Ricardo Blanco's Blog

‘Terra Nostra’ by Carlos Fuentes

Incredible the first animal that dreamed of another animal. Monstrous the first vertebrate that succeeded in standing on two feet and thus spread terror among the beasts still normally and happily crawling close to the ground through the slime of creation. Astounding the first telephone call, the first boiling water, the first song, the first loincloth.

Carlos Fuentes, who died this week, wrote a great number of novels and stories, as well as some exceptionally fine essays. He was, along with Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, Alejo Carpentier and Octavio Paz, representative of a generation of Latin American authors who took the world by storm in the 1960s and 70s.

My first and most lasting encounter with Fuentes took place when I was 22 years old and recovering from an accident, when I read the fabulous and hallucinatory Terra Nostra, the opening lines of which are reproduced above. In spite of the far greater success of his other novels, such as The Death of Artemio Cruz, Change of Skin and The Old Gringo (made into a movie with Gregory Peck), for me it is Terra Nostra, a sprawling, futuristic epic, concerned with the beginnings of Europe’s occupation of America, the phantom marriage of Elizabeth, Queen of England, with Phillip II of Spain, and dark investigations into medieval Paris, all tied up and shaken (as far as I can remember) with lashing of surrealist humour and a good deal of neo-baroque terror, that will summarize  Fuentes’ achievement.

Funnily enough, Andrés Neuman’s description of his own novel, Traveller of the Century, as ‘a futuristic novel that happens in the past’ comes to mind as an entirely appropriate description of Fuentes’ antecedent.

In his Introduction to the Dalkey Archive edition, Jorge Volpi writes: “Terra Nostra is not a simple novel. It is a malfunctioning time tunnel; the entrance to a labyrinth of mirrors; a hell – or a purgatory – in which all memories and echoes intermingle; the gigantic rotting place of history; a jig-saw puzzle put together incorrectly or Chinese boxes that become deeper every moment . . . the underwater tunnel that joins Europe and America; the black hole that connects past, present and future . . .”

I have Terra Nostra in front of me now, the 2003 edition, with an afterword by Milan Kundera. Nearly 800 pages of it, and the pages are big. I wonder if re-reading can ever re-capture the excitement and hunger of reading a great book the first time round? Maybe the pleasure of re-reading are entirely distinct from those of first-time discovery. Maybe I’ll just be disappointed. Maybe I’ll just peek inside, flick through the pages, see what leaps out . . .  perhaps this is a preferable way to revisit old favourite books and places.

At Swim-Two-Birds and an absence of frantic sorrow

 

My favourite novel when I was nineteen years of age and had just moved to London was At-Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien and it was with some pleasure that I dipped into an article by Colm Tóibín in the London Review of Books last week entitled ‘Flann O’Brien’s lies’. The essay weaves a fascinating connecting thread between O’Brien’s Dublin, Borges’s Buenos Aires and Pessoa’s Lisbon, and considers these three writers as sharing a fundamental sense of marginality, living in these sea-facing cities, all three of them writing fictions in which ‘they invented further personae and indeed further worlds’ –  all three of them writing under alternative identities.

‘An oasis will not appear in a fertile plain. It is impossible to write fiction filled with choices and chances and continuities in a society where these things are thinly spread. In a society where there is no body of readers, it is not easy to write with a reader in mind, a reader who wants a story in which time is represented in a straight line and in which characters are filled with feelings and longings, and in which plot satisfies some large set of rules which insist on completion, and in which words represent what the dictionary states they represent, and in which language is natural and part of a shared culture. It is much easier to make a story or a novel in which the reader is already built-in and which wrong-foots or even usurps the idea of reading. While novelists who wrote in formed, settled and multi-layered societies held a mirror up to those societies in all their variety or to the vicissitudes of the human heart, Borges and O’Brien and Pessoa held instead a mirage up to an oasis, the strange place they came from which gave them their first taste of thirst.’

Thirst was certainly a passion of O’Brien’s, and it eventually killed him, though this, of course, is not what Tóibín means, strictly speaking.

