This Space

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.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Caroline's Bikini by Kirsty Gunn

At first glance Caroline's Bikini appears to be the fabled Adultery-in-Hampstead novel; the literary unicorn that provides a caricature of English middle-class fiction. It features Evan, a young London professional, who becomes infatuated with Caroline, the wife in a couple who give him lodgings in their attic flat in a wealthy district of London. Except, rather than setting out the expected love triangle drama of that fabled novel, this is about what happens when Evan insists that his copywriter friend Emily produce a novel as a record of his love and how she then struggles with the task when, in their many conferences in various artisan gin bars, there isn't much to report given that Evan never reveals his feelings to Caroline and, but for the physical effects of his lovelorn pining, life carries on more or less as normal. The major part of the novel is Emily's record of her attempt to record.

So it threatens to be about adultery in Hampstead only without adultery or Hampstead (the flat is in Richmond). One reader renamed the novel Waiting for Caroline because nothing happens more than twice over its 330 pages, while another reader in the same place says it feels less like a novel than "literary criticism of a piece of text" due to the second element that de-horns the unicorn: the author's introduction and the multiple appendices providing background to the characters and theoretical underpinnings of the book. Emily herself thinks the novel could be part of the tradition of courtly love poetry exemplified by Dante and Petrarch in which the work stands in for the love object; a form the introduction says "many regard as the largest kind of love story of all": the one that is unrequited. The link to Dante is clear, as the record of his love for Beatrice (a love returned only platonically) in the Vita Nuova is a combination of narrative, poetry and commentary on the poetry. 

Still, it's a disconcerting claim given that the comedic lightness of Emily's reporting is familiar from the tradition of metropolitan English fiction and has little in common with what Charles Singleton called the "sober and solemn and reasoned prose" of the Vita Nuova. Another difference is that Caroline remains alive during the novel's duration, which means, unlike Dante's and Petrarch's, Evan's love is never under the shadow of impossibility, so his feelings provoke impatient questioning from both Emily and the reader as he procrastinates and prevaricates in developing his story, which in turn emphasises two more major differences: that there is no lyric content to contrast with the narrative and commentary, and that the conditions of Evan's love are entirely secular.

One Dante scholar has argued that a central purpose of Dante's opposition of narration and lyric is to create a tension between the physical and metaphysical elements of the story, which meant contaminating timelessness with time. Emily's interminable detailing of gin bars and the various brands and flavours could stand in for the lyric dimension, except this also emphasises the quotidian absurdity of modern life, which is also the ground of modern fiction. It can place love such as Evan's only within recognisable social or psychological conditions, and those conditions within a generic format, which can only render Evan's love as deluded and futile, so lyricism could just as easily be attributed to the theoretical commentary, which at least offers some gravity to Evan's abjection.

So what about the secular conditions? Unrequited love is an experience, like grief, that sets the sufferer aside to contemplate their fate, which exposes them to an awareness of a larger process at work that isn't a staple of modern fiction, or at least a need for a larger process, and Evan does express the belief that fate led him to Caroline's door. It is a process that Dante in his love for Beatrice recognises as a sign of God's presence on earth. So while "the most secret chambers" of his heart trembled in Beatrice's presence just as Evan's does in Caroline's, it is because he senses that he is in the presence of "a miracle manifest in reality", that she is a midpoint between heaven and earth; a combination of pure intellect of God and the brute matter of bodies, a belief that emerged from Plato's account in the Timaeus of the harmony of the universe in which human nature in its best states – moral, philosophical, artistic – is said to be a microcosm of that harmony; an account that is more or less unintelligible to us. Perhaps then, rather than absurdity being the ground of the modern novel, it is the modern novel's inevitable product because eternity is never allowed to contaminate its narrative, though it does haunt each one. Evan's story concludes with an absurd act that is in keeping with the requirements of time.

At first glance then, Caroline's Bikini is a send up of the Adultery-in-Hampstead novel AND of the solemnity of the tradition to which it appeals, yet it is precisely in this distance and originality that it maintains the latter tradition. The ostensible story of unrequited love disguises the unrequited status of the novel itself; its existence standing in for a formal tradition that can never happen in the conditions in which the modern novel exists. Caroline's Bikini is thereby two novels: the novel we're reading with Emily's and Evan's gin bar conclaves and Kirsty Gunn's theological apologia in the form of metafictional appendices, and the impossible novel that Evan is unable to report. The one we're reading acts as a midpoint between the grounded material of Emily's report and our faith, however residual, in the metaphysical power of that ghost novel floating free in a realm of unintelligible harmony.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Encountering the fabulous point

When the postman delivered the book of Józef Czapski's lectures on Proust, I was slightly disappointed that it was such a slim volume, especially as 82 pages of actual text and a 25-page introduction cost me £10. Compared to the lack of moderation that Czapski says characterised Proust's commitment to his novel once he had abandoned his social and sentimental life, which had been marked by the same lack of moderation, the modesty here is extreme. However, given that the lectures were drawn solely from Czapski's memory of Proust's novel and personal experience of its Parisian milieu and delivered to fellow inmates in a Soviet labour camp, this is more than forgiveable. The mere occurrence of the lectures displays a lack of moderation, let alone their subsequent publication. And the introduction by their translator Eric Karpeles is excellent.

