Mines of Nonfiction, Veins of Fiction

April 22, 2012 § 3 Comments

Finished a while ago: The Emigrants, by W.G. Sebald, and The Periodic Table, by Primo Levi (translated by Raymond Rosenthal).

Reading now: Selected Writings, by Lady Gregory.

Reading next: My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, by Mark Leyner.

Wish I’d had the time to write about Levi via Sebald before now, when those thoughts have fossilized.  But the serendipity of having Levi on my shelf to read right after Sebald was so nice that I wanted to record the delight, however briefly.

Both of these books are about the central trauma of the twentieth century, the Holocaust — or more accurately, about the complicated ramifications of that trauma, ramifications which we are still living with, still trying our best to ignore.  (I’ve been reading a bit about Palestine lately.)  There is Adorno’s famous quote, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”; no artists have agreed (more or less by definition, else they would not be artists), and I don’t even know if Adorno’s beef was with prettification or adornment (pun intended) of bare fact, or untruth, or entertainment imperatives, or appropriation of survivors’ and perpetrators’ experiences, or if he meant the word “barbaric” more literally as a comment on Civilization.

Sebald and Levi each embed fiction in their nonfiction.  In “Nickel,” one of the more memorable sections of Levi’s memoir, he recounts his attempts as a chemist to extract and enrich the small percentage of nickel found in the rock extracted from an Italian mine.  During his time in these “asbestos-filled solitudes,” he feels the desire to write fiction for the first time since childhood, and composes two fascinating tales of lead and mercury, alchemical fables of a particularly poetic, gorgeous sort.  He includes both in the middle of his memoir, and introduces them as follows:

They have had a troubled fate, almost as troubled as my own: they have suffered bombings and escapes, I had given them up for lost, and I found them recently while going through papers forgotten for decades.  I did not want to abandon them: the reader will find them in the succeeding pages, inserted, like a prisoner’s dream of escape, between these tales of militant chemistry.

“I did not want to abandon them”: Levi, a survivor of Auschwitz, had thought his fictional creations lost in the ravages of the war and its aftermath, but rediscovers them and inserts them “like a prisoner’s dream of escape” in his memoir.  Whether this loss and rediscovery is literal or metaphorical is an interesting question — did Levi really not know they were among his papers, or not know how to use them, in his years of working through his wartime experience?  Are these tales even to be understood as actual historical documents — are they fictional fictions (not truly written by Levi at the time, but fictions created later to reflect on his experience at this time, with a “nonfictional” frame of having been discovered later) or nonfictional fictions (actual historical documents rediscovered by Levi)? The kind of question that must be answered by resort to archival research.

Levi recollects the violence done to the land by the mining process, and admits that he “did not realize” that the end result of his work, were he successful, would have been to support the war effort of the Germans and Italians who would attempt to murder him and all his people.  And yet there are these tales “like a prisoner’s dream of escape”: already he felt a prisoner in his country, in his self, dreaming of islands and magical transformations.

Nickel mine in Canada.

It strikes me that, in creating The Emigrants, Sebald the writer acts somewhat like the reverse of Levi the chemist: he creates a mine of sorts, threading his nonfiction through with veins of fictional ore.  He creates a whole, an act of healing.  The fiction enriches reality, and is not to be so easily extracted, or at all.  It is to be understood as part and parcel of its context: history, consciousness, life.

The Pale King, § 9 and the “Clever Metafictional Titty-Pincher”

July 24, 2011 § 2 Comments

Now reading: The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace.

The Pale King is classified on its title page as “An Unfinished Novel,” by David Foster Wallace.  The “Editor’s Note” that follows this title page (and the important copyright page on its verso) makes it clear that this is… well… not untrue, exactly, but also not the straight dope.  The book is by David Foster Wallace and Michael Pietsch, his editor.  TPK, as DFW left it, was an unfinished novel, but this is not that TPK.  This TPK is an assemblage put together from DFW’s papers by Pietsch, in an order approximating what Pietsch thought DFW might have wanted, or at least what Pietsch and/or others at Little, Brown/Hachette thought most interesting and/or viable in bookstores.  It’s a collage.  It’s not how DFW left it; it’s something different.  The closest correlative I can think of is the posthumous publication of Emily Dickinson’s poems, altered in a multitude of ways.  As I read it, I find that I have to keep telling myself: This isn’t even close to a finished piece of work.  This isn’t a novel.  This is a bunch of stuff put in a “best-guess” order by a knowledgeable editor who, while I will forever appreciate his putting in the time and effort to put this book together, is not David Foster Wallace, and had arguments with DFW about what belonged in his books, and put together a book as he, the editor, saw fit, without any input or pushback from the author, who wasn’t done with the thing to begin with.

