Analyzing 9/11 literature from afar

In "Out of the Blue: September 11 and the Novel," Kristiaan Versluys explores fictional portrayals of 9/11. Among the works he probes are Don DeLillo's "Falling Man," Art Spiegelman's "In the Shadow of No Towers," Jonathan Safran Foer's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," Frederic Beigbeder's "Windows on the World," and John Updike's "Terrorist." We asked Versluys, a professor of American literature and culture at Ghent University in Belgium, how he -- as a foreign academic -- approached the analysis of an American tragedy.

GUEST BLOGGER: Kristiaan Versluys

How do authors manage to say the unsayable? How can this be done without reductionism, without cheapening the occasion through sentimentalism or easy patriotic bluster? Most of all, who is entitled to talk about such traumatic events and who can talk authentically without exploiting the grief of the victims or the victims' relatives?

In writing about these questions, I found myself in a peculiar position. As a Belgian academic, I was at least twice removed from the events at Ground Zero. The physical distance (more than three thousand miles as the crow flies) is at the same time a mental one.

I visited the city briefly three weeks after September 11, when the ruins of the towers were still smoldering. The streets were bustling as usual, but people were less brisk. There was a certain tentativeness to their movements, a newly discovered vulnerability made manifest. I was just long enough in the city to realize that something had happened to the mind of New Yorkers that no outsider could feel in exactly the same way.

Many years later (in 2008) I taught a summer seminar on the literature of 9/11 to Columbia undergraduates. I have taught regularly at Columbia, mostly courses about the literature of New York. I have always been amazed at the fact that students accept without questioning that one comes all the way from Belgium to instruct them about their own literature, their own country, their own city. Such open-mindedness and intellectual curiosity are the unique strengths of America - without parallel in Europe.

But not this time. Not when touching upon 9/11. I felt the students claimed ownership over the events and while in the past my authority as a specialist in American literature had never been challenged, this time around I had to prove myself each inch of the way. It would be dishonest to suggest that the students were hostile or unwelcoming. But implicitly they were questioning my right to talk about an event that belonged to them in a way it did not belong to me. I have never taught a more difficult course. I have never profited more from a course taught at Columbia either.

In a second, even more fundamental way, 9/11 presents a challenge for the academic observer (European or otherwise). The feelings of New Yorkers are beyond the grasp of the outsider -- what to say about the suffering of the victims and their families. I have written a book in which I avoid technical jargon as much as possible. The study is respectful (at least I hope so) of the literature it deals with. I assume the position which I deem appropriate for a literary critic: that of a servant to the text, whose task it is above all to demonstrate the relevance of the material dealt with.

My method is to read in the grain rather than against it. The author knows best and I am trying to get the message and to communicate it. If not an empathic reader than at least I try to be a sympathetic one, the author's sidekick, his loyal interpreter. I have been doing this for some thirty-five years. I know how to handle this - more or less.

But to be faithful to unsayable grief, that is another matter. If I hold my authors to one standard, it is the following: Are their novels marked by what Theodor Adorno called "mimetic approximation?" That is to say, Do they deal with grief tenderly yet unflinchingly?

There is no way one can wrap one's mind around what happened on that Tuesday morning, what it means to find oneself trapped in a burning building, to feel a desperation so strong one has no choice but to jump to a certain death.

Some authors have argued that in the face of such unspeakable grief, silence is the only dignified response. I admire those who dared to break the silence and managed to come as close as possible to an authentic (recognizably worthy) representation of the events.

But how do I fare when held to the same standard? Is academic parlance at all (no matter how purged from the worst excesses of jargon-mongering and obfuscation) capable of saying something meaningful about pain? Necessarily - given the nature of the task I imposed upon myself - I deal with 9/11 as a semiotic event - something that takes place in language, a form of discourse.

Yet during the four years I worked on the book, I kept telling myself: the towers really did come down; people really died; to this very day, husbands and wives, parents and children have to live with an irreparable loss. I can only hope that, in spite of physical, mental and intellectual distance, somehow my study resonates with this attempt to see trauma in its full human dimensions.

By Steven E. Levingston |  November 3, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Steven Levingston
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You missed "The Zero," by Jess Walter- my favorite 9/11 novel.

Posted by: bubba777 | November 3, 2009 8:28 AM

Also consider Arthur Nersesian's "Unlubricated," which takes place in a post-9/11 NYC.

Posted by: MStreet1 | November 3, 2009 10:24 AM

Joseph O'Neill's "Netherland," which received the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, also reflects New York after 9/11.

Posted by: rickoshea1 | November 3, 2009 11:56 AM

Joseph O'Neill's "Netherland," which received the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, also reflects New York after 9/11.

Posted by: rickoshea1 | November 3, 2009 11:59 AM

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