Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Writing the real thing: on Zadie Smith's essay on novel nausea

Samuel Johnson's definition of "the essay" is a good place for Zadie Smith to begin. She uses it in an introduction to her new book of essays. The opposition presented is between the well-made work and the messy real: one being unreal and anaemic, the other being full of life's "truthiness" – itself a messy word – which Johnson's quotation reveals was once applied to the essay and to which Smith appeals as an apologia for the essays to come. I have sympathy with this and do not want to pick apart her essay – despite my many quibbles and queries – because I found it a relief to follow a prominent mainstream literary figure follow her own nose (or James Wood's according to Andrew Seal) like this rather than parading the populist canards one sees every week in the broadsheets' literary pages. She is evidently struggling to find the right form for her own work following the early success of White Teeth, and such struggles tend to produce more interesting work than that of someone who churns out basically the same formally unchallenging novel each year to the delight of middlebrows everywhere (except Stockholm).

One of the canards is of course that Philip Roth is unjustly overlooked for the Nobel Prize, while another is that genre fiction is looked down upon and does not receive the "recognition" it deserves. Yet in Zadie Smith's essay I find the genre versus literary fiction debate continuing in other words and thereby offering more hopeful directions for authors seeking an audience without compromise. She expresses both love and impatience with the Novel, seeking to break free of the familiar gestures and crafted perfection in order to find authenticity. However, the opposition of formal perfection and messiness – which is the argument of David Shields' book discussed in the essay – tends to conceal the individual choices artists have to make and replaces them with generic forms that mean something only to a consumer; in this case, messy or formal novels. These could easily be replaced by genre and literary fiction. Samuel Johnson can help here too.

His famous impatience with Milton's decision to express grief at the death of a friend in the form of a pastoral elegy deserves to be still better known.
Lycidas is not to be considered as the effusion of real passion; for passion runs not after remote allusions and obscure opinions. Passion plucks no berries from the myrtle and ivy, nor calls upon Arethuse and Mincius, nor tells of rough satyrs and fawns with cloven heel. Where there is leisure for fiction, there is little grief.
Johnson isn't saying Milton didn't experience grief, nor that his craft is in question, but that the unreflective use of genre betrays the inspiration of the work; as Smith puts it, the form "traduces reality". The debate then should be not be about genre and literary fiction but that which traduces the explicit inspiration of the work.

Late in the essay she refers to JM Coetzee's post-Nobel writing in negative terms and seems to believe he has eschewed the imaginative novel in favour of the "essayistic and self-referential". Yet these novels are great examples of inspiration taking priority over generic repetition. In Elizabeth Costello and Diary of a Bad Year there is less fiction and more grief.  Both investigate the relation between writing and life, between writing and truthfulness, which both lead to the adoption of adventurous forms; not for the sake of adventure but in order to follow the logic of the inspiration (e.g. what it means to have singular opinions in a plural universe). It's a great thing that, rather than generating more novels out of writerly mastery (more Disgrace), Coetzee has continued to challenge himself and the form of the novel. It's also revealing that Smith sees the products of this seeking as "anaemic", as if choosing to write about the favelas of Rio would be somehow more real than writing about an aging Australian novelist. All writing, by virtue of being writing, whether it is formally perfect or messy, already submits to a unity independent of the physical world, even if it is only that of the book itself (this is why "book" has such an aura; the hope of containment). The writer who seeks to erase the well-craftedness of novels by producing a book such as David Shields' Reality Hunger is still appealing to a Platonic realm. Coetzee is aware of the irony and it is partly out of this that his novels emerge. His novels keep the wound of their isolation open.

In contrast, Smith praises The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek as a novel that presumably – despite its bloodletting – is not anaemic. Like Coetzee, Jelinek has also won the Nobel, but that's about all they have in common. In a piece about the Prize, Gabriel Josipovici comments on this particular award and reveals the important distinction:
The Nobel committee made the point that, in awarding [Jelinek] the prize, they were honouring a radical tradition of Austrian writing, and specifically mentioned Bernhard. But that is typical of the misleading generalisations committees are prone to make. Bernhard has nothing in common with Jelinek except a hatred of post-war Austria. His masters are Montaigne and Beckett, not [Jelinek's] Bataille and Adorno. His greatness stems from his ability to give voice to a wide variety of marginal figures, to harness comedy and vitriol, and to accept that he, too, is implicated in his own criticism, like another of his masters, Kafka ("In your quarrel with the world, back the world"). For Jelinek, as for Adorno, on the other hand, all are rotten and guilty — except the observer/writer.
This last point then is crucial. Coetzee, like Bernhard, implicates the observer in his investigations. It takes imagination to do that; perfection and messiness are beside the point.