I have always thought At Swim-Two-Birds was O’Brien’s best book. Although people generally go on about The Third Policeman, I was never such a fan. The Poor Mouth – his own translation of his Gaelic novel An Beal Bocht –  was hilarious, although I daresay I missed a lot of the nuances. The rest of his work, notably The Hard Life and The Dalkey Archive are derivative or cannibalistic of his earlier stuff. The newspaper column in The Irish Times was fabulous. But with his first book, O’Brien achieved something he would never quite manage again.

‘The aim of At Swim-Two-Birds was to lose control, to take the pieces and refuse to reconcile them, to insist that it was too late for such trickery. O’Brien refused to believe that the writer recreates the world, but instead he set out to show that the world re-creates the writer, and that both the writer and the world are, or might be, a set of illusions, highly implausible, not even worth mistrusting, and that all we have fully to mistrust are pages and the words on them.’

The article also quotes an extract from Henry James, which indicates precisely the kind of novelist James despaired of, and precisely the kind of writer O’Brien was: one who had not the remotest interest in earnestly capturing a particular quality of truth that pretends or claims to be lodged in reality, and who thereby recognizes that ‘realism’ is itself only a particular, stylised mode of representation. For O’Brien, and others like him, the point of fiction lies elsewhere, and largely, though not exclusively, in the telling itself.

Finally, Tóibín cites an absolute gem from Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet:

‘Why should I care that no one reads what I write? I write to forget about life, and I publish because that is one of the rules of the game. If tomorrow all my writings were lost, I’d be sorry, but I doubt I’d be violently and frantically sorry.’

 

 

 

The Vagabond’s Breakfast: a perfect stocking filler (wash thoroughly after use)

 

Thanks to Scott Pack for his mention of The Vagabond’s Breakfast and selecting it as runner-up in his top ten ‘Books of the Year.’

Scott says:

The fact that it (The Vagabond’s Breakfast) has been totally ignored by the mainstream literary press – it managed one review in the Morning Star – is bloody annoying but not all that surprising. I don’t think literary editors go looking for great books any more, they are content to wait for them to fall into their laps. Although they still miss them when that happens.

The VB also made it into the hallowed pages of Times Literary Supplement, featuring in its ‘Books of the Year’, as one of the choices of Patrick McGuinness, so perhaps I’d better quote that too:

Richard Gwyn began The Vagabond’s Breakfast while recovering from a liver transplant. A memoir of the nine years of drink, drugs and vagrancy that did for his first liver, it’s a jagged tale gracefully told. Full of humane surreality, there’s something whole, even holistic, about the brokenness of the life it pieces (back) together. Like many books about illness, it’s also about health: Gwyn is a citizen of both realms, describing life with “two passports.”

It is still not too late for you to buy a copy of The Vagabond’s Breakfast as a yuletide gift for your beloved or for a friend or deserving relative, through The Book Depository (£7.23 plus free worldwide delivery), Abebooks (various prices) or even Amazon (£6.99 plus free UK delivery).

Such shameless self-promotion would be scandalous were this not being written at arm’s length for me by my amigo, accomplice, intermediary and sometime translator, Señor Ricardo Blanco.

 

 

 

 

The forlorn penis of Michel Houellebecq

Michel Houellebecq, illustrating his unique cigarette-wielding technique

The publication in English of a new novel by Michel Houellebecq, The Map and the Territory, causes me to reflect for a moment on that author, and it occurs to me that whenever I put down a book by Houellebecq I almost immediately forget all about it, until I pick up the next one, which probably says something about how deeply I engage with him as a writer. So what I am about to recount might come as something as a surprise.

