Yesterday, based on a comment I received while giving a paper a week ago, I was trying to figure out whether Auster's In the Country of Last Things
is an epistolary novel. I went hunting for Janet Altman's book Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form
in the library, and it turned out to be one of the ghost books (I've come across several in recent years) that exist on the catalog but not on the shelf. Most of these cases are probably due to misplacement, which basically amounts to the same thing as having the copy burned.
In mild frustration, I spent the better part of the next few hours working on something else: summarising a book of semiotic analysis on the literary representation of space, analysing Beckett's brand of nihilism, meditating on the strange interdependence of perfectionism and insecurity in the work of writing (Beckett again: "No sooner is the ink dry than it revolts me"). While browsing the list of Rodopi
's publication series and downloading a few obscure but useful articles, I came across an interesting journal: Matatu: Journal for African Culture and Society.
Having just returned from Uganda, the name of the journal strikes me as a brilliant metaphor. Let me quote the editors:
Matatu is animated by a lively interest in African culture and literature (including the Afro-Caribbean) that moves beyond worn-out clichés of ‘cultural authenticity’ and ‘national liberation’ towards critical exploration of African modernities. The East African public transport vehicle from which Matatu takes its name is both a component and a symbol of these modernities: based on ‘Western’ (these days usually Japanese) technology, it is a vigorously African institution; it is usually regarded with some anxiety by those travelling in it, but is often enough the only means of transport available; it creates temporary communicative communities and provides a transient site for the exchange of news, storytelling, and political debate.
After breathing out the scholarly fumes of the matatu, I discovered that I have been writing about atopia
in one of the original meanings of utopia
. Thanks, Thomas More. On to other things.
Eventually, I did come back to the original question on Auster and epistolarity. According to a secondary source, Altman defines the epistolary genre in part through reciprocity. The anticipation of a reply, of the receiver and the writer swapping roles in the future, belongs to the basic premises of letter writing. In one sense, it occurred to me, the letter resembles the gift as defined by Derrida; it always presupposes a level of exchange. In Auster, although the letter is framed as an act of communication, the potential for a reply seems nonexistent. The act is doomed to be a monologue. Therefore the epistolary novel, declared a dead genre long ago anyhow, hardly offers a very relevant frame of reference.
Glad I got that settled. Makes a decent footnote.Post Scriptum
: Why on earth would anyone want to bring productivity-based thinking into the academia? The annual number of degrees does not say much, really. They would have to count the words and assess their quality one by one.