Have you read… The Art of Fiction?

Deep Reading, Deep Reading for Writers

Somewhere in The Art of Fiction, David Lodge suggests that the invention of the fax machine may well bring forth a new kind of novel-writing. What that means is that the book is old, and that you won’t find in its pages a section on how TikTok changed reading and writing forever. But apart from that, the book will tell you all you need to know about fiction. For writers, it is a compact treasure chest of things to consider when writing a book; for readers, it is a compact treasure chest of things to consider when reading a book.

The best part is how the book is built: Each chapter begins with an excerpt from a novel that illustrates a certain aspect of writing, such as “Interior Monologue” and “Repetition”, or, a little less obvious, “Staying on the Surface” and “Weather”. If you want to get the most out of these chapters, then do as you’re told by the author and read the excerpts, which range from a few lines to a whole page, first. Unless you are already familiar with a topic you may well get a little confused on your first reading. Hold on, though, and don’t despair. It’s only one page, and after that you can read Lodge’s dissections of the excerpt as well as his contextualizations. As every chapter was originally written for a newspaper, this won’t be longer than three pages.

Once you have heard the pleasant ‘clink’ (some say it’s a ‘cloink’) sound of comprehension in your head, take a break, and then go read the excerpt again. I know this sounds like a use of your time almost too luxurious to consider in public. But if you do it, you will be amazed at what you can now see that you didn’t see before in the excerpt. Each chapter becomes a crash course in the art of reading: First an impatient and ineffective exploration of the unknown, then back to the camp for debrief, a little lecture from the weird old master that makes more or less sense, and then, in the fresh air of the next morning, another visit into the territory that now magically reveals its secrets to you.

Authentisch Frauen anziehen

Deep Reading im Alltag, Inigo's Inquiries

Bei Michael ist es ja so, dass er gerne über die Bedeutung von Wörtern, auch einzelnen, nachdenkt. Überschriften findet er besonders ergiebig. In einem Workshop zu dem Text “The Greater Festival of Masks” von Thomas Ligotti zum Beispiel haben wir neulich eine Viertelstunde diskutiert, was das Wort “Greater” alles bedeuten kann und warum es für den Titel eine interessante Wahl ist. Was ich ganz lustig, aber auch ein bisschen unsinnig fand. Wer wissen will, was gemeint ist, soll im Internet nachschauen.

Heute erreichte uns jedenfalls ein Hinweis auf eine neue Meetup-Gruppe mit dem Titel “Authentisch Frauen anziehen”. Da ich alle drei angesprochenen Themen für unwichtig halte, habe ich mich nicht besonders darüber gefreut. Aber es war deutlich zu erkennen, dass sich Michael sofort in die Überschrift verliebt hat. Auch wenn er scheinbar unberührt sein Frühstück verzehrt hat, habe ich ihm angesehen, dass er sich insgeheim Kleidungsstücke ausgemalt und über die Frage  sinniert hat, was es bedeuten könnte, diese einer Frau anzuziehen und dabei dann nicht authentisch rüberzukommen. Knöpft man ihr den schweren gelben Regenmantel vielleicht ohne Begeisterung zu und nur, um ihr einen Gefallen zu tun? Setzt man ihr einen zu großen hellgrünen Federhut auf und tut nur so, als teile man die Lust an der Verkleidung? Trägt man ihr die roten Schuhe herbei und ist dabei vielleicht so auffallend gleichgültig, dass es nach hinten losgeht?

Welch interessanter Titel, hat er gedacht, welch reizende Fragen über das Leben er provoziert. Und was für eine seltsame Meetup-Gruppe neben all den anderen, die einfach nur Effizienz und Erfolg zum Beispiel bei der Kunst der Verführung versprechen.

