Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Proust ... Dante ... Bruno ... Handke

Proust
A hundred years ago French novelist Marcel Proust (1871-1922) lost money in the stock market, too. And as he would in the epic In Search of Lost Time, he converted the stuff of life into art.
Robert Hilferty explains the origin of Pastiches et melanges, translated for the first time into English as The Lemoine Affair. Is this really the first review of the book?

Dante
If Proust's pastiches are late into English, then what about Dante's Canzoniere? In January, Oneworld Classics is publishing Dante's Rime which, it claims, is the first time the collection has been translated in its entirety into English. The book "charts his poetic evolution and displays the ground on which his Vita Nova [sic] and Divine Comedy developed". Elsewhere and online, you can read translations of Dante's Lyric Poems.

Bruno
Last week, the offline TLS had a diverting review of Ingrid Rowland's Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic. Here's The New Republic's instead. Both contain one memorable detail; an almost literal punctum. I knew that Bruno was burned at the stake but not that "his tongue [was] spiked to prevent him from speaking or crying out".

Handke
One thing that has puzzled me over the years has been my unwillingness or inability to write about certain favoured authors. Peter Handke's name has appeared here often enough yet not once have I begun to examine in detail why The Afternoon of a Writer and, in particular, Repetition had such an impact on me nearly twenty years ago. I have read the latter novel at least six times. In this case, re-reading was not a self-deceiving comfort read but another raid on inarticulacy. I have been relaxed about my failure, with agitation rising only when I discovered that those responsible for publishing Sebald's works in translation had not included in Campo Santo his essay on Die Wiederholung. But now Edmond Caldwell has stepped into the breach with The Handke-Effekt II, the second of his eye-wideningly close readings.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Anti-events: reviewing Badiou

Earlier this month, I expressed frustration with the British media's infatuation with alleged philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy. Trying searching, I suggested, for its coverage of Lacoue-Labarthe, Nancy, Deleuze, Badiou, Derrida, Blanchot or Levinas - that is, for genuine French thinkers. But don't bother; you'll find only obituaries.

However, one of these names has received something approaching mainstream attention; most recently in Mark Lilla's review-essay in the New York Review of Books and, this time last year, in its London equivalent (both behind subscriptions firewalls). As I know next to nothing about Alain Badiou, these offered me a chance to situate his thought. From brief impressions gleaned online, I had found his "indictment of the fetishization of literature by Blanchot, Derrida, and Deleuze" enough to warn me off. Moreover, his major work Being & Event features the unwitting apex of such fetishisation - mathematical formulae. Such are the ghosts that guide one to and from books.

