Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

The Madness of Quixote

I’ve been reading Don Quixote again. I had put it down when we came back from Spain. Recently, something that has always troubled me about the book and its protagonist suddenly became clearer.

We know that Don Quixote is mad and imagines things. The book derives its comic power from the fact that windmills stay windmills and from Don Quixote’s belief that they are giants, and yet also from how he excuses his behaviour when he realises that they are not giants. But his persistence in the face of opposing reality is such that he begins to take on heroic dimensions, and we cannot help but admire him, even when we laugh at his absurdity. He finds the adventures he sets out to find, or creates them if he has to. He has, in fact, become greater than the “real” knights he sought to emulate. For all the beatings he gets, there are just as many times that he deals them out to others, with the result that just when we are sure he is nothing more than a decrepit bag of bones, he turns out to be a force to be reckoned with. Sometimes his victims are reasonable people who become hapless fools because they don’t understand his madness, or because they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; but sometimes they are actually scoundrels and villains who deserve what they get from him, or if they are abusing him, have their villainy confirmed for us by their abuse of him.

In his introduction to Edith Grossman’s 2003 translation, Harold Bloom says, “No critic’s account of Cervantes’s masterpiece agrees with, or even resembles, any other critic’s impressions. Don Quixote is a mirror held up not to nature, but to the reader.” I believe this is because we are never quite sure what is really real, what the true nature of Don Quixote is. Reality, just beneath the surface of things, seen through an endlessly shifting prism, is always changing form, as if we readers shared his madness, and could not tell giants from windmills.

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Bit of Disquiet

Life, for most people, is a pain in the neck that they hardly notice, a sad affair with some happy respites, as when the watchers of a dead body tell anecdotes to get through the long, still night and their obligation to keep watch. I’ve always thought it futile to see life as a valley of tears; yes, it is a valley of tears, but one in which we rarely weep. Heine said that after great tragedies we always merely blow our noses. As a Jew, and therefore universal, he understood the universal nature of humanity.

Life would be unbearable if we were conscious of it. Fortunately we’re not. We live as unconsciously, as uselessly and as pointlessly as animals, and if we anticipate death, which presumably (though not assuredly) they don’t, we anticipate it through so many distractions, diversions and ways of forgetting  that we can hardly say we think about it.

That’s how we live, and it’s a flimsy basis for considering ourselves superior to animals. We are distinguished from them by the purely external detail of speaking and writing, by an abstract intelligence, and by our ability to imagine impossible things. All this, however, is incidental to our organic essence. Speaking and writing have no effect on our primordial urge to live, without knowing how or why. Our abstract intelligence serves only to elaborate systems, or ideas that are quasi-systems, which in animals corresponds to lying in the sun. And to imagine the impossible may not be exclusive to us; I’ve seen cats look at the moon, and it may well be that they were longing to have it.

[Number 405, Zenith edition]

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Bit of Disquiet

We generally colour our ideas of the unknown with our notions of the known. If we call death a sleep, it’s because it seems like sleep on the outside; if we call death a new life, it’s because it seems like something different from life. With slight misconceptions of reality we fabricate our hopes and beliefs, and we live off crusts that we call cakes, like poor children who make believe they’re happy.

[Number 66, Zenith edition]

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Another on Pessoa

Leafing through The Book of Disquiet a couple of nights ago, I found the exact phrase “nostalgia for the future”, the title of my post on him. I know it’s been used before, and it’s precisely the kind of paradox you’d expect from Pessoa.

And yet what nostalgia for the future* if I let my ordinary eyes receive the dead salutation of the declining day! How grand is hope’s burial, advancing in the still golden hush of the stagnant skies! What a procession of voids and nothings extends over the reddish blue that will pale in the vast expanses of crystalline space!

I don’t know what I want or don’t want. I’ve stopped wanting, stopped knowing how to want, stopping knowing the emotions or thoughts by which people generally recognise that they want something or want to to want it. I don’t know who I am or what I am. Like someone buried under a collapsed wall, I lie under the toppled vacuity of the entire universe. And so I go on, in the wake of myself, until night sets in and a little of the comfort of being different wafts, like a breeze, over my incipient self-unawareness**.

Ah, the high and larger moon of these placid nights, torpid with anguish and disquiet! Sinister peace of the heavens’ beauty, cold irony of the warm air, blue blackness misted by moonlight and reticent to reveal stars.

From 184.

*an alternate version reads: “what regret that I’m not someone else”

**an alternate version reads: “incipient impatience with myself”

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I recently bought Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. I had been seeing his name around a lot. The first time I’d seen it was in the Greek translation of Antonio Tabucchi’s Last Three Days of Fernando Pessoa. Various blogs started mentioning him a lot last year, including The Blog of Disquiet (404’d). Then, last summer, in Lisbon, I saw his statue outside the cafe A Brasileira. I promised myself that when I got back, I would get his book. (I was surprised that I could not find a single English edition in any of the shops I went into in Lisbon.)

The book is, to say the least, very strange. To begin with, the first thing a reader has to deal with is Pessoa himself, who is everywhere in the book, and yet not quite there. Throughout his life, he wrote through over 70 different personae (he called them heteronyms) with elaborately imagined lives, and in some cases even deaths, filled with details that didn’t even enter into what he wrote under their name.

Pessoa was a dreamer, in the sense that he lived the life of the imagination, removed from the life of action and or experience, and as a writer he was a dreamer in that he knew that any book he imagined he could write would be an imperfect shadow of the book he had imagined and planned and outlined. Nevertheless, for most of his life he worked on this constantly changing book, a book of fragments and scraps, a record of his uneventful, nonexistent life, a “factless autobiography”, a book about the impossibility of writing the book of his dreams and imagination.

I cultivate hatred of action like a greenhouse flower. I dissent from life and am proud of it. (103)

Life is whatever we conceive it to be. For the farmer who considers his field to be everything, the field is an empire. For a Caesar whose empire is still not enough, the empire is a field. […] I’ve dreamed a great deal. I’m tired from having dreamed but not tired of dreaming. No one tires of dreaming, because dreaming is forgetting and forgetting doesn’t weight a thing; it’s a dreamless sleep in which we’re awake. In dreams I’ve done everything. I’ve also woken up, but so what? How many Caesars I’ve been! […] I’ve been truly imperial while dreaming, and that’s why I’ve never been anything. My armies are defeated, but the defeat was fluffy, and no one died. I lost no flags. […] How many Caesars I’ve been, right here, on the Rua dos Douradores [the street that Bernardo Soares, the book’s heteronym, lived]. (102)

I’ve always been an ironic dreamer, unfaithful to my inner promises. Like a complete outsider, a casual observer of whom I thought I was, I’ve always enjoyed watching my daydreams go down in defeat. I was never convinced of what I believed in. I filled my hands with sand, called it gold, and opened them up to let it slide through. Words were my only truth. When the right words were said, all was done; the rest of the sand that had always been. (221)

Perhaps the personae facilitated writing for him. If his life was as uneventful as he said, it’s logical that he could only write if it was through someone he had dreamed up. Persona, the Latin word for an actor wearing a mask, is thought by some to mean a sounding-through (sonare = to sound, per = through). If this is not actually the case, it’s still insightful. If Pessoa took off the mask, he would fall silent.

(Thanks to the Dude for pointing out that pessoa is actually Portuguese for person.)

When Pessoa died in 1935, the manuscript of The Book of Disquiet, a collection of loose sheets of paper, not a “book” at all, ended up in a trunk with all his other writings until it was published in 1982. More complete editions followed in 1991 and 1998. Richard Zenith, writing about the fragmentary nature of the book, says

Since a loose-leaf edition is impractical, and since every established order is the wrong order, the mere circumstance of publication entails a kind of original sin. Every editor of this Book, automatically guilty, should (and I hereby do) (1) apologise for tampering with the original non-order, (2) emphasise that the order presented can claim no special validity, and (3) recommend that readers invent their own order or, better yet, read the work’s many parts in absolutely random order.

When I started reading the book, and Zenith’s introduction, I had the confusing sense that Pessoa had suffered from some kind of insanity. Bernardo Soares was, according to Pessoa, a “semi-heteronym” because he most closely resembled Pessoa, was a “mutilation” of Pessoa. As a result, one can assume that it’s a self-portrait, albeit a mutilated one. The book is so odd that one feels it must be sincere.

And it occurred to me that we are of the first or second generation to read this book, and that a body of exegesis has not yet grown around it, that we don’t really have a fully developed critical apparatus with which to approach the work. And I wonder if the fragmentary, disorderly nature of the book, the fact that there can never be an authoritative edition of it, subverts or undermines any attempt to develop such a critical apparatus.

* * * * *

In my last year of university, I went one afternoon to the Robarts Library and sat down in some corner of the seventh or eighth floor, by a window that overlooked the west end of the city. I thought about how many of those streets below I had never walked down, and would never walk down, although I felt that the city was actually part of me. I thought about all the various houses on those streets, the rooms in those houses, the people who lived in them, the rooms in their lives, rooms I would never walk through, people I would never know. (A large part of this was due to the fact that I knew I would be leaving in a year or two.) I felt a strange sense of nostalgia, something like a nostalgia for the future, a nostalgia for all the possibilities and opportunities that I would never be able to take advantage of.

The Book of Disquiet is a book of self-absorption, but it is not boringly so. There are passages of exquisitely lyrical nostalgia of the kind I describe above. I would like to quote extensively from two such passages, for the benefit of anyone who’s not sure if this book is for them.


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Goldberg: Variations

Back in January (was it really that long ago?!) I blogged about Gabriel Josipovici’s Everything Passes. I had prepared another post, but in the end decided I didn’t want to say anything more about it. I had also ordered Goldberg: Variations, which came about month later for some reason.

Everything Passes is apparently simple, but remains elusive in its complexity (and this is its greatest charm, I think). Goldberg: Variations, when viewed one chapter at a time, is easier to “understand”, but the various settings and characters of the book, when viewed as a whole, pose the greatest challenge. They are connected by various metaphors and concerns.

I filled several pages in my notebooks about Everything Passes, but I didn’t find as much that interested me in Goldberg: Variations, despite the fact that it was a fuller book. There is, however, one small detail I’d like to concentrate on, because it represents what I think was an interesting missed opportunity.

There is a story that Count Kaiserling, a Russian ambassador to Saxony, suffered from insomnia and had the musician Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, who lived with him, play music to soothe him at night. Kaiserling mentioned to Bach that he wished he had some soothing but lively music for such occasions, and Bach is said to have given him the piece of music which has come to be known as the Goldberg Variations.

Josipovici’s book is about a writer named Goldberg who is hired to read to an insomniac named Mr Hammond. Logically, a recurrent theme throughout the book, in addition to literature and writing, is sleep. There is a thread in the book that particularly struck me, and it deals with Odysseus.

In chapter 8 (pp 56-61) Hammond asks Goldberg, “What is the reason, do you think, that makes Homer depict Odysseus as an inveterate liar?” (p 56)

Goldberg describes one of the significant differences between the Iliad and the Odyssey. Achilles, he says,

knows that if he kills Hector he himself is doomed to die young, but kill Hector he must, to avenge his beloved Patroclus. If it had been possible it would have happened, as someone has said. If the alternative had been possible he would have chosen it. It was not possible. … It is different with the Odyssey. Odysseus is ready to use all his wiles and all his powers of endurance, even if it means humiliation, in order to ensure his safe return and, once he is home, the routing of the suitors and the cleansing of his house. […] But for Odysseus humiliation is temporary; the end always justifies the means.

Goldberg later adds:

As the Iliad ends with the burial of Hector’s body, so the Odyssey ends with Odysseus and Penelope finding each other through the riddle of the bed, which is an integral part of the house itself. Only then does Odysseus sleep soundly. Until that moment his fate is to lie awake, making plans while all the creatures of the earth sleep the sleep of the just.

Goldberg’s answer to the initial question does not really concern us here, so I’ll pass over it for now. I want to stress the part about sleep, and move on to chapter 24 (pp 165-170). Goldberg is writing to his wife.

We spend a third of our lives asleep, if we are among the lucky ones, and yet, curiously, very little has been made of sleep in the literature of the past. For obvious reasons. It is not interesting. Nothing happens. Only dreams, or the inability to sleep, are interesting. But does that not tell us something about art? It purports to speak of man and all his doings, but in effect it speaks only of those things most amenable to speech. Homer, of course, is the exception in this as in everything else. Indeed sleep could be said to be the secret theme, perhaps even the secret goal, of both his Iliad and Odyssey. In the former Achilles will not sleep until he has been avenged first on his own comrades who, he feels, have inflicted shame upon him, and then on Hector, who has killed dear friend Patroclus. […] And is not the climax of the Odyssey the return of Odysseus to his beloved wife and to his own secret bed? Then at last both he and the poem can fall asleep.

What does this suggest? Why, simply this, that sleep is the goal of art as it is of man. And it can only be the sleep that truly ends if it has in some way been earned by the protagonist and earned by the writer. In that sense it is also the goal of the reader. But only a true work will allow him to sleep well when he has closed the book.

There is a curious part in the middle of the book, beginning on p 107, in the 15th chapter, written by Mrs Goldberg. She is writing of their children, Annabel and Danny. She writes about their son’s shiftiness in argument, and his desire to emulate and impress his father. She gives the following example. In the 19th book of the Odyssey,

where the disguised Odysseus recounts to Penelope that he has seen Odysseus and welcomed him as a guest in his home in Crete, [Danny] pointed out the contiguity of the words Odysseus and I in the line: “There Odysseus I saw and gifts to him gave”, suggesting that for a moment the reader or listener imagines the disguise is about to drop and Odysseus to reveal himself. When you pointed out that this was far-fetched he triumphantly showed that in the that line in the Greek, Odyseia [sic] and ego were followed by the caesura, and that this was an extremely rare example of such a thing, there being only eight examples, he said, of such an “illicit” hiatus in the whole of the Iliad and Odyssey. The implication was thus that one would have to pause after ego and the line would momentarily read “And there I, Odysseus”, before concluding “saw and gave guest gifts to”. Even you had to admit that he had a point there.

