Hunter Dukes is a Research Fellow at Peterhouse, University of Cambridge.
Always mornings. Early. And there should be coffee. Breakfast will come later, but the best hours are now—when the world is still blanketed, the mind “puddled in dream melt.” There are particular parameters for the page. The margins must be wide. The font Goudy Old Style or Garamond in a squeeze. Carriage returns between paragraphs. No indentation. I once justified my text; now I like the ragged edges. To write The Names (1982), Don DeLillo had to change his method. He began typing single, numbered paragraphs, each on its own leaf: a microclimate that allowed him to “see a given set of sentences more clearly.” This is a logic that makes sense to me. I learned to write from my mother. She taught me to revise a sentence aloud before putting it into print. To move from breath to inscription can be a mystical practice. The look of letters has long astonished, inviting cryptic explanations. The 22 paths connecting Kabbalah’s Sefirot—emanations of the divine Ein Sof—correspond to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The Latin “A” is an abstracted, phonetic descendant from an Ox hieroglyph. Flip it over and you can still see the creature’s horns: ∀. These ideas are important for the writers I study. They reveal a profound longing—the desire to rekindle a relationship between text and the body, at once archaic and arcane, and to locate the origins of writing in the sensual world.
We are accustomed to reading modernist works in the light of actual cities, glossing literary setting as a somewhat faithful recreation of place. This tendency is not without cause: James Joyce famously boasted that if Dublin were to disappear, it could be reconstructed out of Ulysses. On the other hand, Virginia Woolf cautioned against the consolidation of map and territory, arguing that “we run the risk of disillusionment if we try to turn such phantom cities into tangible brick and mortar.” The examples to follow sever setting from the “experiential realism” of place, only to reconnect it to the built environment in novel ways.[3