thomas wolfe vs. scott fitzgerald on writing, and the garden of allah: “putting in” and “taking out”


"Well, don’t forget, Scott, that a great writer isnot only a leaver-outer but also a putter-inner, and that Shakespeare and Cervantes and Dostoievsky were great putter-inners—greater putter-inners, in fact, than taker-outers—and will be remembered for what they put in—remembered, I venture to say, as long as Monsieur Flaubert will be remembered for what he left out."

 

—from a letter by Thomas Wolfe to F. Scott Fitzgerald, July 26 1937

 

Fitzgerald to Wolfe, July 9, 1937:

 

Dear Tom:

 

I think I could make a good case for your necessity to cultivate an alter ego, a more conscious artist in you.  Hasn’t it occurred to you that such qualities as pleasantness or grief, exuberance or cynicism can become a plague in others?  That often people who live at a high pitch often don’t get their way emotionally at the important moment because it doesn’t stand out in relief?

 

Now the more that the stronger man’s inner tendencies are defined, the more he can be sure they will show, the more neccessity to rarify them, to use them sparingly.  The novel of selected incidents has this to be said that the greater writer like Flaubert has consciously left out the stuff that Bill or Joe, (in this case Zola) will come along and say presently.  He will say only the things that he alone sees.  So Bovary becomes eternal while Zola already rocks with age.  Repression itself has a value, as with a poet who struggles for a nessessary ryme achieves accidentally a new word association that would not have come by any mental or even flow-of-consciousness process.  The Nightengale is full of that.

 

To a talent like mine of narrow scope there is not that problem.  I must put everything in to have enough + even then I often havn’t got enough.

 

That in brief is my case against you, if it can be called that when I admire you so much and think your talent is unmatchable in this or any other country.

 

Ever your friend,

 

Scott Fitzgerald

GOA_mainhouse.jpg
The former 8150-8152 Sunset Boulevard at Crescent Heights: Rumoured to be the inspiration for Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi . . . "They paved Paradise / And put up a parking lot."
 

 

From Wolfe’s July 26 response:

 

I’ll be damned if I’ll believe anyone lives in a place called “The Garden of Allah” . . .

 

I have read your letter several times and I’ve got to admit it doesn’t seem to mean much.  I don’t know what you are driving at or understand what you hope or expect me to do about it.  Now this may be pig-headed but it isn’t sore.  I may be wrong but all I can get out of it is that you think I’d be a good writer if I were an altogether different writer from the writer that I am.

 

This may be true but I don’t see what I’m going to do about it, and I don’t think you can show me.  And I don’t see what Flaubert and Zola have to do with it, or what I have to do with them.  I wonder if you really think they have anything to do with it, or if it is just something you heard in college or read in a book somewhere.  This either-or kind of criticism seems to me to be so meaningless.  It looks so knowing and imposing but there is nothing in it. 

 

Why does it follow that if a man writes a book that is not like Madame Bovary it is inevitably like Zola? I may be dumb but I can’t see this. You say that Madame Bovary becomes eternal while Zola already rocks with age. Well this may be true—but if it’s true isn’t it true because Madame Bovary may be a great book and those that Zola wrote may not be great ones? Wouldn’t it also be true to say that Don Quixote or Pickwick or Tristram Shandy "become eternal" while already Mr. Galsworthy "rocks with age"? I think it is true to say this and it doesn’t leave much of your argument, does it? For your argument is based simply upon one way, upon one method instead of another. And have you ever noticed how often it turns out that what a man is really doing is simply rationalizing his own way of doing something, the way he has to do it, the way given him by his talent and his nature, into the only inevitable and right way of doing everything—a sort of classic and eternal art form handed down by Apollo from Olympus without which and beyond which there is nothing. Now you have your way of doing something and I have mine, there are a lot of ways, but you are honestly mistaken in thinking that there is a "way."

