This Space

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Interruption: Heaven on Earth by TJ Clark

‘The best things in museums are the windows’ 
Paintings on gallery walls have always been distant to me. I think of Pierre Bonnard's quip as I wander, aware that I am too soon drawn toward the text panel on the wall beside each painting, to the wall itself, to the design of the gallery space – what if there were a hundred windows and only one painting? – and then to the giftshop, as if in search of something to close that distance: a postcard or Mondrian mug. I am always trying to understand this space, specifically why a painting, any painting, has its peculiar presence in the world – part of the world and apart from it. It's a question that invariably leaves me frustrated or blank.


Which is why I have been drawn in recent years to what TJ Clark calls art writing: distance is there already in the relation to the form, something gratifyingly signalled in the epigraph to his latest book quoting Ruskin's revelation of the "entire superiority of Painting to Literature...and of the enormously greater quantity of Intellect which might be forced into a picture...compared with what might be expressed in words". Art writing thereby differs from literary criticism because, in the latter genre, mastery of the form often obscures whatever is being discussed, elevating and reducing itself and the object in the same movement. In writing about art, there is an implicit admittance of distance that immediately opens a space to be closed or at least traversed. While Clark orchestrates history, biography and technical detail in the way you'd expect of an art historian, each is always a means of investigating the intellect of a painting, which in Heaven on Earth means those that relate to "the idea that the world we inhabit might open onto another"; the life to come of the subtitle.


It was Clark's own Picasso and Truth (2013) that helped me to recognise that the content of my frustration and blankness was connected to this idea. When writing about The Painter and His Model from 1927, he begins with a description familiar from other art books:
We seem to be standing in a room. There appears to be light in the room, falling or flashing across the walls and floor like the beams of a searchlight: two great shapes of light, the one on the left a deadly bone-to-ashes off-white, and the other a slightly – but only slightly – more organic pale yellow.
To which I responded, as I always do, silently, churlishly, No, we're not in a room it's just paint. But then he asks if we should understand the lit shapes as holes in the picture surface: "holes that dramatize and materialize the strange fiction of European painting since the Renaissance called 'the picture plane'." So much of Picasso's painting, Clark says, has to do with this fiction.
The picture plane is an a priori. For depiction to take place at all, it says – for the very notion of appearance to make sense – hasn't what appears necessarily to appear somewhere else than where we are, on the other side of an ontological divide? There must be a place in representation – a virtual, invisible threshold – where the space of the scene ends and the space of the viewer begins. The picture shows us that place.
The absence of acknowledgement of the picture plane, I realised, constituted my distance, and the resentment underlying my behaviour in galleries was frustration with the acceptance or ignorance of what one might call the ontological divide, so that I could see the appreciation of art in general only as the connoisseur's admiration of technical facility, the romantic's sentimental wish-fulfilment or consumer's decorative kitsch.



Clark notes that the background or foreground of Picasso's painting is in 'free circulation', so that the holes turn the painting into a metafiction in which the light of painting is at the same time a darkness, and as such is in critical dialogue with Vermeer's The Art of Painting, another metafiction in which the invisible soul of painting is in the foreground:
What painting has to offer most deeply, so Vermeer seems to believe, is light; and it should not offer that ground of experience merely in spots or patches...but as a totality, here in front of us, completely present, completely intangible.
This prompts more of my confusion: why do we need what is already plain as day to be presented in artificial form in the first place? Given that painting no longer has an overt ritual function spinning metaphysical truth from the same material, what is the meaning of art? Framed colour on a wall is in itself a very odd thing when it ceases to have a practical purpose. The Painter and His Model might then be one of art's few suicide notes, with its relative ugliness enacting or at least encouraging a transformation of our relation to painting in order for us to ignore its promise, or at best to travel through its portal of light, foreclosing the divide and thereby perhaps merging its inherent perfection with the malady of our earthly quotidian.

It is this moment of transformation that is the centre of Clark's new study, which foregrounds works of art with Christian themes by Giotto, Bruegel, Poussin and Veronese, with Picasso reappearing to provide an atheist coda. His focus, however, is on political transformation, in which heaven on earth would be a really existing state rather than the promise of an afterlife, something he sees revealed in the subject paintings: "What the artists whose pictures held me captive offered most deeply" he says in the introduction "was a way of being earthbound – fully in the here and now." While the utopias of religion and politics have produced only hell on earth, these paintings frame a transformation with an awareness of how the wish for the life to come can lead to the life to end.


