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Sunday, September 01, 2019

Yesterday by Ágota Kristóf

In 2009 Tim Parks warned of the Dull New Global Novel in which "culture-specific clutter and linguistic virtuosity have become impediments" to commercial success. "From the moment an author perceives his ultimate audience as international rather than national, the nature of his writing is bound to change". "What" he asks "are the consequences for literature?".

Dullness, apparently. Parks offers a handful of examples of authors whose novels have been planed to removed the jagged edges of a specific culture, and while he doesn't include Ágota Kristóf, her novel Yesterday might well be the apotheosis of smooth. First published in 1996 and now reissued in a translation by David Watson published a year later, it has only the most mundane features of modern life, and character names vaguely suggesting a generic European state. Otherwise there is nothing specific. No reader will feel confused or alienated by the detail, what there is of it. This is the ghost of the novel Tim Parks feared, only this has nothing to do with the author having an eye on an audience.

As the title suggests, it is a story of what has passed. Sandor is living in exile having gone on the run as a child after stabbing his mother's lover. He changed his name to avoid detection and was brought up in an orphanage. As an adult he crossed some mountains into a different country and got a job in a factory staffed by fellow exiles who speak in their native language rather than "the language of here". Much like Ágota Kristóf's own story, he experiences "days of dismal work, silent evenings, a frozen life, without change, without surprise, without hope". But his dreams are haunted by Line, the girl he left behind and the daughter of the stabbed lover, whom he still loves and hopes will reappear in his life. "In the evenings, I write" he says. As well as the usual daily intrigues and expressions of pain, he records poetic reveries which write allegorical tales over the blank page of his life. It is here that yesterday rises up and torments. Eventually Line does reappear, and yesterday promises to become today. However, Sandor's experience only ever reiterates that while physical exile from one's homeland and one's true love is particular, exile from yesterday is universal.

Yesterday appears following the success of Kristóf's The Notebook, a book that shares with the new one a minimalist prose style, a lack of geographic and cultural specificity, and the conditions of its narrators' childhoods. However, it lacks that novel's formal constraint in which the twin narrators speak as 'we' and only ever report what they see and hear rather than speculate or assert impressions or emotions, which is matched by the ethical imperative they adopt, and which impressed Slavoj Žižek so much. The effect is to exile the reader from the comfort of a first- or third-person perspective, prompting a dynamic of familiarity and distance, recognition and horror. In contrast, Yesterday contains only the subjectivity of the first-person that tends toward self-pity, and its allegorical reveries and acts of violence, whether physical or emotional, are futile attempts to mitigate writing's naturally anhedonic state, which is also the natural state of the exile, so its promise of excitement only ever delivers literary dullness and indifference to the reader.

What content then should a novel seek to end its exile? Perhaps there is none, as action of culture-specific content and linguistic virtuoisity may be significant only as resistance to literature's exile, producing the same indifference. Resistance to literature may indeed be the definition of the form. After all, the novel began with Robinson Crusoe as a resistance to genre and in Don Quixote as a send-up of its idealistic or anhedonic tendency. Crusoe's shipwrecked state might itself be a metaphor of the novelist's exile, which he resists by colonising the foreign land and turning it into a model of yesterday. But the novel, like the island, only ever remains an idealism. In effect, Flaubert's wish to write a book dependent on nothing external is granted with every book.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Why I still read and write

Giorgio Agamben tells the story of the Greek neoplatonist Damascius in exile and close to the end of his life setting out to write a book addressing the largest question of them all, the question concerning God, the One, the Supreme Being, whichever word is appropriate. And it is precisely the uncertainty of the name that raises the demand for an answer. If the object of each name precedes names, questions, answers, and everything else, how can we know it? It becomes more than unknowable because "it doesn't even have the nature of being the unknowable, and it is not by declaring it unknowable that we can delude ourselves that we know it since we do not even know whether it is unknowable".

