Saturday, April 30, 2005

Soar point: on a review of a Serbian novel

I was pleasantly surprised to find the latest online edition of the LRB includes a review of a translated Serbian novel. Usually, if this journal reviews a novel (there are a mere two in the print edition!) it discusses a novel that has already got plenty of attention elsewhere (Gilead was the most recent). I had not heard of Svetislav Basara before, but he’s not that famous in Serbia either so the reviewer Daniel Soar says. I assumed that the author must be a favourite of the reviewer, as how would such a book get a longish review in a prestigious publication without special pleading? But no. It seems Soars is using the novel to poke some gentle fun at the small European novel that isn’t like the "supercharged literature" of Anglo-America. He makes it clear that the novel is tiresomely self-satisfied. However, the apparent ease with which Soars dismisses the novel means he also succumbs to the same thing. The review features the traditional reference to an unnamed suave elite chattering among themselves (hence the title of the review) and ends with a glib comment that helps no-one (except the reviewer to meet his deadline). I would welcome review space being given over to more in-depth discussions about what is otherwise concealed in snide comments. (I have to say though, I do appreciate his comments about John Berger!). As Daniel Soar is an editor at the LRB, perhaps he can have an influence.

As an alternative, I’d recommend Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co, a charming collection of notes about writers who stop writing. It has the same lightness as David Markson’s This is Not a Novel and reiterates Blanchot’s fragment: Not to write: what a long way there is to go before arriving at that point!

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Paratexts and the inexpressible nothing

What meaning have yesterday’s conclusions today? They have have the same meaning as yesterday, are true, except that the blood is oozing away in the chinks between the great stones of the law. Franz Kafka, Diaries 19 January 1922.

Even before I knew it was a specialism in literary studies, paratexts fascinated me. Paratexts are the material of a book other than the actual text: blurbs, titles, subtitles, dedications, epigrams, that sort of thing, even the author’s photo or lack of it. When I began a PhD thesis on literary distance (Blanchot calls it "the silence unique to literature"), I used a digression on epigrams to delay the main work. I asked: how should one regard these thresholds of texts? Who is speaking in them and why? Is an epigram being used to clothe an otherwise naked text? Were they meant only to direct our reading, or are there deeper issues involved? The questions piled up. (At the time I didn’t know they were called paratexts. In fact, I didn’t know they were called paratexts until about two weeks ago when I read about Gérard Genette’s book Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. I emphasise that I read about it; the book is over £30 to buy and impossible to borrow. Is the price a paratext?).

I abandoned the PhD for the same reason as I began it: distance. There was too much of not enough to say. But mainly, I didn’t want to write within the contraints demanded by scholarship. I felt that it repressed the real, existing nausea within the subject under discussion. Repression seemed to be the reason for the constraints. The spaces within that discussion remained undiscussed. They remained distant. Paratexts seem to offer a way in to these spaces, but take one look at an example of the specialist literature and nausea will likely become liquid filling your mouth too.

I felt a similar nausea watching non-Nazi Pope Benedict XVI’s inauguration. As he intoned the Latin phrases, I got the impression of witnessing (no pun intended) a mass Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: rituals with no metaphysical bearing (anymore), yet because they are so deeply embedded, they afford the illusion of order and of hope. Paratexts do the same thing. Narrative does the same thing. No doubt this is a good thing: we read (or at least I read) to rediscover each time the gift of order and of hope. But the idea of this good thing is often ritualised itself and anything that might contradict or disrupt this idea has to be out-flanked by paratexts. It can take the form of introductions, blurbs, quotations from reviews, even the design of the cover. In this way the work itself becomes a paratext of its paratexts.

Example: I began to read a translation of Guiseppe Ungaretti’s poetry in the clean, seductive and beautiful edition published by Carcanet. It has a generous introduction by Andrew Frisardi, the translator. Yet after 19 pages of background information, commentary and a definition of Hermeticism, the first poem is only eleven words long (twelve if you count the title)!

