Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Not merely illustrative

As usual in the library, I pick up novels and read the first few lines. What is it that attracts me? Almost invariably, I'm disappointed. The familiar introductions, the craftful scene setting, the usual plunge into another voice, another world with its own concerns, not mine. But isn't this what one reads novels for? Perhaps I'm disappointed in the novel as a form. That can’t be right though. There is no form to the novel. It’s novels not taking a form that often disappoints me.

Last week I picked up one recent novel with a single word title. It had stirred vague hope in me. I like one-word titles, perhaps because they suggest the book is the subject of the title rather than an excursion toward something else (which, in the end, is always only an allusion to arrival). But the narrative began like all the others. Evidentally the subject had no impact on the form of the novel. That was taken for granted.

Perhaps I prefer novels that cannot be written. If so, a library is probably not the best place to look for them. This must be why I hold Kafka close to me as an example. He wrote novels that could not be written. I’ve been a bit preoccupied with him lately, reading the 516 pages of Reiner Stach’s biography. I copied out the following paragraph before noticing that Michael Dirda has done it for me in his review.
[Kafka] demanded much more from his texts than formal unity; he sought a seamless linking of all motifs, images, and concepts. Beginning with The Judgement, he was generally able to achieve this unity in the stories he completed. These writings leave no narrative residues or blind alleys. Not one detail of Kafka’s descriptions, whether the color of a piece of clothing, a gesture, or simply the time of day, is merely illustrative. Everything carries meaning, refers to something, and recurs.
This is it. Not merely illustrative. (Along with his uncertainty in the world, this is what connects Kafka with Proust, a writer apparently inhabiting an entirely different universe).

Curiously, one might compare this with the detective novel. So why do I loathe that kind of book?

Saturday, November 26, 2005

A limit to silence

I'm just old enough to have seen George Best score a hat-trick (against S***hampton!). All I remember is the yellow and blue of the Man United kit that day. His premature death sharpens the colours, like floodlights through time.

The Sunderland fan at The Brute Choir says he is too young to know the magnitude of what preceded Best's celebrity notoriety, but he was impressed this afternoon by the fans at the Stadium of Light's observance of English football's tribute: 32,000 people falling utterly silent.
Above the east stand of the ground, fully a hundred yards or so from where I stood, flew three or four seagulls, and their plaintive cries were all that broke the silence. The cliche of the gull's mourning is a well-established one; what struck me instead was the sheer depth of that silence, when a mass of people acting as one become silent enough to allow something as insubstantial as an animal's cry to be heard. It took a limit to that silence to bring home its scale.

Not just suggestions

The BBC reports that the head of al-Jazeera is "demanding the facts on reports that President Bush suggested bombing the Arab TV station". Perhaps not coincidentally Robert Fisk writes about his visit to its Baghdad office in April 2003. He spoke to its chief Tareq Ayoub.
I remarked how easy a target his Baghdad office would make if the Americans wanted to destroy its coverage - seen across the Arab world - of civilian victims of the Anglo-American bombing of Iraq. "Don't worry, Robert," Tareq had replied. "We've given the Americans the exact location of our bureau so we won't get hit." Three days later, Tareq was dead.
We can only speculate how Christopher Hitchens, champion of the free press, might interpret this. However, Richard Seymour, mastermind behind Lenin’s Tomb, offers some suggestions with his insights into what he calls The Genocidal Imagination of Christopher Hitchens. After a clinical examination, he expresses concern not with Hitchens himself but his readers.
What is most alarming is that Hitchens has a new audience: he purveys his deranged fantasies about killing more and more evil-doers for the mass ranks of Republican twenty-somethings. Malodorous macho assholes who nevertheless like to think that their myopic nationalism and sociopathy has something to do with liberation and freedom - or just, indeed, something. This is his audience today - a collection of barely post-pubescent neophytic imperialists, and bumpkin billionaires who read the Weekly Standard.

Becoming Spurious

Almost everyday one more appears. Sometimes more than one. We scroll and scroll through paragraph upon paragraph. It staggers us. Where does it all come from, where is it going?

