Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Whether the book is a lion or an elephant

Recently, the Chinese writer Sheng Keyi told us, through her translator-interpreter Isabelle Li, that:

Before I came to Australia, the organiser of my tour told me there would be reading sessions. So I reread Death Fugue, to choose the sections for reading. To speak frankly, I felt bewitched, as if was reading the work of a stranger. I am not sure I could reproduce this kind of writing again.

She then paused or, should I say instead that Isabelle Li had paused as some of us laughed. At this, Sheng Keyi had smiled awkwardly -- in fact Isabelle Li had smiled before interpreting the Mandarin -- so we were ready for something audacious or at least amusing. Sheng Keyi had then said something self-disparaging in English. In the edited version of her presentation, I see that this awkwardness has disappeared: we feel her hesitation, and even her humbled retreat, which I don't remember from the spoken text. Although I have wondered since whether the sentence that followed the one ending with the word 'stranger' had not been there, I think it must have been and that the writer's own distinctive cadence, which is evident as far as it can be in the printed version of the translated text, had probably been lost as it passed through the enacted cadence of another.

Sheng Keyi then continued:

Hemingway said that a finished work is a dead lion. For myself, I hardly consider whether the book is a lion or an elephant. I always quickly bury myself in creating new work. Only when I have to speak of it, do I think about whether the beast is carnivorous or herbivorous.
This burial in the (presumably) still living matter of the writing whose innards we do not yet dare, let alone want to, rake through with our fingers.

Recently, too, in the The Guardian Belinda McKeon writes:
What unites novelists such as Knausgaard and Ferrante, such as Hardwick and Davis and Offill and Cusk – and, indeed Woolf – is the sense, in their fictions, that writing cannot be anything but autobiographical, and that to try for distance, for the narrative which is somehow purely imagined, would be the most nakedly autobiographical effort of all. In fact, it is always cringe-inducing, always a little shameful, the extent to which writing, all writing, comes from the well of the self. From the way the mind works; from the places to which the mind goes. I panic whenever someone reads a story I have written, let alone a novel; I panic because of what has been revealed of me, of my sensibility. But my panic is none of the reader’s business, and it is none of the writing’s business, either. The writing has its own room to live in now.
I suppose it is none of the reader's business, and nor of the writing's either -- whatever that might mean -- but I think of those odd beasts we form out of our minds: how outlandish they are -- how curious, in fact, that these are the strange and twisted creations we have chosen to tie to our wrists: the ridiculous animal balloons that they are.

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