This … this thing, whatever it is, began as a … as a piece that I was tentatively calling “Thirteen Footnotes.” Random and unrelated to any overarching text, though not without factual basis in and of themselves, these so-called footnotes, which were really more like incidental exercises and in that sense, therefore, not dissimilar from bathtub diversions like half-completing a Sunday Times crossword or compulsively checking for “likes” on one’s social media, had piled up in a folder over a period of six or eight months. Eventually, there were in fact many more than just thirteen.
Yet I’ve continued to cling to that title, for future if not immediate use, perhaps feeling attracted to its inadvertent irony: a number historically unlucky — or I suppose I mean traditionally unlucky — seemed responsible for my producing reams of material, when normally self-doubt, mawkish and dependable, would curtail any project, however enthusiastically undertaken, within minutes of its bursting from the blocks. Perhaps the motive was darker. Perhaps, wary of its portent, I was using it as a cue, a reminder — to stop myself from proceeding beyond the point at which fate might strike down incipient success.
But for whatever reason, in something like a reversal of Schönberg’s known paranoia of the number thirteen — this having prompted, so it was said, his shortening the name “Aaron” to “Aron” for his opera Moses and Aron, in order to avoid a thirteen-letter title — I seemed to be exhibiting the very opposite pathology: that is, consolidating and combining my notes, now a batch of twenty-five, or however many had accumulated by that point, somewhere in the mid-twenties at any rate, such that their total number would remain within the boundaries of my original — and more or less arbitrary — constraint.
As to the origin of the compositions, these footnotes that are neither appended to a single, larger work nor in any obvious way linked to one another — this odd habit started one day when, hunkered over some arduous tome, I realized that while the arduous tome as such was boring me to death, its sub-paginated citations and explanatory material, mainly corroborating and amplifying upon but also, at times, digressing rather bizarrely from the main body to which they referred, were proving to be addictively amusing. The author of that tome — perhaps with the assistance of a hired-in research hack — had apparently discovered a new genre, or at least a métier more suited to his discursive gifts. It’s hard to describe the quality of this bifurcation, this dissociation of purpose. It was as if the quill laid down by Duns Scotus in the middle of refuting Aquinas on the topic of the Immaculate Conception had got snatched up by Thomas Browne, in order to draft a disquisition on, say, the chemical composition of porcelain.
Thus, footnote number six …
6. Interestingly, though neither I nor anyone else — apart from his longtime partner Monica Jones — could have known at the time, Larkin himself remarked on “The Flea” in an unpublished occasional work that he wrote for Jones, called “Poem About Oxford.” Scribbled on the flyleaf of a coffee-table book he’d bought for her at Blackwell’s, rediscovered only several years after his death, this piece* concludes, “… It holds us, like that Fleae we read about/ In the depths of the Second World War.”
My novel insight — or novel in my own mind — was that at certain critical, radical transitions a poet (or writer of another kind, artist of another kind) may discover, either on purpose or by fateful accident, a new way of pulling us beneath the layers of technical insulation that build up over time, amid traditions as they settle into patterns of conformity; and that such a breakthrough would mainly take the form of apparent errors — coarseness of style, for example, or formal ineptitude. Or failure, simply, to fall in line with a doctrinaire aesthetics. I saw this as related to, even somehow tied into, the notorious Empsonian ambiguities, as if an eighth or ninth or tenth “type” had still — but for my teenage genius! — to be identified. The innovation would be an effect — less than purely cynical, more than mischievous — in which a voice (or a rhythm or a structural appurtenance) would appear to have distanced itself, ever so slightly, from conventional imperatives. This distancing might bear some of the features of Empson’s “fundamental division in the writer’s mind,” yet the artist would assemble it, purposefully, rather than inadvertently expose it in some guileless lapse of attention. In other words he or she would make the work look like a faltering attempt to play by the rules.
Again one could appeal to the example of Larkin, who in poem after poem seems to drift unconsciously — seems — between a slangy, off-hand brazenness and something more dignified, more sonorous. It’s as if one of Yeats’s bald, shuffling scholars† were editing and annotating lines that had been “rhymed out in love’s despair” by the scholar himself, albeit before the hair had fallen out. And again, “Church Going” could serve as the convenient illustration: its speaker having begun on a casual, almost flippant note (“… some brass and stuff up at the Holy end …”), the poem concludes in pensive reflection, giving way to a formality of diction that verges on the sententious (“A serious house on serious earth it is …”). In Larkin that feature is perhaps rationalized, or reconciled, in his characteristic voltas — shifts of tone bespeaking (literally bespeaking) some abrupt realization, some startling awareness of irony or paradox.
Three or four years ago, almost every review of Knausgård’s then-breaking My Struggle included, even when highly favorable, a vaguely carping disclaimer about the author’s slackness of style, in which occasional hackneyed expressions seemed to disrupt and undermine his literary intentions. Usually, the accusation was one of imprecision, loss of focus. Fault could be ascribed — often with an air of lofty self-congratulation on the part of the pompous ascriber — to Knausgård’s recklessness, the volatility of his churning through twenty pages of legal pad each day. James Wood, for example, a fine and genial critic whom I would not include among the pompous, joined the fray: “Cliché is not spurned,” he wrote in his New Yorker paean, “falling in love was like being struck by lightning … he was head over heels in love … he was as hungry as a wolf.” Knausgård himself was almost immediately on record as strategically avoiding a “literary” agenda. He wanted language of the kind — or at least resembling the kind — that simply spills out, uncensored by egocentric control: “… something much more organic, not constructed, something that was moving around and could grow.”
(Or, to move away from literature altogether: many contemporary reviews of A Bout de Souffle noted Godard’s poorly synched post-production dialogue looping, as if this had been a charming accident — an afterthought, a workaround for the noisy motor of his portable Eclair Caméflex. Hadn’t Alexandre Astruc put everyone on alert? “Cinema was in the process of becoming a new means of expression … [‘The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: The Camera-Stylo,’ published in L`Ecran, on 30 March 1948].” The camera, Astruc insisted, would now be more akin to a pen — stylo — than to, as in the past, an objective scientific instrument, clinical and antiseptic, disconnected from its user’s emotional contamination.)
Not spurned? The fucker was doing it on purpose! Indeed he had stumbled on a rare discovery, not so different from the central insight of Barthes’s Degré zéro: literary writing, being ornamental, is both a disguise and a mode of separation, Knausgård implied, even more or less stating this outright in post-publication interviews. Barthes contrasts Queneau’s scruffiness of style with Sartre’s fussy, hieratic curations, in which “la liaison ineffable de l’existence” [approximately, “the inarticulable binding force that surges through reality”] is stabilized, locked into position. Valiantly we eliminate clichés, tired figures of speech, striving to make the prose more vibrant, or so we imagine, replacing these with metaphorical contrivances that have never previously circulated in a living, breathing environment. But at a cost that sometimes comes too high: when revelatory impulses, uncontrolled disclosures, are deprived of oxygen they wither, they crumple, unable to emit the slightest sound, the merest wheeze of their own noble gases.
* “Poem About Oxford,” written c. 1973, first published in Philip Larkin, Collected Poems (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004)
† W.B. Yeats, “The Scholars,” The Wild Swans at Coole, 1919