Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Monday, September 27, 2004

The necessary distraction: on literary snobbery

In an interview on BBC TV last week, the author Frank Delaney spoke of his hatred of literary snobbery. "I hate it with an abiding passion" he said squirming in a leather armchair. This was prompted by a question about the inspiration for his new "ambitious" book Ireland: a novel. Apparently, Delaney's literary agent had suggested that he become Ireland’s James A Michener. A publisher had expressed interest in the project and - Paddy's your uncle - the book was written. The interviewer wondered (and I'm paraphrasing from poor memory) if this was the move of someone with an eye on the main chance rather than an artistic vision. Delaney was dismissive of the question. "I am a professional writer!" he insisted. "I am at my desk at nine in the morning. I work until one and then from two-thirty until eight." (That’s a long lunch break!). He went on to explain that he writes books for a market and that he hates those who look down on such a profession. Just because a book is aimed at a wide public audience, he said, it doesn't follow that it is of no literary worth. It is difficult to argue with that. How often is a backstory ("Twenty years in the making", "Turned down by 743 publishers", "the last work he ever wrote", and the most contemptuous of the lot: "award-winning") intrinsic to the reception of a work? Why should any of this be relevant? The work is everything. Yet Delaney's words had troubled me.

He didn't say who these snobs were. I got the impression that everyone is meant to know who they are. But I don't know who they are (they tend not to appear on opinion-making TV shows, that's for sure). Who scorns mercenary writing? It can't be me as I earn my living, albeit nominally, by writing. From nine to five-thirty, I click keyboard and mouse (with only an hour for lunch). Admittedly, creating sentences is only a part of it and is distinguishable from every other writer in the company only in its elegance, precision and clarity (don't laugh). However, I don't regard it as literature. It is hack work.

This is not to say that writing borne of necessity can never be a literary achievement. It can. I would go far as to claim that external pressure is necessary for such a work. This pressure can take many forms. For example, Michael Hofmann reports that when the stroke that afflicted his father Gert Hofmann left him unable to read, his wife read his manuscripts aloud to him and he changed them aloud too. This has led to a marked change in his father's late novels: "The sentences and paragraphs are shorter" he writes, "the confrontations more present, the scenes seem to ghost in and out, a bigger role falls to diction, to heckles and interjections, to personality." This is part of what makes Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl a special modern novel.

Necessity's absence is invariably detrimental. When a work has no reason to be completed, it can go on forever: think of Joyce's Finnegans Wake or Harold Brodkey's The Runaway Soul. These were two works so in thrall to the garrulousness of language that completion was really only ever an uncertain abandonment. Perhaps not coincidentally, the fame of each book was probably greater before publication.

Failure and disappointment is inevitable. A literary work is by definition a containment; like Delaney's working hours, there are limits. I can sit at a writing desk all day - literally all day – and write a lot. Something is produced (here it is), but it is always inadequate. Concentrating on the sentences leads me astray. The initial inspiration has been coerced into the familiar territory of critical discourse. I want to write something completely different.

Only leaving the desk can return me to the work. I leave it to seek the great idea that comes to me as the kettle boils, for example, or the sudden sense of possibility as I heave sacks of rubbish onto the pavement ready for collection. I want to be distracted from distraction by distraction. Indeed, this is how I came to this conclusion about Delaney's attitude. As I returned dry plates and mugs to the cupboard, I realised that his commitment to hard and regular work is what feels me with misgivings. While trying to exceed the limits might seem to be "ambitious", it is, instead, merely a form of bad faith. Here, the denial is that of one's lack of freedom.

As I put the knives and forks and spoons in the drawer, I realised (again) that my impulse to transcend my own writing futility was the problem, not the futility itself. All I needed to do, instead, was to seek distraction in the work itself; to make the futility work for me. That’s all. A wonderful sense of possibility returned as soon as I thought that.

Now what fills me with dread is Delaney's professionalism. Distraction becomes the work. Each long day at the desk, and the work’s "ambitious" historical scope, seems to be a means of bypassing the resistance of literature, to exclude its energising force from the work. This in turn perpetuates the myth that literature is a craft to be learnt and, until you have learned it and gained the respect of the moneymen and their public, you're not a serious author. Literature is just another branch of our corporate world; it exists only within working hours. Such is the true face of literary snobbery.

