Translated from the Dutch by Sarah Welling
All beginnings are easy. Raindrops falling in the river. A sudden gust of wind driving the leaves around the trees in anticlockwise eddies. A tree fell to the ground, and then another. A little later the electricity cut out. Hours have passed since then. The wind has gone and so has the rain. It’s evening, quiet and dark. Only it isn’t actually quiet: all around there’s the sound of bullfrogs and geckos, and the river churns through the valley with renewed force. And it’s not dark either: clusters of stars define the sky. I’m reading a book by the light of two tealights. (They light up half a page, so to read two pages I need to move the book four times.)
Writing — the activity I will, with some hesitation, call my profession — is a curious business, though in many ways no more curious than what, say, a stockbroker does, or a publicist, a pollster, a web designer or a YouTube star. It is virtual and cloudlike, all mirage and speculation. Whether writing is ‘real’ or not has nothing to do with the paper it is written on, like the windows, arches, balustrades and facades on euro notes have nothing to do with the stability of the currency. In the same way that Amazon has no bookshelves, a home page has no homeland and a meme has no fixed route, literature does not have letters, words or sentences of its own. All there is, is language. More so than paint, cement and all the cameras on our devices, it is the most open of all open sources.
Does this democratic principle make any literate person a potential writer of literature? Of course it’s not that simple. ‘Poetry,’ wrote D. H. Lawrence, ‘is a matter of words. And this is just as much true as that pictures are a matter of paint, and frescoes a matter of water and colour-wash. It is such a long way from being the whole truth that it is slightly silly if uttered sententiously.’
Poetry may consist of words, images and ideas; it is also ‘another thing’. In Lawrence’s eyes, a writer who can’t get that other thing down on paper is no more than a poetaster, a rhymester, a versifier. Poetasters make pretty, shiny baubles for the Christmas tree, which can be dusted off and hung up year after year. True writers, on the other hand, blow bubbles made of sound and colour, only to burst them again in the same breath — that’s how fragile the bubbles need to be, like the breath of the poet, inside and outside the bubble, needs to be filled with a contradictory desire for both order and chaos.
Language as the soapy water the poet uses to blow his bubbles and then burst them again: I love Lawrence’s metaphor, because he imagines language as something that changes shape when the breath of life is blown into it. I love it because the bubble envelops that breath and gives it shape, separating it from the air outside, and because that shape is so very fragile — it has almost ceased to exist the moment you look at it. And also because bubbles can form connections with each other, becoming something other than themselves. And finally, because the transformation from water into a bubble is one of form and not of substance. What Lawrence’s bubbles show is how one word cannot be more alive than another; at most, something can happen between the words that brings the whole to life for an instant.
That ‘something’ is bothering me already. It’s vague, and vagueness tends to be a sign of laziness rather than mystery. And while I’m at it, the phrase ‘between the words’ is annoying me just as much; it suggests, ultimately, that it all revolves around something beyond words, something sacred or divine that we call inspiration or the soul, independent of the body and of actual words, and I don’t believe in that. A writer is no magician or visionary, no Jesus able to conjure Lazarus from the grave. What writers do is blow bubbles. The reason they write is not to remain but to make room; not to fix things in place but to make them come unstuck.
We do little else than speak in stale metaphors and hackneyed clichés; our language is peppered with them (‘peppered’: see, there I go already).
And I mean that in the simplest, least figurative sense of the word, as loosening things that are fixed down. And if there’s one thing that’s fixed, it’s language. We do little else than speak in stale metaphors and hackneyed clichés; our language is peppered with them (‘peppered’: see, there I go already). Most of the time it’s not a problem; language is an instrument, after all, a means of communication. And moreover, anyone who wants to say anything the least bit spontaneously must be able to draw from a well (there I go again) of fixed meanings, a solid set of words and expressions we don’t have to scratch our heads at each and every time.
Like no other, the writer needs to be aware of language’s ossified state. And when she writes, she needs to at least make a valiant attempt at combating it, if nothing else. This is a question of moving and getting things moving. Arranging the words in such a way that their meaning is no longer clichéd. Moving away from clichés means moving away from clear-cut meanings, from simplicity. This sounds more straightforward than it is; the language we have to work with is stubborn in its fixity, impressive in its impotence. ‘Words fail me,’ we say when things get serious. ‘Indescribable’ is what we call things of overwhelming beauty. We are ‘struck dumb’ when we want to convey our disbelief. This is the language we use to express the deficiencies of language itself.
