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alan_michael_parker_2013What the hell is this?

A novel.

 

But it’s got 99 stories and some of them have the same titles?

That’s true.

Move the mouse or scroll your iPad screen to the space at the close of Amazon.com “Editorial Reviews” section for Daniel Levin Becker’s excellent Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature (Harvard UP 2012).

There, you’ll find a repetition of the “Book Description,” from earlier in the page, now inflected with all-too-common Amazon character errors:

The youngest member of the Paris-based experimental collective Oulipo, Levin Becker tells the story of one of literature’s quirkiest movements—and the personal quest that led him to seek out like-minded writers, artists, and scientists who are obsessed with language and games, and who embrace formal constraints to achieve literature’s potential.

“’s” is html code for a right singly quote, and “&mdash,” of course, is the em dash (—). These reverse-engineered impregnations of the Descrption are certainly errors, but also candy-store windows for those who take a sly delight in the structural underpinning of how words on a web page may be “put” there, so to speak, in the first place.

This.  Right here.  What I’m saying now.  Everything I will say.  People have said it.  People have asked the questions I’m asking and answered them, but here I am.  Pursuit of new answers is nothing but bargaining with old answers.

 

It became desperate, for me, when I was reading Jonathan Evison’s West of Here.  I enjoyed it immensely at first.  Then I had to stop reading.  I’d already read it before.  There was nothing wrong with the book.

I’ve read almost nothing since.

 

Crabwalk,” I said. “By Gunter Grass.  This is Crabwalk.”

“You think every book is Crabwalk,” said a friend whose own manuscript I had compared to Crabwalk.

“No, just the ones that are, but there are a lot of them.”

 

Crabwalk is about Nazis, kind of, old and new, not that it matters.

 

Scuttling backwards to move forward.

 

Crabwalk is also, in turn, other books and stories and movies and poems.

 

West of Here is Crabwalk and Crabwalk is the “Garden of Forking Paths” (this, too, involves Germans), and that reminds me of Yeats.

 

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

 

Which reminds me.

 

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future,

And time future contained in time past.

If all time is eternally present

All time is unredeemable.

 

All roads lead to Eliot.

 

 

Did he say make it new, too?

 

DA DA DA...

 

Nothing is anything but a reference to something else.  And that’s whether we mean or know it to be or not.  That, too, is Eliot.

I can’t have a thought.  Not one.  Not of my own.

Either can you.

 

Trying.  Even trying.  Look at what you’re up against.  LOOK AT THEM.

 

I bought Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind because the description on the back reminded me vaguely of Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler and J.L. Borges’ “The Library of Babel”.

The fucking Library of Babel.

It’s almost too terrible to talk about.

 

I couldn’t finish The Shadow of the Wind.

 

 

I have a recurring dream about sitting in a study in Buenos Aires watching J.L. Borges write.

 

In the dream he can’t see me.  He keeps daguerreotypes and tiny dishes of loose change.  It is just like the study Eliot uses in my dreams, but Borges’ study is dusty and baroque.  The curtains are brocade. I leave fingerprints on everything.

Eliot’s curtains are linen, rocking in a maritime breeze, and the furniture is immaculate–dark wood and  indifferent ivory.  Surfaces are smooth and cool to the touch.  There are no shadows, no clutter.  He licks his pen.  He watches me watch him.

 

I used to believe in an embarrassing way that I was communing with them, that in the dreams, these men were the men, but they say everyone in your dreams is you.  So I return to these places to be alone with myself, I guess.  Nothing ever changes.

 

Ideas have archetypes.

Containers within which a finite number of related human thoughts rattle and stick.  Stick together, shake apart, rattle, stick again elsewhere.  Then it’s new.  But not really new.  And eventually all partnerships are exhausted.

Like matter, archetypes of ideation can’t be created or destroyed.

This very idea comes from a box labeled “Jung, et al”.

And then again, the archetypes themselves are items in other, larger containers.  Nesting dolls of human awareness.

The largest of which is…what?

 

God?

 

Temporal provincialism is intractable.


Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

 

 

On some shelf in some hexagon, it was argued, there must exist a book that is the cipher and perfect compendium of all other books and some librarian must have examined that book; this librarian is analogous to a god.

 

Oh God.

 

 

Other echoes

Inhabit the garden; shall we follow?

 

…respondebat illa: αποθανειν θελω.

 

 

 

 

 

Tim Horvath is the author of the novella Circulation from sunnyoutside. Next year he will have a book of short stories come out with Bellevue Literary Press. He also edits fiction at the journal Camera Obscura. His rigorously written prose investigates families, cities, and science, as well as a lot of other arcana. We spoke about his fiction, how he writes, his history, and the myraid influences in his life.

How did you become a writer?  Did you come from a literary background?

Not at all.  I was brought up on a small farm in a remote part of the United Kingdom – many of the local people had never been more than 30 miles away from home in their entire lives.  Apart from breeding sheep, nothing much else went on.  We didn’t have electricity or television at home, but my parents had lots of books.  I read and read and then began to write.  When I was about 9 years old, one of my teachers sent off a poem to a magazine and it was published.  I knew then that I wanted to be a writer but I didn’t have a clue how you became one.


Katherine Mansfield felt she had to leave New Zealand to become a writer. Was that why you left home as a teenager to go to London?

