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Wednesday, April 13, 2022

"When now?"

Out of curiosity, I read a few novels that over the last year have received the highest praise on social media and literary podcasts, and have appeared multiple times in newspaper Books of the Year choices and on prize shortlists, and one that even won a prize. I wanted to see what industry and independent opinion considers the very best of contemporary literature written in English, and was surprised to discover there was nothing special or distinct about them; nothing at all. What, I wondered, had thrilled others while, after thirty or so pages of patient reading, my eyes began to drift over words, sentences, and then whole pages? Once again, eleven years on, I asked myself: do you really have an interest in novels?

I soon recognised it had nothing to do with the stories or the humour, passion, skill and intelligence with which they were told, each of which appears to be what draws the high praise, and no doubt deserved for these reasons, but instead the relentless temporal stability in the clear, taken-as-axiomatic delineation between the narration and what is narrated. It helped me to recognise that the foregrounding of the relation between the two is a key factor in what stirs me when reading novels: Dante in the Vita Nuova, for example, if we can overlook the generic uncertainty for a moment, moving between the time of writing and the lost time of a living Beatrice "so mercury jumps like a spark" (as Charles Singleton describes it), or simply the clause in "A quarter of a century, or a day, has passed since I arrived in Jesenice on the trail of my missing brother", the opening line of Peter Handke's Repetition. While this may appear to be a small point, a matter of taste like a demand for realistic dialogue or "relatable" characters, I think it has implications for what fiction can offer and why so many contemporary novels written in English, whether the content relates to current affairs and thereby becomes "as real-time as novels get" (a line used in a recent review), suggesting urgency and the potential for real-world awareness, or is deemed experimental and worthy of our attention and admiration because of the unfortunate cultural prestige this term has developed, nevertheless remain, to me, inert.

To explain why, it may to help to look at an excessive example from Narrative Discourse, Gérard Genette's analysis of the temporal structure of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past which, in Scott Moncrieff’s translation of the title, has become an alibi for wistful nostalgia in the simple delineation of event and its confident narration. Instead, in a single passage, labelled alphabetically in this passage from Sodom and Gomorrah, he finds fifteen narrative sections:

(A) Swann now found equally intelligent anybody who was of his opinion, his old friend the Prince de Guermantes and my schoolfellow Bloch, (B) whom previously he had avoided (C) and whom he now invited to luncheon. (D) Swann interested Bloch greatly by telling him that the Prince de Guermantes was a Dreyfusard. "We must ask him to sign our appeal for Picquart; a name like his would have a tremendous effect." But Swann, blending with his ardent conviction as an Israelite the diplomatic moderation of a man of the world, (E) whose habits he had too thoroughly acquired (F) to be able to shed them at this late hour, refused to allow Bloch to send the Prince a circular to sign, even on his own initiative. "He cannot do such a thing, we must not expect the impossible," Swann repeated. "There you have a charming man who has travelled thousands of miles to come over to our side. He can be very useful to us. If he were to sign your list, he would simply be compromising himself with his own people, would be made to suffer on our account, might even repent of his confidences and not confide in us again." Nor was this all, Swann refused his own signature. He felt that his name was too Hebraic not to create a bad effect. Besides, even if he approved of all the attempts to secure a fresh trial, he did not wish to be mixed up in any way in the antimilitarist campaign. He wore, (G) a thing he had never done previously, the decoration (H) he had won as a young militiaman, in '70, (I) and added a codicil to his will asking that, (J) contrary to his previous dispositions, (K) he might be buried with the military honours due to his rank as Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. A request which assembled round the church of Combray a whole squadron of (L) those troopers over whose fate Françoise used to weep in days gone by, when she envisaged (M) the prospect of a war. (N) In short, Swann refused to sign Bloch's circular, with the result that, if he passed in the eyes of many people as a fanatical Dreyfusard, my friend found him lukewarm, infected with Nationalism, and a militarist. (O) Swann left me without shaking hands so as not to be forced into a general leave-taking.
Which he then aligns with nine temporal positions labelled this time with numbers:
(1) the war of 1870; (2) Marcel's childhood in Combray; (3) a time before the Guermantes soirée; (4) the Guermantes soirée, which we can place in 1898; (5) the invitation to Bloch (necessarily later than this soirée, from which Bloch is absent); (6) the Swann-Bloch luncheon; (7) the addition of the codicil; (8) Swann's funeral; (9) the war whose prospect Françoise envisaged and which, strictly speaking, occupies no definite position, since it is purely hypothetical, but which—in order to place it in time and simplify things—we may identify with the war of 1914-18. The formula of positions is then the following: 

While this provides riches for those wishing to analyse the technical features of narration, such as the separation between an event and its narration, it obscures what presents itself in the separation, whose presence intrigues and stirs me especially when it is becomes a factor in narration, as it does across the expanse of In Search of Lost Time. The presence of the first is very familiar to readers and is indeed what we long for when opening a novel and reading the first line, yet is invariably camouflaged by all kinds of alibis, excuses and mitigations of which Proust's is an ideal example, as it contains the density of detail in its storytelling we expect from any great novel of society, enabling the reader seeking to instrumentalise the purely superfluous pleasure of reading for technical, cultural and sociological advantage. And yet it is also the poorest example, as we can also find in Proust that which Walter Benjamin recognised as "the rudiments of an enduring idealism". The reason why it is more than any great novel of society is its revelation of time, the famous instants in which time is erased, or, rather, in which time is transfigured in its erasure. 

What presents itself then is the question of the time in which the narration of the novel takes place, and which the example above begs an answer. It's a deceptively simple question with an equally deceptive answer: the time the writer is writing on the page. But in taking this answer for granted, we reveal to ourselves that what we demand of a book is an effacement of this time, which also means an effacement of the author. The regular fussing we see in reviews and social media over genre designations and features is a classic example of how narration is not in possession of the author but partakes of something shared; something outside of the jurisdiction of any single reader or writer no matter how much we try to anchor this outside by celebrating a particular author for their "genius". This is why writers prefer to dislodge such praise because they recognise more than anyone that the work is not their own. 

So if in repeating the first two questions opening The Unnamable, Maurice Blanchot asks of the narrator of Samuel Beckett's books "Where now? Who now?", we can ask the third of the narrator of In Search of Lost Time: "When now?". And if Blanchot answers the second question with the neutral, we can answer the third with eternity, if we understand the eternal not as the absence of time but time in its pure state, which is how Nietzsche's eternal recurrence has also been interpreted, a conception which itself presents an intriguing parallel to what is most familiar to us in the effacement of the separation of event and its narration. Indeed, it is what we long for when opening a novel: the unchanging, consoling content, stories recurring each time they are read, perhaps even without being read but recognised as recurring inside the covers lined up before us on a shelf, the awareness of which excites and inspires us with the promise of an escape from the ravages of real time while, at the same time, threatening a profound melancholy in the awareness of the remove of pure time, hence throwing anchors into the deep.