So what’s the alternative? Actually remaining silent, instead of saying that something has rendered you speechless? In many cases this would be a welcome relief, but it’s not an option for a writer. A writer cannot afford to be silent about that whereof she cannot speak; she must speak of it. All in all, the writer finds herself in a pretty impossible position: she must bring language, which is not alive in itself, to life, without the aid of magic or divine intervention. She must compress and draw out time without the aid of a time machine. She must leave her breath in the bubble she blows, while showing, in the same breath and bubble, that ‘look! — I am no longer here, this is no longer here, but despite that it does actually matter that I am blowing away like mad and that for one brief moment someone is touched by the bubbles I make’.
I may have given the impression that I have a particular type of novel (let’s focus on novels here) in mind: the complicated, near unreadable kind, a hermetic, high- modernist experimental construct, in which language is self-referential and smitten with itself. But that’s not the case at all. What I’m trying to say is, well, let me use a quote here by the Dutch writer Kees ’t Hart, from an essay in which he tries to approximate what he sees as ‘happy writing’. ‘It’s not the sentences and words that need jumbling up,’ he writes, ‘but the commonplaces.’ So instead of mixing up words and sentences, it’s all about shaking up common ideas and assumptions.
This also means that any distinction between the novel of the ivory tower and that of the streets is ultimately untenable. This was something Dutch writer Frans Kellendonk pointed out in 1986 already (at which point I was an unborn foetus floating around in a uterus — I wasn’t there, is what I’m saying) during a reading in Amsterdam titled ‘Idols’. Here, Kellendonk took the second commandment as his starting point: ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth.’
For him, the significance of this particular prohibition is that it points to an ‘all-pervasive’ question, which is how to deal with the unknown. Or, to put it another way: what is an artist, a writer, to do with that which cannot be depicted or expressed? For believers, this unknown entity is God, but Kellendonk the writer called it reality.
A novel’s relationship to reality cannot by any means be a straightforward one, because reality is not a totality that can be defined objectively. It is diffuse and chaotic, and can never be completely known. Simple realism fails to do justice to that unknowability, and actually manages to ‘throw reality out the window while proclaiming its love of reality’. And then there’s the type of novel that ‘does not acknowledge a reality outside of language’ and ‘believes everything exists only to end up in a book — a book that, lacking a readership, must remain closed for all eternity’. Both kinds miss the point, writes Kellendonk, because ‘[b]oth deny the secret, aspiring to the inertia of a kind of art that has swallowed up reality, a sated form of art for art’s sake.’
The kind of novel writing Kellendonk advocates instead is one that acknowledges the secret of reality, and takes up the challenge of that mystery. An art of the novel that both honours and disregards the second commandment at the same time. And that requires a writer who is prepared to accept that complete insight will never be granted to her. Despite this, she’s still drawn to the light, like a moth to a flame. ‘There is a crack in everything,’ as Leonard Cohen sings, ‘[t]hat’s how the light gets in.’
Towards the end of J. M. Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello (2oo3), the celebrated Australian author Elizabeth Costello is waiting at the gates of heaven, gates of a Kafkaesque nature that seem to have been created especially for her. Before she can pass through, she has to provide a written statement of belief. ‘I am a writer,’ she tells the gatekeeper, not yet fully aware of the tricky situation she is in. ‘You have probably not heard of me here, but I write, or have written, under the name Elizabeth Costello. It is not my profession to believe, just to write. Not my business. I do imitations, as Aristotle would have said […] I can do an imitation of belief, if you like. Will that be enough for your purposes?’
The gatekeeper provides no confirmation, just hands her a blank sheet of paper. Resolutely, she writes down her statement:
I am a writer, a trader in fictions […] I maintain beliefs only provisionally: fixed beliefs would stand in my way. I change beliefs as I change my habitation or my clothes, according to my needs. On these grounds — professional, vocational — I request exemption from a rule of which I now hear for the first time, namely that every petitioner at the gate should hold to one or more beliefs.
In his essay ‘Why’ (2o15) the literary critic James Wood argues that in every (good) novel there is a battle between the secular and the religious mode.
The religious mode is grounded in that-which-is-already- written. Chaos has been given a form, that form has solidified on paper, and the paper has been fixed between two covers. There’s a beginning and an end, everything is retrospective, and, to quote Wood, the events that unfold ‘have already happened. Fictional form is always a kind of death.’
