Blogs and Non-Novels (4)

Blogs, of course, can be fertile ground for fiction of the non-novel sort. To expand on this idea would, though, require some sort of agreement on what I mean by ‘blog’ – and what others mean by the same.

The word once referred to the form rather than the content, but I’m not certain this applies any longer. The common perception of a blog (‘oh plebeian fields, how I miss your salty furrows’) is of an online confessional, or diary: a repository of random thoughts from someone under the misapprehension that the world might like to take a peek into his/her brain.

As assessments go, this is not far wrong. Most blogs are non-fiction. But there is no reason why they should be. Fiction can flourish here too. If it is good (which is to say, if it is in the publisher’s banker’s interest) it might go on to form a book: even a novel. Ah! But isn’t this what I have been railing against all along? To be a novel should not be the goal. To accept one’s non-noveldom: this is the key. To wander in the fog of uncertain classification – and not complain. To write – and not shape it to fit someone’s perception of what writing is – or should be. Yes!

Holleston and Non-Novels (3)

The time has come to say a word about Ingemar Hölleston. Not about his parrot boxes – though it’s true, he did have some. Actually, I take that back. He designed them and killed parrots in order to make them, though evidence suggests that his hands were never responsible for the construction of a completed parrot box. It seems that the women in his life (of which there were many, all nicknamed after Dutch paintings) were keen either to stifle his parrot-murdering tendencies altogether – or at the very least prevent him from fashioning boxes out of their feathery corpses.

As I wrote, however, the main aim of today’s post is to not to linger on the subject of parrot boxes, but to push the critical trowel a little deeper into the Hölleston flower-bed: a very worthy task at any time, but especially relevant when set along recent investigations into the concept of the non-novel.  After all, Hölleston is for many people the archetypal non-novelist. Here is a writer who thrives in the shadowy corners; a shape-shifting spirit: a marvellous snowman, bound to melt under the burning sun of critical scrutiny.

Shouldn’t I, thus, hold off the hounds, call off the search and put down the gilded pen? Should I not let the non-novelist be, safe in his nowhere land of diaphanous forms, uncaged by careless catagories?

Perhaps I should. Before I do, yet, I will toss a handful of sand across the slate, or fling a block of damp wood into the quietly burning fire. I will, perchance, risk another paragraph or so.

Some will shiver, shake, and quite possibly quiver at the reverent attitude I hold towards Hölleston. Such has been the case from the very beginning. For some he was and is the Danish Da Vinci; for others no more than a moneyed crackpot. Even Hölleston himself wasn’t too sure. A self-confessed idler and layabout, he thought that he was both  ‘boring’ and yet ‘quite frankly the most interesting person I have ever come across’. ‘Layabout’ was probably about right, though one has to remember that he lay about in great style. As always, he brought to the task (or non-task, as the case may be) an original vision: a new angle, a fresh perspective, a distinct divination.

‘I never edit,’ he once wrote – and it’s not as if we needed to know. The thing about Holleston was that he wrote. That was all. He wrote things down. Where they were going he didn’t know. Some bits were long, other bits short. Some bits were accompanied by pictures, others by diagrams, others by nonsensical scrawls. Prose slipped into poetry mid-sentence, then back into prose. Stories began, then disappeared, then reappeared, then left again, never to return. In the midst of all this there were flashes of wisdom. Too many flashes, perhaps. One was – and is – often blinded by Hölleston. He points a searchlight at your soul. His words, at best, are what strobe lighting is to an epilectic. At his most medicore, he is but a candle in a cathedral, steadily melting our waxen hearts.

Hölleston was full of great ideas, though he was never afraid, nor ashamed, to keep them in embryo form. Some call this his weakness – I think it his strength. In working up ideas into novels, many writers lose what it was that got them going in the first place. The foundation stone is crushed by the great galumphing building constructed on top of it. Readers, those soft-hearted fools, will lose their way in the margins, falling for this or that character, all the while ignoring the essence of the thing: the spark that started the fire. Hölleston, however, never got round to creating a fire. He lit the match and blew it out, time after time.

How does one read him? I’ve never been sure. Bits of his work have been published, haphazardly, by various houses, though they remain far from readily available to the potential masses. The rest lingers, meanwhile, in Danish libraries: a page here, another page there. It seems that no one has ever had a hold on Hölleston. But that’s the beauty of the man. He ain’t the type to be tamed.

Some Non-Novels (2)

Another example that those poor endangered animals (that is, Underneath the Bunker readers) may have already come across. Of course, all of you will know, at least, that one of Oa Aayorta’s ‘novels’ is included on my Greatest European Novels listThe Endless Winter Night, to prod your memory lightly, is the name of it. Is it really a novel? Possibly, perhaps, probably. I’m not prepared to go into that just now. In fact, I’m rather more interested in Aayorta’s earlier – and first – work, which has never been called a novel – certainly not by the author at any rate, whose response to the sadly inevitable question ‘What is it?’ has always been a simple shrug of the shoulders. When it is categorised according to custom (and not, obviously, by the author) it is called a film. Hardly surprising, considering that it is, essentially, a film. A film that wants to be a novel. Or a novel that wants to be a film. Or neither. A non-film non-novel.

Silence with Subtitles, for the uninitiated, consists of footage shot during one man’s walk across Andorran. There is no sound, though a text is supplied, without pause, by way of subtitles. It is, to look at it one way, a novel written on a screen. Some (oh you canny clowns) have called it a filvel – others a novilm. The resulting confusion, typically, threw boulders into the path of its reception. Cinema-goers found it tedious. Readers of contemporary Andorran fiction missed the few showings it had – only to catch on to it, against the author’s wishes, in a pirated book version. Though it has since been made available on DVD (I’m told, though I’ve failed to track down a copy myself) it is the book version that continues to gather critical praise. It seems that people struggle when it comes to reading that many subtitles. But then Aayorta has never been one to let his readers sit comfortably. His work, to the dismay of many (including this reviewer) demands an active reader. It refuses to lie back on the puny deck-chair of our expectations. It is – to borrow a point from a comment made in the post below – always ‘novel’, but not always a ‘novel’.

