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7 December 2023

Notes on trying

For readers and writers, novels require enormous effort. Why do we persist in seeking meaning in their pages?

By Helen Oyeyemi

Bookmarks are important – and not just in terms of pacing your migration across the pages of a long story. I have a bookmark that’s an unbeatable source of validation. It’s a piece of red grosgrain ribbon with five words and 12 stars stamped on it. The stars are in gold print, and so are the words: AT LEAST YOU’RE STILL TRYING. This bookmark is currently marking a place in Dezső Kosztolányi’s 1933 novel Kornel Esti, in Bernard Adams’ 2011 translation. The passage I wanted to keep in mind stands out as clearly as if it had been underlined.

Kornel Esti takes a riverside walk with Elinger, a frenemy who announces that he’s written a poem entitled “My Life” and makes a meal out of reciting it.

“The poem was bad and long.
Esti bowed his head. He was mulling over where all
this was leading to, and what he had in common with
this loathsome fellow. He looked at the Danube
between the steep banks, with its murky waves
and floating broken ice.
‘What about pushing him in?’ he thought.
But he didn’t just think. In he pushed him, then
and there.
And ran.”

What is it about Esti’s lightning-like leap between thought and action that makes me so happy? I don’t think it’s the overt malice, though I am interested in that momentary amplification of what I sense as an undercurrent to most stories: the violence that the notional does to the actual and vice versa. Boundary lines drawn in broken bone. This is how we establish the location of truth in fact and its location in fiction. How are these distinctions helpful? Well – human life is all over the place. I know that, I think you know that, Kosztolányi definitely knew all about it, and the characters he wrote have a tendency towards sharing that scattered awareness. And so we all go roaming and gathering far and wide, working at living.

Novels make themselves addictive through the mode of attention they teach us to pay them: the novel-reader’s concentration is close yet loose, busily knitting significance with reference to the pattern provided by the text. The majority of the manoeuvres executed in the sentences of a made-up story throb with impossibility. We’re talking about feats of omnipotence on the parts of narrators, word-perfect recall of conversations, the uncannily convenient timing of crises and remedies, the momentous framing of it all. What kind of fool is the novel asking its readers to be? What manner of detective, gymnast, tailor and carpenter? Only the likes of Wonderland’s White Queen can play all the roles, making all the necessary deductive adjustments as she goes. It’s not easy, but this is what it takes to read fiction well. In my case, reading well means going about things as if you’re the reader in this 1954 Wallace Stevens poem:

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“The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true…”

Counting on the book, or at least being open to being won over, seems to make all the difference. You really have to want to be in it, or none of it will work. This is part of the overlap between habitual readers of fiction, and all who more or less willingly abide by the social contract. Both selves draw on casual command of an ability to believe at least six impossible – or at the very least moderately unlikely – things before breakfast. Believing in each other and believing in our books are part of the same grind.

[See also: The bird that wasn’t there]

I still play Serbia’s 2022 Eurovision Song Contest entry back for thrills. Konstrakta mesmerises me all over again, calmly washing her hands in a white basin positioned in the centre of the stage as she sings:

“We’re incredibly lucky
That there’s such a thing as the autonomic nervous
system
I don’t need to control my own heartbeats
The heart beats, the heart beats on its own”

Five dancers proffer towels, clap their clean hands and execute ceremonial gyrations.

“A sick mind in a healthy body
A sad soul in a healthy body
A desperate mind in a healthy body
A terrified mind in a healthy body.”

This performance, simultaneously frosty and caustic, stark and elaborate, feels like a triumphal parade for an enemy we never saw coming… what name can we call such an enemy by? Complacency, passivity, helpless relaxation into material procedures? Experiencing gratitude for a heart that beats without you stirs up interesting feelings: you want your will back.