The fact that Heaven in Earth is a book of nearly 300 pages rather confirms Ruskin's observation, as it detours through innumerable avenues to back up its readings of individual paintings so that one is constantly flipping back to the illustration to rest from being in turn intrigued, engaged, overwhelmed and exhausted by the detail and digressions. But never bored. And for this reason it is also qualifies the value of Ruskin's truth, as it opens the eyes of the vacillating gallery visitor enough to see what he – that is, me – has casually overlooked.

The chapter on Poussin's Sacrament of Marriage is a prime example of Clark's passionate perception. Here is a familiar Old Master's representation of a religious scene, in this case the moment God interrupts the betrothal of Mary and Joseph to give it his blessing, so setting in motion the entire Christian story. It is a painting I would have walked by with barely a glance. Clark gives the biographical background to the painting and then a description of its internal symmetries and commentary on its people, clothes, setting and related works, including the six other paintings in the sequence, before coming to what he calls 'the presiding deity' of the painting, which is not, as one might assume, found at the centre, let alone in God Himself, represented here by the staff of flowers standing beside the couple, but the figure on the far left, half hidden by the column framing the event, whose folds of cloth are given impressive relief by the light streaming through the window.

Clark calls her the femme-colonne – the woman-column – because she in effect merges with the pillar. She is, Clark says, mysterious, veiled, marginal to the event, apart from the intervention of grace at the centre, outside even, at least "to one side of the sacred", thereby threatening the togetherness of the group. And as her head and face are covered up, she is also the embodiment of the double meaning of 'figure': both physical body and abstract metaphor, so that she is the attentive viewer of the transformation taking place yet also something more: a figure from myth and fairytale such as "the forgotten relative at the little princess Aurora's christening, bringing the gift of death".



The femme-colonne is also a figure of light and darkness, of the arbitrariness of the means of painting in that there's "something uncanny" in the way the viewer knows that she is looking at the scene even though we cannot see her face let alone her eyes. She is also the figure of things to come, of Christ's life prefigured in Mary's joining of hands with God, and also his death in that she and the column prefigure the darkness of his execution and thereby represents the figure of the human, the real body standing upright and alone in the real world, "all that is mortal in opposition to the reach of the cross"; a vulnerability emphasised by the protection and concealment of her clothes and in contrast to the unclothed boy on the other side of the pillar.

The proliferation of possible readings here and throughout Heaven on Earth demonstrates the challenge for Clark and the reader – one to explain to himself and us the intellect of a painting, and for us to cope with such sudden explosions of a figure who was merely one of many, apparently random onlookers. That said, this not a question of whether one accepts or rejects each or every possible reading, because they present themselves with the same hospitality and caution as one must present oneself in the here and now before a painting. For Clark, however, the demand must not end in a pick and mix sale of possibilities because, as if sensing that art criticism is not enough, the book ends with the 25-page essay For a Left with No Future first published in the New Left Review in 2012 that links the qualifications to the utopian vision he sees within the paintings to a revival of Left politics. Rather than a return to utopian visions he argues for a pragmatic, humanist politics of 'small steps' and 'a disdain for grand promises' that, while it does not seem revolutionary, because it is one "directed, step by step, failure by failure, to preventing the tiger from charging out would be the most moderate and revolutionary there has ever been".

While the appearance of the essay might be explained as a reminder of why the author is so passionate about the possibilities the intellect of art offers to frame a better world, it does suggests a lack of confidence in the previous focus entirely on individual paintings, as if the exceptional scrutiny and depth of research he displays is a means of justifying what André Malraux called the voices of silence. (The essay's appearance in the NLR prompted Susan Watkins' critical reply Presentism? and Sinéad Murphy's powerful defence The Thinking of Modern Life, so its position in the new book without any reference to objections is surprising if not unfortunate, suggesting a wish to make it place it in isolation, much like a painting in a room without windows.)


