Sunday, 12 June 2011

the tenant & the motive [cercas]

These are two novellas by Javier Cercas, brought together in one volume. They are primarily of interest in the way they show how far a writer is capable of profiting (in every sense) from the process of re-invention. The Tenant's setting, an American university campus, has something in common with The Speed of Light, but this aside Cercas' later work seems almost unrecognisable. In these early texts we get an idea of the writer's capacity for attention to detail encased in a relaxed prose style and a certain structural playfulness, (both stories containing a circular dimension), but its all done in a limited, slightly arch fashion: the novellas feel like exercises in writing, rather than the raw-blooded thing itself.

I have a feeling that in one of the later works that I've read, the author refers to these earlier texts, slightly dismissively. This is an aside, but in my early years in the capital, I went to a gathering at The Poetry Society, which was then in Earls Court, to listen to a clack of poets talk about their "juvenilia". It might be a false memory, but I have a feeling Motion was there, wearing a green suit, along with perhaps, Morrison and others. They read some of their youthful poetry and then dissected its awfulness; attempting to pinpoint the moment at which they acquired maturity as writers. I remember the evening feeling bizarrely self-congratulatory, and realised that anything I had written upto that point could only be seen by them as 'immature'. In a sense I suppose they were a pale equivalent of the figures in Cercas' friend Bolano's opening to The Savage Detectives. Whether time will recognise the distinctions being made by these poets between their immature work and their mature work will only be revealed in their remembering. Maybe I was just kicking against the pricks, as a would-be angry young man, frustrated by the green suits.

Because Cercas' experience shows that there is such a thing as development and there's no doubt that in the twelve years between the publication of these novellas and the publication of Soldiers of Salamis, he evolved, or rather, discovered another method of writing which was more appropriate for his skills. Having said that, there is then the danger that he will typecast himself as the clever writer who made texts out of historical faction. I'd like to think that there's no such thing as juvenalia (even if there is) nor is there such a thing as mastering the beast. The process is one of ongoing change, peaks, troughs. Keep trying, as Beckett put it, although he said it rather more eloquently.

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