writing in the post-ulysses age: henri lefebvre on the techniques of claude simon

Word Power Books

 

 

henri lefebvre on joyce, the new novel and the writing of everyday life…

 


Thus it is by chance and not by chance that this particular day — a sixteenth of June at the beginning of the twentieth century — was significant in the lives of a certain Bloom, his wife Molly and his friend Stephen Dedalus, and as such was narrated in every detail to become, according to Hermann Broch, a symbol of ‘universal everyday life ‘, a life elusive in its finitude and its infinity and one that reflects the spirit of the age, its’ already almost inconceivable physiognomy’, as Joyce’s narrative rescues, one after the other, each facet of the quotidian from anonymity.

 

The momentous eruption of everyday life into literature should not be overlooked. It might, however, be more exact to say that readers were suddenly made aware of everyday life through the medium of literature or the written word. But was this revelation as sensational then as it seems now, so many years after the author’s death, the book’s publication and those twenty-four hours that were its subject matter? And was it not foreshadowed already in Balzac, Flaubert, Zola and perhaps others ?. . . .

 

Ulysses is diametrically opposed both to novel presenting stereotyped protagonists and to the traditional novel recounting the story of the hero’s progress, the rise and fall of a dynasty or the fate of some social group. Here, with all the trappings of an epic — masks, costumes, scenery — the quotidian steals the show. In his endeavour to portray the wealth and poverty of everyday life Joyce exploited language to the farthest limits of its resources, including its purely musical potentialities. Enigmatic powers preside. Bloom’s overwhelming triviality is encompassed by the City (Dublin), the metaphysical speculations of ‘amazed’ man (Stephen Dedalus), and the spontaneity of instinctive impulses (Molly); here is the world, history, man; here are the imaginary, the symbolic and the prophetic . . . .

There are many ways of interpreting what is still known as the ‘new novel’ (apart from considerations of success, failure, tediousness or interest). It can be seen as a methodical attempt to create a rational style that deliberately avoids tragedy, lyricism, confusion and controversy, aiming instead at a pure transparency of language that might almost be called spatial. This ‘objective’ clarity could be seen as a sort of projector isolating the object on a stage if one were to overlook the fact that objects must first be created; it is a product neither of the subject as creator nor of the object as creation, but only of language imitating ‘reality’. Can one even say that a story is being told? A story is no longer a story when words are reduced to bare necessities. Time is cancelled out in the process of exploring it, when the quest for a perfect recurrence, a coming and going in time, is achieved by means of pure prose, of writing reduced to its essence. The simultaneity of past, present and future merges time with space and is more easily realized in a film than in literature, where ‘novelistic’ implications are always present. Moreover it is not every subject that can be submitted to such a formal elaboration: things, people, gestures, words. And can anyone be sure that time will not intervene and disrupt such permanence? Is everyday life’s changelessness a guarantee? Films and literature use everyday life as their frame of reference but they conceal the fact, and only expose its’ objective’ or spectacular aspects. Writing can only show an everyday life inscribed and prescribed; words are elusive and only that which is stipulated remains.

 

Let us take an example. Shall we select for our particular example of ‘objective’ writing, the writing of strict form, a distinguished scholar or a novelist? If a novelist, who shall it be? We have made the arbitrary choice of Claude Simon in his book Flanders Road, because there is a certain affinity between this book and Ulysses notwithstanding the differences that distinguish them; an affinity that makes comparison possible while enabling us to note the contrasts. In both works short periods of time expand, dream and remembrance recreate a universal everyday life; in both we find the eternal triangle, wife, husband and lover; symbols and word-play abound. In Claude Simon there is a Blum, in Joyce a Bloom, a coincidence that suggests a connection perhaps not wholly unintentional on the part of the later author.

 

‘Oh yes! … ‘ Blum said (now we were lying in the darkness in other words intertwined overlapping huddled together until we couldn’t move an arm or a leg without touching or shifting another arm or leg, stifling, the sweat streaming over our chests gasping for breath like stranded fish, the wagon stopping once again in the dark and no sound audible except for the noise of breathing the lungs desperately sucking in that thick clamminess that stench of bodies mingled as if we were already deader than the dead since we were capable of realizing it as if the darkness the night …. And Blum: ‘Bought drinks?’, and I: ‘Yes. It was … Listen: it was like one of those posters for some brand of English beer, you know? The courtyard of the old inn with the dark-red brick walls and the light-coloured mortar, and the leaded windows, the sashes painted white, and the girl carrying the copper mugs … ‘

 

Fine. Now let us compare this to what we had noted in Ulysses.