But he doesn’t. Nowhere near, in fact. There is, of course, the possibility that Danny is twisting things to convince his father, but I want to point out a significant error in his argument. And to do this I have to say a few things about how the Greek language works.

Greek, like Latin, is an inflected language. What this basically means is that nouns and adjectives have endings which clearly show what grammatical role they are playing in the sentence. Take the word for man, or human, anthropos. When it has the -os ending, it means that the word is the subject of the verb. If the word ends with -on, then it is the direct object of the verb. If it ends with -ou, then it is showing possession, like ‘s in English. These are called cases. The three I’ve mentioned are called nominative, accusative, and genitive. There is another one, the dative (which exists in German too), and the vocative, which is used when addressing the thing or person the noun represents.

The result of all this is that Greek syntax is a great deal more flexible than English. A simple sentence like Dog bites man could be written

Dog bites man.
Man bites dog.
Bites man dog.
Bites dog man.
Man dog bites.
Dog man bites.

and the meaning would not change. Only the emphasis would be different. Names, like all other nouns, follow this rule, so there is no way a Greek would have read or heard the name Odysea in the line Danny discusses and even momentarily think what he says they might be tempted to think. They would know right away that Odysseus was the object of the verb saw, just as they would know that I was the subject of it. This possibility exists only in English, because it is not an inflected language.

There is only one such case of ambiguous contiguity that I can think of in English, (I’m sure there are many) but it comes later than Goldberg’s visit to Hammond — although readers of the book will know that this would not have been a problem for Josipovici. It is the last line of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “No worst, there is none.” Hopkins writes “all life death does end”. The contiguity of life and death makes it possible to read it as “death ends all life” or “all life ends death”. It would have been an appropriate choice. The full last line is

all / Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

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Words, words, words

Ten years ago, I calculated that if I could read a book a week, I would need thirty years to read all the books in my library. And when I thought about how long it actually takes me to read one, I realised how absurd the situation was. I already had more books than I could possibly read in the rest of my life, and I was still buying more.

What did I want them all for?

I brought most of them to Greece with me, thinking that it would be difficult and expensive to get them here. I sold or traded in the ones I didn’t want any more, and bought a lot of others that I thought I’d want or need here. In some cases it was a bit of a gamble; some of the books ended up not interesting me enough.

(I once contacted an acquaintance from a Toronto, a novelist and poet, and he mentioned in his email that he had once been browsing in a used bookstore and had found all the books of his that he’d inscribed to me. I had a bit of explaining to do.)

When I came to Greece I started working full time, and the number of books I read declined. I didn’t have as much time, and when I did, I didn’t have as much energy. Over the past year, I’ve been horrified to find myself drowsing after I start reading. My eyes close and my mind wanders. I’m awake, but my eyes are closed and I’m holding a book in front of my face. I have become something which a few years ago I would have mocked.

I should start getting rid of my books, I tell myself. I look at their spines and I think I hear them laughing at me. “You think you can write one of us?” they say. “You can barely read one of us!”

When we leaving Athens to come to Crete, I got rid of a few hundred of them, to make the move a little bit easier, and because we had agreed that they would stay in one room, here in my office.

(This was taken shortly after I filled the shelves. There are others, too.)

It was difficult, almost painful, getting rid of the ones I gave away to friend, and I know I didn’t give away enough. N. says I should put shelves up on the wall across from these two bookcases, but I don’t know.

And yet, I still want to read. I feel restless if I’m not reading something. I dip into them a lot, and sometimes read several books at the same time. This invariably means I won’t finish any of them. I cannot sleep at night if I don’t open a book and read at least a paragraph. I’ve even come home late at night, so drunk I can’t walk straight, and still tried to read a bit before I turned out the light. It feels like an act of self-assertion: one last attempt, after all the demands that were made on me that day, to claim my time as my own.

So why is it so hard for me to stay interested in a book? What has happened to me that I fail to enjoy all that I know a book offers me, that I fail to enjoy what I so much want to enjoy?

It’s not laziness, because when I look back at the books that I’ve enjoyed most over the past few years, I see that they have all been relatively challenging — not escapist stuff. They are books I found compelling and something of whose composition remained a mystery to me. I read all the Coetzee I could find and grappled with the question of how he achieved his complexity. Sebald was a revelation, and yet an impenetrable mystery. I loved DeLillo’s Underworld, and White Noise and The Faces, although I soon went off him completely. Roth’s American Pastoral was gripping, but when I finished The Human Stain, I’d had enough. Vollmann’s Europe Central. Chatwin. Herzog. All of which had some sort of authority of voice, which I wanted to master.

Part of my problem is impatience. Anna Karenina was one of the best examples of what I want in a book, but at some point I put it down too. I think its length daunts me: in the amount of time it would take me to finish it, I could read two or three of the other books that call out to me, and which in the end I don’t read either. I want that satisfying feeling of finishing a book — a feeling so enjoyable that I always feel I have to start immediately on another. I want to swallow the book, and often don’t have the patience to chew through it page by page.

Is it the feeling that so few books seem to live up to their promise? I don’t want to impute to books my own shortcomings as a reader. I know not to expect from a book something it can’t give me.

I keep buying books, although I buy almost as few as I manage to read. I have learned to resist the temptation. I don’t buy books if I feel they belong to a type that’s already well enough represented in my library. I bought Josipovici because I knew the two books I ordered were unlike any other I had. Next I will buy Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. I’ve been thinking of making a separate shelf for all the strange authors whose work sets them apart for me somehow: Zweig, Bernhard, Kadare, Gombrowicz, Svevo.

I have been putting off buying the Pessoa as I had put off buying the Josipovici books. It had ceased to be a desire and become a necessity. I bought them to rid myself of the nagging desire to get them.

I don’t know how to answer the questions I’ve raised here. Please comment, and share your thoughts, insights and experiences.

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Reading Jealousy (6)

When I finally finished Jealousy a few months ago, I wrote some notes but never got round to posting anything. I got more interested in it towards the end, but it still it didn’t leave me with much. Here are some of the notes I made. They are basically my thoughts straight onto the paper. Some of it is very obvious, because I like to spell out what’s obvious and make sure it’s understood. Strange ideas are usually hiding underneath somewhere. Sometimes I can’t really remember what I was going on about, but I type them up nonetheless.


When we read a work of fiction, we know the characters do not really exist. We don’t quite pretend to believe that they exist, because we don’t intend to fool anyone, not even ourselves, that we actually do believe this. Perhaps we pretend to have momentarily forgotten that the characters are not real, but again we don’t intend to fool anyone believing that we have forgotten. I am sure, however, that we are imaginatively hypothesising about the characters and the events: If this were true, how would he feel? What would she do next?

Can the reader or even the writer know the thoughts and intentions of a character in a fiction? This may seem like an odd question. How can thoughts and motives be off-limits to us if the person who has them doesn’t even exist? If the person doesn’t exist, then surely the thoughts and motives don’t exist.

And yet, sometimes the thoughts and motives of a character, who doesn’t even exist, are not revealed to us and cannot be known, but only when the writer has decided to draw a veil or curtain over them and to say, “This character, which doesn’t exist, had thoughts which don’t exist, and I’m not going to tell you what they are.” Or he might say, “I’m going to pretend I don’t know what they are.” He could if he wanted to, and if he did we would have to believe him because there would no way he could be wrong. To say that he was wrong would be to believe that the characters had a reality outside the fiction, that they really existed. And we know this is not so.

(I am, of course, talking about the third person narrative voice, where the voice telling you the story is not one of the characters in it. Otherwise we would have a narrator we know did not exist, telling us a story we know is not true.)

In fact, there are only two options. A writer will either pretend to know everything, or he will pretend not to know everything. Except that we cannot talk about pretending to know or really knowing when there is really nothing to know. You cannot pretend to know something that doesn’t exist any more than you can pretend not to know it. There is nothing to know or not to know. So a writer’s two choices are really to give us details or not to give us details.

A writer must still try to create the illusion of reality. Or maybe I should say “a story-teller”. He must create this even though no one will believe it — although they may momentarily forget that they don’t believe it. And this is often easier to do when he withholds information. When he says, “I know almost as little about this character as I do about you, reader,” then that suggests that the character is real outside and beyond the confines of the story and the writer’s mind, and that the character is almost as real as you and I, the readers.

In the greatest works of fiction, the narrator who claims not to know something is observant enough to quietly and accidentally give you the details you need so you can see for yourself what the narrator doesn’t or can’t see or understand.

How far can a writer take all this? How do we take Robbe-Grillet’s apparent point of nothing being knowable in his fiction when our first assumption, our premise, is that there is nothing to know anyway? We have only a writer who agrees or refuses to create details.

Is there any point in claiming not to know everything about something you yourself have invented? The point that that’s how life is is too obvious to need making. Besides, art is not life, and this sounds like art that is trying to preach or teach a lesson.

So, in the end, it’s a question of simply creating the illusion that there is something real beyond what we behold in the book. Writers who use this technique never actually say, “I am going to create an incomplete picture and thus make comments about how you perceive it.”


On page 96 of the Grove edition a centipede is killed in the bedroom, and not in the dining room. It is not stated who kills it — a sign so far of the narrator’s actions. Then the wall is cleaned with a hard eraser. It is not clearly stated that it has been crushed against the wall — only that “it is nothing more than a reddish pulp” on the floor — since it falls first to the tiles.

But then, on page 113, after the narrator has been describing the calendar and walls in the bedroom, the narrator seems to confuse the two scenes. Franck stands up with his napkin and kills it in the bedroom.

Does the second centipede remind the narrator of the first one, seen in the dining room? If he is confused, can we be sure there are even two of them?

There is yet another possibility. As the day progresses (the time is given at the beginning of each chapter, with the movement of the column’s shadow on the balcony) we are given descriptions of the same events over and over again. These events are, of course, not repeated, but remembered repeatedly during A…’s and Franck’s absence. Most of the events seem to have occurred the previous day, but since among this jumble of memories are both memories of their absence and their return, the remembering must be happening afterwards.

The other possibility: The narrator is in the house alone. (“A… should have been back long since.”) He is concentrating on the calendar and the walls of the bedroom. Perhaps there is a centipede on one of them, perhaps not. (The description is identical to the one in the dining room.) The narrator remembers the scene, which like a film, is projected onto the wall. He sees the memory of Franck killing the centipede, but in the bedroom where he is remembering it, not in the dining room where it happened.

If the narration occurs when the narrator is alone in the house (since he cannot be sitting on the balcony with them and remembering events which come later, after they have left) and since he also remembers their absence and return, it is quite likely that the narrator goes over all the events during a later absence.

But then on pages 113-114 the narrator describes the accident that presumably kills A… and Franck. But how has he seen it? Only what he actually sees is described, and not what he “knows”.

After this, he returns to his usual circling around the same scenes: the centipede, the balcony, the dinner, the conversations. In retrospect, it seems the crash was described once and so unexpectedly for its shock value. Why would this obsessive narrator forget or neglect to mention it through the rest of the book? If he’s trying to forget it, why mention it even once?

Another detail. Two or three times, the narrator mentions a man, perhaps a worker, bent over some water (a river?), looking into it, as if at something underwater. (In the calendar photo or painting, someone is looking at something in the water, some flotsam. It is mentioned twice.) I thought perhaps there is evidence of a crime, something the narrator has thrown in the water and is afraid the worker will find. But nothing comes of it.

In A…’s bedroom the narrator finds the leather writing case, from which she took paper to write a letter. (The narrator has described watching her write it.) He opens the case and tries to read from the indentations in the paper, from the ink blottings, but can’t. Is he simply trying to learn what the letter said, or is he looking to see if A… wrote something that incriminates him?

Then it settles back into the same repetition and ends. I’m left with the feeling that there must be some clue to the narrator’s state, even his actions, some suggestion or possibility about what he has done, if indeed he has done anything. But I read it rather carelessly, and probably missed a lot. The question of whether A.. was having an affair with Franck does not concern me, and I’m sure that it shouldn’t. The narrator himself probably doesn’t know. In that sense, when we read the book we are in the same position as the narrator is, looking and searching and suspecting and never finding an answer.

And there is the problem of Franck’s wife Christiane, who never appears. Is that because her relationship with Franck has spoiled, as the narrator’s and A…’s has? Why does the narrator give us her name, but never his own or his wife’s? Is there some secret history between her and the narrator? Does the undercurrent of guilt come from that?

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Reading Jealousy (5)

My problem with Jealousy was mainly one of motivation: my reasons for picking the book up again once I’d put it down. Generally speaking, I felt as if Robbe-Grillet had put his cards down on the table too soon. I had heard enough about the book to know it was one where nothing “happened” in the usual sense of the word. The obsessive quality of the narrator and narrative, the repeated examination of the same details, albeit with an increasingly sharpened focus, and the fact that I believed (had read and heard) that the “truth” would never be revealed, that there would not be a typical (or any) resolution, all created a sense of stasis. The book wasn’t going anywhere. Or rather, the only movement was the obsessive circling around the same details. Apart from the narrative, what interested me was Robbe-Grillet’s technique — his narrator’s evasiveness and apathy. But here especially I felt, or believed, that Robbe-Grillet had revealed things too early, that there was no reason to read on.

I was quite willing to admit that I was misreading the book, that I was expecting from it something it was not meant to give me, but I could not face reading a book that (I believed) had stopped developing or progressing. I was also willing to admit that I was wrong about everything, but I simply could not stay interested enough to find out. The one compromise I could not force myself to make was to give up my expectation that a book progress or develop in some linear fashion. In other words, the second chapter should do something that the first chapter didn’t do.

