La Fayette Revisited

Erin Blakemore, “France’s Famous High School Exam Will Soon Feature Its First Woman Author,” Smithsonian 21 March 2017:

…But the novella isn’t La Fayette’s most famous work. That would be The Princess of Cleves, a dramatic novel that’s widely cited as France’s first historical novel. The book became a big deal in France again in 2009, when France’s then-president, Nicolas Sarkozy, mocked its inclusion on the civil service exam. As The Guardian‘s Andrew Gallix reported at the time, the president’s public hatred of the book turned it into a political symbol and short-lived bestseller.

Umbilical Words

Dear Mum,

I hope you have read my letter. The other one. The proper one. The one I could not write, because it cannot be written. Couched in an idiom only you and I understand. A mother tongue. Umbilical words that bind us for ever and ever. You alone can hear me mouth them.

Of the pain of being parted from you as a child, it says nothing, not least because that always went without saying. Being separated made us inseparable. In the other letter, this unspeakable pain speaks, though not in so many words. You alone can hear its mute howl.

For years, I could not sleep facing a wall. I had to face the door, through which I would be reunited with you. Returning for the holidays was always a homecoming. Even as an adult. I once spent my lunch break at Gare du Nord, simply to feel a little closer to you. Watching all those people boarding trains bound for my mother’s land.

You are my motherland. The only time I tried to tell you, on that warm summer night, you said I was drunk. That was by the potted olive tree.

As soon as I heard you were going, I caught the first train, but did not make it on time. I hope you sensed that I was on my way. That I was coming home to you.

You were already so cold when I kissed your forehead. Stone cold.

We always fail to talk about what we love. Someone else wrote that. You dwell in me, just as I once dwelt in you. Someone else wrote that too. Perhaps they were drunk.

Your son, who always loved you more than you could ever know,


Shapeless Nonsensical Things

Rachel Cusk, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, 2012

I remember from childhood how easy it was to imagine, how hard to create: the difference between what I could conceive of and what I could actually do was bewildering. In adulthood I have learned that to envisage is nothing: success is a hard currency, earned by actual excellence. The vision has to be externalised, and in the case of the cake it remains the prisoner of my imaginings. … Was it because the vision was mine that I was so careless with it? I see the same impatience sometimes when my children undertake something they can’t execute, a sort of disregard — almost contempt — for practicality, perhaps even for reality itself. What they like is what is in their head — how boring it is, how hard and intransigent, this plane on which their imaginings aren’t recognised, where their visions are translated into shapeless nonsensical things!

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.]