Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Another beginning: the 500th post

She wished this were her last journey.
This is the first line of Peter Handke's 472-page Crossing the Sierra del Gredos, as translated by Krishna Winston. My copy finally arrived today! I'm pleased to report the typeface is generous, certainly compared to the edition of Handke's last doorstop.

The sentence also begins the 500th post on this blog. I wish it too were the last. From the first entry in September 2004 (though not my first blog, that was Spike Magazine's Splinters, my contributions beginning in November 2000, followed by the year-lasting In Writing) I've tried to say something that would change the way people read. No matter how absurdly ambitious this is, and no matter how meagre my resources (there are many important books I've not read), I've wanted to define and share a particular experience of reading, one that tends to be ignored when literature is discussed on these islands; ignored not least by me. It's taken this long and I believe I still haven't defined it. If I have, I did so a month after the first blog in Struck by Death, an attempt to summarise Blanchot's short essay on the Lascaux cave paintings. It remains one of my favourites, though it drew little attention. (That's one of the oddest things about blogging. One works relatively hard on long posts, such as this one on Martin Amis and it receives no comments, yet one throwaway remark can provoke a storm).

Yet, if Blanchot is right in another essay, "What is the Purpose of Criticism?" (found in this book), then the continuation of this blog (and every other literary blog) is necessary to that experience:
Critical discourse is this space of resonance within which the unspoken, indefinite reality of the work is momentarily transformed and circumscribed into words. And as such, due to the fact that it claims modestly and obstinately to be nothing, criticism ceases being distinguished from the creative discourse of which it would be the necessary actualization or, metaphorically speaking, the epiphany.
That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

A vessel in vain

The port from which I set out was, I think, that of the essential loneliness of my life. This loneliness [is] deeper about me, at any rate, than anything else: deeper than my genius, deeper than my 'discipline,' deeper than my pride, deeper, above all, than the deep countermining of art.
Henry James, letter to Morton Fullerton, 1900.

In vacant space

When I have time to read, I love [Wladimir] Wiedlé as much as I love Maurice Blanchot, another man of whom you ought to know.
Wallace Stevens, letter to Peter H. Lee, April 1955.

Creative writing

Despair, more than any other feeling, establishes a correspondence between our being and the environment. In fact, despair requires a corresponding environment to such an extent that, if need be, it creates it. It invokes beauty only to pour the void into it. The emptiness of the soul is so vast, its cruel advance so inexorable, that any resistance to it is impossible. What would be left of paradise if were seen from the viewpoint of despair? A graveyard of happiness.
EM Cioran Tears & Saints.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Duras' other texts

Emilie Bickerton reviews Marguerite Duras' Cahiers de la Guerre et Autres Texts and finds what is timeless in her work.
Comparisons with Beauvoir are striking. Duras's fictions exist in a world dominated by ennui, a sense of otherness from the world, full of intense emotions, but mostly internal experiences. When events and a historical context are required, there is a blandness to the writing that means one layer separates from the other; reality and how that reality is experienced become two distinct things. In Beauvoir’s work, the two remain soldered together because her literary aim was to present her protagonists as actors in the world.
This rings true. I happened to have just read The Square and was surprised at the intense emotion rising from the ennui and otherness of the narrative.
Standard literary histories have tended to bracket Duras together with other intellectuals of the period. But not only did Duras personally dislike Camus, Sartre and Beauvoir, it is unclear what she contributed in terms of ideas, given that she was preoccupied rather with abstract questions of style.
This perhaps pushes Duras too far from political engagement. Above all, The Square reminded me of Blanchot's novels and, as Lars Spurious relates in his wonderful rue Saint-Benoît series from 2004, she was close to Blanchot and Bataille among others, all far more interesting in literary and political terms than the usual suspects of standard literary histories.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Open Letter / Three Percent

Some promising news for those of us who rely on translations for providing what our own literary culture lacks.
In conjunction with its developing literary translation programs, the University of Rochester is launching Open Letter, a new publishing house dedicated to international literature. Beginning in fall 2008, Open Letter will publish twelve works of international literature a year, focusing on modern classics and contemporary works of fiction.
While we wait for that: "In addition to publishing trade books, Open Letter will oversee Three Percent, a new website featuring an international lit blog, reviews of untranslated books, sample translations, and a calendar of grants and prizes for translation."

