1. Recently, for the fourth or fifth time in my life, I started trying to read James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime. I bought my copy many years ago, after falling in love with his story collections and enjoying Light Years, probably his best-known novel. A Sport and a Pastime, though not obscure, has a whiff of the occult about it, with its hazy voyeuristic sex and a title taken from the Koran. It is commonly and unironically referred to as an “erotic masterpiece.” Writing for The New York Times Review of Books, Reynolds Price said, “Of living novelists, none has produced a novel I admire more than A Sport and a Pastime…it’s as nearly perfect as any American fiction I know.”
Despite these points of interest and an agreeable running length of right around 200 pages, over two decades, I’ve found myself consistently stymied by something in this novel. I can still clearly remember the thrill of finding it at a used bookstore (it was, I believe, out of print at the time, or at any rate not widely available), taking it home, cracking it open along with a beer, and…not reading it.
This has been my experience with A Sport and a Pastime, our relationship, so to speak, over the last two decades. Maybe it’s the strange narrative setup, the unnamed narrator employed mostly as a camera for the erotic exploits of the central couple. Maybe it’s the slowness of the plot. More likely, I think, it’s something wrong with me.
There is a type of book, I find, that falls in this
category: books that resist you. This is different from books you think are
bad, or books you don’t want to read. These are books you want to read, but for
some reason are unable to. These are books that, if anything, you somehow fail,
not being up to the task.
2. The obverse of this is the kind of book you helplessly return to again and again. Some personal examples: The Patrick Melrose cycle, Disgrace, A House for Mr. Biswas, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Flannery O’Connor’s The Collected Stories, The Big Sleep, Pride and Prejudice, Madame Bovary. These are books that my taste and intellect, such as they are, somehow notch into like teeth into a greater gear. Sometimes you outgrow these books, as I feel I have with, say, Kurt Vonnegut’s corpus, but by and large these are books that I have read throughout my adulthood and continue getting different things out of with each read.
I’m not sure this is a good thing. In a way, this kind of reading preserves a personal stasis, forever reconfirming your excellent taste in literature, always agreeing with you. They are the yes-men of your library—in reading, as in life, it is good to find people who will tell you no: No, maybe you are not smart enough for this; no, you are not entitled to an immediate endorphin release upon opening me up; no, you cannot read me.
3. Another book of the former type: Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. This is an especially irksome one, a novel I’ve been attracted to for years, then repulsed by every time I open the cover. My experience with this kind of book does feel, in its way, analogous to a certain kind of romantic flirtation, a pas de deux of advance and retreat—never quite enough advance to win the book’s affection; never quite enough retreat to finally put me off. I have long been drawn to The Volcano and Lowry’s shared mythos: suicidal alcoholism in a hot country. I’m intrigued by its aura and stature as one of the greatest books of the century. I want to read it.
But man, that first chapter—I’ve read it several times and never made it any further. From memory: the initial, oblique conversation between Laruelle and Dr. Vigil (okay, I looked these up) on the hotel balcony as they sip anis and gaze out at the titular volcano; the references to the Consul, Fermin (who I am aware, theoretically, will at some point become the actual main character), and shared recollections of his misbehavior and disappearance; Laruelle’s interminable saunter down the hill and into town; an equally protracted sojourn at a bar that, again, if memory serves, is strangely connected to a movie theater. There, Laruelle is given a book for some reason. Other things happen, or don’t. My memory of that chapter feels consistent with the mode in which I have most frequently encountered it: falling asleep in bed. Which is to say that the first part is most vivid, and, as it goes on, the lights grow dimmer and the enterprise seems to begin repeating itself.
4. But this is clearly user error. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but I notice, with both Under the Volcano and A Sport and a Pastime, a personal difficulty with books that dwell too long in the perspective of a peripheral character. No matter how good the language and description—and the language and description in Under the Volcano are, of course, very good—at a certain point I want it to get a move on. The truth probably is that I am not an especially good, or patient, reader. Maybe good compared to the average casual reader, but not compared to many other writers and academics I know, who seem to omnivorously inhale all manner of book no matter how difficult or slow, like woodchippers dispatching balsa.
The truth probably is that my normal reading taste level lands somewhere just north of middlebrow. I have read Ulysses (and is there a more loathsome sentence to type than this?—the literary equivalent of mentioning your SAT score). But I skipped large swaths of the especially difficult chapters like “Proteus” and “Oxen of the Sun.” My highbrow taste is defined by a narrow niche of books that are well-written and also, for lack of a better word, fun.
Nabokov’s novels, for example—as strenuously modern and well-written as they are, they also move. They are not boring. The reader’s attention is rewarded like a good dog, receiving periodic treats for trotting along behind the master. “Fun” is a strange descriptor to apply to a book about pedophilia, but in spite of its subject matter, Lolita is, well, a pretty rollicking read (really, this is the novel’s perverse central project, to coax a reader into an aesthetic pleasure that mirrors, horribly, Humbert’s), jammed with the darkest comedy, suspense, wordplay, twists, turns, and the climactic ending to end all climactic endings. It is fun, as is Pnin, as is Pale Fire. Even early juvenilia like The Eye keeps you interested.
5. Interestingness, is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. But would it be completely unfair to say that a large swath of what we consider literary fiction is, by its nature and/or by design, uneventful? My Struggle is an obvious recent example—the first 200 pages of Book One are the story of the time young Karl Ove and a friend tried (spoiler alert: successfully) to get a case of beer to a high school party. Later, he devotes dozens of pages to the description of cleaning a bathroom.
Knausgaard’s work may provide an extreme example, but it remains generally true that in what we consider highbrow literary fiction, plotlessness often serves as a genre and status marker. Presumably this has something to do with a semi-consciously received idea of literary fiction being realistic fiction, and reality being uneventful. Brian Cox, portraying the screenwriting coach Robert McKee in Adaptation, had this to say on the matter:
Nothing happens in the world? Are you out of your fucking mind? People are murdered every day. There’s genocide, war, corruption. Every fucking day, somewhere in the world, somebody sacrifices his life to save someone else. Every fucking day, someone, somewhere takes a conscious decision to destroy someone else. People find love, people lose it. For Christ’s sake, a child watches her mother beaten to death on the steps of a church. Someone goes hungry. Somebody else betrays his best friend for a woman. If you can’t find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don’t know crap about life!
My Struggle received overwhelming critical praise for its rejection of that stuff and for its strenuous, almost ostentatious, dramatization of the banal and prosaic—all of the bits that typically get cut out of plot-driven fiction. Zadie Smith, praising the books, said, “Like Warhol, he makes no attempt to be interesting.” The intellectual enshrinement of non-event is worth considering on its merits for a moment. It might be argued that this high literary conception of real life as a frictionless enactment of societal rituals, unconscious consumerism, and media absorption is essentially a safe, bourgeois version of reality, and that plot-free literary fiction aestheticizes that principle of non-event. And so it might further be argued that literature that tests a reader’s ability to endure boredom and plotlessness is, on some level, testing the degree of that reader’s integration into the late capitalist fantasy of a perfectly isolated and insulated existence just as much as a writer like James Patterson affirms that integration by the obverse means of testing a reader’s willingness to accept product as art. The extremes of event and non-event both affirm this version.
6.Then again, maybe (probably) this is bullshit, rigging up an objective rationale for personal taste. And besides, I can think of so many counterexamples—books in which nothing much happens that I adore. The Outline trilogy, for example, or Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station. I would listen to Faye listening to people until the end of time; I’d follow Lerner’s valium-popping liar Adam Gordon to the ends of the world. In the end, it probably just comes down to something ineffable and mysterious in the writing. That connection between author and reader, the partnership and compact that must occur, something in the handshake that slips, that doesn’t quite hold.
