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Monday, September 03, 2018

The end of literature, part two

Beyond a certain point there is no return. This point is to be reached.

On Saturday I discovered that another secondhand bookshop in Brighton has closed; the third this year. Saturday mornings have often involved a walk along the promenade, a turn right into Ship Street and onto Colin Page's around the corner on Duke Street. There will be no motivation now the books are gone.

The window displayed antiquarian volumes of no interest to me, and indeed more or less everything inside the shop was of no interest to me, but in good weather the owner put two trestle tables out front that held hundreds of very reasonably priced paperbacks, and unusual paperbacks too, such as Robert Antelme's The Human Race in the original French and a collection of Heidegger's essays, bought for 70p. There were never any brightly coloured mass market paperbacks by Jennifer Someone or James Someone Else that make charity shops such hopeless places.

But I haven't bought anything there for months – the last was a collection of essays by the theologian Rudolf Bultmann – so I can't complain. Trawling though secondhand bookshops has become a groundhog day of blank disappointment. Contrast this with my first day in the city: walking down the road from the station, I found two shops facing each other on either side of the road. In the first I found Thomas Bernhard's The Loser in the rare Quartet hardback, Peter Handke's Absence in a rare Methuen hardback, and an even rarer copy of Maurice Blanchot's The Sirens' Song (two copies in fact, and I wonder if the person to whom I gifted the second still has it). Snapping all three from the shelf has become my guide to how I should consider a purchase: No snap, no buy. That said, I have often neglected the injunction, as I remember hesitating over Bultmann's collection, buying it eventually only out of gratitude that there were still alternatives to brightly coloured mass market paperbacks. I look at the book now and wonder why Lutheran theology might appeal to me more than the paperback of that novel everyone was talking about last year. One's needs develop, of course, sometimes quickly, and that's why the search goes on, as one seeks to understand obscure needs; to find the nourishment one needs. Sometimes I regret not snapping something off the shelf, such as a boxed set of Luther's writings for under a tenner, with the shop now stocking baby clothes.

Of course, if I wanted that boxed set so badly I could order a copy online, so I must be searching for the covert promise that comes from chance discovery more than from the overt content of the books. And this must be why my favourite TV show is Aussie Gold Hunters: mostly amateur men and women sweeping metal detectors over the Australian outback in temperatures of 40º and mostly turning up flakes of gold but, very occasionally, totally out of the blue, huge nuggets worth thousands. The contrast in values is what stirs: one can measure the price of the book against practical necessities, but not the value of its promise.

The itch to search has been there since I started reading. On Sundays in the late 1980s, I would cycle seven miles to a car boot sale in a field just outside the village of Titchfield hoping to find nuggets among the I shot JR mugs and paperbacks of Gormenghast and Lady Chatterley's Lover. Despite multiple visits, the only book I can recall finding is Gabriel Josipovici's novel Contre-Jour. It was 20 pence. Once, I stopped at a small town library as small and creaky as the Terrapin huts of my school years and picked up a 1960 hardback of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, also for 20p. Gold in the outback of provincial England.

I would also cross the harbour and tour the secondhand shops of Portsmouth and Southsea. The first was Adelphi Books, which I am amazed to see is still going, just. A little further on there was a small shop from which the only thing I bought was a pamphlet of short stories edited and published by the couple who ran the place. The male half expressed very clear views in its editorial: he wanted solid, entertaining stories that did a good job for the reader. He was not interested in stories with literary merit, he wrote. If your story had literary merit, he would chuck it aside. Naturally, his own story took a prominant place in the collection. It tells of a man whose neighbours are very touchy about his pet dog's interest in their guinea pigs living in a hutch in the garden. He assures them that his dog won't harm them. Of course, one day soon after, the dog waddles in proudly carrying a dead guinea pig in his mouth. The owner is frantic that the neighbours will find out before he can rectify the situation. Under cover of darkness he sneaks into the next door garden, opens the hatch and places the dead animal on its bed of straw, arranging the body so it looks like it's died in its asleep. Relieved, he goes to bed, only to be woken the next morning by a woman screaming "Fergie!!!". The dog owner acts innocent and asks what is wrong. The woman explains that the day before Fergie had died and they had buried her in the garden. 