Of those reviews of untranslated books, one isn't Josipovici's Only Joking. This book hasn't been translated into English because it was written in English in the first place! Still, it's good to have a summary and appreciation of the book.

Another review is of Vila-Matas' Montano's Malady, about which I've been interested since January. In the UK, this novel has been published as Montano only. I wonder if Harvill Secker feared readers would be put off by a book with illness suggested in the title? It hasn't discouraged a reader from my local library who has hogged the book for the last three months and has just renewed it until mid-August.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Writing about writing, part 494

My brow was particularly furrowed when I read Scott Esposito, in providing a link to the extract from JM Coetzee's forthcoming novel, saying that he's "a little concerned that it's a book about a writer writing a book". I wondered how many crime fiction blogs worry that PD James' new one will feature a murder, or a horror fiction blog that Stephen King's latest has supernatural elements, or that ... well, supply your own third.

Even the link Scott supplies has The Literary Saloon expressing unease "about the turn the book is described as taking" (that is, the text being in part contributions to a book called "Strong Opinions" - a title, I might point out, used by Nabokov for a non-fiction miscellany). I know literary novels cannot be defined as 'metafiction' alone - a term I barely recognise as every novel refers to itself and the whole of literature at every turn, to and fro; it's just a matter of acknowledgment - but it's a good starting point.

Scott adds that Coetzee's metafiction hasn't thrilled him, which is fair enough, though for me Elizabeth Costello was, in the Paul West section, one of the most thrilling books I have ever read. Slow Man, on the other hand, in which Ms Costello appeared again, left me unmoved. Metafiction seems to be a guarantor of nothing in itself, so there's no need to be concerned over it.

Nor perhaps to be drawn by it. Yet I wonder if I'm the only reader who experiences a frisson at the prospect of book about a writer by such a fine writer as Coetzee? Why should novels consciously avoid a subject by which we're otherwise so fascinated?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Narrative voice from book to book

The Guardian's excellent podcast interview with Andrew O'Hagan about his new novel Be Near Me began with an interesting opposition. The interviewer John Mullan says one might divide novelists into two groups, one represented by Henry Fielding, the other by Samuel Richardson. The first is "the kind of fiction where you hear the novelist's voice everywhere and all the time", while the second is about writing to find "strange, other voices, who are not yourself". O'Hagan's novels, he said, fell into the latter type. O'Hagan readily agreed and added that he thought finding such a voice distinguishes fiction from any other kind of writing: "Each novel absolutely defines the terms of its own announcement" he said, winning me over, "it can't just be yet another unloading of your narrative voice". Then he gets oh-so-close to naming names of unloaders:
There are some very good novelists who nevertheless have a deficiency for me, which is that they carry their style from book to book. They could be writing something in the voice of Bambi or something about their ex-wife, and they have the same tone, the same pace; the prose is the same.
I would put forward one obvious example even if O'Hagan won't. O'Hagan's interest in novel writing is precisely to avoid this tendency and instead to let a new character speak.

The opposition is a compelling means of defining one's relation to fiction. One might say Fielding's way is the fiction of control and Richardson's the fiction of discovery. But maybe there is another, obscurer path. There are many novelists who sound the same from book to book yet are nothing like my obvious example. For me, the obvious examples of this type of novelist are Bernhard and Blanchot. While Bernhard's novels are ostensibly narrated by separate individuals, they all happen to write like Bernhard, and Blanchot's fiction, particularly his later récit (which as I've made clear often enough aren't always to my taste) have a relentless anonymity and offer only fragments of a familiar world.