 

a) Here we find no acknowledged, pre-established referential; the place is a place of desolation, a landscape laid waste by war and rain where corpses .rot in the mud and slime, a sinister collaboration of civilization and nature. The symbolism is spatial, the place being the only stable thing there is. We are never sure in what moment of time the story is situated, nor in which tense is the narrative; and we do not need to know. Memories are centred around the place, symbolized and actualized by it as they flow from the remote past. In the course of the narrative, which proceeds in cycles, men are the playthings of fate; they circle around the place and their circling leads to death or captivity at the hands of the enemy.

 

b) Man’s fate is not enacted here against a backdrop of normal everyday life; we are in time of war. And yet it is the quotidian that is conjured up. The past, before tragedy took over, was controlled by logic and order, or so it seemed; in reality logic and order, and meaning too, were only paving the way to tragedy (eroticism, passion and love), with its sequel of disillusions. The extraordinary in everyday life was everyday life at last revealed: deception, disappointment. . . . Passionate love turned out to be terribly similar to love without passion, the passion only accentuating the void and the hunger it was supposed to satisfy but from which it really stemmed. Could this be the cool style unambiguously replacing the hot style of the preceding period? In a cold passionless voice the author tells of passion, its illusion and its disappointments; the quotidian is unavoidable, and even those who believe they have eluded it are its victims; married couples and lovers are alike frustrated and betrayed, the first in everyday life, the others in the life of tragedy. The cycle of betrayals and frustrations spirals down from remembered time, in fact through a century and a half as the narrative passes from generation to generation; remembrance negates temporality.

 

c) Language becomes the only referential, as the ‘real’ referential is abolished by truth; the author has fashioned a reality from speech where the sentence conveys similarities, disparities, the order and disorder of impressions, emotions, sensations, dialogues (that are not really dialogues), solitude, in fact everything that serves to build up a ‘character’. The writing imitates speech in an attempt to purify or perhaps to exorcize it. The critic J. Ricardou calls it the ‘verso of writing’, but if he is right then this verso corresponds exactly to the recto. It is indeed the very essence of writing, a literature passed through the crucible of literalness and aiming at total precision. Though it simulates speech, speech has disappeared, the writing is a linear trajectory; and meaning too has vanished, whether proper, figurative, analogical or hermetic; everything is made explicit; signs are distinct in their difference and the difference is entirely revealed in the significance. A voice or voices? A toneless voice, a writing that is precise and pure as musical intervals fixed by pitch. Connotations? Harmonics? Yes, adjusted by pitch and thus eliminating fluidity, extensions of sound and boundlessness. Time is divided into similarities and disparities before it dissolves into memory and fate, which are almost identical. Even the word-play is exposed, stated and explained. This pure writing has attained freezing point in so far as this point is pure transparency. A comparison with atonality will perhaps make this clearer; there is no determining note (referential), therefore no repose; there are interruptions but no beginnings or endings; there are intermissions but nothing that really corresponds to anact or an event, only memories and sentences; the semantic theme has changed, it has lost the alternate tensions and easings corresponding to beginnings and endings, actions and happenings, situations that emerge and conclude. Significance, translated into an elaborate verbal form, replaces expression; the theme disintegrates and is recomposed around the literal, without ambiguity or polyphony (or polyrhythm or polyvalence). The writing aims at saying everything that can be written; the writer’s ear is attuned to depth and he rejects all that is not perfectly clear; he does not attempt to entrap depth, it is there.