Clark's intense focus reminds me of Reger, the music critic in Thomas Bernhard's novel Old Masters, who spends much of his time in Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna studying each of the great masterpieces in its collection. He has a similar anxieties over utopian worlds:
Our age has long been intolerable as a whole he said, only when we perceive a fragment of it is it tolerable to us. The whole and the perfect are intolerable, he said. That is why, fundamentally, all of these paintings here in the Kunsthistorisches Museum are intolerable, if I am to be honest, they are abhorrent to me. In order to be able to bear them I search for a so-called massive mistake in and about every single one of them, a procedure which so far has always attained its objective of turning that so-called perfect work of art into a fragment, he said.  [Trans. by Ewald Osers]
In his own way, Clark too finds paintings unbearable in their perfection, only without such histrionics, and matches Reger's striving for recovery on a human level. And of course what he sees in the femme-colonne is not a massive mistake but what stands beside or outside the moment of grace given by God, or what is given by paintings in general, and how they may allow us to resist or mitigate the repulsion or suffering that Reger expresses. It is a sense of the unbearable that is akin to my unreflective resistance in galleries, which I attributed to a lack of acknowledgement of the picture plane – the purely procedural element of interaction – but after reading Heaven on Earth I realise it is perhaps a more basic response to the strangeness of art works in general. Why, again, do we feel the need to make and look at things that appear only to duplicate the world? Or, rather, what effect does such duplication have on us?
Unlesbarkeit dieser Welt. Alles doppelt / Illegibility of this world. All things twice over.
The first lines of Paul Celan's untitled poem from Schneepart/Snowpart suggest, to me at least, the effect of representation – in ink, in paint – is to make the world illegible, and Blanchot has written more clearly that the first one to write was "changing all relations between seeing and the visible" and what emerged as a result was "a gap in the universe: nothing that was visible, nothing invisible". But it has been claimed by one prominent archeologist that for those who can be assumed to be the first to paint, the images were not representations of the other world but that other world itself as witnessed in dreams and trance states, and that painting was a means of fixing a direct relation to it. In the millenia since we have lost that relation and what art offers to conscious life instead inevitably remains apart; a vain promise. Painting is not the representation of the inaccessible but the inaccessible itself. And this bleeds into the real world because the somewhere else than where we are does not go away. You may remove an abstract that brings colour to your wilderness of lime render but, once gone, the unfaded light of the square left behind becomes as intangible as the painting, and then so too the surrounding wall, and so too the windows and the world beyond. This does at least mean that painting and the world become more fascinating presences, albeit in the distance.

At first I thought the book's focus on religious paintings would produce only minor interest after the contemporary philosophical challenges of Picasso and Truth, but this book continues the challenge of making painting a vital if obscure form of contestation of everyday life and its possibilities without reducing it to all the abuses to which 'art' is subjected. Heaven on Earth is an interruption of rote looking and rote thinking, which is appropriate given that Clark writes that theologians tells us that a sacrament is a mystery, hence the wish to fix one in a painting, and while over time religious ceremonies like paintings set in museums and galleries may become routine, diminishing their power, "there always remains about them a trace of the incomprehensible or ominous. Grace is interruption".

Monday, September 03, 2018

The end of literature, part two

Beyond a certain point there is no return. This point is to be reached.

On Saturday I discovered that another secondhand bookshop in Brighton has closed; the third this year. Saturday mornings have often involved a walk along the promenade, a turn right into Ship Street and onto Colin Page's around the corner on Duke Street. There will be no motivation now the books are gone.


The window displayed antiquarian volumes of no interest to me, and indeed more or less everything inside the shop was of no interest to me, but in good weather the owner put two trestle tables out front that held hundreds of very reasonably priced paperbacks, and unusual paperbacks too, such as Robert Antelme's The Human Race in the original French and a collection of Heidegger's essays, bought for 70p. There were never any brightly coloured mass market paperbacks by Jennifer Someone or James Someone Else that make charity shops such hopeless places.


