Several years ago, I spent a summer traveling back and forth between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., to visit the Ralph Ellison papers stored at the Library of Congress. I had long been enthralled by Invisible Man, Ellison’s seminal 1952 novel of race and identity in the waning years of Jim Crow. But I wasn’t taking the train into the nation’s capital twice a week because of anything he had published during his lifetime. I was there to immerse myself in the26 folders containing the thousands of pages of drafts and notes for a second novel Ellison had spent 40 years writing but never completed.
Ellison began work on the untitled novel (long excerpts of which were published in 2010 as Three Days Before the Shooting . . .) less than a year after the publication of Invisible Man. He had envisioned it as a sweeping tragedy of race in America centered on the story of a boy named Bliss, whose skin appears white but whose parentage is ambiguous. Adopted by a former black jazz trombonist turned preacher named Alonzo Hickman, Bliss would eventually discover the protean power of racial ambiguity and reinvent himself as a white, race-baiting United States Senator from Massachusetts. Years after his ascent to political prominence, he would deliver an improvised speech on the Senate floor that would be cut short when his estranged son attempted to assassinate him from the balcony. After being shuttled to a local hospital, Bliss would confront his own tragic past alongside the man who had raised him.
Shortly after Ellison died in 1994, his wife, Fanny, implored Ellison’s literary executor, John Callahan, to tell her whether her late husband’s second novel had a beginning, a middle, and an end. As Callahan sifted through the reams of writing that filled Ellison’s home office, he found only fragments, some of which were virtually novels unto themselves.
As I sat in the Library of Congress’s reading room poring over drafts swamped with marginalia, paragraphs for episodes that never materialized, and ephemera scribbled on the backs of grocery store receipts and old envelopes, I was alternately entranced and dismayed. Amidst this thicket of sentences and ideas, I had hoped to discover a plan, an ending, or—better yet—an explanation for why this writer of the first order hadn’t completed what he was certain would be his magnum opus. I never found any of these. Instead, I was given an inside view of artistic struggle stretched across decades that had resulted not in the conquest of an author over form but in a sprawling curiosity cabinet of literary possibilities.
The duration and singular focus of Ellison’s work on his second novel seemed to me without parallel in literary history. Even Robert Musil, who had spent two decades laboring over The Man Without Qualities (still only half the time Ellison spent), managed to publish two volumes of the work during his lifetime. Ellison’s failure to finish his novel struck me as something for the record books, unintentional though it may have been. The thrill I felt in living in Ellison’s unfinished world—where a scrawled note or a stray revision could shuttle me down a new intellectual rabbit hole—was distinct from my experience with completed novels. It was more collaborative, more free-wheeling, more alive with—for lack of a better word—novelty. And it led me to wonder if unfinished novels constituted a genre of their own and, assuming they did, whether it would be possible to assemble a canon of literary catastrophes.
After scouring archives and bibliographies in search of this canon, it became clear that not all unfinished novels are unfinished in the same way. The most familiar type, I discovered, were those left unfinished at an author’s death that would have almost certainly been completed had the author lived a year or two longer. This is especially true of unfinished novels from the Victorian era, a period known for prolific writing. Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Wilkie Collins’s Blind Love, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters are just a few examples. Later in the 19th century, Gustave Flaubert died while writing Bouvard et Pécuchet. And more recently, the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño managed to produce a fair-copy manuscript of his masterpiece, 2666, before he died of liver failure in 2003 at the age of 50.
Some novels left unfinished by authorial death are also haunted by mortality, which makes their unfinishedness feel more fitting. Jane Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon, about a group of hypochondriacs languishing at an English health resort, is such a novel. Its obsession with illness infects the narrative, enervating the central courtship plot. According to the critic D.A. Miller, the novel’s prose is similarly depleted, which led him to quip that Sanditon is the sole Austen novel to feature a death, that of the author as inimitable stylist.
There are occasions, too, when an author, anxious about the fate of their unfinished work, seeks to destroy it before it can be made public, incineration being the preferred method. Franz Kafka asked this of Max Brod in the 1920s and Vladimir Nabokov of his wife and son in the 1970s. Nikolai Gogol took it upon himself to burn most of the second part of Dead Souls shortly before he died in 1852. In 2016, the late fantasy writer Terry Pratchett told his friend Neil Gaiman—in what I take to be a wry commentary on this trope of literary obliteration—that he wanted all his unfinished projects “to be put in the middle of the road and for a steamroller to steamroll over them all.” This request was executed last fall in Salisbury, England, by a steamroller named Lord Jericho.
But the most interesting unfinished novels, to my mind, are those whose authors strived tirelessly to complete them but who, finally, couldn’t.
The term we often hear used to describe this vague condition is “writer’s block.” This pseudo-psychological diagnosis is so common as to be immune from critique. Yet it profoundly mischaracterizes the turmoil and energy that are elemental to literary failure. It implies immobility and obstruction when, in fact, unfinishedness is often a consequence of overflow and excess. Mark Twain wrote multiple iterations of his unfinished novel The Mysterious Stranger, Nathaniel Hawthorne aborted three romances in as many years at the end of his life, and David Foster Wallace generated heaps of prose for The Pale King before he committed suicide in 2008.
A more accurate term, I think, is “agony.” Although the word now denotes intense mental suffering, the Greek word agonia originally meant a “struggle for victory,” and the combatant who did the struggling was called an agonist. The agony of authors like Ellison, Twain, and Wallace, along with others like Truman Capote, combined these senses. In their unfinished novels, we bear witness to a contest between an author and their work beneath which flows a current of psychological anguish. This palpable sense of friction is one of the chief beauties of unfinished novels.