The ability to arouse excitement and alleviate despair forgives the recent novels, their writers and those who believe they are very best of our time and following a great tradition, as they maintain trust in the dissimulation necessary for novels to keep writers writing and for publishers to keep publishing. Despite this, I think of Erich Heller's description of Kafka's The Castle as "a terminus of soul and mind, a non plus ultra of existence" and compare it with Jean Cocteau's recognition that Proust, writing at the same time as Kafka, was on a "blind, senseless, obsessive quest for happiness", and wonder if there are novels being written and published now subject to what presents itself in the time of narrative, whether understood as a terminus or as the possibility of happiness. Is such literature still possible?

Monday, December 27, 2021

Favourite books 2021

If such things matter, and they don't, my book of the year is Peter Holm Jensen’s The Moment. As I wrote in April, it’s one in which the writer seeks “a modest, self-effacing place within the intersection of time and eternity” and can be read again and again for this reason, as one's deepest concerns, otherwise diluted by public pantomimes, take form in the patience of attention. To recognise this again is always a surprise.


Before and after such recognition, I'm often confused by how much Karl Ove Knausgaard’s writing stirs me, embarrassed even, because his books are unremarkable in many ways (the public ways); not remotely what others misunderstand as modernist or, that horrible word, experimental. But I can't deny the same recognition, and it's the intersection taking form in the otherwise straightforward narrative that explains my response to The Morning Star, which stands out among the novels I've read this year.

Time is a constraint on two other of my books of the year: Gabriel Josipovici's 100 Days, the result of a plan to write 100 essays in the 100 days of the first lockdown of 2020 (reaching 83 in the end), on subjects prompted by each letter of the alphabet, and Ellis Sharp's Twenty-Twenty, which presents itself as an autofictional chronicle of each day of the year, following Uwe Johnson's Anniversaries from which 'Ellis' quotes in the early months of the year. Apart from the calendar constraint, the two couldn't be more different: one "deceptively slight, disarmingly circumstantial...a joy to read" as Ben Hutchinson says in his review, the other bitter, unforgiving, bordering on monomaniacal.

They do have one more thing in common: opinions which will upset or confound many. A key understanding of Josipovici's work in general comes when he asks "Why does my heart leap when I see a sculpture (Giacometti) or a painting (Bonnard, Hammershøi) of a figure in a closed room?" And answers that what they have in common is the depiction of limits. He cites other works by Beckett, Sterne, Stravinsky and Stockhausen that affect him in the same way:

So that my equally visceral dislike of the piano music of Schumann and Chopin and the symphonies of Mahler may be explained by the feeling they evoke in me that they are trying to lull my spirits rather than awaken them. And the same with so many novels and realistic paintings and sculptures. But also with abstract art like Pollock’s and Rothko’s, however different they may be, and with purely OULIPIan creations like the novels of Harry Mathews.
What moves me then is the depiction of the outside world, of human beings, which at the same time recognises that it is depiction and not ‘life itself’ and is prepared to press hard to see how far that brings freedom and how far enslavement.

By coincidence, Twenty-Twenty begins with an epigram in which a prisoner in darkness touches the wall of his cell so that "his fingers may tell him what his eyes cannot", which happens to be from Josipovici's 1996 book Touch. So rather than art being, as is commonly presented and understood, a brief and illusory release from the closed room, it is for both in their own way, an enquiry into the possibility of freedom. In Ellis Sharp's case, it is freedom from the prison of British political and cultural life in which local escapism is fine but political possibility is not, hence the culture's elevation of middlebrow epigones to greatness, while those in the great tradition of dissent and art are marginalised. In an entry for February the first, Ellis is reading Ian McEwan's Guardian article on Brexit which, Ellis says, "oozed with the complacency of the globetrotting liberal intellectual". Later, he reads John le Carré's speech accepting the Olof Palme Prize: "Another smug, narcisstic writer, Ellis thought":

'Palme loved being the irritant. Relished it. Relished being the outsider voice,' Le Carré remarked, adding 'And now and then, I have to say, it does the same for me.' David Cornwell an outsider? St Andrew's Preparatory School, Sherborne School and Lincoln College, Oxford. And what could be more banal and conformist than Cornwell's politics? Dutiful mention of North Korea, ISIS, Iran, Russia, China and talk of nuclear threats but complete silence about Israel's armoury, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, events in Yemen. A dutiful assault on 'Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party' which, had it been elected, would have meant David Cornwell paying a great deal more in tax. The usual generalised reference to Labour anti-Semitism without a shred of evidence. Agreeable reflections about his privileged life as a globetrotter. No mention of carbon footprints or climate catastrophe. A fabulously wealthy old man and potboiler king wallowing in self-satisfaction.

There are 400 more pages like this. It reminds me of Journey to the End of Night when Bardamu says "Every virtue has its own indecent literature". We need more of such indecency in virtuous English literary culture.

Le Carré of course was a prominent signatory of this letter saying he couldn't vote for Corbyn's Labour party because it would be "to surrender in the fight against anti-Jewish prejudice". Note the other signatories and see if you can find any complaints from them about who runs the party now and its treatment of its Jewish members like Diana Neslen and Riva Joffe:

Click on the image to see the tweet

Look at the names again and you'll notice what else they have in common, which brings me to my final book of the year: Didier Eribon's Returning to Reims, a sociological yet often hair-raising memoir of how his sexuality alienated him from the working-class family and community in which he grew up, and how that background alienated him from the privileged intellectual community he moved into. It was published in translation several years ago but I read it alongside Cynthia Cruz's The Melancholia of Class and Catherine Liu's Virtue Hoarders, both published this year. The former is a study of artists who also move away from their working-class backgrounds to find success but find the past casts a long shadow (including Jason Molina, whose songs are also part of Emil's playlist for The Morning Star), the latter an analysis of the class who sign such letters to the Guardian.

What stood out for me in Eribon's book was his account of the "vast offensive" begun in France "to facilitate an organized shift to the right of the politico-intellectual field". Eribon's career at Libération, the daily newspaper founded with the support of Sartre and Foucault, came to end as a result. This process has been happening to the British left, becoming blatant and successful after the election of Jeremy Corbyn, and is something Ellis Sharp reflects in his extensive quotation of dissent from regular civilians and independent journalists using social media and websites, which has been relatively free from this offensive, but now appears to be facing a similar threat. Eribon's memories of his family's Communism are especially poignant in this regard, as he says of his mother: "her dreams in life were not of becoming rich, but rather of light and of freedom". When I read the names of those who signed such letters and promoted the scam, I see them smashing lightbulbs and slamming prison doors. I hope one day they know what they have done. As it is, these books are only small cracks in the wall my fingers found in 2021.

Tuesday, December 07, 2021

"Every day I have to invoke the absent god again"*


I really enjoy this YouTube channel despite my general lack of interest in films. The presenter’s restrained voice-over is ideal for one approaching its concerns; imagine a lullaby sung by Werner Herzog. I envy him the medium for its music, its visuals, even its potential for income, but, above all, for the critic's ability to watch a film within a few hours. It often takes me several weeks to read and re-read a book and then another several to excavate something worth saying about it. I wish there were more literary critics (one, even) who asked questions of books as Like Stories of Old asks of films – in this case, why films about a character's crisis of faith resonates so deeply with someone who does not consider themselves religious – and produced something as graceful and moving as this.

