Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Nathalie Sarraute!

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There are a lot of truly great moments in the Paris Review interviews, from V.S. Naipaul opening the conversation by demanding, "Let me know the range of what you are doing and how you are going to approach it. I want to know with what intensity to talk," to Harry Mathews' polymath humility, to William Gaddis's beleaguered genius, to this gem from Don DeLillo:

The novel’s not dead, it’s not even seriously injured, but I do think we’re working in the margins, working in the shadows of the novel’s greatness and influence. There’s plenty of impressive talent around, and there’s strong evidence that younger writers are moving into history, finding broader themes. But when we talk about the novel we have to consider the culture in which it operates. Everything in the culture argues against the novel, particularly the novel that tries to be equal to the complexities and excesses of the culture. This is why books such as JR and Harlot’s Ghost and Gravity’s Rainbow and The Public Burning are important—to name just four. They offer many pleasures without making concessions to the middle-range reader, and they absorb and incorporate the culture instead of catering to it. And there’s the work of Robert Stone and Joan Didion, who are both writers of conscience and painstaking workers of the sentence and paragraph. I don’t want to list names because lists are a form of cultural hysteria, but I have to mention Blood Meridian for its beauty and its honor. These books and writers show us that the novel is still spacious enough and brave enough to encompass enormous areas of experience. We have a rich literature. But sometimes it’s a literature too ready to be neutralized, to be incorporated into the ambient noise. This is why we need the writer in opposition, the novelist who writes against power, who writes against the corporation or the state or the whole apparatus of assimilation. We’re all one beat away from becoming elevator music.

Yet my favourite interview of all is Nathalie Sarraute's. I've only read one book of hers, the title of which I can't even think of right now (though I do remember enjoying it), but what she has to say about writing had me nodding like a goof at almost every line.

I love writers like Nathalie Sarraute, who have such a particular, unique sensibility and approach to what they do, who seem flabbergasted by critics that fail to engage in the slightest with the concerns with which they write. I admire Sarraute's vision, her surety of purpose, her confidence:

I haven't changed my way of thinking since my first books, I haven't budged. I could repeat exactly the same things I said when I wrote “The Age of Suspicion.” It is a deep conviction that the forms of the novel must change, that it's necessary that there be a continual transformation of the forms, in all the arts—in painting, in music, in poetry, and in the novel. That we cannot return to the forms of the nineteenth century and set another society in them, it doesn't matter which.

From the interview, Sarraute seems invested in a process of exploring interiority and emotional states typical to the plotless fiction that I enjoy reading but don't feel confident enough to attempt myself. You have to be a hell of a writer to pull this stuff off, so deeply attuned to your own experiences, as well as those around you.

INTERVIEWER: Considering the interiority of your writing, has it sometimes been difficult to remain at such depths?

SARRAUTE: No, what is difficult is being on the surface. One gets bored there. There are a lot of great and admirable models who block your way. And once I rise to the surface, to do something on the surface, it's easy, but it's very tedious and disappointing.

Such a focus on interiority can get confused with "psychological fiction," which Sarraute disdains: "I don't really like the word psychological, which has been used a lot, because that makes one think of traditional psychology, the analysis of feelings. But I would say that the universe of the psyche is limitless, it's infinite. So, each writer can find there what he would like. It's a universe as immense as we all are, and there are writers yet who are going to discover huge areas of the life of the psyche that we haven't brought to light."

This, to me, is the sort of stuff that makes for truly great literature, and is also something you can't teach or even learn -- you just write toward it, constantly; you chase after an experience with words. "Each new book is entirely another realm in which one must try to find its form and its sensations," says Sarraute. Yes!

Now I will go read everything by Nathalie Sarraute I can find.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Pasha Malla

Pasha Malla’s first collection of short stories, The Withdrawal Method, a Globe and Mail and National Post book of the year, won the Danuta Gleed Literary Award and the Trillum Book Award and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize and longlisted for the Giller Prize. His latest book, People Park, is forthcoming from Anansi in July 2012.

Go to Pasha Malla’s Author Page