Critic Harry Levin wrote this in 1957: “The novelist must begin by playing the sedulous ape, assimilating the craft of his predecessors; but he does not master his own form until he has somehow exposed and surpassed them.” To master and surpass: this is the purpose, the pursuit of every novelist. In his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot believed the same: “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance … is the appreciation of his relationship to the dead poets and artists.” So if you’re preparing to author the next great social novel and you haven’t studied Stendhal, James, and Austen’s half-dozen, you might have better luck with badminton.
Even without such clarifying collisions with its raw, unadorned progenitors in the real world, Kiš’s prose at its best creates a nimbus of the ideal – it is generated, exhaled, by the perfection of his style – which he sets against the dark materials of his novels and stories. One source of the impulse to write about Kiš was my fascination with the effects he achieved by working out his unflinching themes in such wrought and artful language. To write a biography of so transparently autobiographical a writer could seem an odd undertaking: a painstaking labour to decipher what is perfectly obvious or, even worse, irrelevant. For Kiš is the opposite of those writers who disguise the real-life originals of characters or events in their fiction—and whose biographers can therefore usefully, or at least amusingly, detect and map the connections. The interest, for Kiš and for his readers, was not who underlay his characters, but how they were changed by being “transposed” (a key verb in his critical vocabulary) into fiction. Asked about the resemblances between the family in his novel Garden, Ashes and his own family, Kiš said “I am convinced that it is me, that it’s my father, my mother, my sister—that they are us as we should have been” if history had not crushed them. The candour of that statement, with none of the coyness or showing-off that mar most interviews with writers, was characteristic.
In homage to Kiš’s exuberant formal inventiveness, Thompson has structured his biography not in linear, historical fashion, but as a text about a text: a series of commentaries on a single short piece that Kiš once published, called “Birth Certificate”. As usual with Kiš, however, this birth certificate is no such thing: it is a miniature autobiography that freely moves between fact and the fantastical, deliberately embellishing and appropriating stories for thematic effect. Some readers of Thompson’s biography, therefore, might perhaps prefer a more traditional, less zigzagging form. There are moments when it causes problems of comprehension, when, faced with pile-ups of parentheses, the reader is sent forwards or backwards to other chapters for explanation. But in the end, this essayistic method is powerfully convincing. This is partly due to Thompson’s research: he has visited all the deadbeat Central European villages, recorded interviews with Kiš’s café companions. But there is also a deeper reason. Kiš’s own “Birth Certificate” is a text constantly buckling with small repressions, trying to give form to the various traumas that made up his life. It is an acrobatics of raw and precarious sprezzatura. Just as there is also a single, larger repression: this text is weighted towards his childhood, the period which furnished him with his fiction’s material. His life after he leaves university is hardly mentioned – which means that this birth certificate silently deletes the mess of literary politics in Belgrade in the 1970s and 80s that Kiš had to negotiate – and which conditioned his career. “Birth Certificate”, after all, was written in Paris – where Kiš lived from 1979 in self-imposed exile. That exile was a trauma of a different kind. And so Thompson’s method of close readings, commenting on Kiš’s sentences, clause by clause, becomes a delicate way of illuminating these various repressions and deletions – Kiš’s oblique approaches to catastrophe.
The inflatable citizen opens with the central character trying to commit suicide. The phone rings. Naturally, he answers. The caller asks if this is a bad time. Not at all, he says. From this point on he is far too busy to kill himself. Meet Judas, a feckless thirty something whose past is littered with wrecked love affairs, his father an atheist who lurks outside churches telling people it’s mad to speak to the invisible man. All his life his mother has told him the maternal instinct is a fiction. His only two friends offer what help they can, but it’s not much: Edward is claustrophobic and agoraphobic at the same time; Doris is a drunken, 60-a-day sexaholic cokefiend, and the only woman Judas knows who is still speaking to him. The phone call informs him that the daughter Judas never knew he had has disappeared. For some reason, Judas has to locate her and while searching he begins to find small reasons to live, particularly in the people he meets: Billy the shy burglar who secretly installs stolen goods in the house belonging to the woman he loves; Onie, a man whose pornography habit has grown so out of control he fast-forwards through sex scenes to get to the plot sections; and Eve, the perfect woman who is so beautiful, intelligent and kind that no one can stand her.
Amazon has a listing for Robert McLiam Wilson’s long-awaited (so long-awaited that no one is waiting for it any more except me) fourth novel, The Extremists. It was scheduled to be released in 2006.
I mentioned before that I had interviewed Adam Phillips for BOMB Magazine. Well, they’ve posted a
n long extract on their site (to read the whole thing you’ll need to buy a copy of BOMB). Here’s that extract for your interest, minus my introduction. (And when you’ve finished this, take a look at his epic essay on happiness in today’s Guardian):
BOMB Magazine – Adam Phillips by Sameer Padania
Originally published with an introduction at http://bombsite.com/issues/113/articles/3623
Sameer Padania (SP) Let’s start with how your new book, On Balance, has come together.
Adam Phillips I prefer writing essays rather than books. Over a period of time I’m invited to give various nonspecific talks and lectures. Nobody says to me, Will you talk about X? That tends to crystallize things that I’ve been preoccupied by, and a piece fairly quickly writes itself once that happens.
I don’t think too much about whether it all hangs together. I just write things that engage me, and then, when they get collected into a book like this, I trust that certain preoccupations will work themselves through. Otherwise, it becomes too tendentious and too focused and I don’t want that to be the case. When I read through the essays, I’ll keep the ones that I do still think are good and then I’ll think of what sort of order they might go in. The writing of the book, in a way, is putting them in an order.
In reading the book over, different things emerge at different times, but clearly one of the themes of the book is excess—that seemed to turn up in lots of different places. The idea for the title of On Balance, I don’t know how it came to me. I had read the Auden piece again, “Forms of Inattention,” where there’s that bit at the end about the tightrope walker. Ideas of composure or equanimity or balance or integration—all those words that have something to do with a kind of harmony—are at the heart of psychoanalysis in what it sets itself against, and also relate to what I seem to be preoccupied by.
I rely on the unconscious work of these things. When I sit down to write, I have a lot to write, but beforehand, I don’t. I’m not full of ideas. Writing is the way I think. Read More