 

At one end of this skyline dominated by important works we observed the emergence of everyday life, the revelation of its hidden possibilities; at the opposite end everyday life reappears but in a different perspective. Now the writer unmasks, discovers, unveils; everyday life becomes less and less bearable less and less interesting; yet the author manages to create an interest in this intolerable tediousness simply by telling it, by writing, by literature. Our investigation has thus exposed a definite change both in the things written about and in the way of writing. We are not concerned here with further ramifications such as the contemporary theatre (Ionesco, Beckett), poetry (Ponge), films (Resnais, Godard), etc.; nor with any attempt at generalization. We only wish to underline the metaphysical function of contemporary literature. We shall come across these problems again and again under different aspects. The ‘world’ is divided into the world of everyday life (real, empirical, practical) and the world of metaphor; metaphorical writing, or the metaphorical world of writing tends either towards artificial oppositions and illusory contradictions or towards self-destruction in the comedy of insanity (existentialism, Artaud); but this is not the place to analyse these sub-divisions.

 

—Henri Lefebvre, Everyday Life in the Modern World (translated from La vie Quotidienne Dans le Monde Moderne, published in 1968 by Editions Gallimard), Paris, pp 2 – 3, 8 -11.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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adam thirlwell’s favourite books & authors populate a novel set of narratives

Buy Miss Herbert 

 

Mind your language

By A.S. Byatt

 

November 24 2007

Miss Herbert (The Delighted States in the U.S.)
By Adam Thirlwell

Miss Herbert is a thoughtful, and frequently hilarious, study of the nature of literary translation. It is also a work of art, a new form. Juliet Herbert was the English governess of Flaubert’s niece, Caroline. She wrote a translation of Madame Bovary, which Flaubert approved, and which has disappeared, unread. This ghost is a central character in a tale of conversations between writers, languages and forms.

 

Flaubert’s carefully wrought style, his “mania for sentences”, makes him in one sense untranslatable. The same could be argued of James Joyce’s layered wordplay, local detail and complicated rhythms. Novelist Adam Thirlwell, the author of Politics, discusses the tension between literal translation of words and attempts to translate a “style”. He argues that — always with some slippage or accidents — styles can be translated and transmitted. He has a cosmopolitan taste in novels, and describes his own canon, ranging from Cervantes to Machado de Assis, from Italo Svevo who was taught English by Joyce, to Witold Gombrowicz and Bohumil Hrabal.

 

A good example of the way he proceeds is his discussion of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse, in an intricate rhyming stanzaic form. Pushkin read Tristram Shandy in a less-than-adequate French translation. Thirlwell remarks: “The first great Russian novel was a rewrite of a French travesty of an English avant-garde novel.” Later he discusses Nabokov’s ideas of translation. Nabokov came to the conclusion that a verse translation of Pushkin’s novel was theoretically impossible. He published his own literal word-by-word translation in four volumes with notes and commentary. Thirlwell decides he prefers the idea behind Nabokov’s earlier translation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which changed names and references freely into Russian ones.

 

What does Thirlwell think makes a style, and what does he admire? A style must convey “real life”, a phrase that is constantly defined and redefined in this book. He quotes Diderot on the necessity for detail — a pox-mark on a perfect face — and gives splendid examples of precise recording, from Chekhov to Nabokov. He says: “Good novelists (or maybe more honestly the novelists I like) are often not just avant-garde in terms of technique; they are morally avant-garde as well. They are disrespectful (for one definition of cosmopolitan after all is the refusal to know one’s place).” I like this definition, partly at least because it does not use that meaningless word “subversive”. “Disrespectful” is a good word. Thirlwell also does not praise “authenticity”, sticking to more solid words such as “real” and “true”. The novelists he admires are, he says, “libertines” using that word to mean writers who record awkward or complicated truths. They are all, apart from Gertrude Stein, male and ironic. Thirlwell says somewhere that reality is ironic. I’m not sure of the meaning of that.

 

John Hawkes wrote that the enemies of the novel were “plot, character, setting and theme”. The novelists who are the “characters” of this novel about novels seem to believe that the true enemies are sentimentality, Romanticism, lazy derivativeness and high-mindedness. There is also a tendency to be hostile to plot as a form of unreality. Thirlwell quotes Gogol, Flaubert, Austen and Nabokov in one paragraph, which appears to end with the assertion that “life itself is plotless”. This is as untrue as it is true. Life, in my experience, is full of plots. But further down the same page Thirlwell produces another epigram: “The art of the novel centres not on authenticity but truth. And truth is a fabrication.” It is novelists, precisely, who understand that – and in a world where truth is a fabrication, there is room for plots and stories.

