Claiming Her Back

Richard Lea, “The Truth About Memory and the Novel,” The Guardian 14 June 2012

[…] The US novelist Francisco Goldman admitted he also called Say Her Name, his portrait of his late wife Aura, a “novel” as a way of avoiding the memoir police, but for him the moments he invented were more than just artistic licence. By making up something that Aura really would have done, or finding exactly the turn of phrase she would have used he was in some sense claiming her back.

[…] In Say Her Name, Goldman examines his late wife’s unpublished fiction, looking for clues to her life in her drafts, her notes. Barthesians may shake their heads at this all-too-human reaction to the death of the author, but perhaps the fact they were still unfinished holds out the hope that these stories contain traces of the author that can still be made out, that the memories which had in some way inspired them can be caught before they have made the transition into fiction.


Bernard Comment, “Bernard Comment: I Write Fiction, to Engrave Time,” The Guardian 14 June 2012

The practice of writing résumés, or the more recent example of Wikipedia, is as chilling as taking an X-ray, when all that remains is a skeleton. In these documents, the hazy tide of a life is reduced to a few dried-out drops — dates, diplomas, geographical locations, professional history – and you can’t find any of that complex, contradictory, muddled pulp that is memory, with its radiant points and its miserable moments, its pride and its shame, its desires and its remorse — not to mention what’s entailed by the Portuguese word “saudade,” that is, nostalgia for what was, but also for what wasn’t and could have been.

Woolf’s Dumb Dummy Copy

Karyn Z. Sproles, Desiring Women: The Parthnership of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West (University of Toronto Press, 2006. 151-152)

In preparing for the publication of To the Lighthouse, the Hogarth Press made a dummy copy of the novel to see how it would look. Blank inside, but in all other respects identical to the real thing, the dumb volume was sent by Woolf to Sackville-West inscribed ‘In my opinion the best novel I have ever written.’ Instantly regretting this gesture, she wrote: ‘Dear donkey West, Did you understand that when I wrote it was my best book I merely meant because all the pages were empty? A joke, a feeble joke’ (9 May 1927, 3:372). Sackville-West responded: ‘But of course I realised it was a joke; what do you take me for? a real donkey?’ (10 May 1927, 195; emphasis original).

Sent under the cover of a legitimate book jacket, Woolf’s blank book might be her best work. What is not written might be the only place in which to read her desire. The letters speak of this struggle. They demonstrate it best when describing seemingly mundane events of their daily lives, which both women do with an eye for comic detail that sometimes obscures the profoundly symbolic nature of the scenes they describe.

…They tease about ‘dumb letters’ — letters that speak not of desire but of the banal details of their lives apart. Woolf writes that hers ‘is not a dumb letter. Dogs letters are’ (15 Jan. 1926, 3:230). Responding that she had arranged to meet Woolf later that week, Sackville-West writes: ‘So you see that if my letters are dumb, my actions aren’t’ (17 Jan. 1926, 86). Speaking louder than letters, actions facilitate desire. Letters are dumb, silent, on the subject.

A Garden Shed

Elizabeth Day, “Sadie Jones: ‘You Imagine a Cathedral and on the Page it’s a Garden Shed’,” The Observer 1 April 2012

“I’m never happy with what I’ve written,” she says. “You imagine, before you start, there’s a cathedral, and the moment it starts on the page, it’s a garden shed. And then you just try to make it the best shed you can.”

Things Not Said, Actions Not Done

Gabriel Josipovici, “Learning From the Master,” The Irish Times 18 December 2010 [a review of Colm Tóibín’s All a Novelist Needs: Colm Tóibín on Henry James]:

“…I do, however, have to take issue with Tóibín and with James himself on one important point. In an essay on the meaning for the novelist of Lamb House, his Sussex retreat in his later years, Tóibín quotes a letter James wrote to his friend Grace Norton about the heroine of A Portrait of a Lady and her relationship to the real-life Minnie Temple: ‘I had her in mind and there is in the heroine a considerable infusion of my impression of her remarkable nature. But the thing is not a portrait. Poor Minny was essentially incomplete and I have attempted to make my young woman more rounded, more finished. In truth everyone, in life, is incomplete, and it is [in] the work of art that in reproducing them one feels the desire to fill them out, to justify them, as it were.’

Tóibín is so taken with this formulation that he repeats it verbatim in one later essay and paraphrases it in another. But what artists say about their work, even artists as self-aware as James, is, as Tóibín knows all too well, not necessarily the truth. It seems to me that both James and Tóibín in The Master are using their art not to round out and fill out a portrait left incomplete by life, which sounds more like the sort of aim Oscar Wilde might have expressed, but to bring home (to themselves, to the reader) the mystery of that life. That is why each of the great last novels ends not with resolution, not with final understanding, but with the sense that something which could be said in no other way has, remarkably, been said by the accumulation of things not said, of actions not done. That is why James’s greatest short story, The Turn of the Screw, ends so magnificently and so mysteriously: ‘I caught him, yes, I held him — it may be imagined with what a passion; but at the end of a minute I began to feel what it was truly that I held. We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped”. …”

Melancholia as Ultimate Rebellion

Excerpts from Lee Rourke, “In Conversation: Lee Rourke and Tom McCarthy,” The Guardian (Guardian Review p.12) Saturday 18 September 2010

[Lee Rourke (left) and Tom McCarthy. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe for the Guardian]

LR: You’ve said in the past that all art is repetition.

