Disturbing Fiction

It must have been at thirteen, fourteen at most that I found a piece of fiction both repugnant and riveting in equal measure. I remember the fiction. It was Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Perhaps I was too young to read Kafka, or maybe already too old. The word repugnance is fitting with its late Middle English sense of offering resistance, from the Latin repugnant opposing.

After the horror of Gregor Samsa’s transformation and death in The Metamorphosis comes the chillingly cold final pages when the mood lightens and the family head out for a stroll, equally transformed and full of joy. I still recall the terrible loneliness and vague anxiety that came over me as I read those pages and threw the book aside, resisting to the end its abominable conclusion. Then, the same day I picked it up and read from the beginning again. And again; each time the same feeling of terrible anxiousness.

It fascinates me, how these twenty-six squiggles on a page can induce such sensation. Thomas Bernhard’s fiction does the same thing, and, more recently Jens Bjørneboe’s Moment of Freedom, which I set aside six days ago, more repelled than compelled. But it has been on my mind all week, and last night I submitted, allowing its moments of acute brilliance to overcome my opposition.

In Rita Felski’s Uses of Literature, she writes of being transfixed by Sartre’s Nausea, a text I read annually for its intellectual and visceral force, like an assault. Felski writes, “Here, indisputably, was the literature of extremity, of what Foucault and others call “the limit experience,” a bracing blend of solipsism, paranoia, brutality, and despair, where the standard supports and consolation of everyday life are ruthlessly ripped away.”

2 thoughts on “Disturbing Fiction

  1. One of the problems I encounter with so much contemporary Canadian “literature” is an unwillingness to unsettle the reader (I call it the “paddling off into the sunset” tendency). I guess we really are too nice here. I tend to be drawn to work from areas that have known upheaval and tension – Europe, South Africa in my case – and my favourites are writers who are not afraid to leave the reader on the edge, facing the intensity of human emotion without the comfort of being fed a redemptive moral message. Damn the comfortable moment of denouement I say! A powerful piece of literature should sit in your gut for a while.

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    • I agree, hence my preference for fiction that sits within a modernist tradition; not that discomfort and shock are exclusive to literature of this sort, just, I find, more prevalent.

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