David Shields’ How literature saved my life

It’s been two, maybe three years, since I read David Shields’ manifesto Reality Hunger, and I’ve often wondered about my response to that book. It was uncharacteristic in a way I find interesting. While reading Reality Hunger I disliked the form, not quite knowing which material was borrowed and which was Shield’s own (while enjoying the reasons he adopted that form). I broadly agreed with the argument, neither original nor particularly well made, that plot-driven narrative fiction has become a stale and nugatory vehicle. Shield’s paean to the essay was less persuasive. Since reading Reality Hunger it has served as an irritant similar to grit in the soft part of an oyster. Hankering for more insight into Shield’s consciousness, I sought out The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead.

So, it was with curiosity I read his latest How literature saved my life, essentially making the same point as Reality Hunger but serving as literary memoir and continued observation about art and death. As memoir, Shields’ personality is explicitly present on every page and it struck me that, in this and his earlier books, it is his personality that I respond most strongly to. It is the same sensation  I get from reading Geoff Dyer and Kate Zambreno. Literary flair aside, and there is plenty of that in all three writers, they pass the pub test. I can conjure up wonderful winter evenings spent in a good pub with Shields, Dyer or Zambreno, preferably all three, discussing art, literature, death, and generally, for a time, lessening the loneliness inherent in life. Though I prize their literary work, I cannot imagine a similar evening in the company of JM Coetzee or Susan Sontag. I suspect it is also why all three writers encourage such polarised opinion, in part a personal response to how warmly or coolly readers respond to their personalities.

From How literature saved my life, an excerpt that could easily serve as my personal literary manifesto. Perhaps in Shieldian fashion I should borrow it as my own.

How an awful lot of “literature’ is to me the very antithesis of life

We live in a culture that is completely mediated and artificial, rendering us (me, anyway; you, too?) exceedingly distracted, bored, and numb. Straight-forward fiction functions as more Bubble Wrap, nostalgia, retreat. Why is the traditional novel c.2013 no longer germane (and the postmodern novel shroud upon shroud)? Most novels’ glacial pace isn’t remotely congruent with the speed of our lives and our consciousness of these lives. Most novels’ explorations of human behaviour still owe far more to Freudian psychology than they do to cognitive science and DNA. Most novels treat setting as if where people live matters as much to us as it did to Balzac, Most novels frame their key moments as a series of filmable moments straight out of Hitchcock. And above all, the tidy coherence of most novels-highly praised ones in particular-implies a belief in an orchestrating deity, or at least a purposeful meaning to existence that the author is unlikely to possess, and belies the chaos and entropy that surround and inhabit and overwhelm us. I want work that, possessing as thin a membrane as possible between life and art, foreground the question of how the writer solves being alive. Samuel Johnson: A book should either allow us to escape existence of teach us how to endure it. Acutely aware of our mortal conduction, I find books that simple allow us to escape our existence a staggering waste of time (literature matters so much to me I can hardly stand it.)

Duncan Fallowell’s How to Disappear

Assembling even a small collection of essays is a performance. A single essay may sparkle with brilliance and wit-particularly dangerous if the first in a collection-but a collection risks being abased by its weakest part. A coherent collection that manages to avoid the danger of redundancy is a rare and thrilling performance.

Reading Duncan Fallowell’s essay collection How to Disappear is to play for high stakes. His earlier To Noto: London to Sicily in a Ford is a touchstone book for me, an exemplar of modern travel literature. Like Geoff Dyer, Fallowell writes idiosyncratic non-fiction where he is as present as the subject of his essays.

There are but five essays in How to Disappear connected thematically by the notion of disappearance, whether by reclusion, death or disregard. Fallowell’s fondness for his subjects is evident in his obsessive research and tender portrayals, in particular of social climber Bapsy Pavry and Alastair Graham, Evelyn Waugh’s inspiration for the Sebastian Flyte character in Brideshead Revisited.

How to Disappear equals the charm and discursiveness of Fallowell’s To Noto and is enlivened by its chosen subjects. With the exception of the subject of the final essay-Diana, Princess of Wales-each subject had me googling to learn more about their lives. Besides the final, thankfully short essay, the collection is a performance of sustained pleasure.