 

I suppose I would agree with you in what you say about "the novel of selected incident" so far as it means anything. I say so far as it means anything because every novel, of course, is a novel of selected incident. You couldn’t write about the inside of a telephone booth without selecting. You could fill a novel of a thousand pages with a description of a single room and yet your incidents would be selected. And I have mentioned Don Quixote and Pickwick and The Brothers Karamazov and Tristram Shandy to you in contrast to The Silver Spoon or The White Monkey as examples of books that have become "immortal" and that boil and pour. Just remember that although in your opinion Madame Bovary may be a great book, Tristram Shandy is indubitably a great book, and that it is great for quite different reasons. It is great because it boils and pours—for the unselected quality of its selection. You say that the great writer like Flaubert has consciously left out the stuff that Bill or Joe will come along presently and put in. Well, don’t forget, Scott, that a great writer is not only a leaver-outer but also a putter-inner, and that Shakespeare and Cervantes and Dostoievsky were great putter-inners—greater putter-inners, in fact, than taker-outers and will be remembered for what they put in—remembered, I venture to say, as long as Monsieur Flaubert will be remembered for what he left out.

 

—All letters excerpted from Ted Mitchell (ed.), Thomas Wolfe: An Illustrated Biography (2006) 

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robbe-grillet on film: “reality… is problematic. we run up against it as against a wall of fog”

 


The history of cinema is still rather short, yet it is already characterized by discontinuities and reversals. The majority of contemporary films that now pass for masterpieces would have been rejected by Eisenstein and rightly so as altogether worthless, as the very negation of all art.

 

We should reread today the famous manifesto Eisenstein and Pudovkin wrote in the 1920s on the sound film. At a time when, in Moscow, a brand new American invention was being announced that would permit the actors on the screen to speak, this prophetic text warned vigorously and with extraordinary clarity of vision against the fatal abyss into which cinema was in danger of sliding: Since the illusion of realism would be considerably strengthened by giving the characters a voice, cinema could let itself be led down the cowardly path of glib superficiality (a temptation that never stops menacing us) and from then on, the better to please the multitudes, could remain content with an allegedly faithful reproduction of reality. It would thus surrender all claims to the creation of genuine artworks works in which that reality would be challenged by the very structures of the cinematic narrative.

 

Now, what Eisenstein demanded, with his customary vehemence, was that sound be used to create, on the contrary, new shocks: To the shocks between sequences created by montage (which links, according to relations of harmonic resonance or of opposition, the sequences to one another) should be added the shocks between the various elements of the sound track and still others between sounds and simultaneously projected images. As one may have expected, good Marxist-Leninist that he was, he called upon the sacrosanct "dialectic" in order to support this thesis.

 

But Communist ideology alas! could not save the Soviet cinema (which today is one of the worst in the world) from falling into the snares of glibness. In fact, good old "bourgeois realism" triumphed everywhere in the West as well as the East, where they simply rebaptized it "socialist." Eisenstein and his friends were rapidly subjected to the new universal norm: The montage of the visual sequences of their films (¡Que viva México! for example) was redone by the right-thinking bureaucracy, and all the sounds were made to follow obediently the recorded images.

 

Even in France, it was a theoretician of the extreme Left, André Bazin, who, merrily letting the dialectic go by the board, became the spokesman of illusionist realism, going so far as to write that the ideal film would entail no montage whatsoever, "since in the natural reality of the world there is no montage"! Thus, the numerous and fascinating forms of expression created in Russia and elsewhere during the silent era were summarily repudiated as if they were nothing but childish stammerings born of a merely rudimentary technique. Sound, wide screens, deep focus, color, long-duration reels all of these have allowed us to transform cinema today into a simple reproduction of the world, which, in the final analysis, is tantamount to forcing cinema as an art to disappear.

 

If today we want to restore its life, its former power, and its ability to give us veritable artworks, worthy of vying with fiction or painting of the modern era, then we must bring back to film work the ambitiousness and prominence that characterized it in the days of silent film. And so, as Eisenstein urges, we need to take advantage of every new technical invention, not in order to subject ourselves even further to the ideology of realism but, quite the opposite, to increase the possibilities of dialectical confrontation within film, thereby intensifying the "release of energy" that is just what such internal shocks and tensions allow for.