TMcC: Yeah: Joyce’s “commodius vicus of recirculation” . . . Or Mark E Smith’s three Rs: repetition, repetition and repetition . . .

LR: I’ll drink to that. It’s like a never-ending transmission that can’t be switched off.

TMcC: The transmission thing is important. There’s that Kraftwerk song, “I am the receiver and you are the transmitter”, or however it goes. One way of thinking about art, or the novel, is that the writer is the transmitter, the originator: I have something to say about the world and I’m going to transmit it. But this isn’t how I see it, I see it as exactly the inverse: the writer is a receiver and the content is already out there. The task of the writer is to filter it, to sample it and remix it — not in some random way, but conscientiously and attentively. This is what Heidegger says about poets: to be a poet is to listen before speaking; it’s first and foremost a listening and not a speaking. Kafka said it as well: “I write in order to affirm and reaffirm that I have absolutely nothing to say.” Writing, or art, is not about having something to say; it’s about aspiring to a heightened state of hearing. It’s why C is a totally acoustic novel and a receptive novel. The hero, Serge, sits there for hours trawling the aether waves, absorbing, listening to ship-to-shore transmissions, stock market prices, sports results, writing them all down. In a way, if you could see Serge’s transcript it would probably read like an Ezra Pound canto.

LR: This is why Serge is so brilliant, because all this absorption culminates in a form of pure poetry. I’m thinking of the novel’s “Chute” section, especially the first world war passages. Serge in his plane over enemy lines, flying above and below, marking the sky around him with these wonderful vapour trails while shooting up heroin and quoting Hölderlin, and so on. Where does all that come from? I know you’re interested in Marinetti’s manifestos.

TMcC: For Serge the whole battlefield becomes a sound box. He thinks of his machine gun, when he’s firing it into the trenches below, as like a needle being aligned with the groove of a record. When the needle goes in, static comes out, and it all resonates: the percussion of machine-gun fire, the siren wail of howitzers. The difference between Serge and Wilfred Owen is that Serge loves war. By the way, talking of Marinetti: it’s interesting that Marinetti’s novels, which supposedly enact the propositions of his many manifestos, are much less interesting than the manifestos. And the paintings that people did based on his manifestos are much less good as well. The manifestos are a kind of field of potentiality that to actually realise would spoil.

LR: You’ve stated recently that C is essentially a novel about desire as much as about technology, and the “looping” of both within time. This puts me in mind of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. This idea that technology doesn’t take you forwards into the future, but actually takes you back towards your past.

TMcC: When Beckett’s old man is listening to these old tapes of himself, what it actually comes down to is desire — it’s incredibly moving. He’s there at the end, the end of his life, he wants to stop replaying it, all the loopings, snarling “Wasn’t once enough?”; but he listens again and again and again to this incredibly lyrical passage that he’s recorded about 30 or 40 years ago about him floating in a punt, with a girl, and the water all around them, I mean, it’s fucking amazing, it’s really, really beautiful. This is it, you see: what we find in technology and networks is desire. Which doesn’t mean the desiring individual; it means desiring consciousness itself. That’s why I wanted Serge Carrefax to be more than an individual; if he was a circuit he’d be over-charged. The surge is too much, it blows. It’s about the desire for impossibility. Giorgio Agamben, when describing melancholia (which Serge has in spades), says that the condition isn’t at all a detachment from the world, even though it may seem like it; in fact it’s an investment in the world so much that the desire for the world exceeds its own limit. The melancholic wants what is impossible; he wants impossibility itself — to experience it and to merge with it. To surge towards it. That’s why the melancholic is the ultimate rebel.

LR: Is it a desire for the impossible, or nothingness, to become real? To become a tangible thing?

TMcC: No, I think it’s more than that. I mean Pygmalion gets that: he wants the statue and then it becomes real, and that’s cute. But take Orpheus looking back: he’s far more interesting. He doesn’t really want Eurydice, he wants the dark night. As Maurice Blanchot brilliantly points out, he wants death itself. Not to make the night illuminated or present, but to have it in its absence, to have the presence of absence, something that is impossible. It’s doomed, beautiful and tragic.

LR: This is Blanchot’s Orpheus’s Gaze

TMcC: Right. It’s an essay about five pages long and it’s the most amazing summary of what literature is, or could be, ever written. It’s not about representing the world, it’s not about criticising the world even. It’s about surrendering to a vertigo that can never be mastered, to an abyss that can never be commanded, or excavated or filled in.

LR: But you can leave your mark, right?

TMcC: Yeah, the scratch. Scratching the negative. That’s what artists do at their very best.

