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Leaving Theories Behind

I.

I went to Lyon because an organisation called Villa Fondebrider invited me to give a talk on the relationship between fiction and reality as part of a series of International Literary Meetings. I accepted the invitation because I had never been there and I wanted to get to know the city. Also, two of my favourite writers, John Banville and Rick Moody, were taking part in the symposium. This question of the connections between fiction and reality, which is touched upon more and more each day, was a topic about which I had already written an infinite number of times and in a variety of formats, and it seemed like the time had come for me to arrive at a firm position on the subject, even if it was one that I myself lacked faith in.

 

I still remember how, throughout the flight, I thought about the absurd things I imagined I would find in Lyon, and how I ended up falling asleep. When I woke up we had already arrived. In the airport an imbecilic-looking character was waiting for me (I had a bad feeling about him from the moment I saw him), a young taxi driver holding a placard on which he had written – very badly, with three grotesque spelling mistakes – my name.

 

Usually, the taxi drivers who do this kind of job do it in a routine, bureaucratic manner. They exchange a few short words with you and then drop you off, with the efficiency required, in your hotel, and nothing more. My taxi driver, however, was in the mood for talking and nosing around in my business. Noticing that my French was not perfect, he suggested we speak in Portuguese, his mother tongue, which was a pain as my Portuguese is worse than my French.

 

Halfway through the journey he confessed that he didn’t really know how to get to the Hôtel des Artistes, where I was meant to be staying. After explaining that he had only received his taxi driver’s licence three days ago, he started to make use of the traffic lights in the outskirts of Lyon to consult a map of the city, all the while informing me, in Portuguese, of his doubts and misgivings.

 

Although I was in no hurry whatsoever, the taxi journey began to seem interminable to me. To top it off, the driver seemed determined to treat me as a tourist and would not stop recommending restaurants on the rue Mercière, from which he would surely receive some commission. When I told him that I was in Lyon for work, he didn’t get it at all, even though the cab journey was being paid for by Villa Fondebrider, the institution which must have contracted him to take me to my accommodation.

 

I have for some time, when travelling abroad for conferences and literary events, liked to imagine that I am a businessman who has recently arrived in a strange city, with a packed timetable and a suitcase packed full of reports and projects on, let’s say, advanced marketing (a phrase which means absolutely nothing to me), instead of books on literature. It’s a way like any other of pretending to be someone else and also of believing that I am ridiculously important for a few minutes. Taxi drivers are the occasional victims of these brief personality changes. But that day in Lyon I didn’t reckon with the novice driver’s extravagant side and his habit of nosing around in my life.

 

‘And what exactly is your work, sir?’ he finally asked, his Portuguese almost as clumsy and awkward as mine.

 

I decided to stop pretending. After all, in my imaginary life I had spent quite enough time being an ‘executive’.

 

‘I’m a writer,’ I said.

 

A long silence.

 

‘Of course, you think that writing is not really a job,’ I elaborated. ‘Not only that, you certainly believe that executives, for example, or politicians, do really important work, but that a writer, on the other hand, is not someone to be taken seriously. Am I right?’

 

Again there was no answer. At the next red light, he consulted the map again. Was it really so difficult to find the Hôtel des Artistes?

 

‘Did you know that literature is a defining invention of mankind?’ it occurred to me to say. ‘Truthfully, it is the most valuable thing that humanity has created in its attempt to understand itself.’

 

My words didn’t seem to surprise him and he continued to consult his map.

 

‘Many people,’ I continued, ‘don’t seem to get the message. But we, humanity, would be nothing without language, without literature.’

 

Long silence. He began to fold the map. He put the key in the ignition and started the engine.

 

‘Tell me, do you make a decent living as a writer?’ he asked.

 

He seemed to be trying to mock me. Even if he wasn’t, that’s definitely how it felt. I chose not to answer, but I would have liked to explain to him straightforwardly that when, for example, a writer locks himself away to work alone, he is, consciously or unconsciously, placing an enormous amount of faith in humanity, because he believes that all human beings are alike, and as such they will understand him because they all bear similar scars on the inside. I would have liked to tell him such things, but it seemed more prudent to stay silent.