 

From this point of view, the alleged realism of contemporary commercial films, whether they be signed by Truffaut or by Altman, appears as a flawless totalitarian system, founded on hackneyed, stereotyped redundancy. The least detail in every shot, the connections between sequences, all the elements of the sound track, everything, absolutely everything must concur with the same sense and meaning, with a single sense and meaning, and with good old common sense. The immense potential richness that is concealed in this stuff of dreams these discontinuous, sonorous images must be utterly reduced, subjected to the laws of normative consciousness, to the status quo, so that, at any cost, meaning may be prevented from deviating, swarming, bifurcating, going off in several directions at once, or else getting completely lost. The technicians on the set or in the various recording studios are there precisely to see to it that no imperfections and divergences ever occur.

 

But what is the significance of this will-to-reduction? What it all means, in the final analysis, is that reality and a living reality at that is reduced to a reassuring, homogeneous, unilinear story line, a reconciled and compromised, entirely rational story line from which any disturbing roughness has been purged. Plainly put, realism is by no means the expression of the real, of what is real. But rather, the opposite. Reality is always ambiguous, uncertain, moving, enigmatic, and endlessly intersected by contradictory currents and ruptures. In a word, it is ”incomprehensible." Without a doubt, it is also unacceptable whereas the first and foremost function of realism is to make us accept reality. Realism, therefore, has a pressing obligation not only to make sense but to make one and only one sense, always the same, which it must buttress tirelessly with all the technical means, all the artifices and conventions, that can possibly serve its ends.

 

Thus, for example, prevailing film criticism may blame a certain detective film for lack of realism, ostensibly because the murderer’s motives are not clear enough, or because there are contradictions in the scenario, or because there remain lacunae in the causal chain of events. And yet, what do we actually know about nonfictional attempts to solve real crimes? Precisely that uncertainties at times essential ones always persist until the end, as do unsettling absences, "mistakes" in the protagonist’s behavior, useless and supernumerary characters, diverging proofs, a piece or two too many in the puzzle that the preliminary investigation in vain tries to complete.

 

Reality, then, is problematic. We run up against it as against a wall of fog. Meanwhile, our relation to the world becomes still more complicated because, at every moment, the world of realism presents itself to us as if it were familiar. We become so used to it that we hardly see it: It is our habitat, our cocoon. Yet, actually, we stumble against what’s real with a violence we never get used to a violence that no amount of previous experience can ever assuage so that reality remains for us irremediably foreign and strange. The German words heimlich and unheimlich, which both Freud and Heidegger have used, though in different but here overlapping contexts, give indeed an idea of this lived opposition fundamental because it is inescapable between the strange and the familiar. Both the psychoanalyst and the philosopher insist that the familiarity we think we have with the world is misleading (i.e., ideological, socialized). To acknowledge and explore (even to the point of anguish) the world’s strangeness constitutes the necessary starting point for creating a consciousness that is free. And one of the essential functions of art is precisely that it assumes this role of revealing the world to us. This explains why art does not attempt to make the world more bearable (which undoubtedly is what realism does), but less so: because its ultimate ambition is not to make us accept reality but to change it.

 

the iconic imagery of Last Year at Marienbad

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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.

 

houellebecq & bhl: “always ready to bite… two real monsters who you love to hate” are “almost human”

The cultural whipping boys’ manifesto:

France has vomited on us for too long

 

Angelique Chrisafis in Paris

The Guardian, Friday October 3 2008

Bernard Henri Levy and Michel Houellebecq 
Bernard Henri Levy and Michel Houellebecq. Photographs: AFP/Corbis
 

France has often delighted in publicly thrashing its literary greats, from Flaubert and Baudelaire’s morality court cases to Françoise Sagan’s drug busts. But now two self-declared cultural whipping boys have joined ranks to express their outrage at being constantly "vomited on", ridiculed and victimised by their nation.

