Well, it’s been a while. A thousand apologies. I had fallen down a well.
I have to admit that the idea of non-fiction as such doesn’t have the same power to compel me. Already its diction seems to constrain it, defined via negativa – what it is, well, it isn’t fiction. Immediately, maybe, it is cast into shadow because of this. I have heard good things about H is for hawk (in fact, it was a present that I gave to my brother – a bird obsessive – years back), about The Argonauts, and indeed I studied Portrait with Keys at university – a great book, indeed.
I have been trying to think why this is, and provide a genealogy, and examine whether it is something that pertains to me, something that pertains to non-fiction, or some mixture of both. Perhaps, it is simply because the tradition is larger, and there is so much to read anyway. So much to read. Or possibly, it is something else more definitional at play here. I’m not really fussed about non-fiction as such, because I’m not really fussed about fiction as such. The question is, and should always be: is the writing good? And by the writing, I mean both on the level of the sentences, and the larger structures that the sentences go together to create. Now you can debate what ‘good’ is, but it is quality that matters – but this is what you’re saying, no? This applies to genre too. Whether it be recounting the life of a bourgeois woman in 1920s London or a future society in which we worship Our Ford doesn’t matter. It simply and only has to be good. And indeed both Mrs Dalloway and Brave New World are excellent. I studied Portrait with Keys alongside A Secret Agent, Ulysses and Good Morning Midnight; I wasn’t really aware of it as non-fiction. Taxonomies in this case can work against the reader rather than help. So often taxonomies are the province of the obsessive and completist, and better for museums and dead things.
My own reading is haphazard at the moment: there is De Troyes Arthurian Romances, there is DeLillo’s Great Jones Street, and all the while I’m also in the belly of Moby-Dick.
I’m looking forward to (among many – as always, there is an avalanche of them) two books in particular, Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth and Malcolm Lowry’s The Voyage That Never Ends. I have read their two central works, Invisible Man (1952) and Under the Volcano (1947), and my oncoming reading is, in effect, all that they could manage after. Both of them had epics mapped out, but what we have are aborted attempts, premature births, limbs. This happens sometimes, it seems. Christopher “I’m . . . a writer” Isherwood envisaged epics, but mostly ended up cobbling together his novels from fragments. Truman Capote much advertised his Answered Prayers to be an American In Search of Lost Time, but it never really materialised. Lowry had an idea for a cycle of novels (the number projected seems to have been possibly three, or possibly five, or possibly seven). In some ways, Michael Hoffman’s description of this cycle in the introduction sounds almost like, if only superficially, Lawrence Durrell’s Avignon Quintet (an underrated remarkable work) in its self referentiality. The book The Voyage That Never Ends is made up of fragments and extracts that were intended to one day form this larger non-existent effort. Ralph Ellison wrote Juneteenth for years and years from 1954 to his death in 1994. There is something appealing about reading these unfinished posthumous works. Apart from the standard literary pleasure, there’s the sadness at what could have been, but also perhaps a certain morbid fascination.
One constant in my reading for a while now, I think, has been following where the river flowed after the initial white rapids of what we might call literary modernism. We have those central figures: Joyce, Woolf, Lawrence, Faulkner. And then the river rushes through and on and under, picking up new and different sediments, flashing over different landscapes. I got my dousing rod, and followed. I listened out for those slightly less known, like Henry Green, Ford Maddox Ford, Dos Passos, or simply those who came later and still carried that modernist roar of the twenties, like Lawrence Durrell and Malcolm Lowry. More recently, James Hanley, Henry Roth, Don DeLillo, Thomas Bernhard, Henry Green (again), Mario Vargos Llosa, Thomas Pynchon. I want to read Döblin, Broch, Quin, Cary, Cortizar, Lispector, Toomer. Maureen Duffy (who you recommended) too.
There is something about the sensibility and energy of these works that has a powerful hold on my imagination. (Had you guessed?) I don’t want to necessarily theorise about this (though I could try), nor make a case for their superiority to other works (because does that get us anywhere?). But I think this perhaps gets closer to that luminosity that I mentioned before.
I look at the lists above. Who is the obsessive and completist now? The line from DeLillo about lists being a form of cultural hysteria comes to mind. A cultured cultural cultish hysteria.