In recent weeks I have reviewed a couple of books by Jacques Poulin which celebrate the written word, both novels having the protagonist as a writer or translator and working in a remote location, struggling with writer’s block or simply coming to terms with the written word. I have also reviewed “Dear Reader” by Paul Fournel, lamenting the death of publishing and the interference of editors. Another being “The Ingenious Gentleman and Poet Federico Garcia Lorca Ascends to Hell” by Carlos Rojas where our author says “my novel, we’ll call it that in order to call it something, represents absolutely nothing.” So a series of reviews celebrating the written word. Let’s continue the theme for a little longer shall we?
Just over a year ago I reviewed Ivan Vladislavic’s “Double Negative”, from South Africa, a story of Neville Lister, a university drop out, who has returned to live in his parent’s home, working meaningless jobs (painting the lines in car parks). A family friend and famed photographer agrees to take Neville on a tour for a day, teaming up with a journalist they are seeking a story and images of the pre-Apartheid era of South Africa.
“The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories” is a beautifully presented book, containing eleven explorations and narrations of short stories the writer never finished. Each “story” having an inserted artwork by Sunandini Banerjee, each specially created for each fragment. As our cover flap says this is an “unusual test, a blend of essay, fiction and literary genealogy” where “South African novelist Ivan Vladislavic explores the problems and potentials of the fictions he could not bring himself to write.”
Unlike a number of reviews I have done in the past, of short story collections, I won’t go into each of the eleven “stories” here, picking only a few as an example of the book.
We open with “The Last Walk” where the famous writer Robert Walser goes for a walk in the snow, collapses and dies. His final walk and body is captured in a photograph, (see http://www.electriccereal.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Walser-in-the-Snow.jpgfor the actual image Vladislavic is referring to) however, Vladislavic can’t write his tale of Walser’s last walk as he comes across a different image which shatters his illusion. “I want to write a story about the last days of a writer but I am preoccupied with hats.”
The section titled “Gross” explores the idea of writing a novella of 144 paragraphs of 144 words. Twelve chapters in all, each containing twelve paragraphs, each with a sentence of twelve words.
Our word ‘gross’ is derived from the Latin grossus, meaning thick or massive. Gross has the positive meaning of ‘whole’ or ‘entire’, as in the gross (rather than the net) amount or sum; and various negative meanings suggesting indelicacy – vulgar, coarse in nature or expression, flagrant and so on. The sense of ’12 dozen’ is from the French grosse douzaine, large dozen. Hence a grocer (ME grosser, from the OF grossier) is one who deals by wholesale or in large quantities.
How similar is this concept to Paul Fournel’s “Dear Reader” where the work contains 36 chapters, the first six all containing exactly 7,500 characters, including spaces, and each ending with the words, read, cream, publisher, mistake, self and evening. The next six chapters contain 6,500 characters (including spaces) ending with the same words, and so on down to the sixth set which consists of 2,500 characters (including spaces). Making the entire composition a “poem of 180,000 signs (including spaces)”. They “serve to narrate the fate of mortal man, they undergo attrition (melting snowball).” As Paul Fournel points out “anyone entering it to change a single letter will destroy the whole project.” As Vladislavic points out:
Operating within self-imposed constraints or carrying out a set of rigid procedures can lead to the discovery of new and surprising effects. Constraints are welcomed as a kind of resistance against which the imagination grinds and sparks. Difficulty often produces a daring imaginative response.
However as we understand the creative process more and those self-imposed constraints hindering rather than assisting with the completion of the work, the task Vladislavic set himself was too constrictive:
The more I thought about ‘Gross’, the more it – he? they? – depressed me. The idea was crushing. I lay awake at night, filled with gloom and overwhelmed by tedium, trying to count the number of words in succession of woolly sentences. I saw the concept grinding away like a small electric pepper-mill on a speckled granite kitchen counter in a Santown townhouse.
Another story that didn’t get off the ground is “Mrs. B.” Vladislavic came up with the idea in 1992:
Singapore, 1926. The verandah of the Raffles Hotel. Mrs B, the wife and travelling companion of an American naturalist, composes a letter. She has spent the past few months in the Lesser Sunda Islands, as a member of a herpetological expedition led by her husband, and now they are on their way home to New York. The following year Mr B will publish a book about the expedition, quoting extensively from his wife’s journal. But for now Mrs B writes a frank letter to a friend in which she shares those impressions of the journey that will never find their way into the formal account. At the end of the story, the reader is left wondering whether the letter will ever be posted; indeed, whether she has put these thoughts down on paper at all or simply turned them over in her mind.
Vladislavic then gives us his research and an account of how he came up with the story, from finding a book at a second-hand book fete to reading W. Douglas Burden’s “Dragon Lizards of Komodo: An Expedition to the Lost World of the Dutch East Indies”, through to the photographs of the women. The story he tells us of the book reminded me of “Jamrach’s Menagerie” by Carol Birch, the tale of Jaffy heading off with Jamrach, a rare animal trader, in search of a dragon (the Komodo Dragon). However I was quite taken aback by the brutal hunting, the collection of animals for private zoos or baby honey bears for pets and the taking of twelve dead Komodo specimens back to the American Museum of Natural History. Therefore the incomplete story, or the one that was never written, still had some punch, for this reader at least.
The title story “The Loss Library” is the most complete of the works here, being a half-formed thing and no real explanation as to why it didn’t make it to a fully completed story, as in all the other examples.
This is a book that leads us into the creative mind, shows the research required for a simple piece of writing, the angst in being unable to pull all the threads together, the drifting mind and the movement of a writer through various stages in his career (each incomplete story is dated with notes). A worthwhile purchase given the beautiful presentation and the revelation of an author’s mind. Similar to Edouard Leve’s “Works” a list of 533 artistic projects that Leve has conceived but at the time of writing has not realised, however a lot more detailed. For lovers of writing this would be a welcome addition.