This Space

Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Book of forgotten dreams

For eighteen years I have wanted the English translation of Georges Bataille's book La Peinture Préhistorique: Lascaux ou la naissance de l'art, ever since Maurice Blanchot's review essay appeared in the collection Friendship published in 1997. A strange yearning because Blanchot had summarised the content, so there was apparently nothing to gain and, what's more, I have never been a big Bataille reader, much preferring at university Blanchot's unparalleled prose to the jargon-scarred theory beloved of my fellow students who thought "transgression" meant wearing rubber.

Still, there was something withheld by this book, the actual thing, the physical object, in its absence. Unfortunately, the edition from Albert Skira's Great Centuries of Painting series, described by one scholar as a "highbrow coffee table book", has been out of print since 1955 and secondhand copies have always been too expensive, often approaching three figures. Until late one night last November when desultory book searching revealed one in good condition for under £50. In a moment of madness, I clicked Buy Now and sat back to dwell on the extravagance.

Taking delivery of a desired book often signals the end of possibility and the settling of melancholy in the prospect of the real thing finally arriving and dissolving the aura. And then there are the heavy demands of procedural content. Reading is bound to kill the possible book, the Platonic form revolving in your head, the edition of Bolaño's 2666 Kirsty Logan described a few years ago. So it was my good fortune that Prehistoric Paintings: Lascaux or the Birth of Art got lost in the post. For two weeks I waited, anticipating each furtive visit from the postman and panicking once he had left. How could I have been so careless to waste fifty quid?! Wasn't this punishment for transgressing the line between desire and its realisation?

In hope I walked to the post office depot to enquire. A queue lined the pavement outside. After fifteen minutes of standing around and shuffling forward in the cold, they said, Yes, they had a package for me but they couldn't hand it over because I didn't have a red card from the postman. What? But I'm here, now, so why not hand it over? No, that can't be done. At least let me see the parcel to prove to myself that it exists. No, that wasn't possible. They said they would have to redeliver it. Would tomorrow be OK? Yes, it would. This was good news, and I went home happy. Of course, the following day nothing arrived. I walked the post office depot again. The queue was even longer and, after half an hour of standing around and shuffling forward in the cold, the man behind the counter just shrugged. I went home unhappy and eventually gave up caring.

A few days later the bell rang and the postman handed over an A3-sized package. Having ordered a Radio Times holder as a gift for a telly addict, I had my doubts about what it contained and tore at the parcel carefully. The first thing exposed was the spine of a book. So just look at it for a moment, shining there.

The bright colours suggested a brand new book rather than one published sixty years ago. So this is what its absence withheld! On removing the cardboard slipcase and opening the book, five black and white postcards with serrated edges fell out.

Pasted on the inside cover were three visitor tickets to three different caves. Souvenirs of another life. When the previous owner visited is unclear, but Lascaux was closed to visitors in 1963.

These small discoveries were the prelude to the content.

A miracle occurred at Lascaux, Bataille says, a miracle that remains before us in the "clear and burning presence" of these paintings. His rapture is evident, and it is rare for a world-weary reader to feel he shares in the author's wonder, lifting the pages to see what's next and reading the words so large and clear that they could have been typed directly onto the page. A similar edition written by Captain Cook or Neil Armstrong might compare. The production values are such that the illustrations are separate items, pasted onto the page.

"What transfixes us is the vision, present before our very eyes, of all that is most remote. Of our presence in the real world."

The paradox in the words of the caption that being close to ourselves in proximity to what is most remote is explained here as the "strong and intimate emotion" of religion or, better, "the sacred", to which the cave paintings are "more solidly attached to than it has ever been since". This is not religion as one more additional theory but as the catalyst of humankind, when the creature wandering the icy plains descended into the caves and, in the remove of darkness and solitude, set itself apart from the animal kingdom and discovered itself, codifying the cosmos with paint. As Richard White puts it, this is "not the sacred as the beyond, another realm of being that exists in opposition to this one—but the sacred as the deep reality of this life that we are typically alienated from". So we shouldn't include these moments perusing the book with the usual "Oh I like that" pleasures of the art gallery but as the kindling of the effects of art was it when born; that is, when we were born, perhaps the deeper feeling we have in galleries we have since been socialised to restrain. Whatever, the miracle is foundational.

Bataille says that in looking at the cave paintings in Lascaux "we are left painfully in suspense by this incomparable beauty and the sympathy it awakens in us", and something close to this is what I experience looking at the book, if this can be called an experience. One is not transported in awe towards fantastical otherness but toward a fog-bound interior, as comforting as it is alien. "It is as though paradoxically our essential self clung to the nostalgia of attaining what our reasoning self had judged unattainable, impossible." This is where I ask: what can be done with this suspense and sympathy if our reasoning self is how we measure experience?

The remainder of Prehistoric Paintings examines each area of the cave to elaborate the author's theory that art served as a channel for the animality enduring in the human community provoked by the taboos of death and sexuality. One reader, stepping forth with good reason, describes the book as "a lot of flowery writing that implies interpretations not necessarily supported by evidence", and it is this inevitable doubt and the scientific innocence that seems to me where the book is worthwhile. In his review, Blanchot suggests that it is from this subterranean overflow that humankind appears, because it reveals our separation from animals, over which we now recognise our power of life and death, and yet, at the same time, exposes us to a death blissfully unknown to animals, thereby weakening us. However, we modern humans value this unique quality over everything, so much that what Blanchot says weakened us is now what we believe makes us stronger.

"The marvelous never loses its impact"

Bataille criticises the "timidity" of scholars who speak "with undue reserve" of what they see in the caves and thereby neutralise the effect of the marvelous on their studies. The "marvelous" then is that which is "not necessarily supported by evidence", and it is only an accredited scholar's book, such as The Mind in the Cave (2002) that can provide such evidence. However, while David Lewis-Williams is a professor emeritus of the Rock Art Research Institute in Johannesburg, his book suggests Bataille's wonderment is vital for appreciating the caves, or at least to get closer to their creation. He explains that they were not created in sober rationality, not in the light of day but in states of consciousness we have devalued.

He prefaces his study by presenting "the greatest riddle of archeology – how we became human and in the process began to make art" (my italics), so we see that becoming human is the lacuna. There were Neanderthals in the Middle Paleolithic era who did not make art and then there are Homo Sapiens in the Upper Paleolithic who did. What caused the transition between animal consciousness and that of Homo sapiens?

Lewis-Williams runs through the intellectual history of attempts to explain the transition – Darwinian, Marxist, Structuralist and Evolutionary Psychological, though not Bataille's – before setting out studies of the art and beliefs of the San of southern Africa that were made before they were swallowed up by modernity. Homo sapiens have a higher consciousness than that of the Neanderthals, which allowed us to develop a fully modern language system, enabling us to "fashion...individual identities and mental 'scenes' of past, present and future events". But, crucially, we also have access to the lower end of the spectrum, altered states of consciousness such dreams and trance states, brought on by communal rituals, dance and hallucinogens. Language enabled us to see these alternative realities, to hear inner voices and to articulate them to others. The cave paintings, Lewis-Williams argues, are attempts to fix these visions, to enable those who made them to touch "what was already there" in the spirit world. They are not representations of spirits but the spirits themselves.