Ich selbst habe meinen Kaffee getrunken und die Kommentare zu einem Artikel über Braunkohle gelesen. Im Anschluss habe ich im Internet zu dem Wort “Greater” in Ligottis Titel recherchiert, wobei ich zugeben muss, dass ich da nicht viel Sinnvolles zu gefunden habe.

Pencils in the Forest

Deep Reading, Great Openings, Inigo's Inquiries

Early this morning, I found a copy of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation on Michael’s desk, and while irregular snores could be heard from his bed chamber, I took the chance to examine it. I was rather shocked when I found the inside had been brutally transformed into property, forever marking it as one reader’s territory: Whether any of these notes are insightful at all, I cannot say, because I can’t decipher them. But I’ve watched Michael scribbling into books with a pencil before; he usually falls asleep immediately after it, so I guess it’s pretty exhausting and/or gratifying. I, however, also think it is brutalizing and snobbish. In any case, I thought I should share this as a warning for all those who consider taking up a pencil and leaving their marks too: Once you do, your books, no matter how unchanged they may appear on the outside, will cease to be pristine forests to explore. You will leave your equipment rusting all over the place, and readers who come after you won’t know what to do with it.

Ach ja, wir hatten ein Interview im DLF

Deep Reading, Inigo's Inquiries

Michael meinte, ich solle doch vielleicht das Interview verlinken, dass die Sendung “Kompressor” am letzten Montag mit ihm zur Frage “Was ist Deep Reading?” gemacht hat. Das sei doch mal eine Aufgabe für den “Assistenten”, sagte er. Manchmal denke ich, er glaubt wirklich, das sei meine Funktion in diesem Haus. Wie dem auch sei: Wenn ich es nicht mache, macht es keiner, und das wäre dann schade. Ich selbst finde Interviews nämlich immer interessant, auch wenn sie kurz sind und die Interviewten nicht wirklich auf die Fragen antworten.  Aber hört selbst.

Flann O’Brien, chuckling

Deep Reading, Deep Reading for Writers

One of my favorite bits in Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman is when the nameless first-person narrator enters the house of the old man he and his companion have murdered. His aim is to finally fetch the old man’s money-box, which was the original reason for the crime. It is in this part that something very important happens to the narrator. Once you know what it is, you have to admire the brazen artfulness in which the author makes his poor, doomed narrator experience it all. People have heard him chuckle in his grave anytime anyone reads the book, I think.

I’m going to give you just one example: There’s a detail that I can’t believe I’ve missed at least three times. When I finally became aware of it, it was only after I knew what I was looking for and where. It’s one of many hints that suggest the narrator himself may not fully realize what is happening to him, even though he tells the story in his own words:

It’s one of the many details in this chapter that tell you another story beyond the surface, and that I think most readers don’t take seriously on a first reading. And I don’t think you have to, actually. The Third Policeman should be read twice, full stop. I do wonder sometimes if anyone ever figured out what happens here without reading the book at least twice or getting a little help from Wikipedia or the like. (If you did figure it all out on your first reading, please write to us, providing evidence.)

It doesn’t really matter, I guess. Even without this narrative layer, The Third Policeman is as trippy a book as you could wish for, both very silly and very unsettling. So each his or her own trip. I personally know people who read the book twice and who didn’t remember this passage at all.

Kafka und die Frauen

Deep Reading im Alltag, Über Literatur sprechen

Warum ich Wikipedia gut finde? Weil die da zu findenden Infos unschätzbar sind, wenn es darum geht, Schlüsselwerke der Literatur zu verstehen. Ein Beispiel. Über Kafka erfährt man unter anderem Folgendes:

Kafka hatte ein zwiespältiges Verhältnis zu Frauen. Einerseits fühlte er sich von ihnen angezogen, andererseits floh er vor ihnen. […] Als Ursachen für Kafkas Bindungsangst vermutet man in der Literatur neben seiner mönchischen Arbeitsweise (er stand unter dem Zwang, allein und bindungslos zu sein, um schreiben zu können) auch Impotenz (Louis Begley) und Homosexualität (Saul Friedländer).

