Since I began teaching creative writing, some fifteen years ago, I have become accustomed to the sad refrain from younger writers that although they fervently wish to write – or perhaps ‘become a writer’, which may or may not be the same thing – they don’t have anything to say.
It was with some pleasure, therefore, that I noted, during my leisurely (i.e. very slow) re-reading of Proust, the following passage:
‘. . . since I wanted to be a writer some day, it was time to find out what I meant to write. But as soon as I asked myself this, trying to find a subject in which I could anchor some infinite philosophical meaning, my mind would stop functioning, I could no longer see anything but empty space before my attentive eyes, I felt that I had no talent or perhaps a disease of the brain kept it from being born.’ (The Way by Swann’s, Lydia Davis translation).
But interestingly – at least for my purposes – the suggestion is made that the answer to his lack of inspiration might be found in the things around him, the very things, in other words, that are distracting to him:
‘ . . . suddenly a roof, a glimmer of sun on stone, the smell of the road would stop me because of a particular pleasure they gave me, and also because they seemed to be concealing, beyond what I could see, something which they were inviting me to come and take, and which despite my efforts I could not manage to discover . . . I would concentrate on recalling precisely the line of the roof, the shade of the stone which, without my being able to understand why, had seemed to me so full, so ready to open, to yield the thing for which they themselves were merely a cover. Of course it was not impressions of this kind that could give me back the hope I had lost, of succeeding in becoming a writer and a poet some day, because they were always tied to a particular object with no intellectual value and no reference to any abstract truth. But at least they gave me an unreasoning pleasure, the illusion of a sort of fecundity, and so distracted me from the tedium, from the sense of my own impotence which I had felt each time I looked for a philosophical subject for a great literary work.’
It is noteworthy here how Proust (through his young protagonist, Marcel) disavows any connection between these ‘objects with no intellectual value’, and his frustrated desire to write. For it is that very particularity, that sense of thingness (which always, as Proust suggests, is a cover for something else, something ineffable) that so often provides the starting point for a writer, if only he or she would look.
‘No ideas but in things’: the line by William Carlos Williams has been taken up as a mantra by teachers of poetry to students obsessed, like the young Marcel, with trying to convey deep philosophical concepts, and instead sinking in a morass of tired imagery, expressed through endless clichés of emotion and language.
I think this is the notion I was trying to convey in my post of 29th August. You can simply be drawn in by some aspect of the inanimate world without knowing why. Not that everything is a metaphor, precisely, nor even that every object is a cover for something else (Borges reminds us that a stone might want just to be stone, a tiger a tiger), but that, using Ricardo Piglia’s thesis of the short story as an analogy, every account, every story conceals within it another telling, a secret story, and it is the quest for this other story that leads young Marcel, in his walks with his grandfather near the beginning of A la recherche du temps perdu to understand that this great, almost suffocating desire to be a writer – a desire that one observes (though perhaps in a less astutely articulated form) in many young students of creative writing who likewise find difficulty in finding subject matter to accommodate their ambitions – might encounter a solution by looking at ‘things’ in the world, rather than heading straight for the ‘idea’.
Finally, an insight from Jane Smiley, in her 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, which drily sets to rest the maddening condition familiar to all writers of wanting to start a piece of writing, but managing to find any number of things to prevent them from doing so:
‘My definition of “inspiration” is “a condition of being stimulated by contemplation of the material to a degree sufficient to overcome your natural disinclination to create.”’
When I remember things from childhood or early adulthood, it often feels as though I am a passive subject, a receptacle or vessel, and the process of remembering becomes one in which memory is seeking me out, digging its way into my sense-making apparatus, rather than there being any sort of ‘I’ trying to make sense of the things remembered.
I am all too aware that as far as memories are concerned, it is the act of construction (more accurately reconstruction) that matters, of making the bits fit our self-narrativisation. In other words, as Gabriel García Márquez put it: ‘Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.’
