This Space

Thursday, September 09, 2021

Dead Souls by Sam Riviere

Even before one begins reading Sam Riviere’s first novel there is despondency as one registers that the title is a duplication of the English translation of Nikolai Gogol’s Мёртвые души, the novel in which a character seeks to buy dead serfs from their owners but who have yet to be removed from property registers and are thereby still taxed. It suggests that Dead Souls is an already belated publication, posthumous even, perhaps following the fashion for novels with commonplace phrases for titles or as allusions to past glories; the incontrovertibility of the one winning credence for the other. 

As one begins to read, the suggestion is affirmed yet complicated by the repetitious and pedantic phrasing of the sentences, the italicised paradoxical reversals of sense, and the long speeches reported by the first-person narrator, which is an overt adoption of Thomas Bernhard’s prose in which pedantry and repetition form an intoxicating music, paradoxical reversals are commonplace, and telescoped narration displaces the narrative centre and the guarantee it provides. Concerns about belatedness are acknowledged as the subject reported by the narrator is a case of literary plagiarism by a poet called Solomon Weise, whose surname is a German word that can mean melody, the manner or fashion in which one acts, or wise – the Wisdom of Solomon of course – while other characters soon appear called Christian Buch and Christian Wort, surnames that mean book and word in the language of the country in which the Gutenberg Bible was first produced and whose religious establishment was challenged by words nailed to a door. 

Weise had been ostracised by the poetry establishment because new technology has detected that his poetry is not original, and the bulk of the 320 pages are filled by the narrator reporting his monologue over drinks in a Travelodge bar describing the highways and byways of his life since being forced to withdraw from a poetry scene dominated by two sinister groups called the scolastici and the grammatici. The digressions, both perplexing and entertaining, are reminiscent of Tom McCarthy's Ballardian novels and which, to add to the despondency, Toby Litt says has much in common with the Contes Nocturnes of ETA Hoffmann. One narrates Weise’s retreat from London to the Norfolk town of Diss, an obvious allusion to the city of Dis, where Dante-like he encounters the damned souls of provincials, one of whom is an ex-prisoner of war who tells a story about becoming entranced by a fellow prisoner’s recitation of a poem in a foreign language, which later turns out to be not a poem at all but coordinates to an underground stash of riches which on being freed he can find and loot for himself. This is an obvious analogy of the various promises of poetry: an escape from the prison cell of the self it offers in the time of reading and, afterwards, the currency one can spend from one's fortress of cultural knowledge, and, perhaps most promising of all, access to mystic secrets concealed beneath the surface if only one can decode the poem, hence despondency for those who haven't read Gogol's novel, Hoffman's stories or know next to nothing about the manifold implications of the German Reformation, as they wonder if they shed light on the secrets of this novel and thereby of literature itself. All of which leads back to our initial unease with the belatedness and artificiality of its title and narration. 

As Solomon Weise ends his spoken-word Bildungsroman and parts company from the narrator, we no longer ask whether the allusions, analogies and the Bernhardian pastiche are clues and feel no need to go into search of the secret because we recognise it is a question and quest borne by the form and content of the novel itself and in the pleasure we take in following the highways and byways. The secrets of poetry or literature in general are nowhere to be found in publication, sales or recognition by the movements codifying the means of judgment (or in judgment at all), but in the perplexity of the reading experience itself, which appears to be too late, not an experience at all, or opposed to experience; posthumous even.

Tuesday, August 03, 2021

A review from abroad

In April 2016, a review by Alexander Carnera of my book This Space of Writing appeared in the Norwegian edition of Le Monde diplomatique as a supplement to the delightfully named Norwegian newspaper Klassekampen. Even though I can't read Danish, it was not only a highlight of the book's publication but one of the nicest things to happen in my life. It has now been translated by Peter Holm Jensen, to whom I am very grateful, so please allow me to indulge and post it here. (The dates at beginning have been amended.)


A sensitivity to the invisible

Can literature change our lives? For Stephen Mitchelmore, literature occupies a unique space that challenges the reality hunger of our time. Perhaps reality only exists as a tension between intimacy and distance. 

By Alexander Carnera

As a counterbalance to what he saw as the increasing commercialisation of literature, in November 2000 the British critic Stephen Mitchelmore became a blogger for Spike Magazine, and eventually started the blog This Space in 2004, where he’s been posting reviews ever since, all the while developing an enviable approach to thinking about literature. His explorative, essayistic reviews are rich in perspectives and a sense of wonder, and characterised by a restless and generous temperament. Mitchelmore doesn’t commit to any particular genre, and often begins his reviews by relating personal experiences. Quotes, comments and narrative passages blend into a mosaic in which different voices are confronted with each other. Reading him, one senses an engagement and curiosity that aren’t primarily motivated by passing judgement. Rather, he sees literature as a living encounter in which something is at stake for both writer and reader. 

The title of his first book, This Space of Writing, refers to a kind of non-place where literature again feels possible. He’s selected 44 texts from the blog, in which he discusses a wide variety of novels by the likes of Richard Ford, Tao Lin and Karl Ove Knausgaard, as well as, for example, the significance of ancient cave paintings for modern writers and the ‘reality hunger’ that drives contemporary media – always with an eye for the strange space of literature. 

The space of literature 

Mitchelmore often has interesting things to say about the book as a medium, about literary criticism, and high and popular culture, but his central reflections have to do with how literature affects our lives. He devotes many pages to thinking about the relationship between fiction and life, why we read, what we expect from books, and about why writers write: is it a vocation, a way of dealing with pain or loss, or something else? At the same time, he’s wary of the contemporary trend – exemplified by David Shields’ best-selling cultural bible Reality Hunger – of inflating writing and art into something that captures ‘life itself’. Collages of quotations, docudramas and autobiographies don’t necessarily bring us closer to the real, Mitchelmore points out, and in fact run the risk of creating abstract images of the very reality they seek to show. ‘To ask what life is in itself’ is a dead end. The task is rather to explore the ‘thresholds’ of experience. Here we find what Mitchelmore calls the space of literature. 

