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Saturday, April 07, 2018

The end of literature

The saints were uneducated. Why, then, do they write so well? Is it only inspiration? They have style whenever they describe God. It's easy to write from divine whispers, with one's ear glued to his mouth. Their works have a superhuman simplicity. But they cannot be called writers, since they do not describe reality. The world won't accept them because it does not see itself in their work. 
                                                     EM Cioran, Tears and Saints
A surprising conclusion: realism, the new narcissism.

It might explain why I prefer to read non-writers. But what do they write about if God no longer whispers in their ears?

Peter Handke called Thomas Bernhard a "secular Austrian saint" and also endorsed his status as a non-writer when he noted that it was only in his final novel Extinction that he saw "the rudiments of description, of enthusiastic description of locales and spaces" which for him "is the most important thing in literature". (Note here the bogus diversity that remains acceptable to British literary professionals.)

What does Bernhard write about instead then? It's hard to say without misdirection; content is the impurity in his form. He compared what he did to a pianist perfecting his skill:
what some do with notes, I do with words. Simple as that. I'm not really interested in anything else. Because getting to know the world happens anyway, by living in it, as soon as you walk out the door you're confronted with the world directly.
Self-education then; an ear glued to the music of sentences, with the world as refuge.

To where does this lead; what is such writing for? We might ask the same of the superhuman simplicity of JS Bach's non-writing, which does not describe reality either. How might we describe what Tatiana Nikolayeva's Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ stirs in us?

Cioran again: Bach: languor of cosmogony; a scale of tears upon which our desires for God ascend; architecture of our fragilities, positive dissolution—the highest of all—of our will; celestial ruin in Hope; the one mode of destroying ourselves without disaster, and of disappearing without dying. . . . 

Such writing is as distant from us now as the saints'; alien even. Could we be witnessing the endgame of realism, in which content has triumphed? The end of literary history. Whatever we do, whatever we write, genre takes possession of it.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Cemetery in Barnes by Gabriel Josipovici

This is a novel about a translator who moves from London to Paris after the death of his first wife and then to Wales with his second wife, from where the novel is narrated, sometimes through the translator's imagination and sometimes via the guests invited to dinner parties in their cottage on the hills above Abergavenny. I admit that this doesn't sound like the most exciting premise for a novel, but I have read it three times in quick succession with increasing pleasure and relief (an odd word to use in a review perhaps), so let me try to explain why.

The translator entertains friends with food, drink, music and stories and thoughts about his life and work, but he is often heckled by his wife, which leads to repartee especially enjoyed by the guests, fascinated by their relationship. Each monologue is framed by 'he would say' or 'he used to say', creating a subtle rhythm to and distance from his often uncanny and occasionally self-contradictory stories.

They begin with a description of his solitary life in Paris. Perched in his attic flat, he would follow a strict routine of work and relaxation – no doubt in order to maintain his mental equilibrium after what happened to his first wife – the latter of which included walks around the city. But it is here his equilibrium is threatened: on the banks of the Seine he would often imagine himself sinking beneath the surface, noticing the horrified onlookers on the bridge above as he sinks slowly to the riverbed.
He knew such feelings were neurotic, dangerous even, but he was not unduly worried, sensing that it was better to indulge them than to try and eliminate them altogether. After all, everyone has fantasies. In the one life there are many lives. Alternative lives. Some are lived and others imagined. That is the absurdity of biographies, he would say, of novels. They never take account of the alternative lives casting their shadows over us as we move slowly, as though in a dream, from birth to maturity to death.
The walks were also an escape from the "tediousness and unreality" of the novels he had to translate, as was the music with which he would end each day. As he bathed, he listened to Monteverdi's Orfeo, which he chose because the composer "did not pause and repeat for emphasis but let his music, like life itself, flow on". Immersing his entire body in hot water and steam closed the distance between Orfeo's lament for Eurydice in the underworld and his own loss, while also allowing his life to flow on in a non-fatal alternative to drowning. Closing such distances is a translator's day job of course, except for this one it extends beyond words.

