Without a sympathetic audience, Writing Love falls flat

Khalil Sweileh's cartoonish, buffoonish narrator is not an interesting enough character for his psychological intricacies to sustain the weight of a novel.
Writing Love by Khalil Sweileh
Writing Love by Khalil Sweileh

At a time when hybrid genres are all the rage in the art world, literature has seen the emergence of a particularly powerful variant that might be called "the novel as essay". Its godfathers are two Frenchmen named Jacques - Lacan and Derrida - who turned their lectures into omnivorous forms that devoured all manner of texts and who used healthy doses of irony and absurdity to create public personae. As with the work of the two Jacques, the novels in this emergent genre delight in pastiche, appropriation, the elevation of inquiry over answers, and the construction of authorial doppelgängers.

Writing Love, the first of the acclaimed Syrian novelist Khalil Sweileh's books to be translated into English, is a worthy entrant into this genre. The book is a loose chronicle of an unnamed narrator's attempt to write a novel very much like the one we are reading. It is intended to be a love story, albeit an unconventional one: a bricolage of foundational texts (Borges, Alberto Manguel, the Arabic writer Al Jahiz, Gabriel García Márquez and Milan Kundera are all name-checked in the book's first pages), ongoing love affairs in his own life, contemporary Syria, and his own fleeting memories. The highly diffuse, meandering plot consists of the twists and turns of the narrator's relationship with two women he's pursuing, his novelistic aspirations, and his many random asides.

In its very palpable search for a plot, Writing Love intuits how great books can impose themselves on one's life story. Early in the book the narrator recalls an impossible love he experienced as an adolescent in his hometown. Comparing the young lady to the similarly impossible lover Remedios in García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, the narrator muses, "without a doubt I knew that she was Remedios and that I had to get to know her right away before she flew off in one of the bed sheets that I imagined her in". Just as he imposes García Márquez's thoughts on this youthful episode, the narrator will continue to shape his life around the narratives of the great books he reads. It is a sign of both the underappreciated influence of the prefabricated narratives that surround us and the wilful hermeticism bibliophiles subject themselves to as they celebrate their favoured books. As one character says to the narrator, "the letter is the storehouse of my secret".

But even if the narrator's love of books can lead to distortions, it is hard to dismiss it as mere self-indulgence. He admirably fights for personal reading over the academic variety, telling a grad student, "the important thing is that you graduate. After that, you can throw half of these novels into the garbage." Elsewhere he viciously satirises pompous literary culture, imagining an agricultural bank where best-selling novels are among the items "that must be submitted before a loan is completed". The image of the illiterate farmers dutifully submitting these books is rich, as is the implication that this is how the popular, mediocre authors of the day sell so many copies. Of one such author he remarks, "a gaseous odour emanated from him, the result of a rhetoric cooked in ghee".

Throughout Writing Love, Sweileh blends this two-sided love of books with a similar love of romance, and frequently the narrator's dutiful allegiance to literature turns him into a ridiculous romancer. At one point he reads Ovid's admonitions to would-be ladykillers, finding them "like musical keys for the piece of music I hope to play with the skill of a maestro". Ovid instructs our narrator to "sit close beside her … the narrowness of the space compels you to press against her".

When our narrator attempts to follow this advice, the results are mixed: his prey tells him "you're embarrassing me", although his odd attentions serve as a good enough pretext for a conversation, where he eventually intrigues her. Ever the literary lover, when he gets home he prepares for the next step in the seduction by losing himself in his copy of The Hindu Art of Love.

Such material might easily become pompous or ponderous, but it is tempered here by the comic irony of the narrator's voice. Sweileh has wisely given his protagonist an endearingly vain confidence in his romantic and literary abilities, which gives rise to numerous delightful gags. One of the best comes when the narrator declares his belief that "toes are the final measure of a woman's beauty". This obsession goes so far that he hires a photographer to take shots of women's feet at a gala, but the results are less than desired: the photos "looked like they were taken for a medical magazine on paralysis or foot tumours". He throws the portfolio back and then begins to muse on how he will get past the socks of a woman he wants to seduce, so he can get a good look at her feet before he declares his affections. Ever bound up in himself, however, he lets his attention wander to getting a rare source book for his novel from the Library of Ahmed III in Istanbul.

The most interesting thing about Writing Love is how the book sustains an uncertainty between the novel that we are reading and the one that the protagonist is supposedly writing. There is a frequent sense of inversion, as though what we have just read was actually part of the novel-within-a-novel, or vice versa.

The narrator's delicious unreliability leaves the book's action in doubt: it might very well all be fiction. This gives the book a pleasing instability, and Sweileh tips us to the reason behind this instability when he quotes Milan Kundera; he notes the great Czech author's distaste for novels that culminate in a "final denouement where the meaning of all that came before it is concentrated". Kundera prefers novels that are "insusceptible to being narrated", that is, books that resist being easily condensed or summed up. That is what Sweileh has boldly attempted here, giving us a greatly fragmented, unstable book that pushes up against the boundaries of what a novelistic plot might contain. It is not for nothing that the narrator notes how his notebook looks "like a war map".

Sweileh's work has much to recommend it, but the problem with literary pastiches like this is that they tend to become baggy, and this is where Writing Love falters. Without a strong organising conceit, this genre runs the risk of being little more than a catalogue of the protagonist's idiosyncrasies. That need not always be a problem, but Sweileh's cartoonish, buffoonish narrator is not an interesting enough character for his psychological intricacies to sustain the weight of a novel.

Contrast Writing Love with Enrique Vila-Matas' 2001 work Bartleby & Co (translated in 2004). Similar in feel and construction to Writing Love, that book's unnamed protagonist decides to write a collection of footnotes on the theme of writers who chose to quit writing.

Whereas Writing Love's numerous texts feel as though they are held together by little more than general notions of love and writing, the many texts Vila-Matas builds into Bartleby & Co each contribute to the strange, precise idea he shapes his novel around: the impossibility of writing silence. By the time one has reached the end, Bartleby & Co has developed a heft that Writing Love distinctly lacks.

Likewise, other better entries in this genre show a greater capacity for synthesis than does Sweileh. Although he has a good eye for epigrammatic quotations and his satire can be pleasingly sharp, very little in Writing Love feels new or revelatory. The book does not contain strong readings of the source texts that inspired it, and the links between them too often feel cursory.

At length, Writing Love is a pleasant, but hardly necessary, stroll through the familiar terrain of the aesthetic life. There will be much here to please sympathetic readers, but little that will remain after the book has been closed. It shows Sweileh as a writer of talent, albeit one who did not succeed in finding his correct form.

Scott Esposito is the author of The End of Oulipo? An Attempt to Exhaust a Literary Movement, forthcoming from Zero Books.

Published: August 18, 2012 04:00 AM

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