He struggles to complete his work for three-hundred days and nights until words are replaced by an image that reminds Damascius of the white stone yards of his youth on which the peasants threshed wheat from the chaff: a perfectly empty space "in which only image, breath, or word might eventually take place". Then he remembers how a philosopher had compared the potentiality of the intellect to a tablet on which nothing is written: "The uttermost limit thought can reach is not a being, not a place or thing...but rather, its own absolute potentiality, the pure potentiality of representation itself: the writing tablet!" Why hadn't he thought of it before?
What he had until then been taking as the One, as the absolutely Other of thought, was instead only the material, only the potentiality of thought. And the entire, lengthy volume the hand of the scribe had crammed with characters was nothing other than the attempt to represent the perfectly bare writing tablet on which nothing had yet been written. This was why he was unable to carry his work through to completion: what could not cease from writing itself was the image of what never ceased from not writing itself. In the one was mirrored the ungraspable other. But everything was finally clear: now he could break the tablet, stop writing. Or rather, now he could truly begin.
This is the latest reminder of why I still read and write. A moment of vertigo releases me from the gravity of habit and the assumptions habit forms about what matters. The accumulated sludge of dutiful reading and writing is washed away to reveal not what really matters but the possibility of identifying what does. It has little to do with the specific goal of Damascius's study and everything to do with the aporetic confrontation of necessity and impossibility.

I've been reminded as often as I've read books that contain a reminder, only for clarity to be then smothered by the silt of the book business and all the pressing issues of current affairs or literary-critical apparatuses to which we revert in face of a great silence. Understandably so, for it is a lesson that cannot form itself into a theme or genre because, given that each book is an enclosure, potentiality is borne by that which corrals potential (which is why Agamben's book is resistant to its own unifying force). And it is not a lesson either but breath and blinking as one emerges from confinement into a clearing, such is the paradox of the confrontation.

The reminders are rare and cannot be predicted, and are perhaps too diverse, too vague or too personal to define, even if the next example suggests a thread and perhaps a clearer definition: I read a study of Martin Luther which states that he believed it is the true task of theologians to concern themselves with the specifics of God's self-disclosure rather than constructing preconceived notions of what He is. Those who construct the latter, Luther says, forfeit their right to be called theologians. Except, and here the confrontation arises, the revelation of God must be regarded as indirect and concealed, with the prime example being Christ's torture and death on the cross. The cross shatters illusions about the capacity of human reason to discern God. Revelation requires faith.

If there is a thread, it is not that of a latent Christian faith but the wish to read works in which everything is at stake for the author – in this case Luther and his salvation – even if it appears entirely absurd. This is why theology often stirs me in a way that the staples of my reading – philosophy, novels and literary criticism – rarely do: the writer wagers everything, even if it is a wager lost in advance, while in general the latter have lapsed into jargonised nitpicking, games in the genre sandpit, and consumer evaluations dependent on fashionable concerns. They risk nothing and reveal nothing.

This would explain why metafiction appeals to me, as it seeks implicitly the specifics of writing's self-disclosure. In Gabriel Josipovici's story The Hand of God, Victor, a prolific young author with a promising career, suddenly abandons writing because one day sitting at his desk in an attic room he feels himself falling from the window. He realises it is the end and accepts his fate, even feeling some relief, but, before he hits the ground, he is grabbed by a hand and returned to his desk. It was the hand of God, he says, and now that he knows he cannot fall without being caught, there is no point in going on.

The death of one writer is the death of all.

Victor's fall is what Krzysztof Michalski identifies as a revelation of eternity, defined not as the opposite of time but its essence, an "irremediable fissure" or interval in life such as death and love interrupting the continuity of lived time, something always present, characterising our everyday lives but obscured by habit.
In this interval, briefer than any moment one can measure, in this crack, this fissure, this tear—in the blink of an eye—everything is left to question, and a chance for a new beginning arises. This is "eternity."     [Translated by Benjamin Paloff]
If God's hand revealed to Victor that what he sought in writing is present throughout each day of his life, then pouring out literary works is at best superfluous and at worst a pathological negation of life: "to fill this gap with concepts, to patch the fracture of every moment with some piece of knowledge, to remove that internal diversification of life with the help of some truth underlying it, and thus to render our lives consistent and comprehensible. It is precisely this pathology that Nietzsche calls 'nihilism'."

