Arnon Grunberg

Language as Explosive

If a thousand people receive a flu inoculation and nine hundred and eighty of them don’t get the flu in the course of the next year, we can probably speak of an effective inoculation. But how do we recognize an effective sentence? What makes for an effective paragraph, and why do we say that one story is more effective, and therefore better, than another? If we were to put together a list of the 100 best novels of the century, which has been done quite often lately, what criteria would we apply? Is there public consensus about those criteria, can we publish those criteria and then say: yes, these 100 books live up to everyone’s criteria and those others don’t - or maybe they do, but then to a much lesser extent? And if none of this is possible, wouldn’t we have done just as well to put together a list of the 100 best sideshow barkers of the century? Or would a list like that simply be less entertaining, because so many people want to write while only few wish to become a sideshow barker?
The following proposition seems sensible enough to me: science is science if it is recognized as science.
It does not automatically follow from this that the 100 best books of the century are the 100 best books of the century if they are recognized as such, although that seems a sensible proposition to me as well.
Notwithstanding that, I always think it’s nice of critics to occasionally fill us in a little on the criteria they apply. The following sentence, for example, comes from a review by the Dutch critic Ger Groot, and deals with the novel Full Moon by the Spaniard Munoz Molina: “Portraying the horror in such a way that we accept it as a part of life has long been one of the major assignments for literature, and probably for most forms of art.”
I have a tendency to agree with Ger Groot. Although I believe that we’re better off not giving assignments to literature, that we are better off leaving it to get on by itself, on a little carpet, the way children at a Montessori School are sometimes left to themselves on a little carpet.
But now that Ger Groot and I are in agreement, the problems really start. For what does he mean by “the horror”? Do I mean the same thing? A dictionary is of little or no help in this case. Groot could have written a footnote to explain himself, something along the lines of: “…by ‘the horror’ I mean…”, but that would have made his review unfit for newspaper publication, because newspapers tend not to like footnotes. In fact, I don’t like them either, and I’m sure Groot wouldn’t have left it at just one.
Does a man who sits staring out his window all day fall under “the horror,” or does he have to be an arms dealer? Does blood have to be involved? It seems to me that agreements concerning the value and significance of numbers are much more precise than those dealing with the value and significance of words. Yet if we spoke and wrote in numbers, there would probably be no literature - not because I think it’s impossible to tell a story by numbers, but because literature exists by grace of that very imprecision. I also suspect that it would be much more difficult to express irony and sarcasm in numbers, because irony and sarcasm also owe their existence to the imprecision with which the meaning of words is staked out. Sensible, educated people can disagree about almost any sentence made up of words, at least when the subject is the meaning and interpretation of that sentence.
If we regard the railway timetable as one long poem - and why shouldn’t we, long poems are sometimes born by chance as well - then I could spend the rest of my life providing an exegesis of that poem. For even the railway timetable, although it consists largely of numbers, is no unequivocal poem. I am not sure, in fact, whether a life’s work that consisted of writing a footnote to a railway timetable would be founded on any greater foolishness than the writing of a novel, although the latter is probably a better idea from a financial perspective.

If a woman is called “Pot o’ Lard,” as in the story of the same name by Guy de Maupassant (1850 – 1893), then that is a metaphor. Because no one is really called “Pot o’ Lard ”, a woman is being compared here to a pot of lard, the way Hemingway once compared hills to white elephants, and at a certain point that woman has been compared to a pot of lard so often that people start calling her “Pot o’ Lard”.
If Maupassant had started by explaining: “By Pot o’ Lard, I mean…” we would all have shouted “No, stop!”, or his editor would have shouted that and crossed it out. Even though there is a distinct possibility that my fantasies concerning the term “pot o’ lard” differ from Maupassant’s. One reader may feel attracted to a woman called “Pot o’ Lard”, another may not, while a third may say: “Fine by me, as long as she’s my grandmother.” Yet all three of them could equally enjoy the story “Pot o’Lard”.
In daily life as well, it seems, we express ourselves to a large extent in metaphors which we do not go on to explain, thereby greatly increasing the chance of misunderstandings. Although I must admit, some metaphors are more confusing than others. (The number of possible interpretations of “pot of lard” are undoubtedly far fewer than those of “the horror” or “God”.)
Anyone wishing to argue that he interprets the sum of $78.54 as $21.45 has fewer legitimate arguments at his disposal than someone who says “a family reunion also falls under ‘the horror’.”

