Sunday, August 26, 2007

It's not just me then

At this precise moment, something happened that was very important for me. I don't know how, but I was reminded of a sentence by Nietzsche that I have always read in a thousand different ways, it depends on the meaning I wish to give it each time. It is a sentence I apply to a whole range of circumstances: “One day my name will be associated with the memory of something tremendous - a crisis without equal on earth.”

One cannot go against one's imagination, and at that instant, on the terrace of the Brighton [Hotel], I imagined my name and surname in a few years' time evoking the brutal memory of a crisis in literature that humanity will have overcome - the imagination, when it's very powerful, is capable of these things - thanks to my heroic conduct, Quixote, spear in hand, against the enemies of the literary.
From the wonderful Montano's Malady by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated by Jonathan Dunne.

Sunday supplement

Mark of RSB says he's taking the new Malamud biography with him to North Wales. This is a very special book, so I hope he doesn't waste time enjoying the countryside. Subtitled "A Writer's Life", it uses close analysis of successive manuscripts to demonstrate, among other things, that literature was not merely an adjunct to Malamud's life - the thing that made him worthy of serious gossip, as James Atlas' biography of Bellow seemed to assume - but constitutive of his being. Malamud comes across as a mildly conservative writer. He's quoted as saying he didn't have it in him to be an "experimentalist". But Philip Davis shows how hard he worked to get the books right as he saw it: “My gift is to create what may be deeply felt" he's quoted as saying, which is the only good reason for such experiment anyway. In his last book, Dubin's Lives, this meant a book about - horror upon horror - a writer.

Being faced with this, the demand to create what may be deeply felt, has led JM Coetzee toward his literary uniqueness, and in her review of his new novel and the recent essay collection, Elizabeth Lowry expresses surprise that, in his reading of Nadine Gordimer, “[t]he gourmet's choice in metafiction grumbles at being served up too meagre a portion of realism“. But where in Coetzee's fiction is realism absent? Coetzee is this gourmet's choice of fiction, fullstop. Lowry's naive surprise reminds me of Michael Wood's words on the last line of Nabokov's novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight:
The last sentence of the novel doesn't, as Nabokov himself may have felt, and as many binary-minded critics have certainly thought, release us into 'mere' fiction, a world that turns out to have been 'only' a book. It points precisely to the precarious but possibly continuing life of whatever has been thoroughly, painfully or ecstatically imagined.
Ah yes, the imagination - is that real?

Elsewhere, Lee Rourke wishes for more lessness in novels. I want to agree at very great length.

And I've just remembered that Nicola Barker, now on the Booker longlist for Darkmans, had a short story published in June on The Mad Hatters' Review. I had mentioned the magazine in June.

Finally, I always read “This Week's Contributors“ in the TLS (unless I'm included and then I'm too embarrassed) because it always throws up interesting information. This week's edition tells us that Tim Dee is "co-editing a new ... book of bird poetry". Well I thought this has been done before, but it's good to see sexism still being resisted...

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Smuttering retreats

In writing of "snobbery about smutty books" Sam Jordison complains that we haven't escaped from "the assumption that clever people can cope with raunch and others, well, it might give them bad ideas!". It's probably true - I mean, the assumption is probably true. After all, it has given Sam bad ideas. One is that of a straw man: "If Ian McEwan fills healthy portions of his books with awkward young men's masturbatory fantasies, it's art. When Jilly Cooper glories in no holds barred rutting, it's a cheap attempt to shift units and titillate her (by implication rather pathetic) readers." Who is making these judgements? Nowhere in the blog is the claim that "one deserves more respect than the other, elevated as it is by art" attributed to anyone. Perhaps "the mysterious invisible authorities" who canonise these specious oppositions and producing so much snobbery are closer to home than Sam imagines.

In an old notebook, I found this from James Joyce: "Pornography is kinetic. It has aims and is therefore bad art." (I've no idea where this comes from by the way.) Yet what is bad art? We've all heard enthusiasts recommending Shakespeare with reports of extreme violence in Coriolanus and King Lear or humour in so many of the rest. The suggestion is that thrills and laughs give convenient access to better things - "great art", whatever that is. But what this great art is meant to provide has never trickled down in the same way as the concurrent suggestion: that Shakespeare is no better than wish-fulfilling entertainments - Joyce's bad art. No wonder happy consumers of these are confused and offended when not afforded the same "respect" as those who are stroking only their chins.

