(Featured Image Credit: Max Ernst: The Entire City, 1934)
The echo that is the horizon line behind the trees, buildings, heart beating in the vaporized chill of summer heat, an echo that breathes a surmise full of longing and possibility and intentionality, the condemned relic of an attempt at expression, impressions that comingle to try and form something that resembles a whole.
When the most amazing sunset you have ever seen is only visible in your rear view mirror, this is simultaneously failure and intimacy, simultaneously sky and regret, longing and existence, a single moment to be felt in that way again.
The oranges and reds and purples and blacks, all the colors that only exist in the sky behind you, that indescribable sky, this, too, is the glorious failure of the novel.
(In fact, I have witnessed some of the most beautiful images I have ever seen through my “blind spot” mirror. What, I wonder, would Derrida say to that?)
Might the novel, as a form, signal a sort of failure inherent in its own slightly paradoxical but insistent existence? There is something that a novel, often in its ability to pause, or in its longness or sheer density, can achieve that other forms cannot. But in the ambition to get at something so indescribable that the mere attempt requires an entire novel to represent the attempt at its description, this is a failure in itself, the epic as a sort of fabrication or proportional importance to conduct or heartbeat or sunrise, the achievement not in page count or arc but in intention, hope, courage, the mere attempt at something impossible.
In this way, I see the novel itself as a form that signifies failure in the most hopeful and genuine of ways. Perhaps the gesture to take up space with one’s words seems so utterly selfish, so utterly generous, so utterly human. László Krasznahorkai writes about being “[c]ondemned to look, yet at the same time to be deprived of sight.” This is the constant state of writing, the threshold between sanity and insanity, between knowing everything and knowing nothing, between absolute misery and hell and pure desire and love.
Writing exists because language fails. Because language always fails, we write and we keep writing.
Joe Milazzo and I talk about failure in writing. We agree that the greatest works of literature are magnificent and brilliant failures. And those works often considered “successful” are dull, boring, agreeable, safe. Joe declares: “If it’s a success on its own terms, it’s a failure, albeit a magnificent one. If it’s a failure on its own terms, it’s a success, just not a very interesting one.”
Here then are some novels about failure, or novels that seem to represent, to me, the spirit of failure that writing is all about.
1. The Great Fire of London by Jacques Roubaud
This is a heart breaking project, and a novel that exists because the novel that the author meant to write couldn’t be written. Described as “part novel and part autobiography,” The Great Fire of London “has its origins in Jacques Roubaud’s attempt to come to terms with the death of his young wife Alix, whose presence both haunts and gives meaning to every page. Having failed to write his intended novel (“The Great Fire of London”), instead he creates a book that is about that failure, but in the process opens up the world of the creative process, which is at once an attempt to bring order to his ravaged personal life and to construct an intricate literary project that functions according to strict rules, one of them being the palindrome.” In his preface, Roubaud writes: “But above all I know that The Great Fire of London has not been written because the Project has failed, because it was destined to fail.”
2. War & War by László Krasznahorkai
The fascinating and descending gloom of Krasznahorkai’s long sentences evoke a specific and cold view of the world. How to describe the utter significance and insignifiance of life, of life’s actions and gestures, of an attempt at something meaningful?
From the book:
“There is an intense relationship between proximate objects, a much weaker one between objects further away, and as for the really distant ones there is none at all, and that is the nature of God.”
And on Krasznahorkai’s writing, Scott Esposito in his essay “Toward Authority” (published in Music and Literature) writes:
“One can imagine civilization as humankind’s ongoing failure to wrench itself from the state of crisis, from the entropy we are all destined to war against…. Krasznahorkai gives this philosophy of doubt a universality different from any previous author. This broadening of crisis to the entirety of human history, to a very elemental state of humanity that precedes language and fixed culture, places Krasznahorkai, in a sense, at the culmination of the modernist project…. All possibility of escape, all refusal of our destiny as humans, is a mirage.” But: “[I]f Krasznahorkai is constantly reminding us of our destiny as human beings, one also feels in his literature the ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on’ of Beckett. It is a recognition of our limits as humans, as well as of the fact that the ‘fruitless pursuit’ of transcendence is an expression of those limits that demonstrates our humanity.”
3. La Medusa by Vanessa Place
One of my favorite quotes from Vanessa Place is her claim that “language always fails. But how horrible would it be if it were to succeed, how constraining that would be.” La Medusa takes on the impossible challenge of writing a book about the legendary city of Los Angeles, a city so de-centered that no book could possibly encompass its vastly different representations, no book could avoid the ephemerality of an attempt at a concretization of LA, no book could represent the gaze, tame the city as monster and insert it into the artificially rendered pages of a book. But this is why La Medusa can, and does, knowing that the city is something that is constantly becoming but never is. (More in my review of La Medusa at Tarpaulin Sky) This attempt at the inarticulatable, at rupturing the infinite struggle for a realized subjectivity is both the phenomenal success and destined failure of this book.
4. V by Thomas Pynchon
Perhaps history this century, thought Eigenvalue, is rippled with gathers in its fabric such that if we are situated, as Stencil seemed to be, at the bottom of a fold, it’s impossible to determine warp, woof or pattern anywhere else. By virtue, however, of existing in one gather it is assumed there are others, compartmented off into sinuous cycles each of which comes to assume greater importance than the weave and destroys any continuity. Thus it is that we are charmed by the funny-looking automobiles of the ’30s, the curious fashions of the ’20s, the peculiar moral habits of our grandparents. We produce and attend musical comedies about them and are conned into a false memory, a phony nostalgia about what they were. We are accordingly lost to any sense of a continuous tradition. Perhaps if we lived on a crest, things would be different. We could at least see.
5. The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector
I’m searching, I’m searching. I’m trying to understand. Trying to give what I’ve lived to somebody else and I don’t know to whom, but I don’t want to keep what I lived. I don’t know what to do with what I lived, I’m afraid of that profound disorder. I don’t trust what happened to me.
6. The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke
From the introduction by translator Burton Pike:
The problem Rilke faced was how to register the transitory and inert details of a demystified world and so transform them inwardly that they could achieve the objective permanence of art in a time when art had lost all guiding traditions and forms. This called for a new concept of seeing.
7. The Recognitions by William Gaddis
8. Degrees by Michel Butor
9. Paradiso by José Lezama Lima
10. NOTHING: A Portrait of Insomnia by Blake Butler
11. Crepuscule W/ Nellie by Joe Milazzo
12. Irritant by Darby Larson
13. Remake by Christine Brooke-Rose
14. Lust by Elfriede Jelinek
15. 2666 by Roberto Bolaño
16. Finnegans Wake by James Joyce
17. Speedboat by Renata Adler
18. Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline
19. The Stranger by Albert Camus
20. Mulligan Stew by Gilbert Sorrentino
21. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
22. Autoportrait and Suicide by Edouard Levé
23. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
24. Life A User’s Manual by Georges Perec
25. Man in the Holocene by Max Frisch
(Special thanks to Joe Milazzo and Eddy Rathke in help with compiling this list)