Language requires a certain degree of faith. One must believe that there is sense in comparing a lady to a pot of lard, and that this comparison tells us something about the lady in question. To be touched by language, one must not only understand the language involved, but one must also believe that one has understood the writer (or speaker).
A person who is insulted to hear that his teeth resemble garden tools (another of Maupassant’s metaphors) must not only understand what is being compared with what, but must also have come to the conclusion that it is not a desirable property of teeth to resemble garden tools. And there the shady area begins, for teeth are meant to chop things fine, and some garden tools are quite excellently suited for chopping, so perhaps the speaker meant nothing more than “my, what a sturdy set of choppers you have.”

The explosive TNT, on the other hand, requires no faith whatsoever. No one who is maimed by that explosive or blown to smithereens by it need believe a thing; they can, in fact, be illiterate, blind, deaf and mute. Therein lies an important difference between language and explosives, and one reason why the effectivity of TNT is easier to measure than that of language. I can only hope that the man who calls the Amsterdam police at six o’clock to announce that the national war monument on the Dam will be blown up with TNT at midnight will avail himself of the right words, that he may be believed, and that his message may not be misconstrued.

In the past I have claimed that literature should, first and foremost, entertain the reader. Not because I believe that mankind deserves to be entertained, on the contrary. And not because I want to prohibit literature from aiming for the elevated - the desire to entertain seems reasonably elevated to me – nor because I feel that the reader should not be prompted to think. That’s all fine by me. Although I believe that anyone who only starts thinking once he’s opened a novel has started too late. What’s more, I regard prompting the reader to think - whatever that metaphor actually means - as a form of entertainment. In fact, a reasonable definition of the acquisition of knowledge would seem to me to be “entertainment for snobs”. If any legitimacy can be claimed for literature, it is found in the diversion it can, and often does, provide. Portraying the horror in a way we can accept is a fine, perhaps even poignantly noble, profession, but if writers seriously start viewing this as their assignment we must be on our guard. And even if a writer truly believes that portrayal to be his assignment, he would – for reasons of hygiene – be better off suppressing that fact for all time, like a skeleton in the family closet. We can, of course, also legitimize the use of TNT with the argument that people are entertained by watching buildings and other people being blown apart on TV, but literature has fewer nasty side-effects, and language offers more opportunities for variation than dynamite.

