Monday, May 9, 2011

Annie Dillard discombobulates my equilibrium

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.


  1. Hi A.R.

    It seems to me that literature runs about 300 years behind philosophy.

    Dillard even spends the last third of the book investigating whether literature has meaning (actually, “Does the World Have Meaning?”)

    I think an interesting question is: “Can literature have meaning even if the world does not?”

    About ”the dull Alain Robbe-Grillet.” He wasn’t dull to me when I read him in real time. Oh, and how I would want to see “Raymond Queneau” in that list of European writers. And how about at least one female subjectivist, say, Djuna Barnes?


  2. This book pleased and moved me even when/ though I hadn't'/ haven't read most of the books she makes reference to. Annie Dillard is one of my favorite authors, whether she's writing poetry, fiction, criticism, nature writing, or autobiography; she always makes the assumption you note here, which is that her readers keep their eyes open as much as she does.

  3. Having not read most of the books on the list, I might as well shy away from this critique.

  4. Dillard actual argument is: literature has meaning, therefore the world has meaning.

    Based on the way Dillard refers to Robbe-Grillet elsewhere in the book, I suspect that the word "dull" is an obscure joke. Another way that Dillard is like me - never pass up a joke, even if no one else understands it.

    Jenny - this is the only thing by Dillard I have read. I was expecting something rather different, rather more challenging - meaning, challenging the way I read, instead of continually reinforcing it!

    That's a polite way you have there to describe what I do, which is what Dillard does, when I don't bother to explain something - assume the reader keeps her eyes open. Actually, I assume the reader can use Google, an option Dillard did not have.

    I suspect that many readers, good readers, will react more like Nana. The names - books, writers, painters - come on pretty thick.

  5. Hi A.R.

    Thanks for the clarification on Dillard’s opinion of Alain Robbe-Grillet. When I read the “Erasers” in 1963 it was like a bomb going off in my head. I thought I had discovered him!

    I quickly read all the Roman Nuveau novels I could discover in the base library. I was in the military and stationed overseas. This was an exciting, heady time, and anything but dull. Robbe-Grillet was a gateway author to me.


  6. an exciting, heady time

    I'll bet. That was a great period for the novel, experimental and traditional, European and American.

  7. With a title like that, I had to come over. Tut tut. You're allowed to read and enjoy, uncritically, once in a while! Especially a piece that seems custom made just for you.

    Me, on the other hand, I've only ever read two of those authors in The List and now actively avoid at least one of those.

  8. You're allowed to read uncritically

    Oh no I'm not! I won't call it reading, at least. Time-killing, maybe. Critical reading is far more enjoyable than uncritical reading.


    That's a good point - why had no one told me about this book? Why has no one said, "That sounds a lot like something Annie Dillard wrote"?

  9. As someone who wants to read Robbe-Grillet at some point soon (causal link: the Argentine Juan José Saer, whose works I greatly enjoy, is often mentioned in connection with Robbe-Grillet and the nouveau roman movement), I am much more reassured by Vince's remarks about him than by Dillard's! Other than that, this work sounds intriguing...although I must confess that my only experience with Dillard is not yet reading a book of hers that was given to me as a present about 5 or 6 years back. The TBR gods can be cruel to writers like that.

  10. Maybe because you read so much, we thought you'd already read it?

  11. Maybe. Or polite, pitying silence about my derivative ideas.

  12. One more comment to repair, from Richard:

    As someone who wants to read Robbe-Grillet at some point soon (causal link: the Argentine Juan José Saer, whose works I greatly enjoy, is often mentioned in connection with Robbe-Grillet and the nouveau roman movement), I am much more reassured by Vince's remarks about him than by Dillard's! Other than that, this work sounds intriguing...although I must confess that my only experience with Dillard is not yet reading a book of hers that was given to me as a present about 5 or 6 years back. The TBR gods can be cruel to writers like that.

  13. Richard: Robbe-Grillet is an icy writer. He wrote puzzle novels. There certainly is a dullness in his work - he sometimes sets up patterns and repeats them with slight variations - but this can create a paradoxically exciting aesthetic effect.