I interview Ottessa Moshfegh at Caffe Vita, in Silverlake, earlier this month. Her novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation has been lauded as one of the best books of 2018. Her first novella, McGlue, will be reissued in January. I previously met Ottessa at USC for one of her readings, during which she defined herself “an overeducated egomaniac.” Then she specified: “But I don’t go around saying that I’m a genius. I work really hard. I just try hard and I do it. You just keep doing it and you get there. This is the secret.”
The Millions: I’m interested in this fact that you were a pianist. You said that once you were playing Chopin in a sentimental way and your teacher told you: “You don’t put sugar on a cake.” I think that this tells a lot of what your taste is when you write.
Ottessa Moshfegh: I think so. I mean, she taught me a lot of things. But I think voice, the subtlety of the voice, crafting a voice in the way that it translates to the ear is the same as music as it is and narrative writing. So that was huge part of the foundation of my taste and sensibility as a writer.
TM: In Europe we say: “Du sublime au ridicule, il n’y a qu’un pas,” which means: “From the sublime to the ridiculous, there’s nothing but a step.”
OM: I love that expression, that’s perfect, I love
it. That makes totally sense.
TM: You use a lot this word “tacky,” which is also the word I use the most since I moved to Los Angeles, and in your last book you write, “The more you try to be fashionable, the tackier you’ll look.”
OM: I moved to New York when I was 17 but I grew up in a suburb of Boston. Living in New York is such a rite of passage. The visual world there… I mean, it’s an education, about so much. Style, human behavior, culture, individuality, money, so many levels of adulteration and appropriation and being blasé. People move to New York and they’re wearing certain things and you’ll see them three years later and they’re talking different and have a totally different sensibility about what they look like. Even their faces can change.
Maybe that happens in every place, that you adapt and rise to the visual conversation that you’re living in.
I don’t know. New York in a way is a such visual place. It is a runway and it is so interesting. It would make sense that my character would be sort of superficial. Both the protagonist and her friend, Reva, they are sort of obsessed with the way that they look, in very different ways, but in both of them their obsession with the outside is a way to dodge the interior emotional landscape of their lives.
TM: There’s one scene where the protagonist decides
to clean up her life from all the superficial things, she gives away all the
expensive clothes and goes to Goodwill. So my sensation is that in a way she’s
stronger than Reva.
OM: Maybe more willing to step into who you are
instead of trying to be an invented person. Embracing humanity is it something
that people do very often in a way that is prescribed by commerce. I mean, even
like yoga. Things like this are supposed to be connecting with your body. There
is a certain culture of yoga studio. It’s a commercial institution.
TM: Of course, it’s like church in old society.
OM: Yeah. There’s something, kind of privilege, in
the attitude that poverty is cleaner than wealth. And I think that the book
sort of plays with that.
OK, so she gave all her shit away and now she’s wearing secondhand clothes, stuff from the 99 cent store. It’s a little bit delusional to think that just doing that, you know… only a rich person would see that as freedom.
TM: Right. And that’s why this book is so
successful. When I talk about it with my friends, maybe we grew up in Paris, or
Rome, or Florence, but we have the sensation to connect with this story, because
the society you describe is now everywhere. And now we have an additional
problem with social media. What is your approach?
OM: Social media makes me really anxious, and it makes me really hate people, so I just don’t use it. And it also feels like a real invasion of privacy, like a willing, I mean not even just this cyber privacy. It doesn’t really make sense to me that we can show so much of ourselves on the internet and then wandered around so we’re totally invulnerable. There’s something inherently dishonest about it, this friendliness. People aren’t really that friendly, I just don’t trust it. And I think that we’re all kind of getting to that point. Ultimately, what it’s best for now is for businesses, commercial entities, or a celebrity: to be able to advertise market to the masses for free.
TM: Right, because that’s what they are in the end. Celebrities reached a point where they’re commodities. And there’s this general attitude you described perfectly when Reva goes to pick up the protagonist’s expensive clothes bringing the shopping bags from Manhattan’s stores. You write, “I’d seen housekeepers and nannies do the same thing, walking around the Upper East Side with their lunch in tiny, rumpled gift bags from Tiffany’s or Saks Fifth Avenue.” And with social media we have the extreme form of this. A new kind of pornography. The representation of reality becomes more important than reality. Not only with clothes, but even with books. The fact that you post the picture doesn’t mean that you read them.
OM: Yeah. I mean it’s all about images. I don’t
TM: About McGlue, you said that it’s the book you loved the most. Do you still think it, and if yes, is it because it’s set in the 19th century and so you could write it outside of this dynamic of extreme capitalism, or are you referring more to the style?
OM: I think it was the process of writing the book that felt the most spiritual. But I think it’s also more comfortable saying that that’s my favorite book because it’s the least like me. I mean I don’t know. I like all my books. McGlue has a special place for me because I don’t really know where it came from. I think it came from a place that I’m not so easily in touch with. So it was a difficult book to write, and felt kind of miraculous at the time.
TM: Did you write the book before having an agent?
OM: Oh, yeah. I was in graduate school when I wrote
the book. I’ve barely published anything. I had the freedom of that kind of anonymity,
like nobody was going to care. I could really do whatever I wanted. Not that I
can’t do whatever I want now, but there is just a difference pressure. I know
that if I write a book right now, it’s not just me. Other parts of the world
TM: I think that it’s kind of funny that everyone
always refers to your writing as noir or stuff like that.
OM: I think people talked about Eileen as noir because they’re sort of playing with that noir novel genre, in its formalities and with some of the elements of the story. But I’m definitely not a noir writer. I don’t think anyone who reads my short stories would say this is a noir collection.
TM: I love how you’re always able to find a voice. You
have your personal style but actually everything is always different.
OM: I feel that is the challenge. That is the project. I’m in the voice of that particular story. And I know what you mean. I think stories are about people wanting to change. Whether is change in a misguided way or more profound.
A lot of writers might disagree with me, but I think that stories are
illustrations of transformation.
I don’t want my character to be the same on page one as page 250 or else haven’t given the reader something. I like artwork that I feel like I’m different now that I’ve experienced something.
TM: I think that some readers don’t like your
stories because they make them uncomfortable and put them in the condition of
question themselves, and not everyone is open to this kind of process.
OM: There were times in my past where I was really interested in making the reader uncomfortable because I felt so removed from the reader. When I was writing Eileen and some of the stories I was so nervous that I wasn’t going to be allowed into the world, financially speaking, to have a life as a writer that I was kind of angry. So my approach to writing was like a little bit volatile. Sort of like “fuck you” what drove a lot of my creativity—sometimes, not all the time, but I can identify that.
TM: You said that in your writing you balance
satire and sincerity and regarding your characters that you both relate and
make fun of them. And I think that the reader can agree or disagree with you
but they know that what they’re reading is authentic. The truth, at least your
OM: Or the truth of the character. I think it’s more challenging to hold onto a sort of old philosophy when you’re working on something really different. This book that I’m writing now is about a Chinese teenage girl from the early 1900s and she kind of came to me as a spirit, like “I need this book. You’re going to write this book.” I can see her sense of humor, but I don’t see anything satirical about her. I have no interest in exploiting her vulnerabilities, whereas in my last novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation I was really interested in doing that.
TM: I know that you don’t like to define yourself
as a female author.
