Saturday, May 28, 2005

Confessions of an obscure and experimental reader

Since Brighton’s new library opened, I’ve been picking up novels on a whim. I hoped I’d discover a new writer or be surprised by an old one. And I have. The surprise came with Paul Auster’s Oracle Night and the discovery with Nick Tosches’ In the Hand of Dante.

But what prompts the whim? With Auster it was a review saying this was perhaps his best novel (which I'm prepared to accept). With Tosches it was the impression from the blurb that it was about more than a gangster caper following the discovery of a handwritten manuscript of the Commedia. It is. Much more. Since then I’ve tried a few more:

David Foster Wallace – Oblivion
Haruki Murakami – Kafka on the Shore
Andrew Sean Greer – The Confessions of Max Tivoli
Elliot PerlmanSeven Types of Ambiguity
John McGahern – That They May Face the Rising Sun
Enrique Vila-Matas – Bartleby & Co

Yet only the last of these was finished. I found the others unremarkable and uncompelling, putting each aside soon after setting out: in the first case, the form and content was tiresome, in the third, downright embarrassing.

And today, when I saw a pristine copy of Case Histories by Kate Atkinson, I thought: OK, give it a chance. So I settled down to read the first chapter.

What can I say? Rather than repeating what I’ve written so many times before about form and narrative voice, I’ll just say that, from what I read (admittedly very little, but I don't recall reading a favourite novel that wasn't favourite right from the start) Case Histories is a prime example of what I intend to call freeform journalism. If you think this is literature (let alone "a great book"), you’re welcome to it.

Resenting the real thing: John Carey, the intellectual without mass

My day job is not too bad. I walk along the seafront to get there. I don’t have to wear a suit (handy, as I’ve never owned one). I work with attractive and friendly people. I can often make notes toward a supreme blog entry. But there are drawbacks, and not only the pay. Yesterday, the CEO appeared with his notebook and a copy of John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses. He was very enthusiastic about Carey because he resisted the "embedded Kantian ideas" we have in Europe (I think he said that) such as the opposition of high and low art. He said Carey’s book has been hugely influential. It influenced Book Coolie for example, much to my distress. I found it difficult to compose my reaction - mainly because it is one of extreme violence. Jeanette Winterson goes some way to speaking for me in her review of his latest monument to wrong-headedness What Good are the Arts?: "There is no such thing as high and low art, there is only the real thing". Carey resents the real thing. While he argues that the opposition of high and low art is wrong, he does so only because he doesn't know what high art is in the first place. If he did, he wouldn't bother making the argument. He thinks that authors write the real thing in order to exclude "the masses" whoever they are (so why didn't Proust and Eliot and Woolf write in Latin?). Everything he writes reveals unacknowledged assumptions, even the titles. Asking "What Good are the Arts? seems as idiotic as asking: "What good is food?" And there's his recent collection Pure Pleasure subtitled A Guide to the 20th Century's Most Enjoyable Books. One wonders what isn't "pure" about literary pleasure? From looking at the contents, it's the choice of a predictable English literary sensibility. What is being rejected here? The unenjoyble modern classic? But what would that be? It seems like an excuse to make sloppy generalities that appeal to the British fear of ideas and call it "literary criticism". Carey's project is profoundly unhelpful as it will stunt the development of many stuck in otherwise unhappy, unfulfilled lives. I tend to think of myself here, from a proudly anti-intellectual town, from a working class family not one member of which had been to university. Luckily I didn't have a guide like Carey to prevent me from reading all sorts of apparently unenjoyable books without shame (e.g. Proust at 15). The books were in English. How much more accessible do you need to be? As a result, my life wasn't dominated by embedded ideas such as the opposition of utility and pleasure. I couldn't tell the difference. My life wasn't too bad, but there was so much more. Fortunately, I also found the work of a more liberating novelist and critic who has a new book of essays out next year. Unfortunately it won't receive a fraction of the attention got by each dollop of Carey's inverted snobbery.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

This story: Waggish reads Elizabeth Costello

Waggish has posted an authorative, challenging and welcome response to JM Coetzee’s extraordinary novel Elizabeth Costello. While this book has not struggled for attention, it’s certainly struggled to be understood and appreciated. We need more good readers like Waggish.

Unlike all of the reviews I have read, this one focuses on the "truly obnoxious" character of Elizabeth Costello herself (and, mercifully, without conflating author and character). The novel is based around several "lessons" written for fictional lectures in which, Waggish says, "[h]er arguments are irrational, trite, and mindlessly syllogistic".