The Danish dictionary informs us that the word erfaring (‘experience’) is etymologically linked to the phrases at udforske (‘to explore’) and at rejse igennem (‘to travel through’). Hence the term bevandret, which describes someone well-versed in a field or experienced in life. Someone who’s encountered and dwelt in something different and unknown. In his efforts to describe the ‘space of literature’, Mitchelmore uses spatial metaphors and constellations of words such as distance and presence, light and shadow, intimacy and distance, visible and invisible. The space of literature is a uniquely porous and at the same time demarcated place where life is in flow and thoughts and feelings are born. 

The reader becomes a Nazi 

In a good essay on the controversial Austrian author Peter Handke, Mitchelmore writes that Handke, who draws on actual family relationships and experiences in his narratives, explores these kinds of limit experiences. Handke weaves his own walks and journeys into fictional narratives. Writing for him is a way of circling around blind spots and invisible transitions between what he understands and what he doesn’t. A good writer doesn’t succumb to the temptation of feeling he must necessarily realise his longings or dreams. Rather, his work confirms ‘that there is no crossing of the threshold if this threshold is a portal to a transcendent realm’. And it’s precisely Handke’s way of ‘patiently circling around the threshold’, which can never quite be crossed, that enables him to write deeply evocative books about what it means to be alive. 

In a long essay titled ‘The huge difficulty of dying’, Mitchelmore asks whether literature, despite the distance it inevitably creates to its subject matter, can alter our experience of lived life. Mitchelmore’s example here is the Nazi soldier Maximilien Aue in Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, who, before he returned to civilian life, took part in the Nazi atrocities. He now lives at a distance from these violent murders, but the convenient ease with which they were carried out has left its traces. The body speaks its own language, resulting in vomiting, nausea and diarrhoea. But what about the mind? 

In writing, Aue begins to understand: ‘This was what I couldn’t manage to grasp: the yawning gap, the absolute contradiction between the ease with which one can kill and the huge difficulty there must be in dying.’ Mitchelmore examines Aue’s tortuous efforts to resolve this contradiction. The atrocities line up to be confronted. A crucial incident happens during the Caucasus campaign. Aue leads a group of Jews to a clearing in a forest where his soldiers are digging a trench. But before the killing can start, the soldiers discover that the Russians got there first, and that there are already mass graves in the forest. Each trench they dig reveals new corpses. The officers are worked up, the soldiers start a new trench, and the Jews stand by watching. 

‘Here is the absolute contradiction in a literary tableau: the living and the dead confronting each other, both intimately close and infinitely distant; neither close nor distant enough’, writes Mitchelmore. To endure the savagery taking place around him, Aue must adopt the ideology of Nazism as if it were a law or a religion. In this way, he can abstract from the atrocities he faces. The reader, too, is disturbed by the horror of the scene but is ‘as impatient as the officers for it to be over’. Thus, says Mitchelmore surprisingly, the reader ‘situates [the horror] beyond disposable titillation’ and ‘becomes a Nazi’. For Mitchelmore, the scene seems too conveniently ‘literary’ given its very real historical subject matter. Then what is a novelist to do? 

The point is that Aue’s search for his lost life can’t be captured in a single scene. For Mitchelmore, the question is how literature can evoke an experience of crossing a threshold which can also be recognised by the reader. It’s a question of time, of developing the narrator’s ‘intense sensibility’ over the course of the narrative. The title of the essay, ‘The huge difficulty of dying’, refers to the search for a border the narrator himself can’t locate. Something must die so something else can be born. But in writing, one can’t simply recreate what’s been lost by recalling past events from one’s life, whether gruesome incidents or troubling childhood episodes. Merely writing them down fails to lift them above the level of anecdotes. Giving a past event life requires embedding it in the time of the narrative and letting its traces and consequences grow in the reader. This lends it a kind of necessity and makes it harder to dismiss. There’s no guarantee of this happening, of course, but as Mitchelmore stresses, Aue’s ‘task’ – the work of writing – is an exercise in confronting the dark threshold state between military service, submission and incomprehension. This task sustains him, keeps him alive. 

Voids in the cave 

Mitchelmore has studied a number of key works on cave paintings in art history and archaeology by Georges Bataille and Maurice Blanchot among others. In Mitchelmore’s view, ancient cave paintings speak of humanity’s ‘transgression against nature’ as something essential to becoming human. But this experience of becoming something other than what nature has made us also serves as a lesson in the problematic birth of art and representation. 

When the first human beings depicted their lives on damp cave walls, they may have appeared to be ‘unconsciously’ part of nature, but this act of creation also meant that they began to stand out from other species. Their art looked like a demonstration of power over nature, but perhaps revealed their weakness even more clearly: the ‘realisation of the inability to return to that pre-human state’. These people now came into contact with something they’d never seen in nature. With their paintings, they cut the umbilical cord to what formerly they could confidently identify as their own: their own activities, lives, hunts. The twisted red, black and yellow bodies of humans and animals must have begun to look alien to them. Gazing at them, they may have felt as though they glimpsed another possible reality. One imagines that, surprised by their own paintings, they reached out their hands to try to touch a reality that had taken on a life of its own. The discovery must have made them tremble. In an essay on the Lascaux cave paintings titled ‘The Birth of Art’, Blanchot writes: 

This strange feeling of ‘presence’, made up of certainty and instability, scintillates at the edge of appearances while remaining more certain than any other visible thing. And it is this same feeling, it seems me, that is found in the impression of first art, an impression with which the paintings of Lascaux fascinate us, as if, before our eyes, art were lit up for the first time by the torches’ glow and asserted itself suddenly with the authority of the obvious.     [Translated by Elizabeth Rottenberg]

Mitchelmore draws a thread from these ancient works of art to contemporary life: modern art, he says, lacks a given natural order in which to mirror itself and lives on as a longing to recreate the same miracle. But this longing takes the form of a kind of struggle in a void. As Blanchot writes of the Lascaux artist: ‘This void separating him and the natural community is, it seems, what revealed destruction and death to him, but he also learned, not without pain or misgiving, to use this void: to make use of and deepen his weakness in order to become stronger.’ In creating art, human beings discover a new space between themselves and nature, a space that can never be fully grasped and that pursues them like a shadow. A gap, a voided space where death makes life possible. Perhaps art is humanity’s attempt to turn this weakness into strength: to enter this space in order to learn how to see.

