This Space

Britain's first book blogger (November 2000). This Space is now a major motion picture, or something.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The extreme of literature: Stuff by Charlie Hill

In 1986, the New Musical Express described Maurice Blanchot's The Madness of the Day as a '14-page micro novel' rather than a short story, or even a récit, the form Blanchot had redefined. Thirty years later, the choice of genre appears only obscure and uncontroversial, except, on closer examination, it raises questions about our hopes and expectations for writing, which is why I raise it now.

To be fair to the NME, this book is difficult to summarise in generic terms because, while it appears to be a valedictory commentary on a life in which events promise the familiarity of anecdotal episodes leading to a satisfying conclusion, it also floats free into something like allegory:
I have loved people, I have lost them. I went mad when that blow struck me, because it is hell. But there was no witness to my madness, my frenzy was not evident; only my innermost being was mad. Sometimes I became enraged. People would say to me, "Why are you so calm?" But I was scorched from head to foot; at night I would run through the streets and howl; during the day I would work calmly.
There are no names or dates and the frequency of loves and losses unspecified, so the subject is not the singularity of a life but the gulf between inside and outside, as if narration is trapped and speaking of its confinement. Writing subsumes all names and dates, all frenzy and madness. No matter how fast it runs, how loudly it howls, tranquility prevails. So, by labelling The Madness of the Day a 'micro-novel', the NME's reviewer seeks to turn attention to what it calls 'urban ruin', to what is outside, a process of empirical history and the happy territory of the realist novel, despite the horrifying erasure of time.

One might say then that The Madness of the Day seeks to express madness in the form of reason itself, and what the novel can only evade in plentiful narrative.

This is also the paradox of Charlie Hill's 30-page 'micro-novel' Stuff, which is otherwise very different in its content. It begins with the narrator describing his route to a supermarket in a town in the English midlands. He walks via roads called Woodthorpe, Livingstone and Hazelhurst. Tree roots have broken through pavement, skips outside redevelopments are piled high in rubble, a house on Hazelhurst has a UPVC porch and cars displaying patriotic flags – "Berghof re-imagined by the Daily Express".
On either side of their front door they have large fluted plastic plant pots, the sort you see at garden centres in Warwickshire. I think there must be all manner of socio-anthropological connections between garden centres and fascism, I mean this is where it starts, isn’t it? First they came for the cushioned swing seats …
This is Frankie Boyle channeling Frank Bascombe, even down to the American-style street names, and we are at home as readers and provincial Britons. If it is very different, what it has in common with The Madness of the Day and Richard Ford's trilogy is that such descriptions emphasise only distance. "Why am I telling you this?" the narrator asks: "Because this is how it was, this is how I used to be. I used to be alive". The banally compact title is then a sarcastic pointer toward disgust or horror at the stuff of life, and which projects into a 450-page industry-friendly tome that refuses to exist.

"I burned with the life of it all" he says, but now there is only disenchantment, emptiness. In desperation and confusion he tries to break the routine, which leads to an argument with his girlfriend. He behaves oddly with his boss, skips work and tries to recover carefree youth in a bowling alley. But every act is willed from distance. There is no genuine spark. While Stuff maintains itself in a recognisable story with such action, drama and pathos, its own stuffness becomes part of the problem of distance. It also must find a way out. On a whim that is also willed, the narrator gets on a train away from the landlocked midlands and toward the very north of Scotland:
There was nothing but grass and bog and sky and sea. When I saw the pictures of the cliffs at Dunnet Head, I thought I would run across the grass that led to the sheer drop into the sea and just keep running. It takes a particular sort of person to throw themselves off a cliff and I wasn’t sure I could do it, but I thought that this must have been the purpose of my trip, this must have been why I’d come to Scotland, to become a part of stuff, of the sea, of a force wearing away at things, turning them into dust.
Except he holds back and instead begins to write. Each attempt to return, perhaps to burn again, ends in a remote location, in writing – in a perennial failure to arrive. Zeno's arrow becomes a pen. 

Existential dislocation is a common theme in modern fiction. Sartre's Nausea is the prime example, but there is also Joseph in Saul Bellow's Dangling Man falling into a 'narcotic dullness' between losing his job and getting a call-up into the army, and the narrator of Maupassant's The Horla suspecting something from the metaphysical outside is destroying his otherwise happy, ordered life. In each case, the everyday loses its strength or meaning, and the world reveals a different order, something "deeper than the day can comprehend" as Nietzsche's Zarathustra puts it.

