The notebook

Ágota Kristóf wrote in 1986 “Le Grand Cahier” (The notebook), a short novel that, interestingly, contains a description of its own style.

It’s set in an unnamed war and tells the story of two twin brothers whose mother sents them to live with Grandmother to keep them away from the bombings. The brothers must adapt to a harder life, but show initiative by acquiring a notebook and pencils and teaching themselves ortography, arithmetics and -what’s relevant to us- composition. They write about their experiences -the daily chores, the soldier who occupies one of the rooms- and then correct each other’s work.

To decide whether it’s “Good” or “Not good”, we have a very simple rule: the composition must be true. We must describe what is, what we see, what we hear, what we do.

For example, it is forbidden to write, “Grandmother is like a witch”; but we are allowed to write, “Pleople call Grandmother the Witch”.

It is forbidden to write, “The Little Town is beautiful,” because the Little Town may be beautiful to us and ugly to someone else.

Similarly, if we write, “The orderly is nice,” this isn’t a truth, because the orderly may be capable of malicious acts that we know nothing about. So we would simply write, “the orderly has given us some blankets.”

We would write, “We eat a lot of walnuts,” and not “We love walnuts,” because the word “love” is not a reliable word, it lacks precision and objectivity. “To love walnuts” and “to love Mother” don’t mean the same thing. The first expression designates a pleasant taste in the mouth, the second a feeling. Words that define feelings are very vague. It is better to avoid using them and stick to the description of objects, human beings, and oneself, that is to say, the faithful description of facts.

Ágota Kristóf, “Le Grand Cahier” (The notebook)

(Español) Relatos en Psiqueactiva

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(Español) Múltiples narradores

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(Español) Día 11

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50 greatest novels for art students

Among the restless artists who gather here, not few of us care for more than literature. For those of you with a pictorial inclination, I present this list of “the 50 greatest novels for art students“, arguable as any list but full of gems, many of them little known, all of them crowded with painters, except for the presence as star guests of a duo of comic authors and an architect. There’s history and fiction, business and introspection. Explore, and let me know what your recommendations are. Do you miss any titles here?

Setting one’s literary standards

The Fish Can SingIn Iceland, a century ago, an older woman dictates a letter to Álfgrímur.

It was going to be a long-drawn-out business to compose this document. The woman was so fastidious in her choice of words that she made me cross it all out as fast as I wrote it down.

“We’ll tear up this awful rubbish,” she would say. And the few lines we had been struggling to compose for most of the day were consigned to oblivion. We went on like that for days on end. We never succeeded in expressing meticulously enough the kind of slops the calf was to be fed. By nightfall we were so exhausted that we were almost in a coma; and then we tore up the whole day’s output. This woman must surely have been descended from Snorri Sturluson. One thing is certain, that she never deviated from the most stringent standards of Icelandic prose style. Often when I myself am writing something, this woman comes to my mind again. Unfortunately, she failed to realize that one can set one’s literary standards so high that it becomes impossible to utter a single word or groan except at the very most to say A-a-a. Often these letter-writing sessions would end with the woman taking a fit. I would leave the cubicle, defeated, with the pen and stationary, and close the door.

from The Fish Can Sing, by Icelandic Nobel Prize winner Hálldor Laxness

(Español) Diálogos masivos