So what is a style? It is more than the sum of its parts — the choice of words, the speed of telling, the angle of vision. One of the pleasures of this elegantly produced book is a series of squiggles — many of them from Tristram Shandy, including Trim’s flourish with his stick which Balzac reproduced in La Peau de Chagrin — but also Hogarth’s “line of beauty”, and some twirls by Paul Klee. These flourishes, handed on from writer to writer and changed, are like musical notation. At the end of the book’s third part Thirlwell writes: “A style is not just a prose style. Sometimes it is not even a form of composition. Style is a quality of vision; a soul. This word soul is not my favourite word, it is not one I would use if I could help it, but I am not sure I have any choice.” And that kind of seriousness is very much Thirlwell’s own style.

 

 

The Delighted States

By Adam Thirwell

 

Chapter 1

 

Normandy, 1852: Two Letters from Gustave Flaubert About Style

 

This all begins in private, with Gustave Flaubert’s correspondence.

 

On 24 April 1852, Gustave Flaubert — an unpublished novelist, who had abandoned one novel, and recently begun another — wrote a hopeful letter to his mistress, Louise Colet.

 

‘I’ve imagined a style for myself,’ he told her, ‘a beautiful style that someone will write some day, in ten years’ time maybe, or in ten centuries. It will be as rhythmical as verse and as precise as science, with the booming rise and fall of a cello and plumes of fire’. And five years later, on 12 December 1857, after his first novel, Madame Bovary, had finally been published, Flaubert was writing to a fan, whose name was Mademoiselle Leroyer de Chantepie, and still saying roughly the same thing: ‘You say that I pay too much attention to form. Alas! it is like body and soul: form and content to me are one; I don’t know what either is without the other.’

Ever since Gustave Flaubert finally published his first novel, some novels have been explicitly as well written as poetry; they have shown the same care as poetry for style, and form. Every word in these novels has the same weight and poise as a word in a poem. And this is not without its problems.

 

The novel is an international art form. As soon as a novel becomes as well written as poetry, therefore, as soon as style is everything, then the translation of a novel becomes not a peripheral problem, but a central one. Or, as Milan Kundera wrote in the introduction to the fourth, but still only penultimate, English-language translation of his first novel, The Joke: ‘Once prose makes such a claim, the translation of a novel becomes a true art.’

 

This book — which I sometimes think of as a novel, an inside-out novel, with novelists as characters — is about the art of the novel.It is also, therefore, about the art of translation.

 


Chapter 2

 

Warsaw, 1937: Witold Gombrowicz Writes a Review

 

In 1937, the Polish novelist Witold Gombrowicz wrote a piece for a Warsaw magazine — Kurier Poranny — on the French translation of James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses. Sorrowfully, he did not think that Ulysses was really translatable. Meditating wistfully on the happier position of the English-speaking reader, he offered his own paradoxical and contrasting position, that while the ‘perfection and power of this complex style’ made it obvious how good — even in translation — Ulysses was, the dual language gap still prevented ‘more intimate contact’. And Gombrowicz ended his piece with an irritable flourish: ‘It is annoying to know that somewhere over there, abroad, a previously unknown method of feeling, of thinking and of writing has been born whose existence renders our methods completely anachronistic, and to tell oneself that only purely technical obstacles prevent us from having a deep knowledge of so many new inventions.’

 

Ulysses had made Polish novelists outdated: Gombrowicz could see that: but in French, his second language, he could not precisely see how. The technical details, he argued, escaped him.

 

But I am not sure that this is true. If style were purely a matter of technique — if form and content, as Flaubert sometimes thought, were the same thing — then perhaps Gombrowicz might be right. But style is not purely a matter of technique, which is why translation is still possible.

 

That is the subject of this book.

 

Often, I wonder if the idea of the untranslatable is really hiding a secret wish for translation to be a perfect fit, and this wish conceals a corresponding wish for style to be absolute. Whereas there are no perfect translations, just as there are no perfect styles. Something is still translatable, even if its translation is not perfect.

