Jeremy Gavron’s last book, A Woman on the Edge of Time, was a memoir about his mother’s suicide. His new novel, Felix Culpa, is a detective story composed mostly of fragments taken from one hundred other works of literature. In this new series, we give authors a space to discuss the way they write – from technique and style to inspirations that inform their craft.
Paul Valéry said he could never write a novel for one insurmountable reason: he would have to include sentences like, The Marquise went out at five. Or, The Brigadier sighed theatrically.
What is literature today? The world has changed and we do not stand in the same relation to it as we did when Balzac was writing. We live faster than ever before. Content ruptures form. Whether we call it life or spirit, truth or reality, the essential thing has moved off, or on, and refuses to be contained any longer in such ill-fitting vestments. Nevertheless we go on perseveringly, conscientiously, constructing our two and thirty chapters after a design which more and more ceases to resemble the vision in our minds.
Is the conventional novel the closest model we have to our condition? Or simply the bedtime story that most comforts us? One size doesn’t fit all. A work should be allowed to go wherever it needs to go to excavate its subject, the feeling of being alive, of being awake.
I’m influenced by and interested in writers who break rules about genre. I’m drawn to books that have multiple levels, that repay close reading, that go to unexpected places, that are formally surprising. A fluent stream of words awakens suspicion in me. I prefer stuttering, for in stuttering I hear the friction and the disquiet. The fragmentary nature of thought.
The moment I see text broken up into brief fragments, I’m intellectually and aesthetically and almost erotically alert. For me, the pleasure of writing is finding the connections between fragments. Like those palaeontologists in the Natural History Museum who can construct a whole dinosaur on the basis of two or three bones. Omission is a form of creation. Limit, constraint and the compulsions of the unknown – the excluded – are the true foundation of narrative art. A place for the reader to enter more fully into the book.
You might think of my novel as a short book composed entirely of a long book’s quotable passages. Where stolen words are concealed within the body of the narrative. Writers are magpies. The prior visions of other poems are, for a true poet, as powerful as his own dreams and as formative as his domestic childhood. A man will turn over a library to make one book. Skim off the cream of other men’s wits, pick the choice flowers of their tilled gardens. Reassembling fragments of pre-existing images in such a way as to form a new image. Art is theft: the singularity of thievery.
These notes are composed of lines (some slightly altered or elided) written or spoken in interviews by David Markson, Ian McEwan, Svetlana Alexievich, Zadie Smith, Virginia Woolf, David Shields, Jenny Offill, Olivia Laing, Aharon Appelfeld, Amos Oz, David Mamet, Sven Birkets, Sarah Manguso, Alasdair Gray, Sarah Churchwell, John Hollander, Samuel Johnson, Robert Burton, Charles Simic, Pablo Picasso and Jean Genet.
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