 

Michel Houellebecq, the award-winning novelist and ageing enfant terrible, and Bernard-Henri Lévy, the dapper leftwing philosopher, epitomise France’s love-hate relationship with its bestselling literary exports. In a surprise joint venture, they have produced a book of confessional letters to each other, raging at the vitriol heaped on them as the "whipping boys of our era in France".

 

The book, Public Enemies — released next week and seen by the Guardian — is being billed as the publishing sensation of the year, sure to spark a fresh slanging match with critics, some of whom are already talking of a work of staggering vanity and egotism, and a precious insight into the mind of French literary celebrities.

 

Houellebecq, France‘s most controversial modern writer, was hailed as the defining voice of nihilism after his novel Atomised 10 years ago. But he now compares the chattering classes’ hatred towards him to Nazism. He says his relationship with the French media is "total hatred", and a "war of extermination" is being waged against him.

 

He writes of a pack hunting him down and says his critics would love to drive him to suicide or stop him writing. He has no qualms about living in Ireland as a tax exile, and fears he can never again do public readings in France.

 

Despite trying to cut back on the habit of scouring Google for references to himself, he admits he is paranoid, adding: "If there is anyone in France right now with excuses for being paranoid, it is me."

 

Houellebecq also talks for the first time in detail about his parents, answering his mother, who recently published her own book calling him a "stupid little bastard".

 

In a literary scandal that gripped France, she took to the airwaves to heap insults on her son, who she gave to his grandparents to raise when he was a baby.

 

Houellebecq says he has only ever seen his mother about 15 times, and she conjured up a more radical "wickedness" than the "worst mothers in modern literature". He said his friends, on reading her attacks against him, asked why she had not simply had an abortion instead of giving birth to him. He calls her an "absolutely egocentric creature, of real although limited intelligence" and says he cannot even manage to hate her.

 

It might be that never having a mother "reinforces" one, he writes, but in a way that he would not wish on anyone: one can never take love for granted, and one has difficulty believing in it, remaining a kind of "enfant sauvage", never serene, never tame, "always ready to bite". He saw his mother’s book and press tour as being the media’s attempt to get at him.

 

"Why so much hatred?" asks Lévy of the vitriol also laid at his door. Known in France as BHL, he has attracted much mockery with his short white shirts and bouffant hair, as he has with his houses across the world, his glamorous wife and ventures into geopolitics, including work in Bosnia and Darfur and travels to Afghanistan as a French envoy. He says in the book that he has a "bulletproof ego", would have been a good secret agent, and compares the attacks against him to those on Jean-Paul Sartre. He also concedes that the "temptation towards paranoia" in the book of letters might be another "zone of folly".

 

Houellebecq, despite rage at discussion of aspects his private life, volunteers that he prefers to have sex in the morning when he is only half awake. BHL prefers "open eyes" and full lucidity.

 

The daily Libération said that what could have been a circus show of "two real monsters who you love to hate" in fact showed the writers as "almost human".

 

The Nouvel Observateur news weekly said that despite the writers’ "irritating" point of departure about their contemporaries’ hatred towards them, the book contained letters which were "strong, radical, even moving" as soon as the pair "consented to come down to earth" and provide confessions and snippets of memoir. 

Extracts

Michel Houellebecq to BHL

"Everything separates us from one another, with the exception of one fundamental point: we’re both utterly despicable individuals."

"When a country is strong … it accepts any dose of pessimism from its writers … In the 1950s France accepted people like Camus, Sartre, Ionesco or Beckett without flinching. But France in the 2000s already finds it difficult to put up with people like me."

 

BHL to Houellebecq

"What brings us together: the animosity that we inspire, that’s true; the intuition that makes us immediately smell the bad scent of the manhunt… But also … the certainty that in the end, it is us who will come out on top."

the ur-text of all happiness studies

To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost.

Gustave Flaubert

Those wishing to learn more are encouraged to consult the authoritative reference work in this field, Flaubert’s The Dictionary of Received Ideas.