These dreams, sounds and visions revealed a cosmological order. Humanity's creation of the sacred was thereby possible only because of altered states of consciousness. And while Lewis-Williams' prefatory sentence implicitly rejects Bataille's thesis that art as practised by early humans precipitated its own emergence, he is as critical of Western scientists as Bataille for neglecting what he calls "the autistic end" of the spectrum of consciousness. As a result, their studies follow a positivist route in which intelligence and rationality become the defining characteristics of humanity and the manifest destiny of early people was grow to become "more and more like Western scientists". They are made in their own image.

Yet we have the same neurological structure as early humans and, as Bataille reports, we respond with a curious, even painful sympathy to an art that transcends aesthetic pleasure. Cave painting, according to both Bataille and Lewis-Williams, is then not an addition to human society but constitutive of it. Lewis-Williams writes of the San that hierarchies developed according to those who had better access to the spirit world governing all life: "Art and religion were therefore socially divisive". Every member of a community had access to dreams and were keen to learn more, so were influenced by male and female "shamans" and took part in their rituals. Art and religion, art and the sacred, were indistinguishable and "image-making did not merely take place in the spirit world: it also shaped and created the world."

It is a world we have long left behind, with commonsense and the insomnia of scientific method having replaced superstition and shamanic dreams in shaping our universe. To most modern minds, this is an unquestionable good. But it leads to a troubling question: if humankind emerged and grew to be itself out of reverence for what was revealed in realms of consciousness we now not only neglect but regard with suspicion, even as intellectual taboo, is our existence vitally impoverished?

Perhaps my unaccountable wish to own a copy of Bataille's highbrow coffee table book reveals a buried giant of a need for the elemental in art more generally sublimated into gushing about "the wonder of nature". Such eruptions of the old fascination with dreams to be found in our confused response to art and artists, books and writers, movies and directors, and invariably contained by the intervention of biographical exposés, won't go away even in their diminished state, and indeed occasionally break through into polite society. It is implicitly approached in what has been recently labelled the Hard Problem of consciousness, itself a controversial outgrowth of cognitive science, and the explicit paradox of a debate dependent on its own immaterial space yet able to address it only in the autism of empirical discourse is the elephant in the room. However, to continue to the wildlife theme, it is suppressed, like moles on a bowling green, with the back of a humanist's spade. With this proscription of the sacred, however it is defined, deeply in place, it would seem a new kind of transgression is required. Except this is precisely the realm of true art. As Bataille writes: "only art expresses the prohibition with beseeming gravity, and only art resolves the dilemma [of proscription]. It is the state of transgression that promotes the desire, the need for a more profound, a richer, a marvelous world, the need, in a word, for a sacred world".

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A year in (hardly) reading

This has been the worst year for reading, ever. In quantity that is: only a suitcase of books finished, with a communal binful for those abandoned. The reason is the same as four years ago, only worse, and has little to do with the quality of the books. Medical opinion quoted Beckett: nothing to be done.

Still, I've never been one to devour books and I maintain a certain amount of disgust for the conveyor belt of recommended reads. In trust I have opened novels much praised by bloggers to sample the first paragraph and invariably it is like walking into soft sand: the sudden dip of the first sentence, the cinematic swoop of graceful atmospherics, the psychic mind-tap of the lead character for some comforting intimacy, and then the drama heavily flagged by the titillating blurb. Trudge, trudge. Only another 400 pages of these thrills to go.

Lars Iyer's Wittgenstein Jr and Tao Lin's Taipei stood out as relief from such embedded protocols, both narrating from a position of fascination, uncertainty, weakness, anxiety, horror, even, rather than from confidence borne on generic mastery. So too is Hotel Andromeda by Gabriel Josipovici, and I was disappointed (but not surprised) that it didn't get more reviews. David Winters' superb appreciation made up for their general absence. The reviewer's own new book of essays will be that rare thing in contemporary English literature: a serious non-academic book about fiction. There should be more.

The lack of satisfactory novel-reading made 2014 unusual for me in that rather than rush toward the New Atheists' fundamentalism and read books of science and journalism, I began to read German theology. While I am used to what it resembles in continental philosophy, the focus and references in Jürgen Moltmann's The Crucified God (1973) and Karl Barth's Dogmatics in Outline (1946), are alien to someone from an entirely secular background. Despite or because of this foreign nature, it was here that I found the pressure and urgency missing from philosophical procedure and literary criticism, as the actuality, meaning and significance of Christ's execution provided a visceral centre to what might otherwise descend into debates about how many angels can download to a Pinterest account. This means it points toward the necessary direction and purpose of fiction better than most criticism.
The Christian faith which once 'conquered the world' must also learn to conquer its own forms when they have become worldly. It can do so only when it breaks down the idols of the Christian West, and, in a reforming and revolutionary way, remembers the 'crucified God'.
As these books are not exactly easy to write about, this blog will not be taking an overtly theological turn. Two other works of non-fictional, one new, one 60 years old, have made a huge impression recently and I'll be writing about them next year. But in the meantime, back to what I read last year.

Stepping out of the present once again, I bought Galley Beggar's "Digital Classics" reissue of Denton Welch's A Voice Through a Cloud because it is a memoir of the author's slow recovery from a cycling accident, and I indulged self-pity even if he doesn't. As the world returned to him through a cloud of bedridden pain, Welch's warming "bathetic gloom" – Alan Bennett in a black roll neck – made his condition seem like a necessary correlate to the condition of England in the 1930s, and thereby of our own low, dishonest decade as we appease another fascist putsch, this time in Kiev. Unfortunately that book remains unfinished because a PDF is easily neglected and bookmarks don't easily stick to the screen.

Books I had high hopes for, Damon Galgut's Arctic Summer, Krzysztof Michalski's The Flame of Eternity and Knausgaard's Boyhood Island, were ultimately disappointing, perhaps because they are content with the familiarity of their individual forms. Yet one book that remained solidly within what it says it is on the cover was the most moving I read all year, so perhaps this wasn't the reason for these disappointments. An entry written in Virginia Woolf's Sussex cottage in 1926 after reading Maurice Baring's novel C speaks to the same doubts and impatience expressed above and ends with characteristic trust in the imperative to write:
Easy to say it is not a great book. But what qualities does it lack? That it adds nothing to one's vision of life, perhaps. Yet it is hard to find a serious flaw. My wonder is that entirely second rate work like this, poured out in profusion by at least 20 people yearly, I suppose, has so much merit. Never reading it, I get into the way of thinking it nonexistent. So it is, speaking with the utmost strictness. That is, it will not exist in 2026; but it has some existence now, which puzzles me a little. Now Clarissa [Dalloway] bores me; yet I feel this is important. And why?

