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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 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.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

"And no real fate" – reading in the interval

A sportswriter on the radio said that the lack of football in lockdown has disrupted the rhythm of the lives of those who follow the sport. The word stuck in my mind. Does rhythm differ from routine? When a routine is broken, there is an interval of confusion and anxiety, and yet, when extended to this length, I realised when crossing a deserted main road, also peace.

It's like being at a standstill on a train somewhere in the countryside. Initially impatient to see the landscape moving sideways again, we begin to examine the fields, the hedgerows, the trees, the grazing sheep, cows and horses – perhaps spotting some hares, a bird of prey, or a church spire behind the trees – and sense another way of living in the rhythm of nature and foregone traditions. And then the train starts moving again.

In the interval of lockdown, I read whatever presented itself: a collection of Stifter's stories, books on Heidegger by Peter Trawny and Richard Polt, some novels: Gert Hofmann's Our Conquest, Dag Solstad's Shyness and Dignity, Patrick Modiano's Dora Bruder, Peter Handke's A Moment of True Feeling and, for the first time since 1998, WG Sebald's The Rings of Saturn, each of which could be written about in relation to the interval, but then, breaking the run of northern Europeans, I read a collection of stories by Sam Pink, a writer from the American indie scene of which I have no knowledge and, had I read the blurb describing Pink as "a keen observer of the culture of minimum-wage jobs", I would have avoided.

The first story is simple enough, told by someone directing traffic around a minor accident, which soon becomes unnecessary.

I stood in the street for a second.
Not participating anymore, but still there.
And the traffic moved on its own again.
Glass on the street reflected colors from headlights and stoplights.
The road dark blue beneath.
If I had an ‘off’ switch, it’d be then that I’d use it.
No, I’d probably have already used it a thousand times.

The narrator then shares a meal with a homeless guy and walks off with a goodbye. At first it seemed like the usual stuff: a voice appearing out of nowhere for no apparent reason to give a brief account of the relation between a troubled inner life and outer world (which, incidentally, A Moment of True Feeling pursues at length), similar perhaps to the relation of being in a train carriage passing through a landscape. It is quietly moving and blessedly free of the precious and fussy use of language that has infected American short fiction, but nagged at me as short stories usually do because it doesn't answer the question I asked many years ago at the beginning of in an essay on Richard Ford's Bascombe trilogy: why is this person writing this?

The question remains unanswered in almost all contemporary short fiction, most of which is narrated in the first person without any explanation of why the person is writing or, if it is presented as stream-of-consciousness, why we suddenly have access to this mind. The next story The Dishwasher is told in the third person and describes how a restaurant worker maintains sanity with playfully ambiguous loathing directed at the customers and by bantering with his colleagues, but that doesn't discharge the issue. Fiction might collapse if the question's feather-like touch is felt. What set Sam Pink's stories apart for me enough to continue reading is that each narrative sentence not only straightforward but has its own paragraph, thereby loosening the density of descriptive prose by inserting pauses where narrative purpose might accrue. In the third story Yop, the narrator meets two youngsters sitting amidst dumpsters and cardboard boxes where his homeless friend usually sleeps. (I didn't know until reading this that a tallboy is not only a chest of drawers but also a large can of beer.)

‘Hey, I’m Samantha,’ said the girl. ‘Here, du.’
She reached into her backpack and gave me a tallboy.
She laughed like teh-ha.
I sat down on an overturned bucket and opened the tallboy.
The other kid said something to himself.
He was drawing on blank postal service stickers, talking to himself.
He talked like someone was pinching his cheeks in on either side.
We sat there drinking.

At first the style risks the impression of smug control disguised as simplicity, but as the format doesn't change across the collection, it takes on an unexpected character, with each sentence and little expressions like teh-ha part of a rhythmic rattle of a train over tracks. The story is propelled by rhythm rather than events. This is especially effective in Blue Victoria, perhaps the highlight of the collection. It is narrated by someone remembering a time when he shared a flat with Robby and Chris, and Victoria, the latter's girlfriend with a missing front tooth, who was often there to hang out when they weren't at work: eating and drinking, smoking joints, playing ball, generally messing around, such as with a block of stone they find in the abandoned yard next to the apartment.

