Saturday, November 10, 2007

Odd content

A discomforting reading experience is re-reading a favourite novel, one I've already read a few times, only to discover something unexpected, something that fades its aura of formal perfection. Example: Thomas Bernhard's Concrete. On page 67 the narrator Rudolf visits Niederkreut, a veteran Cavalry Officer from the First World War. Soon talk turns to Niederkreut's Will. The old man explains that he intends to leave his fortune to a name chosen at random from the London telephone directory.
I open it at random ... and with my eyes closed, I put the index finger of my right hand at a certain spot. When I opened my eyes I found that the tip of my finger was resting on the name Sarah Slother. I don't know who Sarah Slother is - her address is 128 Knightsbridge.
While the name is only odd and the address plausible (Knightsbridge is a road as well as a district), it appears to me as a false note. Perhaps I should regard it as Reger regards the flaws he seeks in Old Masters in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum: an imperfection necessary to art. But I'd rather it wasn't there. Any other examples?


  1. Anonymous6:50 am

    Well, there's the completely inaccurate depiction of Glenn Gould in The Loser, but that's on a much larger scale than skewing Knightsbridge. I'd always assumed that Bernhard did that deliberately, knowing full well that Gould didn't live in a country estate, etc., but maybe not? (I don't know enough about Bernhard to say, and it's been a long time since I read that book.) But I have to ask, why does it matter? Realism or factual accuracy isn't the point here. So I wouldn't necessarily call it an imperfection, even a necessary imperfection: maybe just necessary. And in the case of Bernhard's Gould as opposed to the "real" Gould, I'd delete the "maybe", too.

  2. Oh his portrayal of Gould is completely knowing, I'm sure. And I'm not saying it's a matter of realism or accuracy, merely something that doesn't fit in; that seems incongruous when everything else, even if it's strictly inaccurate as in The Loser, seems right. That's why I emphasised the plausibility of the name and the address. Perhaps the latter is meant to show the absurdity of the old man's technique: the recipient, living there, is bound to be rich enough for the windfall to mean nothing.

    Talking of inconguities, it's 7:59 on a Sunday morning and an elongated pink cadillac has just driven by.

  3. There's a moment in Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude where his protagonist talks of his job writing liner notes for CD compilations. He mentions writing notes for a compilation of falsetto rock and soul, and that one of the songs was a Van Morrison song. It stopped me cold because Van Morrison doesn't, so far as I know from my record-store days, ever license songs to that sort of compilation.

    It's nitpicky, but it seemed important because so much of The Fortress of Solitude is built on specific details about places and cultural artifacts and local mores. Therefore, getting things demonstrably wrong--especially in this sort of lazy, "the sentence was just rolling along nicely and I didn't check the details" sort of way--jars far more than it otherwise might.

  4. I'd much rather Hermann Melville had written two separate books: one, the novel Moby Dick; and secondly, a separate scientific treatise on the whale rather than, for this reader, ruining the first with the excessive intrusion of the second.
    I know the prominence of hte whale, but my experience of The Brothers Karamazov would not be deepened by Dostoevsky's insertions of vast chunks of information on the intricacies of Fyodor Karamozov's biological structure.

  5. Anonymous8:03 am

    There's a moment in Amis's "The Information" (far from a masterpiece, but an enjoyable book). Two Americans, in agreement with the observation that there's been progress in the PC-ification of sign language, since the sign for "queer" is no longer a limp wrist but a spelling of the word "queer", say: "Too right."

    "Amen" would have been *lots* more plausible.

  6. This happens all the time with me. Maybe this is too lowbrow for you, but it seems to happen on every other page of certain books by Philip K Dick.



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