Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

By Vatsal Surti

I want to tell you about the first work of fiction I ever wrote.

It can be said that the first work of art is always like first love: When all is said and done, it’s the feeling we felt while making it, rather than the consequences, that are remembered. It’s always an expression of everything we wanted to feel. In my case, it was about the dreams that we sing as teenagers and the first feeling of wonder. Maybe no one will ever read this book, but it will always be special for me, for it has something in it that will always be impossible to express in words.

I was 17 then. What I wanted to do was to write something about experiencing our existence, how we feel our lives and those that belong to other people. I wanted to write about love, and how we understand each other. I wanted to write about time. And I wanted to do it all in a small story. “Strange it was- eyes, like soul, never change,” I wrote in it. I wanted the story to be as small as our two eyes--eyes that can contain the whole sky in it, and all the stars.

This is the story about the first novella I wrote. It was a story about love, about a boy and a girl, the slow moving winds and the touch felt upon skin. It was about star-crossed lovers and the space between two people.

It had to be about love. Nothing else seems so forceful. The story begins when a boy suddenly hears about the death of a girl he loved while in high school. A few years after writing it, I came across an Italian movie, The Great Beauty, with a similar premise. It begins as a story of loss. Slowly, a thousand different shades of loss emerge, weaving in with many other themes. My novella begins similarly, with my unnamed character experiencing loss as he goes through a sudden change. He realizes that the only thing that he kept inside as sacred for all these years was lost forever. I wanted to see what really changes between two people when they separate. The boy saw the girl for the last time when they were in high school, and then she went to live in another city. When she dies, he wonders what has really changed. Distance is distance. Does it become different when a person decides to leave you, and when a person dies? I was interested in exploring how two people connect with each other. Since the moment I started writing I wanted to know about elemental emotions: What is it that we call love? Do we always need similarities of country and race to understand each other, or can we do it purely through our emotions, because we feel the same things?

I still remember the day it came to me. There is a movie by Jean-Luc Godard called Hélas pour moi. Like all Godard movies, it has no plot. Instead, the film consists of a series of beautiful images depicting a god who has taken the form of a human to experience sex. It was about what it means to be human and to feel. So it isn’t surprising in hindsight that it was this movie that inspired me to write my own existential story.

The boy leaves  the funeral of this girl. He goes to visit his old home, which is right next to hers. He keeps wondering about what he’ll do now. How will he live? Even though he never lived with her, he was still convinced of the reality of her existence. For reasons that become clear later, his love for her was different than anything he had with other people. It was a reason for his existence; it was a memory. It was something that kept one detached from everything else, no matter how cruel the world seems, no matter how impure everything else becomes. It was the memory of innocence. The purity of this memory is something that has given his life a dimension, a reason to stay alive. I wanted to see what happens when this reason, which is not physical in its essence, ceases to exist physically. I wanted to explore what happens when everything that gives you security suddenly disappears.

He meets another girl. They talk. We discover that they knew each other at some point in their lives. We discover her loneliness. “I always wished to feel something genuine,” this girl tells him. “Even when I was in teenage I had this wish. I have lived - with people, with family, with friends. Suddenly so much time has passed. I don’t even know how. And I felt, yesterday I felt, what happened to my real wishes? They are so distant, it almost feels like another life. I look inside me and see nothing of my own. All I ever wanted was to be loved. To forget myself and be overwhelmed by something. And so many years have passed; only desires have faded, empty gestures have crowded around.”

Is there any similarity between them? What connects them, memory or pain? She asks him to stay with her for the night. They leave for her place. And suddenly it feels as if the seasons have begun to change.

Nietzsche talks about Eternal Recurrence, the idea that time is so vast that everything we do might have already been done before. The idea was popularized by Milan Kundera in his novel "The Unbearable Lightness of Being."

Back to the novella, our story begins to unfold. We discover a diary that the boy found in his old home. It’s a journal he kept while in high school. The girl asks him to read it, and he begins to read. Just as he finishes reading the first note, he looks at the yellowed papers. He looks and wonders about how time gets frozen between pages, only to become alive again.