Sometimes a new title appears among the paragraphs. We rear up. Something new? Below it, more paragraphs. Paragraph upon paragraph.

Then there is silence. Nothing appears. We notice and wonder why we notice. Whether a new title appears, whether two or three appear, or not one, it's the same. Everything floats away, borne on a thermal of words. Where does it come from, where is it going? What is it we are reading? Have we, in fact, begun to read at all?

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The secret of the work

I would take issue with the final sentence of Henry Hitchings’ review of Paul Auster’s The Brooklyn Follies if I knew what it meant. '[I]t will' he says 'surprise his fans, who expect from him a much more teasingly cerebral brand of fiction.' It’s unclear to me what is ‘teasingly cerebral’ about his other novels, though Hitchings seems to equate it with the 'paranoid kind of contemporary angst' to which he says The Brooklyn Follies is 'an enjoyable corrective'.

What I liked about Oracle Night - and I liked it a lot - is that it included the abandonment of a particularly compelling narrative. As a reader, it was hard to take at first. But there was something oddly pleasurable about it too; a nagging in the back of the mind that sought a resolution while also not really wanting one. While the other threads were developed and resolved, leaving one rather exhausted and peculiarly unsatisfied, this one remained outstanding, haunting the reader's memory.

Hitchings draws attention to a similar frustration that appears in The Brooklyn Follies:

Halfway through the novel, we are treated … to an anecdote about Kafka. During the final year of his life, when he was living in Berlin, Kafka apparently liked to go for an afternoon walk in the park. One day he happened to meet a young girl who was distraught at having lost her doll. To cheer her up, Kafka explained that the doll ‘has gone off on a trip’. As evidence, for the next three weeks he produced every day a letter written by the doll. In time, the little girl stopped missing her plaything: ‘She has the story, and when a person is lucky enough to live inside a story, to live inside an imaginary world, the pains of this world disappear. For as long as the story goes on, reality no longer exists’. This sums up the moral of The Brooklyn Follies: storytelling binds us together, and is a bulwark against personal grief.

The irony is that we don’t have those letters, so the only story that can bind us together is the retelling of the legend of the letters; an irony that Hitchens doesn’t pick up on. Too cerebral perhaps.

The absence of the letters is bearable, certainly more bearable than the loss to the Gestapo of the manuscripts owned by Dora Diamant, with whom Kafka was living in Berlin when he wrote the doll letters (see Kafka’s Last Love for the full story). Yet how can one comprehend such a loss? If we could, the manuscripts would become unnecessary, dispensable. This confirms to me the sense that such unfillable voids are necessary to the experience of reading and writing. It is the secret all readers and writers know. It's not only the work in itself we enjoy. There's something else too. Before I’ve never been able to express it. It’s a secret after all. Then I read this passage from Will Large’s new book Emmanuel Levinas and Maurice Blanchot: Ethics and the Ambiguity of Writing in which he summarises - with characteristic clarity - the concept of ‘the book to come’ in the collection with the same name:

In The Book to Come, Blanchot writes that what is beyond the work is the very reality of the work, since the force of the attraction which seems to carry the reader outside of the work, as though it were a matter of verifying the status of the work in the external world, which is somehow meant to stand outside of the effect of words, is in fact the very movement which impels the reader towards its centre, to ‘the secret of itself’.

It's this compelling dual movement we enjoy. For others, such as Henry Hitchens, reality is a bulwark against the universal grief at this secret of the work.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Burn your novel

November's National Novel Writing Month has always intrigued me, from a distance. A novel in thirty days. Well, 50,000 words. How appealing! You become an equal to Anthony Burgess before his breakfast; to William T. Vollmann clearing his throat; to Joyce Carol Oates on Mogodon. Of course quality is not the issue with NaNoWriMo. That's the difference. Just get it written. That’s all. 50,000 words.

But it can never be that simple. Quality is always the only game in town. One might as well copy & paste from random documents until the magical word count is achieved. So how does one judge? Isn't it just a waste of time?

