In the archive with David Foster Wallace

Wallace's papers aren't a wormhole into the writer's psyche.

The late David Foster Wallace was often hailed as a literary genius, a writer who dwells in his readers' minds as a kind of meta-human, his mysterious and innate powers suggesting a different plane of existence. Even other writers are not immune to dishing out such hyperbolic praise. Zadie Smith, for example, declares that Wallace is "in a different time-space continuum from the rest of us". Visit the Wallace archive at the Harry Ransom Center, however, and a different story will emerge, that of "Dave Wallace", the ambitious, insecure and hard-working author of complex novels and expertly precise journalism.

The Harry Ransom Center, part of the University of Texas in the hipster enclave of Austin, is a climate-controlled humanities archive housing 36 million manuscript pages, five million photographs, and thousands of pieces from the worlds of art, theatre and film. The David Foster Wallace archive opened in September 2010 and contains correspondence, handwritten drafts, manuscripts, juvenilia and 306 annotated books from Wallace's personal library.

It should be noted that the archive is not a shimmering wormhole into Wallace's personal psyche or a curtain-twitching view into his private life. The archivist, Stephen Cooper, describes the collected manuscripts as "clean", meaning they are primarily work-related, with little annotation other than that to do with the nuts and bolts of writing (editorial interjections, corrections and the frequent and frantic use of the word "Stet").

Take a sidestep from the Wallace archive to that of the novelist Don DeLillo, however, and we find the younger writer with his guard down, in correspondence dating between 1992 and 2001. In these letters a clearer image of Wallace the writer surfaces, far from the mythical genius presented by the more zealous commentators. He engages DeLillo with an almost childish insecurity, worrying about his ability and his self-discipline, bemoaning the "daily temptation to dick around". Wallace clearly sees DeLillo as a mentor, someone to turn to for advice and inspiration. In fact, he openly worries about the influence DeLillo has on his work, admitting in the letters that parts of his second novel Infinite Jest (1996) may seem "piratical" (this influence can also be seen in the Wallace-annotated copies of DeLillo's novels in the collection, where notes for Infinite Jest have been jotted on the title pages and in the margins).

Wallace's relationship with DeLillo is mediated through talk of writing, books and film, and a picture of his cultural existence can be pieced together. His mini-reviews of films are particularly telling as they show him as an unpretentious consumer of entertainment (a theme in much of his fiction). He urges DeLillo to see films such as The Matrix and also-ran Hollywood thriller Boiler Room (depicting the film's main lure as lead actor Giovanni Ribisi's face: "male but like something right out of Klimt at his ghastliest").

Knowing Wallace was insecure about his ability as a writer gives the reading of the various drafts of Infinite Jest a strange inflection. Throughout the intricately numbered pages (sequential numbers, each with additional sub-pages labelled with letters), there are small splurges of this self-doubt in the margins. "I don't want to be writing," Wallace scrawls as he sweats through the construction of what would become footnote 110 in the novel, and a shaky-handed, "Thank God!" on its completion (there are also tiny outpourings of the heart in these margins; maudlin, teenager-like reactions to failing relationships and unrequited love that we are all probably guilty of). It is especially illuminating to see how much work Wallace and his astute, level-headed editor Michael Pietsch did together. Pietsch treads carefully between suggesting ways to make the novel better artistically and ways to make it more approachable to the paying reader (Wallace tells DeLillo that these commercially-minded alterations make him feel "slutty"). This torturous and intricate work began around 1994 and would continue for almost two years.

The Wallace archive at the Harry Ransom Center efficiently dispels the "genius" status awarded to the writer, not because his writing isn't singularly and bewilderingly excellent (it is, even in draft form), but because it presents him as a human being, one of us. Declarations that Wallace is in some other "time-space continuum" are unhelpful because he worked so hard to depict what it means to be a human being in this world, in an age lacking sincerity, but saturated with ironic posturing. With The Pale King, Wallace's long awaited posthumous novel approaching its release date, we should perhaps brace ourselves for another storm of this type of commentary. But thinking of Wallace as "Dave", the writer who slogged through research (the archive reveals he even took tedious classes in tax law to help with The Pale King), sweated each sentence to achieve perfect prose, and strove to depict our own world with unflinching emotional honesty, perhaps makes the work all the more astonishing.

Graham Foster is completing a doctoral thesis on the novels of David Foster Wallace at Manchester Metropolitan University.

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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