Our personal ghosts might hamper the serendipity necessary for intellectual discovery - and that's a subject worth exploring all in itself - but what about those that haunt the book pages? Does literary journalism police the public intellect and thus guide a culture down a particular path? It seems so. But how? These questions came to the fore when I was reading both of these reviews.
In the Republic, Socrates and Plato’s brothers wander out of Athens and walk down to the port of Piraeus, leaving the city behind them. After quickly demolishing the prevailing views of justice in Athenian society, Socrates proceeds to dream of another city, a just city governed by philosophers whose souls would be oriented towards the Good. The familiar objection to Plato, that the ideal of the philosophical city is utopian or impossible to realise, is fatuous. Of course the philosophers’ city is utopian: that is the point. You might argue that it is the duty of philosophy to think in a way that allows us to believe another world is possible, however difficult it would be to achieve. Alain Badiou is a Platonist.
Simon Critchley's review of Polemics, a collection of Badiou's political essays, begins by setting the author's place in the very general philosophical scene. It then goes onto his particular approach to the subject:
Philosophy is the construction of the formal possibility of something that would break with what Badiou calls the 'febrile sterility' of the contemporary world. He calls this an 'event', and the only question of politics, for Badiou, is whether there is something that might be worthy of the name 'event'. If philosophy is understood, as Heraclitus had it, as a 'seizure by thought', then politics is a revolutionary seizure of power that breaks with the dreamless sleep of an unjust and violently unequal world.
This is both informative and intriguing. Compare it to Mark Lilla's introduction:
Badiou belongs to the je ne regrette rien fraction of the French left: a student of Marxist theorist Louis Althusser in the early Sixties, a rabble-rousing Maoist and defender of the Khmer Rouge in the Seventies, he still writes warmly about the Cultural Revolution.
What ever the facts are, the truth is obscured by so many fluttering flags: "French left", "Marxist", "rabble-rousing". What do you think Lilla is trying to tell the reader? Even "belongs" limits the scope of comprehension. In his defence, Lilla is covering a number of books on St Paul and cannot devote so much space to Badiou as Critchley. Given that, however, one could replace the quotation above with a summary of his book; nothing would be lost. Lilla does get to it eventually.
Imagine the shock, then, when Badiou published Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism in 1997, calling on the left to rediscover the radical universalism of Saint Paul and apply it to revolutionary politics! Hands were wrung in seminar rooms across Europe and North America, since any mention of universals is grounds for excommunication from the church of academic “theory.”
Again, whether this is true or not - and Lilla doesn't provide even anecdotal evidence - we're too familiar with this form of caricature in the pleonastic conservative press to accept it without complaint. Is this the New York Review or the New Criterion? When he does provide a long quotation - about revolutionary violence - Lilla still can't let Badiou speak for himself:
What about the violence, often so extreme? The hundreds of thousands of dead? [Millions, actually.] The persecutions, especially against intellectuals? [Why "especially," one wonders.]
Perhaps because they kept interrupting. "Febrile sterility" seems like an accurate diagnosis of US liberal commentators (Susie Linfield is another). Lilla's fevered framing of Badiou's philosophy does its work by co-opting the reader into a knowing distance from the passé.
Such cold-bloodedness [Badiou's defence of revolutionary violence] was long out of fashion in France. After many thousands of the victims of the Viet Cong and Khmer Rouge escaped onto their rafts into the South China Sea in the mid-Seventies, the French romance with revolution seemed to end. During the next two decades stiff-necked Maoists like Badiou lived in interior exile while the political debate revolved around human rights, multiculturalism, and political and economic liberalism. In the past ten years, though, as a more radical leftism returned, Badiou made a comeback.
It's clear this comeback is threatening. Critchley isn't so worried. He ends his review by distancing himself from Badiou's "apparent optimism and robust affirmativesness". He thinks there's something "deeply pessimistic" about his conception of philosophy.
At the present time, in the face of such a state of war, the philosopher's dream of another city will always appear hopelessly utopian.
He opposes Badiou's justification of violence and instead calls for "the prosecution and cultivation of peace". However, he qualifies this by restating Badiou's Platonism, that is, "the impossibility of Badiou's politics"; its Platonic violence. The real state of war - happening right in front of our square eyes - is something to which Lilla only alludes as he speculates on the reasons for Badiou's rise to prominence:
Eight years into the Bush administration and forty years after the revolutions of 1968, one senses a frustrated desire to have some kind of effect.
"The Bush administration". Is this Lilla's euphemism for the gulag at Guantanamo Bay, active support for dictatorships around the world and the invasion and occupation of two sovereign nations with the subsequent deaths of untold hundreds of thousands [millons actually]?

One has to wonder if Lilla's fevered tone is the return of the repressed in liberal-capitalist thought. We saw explicit evidence of its movement in the attacks on Günter Grass for his belated revelations, the current schadenfreude-laden coverage of the tales told about Milan Kundera and, less explicitly, in the media's disproptionate coverage of the "left-wing philosopher" mentioned at the beginning and the otherwise unaccountable enthusiasm for Clive James' petty-minded essays on 20th Century authors (those on Benjamin and Celan in particular). Perhaps we can call these anti-events in an unjust and violently unequal world.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Dante by numbers

Podcast favourite In Our Time this week discusses Dante's Inferno. After ten minutes Melvyn Bragg asks Claire Honess, Senior Lecturer in Italian at the University of Leeds, why there are nine circles in Hell. I was surprised by her answer ("I don't know"). Isn't it common knowledge (among Dante readers) that the poem is structured in honour of the Trinity - nine being the square of three? William Anderson explains in more detail in Dante the Maker, a book not included in the further reading guide. Nor, incidentally, are two of the best books on Dante: Freccero's The Poetics of Conversion and Barolini's The Undivine Comedy. However, it redeems this by providing a useful link to the Leeds Dante Podcast.

