Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

All Souls' Day

There is one reason that keeps me writing: hope. The hope that I might be able to write what I need to say because it could not be said in any other way.

That said, I am not writing.

There is also the hope of reading, which is much the same: to find, at last, the narrative that allows me to breathe and to step forward actually; not vicariously through a character or the author’s experience, but actually to step forward. The metaphor is the only means.

That said, I am not reading.

A couple of years ago I reviewed Cees Nooteboom's All Souls' Day, long after it had been released in paperback. I had been impressed by the way it dealt with the subject matter: a man reflecting on post-traumatic life in the way one might reflect on a hurricane in the utter stillness of its aftermath. I was writing in the aftermath of mixed reviews. The worst of them - by Julie Myerson in The Guardian - had upset me with its lazy assumptions and condescension. I didn't respect the reviewer - a classic liberal philistine - but it upset me anyway. Yet two people who I do respect had dismissed it also. One called it "trauma tourism" for its preoccupation with disaster. Looking back, I now understand that view.

Arthur Daane, the main character, merely reflects on other people's suffering: there's a scene where the Daane looks out of a boat's window and thinks of the MV Estonia disaster of 1995. This could easily confirm the criticism of the book that it is too discursive, more concerned with ideas than with anything else like emotion, empathy or narrative. Flick through the novel and you can see the names of Caspar David Friedrich, Walter Benjamin, Nietzsche, Heidegger and innumberable others. The book teems with reflection on ideas and meaning. And at 340 dense pages, it might be too long, or at least its moments of lightness not enough. By contrast with the speculations, the death of Daane's family is barely mentioned: "no more than juicy, gratuitous sidebars" according the bad review. It also compares it to American novels that deal with stories of grief but "do not trade in art or history or big ideas precisely because intellectual posturings have no value, no purpose in such stories".

One wonders, then, what value and purpose they have in Proust's In Search of Lost Time? Proust wrote that ideas were substitutes for griefs and perhaps the beginning of release. His entire novel demonstrates that life demands understanding if happiness of any kind is to be possible. Marcel's happiness is that of a paradise lost, the only possible paradise, he realises. Is that "a big idea" or the result of a long search?

Myerson has found instead that minimal, received ideas and philistine posturings do have greater value, at least in promising lucrative careers in popular criticism. It is perhaps too much to ask her to consider the book in its European tradition, marked by history like the Berlin walls - as remarked on in the book - potted by bullet holes. Daane reads the city like a history book. His photographic eye for detail reveals the horror of living on physically untouched by disaster but surrounded by its legacy. His speculations, like Proust's, do have a compulsive edge, as if to stop thinking would return him to blank, unrelenting hunger for his wife and child. But he is aware of it. He recognises it as a symptom in the culture at large. His job is making documentaries for Eurpoean TV channels. But they demand action, violence and politically hot subjects, which appall him. When he suggests a film on Walter Benjamin, they dismiss it out-of-hand. The philistine's review is an example of this behaviour. Daane prefers instead to wander, seeking bleak epiphanies.

Mainstream British culture is also glib and anti-intellectual, demanding the "B grade sludge" of which Daane speaks. It always has been. But now it is also aggressively resistant to any alternative. Even the one TV channel dedicated to more than bland entertainment is attacked by government accountants. And for all the admiring talk from those in charge following the untimely death of John Peel, there will be no attempt to learn from his example. Everything will be forgotten.

What I admire in All Souls' Day is the willingness to remember, to make one last effort to understand, and to take the long way round, deliberately; through the trial of Purgatory.

1 comment:

  1. oh this is a good review, i am very pleased to see this, thank you.

    ReplyDelete

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