At least, we might say a certain kind of writing is pathological and nihilistic: The Hand of God is narrated by Victor's perplexed friend and admirer who stands for every modern day book lover cupped by the hand of The Guardian's book pages, unable to comprehend that the end of Victor's writing is where it truly begins; here, in this metafiction. But of course Victor never stopped writing, because his fall was not real: it was imagined; a form of writing as potentiality – what cannot cease from writing never ceasing from not writing. This is how contemporary metafiction and so-called autofiction, otherwise regarded as postmodern frivolity and onanistic indulgence respectively, might align with death and love as irremediable fissures, exposing us to an abyss over which we live or perhaps to its sublimity, however destitute.

The most profound experience of this for me – and of which Agamben's story is an echo – was re-reading the novel In a Hotel Garden after two decades away. Soon after posting my response, I remarked that it felt like the culmination of my years thinking and writing about literature on this blog. This is where it could end, I thought, and thereby, of course, truly begin. In March of this year I wrote sentences of my own that provoked the same vertigo, and I realised that this is what has been missing through all these years of blogging in the shameful lowlands. Only in this way can writing be done, I thought, only with such complete indirection and concealment. I now have no wish to read or write anything else.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Caroline's Bikini by Kirsty Gunn

At first glance Caroline's Bikini appears to be the fabled Adultery-in-Hampstead novel; the literary unicorn that provides a caricature of English middle-class fiction. It features Evan, a young London professional, who becomes infatuated with Caroline, the wife in a couple who give him lodgings in their attic flat in a wealthy district of London. Except, rather than setting out the expected love triangle drama of that fabled novel, this is about what happens when Evan insists that his copywriter friend Emily produce a novel as a record of his love and how she then struggles with the task when, in their many conferences in various artisan gin bars, there isn't much to report given that Evan never reveals his feelings to Caroline and, but for the physical effects of his lovelorn pining, life carries on more or less as normal. The major part of the novel is Emily's record of her attempt to record.

So it threatens to be about adultery in Hampstead only without adultery or Hampstead (the flat is in Richmond). One reader renamed the novel Waiting for Caroline because nothing happens more than twice over its 330 pages, while another reader in the same place says it feels less like a novel than "literary criticism of a piece of text" due to the second element that de-horns the unicorn: the author's introduction and the multiple appendices providing background to the characters and theoretical underpinnings of the book. Emily herself thinks the novel could be part of the tradition of courtly love poetry exemplified by Dante and Petrarch in which the work stands in for the love object; a form the introduction says "many regard as the largest kind of love story of all": the one that is unrequited. The link to Dante is clear, as the record of his love for Beatrice (a love returned only platonically) in the Vita Nuova is a combination of narrative, poetry and commentary on the poetry. 

Still, it's a disconcerting claim given that the comedic lightness of Emily's reporting is familiar from the tradition of metropolitan English fiction and has little in common with what Charles Singleton called the "sober and solemn and reasoned prose" of the Vita Nuova. Another difference is that Caroline remains alive during the novel's duration, which means, unlike Dante's and Petrarch's, Evan's love is never under the shadow of impossibility, so his feelings provoke impatient questioning from both Emily and the reader as he procrastinates and prevaricates in developing his story, which in turn emphasises two more major differences: that there is no lyric content to contrast with the narrative and commentary, and that the conditions of Evan's love are entirely secular.

One Dante scholar has argued that a central purpose of Dante's opposition of narration and lyric is to create a tension between the physical and metaphysical elements of the story, which meant contaminating timelessness with time. Emily's interminable detailing of gin bars and the various brands and flavours could stand in for the lyric dimension, except this also emphasises the quotidian absurdity of modern life, which is also the ground of modern fiction. It can place love such as Evan's only within recognisable social or psychological conditions, and those conditions within a generic format, which can only render Evan's love as deluded and futile, so lyricism could just as easily be attributed to the theoretical commentary, which at least offers some gravity to Evan's abjection.

