Category: Writers

Rediscovering Elizabeth Harrower

James Wood on the Australian novelist

Whatever you think about James Wood, he is one of the few people with enough clout that an article on the ‘forgotten’ novelist Elizabeth Harrower will get people interested in reading her. In this instance, the story of her ‘rediscovery’ happens to be a good one:

The Australian novelist Elizabeth Harrower, who is eighty-six and lives in Sydney, has been decidedly opaque about why she withdrew her fifth novel, “In Certain Circles” (Text), some months prior to publication, in 1971. Her mother, to whom she was very close, had died suddenly the year before. Harrower told Susan Wyndham, who interviewed her a few months ago in the Sydney Morning Herald, that she was absolutely “frozen” by the bereavement. She also claims to remember very little about her novel—“That sounds quite interesting, but I don’t think I’ll read it”—and adds that she has been “very good at closing doors and ending things. . . . What was going on in my head or my life at the time? Fortunately, whatever it was I’ve forgotten.” Elsewhere, Harrower has cast doubt on the novel’s quality: “It was well written because once you can write, you can write a good book. But there are a lot of dead novels out in the world that don’t need to be written.”

Harrower deposited the manuscript of “In Certain Circles” in the National Library of Australia and essentially terminated her literary career. She has said that she thinks of her fiction as something abandoned long ago, buried in a cellar. She can’t now be bothered with writing. “I don’t know anybody who knows I’m a writer,” she said in 2012. In 1971, plenty of people knew Harrower was a writer. The novelist Christina Stead, for one, declared that Harrower’s “The Long Prospect” (1958) “has no equal in our writing.” But obscurity is a fast worker, when properly paid: by the early nineteen-nineties, all her novels were out of print. Patrick White, who urged Harrower to keep working, once inscribed a book to her with the injunction “To Elizabeth, luncher and diner extraordinaire. Sad you don’t also WRITE.”

Her work might still be out of print if Michael Heyward and Penny Hueston, a married couple who run the Australian publishing house Text, hadn’t decided to start republishing it in 2012. They began with Harrower’s greatest novel, “The Watch Tower” (1966), the bitter story of two sisters, Laura and Clare, who lose their parents and fall under the sway of Felix Shaw, an abusive and controlling drunk. Over the next two years, Text published the rest of Harrower’s earlier work: “Down in the City” (1957), her first novel, and “The Long Prospect” (1958), her second, both of which she wrote in London; and “The Catherine Wheel” (1960), her third book. “In Certain Circles,” the withdrawn novel, was clearly the publisher’s most precious quarry. Heyward cajoled Harrower into letting him read the manuscript. She had not read any of her own work in forty years, and suspected that she might have to die before it was read again. Heyward thought the novel “extraordinary,” and Harrower agreed to its publication, perhaps figuring that death was a steep penalty for a comprehensive backlist.

Harrower’s writing is witty, desolate, truth-seeking, and complexly polished. Everything (except feeling, which is passionately and directly confessed) is controlled and put under precise formal pressure. Her sentences, which have an unsettling candor, launch a curling assault on the reader, often twisting in unexpected ways. And although her novels can feel somewhat closed, and tend to repeat themselves in theme, her prose is full of variety. She can be bracingly satirical: “The piercing soprano she raised at parties was understood to be her most prized asset, and had won her much applause.” She is generally tart. In “The Catherine Wheel,” a novel narrated by a young Australian woman living in a London bed-sit, a single glance at the room’s furniture tells us much about her self-esteem: “Above it was a mirror, undistorted, except perhaps—I’d already noticed—on the side of flattery.” She can be savagely metaphorical: “She was like a park that had never once removed its Don’t Walk on the Grass signs.” But her wit often teeters on the edge of pain, as it does in that last sentence, which describes Laura and Clare’s vilely haughty mother in “The Watch Tower,” or as it does in this description of pretty, ingenuous Zoe Howard, who will marry disastrously in “In Certain Circles”: “It never mattered what she said to men: they liked her to say anything.” The sentences have an innocent composure, as if Harrower hoped to slip the pain past us: “Yet really, apart from the sense of irretrievable loss, there was nothing wrong at all.” “Really, it turned out to be like every other day, except that she never forgot it.” Zoe Howard, trapped in her painful marriage, standing by a swimming pool on a morning in which she and her husband have managed to effect a brief truce, is described thus: “She shivered and pulled on her towelling coat, prudently absent from past and future.” What pain lies in the coiled coda of that sentence! Sometimes, the reader has to decode Harrower’s careful irony: “He made a sound not like a laugh” (about a histrionic charmer who is feeling sorry for himself). But Harrower’s prose expands, too, to gather in the Australian landscapes: Sydney, the wide harbor, the narrower suburbs (easily dispatched in one novel as “weedy parks named after councillors”), the blue skies and breathing red outback, the “blue and legendary haze” that seems to hover over the whole world.