Time would probably pass in much simpler and less dramatic ways if our thoughts didn’t dash around so much faster than our bodies can. Being embodied might feel less bizarre. If the dual experiences registered via our union of mind and body felt less like disparate scenes tacked together, we probably wouldn’t have such a hard time facing the bottom line that there is no permanent success, no permanent ruin and no respite from dwelling in the gradient of those states. Proceeding with any type of equanimity seems to be a matter of taking things chapter by chapter.

I recently read a New Scientist interview with the astrobiologist Sara Imari Walker that made me nervous in a good way. She explains that to her mind everything that has material existence is – can only be – the consequence of an organisational decision:

“The universe is this vast space of possible things. There are 118 known elements, and molecules are made from many of these elements, but there’s not enough material in the entire universe to make even one copy of every possible molecule. And that’s just counting simple molecules, I’m not including big molecules like DNA or proteins. So the likelihood of creating even a moderately complex object, say a DNA polymer, by randomly attaching atoms is exponentially low.”

No occurrence is without effort. Not existing in the first place was an option for all of us, but being here suggests that, on a molecular level, we – or the stuff we’re made of – have accepted or engineered a proposition to exist. As narrative-driven beings, we’re well aware that existing isn’t enough to go on living, there’s another step to take, and another, and another. You have to have a few ideas, a plan or two, if not hopes – and knowledge. Here I define “knowledge” as time-tested observation of the relationships or potential connections between any phenomenon and any other phenomenon – more a process than a fixed commodity.

“The more you feed it, the bigger it grows” isn’t just a pitch for 1990s slime toys; some of the richest novel-reading experiences are like that too. Quite a few of them are from the 19th century. The Brontës, Austen, Thackeray, Dickens and Trollope romanticised our knowledge acquisition processes. I link these writers because of what their books get me to attempt. With acute sensitivity to the interpersonal bonds that guide or derail an individual’s decisions, each of these seven create personas that pose a question to their surroundings in some way, then sift the residue of those characters’ experiences. If I was to distil the question posed by Jane Eyre, Becky Sharp, the bustling clergy of Barchester, the Dashwood Sisters, et al, I’d say that they ask: what now? So I walk the Earth as a sense-making machine. My every craving, every wound, every hope and every momentary satisfaction appears in the image of that which I lack. How do I communicate with the sense-making machines whose paths keep crossing mine, each one of these other persons an interactive dictionary whose primary interpretation of happiness is a loosening of the particular clamp their soul is held in?

The “what now” posed by these protagonists direct us towards extraordinary intervention; as readers we are the judge, the jury, and we’re the witnesses too. We examine evidence, but with an irrational ethic – they’ve implicated us, those Brontës, that Thackeray – we search out a method that supports finding the characters we’ve invested in innocent of the harm they’ve either caused or been driven to do. By the time we finish the final chapter I think most of us have found a route to the verdict that declares the captive free to go. That must be what happens on a mass scale, because the characters I’m thinking of now have lives that exceed the bounds of the books they first appeared in. In one way or another, Heathcliff and Cathy inhabit the same plane of reality as we do (in addition to rubbing shoulders with the characters of Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey). Oh, and Miss Havisham lives. For me there’s no confirmation more solid than having ridden in a London taxi driven by a Miss Havisham apologist who told me to quit my moralising and respect the fact that in doing what she needed to do, Miss H gave us a story. I don’t know that we can definitively answer the “what now”s of Pip, Estella and co – their questions are ours too – but it could be that in these new lives of theirs the “question-mark characters” are finding out what they wanted to know.

In the second decade of the 20th century, with levity and darkness, Kafka made the “case” that every novel’s protagonist goes through overt and official: he wrote The Trial. The anti-hero, K, is in trouble with the law, but he seems to have developed flaws in his functionality as a sense-making machine. Even if K is able to comprehend that there isn’t anything all that special about unwitting transgression, this can’t be expressed in a manner that will get him cleared. Other characters lose patience with K after a while; it’s a life-or-death situation, so they can accept a certain amount of protest. But the tools to dismantle the fiction of his guilt aren’t available, and K is meant to take the impossibility of proving anything either way as his cue to give up. When he doesn’t, some find it annoying to be in the same story as him. Idris Parry’s wonderful translation of The Trial has the inspector leading the investigation into K’s wrongdoing tell the frantic suspect: “Don’t make such a palaver about your feeling of innocence, it detracts from the not unfavourable impression you make otherwise.” When I think about what K goes through, and the problem he’s inherited (the problem of making sense that can be shared) my thoughts reel back to a passage from Milorad Pavić’s Dictionary of the Khazars that really gave my head a wobble, in which one character says:

