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Friday, December 11, 2020

Favourite books 2020

Every time Dennis Cooper posts his favorite (sic) fiction and non-fiction of the year, it alone exceeds the number of books I'm able to read in a year let alone the number from which it was presumably narrowed down. This is why I suggested a couple of years ago such pages choose only "axe books", if only to give us a chance. Those below aren't necessarily axe books, but I'll limit myself to three works of fiction published this year, and three non-fiction, only one of which was published this year.

Novels, etc.
Lars Iyer – Nietzsche and the Burbs
Rob Doyle – Threshold
Sam Pink – The Ice Cream Man and other stories

Lissa McCullough – The Religious Philosophy of Simone Weil

"Most of the unorthodox or anti-orthodox elements in Weil’s religious thought stem from her unusual conception of the creation of the world as a withdrawal of God....This means that the act of creation, for Weil, is a radical act of self-transfiguration of God by God: creation is already the crucifixion or passion of God."
Willem Styfhals – No Spiritual Investment in the World: Gnosticism and Postwar German Philosophy
"Kafka’s nihilistic experience, paradigmatic for modernity in general, was not the atheistic realization that there is nothing beyond this world; it was ultimately a religious experience of divine nothingness."
Joseph Kuzma – Maurice Blanchot and Psychoanalysis
"Blanchot proposes to read the Freudian unconscious as a radical exteriority, something that is not only indeterminate and unknowable, but that pulls man outside himself, outside everything he believes himself to be, outside everything that would comprise for him a center point.…an irreducible otherness that precedes any installation of identity – an obscurity more ancient than even the most primitive form of outside that is neither another world nor a hidden world."

Thursday, November 12, 2020

The disappearance of criticism, part two

A friend mentioned to me that he felt alienated by the articulacy of a literary critical book he was reading; by its neutrality of tone, by its calm. Unruffled was another word he used. We all might recognise this feeling while assuming it is admiration, respect, perhaps even envy. We become convinced without noticing that command over what one has read defines the value of criticism, and that the object serves a purpose only the critic may determine.

His comments made me realise that I am often similarly alienated by book reviews: “We know everything,” they say, “nothing can surprise us”. The critic may be disturbed by the content, offended, made angry, impressed, amused, surprised or delighted, but these result only in the language of reproach or approval, in hachet jobs or raves, each accommodated under the alibi of industrial evaluation. Literature is again subordinated to its public uses, so that for the critic to experience a separation from that regular accommodation is to experience self-doubt and the suspicion of incompetence. Asking fundamental questions is not advisable.

Alienation is the residue of those unasked fundamental questions. Their repression is only one of many symptoms of the despair of contemporary culture in its dealing with literature; a despair that manifests in newspaper book pages desperately seeking an aura for what we must call post-literary novels. The fierce policing of despair is manifest in this newspaper's report of the stern rebuking of Barry Pierce for his appropriately tongue-in-cheek review of some generic ephemera.

For the critic to become ruffled, it would be necessary for them to become aware of that which makes it possible for a work to become a work of art, and for their criticism to be subject to that experience. When art is completely absent, or used as a keyword for elegance and good taste, the only thing left to say is said by Barry Pierce.

By “makes it possible”, I’m thinking not of the conditions of a literary work’s production, the biography of its author, or the poetic or experimental quality of the prose, but of what Maurice Blanchot’s writes paraphrasing Rilke’s lament for a dismembered Orpheus: “The work is Orpheus, but it is also the adverse power which tears it and divides Orpheus.” The work is that of mastery and of mastery’s undoing, which means, he adds, that the work belongs to an order that we do not associate with achievement. Articulacy would then risk betraying the work by ignoring, dismissing or, more likely, remaining completely unaware of the part that distinguishes art from other human creative activity; the part taken by fire, to adapt Blanchot’s title for a collection of his essays; that which is non-essential, useless, even destructive. Instead, articulacy emerges in firm judgments on technique and the utilitarian aspects of the work. As the 2020 Booker shortlist also reveals, this tendency also now dominates the production of novels.