The bashing stone.
I grabbed the bashing stone and handed it to Victoria.
She struggled, lifting the stone.
‘Juhhhhhhhhhhhrop the stuhhhhyoan,’ I yelled.
Robby raised the tongs and, without turning, replied, ‘Juhhhhhrop, nnnnntha, styoannnnnnnn.’
Victoria dropped the bashing stone on the spray paint bottle, which exploded rust-colored grease, voonk.
We laughed.
We busted the rest of the cans then split one of her cigarettes.
‘Oh I brought this for you,’ she said.
She lifted her sweatshirt, uncovering a fanny pack.
She unzipped the fanny pack and took out a book.
It was a book of poems she wanted me to read.
Rainer Maria Rilke.
We’d been talking about books a lot.
She was trying to go back to school and I was writing a book.
‘Cool, thank you,’ I said, looking at it. ‘First pie, and now this.’
She’d brought us pie from her bakery too.
‘Yeah, I figured you’d like it,’ she said, still looking at the book.
She laughed and looked down.
And for a moment I was convinced her front tooth was lost somewhere in the lot.
And that we could find it and put it back in her mouth if she wanted.
In the empty lot.
Scent of smoke in the air.
Sox game on the radio.
And no real fate.

Most of the details might be as random, trivial, and without apparent meaning as in the other stories, but the final three words appear five times across the story, suggesting a common significance. I was moved by my struggle to understand what they could mean; what no real fate could mean. Later in the story we come to understand and Rilke's name becomes less random, as it invokes the Nirgends ohne nicht – the nowhere without no – that I discussed in my last post before lockdown. So the switch from a German philosopher and northern European novelists to these stories may not have been as distinct as I thought.

The narrator looks back on life with Roddy, Chris and Victoria and recognises a time without reflection, which we might recognise as Heidegger's dasein: a time of rhythm before life breaks, before the 'yop yop yop' of Samantha's burps as the beer repeats on her, before the train comes to a standstill, when the street becomes silent, before Victoria's real fate, and when, perhaps, I wondered, the question of the meaning of Being, otherwise so obscure and so readily obscured, arises.

For a change, and because of Blue Victoria in particular, I am able to give my trust to these stories even though they appear apparently out of nowhere, because the content is itself lost and alone, waiting for company. With each pause between each line – a paragraph break after all – each action described and each physical item noted becomes isolated, glowing in specificity and reserve, creating a unique rhythm, similar to what James Wood recognised in WG Sebald's real-world stories and uncaptioned photographs: that "facts are indecipherable and therefore tragic". Their unusually circumscribed context, potentially instantly forgettable, makes their presence all the more memorable. The rhythmic form is key and not so much the insights into a "culture of minimum-wage jobs". Searching for the means to hold on is a universal experience after all. There is something similar in reading these stories and perhaps to reading fiction in general to what Peter Handke explored in the poem I wrote about three years ago: the feeling of duration, "the most fleeting of all feelings" that is "not worth talking about / but worth holding onto through writing". That is, its significance and meaning is not so much in the time it describes, which passes so quickly and has no real fate, but in its repetition in the rhythms of writing; the eternal interval.

Friday, March 27, 2020

The last novel

"(We are, it seems to remind us, always saying goodbye to our children.)"

John Self's aside in his review of JM Coetzee's The Death of Jesus captures the pervasive anxiety experienced while reading this novel better than even the most detailed plot summary, which is anyway likely to mislead the potential reader because it would highlight what, in the regular parts of his review, John calls the book's "unexplained developments, unrealistic dialogue and overcooked analogies". In fact, these features ease such anxiety as simply as any other workmanlike fiction might because judgments are set aside as one gets caught up in the drama, curious to see how it will resolve. And while this novel's drama does resolve with, as the title suggests, a definitive event, our anxiety doesn't fade, because of the title.