Reading Bernhard, one is eventually overwhelmed not only by the voice but also by what the voice is speaking in order to resist. And in reading Blanchot, language itself begins to speak separated from the individuals - author or character - who might otherwise have appropriated it. Both writers might be unloading the same narrative voice but it is not for reasons of control. Yet nor are they bringing to presence a strange other. It's something beyond both. Blanchot suggests what in After the Fact:
Prior to the work, the work of art, the work of writing, the work of words, there is no artist - neither a writer nor a speaking subject - since it is the production that produces the producer, bringing to life or making him appear in the act of substantiating him [...] But if the written work produces and substantiates the writer, once created it bears witness only to his dissolution, his disappearance, his defection and, to express it more brutally, his death, which itself can never be definitively verified: for it is a death that can never produce any verification.
Thanks to Lars Spurious for bringing this quotation to my attention.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Walls go up, walls come down

Crossing the Sierra del Gredos is getting a fair amount of reviews in the US. (I'm still awaiting my copy.) They're split between those who admire the writer and the book such as Thomas McGonigle in the LA Times and Ross Benjamin in BookForum, and those like Charles Peterson in the Village Voice and Benjamin Lytal in the NY Sun who, because apparently they haven't got much of a clue, resort to political gossip and misrepresentation. 480 pages of novel are of little note to these two novel reviewers.

I'd be interested to find out where Handke "attacked the journalism that reported Serbian atrocities, questioning their very veracity" as Lytal claims. Perhaps he's referring to second-hand information or perhaps he's actually read Journey to the Rivers in which Handke observes too many similarities in the journalists covering the Balkans war:
Nothing against those ... discovering reporters on the scene (or better yet: involved in the scene and with the people there), praise for these other researchers in the field! But something against the packs of long-distance dispatchers who confuse their profession as writers with that of a judge or even with the role of a demagogue and, working year after year in the same word and picture ruts, are, from their foreign thrones, in their way just as terrible dogs of war as those on the battleground. (trans. Scott Abbott)
Yes, he questions the veracity of rote reporting yet nowhere have I found any denial of atrocities. He has questioned the silence of rote journalists about massacres in Serb villages but that's only the same thing to those who require a party line.

"In interview after interview," Lytal continues, "[Handke] gave the impression that his own subjective experience was more reliable, and more important, than Western journalism." So let's get this straight: Lytal wants to persuade us (without evidence) of his own "impression" that Handke values his own subjective experience and expects us to be appalled at this alleged selfishness, a selfishness based entirely on Lytal's "impression"? And he and the fact-checkers get paid for this?

See if you get the same impression reading this interview with Handke in which he defends his style of writing.
With the Yugoslav problem, the walls went up immediately. There were some who knew: this is the situation, this is how we should talk about it. You can only say this and that and only in a particular journalistic style. But in the meantime, another way of speaking has emerged that is not going to disappear.
Another way of speaking - such as we might find in a novel if, as reader or reviewer, we are prepared to submit to it.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The new age of anxiety

Evidence for a widespread anxiety about art abounds. In any one week you can read articles drenched in concern for its future. On the 2nd, Edward Rothstein (via TRE) observed that "art music has become almost quaintly marginal". On July 5th, John Freeman worried that the audience for the novel has been usurped by a TV series. On the 9th, Donari Braxton wrote that he can’t remember seeing anyone "pull out a collection of poetry on the subway and read through just for the sheer pleasure of doing so". It's a staple of print and blogs. On the 4th, there was a variant in Chris Wiegrand's call for "more respect" to be paid to Crime writers.

Of course, not one of these is really concerned about the future of art. They're concerned about the public life of art. Somehow, if "art music" meant something to those to whom it doesn't mean anything, if the viewers of The Sopranos would read "writers with plenty of lively ideas", if poetry critics didn't exclude the "layman" ... i.e the ninety-nine percent of the human-race who hasn't studied the intricate theoretical systems of Italian philosopher Agamben, and if genre fiction was given the same status as literary fiction then ... then ...then what?

Why is it that, from the conservative New York Times, to the liberal Guardian, to the "edgier waters" of 3AM Magazine, a personal engagement with a piece of music, a novel, a poem, is replaced by a search for wider cultural worth?

