Elif Batuman on the double-entry book-keeping of writing

Elif Batuman. Image: ecu essays.

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.

David Mitchell

David Mitchell. Source: New York Times.

David Mitchell is amongst the handful of living novelists at the very top of their game right now. Many will know Cloud Atlas, a dizzyingly brilliant meditation on the darkness of the human soul; Mitchell’s latest novel, his fifth, is The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and returns to his peerless writing about Japan that we last saw in Number 9 Dream (my favourite).

Now the New York Times has a handsome feature profile on Mitchell:

“About 30 pages into the manuscript of ‘Cloud Atlas,’ ” David Ebershoff, Mitchell’s American editor, told me in his office in Manhattan this spring, “I came to a page that ends in the middle of a sentence. At the time I had an unreliableassistant, and I thought: She can’t even make a decent photocopy — she messed up the pagination! I was out of town for the weekend, and I really wanted to read it, and I figured I’d work out what was missing. And so I kept going and,” Ebershoff said, laughing, “I saw what he was doing.”

What Mitchell was doing was writing a novel not quite like any that had come before it, and one that defeats tidy summary. “Cloud Atlas” consists of five false starts, a sequence of unfinished novellas, each set in a different place and time, each with a distinct form: the South Pacific in the 1850s, through the travel journal of a notary out of Melville; Belgium in 1931, in a composer’s letters to a lover as if by Christopher Isherwood; California in the 1970s, via a detective story told in the styleless style of an airport thriller; England of the present day, in the voice of a crass publisher who wouldn’t be a stranger to a Martin Amisnovel; and, in a nameless state in a dystopic future, a transcript of testimony given by a most unusual slave. As the five narratives unfold chronologically — each a story of betrayal and theft, of manipulation and deceit, of human opportunism in its most base and basic forms — each breaks off at some brittle, cliffhanging, character-revealing moment, whereupon the next novella begins, until it, too, breaks off, and then the next. . . .

This is an excellent first introduction to Mitchell’s work. Read it, but better still, read him.

Jed Perl on writing in the digital age

In The New Republic, Jed Perl has a thoughtful essay on the demands and rewards of writing in the age of instant publication:

Writers write in order to be read. This is obvious. But the speed with which words, once written, are now being read—a speed shaped by technological innovations long before the Internet turned the quick turnaround into the virtually instantaneous turnaround—has set me to thinking about the extent to which writing, for the writer, ought to have a freestanding value, a value apart from the reader. There is too much talk about the literary marketplace, the cultural marketplace, and the marketplace of ideas. We need to remember that a book—or a painting or a piece of music—begins as the product of an individual imagination, and can retain its power even when largely or even entirely ignored. (The paintings of Piero della Francesca were overlooked for several centuries.) I do not for one moment minimize the economic pressures on writers to publish—and to publish, if they are lucky enough to have the choice, in higher-paying places rather than lower-paying ones. I’ve made my living as a writer for 30 years, and I know how difficult it can be. But writers who live for their readers—or for what their editors imagine their readers want—may end up with an impoverished relationship with those readers.

10 books that have influenced me

A grander library than mine ... photograph of Sir John Soane's library. Source: Sir John Soane's Musuem.

Tyler Cowen is blogging it. Matt Yglesias is blogging it. Bryan Caplan is too. So I thought I’d post my list of ten books that have most influenced my intellectual development. Behold – no Ayn Rand!

In no particular order …

1. The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman.  Because it’s a Tuchman book, it’s beautifully written and flawlessly narrated. But the big take-home message for me was how quickly the best-laid plans of the various combatants of 1914 came to grief, and how bereft they were of a plan B once “mobile warfare” had solidified. A brilliant case study in unintended consequences.

2. The Nichomechean Ethics by Aristotle. Aristotle’s supple wisdom still rings true today as he analyses the human virtues as way of good living.

3. In Search of Lost Time by Proust. Taught me about love, and obsession, and human changeability, and the Dreyfus affair.  Also taught me that ploughing through a difficult multi-volume novel for months can be intensely rewarding.

4. Landscape and Memory by Simon Schama. The best book about art history I have ever read, by one of the grandest contemporary historians.

5. The Space of Literature by Maurice Blanchot. Perhaps one of the most intense works of literary criticism of all time.

6. Illuminations by Walter Benjamin. Still the best introductory collection.

7. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins and Straw Dogs by John Gray. I conflated these two as together they represent two of the most incisive critiques of humanism, as well as two of the best-argued.

8. Essays by Montaigne. And for the defence of humanism, we have Montaigne, whose literary generosity has perhaps never been surpassed.

9. The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil. Still perhaps my favourite ever comic novel. Contains multitudes.

10. The Age of Extremes by Eric Hobsbawm. Glory in the broad-brush sweep of contemporary history, marvel at the quality of his judgment, wonder at the scope of his compass.