While existential dislocation might be a common theme for contemporary fiction, it isn't often a common problem. All three narratives mentioned above adopt the diary form and, in doing so, retain a hold on the day even as it tells a story of the night. And so does Charlie Hill's Stuff: it begins on Monday and ends six days later. Which brings us back to the question of genre. In The Space of Literature, written soon after The Madness of the Day, Blanchot claims that "writers who keep a journal are the most literary of all" because from the moment a work becomes literature "the writer increasingly feels the need to maintain a relation to himself". It enables the writer to avoid "the extreme of literature, if literature is ultimately the fascinating realm of time’s absence". By fictionalising the resort to the diary then, these narratives seek to humanise the extreme of literature; or, to put it another way, to resist or deny the inhumanity they have discovered at the core of what is apparently most human.

In a superb essay on Blanchot theory of the récit, Daniel Just aligns this extremity to the Odyssey's story of the Sirens, in which Odysseus binds himself to the ship's mast and blocks his ears with wax in order to navigate beyond their lure:
Where the novel finds recourse in the infinite detours of the 'histoire [story and history] humaine,' the récit decides to devote itself solely to the Siren’s song. Rather than leaving the lure behind and reporting other events, the récit remains open to the song and...tries to sustain its destructive beauty.
But how can this be done? Just points to Blanchot's preoccupation "with the kind of language that would be able to suspend the tendency of language to signify and, therefore, would create an effect of silence" and that for him only the récit is able to achieve this. Signification and silence are the two outstanding characteristics of Stuff. From cracked pavements to supermarkets, from suburban fascists to grass blowing in the wind, we know where we are, on the way to a full-length novel. But then there is the brevity, the blank pages, the lure of the sea, and we don't.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Thirty years of reading

This year marks thirty years since I started reading. Below is my first and only handwritten book list of all the books I read that year in the order I read them. Yes, I am embarrassed. In 1985, I had read a short book about the miners' strike and Twice Shy, a Dick Francis crime novel, but it was not until my birthday in January 1986 when I borrowed from the library Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being that everything changed. I'm pretty sure it was mentioned on a TV show and the pretentious and hyperbolic title had attracted me. What ever it was, from then on I never stopped looking for more to read. It's clear now that I had assumed every novel would have the same seriousness and philosophical weight, especially if it was published by Faber & Faber, so it was with some dismay and confusion that I continued for the next two or three years. Even as I enjoyed mainstream literary novels the way most people still enjoy mainstream literary novels, I also wanted something else.

'People' spelled that way deliberately; I was a crazy rebel in those days

All I remember of Kundera's next book, which I bought new in a £2.95 paperback, is Salman Rushdie's blurb on the back cover: "A masterpiece, full of angels, terror, ostriches and love", my reaction to which prefigures my current loathing for newspaper interviews with famous authors in which we're told they will talk about "climate change, living with depression and the perfect cup of tea". Books are full of words – get over it.

Koestler's sudden appearance among the novels indicates the want of something else. In those days, my local library had a limited selection; just a few narrow shelves of non-fiction dating from the 60s and 70s: Sartre's What is Literature? for example, so it was difficult to read widely and difficult to realise one wasn't reading widely. I had little guidance and had to follow my nose, hence the appalling prevalence of Colin Wilson books the following year.

New Musical Express
A couple of years earlier I had discovered John Peel's radio show and had begun to buy the NME every week. I don't recall many book reviews and this clipping has no date, but Handke's Slow Homecoming and Bernhard's The Lime Works were both published in 1986, so I assume it coincides with my first year of reading. The description of Blanchot's Madness of the Day really excited me; not the 'urban ruin' sop to social realism but '14-page micro-novel' and the loss of the facility to tell the story even as it is told. I would get excited about such a book even now. However, at that time I had no idea how to get hold of them. My library was too small and provincial ever to stock such books and I wouldn't have known how to order them.

