The Method of Aira
I have experimented with many writing methods over the years. The one thing that I do that has never failed me is to meet some level of daily production. As you know I’ve struggled with finishing my projects, but the issues related to finishing had little to do with whether I was able to put words on the page. I’ve spent the bulk of the last three years trying to finish books that I’ve started and just never finished for whatever reason. This last week I was reading about the Argentine writer César Aira and discovered something interesting. He has a process for producing books. It’s a simple one. It’s also the process that I’ve (through trial and error) arrived at on my own. This is what he does: Each day, he goes to his local café and while he sips his coffee (or whatever) he writes until he has filled a single sheet of paper. Then he stops. His work is done for the day. His constraint is that the writing from one day must continue seamlessly what he began the day before. A project ends when he feels it has reached its conclusion. He revises very little. With this method he has written and published 63 novels.
Varamo by César Aira waited for me, not of its own volition, since objects have no volition aside from that anthropomorphizing imposition of the human mind that tends to think of objects (especially those that are in some way dear) as possessing a level of consciousness and a degree of personality. I know that books don’t wait in the sense of their being aware of their idle persistence, but by their very nature they are ready to be present as an extension of the mind of the writer. Even though Aira does not know me, his letter was delivered into the world (as if in a bottle which floats to destinations unknown over restless seas) with the intention that there would be a reader. My identity (as a reader) is unimportant. But what is essential is that I rise to the challenge of also being present when I take the object in hand and retrace (even if only lightly) the thoughts that the writer saw fit to put down on the page.
I occupied my reading week with a novel by my good friend David Branson called The Siege of La Rochelle. Don’t bother looking it up yet, David is still working on the book; it’s a work-in-progress. He sent me the draft last weekend and I leapt into the book with a disposition of determination and optimism. I was determined to read the book before its author arrived at my house the following Saturday (which is today, by the way), and optimistic because I had already the first three chapters and so primed, curious to see how Asher’s story (Asher is the main character) would play out. Probably because David’s novel is a work-in-progress I approached my task (that of reading) in much the same way that a mechanic approaches a half-assembled car. I’ll not press the analogy too far, but I felt that I had more license to say how the final book should be put together than I would if the novel had been presented fait accompli. Last Tuesday afternoon, I wrote out pages of notes for my novelist friend, notes which (in the end) I realized would be utterly useless. What I was doing was writing my own book, rather than reading David’s.
Once I’d thrown off the persona of that hydra beast, the critic-editor, I assumed the role of humble reader and allowed the storyteller to draw me in. My shift in attitude changed my impression of the novel. Instead of a malleable thing like clay, what I had in my hands was a finely crafted object, shaped with skill, and fired to perfection in the artist’s kiln.
A contributing factor to my elective shift in perspective was the realization that I was applying standards to David’s text that were not appropriate. I assumed that David’s intention was to write a normal novel. What I mean is a novel that most readers would recognize as participating in that time honored tradition of books which present the stories of their protagonists as a kind of journey where obstacles must be surmounted, problems solved, dragons slain, and elixirs brought back from the magic realm to heal the wounds of the masked fisher king. Of course, he wasn’t writing a fantasy, but we readers know the form, we know the structure of the hero’s journey. When I realized that David’s intent was (more likely) to present an almost documentary-like portrait of real character, I began to see the text something akin to a film by Éric Rohmer. The narrator of the novel plays the role of the camera and Asher is the subject, an actor playing a real person finding his way through life. David's treatment of his subject was sensitive, sympathetic. The result is a book which constructs a place and populates it with characters who the reader would readily count among the number of his own friends.
Back to Varamo, the book I picked up after finishing David’s The Siege of La Rochelle. The first evening (Thursday, I think it was) I read half of Varamo and would have pressed on to the end if sleep had not overtaken me. Aira’s fiction didn’t put me to sleep, I should point out, just that it was late and my body and mind were in need of rest.
My experience of reading Varamo was quite different from that of reading David’s book. I didn’t know what to expect from Aira’s tale. I was open to anything. And since Aira’s book was not a work-in-progress, but a finished work, the text had the quality of solidity, like a crystal. As I approached my task (reading) I did so with the eye, not of a mechanic, but of a scientist, a researcher, a student. What I wanted to learn was how Aira performed the trick, how he implemented his process of creation, a process described in several interviews. Because of my attitude, one of curiosity and openness, the book quickly pulled me in. I took the bait willingly and swallowed the hook.