I have to admit that, when I was reading the novel, this was not my opinion. But that’s because I didn’t really have one. The pleasure I got from reading the novel was the pleasure one gets following a compelling narrative. As with Bernhard’s Extinction or Concrete, one isn’t so much repelled by the narrators’ absurd opinions as seduced by the eloquence of the desperation on show. So, odd as it seems, Elizabeth Costello is in the monstrous company of Franz-Josef Murau - even if Coetzee’s prose (in James Wood’s phrase) is "precise, but blanched" compared to Bernhard’s pell-mell steam-roller.

As I say, I wasn’t detained by the characters’ opinions. I barely recall any of Costello’s or Murau’s. But I remember one particular issue that disturbed Costello; one that goes unmentioned by Waggish (and many of the reviews): her reaction to The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg, a really-existing novel by Paul West. In Adam Mars-Jones’ words, she uses this in a lecture as "a key example of a book which increased rather than diminished the world's supply of wickedness, by entering too vividly into the depravity of Hitler's executioners".

This is probably why it is so memorable to me. There is an unsettling realisation that the story, all stories, while tempting us with consolation and hope, in fact add to the world’s misery. Waggish worries for Coetzee that Costello’s "specious arguments" will be mistakenly attributed to him. But he wrote the story, which is everything. He can’t escape that, hence perhaps this story.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Catching the truth: an oblique and Spurious angle on the LBC "controversy"

Lars of Spurious is back from California and, as he recovers from jetlag in England's autumnal prelude to Summer, has been writing some soaring blog entries. The latest quotes Gabriel Josipovici's very short preface to Aharon Appelfeld’s 1984 novel The Retreat, in which he compares a passage from the novel in question with a passage from Graham Greene. The first describes the relationship of two inhabitants of the retreat, the second is a description of a similar retreat in an unspecified novel.

Appelfeld: For two months the quarrel between them had raged. Now all that was left was an echo, not lacking in sharpness, however. The storm refused to subside.

Greene: The place reminded her of a seedy hotel, yellowing mirrors in the bathroom, broken toilet bowls and dripping taps, where the chambermaids spoke in impertinent voices and the doormen reached out to them with their big strong hands.

Superficially, there isn't a great deal of difference between the two. But Josipovici is the kind of critic who can hear the difference and thereby help us hear it too.

The peculiar quality of [Appelfeld's] writing stems, I think, from the fact that what at first looks purely neutral description turns out to be description which is, in fact, striving to be neutral. We hear a voice telling a story; it is not the voice of an impersonal narrator but neither is the voice of [the characters]. Rather, it is one possible voice, with which they recount their story to themselves as much as to others, a voice which both accepts and refuses to accept what life has done to its owner, and which discovers what it wants to say.

He goes on: Appelfeld can say so much so briefly and simply because he recognises that life does not stand still, waiting to be described. We have to catch it as it flies past.

By contrast, the other passage has innumerable superficially similar [descriptions] that litter the novels of a writer like Greene.

Josipovici then makes the decisive observation: A novelist like Greene is always out to make an effect; his eye is on the reader. Appelfeld, by contrast, is trying to catch the truth: his eye is on the object.

Lars has some good things to say in response to this deceptively simple point. However, I need to point out the difference between "literary" fiction and the "mainstream" that emerges from such analysis. The former strives for the truth and a form with which to catch it. The latter has both truth and form already and wonders what all the fuss is about ("obscure and experimental novels" beware). In the mainstream, rather than a striving for truth, there is an assertion of subjective truth, as seen in Greene's novel.

Perhaps this has something to do with the individualistic assumptions inherent to American nationalism that so dominates discourse, as it was earlier to those in the British Empire. It's of unfortunate necessity that the litblog co-op - which aims to promote one particular novel every quarter that it feels is being neglected - is limited to US litblogs. If this assertive tendency is predominant it will likely skew the aesthetic and ethical nature of their choice. And, with its first choice, so it has. It might be relevant that it elides on the website the fact that it is solely US American.

And the fact is, there is no literary mainstream, no matter what the more innocent of its herd say.

Heym via Hasler via Hofmann: an obscure and experimental German poet

The poet reviewer reviews poetically. The additional news, also good, is that he has edited The Faber Book of 20th Century German Poems due for publication in September at a bargain price and with a fine cover, reminding me of my favourite novel, also Germanic if not also German.

Friday, May 20, 2005

An obscure and experimental song & video

The song I gave you from the debut LP by Superwolf did not impress very much upon me. It was the final song of a relatively disappointing LP in Bonnie Prince Billy's anti-career. Then I saw this video made by Mike Piscitelli (click on 'film/video' and then 'Bonnie Prince Billy' - the designer of this site needs a slap). This is the Necessary.

Monday, May 16, 2005

A letter to the TLS about an obscure and experimental novel

From this week's TLS letters page.