Soon after, in somewhat lovelorn manner, searching where I could, I crossed the harbour and walked the short distance to Portsmouth Polytechnic's library. In the catalogue I discovered a copy of Blanchot's The Sirens' Song, at that time one of only two translations of his essays (the other being Lydia Davis' translation The Gaze of Orpheus and other literary essays, published in the US) and found the edition on its shelf with its dust jacket removed. I carried it to one of the built-in plastic desks and leafed through what seemed like sacred pages. But I felt so furtive and out of place (I had left school with two 'o' levels and was on the dole) that I left without reading very much. Here's a picture of a rare secondhand copy I found years later with the cover removed for authenticity.

Kevin the Brontosaurus admiring the grain of the cloth

Thirty years on, I have many books of Blanchot's in translation, so no more sad visits to enchanted libraries. And while the dreamlike state of those times hasn't been entirely dispelled, there is regret that it is more or less over and the possibilities for discovery apparently very limited. In response there's the temptation to pursue the mirage of systematic reading like the autodidact in Nausea, until that is I re-read the book lists from 1986 to 1989 and recognise the value of chance and following one's nose.

In my previous post, I wrote about Knausgaard's youthful fear that Hölderlin's poetry would not open to him even as he enjoyed a successful writing career, which now leads me to wonder if keeping one's distance from such a respectable position is necessary to retain access to what attracted me to books in the first place, rather than, say, becoming a group-thunk middle-class professional churning out social comedies while sneering at lower class amateurs.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

The virtue of a prayer

I'm still bothered by Karl Ove Knausgaard's fear that the poetry of Hölderlin would not open to him even while he carried on to have a successful literary career. It's worth quoting at length:
You could write a whole dissertation about Hölderlin, for example, by describing the poems, discussing what they dealt with and in what ways the themes found expression, through the syntax, the choice of words, the use of imagery, you could write about the relationship between Hellenic and Christian modes, about the role of the countryside in his poems, about the role of the weather, or how the poems relate to the actual politico-historical reality in which they had arisen, independent of whether the main emphasis was on the biographical, for example, his German Protestant background, or on the enormous influence of the French revolution. You could write about his relationship to other German idealists, Goethe, Schiller, Hegel, Novalis, or the relationship to Pindar in the late poems. You could write about his unorthodox translations of Sophocles, or read the poems in light of what he says about writing in his letters. You could also read Hölderlin’s poetry with reference to Heidegger’s understanding of it, or go one step further and write about the clash between Heidegger and Adorno over Hölderlin. You could also write about the whole history of his work’s reception, or of his works in translation. It was possible to do all of this without Hölderlin’s poems ever opening themselves up.
I'm still bothered because I don't know what it means. How would you know when poetry has opened up to you? If the intensity and patience of scholarly attention does not guarantee its opening, then what withdraws itself? Knausgaard sidesteps an answer by telescoping the question through the anxiety of his younger self that if poetry did not open to him he was destined for "a life on a lower plane". But what are the profound insights of poetry if not those unpacked in the library of close readings?