“The moth is way up there by the white wall of the doorway, and it is visible only because it moves. From here it almost looks like a bird high up in the sky, if you think of the wall as the sky. That’s probably how the moth sees the wall, and only we know it is wrong. But it doesn’t know that we know. It doesn’t even know we exist. You try to communicate with it, if you can. Can you tell it anything in a way it understands; can you be sure it has understood you completely?”

[See also: To catch a catfish]

“I don’t know,” I replied. “Can you?”

“Yes,” the old man said quietly, and with a clap of his hands he killed the moth, then proffered its crushed body on the palm of his hand.

“Do you think it didn’t understand what I told it?”

The sense we make gets broken all the time. As does the machinery with which we make it. Novels set neon lights around these encounters – in which our internal accounts of “what’s really going on” meet the external correction of those accounts.

I see my 19th-century favourites as immersed in these headaches of establishing what’s the case and what need not always be the case. Very broadly speaking, I perceive my favourite 20th- and 21st-century novels as entwined with what the philosopher Thomas Nagel describes as “the transcendental step”. After all our fictional trials and all the ensuing judgements there’s a kind of compromise:

“We cannot live human lives without energy and attention, nor without making choices which show that we take some things more seriously than others. Yet we have always available a point of view outside the particular form of our lives, from which the seriousness appears gratuitous. These two inescapable viewpoints collide in us, and that is what makes life absurd. It is absurd because we ignore the doubts that we know cannot be settled, continuing to live with nearly undiminished seriousness in spite of them.”

Not only does the truth of getting on with being human have a number of different addresses, but each one is arrived at differently. The novel is a mode of travel. In the hands of the novelist, each chapter is a response to what Robert Walser’s 1907 novel The Tanners presents to us as the world’s question: why don’t you come? We’re trying, we’re on our way. And the more vehement our attempts to bring our stories into closer contact with the rest of the world’s, the greater the thrill.

In the passage from Kornel Esti – the one I keep track of with the bookmark that commends me for trying – Elinger’s river dunking isn’t an account of an outburst, it’s not presented as the spontaneous eruption of either character’s “true nature”. There’s nothing effortless in this scenario – nothing effortless in the decisions made, or the execution of those decisions. Elinger, who has crafted and presented a weighty narrative – “the” story of his life – worked hard for this moment. He has seasoned his offering with an authenticity that obliges Kornel Esti to not only accept the offering, but reward it with empathy, admiration or both. Kornel is supposed to say, or think, “this is brave”, even if he wishes Elinger’s rendition of his own life would just jump straight into the bin. Kornel’s ultra-physical refusal is rendered in fairly full knowledge of what he’s implicitly being asked to go along with. The story, Elinger, and the reader are watching to see if Esti will continue in the role he’s being written into.

But no, Kornel Esti is not having any of it. He’s willing to work on his propulsion into the next chapter of the novel, which is named after him, and he demands that we work with him so as to come up with something new. No wonder he’s so at home in this form: it’s all in the name. I don’t feel a need to exhort you not to give up on the novel. In fact, I invite you to try that. Trying to give up on the novel – and I mean really, really trying – could be fun. Though I’m probably obliged to warn you that it’d be fun in an adding-fuel-to-a-fire sort of way.

Helen Oyeyemi’s next novel, “Parasol Against the Axe”, will be published by Faber & Faber in 2024. A longer version of this essay was delivered as the New Statesman Goldsmiths Prize Lecture at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London in October 2023

[See also: The “trauma” of publishing a novel]

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special