Of course it's the old "can you teach talent" argument, isn't it? That's the meaty question, the puzzler of substantial length and girth that needs to be grabbed firmly with both hands. What produces worse writing? People striking off alone, with nobody to tell them to stop and their critics being self-selected (because you see a lot of that online in fandom communities) or people going to study creative writing and, much like Larkin claims parents do, getting fucked up by their teachers' preferences? Books aren't quite the same as music, there's less chances for an obviously wrong note that doesn't fit; even a single poorly chosen word in a 50,000 word novel is often far less jarring in the grand scheme of things than a G# when you expect a G in a 10-minute concerto. As they say, even Homer nods. Of course if you open a book and it begins "It was the best of times, it was the best of times", then there's a problem. And "bad" is just a really broad term. A book might be beautifully written but completely morally repellant, and I'd call that bad; it might have a thrilling plot but contain nothing but dull clichés and poor imagery and I'd call it bad. I'd even call a book bad if it was great for three quarters of its length and then had an awful ending. All these different “badnesses” are forgivable by different people to different degrees; I'd be more kind to a book which just had a bit of a flat ending to a book that thoroughly endorsed objectivism as a moral philosophy as its sole Daseinszweck. I'd be more forgiving of something that used cliché and well-worn archetypes with brio and enthusiasm and a little inventiveness than something that tries so hard to not be formulaic it feels like a schoolchild told they can't use "got, nice or went".
When is a literary novel worth reading like this one by Tabucchi? It depends on how you define "culture." Literary novels were certainly an emblem of high (educated) culture as opposed to low (mass) culture--much like classical music. How did one truly get educated 50/150 years ago--you read seriously, including literary novels. There was no PC/Web on which to waste time. Right after I graduated from college, I spent the better part of a decade reading literary novels--best thing I ever did. My daughters are voracious readers--but of course it is all serialized apocalyptic teen fiction. For a while I have been telling them that they will soon be reading classic novels--and that they will grow to appreciate them and the genre. But as I write this words I realize that maybe they won't. The Millennial generation will be well-educated and able to do difficult work--but they probably won't read novels. They’re not wired like that.
Any reason to think that writing itself will be around in the future? Once upon a time, not that long ago, people lived without it. In a future of virtual reality and brain to brain interfaces who says it will still be needed? We've gone from oral storytelling, in which small groups made their own imaginative creations from the ever varying iterations of various storytellers - to writing in which one storyteller addresses the imaginations of millions - to cinema in which one storyteller eliminates the need for anyone to imagine anything. Maybe the next step is one story, one storyteller, one humanity, and no ability to imagine anything individually. And one sensory feed to rule them all...What I'd love to see is the return of the SHORT novel of great beauty and clarity like “The Edge of the Horizon” so masterfully does.
The contemporary writer is so passionless. So stale. Such meandering, somewhat antiseptic prose causes you NOT TO REALLY CARE. I always think it's a terrible crime when a novel loses the opportunity to get to the heart of the matter, the rape and pillage of all that is considered art and it's harekari at the feet of the Consumer.
Since I learnt to read, I have always spent a lot of my spare time reading. I plough through books at a rate of knots. I used to be buying books all the time. Now I read on the Kindle just as much. I hate it when a smack addict who often uses words that send readers willing to read him scurrying for a dictionary. That’s what loses readers. The idea that "Complexity" and "Literaryness" (and their adjuncts "Depth" and "Meaning") are things that writers consciously write into their books - they sit down and say "I'm going to write a Literary Novel", as if Literature is something you add to a work rather than a post-fact label ascribed to works that stand out from the crowd. Now that sounds like cowardly equivocation of my own - "literature's, like, totally relative, man" - but I think there's something to it. Throughout history a frankly tiny proportion of the massive corpus of books ever written endures and gains the label "literature" and, as many defenders of popular culture will tell you at great length, some of them were written as "popular books!" (It's always Shakespeare, Dickens and Austen, I find - and they'd all apparently have written comics/TV shows/whatever you're trying to sell).
So if "literature" is best applied as a label post-fact to the best writing an era can offer, perhaps what's really stultifying - and killing - culture is the efforts to capture that zing, that unknown quality that means you remember “The Merchant of Venice” over “The Jew of Malta”, and turn it into something you can mass-produce, teach in schools and writers can use as their selling-point.
Narrative in written form has been mined until the seams have been gleaned clean in places. To create new voices like Tabucchi’s, to tell the seven basic plots in new and interesting ways has become more difficult as there are so many out there doing it. Yet what has already been written is alive and out there, waiting for new readers to discover. I’ll add that this novel doesn’t reach 100 pages…No small feat, considering the punch it gives. Tabucchi’s language is a wonderfully rich one. Should we impoverish it by stripping it of perfectly good words and phrases simply because they are uncommon? Why is a phrase construction that you and I know a better choice than one that we don't know but Tabucchi does?
With Tabucchi I need not fear the usual House Syndrome:
1) Patient has strange condition.
2) House treats patient, assumes that they're cured.
3) Patient gets worse. Patient is on the verge of death.
4) House has epiphany. Cures patient.
It's hard enough these days to find time to get through books that aren't of the order of “The Edge of the Horizon”. Not that I worry too much about that, though - I think the best reading years of my life were in my twenties, when during the five years of my Engineering degree I was free to read novels and poetry all day in cafes and parks, and to go out drinking at night and do other unmentionable things. You can't do it forever, though, and there's a lot of stuff that I suspect I just couldn't be bothered with now, stuff that I read almost religiously and with enormous excitement when I was in my early to mid-20s - Kafka, Hemingway, Kerouac, TS Eliot, DH Lawrence, Malcolm Lowry, and so on. I'll never be mad for all that stuff the way I was back then. Living is easy when you're young, so you challenge yourself with art. When you get older, living itself becomes the main art you have to cultivate, and high falutin books don't hold the same fascination.
I can still tear into a Antonio Tabucchi like this one, though, no problem there. It’s not perfect, but it’s still better than most of the crap being published nowadays. Maybe Tabucchi has taken modernism and post-modernism as far as it can go (e.g., I can’t stand most of what’s being labelled and published as post-modernism in this day and age). Maybe it is impossible to trump a novel where everything is a chain of imaginings: a senile mind imagining an uneducated comatose mind imagining a lunatic mind. If so, it is a good thing that the final modernistic novel is not difficult at all, nerdishly very entertaining: I was disturbing other passengers by laughing sometimes while I was reading it. I know. I’m weird. And the way you write freely, without caring about trying not to sound pretentious, is very likable, in fact, charming. But modernism is not the only way of telling a story. Other movements will appear. Art, generally, is light and spectacular at the present. But this is just a phase. It will pass after the dominance of old men has been broken. The plutocracy will not always be forcing the young to waste all their time on useless work. Nor does it matter if appreciation of novels is confined to a cult. The Portuguese-speaking population with practical access to Portuguese-language novels is already greater than it was in 1950 by at least one order of magnitude. There will always be people who will appreciate the simplicity of pure text, without the complication of sound and visuals.
It cannot happen in the near future. But there will be a renaissance of all the arts starting shortly before, or during, or shortly after the collapse of the plutocracy. I reckon.
The Edge of the Horizon is us.
NB: This time I re-read the book in English to see whether it'd would hold up. It did. One word: Marvellous.