Sunday, October 28, 2007

"Proust, Blanchot and a Woman in Red"

In April, I drew attention to The Cahiers Series from Sylph Editions. Details of the fifth, due next month, have just been released, and it looks particularly desirable:
The cahier comprises three linked pieces by the translator and short story writer, Lydia Davis. First is 'A Proust Alphabet', which gives an account of several words and issues of particular interest, encountered during the author’s recent translating of Marcel Proust's Swann's Way. There follows a short article on the French thinker and novelist Maurice Blanchot, entitled 'The Problem in Summarising Blanchot'. Finally comes a series of dreams and dreamlike moments, recounted in 'Swimming in Egypt: Dreams while Awake and Asleep'. The cahier is accompanied by photographs by Ornan Rotem.

Syntactical healing

He could tell, just from reading the plays, that Shakespeare "obviously" suffered from irregular heart rhythm. Poetry, like the "magnetism" of a faith healer, could repair damaged cells, whereas prose could do the opposite. After being diagnosed with cancer, he came to think that writing his prose treatise ... had destroyed his immune system.
Peter Stothard reports on Ted Hughes' "somewhat eccentric views" and an exchange of letters with Prof John Carey. Add your own punchline.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Always beginning again: Blanchot on Beckett

Scott Pack recently repeated his call for the literary pages of newspapers to "reflect the books their readers actually read" and "for a more interesting and diverse range of titles". While to me these are contradictory demands, I'm all for the latter as it might influence the former. If the literary pages of newspapers don't tell their readers about new books, who - apart from bus shelters - will?

The literary editor of the New York Sun seems to agree. For instance, has Pascale Casanova's Samuel Beckett: Anatomy of a Literary Revolution been reviewed elsewhere? Benjamin Lytal covers it in under 200 words but that's better than nothing. Casanova, he says, "explains Beckett's anxieties of influence vis-à-vis Yeats and Joyce, and pins his aesthetic breakthrough to his contact with abstract painters". Nothing controversial so far then. James Knowlson revealed as much in his biography. But apparently this is "in opposition to the famous French philosopher Maurice Blanchot". Huh, how's that? The answer is that Casanova "accuses Blanchot of carelessly annexing Beckett, reducing him to the passive, archaic function of inspired mediator, charged with 'unveiling being.' Blanchot made Beckett into a prophet, speaking in a vacuum."

Needless to say this is a gross caricature of one of Blanchot's finest essays. Yes, Casanova is writing against a single, eight-page essay! As far as I know, Blanchot wrote only two essays on Beckett: "Where Now? Who Now?" in The Book to Come (1959) and a short tribute "Oh All to End" a year after Beckett's death in 1989. Despite this, according to Lytal's summary, "Blanchot's hierophantic gloss was ... fatally influential in France".

Casanova concentrates on the "social context" of literature. Her previous book offers "the first systematic model for understanding the production, circulation, and valuing of literature worldwide". This is certainly in opposition to Blanchot's critical procedure, yet nowhere in "Where Now? Who Now?" is there "hierophantic gloss" ("the interpretation of sacred mysteries or esoteric principles" says my dictionary). He merely asks why Beckett's Trilogy has this particular form and content.

Why, for instance, does Molloy start off with the "reassuring form of a story" yet has "a movement of unsettling disintegration"? An answer can follow only in the second part, Malone Dies where the proliferation of characters ends and we have one man in a bed openly making up stories, admitting their artifice in order "to fill the void into which [he] feels he is falling." The void, that is, of death. For this reason, Blanchot argues, the book isn't just a rollicking postmodern farce like Flann O'Brien's relatively neglected novels. For Malone's urgency means "the book is no longer just a means of openly lying". Instead it sets up "a clash of artifices where experience is lost". The stories become detached from the experience of the dying man and he becomes detached from the work. He dies to himself and us.