Control over life and death  

Many writers, disappointed in the contemporary state of the novel, have left the form behind and opted to write non-fiction. One of these is the British author Geoff Dyer, who sees war – waged by al-Qaeda, the Pentagon, across the Middle East – as the grand narrative of our time, which for him has made the novel superfluous. Literary fiction is outmoded, he says, not up to describing contemporary reality: the way forward is creative non-fiction. In his eagerness to promote new hybrid forms, Dyer has found his counterpart in the war correspondent. But according to Mitchelmore, Dyer’s dismissal of the authority of literary fiction is based on a reductive view of the novel as a vehicle of ‘information and meaning’. Moreover, Dyer overlooks the fact that creative non-fiction, governed as it is by ‘current events’ and ‘cultural relevance’, often leads to poor craftmanship reminiscent of genre fiction. War reportage, according to Mitchelmore, brushes over chance and thus the nuances of actual events: ‘Unlike in the novel, the author here has no control over life and death. In this – perhaps paradoxical – way, war reporting has erased chance from writing. Paradoxical because, while chance fills the lives of the soldiers, it is erased in the telling: everything is necessary, already written in nature.’ 

 If we follow this reasoning, the interesting question regarding the current debate about the Danish writer Carsten Jensen’s novel The First Stone isn’t whether it’s more credible because he himself was a war reporter in Afghanistan and wrote articles for a Danish newspaper, but whether in his language he evokes the ambiguity and shadowy nuances that can bring the reader closer to the reality of being in a warzone. According to Mitchelmore, it’s the author’s distance, formal techniques and ability to write from different points of view – the book’s invisible scaffolding – that give the reader an experience of a specific reality, as a tension between visible and invisible forces. But strictly speaking, his critique targets neither the likes of Carsten Jensen nor non-fiction as such. Chance is also a condition for the war correspondent, both in the form of the random events of war that the author tries to capture, and the words she or he chooses to describe them, which aren’t as far from fictional narrative as they might seem. To some extent the war correspondent controls his or her description of life and death through these choices, much like a writer of fiction. 

But there’s a difference. Both the literary writer and the war reporter work to give repressed, invisible forces narrative and form. What’s at issue according to Mitchelmore is how ‘writing leaves traces’; how to represent the contrast between the visible and the invisible, light and shadow. In this vein, Mitchelmore also reviews the French author Pascal Quignard, who sees literature as a way of working with fleeting forms and shadows without succumbing to the temptation of bringing all to light. Art should offer a way into what’s shadowed over by habit. Another of Mitchelmore’s examples is Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, a spinster’s story from her youth, when she was the governess of two children in a secluded country estate. Initially charming, the children appear to be haunted and corrupted by the ghosts of the estate’s former servants. Is it the fantasy of a madwoman or are the kids really evil? 

Henry James makes the ‘decisive choice’ to tell the story in the form of a letter by an outsider, in this case the governess. Mitchelmore draws attention to the fact that the epistolary form creates a space between the narrative and the events. This opens up a distance between the words and the scenes they describe that highlights the ambiguity of the children’s innocence, which is inseparable from their cruel acts. This distance enables James to develop and refine the plot (which he was initially told in the form of an anecdote) for his own purposes. Ambiguity here is more than the sociological uncertainty that arises when a war correspondent has to choose what to report on when the situation on the battlefield changes. 

Ambiguity in literary language has to do not with producing a ‘raw’ clarity, but a clarity associated with the not-quite-visible, the hard-to-access, the obscure. This is an ambiguity Mitchelmore glimpses in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s writing. 

An apostle of impassioned honesty 

Mitchelmore has a problematic relationship with Knausgaard, a writer he refers to as an ‘apostle of impassioned honesty’. Reading the first volume of My Struggle gave him, at first, a rare feeling of holding one of the masterpieces of his time in his hands. He initially dwells on Knausgaard’s ability to unearth images from seemingly banal childhood experiences and magnify them. An example is the footage the child Knausgaard sees in a news broadcast of a face that floats up to the surface of a lake from a sunken fishing boat: an image of death which, when he tells his dismissive father about it, intensifies his difficult relationship with him. At other times it’s works of art that captivate Knausgaard, and imbue him with a feeling of beauty or presence. According to Mitchelmore, these magnifying effects serve to move the writing elsewhere and offer up new ways of seeing. In this sense, the beauty of My Struggle lies in its ability to listen to the silence behind the world’s noise and to experiment in writing with opening spaces that make narrative possible. Mitchelmore is happy to call My Struggle a novel. The way it describes illuminating, enchanting sensations that seem to occur on the surface of life but open up past, present and future is enough to confirm this. 

This technique of course is well known, and many writers have made use of it to great effect. But what matters is the language, as Mitchelmore points out: ‘reality cannot enter into the work without conforming to the pressure of the conceptual unity imposed by a book […] writing plainly about plain things is no more a guarantee of realism than – following Wittgenstein – rain experienced in a dream is a guarantee of its wetness, even if it is connected to noise on the bedroom window.’ But is it a mark of a book’s quality that the author is aware that his descriptions are never sufficient, that pain, boredom, the strange or uncanny always escape language? Doesn’t it remain a question of the form one’s awareness of them takes, of how they’re put into words? Is it enough to observe that Knausgaard describes ad nauseam his difficulty in capturing basic human emotions? 

‘An overwhelming sense of imminence is evoked by Knausgaard so that its banality becomes […] celestial’, notes Mitchelmore. But this sense of immediacy doesn’t lead to a liberating revelation, but rather further frustration. The face on the surface of the lake in the news broadcast and the tears inexplicably provoked by the pattern of the clouds in a painting may hint at the promise of transcendence, but no affirmative transcendence. 

