Wednesday, February 23, 2005


I had almost forgotten how critically ill-received Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled was until reading the lengthy profile of the writer in the Guardian. In this case, the cited naysayer is James Wood, who characterizes the 1995 novel as having "invented its own category of badness". He contrasts this with its follow-up, When We Were Orphans, which is redeemed by having "invented its own category of goodness". Here, I cannot ignore the urge to comment on Wood's uncanny ability to so aptly turn a phrase. Hold on...oh good...that urge has passed.

The Unconsoled remains the first and only Ishiguro work that I have read, and it stands out in my mind as one of my favourite books as well. I refrain from reading other Ishiguro works because I feel they will somehow not match up and ultimately disappoint. I can't pinpoint my enduring affinity to The Unconsoled, and find it puzzling that I do given my repeated tendency to close the book abruptly after having read a particularly exasperating passage. The thing is, it does leave you "baffled and occasionally angry" (as Nicholas Wroe describes its critical reception in the Guardian profile). It also leaves you feeling vaguely uncomfortable, which seems to stem from the familiarity it conjures as you proceed through the dream-like sequences that prevent Ryder, the pianist and protagonist, from accomplishing what he knows he must accomplish, but cannot. Barriers and obstacles abound: we have all experienced the angst and frustration that Ryder does, and those night-time bouts of anxiety that ensue can surely stay with us as we make the transition to our waking life.

This doesn't exactly create valid grounds for appreciation of a novel, but it does serve as a clue: insecurities manifested in real life may originate from those manifested in dreams [wherein the impossible and the real reside together i.e. impossible scenario plus real anxiety], and vice versa. This must be why a Kafkaesque work like The Unconsoled is so oddly compelling: we are responding to a universality that is at once familiar and repellant.

In his review for The New Republic, Wood claims that in attempting to decipher the dream within the novel, one may fall short in doing so with all of its inherent indecipherability and consequent meaninglessness. Fine, so it's difficult to strike a balance between writing a novel and explicating a dream within the novel, but Ishiguro doesn't distinguish between the two: the reader is asked to accept what defies explanation, and it is not a difficult order to fill, because we do it every single surreal day of our lives.

Dreams come true in heaven all the time.
Baby, how on earth

-Ron Sexsmith

Saturday, February 19, 2005


Another blog recently discussed the phenomenon of "too many books". Too many books isn't really a problem in my mind. Not when you have come to terms with the fact that most of these books are extraneous to one's focal interest. Imagine, if you will, a trip to your favourite local bookshop. Your preconceived notions about what matters to you in terms of literature will allow you to walk on past the tripe and zero in on what I guess to be the remaining one per cent of monographs up for sale. Granted, one per cent of a shitload of books still works out to be a shitload of books. But this is a shitload of books that matter. Should you be so inclined to put forth a few dollars in order to supplement your prized collection, you will have supported a living or dead author who was published during a time when the competition for publication wasn't as fierce as it is now, as in right-this-very-minute now.

Writers with so-called literary integrity, of course, are fully aware of the publishing industry's tendency to supplant their endeavours with less edifying works that are earmarked to make more money. This is why literary integrity is folly. But it remains the folly of those individuals who are convinced that they cannot live without the written word. Once in a while, one will slip through the cracks and achieve success [which in this context equates with publication]. But more often, they won't. Writers of a certain caliber will continue to write, but only because they have to, only because they can't not write. They write not to contribute to the world of "too many books", but to contribute to the canon that has brought them to the position they find themselves in today. If the product is to remain at the bottom of a desk drawer, its only fate to moulder away until time immemorial, then so be it. What has mattered is the exercise that leads to the resulting words. Ergo, the words are what matter.

Does this mean that a life spent in pursuit of writing has been a mistake? Yes, a gorgeous mistake.

And now, here, where I am writing still, still in this chair, hammering type like tacks into the page, speaking without a listening ear, whose eye do I hope to catch and charm and fill with tears and understanding, if not my own, my own ordinary, unforgiving and unfeeling eye?

-William H. Gass, The Tunnel

Saturday, February 12, 2005


There is no doubt in my mind that Hermann Hesse is writing about himself when he is writing about the Steppenwolf. The main character, Harry Haller, even shares the same initials. Hesse describes an individual who insists upon stripping down the why and how of his life to two diametric opposites. Assuming it is a given that Hesse can recognize that the life of a man consists of so many more aspects than just bourgeois man and lone wolf of the steppes, why can he not transcend the limited scope of awareness that is obviously the basis for his own world view? He has recognized this dual nature in himself, and Steppenwolf is a testament to this recognition. Hermann Hesse was no happier in his life than was Harry Haller. In fact, biographical information indicates a man of extreme sickly and unhappy circumstance, having spent much of it in a sanatorium in Switzerland.

Can knowing one's true nature lead to the much coveted and elusive state of happiness that humans strive toward? If one is to take Hesse's situation as an example, this is clearly not the case.

I come away from the experience of reading Steppenwolf wholly dissatisfied. I am not sure whether it is because I find the portrayal of H.H. as an essentially shallow being so disappointing, or alternately, because I know that such a portrayal is quite representative of most beings in this life, which illustrates how hopeless it seems to even consider transcending ordinary life, when what makes it most ordinary takes up all available time. What I take away from it most of all is the realization that a being's nature is truly multiplex. Some aspects of one's personality are old, toughened, wizened. Others are so fresh as though to have recently emerged from the womb. It is all of these separate components that make up the whole of the individual, and according to the chess player in the latter part of the story, this individual can be infinitely re-combined or re-arranged to result in different circumstances. It has everything to do with the choices one makes, given the options available. That's the oversimplified bottom line.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005


One year ago, I lamented to a literary icon that my inherently dual relationship with literature was causing me angst. Of course, the letter was all a put-on, but the motive for its creation was genuine. So, in a year's time, has anything changed?

Well, yes, in a way... What's changed is that the situation has become worse. The gap widens between daily life and literature's place therein, as perception and meaning become thwarted by the banal and the commonplace. Very soon I will be able to squash my desired thinking self between my thumb and forefinger. Take that, you pesky gray matter!

This is all starting to sound very boring and loathsome, so I had better stop now. What I had better do instead is go to bed so I can be all fresh tomorrow in order to make my contribution to society, responsible plebe that I am.

Stasis wins out over flux once more.


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