Saturday, 15 February 2014

‘The devil’s own job’

A while ago – on 9 May of last year, precisely: here – I wrote about an imagined book of writing about not writing. (I need to watch what I wish for; I once knew a place in which a baffling amount of the quite fanciful things talked about actually came to pass – a squirrel moving in with someone, for example.) Now I’ve read The Loss Library, by the South African writer Ivan Vladislavic, in which he draws from his past notebooks ideas for stories and examines ‘why they eluded him’.

The Loss Library, I now see, was recommended to me in a comment following last year’s blog post. One of my deaf-and-blind days, it seems. I eventually came to it by a much more circuitous route: I was asked last month to review Vladislavic’s novel Double Negative (published in the UK by And Other Stories), which I liked, and so went looking for other things he’d written. Double Negative itself is not inapposite. (I enjoyed writing that.) A photograph is set up and then not taken. The narrator happens to possess a collection of ‘dead letters’ – letters sent during the apartheid years that were never delivered – each of which is itself a story-in-waiting, and a young journalist cannot understand why the narrator isn’t making some kind of project out of these: knocking on doors, asking questions, finding out. The narrator hasn’t even opened the envelopes. He takes photographs of walls but is incurious about what lies behind them: ‘I don’t want the inside story.’ The novel spans the historic change from white rule in South Africa to ANC rule, and one of its leading characters is a world-renowned photographer, but the narrator’s engagement with both is peripheral (he’s in London, avoiding military service, at the time of the actual changeover of power). The novel is in part about the gap between individual experience and ‘history’; it is also about the limits of art/writing (which may also be its strengths). The book’s refusal to make claims, to pretend that art can do the kind of transcendent things that some believe it’s there for, is attractive.

Back to The Loss Library, which of course manages to bring in many other things besides not-writing: hats, memorials, photographs, dragon lizards in the Dutch East Indies, colonialism, OuLiPo, a tour of a library containing all the books never written (conducted by a librarian with nice legs), dictionaries, book collectors … Reasons for the stories eluding the writer include the discovery that ‘he [Robert Walser] is not the true subject of my story and that is why I cannot finish it’; too much reading of an initially inspiring possible source text; ‘lack of stamina’ (‘The idea was crushing. I lay awake at night, filled with gloom and overwhelmed by tedium’); ‘too much concern with precedence’; over-elaboration; the fiction turning out to be ‘less satisfying than the factual account’; the realisation that some trunks containing possible source material are important ‘less as repositories of evidence than as objects interesting and valuable in themselves’. The Loss Library is also an object interesting and valuable in itself: the above photo shows the first of twelve collages tipped in (I think the phrase is) at the start of each section.

So where does the book go now? On the shelf, I think, with Chekhov’s Notebook, which includes many brief notes for stories that were never written (‘A schoolboy treats a lady to dinner in a restaurant. He has only one rouble, twenty kopecks. The bill comes to four roubles, thirty kopecks. He has no money and begins to cry. The proprietor boxes his ears. He was talking to the lady about Abyssinia’; ‘That the aunt suffered and did not show it gave him the impression of a trick’.) And Henry James’s Complete Notebooks, which has many of the same (on the first page I open: ‘The idea of a rich woman nuancée, condemned, who has everything – so everything to lose and give up – wanting to arrange with little poor woman to die for her: the latter having nothing to lose’). And Brief Lives by the New Zealand writer Chris Price, an anthology of fragments (which happens to include a section explicitly modelled on the Chekhov: ‘A town of small dogs and well-kept lawns’; ‘Miss E., in a writing workshop: “My friends have all told me they love this story. Are they all wrong?”’). And, why not, Will Eaves’s The Absent Therapist, reviewed by Nick Lezard in the Guardian today: ‘Here, in roughly 250 sections ranging in length from one line to a page and a half, are various mini-narratives, thoughts and compressions of stories all told by different voices about different people and places and things … The whole book is like someone deeply charismatic and charming daring you not to find them insane. It’s wonderful.’

Vladislavic: ‘Not writing is always a relief and sometimes a pleasure. Writing about what cannot be written, by contrast, is the devil’s own job. Yet words on a page make all things possible. Any line, even this one, may be a place to begin.’ So maybe it’s not all pointless. Maybe the mark of good writing is that it includes the unwritten.

Declaration of interest: CBe has been, above all else, the most wonderful distraction activity, and one of the motivations for my not taking on any new titles is my curiosity about what it’s been distracting me from. Writing, perhaps. In the early summer I’ll be going off for a month with that in mind. We shall see.

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