The Novel

by Aashish Kaul

There is a line in Alberto Manguel’s With Borges where, reminiscing about his childhood, Borges reveals how in those days he would regularly accompany his father to the National Library in Buenos Aires and, too timid to ask for a book, would often simply pull out a volume of the Britannica and read at random. This is how he said he learned in one day about ‘the Druids, the Druzes and Dryden.’ The brief statement is delivered by the ageing writer in his typical casual manner, but its intent is clear: a reader can derive all of Borges’s art from this short line. Each story, each essay, each line of verse that the writer composed in his long career points to the elements that open out, spread, and combine behind these three nouns to create an oeuvre of dazzling possibilities and one that is entirely sui generis in the history of literature. In the alphabetical order of a carefully compiled catalogue of knowledge, the boy discovers the flutter of chance. Chance not only threading through those labyrinths of human intellect, but sprouting up from the very seeds of language: the alphabet.

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Druzes in black and white, Lebanon, undated. (Photo: Haitham Moussawi via Al-Akhbar English)

The novel – the ‘new’ art form – arose out of a need to loosen the shackles of plot and character, the defining features of one of its forebears, the theatre, to open a dialogue between the fiercely lit square space of the stage and the surrounding darkness of life, and, finally, to allow chance a larger space to unfurl, to shape, entangle, and seep into destinies as never before. The depiction of interiority, for which even Shakespeare had had to stretch his fecund imagination all the way, could now be achieved rather easily. Narrative discourse, the sole vehicle of this new art form, delivered personally to each reader whole histories and landscapes, drew an abundant panorama of life complete with the actions and motivations of the players in it, and thereby complicated the relationship between reality and performance, stage and life. For the novel at once was both and neither. Yet its process of composition, which had begun with such promise (think of Quixote), remained more or less rigid, not beginning to loosen up until both theatre and poetry (its other precursor) had themselves undergone fundamental changes. We are, a century or so later, still witnessing this unraveling.

For instance, the Spanish writer Javier Marías, whose avowedly Shakespearean plots and motivations, even titles, hark back to the glorious age of theatre, has said that he writes his novels according to the same principle of knowledge that rules life:

Much of what I write in the beginning of a novel occurs by chance. Once I finish a page, it goes to the printer. Later, I force myself to make things match, to make necessary what was whimsical.

It is this tussle between the plot that recalls the tightness of a Shakespeare play and the chancy nature of its composition which is in large measure responsible for producing the special flavor or atmosphere of a Marías novel. It also leads to its fair share of problems, as even a perfunctory comparison between Marías’s middle period novels (strong and skillful in my opinion) and his output of recent years (tedious and forgettable) would easily illustrate. Without speculating on reasons of a more personal nature, I can at least hazard a guess on a technical one. Mikhail Bakhtin observes somewhere in The Dialogic Imagination that every form ages with time, and old forms in a new world first begin to appear stylized, but later take on the look, the intention of the author to the contrary, of parodies. Something of this order, I believe, is the case with Marías.

But let us look again at his words above, particularly the last sentence: Later, I force myself to make things match, to make necessary what was whimsical. This line already bespeaks the need for a given plot, no matter how whimsical or meandering the approach to it, already looks back to much older ideas about the novel. Of course, the givenness of a plot for Marías is never in doubt. The reader cannot fail to notice, or at least suspects, that the author did not begin the book until he could see how it would end. Nabokov, one of Marías’s favorite authors, famously said such was the case with him. There is nothing very peculiar about this approach, maybe this is how we all begin. The test, however, is how close to or far away we end from where we thought we would.

But what if one did not force oneself to make things match, to make necessary what was whimsical? What would the process look like? What would the end product resemble? Julio Cortázar allows us a peek in his great novel Hopscotch:

Why am I writing this? I have no clear ideas, I do not even have ideas. There are tugs, impulses, blocks, and everything is looking for a form, then rhythm comes into play and I write within that rhythm, I write by it, moved by it and not by that thing they call thought and which turns out prose, literature, or what have you. First there is a confused situation, which can only be defined by words; I start out from this half-shadow and if what I mean (if what is meant) has sufficient strength, the swing begins at once, a rhythmic swaying that draws me to the surface, lights everything up, conjugates this confused material and the one who suffers it into a clear third somehow fateful level: sentence, paragraph, page, chapter, book. This swaying, this swing in which confused material goes about taking shape, is for me the only certainty of its necessity, because no sooner does it stop than I understand that I no longer have anything to say. And it is also the only reward for my work: to feel that what I have written is like the back of a cat as it is being petted, with sparks and an arching in cadence. In that way by writing I go down into the volcano, I approach the Mothers, I connect with the Center – whatever it may be. Writing is sketching my mandala and at the same time going through it, inventing purification by purifying one’s self; the task of a poor white shaman in nylon socks.

Cortázar is hinting at several things here. Among them is the foregrounding of rhythm and form over story or characters. It is rhythm that structures a book page by page, sentence upon sentence, and not the desire to mimic ‘reality’ or to build upon a plot that comes to the writer altogether whole from the very start. It is rhythm, too, that word by word creates the story from barely noticeable mental or physical impulses and ideas, and that, if one is fortunate, leaves behind writing which is ‘like the back of a cat as it is being petted, with sparks and an arching in cadence’. The process of writing a novel then becomes simply – to paraphrase Viktor Shklovsky – a means of experiencing the process of creativity.