In mitigation, Smith also mentions the Austrian who should have won the Nobel instead of Jelinek but now never will. She approves of the "sophisticated, beautiful and aphoristic side roads" that include Peter Handke's journals collected as The Weight of the World. On page 16 of this book, Handke sums up the anxiety, the pressure and the wonder of writing in the world:
Tense, unnerved, and close to madness before writing – and when I read what I've written it looks so calm.
In this one moment, in one apparently offhand diary entry, Handke opens a vertiginous space in which the process of stating how one feels and then reading it reverses everything. The sentence is already perfect. He doesn't add to it. This isn't a side road, this is the real thing. Perhaps with Zadie Smith on its side, writing like this will no longer be consigned to the wilderness.

UPDATE: My review of Reality Hunger has now been posted.

Friday, November 13, 2009

"Watered-down Modernism" and watered-down watered-down Modernism

In 1997, Michael Hofmann expressed despair about the prospects for foreign literature in English translation. He does so in a review of a book heralded as in the tradition of Proust and Mann and 'one of the great novels of modern times'. However:
[Péter Nádas's A Book of Memories] is a bastard of romantic schlock and watered-down Modernism. To describe this as 'claiming and extending the legacy of Proust and Mann' is quite breathtaking. Yes, Nádas’s sentences are long and relatively abstract, but they have none of Proust's openended inquisitiveness or the purpose and design of Mann. They are without risk, without discovery, without grandeur. Far from resembling or – ha! – outdoing Proust and Mann, this is utterly epigonal writing, a third-generation Zweitaufguss for middlebrows.
Another writer whose three volumes are said to "constitute one of the great novels in modern European literature" and are also "already being compared with Proust" is reviewed by Margaret Drabble in this week's TLS (not online):
[Javier Marías's Your Face Tomorrow] has been compared to Proust ... But the trilogy also suggests an upmarket James Bond.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A profound conjunction

I've just discovered the London Review of Books' archive, access to much of which demands subscription. However, the letters archive is open. This gives me the chance to share an important moment in my early reading.

In 1988 I'd been reading seriously for only a year and a half, trying everything and, more often than not, being secretly disappointed. By "secretly" I mean that disappointment was held secret from me. I might have enjoyed a prize-winning author's prize-winning book, but something was missing. Deep down I knew these books weren't what I'd hope for yet kept on reading novels by the big names assuming I had missed something. What drove me back to the big city library and to read the Sunday review pages and journals like the LRB was the hope of isolating the decisive factor in those rare books that got beneath the surface. So this is why in November of that year I read Barbara Everett's review of Hugh Kenner's A Sinking Island, his highly-critical critical book about Modernism and modern English authors. Two issues later I read Gabriel Josipovici's letter in response. This is what I can repeat here. As you may notice from some of the names mentioned, things would never be the same again.

He begins by praising the review as "thoughtful, often profound" before getting on to the issues at hand:
Barbara Everett is right to insist that Eliot's impact depends on the interconnection of the aesthetic and the moral in his work, and that 'the inward debate of authority' is crucial to our sense of him. The same is true of Beckett, and the attempt to see both as ‘high priests of Modernism’ does a disservice to them and to Modernism, suggesting as it does that they wish to substitute art for religion. But the mere introduction of Beckett into the picture makes one see the weakness of Everett's attempt to see [Kingsley] Amis’s work as in some way akin to Eliot’s and as unjustifiably slandered by Kenner. Those novelists who are highly regarded in their own countries and in the rest of Europe, but not in Britain, such as Thomas Bernhard and Peter Handke, Claude Simon and Marguerite Duras, Yaakov Shabtai and Aharon Appelfeld, have all, like Eliot and Beckett, sensed that to speak 'with the voice of a person subject to his own experience, like everyone else: not a preacher, not a poet' (Everett’s words about Larkin) requires a formal adventurousness, a willingness to take risks with the manner of speaking, which is quite absent from the work of Amis and the other much-touted English writers of the present.

