It is always indecent on the part of an author to introduce real persons into a half-real text like this one—even if he graces them with the warmest praise—and this simply because the author can do with them what he pleases, like God; they, on the other hand, become his creations, with no right to protest. —Witold Gombrowicz, Diary, p. 642
So it’s a new year. The digit 4 has become a 5. So what? Why do we ascribe meaning to such changes? Why are we prompted to self-examination and to the making of resolutions concerning our future behavior? Worthless words. It’s just a fact and I’m just looking for some clever way of saying that I’m struggling against that paralysis which comes when one hasn’t made up one’s mind about what to do next.
This year I should make a significant effort to see a book or an essay published in some form which is not just me posting something on my web site. But which book? Which essay?
Yesterday, I started rereading Sebald’s Vertigo. Partly because I started reading the essays and interviews collected in The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W.G. Sebald, edited by Lynne Sharon Schwartz (Seven Stories). After reading Tim Parks’ essay, “The Hunter”, I questioned whether I read Vertigo at all. Had I forgotten it so completely? When I began again to read Sebald’s book with the same title as a Hitchcock film, a film I watched for a second time last Saturday, I feared that I had merely succeeded in only allowing the words on the page to imprint themselves on my retina without going much further. Reading the book now is like reading it for the first time. Though there are are moments like faint echoes when I’ll recognize some familiar territory.
On my first reading, I didn’t make note of any overt reference to Hitchcock’s famous film. But now, I see there are some possible links. The images of eyes on page 11 and 75 could be linked to the opening shot in the film of a woman’s eyeball and the spiral of time forming in her iris. And, more explicit perhaps, is the reference to the rings of the yew tree on page 70: “One inch of yew wood will often have upwards of a hundred annual growth rings, and there are said to be trees that have outlasted a full millennium and seem to have quite forgotten about dying.”
Of late, I’ve had difficulty sleeping through the night and so most nights, I will wake up after roughly four hours of slumber. Occasionally I’ll be able to nod off after a span of time, but most often I find that continuing to lie there in the dark my mind will begin to turn over ideas and sometimes seize on some worrisome picture of the future. When the daylight comes, I’m usually able to hold those anxieties at bay, but the night seems to encourage the terrors. My mind begins to buzz with fear and so to combat these waves of irrational anxiety, I’ll get up and clean the house. The best distractions are doing the dishes or the laundry, or cleaning the bathroom; it doesn’t matter what I clean. Some monotonous task which requires action from my body, my hands, will often be enough to calm the spiral of anxious thoughts that threaten to pull me down into a black pit of anxiety. Perhaps these are the dog days of which Sebald writes.
Sebald begins The Rings of Saturn thus: “In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.” He’s not just invoking the cliché of “the dog days of summer” which refer to the prominence of Sirius, the Dog Star, in the constellation Canis Major, which is a feature of the summer sky. The dog days are a time of profound melancholy. He writes, “I wonder now, however, whether there might be something in the old superstition that certain ailments of the spirit and of the body are particularly likely to beset us under the sign of the Dog Star.”
For me the dog days begin sometime in November and last until March. In Vertigo Sebald writes about Casanova’s imprisonment in the Doge’s Palace. In reaction to his sudden incarceration Casanova succumbed to the paralysis of anxiety. Sebald writes, “Melancholy had him in its grip and would not let go. The dog days came.” For perhaps two weeks or more Casanova endured this agony of spirit. What he came to realize was that “while it might be rare for a man to be driven insane, little was required to tip the balance. All that was needed was a slight shift, and nothing would be as it formerly was. In these deliberations, Casanova likened a lucid mind to a glass, which does not break of its own accord. Yet how easily it is shattered. One wrong move is all that it takes.” [Vertigo, p. 56]
Or I should say I am most susceptible to slipping into the dog days during those cold fall and winter months when the light wanes and my evenings are cloaked in a darkening gloom. The most difficult time of day is the late afternoon, those hours before sundown. The approach of dusk brings with it a creeping sensation of dread. So I rush home and put on the lights. A fire in the fireplace is a balm. The light, the crackling fire, the warmth. It’s almost enough to sustain the spirit in those cold, dark winter months.
...I am happy. Today most of all because..., I have begun this diary that is also going to be a book of footnotes commenting on an invisible text... —from the opening page of Bartleby & Co. by Enrique Vila-Matas
While I’m not so unlucky with women, nor as physically ugly as the narrator of Vila-Matas’ book, I have cause to be happy as well. For, after years of putting of the task, I’ve decided that today, I too, will begin a diary that is also going to be a book of footnotes. And whereas the narrator of Bartleby set out to annotate an invisible text, I will set out to comment on an unfolding text — which (admittedly) is partially obscured, and still coming into existence.
I don’t speak only of my own text, the book of which I am the author, but of the great eternal text worked upon and added to by all authors, each offering up their own contributions to the growing pile of leaves (some more significant than others), that ever-growing text which we call “literature.” It is a text without end. Amen.