But I haven't bought anything there for months – the last was a collection of essays by the theologian Rudolf Bultmann – so I can't complain. Trawling though secondhand bookshops has become a groundhog day of blank disappointment. Contrast this with my first day in the city: walking down the road from the station, I found two shops facing each other on either side of the road. In the first I found Thomas Bernhard's The Loser in the rare Quartet hardback, Peter Handke's Absence in a rare Methuen hardback, and an even rarer copy of Maurice Blanchot's The Sirens' Song (two copies in fact, and I wonder if the person to whom I gifted the second still has it). Snapping all three from the shelf has become my guide to how I should consider a purchase: No snap, no buy. That said, I have often neglected the injunction, as I remember hesitating over Bultmann's collection, buying it eventually only out of gratitude that there were still alternatives to brightly coloured mass market paperbacks. I look at the book now and wonder why Lutheran theology might appeal to me more than the paperback of that novel everyone was talking about last year. One's needs develop, of course, sometimes quickly, and that's why the search goes on, as one seeks to understand obscure needs; to find the nourishment one needs. Sometimes I regret not snapping something off the shelf, such as a boxed set of Luther's writings for under a tenner, with the shop now stocking baby clothes.


Of course, if I wanted that boxed set so badly I could order a copy online, so I must be searching for the covert promise that comes from chance discovery more than from the overt content of the books. And this must be why my favourite TV show is Aussie Gold Hunters: mostly amateur men and women sweeping metal detectors over the Australian outback in temperatures of 40º and mostly turning up flakes of gold but, very occasionally, totally out of the blue, huge nuggets worth thousands. The contrast in values is what stirs: one can measure the price of the book against practical necessities, but not the value of its promise.


The itch to search has been there since I started reading. On Sundays in the late 1980s, I would cycle seven miles to a car boot sale in a field just outside the village of Titchfield hoping to find nuggets among the I shot JR mugs and paperbacks of Gormenghast and Lady Chatterley's Lover. Despite multiple visits, the only book I can recall finding is Gabriel Josipovici's novel Contre-Jour. It was 20 pence. Once, I stopped at a small town library as small and creaky as the Terrapin huts of my school years and picked up a 1960 hardback of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, also for 20p. Gold in the outback of provincial England.


I would also cross the harbour and tour the secondhand shops of Portsmouth and Southsea. The first was Adelphi Books, which I am amazed to see is still going, just. A little further on there was a small shop from which the only thing I bought was a pamphlet of short stories edited and published by the couple who ran the place. The male half expressed very clear views in its editorial: he wanted solid, entertaining stories that did a good job for the reader. He was not interested in stories with literary merit, he wrote. If your story had literary merit, he would chuck it aside. Naturally, his own story took a prominant place in the collection. It tells of a man whose neighbours are very touchy about his pet dog's interest in their guinea pigs living in a hutch in the garden. He assures them that his dog won't harm them. Of course, one day soon after, the dog waddles in proudly carrying a dead guinea pig in his mouth. The owner is frantic that the neighbours will find out before he can rectify the situation. Under cover of darkness he sneaks into the next door garden, opens the hatch and places the dead animal on its bed of straw, arranging the body so it looks like it's died in its asleep. Relieved, he goes to bed, only to be woken the next morning by a woman screaming "Fergie!!!". The dog owner acts innocent and asks what is wrong. The woman explains that the day before Fergie had died and they had buried her in the garden. 


The next shop on the route was a short walk from Fratton Park, my other haunt at the time. The Star Bookshop was where I bought this perfectly formed edition of Kafka's Letters to Felice and the stiffed-spined edition of Levinas' Totalty and Infinity, but failed to spend £4 on Bergson's Matter and Memory in the superb Zone Books edition, which I sometimes regret. It seemed a lot of money at the time, though I spent that amount on this 1964 Edinburgh University Press edition with slipcase of Montale's poems, with George Kay's translation of Meriggiare pallido e assorto; the best I've read. I can't remember how much I paid in the same shop for Marthe Robert's Franz Kafka's Loneliness, but look at that: a literary critical work on Kafka published by Faber & Faber!

Click for a close-up

Brand new paperbacks were not as expensive then as they are now, and I bought novels in regular bookshops. I've written before about the effect of reading the first paragraph Peter Handke's Across had on me as I browsed and how, a year later, after snapping it off the shelf, reading the Quartet Encounters edition of Bernhard's Concrete in the shadow of an office block from which I had once walked out of a job was like coming home. It doesn't happen now.


