Saturday, May 21, 2005

Catching the truth: an oblique and Spurious angle on the LBC "controversy"

Lars of Spurious is back from California and, as he recovers from jetlag in England's autumnal prelude to Summer, has been writing some soaring blog entries. The latest quotes Gabriel Josipovici's very short preface to Aharon Appelfeld’s 1984 novel The Retreat, in which he compares a passage from the novel in question with a passage from Graham Greene. The first describes the relationship of two inhabitants of the retreat, the second is a description of a similar retreat in an unspecified novel.

Appelfeld: For two months the quarrel between them had raged. Now all that was left was an echo, not lacking in sharpness, however. The storm refused to subside.

Greene: The place reminded her of a seedy hotel, yellowing mirrors in the bathroom, broken toilet bowls and dripping taps, where the chambermaids spoke in impertinent voices and the doormen reached out to them with their big strong hands.

Superficially, there isn't a great deal of difference between the two. But Josipovici is the kind of critic who can hear the difference and thereby help us hear it too.

The peculiar quality of [Appelfeld's] writing stems, I think, from the fact that what at first looks purely neutral description turns out to be description which is, in fact, striving to be neutral. We hear a voice telling a story; it is not the voice of an impersonal narrator but neither is the voice of [the characters]. Rather, it is one possible voice, with which they recount their story to themselves as much as to others, a voice which both accepts and refuses to accept what life has done to its owner, and which discovers what it wants to say.

He goes on: Appelfeld can say so much so briefly and simply because he recognises that life does not stand still, waiting to be described. We have to catch it as it flies past.

By contrast, the other passage has innumerable superficially similar [descriptions] that litter the novels of a writer like Greene.

Josipovici then makes the decisive observation: A novelist like Greene is always out to make an effect; his eye is on the reader. Appelfeld, by contrast, is trying to catch the truth: his eye is on the object.

Lars has some good things to say in response to this deceptively simple point. However, I need to point out the difference between "literary" fiction and the "mainstream" that emerges from such analysis. The former strives for the truth and a form with which to catch it. The latter has both truth and form already and wonders what all the fuss is about ("obscure and experimental novels" beware). In the mainstream, rather than a striving for truth, there is an assertion of subjective truth, as seen in Greene's novel.

Perhaps this has something to do with the individualistic assumptions inherent to American nationalism that so dominates discourse, as it was earlier to those in the British Empire. It's of unfortunate necessity that the litblog co-op - which aims to promote one particular novel every quarter that it feels is being neglected - is limited to US litblogs. If this assertive tendency is predominant it will likely skew the aesthetic and ethical nature of their choice. And, with its first choice, so it has. It might be relevant that it elides on the website the fact that it is solely US American.

And the fact is, there is no literary mainstream, no matter what the more innocent of its herd say.


  1. Anonymous10:20 pm

    Actually, the Literary Salon is a UK blog.

    Also, if there is no literary mainstream then why were you criticizing Atkinson as too mainstream to be an LBC pick?

  2. If the Literary Saloon is British, then how come it's involved when we (RSB and I) were told it was a US only by the person who set it up?

    I didn't say Atkinson is "too mainstream", I said it was not a literary novel and I assumed, when I heard about it from the person who set it up, the LBC was picking literary novels rather than mainstream regulars.

  3. Anonymous12:32 am

    Regarding the Lit Saloon, I think that it actually is a U.S.-based blog, so I withdraw my comment on that.

    Based on some of your comments, I'd thought you were conflating "not literary" with "mainstream." I guess not. I still maintain that there is an identifiable literary mainstream, but if you disagree, that's fine.

    I don't think we're picking mainstream regulars, and I don't regard Atkinson as mainstream. As to her literary qualifications, I believe her novel is literary. Sorry that you don't agree, but we're picking another book 4 months from now so hopefully that will be more to your liking. Also, in the upcoming weeks we'll be hearing from LBC members who did not like Case Histories, as well as from members who will be extolling the other nominees. We're trying to generate conversation around this book, so I hope to see you arguing your case then.

  4. Anonymous2:02 pm

    I'd be careful Scott if I were you, Steve, can get rather shirty if you don't agree with him.

    And by the way I always thought that Literary Saloon was american. Very much in the same line as, when they were black and white and wrote about books.

  5. Anonymous4:52 pm

    Heck, I'd be up for a European equilavent if we could get enough qualified blogs involved. Then we could select Jonathan Safran Foer.

  6. "Then we could select Jonathan Safran Foer."


    That was a joke, wasn't it?

  7. Anonymous6:56 pm

    Doesn't Dave Eggers have a new book out soon? He's terribly overlooked too.



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