The next shop on the route was a short walk from Fratton Park, my other haunt at the time. The Star Bookshop was where I bought this perfectly formed edition of Kafka's Letters to Felice and the stiffed-spined edition of Levinas' Totalty and Infinity, but failed to spend £4 on Bergson's Matter and Memory in the superb Zone Books edition, which I sometimes regret. It seemed a lot of money at the time, though I spent that amount on this 1964 Edinburgh University Press edition with slipcase of Montale's poems, with George Kay's translation of Meriggiare pallido e assorto; the best I've read. I can't remember how much I paid in the same shop for Marthe Robert's Franz Kafka's Loneliness, but look at that: a literary critical work on Kafka published by Faber & Faber!

Click for a close-up

Brand new paperbacks were not as expensive then as they are now, and I bought novels in regular bookshops. I've written before about the effect of reading the first paragraph Peter Handke's Across had on me as I browsed and how, a year later, after snapping it off the shelf, reading the Quartet Encounters edition of Bernhard's Concrete in the shadow of an office block from which I had once walked out of a job was like coming home. It doesn't happen now.

When that sort of thing did happen, I was walking towards rather than away. Walking out of that job now looks like an attempt to deal with the contrast of what I was experiencing and the blankness of drudge work. Coming to this cosmopolitan city to study was no doubt also an attempt to walk away physically, to manifest what appeared to be a process in practical existence, to get closer to what was revealed in various chance discoveries. After all, there was a clear programme to follow: academic study, perhaps book reviewing, even writing books. I followed all three, and, amongst other things, they exposed proximity to a void. 

Where now? Two years ago I marked thirty years of reading by reminiscing about holding a copy of The Sirens' Song I could not take home. I had no access to Blanchot's writing otherwise. By coincidence, the book was published by a press based in Ship Street so it looks like, by coming to live here and finding my own copy, I had arrived at the source of the literary Nile. But if this is true, it is also where I began, because recently I discovered that Titchfield has a close connection to Shakespeare. Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare's patron, dedicatee of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, and probably the Fair Youth of the Sonnets, was also the Baron of Titchfield. He is buried in the parish church. And it made me think about his 400 year old bones in a coffin in that quiet place, and of their proximity to the absolute of literature, "the supreme Mecca of the English-speaking race" as Henry James characterised its birthplace, and of their proximity to that field. Wriothesley is not booked to appear at the next Hay-on-Wye literary festival (yet) so, to get closer to what inspired Shakespeare to write and everything that writing stands for, does one stand next to the tomb? If that's not close enough, does one open the coffin and fondle the bones? Does one climb in and snuggle next to them? Does one then close the coffin lid? And then?

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Dante on the beach

This sumptuous Folio Society edition of Dante's Vita Nuova translated from the Italian by Mark Musa arrived with the suggestion that I post photographs to accompany anything I wanted to write. So here it is, bathed in marine light.

What I wanted to write was unclear to me, and feeling incapable of adding anything worthwhile to the centuries of studies, I began with the basics.

The book was published in 1295 and comprises 31 poems and a prose narrative described by Robert Harrison as juxtaposing "quasi-hallucinatory dreams and visions with pedantic commentary on the poems"; an unusual genre for us, with one familiar forerunner in Boethius' Consolations of Philosophy and no obvious descendants. TS Eliot describes it as a mixture of biography and allegory "according to a recipe not available to the modern mind"; closest perhaps to a modern scholarly edition of selected poems edited and annotated by the poet himself, and so perhaps even outside of our time given the suspicion or regret we feel towards that which is not the thing itself. Here the distance from the thing itself is everything.

The book tells of Dante's love for a woman he saw first when they were both children and with whom he had only the merest acquaintance throughout the rest of her short life, but whom he regarded from the start as "a miracle manifest in reality", as a sign of God's presence on earth, causing "the most secret chambers" of his heart to tremble and for his eyes to weep uncontrollably; a joy indistinguishable from distress. The new life of the title is one in which Dante would praise Beatrice in the very book we're reading; poetry being the gift that could not be taken from him once she had died.

While the Vita Nuova sprang from the tradition of troubadour love poetry, Eliot says Dante was following "something more essential than merely a 'literary' tradition". This might be what that I would like to write about here. What is it that makes the Vita Nuova "something more" than an exercise in genre, and what can reveal to us about the literature of our time?

Dante would go on to place Beatrice as his guide in heaven in his most famous work, which Borges argues was composed solely to manufacture another meeting with the object of this "unhappy and superstitious love". If in the Paradiso she is celebrated as "one of the beautiful angels of heaven", Charles Singleton says we recognise this in the Vita Nuova "not from a poet's extravagant rhetoric in rhyme, but from a sober and solemn and reasoned prose". This might come as a surprise given Dante's reputation as a poet. Except Borges also observes that what happened to Dante's vision "is what often happens in dreams: they are stained by sad obstructions". So we might see such prose here as another sad obstruction, and this is what Teodolinda Barolini argues when she says that a central purpose of Dante's commentary is "to divest the poem of any residual temporal immunity", thereby creating a tension between the physical and metaphysical elements of the story, which might correlate to the tension between distress and joy Dante experienced in Beatrice's presence.

