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Monday, November 18, 2019

The River Capture by Mary Costello

A friend read my walk in the park post with its interjections of 'I thought' and its sarcastically italicised clichés and warned me to stop reading Thomas Bernhard: he is a zombie who takes control over writers who read him, she said winningly. Of course she is right – Geoff Dyer cheerfully admitted as much recently – and I didn't really need telling. While A walk in the park felt like a happy release from dreary blogmode and entirely natural – it's how I handwrite in my Leuchtturms – it emphasises how compromised my dissent of genre writing is. I replied saying that I should also stop reading Maurice Blanchot, as the post, with its focus on writing, absence and death, owed as much to him as it did Bernhard.

Influence is minefield in which nothing explodes. A late friend who wrote thrillers once told me that, fearing undue influence, he never read other novels when in the middle of writing one, and also that he never wrote when hungry because he would inevitably start writing about food. And I once heard an intellectual historian saying that a thinker may claim to have been influenced by X, Y or Z, but knowingly or unknowingly they always repress two major influences. If that's the case, perhaps I should stop reading entirely from now on, as my style is bound to be infected whether I know it or not. But how pretentious even to refer to my style! Where are you or I in all this that we share with the writing dead? Given our preoccupation with influence and originality, the only worthwhile writers might be those who from birth have been prevented from reading and come to writing in the way Kaspar Hauser came to town. The walk in the park piece ought to be entirely sarcastically italicised.

With all this in mind, I read Mary Costello's novel The River Capture notable for the overt presence of Joyce's Ulysses in its pages. Its central character Luke O'Brien has a fascination with Joyce's novel and Leopold Bloom in particular which runs parallel in his mind with the events of his life deeply embedded in family and community. The novel is full of textual allusions and direct references to Ulysses, and adopts the free indirect discourse of the Calypso chapter for most of the novel and the question and answer format of Ithaca for the disarming conclusion, as well as the lyrical interweaving of the corporeal and the metaphysical, notably absent in British fiction, which may distinguish Irish novels in general rather than being specifically Joycean. Indeed, but for the Ithaca section, The River Capture might otherwise be recognised as a familiarly sentimental and occasionally melodramatic story of family life in modern-day Ireland. Free indirect narration has embedded itself so deeply in literary culture that readers accept it without question as the regular form of the novel and, having read most of the novel, nobody would tell authors to stop reading Joyce, while the Ithaca section is still so unfamiliar that one Guardian reviewer says it holds back "the natural development of the story" [my italics], while the other finds it "baffling".

The meaning of the title is key to dispelling any bafflement. A river capture is when, as the novel explains, "a river erodes the land and acquires the flow from another river or drainage system, usually below it, the first river is said to have captured the second in an act of piracy. The waters of the captured river are usurped by the captor and, at this point, the two become one." This is a clear metaphor for the presence of Ulysses in the novel, once described by John Banville as an “Easter Island effigy of the Father” looming over those who follow, while here it is the great river potentially draining the liffey out of all future novels (though perhaps ironised here by the allusion to the Spice Girls). It is also a metaphor for the ghosts of Luke's family and friends.

Mary Costello's achievement is to include and implicate the form of The River Capture in its investigation into the various strands of inheritance: literary, familial, and bodily. Luke is troubled by the possibility that the singular form and content of Ulysses and especially Finnegans Wake were informed by syphilis, which he suspects infected Joyce and was passed down to Lucia, his daughter, who died young in an institution. What would it mean for the ambitions of writers inspired by Joyce if bacterium influenced the form and content of a novel to whose greatness they aspire? But this isn't idle speculation for Luke, as it has profound implications for his future happiness, in which as readers we have invested our concern. Despite the implied formality, the questions and answers that conclude The River Capture contain the novel's most overtly lyrical prose as Luke speculates on the properties of water suggested by modern science and how it may affect his fate, as it undermines assumptions about selfhood and agency. It suggests something other than his conscious self will inform the big decision he has to make, so the dissolution of a traditional conclusion which qualifies the praise of reviewers is entirely in keeping with the metaphor.