What's more, if I compare the page count to the one secondary work that more than any other has influenced not just my appreciation of what distinguishes Proust's achievement from all other novels but of my fascination with writing in general – the 13 pages of Maurice Blanchot's The Experience of Proust – it is immoderately long. So why this instinctive fuss with measuring? Why this concern for physique rather than metaphysique?

No doubt there is the concern for not being ripped off, but there's also embedded in this the anxiety about what any book amounts to before, during and after it's read, with its physical presence offering the most immediate authority. Once that is over, we seek further organisational information. Last year John Self was perplexed by the appearance of the Penguin Book of the Prose Poem: "What is a prose poem anyway?" he asked. "It’s something and nothing really, isn’t it? Neither use nor ornament." Later, after reading the book, he recanted and accepted the genre is valid. But this raises the age-old issue of labels. I was in Waterstone's this week and saw this table and its sign (with its inexplicable second leading capital).

All of the books below it were as slim as Czapski's, but I wondered how the shop workers decided which books count as novellas and which not. At which point does a novel becomes a novella, and vice versa? It's the old philosophical conundrum raised by Clov in Endgame: "Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there's a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap." At what page does the book become a novel? The same can be asked of Penguin's book. John quotes the introduction's definition of prose poetry, that it "flows by soft return from margin to margin, filling the empty field of the page" and is "unchecked by metre or rhyme", which means it's defined by the technical features of prose.

Aren't such genre distinctions a form of confiscating smuggled goods at the border? Once a book has been read, whether it's 90 pages or 900, such distinctions become irrelevant to the reader, as both have the quality of existing as a book, of being itself and not any other book, which then raises the question of what that quality is in itself; what precisely has been smuggled?

For many years I've been aware of how the end of a novel detaches itself from the rest, as some kind of token closure to what never closes, or token opening to what never opens. As one nears the end of a book, whether it is page 88 or 888, the weight of pages to come grows so light that a certain inner resignation and leavetaking takes place, and the kernel of the book, its essence as itself, attaches to what has passed; however, in the same awareness, I'm aware that it does not attach itself to the beginning, because the beginning needs to go beyond itself to become the book, and not to the middle either, because the middle exists only because the beginning and the end distinguish it as such. And where does the beginning end and the end begin?

Three years ago, I suggested Thomas Bernhard's novel Neufundland, which exists only as a beginning sentence and an end sentence, acts on us as a novel nevertheless because it conjures in the imagination what in other novels is conjured by memory, and the inner resignation or leavetaking not only occurs but is the entirety of the experience of the novel, thereby confronting us with what we might call the Platonic ideal of 'the Book' to which all books appeal, even as they dissemble in doing so. This points to why Proust's novel fascinates me, which has nothing to do its immodest length but because, as Blanchot says, it circles around "the fabulous point where he encounters the event that makes every narrative possible"; a point at the centre of Neufundland despite its extreme brevity.

I tried to imagine an alternative to the abrupt ending of the usual novel, in which this fabulous point might make itself felt, and in doing so I remembered the Pernice Brothers' 2003 LP Yours, Mine & Ours, whose final song ends in the normal way except, if one waits through 23 seconds of silence, a part of Water Ban, the LP's second song, a part which is a kind of ghost chorus, reappears as a ghostly refrain fading into infinity, something that has always intrigued me without my being aware of it. I wonder how this effect might transfer to writing. Perhaps this novel, which some have called a novella, is a good example.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

All our (Bernhardian) yesterdays

Today's date means it is thirty years since Thomas Bernhard died. Twenty years ago I wrote a short introduction to his work for Spike Magazine to mark ten years since his death. In those days, Bernhard was more or less unknown in English-speaking countries, with subtitled documentaries like the one below unimaginable, and this was the first essay I had written for the new-fangled internet, so should be considered in that light. Below, I list what I've written about Bernhard on This Space, with a few other treats along the way.

Last year I was keen to write a longer piece on the consequences for the novel in general of Bernhard's going in the opposite direction, the phrase he uses in The Cellar: An Escape, part three of Gathering Evidence, to describe one of the many wilful or chance actions he took in life and which his novels' characters often take too. I mention this feature in Bernhard begins from 2010. I went in the opposite direction and wrote nothing.

In 2011, Bernhard appears in four posts. The first is a long passage from Wittgenstein's Nephew, which demonstrates that Bernhard is not the misanthropic ranter of bookchat legend and instead a writer of breath-giving sentences. In the second, I embedded this short, dark, peaceful film of a drive leading up to one of Bernhard's farmhouses in Upper Austria.

The third is another gift of the internet: I posted an extract from Douglas Robertston's translation of Ungenach, a novella still to be published in English book form. His blog is full of other, otherwise untranslated gifts, such as the short story Midland in Stilfs.

