Weekendnotes, May 26-27

On Saturday mornings, Splice rounds up the previous week’s best literary criticism and serves it up to you in a single dish. You didn’t have any plans for the weekend, did you?

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What a week! In home news, Dana Diehl, author of Our Dreams Might Align, picked up this year’s Waasnode Fiction Prize, together with her collaborator Melissa Goodrich, for the co-written story ‘The Boy Who Arrives in a Box’. One of the competition judges, Anne Valente, offered the story this praise:

In ‘The Boy Who Arrives in a Box’, we are drawn as readers into a world where children arrive the same way that iPhones do: in sleep mode, ready for programming. Across this sharply drawn, incisively written story, we witness a parent program and control — and also love — a mechanized child who ultimately pushes back. Poignantly narrated in a distinctly drawn world, this story pulls us into the lives of one family’s experience with parenting, and into the possibility that love means letting go.

The story will be published in a forthcoming issue of Passages North, along with the other shortlisted entires.

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And Splice masthead contributor Anna MacDonald published a beautiful, generous review of Esther Kinsky’s River, translated by Iain Galbraith, at 3am Magazine:

Soon after I began reading Esther Kinsky’s River I went out in search of a magnifying glass. … The handle of the magnifying glass bears the years of another’s use, but its lens is clear. With it I scanned the pages of River, paying particular attention to the book’s photographs, following fence lines, railway embankments, deserted roads that turn blindly into the distance, and wooded paths that disappear into a blaze of unexpected eerie light. I thought I was looking for clues; searching for details that were not at first apparent to the naked eye. I noted down metaphors, pursued suggestive allusions, drew connections between one thing and another, and believed I was reading River. But in fact, by looking closely, I was learning to see what was already there: to observe the book’s “fluvial landscape”, to recognise its “estuarine script” and, like the narrator, to discover a tidal universe in “the unremarkable things that lay unheeded by the wayside, things lost and not found, things left behind, unclaimed, thrown aside, going to rack and ruin, beyond retrieval or recognition”.

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River was first published in English translation by Fitzcarraldo Editions, a publishing outfit that has had a phenomenal week after its author Olga Tokarczuk (pictured above), and her translator Jennifer Croft, won the Man Booker International Prize for the novel Flights. Just before receiving the award, Tokarczuk, from Poland, spoke to PEN about what it means for her to be a Central European writer:

I’m often asked in the West: Why are you from Central Europe writing such experimental books? I think we have different feelings of reality. Our reality is not stable like it is here, in the UK, on an island. Everything is the same, all the time, old buildings, old pubs. You are attached to traditions — the hot and cold tabs, for example. If you have a capital of the country like Warsaw, which was completely destroyed during the war, then you can do whatever you like in literature because everything is changeable, fluid. This feeling of the fluidity of reality is very strong.

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And to continue the acclaim for the Fitzcarraldo backlist, Tegan Bennett Daylight sang the praises of Brian Dillon’s Essayism, and expressed reservations about In the Dark Room, in an eloquent, deeply personal essay for the Sydney Review of Books:

There is an almost tidal pull towards suicide in Dillon, and Essayism is a story of resisting it. In some chapters he evokes the feeling of being frozen almost at the moment of it, not quite falling, not quite dead, a character swinging cartoon-like in the mid-air beyond a cliff’s edge. He continues working, producing reams of freelance criticism and even another book, telling his psychiatrist that his thoughts of suicide are receding, when ‘In fact I had been sitting down to work each day for years with the conviction that I must kill myself, soon.’ But it would be wrong to suggest that these thoughts and this narrative dominate the book. There is a modesty, a sparingness, a total moral restraint in the way Dillon tells his unhappiness. And what is more — or in fact, because of this — there is art.

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“Moral restraint”: pretty much the inverse of many of the things that were said in praise of Philip Roth, who died on Tuesday at the age of eighty-five. Of the countless responses to Roth’s passing that have appeared so far, there have been a few that stand out.

“Philip Roth did not want to be liked”, wrote Dorian Lynskey in a succinct appraisal of Roth for GQ. “He wanted to be read and respected, but he did not write like someone desperate for approval as a human being. He included in his novels the fugitive thoughts and ugly obsessions that most writers would leave out.”