In a world without God, what literature struggles with is its own form, its own identity as literature; a struggle that ultimately can only demonstrate its own failure. This may be why Knausgaard doesn’t strive for a strong style as a writer. Strong themes and a strong style must be broken down before literature can emerge. This breaking down is what is called writing. Writing has more to do with destroying than creating, says Knausgaard somewhere. But one could also shift the emphasis of this statement: destroying is a way of creating, and this demands a unique writerly effort. It may well be that putting his immediate impressions of everyday life into words isn’t enough for Knausgaard, that it doesn’t satisfy him, but this in itself doesn’t mean we’re holding a masterpiece in our hands. 

Insightful disillusionment 

I have a suspicion that Mitchelmore omits important considerations about the ‘reality effect’, which have to do with the kind of effort put into writing and language itself. What grates a little is Knausgaard’s demonstrative, kitchen-sink determination to put everything into the book. For long stretches, this documentary-style accumulation of details dominates the text. But the idea that this accumulation can capture reality is nonsense. In a text on realism, the Danish author and linguist Per Aage Brandt once wrote: ‘Roland Barthes believed that the “reality effect” of a work of fiction is achieved by embedding details in it that do not function as parts of the narrative. I call it the “litter theory”: the more litter that floats around in the space of fiction, the more realistic it’s supposed to be.’ According to Brandt, Barthes thus assumes in advance that the fictional space isn’t realistic in itself, but that it’s originally a space of writing. ‘Barthes is wrong’, says Brandt. ‘When people tell stories and are only concerned with what they’re telling, they naturally create a realistic narrative; the language is spontaneously true to the reality of everyday life’ (1). Perhaps it can be formulated like this: it takes a special writerly effort to break out of the illusion of realism and into an insightful disillusionment. 

Is it reasonable to expect enlightenment or a sensory liberation from literature? To sense, for example, that Rilke harbours the secret of life but never succumbs to the temptation to reveal it, as a reviewer once wrote? For Mitchelmore, literature isn’t simply a question of seeking illumination – not everything needs to be brought to light – but just as much a matter of disillusionment. If literature teaches us to see, it’s because it demonstrates a ‘sensitivity to the invisible’. 

© norske LMD 

1. ‘Om skriften og det virkelige’ (‘On writing and the real’), Weekendavisen Bøger, 29 October 1999. 



Saturday, July 24, 2021

Drowning is Fine by Darren Allen

For reasons unclear to me at the time I re-read several novels by Aharon Appelfeld, the author born in 1932 to a German-speaking Jewish family in what was also Paul Celan’s hometown, Czernowitz, then in Romania, now in Ukraine, and who wrote exclusively in Hebrew after he had escaped postwar Europe for Palestine. As you might expect, the novels are haunted by what happened in that time; only it is never in the foreground. Badenheim 1939 could be read as little more than a pantomime designed by Otto Dix but for the looming presence of the years to come, while the disfunctional family and unwelcoming title character in The Immortal Bartfuss could be a fraught domestic drama but for a past that refuses to be buried, and Theo’s long walk in For Every Sin would be a regular road movie but for where he was walking from:

When the war ended Theo resolved that he would make his way back home alone, in a straight lie, without twists or turns. The distance to his home was great, hundreds of miles. Nevertheless it seemed to him he could see the route clearly. He knew that this would separate him from people, and that he would have to remain in uninhabited places for many days, but he was firm in his resolve: only following a straight course, without deviation. Thus, without saying good-bye to anyone, he set out. [Tr. Jeffrey M. Green]

The background resonates in narrative reticence. There is only the road ahead: in terms of the story and each time for each reader when they open the book. The old world is a ghost and each sentence a step into a haunted waste land.

There are fortuitous reasons for Appelfeld’s style: not only did he struggle to learn the language, which meant he kept things simple, but also because, as he said, “Hebrew is a very precise language, you have to be very precise – no over-saying. This is because of our Bible tradition.” Moreover, in the newly formed state there was a demand to forget the past and make a new self, which meant playing down the drama. 

Then it occurred to me that it wasn’t a coincidence that I chose to read these novels alongside Darren Allen’s Drowning is Fine and then felt no need to read another once it was over. They provided a contrast to its high style and lack of reticence. There are reasons for the style here too.

Drowning is Fine is the first-person narrative of Daniel Hickman, an aspiring artist living a precarious existence in contemporary London, sharing a house with a colourful bunch of bohemians with whom he has little in common and working in a drudge office job alongside people with whom he has little in common. His desires have nowhere to go except into hyperbolic cries of despair: "I want to paint great things" he says. "I want to undo minds, I yearn to stretch into the abyss, to touch the living emptiness." If he sounds here like Tony Hancock in The Rebel, it only sharpens the bathetic edge of an existential crisis.

This is also what contrasts with Appelfeld: Daniel's situation is unremarkable. There is no Biblical tradition let alone the cowl of a catastrophe draped over his head. His background is more or less invisible but for an aside that his family came from "the self-replicating unplace of Borehamwood". He is, as his name suggests, a peasant in the lion's den, and so the novel is not so much an open road leading away from disaster as a cul de sac at the dog end of history.

In keeping with the condition, Hickman projects its innate disquiet onto his immediate surroundings. One of his bosses is Graham: 

he of the ball-bearing head and immaculate beard, who does his best to make everyone feel special and indispensable, but he only ever leaves the impression not so much of being special and indispensable, more of being a small, plastic, very much dispensable, pellet.

If such descriptions of Londoners, of which there are many, suggest a hysterical-realist novel documenting life in the neoliberal capital via the protagonist's schlubby travails, it wouldn't be inaccurate. Daniel is, as Terry Gilliam puts it in the blurb, a bit "arseholish": he uses a young woman who is attracted to him even as he fantasises an ideal love, and then, in a set-piece scene that is both moving and horrifying, he employs a Polish sex worker to enact such a love, reflecting to the reader their own displaced disquiet as they demand the real thing from an author they have paid to deceive them.

Except there is something else offered in what Daniel calls The Question.

