Outrageous Comparison of The Week

“When I grasped that some of the most complex, almost otherworldly fiction of the postwar era was composed on such a simple, functional, frail-looking machine, it conferred a sort of talismanic quality to Cormac’s typewriter. It’s as if Mount Rushmore was carved with a Swiss Army knife.”

Rare-book dealer Glenn Horowitz on the auction of Cormac Mc Carthy’s Olivetti typewriter (quoted in New York Times on November 30, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/01/books/01typewriter.html?em)

Actually, Mr. Horowitz, it’s nothing like that. Writing is a craft in which the tools are irrelevant. That’s the beauty of it. Does the fact that Shakespeare wrote his plays with quill and ink, that Homer sang the Illiad and Odyssey, or that countless writers — bards and hacks alike — have scribbled stories with pencil stubs on the backs of envelopes have any bearing on the magnitude of the work (or lack thereof)?

But cross an outmoded technology with a revered, aging writer and you get double the fetish. The Olivetti is, admittedly, a sleek and stylish little machine, already a fetish object even when typewriters were commonplace. In the 50s and 60s, owning an Olivetti was a personal statement. It showed you cared about aesthetics, you believed that even the most useful and ordinary objects should look good too. And because it was European — even better Italian — an Olivetti put its owner in a class of cognoscenti. Type with an Olivetti by day, catch the latest Antonioni or Fellini at night.

McCarthy refers to his choice as practical. When he bought his Olivetti — $50 secondhand — in 1963, he needed to replace his clunky Royal with a more portable model when he went to live in Europe. If he’d been 40 years younger, the Olivetti might have been a NetBook.

There is an incongruity here, but it’s not, as Horowitz claims, between the complex monumentality of Cormac’s work and the “frailty” of his chosen tool.  It’s simply hard to imagine the cool little Italian number residing in the rough, grim and weighty worlds of his novels. McCarthy’s novels and his means of writing them seem to come from different planets.  It’s as if we discovered that Hemingway wore embroidered velvet slippers while he wrote of bullring gore or Jack Kerouac drove across America in a Country Squire station wagon.


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