This Space

Friday, February 07, 2020

Black holes

I watched this video twice, in fascination.

I became fascinated by Dr Becky's faith in data, maths and code in order to claim knowledge of that which fascinates us as a species gazing into the night sky; a faith here that is guaranteed, formalised and rewarded by society. Of course, this faith supports many fields, including my own. Literary studies also seeks knowledge to have done with fascination: knowledge of formal literary technique, knowledge of psychology, knowledge of sociology, knowledge of post-colonialism, class, race, gender; knowledge provided by scientific method, knowledge of z-scores, principal component analysis, clustering coefficients. Its power is unassailable.

But in aversion and resistance I think of its subject and the overwhelming absence opened by writing, and the bad faith we depend on for such knowledge. This experience of writing becomes a narrative in Blanchot's Writing of the Disaster. A small boy draws a curtain aside to see a wintry garden scene and then looks upward to "the ordinary sky, with clouds, grey light—pallid daylight without depth".
What happens then: the sky, the same sky, suddenly open, absolutely black and absolutely empty, revealing (as though the pane had broken) such an absence that all has since always and forevermore been lost therein—so lost that therein is affirmed and dissolved the vertiginous knowledge that nothing is what there is, and first of all nothing beyond.
At the end of the video, Dr Becky goes to a lecture by the scientist who took the first photograph of a black hole. She takes extensive notes and reports that over four billion people have since looked at the image.

Except, photography is the writing of light, so this no more a photograph of a black hole than a photograph of a novel is a photograph of its void of fascination (as revealed by the anxiety underlying discussions of book covers). Theories of the night sky and of writing may be intelligible but the conceptions on which they are based are not. Dr Becky's notebook is the black hole.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

All to end (the year)

One clear memory I have of David Lodge's review of The Book of God is that he described its author as being 'a novelist deeply influenced by Beckett'. It stuck in my mind because, at the time, in my very early days of reading books, I wondered how on earth a novelist could be influenced by such an author; it was, I thought, like being influenced by a field or a cloud. This was 1988. In March 1989, Beckett published Stirrings Still and I began to appreciate what it might mean. Later that year, thirty years ago today, Beckett died (I saw the news on Ceefax). So, as with my post on the thirtieth anniversary of Bernhard's death earlier this year, here are a few links to what I've written about Beckett on this blog.

However, the first thing I ever wrote for the internet was a review not for this blog but for Spike Magazine of the two biographies of Beckett that year, and though I am reluctant to hyperlink (empathising with Beckett for his own reluctance to allow early work to be reprinted), I do so because the first line prefigures a theme in what I've written ever since: that it has not been easy assimilating Beckett into our culture in the way his mentor Joyce has been assimilated. The reason can be explained via a post from 2008 in which I quote Beckett explaining why his work changed at the time of Molloy following what he calls a revelation:
I simply understood that there was no sense adding to the store of information, gathering knowledge. The whole attempt at knowledge, it seemed to me, had come to nothing. It was all haywire. What I had to do was investigate not-knowing, not-perceiving, the whole world of incompleteness.
Such an understanding remains alien to English-language literary culture. Popular book discussion still promotes writing that offers knowledge: Ten books you need to read. Imagine being told you need to read the authors who Beckett admired for the flame that burns away filthy logic.

This year I discovered that the book in which Beckett said this was published without Beckett's approval; he thought the conversations were private. But it does include his important refutation of the label 'theatre of the absurd' for his plays. He was also filmed without his knowledge talking about a television play, perhaps the only time he ever spoke on film.

The longest posts on Beckett appeared in 2011, on his silence and on the second volume of letters

But going back to Stirrings Still: ten years ago, I wrote about its initial publication in Oh all to publish, a post that includes a photograph of the full text as it appeared on the front page of the Guardian. Around the same time BBC Radio 3 broadcast a reading by Barry McGovern, which I recorded on a C90 cassette at the time and whose words – such and much more – still echo in my mind. Here it is, digitised in three parts.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Nietzsche and the Burbs by Lars Iyer

Imagine every novel published the last twenty years as part of an urban landscape, rising up against the horizon as you approach the outskirts of town, sometimes standing alone, as brash as a neo-Georgian mansion, sometimes piled high, storey upon storey, as imposing as a tower block, but mostly just rows and rows of near identical terraces. You wander through the streets imagining the lives of people in their rooms, what goes on behind their windows. Some look welcoming, others forbidding, but mostly indistinct, just rows and rows of near identical terraces. We speak of the death of the novel even as new estates pop up, too many to explore by foot, so we rely on drone footage to confirm that, yes, they're all the same, more or less. It is a kind of death, but one we struggle to recognise.