Between one flower plucked and the other given
the inexpressible nothing

The collection from which this is taken is called L’allegria or Joy. I smiled, at least, for this morning’s post brought Edith Grossmann’s much-praised translation of Don Quixote. It has 940 pages and – oh God! - an introduction by Harold Bloom. Yes, I want to read it, but I often think one cannot get much more out of literature than those eleven words on their own; twelve if you count the title.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

The gift of narrative: why genre fiction is the new literary fiction

There are always two books by my bedside. Never one or three. Always two. However, I only ever read one before switching off the light. This is always a novel that I can sink into, similar to the way one sinks into sleep, but not the same way. The two mentioned in the entry below were consecutive bedside books (although they never constituted both bedside books). The entry about them was begun with the intention of wondering aloud about that sinking into and how it is not like sinking into sleep. I’m not sure that I did write about it. Maybe I was distracted from writing about it because it really is closer to sinking into sleep than I am aware, because in writing about it I did actually sink into something enough to forget it, even if, at the end, I did remark on how both novels present that sinking into as part of the narrative or background to the narrative. But I wanted to do more than remark. Why is that presentation important to me?

The other book on the bedside, the one that lay under the two novels mentioned below, is volume five of In Search of Lost Time. When I run out of a narrative to sink into, I resort to Proust. Currently, I am resorting to Proust. Volume five is the only multi-book volume in the new Penguin collaborative translation. It contains The Prisoner and The Fugitive; books five and six of the novel’s seven volumes. I’ve scaled 500 pages so far. It’s a joy.

Virginia Woolf said that in the months the novel takes to read, one feels more alive. This is because Proust writes so lightly and fluently about what seems so heavy and entangled; it brings light to one’s own heavy and entangled life. Not that the light is always soft; it is often glaring. Volume five is particularly harsh for those trying to still the anguish of an unhappy love. Marcel, the narrator, seeks normality too: I tried to think of nothing, to pick up the newspaper. But I found it insufferable to read all those articles written by people who felt no real pain.

Reading that, I thought: so would reading something written by a person in real pain (and writing with it in mind) be sufferable? Is this why reading Proust does not seem like other novels in general, because he writes with the constant threat of real feeling overwhelming the palliative of a contained narrative? (I won't detail how this occurs in the novel as I don't want to spoil it for anyone).

Mark Thwaite, tireless editor of ReadySteadyBook (which is fast becoming Britain’s premier literary website) has just started the long climb and rather confirmed this when he told me that he finds In Search of Lost Time "eminently readable, very gentle [and] wholly anti-novelistic". Perhaps that is what defines literary novels; that they are not literary.

When I read novels in general (genre-al), what troubles me is not what I believed it to be in the recent past - a lack of concern with form and language – but an over-concern. It’s a concern that manifests in a denial of what it cannot accommodate - the real feeling beyond the local palliative of the narrative order. Once established as a popular retreat, the form of the novel has become a world in itself to be mastered and exploited with all the talent and ingenuity that we've come to admire and which seduces the industry of reception (though the latter seems to come before the former). Here, we think, is the gift of literature. But it is a gift the greatest writers do not receive.

When keyboards stop clicking

There is a God.

And His name is Tresor Lomana Lua Lua.

I was in the middle of another interminable reflection on the ineffable mystery of literature when I decided to POP out to see the match in a pub. I'm back now. Literature? Who cares! Does it do flip flops?

Friday, April 22, 2005

Reading lives: on The Master and In the Hand of Dante after having returned both to the library

The final pages of Colm Tóibín’s The Master passed with the same gentle, uncertain pleasure as all the others. The hours taken to read its 359 pages - spread evenly over two and a half weeks - were like those one might spend drifting in a boat along a calm, meandering river under a hazy summer sun. While I didn’t want it to end, when it did I wondered: what was the point of that? Of course it doesn’t need a point at all, but for point read conclusion. Tóibín follows Henry James’ almost uneventful life over only six years – six years well after he’s established as a famous writer yet well before the distinguished thing at the end. The narrative floats in mid-career with James writing and writing; writing so much he gets RSI. This seems very odd. In the current publishing climate, where biography is king, one would expect a full-blown fictional life! But it’s odd like this for a reason.

