Wednesday 13 February 2013

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

There’s a passage in Hisham Matar’s novel In the Country of Men which has stayed with me since I first read the book five or six years ago. In it the protagonist, nine-year-old Suleiman, goes to visit a relative of his and sits on a couch in the lounge. On sitting down he makes a funny noise which sounds more like a fart than anything else. He immediately rearranges himself on the sofa in a way that causes him to make the same noise again, thus stopping his relative from thinking that he’s let one drop.

The scene is very short, just a couple of lines long. It is completely irrelevant to the novel’s plot and yet, in its mundaneness I found magic.

When I read fiction, I seek entertainment but also affinity. I take the place of the main character or characters and buy into their life story. I immerse myself in their surroundings and partake of their conflicts. Along the way I enjoy the author’s prose, his or her use of metaphors and similes and the occasional or regular dollop of experimentation. But from time to time, I do also get carried away by a phenomenon I’ve come to label the “wonderful moments of real-life quotidianness”. These are sentences or phrases that strike me for their prosaicness and make me look up from the page. In the example quoted above, when I read the book, I remember thinking at the time that I’d done the same thing Suleiman had done on a few occasions before. In fact, my son did it a couple of weeks ago when we were watching a movie. He came into the lounge, sat down and made a funny noise. Straight away he shot up and said: “That wasn’t what you think it was, it was the sofa.” As if to convince us he sat back down and made the same noise and we all laughed about it.

I, too, laughed when I read the passage with nine-year-old Suleiman. In a novel about the Qaddafi regime and the brutality of it, you need these light-hearted moments. I don’t think Hisham Matar included that scene with a specific purpose in mind. That scene just happened. In the same way characters breathe, but we don’t notice their inhalation/exhalation processes until one of them “sighs with disappointment”. These mundane moments don’t exist for a particular reason. I even doubt they’re thought through properly. And yet, I notice them for their clarity, ubiquity and, above all, for a reality that mirrors mine. We’re so used to well-crafted and nuanced sentences and paragraphs. We can only hazard a guess at the lengths the writer has gone to in order to produce a fine specimen for us readers to devour. However, a novel or short story is also full of unguarded, non-transcendental moments.

For example, in Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man, the main character, Alex-Li Tandem travels to New York from London looking for the autograph of erstwhile film star Kitty Alexander. In one passage in the novel Alex is about to cross a busy road in the Big Apple when he is pulled back before stepping off the kerb. The problem? He has looked right instead of looking left. Again, this moment has no significance within the book’s grand narratives: both the search for a father-like figure to fill up the gap left behind by Alex’s dad’s death and the nature of celebrity. Nevertheless, I remember this scene because the same (although the other way around) happened to me when I moved to the Big Smoke from Havana. Even if no one pulled me off the road at the last minute, I do recall feeling confused as to which way to look when crossing a street.

Well-written books trigger off chemical reactions in us through a mix of tropes and reality. Whilst he former continues to be the reason why I read fiction, it is the latter that occasionally gives me a satisfaction that no metaphor, no matter how well-placed, can beat. Even if this “wonderful moment of real-life quotidianness” arrives wrapped up in the sound of what could be (but isn’t) a fart.

© 2013

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 17th February at 10am (GMT)


  1. I always like your musings on literature, Cuban. This book sounds fascinating, and when I think of you and how I first began to read your blog and visit you here, I remember your love of Zadie Smith, too.

  2. Very true, well written ones suck us in adding to it with the little things. The sofa though? likely story lol

  3. true..i love finding the magic in the mundane and seeing that make it into books as well...i love to read man so i will def add these to the list as i am not sure i have read...i like to feel immersed in a book...not all books can do that...

  4. Una buena reacción de hacer ruido para no intimidar a la persona.

    Te cuento una vez mi marido hizo la broma con una sobrina muy tímida poniéndole un cojín que cuando uno se sentaba sonaba a pedo.

    Un abrazo

  5. Moments like the ones you mention seem to be universal. So many people can relate to them. It makes us feel connected when we have similar experiences that are somewhat mundane.

  6. always dangerous when i start reading a book that pulls me in completely as i really can't stop reading...ha...smiled at the looking to the wrong side...always happens to me in london...thankful they have warning signs painted on the streets everywhere..smiles

  7. This is nice I love how Brian say I really inmersend in a book, and forget all around, the last book I read I feel alone when I finish...
    bbok are the best for me!

  8. You know, I think it's for exactly this reason that I struggle to find satisfaction in mainstream movies. I don't want explosions and car chases and slapped faces.

    I want people in a room where nothing happens. There is a moment in the movie adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's REMAINS OF THE DAY during which Anthony Hopkins' butler character, emoting nothing, briefly touches his face, and even the memory of that restraint brings tears to my eyes.

    In other words: yes, Cuban. Oh, yes.

  9. As to be confused which way to look before crossing the street -from right-handed traffic to left, as in the UK, it's confusing enough. Yet, there's still order. When my son in China pulled me across the street while cars were still coming, it was heart stopping! But after a week I was used to the chaotic traffic and could pick out the tourists -they all waited for the red light to become green. The rest wriggled their way in-between-traffic to the other side, even in Beijing:)

  10. This is SO much the way I feel about literature - including poetry - it's a real treat to hear some other person saying these things. You had me grabbed with When I read fiction, I seek entertainment but also affinity. So I was all ready with my "Amen" when I read of your wonderful moments of real-life quotidianness. I love this phrase, but even more I delight in what you mean by it. Thank you for such a pleasurable read.

  11. Moments like these are common to us all, aren't they?
    When I watch a block buster movie with it's car chases and shoot-outs, I know I could never live like that for real. Wouldn't want all that adrenaline pumping around my body! Hehe :D
    NO. I much prefer those times spent sipping coffee with a good friend - you know, those mundane moments of real life!

    The sofa?
    Don't believe it for a moment! Hehe:D

  12. those sound like great reads!
    i shall definitely add these to my to-read list.

    another great article, cuban!
    you do have a way with words.

    happy weekend~:)

  13. funny! yes, I think that authors make it look way to easy to write a book...I could never think of all of the small things that make a book an enjoyable. There is nothing better than a literary work that sweeps you right into the story line ~ got to love that!

  14. seems like books I should try to find. :)

  15. So interesting. They are also moments that make a book feel real - give it verisimilitude and a kind of depth you can scratch a bit. Thanks! k.

  16. I guess that we all, who enjoy reading so much, get caught in the stories we read and become part of it .Sometimes we become the main character, some others we're like his/her voice in the brain telling things they only sometimes hear if we're able to predict what is going to happen.Those little things that happen connect us with the character.

  17. There is so much magic in books...I have loved to read since I was small. I will add these to my reading list :)

  18. Many thanks for your kind comments. Great to read your own experiences with traffic in other countries and sofas (smiles conspiratorially).

    Greetings from London.

  19. Your post reminded me of a trip I made to the Lake District to the island that most resembles the island Arthur Ransome used in Swallows and Amazons. We approached it by canoe. It was so close to what is described in the book (a rocky, secret harbour) the effect was uncanny: it was almost as if we were trapped between the covers of the book and would have to make an effort to step back into the real world which we did, later, a tad reluctantly!

  20. A good book leaves footprints that shine in the dark long after the reading. It can help me reimagine what is possible. A schematic view. ~Mary



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