Vlogging about books, by contrast, is an abomination. I stare at the talking head and pity the book as its cover is flashed up to the camera like a packet of biscuits. Why do spoken words incline me to think nothing is further from the written word?

Such distance, however, is key. Like Stories of Old’s latest video quotes a critic’s statement that Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life is a film “you don’t just watch; it’s a movie you enter”. No doubt this is true, as Malick's films tends to be exceptions to my negative opinions about cinema, but it does highlight the critic's instinct to mitigate the primary attraction of film: the passivity of the viewer.

In the shot of Liam Neesom's character crying out into the void (from which film, I'm not sure), I recognise the attraction of the form, and my doubts. We watch in a relaxed silence similar to that of the silence into which he is pleading. We are impressed by his talent for transformation, but we are not beside him; the anguish burning his face is rhetorical hyperbole to mitigate the necessary failure of the form. Contrast this with Javier Bardem's recitation of the old Irish prayer St. Patrick’s Breastplate in Malick's To the Wonder. We watch there too, yes, but, as we are held at a distance from the character, seeing what he sees, we join his search and wonder (which is closer to the experience of reading). The sequence can stand for the entire film, its central relationship in particular, in which intimacy and distance are as one. Meanwhile, the BBC's cheerful film reviewer wants things spelled out like in the press release.

*Hölderlin in a letter to Susette Gontard, June 1799

Sunday, November 07, 2021

The Morning Star by Karl Ove Knausgaard

I began reading The Morning Star without any prior knowledge of the contents, just as I had begun reading every other book of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s since receiving an ARC of the first volume of My Struggle long before he shone above us like the morning star in this novel. This time, however, after having read the most of the opening chapter, a friend happened to mention Knausgaard had claimed it is a horror novel, following the example of Stephen King’s The Stand in which multiple characters narrate their experience of an apocalyptic event. I was then resigned to expect drama to enter the familiar world of everyday Norwegian lives narrated here much like the everyday Norwegian life in My Struggle, which until then I was enjoying in the same way. 


However, now that I’ve read all 666 pages, I can say I continued to enjoy it in the same way, perhaps because no apocalypse occurs, at least in the sense we understand it. What drama appears is not vast destruction but closer to the Greek meaning of apokalypsis: disclosure in the everyday sense and revelation in the theological. In The Morning Star there are only uncanny events in the corner of each individual’s everyday narrative: from excessively warm weather and wild animals appearing in great number, to characters who are apparently alive when they're dead, and, of course, the appearance of a new star in the sky. So comparisons to the horror genre are deceptive, as The Morning Star more closely follows volumes one and two of My Struggle in which the apparent banality of a human life presents itself against a background of absent meaning which is nevertheless forever impending, never quite arriving, no matter how many events promise resolution of the questions they present, which is why it’s surprising that Sam Byers’ very negative review reckons Knausgaard has “enriched” the My Struggle project “with a new and welcome undertow: unnamed dread”. But Unnamed Dread could be My Struggle’s alternative title! It's unname is there in the face in the sea young Karl Ove sees in TV footage in volume one and the sky in Constable's painting in volume two over which he weeps in the realisation that it can be depicted, if not named.

Naming what is unnamed in the novel – attaching public meaning where private meaning lacks – is not only expected by the reader and demanded by the reviewer but inevitable, as a book is defined by its submission to unity, from its title and all the way down through its sentences to its final full stop. The book differs from an everyday human life because the latter's meaning becomes a question only when it becomes a narrative, when something happens: a great love, a break-up, an illness, a bereavement, the loss of a football match; when what happens becomes something outside oneself; a genre narrative. This is why applying labels such as autofiction and horror by writer, reader or reviewer is an avoidance tactic, as it provides a name for the outside where its meaning is otherwise withheld. Byers is inadvertently on the right track when he calls The Morning Star “a literary supernova", which he uses as a metaphor for "the entire Knausgårdian project entering spectacular, all-consuming heat death”.

This is not an idea that has fallen apart in the execution, it’s a novel that dreams of having an idea, a novel that, over hundreds of pages, seeks meaning in everything from the boiling of an egg to the passing of a soul into the afterlife, only to come back empty-handed. [Translated by Martin Aitkin]

Indeed, what comes back is not an idea but the uncanny presence of the novel itself, emphasised here by what Byers calls its "bloated and inconsequential" content. That is, the novel and the Novel (if there is really any difference), an object of obscure fascination, an obscurity named to obscure it; the novel as the morning star, appearing in our heavens where heaven had previously retreated, further brightening what was otherwise already bright but which we could not see until it appeared, under whose blaze we sweat because nothing dies, hence the multiplication of animals and characters who remain alive despite their death, and an artist character whose most distressing symptom of mental illness involves resisting this fact, and in the final chapter an essay "On death and the dead" which nevertheless turns into a ghost story, as if the novel seeks its own end in vain, becoming the ghost of itself.

In 1969, Maurice Blanchot observed that:

Essays, novels, poems seem only to be there, and to be written in order to allow the labor of literature … to accomplish itself, and through this labor to allow formulation of the question "What would be at stake in the fact that something like art or literature exists?" (Translated by Susan Hanson)
The question is unintelligible to us because it is one, Blanchot says, the "secular tradition of aestheticism has concealed, and continues to conceal". Perhaps if we pay closer attention to the relentless, indeed interminable, presentation and inevitable evasion of the question, which Karl Ove Knausgaard fails to evade better than most, we may begin to hear what the ghost has to say.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

The end of literature, part four

This tweet has been seen thousands of times since it was posted on the 82nd anniversary of Britain and France declaring war on Germany. Not that the coincidence means much. At least, no more than what the general population, interest and powerful mean here, or indeed what poetry means. As the hundreds of responses attest, they are generalities enabling a culture to oversee the remnants of what escapes it; that which it either reveres, ignores or dismisses, with an equal lack of consequence. One response is from the Editor-in-Chief of the magazine where Danielle Rose is Poetry Editor. Or was. 

If Paul Celan saw no difference between a poem and a handshake, this is the sucker punch.  

Celebrate, community, passion, vision: words desiccated by a thousand corporate press releases. The magazine's website even refers to world-class volunteers. Words and phrases like this became so notorious under the New Labour administration that robust is now included under W in the UK's Civil Service style guide of words to avoid.

But why should I lump an arts magazine in with neoliberal technocrats? Isn't this an admirable project to spread the value of art as far as possible in society? Well, yes, it is, on first glance. 