But the novel has an immediate impulse to compensate for its finished state, its death, its religious mode, by making the reader experience something that comes close to life itself, or rather something living that life itself cannot reveal in the same way. This is the desire for chaos, the breath that fills the bubbles with air until they grow and then burst; the possibility of changing one’s belief, of doubt, illuminating something briefly and then moving on.
Belief in fiction is always metaphorical: it only resembles real belief, and it is always up to the reader to validate it or reject it: ‘Fiction, being the game of not quite, is the place of not-quite-belief. Precisely what is a danger in religion is the very fabric of fiction.’
If faced with a gatekeeper of his own, James Wood would probably produce a statement similar to Elizabeth Costello’s: belief in fiction is a temporary belief — a writer is not a preacher.
No more than reasonable, you might think, but Costello’s statement is flatly rejected by the gatekeeper. ‘What you believe,’ he insists, pushing a fresh sheet of paper towards her. Until she’s written it down properly, she’s condemned to remain in a no man’s land, a drowsy little town with a vaguely Italian feel and a shady square where young couples gaze into each other’s eyes. She wonders whether the whole thing is an act put on especially for her, because she’s a writer. ‘Is it someone’s idea of what hell will be like for a writer, or at least purgatory: a purgatory of clichés? […] It is the same with the Kafka business. The wall, the gate, the sentry, are straight out of Kafka […] Kafka, but only the superficies of Kafka; Kafka reduced and flattened to a parody.’
She is summoned before a group of nine judges, who fire questions at her. Her defence is a shrewd and erudite plea against fixed beliefs, but the judges are unrelenting: Elizabeth Costello will have to stay in her no man’s land, watching and waiting, as one Christmas bauble after the other is hung on the tree — a tree made of pine- scented plastic.
Thinking of Elisabeth Costello, I realize that the island where I am is pretty reminiscent of a parody itself. Most tourists come to this island because they’re tired. The world has become too complicated, too fast, too much for them; they themselves have become too complicated, too fast, too much for themselves. Their nerves have become tangled, their systems have crashed. They need to take it easy, cast off everything that isn’t necessary, allowing what is essential to re-emerge. They need to live in the moment, be mindful, drink green juices, do yoga and Pilates, drench themselves in coconut oil, embrace kindred spirits, cry and laugh, so that finally they can go back home feeling recharged and get back on to the treadmill, only for their batteries to go flat again, just a little slower maybe this time.
I feel recharged and ready to go again. There’s something obscene about this commonly used metaphor that represents our body as a battery. If we are a battery, then what is the machine? The world, or society? Is that all that’s left to us — speeding up or slowing down, recharging or running down?
In all its obscenity, the battery metaphor fits in perfectly with what the philosopher Byung-Chul Han calls ‘the Transparency Society’ in an essay with that title, first published in German in 2o12. He writes, ‘The omnipresent demand for transparency, which has reached the point of fetishism and totalization, goes back to a paradigm shift […] Today the society of negativity is yielding to a society that progressively dismantles negativity in favour of positivity.’
Han’s essay reads like a defence of negativity, of what is secret, inaccessible and other. Because, he argues, ‘[o]nly machines are transparent. Eventfulness and freedom, which constitute life fundamentally, do not admit transparency.’
However well a machine can carry out calculations, it cannot think. Thought follows a path that hasn’t been set out beforehand, and may even divert from its path to carefully define a new one. The process of thinking changes you, and that, in turn, changes thinking itself. Calculations are transparent; thoughts aren’t. And things that aren’t transparent cannot be accelerated just like that. They’re all about the journey, the movement itself — that’s the whole point. As Han puts it, the process is narrative, not additive in nature.
The narrative mode does justice to our lives as human beings because it is as irreducible as life itself. Han uses rituals, ceremonies and pilgrimages as examples, because these have ‘their own temporality’, ‘their own rhythm and tact’. In that sense, novels and stories are also kinds of pilgrimages: the only way to understand them is to experience them, to undergo them yourself.
Elizabeth Costello is a professional, both in life and on the threshold of death. Up before the judges, she clings to the kind of authorship she feels she has practised throughout her long career — one free of any real beliefs. It is the kind of authorship James Wood talks about too, and the kind most writers in the West take for granted. Without realizing it, Costello reels off clichés herself. She does it in an elegant way, but nonetheless, as a reader, you are reminded of the scene at the very beginning of the book (in the chapter titled ‘Realism’) in which Costello is interviewed for a radio programme. Her adult son is listening to the interview, and is able to predict exactly which answers his mother will fall back on. That is, until she suddenly says something unexpected, something new; the woman interviewing her doesn’t pick up on it though, and the moment passes.