Ralph Ellison’s agony was visible in the ebb and flow of his writing process. Periods of concentrated forward momentum were followed by periods of furious revision and, occasionally, of inertia. What he produced is a work that stretches both up (via his obsessive rewriting of episodes) and out (the sequences he wrote in his later were sometimes hundreds of pages long) as he ceaselessly searched for a coherence that ultimately evaded him. Although Ellison continued to assure even his closest confidantes that he would complete his novel, certain episodes he composed late in life betray his own suspicions that the work might, perhaps, be unfinishable.
In a particularly poignant sequence from the 1980s, the elderly preacher Hickman spies a tapestry depicting Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” in the lobby of a Washington, D.C., hotel. Breughel’s original painting imagined the grand tragedy of Icarus’s hubristic flight to the sun within a medieval world whose daily rhythms of commerce and labor reduce the boy’s fall to insignificance. The painting is so alive with the mundane activities of normal folk that Icarus is but a dot in the distance, unacknowledged by the painting’s occupants and barely visible to the viewer. As Hickman ponders the tapestry and teases out its many meanings, Ellison seems also to be reflecting on how his own novel had become a picture frozen in time, its central tragedy overwhelmed by the elaborate world he had built around it.
Although Ellison never capitalized on this insight into his own work, one can hypothesize an alternate universe in which he had embraced the unfinishability of his novel and published it as a fragmentary narrative without conclusion. Such a decision wouldn’t have been without precedence either.
In my ambles through the history of literary failure, I discovered that not every unfinishable novel is as tortured as Ellison’s was. Indeed, many embrace unfinishability as an aesthetic virtue. This is certainly true of postmodern novels like Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which revel in their potential endlessness, but earlier centuries had their partisans of the unfinished, too. Herman Melville concludes a chapter of Moby-Dick, for instance, with the declaration, “God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught.”
One of the most famous examples of this kind of work is also among the earliest. Laurence Sterne’s rollicking 18th-century comic novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, begins with its titular narrator declaring his intention to relate the story of his life only to get hopelessly lost in digressions that derail any narrative momentum. Like Scheherazade in A Thousand and One Nights, he writes to defer death, every digressive thread extending his life by a few pages. Sterne published the novel in parts between 1759 and 1767 (about two volumes every two years) with the hope that he would never stop. “The whole machine,” observes Tristram, “shall be kept a going [for] forty years.” The fact that the ninth and final volume ends four years before its narrator’s birth proves just how long Sterne could have kept this up. He died in 1768.
Ellison never wrote an ending to his second novel. In the four decades he worked on it, he jotted only a few scattered notes hinting at the aftermath of his tragic hero’s death. As it stands, the novel abruptly ends in a small hospital room in Washington, D.C., with the old preacher resting beside the nearly lifeless body of his adopted son as the latter prepares to draw his last breath. That he never does leaves readers on a narrative precipice with neither catharsis nor resolution to comfort them.
That Ellison never finished his novel does not diminish his achievement, but it does alter our view of it. Unfinished novels prod us to relinquish conventional approaches to reading and to seek literary pleasure elsewhere than narrative unity. They demand that we attend to dead ends as well as to false starts, to charged silences as well as to verbal excesses. They ask us to see what meanings can be gleaned from a process that has not yet hardened into product. Though their plots may be arrested, this fact does not make them any less arresting.
Image Credit: LPW.
Mark de Silva wrote his debut novel Square Wave (Two Dollar Radio) between the hours of five and eight a.m., before day jobs at such revered publications as The Paris Review, Harper’s, and The New York Times. For the first five years, he showed it to no one, sparing friends and colleagues the awkwardness of false encouragement.
Contrary to the literary pedigree in which he steeps, de Silva comes from philosophy (he has a Bachelor’s from Brown and a PhD from Cambridge). He doesn’t want to be Jonathan Franzen or even Jonathan Lethem. He questions the rise of absorbing, familiar “memoir fiction,” and insinuates that J-Franz dumbed down for his audience to double his dollar. In a sprawling 3:AM Magazine essay from last December, de Silva writes:
Consider how many novels of agreed artistic merit — Tristram Shandy, Moby Dick, The Man Without Qualities, To the Lighthouse, or, to take Franzen’s chosen status-model exemplar, The Recognitions — make no attempt to hold us in a continuous state of absorption. Their authors could not have failed to understand, in writing them, that it would have to be the ravenousness of the reader’s mind that drove him through these books, if anything did.
The ravenousness of the reader’s must drive him or her through Square Wave. By the author’s own admission, his is a strange, unflinching work that almost defies explanation. It takes place in the future, and the past, but it’s really about the present. It is equal parts discursive and destructive, philosophical and textural. His is a sci-fi novel of ideas — the former term a pejorative by literary standards, the latter one by de Silva’s.
I appreciate de Silva’s ideas, and his sentences, and his time, and his candor, but I won’t pretend I grasped the bulk of his book.
The Millions: You’ve said that the Square Wave writing process was deeply intuitive. Did you map out the plot beforehand?
Mark de Silva: Definitely not. I used index cards, but they were bits of sense memory, like the gleam of a knife or something. That would be enough to trigger a scene. That’s all I wanted from the index card. I didn’t want a fixed idea because I was writing what I knew would be regarded as a novel of ideas. I was especially wary about the wooden kind of book that comes out over-determined. It almost seems like a kind of allegory or parable; I was very concerned not to do that. It seems like such a waste both of philosophy and of literature: it’s the worst of both worlds. It’s not rigorous philosophy and it’s not glorious or imaginative literature.
I was wary of thinking about it too much. But I had had no real creative writing background since my undergrad days, when I had done a few fiction pieces and a couple of workshops. So I was doing this research and taking these notes and just hoping I could summon capacities that I had no real knowledge I could.
TM: Did you run into doubt?