Catherine Liu writes about another project admirable on first glance. After Barack Obama became US president, To Kill a Mockingbird returned to the school curriculum. Here is the definition of literature we can accept as having genuine power, as it teaches readers "a critical lesson about literature and empathy". Obama was keen for the return because, he said, reading allowed him to put himself in "someone else’s shoes" and as such was paraphrasing the novel's hero Atticus Finch who despite the anger and hatred directed at him defends a black man accused of raping a white woman. The novel has become a document of the postwar progression towards a fairer society culminating in the election of a black man as president. The New York Times' chief book reviewer even called Obama the reader-in-chief: "He was liberalism’s dream come true", Liu writes, with the return of To Kill a Mockingbird to the curriculum emblematic of a return to progress: "Atticus was not just genteel and antiracist but he was the most virtuous member of his community...the ethical center of a barbaric and racist world." And so Obama. 

Except, Liu observes, there was no "massive reinvestment in public schools and public universities" to match that of the past because the Obama administration "wanted to revive the early 1960s era of high liberalism, but in style only". And style, like Barren Magazine's managerial vocabulary, is everything. During Obama's presidency, he deported more undocumented immigrants than any other president before him, dropped over 100,000 bombs on eight different countries, including white phosphorus and depleted uranium, ramped up drone executions and the persecution of whistleblowers, bailed out Wall Street while thousands of his supporters lost their homes, overthrew the elected goverment of Honduras, put white helmets on the terrorists destroying Syria, and continued military and financial backing of the apartheid state to the south. So while he outdid the crimes and brutal policies of his graceless Republican predecessor, his elegance and literary sensitivity enabled liberals to see only a reflection of their admirable intentions, just as the female secretary of state reflected their proud feminist principles despite her decisive role in the Honduran coup, as called out by indigenous activist Berta Cáceres, who was assassinated soon after.

So, while there was the impression that the value of art was being used to uplift society, Liu says Harper Lee's novel fits in perfectly with the superficial stylings of liberalism as it "is filled with hatred of the angry, defiant, pleasure-seeking poor white people represented by the awful Ewells", promoting "the idea of the deserving poor and the undeserving poor". Obama's educational reform in which literature played its part was instead "a euphemism for an ongoing war against unionized workers and the lower ranks of white-collar professionals."

With more than half of American children having experienced public assistance at some point or another in their short lives, it seems sadistic to make them read a novel about a noble, virtuous lawyer and the evil public assistance–abusing poor people trying to kill his family. If poor ninth graders pay attention in their language arts classes, they must feel humiliated by their family’s willingness to take what the worthy poor of Harper Lee’s novel refuse.
The perception of this administration's virtue is a classic case of vertical solidarity: a black man and a woman in positions of power received PMC backing because they were examples of enormous social progress that also enables them to unsee the profound suffering caused by their policies, or, no better, to blame the victims. Liu notes a truth obvious to everyone outside the liberal bubble that the electorate's subsequent disillusionment with Mr Hopey-Changey "hardened into reactionary antiauthoritarianism" soon exploited by Donald Trump and, in the UK fed up with the neoliberal consensus, the campaign to leave the EU.

The connection between this and the question of whether poetry has any power is that the literary arm of the PMC has slowly taken over online literary coverage to instrumentalise it for professional and virtuous purposes. Hence the title of Catherline Liu's book:

The PMC as a proxy for today’s ruling class is shameless about hoarding all forms of secularized virtue: whenever it addresses a political and economic crisis produced by capitalism itself, the PMC reworks political struggles for policy change and redistribution into individual passion plays, focusing its efforts on individual acts of “giving back” or reified forms of self-transformation. It finds in its particular tastes and cultural proclivities the justification for its unshakable sense of superiority to ordinary working-class people. If its politics amount to little more than virtue signaling, it loves nothing more than moral panics to incite its members to ever more pointless forms of pseudo-politics and hypervigilance.

This might be the job description of the editor of the Guardian's book pages, whose agenda, summed up by the final sentence, influences so many as they search for authority in an otherwise marginal medium (a white male announced not long ago that for the next twelve months he would "read only books by women of color". Catherine Liu again: 'Liberal members of the credentialed classes love to use the word empower when they talk about "people," but the use of that verb objectifies the recipients of their help while implying that the people have no access to power without them.')

I've written before about the takeover but have hesitated to approach the subject again partly because it is a game lost in advance in a culture that is passionate about celebrating a diversity of voices guiding readers toward the rhetoric of humanism in which literature is vehicle for all the hyphenated selves: definition, expression, assertion; ideal for a form in search of a certain kind of power or a mirror, mirror on the wall


The other reason for hesitation is because it appears to be impossible to discuss the alternative. In an essay on the rise of paperback culture in the 1960s, Maurice Blanchot notes that a culture always requires a limit leaving "an outside in relation to which and in opposition to which we come together and take refuge in our apparently limitless freedom". He summarises the outside as that which is resistant to universal comprehensible, something "we reject without knowing it" but whose exclusion is necessary for assimilation to take place, enabling communal self-congratulation on an historic victory over elitism. The emergence of affordable paperbacks enabled the circulation of all kinds of ideas new and old. On first glance, this also appears to be a progressive move, but, as Will Large explains in more detail, it might not be so straightforward: 

Today we feel that we can comprehend, debate and discuss everything. There is nothing that we could not publish, no idea that cannot be explained and made digestible to the public, from quantum mechanics to the late thought of Heidegger. Have we not thought more than ever before? Is not our culture a great thinking engine, and are not our heads simply bursting with ideas? But the more we know, the more everything has become ‘clearly and accessibly written’, the less what really matters is thought. For everything that is difficult has to be stripped out by necessity. ‘Difficult’ here does not just mean complicated, so that all the mathematical equations have to be taken out of the introductions to modern physics, but what cannot be thought, or what is not allowed to be thought. This is not a question of censorship, for there is no censorship on the great conveyor belt of books, but something much worse. The more we understand the less we understand what cannot be understood.

Culture is thereby a "powerful collective machinery that silently and imperceptively, day and night, pursues its task" of assimilation, even of the most unlikely work. Blanchot's topical example is the "happy surprise" of the top literary commentators when they reviewed a translation of a book by Trotsky. They discovered not a dangerous revolutionary but a "true man of letters" like themselves and whose statement that "everything is permitted in art" could be used against the "communist exigency", which, Blanchot notes, thereby reduces the meaning of such freedom to nothing. A work's power becomes indistinguishable from the building blocks of genre fiction.

In recent years, the sense of what not being able to understand what cannot be understood has preoccupied my experience of reading and so the focus of posts such as A walk in the park and The withdrawal of the novel. It might be conveniently called the outside, but this is a miserable cliché and better defined by Joseph Kuzma in his summary of Blanchot's characterisation of the Freudian unconscious "as a radical exteriority":

something that is not only indeterminate and unknowable, but that pulls man outside himself, outside everything he believes himself to be, outside everything that would comprise for him a center irreducible otherness that precedes any installation of identity – an obscurity more ancient than even the most primitive form of outside that is neither another world nor a hidden world. 

While we may recoil from such hyperbole as it is a long way from the everyday experience of reading, it does suggest that the literary pages' fixation on the social identity of an author and how a work tackles current affairs in its subject matter is a sublimated accommodation of the pull of the outside, with the subsequent proliferation of virtuous reading plans proving them right. The blurb for a forthcoming book expresses this reserve in terms of assimilating world events:

Durs Grünbein argues that we are faced with the powerlessness of writing and the realization, valid to this day, that comes from confronting history. As he muses, “There is something beyond literature that questions all writing.” 

