or, Should the Other Bother? How a Minor Literature Might Matter
The case of the Maltese editor Mark Camilleri and writer Alex Vella Gera, accused of distributing obscene or pornographic material and undermining public morals following publication of the short story ‘Li tkisser sewwi’ in the student newspaper Ir-Realtà, distributed on the University of Malta campus and in Sixth Form colleges in Autumn 2009, has been amply commented. I do not wish to assess the various positions struck. (For an appraisal from the perspective of literary criticism, see Grima, 2011). This article is not primarily about the case. TheIr-Realtá debate does give me my cue, however, when drawing attention to one consideration that appears to have been largely overlooked. It prompts the further comments I would like to make about Maltese literature and the conditions of peripherality in which—sometimes inevitably, sometimes despite their best efforts, and sometimes wilfully – Maltese writers operate.
Malta lacks professionally edited and refereed literary magazines for general circulation which could serve as outlets for critical ideas, for the publication of new fiction and poetry, and for incisive review of the most recent work in the arts. Examples of such magazines elsewhere abound. Wasafiri, Granta, The London Magazine, Lire, Meanjin, Shenandoah, Brickare among those which quickly come to mind. Available to an inquiring readership driven by an interest in words and ideas, and quite often available online as well as on the newsstands, such magazines facilitate the dissemination of trenchant creative and critical work. (I use the word magazine here in the same specific sense designated by the way these publications use the term in their covers or front matter. I use the word literary in the synecdochal way in which these magazines use it to cover their reviews of fiction, poetry, cinema, theatre, music, the arts, news, and popular culture). What they publish, following searching selection procedures, are pieces that would have been submitted in awareness that acceptance—or rejection—is consequent upon decisions that are finely and critically responsive to the aesthetic and other merits of what, in the end, they choose to print. If that avenue existed in Malta, then pieces both like and unlike ‘Li tkisser sewwi’ would have the option of being submitted for consideration there. Analysis of new work, too, would be able to attempt the pitch and penetration that were not always easy to locate in the Ir-Realtà debate. If the absence of literary magazines were at least made up for by a less tenuous tradition of ‘little magazines’, as they are known—non-commercial periodicals committed to publishing niche new work—then the whole debate might have taken a different turn or never needed to happen. That the debate has instead taken place, in its print manifestations, almost entirely away from literary or little magazines rather than even minimally within their nonexistent pages is one of the incongruities in the Realtá affair. It is symptomatic of a malaise in Maltese literary culture which, I would contend, goes deeper than any issue over censorship. That is because the censorship issue will, in time, resolve itself, as it must. It is not at all clear, however, that there is broad perception of how serious and consequential the lack of literary or little magazines is, and how it speaks of broader problems in Maltese literature.
I would like to pick up on the theme of incongruity. Any short literary piece—poem, short story, or extract from work-in-progress—published outside its most natural market, the pages of a literary magazine, risks appearing misplaced. In Maltese literary culture, where there are no literary magazines or little magazines to make that option available, this leads to a curious situation. Practically all short pieces, of whatever literary temper, appear in the next best alternatives: daily or Sunday newspapers, for instance, or in the paġna letterarja [the literary page, in the deadening singular] of other periodicals. In other words, they have been published in the wrong places. If there is a wish that this statement be softened, we could agree that they have been published in accommodating contexts where the identity is not predominantly literary or critical. I would go further, broadening this point to the statement of a general principle. This will not be popular, but it is a dare which I think it is important to accept. It has to be said: incongruity is part of the Maltese literary unconscious.
This incongruity takes various forms. To start with, Maltese writing almost surprises itself by its very existence. Precariousness is to some degree the condition of any language, but it is more so still for Maltese. And except among its most bullish readers, there will be an irrepressible sense of the odds against Maltese literature acquiring perceivably comfortable coexistence with writing from elsewhere. If international readerships are not going to read Maltese, then Maltese-language literature depends upon translation, and upon making itself available in the language of the other. This means that its dissemination will always already have been displaced from its ground. I would not want to fall into what Adorno calls ‘the jargon of authenticity’, but it does seem that the specificities of Maltese writing’s peripheral condition and their literary representation are, in a cruel double bind, rendered inauthentic in the very effort of making them visible to the reading gaze of the less peripheral other. There is a lot I would like to say about this, and I said some of it in a previous article about the subject which these days I would want to update (Callus 2008). This is not the appropriate context for that, but there is one related point which is worth making. If incongruity is part of the Maltese literary unconscious, it is also because there is abroad (in all sense of this word, including its local extensions and indeed particularly and most regrettably so) some disbelief that Maltese writing generally could bear representation among World Literature. And while it would be important to problematize that statement in the wake of critiques of the recently burgeoning study of World Literature following, for instance, the work of David Damrosch, or of misgivings about ‘international literature’ by commentators like Tim Parks, I do not think that I need to spell out what motivates this disbelief.
