Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Not merely illustrative

As usual in the library, I pick up novels and read the first few lines. What is it that attracts me? Almost invariably, I'm disappointed. The familiar introductions, the craftful scene setting, the usual plunge into another voice, another world with its own concerns, not mine. But isn't this what one reads novels for? Perhaps I'm disappointed in the novel as a form. That can’t be right though. There is no form to the novel. It’s novels not taking a form that often disappoints me.

Last week I picked up one recent novel with a single word title. It had stirred vague hope in me. I like one-word titles, perhaps because they suggest the book is the subject of the title rather than an excursion toward something else (which, in the end, is always only an allusion to arrival). But the narrative began like all the others. Evidentally the subject had no impact on the form of the novel. That was taken for granted.

Perhaps I prefer novels that cannot be written. If so, a library is probably not the best place to look for them. This must be why I hold Kafka close to me as an example. He wrote novels that could not be written. I’ve been a bit preoccupied with him lately, reading the 516 pages of Reiner Stach’s biography. I copied out the following paragraph before noticing that Michael Dirda has done it for me in his review.
[Kafka] demanded much more from his texts than formal unity; he sought a seamless linking of all motifs, images, and concepts. Beginning with The Judgement, he was generally able to achieve this unity in the stories he completed. These writings leave no narrative residues or blind alleys. Not one detail of Kafka’s descriptions, whether the color of a piece of clothing, a gesture, or simply the time of day, is merely illustrative. Everything carries meaning, refers to something, and recurs.
This is it. Not merely illustrative. (Along with his uncertainty in the world, this is what connects Kafka with Proust, a writer apparently inhabiting an entirely different universe).

Curiously, one might compare this with the detective novel. So why do I loathe that kind of book?


  1. Anonymous9:52 pm

    Maybe because Kafka & Co. are using these recurring motifs to point to something meaningful (or meaningless, depending), while mystery stories are just using those details to give 'whodunit' hints. The latter is simply an excercise, the former aims toward the ineffable.

  2. Anonymous9:00 pm

    Ah Steve, I think I love you.



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