For Blanchot, that something beyond is literature itself: a work's "irreducible distance" is that which the culture of assimilation can grasp "only as a lack – a lack in ourselves, a lack in the work, and a void of language". We can see this in the anxious and patronising jurisdiction provoked by Danielle Rose's tweet. Blanchot suggests an alternative follows from Trotsky's claim that "the new art will be an atheistic art" but in which the God under whose protected we remain is Humanism. He wonders "(by which improbably heresy?)" we may leave "the enchanted knowledge of culture". Perhaps the parentheses around the question as much as the question itself is where Blanchot opens a space for us to continue.

Thursday, September 09, 2021

Dead Souls by Sam Riviere

Even before one begins reading Sam Riviere’s first novel there is despondency as one registers that the title is a duplication of the English translation of Nikolai Gogol’s Мёртвые души, the novel in which a character seeks to buy dead serfs from their owners but who have yet to be removed from property registers and are thereby still taxed. It suggests that Dead Souls is an already belated publication, posthumous even, perhaps following the fashion for novels with commonplace phrases for titles or as allusions to past glories; the incontrovertibility of the one winning credence for the other. 

As one begins to read, the suggestion is affirmed yet complicated by the repetitious and pedantic phrasing of the sentences, the italicised paradoxical reversals of sense, and the long speeches reported by the first-person narrator, which is an overt adoption of Thomas Bernhard’s prose in which pedantry and repetition form an intoxicating music, paradoxical reversals are commonplace, and telescoped narration displaces the narrative centre and the guarantee it provides. Concerns about belatedness are acknowledged as the subject reported by the narrator is a case of literary plagiarism by a poet called Solomon Weise, whose surname is a German word that can mean melody, the manner or fashion in which one acts, or wise – the Wisdom of Solomon of course – while other characters soon appear called Christian Buch and Christian Wort, surnames that mean book and word in the language of the country in which the Gutenberg Bible was first produced and whose religious establishment was challenged by words nailed to a door. 

Weise had been ostracised by the poetry establishment because new technology has detected that his poetry is not original, and the bulk of the 320 pages are filled by the narrator reporting his monologue over drinks in a Travelodge bar describing the highways and byways of his life since being forced to withdraw from a poetry scene dominated by two sinister groups called the scolastici and the grammatici. The digressions, both perplexing and entertaining, are reminiscent of Tom McCarthy's Ballardian novels and which, to add to the despondency, Toby Litt says has much in common with the Contes Nocturnes of ETA Hoffmann. One narrates Weise’s retreat from London to the Norfolk town of Diss, an obvious allusion to the city of Dis, where Dante-like he encounters the damned souls of provincials, one of whom is an ex-prisoner of war who tells a story about becoming entranced by a fellow prisoner’s recitation of a poem in a foreign language, which later turns out to be not a poem at all but coordinates to an underground stash of riches which on being freed he can find and loot for himself. This is an obvious analogy of the various promises of poetry: an escape from the prison cell of the self it offers in the time of reading and, afterwards, the currency one can spend from one's fortress of cultural knowledge, and, perhaps most promising of all, access to mystic secrets concealed beneath the surface if only one can decode the poem, hence despondency for those who haven't read Gogol's novel, Hoffman's stories or know next to nothing about the manifold implications of the German Reformation, as they wonder if they shed light on the secrets of this novel and thereby of literature itself. All of which leads back to our initial unease with the belatedness and artificiality of its title and narration. 

As Solomon Weise ends his spoken-word Bildungsroman and parts company from the narrator, we no longer ask whether the allusions, analogies and the Bernhardian pastiche are clues and feel no need to go into search of the secret because we recognise it is a question and quest borne by the form and content of the novel itself and in the pleasure we take in following the highways and byways. The secrets of poetry or literature in general are nowhere to be found in publication, sales or recognition by the movements codifying the means of judgment (or in judgment at all), but in the perplexity of the reading experience itself, which appears to be too late, not an experience at all, or opposed to experience; posthumous even.

Update: See a much better review by Huw Nesbitt.

Tuesday, August 03, 2021

A review from abroad

In April 2016, a review by Alexander Carnera of my book This Space of Writing appeared in the Norwegian edition of Le Monde diplomatique as a supplement to the delightfully named Norwegian newspaper Klassekampen. Even though I can't read Danish, it was not only a highlight of the book's publication but one of the nicest things to happen in my life. It has now been translated by Peter Holm Jensen, to whom I am very grateful, so please allow me to indulge and post it here. (The dates at beginning have been amended.)


A sensitivity to the invisible

Can literature change our lives? For Stephen Mitchelmore, literature occupies a unique space that challenges the reality hunger of our time. Perhaps reality only exists as a tension between intimacy and distance. 

By Alexander Carnera

As a counterbalance to what he saw as the increasing commercialisation of literature, in November 2000 the British critic Stephen Mitchelmore became a blogger for Spike Magazine, and eventually started the blog This Space in 2004, where he’s been posting reviews ever since, all the while developing an enviable approach to thinking about literature. His explorative, essayistic reviews are rich in perspectives and a sense of wonder, and characterised by a restless and generous temperament. Mitchelmore doesn’t commit to any particular genre, and often begins his reviews by relating personal experiences. Quotes, comments and narrative passages blend into a mosaic in which different voices are confronted with each other. Reading him, one senses an engagement and curiosity that aren’t primarily motivated by passing judgement. Rather, he sees literature as a living encounter in which something is at stake for both writer and reader. 

The title of his first book, This Space of Writing, refers to a kind of non-place where literature again feels possible. He’s selected 44 texts from the blog, in which he discusses a wide variety of novels by the likes of Richard Ford, Tao Lin and Karl Ove Knausgaard, as well as, for example, the significance of ancient cave paintings for modern writers and the ‘reality hunger’ that drives contemporary media – always with an eye for the strange space of literature. 

The space of literature 

Mitchelmore often has interesting things to say about the book as a medium, about literary criticism, and high and popular culture, but his central reflections have to do with how literature affects our lives. He devotes many pages to thinking about the relationship between fiction and life, why we read, what we expect from books, and about why writers write: is it a vocation, a way of dealing with pain or loss, or something else? At the same time, he’s wary of the contemporary trend – exemplified by David Shields’ best-selling cultural bible Reality Hunger – of inflating writing and art into something that captures ‘life itself’. Collages of quotations, docudramas and autobiographies don’t necessarily bring us closer to the real, Mitchelmore points out, and in fact run the risk of creating abstract images of the very reality they seek to show. ‘To ask what life is in itself’ is a dead end. The task is rather to explore the ‘thresholds’ of experience. Here we find what Mitchelmore calls the space of literature. 