In The Unnamable, we continue without "characters under the reassuring protection of their personal name" or even with a story, it's just "phantoms without substance, empty images revolving mechanically around an empty center that the nameless 'I' occupies". This is "experience lived under the threat of the impersonal". Surely this is straightforward explication of a text; nothing hierophantic at all. Perhaps Blanchot irritates the positivists a little too much next though.
We may be in the presence not of a book but rather something much more than a book: the pure approach of the impulse from which all books come, of that original point where the work is lost, which always ruins the work, which restores the endless pointlessness in it, but with which it must also maintain a relationship that is always beginning again, under the risk of being nothing. (trans. Charlotte Mandell)
The next two parts of the essay then compares the movement of the Trilogy to "the classical form" of literary experience, summed up by Blanchot with reference to the works of Genet and Lautréamont. These are works "in which one sees the writer happily deliver himself from the dark part of himself by a work in which that part becomes, as if by a miracle, the happiness and clarity stemming from the work itself, in which the writer finds a refuge and, even better, the flourishing of his lonely self in a free communication with the other".

Unfortunately, as also evidenced in Genet and Lautréamont "things are not always so simple" because, in the very means of their inspired escape, each writer is opened up to another level of experience. In the relief of becoming a writer, the writer loses the occasion and the means to write. There is no longer any struggle. They have to become non-writers again in order write. So where a socio-political analysis might see in Beckett's Trilogy the cultural echo of a post-war loss of old certainties, Blanchot is saying this experience is common to artists across time precisely because this loss means something; it isn't a line from a textbook. It's why they're artists after all and why (Blanchot's little joke?) they resist "the insignificance of an academic career". The other level of experience is "where we see Michaelangelo become ever more tormented and Goya ever more demon-ridden; we see the lucid, gay Nerval end up hanging himself, and we see Holderlin die to himself".

In the final part of the essay, Blanchot asks how all this came to pass, and suggests it is because the great artists experience the approach of the origin of art, an experience that is threatening both to the artist and the work. The threat is of absolute failure. The writer, now free to explore the infinite space of words and stories, falls outside of the world of his community, outside of any utility, and floats between life and death, "incapable henceforth of dying and incapable of being born, shot through with ghosts, his creatures, in which he doesn't believe and which tell him nothing". All this is evoked in The Unnamable. For this reason, Blanchot concludes, the Trilogy has much more importance for literature than most of the 'successful' works it offers every week. It takes literature as close to its origin without it disintegrating. If this is speaking from a 'vacuum', we have to wonder what positivist critics and reviewers really understand of art, or human life even. And in the month when yet another 'successful work' - Irish at that - was handed by a financial bureaucrat the most prestigious literary prize in the British Commonwealth, this fatal influence is as necessary as ever.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

More Booker fallout

The Belfast Telegraph is one of the many newspapers having fun with the fallout from Sir Howard Davies "cocking a snook at the literary establishment", specifically its reviewing culture. David Lister enacts his name with entertaining examples of "literary love-ins" between reviewers and authors. But these reveal not so much the incestuous nature of literary culture as a sour view of friendship.

Back in the primary source, Sir HD complains that too many reviewers are not brave enough to say a novel doesn't work. Even if this were true, by what criteria is a novel deemed not to have worked? Is it by the logic of the novel under review or by the standard of the kind of novel Sir Howard wants to recommend to the public? We're not told. Of course, I think it's the former. As I argued in my blog-review of JM Coetzee's latest novel - a book the Booker judges singled out for criticism - is, on its own terms, a success; that is, a necessary failure. It reverses what it means for a novel to "work". And that, I would say, is one of the distinctions of a literary novel, certainly so late in the literary day. It staggers me that Booker prize judges are so insensitive that they can't see this.

In the next line of his complaints, Sir HD adds that reviewers "don't care whether [novels are] readable or not". Again, what is "readable"? Diary of a Bad year is, I would say, relatively easy to read. On the other hand, I found the opening chapter of On Chesil Beach unreadable - a novel that received a high number of respectful reviews and made the Booker shortlist. Clearly there are different opinions here, but reviewing isn't just about opinion; it's about patient attention to the work. This tends to even out the kind of judgements Sir HD wants. Maybe the chairman unwittingly disapproves of patience. There is evidence to suggest it.