I mentioned the problem to Jamie, who read the book when he was studying French Literature in university and loved it. He urged me to finished it, and I said I’d try. But in the course of our conversation it occurred to me that there was, in fact, something in the book that I could concentrate on, something that moved forward and was developed: the state of the narrator himself, his mental or emotional health, and the possibility that his apathy and obsessiveness might wear him down or break him in the end.

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Reading Jealousy (4)

Dr Zen writes:

You are going to be joining the long line of readers of R-G who finish his work with a vague — and sometimes not so vague — sense of dissatisfaction.

He doesn’t do answers. I think that is because his belief is that the question is (or ought to be) unaskable, and consequently unanswerable.

I’m going to keep trying. Sometimes being tired from work puts me in a bad mood. I should just close the book and forget about it till I feel like reading it. At the moment, I’m in a much more generous mood.

When I closed the book last night at about two AM, I wrote some notes.

If the narrator is so obsessed that he revisits the scenes over and over again, how can he, at the same time, seem so ignorant as to their significance? And if he is not ignorant of their significance, why does he avoid confronting or discussing it on the page? Is it because he has something to hide? Whatever the reason, why then is he telling any story whatsoever? Why have the words been set down? Under what pretext do we find ourselves together, as reader and writer? Why would anyone sit and labour over not saying what could be said?

When somebody reads a story he knows is not true, about characters he knows are not real, told by a narrator who pretends to be omniscient, he enjoys this illusion that he willingly and momentarily pretends to believe in. To subvert this arrangement seems arbitrary to me. Why would someone want to make a point of not knowing what was really going on in the minds of characters everyone knows don’t exist anyway? Why write such fiction at all? I know that we must stick to one point of view, and be careful about not writing what a narrator doesn’t know. But a narrator who doesn’t even speculate?

There are no thoughts to be known. All is imagined.

* * * * *

A… sits at a table and does not speak. Her husband (we assume), the narrator, watches her. We cannot know what she is thinking, or what she does when she’s away from him. Why is this so? Because R-G has decided to restrict himself only to what the narrator can see or know. Fair enough, and quite common. He has also decided, it seems, to conceal a great deal of what the narrator knows as well.

But if the situation and characters are products of the imagination and not of knowledge, then it seems largely arbitrary. How do I know that A… is even sitting at the table? If I say I don’t even accept her existence, I sound as though I naively think the writer was out to hoodwink me all along. I go so far that the extreme of clever scepticism because naivete, the way objectivity becomes subjectivity if you take it far enough.

The above is just a record of my frustrations. I don’t know how valid the questions are. I haven’t finished the reading the book yet. I hope it doesn’t turn out to be a record of the reasons why I gave up and joined the long line Zen mentions.

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Reading Jealousy (3)

Dr Zen wrote to me:

It is about only one thing. What is real? How does a writer describe what is real?

If Robbe-Grillet had other themes, they were purely incidental to that.

At first I wondered if I had been speculating about possible themes. “You ask why the narrator does not talk about what he seems to know.” I asked him why he didn’t make the comment on the blog and he said he didn’t want to sound too critical. I encouraged him to comment publicly, knowing that this would inevitably influence my reading, in one or another. I’ve glanced at the introduction of the book, and I read an article this weekend. They influence my reading too.

Last night when I lay in bed and tried reading, I felt discouraged, mainly with myself. What did I really have to say about this book? What interest was any of it to anyone who’s read the book themselves? Even the questions I’m asking have been asked and answered many times before. Then, when I wrote, “It can’t all be about catching the metaphors and understanding the narrative technique and the commentary about modern fiction”, Dr Zen wrote back and said:

Can’t it? Perhaps now you recognise that my comment was well aimed?

It was, although I don’t think I’m talking about themes. At least as I understand the word. The more that I want is for the illusion that there are real people and real action to continue, at least somewhat. I want the second half of the book to take that illusion forward, at least somewhat. The questions R-G poses come in the guise of character and setting and plot, and I want the two parts of the book — the questions and the “story” — to continue hand-in-hand. I don’t mind not getting, and don’t expect to get, answers, but half-way through the book, I want to want to look for them nonetheless. (That’s not a typo.)

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Reading Jealousy (2)

Yesterday I happened to look at somebody’s newspaper and I found a review of a new Greek edition of Jealousy. It touched on a lot of the things I wrote about in the first post. It’s occured to me I don’t have anything original to say about the book.

What’s more, two things struck me. One is that it’s the kind of book that could only be written once. How could someone write another book about someone who watches but is not seen?

The second thing is that if the book is largely about what can’t be known for sure, and what the narrator doesn’t (at least consciously) reveal to us, why should I keep reading? The book seems to be the demonstration of a point, and I feel that I’ve got it, more or less. What will be added to that point if I read the second half of the book?

Surely there must be some secret, perhaps some solution, buried deep in the details, some details that are part of the game of pretending that these characters are reveal, that I can add to the picture I’m forming. It can’t all be about catching the metaphors and understanding the narrative technique and the commentary about modern fiction.

When I revisit the scene with the centipede, what new details will be revealed, and will these details lead anywhere I haven’t been already?

* * * * *

Who’s the native who has twice been shown to be bending over the water, as if looking for something? Why’s he looking? Is he actually looking for something, although the narrative says it’s impossible to see anything in such water?

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Reading Jealousy (1)

I’ve started reading Jealousy, by Robbe-Grillet, and have been taking notes. It’s so far been one of the strangest reading experiences I’ve ever had.

I will be posting from time to time as I read.

* * * * *

A brief outline:

A… and Franck sit on the porch of a banana plantation somewhere in Africa. Franck is married, but his wife has stayed at home to look after their sick child. They sit, drinking, chatting. Nothing happens. During dinner A… sees a centipede on the wall, and Franck gets up to kill it. It leaves a mark on the wall. Some days later, A… and Franck go to town for the day, ostensibly because A… wants to do some shopping, and they do not return till the next day. Franck has been talking about car troubles, but when he returns he offers no explanation. There are minute descriptions of the house and the surrounding plantation, including two pages in which we are told precisely how many banana trees are in each field.These scenes are played over and over again. There is a fourth character. A…’s husband, the narrator. He never refers to himself directly. He never does anything. He does not seem to be present, except as a pair of eyes. He is nothing more than a witness, a narrator. But he is remarkably silent about a great many things.

* * * * *

There is a point where objectivity seems to become subjectivity.

Robbe-Grillet concentrates on what his narrator can see and makes no assumptions. We do not know what Franck and A… think, only what they do or seem to do or think. (Robbe-Grillet uses the word seem often but deliberately, perhaps as a crutch — since it solves a lot of potential problems for him — but surely to remind the reader that things may not be as they seem.) By concentrating only on what can be seen, we are stuck firmly, perhaps even trapped, in the consciousness and perceptions — the point of view — of the narrator, and so the attempt to be objective leads to subjectivity. We are resigned to the fact that we cannot know any more than what the narrator perceives and tells us — although he may slip and reveal things to us by omitting or misinterpreting details (and by misinterpreting I mean inviting us to interpret things differently). But this is now the writer working above or around his narrator, and the highest manifestation of art in this kind of writing.

* * * * *

Why is the narrator so invisible? Why does he take such pains to conceal himself? It seems pathological. Is he a passive person, who does not care if his wife is having an affair or not? Why does he not comment on what he seems to know?

* * * * *

The narrator gives countless details, he counts objects, like the banana trees in the fields, and precisely situates things, not because any of these details are important, but because his act of observing alone is important. Robbe-Grillet wants us to be aware of the narrator’s obsessive watching without drawing attention to it himself, without having to resort to characterisation.

Yet if the narrator is obsessed and jealous and seems to think that something is going on between A… and Franck, he is also deliberately avoiding saying so. He avoids any mention of what he is obsessed about. It is as though he is trying not to think about it, not to see it. He will count banana trees instead. He is a narrator who is trying not to see something and trying to convince himself (perhaps successfully) that nothing is happening, while Robbe-Grillet suggests that it’s there, that it is happening.

* * * * *

In the second section of the book, we see much of the action out on the balcony through the narrator’s window. He is hiding behind the blinds of his room. He can watch and not be seen. But he can’t hear. He can only guess at what is said, and sometimes the reader can’t help but feel he is guessing naively.

Throughout the story, the narrator reports to the reader what he sees and hears without ever referring to himself. We know nothing about him. We cannot see him. At first we don’t even realise he’s there. First we learn that the table has been set for four. A… and Franck are there, but Franck’s wife will not be coming. So one of the settings is removed. That leaves three. But no reference is ever made of a third person.

There is a map of the house on the first page. On the porch, where A… and Franck sit and talk, we can see four chairs and a table, if we look closely enough. The legend says

Veranda: 1) Franck’s chair. 2) A…’s chair. 3) Empty chair. 5) Cocktail table.

No mention is made of the fourth chair, where the narrator is sitting.

He is someone who watches without being seen.

The horizontal blinds that he hides behind are called jalousie blinds.

* * * * *

The narrator never seems to do anything. He never acts. When A… sees the centipede, he does nothing but watch her face. It is Franck who gets up and kills it. The only suggestion, so far, that he does anything but watch is on pages 46 and 47, when Franck is discussing buying a new truck:

But he is wrong to trust modern trucks to the Negro drivers who will wreck them just as fast, if not faster.

“All the same,” Franck says, “if the motor is new, the driver will not have to fool with it.”


[A…] has kept out of this discussion.

Since there has been a discussion, and since A… was not involved, that leaves only Franck and the narrator. But when the scene is revisited on page 63, there is no sign that the narrator was involved. It is as if he were fading out of the scene. The offer to take A… to town has been made for the first time, and the killing of the centipede is shown for the first time. Is the narrator’s inactivity caused by the shock of hearing the offer? He is definitely concentrating more on them now than on even the slightest hint of his involvement.

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In the likeness of truth

A few days ago a friend of mine in Toronto sent me an email linking to this story about yet another writer who’s been caught faking his memoirs. When the James Frey story broke, I followed it with interest, even though I didn’t know who Frey was. (I know I’d seen his name and the titles of his books around, but I hadn’t retained them.) At the same time, I thought it was a lot of fuss over nothing much. I remember having the feeling that it had been a long time coming. I also suspected that this sort of exposure was going to be a lot more common.

I wondered what people would have made of Bruce Chatwin if he were an emerging writer today, or if people had had Google back in the 80s. He was both a celebrated and a notorious teller of tall tales; some people who knew him speculated that he couldn’t always tell the difference between what was true and what he’d made up. More than once he denied that there was any division between fiction and nonfiction in his work, and was amused that The Songlines had been nominated for both fiction and nonfiction prizes. He defended the blurring of the border between the two by pointing to Flaubert, whose Madame Bovary was made up of so much research that, according to Chatwin, “very little is invented”.

What is interesting about this is that it shows what value they placed on fiction in those days, that they would try to disguise the truth as something made up. Today, the trend has been reversed.

Anyone who is interested in what’s going on in the publishing world today will be well aware of how much nonfiction outsells fiction. A lot of people don’t see the point of reading something that’s not true. I’ve met a great many people who feel this way. A former colleague of mine often told me that what he wanted from books — even works of fiction — was the opportunity to extract from them some kind, perhaps even any kind, of knowledge, and ideas. At first glance this seems noble enough, but I find the notion that literature must be useful rather philistine. (How do we measure its usefulness? That was a very good book: I learned many more facts than I usually do.) And I think people are deluded if they think anything they learn from a book (with the exception of textbooks about technical subjects, etc.) ends up making any difference their lives. These people seem to distrust pleasure as something not serious enough.

According to this former colleague’s line of reasoning, a good book is one that teaches you something you didn’t know. Follow this to its logical conclusion, and a book’s value depends on its reader’s ignorance.

I knew a writer back in Toronto who was desperate to get published and would come up with gimmicks and theories about what good writing had to be. For a long time, he insisted that it had to be, if not entirely, then mostly, autobiographical. (If he had said writing had to be self-absorbed and boring, the result would have been the same.) I tried to argue that whether a work was based on the writer’s life or imagination was extra-literary and irrelevant: only the quality mattered. He refused to accept this. He astounded me during one of our discussions by saying that he had originally admired “The Dead” by James Joyce and had thought it a great work of art, but then found his respect for it diminished when he learned that it was not as autobiographical as he’d first thought it was.

My parents don’t read, but they approach the films they watch on television in the same way. I used to walk past the livingroom while my mother was watching television and she would say, “Come and see this: it’s a true story!” My sister and I have been joking about this for years. When we talk on the phone about films we’ve seen, I’ll tell her, “You should rent it for the parents: it’s a true story.” They’ll sit and watch the worst crap imaginable as long as it’s a true story.

A few years ago, while my parents were visiting me here, I put on a DVD of Fargo and told my mother, “Come and see this — you won’t believe it, and it’s a true story.” It’s not, although the Coen brothers say it is at the beginning of the film. My mother was gripped by it, from beginning to end. And that’s no surprise: it’s a great story.

And this is why I wasn’t surprised, and was even a little pleased, when the Frey story broke. People need a good story, regardless of whether they think it’s true or not when they’re reading it. The telling of tales is one of our oldest traditions, and one that unites all peoples. It’s what Homer called saying false things that were like the truth. The scorn some of us have now for fantasy, for the imagination, for that faculty which has become shamefully underdeveloped, is a sign of our cultural decline, of our innocence lost. We are losing the sense that art and culture are rooted in games. We are like a people who do not remember how to laugh. We are losing the ability to open a book, or our ears, or our mind, and say, “Let’s play.”