Friday, October 24, 2014

No help at all

Painting is practical day-to-day thing I think. One might say something clever, one might say something big, but one does something limited. It’s a serious thing – like religion – like love – one does the persistent thing, and then the really remarkable happens when something’s there that wasn’t there before.
Frank Auerbach's words from fifty years ago were pasted above my student work desk without ever prompting attention. Inspirational quotes are there to be ignored, after all. Only lately has the contrast between his trust in a modest routine and apparent wonder in the presence of art demanded examination. After so much striving, after so much art, what is this something there?

The answer is obvious: a rectangle with colours. Except not all paintings are 'really remarkable', as confirmed by Auerbach's fame for regularly scraping the paint from the canvas to start again and his recent description of "laying siege to the subject" in order to "work through [draughtmanship] to something deeper". How this depth works through practical components is unclear, but it would at least mean the value unique to a painting is never reducible to physical matter despite only ever being physical matter. We all know this already without worrying for too long about its implications, especially as it is safer to chatter about content than to ask, again, what is this something there?

How indeed can we talk beyond content, especially lately when content has become everything? Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle novel sequence and Mark Kozelek's recent LPs are prime examples of a zeitgeist in which oddly mundane content takes precedence, salinising poetic abstractions. Not, that is, fictionalised autobiography or misery memoir in which every description, anecdote and incident is a necessary part of a whole and leads somewhere in more or less artful fashion, but a focus on the apparently random and indeterminate.

Since at least the presumption of David Shields' Reality Hunger that the primary motivation for artists is to get closer to reality, the remove of art has been placed under quarantine, suspected of infecting readers with unhealthy deceit and indulgent fantasy, and in response these artists appear to be in the vanguard of an extreme supersession to the everyday.

(This is where one is supposed to cite examples – he writes about changing a nappy! he sings about building a house! – but this would make both sound like stunts, literary or musical readymades. So let a song sing for itself.)

Kozelek explains his new mode of songwriting as part of a wish to let go ("I wanted to give my first instincts a chance without shooting them down immediately"), while Knausgaard famously dispensed with attempts to write a novel and just wrote about his life, thousands of words a day for three years. Both appear to be shortcuts to "something there", and certainly their improvised and headlong nature never allow content and form to resolve, thereby disconcerting critical expectations of transcendent mastery.

Why is this happening? In Kozelek's case, it might easily alienate his core audience, used to swooning to the chiming sentiments of Carry Me Ohio, and Knausgaard's critical and sales success has come at the price of abasing himself before the world, so cynical career moves they are not.

Perhaps they have turned toward the quotidian because they recognise a subtler malady, so while the zeitgeist appears as only the latest cure for a virus whose quack remedies have included a 21st century Charles Dickens and HBO serials written by Shakespeare, the most notable symptom is revealed here as the ache of what escapes content, the earworm nagging at us all, that which infects even as the lock snaps shut on the quarantine cell. If this movement is toward anything then, it is toward the remove of the everyday; a conclusion that helps no one and prompts only the same question and demands the same response: not an ontology of art to be erected inside a critical, philosophical or theological apparatus, because this would be content too, but instead writing, and writing alone. A serious thing.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Ten years in this space

This week marks ten years since this blog was born. Appropriately, the first post was about beginnings. As I tell Mark Thwaite in this interview about literary blogging, it wasn't the first blog I'd written for, but this was the first solo effort:
Almost immediately I recognised This Space as my true home, a miraculous release into a limitless expanse in which writing could be explored in the direction demanded by the work under discussion. The editorial identity was soon established and gave me what I had lacked until then. My only responsibility was to sustain that exploration.
Perhaps ten years suggests a certain relentlessness, an unwillingness to develop going forward. To which I respond: "Blogging is a singular project because it goes nowhere and can only keep going in that direction".

Friday, September 19, 2014

The lawn of genre: Wittgenstein Jr by Lars Iyer

In the relaxed confines of the LRB Bookshop on a warm August evening, Lars Iyer marked the publication of his fourth novel by telling an audience that as a youngster he had been drawn to philosophy rather than fiction as a means to find a way to live, to think his way to life. It's an old question – how to live? – and one often so pressing that philosophers have made it central to their lives. This indeed used to be the definition of a philosopher: someone who lived consistently with their beliefs. Ludwig Wittgenstein is one example. For his character Wittgenstein Jr, Iyer says philosophy is also "a kind of spiritual progress", with Socrates and Augustine as his own key figures. So why did Iyer himself turn from philosophy to writing fiction?

How to live? is a simple question too of course, as light as a falling leaf and easily brushed aside as you join a queue to have your copy signed. Without noticing, you're soon dealing with ephemeral demands and the question is answered for you. Iyer said that by the time he was established as an academic in the subject, teaching and supervising, researching and presenting papers at conferences, publishing books, philosophy itself had been displaced. The pressure of having to justify every turn in an argument with references and footnotes covering all contributions and all angles meant the youthful quest was replaced by bureaucracy and career concerns in which "spiritual progress" equalled redundancy. How then to ask the question again?

Fiction marks his answer, a form defined by a lack of pressure, by freedom, so we shouldn't be surprised that the drama of each novel he has written persists in the distressing absence of a philosophy by which to live; a certain weight. In the Spurious trilogy, it is found in the double-act despair of W. and Lars as they float like schlubby cherubim in search of God's anchor while, in Wittgenstein Jr, the drama emerges from the asymmetry of a troubled Cambridge philosophy tutor and his lightweight, hedonistic students. The philosopher perplexes, irritates and fascinates them in equal measure with his silences and gnomic remarks. I will teach you differences. Philosophy stands between us and salvation. They decide he has modelled himself on the real Ludwig Wittgenstein, and so the fun begins. "When will he present an actual argument? – Mulberry's taking bets."

After a while the stand-in Wittgenstein becomes more talkative. He implores his students to dispense with Cambridge cleverness and Cambridge pride in order to face the challenge of his philosophical lesson. The anxious silences are due to paranoia. He believes the Cambridge dons are out to destroy him, as he seeks a utopia of "after philosophy" in which "the light on a particular afternoon will be as rich as the collected works of Kant". Cambridge University stands for what obscures such light, it stands for the hegemony of English philistinism, English parochialism, for a landscape flattened by the English steamroller.
All of England was once a lawn, Wittgenstein says. The whole of the country, with its uplands and lowlands, with its suburbs and towns, was once the quintessence of lawn. [...]
And it was in the name of the English lawn that the enemy within was kept down, Wittgenstein says. The Peasants' Revolt was crushed for seeking equality on the English lawn. The Diggers were transported for declaring that the English lawn was part of the commons. [...]