The presence of My Struggle suggests that Knausgaard expected poetry to open up empirically rather than as an idea, and the six volumes of empirical data is necessary to evoke this painful absence. For instance, his experience of looking at a reproduction of painting by Constable is the expression of an opening that allows no apparent worldly meaning. Compare this with Simone Weil who, despite being raised in a secular Jewish household and with no history of religious devotion, told a friend how, as she recited a poem by George Herbert, "Christ himself came down and took possession of me":
It is called Love. I learned it by heart. Often, at the culminating point of a violent headache, I make myself say it over, concentrating all my attention upon it and clinging with all my soul to the tenderness it enshrines. I used to think I was merely reciting it as a beautiful poem, but without my knowing it the recitation had the virtue of a prayer.
Poetry as the revelation and presence of divinity. A difficult idea. But, if we seek the origin of language, such difficulty might not be so alien to atheistic secular thought. In March, 2015 Noam Chomsky discussed his study of language with the physicist Lawrence Krauss. He was asked to explain why he believes that what is important about language from an evolutionary perspective has nothing to do with external communication but what is internal. "The core property of language", he says, "is its use in creating and formulating thought" and contrasts this with the idea that language evolved as an instrument of communication. Animal communication systems and human language "differ radically in every respect", as the former consists of signals connected to external events, while:
human language is a free, creative activity … and primarily its just used for thinking. If you simply introspect, almost all of your use of language is internally creating and interpreting thought. [...] If you actually look carefully at the design of language, it turns out that the externalisation, the articulation, what comes out of your mouth, is kind of peripheral to language. The core principles of language are those that determine how you construct and interpret thoughts. And the way it’s externalised doesn’t enter into that. [...] This reinforces the traditional view that language is fundamentally what is sometimes called 'audible thought'.
So from where does language and thought come? Chomsky says we know no more than Descartes. While we don't accept his dualism, what we don't understand about language is what he didn’t understand about language:
Same mystery. And this holds for voluntary action altogether, not just language. There’s a recent review by a very good scientist about what’s known about how voluntary action takes place, [such as] my reaching for this drink. Then he goes through what is known about the neurology, muscles, what the neurons are doing and so on. But he ends up by saying we’re now beginning to understand the puppet and the strings but we don’t know anything about the mind of the puppeteer. Nothing. So what is making me pick this [drink] up rather than take that and throw it on the floor? About that nothing is known. So we have to be very humble. That’s hundreds of years and we’re exactly as ignorant as before, and we don’t even know how to investigate it.
In line with Knausgaard's muted mistrust of scholarship, Chomsky jokes about the "huge literature" on the evolution of language when "the subject doesn't exist". There is evolution only in the capacity for language. Krauss adds that the key development that produced the capacity was apparently simple and arrived quickly, and, much like Weil's conversion, something to which we have no access. Perhaps then reading literature, and poetry in particular, is an uncanny encounter with the mind of the puppeteer, an encounter with both our most intimate self and our most intimate non-self, and one that opens only within this space.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Un-English review

The novelist and critic Jeff Bursey has reviewed This Space of Writing in the Winnipeg Review. He says the book "reaffirms the high quality of [my] writing and allows for an immersive experience in, primarily, Modernist writing and themes as found in the dead and the living". He also takes issue with the TLS review back in April.

As this is the fifth review from a fifth different country and the only negative one comes from my own native land, my sense that there is something profoundly intellectually fearful and withdrawn about this little England seems borne out. Perhaps that's why I am drawn to such damned un-English writers mentioned in the review. Indeed, I'm told the third review, in boeklog, says the book is fighting battles long won on the continent.

UPDATE: Whispering Stories and Review 31 have since added a sixth and seventh review, mitigating the English impatience.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Goethe Dies by Thomas Bernhard

The long post below criticises the dominant mode of fiction as practised in English, with the main complaint being that fiction inhabits the minds of its characters, telling us what they feel and think without any concern for boundaries and what crossing boundaries might destroy. As I admitted there, this is a naïve complaint, as it is precisely because the novel is one of the few places where there are no constraints on human knowledge and control that it is so popular, providing as it does readers and writers with an escape from the otherwise dominant experiences of uncertainty, confusion, dispossession and solitude.

But what if the writer seeks instead to respect these experiences rather than appropriate them as part of a story, as experiences undergone by characters? Well, one example arrived when I began reading Dostoevsky's The Devils, a novel narrated by "Mr G---v" describing events within his circle of friends and acquaintances. For all its familiarity as a lengthy 19th century novel of social and political intrigue, there is insight only through what is overheard by the narrator in person or reported to him in person via those friends and acquaintances, with all of the qualifications that entails. The shadow of narration is thereby cast over events, and there is no privileged knowledge beyond that already allowed. Whatever the intentions of the author, this subtle constraint has major effects.

