How to Survive a Tough Book

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Some books aren’t as inviting as others

 

A tough book is a maze, a mire, a minefield. Ten minutes into it, you’re either groaning or yawning, or—like me, when reading Knut Hamsun’s Hunger—you’re in the first stages of a literary delirium. The headache is an indication that you should stop; the disbelief at what you’re reading keeps you going. You throw the book aside saying, End this torture!, only to pick it up again asking, But where can this possibly end?

The nameless protagonist, let’s call him the starving artist (for the notion could have been named after him), is in a delirium himself—he is deteriorating before the reader’s very eyes. His hair falls out, sores open up, erratic behaviour and twisted thoughts beset him. Poverty shackles him; pride puts him on the rack; vanity shields him from admitting the truth of his situation the way an iron maiden shields you from the outside world.

And Hunger is killing him.

As I wrote in From the Witch’s Point of View, a first person narrative is biased and brutal.

Quote: I tore a pocket out of my coat and took to chewing it; not with any defined object, but with dour mien and unseeing eyes, staring straight into space. (George Egerton’s translation from the Norwegian.)

After that, what else is there to say?

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White and Black

 

Let’s talk about chess.

Sixty-four squares, half white, half black; thirty-two pieces, half white, half black; two players, half playing as white, half playing as black.

Of course, Stefan Zweig put it better in his novella Chess (translation from the German by Anthea Bell), often also titled The Royal Game in English.

Quote: Is [chess] not also a science and an art, hovering between those categories as Muhammad’s coffin hovered between heaven and earth, a unique link between pairs of opposites: ancient yet eternally new; mechanical in structure, yet made effective only by the imagination; limited to a geometrically fixed space, yet with unlimited combinations; constantly developing, yet sterile; thought that leads nowhere; mathematics calculating nothing; art without works of art; architecture without substance – but nonetheless shown to be more durable in its entity and existence than all books and works of art; the only game that belongs to all nations and all eras, although no one knows what god brought it down to earth to vanquish boredom, sharpen the senses and stretch the mind.

That’s a single sweeping sentence, so richly deep, that you could dive into it repeatedly and come up each time with a new pearl.

What makes the Quote (and the whole novella) quiver?

Dichotomy and duality.

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Book Sequences: Quirks and Perks

Paul Signac used sequences of brushstrokes to create meaning in Place des Lices.

 

Quote: Books are transformed by the sequence in which they are read.

— Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

Start simple: the meaning of words is transformed by the sequence in which the words are read.

  • I grabbed the bottle, poured myself a glassful and took a swig.
  • I grabbed the bottle, took a swig and poured myself a glassful.

In the first the swig was likely from the glass, in the second from the bottle. The basis of such inferences is twofold: we assume that preceding events cause succeeding events, and we use sequences of words to indicate relationships between them. The former is post hoc ergo propter hoc, sequence implies causality—usually a fallacy, yet linguistically indispensable. The latter is a generalisation of how we interpret pronoun antecedents.

I held out the bottle, ready to pour the drink. As I reached for the glass, she knocked it to the floor.

She knocked the glass, right, not the bottle? Without any further information that’s the reasonable assumption because it is closer to glass than to bottle. A combination of the two principles also means that you assume the swig (in the original example) was taken either from the bottle or from the glass, and not from a nearby jar mentioned earlier in the scene.

So spacial arrangement and causality yield coherent events yield meaning.

Which brings us to books.

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Between Infinity and a Sneeze

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The stars we see when we sneeze

Infatuation has been described so many times, you’d think triteness was its middle name. And yet Uruguayan writer Felisberto Hernández digs fresh channels down which to guide the imagination. The Quote is from the short story The New House, from his book Lands of Memory.

Quote: … she even allowed herself to lower her eyelids. I told my poet friend that when she had her eyes like that her stance was somewhere between infinity and a sneeze.

