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Sunday, February 19, 2017

Death by Saudade by Enrique Vila-Matas

The first collection of Vila-Matas' short stories in English translation is named after the fifteenth story in the table of contents, but might better have been named after the seventh, Death by Saudade because it compresses Vila-Matas' work into a black hole. Just as Harvill Secker’s abbreviation of Montano’s Malady, his second novel in English, excludes any mention of illness, the choice of this title disguises the nature of his fiction with a predictable play on genre.

This is entirely understandable, as publishers must assume potential consumers read for what is misnamed 'entertainment' rather than to assuage saudade, a Portuguese term with no equivalent in English but defined by Wikipedia as "a profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves". Indeed, to misquote Kafka, we might wonder how can one take delight in stories unless one flees to them for refuge. There's the extra worry for the publisher in that potential readers are notoriously resistant to short stories, as they minimise the pleasures of following a character as they traverse deep time. To mitigate this, short stories are narrated more often than not in the first person, with Vampire in Love no exception.  

Death by Saudade in particular is narrated by the owner of a dry cleaning shop telling of his childhood fascination with the plenitude that lay beyond home and school, inspired by friend's stories of his seafaring grandfather. Watching the activity on a busy street replaced reading great novels, he says. He becomes intrigued by a female vagrant who approaches women and appears to whisper something in their ear. To hear it himself he dresses up in his mother's clothes but, rather than hear any exciting secret, he is seized by her "wild, magnetic, mirror-like eyes" and feels a gust of wind on his face:
"I fled in terror because I had suddenly understood that what I had just seen, with utter clarity, was the face of the evil ravaging the streets of the city and which my parents, in low, cautious voices, called the wind from the bay, the wind that drove so many mad."
From then on and into adulthood he feels like a vagrant himself, travelling to evade anxiety and melanchoy all the while "filled with the temptation to leap into the void". He walks through the city of Bernardo Soares full of beautiful places to make the leap. Back home he tries to paint what he saw on the street but never finishes anything. The plenitude that promised so much in childhood is revealed as something else: "I say to myself that life is not achievable while one is alive".

Saudade (1899) by Almeida Júnior
(note that she is reading)
You might think all this means Vila-Matas' fiction is negative, not life affirming, depressing even; everything 'entertainment' seeks to repress. This is because Vila-Matas is attuned to the enigma of fiction, of this strange need to read and write – here projected into travel and painting. His fiction shadows its logic. Why, after all, has the dry cleaner spoken at all? And why are we listening in this way? The issue of the story before us is neither whether the narrator is convincing, reliable or anything else, nor whether the form of his narration is traditional, experimental, modernist or postmodernist, but the paradox of saudade: a word whose meaning requires translation even in its language of origin, a condition that is magnetic and mirror-like, pinning the sufferer to mortality and reflecting their denial, and yet that which gives life purpose and meaning, which returns us to the child wanting to discover what is beyond and so to fictionalise himself as a woman to do so, then to duplicate the breeze in paint, and so to accommodate it, to make life and death indistinguishable. Life by saudade.

His friend finally reveals that his seafaring grandfather had in fact killed himself, and later the narrator discovers that numerous other members of the same family had also killed themselves. They had succumbed to saudade and "experienced the only possible plenitude, the plenitude of suicide". Vila-Matas' comedy is never far away.

The paradox of saudade is then the paradox of reading and writing. At the end, the narrator says he will not leap into the void, while the story demonstrates otherwise.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

That's your wood s lot

In the early days I posted this to Spike Magazine's Splinters blog.

Looking at wood s lot's web archive, I see it began in 2001, the year after Splinters, which makes Mark Woods one of the veterans of literary blogging. When I moved to This Space, wood s lot featured on the blogroll from the start in 2004 until late last year when it became clear that July 13th's entry was its last. It happens, I thought: Spike itself and Ready Steady Book, another site discovered from the referral feed and whose name I also questioned, also closed without any valedictory message. I wondered if, given the blog's political stance, Mark had given up in despair, and recalled in my own despair how a friend had told me that when Magritte was asked whether he believed in Heaven, he answered "Yes, when I am working". But Languagehat reports that there were darker, sadder reasons for the silence, and the work is over. RIP Mark Woods.

Monday, February 06, 2017

"Literature belongs to those who are at home in the world"

The #Readwomen hashtag has apparently been so influential and successful that of the eight books on the Richard & Judy Book Club Spring list, six were written by women. (There are other examples to confirm its success, such as the much more valuable Goldsmiths Prize, won by female author in its first two years.) However, this didn't stop criticism that the authors were all white. When I observed that this was churlishly moving the goalposts, the critic moved the goalposts back and told me to "count up proportion of women on any bookshop table". Of course, health and safety laws discourage authors from gathering on tables already laden with books, but the remark did prompt me to wonder why I never look for books by authors who share my background. That is, why don't I count the number of books by working-class authors?

