The problem of the novelist who wishes to write about a man’s encounter with this God is how he shall make the experience—which is both natural and supernatural—understandable, and credible, to his reader. In any age this would be a problem, but in our own, it is a well-nigh insurmountable one. Today’s audience is one in which religious feeling has become, if not atrophied, at least vaporous and sentimental. When Emerson decided, in 1832, that he could no longer celebrate the Lord’s Supper unless the bread and wine were removed, an important step in the vaporization of religion in America was taken, and the spirit of that step has continued apace. When the physical fact is separated from the spiritual reality, the dissolution of belief is eventually inevitable.
The novelist doesn’t write to express himself, he doesn’t write simply to render a vision he believes true, rather he renders his vision so that it can be transferred, as nearly whole as possible, to his reader. You can safely ignore the reader’s taste, but you can’t ignore his nature, you can’t ignore his limited patience. Your problem is going to be difficult in direct proportion as your beliefs depart from his.
When I write a novel in which the central action is a baptism, I am very well aware that for a majority of my readers, baptism is a meaningless rite, and so in my novel I have to see that this baptism carries enough awe and mystery to jar the reader into some kind of emotional recognition of its significance. To this end I have to bend the whole novel—its language, its structure, its action. I have to make the reader feel, in his bones if nowhere else, that something is going on here that counts. Distortion in this case is an instrument; exaggeration has a purpose, and the whole structure of the story ‘or novel has been made what it is because of belief. This is not the kind of distortion that destroys; it is the kind that reveals, or should reveal.
Thomas Bernhard’s Wittgenstein’s Nephew
Tried to write about it for a few hours—did write something, mostly complaining about how hard it is to write, etc. etc. etc. Deleted it. Slim Bernhard—not the best starting place for anyone interested in Tommy B, but not a particularly bad one either. (Correction, which also features a Wittgenstein (in disguise) is probably the best I’ve read by Bernhard so far).
Flannery O’Connor: The Habit of Being and Mystery and Manners
These books are essential.
Anyone who wants to write fiction must read Mystery and Manners, a collection of O’Connor’s lectures and essays on her craft. The Habit of Being, which collects her letters, is fascinating–of particular interest are her letters to A., a younger woman who liked O’Connor’s stories and wrote to her until the end of her life.
I sort of graze on these books.
Emmanuelle Guattari’s memoir I, Little Asylum
Did you know that Felix Guattari had a pet monkey? Boubou was her name. She died in a tree. Full review forthcoming.
Alain Badiou’s The Age of the Poets
Don’t know if I’ll ever work up the courage to write about this one, but what I’ve read so far—the first four essays in the collection—is really compelling. Badiou tackles Plato’s rejection of the poets from his ideal state—Badiou reckons that “no truth can ever deliver the meaning of meaning, or the sense of sense”:
Plato banned the poem because he suspected that poetic thought could not be the thought of thought. We once again welcome the poem in our midst, because it keeps us from supposing that the singularity of a thought can be replaced by the thought of this thought.
By which I take this to mean: The spirit of the spirit.
Dmitry Samarov’s Where To? A Hack Memoir
Been enjoying the vignettes here—Samarov has a direct and descriptive but wry style. His stories spill over into rants, comic asides, lovely ugly grotesque anecdotes, and tales of warmth and friendship. Love the illustrations too. Great stuff.
William T. Vollmann’s Last Stories and Other Stories
I like Vollmann, but this one is hard to get into. Wonderful dark moments, great little fragments of stories, but 150 pages in and I feel like I’m reading the scraps left out of some other, better, tighter novel.
During these travels, I met a professor at the University of Georgia. She suggested that I pay a visit to a local woman who had had her first book published by Harcourt, Brace & Company, where I was now a sales agent in the education branch. The professor believed that this author would enjoy meeting me because of her affiliation with the publishing firm. Weakened as she was by her disease, lupus, she wasn’t in contact with many people, so it would be nice to receive a visit from outside. A few years back, her father had died from the same disease, but the doctors had told her not to worry.
I was driven to her home outside the town of Milledgeville, Georgia. The farm was situated in the middle of a pretty deserted landscape consisting of a few villages, fields, and some woods. When I arrived, I saw a two-story farmhouse, which turned out to be from the middle of the 1800s.
