Sunday, October 16, 2005

Deadwood: Pilger and DJ Taylor on Pinter's Nobel Prize

Each new article by John Pilger about world politics is more or less the same. That is, each is always more or less true; exhilaratingly, painfully true. He describes what is happening right before my eyes. If it wasn’t for Pilger, I would wonder if my eyes were deceiving me. When I read a new article, I want everyone to read it and to say: yes, this is the truth! We can't let ourselves be deceived again; can’t let them, the professionals, deceive us anymore. But nothing happens.

Pilger writes more articles, they get published (I'm always surprised that he's published) and he makes the occasional, devastating late-night TV documentary (I'm always surprised he's allowed to do so). But nothing happens. The only exception was for his report on Cambodia’s ‘killing fields’ in which US culpability could be safely placed out of the frame. This didn't surprise me.

But sometimes he writes about literature. He’s done it before and I responded at the time. I hope nothing happens.

In the first line he quotes columnist DJ Taylor approvingly. In the late 80s, Taylor was calling for writers to explore 'the lumber room of experience' rather than write 'drawing room twitter' (whatever that is, McEwan's Saturday?). In yesterday’s Independent (subscription only), he made a similar call in an article entitled When will Philip Roth become a Nobel Laureate?.

He is appalled that Dreiser, John Dos Passos and Upton Sinclair were not chosen by the Novel committee, just as he is appalled that contemporary US Americans - Roth, Updike and Mailer - have so far been overlooked. He says To watch … Channel 4's recent History of the Novel is to appreciate the absolute dominance of American fiction over practically every other variety in the past century.

Well, perhaps. This might be true had the documentary (actually called The Story of the Novel) been remotely objective. But the series was supervised by a similarly philistine and narrow-minded critic: Professor John Carey. The episode on Ulysses in particular was a disgrace.

Taylor thinks that the Nobel has become too political. From the view that sees literature as literature rather than a sub-division of international powerbroking – the Nobel jury’s habit of looking the other way whenever Roth's name is brought to their attention is a grotesque dereliction of duty.

This should go without saying, and not just for Roth. But I would say that, in the last century, it was European fiction that dominated ideally every other variety, and many of its greatest exponents have failed to receive the prize, for reasons unknown: Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Paul Celan, Aharon Appelfeld (born and raised in Europe), Vladimir Nabokov, Marguerite Duras, Gert Hofmann, and, most glaringly of all, Maurice Blanchot. These authors' work is literature as literature; far more so than contemporary US fiction.

But what is literature? One wonders if the answer might be hidden by the debate engendered by the significance of a writer receiving that label – Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature? Why do we need it?

Within our indignation, there's a yearning for something more than words on a page. But the extra is also mere words: Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Everytime we try to get to something more elemental, we find only more words. Nothing happens. Literature is itself already the lumber room of experience; deadwood.


  1. Nice piece. Excuse the ignorance but could you recommend the works of the particular writers you refer to as being worthy of the prize? Some of these writers I have heard of, but it is always in passing, and with no great background.

    Philip Roth is the most naturally talented writer alive today.

  2. Paul, thanks for the comment. My own favourites, which I mention here rather too regularly, are:

    Bernhard - Extinction
    Handke - Repetition
    Appelfeld - The Age of Wonders
    Hofmann - Lichtenberg & the Little Flower Girl
    Celan - Selected Poems, in Hamburger's translations

  3. Oh, and I should have said ALL of Blanchot's critical work but NOT the fiction (which is boring as hell).

    BTW, the only reason I read the DJ Taylor article was because I bought the Independent for the free DVD of 'Wings of Desire', co-written by Peter Handke!

  4. Anonymous12:06 pm

    'Each new article by John Pilger about world politics is more or less the same. That is, each is always more or less true; exhilaratingly, painfully true. He describes what is happening right before my eyes. If it wasn’t for Pilger, I would wonder if my eyes were deceiving me. When I read a new article, I want everyone to read it and to say: yes, this is the truth! '

    The Gospel Of ST Pilger. This Space goes religious. It must be the truth. They ahve seen it with their own eyes, and there fore must convert. In earth as it is to St Pilger. Glory to him most high. Amen.

  5. St. Pilger? You said it. I suspect you didn't read the whole blog. So I say this: fuck you.

  6. Steve, I'm shocked. Don't you mean the long novels, though, as distinct from the shorter fictions (Thomas, Death Sentence, Instant of my Death etc)?

    Boring as hell, those are most certainly not. Electric, yes.