The modern novel has become the suburb of itself, its lawns of genre stretching to the horizon, parasitic on trade from the UNESCO world heritage site in the city centre to which tourists and connoisseurs flock, but is itself without stature, unsure of itself, constantly seeking validation. Lars Iyer's Nietzsche and the Burbs is where the teenage gang you often see wandering its streets hang out, bored out if its collective mind, full of loathing for the "dead-eyed boxes for the dead" that surround them – they live in Wokingham, after all; a placename that evokes so much to those of us who come from the south of England (so much of nothing) – and resort to drink and drugs to enliven an interminable present in which nothing happens. When asked by their Economics teacher about where the current financial system is heading, they cheerfully speculate:
Global economic collapse, miss, Paula says.
Hyperinflation, then a new Weimar, possibly a new Hitler, miss, Art says.
Stagflation, then another world war, to boost production, leading to mutually assured destruction, miss, I say.
Chandra is the gang's amanuensis and self-styled death-poet, quoting himself and the others as they sing parts of the chorus. They hang out together because they're members of a nameless, singerless band whose progress is frustrated because everything they play sounds like something that's been done before. "We can play anything we like" Paula says. "All this freedom, and we don't know what to do with it." Typical teenagers. But then a new boy joins the school whose composure and assurance intrigues them.
I think he has charisma, Art says.
I think he knows he has charisma, Paula says.
I think he doesn't care whether he has charisma, I say. That's what gives him charisma.
What's charisma?, asks Merv.
They see him write NIHILISM across his notebook and Paula decides he looks like Friedrich Nietzsche, so from then on is known as 'Nietzsche'. They read his blog with its dark aphorisms, quotations from Cioran, Beckett and the original Nietzsche, and with its forceful affirmation of life in its apparent meaningless. “Affirmation?, Paula asks. What does Nietzsche have to affirm? He lives in Wokingham, right?”

But his words begin to have an effect. They realise they have fallen unwittingly into nihilism. "We used to believe in music, we agree. What happened to us?". They envy the fish in the local river, able to live "drunk on pure water", much like Nietzsche's oblivious herd of grazing animals in his essay on history, and imagine a river of vodka: “A river into which you cannot step sober.” It’s the suburbs, they decide, that's happened to them, and only a philosopher of the suburbs can help overcome their predicament, and that philosopher is right before them. Nietzsche is persuaded to become the frontman of their group, which Chandra names Nietzsche and the Burbs. They proclaim that they will find a way forward with Nietzsche's philosophy channelled through their music. “But don’t the suburbs defeat philosophy?" they ask. "Don’t the suburbs mean the impossibility of philosophy?”