This week I have been reading Reiner Stach’s thrilling new biography Kafka: the Decisive Years. He begins two years before Kafka’s famous breakthrough work began on September 22nd 1912. It took him eight hours through the night to write The Judgment.

Stach makes it clear, however, that before this ecstatic night, Kafka had consigned many hundreds of pages to the family stove. His high standards could not have stood otherwise. Apparently he also spent hours lounging on the sofa, doing nothing. There seems to have been a lot of wasted time and effort in Kafka’s short life. The image of pages covered in his spidery handwriting disappearing into the glowing mouth of the stove has stuck in my mind. Maybe it was a good thing.

I'm thinking of what Emerson says in his essay Experience: We do not know today whether we are busy or idle. In times when we thought ourselves indolent, we have afterwards discovered, that much was accomplished, and much was begun in us.

The inverse is also true. Perhaps December 1st could become worldwide Burn Your Manuscript Day. Imagine what might emerge.

In Kafka’s diary entry for September 23rd, he looked back to the previous night: The conviction verified that with my novel-writing I am in the shameful lowlands of writing. Only in this way can writing be done, only with such coherence, with such a complete opening out of the body and the soul.

Later, he burned another story.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Truthful imposters

From 'After such knowledge', chapter two of Michael Wood's Literature and the Taste of Knowledge. The paragraph breaks stand for ellipses.
"Who can boast," we read in The Lottery of Babylon, "of being a mere imposter?" The suggestion is not that we can't boast about being imposters if we feel like it, and not that we can't, on occasion, actually be imposters, only that we can't be sure of being imposters, even when we think we are. We can't, that is, entirely rely on our falsehoods, we can't guarantee that truth will not catch up with us, or catch us out. This proposition is the mirror image of [...] that form of feigning or counterfeiting which is never entirely safe from the charge of simply lying. Here is a form of lying which is never entirely safe from the charge of telling the truth.
The truthful imposter is the figure who wrecks Austin's picture of the parasitic performative utterances and the etiolations of language. He is the man who thinks he is a bigamist but turns out to have been divorced without his knowledge and so finds himself acting in good faith against his own will and awareness. He thinks he is in a play or poem, in this case of his own devising, but he's not.
In literature it takes only one truthful imposter to put the very idea of the 'normal' to flight. What literature knows is how vulnerable we are to what Henry James called 'operative irony': 'It implies and projects the possible other case.' Resisting the thought of this other case may seem like mere sanity, and often is; but resisting it all the time is going to look like an expression of fear.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The decorum of Michel Houellebecq

On Sunday night I watched The House of Mirth, the film adaptation of Edith Wharton's novel. The tragic heroine Lily Bart was played with remarkable subtlety by Gillian Anderson. Her story was very moving, if not also a little perplexing viewed from a century later. Why couldn't Lily have dispensed with polite society’s acute sense of decorum to save herself?

Her moral rigidity was matched by the elaborate costumes and precise, buttoned-up dialogue. Everything in the film worked against the kind of dramatic action and expression we expect in our entertainments. Yet this is what made Anderson's performance, and the film, all the more moving and memorable. Lily's feelings are evoked in the merest flicker of her upper lip; a flicker that could be a smile or the beginning of tears. A century later, the equivalent emotions would be revealed by an hysterical outburst, explicit violence and eventually, no doubt, an Oscar. In this sense, the film is curiously anachronistic.

Yet it is an anachronism that has become oddly popular recently. In the afterword to Author, Author, David Lodge leaves it for the reader to decide why novels about Henry James, such as his own, were appearing in close proximity to each other, as well as alongside movie adaptations. Until Sunday night, I didn’t have answer. But as I watched House of Mirth, I also read Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised, and an answer was prompted.

It's tempting to say the contrast was extreme. Yet it wasn't. For all its famed misanthropy and its stark descriptions of sex and violence, Houellebecq’s novel has a decorum as studied as any Edwardian novel. Deaths are skipped over in a sentence. Bruno’s grandmother’s dies out of sight after a terrible accident. Christiane is discovered dead at the bottom of some stairs. Annabelle’s suicide occurs in a space between her 3a.m visit to the kitchen and Michel discovering her body in the morning. Michel’s own death is uncertain. He just disappears. The novel is reticent about the moment of death. And that’s not all. Events in general are explained or passed over in dismissive, rhetorical gestures. These are the literary equivalents to the book’s notorious sexism and racism.