One commenter on the blog tries to make the distinction between stories that "explore something about the dysfunctionality of the characters" and bodice-rippers in which "the sex is just there to be sex". Unfortunately this makes literature sound like a branch of sociology and, worse, gives the impression that it is further removed from reality than penny dreadfuls. More bad ideas! Direct access to the real is the hope of art; it wants not ideas about the thing but the thing itself. This hope is soon dissolved, and indeed reality is kept at bay with distancing ideas and the tight control of genre (hence reviewers proudly claiming to enjoy potboilers as much as Pulitzer winners). In contrast, the drama of great art emerges as both ideas and genre are questioned, destroyed even.

For example, Shakespeare's Richard II animates the tension between trust in ritual and growing suspicion. The King undermines authority in the ritual of trial by combat by halting the fight between two noblemen. It all leads eventually to the destruction of faith in his divine right and he is overthrown; superstition can no longer protect him. Richard's death marks a change of epoch. One thing the play doesn't do, however, is doubt the ritual of the art itself. But perhaps doubt is implicit; something we can see from a distance breaking the power of theatre after Shakespeare's time as much as it broke King Richard. (So, if Shakespeare were alive today, he wouldn't be Shakespeare.) Yet it's a trust Sam Jordison tries to maintain. It's understandable as it's constitutive of the products that drive discussion in dominant cultural forums. And it does, after all, have a mysterious cultural authority. The trouble is, it is an artistically empty maintenance. It has no artistic authority. It leads to pointless chatter about respectability, as if that was all great art had to offer! But I don't want to pick on Sam. I've defended him elsewhere and there are others maintaining the dead space more deserving of criticism: Ian McEwan and Jilly Cooper for instance.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Philosophy and the Novel

Today, Descartes would probably be a novelist; Pascal certainly. A genre becomes universal when it seduces minds which have no reason to embrace it. But, ironically, it is just such minds that are sapping the novel from within: they introduce problems heterogeneous to its nature, diversify it, pervert and overburden it until they make its architecture crack. If the future of the novel is not close to your heart, it should please you to see a philosopher writing one. Whenever philosophers insinuate themselves into Letters, it is to exploit their confusion or to precipitate their collapse.
EM Cioran in The Temptation to Exist (1956).
To write in ignorance of the philosophical horizon - or refusing to acknowledge the punctuation, the groupings and separations determined by the words that mark this horizon - is necessarily to write with facile complacency (the literature of elegance and good taste).
Blanchot in The Writing of the Disaster (1980).

It is perhaps instructive that one of our most elegant writer of novels displaying the utmost good taste should concern himself with Science writing - a philosophy without doubt in itself. Where, then, can we find the true philosophical horizon?

More Handke nonsense

In this weekend's NY Times, Neil Gordon says he lost faith in the work of Peter Handke from the point his career at which mine was discovered (albeit retrospectively as I began in the late 1980s). From Slow Homecoming onward, his novels illuminated a world darkened by the ordnance of a wrongheaded war against cliché. The earlier works seemed dated in comparison.

Gordon complains that since then "his exacting gaze, with its strange combination of compassion and accusation, turned on and began to consume itself." Yet the only evidence he supplies for this is a negative review of his latest novel in translation. He bypasses Across, Repetition and The Afternoon of a Writer, which just happen to be the soaring highlights of Handke's career, if not the newsworthy ones. As William Gass (correctly) regards Repetition one of the great novels of the past hundred years, you might expect at least a mention. Has Gordon read them?

In keeping with his role as literary editor of the Boston Review, Gordon soon brings up Handke's distance from the party line and spins his attempt to amend western perceptions of the Balkans conflict as a "baffling defense of — or, at least, unwillingness to condemn — Serbian atrocities". Handke has stated regret for all atrocities in a war that destroyed a country he loved, which includes those committed by official enemies. Gordon's focus on "Serbian atrocities" suggest he is himself unwilling to condemn as many as Handke. Who's baffling now?

We needn't be surprised as the Boston Review has a history of apologetics for terror; witness the the contortions over Iraq by Susie Linfield.

However, I have to say, after reading the first 120 pages of Crossing the Sierra de Gredos, I share his feelings about the book if not the reasons for them ("Perhaps Handke believes that only scholars and specialists should be allowed to share his secrets" - perhaps Handke writes in good faith and we should read the book itself rather than confect intentions?). Where the three great novels of the 80s were driven by the movement of patient investigation and epiphanic discovery, this novel (and to a lesser extent My Year in the No-man's Bay) is, at best, loose and unfocussed, at worst pointless and boring. Spurious has a post mitigating the book's apparent faults.

