In effect, our personal library is a collection of portals to disillusion protected by rows and rows of upright spines. Could this be why packed shelves ferment a curious mixture of peace and anxiety?
My first example is a novel I read one summer in Victoria Park, a small green area behind Portsmouth's main shopping area, and after which reading other novels was never quite the same. In Thomas Bernhard's Concrete an old man in Vienna chooses to leave his estate to a name picked at random from the London telephone directory. His finger alights on one name: Sarah Slother of 128 Knightsbridge – which just seems unlikely given that Knightsbridge is an exclusive road and not especially residential, comparable to a British author choosing Sabine Sänger of Unter den Linden 128. It lacks the randomness it is supposed to represent. Not necessarily a flaw of course and possibly there to maintain Bernhard's mode of disruption – random is never random – except for me it softens the whitewashed wall of prose I had walked into that day. To mitigate such disappointments, we often turn to other superficial features: the objective content of a novel (“X is the Dickens of the Credit Crunch”), the social value of an oppressed group stepping onto the literary stage ("Y is an important new voice"), the cod liver oil of experimental prose ("Zzzzz"). But do we actually recognise these qualities in the first, silent reading?
Perhaps this is why I have read my second example, Peter Handke’s Repetition, at least six times in the 26 years since Die Weiderholung was translated, as I sought to renew the peculiar transformation it imposed back in 1988. While Handke's book, like Proust's, bathed the earth in sunlight, I have always struggled to translate that experience into words. Having written this, I now see WG Sebald used light to characterise the effect of reading this novel:
[Repetition] allows the peculiar light which illuminates the space under a leafy canopy or a tent canvas to glisten between words, placed here with astounding caution and precision; in doing so, he succeeds in making the text into a sort of refuge amid the arid lands which, even in the culture industry, grow larger day by day.So it is there. Yet superficially the narration is your familiar first person Bildungsroman telling of Filip Kobal’s family and school life in southern Austria in early 1960s, and then of his journey over the border into Slovenia in search of his long-lost elder brother. Certainly there’s something romantic and adventurous about Kobal’s discovery of the towns and countryside of the old Yugoslavia, but nothing you couldn't find in many other novels, and re-reading Repetition has emphasised these similarities. The difference is that the discoveries are presented not as lyrical flights tacked onto the narrative for local colour but as catalysts for Filip’s ability to make the journey, to find something other than his brother and then tell his ability to tell the story (that is, to repeat it). A bricked-in ‘blind’ window seen on the wall of a stationmaster’s house reminds him how forty years before his brother had been rushed to a doctor late at night to save the sight in one eye, which was lost anyway.
[Translated by Nathaniel Davis]
The significance of the blind window remained undefined, but suddenly that window became a sign, and in that same moment I decided to turn back. My turning back—and here again the sign was at work—was not definitive; it applied only to the hours until the following morning, when I would really start out, really begin my journey, with successive blind windows as my objects of research, my traveling companions, my signposts. And when later, on the evening of the following day, at the station restaurant in Jesenice, I thought about the shimmering of the blind window, it still imparted a clear message—to me it meant: “Friend, you have time.”So it might be that Repetition stood out as a refuge in arid lands because it enabled me to recognise signs in my own youthful journey, whereas later they were overlooked as habit replaced wonder. This is another aspect in common with Proust. A third is in how the opening sentence situates the entire narrative to come:
[Translated by Ralph Manheim]
A quarter of a century, or a day, has passed since I arrived in Jesenice on the trail of my missing brother.That is, the signs guiding Filip's journey require chance and patient attention to show themselves. Whether a day or twenty-five years later is irrelevant, they are present if one can find the means of access. On the other hand, dilettantish demands might invite awareness only of generic features and the awkwardness of specific detail.
While the aura of a novel you've read might be threatened by re-reading, so too can reading one you’ve never read before. Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice is famously about an ageing writer’s infatuation with a 13-year-old boy. To the modern reader it is an uncomfortable scenario, especially as Gustav von Aschenbach, a successful author and married man with a family, has much in common with his creator. For years I never thought to read it, assuming, I suppose, that I knew it already. However, reading it this year was a surprise because the peculiar risk Mann took emerges not so much as creepy self-projection but as a necessary component of the subject. Erich Heller summarises it as "the war between form and chaos, serenity of mind and consuming passion ... with Death presiding over it as judge and ultimate conqueror." For a novelist to approach this war in this way is to court a different kind of suspicion – especially from modern readers more attuned to bullshit than mystic epiphany – but Aschenbach’s dodgy behaviour is the necessary inverse of the essayistic discussion of his life and work in which it is framed, and which is much less famous.