The novel begins with the most famous known event in James’ life: the disasterous first night in 1895 of his play Guy Domville. In its aftermath, the narrative returns to his youth in the US. The extent of the drama here is that one brother goes to war and goes to Harvard while Henry has a bad back. We watch him prevaricate in choosing a career before he follows William to college, to study Law. But it’s not really him. A little more turmoil occurs when Tóibín has Oliver Wendell Holmes and Henry share a room and sleep together, naked yet chastely. Tóibín’s sensitivity to James’ imagined feelings at this imagined time is the first inkling of unease with authorial intent. Tóibín has written elsewhere of his fascination with famous writers’ apparently repressed homosexuality. This unease occurs with two other friendships or infatuations with men, neither of which develop very far except in Tóibín’s suggestive narration. However, there are similarly awkward relationships with women even if Tóibín does not describe them in similarly intimate detail. What each friendship reveals is James’ distance from regular engagement. He seems barely to live. He backs away from life but keeps watch and then goes away and writes and writes. Tóibín manages to make this gripping because the question that hangs always in the background is not when will he start to live? but: from where does all this writing come?

When I had finished The Master, I returned it to the library and withdrew a book with a wrap-around label on its spine with the word "CRIME" on it. Before, I had read only one novel that was classed under "Crime". This was Dick Francis’ Twice Shy in around 1985 or maybe earlier. (I associate the time of reading with Soft Machine’s final LP Land of Cockayne, a memory I offer for no reason.) My second crime novel then was Nick Tosches' In the Hand of Dante. On reflection, it is not a crime novel in the Dick Francis sense, but for sure it has what I assume to be its usual element: er, crime. It also has this genuinely terrifying character Louie, a New York City mobster, and ‘Nick Tosches’ the narrator, a man with the definitive rage to live. The chapters involving these two are absolutely thrilling, funny and horrible. (There is a chapter early on in which Tosches the narrator (as opposed to Tosches the author) rails against modern publishers in a manner reminiscent of Thomas Bernhard at his disarming best – it is simply glorious). The crime is that they steal a newly-discovered manuscript of Dante's Commedia written in the poet’s hand.

However, the novel has more or less alternative chapters, one following the crime, the other imagining Dante’s life. The latter are written with not only Tosches’ curiously fussy grammar but also a decidedly ‘poetic’ literary style. Superficially, it is comparable to Tóibín’s restrained Jamesian pastiche yet, in contrast, they are almost impossible to read. I longed to return to the crime narrative to find out what happens next. Sometimes I just skipped a page or two. At last, I thought, I understand what people mean when they say they don’t want to read anything too heavy. I can’t honestly say I knew what is going on in the Dante chapters. Only from reading the explicatory reviews did I find out. One thing I’m sure of though: this is a profound and moving work that one doesn't have to 'understand' in order to enjoy and appreciate.

Curious, then, that the rather inconclusive, quiet, novel about a novelist who barely lived leaves me feeling the same. I think this is in good part because both novels, in their own way, present the paradox that reading - the activity that seems to postpone life; that doesn't seem like an activity at all; the thing that places a fermata over the repose of consciousness - is actually where we are most fully alive. (And it's not that great).

Sunday, April 17, 2005

First-time thinker? Robert McCrum on the rush to publication

This blog, this space where light distractions to more substantial work come to put on weight, is probably my main work. I regret this. By the time I produce what I hope will be my main work, even Mary Wesley might wonder why it took me so long.

In the literary editor’s print blog for The Observer, Robert McCrum is critical of what he perceives as a rush to publication.