MDS: When I applied for the Paris Review internship — you have to do these analyses of pieces and suggest what’s wrong, whether this belongs in the Review or not — my dad said, “How would you know anything about it?” [Laughs.] I said, “Well, I read a lot. Why does the world have to be this credentialized thing?” So I was starting from that outsider’s point of view from the beginning, even getting that job. I thought, I’m just gonna build from scratch, without an idea of what’s right and what’s wrong. And that was true of the entire book; it was a seat-of-the-pants thing. It was scary to do, but it was also like, look man, you’re not part of that creative writing world, you’re gonna have to find your own terms. Because I didn’t want to write a standard literary novel in the way that we have, you know, good novels by people like, say, Maggie Shipstead. I knew that wasn’t me, because I wanted to draw on all the philosophy and all that I had done. I knew there was not going to be a great template for what I was doing, so I said fuck it, I’m just going to run with it, see where my instincts take me.
TM: How did the work you read at the Paris Review and Harper’s affect that outsider’s mentality?
MDS: Being at The Paris Review was wonderful in the sense of — first of all it’s a great operation, a very interesting place with very smart people. But it was also teaching me that I was not going to write a Paris Review story. It’s just not who I am. We had a story run by Claire Vaye Watkins, another by Alexandra Kleeman, and Jonathan Franzen. It was a nice time to be there; we caught a lot of these big things. And Lorin Stein was just taking over, so there was a new regime. Lorin Stein plays a big role in shaping New York sensibilities; I think that’s fair to say.
I was seeing that, as much as I respected what was in the magazine — like I get why it’s in the magazine — I also did not feel an intuitive bond to it. These weren’t the stories I wanted to tell. It almost steeled me against becoming a hack Paris Review writer, like a bad version of Alexandra Kleeman. I figured, draw on your strength — your strength is your difference. Your strength is that you’re not one of these people. You’re not a Yale English major who has dreamt all their life to write for the Paris Review. You’re this weird philosophy guy who’s trying to find some way of harnessing his idiosyncratic sensibilities, and maybe it’s literature.
TM: Square Wave is a challenging book. Did you worry at all about its marketability?
MDS: I knew from the beginning that this was gonna be a difficult book to sell. [Laughs.] I wasn’t totally surprised when a lot of agents — who were nice enough to read, you know — just sort of shrugged their shoulders, saying, “I don’t even know how to criticize what you’ve done.” They didn’t say, “I didn’t buy that motivation;” that’s not the kind of criticism I got. It was more like, “I don’t know what to make of it. I don’t know what kind of market exists for something like this.” [Laughs.]
But I was inspired by people like Tom McCarthy. I also remember reading Javier Marías, who has become for me a very important writer because he’s very discursive, very philosophical. But also his language is very, very literary, and he refers to his work as a mode of literary thinking. In other words, thinking and literature, thinking and scene and sense detail are one thing — not two things. It isn’t pretty language mapped onto thinking, or taking rigorous thinking and finding a way to turn it into literature. It’s trying to do both at the same time. I took great inspiration from Marías, because I saw this guy and thought, Oh, some people do this.
TM: One of the themes of the book is that violence is inevitable and often unfathomable. If that’s the case, what should we do? How should that truth shape our philosophy and/or our politics?
MDS: I think the book…Thinking about it now, the book is an attempt to grapple — without that distance that’s normally part of academia — to grapple in a real life, textural way with just that question. It would be nice to believe that all our social problems or moral dilemmas could be resolved through mechanisms that became part of the culture as far back as the Glorious Revolution. From that point on, there’s a rejection of monarchy, the sovereign as an absolute, and the people are in charge of a parliamentary system. From that point on, we’ve believed that the parliamentarian system of consensus-building amongst discrete points of view is the best mode of governance. I don’t think the book is necessarily a rejection of that, but the book is a revisitation of the question, like, how certain can we be that these Enlightenment mechanisms can lead to a stable society?
In a community that’s so fractured — the way obviously America is, as well as many other parts of the world — is a simple taking of votes the way to solve those problems? Where the state is simply a managing agent, a sort of referee. We tabulate votes, and whoever gets the most, we’re gonna live that way. And the rest of the people are gonna have to learn to live with it. That’s our system, now, you know, and that 49 percent who lost end up feeling really, really unhappy. It’s the consequence of a certain kind of democratic, almost legalistic-democratic thinking, of poll-taking, vote-taking. Where the losers just have to live with it. Like suck it up, you lost.
TM: In our defense, that competitive streak does seem very American.
MDS: And now we’ve come to laugh at the half that lost! We’re not even trying to connect with them anymore. Like, “We have Congress now. You’ll live like us now.” And then the next election, “Oh, now we have Congress.” Or, “We have the President.” We’re not communicating anymore. I don’t think so. We just want to win. We want to win, and the book is about that idea of factional winning, right, ’cause there are all these competing factions — and how it seems the driving force for many of them is simply, “I wanna come out on top so that I can dominate the rest of the players. As long as I can hold on, then I don’t have to take the rest of the players seriously.” I think that’s how the book proceeds in a certain way. It’s frightening, but I do think it’s true to a certain kind of neutered conception of democracy.
Parts of the book suggest that the state itself has to take a stand on this. A community has to have shared values. It’s not enough to say, “We vote, and if I win, you’re gonna live like me,” or, “If you win, I’ll live like you.” That’s not a good agreement. That’s the contract theory, right? A contractual view of politics maybe is not as good as a communitarian view, where we say, “Tell me why living the way you want to live is a good idea. Just tell me.” Let’s have moral debates rather than vote-taking debates. I think a lot of our politics now is about who can get better numbers at the poll, rather than actually reaching out and trying to convince someone of a way of life.
TM: I’m assuming the current election season reinforces that notion for you?
