This is how Hilary Mantel got started, from The New Yorker
“The first novel that Hilary Mantel wrote was about the French Revolution. It did not start out as a novel, exactly, nor did she start out as a novelist. It was 1975, and she was twenty-three, living in Manchester and selling dresses in a department store. She had realized that she didn’t have the money to finish her legal training, and, after a year working in a geriatric hospital, that she didn’t want to be a social worker. She was bored with selling dresses; she had started taking books about the French Revolution out of the library, one after another. Then she began taking notes. After she had been doing this for some time, she asked herself, What am I doing? And the answer came: I am writing a book.”
For the last day of this incomprehensible year of 2016 I have pulled together a few quotes from that master chronicler of the American condition, Don DeLillo. I have not yet read his latest, a meditation on death and how to cheat it, Zero K (only dipped into it), but even as far back as the much earlier Great Jones Street (1973), DeLillo has consistently shown his fascination with that American obsession, death .. and how we think to cheat it.
“Television. Maybe it was all a study in the art of mummification. The effect of the medium is so evanescent that those who work in its time apparatus feel the need to preserve themselves, delivering their bodies to be lacquered and trussed, sprayed with the rest of pressurized jellies, all to one end, a release from the perilous context of time. This is their only vanity, to expect to dwell forever in hermetic sub-corridors, free of every ravage, secure as old kings asleep in sodium.”
Don De Lillo, Great Jones Street (1973)
Making things difficult for the reader is less an attack on the reader than it is on the age and its facile knowledge-market.
When it comes to writers being obsessed, I have one notion. Obsession as a state seems so close to the natural condition of a novelist at work on a book, that there may be nothing else to say about it.
DonDeLillo, from the 1979 interview with Tom LeClair.
The future belongs to crowds -DonDeLillo, Mao II (1991)
This is from the LRB, 4 December 2014:
“She (Rachel Cusk) was reading Knausgaard, and coming to think that the whole idea and practice of fiction, as conventionally understood, is ‘fake and embarrassing .. utterly ridiculous’. The real point of writing, her piece quotes Knausgaard as saying, is not to do with making things up, but with ‘drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows… Not what happens there, nor what actions are played out there, but the there itself’ — and this is where, in Cusk’s view, creative writing courses come in. People come along as a first step in the effort to start uncovering and developing their own self-relations and their relations to the world. ‘Very often a desire to write is a desire to live more honestly through language … The notion of “finding your voice”, simplistic as it may sound, is … a social goal.””
For those of you interested in book descriptions, here’s one to wrap your head around. A family member is arrested for killing a hula dancer … which doesn’t happen every day. This is in the “cozy mystery” category of BookBub, which evidently means no bone and gristle allowed. And also evidently means gender demeaning descriptions such as “pluck and courage”.
Laurel is looking forward to attending a beautiful Hawaiian wedding, but her vacation turns deadly when a family member is arrested for killing a hula dancer. Does she have the pluck and courage to solve the case?
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“Remember what April was like when we were young, that sense of liquid rushing and the wind taking blue scoops out of the air and the birds beside themselves in the budding trees?”
by John Banville
This remarkable quote is from President Obama, speaking with Marilynne Robinson
Are you somebody who worries about people not reading novels anymore? And do you think that has an impact on the culture? When I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting aside being president, and the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with some[one] else even though they’re very different from you.
‘The “signal frustration in trying to read Kafka with college students,” that “it is next to impossible to get them to see that Kafka is funny… nor to appreciate the way funniness is bound up with the extraordinary power of his stories.” Part of the problem arises from the fact that “Kafka’s humor has almost none of the particular forms and codes of contemporary U.S. amusement,” especially to “children whom our culture has trained to see jokes as entertainment and entertainment as reassurance.” So what kind of jokes can we find in Kafka’s stories, if we know how to get them?
‘Therein, Wallace argues, lies another part of the problem: “It’s not that students don’t ‘get’ Kafka’s humor but that we’ve taught them that humor is something you get — the same way we’ve taught them that a self is something you just have,” all of which gets in the way of perceiving “the really central Kafka joke — that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle.” Of course, as Wallace adds in one of his signature footnotes, since “most of us Americans come to art essentially to forget ourselves — to pretend for a while that we’re not mice and all walls are parallel and the cat can be outrun — it’s no accident that we’re going to see ‘A Little Fable’ as not all that funny.” But read enough Kafka, preferably outside the walls of a classroom, and you’ll get a much more expansive sense of humor itself.’