Meanwhile, lurking numerologists might like to explore Dante's Commedia's Mathematical Matrix.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Linkage

Meet at the Gate - an untypical publisher's website, it says, for Canongate Books (publishers of Glavinic's Night Work) - makes some blog or other its site of the week.

The above novel deserves to be considered for a prize, but which one? Lee Rourke at 3AM Magazine goes in for some Post Booker Blues and looks at two potential alternatives to our annual suffering.

In the New Statesman, Andrew O'Hagan suggests Virginia Woolf, had she been writing now, would not have won the Man Booker Prize for To the Lighthouse (1927). Nor would she have won an Olympic swimming medal fourteen years later ... for the same reason.

John Self reviews the belated English edition of Gert Hofmann's great novel Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl published by CB Editions. I've been going on about this novel for three years so it's good to see a snowball forming. (An English equivalent to New Directions is a pleasant daydream).

Welcome back to Mobylives. It's been a while. Call me patient. In related news, Love German Books posts an interview with Ross Benjamin, translator of Kevin Vennemann's Close to Jedenew, a novella published by Melville House Books.

Mark Thomas has written a book about Coca Cola: Belching Out the Devil. I've not seen it reviewed elsewhere. I wonder why?

Finally, K-Punk offers French philosopher Alain Badiou's views on the credit crunch stroke financial crisis. I'm not sure how to pronounce his name but, with this article in mind, I shall now think of him as Alain Badloan.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Deskbound

Kafka's sense of strangeness to self is continuously displayed in various fictional appearances—in the bachelor; “the Russian friend” of The Judgment; the unholy, monstrous insect body; an outlandish homeland, America; the court; the burrow; "the false hands" that led him astray; the "spirits" that twist his words. What threads these modalities together is the "eccentricity" of the writer’s being. The trajectory of Kafka’s works is a history of approaches, more or less effective, to the elusive otherness of writing.
Stanley Corngold in the introduction to Franz Kafka: The Office Writings published this week.
In this book about Kafka’s work as a lawyer and bureaucrat, we are concerned with the way in which Kafka’s sense of his fate as a writer is implicated in his work life—the way in which his Beamtensein, his "official" being, is involved in his Schriftstellersein, his writerly being.
Expect in-depth coverage and debate in the mainstream press about the dastardly suppression until now of "articles on workmen's compensation and workplace safety; appeals for the founding of a psychiatric hospital for shell-shocked veterans; and letters arguing relentlessly for a salary adequate to his merit."

Mmm, articles.

Academic books online

The eScholarship Editions collection includes almost 2000 books from academic presses on a range of topics, including art, science, history, music, religion, and fiction.

Access to the entire collection of electronic books is open to all University of California faculty, staff, and students, while over 500 of the titles are available to the public.
Of particular interest to me is Durling & Martinez's Time and the Crystal: Studies in Dante's Rime Petrose. Both authors are responsible for the OUP's superb translation of the Commedia. And, in Serge Gavronsky's Toward a New Poetics, there's a long interview with Jacques Roubaud, along with other French novelists and poets.