Earlier this year I went to a conference: ‘Myth and Subversion in the Contemporary Novel’. I hardly ever attend academic conferences, mostly because they are very tedious affairs, but I felt compelled to go to this one because the title of the conference was so very appealing: who could resist it? Moreover it took place in Madrid, at the Universidad Complutense, in springtime. My hastily written paper was called ‘Promethean Variations: From Wells to Houellebecq’ but it is worth considering what else I might have called it: ‘Michel Houellebecq and the paradigm of eternal youth’ was an early option, and so was ‘The forlorn penis of Michel Houellebecq’. The latter phrase got wedged in my thoughts (there are worse places it might have become wedged) and I could not remember whether I had truly invented it (or dreamed it, rather an awful thought) or had simply read it somewhere and forgotten where. I tried googling the phrase but without success. And yet this title, whether my own or someone else’s, is perhaps most apt. ‘The forlorn penis of Michel Houellebecq’ allows a vicarious and not altogether unfair insight into Houellbecq’s contribution to the erotics of literature – the tragic denouement of his invariably disappointed, frustrated, put-upon, self-absorbed and eventually flaccid male protagonists. And yet, joking aside, what interested me, at least in part, and what impressed me on first reading Houellebecq’s novels – which I came to only recently – was brought about by one of the most dreadful Reality TV shows I have ever had the misfortune to watch, and which I endured with growing consternation one evening in the summer of 2010 while staying at a hotel in Orléans.

The premise of this particular show was unusually inventive, even by the absurd standards of Reality TV. It involved a man in his mid forties – classical Houellebecq material – being set up to meet two ex-girlfriends; one from 25 years earlier, the other, rather ludicrously, from 35 years before, when the protagonists were only 10 years old. Harry – in spite of his years he had retained boyish good looks and a mane of white hair – was not only looking for love, but looking for someone with whom he could parent a fourth child.

Myrtle, his first true love, who went out with him when they were both 19, now lives in Los Angeles, works as a model and does not want children. Laurence, whom he last saw skiing in Chamonix in 1976, works as a gymnastics instructor at a big tourist resort in Turkey. Both of these middle-aged French women are fitness fanatics, trying to retain their youth, while Harry is actually attempting to re-live his youth. The whole premise of the show is like a televisual encapsulation of a Houellebecq novel, without the sex. Because when Harry finally settles on Myrtle and flies over to stay with her in LA she tells him he has to sleep on the sofa, and that she does not want children, definitively, ever. Harry is distraught. He has blown it with Laurence and cannot turn back. Although she is open to the idea of having a child with Harry, she looks her age, and this seems to put Harry off. By choosing Myrtle, who looks much as she did at 19, thanks to her fitness regime and some choice plastic surgery, he feels he can reclaim his youth, in spite of the fact that he has absolutely nothing in common with her and shares none of the same ambitions. Perpetual youth is the sole objective. As Houellebecq puts it in his most successful novel, Atomised: ‘sexual desire is preoccupied with youth’ and, as Isabelle, Daniel’s first wife in The Possibility of an Island remarks: All we’re trying to do is create an artificial mankind, a frivolous one that will no longer be open to seriousness or to humor, which, until it dies, will engage in an increasingly desperate quest for fun and sex; a generation of definitive kids.

Unfortunately, the text of my paper disappeared along with the hard drive of my old macbook (see post for 2 September), so I cannot regale you with the intricate arguments I made in support of my (by no means original) notion that Houellebecq’s fictions are guided by the delusional quest for the fount of eternal youth, and therefore, in some respects, embody the myth of continuous self-renewal symbolised by Prometheus. Nor can I review his new book, not having read it, but I am encouraged by reports that it marks a new departure for an author who was in danger of repeating himself interminably (it also won the Prix Goncourt, which must count for something). But here is a clip of the incorrigible Monsieur Houellebecq, being interviewed by poor old Lawrence Pollard of the ‘Culture Show’, which is apparently a TV programme, not a reggae band. My favourite quote from the interview: ‘As soon as I start talking about my life I start lying straightaway. To begin with I lie consciously and very quickly I forget that I’m lying’. How fortunate, gentle reader, that the same cannot be said of Blanco, blogging bloodhound of Ultimate Truth, or la vérité ultime as we say in France.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Thousand Yawns of Ricardo Blanco

It doesn’t give me any kind of pleasure to give a book a poor review, but having spent an awfully long time reading something, and trying to engage with it as a work of art, I do feel a bit pissed off if the thing is getting tons of media attention when more modest, but far more skilfully written works are passed over by the monolithic media machine of our publishing culture.

I started reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet on my summer holidays, was interrupted, picked it up and got rather bored, was convinced by Cees Nooteboom (who I see is credited in the acknowledgements) to give it another try; and finally yesterday, after a six-hour stint of compulsory bed rest in Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital, I managed to get to the end.

