Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Monday, June 25, 2007

Echenoz's Ravel

It was only in February last year that the TLS ran a rave review of Jean Echenoz's Ravel in its original French. A "miraculous and moving performance" wrote Gabriel Josipovici. No more recommendations are required as far as I'm concerned. But having no French, I thought it would be a long while before I could read it. Yet the LA Times has posted a short summary/review of Linda Coverdale's translation, published by The New Press. So that's nice.

Of course, as the novel is under 130 pages, it would take less time to translate than, say, the 900 of Les Bienveillantes. And Josipovici ends his review by referring to this shortness.
The brevity of the book is part of the reason for its success. As we finish it we feel that Ravel (like all other people) has escaped us. But that is partly what makes us feel him now lodged within us, a living being. Would that biographers more often heeded the lesson of this book. But how could they?

Saturday, June 23, 2007

See also ...

Tom McCarthy on why the art world "is the place not just where literature is understood, but also where it is creatively developed, carried forward".

Gabriel Josipovici, who might argue the new music world is also such a place, with a story - The Dark Waters - about a retired musician. The Mad Hatters' Eclectic England edition also has work by many others, including Nicola Barker, David Constantine and George Szirtes [Links temporarily removed; see comments].

Richard Crary on the early work of JM Coetzee.

Spurious on Pessoa's The Education of a Stoic.

And, last and least, I've gone on Shelfari.

Writing off the disaster

What surprised me about Falling Man was how unperturbed it is; so sure and quiet about the form it takes to deal with its shattering subject matter. There are sentences like "He heard the sound of the second fall, or felt it in the trembling air", "There were flames in elevator shafts", "She knew what this sounded like" and "On these nights it seemed to her that they were falling out of the world". The author somehow manages to deal with what shatters everything except, it seems, his own omnipotence. The experience of reading Falling Man reminded me of another book I read over 15 years ago and forgot immediately: Mao II. It's as if the careers of our career novelists depend on a ritual. A ritual not of artistic advancement - in which moving forward is as much a destruction, an abandonment as it is progress - but of maintaining an illusion. The novel itself remains untouched.

I suppose one can't blame writers for churning these books out when they are rewarded so well for such maintenance. Still, I couldn't believe it when I heard Orange Prize winner Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel Half of a Yellow Sun being favourably compared to a 19th Century novel. Long ago VS Naipaul said it would be absurd for, say, a Papua New Guinean writer to produce novels like Middlemarch, and recently Jeanette Winterson said "We should read Victorian novels, but we shouldn't write them". Will the reasons for these statements ever trickle down or is nostalgia for a brief aberration in the history of the novel going to dominate English fiction for yet another generation?

But going back to Falling Man. With the market apparently hungry for post-9/11 novels, I wonder if anyone has considered writing a novel based on an attempt to understand what polite literary society has up until now managed not to fictionalise: the crimes of our governments, media and corporations? Rather than yet another earnest, self-pitying depiction of middle-class angst in London and New York with, perhaps, a nose-holding inhabitation of an Islamic suicide bomber thrown in, there might be a gap for a "major" novel about our relation to hidden lives, the lives of people for whom 9/11 is not an event about which to fetishise and to conspiratorialise, but part of a disastrous historical continuum. If that writer needs help, here's an archive of material to provide some inspiration.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Plots are for gardeners

His is among the most recognizable of contemporary styles: time and again he evokes the restless subjectivity of an artist figure crossing a vividly described, yet somehow strangely elusive landscape. Walking, going, is the supreme existential metaphor for Handke, an attempt to 'slow down' the fugitive forces of nature, to use one of his favourite verbs. Through the untiring precision of his powers of observation the very process of writing becomes a homage to the 'god of slowness': indeed his prose, always visual and cinematic, often reads as though in slow motion, spooled softly forwards until the telling detail emerges. 'For a work of art' Handke writes ... 'material is almost nothing, structure almost everything.' For better or for worse, 'plot' has always been secondary to Handke's synaesthetic engagement with the world.
From Ben Hutchinson's TLS review of, amongst other things, Handke's latest novel Kali. We can be sure it applies also to the forthcoming translation of Crossing the Sierra de Gredos, published on July 10th.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Road to nowhere

The weekend before last, I picked up a library copy of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. I do this quite often when much-talked-about novels appear on the shelves. Usually, I read a few pages and then chuck them aside, pleased and disappointed that once again my prejudices have been confirmed. But this time, I read every page, almost in one sitting. I didn't want the book to end. I would have been happy with 500 more pages of the boy and the man trudging through the grey dust in search of the future. Maybe I should try The Border Trilogy again. But I think it was the treatment of the subject that I enjoyed above all.