 

We arrived, finally, at the hotel, and just as it seemed as if I would be rid of him at long last, he succeeded in tormenting me further by taking an infinite amount of time to fill out the receipt, and then asking me to sign one piece of paper, and then another. It was as if he was not at all sure that Villa Fondebrider were going to pay him. Actually, it was like he wasn’t sure of anything, not even that he was a taxi driver in Lyon.

 

When the endless saga of the receipt and the signatures had ended and thankfully it looked as if he was not even going to utter a snipped farewell the driver, newly innocent and naïve, asked me in the softest, quietest voice: ‘What did it mean, all that stuff you said to me before? I mean what you said about the defining invention of mankind and the other important sounding things…’

 

The two of us were standing there by the door of the Hôtel des Artistes. For the first few seconds I wasn’t able to take a single bit of what I had just heard seriously. I stared at him with real rage. Then, I responded:

 

‘Effectively,’ I said, trying not to lose my cool, ‘in my words a voice has spoken which told you that literature is humanity’s defining invention. The very same voice also told you that nothing I said had any meaning, but now do me a favour and pay full attention to what I am going to tell you: in that voice there was at least an echo of the meaning that the voice was negating.’

 

‘Sir, you are a very complicated man,’ he said, finally.

 

Then he took two steps back, as if in a daze. He got into the car, moved off and, sticking his head out of the window, reiterated his point: ‘Very complicated, sir. If I were you, I’d try and get a job as a taxi driver. Believe me, you’re better off knowing less. Or knowing nothing at all.’

 

 

II.

It was I that knew nothing. I knew nothing, for instance, of what awaited me in that hotel. At the reception they gave me a big white envelope from Villa Fondebrider which contained a map of Lyon and a complete programme of the various activities taking place in the Desbordes-Valmore Centre for the Arts, one kilometre from the hotel. That was it, just a white envelope with a map and a programme, not a word of welcome, not a business card or a personal letter from anyone, nothing more. There was no way of knowing when – if ever – they would get in touch with me. I went up to my room, and when an hour had passed without anyone attempting to contact me, I felt that I had begun to become someone whose essential function in life was to wait. But wasn’t that actually what I had always been?

If I thought about it properly my life could be described as a succession of periods of waiting. In reality, I had always been waiting for something. And I had never forgotten how Kafka showed us that waiting is humanity’s essential condition. Remember, for example, ‘Before the Law’, in which the protagonist spends his whole life waiting to pass through a door destined only for him, but never manages to cross its threshold.

 

I remembered stories – those of Julien Gracq, for example – in which the wait held far more significance than the actual event, which served only as a pretext for the displacement of temporality: time was measured and extended by means of a system in which a succession of expectations, when interrupted by other, new expectations, gave way to new beginnings and periods of waiting, and so on until the end of the story, which usually coincided with the end of the first expectation and the beginning of a new wait, which in its turn appeared to open up new expectations.

 

In Gracq’s work, stories and novels are like waiting rooms. In his short narrative ‘La Presq’île’ [The Peninsula], the first of three short stories which make up the book of the same name, the almost stagnant action begins quite literally in the waiting room of a train station: the first words of ‘La Presq’île’ are ‘Through the glass door of the waiting room…’ All of Gracq is condensed into this phrase: sat in a waiting room forever. The almost invisible action of ‘La Presq’île’, which lasts seven hours, is subdivided into little stories, memories and sequences which have the effect of mentally furnishing the empty time of Simon, the young protagonist, the person who waits.

 

Fernando Savater has written that, ‘Happiness is not about the joyful acceptance of what happens in life, but of the fact of living.’ The same could be said of the wait, which accepts nothing other than the fact of waiting. Happiness, like waiting, must be understood as an affirmation of the present, free of nostalgia for the past or fear of the future. ‘We do not’, wrote Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘properly speaking, love life at all, but living.’ And we could say the same of the wait: it’s not the wait that we love – when all is said and done, as Blanchot said, ‘The wait begins when there is nothing left to wait for, not even the end of the wait; the wait ignores and destroys the thing that is awaited; the wait waits for no one.’ – but the act of waiting, which is essentially, like happiness, an affirmation of life and of the present. To be sure, there is a lot of sense in the words of that delightfully absurd old Russian lady of whom Bertrand Russell speaks in his memoirs: ‘Indeed, gentlemen. The weather is bad and we wait for it to change. But bad weather is better than no weather at all, and it is better for us to be waiting for something than for nothing.’

