Earlier this week, David Albahari explained the motive behind the madness of one-paragraph novels and the author’s voice. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Counciland MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.
Being a Jewish writer is no different from being any other kind of writer. I don’t believe that Jewish writers have any special mission, or that they see the world in a different way, which would give them any advantage over other writers. Only one thing matters when you are a writer: the way you use your language and what you do with it. It does not matter whether you are religious or secular, formally educated or uneducated, involved in tradition or having nothing to do with it – the only thing that matters is your ability to tell stories or sing songs in a way that has not been done before.
So how do we define a Jewish writer? This question is sometimes very important for Jewish writers who live in small secular Jewish communities in the Diaspora, like the one in Serbia where I come from. For me, a Jewish writer is a writer of Jewish origin who writes mainly on Jewish themes.
It can be argued that when a national literature is defined we never base our definition on the themes of literary works. This is true but it is because we have other criteria such as language and territory. We could introduce language into our definition of the Jewish writer, and there would obviously be at least three: Hebrew, Yiddish and Ladino, but then we would lose a large number of Jewish writers writing in non-Jewish languages, writers such as Joseph Roth, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, or Danilo Kis. And finally, it is impossible to include any specific territory in our definition as Jewish writers live all over the world.
The unique history of the Jewish people has contributed to the unique position of Jewish literature. Serbian Jewish literature is both part of a national literature – because of the fact that Serbian Jewish writers write in Serbian – and part of multilingual worldwide Jewish literature. This means that it would be seen as one of a number of ethnic literatures that belong to Serbian literature in general. In other words, worldwide Jewish literature consists of a large number of ethnic Jewish literatures just as the world Jewish community consists of many different Jewish communities. It is diversity that makes us – both as a people and as writers – what we truly are.
I think it was Saul Bellow who once said that writers do not have tasks or duties – they only have their inspiration and that’s the only voice they should listen to. We can discuss where that voice is coming from – from our mind or our heart or that mysterious entity called the human soul – but we cannot change the fact that writers are the scribes who try to write down everything the voice of inspiration tells them. So writers do not write in order to say something to somebody; they write in order to hear and write down what that voice has to tell us. I am not trying to say that writing is an altogether mysterious, secret thing but some part of writing definitely is. The other part, written because we were told to write it, definitely is not. Most of it should be classified as propaganda – promotion of different literary, ideological, political, psychological, cultural ideas. There have always been writers who openly believed in a political system or a party, and in many cases readers and other writers have refused to deal with them. I am not saying that writers should not get involved in a political struggle but they should do it not as writers but as human beings. Unfortunately, once they are seen as human beings many writers turn out to be not very interesting creatures. In fact, they become like everybody else. Only a very small number of writers are really outstanding beings who truly understand the beauty and horror of our world.
David Albahari is the Serbian-born Canadian author, most recently, of the novel Leeches. The book is a feat of magic, an existential philosophical novel that’s also funny and with enough mysteries to keep the reader guessing. It’s also one long paragraph — that’s right, a 300-page-long paragraph. Here, Mr. Albahari explains the motive behind his madness.
There are several reasons why I write my novels in one long paragraph. First of all, I simply like it, I like when black words completely cover the whiteness of paper. Secondly, I feel that when I write in a long paragraph, I am paying hommage to the writers who influenced me with their own long sentences and paragraphs – William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Bernhard. And finally, I write like that because I believe that a story or a novel is created in the joint effort between the writer and the reader through the act of reading. The long paragraph is like a dark labyrinth through which they have to find their way. Unfortunately, many readers would rather read books written in short sentences than a novel or a collection of short stories trying to explore new possibilities in the world of fiction. Perhaps they have had enough of postmodern and metafictional literature and believe they deserve a break? That might be why many of them recoil when they are faced with a novel written in a three-hundred-page-long paragraph, convinced that it is more difficult to read than a regular novel. That presumption is wrong because a one-paragraph novel also has its dialogues, descriptions, new paragraphs, and even new chapters. True, they are not so marked but any attentive reader will recognize them in the process of reading. Reading should always be fun, I agree, but it should also be for learning and understanding.
David Albahari is the author of the new novel Leeches. He will be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council’s Authors Blog.