In his memoir, Other People’s Countries (subtitled A Journey into Memory), Patrick McGuinness asks fascinating questions about the way that identity is rooted in memory, more specifically in the way that we remember. “Trying to remember is itself a shock, a kind of detonation in the shadows, like dropping a stone into silt at the bottom of a pond: the water that had seemed clear is now turbid (that’s the first time I’ve ever used that word) and enswirled.” On reading this passage, which comes on Page 7 of the book, I found it noteworthy that McGuinness comments on the fact that he has not used the word ‘turbid’ before, which immediately casts suspicion on the observation, because one wonders whether, by commenting on memory’s cloudiness and turbidity, he has merely dislodged an existing memory, and is therefore, perhaps, not ‘using the word for the first time’ at all. And how telling that his use of the word ‘turbid’, and his comment on that usage, should immediately be followed by a neologism, ‘enswirled’.
These are nice illustrations of the way that language, our use of it, and its use of us, can be an element in the process of remembering. I am thinking in particular of those laden words which, when they crop up, immediately bring with them a sequence of memories and associations. I remember reading somewhere that our memory of language is the best reason why one should not translate into a language that is not our mother tongue. Words carry their own baggage with them: when you hear certain words, they spark off a whole sequence of associative meanings and memories, stretching back to childhood, that would simply not be available to an individual who has learned a language as an adult.
Childhood is the source of many of these word-memories. Like smells or taste (Proust’s oft-cited madeleine), words, long forgotten or unused, are capable of eliciting entire submerged worlds. But is it the memory of the word itself that achieves this, or the memory of a memory? As McGuinness speculates:
‘And as with so much of that childhood, I seem to remember not the things themselves but the memories of the things, as if the present I experienced them in was already slowing up and treacling over, fixing itself in a sepia wash.’
There are so many good things in this book, things that make you reach for a pencil, or else just stop in your tracks and reflect about the words you have just read. You can dip in, pick a page at random, and come out with some crystallized memory, or some jewel of detailed observation.
Other People’s Countries is, on one level, about a house in Bouillon, in the Ardennes region of Belgium. The house belonged to McGuinness’ family (his mother was Belgian) and was the author’s own childhood home. The book is divided into many short chapters: in this way they resemble the rooms of a large house, perhaps Quintilian’s House of Memory. I’ll conclude with one of my favourite chapters, titled ‘Keys’, which follows in its entirety:
‘Watching an old police procedural, probably a Maigret, sometime in the early eighties while convalescing from glandular fever (an illness I experienced more as convalescence than as actual illness: I felt as if I was simply recovering from something, rather than actually having the something to recover from in the first place), it came to me: a thief pushing a key into putty so that it’s outline would be caught in the relief and he could copy it, then burgle the house.
That was memory, I realised: a putty with which you make another key, which would open the same door, but never quite as well. In no time, you’d be burgling your own past with the slightly off-key key that always got you in though there was less and less to take.’
At the end of an article by Jonathan Bate in this week’s Times Literary Supplement, I am stunned and rendered desolate by the closing sentence, summarising a story copied into Ted Hughes’ notebook, following Hughes’ regret at having put Sylvia Plath’s journals into the public domain – “Maybe the stupidest thing I ever did”:
“Rabbah bar bar Hannah . . . having undergone a series of fantastic adventures through the desert and across the seas, set down his life upon a rock and slept. When he awoke, the rock had gone and he was on a precipice, staring into the abyss.”
This is terrible. That is to say, I sat up in bed for a full five minutes in a state of terror.
This is what we do: we have our adventures, full of joy and pain and sorrow, set down our story upon a rock, and sleep. Except our rock is not even a rock. It is a virtual space, a digitalised abyss.
I google Rabbah bar bar Hannah and on Wikipedia discover that he was a Jewish Talmudist who lived in Babylonia, and that he was an Amora of the second generation (3rd Century AD). He was apparently not held in very high regard by his fellow Talmudists. I find part of the story cited by Bate, along with this, also from Rabbah’s writings:
“Once, while on a ship, we came to a gigantic fish at rest, which we supposed to be an island, since there was sand on its back, in which grass was growing. We therefore landed, made a fire, and cooked our meal. But when the fish felt the heat he rolled over, and we would have drowned had not the ship been near”.
As a purveyor of tall tales, Rabbah was sanguine as to how his fictions were received: “All Rabbahs are asses and all bar bar Hanas fools”, went a contemporary review. Or, as I have maintained elsewhere on this blog (quoting Björk): “Poets are liars.”