Like the example of Witold Gombrowicz himself.

 

About ten years later, Gombrowicz would be in exile — from the Nazis, and then the Communists — in Buenos Aires. In 1945, his friend Cecilia Benedit de Benedetti gave him an allowance to translate his novel Ferdydurke into Spanish. Ferdydurke, which had come out in 1937, the same year as his essay on Ulysses, had made him famous in Poland. This translation eventually became the preserve of a dedicated group, led by the Cuban novelist Virgilio Piñera and the Cuban writer Humberto Rodríguez Tomeu, as well as Gombrowicz, over eighteen months. The translation took place during sessions in the chess room on the second floor of the Café Rex, Gombrowicz’s favourite café in Buenos Aires. According to one of his early collaborators, Adolfo de Obieta, the translation was therefore inherently amusing: it was charmingly amateur — ‘transposing from Polish into Spanish the book of a Polish author who barely knew Spanish, assisted by five or six Latino-Americans who scarcely knew two words of Polish’.

 

No Polish-Spanish dictionary existed at the time. ‘It was an experimental translation in macaronic Spanish,’ recalled Tomeu. ‘At that time, he already knew some Spanish. Later, he spoke it well but always with a very strong accent. We therefore discussed each sentence under every one of its aspects: choice of words, their euphony, their cadence and their rhythm. Witold’s observations were always pertinent.’ The translation came out in April 1947, accompanied by a defensive note from Piñera, who worried that the unwarned Spanish reader might impute the language’s oddness to a lack of competence on the part of the translators. No no, he argued. It was all a matter of Gombrowicz’s new and different manner of envisaging language in the original Polish. (Which Piñera, of course, could not read.)

 

But he did not convince the public: Ferdydurke was not a success. It bemused its new Latin-American public.

 

The history of the novel is, simultaneously, a history of an elaborate and intricate international art form — and also a history of errors, a history of waste.

 

 

Chapter 3

 

Paris, 1930: James Joyce in Paul Léon’s Living Room

 

While Witold Gombrowicz, in Warsaw, was fretting at the French translation of Ulysses, James Joyce was making things even harder. In Paris, Joyce was completing the novel which was being serialised in the small magazine transition as Work in Progress, but which would finally be called Finnegans Wake. Famously, this novel is hardly even written in English: itself a description of a dream, Joyce wanted the English of his novel to mimic, in its language, the operations of a dream. Just as the images in dreams are dense with over-determination, so the language in Finnegans Wake, therefore, Joyce hoped, was unstable, impacted, polyglot. So that the reader of its first instalment would have been unpleasantly surprised to discover a style that made puns with more than one language, and had a sentence like this: ‘What clashes here of wills gen wonts, oystrygods gaggin fishygods!’

 

Maybe, with Finnegans Wake, Joyce had reached a point of stylistic density which could not survive any transition to another language – a realm of pure poetry, a nonsense style. Perhaps Gombrowicz was right. Maybe translation was finally impossible.

 

But maybe not.

 

In 1930, Joyce agreed to supervise a translation into French of the Anna Livia Plurabelle section of Work in Progress: the translation had been begun by Samuel Beckett and his French friend Alfred Péron. Beckett, however, had gone back to Ireland after completing a first version of the opening pages. His work was then revised by a group of Joyce’s friends: Eugene Jolas, the editor of transition; Ivan Goll, a poet; and Paul Léon.

 

Léon (whose wife, Lucie, was a family friend of Vladimir Nabokov) was a Russian émigré, who had left Russia in 1918: he had first gone to London, and then, in 1921, had arrived in Paris. He was a lawyer by training, and literary in his tastes. He soon became a kind of secretary to Joyce.

 

At the end of November 1930, after the first draft of the French translation had been completed, the French Surrealist writer Philippe Soupault was instructed to meet Joyce and Léon in Léon’s flat. At Léon’s round table, they would sit for three hours, starting at 2.30 every Thursday, and go through the translation.

 

(And I hope that the Léons kept this table for a while, because then it would be the same table at which, eight years later, in 1938, Nabokov would sit with Lucie — as she helped him with the English of his first novel written directly in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.)

