Notes & fragments: method of choice for the obsessive storyteller

Laurence Sterne
Modern Library, 2004

Rodrigo Fresán, tr. Will Vanderhyden
Open Letter, 2017

Walter Kempowski, tr. Anthea Bell
NYRB Classics, 2018

Chapter 10 of Volume 4 of TRISTRAM SHANDY declares itself the “chapter upon chapters.” And the chapters in this book are really short, sometimes just a line, and in one case cut out, with the pagination jumping ahead (and even this has a pointed joke behind it, having to do with a Christian taboo against odd numbers on the recto page). Rather than chapter breaks, they practically function a lot like space breaks in contemporary fiction.

Breaking for a new chapter is described as an instinctual impulse.

— A sudden impulse comes across me — drop the curtain, Shandy — I drop it — Strike a line here across the paper, Tristram — I strike it — and hey for a new chapter! (222)

The only rule for the serious writer, according to Tristram, is to obey these sudden impulses. Any other rules should be destroyed, burned to keep the author warm. “[I]s a man to follow rules — or rules to follow him?” (Ibid.)

But this chapter is for his opinions on chapters, not his writing process.

Is it not ten times better than to set out dogmatically with a sententious parade of wisdom, and telling the world a story of a roasted horse — that chapters relieve the mind — that they assist — or impose on the imagination — and that in a work of this dramatic cast they are as necessary as the shifting of scenes — with fifty other cold conceits, enough to extinguish the fire which roasted him. (223)

There you have it, lots of short chapters make the book easier to read. When you have something serious, like a roasted horse story (another term for shaggy dog story), chapters help organize the drama, while also affording room for “cold conceits” — ideas, concepts, and themes — which cool down the intensity of the narrative events.

And TRISTRAM SHANDY is an amazing book, in which all the forms of writing available to the landed gentry, and indeed to the aristocracy, like the sermon, are churning together. Closer to rhetoric than style, every short chapter is a dwelling on a moment, usually the pettiest moments in terms of literal plot, like walking down a staircase, that are comically protracted in the narration. But that dwelling is shaped by belles lettres, backed by a classical elite education system.

That’s why the end of this chapter has Tristram bullying us with his knowledge of classical literature, including criticism, with a long footnote in french. All to tell us to read and understand things, like Avicenna, who wrote books “de omni scribili” which is a pun on de omni scibili, of everything knowable; the former means “of everything scribbled,” and that’s a good description of this novel and the fragmentary, discursive form of creative writing we’re talking about.

Avicenna is famous for reading Aristotle’s METAPHYSICS 4o times, and memorizing it, without ever understanding it. There’s also an anecdote about Licetus, who was born as a five-inch fetus.


In a section of THE INVENTED PART called “Many Fêtes, or Study For a Group Portrait With Broken Decalogues,” Fresán bundles together notes marked off by a typographical dagger, that have to do with Fitzgerald writing TENDER IS THE NIGHT, biographical business with Hemingway, the Murphys, and even some material on Dickens.

He starts with a note about the biji.

† “Have you read all these books?” she asks.

† The biji (筆記) is a genre of classic Chinese literature. “Biji” can be translated, roughly yet more or less faithfully, as “notebook.” And a biji can contain curious anecdotes, nearly blind quotations, random musings, philosophical speculations, private theories regarding intimate matters, criticism of other works, and anything that its owner and author deems appropriate. Do samurais interrupt the conversation of their katanas to write down something that occurs to them in the precise instant of blood and steel? (303)

This is basically the wikipedia article with some embellishments, and it’s a good description of Walter Benjamin’s ARCADES PROJECT as well as “books of commonplaces,” and even the poetics of the social media feed.

The bijis here are notes toward a new novel by the protagonist (who has dispersed himself into the universe after breaking into the Hadron Collider) that will be his ultimate statement on his parents, who are kind of a mystery, caught in a photograph by Man Ray, and the meaning of Fitzgerald’s problematic novel in their lives.

And he arranges and unarranges these pages, telling and deluding himself that he’s revisiting the biji genre, so he doesn’t have to admit that they are, in reality, just the windblown tatters of fallen standards and the still-smoking ruins of something that he wanted to build but that came crashing down. The broken pieces of a temple he believed in or needed to believe in. The shrapnel from an explosion extracted, piece-by-piece, from the wounded but surviving body of something, of someone. The loose phrases of that thing  — trying to swim underwater and hold his breath — he wanted to write so badly, but couldn’t, a while back now, sometime during the great droughts that marked the Crack dynasty.  (304)

A similar kind of rhetorical “dwelling” on the subject is at work here, but less oral in its nature than Sterne. These are post apocalyptic fragments, a familiar image from modernism. (As a side note, the middle segment of an earlier section, “The Place Where the Sea Ends so the Forest Can Begin,” has no paragraph breaks, but it has two narrating voices, or the same voice speaking from different space-time positions, which are distinguished by the normal font and a typewriter font. This also makes things easier to read!)

† “Writer’s aren’t people exactly.” — Francis Scott Fitzgerald, The Last Tycoon.