A couple of months ago, Ed Champion complained that McCarthy's mainstream prominence with this book, and Roth's with The Plot Against America, has a strong element of critical hypocrisy. Both writers, he says, "use genre" to "sustain their literary worth" yet "critics and enthusiasts" are "now in the practice of declaring genre lesser or worthless". I wrote a comment that I quarter-regret. McCarthy is worth reading.

While The Road begins with a post-apocalyptic scenario, it is no more genre than the same scenario in Beckett's Endgame. We're not told why the world is the way it is. That's not important. McCarthy maintains an admirable resistance to explanations. Flashbacks to a better life are minimal and nowhere in their wanderings do the man and boy meet communities of studded-leather wearing bikers or any blood-thirsty tyrant with servants summoned with two claps. I dreaded the resort to character and plot invariably assumed by such a scenario. But it never came.

The book does have its faults, entirely in the poetic interludes. One paragraph includes a reference to "mummied" figures (rather than "mummified" - though perhaps that is an Americanism) that were like "victims of some ghastly envacuuming". Some critics and enthusiasts might assume these constitute the necessary disguise of literary fiction, but the lack of an explanation is the truer distinction.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Torturing hope: Kafka's Metamorphosis

On the new translation of Kafka's Metamorphosis, as recommended by Lee Rourke, I'm with the Literary Saloon concerning the use of the word "cockroach". But why do I think it's wrong (even if usually I won't hear a word against Michael Hofmann)? It's a long story.

A lot of unnecessary space is taken up in the comments on the Guardian's book blog with interpretation of the word describing Gregor Samsa in his woken state - Ungeziefer having the literal meaning of "vermin". As he must have known, Nabokov's zoological points are irrelevant. One has to read the word as it is before our eyes: vague and open to interpretation. Openness is everything. There's no need to make these detours into etymology. Yes, Walter Sokol makes a good case for "cockroach" by highlighting how it is nauseating and parasitical yet also defenceless and pathetic - which is certainly how Gregor appears to everyone - but "insect", as the Muirs had it, does all that too and retains the vagueness of Kafka's word.

More to the point is Lee's assertion that "Kafka wanted to denote the marginalised, detested individual". The insect is both real and symbolic, unreal and unsymbolic. However, even if we knew Kafka had intended that, it wouldn't tell the whole story. Gregor is marginalised and detested not only because he has become an insect but also because he is no longer the reliable salesman keeping his family afloat. He has been transformed into a threat to the family's petit-bourgeois world. How terrible is the banging on his bedroom door when he fails to leave for work, how sickening when his boss visits the flat to investigate a single lost day? It is, as we know still today, a world of fierce taboos resisting the forces of change, of decay, illness and death. Gregor has, in effect, died but not left the building. His death stains the parents' starched clothing, stinks out the flat. This is how he might be read from a Marxist perspective: Gregor is the harbinger of the social problems inherent to early modern capitalism. But change also afflicts Marxists. The hope of political redemption is soon also faced by despair.

Blanchot says says Gregor's story "carries the reader off in a whirl where hope and despair answer each other endlessly". This might explain the extraordinary longevity of the story, of all great modern stories. We can never choose between hope or despair. This indecision and the impatience of philistines is mirrored in the story. The disgusting insect body scuttles around in the floor dust and its sister tries to maintain the love for her undeparted brother by leaving bowls of milk. She retains the romantic ideal of a soul behind the relationship of convenience. The father is more pragmatic of course and soon disowns his useless son. Gregor himself holds out hope and continues to be the selfless person he was before. This is what I find most upsetting in the story, this pathetic hope. He dies without abandoning it.

Blanchot, on the other hand, thinks the most horrifying moment comes after Gregor has died and his family goes on a celebratory picnic. The family foresee a bright future. The hope of eternal petit-bourgeois life has been retained: "at the end of their journey their daughter sprang to her feet and stretched her young body." For Blanchot, this is "the curse and it is revival, hope, for the girl wants to live, when to live is just to escape the inevitable." Kafka's stories "are among the darkest in literature, the most rooted in absolute disaster" because they "torture hope the most tragically, not because hope is condemned but because it does not succeed in being condemned."