These are key questions, and not just for the teenagers. How can the ultimate questions of life be asked in the suburbs of the novel, where everything has been settled, where what happens is only a faint echo of crashing waves in a desert. As one of their teachers tells them: “Your hair keeps growing after you die. Things happen, but so what?”. The only way the big questions can be approached is through absurdity and hyperbole, which is why Nietzsche and the Burbs is narrated by awkward, angst-ridden teenagers, lightning rods for the approaching storm insensible to others, which for Nietzsche is the storm of speech, the speech of thought which rages through the novel. But as teenagers they are also saturated in the innocence and arrogance of the suburbs, a time and place in despair, without art, without philosophy. As such they are always ready to undercut pretention even as they aspire to it, such as when Paula asks Chandra what his poetry is for:
A rose has no why, I say. Nor does poetry.
The word twat has no y, you mean, Paula says.
'Nietzsche' is the necessary anachronism to spark something in the teenagers, in a similar way Wittgenstein is necessary to Thomas Bernhard's story Goethe Dies in which the dying poet demands the presence of the philosopher fifty-seven years before his birth. Indeed, it's worth comparing Lars Iyer's style with Bernhard's. As we are so used to the suburban novel, we've become used to suburban prose – show-don't-tell, free indirect discourse, etc. – so the philosophical hyperbole and choral singing comes as a wonderfully invigorating downpour. Though quite different to Bernhard's prose, it shares its intensity of music and the rare quality of ambiguity; we are never sure if its serious or comic, because it is both at the same time. Its permanent present tense, while also running through Iyer's Spurious trilogy and Wittgenstein Jr, is especially effective here in amplifying the mute horror of suburban life, such as when the gang visits the local pub:
   Mild suburbanites, all around. Mild surburbanites, mildly chattering—about what? Mild suburbanites, standing about, sipping their pints.
   Young men in shirts, in jeans. Young women in jeans. Young surburbanites, enjoying a quiet drink. Young surburbanites at play—looking just like young suburbanites at work. Young suburbanites, smiling and nodding, just as they smile and nod at work.
 And interweaving fascination and distance, such as when Nietzsche attends band practice:
Nietzsche, picking up the mic. Nietzsche, holding the mic to his lips. Nietzsche, opening his mouth just a little. Nietzsche, talking though not really talking. Singing, though not really singing. Something suspended between the two.
Each observation or action becomes one pulse in a series, with the effect of reducing agency and knowingness in the characters as they act and in the narration as it describes; something suspended between iteration and innovation. This is why Nietzsche and the Burbs is a clearing in the suburbs of the novel, neither part of the suburbs nor apart from it. It is where the lawns of genre become pockmarked by desperate moles, where the terraces begin to sink into the marsh. The end of the novel suggests that larking around in the light and shade of a clearing is the best response to the suburbs, and we realise as readers that's exactly what Nietzsche and the Burbs does, to glorious effect.

Monday, November 18, 2019

The River Capture by Mary Costello

A friend read my walk in the park post with its interjections of 'I thought' and its sarcastically italicised clichés and warned me to stop reading Thomas Bernhard: he is a zombie who takes control over writers who read him, she said winningly. Of course she is right – Geoff Dyer cheerfully admitted as much recently – and I didn't really need telling. While A walk in the park felt like a happy release from dreary blogmode and entirely natural – it's how I handwrite in my Leuchtturms – it emphasises how compromised my dissent of genre writing is. I replied saying that I should also stop reading Maurice Blanchot, as the post, with its focus on writing, absence and death, owed as much to him as it did Bernhard.

Influence is minefield in which nothing explodes. A late friend who wrote thrillers once told me that, fearing undue influence, he never read other novels when in the middle of writing one, and also that he never wrote when hungry because he would inevitably start writing about food. And I once heard an intellectual historian saying that a thinker may claim to have been influenced by X, Y or Z, but knowingly or unknowingly they always repress two major influences. If that's the case, perhaps I should stop reading entirely from now on, as my style is bound to be infected whether I know it or not. But how pretentious even to refer to my style! Where are you or I in all this that we share with the writing dead? Given our preoccupation with influence and originality, the only worthwhile writers might be those who from birth have been prevented from reading and come to writing in the way Kaspar Hauser came to town. The walk in the park piece ought to be entirely sarcastically italicised.

With all this in mind, I read Mary Costello's novel The River Capture notable for the overt presence of Joyce's Ulysses in its pages. Its central character Luke O'Brien has a fascination with Joyce's novel and Leopold Bloom in particular which runs parallel in his mind with the events of his life deeply embedded in family and community. The novel is full of textual allusions and direct references to Ulysses, and adopts the free indirect discourse of the Calypso chapter for most of the novel and the question and answer format of Ithaca for the disarming conclusion, as well as the lyrical interweaving of the corporeal and the metaphysical, notably absent in British fiction, which may distinguish Irish novels in general rather than being specifically Joycean. Indeed, but for the Ithaca section, The River Capture might otherwise be recognised as a familiarly sentimental and occasionally melodramatic story of family life in modern-day Ireland. Free indirect narration has embedded itself so deeply in literary culture that readers accept it without question as the regular form of the novel and, having read most of the novel, nobody would tell authors to stop reading Joyce, while the Ithaca section is still so unfamiliar that one Guardian reviewer says it holds back "the natural development of the story" [my italics], while the other finds it "baffling".