“At an unusually tender age”, Zadie Smith added in the New Yorker,

he learned not to write to make people think well of him, nor to display to others, through fiction, the right sort of ideas, so they could think him the right sort of person. ‘Literature isn’t a moral beauty contest,’ he once said. For Roth, literature was not a tool of any description. It was the venerated thing in itself. He loved fiction and (unlike so many half or three-quarter writers) was never ashamed of it. He loved it in its irresponsibility, in its comedy, in its vulgarity, and its divine independence. He never confused it with other things made of words, like statements of social justice or personal rectitude, journalism or political speeches, all of which are vital and necessary for lives we live outside of fiction, but none of which are fiction, which is a medium that must always allow itself, as those other forms often can’t, the possibility of expressing intimate and inconvenient truths.

And James Wood, also writing in the New Yorker, expressed admiration for Roth while also acknowledging his limitations:

You could find him at times repetitive, only intermittently good; you could certainly find his increasingly conservative politics resistible, and hope that, one day, he might represent relations between men and women as something other than purely erotic. But I admired him above all other living American novelists because his life and work had the only quality that really matters: that of unceasing necessity. He would not cease from exploration; he could not cease; and the varieties of fiction existed in order for him to explore the varieties of experience. … [H]e was essentially a monomaniac, a fanatic of fiction. The novel was the only instrument that mattered. He lived with it and through it, like any demented virtuoso.

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Roth is a large part of Tim Parks’ musings on autofiction, in the New York Review of Books, although, surprisingly, Parks gives almost equal time to Leo Tolstoy, not usually thought of as a practitioner of autofiction. But Parks’ real aim is to consider the possibility that he, too, is a writer of autofiction, and that he himself is therefore a sort of character in the story of his own life:

Let’s offer this formulation: a certain kind of writer, for whom the day-to-day performance of self — the interaction of personality with the world — is complex and conflicted, invents multiple fictional selves who deal with the same predicament in different ways. Rather than establishing any ultimate truth about identity, such a writer explores possibilities that might be dangerous or incompatible in real life. In short, the writing becomes an extension of the living.

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Autofiction is also the subject of Grace McCleen’s long, incisive reading of the work of a number of contemporary novelists: Joshua Cohen, J.M. Coetzee, Rachel Cusk, Ben Lerner, and Jeanette Winterson:

In an unprecedented interpenetration of life and art, more and more novelists are stepping within their own magic circles and donning a fictionalised self. If metafiction revealed the circle of fiction, pointed out where it ended and where it began, autofiction invites us to step inside along with the author and see that the circle is actually infinite, extends so far it includes writer and reader as well. It is the more radical movement, as knowledge that an artwork is unreal can be retreated from to the previous suspension of disbelief, but to be told that it may be real is lastingly destabilising; there is no way to dispel the disillusion because there is no way of disproving it.

Fiction has intruded where it should not, into reality itself. A new ‘self’ has emerged: personal but not autobiographical, and the stage of that self is everywhere and nowhere. What of conventional fiction, that still preserves the fourth wall, the illusion that it dramatises a ‘real’ if alternate cosmos? If the novel as we know it exists by virtue of being fiction, and the distinction between fact and fiction no longer remains, can the novel still exist?

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And finally, bookending a week in which MacKenzie Warren covered Rachel Cusk’s Kudos for Splice, and Daniel Davis Wood reported on Cusk’s remarks on narratorial perspective at an event for the White Review, Katy Waldman took to the New Yorker to put her finger on the pulse of Cusk’s “Faye” trilogy:

Writing in Harper’s, Merve Emre declared Cusk ‘perhaps the cruelest novelist at work today’, and linked Cusk’s cruelty to her aestheticism, which prioritizes formal beauty over moral feeling. In Kudos, Emre writes, the narrator ‘becomes Cusk’s propagandist, loudly extolling the author’s own art as the universal standard of novelistic beauty’. I read the book differently, as a document of failure. Together, Outline, Transit, and Kudos represent an attempt to remake the novel, to establish a blueprint for a form of negative literature. Cusk believes that traditional fiction is broken; she seems to long for an alternative that is wholly unauthored, without artifice. In the service of that vision, she dispenses with every convention she can think of: plot, dialogue, interiority. Her recent books have a searching quality; they chase after radical realism, the authenticity of the ascetic who forswears all but the bones of life.

But Cusk, who with her Faye novels has achieved something both radical and beautiful, is pursuing the impossible. As she knows, there is no such thing as a fully negative novel: one that is entirely passive, impartial, and devoid of authorial imagination. Far from abrogating her powers as narrator, Faye takes possession of other people’s stories.

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And away you go! See you back here on Monday…