OM: You know, if it’s a male author we just call him an author. So having to qualify my identity as a female author is silly. I think we know what it is. We’re at the beginning of a kind of movement and when things change the pendulum swings to an extreme. I feel a little bit like, maybe I caught a good wave and if I had been writing 20 years ago maybe people wouldn’t be as interested in me, but it just corresponded to the times that someone named Ottessa Moshfegh, people would for socio-political reasons feel pressure to pay attention to her. But also I think people do respond to my work and not because I’m a woman or because I have a weird name. Nobody wants to be successful because they’ve been pigeonholed.
TM: Absolutely. But unfortunately, still, at your last reading the boy came out with, “How could you write from the male point of view?” You would never go to a male author’s reading asking how could you write from the female point of view.
OM: I disagree. I thought that was a fine question and I answered him sincerely, but it seemed I was making fun of him. And that’s why I think people were laughing, but actually it’s a good question, like, how do you write from another person’s point of view.
TM: Yes, but my point was more that you would never go to a male author’s reading asking that because you’re just used to it. Even back in time, nobody has never asked to Flaubert how could he write from Madame Bovary’s point of view.
OM: Yeah, I take your point and maybe there’s a little bit of that, but I didn’t think that. Who knows why he asked that question. He seemed very nervous.
TM: Yes, and very young and nice. It’s not about
OM: Maybe I’m wrong but I think that is a very good
question. I mean the answer is always really stupid: I tried my best, so I
observed and imagined what it was like to think as another gendered person.
TM: I don’t think writers or artists really have a
OM: I do. I think the female and male minds work
very differently in their biology, the way that language has developed over the
last how many thousands of years was part of the patriarchal system. Written
language is inherently more male logic linearity. Femininity is more in the
realm of emotional intelligence and intuition. That’s why it’s very difficult
to argue between the gender. Mostly women learn how to argue like a man. So I
do think that writers, maybe it’s different for visual artists, whatever
everybody’s brain is different, but I do think that women writers have a
different experience and sensibility than male writers, because by their very
nature. I think maybe part of this whole movement for equality try to suggest
that we are the same, which we are not. The work we need to do is to learn how
to value both genders for the things that they’re given us.
TM: I saw this interview where you were joking about the fact that female characters in literature are always described as “the magic source of drama.” And it’s true. I read this year Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms and I was horrified by Catherine Barkley. I mean, there’s the war, people die around them, and she keeps talking about the fact that she wants to be skinny so that he can love her again.
OM: I mean, Hemingway, I don’t know how self-aware he was, but I have to give every writer the benefit of the doubt, that these are just completely blind self-presentations. I didn’t read A Farewell to Arms but I have to believe that a writer isn’t necessarily as stupid as his character might be in your assessment. So maybe there was a deeper intention, I don’t know, we make decisions. Getting back to your point of human being impetus for spiritual change, it makes perfect sense, because maybe one of the only things that can disarm the male ego is romantic love and sexual desire. So I don’t think it’s necessarily stupid, but I do think that it’s not very creative. It’s kind of boring when that is the thing in a book or a movie, “This magic girl!” You’ve seen the movies all the time. It’s like there’s a very cliché—like, the hair and slow motion closeup on her mouth from the way that she moves her eyes and she’s looked at. But you know, she doesn’t have a will or an intelligence unto herself is where the things start to be problematic.
TM: Yes, because they focus on the ideal of the perfect woman as society trained them to think.
OM: Men and women play that game. I mean I think that’s the difference between dating and sleeping around and then falling in love. When you’ve fallen in love with someone, that person has to become your best friend. So you’ve got to get to know them. They can’t just be some kind of anachronistic fantasy.
TM: I don’t think beauty exists in general.
OM: What do you mean?
TM: Ideal beauty changes with society. During the Italian Renaissance women had to look like Botticelli’s paintings, now they have to starve to be super skinny. But even when you fit in your society’s standard the truth is that beauty is about personality.
OM: Yeah, I understand. I think photography has
changed a lot of things to capture the way that someone looks in a way that is
beautiful but there is no living beingness in their beauty. With painting it
was probably different because you had to sit there for hours and there was a
relationship that took up time with the artist. Photography just becomes this
thing like you can take a photo of someone and they don’t look like themselves
at all. And now with technology you don’t even need to look like yourself. You
just have a Photoshop.
TM: I think you’re right. Beauty is when you’re
OM: Yeah. I think that health is the first source of attraction. Beauty and attraction. I mean we’re attracted to what we find beautiful, it’s subjective. But looking healthy… that’s what makeup has been for in many ways. The history of makeup is really long and very very interesting but one way that it was used was to hide the disease of prostitutes so that they could continue to work. Isn’t it weird that aesthetic got like that Kim Kardashian, Avatar-type makeup style which makes people look like cartoons? It is so attractive now when it’s actually like a mask.
TM: That is what I was referring before when I said
a new kind of pornography. Even though they’re not naked, it’s even worse. I
don’t think nudity itself is vulgar. You can be naked and elegant, and be all
dressed up that way and be really tacky.
OM: I think that Kardashians are really important
cultural family for digital media. They look like Avatars and you can you can
only see them on TV.
TM: Or social media.
OM: Right. They come through your phone or
television or computer and they’re fielding some new sense of what a person is
in this weird way. A person is an emoji, a person can be an emoji and then they
can also have a baby. It’s just weird.
TM: You said that you’re not intimidated by
inspiration and that you just sit and work.
OM: I don’t know, maybe it’s the thing that I was just raised to do. If we’re given something, you take it and you do it. When I have an idea for a book it doesn’t feel like “Oh I’m so smart.” It feels like actually that idea has come and landed on me and it’s my job now to execute it, so you better do it.
TM: Can I ask you about your astrologer? Because since I read your interview in The New Yorker, I’ve been telling to all my friends this story about the astrologer and your fiance.
OM: [Laughs.] I really trust this one type of science, part of my belief system. I consult her about a lot of different stuff. I started talking to her, maybe, five years ago.
TM: Do you feel it as a sort of destiny?
OM: Yeah. It helps me to see the larger framework
I count Elisa Gabbert among the essayists I would eagerly read on anything. It happens to be the case that the things that tend to interest her—translation, literary style, and disasters, to name a few—tend to interest me, too. But the real pleasure of reading Gabbert is in letting oneself be carried along in her thinking, which is cuttingly clear and delightfully digressive. The Word Pretty—Gabbert’s fourth book, following two books of poetry and one book of very short prose pieces—collects 22 previously published essays on a wide variety of themes. The subjects range from notebook-keeping to the guilty pleasure of reading only the front matter of books to the TV adaptation of Anne of Green Gables. Each is a journey through some of Gabbert’s idiosyncratic interests by way of her formidable intellect.
Gabbert generously answered my questions about The Word Pretty over email.
The Millions: On Twitter, you described The Word Pretty as “a collection of [your] critical essays, rarities, & B-sides.” I love that description, in part because of the way it uses the language of music rather than literature. I’ve been wondering about the way that collections function as books, which seems different from the way that book-length works do. The Word Pretty is a good case for thinking about this, because you acknowledge its heterogeneity, and the book itself makes no claims to, say, thematic unity, yet it does feel to me like a whole. Does it feel that way to you? If so, is it in a different sense than your previous books, which are also wholes made of isolatable parts?
Elisa Gabbert: I often feel that where books start and stop is essentially arbitrary. I start to think of something as a book when it’s clear to me that I’m repeatedly returning to a certain set of concerns and a certain shape or structure or form as an approach to those concerns. Once I’m able to describe the concerns and the form to myself, it’s fairly easy to imagine the shape of the finished book. But it could always be a little shorter or longer, or arranged slightly differently and so on—at some point I just decide it’s done, maybe only because I get sick of the project and want to work on something new! The Word Pretty didn’t quite make sense to me as a book until I figured out the three sections. Then, if I wanted to add a new piece, for example, I knew which section it would go in, and I didn’t have to rearrange the whole table of contents. Sections and structure are important to me. I don’t write fiction, but I’m really interested in chapters, too, and I have a fantasy course mapped out in my head called “Chapter Studies.” In any case, after the fact of writing, I find that a book feels like a book partly because it’s time-delimited: I started it in a certain month of a certain year and finished it in a certain month of a later year. So whatever the genre, the book feels to me like a record of my thinking during that period.