But that moment, of waking in the face of the abyss, seems terribly familiar, as though it were, somehow, an inevitable consequence, an ineluctable truth.
In Agota Kristof’s wonderful novel The Third Lie, Claus – or is it Lucas, his anagrammatic twin (the two central characters are indissoluble, or aspects of one and the same person) – spends his nights writing in a notebook. One day, his landlady asks:
“What I want to know is whether you write things that are true or things that are made up.”
I answer that I try to write true stories but at a given point the story becomes unbearable because of its very truth, and then I have to change it. I tell her that I try to tell my story but all of a sudden I can’t – I don’t have the courage, it hurts too much. And so I embellish everything and describe things not as they happened but the way I wish they had happened.
After writing a book of creative nonfiction (I love the way a genre is defined by what it is not – as though ‘fiction’ were somehow the default mode of prose writing), one rather smug person of my acquaintance informed me that he had enjoyed the memoir, but had not been so taken by the fictional parts.
Were there fictional parts? I asked. Oh yes, this keen critic observed, of course there were.
Needless to say, this got me wondering. I could have retorted by quoting Joan Didion, who once wrote:
“Not only have I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters.”
Or I might have cited Gabriel García Márquez:
“Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.”
The point is, there is a fine distinction between the literalism of ‘what really happened’ – which is in any case not provable – and the way in which I happen to remember, conjecture and write. Does it simply boil down to a distinction between ‘true things’ and ‘things that are made up’? That seems horribly reductive. What about all the stuff that happens in between?
In the documentary film Patience, Christopher MacLehose tells an anecdote about the publication of Max Sebald’s Rings of Saturn. Sebald was required to state what category of work the book should be shelved under – a standard requirement made by booksellers, and he was dismayed that he had to choose a category: did he want the book filed under biography, history, apocalypse studies, memoir, travel or fiction? – All of them, he said, all of them.
Victoria Ocampo was one of the great patrons of the arts of the first half of the twentieth century. She first published Borges in her magazine Sur and she hosted and promoted writers and artists from around the world on their visits to South America. Among others Igor Stravinsky, Aldous Huxley, Albert Camus, André Malraux, Indira Gandhi, Drieu La Rochelle, Antoine de Saint Exupéry, Rabindranath Tagore, Albert Camus and Graham Greene were guests at the Villa Ocampo, and Lorca’s Romancero Gitano was published by her.
Yesterday, along with Cees Nooteboom and his wife Simone, Minae Mizumura, and the Argentinian novelist Inés Garland (who kindly drove us there), I was a guest at the Villa Ocampo. We had lunch, and then received a guide from the house manager, the exteremely well-informed Nicolás Helft, who presented me with a 1961 issue of Sur that contains the Spanish translation of a short story by Nabokov ‘Scenes from the life of a double monster’ (which appears, in English, in Nabokov’s Dozen) as well as poems by Gregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
The house itself is spectacularly lovely, even if the interior veers towards the state of a mausoleum, with rooms kept intact from the era in which they enjoyed their greatest glory. The grounds, filled with great trees and green lawns, once spread down to the River Plate, several blocks away, but is now considerably smaller (though still ample). The odour of privilege wafts around the corridors and up the stairwells. I would not have liked to have got the wrong side of Victoria (and those who crossed her often lived to regret it). So I sat in her chair and meditated on the state of being Victoria Ocampo for a minute or two, and for a brief moment felt the thrill of something like victory. This was quite alarming, although not unpleasant.
Sometimes people ask really difficult questions. One of them, which crops up a lot, is ‘Who is your favourite living novelist’? First of all, it’s assumed it will be someone who writes in English, because the British and the Americans don’t read much translated fiction, whereas I do. The extraordinary arrogance of a publishing industry in which only 3% of fiction is non-English – leaving 97% for the English-language writers, might indicate a degree of imbalance, but no one apart from professional translators, who bang on about it the whole time, seems to be too bothered.
Other European countries do not suffer this degree of cultural solipsism, and translated works account for a much higher percentage of published works. Between 30% and 60% if the statistics are to be believed, though I read recently that in Italy 70% of published fiction is in translation. Unbelievably, these statistics receive comments such as one I heard from an English writer recently “Ah but the Italians can’t write fiction!” I could hardly believe my ears.