Because of course DFW did all sorts of things with structure and fragmentary narratives and disjointed timelines and complicated plots in his finished fiction.  So it can seem like a real, live DFW novel.  But it’s not.  And that’s horribly sad.  (And seriously: I don’t think it was close to being done.  I think this was another Infinite Jest-scale work.)  But it is a helluva thing in its own right, and I’m glad to have it.

All of this ontological and classificatory speculation is germane to the book itself, as it turns out.  Section 9 is the “Author’s Foreword,” and it’s clear from the footnotes and other internal evidence that DFW did want this Foreword to be somewhere a ways into the book (I mean, I really don’t mean to say that Pietsch is a bad guy for putting the book together; it was clearly a heroic effort and labor of love, and he did his best with the assignment he chose, which was to make a pile of papers into a salable product.)  In it, DFW claims that the book is a memoir, not fiction at all, but is called a novel for legal purposes.  It’s weird and tricksy, exactly the “kind of clever metafictional titty-pincher” DFW claims in this very chapter that the book is not.

Because, look: for reasons that are as yet unclear to me (and I suspect may never be clear to me), DFW wrote himself into the book.  He claims to have served as an IRS employee in the mid-80s after leaving college, having written papers for cash.  Two of the biggest chunks of narrative in the book (though not the biggest) are concerned with this DFW character. He goes to some lengths to convince readers of this “foreword” that the book is factual, including the following:

Our mutual contract here is based on the presumptions of (a) my veracity, and (b) your understanding that any features or semions that might appear to undercut that veracity are in fact protective legal devices, not unlike the boilerplate that accompanies sweepstakes and civil contracts, and thus are not meant to be decoded or ‘read’ so much as merely acquiesced to as part of the cost of our doing business together, so to speak, in today’s commercial climate.

DFW explicitly dismisses the idea that he’s playing on different definitions or kinds of “truth” here (i.e., that the book is all true in an emotional or aesthetic sense, the typical claim for fiction’s “truthfulness”).  He also, interestingly, refers to himself as “primarily a fiction writer,” which is not the way most of the general reading public knew him: more people read his very popular nonfiction, at least before his death.  And maybe he hoped to bring together those two published personae — DFW the avant-garde fiction writer, and DFW the genius profiler and cruise-ship-interrogator — in this book.  But maybe what DFW was mostly up to with this “Foreword” was an attempt to sort of cut the Gordian knot which the reading of literary fiction of his sort has become.  The stakes, frankly, have become so small, and he wanted to raise them.  As he points out in this section, people care about “made-up stuff” in memoirs in a way that they do not in fiction, much less metafiction or belles lettres.  I think the Foreword might be a way of asking us to read and act like it’s all true, even if it’s not.  To pay attention to it, especially when it’s “user-unfriendly” or boring, as though it were as true as the “real world,” which was part of the point of metafiction in the first place (I think, though in the past I’ve thought of it more as pointing out that the “real world” is as structured and narrative-based and “false” as the fictional ones).  Because even if the work is demonstrably clever and metafictional, he absolutely did not want it to be a “titty-pincher”: a kind of low-stakes, slightly hurtful, slightly titillating prank.

All of this is somewhat undercut by the book’s unfinished nature: the discussions of legal reviews of final drafts and wrangling with editors and such is all obviously impossible, even if you take out the biographical information.  It gives the section a kind of melancholy hilarity, this knowledge that DFW wrote all this without any of said legal reviews or editorial agonizings having taken place.  Presumably some less grandiose approximation eventually did, made much easier by his decease and the chapter’s obvious falsehood accruing therefrom.