First novels used to be a cause for celebration. Now, more likely, it is the third, or even the fifth novel that signals the arrival of a new writer of consequence, someone whose creative stamina will stay the course. With this proliferation, critics are asking: what's it all about ? Again, the short answer is: not much. The author may be clever, well-educated and ambitious but too often they seem to have missed a first-class opportunity to practise in private. At the very least, they could do everyone a favour and get a real job.

This eases my impatience and regret. I have a real job instead.

McCrum puts this proliferation down to one thing: For the first time ever, information technology now helps rather than hinders the free flow of self-expression. Where printing a book used to be a complex and costly business, now almost anyone can find someone willing to be their publisher."

I think this latter point might be news even to established authors, and the concealed former point too: does a serious literary editor really believe writing novels is about "self-expression" even in part?

McCrum began the piece with a nostalgic reference to Stephen Greenblatt’s biography of Shakespeare, for whom, it was revealed, "there were more important things to do than write plays” (I wrote about McCrum’s coverage of this earlier this year).

That's hardly a sentiment you hear much today he says. For the 21st century, self-expression is all. Nothing, it seems, is more important than writing poems, plays and fiction. Especially fiction. Life itself pales into insignificance alongside this higher calling.

Does anyone else experience the exact opposite? I see and hear this sentiment all the time. People I know – including myself, although I don’t know myself that well - find it difficult to write much because they are too busy working or enjoying what little spare time they have; they want to write, they feel the need quite badly, but there just isn’t time, and anyway life is more important. Writing does get fitted in somehow, in some cases, but it’s certainly not regarded as a "higher calling". Whatever this phrase means, it is regarded suspiciously and lightly ridiculed, hence McCrum’s use of the phrase. So who does McCrum thinks believes the opposite? He doesn’t say. Did he make use of that phrase because it enabled him to purchase the suspicion and ridicule cheaply, without having to make socially uncomfortable references to real people? It seems McCrum is referring to people who have recently published first novels:

Painful though it is to say this, many of those who embark on the novel today seem no more able to write fiction than the weekend shopper who buys a flatpack unit at Ikea can assemble a bookcase. Self-conscious, self-centred, syntactically weak and poorly plotted, these tales are in danger, as Shakespeare put it, in another context, of signifying nothing.

Who are these many, what are their names, what is self-conscious and self-centred about their books, why are syntax and plot so important, and what should be signified that isn’t being signified? So many questions! McCrum doesn’t answer any. An inspired literary editor might have put together a review of five first-time novels and employed a good critic to write prose like acid and dissolve the pretensions of the five upstarts. But evidently McCrum isn’t that kind of editor; perhaps he prefers to remain welcome at London’s literary parties (his higher calling?). Or perhaps the novels might actually turn out to be good and spoil the assumption.

Living authors, it seems, tend to spoil the atmosphere: Once upon a time, the writing of books was part of a crowded and vigorous life producing sturdy, oak-like prose. Now, it it often performed by writers for whom it is an end in itself, and for whom the novel has become a strange kind of obsession.

Speaking to obsessive writers must get in the way of quaffing the free wine. But when was this time when sturdy oaks thrust manfully into the clear blue sky? Ten years ago? Twenty, thirty, three-hundred? He doesn’t say. Perhaps it’s a fairy tale.

Still he’s right about writers and obsession. What a revelation! "Obsessive writer" is a pleonasm if ever there was one. Yet perhaps for "strange kind of obsession" read "labour of love". Many of us don’t come from privileged backgrounds that enable us to get cushy writing jobs in London. Instead, we have to earn a living in order to write (and read) in our spare time. Writing is not a higher calling but a means of retaining some hold on what’s important when otherwise one is trapped in an office for 40 hours a week, trooping home mentally exhausted to sit blurry-eyed through a short evening before it all starts again.

So what is important to me? I don’t know. I write to find out. Maybe writing obscures what’s important, maybe it illuminates the wrong things, but otherwise life seems insubstantial, evanescent.

In the end, I wonder if McCrum is worried that, with the advent of such information technology, the snobbish and philistine English literary scene controlled by those, for example, who write interminable and "wholly unnecessary" biographies of lightweight and irrelevant writers, is under threat. Is there any other reason for writing vague, unilluminating and specious attacks on unnamed young writers?