Sir Howard happily admitted to having read submitted novels at a rate of 80 pages per hour. Jeanette Winterson compares this to putting a record on at 78 instead of a 33: "if you've got some bloody idiot who thinks it's great to read at 80 pages an hour when it's not The Da Vinci Code, you're doomed! Well, I am." Sir Howard's responds by misquoting and misrepresenting the reason for her outburst.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Immaterial, my dear Watson

"Daunting tasks are what we live for" Franco Moretti tells John Sutherland in a Guardian interview (thanks to RSB for the link). The task of which he speaks is attempting to combine two things: "a history of literature that works with a much wider field of material".

Ah yes, material, that great literary problem. The interview starts off not with this but with another "problem" of English studies. It is, Sutherland claims, despite huge interest from students choosing to study the subject, "at a dead end". Isn't this where all literary study begins; at the dead end of literature's sublime immateriality? Whatever, let's suppose it is a problem for English studies and it is due, as Sutherland also claims, to "theory":
The new analyses of text that were introduced in the 1960s have rendered the subject, at its cutting edge, incomprehensible to all but the initiated. Semiotics, post-structuralism, marxist-feminism and, above all, deconstruction have split the critical establishment away from the reading public. Deconstruction indeed.
While having little time for the four named fields - particularly when their cutting edges detach any feeling for literature, I'm interested in why Sutherland brings in "the reading public" to create his problem. Since when was "the reading public" not split from academic criticism? And will Moretti's inclusive, socio-historical approach make any difference with volumes containing essays with alluring titles like "Toward a Database of Novelistic Topoi"?

Sutherland seems to think so. Find it on the 3-for-2 stalls tomorrow guys! Moretti, he explains, refuses "to observe the distinctions between high and low literature" and "can talk ... about Sherlock Holmes and Joyce's Ulysses in the same breath." (Joyce's Ulysses? Glad he pointed that out - but why not tell us who wrote Sherlock Holmes?). So, just like any critical theorist in any modern university then. In fact, just like every other voracious reader I know (even those who read only "low" literature). Sutherland seeks intellectual credence for Moretti's democratic tendencies by pointing out that he shares his fascination with Conan Doyle's creation with Umberto Eco, that famous semiotician! Didn't he just tell us there wasn't a problem until people like Eco came along? Maybe he's making an exception. But where will exceptions end? Perhaps when we reach the bedrock of no-names - just "post-structuralists", just "Marxist-feminists". We'll soon see it's individual books that are the problem in the study of novels.

A literary academic himself, Sutherland is author of the new-in-paperback How to Read a Novel. He's written many other critical studies, the majority of which are (apparently) entertaining essays about middlebrow novels from the good-old-days of Victorian fiction when everyone from the lady of the house in her drawing room to the urchin on the street was partaking of Dickensian novels and communing in spiritual harmony. However, at least one literary editor isn't impressed with Sutherland's attention to detail. But this, it seems, is why he's so keen on Moretti: "So large is the literary object, he argues, that reading individual works is as irrelevant as describing the architecture of a building from a single brick".

The daunting task then, to go back to that, is to build "intellectual models" that pose questions to the "mass of information" presented by novels. Information? Is this what novels offer? The "natural sciences and the social sciences have been trying to do [this] for decades" Moretti explains, which is, ironically, precisely how the academic study of English lost confidence in its unscientific procedure and turned, with relief, to semiotics, post-structuralism, Marxist-feminism, deconstruction and, now, it seems, to the New Empiricism. Thankfully, literature has nothing to fear from any of them.

Prize mediocracy

Sir Howard Davies, chairman of the Booker Prize committee, calls for "more diversity in the sort of people who review novels". While the literary editors get on with that, let's also have more diversity in people who judge literary prizes. In this particular case, how about a group of people who have the slightest clue about literature?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Hitchens watch

Martin Amis's buddy speaks at the Freedom from Religion Convention. Pharyngula provides the ghastly details: "Basically, what Hitchens was proposing is genocide."

