Strangest thing. I was reading Annie Dillard’s Living by Fiction (1982), a short, pithy, witty work of literary criticism, and was constantly, what do I want to say, thrown off. Perhaps this was the first place it happened, on page 13, which is really the third page of the text:
Like many people, I have for years been reading fiction by various United States and South American writers like Vladimir Nabokov, John Barth, Robert Coover, Thomas Pynchon, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, and Gabriel García Márquez, and by European writers like Samuel Beckett, the dull Alain Robbe-Grillet, the wonderful Italo Calvino. I have asked myself how their work’s goals differ from those of the Modernists before them – Faulkner, Joyce, Mann, Kafka, say – or from the goals of Hardy or Eliot, or of Saul Bellow or Salinger or Mailer.
Why did this list have such a strong effect on me? Because it is my list, or pretty close to it. "Like many people" - yes, like me. This was the literary world I spent most of my time in until, oh, a decade or so ago, when I was distracted by the sorts of books that led to Wuthering Expectations. I never got to Cortázar – he would have been “next,” so to speak – or Fuentes, and I’ve barely sampled Coover, but I’ve read a substantial proportion of the Collected Works of the rest. Same with three out of the four of that second cluster. The big books of Thomas Mann are a dispiriting Subject for Future Research. I greatly admire the story he wrote about his dog, but I suspect it is atypical.
Dillard kept knocking me off balance like this. She leads off Chapter 1 with Pale Fire and Ficciones, which she, like me, simply assumes are essential and inescapable Tower of Babel-sized landmarks of 20th century literature, terrain-defining books. She invokes them repeatedly. One might expect her to describe them, to summarize them, to explain what they do. Not at all. Nothing like it. She assumes that her readers have either read them or read enough about them to follow her argument. This is the closest thing to a discussion of the contents of Pale Fire that Dillard essays:
[I]n Nabokov’s Pale Fire, fictional objects revolve about each other and only each other, and shed on each other and only each other a lovely and intellectual light. (47)
And now that we’re all clear on what Pale Fire is about – ha ha ha ha! I can imagine a set of standards which would label Living by Fiction bad criticism. To the reader who knows what Dillard is talking about, though, the insights, the digressive gestures, and the jokes come thick and fast. That reader is me. Dillard even spends the last third of the book investigating whether literature has meaning (actually, “Does the World Have Meaning?”) which she assumes (as do I) is an extraordinarily difficult question. She appears to have some doubts about literary beauty, as well.
I have no plan to justify or defend or explicate any of the above. I am a little too pleased and dazzled, and tomorrow will move on to something else. I used a library copy of Living by Fiction, and rarely write in books anyways, but I think I should buy a copy and mark it up. Find the weak points. Fight with it. This first time through, I did nothing but nod. Yep, yep, yep. What kind of critical reading is that? Pathetic.
One point, which suggests how I made this lucky find. Dillard discusses the turn by these late Modernist writers to the investigation of surfaces, to the fictiveness of fiction. They can, Heaven knows, overdo things. But they are not just writing for themselves, or for our time. The innovations we attribute to Nabokov and Borges and so on are often not genuinely new contributions to the art of fiction, but a sort of highlighting of features of fiction that were there all along, that are perhaps even inherent to fiction.
All fictions have surfaces; many authors have worked pleasing and curious effects upon their surfaces. Pynchon helps me understand Hugo. Nabokov helps me disarm Charlotte Brontë’s traps. César Aira enhances my appreciation of Charles Dickens, and even Elizabeth Gaskell. Borges explains everyone. The tradition runs both ways.