Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Thomas Bernhard's Prose


In May 2010, the first translation of Thomas Bernhard's early stories is due from Seagull Books, distributed by the University of Chicago Press. The website provides the following information: "First published in German in 1967, these stories were written at the same time as Bernhard’s early novels Frost, Gargoyles, and The Lime Works, and they display the same obsessions, restlessness, and disarming mastery of language. Martin Chalmer’s outstanding translation, which renders the work in English for the first time, captures the essential personality of the work. The narrators of these stories lack the strength to do anything but listen and then write, the reader in turn becoming a captive listener, deciphering the traps laid by memory—and the mere words, the neverending words with which we try to pin it down. Words that are always close to driving the narrator crazy, but yet, as Bernhard writes 'not completely crazy.' "


Next May was looking Bernhard-Good already as Penguin Classics is reissuing his great late novel Old Masters. And, to keep to the theme of new books from genuinely great Austrian authors never to win the Nobel Prize, in February FSG is publishing Peter Handke's Don Juan: His Own Version in Krishna Winston's translation: "a book about storytelling and its ability to burst the ordinary boundaries of time and space." Do you think they is going for the Audrey Naffeneggernogger market?

UPDATE: Thanks to Gwilym Williams who provides news of the exhibition Thomas Bernhard and the theatre opening next month in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna where, of course, Old Masters is set. The exhibition features:
Numerous documents from the estate of Thomas Bernhard, as well as composition drawings and stage photographs, help to illustrate one of the most exceptional careers in the history of Austrian literature and theatre – one that alternated between spectacular triumphs and headline-grabbing scandals.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The secret centre: Blanchot and The Turn of the Screw

An essay that has stirred me lately is Blanchot's on the importance of Henry James' notebooks in relation to his development as a writer and in particular to his story The Turn of the Screw; "As the years pass", Blanchot writes, "and as James moves in a more deliberate way toward himself, he discovers the true significance of this preliminary work that is precisely not a work."

Endlessly, he speaks of these hours of preparation as "blessed hours," "wonderful, ineffable, secret, pathetic, tragic" instants, or even as a "sacred" time, when his pen exercises "an enchanted pressure," becomes the "deciphering" pen, the magic needle in movement, whose turns and detours give him a premonition of the innumerable paths that are not yet traced.

Blanchot asks: "Why this joy, this passion, this feeling of a wonderful life, which [James] cannot evoke without tears, to the point that his notebooks, "the patient, passionate little notebook becomes ... the essential part of my life"?".

This question and Blanchot's answer stirs me because I have noticed with surprise how much enjoyment I take in making notes; how much more, that is, than in the actual production of a work.  Against initial assumptions, I sensed it is too easy to dismiss this as an eternal delay of the real thing or as the unobtainable carrot of perfection, but have never really appreciated why. We all know about Bruce Chatwin's attachment to his Moleskine notebooks, and how he offered a reward to anyone who could return one lost, but this reliance on the information contained within is something other than that addressed by Blanchot. The essay is so rich that it is difficult not to quote from every page, so this will be the betrayal of even a potted summary. In mitigation, the essay itself offers a good summary of the essence of Blanchot's form of engaged reading; a reading that does not lead to or from any theory.

The beginning of the essay looks at possible subjects of The Turn of the Screw before concluding, after various detours, that the subject remains a secret. However, it is not a secret to be found outside the story, in biographical anecdote or in speculation, but at the very centre of the story: its words, or, better, its writing. The subject, Blanchot says, "is – simply – James's art, the way he has of always circling round a secret that, in so many of his books, some anecdote sets in operation, and that is not only a real secret – some fact, some thought or truth that can be revealed – that is not even a detour of the mind, but one that escapes all revelation, for it belongs to a region that is not that of light." The anecdote – which may on the surface be the subject of a traditional reading – appears then only as a means to produce the experience "not of the narrative that he must write but of its reverse, from the other side of the work, the one that the movement of writing necessarily hides and about which [James] is anxious". This then is why notes produce an enchanted pressure. The other side of the work, the secret centre, is written and not written.

What can then be called the passionate paradox of the plan with James is that it represents, for him, the security of a composition determined in advance, but also the opposite: the joys of creation, which coincide with the pure indeterminacy of the work, which put it to the test, but without reducing it, without depriving it of all the possibilities that it contains (and such is perhaps the essence of James's art: each instant to produce the entire work present and, even behind the constructed and limited work that he shapes, to make other forms felt, the infinite and light space of the narrative as it could have been, as it is before any beginning).

How difficult that is, to subject a narrative in each instant to the pressure of its secret centre! Perhaps the ability to do this – perhaps rather to let it occur, involving both guile of craft and stubborn resistance to the easy gifts of craft – is the secret of great writing.

