Archive for August, 2011

this is not a novel

August 28, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – David Markson

This year seemed the perfect opportunity to become acquainted with the experimental American writer, David Markson – or at least with his writing, Markson having died in 2010 (something not entirely irrelevant to this book, deeply concerned as it is with mortality). Everything I had read about him made him sound worth tracking down, from his early parodies of pulp fiction to his later move towards experimentation (in his fifties), as well as the admiration that other American writers such as David Foster Wallace clearly had for him. It was particularly difficult to resist such a provocative title as this is not a novel, originally published in 2001 and reissued last year by CB Editions.

this is not a novel is certainly not a conventional novel. As the Writer (it’s only character) tells us almost immediately:

“Writer is weary unto death of making up stories.”

He goes on to reveal his ambition to write something that is plotless, characterless and actionless. These aims are scattered among other statements (the Writer’s thoughts?), many of which report the ways in which various writers, artists and composers have died. For example:

“Henry Miller died of cardiovascular failure.

B. Traven died of prostate cancer and sclerosis of the kidneys.”

While these make up the majority of the novel’s pensees, we are also offered non-fatal anecdotes (“Salvador Dali once gave a lecture on London while wearing a diving helmet. And nearly suffocated.”), unattributed quotations (“I gotta use words when I talk to you.”) and comments that one artist has made about another (“Plato talked too much, Diogenes said.”). While the information provided cannot be said to be random – it all connects to the creative life – neither could it be said to present a coherent view of that life, apart from, of course, making the point rather emphatically that all artists must die.

How does this work? Well, there is no doubt it works thematically, directing the reader towards the creative process (the Writer’s musings on what kind of work he is producing) and the creative life, particularly the relationships between artists. The apparently more than five hundred deaths mentioned cannot help but have an emotional resonance, referencing, as they do, both mortality and immortality (the way in which artists live on after death).

The text can also be read, however, as a conventional novel, with the Writer as the character, and the rest of the text his thoughts as he ponders on his own life as an artist. Markson seems to hint at this possible reading when he reveals towards the end:

“Or was it nothing more than a fundamentally recognisable genre all the while, no matter what Writer averred.

About an old man’s preoccupations.

Writer’s cancer.”

This has a distinct emotional punch, suggesting that Markson hasn’t quite abandoned the relationship between reader and character. Whatever the case, he has certainly succeeded in producing a novel that achieves his stated aim of:

“…seducing the reader into turning pages nonetheless.”

Danger rating: certainly not for fans of plot, and unlikely to be adapted into a film, I still found this a book I didn’t want to stop reading.

Never Any End to Paris

August 19, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Enrique Vila-Matas

Enrique Vila-Matas’ two previous novels translated into English – Bartleby & Co and Montano – are very much about not writing. In Bartleby & Co a writer who has been unable to write a second novel researches those who have suffered a similar fate. In Monatano the eponymous scribe is unable to put pen to paper at all. Never Any End to Paris also features its share of not writing, but, as a fictionalised autobiography of Vila-Matas’ time in Paris attempting to write his first novel (although I believe the title he refers to is that of his second) success is foretold in the very volume that we have in our hands. Vila-Matas seems comfortable existing in the spaces between biography, fiction and essay (he portrays the book as a lecture, referring more than once to his audience). In an interview he commented:

“The broad passageway that joins fiction and reality is cool and well-ventilated, and the air within blows about with the same natural ease with which I mix biography and invention.”

Vila-Matas’ default mode for transcribing reality is irony, and he describes the novel as his “ironic revision of the two years of my youth in Paris.” The earnestness of the young writer, therefore, is seen from the distance of established craftsman, and much of this is indicated through the young Vila-Matas’ attempts to follow in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway (the title is a quotation from Hemmingway’s account of his time in Paris, A Moveable Feast). However, this mockery is immediately undermined by Vila-Matas’ apparent belief at the time of writing that he is the spitting image of Hemingway, to the point that he attempts to prove it by entering a look-alike contest, quickly finding himself disqualified:

“…they didn’t throw me out of the competition because they discovered the false beard – which they did not – but because of my ‘absolute lack of physical resemblance to Hemingway’.”

Vila-Matas’ irony is not something he applies only to distant events, but is all-encompassing, including the persona he creates to narrate the novel. Writers, he suggests, are all deluded into thinking they are writers. He, in fact, identifies irony as what is missing from his life as a young man:

“Irony would have helped me but, since I was scarcely acquainted with it, there was nothing it could do for me.”