Much of Barolini's own work, she says, is "finding ways to understand ... the deep meaning of the lyric/narrative contaminatio" in which the lyricism and fragmentariness of one form seeps into the regular linearity of the other, and vice versa. This is something that also fascinates me, for less focused reasons, but which emerge from what Barolini goes on to say about the 'excessive narrativity' that attracted later generations of writers in the form, thereby losing the lyric side, something that we can see today in the graphomanic tendencies of modern fiction.

Perhaps that "something more essential" appears in this contamination. There are others in the Vita Nuova in addition to that between lyric and narrative: there's the oscillation that Harrison notes between "Cavalcantian nihilism and Christian evangelism", in which the afflictions of romantic infatuation and the redemptive promise offered by Beatrice create what to us is an odd mix of pathos and piety; a mix that is also present in the light she radiates that acts in the opposite way to the Eurydicean darkness of pagan myth, looking into which nevertheless has a devastating impact on Dante, if not as devastating as looking into the darkness was for Orpheus. The nearest equivalent in modern writing to such contamination might be a book that 'plays with genre' or has multiple styles. Except this would also be furthest from equivalence because, as has been said, in the Vita Nuova the forms are necessary to the story rather than there to dazzle the reader with the writer's generic learning.

We might find a modern equivalent in Beatrice's role as mentioned by John A. Scott. She reflects the Christian Neoplatonic view of the human being as the midpoint of creation – a link between heaven and earth and between "pure intellect and brute matter". Her death acts as a challenging opposition to the lover left behind, just as narrative time challenges lyric timelessness. Beatrice in her absence is like the Untergeher featured in many of Thomas Bernhard's novels: the one who goes under, leaving the writer/narrator on the shore looking out into the unknown, between life and death; "between statis and conversion" as Barolini says of the form of the Vita Nuova. This is not as contrived a leap forward in literary history as it might seem. Singleton reveals how unusual the opening of the Vita Nuova was for its time, somewhat like the 'found text' theme of modern novels, including Bernhard's:
In that part of the book of my memory before which there would be little to be read is found a chapter which says: Here begins a new life. It is my intention to copy into this little book the words I find written under that heading – if not all of them, at least their significance.
Singleton says handwritten works of this age did not announce the presence of the scribe copying the words from another book, so immediately there is an unusually self-consciousness intervention. The book becomes two books and the poet becomes two people: the writer is a protagonist in the story and the one who lived through what happened and is now looking back, giving the narrative another opposition: "the principle of a then and a now, so mercury jumps like a spark". There is no staged innocence here as in the modern Bildungsroman: the story is already over – "Beatrice will not happen again".

If the unusual mix of genres in the Vita Nuova reveals that we are not as modern as we think we are, writing of a young woman as a kind of vernacular Jesus is by contrast more or less unintelligible to us, and thereby easily dismissed as a museum exhibit. I was prompted to wonder about this question by the seductively intimidating presence of this Folio Society edition with its decoration proclaiming an obscure value but also, it seemed to me, standing in for it. The poems and commentary work against the solemnity, cultural worth and demand for dutiful respect that we associate with canonical works, replacing them with anxiety, reflexivity and self-abasement. And while its unintelligible aspects also mean it's tempting to dismiss Dante's elevation of Beatrice as sublimated sexual obsession bordering on the pathology of a stalker, with her death relieving him of the possibility of her ideality becoming tainted, this would also be our form of relief, enabling us to dismiss a disconcerting resistance to our self-ratifying assumptions. Nor would it be original: Scott reports that a contemporary to whom Dante sent the poems told him to rid himself of such visions by "giving his balls a good wash".

We might begin to recognise what it means by raising yet another contamination, noted this time by Alison Cornish: "One of the most important and original aspects of Dante's literary project is his recuperation of sensual, earthly love ... as salvific and educational". This could be adapted to describe Proust's In Search of Lost Time with its two unhappy and superstitious loves from which Marcel learns and Swann doesn't, and the salvation of unredeemed time by the famous Proustian moments, not to mention its heady mix of description and commentary. The lineage suggests that unintelligibility is a function not of religion or cultural distance but the rarity of literary works set in motion by the interaction of such contaminations. We're used to one or the other dominating a novel (inevitably labelled a tour de force), but not both working alongside, distinct yet inseparable.