Harrower was right about “In Certain Circles” being well written, but surely wrong to take its superb style for granted, as if mere literary muscle memory. Like the rest of her work, the novel is severely achieved: the coolly exact prose cannot be distinguished from the ashen exhaustion of its tragic fires. The book suffers from a few structural difficulties (some weirdly compressed transitions, a couple of characters who never quite come into focus) that may have earned Harrower’s anxious scorn in 1971. But “In Certain Circles” also extends and deepens several of her persistent concerns: how easily we submit to cruelty and coercion; the relations between men and women in a frankly misogynist era; the moral imperative to tell the truth, to shatter the china niceties that sustain bourgeois domestic life. The book belongs with her best work, with “The Watch Tower” and “The Long Prospect.”

Nobody’s Protest Novel

A critical perspective on Tao Lin's literary career thus far

This is quite possibly the most in-depth critical analysis of Tao Lin’s work that exists. Written by Frank Guan for n+1‘s latest issue, it covers everything he’s ever written. Also, typically for an n+1 essay, it blends memoir with criticism:

Under pal, fluorescent lighting, I encountered “Tao Lin” for the first time in the computer lab of Potter Hall, the dormitory I was registered to live in for my senior year of college in Northern California, lasting from September 2008 to June 2009. I can’t be more precise than that about the time: it wasn’t an especially profound engagement, and the lab, unscheduled, open all the time to anyone who had a key, seemed as immemorial as the climate outside, just past the windows, not to mention I was reading an ephemeral source of news.

The Gawker article was half bemused and half dismissive; it was probably the one by Moe Tkacik posted on August 22, 2008, but read sometime later than that date. The point was that I learned of the existence of Tao Lin, a novelist selling shares of his not yet published—Gawker claimed it hadn’t yet been written—novel. I thought something neutrally along the lines of “Asian” and “Andy Warhol,” and didn’t hear or think about him for about the next five years.

It was a strange last year of school, a period of partial disembodiment and general, even multitracked, confusion; I spent most of my time on or near a futon in a graduate housing residence where my friend Ben Wang, pursuing a master’s in chemical engineering, and his girlfriend, Mariko Kotani, occupied a bedroom. I had known them since our freshman year, but they had graduated on time. Helplessly grateful for their hospitality, I failed to say so to them as often as I should have. I just hoped they understood, silently. Ben lent me his old laptop, a Dell, I think; I used it to watch Koreans expend enormous energies playing, live, professionally, and on competing teams, a real-time strategy computer game called Starcraft: Brood War. I also played Civilization III and, when Ben and Mariko were awake and interested, the World Tour version of Guitar Hero. I was in some classes, but none of the reading material, aside fromFrankenstein and certain lines by several marginal Victorian poets (“So far between my pleasures are and few”), was especially memorable.

Given my time at college, grad school seemed preposterous. The job market for my kind was laughable. In every way, I was exhausted. New York, perhaps? But media sometimes have overarching messages, and Gawker’s seemed to be, Don’t go to New York, ever; to hold out hope, I creatively misread this as, Don’t go to New York with nothing. I decided to finish my translations into English of a notorious French poet, then go to New York, where I would, “somehow,” I thought, get them published.

And I went home to my family’s countryside estate. It was almost like an old Eurasian novel—except by “countryside estate” I mean the cheapest house in the “estates” section of a subdivision of a white-flight suburb roughly fifteen miles northeast of Louisville, a house whose installments the family had only just paid off, its first one ever in America. Still, why not treat it like a novel, if only, like The Idiot, to skip time without explaining? Three years passed; I flew from Louisville to LaGuardia, with a changeover at Baltimore, in August 2012; if the Baudelaire had been published, don’t you think that I’d be telling you about it?

I met Tao Lin in person this past summer at a spacious Dumbo bookstore called the Powerhouse Arena, where an event to celebrate the launch of his new novel was being held. I hadn’t come because I’d heard more about him. A close friend of a new friend (they had both been interns at the same publishing house) of a friend (they had both attended Yale) had become an editor, edited Taipei: it was his event, his victory as well. I debated buying a copy and decided, curiously, that I would. When I offered Tao a black ballpoint pen to sign, he held up, in a wordless and, I thought, amusing way, the black marker he’d been using.

Five days later I referred to myself, in an email to a friend, as being “absurdly grateful” for the book. I told her that I planned to write about it. I typed that I was absolutely sure that no one could explain Taipei more thoroughly than me. The book possessed a firm and eerie tone, a tone predicated on a lucid knowledge of the difficulty of its own transmission, and there was warmth to it as well, albeit tenuous—warmth engaged in a quiet, violent struggle to emerge from lukewarmth. The book was difficult—not ostentatiously so, but in a necessary manner: it was, unmistakably, I felt, created by a human being not because he could afford to show it off to others, but because, in relation to himself, he couldn’t afford not to comprehend or to express: powerfully, elaborately, and succinctly, without vanity or malice, it said the things he had to, and it left.

