Fuck Omniscience!

Rachel Cusk, “Without Prior Knowledge: Rachel Cusk and Caille Millner in Conversation,” Work in Progress 16 February 2017

To me the central problem with the novel as it still stands is that it’s a bit like London: it’s still a Victorian construct. And that problem has to do with prior knowledge that the novel has, that you enter this world in which things are known by somebody, and yet it’s supposed to look real. So where’s this knowledge coming from? And that’s almost, again, a Victorian, quasi-religious idea that there is some omniscience somewhere, that there is an omniscient narrator, God, that somebody knows what’s going on, and that there’s some meaningful narrative to all of this. So I thought, I’ve got to write a novel where there’s no prior knowledge at all, and having decided that, the form evolved itself, because once you write with that discipline — once you start writing thinking, “Nothing can be known in this text by the narrator” — everything has to be read from the surface. It is incredible how many sentences you can’t write. I’d say about one in fifty sentences, I thought, okay, that I can write, because that is completely, concretely taken from everything that anybody could see if they were walking past. They could see it or hear it.

It’s the reason for a sequel — I mean, Outline said you can be nobody, you can be merely an observer of what happens in front of you and not have to put all of that information into a moral structure — not have to make a story out of it, a story of yourself or a story of anybody else. And that was all very well, but unless you’re then going to dissolve and go up in a puff of smoke, you know, something does have to happen next because you wake up the next morning, and the next morning, and the next morning — and so what this book [Transit] is about is that process, of how you then reattach yourself to life. And part of that is accepting violence, or re-engaging with it, re-engaging with the things that can hurt you.

[See Rachel Cusk.]

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.

Always and Always Alone

“We are all animals, and therefore, we are continually being attracted. That this attraction should extend to what is called love is a human misfortune cultivated by novelists. It is the horror we feel of ourselves, that is of being alone with ourselves, which draws us to love, but this love should happen only once, and never be repeated, if we have, as we should, learnt our lesson, which is that we are, all and each one of us, always and always alone.”
Henry Green, Letter to  G.W. 9 June 1954


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.