Notes on Craft | Granta

Notes on Craft

Oli Hazzard

Poet Oli Hazzard on writing his debut novel Lorem Ipsum, which is made up of one single 50,000-word sentence.

Before writing this book, I had tried to write fiction a few times, and found it really difficult. One of the things I found difficult was that I knew – or thought I knew – that to tell a story, and to allow a reader to feel ‘absorbed’ in it, a novel should avoid giving an account of the process of its own composition. Fiction is usually about something that’s happening elsewhere, some other time – any place or time except the moment of its own writing. So for most novels a depiction of authorial presence would be a serious failing or impediment to enjoyment. Whereas poetry, or at least the kind of poetry that I like to read, is often about that moment: the ongoing moment of singing or inscription, and the dream of presence and nearness between poet and reader it affords. When I started writing my first novel, Lorem Ipsum, in a slightly distracted, listless way, I wanted to have it both ways: to write prose which involved stories, while also trying to salvage some of the material presence of poetry.

There are of course loads of exceptions to this generalisation about what distinguishes poetry and prose. Letters, for example, are prose works in which the situation and act of writing are often registered. In a letter composed during his three-month-long stay in Truro hospital, where he was recovering after falling off a roof, twentieth-century Scottish poet W.S. Graham (of whom I was supposed to be writing a biography at the time I wrote the novel) wrote: ‘I work hard at finding my “spiritual sustenance” inside my work and try hard to live in the thoughts of writing my poetry. For the environment is deadly in every way with a radio bellowing bad jazz from 8 to 10 (14 hours). Christ I’ll be glad to get out. I hate this horizontal position.’ The horizontal position of the author somehow changes the angle of our approach to the text: the discomfort of it re-animates the writing body. The epistolary novel has often capitalised on the letter-writer’s awkward, often slapstick presentness, through a generic sleight-of-hand, to allow narrative to assume some lyric properties. There are moments when Clarissa opens up into a lyric mode. So I found myself writing my text towards an addressee called A. I haven’t thought a lot about who or what that A denotes.

In The Passion According to G.H., Clarice Lispector intervenes interestingly in the relationship between these genres when she creates an imagined addressee midway through her text: ‘This effort I’m making now to let the meaning surface, any meaning, this effort would be easier if I pretended to write to someone.’ She’s unusual in the way she does that structural work ‘live’, in real time, as the work is progressing. That’s probably one of the features of her writing that brings her closer to poetry, to the time-zones of poetry. Jonathan Culler has these slippery terms: lyric temporality, which emerges perpetually from the ‘now’, and narrative temporality, which is retrospective – and Lispector is one of only a few novelists who really opens herself up to lyric temporality, and she achieves that through a brittle invocation of the conventions and dynamics of the epistolary. So there’s a connection between the letter-form and apostrophe, and the kind of murky space where they interact is the area out of which Lorem Ipsum was written.

I found out about zuihitsu – a fragmentary, digressive Japanese prose genre which originates with Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book – halfway through writing Lorem Ipsum, and soon realised that I wanted to reclassify the text I was writing (which up to that point I’d thought of as a letter) as a zuihitsu. The zuihitsu partly appealed to me because it has elements of this lyric temporality braided into it. It’s a tradition of writing which takes aimlessness and lack of design as its guiding principles, and it reads itself back to us, often harshly. The beginning of Yoshida Kenkō’s Essays in Idleness, from which my book takes an epigraph, offers a desultory depiction of the author taking account of his writing, as though he’s just spent a day on his phone: ‘How foolish I feel when I realise that I have spent another day in front of my inkstone, jotting down aimless thoughts as they occurred to me, all because I was bored and had nothing better to do.’ The Pillow Book pleads with us, semi-persuasively, not to judge it too severely, since it was written for its own sake, in private, and should not be compared to writing intended for public dissemination. It poses as writing without an addressee, an anti-letter, a diary; or, maybe more accurately, a work written to an addressee who can never actually be embodied or individuated in the social world; a kind of super-addressee, like a deity or the internet. These shy, private-seeming works roam from subject to subject, avoiding conclusion or summation, prolonging themselves because they know, like Scheherazade, that when the text stabilises into something already known, something complete, they die. So a zuihitsu is defined by the way it eludes definition; and that resistance to definition produces a constant feeling of anxiety which can never be resolved. They suspend themselves in an ongoing moment, a perpetual crisis of identity, that allows them, I think, to become sensitised to other forms of emergency.

I often wrote this book while looking after my children, while they slept in the back of the car or did puzzles in another room; while on strike, while I should have been working; while refreshing and refreshing impossible facts of reality on my phone; in all kinds of deadly environments which lacked a clear shape and identity. Virginia Woolf calls these ‘moments of non-being’: the rich thicket of marginalia that develops around spots of time. It was a byproduct of avoidance, then. I think that my reluctance to finish the single sentence that the book is made up of came first out of a simple desire not to let the moment of writing end, to prolong it as long as possible. It also came of not knowing how to divide one thing from everything else, not knowing how to make a subject end. But I would forget all of this as I was writing it. When I would plug back into the sentence, picking up where I had left off, I enjoyed not having to know where the last clause had taken me. When I looked up from it, I often couldn’t remember what I had just written.


Photograph © cris.e



Lorem Ipsum is available now from Prototype.

Oli Hazzard

Oli Hazzard is the author of three books of poems, Between Two WindowsBlotter and Progress: Real and Imagined, and a book of literary criticism, John Ashbery and Anglo-American Exchange: The Minor ErasLorem Ipsum, his debut novel, is published by Prototype. He lives in Glasgow, and teaches at the University of St Andrews.

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