His monologues turn between Paris and London, life and alternative lives, in a style so natural and unforced that one recognises the distinction but not the priority. Each is as real or unreal, as clear or mysterious, as the other. In London, he would meet his first wife at the local station after work and they would walk home together. But, while everything seemed real, happy and normal, a nagging sense arose in him:
He felt at times as if he did not understand her at all. She was there and yet she was not there. He held her and yet he did not hold her. As they walked, hand in hand, he sometimes felt as if he was walking with a stranger.
In a perverse move, which he reports without apology or apparent embarrassment, he would often hang back at the station and follow her as she walked home alone. Later, he does the same to a woman he meets in a café and invites on a date. The creepiness is disconcerting, but we should remember the reader is also one step behind the translator on these spying missions, watching and judging his every move from the safety of an armchair. We are there and not there also, seeking answers in the shadow of other lives.

One day, on his way to meet his wife, he popped into Putney library and by chance found the sonnets of the sixteenth-century poet Joachim du Bellay and becomes obsessed with them, as their "rawness seem to contain the secret of life". He quotes passages and provides commentary on what he loves about them and the struggle to translate. While the poems are there on the page in French, they are also not there, especially if one can't speak the language. All the translator can do here is speak of the distance, which is also something he experiences in the old cemetery in Barnes of the title, and where we find the correlate for the non-linear timeline of the narrative, as the visitor stumbles across so many other lives beneath his feet, concealed by trees and undergrowth. He remembers visiting the cemetery with his first wife:
A road went through Putney Heath just beyond the cemetery and what seemed to be municipal tennis courts had at some point been laid close to it. As one crept through the trees, parting the undergrowth to see what lay beneath, one could hear the smack of ball against racket and hear the cheerful shouts of the players. That was the world of the living.
The novel then is this oscillation between life and the shadow of other lives, never meeting yet never apart, and to read The Cemetery in Barnes is to find an unfamiliar peace in the pedular motion between one and the other, so distinct from those tedious and unreal novels that march relentlessly from set-up to resolution, and to which one can return again and again with relief.

The Cemetery in Barnes is dedicated to the memory of Bernard Hoepffner, the French translator of many English-language authors, including Joyce, Will Self, Martin Amis, Gilbert Sorrentino and Gabriel Josipovici himself, who drowned in mysterious circumstances off the Welsh coast in 2017. Many readers might assume this novel is therefore a tribute to a friend in the form of a fictionalised biography. What is uncanny here is that the novel is based on the short story Steps about the same unnamed translator, in which Paris, Wales and fantasies of drowning all feature, that was first published in 1984. You can find it in the collection Heart's Wings from 2010.

Monday, February 05, 2018

"The pure, ungraspable fire": JM Coetzee's Jesus novels

Elizabeth Lowry's skilled review tells you all you need to know about JM Coetzee's The Schooldays of Jesus, more or less. It recognises that the "mysterious Spanish-speaking country, this place of refugee souls" in which the two protagonists make their new lives "stands for our embodied earthly life", and that their new home city Novilla is also "the genre in which the characters find themselves, the novel itself". It's why the novel is not very enjoyable, she says; a flimsy metafictional construct allowing Coetzee to indulge in Platonic dialogues as unappealing as the bread and bean paste eaten by Novilla's inhabitants.
On the evidence of this austere, barely realised mise-en-scène, it is difficult not to feel that Coetzee, like Plato, is no longer much interested in the accidents of our quotidian human world, the shadows on the cave wall. He is after essence alone, the pure, ungraspable fire.
Having now read both this novel and The Childhood of Jesus, I share Lowry's judgment, though not as a criticism. While not being a major enthusiast for his work, I have often defended Coetzee from the reviewing consensus on his post-Disgrace novels (which, it should be emphasised, is essentially a British consensus). Except those novels are still clearly of this world, engaging with the meat industry, autobiography and relationship triangles, so the criticism seemed churlish. In both of these novels, however, defence is not so easy, as one proceeds as if over a desert gradually populating with generic CGI figures and buildings, familiar in many ways and yet obviously a construct; a science fiction landscape denuded of that genre's imaginative twists and flourishes. And because the story is thereby infected by an air of arbitrary invention, the drama becomes not one of action and consequence but overall meaning or purpose. Even if we enjoy the story on face value, which I did, the shadow of allusion projected by the titles remains, leaving one in the semi-dark. We are used to fiction being justified despite its indulgences because it can tell us what life is like "in the era of Trump" but, when the title of a novel about imaginary refugees in an imaginary dry land alludes to the founding figure of the civilisation of the book, it can only generate anxiety about clues to a hidden message.