In the (I have to say remarkable) final volume of My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard suggests this is the case when he repeats the standard complaint that Dante's Inferno lives for its readers because it is populated by real people but dies in Paradiso because of the "non-human or beyond-human" nature of the divine. The comment arises from a discussion of what he learned when he had to delete his father's name from the first volume to placate his irate uncle. He discovered it robbed the presence in the book of the unique individual he had felt compelled to write about. From this Knausgaard recognises that this robbery recurs in our lives with the proliferation of screens – TV, laptops, smartphones – piping images into our lives in every conceivable location: "all kinds of people and places present themselves before us with nothing in common but being somewhere other than where we are". Everything has become fiction or is seen as fiction, causing the world to vanish because it is always somewhere else from where we are.

This is why he felt the job of the novelist had changed and would have to be "about the real world the way it was, seen from the point of view of someone who was trapped inside it with his body, though not his mind, which was trapped in something else". It is notable however that Knausgaard's own literary project, so saturated in the details of sensual, earthly life, nevertheless begins, like the Vita Nuova, in the aftermath of a death, and why Dante's precise naming of Beatrice is a necessary materialisation of the abstract 'Lady Philosophy' of Boethius, thereby maintaining a nameable midpoint in creation with which to relate earth to the heavens. It is Knausgaard's (and our) misfortune that his midpoint is the endpoint. My Struggle might be so long because the search for a midpoint cannot end without the mystery of life and death resolving into a name. (Even a phrase such as 'the mystery of life and death' seems unintelligible now.)

Perhaps the midpoint is writing itself. There is in certain volumes of My Struggle an approach to something more essential that is present in the writing of Dante, Proust, and many others, which is a product of this strange compulsion to approach what is not there, "to look to death for what life cannot give", as Eliot says is a lesson of the Vita Nuova. It is a compulsion that is itself a product of writing and its contamination of the world. After writing the final sonnet of his book, Dante says "a miraculous vision" appeared to him that made him resolve to say no more about Beatrice until he was capable of writing about her "in a more worthy fashion". It is notable that he does not describe the vision, but we know what he went onto write.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

The end of literature, part one

The saints were uneducated. Why, then, do they write so well? Is it only inspiration? They have style whenever they describe God. It's easy to write from divine whispers, with one's ear glued to his mouth. Their works have a superhuman simplicity. But they cannot be called writers, since they do not describe reality. The world won't accept them because it does not see itself in their work. 
                                                     EM Cioran, Tears and Saints
A surprising conclusion: realism, the new narcissism.

It might explain why I prefer to read non-writers. But what do they write about if God no longer whispers in their ears?

Peter Handke called Thomas Bernhard a "secular Austrian saint" and also endorsed his status as a non-writer when he noted that it was only in his final novel Extinction that he saw "the rudiments of description, of enthusiastic description of locales and spaces" which for him "is the most important thing in literature". (Note here the bogus diversity that remains acceptable to British literary professionals.)

What does Bernhard write about instead then? It's hard to say without misdirection; content is the impurity in his form. He compared what he did to a pianist perfecting his skill:
what some do with notes, I do with words. Simple as that. I'm not really interested in anything else. Because getting to know the world happens anyway, by living in it, as soon as you walk out the door you're confronted with the world directly.
Self-education then; an ear glued to the music of sentences, with the world as refuge.

To where does this lead; what is such writing for? We might ask the same of the superhuman simplicity of JS Bach's non-writing, which does not describe reality either. How might we describe what Tatiana Nikolayeva's Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ stirs in us?

Cioran again: Bach: languor of cosmogony; a scale of tears upon which our desires for God ascend; architecture of our fragilities, positive dissolution—the highest of all—of our will; celestial ruin in Hope; the one mode of destroying ourselves without disaster, and of disappearing without dying. . . . 

Such writing is as distant from us now as the saints'; alien even. Could we be witnessing the endgame of realism, in which content has triumphed? The end of literary history. Whatever we do, whatever we write, genre takes possession of it.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Cemetery in Barnes by Gabriel Josipovici

This is a novel about a translator who moves from London to Paris after the death of his first wife and then to Wales with his second wife, from where the novel is narrated, sometimes through the translator's imagination and sometimes via the guests invited to dinner parties in their cottage on the hills above Abergavenny. I admit that this doesn't sound like the most exciting premise for a novel, but I have read it three times in quick succession with increasing pleasure and relief (an odd word to use in a review perhaps), so let me try to explain why.