Sir, – Apropos Justin Beplate’s essay on James Joyce (April 29): looking for a book to keep me busy over a weekend in my first year at the University of Cape Town in 1958, I found a fat green book among the novels of the Jagger Library, by someone I hadn’t then heard of. I read it through, not quite in one sitting, but in twenty-four hours. On Monday, I sought out Professor Guy Howarth to tell him I had found this marvellous novel, Ulysses, by an Irish writer called Joyce. Did he know it? Howarth was as always very kind: yes, he had heard of it – and he was glad I had enjoyed it. Thank goodness no one had told me it was difficult; and ever since then I have tried to persuade pupils to read Ulysses just like that, as fast as they can, sliding over anything they can’t at first understand, without worrying about any critical expositions; my hope is that some of them will have reacted as I did all those years ago: with delighted hilarity.

Apple Yard Cottage, Mill Lane, Northiam, East Sussex.

Revolution? What revolution?

One wonders what the media outcry would be like if Uzbekistan was an official enemy. The blogosphere seems untroubled by it too. Perhaps it's a state too obscure and experimental to matter?

RSB is France, I'm Germany: on the LitBlog Co-Op

The Lit Blog Co-Op (LBC) unites "the leading literary weblogs for the purpose of drawing attention to the best of contemporary fiction, authors and presses that are struggling to be noticed in a flooded marketplace."

So now the literary blogosphere is like the World Series and the United Nations.

Yesterday, many of us were perplexed by the LBC’s landmark first Read This! nomination because it signally failed to meet the one criterion that is empirically demonstrable. In addition to its own, The Complete Review lists fifteen reviews of the nominated novel in major publications. It is ironic that this abandoned criterion is why those of us excluded from membership of the LBC by geography were keen to give the LBC a warm welcome.

In defence of the choice, the LBC’s impresario TEV dismisses criticism by qualifying the criterion with another unprovable one. Apparently enviable amounts of press attention does not equal a readership. One can only wonder why.

In an off-hand expression revealing a distressing intolerance, TEV adds that if the project had "picked some obscure, experimental novel" it would have been "pilloried for being pedantic and elitist". We will never know what this obscure, experimental novel is, nor who would do the pillorying or why it would matter. Perhaps it only exists in manuscript, struggling to be noticed by those too busy pillorying?

But all novels are obscure and experimental. All novels are sui generis. Or should be. The rest is just the bland fodder of the Reading Group and the marketplace.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Aftermath: Grumpy Old Bookman and The LitBlog Co-Op on Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

It is evident that Grumpy Old Bookman (aka GOB) loves reading. He gets great enjoyment out of prose narrative. He also knows where it is guaranteed. "The genre writer" he says "is required, by both publisher and readers, to make the book interesting, exciting, accessible, and rewarding." One can rest easy then. This is why he reads genre fiction and not "literary writers". These people "apparently feel themselves under no such obligation, which is why I, for one, don't bother with them much."

Evidence for this last point is his response to Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories. He finds it hard going. In the end he does see virtues: "if the material had been organised differently [it] could have been an impressive novel indeed. But it would have been an impressive crime novel. And that, I suspect, is something that Kate Atkinson and her publisher would rather die than admit."

The puffs he quotes for the novel suggest he is right. The publisher (if not the author) seems to want to attract the ready audience of crime fiction with its statutory interest, excitement and accessibility. Yet it also wants the obscure rewards of Literary Merit. GOB is rightly contemptuous. The author, he says, should "just put aside all fancy-pants notions, stopped believing what the critics say about her, and concentrated on doing a good professional job for the reader."

One could unpack GOB’s assumptions until the cows come home. I would like to. But it would be futile. His definition of what is "interesting, exciting, accessible, and rewarding" is definitively circular. I could not make him recognise a literary novel. Yet his blindness usefully reveals the problems of the taxonomy of novels. What is it about literary fiction that is specifically literary?

ReadySteadyBook tells us that Case Histories is "as interested in the after effects of violence as in the acts themselves". This not usually the province of narrative. A review published today says of a new memoir that "[it] is rare to read about the aftermath". In another, older review, I write about my fascination with the subject and how it has manifested in literary form in one particular novel.

Of course, those concerned with "doing a good professional job" will not be troubled by what proceeds from the events they describe let alone what proceeds from writing itself. This is the reward of genre fiction. The moment you are distressed by what you're reading or writing, the moment you realise that instead of telling a story it conceals it, that instead of revealing truth it buries it in lies, that instead of expressing an emotion it kills it, is the first moment of the aftermath. Literature proceeds from here. It takes as many forms as there are great writers. For example, it is the revelation of Kafka’s The Judgement. One can understand why this is resisted: it seems to destroy literature. Resistance is part of The Judgement, but it cannot ignore what is beyond.

