Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Life: a reading experience

'The Reading Experience' would be an appropriate title to this, my half-response to Dan Green's latest in-depth post on the illustrious blog of the same name. He himself is responding to a (characteristically) long essay in The New Republic by James Wood (not online) about ‘the major struggle in American fiction today’, which is ‘over the question of realism’.

I’ve read both now and feel oddly unengaged by it all. Very little seems to be about what is important to me. In the past, I might have struggled to join in, concealing my ambivalence with uncertain assertions. Nowadays I’m inclined to follow my ambivalence.

In this case, I realise that when I read stories – and I include non-fiction such as Aharon Appelfeld’s memoir The Story of a Life, which I read recently – questions of realism and anti-realism are central to the experience. They cannot be separate from what fiction is. To come down in favour of one or the other would destroy literature.

In a recent blog, I expressed a certain mild distress reading Appelfeld’s book. He describes terrible things that really happened - in the chapter in question, how a distraught child was caught up in a transport to a death camp. Yet I read the book as fiction. I didn’t mean to read it as fiction; it’s just that I couldn’t quite comprehend its reality. My distress was mainly a result of this rather than at the facts of the story.

While at first this seemed to be a cruel abandonment adding to that described in the chapter, I realised that what made it so powerful was the story’s repetition in the book; a repetition without echo, without recourse to closure, let alone justice.

For this reason, the part of the debate that stood out to me was when Dan quotes Wood’s use of non-realist fiction in his argument for a humane (and thereby) realistic fiction: "Kafka's Metamorphosis and Hamsun's Hunger and Beckett's Endgame are not representations of likely or typical human behavior; but they draw their power, in part, from their connection to the human."

“Well, of course they do. How could they do otherwise?” Dan says, rightly, but as he knows, it’s only half-right. They draw their power equally from the non-human; they engage with it rather than evade it in false oppositions. The ‘major struggle’, therefore, is really very limited; too parochial (like most things in US culture it seems, captured in Wood's unconscious limiting of 'American fiction' to one part of a massive continent).

When one reads, one is confronted by the disjunction between the mental construct of words on a page and the world – a disjunction that might just be everything. The struggle with that possibility is real.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous8:03 am

    You are right. But the critics dialogue makes it seem like Fiction is some given literary form, when it is historically a refined function of language itself. Language has a material, transhistorical being, and the writer fashions his work always in the present out of what he gets to work with. Communication is entirely a secondary effect, no matter how intellectuals try to abstractly frame it. Or explain their preferences.



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