Potential Literature

On the Official Catalog of the Library of Potential Literature by Ben Segal and Erinrose Mager:

We are very excited to announce the coming existence of The Official Catalog of the Library of Potential Literature. The Catalog is to consist of a series of blurbs/short descriptions of books that do not exist. In order to compile that Catalog, we have asked many of the writers, theorists, and text-makers we most admire to imagine that they’ve just read the most amazing book they’ve ever encountered and then write a brief blurb about the imagined text.

As many of you know, The phrase ‘potential literature’ is highly associated with the Oulipo group. We choose to use the phrase here because, as the Oulipo says, their project, properly, is to conceptualize forms and potential works: not necessarily to bring them into being. Literature is potential literature when it is that shimmering non-work of total possibility. Though Official only by way of titular hyperbole (itself, like the blurbs contained within, a kind of unfulfilled and unfulfillable promise), the Catalog will evoke a library of wonderful — maybe even impossible — books; books that, in spite or even because of their non-existence, excite and fascinate. Each paragraph will be the promise of the unopened book in the moment before reading. […]

Libraries of Unpublished & Unwritten Books


Two interesting posts from Chris Flynn‘s Fly the Falcon blog:


“Brautigan Week Part 1: Library of Unpublished Books,” 19 October 2009

In 1970 Richard Brautigan released his novel The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966, which featured a library for unpublished books. Whilst an abortion does take place in the book, it is best remembered for the enticing prospect of a library that accepts single copies of books that have just been completed by their authors and that will never in all likelihood be published. The unnamed central character lives in the library with his girlfriend Vida in order to welcome authors at any time of the day or night and give them a chance to lodge their masterpiece.

Sadly Brautigan’s cult faded as the seventies progressed, leading to his eventual spiral into depression, alcohol and ultimately suicide in 1984. The idea of a library for unpublished books persisted though, and was taken up by photographer Todd R. Lockwood in 1990. The Brautigan Library was founded that year in Burlington, Vermont and opened its doors to unpublished manuscripts from around the United States. Much like the original in The Abortion, the library was manned by volunteers and supported by donations. Unlike the fictional library, which was secretly funded by an admiring millionaire, Lockwood’s venture struggled to stay afloat and in 1995 closed its doors. The collection of 325 manuscripts was taken in by the Fletcher Free Library in Burlington, where it remains to this day. Lockwood is still the caretaker of the books, although negotiations are under way for the library to be moved to Vancouver, in Southwestern Washington state.

The curator of online repository, John F. Barber, is working with Clark County Historical Society Museum to have the library moved to a permanent home in the Andrew Carnegie-designed Museum, which ironically bears a striking resemblance to the San Francisco Public Library on which the fictional library in The Abortion is based. Brautigan was born in Tacoma, a short drive away and published many of his early works just across the Columbia River in Portland. Barber has ambitious plans for the library and considering he is probably the nation’s foremost expert and fan of Brautigan, it seems correct that responsibility for it should fall to him.

As well as re-opening the library to unpublished manuscripts, perhaps more appropriately in digital format, Barber is also considering a National Unpublished Writer’s Day and a Brautigan symposium, with scholars and writers the world over descending on Vancouver for a veritable Brautigan-fest. As the San Francisco Sunday Examiner & Chronicle once famously said, “There is nothing like Richard Brautigan anywhere. Perhaps, when we are very old, people will write ‘Brautigans’, just as we now write novels. This man has invented a genre, a whole new shot, a thing needed, delightful, and right.”

“Brautigan Week Part 2: Library of Unwritten Books,” 20 October 2009

In continuation of my Richard Brautigan celebration week, today I’m looking at The Library of Unwritten Books, an extension of the Library of Unpublished Books seen on yesterday’s blog post. Two British artists, Caroline Jupp and Sam Brown, decided to take the idea one step further when they formed their library of unwritten books project in 1996. Jupp and Brown spent years recording informal conversations about ideas for books with random people in the street, in parks, at festivals and of course, in libraries. Often working with community groups, the homeless, housebound elderly, children excluded from school and on hospital wards, Jupp and Brown transcribed the recordings and converted the dialogues into pamphlet-style books, which were in turn distributed in specially-designed book boxes to community centres, doctor’s waiting rooms, cafés, Laundromats and galleries.

Currently standing at 761 titles, the collection will eventually be housed at The University of West Sussex Mass Observation Archive. This eclectic organisation was started in the 1930s and holds regular surveys on the opinions of ordinary people concerning such matters as what they fed their dog during wartime or their views on cellphones.

Jupp and Brown believe unwritten books are valid literary forms that deserve to be valued, irrespective of their potential worth as a published manuscript. In one interview a boy of seven confessed to hating fruit despite his parents determination he should eat some daily. He was persuaded to take a box of raisins to school every day, which he would duly bring home uneaten and hide in his toy box. After a year his mother discovered the mountain of raisins and he describes how his brother was jumping up and down gleefully shouting, “Make him eat them all now!” He wanted to recount his story for the library of unwritten books because he was ‘living proof that you can live without fruit!’

Richard Brautigan ended his life 25 years ago in 1984. His body was discovered on October 25th.