Coetzee may have enough control over the generic elements of novel writing for us either to overlook the unexplained, unrealistic and overcooked (or regard them as deformations of the medium) but we cannot overlook the title, which undoes all resolve.

Never has a title caused such consternation and speculation among professional reviewers. The setting of the story is convincing enough in its generic clarity, but for that very reason everything appears out of nowhere, so everything can be read as random and hollow even as it builds a bustling world. Or, rather than appearing out of nowhere, everything appears out of literature, which for many is the same thing: this "bizarre allegorical trilogy" writes Alex Preston "never hits home, having no real-world corollary". If there is no real-world corollary, you might wonder if it's an allegory at all, or, if it is, you might wonder if it's an allegory of something other than the real world. But it's too late: "I’ve given up trying to force meaning into these novels", he declares, and is joined by Claire Lowdon, who writes "I will not be returning to these books to puzzle over them further", even if she does mention the obvious corollary, which anyway she suspects is a trick: "We try to map what we know of Jesus onto David’s story, but it doesn’t really fit. Nothing fits. There is no guide to life." It's fair enough not to puzzle on, as one could indeed spend an age speculating over the Biblical allusions and what Stuart Kelly calls the boy David's "pseudo-enigmatic utterances". Why not just enjoy the ride, as I did? After all, Lowdon admits that "the story as a whole slips along quite easily".

I want to know why I am here

Why not enjoy the ride? Because of the title. It is an undertow beneath the reader surfing back to shore; a tugging question that follows David's curiosity about how he came to be, which he tries to solve by asking his long-suffering guardian Simón: "How do you say aquì in other words?". He thinks an answer may arrive if another word for the Spanish for 'here' can be used. As readers, we too seek other words to understand what is going on here. James Womack is right when he says the reader sees a "story we recognise in the shadows of the story we are being told" but we can't quite make it out, and it is Womack who offers the reason why:
The trilogy is a work of speculative fiction, geared towards answering a particular question: what kind of Christ might grow from the Enlightenment?
The answer is given in the title of course: not grow at all. The world of the novel reflects a world with no place for an exception to the parched landscape of the setting in which science and reason have squeezed out speculative thought. Steven Poole gives the reason for David's alternative name:
“Jesus” is the label for a “wild creature” (as someone calls David) with a gentle contempt for the norms of civilisation; a disruptive force of ceaseless questioning that irrupts into ordinary domestic existence but not of it – as David insists.”
This too comes from literature, and not only from the New Testament. Coetzee has written elsewhere about Rilke's eighth Duino elegy in which the poet writes of 'das Offene', the open, a place outside the ordinary domestic existence in which animals live and children too until adults turn them towards conformity.
Was draußen ist, wir wissens aus des Tiers
Antlitz allein; denn schon das frühe Kind
wenden wir um und zwingens, daß es rückwärts
Gestaltung sehe, nicht das Offne, das
im Tiergesicht so tief ist. Frei von Tod.
Which Coetzee transposes as: 
What is out there, we know it from the animal’s face alone; for even the young child we turn around and compel to look back, seeing form/formation, not the open, that in animal vision is so deep. Free from death.
For animals and children the world is experienced as a "Nirgends ohne nicht", a nowhere without no. Death is unknown and the world is "a pure space into which flowers endlessly open". While the escapism of generic fiction may tease us with a return to this state for a time, 'no' is always provided by one's inner reviewer. Rilke says it is possible that a lover draws near to the condition for a time, while those nearing death no longer see death and stare ahead, merging life with death. In a letter, he explained in other words:
Death is the side of life averted from us, unshone upon by us: we must try to achieve the greatest consciousness of our existence which is at home in both unbounded realms, inexhaustibly nourished from both. The true figure of life extends through both spheres, the blood of the mightiest circulation flows through both: there is neither a here nor a beyond, but the great unity in which the beings that surpass us, the "angels", are at home. [Translated by Greene and Norton]
If we cannot return to childhood innocence of death, it must become part of our life. And it doesn't take a critical genius to see that the family dog, Bolívar, with whom David has a special affinity, is the animal and David both the child and the one facing death. So merely asking "Why am I here?" is disruptive to the settled world of the novel, even if it is answered easily by rational discourse and science. One may then ask: why is rational discourse and science here? Given that Simón and Inés are not David's biological father and mother, no science can explain why he is here, and while theology may answer, there is no theology in this world. It's why the trilogy has a monochrome clarity and why David appears to be a contrived presence: both are exaggerations of the condition of the reader's world in which the enchantment comes from works of imaginative fiction yet whose features are as predictable and as empty as pre-Enlightenment religious rituals that, when disturbed, cause howls of rage from the faithful. Every portentous statement David makes that frustrates Simón is also what frustrates the gatekeepers of literary fiction: they promise a revelation while only increasing the disruption of the generic conditions that are specifically in place to prevent revelation of any kind.