The fourth of that year is my review of Seagull Books' impressively excessive production of Bernhard's short story for children Victor Halfwit: A Winter's Tale.

Another three years passed before I posted on Bernhard again. This time it was to write about My Prizes, a collection of Bernhard's short essays on the prizes he had won and the speeches he gave. The second sentence of his notorious Austrian State Prize acceptance speech is one of his most famous sayings.

Two years later, I wrote Unfoundland about the minimal existence of Bernhard's unfinished novel Neufundland, and then what I think is one the best things I have ever posted on this blog, and certainly the best on Bernhard: a review of the title story of another of Seagull Books' productions, Goethe Dies.

Apart from this very post, the most recent was a more general post about writing in which I discuss The Loser, Frost and the film Drei Tage, an extract from which you can see below and whose full text in translation can be read here.

Finally, there are many more links on the English website dedicated to his work and on the official Austrian one, in German.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

On the death of book blogging (nothing unhappy)

The Indie Book Blog Is Dead says The Vulture, a commerical culturesite I may or may not have seen before – they all look and sound the same – focusing on another commercial culturesite that looks and sounds pretty much the same but one I had definitely seen before though had never considered to be a book blog, which has been sold to another commercial culturesite, signalling, apparently, the end of indie book blogs, a distinguishing phrase that stood out – independent of what, I wondered; any feeling for literature?

The article prompted a bemused shrug from Anthony as he celebrated ten years of Time's Flow Stemmed, a brilliant and cutting response from Juliana of The Blank Garden and, most recently, Flowerville's reflections on why she continues to blog after all these years. I've written about the form a couple of times in The beginning of something and A blog comes to one in the dark, so I repeat myself now only to observe that such repetition indicates why book blogging maintains itself in a state of precarity: it offers an infinite and apparently meaningless freedom. It is like the novel in this sense and, like a novelist who embraces genre, the blogger can constrain themself by mimicking the culturesites with enthusiasm for new publications, offering consumer reports, prizechat and local agitations about diversity, but the longer one pursues such writing, the more nagging questions or feelings present themselves and demand to be explored.

"I understand less than I thought I knew about literature at the time" says Anthony looking back at his first post, echoing my own experience. In the early days especially I was contemptuous of the prevailing literary scene and impatient for it to change direction, until I realised I needed to do that myself. Pursuing questions about the strange familiarity of literature – pursuing one's ignorance! – is not to be found on respectable platforms, so no wonder The Vulture chooses to mention only those bloggers who have moved on, as if blogging is only an unpaid internship on more familiar career path; profitability is the guiding light. Meanwhile, the book blogger looks into the night sky to find a billion guiding lights engulfed in darkness.

Lately, I've been reading for the third time in thirty years VS Naipaul's novel The Enigma of Arrival and learning, perhaps for the first time, the lesson Naipaul learns himself: that a writer's true subject is often hidden in plain sight and takes a certain amount of luck or misfortune to recognise (a lesson curiously similar to Proust's, a very different writer). Naipaul's recognition came in middle age when he rented a cottage on a manor estate near Stonehenge to recover from years of travel journalism. What at first seemed like bucolic peace in ancient and eternal landscape peopled by succeeding generations of the same families, turned out to be as precarious as the one he'd left behind: the farm workers he gets to know as neighbours lose their jobs, their marriages, their homes, their lives, and the landscape changes according to the demands of the farming economy. The manor itself, a symbol of empire and class hierarchy, loses its aura of permanence and authority. It leads him to reflect on his own beginnings, coming to England from Trinidad as an 18-year-old with ambitions to be a writer in the home of the authors he grew up admiring, but failing to write about the chaos of postwar London, in particular his fellow transients in the austere lodging house in which he lived, in favour of the elevated subjects he believed necessary to a literary career. It's an exceptionally moving and disconcerting book, not least because it is a deeply felt essay on his own life and work rather than what it asserts on the cover. Perhaps Naipaul needed to call it a novel to protect himself from the misfortune of the discovery that his true subject was not other people, countries and cultures but the search for his own true subject.

In the surprise and discomfort of this discovery, the novel maintains itself in a state of precarity, and explains why in Sir Vidia's Shadow Paul Theroux is entirely correct in wrongly declaring The Enigma of Arrival to be the novel that marks the end of Naipaul's career as an important novelist ("a ponderous agglomeration of the dullest rural incidents") as it goes against the generic grain. If this is the case, the same could be said for Theroux's My Secret History, which stands as his own best novel, and why subsequent, ostensibly similar novels like Naipaul's A Way in the World and Theroux's My Other Life are so disappointing.

My own luck or misfortune has been to discover that I am intellectually not up to exploring the questions that have presented themselves to me, so I am happily stuck with the amateur hobbyism of blogging about extraordinary books like The Imperative to Write and the profoundly irrationalist literary apocalypse of Maurice Blanchot. But then I wonder how much it has to do with intellect than with luck or misfortune.


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