In the following chapter, "Our Studies", from The Notebook by Agota Kristof, translated by Alan Sheridan, the author has the twins, the narrators, describe how they study and how they write. And the description of their writing method is a vivid insight into how the author herself writes.
The twins' first rule of writing is that "the composition must be true" that is, it must be devoid of subjective considerations, hearsay, and hypotheses. Only the description of things, people, and places are true, while the description of feelings cannot be trusted, and there is no space for it in their prose. According to them, "Words that define feelings are very vague. It is better to avoid using them and stick to the description of objects, human beings, and oneself, that is to say, to the faithful description of facts."
Interestingly, the absence of any description of feelings in Kristof's writing actually functions to elicit all manner of sentiments from us, her readers. It's as if the author, through her narrators, is telling us: "This is how it is. This is where it happened. These are the people involved. This is what they did. This is how they did it. You be the judge. You decide."
This technique is powerful because it throws our belief system into question. We are not so sure about what is right and wrong, when this responsibility is placed almost entirely on our shoulders. After all, we're just readers wishing to be entertained. But Kristof doesn't let us off the hook, and she takes us by the throat through a moral gray land where things are neither all black nor all white. And this disorients us.
Reading The Notebook is not a comfortable experience, but it is a worthwhile one exactly because of it. It forces us, the readers, to exit our comfort zone and to suspend judgement. And in so doing, we become more human, by becoming more aware of our own moral shortcomings, of the limits of the tiny world from which we observe (and judge) others.
Ultimately, reading Kristof is a lesson in humility. And that's why it's sometimes painful but always rewarding.
For our studies, we have Father's dictionary and the Bible we found here at Grandmother's, in the attic.
We have lessons in spelling, composition, reading, mental arithmetic, mathematics, and memorization.
We use the dictionary for spelling, to obtain explanations, but also to learn new words, synonyms and antonyms.
We use the Bible for reading aloud, dictation, and memorization. We are thus learning whole pages of the Bible by heart.
This is how a composition lesson proceeds:
We are sitting at the kitchen table with our sheets of graph paper, our pencils, and the notebook. We are alone.
One of us says:
"The title of your composition is: 'Arrival at Grandmother's.' "
The other says:
"The title of your composition is: 'Our Chores.' "
We start writing. We have two hours to deal with the subject and two sheets of paper at our disposal.
At the end of two hours we exchange our sheets of paper. Each of us corrects the other's spelling mistakes with the help of the dictionary and writes at the bottom of the page: "Good" or "Not good." If it's "Not good," we throw the composition in the fire and try to deal with the same subject in the next lesson. If it's "Good," we can copy the composition into the notebook.
To decide whether it's "Good" or "Not good," we have a very simple rule: the composition must be true. We must describe what is, what we see, what we hear, what we do.
For example, it is forbidden to write, "Grandmother is like a witch"; but we are allowed to write, "People call Grandmother the Witch."
It is forbidden to write, "The Little Town is beautiful," because the Little Town may be beautiful to us and ugly to someone else.
Similarly, if we write, "The orderly is nice," this isn't a truth, because the orderly may be capable of malicious acts that we know nothing about. So we would simply write, "The orderly has given us some blankets."
We would write, "We eat a lot of walnuts," and not "We love walnuts," because the word "love" is not a reliable word, it lacks precision and objectivity. "To love walnuts" and "to love Mother" don't mean the same thing. The first expression designates a pleasant taste in the mouth, the second a feeling.
Words that define feelings are very vague. It is better to avoid using them and stick to the description of objects, human beings, and oneself, that is to say, to the faithful description of facts."