The fact that extraordinary novels are regularly published in the Hispanic world has filtered into the reading public’s consciousness since the rise of magic realism and the Latin American ‘boom’ generation writers, comprising García Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa – as well as their pale imitators such as Isabel Allende and the Brazilian Paulo Coelho – and more recently, the extraordinary international success of Roberto Bolaño. But even the compiling of such a list makes me uneasy. We in the UK have suffered nearly thirty years in which every new production from the tedious triad of Amis, McEwen and Rushdie is treated as though it were a gift of greatness, and perhaps we have lost all perspective of what is truly interesting in the world.
So, to cut to the quick, my favourite Spanish-language novelists – no, make that international novelists – all of them a few years younger than the three named above, would be Roberto Bolaño, Javier Marías and Enrique Vila-Matas. Bolaño, sadly, is no longer with us, and has received plenty of attention (both in the media and in this blog), and I am going to do a separate post on Javier Marías, so I would like to spend a little time on Enrique Vila-Matas, whose non-fiction novel Never any end to Paris was published by New Directions in the USA last week. I will be reviewing it when my copy arrives, but I have read the book in Spanish so I have a head start. The book describes Vila-Matas’ apprenticeship as a writer in Paris, the city to which he moved (from his native Barcelona) as a young man in the 1970s. He had the good fortune to rent a room in the apartment building belonging to the fabulous novelist and film-director (and alcoholic of epic and tragic proportions) Marguerite Duras. Early in the story Enrique bumps into Duras one day on the building’s stairway. Nervous and stammering, he asks her in his substandard and broken French for some advice on the novel he is writing (his first):
“Some advice, that I need, help for the novel.” Marguerite understood perfectly this time. “Ah, some advice”, she said, and she invited me to sit down in the foyer (as if considering me to be very tired), slowly put out her cigarette in the entrance hall ashtray, and headed, somewhat mysteriously, towards her office, from which she returned after a minute with a sheet of paper that resembled a medical note and which contained instructions that might – she told me, or I understood her to say – be useful to me in the writing of novels. I took the note and headed out onto the street. I read the instructions on it a little later, on the Rue Saint-Benoît, and felt at once the whole weight of the world on me, even today I recall the immense panic – the shudder, to be more precise – that I endured on reading them: 1. Problems of structure; 2. Unity and harmony; 3. Plot and history; 4. The time factor; 5. Textual effects; 6. Verisimilitude; 7. Narrative technique; 8. Character; 9. Dialogue; 10. Setting; 11. Style; 12. Experience; 13. Linguistic register.
Since I will review the book in due course, I won’t begin to summarize the hilarious convolutions and torments that the aspiring writer brings upon himself in his quest to fulfil Duras’s daunting stipulations while striving to imitate his literary heroes (notably Hemingway) in certain aspects of literary life – and not only quaffing and revelry – but I would urge anyone – especially anybody who wants to learn about the writing life – to read the book.
Incredibly, only two other of Vila-Matas’ novels are available in English, both of them superbly translated by Jonathan Dunne. (The new book is translated by Anna McLean, and the above extract was my own hurried version, so she cannot be held responsible). These are Bartleby & Co. and Montano, published in 2004 and 2007 respectively. Bartleby & Co. inspired me profoundly during the writing of The Vagabond’s Breakfast, or rather it induced a state of mind that I could only render into prose by means of an extended metaphor. I reproduce the section below, with apologies to those readers who already know the passage. I realise it’s a bit of a cheat putting extracts from my own books on the blog, but a) it might help sell a few copies, and b) I need to pack for my holidays and have, as always, done absolutely nothing until the last minute. So, off we go:
While trying to avoid writing one afternoon, I decide that I want to clear my desk, in fact to clear it and thoroughly clean it. I begin by brushing and then wiping the poorly varnished surface with an anti-bacterial cloth. It still looks dirty; ingrained gubbins of all varieties spread across the desktop. I reach into the low cupboard that extends beneath the eaves of this attic room, find sandpaper and apply myself to the task, scraping away with fixed determination. I begin thinking of the story I am supposed to be writing, of the book review I have promised to deliver, of the poems that lie unfinished in a drawer, but mostly I fall to thinking about the very act of writing, and how it consumes my life in so many ways, most of them satisfying in one sense or another; I like to write, I enjoy what my friend Niall Griffiths calls the glorious mix of exhaustion and exhilaration that come at the end of a good session, the almost trancelike state one enters when entirely absorbed in the life of a character or a place, of having captured some small truth and transcribed it successfully so that a total stranger, on reading it, can nod or laugh in recognition of something shared, or something learned, though possibly always known. But the downside, the part that most writers dread, is the seemingly interminable agony one enters when, for some reason or other, one is kept from writing, either by illness, other work, or a general reluctance to face the blank screen; or else besieged by the feeling that whatever one writes has been said before, and probably better, elsewhere, and yet the terrible arrogance of the author, the desire to act God, that insistent striving to give voice, will not subside.
