Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Friday, February 27, 2009

Josipovici's double


Three years after the sublime Everything Passes, Carcanet has announced new fiction from Gabriel Josipovici - "without doubt our most important writer" (Lee Rourke). August will see the publication of After & Making Mistakes; two novels in a single volume.

After "is haunted by a traumatic memory. A woman re-enters the life of a man after fifteen years – for vengeance? for reconciliation? Or is her return only imagined?". Making Mistakes on the other hand "explores the ironies of relationships more playfully. In a reworking of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, two couples change partners – and change again – with the connivance of a modern Don Alfonso and his Despina."

The cover image is by Andrzej Jackowski.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

No fog: Naomi Klein wins the Warwick Prize for Writing



As you will know by now, Montano's Malady didn't win the inaugural Warwick Prize for Writing. The theme of Complexity was best met by Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine and the five judges were able to reach a decision without compromise. For me, reading the book had the same effect as reading Chomsky for the first time in 1987. One sees the public world more clearly; the fog lifts.

Both authors are routinely labelled pejoratively as polemicists or, worse, as conspiracy theorists, yet labels distract us from the patient accumulation and organisation of evidence whose presence should preclude such blithe criticism. Foggy distraction was also the target of Francisco Goldman's The Art of Political Murder which, in his speech unfortunately not included on YouTube, China Miéville announced as the runner-up. The student shadow jury at Warwick chose it as its winner. I haven't noticed any coverage for this book which it most certainly deserves and which makes not choosing it as the winner more painful.

Finally, I was disappointed that we were unable to include more fiction. The theme rather worked in favour of ideas and their explication in rational form. Montano's Malady has the rare distinction of being a book that addresses the complex ramifications of writing itself. Perhaps the theme of the prize due in 2010 will allow for more exploratory forms to emerge. China also announced this on Tuesday: Colour. Books published from January this year are eligible. Any suggestions?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Getting The Kindly Ones very wrong

As I don't have the time, I want to respond very briefly to Michiko Kakutani's review of The Kindly Ones. This is the most inept, ill-perceiving review of the novel I can imagine (though one other runs it close). "Aue is clearly a deranged creature," she writes "and his madness turns his story into a voyeuristic spectacle". Well, that is true only to the extent to which one ignores how Aue's fall between life and death determines the narrative and how we should thereby read it. But, of course, Kakutani speaks from a position of moral and psychological authority. As someone employed by a newspaper that manufactured consent for invasions of sovereign nations with the consequent death of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, she has nothing in common with Max Aue. Clearly.

Even the positive reviews - such as Jason Burke's - miss the point, particularly about the translation. It is unfortunate if predictable that literary editors have so far given the book to people who - as foreign correspondents and military historians - have little or no feeling for the literary context in which this book operates and from which it demands to be read. Soon I hope to post my own review. However, if I don't, keep this in mind, particularly if you've been influenced by The Literary Saloon's negative cheerleading: The Kindly Ones is one of the most intense reading experiences you will ever have.

UPDATE: my review is now posted.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Beckett beyond tragedy

The Letters of Samuel Beckett 1929-1940 are exceeding even my high expectations. Above all the gift these letters offer is the chance to follow a young writer as he seeks a way forward, finding glimpses of a path in writing, music and painting. In July 1937, Beckett responded to Axel Kaun, who worked for Kafka's publisher Rowohlt Verlag and had suggested that he translate a German poet. Beckett declines but doesn't stop there. He complains of finding writing in formal English "more and more difficult, even pointless":
To drill one hole after another into [language] until that which lurks behind, be it something or nothing, starts seeping through - I cannot imagine a higher goal for today's writer.

Or is literature alone to be left behind on that old, foul road long ago abandoned by music and painting? Is there something paralysingly sacred contained within the unnature of the word that does not belong to the elements of the other arts? Is there any reason why that terrifyingly arbitrary materiality of the word surface should not be dissolved, as for example the sound surface of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony is devoured by huge black pauses, so that for pages on end we cannot perceive it as other than a dizzying path of sounds connecting unfathomable chasms of silence?
(Translated by Viola Westbrook)
A month later, Beckett wrote to his aunt Cissie Sinclair about the work of the painter Jack B Yeats via another favourite:
Watteau put in busts and urns, I suppose to suggest the inorganism of the organic - all his people are mineral in the end, without possibility of being added to or taken from, pure inorganic juxtapositions - but Jack Yeats does not even need to do that. The way he puts down a man's head & a woman's head side by side, or face to face, is terrifying, two irreducible singlenesses & the impassable immensity between. I suppose that is what gives the stillness to his pictures, as though the convention were suddenly suspended, the convention & performance of love & hate, joy & pain, giving & being given, taking and being taken. A kind of petrified insight into one's ultimate hard irreducible inorganic singleness. All handled with the dispassionate acceptance that is beyond tragedy.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Liberty's sword: links

"What is the Kafkaesque?" asks Alexander Provan in his piercing discussion of Kafka via five recent books, including Mark Harman's new translation of Amerika. "It is, as Walter Benjamin wrote, the form which things assume in oblivion." It is surprising that Louis Begley believes the sword in Liberty's hand seen by Karl Rossmann at the entrance to New York harbour is "a slip of the pen." Rather, it is "a deliberate alienation effect, immediately placing the promise of America in quotation marks and situating the reader in a slightly disfigured reality, where metaphorical figures become as palpable and unyielding as concrete and steel."

Elsewhere, in Understanding the Crisis — Markets, the State and Hypocrisy, Chomsky seeks to counter the mythology that "the economy is based on entrepreneurial initiative and consumer choice".
[W]ell ok, to an extent it is. For example at the marketing end, you can choose one electronic device and not another. But the core of the economy relies very heavily on the state sector, and transparently so. So for example to take the last economic boom which was based on information technology — where did that come from? Computers and the Internet. Computers and the Internet were almost entirely within the state system for about 30 years — research, development, procurement, other devices — before they were finally handed over to private enterprise for profit-making. It wasn't an instantaneous switch, but that's roughly the picture. And that's the picture pretty much for the core of the economy. The state sector is innovative and dynamic. It's true across the board from electronics to pharmaceuticals to the new biology-based industries. The idea is that the public is supposed to pay the costs and take the risks, and ultimately if there is any profit, you hand it over to private tyrannies, corporations. If you had to encapsulate the economy in one sentence, that would be the main theme. When you look at the details of course it's a more complex picture, but that's the major theme. So yes, socialization of risk and cost (but not profit) is partially new for the financial institutions, but it's just added on to what's been happening all along.
Finally, Mobylives provides more background on La Nouvelle Revue Francaise following its 100th anniversary. Along the way, it mentions Jonathan Littell's contribution to the centenary edition. As it seems to have gone more or less unnoticed, I'll remind everyone that you can read this in Charlotte Mandell's translation on this very site.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

“Reading”? by Jonathan Littell

What follows is a commentary on a text by Maurice Blanchot entitled "Reading," first published in La Nouvelle Revue Française in 1958 and later incorporated into L'espace littéraire. Jonathan Littell's commentary was written for the 100th anniversary issue of La Nouvelle Revue Française, published in February 2009. It is translated by Charlotte Mandell and appears by kind permission of the author.

Write about Blanchot, I am asked – or with him, or alongside him, or against him, it doesn’t matter. A difficult task, he himself would have said. All the more so since the problem immediately arises: how to write in the wake of this thinking without being carried away by its language? No one, to my knowledge, has managed it (except perhaps Foucault, Levinas: frightening predecessors). Well, let us try, even if it means taking that risk.

So what is this reading that Maurice Blanchot invites us to enact here, at once light and serious, a "joyful, wild dance," fundamental (founding the work) in its very insouciance? The first thing one could say about it is that it seems to us inseparable from his conception of writing as experience. "The story [le récit] is not the relation of the event, but that event itself," he wrote around the same time (in "The Song of the Sirens," reprinted in The Book to Come). Writing does not describe, does not relate, does not signify, it does not represent a thing, existing in the world of men or even only in the world of the imagination; it is neither more nor less than "the test of its own experience" (Blanchot again, I forget where, unless it's Bataille – so indistinguishable is their thinking on this point), the faithful account of what happened at that moment, the moment when the one who, seized by the desire to write, sat down in front of a blank piece of paper and began putting language onto it. It's not that the text that results from this experience – poem, story, novel – is deprived of meaning, is not shot through with elements referring to the reality of life; rather it's that these elements function (to use a comparison that Blanchot would no doubt have discreetly avoided) like what Freud called the manifest content of dreams: the rags of reality they cloak themselves with so as both to manifest and veil their truth, their very reality. Thus, if writing is related to truth – and it certainly is, it has to be, or else not be at all, or in any case fall outside of the realm we designate by that mysterious word, literature – it is not by way of knowledge. Literary writing does not explain, does not teach: it simply offers the presence of its own mystery, its own experience, in its absence of explanation, thus inviting not some illusory "understanding" ("Reading either falls short of understanding or overshoots it," writes Blanchot), but precisely a reading. "Reading is freedom," Blanchot tells us, "a freedom that can only say yes." Yes to what? To experience; to the experience, usually born in anguish, of the one who writes, which is answered by the experience – by turns casual and transfixed by "the rapture of plenitude" – of the reader. Two experiences thus facing each other or rather tangential to each other, in any case radically irreducible to one another. For the author, the writer (Blanchot continually shifts between these two terms, plays on them), precisely, is the one who cannot read. Noli me legere, Blanchot wrote elsewhere, in other contexts, several times. Returning to this injunction thirty years after "Reading," in a strange afterword to two early stories called Après-coup, which comments on these stories while at the same denying the possibility of any commentary on the author's part – taking up this injunction, then, he follows it with a curious personification of Writing itself. Writing, "dismissing the author [not the reader, we should note]," addresses him in extravagant terms: "Never will you know what you have written, even if you wrote only to know it." An implacable sentence, from which the writer has no possibility of escaping, even if he can never entirely avoid the temptation, for him the supreme temptation, of seeking his own truth in what he has written; he then becomes, turning back towards his work, "the guilty Orpheus" (Après-coup, again), incapable of leading his Eurydice to the light of day, and who loses her by that guilty turning back; powerless, he sees her draw back, swallowed up in a shadow forever impenetrable to him. The writer is thus the one who remains to the very end without any work to his name (and perhaps that is why Plato, in a gesture of mocking irony – or supreme offhandedness? – can write in his Second Letter: "There are no works by Plato and there will never be any," before adding, as if to mock our astonishment even more: "What is now called by this name is in fact by Socrates during his sweet youth," that same Socrates who, as we know since Plato has told us, never wrote, so profound was his mistrust of "the impotent instrument that is language" [Seventh Letter]. But is Plato actually the author of these letters? We don’t really know).

Hence the vanity of asking the writer what he "wanted to say," what he meant, as if writing came from his wanting, from his free and sovereign will. It should rather be linked with anguish, as Blanchot stresses (invoking the example of Kafka). Already, in 1935, in Le dernier mot, one of his first stories, he wrote: "Fear is your only master. If you think you no longer fear anything, there’s no point in reading. But it's when your throat is constricted with fear that you will learn to speak” (thus linking not only writing but also reading to anguish – a connection that two decades later, in "Reading," he will considerably modify). Writing is also related to desire (of the one who writes), but it is not the accomplishment of that desire, in the sense that it fulfills or appeases it, even if only temporarily; rather, it deepens its voracity; and so, Blanchot suggests, there falls to the reader the task, both arduous and frivolous, not of bridging the gap between the limitless desire of one who is losing his footing in writing, and the texts that are like the fragments of cooled lava that this experience leaves behind it, its scoria, but of discovering this gap, thrusting back into the shadow not the book, but the author (once a sad Orpheus with his lyre, now a pitiful Eurydice), and leading "the work hidden behind the book" (I'm paraphrasing) into the light – a gesture, though, that is carried out for him alone, in the solitude of his reading, an experience that is both unique and also infinitely renewable since it is lived for the first time at every reading, for every reader.

Thus, if writing is an absolute experience (yet that confers no knowledge or privilege on the one who lives through it), so too is reading, the "somber spirit" that Blanchot names in The Madness of the Day. Let us return to the text. "What is a book that no one reads?" asks Blanchot, only to answer immediately: "Something that is not yet written" (another theme that also reappears in Après-coup, a text that seems a little like the ghostly double of "Reading," or its reprise, the "Vicious Circles" of the stories that he interprets without interpreting them – in the guise of Valéry or rather of Monsieur Teste, a "being who would have the greatest gifts – in order to do nothing with them, assured [how? wonders Blanchot] of having them.") The book, a product of anguish, of joy, of hope, of naivety too, and of the toil of its author, indeed exists, from its completion onwards, or even before that, as an object, but not as a work. It requires the author to be "dismissed," once and for all, so as finally to come into existence, to be, to "assert itself as thing without author and without reader." What Blanchot dismisses here, with an irrevocable gesture, is not just the author, but the mirage – so stubborn, though – of a “communication” between the writer and the reader. The writer is alone, irremediably alone ("Khalvat dar anjoman, solitude in the crowd," posits one of the eleven rules of the Naqshbandi Sufis: that is the solitude of Kafka, again, never alone enough and yet always infinitely alone). Vain hope of writing with a wish to be understood, or of establishing any kind of human fraternity with the other; cruel disillusion of anyone who writes with the expectation of a response, an echo. The writer writes as Giacometti wanted to sculpt: so as to bury the sculpture (as Genet tells us), and "not so that it could be discovered, or else much later, when he himself and the memory of his name have disappeared. Would burying it be to offer it to the dead?" wonders Genet, thus putting his finger on this obvious fact: the writer, the artist does not communicate with the reader or the spectator, he communicates with death; the death of others (Foucault) or else his own death, always yet to come but beyond which he necessarily situates himself in order to write. The writer: the one who is always already dead. The reader, on the contrary, lives, and thanks to him the book, "unburdened of its author," lives too: the book, the text leaves the world of the dead, whence it comes (or comes forth rather?) to participate in the things of life. And that is how the noli me legere of the book gives way to the Lazare, veni foras of the reader, the reader who nonetheless, unlike Christ, accomplishes no miracle, but simply, by his free and innocent reading, his "light yes" offered with a smile, shows (and sees) that language too lives, with its own life.

Jonathan Littell is the author of The Kindly Ones, also translated by Charlotte Mandell.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

"This academic madness"

Beckett's work — especially in the early years though no less even now, I would imagine — is often misinterpreted. Or, it seems possible to say, simply interpreted, the mis- being implicit regarding Beckett’s work; in one interview [...] asked what, if not a philosophical one, is his reason for writing, he responds I haven't the slightest idea. I'm no intellectual. All I am is feeling.

This sense of 'feeling' and not 'intellecting' is what always brings me back to Beckett's prose so strongly and deeply, at least regarding work from the Trilogy onward.
Named Tomorrow goes on to read Beckett's writing in accordance with this important apprehension. It reminds me of Beckett's admiration for the mystics. When asked in the same book as in the link what he thought of the essays and theses about his work, Beckett waved his hand: "This academic madness..."

The blogger also quotes from a lecture he attended yesterday evening "by one of the editors of the recently published Volume 1 of Beckett's letters". As it happens, I was there too and also took delivery of a copy of the book. Next to me, a student placed a book from the library flat on the table. I tried to discern the title, expecting it to be Beckett-related. It wasn't. However, I was impressed to see that the spine also contained a review of the book.

Ordinary things

"It doesn't matter"

Two years ago Nick Hornby wrote an article expressing frustration with British literary culture and calling for us to embrace the pure joy of reading. He framed his frustration with a quotation.
'If reading is a workout for the mind, then Britain must be buzzing with intellectual energy,' said one sarcastic newspaper columnist: 'Train stations have shops packed with enough words to keep even the most muscular brain engaged for weeks.

'Indeed, the carriages are full of people exercising their intellects the full length of their journeys. Yet somehow, the fact that millions daily devour thousands of words from Hello!, The Sun, The Da Vinci Code, Nuts and so on does not inspire the hope that the average cerebrum is in excellent health. It's not just that you read, it's what you read that counts.'

This sort of thing - and it's a regrettably common sneer in our broadsheet newspapers - must drive school librarians, publishers and literacy campaigners nuts.
Against this apparent trend, Hornby is keen to encourage us to read what we want to read and not to care if we're told by book snobs that it is deleterious to our intellectual health.
I would never attempt to dissuade anyone from reading a book. But please, if you're reading a book that's killing you, put it down and read something else, just as you would reach for the remote if you weren't enjoying a television programme.

Your failure to enjoy a highly rated novel doesn't mean you're dim - you may find that Graham Greene is more to your taste, or Stephen Hawking, or Iris Murdoch, or Ian Rankin. Dickens, Stephen King, whoever. It doesn't matter."
Today, A Common Reader confirms Hornby's judgment by reporting how one reader at least never a let a book kill him. His joy was unconfined.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

"my then completely empty house"


Today, the 11th day of this dark month, marks twenty years since the death of Thomas Bernhard. As I wrote in an essay to mark the tenth anniversary, the promise of an early demise from TB was necessary to his work. "Death is close to me now and so is winter" he wrote in his twenties. February is also his birth month.

