I suppose a voyage in writing is not a real one; but there is still a way of cutting free from shore - a voyage of sorts, even if it carries me no further than this room, where the curtains are closed against the darkness. Dark at seven thirty; we are five days from the nadir of the year, and from then the days will get longer than our current seven hours. We come home rather than going out; this time of year, as they know in the old country, is about hygge and staying indoors. They light candles in Denmark even at breakfast in place of a sun which barely hauls itself above the horizon.
Perhaps, before television, stories were told by candlelight: was there really a time in which people spoke in gusts and gales? I scarcely know what it would mean to talk thus, or to listen, though when I lived in the big house in Manchester, David would often talk for hours, on this subject, or on that. How could I explain to him the need I felt for speech to stumble?
I think it is Benjamin who says there is a break between the storyteller and the novelist; the one rests in a tradition, passing down the wisdom of forebears; the other 'is himself uncounseled and cannot counsel others'. And doesn't he also say that it is the place of death within shared customs, that once gave 'that authority which even the poorest wretch in dying possess for the living around him'? An authority which is the origin of the story.
And for the novelist, for the writer? No such authority - an authorship, now, that dreams of an impossible ancestry, that searches for forebears who live only in the imagination (thus Filip Kobald's voyage in Handke's Repetition). I suppose it was not by chance that David was a religious man - and didn't he say that the Orthodox could every one of them speak for the whole of the Church? Each adherent carried their own source of authority; they belonged wholly to what they possessed in whole.
Victor Hugo, says Blanchot, says the same of maternity: it belongs wholly to each who would share it - but that in a different context: is he referring to revolution (I forget; I don't have the essay with me)? If so, it is a different kind of authority of which he is speaking, and a different agency. Who wouldn't like to live wholly, anonymously, in the moment? Wholly, and alongside others, who are likewise anonymous?
But still, as I read, I remember Leiris's comments in his Diaries, which laugh at Blanchot among the participants of the Events: who did he think he was fooling? Was May 1968 - and one might say the same of another set of events, ten years earlier - his equivalent of what Palestine was for Kafka, who dreamed of travelling to that land to begin a new life?
Kafka, in the afternoons, used to practice carpentry: a life of the hands, a life outdoors, in contrast to the writer's life he led at night. Blanchot, rarely seen, also went outside, descending to the streets to take part in the Students and Writers Action Committee (Hollier: 'I saw him once, pale, but real ...').
Heady, unimaginable days. A return to authorship, to authority? But then he insisted, in the anonymous words circulated at this time, that there must be a break with the past, with tradition, with nationalism, with patriotism, just as, ten years before, he wrote that the living de Gaulle, who had returned to power with the aid of mercenaries, was dead, a hollow shell.
Beyond the storyteller, then, and beyond the novelist, 'the absence of the book': a new practice, and which called for a new kind of writing. Is this the way to read 'Disorderly Words', and of the fragmentary books that followed? I think to this extent, Blanchot had been preparing most of his life for that disorderly writing, for a writing without order.
What would it mean to blow the candles out and step outside? The streets are empty; but might they one day be filled with a new, anonymous movement? Somewhere Holderlin writes of throwing down his pen and going to do battle of one kind or another. But isn't this because his pen is the last thing from which he might be freed? Whence the necessity of collective practices of writing - Breton and Soupault, for example, writing together; La Revue Internationale ... beyond the storyteller, beyond the time of the novelist, there is another kind of writing.
For Benjamin, the storyteller speaks out of the customs that surround death, out of traditional authority; the novelist, like Rilke's Malte, might dream of these traditions, but has been cast out from them. Perhaps Mishima is only another example of one who would seek to bestow death a sovereign meaning. What then of the writer of disorderly words - of the récit, as Blanchot comes to understand this word - of the fragment?
For a time, David appointed me his literary agent, for he was writing a series of vast fantasy novels, set in the same universe as The Lord of the Rings, and taking up the stories of the wizards only mentioned in passing by Tolkien. The first book had already been rejected; the second, which I thought much better, he did not quite complete, though I saw six hundred well written pages come together in first draft in three weeks.
I should say I spoke frankly to him about his writing, unlike others, and for this reason, he said, I was to be his editor as well as his agent, and would receive half the money when and if his books were published. Of course, they never were, as I knew they would not be. I still remember the agent's letters we drafted together, which spoke of the fabulous vistas opened by the book, of high adventure and great battles ...
I am reading the fourth volume now of a fantasy tetralogy; the first such thing I've read for many years. There are swords and magic and journeys by sea and air; voyages across mountain ranges and alien beasts, and strange tribes of half-men. And isn't it clearest of all as I read that it is here that storytelling is alive today: in the world of fantasy, of unreal domains, where it is tradition that holds the world together?
In the filmed The Lord of the Rings, you can see the orcs beginning to use machinery, but you know the Shire will be forever immune from that. Tolkien wrote of and for little England, but the book I read was not. Wolfe is a different fish, of course, as is Crowley, and if storytelling, in their books, is kept alive, there is also a sense of distance, Wolfe foregrounding, at all times, the status of his telling as telling.
The Book of the New Sun, in many ways, belongs alongside Borges and Nabokov; next year, Crowley's multivolume saga will be complete, and I intend to read Aegypt again, and the books that follow, which came out at such long intervals from one another. How might one compare Wolfe and Tolkien? The Claw to the Ring?
That's a post for another time, but I remember agreeing with Moorcock's well known essay on Tolkien - 'epic Pooh', I think he called it. A book for children, I've always told myself (Wolfe disagrees). Like so many other fantasies, Wolfe tells a story about growing up; and he tells stories within stories, setting within his novel examples of what Benjamin calls storytelling.
Isn't Severian's exile from the Matachin Tower precisely an exile from storytelling? Is this why the Tower, and his training as a torturer, Master Malubrius and the dog Triskele return to him in dreams? Perhaps Severian's tale is no story - not in Benjamin's sense. Doesn't he, in the end, become Autarch? Isn't this just another fairy tale, like the one in the brown book Severian carries? But the Cumean, who is old and wise tells him the brown book contains the wisest stories of all (proof of Benjamin's point? Counterproof?) ...
I will interrupt these reflections here. In the end, The Book of the New Sun, for which I've got into bed to read these past few evenings, is like the candles lit in Denmark to make up for short days and weak light. I think it is itself a kind of sun - a new sun, but that burns reassuringly like the tales of old. Doesn't Wolfe say, in the introduction to Endangered Species, that the sun is the fire around which the storyteller and his audience turn?
It's winter, the end of a long term and I put aside Bellow for Wolfe, because I wanted company and comfort until the days began to lengthen. A strange winter, so warm that lambing has already started, and I watch the clay pots in my yard for the first sign of daffodils - our world is warming just as Severian's is cooling.
I think I only have one hundred pages of the fourth volume of my epic to finish; I do intend to leave the flat until I do. And then, after that, a separate fifth volume, then the second series (I did not complete it the first time) and the third (which I have never read). And so the days will grow longer instead of shorter, and then there will be Christmas, and then the New Year.