 

 

III.

For a moment I thought about how nice it would be in my house in Barcelona. I remembered Julio Ramón Ribeyro, who was once invited to Bordeaux to give a talk but never managed to find the organisers, nor the conference’s location, and ended up returning to Paris without having uttered a word to anybody in two days.

In my hotel room in Lyon I quickly became aware of the possibility that something similar to what happened to Ribeyro in Bordeaux might happen to me. If I wanted to avoid that, there was always the possibility of turning up at the Desbordes-Valmore Centre for the Arts and asking what I was supposed to do, what time I was scheduled to speak at on the following day, where I could get some food, et cetera… The most reasonable option appeared to be to get moving and do all of those things, but it also seemed reasonable that the people who had made me travel all this way should get in touch with me. As a result I finally decided that the best thing to do would be to stay put in the hotel until told otherwise. I stayed in my room, and I remember that, with the TV on with no sound, I began to distractedly take notes on various themes, and ended up reflecting on a period of my youth in which literary theories carried lots of weight. Perhaps that partly explains why, some time later, it all led to the elaboration of a set of notes for a general theory of the novel.

 

 

IV.

I was very young back then (I noted on the letter paper from the Hôtel des Artistes), living in Paris and devouring everything I could find on the subject of literary theories. It was the middle of the Seventies and theory reigned supreme in every form of intellectual practice in the city. It had even come to be seen as vulgar to pass from theory to practice and to write, for example, a story or a novel. In those days the thing to do was not to go beyond theory. What was the point in retelling what had been told so many times?

The truth is that I remember the extent to which theory was adored in those days and I am still shocked by the things people ended up saying, with complete conviction, during that period. For Philippe Sollers, for example, the Theory of Writing proposed that the ownership that a creator believed he had over his creations should be dissolved: ‘We have to do away with that gentleman who parades his own name around everywhere, who is the proprietor of his product, who makes it into a piece of aesthetic, literary, musical or pictorial merchandise.’

 

Rereading it now, this sentence, so sure of itself, leaves me quite simply speechless, not only because of the exaggerated way in which it is so certain of what it proclaims, but also because the image of a creator – let us say a literary one – who is convinced that he is the proprietor of his unconscious could not be more ridiculous or unrealistic. The only thing that can be demonstrated theoretically is that everything changes and I believe that we will do well never to forget the natural instability of our opinions and customs. After all, that instability is the only thing we can appreciate as being totally natural. Sometimes it’s better to take refuge in this instability, as Robbe-Grillet, a great theorist but also a surprisingly practical man, did: ‘Is a theory a coherent group of methods which allow us to act or to understand the world? In that case I have no theories. I began writing novels. The critiques that literary specialists directed towards me made me see that they had a theory about what a novel should be. I didn’t know what it should be. All that occurred to me was that it had to be invented.’

 

It’s clear to me that Robbe-Grillet wouldn’t have said this if he hadn’t been the great theorist that he was. Besides, these words were clearly not anti-theory. It’s obvious that he was merely saying that every true writer has to try and invent his own literary theory and transmit it by means of the work which, by putting it into practice, proposes the theory to us. To paraphrase Antonio Machado, make theory by walking. And for me, walking means writing a novel in a direct manner, which is itself a very direct way of creating a theory.

 

Do I need a theory to write my next novel? I only know that literary theories do not upset me. At the end of the day, my journey through theory left a mark that time has not altered. The experimental novels of my generation in the Seventies, for example, are now widely reviled. Nevertheless I think they have left us with a residual theoretical knowledge that can do us no harm, and which it might have been important not to forget and which, in any case, luckily for us, has survived into the present and which, owing to the reflective varnish they add to our writing, prevents us from straying too far from the problems of the contemporary novel. ‘Everything,’ Marguerite Duras wrote, ‘belongs to literature.’ Let us take charge of some old theories, which might end up being very useful to us in the present. Let us make them ours, make them belong to us; let us not renounce them. Modern creators who flee from theory will find in this stance their first Achilles’ heel.