Sorrentino’s Archival Imagination

August 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Mulligan Stew.

Reading next: The Lost Books of the Odyssey, by Zachary Mason.

You probably already know this, but I found it helpful to remember that a mulligan stew is hobo food, composed of whatever’s available, thrown together with contributions from different sources.  Of course, I imagine it being prepared over an oil-drum fire in a rail yard, while a ragtag group of misfits pass around a bottle of cheap gin and sing “Jimmy Crack Corn.”  Standard hobo romanticism.

The title does double duty here: Mulligan reminds us of Buck Mulligan, the “stately, plump” opener of Ulysses, one of the book’s touchstones, in addition to indicating that the book will be a “stew” of various kinds of documents from various sources.  More on the Ulysses connection later.  For now, let’s focus on the stew.

I propose that what Sorrentino has composed here is not only a stew, but a kind of fictional archive: an assemblage of fictional papers.  He encourages us to understand his unhinged character, Antony Lamont, and the characters Lamont “hires,” through documentation, rather than narration, and he further uses that fictional documentation to form a kind of microcosm of a milieu, the “experimental” literary world of the ’60s and ’70s.  What differentiates Sorrentino from an epistolary novelist, or a documentary novelist like John Dos Passos, is the variety of unorthodox fictional documents and the uses to which they’re put.  There are letters and journals, of course — the very kinds of things one finds in traditional collections of personal papers — and also more esoteric forms which are saved in Lamont’s scrapbook and Halpin’s journal: junk mail, scorecards, pamphlets, a surrealist play, a scientific paper with odd, conversational, tenuously connected footnotes (one of the more mysterious things in the book), and more.

Most obvious, and notorious, are the lists.  There are lists in this book that go on for pages and pages, including a seven-pager to close the novel.  They are usually used to plant little bits of comedic business, like funny names, pretentious titles, and excessive alliteration; to make literary allusions, including allusions to characters in Mulligan Stew itself; and to indulge in surrealist wordplay or imagery.  But they are also, frequently, snapshots of a character.  When Lamont’s character Martin Halpin records all of the books and periodicals he finds in his cabin early on, we could read the list as a window into Lamont’s character or (perhaps) his subconscious (a highly contentious reading, as you learn more about the fictional setting later in the novel, but a valid one at the time, and the same can be said for a list that Halpin finds, of bad reviews Lamont’s works have received, with enraged or defensive annotations, which certainly seem to be “written” by Lamont’s imagination or subconscious).  We can also read it as a product of its times: of the crazy fecundity of 20th-century publishing, with its vast output of garbage, its undergrounds and avant-gardes, its niche publications and cheap paperbacks.

The lists, finally, become exhausting, in the same way an extensive archive is exhausting: it is difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff, or the signal from the static, and one’s attention finally cannot hold after pages of the same kind of thing over and over again.  This seems to me to be a key to understanding Sorrentino, as an experimental critic of experimentalism.  His is not only a narrative imagination, but an archival one.  He creates a story, but not only a story: also a collection, an archive.    He shows us not only the novel-within-the-novel, but also the (ludicrous, delusional) process by which Antony Lamont goes about trying to write this (ludicrous, delusional) novel.  The presence of such things is important, even if they are only skimmed.

DeLillo, DFW, and Places of Mortal Drama

November 14, 2008 § 1 Comment

I’m in Austin, Texas right now, attending a symposium at the Harry Ransom Center entitled “Creating a Usable Past: Writers, Archives, and Institutions.”  It’s largely about the process by which writers’ papers (the manuscripts of their works, their correspondence, etc.) are sold or donated to places like the Ransom Center and the handful of university and research libraries in the US and UK (including my employer, Duke University, whom I’m certainly not representing in these thoughts) that can afford to handle these bodies of material.

I haven’t had a whole lot of free time during the day, but I managed to get into the reading room over the lunch hour today.  I skipped a meal because the HRC holds the Don DeLillo Papers.  And this includes his correspondence with David Foster Wallace (primarily DFW to DeLillo, with a few of DeLillo’s responses), from 1992 to 2003.  (I don’t know if there are any later letters that haven’t been added yet by DeLillo; I suspect there are, but perhaps not many, and surely they will eventually come here, too.)

