Over centuries, a life’s work tends to be boiled down to a few well-known lines, or to vague adumbrations of half-forgotten plots. Who would dare to predict which plots will be remembered best or which lines will last longest?
Kierkegaard’s ‘Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards’ is trotted out comparatively regularly. Although it comes from his journals rather than one of his major works, it has survived because it contains that essential ring of truth: it translates into a simple aphorism ‘What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.’
Compelled, as we are, to live forwards, it seems natural to spend the first month of the year looking ahead to 2011. From a long perspective, we’re in an interesting place right now –a decade into the century, but without any obvious Zeitgeist-defining work of literature. Perhaps significantly, two of the most eagerly-awaited books of the new year are posthumous publications: The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace, is expected to be released on April 15th; Los Sinsabores del verdadero policia is the latest in a wearying line of Roberto Bolaño novels, most of which seem to be sketches towards his twin masterpieces, Los Detectivos Salvajes and 2666. English translations of Rimbaud (by John Ashbery) and Roussel (Impressions of Africa) are also forthcoming.
Back to living writers: there’s new work from Haruki Murakami, Anne Enright and Alan Hollinghurst (amongst many others) to look forward to. Any indications of the direction literature will take over the next decade? Returning to Kierkegaard, that can only be understood backwards, although it’s encouraging to see that the best new British writing appears to be increasingly multicultural: Kishwar Desai (the eventual winner), Nikesh Shukla, Aatish Taseer and Simon Thirsk (‘a fluent Welsh speaker’) made up the shortlist for the 2010 Costa first novel award. A new direction or an irrelevance? Time will tell.