MDS: Absolutely. I mean look at the way the elections are covered; we’re not even interested in understanding. We want to ridicule the Tea Party, but is that really productive, for even a leftist? I actually don’t think that’s productive. I think we have to ask what is motivating these people. After 9/11, for instance, the original reaction was, “We just need to kill a bunch of the people from the Middle East.” I mean, let’s face it, there was a bloodlust. Later people starting thinking very systematically — I think Susan Sontag said very shortly after, and very controversially, “We need to ask questions. Why would anyone be driven to do such heinous things, and to throw away their own life?” Like, these are suicide bombers. Something must be going on. These people are not insane. They don’t need to go to a psychiatrist. But that’s how we portrayed them: monsters.
They’re people who somehow feel betrayed. And I feel, in a different way, that with the Tea Party — from a solid, liberal-leaning citizen, which I feel like I am, essentially — that our obligation is to say, “What could drive someone to a Tea Party view?” Not to say, “Let’s rally troops and win, because these guys are nuts.” I don’t like that, and I don’t think that’s productive.
I’ve said this in a very roundabout way, but that’s my feeling about politics, and I think that comes out in the book.
TM: You’ve also said that you like the idea of stretching people’s brains a bit, and making them read something they wouldn’t normally read.
TM: You called these kinds of books — your kind of book — an “acquired taste.”
TM: If your book is an acquired taste, what is it?
MDS: [Laughs.] It’s like a 140-proof, barrel-strength whiskey. It doesn’t go down easy. In terms of the reading experience, it has to be consumed quite slowly. We’ve gotten used to immediacy and absorption and rapidity. We expect books to just pull us in and run with it. This is a book that you should probably not try to read 100 pages of in a night.
I like literature, and experiences in life, that — rather than cater to our existing intuitions about how life works, or about how literature works — expand our understanding of common sense. I hope a book like mine will strike someone as violating a lot of common sense ideas about literature. I know it will. It violates my common sense about literature, and I wrote it. I had to follow my intuitions to this strange place. I know it’s kind of crazy and unstable and uncomfortable: that’s how I felt writing it. So you could say, in the weird way “memoir fiction” is all the rage now, that’s the way that autobiography figures in mine.
The Public Domain Review takes a look at the “Class of 2013,” a k a their “top pick of artists and writers whose works will, on 1st January 2013, be entering the public domain.” Among the names highlighted is Robert Musil, whose novel The Man Without Qualities was reviewed on our site by Matthew Gallaway.
After years of taunting me from a bookshelf close to my desk, I’ve finally faced up to the portrait of Robert Musil spread across the two spines that hold together The Man Without Qualities. The decision to read this modernist masterwork started out as a reluctant acceptance of a self-imposed challenge. I mean, who really wants to read over 1,000 pages about Austrian-Hungarian aristocrats trying to invent ideas about how to maintain power structures that have already crumbled? Yet Musil, who started the book in 1921 and worked on it until his death in 1942, wastes no time establishing a scope of ideas that are prescient and read as if written today, fully-realized observations of how commerce and industry render us anonymous cogs in a great global machine that chips away at the individual. Here are two gems to whet your appetite: “A world of qualities without a man has arisen, of experiences without the person who experiences them, and it almost looks as though ideally private experience is a thing of the past;” “Democracy means, expressed most succinctly: Do whatever is happening!”
I don’t like toting around big books though, so when on the move my reads were physically lighter but just as memorable. Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero is like a translation of itself, stories told and retold across eras between Northern California and rural France, hauntingly delicate like whispers not meant to be heard. The Bay Area is also a character in McTeague. Frank Norris’s tale of a boarding house dentist has all the qualities of any good story — faith in the future, betrayal, soured romance, comic relief — not to mention a Death Valley showdown that makes for one of those pitch-perfect endings. All writers should aim to wrap up their stories with such precision.
And though I read it early this year, and reviewed it here, I keep thinking about Geoff Dyers’s Zona, erudite, intimate, and humorous, I wish more books about other works of art were so assured and capable.
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To be gay in a civil-rights era often seems like an us-versus-them declaration, which — as much as I support the cause — can be exhausting. Like most people, I don’t always want to feel like a placard. So whenever I’m feeling burned out on the news, I look for more nuanced and complicated or let’s just say “literary” characters/voices, which this year I found in two amazing novels, one older that I re-read and one new, both of which transcend two-dimensional arguments about homosexuality and weave questions about what it means to be gay into narratives about humanity and — perhaps more important — becoming an artist.
A Book of Memories by Peter Nadas was first published in Europe in the mid-80s and follows a Hungarian living in Cold War East Berlin, where he falls in love with a frustrated poet (another man) who longs to escape to the West. Chapters jump between the narrator’s adult life and memories of his childhood, a structure made almost insanely complicated by a third series of chapters — again written in the first person — by a belle-epoch writer who also moves back and forth between his past and present. Despite the logistical challenges — and at first it can be hard to tell exactly who’s writing — it’s a beautiful and rewarding read. Nadas captures the many selves and desires, often conflicting, which reside in all of us, and his descriptions of adolescence are particularly gripping, when he must come to terms with living in a police state and with a secret love he feels for another boy. The book should resonate with anyone who has endured questions about identity while navigating through what often feels like terrifying, brutal, and shifting alliances in our circles of friends and enemies.
Inferno (A Poet’s Novel) by Eileen Myles is much easier to digest on a sentence-by-sentence level, but no less profound. In what feels more like a memoir (albeit one concerned with self-invention) Myles — though again, not chronologically — after growing up in Boston describes moving to Manhattan to pursue a career as a poet and, later, a lesbian. (And she uses the word “career” to describe both, which is painful, hilarious, and not exactly PC in the manner of much of the book.) Myles has an intoxicating willingness to try anything — or well, just about, whether involving sex, drugs, or supplicating herself to important people in her downtown scene — in her decades-long march to become a paid artist. At times her deadpan cool seems emotionally detached (and no coincidence, one of her favorite books is The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil), but by the end it’s clear she has mastered her craft to an extent that as a reader it’s almost impossible not to feel deficient for being anything but a poet/lesbian, and specifically anyone but Eileen Myles. (Which is a pretty amazing trick when you step back and consider the political power held by lesbian poets in our society at this juncture generally speaking.) For Myles, the issue is not “it gets better” but a rather more punk-rock “it IS better,” which I found to be the perfect antidote — a kind of artistic redemption — to the more depressing tedium that so often accompanies the painstaking march for political/social equality.