Then Flannery’s mother, Regina, appeared in the doorway. Flannery herself couldn’t make it to the entrance because of her crutches. The mother was happy to receive a visitor for her daughter, since they lived in quite a lonesome place, but she made it clear that I shouldn’t expect to stay the night. Once I started visiting Flannery regularly, I could tell that Regina didn’t like my visits, even though she was quite polite. She perceived me as a threat, afraid that Flannery might settle down with me in Denmark.
In the new issue of Asymptote, Klaus Rothstein offers Erik Langkjær’s fascinating account of meeting—and kissing!—Flannery O’Connor. (Langkjær is the narrator of the section). Continue reading at Asymptote to get to the kissing.
An idiom characterizes a society, and when you ignore the idiom, you are very likely ignoring the whole social fabric that could make a meaningful character. You can’t cut characters off from their society and say much about them as individuals. You can’t say anything meaningful about the mystery of a personality unless you put that personality in a believable and significant social context. And the best way to do this is through the character’s own language. When the old lady in one of Andrew Lytle’s stories says contemptuously that she has a mule that is older than Birmingham, we get in that one sentence a sense of a society and its history. A great deal of the Southern writer’s work is done for him before he begins, because our history lives in our talk. In one of Eudora Welty’s stories a character says, ‘Where I come from, we use fox for yard dogs and owls for chickens, but we sing true.’ Now there is a whole book in that one sentence; and when the people of your section can talk like that, and you ignore it, you’re just not taking advantage of what`s yours. The sound of our talk is too definite to be discarded with impunity, and if the writer tries to get rid of it, he is liable to destroy the better part of his creative power.
From Flannery O’Connor’s lecture “Writing Short Stories.” Republished in Mystery and Manners.
When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you experience that meaning more fully.
From Flannery O’Connor’s essay “Writing Short Stories.” Collected in Mystery and Manners.
I didn’t really start to read until I went to Graduate School and then I began to read and write at the same time. When I went to Iowa I had never heard of Faulkner, Kafka, Joyce, much less read them. Then I began to read everything ay once, so much so that I didn’t have time I suppose to be influenced by any one writer. I read all the Catholic novelists, Mauriac, Bernanos, Bloy, Greene, Waugh; I read all the nuts like Djuna Barnes and Dorothy Richardson and Va. Woolf (unfair to the dear lady, of course); I read the best Southern writers like Faulkner and the Tates, K.A. Porter, Eudora Welty and Peter Taylor; read the Russians, not Tolstoy so much as Doestoyevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov and Gogol. I became a great admirer of Conrad and have read almost all his fiction. I have totally skipped such people as Dreiser, Anderson (except for a few stories) and Thomas Wolfe. I have learned something from Hawthorne, Flaubert, Balzac and something from Kafka, though I have never been able to finish one of his novels. I’ve read almost all of Henry James – from a sense of High Duty and because when I read James I feel something is happening to me, in slow motion but happening nevertheless. I admire Dr. Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. But always the largest thing that looms up is The Humerous Tales of Edgar Allan Poe. I am sure he wrote them all while drunk too.
From a letter by Flannery O’Connor.
The letter, dated 28 August, 1955, was addressed to a young woman who began writing O’Connor after reading her work. Their correspondence lasted until O’Connor’s early death in 1964, and, as editor Sally Fitzgerald notes in The Habit of Being (where the letter is published), the letters to this woman (identified only as “A,” as she wished to remain anonymous) are particularly rich, in that all O’Connor “had to say to this almost uniquely important friend did not go up in talk but had to be written down.”
Ran out of time this week before I could write about anything I’ve been reading. So a quick riff, from top to bottom, in the pic above:
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis
I’ve been reading this at night with my seven-year-old daughter. I’ve read it maybe a thousand times now. Lewis is not the best prose stylist, but he fuses together bits of pagan and Christian myth better than the best.
On the iPad:
The Possibility of an Island, Michel Houellebecq
My least-favorite Houellebecq so far—has some wonderful rants at times, but Houellebecq keeps embedding these terrible pop culture references (following his hero Bret Easton Ellis’s lead?) that usually dull the edge he’s been sharpening. And the narrator’s spite at this point is almost unbearable—reading it makes me feel like Gandalfdore drinking that poisonous potion in Harry Potter and the League of Bad Mentors—just sucking down venom.