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A response to the screenplay-novel

I have been challenged by Finn Harvor to answer some questions about the state of things in the publishing world, and in the novel in general, a challenge I won't take up in its entirety. The main reason is that I'm not qualified to talk about the publishing industry; I have no first-hand experience of it. (I'm talking about fiction here, not EFL publishing.) I can only repeat what I've read in articles and other blogs. My main concern is the novel itself — how to write it and how to read it. As far as the latter is concerned, so many have been written, in so many languages, that I can't possibly hope to skim the surface. I have so many unread books in my own library that if I could manage to read one a week, I would need more than thirty years. I still buy books even though I know I already have more than I will ever be able to read in my lifetime. It's hard, then, for me to get too worried about the state of things.

I won't get into what a novel is for me and what I want from it, mainly because I'm not interested in persuading anyone that it is the way. But for me this is something fixed (even though it's exciting when a writer comes along and writes one in a very different way, and seems to reinvent the novel). It is a kind of ideal. And by that I mean that if the novel changes in such a way that it no longer offers me what I want, then I will have no problem with turning my back on its future. As I said, I already have enough to me keep me busy for the rest of my life, and there are many great works I haven't even bought, let alone read. So publishing for me is not an end in itself. My main concern as a writer is to write the kind of book I like, or the kind of book I'd like to read but which hasn't been written yet. For me, writing is a long process of discovery and surprise, which is why I could never write a novel that had already been tightly plotted out beforehand. I enjoy the sense of not knowing exactly where it's going. If I lost that, I would never be able to maintain my interest in writing. I'd simply give up. Even if the prospect of publication were ensured, it would be too much of a chore. My point, then, is that, although I would love to be a successful novelist, I would only want to be so on my terms. If those terms were not accepted by any publisher, I'd either give up or publish it myself. For this reason, I would also prefer to be published by a small publisher whose vision of literature I shared than with a big publisher whose main concern is to sell a blockbuster (the kind of book I don't read anyway). I had begun another post, and have left some comments on Harvor's blog, with some objections to his "manifesto", but have since thought better of it. I will only respond on a personal level and try to account for why the kind of writing he is advocating offers me no enjoyment at all.

* * * * *

A couple of months ago, I watched Apocalypse Now for the first time in years, and I was struck again by something that occurred to me when I first read Heart of Darkness. (I had seen the film first.)

For me, the most fundamental difference between the two works is how they approach Kurtz. Both the book and the film create a strong sense of anticipation; you hear a lot about him, for a long time, before you see him, and he begins to grow in your imagination. But in the film, when we finally see Kurtz, it's someone who pontificates, whereas in the book he remains relatively silent. Brando's semi-improvised speeches have an anticlimactic effect. They are, for the most part, a combination of the pretentious and pedestrian. (Anyone who has seen Hearts of Darkness, the documentary, cannot envy Coppolla having to salvage something from the two weeks he worked with Brando. Perhaps the now-classic line, "I swallowed a bug!" could have been left in the film without detracting from it much.)

Conrad, though, knew what he was doing, and had his Kurtz keep his mouth shut. No one knows — except Marlowe, who tells you that you simply had to be there — what Kurtz experienced. But we see the result, and we get this final judgement: "The horror!" Our imagination must work on the material to justify the unquestionable result: Kurtz's state at the end of the book. And the imagination cannot fail to convince itself. If it does, you try again, or say, "I can't imagine, but it must have been horrible if it had such an effect."

The film, however invites the viewer to say, "I'm not convinced that those experiences would lead to this." We can even fail to be impressed with the result. This is because film as a medium must show. The novel has access to the interior world of its characters, and film is a direct, simultaneous representation of the exterior world.

(Of course, there are exceptions to this. Ironically, Apocalypse Now fails where it tries to show the interior — if Coppolla had left more to the imagination, it would have worked — and Heart of Darkness succeeds because it avoids delving first-hand into Kurtz's inner life.)

To have access to the interior world of its characters in such a way, a film must use some kind technique like the voice-over or have the actor think aloud. When voice-over is used too often, critics often complain that the film is using the technique as a crutch, to compensate for what it has not been able to do in the language and with the methods of film. It's using methods that are not visual and therefore not best suited to the medium.

I don't want to sound rigid in my expectations. I'm not. I'm well aware that novels can deal almost entirely with appearances. Robbes-Grillet comes to mind, and then there's this curious example:

The temperature is in the nineties, and the boulevard is absolutely empty.

Lower down, the inky water of a canal reaches in a straight line. Midway between two locks is barge full of timber. On the bank, two rows of barrels.

Beyond the canal, between houses separated by workyards, a huge, cloudless, tropical sky. Under the throbbing sun, white facades, slate roofs, and granite quays hurt the eyes. An obscure distant murmur rises in the hot air. All seems drugged by the Sunday peace and the sadness of summer days.

Two men appear.

In his "Notes on an Unfinished Novel", John Fowles made this comment:

Here (the opening four paragraphs of a novel) is a flagrant bit of writing for the cinema. The man has obviously spent too much time on film scripts and can now think only of his movie sale. […] It first appeared on March 25, 1881. The writer's name is Flaubert. All I have done to his novel Bouvard et Pecuchet is to transpose its past historic into the present.

I recommend the essay to anyone interested in the question of the two media. You can find it in his Wormholes.

* * * * *

My main objection is with Harvor's notion of vividness in writing. "Less is more vivid" says the header on his blog. He has also rightly said that we get more mileage out of Jack Nicholson raising his eyebrow and sighing than we can with some dialogue. Robert De Niro once said that such a gesture was worth an entire page of script. The irony, of course, is that these examples serve to reduce the script, to do away with the cumbersome, less effective written word in the visual medium of film. Both are examples of an immediate vividness that writing cannot aspire to.

A writer, however, can try to create the vivid image. Some may write, "Jack smirked ironically", but this is hardly vivid. A vivid image is always impressed upon us. In this example, the reader needs to have a clear idea beforehand of what an ironic smirk looks like and then to consult this image quickly. This is a considerable amount of imaginative work on the part of the reader, more even than the writer was prepared to do. A careful, attentive and imaginative reader, however, is quite likely to lose patience here, to demand more from a writer. The reader who does not lose patience is the one who does not consult an image, but simply takes in the ironic smirk as a mere fact, as a bit of information, and moves on. Reader and writer are doing a small but equal amount of imaginative work.

If the writer had described the raising of an eyebrow, the crooked smile, the sideways glance, the brief puff of breath out of the nose (all the while never resorting to the word "ironic"), then a vivid image perhaps would have been created. (I can't speak for the success of an off-hand attempt.) The reader would see it clearly. They might not understand it as ironic, but that's a risk all writers must take.

Grumpy Old Bookman made some good observations in this post:

But you see, while the literati despise cliches, the truth is that, in certain contexts, they serve a useful purpose. You and I, being sophisticated folk, probably would not use a phrase such as 'avoid like the plague' in writing; and maybe not in conversation. But to many readers/listeners, such a phrase communicates an idea instantly and effectively.

Instant and effective communication is what commercial fiction is all about. And to criticise an artefact for being eminently suitable for its purpose seems to me to be unreasonable.

Ditto for 'cardboard characters'. Which might more fairly be described as broadbrush, or well defined characters. And ditto for repetitions of key facts. Modern readers, as I keep on saying, are not reading their books for two hours at a stretch in a peaceful environment. They read commercial novels, in particular, in snatched moments, on crowded trains. Giving such readers a few reminders of key facts is not a practice which is deserving of criticism. On the contrary.

The democratic, interactive sounding "We are all directors now" overlooks the fact that readers don't want to be directors. They want the writer to be the director. Some of them want the sort of chunks of ready-made information that the Grumpy Old Bookman talks about, which can be quickly processed with little effort, and others want sharper, more discrete details that can be put together and interpreted.

When Harvor writes

NEVILLE: [nervously, clearly wanting to say something more] Sure. Let's go for coffee. I'd like that.


PAUL: Oh. Okay. Thanks. [beat] Did the person say who they were?
JENNIFER: [without significance] Your dad.
PAUL: Oh. Great. [Sighs] Okay. I’ll be there in a sec.
JENNIFER: [cheerfully] Bye!


PAUL’S FATHER: [astounded] Tomorrow?! But this is important!
PAUL: Well, okay, if it’s so important, what is it?
PAUL’S FATHER: [dramatically] I can’t say.

this is not vivid. It does not invite the reader to create a vivid image. It is lazy writing. At times it is cartoonish:

ASIAN FRIEND: She not like you, Luis.
LUIS, THE HANDSOME MEXICAN GUY: [astounded by the suggestion] Not like?!

The "direction" is so superfluous even the comic-book punctuation explains it. In general, the directions are trying to do something the dialogue itself can handle. Another example:

PAUL: [to Jennifer] Where is it?
PAUL: The phone.
JENNIFER: Oh. Right here. [She indicates a phone mere inches away from her.]

When the secretary says "Right here", we don't need to be told that she points to the telephone on her desk. We understand that it's close. Otherwise she would have said, "Over there."

And sometimes, as with "without significance", they're simply perplexing.

I believe I've known Finn for a long enough time to say that if he'd seen it himself in a block of prose, in a conventional or traditional piece of fiction, he would agree.

One could say that the problem lies with the practioner. Surely there's room in the screenplay novel for more vivid description? There is, but then we are turning back to the methods already used in the novel. The reader who is willing to do the work to properly read a carefully written piece of fiction has no need to turn to the screenplay novel (unless it contains advantages I can't see). The only thing that changes is the way we write the dialogue.

Check out Finn Harvor's blog, http://screen-novel.blogspot.com, and read his novel here, and decide for yourselves.

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I can’t help but cringe when I read that a story or novel should have a “hook”. While I agree that a beginning should be interesting, all the writing manuals in the world have emphasised this point so strenuously that every mediocre, or even less-than-mediocre writer has learned to start his story with one. Well, I’m not fooled. The hooks are transparent. They’re easy, and by no means an indication that the rest of the story is going to be interesting. Here are the kinds of opening sentences that are meant to hook the reader.

By the time we’d got Simon disentangled, the mailman was dead.

For years I’d been looking half-heartedly for my name in the dictionary. Nothing, however, prepared me for the shock of actually finding it.

“You can pray all you want,” Chris said. “God’s not listening. And besides, he’d never take an interest in dominos.”

I admit they’re silly, but that’s all there is to it. You could fill volumes with them. (Calvino, in his lecture on Quickness, mentions a Guatemalan writer, Augusto Monterroso, who wrote a story consisting only of one sentence: “When I woke up, the dinosaur was still there.” ) They’re so easy to come up with, and the writers who insist on them so mediocre, that they are a guarantee that what you read will not live up to the promise (if you can truly say there is any) of that first sentence. They should, like Monterroso, just stop there, because that’s as good as it gets.

How’s this for a first sentence?

Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet.

Not particularly promising by today’s standard. I can hear the whining shits in writing workshops complain, “The hook’s not strong enough.” And yet, it’s from one of the greatest stories ever written, “The Dead”. Joyce’s story is the opposite of the hook-approach. The reader is lulled by forty-odd pages of interesting but somewhat uneventful writing into thinking that nothing is going to happen and shocked by the magnitude of what eventually does.

The writing that is taught in manuals, and I imagine in workshops, is so formulaic, and its practitioners so unimaginative that for some time I had been suspecting that its effect was not only to lead writers (and publishers too, I suspect) to think that there is only one way to begin a story, but was also creating a new kind of reader: one who immediately punishes the piece of writing that fails to observe the rules by refusing to read it.

This suspicion was confirmed a few days ago when I was browsing around in Amazon. I’ve been interested in Paul Auster lately. I don’t know, and am not that interested, in how good a writer he is. He has rekindled my interest in story-telling, and I’m reading everything I can find by him and letting his influence on me run its course. I find it liberating. I went to Amazon to check out people’s comments on Leviathan. While I was there, I came across Roger Angle.

Angle is supposedly a writer, and claims to have been nominated for a Pulitzer once for reporting. I rarely go to Amazon. It’s enough to make someone who wants to be a writer give it all up. If I ever entertained populist notions, I’d be cured in about two seconds of browsing there. It’s depressing. I’ll admit they’re cheap shots, and have little to do with the main point of this post, but I can’t help but quote some of Angle’s critical gems.

Of Haruki Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, he writes:

The narrative lacks a sense of place. Although it is set in Tokyo, we don’t see it or hear or smell it. We don’t learn anything about the city or way it is laid or out or how it would feel to be there. The focus is on the main guy and his day-to-day life. Although it is set in Tokyo, there is no sense that this is a romantic or exotic place.

You know why, Roger? Because Murakami’s Japanese, and Tokyo isn’t the least bit romantic or exotic to him. It just happens to be the city he lives in.

Most of Angle’s reviews are of pulp, although he sometimes reviews more “serious” fiction. I find the one on Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost quite funny, especially in light of the Auster review.

I loved this book and can’t wait to read it again. The older I get the less I can stand best-sellers, with their rampant exposition and lack of trust in the reader. This is just the opposite. Ondaatje trusts you to figure out the story, to add two and two, which is part of the pleasure of novel reading, I think. His use of language, his keen insight into the characters, the depth to which he plumbs the human heart — all make this a first-rate novel. The only novels I would rank above it are Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian,” Melville’s “Moby Dick” and James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”

This guy who claims his favourite novel is Ulysses actually spends most of his time reviewing crime fiction and reviews books he hasn’t even finished. Now, keep in mind what he writes about “rampant exposition and lack of trust in the reader” and Ondaatje’s belief in the reader “to add two and two”. Although he finds it harder to stand best-sellers, this is his review of Leviathan after reading only ten pages.