What remains to be said about Thomas Bernhard? Sometimes, in the ten years since that indulgent essay meant to promote a writer who then demanded promotion, I have sensed a damaging influence; not only in the seductive, liberating style but also in the excess, the exaggeration of which he was so exaggeratedly proud. Yet then I read his story In Rome (translated by Kenneth J. Northcott), in which Bernhard remembers Ingeborg Bachmann, and these regrets fall away, replaced by gratitude.
The most intelligent and famous female poet that our country has produced in the present century died in a hospital in Rome from the effects of scalds and burns that she must have sustained in her bathtub, according to the authorities. I used to go on trips with her, and on these trips I shared many of her philosophical views, as well as her views on the course of the world and the course of history, which had frightened her all her life. Many attempts on her part to return to her native Austria, however, came to grief because of the shamelessness of her female rivals and the stupidity of the Viennese authorities. The news of her death reminded me that she was the first guest in my then completely empty house. She was always on the run and had always seen people for what they really were, as a slow-witted, stupid, thoughtless mass that one simply has to break with. Like me, she had early in life discovered the entrance to hell, and entered this hell even though there was a danger of perishing in this hell at a very early age. People are trying to decide whether her death was an accident or whether it was suicide. Those who believe in the poet's suicide keep saying that she was broken by herself, whereas in reality and in the nature of things she was broken by her environment and, at bottom, by the meanness of her homeland, which persecuted her at every turn even when she was abroad, just as it does so many others.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Links "too intellectual, too obscure, too foreign"

Thomas McGonigle offers some advice on how to sift through the "avalanche of shit" scheduled for publication this year, an avalanche set in motion by "a large core of six figure salaried pencil pushers who have to be wined and dined to suit their personae as wise leaders who know what is good for the reading public." We need help like this all of the time. In the second part of his blog, he recommends books by publishers who have "never forgotten what their job really is". As blogs seem to be the main way to promote and discuss such publications, here are a few additional forthcomings behind the avalanche:

Alma Books' Bloggerel takes delivery of its new edition of Dante's Rime and posts a sample from the book. They reckon it's a disgrace that this volume - "compared, in many ways, to that of Shakespeare’s Sonnets" - is the only mainstream edition available in the English market. I concur, though do wonder why have they not sent a review copy to Britain's most prominent litblogging Dante fan or even included him on the flippin' blogroll.

Continuing with poetry, for some time Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet was a touchstone for literary bloggers. Now Shearsman Books is to publish the Collected Poems of Álvaro de Campos Vol. 2 : 1928–1935. De Campos "along with Ricardo Reis and Alberto Caeiro is one of Pessoa's most important poetic heteronyms". With uplifting eccentricity, volume one follows next year.

In the same month, and turning to fiction, Schocken publishes Aharon Appelfeld's Laish: "A caravan of Jews wanders through Eastern Europe at the end of the nineteenth century. [...] Among them is Laish, a fifteen-year-old orphan, through whose eyes we observe the interactions within this ragtag group of dreamers, holy men, misfits, and thieves as they battle with one another."

Not in English yet, but Gwilym Williams reports on Suhrkamp Verlag's presentation of Thomas Bernhard's Meine Preise, featuring readings from Burgtheater actor Gert Voss. See also Bureaucratic Imagination's link to a scholarly paper on American Writers Reading Thomas Bernhard.

Enough news for now. In the ancient past, newspapers' book pages were our only means of protection from the avalanche. Some, such as the recent edition of the TLS that, in its fiction pages, ran reviews of untranslated non-English language novels only, still warm frozen hope. However, McGonigle's anecdote, of writing for the Washington Post's Book World, suggests the mountain of Purgatory awaits for those relying on print:
The last book I reviewed for them in 2002, commissioned by Michael Dirda, was Maurice Blanchot’s Aminadab. I never reviewed for them again and when I asked I was told that Marie Arana and the younger editors at the paper decided that my review of this novel by the most influential French critic of the 20th century was exactly the sort of book they never wanted reviewed in the paper. It was too intellectual, too obscure, too foreign. It sent the wrong message as to what they were really interested in.

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