I read Stuart Evers’ blog about Georges Perec’s fabulous Life A User’s Manual with great interest (Evers adds a colon to the title of Perec’s novel that doesn’t appear in my copy). One of the bitter shades who haunt that journalistic Abaddon, comments sections, suggested beneath my review of Evers’ Ten Stories About Smoking on the New Statesman website that I gave Evers a good write-up because we were friends. We’re not, but after reading his piece on how we remember the books we read, I’m sure we’d get on. There is a blog to be written about why such a venomous streak of negativity runs through comments sections – Amy Sackville was torn apart by these faceless harpies for – as far as I could make out – having done a postgraduate degree at Oxford and some creative writing courses. I was assaulted here by some pseudonymic buffoon before my book was even published. I’m not against an open forum for criticism; it just seems sad that the anonymity conferred by the Web has spawned so many Ignatius J. Reillys firing their poisonous missives into the void. Anyway…
Evers’ blog picked up on a chain of ideas that I had been following since reading David Shields’ manifesto against the (traditional) novel, Reality Hunger. Shields values short fiction over novels because there is so much “padding” in the longer form. “You have to read seven hundred pages to get the handful of insights that were the reason the book was written, and the apparatus of the novel is there as a huge, elaborate, overbuilt stage set.” At first Evers’ blog might seem to support Shields’ assertion (and Evers is, after all, a writer of short fiction). Evers’ argument is that the way we remember novels is as a kind of concentrated nexus of emotions encapsulated in an atmosphere (or, more exactly, a response to that atmosphere) whilst details of plot and character remain sketchy. This atmosphere could presumably, following Shields, be sharpened, distilled and condensed into a short story, a lyric essay, a photograph.
Delillo’s Underworld, all eight hundred and some pages of it, exists for Evers in the exquisite moment when Nick and Marian Shay view the vast installation of B52s in the desert, painted rainbow colours, an image of the postmodern sublime that rings through the rest of the novel: “The piece had a great riverine wash, a broad arc of sage green or maybe mustard green with brushy gray disturbances, and it curved from the southeast corner up and across the north edge, touching nearly a third of the massed aircraft, several planes completely covered in the pigment – the work’s circulating fluid, naming the pace, holding the surface together.” For me, Underworld is Cotter Martin catching the ball at a baseball game with J. Edgar Hoover in the crowd. But Evers’ point holds true – ask me to describe in detail the plot of this novel, or almost any other, and I’d struggle. Ask me to talk about my emotional response, or moments of sublimity that moved me, and we’d be there till closing time.
Perhaps this says something about the kind of novels I like: labyrinthine, multi-layered, discursive. But I think it says more about how we remember novels. They are, as Evers says, unique – “the art form most attuned to life”. I recognise this as I’m writing. At about forty thousand words, it’s no longer possible to hold an entire novel in your mind. I was teaching at the Faber Academy with the writer James Scudamour recently and we discussed exactly this: at some point after the first thirty or forty thousand words, the novel becomes too sprawling, too variegated to pin down. You have to rely upon knowing the atmosphere you’re trying to create, and how your characters and your plot will work to build this atmosphere, and press on regardless. Indeed, when I start writing, I have less a plot or a theme in mind than a fully-formed idea of the atmosphere and the corresponding emotional response that this should engender in the reader. I judge my success on how true I can hold to this aim. The moments of sublimity – and that which surrounds them – should all be faithful to this original vision.
I think that novels often hang upon a series of moments of sublimity, revelation, violence, that energise and illuminate the surrounding text like flashes of phosphorescence in a dark sea. But to say that the rest of what goes into a novel is useless emballage is daft. The reason that Steve Reich’s music is so hypnotic and compelling is because we are constantly searching for the moments of stunning melody that emerge like lit arrows from the droning repetition. But without the repetition, without the background, those moments would lose their impact. Similarly in Beckett’s prose there are moments of extravagant Romantic lyricism that would be corny on their own. Only amid the wandering aporia do they work effectively – images of those rare moments in life when the sublime shines through.
I, like Evers, hesitate before re-reading books. I keep coming across novels whose publishers push them as “the new Secret History“. I haven’t read Donna Tartt’s book since it was first published and I sat up until the small hours aged thirteen, lost in the rarefied world of Hampden College. It could only disappoint me now. I just re-read Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, a book that was my Bible as a teenager. It wasn’t a total let down, but I found myself preferring the book the way I remembered it – a heady admixture of spirituality and adolescent high feeling. I cringed fairly regularly during the course of my most recent reading. And this is the problem: we don’t remember books as we would read them now, but rather we remember them through the lens of the person we were when we read them. Nostalgia is layered upon nostalgia.
I was thinking of Perec recently, having just read W, his bizarre and moving memoir of childhood and metaphor for the concentration camps. I almost posted it on the Guardian website as my favourite French novel (the Guardian are doing a literary tour of the world at the moment). But I hesitated, wondering if perhaps I didn’t prefer Michel Tournier’s The Erl King (my mental image of that book: a twelve-pronged stag charging through the Bavarian forest pursued by Hermann Göring). In the meantime, a hundred other comments had been made, and I felt my post would be lost, and I don’t like comments sections anyway.