This morning I was surprised to find some negative comments about Varamo one of the bookish web sites I frequent. Admittedly the comments were subjective, and the commenter made no attempt to disentangle his personal taste and preference from his review. At first I questioned my own assessment of Varamo. Had I not been critical enough? Is there a fault in my own literary taste? I survived these fleeting moments of self-doubt and decided that I didn’t need to worry about the negative comments. They were as much value to me as the criticism of a blind man who condemns a painting for being blue.
Then I recalled the complaint which Anaïs Nin voiced in her book, The Novel of the Future. Of course, she lived in a time before blogging and sound-bite critiques, but she still understood the problem of a culture placing too much weight on the opinions of the ignorant. She writes, “We train and screen men for all professions except that of book reviewing. Anyone is allowed to write about books. The destructive consequences of this negligence are incalculable.” [p. 104] A few paragraphs later, she continues, “My advice to young writers is to disregard critics until one is mature enough to distinguish what is objective and what is subjective.” And then on the next page: “The critic should be the intermediary, the interpreter. His personal likes and dislikes are of no value to anyone.”
I am not Paul Auster
In the years between when I left home and the death of my father, we would talk weekly on phone, and from the mid-nineties on we exchanged emails daily. Mostly what we talked and corresponded about were books. It was from my father that I first heard of Paul Auster. My father had read Auster's Timbuktu and disliked it. Later, I saw (by chance) a film called Lulu on the Bridge and disliked it intensely, but (at the time) the name Paul Auster didn't mean anything to me so the fact that his name was on the credits as being responsible for the film didn't even register until about 2003 or 2004 when a literary acquaintance of mine encouraged me to read Paul Auster, an author she thought was probably the best American writer. I'd forgotten what my father said about Timbuktu and because I'd recently read a review of Auster's The Book of Illusions I decided to begin my foray into his literary oeuvre by that door. A scene from early in the book (perhaps involving a gun or sex) came across as laughable to me. Later when Auster summarizes the action of a film watched by the protagonist I began to wonder if this author had anything to do with that movie I hated, Lulu on the Bridge. The film summary inserted into his novel annoyed me. After reading The Book of Illusions I pronounced my judgement on Auster: second-rate hack. Despite my harsh judgement, Auster wasn't done with me yet.
Auster's name just wouldn't go away. Everywhere I turned, there it was again. Paul Auster. During the year I was taking language courses at the Alliance Française on 60th Street his name came up twice. Three times if you count the accident that I purchased a book of French poetry without realizing that Paul Auster was the editor of the volume. My instructor showed a video one evening during class, an interview with Paul Auster and he was speaking French, and as far as I could tell, fluently. Later, Auster was a guest speaker at the Alliance Française; however, I was unable to attend that event. It was about this time that I decided to give Auster another chance, and so I bought a copy of Paul Auster's City of Glass, the first of his New York Trilogy. And it was reading City of Glass that changed my opinion of Auster's writing.
Once or twice as year I travel to Boston. It was on one of these trips to Boston that I was passing some time in a book store and it occurred to me to look for the second book of Paul Auster's New York Trilogy, only I couldn't remember his name. I'd completely wiped out (for that moment) Auster's name from my memory. His name was an absence, a blank space. I could see his face from the French interview, but the name was gone. Unwilling to give up, I thought that if I systematically worked my way through the stacks in the fiction section, I would see his name and my memory would be restored. If Auster's name had been Zachowicz or Markson I might not have had the patience to work my way through the entire section, but my gut told me to start with the As. Finally, I came across another copy of City of Glass. There were two or three other titles by Auster on the shelf, but I was reluctant to make the leap to something else. I'd enjoyed City of Glass and felt like I should read Ghosts next in the hopes that I would react to that book the same way I had to the first in the trilogy.
In 2007, near the end of March, I flew to Denver to research an article I'd been asked to write for On Tap magazine about the craft beer culture. I spent a week soaking up as much of the local beers (and whiskey) that my body could stand and to pass the time I read. The day that I walked from my downtown hotel up to the Wynkoop Brewing Company I stopped in at the Tattered Cover, an indy bookstore to browse. I bought two books that day: Monsieur Monde Vanishes by Georges Simenon and The Invention of Solitude by Paul Auster.