The question posed across the trilogy may be: what revelation is possible in genre fiction? Alex Preston sees a lack of answers as part of Coetzee's "elaborate joke" at the expense of his readers while Claire Lowdon thinks he's seeking a guarantee of posterity among academics (Purgatory after an Inferno of reviews), and yet they never question the assumption that there must be a clear intention and conclusive message, even though this would compel us to turn backwards to see the form/formation of the adult world. Despite his scepticism, Simón succumbs to this assumption by searching for the final message that David is supposed to have left before he died. The message, however, is there in David's apparent naivete and curiosity; a message embodied in his outrageous, inexplicable presence in the world, entering with no past and no future. It's no coincidence that, when David dies, Bolívar goes missing.

Our anxiety then is as much to do with saying goodbye to our children as saying goodbye to the novel.

Like Don Quixote, this is a fiction about fiction.

What's strange about the seven reviews I've read (some are behind paywalls) is that there are only nine brief references to the only other book to be mentioned throughout the trilogy, with only John Self noticing it as the most blatant hint of The Death of Jesus' inheritance. David has peculiar reverence for Don Quixote, the only book he's ever read, from which he learned to read and which he treats "not as a made-up story but as a vertible history", including the belief that Don Quixote is a real person in the world. Simón wants him to read other books because "reading means learning about the world – the world as it really is, not as you wish it to be”. But David is not interested. It's strange that it is passed over so readily in the reviews because the differences between David and Simón embody the modern reader's internal relation to fiction, which emerges so powerfully in the anxiety of the negative reviews: Simón loves his adopted son and believes he is special, even if he can't make sense of his enigmatic utterances and despairs over his resistance to reason.

Don Quixote is generally considered to be the first novel and a satire on idealism. The famous example of the Don jousting with a giant when there is only a windmill before him is enough to sum up its relevance: when people refer to someone 'tilting at windmills' it indicates that we know better, that someone is comically deluded. And yet this is a novel, so the windmill is as ideal as the giant, and any knowing superiority we feel over the Don is possible only if we have succumbed to the same condition. The enchantment of fiction is a disruptive force because it offers the possibility of the opening of a world other than the one in which we are settled, while allowing us to pat ourselves on the back for knowing better than to believe that it is real. And yet, here we are, enthusiastically devouring novels and earnestly discussing them, expecting and indeed demanding something more than brief escapism. Our enthusiasm is usually understood as nothing more than this branch of consumer culture, often mitigated with virtuous recommendations that by reading a certain novel we can learn about another country, a particular time in history, a minority identity, or a news story dominating the newspapers. Reviewing always takes the upperhand by co-opting this mitigation as criteria for judgment, and is fiercely protective of its ground.
[Coetzee's] late novels are a scholar’s dream, precisely because of their opacity, their exponential proliferation of meanings. You can go symbol-hunting; you can read him as allegory; you can read him as anti-allegory. Everything that can be argued can be counter-argued in another journal article, another critical study. It’s a guaranteed route to posterity: if your file can’t be closed, then you’ll never really die.
Claire Lowdon's disdain is pure projection of the anxiety that reading and reviewing cannot accommodate the deeper reason why we read and feel the need to discuss novels. Still, it would be fair enough if the evidence didn't suggest Coetzee is attempting to close the file not on himself so much as on 'the novel'.

