People Who Can’t Begin

Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out (1915)

‘There never will be a book, because someone else has written it for him,’ said Mr Pepper with considerable acidity. ‘That comes of putting things off, and collecting fossils, and sticking Norman arches on one’s pigsties.’

‘I confess I sympathize,’ said Ridley with a melancholy sigh. ‘I have a weakness for people who can’t begin.’

The Innocent Novel is Now Impossible

Roland Barthes, “Pre-Novels,” Essays and Interviews Volume 3

Every time someone ventures the idea that there is a crisis of the novel, a critic with the good health of our Literature at heart can be found to reply that the novel has never been in such fine fettle, since an enormous number of them are being published. But this is to conceive the crisis in excessively quantitative terms; it is a phenomenon that in no way precludes proliferation. . . .

. . . This is, perhaps, what is happening today with the novel, if you will concede that most of the creditable and original works currently being published are problematical novels in which the fiction is accompanied by a questioning of the basic categories of novelistic creation, as though, since the ideal novel — the innocent novel — is now impossible, literature had principally to say how it is running from itself and killing itself — in short, how it is rejecting itself.

In France this began with Proust. Throughout his enormous oeuvre, Proust is always about to write. He has the traditional literary act in his sights, but he constantly puts it off and it is at the end of this period of expectation, an expectation he never meets, that the work has been constructed in spite of itself. It was the waiting itself that formed the substance of a work whose suspended nature was enough to set the writer speaking.

The most conscious forms of novel-writing today are all part of this Proustian movement by which the writer sets his novel going before our eyes and then consigns it to silence at a point when, a hundred years earlier, he would have barely begun to speak.

[See Witold Gombrowicz.]

Surrendering to the Unknown Route

Deborah Levy, “Deborah Levy: ‘I Have Grown to Love My Writing Shed in Every Season,” The Guardian (Guardian Review) 1 October 2016

When I begin writing a novel, I usually know where I want to get to, I just don’t know how to get there. I plan a route and follow my directions. Sometimes this works well. Yet, it’s when I detour from the map and get lost that the writing starts to open its eyes. In case you think I like getting lost, I should tell you that I resist it with all my will. This is always a futile battle. Eventually I surrender to the unknown route, write for a few hours and take a look at the new view.

My current writing mantra is a quote by EM Forster: “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” This applies to the life of a novel as well as any other kind of life. Come to think of it, the life that is waiting for us might be worse than the life we have planned.

Expenditure for Nothing

Roland Barthes, “An Interview with Jacques Chancel (Radioscopie),” Essays and Interviews Volume 5

I was alluding to the fact that writing today is an expenditure for nothing, an ‘unconditional expenditure’, as Georges Bataille would say … It’s a sort of perverse activity which, in a sense, has no purpose, cannot enter into any knind of accounting and always goes beyond the practical tasks we may ask of it..

No doubt writing’s part of social exchange. When you write books and have them published, it’s all part of a publishing market and belongs to a particular economy. But, in writing, there’s always something additional which goes beyond questions of economic return and it is the pour rien, the ‘for nothing’ that defines the ‘bliss of writing’ and is, therefore, a perversion.