What Not to Do

In an interview with John Self, David Mitchell explains how he approached the unfamiliar territory of the third-person voice while writing The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet:

I’d never really attempted this commonest of forms before because I never knew what to leave out — the third is the infinite voice, whereas the first is the limited one — [but] a few years ago I asked A.S. Byatt how she decided what to put into third person narratives, and her answer was as simple as it was helpful: what you think the reader will want to hear, that’s what you put in.

That is possibly the worst fiction-writing advice I have ever heard, and I’m not surprised it came from Byatt because it cuts to the heart of what makes her work so radically unsophisticated. It’s a recipe for pure storytelling with an overbearing emphasis on the telling-ness of the story; it’s an excuse for using the form of the novel to spell out a fictional tale without exploiting of any of the particular aesthetic and rhetorical properties of the novel in order to artfully shape the tale in the telling. It’s not a blueprint for a way of writing a novel that works as a novel; it’s a way of throwing the garb of a novel over an impromptu but strung-out campfire yarn.


The Answer is “No”

Writing at The Nervous Breakdown, J.E. Fishman asks: is the New York Times Book Review still relevant? The simple answer, of course, is “no,” but the very simplicity of the answer suggests that Fishman is not necessarily asking the most pertinent question. A better question would be: why is the New York Times Book Review relevant no longer? Continue reading The Answer is “No”

Turning Everything Into Liquid

The painter Strauch is one of those who turn everything into liquid. Whatever they touch dissolves. Character, solidity, stability. “No one can see me, because no one can see anything,” he has said, and: “The principles that put millennia on the skids.” Or again: “Any activity is predicated on another, any meaning, any style. Wisdom on nonsense, and vice versa and simultaneously.” Breakfast is “way too ceremonial” for him, “it feels absurd to pick up a spoon. Meaningless. A sugar cube is an assault against me. … A catastrophe. The day begins with insidious sweetness.” He hunkers down on his chair, which is far too low for him. But even there he towers over me. He looks down at me, his eye piercing. “To allow ingratitude to develop within one,” he says, “only to take note of a thing once one is certain what a terrible thing it is. Facts pile up, terrible facts too, and before too long you’re just the miserable little wretch trying to push the table back, which gets you a clip around the ears from above.” So great was reason that it too was “condemned to fail.” “Those two notions of mine, trotting along side by side like a couple of dogs, barking at everything.” Wanton destruction, to make contemplation a little easier. He whispers, and listens to the walls shaking. “There is an obligation toward the depth of one’s own inner abyss,” he says. He pulls himself together, and it takes the brutality of simply getting up to bring him back to himself and out of himself. To some express, like “It’s so utterly ghastly here!” He is dominated by himself, as by a lifelong injustice. By his destructive apparatus. …

The way he compares the inn with an Alpine village in Carinthia, and with a ballet dancer who has had just one appearance in the opera and whom he describes as “a natural talent, but very dangerous,” is very illuminating. Or a vegetable trader who once gave him a smack because he thought he was stealing his tomatoes, with Napoleon III. It seems to me that even as he’s speaking about the woodcutter he watched dying, he’s already thinking about the tragedy of the four hundred mountain people who were abruptly killed in catastrophic storms. And then always himself. A sudden blast of wind forced him to the wall, and put him in mind of a celebrated acrobat. “He performed four somersaults between the backs of two galloping horses.” When he says “London,” he envisions the outer suburbs of Budapest. Sections of the lower Danube he attaches quite effortlessly to the upper Rhine. He swaps one delta for another. “In fact, that’s my sense of color,” he says. Certain mixtures of aromas play a part here. I can readily imagine him as a thirty-year-old, crossing the swollen plazas, and despising the dead, megalomaniac capital of the country. Anything provincial and dilettante as much as the “truly great” and the untouchable. His self-contempt is not based on ignorance; after all he was a city-dweller. Miles ahead of him he sees a lost thought return to him after years away. “Murder has a taste of honey,” he often thought. While his mouth talks about the ways of making paper, his hands are burrowing in his jacket pockets. He sees images faster than his body can catch them. “Every street debouches in my brain,” he says. He has turned a vast system of beginnings and significations into an edifice of thought where he tries to order the extraordinary chaos of history. “For decades, I’ve suffered from the most extreme attention, do you have any idea what that means?” If he talks about a tragedy, he shows no signs of the tragedy in his expression. When was it? “I’ve invented a notation of my fears,” he says. Of the three who go to make him up, he doesn’t know which one he is here or there, when and where. “Being on the lookout doesn’t imply ill intentions, you know.” Everything was morbidly affected by the horrible, and “harmlessness has taken on all the tasks of destruction, do you see?”

Thomas Bernhard

Translated by Michael Hoffman

A Perceptive Diagnosis

Bereft of intellectual or cultural stimulation, they proceed, as minds devouring themselves, to fixate on every sort of insignificance and absurdity, ranting giddily about how awful life is in voices that shriek with loathing and despair.

That’s Cameron Woodhead, writing the capsule reviews in today’s The Age, issuing an off-the-cuff but strikingly perceptive diagnosis of what tends to ail the characters of Thomas Bernhard. I would have used “howl” rather than “shriek” — I don’t sense a lot of hysteria or histrionics in their lamentations; I sense self-awareness and knowing purpose — but, with only two hundred words in which to offer a verdict on Bernhard’s Prose, Woodhead does a remarkably good job of pinpointing the unifying element of Bernhard’s entire oeuvre.

On That Note…

Picking up from where I left off with my praise for Dan Chiasson, here are four more of the best and most memorable book reviews I have read in the last year:

I don’t mean to suggest that they’re all excellent reviews in and of themselves; but, for reviews specifically targeted at a mainstream readership, each one does a fine job of contextualising the work under consideration, of proposing a way of reading it profitably without prizing verisimilitude above all other literary qualities, and of evaluating the book on its own terms with solid logical reasoning and in-text evidence to justify any evaluative conclusions.