You might find this question demands clarification. How can you tell whether an author is working class? Do you search by name, photo, the subject matter of their book? You could spend all day guessing. For years I didn't even realise I was working class, so what chance the name on the spine of a book? Now that I know, I've become more aware of how it has informed my reading and writing. But not in the way you might expect. This won't be a mini-Bildungsroman tracing a path from the shadows of dark satanic mills into the light of streets strewn with mung bean salad. One reason is that being working class in England is often a synonym for Northern, and I'm the least northern of Englishmen. Any more of a southerner and I'd be French. The experience of being working class in the deep south appears to be distinct and difficult to summarise. Lars Iyer's Office Life series goes some way to define an estrangement embedded so deeply as to be imperceptible.

When I first felt the need to read books of any kind, I was more or less uneducated and long-term unemployed. My friends had moved on and I had no idea where to start. No guidance. The local newspaper didn't have book reviews and there were only the occasional references on television, mostly concerning a book's relation to pressing current affairs. Certainly the long aftermath of the Falklands War and the Miners' Strike had jolted me out of the conservative, patriotic assumptions absorbed from my surroundings: a naval town with a high turnover of inhabitants as families moved in and out according to military needs, and in which class was on the one hand clearly defined by where you lived – Christopher and Peter Hitchens grew up in the posh area because their father was an officer – and obscured on the other by military cohesion against the perceived common enemy. Everyone was, so to speak, in the same boat. Indeed, Peter Hitchens and I share a psychogeographic thing for the local ferry. I crossed the harbour first to get to Fratton Park ("the best atmosphere in world football" according to Ronaldinho) and then the big central library and secondhand bookshops. Eventually reasons for the journeys would coincide and for 50p I bought an old Penguin paperback of Canetti's Auto da Fé on the way to a match and read a few pages on the terrace before kick off (1-1 v Fulham). The ferry dominates my dreams as a chimera of escape and return, and whose place in waking life is taken, in a curious inversion, by books. What I sought then was not a supplement to current affairs but reasons for this imperceptible remove: why is there nothing rather than something?

An anecdote might help to explain the difficulty of this search: In a bookshop before Christmas I overheard two grandparents loudly seeking a novel their granddaughter had specified she wanted. I paused to hear the title. They spoke it as if the book was an exotic rarity to be sought out with great attention, as they had clearly never heard the title themselves: The Handmaid's Tale. Of course there was a pristine paperback on the shelf. £6:99. The choice aroused unexpected emotions in me: disappointment, frustration, envy. A young woman appeared before me: happy, loved, ambitious and keen to display independence by making a special request to her elders for a public expression and reinforcement of an identity, with this novel offering its lore; a choice as predictable as when in the same shop twenty-three years earlier I overheard a nervous young man, evidently in a bookshop for the first time in his adult life, ask the assistant if the shop stocked something called Trainspotting. For all the potential for militancy and transgression implied by these choices, I sensed the neutralising power of books floating on the surface of literature, made buoyant by marketing campaigns and bookchat, protecting paddlers from the deep.

In my class innocence, I was never drawn towards genre or books with overt subject matter let alone those that were socially relevant. Instead I discovered Proust (hear how here), Blanchot, Handke and Bernhard so, when I took a university access course and the English literature element included Walter Greenwood's Love on the Dole and a sociology textbook called Issues, I was bewildered. While this had everything to do with my world, it had nothing to do with what I read. What was going on? "The English hate anything which doesn’t return them to the prosaic and the everyday" says Mark Bowles, claiming to be fiction. "Grand passions and intellectuals are automatically suspect. They live under the sign of Necessity."

When, finally, I got to university, I mixed for the first time with people from another class and from other countries. Another world. I was astounded to find living in my block a young German woman who had read Peter Handke. Later, I completed an MA by writing essays on Kafka and Bernhard. So had I found my true home? Well, that was the end of university and I had to leave. Fortunately, this coincided with the birth of the internet and the chance to continue off-piste. This was my true home, though it took years to recognise.

I had no thoughts that writing about books might lead to gainful employment, but I did write a handful of reviews for various posh publications and assumed that meant progress, only for it to be a puzzling, unhappy experience. And while I had to stop anyway for reasons of health, understanding why it was unhappy involved shame: I had not been good enough. It's part of my background to make this assumption; I know my place. The other day I saw a link to magazine promotion of its bloggers and anybody looking at it from a working-class background will also know within seconds that this is not their place at all, and know why. So, where now?

