Jeff Bursey, Rev. of [SIC], by Davis Schneiderman, The Quarterly Conversation 10 March 2014

In 2011 Andrew Gallix, in the Guardian, wrote a piece on unread difficult books, and he mentioned “an anthology of blank books [edited by Michael Gibbs] entitled All Or Nothing.” We can consider Blank as continuing that line. Kenneth Goldsmith’s prefatory essay “Why Conceptual Writing? Why Now?” in Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (2011) contains these useful lines: “What has happened in the past fifteen years has forced writers to conceive of language in ways unthinkable just a short time ago. With an unprecedented onslaught of the sheer quantity of language . . . , the writer faces the challenge of exactly how best to respond.” In volume one of his trilogy, Schneiderman edged near to muteness, but in [SIC] he has positioned himself, the work, and us in a new spot. His latest book is filled with words. None of them are his.

The Other Novel

David Winters, “Like Sugar Dissolving: On The End of the Story by Lydia Davis,” The Quarterly Conversation 35 (March 2014)

… In The End of the Story, and arguably across Davis’ stories more broadly, the composition of a fictional form coincides, at all times, with the preservation of “something not formed.” After all, any closed circle’s circumference still opens up a continuous curve. Closure and openness, answers and questions, fixity and infinity: to these unsettled oppositions we could also add the “written” and its counterpart, the “unwritten.” Thus, the novel that Davis’ narrator writes is itself encircled, like any novel, by a halo of hypothetical, unfinished books. In this way, the written work retains an internal relation to an idealized, unwritten other:

I’m afraid I may realize after the novel is finished that what actually made me want to write it was something different, and that it should have taken a different direction. But by then I will not be able to go back and change it, so the novel will remain what it is and the other novel, the one that should have been written, will never be written.

Late in his life, in a series of lectures inspired by his own unwritten novel, Roland Barthes examined Mallarmé’s distinction between the “Album” and the “Book.” The Book, argued Barthes, aspires to perfection — it aims to provide an accurate “representation of the universe, homologous to the world.” To create such an artwork would be to reflect “the totality of reality and history, from the perspective of transcendence.” The Album, by contrast, remains rooted within reality, rather than striving to stand outside it. The world as rendered by the Album is incomplete and chaotic; “not-one, not-ordered, scattered, a pure interweaving of contingencies, with no transcendence.” Needless to say, neither Barthes nor Mallarmé crudely confuses these two entities with actual literary texts. The binary is not taxonomical but conceptual; the push and pull between these two poles shapes the production of literary works. On the one hand, the Album and all its manifestations: the fragment, the essay, the unfinished effort. On the other, the Book and its corollaries: the summa, the opus, the completed oeuvre.

The Nothingness Lying Behind It

David Winters, “Transparency by Marek Bieńczyk,” The Quarterly Conversation 28 (4 June 2012)

[…] Bieńczyk’s concern is with “the connections between transparency and the expressible.” The time he covers spans from Aristotle (for whom, as he quotes, “there is only transparency,” as an underlying reality) to the present, where science has superseded such notions, yet where they’re nevertheless necessary, “since the heart of man changes more slowly than the world.” An archetypally heartfelt expression comes from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in whose Confessions Bieńczyk discerns a desire for transparent speech; for a clear voice which would make the soul perfectly present to itself:

Rousseau believed that the heart of man could speak . . . he saw how language could become a transparent medium for the will of speech, for everything that wishes to be expressed . . . with no secrets and no depths to be fathomed or understood.

[…] But Bieńczyk’s literary history touches on another tradition, which unites an assortment of writers under the sign of

the shared striving for pure light in their texts, their striving for emptiness, for silence . . . their abandoning of the real, the concrete, the perceptible, the living, in favour of the motionless, the fading, the falling silent.

Such striving can be both formal and thematic — as in Beckett, for instance (whom Bieńczyk doesn’t discuss) or Barthes or Blanchot (whom he does). As a theme, it’s best represented by the Polish novelist Andrzej Stasiuk, whose books describe “landscapes with minimal human activity.” Stasiuk focuses on a world where “life has either not gotten going, or has already been extinguished.” Here transparency is, as in Aristotle, “the idea organizing the cosmos” — it sits in the background, the field on which existence occurs. But beyond this, Bieńczyk reminds us, there are writers who treat transparency in terms of textual form. This brings to mind Beckett’s letter to Axel Kaun, which likens language to “a veil one has to tear apart in order to get to . . . the nothingness lying behind it.” Bieńczyk’s lineage links several figures whose language “flirts with silence,” from Chateaubriand to Joubert. In each, he highlights an impulse he calls “negative idealism.” Yet this phrase doesn’t denote mere nihilism. Like the melancholic upward gaze, transparency here reaches beyond a quiet acceptance of the real. After all, as Bieńczyk avers, “if life has its own utopia, perhaps nothingness does too.” […]