Amid blood and mortal wounds and stench 13 Comments

What do you prefer, meticulous precision, or visceral ambition? Do you prefer the crystalline word-perfect prose of Kafka’s Metamorphosis or the more expansive and ultimately inconclusive structure of The Castle?

Lately I’ve been thinking about those big, fat modern classics that most people have on their bookshelves, that continually top newspaper quizzes with titles like “Top 100 Novels of the Century” and which, when all is said and done, relatively few people have read (at least in their entirety.)

I’m talking about books like In Search of Lost Time, The Man Without Qualities, Ulysses, Bouvard & Pécuchet and even Infinite Jest. Many people start them without ever finishing them, and many more feel they ought to read them. But why exactly are they held in such high esteem?

They certainly are difficult to read – they’re usually unwieldy, confusing, and often full of flaws, both basic and deep-rooted. But that’s exactly why we like them: they infuriate us, challenge us, and over the course of thousands of pages, provide us with pages at a time of writing of the highest quality. It’s the ambition of the work that also earns our admiration. Think of James Joyce for example, or Gustave Flaubert. In books such as Dubliners or Madame Bovary, they show a mastery for clean prose. But it’s in works like Ulysses, Finnegan’s Wake or Bouvard & Pécuchet that these authors go for blood and guts and glory. These are the books that open paths for the next generation of writers.

Below is a passage from Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, which is his magnum opus, his sprawling, imperfect 1500 page attempt at the master work. Immediately preceding the passage, the character Amalfitano has just encountered a pharmacist who is a voracious reader, but one who only reads the minor works of an author: Bartleby instead of Moby Dick, A Christmas Carol instead of A Tale of Two Cities:

What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.

The contrast between clarity and perfection and scope and ambition is drawn out here by Bolaño in terms of smaller, minor works and the large, lifetime-in-the-writing books. The latter also tend to be posthumous, unfinished works, which I suppose begs the question – would they be so frustrating, so imperfect if the author had only had the time to polish?

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  • http://www.expressmedia.org.au/voiceworks/ Johannes Jakob

    I just finished Infinite Jest this weekend (1,100 pages), and once I’ve totally digested it there will probably be a lengthy post about it here. It took me about a month and a week to finish, and afterwards there was a real sense of loss, which is a lot harder to achieve in short pieces. Bel Monypenny also mentioned this to me once re: Franzen’s The Corrections, I think she said that she felt a lot of nostalgia for it after finishing, but she phrased it more eloquently.

    This worked two ways for me. One is the way you identify with the book as an object, the way it went from pristine to scuffed to not-quite mangled. The first time I left the house after finishing it I was freaked out by how light my bag suddenly was – I thought I’d forgotten something. The other thing is that you have to really invest in something that size, there is a level of dedication required that builds another level of attachment to a book. Combine that with getting sucked into the world, etc etc, and it gets pretty powerful. I think it also makes the reader-author bond a lot stronger, like you are in this thing together, when obviously that’s an illusion, but again, a very powerful one.

    • http://www.samuelcooney.wordpress.com Sam Cooney

      Shaun Rutter, i like this post. Got me thinking about my own reading choices. Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow is my long lit nemesis – one that has bugged me for a long time. I tried reading it three or four times before i recently read the whole thing through.

      And i agree with Jojo – the reader-author bond is stronger when the reader has to work with/work out the author as they go along. it’s give-and-take, cooperative reading – active reading, really.

      gabe, i like your software/operating system analogy, although i think short lit can also reboot and upgrade your system. think of Albert Camus’ The Stranger (aka The Outsider), Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (which changed many young men’s lives when it was published, including leading many to suicide), Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

    • Jodie Kinnersley

      I have just read the first chapter of Jonathon Franzen’s new book Freedom and already it’s superb. I haven’t read The Corrections though. Does this make me the pharmacist? Maybe. Obviously I can’t compare the two but Freedom is definitely heavy (in weight not emotional depth or whatever I can’t judge that after one chapter)

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  • gabe

    the last line of the corrections is perfect, it really is.

    I look at these things like software upgrades. a good short story/novel acts like a patch, you run a bit cleaner and for a while you are less susceptible to viruses.

    good long lit, where you are genuinely working as a reader, is like upgrading your whole operating system; aspects of your then life and your now life become incompatible once you’ve upgraded.

  • http://www.samuelcooney.wordpress.com Sam Cooney

    Shaun Rutter, i like this post. Got me thinking about my own reading choices. Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow is my long lit nemesis – one that has bugged me for a long time. I tried reading it three or four times before i recently read the whole thing through.

    And i agree with Jojo – the reader-author bond is stronger when the reader has to work with/work out the author as they go along. it’s give-and-take, cooperative reading – active reading, really.

    gabe, i like your software/operating system analogy, although i think short lit can also reboot and upgrade your system. think of Albert Camus’ The Stranger (aka The Outsider), Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (which changed many young men’s lives when it was published, including leading many to suicide), Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

  • Saba

    I don’t think books need to be long, sprawling messes to be ambitious, or to create a ‘reader/author’ bond. I’m reading ‘the Spy Who Came In From the Cold’ for the second time now and some parts of the plot are only just starting to click into place. It’s a great, slow chess game of a novel, one of those books that you read in one sitting – it’s certainly “short” enough – but which stays with you for a long time. It is, quite simply, amazing.

