Austerlitz on Writer’s Block

Sebald’s Austerlitz is beautiful. This passage is the start of a minutely observed and extreme case of writer’s block:

How happily, said Austerlitz, have I sat over a book in the deepening twilight until I could no longer make out the words and my mind began to wander, and how secure have I felt seated at the desk in my house in the dark night, just watching the tip of my pencil in the lamplight following its shadow, as if of its own accord and with perfect fidelity, while that shadow moved regularly from left to right, line by line, over the ruled paper. But now I found writing such hard going that it often took me a whole day to compose a single sentence, and no sooner had I thought such a sentence out, with the greatest effort, and written it down, than I saw the awkward falsity of my constructions and the inadequacy of all the words I had employed. If at times some kind of self-deception none the less made me feel that I had done a good day’s work, then as soon as I glanced at the page the next morning I was sure to find the most appalling mistakes, inconsistencies and lapses staring at me from the paper. However much or little I had written, on a subsequent reading it always seemed so fundamentally flawed that I had to destroy it immediately and begin again.

Every Sentence Has a Consequence

Everything we introduce into a novel becomes a sign: it is impossible to insert an element that does not change it to some degree, any more than you can insert a number, algebraic sign, or superfluous exponent into an equation. Sometimes-rarely, because one of the novelist’s cardinal virtues is a beautiful and intrepid unconscious-on a day or critical inclination, a sentence I have written will conjure up horrors before me, as Rimbaud wrote: as soon as it is integrated into the narrative, assimilated by it, caught irrevocably in a pitiless continuity, I sense the radical impossibility of discerning the ultimate effect of what I have shoved into a delicate, growing organism: food or poison?

– Julien Gracq, Reading Writing, on the novel:

Masterpieces and Memory

Julien Gracq, who died in 2007, wrote with great elegance and lucidity. He deserves to be more widely read. This a passage from Reading Writing, on the novel:

Of a poem, there is no form of memory other than its exact memorisation, line by line. No reconnection with it is possible aside from its literal resurrection in the mind. But the memory one retains of a long and exacting work of fiction, of a novel, last read or reread years ago-after all the work of simplification, reconstruction, fusion, and readjustment that the elision of memory brings with it-would, if the matter were not so evasive by nature, provide a very interesting topic of study. In fact, if such a study could ever present some reliability, it would provide new information on the structure and secret resources of works of fiction.

We would have to compare the memories that avid readers of good faith distantly retained of the same work, and have them recount their idea of the book-or rather what remains of it, omitting any references to the text-from memory, to note the fairly regular recurrence of the shipwreck of entire sections that have sunk to the bottom of memory, and flashpoints, on the contrary, that continue to irradiate it, and by whose light the work is reconstructed in an entirely different way. Another book would appear beneath the first-the way another painting appears beneath an X-rayed painting-that, to the economic map of a country, would be a little like a map of its energy source.

Empire of the Sun and Literary Adaptations

From this discussion with Iain Sinclair about J. G. Ballard:

I saw Empire of the Sun again the other day, and it’s Spielberg more than Ballard though it’s reasonably close to the book.

I recently saw the film again and came to the same conclusion. It was a polished, Disneyfied interpretation, with overtones of Merchant Ivory. I’d love to see a Peter Greenaway rendering. Greenaway’s obsession with sex and death is well matched with Ballard’s themes. Ballard’s book Crash, interpreted faithfully (but ultimately disappointingly) by David Cronenberg is frequently juxtaposed with Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, as controversial films.

It is a cliché to discuss how a particular film is a disappointing adaptation of a particular book. Is there a film that has aesthetically advanced the original text? Perhaps Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire or The Great Gatsby, almost certainly The Third Man.

In Julien Gracq’s discerning book Reading Writing he offers this insight:

But the reader of a novel is not a performer following notes and tempo step by step: he is a director. And this suggests that, from one brain to another, the sets, cast, lighting, and motion of the performance become unrecognisable. Whatever the explicit precision of the text-and even against it, if he so desires-the reader decides (for example) on the acting of the characters and their physical appearance. And the best proof of this is that the interpretation of a film adapted from a familiar novel almost always jars us, not because of its arbitrary nature, but most often because of its fidelity to the formal indications of the text, with which, while reading it, we have taken the greatest liberties.

This, of course, must be correct. The conclusion is that one should never, never watch film adaptations of books that you love and know intimately. But, of course, it is always impossible to resist.

A Ballard Theme

Finishing JG Ballard’s The Kindness of Women completed the trilogy of autobiographical reading following the writer’s death in the spring. Reading it after The Miracle of Life: From Shanghai to Shepperton, and after watching Christian Bale play Jim Ballard in Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, added to the understanding of this complex individual. It is hard to reconcile the recurrent themes that Ballard addressed in his fiction with the thoroughly nice, whiskey-swilling suburbanite of his autobiographies.

I read Ballard intensely in my twenties and kept up with each successive release. Before his death I was never drawn to his autobiographical work. I am pleased to have made the effort to comprehend the man, to the extent autobiography offers any insight.

Concrete Island , though a minor Ballard, is my personal favourite, surreal and utterly terrifying.

There is much devoted and some fanatic enthusiasm for Ballard. Is it inspired by the perennial influences in his stories or the sheer normality of the man that wrote them?

Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone

Carlos Fuentes’s Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone is a fictionalised account of a torrid relationship with actress Jean Seberg. The authenticity of the relationship has been questioned. It is a odd though passionately written book, set in the years immediately after 1968. Subsequent reading of J. Edgar Hoover’s targeting of Jean Seberg and her sorrowful ending deepens the intensity of the tragedy.

In the collaboration that takes place between writer and reader, my reading of this story is affected by a memory of a torrid but doomed relationship. The memory adds colour and augments the sense of participation. This is of course the case with any good fiction that is able to tap into shared emotional states. It is one of the reasons to read.

Fuentes, writing in praise of the novel:

I find, in all great novels, a human project, call it passion, love, liberty, justice, inviting us to actualize it to make it real, even if we know that it is doomed to fail. Quixote knows he fails, as do Pere Goriot and Anna Karenina and Prince Myshkin. But only through the consciousness, implicit or explicit, of such failure, do they save, and help us save, the nature of life itself, human existence and its values as lived and proposed and remembered by all the ages, all the races, all the families of humankind, without alienating themselves to an illusion of unending, certified progress and felicity.