When that sort of thing did happen, I was walking towards rather than away. Walking out of that job now looks like an attempt to deal with the contrast of what I was experiencing and the blankness of drudge work. Coming to this cosmopolitan city to study was no doubt also an attempt to walk away physically, to manifest what appeared to be a process in practical existence, to get closer to what was revealed in various chance discoveries. After all, there was a clear programme to follow: academic study, perhaps book reviewing, even writing books. I followed all three, and, amongst other things, they exposed proximity to a void. 


Where now? Two years ago I marked thirty years of reading by reminiscing about holding a copy of The Sirens' Song I could not take home. I had no access to Blanchot's writing otherwise. By coincidence, the book was published by a press based in Ship Street so it looks like, by coming to live here and finding my own copy, I had arrived at the source of the literary Nile. But if this is true, it is also where I began, because recently I discovered that Titchfield has a close connection to Shakespeare. Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare's patron, dedicatee of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, and probably the Fair Youth of the Sonnets, was also the Baron of Titchfield. He is buried in the parish church. And it made me think about his 400 year old bones in a coffin in that quiet place, and of their proximity to the absolute of literature, "the supreme Mecca of the English-speaking race" as Henry James characterised its birthplace, and of their proximity to that field. Wriothesley is not booked to appear at the next Hay-on-Wye literary festival (yet) so, to get closer to what inspired Shakespeare to write and everything that writing stands for, does one stand next to the tomb? If that's not close enough, does one open the coffin and fondle the bones? Does one climb in and snuggle next to them? Does one then close the coffin lid? And then?

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Dante on the beach

This sumptuous Folio Society edition of Dante's Vita Nuova translated from the Italian by Mark Musa arrived with the suggestion that I post photographs to accompany anything I wanted to write. So here it is, bathed in marine light.


What I wanted to write was unclear to me, and feeling incapable of adding anything worthwhile to the centuries of studies, I began with the basics.

The book was published in 1295 and comprises 31 poems and a prose narrative described by Robert Harrison as juxtaposing "quasi-hallucinatory dreams and visions with pedantic commentary on the poems"; an unusual genre for us, with one familiar forerunner in Boethius' Consolations of Philosophy and no obvious descendants. TS Eliot describes it as a mixture of biography and allegory "according to a recipe not available to the modern mind"; closest perhaps to a modern scholarly edition of selected poems edited and annotated by the poet himself, and so perhaps even outside of our time given the suspicion or regret we feel towards that which is not the thing itself. Here the distance from the thing itself is everything.

The book tells of Dante's love for a woman he saw first when they were both children and with whom he had only the merest acquaintance throughout the rest of her short life, but whom he regarded from the start as "a miracle manifest in reality", as a sign of God's presence on earth, causing "the most secret chambers" of his heart to tremble and for his eyes to weep uncontrollably; a joy indistinguishable from distress. The new life of the title is one in which Dante would praise Beatrice in the very book we're reading; poetry being the gift that could not be taken from him once she had died.

While the Vita Nuova sprang from the tradition of troubadour love poetry, Eliot says Dante was following "something more essential than merely a 'literary' tradition". This might be what that I would like to write about here. What is it that makes the Vita Nuova "something more" than an exercise in genre, and what can reveal to us about the literature of our time?


Dante would go on to place Beatrice as his guide in heaven in his most famous work, which Borges argues was composed solely to manufacture another meeting with the object of this "unhappy and superstitious love". If in the Paradiso she is celebrated as "one of the beautiful angels of heaven", Charles Singleton says we recognise this in the Vita Nuova "not from a poet's extravagant rhetoric in rhyme, but from a sober and solemn and reasoned prose". This might come as a surprise given Dante's reputation as a poet. Except Borges also observes that what happened to Dante's vision "is what often happens in dreams: they are stained by sad obstructions". So we might see such prose here as another sad obstruction, and this is what Teodolinda Barolini argues when she says that a central purpose of Dante's commentary is "to divest the poem of any residual temporal immunity", thereby creating a tension between the physical and metaphysical elements of the story, which might correlate to the tension between distress and joy Dante experienced in Beatrice's presence.

Much of Barolini's own work, she says, is "finding ways to understand ... the deep meaning of the lyric/narrative contaminatio" in which the lyricism and fragmentariness of one form seeps into the regular linearity of the other, and vice versa. This is something that also fascinates me, for less focused reasons, but which emerge from what Barolini goes on to say about the 'excessive narrativity' that attracted later generations of writers in the form, thereby losing the lyric side, something that we can see today in the graphomanic tendencies of modern fiction.