The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing
Great stuff. A little over two-thirds finished. Wrote about is some here.
Lanark, Alasdair GrayI might regret that I never wrote a Big Fat Review of Lanark, Gray’s bizarre cult novel. The book is a weird chimera: It starts as a weird sci-fi/fantasy trip—closer to Kafka’s The Castle than genre-conventional fare though, to be clear. Then it shifts into this modernist Künstlerroman that seems to want to be a Scottish answer to Joyce’s Portrait. Then there’s a short story inserted in the middle, a return to the dystopian fantasy (heavy streaks of Logan’s Run and Zardoz and Soylent Green—very ’70s!), and, right before its (purposefully) dissatisfying conclusion, an essay by a version of the author, who defensively critiques his novel for characters and readers alike. Gray wants to have written the Great Scottish Epic. I’m not sure if he did, but Lanark has moments that are better than anything I’ve read all year—even if the end result doesn’t hang together so well.
The Bowling Alley on the Tiber, Michelangelo Antonioni
Sketches and figments that Antonioni never turned into films. Not sure if he intended to.
Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor
O Pioneers!, Willa Cather
There’s a tendency in American fiction to posit the American Dream as a masculine escapist fantasy. This version of the Dream is perhaps best expressed in the last lines of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when Huck declares: “But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” Always more territory, always more space outside of the (maternal) civilizing body. Cather answers to that version of the Dream in her character Alexandra Bergson, who cultivates the land and claims her own agency through commerce and agriculture.
The Selected Poetry of Emilio Villa, translated by Dominic Siracusa
What a strange and wonderful book! I wrote about it here. Confounding.
The Unknown University, Roberto Bolaño
Okay, so I wrote about the first section in detail here. More or less finished it. Bolaño’s best poems are basically prose (that’s not a knock).
Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe, Chris Andrews
Wrote about it a bit here; will write more when I finish. Makes me want to reread Bolaño (although I almost always want to reread Bolaño).
(In a Sense) Lost & Found, Roman Muradov
The plot of Muradov’s debut graphic novel floats like a dream-fog in surreal, rich art as the ludic dialogue refuses to direct the reader to a stable referent. Great stuff.
Near the end of the first cycle-section of Doris Lessing’s novel The Golden Notebook, protagonist Anna Wulf abandons the pretense of personal narrative in favor of pastiche, collage, clipping. Our heroine cuts and pastes material directly from the newspapers she’s been reading into her blue notebook:
[At this point the diary stopped, as a personal document. It continued in the form of newspaper cuttings, carefully pasted in and dated.]
The modeller calls this the ‘H-Bomb Style’, explaining that the ‘H’ is for peroxide of hydrogen, used for colouring. The hair is dressed to rise in waves as from a bomb-burst, at the nape of the neck. Daily Telegraph.
July 13th, 50
There were cheers in Congress today when Mr Lloyd Bentsen, Democrat, urged that President Truman should tell the North Koreans to withdraw within a week or their towns would be atom-bombed. Express.
July 29th, 50
Britain’s decision to spend £100 million more on Defence means, as Mr Attlee has made clear, that hoped-for improvements in living standards and social services must be postponed. New Statesman.
Aug. 3, 50
America is to go right ahead with the H Bomb, expected to be hundreds of times more powerful than the atom bombs. Express.
The passages continue for pages in the same vein until:
30th March 2nd H-BOMB EXPLODED. Express.
This section of The Golden Notebook fits neatly into what I’ve come to think of as the Inhumanity Museum. The writer clips from the newspaper and passes those fragments to the author, who tosses them to the speaker, the narrator, a character, perhaps—and asks: What to do with these? Can you believe this? Are there even words for this?
Which is the appeal to the writer, I think, of clippings that belong to the Inhumanity Museum: That the journalist telegraphs (plainly, simply, succinctly) what the novelist may deem ineffable.