So, to come back to why the word "cockroach" betrays the story right at the start. A cockroach is a cockroach. We know what it looks like, we can picture it in our minds. It won't change. We can accommodate it in our world. But Kafka pursues what we cannot accommodate, what life cannot contain. He does not wish literature to contain it either. Before the story was published, he wrote to the publisher:
Dear Sir,
You recently mentioned that Ottomar Starke is going to do a drawing for the title pages of Metamorphosis. Insofar as I know the artist's style … this prospect has given me a minor and perhaps unnecessary fright. It struck me that Starke, as an illustator, might want to draw the insect itself. Not that, please not that! I do not want to restrict him, but only to make this plea out of my deeper knowledge of the story. The insect itself cannot be depicted. It cannot even be shown from a distance.
This is why I think I was right, despite single-word opposition, when, a couple of months ago, I speculated about the impact on the story of the Czech term for nightmares: nocni moucha, night moths. Kafka wrote with tenacious weakness within the insufficiency and the deceit of human dreams, of imaginative literature, realms of unchanging hope. The vermin is perhaps the literalised metaphor of our dreams. We cannot make dreams come true. We're always thrown back into reality. Blanchot again:
Gregor's state is the state of the being who cannot depart from existence; for him, to exist is to be condemned to falling continuously back into existence. Turned into vermin, he continues to live at the level of his degeneration, he sinks into animal solitude, he comes close to the absurdity and impossibility of living. But what happens? He goes on living. [...] And then he dies: an unbearable death, abandoned and alone - and yet almost a happy death by the feeling of deliverance it represents, by the new hope of an end that is final for now. But soon this last hope is also stripped away; it is not true, there is no end, life goes on.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Gough witless

Julian Gough isn't witless at all, it's just an irresistible pun. And it allows me to respond with a smile to his essay in Prospect calling for more comedy in modern literary fiction.
What is wrong with the modern literary novel? Why is it so worthy and dull? Why is it so anxious? Why is it so bloody boring?
Perhaps because "the modern literary novel" doesn't exist except as a generalisation. Gough does complain that Anita Brookner won the Booker Prize rather than Martin Amis' comic Money, which indicates where he's coming from, and also observes that of the most recent Booker winners "John Banville and Anita Desai read like nostalgia". But generally it's too lacking in precise examples. And of course he means Kiran Desai. Her mother never won the Booker. But never mind; the daughter seems to be older anyway. I heard her reading from her winning book on the Guardian's Haycast and was staggered by how familiar it was, as if a generalisation had been made singular. No wonder it's a prize-winner.

The problem, I think, is not that modern novels are uncomical but that they are part of a culture-wide tendency toward corporatism. Novels are produced and received as part of the movement and maintenance of a career. Gough is part of that tendency himself, equating the vitality of the novel with mass audience appeal. How can a novel make use of its freedom, as he wishes it would, if mass appeal is a guarantor of its vitality? Why does it matter whether a novel is popular or unpopular with other people? If it's popular with the reader, that surely is enough. What do we think will be gained by popularity? A revolution in sensibility? A moral improvement of mankind? Communal bliss? Maybe it will simply relieve us of the burden of individual critical judgement.

The blame Gough has to dish out goes, as usual, to the academy. (Why is it never the mainstream press, publishers, editors or even readers?). He's identifies US creative writing courses as a catastrophe. These created not great novels but an institutional path for struggling writers: “As they became professional, writers began to write about writers. As they became academicised, writers began to write about writing.” Again, no examples. Yet doesn't the Iowa Writers' Workshop, one of the most famous, champion the kind of dour realism he wants to move away from? Moreover, those who have written novels about writers writing about writing, tend also to be comic: Barth, Roth, Markson. Amis' Money itself isn't free of reflexivity is it?

Still, I don't want to address Gough's argument in detail, because I'd be here all night reacting against every straw man and the overrating of second-rank writers like Flann O'Brien. All I want to say now is: forget comedy, forget tragedy. Write what needs to be written; what you need to write. To quote Beckett on his own breakthrough: "Molloy and what followed became possible the day I became aware of my stupidity. Then I began to write the things I feel."

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The art of criticism

Criticism is no longer an external judgement placing the literary work in a position of value and bestowing its opinion, after the fact, on this value. It has come to be inseparable from the internal working of the text, belonging to the movement when it becomes what it is. Criticism is the search for and experience of this possibility.
Blanchot from 1963, via Philosophical Conversations.

