Dan Gunn on Finding Time for Literature

Writers and translator Lydia Davis talks to Dann Gunn about Beckett and The Emperor of Ice-Cream
Photograph: Dan Gunn
From Music & Literature:
A very orderly Greek friend visited me recently, and on stepping into my office and seeing the state of my desk, cried out “Dan! What is that?” He was genuinely shocked, perturbed even, at the sight of the books, papers, unopened envelopes, and assorted debris that flows from several piles over my desk, threatening at any moment to spill off the edges (as it regularly does) and onto the floor. My response was not, I hope, unduly defensive: “It’s a sign that I’m being productive.” Indeed, my desk is clear and tidy only ever for a brief moment after some task has just been completed (or at moments when I remember some unopened bill that needs to be paid). I do like to observe something organized emerging from the apparent chaos; and when that chaos threatens to become a liability, I turn to photos of the studios of artists I admire, of Francis Bacon or Alberto Giacometti, and protest: Now their mess really was a mess.

When I was seventeen, I chose to leave Edinburgh, where I was raised, for the University of Sussex, not least because I had read a book by Gabriel Josipovici entitled The World and the Book; it said on the cover that he was teaching there. What I admired (and still admire) about this wonderful critical work was that it dealt openly and freely with different periods and authors, from different cultures and languages, from Dante to Proust to Saul Bellow. Also mentioned on the cover was that Gabriel Josipovici wrote fiction as well as criticism. In some quiet place within me I seized hold of this as a model: a critic who also writes fiction; a novelist who also writes criticism. I had eight fantastic years at Sussex, taught in an ideal setting by the best teachers imaginable. As it happens, on my very first day I was introduced to my “personal tutor” (what in America would be called my “academic advisor”): Gabriel Josipovici. We quickly got to know each other and have remained friends ever since. The Sussex of those days confirmed for me that one did not have to be (only) a specialist, that one could draw inspiration from many sources, refusing to be boxed in to a single discipline or period or language. I still find that the criticism emerging from this openness suits me best. I have recently been rereading with delight Tony Nuttall’s Shakespeare the Thinker—a book by a former Sussex professor that emerges out of precisely what I’d call the “Sussex spirit.”

By multiplying my directions and intellectual investments—this is as true for me of sporting activity (of which I have done a lot)—I tend not to disperse but rather to gain energy. I avoid what I most dread, being bored. I spent a lot of time as a child being bored in classes in which I had absolutely no interest or flair; I vowed to attempt to lead a life in which I would never be bored again. I can honestly say that I’ve virtually achieved that, but only because I’m constantly varying the sort of word-activity I’m doing. Another relevant analogy might be language-learning. There are ways in which learning a new language can interfere with the language(s) one already knows, but in general I’ve found—and I’m surely not the only one—that learning a new language, even if it requires time and energy, pays back doubly, opening a space in the head/brain/sprit that feels and feeds very much like freedom. I am currently learning Bulgarian, and doing this somehow makes the other languages I know vibrate and hum in echo, as if the words of the new language were watering the words grown dry in the languages less practised.

Of course, there are only so many hours in the day, and several of the activities in which I’m involved, such as editing the Cahiers Series or the Letters of Samuel Beckett, are seriously time-consuming. But more important than the time spent is concentration available; and I can only really concentrate when I am excited by what I am doing. Perhaps I am lucky too, in that before I was reading Gabriel Josipovici, my childhood provided earlier models: my mother was always a voracious reader, and though she worked full time (my father having died when I was six years old) and had to raise me and my two older brothers, she would go to the municipal library every week and take out four or five novels; novels which I would then watch her consume. (She is now eighty-six years old, but retains that capacity for concentration that allows her to read a novel in a day.) And though in some ways I loathed my schooling, which was unnecessarily severe, punitive, and even sadistic (I was of the last generation to suffer the full rigours of the British “public school” system, in which being beaten was an everyday reality), it’s blindingly obvious to me, especially since I myself am a teacher, that I learned how to learn at a very young age. The school I attended was intensely academic, and it regularly strikes me how my students are struggling to learn patterns (such as grammar or essay structure) in their early twenties that were being driven into me when I was barely ten years old.

I still haven’t really answered your question, however, about how I allot the time to my various projects. I’m not sure I can do so adequately since this is rather instinctual. Teaching has to come first, since I find it humiliating to teach a class for which I don’t feel thoroughly prepared or to hand back a student’s essay that I have not marked up as completely as I judge to be helpful. (And could it perhaps be that I feel the need, in some barely reachable part of myself, to prove to the ghosts of my own schoolmasters that it is possible to teach in a demanding and informative way without becoming punitive or worse?) After teaching, the other activities somehow find their space and time—though not always simply I must admit. One example: two years ago I was asked by the TLS to review the first two volumes of Marguerite Duras’s Oeuvres complètes which had just come out in the Pléiade edition. I confidently took this on, only to lug these two volumes around with me wherever I went for the following two years, failing completely to get on with the reading, not to speak of the review. I was lucky enough to have an indulgent editor who ceded to my request made earlier this year, to add the final two volumes of the complete works, making up nearly eight thousand pages in total. For some reason this extra load made the task easier for me, and I managed to write my review while we are still in the centenary year of Duras’s birth. I often invoke the wisdom in a remark once made by Muriel Spark, one of my very favourite twentieth-century writers, when in a BBC interview she was asked if she ever had trouble with writer’s block. She said she never did, that she was always delighted to be writing. Her interviewer (John Tusa, I believe) persisted rather incredulously, asking if she really never found herself in trouble when writing her novels. Spark hesitated a moment before admitting that she did occasionally find that her plots became too complex and that as a result she could not find a way forward. “And what do you do then?” asked the interviewer. “Make them more complex.”

At the risk of going on far too long, I have to admit that there is a hierarchy in the writing and editing projects I undertake: not a hierarchy of importance but of difficulty. Here the sporting analogy may be apposite again. For someone who does not train, a run round the block is a challenge, where for one who trains, it is as easy as a stroll. For me, writing fiction is the hardest thing: nobody can indicate how long a story or novel should be, nobody can tell me in what accent or with what tone the characters should speak, nobody can tell me when I’ve written (or edited) enough, and in any case nobody is demanding the novel of me in the first place. Writing fiction is the toughest sort of training. But alongside that, keeping up with Samuel Beckett offers an arduous workout too, for he is surely one of the most intelligent and learned writers, and even to begin to do him justice requires very serious intellectual training, retraining, expansion, investment. If one spends one’s morning trying to write fiction, and one’s afternoon trying to say something about a writer as difficult and important as Beckett, then if one has a few minutes left over in the evening to attend to words in other contexts, one may indeed feel a little like a trained sprinter taking a jog round the block. [Read More]

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