It writhed belly-up at my bewilderment while I was in the garden, staring into the boughs of next door's fine oak tree. It burbled on in the background for a while then flashed intensely, salt-in-the-eye, for a shattering moment as I moon-walked on Geni's shiny parquet floor, enjoying another of those bone-comforts, those secret agreements with the most mundane and empty events. Hard to say what the question is, for it forms itself wordlessly, sliding in between my thoughts as I jog around the lake, or take another spoonful of yogurt.

As Drowning is Fine appears to be the first in a series, the answer could be what the overall title Things Unsaid refers to, which at first I thought might be sarcasm given the comparative excess of what things are said. Daniel's ambition to pursue the question would lead others to channel creativity in paid work in, say, graphical design, but, just as Theo prefers to walk alone rather than mix with other refugees, Daniel prefers "the dignity of being without a job". Nor is the galleried art scene his goal. On a date, he visits Bankside's "castle cubed of death" and stumbles upon an exhibition launch party:

It could be Weimar Germany, or the salon of Mme Geoffrin, or the 'wine and meat pool' of King Zhou, or some swanky Pyramid do in the Middle Kingdom. This party has been going on since the dawn of civilisation, and when the world is a charred husk these screaming, bellowing, bored swans will still be floating over the darkness in their gaudy bubble, talking about Miami Art Basel, tilapia and yurts.

But he had been impressed by the display of William Blake's death-mask, which gives a clue about how he will approach the question. Another takes the form of the title provided by Geni, his Tate Modern date, who says she wants to find a man she can die with, preferably by drowning. After the initial panic, she says "you have to give up, then you give up more completely than you'd ever imagined". If Daniel is shocked, he shouldn't have been, as throughout the novel he meets people who have given up without having yet gone under: two of his housemates, one in a care home, and many others passing him in the street. Allusions to Dante's Inferno and Eliot's Waste Land in which death has undone so many are thereby appropriate, but Daniel's London is also the decadent twin of Novilla, the drab and dry fictional city of JM Coetzee's Jesus trilogy, whose setting and society Robert Pippin says calls to mind the death of God, one in which everyone lives in exile from the highest values; an embodiment of Nietzsche's Letzter Mensch. Daniel corresponds to the two new arrivals in Novilla who live in a state of "profound homelessness", yet unable to join the lives of others in "forgetfulness and indifference".

Drowning is Fine draws to a close with Daniel literally homeless, dragging an art work through the streets with him as if clinging to the last relic of the highest values. This makes clear that what had impressed him in Tate Modern was the death-mask of possibility: of possibility in the personal, the political, the artistic and, one might add, the religious. For all his faults, Hickman is a modern-day Blakeian mystic in a culture where this can never mean anything outside the dubious romance of self-sabotage and self-destruction, hence why Daniel's arseholish nature rises to the surface in a novel whose conventional form only reanimates the ghost of the highest values.

The last of Aharon Appelfeld's novel I read alongside Drowning is Fine is an outlier in his work as it narrated by Katerina, a Christian Ruthenian, who comes to identify with the Jews for whom she works and who, later, she sees them from a distance disappearing in rail transports. In the austere and profound loneliness of the postwar years, she reflects that it is "too bad the dead are forbidden to speak", but this reminds us that the novel, as it dies, allows us to listen to their silence.

Saturday, June 26, 2021

The opposite direction

The arrival of Douglas Robertson’s new translation of Thomas Bernhard’s Die Billigesser in a compact paperback from Spurl Editions came just as I had given up hope of ever discussing what I believed had long fascinated me about a feature of Bernhard's prose-texts. A fascination intensified because, from what I could tell, it had never been discussed by anyone, but regularly postponed because I had no idea what it might mean in regard of what Bernhard called his prose-texts. However, after reading The Cheap-Eaters, I re-read several other prose-texts and wrote a long introduction summarising each example of what fascinated me. I assumed I would then become able to say something new and interesting about his prose-texts, a rare thing I believed at the time, having first read Bernhard in 1990, long before he became well known in English-speaking countries, and having become very bored since reading articles invariably repeating the same lines about misanthropy, ranting and hilarity, and for Bernhard being known as a Nestbeschmutzer, which invariably nudges the innocent reader toward the familiar figure of the enfant terrible, which is probably all the same reader needs to know before returning to the latest genre package "taking the book world by storm". None of this has much to do with what has long fascinated me about his work. So, to get to the point: what I believed had long fascinated me is that which propels a great many of his prose-texts into existence, with the latest translation being a prime example. 

The narrator reports that his friend the scientist Koller had told him how he became reacquainted with four men who every day eat cheaply at the same table in the Vienna Public Kitchen after sixteen years because, instead of his ending his daily walk at the old ash tree in the Wertheimsteinpark, he had walked on to the old oak tree in the Türkenschanzpark in order to follow a scientific train of thought, which happened to be the same day that Weller the glassmaker walked his dog in the Türkenschanzpark and he, the dog, had broken free of its lead and bit Koller, which led to the amputation of his, Koller's, leg. This was, he says, the “great misfortune of his life”. And yet:
What at first he had been bound to regard as an impermissable interruption of his train of thought, which for days had again been concentrated on physiognomy, his memory of the cheap-eaters whom he had forgotten about for so many years, and the thoughts resulting from this memory, his suddenly all-consuming preoccupation with Einzig and Goldschmidt, Grill and Weninger had suddenly and effectively unforeseeably proved to be not only useful for his Physiognomy, but even decisive for this work that he had been pursuing without interruption and intensively for nearly sixteen years, and possibly even proved fundamentally explicative of the essential points of this work in an unprecedented way.
So the novel comes into existence with the narration of a change in routine and a chance event which often leads to a change of direction in life and, of course, though easily neglected, the prose-text we're reading. These are surprisingly common in Bernhard’s work. The short story Two Tutors from 1967 begins when, also on a walk, a tutor who had until then remained silent starts to speak. The first sentence of Walking from 1971, recognised as the breakthrough work for Bernhard’s famous style, translated by Kenneth Northcott, also begins with a change in routine:
Whereas, before Karrer went mad, I used to go walking with Oehler only on Wednesday, now I go walking—now that Karrer has gone mad—with Oehler on Monday as well.

