I’m not really sure what is and what isn’t theory.

Tom McCarthy

“Something that is not nothing”
Zurich seminar

in: Recessional—Or, the Time of the Hammer, p. 49 – 74

Elisabeth Bronfen

Tom, our idea here was that you would give us a little insight into how you find your themes, how you use theory for your texts.


I’m not really sure what is and what isn’t theory. I don’t really know where theory stops and fiction begins. If you take someone like, for example, Derrida: half of The Post Card is basically an epistolary novel; it’s fiction, there are characters, there is a character speaking to another character—even while he’s conducting a “theoretical” analysis of Heidegger. I think it’s very hard to pin down that border-line between it being theory/fiction or not theory/fiction. So theory wouldn’t just be a reflection on something else which is somehow more integral; it’s more fluid than that.

A figure like Lévi-Strauss is just wonderful in this respect: Tristes Tropiques is one of the most brilliant books and it’s much better as literature than almost all of the fiction that was being produced in France at that time—with the possible exception of Robbe-Grillet or Claude Simon. When he describes the sunset for example; it’s amazing. But it’s also an undermining of any “natural” experience of sunset: he’s describing it and theorizing it; the theorizing becomes not just part of the description but of the experience too. Lévi-Strauss clearly wants to be a great writer or to be a poet and doesn’t quite manage. He always feels like he’s doing the wrong thing, but in that very mode of “missing his calling,” he produces almost a whole new field of discourse. There’s that wonderful bit that I have my narrator reproduce almost word for word in Satin Island, where Lévi-Strauss is losing it and going a bit insane in the jungle and he decides to become a great playwright; so he turns his research notes over and starts writing an “epic” play on the flip side. I love the idea of the actual piece of paper: on one side you’ve got supposedly empirical, scientific, evidence-based research—although empiricists would say it’s just speculative theory—and then on the other side you’ve got this attempt at epic art, which fails as well. Then, somewhere in the middle, if you could enlarge that physical piece of paper into three dimensions with a microscope, you would see this mulchy, messy pulp—and I think that would be the space of literature, which is neither one nor the other;...

  • temps
  • fiction
  • littérature

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Tom McCarthy

Tom McCarthy

est un romancier dont les œuvres ont été traduites dans plus de vingt langues. Son premier roman, Remainder [Et ce sont les chats qui tombèrent, Hachette Littératures, 2007], a remporté le 2008 Believer Book Award et a fait l’objet d’adaptations au cinéma, au théâtre et à la radio. Son troisième roman, C, a figuré dans la sélection finale du Man Booker Prize en 2010, de même que son quatrième roman, Satin Island, en 2015. McCarthy est également l’auteur d’une étude sur Hergé intitulée Tintin and the Secret of Literature, et du recueil d’essais Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish. Il contribue régulièrement à des publications comme The New York Times, The London Review of Books, Harper’s et Artforum. En 2013 la Yale University lui a décerné le premier Windham Campbell Prize for Fiction. Il est actuellement professeur invité à la Städelschule à Francfort et lauréat du programme Artists-in-Berlin (DAAD).
Autres textes de Tom McCarthy parus chez DIAPHANES
Tom McCarthy: Recessional—Or, the Time of the Hammer

In this essay, based on a talk he gave in Zurich, award-winning British novelist Tom McCarthy ("Remainder", "C", "Satin Island") unearthes a pattern, a rationale that is working both in and against the canon of modern(ist) literature, of authors such as Thomas Pynchon, Maurice Blanchot, Thomas Mann, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce and William Faulkner. McCarthy tackles a specific obsession with time that haunts their works; a time that is marked by arrest, pause, suspension, interval, eternal moments, tool-downage, waiting. Recessional time, as it were. Time-out-of-time. This is precisely that time (or tense) of fiction that is central to Tom McCarthy's own writing. The essay is followed by a conversation with the author in which he discusses his own practice of writing.