Perpetually Entering ‘Whale’ Into a Search Engine

Philip Hoare, “Moby-Dick: Melville’s Victorian Blog,” The Guardian Saturday 20 0ctober 2012

In many ways, Moby-Dick was more like a Victorian blog, and I often think that if Melville had been writing his book today, he would never have finished it: he’d be perpetually entering “whale” into a search engine.


Jean-Paul Draws a Blank, and Other Misadventures
A children’s book for grown-ups, or vice-versa


At the school gates, Jean-Paul watched Maman walk away. He watched her walk away until she was a dot in the distance. He watched her walk away until she disappeared from view. He watched the view from which she had disappeared by walking away. At the school gates, Jean-Paul saw something he could not unsee.

Too Much of a Writer to Even Begin to Write

David Winters, Rev. of The Preparation of the Novel by Roland Barthes, 3:AM Magazine 28 June 2011

As Raymond Federman once wrote, ‘everybody is writing a novel these days,’ even if, and perhaps because, ‘nobody knows why.’ We live in a world where the wish to write, or, more often, to have written, speaks only of some other, inner wish, whose sense is left unspoken. The novel, real or projected, achieved or abandoned, exists in the mind of its writer less as a literary object than as a wish underwritten by other wishes. In this sense, The Preparation of the Novel takes the measure not of a set of texts, but of a nested structure of desires.

‘By the end of the 1970s,’ writes Kate Briggs in her preface to these lectures, ‘apparently “everyone knew” that Roland Barthes was writing a novel.’ Yet at the time of his death in 1980, Barthes had barely begun to plan his “Vita Nova”; the book remained a sketched hypothesis. This volume, comprising his third and final set of lectures at the Collège de France, could be said to plot the gulf between the project’s, any project’s, intention — its biographical or existential coordinates, conceived as a dense network of points — and its terminus as a felt form, whether fully grown or aborted, or both at once.

‘Will I really write a Novel?’ Barthes enquires at the outset of the course. ‘I’ll answer this and only this. I’ll proceed as if I were going to write one.’ He will prepare as if preparation were an end in itself, inhabiting the mad fantasy of a writing that falls short of its own composition, ‘pushing that fantasy as far as it will go.’ Only then will he breach or break, or get broken into, the recognition (kenshō) that writing is nothing but its wants and longings, that ‘the product is indistinguishable from the production, the practice from the drive.’ This is the reason why he must preserve the indeterminacy of each of the terms in his title. He speaks of a preparation that is neither ‘of’ nor ‘for’ a novel, and of a novel that is not a novel, nor a set of notes for a novel never to be written.

[…] Barthes is paralysed by his own crisis, which is also the crisis of all narrative, for him: a failure to navigate the passage from notation to novel. In this he is too much of a writer even to begin to write. He can only conjecture the contents of that transformation, whether dreamt or merely lived through, in which a novel ‘begins to take.’

[…] How does a novel persuade itself into completion? At the core of any novel is its own false promise to its author. The novel ensnares the novelist in its projected redemption of her life. Her life: not the open set of her possibilities, but the remains of the decisions she has made; the way she has lived. What’s left when her days have laid waste to her. She yearns for her novel to emerge, to claim its place as the end result of every action she has taken. In its light her life will get redrafted, justified as the story of the novel’s origin: its preparation. If her life had been different, people will say, her novel would not have been written. So, the novelist dreams of a single moment in which every ruinous thing she has done will be redeemed. Yet she is never delivered into this moment; her novel is a lie she tells herself, and literature is on the side of death. In the end, the novelist knows that she belongs here too, with literature.

[…] If, as Barthes says elsewhere, ‘a creative writer is one for whom writing is a problem’, then the novel to prepare will be one that presents its problems unsolved, exacerbated. A novel of which one could say that the scope of its failure is what makes it true.

La Rentrée Littéraire Redux

This appeared in Guardian Books on 9 October 2012:

La Rentrée Littéraire Redux

The French books world’s demented annual commercial knockout context shows little sign of going away

[Eternal return… Parisian book buyers. Photograph: Alamy]

Much ink was expended, earlier this year, on the subject of parenting in France. For better or worse — usually the former — it was deemed far less “child-centric” than across the Channel. There is, however, at least one area where French kids set the agenda: the agenda (French for “diary”) itself.

Although nominally in December, the end of the year really occurs in early summer, when schools break up for a two-month hiatus. By August, Paris feels eerily empty, in a way that London, for instance, never does. At times, it almost looks like the local population has been wiped out by a neutron bomb, leaving hordes of tourists roaming around a ghost town. Most of those who cannot afford to go away are relegated — out of sight, out of mind and out of work — to the infamous banlieues, which, owing to some strange optical illusion, only become visible when they disappear in flames.