Really, I don’t know what all the fuss is about. Mitchell doesn’t write many duff sentences, at least compared with the trashier writers of the day, but then neither are there many great passages of the kind that I enjoyed in Cloud Atlas. However, like the earlier novel, The Thousand Autumns is filled with too many set pieces, and they always, but always sound like set pieces. That’s the price you pay for padding out a longer novel, I guess.

The title is mildly irritating, following as it does the clichéd formula of concept plus OF plus name (preferably an odd-sounding name). But more tiresome is the tedium of the truncated sentence formula alternating with the capacity of all the characters (but particularly de Zoet himself) to think out loud in italics.

 

It is dear Anna whom I love, Jacob recites, and I whom Anna loves.

Beneath his glaze of sweat he sweats. His bed linen is sodden.

Miss Aibagawa is as untouchable, he thinks, as a woman in a picture . . .

Jacob imagines he can hear a harpsichord.

. . . spied through a keyhole in a cottage happened upon once in a lifetime . . .

The notes are spidery and starlit and spun from glass.

Jacob can hear a harpsichord: it is the doctor, playing in his long attic.

 

(The doctor, incidentally is one Marinus, who has all the sensibilities of a late 20th century liberal haphazardly dumped into the late eighteenth).

This is not bad writing: it just isn’t much good, and I certainly don’t see why all the leading newspapers’ reviewers swooned over it (and they all did). “I doubt there is another living English writer who is capable of such traversals of worlds and consciousness,” trilled The Guardian. But, reader, I was bored.  I yawned a thousand yawns. I kept thinking I was being uncharitable towards Mr Mitchell and should give it a few more pages, but as I drew towards page five hundred and fifty, I felt that I’d been had, and that this was just a bestseller bandwagon book.

I should follow my gut instinct in future and refrain from buying books in airports simply because they have a bunch of rave reviews, but I probably won’t, as from time to time curiosity wins out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Discovery of Slowness

Tortoise of the Alberas, sunning himself

Met up with this tortoise on a walk in the Albera range yesterday morning. The Alberas are home to the last natural population of the Mediterranean tortoise (Testudo h. hermanni) in the Iberian Peninsula, and they are a protected species.

One of my walking companions, a friend and local farmer with family affiliations to the land around here that go back many generations says that its size indicates it is at least a hundred years old. Its markings suggest it is a male. This means Tortoise was wandering along these paths when our chaps went over the top on the first day of the Somme, when Lenin’s revolutionaries stormed Petersburg. By the time of the Spanish Civil War, when these hills were teeming with refugees and war-wounded, Tortoise would have marked out his territory and become familiar with every ditch and rock and bush on his patch.

Tortoise with human hand (female)

Tortoise makes getaway

He was sunning himself when we approached, and retreated into his shell to avoid the attentions of our dog. But once the dog was kept away he re-emerged to take a look at us. Then, having determined that we didn’t pose a threat, he set off down a bank, at considerable speed – well, relatively speaking – negotiating stones and clumps of bush with clumsy determination. He moved, I would say, with deliberation and with definite purpose, although he was not going to be hurried.

Which brings me neatly to the point. I am reading Sten Nadolny’s The Discovery of Slowness. The book is about the life of John Franklin, the nineteenth century polar explorer. John had issues as a child, and as a young man, concerning his slowness. The novel catalogues his subtle protest at the institutionalised imposition of quickness or speed. He struggles single-handedly to legitimize his own slowness, and in his own fashion, he succeeds. It is a wonderful novel, beautifully translated by Ralph Freedman. To press my recent argument in this blog about literature in translation, I should point out that the novel was published in German in 1983 and had to wait twenty years before appearing in English in 2003. In the meantime two hundred thousand crap novels were published in English, which no one will ever remember.

Some of my favourite lines from The Discovery of Slowness so far:

“A good story doesn’t need a purpose.”

“John was in search of a place where nobody would find him too slow. Such a place could still be far away, however.”

“He wandered through the town and pondered man’s speeds. If it was true that some people were slow by nature, this should remain so. It was probably not given to them to be like others.”