And so, to the extent that we might want to constrict the justifiability for that disbelief and to act upon any of the conditions that might underpin it, and to the degree that we are still exercised by the Realtà debate, let us see how a constructive and positive outcome might somehow emerge from this affair. It appears that revisions to the country’s legal frameworks in the regulation of censorship and public morality are being contemplated. It would be dispiriting if things were to be limited to that. (It was noticeable, incidentally, that once the matter went to the courts nobody appears to have drawn attention to literature’s apparent inscrutability to law, as if nothing at all has been learned from recent literary criticism and theory on that question, not least—though these are only a few examples among many possible others—from Derrida’s essays ‘Before the Law’ and ‘Demeure’ on the nature of testimony, literature, and gatekeeping. These are not any the less relevant or cautionary or urgent in analysis of the controversy simply because they are perceived as ‘difficult’ or ‘philosophical’.) An equally desirable and ultimately more far-reaching outcome would be the launch of at least one literary magazine that could reasonably bear some comparison to those mentioned above. Ideally, such a launch would occur independently of the diverse authorities and organizations bestriding civil, political, religious, cultural and educational life in Malta. That is because what distinguishes the kind of magazines referred to above is an editorial policy to which anything other than full autonomy is unthinkable. Such magazines, in any case, are not concerted by any centralized impulse. They rather tend to arise from the energy and drive of one person, and to bear their stamp: people like Bill Buford or Philippe Sollers, for instance, or, from a quite different time, John Middleton Murry or Cyril Connolly. But in Malta, where the economies of scale in publishing are what they are, with circulation rates unlikely to rise above certain levels, with the tenor of debate standing where it does, and with Bufords and Sollers and Connollys and Middleton Murrys not thick on the ground, a different approach might be necessary: one which could ensure editorial autonomy while maintaining viability, durability and rigour. Here, therefore, is a proposal. I do not think it is quixotic.
The University, possibly through the Faculty of Arts, might wish to consider facilitating a refereed literary magazine—perhaps, in order to ensure reach and feasibility, one available online—in which literary and critical work could be published on the basis of the editorial and selection procedures similar to those governing the selection of pieces for magazines like those indicated above. Doubtless there is a concentration of expertise within the Faculty of Arts which could be deployed to facilitating the launch of such a magazine, and other interested parties from other Faculties, Centres and Institutes—indeed, demonstrable competence from anywhere—could also be drafted into this. But it may be a bad idea to link the magazine too closely to the input of academics. That could give it too much of an establishment whiff. Encouragingly, there are good numbers of graduate students from various Departments as well as various members of the public, all very discerning and all well informed about recent trends in art, culture and critique, who could contribute to such an undertaking. The input of such individuals in the ‘Seminar on Publishing’ organized in August 2010 by the Department of English Students Association, or in the ‘New Writing Spaces’ seminar jointly organized in January 2011 by the Faculty of Arts and the British Council, indicated the readiness for such an initiative. At both events, and unbidden, the suggestion of the launch of such a magazine was made from one or two quarters. It was, indeed, strongly encouraged at the latter event by the participating writers: Patricia Duncker, Simon Mawer and Maureen Freely. Doubtless the idea will have been floated at other events held locally. And I must say I was struck that the suggestion resonated as much as it did when it was made in the rounds of consultative meetings last year on the new Cultural Policy. Ideally, it bears repeating, the magazine’s launch would, so to speak, just happen rather than be made to happen. It should be the result of the insight and zest of a committed individual or team. It does not need to take place on campus. But in the circumstances, and if such a magazine were to be a University initiative, the campus, which is where the Ir-Realtà debate arose in the first place, could also be the ground where the debate could find some resolution.