But never was the English lawn so lush as in the great universities of England! Wittgenstein says. Old expanses of lawn, strewn with meadowsweet and buttercups in high summer. Crocuses blooming in spring.
The numbers soon dwindle to the handful of students whose comments and exchanges narrate the novel, including the aristocratic Ede, convinced of his own destiny, the sore-thumb Benwell, a working-class boy from up north, the Kirwin twins lost without a war in which to die a futile death and who instead throw themselves into vigorous sports, Mulberry in his obscene T-shirts and the self-effacing Peters, the shy Newcastle boy with a crush on his tutor and who records what everyone says. His cartoon of campus life is one of the joys of Iyer's new-found freedom. Wittgenstein Jr takes a walk on the lawn:
Posh students everywhere. Rah boys in gilets and flip-flops, with piles of bed-head hair. Rugby types, as big as fridges, all red-cheeked health, their voices booming. Rah girls dressed in gym gear and pony-tails. English roses in horse-and-hound clothing, as though fresh from the gymkhana. Yummy-not-yet-mummies in fur-lined Barbour. Ethno-sloanes, with string tops and slouch bags. Sloane-ingénues with big cups of coffee, sweater sleeves half pulled over their hands.
But why is it so pleasurable? At first this sounds like the classic and contemptible English light comedy in which characters are ridiculed for the Schadenfreude of harassed commuters, generic personas dancing on the end of the author's strings before a garishly painted state-of-the-nation backcloth. Perhaps because such hyperbole is counterbalanced by Wittgenstein Jr's apocalyptic vision of philosophical rapture. Combined and in opposition they have a peculiar effect on the reader, both ecstatic and deflating, so that even as one savours the possibility of another life, another world, there is also the absurd present. While Iyer convinces us of Wittgenstein Jr's spiritual yearning and captures the aura of his namesake with minimal brush strokes, the madcap students remind us it is of course only a novel and that the characters are inventions, that the stifling conformity of Cambridge is an exaggeration and that Wittgenstein Jr is not Ludwig Wittgenstein. Everything is weightless. But this is also necessary, because lightness enables flight. When Tibor Fischer judged the book "too long" he might have added that such airborne hyperbole is always too long and even one excessive, declaratory fictional sentence might already be too much, popping up like a molehill on the lawn over which the donnish greenkeeper might then stand, tutting.

Wittgenstein Jr comes to an end as the carefree life of a student comes to an end. Salvation of a sort is offered to Wittgenstein Jr, but he disappears. A clue to his whereabouts was seen earlier when students go to his room to check on his well-being and spy scraps of paper tacked to the wall with only one word visible: APERION, Anaximander's word for the eternal or cosmological infinity (also spelled "apeiron" but this is how it appears in the novel). Perhaps this is an additional mark of excess to the one Derrida says signifies the participation in a genre without membership, a mark that is itself not part of the genre yet necessary for its distinction and recognition. Aperion then is the mark of a universal principle of existence, an abstraction outside of life that nevertheless makes life possible and is apparently sensible only in the light of a particular afternoon and in the freedom, lightness and excess of writing, and yet which, as Fischer's cavil confirms, must also succumb to the ever-encroaching English lawn.

Back in the LRB Bookshop, the event drawing to a close, the audience was given a chance to ask questions. As hands went up and a microphone passed around, I wondered what it would mean for the lightness of fiction to become as heavy as academic philosophy, with its own bureaucracy and career demands, for it to be a kind of spiritual regression, for aperion to be only a word tacked to a wall, and then how a writer might evade the lawn of genre. But I didn't ask the question. Perhaps Wittgenstein Jr's disappearance is the answer.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

A silhouette of itself: Taipei by Tao Lin

Some novels offer the perfect opportunity for reviewers to palliate otherwise desolate and sundered lives. Notable examples in recent years include Vila-Matas' Montano's Malady, Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones and Tao Lin's first novel Eeeee Eee Eeee. There are many others but Tao Lin's Taipei, published last year, is an extreme case. One reviewer found relief in the "vapid stupidity" of its prose, another in its "massive discharge of waste matter", a third in its "mindless kitsch". As we watch them scurry in haste to the well-furnished bunkers of polite literary society, we can infer each reviewer found clarity and meaning in the apophatic trial of the real thing, leaving only smeared pages of abandoned review copies fluttering on the waste land above.

Meanwhile, those still exposed to the breeze might be better able to recognise the gifts of subjecting experience to writing, or perhaps that should be subjecting writing to experience. The two are often difficult to tell apart, which might be why such hacking is routinely accepted as the task of critics: everything must be kept clear and fiction must remain a desirable product for consumers. But just as the words Taipei and Tao Lin run into each on the outer cover of this novel, so the artist's struggle to articulate a relation to the world disappears into the work of writing so that neither can maintain a discrete identity.

The meeting of life and art is a familiar theme in fiction of course, and while some are content play with biographical fact and bibliographical fiction in order to run amusing rings around an audience, for example Adam Thirwell characterises Philip Roth's fiction as "daring the reader to confuse [fictional] doubles for the original" by "making the life and the art seem like disguises for each other", Tao Lin approaches it more anxiously and without the distance of mastery. The novel is narrated in traditional third-person omnicience reporting the thoughts and actions of Paul, a 26-year-old New York writer with a family in Asia, with specific attention on his relationships with soon-to-be departed girlfriend Michelle and new girlfriend, soon-to-be wife Erin. They go to literary events, visit his parents in Taipei, "ingest" prescription painkillers and Ecstacy, mention how "depleted" they feel, watch movies on their MacBooks, make movies on their MacBooks, but nothing ever generates an event to disrupt the core of their existence or the narration of their existence. If there is nothing especially radical here in literary terms, it does generate a mix of blankness and disquiet in the reader. The repetition of "ingest" and "depleted" throughout blows air between word and experience to the point where neither has any weight, so we read them without gaining what reviewers persuade us to expect in terms of narrative development. Disquiet then is the impossibility of anything happy emerging in our otherwise pleasurable habit of reading. We are not moving forward. So while Taipei evokes the apparent insignificance of our modern lives, what might be dismissed as literary posturing and provocation is instead realism become tragically unreal.

Critics are also suspicious of the social media references as indicative of a cynical contemporaneity, spurred on by the author's persona presented in the same social media. It is true that Paul and his friends are embedded in contemporary American culture to an alarming degree – there is only one novel mentioned to compare to the learned references to philosophy and literature in Montano's Malady and The Kindly Ones – and yet, as a result, the friends float free of any contact, like despairing ghosts in the machine. Their culture is a given, a plateau of distraction and superficial interaction – fast food restaurants, chain stores, electronic goods, movies on Netflix – but, like a plateau, lacking any decline or elevation. Seeking relief, Paul notes that he has just sent his longest email via iPhone and then listens to his favourite music track on high volume and repeat, concentrating on the drums or the bass "so that he becomes memoryless". The reason why it is his favourite is as inconsequential as the iPhone email record and the track appears to be his favourite only because it comes closest to enabling the condition whereby he loses the self compelled to make such distinctions. While for Estragon and Vladimir everything is promised in the form of Godot, in Taipei, there is only the promise of nothing. All of which leaves the status of this novel in question. What kind of relief does yet another novel about relationship issues and existential gloom offer?