So what about the secular conditions? Unrequited love is an experience, like grief, that sets the sufferer aside to contemplate their fate, which exposes them to an awareness of a larger process at work that isn't a staple of modern fiction, or at least a need for a larger process, and Evan does express the belief that fate led him to Caroline's door. It is a process that Dante in his love for Beatrice recognises as a sign of God's presence on earth. So while "the most secret chambers" of his heart trembled in Beatrice's presence just as Evan's does in Caroline's, it is because he senses that he is in the presence of "a miracle manifest in reality", that she is a midpoint between heaven and earth; a combination of pure intellect of God and the brute matter of bodies, a belief that emerged from Plato's account in the Timaeus of the harmony of the universe in which human nature in its best states – moral, philosophical, artistic – is said to be a microcosm of that harmony; an account that is more or less unintelligible to us. Perhaps then, rather than absurdity being the ground of the modern novel, it is the modern novel's inevitable product because eternity is never allowed to contaminate its narrative, though it does haunt each one. Evan's story concludes with an absurd act that is in keeping with the requirements of time.

At first glance then, Caroline's Bikini is a send up of the Adultery-in-Hampstead novel AND of the solemnity of the tradition to which it appeals, yet it is precisely in this distance and originality that it maintains the latter tradition. The ostensible story of unrequited love disguises the unrequited status of the novel itself; its existence standing in for a formal tradition that can never happen in the conditions in which the modern novel exists. Caroline's Bikini is thereby two novels: the novel we're reading with Emily's and Evan's gin bar conclaves and Kirsty Gunn's theological apologia in the form of metafictional appendices, and the impossible novel that Evan is unable to report. The one we're reading acts as a midpoint between the grounded material of Emily's report and our faith, however residual, in the metaphysical power of that ghost novel floating free in a realm of unintelligible harmony.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Encountering the fabulous point

When the postman delivered the book of Józef Czapski's lectures on Proust, I was slightly disappointed that it was such a slim volume, especially as 82 pages of actual text and a 25-page introduction cost me £10. Compared to the lack of moderation that Czapski says characterised Proust's commitment to his novel once he had abandoned his social and sentimental life, which had been marked by the same lack of moderation, the modesty here is extreme. However, given that the lectures were drawn solely from Czapski's memory of Proust's novel and personal experience of its Parisian milieu and delivered to fellow inmates in a Soviet labour camp, this is more than forgiveable. The mere occurrence of the lectures displays a lack of moderation, let alone their subsequent publication. And the introduction by their translator Eric Karpeles is excellent.

What's more, if I compare the page count to the one secondary work that more than any other has influenced not just my appreciation of what distinguishes Proust's achievement from all other novels but of my fascination with writing in general – the 13 pages of Maurice Blanchot's The Experience of Proust – it is immoderately long. So why this instinctive fuss with measuring? Why this concern for physique rather than metaphysique?

No doubt there is the concern for not being ripped off, but there's also embedded in this the anxiety about what any book amounts to before, during and after it's read, with its physical presence offering the most immediate authority. Once that is over, we seek further organisational information. Last year John Self was perplexed by the appearance of the Penguin Book of the Prose Poem: "What is a prose poem anyway?" he asked. "It’s something and nothing really, isn’t it? Neither use nor ornament." Later, after reading the book, he recanted and accepted the genre is valid. But this raises the age-old issue of labels. I was in Waterstone's this week and saw this table and its sign (with its inexplicable second leading capital).

All of the books below it were as slim as Czapski's, but I wondered how the shop workers decided which books count as novellas and which not. At which point does a novel becomes a novella, and vice versa? It's the old philosophical conundrum raised by Clov in Endgame: "Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there's a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap." At what page does the book become a novel? The same can be asked of Penguin's book. John quotes the introduction's definition of prose poetry, that it "flows by soft return from margin to margin, filling the empty field of the page" and is "unchecked by metre or rhyme", which means it's defined by the technical features of prose.

Aren't such genre distinctions a form of confiscating smuggled goods at the border? Once a book has been read, whether it's 90 pages or 900, such distinctions become irrelevant to the reader, as both have the quality of existing as a book, of being itself and not any other book, which then raises the question of what that quality is in itself; what precisely has been smuggled?