Perhaps it is the channeling of the true anxiety behind the public face. The art they wish more could experience involves not only the enchantment promised in all art, but also an exclusion. The Eden of modern art is a cold and bitter place. Mitigation of the sense of exclusion from the real thing is sought. Ian Rankin seeks it in the "biting exploration of contemporary social issues" offered by his crime novels. Might sociological studies be seen on future Booker Prize shortlists then?

The two together, enchantment and exclusion, constitute modern art and our experience of it. No matter how much one might embrace escapist art, the experience of exclusion remains - hence the denial inherent in nostalgia for the mythical golden era of Victorian fiction.

What we see every week is anxiety about personal exclusion. It would be better if critics, rather than hiding, mitigating or condemning the exclusion, brought out how the dual experience is liberating. However, this requires a certain amount of patience. Studying the intricate theoretical systems of Italian philosopher Agamben might also help too. Why protect people from it? I certainly recommend The End of the Poem and The Man Without Content. One trick I've found when reading supposedly difficult books is to, well, just read them.

Shakespeare without Company

Lee Rourke visits the Shakespeare & Co bookshop in Gay Paree.
It was horrible. So horrible in fact that I spent no more than five minutes in there. Just enough time to wander up and down the shoddy stairs and browse the shelves for Maurice Blanchot and Blaise Cendrars titles (of which they were disappointingly bereft).
Enough said. A bookshop in Paris without Blanchot is like a Waterstones without a 3 for 2 display.

Speaking of Blanchot, does anyone know anything about a rumoured translation of Christophe Bident's Maurice Blanchot: Partenaire invisible, an "essai biographique"?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

In and outside the stories they tell

At last, Tim Parks makes the important distinction between Elfriede Jelinek and her influential predecessor:
The extremity of Jelinek's tirades soon won her comparisons with Thomas Bernhard, who had also remorselessly attacked the residual fascism of modern Austria. Seeking, in an interview with Gitta Honegger, a respected theater critic and biographer of Bernhard, to distinguish her approach from his, Jelinek claimed that as a man Bernhard "could claim a position of authority," projecting an identity with which readers could relate and giving a coherent, rhetorically convincing account of Austrian society, whereas, being a woman, even this form of "positive" approach was denied her; a woman working in a man's world and language could not present a coherent identity. [...]

However, one hardly need resort to feminist theories of language to see more obvious differences between the two writers. Bernhard's narrators are firmly placed within the stories they tell and a certain pathos attaches to the damage they do themselves with their constant negativity. In many of Bernhard's works (Frost for example, or the later Correction) we see a narrator drawn into the orbit of a strikingly negative figure and are invited to feel all the danger of his being seduced and destroyed by the other's despairing vision. There is never, that is, any complacency about what it means to see the world so darkly, nor a conviction that withdrawal is any solution.

Jelinek's narrator may constantly make her presence felt, addressing the reader directly and voicing the fiercest invectives, yet she remains resolutely outside the story, invulnerable in her sardonic detachment, her avoidance of experience. This separation is occasionally reinforced by reminding us that her characters are "only" creations, something Bernhard never does.

Friday, July 06, 2007

With apologies to Half Man Half Biscuit

They came for the Ian McEwan fans but I wasn't an Ian McEwan fan, so I did nothing.

They came for the Booker Prize committee that chose Vernon God Little but I wasn't on the Booker Prize committee that chose Vernon God Little, so I did nothing.

They came for the critics who claim Peter Handke "argued that the Srebrenica massacres never happened" but I wasn't a critic who claimed Peter Handke "argued that the Srebrenica massacres never happened", so I did nothing.

They came for the readers who think literary fiction should be more "accessible" but wasn't a reader who thinks literary fiction should be more "accessible", so I did nothing.

They came for the journalists who argue that Crime Fiction deserves to be taken "seriously" but I wasn't a journalist who argues that Crime Fiction deserves to be taken "seriously", so I did nothing.

They came for the soap fans who say if Shakespeare were alive today he'd be writing Eastenders, but I wasn't a soap fan who says if Shakespeare were alive today he'd be writing Eastenders, so I did nothing.

They came for Richard & Judy's Book Club and I think I'm right in saying I applauded.

