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Date of Publishing:
June 8, 2021

© Anderwald + Grond

Defining the Novel

Anna Kim

Last week, the Austrian writer Friederike Mayröcker died; I only met her once, at a reading. I was too shy to talk to her, and she seemed too frail to talk to anyone. I don’t regret not approaching her, not because I didn’t like her, but because I was (and still am) happy knowing her through her work. This, maybe, is the way she actually would like to be remembered… At this point, I have to stop for a moment, because I find it extremely odd to write about her work in English, since her words, her sentences, the pauses between the sentences, the fragments that one may call sentences, are so profoundly German. Her writing shows what the German language is capable of: how wonderfully flexible it is, how contradictory, how tender, how musical and how imaginative. I fell in love with German in Kindergarten; it was an innocent love, strengthened by my love for sweet main courses like Germknödel and Kaiserschmarrn. Later, I fell in love with German again – while reading Mayröcker’s book Die Abschiede.

Die Abschiede, Friederike Mayröcker

The past few months, since I started working with Ruth and Leo, I have been pondering the question of what an Artist’s Novel could be and how it differs from a traditional novel. That it has to be different from a novel is a given. If the Artist’s Novel were just a novel written by artists, I could call myself the author of Philosopher’s Novels, since the only training I got is a philosophical one. Funnily enough, this isn’t as absurd as it sounds. In my early works, I embraced my background in Philosophy. There are essayistic passages in them: a tiny bit of Hegel, a little bit of Wittgenstein, and, underlying everything, Georg Simmel and Adorno. But what ultimately makes them Philosopher’s Novels is my interest in causes (Ursachen) and correlations (Zusammenhänge) – the one thing that I took away from studying Philosophy is, that one has an obligation to follow the rabbit into the rabbit hole, because the world needs to be looked at from many different angles; every year at Christmas I’m reminded of this fact. Usually, a part of our Christmas tree faces a corner. It’s the less glamorous part, only filled with leftover decoration. Interestingly, what we consider „leftover“, changes every year – the corner side of our Christmas is a reflection of the change that we, as a family, went through.

In my early novels, I didn’t put the emphasis on the story but in the structure that allows events to unfold the way they unfold. Another thing that was vital to me was the dialogue with my readers – I wanted, I needed to be understood. And it was not enough for me to be understood in an approximate kind of way, I wanted my audience to be able to follow my thoughts as accurately as possible. I believed, contrary to Wittgenstein, that there can be understanding. Like any work of art, a novel is not complete without its audience; the reader finishes the novel. Without one, the novel remains half-baked. However, some novels require less work from the audience, some more. Mayröcker’s novels are not for simple consumption, the readers have to be poets themselves. Reading Mayröcker means not only to collect the pieces and put the puzzle together, but also to complete it – to find the gaps and to either fill them or to accept the fragmentary nature of her work. But reading her books, I often felt like I was invading her privacy. Her writing seemed so intimate, almost as if it didn’t need or even want an audience. The poet was speaking to herself rather than to me. All I could do was to follow her soliloquy. Or to become a part of her.

Every work of narration, so the current consensus, can be called a novel. When it comes to composing a novel, there are no rules anymore, no limitations. If you think about it, rules are often applied afterwards, after existing conventions have been modified or ignored. Though these days, academia does not seem concerned with the novel anymore. It’s almost as if it has given up on theorising about novels. Have academics simply accepted the fact that literature has become a niche? That Netflix shows are the novels of the 21st century, and that watching is the new reading? Movies – that is, the way stories are told in them – have permeated the structure of novels. This is especially evident in crime novels. Most crime novels start with a prologue that reads like a description of a starting sequence in a TV film:

„June 6th, 2021. She is sitting at a desk, between two large windows. The morning light is too weak to fill the room. It only lights up the empty window sills. A woman, who seems more like a creature than a human because of her messy hair and her slouched posture, is immersed in darkness. Suddenly, a noise breaks the silence – a gun shot.“

The conventional novel has found new conventions. One of them is the over-emphasis on time: Every chapter is dated, days and months provide the structure for these novels. Stories are told through time, not primarily through events that result from conflicts or actions. Events are not necessarily seen as driven by individuals but driven by time. This is not a coincidence: Time is the one thing that can’t be taken away from the novel. It’s possible to mess with chronology, to tell events in a non-chronological order, it’s also possible to introduce simultaneity, or to halt time, but it’s not possible to get rid of it completely. Stories rely on the existence of time. Without time, there is no story. But maybe it’s a convention of our time to emphasise time? In our world, time has become a force stronger than any other natural force: We perceive ourselves as timed beings, therefore we can’t help to define ourselves and everything around us through time. Already at the end of the 19th century, György Lukàcs defined the novel as a form of „matured masculinity“ (gereifte Männlichkeit) in a world of „transcendental homelessness“; the epic poem in his opinion, was its immature predecessor.

In Mayröcker’s novels, time is subjective. The present is interrupted by images from the past, but they become part of the present as soon as they step into the present, so that the idea of separate spheres of time – the past, the present and the future – does not exist. Her world is a world of images: The story (Handlung) is told in images, often in still images. It’s as if they froze in the moment they were turned into language. However, when they were translated into language and lost their ability of movement, they gained another ability – the ability of sound. And in sounds, so it seems, time has found a perfect shape.

Literarisches Zetteluniversum © Österreichische Nationalbibliothek/Lackner

The second point concerns narration: Central to all novels is that they are narrated. Narration comes in all shapes and forms. It can be complicated and long, or short and simple; it can be colorful or colorless, it can be full of smells, or entirely odorless. It can have many protagonists and antagonists, but it can also be just a description of a landscape: The story is often formed in the mind of the reader. Like a work of pointillism, the writing is ultimately turned into a narrative in the imagination of the reader. The writer’s ideas and descriptions are blended together with the experiences of the reader, and thus a story comes into being, a story that is bigger, more complex than the one the writer imagined. In order to narrate, an audience is needed, someone who will listen. Narration does not have to follow conventions to be a narration. It’s not necessary to have a beginning, a middle and an end, or to even use words the whole time: Narration is a curated collection of ideas (or thoughts). What shape these ideas have – whether they are called images, videos or sentences – is irrelevant in the end. What counts is that they have been collected by people who take responsibility for their collection (i.e. authors).

I followed Mayröcker’s footsteps only for a short while. As much as I admired (and still admire) her writing, her idea of the novel did not match mine. I was interested in the outside world, I wanted to get away from, and not dive into, myself; to write soliloquies would have been a punishment, a torture for me. I wanted to explore the outside through writing, to understand how it works. The novel for me was and is a way to examine the fabric of our society and, ultimately, bring about change. My definition of a novel is therefore a practical one: I believe in the usability (Nutzbarkeit, Brauchbarkeit) of novels, be it as inspirational sources, as sources for new ideas, new perspectives, or even as simple instructions. To this end though, dialogue is essential.

While discussing the possibilities of the novel with Ruth and Leo, we talked about the tone novels can have, the structure, how to create, to find characters, how to shape them, fill them with life, but curiously enough, we didn’t talk about their vision of the novel. Since there are no definitions of the novel anymore, we not only make up the novels, we also make up the rules. The question is: How do artists, people who are trained to communicate and express themselves through a language that is not based on words, perceive the entity that is called a novel? Every novelist has to find their own definition of a novel. This definition is the key, the entrance to the novel. Without it, it’s only a collection of sentences. The vision of the novelist is what makes a novel a novel –

the vision of the artist is what makes an artist’s novel an Artist’s Novel.

Footnotes