Als Mensch mit Bindungsangst (and proud of it) kann ich einerseits nur sagen: mit Impotenz hat es überhaupt nichts zu tun. Andererseits finde ich es auch hilfreich, zu wissen, dass das Verhältnis des Autors zu Frauen und so weiter “zwiespältig” war. Das nächste Mal, wenn ich den Prozess lese, werde ich weniger verwirrt sein, dass da am Ende keine feste Beziehung mit gemeinsamem Haus, Auto, Konto und Kind herauskommt: Kafka war ein Bindungsangst-Autor.

Alle Männer sind Hans

Deep Reading im Alltag, Über Literatur sprechen

Warum ich Wikipedia gut finde? Weil die da zu findenden Informationen über Literatur viel Zeit sparen. Ein Beispiel. Ich wollte wissen, was es mit der Erzählung “Undine geht” von Ingeborg Bachmann auf sich hat. Voraussetzungen: Ich wusste nicht so richtig, wer Undine genau ist und demzufolge auch nicht, wohin sie gehen könnte oder warum. Ich war lediglich der Auffassung, dass der Name öfter in der Literaturgeschichte vorkommt.

Wikipedia gibt mir also einen einzelnen Eintrag zu der Erzählung, der einen Absatz mit dem Titel “Bezüge zu anderen Werken über die Undine” enthält,  der aus folgenden zwei Sätzen besteht:

Jean Giraudoux’ Werk über Undine besitzt ebenso wie “Undine geht” eine Figur namens Hans. Diese steht in “Undine geht” für alle Männer.

Ich bin unsicher, inwiefern ich jetzt den Text noch selbst lesen muss oder nicht. Fragen zur Figur Hans habe ich auf jeden Fall keine mehr.

Two Sentences, Twenty-One Questions

Deep Reading, Great Openings, Sonnenuhr und Rondell

If you like your epidemic-themed fiction cool, complex, and sickening, Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet is a book you shouldn’t ignore. Its opening chapter is a terrific place to practice deep reading, too. The first two sentences will give you a taste of what’s to come:

“We left on a school day, so Esther wouldn’t see us. In my personal bag, packed when my wife, Claire, had finally collapsed in sleep against the double-bolted bedroom door as it was getting light out, I stashed field glasses, sound abatement fabrics, and enough rolled foam to conceal two adults.”

A blast of writerly efficiency, the first sentence introduces the necessary ingredients for a conflict to unfold: There’s three or more characters, two (or more) of them leaving without the third one knowing. The phrase may sound like the explanation of an action – we did this because etc. – but at the same time it holds back essential information: Who is “Esther”, and why do “we” leave in the first place? Why exactly wouldn’t Esther see them leaving if it’s “a school day” – and why is that even important?

Yes, it’s only a first sentence, and who’s to say all will not be explained very soon? But if you’re into deep reading, you will welcome this invitation to make wild guesses even before any other information has entered your head. There are possible plots to ponder: Is Esther to be protected from something? Are the others perhaps guilty or ashamed of something? Do they have a secret mission that Esther can’t know about? Or are they instead afraid of Esther, trying to flee from her?

All we know about the setting is that it’s a “schoolday”, which may of course be taken as a suggestion that Esther may be working at a school, perhaps as a teacher, which may imply that the “we” are two (or more) kids running away (though it would be weird if they called their teacher by first name). Or, more likely, Esther herself may be the student; and if she’s a student, she may well be the daughter of “we”.

Wild guesses are fun for a while, but if that were enough, people wouldn’t read novels but one-liners instead [insert amusing comment on the Age of Twitter here]. Most people, I guess, won’t even stop reading until at least the first paragraph is over. In a way, reading the first sentence on its own, and word by word, is a rather unusual way of reading. Should you even do it? You should. We call it Deep Reading, by the way.

