We Don’t Particularly Matter

Rachel Cusk, “Rachel Cusk by Alex Zafiris,” BOMB 16 February 2017

The main difficulty of being, perhaps, is that the “self” wants a story, wants to be explained, wants to be situated in a meaningful narrative. Because we’re trapped in the self, and the self is at the center of our own experience, having that story — and being the central character in it — feels like a necessity. And of course reality denies that meaning, that coherence, that centrality of self, at every turn. It tells us that there is no logic, that we don’t particularly matter, that things will not necessarily end well. So, I suppose it follows that some people will be angered by reality and its representation, because it appears to threaten their belief in life as meaningful.

Translation As Paradigm of All Writing

Dennis Duncan, “The American Oulipian,” The Times Literary Supplement 27 January 2017

One of his [Harry Matthews] characters muses, “The longer I live — the longer I write — the stronger becomes my conviction that translation is the paradigm, the exemplar of all writing”. It is hard not to read this as Mathews himself thinking out loud.

[See Kafka and Proust.]

The Pleasures of Unintelligibility

Marina Warner, “At the Gogol Centre,” London Review of Books (website), 16 January 2017

Unintelligibility has become interesting to me as a far more common state – with its own benefits – than has been recognised. Some of the most involving and passionate moments of a reading life can be baffling. In my first encounters with Rebecca, The Waste Land, Waiting for Godot, Dante’s Paradiso, I could grasp very little of what was being said, either at the level of the words or in the larger picture of narrative and thought. Yet these works absorbed me utterly, and their feel has remained vivid in memory; they felt intense and alive and their power is and was contagious – they made me feel intense and alive too. There’s something about attending to a work beyond lucidity that’s like learning a language when young, or finding your way around a neighbourhood.

The pleasures of unintelligibility have been wonderfully explored by nonsense poets and storytellers like Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, and some of the greatest makers of such literature have been Russian: Velimir Khlebnikov, for example. Khlebnikov revelled in the sound of words and in the feelings that the sheer noise of plosives, gutturals and fricatives could excite, when arranged in patterns and rhythms, without much design on semantic translucency:

Bo-beh-o-bi, sang the lips,
Veh-eh-o-mi, sang the glances,
Pi-eh-eh-o, sang the brows,
Li-eh-eh-ey, sang the visage,
Gzi-gzi-gzeh-o, sang the chain.

The effects can be joyous or bitter; but the energy of improvisation makes for another kind of sense, as the listener escapes from linguistic intelligibility into free-form verbal music.

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.