I recently read, and loved, Annie Ernaux’s The Possession – a translation by Anna Moschovakis. But what did I love, exactly? Its urgency, I suppose. The way the narrator is taken over by something, her obsessive jealousy over her ex-lover’s new live-in girlfriend. Ernaux does obsession and jealousy very well: crude, angry, a little violent. Sometimes it feels as though the novella’s sentences are a series of hits or punches. Here is one: ‘The first thing I did after waking up was grab his cock – stiff with sleep – and hold still, as if hanging onto a branch.’ I’m struck by the gesture, as I am the idea that writers can gesture in this way through the sentence, leaving a mark on the reader. Here is another: ‘I decided that I hated all female professors – though I myself had been one, and many of my friends still were.’
I’ve come to realize I’m very much a writer of the sentence. Since my phrasing is plain and spare, I didn’t always think I was. Long, rich, complicated sentences in which a surprise is hidden – I thought the ones who wrote them were the real sentence writers. And they are; I love to read them. But I see now that I hide things in my sentences too. I thought because I write slim books, I was already working within the smallest unit possible, which is a unit I like, where I write best. Now I see that sometimes my focus gets even smaller, and that I am not always writing a sentence to tell a story, exactly, but simply to be in the space of a sentence, to make things appear in it, to see what is possible.
I find it enjoyable to make objects appear, and characters appear, which is different than how the characters look. And when objects and characters, and also landscapes, appear together, that is how narrative happens for me. I would rather work in front of, or behind, a story. I want to leave a chain of images that remain in the reader’s mind. I want to write what heightened experience feels like.
In the short story ‘Olimpia’s Ghost’, from Sofia Samatar’s collection Tender, the narrator Gisela has wild and vivid dreams after reading E.T.A. Hoffmann’s ‘The Sandman’ before bed, then describes those dreams in letters to a young Sigmund Freud. Her dreams bring into existence a new reality, born in part from the images and objects of Hoffmann’s tales; in other words, the images and objects of literature. She is marked by them. Declaring her too sensitive for Hoffmann, Sigmund enlists Gisela’s brother Emil to take the book away from her, which he does, sheepishly. ‘When he left me, and I moved at last, raising my hand to smooth my hair, my own shadow startled me, shifting on the wall.’ I’m taken by this image. It’s simple, but it marks the reader in turn, and creates the sense of another actuality, which I think is amazing. Along with the other images in the story, it remains in my mind as a visual echo of the story, and of the uncanny.
In my own fiction, I sometimes find myself trying to conjure something that isn’t there, so that it both is, and isn’t, appearing. For instance, in my novel Indelicacy, when the narrator Vitória is visiting the desert, she says, ‘I pulled my hair into a loose bun, but not like a dancer would do it.’ There is no dancer in this sentence, yet I see the dancer still. This is one way to haunt a sentence. Plainly. It is exciting to me to think I might haunt my own sentences, to believe in the first place that they can be haunted. That the reader might be taken over, subtly, that there is room in fiction for an experience like this. And that something of this experience might remain.
Photograph © Telomi