It’s not a huge body of material — just one folder, although it’s a fat folder — but it struck me as profoundly important: to DFW, to the understanding of their works and late-20thc. American lit, to me.  It was poignant and hilarious and amazing.  My faith in the importance of archives had not been shaken, but it was certainly confirmed by looking at them.

I won’t give any long excerpts here — both because I don’t think DFW would have wanted it and because it could be construed as, well, illegal — but I want to share some of the things I found in the correspondence that moved me, interested me, made me laugh, made me sigh:

-I wanted to see if I could find anything about DFW’s thoughts on End Zone, especially after reading the chapter near the end that is clearly the ancestor of the Eschaton section of Infinite Jest, complete with a war game built on apocalypse scenarios and menacing all-caps alliances.  Sure enough, in one of his first letters DFW says, “part of a long thing I’m in the middle of has a section that I’ve gone back and seen owes a rather uncomfortable debt to certain exchanges between Gary Harkness and Major Staley.”  Fascinating that DFW either had End Zone embedded so deeply in his mind that he was able to build and comment upon the Harkness-Staley war game unconsciously, without consulting the text, or forgot the particulars of the war game and ended up reproducing them.  (Or it’s possible he was being a bit coy with DeLillo about this, in this early letter in which he’s still more or less introducing himself and saying how important DeLillo has been to him, and was really quite conscious of the war game section of EZ while writing the Eschaton game, but framed the similarity as unconscious and inadvertent to win the approval of one of his literary heroes, although I can’t imagine DFW not being up front about something like this, especially considering how up front he is about this sort of thing in his other letters.)

-There’s a fantastic letter from October 1995, just before publication of IJ, in which DFW lays bare a number of his anxieties about his own work ethic as a writer and the tension he felt between “fun” and “discipline.”  A fascinating letter: DFW talks about wanting to be a “Respectful writer,” meaning (I think) respectful of readership and of the writer’s own talent and potential, meaning not self-consciously showing off but putting in the hours at the writing desk and the hours of thought to perfectly integrate style and subject matter and thematic concerns.  Not showing off was very important to DFW; as he says, “…I’d far prefer finding out some way to become [a Respectful writer] w/o time and pain and the war of LOOK AT ME v. RESPECT A FUCKING KILLER.”  Quite a phrase, that.  That’s what I’d like to say whenever anyone asks me about IJ (not that anyone ever does): “Respect a fucking killer.”  It is a killer.  And it’s all DFW wanted, I think.

-Some great movie stuff: DFW ended up hating Lynch’s Lost Highway (as he says, “I swear it looked promising in dailies”), and recommends that DeLillo try to rent the first few episodes of Twin Peaks.  He also recommends Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool (a couple of times, actually) and absolutely loved The Matrix.

-A fascinating note (especially for an archivist) on digital publishing in a 2000 letter: “I don’t think it’s the memory-obliteration [of digital media] that bothers me… so much as the way it seems part of the increasing abstraction of everything.  It’s too unphysical.  There’s nothing to hold and get coffee stains on….”

-More than anything, it’s clear (even from the other side of the correspondence) what a considerate, thoughtful, and generous mentor-figure DeLillo was to DFW, who wrote DeLillo out of the blue with a kind of fan letter in 1992 and ended up writing him fairly often for 8 years or so.  It is remarkable to read DFW’s letter after reading Underworld, which he thought DeLillo’s best work by far and which he treated with remarkable subtlety and insight.  (It seems DeLillo might have done the same with IJ; at any rate, he read an advance copy and provided DFW feedback.)

-Finally, there was this great little note, which is both brilliant and rather hilarious thanks to where it appears: in one of DFW’s annual Christmas cards to DeLillo.  “Men’s rooms are place [sic] of mortal drama, in my opinion.  If I ever wrote a play, it’d be set in a men’s room.”

I wish he’d written a play.  I wish he was still writing Don DeLillo.  And just as much as a men’s room, a reading room is a place of mortal drama.  There’s this, for instance: this folder of letters, close as I’ve ever come and ever will to this brilliant mind.  It’s what survives.

