I’m in a patch where I have so many posts I’d like to do that I had better get a move on or else the impetus for some will wither and die. I spoke about reading ‘writerly’ fiction a few days ago, and Bookbox’s comment that he’d like to see some gave me the idea of sharing a bit of an experimental novel with you. If you are still reading on after that sentence, then good for you! You are a brave and courageous soul. Now the author who sprang to mind was David Markson, although apparently he doesn’t like the term ‘experimental’ and prefers ‘playful’. You can be the judge of that yourself, as I’m going to quote a large-ish chunk now, and then take you through a cursory reading of it.
This comes from Reader’s Block, the story of an author, known only as Reader, who is contemplating writing a novel.
‘Why does Reader rarely remember that the Septuagint is so called because seventy scholars allegedly translated it from Hebrew into Greek in seventy-two days?
Geoffrey of Monmouth. Wace. Layamon. Marie de France. Chrétien de Troyes. Malory.
Nora Barnacle was a hotel chambermaid when Joyce met her.
Eva Hesse was dead of a brain tumor at thirty-four.
When Rembrandt’s possessions were sold at bankruptcy in 1656, the included paintings by Raphael, Giorgione, and van Eyck. And seventy-five Rembrandts.
And did not bring in enough to discharge the bankruptcy.
Theodore Dreiser was an anti-Semite.
The tyranny of the ignoramuses is insurmountable and assured for all time.
Inside the basement section of the house at the dunes, a stairway climbs to the floor above. Because of the subdivision, the entrance at the top of the stairs has been sealed. In effect, the stairs now mount to nowhere.
Protagonist has set up the first of his unpacked books on some of the steps.
What you get married for if you don’t want children?
Georges Braque came extremely close to losing his sight from a head wound in World War I.
Or perhaps not a novel?
Is he in some peculiar way thinking of an autobiography?’
I feel I should somehow stick my hand up and say, yoo-hoo, me again, Litlove talking. Because all those voices are disorienting, no? And did you enjoy it? Did it feel playful to you, or just bewildering and confusing – or worse, a collection of esoteric references designed to make you feel inadequate culturally?
Let’s begin with the obvious things because it’s often useful to say them. We have a collection of fragments here, although fragments of what is immediately unclear. There’s no description to set a scene for us, no clear-cut characters or dialogue, nothing to situate us in a landscape or a situation. One of the first questions readers ask themselves (consciously or not) is: Who’s speaking? And the first way this novel plays with us is to refuse a straight answer. My immediate response on reading it was to assume we had the random thoughts of one person, not connected causally but by association. However, given that Reader – the main character whom we know is thinking about writing a novel – is referred to at the start in the third person, clearly this isn’t going to be a first-person narrative. If it’s a stream of consciousness, then it’s narrated from a position outside of Reader’s head, but as if it were possible to see into it.
Some of the fragments are very erudite – pretentious even. Whilst that oddly ungrammatical phrase ‘what you get married for’ seems to come from a different voice altogether. As do the fragments that seem in some way to be reflecting on the composition of the novel, wondering whether it is ‘perhaps not a novel’, or questioning whether an autobiography is at stake. And the bit about Protagonist – particularly because s/he is called a protagonist and arrives accompanied by some vestiges of realist description – seems most likely to come from the novel-in-composition. So, we are obliged to recognise that we cannot neatly cohere the fragments into a unified voice, or perspective. We are stuck with a patchwork, where subtle changes in tone and register and concern indicate to the reader that different perspectives have come into play. It’s like being on a party line, where lots of anonymous speakers are having a conversation, only their interests are so disparate, the positions they speak from so unlike one another, that we cannot imagine any logical, realistic way that all these different fragments could come together. In fact, the only space that could hold such disparity is the realm of fiction itself, an infinitely elastic space where anything is possible.
Let’s look at the preoccupations of the narrative – which is rather like answering all the brown questions in a game of trivial pursuits. I can’t bring myself to care about the Septuagint and think that Reader can’t remember it for jolly good reasons to do with memory space and mental effort. Then follows a bunch of Medieval writers. Nora and James Joyce will be familiar to most people. Eva Hesse was a sculptress who managed to escape Nazi Germany with her family and emigrate to America. Rembrandt I’m again guessing will be familiar as a Dutch painter. Theodore Dreiser was an American realist who I’ve never read but wrote rather dreary and depressing novels, I think. Bathsheba I only know about because one of the set texts for my school friends doing A level English literature was Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd. Lidice was a mystery and I had to search online. Apparently it was a Czech village, completely destroyed by the Germans in WWII, and not as a usual casualty of war (if one can put such words together) but as a staged atrocity, a massacre. Einstein will be familiar and Georges Braque was a Cubist painter.
It’s a bit of a mixed bag at first, but then some themes seem to emerge – the troubled lives of artists, for instance, and the concern with WWII and the Holocaust. In fact there is much uncertainty hovering around the figure of the artist – they die young, or remain unrecognized in their lifetime, or have unappealing politics. If we return to the difficulty we had of making all those voices cohere into one position, we can see that they may all be nagging thoughts within Reader’s mind, blocked and struggling to compose a work, assailed by doubts about whether it is worth doing, doubts about the reception and the value of what is being produced, anxieties about what remains posthumously. The quotation from Einstein sort of fits in here, as a reminder to the writer that any desires s/he may harbor to change the world are at risk of being dashed. Those speculative voices about what is being produced – a novel or autobiography – could equally be projected concerns, as the author imagines what people might say to themselves in their own minds as they read the work. And how can we fit in the Holocaust? It could be part of the evaluation of art, an indication of its pointlessness, when opposed to the visceral reality of tragic events. It could be a personal preoccupation of Reader, or it could be nothing at all, a mere coincidence.
So you can see that the point of this passage is to make readers work – and work we inevitably will. It’s almost impossible to read those fragments and not try and do something with them, search for patterns and for significance. What do you think? What struck you most reading it? Because one thing is for sure – this is going to have a very different impression on different people. It also occurs to me, having written this, that this sort of reading I find very performative. It makes sense to me when I’m teaching, but it isn’t something that I find it natural to do – at least not at this level of intensity – when I am alone. I think it’s the sort of book best approached by brainstorming with a bunch of people who have a healthy disregard for the pretensions of art. You can have fun with it, so long as you accept not to be intimidated by it. Would you pick it up?