There are variations: on the first page of Yes, the narrator is interrupted by strangers just has he’s beginning to break his silence about his ailments to the local estate agent, and Woodcutters begins with the narrator’s regret for accepting an invitation to an artistic dinner from long lost friends who he had bumped into earlier that day. One can even go into Bernhard's life and note that he began to write because he passed the long hours in the tuberculosis death-ward by reading and was impressed by the elemental force of Dostoevsky's Devils. He had been in training to become a singer until the TB ruined his lungs. And then there’s the waltz into a brick wall that begins Extinction, quoted here in David McLintock’s translation:

On the twenty-ninth, having returned from Wolfsegg, I met my pupil Gambetti on the Pincio to discuss arrangements for the lessons he was to receive in May, writes Franz-Josef Murau, and impressed once again by his high intelligence, I was so refreshed and exhilarated, so glad to be living in Rome and not in Austria, that instead of walking home along the Via Condotti, as I usually do, I crossed the Flaminia and the Piazza del Popolo and walked the whole length of the Corso before returning to my apartment in the Piazza Minerva, where at about two o’clock I received the telegram informing me that my parents and my brother, Johannes, had died. Parents and Johannes killed in accident. Caecilia, Amalia, it read.

The implicit suggestion here is that Murau’s parents' and brother's death is somehow connected to Murau's happy mood and subsequent decision to change the routine of his walk home. I wondered if this could this account for what makes Bernhard's work so uncomfortable, obscured by the more overt features; something to do with the comedy and horror of the determinism that constitutes all novels, all stories, where chance has no chance, with everything is preordained by the puppetmaster, even where there are attempts to disrupt it, such as in BS Johnson's The Unfortunates or Jacques Roubaud's The Great Fire of London.

However, just as I had revived hope of discussing what I believed had long fascinated me about Bernhard's prose-texts, I read Nathan Knapp essay in Review 31 prompted by Douglas Robertson's new translation of The Cheap-Eaters.

We must forgive him when, so often, we find him making too much of chance events or seemingly innocuous decisions. [...] His narrators spend page after page belaboring the impossibility of chance in events and situations attributable to nothing else, as when the narrator of Wittgenstein’s Nephew devotes half the book to considering the fortuity of his presence in the chest clinic while his friend Paul Wittgenstein, the nephew of the philosopher is in the lunatic clinic next door. What seems like a stylistic tic, and is a stylistic tic in certain of his lesser works, such Yes or The Cheap-Eaters, is also one of the truest things about the man: his life—and by his life I mean his suffering — was the product of the cruelest chance.

This shook me. So it wasn't something only I had noticed and was in fact a feature so common that it was worth only our forgiveness. Everything I had written until then taunted me with its naivete. How pathetic, I thought, to spend so much time preparing to discuss something that was only a stylistic tic. Of course, I told myself, every life is determined by chance – the oxymoron revealing only the ubiquity of the paradox that is necessary to making our lives uniquely, randomly meaningful and meaningless – so why make such a big deal of it? 

My humiliation was compounded when I read Thomas Bernhard's Afterlives, a collection of essays on Bernhard's presence in European and American literature, but for different reasons. It was because, in 1990, I felt alone in my enthusiasm for Bernhard's writing, a solitude renewed each time I read even the so-called lesser works, as if that time sitting in a park reading a copy of Concrete with its stiff cardboard covers was an ever repeating revelation. I still wonder how anyone reading Bernhard for the first time can then go back without gagging to novels stuffed full of descriptions. So it was also a shock to read the roll-call of names in the French, Spanish and Austrian literary scenes going back to the 1970s who admired, loved, promoted and engaged with Bernhard's prose-texts. I knew already about WG Sebald and László Krasznahorkai, but there are many others famous authors discussed here: Susan Sontag, Imre Kertész, Italo Calvino, Elena Ferrante, Claudio Magris, and then several German, Spanish, French and Austria authors many of whom are yet to feature in English translation. There are also discrete essays on his relation to certain works by Geoff Dyer, Gabriel Josipovici and William Gaddis, and a more general discussion of cultural inheritence in comparison to the work of Philip Roth. It was embarrassing to realise I was very much a Johnny-come-lately in my Bernhard admiration journey rather than an intrepid literary radical. But, I told myself, it is no wonder I was such an enthusiast when the English literary scene is dominated by leaden novels. Bernhard's prose is to English literature what the light d'un altro sole is in Dante's paradise. And I'm not alone in that either: Michael Hofmann has said he craves an English Bernhard. 


"I profit from a philosopher only insofar as he can be an example" – Nietzsche

Not that we would necessarily recognise such a writer. As the illustrious careers of the names above should suggest, this collection does not expose imitators but examines instead how writers profited from Bernhard as an example. Stephen Dowden's essay shows how Sontag discovered in Bernhard a style could also have an ethical force. This gives nuance to the regular notion of influence. When a review of a recent novel said to be Bernhardian begins with Geoff Dyer's comment that "all writers go through a Thomas Bernhard phase" it implies that there is a base style from which the phase-goer departs in youthful protest only to return with his pen between his legs to write in description-heavy novels for ever more (in a discussion on BBC radio, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan said writers of their generation all went through a Borges phase, and I imagine many younger writers go through an Amis phase). But this base style is itself only a phase prolonged until it produces the morbid symptoms of Booker Prize fiction. Style is noticeable only when it is true to experience: Bernhard said that whenever he visited a particular street in Salzburg he could still see the limbs of bodies, smell the burnt flesh and hear the desperate voices of survivors clearing the rubble of shattered buildings following an air raid he witnessed as boy, yet nobody he questioned still saw or heard them: "Time makes its witnesses forget." And what had happened to bodies and buildings happened to writing, and yet writers carried on as if the war only supplied new material. Bernhard wrote against the style that makes its readers forget. 

His novels do not describe these events firsthand. Dowden's cliché-busting introduction to the collection quotes WG Sebald's observation that Bernhard's "periscopic form of narrative" brought a radicality to postwar German literature whose forms he says were morally compromised and aesthetically insufficient to what Europe had experienced, and adds:

If a novel is to have a claim on truth-telling about that experience, then the sleight of hand whereby a conventional writer creates the illusion of reality must be alienated or "framed", so to speak. Bernhard refuses to engage in the illusionism's parlor tricks. He may not be able to nail down a final truth either, but his way of writing embodies the nature of the failure that is inevitable.