Perhaps we are drawn to particular writers' styles because they speak to a deeper self than that addressed by other writers, catalysing a mutation in our thought we can never reverse, enabling more than just the publicly acknowledged benefits of reading narratives and instead something approaching the opening of spaces in the mind mentioned here in relation to other novels. This is why I dissent on the value of genre fiction: not because of the quality of its products but because of the disposition of the author to inheritance. Not only is the author untroubled by inheritance but positively embraces its given forms and features, using them as a forged passport to a land of perceived literary talent and value. It is dead writing and content in its tomb. So-called experimental writers can be as guilty of this as any others, finding safety in word-doodling mode. As my friend's warning revealed to me, a style that appears to set one free is also the brink of a grave, and we must remain dwellers on the threshold.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Distance from Ballard

This is an interview with JG Ballard published in the NME in October 1985. It lives in a scrapbook of articles I kept as my interest shifted from music to books.

According to my records, 1985 was the year before I started reading novels; my records being a slip of paper from 1986 with twenty-four books listed and scored, not one of which is by JG Ballard. And yet I know in that library spree I read The Drowned World (which I first typed as The Drowned Sea, a more intriguing title), The Crystal World, High Rise, The Unlimited Dream Company, Hello America, Empire of the Sun, and the story collection Vermillion Sands. Back then the interview stirred me with the idea of a novel that watches England from a train window. I borrowed these books hoping for a narration from this vantage point, and was always disappointed, no doubt because it is not meant to describe Ballard's novels literally. I soon realised, though not soon enough, that I was allergic to hyperrealism, indeed to genre fiction in general. It was the word distance that stirred me, and that word has recurred in my writing many times since.

In 1986 my list began with the novel that set me on the path that I knew at once was mine to take, but still I think of the interview each time I travel by train to stare vacantly at the landscape and the objects and lives within it. I glimpse a thousand curtained windows of homes and with each one, or all of them combined, I imagine a retreat from the relentless pressure of a journey and the infernal genres of human busyness; a quiet room where one can be at peace, thinking, reading, listening to the stillness; a room somehow nothing like my own. Bill Callahan's song suggests this thought is not unique.

The last JG Ballard book I read was The Day of Creation in 1987, reviewed here by Martin Amis.

His suggestion that Ballard's novels "address a different–a disused–part of the reader's brain" rings true and must be close to what Victoria Best calls the "extraordinary elasticity" of some narratives that she says "open up spaces" in her mind, which is something other than flights of the imagination, and not quite Proustian reveries either, but something like a clearing in the forest. This would mitigate the otherwise lamentable influence Ballard has on the current generation of British writers, but this, what seems to be the most valuable and most obscure gift of the novel, is not something that can be easily discussed from a distance, from within the forest. However, as demonstrated by my apparent need to note down the first novel on my first book list, it is the only thing worth writing about.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Peter Handke is the ideal Nobel laureate

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

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

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

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

UPDATE: Sunday, October 20th

An example of the smears is the Irish Times' editorial in which this is reported:
Two subsequent editorials in the New York Times repeated the line. The first from the novelist Aleksandar Hemon, who at least is familiar with Handke's work, and Bret Stephens, who says he isn't:

This certainly presents an unpleasant person, and provoked handwringing from those open to alternative perspectives to that provided by corporate media. I hadn't heard the quotation before so couldn't say anything about it until Gerald Krieghofer's blog provided the detail of where the quotation was first uttered and then reported. He includes a video of the event. Someone in the audience suggested the journalists on the Bosnian side of the conflict were more dismayed by suffering than him, to which Handke replies: "Betroffenheit! Das kann ich schon überhaupt nicht hören. Gehen Sie nach Hause mit Ihrer Betroffenheit, stecken Sie sich die in den Arsch!". Which my limited German translates as "Dismayed! I'm not listening to any of that – go home with your dismay, stick it up your arse!" So no corpses (die Leichen) are mentioned. It seems to me to be a reasonable response to all these corporate commentators who can only repeat other corporate commentators.

Krieghofer has since replied to Hemon on Twitter:

As of today, it hasn't been corrected.  

The Guardian has now joined in and, despite being told, is also yet to correct the article.

Once again, to regain some sanity and more evidence of Handke's eminent suitability for the Nobel (for peace as well as literature), I recommend the work of Scott Abbott who has just posted his essay Peter Handke's Yugoslavia Work parts one and two, and Suhrkamp's detailed response.

UPDATE: Thursday, October 24th:

Some good news: the quotation has been removed or corrected in two of the above-mentioned articles, with only the Irish Times and the Bret Stephens article as yet uncorrected. 

Sunday, October 06, 2019

A unique and solitary home: Pharricide by Vincent de Swarte

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

A walk in the park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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