  7. Matt, I've had to explain myself before on this! See

    If I'm recommending Blanchot to those who haven't read him before, I wouldn't recommend ANY of the fiction. 'Death Sentence' and 'The Madness of the Day' are good, but his critical work surpasses everything and people should not be detained from reading it. That Station Hill reader has a lot to answer for putting people off, I think.

    And I don't think 'The Instant of My Death' is fiction.

  8. Steve, I absolutely agree with what you've said here, and am living in the US where I think these problems are blaring--the hyper-commercialism and the market so easily wipe out what is literary, and a lot of the prizes here are "bought" honors . I think, for me, Marguerite Duras is a huge force who has been marginalized here and it's horrible. Also Handke.
    I'm reading Blanchot embarassingly for the first time,and have bought the Station Hill Reader. Can I ask which collected works of Blanchot might be better? And what your objection is to this particular collection?

    And, for get to say: thank you so much for this post.

  9. Yeah, I remember that tin hat explanation. It didn't go so well! Of course 'Instant of my Death' is fiction/testimony of a different order (but is _The Writing of the Disaster_ really criticism or is it philosophy/fragments?) Personally I find that in his essays on favorite writers, the unique voices of those writers themselves tend to get lost, and his own 'theory' foregrounded.

    The Station Hill Reader is what turned me on to Blanchot, particularly 'Thomas the Obscure,' though it also contains important critical essays from _Space of Literature_ etc. But I can understand not recommending _The Most High_ to just anyone.

  10. Anonymous4:57 pm

    Steve, I've been reading your blog with appreciation, and am quite surprised by your comments above re Blanchot.
    I'm wondering if your distinguishing Blanchot's "fiction" and "criticism" does not require a lot of qualification? Where does one put "The Step Not Beyond", "The Writing of the Disaster", what to make of the "fictional" dialogue that opens "The Infinite Conversation"?
    You say that "The Instant of My Death" is not fiction, because I suppose you would call it biographical, but then one can make a case that all of Blanchot's writing is in a sense biographical (cf. Roger Laporte, JD).
    What really surprises me though is your calling certain of Blanchot's texts boring. I read most of the "fictions" first, and am still overwhelmed when I return to Death Sentence, When the time comes, Thomas the Obscure, Waiting Forgetting, The One Who Does Not Accompany Me...
    I find that one can open them at random and be struck by the force of the writing, the axe Kafka refers to.

  11. I really should keep my gob shut!

    Leora, thanks for the comment. It's good that you're starting on Blanchot. There's no greater critic! While there's nothing wrong with the Station Hill collection, I would say: start with the essays. Otherwise, I think it's difficult to beat the early collections: "The Work of Fire", "Friendship", "Faux Pas", "The Book to Come", all in lovely editions by Stanford. Enough for a lifetime there alone!

    Annie and Matt: I'm referring above all to those longer works that are quite clearly fiction. The later, fragmentary stuff isn't fiction even if it isn't criticism or philosophy in the normal sense. But even if it can be labelled fiction, at least it's short! I haven't been able to finish 'Thomas' or the other fictions. Generally, it's too weightless for my taste. Still, as you're both so keen on them, I might just give them another go.

  12. Anonymous2:30 am

    Don't worry, I'm not going to become a troll just because you called Blanchot's "fictions" boring as hell. Just a couple of comments about your post, relating to Blanchot.
    I think I follow --and to a certain limit agree-- with you in terms of what you say about literature and deadwood. But then what is one to make of Blanchot's insistence on writing and ex-teriority? For example, when he writes in the text "about" Bataille in "Friendship" that "books refer to an existence."

    Your comment about Blanchot's fictions as "weightless" did remind me of something he writes in "The Space of Literature": "Reading is dancing with an absent partner over an open tomb", and a bit latter he adds "where there is lightness, gravity is not lacking." ( I'm quoting from memory.)
    Relatedly, the Blanchot website has a very interesting text, where a theater director who attempted a theatrical staging of Blanchot's "fictions" talks about the presence -- and weight -- of the body in the texts.

  13. Amie, can I first apologise for misreading your name! I know how annoying that is when people call me Steven.

    I just feel unengaged by the fiction. It slips out of my hands. I've read 'Death Sentence' three times and I remember nothing about it. It was the same with Banville's latest, which I failed to finish.

  14. Um, what do you all think about Pinter winning the prize? I just pulled out a few old collections of his plays and tried to get into them. Honestly, I think the emperor is naked. Or maybe I just hate plays that seem pointless and unstructured. Is his poetry better? It would have to be.....



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