Getting bogged down

Malamud works in a way that is rigorous and scrupulous, and determined and so on, but actually produces wonderful releases and liberations and astounding sentences. I want to believe, and do believe, in inspiration – the thought that we don't know where the astounding things come from. What Malamud represents for me, whether or not it's true about him, is a kind of doggedness that I fear doesn't necessarily issue in anything. In your [biography of] Malamud it clearly works and he is a great advertisement for the virtues of letting yourself be bogged down and seeing what comes of it. [...] It's not that I want the big themes in there right from the beginning, but I do want the possibility of them and my money is on unconscious work. That doesn't mean sitting around waiting to be inspired, but it does mean there's a limit to what you can consciously contrive.
Adam Phillips in conversation with Philip Davis in a free PDF copy of The Reader magazine offered by The Reader Online.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Book reviewer loses job for quoting from book

In August 2008, Martin Tierney reviewed Barbara Ehrenreich's book Going To Extremes for the Scottish newspaper the The Herald. See if you can spot anything controversial in his introduction: "It is essentially a tirade against every method used against US citizens to ensure that their wealth is systematically transferred to government and corporate elites."
This is done, she claims, via abuse of the tax system, scapegoating immigrants; denial of Unions and Gestapo tactics used by the likes of... [a large US supermarket] to ensure this and a perennial 'Warfare State' where taxpayers money merely is used to enrich arms dealers while bludgeoning them into a unnecessary paranoia.
If you think that, in spite the connotations of "tirade", this is a straightforward, objective summary of the book under review, you're in agreement with at least one editor who told him the piece was "excellent".
But someone else on the Herald's editorial staff informed Tierney that the reference to the supermarket's "Gestapo tactics" had caused great upset and anger in the office. One senior editor in particular was deeply unamused. This last reaction appears to have been decisive. Indeed, as a result, Tierney was told, he was being asked to relinquish his column.
Pause on this news and recall, if it is possible to forget, that, as the source of this story points out, "Tierney merely +reported+ claims made by Ehrenreich in her book regarding the use of 'Gestapo tactics'."

In its series on Intellectual Cleansing, Medialens contrasts this with what happened to other journalists who did not quote but made direct accusations of Gestapo tactics.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Bloglines and Booker problems

Is anyone else having long-running problems with Bloglines Beta? RSS feeds from, among many others, the Guardian Book page and blog, Nigel Beale's Nota Bene, RSB's comments and The Chagall Position - which had posted at the weekend an insightful post on the Handke-Effekt - are failing to come through. Not only that, its forum is clogged with spam and it's deleted the very-useful subscriber figures. What's going on?

But hold on, please don't suggest Google Reader. I can't stand Google Reader. Google Reader is over-designed, unintuitive and impossible to use. Has Medialens' web designer been poached? As one scrolls through posts, it leaps forward for no good reason and one loses any sense of place. A perfect design for super-user information junkies perhaps but not readers.

Unfortunately no feed aggregator can weed out blogs that feel the need to tell the world: "And the winner is ... The White Tiger." A blogger's mantra should be Add Value. For example: Booklit responds to the depressing news with a winning demolition of this year's judging panel, The Literary Saloon is dismayed and even the generous, open-minded John Self was moved to say this year's winner is
"a forgettable debut for which the most striking question is not, How on earth did it get onto the Booker longlist, but How did it get published in the first place?".
Time to retreat to one's Book Igloo (via).

Monday, October 13, 2008

"Mixing Genres": Polito's List

Critical Mass has Robert Polito discussing the mixing of genres: "Many of my favorite books from the last few decades" he says "tend to operate along the seams of poetry, fiction, and essay." He offers a list too long to reproduce here but there are four matching my own favourites: Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, David Markson’s Reader’s Block and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. All very different books of course (and, as it happens, all without Poetry), which makes the Mixing Genres genre more attractive to me. Yet such variety within a genre implies critical taxonomy is more hindrance than help.

A hindrance toward what end? Well, toward regarding each book as two singular encounters: the reader's and the writer's.

One recurrent theme or nagging concern on this blog is the excessive concern for genre. This is also because it hinders. This doesn't mean I'm against genre as such. For example, my two most recent blog-reviews have been of science fiction novels: Jeanette Winterson's The Stone Gods and Thomas Glavinic's Night Work. The former received much flak from the science fiction community for its use of the genre because the author herself apparently disdained its relevance to the novel, and the high praise for the latter was tempered by reviewers' issues with the length of the book. What my reviews do in part is to show how the books themselves answer or mitigate such criticisms. Unfortunately, remarkable books like Glavinic's and those listed by Robert Polito tend to be denied prominence in the mainstream not out of anti-genre snobbery but because they do not meet generic standards. This includes the standards set by literary fiction as misrepresented by the Man Booker Prize. Judge Giles Foden's scandalous misreading last year of Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year really was the last straw for that prize. Louise Doughty's comments this year were just flogging the poor, dead animal. (We can hope the Warwick Prize will eventually supercede it).

Misunderstandings and wrongheadedness continue apace. Last Summer there was an academic symposium in London on ‘Science Fiction as a Literary Genre'. The Valve's report on the event includes a summary of a paper in which "more-or-less said that sf was THE literature of modernity and concluded that what was modern about it was the absence of Modernism." I presume this means the formal adventurousness of definitive modernist works like Ulysses and The Waste Land is absent from novels such as those by HG Wells. This is plausible if one sees literature as a manifestation of culture in which mass market products herald (albeit in hindsight) the direction of the same culture; it's the familiar stuff of Cultural Studies and its horror of autonomy. In this way it can make statements like this:
both popular sf and High Modernist art are responding in similar ways to a similar cultural logic: that, in a nutshell, High Modernism is sf. Proust’s Recherche, say, whatever critics have said about it, is actually a time-travel story deeply indebted to Wells’s Time Machine.
"Whatever critics have said about it". Priceless!

The down-playing of formal innovation is acceptable as it's easy to fetishise its importance. Only, the shock of the new should not be replaced by schlock for the pew. Dutiful readers seeking the very best are nowadays recommended either kitsch contemporary novels that have "already been compared to Nabokov and Proust" or anachronistic triple-decker historical epics. The focus should be instead on what escapes savant pastiche and prolix copyism.

Criticism is also a genre and I enjoyed the ambiguity of Adam Thirlwell's Miss Herbert (a.k.a The Delighted States). The TLS reviewed it under Fiction while most treated it as literary criticism. The author himself says he likes to think of it as an inside-out novel. It's at least two of these. I want to write about the book before too long as I have a major issue with it ignored by all the reviews; something that will help me to explain what British fiction in particular lacks in comparison to European modernism. Despite that, I am pleased that a work as troublesome to classify as this can still be published in an increasingly philistine and intolerant climate.

Are there any other books like this to add to Polito's list?

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Very Short blog

"Where's the gap in your knowledge?" asks the OUP on its flash promotion for the Very Short Introduction series. "Colchester" is my answer.

OUP might think about commissioning a VSI to writing general knowledge questions as the Arts & Culture section of the fun diagnostic quiz asks: which author wrote "the novel Metamorphosis?".

Friday, October 10, 2008

The gift of writing

Suffering is by no means a privilege, a sign of nobility, a reminder of God. Suffering is a fierce, bestial thing, commonplace, uncalled for, natural as air. It is intangible; no one can grasp it or fight against it; it dwells in time - is the same thing as time; if it comes in fits and starts, that is only so as to leave the sufferer more defenceless during the moments that follow, those long moments when one relives the last bout of torture and waits for the next.
Cesare Pavese writing in October 1940, quoted by The Diary Junction. Ten years later he killed himself.

Ten years in a sentence. Is this the gift of writing?

I had no intention of writing about David Foster Wallace, and I still don't. Instead, I want to try to answer my own question by writing about the response to his death. Not just the initial shock and disbelief of his fans, which is plain to see, but also the move toward his books since the dreadful news, which is not.

They are two sides to this movement. First, the everyday human. For months in my local library, the sole copy of Infinite Jest had sat bright and squat on the shelf without a single withdrawal. Now it is in demand. I saw it on the Reserve shelf awaiting its claimant. (His book of stories Oblivion is there now too). Of course, there is no need to guess why it shares the fate of the latest celebrity pleonasm and Booker-shortlisted politeness. And while it would be my default position to disdain the extra-literary reasons with which a book - any book - can attract the curious, in this case I wonder if it has less to do with readers seeking the testimony inferred by the 1088 pages of a novel than with an obscure need to comprehend the book's presence now that the author is dead. This is the second side.