Recently I suggested the reason why the works of Marcel Proust and Karl Ove Knausgaard maintain a fascination with readers is not due to the extreme length of their books or similarities in subject matter but instead the ambiguity of their genre: both are presented as novels yet are so closely aligned to the reality of the authors' own lives that we read them more aware of everyday mystery and chance than in a traditional memoir, and far more so than in 'gritty' realism. While the coy name change moves Taipei closer to Roth/Zuckerman territory than to the same-name first person of Proust and Knausgaard, this is a necessary function of the condition of interchangeable signs without meaning from which the novel emerges: Paul is barely himself, and it is no joke. So while Taipei might not gain the aura of Proust and Knausgaard, it shares their struggle.

Going beyond the insouciance overt in his earlier novels, Taipei both enacts a fundamental alienation and seeks a cure within its means. While considering the state of their relationship:
Paul thought that he would stop thinking about himself and focus on Erin, but instead, almost reflexively, as a method of therapy, began thinking about suicide, then became aware of himself, a few minutes later, earnestly considering—or maybe only imagining—trying to convince Erin that they should commit suicide together. [...]
Paul began to feel, in a way he hadn’t before, like he comprehended double suicide—the free and mysterious activity of it, like a roller coaster descending only into darkness, but accessible from anywhere, on the theme park of Earth, always open.
Comprehension is only a moment, only 'like' and never itself, and occurs so rarely that it flares like fireworks of dark matter, promising, much like writing, much like reading, the presence of mass where mass cannot be seen. The novel resolves without resolution as darkness is pondered again by Paul, in bed with Erin sleeping beside him, thinking of the "glistening, black, mound-shaped mass" of a monkfish she ate in a restaurant and whose picture he then looked up on Wikipedia to show her. He feels emotional contemplating "the light-absorbing mass of it, a silhouette of itself", just as we might contemplating this novel. It helps to palliate otherwise desolate and sundered lives.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Critical Perspectives on Gabriel Josipovici

Revue LISA, a print journal published by the University of Rennes, has a very welcome edition dedicated to the work of Gabriel Josipovici. It is also online.

Readers new to his fiction and criticism would do well to read Vesna Main's Beyond the "Grammar", in which the grammar is "the formulaic apparatus of most novels", and Victoria Best's very moving essay on The Cost of Creativity in his work.

The editor Marcin Stawiarski is also organising Zig Zag, Twist and Turn, a conference on Josipovici's work, to be held at Dalarna University in Sweden this September. Stawiarski has also conducted an interview for the edition containing answers that might surprise those who associate Josipovici with Modernist convolutions:
MS: You say that to be able to write you need two things: on the one hand, the feeling that something must be said; on the other, the feeling that it’s impossible to say it. So that that very impossibility becomes the subject of your work. Is it a form of a writer’s block? Or is there more to it than that?
GJ: No, it’s very simple. Most of the important feelings we have are too deep and complex for words — the feeling of loss, for example, or elation. Or ordinary little things like the effect of sunlight on a brick wall as one walks by. If one is struck by something like that — a big thing like the loss of a loved person, a small thing like sunlight on a brick wall — one wants to find a way of expressing that. It’s not easy. But it’s the only thing that interests me.
France and Sweden seem to be far ahead in recognising the value of one of England's finest writers. Oh, and his new novel Hotel Andromeda is published this week by Carcanet.

A glacier of flights: Dictionary of Untranslatables

Going back to a beloved novel after many years can be a disconcerting experience. Often you wonder what you saw the first time around to prompt such nostalgia and loving reverence. Much of the detail is unfamiliar, alien even. Unlike a poem, whose aura is embedded in words recited both subconsciously and at will, a novel is recovered en bloc, masking many details and existing almost like a Platonic form we contemplate with awe in its absence. But, when trodden again, the perfect lawn has molehills.

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.
[Translated by Nathaniel Davis]
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.
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.”
[Translated by Ralph Manheim]
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:
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.
[Translated by Martin C. Doege]
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:
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.  

New Jersey

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.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Reading on: Diary of the Fall by Michel Laub

In his diary Kafka said he enjoyed reading books of letters and memoirs because they helped him find some distance from himself and become the author's counterpart in their experiences and feelings. Nothing very unusual about that of course; it's why many of us read. Except Kafka recognises the self-deceit involved. On closing the book, he says he's always surprised that such an escape is possible because "experience inclines us to think that nothing in the world is further removed from an experience than its description". The experience he refers to here is his own writing tormented by a dynamic of trust and suspicion. In 1904 it's an "axe for the frozen sea inside us", in 1922 it is a "descent to the dark powers". At this time however, as a reader, he recommends submitting to a book in order to find "a clear road into what is most human".

What needs to be noted about this entry is that it is written in the third person plural and that I have assumed it is Kafka speaking for himself, as if the experience that inclined him to think that nothing in the world is further removed from an experience than its description is itself an experience and, in order to be written down, has to be removed from any connection to the singular self. Syntax sets Kafka at a distance.

Michel Laub's Diary of the Fall is presented as its title suggests in short, labelled entries written in the first person, lulling us into the comfort and security of a singular self. This allows the reader to do exactly as Kafka recommends because a diary immediately engages one in a confidential drama removed from the formal procedure of a literary novel. It is also one with which we will feel entirely familiar as readers of literary novels: the mystery of a man who survived Auschwitz and then killed himself in middle-age, leaving only mystery in his wake. Much later his son discovers a notebook containing only idiosyncratic definitions of certain words. Nothing is so far from the son as his father's experience, and there is no access except this notebook. To add to the burden, he has now been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and is writing to preserve what memories he has left. The diary of the grandson then – the novel we are reading – rises up between the twin voids of past and future with a question inherent to the diary form: what does it all mean? In the grandson's case: his alcoholism, his successive marriages and the bullying of the only non-jew in his school, a boy from a poor, single-parent family. The question "What does it all mean?" thereby assembles the ingredients of a classic literary fictional dish: race, class, guilt, history, inheritance, obsession, addiction and memory.

While this sounds like the next prize-winning novel you won't be able to put down or forget, there is something peculiarly resistant about Diary of the Fall: it is so easy to read, its personable narration insinuating so effortlessly these resonant themes, that hints toward an impending revelation never stop coming, yet which never quite arrives. Surely, I thought reading on, this design is too easy as a fiction, almost a caricature of a creative writing class exercise to compose a narrative with the most overt, button-pressing themes of literary fiction for this to be the last word. While there is a development – a wholly unremarkable one that only reiterates the novel's generic qualities – I was reminded of Kafka's recommendation and that "reading on" might be the key.

