I must be the very last person in the literary world to discover the complex delight of reading Elif Batuman, but this piece of writing by her really did my head in.
It’s the first chapter of her doctoral dissertation, and it’s quite possibly the most erudite, dextrous and fleet-footed jaunt through the literary theory of the modern novel I’ve read since … well, since Borges:
The time of writing is not problematic for all novelists; only for 1) professional, full-time writers, who 2) maintain a strict allegiance to the raw material of lived experience. The time of writing is not problematic for Casanova, because he takes up writing only in his retirement: far from scribbling his memoirs in the fear that he would die before completing his work, he actually tried to draw out his writing as long as possible, to fill his remaining years. At the opposite end of the spectrum, metaliterary gamesters like Sterne or Diderot feel no epistemological responsibility to base their works on real experiences; to the contrary, epistemological self-sufficiency becomes for them a point of pride. A much-cited passage from Tristram Shandy, for instance, testifies equally to a vivid awareness of the time of writing and a complete indifference towards “research”:
I am this month one whole year older than I was this time twelve-month; and having got… almost into the middle of my fourth volume—and no farther than to my first day’s life—’tis demonstrative that I have three hundred and sixty-four days more life to write… so that instead of advancing, as a common writer, in my work… I am just thrown so many volumes back.
Shandy delights precisely in his own ability to keep writing with no new material at all. Life does not interrupt Shandy’s writing; Shandy interrupts his own writing, congratulating himself on the inexhaustible nature of his new amusement (“I shall lead a fine life out of this self-same life of mine”), and on its capability to stimulate the “manufactures of paper.” He is not battling an inescapable condition, but inventing a gratuitous obstacle, protracting his “Life” with digressions, deferrals and ruptures. That Shandy himself sees these obstacles as voluntary is borne out by his claim that they were “never applicable before to any one biographical writer since the creation of the world,” and would “never hold good to any other, until its final destruction” (198): engaged in willful play, he has no idea of having stumbled onto an inherent novelistic problem. In similar fashion, Diderot gleefully protracts the story of Jacques’s loves: “What is there to prevent me from marrying off the master and having him cuckolded? Or sending Jacques off to the Indies? And leading his master there? And bringing them both back to France on the same vessel? How easy it is to make up stories!”37 “Qu’il est facile de faire des contes”: for Cervantes or Boswell or Proust, it is not so easy. The artificial hurdle becomes, in their works, an organic barrier. Play becomes work—or at least a more arduous game, with a stringent new rule: the epistemological obligation to “make up” stories from something, some real material. “Faire des contes” becomes, in this way, “faire des comptes”: each narrative element—each obstacle, separation and reunion—is a debit which must be balanced, in the credit column, with some experiential knowledge. To introduce the central metaphor of this dissertation, I propose that this balance can be construed as such an account in the style of double-entry bookkeeping:
Debit Credit The time of research, lived experience The time of writing Material for a book Unhappiness, knowledge, experience Ginés’s crimes Ginés’s terms in the galley Marcel’s experiences; the dinner invitation Marcel’s solitude; the writing notebook
If in this light we reconsider Boswell’s metaphor of reaping no more than he can sow—living no more than he can record—we see that it is essentially an economical one: if his experiences are too numerous to write about in the remaining time, Boswell will have misspent his life.
A major new talent.