Anyway, the second sentence provides us with more basic information about the “we”: There’s a second character with a first name, Claire, a wife, and there’s a first-person narrator – the implied husband. We still don’t know who Esther is, but with two characters connected by marriage and another connected to school, it doesn’t seem entirely unlikely that we’re dealing with a small family.

Apart from implying a relatable set of characters, the second sentence includes a few details that may take us directly into the heart of the conflict to unfold: For example, Claire doesn’t seem to be sleeping well. Rather, she “finally collapse[s]”, which suggests that she either can’t fall asleep normally, or that she tries not to sleep at all but merely gives in after a long battle. We also know that she does not fall asleep in bed like a normal person but “against the […] bedroom door,” which corroborates the idea that Claire in fact tries to stay awake.

And, of course, the term “double-bolted” suggests that someone has done some real work to lock someone in, or out. But who double-bolts the door, and who is the door double-bolted against? Is Claire inside, and did she lock herself in? If so, why? Or has someone locked her out, or in? Who’s threatening who?

More wild guesses: The bedroom door may be locked as a result of a married couple’s fight, or because it’s the last line of defence in a context of domestic violence; it may even be a motif straight from a horror story, where the monsters have already entered what the soon-to-be victims thought was a safe place, and are now threatening to intrude into its most private sanctuary. We have hardly met our family, and already something very unsavoury is going on in that house.

And there’s more questions to ask: Where is the narrator/husband when Claire falls asleep? By implication, he has been awake at that time. But has he watched over his, possibly sick, wife? Or was he on the outside, and did he wait for his wife to fall asleep so that he could force the bolted door open? Oh the wealth of possibilities!

And we haven’t even gotten to the most Ben-Marcus-like part of the second sentence, the suggestive list of things packed into the narrator’s “personal bag”: What is he going to do, with “field glasses, sound abatement fabrics, and enough rolled foam to conceal two adults”? Is the family going on a weird camping trip, are we going to witness a kidnapping of some kind, or is the narrator just batshit crazy?

If you read on, you will realize it’s all of these options and many more. Yes, The Flame Alphabet is one of those novels that won’t force you to decide on one reading, and if you like that amount of freedom and suggestiveness, it’s the perfect book for you, even though it will most probably also make you very, very ill.

By the way, if you think it’s silly to read just one or two sentences and make a big fuss about all the questions they presumably pose – because this will always be the case in the beginning of any novel and everything will be explained if you just read on – compare, for example, the opening of Stephen King’s 11.22.63 and see what questions it will make you ask.

(You can read the first two chapters of The Flame Alphabet in Bomb, by the way.)

Sound or Fury? Pick a Side.

Deep Reading, Inigo's Inquiries

In his last post, Michael claimed that he kind of understood Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury after reading it like twenty-one times. I am still not impressed. I think these voices from  Amazon reviews make as much sense as what Michael wrote:

  • “I read this book back in college and I hated every moment of it.”
  • “A terrible book. […] It took me a week just to find out who was who.”
  • “This book is nothing more than a puzzle that has no reward in solving it.”
  • “Every word in the book left me utterly confused.”
  • “I was surprised to find this book to be an utter nonsense.”
  • “I do not understand how this book can be called one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. Just because it’s different does not mean it’s good.”
  • “Everyone says it’s a great book, but I’ll bet a lot of those who do are only saying it because they’re afraid to admit that Faulkner’s too smart for them.”
  • “This book is truly horrible, Faulkner is full of hot air. […] Do not waste your money on this book, in fact don’t even borrow it from a public library.”
  • “This book is like an ungrateful girlfriend. You do your best to understand her and get nothing back in return.”
  • “Just depressing. Like being on a three-week drunken spree. Yuck.
  • “I do not like this book.”

As I’ve said earlier, disagreeing is good, debating is futile. Will I read the book? I don’t think so. Will you? Don’t think about it. Just pick a side.