Last year I read a book review in which Maurice Blanchot discusses 'novels of the land', including Aimé Pache, peintre vaudois by Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, the story of a man born of country folk who aims to become an artist in Paris:
What is serious and profound about it comes from the question that plagues the young man when he feels within himself the power of his vocation. Why is he a painter? Why did he develop such a passion? Why must he be different from those close to him when he considers himself to be just like them...?        [Translated by Michael Holland]
Familiar questions. Blanchot says the drama is that of the author's own creative endeavour:
It is easy to imagine that Ramuz actually experienced this drama, then overcame it, but was able to endure the deep pain it caused him by reliving it in a fiction. Before becoming an artist, he felt the need to express the paradox according to which someone becomes an artist in order to be faithful to himself, but sacrifices something of himself by being faithful in this way.
This typically neat summary of a complex issue spoke to my shame. In the end, Blanchot argues that there is no necessary conflict for Aimé Pache because there is more than one way of being faithful to the land. The only problem is that "art is not just instinct" and what his fellows do unknowingly, Pache must do via knowing. The painter's lonely business is one of reconciliation. He wastes years of effort on a great canvas honouring his origins, but it never quite works: "What is natural about his wish becomes artificial and unmotivated in his work."

I had assumed those who were involved in 'the industry' shared the same concerns. By drawing close to them I sacrificed what made my reading and writing vital in order to win credence from the aura of their social power, and made it artificial and unmotivated instead. Their patronage was all I needed to sacrifice to be faithful to my origins, because, if being southern English working class means anything to me, it is to be disenchanted of such a label: there was only ever a void to explore.
A stranger not only in the social and cultural world: there is a veil between him and nature, between him and everything. He always finds himself face to face with the incomprehensible, inaccessible, the 'language of the stone'. And his only recourse is talking. This cannot be 'literature'. Literature belongs to those who are at home in the world.
Rosemarie Waldrop's introduction to Paul Celan's Conversation in the Mountains is an echo from another void and is one reason aside from invisibility I do not look for working-class authors on bookshelves, three-for-two tables or prize shortlists. It would be patronage, an assertion of power and an appropriation ignoring an author's singularity. What Hannah Arendt writes in The Human Condition is as relevant to the application of genre labels to writing as it is to people:
The moment we want to say who somebody is, our very vocabulary leads us astray into saying what he is; we get entangled in a description of qualities he necessarily shares with others like him; we begin to describe a type or a 'character' in the old meaning of the word, with the result that his specific uniqueness escapes us.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

“What I want to tell you is so intimate, so veiled, so vague, that I fear I’ve occasionally been too precise. Forgive me.”  Stéphane Mallarmé, April 1864

This is not a books of the year post. While I enjoy learning of other people's books of the year choices, the genre has come to frustrate me because the comments leave so much unsaid, summing up a selection in the shorthand of industrial standards and ignoring the small, obscure transformations experienced as sentence follows sentence, which for me are often more valuable than the larger work; or, rather, that which gives value to the larger work. Yet they go unsaid. And I don't mean a sentimental reaction to a drama well-orchestrated by the masterly author or the ingenuity of a mot juste, but something released from the words that cannot quite be adequately explained by their overt content. So while the books pictured here are those I've read and valued this year, it is not the books as such that I want to discuss.

In 1885, Mallarmé told Paul Verlaine that after so many prose pieces and verse he wished to write a book that would be "architectural and premeditated, and not an anthology of random inspirations, however marvelous". This is the fabled Book that has led to so much commentary. It's my small contention that this is a false opposition, as such structures are necessary for such inspirations and are why, for instance, the canned products of OuLiPo are often uncanny. The latter go unsaid because the experience is always unclear and the magnificent structure provides the perfect shadow for silence. One imperfect example that I can recall is browsing in a bookshop, opening a copy of Enrique Vila-Matas' novel Montano's Malady and reading the epigraph: "What will we do to disappear?". I had then to buy the book, for what ever had been stirred in me depended on the mass of pages that followed, as the glistening surface of a swimming pool depends on the sky above and the depths below.

Speaking of why he writes novels and stories rather than poetry, Gabriel Josipovici might be explaining this when he says the experience of fiction:
has as something to do with time, with how human beings respond to time, with what time does to us, the losses it brings, and the sense of possibilities unrealized, but also the Proustian sense of sudden loops in time and the way our lives are sealed off to us but suddenly, in time, open up momentarily.
In Search of Lost Time is a perfect example because the vast length of the book is necessary to expose those famous ecstatic instants in their ecstasy, and yet still we talk about them as discrete, anecdotal features. The effect of Vila-Matas' epigraph on me might be different in that a need was triggered for such an unsealing, something that approaches what Heidegger called die Lichtung, a clearing in the forest. The recognition of that need itself became a clearing.

