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Sunday, October 13, 2019

Peter Handke is the ideal Nobel laureate

I've been reading Peter Handke for thirty years and have described before how a chance reading of the opening lines of Across in 1989 was a revelation. So when October comes around and speculation begins about who should receive the Nobel Prize, I remember this moment and Alfred Nobel's will stating the prize should be awarded to a writer who has produced “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”, wishing only that the agitations about the race, gender or otherwise of the potential recipient could be replaced by a discussion of what this might mean and to which authors it might then apply. After all, as we have seen with Olga Tokarczuk receiving the 2018 prize, the agitations carry on regardless. Commentators want the candidate to be ideal rather than the work because the work...well, the work appears to be irrelevant.

As Kjell Espmark of the Swedish Academy shows, the interpretation of Nobel's 'ideal direction' has a history of its own. If the stipulation can be understood to be recommending those authors who investigate or whose work embodies the relation of the idealism of literature to the empirical world, then Peter Handke's work would be top of the list of those meeting it, with Across the Border, WG Sebald's stunning essay on Die Wiederholung, translated as Repetition, providing plenty of evidence. There are two more links on that page providing more.

I have written at length only twice about my years of reading and re-reading Peter Handke, with Sebald's profundity justifying my trepidation. Three steps not beyond is about Across, Repetition and The Afternoon of a Writer, the three great novels of the 1980s, and Kingdoms of recurrence is about the book-length poem To Duration from the same era, which leaves the latter span of his career untouched. I have to admit that I found his subsequent novels very disappointing. As this article by Scott Abbott suggests, this may be due in part to the death in 1992 of Ralph Manheim who had translated all but one of the four books, but may also be due to his apparent ambition to produce an epic.

In the golden era of blogging, I quoted from interviews and briefly tried to explain why Repetition had such a unique impact on me, but many posts were short-order responses to the smear campaign against Handke and his lament over the destruction of a multi-ethnic socialist state (whose presence is discovered in Repetition) but his translators Scott Abbott and the late Michael Roloff, who wanted so badly for Handke to receive the Nobel, ought to be read instead. As Scott writes: "Peter Handke has spent a lifetime attacking the kinds of ideological absolutisms that produce nationalism, hate, and war" – an ideal evident in everything he writes.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

A unique and solitary home: Pharricide by Vincent de Swarte

The French for lighthouse is phare, so the title for this novel is a witty pun. It takes the form of a journal written by Geoffroy Lefayen, a French lighthouse keeper. It was first published in 1998 as Vincent de Swarte's first novel and in 2013 Nicholas Royle chose it as the first in a top ten of first novels, adding that it was his ambition to translate and publish it, in part "to honour the memory of De Swarte, who died in 2006 at the tragically young age of 43". Now it has been translated and published by Cōnfingō Publishing, Royle's faith in the book has been bolstered by an admiring foreword by the celebrated 'gothic novelist' Patrick McGrath and an afterword by Alison Moore who, of course, has written a celebrated novel called The Lighthouse. The object attracts writers, it seems.

Perhaps it attracts writers because they identify with the apocryphal story of lighthouse keepers going mad because of the isolation, monotony and constraints of the role. Lefayen himself is not immune to the threat of madness and Patrick McGrath observes nicely that Geoffroy is "a keeper of no kind of light, but of a great darkness", even if the origin of the psychological disturbance we learn about through his journal precedes the lighthouse, and indeed the prospect of isolation led him to become a lighthouse keeper in the first place. But, wait, pharricide means lighthouse-killing – what could that mean for the novel? Curiously, neither foreword nor afterword address the significance of this odd title.

In mitigation, it goes without saying that a lighthouse in a novel acts a metaphor for the novel itself: an imaginative work shining a light into an expanse of night, perhaps as a warning of its dangers, but also illuminating the allure of the unknown, while also being a beautiful and impressive object in itself, as beautiful and impressive as the Cordouan lighthouse in which Pharricide is set undoubtedly is. But both novel and lighthouse can also be places of interminable solitude and disarming silence, in which those drawn to them are both released from the gravity of the land and held captive by an unbound sea. Moreover, while both lighthouse and novel are regularly celebrated for their gift of light and beauty, they are regularly suspected of dubious practices concealed by their public values, suggested by, among other things, the phallic profile of a lighthouse and the novelist's profile as a caddish seducer of minds. So the title remains ambiguous, as it could mean either Geoffroy wishes to kill the bright side of the lighthouse or the dark side. His dubious practice might give us an answer: we might call it proactive taxidermy. The journal describes in detail how he captures creatures to stuff, decorate and stage in tableaux vivant. Alison Moore says this may be a wish to bring his victims back to life and fill the void of his existential solitude, without mentioning that this is also a novelist's modus operandi: for a character to live, the novelist must first kill it. Anyway, the answer remains elusive.

