Thought for the Day: the novel

A novel in its earliest form, before it begins to be rendered into language, is a cloud of sorts that hovers over the writers head, a mystery born with clues to its own meanings but also, at its heart, insoluble. One hopes – a novel is inevitably an expression of unreasonable hopes – that the finished book will contain not only characters and scenes but a certain larger truth, though that truth, whatever it may be, is impossible to express fully in words. It has to do with the fact that writer and reader both know, beneath the level of active consciousness, something about being alive and mortal, and that that something, when we try and express it, inevitably eludes us. We are creatures whose innate knowledge exceeds that which can be articulated. Although language is enormously powerful, it is concrete, and so it can’t help but miniaturize, to a certain extent, that which we simply know. All the writers I respect want to write a book so penetrating and thorough, so compassionate and relenting, that it can stand unembarrassed beside the spectacle of life itself. And all writers I respect seem to know (though no one likes to talk about it) that our efforts are doomed from the outset. Life is bigger that literature. We do the best we can. Some of us do better than others.

— Michael Cunningham, from the introduction to the soon to be released new translation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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