In this condition, I find myself considering the plight of Bartleby, as described by Enrique Vila-Matas in his book of that name. Bartleby is the type of those who are conditioned to write, for whom writing is default behaviour, and yet who, when asked to perform a particular job or favour, will answer, as a matter of principle, I would prefer not to, regardless of the question, and who, in similar vein, will courageously decline to write at all, although deemed to be a ‘writer’ in the eyes of the world. Vila-Matas has researched the type well:
“For some time now I have been investigating the frequent examples of Bartleby’s syndrome in literature, for some time I have studied the illness, the disease endemic to contemporary letters, the negative impulse or attraction towards nothingness that means that certain creators, while possessing a very demanding literary conscience (or perhaps precisely because of this), never manage to write: either they write one or two books and then stop altogether or, working on a project, seemingly without problems, one day they become paralysed for good.”
Vila-Matas does not regard the state of being a Bartleby to be quite beyond hope. There is a glimmer on the horizon, and he contrives, in some way, to conjure an (as yet) invisible text out of the footnotes he has prepared for it. “I wonder if I can do this,” he writes. “I am convinced that only by tracking down the labyrinth of the No can the paths still open to the writing of the future appear. I wonder if I can evoke them.” He occupies himself, over the course of the book, by investigating these writers of the No, giving cameo performances to writers with an overdeveloped sense of the absurdity of their vocation, or with an extraordinary capacity for prevarication and delay.
The list of writers that Vila-Matas compiles of Bartlebys past and present is extensive and includes such luminaries as Rimbaud, Walser, Gil de Biedma and Salinger, even Beckett. There is a peculiar sense in which these writers turn the act of not-writing into a virtue, of which it is hard not to be envious. One of the most outstanding examples is Joseph Joubert, a Frenchman who lived in the eighteenth century and who “discovered a delightful place where he could digress and end up not writing a book at all.” Although he lived to be seventy, Joubert “never wrote a book. He only prepared himself to write one, single-mindedly searching for the right conditions. Then he forgot this purpose as well.” Ah, the nefarious comforts of silence! Some of Vila-Matas’ writers of the No, such as Robert Walser, the shy and reclusive author of The Walk, turn not-writing itself into a topic of their oeuvre (Walser spent the last twenty years of his life as the inmate of an asylum for the insane, as such institutions were then known). The dedication with which Walser and others pursued their calling raises the frightening possibility that I am not yet good enough, or sufficiently dedicated, to be a Bartleby; that despite my good intentions, to fail so self-consciously, and in so spectacular a way as to provoke the admiration of other, more orthodox writers (those who put pen to paper) is itself an achievement beyond my skills and powers of endurance.
