This week’s writing has been characterized by the feeling Dante describes in the first canto of the Inferno. I find myself lost in a deep dark wood, fearing it’s a wood of error. Still, I’m old enough and mature enough to know that all long projects feel this way in the beginning, and for the kind of work I’m proposing (to myself, at least), I may be in the beginning a long time. Likely, I won’t know I’m in the middle until I’m in the middle of the middle, if that isn’t too confusing. Anyway, the point is this. I wrote about as many pages as last week, but I don’t feel as good about it. All of this is to be expected, and I’m not vexed in the least.
In addition to writing pages for the novel (I’m assuming I can keep up the pace for the duration of the sabbatical, that is, about 20 a week, giving me at the end of the seven months approximately 560 pages of raw material, not all of which will be used, I’m sure), I’ve been reading theory, essays about the novel. I’ll probably have more to say once I’ve digested what I’ve read, but for now I’m interested in a few dimensions of the novel, which align with my aims as a writer. For me, the reason to write literature is a desire for reality. I chose poetry over fiction because, back then, I believed poetry to be the better vehicle to reality. In this way, whatever I write now must do at least what writing poetry did for me then. The novel, its pages and especially its language, must bring me closer to what is, not farther away. The past, my specific past and a more general, generic past, is part of that reality, but so too is the present and the probably future.
One of the features I’ve always liked about the novel (which is also a characteristic of better books of poems, whether a linked series, like The Dream Songs, or a perfect collection, like A Coast of Trees) is the sense that you can dip into the book, at almost any point, and get to know the writer, the characters, the world in which these live. It’s almost like meeting a new person, an acquaintance become a friend, and realizing no matter when you meet, there is a before and an after you must get to know. Further, there is a present you can’t completely see, so must pause over it, chew and digest it. Ruminate on it. Ask it questions. You can’t always do this in life (unless you’re a therapist, but then the interrogation isn’t friendly or loving, but clinical, and as readers we should avoid this attitude), but in fiction you must. Also, this emphasis practically obliterates plot as a driving force. When we talk about the story being everything, what we mean then isn’t what happens. What happens only matters in as much as it illuminates character, the ones in the book, the one writing the book, and our own.
To read a book like this you can only reread it, to paraphrase the modernist aesthetic. Ulysses shouldn’t be read front to back, except maybe the first time. Instead, when I read it now, I open almost at random and begin to meet Mr. Bloom, Molly and Stephen again, often transformed, more illuminated here, enshadowed there (the depth of the characters and my own developing character accounts for why). In this way, the novel relates to the epic. A recitation of the Iliad makes more sense when you think of the episodes as distinct and desirable in and of themselves (the reasons for wanting to hear one episode over another may have to do with development, not of character necessarily, but from one age to the next). One critic I was reading points out that to the ancients, plot wasn’t important because, well, the audience knew how things turned out, the world for them was complete, while for us completeness isn’t possible and may not even be desirable. The framing, then, of the epic was almost arbitrary, he goes on to say. The novel is the beginning of a plot which must be revealed to us. But revealed to what end? Surely, the end can’t be the end we’re after. Otherwise, rereading could bring no greater pleasure. The first reading would be the best, all subsequent readings fruitless, diminished. But the exact opposite is true of a good book.
The aim, then, is to create a book which must be reread, which warrants and rewards rereading. It might even be desirable to allow the reader to dispense altogether with the initial reading, that is, the conventional front to back reading, which emphasizes plot. Knausgaard’s books can be read like this, I think, and that’s their greatest charm. Plot bores me. People are endlessly fascinating. When readers criticize My Struggle, saying it’s dull (and it is in spots, but so too is reality, life boring, as Henry points out), it’s because of their approach. We might tell a good friend, when they go on about something in which we have no interest, “Please, get on with it,” or if we are less friendly, we might, from politeness, merely endure the telling. Because this is a book, it isn’t rude to skip ahead or go back to previous accounts which interest us more. It is a lie to think we are always interesting. It is unreasonable to expect, even from the most clever people, that they should, above all else, entertain us. The novelists job is to represent reality. If reality were only linear, no one would ever tire of plot, and all our relationships, with brothers and sisters, parents and gods, could be easily reflected to us with and and and.