The role I play (or pretend to) in the advancement of the great literary project is a small one. I am content to occupy a seat at the copyist’s table and occasionally, if I may be so bold, I will add a comment or two. As much as I regard books as sacred objects, I am a meddlesome reader who does not cringe at writing in the margins. My entire literary life has been carried out in the narrow spaces at the edges of texts by other authors. And of late, it is the Spanish author, Enrique Vila-Matas, whose books have opened a door into an endless labyrinth, not just the labyrinth of the No, but labyrinth of the unfolding text, the labyrinth of the World Wide Web which is the ascension of the Gutenberg galaxy into the firmament of the Internet.
After working at the brewery in the morning, I caught a train to Brooklyn and spent the afternoon with Rasan. At 5:30 we left his place to catch the B train to 42nd Street. From there we walked (speedily) to 49th and 3rd to the Insituto Cervantes where César Aira and Sergio Chejfec were in conversation. They spoke in Spanish. Rasan and I listened to the voice of an interpreter on headsets which made little electric noises, buzzes and clicks. And odd sensation to be present with these writers just a few feet away on the stage and to be cocooned in a sonic space separate from theirs. I pulled one of the ear pieces away so I could here the sound of the Spanish words.
Aira began by talking about his method (which I’ve written about before). Did he add anything? Only that he works as a translator, so his study is the space were he works. He writes in cafés (pizza shops, restaurants) because he needs a different space from where he works to do his creative work. Writing in cafés is not so easy for me; in suburbia one has to drive for miles to get to the nearest café. But I have a study which I only use for creative work. Aira said his method found him. Writers work the way they must. Once the method is established, then the work flows from that. But its not a method of production. Books result from the process, but it isn’t mechanical. The moderator, Mónica de la Torre, Senior Editor of BOMB magazine, asked about Aira’s relationship to Oulipo and made a reference to mathematics. I’m not sure what she was getting at, but that’s what prompted Aira to talk about this method. He doesn’t edit because he writes so slowly. Each word is selected carefully. Sometimes a book needs some tweaking so that the beginning fits with the end, but other than that…
As I listened to the quiet voice of the interpreter whispering in my ear, I heard Aira talk about why his books are so short and slim. He wanted to write books which looked like those of poets, slender, elegant books. There’s something grotesque about a fat book, he said. He is modest. Doesn’t wish to demand too much of the reader. He writes in simple, clear sentences. The stories follow a simple time from beginning to end. I don’t want the reader to be angry with me, he said. Presumedly, we readers get angry if the writer asks us to do too much work. One man in the audience after the talk said that readers like fat books because they don’t have to read them. With a short book, it demands to be read.
Comparing Aira, or contrasting rather, with Knausgaard. Aira didn’t name Knausgaard, but Aira made statements which could apply to Knausgaard. Aira would not be fan. Knausgaard writes fat, self-indulgent autobiographical books. He writes with no regard for the reader whom he asks to endure for 3500 pages this monologue about the mundane details of his life. Aira would rather invent than report about his cornflakes.
Afterwards, Rasan and I retreated to the Stag’s Head to compare notes.
How do I see myself developing as a writer? Situated somewhere between the poles of Aira and Knausgaard? It’s time for me to begin the publishing phase of my writing career. At the Stag’s Head, I remarked that Aira didn’t want to demand too much of the reader, so he wrote very short books. I’ve perfected the system of not making demands on the reader by choosing not to publish.
In “A Brick Wall”, the first story in Aira’s The Musical Brain, he mentions a movie, The Village of the Damned, were everyone falls asleep at the same time, and when they wake up, all the women in the village are pregnant with mutant children bent on destroying the world. This story (which I haven’t even read to the end yet) seems to hold the key to my anxiety and Knausgaard’s program, or at least supplies its rationale. Aira writes that in movies (and fiction in general) everything is imbued with meaning. Nothing is put on the screen (or on the page) that isn’t central to the plot. The slightest signals are portents of things to come. Reality, by comparison, seems dull and meaningless. However, if you read in every cough, the signal of some disease, then you bring the story brain to bare on reality. You misread the signs of the real and connect mundane events with imagined, catastrophic futures. Hence, the anxiety about everyday life. We read our lives as if they were fictional dramas. So here’s where Knausgaard enters. His long, aimless tomes give us the meaningless. See, here is life, he says. You don’t have to be a magical thinker. Put the anxieties away. Things will turn out alright in the end. If there is meaning, it’s found in being present, being awake to what’s around you, and not overlaying it with extraneous and invented signs which belong in fiction.
Claude Lévi-Strauss’ masterwork arrived by post yesterday along with two volumes of The Practice of Everyday Life by Michel de Certeau. I’ve only managed to read the introduction to Tristes Tropique, a biographical essay by Patrick Wilcken which puts Lévi-Strass’ book in its historical context and explains a little about how it came to be written. The speed at which Lévi-Strauss wrote the book contributed to its “stream of consciousness” style. Perhaps Wilcken’s choice of descriptor is lazy; digressiveness is the characteristic of modern storytelling. I’ve such a passion to begin reading Tristes Tropiques that I want to rush through these obligatory notes so that I can begin my journey. Interesting that the book starts with “An End to Journeying.”