For a long time I've been very aware of the value of such moments. It is one year since This Space of Writing was published. The blog's tenth anniversary gave rise to a need to change, to move on, to go beyond reviewing and discussing ideas and concepts, to walk over the paint that has defined this corner. While going from blog to book had troubled me I knew that after all these years in the shameful lowlands of writing it was time to follow Werner Herzog's famous penguin toward the mountains. How, I didn't know. On a whim as fleeting as flipping a book open to the epigraph, I copied and pasted a selection into a Word document to see how they read in a different space. I was surprised by how they did. Ismo Santala has since written that "the book's pattern is quite a sly one":
What at first looks like a collection of occasional book reviews is in fact a well-considered sequence advancing a rich and consistent literary stance. As certain works, authors and literary-philosophical themes begin to recur with ever greater insistence and force, the reader begins to feel the turning of the screw."
In this way then the book itself might have cleared the way for something else. However, the list of posts since publication is a familiar one, with my review of Bernhard's Goethe Dies and the essay The authorisation to invent standing out as mitigation. Where did they come from? Random inspirations perhaps, but part of a deeper movement.

It's probably no coincidence that two of the most valuable books I read this year were also collections of review-essays. The Teller and the Tale has a short, very moving essay that describes how artistic progress occurs slowly, through patience and chance mainly, but also through failure and even collapse. The composer György Kurtág had a breakdown and was unable to compose. Eventually, after some counselling, he began to compose again, starting from the very basics of the craft. For example, he set Samuel Beckett's final poem What is the Word to music. (Skip to 6mins 40secs.)

Josipovici writes that both poem and performance "enact a desperate movement in the inner reaches of one’s being and ... find, at the end, that the enactment of failure has led not to triumph but to a quite physical sense of release". Despite having "no operas and no vast choral and orchestral works to his name" and because his music appears to be very modest and marginal, Kurtág has become "a potent artistic force in our confused, fragmented and disillusioned world".

This is a world away from the criticism and reviewing whose only focus is public virtue. It returns us to the unique value of art and, as a result, moderates any impatience to change. The modesty and marginality of blog posts offers at least the sense of a personal encounter however good or bad.

The pre-publication blurb of the other collection promised an answer to the question "How did Maurice Blanchot transform himself from journeyman reviewer to the theorist of narrative whose work transformed the intellectual landscape of the postwar era?" But if these reviews provide that answer, it is veiled by their workaday reserve, and for good reason. In a review of Tocqueville's Recollections, Blanchot criticises those who believe revolution is a matter of chance events because "they ignore the lengthy preparations without which spontaneity does not occur" and recognises that reading Tocqueville's account of returning from Paris to the family's Normandy home "through the empty halls of his old chateau, the damp and dusty rooms where everything seems dead…we will understand much better than through even the most harrowing accounts the bitter taste of political upheaval and the ruinous power of history". Given that France had been under Nazi occupation for three years, it is significant that this is contained in a review.

And Blanchot's criticism is never theory in the formal sense anyway, as most of it focuses on encounters with specific works, and even a book as difficult as The Step Not Beyond is written in fragments. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say he transformed how reviews, criticism and theory are written. Michael Holland's introduction argues that the transformation was due to ruin and destruction of the war except that this went "beyond the limits of the external world" and "signified the collapse of the entire frame within which Western humanity had related to the world". It meant "the disappearance of the world, the self and the relation between them in an event that from then on Blanchot would term disaster".

"Not to write—what a long way there is to go before arriving at that point". This is a sentence from Blanchot's late work The Writing of the Disaster. A title best read first as 'the writing done by disaster'. The final book I read this year, and one of the best, exemplifies this point. Early on it tells the story of how, in December 1273, Thomas Aquinas put down his pen and told his assistant: "After what I have seen today I can write no more: for all that I have written is but straw." He died three months later with Summa Theologiæ abandoned mid-sentence. "What happened?" Denys Turner asks. "Did he have some kind of mystical experience? Or, was it, more simply, nervous collapse and depression as a result of over-work?" The latter seems plausible given the extraordinary fact that Aquinas had written "the equivalent of two or three average length novels per month between the beginning of 1269 and December 1273" (my emphasis). While leaving the answer open, Turner's recognises that incompleteness might itself be a theological statement, specifically about the relation of silence to speech, or in this case, words. Theology emerges from silence in the same way "the massive structures of the medieval cathedral articulate the spaces they enclose", and silence is also where it ends.
For Thomas, silence is not the absence of speech. It is what the fullness of speech demonstrates—namely that, even at its best, speech falls short; indeed, it is only speech at its best that truly discovers this silence. And theology at its best discloses but the name of that silence from which the Word proceeds, and to which it returns. Its name is God.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The extreme of literature: Stuff by Charlie Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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