At first Auster's book annoyed me because I had (for some time) been planning on writing a book with the exact title, The Invention of Solitude. But after a moment's reflection I wondered if I hadn't come across that title by Auster already, liked it, and then forgotten about Auster's book, remembering only that that particular title could stand for much of what I had to say about the difference between loneliness and solitude, a subject I'd wanted to write about ever since reading a book by Henri J. M. Nouwen that Charles du Bois, my friend and mentor during my years in graduate school, had given me.
I read Simenon's novel that same day. Monsieur Monde Vanishes was my first Simenon. After reading that book, I became a devoted reader of Simenon. Not just because of his tightly focused style, but because the situation in that novel --- that of dropping out of one's life, disappearing completely, and starting a new life somewhere else --- was a subject that fascinated me. And evidently, such disappearing acts are of interest to Paul Auster given that so many of the characters in his New York Trilogy do just that.
My father had died in February 2005. And even two years later, I found it difficult to confront the content of my thought on the subject of the loss of my father. I had been tempted to write something down, but perhaps I lacked the courage, or I was waiting for my ideas to crystalize. On that solitary trip to Denver, when I moved on from Monsieur Monde to Auster's The Invention of Solitude I realized that I couldn't read his book. The Invention of Solitude is a record of Auster's thought, his memories and feelings, after the death of his father. Not until 2011 when I was packing for a trip to England did I chance upon my copy of The Invention of Solitude and decide that I was now ready for it. I read the whole of The Invention of Solitude on a flight from New York to London.
Two years ago, Franz read Auster's Man in the Dark. My friendship with Franz is cemented by our common interests in literature, football (soccer), and beer. We had discussed at length my impressions of Auster's The Book of Illusions (perhaps this was on our first trip to Los Angeles when we spent so much time working through some plot issues that Franz was having with the novel he was working on at the time) and I recall that Franz was familiar with Auster and had read at least one of his novels. Recalling that we had talked at length about Auster in the past, Franz mentioned that had just finished reading Man in the Dark and hated the book so much that he couldn't possible bear to keep his copy of the book in his apartment. I'll throw it in the garbage, he said to me. Unless you want it.
Franz's visceral hatred of Auster's post-9/11 novel intrigued me. If Franz could be filled with this much disgust for a novel, then I wanted to read it. Franz gave me his copy. Keep it, he said. Don't give it back. I never want to see that book again. Don't even talk to me about it. Especially if you like it. I don't want to know.
I read Man in the Dark quickly. One or two days. I liked the book better than Franz. The politics represented in the book accorded with my own views, namely that the election (selection) of 2000 was catastrophe for our nation. In Auster's novel, the result of the Supreme Court's appointment of George W. Bush as President of the United States (preempting a count of the ballots in Florida) resulted in a bloody civil war --- Red States versus Blue States. Such a civil war would be the appropriate response (morally) to the betrayal of our nation by those entrusted with authority. And so Auster's United States was better than the real United States who acquiesced with seeming indifference to the greatest miscarriage of justice our nation has ever suffered. But novels should not merely be vehicles for the promotion of a political perspective, novels should primarily be works of art.
Last week I chanced upon a review of Ray Monk's new biography on J Robert Oppenheimer and decided it was time that I tackled Monk's biography of Ludwig Wittgenstien, The Duty of Genius, which had been on my reading list for nearly two years; Rasan suggested I read it during one of our lunch time conversations in which I told him about reading David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress and then reading another book called Wittgenstein's Nephew by Thomas Bernhard just because the similarity of the titles. I started reading Monk's Wittgenstein biography Thursday afternoon. By Saturday noontime, I'd had enough of Wittgenstein. I had followed him with Monk to Norway where Wittgenstein had sought to live a solitary life, free from any distraction that might prevent him from working on his ideas about logic. Wittgenstein's morbid preoccupation with the idea of his impending death was oppressing me. I felt sick. I didn't want to spend another moment with this young man and his solitude in Norway.
