Memoir’d out

Guðbergur Bergsson, tr. Lytton Smith
Open Letter Books, 2017

I am recommending a novel from the outfit Open Letter Books, which is having a fundraiser at the moment.

In the film SE7EN the detectives find and search John Doe’s apartment, and he doesn’t live well to say the least. In a notorious piece of production design, Morgan Freeman’s character leafs through one of many composition notebooks, which were all actually filled up with deranged writing. If someone went through 18 such notebooks and typed them up, you’d get something like this Icelandic novel.

In the 60s, memoirs are all the rage, as they are today. A senile, pervy petty-bourgeois man, who worked as an accountant and also rents out rooms in his house, wants in on the market, and combines his notebooks to form his own memoir, a certain bestseller.

Of course it’s actually an avant-garde mashup of trivial thoughts, strange tales, a passport for his dick; a composition method closer to Kathy Acker than to Lena Dunham. I returned it to the library a while ago but you can read the opening paragraphs HERE.

It’s the aesthetic end point outlined by the early formalists, and followed through by Walter Benjamin and others: a literary work, to bring forth the repressed truth that discourse is always made up of other pre-existing pieces of language, would have to itself become a bricolage of found textual material.

Moreover, these handwritten notebooks, which are inconsistently titled in a funny way, are being typed up, if I remember right, by one of his tenants. And he also makes choices in preserving the formatting and punctuation — sometimes there isn’t any. As I read it, it made me think about how language intervenes, prism-like, into the speech we try to convey in practical living. It doesn’t take too many adjustments to actually de-familiarize the most basic and familiar forms of personal writing.

A few weeks later, though, what’s fascinating about this book is that it highlights that particularity of first-person narration. On one hand, you have the clarity of the most celebrated personal essays, with I guess E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake” as a ur-text. The valorization of personal non-fiction at this moment, generating a lot of discourse, indicates a market for lucid gut-spilling, indeed, the most fruitful outlet for black women, women of color and other marginalized subject positions, at the cost (I worry) of folding literary culture into the inspiration industry.

(There’s a lot more to say. I’ve read powerful arguments that these books are super commercial and are not created the kind of breakthroughs that cultural production is starving for under neoliberal capitalism. At the same time the personal essay is less white than ever, which is of course a good thing. In NY you can go, as I have sometimes, to panels organized by We Need Diverse Books. The slogan may imply that certain forces or counter-forces must be created to break open the door. What of the existing forces that are keeping the “diverse” voices out, except for through certain texts produced in a certain way?)

On the other hand, for writers like Nabokov and Gass, who whip up language in a way that sometimes overwhelms the speech (the language/speech distinction is crucial for me), rely on the first person as well. The pyrotechnics of their prose styles come off better if the narrator is unreliable and probably insane. The centralizing power of the voice of the I-pronoun is the promise of a subjective truth and the most elaborate of rhetorical masks, all at the same time.

It’s this contradiction that TJ,BS brings forth with a dry irony. It’s constantly reshaping itself too. Even the title changes, with sometimes a colon or a comma or nothing at all. It’s obsessed with the material body, which is the only significant link that makes it the “Icelandic ULYSSES” the cover blurb says it is. But it’s full of modernist games. And like the best satire, it clearly shows that the issues it provokes have not gone away.

I only took down one quote: “What’s literature but mental masturbation for the emotions?” (42).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: