Sunday, September 01, 2019

Yesterday by Ágota Kristóf

In 2009 Tim Parks warned of the Dull New Global Novel in which "culture-specific clutter and linguistic virtuosity have become impediments" to commercial success. "From the moment an author perceives his ultimate audience as international rather than national, the nature of his writing is bound to change". "What" he asks "are the consequences for literature?".

Dullness, apparently. Parks offers a handful of examples of authors whose novels have been planed to removed the jagged edges of a specific culture, and while he doesn't include Ágota Kristóf, her novel Yesterday might well be the apotheosis of smooth. First published in 1996 and now reissued in a translation by David Watson published a year later, it has only the most mundane features of modern life, and character names vaguely suggesting a generic European state. Otherwise there is nothing specific. No reader will feel confused or alienated by the detail, what there is of it. This is the ghost of the novel Tim Parks feared, only this has nothing to do with the author having an eye on an audience.

As the title suggests, it is a story of what has passed. Sandor is living in exile having gone on the run as a child after stabbing his mother's lover. He changed his name to avoid detection and was brought up in an orphanage. As an adult he crossed some mountains into a different country and got a job in a factory staffed by fellow exiles who speak in their native language rather than "the language of here". Much like Ágota Kristóf's own story, he experiences "days of dismal work, silent evenings, a frozen life, without change, without surprise, without hope". But his dreams are haunted by Line, the girl he left behind and the daughter of the stabbed lover, whom he still loves and hopes will reappear in his life. "In the evenings, I write" he says. As well as the usual daily intrigues and expressions of pain, he records poetic reveries which write allegorical tales over the blank page of his life. It is here that yesterday rises up and torments. Eventually Line does reappear, and yesterday promises to become today. However, Sandor's experience only ever reiterates that while physical exile from one's homeland and one's true love is particular, exile from yesterday is universal.

Yesterday appears following the success of Kristóf's The Notebook, a book that shares with the new one a minimalist prose style, a lack of geographic and cultural specificity, and the conditions of its narrators' childhoods. However, it lacks that novel's formal constraint in which the twin narrators speak as 'we' and only ever report what they see and hear rather than speculate or assert impressions or emotions, which is matched by the ethical imperative they adopt, and which impressed Slavoj Žižek so much. The effect is to exile the reader from the comfort of a first- or third-person perspective, prompting a dynamic of familiarity and distance, recognition and horror. In contrast, Yesterday contains only the subjectivity of the first-person that tends toward self-pity, and its allegorical reveries and acts of violence, whether physical or emotional, are futile attempts to mitigate writing's naturally anhedonic state, which is also the natural state of the exile, so its promise of excitement only ever delivers literary dullness and indifference to the reader.

What content then should a novel seek to end its exile? Perhaps there is none, as action of culture-specific content and linguistic virtuoisity may be significant only as resistance to literature's exile, producing the same indifference. Resistance to literature may indeed be the definition of the form. After all, the novel began with Robinson Crusoe as a resistance to genre and in Don Quixote as a send-up of its idealistic or anhedonic tendency. Crusoe's shipwrecked state might itself be a metaphor of the novelist's exile, which he resists by colonising the foreign land and turning it into a model of yesterday. But the novel, like the island, only ever remains an idealism. In effect, Flaubert's wish to write a book dependent on nothing external is granted with every book.

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