Perhaps that "something more essential" appears in this contamination. There are others in the Vita Nuova in addition to that between lyric and narrative: there's the oscillation that Harrison notes between "Cavalcantian nihilism and Christian evangelism", in which the afflictions of romantic infatuation and the redemptive promise offered by Beatrice create what to us is an odd mix of pathos and piety; a mix that is also present in the light she radiates that acts in the opposite way to the Eurydicean darkness of pagan myth, looking into which nevertheless has a devastating impact on Dante, if not as devastating as looking into the darkness was for Orpheus. The nearest equivalent in modern writing to such contamination might be a book that 'plays with genre' or has multiple styles. Except this would also be furthest from equivalence because, as has been said, in the Vita Nuova the forms are necessary to the story rather than there to dazzle the reader with the writer's generic learning.

We might find a modern equivalent in Beatrice's role as mentioned by John A. Scott. She reflects the Christian Neoplatonic view of the human being as the midpoint of creation – a link between heaven and earth and between "pure intellect and brute matter". Her death acts as a challenging opposition to the lover left behind, just as narrative time challenges lyric timelessness. Beatrice in her absence is like the Untergeher featured in many of Thomas Bernhard's novels: the one who goes under, leaving the writer/narrator on the shore looking out into the unknown, between life and death; "between statis and conversion" as Barolini says of the form of the Vita Nuova. This is not as contrived a leap forward in literary history as it might seem. Singleton reveals how unusual the opening of the Vita Nuova was for its time, somewhat like the 'found text' theme of modern novels, including Bernhard's:
In that part of the book of my memory before which there would be little to be read is found a chapter which says: Here begins a new life. It is my intention to copy into this little book the words I find written under that heading – if not all of them, at least their significance.
Singleton says handwritten works of this age did not announce the presence of the scribe copying the words from another book, so immediately there is an unusually self-consciousness intervention. The book becomes two books and the poet becomes two people: the writer is a protagonist in the story and the one who lived through what happened and is now looking back, giving the narrative another opposition: "the principle of a then and a now, so mercury jumps like a spark". There is no staged innocence here as in the modern Bildungsroman: the story is already over – "Beatrice will not happen again".


If the unusual mix of genres in the Vita Nuova reveals that we are not as modern as we think we are, writing of a young woman as a kind of vernacular Jesus is by contrast more or less unintelligible to us, and thereby easily dismissed as a museum exhibit. I was prompted to wonder about this question by the seductively intimidating presence of this Folio Society edition with its decoration proclaiming an obscure value but also, it seemed to me, standing in for it. The poems and commentary work against the solemnity, cultural worth and demand for dutiful respect that we associate with canonical works, replacing them with anxiety, reflexivity and self-abasement. And while its unintelligible aspects also mean it's tempting to dismiss Dante's elevation of Beatrice as sublimated sexual obsession bordering on the pathology of a stalker, with her death relieving him of the possibility of her ideality becoming tainted, this would also be our form of relief, enabling us to dismiss a disconcerting resistance to our self-ratifying assumptions. Nor would it be original: Scott reports that a contemporary to whom Dante sent the poems told him to rid himself of such visions by "giving his balls a good wash".

We might begin to recognise what it means by raising yet another contamination, noted this time by Alison Cornish: "One of the most important and original aspects of Dante's literary project is his recuperation of sensual, earthly love ... as salvific and educational". This could be adapted to describe Proust's In Search of Lost Time with its two unhappy and superstitious loves from which Marcel learns and Swann doesn't, and the salvation of unredeemed time by the famous Proustian moments, not to mention its heady mix of description and commentary. The lineage suggests that unintelligibility is a function not of religion or cultural distance but the rarity of literary works set in motion by the interaction of such contaminations. We're used to one or the other dominating a novel (inevitably labelled a tour de force), but not both working alongside, distinct yet inseparable.