It's easy to disregard. Alistair McCartney's response to the news is to reassert the separation of author from his work: "from a literary perspective" he writes, "the suicide of David Foster Wallace, or for that matter, the suicide of any writer in the 21st century, is of no importance." He means of no importance to their writing.
[I]n these early days of the twenty-first century, the suicide of a writer does not mark their body of work, does not inflect it, in the same manner in which it did previously, during the epoch of Romanticism.
He refers us to The Savage God, Al Alvarez's famous study of literary suicide, which describes why "between the 18th and 20th centuries, the suicide of a writer was a significant and meaningful gesture". Now, McCartney says, the significance and meaning of suicide extends beyond the realm of the literary.
[In] the 21st century ... suicide as a gesture has taken on an entirely different resonance, specifically because the arena in which it is conducted has shifted, or rather expanded, into the public realm, due to the activities of those individuals whom we refer to as suicide bombers. […] In this sense, suicide is no longer purely a private gesture, or one connected to art or creativity or personal suffering. It is also, and, as of this moment, primarily, a public gesture, and a political one.
However one feels about the timing of such an argument - and feeling is very much part of the issue at hand - I quote this at length because it highlights a conflict embedded in general literary discussion about art in its relation to personal suffering or, as it's called more often, life. It's a conflict that suggests the epoch of Romanticism remains with us, unresolved.

When we think of Romantic writers we think of Wordsworth and Byron, Goethe and Holderlin - writers working in heady political and intellectual times - and we respond much as Edmund Blackadder responded to his coffee shop owner as she swooned in their presence: "Mrs. Miggins, there's nothing intellectual about wandering around Italy in a big shirt trying to get laid." Yes of course, the writer is vain and writing is selfish! The irony is that such knowingness is a product of Romanticism's resistance to the separation of art and life. As this summary puts it, Romanticism is a counter-enlightenment in which "intuition, imagination, and feeling" take precedence over rationality. The Romantics explored freedom beyond the conventions of the reasoning intellect, hence their formal innovation and their attractive personal and political adventures. Unfortunately, there was a contradiction at the heart of this project: the logic of such exploration meant ultimate personal freedom equalled the loss of sovereign individuality, a merging with the mass of humanity, with nature, with the sublime, with God; death, in other words. Science was perhaps a better career move.

Suicide then marks both a failure and a success. While it is the supreme act of selfish power, its result, if not its goal, is a loss of self, impersonality. Creativity is much the same.

"This comparison of art to suicide is shocking in a way" writes Blanchot in The Work and Death's Space:
But there is nothing surprising about it if, leaving aside appearances, one understands that each of these two movements is testing a singular form of possibility. Both involve a power that wants to be power even in the region of the ungraspable, where the domain of goals ends.
Which brings this back to the goal of contemporary literature.

David Foster Wallace is celebrated as a decidedly modern writer and, with Infinite Jest, published in 1996, he produced what might be the definitive modern US American novel. But, according to this bibliography, it was his final full-length work of fiction. What happened? Salon reports that he had suffered from clinical depression. Could this be the answer? It's not a subject about which I knew much until Stephen Fry's documentary The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive. I assumed depression was always one-way: down. However, Fry describes its two sides: hypomania and troughs of desperate, self-hating inertia and anxiety. The first includes outbursts of fecund creativity, the second, a wish to die. Oliver Sacks describes the literary symptoms in his review of Michael Greenberg's memoir:
The onset of mania is sudden and explosive: Sally, the fifteen-year-old daughter, has been in a heightened state for some weeks, listening to Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations on her Walkman, poring over a volume of Shakespeare's sonnets till the early hours. Greenberg writes: Flipping open the book at random I find a blinding crisscross of arrows, definitions, circled words. Sonnet 13 looks like a page from the Talmud, the margins crowded with so much commentary the original text is little more than a speck at the center.
In a hypomanic state, there's an unshakable fascination with meaning, the possibility of meaning, there's a belief in achievement, in encompassing everything, the visible and the invisible. One idea sparks another and then another making it impossible for the individual to rest. Keith Gessen loves Wallace's essays for their stability on such a highwire:
He writes such long sentences, they are filled with so many ideas, you don't think he’ll ever get back to the point, the point has been lost, and then he does, and it's incredible. It's incredible and then you never forget it.
Whether or not Wallace had manic episodes is not a question here. Whatever the clinical facts, his work displays, in its size, scope, ambition and worldly success, an energy and optimism unique to his nation's literary life, and unique to its demands. The incredulity of his fans at news of his death supports this impression. Infinite Jest embodies a certain hope; a hope that everything could be contained in a book, unified by narrative; that with enough talent and hard work, a novel might become the world, exceeding the limits of the self, a hegemonic power against the regions of the ungraspable. All this is apparently contradicted by the manner of his death.