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


was born in Barcelona in 1948. His works include Bartleby & Co, Montano, Never Any End to Paris, The Vertical Journey, winner of the Premio Romulo Gallegos, and Dublinesque, which was shortlisted for the 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. 'February 2008' is an excerpt from his novel Dietario Voluble, published by Anagrama in 2008.

I.

I went to Lyon because an organisation called Villa Fondebrider invited me to give a talk on the relationship between fiction and reality as part of a series of International Literary Meetings. I accepted the invitation because I had never been there and I wanted to get to know the city. Also, two of my favourite writers, John Banville and Rick Moody, were taking part in the symposium. This question of the connections between fiction and reality, which is touched upon more and more each day, was a topic about which I had already written an infinite number of times and in a variety of formats, and it seemed like the time had come for me to arrive at a firm position on the subject, even if it was one that I myself lacked faith in.

  I still remember how, throughout the flight, I thought about the absurd things I imagined I would find in Lyon, and how I ended up falling asleep. When I woke up we had already arrived. In the airport an imbecilic-looking character was waiting for me (I had a bad feeling about him from the moment I saw him), a young taxi driver holding a placard on which he had written – very badly, with three grotesque spelling mistakes – my name.   Usually, the taxi drivers who do this kind of job do it in a routine, bureaucratic manner. They exchange a few short words with you and then drop you off, with the efficiency required, in your hotel, and nothing more. My taxi driver, however, was in the mood for talking and nosing around in my business. Noticing that my French was not perfect, he suggested we speak in Portuguese, his mother tongue, which was a pain as my Portuguese is worse than my French.   Halfway through the journey he confessed that he didn’t really know how to get to the Hôtel des Artistes, where I was meant to be staying. After explaining that he had only received his taxi driver’s licence three days ago, he started to make use of the traffic lights in the outskirts of Lyon to consult a map of the city, all the while informing me, in Portuguese, of his doubts and misgivings.   Although I was in no hurry whatsoever, the taxi journey began to seem interminable to me. To top it off, the driver seemed determined to treat me as a tourist and would not stop recommending restaurants on the rue Mercière, from which he would surely receive some commission. When I told him that I was in Lyon for work, he didn’t get it at all, even though the cab journey was being paid for by Villa Fondebrider, the institution which must have contracted him to take me to my accommodation.   I have for some time, when travelling abroad for conferences and literary events, liked to imagine that I am a businessman who has recently arrived in a strange city, with a packed timetable and a suitcase packed full of reports and projects on, let’s say, advanced marketing (a phrase which means absolutely nothing to me), instead of books on literature. It’s a way like any other of pretending to be someone else and also of believing that I am ridiculously important for a few minutes. Taxi drivers are the occasional victims of these brief personality changes. But that day in Lyon I didn’t reckon with the novice driver’s extravagant side and his habit of nosing around in my life.   ‘And what exactly is your work, sir?’ he finally asked, his Portuguese almost as clumsy and awkward as mine.   I decided to stop pretending. After all, in my imaginary life I had spent quite enough time being an ‘executive’.   ‘I’m a writer,’ I said.   A long silence.   ‘Of course, you think that writing is not really a job,’ I elaborated. ‘Not only that, you certainly believe that executives, for example, or politicians, do really important work, but that a writer, on the other hand, is not someone to be taken seriously. Am I right?’   Again there was no answer. At the next red light, he consulted the map again. Was it really so difficult to find the Hôtel des Artistes?   ‘Did you know that literature is a defining invention of mankind?’ it occurred to me to say. ‘Truthfully, it is the most valuable thing that humanity has created in its attempt to understand itself.’   My words didn’t seem to surprise him and he continued to consult his map.   ‘Many people,’ I continued, ‘don’t seem to get the message. But we, humanity, would be nothing without language, without literature.’   Long silence. He began to fold the map. He put the key in the ignition and started the engine.   ‘Tell me, do you make a decent living as a writer?’ he asked.   He seemed to be trying to mock me. Even if he wasn’t, that’s definitely how it felt. I chose not to answer, but I would have liked to explain to him straightforwardly that when, for example, a writer locks himself away to work alone, he is, consciously or unconsciously, placing an enormous amount of faith in humanity, because he believes that all human beings are alike, and as such they will understand him because they all bear similar scars on the inside. I would have liked to tell him such things, but it seemed more prudent to stay silent.   We arrived, finally, at the hotel, and just as it seemed as if I would be rid of him at long last, he succeeded in tormenting me further by taking an infinite amount of time to fill out the receipt, and then asking me to sign one piece of paper, and then another. It was as if he was not at all sure that Villa Fondebrider were going to pay him. Actually, it was like he wasn’t sure of anything, not even that he was a taxi driver in Lyon.   When the endless saga of the receipt and the signatures had ended and thankfully it looked as if he was not even going to utter a snipped farewell the driver, newly innocent and naïve, asked me in the softest, quietest voice: ‘What did it mean, all that stuff you said to me before? I mean what you said about the defining invention of mankind and the other important sounding things…’   The two of us were standing there by the door of the Hôtel des Artistes. For the first few seconds I wasn’t able to take a single bit of what I had just heard seriously. I stared at him with real rage. Then, I responded:   ‘Effectively,’ I said, trying not to lose my cool, ‘in my words a voice has spoken which told you that literature is humanity’s defining invention. The very same voice also told you that nothing I said had any meaning, but now do me a favour and pay full attention to what I am going to tell you: in that voice there was at least an echo of the meaning that the voice was negating.’   ‘Sir, you are a very complicated man,’ he said, finally.   Then he took two steps back, as if in a daze. He got into the car, moved off and, sticking his head out of the window, reiterated his point: ‘Very complicated, sir. If I were you, I’d try and get a job as a taxi driver. Believe me, you’re better off knowing less. Or knowing nothing at all.’    