All this may seem typically cranky. Oh yes, here we go, Blanchot is turning a famous ghost story into  metafiction. Except Blanchot ends with a remark piece of evidence. What, he asks, does James call "this pressure to which he submits the work, not to limit it but on the contrary to make it speak completely, without reserve in its nonetheless reserved secret, this firm and gentle pressure, this pressing solicitude ... ?". The answer is to be found in the notebooks themselves. James calls it "the very name he chose as title for his ghost story: The Turn of the Screw. 'What can my case of K. B. [a novel that he will not finish] give, once submitted to the pressure and to the turn of the screw?' " "Revealing allusion" Blanchot says:

It confirms to us that James is certainly not unaware of what the "subject" of his story is: this pressure that the governess makes the children undergo in order to tear their secret from them and that they also perhaps experience on the part of the invisible, but that is essentially the pressure of the narration itself, the wonderful and terrible movement that the deed of writing exercises on truth, torment, torture, violence that finally lead to death, in which everything seems to be revealed, in which everything, however, falls back again into the doubt and void of the shadows. "We are working in darkness – we do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion, our task. The rest is the madness of art."

An amusing irony for me is that this essay is one that has produced not one note in my Moleskine. Re-reading only a few sentences begins to close down the everyday busyness of thought and instead demand a renewed attention to the region that is not that of light, that escapes all revelation. Indeed, having read Blanchot with a patience one can gain only through reading Blanchot again and again, one begins to see this region illuminated both in every creative work and in one's own work to come. More prosaic, shorthanded, ideological, historical or psychological readings, readings of which this blog is inevitably and apologetically one, no matter how convincing they are in their own way, rarely casts the reader so far and so deeply into the sovereign realm of writing.

Note: all quotations are from The Book to Come.

Zone and literary translation



Introduced by Chad Post of Open Letter Books, Charlotte Mandell reads from her new translation of Mathias Énard's ZONE. From part four onward she talks about literary translation with EJ Van Lanen, also of Open Letters.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Ramifying into life

Dan Green, his country's most durable defender of the merely literary, has some tough things to say about Ron Rosenbaum's response to Vladimir Nabokov's The Original of Laura.
It expresses more interest in the "process of creation" than the creation itself. [...]
Rosenbaum makes this more or less plain when he suggests that "Encrypted within [Nabokov's] words, encoded indecipherably, ambiguously, is the equivalent of the secret of lightning. Something akin to the secret code of higher human consciousness, the DNA, the genome of genius." I have difficulty believing Nabokov himself would have had much patience with this sort of pomposity. He made fun, in his work, of the notion of "codes" ("Signs and Symbols," Pale Fire) and he was always critical of interpretation that wandered outside the text itself, into biography or psychology or "intention." "Higher human consciousness" was not the subject of Nabokov's books, encrypted or not. The manipulation of language in aesthetically pleasing ways was his concern.
While I agree with everything Dan says, the final sentence waved a red flag at me: "The manipulation of language in aesthetically pleasing ways was his concern." Moving closer, I think it's clearer why it stands out.

If Nabokov warned against biography, psychology and intention, then his particular concern for language should be of no undue concern to his readers. Instead, we must attend to what appears before us and examine how, if at all, this concern manifests inside the text. Dan writes that Nabokov "made fun" of codes in Signs and Symbols, a story of two parents' relationship with their grown-up son. Here's the opening paragraph:
For the fourth time in as many years they were confronted with the problem of what birthday present to bring a young man who was incurably deranged in his mind. He had no desires. Man-made objects were to him either hives of evil, vibrant with a malignant activity that he alone could perceive, or gross comforts for which no use could be found in his abstract world. After eliminating a number of articles that might offend him or frighten him (anything in the gadget line for instance was taboo), his parents chose a dainty and innocent trifle: a basket with ten different fruit jellies in ten little jars.
There's already something comic about fruit jellies in such a scenario, and something pathetic about the son who, like a zealot obsessed with scripture, sees signs and symbols where there are none, or at least not as many as he suspects. But isn't this as horrible and disastrous as it is anything else, such as fun? Pleasure in the story comes from the tension evoked by the distance between text and reality; yes, an aesthetic pleasure. Only it's more than that. It ramifies into life. We are, like the son, condemned to interpret. After you read the final line, the next ringing phone will not be the same.