“There are two kinds [of seeing]: an eye for details, which discovers new things, and a fixed look that follows only a ready-made plan and speeds it up for the moment. If you don’t understand me, I can’t say it any other way. Even these sentences gave me a lot of trouble.”

And, of course, Achilles and the tortoise: John’s old schoolmaster, Dr Orme, attempts to explain one of the Paradoxes of Zeno:

“‘Achilles, the fastest runner in the world, was so slow that he couldn’t overtake a tortoise.’ He waited until John had fully grasped the madness of this assertion. ‘Achilles gave the tortoise a head start. They started at the same time. Then he ran to where the tortoise had been, but it had already reached a new point. When he ran to the next point the tortoise had crawled on again. And so it went, innumerable times. The distance between them lessened, but he never caught up with the tortoise.’ John squeezed his eyes shut and considered this. Tortoise? he thought, and looked at the ground. He observed Dr Orme’s shoes. Achilles? That was something made up.”

That was something made up. The whole ‘Achilles and the tortoise’ thing is made up. It’s a nonsense, and I remember thinking the same thing as a boy myself. It is the kind of idiot sophism upon which Western Philosophy seems to be founded. Who believes this stuff anyway? I had the same feeling as John Franklin when I came across Zeno’s Paradox – no doubt via Aesop’s fables – which provides the prototype of the tortoise story.

As Aristotle summarized: “In a race, the quickest runner can never overtake the slowest, since the pursuer must first reach the point whence the pursued started, so that the slower must always hold a lead.”

But who says the pursuer must reach the point whence the pursued started? Why? Why does everyone accept these assertions as though they were a given when they read these ancient texts, whether Greek or Chinese, the kind ‘steeped in ancient wisdom’? Why can’t the pursuer avoid the point at which the pursued started? Why does no one ask these obvious fucking questions? Is it some kind of convention, by which we all suspend our critical faculties and pretend to be idiots so as to have someone’s pet theory proved right, be it Zeno, Aristotle or Christopher Columbus?  But I digress.

It’s no longer useful, as a universal principle, to assume that fast is necessarily better than slow. Fast food, fast sex, fast money, faster death. I rest my case. We all know we can do speed, and what is costs.

I believe that in an era where speed is probably a more highly-valued commodity than love, The Discovery of Slowness delivers a salutary message.

 

Coetzee’s Foe

 

‘When I was young there were degrees of certainty’: these words I quoted the other day from Anne Carson evoke a sense of certainty instilled by the repetition of known stories. In childhood, if the world makes sense at all it does so because the stories we hear about it cohere. The ‘storied world’ takes on new meaning when applied to the central character of J.M. Coetzee’s Foe, one Susan Barton, who, having travelled to Brazil to search for her kidnapped daughter, is cast adrift by mutineers, and washed up on an island inhabited by a dull and grumpy ‘Cruso’ (who after briefly becoming her lover, dies on her) and a mute Friday, whose tongue has been cut out, according to Cruso, by slavers.

Coetzee’s book is a story about the making of stories. Susan, on her rescue and return to England, writes an account of her adventure and sends it in instalments to the famous writer Mr Daniel Foe, while living in penury with Friday, first in rented accommodation in London, then on the open road as vagrants. She convinces herself – what a common fantasy – that the telling of her story will make her fortune:

“The Female Castaway. Being a True Account of a Year Spent on a Desert Island. With Many Strange Circumstances Never Hitherto Related.” Then I made a list of all the strange circumstances of the year I could remember: the mutiny and murder on the Portuguese ship, Cruso’s castle, Cruso himself with his lion’s mane and apeskin clothes, his voiceless slave Friday, the vast terraces he had built, all bare of growth, the terrible storm that tore the roof off our house and heaped the beaches with dying fish. Dubiously I thought: Are these enough strange circumstances to make a story of? How long before I am driven to invent new and stranger circumstances: the salvage of tools and muskets from Cruso’s ship; the building of a boat, or at least a skiff, and a venture to the mainland; a landing by cannibals on the island, followed by a skirmish and many bloody deaths; and, at last, the coming of a golden-haired stranger with a sack of corn, and the planting of the terraces? Alas, will the day ever arrive when we can make a story without strange circumstances?