Coetzee is a curious case in contemporary review culture because his novels have always attracted mainstream attention for their relevance to current affairs without quite convincing reviewers that he's a state-of-the-nation type author, able to weigh in where journalism floats by, yet without being able to stick a permanent label on his work. Many lament a falling away from the greatness they have bestowed in the past or claim they had doubts from the start, while Martin Amis says Coetzee had "no talent" in the first place (a statement about which Steven Poole is brilliantly cutting). For example, Stuart Kelly begins his review by saying he:
admired works such as Waiting For The Barbarians, Life & Times Of Michael K, and Disgrace. But here’s the rub: I admired them but I never really enjoyed them. There is a frostiness to his work, an almost deliberate opacity. They hint at being profound, but are they?
All three novels – to which Foe and Age of Iron may be added – can be counted as novels ostensibly about racism and colonialism, and Apartheid and post-Apartheid South Africa in particular, which you wouldn't necessarily expect to be heartwarming, especially if they were written from within those brutal conditions. But what comes after Disgrace suggests anyway that Kelly's rhetorical question is disingenuous. Alex Preston notes how the allusions have changed since the early work:
It’s striking that the most powerful moments in Coetzee’s great earlier books were strongly allegorical and carried deep religious undertones: the washing of the feet of the “little bird-woman” in Waiting for the Barbarians; Lurie’s prostration in Disgrace; Michael K's journey to deliver his mother’s ashes. These work because, while they are clearly symbolic acts, they also propel the narrative of novels grounded in real human emotion. Now it feels as if all of the pleasures left to the reader of a Coetzee novel are pleasures of the head, not of the heart.
While damning Coetzee's later work to his newspaper's dilettantish, middlebrow audience, these apparently heartfelt allusions to a pre-Enlightenment traditon are purely novelistic gestures, grounded in generic law; enough for a worthy if sentimental response to the injustices and conditions described, but no more than that. Such Lazarus-like resurrections of a buried tradition have disappeared since at least Elizabeth Costello not only because they are part of "the genre of the oppressor" (as Leo Robson calls it in his superb overview of Coetzee's career) thereby appropriating for itself the suffering of the victims of imperialism, but also because of the genre's oppression of the world, of the nowhere without no. With his veld-dry wit, the Jesus novels are clearly very different from Don Quixote, but the teasing, allusive, ungrounded content confirms the inheritance of an immanent critique of the novel. This has a background with which Coetzee is familiar.

"As a whole, [the Jesus novels] make you wonder what novels are even for" (Tim Smith-Laing)

Walter Benjamin's great essay The Storyteller argues that the rise of the novel was the product of a decline in everyday storytelling, which always contained something useful for the listener, whether that was a moral or practical: "In every case the storyteller is a man who has counsel for his readers." Storytelling was a form of wisdom "woven into the fabric of real life" gradually removed by "the secular productive forces of history", one of which was the printing press, and what distinguishes the novel from storytelling is its dependence on the book. The novel is written by an author isolated in his room. He cannot give or receive counsel as it is no longer living speech. Benjamin says if the word 'counsel' has an old-fashioned ring, it's because "the communicability of experience is decreasing". It communicates something else instead:
To write a novel is to take to the extreme that which is incommensurable in the representation of human existence. In the midst of life's fullness, and through the representation of this fullness, the novel gives evidence of the profound perplexity of the living. [Translated by Jephcott, Eiland and unnamed others]
Benjamin even cites "the first great book of the genre" as the prime example:
Don Quixote teaches how the spiritual greatness, the boldness, the helpfulness of one of the noblest of men, Don Quixote, are completely devoid of counsel and contain not a scintilla of wisdom.
The reader of Coetzee's Jesus novels will recognise this perplexity, in themselves and the protagonists. What has replaced counsel in our time is information: "no event comes to us without already being shot through with explanations", something that these novels noticeably lack, while "half the art of storytelling to keep a story free from explanation" because it allows the reader to absorb its counsel in their own way. In The Death of Jesus, David reads Don Quixote to an audience as if it was useful like this, but the audience, like a chattering of reviewers, only ask questions, needing information and explanation.

