Most of us who enjoy books are largely agreed upon concepts like “good writing” and “clarity and confidence of expression” being fundamental to our delight in the play of words upon a page. We are brought up to learn that conveying our thoughts in “good English” is part of our education in that language, and lines like “well phrased” and “nicely constructed sentences” are generally written in the margins of essays and exam papers by teachers who want to praise students for their work. But to what extent is content conflated with form when we go on about literature this way? To what degree is some unconscious idea of a common moral benefit bundled up into all that well wrought syntax? That good writing, in the end, is about… well, good things? Belben is a writer who actively enjoys taking on the murky and the embarrassing, the linguistically obtuse and the unpleasant. I’ve been wondering about all this following the recent re-publication of Rosalind Belben’s novel The Limit , the story of an older woman who is now dying, a rack of bones and bald head and dry skin, while the younger man to whom she is married remains tanned and warm and virile. Belben is a novelist who writes beautifully—very “well” indeed—about quite a lot of rather tricky things. Tricky as in—on occasion, hard to stomach. Tricky as in—can be—pretty awful. Going back to her work after reading The Limit , a book first published in 1974 and now available as an NYRB title, reminds me that Belben is a writer who actively enjoys taking on the murky and the embarrassing, the linguistically obtuse and the unpleasant to the extent of defecatory… There’s no shortage of ugly content in this writer’s body of meticulously crafted and imagined fiction. Since I was first introduced to her books about twelve years ago I’ve been ravished by a literary project that overwhelms the reader with a particularly anti-social kind of difficulty—whether of subject or style—that results in an unusual dilemma. To love or to loathe? For Belben’s sentences, like some of […]

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