Case Histories is also featured by the Lit Blog Co-Op. The encomium from Old Hag displays the repression of distress at the predicament of the aftermath: "Each paragraph, each page, each chapter unfolds with perfect precision, the prose and pacing fully shaped. There's nothing flowery about the words, but no stripped-down drama either." So is this what constitutes the literary element - mere shapeliness? If it is, don’t worry: "The reader can also luxuriate happily in the plot." Apparently "there’s a distinct pleasure in watching someone handle what is essentially a stock murder mystery with expert literary precision". But where’s the difference? This is criticism that raises vagueness to a level of perfection. No wonder GOB thinks it is "fancy-pants".

PS: The Lit Blog Co-Op’s aim is to promote contemporary fiction "struggling to be noticed in a flooded marketplace". A necessary good! I look forward to it beginning.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The first immensity: "How Art Made the World"

Last night the BBC began to broadcast a new documentary series How Art Made the World. There's a long questionnaire on the site called Art and Personality. It allows you to take part "in an experiment designed by UK psychologists" by giving your response to visual art.

The documentary itself was irritating, formulaic and horribly padded ("To answer this question we must go to [insert exotic location]"). It almost ruined the fascinating story it had to tell. And, as is usual with the BBC, there was not one living artist or philosopher in sight; only archeologists and a psychologist called VS Ramachandran.

I wondered what this series might be like if those who made it had any real feeling for art. I thought of Maurice Blanchot's eleven-page essay The Birth of Art and dug out my notes from the last time I read it (in preparation for last October's entry Struck by Death). He's writing about the cave paintings of Lascaux.

- Commanding presence; a space almost intentionally devoted to the brilliance and marvel of painted things.
- The place from which art shines forth.
- The first ray, first and yet complete.
- Art is revealed to change infinitely, ceaselessly renew itself but cannot improve. Its perpetual birth.
- This thought is an illusion, but it is also true. It propels our admiring search.
- Coming from a world with which we have nothing in common, the barest outline of which we cannot suspect … yet an intimate space of knowledge.
- The power of art is close to us everywhere … but escapes us.
- Why this need for origin, why this veil of illusion with which all that is originary seems to envelop itself?
- A mocking, essential dissimulation; perhaps the empty truth of first things.
- Why does art let us believe in the enigma but also put an end to it?
- Magical rites expressing a mysterious relation between hunters and animal kingdom.
- Natural, joyful, prodigiously clear in the darkness of the caves.
- Carefree, without ulterior motive.
- Nothing archaic about the cave paintings, nothing like the contorted, overburdened art of today’s “primitives”.
- Mysterious but not an art of mystery or of distance.
- The only happiness of artistic activity: the celebration of the happy discovery of art.
- Prohibitions broken “exalting him far beyond his original existence”.
- The infinite time when the pre-man, before being a man, becomes a worker.
- We are ignorant of the “feeling” experienced by that worker occupying, for the first time, a place apart.
- Everything seems to indicate that man retained a memory of distress and horror of his first steps into humanity.
- Everything forces us to think … latent man always felt himself infinitely weak in everything that made him powerful. Either because he sensed the essential lack which alone enable him to become something completely other, or because he experienced as a mistake everything that led him to fail nature.
- The separation revealed destruction and death.
- He used the void to deepen his weakness to become stronger.
- Prohibitions around sex, death and murder. Barriers preventing the being who goes beyond them from coming back, forcing him to continue along the dangerous, doubtful path, a dead end, and thus to protect us from all forms of activity that are tedious and against nature and have their final form in work and through work.
- What is Neanderthal man lacking? The ability to break the rules.
- Two leaps, two moments of transgression.
1) Fortuitously does violence to the natural givens, but which did not suffice.
2) The transgression is an instant; the time of difference when prohibitions are violated; the gap between man and his origin is put into question once again, recovered, explored, experienced; a prodigious contact with all of anterior reality, and this is a return to the first immensity.
- Becomes tumultously conscious of this impossible return.
- No dream of total existence but affirms himself as added to existence and becomes master of everything, appropriate it symbolically.
- The consciousness of this distance as it is affirmed, abolished, and glorified.
- Art brings a feeling of communication at a distance and yet immediate; an affirmation no particular meaning can attain or exhaust.
- The disconcerting thought that man does not become a man through all that is human in him.
- The paintings are set apart by the impression they give of appearing only momentarily; not nocturnal but rendered visible by night opening up.
- Presence made up of certainty and instability. More certain that any other visible thing.
- Always a lacuna where origins lie.
- The origin always veiled by what it produces.
- The mutation that could not occur without having already occurred.
- Art comes after man but art is man’s contact with the power of beginning.
- The little human figure who feels seriously threatened by this work and perhaps already struck by death.


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

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