“If the thought really yielded to the object, if its attention were on the ­object, not on its  category, the very objects would start talking under the lingering eye.”

— Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 150

How does he see?

“He wanted to write like Cezanne painted. / Cézanne started with all the tricks. Then he broke the whole thing down and built the real thing. It was hell to do. … He, Nick, wanted to write about country so it would be there like Cézanne had done it in painting. You had to do it from inside yourself. There wasn’t any trick. Nobody had written about country like that. … You could do it if you would fight it out, if you’d lived right with your eyes. / It was a thing you couldn’t talk about.”

Ernest Hemingway, The Nick Adams Stories

Gertrude Stein did this more than a decade earlier, learning from Cézanne how to see. I think of Hemingway often as I read Knausgaard, now reading his fourth book and wondering how his vision is formed. It is writing that gets close to another consciousness, perhaps more than any other writer, yet there is still that distance that comes from the unanswerable question: how does he see? A question that goes back to Altamira and Lascaux.

“Language is aired, we grow into it, and the forms we use it in are also shared, so irrespective of how idiosyncratic you and your notions are, in literature you can never free yourself from others. It is the other way around, it is literature which draws us closer together. Through its language, which none of us owns and which indeed we can hardly have any influence on, and through its form, which no one can break free of alone, and if anyone should do so, it is only meaningful if it is immediately followed by others. Form draws you out of yourself, distances you from yourself, and it is this distance which is the prerequisite for closeness with others.”

Karl Ove Knausgaard, Man in Love: My Struggle, Book 2 (trans. Don Bartlett)

Holiday Reading – Piglia and Vila-Matas

I had travelled to Saint-Mézard, a remote commune in southwestern France, bringing with me books by Ricardo Piglia, Enrique Vila-Matas, Renee Gladman and Lucy Ellman. As is often the case, I read less than expected, preferring for much of the time to lose myself in contemplation, sitting quietly listening to the birdsong and observing the landscape. As Vila-Matas wrote, “Here in this village . . . where the hours pass in a slow but lively fashion, I think only about life.”

What little I read, Piglia’s diary, in which he fictionalises himself, and Vila-Matas’ novel in which he pretends to be writing a private diary that is trying not to become a novel, made me think mostly of the absurdity of all the time I spend deciphering symbols on a page that purport to represent life. It seems a decidedly odd way to use the apparently endless, but definitely finite and limited time alive, particularly during a week in which a radical, hard right—unelected—administration has taken control of this country.

Writers like Piglia and Vila-Matas—both books, The Diaries of Emilio Renzi and Mac & His Problem are brilliant—highlight this absurdity. In both cases, thought itself is given a fictional characteristic and placed into a character (or series of characters). In this way the history of fiction can be represented as a progression that represents the idea of the Other. Both books express the Other by means of varied signs that mark distinct ruptures in the idea of writing and the nature of fiction. I’m doubtlessly explaining this badly. It made more sense as a conversation over a glass of local wine. Camus wrote, “We can only ever have a dissonant relationship with the world because we seek out truths about it that we cannot find or verify.”

“Of course, it is impossible to live without others, without the body. And solitude is false, an illusion, like magic, as it was for Plato and the Platonists, for the mystics who cast off and condemn the body, not as an austere sacrifice, but for the great pride of being able to surpass physical ‘limitations.’ Living life outside of the world, being hermit in the desert—these are sealed exits. What then? To understand that you are—if you can be—the shape of the face, the ineptitude, the restlessness.”

— Ricardo Piglia, The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: Formative Years (trans. Robert Croll)

“The point could be the following: to destroy—to attempt to destroy—personal fate as manifested in the repetition of events. We know that we repeat actions but do not remember. In this case, the point would be to deliberately remember some incidents from the past, over and over again. It might be a single event—for example, an afternoon playing chess at the club—remembered with the intention of reconstructing everything surrounding the scene. Another alternative would be to reread these notebooks, to choose something recorded there that you no longer remember and try to do the same thing again—that is, to try to reconstruct everything around that event. Of course, there is no assurance that you can overcome the repetition of events by remembering (for example, in my case, by remembering my tendency toward isolation), which has persisted since childhood, but, in any case, it would give a new dimension to the events. It’s like the reaction of a cat, scratching or biting when it is stepped upon by accident. Memory works in this way: you step on the toe of a memory and then the scratch and the blood come. Nevertheless, there doesn’t appear to be a solution; it is impossible to rectify the past. And there in the past is the event, one which you have forgotten but which is repeated in other ways—yet always the same, again and again.”

— Ricardo Piglia, The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: Formative Years (trans. Robert Croll)