So the crossword puzzler goes to town. There's Jesus in the titles, of course, and there's an ethereal woman whose surname is Magdalena; there's a character called Dmitri straight out of Dostoevsky and there's Davíd reading Don Quixote, so some vowels and consonants are already in place. However, as Jack Miles points out, there is also in Simón and Davíd's undocumented previous lives the allusion to the Myth of Er referred to in Plato's Republic in which after death "souls are reincarnated only after crossing Lethe, the River of Oblivion", so the allusions might be only the distant splashing of that river; alluding to a tradition, yes, but also the void over which that tradition stands. After all, they too are only books. Don Quixote, for instance, is known as a satire of idealism that plays on the reader's forgetfulness that the novel is the very work and presence of the ideal. In order to laugh knowingly at the knight-errant's delusions, we must delude ourselves in the same way, which is why John Barth claims it is not only the first novel but the first postmodern novel, itself evidence that the history of the novel should be regarded vertically rather than horizontally.

As Lowry pointed out, while enchantment is absent in the novels, idealism is where they're set, summarised by Joyce Carol Oates as a "quasi-socialist state in which conformity, mediocrity and anonymity are both the norm and the highest values". It is a utopia divested of the idea of another world. However, such a world is suggested when Simón reads Don Quixote to Davíd. The boy becomes upset when he does not receive clear answers to his questions about what the story leaves out, so like a wilful, childish knight-errant he makes up nonsense phrases for himself claiming they're part of the story, before tearing through the pages and not reading the words. Simón's patience is tested:
'Why are you handling the book so roughly?’
‘Because. Because if I don’t hurry a hole will open.’
‘Open up where?’
‘Between the pages.’
‘That’s nonsense. There is no such thing as a hole between the pages.’
‘There is a hole. It’s inside the page. You don’t see it because you don’t see anything.’
Such is the lure of the written word, and it prompts the question: do we turn to novels because of an urge to descend into these holes, to access the other side of the river; that is, unable as we are to accept the world as it is, to seek a land without metaphor? If so, realism is the inverted gospel of this ideal, and the post-Disgrace reviewing consensus its choir, represented in the novels by Simón's determined acceptance of the world as it is. The Jesus novels test its patience in particular not because they are too reliant on fantasy or conceptual indulgences, but because they are too realistic, if realism means including questions about its own existence and value. They present the world in a realism as pure as a dream. Everything in a dream is present for a reason, only that reason is unclear, cloaked in the darkness of sleep, and we become aware of the darkness only when we awake. The child Davíd is thereby the awoken insurgent in such a land, as Jesus was in his, and writing in ours.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Smothered Words by Sarah Kofman

Sarah Kofman wrote nearly thirty books between 1970 and her suicide in 1994. The majority have not been translated into English and those that have are expensive, but with titles on Kant, Nietzsche and Freud, you can appreciate their range and seriousness. Derrida and Levinas admired her work so much they joined a campaign to get her the academic recognition she had been denied. However, I want to draw attention to one short book from late in her career.  

Parole Suffoquées was published in 1987 and translated by Madeleine Dobie as Smothered Words, an edition of less than 70 pages comprising commentaries on a short story by Maurice Blanchot and Robert Antelme's The Human Race, an account of his deportation to a Nazi work camp. But that description is not enough if it suggests another scholarly monograph, as the title alludes to the great tragedy of her life. She was a small child when her father, the rabbi Berek Kofman, was arrested by the Nazis and deported to Auschwitz, where he was beaten and buried alive for refusing to work on the Sabbath, a fact that until the opening pages of Smothered Words had remained unspoken throughout her life as a writer: "How can it not be said? And how can it be said? How can one speak of that before which all possibility of speech ceases?"