They came for the bloggers who "confess" they haven't read each and every book in the entire history of English language publishing, but I wasn't a blogger who "confesses" he hasn't read each and every book in the entire history of English language publishing, so I did nothing.

They came for the admirers of The Intellectuals and the Masses but I wasn't an admirer of The Intellectuals and the Masses, so I did nothing.

They came for Julie Myerson and I said she's over there behind the wardrobe.

Sometimes it's best to turn a blind eye.






Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The nightmare of reason

Today is Kafka's 124th birthday. Here's the final paragraph of Ernst Pawel's biography from 1984 with the winning title: The Nightmare of Reason:
The world that Kafka was 'condemned to see with such blinding clarity that he found it unbearable' [a quotation from Milena's obituary] is our own post-Auschwitz universe, on the brink of extinction. His work is subversive, not because he found the truth, but because, being human and therefore having failed to find it, he refused to settle for half-truths and compromise solutions. In visions wrested from his innermost self, and in language of crystalline purity, he gave shape to the anguish of being human.
A little excessive perhaps, though accurate enough, even if I'd say his "innermost self" was his innermost non-self too and that giving shape to anguish is the opposite of anguish. Anyway, for Kafka, reason was as problematic as faith. Earlier in the book, Pawel writes of how this manifested in his work:
Obedience to the spirit of the law presupposes knowledge of its letter. But knowledge breeds doubt, and as the letter of the law began yielding up the infinite ambiguities of its spirit, interpretation became the task of a lifetime, an endless “process” to which each generation contributed its share, expanding and refining the interpretations of the previous one, heaping comment upon commentary ad infinitum, a way of life by which reason seeks to justify faith.

This tension between faith and reason, the dynamic, ever-precarious balance between essentially irreconcilable opposites, is at the heart of Jewish tradition and a source of its enduring vitality. And the struggle of Joseph K., incapable of compromise like his creator, to reason his way to faith owes its inspiration far more to that heritage than it does to neurosis, literature, or politics.
(Let it pass that 'literature' is inseparable from K's struggle).

Lately, the loudest champions of reason have refused to respect let alone justify faith. And while Dan Hind's new book from Verso entitled The Threat to Reason does not seem to redress that imbalance exactly, it does confront "the great machinery of deception" reason has set up to deny its reliance on the unquestioning faith. For further chat around the subject, see Dan's blog and the ongoing interview at ReadySteadyBook.

New Gert Hofmann paperback

It still hasn't been published in the UK, but later this month New Directions is already issuing a paperback of Gert Hofmann's sublime Lichtenberg & the Little Flower Girl. If - like at least one journalist - you thought Kehlmann's Measuring the World was an outbreak of Germanic lightness and storytelling, then this should help open new literary vistas. As the translator says: It's probably the zaniest, gloomiest, and funniest thing you've read in a long time, if not ever. Do yourself and literature in general a favour and read it.

John Carey Watch

Dan Green reads Prof John Carey's latest circular to the masses:
What Good Are the Arts? is a very strange book. Its first half seeks to demonstrate that art doesn't really exist and that, if it does, it doesn't do anyone any good. The second half essentially ignores the case that Carey has just made and asserts that art does indeed exist after all and does some people quite a lot of good.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

A Sunday afternoon ramble around the ramparts of authority

I hadn't taken much note of Andrew Keen's The Cult of the Amateur. From the reviews and blogs, I had assumed the book was just another liberal apologia for turning back the tide of democracy. It's been on the fast track to the top of review pages and radio shows like Nick Cohen, Melanie Philips, Clive James and Christopher Hitchens in recent months. Hence his appearance on Radio 3's Arts podcast last week, which is where I heard his creepy, Clive Barkeresque mid-Atlantic drawl. I had assumed right. But I don't wish to counter his arguments. One need only read James Marcus' "tiny codicil" to his LA Times review to realise the book contains more than lazy assumptions.