Kevin the Brontosaurus reading Goethe Dies

It is perhaps no coincidence that of The Devils Thomas Bernhard wrote: "Never in my whole life have I read a more engrossing and elemental work". These adjectives are the words I would have used to describe his own books when I discovered them, written it seemed to me on the edge of collapse. Aged 19 and expected to die of TB (the initials might be more appropriate than the full name) he read the book in a hospital bed:
It had the effect of a powerful drug, and for a time I was totally absorbed by it. For some time after my return home I refused to read another book, fearing that I might be plunged headlong into the deepest disappointment. For weeks I refused to read anything at all. The monstrous quality of The Devils had made me strong; it had shown me a path that I could follow and told me that I was on the right one, the one that led out. I had felt the impact of a work that was both wild and great, and I emerged from the experience like a hero. Seldom has literature produced such an overwhelming effect on me.
Twenty years later, living on but still threatened by constant ill-health, he published The Lime Works, a novel beginning with an ellipsis and in the midst of hearsay and speculation:
... when Konrad bought the lime works, about five and a half years ago, the first thing he moved in was a piano he set up in his room on the first floor, according to the gossip at the Laska tavern, not because of any artistic leanings, says Wieser, the manager of the Mussner estate, but for relaxation, to ease the nervous strain caused by decades of unremitting brain work, says Fro, the man in charge of the Trattner estate, agreeing that Konrad's piano playing had nothing to do with art, which Konrad hates, but was just improvisation, as Wieser says, for an hour first thing early in the morning and another late at night, every day, spent at the keyboard, with the metronome ticking away, the window open ..."
While this has Bernhard's characteristic music, it bears only faint relation to the monological exaggerations and opinions that caricatures his more famous work, suggesting that the various characters' perspectives and their various contrasts play an important role in determining his fiction, that is, so long as we also take into account the end of perspective. Twelve years after The Lime Works, the newspaper Die Zeit printed his short story Goethe Schtirbt (sic), which has just been published for the first time in English translation and which stresses what I mean by this.

Goethe Dies is narrated by an unnamed member of a circle around "not only the greatest man in the nation but also the greatest German of all to this day" who, on his deathbed, so it is reported by the scholar Riemer, has been preoccupied with Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus to the point of believing it superseded his own work. So preoccupied is he that, so it is reported, he ordered his secretary Kräuter to England in order to bring Wittgenstein to Weimar, an order that Eckermann, the author of the famous Conversations with Goethe, is said to have opposed and was thus banished from Goethe's company; a convenient fiction given that he is the only person who would likely have recorded the event. Otherwise we have only the narrator's precise reporting of what happened via Riemer and Kräuter.

Goethe is said to be especially preoccupied with Wittgenstein's idea of Das Zweifelnde und das Nichtzweifelnde, which James Reidel translates as The Doubting and the Doubting Nothing, noting that it is an invented phrase derived from entry 6:51 of the Tractatus. In his italicised translation:
Scepticism is not irrefutable, but palpably senseless, if it would doubt where a question cannot be asked. For doubt can only exist where there is a question; a question only where there is an answer, and this only where something can be said.
(But perhaps not entirely invented, as in On Certainty Wittgenstein writes: "Zweifelnde und Nichtszweifelnde Benehmen. Es gibt das erste nur, wenn es das zweite gibt", which Anscombe/Paul translate as: "Doubting and non-doubting behaviour. There is the first only if there is the second".)

What can this mean? It's a very odd starting point for a story given that Wittgenstein was born 57 years after Goethe's death. The comedy of the conceit somehow emphasises Goethe's questing motivation as his admirers fuss around him. The great author is dying and perhaps thereby suddenly aware of that which allows for questioning is that which puts an end to questioning. He is alleged to have stood at the window with great attention: "Look here, Kräuter, at this ice-covered dahlia! Goethe allegedly exclaimed and his voice was as strong as ever, This is the Doubting and the Doubting Nothing!" Perhaps then to have Wittgenstein present, the man Goethe claims is his "philosophical son, so to speak", is thereby his preservation and his death, just as the ice preserves the dahlia by putting an end to it. Except it turns out Wittgenstein had died before Kräuter had a chance to bring him back to Weimar, so Goethe's final wish is unfulfilled and he becomes the ice around the dahlia. 

Our narrator then confesses that Goethe's final words were not the famously ambiguous "More light" (mehr Licht) but "No more" (mehr nicht), which would confirm the bad news by leaving no doubt, no possible escape. The shame of this deception is said to have killed Riemer and Kräuter while he, the narrator, says he still suffers from it "to this very day". And so too perhaps Thomas Bernhard for inventing such a comically paradoxical story – an ice-covered dahlia, a preservation of doubting determined by the doubting nothing – which places him by his own hand in the same company of the two great men of German letters, and so might have been retitled Bernhard Dies, as the gift of his writing is this state of still suffering, of being still alive, whereas, in the dominant mode of fiction, there is no doubt; every flower encased in ice.

NOTE: You can read Douglas Robertson's translation Goethe Dighs on his blog. It is spelled like this to match Bernhard's unconventional German.


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