Oulipo. The dialog between Aira and Chejfec began with Mónica de la Torre making a comment about Oulipo and mathematics. Aira responded by describing his method of working. Attempting to follow up on this line of commentary, I was led back to something Scott Esposito wrote on his blog, Conversational Reading. Esposito has written a book called The End of Oulipo and as I was reading the introduction yesterday, I discovered that he counts Aira (along with Tom McCarthy) among the practitioners of writing to a program, of placing constraints on ones art in order to create more fully. At one point Esposito exhorts American writers to take up the Oulipo challenge and write novels that are not forgettable.
Perhaps this passion, this awakening interest reading Tristes Tropique, and in my own writing project is part of the same shift in my writing life. Now that I’ve printed out my Writings I can bury them and move on into the future without the burden of what I have written in the past weighing me down. As I explained to Rasan yesterday over lunch, I’m diving into el continuo, I’m committed to la huida hacia adelante, the constant flight forward.
When I was in Barcelona, I went to the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona to see a special exhibit, Sebald Variations, a collection of art and video art works inspired by the prose fiction writer W.G. Sebald. One of the artists who contributed work to the exhibit was Valeria Luiselli who, herself, is also a novelist. And I happened to have picked up a copy of Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd the month before I left, so when I returned from Barcelona I decided to read the book.
The narrative consists of (mostly) short fragments by several different first person narrators. The fact that the novel had multiple narrator only registered after I’d read half the book and was starting to ask questions about the internal consistency of the perspective. If I’d only read the blurb on the back of the book first, I would have been clued in. Once I knew what the game was, things started making more sense. Admitting that I was slow to pick up on this might be also admitting that I’m not a very perceptive reader.
The last twenty pages of Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd recapitulate some of the images which open the novel. When I came to the end of the book, naturally I felt that satisfaction of having taken a journey and then returned home. Not that everything neatly resolved. I like my novels messy, with gaps and unresolved plot lines. Luiselli too harbors a horror of the “horribly boring novel in which each line is there for an ultimate reason: everything links up, there are no loose ends.” [Faces in the Crowd, p. 124]
Sunday afternoon, sitting in my garden drinking a shandy. “It’s important to bear in mind that more than referring to the book by Laurence Sterne, the word shandy invokes alcohol. Shandy is commonly drunk in London—a mixture of beer and either fizzy lemonade or ginger beer—and a pint of shandy with ice is thirst quenching in the summertime.” [A Brief History of Portable Literature by Enrique Vila-Matas, p. 25]
The shandy is also popular in Barcelona where one is not challenged to find Damm Limon on tap. In several cafes on my recent trip to Barcelona I discovered that one could order a radler, the German equivalent of a shandy.
Since returning from my Barcelona excursion, I’ve been fishing for more reading matter by Enrique Vila-Matas. My searches have turned up a few items which are new to me. One is a blog post from 2009 by Andrew Seal wherein he translates a couple of paragraphs from an article by Vila-Matas which appeared in the Spanish newspaper El País, “El talento del lector.” In this article Vila-Matas, in terms which sound like they are culled from a manifesto, proclaims the dawning of a new age of active readers, readers who are “…open enough to permit into [their] mind the figure of a conscience radically different from [their] own.” The contrast is between the passive readers of the gothic novel (monsters) and active readers who read not to escape the world, but to engage it more fully (angels).
The “stupid myth of the passive reader” may be an invention of the capitalists who, for them, every human activity has to be monetized for their benefit. So books and reading are turned into consumer items. But Vila-Matas saw something in the financial crisis of 2009 (when “El talento del lector” appeared in El País) that suggested this image of the reader as a passive consumer of entertainment was “…giving way to the reappearance of the reader of talent,” and at the same time, “…the terms of the moral contract between author and the public are being reframed.” Precisely how is this contract being reframed? Vila-Matas, instead of elaborating on a theory of literature, gives us a couple of examples: one, the awarding of the 2008 Cervantes Prize to Juan Marsé and, the other, Laurence “the rightful heir of Cervantes” Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. A further hint comes when Vila-Matas declares that the talented reader must have the same skill set as the writer. How I understand this statement is that even if the reader doesn’t actually pick up the pen to engage with the author she’s reading, she should be prepared to labor over a text as deliberately and with as much care as the author does. (Active reading then might be an act of translation.)
Another item is an English translation of a story by Vila-Matas called “Hotel Attraction or Gaudi and My (Sacred) Family” (or “HOTEL ATTRACTION O GAUDÍ Y MI FAMILIA (SAGRADA)”). The short story was printed in The Australian and apparently accompanied by an interview with Vila-Matas. Earlier this week, the short story was available to read for free. Now, it’s behind The Australian’s pay-wall. (I have a copy I’d be willing to share with you privately if you are interested. Just send me a tweet.) The interview conducted by John William Wilkinson is archived on EV-M’s web site.