TM: You told me, also on Twitter, that this book is “the kind of thing [you] always wanted to do but thought you had to be famous first.” What did you mean by that? And how did the book come about?
EG: I tweeted once—not that long ago actually, in early 2016—“I want to do one of those books of random bits and bobs of unrelated prose that only famous people get to do.” I was thinking of these collections that come out by J.M. Coetzee or Siri Hustvedt or Zadie Smith or, when they were living, John Updike or Gore Vidal—basically people who are some combination of “working writer” and “public intellectual” so that every few years, they’ve published enough essays or criticism to be packaged up into a book, and the fans buy it because they’ll read anything by that author, they just want the point of view. But debut collections of essays are usually not that freeform, unless maybe they’re on a small press. As it happens, later that same year, I had a small press approach me asking whether I had a manuscript of essays they could consider. Around the same time, I learned that my poetry publisher planned to launch a nonfiction series. So I got my wish via the small press route.
TM: I’m curious about the sequencing of the book. The essays are divided into three unnamed sections. Resonances abound, but there’s no clear thematic demarcation. In at least some instances, it seemed as if the ordering of essays within a section might be guided, in part, by shared references. For instance, “On the Pleasures of Front Matter” follows “The Inelegant Translation” (though there’s a section break in between), and both mention Lydia Davis’s introduction to her translation of Madame Bovary; “On the Pleasures of Front Matter” is followed by “Seeing Things,” both of which mention Howards End; “Seeing Things” is followed by “Impossible Time,” both of which mention The Catcher in the Rye. Am I right that you had this in mind? What other priorities guided the sequencing?
EG: In my mind, the middle section is made up of all my little “I noticed a thing” essays (a term I borrow from my friend Catherine Nichols) in the literary criticism category. Most of those started when I noticed a thing in a book I was reading (an idiosyncratic use of paragraphs, say, or a kind of POV), then thought about that thing as a thing, then started noticing how other books handled or achieved that same thing. Within that section I tried to sequence them in such a way that you might get a hint of an idea in one essay and then read an expansion on that idea in the next essay, as you suggest. That said, I’m not one of those people that tries every conceivable order of parts in a book to see if one permutation turns out better than the others—not that that’s actually possible. (Google tells me 12! ≈ 479 million—can that be right?!—and that’s just the essays in the second section.) I think on some level I’m just letting the juxtapositions do their own work. The first section and the third section could really be one section, but I wanted to split them apart, so there’s a more personal voice at the beginning and again at the end, with the more pure (-ish) criticism in the middle. Really, there’s plenty of I throughout. I got thoroughly sick of myself while proofing it.
TM: You began your career as a poet. How did you come to write essays? Do you think of your poetry and your essays as related or overlapping projects, or as discrete?
EG: I think essays are basically chunks of prose (nonfiction prose to be a little more exact), and I’ve been writing chunks of prose my whole life—papers, reviews, blog posts, whatever, they’re all essays if essays involve thinking about something for a while and then writing about it. At some point I decided to be more purposeful about calling them essays, and calling myself an essayist, probably around the time editors started asking me to write essays. Later, when I was working on a book proposal (not for The Word Pretty, but for the book I’m writing now), my agent asked me if I was committed to calling it essays—rather than, just, you know, a book—and I decided that yes, I really wanted to align myself with that tradition specifically. I think you approach a book of essays differently than a nonfiction book in chapters, and I wanted people to approach my essays as essays. (Incidentally, my second book was a collection of chunks of prose, and because, as you note, I started off as a poet, many people think of that book as prose poetry. It was actually marketed as a book of essays, but regardless of how it’s officially catalogued, it’s very obviously made of chunks of prose, and I think it reached a much larger audience than my collections of pro-forma poetry for that reason. More people read prose than poetry! No question!) But to get back to what you asked—I think my poetry and essays do have overlap in terms of my voice and sensibility and obsessions. But it feels very different to write prose versus poetry. It’s kind of like, I can either think in sentences or lines, in poetry or prose, but they’re distinct and exclusive modes. And my default mode is prose. Poetry is harder work. (At least in the drafting phase.)
TM: While I was in the midst of reading The Word Pretty, at a moment when I wasn’t actually reading it, I had this thought (which I considered tweeting, but decided not to): People talk a lot about overwritten prose, but what about the more common problem of underwritten prose? When I returned to The Word Pretty, I was surprised to find, in your essay “Writing That Sounds Like Writing,” first a discussion of overwritten prose, and then this: “of late I’ve read a few books I thought of as underwritten.” This could be a coincidence, or maybe I had read this essay of yours before (I can’t remember if I had) and was anticipating it. But another explanation would be that your essays so effectively convey your style of thinking that reading them helped me to have an Elisa Gabbert-style thought. What do you think of my hypothesis? Is that at all in line with what you think your essays accomplish, or what you intend them to?
EG: Oh, I love this story. It’s hard for me to think of a better compliment than “recognizable style of thinking.” But yes, what I look for in essays, and what I try to do in my essays, is interesting thinking. And sometimes I like when writers really show every step of the proof, as it were. Maybe they’re revealing all their missteps or false starts or the bad ideas they had on the way to a better idea. Or maybe they aren’t missteps exactly, but a series of small but necessary steps to get to something more profound. That level of thinking can be so interesting, even if you don’t really know what the writer is talking about! Like this paragraph I read yesterday, from a brief essay about Shostakovich’s 15th symphony by Tom Service:
Weird. Yes, Shostakovich has set up a sort of pre-echo of the William Tell tune in some of the rhythms we’ve heard; but when the trumpets play the tune, it’s a shock. So is it ironic? Not really, there’s a genuine musical connection, a reason for it being there. A parody? Again, it’s not that simple; Shostakovich doesn’t frame this moment as a separate kind of discourse from what we’ve heard so far, this quote isn’t in quotation marks. And in fact, I don’t actually think this is a quotation at all: what I mean is that the effect of hearing this music at this point in the symphony is so utterly removed from the original function, expression, and associations of Rossini’s tune that it becomes, in fact, a totally different object. Instead of infectious operatic cheeriness, we’re in a place of existential symphonic crisis. If anything, you hear the disjunction in meaning and context even more precisely because the pattern of the notes is so familiar. Make sense? Possibly not – but these are the kind of labyrinths Shostakovich’s symphony leads you into… (Even Shostakovich himself couldn’t properly explain the reason for the quotes in this symphony: “I don’t myself quite know why the quotations are there, but I could not, could not, not include them,” he told his friend Isaak Glikman in a tortuous bit of triple-negativity.)
I know almost nothing about classical music (does Shostakovich even count as classical?) but I read this three or four times. It’s such a great example of attention, representing the act of attention within the text, along with the uncertainty that follows attention, the questioning of what you thought you knew. Also, your story makes me think of that bit at the end of the Anne of Green Gables essay, where I talk about binge-watching TV and then feeling like I look like a character from the show, like looking at a face so much has warped my self-image. It sounds like you experienced a version of that!
TM: It’s clear that your writing is informed by a robust reading life, in which you take seriously the choice of what to read when as a part of living. Is developing a certain kind of reading life something you’ve worked at, or has it come naturally? How is your reading life related to your writing life?