In Paris he lives in a garret (of course) rented from Marguerite Duras, whose French he rarely understands, and quickly inhabits every writerly cliché he can:

“I identified youth with despair and despair with the colour black. I dressed in black from head to toe. I bought myself two pairs of glasses, two identical pairs, which I didn’t need at all, I bought them to look more intellectual. And I began smoking a pipe…”

Vial-Matas describes his early struggles as a writer with a lightness and gentle mockery that conveys both the hardship and the freedom he experiences. He refers frequently to writers and writing; Hemingway, of course, but also many others, including those, like Georges Perec, he sees in Paris (typically, he simply stares at him). One of the most attractive things about Vila-Matas’ work is the way in which literature is unashamedly foregrounded as the subject.

Never Any End to Paris is a great addition to Vila-Matas’ work in English. Even better, a fourth book, Dublinesca, is due to follow next year.

Danger rating: beware of names dropping, but they fall so lightly they cannot harm you. Vila-Matas wears his erudition on his sleeve, but you might suspect it the costume of a clown.

Pricksongs and Descants

August 12, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Robert Coover

The final story in Robert Coover’s Pricksongs and Descants, ‘The Hat Act’, is structured around a magic trick:

“A man enters, dressed as a magician with black cape and black silk hat. Doffs hat in wide sweep to audience, bows elegantly.


As the story progresses, the man proceeds to pull various objects from the hat. He begins, of course, with a rabbit, then a series of hats, then a series of rabbits from the hats. Having exhausted this trick to diminishing returns (“Light applause”), he then transfers himself from one hat to another, his legs disappearing into one hat as his head reappears from another. Now the ordinary paraphernalia of magicians won’t do (rabbits, doves) – he tosses them into the wings and produces instead a glamorous assistant (“tight green halter, little green shorts, black net stockings”). The hat becomes stuck to his head. He requests two volunteers from the audience to remove it: one man grasps the hat, the other the magician’s legs:

“Magician’s neck stretches, snaps in two: POP! Large men tumble apart, rolling to opposite sides of the stage, one with body, other with hat containing magician’s severed head.”

The performance has only begun, but already we have learned a lot about the ways in which Coover works in this famous volume of short stories. The comparison with a magic trick is telling: the author is a magician anxious to surprise and shock his audience. Audience reaction plays a large part in this story with the narrative written as stage directions and the audience reaction following. Like the magician, Coover often begins with what we recognise, frequently fairy tales in this volume, and then takes us on surprising and unexpected detours. These detours often involve sex (the glamorous assistant) and sudden violence (the severed head).

‘The Gingerbread House’, for example, begins in the traditional manner, but quickly becomes a story of sexual awakening symbolised by a dove, lured by the bread crumbs, which the boy and girl fight over:

“Both children are weeping, the boy of anger and frustration, the girl of pain and pity and a bruised heart.”

She hides the dove beneath her skirt, “nestled in her small round thighs.” Later, the witch seduces the boy with the “burnished cherry-red heart of a dove”; the door to her cottage is also heart shaped, “shining like a ruby, like hard cherry candy, and pulsing softly, radiantly.” This symbolism may seem heavy handed when excised from the story, but, like many of the stories, ‘The Gingerbread House’ is written in short numbered sections, like a story board from a film, flitting from scene to scene without any linking narrative.

This style is used most effectively in ‘The Babysitter’, where sexual desire is also to the forefront. Here, a teenage babysitter is the focus of attention from her boyfriend, Jack, his friend, Mark, the young boy she is babysitting, and the boy’s father, Harry. Beginning with a scenario familiar from pornography (and horror films), Coover creates a maelstrom of lust where short scenes reveal various possibilities. In some she convinces Jack not to come round; in others Jack and Mark rape her. How much of it is male fantasy, how much is actually ‘happening’? The style makes the (male) reader complicit as the sexual elements of the narrative are the more dramatic and therefore the more appealing.

Coover is interested in his (male) characters becoming “drugged by the fantasy of the moment.” While this is largely sexual, we also see it in revenge story ‘The Elevator’. The preponderance of young girls and older men may now seem not so much shocking as dated, but Coover captures the way in which men can be slaves to passion, his sympathies seemingly lying with the difficulty of resisting desire. For example, in his Tempest re-write ‘The Magic Poker’ there is only Caliban:

“It is one thing to discover the shag of hair between my buttocks, quite another to find myself tugging the tight gold pants off Karen’s sister. Or perhaps it is the same thing, yet troubling in either case.”

In ‘Morris in Chains’ our sympathies lie with the captured Pan, Morris. Whatever his subject, however, what is undeniable is that Coover is an original writer who deserves to be read.

Danger rating: quick cutting style and belief that characters are driven by their more basic impulses may not be to everyone’s taste, but the recent re-release of three of his books as Penguin Classics provides a great opportunity to get to know this writer better.