Of course one can go on playing the game of who 'really' is in the Modernist tradition and who isn't. I myself, like Everett, would make Auden rather than Bunting central. But that, as I understand it, is not the main thrust of Kenner’s argument. In this country, today, 'ambitious' tends to mean 'long'; 'wildly imaginative' tends to mean 'working in the minor mode of fantasy'; 'sensitive' and 'compassionate' to mean 'this author still writes like Hardy.' Instead of the ambition of an Eliot, a Kafka, or Beckett, to speak the truth at whatever cost in terms of popularity, we have variants on Hemingway's absurd boast that he could take Tolstoy to 15 rounds, or the even more debased ambition to win a major prize. What I find absent from the bulk of contemporary English fiction and poetry, clever and witty as much of it is, is precisely that sense of the voice of a person subject to his or her own experience, which Everett finds in Larkin. 'Defeated, the poet starts to sound like a person: unique,' she writes. I think she is right, and not just about Larkin: there is a profound conjunction between the acknowledgment of defeat – as a writer, as well as as a person – and the quality of art. But the implications of that have not, it seems to me, ever really been taken on board in England. I don't think American letters have all that much to boast about at present, but unfortunately more of Kenner's critique of English writing holds than Everett is prepared to accept.
But it wasn't the names alone that stuck in my head, it was phrases too, from the original article and the letter: "the inward debate of authority", "the acknowledgment of defeat", "a person subject to his or her own experience", "formal adventurousness" and "a willingness to take risks with the manner of speaking". Simple summaries of now familiar ideas but then entirely new to me; new yet precisely those factors I had sought.

One still can't imagine such phrases being uttered by the gatekeepers of English literature in their Sunday Supplement columns, let alone being understood. Even the LRB has long since given up any interest in fiction.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Not Even Past: Conjunctions 53

Not Even Past is the title of the 53rd and latest edition of Conjunctions, Bard College's literary journal. This edition's special features deserve attention:

  • Beckett's US publisher Barney Rosset contributes Remembering Samuel Beckett including "the Beckett/Rosset Correspondence about Waiting for Godot". 

  • An extract from Roberto Bolaño's Antwerp

  • Thomas Bernhard's poem Ave Virgil  translated by James Reidel "appearing in English for the first time, with a postscript note by Bernhard"
Of course, the last of these excites my interest. It is mentioned in passing in the Sign & Sight interview of 1986. Bernhard explains its 1981 publication, 21 years after he wrote it: Well, I found it and I thought to myself, this is actually a good poem, from that period, and that was it. [My publisher] publishes everything I give him.

As I'm likely to buy everything Bernhard published, I'll have to get this too, although currently it is not currently available at The Book Depository or Amazon.

But not everything is withheld: Web Conjunctions has published The Will of Achilles, a long poem by Robert Kelly.

Monday, November 09, 2009

An isolated note on Everything Passes

Over the Summer I was asked to contribute to a symposium on Gabriel Josipovici's novel Everything Passes and its relation to contemporary English-language literary fiction (a relation of distance). For various reasons the symposium never happened, so I'm posting my short essay below. It should be read with this context in mind. For another view, you can read Richard Crary's contribution at The Existence Machine.

An isolated note on Everything Passes

The first thing that strikes one about Everything Passes is its austerity. Unlike most other contemporary novels, it offers little in the way of framing information; no names, no faces, no time or place. It begins:
A room.
He stands at the window.
And a voice says: Everything passes. The
good and the bad. The joy and the sorrow.
Everything Passes.

A room.
He stands at the window.
He stands.
Readers of contemporary literary fiction – even those who relish what Nick Hornby calls "opaquely written novels" – are unlikely to feel at home here. It is as if writing is denuding itself. Where is this room? Who is "he", why is he standing at a window? And whose voice is speaking? So few words yet so many questions. Isn't it the job of fiction to fill in these blanks?

Given this beginning, there is an inevitable impulse to seek genre distinctions and so gain purchase on the smooth surface. "A novella" is the simplest label, though there are very few novellas like this. "Narrative poetry" perhaps; the short lines and caesura certainly suggest that. Yet the prose style does become more expansive later on, so perhaps it is more accurate to compare it to a piece of music; a string quartet perhaps. Josipovici has himself said the inspiration for the novel was to make a writerly version of Schoenberg's String Trio Op. 45. Also, the rhythmic repetitions of words and phrases provides the mesmerising experience of music. This direction of enquiry offers more clarity because, as questions of context and meaning are raised in music, they are answered at the same time, soothing the listener, diminishing anxiety, even if the music is by turns anxious and mournful as is the Schoenberg.
He stands at the window.
Cracked pane.
His face at the window.
Greyness. Silence.