PS: I've only just realised that the essay from which this quotation comes also features the line that inspired the title of this blog: "Critical discourse is this space of resonance within which the unspoken, indefinite reality of the work is momentarily transformed and circumscribed into words".

Monday, June 04, 2007

Hear, hear

While I have doubted the necessity of eBooks, I do like earBooks. To tempt me further, Naxos Audiobooks has launched a Download Shop with some promising titles: Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Kafka's Metamorphosis. The audio sample of the former, however, is very disappointing as it offers not one word from the text itself. And the blog doesn't have an RSS feed!

While audiobooks seem to be aimed at people who can't be bothered to read, some works demand to be uttered. Poetry is an obvious case. But novels like Ulysses are transformed with the right voice. And though Irish too, Beckett's Molloy and Malone Dies have an irresistible verbal momentum irrespective of accent. I've yet to hear The Unnamable, the most utterable of all (another one for the wishlist). It's unlikely, I know, but I'd like to see Naxos follow Germany's fine taste in offering audiobooks of Josipovici's novels. Everything Passes would be terrifyingly good with the music that inspired it.

To mark the opening of the shop, you can download a free copy of Grimms' Fairy Tales (and though it's in the Children's section, some believe they shouldn't be so isolated).

UPDATE: the blog now has an RSS feed!

Sunday, June 03, 2007

A new attunement

Tense, unnerved, and close to madness before writing - and when I read what I've written it looks so calm.
Again Peter Handke's diary entry for January 1976 emerges unbidden from my mouth. It has the presence, in my memory, of poetry. It is a reminder of why the best of Handke's writing is magical. It does justice to the distance between life and writing without exalting one over the other, as if one could without the necessary contradiction.

By coincidence, today I saw Ross Benjamin's sensitive review of Krishna Winston's translation of Crossing the Sierra de Gredos, a month before it is published. "The story involves a female banker who embarks on an excursion across the Spanish mountain range of the Sierra de Gredos." Yet "[t]hroughout the tale, she remains a spectral figure."
Early on, however, Handke does convey a critical feature of her character: her exceptionally keen sensitivity to "images," ephemeral impressions that yield "her most powerful sense of being alive." [...] The motif of the image (Bild) is the thematic fulcrum of the novel. Curiously, the English translation retains only the second part of the original title, Der Bildverlust oder Durch die Sierra de Gredos, meaning "The Loss of the Image or Through the Sierra de Gredos." A key passage in the book illuminates the significance of the title, arguing that the potency of images has been lost in a contemporary culture flooded with "synthetic, mass-produced, artificial" stimuli.

Displaying a strong affinity to German Romanticism, Handke seeks to inaugurate a new attunement with the world. The heroine embodies the poetic impulse that animates the novel.
Well that's why I read, to inaugurate a new attunement with the world - although I would be unable to write such a sentence. And if I escape reading to go cycling instead, it is in the same spirit of seeking. Both offer such "images". Today there was a rare meeting at the racecourse at the top of the long hill. As I climbed eastward, several shining horses galloped west. The earth rumbled. Then I was beside the sea, riding slowly along the Undercliff Walk. Despite the hot June sun and minimal breeze, there was a swell. With no beach, the waves lacked space to dissipate. It was like the path was in the open sea. They splashed into the seawall not expecting the interruption. I watched the bright green water as one wave, falling back from the collision, merged with the one following with a soft boom, and then slapped into the wall again and for the first time, spraying me and the path.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

A path at the end of the line

[Giacinto] Scelsi was born into an old southern Italian noble family, inheriting the title Count d'Ayala Valva from his mother. He was, of course, the end of the line. At the family castle, he was schooled in 'fencing, chess, and Latin,' or so he said. He flitted through European aristocratic circles and had his wedding party at Buckingham Palace. But music was his chief obsession. He quickly tilted toward the avant-garde, and when he was very young he attended Luigi Russolo's Futurist noise concerts; his first major work was called 'Printing Presses.' Later, he became interested in Schoenberg's twelve-tone method, although he did not adopt it. He fell in love with Eastern philosophy and made trips to India and Nepal. After the Second World War, he suffered a breakdown and stopped composing for a few years. He spent day after day playing a single note on the piano. The casual observer might have thought that he had gone mad. He was, in fact, finding his path.
Alex Ross in a link via Jacob Sudol's outstanding music blog.

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