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Dangling novels: why Saul Bellow's opinions are beside the point

Ellis Sharp begins a note on the late Saul Bellow by admitting that he prefers Norman Mailer. Despite their differences, they had things in common, he says. This pricked my interest as I’ve not read Mailer beyond the first embarrassing pages of Ancient Evenings, and wondered what they were. But it seems they similarities of political development.

Sharp despises Bellow’s political opinions in later life. So do I. But these have little to do with the novels. Do we talk about Dostoevsky’s novels only in relation to the fact that he was a virulent anti-Semite and anti-Catholic and also hated Muslims and Turks? No, of course not. These are more or less forgotten. It’s still shocking of course, as are Bellow’s opinions as revealed in To Jerusalem and Back, but they are in marked contrast to the experience of reading the novels; his and Dostoevsky's.

What makes Dostoevsky a great novelist, and what make Bellow a great novelist too, is that he placed various antagonistic attitudes and opinions in relation to each other, that is in dialogue with each other. Bakhtin brought this out rather a long while ago.

The critics can go on about the energy of Bellow’s prose, its biblical cadences, and the great, piercing comedy of it all, but what makes Bellow great does not require such things, just as energy, beauty and comedy doesn’t guarantee it (fans of Martin Amis please note).

It is a mark of the limitations of current popular literary criticism that the obituaries speak only of such confections, wrongheaded ancestry and extra-literary politics.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Extreme narrative order: James Wood on Ian McEwan

James Wood’s review of Ian McEwan’s Saturday is very odd. Is there something missing?

There are 5,346 words yet, although we all know what the subject of the novel is, it mentions the word "Iraq" only twice. However, the word "September" (as in the 11th) appears thirteen times.

Wood reminds us that the novel is set on the say on which hundreds of thousands of demonstrators will gather in London to protest the British government's apparent determination to go to war against Iraq, a decision that might itself be the rotten fruit of the events of September 11.

Apparent determination? Makes it sound like admirable resolve rather than contempt for overwhelming public opinion. And "rotten fruit"? The British government insisted it was due to WMD - nothing to do with September 11th at all. I detect the deadly hand of TNR’s literary editor.

I suppose all that Wood is trying to do is to make this a discussion of how novelists deal with public events, particularly those like September 11. While he says this particular event was over-represented

its actual dynamics remain under-represented. We still know extraordinarily little about the human motivation of the suicide bombers, despite the millions of journalistic words that have been spent on them.

Saturday is perhaps worthy in that it elucidates the human motivation of Western liberals who allowed the invasion to go ahead. In that way we get to see the process by which they avoid, or at best dilute, their culpability in the deaths of 100,000+ people (by calling the invasion and occupation a ‘war’ for example). We're all little Eichmanns now.

Wood says we are in an era uniquely marked by the obsessive over-representation of public events. The massacres in Fallujah were not a public event then. There are still some things that cannot be talked about in polite society. Wood identifies why, but only by accident: "Reading McEwan" he says "there are times when one feels that the extreme narrative order have been purchased at too high a cost to credibility, and sometimes even to animation and free life". Yes. There is something missing, or at least disproportionate. It’s not unlike reading a TNR review written by James Wood!

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

For want of a subject

Thanks (of a kind!) to Dan Green.
You're stuck inside Fahrenheit 451, which book do you want to be?
Maurice Blanchot – The Writing of the Disaster
Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?
Well, she was real at the time.
What are you currently reading?
Kafka – Parables and Paradoxes
The last book you bought is:
Robbe-Grillet – In the Labyrinth
The last book you read:
Colm Toibin – The Master
Five books you would take to a deserted island:
Thomas Bernhard – Extinction
Dante – Divine Comedy (trans Hollander)
Maurice Blanchot – Collected Essays (it doesn’t exist)
Proust – In Search of Lost Time
Jacques Roubaud – The Great Fire of London

Who are you going to pass this stick to (3 persons) and why?
Nobody. All three of them.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Bellow's tone of voice

I'm too preoccupied with other things to write anything about Bellow. (It also seems the BBC was otherwise engaged too when it put together an obituary, as the picture it uses of an elderly Bellow is in fact an actor playing the part of Artur Sammler in Martin Amis' rather awful documentary about the writer). Instead, here are the opening two paragraphs of Gabriel Josipovici's introduction to the Viking Portable Bellow.