If the fact is now in the open, the trauma is spoken in response to other texts, interpersing commentary with quotation to such a degree that a single voice becomes a chorus. The other writers enable speech. Smothered Words begins by stating that if one is to adopt Adorno's injunction "to arrange one's thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, so that nothing similar will happen" then:
it behooves me, as a Jewish woman intellectual who has survived the holocaust, to pay homage to Blanchot for the fragments on Auschwitz scattered throughout his texts: writing of the ashes, writing of the disaster which avoids the trap of complicity with speculative knowledge, with that in it which is tied to power, and thereby complicit with the torturers of Auschwitz.
(A passage that ought to be noted by those who accuse Blanchot of anti-semitism.) Given her record of publications, one would expect a more formal, scholarly approach, keeping any personal stake out of the study, but Kofman recognises such speech is compromised and it is Blanchot's example that enabled her to speak of "this event, my absolute", and so mitigate any mastery:
To speak: it is necessary without (the) power [sans pouvoir]: without allowing language, too powerful, sovereign, to master the most aporetic situation, absolute powerlessness and very distress, to enclose it in the clarity and happiness of daylight.
Kofman uses Blanchot's 's 1935 story The Idyll as an example of how writing exercises such mastery. It is the story of a stranger entering 'the Home', a community in which differences between individuals are smoothed out or erased, and in which processes occur that prefigure the camps: welcoming the newcomer by sending him to communal showers, giving him a new name (if not a number) and directing him to a shed where other men live. Kofman discusses the story alongside quotations from Blanchot's postwar reflections on the story to emphasise the idyllic nature of fiction even as it describes terrible things. Storytelling basks in "the 'glory' of the narrative voice 'that speaks clearly, without ever being obscured by the opacity or the enigma or the terrible horror of what it communicates' – not even by death". This is why Blanchot removed the label 'story' from his postwar narratives, famously ending The Madness of the Day with "A story? No. No stories, never again".

Robert Antelme's account of his time in the Gandersheim work camp had to confront this issue. After being rescued by his friend François Mitterand, he experienced what other survivors experienced: "No sooner would we begin to tell our story than we would be choking over it." And so Kofman asks "How can testimony escape the idyllic law of the story?" Her answer goes directly to her father's act of prayer, which was:
the revelation of the word as the place in which men maintain a relation to that which excludes all relation: the infinitely Distant, the absolutely Foreign. A relation with the infinite, which no form of power, including that of the executioners of the camps, has been able to master, other than by denying it, burying it in a pit with a shovel, without ever having encountered it.
A prayer reestablishes "in this situation of extreme powerlessness and violence, a relation beyond all power", offering resistance to the ethic of productivity at the heart of western culture, which Blanchot claimed had reached its apogee in the production of death in the camps. We have only to read something as routine as Tim Lott's recent demand that novelists tell stories to recognise how deeply this ethic is still embedded in our culture. If Antelme's book is not quite a prayer, it is an extremely patient and remarkably self-effacing description of a system of power that worked and starved campmates to death but could never destroy their membership of the human race, that which unified them with their oppressors. Kofman says it is because no community was possible with the SS that there was also the strongest community, the community (of those) without community:
It is not founded on any specific difference or on a shared essence – reason – but on a shared power to choose, to make incompatible though correlative choices, the power to kill and the power to respect and safeguard the incommensurable distance, the relation without relation.
The Nazis justified their attempt to create an idyllic community by, among other things, appealing to Nietzsche's necessarily ambiguous aphorism "Man is the yet undetermined animal". Kofman says Antelme's response would emphasise that ambiguity with a yes and no: "No, if we must take this to mean that a transformation of the species is possible; yes, if this aphorism signifies that in man there is a multiplicity of powers, none of which is ever sure to triumph." She ends the book by emphasising that this is a new humanism, one based on "the infinitely Distant, the absolutely Foreign".