Now I would like to call your attention to a writer who wrote as though language itself were an explosive. In view of his life, it seems likely to me that he lived that way as well, but his life is not what I’m talking about here.
That writer’s name is Guy de Maupassant, and his short stories and novellas and a portion of his correspondence deserve to be read and discussed.
Maupassant claimed that he wrote for money, and that he hated his profession. And when writers make claims like that, it often speaks well for the quality of their work. In a letter to Marie Bashkirtseff in 1883, De Maupassant wrote: “The remaining third (of my time – AG) will be devoted to the writing of lines which I shall then sell as dearly as possible, regretting that I am compelled to practice this terrible profession.” But in an essay written in 1880, Maupassant claimed that his friend and mentor Gustave Flaubert did not write for fame or fortune at all, but exclusively out of a passion for literature. And Maupassant leaves no doubt that any serious writer should follow Flaubert’s example.
The one passion does not rule out the other. One can love literature and money, Madame X and Madame Y, life and death with equal passion and on one and the same day. Many of Maupassant’s stories are about passions which are not mutually exclusive, and their consequences.
In his essays on Flaubert, Maupassant lets admiration carry him into grandiloquence, but he also makes a few comments about Flaubert’s style that are worth noting, and I suspect that those comments secretly apply to his own style as well.
Style is one of those concepts like “the horror”. The domain of interpretation is infinite.
According to Maupassant, style is not a tic peculiar to a given writer; in fact, one should not even be able to recognize a writer by his style. Style is entirely subservient to the thought the writer wishes to express. And Flaubert was past master at precisely that, Maupassant said.
Now this is how I understand him: style limits the possible interpretations of a sentence or paragraph, and creates the distinct possibility that the reader will read and understand what it is the writer wished to express.
A convoluted sentence, with three parenthetical clauses at curious locations, will therefore not assist in shaping a thought in such a way that the reader can share in the writer’s original intention.
If language is the phone connection, style is the secret frequency which keeps interference and static at bay, even in enemy territory, and which therefore allows the writer to perform his manipulations.
But let’s take a look at what Maupassant himself has written. I begin with the opening paragraph of his first letter to Marie Bashkirtseff.
Maupassant has just received letter from Bashkirtseff in which she announces that she hopes to be the confidante of his noble soul.
From Cannes, he writes back to her in 1880: “Madame, my letter will certainly not be the one you were waiting for. First of all, I would like to thank you for your good intentions concerning my person, and for your kind compliments. And now let us speak to each other as sensible people.” Maupassant does something ingenious here. He begins by announcing that his letter is not the one B. is waiting for. But then what letter is it? And why did he write back? Only to be polite? And, above all, pay careful attention to the word “certainly”.
“My letter will not be the one you were waiting for,” is not only less powerful in its rhythm, but also suggests that the writer is hesitating, that perhaps he would like to write the letter for which B. is waiting, but is afraid that he is unable to do so. The explosive charge is attached to the word “certainly”.
In the second line he deals with her compliments and intentions, in fact with her whole letter, and the explosive is in “concerning my person”. That addition, “concerning my person”, gives you the impression that Maupassant doesn’t believe in her good intentions at all.
The dynamite in the third line is packed in the phrase “as sensible people”. Because this clause suggests that no sensible word has yet been spoken, not in her letter, and not in his own polite word of thanks. With those three words he not only blasts her letter to pieces, but also his own introduction.
In one of his essays, Maupassant claimed that an elegant style is not to be the writer’s principal aim. What he means, I believe, is that a style not in the service of the thought is a style without an explosive charge. Maupassant’s own style I regard as extremely elegant. First of all, it bodes well that something written more than 100 years ago reads as if it had been written this morning. See too his simple sentences, which seemingly demand so little of the reader, but which contain a huge amount of information.
Furthermore, Maupassant seems to have understood that written language, by definition, is derived from spoken language, and he takes pains never to wander too far from that spoken language.
He also knew how to pick his details; he often needs no more than two or three to imbue a character with color and life.
The following sentence, for example, is found in the short story “Marauca”: “Her husband was a state official. I never knew exactly what post he held. I noticed only that it kept him very busy, and I asked nothing more.”

For a long time I thought that my liking for Maupassant’s stories was based on his predilection for the ghastly, for the horror, if you will.
A blind man whose parents die, who is taken in by his sister, mishandled, and who finally freezes to death.
Pot o’ Lard who must sleep with a Prussian officer in order to help her traveling companions across the Prussian lines. And who, once she’s surrendered her virtue, is treated like a mangy cur by those same traveling companions.
A married woman who goes to Paris in a passionate search for sin, and who comes to the conclusion that sin is largely a disappointment.
In a letter to Marie Bashkirtseff, Maupassant himself provides a wonderful compendium of his universe: “I am fairly indifferent to everything in life: men, women, events. That is my true credo. And I would add what you will not believe, that I have just as little regard for myself as I do for those others. Everything boils down to boredom, farce and misery.” Boredom, farce and misery, those are the building blocks of Maupassant’s universe. Along with the passions that flow from boredom, farce and misery. In a perfect world, some passions are mutually exclusive, but Maupassant does not portray a perfect world. He portrays an indifferent world, for even indifference and passion are not mutually exclusive.
One should read one of Maupassant’s stories or letters every night before going to bed. And do that every night for a year.
And then one final quote from his letters to Marie Bashkirtseff, just to get you warmed up: “Are you truly skinny? Not too, I dare say? I would be inconsolable if I felt I had been writing back and forth with a skinny correspondent. And when it comes to strange women, my suspicion knows no bounds.”