s isolation, he dreamed of interesting people he could correspond with across time and place, and that he fabricated the conversations he could hold with them if only he could pronounce “conversations” or “could.”
During the Q&A I wanted to ask if he’d had a stutter. It was the most important question I could think of. To me it was the question upon which everything else in the room hinged. Mitchell seems like a writer-stutterer, preoccupied with the fluency of his voice more than its humanity, which is there, smiling at our human mixture of tragedy and innocence, but hidden in the stop-start of his linguistic anxieties. I didn’t ask.
I waited in line for him to sign a copy of “Cloud Atlas” for a friend’s birthday. When he signed it he said it was nice to meet you. I said likewise.