There’s another unexpected turn when Costello is summoned before the judges for a second time, after she has been talking with a woman in the village. She tells a story about her childhood in rural Victoria, an area of Australia affected by periods of extreme drought and rainfall. After the torrential rains, the swollen Dulgannon River would subside, leaving behind acres of mud, and at night the croaking of thousands of little frogs could be heard. Where, little Elizabeth asked herself, did all those frogs suddenly come from?
The answer was that they were always there. During the dry season the frogs disappear deep underground. ‘Their heartbeat slows, their breathing stops, they turn the colour of mud.’ But then, when the first raindrops fall, they slowly awake from the dead. They dig their way up out of their tombs and start up their loud croaking chorus again.
Elizabeth Costello herself calls this story from her childhood a ‘lamentably literary presentation’, far more allegorical than she’d like. And yet she cannot deny that she believes in those frogs, in their existence, completely independent of, and indifferent to, her own. She knows that in these frogs she has found something — something mysterious, a kind of not-knowing which is the driving force behind her authorship:
The mud frogs of the Dulgannon are a new departure for her. Give them time: they might yet be made to ring true. For there is something about them that obscurely engages her, something about their mud tombs and the fingers of their hands, fingers that end in little balls, soft, wet, mucous.
She thinks of the frog beneath the earth, spread out as if flying, as if parachuting through the darkness. She thinks of the mud eating away at the tips of those fingers, trying to absorb them, to dissolve the soft tissue till no one can tell any longer (certainly not the frog itself, lost as it is in its cold sleep of hibernation) what is earth, what is flesh. Yes, that she can believe in: […] when the first quiver of returning life runs through the body and the limbs contract, the hands flex. She can believe in that, if she concentrates closely enough, word by word.
And so Elizabeth Costello’s sojourn in this no man’s land, this cliché-filled purgatory, turns out to be a pilgrimage, a story with its own time and duration, its own measure and rhythm. Of course none of this leads to her actually passing through the gates; there’s no God to be found on the other side, or among the words of the novel for that matter. The issue here is the movement of thinking, which is a movement from simplicity to complexity, and also from chaos to complexity. This movement is irreducible, like the novel we hold in our hands. Elizabeth Costello’s quest is our own. Through her, we feel our way, we are unsure, we contradict ourselves. Through her, we see how sometimes the light suddenly finds its way in, and it’s not the light itself we see, but the objects it lights up. The slimy bodies of the frogs, their contracting limbs.
On the island where I’m staying, I haven’t seen many people reading a book. In the plane over here, too, high above Pakistan, India and the Bay of Bengal, mine was the only reading lamp that was lit up. A small nocturnal fish braving a sea of blue-lit screens, I thought to myself, a little sentimental owing to lack of sleep and fresh air.
I don’t want to create a hierarchy between reading literature and watching films on a three-inch screen, but there’s no denying that reading novels is not much in evidence as an activity these days.
The other day I was in a cafe when a fellow tourist in need of a chat pointed to the book I was reading. Was it a textbook, he asked, referring to the pencil in my hand. (I have the habit, or perhaps it’s a neurosis, of holding a pencil in my hand while I’m reading. I scribble things in the margins: crosses, exclamation marks, sometimes a ‘yes!’ It doesn’t amount to much, but I find it reassuring — the pencil marking my reader’s tracks, leaving evidence of my own, highly individual journey through the text.)
I made a quick note in the margin: ‘Man asks: is this a textbook?’ It seemed a curious question, all the more so because of the title, very clearly visible on the cover in large, green capital letters against a white background: I LOVE DICK. No, I said, it wasn’t a textbook. ‘So for fun,’ replied the man, who, I’d only just noticed, didn’t have a big toe on his left foot. Mentioning that may not be relevant here, but the fact is that I kept thinking of that missing toe in the hours that followed, and that made me think of his odd question, which so clearly defined the current state of the novel to my mind: the purpose of reading is either education or fun, take your pick — you can go for half-and-half if you like.
Not that there’s anything wrong with education or entertainment, but it seems like we’ve become stuck in this way of thinking about reading literature.
You can see it in the way publishers position the books they publish: as summer novels or winter novels, for example. Going to South Africa? Read this. Visiting Argentina, Bhutan, Belarus? Don’t worry, we have novels for those destinations too.