 

Joyce smoked in an armchair; Léon read the English text and Soupault read the French, at the same time, breaking off to consider any problems. After fifteen of these meetings, they reached a final draft. This was sent to Jolas and Adrienne Monnier — Joyce’s friend, who had published the French translation of Ulysses — who suggested further changes. The finished translation of Anna Livia Plurabelle was published in the Nouvelle Revue Française on 1 May 1931.

 

There is no need to understand French to hear how talented this translation was. A lack of French is fine. Joyce shocked everyone with his care for sound over sense. In its new language, he was more concerned to preserve the form than the content.

 

Anna Livia Plurabelle falls asleep

 

Can’t hear with the waters of. The chittering waters of. Flittering bats, fieldmice bawk talk. Ho! Are you not gone ahome? What Thom Malone? Can’t hear with bawk of bats, all thim liffeying waters of. Ho, talk save us! My foos won’t moos. I feel as old as yonder elm. A tale told of Shaun or Shem? All Livia’s daughtersons. Dark hawks hear us. Night! Night! My ho head halls. I feel as heavy as yonder stone. Tell me of John or Shaun? Who were Shem and Shaun the living sons or daughters of? Night now! Tell me, tell me, tell me, elm! Night night! Tellmetale of stem or stone. Beside the rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of. Night!

 

Anna Livia Plurabelle falls asleep, this time in French

 

N’entend pas cause les ondes de. Le bébé babil des ondes de. Souris chance, trotinette cause pause. Hein! Tu n’est past rentré? Quel père André? N’entend pas cause les fuisouris, les liffeyantes ondes de, Eh! Bruit nous aide! Mon pied à pied se lie lierré. Je me sens vieille comme mon orme même. Un conte conté de Shaun ou Shem? De Livie tous les fillefils. Sombre faucons écoutent l’ombre. Nuit. Nuit. Ma taute tête tombe. Je me sens lourde comme ma pierrestone. Conte moi de John ou Shaun. Qui furent Shem et Shaun en vie les fils ou filles de. Là-dessus nuit. Dis-mor, dis-mor, dis-mor, orme. Nuit, Nuit! Contemoiconte soit tronc ou pierre. Tant riviérantes ondes de, courtecourantes ondes de. Nuit.

 

Occasionally, the sense, and its connotations, has to alter. But this is so that the rhythm of the words, the sentences’ musicality, can still remain. The style, even of this work in progress, is still there.

 

Yes, the history of the novel is a history of an elaborate but international art form.

 

—from Adam Thirwell, The Delighted States: A Book of Novels, Romances, & Their Unknown Translators, Containing Ten Languages, Set on Four Continents, & Accompanied by Maps, Portraits, Squiggles, Illustrations, & a Variety of Helpful Indexes

camilo jose céla on the novel: “to rejuvenate themes grown old and to revivify the eternal myths”

The Novel as Concept

 

by Camilo Jose Céla

I

On occasion, I have compared the process of making a novel with the process of having a child. The concept is not really original and may even be pedestrian, vulgar, and commonplace. I don’t say it isn’t. Still, to have a child, just as to have a novel, to write it, a set of circumstances must occur, for without them neither child nor novel can be produced. Savants, those who pass their idle hours combining substances in retorts or staring through a microscope or pouring over blurred palimpsests, have children in the same way as foremen on cattle ranches, the same as stevedores or bus drivers. If anyone proposed to make an analysis of a child and determine its desirable parts for combination in a laboratory, who knows what would result? Perhaps stock for soup, or shoe polish, or even dynamite, but as for a child, not likely …


It’s the same with the novel. If a Spaniard, a German, a Russian can put together the necessary ingredients, count on the required circumstances which no one can enumerate, and put their minds to the task, they can produce novels, perhaps magnificent novels. If they were to imitate the savants, they would be lost; the laboratory technician may not engender a viable child, but he can turn out utilitarian objects; novelists-a-la-savant can only produce aberrations.


The life of a child, however short it lasts, completes a cycle: the child is born, grows, dies. In addition, it cries, laughs, sucks a teat, wets itself …


In a letter, a friend tells me: "A novel is the description of a complete circle, an enclosed horizon of life, with no void spaces, just as there are none around us." This friend is quite right: the cycle may be closed—by the death of the child or the end of the novel—but it cannot be interrupted.