And again the room.
The window.
He stands at the window.
In listening to music, the reader is plunged into a world without distance or contradiction; feeling and movement are everything. Could Everything Passes then be affirming Walter Pater's submission that 'All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music'? Answer yes and, for 18 pages, the issue is settled. The unidentified man at the window is met by memories of a woman no longer present and by visits from his fussing children. It is as if the novel is developing a theme framed by the voice telling him that everything passes; a theme of memory and its permanence in what passes, our everyday lives. In this way we can place the novel as part of literary fiction, an idiosyncratic part – an experimental part perhaps – and thus more readily assimilated. We can then hurry back to the mass of more detailed novels in which backstory and expressive words fill in the gaps left open here. We may deem it a worthy failure too because, if Everything Passes aspires to the condition of music, doesn't its form admit to a inherent failure?

What happens on page 18 provides the answer. A literary scholar called Felix interrupts the stream of memories to begin a conversation over a cup of coffee with his girlfriend Sal. He talks about how Rabelais had recognised the consequences for authorship by the advent of prose fiction. Until then authors knew their audience: for example Chaucer read to a royal court and Shakespeare had London theatre-goers. He also cites Dante who, in Purgatorio, meets an old friend Casella. Three times Dante tries to embrace him but, as a spirit, he is incorporeal and Dante's arms meet only themselves. Dante then asks if it is possible for Casella to sing one of Dante's poems he sang on earth. Felix sings it to Sal:
"Amor che ne la mente mi ragiona"
cominciò elli allor si dolcemente,
che la dolcezza ancor dentro mi suona.
The answer is that the narrative is as isolated as with the man at the window, as bodiless as Casella. The interruption indicates a determination to face the issue. What Felix's scholarly musings in a café then turn us toward are the consequence in the loss of this connection with an audience. It is a loss of community, of a guiding tradition and the loss, thereby, of writerly authority. It meant Rabelais, one of the first modern novelists, "was the spokesman of no-one but himself. And that meant that his role was inherently absurd. No-one had called him. Not God. Not the Muses. Not the monarch. Not the local community. He was alone in his room, scribbling away". Nothing has changed. Sal listens.
— How did it go again? she asks, looking him across the table.
— What?
— The Dante.
— Love that discourses in my mind (that’s the first line of his old poem), he then began so sweetly that the sweetness still within me sounds.
He smiles at her: — Che la dolcezza ancor dentro mi suona, he says.
Despite the subject matter of the conversation, this is more what we expect from an English novel. Except it is the subject matter that turns Everything Passes from what might be dismissed a mood piece into a challenge to English fiction. The sweetness sounding in Dante has an equivalence in the voices streaming through the man at the window. Opposed they reveal the duality at the heart of fiction: an experience that stills our daily disquiet yet also delays our progress, just as it delays Casella and Dante from climbing Mount Purgatory. Together they constitute our experience of art – its joy and its sorrow – whether it is poetry, music or fiction. Yet it is only poetry and fiction that can reflect on its own status and include this reflection in the experience. It's nothing new and radical. We see it in the scene with Casella, a 14th Century poem.

It's no coincidence that Sal asks Felix to repeat Dante's own repetition of the song (that is, sung first in Purgatory itself and then in his poem of the same name). In it she is prompted to recognise the love discoursing over the café table. So, by describing Rabelais' recognition, Felix has opened a space in which communication becomes possible. His own isolation is implicated in his scholarly proposition, yet it also offers a promise of its end: Sal has become his audience, his community. Very soon after, she agrees to marry him. Here the distance between art and life — which is also the distance between Felix and Sal — is given measure. However, we must now realise that the conversation is also streaming through Felix as he recalls a happy time in the wretchedness of Sal's absence. He has lost his community, perhaps driven it away with a selfish focus on his own scholarly concerns, or perhaps the ultimate failure of communication, and thereby of art.

Everything Passes then is not so much a metafiction reflecting with postmodern knowingness on the elemental opening 18 pages than an Orphic gaze into the underworld of art and our inner lives. In exploring the issue within a novel, Josipovici implicates itself and our reading in the same process. The voices we hear resonate uncannily in our mind, offering the possibility of real expression and dialogue outside of all constraints imposed by the genre of the novel, yet also threatening to reinforce them with yet another beginning, middle and end. It is difficult to distinguish between the pathway and the cul-de-sac. To do so, we have to read, listen and write again. For the man standing at the cracked window things begin to look brighter as, toward the end of the novel, he finds release in creative life, only to make a discovery that seems to reverse all progress. Everything Passes risks such failure as no other English novel dare fail.


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