“A poem often has a moment or a movement or an image, to deal with, not a whole series or interrelated and elaborated sequences, nor that sense of duration and vicarious experience that the novel brings. The best a novel can do is use its superstructure, all those cumulative bits of housekeeping, to achieve poem-moments, the bursts of heat and light that poems actually are. “
Australian novelist Tim Winton wrote the above, in interview with TMO, discussing the difference in form between poetry and the novel. Ask a poet to define her work in one word, and you’ll probably get somewhere; ask a novelist to do anything in one word, amidst their superstructures and housekeeping, and you’ll be lucky – so it’s a tribute to the persuasive powers of Guy Chambers (Director of Villa Gillet) and Robert Solè of le monde, the editors of The Novelist’s Lexicon that they’ve managed to convince over 70 leading novelists (including A.S Byatt, Colum McCann, Elif Shafak, James Meek and many more) to do just that.
To be fair, the question was slightly more expansive: choose a key word that opens the door to your work. The response though, in theory, had to be one word. Words beget words though – particularly, as we’ve mentioned, for a novelist – and the multitude of responses make for one of the best reads you’re likely to encounter for a long time.
There are those that take the question head on, at face value, like Jonathan Lethem, who chooses the word Furniture:
“(It is widely believed that after Borges, mirrors are forbidden as symbols in novels. However, it is cruel to deny the characters in a novel sight of their own faces; hence mirrors must be provided)”
There are those that stubbornly refuse the premise, while going along with it, like David Peace:
“I am against all definitions and dictionaries, lexicons and lists, which, in their commodification and exclusivity, are for me the preserve and the territory of fascists and shoppers.”
There are plenty of surprises along the way, for example Tariq Ali who selects ‘Laughter’ as his key word; provocation, with Rikki Ducornet who selects ‘Cunnilingus’; and at least one entry, ‘Paralipomena’ by Lydie Salvayre, which had this monkey scrambling for a dictionary.
Best of all, thanks to these ‘keywords’ on offer and the diversity of the collection, it’s a fantastic way to discover new writers (many of whom, in the English speaking world are relatively unknown). Entries by the Swedish playwright/novelist Jonas Hassen Khemiri (‘un’), the Serbian novelist David Albahari (‘Silence’), and Dutch writer Adrian Van Dis (‘lies’) have all made me curious to find out more – and that’s just for starters.
So, whether you’re a lover of fiction, a student of literature, or a writer-to-be, this is an essential collection. Highly recommended!