I’ve appropriated the term the Inhumanity Museum from William H. Gass’s novel Middle C:
The gothic house he and his mother shared had several attic rooms, and Joseph Skizzen had decided to devote one of them to the books and clippings that composed his other hobby: the Inhumanity Museum. He had painstakingly lettered a large white card with that name and fastened it to the door. It did not embarrass him to do this, since only he was ever audience to the announcement. Sometimes he changed the placard to an announcement that called it the Apocalypse Museum instead. The stairs to the third floor were too many and too steep for his mother now. Daily, he would escape his sentence in order to enter yesterday’s clippings into the scrapbooks that constituted the continuing record:
Friday June 18, 1999
Sri Lanka. Municipal workers dug up more bones from a site believed to contain the bodies of hundreds of Tamils murdered by the military. Poklek, Jugoslavia. 62 Kosovars are packed into a room into which a grenade is tossed. Pristina, Jugoslavia. It is now estimated that 10,000 people were killed in the Serbian ethnic-cleansing pogram..
I’m still not sure exactly how the Inhumanity Museum fits into Middle C’s tale of fraud and music. Maybe it’s just Gass’s excuse to unload some of the material he’s been clipping for years. (Maybe I need to reread Middle C).
Here is Gass, in a 2009 interview, discussing William Gaddis (the emphasis is mine):
We were very close, even though we spent most of our time apart. I really had the warmest… We had great times. We both had the same views: Mankind, augh hsdgahahga!!!!. And he would read the paper and make clippings out of it. He was always saying, “Did you read…!?” We would both exalt in our gloom.
“Mankind [unintelligible]!” Ha! Read More
The kind of vision the fiction writer needs to have, or to develop, in order to increase the meaning of his story is called anagogical vision, and that is the kind of vision that is able to see different levels of reality in one image or one situation. The medieval commentators on Scripture found three kinds of meaning in the literal level of the sacred text: one they called allegorical, in which one fact pointed to another; one they called tropological, or moral, which had to do with what should be done; and one they called anagogical, which had to do with the Divine life and our participation in it. Although this was a method applied to biblical exegesis, it was also an attitude toward all of
creation, and a way of reading nature which included most possibilities, and I think it is this enlarged view of the human scene that the fiction writer has to cultivate if he is ever going to write stories that have any chance of becoming a permanent part of our literature. It seems to be a paradox that the larger and more complex the personal view, the easier it is to compress it into fiction.
From Flannery O’Connor’s essay “The Nature and Aim of Fiction.”
A lady who writes, and whom I admire very much, wrote me that she had learned from Flaubert that it takes at least three activated sensuous strokes to make an object real; and she believes that this is connected with our having five senses. If you’re deprived of any of them, you’re in a bad way, but if you’re deprived of more than two at once, you almost aren’t present.
All the sentences in Madame Bovary could be examined with wonder, but there is one in particular that always stops me in admiration. Flaubert has just shown us Emma at the piano with Charles watching her. He says, “She struck the notes with aplomb and ran from top to bottom of the keyboard without a break. Thus shaken up, the old instrument, whose strings buzzed, could be heard at the other end of the village when the window was open, and often the bailiff’s clerk, passing along the highroad, bareheaded and in list slippers, stopped to listen, his sheet of paper in his hand.”
The more you look at a sentence like that, the more you can learn from it. At one end of it, we are with Emma and this very solid instrument “whose strings buzzed,” and at the other end of it we are across the village with this very concrete clerk in his list slippers. With regard to what happens to Emma in the rest of the novel, we may think that it makes no difference that the instrument has buzzing strings or that the clerk wears list slippers and has a piece of paper in his hand, but Flaubert had to create a believable village to put Emma in. It’s always necessary to remember that the fiction writer is much less immediately concerned with grand ideas and bristling emotions than he is with putting list slippers on clerks.
Now of course this is something that some people learn only to abuse. This is one reason that strict naturalism is a dead end in fiction. In a strictly naturalistic work the detail is there because it is natural to life, not because it is natural to the work. In a work of art we can be extremely literal, without being in the least naturalistic. Art is selective, and its truthfulness is the truthfulness of the essential that creates movement.
From Flannery O’Connor’s essay “The Nature and Aim of Fiction.”
But there is a wide spread curiosity about writers and how they work, and when a writer talks on this subject, there are always misconceptions and mental rubble for him to clear away before he can even begin to see what he wants to talk about. I am not, of course, as innocent as I look. I know well enough that very few people who are supposedly interested in writing are interested in writing well. They’re interested in publishing something, and if possible in making a “killing.” They are interested in seeing their names at the top of something printed, it matters not what. And they seem to feel that this can be accomplished by learning certain things about working habits and about markets and about what subjects are currently acceptable.