EG: I have worked at it! I’ve loved reading all my life, but I made a conscious decision about five years ago to be more disciplined about it. I felt like approaching my reading in a haphazard, undisciplined way wasn’t cutting it anymore. So I made all these little, or in some cases not so little, habitual changes in order to make reading more central in my life. I started going to the library all the time—this has at least two positive effects. One, there are always stacks of unread books around, so there’s never the problem of having “nothing to read.” Two, due dates are deadlines, so I can’t put off reading a book forever. I also pretty much stopped watching TV. I know it’s supposed to be the golden age of prestige TV blah blah, but for me, good TV still isn’t as good or rewarding as a good book, and even bad TV is addictive. It’s just too easy to get sucked into, so I avoid it entirely. Another thing I started doing is documenting all the books I finish, then publishing little mini-reviews of all of them at the end of the year. I like writing them and I like when people read them so it gives me extra incentive to finish books. As for how my reading life relates to my writing life, it definitely feeds it, but lately I feel like the balance is a little off. Too much writing and not enough reading!
TM: I love the way the essays in The Word Pretty ground the acts of reading, research, and citation in your life and in the world. For instance, you thematize the act of finding something to quote in “Meditation on the Word Pretty”: You write, “I flipped through my copy of Terry Eagleton’s Ideology of the Aesthetic from grad school; I had not recalled that it paints Edmund Burke-ian sublimity as practically a loathsome side effect of testosterone,” and then you quote it. I think this is related to the way, in “Seeing Things,” you write about picturing characters and spaces in novels by drawing from people and spaces from your life. Essays that engage texts often give the impression that the essayist is a brain in a vat encountering texts in some abstract way. Yours never do that, even when you don’t explicitly dwell on or dramatize the physical or imaginative encounter. Is this grounded textual engagement a way of achieving a certain effect? Are you writing against a tendency in essays or criticism?
EG: Ah, this is one of my signature moves, incorporating notes on the process of writing an essay into the essay itself. It feels more authentic, or maybe I should say truthful, to reveal that process, which can involve chance and randomness, or cursory, passing interest in things. I don’t want to create the false impression that every time I cite a book, I’ve necessarily read the whole book or that author’s whole oeuvre. (But I’m trying not to do this move reflexively or let it turn into a tic. There’s a danger of understanding your own style too well, and then imitating yourself.) I think I’m also using, in a sense, critical or topical essays to write about my self in the world. I’m always trying to situate who and where and when I am in relation to the books or other things I’m writing about. Partly it’s an ethical position, a way of highlighting my subjectivity, and partly it’s just ego.
TM: Do you have a favorite essay from the book?
EG: Yes. My favorite essay is the last one, “Time, Money, Happiness.”
TM: I know you’re working on a new book. What can you tell me about it and how it’s going?
EG: I just finished the penultimate essay, so I think I’m allowed to say it’s almost done. Writing it while also working a pretty demanding full-time job has been incredibly stressful and difficult, but it’s a good kind of pain, I guess you could say. (As I just tweeted the other day, writing it is taking years off my life, but seeing as it’s about disasters, it’s making me want to die sooner anyway.) Working on it is giving me forward movement and purpose at a time when it would be easy to succumb to the whole “LOL, nothing matters” ethos. Nothing does matter, but also this book is important to me. I want to finish it, and I want people to read it.
In early 2016, during a monthslong relocation to Barcelona, I fell under the spell of three contemporary masters of Spanish-language fiction: Javier Cercas, of Barcelona, Javier Marías, of Madrid, and Álvaro Enrigue, of Mexico and New York. Even now, back in the U.S., I feel with these writers the special connection you get when your reading life and your life-life come close enough to touch. And over the last couple years, I’ve managed to track each of them down for an interview. The first piece in this series featured Cercas and the second Enrigue; the finale, though the first of them chronologically, features Marías.
The internationally bestselling author of novels including A Heart So White, The Infatuations, and the trilogy Your Face Tomorrow, Javier Marías has often been called “Spain’s living greatest writer.” His new collection of essays, Between Eternities, is his first to appear in English in a quarter century and features meditations on lederhosen, soccer, Joseph Conrad, and “Why Almost No One Can Be Trusted.” I sat down with him at the 92nd Street Y in late 2016 to discuss his “literary thinking” on the occasion of his novel Thus Bad Begins (video of the event can be found at 92y.org). What follows is a slightly condensed version of that discussion.
The Millions: I read an interview where you talked—I’m not sure how facetiously—about writing novels for the purpose of including a few paragraphs or sentences that wouldn’t stand up on their own … where the novel is a sort of arch to hold up this one capstone. The example you gave in the interview was Tomorrow in the Battle, Think on Me. I’m wondering if there is similarly a core passage or image or set of paragraphs or images in Thus Bad Begins that you felt yourself writing around or toward … or that you began with.
Javier Marías: Well, if there is, I won’t say which one! But what I meant then, and maybe it’s true sometimes, is that most novelists … or, that would be presumptuous on my part, at least the kind of novelist I am, and maybe others too, often think (of course, you’re never able to judge what you do) that there are a few paragraphs or a couple of pages that are better than the rest.
In my case, I usually think—and I may be mistaken, of course—of some paragraphs which are slightly lyrical, or they contain a digression or a reflection or a short meditation, maybe it’s even half a page or something, sometimes a little more … and you are rather satisfied with that. You say, “This is the gist.” The gist of the novel? You can say that?
TM: I think so. I think you can say that: the gist.
JM: I mean that when the novel is more or less finished, there is sometimes the thought, “Well, now I realize”—at least, in my case; I’m speaking always for myself, obviously—“that because of these paragraphs, I wrote this novel. Because of this couple of pages, for instance. I realize that now.” And then sometimes you think—because I’m not a poet, I don’t write poetry, never wrote poetry, not even when I was a young man or a teenager—you say, “But I had to surround this with something else, with something huge, with an architecture to hold it, to make it acceptable. What I want is the reader mainly to look at these pages, but I have to distract him or her with stories, plots, dialogues—”
TM: All that stuff.
JM: All that stuff. But that is something you realize when you finish the novel—it’s not something that you have in your mind previously.
TM: I see. So you’re speaking of those paragraphs for which you realize, in the end, “All along I was moving toward this …”
JM: In a way, yes. But it’s not a premeditated thing to do. That would be … vile, I suppose. But sometimes you say [later], well, yeah, the justification for this whole thing is these two pages.
TM: You you spoke of plot and character and “all that stuff” … and I wanted to talk about one of those things, one of those novelistic things that keeps readers reading, which is the degree—especially in your novels—the degree of suspense generated. Often when I’m reading you, even before I know what the question is, I feel myself waiting to get to the answer. I remember reading The Infatuations, the moment when Maria is going to the door to eavesdrop, and I was reading as though I were in a movie theater, covering my eyes. You know, “Don’t go to that door!” I’m wondering how cognizant you are of the pulse of suspense as you’re writing—whether this is something that just comes very naturally to you, or whether it’s an epiphenomenon of your style, or whether you actually do a lot of editing and revising—of scheming.
JM: Oh, no, not really. My method for writing is a very suicidal one.
TM: All methods for writing are suicidal ones.
JM: Probably, but you feel more suicidal over the one you chose. Or the one that chose you …
You know, one of the problems with novelists is that we never learn the job. We never learn it! I mean in the sense that other people do. A professor goes to give his lesson after 40 years—as is my case; I published my first novel when I was 19, which was over 40 years ago—and the teacher knows he will give a good lesson, or at least a decent one. And he will do it with ease. And the carpenter who’s been making tables for 40 years or whatever knows he will succeed with the next table. But a novelist doesn’t know that at all!
