In the old, pre-Giuliani, pre-Disney Manhattan, the intersection at 42nd Street and 8th Avenue was known as Hell’s Corner—maybe because it bordered Hell’s Kitchen—and nearly thirty years ago, on the second floor of one of the peeling buildings along that notorious corridor, amid variously oriented sex shops, there was a place where you could sell blood for cash. The going rate, as I recall, was eight dollars a pint—a sum which must have seemed fair at the time, because I remember trying to peddle mine, only to be rejected because of an allergy to penicillin. I was twenty, and my disappointment at the stout nurse’s ruling was somewhat mitigated by a faint voice counseling against despair, whispering: Don’t worry, some day you’ll write about this.
And, finally, I have. Experience is grist; the grittier, the better. Homer in Book VIII of the Odyssey suggests that maybe Troy was burned to make a song for men to come; Mallarme proposed the world existed in order to end up in a book: How else justify the intensity of the feelings we invest in ephemeral humanity?
Further east you find a starker version of this line. My literary ancestors believed that social life itself was shaped by the contents of books. Dostoevsky didn’t merely reflect his age: He helped imagine the revolution into existence. The possessed clambered up not from the Russian steppes but out of his imagination, marching from there onto the world’s stage. In Tolstoy’s novella Hadji Murat, a Chechen freedom-fighter literally loses his head in the struggle against Imperial Russian troops, yet his spirit continues the battle to this day.
Such literary fundamentalism, which is partly responsible for Salman Rushdie’s misery, was transfigured into a thing of beauty by the Kabbalists for whom three letters—the aleph, the mem, and the shin—contained all potential elements and who sought and achieved ecstatic states by meditating on individual letters. According to the Sepher Yetzirah, as Borges explains in his essay On the Cult of Books, God created the universe by means of the cardinal numbers from one to ten and the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
How impoverished we would be feeding on the imagination of only one language. When Random House published its list of the hundred best novels of the century, one couldn’t help noticing how quickly it felt thin—not because the novel can’t support such a list, but because it is not, never has been, monolingual. Cervantes fathered it; Sterne expanded it; Balzac campaigned for it; Austen and Flaubert polished it; Tolstoy and Eliot used it; Kafka played with it; Knut Hamsun taught Hemingway to streamline it; Joyce and Woolf exploded it; Proust engorged it; Sarraute and Robbe-Grillet’s experiments provoked (and some would say insulted) it; Borges and Marquez, in very different ways, revived it; Calvino refreshed it. Today a number of writers around the world understand and use it as it should be deployed: as the medium which allows for the broadest possible exploration of being. Fiction tells us who we are, minting words for experiences and thoughts we hadn’t even known we’d had until we read them. And, despite the new technologies, it will continue, gathering strength wherever it finds passionate innovators.
Fiction is meditation, Western style. Buddhists returning from years-long retreats speak about the “psychotic spaces” they’ve explored—kindred surely to the ones writers, similarly isolated, chart, with a little more deliberation. The speculative, the impossible, the imaginary: these are the singular provinces of free minds. Imagination animates the material world with its own dreams and questions, floating possibilities which may have no external coordinates until a writer excavates enough shards of language to piece together a diagram or map of the psyche’s mercurial, receding borders.
What Milan Kundera defines so compellingly in his meditation on fiction, Testaments Betrayed, is the novel’s role in expanding consciousness, in helping us fend for, and with, our embodied selves. It was the novel which, in part, created us as individuals—the novel which, by serving as a mirror testifying to the depth and singularity of a solitary consciousness, proved the worth of exploring and nourishing the individual; and it is the novel which will continue to clarify those impressions and intuitions that might otherwise disappear like a lost civilization.
As Borges’ sometime enemy, Ernesto Sabato, reminds us, the novel was born out of the spiritual crisis of the Middle Ages, in a world suddenly uncertain about God. Sabato observes that from “Cervantes to Kafka, this was to be the great theme of the novel,” a response to the intersection of the forces of Christianity, science, and capitalism with its industrial—and now technological—revolution. I suppose that firm believers in the fixed texts of the past have no need of fiction. Meanwhile, those who are less than certain must rely on it more than ever as the medium in which the ancient questions—about love, morality, and being, concepts no exponent of the gigabyte will ever be able to chew—find their forum.
Just as scientists pursue solutions across national boundaries, so we expect that the renewal of literature can no longer, as it did in Eliot’s day, turn merely to the mind of Europe for clarification and self-definition. At AGNI we look forward to enlarging our own list of contributors, beyond the circles already established in our first three decades, to reflect the literary experiments of a global community. And we are pleased, in this issue, to honor a fiction writer and critic who has been central to ensuring that readers in the United States remain aware of the range of possibilities for literature. Susan Sontag is one of a handful of U.S. writers who has continued to inject our literary bloodstream with crucial transfusions: without her I wonder what would have been the fate of Benjamin, Canetti, and now Sebald. It is an honor to present her with the first Solomea Pavlychko Prize for Literary Criticism, and to thank her for her immense contribution.
Askold Melnyczuk is the founding editor of AGNI and contributes a series of essays called “Shadowboxing.” He is professor of creative writing at UMass Boston. Excerpts from his anti-memoir in progress have appeared recently in The Threepenny Review and Epiphany. The Epiphany excerpt, “Turbulence, Love,” was cited as Notable in The Best American Essays 2010. His third novel, The House of Widows (Graywolf Press), won the Editor’s Choice Award from the American Library Association as one of the outstanding books of 2008. His second novel, Ambassador of the Dead (Counterpoint, 2001) was called “exquisite, original” by The Washington Post, and his first, What Is Told (Faber and Faber), was a New York Times Notable Book for 1994.
In 1997 Melnyczuk received a Lila Wallace-Readers’ Digest Award in Fiction. Winner of the McGinnis Award in Fiction, he has also been awarded grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. He has published stories, poems, translations, and reviews in The New York Times, The Nation, The Partisan Review, Grand Street, Ploughshares, Poetry, and The Boston Globe. His poems have been included in various anthologies, including The McGraw-Hill Book of Poetry, Literature: The Evolving Canon, and Under 35: The New Generation of American Poets. He has edited three volumes in the Graywolf Take Three Poetry Series, as well as a volume of tributes to Father Daniel Berrigan and a livre d’artiste on painter Gerry Bergstein. He also coedited From Three Worlds: New Writing from Ukraine.
He previously taught at Harvard University, the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars, and Boston University, where he edited AGNI until its thirtieth anniversary year in 2002. A research associate of the Ukrainian Institute at Harvard, he has served on the boards of the New England Poetry Club and PEN New England and has been a fellow of the Boston Foundation. In 2001 he received PEN American Center’s biennial Nora Magid Award for Magazine Editing as well as PEN New England’s “Friend to Writers” Award.
Melnyczuk founded AGNI in 1972 as an undergraduate at Antioch College. (updated 9/2018)
See him interviewed on New England Authors.