The strategy of the story-telling didn’t work for me.
I found the first ten pages so annoying and tedious that I couldn’t read any further.
What I gather from the first 10 pp is that:
1. The dead guy had a “terrible secret.” I need to know up front what this is, to keep reading. I won’t read another page to find out.
2. The narrator knew the dead guy but doesn’t want to tell FBI. I can’t imagine why, and I don’t care. This is supposed to be a hook, I guess, but it doesn’t work that way for me. Just tell me, right off the bat. At least give me a hint.
3. The dead guy blew himself up for a reason. We don’t know what that is. Right now-during the whole 10 pp-I don’t give a tinker’s damn. I guess this is supposed to be another hook. You have to give me at least a hint. Otherwise I just do a dim-out.I took a workshop from the novelist John Rechy one time. He said: If you keep saying, in your book, “I have a mystery that I’m going to tell you,” and you say it over and over again, it becomes maddening. It will make you put the book down. That is what happened to me here.
Thank God I can just put it down and forget about it.
Whew. What a relief.

Angle, you’re in no position to comment on what Auster says “over and over again”. After a mere ten pages, you have nothing but false impressions. You don’t know jack shit about this book’s strategy. Auster never delays explaining the explosion. The explosion isn’t the point. If Auster has made any mistake, it’s trusting fools like you to put two and two together.

What really impressed me about this review was that it confirmed what I’d been suspecting for some time: that now lazy, formulaic writers have become lazy, formulaic readers, unable to go on if someone hasn’t followed the rules and written the proper opening. When I read it, I hadn’t read Angle’s profile and didn’t know that he’s supposed to be a writer (he doesn’t really mention getting published). The reference to the workshop said it all. Roger Angle just had to put the book down: John Rechy had told him to find it maddening.

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Ένα απόσπασμα από το έκτο κεφάλαιο της Πριγκηπέσσας Ιζαμπώς:

Άναψαν το λυχνάρι, σφάλισαν την πόρτα, κ’εκεί, μέσα στο στάβλο, έγιναν οι τελευταίες ετοιμασίες.Ο Ιλαρίωνος είταν αγουροξυπνημένος και χασμουριόταν. Έτσι που κάθησε στη γωνιά, ως που να συγυριστούνε, τον πήρε ο ύπνος γερμένον πάνω στο φάρσωμα. Το ροχαλητό του τράνταξε την παράγκα ίσαμε την ώρα που είχε πια φωτίσει καλά έξω, κι ο Σγουρός ντυμένος με το ράσο του, το κεφάλι μπουμπουλωμένο, φόρτωνε πάνω στη μούλα τα πράματά του τυλιγμένα σε σκουτιά. Ένα κοντό ρωμέϊκο σπαθί, το λωρίκι, τα τσαγγία του και το σωκάρδι με το ταμπάρο.

Καβακίλεψε τη μούλα και ξεκίνησαν κ’ οι τρείς.

Πίσω από το θεόρατο μαύρο βράχο, ο ουρανός ερρόδιζε. Σύννεφα μελανά κι άλλα σταχτοκίτρινα τρέχανε στον ουρανό — η θάλασσα κάτω, μαβιά μ’ασημωτά λέπια αικίνητα, ανάβραζα, έτρεχε καταπάνω στη στεριά και την κοπανούσε άγρια, μανιασμένη. Κάτι είπε ο Ιλαρίωνος, όμως ο άνεμος πήρε τα λόγια του, τα σκόρπισε πέρα. Η βάγια πορευότανε με σκυμμένο κεφάλι, πένθιμη και βουβή.

Όταν το πρωτοδιάβασα, σταμάτησα σ’αυτή τη λεπτομέρεια, εκεί πού ο Ιλαρίωνας κάτι λεει που μήτε ο Σγουρός μήτε ο συγγραφέας δεν άκουσε. Με εντυπωσίασε η λεπτότητα του Άγγελου Τερζάκη, η παρατηρητικότητά του κι αυτό που ο Calvino αποκάλεσε ελαφρότητα. Μια μικρή λεπτομέρεια, καθόλου απαραίτητη, αλλά για μένα αξέχαστη. Στα γραπτά μου θάθελα να βρίσκονται τέτοιες λεπτομέρεις. Μ’αρέσει πως ακρίβως σ’αυτήν την εύστοχη παρατήρηση ο συγγραφέας δε προλαβαίνει να ακούσει τι είπε ο Ιλαρίωνας. Η εικόνα όμως είναι ζωντανή.

Είναι στιγμές που διαβάζω και θαυμάζω τις επιλογές ενός συγγραφέα — όπως την επιλογή του Τολστόι, παραδείγματος χάριν, να μας παρουσιάσει το πώς ερωτεύονται η Άννα Καρένινα και ο Βρόνσκι όπως το βλέπει η Κάτια κι όχι ο παντογνώστης αφηγητής — και νιώθω πως μαθαίνω ο ίδιος πώς να γράφω. Η λογοτέχνια είναι σχολή των συγγραφέων. Μπορεί αυτό να φαίνεται αυτονόητο, αλλά συχνά απορώ αν υπάρχει σχολή πεζού λόγου στην Ελλάδα. Καλοί συγγραφείς σίγουρα υπάρχουν, αλλά στους περισσότερους κυριαρχεί — πώς να το πω; — μια χαλαρότητα, μια νωθρότητα, και μια αυταρέσκει που δεν τους επιτρέπει να κοπιάζουν και να πετύχουν τέτοιες λεπτομέρειες όπως ο Τερζάκης. Μου φαίνεται πως δεν υπάρχουν επιμελητές που ξέρουν ή τολμούν να πουν ότι ένα βιβλίο ακόμα θέλει δουλειά πριν το εκδώσουν.

Επαναλαμβάνω πως υπάρχουν καλοί συγγραφείς. Πέρσι, για παράδειγμα, διάβασα της Σώτης Τριανταφύλλου τη Φυγη και το θαύμασα. Ειδικά το πρώτο κεφάλαιο, όπου γίνεται σκηνογραφία με πολλή λιτότητα. Ο Θανάσης Βαλτινός επίσης δείχνει μια σπάνια οικονομία του λόγου. Και τονίζω πως οι αδεξιότητές μου στην ελληνική γλώσσα δεν με εμποδίζουν να ασκήσω κριτική.

Είχα σκεφτεί να γράψω γι’αυτό το θέμα όταν άρχισα να διαβάσω Τις Τελευταίες Ημέρες του Κωνσταντίνου Καβάφη από τον Φίλιππο Φιλίππου. Δεν κατάφερα ποτέ να το τελειώσω όμως. Ο Φιλίππου μ’εκνευρίζει κάθε φορά που το ανοίγω το βιβλίο.

Στο μυθιστόρημα ο Ιταλός φουτουριστής ποιητής Φίλιππο Τομμάζο Μαρινέττι επισκέπτεται τον Καβάφη στο σπίτι του. Είναι το 1933, μετά την τραχειοτομία του Έλληνα.

Φορούσε κάτι καφετιά δερμάτινα γάντια πολύ λεπτά και αρκετά ζαρωμένα από την πολυκαιρία (φοβόταν πάντα τα μικρόβια που έχονταν απ’έξω με φορέα το σώμα των επισκεπτών του). Η απώλεια της φωνής του τον υποχρέωσε να μη με προσφωνήσει με το κλασικό “Χαίρε, φίλε!”, όπως συνήθιζε να κάνει παλιά. Με καλωσόρισε μ’ένα νόημα των ματιών του, εκείνων των υπέροχων μαύρων ματιών, των πονηρών και διεισδυτικών ταυτόχρονα. Η γλυκύτητα που ήταν περιχυμένη στο κάτω μέρος του προσώπου του, γύρω από το στόμα και το πιγούνι, έδειχνε πως ο χρόνος που είχει περάσει από τότε που είχα να τον δω δεν είχε αμβλύνει την καλή του διάθεση επέναντί μου.Δεν περίμενα, βεβαίως, να μου μιλήσει, αφού η κυρία Σεγκοπούλου με είχε προετοιμάσει για το τι επρόκειτο να δω. Εξακολουθούσε να είναι ένας λεπτός ηλικιωμένος κύριος, αστός οπωσδήποτε, με στόφα ξεπεσμένου αριστοκράτη. Φορούσε ένα σκούρο κασκόλ για να κρύβει την πληγή στο λαιμό και τα ίδια γυαλιά με τον ασημένιο σκελετό. Τα πυκνά του μαλλιά, που τώρα είχαν αραιώσει ελαφρώς, τα είχε, όπως πάντα, χωρίστρα — καμιά τρίχα δεν ξέφευγε ούτε προς τ’αριστερά ούτε προς τα δεξιά και, κυρίως, καμιά δεν καβαλίκευε τ’αυτιά του. Αναρωτιόμουν αν φρόντιζε ο ίδιος για την κόμμωσή του, με χτένες, τσατσάρες και βούρτσες, ή αν ήταν η ερίτιμος κυρία που εκτελούσε χρέη γραμματέως εκείνη που έκανε τις επεμβάσεις στην εμφάνισή του. Δε ρώτησα, φυσικά, κανέναν γι’αυτό το ζήτημα, είχαμε άλλα θέματα να θίξουμε.

Ο Φιλίππου είναι συγγραφέας του επίθετου. Σ’αυτό το απόσπασμα μόνο, υπάρχουν 18 επίθετα και 12 επιρρήματα. (Κι ο Τερζάκης τα χρησιμοποιεί, αλλά μ’εντελώς διαφορετικό τρόπο, και για διαφορετικό σκοπό. Ο Τερζάκης δε μας λεει ότι ο Ιλαρίωνας είναι τεμπέλης. Μας δείχνει πως κοιμάται την ώρα που φορτώνει ο Σγουρός τη μούλα.) Ο Φιλίππου δηλαδή δείχνει εμπιστοσύνη στα επίθετα και ζητάει από αυτά να κάνουν τη περισσότερη δουλειά. Αρκει να μας πει ότι η κυρία Σεγκοπούλου είναι “ευγενική” (σε άλλη σελίδα) και “ερίτιμος”. Δε νιώθει την ανάγκη να μας δείξει πώς συμπεριφέρεται μια ευγενική και ερίτιμος κυρία. Αυτή είναι η αυταρέσκεια, άρνηση του συγγραφέα να κοπιάσει να στήσει σκήνη όπως κατάφερε ο Τερζάκης.

Το άλλο μεγάλο ελάττωμα του Φιλίππου και πολλών άλλων συγγραφέων είναι η περιττολογία. Τη στιγμή που μας έχει πει για τη τραχειοτομία του Καβάφη, δε χρειάζεται να μας πει ότι “η απώλεια της φωνής του τον υποχρέωσε να μη με προσφωνήσει με το κλασικό ‘Χαίρε, φίλε!’, όπως συνήθιζε να κάνει παλιά.” Μάλιστα, αργότερα γράφει “Τον είδα να προσπαθεί να μ’ευχαριστήσει με λέξεις, αλλά δεν τα κατάφερε πάλι, το στόμα του ανοιγόκλεινε χωρίς να βγάζει ήχους.” Ο συγγραφέας δε χρειάζεται να μας υπενθυμίσει ότι ο Καβάφης δε μπορεί πια να μιλήσει. Οι δυο ποιητές επικοινωνούν συνεχώς με σημειώματα.

Κάποια στιγμή εμφανίστηκε μια μαύρη γάτα που ακολουθούσε έναν πλανόδιο ψαρά με λερωμένο κόκκινο φέσι νιαουρίζοντας θρηνητικά: νιάου νιάου νιάου. (σελ. 40)

Δε μας φτάνει το “νιαουρίζοντας”; Κατάλαβα πως του Μαρινέττι του άρεσε η ηχομιμητική, αλλά μετά από λίγο είναι πολύ κουραστικό.

Κάποια στιγμή από μακριά έφτασε ένα βουητό, μια βροντή, μπρουουουμ, και ύστερα μια δεύτερη, παρατεταμένη, μπρουουουμ, μπρουουουμ. (σελ. 72)Ταυτόχρονα η γάτα έβγαλε ένα παραπονεμένο ννννιάαααουου, λες και έδινε ένα σήμα κινδύνου για το αφεντικό της. (σελ. 73)

Ακριβώς την ώρα εκείνη ακούστηκαν οι πρώτες σταγόνες της βροχής που έπεφταν πλαγίως στα ξύλινα παραθυρόφυλλα, σιγανά στην αρχή, δυνατότερα στη συνέχεια, τζιτζι, τζιτζιτζι, τζιτζιτζιτζι, τζιτζιτζιτζιτζιτζιτζιτζι. (σελ. 74)

Φανερά ευτυχής για τη χαρμόσυνη είδηση που του κόμισα, ο Καβάφης μισόκλεισε τα μάτια και θώπευσε λίγο σκληρά την γκρίζα γάτα, που άνοιξε το στόμα της και παραπονέθηκε, νιάου νιάου νιάου νιάου. (σελ. 85)

Οι μαύρες χάντρες στα δάχτυλα του Καβάφη δεν έκαναν κλακ κλακ κλακ, αλλά κρικ κρικ κρικ, ήταν ΄χιοι που με συνεπήραν, καθόλου μελωδικοί, βεβαίως, αλλά εντελώς πρωτότυποι, βάλσαμοι για την ακοή μου. (σελ. 86)

Πεινούσα όμως φοβερά λόγω της καθυστέρησης του σερβιρίσματος (η κοιλιά μου διαμαρτυρόταν απρεπώς, γουρ γουρ γουρ!) και περίμενα ν’αρχίσει πρώτος να τσιμπολογάει. (σελ. 94)

Οι μόνοι ήχοι που ακούγονταν σ’εκείνο το δωμάτιο ήταν οι θόρυβοι των κουταλιών και των πιρουνιών στα πιάτα, ντιν ντιν ντιν, ο ήχος των χειλιών μας όταν εκείνα τα μεταλλικά αντικείμενα απόθεταν τις τροφές στο στόμα μας, φς φς φς, και το γουργουρητό της κοιλιάς της γάτας, γουρ γουρ γουρ. Μερικές φορές — λίγες όμως — ακουγόταν και ο θόρυβος της μύτης του ποιητή, χρ χρ χρ, καθώς προσπαθούσε να καταπιεί. (σελ. 96)

Δεν άντεξα άλλο. Δε μ’ενδιαφέρει αν έγραφει έτσι ο Μαρινέττι. Το ότι έγραφε έτσι δεν το κάνει λιγότερο εκνευριστικό.

