Anything and Nothing

Stephen Mitchelmore, This Space of Writing

Zero, 132pp, £15.99, ISBN 9781782799801

reviewed by Alex Wealands

What is literature? This question continues to elude a satisfactory answer accounting for the all the intricate nuances and inconsistencies of writing, interpretation, imagination and reality. It is with this conviction that Lars Iyer is able to write, in his introduction to Stephen Mitchelmore’s This Space of Writing, that this collection of essays is for ‘the writer for whom literature is in some way a problem.’ It is not so much that Mitchelmore attempts to definitively answer this question of literature; rather, in a similar vein to theorists like Maurice Blanchot, he delves into the experience of words following their myriad interpretations to their limits before throwing them back again into the abyss. In an essay on ‘What Ever Happened to Modernism?’ Mitchelmore claims, ‘the problem for the critic is that this essential experience of reading cannot be easily discussed outside the special conditions bestowed by reading itself.’

Selected from a 10-year period of blog posts from his website, This Space, this collection of 44 essays, weaves through diverse topics from Nick Cave’s The Death of Bunny Munro to the novels of Karl Ove Knausgaard, and from the Moai on Easter Island to the act of reading itself, providing critical insight and counter-readings to traditional analyses. It is with this approach that Mitchelmore is able to probe deeper past subjectivity and authorial intentions into topics such as experience. When looking at Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe Trilogy, Mitchelmore is able to bypass existing reviews and their preoccupation with the vain quest for meaning, instead asking simple questions such as: ‘Why is Frank Bascombe writing this?’ Mitchelmore locates the ‘unique quality’ of the trilogy in the very process of its writing. It is the experience of reading and writing that is of paramount importance for Mitchelmore:

There is nothing ‘at base’ from which to build except experience itself: experience of reality and experience of its absence. It is made, that is, from inside the distance between imagination and reality.

At one point, while discussing a case of mistaken identity in literature, Mitchelmore states that ‘life remains hooded by such fictions.’ If reality is subject to interpretation and is shown to be veiled, this begs the question how a fiction can be stated as fact or interpretation as fact, if the materials of its composition are just as questionable as the end product. The answer seems to lie in the short piece, ‘Non-Writer’s Room’ in which Mitchelmore describes the room in which he does not write. The objects described are situated in one place, his desk. It would be a banality to state what the desk means to a writer. On and around this desk are the tools of writing both ancient and modern: a notepad, a pen, and a candle; a computer and a lamp. Questions abound, we are left at the end of the essay contemplating the contradictions we have just read, and yet the answers are there in front of us, hidden in plain sight. What is writing? Writing can be anything and at the same time is nothing. And in the case of anything or nothing, even if writing is a nothing, it is a nothingness composed of something.

The gap between reading and writing is a strange space indeed. Imagination, for Mitchelmore, is a never-ending process; his remark that whilst reading ‘we plunge into the breach that opens up between possibility and actuality,’ recalls Borges’ observation that fact is a web of circumstance and accident, that if we approach modern literature with a search for total cohesion providing an exegesis of reality itself, we are forever bound to disappointment. Or, as Mitchelmore notes in his critique of David Sheilds’ Reality Hunger (2010), ‘to raise the opposition of art and reality immediately raises the question of what both art and reality are in themselves.’ Mitchelmore’s approach to literature is one with the conviction of hope. Even when we read non-fiction by writers such as Geoff Dyer, Mitchelmore argues we still have the same eagerness and passivity to be seduced into meaning as we get with fiction; the only difference is authorial sincerity. ‘The magical force of fiction has been renewed elsewhere, in light disguise. Behold, the emperor.’

Throughout these essays, Mitchelmore returns frequently to figures such as Beckett, Proust, Kafka and Blanchot, who for him exemplify not only the problems surrounding the construction of literature as art, but also how reality has been experienced by these writers and in turn has been presented by them through their work. Rather than adding to the ever expanding critical output on these writers, Mitchelmore instead uses his own interpretation of these figures to enter into a contemporary reading of more recent fiction. Thus he defends JM Coetzee’s essayistic novel, Diary of a Bad Year (2007) as fiction, calling Giles Foden’s judgement ‘at best ignorant, at worst disturbingly intolerant’; elsewhere, he seamlessly intertwines Blanchot’s reading of suicide with his own on clinical depression and the suicide of David Foster Wallace, noting that the hope embodied in a lengthy work like Infinite Jest (1996) is not only reflected in the writer but in its readers too, which was confirmed in his opinion by their responses to Wallace’s death.

Mitchelmore offers a keen insight into contemporary literature: whether discussing the contradictory ease and impossibility of describing Mathias Enard’s Zone (2008), or the peculiar ghost-like nature of the second-person narrative of Paul Auster’s Winter Journal (2012), the question of literature or writing in the 21st century is always at the forefront of his concerns. Readers of Blanchot may be quick to notice the similarities with Blanchot’s own The Space of Literature (1982). As Blanchot delved deeper into the question of what ‘literature’ is, he began to substitute the word ‘writing,’ and it is no coincidence that Mitchelmore, too, eventually settles on this devastatingly simple definition.
Alex Wealands is a writer based in London.