Bookshops are also keen on clearly signposted categories. The bookshop around the corner from where I lived for many years had an interview with its owner posted in the window for a while. In it, she argued that more novels should be given explanatory subtitles, making it clearer for bookshops and customers what kind of book they were dealing with. Could it teach you something about WWII, the Irish famine or the refugee crisis? Or about ordinary people, struggling with their anonymous existence in the big city? ‘It’s only when the book’s finished that the work really starts,’ the bookseller concluded. A truism, to her at least (at some point, the pale-faced writer who kept having to pass this window on her way to the shops was sorely tempted to cover that quote with duct tape).
Newspapers and magazines, for their part, eagerly come up with all manner of features, such as ‘The Five Best Novels to Help You Understand…’ (fill in a subject of choice: terrorism or Germany or women).
It seems reviewers are also keen on books with a clear message, plot, genre and believable characters. Here’s a small selection from the past few weeks, primarily from the paper I subscribe to:
Thankfully, in her first novel the author has managed to keep her philosophical impulses in check.
Their lack of centre weakens the stories’ narrative force.
In other words, the novelist has not managed to restrain the essayist sufficiently.
It may just be me, but even upon rereading, the [book’s] rambling narrative style and all the half- finished thoughts and lines of reasoning still drove me completely mad.
Sometimes I get the idea that, in terms of marketing, ethics and literary criticism, we’re still stuck in the nineteenth century. Even an exceptional critic like James Wood prefers to fall back on writers like Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov and Thomas Mann when providing examples. Not that there’s anything against these great dead white men and their important books, but if this remains the only frame of reference on which we base all our ideas of what literature should be, then we run the risk of turning it into a cliché, a hotel of faded glory and dead language, which people only visit now and then out of nostalgia.
And when you’re there, in that hotel room, with its musty sheets and mummified moths; when you find a set of urinary catheters the previous guest has left behind in the bathroom; as you walk through the dining room where people used to sit down to table, dressed to the nines, but which is now resoundingly empty; then you, the last remaining reader, the last remaining author, do feel the urge to raise your finger and say, ‘Yes, but, don’t you know that literature makes you a better person, a more humane person?’
Don’t be tempted by such arguments! Just skip all those semi-scientific studies in the papers. They reduce novels to dispensers of empathy, and readers to people who need to be educated. And obviously people who never read a book will not be susceptible to this kind of rhetoric: there are far more efficient ways to be a good person, ways that are far more helpful to others — why not visit an elderly relative who is not as mobile any more?
If you really want to encourage people to read literature, you’re better off adding a certain mystique. Because the secret the writer is faced with, the secret of language and of reality, is shared by the reader. Just as the writer keeps writing against the stream of unknowing, the reader keeps reading against the stream, and at best they meet each other somewhere in the text. Such a meeting can produce all kinds of things: knowledge, insight, entertainment, but, primarily, an experience. And as we all know, experience is something that is very difficult to transfer in any other form than experience itself. It’s connected to the body, the nerves, the underbelly — anyone who has ever been in love knows this (as does anyone who has ever tried to get someone in love to snap out of it, for that matter).
So, rather than education or enjoyment (distraction, escapism) I would argue for a third way when it comes to promoting the novel: that of the irreducible experience. This is what Elizabeth Costello sets against belief; it is what loosens things and opens them up; it is the narrative process Byung-Chul Han sets against the additive process of acceleration and calculation.
In essence, the narrative process that forms the novel has little to do with plot, just like life itself has little to do with plot. I couldn’t really say what the plot of Elizabeth Costello is, for example. Sure, all kinds of things happen: people travel across a number of continents, there are confrontations, there’s sex in a hotel room, a nervous breakdown in an Amsterdam toilet, and then there are the goings-on at the gate to heaven. But there’s no conventional narrative arc, no necessary sequence of events, no skeleton and no closet. In this novel, the most important events are reflections or considerations.
If you really want to encourage people to read literature, you’re better off adding a certain mystique. Because the secret the writer is faced with, the secret of language and of reality, is shared by the reader.
One such event takes place during the radio programme I referred to earlier. The woman interviewing Costello is talking about women who have, in the course of history, been given a voice by male authors, ostensibly for the purposes of liberating them but actually to confirm the male world view (I picture Coetzee giving himself a pat on the back while writing this passage). Costello herself is known for a career-defining novel in which she reimagined Molly Bloom, away from the confines of the house that Joyce built around her. The interviewer wonders whether the author has anything to say about ‘the project of reclaiming women’s lives in general’.