Remembering the words I'd read in Enrique Vila-Mata's novel Montano's Maladay about Walter Benjamin's ideas that stories and the telling of them can heal any number of a class of illnesses (even literary ones), I planned my therapeutic escape into Auster's New York Trilogy, the deluxe omnibus edition having recently (at the end of September) been added to my personal library. Since reading City of Glass so many years ago I'd held out the hope that I would find Ghosts and The Locked Room in their standalone form, but I'd only ever seen the other two books collected together with City of Glass in the same volume. For a year I'd been visiting Idlewild, a bookshop on 19th Street with a small but excellently curated selection of books. In their "New York" section was a copy of the deluxe edition of Auster's New York Trilogy. Each time I'd go into Idlewild to browse I'd take the New York Trilogy off the shelf and leaf through it and puzzle over whether I should add this to my growing collection of Auster's books. The only obstacle for me was that I already owned a copy of City of Glass. Perhaps I could give that copy to Rasan? I came very close to buying the trilogy at Idlewild, carrying the book with me throughout the shop while I browsed, but eventually returning it to its place, probably because I found one or two other titles that seemed of more pressing interest at the time. Last September during a weekend stay in Manhattan, I popped into Idlewild and indulged myself (at last) by purchasing the copy of the trilogy that I had so many times before deliberated over. And it was to Auster's Ghosts that I turned to on Saturday to cure (in the mode of Benjamin) the anxious chill that had come over me during my stay in Norway with a depressed and insufferable Wittgenstein.
Also on Thursday last (before I began reading Monk's biography of Wittgenstien) I'd read for the first time "I'm not Auster," a brief essay by Enrique Vila-Matas that appeared in issue 29 of the literary magazine Quarterly Conversation. In the essay Vila-Matas mentions his love of reading interviews with Auster and how in one interview Auster said that his literary influences --- Cervantes, Dickens, Kafka, Beckett, and Montaigne --- were inside him. “They’re all inside me,” Auster says. “Dozens of writers are inside me, but I don’t think my work sounds or feels like anyone else’s. I’m not writing their books. I’m writing my own.” The notion of containing other writers rang true for Vila-Matas who writes, "I am quite certain I can now say the same for myself."
Vila-Matas quotes Auster again: “The surprising thing... is that we can’t begin to understand our relationship to other people until we’re on our own. The more we’re alone, and the more we sink into solitude, the more deeply we feel this relationship.” To which Vila-Matas adds, "This seems to me a good definition of the writer’s solitude too."
Ingesting authors, absorbing them, becomes a cure for loneliness. No matter where you are, "you find you're inhabited by others," writes Vila-Matas. And so being alone becomes an opportunity to be present to those who inhabit you, and thus solitude is a sensitivity to the presence of others. This state of being --- of being inhabited --- reminds me of the ontological underpinnings of human knowing. In order to know the other, we must become the other. Knowledge of another being is a process of inner transformation, of remaking, or forming inside oneself the shape and substance of the other. In as much as we know others, we are inhabited by them.
From Vila-Mata's essay in which he makes his case that he is not Auster (I can't help myself thinking about the opening of Never Any End to Paris when Vila-Matas' narrator tells about entering an Ernest Hemingway look-alike contest in Key West Florida) I learn that Paul Auster writes his books using an Olympia typewriter which he's owned since 1974. Vila-Matas admires Auster for sticking with his reliable writing instrument despite the fear of one day being unable to find ribbons. Vila-Matas himself gave up his typewriter because he was unable to find an office supply in Barcelona that carried ribbons for typewriters. And so he started using a computer to write. I've always written with a computer, but feel guilty for not making use of a more primitive writing device. I own several typewriters. In fact, my Royal Portable sits on a shelf not far from the desk where I write. I'm looking at it now, wondering if I shouldn't begin writing twentieth century detective novels and type them on that machine. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, I went without power for a week and so had to write with a pen. Why didn't I move my Royal Portable into the place of honor on my desk? The Internet is a distraction from writing. I have to exercise self-control while I'm using my computer for writing or I'll end up like Riba in Vila-Matas' novel Dublinesque, surfing the Internet and pass my day like a hikikomori rather than a writer.
Vila-Matas says that Auster's writing is charming, like an enchanter. I think I know what Vila-Matas means. When I read Auster, I am pulled along by some invisible force, something akin to magnetism, to continue reading. Even when I become impatient with Auster's texts, a result of encountering some narrative problem that (if I'd been writing the story) would probably have stopped me cold and led me to toss the story out, still I continue reading, charmed and enchanted.