Φέτος αγόρασα το μυθιστόρημα του Τάσου Ρούσσου Αυτός στο πέτρινο σπίτι, το οποίο, αν θυμάμαι καλά, πήρε και το κρατικό βραβείο. Το βιογραφικό του Ρούσσου με εντυπωσίασε: περίπου 20 βιβλία, ποίηση και πεζογραφία, και πολλές μετφράσεις. Αν όμως ο Φιλίππου μου προκάλεσε εκνευρισμό, το τι βρήκα στου Ρούσσου το βιβλίο μου προκάλεσε οργή.

Τα αμαρτήματα ξεκινάν μόλις στην τρίτη σελίδα (σελ. 14):

“Να δεις που θα βρέξει”, είπε ο δάσκαλος πίνοντας λίγο απ’τον καφέ του.

Πώς γίνεται να μιλάει και να πίνει κάποιος ταυτόχρονα;

“Όχι ακόμη. Σε λίγες μέρες, όταν θ’αρχίσουν οι νοτιάδες. Αλλά, ό,τι και να γίνει, θα ζεστάνει κι ο καιρός. Μπαίνουμε στην άνοιξη πια”, τον διόρθωσε ο θεολόγος.

Είναι προφανές ότι τον διόρθωσε ο θεολόγος. Δε χρειάζεται να μας το πει.

Ύστερα η συζήτηση πήγε σε πολλά και διάφορα, για να καταλήξει στο μοναδικό θέμα που από το περασμένο φθινόπωρο κέντριζε την σκέψη και την φαντασία όλων: στον ένοικο του πέτρινου σπιτιού.”Είναι σαν πραγματικός ερημίτης”, είπε ο θεολόγος, “κι οι περισσότεροι ερημίτες βρισκονται κοντά στην αγιότητα ή καταλήγουν αργά ή γρήγορα σ’αυτήν”.

Ο δικηγόρος χαμογέλασε:

“Σε παρακαλώ, μην περιορίζεις το θέμα”.

“Γιατί το περιορίζω;”

“Γιατί το πας αμέσως σε θρησκευτικές περιοχές”.

“Δεν το πηγαίνω εγώ, μόνο του πηγαίνει”.

“Ας μιλήσουμε πρώτα γενικά για το θέμα κι αν η κουβέντα το οδηγήσει στην θρησκευτική του εκδοχή, τότε το αναλύουμε”.

Ο θεολόγος επέμεινε:

“Είπα την άποψή μου. Περιμένω ν’ακούσω τις δικές σας”.

Επέμεινε. Πάλι προφανές. Οι πράξεις και τα λόγια τους αρκούν.

“Η αγιότητα προϋποθέτει αγνότητα, κι αυτός βέβαια δεν έιναι και τόσο αγνός”, σχολίασε ουδέτερα ο συνταξιούχος.

Δε χρειάζεται το “σχολίασε” — πάλι προφανές είναι. Αλλά πώς “ουδέτερα”; Δε μου λεει τίποτα το επίρρημα. Δε δημιουργεί καμία είκονα στο μυαλό.

“Πώς μπορείς να το ξέρεις αυτό;” ρώτησε ο δάσκαλος.

Πάλι, αφού υπάρχει ερωτηματικό, είναι προφανές ότι ρώτησε. Φτάνει το “είπε”.

“Δεν το ξέρω, το συμπεραίνω. Είναι πενηντάρης, κι όπως λεει ο κόσμος, πλούσιος και κοσμογυρισμένος. Έχει ζήσει δηλαδή την ζωή του στα γεμάτα”.”Και πήγε στην άγρια ερημιά για ποιο λόγο;” παρενέβη ο Αργύρης Δομέστιχος.

Δε βλέπω καμία παρέμβαση. Ο Ρούσσος μάλλον δε βλέπει λόγο να μας δείξει παρέμβαση. Είναι συγγραφέας ο κύριος, και ό,τι πει δεν αμφιβάλλεται.

“Υπάρχουν ένα σωρό αιτίες”, απάντησε ο Βαλμάς. “Ας πούμε ότι είναι εκκεντρικός ή ότι θέλει να ξεπεράσει κάποια μεγάλη απογοήτευση ή ότι βαρέθηκε την ζωή που έκανε ως τώρα ή ότι ξαφνικά του αρέσει η μοναξιά και τα λοιπά”.”Ή ότι ξύπνησε ξαφνικά μέσα του ο Θεός”, συμπλήρωσε ο Γιάννης Ιωακείμ.

Προφανές και περιττό το “συμπλήρωσε”.

“Να μην περιπλακούμε τώρα σε εικασίες που δεν οδηγούν πουθενά”, μπήκε στη μέση ο Δημήτρης Αποστόλου. “Δεν έχουμε γεγονότα για να κρίνουμε βάσει αυτών”.”Αλλά τι έχουμε δηλαδή;” έκανε με αφέλεια ο δάσκαλος.

Πώς; Αυτή η αφέλεια δεν αξίζει τη προσοχή μας; Δεν θάπρεπε ο Ρούσσος να μας δώσει μια εικόνα, να μας δείξει την αφέλεια; Γιατί να αρκεί μόνο να μας λεει ότι υπάρχει;

“Αυτά που λεει ο κόσμος όλο τον χειμώνα, τις διαδόσεις για παράξενα κι απίστευτα περιστατικά που τον αφορούν. Μπορούμε όμως να βασιστούμε σε υπερβολές και σε φαντασιώδεις φήμες;””Όπου υπάρχει καπνός, υπάρχει και φωτιά”, απάντησε ο δάσκαλος λίγο αφηρημένος, με το μυαλό του αλλού. Θυμήθηκε ότι δεν τάισε το αγαπημένο του καναρίνι το μεσημέρι.

Αν τυχόν δε καταλάβαμε τι σημαίνει “λίγο αφηρημένος”, μας το εξηγεί με το απόλυτα περιττό “με το μυαλό του αλλού”. Και αφού μας δείχνει πού είναι το μυαλό του (στο καναρίνι του) δε χρειάστηκε να μας πει ούτε μια φορά πως ήταν αλλού.

Ο συνταξιούχος τον κοίταξε:”Ωραία. Ας πάρουμε αυτές τις διαδόσεις ως πιθανές αλήθειες. Τι μας λένε; Ότι αυτός ο άνθρωπος διαθέτει κάποιο είδος δύναμης”.

“Αυτό ήθελα να πω κι εγώ προηγουμένως, αλλά δεν πρόλαβα, δεν μ’αφήσατε να ολοκληρώσω τον συλλογισμό μου”.

“Τι ήθελες να πεις ακριβώς;” τον ρώτησε ο δικηγόρος ειρωνικά.

Ό,τι είπα για το “με αφέλεια” ισχύει κι εδώ. Πώς ειρωνικά; Γιατί ειρωνικά; Θέλω μια εικόνα.

“Θά έλεγα ότι αγιότητα προϋποθέτει αγνότητα κι αυτή με την σειρά της παράγει δύναμη. Φαίνεται απ’όσα λεει ο κόσμος, ότι αυτός στο πέτρινο σπίτι έχει κάποια δύναμη”.”Δεν μπορούμε ωστόσο να τον πούμε ερημίτη ή ό,τι άλλο σχετικό”, διαφώνησε ο Βαλμάς.

Προφανές. Περιττό.

“Με λίγους μήνες στην ερημιά δεν γίνεται κανείς ασκητής, δηλαδή δεν αποκτά ιδιότητες σαν αυτές που του αποδίδουν”.”Όταν είσαι συνεχώς μόνος μέσα στην φύση, αρχίζεις και την προσέχεις, την ακούς, την καταλαβαίνεις, κατανοείς πολύ καλύτερα τον κόσμο”, είπε ο θεολόγος.

“Αυτό δεν σε προικίζει απαραίτητα με δύναμη. Δηλαδή αν πήγαινες κι εσύ εκεί πάνω στην ερημιά και καθόσουν μερικούς μήνες, θα γινόσουν ερημίτης και θ’αποκτούσες δύναμη;”

“Δεν ξέρω, μπορεί”, απάντησε ο Δομέστιχος με ύφος παράξενο.

Πώς; Γιατί; Πιο συγκεκριμένα;

Ο δικηγόρος τον κοίταξε και περιορίστηκε να κουνήσει το κεφάλι του διφορούμενα.

Τα καταραμένα επιρρήματα! Πώς διαφορούμενα; Ναι ή όχι δηλαδή; Και τα δυο; Πρέπει ο συγγραφέας να περιγράψει πώς κουνάει κάποιος το κεφάλι. Αν δεν αξίζει το κόπο, δεν υπάρχει λόγος να εφιστεί την προσοχή μας στο γεγονός.

“Το θέμα της συζήτησής μας δεν είναι αυτό, αλλά τι άνθρωπος είναι αυτός εκεί πάνω”, μπήκε στην μέση ο Αποστόλου.”Μα πρόκειται για άνθρωπο ή …” αναρωτήθηκε ο δάσκαλος χαμογελώντας σαρδόνια. “Εγώ δεν είμαι και πολύ βέβαιος με τόσα που λέγονται γι’αυτόν”.

Όλοι γέλασαν, εκτός από τον συνταξιούχο, που κοίταξε προς το μέρος του σαν ξαφνιασμένος και σχολίασε:

Σαν; Είναι ή δεν είναι ξαφνιασμένος; Γιατί ο αφηγητής, που άλλωστε ξέρει τις σκέψεις του ενός για το καναρίνι του, δε μπορεί να μας πει εδώ κάτι τόσο απλό;

“Έχεις απρόσμενο χιούμορ, Γιάννη, αλλά τώρα μιλάμε σοβαρά”.Επικράτησε για λίγο σιωπή αμηχανίας. Ο δάσκαλος άναψε τσιγάρο. Ο νους του πήγε πάλι στο καναρίνι του. Δεν πιστεύω να πάθει τίποτα νηστικό τόσες ώρες, σκεφτηκε ανήσυχος.

Εκείνη την στιγμή άνοιξε τρίζοντας — πάντα έτριζε — η πόρτα του καφενείου και μπήκε ένας άγνωστος με φωτεινά μάτια, λιγνός, γύρω στα πενήντα. Χωρίς να χαιρετήσει κανέναν, πήγε και κάθισε στο τραπεζάκι της γωνιάς και παράγγειλε ένα ζεστό τσάι. Και οι τέσσερις της συντροφιάς τον παρακολούθησαν σιωπηλοί και με κάποια ανεξήγητη ανησυχία. Ο ξένος σού δημιουργούσε μια φευγαλέα αίσθηση μυστηρίου.

Όχι για τους αναγνώστες πάντως. Αλλά, αν τη δημιουργούσε, είναι λογικό να πούμε ότι η ανησυχία είναι ανεξήγητη;

Σώπασε κι έπειτα στράφηκε στον δάσκαλο, που βρισκόταν στην άκρη της συντροφιας.”Μην ανησυχείς, το καναρίνι σου είναι καλά”, του είπε με αδιόρατη ειρωνεία.

Αδιόρατη ειρωνεία;! Μα τι είναι αυτή; Πώς να τη φανταστώ;

Ως εδώ πια! Ο συγγραφέας μας προσβάλλει. Είτε μας λεει αυτά που είναι αυτονόητα, είτε μας βάζει σε θέση να φανταστούμε μόνοι μας αυτά που βαριέται ο ίδιος να μας περιγράψει. Σαν αναγνώστης είμαι έτοιμος να δώσω προσοχή, αλλά πρέπει και ο συγγραφέας να μπει στο κόπο και να γράψει.

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A Smyrna Journal

A friend of mine in Toronto has brought to my attention the case of Ragip Zarakolu, a publisher in Turkey who is facing three different trials for publishing books which insult the memory Kemal Ataturk, or criticise Turkey’s record against the Kurds and Armenians. This is nothing new for Zarakolu; he’s been getting into trouble for this sort of thing since 1970. And of course, this sort of thing has been in the news a lot lately, especially with regards to Orhan Pamuk, and Turkey’s efforts to enter the European Union. But what interested me is this:

Dora Sakayan has published — or edited, rather — the journal of her grandfather, Garabed Hatcherian, a doctor from Smyrna who managed to escape during the catastrophe of 1922. He spent some time in Mytilene and then settled in Salonica, but began his account of what happened in August and September of 1922 almost immediately afterwards. All this is well enough documented, but this book seems to be a welcome addition:

The names of places and people in the journal are so accurately documented, and the chronological descriptions of the unfolding political and military events so vividly detailed, that one is tempted to believe that each entry of the journal was made either concurrently with, or immediately following each event. Considering the difficult circumstances, however, this hypothesis is almost certainly excluded. A brief Postscript section supports the idea that the main part (Aug. 28 – Sept. 24) was written within days of the events, evidently upon arrival in Mitilini. There, as a survivor, Dr. Hatcherian probably felt the compelling urge to testify; moreover, he must have felt the need to analyze the events intellectually. As for the Epilogue and the final copy of the journal, it was completed in Salonika. This is confirmed by the date and place inscribed below Dr. Hatcherian’s signature under the manuscript: June 1, 1923, Salonika (p.52). The meticulous care the author provided for the manuscript is strong proof that he was aware of how crucial it was to preserve the story for posterity, and to record the details as soon as possible.