While this domination is perhaps inevitable, as the work itself draws attention to such uses, the reason why art has such an aura, and why the review pages regard literature with such uncomprehending reverence even as they abuse it, is as much to do with its adverse power, the part taken by fire, as its demonstrable uses. Criticism might reappear as a means of approaching the clearing taken by fire even as it is appropriated by reportage or self-expression.

In the same essay (from The Space of Literature), Blanchot pursues the aspects of art that define its remove from what he calls “daytime clarity”. When we know nothing of the history of a work’s creation, he says, “the work comes closest to itself”. It’s a curious phrase, as we tend to think of works of art as moving towards us in order to give. Why should it go in that direction? And what is a work’s ‘itself’ anyway? A timely explanation comes in The Magnetic Fields, newly translated by Charlotte Mandell, obstensibly by André Breton and Philippe Soupault, but written in such a way as to distance the writer from masterful agency. As the publisher describes it:

They would write for a week on every day of the week and they would write fast, as fast as possible, in complete secrecy. When the week was over, the writing would be done. No touching up.
From a page chosen as fast as possible:
Vegetable gardens are surrounded by various fences and trees of May or October which let the wind wander through. What are the dingy houses that open their shutters only to broad daylight? The major chimneys and iron doors of monotonous buildings allow shouts and the whir of machines to run freely. You still have to turn your back.
The sentences are grammatically correct and the words make sense as words, but context withdraws as the sentences proceed. There no destination for meaning. While we know the conditions of the production of The Magnetic Fields and the biographies of the authors, we cannot use them to trace a route back to daytime clarity. The work comes closest to itself then by exposing to the reader to what Blanchot calls our “bilingualism in a single language” – everyday “raw” language and “essential” language, or language in itself. The closeness of a work to itself is the appearance of that essential language, an impersonal reality that is “far more or still less than any reality” with which we are familiar. The words become their appearance and begin to become “the elemental depth upon which this appearance is opened while at the same time it closes”. 

Mention of ‘elemental depths’ is enough to raise concerns about the direction this is going – those pesky fundamental questions, such as Jacob Taubes’ question about the sur in surrealism: “What meaning can this prefix have in the context of a purely profane, immanent, and materialist experience?”. This is the question of life itself I detected in volumes one and two of Knausgaard's My Struggle, whose mainstream reviews are the ideal example of criticism's alienating force. We can answer at least that it means literature’s utile correspondence to the immanent world is not enough for a satisfactory definition. 

Perhaps those of us patronised as booklovers appreciate this even as we misunderstand it. Industry influencers speak of another world opened up by a novel and celebrate the escapism it affords us, but we sense it is more than that and cannot condescend to our experience and deepest needs. Is it only an empty transcendence, local redemption, or a secularised excuse for an impossible salvation, publicly mitigated or misunderstood as gaining instrumental knowledge of the world, an empathy for others and, of course, escapism? It should be an open question.

There is much more to write about this, which I hope will emerge over the coming months.

Blanchot describes poetry as a temple from which the gods have departed. When the temple was in use, the poem named the sacred, only it was the sacred that was heard, not the poem. And yet, now that the sacred has departed and we have forgotten even that it has departed, the poem remains as the imposing obscurity of a stone ruin. The poem, the novel, the work of art, is the “abode of the gods’ absence”. In regarding the ruin as our own, the home of our own meaning, we have fallen into a narcissism that cannot recognise what Krzysztof Michalski calls revelations of eternity – "irremediable fissures or intervals … interrupting the continuity of lived time” but which are now unintelligible without the control of science and the coercion of politics. But each time we read, our meaning is exposed to the 'sur' in surrealism. Jacob Taubes answers his own question:

Poetry is the only beyond, not because it bridges 'this world' and the one 'beyond'. It is the beyond itself. The word does not bear testimony, rather it is itself transcendence.

This was clear to the San people of southern Africa whose ancient cave paintings “were not representations of spirits but the spirits themselves”. 

This is why we are alienated. 