Over the weekend I was exchanging “tweets” with Russ Kremer, a long-time writing buddy, and author of the long-lived blog, Crenellated Flotsam. Both of us started blogging in the early ‘00s but he’s been more consistent. I’ve had half a dozen blogs on a range of different topics. This natural fragmentation and multiplication of blogs comes from an imaginary picture of my presumed reader. When I wrote about craft beer, I thought I needed a blog dedicated to craft beer. Why would craft beer enthusiasts care what I thought about literature and the writing life? Russ told me that he could never keep up with my blogs. He was right. It was confusing.
My return to public writing (writing in this space) isn’t a resumption of blogging. Though I suppose this diary is something of a personal blog. I still think the form is useful and there are a few blogs I still read regularly. In addition to Russ’ Crenellated Flotsam, I read Vertigo by Terry Pitts which is (mostly) Sebald-focused though Pitts writes about a wide range of art-enhanced literature. The other day I wondered if anyone was writing an Enrique Vila-Matas blog and I found El factor V-M by Dora Rester. While the blog’s primary language is Spanish, there’s plenty in English and French. A recent post points to a piece by V-M on Roberto Bolaño in The White Review called “Writers from the Old Days.” Also, there’s a notice about the release on 3 September 2015 of André Gabastou’s translation of V-M’s Marienbad Electrique. The book appears to be on the subject of V-M’s relations with artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and their conversations about creativity and art. The text concerns the parallels and correspondence between the writer’s and the artist’s respective work methods. (That’s my very quick, possibly overly literal translation from the blurb.)
Something I wanted to write about in my current work-in-progress, but which perhaps doesn’t fit, is a story I started writing two summers ago that I abandoned before finishing it. Recently, I read, “Cecil Taylor,” the final story in the new collection from New Directions of César Aira’s shorter works. Aira’s story begins with a vividly constructed scene of a prostitute returning home in the early hours of the morning. He breaks off the scene on an ominous note suggesting that before the darkness cedes to day, some act of violence will be committed. Aira then transitions into something like an essay where he talks about the cyclical nature of things: night gives way to day and then again to night. So it is with stories, one transitions into the next. The stories keep coming. The neat boundaries that we erect between them are conveniences of packaging. When I’m writing I’ve always found it difficult to tell where one story ends and another begins. Aira’s essay then transitions again into a story resembling the biography of the young Cecil Taylor in the late 1950s when he was trying to establish himself as a jazz pianist in New York. As is often the case with those working in the avant-garde, he had difficulty finding a receptive audience.
When I read Aira’s “Cecil Taylor” I immediately thought of that story I began two summers ago. My story was about a woman in her mid to late fifties (childless) who is reunited with the mother who abandoned her fifty years previous. The mother is not in good health and needs help and care. And it falls to the daughter to decide whether to assist this woman, technically her mother (biologically speaking), whom she does not know. Actually, the story isn’t so much about this situation. These circumstances are the atmosphere of the story. The real question which plagues the daughter is not whether to come to the aid of her mother, but the feelings of regret she has for not having a child of her own. She’s always wanted, or so she feels, a son. Perhaps the story is really about the unborn son. I don’t know because I never finished the story. Rose, the mother, became a character in another story about a family of three who for a month lives in the apartment next to Rose. This family of three shares Rose’s garden where they naturally become acquainted.
Technically, I suppose that I didn’t abandon May, Rose’s daughter, or her story. May becomes a minor character in the drama that follows. But I was never comfortable with what seemed to me an act of artistic abandonment, of beginning a character’s story, then dropping it when a little bird flies by. But what I can learn from César Aira is to trust the constant flight forward. Day follows night follows day…
Un gesto regio. Apparently, Enrique Vila-Matas writes a regular column for El País. A link from El factor V-M led me back to the Spanish newspaper to read the latest piece from V-M himself. V-M has become for me a guide to the literary world. Over the years he has introduced me to so many excellent writers and I will have to add another to the list: Claudio Magris. The piece in yesterday’s EL País is about a story by Magris which takes place in the Museu-Monestir de Pedralbes in Barcelona, a scene which captures an authentic response to art.
A theme of my current work-in-progress is the literary invasion of life (specifically my own life). It seems that on many fronts literature is mounting incursions into my personal history. The story about the father and son visiting the Museu-Monestir de Pedralbes could have been me and my son. We were in Barcelona at the beginning of last month so that I do “research” for the novel I’m writing. The Monastery Museum was just up the street from the hotel where we were staying. Alas, my son and I did not actually visit the museum, but still, I feel as if we might have.
In Magris’ story, the father is sharing with his son a lifelong love of art. I envied the description of the father in the story and hoped that I was doing my best to pass on a sense of what should be properly valued to my own son. Art is important. And perhaps it’s not so obvious. The love of art, music, literature, etc. should be a family tradition.