Book List

In no particular order, this is a list of my favourite writers/books. Of course, it is incomplete.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Pale Fire and Speak, Memory and literary lectures
Franz Kafka
Geoff Dyer
JG Ballard
Simone de Beauvoir
Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook
Hélène Cixous
Judith Butler
Peter Handke’s The Weight of the World
Søren Kierkegaard
Marguerite Duras
JM Coetzee
Robert Walser
Roland Barthes
Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup
Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
Pascal Quignard’s The Roving Shadows
John William’s Stoner
Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea
AM Homes
Patrick Leigh Fermor
Jay Griffith’s Wild: An Elemental Journey
Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s War and War
Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness
Samuel Beckett
Simon Critchley
Noam Chomsky
Roger Deakin
Carlos Fuentes’s Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone
Ruth Reichl’s Endless Feast
Teju Cole’s Open City
Jenny Erpenbeck’s The Visitation
Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? and The Lessons of Modernism
Virginia Woolf’s later novels and diaries
Jospeh Heller’s Something Happened
WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn
Don DeLillo’s Underworld
Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening
Marcel Proust
Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva
Dante’s Divine Comedy
Kate Zambreno’s Heroines
Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych
James Joyce’s Ulysses
Richard Power’s The Time of our Singing
Will Ferguson’s Hokkaido Highway Blues

The Possessed by Elif Batuman

Tolstoy liked Chekhov on first meeting, saying, “He is full of talent and undoubtedly has a very good heart.” That the sentiment applies equally to Elif Batuman is the concluding impression on finishing The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.

Describing the book as a “volume of memoiristic literary-critical essays about the experiences of a graduate student of Russian literature” Batuman has explained, “The Possessed is not the book I meant to write – it’s not how I meant to write it.” The statement would apply to most of Geoff Dyer’s books, a writer with much in common with Elif Batuman. Though these essays are purportedly about the major Russian writers, in practise these are a framework for her to digress enthusiastically about multifarious subjects including theory, the difficulties of translation and watermelon selection.

Though the quality is uneven, all seven essays display Batuman’s wit and erudition, and I could happily have read another seven. My favourite is the three-part Summer in Samarkand, a beautifully evocative piece of writing, revealing of both place and the characters Batuman met. Her carefully selected words to describe a language teacher: “Muzaffar, a philosophy graduate student, had pale skin, pale almond eyes, high cheekbones, and a floppy, sad, puppetlike comportment”, contrasts with the more rococo portrayal of the Vice-Rector Safarov, “a personage whose refrigerator-like build, rubbery face, and heavy eyelids brought to mind some anthropomorphic piece of furniture in a Disney movie.”

Batuman’s The Possessed sits at ease beside the essays of Geoff Dyer or Dubravka Ugrešić and I await with interest whatever she writes next.

Idées Fixes of the Week

Zena Assi: from the Beirut series

I’ve wallowed in Zena Assi’s Cities series, meticulously detailed paintings of Beirut. Look close enough and you can see laundry hanging between buildings.

*****

Influenced by Geoff Dyer’s review I read Richard Lloyd Parry’s People Who Eat Darkness: The Fate of Lucie Blackman. The narrative is well constructed and compelling. Tokyo comes alive, as does each character. I read the book in two sittings, flagging only a little toward the end. Though I share Dyer’s admiration for Parry’s writing I am torn by the nature of the genre.

It is the first (and last) time I dip into the ‘true crime’ genre. The act of analysing and building narrative from the actions and emotions of the Blackman family and their friends, not characters but people in England, living not too far from where I live, feels exploitative. Is that just me being overly squeamish? How do you accurately interpret somebody’s emotions, and consequent actions, when they are living through such a horrendous experience? With the impossibility of accessing another person’s ‘inner’ feelings, any such interpretation is just what David Ellis termed ‘affable pretence’.

*****

*****

Zona by Geoff Dyer

Without reservation, I am a deep-seated admirer of Geoff Dyer’s work. Since reading his D. H. Lawrence book I have continued through each of his titles. Last year I went to a talk that Dyer gave on Camus, (available here, but registration needed for the full video. It is worth it when you have a free 55 minutes.), when he spoke of Camus as a kindred spirit. It is a similar, extraordinary kinship I feel for Dyer’s writing. There is a connection beyond some murky similarities in our backgrounds.

Dyer’s latest book Zona has as its foundation Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, which has haunted me through three successive viewings. I am far from finished with Stalker so I am thrilled Dyer chose (and was permitted) to weave his discourse around (almost) a shot by shot post-mortem of the film. If you haven’t read Dyer before or seen Stalker, I recommend you watch the film and start elsewhere with Dyer.

At one point Dyer writes,

There are no clichés in Tarkovsky: no clichés of plot, of framing, no clichés of music to underline the emotional meaning of a scene (or, as is more usually the case, to compensate or make good for an emotional meaning that would be absent were it not for the music). Actually, we need to qualify this slightly; there are no one else’s clichés in Tarkovsky.

By the time you’ve read several of Geoff Dyer’s books, fiction or non-fiction (these categories become irrelevant), the same statement could so easily apply. Conceptually and in its realisation Zona is reliant on Dyerian cliché, but that is not a negation of the book’s virtuosity. Dyer’s writing is idiosyncratically brilliant for its immunity from the traditional contrivances of literature. Ostensibly about Stalker, Dyer digresses far from his original theme. This latest Dyer is brilliant, but on this occasion please don’t expect objectivity.