Friday, October 30, 2020

More and less: Veilchenfeld by Gert Hofmann

Gert Hofmann's Veilchenfeld is the latest of his novels to be published in English translation, and the first translated by Eric Mace-Tessler. Tom Conaghan at Review31 has given it an appreciative review, recognising that Hofmann's presentation of a civilisation's descent into barbarity is all the more powerful for being without the usual framing political context, without psychological comment, and without judgment. This is enabled by the child narrator, who is more or less innocent or incapable of all three. 

This is enough and I won't write another review but something more general instead.

Despite the quality of the review, there is no reference to any other of Hofmann's novels, which only emphasises the shame of their relative obscurity. Veilchenfeld is the eighth to be translated into English, and the first since Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl in 2004, also published by CB Editions. I don't know how many novels are left untranslated, as his Wikipedia page lists only Works. What the page does reveal, however, is that Hofmann began his career writing radio plays, which explains how the novels' disarming lightness and compression was developed.

Two other of the translated novels are narrated by a child: Our Conquest from 1991 and Luck from 2002, the latter being translated by his son, the poet Michael Hofmann, with whom he had an awkward relationship, as described in his 1986 collection Acrimony, which contains a poem describing how his father's career changed course:
After the age of fifty, a sudden flowering, half a dozen
in as many years – dialogue by other means: his main
maniacs, compulsive, virtuoso talkers, talkers for dear life,
talkers in soliloquies, notebooks, tape-recordings, last

I'd add that many characters and/or narrators are also incapacitated in some way, setting them apart: as well as children lacking the knowledge and experience of adults, there is Lichtenberg, the hunchbacked intellectual dwarf, and the uneducated flower-selling girl, the blind men in The Parable of the Blind (a novel written in the first-person plural), the grandfather in The Film Explainer who has lost his beloved role because of the talkies, and perhaps also the bickering couples in The Spectacle at the Tower and Before the Rainy Season whose relationship issues are exposed when they are unable to escape each other as they tour a foreign land. Incapacity constrains the narrative and animates the various distances between characters, between narrators and their experience, and between words and their meaning. The blurb on the The Film Explainer best describes the effect: "makes you laugh and then burns holes in your head".

One reason for the novels' relative obscurity is that they don't conform to English-speaking assumptions about what German fiction should be like, and so are politely ignored, which I complained about in the golden age of blogging, first in 2006 and again in 2007. At the time, I was also frustrated by my own inability to explain why his novels are so atypically enjoyable. Tom Conaghan's review touches on the reason but, perhaps because he hasn't read the other novels (again, forgiveably so), focuses instead on the embedded moral lessons, whereas what stands out for me in his other novels is the experience of ambiguity; everything takes place in an indivisible, alarming now. Perhaps the simplest way to describe this is to present the opening sentence of Our Conquest, translated by Christopher Middleton, which is set during the collapse of the Third Reich:

One day our little town came to be conquered, or, as mother says, rolled up, from north to south, cut off from all surrounding towns and villages.

The fairy tale lightness of "one day our little town" and that curiously nonchalant phrase for what you’d assume is a threatening event, contains the whole, more or less. What does rolled up mean exactly, we ask? It doesn’t sound too bad, does it? As readers, we're immediately thrown into the wonder of the child narrator’s world, which is also its potential for horror. In the first of several set pieces, mother sends her boy and his friend on a mission to the town’s slaughterhouse to find some butterschmalz, which sounds like a rich treat for people on the brink of starvation but, we ask again, if it’s found in the slaughterhouse, can it be so pleasant? And won't that be a dangerous place to visit, especially as it may stand for the condition of the wider world at that time and place in history? Little mysteries like these pile up and, in any regular novel, we would expect explanations to be part of the story, only for them to end up constituting the novel.

If I were to write a normal review, I'd say Veilchenfeld, while it is full of the Hofmann's dark humour, suffers from the absence of what sets the other two child-narrated novels apart, and this is because everything is also contained in the opening sentence, more or less: "Our philosopher has died suddenly." This removes wonder and ambiguity and replaces it with the relentless pursuit of a foregone conclusion. Perhaps this is inevitable given the subject matter, as Prof. Veilchenfeld, though it's not stated explicitly, is jewish, and his fate given the setting is a foregone conclusion, more or less, and his pre-mortem persecution can only distress and depress; there is no now, only then. The narrator says Veilchenfeld's house is owned by Frau Belling who is in an institution and will never leave, which his father knows because he bumped into the institution's doctor in Klemm's pastry shop. Father says the doctor says:

she can no longer hold her water, but that would not be so bad, if she did not also trickle away in the head, and no longer know who she is or who others are and in what year we are all living. (When she is asked, she simply says it is too late.)
This is why, at least in the context of the seven others, the novel disappoints.