The meaning of the title is key to dispelling any bafflement. A river capture is when, as the novel explains, "a river erodes the land and acquires the flow from another river or drainage system, usually below it, the first river is said to have captured the second in an act of piracy. The waters of the captured river are usurped by the captor and, at this point, the two become one." This is a clear metaphor for the presence of Ulysses in the novel, once described by John Banville as an “Easter Island effigy of the Father” looming over those who follow, while here it is the great river potentially draining the liffey out of all future novels (though perhaps ironised here by the allusion to the Spice Girls). It is also a metaphor for the ghosts of Luke's family and friends.

Mary Costello's achievement is to include and implicate the form of The River Capture in its investigation into the various strands of inheritance: literary, familial, and bodily. Luke is troubled by the possibility that the singular form and content of Ulysses and especially Finnegans Wake were informed by syphilis, which he suspects infected Joyce and was passed down to Lucia, his daughter, who died young in an institution. What would it mean for the ambitions of writers inspired by Joyce if bacterium influenced the form and content of a novel to whose greatness they aspire? But this isn't idle speculation for Luke, as it has profound implications for his future happiness, in which as readers we have invested our concern. Despite the implied formality, the questions and answers that conclude The River Capture contain the novel's most overtly lyrical prose as Luke speculates on the properties of water suggested by modern science and how it may affect his fate, as it undermines assumptions about selfhood and agency. It suggests something other than his conscious self will inform the big decision he has to make, so the dissolution of a traditional conclusion which qualifies the praise of reviewers is entirely in keeping with the metaphor.

Perhaps we are drawn to particular writers' styles because they speak to a deeper self than that addressed by other writers, catalysing a mutation in our thought we can never reverse, enabling more than just the publicly acknowledged benefits of reading narratives and instead something approaching the opening of spaces in the mind mentioned here in relation to other novels. This is why I dissent on the value of genre fiction: not because of the quality of its products but because of the disposition of the author to inheritance. Not only is the author untroubled by inheritance but positively embraces its given forms and features, using them as a forged passport to a land of perceived literary talent and value. It is dead writing and content in its tomb. So-called experimental writers can be as guilty of this as any others, finding safety in word-doodling mode. As my friend's warning revealed to me, a style that appears to set one free is also the brink of a grave, and we must remain dwellers on the threshold.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Distance from Ballard

This is an interview with JG Ballard published in the NME in October 1985. It lives in a scrapbook of articles I kept as my interest shifted from music to books.

According to my records, 1985 was the year before I started reading novels; my records being a slip of paper from 1986 with twenty-four books listed and scored, not one of which is by JG Ballard. And yet I know in that library spree I read The Drowned World (which I first typed as The Drowned Sea, a more intriguing title), The Crystal World, High Rise, The Unlimited Dream Company, Hello America, Empire of the Sun, and the story collection Vermillion Sands. Back then the interview stirred me with the idea of a novel that watches England from a train window. I borrowed these books hoping for a narration from this vantage point, and was always disappointed, no doubt because it is not meant to describe Ballard's novels literally. I soon realised, though not soon enough, that I was allergic to hyperrealism, indeed to genre fiction in general. It was the word distance that stirred me, and that word has recurred in my writing many times since.

In 1986 my list began with the novel that set me on the path that I knew at once was mine to take, but still I think of the interview each time I travel by train to stare vacantly at the landscape and the objects and lives within it. I glimpse a thousand curtained windows of homes and with each one, or all of them combined, I imagine a retreat from the relentless pressure of a journey and the infernal genres of human busyness; a quiet room where one can be at peace, thinking, reading, listening to the stillness; a room somehow nothing like my own. Bill Callahan's song suggests this thought is not unique.

The last JG Ballard book I read was The Day of Creation in 1987, reviewed here by Martin Amis.

His suggestion that Ballard's novels "address a different–a disused–part of the reader's brain" rings true and must be close to what Victoria Best calls the "extraordinary elasticity" of some narratives that she says "open up spaces" in her mind, which is something other than flights of the imagination, and not quite Proustian reveries either, but something like a clearing in the forest. This would mitigate the otherwise lamentable influence Ballard has on the current generation of British writers, but this, what seems to be the most valuable and most obscure gift of the novel, is not something that can be easily discussed from a distance, from within the forest. However, as demonstrated by my apparent need to note down the first novel on my first book list, it is the only thing worth writing about.


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