While others writers continue to respond to insufficiency by packing novels with ever more descriptions of incidents within elegantly modulated narratives, Bernhard elevates insufficiency to a principle to the point at which, because it has become impossible, telling the truth in writing becomes the most important act, hence the character's deranged frustration in The Lime Works and Concrete, the unsorted stash of Roithamer's notes in Correction, and the indefinitely deferred monographs in The Loser and The Cheap-Eaters. Kata Gellen's admirably self-conscious contribution looks at Geoff Dyer's book about the failture to write a book about DH Lawrence that channels Bernhard's "rhetoric, mood, and style" and asks whether the failure to write itself produces a kind of writing. If there is, it is the kind of writing that is most distinctive about Bernhard's work once one gets beyond the headlines, part of what Dowden calls its "irreconcilable otherness" governed by a refusal to offer a "merry wink of the authorial eye to signal ironic intent". For the anxious reader worried about the opinions coming through the periscope, there is never any easing of the pressure imposed by failure: its comedy, its horror, its melody and dissonance, its mania and misery, and how all six are indistinguishable. It never offers peace just as Glenn Gould's versions of the Goldberg Variations never sends one to sleep. Dowden makes a point relevant to this about the "much-remarked, little-understood musical character" of Bernhard's prose: 

[The novels] do not primarily communicate the subjective thoughts and ideas of his demented protagonists and vouch for their veracity. Rather, they express the nature of a spiritual situation that is neither subjective nor objective.
It's wise then not to get caught up in the details. Gellen's essay takes encouragement from Susan Sontag's critique of critical distance by questioning her own attachment to Bernhard's work: "why am I so drawn to him? And why, in turn, am I drawn to writers who are explicitly and implicitly drawn to him, too?". Her answer is that Bernhard and those drawn to his example offer a way out of the purely negative model of failing to write. When I asked myself this question, I realised that my attempts to write something about the chance events in Bernhard's work had always failed to begin because it isn't what had long fascinated me at all. It was that the chance events always happened at the beginning of a prose-text. Beginning is what had long fascinated me, or, rather, how Bernhard's novels continue to begin and don't stop beginning until they end.

It appears to be because twists in the tale, that a staple of storytelling, always appear at the beginning of Bernhard's work, with walking playing a role in them all. He began his adult life by refusing to return to the TB clinic for life-saving treatment. He walked in the opposite direction to what was wise and never went back, and began his life as a writer by going in the opposite direction to singing. He explains in the film monologue Drei Tage that:

the thing I find most terrifying is writing prose…it’s pretty much the most difficult thing for me…And the moment I realized this and became conscious of it, I swore to myself that from then on I would do nothing but write prose.

There is nothing wise in Thomas Bernhard's life and work: he caught tuberculosis also by going in the opposite direction. In the third part of his autobiography, he says that as a fifteen-year-old he chose to work in a bitterly cold grocery store in "the roughest and most dangerous district" of Salzburg after rejecting all the jobs in the safer, wealthier areas, telling the official he "wanted to go in the opposition direction". He uses the phrase thirteen times over two pages: "she offered me a number of apprenticeships, but none of them was in the opposite direction", I did not just want to go in a different direction – it had to be the opposite direction".

I kept on telling her this, but she was not to be put off and went on taking what she regarded as good addresses out of her card-index. I was unable to explain to her what I meant by the opposite direction.   (Tr. David McLintock)

He must have known at some level. It may well be a physical equivalent of Paul Celan's Gegenwort, the "counterword" he spoke about in his Meridian speech, which Dowden compares to in literary terms to Bernhard's "speaking against: against exhausted narrative ploys and forms" and "against Austria's complicity in the horrors of the twentieth century". And given that Celan's example of a counterword is spoken before an execution, Bernhard's life decisions might be compared to the Persian woman's answer to the narrator's question at the end of Yes, or perhaps Roithamer's self-destruction in the forest clearing: in Celan's own words the counterword is "an act of freedom. It is a step." The step is always forward and wilful, reminding me of the character in a film who clings to the edge of a balcony, asking why he shouldn't jump, and jumps, and CK Williams' poem This Happened.

All of which leads me to understand why, despite admiration and envy, Bernhard's recent accommodation into English literary culture in several superb overviews and reviews in mainstream press, notably those by Chris Power, Dustin Illingsworth and Missouri Williams, nevertheless discomfort me. This is also the translation of words Bernhard uses in Drei Tage when responding to critical plaudits. The form tends to leave the reader in a state of knowledge and acceptance as one might following the dissection of a corpse; forgetful of what is absent. I want to appreciate what going in the opposite direction might mean for living writers. What would it mean for writing to step into the clearing?

An answer may be present in my ignorance of the meaning of what sets Bernhard's prose-texts into existence. "The difficult thing is getting started" he says in Drei Tage. "There are brute resistances right from the start, probably always have been. Resistance is material. The brain requires resistance. While it’s accumulating resistances, it has material". 

Resistance when you look out the window, resistance when you’ve got a letter to write—you don’t want any of this, you receive a letter, again a resistance. [...] You read books—resistances. You don’t want to have anything to do with books, you don’t want have anything to do even with thoughts, you don’t want to have anything to do with language or words, or sentences, you don’t want to have anything to do with stories—you pretty much don’t want to have anything to do with anything. Nevertheless, you go to sleep, you wake up. The consequence of going to sleep is waking up, the consequence of waking up is getting up. You must get up, stand up, take a stand against all resistances. You must step out of your bedroom, the paper rises to the surface, sentences rise to the surface, really only the same sentences over and over…you have no idea where from…uniformity, right? Out of which new resistances emerge, while you’re noticing all that. You want nothing but to go to sleep, to know nothing more about it. Then suddenly pleasure drops back in… [Translated by Douglas Robertson]

The repetitions of opposite direction and resistance may appear at first to be a stylistic tic but, as the phrases assert themselves, and as we assume Bernhard asserts himself, assertion is undone, opening a void in language, just as a gaping void opens to Franz-Josef Murau as he thinks of his childhood in Wolfsegg – a phrase also used thirteen times over two pages. This may be the reason why Bernhard was unable to explain what he meant to the official at the labour exchange. The words become a void in which the infinite drops into the finite, at least something other drops into life, creating a propulsive force from the coincidence of opposites: of silence and speech, of madness and sanity, of joy and grief, of life and death, and, if we include Bernhard's work in such a list, of brute existence and the irreconcilable otherness of art. It's no coincidence that Stephen Dowden says Bernhard's work offers a "backhanded affirmation by way of total negation". 