Another thing the three novels have in common is an evocation of the rhythm and wonder of walking across a landscape, and it's for this reason Michael Roloff calls Handke "the last great walker on the earth". Crossing the Sierra de Gredos is more like an interminable, fevered dream of a journey. I can only hope that Handke's recent, shorter novels - Don Juan, Kali and the forthcoming Samara - mark a return to form. And that they don't take an age to appear in English.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Make it new (again)

"I think it is possible that talent has moved to other things" he says, "and that real writing is occurring elsewhere, rather than in novels. You have to be very clear about the material that possesses you, and you've got to find the correct form for it. You can't borrow somebody else's form, otherwise you can easily end up with absurdities like, shall we say, the story of a New Guinea chieftain cast in the form of a George Eliot narrative. One narrative goes with a particular kind of life, a particular moment in history; another narrative comes at another time, and you have to find the correct one. The one that feels true to you. Not the one that they teach you about. The minute that you can be taught about something, you know it's not real. All writing has to be new."
VS Naipaul in a Sunday Times interview, 8th May 1994.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The cycling tour

One reason I haven't posted very often this Summer is ownership of a new bike. For an hour each evening I pedal Pither-like the same scenic route uphill, inland and back along the seafront. But I don't escape literature. Not only do I listen along to podcasts from Santa Monica and Stanford, but at the furthest reach I pass the home of Rudyard Kipling (brother of the famous Ronnie Kipling) and then, nearer home, the abode of Terence Rattigan. No sign of Clodagh Rodgers yet.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Trojanow horseshit

In Sign & Sight's daily email I was drawn to a summary of what's in the news today: "Author Ilija Trojanow gets his creative writing students off ego-lit and into the world of the foreign". This sounded interesting enough to visit the "feuilletons" page (why does that word annoy me?) for further reading. I wasn't expecting what I got:
Jean-Michel Berg, a student at the Free University of Berlin, tells of his experiences in the seminar given by writer Ilija Trojanow. [..] 'I can't imagine anything more boring than one's own sensations,' Trojanow says, thus staking out the ground between him and Peter Handke, for example, and other explorers of internal worlds. That's why our first task was to avoid 'ego-lit' and write about something entirely foreign.
That's Peter Handke folks, author of Repetition about a 20-year-old Austrian man's journey from his home village to cross the border into a foreign land and "search" for his dead brother using his dictionary of Slovenian terms. And the author of On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House, about a pharmacist who abandons his apoteke to travel across Europe. And author of My Year in the No-Man's Bay in which a writer imagines the adventures of his friends in foreign lands. And the author of Crossing the Sierra de Gredos about a German woman who travels to somewhere probably not-German. All internal worlds avoiding the entirely foreign, apparently.

Of course, Handke's work displays a deep awareness of the paradox of reading and writing; a paradox that each enables both inwardness and exposure to the outside, which might lead some simplistic readers, and perhaps their creative writing teachers, to assume that one need only bypass acknowledgment of the former to achieve the latter, but that would be a fundamental misunderstanding both of literature and of Peter Handke, and would thus disqualify them from any undue attention from people who should know better.

PS: Handke is author of a book of poems called The Innerworld of the Outerworld of the Innerworld, translated by Michael Roloff, which I haven't read but the title is enough to suggest the nonsense of a simple opposition.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The kingdom of recurrence

Storytelling, there is nothing more worldly than you, nothing more just, my holy of holies. Storytelling, patron saint of long-range combat, my lady. Storytelling, most spacious of all vehicles, heavenly chariot. Eye of my story, reflect me, for you alone know me and appreciate me. Blue of heaven, descend into the plain, thanks to my storytelling. Storytelling, music of sympathy, forgive us, forgive and dedicate us. Story, give the letters another shake, blow through the word sequences, order yourself into script, and give us, through your particular pattern, our common pattern. Story, repeat, that is, renew, postpone, again and again, a decision that must not be. Blind windows and empty cow paths, be the incentive and hallmark of my story. Long live my storytelling! It must go on. May the sun of my storytelling stand forever over the Ninth Country, which can perish only with the last breath of life. Exiles from the land of story telling, come back from dismal Pontus. Descendent, when I am here no longer, you will reach me in the land of storytelling, the Ninth Country. Storyteller in your misshapen hut, you with the sense of locality, fall silent if you will, silent down through the centuries, harkening to the outside, delving into your own soul, but then, King, Child, get hold of yourself, sit up straight, prop yourself on your elbows, smile all around you, take a deep breath, and start all over again with your all-appeasing “And then ...”.
These are the final lines of Peter Handke's Repetition (1986), translated by Ralph Manheim.

