Joanna Walsh’s Worlds From the Word’s End

Every four hours I tested my temperature. Sanity slips away on that threshold between high fever and very high fever; in the spaces I read. What else? Reading was a clear but dense broth; examined more closely: a complex refinement of Kafka’s and Lydia Davis’s short stories dusted with a little Calvino, known for its nutrient qualities. When the fever ended, the dreams remained, as did the stories of Joanna Walsh in Worlds From the Word’s End.

When the fever was over, I read these stories again and found them possessed by the spectral figures that I recognised from the fiction-induced vivid dreams of my high fever. Walsh lulls us calmly in with apparently simple wordplay but there are horrors here you may not want to possess your waking and sleeping thoughts: that demon who has read all  those neglected books on your bookshelves, or that wonder-awful-place where words go out of fashion.

Like a film director or a painter, for these are stories with high visual depth, Walsh invites us to escape reality for a few hours, or at least acknowledge the possibility that reality is not as we may perceive. On both readings, I found it important to give these stories room to space their shapes, colours and textures, to balance philosophical tendencies, to develop often banal situations. What excited me most were the ideas that exhibit a fine, skilful query into the nature of being in the world.

Rachel Cusk’s Aftermath

Rachel Cusk knows how to look at things. In Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, her forensic sense of empathy is clear whether describing a local florist or her profound alienation after her marriage of ten years came to an end.

What happens when the texture of our world shatters into pieces? If we are no longer able to see the form that provides a sense of structure to our world? Cusk seeks to give form to her world through language, giving shape to chaos through writing Aftermath. As David Winters writes of Lydia Davis’s novel, “she tries to imprint an order upon her experience.”

Cusk’s Aftermath is a work of originality.. An striking opening leads to a startling, clever ending, but along the way she looks at the fragility of most unions whose pieces rarely fit tidily together, and like a jigsaw only looks complete from far away.

I intend to explore Cusk’s backlist further but the call back to Dostoyevsky is stronger.

Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story

Dilettante reader that I am, I abandon books without regret, often after fifty pages, bored by their banality, loquacity, or simply tired of their particular contrivance. But with Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story I persisted despite resistance to its flat, controlled prose. Davis’s recounting of obsession is the antithesis of Chris Kraus’s bitter I Love Dick or Ferrante’s woozy The Days of Abandonment.

Something more interesting is going on in The End of the Story, less lamentation and more microscopic scrutiny of obsession from within the possessed mind of the narrator. Davis unearths the powers of images which shape and order a particular type of madness. After about a hundred and twenty pages, I found the particular rhythm of Davis’s dispassionate prose. As in trauma, numbness is not the absence of a reaction; the numbness is the reaction.

Understanding this enabled me to better make sense of Davis’s description of the shaping of an obsession. It is concerned with this imaginary landscape from which we view our relationships with the other, particularly those complicated by eroticism. The narrator’s insistence to persevere with a novel about her obsession recalls Bataille’s announcement in his Nietzsche book: “Motivating this writing-as I see it-is a fear of going crazy.”

Empty Spaces

What did boredom mean then? That nothing more would happen with him. It wasn’t that he was boring, it was that I no longer had any expectations for this companionship with him. There had been expectations, and they had died.

And why did that boredom make me so uncomfortable? Because of the emptiness of it, the empty spaces opening up between him and me, around us. I was imprisoned with this person and this feeling. Emptiness, but also disappointment: what had once been so complete was now so incomplete.

Lydia Davis, The End of the Story, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995

Strange Struggle With Meaning

It was during this translation [of Blanchot’s work] that I experienced another strange struggle with meaning: when in a simpler paragraph I found I could follow the thread of M. Blanchot’s argument from one sentence to the next, and that it made sense to me, I could not summarise at the end of the page or even at the end of the paragraph, what I had just read. I thought that this was my own weakness; then when I described this difficulty to others I found that it was true for them as well: it was in the nature of the argument to resist summary. Resisting summary did not mean resisting understanding. Somehow the experience of reading had to take place moment to moment; one had to remain in the moment and not look back on the whole; or dwell inside the moment and not stand back from it; one’s understanding proceeded like the guide’s flashlight illuminating one by one the animals painted on the wall of the ancient cave.

Lydia Davis, For Maurice Blanchot. Nowhere Without No, Vagabond Press, 2003

A Corking Issue of the Paris Review


This corking issue of the Paris Review features not only the Geoff Dyer excerpt of his next book on Tarkovsky’s Stalker, but also a brilliant  essay by Lydia Davis, Some Notes on Translation and on  Madame Bovary.

Essential reading for anyone with an interest in translation, Davis discusses, in a wide-ranging essay, the evolution of her translation of Madame Bovary between hardback and paperback, and in later editions. Digressing into other languages Davis comes to the pleasures of the German language:

The concreteness of their word for (our Latinate) multiplication: Einmaleins (=”one-times-one”).

The economy or condensation of their Wildbachbrücke (=’wild-brook’bridge”) = bridge over a mountain stream).

One of my favourites is a word I remember from a Peter Handke novel but cannot now find in it, search as I may. I find it elsewhere, though, in an article about a 5,300-year-old corpse preserved by a glacier and discovered in the Alps by a Bersteigerhepaar (=”mountain-climbing-married-couple”).

This is Google translated more concisely as “climber couple”; the corpse is described in English by the translation machine as “freeze-dried.”

Pure Literature

Biblioklept’s excellent post ‘Why I Abandoned Chad Harbach’s Over-Hyped Novel The Art of Fielding After Only 100 Pages’  is worth your time, as are the comments that follow about the nature of ‘literary fiction.’

One commenter adds, “Also, have you heard of the distinction made in Japanese between literary fiction and ‘pure literature?'” I haven’t but it sounds suspiciously like the old high/middlebrow debate, interesting in an abstract way but endlessly open to debate and reinterpretation. When I have some time I will follow up the sources of the argument .

Biblioklept kicked off a list of ‘strong/strange’ literature, based on a Bloom argument that, ‘it is the strangeness and originality of a work that confers its literary power.’ This position makes sense to me, as does Biblioklept’s ‘short list of relatively contemporary books (past thirty or fifty years) that I think will challenge readers who want more from their novels than a retread of the old-fashioned and well behaved.’

Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, Renata Adler’s Speedboat, David Foster Wallace’s novels and short stories, Cormac McCarthy’s novels (especially Blood Meridian and Suttree), Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker or Kleinzheit, Barry Hannah’s Airships and Ray, anything by W.G. Sebald, William T. Vollmann’s The Rifles or Butterfly Stories, Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask, Lars Iyers’s Spurious, PK Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Gordon Lish’s short stories, Denis Johnson’s Angels, Thomas Pynchon’s V, Don DeLillo’s Underworld or White Noise.

To which I added, over coffee and cornflakes (a dozen others occur to me now):

Most of Geoff Dyer’s work (especially Out of Sheer Rage: In the Shadow of D.H.Lawrence), Peter Handke’s Across, Thomas Bernhard’s Correction, Tejo Cole’s Open City, J. M. Coetzee’s novels, Lydia Davis’s novels and short stories, Gerald Murnane’s Barley Patch and Vyacheslav Pyetsukh’s The New Moscow Philosophy.

UPDATE

Words Beyond Borders offered the following suggestions: The Dictionary Of Khazars by Milorad Pavic and Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow. Saramago and Murakami works would also make my list. Thank you for the two titles, both new to me, and I would endorse Saramago and Murakami.

I don’t wish to poach any suggestions from Bibilioklept, so I have closed this post for further comments. If you have any additions to Biblioklept’s list, please head over to add them here.