Archives, Libraries, Epistemes, and Eccentric Organization

June 15, 2008 § Leave a comment

Just read a terrific issue of the Believer, no. 50 (behind, I’m always behind). Three essays, nicely in sequence, had a lot of interesting things to say to the librarian in me.

The first was a really excellent piece by Eileen Myles, about a notebook she lost on a trip to Canada. It’s a fascinating essay in a number of ways, but especially for its discussion of how a writer’s view of her own writing is changed by the deposit of her papers in a special collections library. As she writes:

The problem with writing on the plane is not your neighbor. It’s your own growing sense that these mango-toned reflections at dawn over Buffalo will be read by someone you never met. They will meet this…. A notebook is the definition of private writing — private living. It’s precareer and postcareer in that it’s the only writing only you know as long as there is a you. And that excites me anew. There being a space of knowing apart from any selling, sharing, even making. Just sketching out — OK, I have to use my favorite new theory word: episteme… The word felt like god. It means the possibility of discourse…. It’s all that my notebook gets told.

Apart from being written in this really incredibly skillful stream-of-consciousness that alleviates whatever annoyance I usually have about autobiographical writer-writing-about-writing pieces, the essay touches on a lot of issues I’m really interested in but haven’t read much about: air travel and its weirdness and beauty; lost books, lost words, and the places they go, the spaces they occupy, the ways that they return to “nature” (Myles is fantastic on this); especially the relationship between working writer and archive. How does a writer maintain a sense of privacy, knowing all of her creative work is supposed to end up being read? How does that sense of one’s own importance — all you produce is valuable and worthy of preservation — affect one’s future work, one’s sense of privacy, one’s record keeping or lack thereof? Most uncomfortably for a librarian: is preservation necessarily a good thing? Has the mania for the literary archive gone too far? Are we, the archivists and special collections librarians of the world (and especially the U.S.), intruding too much into the ongoing creative lives of our creative thinkers? Do we need to back off? (There’s a conference touching on these issues later this year at the Ransom Center in Austin — the institution spurring much of the current mania.)

Then there’s an essay on Aby Warburg, the brilliant, occasionally insane art historian. He founded the Warburg Institute in London. He was the oldest son of an extremely wealthy banking family, and made a deal with his younger brother that the younger brother could take control of the family business so long as he agreed to buy Aby whatever books he wanted for the rest of his life. He set about doing just that, and organized his library on “the law of the good neighbor.” As Leland de la Durantaye explains, “the various sections and the books within them were arranged as a function of their ability to engage with the books on either side of them.” Here, then, is a personal library the likes of which Anne Garreta wrote about so well in “On Bookselves” (see my earlier entry “The Dream of Total Recall”). Warburg also worked on a massive project, called Mnemosyne, throughout his life: in it (as I understand), disparate images were juxtaposed to follow the path of themes, motifs, and ideas throughout the history of art. I want to read some of Warburg’s stuff now.

Then there’s Avi Davis’s “The Brain and the Tomb,” about the Archimedes Palimpsest, the manuscript of Archimedes’s work which was (partially) scratched out and written over by a Greek monk in the thirteenth century. Of course I love palimpsests: there’s no better physical metaphor for the dense, confusing, complicated paths that history takes, the ways that ideas are undervalued, written over, reevaluated, belatedly treasured. As Davis points out, very little has been written about the visible text of the palimpsest, the Greek prayers, which are now being ignored as squadrons of scholars pore over the Archimedes text beneath. We’re always looking one way, missing what’s under our noses as we sniff after some other “more important” idea or sensation; Warburg was on to this, and so is Myles, searching for authentic experience and immediate, personal contact with her own thoughts, ideas, life (harder than it sounds). Of course, this is why librarians preserve, this is why we fear the discarded: one day it will be wanted, you see, but it will be lost — and the episteme it may have made possible will be impossible for the lack of its existence.

Is a Pile of Legal Pads the Same as a Book?