After reading Diary of the Fall, try to find a significant passage and you'll notice there are no page numbers by which to navigate. At first I assumed it was because my advance copy was incomplete, but then I realised it was entirely in keeping with how a diary works: each day is marked to mitigate the extemporaneous repetitions of a solitary voice subject to his own ignorance. Continuity from one page to the next is not important. Both reader and writer are compelled to move forward all the while suspecting what's new is only a feeble recurrence of other entries, other stories and other lives. He imagines his grandfather's experience by reading Primo Levi's If this is a man, raising the possibility that everything we've reading about, including the narrator's own past, is a secondhand reconstitution based entirely on reading. His most pressing memory is the bullying of João, a Christian boy who was left to fall when given the birthday bumps by his Jewish schoolmates. For this to be a real diary, the dovetailing of smaller and larger stories appears too neat. Whatever their truth status, they are disproportionate experiences seeking order in a terrible meaning or meaninglessness. The dairy's own fall is held in abeyance.

What remains is the possibility of meaning and access to experience. To achieve this might mean strengthening or undoing the neat unity imposed by the book. Unwilling or unable to do either, the diary form must enact literary fictional bad faith by obscuring freedom and confinement, formlessness and form, to approach and retreat from its goal, never quite able to convince itself its value – a dynamic inertia that could go on forever. The author might have used the alibi of most literary novels by "painting rich characters" and introducing violent developments to mask the narrative impasse, so it's admirable that for the most part Michel Laub follows the logic of the form: the grandfather and father, the diarist's wives, João and the events that mark their lives are always only ghostly presences in this nightly dance of the diary. The narrative is relentlessly provisional.

In a metafictional sleight of hand, the diarist wonders if this restraint is enough, a move that raises the issue of intention and mastery. If the fiction is under the author's control, the expression of limits and pained distance suggest that literary fiction is a charade and is as useless as the grandfather's notebook for providing access to experience. The diary format is then a sop to our enduring gullibility. History, he decides, might be "nothing but the accumulation of massacres that lie behind every speech, every gesture, every memory", which would mean every aspect of this unhappy situation is itself the legacy and revelation of disastrous history:
... if Auschwitz is the tragedy that contains in its essence all those other tragedies, it's also in a way proof of the non-viability of human experience at all times and in all places – in the face of which there is nothing one can do or think, no possible deviation from the path my grandfather followed during those years.
                                                                                  (Translated by Margaret Jull Costa)
The grandfather's path was one of repression and suicide, the other, taken by the father, one of stoic realism; a different kind of denial exposed by Alzheimer's. So what is this current path of writing a diary other than a third in which writing reveals only its non-viability as a medium for sharing experience; a likelihood reinforced by its familiarity as a literary product? Writing here maintains a relationship with experience like bare feet tracing a sinkhole beneath an increasingly threadbare carpet, unwilling or unable to fall through. Perhaps the ambiguity between unwilling and unable is what Kafka meant by "what is most human".

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Boyhood Island: My Struggle: 3, by Karl Ove Knausgaard

It's been said that Boyhood Island is "the most Proustian" of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle series, and while this is true that both Proust and Knausgaard present intense remembrances of childhood, the same could be said of many other novels, for example Tomas Bennerhed's The Ravens, recently published by the Clerkenwell Press and, like Boyhood Island, a novel of a 1970s childhood set in Scandinavia. Both Proust's and Knausgaard's would surely be lost among them were it not for what sets them apart.

What sets them apart might best be summarised as the lingering uncertainty of their status as novels. For all the differences between the authors that are finally destructive to the casual comparison, there is a common pressure exerted by the formal quality of each narrative voice: an essayistic spirit set within a distinct, first-person predicament refusing the comfortable distance of the knowing third person and, because of that, demanding that the reader participates in the questing nature of the narration.

While the Overture to In Search of Lost Time emerges from the uncertain place between dreaming and wakefulness, Boyhood Island merely introduces a discussion of the status of childhood memory. After a traditional family scene of moving into a new house on a Norwegian island narrated with objective confidence, Knausgaard interrupts the nostalgic flow and admits that he doesn't remember any of it himself: the action and dialogue is an invention based on family legend. As the distance is made explicit, there is no blurring of generic edges.
Memory is pragmatic, it is sly and artful, but not in any hostile or malicious way; on the contrary, it does everything it can to keep its host satisfied. Something pushes a memory into the great void of oblivion, something distorts it beyond recognition, something misunderstands it totally, something, and this something is as good as nothing, recalls it with sharpness, clarity and accuracy. That which is remembered accurately is never given to you to determine. (Translated by Don Barlett)
This is certainly a truism yet, placed before a narrative explicitly based on the author's own life, it introduces anxiety to the mournful dejection that personal memories invariably provoke, making what proceeds less an indulgence than a nervous exploration of what remains. As a writer then, Knausgaard, like Proust, must navigate a path between the total freedom offered by the constraints of genre – amply demonstrated by Tomas Bennerhed's reliance on heavily descriptive prose to dissemble its lack of truth and necessity – and the silence of terminal uncertainty. It is here that Knausgaard retreats from Marcel's quest to recover the living presence of the past and instead sticks to a straightforward narration of everyday life. There are only two, brief, vertiginous diversions that resemble anything like those in the first two volumes and what elevates them beyond fictionalised memoir, and, as a result, the sly and artful come to the fore.

He writes that young Karl Ove took great pleasure in not defecating when he felt the need, sticking his fingers up his backside to smell what he held back, which means we have the author of a six-part autobiographical work reporting that he was anally retentive as a child! He then enjoyed the relief of letting go, a feeling perhaps similar to completing the sixth and final volume of My Struggle. Moreover, he is told off by his teacher for revealing in class the reasons for a classmate's broken home and that he should learn some social decorum. Are these anecdotal precursors of later life too good to be true? Sometimes it seems that way, especially as much less trivial events are later pushed toward the void.

The best edition of the Scott Moncrieff/Kilmartin translation
Where Knausgaard might become realigned with Proust is the tension in the book created by opposing ways of life. In Swann's Way, the child Marcel walks two paths in the country surrounding his home: going in opposite directions and accessed by different gates, the Méséglise Way is full of lower class sexuality and sensuous nature, while the Guermantes Way presents the aura of history, nobility and the glamour of high society. Each represents a core example for Marcel's understanding in later life and the potential for happiness – what Deleuze called his apprenticeship to signs. Each has its appeals but are apparently irreconcilable. Which should he choose? Knausgaard has similar paths: the island's wooded landscape full of schoolmates, adventure and exciting temptations, and the one provided at home under the Panoptic gaze of his tyrannical father. How will the boy deal with such competing pressures? Outside he behaves recklessly, testing the limits of his freedom while at home he cringes with fear at the probable consequences. Knausgaard has acknowledged the "dynamic force in this book" is:
the difference between the freedom outside and the prison-like state inside, and how the latter very slowly influences the former, and in the end changes it fundamentally. Another word for that would be integration, I think. The eye of God ends up inside, so that, in the end, you take care of judgment and punishment yourself.
Perhaps a supplication to greater powers sums up the reckoning with the past and present that the book sequence displays and why it began with the death of his father. However, in Time Regained, the adult Marcel takes the Méséglise Way again and discovers it is in fact physically linked to the Guermantes Way; there wasn't such a profound opposition and, in revising his assumptions, makes him more aware of continuities and possibilities for revising ongoing assumptions. The proximity of separate paths turns out to be true of Karl Ove's paths too, leading us to a better comparison than with Proust's novel – that of Kafka and his father, or, more specifically, George Bendemann and his father.