Has anyone heard of this book yet? I haven’t seen it anywhere here, although it has been translated into Greek. (It was published in Montreal though.)

PS (06 December 05)
I’ve been contacted by Lilith Ohannessian, the distributor of the book in English, Greek, Armenian and Spanish. Those wishing to order the book can contact her at lilithohan@hotmail.com

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Sucking the Blood out of Literature

Note: This post has been referred to in some of the links to it as a review. It’s not a review in the normal sense of the word. I haven’t attempted to give a well-rounded impression of the book. It’s just a blog post about the first few pages of a book I tried to read. (I actually read two or three hundred pages of it.) I don’t know how you see it, but to me there’s a difference.

This entry is made up of notes I made this summer, and had planned to post, but then forgot about. Recently Dr Zen blogged about bad writing, and it reminded me of the notes. This summer I felt like indulging in a pot-boiler, something I’m rarely able to do. I discussed this with Jamie. I rarely have any interest in or patience for film, and often when I see something, I just want the plot to distract me for a couple of hours. My Tarkovsky days are behind me, I’m afraid. Sometimes, I just want to watch a crappy film. I’m a sucker for courtroom dramas. I enjoy thrillers. When they’re over, I forget them. But when I pick up a crappy novel, I invariably abandon it, even though I started in the same mood. Jamie and I came to the conclusion that a film allows you to turn off your mind for a couple of hours, but reading — for me, at any rate — is a more active endeavour, and I can’t both turn off my mind and read at the same time. Eventually I start to get annoyed with the book, even though it’s providing me with the very thing I sought from it. I’ve tried a few times to read Stephen King, for example, but have never been able to finish anything.

So this summer I’d read that The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova had edged The Da Vinci Code out of first place in the New York Times bestseller list. The first reviews were quite enthusiastic. This was the first book, supposedly, to deal with the historical Vlad Tepes, better known as Dracula, and was much more literary than Dan Brown’s book (which isn’t too difficult). So I bought it.

Even the good reviews mentioned some of the book’s weaknesses, such as Kostova’s inability to create different voices for her three different narrators, who tell their stories in different places and at different times. Another one was her reliance on cliches in her plot. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for anyone to travel by train except to create atmosphere. One reviewer pointed out that it’s absurd to imagine that a couple of scholars would go to the library to take out a copy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula when a cheap edition could be got in any old bookshop.

But I wasn’t at all prepared for how bad the writing was. I can actually say that it’s more noticeably bad than Dan Brown’s writing. It’s often said that publishers don’t bother editing what they put out any more, and if anyone wants to see how true this is, all they need to do is read the first chapter or two of The Historian. What irks me more than this, however, is that Kostova holds an MFA and won the Hopwood Award for the Novel-in-Progress. I assume that the award was for The Historian. If not, I’d hate to see how bad the unpublished book was.

I’d like to quote excerpts from the first chapter.

In 1972 I was sixteen — young, my father said, to be travelling with him on his diplomatic missions. […] It seems peculiar to me now that I should have been so obedient well into my teens, while the rest of my generation was experimenting with drugs and protesting the imperialist war in Vietnam, but I had been raised in a world so sheltered that it makes my adult life in academia look positively adventurous. To begin with, I was motherless, and the care that my father took of me had been deepened by a double sense of responsibility, so that he protected me more completely than he might have otherwise.

How do you deepen the care you take of someone? What does that mean? Does Kostova know? I know you can care deeply for someone, but can you take deep care of someone? I don’t think so. I haven’t got to the end of the first paragraph, and I already deeply distrust Kostova as a writer.

My mother had died when I was a baby, before my father founded the Centre for Peace and Democracy. My father never spoke of her and turned quietly away if I asked questions; I understood very young that this was a topic too painful for him to discuss.

Several things here. “Turned quietly away” is bad for two reasons. First, the adverb is unnecessary, since it’s obvious enough that he’s not answering. And second, it’s a melodramatic cliche. Do people really do that? Is he so rude as to ignore her questions and turn away without a word? Would you let someone do that without saying, “Hey! I asked you a question!” And there’s a slight contradiction in what the narrator is telling us, which she does elsewhere. If she was perceptive enough to understand that this was a topic too painful for him to talk about, why the hell was she asking him questions?

The latest of [my] housekeepers was Mrs Clay, who took care of our narrow seventeenth-century town house on the Raamgracht, a canal in the heart of the old city. Mrs. Clay let me in after school every day and was a surrogate parent when my father travelled, which was often. She was English, older than my mother would have been, skilled with a feather duster and clumsy with teenagers; sometimes, looking at her too-compasionate, long-toothed face over the dining table, I felt she must be thinking of my mother and I hated her for it. When my father was away, the handsome house echoed.

I’m not going to go looking through dictionaries to see if “latest” can be used this way. I’m sure it means that Mrs Clay is still the housekeeper, which is not the case. Another contradiction: Mrs Clay, who is both a surrogate parent and clumsy with teenagers, is never shown to be either a surrogate parent or clumsy with anyone. She simply isn’t an important character in the novel, at least as far as I read. And “long-toothed” is a very poor choice in a vampire novel.

And how does the house stop echoing when her father is home? Does he fill it up? The notion that the house echoes is cartoonish: I imagine crickets and tumbleweed rolling down the hall.

No one could help me with my algebra, no one admired my new coat or told me to come here and give him a hug, or expressed shock over how tall I had grown. When my father returned from some name on the European map that hung on the wall in our dining room, he smelled like other times and places, spicy and tired.

I don’t know about you, but to me, a European map is not the same as a map of Europe. And not only do “spicy and tired” not go together, I can’t imagine how anyone smells tired.

While he was gone, I went back and forth to school, dropping my books on the polished hall table with a bang. Neither Mrs Clay nor my father let me go out in the evenings, except to the occasional carefully approved movie with carefully approved friends, and — to my retrospective astonishment — I never flouted these rules. I preferred solitude anyway; it was the medium in which I had been raised, in which I swam comfortably. I excelled at my studies but not in my social life. Girls my age terrified me, especially the tough-talking, chain-smoking sophisticates of our diplomatic circle — around them I always felt that my dress was too long, or too short, or that I should been wearing something else entirely. Boys mystified me, although I dreamed vaguely of men. In fact, I was happiest alone in my father’s library, a large, fine room on the first floor of our house.

Kostova is trying to get poetic, but instead she merely becomes nonsensical. Solitude is not a medium, and you don’t swim in a medium. (Christ!) And then, how is tough-talking sophisticated? Does Kostova even know the meaning of the words she’s using? Now, keep in mind this vague dreaming of men. It’s silly enough on its own, but there’s a funny bit of irony here, and more of the inconsistency we find all over the place, especially when she’s drawing a character. We have a naive, sexless girl in an ivory tower, right?

During his absences, I spent hours doing my homework at the mahogany desk or browsing the shelves that lined every wall. I understood later that my father had either half forgotten what was on one of the top shelves or — more likely — assumed I would never be able to reach it; late one night I took down not only a translation of the Kama Sutra but also a much older volume and an envelope of yellowing papers.

Kostova has done so much to lose the basic trust a reader has at the outset of a book, that I have to assume that the irony that this girl, who sometimes vaguely dreams of men and is mystified by boys, is sneaking peaks into her father’s Kama Sutra, is unintentional. Oh, of course, it’s the translation she wants. She’s not interested in the pictures.

I can’t say even now what made me pull them down. But the image I saw at the centre of the book, the smell of age that rose from it, and my discovery that the papers were personal letters all caught my attention forcibly. I knew I shouldn’t examine my father’s private papers, or anyone’s, and I was also afraid that Mrs Clay might suddenly come in to dust the dustless desk — that must have been what made me look over my shoulder at the door. But I couldn’t help reading the first paragraph of the top-most letter, holding it for a couple of minutes as I stood near the shelves.

Forcibly is unnecessary. Caught is enough. And Kostova seems to have lost control of the English language by the time she gets to “that must have been what made me look over my shoulder”. This kind of cleft sentence suggests that she’s already mentioned that she looked over shoulder, but she hasn’t. And the “must have been” suggests that she doesn’t know for sure, and is basing this conclusion on external evidence. Why doesn’t she know for sure then? And the last sentence is full of unnecessary information, even wrong information. I don’t need to be told that she held the letter (I’m surprised she didn’t tell me she held it in her hand) and that she did it for a couple of minutes, or where she was standing. And the letter is too short, and her reading too furtive, for it to have taken a couple of minutes.

She quotes the letter:

My dear and unfortunate successor:
It is with regret that I imagine you, whoever you are, reading the account I must put down here. The regret is partly for myself — because I will surely be at least in trouble, maybe dead, or perhaps worse, if this is in your hands. But my regret is also for you, my yet-unknown friend, because only by someone who needs such vile information will this letter someday be read.

Does Kostova know what “regret” means? She uses it three times, and never correctly. If the author of the letter is imagining someone in the future, he is actually doing so with hope. It would make more sense to say that he hopes no one will ever have to read this letter. He also regrets imagining the future reader, even while he imagines her. Then he regrets what will most likely happen to him. If what he fears comes true, then it is not regret he should feel for the reader, but pity.

At this point, my sense of guilt — and something else too — made me put the letter hastily back in its envelope, but I thought about it all that day and the next.

And something else? Unfortunately, Kostova forgot to tell us what that something else was. If that’s not lazy writing, I don’t know what is.

When my father returned from his latest trip, I looked for an opportunity to ask him about the letters and the strange book. I waited for him to be free, for us to be alone, but he was very busy in those days, and something about what I had found made me hesitate to approach him. Finally I asked him to take me on his next trip. It was the first time I had kept a secret from him and the first time I had ever insisted on anything.

I can’t understand how someone who hastily puts the letter back for fear of getting caught reading it would then start looking for an opportunity to ask her father about it. Talk about sloppy! Kostova can’t stay consistent in a single paragraph, sometimes in a single sentence. And we have more lazy vagueness: something about what I had found made me hesitate. What does this mean? Why doesn’t she know what this something was? If she does know, why isn’t she telling us?

And are we supposed to believe that this girl, who’s been sneaking into the library to look at her father’s Kama Sutra has never kept any secrets from her father before? I wonder if Kostova’s got the memory of a goldfish.

I won’t try your patience for much longer. I’ll only give you the worst howlers.

The father decides to take her with him on his next trip. After some more lazy, sloppy writing, we get to the city.

Because this city is where my story starts, I’ll call it Emona, its Roman name, to shield it a little from the sort of tourist who follows doom around with a guidebook.

Why is she concealing the modern name of the city? For two reasons: to prevent some people from going there, and because that’s where her story starts. Does the second one make any sense whatsoever?

I strained and craned until I caught sight of the castle through sodden tree branches — moth-eaten brown towers on a steep hill at the town’s centre.

This place must have pretty damn big moths. Either that, or their castles are made of wool.

At a table near the window we drank tea with lemon, scalding through the thick cups, and ate our way through sardines on buttered white bread and even a few slices of torta. “We’d better stop there,” my father said.

“We need to rest up. There’s still 150 feet of sardines to eat through till we break out of this place.”

Then she tells him about the book and the letters.

He sat forward, sat very still, then shivered visibly. This strange gesture alerted me at once. If a story came, it wouldn’t be like any story he’d ever told me. He glanced at me, under his eyebrows, and I was surprised to see how drawn and sad he looked.
“Are you angry?” I was looking into my cup now, too.

Visibly is redundant, and shivering is not a gesture. And since he’s looking at her, from under his eyebrows, and since she’s obviously had to look at him in order to be able to describe it for us, neither of them can possibly be looking at their cup of tea!

All this (and more!) from the first six pages of the book. This is what an MFA is good for.

And I worry about the words I set down on paper.

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Crad Kilodney Ramble

When I was thirteen or fourteen and my interest in literature was awakening, I used to go to my friend Allen’s house and look at the books on his shelves. Allen was precocious in his tastes and his habits, but I’m sure many of the books he had exceeded his understanding. Can you imagine, for example, a thirteen-year-old reading James Joyce’s Ulysses?

The books were mysterious things. I loved merely holding them, especially the soft, grey or green Penguins. Allen took me down to Toronto’s Soho district on Queen Street between University and Bathurst. The area was filled with used bookshops. I can still remember some of them: About Books, Steven Temple’s, Gail Wilson’s, Abelard’s, Letters. In the mid to late 80s, this strip of Queen Street started to get trendier and trendier, and as the rents went up, the bookshops went away. I don’t know how many of the old ones are still there. When most of them had gone, the city put new street signs calling the area The Fashion District (it was part of the traditional textile district) but most people just called it “Queen West”.

Used bookshops are what I miss most about Toronto, especially all those ones where I made so many discoveries and acquaintances. Shops of that kind are practically non-existent here in Athens. The few I’ve seen are more like junk shops with stacks of mouldy pulp. When I was preparing to leave Canada, I sold all the books I didn’t want to bring with me and bought anything I could find that I thought I’d want Some people we knew were sending a container with furniture to Greece, and we put all my books, at the time at least 1,200 of them, in 26 boxes and shipped them over.

Three books from Allen’s shelves caught my attention and have stayed in my mind. They represented the shocking, subversive quality that books had for me then. They were typed on a typewriter and cheaply printed.




Allen told me they had been published by the author himself, who also sold them on the street. His name was Crad Kilodney.

* * * * *

I don’t remember the first time I saw Kilodney himself. The earliest book I have is The Blue Book (1985).