While Geoffroy's tales of isolation and evisceration evoke the taste of the salty sea, the pressure of gale force winds, the stench of bodies, blood and entrails, the form it takes is comparatively mundane, which might be seen as a generic cop out – a found-text acting as an alibi for otherwise impossible access to a character's thoughts. Except the journal form serves two functions: for the reader it makes the development of Geoffroy's hobby even more surprising and disconcerting when it happens, and, for the lonesome lighthouse keeper, it represents a natural recourse: a beacon to cast light over his own expanse of darkness, a stuffed creature able to listen to his innermost secrets and accept without resistance that he may indeed be the kind man he claims to be. Even when it tells of the arrival of a woman who promises to break the vicious circle of Geoffroy's solitude, she turns out to be a mirror image, both of Geoffroy and his journal, which cannot tolerate the third person. The answer still remains elusive.

The answer comes when we recognise that, if the lighthouse is a metaphor for the novel in which it is housed, the lighthouse keeper and his journal stand for the novelist free to do as he pleases and miserably alone in his freedom – devising it all for company – which is indeed what Geoffroy may be doing, not killing and stuffing anything at all; and his mirror image does call him an artist. (We're all artists nowadays.) The wish then appears to be the wish to kill not the good side of the lighthouse or the bad side, or even the lighthouse, but the metaphor; all metaphor. The wish of the novel is the ultimate possibility of the novel: to kill the novel. And if this sounds like an excessively literary reading, both McGrath and Moore place Pharricide in a literary pedigree with uncomplicated comparisons to Poe, Melville and Lawrence which only emphasises the despair of the writer in his lofty cell as once again he lights up the unbound sea in all its violent glory wishing only that for once he could be a sailor plotting a course for the rocks. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

A walk in the park

After days stuck indoors, I went for a walk in a park and, rather than listen to myself, I listened to Michael Silverblatt's interview with Ariana Reines about her new book. Bookworm is an oasis of public discussion of novels and poetry because it discusses novels and poetry.

Reines says A Sand Book is unusually long for a poetry title because she loves long books, books that "go beyond themselves", and she wanted to write a work that bore witness to her experience of many, various cultures, and for that experience to stay with her. Silverblatt tells the listener that Reines "travels the world seeking revelation" and her poems take the reader by the scruff of the neck to be "shocked, horrified, filled with joy". At four minutes into the show she reads a poem called Bohemian Rhapsody. Perhaps you could listen and comment below with your thoughts in response.

Despite wanting only to listen and not respond, when Reines said she loved books that go beyond themselves, I muttered out loud the book is the beyond, and then couldn't help but explain this assertion to myself. Sometimes I long for the desert.

I am going for a walk, I thought, to do nothing else but stretch my legs and clear my head. I was not expecting the walk to go beyond itself. What would that even mean? I could break into a run, I suppose, but that would mean only walking faster. Perhaps to go beyond itself walking needs to become flying. I would need a jetpack for that, I thought. The park has swings for children, which imitate flying, sort of, I thought, which would be safer. Going high and low, back and forth, in complete safety, like reading a poem perhaps, unless someone pushes too hard and frightens you, like JH Prynne, I thought.

It was at this point I remembered that the park began as a communal garden for surrounding villas which were never built so, I thought, a garden has gone beyond itself to become a park. Perhaps then a book is more likely to go beyond itself the bigger and longer it is, perhaps to become more than one book, and then possibly more than two, maybe even a shelf of books, which might then become a library, which might then become a building, a part of the world to visit for revelation.

You're being disingenuous, I thought. It is clear in what Ariana Reines means. The book goes beyond itself by describing the world in all its variety, by exploring what's out there. That is what she means. And the more of the world it goes into, the better, hence all the towns and cities featured in the book, which Michael Silverblatt asks Reines to list as a guarantee of such going beyond.

This is the entirely normal, I thought, nothing to get worked up about. It merely continues Plato's ancient distrust of the voice from elsewhere, since intensified by the scientific revolution in which what enables truth to appear, that which makes it true, is never discussed, emerging more recently in less coherent form as Reality Hunger. And yet despite this common sense suspicion, there is also a reverence for the written word, evident in the heightened tone adopted when Reines reads Bohemian Rhapsody and the peculiar practice of pronouncing the title after a respectful pause with the same wistful solemnity as the poem despite the introduction making it clear what the title is, as if the words had an almost sacred power. What is going on? I asked myself

As I continued along the perimeter path, forming sentences in my head and no longer listening to what was being said, I realised that the garden became a park because of the absence of surrounding villas, and so too, I thought, the book. The book comes into being only in the absence of the world. It exists only in the absence of the world just as the park exists only in the absence of the villas. For a book to go beyond itself is therefore unintelligible, because the beyond is necessary to the book. It is always already beyond, I thought, immediately regretting having thought of that critical cliché. Don't ever use that phrase, I told myself. So the question is not how does a book go beyond itself, I thought, but how does the world go beyond itself?

By becoming a book, of course, I thought, disappointed with the banality of the answer, although it was then I realised with pleasure that the writer who first made that claim shares my initials. It is the anxiety and discomfort caused by the consequences implied by this condition that bothers me, as it explains why the book is always subordinated to the world. You've written about this before, I thought, so you're going over familiar ground, the same old ground. Over the years you've seen many books promoted with a promise of going beyond the page, tempting the reader with a story interrupted by an act of shocking violence, and of course people are forever writing bucket lists of all the things they'd like to before they die: bungee jump or visit the Grand Canyon, swim with dolphins or get a tattoo. Acts of shocking predictability, I thought. A bucket list is a curious literary genre: an autobiography ghostwritten in advance, written over a life in which nothing happens except life itself, just as nothing happens in a book except a book, I thought; each entry a chapter heading to a series of CORGI-registered adventures; labels pasted over a void.

Seeking an end to this train of thought, I decided to sit by the pond and stare at the concrete. Why does the world needs to go beyond itself? I thought anyway. Bucket lists never include develop a serious illness, or experience sadness without respite for years on end, or lose the only person you will ever love. These things happen anyway, I thought, as confirmed by the benches lining the boundary of the park, each displaying a plaque engraved with a dedication to a person who had, they all said, enjoyed the park in their lifetime. How did this enjoyment manifest? I wondered. Did they leap around with a grin on their face the moment they stepped over the boundary, or were they overwhelmed by tears of happiness as they trod on the grass?

Neither, probably. Every experience is a word on a plaque, I thought. I remembered a line copied from a book of essays years before: "Experience deserves its name only if it transports us beyond what constitutes our nature". What constitutes our nature, I thought, is distance: distance from everything; the trees and grass, the ducks and pigeons, and from distance too. It is an experience of distance, I thought, which is why I'm taking these photographs, which record only distance. The people named on the benches are ghosts here, but they always were, I thought, more or less, along with everyone walking around the park now with their dogs, and maybe their dogs too. If an experience has taken us beyond our nature, it would mean a death of sorts, if not death itself, which is why the unwritten bucket list is more appropriate.

This is why we read so many books, I thought walking out through the park gate, and why we feel the need to talk about them, and why I listen to Bookworm, because we are fascinated by this revelation of distance, without knowing what it is, what it means, or even that it has occurred, in which everything goes beyond itself, becoming itself in its absence.

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.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Why I still read and write

Giorgio Agamben tells the story of the Greek neoplatonist Damascius in exile and close to the end of his life setting out to write a book addressing the largest question of them all, the question concerning God, the One, the Supreme Being, whichever word is appropriate. And it is precisely the uncertainty of the name that raises the demand for an answer. If the object of each name precedes names, questions, answers, and everything else, how can we know it? It becomes more than unknowable because "it doesn't even have the nature of being the unknowable, and it is not by declaring it unknowable that we can delude ourselves that we know it since we do not even know whether it is unknowable".

He struggles to complete his work for three-hundred days and nights until words are replaced by an image that reminds Damascius of the white stone yards of his youth on which the peasants threshed wheat from the chaff: a perfectly empty space "in which only image, breath, or word might eventually take place". Then he remembers how a philosopher had compared the potentiality of the intellect to a tablet on which nothing is written: "The uttermost limit thought can reach is not a being, not a place or thing...but rather, its own absolute potentiality, the pure potentiality of representation itself: the writing tablet!" Why hadn't he thought of it before?
What he had until then been taking as the One, as the absolutely Other of thought, was instead only the material, only the potentiality of thought. And the entire, lengthy volume the hand of the scribe had crammed with characters was nothing other than the attempt to represent the perfectly bare writing tablet on which nothing had yet been written. This was why he was unable to carry his work through to completion: what could not cease from writing itself was the image of what never ceased from not writing itself. In the one was mirrored the ungraspable other. But everything was finally clear: now he could break the tablet, stop writing. Or rather, now he could truly begin.
This is the latest reminder of why I still read and write. A moment of vertigo releases me from the gravity of habit and the assumptions habit forms about what matters. The accumulated sludge of dutiful reading and writing is washed away to reveal not what really matters but the possibility of identifying what does. It has little to do with the specific goal of Damascius's study and everything to do with the aporetic confrontation of necessity and impossibility.