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I used to be the kind of reader who gives short shrift to long novels. I used to take a wan pleasure in telling friends who had returned from a tour of duty with War and Peace or The Man Without Qualities with that I’ve-seen-some-things look in their eyes—the thousand-page stare—that they had been wasting their time. In the months it had taken them to plough through one book by some logorrheic modernist or world-encircling Russian, I had read a good eight to ten volumes of svelter dimensions. While they were bench-pressing, say, Infinite Jest for four months solid, I had squared away most of the major Nouveau Romanciers, a fistful of Thomas Bernhards, every goddamned novel Albert Camus ever wrote, and still had time to read some stuff I actually enjoyed.
I was a big believer, in other words, in the Slim Prestige Volume. Nothing over 400 pages. Why commit yourself to one gigantic classic when you can read a whole lot of small classics in the same period of time, racking up at least as much intellectual cachet while you were at it? I took Hippocrates’ famous dictum about ars being longa and vita being brevis as a warning against starting a book in your twenties that might wind up lying still unfinished on the nightstand of your deathbed. Aside from the occasional long novel––one every twelve to eighteen months––I was a Slim Prestige Volume man, and that seemed to be that.
Even when I went back to college in my mid-twenties to do a PhD in English literature, I still relied on a kind of intellectual cost-benefit analysis that persuaded me that my time was better spent broadening than deepening—or, as it were, thickening—my reading. Had I read Dostoevsky? Sure I had: I’d spent a couple of rainy evenings with Notes From Underground, and found it highly agreeable. Much better than The Double, in fact, which I’d also read. So yeah, I knew my Dostoevsky. Next question, please. Ah yes, Tolstoy! Who could ever recover from reading The Death of Ivan Illych, that thrilling (and thrillingly brief) exploration of mortality and futility?
There’s a memorable moment in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 where Amalfitano, the unhinged Catalan professor of literature, encounters a pharmacist working the night shift at his local drug store whom he discovers is reading his way diligently through the minor works of the major novelists. The young pharmacist, we are told, “chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pécuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers.” This causes Amalfitano to reflect on the “sad paradox” that “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.”
Apart from being a powerful vindication of Bolaño’s own staggering ambition, and of his novel’s vast and unyielding darkness, I found that this passage reflected something of my own slightly faint-hearted reading practices (practices from which, by the time I had got around to reading the 900-page 2666, I had obviously started to deviate). A bit of a bookish pharmacist myself, I was content with netting minnows like Bartleby, while leaving the great Moby-Dick-sized leviathans largely unharpooned. I was fond of Borges’ famous remark about its being “a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books,” and tended to extrapolate from it a dismissal of reading them too—as though Borges, the great wanderer and mythologizer of labyrinths, would ever have approved of such readerly timidity.
And then, three or four years ago, something changed. For some reason I can’t recall (probably a longish lapse in productivity on my thesis) I set myself the task of reading a Great Big Important Novel. For another reason I can’t recall (probably the fact that it had been sitting on a shelf for years, its pages turning the sullen yellow of neglected great books), I settled on Gravity’s Rainbow. I can’t say that I enjoyed every minute of it, or even that I enjoyed all that much of it at all, but I can say that by the time I got to the end of it I was glad to have read it. Not just glad that I had finally finished it, but that I had started it and seen it through. I felt as though I had been through something major, as though I had not merely experienced something but done something, and that the doing and the experiencing were inseparable in the way that is peculiar to the act of reading. And I’ve had that same feeling, I realize, with almost every very long novel I’ve read before or since.
You finish the last page of a book like Gravity’s Rainbow and—even if you’ve spent much of it in a state of bewilderment or frustration or irritation—you think to yourself, “that was monumental.” But it strikes me that this sense of monumentality, this gratified speechlessness that we tend to feel at such moments of closure and valediction, has at least as much to do with our own sense of achievement in having read the thing as it does with a sense of the author’s achievement in having written it. When you read the kind of novel that promises to increase the strength of your upper-body as much as the height of your brow—a Ulysses or a Brothers Karamazov or a Gravity’s Rainbow—there’s an awe about the scale of the work which, rightly, informs your response to it but which, more problematically, is often difficult to separate from an awe at the fact of your own surmounting of it.
The upshot of this, I think, is that the greatness of a novel in the mind of its readers is often alloyed with those readers’ sense of their own greatness (as readers) for having conquered it. I don’t think William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, for instance, is nearly as fantastic a novel as people often claim it is. But it is one of the most memorable and monumental experiences of my reading life. And these are the reasons why: because the thing was just so long; because I had such a hard time with it; and because I eventually finished it. (I read it as part of an academic reading group devoted to long and difficult American novels, and I’m not sure I would have got to the end of it otherwise). Reading a novel of punishing difficulty and length is a version of climbing Everest for people who prefer not to leave the house. And people who climb Everest don’t howl with exhilaration at the summit because the mountain was a good or a well made or an interesting mountain per se, but because they’re overawed at themselves for having done such a fantastically difficult thing. (I’m willing to concede that they may not howl with exhilaration at all, what with the tiredness, the lack of oxygen and very possibly the frostbite. I’ll admit to being on shaky ground here, as I’ve never met anyone who’s climbed Everest, nor am I likely to if I continue not going out of the house.)