To speak of the novel is like speaking of the sea. The novel simply needs to be written. Dogmatic pronouncements are useless.


There is no point in trying to fit it into a Procrustean bed. And no one should forget its inexhaustible sources—of action, of aesthetic beauty, of sustained interest—sources with names like Balzac, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Stendhal. Divagations and lucubrations are of little value here.


Proust wrote: "Une oeuvre ou il y a des theories est comme un ob jet sur lequel on laisse la marque du prix." Proust knew whereof he spoke: it would be frightful to give birth to a child who, instead of causing a fuss and setting up a din, as natural law requires, stood up in his cradle and pontificated: "O parents and brothers: the economic theory of free competition …" Such a child would deserve capital punishment.


A novel has no business expressly defending anything, absolutely anything at all. It will inevitably be seen that it plays some part in life, but those novels which are known to be, before they are opened, intent on defending this or attacking that, are devoid of any importance whatsoever.


The nursery of proletarian novelists which the Communist Party nurtured with a view toward overawing the Western world came to a sterile end, a blasted crop even though the Russians are exceptionally gifted for developing the genre. The great writers of the nineteenth century, who developed and came to fruition under the twin scourges of persecution and imprisonment, a very poor environment indeed for the production of luxury goods like the novel, were never bettered or even equaled by the Soviet hacks whose names are already forgotten—not even by Gorky, the best of the lot.


The concept of the novel must come from within, like the taste of a pear or the odor of a flower or of the sea. It cannot be severed, separated, or cast aside like an orange peel or a banana skin, for therein lies the danger: that the whole will be thrown away with the parings.


It is difficult indeed to conceal the scaffolding of a book from its reader. But it is a necessity. In the novels of Pio Baroja, if we take as an example the most noteworthy and most universal of modern Spanish novelists, we never stumble on the joints or the scaffolding, however much we turn the work about, hold it up to the light, or sniff around in general. For the body of Don Pio’s work is like a seamless tunic, without stitching. It is spawned—just as a boy-child or a girl-child is born—altogether and once and for all.


In contrast, let us mention Valle-Inclan, Don Ramon with his goat’s beard. His plots are more obvious than protruding ribs. What about this plank sticking out here? That board is Barbey, the French writer. And this other protrusion? That belongs to Casanova, the gentleman-writer. And so on … The fact that Don Ramon manages to emerge triumphant simply implies genius, something a bit apart from the point we are making.


The novel requires a gut truth, a whole-bodied verity, one which has been digested and redigested by the author. The novelist by rights should have four stomachs, like oxen. Thus equipped, he would constantly be ruminating his gut truth, and his book would always be well born.


Balancing acts are not permissible in the making of a novel, because if the author ever loses his balance, he falls into the abyss and breaks his neck. The great lacuna in the history of the Spanish novel, which stretches from the time of the writers of the Generation of ’98 until … until when, O Lord? … is filled with castaways who tried balancing acts.

II


A starving man is more sound in his reasons than a hundred men of letters.


It would be convenient to know, so as not to lose ourselves in a labyrinth whose secret key we do not possess, something about the function of literature. It would also not be amiss to find a way of weighing the worth of literary ingredients, of determining the soundness of the building materials with which we are working. While we are about it, why not plumb, within reasonable limits, the rarefied nature of the writing profession itself? We might then be in a position to guess whether the art of the novel is some kind of scientific paradox or if it is instead a manifestation of wondrous chance—of a pure, if truncated, kind of stern destiny.


To Carlyle’s way of thinking, writing is the greatest miracle of man’s imagining—perhaps simply a miraculous curse. For Goethe, it seems a laborious way of relaxing, perhaps a form of relaxation which will let us die wearing the frightful grimace of a person succumbing to overwork.


A writer’s singular office may be compared to a disappointing game of blindman’s buff: the principal actor dances in desperation before a chorus of invisible and phantasmagoric spectators. "To write is to arouse interest, but the interest we manage to arouse may be no more than a tiny bell tinkling in a great desert waste, and it may make us forget the blindfold around our eyes and prevent us from properly assessing the materials with which we will have to work: that is, the prose which will give only a poor idea of things, and the poetry which will yield only an inexact notion." Thus spoke that tormented and blindfolded Spaniard, Angel Ganivet, who committed suicide in the Dwina River.