That would be timely because the debate is in the stage it is, because there are signs of a quickening of literary life in Malta that would be helped by accompanying evolutions in editing, reviewing and publishing, and because of a further reason too. Talk of literary magazines at fraught times like these, with upheaval in North Africa and the Middle East and economic uncertainty everywhere, is not remote or detached. Rather, and precisely, the talk in the magazines creates the spaces for the re-imagination of such times and for the engaged rethinking that good writing can uniquely provide—as, indeed, the pages of the magazines mentioned above strongly demonstrate. Perhaps, indeed, it is always the time for a literary magazine.
Clearly, a lot of thought and planning would need to go into this. A number of questions immediately suggest themselves. Here are a few. How might an editorial committee be put together, assuming one should even contemplate inducing a committee to establish itself? (Let me say, here, lest this be construed as some kind of positioning on my part, that I would like to exclude myself from this task; I am already assisting the launch of other magazines, and must concentrate on that. The many good people well suited to contributing to a literary magazine should, rather, be allowed their space.) Should prospective editors, independently of University structures, work towards the launch of possibly more than one magazine? (Most definitely: this is work which needs a plurality of outlooks, not the sole perspective of one magazine; but where none exist, it is vital to get one magazine going in the hope that others will follow.) Should the magazine(s) publish solely Maltese or English work, or might work in either language be accepted? (The different Schlock Magazine, edited locally—http://schlockmagazine.net—went for English; its pitch and its focus on flash fiction prevents it from having the discourse of the kind of literary magazine contemplated here, but its freshness, design and editorial tightness show that what is being proposed is configurable. What Schlock can do is surely replicable in other Maltese periodicals, whether monolingual or bilingual.) Also, and to consider different modalities: is it possible that among the magazines which accompany the Sunday papers, one could not viably be put together that might answer to what is being envisaged here? (Perhaps it could, but its credibility would depend on balancing out editorial concerns and commercial considerations.) Would online publication solve the problem? (It cannot worsen it, and this is doubtless the most feasible option, as long as it is kept in mind that with online journals the importance of rigorous refereeing and tight editorial input becomes all the greater.)
Efforts towards such magazines were made in the past. The results have not been enduring. Perhaps, now, the circumstances for success are more auspicious, though with something of a last-chance aura about them. Let me indicate one absurd consequence of lack of success (there are others). It is that Malta could be the European Capital of Culture in 2018 while still not having one literary magazine to serve as an outlet for the publication and review of the compelling new work that we should hope to see both around that time and in the years leading up to the event and thereafter. The culture pages of the newspapers, together with all the views and soundbites in various blogospheres and debates on the regular and the social media, are all very well. They help us to work through whatever needs to be worked through in matters like the Ir-Realtà affair. As a society, however, we are surely capable of configuring this other order of discourse, too. It is time to attempt it. It would be one practical and generous way of moving from the cracks, discordance, tkissir in this debate to tiswija, repair, refashioning.
Maltese literary culture presents some singular aspects which are fascinating to those with a researching interest in minor literatures. Minor literatures, it should be stressed, is not a derogatory term. The term has a trajectory of some distinction in critical idiom. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, in a key chapter in Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature (1975) called ‘What Is a Minor Literature?’ which I quote here from its 1983 English-language translation by Robert Brinkley in Mississippi Review, explain: ‘A minor literature is not the literature of a minor language but the literature a minority makes in a major language’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1983: 16). By this token, Maltese literature does not even qualify as minor literature. Not, that is, unless it writes itself in, say, French, English, Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin, German, Italian. There is an obvious resentment that any Maltese, the member of a minority in literature’s territories, will feel in that regard. Let me note immediately, however, that there is already some anticipation of objections in Deleuze and Guattari. They add: ‘[T]he primary characteristic of a minor literature involves all the ways in which the language is affected by a strong co-efficient of deterritorialization’ (16). Before commenting on this and problematizing it, it is best to indicate how Deleuze and Guattari confer upon minor literature the potentiality for empowerment rather than the fatalism of disenfranchisement. Here is a crucial passage. It is hard to overemphasize its importance.