And there is, connected with this phenomenon, what I think of as Long Novel Stockholm syndrome. My own first experience of it—or at least my first conscious experience of it—was, again, with The Recognitions. With any novel of that difficulty and length (976 pages in my prestigiously scuffed and battered Penguin edition), the reader’s aggregate experience is bound to be composed of a mixture of frustrations and pleasures. But what I found with Gaddis’s gigantic exploration of fraudulence and creativity was that, though they were greatly outnumbered by the frustrations, the pleasures seemed to register much more firmly. If I were fully honest with myself, I would have had to admit that I was finding the novel gruelingly, unsparingly tedious. But I wasn’t prepared to be fully honest with myself. Because every couple of hundred pages or so, Gaddis would take pity on me and throw me a bone in the form of an engaging, genuinely compelling set piece. Like the wonderful episode in which one of the characters, under the impression that he is being given a gift of $5,000 by his long-lost father whom he has arranged to meet at a hotel, is in fact mistakenly being given a suitcase full of counterfeit cash by a failed confidence man. And then Gaddis would roll up his sleeves again and get back to the real business of boring me insensible with endless pages of direct-dialogue bluster about art, theology and the shallowness of post-war American culture.
I kept at it, doughtily ploughing my way through this seemingly inexhaustible stuff, holding out for another interlude of clemency from an author I knew was capable of entertaining and provoking me. At some point towards the end of the book it occurred to me that what I was experiencing could be looked at as a kind of literary variant of the Stockholm syndrome phenomenon, whereby hostages experience a perverse devotion to their captors, interpreting any abstention from violence and cruelty, however brief or arbitrary, as acts of kindness and even love. Psychologically, this is understood as a defense mechanism in which the victim fabricates a “good” side of the aggressor in order to avoid confronting the overwhelming terror of his or her situation. Perhaps I’m stretching the bonds of credulity by implicitly comparing William Gaddis to a FARC guerilla commander, but I’m convinced there’s something that happens when we get into a captive situation with a long and difficult book that is roughly analogous to the Stockholm syndrome scenario. For a start, the book’s very length lays out (for a certain kind of reader, at least) its own special form of imperative—part challenge, part command. The thousand-pager is something you measure yourself against, something you psyche yourself up for and tell yourself you’re going to endure and/or conquer. And this does, I think, amount to a kind of captivity: once you’ve got to Everest base camp, you really don’t want to pack up your stuff and turn back. I think it’s this principle that explains, for example, the fact that I’ve read Gravity’s Rainbow but gave up halfway through The Crying of Lot 49, when the latter could be used as a handy little bookmark for the former. When you combine this (admittedly self-imposed) captivity with a novel’s formidable reputation for greatness, you’ve got a perfect set of conditions for the literary Stockholm syndrome to kick in.
In order for a very long novel to get away with long, cruel sessions of boredom-torture, it has to commit, every so often, an act of kindness such as the counterfeit cash set piece in The Recognitions. This is why Ulysses is so deeply loved by so many readers—as well it should be—while Finnegans Wake has been read almost exclusively by Joyce scholars (of whom I’m tempted to think as the Patty Hearsts of literature). After the grueling ordeal of the “Scylla and Charybdis” episode, in which Stephen stands around in the National Library for dozens of pages boring everyone to damn-near-literal tears with his theories about the provenance of Hamlet, we are given the unrestrained pleasure of the “Wandering Rocks” episode. Ulysses might treat us like crap for seemingly interminable stretches of time, but it extends just enough in the way of writerly benevolence to keep us onside. And this kindness is the key to Stockholm syndrome. You don’t know when it’s going to come, or what form it’s going to take, but you get enough of it to keep you from despising your captor, or mounting a brave escape attempt by flinging the wretched thing across the room. According to an article called “Understanding Stockholm Syndrome” published in the FBI Law Enforcement Bullettin:
Kindness serves as the cornerstone of Stockholm syndrome; the condition will not develop unless the captor exhibits it in some form toward the hostage. However, captives often mistake a lack of abuse as kindness and may develop feelings of appreciation for this perceived benevolence. If the captor is purely evil and abusive, the hostage will respond with hatred. But if perpetrators show some kindness, victims will submerge the anger they feel in response to the terror and concentrate on the captors “good side” to protect themselves.
If you’re the kind of reader who doesn’t intend to give up on a Great Big Important Novel no matter how inhumanely it treats you, then there’s a sense in which Joyce or Pynchon or Gaddis (or whoever your captor happens to be) owns you for the duration of that captivity. In order to maintain your sanity, you may end up being disproportionately grateful for the parts where they don’t threaten to bore you to death, where there seems to be some genuine empathic connection between reader and writer. Machiavelli understood this truth long before a Swedish bank robbery turned into a hostage crisis and gave the world the name for a psychological condition. “Men who receive good when they expect evil,” Machiavelli wrote, “commit themselves all the more to their benefactor.” When he wrote that line in the early sixteenth century, the novel, of course, did not yet exist as a genre. I’m inclined to imagine, though, that if he’d been born a century later, he might well have said the same thing about Don Quixote.
Robert Musil wrote The Man Without Qualities in the 1930s, but his modernist elegy to Belle Époque Vienna offers an achingly familiar picture of dissolution and malaise. Perhaps history will prove otherwise, but with our unending wars, economic stagnation, and crumbling infrastructure, it’s difficult not to feel like we in the United States have entered the waning days as the world’s great power, a period not so different from the Austro-Hungarian Empire as it rushed or perhaps stumbled headlong to its destruction in World War I, a period in which – as Musil observes – “[w]e have gained reality and lost dream.”