And to write novels, to "novelate"? To novelate is to die step by step on a dusty road leading nowhere. And to go down smiling, the better to please the world’s lurid tastes, the better to endure its mockery, all the while being beaten while fending off the Tyrians, who play with a stacked deck because they are not allowed to lose, and taking additional blows from the Trojans, who jump into the ring bearing arms forbidden by all codes of honor because, according to the laws promulgated by themselves, their side must always win.


To write novels is to uproot oneself, to venture forth carrying one’s roots in the air above one’s head, and to let oneself be cut down by the first fool one encounters without a show of resistance and in the full knowledge of one’s own ignominy.


Today it is not enough to possess a purely artistic understanding of the hara-kiri involved in novelating. A genius may raise his particular science to the heights of art, but the artist lacking genius may be merely a fraud, a dealer in contraband. It’s for the likes of the latter that literary prize contests are organized: fraudulent novelists write novels with a thesis—proletarian novels, inspirational novels, redemptive novels, sex novels—and the host of nonsense books that are invented for the stultification of man, who was once called, in happier times, the measure of all things.


The novelist does not know where he is going. The same is true of the north needle on a compass. The novelist allots himself a certain amount of terrain, applies the technology he has mastered, and awaits to see what he produces: if it’s a boy he’ll know by its lap, likewise if it’s a girl; if it’s bearded he can call out San Anton, if not, he can speak of an Immaculate Conception.


Science, like life or death, does not allow subterfuge. Art, like love, does. Thus, for the latter, fraud is a distinct possibility. The point is to avoid, with a measure of precision, concepts as such, and also to avoid confusing love with alterations in the nervous system. No novelist would ever think "to tell a book by its cover," and neither would he confuse an underground tuber with its leaves, for he must begin by knowing what leaves are and what a tuber is. George Santayana affirmed that the function of literature is to convert events into ideas. This conversion or transformation, be it understood, cannot be attained by exclusively artistic means, or by purely intuitive, nondeliberated means, which would amount to the same. The present crisis in literature is due to the inability of the novelist to dominate modern technical means. Beyond Faulkner’s interior monologue, for example, which can be carried on through talent alone, there rises, like a giant mountain, the terra incognita of strict objectivity. Objectivity in itself is a difficult bone to gnaw, especially with the teeth provided by art. Nevertheless, if the novelistic genre is not to atrophy, science must sooner or later sink its teeth into the matter.


Today’s novelist should surely give up his affair with the likes of Madame Bovary and turn his attention to a Lazarillo, the archetypal picaro of the picaresque. The novel should no longer concern itself with the amusements of featherbrained housewives, maudlin dreamers who whore around, in body or soul, at the far corners of provinces. Such things as hunger and bad faith are still prevalent, as is the wretchedness of the servant with a hundred masters.

To rejuvenate themes grown old and to revivify the eternal myths: that is the business of the contemporary novelist, assuming he does not want to go into cold storage, where, as with multicolored cats at night, all things are a monotone.


If it’s all a matter of killing time—a role assigned literature by all its detractors and a goodly number of those who cultivate it—everything we have said is superfluous. Still, something greater may be involved, though it have so many names we dare not name it with any one name.


The art of novelating is clearly, more clearly each day, seen to be an affair of two or three world novelists who work with energy and faith above and beyond the orbit of art. In physics, the same was true with Planck, Schrödinger, Heisenberg, and even true before them.


Ortega’s figure of a divine somnambulist no longer serves. That time is done. In the field of the novel, the seer exchanges his walnut wand for a radar installation.


All this does notmean the death of the genre. It may represent its birth. In Galdos’s time the novel was still in its intrauterine stage.

 
 

—Translated by Anthony Kerrigan. First Published in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, issue 4.3 (Fall 1984).

 

CAMILO JOSE CÉLA, born in Spain, has published over fifty books of fiction, criticism, and travel writing. His novels include The Family of Pascual Duarte, Hive, San Camilo, and 1936. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1989.