Not that I’m bragging, or maybe I should be ashamed to admit this (depending on how you look at it), but I spend the first two hours of my day, every day, writing. After brewing the pot of coffee I sit down with my notebook (paper) and a pen (black ink) and I write two full pages. That’s just a start. Then I labor over that text, pounding, tweaking, cutting, reshaping, throwing out, etc. and only stop when my time is up and the duties of the day call.
Working in this fashion, I’ve written on the order of a dozen novels, plus several volumes of this Diary. Why do I do it? The simple answer is that I enjoy the work. I derive pleasure from crafting a quality artifact. So why would I want anyone to read these books that I write?
Let’s set that question aside for a moment. Like Roberto Bolaño, I believe that reading is more important than writing. In fact, (speaking as a reader) there are plenty of books out there, a wealth of truly excellent literature, and in my lifetime I’m only going to read a meager fraction of the books worth reading. While, I’m not suggesting that writers should put down their pens and spare the world the burden of reading their creations, I do think we should reevaluate how we view the books that are available to us. What I’m saying is that why are so many of us readers obsessed by reading the same books that everyone else has read? Why is it so important that I finish reading Middlemarch when I could be reading any of the “ten great writers nobody reads” on Stephen Sparks’ list?
That’s probably a whole essay in itself. What I really want to tackle is the problem, or blessing of anonymity and its advantages to the writing life.
In Enrique Vila-Matas’ essay in THE WHITE REVIEW on Roberto Bolaño, “Writers from the Old Days”, Vila-Matas referred to those years that Bolaño spent in Blanes writing in complete anonymity as being wonderful and paradisiacal. Bolaño was a nobody and that powerful status meant that he was free to write as he pleased.
Vila-Matas continues: “There is no doubt that this stage of anonymity, of isolation, was hard; but it was also I believe providential, for if it’s true that, for example, nobody from the literary world afforded him the slightest bit of attention, it also goes that his condition as a total unknown facilitated his full dedication to writing. What’s more, I believe the intense harshness of those days, during which he was utterly forsaken, served to strengthen his character and above all his powerful – at times, understandably bitter – style. No one would deny how hard it is to pass through moments of desolation, but it can also be the case that for an artist an isolated, tough existence can prove a severe, if highly stimulating, apprenticeship.”
One assumes though, Bolaño intended that one day people would read his books. But maybe this dream of a future reader is beside the point. Writers can go about their labors without that particular mirage beckoning to them. Seriously, think about it. What does it matter if anyone ever reads the book I or you have written? Will “being read” make you any happier? My guess is that it may produce the opposite effect.
More than being read what I want most to is to write something that is worth reading. I want to write something good, to enter into the sacred kingdom of literature. Vila-Matas again: “And so what is a good piece of writing? Well, what it always has been: knowing how to stick one’s head into the darkness, to leap into the void; basically, knowing that literature is a dangerous profession.”
The word profession here could be a sticking point. Since I write in the privacy of my own home and publish my novels in editions of one into the bottom drawer of my desk, I can’t pretend that writing is my profession, even though the narrator of my novels often leads “the reader” (hypothetical as she may be) to believe that’s how he’s making his living. What is most certainly true is that writing is dangerous (period). Just the act of putting a word on a page could bring monsters into the world.
If writing is so dangerous, then why do we writers do it? Sometimes writing isn’t about the quality of the sentences, writing is a way of expressing emotion or thought. The great, voluminous outpouring that is My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard is (by his own admission) not the practice of good writing (though I don’t find fault with much of it). Still, I’m pulled into Knausgaard’s world and on that level his 3500 page “novel” is a success.
Knausgaard is an example of a type, the literary rock-star. He tours the globe each year when then next volume of his autofictive novel comes out, speaking to sellout crowds in trendy Brooklyn art spaces. Where is the distinction between Knausgaard the man and the (apparently) intensely personal book he’s written? Knausgaard follows his book around “promoting it” as if this very act was the engine of the book’s success and not the text itself. Can’t the book stand on its own? You might argue that marketing is the necessary evil of book publishing in the capitalist world, but another writer, Elena Ferrante has opted to keep herself out of the limelight. In contrast to Knausgaard, Elena Ferrante refuses to be seen.
In a letter to her publisher Ferrante explained why she doesn’t wish to promote her books. She writes, “…books, once they are written, have no need of their authors.”
This is essentially the same position taken by Eugene Curtsinger, my literature professor at the University of Dallas (twenty-five years ago) and author of seven novels, who said, “When you finish writing the book, kick the kid out of the house. If you’ve done your job, the book will find its legs. All the important work of the poet is in the writing of the book. Everything that comes after that is just marketing and entertainment.” Unfortunately, Curtsinger’s position (in the absence of a strong advocate for his books) led to his body of work getting lost to the sacred kingdom of literature. He’s now, out of print, and essentially unread except by those few of us who were his students and eagerly snapped up his novels as fast as he could write them. (One of Curstinger’s novels, his first, Seldom Without Love, is available in electronic format as is a posthumously published work of literary criticism on Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.)