Felisberto Hernández (1902–1964) was a self-taught pianist who earned his living playing in cafés and cinemas and wealthy private homes, until he finally dedicated himself to writing full-time in his later years. His blend of dream, reality, memory, and magic was a potent influence on many of the Latin American greats, including Márquez and Cortázar.

To my mind, Hernández’s stories have a distinct, viscous consistency—imagine if air were like water, hard to walk through, easy to float in—lacking in the Latin American magical realism that came after him. Maybe lacking is the wrong word: distilled is better.

But, like other Latin American authors, Hernández’s writing radiates heat. Not Californian heat, not African or Asian heat, not even Mediterranean heat. It’s specific and maybe, in some convoluted way, connected to his vision of how magic permeates the ordinary.

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The magic beyond the ordinary

The closest to Hernández in the blending of the worldly with the otherworldly comes his contemporary, Bruno Schulz (1892–1942), a Polish-Jewish writer. The viscosity is there, as is a dank European chill.

But let’s leave my literary proprio- and thermoreceptors aside; they bear only limited scrutiny before starting to take false readings.

To get this post back on track, here is another quote from the same short story, about the same woman.

She talked continually and this was fine with me since it concealed the fact that I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. I was trying to detach her from her words, like someone extracting a sweet from infinite layers of cardboard, paper, string, frills and other nuisances.

What makes the (first) Quote quiver?

The scale that contains both a sneeze and infinity.

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From the Witch’s Point of View

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A candle is a rectangle when seen from the side, a circle when seen from above (or below), and a pinprick of light when seen in the dark.

Stories, like candles, depend on our point of view. Let me sketch a comparatively tame example. Setting: student A taking oral exam in history with Professor B.

Point of view A: Did I hear him right? I’m shaking, shambling through the narrative, yup, aaaand said that name wrong, I’ve got sweat patches on my white shirt, I should have worn dark. The professor, he keeps piercing me with that look telling me I’m going to fail, and now he’s writing something down, probably the year I just got wrong, and the battle I just misplaced, he’s counting my mistakes, disaster, disaster, disaster.

Point of view B: Aha, correct, fine, right, God this is boring, why does she keep playing with that earring, she’s already got droopy ears, now she’s tapping her foot, chewing gum between questions, and she just checked the time on her phone, again. I’m as bored as her, I gave her maximal marks the moment she opened her mouth because we both know she’s learned the book by heart, but there’s the protocol, I have to ask another question after this, tralala, let me doodle a Snoopy for a while to pass the time.

Who’s right?

A first person narrative is an intimate experience, the closest to living someone else’s life, but it suffers from the same limitations as living your own life: it’s a blinkered perspective, prone to bias. There is no right or wrong.

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Different view, different perspective. Different perspective, different view.

 

The inability to see beyond ourselves to the “objective reality” can lead to a severe disparity of viewpoints. This is the so-called Rashomon effect, named after Rashomon, a film by Kurosawa from the 1950-s, where murder witnesses give contradictory statements.

Unsurprisingly, conflicts are rooted in the Rashomon effect—as are most good novels.

In mainstream fiction, truth and thoughts are fickle, highly sought-after commodities that are usually hidden by the conniving author. Indeed, most misunderstandings have to be inferred by the reader or by the characters, and only occasionally is the book’s “objective reality” made explicit in a Watson-Holmes type of interaction.

But wait, objective reality is boring; don’t you wonder what it’s like to be someone else?

Whilst in real life you can’t actually walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, or see the world through their eyes, in a book, however, you can. Remember Grimm’s Snow White? Young beautiful girl put by evil stepmother into comatose state after swallowing poisonous apple until rescued by prince? The stepmother (I’ll call her Queen) is so evil she orders a huntsman to murder the stepdaughter (I’ll call her Princess) and bring back her heart or lungs or liver, depending on which version you read, to be eaten by the Queen.

That was so 19th century.

Steps in Neil Gaiman with Snow, Glass, Apples in 1994. His short story is a retelling of Snow White—it keeps all the well-known elements of the fairy tale —but it’s written in the ultimately biased viewpoint: in first person, from the Queen’s perspective. (Far from the omniscient narrator of fairy tales.)