By the same token, it is September, and not January, which marks the true beginning of the year; a beginning that spells eternal recurrence rather than renaissance. “La rentrée” — the back-to-school season extended to the entire populace — never fails to remind me of Joey Kowalski, the narrator of Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke, who, despite being 30 years old, is marched off to school as though he had been caught playing truant. “La rentrée” is the bell that signals the end of playtime; the restoration that follows revolution. In an annual re-enactment of the “retour à la normale” after the carnival of May 1968, everybody returns to the old “train-train quotidien”: the daily grind of “métro, boulot, dodo” (commute, work, bed — an expression derived from a poem by Pierre Béarn). A vague sense that real life is elsewhere (as Rimbaud never quite put it) lingers a while, before fading like suntans and memories of holiday romances.

The start of the new school year (“la rentrée scolaire”) coincides, give or take a few weeks, with the opening of the publishing season (“la rentrée littéraire”). In fact, both rentrées go together like cheese and wine, Alsace and Lorraine, or Deleuze and Guattari. This is not purely coincidental, since publishers are largely dependent upon education for the grooming of future generations of book buyers. The “rentrée littéraire” is the equivalent of cramming for your finals — a tome-intensive blitzkrieg geared towards the autumn literary prizes and subsequent Christmas sales. The season kicks off mid-August, really kicks in mid-October, and climaxes in November, when most book prizes are awarded: the illustrious Prix Goncourt (hot on the heels of the Grand Prix de l’Académie française in October) but also the Prix Décembre, Femina, Flore, Interallié, Médicis, Renaudot, and a few others besides. The major publishing houses tend to carpet bomb, chucking as many titles at these awards as they can, while the indies have no other choice but to go for surgical hits, on a wing and a press release.

So far, this year’s vintage has been pretty much business as usual, apart from the growing popularity of ebooks. At season’s close, 646 novels will have been released (compared with 654 in 2011 and 701 in 2010). If French fiction is down a little, the number of foreign titles remains constant (220 against 219 last year). As a result of the uncertain economic climate, there are fewer debuts (69 against 74) and more mass-market print runs (including Fifty Shades of Grey and the new JK Rowling). Pursuing a trend observed over the past few years, many of the heavyweights (Jean Echenoz, Patrick Modiano, Philippe Sollers et al.) have been held over until mid-October in order to heighten anticipation and maximize impact upon November’s book prizes.

Some of this season’s most hotly touted titles have a distinct whiff of déjà vu. There’s the new Houellebecq (Aurélien Bellenger, whose first book was an essay on the old Houellebecq). There’s the presidential campaign, which is fast becoming a sub-genre, with no less than seven books devoted to the latest instalment (including a non-fiction novelisation by HHhH author Laurent Binet). And then there’s the obligatory scandal which, this year, comes courtesy of Richard Millet (“l’affaire Millet”!) and his “literary praise” of mass murderer Anders Breivik.

The best take on the “rentrée littéraire” appears in Ecclesiastes: “of making many books there is no end”. In no other country is so much fiction published in such a short period of time. With hundreds of novels competing for a dozen prizes or so, most are destined to sink without trace — unsold and unread. Industry observers claim that if a debut novel has not caused a buzz by mid-September, it’s (French) toast. The result is a book glut comparable to Europe’s wine lakes and butter mountains.

David Meulemans, who heads indie press Aux Forges de Vulcain, made a few waves recently by announcing that he would not be taking part in this year’s rentrée. He described the publishing season as “mass commercial suicide”: a launch pad for prizes virtually no one stands a chance of ever winning. Sylvain Bourmeau — who praises the extraordinary diversity of publications on offer (belying, in his view, the French literati’s reputation for navel-gazing) — acknowledges, in Libération, that the rentrée is indeed a “weird national lottery”. For the past decade, Pierre Astier has been one of its most vocal critics. This former indie publisher, who went on to launch one of France’s first literary agencies, highlights the hypocrisy of a system — controlled by an old boys’ network — that fosters cut-throat competition without establishing a level playing field. Conflicts of interest abound; nepotism is rife. Being life members, the Goncourt judges are endowed with godly powers. Four of them even have books in the running for this year’s awards, which are usually carved up among the major publishing houses anyway. Astier also criticises the lack of openness to francophone writers, which he interprets as a sign that decolonisation has not gone far enough.

Although its quaint customs are often parodied (as in Patrick Besson’s Ma rentrée littéraire), the publishing season, is still widely seen as an instance of France’s cultural exceptionalism; its “droit à la différence” — or even différance.