Some Non-Novels (1)

I have no intention of quibbling over definitions of the novel. Such matters have a habit of turning into cat-fights – and I value what little hair I have. Suffice it to say that a fair amount of literary productions are called novels simply for the sake of it. It’s a magic word, ‘novel’ is: tack it to any old piece of writing and people seem a little more inclined to take it seriously. Even if you never thought of your work as a novel, nor wrote it as if it was one, you may find yourself musing over whether to call it one. After all, it’ll make things much easier during dinner parties when the woman with the pretty teeth asks you what you’ve written. ‘Some stuff’, won’t pass muster – and you know it. ‘Oh, just a novel’ will sound mildly better – and who knows, she may even forgive you for staring at her premolars.

In this spirit, I ought to be celebrating people brave enough to eschew the ‘novel’ word (or any major ‘category’ for that matter) and I will do this, I promise, in due time. Before then, however, I would like to rest, like the indolent feline, on a couple of examples kicking around my own fireplace – both of which have dared to shelter under this heinous word: one through the fault of its author, the other through the fault of, well, me.

The first is none other than J-P Sertin’s so-called ‘experimental novel’ p.52. Even without pushing it through the critical mill to see if it fulfils the correct criteria, I think we can probably some say with confidence that this piece of writing is not your usual novel. So why pretend to be a novel at all? Is it simply because no word currently exists to describe a collection of one big text consisting of fifty-two smaller texts purporting to be part of fifty-two even larger non-existent texts? What is wrong with plain ‘fiction’? Too bland, perhaps? It is as if Sertin has settled on ‘novel’ simply out of exasperation; in anticipatation of the inevitable. We’ll all be pigeonholed eventually – so why not pigeonholes ourselves and be done with it? Well, indeed. Still, it’s somewhat sad to see the man who once created his own, albeit small, literary form (I refer, of course, to Intercutting) scurrying to someone elses’; cuddling up to a term that I think, idealist that I am, he doesn’t really need. Sertin is a writer. Calling himself a novelist won’t make him a better writer.

But who am I to cast stones? After all, did I not allow my own publishing-house to market the work of the late great Yevgeny Nonik as a set of novels? True, the same publishing-house also released Sertin’s work. But then, seeing as Sertin has always existed in a state of relative sanity, the choice of whether to call his work a novel or not came down to him. In Nonik’s case (a mental case) it came down to me. And, let’s be honest, I choked. I would have done better to have call his work the ‘ramblings of a madman’ – for this, essentially, is what they are (which is not to deningrate them – they remain an incredible literary product). Instead, I plumped for novel; splitting his great unending sentence into two, I thought manageable, chunks.

Ha! What was I doing? Nonik cannot be managed. He cannot be categorised. He was not, is not a novelist. And more fool me for trying to make him one. More fool me…

Novel Gazing

Bring out the handcuffs: I am a guilty man. Too long have I fixed my eyes on one thing at the expense of others. The literary field is a large field – and yet so often I find myself standing here, stuck to one dull spot like a cod-brained tourist, surveying an all-too-familiar sight. What lurks there yonder in the long thin grass? I do and don’t care. I’m a glutton for obscurity, of course I am, but this doesn’t mean that sometimes I’m not, in other ways, a sombre sort of traditionalist.

I refer, in this case, to form. Or to be more exact, the manner in which form is categorised. Yes, I know, I know. We all hate that word. Categorised. It makes one’s right foot sweat just to hear it. And yet, stale and ancient limpets that we are, we stick to it. 

As for the ‘all-too-familiar sight’ of which I wrote, I was here referring to that pretty yet cumbersome boulder we call the ‘novel’. Ah yes: the novel. The great form, according to some. The Real McCoy. The Genuine Article. The Empyrean Avocado. A deadly category to which readers turn, again and again (and after that, again).

What’s so wonderful about the novel to keep harping on about it so? What song does the cliff sing to the lemmings? Why devote so many hours of my critical career to compiling a list of the greatest contemporary novels? Is it not true, as Andrew K writes here, that ‘the very notion that imaginative writing should have to flow into the form of the novel is a kind of tyranny’?

In all fairness, the novel ain’t so bad. And yet the faint stink of correctness continues to drift, as a perfumed miasma, from Mr K’s wise comment. There is so much more to writing than this. So much more. And no, I’m not talking about poetry, per se. Or plays, or essays, or dialogues, or prefaces, or pamphlets, or screenplays, or sketches, or skits, or whatever it is you may think that I am talking (or writing) about. At least, I’m not talking about them directly – though any of these categories may contain, in the opinions of some, the sort of thing to which I am referring. Which is, of course, that great neglected category of literature: Writing That Doesn’t Quite Fit Into Any Sort Of Category.

Describing such writing is not something one can do in so small a space as this. On that basis, I will say no more at this point. What I will do, however, is to make a promise that, in the future, I will be making every effort to spend more time looking at pieces of writing that are neither novels, nor poems, nor anything of a form that slots like a coin into the obstreperous categorical vending machine. This may or may not include the work of Ingemar Holleston, Yevgeny Nonik, Puvis Montagnier, Frank Key and Oa Aayorta. It will definitely not include the work of Ka Naurauch, Fjona Uu and Sir Walter Scott (whoever he is).