    I can easily recommend The Erasers (a mock mystery, or a real one), The Voyeur (untrue crime), Jealousy (a good short taste of R-G), and - I'm forgetting one I liked a lot.

    His manifesto, For a New Novel, is essential mid-century litcrit, but I don't know how many people are in that market, so to speak.

  14. Richard: Though I hesitate to use such publisher-speak, if you like Juan José Saer, then you'll love Alain Robbe-Grillet. They inhabit the same sort of planet, though Juan José Saer is - from what I've read - a bit more varied in his subject-matter; Robbe-Grillet a bit more perplexing and perhaps ever so slightly better written.

  15. Perusal of a list of Robbe-Grillet titles suggests that the other novel I liked was In the Labyrinth, and one I strongly disliked was Djinn, but I remember absolutely nothing about either one, so what a useful exercise that was.

    To make up for this, I will link to a recent enthusiastic piece, written by C.B. James, about a Robbe-Grillet novel I don't know, Topology of a Phantom City.

  16. Thanks for the encouragement and suggestions, Amateur Reader and Obooki. Anything you can now do to get me some paid time off from work for some extra reading time chez moi?

  17. Cortazar, Fuentes and Coover, three wonderful writers. Here's a little Cortazar to get you started, Continuity of the parks:

    HE HAD BEGUN TO READ THE NOVEL a few days before. He had put it aside because of some urgent business, opened it again on his way back to the estate by train; he allowed himself a slowly growing interest in the plot, in the drawing of characters. That afternoon, after writing a letter to his agent and discussing with the manager of his estate a matter of joint ownership, he returned to the book in the tranquility of his study which looked out upon the park with its oaks. Sprawled in his favorite armchair, with his back to the door, which would otherwise have bothered him as an irritating possibility for intrusions, he let his left hand caress once and again the green velvet upholstery and set to reading the final chapters. Without effort his memory retained the names and images of the protagonists; the illusion took hold of him almost at once. He tasted the almost perverse pleasure of disengaging himself line by line from all that surrounded him, and feeling at the same time that his head was relaxing comfortably against the green velvet of the armchair with its high back, that the cigarettes were still within reach of his hand, that beyond the great windows the afternoon air danced under the oak trees in the park. Word by word, immersed in the sordid dilemma of the hero and heroine, letting himself go toward where the images came together and took on color and movement, he was witness to the final encounter in the mountain cabin. The woman arrived first, apprehensive; now the lover came in, his face cut by the backlash of a branch. Admirably she stanched the blood with her kisses, but he rebuffed her caresses, he had not come to repeat the ceremonies of a secret passion, protected by a world of dry leaves and furtive paths through the forest. The hatchet warmed itself against his chest, and underneath pounded liberty, ready to spring. A lustful, yearning dialogue raced down the pages like a rivulet of snakes, and one felt it had all been decided from eternity. Even those caresses which writhed about the lover's body, as though wishing to keep him there, to dissuade him from it, sketched abominably the figure of that other body it was necessary to destroy. Nothing had been forgotten: alibis, unforeseen hazards, possible mistakes. From this hour on, each instant had its use minutely assigned. The cold-blooded, double re-examination of the details was barely interrupted for a hand to caress a cheek. It was beginning to get dark.

    Without looking at each other now, rigidly fixed upon the task which awaited them, they separated at the cabin door. She was to follow the trail that led north. On the path leading in the opposite direction, he turned for a moment to watch her running with her hair let loose. He ran in turn, crouching among the trees and hedges until he could distinguish in the yellowish fog of dusk the avenue of trees leading up to the house. The dogs were not supposed to bark, and they did not bark. The estate manager would not be there at this hour, and he was not. He went up the three porch steps and entered. Through the blood galloping in his ears came the woman's words: first a blue parlor, then a gallery, then a carpeted stairway. At the top, two doors. No one in the first bedroom, no one in the second. The door of the salon, and then, the small axe in his hand, the light from the great windows, the high back of an armchair covered in green velvet, the head of the man in the chair reading a novel.