So what of the darkness spoken of by his friends and family? "Suffering from near-crippling anxiety" Salon says, "Wallace found himself unable to write". Perhaps the literary tragedy, which remains a human tragedy, is that he could not produce a work that maintained itself in the actuality of suffering. It may be instead the margins of the novels and stories he left will grow wider and we will see it there. The movement towards his books in the library evokes a longing for such a space, a space in which something appears. His death would then indeed inflect his work.

Another decidedly modern writer suffered a similar torment to Wallace. "For years I had taken refuge in a terrible suicidal brooding" he told one interviewer . "Every morning on waking I was inevitably caught up in this mechanism of suicidal brooding." But, as explained in the book from which these quotations come, Thomas Bernhard displaced his suffering with a surrogate, a prose companion who crosses the line he, the writer in the refuge of writing, will not reach.
When I write about this kind of thing, about this kind of centrifugal situation that leads to suicide, I am certainly describing a state of mind that I identify with, which I probably experienced while I was writing, precisely because I did not commit suicide, because I escaped from that.
This is not to say Bernhard escaped; he also killed himself. But, such is the gift, it was writing that kept him alive.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Beckett, consternation

That evening, speaking of Molloy and the work that followed it, he told me that, returning to Dublin after the war, he'd found that his mother had contracted Parkinson's Disease. "Her face was a mask, completely unrecognizable. Looking at her, I had a sudden realization that all the work I'd done before was on the wrong track. I guess you'd have to call it a revelation. Strong word, I know, but so it was. I simply understood that there was no sense adding to the store of information, gathering knowledge. The whole attempt at knowledge, it seemed to me, had come to nothing. It was all haywire. What I had to do was investigate not-knowing, not-perceiving, the whole world of incompleteness."
From a memoir of Beckett by Lawrence Shainberg (via Chekhov's Mistress). The connection with Krapp's vision on the jetty is not ignored. And then his perception of Kafka:
"Kafka's form is classic, it goes on like a steamroller, almost serene. It seems to be threatened all the time, but the consternation is in the form. In my work there is consternation behind the form, not in the form."

BHL: philosopher?

Can anyone explain to me what Bernard-Henri Lévy has done to be called "a ... leftwing philosopher"? Everytime the British literary pages mention him - and they mention him a lot - he's always a "leftwing philosopher". Yet, from an online bibliography, I see no titles to compare with publications by the foremost names in recent French philosophy: Lacoue-Labarthe, Nancy, Deleuze, Badiou, and certainly not giants like Derrida, Blanchot and Levinas, even though all of these have written about literature and politics. (Try searching The Guardian's pages for coverage of these illustrious writers!). The nearest is a book on Sartre, though the subtitle indicates its real focus. BHL seems to be no more a philosopher than Christopher Hitchens, and about as "leftwing".

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

An Ideal Nobel

Scott McLemee of Inside Higher Ed presents some responses - more responses! - to laughing-boy Horace Engdahl's comments about American literature and the Nobel Prize. You can read some measured words from, among others, Ron Silliman, Levi Stahl, Charlotte Mandell, Scott Esposito and Morris Dickstein.

