Thursday, August 17, 2006

Behind the mountain of prose

Sitting at the workdesk today, I realised it might seem glaringly contradictory to say, as I did on Tuesday, that I prefer narrators to orators. As I sat there, working away, I thought, who could narrate less than my favourite prose writer, Thomas Bernhard? Didn't he say it himself?
I'm not one of your cheerful straightforward authors. I don't go in for stories. Basically, I hate stories. I destroy stories. I'm your typical story spoilsport. In my work, if I find traces of a story beginning to take shape or, if somewhere in the distance, behind my mountain of prose, I spot the outline of a story emerging, I shoot it down.
And after all, it's why I love his novels to an almost ridiculous degree. But at the time, thinking about it, sitting at the workdesk, I couldn't rush to correct the impression given on Tuesday. So I was impatient for the time when I could.

Yet once that time arrived, I had already noticed that the new Kenyon Review Blog says I agree with Guy Dammann when he wrote that Gunter Grass' fiction is inseparable from his politics. Before I could do anything else, I felt it important to qualify this. Yet as comments are restricted to WordPress users, I couldn't qualify it there, so I have to do it here first, before anything else.

Rather than agree with Dammann, I said that perhaps in what little I have read of Grass, I had sensed the inseparability and that's why I hadn't been able to read on. Perhaps it reminded me too much of all those dreary State of the Nation novels so beloved of the intelligentsia. And Grass is certainly admired by the British intelligentsia. If pressed to mention an important European novelist, they always mention him and never Thomas Bernhard, whom they ignore in the way they ignore all great writers who don't fit in with their idea of what an important novelist does, i.e. write 800-page state of the fucking nation novels.

And while I am not drawn to Grass for that reason too, it's really also due to the sense he tells too many stories; there's too much imagination teeming down onto the page and over too many pages. All that metaphorical corporeality: the flounder, the rat, the snail, the cat and mouse. I much prefer an astringent, destructive aesthetic. Sitting at the workdesk today, I realised that too. The opposition isn't between narration and oration as such, it's between creation and destruction. While Bernhard and Appelfeld are very different writers, they do share a destructive impulse, to pare the superfluous from a narrative, perhaps in order for it to become a narrative in the first place, all the better to reveal the elementary rhythm behind the mountain of prose.

So I wanted to say that as soon as possible too, to correct the original impression as soon as possible and - the important thing! - to stop thinking about it. As soon as it was written down and separate from me, I knew it would leave me alone. The question then occurred to me, sitting at the workdesk, why should it do that?


  1. Anonymous3:06 pm

    Ah, my apologies. I'll correct the post.

  2. There was no need really Liz, but thanks.

    Just noticed your link to Daniel Johnson's open letter. I'm sure that'll provoke something from me.



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