February 28, 2008 § 2 Comments

Before I actually get into The Confessions of Nat Turner, I wanted to briefly discuss the weirdness of reading a book while simultaneously digging through the personal papers of that book’s author to put together an exhibit on his life. I suppose I should state the obvious up front: my views are mine alone, and not my employers’. I don’t plan on impugning or libelling anyone, or revealing any “secrets,” but hey, you never know. And I suppose for those who don’t know (if there are any of you out there), I should explain that I’m a librarian at Duke University’s Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, which holds a large chunk of the William Styron Papers (meaning manuscripts of his works, correspondence, and lots of other things. Here’s a finding aid for the collection, if you wanna see what’s in it.)

It doesn’t sound that weird, I guess, but it is, at least for me. Scholars do it all the time, but in a very different way — typically they’ve already read through a text (most often more than once, if they’ve gotten to the stage of needing to consult its author’s manuscripts) and are consulting a well known source as they work in an archive. I’m reading Nat Turner for the first time, both as research and as personal reading. Duke doesn’t have the manuscripts for Nat Turner, although it has the galleys and a lot of other related material. And it has manuscripts for many of his other works, like Sophie’s Choice.

What’s weird about it is perhaps not what you’d think. Nat was an enormously controversial book when it came out, and there’s a lot of correspondence (mostly supportive; would you write someone whose work you didn’t approve of?) and other materials on the controversy, but that isn’t what’s causing the kind of dissonance I’m getting. It’s not a matter of knowing too much about the book beforehand to read the book on its own terms. No, it’s more the effect of the body of materials as a whole, and especially the drafts themselves of his works.

As you might imagine, working in an archive is an enormously personal, even intimate activity. It can also be extremely misleading: you’re seeing whatever survived, the remnants of a career and a life and not a life in its fullness. Nevertheless, you get a sense of a person when you work with their stuff.

Styron mostly wrote his early drafts on long, yellow, legal-pad-sized sheets of paper, in pencil, with extensive corrections, additions, notes to himself in the margins. He’s got a nice hand, easy to read for the most part, with idiosyncratic t‘s that look like s‘s. He’s said how much of a labor writing was for him, how painful it was; you can kind of feel that in the manuscripts: something about the slant of his hand conveys it, as does the worn, rubbed feel at the margins of some of the pages. That feeling of hard work being done, hard thinking delivered through all those leads of varying sharpness, and rethinking and rewriting being done, the writer handling the pages over and over.

I’m not a “death of the author” person, but I tend to maintain quite a bit of separation between an author and his work. Although I enjoy a good literary biography (and a good biography in general — something very appealing about capturing the arc of a lived life) I tend to care, personally (not professionally), about an author’s biography only insofar as it illuminates the work itself. (I also think that a work that requires biographical info to engage me is probably not something I’m interested in. Plus I am generally disinterested in memoirs, as a genre, although there are exceptions.) I don’t want to get too lit-critty here, but when I’m reading Nat Turner I’ll find myself thinking of how Styron’s hand looks on those long yellow sheets, and I’ll remember all the intermediate stages that come between a first draft like that, fresh from the author’s pencil, and the published work (in ugly library binding, no less!) I have in my hand: all the minds it passed through, all the work by early readers (family, friends), editors, fact checkers, publishers, designers, typesetters, critics, etc. before it reached the published form. The finished book, I guess, seems less like a work of art and more like a… well, a product, produced for practical, business reasons; but also a phenomenon, a thing reaching the world after great travail and continuing through great travail (all those reviews, criticisms, discussions; all its varying manifestations in the separate minds of separate readers!) in both its physical and intellectual forms. The author’s work, all those wild, scrawled yellow pages, domesticated between two covers.

There’s something pleasurable about all this, in one way. And, on the whole, I certainly feel that my working life has informed my reading in lots of interesting ways. To have a better sense of the processes both of publishing and of reception of texts is necessary to many kinds of literary thinking. Thinking about these issues has enriched my reading and has exposed in some works facets I would’ve otherwise overlooked. But in this particular instance of reading an author while exploring his archive, there seems to be something both nearsighted and farsighted about the experience. I feel, just a little, simultaneously estranged from and embarrassingly connected to the work. It’s like a relative you never talk to but with whom you shared a room for a summer. I’ve not quite captured exactly what I mean, but that’s close.

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