Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The secret of the work

I would take issue with the final sentence of Henry Hitchings’ review of Paul Auster’s The Brooklyn Follies if I knew what it meant. '[I]t will' he says 'surprise his fans, who expect from him a much more teasingly cerebral brand of fiction.' It’s unclear to me what is ‘teasingly cerebral’ about his other novels, though Hitchings seems to equate it with the 'paranoid kind of contemporary angst' to which he says The Brooklyn Follies is 'an enjoyable corrective'.

What I liked about Oracle Night - and I liked it a lot - is that it included the abandonment of a particularly compelling narrative. As a reader, it was hard to take at first. But there was something oddly pleasurable about it too; a nagging in the back of the mind that sought a resolution while also not really wanting one. While the other threads were developed and resolved, leaving one rather exhausted and peculiarly unsatisfied, this one remained outstanding, haunting the reader's memory.

Hitchings draws attention to a similar frustration that appears in The Brooklyn Follies:

Halfway through the novel, we are treated … to an anecdote about Kafka. During the final year of his life, when he was living in Berlin, Kafka apparently liked to go for an afternoon walk in the park. One day he happened to meet a young girl who was distraught at having lost her doll. To cheer her up, Kafka explained that the doll ‘has gone off on a trip’. As evidence, for the next three weeks he produced every day a letter written by the doll. In time, the little girl stopped missing her plaything: ‘She has the story, and when a person is lucky enough to live inside a story, to live inside an imaginary world, the pains of this world disappear. For as long as the story goes on, reality no longer exists’. This sums up the moral of The Brooklyn Follies: storytelling binds us together, and is a bulwark against personal grief.

The irony is that we don’t have those letters, so the only story that can bind us together is the retelling of the legend of the letters; an irony that Hitchens doesn’t pick up on. Too cerebral perhaps.

The absence of the letters is bearable, certainly more bearable than the loss to the Gestapo of the manuscripts owned by Dora Diamant, with whom Kafka was living in Berlin when he wrote the doll letters (see Kafka’s Last Love for the full story). Yet how can one comprehend such a loss? If we could, the manuscripts would become unnecessary, dispensable. This confirms to me the sense that such unfillable voids are necessary to the experience of reading and writing. It is the secret all readers and writers know. It's not only the work in itself we enjoy. There's something else too. Before I’ve never been able to express it. It’s a secret after all. Then I read this passage from Will Large’s new book Emmanuel Levinas and Maurice Blanchot: Ethics and the Ambiguity of Writing in which he summarises - with characteristic clarity - the concept of ‘the book to come’ in the collection with the same name:

In The Book to Come, Blanchot writes that what is beyond the work is the very reality of the work, since the force of the attraction which seems to carry the reader outside of the work, as though it were a matter of verifying the status of the work in the external world, which is somehow meant to stand outside of the effect of words, is in fact the very movement which impels the reader towards its centre, to ‘the secret of itself’.

It's this compelling dual movement we enjoy. For others, such as Henry Hitchens, reality is a bulwark against the universal grief at this secret of the work.

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