The writer as a confidence man (William Gaddis)

To turn now–it’s not a different direction; it’s this whole idea of the risk of authorial absence and the risk one takes with the reader putting down the book, saying, “It’s too much trouble, I don’t know what’s going on here.” Refusing to collaborate because it’s not worth the effort. So in that light, the idea of the writer as a confidence man has always appealed to me and to many writers. When you think about it, the number of novels [wherein there is a confidence man is great; one thinks] of Melville and, oh dear, Maugham I think had one. The idea of a confidence man has a great appeal for writers because there is something of the con man in the writer, I think. He’s trying—What? What does the confidence man do?—he is working for this “willing suspension of disbelief.”

An excerpt from William Gaddis’s New York State Writers Institute reading, April 4, 1990

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The con man succeeds (William H. Gass)

An intelligence without integrity (a condition so often found in people of public life) is likely to succumb to the blandishments of ideology; otherwise, the mind’s inherent skepticism will guarantee its safety from superstition and other forms of sugary conjecture. Socrates knew nothing really awful could happen to him if he kept his mind free of unwarranted opinions. True strength, throughout its spectrum, shows itself through unflustered gentleness and forbearance, since only such strength has nothing to fear. The con man succeeds by exploiting the greed of his marks and is often reluctantly admired because wit is on his side, as well as discipline. His cynicism is just good sense and his nose for moral weakness is like the dowser’s wand for water. Similarly, when ill-formed or palpably false ideas make their way through the multitude, it is because the comforts they bring are so ardently desired.If you enjoy the opinions you possess, if they give you a glow, be suspicious. They may be possessing you. An opinion should be treated like a guest who is likely to stay too late and drink all the whiskey.

Plato treated poetic inspiration as a case of such irrational infection: The gods bypass sober skill to make the pen prophetic so that the resulting poem, recited by a rhapsode similarly tranced, becomes an incitement to the mob. Or an unconscious wish, sneaky as an odor, enters the author’s awareness disguised as its opposite, and arranges the stage for a coup d’éclat. Thus the magnetic coil is closed: muse to poet, poet to page, page to performer, and performer to audience, whose applause pleases the muse, encourages the poet, and grants his forbidden desire: to rule.

From William H. Gass’s essay influence. Collected in A Temple of Texts.

A Lazy Riff on the First Three of Álvaro Mutis’s Maqroll Novellas

The Jungle by Wilfredo Lam
The Jungle by Wilfredo Lam

1. Last year on this blog, my friend Dave Cianci reviewed Álvaro Mutis’s collection of seven novellas, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll. That review got me to eventually pick up the book and start reading. That review is better written and more accomplished than what I’ll likely end up doing here.

2. There are seven Maqroll novellas; I’ve read the first three. They are excellent.

3. Let me steal from Cianci’s review. He describes Maqroll the Gaviero as

a fleshed-out character, as well as the embodiment of an ideal: the knife fighters and Viking poets idolized by Borges, a mixture of Robinson Crusoe, Sam Spade, and Don Quixote. He indulges fantasy but prepares for disappointment. He lives between lawlessness and acceptability.

4. The Gaviero—the lookout—is a picaro, a roguish but poetical sailor. Mutis’s book is picaresque, carnivalesque, a river—or maybe a maze—of storytelling.

5. This is maybe what Maqroll is about: storytelling. Each Maqroll novella is framed as another’s story, or a found document—you know this trick, you’ve read Borges, right? 

6. The book is crammed with stories, stories that lead to other stories, that recall other stories, that tell their own stories—or cover over other stories.

7. A line that might instructively illustrate point 6: In Ilona Comes with the Rain, Mutis unpacks the life of a minor character, a sea captain named Wito. Consider his opening gambit:

His life deserves an entire book. It was so full of adventures, some of which he hurried over as if they were hot coals, that one became lost in their labyrinthine complexity.

The life described here could just as well be the Gaviero’s.

8. Well of course, that’s what Mutis is doing, channeling and conveying and expressing Maqroll’s life, a life of picaresque adventures (and titular misadventures), of loss and gain, of love and despair, drinking, sailing, scheming and plotting—a life full of allusions and hints and digressions. Mutis’s technique is marvelous (literally; he made this reader marvel): he gives us an aging (anti-)hero, a hero whose life is overstuffed with stories and mishaps and feats and enterprises and hazards; he gives us one strand of that life at a time in each novella—but then he points to the other adventures, the other serials of Maqroll that we would love to tune into if only we could.

9. To illustrate point 8: Consider Maqroll in Un Bel Morir, doing some time in prison: His consciousness floats to other prisons, other countries: Afghanistan, British Columbia: And then we get those stories, miniature epics—and nested within them, their own characters tell stories.

10. There’s a wonderful timelessness to Maqroll, a sense that the adventures exist somehow before the postmodern world, that they belong to the pulp fictions of jungle adventure…

11. (Indeed, re: point 10: In Ilona, we find one character who is unstuck in time, taking a Naopleonic lover during a transcontinental voyage…)

12. I’ve already noted the Borgesian quality of Mutis’s tales, brought up their picaresque scope (a la Cervantes), so let me lazily compare Mutis to others: let me note the sprawl of his storytelling, which recalls García Márquez—only more compact, more precise. Let me suggest that there’s something of Kafka in there too—indeed, the first novella, The Snows of the Admiral seems to me a reworking of “Before the Law.” (The tale is also conspicuously quixotic; tilting at windmills and all that). Conrad of course, but also something of Melville—the grand (Moby-Dick) and the sly (The Confidence Man). And hell, also something of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s high adventure, or even, dare I say it, the better parts of the Indiana Jones films.

13. Lazy as I am, I’ve failed to quote Mutis at any length—a shame, because it’s wonderful prose (translated by Edith Grossman, by the way). So here’s a little morsel—one that I think captures why we tell stories—from the appendix to Un Bel Morir, the last of the three novellas I read; before I offer it up I’ll conclude my riff by saying how happy I am that there are four more of these Maqroll novellas to read:

All the stories and lies about his past accumulating until they formed another being, always present and naturally more deeply loved than his own pale, useless existence composed of nausea and dreams.