If the aura of a novel is at odds with its detail and what we value is irreconcilable with whatever we are able to say about it, then the act of writing itself must too be part of this dynamic impasse, leaving the author as eager to have access to the gift of the work as much as the reader. Death in Venice is what happens when this impasse becomes the theme. Beneath the dignified, high-bourgeois façade, something lurks in Aschenbach, something great or dark, something like transcendence or death, something like what John Marcher called The Beast in the Jungle, and its imminence and hesitation before birth gives pulse to his story. Soon after we meet him, Aschenbach is finally paying the price for devoting his life to the dignity and serenity of form:
At forty, at fifty, he was still living as he had commenced to live in the years when others are prone to waste and revel, dream high thoughts and postpone fulfillment. He began his day with a cold shower over chest and back; then, setting a pair of tall wax candles in silver holders at the head of his manuscript, he sacrificed to art, in two or three hours of almost religious fervour, the powers he had assembled in sleep. Outsiders might be pardoned for believing that his [two famous novels] were a manifestation of great power working under high pressure, that they came forth, as it were, all in one breath. It was the more triumph for his morale; for the truth was that they were heaped up to greatness in layer after layer, in long days of work, out of hundreds and hundreds of single inspirations; they owed their excellence, both of mass and detail, to one thing and one alone; that their creator could hold out for years under the strain of the same piece of work, with an endurance and a tenacity of purpose like that which had conquered his native province of Silesia, devoting to actual composition none but his best and freshest hours.What this reveals then is that the aura is not present in the detail but that detail is the only means of access. Colm Tóibín confirms this in audio interview when he rejects the idea that in writing The Master, his novel about the author of The Beast in the Jungle, he was inhabiting the consciousness of an historical individual:
[Translated by Martin C. Doege]
I wrote the first chapter .... and then left it for about 18 months. What happens then ... is that your dreamtime – you're lying in bed in the morning, you're walking along the street – that you start to think more and more deeply into that consciousness you've developed. But it's a question then of cunning and style, of just trying to add detail after detail after detail that seems to you to be true to what the next thing was that happened. And you're inventing, you're inventing, you're inventing, and you're adding. But the main thing is that the sentence structure and the sound of the words equals a tone that you've established from the very beginning, almost in the first sentence. And that adds up strangely to something, or doesn't. But you can't really judge that. You can't really suddenly say: "Oh this is the historical [Henry] James I'm doing". No, this is the next sentence I'm doing. You can only really think in detail.Later he says that James called himself "a worker, a constant producer", so in that sense was very much like von Aschenbach, except that he never quite suffered the same fate, though perhaps came close when he became infatuated with the much younger Hendrik Andersen. The Master describes an allusive shared visit to the grave of Constance Fenimore Woolson in another ancient Italian city:
Here in this cemetery, which they began to stroll around once more, the state of not-knowing and not-feeling which belonged to the dead seemed to him closer to resolved happiness than he had ever imagined possible.And so we are back in the war.
This was meant to be a review of Dictionary of Untranslatables, Princeton UP's heroic translation of Vocabulaire Européen des Philosophies, that includes entries on familiar words with deep register – Demos, Drive, Duty – and on more seductive obscurities that defy satisfactory translation – Daimôn, Desengaño, Dichtung. But one of the reasons why I can't attempt a normal review is because the Dictionary itself is a model of digression and refuses contemplation en bloc, thus emphasising the threat posed by concepts as a function of the war under which they came to exist in the first place.
As Howard Caygill says in his more conventional review, the urge to produce such a book with its intellectual histories, vast array of diverse interpretations and extensive bibliographies (detail upon detail), "is largely a product of the Enlightenment" and, I would add, a key weapon in an implicit war. We are always on the brink of chaos, perhaps already unknowingly engulfed and grasping for a float.
On page 636 of the Dictionary, ten double-columned pages are launched under the heading MEMORY / FORGETFULNESS. It has four chapters with sub-sections that themselves contain further sub-sections and under them, even more. Under II: The Making of the Past comes D: The fiction of total knowledge and under that is 3: Mallarmé's break with tradition: The freeing of forgetfulness. The entry by the late Jean Bollack is an impressively concise summary of the poet's "Orphic search for a truth hidden within language" and uses his poem Le vierge, le vivace as the defining statement of his art and "which makes forgetfulness a condition of poetic song".
Poetry in the figure of a swan leaves behind it “ce lac dur que hante sous le givre / le transparent glacier des vols qui n’ont pas fui” ( Beneath the frost of a forgotten lake / Clear flights of glaciers not fled away; trans. John Holcombe ). The world of life is thus divided, and also leaves behind the raw matter of frozen traces: “Un cygne d’autrefois se souvient” ( In past magnificence of another day / The swan remembers ). It remembers its lost glory as in a mirror: if it escapes, it is because it has resisted and not given in to incantation and celebration. Its poetic means have transported it elsewhere, and forgetfulness is the line that is crossed by verbal transcendence, with art finding a way to create for itself another world.The translation used here is not one by which this poem came to me but Robert Lowell's with its "hard, neglectful lake hoarding under ice / a glacier of flights than never fly" and "The swan ruffles, remembers it is he". In this way even a poem that seemed to be an unchanging literary terra firma is now threatened, and this Dictionary is the ocean. Perhaps this is why Thomas Bernhard's wall of prose meant so much to me that day – the novel was the thing itself, the detail was not key but rather the overall movement, the constant working, the constant repetition of sentences shored against the ocean. Moreover, the translation is not exceptionally important: the book is an object added to the world, a gap in the universe and propels itself into existence under that awareness.