Recently, I submitted one of my novels to a literary agent. As much as I think I might benefit from the interaction with an agent, editor, and publisher, I’m not looking forward to it. It seems like an evil which isn’t even necessary. I still remember the warning from the n+1 Set telling all of us dilettantes who already have real jobs, to stop dabbling in literature and leave it to those who are actually trying to earn their bread and butter with the pen. Economically speaking, I don’t need to publish any of my books. Ferrante wrote in her letter that “It’s not at all necessary for me to publish this book.” Publication is a gratuitous act, indulgent even.
Following your book around in the hopes of selling it has a down side. For the writer, the travel involved and the speaking engagements cut into time that could be spent writing, or, more importantly, reading. Coming back to Vila-Matas’ essay and his musings on the amazing productivity which comes from the relentless anonymity machine, he arrives at the idea that it’s probably better for writers to stay hidden. Her writes:
Not long ago, at the Paraty festival, Brazil, I delivered a radical address on the state of world literature in the present day. I titled it ‘Music for Underachievers’, and in it I said, among other things, that in fact, with regards to literature, everything is already over; although maybe, with luck, this can be explained, it is undeniable, I said, that prose has turned itself more into a product for the market: something that is interesting, distinguished, earnest, respected but, inevitably, insignificant…The question remains, I said, as to whether writers shouldn’t just be read instead of being seen, because I’ve always thought that at the precise moment writers start to be seen, all is ruined.
—from “Writers from the Old Days” by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated by J.S. Tennant for THE WHITE REVIEW
Who wants to be published? Vila-Matas records this anecdote: “…this morning I talked to [Ian] McEwan and it turns out all isn’t well, he told me that he’s unhappy at times because he yearns for the years when nobody knew him and he could write in peace.”
Learn to know well the happiness of being a nobody, who is at the same time someone who is writing. These are the best years of your writing life.
When I traveled to Barcelona in early July of this year, I was already formulating in my mind what sort of book I would write during the summer and how would my first trip to Spain affect that project. For the two weeks I was in Barcelona I kept a notebook but I didn’t actually work on “the novel” with the working title, The Spanish Leap. I wanted to collect my impressions of Barcelona. Because I was in Barcelona (in part) to see an exhibit at the CCCB called “Sebald Variations” I figured that the work of W.G. Sebald would be a significant influence on whatever I ended up writing. Also, Barcelona is the home of Enrique Vila-Matas. I imagined that I might invent some kind of meeting between my narrator and EVM — a dinner date at a Chinese restaurant?
Once I arrived in Barcelona I quickly realized that my working title wasn’t accurate. Even though Barcelona is technically in Spain, Barcelona is not really Spanish; it’s Catalan. Should I change my working title to The Catalan Leap? I thought. No. EVM writes in Spanish even though he’s a native of Barcelona. And my working title was also intended to reference César Aira and Roberto Bolaño, both of whom write/wrote in Spanish. An added bonus is that Bolaño lived for a time in Blanes which is not far from Barcelona. It was while in living in Blanes that Bolaño met EVM.
While in Barcelona I tried to familiarize myself with Spanish and Catalan, learning a handful of words in each language. I discovered that reading Catalan was nearly possible since many of the words were similar to French which I know reasonably well. Since returning to Long Island, I’ve slacked off on my language studies, but I’m still bumping into Spanish. I regularly read El factor V-M, the Vila-Matas blog curated by Dora Rester. Much of the content is in Spanish. With a little help from Google Translate, I can get the gist of most of the posts. Today, I followed a link to another blog called Karlatone by Karla Olvera, also written in Spanish and which has some remarkable photographs, including one of Vila-Matas and another of Angès Varda. (Clearly, there’s a cross-section of common interest here.)
On both blogs there are mentions of EVM’s new project, Marienbad Électrique, which is a collaboration with Dominique González-Foester. From what I can make out, the book has been translated into French, and is a collection of short pieces written by EVM in reaction to the artwork of DGF. What interests me the most (at this very moment) is the title. I want to steal that title for one of my own projects: Electric Marienbad. What would that novel be about?
Everyone has their own reasons for reading something (assuming they read at all). Readers, I should say, have a semi-infinite list of books they would like to read before they die. Some books we carry around for ages until one day we have the urge to dive in. What are the necessary conditions for the germination of such compulsions to read. I’ve got books in my library I’ve been neglecting for years, only to wake up one morning and to realize that I have to read that book now!
My way of reading is to progress from one work to another by connections and associations. I’m following a thread, or a road of my own invention. The road is real, but perhaps only I can see it.
Earlier this week I was listening to Valeria Luiscelli talking about her new book, The Story of My Teeth, and she said that she was interested in how object accrued value through narrative. Here’s an object which on it own is worthless (e.g. a set of used false teeth), but add a narrative to the object and suddenly it’s worth something. Narratives add value to things. Why? Is it as simple as: people love a good story? Probably not that simple. A good narrative by itself isn’t as valuable as an object plus a narrative. Somehow it’s the combination.