Musil’s work is a sprawling piece of architecture in which he guides the reader through an endless labyrinth filled with beautiful, often startling rooms and hallways, but which leave us uncertain if he’s following a master plan or adding obsessively like a mad artist. Loosely, the plot follows a quasi-governmental committee assembled under the leadership of a striving aristocratic idealist (the wife of a mid-level diplomat) to celebrate the 75th year in power of the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph; the committee becomes a highly publicized (and eventually political) affair as different factions attempt to promote their own visions of a unifying idea – both earnest and not – to celebrate Austria (The Year of Austria, The Year of Peace, The Year of Nietzsche) and later to put this idea into practice, with proposals ranging from parades to – more hilariously – soup kitchens.
The chapters offer perspectives from an ensemble of characters, all tied to one protagonist (Ulrich, or the actual “man without qualities,” as both Musil as narrator and Ulrich’s friends refer to him). Ulrich, an intellectually gifted mathematician, is starting to look back on his youth when we meet him, and is aimless and unmotivated; as Musil observes in one of an endless number of quotes that at first glance concern a character but sting the reader (or at least this reader): “In every profession followed not for money but for love there comes a moment when the advancing years seem to lead to a void.”
At the prodding of his father, Ulrich accepts a job as the secretary to an important count, who then assigns him to work on the committee, the leader of which (the diplomat’s wife) also happens to be Ulrich’s distant cousin. From the start, he’s skeptical of the committee’s ability to accomplish anything, and in this way serves as a foil to his high-minded cousin as they discuss themes related to life in the modern era, ranging from whether great ideas are still possible (and related questions of genius and beauty), to fame and success, to how one should navigate the emotional waters of love and sex and fidelity, all of which are thematic currents that run under the more superficial machinations of the committee.
Subplots involving an insane but sometimes (frighteningly) insightful murderer who may or may not be condemned to death and the countess’s maid and her affair with an African-born servant of a Prussian man who also serves on the committee allow Musil to examine class and servitude and responsibility, or namely how in modern times, thanks to the increasing division of labor, we can order or pay others to do things that would be too odious to be carried out on our own, an idea that has horrifying implications if we consider what the second world war is about to deliver. (Musil died in 1942 after his books were banned by the Nazis and he fled to Switzerland with his Jewish wife.)
There’s a detached, logical, and often satirical quality to the prose that makes it feel as if it belongs as much to a philosophical treatise as a literary drama (I mean this in a good way); it’s unlikely that you’ll be “swept away” by the unfolding story and more likely to find moments of quiet enlightenment in Musil’s discussion of his characters and their society. His observations often seem prophetic, whether he’s discussing the effect of media: “The probability of experiencing something unusual through the newspaper is much greater than that of experiencing it in person; in other words, the more important things take place today in the abstract and the more trivial ones in real life,” or the degrading psychological effects of governmental surveillance: “There is always something ghostly about living constantly in a well-ordered state. You cannot step in the street or drink a glass of water or get on a streetcar without touching the balanced levers of a gigantic apparatus of laws and interrelations, setting them in motion or letting them maintain you in your peaceful existence.”
Which is not to say that Musil isn’t interested in the beauty of language; one of the miracles of The Man Without Qualities is the stunning combination of abstract insight and poetic metaphor, such as when Musil describes a new form of “irrationalism…[that] haunts our era like a night bird lost in the dawn.” Or when he ponders exactly what has been lost in the present as compared to the past: “Something imponderable. An omen. An illusion. As when a magnet releases iron filings and they fall in confusion again. As when a ball of string comes undone. As when a tension slackens. As when an orchestra begins to play out of tune…There is nothing one can hold responsible for this, nor can one say how it all came about. There are no persons or ideas or specific phenomena that one can fight against. There is no lack of talent or goodwill or even of strong personalities. There is just something missing in everything, though you can’t put your finger on it, as if there had been a change in the blood or in the air; a mysterious disease has eaten away the previous period’s seeds of genius, but everything sparkles with novelty, and finally one has no way of knowing whether the world has really grown worse, or oneself merely older. At this point a new era has definitely arrived.”
And while the book is overwhelmingly pessimistic about the trajectory of society, there’s an underlying optimism about possibility of the individual, namely that we can each make sense of the inevitable chaos of our lives to create a retrospective narrative, no matter how random or nonsensical events might have seemed when we encountered (or more often: endured) them. As Musil states: “[W]hen one is overburdened and dreams of simplifying one’s life, the basic law of this life, the law one longs for, is nothing other than that of narrative order, the simple order that enables one to say: ‘First this happened and then that happened.’…Terrible things may have happened to [someone], he may have writhed in pain, but as soon as he can tell what happened in chronological order, he feels as contented as if the sun were warming his belly. This is the trick the novel artificially takes into account: Whether the wanderer is riding on the highway in pouring rain or crunching through the snow and ice at ten below zero, the reader feels a cozy glow, and this would be hard to understand if this eternally dependable narrative device…were not already part and parcel of life itself. Most people relate to themselves as storytellers.”
To read Musil is to understand why Vienna is known as the “City of Dreams”: just as there’s an otherworldly quality to the pink and orange skies that so often frame its baroque monuments to death and lost power, in The Man Without Qualities we find a past that at first glance seems very remote, but as we continue on unveils a future we approach with both craving and dread.
[Image credits: Matthew Gallaway]
I think it’s a symptom of the internet age, or my impending old age, or doom, that while I used to amble into a used book shop with no particular book in mind and leave satisfied with a bulging grocery bag, now I find myself a slave to a roster. Before, I would keep a vague running list of books I wanted to read, which basically encompassed the whole of literature as I understood it, so that any pile of two dollar books was bound to yield several items of interest. And now I want what I want when I want it.