The three characteristics of minor literature are the deterritorialization of the language, the connection of the individual and the political, the collective arrangement of utterance. Which amounts to this: that “minor” no longer characterizes certain literatures, but describes the revolutionary conditions of any literature within what we call the great (or established). Everyone who has had the misfortune to be born in the country of a major literature must write in its tongue, as a Czech Jew writes in German, or as an Uzbek Jew writes in Russian. … And to do that, to find his own point of underdevelopment, his own jargon, a third world of his own, a desert of his own. There has been a great deal of discussion on: What is a marginal literature?—and also: What is a popular literature, a proletarian literature, etc? Evidently the criteria are very difficult to define so long as we do not work first in terms of a more objective concept, that of a minor literature. It is only the possibility of instituting from within a minor use of even a major language, which makes it possible to define popular literature, marginal literature, etc. Only at this price does literature really become a collective machine expression that can sweep contents along with it. Kafka says precisely that minor literature is more fit for working the material. (18)
Let me pick up on a few points here. There is a resonance in the statement, ‘Everyone who has had the misfortune to be born in the country of a major literature …’. It is easy, however, to see why it might be scorned. What about ‘everyone who has had the misfortune to be born in the country of a minor literature’, a bitter writer might retort, ‘but with the double misfortune of writing in a minor language’? ‘Who, without translation, will read me?’, she or he might add. The Maltese writer, writing in Maltese, might well say that. She or he becomes deterritorialized from most of the vantage and access points from which availability to reading by the other could be secured. The poignancy of Maltese literature lies in this. It lies in its desire to be read by the other, but more specifically in its uncertainty over reciprocity in that desire. The other might, after all, not especially want to read Maltese writing. This is not something that can be forced. ‘Read me: I insist!’—that is not something one thinks or says. It is a further reason for incongruity being part of the unconscious of Maltese literature. Maltese literature might be so inured to its own marginality that its occasional move upon any centre, the most casual acknowledgment of its existence, are fêted for their novelty, cherished in their rarity. Are we therefore supposed to think that Maltese literature cannot know its place, or knows it all too well, because there is no place for it to know except the periphery of the periphery? Is it possible to be relational there, on the periphery of the periphery, or is it a place turned forever inward? Devastatingly, even when figures like Deleuze and Guattari turn their gaze onto minor literature to counter-intuitively assert its greater fitness for ‘working the material’—and hence to deconstruct, as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak also does, the whole issue of ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’—Maltese literature is, implicitly, ineligible for the exemplification of even that marginality. Deleuze and Guattari’s deconstruction of one of the hegemonies of literature, in other words, does not envisage an overturning that could re-conceptualize the place of a literature like Malta’s, or address the condition of incongruity in which such a literature ineluctably operates. The sense of the scale of Maltese literature emerges in the shock with which that stark fact must be registered. And, in a further cruel turn to that registering, it is palpable that it is a registering whose scale is not truly apparent to the other, who does not so much as notice the problem. That overlooking occurs even when attempting to be counter-hegemonical and giving an empowering answer to the question, ‘What Is a Minor Literature?’—an answer, as it happens, which not only does not feature the condition of a literature like Malta’s, but sweeps dismissively past it with the claim that ‘a minor literature is not the literature of a minor language’ without stopping to glimpse the implications, much less probe them further. Only a sensibility like the Maltese, locked in the conditions of its language and literature, can truly apprehend the shock involved there. The shock is that Maltese literature is minor in a scale and to a degree that makes it indiscernible to the other’s critique. The other, it seems, will not be bothered.
This can seem dismal. It need not be. Not, that is, if the situation is looked at squarely, and seen and accepted for what it is, and then worked with and worked from. But it will require clarity of thought and clarity of vision. And therefore, painful though it might be, let us probe things a little further and look at the problem once more, going to the heart of its grimness before seeking to navigate away from it with tact, discretion and canniness, toward hope.