† Exactly, Scott. Writers are people who, inexactly, always prefer to look away, toward another part — the invented part. (Ibid.)

The dagger: used for a footnote after the asterisk is taken. Here it suggests a text made entirely out of secondary footnotes. Each fragment is suggesting a totality that is unseen, does not exist, namely the unmade book.

Is this feasible, a self-contained piece of writing that nevertheless structurally posits a larger work? Like studying a painter’s palette that was used for an unseen, unknown masterpiece? Can one think of lyrical essay writing, or “creative nonfiction” if you prefer (I don’t), in this way?

These notes also serve as the framing concepts of the entire, large, seemingly formless novel, but dislocated from the “edge” of the work and concentrated in the midway point, a very fun mashing of spatial models.

Maurice Blanchot used a typographical mark in his fragments — in an unconscious way they feel appropriate for notes, for enumerations, for listing. And also, the novel opens by bringing the visual character of punctuation to our attention, where the question mark has

the shape of a fish or meat hook. A sharp and pointy curve that skewers both the reader and the read. Pulling them, dragging them up from the clear and calm bottom to the cloudy and restless surface. Or sending him flying through the air to land just inside the beach of the parentheses. (11)

Just like in Adorno’s infamous essay, punctuation and typography have this hieroglyphic quality. Of all the marks, it’s the em-dash that beguiles Adorno the most. The interruptive line seems to materially embody the dialectic of continuity and rupture between sentences and thoughts. There is a fascinating contradiction in the function of the dash (and think of all of the dashes of different lengths and characteristics in Sterne, taking the directionality of language to the extreme) as well as the clean space break. The gap that is created is also a link, through association or implication or any other kind of relationship, imprecisely evoked. Nevertheless, in the “constellation,” which is yet another way to talk about fragments and bijis, the lines drawn between the nodes of actual material are actually the greater presence in the work.

What about the dagger? Does it look more like a cross, or more like something else?

Lastly, the evocation of the biji is a different self-justification than Sterne’s deceptively frivolous reasoning. Does modernism revolt against tradition? In one sense it does: Adorno talked about seeking out that which was taboo in mainstream, familiar art. Duchamp’s fountain is a ur-text. But also, extreme modern art can be defended in a more legalistic way, by looking up precedents, usually in the ancient world. Here we appeal not to militant futurism but an alternative temporality, a different set of repeating forms.


Finally, ALL FOR NOTHING does not read like a sheaf of notes, but rather a stereotypical realist novel that got crammed with space breaks. Early on, it focuses on an odd aristocratic family in a mansion in Prussia in the last days of the Third Reich, while a string of visitors comes to call, including a Nazi violinist.

Peter was asked if he had ever danced. ‘Come here!’ said Fraulein Strietzel, showing her bad teeth, and she grabbed the boy and gave him his orders: left, two, three; right, two, three. The boy took hold of her, very clumsily, and felt himself pressed close to her body, which was flat as a board with some protuberances, quite different from his mother’s soft, warm body.


But it really was very odd in the drawing room, and then the air suddenly went out of the whole thing, like a balloon deflating, and they sat down by the fireside again. The gramaphone was turned off.


Peter said he could go get his microscope. What about looking at flies’ legs under it? But no one pursued that idea any further. (41)

These are still intervals in the action, but they’re very tiny. And using white space in this way has its own subtle effects. Within these vignettes, even at their most continuous, it’s like the characters are drained of any conventional interiority. The narration can get away with more free indirect discourse and dialogue summary. There is a disconcerting sense of time being finite, a revolt against the stability of representation and the subject, without any gimmicks — unless using lots of space breaks is a gimmick.

There is a wide range of possible degrees to which these sections can assert their autonomy, halting the motion of the plot or narrative in order to meditate on their content, as well as the extent of the structuring role they play in the whole text. As worked over as the narrative may be, the vignettes combined with all the song lyrics and lines of verse give the impression of a historical scrapbook, similar to other works by Kempowski.

I used the word “affords” earlier, which is a concept from design. Specific forms “afford” specific qualities, and these affordances are determined by the material (cotton affords both fluffiness, or breathable fabric). With David Markson on one end and Bolaño or Pynchon on the other, the fragment can have a minimalist or a maximalist employment. Fragments may be convenient (rejection of coherency as a standard), but at the same time they indulge curiosity. As mainstream forms lose their conviction, these lines of influence are always available.


  • Ease of reading, looks tidy on the page.
  • Autonomy, resisting closure, but also linked to the rest through good placement.
  • Flexibility, used by maximalist and minimalist writers alike.
  • Malleability, as opposed to the “durability” of conventional realist fiction.
  • A more collectivist ideology, against bourgeois individualism and possession.
  • “Epistemophilia,” the love for knowledge, exploring what we can know, rather than seeking representation or transcription of reality.
  • Lightness, digression, experimental, yet compact with rich thinking; indulging one’s obsessions.

PS: I took the affordance concept from

Caroline Levine
Princeton UP, 2017

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