Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A question: do you really have an interest in novels?

I ask because, when happening upon websites for budding writers recommending craft laxatives to ease the passage of a trapped bestseller, you realise a cold, alien world. In the presence of expertise, you assure yourself that you have no interest in plot, no interest in protagonists, no interest in major themes, no interest in dialogue, in clothing, in colours or in descriptions of any kind. You have no interest in the chronology of events, no interest in a cast of characters, no interest in anyone's tone of voice, in linguistic verve or in graphic accounts of a controversial nature, and you say you wish only ever to avoid dramatic situations. What's more, you have no interest in shifts of tone, in register, in settings, in scenes, in twists, in revelations or insights into the human condition, and the prospect of a well-written, page-turning, award-winning novel, one which tackles an important social issue, stimulates in you only grief. Yet still you read novels. Why?

Metaphors are one among many things which make me despair of writing. Writing's lack of independence of the world, its dependence on the maid who tends the fire, on the cat warming itself by the stove; it is even dependent on the poor old human being warming himself by the stove. All these are independent activities ruled by their own laws; only writing is helpless, cannot live in itself, is a joke and despair.

So, mastering the craft obscures writing's helplessness, except you didn't mention metaphor, perhaps because it is the unextended mode of allegory, and you're interested in allegory, aren't you? Metaphor casts flickering light on dependence while heightening singularity and presence with borrowed meaning, while allegory hypostatises metaphor, is a sun burning through stained glass. That's why you cite Kafka, isn't it? Yet the vast majority of readers and writers know that writing's helplessness is its greatest strength; it's a miraculous window on the world where no window would otherwise exist. Metaphor refines our vision and makes writing not only helpful but necessary to illuminate, to separate and to connect. Otherwise, without writing, while the world would stand before us plain as day, we would see only universal night. And anyway, Kafka despairs of writing in his diary, a wastebasket for words slung into the air last thing in the evening, words he never dreamed would be published. He published contra despair. Kafka is right only if you resist connections, fixate upon isolation ("I'm much worse than Kaspar Hauser. I'm as lonely as ... as Franz Kafka") and ignore the foundations of your very ability to despair. You can't bypass the paradox by satisfying a sententious reality hunger by, say, dispensing with craft to write a novel in the form of an inventory. 

In the left-hand corner of the room there is a large modern armchair made of a huge hemisphere of steel-ringed Plexiglass on a chromed metal base. Beside it an octagonal block of marble serves as a low table; a steel cigarette lighter stands on it, as does a cylindrical pot-holder from which there emerges a dwarf oak tree, one of those Japanese bonsai plants whose growth has been so controlled, arrested, and altered that they show all the symptoms of maturity and even of old age without having grown at all, and about which growers say that their perfection depends less on the material care given to them than on the concentrated quality of meditation devoted to them. Lying directly on the light-coloured woodblock floor, slightly to the front of the armchair, is a wooden jigsaw puzzle of which virtually all the edges have been assembled. In the lower right-hand third of the jigsaw some additional pieces have been put in place: they depict the oval face of a sleeping girl, whose blonde hair is would in plaits around her head and held over her forehead by a double band of plaited cloth; she leans her cheek on her cupped right hand as if in her dream she were listening to something.
This is from Georges Perec's novel Life: A User's Manual and is a description of Madame de Beaumont's rooms at 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier. Not quite an inventory. The painstaking procession of detail is unusually objective for a novel, yet, because it appears in a novel, cannot be read objectively, free of context. We cannot help but hear each object sing in the absence of Madame de Beaumont. Although Life: A User's Manual isn't like genre fiction, our un-novel expectations remain in place and we read the passage as if it were from a crime thriller in which evidence of an event or the guilt or innocence of a character lurks behind each word. Our attention is held only in expectation. However, here, because there is no genre, the plot has no soil. Nothing grows. This is why you cannot read Perec's novel without soon being invaded by a profound melancholy, the words used by Proust to describe the imperfect indicative: "that cruel tense which portrays life to us as something at once ephemeral and passive, which, in the very act of retracing our actions, reduces them to an illusion, annihilating them in the past without leaving us with the consolation of activity". Through Perec's cool eye, while the objects do suggest activity, they appear eternal and passive, annihilated by independence. And while Proust's melancholy arose from storytelling sentences – "Nothing about her at that time recalled … She was a small woman whose figure had somewhat collapsed beneath her weight..." – that are all too familiar to modern readers, here annihilation is unforced, natural, rather than assumed by a careless author. The overall effect of Perec's teeming fictions is double edged – full of activity and possibility yet at the same time emptying, threatening to envelope the world in narrativeless darkness. (This compilation of Google Street View images does something very similar.)

So writing relies on the world's guarantee for the metaphors you believe – Kafka believed – lack independence and are parasitic on the world, but that our faith in the world's independence is itself a metaphor, otherwise we wouldn't see it. Every time we proclaim a reality beyond words, in despair or in delight, we take refuge in a literary convention and thereby re-affirm the world's dependence. This is why Kafka wrote as two people, part of the world and banished from it, and why his stories are both absolutely lucid and unfathomable. Let us read into this relation.
Once I projected a novel in which two brothers fought each other, one of whom went to America while the other remained in a European prison. I only now and then began to write a few lines, for it tired me at once. So once I wrote down something about my prison on a Sunday afternoon when we were visiting my grandparents and had eatch an especially soft kind of bread, spread with butter, that was customary there. It is of course possible that I did it mostly out of vanity, and by shifting the paper about on the tablecloth, tapping with my pencil, looking around under the lamp, wanted to tempt someone to take what I had written from me, look at it, and admire me. It was chiefly the corridor of the prison that was described in the few lines, above all its silence and coldness; a sympathetic word was also said about the brother who was left behind, because he was the good brother. Perhaps I had a momentary feeling of the worthlessness of my description, but among relatives to whom I was accustomed, I sat at the round table in the familiar room and could not forget that I was young and called to great things out of this present tranquility. An uncle who liked to make fun of people finally took the page that I was holding only weakly, looked at it briefly, handed it back to me, even without laughing, and only said to the other who were following him with their eyes, 'The usual stuff,' to me he said nothing. To be sure, I remained seated and bent as before over the now useless page of mine, but with one thrust I had in fact been banished from society, the judgement of my uncle repeated itself in me with what amounted almost to real significance and even within the feeling of belonging to a family I got an insight into the cold space of our world which I had to warm with a fire that first I wanted to seek out.


  1. I never said any of that. Who told you I did? I certainly do read them for those reasons and to be entertained. There. I said it.

  2. Anonymous12:20 am

    How serendipitous! I'm puzzling over a post right now about just this issue, why read? Because I'm heavily influenced by S. Bellow's Herzog at the moment, and his challenge to intellectualism, my own answer has surprised me...



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