What this leads to is awareness of the ambiguity and ambivalence of reading. An awareness that enables Nabokov the writer to exceed his reputation as merely a beautiful prose stylist. The tragedy recurs when Humbert Humbert cries out in his prison cell: "Oh my Lolita, I have only words to play with". This is more than making fun of a criminal; it traces the tragic in writing – a tragedy that is tragic inasmuch as it is indistinguishable from fun. Humbert writes his memoir in such ornate language that only the most literal-minded reader (most probably the one more interested in the bedroom scenes than the story) can fail to realise that what is before him are words, and words alone.

So why is this – no pun intended – significant for reading and writing? What Dan's righteous take down of Rosenbaum emphasises for me is the absence of the disastrous in contemporary US literature, the disaster that ramifies out of fun or beauty and into life. At present US literary culture appears to be one in which gushing pieces that grab the most convenient alibi for discussing literature can guarantee themselves the front pages and the ability to set the literary agenda. (In this way it is identical to Britain). There seems to be a huge gulf between say, on the one hand, the studiously pitched levity of Steven Augustine's comment to Dan's post and, on the other, David Foster Wallace's suicide note, yet very little in-between. Tao Lin's novel Eeeee eee eeee, for example, may be an exception to the rule.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Deforming the medium: Summertime by JM Coetzee

[G]reat, groundbreaking books teach you how to read and good books remind you how. The best book to teach you how to read Proust's In Search of Lost Time is Proust's In Search of Lost Time.
Mark Thwaite's assertion is as simple and true as it is difficult to accept. After all, for the clearest understanding one has nowhere to go except back into the book. The claim prefaces a review of JM Coetzee's latest novel Summertime and, in listening to how the book asks to be read, it stands alongside the majority of reviews. The final line of The Complete Review's summary for example expresses the difficulty of its acceptance with a disconcerting conjunction: "Summertime is fascinating, but leaves one very uneasy -- about everything from Coetzee himself to the very idea of fiction and autobiography." Shouldn't that "but" be "and"? Isn't it fascinating precisely because it shudders the earth beneath one's reading seat?

However confounding the "but" is, it may offer an insight into the apparent schism in contemporary literary appreciation. That is, not between genre fiction and the genre that dare not speak its name – what China Miéville calls LitFic – but over something more specific. In the same paragraph as the one quoted above, The Complete Review offers another curious judgement: "Coetzee is an incredibly talented writer and a master craftsman -- and, yes, this is a meticulously crafted book, and one of [Summertime's] weaknesses is that it is so obviously a construct." The key words here being "so obviously". Perhaps the schism then is between those who are troubled by fiction as a construct and those who are not. One has to ask the question begged: how might this novel have been less of a construct; so obviously less of a construct? Of course, one can ask it of every novel.

The question is clearly one that troubles JM Coetzee, the writer currently living in Australia. In contrast, it seems not to be a question that troubled John Coetzee, the dead object of this novel's attention. His ex-lover and ex-colleague Sophie Denoël, one of the people interviewed by his fictional biographer, offers her opinion of the man's novels:
I did not read all of them. After Disgrace I lost interest. In general I would say that his work lacks ambition. The control of the elements is too tight. Nowhere do you get a feeling of a writer deforming his medium in order to say what has never been said before, which is to me the mark of great writing. Too cool, too neat, I would say. Too easy. Too lacking in passion. That's all.
Such withering criticism is perhaps the clearest guidance to the reader and to the novel itself. By including it, spoken from the mouth of someone both close and distant to the author, the critic is disarmed. How can one criticise a book that pre-empts the worst one can offer? Perhaps this is why the consensus has been welcoming albeit distracted by a witless need to tease out the differences between author-writer and author-character.

The consensus is a conspicuous reversal of that on Coetzee's previous novel Diary of a Bad Year which is, however, similar in many ways to Summertime, only more formally adventurous. Despite technical differences, Diary of a Bad Year is also driven by the relation between the self and the world; specifically, and to paraphrase my own review, an investigation into what it means to be singular in a plural universe. To put it another way, it investigates the demand made by Sophie Denoël for a deformation of the constructed medium in order not only "to say what has never been said before" but also to minimise the construction of a literary defensive wall in order to say what he cannot say in any other form.

Unsurprisingly, Diary of a Bad Year failed to make the shortlist for Man Booker Prize and was criticised for including apparently self-indulgent mini-essays under the title "Strong Opinions". Giles Foden's shocking inability or refusal to read the book as it asks to be read was the extreme representative of its negative reception; a reception that would be fair were it able to comprehend the prolepsis inherent to the novel itself. But such a reading is apparently beyond respectable literary discourse. The schism revealed then seems to be simpler, more straightforward, and thereby somewhat more demanding if it is to be closed. While at first the bizarre suggested answer is that Coetzee should become less talented, less of a craftsman, and thereby enable his books to match genre expectations, it is rather that the reader must do as the author has done, to open himself to the force and logic of writing.

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