It is no coincidence that Delaney failed to include anything by Samuel Beckett in his list of top ten Irish novels; the one great modern Irish novelist who unlearned the craft of literature (he had to) in order to write.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

The poetry of narrative: on Banville's Shroud

I have strong resistance to the opening paragraphs of novels. All novels. Non-fiction is different. In non-fiction, there is a set of rules that are the usual rules of communication; one accepts them as one accepts the rules in order to listen and to speak. I speak, you speak. That is clear enough. Nausea arises here only in what is communicated, not how. The rules with fiction are more problematic. Who speaks? Why speak? How speak?

Without an answer, there is something unpleasant in assenting to an artificial imperative, the assertion of a particular vision; the focus on one thing and not another. Unpleasant like the faint nausea of the initial stutter and sharp turns of a car journey.

Example: I have just read John Banville’s Shroud because of Mark Sarvas’ enthusiasm at The Elegant Variation. It’s a novel narrated in part by Axel Vander, a composite character based on the lives of infamous critical theorists Paul de Man and Louis Althusser, both shadowed by scandal: de Man for his pre-War fascist journalism, and Althusser for murdering his wife. Vander is confronted with potential exposure:

The name, my name, is Axel Vander, on that much I insist. That much, if no more. Her letter was delivered to me one morning a world ago in the pleasant town of Arcady by a helmed and goggled Hermes on a bike. The message it carried was one I had been waiting for and dreading all my life, what I think of as my life, my real life.

The prose is seductive. But those words: helmed and goggled; they made me slightly nauseous. Eventually though, one gets used to the exiquisite articulacy and, one might say, the poetry of the prose. As a reader, one is enriched. But is such language necessary?

Recently a philosopher with a profound interest in literature suggested to me that there is mileage in thinking about the difference between the way we tell another person about a poem and the way we tell another about a novel. If you were asked to describe, say, Larkin’s This be the Verse, you would most likely recite the lines, whereas with Shroud, you would summarise the narrative; at least, you wouldn’t recite the novel! So, to call the latter’s prose 'poetic', as it undoubtedly is, and which not one of Banville’s admirers would deny, suggests that its language is inherent to its achievement, and that one merely has to point to certain mots juste to confirm its novelistic worth. But of course, that would be wrong. So what is this novel's achievement?

In order to answer this, I need to note two other books. When the recent Man Booker longlist was announced, I registered the titles and noticed Nadeem Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers waiting in pristine condition on the library shelves. So I picked it up and read the opening page. It was like bingeing on Christmas cake. Amazon’s customers attest to its 'beautiful language', and one even calls it a 'gorgeous poem of a novel'. One line on the first page refers to the 'xylophone' of a jetty, which is certainly effective in conjuring the presence of the object, but when every sentence contains such poetry, it is stupefying. Usually, I say that what I love in novels is not the anticipation of finding out what happened next but the abidance in the tension between the poetry of the moment and the urgency of the narrative. Writing that eschews cliché can be refined for eternity. There is no forward momentum and, therefore, no tension. No wonder Aslam took eleven years to write the novel; he’s one person who couldn’t put it down!

In the G-H section of the library, there was another recent favourite of Mark’s in the library: Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire. Buoyed by the success of the Banville, I was keen to see what this novel was like. I was surprised by the traditional mode of narration; the prose is conventional, unsurprising, not ostentatiously poetic. Much as I wanted to read it, the prospect felt like a long, predictable journey.

So how does Banville’s novel navigate by the Scylla and Charybdis represented by these two novels? He does it from the very beginning.

Who speaks? It is her voice, in my head. I fear it will not stop until I stop. It talks to me as I haul myself along these cobbled streets, telling me things I do not want to hear.

This is how Axel Vander begins his complex story. The question of narration is part of the narrative itself. Who is compelling him to tell his story? Vander’s fancy prose style is what you might expect from a possible murderer. As readers, we’re ‘helmed and goggled’ by the prose. Vander’s contradictory impulses, to conceal and to reveal (to blind us with insight) are not exposed as a failing but revealed as inherent to speech. Banville’s achievement is to make the questions who, why and how resonate in every sentence and propel the narrative forward. This is how poetry inheres in a novel.

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