Richard Seymour reckons he's been proven right. I wasn't arguing.

Current reading

When it had already grown late, Mother suggested that we retire; we wished each other goodnight in front of the weapons cabinet and went to bed.
I'll give you a clue: it's not Jane Austen.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Cultural amnesia anyone, part 2

There's more to Clive James' review of Exit Ghost than gossipy prurience. Actually, that "more" means it's still less than a proper review because, apart from the gossip, there's also chat about such pressing cultural matters as the "preponderance" over the years of US writers. This, James says, has drawbacks "in culture as in military strength":
The big guns get a sense of mission, and their very confidence invites questions about their vision, even about their ability to gaze within. Just as Bellow, in his factual writings, never asked himself the awkward question about divisions within Israel, so in his fictional writings he stifled a question that would have multiplied his range: he never made a subject out of his succession of discarded wives, when you would have thought — must have thought — that for a writer otherwise so brilliantly introspective, there lay the essence of his subject. Similarly, Mailer, unceasingly writing advertisements for himself, never delved far enough into his own psyche to make a subject out of his complicity in the death of Jack Abbott's victim: the great writer could face every embarrassment except the one that pierced to the center of his responsibility as a public writer. [...] It is only Roth who takes himself entirely to pieces. Has he been cruel to leave recognizable the outlines of discarded loved ones? Yes. Has he made a subject of that? Yes again.
One of the drawbacks, it would seem, is that writers like Bellow and Mailer haven't provided enough fodder for the prurient, attention-seeking literary critic. Everything here is slanted toward James' self-service: the writers' brilliance lies in "introspection"; Bellow's ex-wives were all "discarded"; Mailer avoids his "complicity" out of "embarrassment". We're being directed to think along with the writer in a way that Bellow, for one, avoids in his novels. His brilliance lies precisely in this ability to disrupt the controlling introspection of the writerly central figure - usually by souls less doubtful than themselves, but also by events such as the aftermath of an accident that haunts Rexler in By the St Lawrence.
The lungs in the roadbed as pink as a rubber eraser and the other organs, the baldness of them, the foolish oddity of the shapes, almost clownish, almost a denial or refutation of the high-ranking desires and subtleties. How finite they looked.
That is his essential subject; the dynamic intermingling of soul and world, mental life and bodily death. This is more than introspection. And it's not as if Bellow's novels are bereft of troubled relationships. James, in comparison to Bellow's subtleties, is a bald intellectual organ.

I'll leave defence of Mailer to those more interested in his work, but then there's that peculiar reference to the big guns' responsibilities as public writers. What on earth are they? It seems to mean taking oneself to pieces. Of the American big guns, James has a problem with Gore Vidal for keeping himself in one piece.
Vidal has never admitted, let alone explored, the question of whether his criticisms of the American power elite might not be compromised by his membership in it. Does he really think, when he argues that F.D.R. tricked Japan into World War II, that the Japanese right wing, currently making a comeback, will not take this as an endorsement of its views?
So Vidal's responsibility is not toward telling it like it is (as he sees it) but to how truth might be used by others? What about any praise he might have for the same power elite; is that compromised? Should he worry that Bush might use it to bomb more civilians? The only option, it seems, is silence. However, James evidently isn't worried by how his own criticisms of Vidal might be used. The form of defence he employs has disturbing consequences. It means any criticism of one's own side is immediately out of order. How dare anyone criticise the system under which they flourish! This was popular opinion in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. But where they had dungeons, we have media gate-keepers writing at length about others' private lives.