Thus Susan Barton is unwittingly made the mouthpiece for the story Defoe actually wrote (but she cannot). How poor Susan needs to satisfy the need to tell and tell, and yet not to cross that invisible line into mere ‘invention’. How curious that the confection of her story demands such truth-telling; and yet all around her are those whose very lives depend on the invention of fictions.

This is a book rich is allusion, and in stimulating reflection on the writer’s life. Here is Foe speaking to Susan: “You and I know, in our different ways, how rambling an occupation writing is; and conjuring is surely much the same. We sit staring out of the window, and a cloud shaped like a camel passes by, and before we know it our fantasy has whisked us away to the sands of Africa and our hero (who is no one but ourselves in disguise) is clashing scimitars with a Moorish brigand. A new cloud floats past in the form of a sailing-ship, and in a trice we are cast ashore all woebegone on a desert isle. Have we cause to believe that the lives it is given us to live proceed with any more design than these whimsical adventures?”

And here is the crux of it: all our lives are story; much of that story is conjecture, the rest invention. A tale heard in passing between sunrise and sunset. There is room for many more such stories. Or, as Coetzee’s Susan tells the mute servant Friday, after being confronted by a strange girl who insists she is Susan’s long-lost daughter:

“It is nothing, Friday . . . it is only a poor mad girl come to join us. In Mr Foe’s house there are many mansions. We are as yet only a castaway and a dumb slave and now a madwoman. There is place yet for lepers and acrobats and pirates and whores to join our menagerie.”

Even without the lepers and acrobats and pirates and whores, Coetzee has the patience to furnish a story that is both intriguing and beautifully crafted. And my copy now carries the invisible traces of a thousand other stories, and of a hot day in August.

 

 

How to talk about books you haven’t read (and how to write like Kafka)

 

 

I wake up early, make tea, return to bed, and start reflecting on the many, many books that I have not read, that I will in all probability never read. In an attempt to console myself (not that I am really all that bothered), I recall Pierre Bayard’s highly entertaining How to talk about books you haven’t read, which I always recommend to students at the university. It was a significantly more rewarding read than the title might suggest. And as for the techniques of reading a huge amount at speed: why bother? Unless, of course you are judging some competition and are required to read ninety novels in a month, in which case I have heard it is a good idea to read the first two chapters and the last, and if they are promising, to read the bits in between. In fact that might be a good attitude to apply to all fiction reading: It is horrible being caught up in a novel that you don’t want to be reading – in fact there are a thousand things you would rather be doing – but you somehow feel obliged to finish. The last time I had that experience was with Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow, which I thought quite dreadful, but out of some obscure sense of obligation, perhaps for once having enjoyed Money – I plodded on like an earnest foot-soldier to the bitter end. And then I decided: no more. No longer will I make myself finish the long book that is boring me to tears. So Bayard’s advice is well heeded. If you want to find out more, read his book. Besides – returning to my original line of thought – no one has read everything, not even Borges. But that needn’t stop you talking as if you had, according to Bayard, at least.

That there are so many books in the world would indicate that there is a lot to write about, but this does not always seem to be the case for the aspiring writer. Undergraduate students at the university where I teach often complain of not having anything to write about, by which they mean that their resources are limited by age and experience (a bit like applying for your first job). One way around this is to heed the advice given by Kafka, that “you don’t sit in your room and set out to write a story; if you just wait for it to happen, it will”. This might have been the way it was for Kafka: it certainly doesn’t always work with my students. But hang on (I hear you say) – where and when did Kafka say this? I have just lifted it from my notebook, because on 18th June, following my appearance with the delightful and hilarious Sandi Toksvig on Excess Baggage, I pootled along to the British Museum, where the London Review of Books was hosting a series of talks on World Literature. I walked in on a session with the Galician novelist Manuel Rivas, and the scribble in my notebook can be attributed to him. What he was attempting to summarize, from Kafka’s notebooks, was this: “You need not leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. You need not even listen, simply wait, just learn to become quiet, and still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” Which is rather different, but probably still of not much help to my students, who would willingly beg, borrow, or steal their £9k a year fees to have anything rolling in ecstasy at their feet. What student writers regularly misunderstand is that they have to actually start writing before the ideas happen: they will arrive at the ideas through the practice of writing. Ideas don’t necessarily always ignite the writing: the writing can ignite the ideas. That’s why I always recommend them to just start writing, anything, freewriting or even nonsense, just to get into the swing of it, and then, with luck, the ideas will come.