II.

It was I that knew nothing. I knew nothing, for instance, of what awaited me in that hotel. At the reception they gave me a big white envelope from Villa Fondebrider which contained a map of Lyon and a complete programme of the various activities taking place in the Desbordes-Valmore Centre for the Arts, one kilometre from the hotel. That was it, just a white envelope with a map and a programme, not a word of welcome, not a business card or a personal letter from anyone, nothing more. There was no way of knowing when – if ever – they would get in touch with me. I went up to my room, and when an hour had passed without anyone attempting to contact me, I felt that I had begun to become someone whose essential function in life was to wait. But wasn’t that actually what I had always been?

If I thought about it properly my life could be described as a succession of periods of waiting. In reality, I had always been waiting for something. And I had never forgotten how Kafka showed us that waiting is humanity’s essential condition. Remember, for example, ‘Before the Law’, in which the protagonist spends his whole life waiting to pass through a door destined only for him, but never manages to cross its threshold.   I remembered stories – those of Julien Gracq, for example – in which the wait held far more significance than the actual event, which served only as a pretext for the displacement of temporality: time was measured and extended by means of a system in which a succession of expectations, when interrupted by other, new expectations, gave way to new beginnings and periods of waiting, and so on until the end of the story, which usually coincided with the end of the first expectation and the beginning of a new wait, which in its turn appeared to open up new expectations.   In Gracq’s work, stories and novels are like waiting rooms. In his short narrative ‘La Presq’île’ [The Peninsula], the first of three short stories which make up the book of the same name, the almost stagnant action begins quite literally in the waiting room of a train station: the first words of ‘La Presq’île’ are ‘Through the glass door of the waiting room…’ All of Gracq is condensed into this phrase: sat in a waiting room forever. The almost invisible action of ‘La Presq’île’, which lasts seven hours, is subdivided into little stories, memories and sequences which have the effect of mentally furnishing the empty time of Simon, the young protagonist, the person who waits.   Fernando Savater has written that, ‘Happiness is not about the joyful acceptance of what happens in life, but of the fact of living.’ The same could be said of the wait, which accepts nothing other than the fact of waiting. Happiness, like waiting, must be understood as an affirmation of the present, free of nostalgia for the past or fear of the future. ‘We do not’, wrote Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘properly speaking, love life at all, but living.’ And we could say the same of the wait: it’s not the wait that we love – when all is said and done, as Blanchot said, ‘The wait begins when there is nothing left to wait for, not even the end of the wait; the wait ignores and destroys the thing that is awaited; the wait waits for no one.’ – but the act of waiting, which is essentially, like happiness, an affirmation of life and of the present. To be sure, there is a lot of sense in the words of that delightfully absurd old Russian lady of whom Bertrand Russell speaks in his memoirs: ‘Indeed, gentlemen. The weather is bad and we wait for it to change. But bad weather is better than no weather at all, and it is better for us to be waiting for something than for nothing.’    