The Danish dictionary informs us that the word erfaring (‘experience’) is etymologically linked to the phrases at udforske (‘to explore’) and at rejse igennem (‘to travel through’). Hence the term bevandret, which describes someone well-versed in a field or experienced in life. Someone who’s encountered and dwelt in something different and unknown. In his efforts to describe the ‘space of literature’, Mitchelmore uses spatial metaphors and constellations of words such as distance and presence, light and shadow, intimacy and distance, visible and invisible. The space of literature is a uniquely porous and at the same time demarcated place where life is in flow and thoughts and feelings are born. 

The reader becomes a Nazi 

In a good essay on the controversial Austrian author Peter Handke, Mitchelmore writes that Handke, who draws on actual family relationships and experiences in his narratives, explores these kinds of limit experiences. Handke weaves his own walks and journeys into fictional narratives. Writing for him is a way of circling around blind spots and invisible transitions between what he understands and what he doesn’t. A good writer doesn’t succumb to the temptation of feeling he must necessarily realise his longings or dreams. Rather, his work confirms ‘that there is no crossing of the threshold if this threshold is a portal to a transcendent realm’. And it’s precisely Handke’s way of ‘patiently circling around the threshold’, which can never quite be crossed, that enables him to write deeply evocative books about what it means to be alive. 

In a long essay titled ‘The huge difficulty of dying’, Mitchelmore asks whether literature, despite the distance it inevitably creates to its subject matter, can alter our experience of lived life. Mitchelmore’s example here is the Nazi soldier Maximilien Aue in Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, who, before he returned to civilian life, took part in the Nazi atrocities. He now lives at a distance from these violent murders, but the convenient ease with which they were carried out has left its traces. The body speaks its own language, resulting in vomiting, nausea and diarrhoea. But what about the mind? 

In writing, Aue begins to understand: ‘This was what I couldn’t manage to grasp: the yawning gap, the absolute contradiction between the ease with which one can kill and the huge difficulty there must be in dying.’ Mitchelmore examines Aue’s tortuous efforts to resolve this contradiction. The atrocities line up to be confronted. A crucial incident happens during the Caucasus campaign. Aue leads a group of Jews to a clearing in a forest where his soldiers are digging a trench. But before the killing can start, the soldiers discover that the Russians got there first, and that there are already mass graves in the forest. Each trench they dig reveals new corpses. The officers are worked up, the soldiers start a new trench, and the Jews stand by watching. 

‘Here is the absolute contradiction in a literary tableau: the living and the dead confronting each other, both intimately close and infinitely distant; neither close nor distant enough’, writes Mitchelmore. To endure the savagery taking place around him, Aue must adopt the ideology of Nazism as if it were a law or a religion. In this way, he can abstract from the atrocities he faces. The reader, too, is disturbed by the horror of the scene but is ‘as impatient as the officers for it to be over’. Thus, says Mitchelmore surprisingly, the reader ‘situates [the horror] beyond disposable titillation’ and ‘becomes a Nazi’. For Mitchelmore, the scene seems too conveniently ‘literary’ given its very real historical subject matter. Then what is a novelist to do? 

The point is that Aue’s search for his lost life can’t be captured in a single scene. For Mitchelmore, the question is how literature can evoke an experience of crossing a threshold which can also be recognised by the reader. It’s a question of time, of developing the narrator’s ‘intense sensibility’ over the course of the narrative. The title of the essay, ‘The huge difficulty of dying’, refers to the search for a border the narrator himself can’t locate. Something must die so something else can be born. But in writing, one can’t simply recreate what’s been lost by recalling past events from one’s life, whether gruesome incidents or troubling childhood episodes. Merely writing them down fails to lift them above the level of anecdotes. Giving a past event life requires embedding it in the time of the narrative and letting its traces and consequences grow in the reader. This lends it a kind of necessity and makes it harder to dismiss. There’s no guarantee of this happening, of course, but as Mitchelmore stresses, Aue’s ‘task’ – the work of writing – is an exercise in confronting the dark threshold state between military service, submission and incomprehension. This task sustains him, keeps him alive. 

Voids in the cave 

Mitchelmore has studied a number of key works on cave paintings in art history and archaeology by Georges Bataille and Maurice Blanchot among others. In Mitchelmore’s view, ancient cave paintings speak of humanity’s ‘transgression against nature’ as something essential to becoming human. But this experience of becoming something other than what nature has made us also serves as a lesson in the problematic birth of art and representation. 

When the first human beings depicted their lives on damp cave walls, they may have appeared to be ‘unconsciously’ part of nature, but this act of creation also meant that they began to stand out from other species. Their art looked like a demonstration of power over nature, but perhaps revealed their weakness even more clearly: the ‘realisation of the inability to return to that pre-human state’. These people now came into contact with something they’d never seen in nature. With their paintings, they cut the umbilical cord to what formerly they could confidently identify as their own: their own activities, lives, hunts. The twisted red, black and yellow bodies of humans and animals must have begun to look alien to them. Gazing at them, they may have felt as though they glimpsed another possible reality. One imagines that, surprised by their own paintings, they reached out their hands to try to touch a reality that had taken on a life of its own. The discovery must have made them tremble. In an essay on the Lascaux cave paintings titled ‘The Birth of Art’, Blanchot writes: 

This strange feeling of ‘presence’, made up of certainty and instability, scintillates at the edge of appearances while remaining more certain than any other visible thing. And it is this same feeling, it seems me, that is found in the impression of first art, an impression with which the paintings of Lascaux fascinate us, as if, before our eyes, art were lit up for the first time by the torches’ glow and asserted itself suddenly with the authority of the obvious.     [Translated by Elizabeth Rottenberg]

Mitchelmore draws a thread from these ancient works of art to contemporary life: modern art, he says, lacks a given natural order in which to mirror itself and lives on as a longing to recreate the same miracle. But this longing takes the form of a kind of struggle in a void. As Blanchot writes of the Lascaux artist: ‘This void separating him and the natural community is, it seems, what revealed destruction and death to him, but he also learned, not without pain or misgiving, to use this void: to make use of and deepen his weakness in order to become stronger.’ In creating art, human beings discover a new space between themselves and nature, a space that can never be fully grasped and that pursues them like a shadow. A gap, a voided space where death makes life possible. Perhaps art is humanity’s attempt to turn this weakness into strength: to enter this space in order to learn how to see.

Control over life and death  

Many writers, disappointed in the contemporary state of the novel, have left the form behind and opted to write non-fiction. One of these is the British author Geoff Dyer, who sees war – waged by al-Qaeda, the Pentagon, across the Middle East – as the grand narrative of our time, which for him has made the novel superfluous. Literary fiction is outmoded, he says, not up to describing contemporary reality: the way forward is creative non-fiction. In his eagerness to promote new hybrid forms, Dyer has found his counterpart in the war correspondent. But according to Mitchelmore, Dyer’s dismissal of the authority of literary fiction is based on a reductive view of the novel as a vehicle of ‘information and meaning’. Moreover, Dyer overlooks the fact that creative non-fiction, governed as it is by ‘current events’ and ‘cultural relevance’, often leads to poor craftmanship reminiscent of genre fiction. War reportage, according to Mitchelmore, brushes over chance and thus the nuances of actual events: ‘Unlike in the novel, the author here has no control over life and death. In this – perhaps paradoxical – way, war reporting has erased chance from writing. Paradoxical because, while chance fills the lives of the soldiers, it is erased in the telling: everything is necessary, already written in nature.’ 