Rivas came up with another quotation that I have no means of verifying, from Claude Lévi-Strauss, whom I last studied in any detail as a student at the LSE many years ago. According to Rivas, L-S said that in Greek times people and animals shared the same earth. Which I liked enough to jot down in my notebook also (they are the only two jottings from the Rivas talk). I love the idea of people and animals sharing the earth in respectful harmony, and for that reason have chosen a picture by Franz Marc to head this entry, Marc had a keen sensibility to the animal world, and was famous for going everywhere with his large white dog.

As a postscript, Mrs Blanco was a little concerned that I may have given the impression in my blog of 24th July that she did not think I was passionate. To set the record straight, this is neither the impression I meant to give, nor is it the opinion that she holds, and would add that a love of books is by no means incompatible with a passionate nature.

And finally, living proof that, as Goethe said, by simply making the effort to do something, the forces of providence will begin to move with you (or something like that) I find – while on my search for the correct wording of the one about sitting in your room and waiting, another quote from Kafka’s diaries for all aspiring bloggers (who are the diarists of our era), from February 25, 1912: “Hold fast to the diary from today on! Write regularly! Don’t surrender! Even if no salvation should come, I want to be worthy of it at every moment.” Huzzah!

 

 

Why write novels?

I just read Claire Keegan’s ‘The Forester’s Daughter’, from her 2007 collection Walk the Blue Fields. It is a story of smouldering regret and awful intelligence, and has the emotional punch of a novel compacted into forty pages. This is a timely read for me, as it revives two questions: why read novels, and the more pressing one of why write them?

The novel, as I was personally reminded in an email correspondence only last week, demands linking passages, backstory, explanation, exposition, all manner of tedious filler that somehow has to be presented as though it were integral to the process.

You might argue that this is what the good novelist does – and that this is what differentiates the good from the mediocre. But why would you go to all that trouble when you can say what you need to say in 40 pages, as Keegan manages so effectively in ‘The Forester’s Daughter’? We are given a small community in rural Ireland, an old house, a farm, and a family: Deegan, Martha, their children (the son who wants out, the simpleton second boy, and the daughter, a rare bird, and a dog). The father, while not utterly wretched, is a man whose poor judgement is capable of snuffing out all capacity for love and trust. The story’s purpose is achieved without the excess 250 pages or more of padding that a novel would necessitate and the reader is left with something like enlightened gratitude rather than that familiar struggle just to get to the end – a condition I almost inevitably find myself in when reading novels these days. In an earlier piece on Borges in this blog I quoted the Argentinian as saying: “It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books — setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them.” If only more people heeded this advice, there would be less junk to get through.

Most novelists I talk to tell me that at least one point in the writing of every book they ask themselves why exactly they are doing this. It is exhausting, obsessive, wrecks your sleep, and, unless you are in a tiny minority, will make you a negligible amount of money, or none at all. And yet there is a widespread prejudice in the publishing world, and among readers, that the novel is somehow the highest achievement for a writer, and it is the writing of a bestselling novel that, whoever might say otherwise, still motivates most students applying for an MA in Creative Writing.

I write to a friend that I am working on a novel that I started five years ago and have been dipping in and out of ever since, trying to find where it wants me to go. At one point I was 35,000 words in. Now I am 20,000 words in, and shrinking. I am approaching the task with enthusiasm for a shorter word count by the day, and also with a healthy skepticism for the genre of the novel itself.

In the past I might have said I read novels in the remote expectation that the writer will tell me something interesting in a new or stimulating way, but now that I write them, I am not so sure. I write for the same reason that I read: to explore, to seek out boundaries, to ask questions for which there are no simple answers and whose scope or complexity cannot be abridged by the shorter form of the story. But after reading a story like The Forester’s Daughter’ I have to wonder whether that is necessarily the case.