From “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” by Flannery O’Connor. Collected in Mystery and Manners.
Unless we are willing to accept our artists as they are, the answer to the question, “Who speaks for America today?” will have to be: the advertising agencies. They are entirely capable of showing us our unparalleled prosperity and our almost classless society, and no one has ever accused them of not being affirmative. Where the artist is still trusted, he will not be looked to for assurance. Those who believe that art proceeds from a healthy, and not from a diseased, faculty of the mind will take what he shows them as a revelation, not of what we ought to be but of what we are at a given time and under given circumstances; that is, as a limited revelation but revelation nevertheless.
From Flannery O’Connor’s essay “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” collected in Mystery and Manners.
Illustration for a syllabus by Ben Marcus. (via)
From a 1960 letter Flannery O’Connor wrote to her friend Maryat Lee. The letter is collected in The Habit of Being.
“A Good Man Is Hard to Find”
The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennes- see and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s mind. Bailey was the son she lived with, her only boy. He was sitting on the edge of his chair at the table, bent over the orange sports section of the Journal. “Now look here, Bailey,” she said, “see here, read this,” and she stood with one hand on her thin hip and the other rattling the newspaper at his bald head. “Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what it says he did to these people. Just you read it. I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn’t answer to my conscience if I did.”
Bailey didn’t look up from his reading so she wheeled around then and faced the children’s mother, a young woman in slacks, whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage and was tied around with a green head-kerchief that had two points on the top like rabbit’s ears. She was sitting on the sofa, feeding the baby his apricots out of a jar. “The children have been to Florida before,” the old lady said. “You all ought to take them somewhere else for a change so they would see different parts of the world and be broad. They never have been to east Tennessee.”
The children’s mother didn’t seem to hear her but the eight-year-old boy, John Wesley, a stocky child with glasses, said, “If you don’t want to go to Florida, why dontcha stay at home?” He and the little girl, June Star, were reading the funny papers on the floor.
“She wouldn’t stay at home to be queen for a day,” June Star said without raising her yellow head.
“Yes and what would you do if this fellow, The Misfit, caught you?” the grandmother asked.
“I’d smack his face,” John Wesley said.
“She wouldn’t stay at home for a million bucks,” June Star said. “Afraid she’d miss something. She has to go everywhere we go.”
“All right, Miss,” the grandmother said. “Just re- member that the next time you want me to curl your hair.”
June Star said her hair was naturally curly.
Old Dudley folded into the chair he was gradually molding to his own shape and looked out the window fifteen feet away into another window framed by blackened red brick. He was waiting for the geranium. They put it out every morning about ten and they took it in at five-thirty. Mrs. Carson back home had a geranium in her window. There were plenty of geraniums at home, better-looking geraniums. Ours are sho nuff geraniums, Old Dudley thought, not any er this pale pink business with green, paper bows. The geranium they would put in the window reminded him of the Grisby boy at home who had polio and had to be wheeled out every morning and left in the sun to blink. Lutisha could have taken that geranium and stuck it in the ground and had something worth looking at in a few weeks. Those people across the alley had no business with one. They set it out and let the hot sun bake it all day and they put it so near the ledge the wind could almost knock it over. They had no business with it, no business with it. It shouldn’t have been there. Old Dudley felt his throat knotting up. Lutish could root anything. Rabie too. His throat was drawn taut. He laid his head back and tried to clear his mind. There wasn’t much he could think of to think about that didn’t do his throat that way.
His daughter came in. “Don’t you want to go for a walk?” she asked. She looked provoked.
He didn’t answer her.
“No.” He wondered how long she was going to stand there. She made his eyes feel like his throat. They’d get watery and she’d see. She had seen before and had looked sorry for him. She’d looked sorry for herself too; but she could er saved herself, Old Dudley thought, if she’d just have let him alone-let him stay where he was back home and not be so taken up with her damn duty. She moved out of the room, leaving an audible sigh, to crawl over him and remind him again of that one minute-that wasn’t her fault at all-when suddenly he had wanted to go to New York to live with her. Read More