James spends much time defending the joys of this relativism: "In effect, Stalin dropped an atomic bomb on his own citizens once a month for as long as he was in power. Mao Zedong staged a My Lai massacre every fifteen minutes." We shouldn't worry, he's saying, because our crimes aren't as bad as our enemies! But again, this is self-serving. One might replace the examples here with Suharto's massacre of a million "Communists" in Indonesia, or his East Timor bloodbath, or with the millions more in Vietnam, or with Reagan's 30,000 dead in Nicaragua, or the death squads in El Salvador, or Pinochet's Chile, or Saddam's Iraq or the million dead in post-invasion Iraq, or even the poverty-stricken millions dying each year in "the developing nations" - dying right now, not just in history books. I wonder how many of these feature in the index to Cultural Amnesia? Once this is done, Vidal's criticisms can be seen as precisely a product of cultural rememberance, of exploring one's membership of the human race rather than arming oneself to the teeth with Received Opinion.

That final phrase is Vidal characterising James' style of argument. It comes from an exchange of letters between the two seven years ago in the TLS over Vidal's "revisionist" take on Japan's entry into World War II. (The phrase then was that FDR "provoked" rather than "tricked" Japan into war - another example of James' spin). James says "the international craze for revisionism ... has essentially been a strenuous effort to offset disappointment at Communism's failure". After a series of lengthy letters, Vidal is finally lost for words. "Surely at the heart of revisionism" he asks "is Socrates' injunction that the unexamined life is not worth living." Oh dear, where's the hemlock?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Cultural amnesia anyone?

I've been slowly reducing a two-foot high pile of old TLSs; ripping out everything I might want to keep. The back page of the first I picked up featured a review of Clive James' memoirs by Christopher Hitchens. The first paragraph refers to James' aspiration "for a mass audience that would be large enough for his elite audience to despise". What happened to the truth at all costs? This copy was also first on the recycling pile.

After a while I took a break and looked at blogs. By coincidence, Conversational Reading was quoting James' latest, interminable review-essay on Exit Ghost:
In the last rumor I heard on the subject [of whether Roth is "in thrall to his virile member"], one of the most luxuriantly beautiful young Australian female film stars had thrown herself at Roth’s feet lightly clad — I mean she was lightly clad, not Roth’s feet — and demanded satisfaction.
And in the next paragraph:
Roth has been catnip for upmarket women all his life, and never not renowned for it. In London, when he lived there, Roth would enter a fashionable drawing room with Claire Bloom on his arm and you would wonder how he had got into the house without a band striking up "Hail to the Chief."
After a while I returned to the pile. Within minutes I opened an edition from February this year with a 5000-word headline review of The Life of Kingsley Amis. The subtitle sums up the review's theme: "Obsession with Kingsley Amis's private life has distorted appreciation of his work". Can you guess the name of the review's author?

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Friday, October 05, 2007

"Here came this noise through the screen"

A couple of years ago, US sportswriter Chuck Culpepper resolved to write a book about an American's experience of the English Premier League. To do so, he decided he needed a team to support. And one night on Match of the Day - March 11th, 2006 to be precise (never to be forgotten) - he saw Pedro Mendes' 93rd minute winner in the Pompey-Man City game and was immediately drawn to the madness at Fratton Park. As a fan of over 30 years standing (and I prefer to stand) I think he made the right choice.

He went on to attend games there during that season's world-historical escape from relegation. "Here was this club in 18th place" he explains to the EPL Talk Podcast, "and yet it seemed like the biggest noise in the world."

The book is out now, and in the US next year with a title less confusing to an American audience. Below is a video of that goal with understated and impartial commentary from the local radio station.

PS: If you want silence, you can always go up the M27.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Metaphysical ache: JM Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year

When Booker Prize judge Giles Foden brushed aside the challenge of JM Coetzee's new novel as "a piece of radical literary theory" and because "theory is not fiction", I was prepared to let this go as an overstatement based on the novel's apparent aesthetic astringency. From glancing at reviews, the impression was that the novel consisted of self-indulgent essays written by lightly-disguised Coetzee figure with a cursory and slightly pervy sub-plot about his friendship with a much younger woman. I could appreciate how this might not appeal to consumerist demands, even those pretending to Literature. Bring on Mister Pip.

