Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

☞ The measure of our lives, of man, and arguably, of civilisation and of being civilised, not only lies with what is read, but with what is unread as well. Some of the most admired books in any literate culture are those that are not generally read — or not well understood, even if they are generally read. At the other end of the spectrum, there are books that are not well considered but should have been read or more widely read, but remain forgotten, neglected or unknown. 

We measure our lives with unread books – and ‘difficult’ works can induce the most guilt. How should we view this challenge?
James Joyce

Samuel Beckett said of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake … ‘It is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to.’ James Joyce (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“There was a time when a learned fellow (literally, a Renaissance man) could read all the major extant works published in the western world. Information overload soon put paid to that. Since there is “no end” to “making many books” – as the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes prophesied, anticipating our digital age – the realm of the unread has spread like a spilt bottle of correction fluid. The librarian in Robert Musil‘s The Man Without Qualities only scans titles and tables of contents: his library symbolises the impossibility of reading everything today. The proliferation of lists of novels that you must, allegedly, have perused in your lifetime, reflects this problem while compounding it. On a recent visit to a high street bookshop, I ogled a well-stacked display table devoted to “great” novels “you always meant to read”. We measure out our lives with unread books, as well as coffee spoons.

The guilt and anxiety surrounding the unread probably plays a part in our current fascination with failed or forgotten writers. Hannah Arendt once wondered if “unappreciated genius” was not simply “the daydream of those who are not geniuses”, and I suspect there is indeed a touch of schadenfreude about this phenomenon too. On the book front, we could mention Mark O’Connell’s Epic Fail, the brilliantly idiosyncratic Failure, A Writer’s Life by Joe Milutis, and Christopher Fowler‘s Invisible Ink: How 100 Great Authors Disappeared, based on the longstanding column in the Independent on Sunday. Online, there is The New Inquiry’s Un(der)known Writers series, as well as entire blogs – (Un)justly (Un)readThe Neglected Books PageWriters No One Reads – devoted to reclaiming obscure scribes from oblivion. One of my personal favourites is The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, which celebrates the lives of writers who have “achieved some measure of literary failure”. The fact that they all turn out to be fictitious (à la Félicien Marboeuf) and that the website will vanish after a year, make it even more delightful. I recommend the tale of Stanhope Sterne who, like TE Lawrence, lost a manuscript on a train – at Reading, of all places: “Is there, I wonder, some association with that dull junction’s homonym, that it is a writer’s fear of someone actually reading their work that causes these slips?”

When Kenneth Goldsmith published a year’s worth of transcribed weather reports, he certainly did not fear anyone would read his book from cover to cover – or even at all. That was not the point. With conceptual writing, the idea takes precedence over the product. This is an extreme example of a trend that began with the advent of modernity.Walter Benjamin famously described the “birthplace of the novel” – and hence that of modern literature – as “the solitary individual”: an individual now free from tradition, but also one whose sole legitimacy derived from him or herself, rather than religion or society.

In theory, the novel could thus be anything, everything, the novelist wanted it to be. The problem, as Kierkegaard observed, is that “more and more becomes possible” when “nothing becomes actual”. Literature was a blank canvas that increasingly dreamed of remaining blank. “The most beautiful and perfect book in the world,” according to Ulises Carrión, “is a book with only blank pages.” Such books had featured in eastern legends for centuries (echoed by the blank map in “The Hunting of the Snark” or the blank scroll in Kung Fu Panda), but they only really appeared on bookshelves in the 20th century. They come in the wake of Rimbaud‘s decision to stop writing, the silence of Lord Chandos; they are contemporaneous with the Dada suicidesWittgenstein‘s coda to the Tractatus, the white paintings of Malevich and Rauschenberg, as well as John Cage‘s 4’33”.”

Read more… 

Advertisements

Maugham’s three rules…

Posted: December 19, 2012 in Literature, Novel
Tags: ,

There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

Somerset Maugham

I once had a teacher at Berkeley named Robert Brentano, a historian of medieval Europe whose mind crackled with all the restlessness and complexity The Swerve lacks. In an afterword to his most famous book, Two Churches, a study of English and Italian churchmen in the 13th century, Brentano wrote of his desire to dispense with narrative in history altogether. The best historical writing, he wrote, can present “a series of images and ideas whole, clear, bright, and let the transition occur, as it should, without the dullness of written words. Without words, transition becomes beautiful. If I ever have enough nerve, I shall write history completely without transition.”

From the conclusion of Jim Hinch’s review of Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Read more…

Why Stephen Greenblatt is Wrong — and Why It Matters