III.

For a moment I thought about how nice it would be in my house in Barcelona. I remembered Julio Ramón Ribeyro, who was once invited to Bordeaux to give a talk but never managed to find the organisers, nor the conference’s location, and ended up returning to Paris without having uttered a word to anybody in two days.

In my hotel room in Lyon I quickly became aware of the possibility that something similar to what happened to Ribeyro in Bordeaux might happen to me. If I wanted to avoid that, there was always the possibility of turning up at the Desbordes-Valmore Centre for the Arts and asking what I was supposed to do, what time I was scheduled to speak at on the following day, where I could get some food, et cetera... The most reasonable option appeared to be to get moving and do all of those things, but it also seemed reasonable that the people who had made me travel all this way should get in touch with me. As a result I finally decided that the best thing to do would be to stay put in the hotel until told otherwise. I stayed in my room, and I remember that, with the TV on with no sound, I began to distractedly take notes on various themes, and ended up reflecting on a period of my youth in which literary theories carried lots of weight. Perhaps that partly explains why, some time later, it all led to the elaboration of a set of notes for a general theory of the novel.    

IV.

I was very young back then (I noted on the letter paper from the Hôtel des Artistes), living in Paris and devouring everything I could find on the subject of literary theories. It was the middle of the Seventies and theory reigned supreme in every form of intellectual practice in the city. It had even come to be seen as vulgar to pass from theory to practice and to write, for example, a story or a novel. In those days the thing to do was not to go beyond theory. What was the point in retelling what had been told so many times?

The truth is that I remember the extent to which theory was adored in those days and I am still shocked by the things people ended up saying, with complete conviction, during that period. For Philippe Sollers, for example, the Theory of Writing proposed that the ownership that a creator believed he had over his creations should be dissolved: ‘We have to do away with that gentleman who parades his own name around everywhere, who is the proprietor of his product, who makes it into a piece of aesthetic, literary, musical or pictorial merchandise.’   Rereading it now, this sentence, so sure of itself, leaves me quite simply speechless, not only because of the exaggerated way in which it is so certain of what it proclaims, but also because the image of a creator – let us say a literary one – who is convinced that he is the proprietor of his unconscious could not be more ridiculous or unrealistic. The only thing that can be demonstrated theoretically is that everything changes and I believe that we will do well never to forget the natural instability of our opinions and customs. After all, that instability is the only thing we can appreciate as being totally natural. Sometimes it’s better to take refuge in this instability, as Robbe-Grillet, a great theorist but also a surprisingly practical man, did: ‘Is a theory a coherent group of methods which allow us to act or to understand the world? In that case I have no theories. I began writing novels. The critiques that literary specialists directed towards me made me see that they had a theory about what a novel should be. I didn’t know what it should be. All that occurred to me was that it had to be invented.’   It’s clear to me that Robbe-Grillet wouldn’t have said this if he hadn’t been the great theorist that he was. Besides, these words were clearly not anti-theory. It’s obvious that he was merely saying that every true writer has to try and invent his own literary theory and transmit it by means of the work which, by putting it into practice, proposes the theory to us. To paraphrase Antonio Machado, make theory by walking. And for me, walking means writing a novel in a direct manner, which is itself a very direct way of creating a theory.   Do I need a theory to write my next novel? I only know that literary theories do not upset me. At the end of the day, my journey through theory left a mark that time has not altered. The experimental novels of my generation in the Seventies, for example, are now widely reviled. Nevertheless I think they have left us with a residual theoretical knowledge that can do us no harm, and which it might have been important not to forget and which, in any case, luckily for us, has survived into the present and which, owing to the reflective varnish they add to our writing, prevents us from straying too far from the problems of the contemporary novel. ‘Everything,’ Marguerite Duras wrote, ‘belongs to literature.’ Let us take charge of some old theories, which might end up being very useful to us in the present. Let us make them ours, make them belong to us; let us not renounce them. Modern creators who flee from theory will find in this stance their first Achilles’ heel.


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