Monday, March 30, 2009

The space of possibility

Every critic is really a woman at the critical age, spiteful and repressed.
              Cesare Pavese, Diaries 1937.
OK, Pavese has a regrettably incorrect opinion of the most oppressed members of society, but isn't he unfair to women too?

Anyway, the critic side of me regrets the dismissive comments left on Garth Risk Hallberg's long post on Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones and the first of Andrew Seal's superb posts on the same novel. (The latter's second is particularly good even without the opening reference). However, despite this, the regret has been a factor in enabling me to 1) avoid commenting on Ed Champion's terminal confirmation of what we've long suspected (what does it tell us about the value of print reviewing that Andrew Seal wrote his review for nothing?) and 2) to isolate the critical impulse driving my reviews and, thereby, the spite of the comments, something which might also be placed under "repressed". The other factor was listening to Sebastian Faulks on Desert Island Discs on Sunday morning. So the rest of this will try to distill it into boring discourse.

The Kindly Ones is perhaps the first novel I have read and felt the need to write about before any hype kicked in. Had it been another, quieter publication, such as Tao Lin's Eeeee Eee Eeee or Thomas Glavinic's Night Work, then the review itself would have been enough. All three novels, however different and however removed from the vicious modernist circle familiar to this blog, prompted long attention because they opened a space making narrative possible, even necessary. Or, to put it another way, the space became palpable only through writing like this. Each review was an attempt to make this space clear and thereby to ease future readers into a different kind of reading than that practised elsewhere.

In Maximilien Aue's case, it is the space that, in crude terms, has opened between life and death. He becomes able to speak because he has escaped the vengeance of the Furies but can tell his story only under the threat of their return. Or perhaps the narrative is the vengeance itself and, by writing, Aue is trying to escape into life or death. Either way, the novel offers an example of how to write from within a particular predicament. Rather than falling into generic means, the form and dynamic of the narrative emerge from the particulars of the case. It is why The Kindly Ones moves between, among other forms, bureaucratic prose and dream-like reverie; not because it enables the author to display his mastery - though it does that too - but because it is necessary to the narrative. The Kindly Ones is, as Beckett said of Finnegans Wake, not about something, it is that something itself. It should be read accordingly.

In a similar way, Eeeee Eee Eeee emerges from the breach between possibility and actuality and, because of that, can be read as the gleeful or distressed cry of fiction itself. And, to move on swiftly, in Night Work, sleep is the Kindly One taking its revenge by disrupting the protagonist's solipsism, which is also the solipsism of the novel. In each case, an existential predicament becomes one with the form of the novel; they are inseparable. And, for this reason, they cannot be regarded as a solution or as a cure. When such a space is opened, reading for me becomes more gripping than a generic thriller, more emancipatory than narratives borne on identity politics and more fun than a comedic romp. The space becomes one's own possibility. What then upsets me about the reviews and prompts me to comment so bitterly is that I sense this space is being close down, obscured by ephemeral discussions of extra-literary morality and genre nit picking. Away from this, one can begin to imagine writers to come inspired to produce the kind of work that exceeds the limits offered by a few sops to verisimilitude, fashion and contemporary mores.

Which brings me to listening to Sebastian Faulks on Desert Island Discs. When he spoke about his writing career, I recognised how alien this space is to English novelists. So why did I bother to listen? Perhaps because the peculiarly saccharine sentimentality of the English middle class continues to fascinate me. (One also sees it in the films of Anthony Minghella). Why is there such reverence for 3-for-2 novels and such contempt for real writers unless long dead? (It's why I'm also fascinated by Dove Grey Reader, the Leni Riefenstahl of Richard & Judy's Britain.)

Faulks seemed troubled only in the ostensible subject matter. He spoke about the inspiration for Birdsong. The form was a given. Listening, I felt the same queasiness that rises when viewing those many creative writing websites offering tips for developing ideas, for keeping abreast of one's characters and for producing realistic dialogue. Faulks has mastered these techniques and now it was only a question of producing another volume before escaping to the holiday home in France. As he also alluded to a certain post-religious Humanism, I wondered if writing melodramas about world-shattering events is a means of neutralising them much as the massacres of Afghan civilians by Christian rockets is neutralised by the euphemisms of BBC journalism. Is this healthy? If nothing else, the question should be where writing begins.


  1. I bought and read Night Work specifically because you recommended it here. It was a gripping read, all the more so since not very much happens. I'm very much interested in this idea of form/theme/narrative all operating symbiotically. And, as you say, it's the antithesis of the sort of realism of much of today's Anglo-American literary fiction. I didn't know that line of Beckett's about Finnegans Wake, but it does get to the heart of how I feel, ie that literature is not a mirror held up to life, rather it's an experience in itself. Fictional narratives are always in some respects like real life narratives, but in the end what is interesting is the ways in which they are different, not the same.

    (I had a strange serendipitous experience reading Night Work. I was actually listening to a Stereolab album when I got to the part where the protagonist visits a building in England. Glavinic quotes the names by the buzzers at the entrance. They include T.Gane and L.Sadier. Who are the songwriters from Stereolab. What all this means I have no idea.)

  2. Thanks Hugo. I didn't notice the buzzer names though I've met Lætitia about 10 years ago. (She tried to stop me walking into a roadsign that night, but failed and I cut my head).

    The Beckett quote is from p27 of Disjecta in the essay "Dante ... Vico ... Bruno ... Joyce".

  3. Anonymous12:53 pm

    Well said.

  4. Anonymous4:19 pm

    Ah, bless you Stephen, there you are again, I can see you are addicted to that fresh Devon air and keep coming back for more, though we've told you before it just doesn't suit you. But yes I can report there is a real world out here and a lot of us are living in it, though heaven knows how we manage with half a brain:-)

  5. Dear Stephen,

    This is Tao Lin. I started a press last year, and have just released the first book from it: of which I would like to mail you a copy. (Can't find your email). If you are interested email me your address (binky.tabby [at] and I will happily mail you a copy.


    Tao Lin

    PS: Really enjoyed and appreciated your review of EEE a few years ago.

  6. Anonymous8:21 am

    Leni Riefenstahl? That's the first time I've seen a book blogger attract such opprobrium!

    Did you know you can watch the whole of Triumph des Willens on YouTube?



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