Thursday, July 07, 2005

Criticism for the wilderness: Josipovici on Grimm

Regular browsers of this space will know of my enthusiasm for the fiction and criticism of Gabriel Josipovici. Other favourite authors of mine were often discovered following his reviews and recommendations. I think my original attraction to his work was due to his fascination with writing itself. He isn't ashamed to discuss the personal confrontation with the silence of writing. When I was reading seriously for the first time, English literary coverage invariably rehearsed a no-nonsense attitude, dismissing any reflexivity as ‘experimental’ at best and self-indulgent at worst. It still does. John Carey recently criticised the lack of English translations of world fiction but his criticism and prize jury chairmanship has encouraged this little Englander attitude.

Josipovici ignores fashionable concerns and writes about contemporary writers in the light of the entire European literary tradition. One can read about them in the same way one reads about Rabelais and Chaucer, Dante and Shakespeare. One begins to sense how similar they all are, and how utterly distant.

I seem to remember choosing to withdraw his 1977 collection The Lessons of Modernism from the local library because of the title of the first essay. I’d not heard of some of the essay subjects (Walter Benjamin, Fernando Pessoa) but the first is called An Art for the Wilderness: Franz Kafka. I thought: here is someone writing about what concerns me! I wasn’t wrong. However, once I got to know more of his work, I did wonder about his fascination with folk tales. I thought this was rather too close to the simple-minded fiction and literary criticism that had revolted me when I had started reading. (This can still be seen in my impatience with the blogosphere’s interest in graphic novels and cod-Victorian fiction). It seemed a world away from the ultra-sophistication of those influencing his fiction, such as Robbe-Grillet and Thomas Bernhard, Schoenberg and Harrison Birtwistle. (Incidentally, Book World is reading his 1994 novel Moo Pak and says it's "astonishingly good").

In the latest edition of the TLS, Josipovici explains the apparent opposition. He reviews a new edition of Grimm’s Tales and discusses the history of the Brother’s constant rewriting of the Tales as they became more and more popular:

[W]hat happened to the Grimm Tales in the course of their fifty years of tinkering with them was that they were transformed from tales told by speakers who, in one way or another, were deeply convinced that they were true (whatever meaning one assigns to the term true) into tales told by writers (Wilhelm Grimm, in effect) who did not believe in them and therefore substituted scene-setting, morality and psychology for truth. It also gives us a hint as to why a novelist like Dickens had the effect he had on his readers (and still does): he was one who knew ‘how to be a child’ [a reference to a comment by Kierkegaard]. However, it was perhaps Kleist alone among the writers understood what was really at issue here. His great novella, Michael Kohlhaas takes many of the elements that go to make up the Grimm tales and stands them on their head, bidding an anguished goodbye as it does so both to community values and to wishful thinking. But Kleist had no successors and, by and large, nineteenth century novelists and storytellers took the path of midrash and romance, still the staple diet of readers of twentieth century fiction, with neither writer nor reader quite believing in what they are doing, but under a strange compulsion to pretend that they do.

Perhaps the fascination with graphic novels, with genre fiction, and the wide readership of the Harry Potter series, is really the latest, desparate gasp of those compelled to pretend that they believe in romantic wishful thinking.

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