By TONY PERROTTETWhile researching the Marquis de Sade several years ago, I came across an intriguing biographical tidbit: that crazed French libertine, whose string of luridly violent works gave rise to the term “sadism,” actually began his literary career as a travel writer. In 1775, Sade embarked on a yearlong grand tour of Italy, and wrote an enormous (and enormously tedious) manuscript about the journey entitled “Voyage d’Italie.” The rambling opus, filled with ruminations on Florentine museums and Neapolitan customs, was never completed. Sade’s attention wandered to more carnal pleasures, and in 1777, he was arrested for a long list of unsavory imbroglios, including one that historians call the Little Girls Episode. Sade was thrown into the prison of Vincennes, and would spend most of his remaining life incarcerated. “Voyage d’Italie” soon joined a range of half-finished manuscripts from his youth, scraps of verse and staid dramatic pieces, none of which Sade ever had the discipline to bring to fruition.
Literary distraction seems a very modern problem. These days, distracted writers tend to blame the Internet, whose constant temptations shred our attention spans, fragment every minute and reduce us to a permanent state of anxiety, checking e-mail every 30 seconds — “like masturbating monkeys,” a writer friend once put it, a phrase of which Sade himself might have approved. But history is filled with writers who, like the marquis, could function only in extreme — and involuntary — isolation.
“A prison is indeed one of the best workshops,” Colette declared. She wasn’t speaking metaphorically. In the early 1900s, by her own account, her caddish first husband had stashed her in a tiny room for four hours a day, refusing to let her out until she had finished a requisite number of pages — a drastic measure, but one that resulted in a novel a year for six years. “What I chiefly learned was how to enjoy, between four walls, almost every secret flight,” she later recalled, sounding almost sentimental.
The peripatetic Marco Polo got around to recording his classic travels through China only because he was captured in 1298 during a naval battle with Genoa and held in a lavish palazzo. Five hundred years later, the playboy Giacomo Casanova found time for his renowned erotic autobiography only after he had run out of money (and libido) and retreated to Castle Dux in Bohemia, where he accepted a sinecure as a librarian. Napoleon Bonaparte dictated his multivolume memoir — one of the great best sellers of 19th-century France — thanks only to his long exile on St. Helena. Even the harsh public jails could induce results. In 1897, Oscar Wilde wrote the philosophical essay “De Profundis” while locked up in Reading Gaol on charges of “unnatural acts.” And in 1942, Jean Genet wrote his first novel, “Our Lady of the Flowers,” while in Fresnes prison, near Paris, for petty theft, scrawling on scraps of paper.
Of course, few writers seriously dream of a stay in a latter-day Bastille, though until recently it still seemed relatively easy to recreate a kind of makeshift solitary confinement. In 1992, in “The Writing Life,” Annie Dillard described pushing her desk away from the windows in her tool shed study on Cape Cod, which looked out on lovely pine forests, to face a blank wall. (“Appealing workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.”) John Cheever preferred his New York apartment building’s dark and dismal basement, and the Algonquin Round Table wit Edna Ferber recommended facing the “blank brick wall of a cold-storage warehouse.”
Today, however, being chained to the desk, as the expression goes, is no longer a guarantee of productivity. Who can stick with the blank page when the click of a mouse opens up a cocktail party of chattering friends, a world-class library, an endless shopping mall, a game center, a music festival and even a multiplex? At once-remote literary colonies, writers can now be spotted wandering the fields with their smartphones, searching for reception so they can shoot off a quick Facebook update. These days, Walden Pond would have Wi-Fi, and Thoreau might spend his days watching cute wildlife videos on YouTube. And God knows what X-rated Web sites the Marquis de Sade would have unearthed.
It’s wonderful that writers can access medieval manuscripts, Swahili dictionaries and collections of 19th-century daguerreotypes at any moment. But the downside is that it’s almost impossible to finish a sentence without interruption. I confess that even those last 15 words were stalled by a detour, via Wikipedia, to various health Web sites, where I learned that concern was aroused last year by a report that Wi-Fi radiation was causing trees to shed their bark in a Dutch town, and that our excessive Web browsing and e-mailing may also be having ill effects on bees and British children. After an hour of this, I concluded that perhaps an equally urgent scientific study might be conducted on the devastation Wi-Fi has caused to world literature. The damage is surely incalculable.
Although everyone I know acknowledges the problem of digital distraction, there is surprisingly little resistance. In New York literary circles, anyone who doesn’t have a Twitter account qualifies as a radical Luddite. But some have made gestures toward enforced self-denial. The novelist Jonathan Lethem has said he owns two computers, one of which he had Internet-disabled to use for his fiction writing. Dave Eggers, Nora Ephron and others have extolled the computer program Freedom, which cuts off your computer’s Internet access for up to eight hours. Jonathan Franzen wrote “The Corrections” in a dark room wearing earplugs, earmuffs and a blindfold, and confessed to blocking his Ethernet port with Super Glue while working on “Freedom” (not named, apparently, for the software program).
Of course, there are even simpler solutions. Another of France’s wildly prolific authors, Honoré de Balzac, felt that the most effective spur to productivity was abject poverty. As a best-selling writer in his early 30s, Balzac looked back fondly upon his younger days as a bohemian, living in a garret and gnawing on a diet of bread, nuts, fruit and water. (“I loved my prison,” he wrote, “for I had chosen it myself.”) Even when successful, he would wake at midnight, symbolically don the habit of a medieval monk, and write for eight hours straight, fueled by pots of coffee. His biographer Graham Robb suggests that Balzac went so far as to deliberately run up debts to force himself to churn out the pages. Given the dwindling amounts writers are paid these days, the fear of bankruptcy — the modern debtor’s prison — remains an inspiration to us all.