Going in the opposite direction then isn't necessarily as rebellious or revolutionary as one might assume, just as negative theology is not atheism; it was Nicholas of Cusa who defined God as the "coincidence of opposites". Bernhard may be the least theological of novelists but, if Dowden is right that Bernhard is "fundamentally an ironist and a moralist", there may not be so much between him to the poet for whom the lion, leopard and wolf were resistances driving him towards total negation in hell.

Earlier I referred to Michael Hofmann craving an English Bernhard because, he says, the nation needs a "bard for its unmanaged or mismanaged decline". I realise now that I crave one less for that, which could be done in journalism by an English Chris Hedges, than for one who goes in the opposition direction to the literature of finitude. The finite is present everywhere in contemporary literature; what I have called 'about' novels tackling issues aligned to a market defined and managed by newspapers. This does not mean a rejection of the world; Dante's example should be enough to refute that. Maurice Blanchot says that all of Nicholas of Cusa's work presupposes a twofold truth: "total immanence and real transcendence"; a phrase that perfectly captures the experience of reading Thomas Bernhard's prose-texts. This is why they remain an ever repeating revelation.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

At home he’s a tourist: The Moment by Peter Holm Jensen

Such a modest, self-effacing title, barely relieved by the blanched map on the cover. In everyday speech, a word or two is usually added to supplement the weedy noun: people say “At this moment in time”, which is when I ask: can a moment be in anything else; a moment in lampposts perhaps? Their absence here suggests a wish to let the word’s delicacy remain unsupported, even at the risk of becoming its own camouflage in the literary landscape, a suggestion reaffirmed by its form as a journal of life in the marshy flatlands of rural Norfolk, with names reduced to initials. The form draws back from headlong narrative to pay attention to what passes without pause. Such a concern is not without precedent. 

For Peter Holm Jensen’s fellow Dane, Søren Kierkegaard, what comes into existence comes from the eternal, from outside of time and so, we can say, apart from narrative, concurring with Plato’s Parmenides which calls the moment “this strange entity” between one state and another that is “in no time at all”. St Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians says the state of being dead will become one of eternal life “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” with the second coming of Christ, while Meister Eckhart in his turn counselled “the traditional schools of knowledge” to remain silent and recognise themselves as unknowing before God’s light, which would arrive like “a powerful flash”. Again for Kierkegaard, whose journal was also written for publication and whose Works of Love is alluded to in this one, it is His incarnation that gives the moment access to eternity, but the eternal is not present in the moment because that remains in the future. Christ Himself is the moment of transition from past to future, from actuality to possibility, but Kierkegaard qualifies possibility as a duality offering “the possibility of advance or of retrogression, of rising or falling, of good or of evil”. So which will it be for our writer?

The answer is important for P. (there is good reason for following the book’s propriety and using the initial) as he admits to having spent years sunk in the sense of life’s pointlessness, aware without knowledge of “something neutral and indifferent that hovered over things and levelled all the events of life”. He wondered how those around him continued to endure tedious days in the office without ending it all in the evening. He would lie in bed thinking of ways to die, which may be read as a wish to submit to the neutral and indifferent, to what is outside of time. P. says he mistrusts writing because as he writes, he becomes his own double, watching on as the words remove themselves from the undifferentiated connection he desires. In seeking a way back, he finds “a strange hope” outside of writing when, sitting in a church as light streams through a stained-glass window, he senses “an overfacing power...something wholly other”. A strange hope manifest in the hesitant, open form of The Moment.

It is appropriate then that the novel begins in Spring, when flowers are blooming and animals give birth to new life. P.'s girlfriend S. asks the neighbouring farmer T. to wait while she picks the wildflowers before he can mow them down, and then to hand over the feral kittens he intends to drown. It’s even more appropriate because Spring is also the time of Easter, when what dies is resurrected: flowers in a vase, kittens from a bucket, and P. himself, resurrected in writing. His mistrust of writing then becomes entirely in keeping with exposure to the overfacing presence. How, he asks, can we live in the face of the impersonal? The strange hope takes form with that strange word, overfacing, uncommon in everyday English, which is ideal in suggesting the incommensurability of P.'s experience.

The same applies to his observations of the bucolic landscape and the people and wildlife in it. This should not appeal to the audience for nature writing, which tends towards coffee-table kitsch. Standing before the "dark cold coast" at Southwold – notable of course for featuring in WG Sebald's generically compromised novel The Rings of Saturn – P. resists any antropomorphic projection and regards it as "neither hostile nor benign".

If writing takes one closer only to one's impersonal doppelgänger and nature places the observer at an irreducible distance, it explains the publisher's definition of The Moment as a novel when otherwise it is P.’s straightforward private journal and commonplace book. If he’s not at home in writing, as a Dane raised in Canada, he’s also not at home in his England, in Norfolk, in his cottage, or even, because he works as a translator, in language, and so too not at home in this book. This reminds me of how Gabriel Josipovici responded when someone expressed surprise at how much he reveals about himself in writing: “I can ‘reveal’ precisely because it does not seem to be part of me, it seems to belong to someone else.” 

To ask again, how can we live in the face of the impersonal? This book is its own answer. If there is no advance or retrogression, no rise or fall, no good or evil here, by paying attention to the silence of its obscure presence, The Moment seeks a modest, self-effacing place within the intersection of time and eternity, between the low-rise marshy landscape overfaced by a giant, apparently empty sky. 


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

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