Thursday, February 23, 2017
Butor's Letters from the Antipodes is a reaction to Australia but not a book about Australia; for though the material it draws on is factual documentation it is not a factual book. The complexity of the structure, its dependence on interruptions, somehow places the facts into the context of an impression, without the network of dependence that facts are supposed to have on one another.
Perhaps the sense of independence (of things happening on their own and being reported on) is essential to the impression that factual things are happening; that a piece of writing is factual. When, instead, you have the feelings of the author replacing the independence of natural logic, its networks being assumed into one central thing (that is somehow understood as if it were not natural, or it's natural but not nature …).
Pam Brown's article in the latest issue of Cordite ends by suggesting that Antipodes is a book for the internet age since "within the framework the reader is able to scroll or to browse fluidly and open the text up to a thematic encounter at any chosen point." I've been going back and forth over that idea ever since I read it, first disagreeing because the machinery you would have to learn before you could "browse fluidly" seems so perverse, and the author's presence, as I've said, is always with you, never invisible in the way that the intelligence of the internet seems invisible (Butor's invocation of Raymond Roussel is not appropriate only because they both visited the same continent).
But Butor's book is like the internet in that it does not mimic or complement any of its fragments: it is not sympathetic to Captain Cook's memoir, it does not mind that the Nude Girls ads in the Brisbane Courier-Mail were not written to be run together in one line; it does not care that the Jules Verne novel it borrows from, In Search of the Castaways, 1867-68, is supposed to be a tense adventure, it will arrest the action whenever it likes. Likewise the internet does not care if an article or story was written to reward sustained attention from the reader; it will exert a resistance to the structure of the individual objects; it will shatter and disturb them, it will subvert them with its sustained lack of care and attention, which is apparently eternal and bottomless, and will outlast whatever effort they can exert; it asserts itself as the dominant framework through which the world is anticipated.
You notice that though Butor described himself as an author who was addressing a subject (Australia) to French readers who were generally unfamiliar with it ("I feel that I'm a pioneer in French literature"), he does not try to make it clear and felt, whereas his Spirit of Mediterranean Places, 1986, describing countries they would already know, is clear and plainly written.