Thursday, October 08, 2020

A rare sort of writer

Today is Gabriel Josipovici's 80th birthday. To mark the occasion, I'll link to various posts I've written over the years – after a brief interlude.

I read him first in July 1988 after borrowing The Lessons of Modernism from the second floor of Portsmouth Central Library because it had essays on Kafka and Saul Bellow. The link explains how significant that brutalist building was for me and how vital it is to keep such libraries open. After that, I borrowed the collection In the Fertile Land, which was in the fiction section on the ground floor, and was knocked out by the first story Death of the word, and then by Distances, the short novel that concludes the collection. 'Knocked out' is an appropriate cliché, not only because those were the words I would have used then but because, without being to articulate it at the time, they displaced my assumptions about what could be moving in fiction – not, as first assumed, ornate language, big ideas and big events, though they played their part in other books, but rhythm, repetition, pattern and reticence.

The final word there is discussed in his latest non-fiction book, Forgetting, which he says "once had great prestige in English culture but which...has now fallen into abeyance" because it is understood as a form of concealment, suggesting someone has something to hide, and that its opposite, expression (or 'brutal honesty' as it's often called now), is always a good thing. This may explain why his fiction has been neglected in a culture that values sensation and revelation so highly.

His most high-profile publication is What Ever Happened to Modernism?, which I wrote about at length. In an interview last month on the Unsound Methods podcast, he says he was unhappy to write polemically like this, but I would say such unhappiness only emphasises the problem with the wider culture that demanded such a response.

If you're unfamiliar with his work, I recommend reading Victoria Best's superb interview The Mind of the Modern. She says his novels "have such extraordinary elasticity" and "open up new spaces in [her] mind", which is exactly my experience, and this is important for anyone coming to his fiction for the first time to appreciate; forget keywords like 'modernism' and 'experimental' and just read. The novel Victoria is talking about in particular is Migrations, which deserves to be reissued and which I wrote about it five years ago following a revelatory chance re-reading.

A passage in an earlier interview develops a little more about this elasticity: 

I don’t know if what I write are novels, and names don’t seem to matter. I quicken at the apprehension of some human drama that is affected by time, and feel the need to find words for what would otherwise remain wordless. [...] This has something to do with time, with how human beings respond to time, with what time does to us, the losses it brings, and the sense of possibilities unrealized, but also the Proustian sense of sudden loops in time and the way our lives are sealed off to us but suddenly, in time, open up momentarily.

This sums up what I found so powerful when re-reading In a Hotel Garden a couple of years later. It's a challenge to write about this experience without reaching for familiar terms, which explains why I'm less content with other pieces about other novels such as:

In recent months I have posted similar lists of blogposts I have written about Samuel Beckett and Thomas Bernhard, two other writers who have been important for me and this blog. Fortunately, the third marks a happier anniversary and reminds me of Josipovici's review of the third volume of Beckett's letters, which he says reveal "that rare sort of writer who grows younger as he ages". While it is fair to say that of Josipovici too, I want to say also that, as a reader, I grow younger reading his sort of books.


For more information about Josipovici's novels and critical books, visit the website dedicated to his work.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

The end of literature, part three

On the evening of December 12th, 2019 a numbed grief descended over the land, and has lain there ever since. At that time a mild alternative to barbarism was being put to death. Back in 2015 when, against all odds, a lifelong socialist and campaigner against racism and imperialist wars became leader of the Labour Party, I made a prediction. His leadership would at first create a surge in support as people saw the values he stood for and the policies he offered, equivalent in magnitude, I said, to Thatcher's in 1979. But once corporate media had time to organise and focus, it would be destroyed. I cited Chris Mullins' 1982 novel A Very British Coup as a fictional precedent. This is exactly what happened. What I didn't predict was how such organisation and focus would itself rely on fiction. 