In the (I have to say remarkable) final volume of My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard suggests this is the case when he repeats the standard complaint that Dante's Inferno lives for its readers because it is populated by real people but dies in Paradiso because of the "non-human or beyond-human" nature of the divine. The comment arises from a discussion of what he learned when he had to delete his father's name from the first volume to placate his irate uncle. He discovered it robbed the presence in the book of the unique individual he had felt compelled to write about. From this Knausgaard recognises that this robbery recurs in our lives with the proliferation of screens – TV, laptops, smartphones – piping images into our lives in every conceivable location: "all kinds of people and places present themselves before us with nothing in common but being somewhere other than where we are". Everything has become fiction or is seen as fiction, causing the world to vanish because it is always somewhere else from where we are.

This is why he felt the job of the novelist had changed and would have to be "about the real world the way it was, seen from the point of view of someone who was trapped inside it with his body, though not his mind, which was trapped in something else". It is notable however that Knausgaard's own literary project, so saturated in the details of sensual, earthly life, nevertheless begins, like the Vita Nuova, in the aftermath of a death, and why Dante's precise naming of Beatrice is a necessary materialisation of the abstract 'Lady Philosophy' of Boethius, thereby maintaining a nameable midpoint in creation with which to relate earth to the heavens. It is Knausgaard's (and our) misfortune that his midpoint is the endpoint. My Struggle might be so long because the search for a midpoint cannot end without the mystery of life and death resolving into a name. (Even a phrase such as 'the mystery of life and death' seems unintelligible now.)


Perhaps the midpoint is writing itself. There is in certain volumes of My Struggle an approach to something more essential that is present in the writing of Dante, Proust, and many others, which is a product of this strange compulsion to approach what is not there, "to look to death for what life cannot give", as Eliot says is a lesson of the Vita Nuova. It is a compulsion that is itself a product of writing and its contamination of the world. After writing the final sonnet of his book, Dante says "a miraculous vision" appeared to him that made him resolve to say no more about Beatrice until he was capable of writing about her "in a more worthy fashion". It is notable that he does not describe the vision, but we know what he went onto write.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

The end of literature, part one

The saints were uneducated. Why, then, do they write so well? Is it only inspiration? They have style whenever they describe God. It's easy to write from divine whispers, with one's ear glued to his mouth. Their works have a superhuman simplicity. But they cannot be called writers, since they do not describe reality. The world won't accept them because it does not see itself in their work. 
                                                     EM Cioran, Tears and Saints
A surprising conclusion: realism, the new narcissism.

It might explain why I prefer to read non-writers. But what do they write about if God no longer whispers in their ears?

Peter Handke called Thomas Bernhard a "secular Austrian saint" and also endorsed his status as a non-writer when he noted that it was only in his final novel Extinction that he saw "the rudiments of description, of enthusiastic description of locales and spaces" which for him "is the most important thing in literature". (Note here the bogus diversity that remains acceptable to British literary professionals.)

What does Bernhard write about instead then? It's hard to say without misdirection; content is the impurity in his form. He compared what he did to a pianist perfecting his skill:
what some do with notes, I do with words. Simple as that. I'm not really interested in anything else. Because getting to know the world happens anyway, by living in it, as soon as you walk out the door you're confronted with the world directly.
Self-education then; an ear glued to the music of sentences, with the world as refuge.

To where does this lead; what is such writing for? We might ask the same of the superhuman simplicity of JS Bach's non-writing, which does not describe reality either. How might we describe what Tatiana Nikolayeva's Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ stirs in us?


Cioran again: Bach: languor of cosmogony; a scale of tears upon which our desires for God ascend; architecture of our fragilities, positive dissolution—the highest of all—of our will; celestial ruin in Hope; the one mode of destroying ourselves without disaster, and of disappearing without dying. . . . 

Such writing is as distant from us now as the saints'; alien even. Could we be witnessing the endgame of realism, in which content has triumphed? The end of literary history. Whatever we do, whatever we write, genre takes possession of it.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Cemetery in Barnes by Gabriel Josipovici

This is a novel about a translator who moves from London to Paris after the death of his first wife and then to Wales with his second wife, from where the novel is narrated, sometimes through the translator's imagination and sometimes via the guests invited to dinner parties in their cottage on the hills above Abergavenny. I admit that this doesn't sound like the most exciting premise for a novel, but I have read it three times in quick succession with increasing pleasure and relief (an odd word to use in a review perhaps), so let me try to explain why.