When content and form arise in unison, out of a desire to experience the process of creativity alone, the fictional reality becomes fluid and dynamic, it is not something given, hard and raw, that a writer need merely ornament and make palatable with his or her craft. It is hardly a coincidence then that as this happens the novel sheds its old skin, loses some of its neatness or artifact-ness (although this is not to deny the uniqueness of the fictional world which is dependent on the uniqueness of the artistic consciousness); its personages abandon their literary rigidity, begin to distrust their own qualities to become, surprisingly, not less but more human and lifelike. For, ultimately, the real and created worlds are inextricably bound up with each other through the artistic consciousness, which recaptures and, by the magic of language, converts into texts, to quote Merleau-Ponty, that ‘vibration of appearances which is the cradle of things’.

AK 3 2Hopscotch (Photo via Silent-musings)

Yet another Argentinian writer and self-declared Dadaist, César Aira, offered the following example in an interview to illustrate this process where chance rules both the composition and the structure of a novel:

If a little bird enters into the café where I’m writing – it did happen once – it also enters into what I’m writing. Even if a priori it doesn’t relate to anything, a posteriori I make it relate. . . . For example, if I’m writing a scene about a couple, a marital spat in a house with closed windows and doors . . . I make the bird appear flapping around among the furniture, and I find a way for the bird to have a reason for appearing in the story. It could be a mechanical bird designed by an engineer who was the woman’s first husband, whom her present husband thought was dead, but the engineer faked his own death to escape justice – he had invented killer mechanical pigeons. He continues to live under a false identity, and she’s discovered him and is blackmailing him . . . It could be this or anything else. I always think of something. And what I think of also changes the course of the plot. Since the next day something different will happen at the café, the plot continues to change accordingly. That sinuous thread in my novels is more interesting to me, more writeable, than a linear plot.

I have my own bird flitting about gaily somewhere in my narratives. Not the mechanical bird of Aira, but a tiny burst of life, blue, black, and boisterous, that once helped me out of an impasse in what I was then writing. This method of allowing random things that surround us or thoughts which momentarily flash through our minds to influence the trajectories of our narratives (a method of which Aira is only an extreme practitioner) is neither a Dadaist nor a Surrealist obsession, even if at times it may appear to be so, and is more common than we care to investigate. Of course, in its entirety, this method is no less immune from failure than that of Marías, but its results, on the whole, seem to be more diverse and satisfying. It gives to the books composed thus an openness akin to life that is denied to Marías’s novels, no matter how discursive their narrative, for they often close in such a contrived and finished way that there is about them a sense of theatricality. Paradoxically, as I stated before, this can also be for some readers the strength of a Marías novel.

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A mechanical swallow entirely made of assembled typewriter parts by Jeremy Mayer (Photo via Colossal)

Later, I force myself to make things match, to make necessary what was whimsical, says Marías, while Aira observes: Even if a priori it doesn’t relate to anything, a posteriori I make it relate. At first reading, these two statements may appear similar to a person not conversant with the books of the two writers, but it is Aira’s later observation that brings out the difference: And what I think of also changes the course of the plot. Since the next day something different will happen at the café, the plot continues to change accordingly.

At the heart of this fascination with the play of chance in composing novels lies the desire to be conscious and open to the ever-changing flow of life, to stay clear of the method that W.G. Sebald once outlined in the following sentiment:

There is so often about the standard novel something terribly contrived, which somewhere along the line tends to falter. The business of having to have bits of dialogue to move the plot along, that’s fine for an eighteenth- or nineteenth-century novel, but that becomes in our day a bit trying, where you always see the wheels of the novel grinding and going on.

Plots need not be consciously sketched or pursued in the writing of novels, indeed in any form of writing, for plots are already inherent in language or our way of using language. Irrespective of the writer’s intention, a plot enters a narrative, feeds on it, patiently waits for a reader to find it. But a narrative that perpetually surprises the writer in its compositional phase, is bound to surprise the reader too. It is the truest form of dialogue that a reader and a writer may engage in, a dialogue that is replenished with each new reading, and that grows old, if at all, only belatedly.

Obviously, this process is not specific to writers and novels employing the Spanish language (the works of Roberto Bolaño and Enrique Vila-Matas, to name only two more authors writing in Spanish, hint at such a style). Nor is there anything to suggest that this method is not more widespread, if subtle, in contemporary literature, indeed in varying degrees in all literature. Inspiration, I have come to believe, perhaps is little else than being spontaneous and one with the gush of life; for the moments this is possible, the possibilities themselves are limitless. After all, who is to say that Thomas Bernhard or William Burroughs did not write one or more of their books in this way? J.M. Coetzee, even at his most realistic, has an openness about his plots that points toward a similar method of working.

Chance, which had put in the hands of the young boy in the library a certain volume of the Britannica, one day, several decades hence, reminded the old man he had become of a Yeats poem. If Yeats, walking in the municipal gallery in Dublin, had seen reflected in the portraits of his dead friends all the history of Ireland, so wondered Borges whether a man who sets out to draw the world does not at last discover its secret pattern in the lineaments of his own face.

Chance, too, brought me last night the poetry of Anne Carson, and I awoke this morning thinking of Emily Brontë. Who knows where it takes me in what I am now writing?

1 thought on “The Novel

  1. What florid tosh… spare us the pontificating and the profundities, begorrah.

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