By now I am scrubbing so hard that most of the surface is spotless; the dirty varnish is gone and I am sanding raw wood. The desk is a large one; I have covered a big area and am still going strong. The thought occurs to me that if I just keep on sandpapering that desk, it will eventually cease to exist. I could entirely transform my room (the desk, as I have said, is substantial) and in the process, as I scrape away in this alchemical act of molecular disassembly, of making something disappear, of making nothing out of something, I will consider the book I am writing, measuring it out in my mind, scene by scene, chapter by chapter, so that by the time I have rasped away the last grains of sawdust from the last chip of wood, being all that remains of what was once my desk, I will be ready to continue. True, I would no longer have a desk to write it on, I would have to sit in the armchair and use a notebook or the laptop, but that would surely be a small loss compared with the relief of knowing the outcome of my story. And at least I have the laptop, which is just as well, seeing as my handwriting has become quite illegible, I can hardly make it out, and even when I concentrate and force myself to write very slowly the result resembles nothing but a spider-trail of flattened hieroglyphs. My typing isn’t up to much either, but at least I can read what I have written and stand a much better chance of guessing my own intentions despite all the typos and unintentional neologisms that occupy the screen, underlined in green and red. It is frustrating, but I have to put up with this disability, just as I endure the laborious task of reading, for even though reading remains a pleasure, it is one that stretches my powers of concentration to the limit and recently it took me three weeks to read a short novel, simply because I had to re-read every paragraph several times in order to retain the gist of whatever was going on, and neither was it a particularly demanding book; the same thing happens whether I am reading philosophy or a detective novel. This is hard for me, since I have always had good powers of retention, and it feels strange and disempowering to be struggling through the page like a seven-year old, and remembering not a thing.
From The Vagabond’s Breakfast (pp 56-59)
What is this? A picture of a dog? But hey, it’s Blanco’s birthday, as well as mine – we share so many things; underwear, shirts, an inability to remember names – and you can do what you want on your birthday.
I never really intended getting a dog. Indeed have always felt quite hostile to the urban dog, and its owners. And as for those groups of dog owners who congregate eagerly in the park discussing the various merits of their canine companions, I give them a wide berth. But like other humans, I have a deep, cave-dwelling canine affinity and in my drinking days was known to befriend and hug many a stray and confide inebriated nothings into their doggy ears, when everyone else had long since stopped listening to me. The dog doesn’t mind, he thinks you’re just being friendly, even if you smell of mustard gas he doesn’t mind, because he probably does as well.
A German Shepherd once saved my life, when I slipped in the snow and started rolling down an Alp. Honestly. It was in Haute Savoie. He bounded down the hill through the snow and lay cross-ways in my path to stop me from rolling over a precipice. He had followed me from my friends’ remote home on a winter’s evening when, already well-oiled, I just had to walk five kilometres to the nearest bar. So on arriving in the village I took him to the Bistro instead and ordered him a raw steak. A group of local firemen eating their dinner were well impressed. That dog was called Flambard.
So, when I was ill, five years ago, and vegetating at home, unable to concentrate for long periods of time, and therefore read or write, because of a nasty condition called encephalopathy, I decided that a dog would be a good thing, and would force me to get more exercise. So I found a puppy, long since grown into a 25 kilo mad rollicking slavering beast, quite incapable of rational thought for even a moment, desperately affectionate, extremely fond of rolling in horse shit and insanely OCD where balls and sticks are concerned. Bruno Blanco, now approaching fifth birthday, pictured above in characteristic pose, quite mental, full-on, full-speed, even features in a literary work, albeit briefly. Still has a set of bollocks, even though Mrs Blanco has more than once suggested he might be better off bereft of them. I am fond of long walks in the hills, and for that reason alone a dog is a good thing. I wonder if I might cite a poem by Jane Kenyon? Let’s see. Thanks to John Freeman for passing it on.
After an Illness, Walking the Dog
Wet things smell stronger,
and I suppose his main regret is that
he can sniff just one at a time.
In a frenzy of delight
he runs way up the sandy road-
scored by freshets after five days
of rain. Every pebble gleams, every leaf.
When I whistle he halts abruptly
and steps in a circle,
swings his extravagant tail.
Then he rolls and rubs his muzzle
in a particular place, while the drizzle
falls without cease, and Queen Anne’s Lace
and goldenrod bend low.
The top of the logging road stands open
and bright. Another day, before
hunting starts, we’ll see how far it goes,
leaving word first at home.
The footing is ambiguous.
Soaked and muddy, the dog drops,
panting, and looks up with what amounts
to a grin. It’s so good to be uphill with him,
nicely winded, and looking down on the pond.
A sound commences in my left ear
like the sound of the sea in a shell;
a downward vertiginous drag comes with it.
Time to head home. I wait
until we’re nearly out to the main road
to put him back on the leash, and he
– the designated optimist –
imagines to the end that he is free.
Otherwise: new and selected poems (Graywolf, 1996)