The translator entertains friends with food, drink, music and stories and thoughts about his life and work, but he is often heckled by his wife, which leads to repartee especially enjoyed by the guests, fascinated by their relationship. Each monologue is framed by 'he would say' or 'he used to say', creating a subtle rhythm to and distance from his often uncanny and occasionally self-contradictory stories.

They begin with a description of his solitary life in Paris. Perched in his attic flat, he would follow a strict routine of work and relaxation – no doubt in order to maintain his mental equilibrium after what happened to his first wife – the latter of which included walks around the city. But it is here his equilibrium is threatened: on the banks of the Seine he would often imagine himself sinking beneath the surface, noticing the horrified onlookers on the bridge above as he sinks slowly to the riverbed.
He knew such feelings were neurotic, dangerous even, but he was not unduly worried, sensing that it was better to indulge them than to try and eliminate them altogether. After all, everyone has fantasies. In the one life there are many lives. Alternative lives. Some are lived and others imagined. That is the absurdity of biographies, he would say, of novels. They never take account of the alternative lives casting their shadows over us as we move slowly, as though in a dream, from birth to maturity to death.
The walks were also an escape from the "tediousness and unreality" of the novels he had to translate, as was the music with which he would end each day. As he bathed, he listened to Monteverdi's Orfeo, which he chose because the composer "did not pause and repeat for emphasis but let his music, like life itself, flow on". Immersing his entire body in hot water and steam closed the distance between Orfeo's lament for Eurydice in the underworld and his own loss, while also allowing his life to flow on in a non-fatal alternative to drowning. Closing such distances is a translator's day job of course, except for this one it extends beyond words.

His monologues turn between Paris and London, life and alternative lives, in a style so natural and unforced that one recognises the distinction but not the priority. Each is as real or unreal, as clear or mysterious, as the other. In London, he would meet his first wife at the local station after work and they would walk home together. But, while everything seemed real, happy and normal, a nagging sense arose in him:
He felt at times as if he did not understand her at all. She was there and yet she was not there. He held her and yet he did not hold her. As they walked, hand in hand, he sometimes felt as if he was walking with a stranger.
In a perverse move, which he reports without apology or apparent embarrassment, he would often hang back at the station and follow her as she walked home alone. Later, he does the same to a woman he meets in a café and invites on a date. The creepiness is disconcerting, but we should remember the reader is also one step behind the translator on these spying missions, watching and judging his every move from the safety of an armchair. We are there and not there also, seeking answers in the shadow of other lives.

One day, on his way to meet his wife, he popped into Putney library and by chance found the sonnets of the sixteenth-century poet Joachim du Bellay and becomes obsessed with them, as their "rawness seem to contain the secret of life". He quotes passages and provides commentary on what he loves about them and the struggle to translate. While the poems are there on the page in French, they are also not there, especially if one can't speak the language. All the translator can do here is speak of the distance, which is also something he experiences in the old cemetery in Barnes of the title, and where we find the correlate for the non-linear timeline of the narrative, as the visitor stumbles across so many other lives beneath his feet, concealed by trees and undergrowth. He remembers visiting the cemetery with his first wife:
A road went through Putney Heath just beyond the cemetery and what seemed to be municipal tennis courts had at some point been laid close to it. As one crept through the trees, parting the undergrowth to see what lay beneath, one could hear the smack of ball against racket and hear the cheerful shouts of the players. That was the world of the living.
The novel then is this oscillation between life and the shadow of other lives, never meeting yet never apart, and to read The Cemetery in Barnes is to find an unfamiliar peace in the pedular motion between one and the other, so distinct from those tedious and unreal novels that march relentlessly from set-up to resolution, and to which one can return again and again with relief.

The Cemetery in Barnes is dedicated to the memory of Bernard Hoepffner, the French translator of many English-language authors, including Joyce, Will Self, Martin Amis, Gilbert Sorrentino and Gabriel Josipovici himself, who drowned in mysterious circumstances off the Welsh coast in 2017. Many readers might assume this novel is therefore a tribute to a friend in the form of a fictionalised biography. What is uncanny here is that the novel is based on the short story Steps about the same unnamed translator, in which Paris, Wales and fantasies of drowning all feature, that was first published in 1981. You can find it in the collection Heart's Wings from 2010.