Let us return to the quotation from Deleuze and Guattari, and look at it again. Deleuze and Guattari’s point is that literature’s complacencies are most effectively unsettled from minor places. The ‘underdevelopment’ of the minor, the ‘jargon’ in which they write, the ‘third world’ (not, in this usage, an economic term) and the ‘desert’ (best understood in the poststructuralist tradition of the exploration of desertification) to which they give representation in their writing, can renew literature (Deleuze and Guattari 1983: 18). ‘Instituting [emphasis added] from within a minor use of even a major literature’, they claim, is where the energies arise from. Granted, those energies remain a function of the state of minority within a major language. Apart from Kafka, Deleuze and Guattari’s preferred examples are therefore Joyce and Beckett. Positioned in Irish literature, they benefit from the rare privilege of its status as a minor literature. In Deleuze and Guattari’s words,
It is the glory of such a literature to be minor, that is, revolutionary for any literature. The use of English and every tongue in Joyce. The use of English and French in Beckett. But Joyce constantly works with exuberance and overdetermination; Joyce constantly works to achieve global reterritorializations. Beckett works drily, soberly, in deliberate poverty, and pushes deterritorialization to the point where nothing but intensities remain. (19)
That is all very well, it might be said by the Maltese writer. But how am I to stand comparison with the single-person canons that are Kafka, Joyce, Beckett? My literature is smaller than Iceland’s, let alone Ireland’s, she or he might add. Nor can I forget that Iceland’s has the ancient cachet of the sagas, a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in Halldór Laxness, and the contemporary triumph of the emergence there of a popular genre—in the recent sway of crime fiction from that country—all of which the other does look like wanting to read. There are also market availabilities to Icelandic literature in Scandinavian countries that have no corollaries in the Maltese. As to Irish literature, it is written in English when it reaches the other, to reach the other. Perhaps we should not fail to notice, either, the complexes of disaffiliation that Kafka, Joyce and Beckett had in regard to their literatures. They suggest that major writing will want to sublimate or problematize any minority literature characteristics from which it springs. Following all of which, it might be concluded, Maltese literature cannot be Maltese-language literature if it is to impinge upon literature more broadly, if it is to bring its potential to the other’s notice with greater immediacy. It must, always already, write itself in the language of the other. For the Maltese writer already writing in English, French or any other major language, that is a confirmation that they should persist in their chosen course. For the Maltese writer committed to Maltese, however, the challenges thereby become bigger, and the questions loom larger. What does Maltese-language Maltese literature do next?
Before I answer that question, let me invite participation in a thought-experiment that is not entirely fanciful. Imagine a hypothetical great work of literature (for the purpose of this exercise, you may interpret greatness in whichever way you want to), but imagine it written in a language like Maltese. Can that great work exist? More pertinently, if it does, will it be noticed? If it isn’t noticed, does it exist? Have you found yourself assuming that it couldn’t, possibly? If you have answered yes to that last question, what does that say about perceptions of a literature like Malta’s, of its incongruity, of the scale of the achievement to which we will allow it to be open?
These questions are important because whereas Maltese literature can, thinkably, register on the other’s notice if it writes itself in a language other than its own—one must recall here, Deleuze and Guattari’s question, ‘How many people live today in a language that is not their own?’ (19)—the route of Maltese-language Maltese literature towards that outcome is more challenging. It depends on translation. More specifically, it depends on sensitive translation published with the appropriate presses in the most apposite markets. Indeed, it is what we must think of next. We must respond to what it is in Maltese literature that the other will want to read, and how it could be brought to the other’s notice more effectively. More vitally, we must be convinced of what the other would miss if it didn’t. In other words, if we can’t see a way to answering ‘yes’ in the thought-experiment above, then we might as well stop here.
Which brings me to the next section.
There are only two good reasons why anyone would really want to read Maltese-language texts in translation. (If they cannot read the Maltese, the desire to see the Maltese language used literarily is not one they will be able to satisfy, and we must therefore move on to other considerations). The first is the existence of a text or texts that are compelling, in whichever way one wants to define that. (An unputdownable text, for instance, would qualify, and perhaps it is as well for Maltese writers to always remember that it is perfectly okay to simply tell a good story, that profundities in theme and depth in character and amplitude in ideas are not what exclusively make a text have a claim on translation. Lowbrow and middlebrow—if we want to use those terms¬—are fine, and can be very fine when done well, and tend to sell and to compel when they are.). The second is the encounter with places, situations and experiences that are almost unique to Malta, or that acquire a special charge in a place like Malta, with its particularizing circumstances of scale and the desires and complexes which stem from that. In both cases, Maltese critique will need to be discerning in identifying the works which deliver on either or both of these counts. This is crucial, because the other won’t be able to discover the texts in question unless they are brought to notice by the Maltese themselves, and unless the Maltese are ready to decide what is a little more deserving and what isn’t. Extrapolating from this, and recasting Deleuze and Guattari, an important minor literature could be one which finds itself disaffiliated from the publishing, reviewing and critical infrastructures elsewhere which can help to make a text mainstream or canonical to the increasingly borderless international readerships of today, but which nevertheless strategically works within and from that disaffiliation to transform its own seeming incongruity and its non-registering on any scale of notice into the very rationale behind its matter(ing). That is to assume, of course, that there are texts configuring that potential. It is to accept that only when Maltese literary culture comes to reconcile itself to the other’s implicit perception of its insignificance—to work with it and from it—that it can hope to transcend it and start to register on scales of significance.