 If we follow this reasoning, the interesting question regarding the current debate about the Danish writer Carsten Jensen’s novel The First Stone isn’t whether it’s more credible because he himself was a war reporter in Afghanistan and wrote articles for a Danish newspaper, but whether in his language he evokes the ambiguity and shadowy nuances that can bring the reader closer to the reality of being in a warzone. According to Mitchelmore, it’s the author’s distance, formal techniques and ability to write from different points of view – the book’s invisible scaffolding – that give the reader an experience of a specific reality, as a tension between visible and invisible forces. But strictly speaking, his critique targets neither the likes of Carsten Jensen nor non-fiction as such. Chance is also a condition for the war correspondent, both in the form of the random events of war that the author tries to capture, and the words she or he chooses to describe them, which aren’t as far from fictional narrative as they might seem. To some extent the war correspondent controls his or her description of life and death through these choices, much like a writer of fiction. 

But there’s a difference. Both the literary writer and the war reporter work to give repressed, invisible forces narrative and form. What’s at issue according to Mitchelmore is how ‘writing leaves traces’; how to represent the contrast between the visible and the invisible, light and shadow. In this vein, Mitchelmore also reviews the French author Pascal Quignard, who sees literature as a way of working with fleeting forms and shadows without succumbing to the temptation of bringing all to light. Art should offer a way into what’s shadowed over by habit. Another of Mitchelmore’s examples is Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, a spinster’s story from her youth, when she was the governess of two children in a secluded country estate. Initially charming, the children appear to be haunted and corrupted by the ghosts of the estate’s former servants. Is it the fantasy of a madwoman or are the kids really evil? 

Henry James makes the ‘decisive choice’ to tell the story in the form of a letter by an outsider, in this case the governess. Mitchelmore draws attention to the fact that the epistolary form creates a space between the narrative and the events. This opens up a distance between the words and the scenes they describe that highlights the ambiguity of the children’s innocence, which is inseparable from their cruel acts. This distance enables James to develop and refine the plot (which he was initially told in the form of an anecdote) for his own purposes. Ambiguity here is more than the sociological uncertainty that arises when a war correspondent has to choose what to report on when the situation on the battlefield changes. 

Ambiguity in literary language has to do not with producing a ‘raw’ clarity, but a clarity associated with the not-quite-visible, the hard-to-access, the obscure. This is an ambiguity Mitchelmore glimpses in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s writing. 

An apostle of impassioned honesty 

Mitchelmore has a problematic relationship with Knausgaard, a writer he refers to as an ‘apostle of impassioned honesty’. Reading the first volume of My Struggle gave him, at first, a rare feeling of holding one of the masterpieces of his time in his hands. He initially dwells on Knausgaard’s ability to unearth images from seemingly banal childhood experiences and magnify them. An example is the footage the child Knausgaard sees in a news broadcast of a face that floats up to the surface of a lake from a sunken fishing boat: an image of death which, when he tells his dismissive father about it, intensifies his difficult relationship with him. At other times it’s works of art that captivate Knausgaard, and imbue him with a feeling of beauty or presence. According to Mitchelmore, these magnifying effects serve to move the writing elsewhere and offer up new ways of seeing. In this sense, the beauty of My Struggle lies in its ability to listen to the silence behind the world’s noise and to experiment in writing with opening spaces that make narrative possible. Mitchelmore is happy to call My Struggle a novel. The way it describes illuminating, enchanting sensations that seem to occur on the surface of life but open up past, present and future is enough to confirm this. 

This technique of course is well known, and many writers have made use of it to great effect. But what matters is the language, as Mitchelmore points out: ‘reality cannot enter into the work without conforming to the pressure of the conceptual unity imposed by a book […] writing plainly about plain things is no more a guarantee of realism than – following Wittgenstein – rain experienced in a dream is a guarantee of its wetness, even if it is connected to noise on the bedroom window.’ But is it a mark of a book’s quality that the author is aware that his descriptions are never sufficient, that pain, boredom, the strange or uncanny always escape language? Doesn’t it remain a question of the form one’s awareness of them takes, of how they’re put into words? Is it enough to observe that Knausgaard describes ad nauseam his difficulty in capturing basic human emotions? 

‘An overwhelming sense of imminence is evoked by Knausgaard so that its banality becomes […] celestial’, notes Mitchelmore. But this sense of immediacy doesn’t lead to a liberating revelation, but rather further frustration. The face on the surface of the lake in the news broadcast and the tears inexplicably provoked by the pattern of the clouds in a painting may hint at the promise of transcendence, but no affirmative transcendence. 

In a world without God, what literature struggles with is its own form, its own identity as literature; a struggle that ultimately can only demonstrate its own failure. This may be why Knausgaard doesn’t strive for a strong style as a writer. Strong themes and a strong style must be broken down before literature can emerge. This breaking down is what is called writing. Writing has more to do with destroying than creating, says Knausgaard somewhere. But one could also shift the emphasis of this statement: destroying is a way of creating, and this demands a unique writerly effort. It may well be that putting his immediate impressions of everyday life into words isn’t enough for Knausgaard, that it doesn’t satisfy him, but this in itself doesn’t mean we’re holding a masterpiece in our hands. 

Insightful disillusionment 

I have a suspicion that Mitchelmore omits important considerations about the ‘reality effect’, which have to do with the kind of effort put into writing and language itself. What grates a little is Knausgaard’s demonstrative, kitchen-sink determination to put everything into the book. For long stretches, this documentary-style accumulation of details dominates the text. But the idea that this accumulation can capture reality is nonsense. In a text on realism, the Danish author and linguist Per Aage Brandt once wrote: ‘Roland Barthes believed that the “reality effect” of a work of fiction is achieved by embedding details in it that do not function as parts of the narrative. I call it the “litter theory”: the more litter that floats around in the space of fiction, the more realistic it’s supposed to be.’ According to Brandt, Barthes thus assumes in advance that the fictional space isn’t realistic in itself, but that it’s originally a space of writing. ‘Barthes is wrong’, says Brandt. ‘When people tell stories and are only concerned with what they’re telling, they naturally create a realistic narrative; the language is spontaneously true to the reality of everyday life’ (1). Perhaps it can be formulated like this: it takes a special writerly effort to break out of the illusion of realism and into an insightful disillusionment. 

Is it reasonable to expect enlightenment or a sensory liberation from literature? To sense, for example, that Rilke harbours the secret of life but never succumbs to the temptation to reveal it, as a reviewer once wrote? For Mitchelmore, literature isn’t simply a question of seeking illumination – not everything needs to be brought to light – but just as much a matter of disillusionment. If literature teaches us to see, it’s because it demonstrates a ‘sensitivity to the invisible’. 

© norske LMD 

1. ‘Om skriften og det virkelige’ (‘On writing and the real’), Weekendavisen Bøger, 29 October 1999. 