The second story in the New York Trilogy, Ghosts, frustrated me and fascinated me at the same time. Blue, a private detective, is hired by White, to observe Black and file weekly reports on Black's activities. The problem is that Black (apparently a writer) doesn't do anything. He sits and writes. Then Black reads books like Thoreau's Walden. Not the stuff that would be ripe for turning into an action-adventure film. However, I wasn't bored. I kept reading about Blue. I wanted to see how Blue dealt with the boredom caused by his situation. But constantly I wondered why would he continue with such an assignment? Did he really need the money that badly? Were there no other cases more interesting that observing the quiet life of Black from a distance? He could have walked away from his prison at any time. Why did he stay? All I can do is shrug and say, "That is Blue." (The Blue of distance?) Blue stuck with this case until the end, just like I (the Reader) stuck with Auster's story til the end. I could have tossed the book out the window. But I didn't. In that sense, I'm not better than Blue.
As a piece of fiction Ghosts appealed to me. And now that I'm well into The Locked Room I can say I feel the same way about it. I like these stories precisely because they are the sort of stories that I imagine myself writing. The pleasure I take in reading Auster's words is derived in part from envy. I wish I had written those words. And so am I like Vila-Matas who also envies Auster and wants to be like him? No, I can't think that Vila-Matas would read Auster and say, "I wish I had written this." Vila-Matas would read Auster, fling the book across the room, and rush to his computer to write something of his own. I would do better to emulate Vila-Matas. I should stop finishing Auster's books and get busy with the work of writing my own.
The Secret Life of Ghosts
An excerpt from The Spanish Leap.
Immediately, I thought of Roberto Bolaño, a writer I’d begun reading quite by chance in the winter of 2003 and ’04 when a copy of his By Night in Chile appeared on the “new releases” shelf at my local public library where I spent each of those cold, wintery Saturday mornings in the company of books hoping that I would find those hidden roads into the strange lands beyond the borders of my ordinary, every day, Groundhog-day-like life. Soon after reading By Night in Chile a book which I found disturbing and exciting, there appeared a review in The Nation of a new work by Bolaño, a tome (a fat book) with the curious title 2666, a year (I recognized) which was a thousand years after the Great Fire of London.
2666 was for me an astounding and difficult book; the litany of death in the part about the killings was a dark journey through the valley of the shadow. For someone with a naturally melancholic disposition, such journeys are never to be entered into lightly since they exact a certain toll on the spirit. Despite the difficulty or perhaps because of it, when I’d finished reading the book, I immediately began reading it again. Something, some quality of the book, the narrative voice or the atmosphere, drew me back into this strange encounter with a conscience radically different from my own. After rereading 2666 I read another book by Bolaño, A History of Nazi Literature in the Americas — a fascinating and I presumed fabricated (though I’ve never bothered to confirm this assumption with actual research like doing a google search) study of invented authors and imagined works. At this point I was hooked on Bolaño, or thought I was. If anyone asked me, I was poised to drill into the rich veins of Bolaño’s corpus and inhabit those dark interior regions. I began with The Savage Detectives and before I’d finished reading that, I learned from the literary press that more titles from Bolaño would be appearing presently. For a writer who had been dead for five or six years already, he was extremely active, publishing books faster than I could read them. Of course, I understood the reason for this seeming flood of titles by Bolaño washing over the literary landscape. He’d been writing for an entire life time, albeit a life time truncated by illness, and he’d been writing in Spanish. Only now had he broken through into the English-speaking world and an army of translators were laboring feverishly over his texts to feed the apparently insatiable appetite of this new anglophone audience.
One day I decided to take the train into Manhattan just to spend the day walking around gawking at things. This was still during those early days of my time in New York when just being in the city, walking its streets, sitting in its bars and cafés was a source of excitement and interest. I was like a child walking around looking at everything, trying to soak up the sensory data of the city. While I understood that New York was a large stage and I knew that better writers than I had attempted to use New York as their backdrop and failed, but that didn’t deter me. I would try to write at least one New York novel. It might be a bad one, but I was already prepared to write three bad novels before I figured out the trick.
