For anyone who has ever kept a diary, Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness (first published in the US in 2015) will give pause for thought. The American writer kept a diary over 25 years and it was 800,000 words long. She elects not to publish a word of it in Ongoingness. It turns out she does not wish to look back at what she wrote. This absorbing book – brief as a breath – examines the need to record. It seems, even if she never spells it out, that writing the diary was a compulsive rebuffing of mortality. Like all diarists, she was trying to commandeer time. A diary gives the writer the illusion of stopping time in its tracks. And time – making her peace with its ongoingness – is Manguso’s obsession. Her book hints at diary-keeping as neurosis, a hoarding that is almost a syndrome, a malfunction, a grief at having no way to halt loss.

As an essayist (for the New York Times magazine, the Paris Review, the New York Review of Books), Manguso makes it plain she cannot forget the book she may never write – it haunts her like a long shadow. This is referred to more than once in 300 Arguments, which is even shorter than Ongoingness – a collection of aphorisms (“Think of this as a short book composed entirely of what I hoped would be a long book’s quotable passages,” is one regretful example).

A good aphorism is a raft: it carries you.

Even – particularly – bitter and twisted ones should have a perversely feelgood factor. In its concision, an aphorism could not be further from the unexpurgated journal Manguso wrote in the present tense – another denial of passing time.

The best aphorisms are witty.

When Oscar Wilde writes: “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances”, he delicately tilts a thought on its axis, turning the received wisdom inside out. Dorothy Parker turns the tables similarly when she quips: “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.” George Bernard Shaw’s “Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything” is a playful reminder of the tyranny of certainty expressed without doubt.

The need for comfort through language is implicit – and sometimes explicit – in Manguso’s work. A good aphorism will comfort: you might want to stick it on the fridge – or in your memory. Although she claims to have no fondness for beginnings and endings, her fear of formlessness is apparent. Perhaps she seized on the aphorism as a form of elegant punctuation, a new way to stop time with the (in every sense) arresting line. Both books are written in protest at the void and in fear of insignificance.

The fridge-sticking quality of the 300 is debatable: many would do better on a stove – to warm up. Melancholy runs through a lot of them: “After I stopped hoping to outgrow them, my fears were no longer a burden. Hope is what made them a burden.” This is more wise impasse than argument – and one is already struck by the unleavened quality to the prose. “Inner beauty can fade, too.” Definitely not one for the fridge. Or: “What fails to kill me will kill me eventually.” And here is a stark provocation: “You’ll never know what your mother went through.”

Many of the aphorisms seem like opening gambits – you half expect “Discuss” after the full stop (“You can choose your friends but not your friendships”). The extent to which this proves interesting will depend on where you take it and to whom you introduce it. There are some aphorisms with which one can partly disagree: “Progress takes place in the dark, when you aren’t trying.” The unconscious may quietly excel – but there are other forms of progress involving blood, sweat, tears and ceaseless trying (ask Winston Churchill). Some read like indecently abridged short stories: “The most fervent kiss of my life was less than five seconds long more than 10 years ago with someone else’s husband. It still hasn’t quite worn off.”

Several suggest status anxiety: “Interesting people aren’t interested in appearing interested.” Or competitive insecurity: “I read your work hoping to find flaws. I stop reading it, fearing its perfection.” Whatever the flaws of this collection, it makes enjoyable reading (partly because it brings on a rash of answering aphorisms. It makes you think).

The difficulty is the grey landscape against which Manguso’s own thinking seems to take place. A lack of wit clips the book’s wings. “Am I happy? Damned if I know, but give me a few minutes and I’ll tell you whether you are.” Give yourself 300 Arguments and it will not take long to reach a verdict on its astute, questing, exposed author.

stem: kate kellaway
titel: ongoingness and 300 arguments
bron: the guardian
perspectief: haunted by one book she may never write, the American essayist has instead written two volumes of edited highlights