Saturday, July 24, 2021

Drowning is Fine by Darren Allen

For reasons unclear to me at the time I re-read several novels by Aharon Appelfeld, the author born in 1932 to a German-speaking Jewish family in what was also Paul Celan’s hometown, Czernowitz, then in Romania, now in Ukraine, and who wrote exclusively in Hebrew after he had escaped postwar Europe for Palestine. As you might expect, the novels are haunted by what happened in that time; only it is never in the foreground. Badenheim 1939 could be read as little more than a pantomime designed by Otto Dix but for the looming presence of the years to come, while the disfunctional family and unwelcoming title character in The Immortal Bartfuss could be a fraught domestic drama but for a past that refuses to be buried, and Theo’s long walk in For Every Sin would be a regular road movie but for where he was walking from:

When the war ended Theo resolved that he would make his way back home alone, in a straight lie, without twists or turns. The distance to his home was great, hundreds of miles. Nevertheless it seemed to him he could see the route clearly. He knew that this would separate him from people, and that he would have to remain in uninhabited places for many days, but he was firm in his resolve: only following a straight course, without deviation. Thus, without saying good-bye to anyone, he set out. [Tr. Jeffrey M. Green]

The background resonates in narrative reticence. There is only the road ahead: in terms of the story and each time for each reader when they open the book. The old world is a ghost and each sentence a step into a haunted waste land.

There are fortuitous reasons for Appelfeld’s style: not only did he struggle to learn the language, which meant he kept things simple, but also because, as he said, “Hebrew is a very precise language, you have to be very precise – no over-saying. This is because of our Bible tradition.” Moreover, in the newly formed state there was a demand to forget the past and make a new self, which meant playing down the drama. 

Then it occurred to me that it wasn’t a coincidence that I chose to read these novels alongside Darren Allen’s Drowning is Fine and then felt no need to read another once it was over. They provided a contrast to its high style and lack of reticence. There are reasons for the style here too.

Drowning is Fine is the first-person narrative of Daniel Hickman, an aspiring artist living a precarious existence in contemporary London, sharing a house with a colourful bunch of bohemians with whom he has little in common and working in a drudge office job alongside people with whom he has little in common. His desires have nowhere to go except into hyperbolic cries of despair: "I want to paint great things" he says. "I want to undo minds, I yearn to stretch into the abyss, to touch the living emptiness." If he sounds here like Tony Hancock in The Rebel, it only sharpens the bathetic edge of an existential crisis.

This is also what contrasts with Appelfeld: Daniel's situation is unremarkable. There is no Biblical tradition let alone the cowl of a catastrophe draped over his head. His background is more or less invisible but for an aside that his family came from "the self-replicating unplace of Borehamwood". He is, as his name suggests, a peasant in the lion's den, and so the novel is not so much an open road leading away from disaster as a cul de sac at the dog end of history.

In keeping with the condition, Hickman projects its innate disquiet onto his immediate surroundings. One of his bosses is Graham: 

he of the ball-bearing head and immaculate beard, who does his best to make everyone feel special and indispensable, but he only ever leaves the impression not so much of being special and indispensable, more of being a small, plastic, very much dispensable, pellet.

If such descriptions of Londoners, of which there are many, suggest a hysterical-realist novel documenting life in the neoliberal capital via the protagonist's schlubby travails, it wouldn't be inaccurate. Daniel is, as Terry Gilliam puts it in the blurb, a bit "arseholish": he uses a young woman who is attracted to him even as he fantasises an ideal love, and then, in a set-piece scene that is both moving and horrifying, he employs a Polish sex worker to enact such a love, reflecting to the reader their own displaced disquiet as they demand the real thing from an author they have paid to deceive them.

Except there is something else offered in what Daniel calls The Question.

It writhed belly-up at my bewilderment while I was in the garden, staring into the boughs of next door's fine oak tree. It burbled on in the background for a while then flashed intensely, salt-in-the-eye, for a shattering moment as I moon-walked on Geni's shiny parquet floor, enjoying another of those bone-comforts, those secret agreements with the most mundane and empty events. Hard to say what the question is, for it forms itself wordlessly, sliding in between my thoughts as I jog around the lake, or take another spoonful of yogurt.

As Drowning is Fine appears to be the first in a series, the answer could be what the overall title Things Unsaid refers to, which at first I thought might be sarcasm given the comparative excess of what things are said. Daniel's ambition to pursue the question would lead others to channel creativity in paid work in, say, graphical design, but, just as Theo prefers to walk alone rather than mix with other refugees, Daniel prefers "the dignity of being without a job". Nor is the galleried art scene his goal. On a date, he visits Bankside's "castle cubed of death" and stumbles upon an exhibition launch party:

It could be Weimar Germany, or the salon of Mme Geoffrin, or the 'wine and meat pool' of King Zhou, or some swanky Pyramid do in the Middle Kingdom. This party has been going on since the dawn of civilisation, and when the world is a charred husk these screaming, bellowing, bored swans will still be floating over the darkness in their gaudy bubble, talking about Miami Art Basel, tilapia and yurts.

But he had been impressed by the display of William Blake's death-mask, which gives a clue about how he will approach the question. Another takes the form of the title provided by Geni, his Tate Modern date, who says she wants to find a man she can die with, preferably by drowning. After the initial panic, she says "you have to give up, then you give up more completely than you'd ever imagined". If Daniel is shocked, he shouldn't have been, as throughout the novel he meets people who have given up without having yet gone under: two of his housemates, one in a care home, and many others passing him in the street. Allusions to Dante's Inferno and Eliot's Waste Land in which death has undone so many are thereby appropriate, but Daniel's London is also the decadent twin of Novilla, the drab and dry fictional city of JM Coetzee's Jesus trilogy, whose setting and society Robert Pippin says calls to mind the death of God, one in which everyone lives in exile from the highest values; an embodiment of Nietzsche's Letzter Mensch. Daniel corresponds to the two new arrivals in Novilla who live in a state of "profound homelessness", yet unable to join the lives of others in "forgetfulness and indifference".

Drowning is Fine draws to a close with Daniel literally homeless, dragging an art work through the streets with him as if clinging to the last relic of the highest values. This makes clear that what had impressed him in Tate Modern was the death-mask of possibility: of possibility in the personal, the political, the artistic and, one might add, the religious. For all his faults, Hickman is a modern-day Blakeian mystic in a culture where this can never mean anything outside the dubious romance of self-sabotage and self-destruction, hence why Daniel's arseholish nature rises to the surface in a novel whose conventional form only reanimates the ghost of the highest values.

The last of Aharon Appelfeld's novel I read alongside Drowning is Fine is an outlier in his work as it narrated by Katerina, a Christian Ruthenian, who comes to identify with the Jews for whom she works and who, later, she sees them from a distance disappearing in rail transports. In the austere and profound loneliness of the postwar years, she reflects that it is "too bad the dead are forbidden to speak", but this reminds us that the novel, as it dies, allows us to listen to their silence.


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

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