Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Addicted to books: on despair and escape

What does it mean to be addicted to books? I remember hearing Anthony Burgess saying he read everything, from the recipes on the labels of Lea & Perrins bottles to Jackie Collins and onto the most complex treatise on language. Why do I remember this? I’m sure it isn’t only trivia clogging up the mind. Perhaps it’s one of those things that helps you to determine something about yourself. I don’t read everything. I am not addicted to reading. Burgess spoke of it as a curious and rather pleasant affliction over which happily he had no control. We often hear certain writers' works described as addictive. It’s not meant to be taken seriously, but there is something in it.

Elsewhere I have mentioned the nausea I have felt reading a compulsive storyline. One cannot turn the pages fast enough, and yet, when the denouement is reached, there is very little satisfaction. There is only the room behind the book spinning and a wish for something more. I suppose that usually this would be another book.

There is something despairing in this cycle.

At first it might seem ironic, but I’m sure somebody has described Thomas Bernhard’s novels as ‘wickedly addictive’. If they haven't, it wouldn't be inaccurate to say it. But what distinguishes his novels from sauce bottles and Jackie Collins and treatise on language is that the despair cascading through them is recognised. It is part of the compelling narrative. We become addicted to Franz-Josef Murau’s delaying tactics as he avoids facing his past and future. Despair becomes the main content of the novel to the point where it is painfully obvious and painfully funny. It is 'wickedly addictive', yes, but one cannot escape the implications of that addiction. Reading Bernhard is thus far more pleasurable (to me at least) because one begins to see a way out of the ever-decreasing circles of despair.

The allusion to Dante’s Inferno is perhaps more than fortuitous.

It can help me to clarify a comment in a previous post in which I said that I prefer literary fiction over genre because engages me ‘at the deepest level’. This engagement might take place in the way literary fiction includes itself in the logic of its narrative (and thereby becomes literary). In doing so, it recognises (unless it’s done in an arch, postmodern way) the despair in the acts of reading and writing. This offers the possibility of a way out of addiction: a more realistic form of escape. The engagement would then be to include oneself in relation to the narrative. We might go places, as Dante did. Where, for him, faith in God was the key, for us it is perhaps to have more faith in art.

2 comments:

  1. unless it's done in an arch, postmodern way

    There are undoubtedly examples of "postmodern" writing that also refrain from this arch, of course.

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  2. Yes, of course. I guess it's how one defines it. Bernhard has been labelled postmodern though I would still say he was Modernist. For me, postmodernism is merely the negative of the positive of Romanticism that led to Modernism - which is both negative and positive.

    ReplyDelete

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