Costello knowingly remarks that the Heathcliffs and Rochesters could also do with being freed from the romantic stereotypes that imprison them, before adding something that, to her son’s surprise, isn’t part of the usual script at all. ‘But, seriously,’ she says, ‘we can’t go on parasitizing the classics for ever. I am not excluding myself from the charge. We’ve got to start doing some inventing of our own.’
The call for something new is as old as the art of the novel itself. In the middle of the sixteenth century the Latin word novella, which means ‘new stories’ or ‘new things’, found its way into Italian and, from there, the rest ￼of Europe, including Britain and the English language, sticking around there to this day in the word ‘novel’. The novella had no fixed meaning or rules, it could be all kinds of things, allowing the novel to reinvent itself again and again.
We live in interesting and frightening times, like everyone who came before us and everyone who will come after us, no doubt. In any case, these are times in which stories with varying degrees of fictionality are told to us in a myriad of ways, and times in which not a year goes by without someone taking it upon themselves to proclaim the definitive death of the novel.
Those who still want to write novels need, perhaps more than ever, to ask themselves why the story they want to tell should take the form of a novel and not a film, a series, a play, a podcast, a website or a game. ‘Because writing is my calling’ is a pathetic answer. Feeling an inner urge is a blessing, certainly, but it’s a starting point and not a final conclusion.
The answer I’d like to propose here — and I think we’re all surprised there is an answer in the end — is that writers try to get to know something and say something that won’t come to light in any other way. A successful novel is something in itself, and its form and content, ethics and aesthetics cannot be separated from each other without hopelessly reducing the whole thing. A successful novel always offers ambiguity, resistance and the possibility of multiple positions so that the reader isn’t forced into just one.
As long as writers engage with the art of novel writing itself, they will naturally be preoccupied with undermining it in some way, however small, so that new sounds, new forms, new bubbles emerge.
And this is why Elizabeth Costello’s call for something new is not naive but an urgent necessity. Like Renata Adler said, in reference to her kaleidoscopic novels Speedboat and Pitch Dark: ‘You couldn’t be, say, Dickens now, or George Eliot, or Henry James. Or maybe you could write like them, with luck, but it would not be true to our time, false somehow.’ Especially in a late- capitalistic age of privatization and so-called realpolitik, in which there seems to be a growing disdain for anything that smacks of elitism, complicated language and nuanced thought, a complex novel can provide insight and counterweight. Most novels are not commissioned, nor are astronomical production costs or subsidies involved, the maker is rarely obliged to produce something that is audience-friendly, accessible or topical. This makes the novel an almost dizzyingly free space for unrestricted experimentation and exploration — in short or long sentences, through an overload of plot lines, or a lack of them, through small lives and big ones, characters who seem real or cardboard cut-outs — or, why not, without any characters at all. Let the novel be a hybrid, uneven, fickle, contrary thing, torn between two or two hundred ideas. Instead of masters of a genre, let writers be masters of excess.
Give me a living novel like Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, an epistolary novel, autobiography, performance piece, work of critical theory and feminist pamphlet all rolled into one. Give me a book like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, an indictment of racism formulated through poetry, essays and visual art. And give me everything by Anne Enright, who ostensibly writes conventional family novels, all the while engaged in a quiet revolution of language and style and jumbled-up meanings. I want to read books like Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd and Ben Lerner’s 1o:o4, novels that have been swallowed up by the process of writing itself. I want to read Marie Darrieusecq and Marie NDiaye for their wildly twisting sentences and intangible structures. Give me Dana Spiotta and her fascination with ‘afterlives, codas, postscripts, discursive asides, and especially misdirection’. Renata Adler, who breaks off anecdote after anecdote before they’ve acquired direction or meaning. Give me, finally, Coetzee, who wrote a miracle of a book in Elizabeth Costello, fleeting as a bubble, constantly escaping its own form.
All beginnings are easy, sure, but in good books everything began a long time ago.
On the island where I’m staying, people sometimes ask me what I am. ‘Mother?’ the people from the island ask me. ‘Wife?’ People from the West ask what I do for a living.
Novelist, I answer. They look at me, uncomprehending.
I try to make new things, I say.
But what kind of things?
Vulnerable things, I say in the end. Secret things. Soap bubbles.