I've been reminded as often as I've read books that contain a reminder, only for clarity to be then smothered by the silt of the book business and all the pressing issues of current affairs or literary-critical apparatuses to which we revert in face of a great silence. Understandably so, for it is a lesson that cannot form itself into a theme or genre because, given that each book is an enclosure, potentiality is borne by that which corrals potential (which is why Agamben's book is resistant to its own unifying force). And it is not a lesson either but breath and blinking as one emerges from confinement into a clearing, such is the paradox of the confrontation.

The reminders are rare and cannot be predicted, and are perhaps too diverse, too vague or too personal to define, even if the next example suggests a thread and perhaps a clearer definition: I read a study of Martin Luther which states that he believed it is the true task of theologians to concern themselves with the specifics of God's self-disclosure rather than constructing preconceived notions of what He is. Those who construct the latter, Luther says, forfeit their right to be called theologians. Except, and here the confrontation arises, the revelation of God must be regarded as indirect and concealed, with the prime example being Christ's torture and death on the cross. The cross shatters illusions about the capacity of human reason to discern God. Revelation requires faith.

If there is a thread, it is not that of a latent Christian faith but the wish to read works in which everything is at stake for the author – in this case Luther and his salvation – even if it appears entirely absurd. This is why theology often stirs me in a way that the staples of my reading – philosophy, novels and literary criticism – rarely do: the writer wagers everything, even if it is a wager lost in advance, while in general the latter have lapsed into jargonised nitpicking, games in the genre sandpit, and consumer evaluations dependent on fashionable concerns. They risk nothing and reveal nothing.

This would explain why metafiction appeals to me, as it seeks implicitly the specifics of writing's self-disclosure. In Gabriel Josipovici's story The Hand of God, Victor, a prolific young author with a promising career, suddenly abandons writing because one day sitting at his desk in an attic room he feels himself falling from the window. He realises it is the end and accepts his fate, even feeling some relief, but, before he hits the ground, he is grabbed by a hand and returned to his desk. It was the hand of God, he says, and now that he knows he cannot fall without being caught, there is no point in going on.

The death of one writer is the death of all.

Victor's fall is what Krzysztof Michalski identifies as a revelation of eternity, defined not as the opposite of time but its essence, an "irremediable fissure" or interval in life such as death and love interrupting the continuity of lived time, something always present, characterising our everyday lives but obscured by habit.
In this interval, briefer than any moment one can measure, in this crack, this fissure, this tear—in the blink of an eye—everything is left to question, and a chance for a new beginning arises. This is "eternity."     [Translated by Benjamin Paloff]
If God's hand revealed to Victor that what he sought in writing is present throughout each day of his life, then pouring out literary works is at best superfluous and at worst a pathological negation of life: "to fill this gap with concepts, to patch the fracture of every moment with some piece of knowledge, to remove that internal diversification of life with the help of some truth underlying it, and thus to render our lives consistent and comprehensible. It is precisely this pathology that Nietzsche calls 'nihilism'."

At least, we might say a certain kind of writing is pathological and nihilistic: The Hand of God is narrated by Victor's perplexed friend and admirer who stands for every modern day book lover cupped by the hand of The Guardian's book pages, unable to comprehend that the end of Victor's writing is where it truly begins; here, in this metafiction. But of course Victor never stopped writing, because his fall was not real: it was imagined; a form of writing as potentiality – what cannot cease from writing never ceasing from not writing. This is how contemporary metafiction and so-called autofiction, otherwise regarded as postmodern frivolity and onanistic indulgence respectively, might align with death and love as irremediable fissures, exposing us to an abyss over which we live or perhaps to its sublimity, however destitute.

The most profound experience of this for me – and of which Agamben's story is an echo – was re-reading the novel In a Hotel Garden after two decades away. Soon after posting my response, I remarked that it felt like the culmination of my years thinking and writing about literature on this blog. This is where it could end, I thought, and thereby, of course, truly begin. In March of this year I wrote sentences of my own that provoked the same vertigo, and I realised that this is what has been missing through all these years of blogging in the shameful lowlands. Only in this way can writing be done, I thought, only with such complete indirection and concealment. I now have no wish to read or write anything else.


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