Writing Smothered Words did apparently determine something in Sarah Kofman. As Madeleine Dobie explains in her superb introduction to her translation, after it was completed "she was no long able to write in the language of mastery". Later, as this website reports, she "became unable to do the things she loved most dearly—reading, writing, listening to music, watching films and looking at works of art". Unfortunately, as far as I know, only one of her remaining books has been translated into English, so I cannot say what form they take. The one book, Rue Ordener, Rue Labat is a "plain and unadorned" memoir of her childhood and teenage years, moving from the house in one street from where her father was arrested and to another where she became torn between her mother and a Christian woman who had taken them in. The first page suggests that all reflection and analysis, if not writing, had come to an end, and why.

I have often wanted to write something about Smothered Words, not because of its subject matter – which at best I feared had attracted me because of the common assumption that extreme experience is a guarantee of value or, at worst, as some kind of Schadenfreude – but because of how the subject matter affected its writing. I wanted to write about the book because it is written in the voice of a person subject to her own experience. As one embedded in academic methods, this was especially intriguing. While the seamless inclusion of quotations has been mentioned, Dobie notes that "a significant number" of these in the French text are erroneous, suggesting it had been written with some urgency, as if the Scotch tape patching up her pen was starting to disintegrate. A notable example is on the very last page where the quotation "after Auschwitz there is no word tinged from on high...that has any right unless it has undergone a transformation" is attributed to Antelme rather than Adorno. I half-wish the errors had been repeated in the translation, as this is as would maintain and perhaps further the movement away from mastery, and may even reveal more. Blanchot is known for quoting from memory and not caring to amend where it is mistaken.

Kofman's mastery of scholarly writing and its transformation in Smothered Words is a profound example of what I sense is necessary on our own very mundane level. I have always been aware that my writings on this blog were written under the light of one subject or experience filtered through the prism of books, becoming present to me only in the colours emerging in this way. The epigraph to the very first essay I posted online makes this clear with its qualification that the revelation is also its own eclipse. Much of my disappointment and frustration with reviewing and critical writing has come from when I stray from this light in favour of engagement with a literary culture that is preoccupied with consumer evaluations and magisterial labelling rather than more fundamental questions about the presence of writing in our lives. So I present this post as a recommendation, both of Sarah Kofman's work and the direction it offers to those seeking to eclipse their own light.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Kingdoms of recurrence: To Duration by Peter Handke

"I’ve tried to read Karl Ove Knausgaard. But it is impossible… My Struggle lacks air. Literature needs a little air.Peter Handke
"In his fiction [David Grossman] has always been a serious writer, a dealer in big themes – too serious for my taste, I find his books lack air.Gabriel Josipovici

I read these two statements within a week of each other and have to ask: what is air? A falsely innocent question of course, as both comments surely wish only for relief from the weight of the world pressing on the words, which is after all what storytelling offers – the "all-appeasing And then..." as Handke has described it elsewhere.

But what if air is something apart from that familiar alibi of escapism from too-serious life? If the fiction of who made the statements is any guide, air is a quality of lightness in relation to big themes rather than a retreat from them. It fills the high meadows of Repetition, in part about a brother lost in war, and In a Hotel Garden, in part about the legacy of the Holocaust. So perhaps it is also a matter of literary style, that which provides the aesthetic pleasure some claim is key to the reading experience of literary fiction so-called. Yet contrary to Handke, I think the first two volumes of My Struggle also have air, if the ghostly presence of the numinous over a dense narrative is air.

Lightness, style, the numinous – air could be all three.

Two editions of Repetition published by The Last Books (2013) and Minerva (1989)

For Filip Kobal, air is something else again. At the beginning of his journey into Slovenia on the trail of his long-lost brother, he is drawn to a 'blind window', a bricked-up, set-in part of a station wall:
The significance of the blind window remained undefined, but suddenly that window became a sign, and in that same moment I decided to turn back. My turning back—and here again the sign was at work—was not definitive; it applied only to the hours until the following morning, when I would really start out, really begin my journey, with successive blind windows as my objects of research, my traveling companions, my signposts. And when later, on the evening of the following day, at the station restaurant in Jesenice, I thought about the shimmering of the blind window, it still imparted a clear message—to me it meant: “Friend, you have time.”
What sets this apart from escapism is that the discovery arrives not as the regular epiphenomenon of narrative but inherent to it, and as part of a novel it becomes something more than the report of a private epiphany because of the patience taken by the reader to get there. By performing a similar act of attention on a similar journey, the reader receives the same message, breathes some air. Reader, you have time. The blind window has become the book.

