Tag Archives: Fiction

Dubious categories

19 Jan

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Short story versus novel

13 Oct

Every story encompasses a world. Every story accounts for a series of actions, whether experienced or imagined. The story, if it is any good, also contains within it a substratum, or an undertow, through which the reader is guided towards some underlying truth – or the possibility of a truth. This may consist of a paradox or even a seeming contradiction, but it will, in some way, be traced or suggested by the contours of the outer story.

This notion, at least, can be applied to the short story. When it comes to anything longer I tend to balk.  Today on the Guardian website, I read an article about the new novel by the admirable Donna Tartt, a monster of a book at 771 pages, and I recall what Italo Calvino once wrote:

‘Long novels written today are perhaps a contradiction: the dimension of time has been shattered, we cannot love or think except in fragments of time each of which goes off along its own trajectory and immediately disappears. We can rediscover the continuity of time only in the novels of that period when time no longer seemed stopped and did not yet seem to have exploded, a period that lasted no more than a hundred years.’

I don’t know whether or not I entirely agree with this, but the idea of time progressing as a linear continuum does seem to be tied to a social structure where roles (including that of the author) were more fixed, sedentary things. The author proclaimed his (and it was usually a his) authority through texts permeated with the authorial voice, and which sustained that voice, gave it credibility as a constant over a period of calculable time.

And who wants that authority? Not me. Not I, even. Which is why, on days like today, the simple rigour of the short story seems so much more appealing, and far less tiring.

Fiction Fiesta 2013

23 Apr

Fiction Fiesta 2013 Design Work Final Draft copy(1)

The poster for the second Fiction Fiesta is ready.

Fiction Fiesta is an intimate but international festival, specializing in fiction and poetry in translation. The plan is to team novelists and poets from Latin America with writers from Wales and the rest of Great Britain and Ireland: the writers will read and discuss their work and answer questions from the public.

Fiction Fiesta will provide a forum for all people with an interest in international literature, from professional translators to the merely curious. Fiction Fiesta is a festival with a difference, involving readings and discussion that will bring the public into contact with some of the best writers from around the world, in a friendly and informal setting. The event is free, but each year we will be inviting guests to donate to our chosen charity: this year we will be supporting the work of  Education for the Children in Guatemala.

The 2013 festival takes place over two locations: the Council Chamber in Cardiff University’s Main Building on Saturday 18th and Dempseys’ Bar, opposite Cardiff Castle on Sunday 19th May. Our guest writers and translators are listed in the poster above (squint or zoom) and include our Latin American guest Andrés Neuman (author of Traveller of the Century – shortlisted for The Independent foreign fiction prize this year), Eduardo Halfon (author of The Polish Boxer) and Inés Garland (author of Una Reina Perfecta). Both Andrés and Inés are featured in the forthcoming 100th issue of New Welsh Reviewwhile Eduardo’s Polish Boxer is my favourite new fiction collection of the past twelve months.

You can find out more on the Fiction Fiesta Facebook page. 

More to follow.

 

 

 

Knowing how not to swim

28 Oct

 

I have just picked up (and put down) a fat novel by a leading British novelist. It doesn’t matter which one. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker a few years ago. It’s meant to be a cracker. But I can’t be bothered to read it. I know it’s supposed to be oh so very good and all that: ‘well-written’, ‘unputdownable’; ‘a masterpiece’ even, but can I be arsed to invest the amount of time needed to complete it, when essentially, I know what is going to happen from Page One, and also how it will be told, by glancing over the first few pages? Probably not.

There are two ways of looking at the world, and they lie behind two ways of doing literature. The first way, to quote Roberto Bolaño, consists of stories that are “easy to understand”. They imply a linear narrative, a degree of suspense, a beginning, a middle and an end – preferably in that order. As Bolaño wrote, these books “sell and are popular with the readers because their stories can be understood. I mean” – he goes on to say – “because the readers, as consumers . . . understand perfectly (these writers’) novels or their stories.”

Which brings me to an article I read over the summer in a newspaper by the novelist Enrique Vila-Matas. For those who read Spanish, it’s available here.

There are two groups of people, writes Vila-Matas – more or less, as I am paraphrasing. One lot insists that things are the way they are, that life is simply thus, and it’s not worth worrying your socks off about it. The other group, of whom V-M is perhaps a particular offender, believe that they don’t quite belong on this planet, that they are restlessly in pursuit of another place, which might be called death, but quite possibly has some other definition entirely . . . V-M likens the distinction between these two types of person to those whose literary predilections lie in the direction of a simple story, well told – the kind disparaged by Bolaño – and those others who are enthralled “by complexity and by the labyrinth”, and who will always find ways of constructing stories in a different and more complex manner, and will always try to see more. (In ordinary life, this latter group are often compulsive liars, or fantasists, or are confined to institutions of one kind or another.)

Put another way, in the lounges of those conservative writers who adhere to some kiss-and-tell narrative linearity based on the novels (and to an extent, the ideology) of the nineteenth century, the world is described as ‘given’. Whereas in the slums and squats occupied by these more complicated types, a kind of negativity is evoked which, suggests V-M, might find an allegory in this quotation from Kafka:

I know how to swim like the others, but I have a better memory than they do and I have not forgotten my old inability to swim. And as I have not forgotten it, the ‘knowing how to swim’ part isn’t of much use to me, and so, in consequence, I don’t know how to swim.

Perhaps then, some of us, although we have learned to swim, sometimes practise drowning, just to remember what it feels like.

So it is, too, that some writers, even though they know how to write in a certain linear way, to write a certain kind of story, that ‘can be understood’, elect not to, and opt instead for the labyrinth, or head for the deep forest. Perhaps they find it more of a challenge that way, more fun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why write novels?

25 Jul

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.