The problem, however, is that Maltese literary culture sometimes contrives to behave like it does not know what is good and important about it. It does not always know, it seems, what to think or make of that word, deserving. We cannot afford to react viscerally to that word. It tests us with the very pressing challenge of discernment where Maltese literature is concerned. In Maltese literature, as in any other, there are some deserving works and some others that are less deserving. (I include, under the label ‘deserving’, well-made popular literature, as distinct from bad bad writing.)
Extraordinarily, that banal point is not self-evident. This simplest of points is not being made. If it is being made, then it is not being demonstrably acted upon. As far as I can see the distinctions and the consequences that follow upon it are not being dared. Perhaps this is not surprising. The self-evident and the urgent do not have the privilege of being unobjectionable, or popular, or easily accepted. If they did, things would be easier. If they did, the positions staked out here would not be found to be displeasing about Maltese literature, as some will doubtless find them to be (though, as I would otherwise hope is clear, that is very far from what is intended). The thing is, however, that while we might want to argue about criteriology, with emotions about relative merit running high, the lack of well established or very credible winnowing processes will remain.
Indeed, Maltese literary culture demonstrates the exact opposite of what recent resistances and counter-movements to canonicity in other literatures have responded to. Other literatures can afford to undo the canon. Maltese literature, by contrast, must work to afford itself canons. It lacks the structures and infrastructures for canon formation (and again, one can have canons for the popular, as well as for the highbrow.) I worry that it also lacks the will and the nerve for it (on this topic, see also Grima 2010). There are, of course, literary prizes; there is the accolade, which I have seen people get testy about, of having one’s work placed on a University syllabus; there are literary evenings and book launches and talks and seminars and symposia and exchanges, and they all go some of the way and very occasionally even a long way to what is necessary. Some of all that is quite splendid. But it is not enough. This is seen, for instance, when and where reviewing remains bland or hesitant. It is seen when and where critical appraisal is counter-typically carried within the covers of a novel or a collection of poetry, as in an introduction or afterword, rather than in an academic journal or literary magazine, where one would expect to find it. In that guise, it stretches out the genre of the two-line or three-line blurb endorsement to essay length, constraining itself to appreciation rather than critique. And while it is true that canonicity and its processes can be invidious, and the relations between the centre and the margins ripe for deconstruction, the absence of any mechanisms that help to orient readers towards relative value and worth, otiose though that operation can be, in fact very arguably leads to a much worse situation. If incongruity is part of the Maltese literary unconscious, it is also because of this undifferentiated state of Maltese literature. The result is that when and where it occurs, literariness—that most problematic of literary categories which forever calls forth the imperative of discernment—coexists indistinctly with the more or less evenly praised, and therefore becomes harder to remark or remark upon.