Quote: And some say (but it is her lie, not mine) that I was given the heart, and that I ate it. Lies and half-truths fall like snow, covering the things that I remember, the things I saw. A landscape, unrecognisable after a snowfall; that is what she has made of my life.

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Chronicles of the Time: Short Announcement

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Quote: Do you hear, let them be well used, for they are the abstracts and brief chronicles of the time.

—Shakespeare (Hamlet 2.2.514)

This is Hamlet telling Polonius to take good care of a theatre troupe, because the acts they put on reflect and summarise the times for posterity. That was then, around the year 1600. Modern, smaller-scale chroniclers of the times (and hardly so well-regarded) are blogs. Like plays, blogs can suffer from technical difficulties, but they push on with the show and hope the audience doesn’t notice. Occasionally, the audience might notice, and the show is offered again, under better circumstances and after a brief delay.

As you may have guessed, this applies to Quiver Quotes.

In the past fortnight, I’ve had a few issues with the WordPress hosting on my blog. Some of my posts didn’t reach their readers; some readers had difficulty finding the pages or interacting with them. To fix this, WordPress rolled back my site to how it was before the problems started (which means that all the changes and posts I have made since have disappeared). As such, over the next week and a half I will be reposting four or five of the essays that encountered the biggest problems, possibly with a few small changes.

Those of you who follow me through the WordPress Reader may notice some dregs & detritus left over from the clean-up process. This too is being looked into. Please comment below if you’re having difficulties with this post or with the site.

Thank you for your patience!

To Quote: Quirks and Perks

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Quote: During the student revolts that shook the world in the late 1960s, one of the slogans shouted at the lecturers at the University of Heidelberg was Here wird nicht zitiert!, “No quoting here!” The students were demanding original thought; they were forgetting that to quote is to continue a conversation from the past in order to give context to the present. To quote is to make use of the Library of Babel; to quote is to reflect on what has been said before, and unless we do that, we speak in a vacuum where no human voice can make a sound.

— Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

The Quote illustrates part of the reason I chose to blog about quotes. As Alberto Manguel says, to quote is to continue a conversation from the past in order to give context to the present.

Context determines meaning; without it we are doomed.

She stomped down hard and everyone applauded means one thing if she stomped as part of a flamenco dance, another if she stomped on a snail, yet another if she stomped on the fingers of her opponent in a fight to the death.

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Allegory meets Tolkien’s fox

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Tailoring voices

 

To illustrate a point you can relate an anecdote (it happened to me) or quote from a source (it happened to others, elsewhere, possibly in a book)—that’s called using testimony as a form of argument. But what if you need something tailor-made for the occasion of your argument? Well, then you fire-up your imagination and your Singer model 2.E (E for English) and fabricate your own testimony.

Yes, you call upon a fictional person, or indeed, you personify whomever you need—that’s the rhetorical figure of prosopopoeia.

As I hinted in my previous post on Tolkien’s fox, prosopopoeia isn’t limited to fictional characters, on the contrary, it can come to your aid in everyday conversation (If he were here he’d tell you [insert convenient pseudo-quote]), and even more so in carefully-crafted arguments.

To get to a few interesting examples, let’s take a scenic route from Tolkien’s (fox in) Lord of the Rings to Tolkien’s speech on Beowulf.

Before he became the celebrated author behind the modern Lord of the Rings franchise, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892–1973) was a philologist with a penchant for developing imaginary languages. Indeed, he says in his 1951 letter to Milton Waldman how “I have been at it since I could write” and how “behind my stories is now a nexus of languages”. That storytelling, nay, world-building can spring from such a low-level linguistic basis—language first, world later—fascinates me.

But perhaps it shouldn’t: in a lot of ways it’s one of the most logical places to start if you want a complex world which is self-consistent and complete. Because, ultimately, world-building is about cohesion on a grand scale.

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