The Judgment begins with Georg's self-assurance that he can write about his life to his friend in Russia without worrying too much about the consequences. Writing is freedom. But this is soon ended by his father when he reveals that the Russian friend knows all about Georg's self-serving behaviour because he, the father, has been in contact with him all along. Georg's suicide then is a submission to the power that reveals itself to be present in writing too. His suicide is the murder of writing by means of writing. Compare this with Karl Ove's actions as his family prepares to leave the island idyll. The teenager finds himself out of God's sight and, at a school camp, he and other boys pursue girls and behave in ways that readers will have to read and judge for themselves, if indeed they notice it all, so cursory is the description. Collusion with other boys is significant here because it dilutes responsibility, allowing the brute instincts of teenagers to stand in for the 'suicide' of the oppressed little Karl Ove; these girls disappear into the distance like a roadkill in a rearview mirror. Writing is as pragmatic as memory.
I guess I have a talent for humiliation, a place within me that experience can’t reach, which is terrible in real life, but something that comes in handy in writing. It seems as though humiliation has become a career for me.
Behind this confession is perhaps what is most disturbing about Boyhood Island: the possibility that father's tyranny is growing in the little boy even as he appears to resist it, or, to be less personal and less judgmental, the manifestation of the manipulative power that secretes itself within even the most open, honest, self-abasing act.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Existential OuLiPo: The Illiterate by Agota Kristof

Today marks fifty days since I began learning German on Duolingo, a website I discovered by chance. That is, fifty days in a row. I know this because the site rewards continuity and persistence. Online e-learning has now enabled me to progress far further than I had ever imagined possible. Many years ago I signed up for a schoolroom course in which "immersive" interaction with neighbours in the new language was the sole method of learning. No lists of nouns, no gender tables, no rules of grammar. We didn't even look at words. I should have known better: this was how they taught French at junior school and my persistent memory of that time is of our teacher Mrs Hollick repeating out loud the question Qu'est que c'est? and me being resentful that the spelling I had seen in my mind was not the one she eventually wrote on the blackboard. Not only did "Kiskersay" lack the letter K, it was several words with vertical dashes inserted apparently at random. I never learned French, and the German course was a waste of time.

I need to look at words, to see their shape and how they relate to each other. Perhaps this visual imperative is why I am uncomfortable at author readings, as the voice appropriates the agitated silence of letters on a page. This has nothing to do with me, I think.

Mehr nicht!

Learning German has no apparent motive. Yes, I have German friends and many of my favourite authors write in the language and perhaps one day I'll be able to read Kafka, Rilke, Celan, Bernhard and Handke in the original, but the translations have already been more than enough. I do not fetishise the master text as composed by the great man. If it makes any sense, I would say I am drawn more toward the other of the original. This could mean that I think criticism should be less analyses of textual nuance than exposure of the work's silence to the Lebenswelt.

So what if, in handling the original manuscript, the writer's editor had made a mistake on a crucial point and the text was never corrected? So what if the editor's error was then compounded by the printer and was itself never corrected? That makes two mediating barriers. And so what if the editor's error compounded by the printer was compounded further by the translator, and then by the editor of the translation, and then by the printer of the translation? One should use Occam's Razor only to slash the throats of New Critics.

Agota Kristof says she also struggled to learn French. Unlike her native Hungarian, it is not a phonetic language, so the difficulty was amplified. But she didn't give up and The Illiterate is her account of moving to a new country, living in its language and eventually writing Le grand cahier, her extraordinary novel translated as The Notebook, both now published by CB Editions.

The need for language is there from the start:
I read. It’s like a disease. I read everything that comes to hand, everything that meets my glance: newspapers, schoolbooks, posters, bits of paper found on the street, recipes, children’s books. Everything that is in print. I’m four years old. The war has just begun.   [Translated by Nina Bogin]
For another seventeen years this continues, but then the uprising in Hungary forces an end and, to escape persecution, she makes the dangerous crossing of the border into Austria. The welcome they receive and the hospitality of the locals is a pleasant contrast to what reading Thomas Bernhard might lead one to expect of his fellow countrymen. The refugees are dispersed and Kristof, her husband and child end up in Neuchâtel in Switzerland where she begins work in a factory. Life is settled and safe and, you would think, happy. However, the loss of home, family and language dominate her life:
We expected something when we arrived here. We didn’t know what we were expecting, but it was certainly not this: these days of dismal work, these silent evenings, this frozen life, without change, without surprise, without hope.
A chapter entitled 'How do you become a writer?' – First of all, naturally, you must write. Then, you must continue to write – hints a more passionate and wilful person behind the quiet, cool prose: the two years it took to compose what she calls "short texts based on my childhood" that make up Le grand cahier pass in four and a half lines. And while she shares Thomas Bernhard's expressive reticence displayed in My Prizes, his own book of little personal essays, this appears to be a quality imposed by the French language rather than, as Gabriel Josipovici suggests in his introduction, a personal artistic credo. (Of course, it could be both.) The simplicity and directness of the prose prevails upon Kristof in the manner of a formal constraint as practised by OuLiPo, that legendary band of French writers for whom mathematical patterns and linguistic games provide an armature for literary creation. In Kristof's case, however, the constraint is imposed out of existential necessity. Whatever the cause, Josipovici welcomes the effect, as it means "her books are, thankfully, free of the overwriting which one finds in so much of the best post-war Hungarian authors".

One wonders then how much exile, silence and the struggle for a voice made Agota Kristof the writer she became, and how stifled or stifling she may have been as a writer of Hungarian rather than French literature. The new language does not then suppress the writer as reveal what she would not have discovered otherwise, making the space between home and exile a living presence. Samuel Beckett provides surest evidence of what happens when a writer adopts or is adopted by a language. Perhaps such a constraint is what I seek in learning German, as this sort of thing is easy to write after all.