However, now that I've read Diary of a Bad Year, Foden's judgement appears at best incompetent, at worst disturbingly intolerant. To say this novel is "a subversion of the whole commercial and promotional mechanism whereby books are distributed" is about as accurate as saying The Last King of Scotland is about the British constitution. Yes, the novel is aesthetically astringent – the relationships remain formal, the opinions under-developed and on each page the narrative jumps from one voice to another - but these constitute much of the novel's originality as well as providing its emotional and intellectual ballast.

Diary of a Bad Year is an exceptionally moving investigation of what it means to have singular opinions in a plural universe. The short, diverse essays at the top of each page signal a diminishment of writerly power. They might evoke a hollow echo if published alone. At least one reviewer sees this as a problem to the success of the book. Yet if they were more fully-developed, they would crust over what is currently an open wound. And it is the gaping wound with which Coetzee's is concerned. Success, in this sense, would be failure.

The writer character begins by making a distinction between freedom and democracy. He sees the hand-over of power to the state in liberal democracies as irreversible. Freedom is threatened for the sake of democracy. It leads to another brand of totalitarianism. As readers we can agree, disagree or remain indifferent; that goes without saying. The point is: how might our response be included in such opinions? Or rather, how might the opinion appear if it tries to include the plural? How can we reconcile democracy with freedom? Such is the task of the novelist, hence the distinction, albeit narrow, between the author JM Coetzee and the writer in this novel.

The writer asks along the way: "Why can there no discourse about politics that is not itself political?". We might wonder in turn: why can there be no novel that is not also just a novel – a work of a masterful imagination? The questions are essentially the same. To say the least, Diary of a Bad Year is as close to answering as any published this year. The writer praises Harold Pinter's trenchant Nobel acceptance speech for its brave indifference to the scorn it would attract: "there comes a time when the outrage and the shame are so great that all calculation, all prudence, is overwhelmed and one must act, that is to say, speak." The same words can be applied to the form of the novel we're reading, where calculation and prudence would have demanded fully-developed essays and a rounded relationship between writer and muse.

Instead, Coetzee imagines two people of the world – Anya and Alan – with whom he has nothing in common. You know all this from the innumerable reviews. He lusts after the body of one and perhaps for something else. Below the essays, we read his apparently private observations on the couple and how he pursued the "metaphysical ache" Anya aroused in him by getting her to type up his dictaphone ramblings. At first this undercuts the writer's seriousness with the petty concerns of bodily existence. But then Anya's voice appears below his, engaging with his ideas, setting them against her assumptions and suspicions about his person, as well as discussing her own life with Alan, a philistine, commercially-minded brute. This suggests the ache is more than prurient. You might say it is religious (which might answer Nicholas Lezard's question from yesterday).

Then Alan's voice appears too. The intertwining of each separate voice, how one influences the other and how the ideas find their way in the world, encourages us to think not of the specific greatness of the novel with regard to our own readerly demands, but of the possibilities for a different kind of discourse. Not one of self-isolating opinions but something more inclusive, even if isolation (and low sales) is inevitable.

In this case, we can think of a new kind of novel; one that resists both the spirit of impotent scorn to which the isolated writer tends and the self-assured denial of prize-winning novels in which the freedom of the imagination is an unquestioned good. That someone considered fit to judge Britain's most prestigious literary prize did not notice any of this and indeed dismisses such an intrepid novel as "theory", suggests there is something very wrong at the heart of British literary culture.

Monday, October 01, 2007

I didn't expect a nihilistic Romanian philosopher

Did anyone else's jaw suddenly discover gravity last night watching Michael Palin's New Europe on BBC1? He was on a train to Bucharest and got chatting with a young man reading a book by EM Cioran. Ex-Cardinal Ximénez read from the blurb. It was On the Heights of Despair (scroll down to find a copy of the book).
I feel that I am dying of solitude, of love, of despair, of hatred, of all that this world offers me. With every experience I expand like a balloon blown up beyond its capacity. The most terrifying intensification bursts into nothingness. You grow inside, you dilate madly until there are no boundaries left, you reach the edge of light, where light is stolen by night, and from that plenitude as in a savage whirlwind you are thrown straight into nothingness.
That or ITV3.


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