When we think of Saul Bellow’s work, we think of a certain tone of voice, a tone of voice that combines the utmost formality with the utmost desperation. We think of Mr Willis Mosby, diplomat and memoir writer, struggling for breath in the Mexican tomb and saying simply, "I must get out. Ladies, I find it very hard to breathe." Or of Herzog, one-time academic and historian of ideas, sitting alone with his thoughts in his crumbling country house and saying into the silence, "If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me." But "think" is the wrong word here. Such phrases are not called up consciously into the mind; they surge into our throats, begging to be spoken, to be released by us into the outside world. And to give way to this impulse (submit to this discipline) is to experience a peculiar pleasure.

Bellow has been described as a great realist; a follower of Dreiser and the urban naturalist tradition; a great fantasist, especially in Henderson the Rain King; and as the last of the Yiddish storytellers. But these are ways of shrugging off the demands of that voice, of avoiding its implications by placing it safely in a literary or historical context. Bellow is too important a writer to have this done to him. His style, that tone of voice, emerges as an answer to his most pressing preoccupations, and what we need to do is to see how the two intertwine and reinforce each other, and how they are discovered and made manifest.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Bellow: It never comes out the same way twice

This rather sweet Q&A session between Saul Bellow and some graduate students includes something I think of when people discuss "experimental" fiction versus "traditional".

Question: In our creative writing course, we've been studying two kinds of fiction: realist fiction vs. writerly or postmodern. Which do you think a writer should choose?

Bellow: I think the first thing to do is to locate your soul and find out what it has to suggest. This other thing is irrelevant. The farther you get away from the promptings of your soul, the more trouble you're in. Don't adopt any device which doesn't suit your deepest, own needs.

And there's more; with Saul Bellow, there's always more and always will be.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Woolf, dogged by biographers?

Frances Spalding reviews Julia Briggs biography Virginia Woolf: an inner life. One immediately asks: do we really need another biography of this particular writer? Spalding reckons Briggs' is worthy of a welcome because she tries an unusual method:

Abandoning the conventional from-cradle-to-grave procedure, [Briggs] mentions such rites of passage as birth, education and marriage only in passing. Chronology, too, goes more or less by the board, with the result that Briggs sometimes has to bring us up to date in a rather breathless summary. The focus, as the subtitle reminds us, is on the inner life. Woolf would have approved. She once remarked on how little we know of ourselves, let alone of others: "In spite of all this, people write what they call 'lives' of other people; that is, they collect a number of events and leave the person to whom it happened unknown."

Woolf's point corresponds to my own experience of biographies. For sure, unlike some New Critical ideologues, I don’t have a problem with biography in general, only with the sense of disappointment one almost invariably gets upon finishing them.

Curiously, it’s often by indirection that one gets what one wants from a biography. Somewhere, I read of Kafka running down a flight of stairs because he was late for an appointment. The observer described how his knees jerked upwards and away from his body as he descended. This is an image I retained while all the facts of his life went in one eye and out of the other. And the best overall portrait of the same writer, as I’ve said on many occasions, came in Kafka’s Last Love where the focus is on his last love, Dora Diamant.

Not that such descriptions make Kafka known as such, only that indirection is underrated as a means to such knowledge. Perhaps the moment on the stairs comes from Kafka's public life, so, in addition to Virginia Woolf: an inner life, Julia Briggs needs to writeVirginia Woolf: an outer life and then, if she has time, Virginia Woolf: a shake-it-all-about life.


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