More evidence of the value of distance comes in her chapter about the death of Stalin. She knows of no Russian dissident who has addressed his catastrophic influence on the national identity and culture of countries like Hungary.
What do they think, those who suffered under their tyrant, what to do they think about those "unimportant little countries" that suffered, in addition, under foreign domination, their domination? That of their country. Are they ashamed of it, or will they be ashamed one day?
Her role model for dealing with such shame, with standing outside and alone, is a writer to whom she admits devotion. This writer "never ceased to criticize and to denounce his country, his era, and the society in which he lived" albeit with love and humour as much as with hate and anger. She wishes there were more like him: "Thomas Bernhard will live on eternally as an example to all those who pretend to be writers". Agota Kristof's own name might easily replace his within this sentence.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

An excursion via Thomas Bernhard's My Prizes

After days of inert wondering why Thomas Bernhard's My Prizes felt like more than "a weakish book" and thereby, according to the dictates of professional reception, valuable only for throwing the so-called greatness of his novels into finer relief, or, rather, why it felt that this so-called weakness was in fact a strength in the same way that the illness, or, to be more precise, the double illness that I was enduring, demanded the choice of an episodic book to read was fortunate, as it enabled me to consider basic questions rather than suffering to read another product of industry-friendly dilettantism, I read Ingeborg Bachmann's brilliant short essay on her friend and discovered she had asked questions about Thomas Bernhard that had also nagged at me:
The fact that a certain person writes at a distance from contemporary literature and increases this distance through solitude... is already a reason for not knowing how to begin to do him justice. Where does he belong, what does he want, where are his points of reference (to what end?), in which conversation, hence in which non-conversation, does this monologue of his participate, what does he have to say and to whom?     [Translated by Flowerville]
Yes, I thought, what makes Bernhard uniquely disturbing appears to have something to do with his personal reticence, a silence reminiscent of the terrible solitude out of which his characters begin to speak and yet which seems to have been Bernhard's only way of speaking, a kind of self-stifling game, or something to do with how his work emphasises the solitude necessary to all writing, its remove from Sunday Supplement profiles, bookshop signings and prize ceremonies (hence their spectacular proliferation) and why it is best to go, like Bernhard, in the opposite direction, even if that means reinforcing exceptional solitude.

The Notting Hill Editions' edition

After reading Bernhard, one is left with the impossibility of doing justice to the silence behind the game. Clearly this is due to the moderating activity of the critical act and its tendency to orchestrate traditions rather than self-blinding before singularities, but this is also present in the malady of existence, as brought forth by Thomas Bernhard so clearly in his narratives. So, yes, My Prizes is a minor work, a collection dredged from the publisher's bottom drawer and dilute compared to the novels, and, yes, while the anecdotes expose the grotesque vanity and philistine violence of municipal art culture so brilliantly that it is probably enough only to celebrate the comedy, the anger and the excess of My Prizes, none of this would express anything new or worth saying. Every week someone announces to a startled world how funny and dark Bernhard is or how unfunny and dark Bernhard is, and everything they say is true or not true and not worth saying again

The Alfred A. Knopf edition

But what might be worth saying again is the significance of the recurring ambiguity of the reckless acts in Bernhard's fiction, something repeated throughout My Prizes. In the first essay he needs a suit for a ceremony and at very short notice chooses one from the rack of a posh menswear store. After the event he decides it's too small, takes it back to demand a replacement, which, to his surprise, he receives. For the next prize he decides the money should go towards buying a house, so an estate agent lines up twelve farmhouses in upper Austria for a full day's viewing. The first is mouse-infested, has damp-rotted floors and is much too big, but, before he's seen the second let alone the twelfth, he decides to buy it there and then. Days follow in which he frets over the decision: the prize money will pay only an installment – so where will he find the money to pay the remainder let alone refurbish the building? We don't find out but we know from elsewhere the farmhouse became his country retreat for the rest of his life. Later, another prize pays for "storm windows".

Another prize prompts him to buy a car despite having never driven one. In a showroom he sees a Triumph Herald and once again buys it on the spot, demanding the example on show to drive away immediately. He drives to Croatia where he and his "aunt" had rented a villa. In his room he writes the terrifying novella Amras, sends it to his publisher and, to clear his head, goes for a drive along the coast and promptly has a life-threatening accident. Back in Vienna, he hires the best and most expensive solicitor to deal with the case and frets about the extravagance given the regular ill-fortune of cross-border justice. But once again things work out and he gets more money in compensation than he had ever hoped for.

Not My Prizes

These are just a few examples of reckless behaviour from the nine essays but, as I said, they appear throughout his work. I've mentioned before the famous bike ride in Gathering Evidence and the abrupt changes in habit that recur in various novels, such as the beginning of Gehen, translated as Walking, apparently his breakthrough work stylistically. Except in My Prizes he doesn't talk about his work! The car and the crash are discussed in detail but Amras itself, this extraordinary work whose 50th anniversary it is this year, is mentioned only in passing and almost dismissively as "romantic, something born of a young man who'd been reading Novalis for months".

The most notable example of behavioral change comes at the beginning of the valedictory novel Extinction, with perhaps the greatest opening sentence in modern literature.
On the twenty-ninth, having returned from Wolfsegg, I met my pupil Gambetti on the Pincio to discuss arrangements for the lessons he was to receive in May, writes Franz-Josef Murau, and impressed once again by his high intelligence, I was so refreshed and exhilarated, so glad to be living in Rome and not in Austria, that instead of walking home along the Via Condotti, as I usually do, I crossed the Flaminia and the Piazza del Popolo and walked the whole length of the Corso before returning to my apartment in the Piazza Minerva, where at about two o’clock I received the telegram informing me that my parents and my brother, Johannes, had died. Parents and Johannes killed in accident. Caecilia, Amalia, it read.                                            
                                                                [Translated by David McLintock]
The implicit connection of the change in Franz-Josef's routine to the change in his fortune comes from the excess of detail within the proliferating clauses and the desolate two-sentence telegram that follows immediately. But how can they be connected? The connection is both obvious and absurd. However, rather than seek cause and effect, we need only see this perplexity as the birth of the narratives we are reading and the voices of individuals rising from the predicament of "exigency, necessity, inexorability", as Bachmann describes it.

This is the key to Bernhard's radicalism and why he is more than a scourge of bourgeois pretensions, or whatever else the critics say, and why it's impossible to pin him down. His prose soars, exploding like fireworks illuminating the landscape for a moment before plummeting to earth in darkness. If he knew where he belonged, what he wanted, what he had to say and to what end, in what conversation or non-conversation he might participate, his work would be very different; das gewöhnliche Zeug, to borrow Kafka's uncle's phrase: the usual stuff.

In 1970 – during the Mexico World Cup in fact, as you will see – Bernhard starred in Drei Tage, a filmed monologue (a translation of which you can read here) in which he suggests why his style of writing does not escape what is written about:
The thing I find most terrifying is writing prose…it’s pretty much the most difficult thing for me…And the moment I realized this and became conscious of it, I swore to myself that from then on I would do nothing but write prose. Of course I could have done something completely different. I have studied many other disciplines, but none of them are terrifying.


Please email me at steve dot mitchelmore at gmail dot com.

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