So there I was walking along streets I seen in movies and on television wondering if I was a character in a fiction by some higher author when I chanced upon a bookstore. I went into the bookstore to pay my respects. While browsing I saw a copy of a newly released collection of short stories by Roberto Bolaño. Up to this point, I thought of myself as “pro-Bolaño” — I was interested in his books. But when I reached for that book a sick feeling formed in the pit of my stomach. This momentary revulsion (inexplicable to me at the time) was totally unexpected. Instead of excitement at finding a new title by a familiar author, I reacted with disdain. You’ve got to be kidding me! I thought. How many books is this dead man going to publish?
In a short article printed in Granta on 24 July 2012, Sophia Efthimiatou wrote about Karl Ove Knausgård’s public reading at the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House in Manhattan. Knausgård was doing a brief tour of the east coast to promote a recently published English translation of his book Min Kamp. His appearance at the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House was on the third of May. That day, after putting Patrick on the school bus, I caught the train from Long Neck into Penn Station and met Rasan for lunch. On the train I read from Don Bartlett’s translation published under the title My Struggle by Archipelago Books.
Rasan and I met at the Strand where we meandered slowly through the aisles of fiction allowing the books we saw to prompt memories and declaration of love and admiration for the worlds represented by each paper and ink artifact. We grabbed lunch and a couple of pints. While we ate and drank I told Rasan about my own father and how I reacted to his death. While reading Knausgård’s novel I was comparing notes, checking his own experience and emotional experience against my own.
After lunch Rasan walked the few blocks to the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House. We entered into a small anteroom, the size of a typical living room with a low ceiling and disused fireplace in front of which was a table and a stack of the two titles by Knausgård available from Archipelago. Through a set of French doors we entered another room, also quite small, filled with folding chairs. The room could hold at most twenty people. Rasan and I were among the first people to arrive.
Karl Ove Knausgård arrived and, after opening words delivered by a man whose name I neglected to record, he began to speak about his book. He held a copy of My Struggle in his hands. For a moment he looked like a weather-beaten Biblical prophet reverently holding a record of the sacred words. This is a personal book, he said, in a tone I thought betrayed the depth of his sadness.
As Knausgård spoke and then began to read, I saw Sophia Efthimiatou, though I didn’t know her name until I read her piece in Granta. Equipped with an mp3 recorder, a notebook, and a copy of My Struggle she was a woman at work. I wondered at the time if she was a literary blogger, one of those self-appointed new critics covering the local literary beat.
What Knausgård said that day about his novel affected me; those words planted the seed of a desire not to reproduce for myself was Knausgård had done but to indulge my impulse to write about my own father and his death. My book, Discontent, was born that day.
A week later on the fourteenth of May Rasan and I met again in Manhattan. This time at the Film Forum to see Grant Gee’s film Patience (After Sebald). The seed of Discontent planted by Knausgård germinated in the soil of Gee’s treatment of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn.
Since then I keep returning to Sebald’s book; his words have come to inhabit me. Sebald is inside me. I carry him with me. My relationship with Knausgård is different. He isn’t inside me in the same way that writers like Sebald, Vila-Matas, and Miller are inside me. Knausgård is like an alter-ego, a reflection, a doppelgänger.
I don’t speak Norwegian, nor do I read it. In order to read Knausgård’s six volume book I will have to rely on the work of a translator, in this case Don Bartlett. That day at the Lillian Vernon Writers Center I asked when the next volume would be available. Six months, perhaps. Maybe it was a guess. But, obsessively, I check each month for news of the release of the English translation of volume two of My Struggle. Today, I learned that volume two will be published by Archipelago Book in May 2013.
The fact that I must wait to read the next installment of this novel creates a state of being in process. Knausgård’s book represents a potential, a void which I can only fill by writing. The delay in publication of the next volume forces me to write for a full year in order to pass the time, to fill in the empty space. I am living inside his book, between its covers. To be finished with reading My Struggle would (possibly) relieve me of the obligation of writing Discontent. So I welcome the delay, and exploit the privation to my own benefit.