David Sexton of the London Evening Standard recently called Houellebecq ‘the master voice of a generation’. Curiously, what I found remarkable about Atomised is that there is no voice. Or, to be more precise, no original voice. The prose is careless; not full of mistakes but lacking care. This is not a value judgement. There is something interesting and significant in this. Houellebecq appropriates the conventions of the novel like Tommy Vercetti appropriates cars in GTA3 Vice City. The result is indeed a block of extraordinary despair.

(Incidentally, the same could be said of the songs of Modest Mouse. Compare the messy originals to the quiet reworks by Mark Kozelek. The contrast is too great to explained by levels of talent).

In Atomised there is a despair with expression as much as anything. Blanchot’s description of the procedure of de Sade’s writings might go also for Houellebecq:

[His] theoretical ideas release the irrational forces that are bound up with them. These forces at once animate and frustrate his ideas, doing so with such impetus that his ideas resists these forces, and then yield to them, seeking to master this impetus, which effectively they do, but only while simultaneously releasing other obscure forces, which will lead, twist, and pervert them anew. The result is that everything said is clear, but seems at the mercy of something unsaid, which a bit later is revealed and is again incorporated by the logic, but, in its turn, it obeys the movement of a still hidden force. In the end, everything is brought to light, everything comes to be said, but this everything is also again buried within the obscurity of unreflective thought and unformulatable moments. (from Lautréamont and Sade).

So, I thought, maybe the phenomenon of Michel Houellebecq, and the current preoccupation with Edwardian novels and novelists, is due to a renewed fascination with such obscurity. Our empathy with Lily Bart is enabled by her extreme propriety. Even in an extremely liberal age, we too feel ruined by relentless convention. The promise offered in reading Michel Houellebecq is the destruction of polite society (the society of the novel at least). And many people assume it has indeed been destroyed. Certainly, its violence cannot be resisted. But nothing has changed. Everything has been buried again.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Glancing at Kafka

I don't know what it is. But unlike Jonathan Derbyshire, I can't see what's extraordinarily rich about Roberto Calasso’s K. Last year, I couldn’t understand why John Banville called Pietro Citati's Kafka "the greatest of all books on Kafka". Neither book seemed to be about the Kafka I know. Maybe it's because I find Kafka's novels unreadable in comparison to the stories, letters and diaries. Each book spends a lot of time on the novels. I found it difficult to retain interest. The individual words and sentences were read, the pages turned, yet only the odd glance was noted. Adam Mars-Jones picks up on this. His review of K is spot on.

I'm disappointed as both Calasso's and Citati's are non-academic critical engagements with Kafka published in the mainstream. What's more, neither relies on the subject's biography! An English edition of Blanchot’s De Kafka à Kafka would go a long way to easing my regret.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

In the grip of something

As I read David Lodge's Author, Author, the mystery of Henry James' imagination preoccupied me. In the novel, he writes his books with remarkable speed and fluency. So speedy, in fact, that one appears between two of Lodge's own sentences. Yet James seems to have done little else but write and move politely within polite society. Where did it all come from?

I’m now reading JM Coetzee's Slow Man. From the reviews, you will surely know the main character Paul Rayment is visited by Elizabeth Costello, the odd, austere novelist from the landmark, eponymous novel. She tells Rayment that he came to her. There wasn’t anything she could do. He came to her as one presumes characters come to novelists. Just after she arrives, she comments on his pathetic infatuation with Marijana, the day nurse. “You are in the grip of something, aren’t you?” she says.

These words are also used to describe David Lurie’s reckless pursuit of the young student Melanie in Disgrace, Coetzee's second Booker Prize winning novel. Lurie knows it is reckless but he is "in the grip of something".

What I like about Coetzee, and why each new book excites my interest, is because the grip is the subject. Where does it come from? Where does it end?

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