It has to be hoped that nobody will say that this is directing itself towards elitism. I am the first to agree that literature is too important to be left to the so called experts or littérateurs. I would also add, however, that it is too important to be left to its own devices, to be left untended, to subsist in a miasma of insipid, undifferentiating critical sentiment. Literature does not just somehow happen. At the very least, it has to be reliably pointed out whenever and wherever one finds it. For, contrary to what sometimes appears to be the local belief (and I am afraid I do not exaggerate), il-letteratura Maltija, Maltese literature, cannot be made up of every book of poetry or fiction published in Maltese. It is not too much to hope for, to wish that there could be processes to fairly and reliably (though contestably) suggest, ‘This is an unpretentious work which will however prove popular’; or, ‘This is a work which is quite flawed, and which should not be allowed its pretentions’; or, ‘This is a text of some merit, with an appeal to a broad/distinct/ readership’; and then, selectively and where warranted, ‘This is a rare work, a book of genuine literary achievement …’; and then, further and crucially, to make fine distinctions within these over-schematic categories, especially the last. But where are the spaces for the reviews, for the journals, for the literary magazines and the little magazines that will say all that, contest that, reassert it, reject it again: doing so knowledgably, discerningly, disinterestedly? Kumitati and konkorsi, committees and competitions, are not adequate substitutes. Nor is the approbation of one latter-day clerisy (see Knights 2010), murmured in meetings or symposia where talk on literature becomes chatter (a word I use in the sense intended by Peter Fenves, not in the sense of the conversation of the chattering classes; see Fenves 1993). Orality is all very well, but I find myself thinking that printed commentary and critique, where arguments must be articulated beyond the level of opinion and salon talk, are in fact a condition of the emergence of literature. From what I can see, there is too much prospecting on behalf of the odd work here and there, which might become the darling of one group or another, and not enough of a sense of informed interpretative communities (Fish 1980) more or less consensually affirming, through carefully articulated critical writing, the value of any given text or texts. In that respect, what this edition of Transcript exemplifies in online form is a response to the need for an enhanced critical infrastructure for Maltese literature.
A few further reflections suggest themselves, but here I shall limit myself to four. Firstly, in minority literatures especially, as Lady Gregory demonstrated long ago when she was one of the catalysts in the Irish Literary Revival, the conditions sometimes need to be created for good things to happen, and for choices and judgments to be made about who might be creating them. As we know, the twenty-first century is no longer an environment for a Lady Gregory in any literary culture. A much more collective, cannier effort is needed. And ultimately, the energies must come from writers and their circles, not anyone else. Here, too, the task is too important to be abdicated. After all accusations against the State, the government, the political parties, the Church, the establishment in its sundry manifestations, hegemonies in both their palpable and shadowy variations, colonialism, postcolonialism, intellectuals, the University, the education system, the courts, the literary market in Malta, the realities of translation and re-publication in Europe and the world, the Maltese reading public, Malta and the Maltese have died down, it becomes time to knuckle down, to do what is doable. I mentioned, above, one absurd consequence of the lack of having a certain reviewing and critical infrastructure in place. Let me mention another absurd circumstance. As things currently stand, and increasingly evident as it is that Maltese literature must disseminate itself through translation, there is still no deliberated schedule of literary translation in place anywhere in Malta: nothing, as far as I am aware, that sets up a sustained programme of translation of Maltese writing into a non-peripheral language, or even more than one non-peripheral language at the same time. Consequently, while it is gratifying to learn, for instance, that the translation rights to Pierre Mejlak’s work have been secured, or that translations of the works of Dun Karm or Francis Ebejer or Oliver Friggieri are available in more than one language, or that Inizjamed has been proactive in seeking markets for its members’ works, there appears to be no prioritizing sense of how to strategically move along this road, how to create slipstreams of consequence and desire in publishing markets both locally and abroad, how to bring Maltese literature to the other in way that the other might be moved to bother. One practical consequence of this is that up to the time of writing (though, I hope, not for much longer, as it appears that the suggestion is being taken up) is the following. A key text in the evolution of Maltese prose, Gwann Mamo’s Ulied in-Nanna Venut fl-Amerka (1930), has astonishingly never been offered in English translation to a publisher in the United States, as if the difficulty of a translation is an adequate excuse for this most evident of moves not being attempted. And if we don’t bother, it is hard to fathom why the other should.
Secondly, and objectively, there are—thankfully—already many positives. Maltese language and Maltese literature already have their lexicons: they are both established and authoritative. Prof. Oliver Friggieri and Prof. Joe Friggieri, in their work on dictionaries of literary terms and on introductions to philosophy respectively, have killed the canard that certain conceptualities are inexpressible in Maltese. The work of Maltese translators in Brussels and Luxembourg on technical documentation and decrees is extending the language’s reach and registers. Inizjamed has done as much as any organization, and more, in bringing Maltese writing to the notice of the other, and in having Maltese writers co-participate in events and on a basis and scale where no doubts about incongruity need arise. The Malta Council for Culture and the Arts has been proactive in helping with the dissemination of Maltese writing. So the idea of facilitating a more evolved critical infrastructure is not one we need be overdramatic about. It is the next link in the chain. Once it has been pointed out, it can be made to happen.