In these and other contributions, you will cry in agreement and then gasp in astonishment at the suggestions for contenders. Mario Vargas Llosa! Is the author of Shag Auntie Peggie really anything more than a middlebrow entertainer? The other, much bigger American names that feature tend to leave me cold, though not for Engdahl's reasons. As Charlotte Mandell's and Steven G. Kellman's observations confirm, the US has a rich engagement with world literature, only the names mentioned are not as well-known as Roth and the rest (except perhaps Paul Auster and John Ashbery). Who is insular now Mr Engdahl?

Of course, we all have our opinions about who should win, but it is axiomatic that the prize is now, as Ron Silliman says, political rather than literary. It is, therefore, in literary terms, irrelevant. (At this point, David Markson's entry in Reader's Block deserves another outing).

So what is the alternative to handing the prize to the latest politically-correct poster boy or girl? Well, how about applying Alfred Nobel's original criterion - that it should go “to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”? Maybe this needs unpacking too, with a ... heaven forbid ... literary and philosophical/ethical discussion.

If the spirit of Nobel's words were applied today then the two living authors I see speaking from the Stockholm dais are Peter Handke and Aharon Appelfeld. (I'd be happy if Enrique Vila-Matas won if only to hurry along translations of his post-Montano Malady novels). There are two big reasons - neither of them literary - why the former won't win, but the latter might sneak under the PC radar; his name even appears in Morris Dickstein's contribution. However, of the several "big" Israeli names who might win this year listed by The Literary Saloon not one is Appelfeld. It's very demoralising. Next year, Schocken publishes a translation of Appelfeld's 1994 novel Laish. It has been many years since one of his novels has been published on this side of the Atlantic. Yes, Engdahl's comments apply more to Great Britain. What's more, had he directed them at us, they would have been ignored.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Handke's Die morawische Nacht

No doubt you've already seen Sign & Sight's excellent coverage of the German Book Prize shortlist. Love German Books, a welcome blog find, had already given a rundown of the longlist. Unfortunately, my welcome was shortened by the impressionistic dismissal of Handke's Die morawische Nacht (Moravian Night?): "Slow-moving autoerotic ego massage". Such a singularly serious writer deserves more than this or nothing at all.

However, everything was redeemed with a link to an English-language review at New Books in German. "Die morawische Nacht is a haunting and wonderful book" it says. It certainly sounds better than the baffling Crossing the Sierra de Gredos.
The story of the night involves a journey, a long circling movement from an enclave that might be Kosovo, through Europe and back to its starting point.

[...]

Handke, it can be argued, is one of the defining writers of our time, but it's years since a UK publishing house put out anything by him, and that neglect predates his defiant, obstinate defence of the former Yugoslavia
.
In fact, it is seventeen years since Methuen published Absence in hardback. There was no paperback. One would have thought Handke's extra-literary notoriety would prompt interest. I wonder if they've even heard of him. Publishers in this country are keen to denounce censorship when it threatens cashing in on Islamophobia yet, when it comes to publishing one of the greatest living writers, silence; censorship is the default position.

Translation: "the truest form of reading"

What attracts you to the craft of translation?
I love reading, and I think translating is the truest form of reading. People are always asking me if I write my 'own' work. I find it hard to convey to them that I feel no need to write — I would much rather 'be' a lot of different authors by translating them.
Charlotte Mandell answers questions about her craft at Emprise, a literary journal, and also includes unpublished translations of poems by Jean-Paul Auxeméry. Maybe this particular answer explains why I have no qualms about reading translations: it's a form of reading in which one is not reading alone.

Later, Charlotte reveals that she has just translated an extract from Mathias Énard's Zone, a novel that, according to Sophie Lewis writing at RSB, many people in France are calling "the novel of the decade".

Of course, Charlotte has provided two highlights of the four years of this blog (I missed last week's anniversary!): translations of Jean-Luc Nancy's tribute to Maurice Blanchot and Emilie Colombani's review of the recent release of the same author's early essays.

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