I believed Nietzsche was wrong. I wanted to talk about a view completely different from Nietzsche’s by pointing out that even though an event may have occurred thousands of times, its touch on our sensibilities is always new, like experiencing love or listening to music. It is so because our imagination is always new. New experiences perceived by us grant a fresh wisdom about the world every time, no matter how similar our experiences might seem externally to that of others.

The boy in my story begins to read his impressions of himself and the girl he loved. They seem so distant, these impressions, that they feel like memories from another life. It was me who wrote this, he thinks, yet I find myself incapable of entering that world.

Is it possible to know another person, not in parts but as whole? I kept wondering. From this point, the story becomes more about this understanding. Each note that he reads in his journal helps him to understand. The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once said that “hell is other people.” I wanted to explore “other people”, in terms of three people trying to understand someone, and see if it is really a hell. Is it really other people that lead to our anguish, or is it the inability to understand how everything in the world is connected? My novella was a work of philosophical fiction. I knew from the beginning that I was not interested in long biographies of characters and plots; I was interested in an emotion, a feeling like loneliness, or pain, or exhilaration. In this way, I felt closer to a pop singer or a performance artist than a writer. I wanted to explore and express emotions. At the end of the day, each story is a story of freedom. We seek our freedom everywhere, both inside us and outside.

Despite falling in love, we seem to feel alone. Love seems to me like an endless journey that does not begin at meeting, and does not end in separation. This is the exploration that never repeats itself. In contrast to Nietzsche, when telling a story, in our effort to find something, we always come across something that was never found before, something that never happened to anyone else before us.

Hélas pour moi begins with a narrative that talks about storytellers who pass down stories from one generation to next, with each artist recreating the story and making it their own. So whenever a story is repeated, it is at once the story of the storyteller, and also of everyone who lived before him. In the end, what I am is more than me. As my character begins to read the things he wrote about the girl, he realizes he never really understood her. She was different. She was in love with something else. At one point in his journal, the dead girl says to him: “We can understand a piece of music that was created before we were born. Languages change, times change, shapes change, and still, our revelations remain ours. Isn’t it strange?”

We come back to a circle. In the heart of my story, I explore interconnections between humans: how one person influences another, both in presence and in absence. The presence of the girl he is reading to, the absence of the girl that he seeks to understand. Is it possible to understand someone? This is where the story comes to an end, when this understanding occurs. What happens when we realize that what we are is never just the things we make, but also the things that make us? In the vastness of space time, what are we except our relationships? Everything that we relate to--things, people, memories, ideas--everything makes us who we are. There is no difference between us The world we experience might not be the same, but the fact that you understand me tells me something about existence. Isn’t the experience of knowing someone, the same as knowing who we are?

It is said that through a seashell we can listen to the sound of the whole ocean. Can we say that by listening to our own breath, we can listen to the sound of everyone who has ever lived? When I feel my experience as a reality, there seems to be no time when I did not exist, nor a time when I won’t exist. We read something written a hundred years ago and feel a world that’s not too different from our own. We live just once, and in one life, through stories, we live the life of all those who lived before us. In psychology there is a concept called synchronicity. It is an idea that says we are not alone. We experience the experiences of someone simultaneously with them. That what I feel sitting here can be felt by you as if we are feeling it together. And I can know all your struggles and wishes and you can know mine. How can we feel separate, when everything we feel becomes a discovery to know the universe a little bit more?

The world is so vast. We meet thousands of people. Sometimes we can meet just once and feel as if we are already lovers. Sometimes we meet someone with whom we can feel what we want. And we feel so certain there is no desperation to hold. We meet thousands of people and there are so many people who separate. Lost, to be never found again. We seek something, traces of someone we loved once. Something stays like a childhood memory. And the thousand miles separating us cease to exist. We can live alive in the memory of someone we loved. But what if that person dies? What if something is lost forever? When the distance separating two people can no longer be measured in miles but in life and death? What does it mean to love someone? What does it mean to feel alone?

This is where it begins, and this where it ends; for now, and for ever. Two people find each other through time. And together they try to understand someone; through someone they love, they try to understand themselves.

Vatsal Surti writes about the interconnections of humans. “To Desire” was published in 2012. You can read his work at vatsalsurti.com or follow him on Twitter @dovesofamsterdm.