Over lunch I was trying to express these ideas to Rasan and what I wanted to say… the point I wanted to make is that people read a particular book because they think the narrative has value. Perhaps it’s only entertainment value, but people generally expect that what they read shouldn’t be a waste of time. The experience of reading something should be as valuable as the time it takes to read it.
That’s why nobody reads what I post to my blog, I said to Rasan. The text that I put on my web site has no value to anyone. There may be a potential value, but no anticipated value. If anyone comes across The Complete Angler by accident, they probably won’t stick around long enough to read anything. This is because they are expecting to find anything of value. The prose I’ve posted here just may be the most influential literature of the twenty-first century, but that is a judgement which will be made (if at all) in the future. At the present, no one knows about The Complete Angler and doesn’t care to read it. This text is quiet simply an unread text and hence has no actual value to anyone.
My compulsion to type words and post them here might be part of a project which produces a text which is unreadable. When started reading Miletus’ book about writing failures, I was puzzled by what he meant by an unreadable text. Is it possible that shear size would render a text unreadable even though (in principle) at the sentence level the text is intelligible, that is to say, legible. Some people might say that Knausgaard’s My Struggle is unreadable. I wouldn’t say this because I’ve read all four of the volumes translated into English so far. Aira said that he wrote short books out of a sense of humility, or out of a sense of not wanting to demand too much of the reader’s time. I’ve been tempted to write short books too because folks from Oklahoma are taught the value of humility at young age. Don’t toot your own horn, my grandmother used to say. She also said, Silence is golden. My grandfather was fond of repeating this: It’s better to remain silent and to be thought a fool, than to open your month and remove all doubt. It’s a wonder I have the courage to put pen to paper!
Every Sunday morning I make pancakes for breakfast. Because we had a big day out on the North Fork on Saturday, Alice slept in while I spent the morning in my study writing. By the time we sat down for pancakes it was nearly lunch time and my brain was prickling with all the ideas I’d had that morning. Perhaps it was all the caffeine I had. I felt like I wanted to run in three or four directions at once.
I’d been reading Sven Lindqvist’s A History of Bombing not only for the subject matter, but because of it’s structure. The book begins with twenty-two beginnings: short opening chapters, each which could be the start of a longer essay or even a book. An authorial note at the beginning encourages the reader to pick one of these entry points and then follow the links at the end of each micro-chapter to another point in the text.
A quick inspection of the order of the links suggested that there was a linear arrangements of micro-chapters. If you started with Chapter 1 and followed all the links you’d read all the micro-chapters in the book and follow each of the twenty-two paths or threads in order. If that’s the case, then why put the reader through all the page flipping? Why not just present the book in its linear arrangement?
One possibility is that the arrangement of the chapters is a natural expression of the order in which Lindqvist wrote the book. I could imagine that he began by writing each of the twenty-two entry chapters and then from that point on he wrote the micro-chapters in the order they appear in the book and the linking apparatus was added along the way to associate the subsequent material with what logically should come before it. I could imagine writing a book in this fashion, each micro-chapter associated with one of those old fashioned index cards. But instead of putting the index cards in order, one just leaves them in the order in which they were created.
Still, this begs the question of why arrange the micro-chapters this way instead of ordering them logically? But the other thing I noticed was that each micro-chapter appears to be in chronological order. After the original twenty-two entry chapters, beginning with Chapter 23, that chapter is chronologically the oldest entry dating to the beginning of aerial bombardment and then each entry which has an associated date appears in date-order until chapter 300-something which is chronologically the last entry.
So the order of Lindqvist’s book isn’t completely idiosyncratic. The arrangement of the text is chronological, but the linking apparatus proposes thematic pathways through the text which leap and skip across the timeline.
I tried to explain this structure to Alice while we ate our pancakes. She finished eating first. Why are you telling me all this? she asked politely. That’s when I said that I was thinking of structuring my soccer book, Footnotes, in the same way.
The reward of art is not fame or success but intoxication: that is why so many bad artists are unable to give it up. —from The Unquiet Grave by Cyril Connolly
Again, another week slipped through my fingers. What do I have to show for enduring this passage of time?
The other day I was talking with Rasan and I postulated that my constant state of dissatisfaction had to do with unrealistic expectations. The goals I set are crazy, literally insane. Perhaps this propensity to aim higher is directed at the end of failing better, but the reality is that failure is a guarantee of the setup — situations which are designed from the get-go to fail.
Very few people become successful, at least in the terms set by the standards of the world. Most of us are just regular people, living out our regular lives, and when we’re gone we’ll be quickly forgotten (gone without a trace). But this is also the case for the (lucky?) few who do achieve some modicum of fame / success during their lifetime. Those who achieve greatness in the moment are usually forgotten in the passage of a single decade.