The translator entertains friends with food, drink, music and stories and thoughts about his life and work, but he is often heckled by his wife, which leads to repartee especially enjoyed by the guests, fascinated by their relationship. Each monologue is framed by 'he would say' or 'he used to say', creating a subtle rhythm to and distance from his often uncanny and occasionally self-contradictory stories.

They begin with a description of his solitary life in Paris. Perched in his attic flat, he would follow a strict routine of work and relaxation – no doubt in order to maintain his mental equilibrium after what happened to his first wife – the latter of which included walks around the city. But it is here his equilibrium is threatened: on the banks of the Seine he would often imagine himself sinking beneath the surface, noticing the horrified onlookers on the bridge above as he sinks slowly to the riverbed.
He knew such feelings were neurotic, dangerous even, but he was not unduly worried, sensing that it was better to indulge them than to try and eliminate them altogether. After all, everyone has fantasies. In the one life there are many lives. Alternative lives. Some are lived and others imagined. That is the absurdity of biographies, he would say, of novels. They never take account of the alternative lives casting their shadows over us as we move slowly, as though in a dream, from birth to maturity to death.
The walks were also an escape from the "tediousness and unreality" of the novels he had to translate, as was the music with which he would end each day. As he bathed, he listened to Monteverdi's Orfeo, which he chose because the composer "did not pause and repeat for emphasis but let his music, like life itself, flow on". Immersing his entire body in hot water and steam closed the distance between Orfeo's lament for Eurydice in the underworld and his own loss, while also allowing his life to flow on in a non-fatal alternative to drowning. Closing such distances is a translator's day job of course, except for this one it extends beyond words.

His monologues turn between Paris and London, life and alternative lives, in a style so natural and unforced that one recognises the distinction but not the priority. Each is as real or unreal, as clear or mysterious, as the other. In London, he would meet his first wife at the local station after work and they would walk home together. But, while everything seemed real, happy and normal, a nagging sense arose in him:
He felt at times as if he did not understand her at all. She was there and yet she was not there. He held her and yet he did not hold her. As they walked, hand in hand, he sometimes felt as if he was walking with a stranger.
In a perverse move, which he reports without apology or apparent embarrassment, he would often hang back at the station and follow her as she walked home alone. Later, he does the same to a woman he meets in a café and invites on a date. The creepiness is disconcerting, but we should remember the reader is also one step behind the translator on these spying missions, watching and judging his every move from the safety of an armchair. We are there and not there also, seeking answers in the shadow of other lives.

One day, on his way to meet his wife, he popped into Putney library and by chance found the sonnets of the sixteenth-century poet Joachim du Bellay and becomes obsessed with them, as their "rawness seem to contain the secret of life". He quotes passages and provides commentary on what he loves about them and the struggle to translate. While the poems are there on the page in French, they are also not there, especially if one can't speak the language. All the translator can do here is speak of the distance, which is also something he experiences in the old cemetery in Barnes of the title, and where we find the correlate for the non-linear timeline of the narrative, as the visitor stumbles across so many other lives beneath his feet, concealed by trees and undergrowth. He remembers visiting the cemetery with his first wife:
A road went through Putney Heath just beyond the cemetery and what seemed to be municipal tennis courts had at some point been laid close to it. As one crept through the trees, parting the undergrowth to see what lay beneath, one could hear the smack of ball against racket and hear the cheerful shouts of the players. That was the world of the living.
The novel then is this oscillation between life and the shadow of other lives, never meeting yet never apart, and to read The Cemetery in Barnes is to find an unfamiliar peace in the pedular motion between one and the other, so distinct from those tedious and unreal novels that march relentlessly from set-up to resolution, and to which one can return again and again with relief.





Note
The Cemetery in Barnes is dedicated to the memory of Bernard Hoepffner, the French translator of many English-language authors, including Joyce, Will Self, Martin Amis, Gilbert Sorrentino and Gabriel Josipovici himself, who drowned in mysterious circumstances off the Welsh coast in 2017. Many readers might assume this novel is therefore a tribute to a friend in the form of a fictionalised biography. What is uncanny here is that the novel is based on the short story Steps about the same unnamed translator, in which Paris, Wales and fantasies of drowning all feature, that was first published in 1981. You can find it in the collection Heart's Wings from 2010.

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