Posts Tagged ‘novel’

A Little Blog of Books

‘Blindness’ by José Saramago is a fable about an unexplained mass epidemic of blindness which has unsurprisingly chaotic consequences.  The story begins with a man suddenly going blind as he is waiting in his car at some traffic lights.  Several other characters who come into contact with him also lose their sight.  The blind are quarantined in a mental asylum and left to fend for themselves but criminals soon gain control as society rapidly breaks down completely.  Only the doctor’s wife is still able to see for unknown reasons but she doesn’t reveal this fact.  Can she still help the others?

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☞ 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”.”

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☞ At the onset, I must say that what Emmanuel Iduma says below deserves to be heard. However, with regard to his belief in the need to transcend genre in order to engage in politically committed writing as an African writer — or as any writer from the third world for that matter — I am not sure if I agree with him completely. I have to say at the same time that I am hugely sympathetic to his cause, but perhaps not precisely in the terms formulated by him. My difficulty lies with the belief that genre could be avoided, or that, to use his word, it could be transcended. I don’t think genre can be sidestepped. It exists in all texts. Even Finnegans Wake belongs to an overall genre, even if it is the only member of its generic category. It should also be said that a complex of (other) genres infuses Joyce’s work: it might be “genre-bending,” but genre or a whole army of genres informs the work. Writing something elemental, essential or basic does not mean that genre can be left aside. If there is an obsession with literary classification, and with placing works according to their genres for commercial purposes, it does not mean that genre itself is at fault: it might be an overly simplistic or mechanical understanding of genre for taxonomic purposes that is amiss here. What is perhaps needed is a more complex and less rigidly formulaic appreciation of genre, and the kind of simplistic pigeonholing of creative texts for commercial purposes is something that we should all move away from. (See also the next entry: quotation from “On Formulas and Fiction” [listed below]).

“‘An elemental narrative’ is the description we should use for a story that transcends genre. Our understanding of  ‘elemental’ relates to what is ‘essential’ or ‘a basic part.’ It means that our elemental narratives always bear the premise that we are writing a ‘basic’ story that touches at the heart of who we are and what we have become. The goal of the writer will be to write a story that is as elemental as a shared humanity, those recognizable qualities that makes us human, and sometimes inhuman.

The word ‘novel’ will serve merely for classification because in my thinking a narrative traverses the edges of fiction, reality, and everything in-between. The writer will not seek to write a story that fits into such categories as literary fiction, because in our time no one has successfully defined what those words mean. Perhaps that term, and classification, resulted from the arrogance of writers of an earlier generation who wanted to distinguish the stories they wrote, or told, from those of writers whose work did not fit into their artistic vision.

Even more, this goal should be taken seriously by an African writer. In truth, classifications – and the conscious practice of adhering to them – have not helped us much. Our publishing industry suffers in part, I believe, from an attempt to elevate one genre over the other. Genres may suffice for bookstores, and libraries, but they should not suffice for writers when they struggle in solitude. Assuming the African writer cares little about attempting to write ‘literary fiction’ but feels compelled to imagine a post-apocalypse world in Mushin, and remains faithful in telling the tale, perhaps we can have narratives that reach an otherwise neglected audience.”

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Maugham’s three rules…

Posted: December 19, 2012 in Literature, Novel
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There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

Somerset Maugham