Cyril Connolly was concerned with what it would take to write a book that would be relevant, that would last for ten years. Recently, I chanced across a reference to Connolly’s Enemies of Promise wherein he shows the many way in which an otherwise promising writer can fail. My library didn’t have a copy of this book, but they did have a copy of The Unquiet Grave which is a collection of aphorisms. At least one of those aphorisms is responsible for triggering a cascade of thoughts which led to the untangling of several narrative snarls in my fat book.
Failure had been on my mind lately because I’ve failed to meet both my reading and writing goals this week. These failures are due to a lack of discipline and the fact that I have erratic sleep patterns.
One sunny afternoon earlier this week, I took a stroll around the building where I work. I was thinking about my current writing project, The Spanish Leap, and experienced a negative epiphany. This flash of black lightning illuminated the fears and insecurities I harbor concerning the quality of my writing. (Yes, but is it any good?) The moment of self-doubt passed, but it left a mark. I’m carrying the weight of my own mediocrity, I said to Rasan. Am I wrong to think that there’s something heroic about realizing that I’m not one of the Chosen who will enter the Promised Land, but still, in the fashion of the immortal Don Quixote, I rush at paper windmills with lance extended?
I could adopt Knausgaard’s position that the quality of the writing doesn’t matter. The meaning of the project is found in its weight, its shear quantity of words. Put the books on a scale like cheese or a slab of fish flesh.
When I get into such moods I return to that book by Miletus that I chanced upon in P.S. Books back in June when Rasan and I were rambling about in New York City. Miletus’ book, Failure, A Writer’s Life, became unreadable. I got bogged down in the section on computer spam. But the capsule reviews Miletus includes early in the book, examples of texts which challenge the ability or willingness of a reader to engage them, has haunted me. Am I writing texts which defy readability?
Last Monday evening I plucked my copy of Volume 6 of Tat Wood’s About Time: The Unauthorized Guide to Doctor Who and started reading the entry for the series of episodes called “Time and the Rani.” While Wood’s book is entertainingly snarky, I wondered who but a true fanatic would bother reading such a text? Was About Time an example of an unreadable text? It’s certainly a hermetic text, intended for specialists, for initiates who have consecrated themselves to the obsessive worship of a television Time Lord. Yet, here I am reading part of this text. Here I am laughing at the in-jokes. Here I am being amazed that there’s a clear and accurate discussion of high energy particle physics (the subject of “strange matter” is a plot point in “Time and the Rani”). But why has Wood written this? For money? Or is the labor an expression of his devotion? What are the terms by which the success of such a project would be measured?
While cooking up breakfast this morning, I was thinking about something Salman Rushdie said recently during one of the speaking engagements associated with his current book promotion tour. Most people don’t get the chance to live the lives they imagined they would or expected to live, he said. Few people get to spend their time doing what it is that they really want to do. I’m one of the lucky ones, he said.
The context of this (banal) statement was Rushdie’s father’s life. Rushdie said his father was an academic (by nature and inclination) who ended up running a business (into the ground, as it turned out). This mismatch between the imagined life and the life lived led his father to turn to the relief of alcohol.
One of the reasons I read novels is so that I can gain access to the inner lives of others. It’s so difficult to know if you friend, wife, brother, father, etc. is frustrated by life and the constant confrontation with failures small and large. But in a novel, it’s possible (sometimes) to know what it is like to see the world with the eyes of another. And there is comfort in knowing that someone else is dealing with the same crap that you have to put up with.
Lately, I’ve worried about my loss of “free time,” time not claimed by some obligation or responsibility. I want time to sit at my desk in my study, time to write. For years I stole time from myself. I would limit my sleep so that I could grab a couple of hours each morning “to be productive.” Now that I’m trying to be kinder to my body and my mind and allowing myself the luxury of a full night’s sleep, I worry that I will not be able to write all the books that I want to write. Less time to write mean less words, less productivity, fewer books written. (But why do I want to write so many books? Aren’t there enough books in the world already?)
When I do catch a few moments in the day, a few minutes to write, I devote myself to chronicling my obsessions. That is what a blog is for isn’t it, to serve as a record of successive obsessions?
Last Spring Rasan encouraged me to try to publish one of my books. Maybe you can earn a living off writing, he said. Then you’ll have more time to write.
Possibly. But I fear that if writing became my job, if I had to rely on my literary production to put bread and beer on the table, then would I write the books that I want to write? Would I be able write under such conditions? A different kind of freedom? Now, my time is limited because I sell my daytime hours for a wage doing something that I’m skilled at, but which is certainly not something I would do “for fun.”
If you’d asked me ten years ago if I wanted to quit the day job and devote my life to writing, I would have said, No, I wouldn’t do it. Not because I don’t wish to devote my life to writing— I wouldn’t quit my day job because the experience of sitting in an office, of encountering other people with whom I have to work, is a source of material. The office, the workplace is the raw stuff of life, of modern life. It is the setting where most of us play out our lives. How could I write if I retreated fully from the world? If I transformed myself into a completely literary creature, what would I have to say to those enslaved at their desks, who have to report to a time piece to quantify their activity so that it may be measured and remunerated (poorly)?