Tag Archives: Ricardo Piglia

No ideas but in things

21 Sep
The young Marcel Proust

The young Marcel Proust

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.”’

The Sound of Things Falling

1 Feb

Image

The Argentine writer Ricardo Piglia has a thesis in which he claims that every successful story contains within it another story. The first story narrates the action of the plot, while the second story is more or less hidden from view, or in parentheses. The art of the story-teller, according to Piglia, lies in knowing how to encode the secret story within the interstices of the first.

In Joseph Conrad’s ‘The Secret Sharer’ this duality is expressed as tension between the self and its other, and the theme is one to which the Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez has been drawn in all three of his novels. In fact his second, The Secret History of Costaguana is – in the parenthetic sense of Piglia’s definition – about Conrad himself. There is more than a little of Conrad also about the ‘inner weather’ of Vásquez’s writing, not least in the elusive and at times strenuous unravelling of plot. In his new book the structure of telling is doubly replicated, both the main story and the subsidiary story recounting (among other things) the relationship of a father and his daughter, while the threads holding together the parental relationship begin to unravel.

The novel begins with an account of the shooting of a hippopotamus, a one-and-a-half ton male ‘the colour of black pearl’. The hippo has escaped from the private zoo of drugs baron Pablo Escobar, in the Magdalena Valley, south of Bogotá, after the zoo, along with all of Escobar’s vast and ill-gotten estate, falls into ruin. The narrator, Antonio Yammara, visited Escobar’s zoo as a twelve-year-old, against the express orders of his parents, and the memory is still vivid. And it is memory – its tenuousness and its faulty reconstruction – that lies at the heart of this novel. ‘The saddest thing that can happen to a person’ we are told, ‘is to find out their memories are lies.’ Elsewhere we learn that ‘remembering wears us out.’ Familiar tropes emerge: deception, the inescapability of the past, stories that mirror one another, and fatherhood. It is perhaps unavoidable recalling Borges’ famous dictum that mirrors and copulation are abominations, since they both replicate the numbers of man.

Image

Juan Gabriel Vasquez

Back in the 1990s, Antonio is a young lawyer who befriends a lonely man with a secret. Ricardo Laverde has just been released after twenty years in jail. He says he makes (or made) his living as a pilot, so it is hardly a spoiler to reveal that, given Colombia’s history, he might on occasion have made aerial deliveries for the wrong sorts of people. We also learn that US Peace Corps workers developed the cocaine-refining technology that helped turn Colombia into the nexus of the narco-industry over the following two decades. Ricardo was himself married to a young Peace Corps volunteer, whom he expects shortly to welcome back to Colombia after two decades’ separation. With some evocative, painterly, strokes Vásquez leads the reader through the landscape of Ricardo’s past, before returning, with a searing sense of loneliness and regret, to Antonio’s present.

Anne MacLean has translated all three of JGV’s novels into English. There were a couple of lines I questioned: her reference to Maya’s hands being ‘tainted’ by the sun rings strangely in English, as does the phrase: ‘my closed lungs made themselves felt effortlessly’. But these are small matters: for the most part the work reads beautifully.

Vásquez’s persistence in exploring the darker corners of his country’s history, in probing his characters’ intractable duality, and in questioning the frailties of both collective and individual memory, is compounded by his skill in evoking those instances, known to us all, when things changes for ever: such as when the telephone rings, and “all you have to do is pick up the receiver and a new fact comes through it into the house, something we’ve neither sought nor requested and that sweeps us along like an avalanche.”

This review first appeared in The Independent on 1 December 2012.