Now the final words of Gert Hofmann's Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl (1994):
And then?
That question mark! It's a phrase used throughout the novel, pitching the story forward. In his afterword, the translator and author's son says the phrase, the last words of his father's writing career, cannot be improved upon. "It's the sound of his author's engine, Scheherezade almost, still ticking and willing". The novel certainly gives a wonderful sense of a breezy, unreflective way of living forward, which perhaps makes it more of an historical novel than those detail-laden narratives blithely imposing post-18th Century psychology and narrative forms. But that question mark salts the gift with anxiety. After last words, what then?

For this reason, Handke's – or rather the narrator Filip Kobal's – hymn of praise doesn't quite seduce me. It never has, though, as if fascinated by the possibility of seduction, I've read Repetition more often than any other novel. Earlier, Kobal refers to the blind windows and empty cow paths he sees on his journey into Slovenia as "hallmarks of a kingdom of recurrence, where a locomotive whistle can become equally well the cry of a pigeon or the shriek of an Indian." I'm not sure what this means but that phrase – the kingdom of recurrence – strikes me as just right in capturing both the glorious triumph and unyielding dominion of stories.

The latter condition tends to be ignored. But another great novel from the 1980s raises the issue right from the start by invoking Nietzsche's theory of Eternal Recurrence.
If every second of our lives recurs an infinite number of times, we are nailed to eternity as Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross. It is a terrifying prospect. In the world of eternal return the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make. That is why Nietzsche called the idea of eternal return the heaviest of burdens. If eternal return is the heaviest of burdens, then our lives can stand out against it in all their splendid lightness. But is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid? The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in the love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man's body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life's most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?
What Kundera doesn't include in his introduction is the way we use literature to answer the question of weight or lightness, even as it is asked. Literature adds weight to every action. Every action described in a novel is repeated until eternity. Every crime in a crime novel is committed again and again. If, as it seems to those of us drawn to writing as writing, our lives are lighter than air and literature is the only reliable ballast, writing rather than living becomes the burden.

So what of the alternative, not writing? That awaits another post under this title.

Three literary links

First, a novel about a philosophy student at Sussex University who "turns to Nietzsche, Heidegger and Kierkegaard for guidance and support"? It all sounds rather too close for comfort. Thankfully, it's set well before my time! Natasha Tripney has the details.

Second, in the new edition of Context, I'm pleased to see John Taylor on Robert Pinget, in particular his mention of Be Brave. I own a copy in a precious but disintegrating copy published by the New York-based, apparently-defunct publisher Red Dust Press.

Finally, in Smoothness of Surface, Richard Crary has a fascinating post about his recent reading in classic fiction and modern criticism.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Bernhard play discovered

Unfortunately not a prose work, and also from very early in his career, but interesting to see Bernhard's half-brother Peter Fabian (whose medical skill is said to have kept Bernhard alive for ten more years than his condition would normally allow). He sounds uncannily like his elder brother. Can German-speakers add anything to the bleedin' obvious? See also this report.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Wall on silence

Alan Wall offers A Defence of the Book. He argues for the gifts of uninterrupted close-reading against the impatient multi-tasking facilitated by electronic alternatives.

I refer the honourable gentleman to the answer I gave earlier. (I'm still reading that damn biography too).

Why does Chomsky hate ants?

In the NY Times, Samantha Powers, liberal author of A Problem from Hell, reviews, among others, Talal Asad's On Suicide Bombing:
if you continue to believe (as I do) that there is a moral difference between setting out to destroy as many civilians as possible and killing civilians unintentionally and reluctantly in pursuit of a military objective, you will indeed find "On Suicide Bombing" disturbing, if not always in the way [the author] intends.
On his blog, Noam Chomsky responds:
Evidently, a crucial case is omitted, which is far more depraved than massacring civilians intentionally. Namely, knowing that you are massacring them but not doing so intentionally because you don't regard them as worthy of concern. That is, you don't even care enough about them to intend to kill them. Thus when I walk down the street, if I stop to think about it I know I'll probably kill lots of ants, but I don't intend to kill them, because in my mind they do not even rise to the level where it matters. There are many such examples. To take one of the very minor ones, when Clinton bombed the al-Shifa pharmaceutical facility in Sudan, he and the other perpetrators surely knew that the bombing would kill civilians (tens of thousands, apparently). But Clinton and associates did not intend to kill them, because by the standards of Western liberal humanitarian racism, they are no more significant than ants.

I've written about this repeatedly [...] And I've been intrigued to see how reviewers and commentators (Sam Harris, to pick one egregious example) simply cannot even see the comments, let alone comprehend them. Since it's all pretty obvious, it reveals, again, the remarkable successes of indoctrination under freedom, and the moral depravity and corruption of the dominant intellectual culture.


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