Kilodney would stand on the busiest streets in Toronto with a small cardboard sign hanging from his neck. They would read

Pleasant Bedtime Reading
Putrid Scum
Slimy Degenerate Literature
Dull Stories for Average Canadians
Literature for the Brain-Dead
Worst Selling Author — Buy My Books
Rotten Canadian Literature
Albanian Chicken Stories

Crad Kilodney was born in 1948 in the borough of Queens, New York. He studied astronomy in Michigan and moved to Canada in the early 70s. In 1978 he set up his own imprint, Charnel House, and began selling his books on the street as his sole occupation.

His face was serious, even forbidding to some people who passed by and happened to make eye contact with him. I don’t remember ever feeling intimidated by him or if I spoke to him much the first time I saw him. Soon enough, however, I knew him well enough to stand around and chat with him whenever I saw him. He would complain about how bad business was and gape stupidly at passers-by who ignored him. I remember him once droning, “Hockey books. Hockey books. Get your hockey books.”

Once, a tough-looking teenager passed by as we were talking and shot him a glance.

“You know,” I said when the kid was about five paces away, “I don’t think he’s going to mention to his friends that he saw you today.”

“Are you kidding?” Crad said. “He’s forgotten me already.”

* * * * *

“If things go bad for me on the street, my mood deteriorates quickly. I’m apt to be simultaneously angry and depressed. My anger goes right to my stomach. I may make fierce eye contact with passers-by, which makes them even less likely to stop. I choose my most provocative or insulting signs to wear when I’m in the most aggressive moods because deep down I want to strangle these people. Most days I make less than $15 on the street. After paying for subway fares, snacks, and groceries, I may return home poorer than when I left the house. I wallow in self-pity. I have very confused ideas about success and failure, which I can’t sort out rationally. I look at the cartons of books at the foot of my bed and wonder how I will ever sell them. I wonder whether it’s worth continuing this way, year after year. Even if I were selling the greatest book ever written my immediate situation wouldn’t change. No book can change the world. No book can change these people. But these people can grind me down by their insensate banality, their stupidity, even their outright hostility. Man looks for hope wherever he can. I have a little hope left, just enough to let me face the street another day. But at this time in my life, hope is fading…”

Crad Kilodney, Excrement, 1988

* * * * *

Standing on the street all day exposed Crad to all kinds of abusive weirdos. At some point he began to wear a tiny microphone under his shirt collar so that he could record his encounters. I have the first two cassettes. (I think there was a third) On one of them he went to the business district and asked people why the earth has seasons. The answers are astounding.

Crad did not hide the fact that he liked to seek revenge when he felt he had been unjustly treated. In 1988 he published a story called “Who Is John Copping?” in which Kilodney claims to have been hearing the name John Copping everywhere he goes. A teenage girl tells her boyfriend that she is pregnant with John Copping’s child; a mother tells her child to do his homework so he won’t grow up stupid like John Copping; the owner of a strip club tells the bouncer never to let John Copping back in. One day he’s walking past City Hall when he hears the following exchange between two of Toronto’s most illustrious lawyers:

“As you know, Clay, I’m categorically opposed to capital punishment… With one exception.

“What’s that?” asked Ruby.

“John Copping!” said Greenspan vehemently. “He should be put to death!”

At a supermarket, he sees a sign in the meat-cutting room that says SAVE TAINTED MEAT FOR JOHN COPPING.

When he can stand it no longer, he asks a friend who this John Copping is, and is given a piece of paper. On it, and fully reproduced in Kilodney’s book, is a bad review someone named John Copping had written of three of Crad’s books.

In 1989, after having one of his stories, “Girl on the Subway”, rejected in the first round of a CBC short story competition, he submitted six stories, under pseudonyms and typed up on different typewriters, by writers such as Kafka, Faulkner and O. Henry. He went public with his hoax when every story was rejected.

Around that time he also typed up a manuscript of poems by Irving Layton, one of Canada’s most respected poets, and submitted them, again under a pseudonym, to publishers all over the country. They were rejected by everyone, including McClelland & Stewart, Layton’s own publisher.

* * * * *

As for Crad’s books, it’s difficult for me to discuss or assess them. I have a sentimental blind spot for some of them.

His style is very simple and draws no attention to itself, a sign that he cared about the writing and worked at it. The humour, for the most part, might strike people as immature. Certainly, it’s uneven, especially the later stuff. But there were times when he was brilliant. One of my favourites was “The Man Who Died Of His Opinions”, in Blood-Sucking Monkeys From North Tonawanda (1989), about two psychologists who are studying whether the human brain actually has a limit to its capacity for storing facts. They have a patient, an incredibly annoying bigot and philistine who cannot distinguish between fact and opinion. He has opinions on every conceivable subject, and rants all day long. Eventually, he overloads his brain, and dies. What makes this story so good is the discussions between the two doctors and the perfectly-captured voice of the patient.

Sometimes the humour was very satirical, as in “No Chekhov at Yorkdale”, in which he relates his findings after searching through one of Toronto’s biggest shopping malls for a book of stories by Chekhov:

You can buy an assortment of fruit-flavoured bubble baths at The Body Shop for only $17.65. You can spend $99.99 for a skateboard or $24.99 for an anti-theft device for your skis at Collegiate Sports. At Club Monaco you can buy authentic Club Monaco jeans for a mere $49. And at Classic China you can get a lovely bone china chipmunk for $95. But nowere in this Mecca of Mass Merchandising can you acquire a book of stories by the great Russian author Anton Chekhov, the greatest writer of stories who ever lived.

“I Chewed Mrs Ewing’s Raw Guts” seems autobiographical (except for its grizzly ending, to be sure). It details his dealings with a landlady so obnoxious you’re glad he’s killed her off in the end. There’s a febrile quality to the story that reminds you of Dostoevsky.

But his best works were his serious ones, which also tended to be autobiographical. Cathy (1985), is perhaps my favourite. It’s the story of a girl who comes to rent the basement of his parents’ house, and his doomed love for her. Excrement is based on his journals and his experiences on the street. It’s a nakedly honest, fascinating document. There was a follow-up, Putrid Scum, but by that time, Kilodney’s books had ceased to be enjoyable. The bitterness had got the best of him.

* * * * *

Although one wouldn’t know it from just looking at his books, but one of Kilodney’s biggest influences, by his own admission, was Henry Miller. He has none of Miller’s messy, vacuous philosophising. But he had Miller’s pessimism, and he had a sense of mission as a writer. Writing was very important to Kilodney, and he seems to have been very idealistic about it in the early days. Despite the underground feel of his work, he genuinely wanted acceptance and recognition and to make a difference in the world. But perhaps he also had fallen for the notion of the writer as a tortured, suffering soul. He was a glutton for punishment.

I remember him telling me once about having gone to Calgary for a few days. He had sold far more books on the streets there than he ever managed to in Toronto. Toronto was the worst place for him, and he chose the worst places to stand and sell his books: Yonge Street, with its hordes of consumers and suburban teenagers, and Bay Street, the city’s equivalent of Wall Street. It was precisely because Toronto was the least hospitable place for him that he stayed there for so many years.

In the late 80s and 90s, his bitter resentment had found its way into the writing and most of his later books made even some of his most loyal fans uncomfortable. (“I Chewed Mrs Ewing’s Raw Guts” was, despite its title, a successful story because he had let his material speak for itself. In the later ones, Kilodney is lashing out, often very offensively. There’s a strong undercurrent of racism in these stories, as well.)

In the end, you can’t help but wonder, if Kilodney had such a strong sense of mission, and took his art and his calling so seriously, why this seriousness wasn’t reflected more in his writing. Most of it was funny, but in an adolscent way, wanting more than anything else, to shock the reader with its outrageousness. No matter how funny it was, it never affected you the way Cathy and Excrement did.

* * * * *

In 1991 Kilodney was charged with “exposing goods for sale without authority” and later that year (ironically during Arts Week in Toronto), he was convicted in by-law court. Of course, there was no license available for what he was doing. He took the city to court, and lost. He appealed several times. In the mean time, he continued to sell on the street. It had been, after all, his sole occupation for thirteen years.

Then in 1995, Crad told me that his father back in New York had died, and that he had come into an inheritance. He gradually became more and more scarce, and then, without any fanfare, when no one was even paying attention, he was gone. He dropped out. He stopped publishing and stopped selling his books.

There were odd rumours. I read this totally inaccurate account on usenet:

I liked Crad Kilodney’s four-year experiment in Toronto of selling his books on the street. Of course he immediately became homeless. It gave his work a certain edge, let’s say. He had great placards: “Canadian Literature, Cheap. $4.” He was often highly rated and has a cult following, but darn it wasn’t enough to keep him out of the shrubbery.

In fact, Crad still writes from time to time, I think. He’s told me that he has a lot of stuff sitting around that he could still publish. Some of it can be found at his blog.

Since he gave up writing for a living, Crad has been playing the stock market. He enjoys it and it has become a passion. He does quite well. He’s given me tips from time to time, which have always been good. He also likes to compose logic puzzles. He remains very disillusioned with writing. When I was trying to get my first novel published, he told me that trying to get published was like buying a raffle ticket for a microwave; even if you win, your life won’t change much.

* * * * *

Postscript (15 April 2014)

Nine years have passed since I wrote the above post. I have cleaned up some of the out-of-date additions from over the years and adding what will most likely be the last bit.

Yesterday, after his third bout with cancer, Crad Kilodney died at the age of 66. I wrote to him last October, and he told me that he was seriously ill. I occasionally checked up on him to see how he was doing, and in my last email to him, I mentioned a very successful dichloroaceteate treatment a friend of mine in Toronto was undertaking. Crad’s response was characteristic of him:

I’m not going to hunt for some miracle like a million other desperate people who want to avoid death.  If my doctors had any useful ideas, they would have told me.  I’m 66 and have finished the important work of my life.  I’m not afraid to die.

Thank you for thinking of me.
My one thought about him now was that, since he had no family in Toronto, there might not be anyone to take care of him. Fortunately, he had a friend by his side throughout the weeks he spent at the hospice, the writer and artist Lorette Luzajic. She has written on the Facebook page she set up for him:
I have been with him every day; he is in and out of consciousness, disoriented, and weak. He is peaceful, in relatively little pain, and wants to go. We thank you for your well wishes and Crad thanks all his readers.

A few hours before he died, she added:

Crad has been more or less unconscious and I am surprised each day that he is still ticking. His wonderful nurses assure me that he is still comfortable and not conscious of the minimal amount of pain he might be feeling; he is still receiving pain management just in case. Crad continually expressed his gratitude for your well wishes up until he was no longer able to speak at all, and I know he wishes to repeat this now.

* * * * *

Crad told me in a letter once that he had given all his papers and his diaries to some university library, or perhaps to the National Library in Ottawa, I can’t remember which. The archive is not to be opened till after his death. I predict that they will be his greatest legacy. I have no doubt that, aside from their literary value, they will prove to be a fascinating document of what was a very unusual life.

* * * * *

Please go to Crad’s blog and read his final published work. It is beautiful.


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Last year I read an interesting novel by Carlo Frabetti called Los jardines cifrados. I heard the following excerpt (which opens the book) read on the radio late one night,* and bought the book a few days later.

The book is not available in English. I have translated the excerpt from the Greek. I found it tonight as I was poking around in my computer, and decided to post it here. People often drop by here when they’re searching for something on Google (I’ve had many find me while searching for the Kemal lyrics). Perhaps someone will be running a search on Epimenides and end up here. The internet produces these sorts of ripples, where one thing leads to another in unexpected ways. Perhaps that person will become interested in Frabetti, and I won’t have to feel too bad about any possible copyright infringements.

They say that Gertrude Stein, on her deathbed, asked her companion, “What is the answer?”

And when she received no answer, she said, “In that case, what’s the question?”

She was not the first who asked this question. The Greeks, who wondered about everything, must have arrived at this meta-question, even if by various routes.

Epimenides the Cretan, the mythical poet of the sixth century BC, of whom it was said that he had once slept for fifty-seven years running (even if Plutarch claims that he was only fifty), is chiefly known for the paradox of the liar. Strangely enough, the phrase which is attributed to him (“All Cretans are liars”) – although it shouldn’t be confused with the perverted sense that a liar is someone who lies all the time – establishes an authentic paradox in itself: it will suffice to think that Epimenides is lying and there is some truthful Cretan, in which case it’s simply a false statement. The phrase constitutes a paradox only if it is assumed to be true, as Paul did in his Epistle to Titus: “One of themselves, even a prophet of their own, said The Cretians are always liars […] This witness is true.” If Epimenides’ phrase is true, then he is a liar, because at least one Cretan (Epimenides himself) is telling the truth.

In any case, the paradox of the liar, in its various versions (the simplest is the statement, “This statement is a lie”), tormented the Greeks and their descendents in the art of thought for centuries.

Chrysippes the Stoic, a student of Zeno, living in the third century BC, wrote six treatises about the paradox, none of which has survived, and Philetas of Kos, of whom it is said that he was so thin that he wore shoes of lead so that the wind would not carry him away, died prematurely, due to the unbearable anxiety which this paradox had caused him.

Epimenides himself must have been deeply bothered by the infinite regression (of which the paradox is both an emblem and the epitome), since it is said that he went on a long and dangerous journey to the East to meet with the Buddha, to ask him what the answer was. In the end (according to the legend) the poet philosopher found the philosopher poet, and it was as if someone had placed two mirrors in front of each other. “What is greatest question that can be asked, and what is the greatest answer that can be given?” Epimenides asked. And the Buddha answered: “The greatest question that can be asked is the one you have just asked me, and the greatest answer that can be given is the one I am giving you now.”

*Στην υπέροχη εκπομπή του Μενέλαου Καραμαγκιόλη Πού παει η μουσική όταν δε την ακούμε πια;

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