Thirdly, the unique value of Maltese literature as a minor literature can be discerned in a quite singular fact. The pieties of literary criticism and theory find themselves unsettled when applied to Maltese contexts. For instance, and as we have seen, orthodox views on counter-canonicity or subaltern or postcolonialist writing do not quite hold with Maltese literature—which (very interestingly) does not fall easily in any of these categories though superficially it looks like it could; which is in effect canonless if not entirely so; and which can provide the ground for the counter-deconstruction of the deconstruction of established positions within literary criticism. On those principles, Maltese writing matters, if only the critique around it can be discerning enough to see how and why. It can serve as the ground for a rethinking of minor literature generally. It is something the other would do well to bother about. We need to be half-bothered ourselves first though, and to be a little more discerning about what is merely bothersome on the fuller and more meaningful scale of things and what is more finely worth bothering about.
The fourth reflection is given below, and provides my conclusion.
On the basis of the Deleuze and Guattari definition, Chile’s is a minor literature. It has, however, acquired a higher profile through the work of the late Roberto Bolaño, who wrote in Spanish and who leapt to prominence with works like The Savage Detectives (1998) or 2666 (2004). It is the misfortune of minor literatures that they find themselves swamped when a major figure emerges: as a Colombian friend of mine once wryly observed, the worst thing that happened to Colombian literature was Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Bolaño, however, has written in ways which are sensitive to the lot of minor literature and of minor writers. Last Evenings on Earth (2007), a collection of short stories translated into English and selected from Llamadas Telefónicas (Telephone Calls, 1997) and Putas Asesinas (Killer Whores, 2001) should be read by anyone who writes or reads within a minor literature, and by anyone who is interested in the marginal spaces in literature. These are truly terrible tales. They are terrible not because they are macabre. They are terrible because so many of them are uncompromisingly honest and unflinching about the sterility of writing from the margins. They are forthright, too, about how the marginal spaces of literature contrive to make their own marginality worse. An example of that occurs when one of Bolaño’s characters is forced into a painful question: ‘I asked him if they had editors at the magazine.’ (Bolaño 2008: 40)
I have space to comment on only one of Bolaño’s tales, the astounding and powerful parable, ‘Henri Simon Leprince’. This is a tale about a writer who knows himself to be minor and who suspects himself, even, of being a bad writer.
Naturally, he is a failed writer, barely scraping a living in the Paris gutter press, and his stories and poems (which the bad poets regard as bad and the good poets don’t even read) are published in provincial magazines. (Bolaño 2008: 23)
Leprince knows his place, however. Indeed, perhaps he knows it too well. He has a respect and a deference toward better writers. In wartime France, he joins the Resistance. He helps writers—good writers—escape. ‘[B]ut once the episode is over the writers evade Leprince and he fades from their minds like an unpleasant but forgettable dream’ (26-27). This does not worry Leprince. He has come to a realization:
Never before has he fully grasped the abjection of his place in the pyramidal hierarchy of literature. Never before has he felt so important. (25)
With surgical scrutiny, the tale exposes that abjection and has us understand how he is ‘completely forgotten, so negligible, so insubstantial is Leprince’s work and public stature’ (28), but also how he comes to matter in that apparent insignificance.
I mention all this because Bolaño has made major literature out of the experience of literary peripherality. His émigré writers are not like those who populate Vladimir Nabokov’s early English-language works, for instance: writers secure in their talents, if uprooted from their natural haunts of consequence. They are, rather, unimportant exiles from unimportant literary spaces, and know it. And yet, they are made to matter, hugely, in literature which comes to matter because it makes the experience of not mattering on any literary scale literary. Significantly, ‘Henri Simon Leprince’, this story about insignificance, ends with these words:
For some, his presence, his fragility, his terrifying sovereignty serve as a spur and a reminder. (31; emphasis added)
It bears spelling out, therefore: the incongruities that arise from not registering on the scales one dearly like to register on, and their redemption, provide one of Bolaño’s themes. In his empathetic and visionary gaze they become the very stuff of the literature from which they are otherwise disqualified. In this paper, which has taken as its theme the challenge of discerning why Maltese literature matters and why the other ought to bother with it, the implications of that will, I hope, be obvious. They do not need to be spelt out. That really would be incongruous.
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