Reader, You Are Not In the Know


15 December 2011

Can I just say how much I love the siesta concept, here in Latin America (and many places around the world)?

I’m using mine to catch up on… well, to catch up on everything at this point, but at the moment, catch up on blogs and literary periodicals.  From Claire Messud‘s review of Michael Ondaatje‘s new novel, The Cat’s Table:

In a rare, distinctly essayistic moment in his new novel, The Cat’s Table, Ondaatje articulates his position thus:

Recently I sat in on a master class given by the filmmaker Luc Dardenne. He spoke of how viewers of his films should not assume they understood everything about the characters. As members of an audience we should never feel ourselves wiser than they: we do not have more knowledge than the characters have about themselves…. I believe this. I recognize this as a first principle of art, although I have the suspicion that many would not.

This view, almost an authorial ethics of representation, explains some aspects of Ondaatje’s literary style: his prose, while gorgeous, is on occasion quite oblique, and his narratives—as is true of The Cat’s Table—can be strikingly fragmented. (It is wonderful and, in these fundamentally homogenizing times, increasingly rare to encounter a writer who does not shape his art to a known and satisfying form, but instead fashions the form around his content.) His goal is to reach toward that elusive complex we might call experienced human reality, and in so doing, precisely to grant each of his characters his own wisdom and autonomy. In an Ondaatje novel, there is much that we do not directly know, much that we cannot know for certain.

I think often about what it means, in this current cultural moment, to be a “literary” writer; and if that terminology even matters anymore.  There is a sense that it doesn’t; that it is an anachronistic, old fuddy-duddy kind of categorization; that you will die in dinosaur-like fashion if you hold too tightly to such high-art ideas.  But something about Messud’s description of Ondaatje’s literary vision speaks to what I consider to be literary — to be art — in a way that matters.  Uncertainty; unknowability; “experienced human reality” as elusive and complex; ultimately a reading experience that effects some discomfort and reminds us that life is a mysterious, unstreamlined business.


2 Responses to “Reader, You Are Not In the Know”

  1. I’m not sure how to define Ondaatje’s work, but I know I like it. I also know it is not for everyone. I have a dear friend that could not even finish Divisadero and another friend who did not like The English Patient. At first I was shocked, how could they… But then I remembered how personal and subjective the love of a book can be. I believe “life is a mysterious, unstreamlined business” and enjoy it as such. For me, Michael Ondaatje is incredibly gifted and I’m looking forward to his next project.

  2. Eric Says:

    This is an idea I’ve been worried about for some time. If we, the people who deem ourselves as literary, are to be the standard-bearers, do we write for the story alone or do we mediate our devices to ensure we’re going to be read? (And, for that matter, do we imitate those literary novelists that came before or do we try to do something new–and what the hell is that going to be, anyway?)

    I’m saddened by the idea that there could be any number of Suttree’s or similarly sprawling works out there that won’t see light of day beyond small (if any) presses. That the time for them is simply over.

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