The numbed grief is also numbed horror at how such a mild alternative was presented as a terrible threat to all we know and love, and how those who took the fiction seriously were co-opted so that their anti-racist sentiments ended up favouring practising racists, their feminist sentiments were co-opted to silence reports of the mass murder of women (among others), and their pro-human rights sentiments were co-opted so that they came to admire the most brutal terrorist group imaginable and its assault on a society much like their own. The cynicism and cruelty with which these inversions were manufactured exposed more clearly than ever the demonic infestation at the heart of the political and media class. 

But this isn't a post about British politics. It begins as such because the same numbed feelings descended when I looked at the thirteen novels on this year's Booker Prize's longlist, and because it reveals a similar inversion of progress.


I studied the brightly coloured spines for the basic information, read descriptions of the contents of each and listened to the judges acclaim the list as "an excitingly diverse" selection full of "bold, fresh and accomplished" writing, without generating the slightest throb of interest. I wondered if, after all these years, my appetite for novels had gone. Even if I had long lost faith in book prizes to bring to light novels that deserve more attention, this was a singularly dispiriting selection, as it appears to offer not the slightest challenge to the form, only indulgence in familiarity dressed up in colourful clothing.

Perhaps these books need to be saved from their champions; what, after all, do those adjective mean when applied to writing? The first canto of Dante's Inferno is "bold" and "accomplished" and remains "fresh" after 700 years, but these words don't begin to say anything about the poem. They are words borrowed from a marketing department.

By contrast, many readers expressed excitement: Candice Carty-Williams says she's "sort of in love" with the longlist because it features "several black authors and debut female writers". She says it's "only a good thing" that one of the novelists, Brandon Taylor, said “I didn’t write this book for the white gaze”. 

Remember when John Carey said the modernists wrote works to exclude the masses and that was only a bad thing? Why is this any less of a travesty? 

I went to the Booker Prize website to seek enlightenment about the novels in the hope that marketingspeak would be toned down and the books would be revealed in truer light. It reports that one novel is about "a world ravaged by climate change", another about "the hope and potential of one young girl and a fledgling nation", while others "[lay] bare the ruthlessness of poverty", contain "piercing social commentary", or are about “sexuality and race", "a life of violent crime", and "what it means to be a woman at war". There are even two about that subject matter nobody ever mentions, "love and loss". 

So here too diversity is the selling point, extended to subject matter. It is as if the judges sought to include everything and everyone – diversity par excellence – in order to suppress doubts about the conditions under which everything and everyone is revealed.  

What is happening when book prizes and the coverage of them has much less concern for the books in themselves than for the identity of the authors and their extra-literary agendas? 

Of course, this focus dominates mainstream literary reception. The symptoms are clear in Veronica Esposito's essay explaining why she's "falling out of love with Modernist Literature": while its books once "understood what it was like to be me", they do so no longer, and she's moved on to those that do.

In addition to discontent with older novels, there have been rumblings of the same with the contemporary novel and its place in the cultural landscape. First there's this anonymous waft of gas from a winged chair in a gentleman's club, and then there's Joseph Epstein's more fragrant equivalent, both coming from politically conservative standpoints, which the Booker longlist is implicitly keen to resist, and rightly so, yet the wish to emancipate different 'voices' above all else has lead to an apparently formally conservative selection of novels, correlating to the concern to protect progressive ideals for fear of enabling those that might honour them in practice and settling instead for the most vicious, illiberal of postwar governments, which might also be praised for the diversity of its ministers, but which of course makes not the slightest difference to their barbaric policies. 

The confidence of marketingspeak of the Booker Prize reveals only a profound lack of confidence in the novel as an artistic force, while history shows change is possible in art and politics only ever from a refusal to compromise; from always going in the opposite direction.

What then is the alternative to what I call "about novels", as defined in contrast to Beckett's description of Joyce's Work in Progress as "not about something" but "is that something itself"? 