If this suggests an opposition between storytelling-fact and novel-fantasy, leading to the hope that 'creative non-fiction' may be the modern form of regaining counsel, we must remember this too remains a book. And, anyway, Benjamin confounds such expectations by linking the decline in the communicability of experience and the rise of the novel with the decline of the idea of eternity, taking us back to Rilke's Eighth Elegy:
All great storytellers have in common the freedom with which they move up and down the rungs of their experience, as if on a ladder. A ladder extending downward to the interior of the earth and disappearing into the clouds: this is the image for a collective experience to which even the deepest shock in every individual experience – death – constitutes no impediment or barrier.
The ladder into the clouds is the sign that the story is timeless and can continue beyond its telling, whereas the novel is confined to earth and burial, which follows from its rise in the decline of faith in transcendence. The reader of the novel is confronted with the question of the meaning of life without it ever being addressed, hence "the perplexity of the living".
The novel is significant...not because it presents someone else's fate to us...but because this stranger's fate, by virtue of the flame which consumes it, yields to us the warmth which we never draw from our own fate. What draws the reader to a novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about.
What warmth is there from David's death? Apparently none; only unease, anxiety. What makes Coetzee unusual is that, while he has appealed as a writer of the earth, his later novels stare ahead, and from our perpective they are unsatisfactory because they reveal the inadequacy of the genre as a means of climbing into the clouds, which would explain the perplexed reception of the post-Disgrace novels, albeit directed at the author rather than the genre.

"It has been rightly said that all great works of literature establish a genre or dissolve one – that they are, in other words, special cases" writes Benjamin in his essay on In Search of Lost Time. JM Coetzee's Jesus trilogy is probably not great literature and certainly does not establish a new genre, but perhaps it does put an end to one, and is special for this reason: The Death of Jesus may be the last novel.

Friday, February 07, 2020

Black holes

I watched this video twice, in fascination.

I became fascinated by Dr Becky's faith in data, maths and code in order to claim knowledge of that which fascinates us as a species gazing into the night sky; a faith here that is guaranteed, formalised and rewarded by society. Of course, this faith supports many fields, including my own. Literary studies also seeks knowledge to have done with fascination: knowledge of formal literary technique, knowledge of psychology, knowledge of sociology, knowledge of post-colonialism, class, race, gender; knowledge provided by scientific method, knowledge of z-scores, principal component analysis, clustering coefficients. Its power is unassailable.

But in aversion and resistance I think of its subject and the overwhelming absence opened by writing, and the bad faith we depend on for such knowledge. This experience of writing becomes a narrative in Blanchot's Writing of the Disaster. A small boy draws a curtain aside to see a wintry garden scene and then looks upward to "the ordinary sky, with clouds, grey light—pallid daylight without depth".
What happens then: the sky, the same sky, suddenly open, absolutely black and absolutely empty, revealing (as though the pane had broken) such an absence that all has since always and forevermore been lost therein—so lost that therein is affirmed and dissolved the vertiginous knowledge that nothing is what there is, and first of all nothing beyond.
At the end of the video, Dr Becky goes to a lecture by the scientist who took the first photograph of a black hole. She takes extensive notes and reports that over four billion people have since looked at the image.

Except, photography is the writing of light, so this no more a photograph of a black hole than a photograph of a novel is a photograph of its void of fascination (as revealed by the anxiety underlying discussions of book covers). Theories of the night sky and of writing may be intelligible but the conceptions on which they are based are not. Dr Becky's notebook is the black hole.


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