Inventing the Novel from ScratchSix NYRB Classics

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Geoffrey O’Brien, a longstanding contributor to The New York Review of Books, has chosen this collection of six NYRB Classics, now available at a special discount.

Talk
by Linda Rosenkrantz

Sleepless Nights
by Elizabeth Hardwick

Speedboat
by Renata Adler

René Leys
by Victor Segalen

Witch Grass
by Raymond Queneau

The Invention of Morel
by Adolfo Bioy Casares

By now we ought to know what a novel is. But there are always writers looking to find out what it isn’t, or hasn’t yet been. The result can be one-off reinventions proving that you don’t need plot or beginnings and endings or even fictional invention itself to make a novel that is compulsively absorbing. In Talk Linda Rosenkrantz makes her novel out of the raw materials of the real tape-recorded speech of a trio of intimate friends, while Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights is a meditation on a woman’s life that can be described either as a novel that is mostly real or a memoir much of which “is, as they say, ‘made up.’” Writing in the mid-1970s, Renata Adler in Speedboat constructs a cunningly harmonized collage from fragments of observation and memory and caricatural portraiture that distills an era. Victor Segalen, who was resident in Beijing during the last years of the Manchu dynasty, probes the inner mysteries of the Forbidden City in René Leys, founded on a diary yet veering ineluctably into enigmatic if not impossible revelations: Segalen’s alternate title for this hermetic puzzle was “The Book That Never Was.” Raymond Queneau, the supreme playful experimenter of modern French writing, the first OuLiPian, began his first novel on vacation in Greece in 1932: “I had taken Descartes’ Discourse on Method with me, so I decided to translate it into spoken French.” The result, Witch Grass, was a book whose constant topsy turvy invention can mask its compassionate engagement. The novel’s superb translator Barbara Wright noted, “it is not about anything, it is something. And that ‘something’ includes a vast amount of what goes to make up human life.” The Invention of Morel, by Adolfo Bioy Casares, has the air of a classic adventure story, set on a lost island full of mysterious personages and elusive events. The biggest mystery of this profoundly influential tale turns out to be whether or in what sense any of the people and events can be said to exist at all. Each of these books is a singular and thoroughly mind-changing experience.