How might we recognise a novel going in the opposite direction?

My reaction to novels is often more physical than it is intellectual, so to codify the genre would betray that feeling. But perhaps this feeling can be described, or described for me.  

In his short book addressing why he writes, Karl Ove Knausgaard quotes a passage from War and Peace in which after a dinner Prince Andrei asks Natasha, the woman he is courting, to sing. As she did so, he "felt tears choking him" because "something new and joyful stirred his soul". Why this unexpected emotion?

The chief reason was a sudden, vivid sense of the terrible contrast between something great and illimitable within him, and that limited and material that he, and even she, was.
Knausgaard then adds his commentary:
The contradiction between the illimitable that dwells within us and our simultaneous limitation and earthboundness is the driving force behind all literature and all art, or so I believe, but not only that; the longing to equalize the difference, suspend the contradiction and simply exist in the world, undifferentiated from it, is also an important part of all religious practice. (Translated by Ingvild Burkey)

While the quoted passage is a narrated part of a novel and remains 'about' so that it is a condition only described to rather than experienced by the reader, its value lies in its description of the rare atmosphere experienced in some novels that cannot be attributed to what they're about; something for which a marketing department could not supply words. What's significant here is the revelation of what Andrei's 'love' for Natasha means and what it depends upon: the incarnation of an irreducible distance and, at the same time, its overwhelming presence. So instead of seeking a novel that is War and Peace for our time, or whatever, I propose we look for novels that become that revelation, so a reader becomes the Prince as he listens to Natasha singing at the clavichord. Knausgaard's book title suggests this is not necessarily something the author has any control over, which also suggests the focus on the writer rather than the work turns everything into a game of personality and mastery.

Knausgaard's example from Tolstoy is the less melodramatic version of Kafka's famous call for "the books that affect us like a disaster....". What would that kind of book look like?

Soon after the passage from War and Peace, Knausgaard says that, as a writer struggling with his writing, he was stuck between feelings induced by entertainments that carry no obligation yet provide an illusion of an engagement with meaning (watching Games of Thrones is his example), and feelings that "cannot be transmitted, cannot be sold" and are "yours alone until you die". This, he says, produces a work such as Mallarmé’s A Tomb for Anatole, a long poem written after the death of the poet's eight-year-old son and never intended for publication but handed to its original editor in a small box 63 years after Mallarmé's own death.

It contains no sequence of events and hardly any address or communication, for grief is mute, turned toward darkness and emptiness, and so is the language of this poem. Reading it, there is no sense of drama, no burst of sorrow or sudden shock, the poem doesn’t convey emotions, it is the emotion itself, its rending apart of meaning, coherence, language.

For the reader there is perhaps nothing to gain from reading such a work except to feel distant, excluded, bewildered, frustrated, offended even. However, Knausgaard's connection of the Prince's reaction to religious practice may help us to appreciate why Kafka's call and Mallarmé's work depend on extreme experiences, as they address what escapes meaning in the absence of faith and the disenchantment of the world, out of which the novel grew. This may be how writing recovers something of what has been erased by modernity and the novel.

A book like A Tomb for Anatole could never appear on a Booker Prize list of course, first of all because its the wrong genre and because, like Jacques Roubaud's The Great Fire of London, another generically uncertain work written after the sudden death of the author's wife, its original language is French. But it is precisely this obsession with genre that is the problem. We need to remember that the novel emerged at the time when the authenticity of dominant genres came under question. There's Samuel Johnson's famous criticism of Milton using a pastoral elegy to express grief at the death of a friend: "Where there is leisure for fiction, there is little grief." The genre label acts like a filing cabinet in which the author can whip out the relevant file, write an entry according to the template within, and whip it back in again. Clunk. 

We have been in a filing-cabinet time for many years now, and perhaps it will carry on clunking for a long time to come. The "about novel" is that filing cabinet – full of bold, fresh and accomplished files. Instead, I long for those works which affect us like the song and its singing affected the Prince, for novels which struggle for generic definition and lay on the floor in diverse locations discarded by the office drones. This is how we may recognise a novel going in the opposite direction.


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

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