Monday, February 05, 2018

"The pure, ungraspable fire": JM Coetzee's Jesus novels

Elizabeth Lowry's skilled review tells you all you need to know about JM Coetzee's The Schooldays of Jesus, more or less. It recognises that the "mysterious Spanish-speaking country, this place of refugee souls" in which the two protagonists make their new lives "stands for our embodied earthly life", and that their new home city Novilla is also "the genre in which the characters find themselves, the novel itself". It's why the novel is not very enjoyable, she says; a flimsy metafictional construct allowing Coetzee to indulge in Platonic dialogues as unappealing as the bread and bean paste eaten by Novilla's inhabitants.
On the evidence of this austere, barely realised mise-en-scène, it is difficult not to feel that Coetzee, like Plato, is no longer much interested in the accidents of our quotidian human world, the shadows on the cave wall. He is after essence alone, the pure, ungraspable fire.
Having now read both this novel and The Childhood of Jesus, I share Lowry's judgment, though not as a criticism. While not being a major enthusiast for his work, I have often defended Coetzee from the reviewing consensus on his post-Disgrace novels (which, it should be emphasised, is essentially a British consensus). Except those novels are still clearly of this world, engaging with the meat industry, autobiography and relationship triangles, so the criticism seemed churlish. In both of these novels, however, defence is not so easy, as one proceeds as if over a desert gradually populating with generic CGI figures and buildings, familiar in many ways and yet obviously a construct; a science fiction landscape denuded of that genre's imaginative twists and flourishes. And because the story is thereby infected by an air of arbitrary invention, the drama becomes not one of action and consequence but overall meaning or purpose. Even if we enjoy the story on face value, which I did, the shadow of allusion projected by the titles remains, leaving one in the semi-dark. We are used to fiction being justified despite its indulgences because it can tell us what life is like "in the era of Trump" but, when the title of a novel about imaginary refugees in an imaginary dry land alludes to the founding figure of the civilisation of the book, it can only generate anxiety about clues to a hidden message.

So the crossword puzzler goes to town. There's Jesus in the titles, of course, and there's an ethereal woman whose surname is Magdalena; there's a character called Dmitri straight out of Dostoevsky and there's Davíd reading Don Quixote, so some vowels and consonants are already in place. However, as Jack Miles points out, there is also in Simón and Davíd's undocumented previous lives the allusion to the Myth of Er referred to in Plato's Republic in which after death "souls are reincarnated only after crossing Lethe, the River of Oblivion", so the allusions might be only the distant splashing of that river; alluding to a tradition, yes, but also the void over which that tradition stands. After all, they too are only books. Don Quixote, for instance, is known as a satire of idealism that plays on the reader's forgetfulness that the novel is the very work and presence of the ideal. In order to laugh knowingly at the knight-errant's delusions, we must delude ourselves in the same way, which is why John Barth claims it is not only the first novel but the first postmodern novel, itself evidence that the history of the novel should be regarded vertically rather than horizontally.

As Lowry pointed out, while enchantment is absent in the novels, idealism is where they're set, summarised by Joyce Carol Oates as a "quasi-socialist state in which conformity, mediocrity and anonymity are both the norm and the highest values". It is a utopia divested of the idea of another world. However, such a world is suggested when Simón reads Don Quixote to Davíd. The boy becomes upset when he does not receive clear answers to his questions about what the story leaves out, so like a wilful, childish knight-errant he makes up nonsense phrases for himself claiming they're part of the story, before tearing through the pages and not reading the words. Simón's patience is tested:
'Why are you handling the book so roughly?’
‘Because. Because if I don’t hurry a hole will open.’
‘Open up where?’
‘Between the pages.’
‘That’s nonsense. There is no such thing as a hole between the pages.’
‘There is a hole. It’s inside the page. You don’t see it because you don’t see anything.’
Such is the lure of the written word, and it prompts the question: do we turn to novels because of an urge to descend into these holes, to access the other side of the river; that is, unable as we are to accept the world as it is, to seek a land without metaphor? If so, realism is the inverted gospel of this ideal, and the post-Disgrace reviewing consensus its choir, represented in the novels by Simón's determined acceptance of the world as it is. The Jesus novels test its patience in particular not because they are too reliant on fantasy or conceptual indulgences, but because they are too realistic, if realism means including questions about its own existence and value. They present the world in a realism as pure as a dream. Everything in a dream is present for a reason, only that reason is unclear, cloaked in the darkness of sleep, and we become aware of the darkness only when we awake. The child Davíd is thereby the awoken insurgent in such a land, as Jesus was in his, and writing in ours.


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