For many years I've been aware of how the end of a novel detaches itself from the rest, as some kind of token closure to what never closes, or token opening to what never opens. As one nears the end of a book, whether it is page 88 or 888, the weight of pages to come grows so light that a certain inner resignation and leavetaking takes place, and the kernel of the book, its essence as itself, attaches to what has passed; however, in the same awareness, I'm aware that it does not attach itself to the beginning, because the beginning needs to go beyond itself to become the book, and not to the middle either, because the middle exists only because the beginning and the end distinguish it as such. And where does the beginning end and the end begin?

Three years ago, I suggested Thomas Bernhard's novel Neufundland, which exists only as a beginning sentence and an end sentence, acts on us as a novel nevertheless because it conjures in the imagination what in other novels is conjured by memory, and the inner resignation or leavetaking not only occurs but is the entirety of the experience of the novel, thereby confronting us with what we might call the Platonic ideal of 'the Book' to which all books appeal, even as they dissemble in doing so. This points to why Proust's novel fascinates me, which has nothing to do its immodest length but because, as Blanchot says, it circles around "the fabulous point where he encounters the event that makes every narrative possible"; a point at the centre of Neufundland despite its extreme brevity.

I tried to imagine an alternative to the abrupt ending of the usual novel, in which this fabulous point might make itself felt, and in doing so I remembered the Pernice Brothers' 2003 LP Yours, Mine & Ours, whose final song ends in the normal way except, if one waits through 23 seconds of silence, a part of Water Ban, the LP's second song, a part which is a kind of ghost chorus, reappears as a ghostly refrain fading into infinity, something that has always intrigued me without my being aware of it. I wonder how this effect might transfer to writing. Perhaps this novel, which some have called a novella, is a good example.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

All our (Bernhardian) yesterdays

Today's date means it is thirty years since Thomas Bernhard died. Twenty years ago I wrote a short introduction to his work for Spike Magazine to mark ten years since his death. In those days, Bernhard was more or less unknown in English-speaking countries, with subtitled documentaries like the one below unimaginable, and this was the first essay I had written for the new-fangled internet, so should be considered in that light. Below, I list what I've written about Bernhard on This Space, with a few other treats along the way.

Last year I was keen to write a longer piece on the consequences for the novel in general of Bernhard's going in the opposite direction, the phrase he uses in The Cellar: An Escape, part three of Gathering Evidence, to describe one of the many wilful or chance actions he took in life and which his novels' characters often take too. I mention this feature in Bernhard begins from 2010. I went in the opposite direction and wrote nothing.

In 2011, Bernhard appears in four posts. The first is a long passage from Wittgenstein's Nephew, which demonstrates that Bernhard is not the misanthropic ranter of bookchat legend and instead a writer of breath-giving sentences. In the second, I embedded this short, dark, peaceful film of a drive leading up to one of Bernhard's farmhouses in Upper Austria.

The third is another gift of the internet: I posted an extract from Douglas Robertston's translation of Ungenach, a novella still to be published in English book form. His blog is full of other, otherwise untranslated gifts, such as the short story Midland in Stilfs.

The fourth of that year is my review of Seagull Books' impressively excessive production of Bernhard's short story for children Victor Halfwit: A Winter's Tale.

Another three years passed before I posted on Bernhard again. This time it was to write about My Prizes, a collection of Bernhard's short essays on the prizes he had won and the speeches he gave. The second sentence of his notorious Austrian State Prize acceptance speech is one of his most famous sayings.

Two years later, I wrote Unfoundland about the minimal existence of Bernhard's unfinished novel Neufundland, and then what I think is one the best things I have ever posted on this blog, and certainly the best on Bernhard: a review of the title story of another of Seagull Books' productions, Goethe Dies.

Apart from this very post, the most recent was a more general post about writing in which I discuss The Loser, Frost and the film Drei Tage, an extract from which you can see below and whose full text in translation can be read here.

Finally, there are many more links on the English website dedicated to his work and on the official Austrian one, in German.


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