    The writing is sharp, and le Carre, refreshingly, doesn’t spend pages and pages describing every little detail but rather creates rough ‘sketches’ of things and lets the reader fill in the blanks. I don’t feel like I’m about to embark on a journey, some author’s life work, telling myself, “just get past the first 30/50/100 pages, then the real excitment begins” – I’m opening the book and suddenly I’m thrown into the middle of a tangled plot and I’m left to scramble my way through it. It’s refreshing, it’s confusing, it’s exhilirating. But not without meaning – le Carre was apparently an ex-British spy, and his disillusionment and cyniscm towards the Cold War leaks through here.

    Of course, not all books can be plot-driven roller-coaster rides like ‘the Spy’. But that new crime fiction novel everyone seems to be reading, ‘the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’… now, that is something I just don’t get. It’s being hailed a modern classic. It’s long – 600 pages, an apparent masterpiece. But I don’t know… I mean, IMO half of the book is just meaningless drivel about eating sandwiches/coffee, or about the various sexual exploits of the “irresistable” main character (who gets through women the way Verdun minced the French in WW1), or some convoluted libel plot which I just didn’t understand, or graphic rape scenes irrelevant to the plot. This book certainly infuriated and challenged me – it was too heavy to read in bed so I was straining my eyes at the kitchen table. And eventually, I just stopped reading it.

    • http://www.toothsoup.com phill

      TGWTDT is fucking terrible. I mean no disrespect to the dead, but it is blatantly an account of all the author’s fantasies. After the fourth or fifth woman that succumbs to his superhuman charm I was circumspect. But when he introduces the crazy hacker girl who: a) just happens to be bisexual, b) should be relatively suspicious of men given her repeated rape, but! c) just about trips over herself to fall on his meatsword, I was vomiting up some kind of sticky, black bile. A truly awful specimen of blockbusteritis.

      • Kate

        I agree! Thank you, how wonderful to find some people who haven’t been seduced by it. I tried to read the first book and barely made it halfway through. I work in a library and the reservation list for all three books has been constantly above 20 people. And when you pay $2.95 for a reservation that’s a lot of people! I don’t understand it. Definitely blockbusteritis at it’s most painful (with the exception of Twilight, of course).

  • Liam Wood

    I just recently devoured Marquez’s A Chronicle of a Death Foretold over two nights, not a huge achievement considering it is a mere pamphlet in length compared to some of the brick sized masterpieces everybody has been talking about. Yet it still has all the class of the master who penned it. I don’t think my mind will return to it so often as it has to One Hundred Years of Solitude (Nowhere near the 1000 page mark but still suitably labyrinthine and challenging) but I appreciate it in a different way. To stretch Bolano’s analogy a little (and undoubtedly destory it’s poetic beauty) I don’t think a smaller work of a master is necessarily them sparring but merely a simpler contest. There is something immensely enjoyable about seeing the flair with which Marquez evicerates the less challenging opponent.

    A Chronicle of a Death Foretold is an exercise in foreshadowing. Marquez tells what is coming in the title and then again in pretty much every single page of the slight novel. We know the central character is going to be killed and we know the book won’t end until he is yet I turned every page expecting the murder to appear and at this hurried pace of expectancy I learned of the complex lives and alliances of a raft of characters in his coastel Caribbean town. This text could only work as a slim volume yet Marquez gives us not just a chronicle of a death but of a myriad of lives and a society much like he does in his longer works.

    Yet I do wonder if A Chronicle of a Death Foretold would seem so masterly if existed without One Hundred Years of Solitude. Would A Christmas Carol be so famous without Dickens more canonical works? Certainly the English speaking world has gone wild over Bolano because of 2666 but those I’ve spoken too who were Bolano fans before it was cool (sadly I count count myself as one of them) say now his shorter works such as the Savage Detectives will get the attention and accolades they deserve. Do we need the sprawling masterpiece to bring our attention to the master’s other feats?

    • Saba

      On Dickens, his novels were primarily published in serialised form – the sprawling Victorian novel in teaspoon increments, with a cliffhanger at the end of each bite. It was through being published as such that he developed his wide readership. I guess the masses (myself included) can stomach a Great Novel, as long as it’s disguised as short and sharp? And perhaps we don’t always need the lure of a great masterpiece to bring our attention to a writer’s other feats – good writing, is, after all, good writing… Although the prestige that comes attached to such a work would probably help, I guess.

  • susie

    Well I struggled to get through one of Joyce’s shorter works (Portrait of the Artist) and even though as a lit student I really want to read Ulysses I am quite daunted by the task, given the already confusing nature of his prose (for me anyway). It’s about the prestige isn’t it. I also really want to read Infinite Jest but refuse to buy a copy unless I can find it second hand – giant books are also too expensive. there should be a mid-range option in the poll. I think if books are probably about 300 pages long then readers have a better chance of maintaining interest and they don’t feel too daunted about tackling it. and then there’s a chance that they will be likely to seek out other works by the same author. that’s just me anyway. I should probably be more vigilant..

  • http://fenwickabernathy.wordpress.com/ Fenwick Abernathy

    i just like books.

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