But my double Knausgård has disappeared, retired to a cabin in the Norwegian countryside where he lives out a quiet life. I imagine that he lives in solitude in the little cabin commissioned by and build for the Austrian logician Ludwig Wittgenstein. And instead of writing --- for Knausgård can write no more --- he reads. He has broken through the carapace of his authorial chrysalis and become an archangel, patiently reading. He has cast off his haggard, wraith-like form, that form diminished of life by the willful emptying of himself, and taken on a new form, the angelic reader. His struggle has entitled him to claim entrance into the kingdom of heaven, the portal of which is indistinguishable from the door of Wittgenstien’s cabin at the edge of a Norwegian forest, above a rocky cliff, overlooking a fjord.
Sophia Efthimiatou recorded something of Knausgård’s experience of writing so much, so quickly: “Of course then you start writing bad sentences. But what is ’quality’ in writing? It has nothing to do, I think, with good sentences... Then I thought, what if I did the opposite? What if I tried to tell everything about a person or a scene?” Of course, you run the risk of not being read, the curse of tens of thousands of would-be novelists who write each November at a breakneck pace to produce works of fifty thousand words or more in thirty days. More than a few of them resort to writing bad sentences and each December a chorus of editors at publishing presses around the world cry out for mercy and deliverance from this avalanche of reckless typing. It’s often taken as a given that these rushed works replete with clichés and tired constructions, bad grammar and riddled with typos, are not worth the paper they are printed on, but if Knausgård is correct, then maybe these novelists of November understand more about the state of the modern novel than editors who close their submissions window on December first to shore up their banks against the on rushing tide of words, words, words.
A Quantum of Text
An excerpt from Red Neck.
Storytelling. All this talk about many particle systems and protectorates (and the metaphysics of time) isn’t a story. Stories must have characters and events. However, I suppose David Markson would (if he were still alive) disagree.
Last November I found a copy Markson’s Vanishing Point in a bookstore in Boston. I took my purchase to a nearby café and began reading immediately. The title interested me since there is a section in my novel Re: Search which I titled “Vanishing Point” after the early 1971 car chase film by Richard Sarafian starring Barry Newman as Kowalski, the rogue driver of a 1970 Dodge Challenger. The film was a favorite of my father’s.
Markson’s book had no car chases or vanishing fathers. Instead it contained a list of trivia about famous and not-so-famous authors, painters, musicians, scientists -- mostly concerning their deaths.
Despite the idiosyncratic syntax (which I quickly adapted to) it was an easy book to read. The litany of trivia compelled me to move on to the next statement or revelation. Even if there is a fact (are they facts?) about someone I have never heard of, I couldn’t wait to move to the next entry to see what juicy tidbit it held.
(Perhaps, this is a way to approach the construction of this archive: stringing together a series of statements and questions. What I wanted to say about Markson’s Vanishing Point was that because of the way the book is constructed -- short quanta of text that are not obviously connected -- the reader can almost proceed without memory. This makes the book ideal for reading in noisy public places were there are constant distractions. However, Markson knows better than to write a book filled with disconnected trivia. The textual quanta that make up the book are connected and topical. The “attentive reader” — the reader that Author most desires — will be rewarded with recapitulations, echoes: neat, compact stitches that pull together loose threads. Threads. The reader does get a sense that they are exploring a tapestry.)
(There are some lines in Vanishing Point about solitude that I wish I had underlined.) Solitude has been my constant mistress. When I am with Solitude she doesn’t not expect me to speak. I can be Silent with Solitude.
Confusing Life with Literature
A few days before my flight to Barcelona I learned that Enrique Vila-Matas had penned the introduction to Sergio Pitol’s The Art of Flight. Quickly, I procured a copy of the book. This is how Vila-Matas begins his introduction: “Life and literature are fused in Sergio Pitol. And I wonder now if there is anything more Cervantesesque that his passion for confusing life and literature.” Continuing I read about how Pitol was renowned for losing his glasses, a point which Vila-Matas makes in his introduction to the book. And in the first chapter of the book, Pitol tells about how he travels to Venice and promptly loses his glasses and so is forced to wander that splendid city in a state of near blindness. As he’s leaving Venice Pitol finds his glasses in the pocket of his coat.
I’d read that much of the book by the time I arrived in Barcelona. After the first session of the conference I was attending the chairman stood up and made an announcement: “A pair of lost glasses has been found. If you’ve lost your glasses, please see the main desk at the entrance of the conference center.” Immediately, I wondered if somehow I’d confused life with literature and I looked around to see if I could spot Sergio Pitol sitting somewhere in the room.