Absolutely.  I loved the landscape and the isolation of the Lake District, so it was difficult to leave, but I knew I had to go if I wanted to succeed.  Like Katherine,  I had the romantic idea that London was where it all happened!


Would you do it again?

Yes. I think you need to get away to get some perspective on your own life.  You also need ‘input’.   If you stay in a small community there’s always a danger that you become a big fish in a little pond and never really achieve what you’re capable of. And you need to find your way around the world of books so that people know who you are. The days when you could write and keep a low profile, relying on publishers and bookshops to sell the product are over – publishers expect you to go out and network to publicise your books.  We have to learn to be ambassadors for our own work.  The shy, reclusive author is at a disadvantage.


Your previous biographies have all been about women writers, including Margaret Cavendish, Christina Rossetti and Catherine Cookson.  What drew you to Katherine Mansfield as the subject for a biography?

I’ve loved her work and been fascinated by her life story since I was a teenager.  I found the John Middleton Murry edition of her Journal in a second hand book bin when I was 17, and I’ve carried it around everywhere even though it’s in pieces now.  Even then I was aware that there was a lot of myth-making, and everything I read about her just made me more determined to find out what really happened. There were mysteries, and Katherine herself was portrayed as either a rather waspish good-time girl, or a sentimental heroine wasting away like someone in a Victorian novel.  I wanted to know what she was really like.


Katherine Mansfield is a major figure in 20th century literature and has been the subject of a lot of biographies and other non-fiction books. If someone asked “Why should I read your Katherine Mansfield biography rather than one of the others?” what would you say to them?

I would say:  Read mine because it’s the only biography to be written since all the documents relating to Katherine and her husband John Middleton Murry became available in the public domain.  Katherine’s letters and notebooks have all been transcribed and printed and the diaries and letters of John Middleton Murry are now also in the Alexander Turnbull library in New Zealand.  Additionally I’ve had the help of the family who still have quite a lot of material relating to both Mansfield and Murry. There’s a lot of new information.  It’s significant that most of the leading figures in the story are now dead, so information is less likely to be withheld to protect people.  I’ve also tried to write a book that’s good to read.  I want my characters to live in the mind of the reader and come off the page as vividly as they would in a novel.


Why do you like writing biographies?

I’m fascinated by people’s lives.  You could say that biography is a kind of up-market ‘Hello!’ magazine – there’s an element of voyeurism, literary lace-curtain twitching about it however scholarly you are. But nothing beats the buzz you get, sitting in an archive, reading a love letter – perhaps Wordsworth to his wife – or turning the pages of Katherine Mansfield’s journals.  You’re touching the same paper they touched, reading the words they inked on the page all those years ago.


You write poetry and fiction as well as non-fiction. Which gives you most satisfaction?

I like all the different genres, though I’d probably have been more successful if I’d stuck to only one.  What I choose to write depends on the idea – some ideas are only suitable for a poem, other will stretch to a short story, non-fiction projects demand a much greater investment in time and research and have to be chosen quite carefully.  If you’re going to write a biography you have to like someone enough to spend a couple of years in their company.


Which writers have influenced your own writing, and which ones are your personal favourites?

Apart from Katherine Mansfield’s Journal, I also read Jean Rhys’ ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ as a teenager and it taught me a lot about getting away from traditional narrative.  The other really influential book was Italo Calvino’s ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller…..’  and for the same reason.  They taught me a lot about multiple narrative threads and parallel texts.  If you put two – or more – stories together in the right way they can double up on the meaning in the same way that poetry does.  It will sound a bit weird, but the other book that influenced me was ‘Chaos’, by James Gleick  because it demolished the  traditional way we thought about the universe and how it’s ordered.  I suddenly realised that everything – absolutely everything – is made out of beautiful numerical patterns that keep evolving and changing because they are Imperfect and Incomplete.  It seemed to offer ideas about the patterning of words in poetry and prose –  and it reinforced the conviction that a narrative or a poem has to be open ended with a sense of evolving, not rounded off and complete in a dead-end sort of way that offers the reader no way of carrying the story on. It taught me that creativity comes out of chaos.  Does this make any sense?


What are you working on at the moment?

The Mansfield biography has been very hard work – so I’m taking a rest and concentrating on fiction for a while.   I would like to publish more fiction – it’s too easy to become ‘pigeon-holed’ in a particular genre.   Just now I’ve got a couple of plots burning away at the back of my head and I need to see if I can get either of them to work.



“There’s this you, here, you know.  Talking to me.  And there’s the you watching you talk to me.  And in the book, there’s the you in the book and the you reading the book and the you watching you reading the book about you.”

“Sure.  Okay.”

Considering my ever-detouring approach to reading, I think it’s appropriate that March for me began with Umberto Eco’s Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, a series of transcribed lectures conflating the telling and writing of stories with Jorge Luis Borges’s metaphor of the woods as a garden of forking paths, or, as Eco puts it:

Woods are a metaphor for the narrative text, not only for the text of fairy tales but for any narrative text. There are woods like Dublin, where instead of Little Red Riding Hood one can meet Molly Bloom….Even when there are no well-trodden paths in a wood, everyone can trace his or her own path, deciding to go to the left or to the right of a certain tree and making a choice at every tree encountered.