TM: Do you have a moment where you sit down to write the next book and you think you must have learned something last time?
JM: No, no, you learn you haven’t learned anything! And even if some of the previous books have been praised, and people have enjoyed them and all that, not even that is reassuring, in my case, because it’s “Oh, well, yeah, I was lucky with that one.” Or “People were misled!” Or something. But that doesn’t guarantee anything for this one that I’m starting now.
But what I was going to say is that my usual way … Well, as I’ve said on many occasions, there are of course all kinds of writers, but … There are some who write with a map, as it were. That is, they know exactly … or with a chart.
TM: I hate those people. I don’t understand them at all.
JM: No, no … why should you hate them? I mean, all methods depend on the result … But before they start a novel, they have the full story in their mind, they know exactly what’s going to happen to every character, and when, et cetera, et cetera, which is certainly not my case. I think that if I knew a complete story before I started writing a novel, I wouldn’t write it, because I’d say, “What a bore!”
I like to find out as I write. I’ve mentioned on many occasions before that the word “invent,” which is the same in English and Spanish and many other languages, “inventar” in Spanish, comes from Latin, “invenire.” And “invenire” originally, in Latin, meant to find out, to discover. And so to invent—in our sense, in English or in Spanish—has to do, etymologically at least, with the idea of finding out—which is what I like to do.
I start writing with a compass. I don’t have a map. I just have a compass. So I’m heading north, as it were. I know more or less where I would like to go, but I don’t know the way, not at all. And I don’t even know whether I shall find a desert in the middle or a cliff, or a river, or a jungle, or what. I must cross them as I find them. Whereas the one with a map knows that he will find the jungle and the desert and the cliff—but he knows beforehand, and he knows very well when and how.
And then the thing is that I don’t know exactly how I do my novels. Every time, I realize I don’t know how a novel is written. I don’t know how other people write them, and in fact, I don’t know how I write them myself. All of a sudden you happen to have 300 or 400 or even 500 pages, and say, “Oh. This looks like a novel.” But I work page by page. I never make a draft of five or 10 pages in a row. Never. I make one page, I work on that—I still use a typewriter—and then I take out the piece of paper and I make corrections by hand and erase things, add arrows and suppressions and additions and everything. Then I retype it again, once, twice, three times, four times—five times, sometimes—until I think, “Well, I can’t do it better than this.” Or “I’m tired,” which is also possible. And then that page generally goes to the printer like that. One page after another.
And I never reread the whole thing until the novel is finished. Because I’ve been saying, “Oh, come on. I have 200 pages now. Shall I reread them? What if I found them awful? Now the whole thing would be ruined. And I wouldn’t have the faith to go on.” So I won’t read them. And just one by one, one by one, each as if it were the only one, I concentrate on that one page, I do it as best I can, but it has no real relationship to the next one or to the previous one, so to me it is rather mysterious that in the end, as some readers, very kind readers, have told me—some of them even say, “I couldn’t put it down”—“Your novels are so seamless!” And I say, “Oh, dear me, it’s exactly the opposite.”
TM: I think the reason I said I hate the map people is that I have this idea that the map people aren’t suicidal. And that it’s the compass people who are going, I have no idea how to—
JM: No, they are [suicidal], too.
TM: OK. Well, that’s reassuring.
JM: No, they are, too, because there is one thing that plays against them, I think. Which is, because of their knowing exactly what’s going to happen throughout the novel, or what suspense they will need at a given moment, they are more predictable. And sometimes they don’t realize that, because they already know the ending, the reader can get the ending much easier than in the novels of the writers with only a compass, who have improvised, who didn’t know the ending, even 30 pages from the end. I remember I wrote a short novel in 1986, in which I was 30 pages from the end and didn’t even know who was going to die, or if anyone was going to die. And I had to decide: “Shall I make him die?” Now it seems impossible that someone else would die instead of the one who did die, but of course, a long time has elapsed …
And by the way, if you’ll allow me, I think it’s worth talking [more] about that. I think it’s one of the reasons why we still write and read fiction … I wrote a few years ago a speech that was on telling, and what I said was that telling is very difficult, and that telling actual things is almost impossible—for a historian, for instance. A historian tells facts, as much as he knows about them, but some other historian may come along and contradict him or her, and say, “No, no, no, you’re not right.” Or say, for instance, “We have just discovered a bunch of letters from Napoleon, and that makes the story completely different …” Even when we tell something that we just witnessed, an incident that happened this morning on the way to our job, on the subway, for instance … and you say, “Well, I saw this man striking that other man,” and you start telling something very simple, and then if someone else is with you who witnessed the scene, they say, “Wait a minute, you came late to the scene, because what you didn’t see, I saw. I had a better angle. It’s that the beaten man provoked the other one,” and so on. So nothing is very certain …Telling with words is very difficult. Everything can be denied, everything can be contradicted.
And I think that one of the reasons we write and read novels is that in a way we need something, even if it’s fictional, even if it never did happen, to be told once and for good, once and forever. And the only thing that no one can contradict or deny is fiction. I mean, Madame Bovary died the way she did. And no one can come and say, “Oh, I disagree. She didn’t die.” Or “She stabbed herself.”
TM: “She faked her death.”
JM: No one can say that. So Madame Bovary did die, died the way Flaubert decided, and that’s the end of it! No one can contradict it. And even if it’s fiction, even if she didn’t really exist, we need the security, or the comfort, of something told for sure, once and for all. And something not told forever, as well—for you must have in mind that what is not told in a novel shall never be told by anyone … What is told is told forever, what is not told shall never be. No?
TM: No, this sounds plausible to me. It’s like: The only thing we can believe in is what’s completely made up.
JM: Yes. But at least we have a full story, you know?
TM: And your father was a philosopher, is that right?
JM: Ortega y Gasset’s main disciple, yes.
TM: And so I wanted to ask you finally: There’s almost a philosophical world in which your fiction takes place, preoccupations with eternity, and infinity, and variation and the impossibility of variation, with, you know, what’s about to happen, what can never happen, everything has already happened. Have you been thinking about these things more or less your whole life, or was there a moment in your writing life where you thought, a-ha! “This should come into my work.”
JM: I don’t think my novels are philosophical at all, precisely because my father was a philosopher and I know … that there is a huge difference between what a novelist can do and what a philosopher does, to begin with.
What I do, I think, is a different thing, and I’m not the only one to do it—in the past, many of us did it—which is what you might call, and what I have called often, literary thinking. Which has nothing to do with thinking about literature, that would be boring, it’s thinking literarily of things.
I mean, you have all kinds of thinking, religious thinking, scientifical thinking, philosophical thinking, of course, psychoanalytic, whatever …all kinds of thinking. There is a literary way of thinking, as well. And it has some advantages, in comparison with philosophy, for instance. One of those things is when you all of a sudden say something in a novel that the reader recognizes as something truthful … I’ve often used the word “recognition” for novels. I think one of the things that moves me most as a reader is when I find a scene or a meditation or an observation in a novel and I recognize it and say, “Yes, yes, this is true. I have experienced this, but I didn’t know that I knew it, until I’ve seen it said by Proust.” Of course, he’s the master of that, or Shakespeare, as well. And then, [in a novel] you can say these things in a very arbitrary way. They are like flashes. Whereas philosophers—or at least the old philosophers—need to demonstrate the principle, need to demonstrate step by step what a novelist doesn’t.