Under the Net was a long-time bee in my bonnet. There are so many Iris Murdoch novels, in so many printings; they are a fixture in secondhand book shops. When I realized that this one, her first, was on the Modern Library list, I thought I was bound to come across it before too long. For nine months it eluded me, although in pursuit of that title I managed to read five other Murdoch novels. In the same way, I read Black Boy instead of Native Son, and Young Torless instead of The Man Without Qualities, and loathsome Henderson the Rain King instead of Herzog. Which is a good thing! I’m better for having read them all. But every year that goes by finds me less happy to cast the net in this haphazard fashion (hence my summer of discontent). I require specific titles now. I’ve undergone a paradigm shift. It’s kind of a bummer, actually.
(I do know all about libraries, and I cherish them. But I like to own the books that I read, and I like to read books that I own. In case there is an emergency. It’s a thing about me.)
Anyway, I wanted to read Under the Net, and I got sick of looking in vain and reading things other than Under the Net, and I finally outsourced the job to the internet. I felt sort of guilty about this, like buying a pet instead of adopting. I did it media mail, which seemed more virtuous, in the manner of hard church pews and wooden teeth. After eight days, the novel arrived. All things considered, the experience was obscenely convenient.
Someone once said (it was me) that Iris Murdoch wrote so many novels that if you are in the mood to read something by her, there is probably a fresh one available. It’s like having a harem wherein all the inmates are related to one another and look alike, yet retain sterling qualities of their own. I quote myself not because I’m the last word on Iris Murdoch, but because the metaphor has useful application here. If Murdoch’s huge oeuvre is a harem of related women, then reading Under the Net is like going in back in time to meet their matriarch, coltish and sepia-toned on the day she was plucked from her village.
I have always thought that The Sea, The Sea stands apart from the other Murdoch novels I’ve read, largely because of the spicy and pitch-perfect first person narrative. I thought, perhaps, that it was a prime example of late-ish Murdoch at the height of her powers. So I was surprised to discover find that her first novel, published in 1954, has more in common with The Sea² (1978), than any of the works published between (that I’ve read, of course). Like The Sea², Under the Net is written in the first person. The earlier novel’s narrator, translator and occasional writer Jack Donoghue, is kind of a feckless, easier-going, impoverished prototype of Charles Arrowby, who came a quarter century later. I suppose they really don’t have much in common, since Arrowby’s whole being is centered on being the opposite of feckless and easy-going and impoverished. But they are both educated, afraid of commitment, and very funny. They are memorable, varying somewhat from the stock cast of awful aesthetes and academes who populate the majority of her novels. Not that Donoghue isn’t one of those, but his way with words is considerably more amusing. Here, kicked out of one rent-free situation, he ponders the future:
It was certainly something of a problem to know where to go next. I wondered if Dave Gellman would harbour us. I fondled the idea, though I suspected it was no good. Dave is an old friend, but he’s a philosopher, not the kind that tells you about your horoscope and the number of the beast, but a real one like Kant and Plato, so of course he has no money.
The whole experience of Under the Net was surprising. Unless one has made a pointed effort to study them, one can have only a hazy sense of the zeitgeist of decades and places in which one hasn’t lived. That said, Iris Murdoch is so relentlessly urbane and modern that Under the Net seemed to me much younger than its 55 years. I’m aware that drinking and being feckless and running around was not unheard of in the 1950s–I did read Lucky Jim (also published 1954. In fact, I think Jim Dixon could conceivably have enjoyed a matey bender with Jack Donaghue and company). But the people of Under the Net seemed very hip, or at least as though they could have easily populated a later novel. Perhaps it’s not that Murdoch was cutting-edge, but that her eternal engagement with the pedantic, the bachanalian, and the emotionally stunted will never go out of style.
The plot of Under the Net doesn’t bear summarizing. It is farcical and, I dare say, “rollicking;” there’s even a dog who stars in movies. I am unused to feeling so little feminist rage during a Murdoch novel; this one was light-hearted and lacked the sinister undertones present in, for example, The Sacred and Profane Love Machine and Message to the Planet. Under the Net could even be called a buddy novel; Donoghue and his Irish familiar, Finn, reminded me not a little of my favorite John Irving book, The Water Method Man, and the adventures of Bogus Trumper (also a translator), and Merrill Overturf described therein.
I find it odd that this novel would make it onto the Modern Library list over TS². It’s a little fluffy. But, as we’ve been hearing so much recently, lists are problematic, and the Modern Library list is so problematic on so many levels that its defects no longer shock. Pluralities are weird. Still, Under the Net’s presence on the list caused me to hunt it down and read it, which not only caused me to have a nice Sunday afternoon (it’s short), but freed up a spot on the roster. That’s one for the list. Then again, the existence of a list only serves to codify things and thus intensify the need for a roster, which causes me to have fewer pleasant afternoons digging through bookshops, and more neurotic episodes on the internet. That’s one against.
Anyway, Under the Net was fun and I liked it. I’ll leave you with a word from Jack, who has troubles of his own:
I glanced hastily through the manuscripts. Once before, in a rage, Magdalen had torn up the first sixty stanzas of an epic poem called And Mr Oppenheim Shall Inherit the Earth. This dated from the time when I had ideals. At that time too it had not yet become clear to me that the present age was not one in which it was impossible to write an epic. At that time I naively imagined that there was no reason why one should not attempt to write anything that one felt inclined to write. But nothing is more paralyzing than a sense of historical perspective, especially in literary matters . . . But to return to Mr Oppenheim; my friends had criticized the title because it sounded anti-Semitic, though of course Mr Oppenheim simply symbolized big business, but Madge didn’t tear it up for that, but out of pique, because I broke a lunch date with her to meet a woman novelist. The latter was a dead loss, but I can back to find Mr Oppenheim in pieces. This was in the old days, but I feared that the performance might have been repeated. Who knows what thoughts were passing through that girl’s mind while she was deciding to throw me out? There’s nothing like a woman’s doing you an injury for making her incensed against you. I know myself how exasperating it is of other people to put themselves in positions where you have to injure them.