John Jeremiah Sullivan on Donald Antrim

A profile in the New York Times magazine

One of the best essayists we have on one of the best writers of fiction we have in the New York Times Magazine:

Of the qualities that set Antrim apart from the group of writers he’s often casually lumped in with or excluded from — the Eugenides-­Franzen-Lethem-Means-Saunders-Wallace cluster of cerebral, white-male, Northern fiction makers born around 1960 — it may be this predilection for characters “not necessarily redeemed” that offers the neatest distinction. It’s not that those other writers don’t ever do evil characters or antiheroes or that they all write tidy, hopeful plots. It’s not even that Antrim’s­ characters are beyond the pale in their badness, in a Cormac McCarthy manner — they aren’t psychopathic (except insofar as being human may involve being a little bit psychopathic). It’s more the case that Antrim’s fictional universe is different. It doesn’t bend toward justice, not even the kind that knows there is none but sort of hopes art can provide absolution. His universe bends — it is defi­nitely bent — but always toward greater absurdity (in both funny and frightening guises).

Some critics have lamented over the years that his characters don’t really “change,” but they do; it’s just that they devolve, they go mad. Mr. Robinson, man and book, certainly does, in a closing passage that is both unprintable by this magazine and unwritable by any other novelist I’ve heard of, except maybe the Mississippi writer Barry Hannah in his early-1980s “Ray” period. That echo calls to mind another thing dividing Antrim from his better-known peers, that he doesn’t really come from the North, despite having made his whole career there, living in Brooklyn in a small apartment he calls “a good place to be for now for 22 years,” where he reportedly gives unforget­table dinner parties (great cooking, great stereo) throughout which everyone sits on the floor. He works in a spartan room with a plain, black desk and shelves of books, papers on the wall and a two-volume O.E.D. (the pretty one, with the little drawer for the magnifying glass).

Tao Lin interviews Ben Lerner

In the Believer's September 2014 issue

Apparently Tao Lin first interviewed Ben Lerner for The Believer ‘three years and 10 days ago, although it seems less to [him].’ Only Tao Lin would then ask Ben Lerner if it feels the same to him, but his answer is interesting: ‘It seems shorter to me, too. But that might be because writing 10:04 confused my sense of time—I’ve been building a fiction in part around the Marfa poem since my brief residency there, which has kept it from receding into the past.’

And that’s pretty much how the whole interview goes: kooky/non-question from Tao Lin, insightful answer from Ben Lerner. There are some exceptions, including this interesting passage on autofiction:

BLVR: When you’re having the experiences that end up in your fiction or your poetry are you aware they might end up as literature? Like are you thinking “this is going in a book,” or do you try to oppose that tendency, saying “no, I’m going to experience this as if ‘writing’ didn’t exist to me” and then, as needed, recall the experience only in retrospect, as you’re writing?

BL: I’ve always wondered about that. Henry James claim that if you want to be a novelist you should be somebody on whom nothing is lost. The problem is that if you’re self-conscious about being a person on whom nothing is lost, isn’t something lost—some kind of presence? You’re distracted by trying to be totally, perfectly impressionable. I guess when I’m frightened or in pain or maybe very bored I’ve tried to hold myself together by imposing a narrative order on the experience as it happens. I don’t think “I’m going to publish this as fiction” but I think “I’m going to tell this story to a friend” and then I start telling the story in my mind as the experience transpires as a way of pretending it’s already happened. Does everybody do this? I’ve always assumed this is a common human defense mechanism. Regardless, this is the opposite of James’ dictum, right? Because I’m trying to be somebody on whom the experience is lost by supplanting it with its telling. I definitely do that in medical contexts, even in trivial ones.


Why Writers Should Be Paid

The new issue of n+1 is out. In this issue’s Intellectual Situation, the editors make a compelling case for why writers should be paid: 

FOR A YOUNG WRITER who hopes to produce literature, the greatest difference between now and twenty years ago may be that now she expects to get paid. Twenty years ago, art and commerce appeared to be opposing forces. The more you were paid for your work, the more likely you were to be a hack.

The term of art was “sellout.” Any artist who tried to make money would end up unable to make art. Record producer and guitarist Steve Albini outlined the story of the sellout in the Baffler in 1994. A sympathetic scout would persuade a band to sign a letter of intent, and from that moment forward the terms of the deal would become the most important factor in their work. An incompetent producer would make their songs sound “punchy” and “warm.” (“I want to find the guy who invented compression and tear his liver out,” Albini wrote.) Worse, the band wouldn’t even make money. Their manager, producer, agent, lawyer, and above all label would turn a profit, but the members would probably end up in debt.

Fitz Carraldo Editions