There is a school of thought that argues that we read literature in order to better understand the world, ourselves and how to live. On the one hand I am sympathetic to this point of view. Literature can bolster our emotional intelligence, imaginative faculties and our empathy, as anyone who has cried after having one of their favourite characters meet their demise in some way can attest to.
However, there’s a problem here. Not only is it probably simplistic to say that our empathetic faculties are enhanced by having them used, as if they were a bicep, but it is also a bit beside the point to treat literary history as a massive instruction manual, when in fact, what most novels can tell us about life and how to live it is fairly minimal. It is also indicative of attitudes to literature that develop in a neoliberal era as if reading a novel is only worthwhile if one is up-skilling one’s life management techniques.
This is probably why we see the rise of literary critics interpreting novels as just that, such as Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life. According to de Botton, Marcel Proust’s six volume work In Search of Lost Time which details the life of a precocious and rich young man as he makes his way as a literary dilettante in late-nineteenth century Parisian salons has enough to tell us about ourselves that Proust can be read as a moustachioed Stephen R. Covey. Declan Kiberd’s Ulysses and Us, is another case, intent on reclaiming a self-consciously difficult and defiantly non-inclusive elite novelist for today’s working man.
Oh, according to de Botton, Proust also anticipated the breakthroughs of neuroscience and we all know how marketable science is, right? Great branding, that science.
At the same time, one wouldn’t want to throw one’s lot in entirely with Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater and the other assorted aesthetes that proclaimed art’s uselessness. According to this group, all art has to do is to look pretty, like a bouquet of flowers or a tastefully folded handkerchief in one’s shirt pocket. I find this perspective to be ahistorical, paradoxical for the sake of being so and fundamentally, boring.
Both schools are guilty of believing that living, reading and thinking are somehow easily separable activities, rather than existing as a palimpsest, with overlaps and conflict and dialogue between each layer. This is the perspective that we get on life, literature and the consequent relationship between the two in Augustus Young’s The Nicotine Cat.
The Nicotine Cat is part of a largely continental genre that goes by the name of autofiction, that attempts to coalesce memoir, art criticism and the essay into one form, all while calling into question the extent to which any objective account of reality, such as one might find in a memoir, could ever be achieved. Autofiction is a fluid category but a niche one, surprisingly, considering how embroiled an author’s work often is in their lives. One could say that more what we read is autofiction than not.
Young is an erudite narrator and his text begins with a sequence of thoughts written on Patrick S. Dinneen, an Irish historian and lexicographer responsible for the 1904 Foclóir Gaedhilge agus Béarla. It is fertile territory for Young, who allows his many encounters with the often idiosyncratic Foclóir to set the tone for a sequence of meditations on exile, language and identity, all important for the remainder of the novel-essay-memoir.
We see Young dispense brief anecdote-inflected histories of figures such as the 19th century Dutch philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, Irish novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett and novelist Henry James. These mini-disquisitions are often prompted by events in Young’s ‘real’ life in the town of Bras-de-Vendres and inflect even the most apparently minor social encounters with a greater depth; the everyday and the erudite mutually enhance each other. As in Storytime, Young’s concealed vulnerability is an important facet of the text; as we see his world from his point of view we see the ideality that can be afforded one within the world of thought is more often than not discommoded by contingency. Ideas that are renounced earlier in the text are dusted off and deployed in earnest in conversation with whetstone-in-residence Welsh, self-consciously from a defensive position.
It is in The Nicotine Cat that we see how literature and learning reach beyond ‘How To Live’ to something more complex and interesting. To demand instruction from it is counter to the nature of autofiction itself and, I would add, contrary to what literature should aspire to be. I want to read books, not WikiHow articles.