In another of Handke's works closely related to Repetition, the truest definition of air is sought head on. We have had to wait for it however. Die Wiederholung was published in 1986 and Ralph Manheim's translation two years later. In the same year Handke published Gedicht an die Dauer but that has had to wait 27 years to appear in Scott Abbott's translation To Duration. It's been worth the wait.

An example follows on the next page. On the way to the post office Handke hears two voices: one calling his name across a crowded square, which is when he realises he has left the manuscript of Die Wiederholung on a market stand, and another from a quarter of a century before in another city. Duration has this uncanny quality, akin to Proust's loops in time revealed in otherwise banal situations. He writes that he has experienced duration "as a traveller, as a dreamer, as a listener, at play, as observer" but, as Marcel discovered too, it cannot be relied on. When he tries to approach the essence of duration, only individual words come to mind: "spring, snowfall, sparrows, waybread, dawning, dusk, bandage, harmony." Duration is the presence of "the less conspicuous, the more poignant" and is why Handke is writing a poem and not a treatise.

Once the subject and its uncertain context is set, the poem describes places and emotions that require less conspicuous and more poignant details to approach the essence of duration, details that might otherwise be swamped by the grand events of headline-grabbing novels or drained by the abstractions of Philosophy. Briefly ashore on boat trip around the coast of Turkey, Handke and his friends hike to a cove and forage for food to accompany a lobster back on the boat.
At the cove stood an almond tree,
its shells half open like sky-mussels.
I climbed up and shook the branches,
on the ground below
a patter and drumming
that even today,
back in the cold continental air,
resounds in my ears.
They pick grapes, figs and pomegranates, and go swimming in the wine-coloured sea. While this appears to be the blissful escapism we assume is key to duration, for Handke it is "darkened by an uneasiness, by a melancholy, by a pain" that turned him to stone, feeling he had no right to the experience. He was "a living spirit only...while working, in the usual nook, bent over the words". It was only on returning to his unkempt garden at home "with grey seed head shooting up from the grass" that he felt duration and recognised "ecstasy is always too much".

Duration is then "the adventure of the mundane" often so fleeting that it's "not worth talking about", which would explain why 'air' is cited yet never defined and regularly conflated with escapism. For Handke, however, it is worth "holding on to through writing", and this must be his task; "It must be my true love":
And I must,
if the moments of duration are to spring
   from me
and give my stiff face a form
and insert a heart into my empty breast,
practise, year in and year out,
my love.
Such dedication he says makes writing worthwhile, when it might otherwise be dismissed as indulgence when not feeding the organs of reportage. To Duration thereby also embodies duration and provides the possibility of duration to the reader. And this is where the specific genre of writing about duration becomes significant, why 'air' in a work of literature depends on genre, hence 'Gedicht' in the German title.

Rear covers of Repetition and To Duration

The concept of duration is of course associated with the philosophy of Henri Bergson, and Handke acknowledges this with an epigraph from Introduction to Metaphysics that claims our intuition of duration requires many different images, presumably those embedded in the poem. This relates to Bergson's complaint that the terms we use to designate time are borrowed from those we use for space, so the means of our understanding of duration is what masks duration; it "refuses to consider transition," seeking instead the singular and unmoving. Philosophers have assumed it necessary to move out of time in order to go beyond human intelligence, but, Bergson argues, we are already outside of time and therefore must "get back into duration and recapture reality in the very mobility which is its essence".