On the contrary, a novelist just throws something, throws a true sentence, or a true observation. Someone who reads it may feel it’s true precisely because he recognizes something he didn’t know he knew. But he recognizes it and says, “I’ve experienced that.” And I think that’s quite a different thing. To answer your question, it’s not something that I already decided, “Oh, this could be useful for my novels.” No, I don’t look for subjects for my novels. For the last 30 years, I usually write on the same things that concern me in my life. And the things that make me think. And some of them are, for instance, secrecy, treason, friendship, betrayal … the impossibility of knowing anything for certain.
An earlier draft of this essay was published in Be: A Journal of Creative Expression in April 2017.
Ever since I came to Iowa City, I’ve spent a lot of time watching the sunset. The view is very different from anything I have seen in China.
The first thing I’ve noticed here in Iowa is that the sunset lasts so long. The sun seems so reluctant to retire to his palace that until 8 p.m. the summer night is still glowing, unbelievable for those who are used to a dark sky at 7. My old sense of the sunset is challenged. I don’t really see a circular red sun, like a boiled egg yolk, slowly sinking into the horizon; instead I see the gold light, dyeing the entire sky. I used to regard the color gold as more artificial than natural—a royal hue claimed exclusively by the emperor in the olden days, or the vulgar bling the newly rich like to wear in the modern day. Never have I seen it shimmering thus in the boundless sky, and I am transfixed by it.
If you go back to classical Chinese poetry, you will probably see that the image of sunset usually refers to “sorrows” and “sadness.” Li Shangyin, a famous poet in Tang Dynasty, wrote in “The Leyou Tombs,” “To see the sun, for all his glory, / Buried by the coming night” (translated by Witter Bynner). The sunset in Chinese is often called a “night sun” or a “slanting sun,” both metaphors of the very last light that one can hold in his life. The other day when I was waiting for a bus at around 7:30 p.m. in Iowa City, I saw the sky blazing and all the clouds outlined by the gold sunset light, like the gilded bronze reliefs in Gates of Paradise in Florence. I felt as if cherubs were about to jump out of one of the clouds. In 30 minutes’ ride, the horizon was still burning gold. I wondered, if I kept heading west, would I see a line of gold horizon forever? The sunset light conveys a message of hope rather than despair. Now I understand why the distinguished poet Carl Sandburg wrote the opposite of how Li Shangyin responded to the sunset:
I tell you there is nothing in the world/ only an ocean of tomorrows. / a sky of tomorrows. / I am a brother of the cornhuskers who say/ at sundown: / Tomorrow is a day.
The glowing gold lends infinite power to look forward to tomorrows.
In order to dig deeper into American culture when I came to Iowa, I attend a weekly Bible Study with Elva Craig, a fellow of Faith Baptist Church in Iowa City. Elva asked me a question when we were in the very beginning, reading Genesis: “The sun and the moon were not created by God until the fourth day of creation, and so where do you think the light came on the first day?” I have never thought of such a question before. “Well, I don’t know exactly myself,” Elva said. “But I pictured that on the very first day, God opened a window from Heaven to let the light of Heaven flow to the Earth.” There is some difficulty here—heaven was created after light rather than before light, on the second day. But I liked her interpretation. I thought many people in Western context might have a similar picture in mind when reading Genesis for the first time. Light thus becomes a crucial symbol in Western culture—the Lord’s first gift to lift men out of darkness.
Little by little, the concept of light broadens, and it incorporates richer content. Enlightenment Europe vividly depicted how “light of knowledge” is shone on men. Light seems to determine aesthetic criteria in the Western culture too: When decorating houses, people in America install plentiful windows, as glass is friendly to sunlight. You like to tile the floor of toilets with white ceramic tiles as those will bring more light in to make the place brighter and cleaner. City parks in Europe and America are patches of wide-spreading grass where one can enjoy as much sunshine as possible. Oh, how you love to bathe in the sun! Even when the beauty of a woman is presented in oil paintings or in literary works, the woman must be lit; otherwise, her beauty cannot be seen.
Once, during a thaw, the bark of the trees in the yard was oozing, the snow melted on the roofs of the buildings; she stood on the threshold, went to fetch her sunshade and opened it. The parasol, made of an iridescent silk that let sunlight sift through, colored the white skin of her face with shifting reflections. Beneath it, she smiled at the gentle warmth; drops of water fell one by one on the taut silk.
This is how Gustave Flaubert describes Emma in Madame Bovary. Without the sifting sunlight, Charles couldn’t catch her beauty. Perhaps that is why God created light on the first day.
Ancient Chinese people contributed many inventions to human civilization, but we did not invent glass, nor did we use glass often (even though we did have it as early as the late Spring and Autumn period, i.e., early fifth century B.C.). It seems to me that the reason is more due to aesthetic considerations than practical ones. Glass lets in too much sunlight, rendering the space totally exposed. Ancient Chinese people frowned at the idea of a complete view of a place. How boring! How unromantic! They preferred shadows to light.
In traditional East Asian architecture, we cover the window frames and door frames with paper. Paper softens the strong sunlight. The shapes of window frames and door frames—flowery patterns, shapes of Chinese characters—can cast their long mellow shadows to the inside of a house. Toilets become poetic, too! The fabulous Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki praised the Japanese toilet as “a place of spiritual repose.” Like Chinese ones, it is built outdoors, keeping a modest distance from the main building, and is usually set under a thatch roof in China, or in a grove “fragrant with leaves and moss” in Japan. “No words can describe that sensation as one sits in the dim light, basking in the faint glow reflected from the shoji, lost in meditation or gazing out at the garden,” Tanizaki wrote in In Praise of Shadows. These lines are by far the most beautiful words I have ever read of a toilet.
Our city parks are also different from their Western counterparts. Traditional Chinese city parks were designed in such a way that as you take a step forward, you capture a different glimpse of the same view. For example, our conventional parks are often dotted with pavilions. When you glance at a pavilion from far away, you see it surrounded by the stream and plants. When you near the pavilion, you will see how the roof, columns, and railings altogether frame a certain part of stream and only one or two plants, just like a Chinese painting—the Chinese poems carved on the columns echoing the verses inscribed by an artist on the margins of his painting. Then, when you go inside the pavilion and look out from one of its windows, you will notice in a corner where we place grotesque-shaped stones (“fake mountains” in literal translation) near the plants, in a way to mimic the bridges, mountains, and animals. Thus this corner becomes a miniature of nature itself. You never get a single view of a Chinese city park. Instead, you need to walk to discover the innumerable possibilities for beauty.
When drinking wine (baijiu, soju, and sake), we use colored ceramics or potteries, and often we inscribe Chinese characters on them or carve them into plantlike or animal-like shapes; then we can enjoy the colorful and interesting shadows in the cup when drinking.
If you have watched a few traditional Chinese operas, you would probably notice that Chinese beauties on the stage are likely to hide half of their faces behind their painted fans or long, well-embroidered sleeves. To us, these sleeves and fans render the women even more glamourous. Instead of having a full picture of what the woman looks like, we imagine her looks, her voice, and her character based on our limited sight of her. In our fantasies, her beauty is infinite. Also, we dare not look directly at a woman as it is considered very rude in our culture. What we can do is to steal a look at a tiny little part of her and complement our delight as well as regrets with our imagination.
A woman’s eye floated up before him. He almost called out in his astonishment. But he had been dreaming, and when he came to himself he saw that it was only the reflection in the window of the girl opposite. Outside it was growing dark, and the lights had been turned on in the train, transforming the window into a mirror. The mirror had been clouded over with steam until he drew that line across it.
