This post also appears on the website of WALES ARTS REVIEW today. The new re-vamped Wales Arts Review serves as a media platform where a new generation of critics and arts lovers can meet to engage in a robust and inclusive discussion about books, theatre, film, music, the visual arts, politics, and the media.
This morning, after a restless night, I spent a couple of hours picking up books from the shelves around my room, almost at random, dipping into them, dropping them on the floor, where I will find them later and replace them, equally randomly, between new and often unsuitable neighbours. Sometimes I stop and write down a line or two in a notebook, then move on. When I look at the notebook some days from now, I will be curious to know what the point of all this is.
Following a recent discussion about writers who stop writing, and of writers who kill their darlings (see last post, 1 Jan), I start thinking about the Mexican writer and photographer Juan Rulfo, and return, in my grazing, to Pedro Páramo, a brilliant and perplexing short novel, which, on its appearance in 1955 made such a profound impression on the Hispanic literary world, from Borges to Asturias to García Márquez. (Readers of Spanish can find the latter’s account of his discovery of Rulfo’s book here).
I read Pedro Páramo some years ago and return to it now with curiosity, because my memory of it, I discover, is as vague and dreamlike as the book itself.
According to Susan Sontag, in her introduction to the English translation, by Margaret Sayers Peden:
Rulfo has said that he carried Pedro Páramo inside him for many years before he knew how to write it. Rather, he was writing hundreds of pages and then discarding them. He once called the novel an exercise in elimination.
“The practice of writing the short story disciplined me,” he said, “and made me see the need to disappear and to leave my characters the freedom to talk at will, which provoked, it would seem, a lack of structure. Yes, there is a structure in Pedro Páramo, but it is a structure made of silences, of hanging threads, of cut scenes, where everything occurs in a simultaneous time which is a no-time.”
Rulfo’s life, as well as his book, has become legendary. He left behind only around 300 pages of writing; but those pages, according to García Márquez, are as important to us as the 300 or so extant pages of Sophocles – an extraordinary claim, you might think. Rulfo published his books in early middle age (there is a collection of short stories, translated as The Burning Plain, and another short novel, Ell gallo de oro), but for the next 30 years he did not publish anything, although he had taken up photography in the 1940s and continued taking (and occasionally publishing) pictures throughout his life. He was an inveterate traveller, and drinker. He destroyed the long awaited second novel, La Cordillera, a few years before his death at the age of 68 in 1986. Since his death his widow has overseen the publication of his notebooks, and fragments from the unfinished novel, although, as she confesses in her introduction to the notebooks, Rulfo would not have approved, and that she felt she might be doing “something awful” in publishing them.
Juan Rulfo explained his long literary silence in an interview as follows: “Writing causes me to undergo tremendous anxiety. The empty white page is a terrible thing.”
The modern novel obsesses about itself. For many writers of novels, and of short stories, the act of narration itself becomes the topic of storytelling. I was culpable of this myself in my first foray into novel-writing, The Colour of a Dog Running Away, which is (and which always set out to be) a study in the art of storytelling, and in which the nature of the story being told is itself always and forever under scrutiny. I was, in those days – and in many ways remain – a disciple of Italo Calvino in this respect.
But how much of this reflexivity can we all take? I am currently reading Marina Warner’s ‘Stranger Magic: Charmed States and The Arabian Nights’ and am again struck, as I was in my childhood, by the sheer joy of storytelling in these archetypal and magical tales. I am reminded of Borges’ comment that all great literature becomes children’s literature, about which Warner comments: “he was thinking of The Odyssey, Don Quixote, Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe as well as Tales of A Thousand and One Nights, but his paradox depends on the deep universal pleasures of storytelling for young and old: stories like those in the Arabian Nights place the audience in the position of a child, at the mercy of the future, of life and its plots, just as the protagonists of the Nights are subject to unknown fates, both terrible and marvellous.”
How far, then, is this mode of ‘simple’ storytelling from the convoluted twistings of what Tim Parks, in a recent article in The New York Review of Books, calls ‘the chattering mind’. Parks identifies this state of terminal parodic self-observation as the status quo of contemporary literary fiction (and presumably includes himself as an exemplar within this category). ‘Mental chatter’ (which several critics appeared to dislike about my Dog) can be seen as the single defining characteristic of this mindset:
Butor, Sarraute, Robbe-Grillet, Thomas Bernhard, Phillip Roth, Updike, David Foster Wallace, James Kelman, Alison Kennedy, Will Self, Sandro Veronesi, and scores upon scores of others all find new ways of exasperating and savouring this mental chatter: minds crawling through mud in the dark, minds trapped in lattices of light and shade, minds dividing into many voices, minds talking to themselves in second person, minds enthralled in sexual obsession, minds inflaming themselves with every kind of intoxicant, minds searching for oblivion, but not finding it, fearing they may not find it even in death.
Perhaps the challenge for novelists now is to find simplicity without being simplistic, to tap into the root of an intuitively convincing, spellbinding narrative that engages the reader at different levels (but without seeming pretentious on this score) and which, while allowing the chattering mind its share of the spoils, does not allow this bullying King Baby total dominance of the reading experience.
Otherwise we keep treading the endless spiral explored by Beckett, curator of the chattering mind school of literature, which, absorbing as it is, leads only to where one began, in endless repetition.
I realize now, in my middle fifties, what a huge, and in many ways, destructive influence Beckett wielded on so many of us growing up in the Godot generation (it was first performed three years before I was born); as much, say, as the influence that Joyce held over Beckett, and which he spent so long attempting to shed.
Tim Parks again:
Beckett exposes the spiral whereby the more the mind circles around its impasse, taking pride in its resources of observation, so the deeper the impasse becomes, the sharper the pain, the greater the need to find a shred of self-respect in the ability at least to describe one’s downfall. And so on. But understanding the trap, and the perversity of the consolation that confirms the trap, doesn’t mean you’ve found a way out of it; to have seen through literary consolation is just another source of consolation: at least I’ve understood and brilliantly dramatized the futility of my brilliant exploration of my utter impotence.
I will, however – no, therefore – continue in my quest to find the hidden passageways that connect A Thousand and One Nights with Endgame.