Our highly scientific mindset notices key words here such as essence and metaphysics and suspects a superstitious, perhaps even religious tendency on the horizon, with literary critics concurring in suspicion to question the distinctly unexperimental prose nature of Handke's poem, which might have otherwise provided it with an alibi, even if it can be read with some rigour alongside Bergson's philosophy and gained thereby some academic Brownie points. Bergson, however, argues that science itself is metaphysical in its origin and became scientific as we know it only as it demanded expression in static terms: "In short, pure change, real duration, is a thing spiritual or impregnated with spirituality". Metaphysics-as-science claimed to go beyond experience, but:
what it did in reality was merely to take a full and mobile experience, lending itself to a probing ever-deepening and as a result pregnant with revelations—and to substitute for it a fixed extract, desiccated and empty, a system of abstract general ideas, drawn from that very experience or rather from its most superficial strata. One might as well discourse on the subject of the cocoon from which the butterfly is to emerge, and claim that the fluttering, changing, living butterfly finds its raison d’être and fulfillment in the immutability of its shell. On the contrary, let us unfasten the cocoon, awaken the chrysalis; let us restore to movement its mobility, to change its fluidity, to time its duration.        [Translated by Mabelle L. Andison]
It is clear from this why literature's cultural stock has fallen in recent decades while the multi-coloured shell of popular science and so-called reality hunger has risen. We have been conditioned to doubt the value of novels and poetry, with air-as-escapism filling the atmosphere, suggesting the value they retain is the brief but happy absence from full and mobile experience, which is after all provided in more accessible and concentrated form by Hollywood blockbusters. Against this tendency WG Sebald, in a remarkable essay from 1995, substantiates Handke's resistance to this devaluation:
In Repetition, Handke allows the peculiar light which illuminates the space under a leafy canopy or a tent canvas to glisten between words, placed here with astounding caution and precision; in doing so, he succeeds in making the text into a sort of refuge amid the arid lands which, even in the culture industry, grow larger day by day .
I have read Repetition several times since the hardback was published in 1988, the second or third year of my reading life, and still retain the afterglow of what I would call the magical light its prose evoked to me at that time, which might explain why I value it as others do their books of childhood. This has often confused me because at first glance it is no different to any other first-person Bildungsroman and does not have the overt stylistic quirks of classical modernism to distance it from so-called literary fiction – nothing experimental here. Sebald offers an explanation, which aligns the novel to Bergson:
In every case, the metaphysic developed in Handke’s newer books, which aims to translate the seen and perceived into language, remains undiscussed. There is obviously no longer a contemporary discourse in which metaphysics may claim a place. And yet art, wherever and whenever it may take place, bears the closest ties to the realm of metaphysics. In order to explore this proximity, the writer requires a courage which should not be underestimated.
It is only since reading To Duration all these years later that I am able to recognise that what makes Repetition distinct is its acknowledgement of the necessary movement of reflexivity within reading and writing. The present of writing and the past of life come together as and in duration, as the great opening line attests, containing as it does almost the entire novel to come: "A quarter of a century, or a day, has passed since I arrived in Jesenice on the trail of my missing brother." The qualification is pure air.

It is the novel as novel and poem as poem, kingdoms of recurrence, that enable this, something a theory or a treatise can never achieve. As he practises, bent over the words:
Staying at the task,
the one dear to me, the chief one,
impeding, thus, its obsolescence,
I feel then, perhaps,
the shudder of duration,
incidentally each time,
while cautiously shutting a door,
while carefully peeling an apple,
while crossing a threshold attentively,
while bending down for a thread.
Note that these events of duration go against that cardinal rule of creative writing: show don't tell. The work is instead showing itself, as Repetition shows itself, as a veiled metafiction, a commentary on its own genesis, production and effects, which places it in a sequence with Proust's novel. For Filip Kobal, writing is the means to not only recover the past but to gain a future. 
What I had experienced at the age of twenty was not yet a memory. And memory meant not that what-had-been recurred but that what-had-been situated itself by recurring. If I remembered, I knew that an experience was thus and so, exactly thus; in being remembered, it first became known to me, nameable, voiced, speakable; accordingly, I look on memory as more than a haphazard thinking back—as work; the work of memory situates experience in a sequence that keeps it alive, a story which can open out into free storytelling, greater life, invention.
For the reader, the book is a necessary part of that greater life.

Note: both Repetition and To Duration are available from The Last Books, whose website contains a translation of Sebald's essay as well as a few other Handke-related gems.


Please email me at steve dot mitchelmore at gmail dot com.

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