The above paragraph is from Snow Country, written by Japanese novelist Yasunari Kawabata, the 1968 Nobel Prize winner for literature. His angle of showcasing a woman’s beauty is distinct from Flaubert’s. He lets the male narrator capture a glimpse of only a small part of the woman: her single eye. It could seem more terrifying than pleasant for Western readers. This kind of gaze is very common for a man in Eastern countries to meet a woman. Zhou Zuoren, a great prose writer in modern Chinese literary history, depicts the beauty of his first love only by showing her feet, as her feet are the only sight he dares to catch—he merely glues his eyes to the floor. Whereas Flaubert eventually focuses on the light cast on the white skin of Emma, Kawabata blurs his literary camera with “steam.” Here, the steam, functioning similarly to the sleeves or the fans in traditional Chinese operas, holds the woman at a decent distance from her admirer, thus making her untouchable and more enigmatic. Beauty is not what we see in the light, but how we imagine what we cannot see.
I am writing nostalgically of a traditional Eastern culture; it is all gone. Nowadays, we all install glass windows, tile the floor with white ceramic, and try every means to make our “home, sweet home” a “clean, well-lit place.” Modernization and Westernization have compelled us to abandon cherished practices. But I can’t help wondering: Can we reserve a little space for our own, where we worship our shadows, not your light?
Stefan Zweig — the renowned Viennese writer who, in the 1930s, chose exile over Adolf Hitler — adored his books. As he moved globally among temporary residences, the collection followed, providing an anchor of stability in a world gone adrift. “They are there,” he wrote of his volumes, “waiting and silent.” It was left to him, the avid reader, to grab them, feel them, and make them speak some measure of sense to his unhinged experience.
Books offered Zweig, in part, a predictable form of comfort. “They neither urge, nor press their claims,” he observed. “Mutely they are ranged along the wall…If you direct your glances their way or move your hands over them, they do not call out to you in supplication.” In his thoughtful and often riveting book, The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, George Prochnik quotes the author describing how it felt to approach a full bookcase: “A hundred names meet your searching glance silently and patiently…humbly awaiting the call and yet blissful to be chosen, to be enjoyed.” No matter where he lived — New York, London, Rio — Zweig maintained access to this form of bibliophilic bliss to the end.
Anyone who relates to such an attraction will understand it as an intellectually unique, often aesthetically sublime, experience. And now, according to two Italian economists, it might also be financially beneficial. As reported by one of the weirder studies undertaken last year (focused only on men between 60 and 96), growing up around books — simply existing in their physical presence — corresponded to higher income over time. “Those [kids 10 or older] with many books,” the authors write, “enjoyed substantially higher returns to their additional education.” The media, as you might imagine, feasted on the news. Headlines went from “Books You Should Read to Get Rich” to “Boys Who Grow Up Around Books Earn Significantly More Money.” Who cares if Bill Bill Gates reads 50 books a year? Now all you needed to do — according to the new research — was to put on display at least 10 of them. Ka-ching.
Zweig grew up around books — more than 10 — and, incidentally, he became rich. His novels — Amok, Confusion, The Royal Game, to name a few — and biographies — on Marie Antoinette and Erasmus most notably — flew from the shelves. He was the most translated German-language writer before World War II. His 1941 autobiography, The World of Yesterday, was recently translated into English and continues to sell at a brisk pace (not everyone is happy is about that). That’s good for Zweig, his legacy, and his fans.
But there’s a distinction to draw here. The economists who conducted the “books make you wealthier” study were merely confirming the point that cultural capital corresponds to book ownership. It’s a point so obvious it’s almost meaningless. Any family who owns books, and considers books to be even symbolically significant enough to display them, is a family that nurtures the educational ethos required to make money. But none of that concerned Zweig. Zweig courted (and carted) his books not for the cultural capital they represented; he did so for their imaginative fertility, their ready source of escapism, the touchstone they offered to an inner reality. Speaking about a room full of books, he once said, “How good it is there to create and be alone.” Their decorative presence took a back seat to their seminal emotional power. It’s what they did for him — his imagination, his sense of self, his rampant curiosity — that mattered most to Stefan Zweig. The wealth was incidental.
Zweig’s love of books, considered against their supposed wealth-generating capability, presents a compelling dichotomy that’s quite relevant today: Books as remunerative symbols of educational attainment versus books as objects that allow us to drop out and delve inwards. This dichotomy is relevant because, for one, it fundamentally alters the big question everyone keeps asking about the book as a physical object. No longer is it “will the book endure?” Instead, it’s “why will the book endure?”
Yes the book will endure. Of course the book will endure. You’ve likely heard a million people rhapsodize about the alluring physicality of books. They’re correct to do so. You’ve also likely heard the news that independent bookstores are making a comeback. This is also as it should be. As an empirical matter, reading on a tablet cannot remotely approach the sensual literary experience offered by an old-fashioned book. The latter is, I’d venture, intrinsically more pleasurable than the former, not unlike the intrinsic difference between high quality toilet paper and the sandpaper stuff used in bus stations. And while it’s true that Socrates expressed grave concern that the written word would erode memory and storytelling, his distinguished descendant, Cicero, had it exactly right when he said, “A room without books is like a body without a soul.”
Of course, a room stuffed to the rafters with books can also be as soulless as a tin can. These days, if our Italian economists are right, books are often nothing more than decoration for social strivers. The fact that cultural capital can evidently be correlated with actual capital is another way of saying that a wall of books has nothing necessarily to do with the literary ambitions of the resident reader. Consider the “books by the foot” trend — that is, the option of purchasing random books in bulk for the singular purpose of showing them off rather than reading them. This commercial genre is exceedingly popular with interior decorators, so much so that, as if to stay a step ahead of the skepticism, bulk book suppliers have specialized by tailoring books for the client’s purported general interests (to make it really seem like this is a library reflecting the owner’s personal literary tastes), while still color-coordinating book covers to match the pillow slips. In this respect, the purchase and display of books becomes a conspicuous example of what the late French literary critic René Girard, in Mimesis and Theory, calls “external mediation” — the process whereby a person’s displayed tastes and desires influence those of others — resulting in the cheapest and least meaningful form of imitation.
If this is how we’re going to save the book — decorative mimicry — well then, forget it. True believers know that a room with books should accomplish something altogether more subversive and selfishly edifying — that it should foster radical internal mediation rather than decorative inspiration. Books should conspicuously confirm the persistence, in the face of so many competing (and lesser) forms of distraction, of a fierce dedication to promiscuous reading, the kind that requires — a la Zweig — that walls of literature be constantly approached, scanned, and chosen from. And then — the part that we rarely talk about when we talk about books — a roomful of books must be allowed to exact a cost. The thing about a room full of books is that conquering it, living within it as a real reader, treating it as it should be treated, means making sacrifices that deeply effect other human beings — and not always in a good way. The refraction of personal experience, when pursued through a physical book, is ours alone. As Emma in Madame Bovary knew very well, reading was a venue for the most satisfying selfishness. The “reality of experience,” as it’s noted at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is forged in the smithy of a single soul. When we read we become our own wistful Emma, our own self-absorbed Dedalus. You are with you. That’s it. And people might get annoyed by that.
I had to laugh when I read that being around books makes you more money. At the beginning of 2015, I started a well-paying freelance research gig. On paper, it was ideal: I worked from home, I made my own hours, I kept my day job teaching undergraduates, and the topic was interesting enough. The problem was that my home office, where I was to do my research, contains nearly 2,000 books. Many of them I have yet to read. Just as many I want to read again. After a day and half of working in my office, sitting amid these book-lined walls, I was broken by environment. Their visual allure and the promise of what they contained was too much to ignore as I did my official job. My letter of resignation followed. I remember that when my (dumbfounded) employer responded (he said I was “impetuous” and “foolish”) I was reading Middlemarch. A lot of people around me have paid a price for my choice. But Zweig, I am sure, would have approved.