Marcus himself is an argument against Keen. Do readers afford authority to his blog because he also writes for the LA Times; does the blog diminish the authority of the LA Times? Keen's book is a product of this two-way question of authority. He wants to raise it for digital media only because he's content with the authority that has already buried the question. The book's subtitle (which Marcus calls "faintly hysterical") is revealing: "How the Democratization of the Digital World Is Assaulting Our Economy, Our Culture, and Our Values". It reminds me of those newspaper liberals putting on a serious face and asking: "Should we bomb Iran?". As if the decision had anything to do with us. The use of the word is there to corral readers into a false community. As if "culture" was in our possession. What would it mean for it not to be in our possession? Answer: the kind of anxiety Keen is keen to feed and exploit.

Narrowing the focus to literary culture, most books corral without raising their voice. A book gains authority through its mere bookness. But all writing appropriates authority. The trick it allows is generally overlooked, taken for granted. In everyday life, this is necessary. We don't sit around discussing newspaper articles as newspaper articles. We discuss the subject. We discuss the article's relation to an issue of reality. We might even question its veracity. But when a novel is celebrated, there is a curious vaccum. If we celebrate it for its existence as a novel - by definition, a literary book, existing solely as itself - what exactly are we celebrating? One can leap for the subject matter - post-apocalyptic USA for example - and praise it for insights into current social and political issues. But this isn't why anyone reads a novel. It's always a sop to social progress and education. Nabokov rightly called such readings "childish". Then there's celebrating it for being "a thumping good read", keeping the reader from enduring the real world for a few precious and harmless hours. But so would sleeping, having a bath or watching Pirates of the Caribbean 3. So why put a novel on a cultural pedestal? Instead we might tell how we luxuriated in the precision and beauty of the novel's prose. But is this anymore culturally-refined than a fresh pillow, the fragrance of apricot creme or Keira Knightley's bone structure? What is it that gives a novel a unique cultural authority?

No wonder genre fans are perplexed at the way brilliantly-orchestrated detective novels or horror tales or SF tetralogies fail to win the attention and respect given to Man Booker or Pulitzer winners. Last week, Matthew Cheney made a despairing attack on those who blame the failure on cultural commissars. He argues that there is no "literary establishment" keeping SF in its place; there is no "literary elite" scheming to promote Cormac McCarthy without giving similar credit to speculative fiction; there is no "literati" and it doesn't "dictate what books are in and out of the literary canon". All true but, by the same token, literature doesn't exist either. The paranoia behind the claims of Cheney's essay writer is evidence of a faith in the literary that is unable to appreciate its uncertain status. I'm sure the same "literary establishment" shares that faith, otherwise it wouldn't promote as "literary" deeply conservative writers. There really isn't a great deal of difference between genre writers and those who write sentences like "Between Edward and Florence, nothing happened quickly". Supreme confidence in the form is present in both. Literary fiction, the real thing, is full of doubt and ambivalence yet still manages to find a way to move forward.

Ellis Sharp is right to guess that I was unaware of the interview with the author of the sentence quoted above. In it he expresses gratitude to various US authors like Roth, Mailer and Bellow for showing "formal ambition, real sense of engagement, not cramped by modernism, really democratic in outlook" [sic] as opposed to Europe which "was still stifled by modernism, a rather detached form of elitist writing". It's always wonderful to discover writers who set one free. It's odd then that his own novels have remained so detached and stifling.

It's got to be a genuine freedom of course. One can't jettison doubt like an emigrant on Ellis Island leaving Europe behind. It has to be more like the freedom of Artur Sammler. Bellow is a great example of finding a way between the crippling self-consciousness of the exile and the promise of animal freedom, without denying either - a great modernist in other words. McEwan's contrast is as deceptive as his liberalism. Significantly, he doesn't name the detached elitists of Europe. Could he mean the great modernists still writing when he was studying at UEA: Nabokov, Bernhard and Beckett? One wonders if he was talking to a European journalist he'd say something different; praise the dazzling lucidity of Handke for example (see the rear cover of the UK hardback of Absence). The triumph of European modernism was to find a way to speak after the cataclysms of the 20th Century. The threat of being stifled was very high. It's no surprise that some took refuge in detachment. But you've got to do the filtering yourself, create your own personal canon, become your own literary establishment, form your own literary elite and then help others to do the same. It sets you free. There isn't much sense of community though, unless you count the internet.


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