Sunday, December 30, 2007

Our friend's friend

Kevin MacDonald's documentary My Enemy's Enemy was broadcast last week on More4. Its focus was on Klaus Barbie's post-war career as a CIA agent in South America. It turns out he acted as consultant in the hunt for Che Guevara and was as involved in Bolivian politics until the early 1980s as he was in Lyon's in the 40s. One victim said he made her sit on a block of ice for 48 hours. This shameful history has been framed (by Andrew Marr on Start the Week for one) as a consequence of the US's hysterical anti-Communism, but it is curious how the victims tended to be students and union activists rather than "communist infiltrators". Barbie's downfall came only when his usefulness came to an end.

On a literary note, my limited knowledge of South American literature means I can think of only one novel about Nazi exiles in South America. And it's not South American but German. Gert Hofmann's wonderful (but unavailable) Before the Rainy Season is about a young German who travels to Bolivia with his fiancée to see his "uncle" on a Hacienda in the rainforest. It also happens to have one of my favourite opening lines:
Come on, I'm waiting for you here on the veranda, calls our uncle, if that is who he really is, for he has long been believed missing in South America.

"A Time of Gifts"

A couple of years ago The Sharp Side ran an hilarious list of genuine winners of British literary awards. At the time I doubted the existence of such books as C.A. Trypanis' The Cocks of Hades, believing it to be Ellis' jest. In order to do that, I had to elide my knowledge of the name of the winner of the 1959 Duff Cooper Memorial Prize. Ellis put me right in another post which also gives staggering examples of eligible books that didn't receive the Duff Cooper.

I knew Patrick Leigh Fermor's name because, when I first started reading, his book Between the Woods and the Water had just been published to the delight of many reviewers. I remember being put off by the anachronistic cover. But the anachronism was appropriate as the book recalls a journey began in the final month of 1933. Over this Christmas I read A Time of Gifts, the first in the series following the 19-year-old author as he walked from the Hook of Holland to Hungary via Germany and Czechoslovakia. This is the kind of journey I would like to make. On arriving in Rotterdam at dawn, all the cafés are closed. But then:
A shutter went up and a stout man in clogs opened a glass door, deposited a tabby on the snow and, turning back, began lighting a stove inside. The cat went in again at once; I followed it and the ensuing fried eggs and coffee, ordered by signs, were the best I had ever eaten.
When he reveals his intended destination, the café owner produces two glasses and they drink a toast to the journey ahead. While this is moving in the context of the book, there is also a heavy shade of melancholy: the hopeful future is now the dead past. This everyday yet singular moment, once buried under the larger movements of history, is miraculously alive again. Rare moments like this redeem the book which otherwise, perhaps due to the circumstances of its composition, is too frequently padded with impressionistic digressions. For instance, in Prague he says:
Fear, piety, zeal, strife and pride, tempered in the end by the milder impulses of munificence and learning and doucear de vivre, had flung up an unusual array of grand and unenigmatic monuments.
Oh rocks, one wants to say, get back to the journey! Perhaps I want the impossible: to be on the woodland paths myself. There just isn't enough of it here.

By coincidence, the latest NYRB has a review by Colin Thubron of several of Leigh Fermor's books. In particular, the reissue of A Time to Keep Silence, a book that describes "several sojourns in some of Europe's oldest and most venerable monasteries". Silence has apparently drawn criticism for A Time of Gifts. There is "political innocence" as he travels through Germany, where Nazi fervour was taking hold. Though Thubron doesn't name names, this is from the Clive James school of judgmental criticism. Beckett was also perceived to be an innocent (or worse) for not focussing enough on the issue when he was there at the same time (James Knowlson proved it was otherwise of course). If anything, however, such openness enables the reader to experience time as it is experienced: not the determined movement discerned by 20/20 Jamesian hindsight but the incessant, uncertain silence of the everyday. "When no buildings were in sight," Leigh Fermor writes "I was back in the Dark Ages". It reminds me of what Cioran said about Beckett: "He is one of those beings who make you realize that history is a dimension man could have done without."

Sunday afternoon

Sunday morning

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Wrong key

BBC News "looks back at some of the key personalities from the worlds of acting, music and the arts who passed away [died FFS] in 2007". Among the 27 names listed there are eight actors, five musicians, two writers, two film directors, an alleged comedian and Anne Nicole Smith. There is no mention of Karlheinz Stockhausen.

More from the Sydney twanger

Returning on the train yesterday, I sat next to a chatty elderly lady. The journey had been uncomfortable for everyone on board, so we exchanged stories. She said she is an "art guide" in various locations in Sussex. Her favourite was Charleston, the country seat of the Bloomsbury set. It's also where they have a literary festival which, over the years, has enabled her to meet a few famous writers. She had liked Andrew Marr, she said, and Ian McEwan, all of whose books she has since bought and read. I nodded and smiled unconvincingly. But she didn't like that Clive James. This time my smile was more convincing! He was interested only in selling his awful book, she said. It reminded me of the interest stirred the day before when I read the Village Voice's books of the year feature in which Allen Barra recommends the book my neighbour scorned. He tells us that in it "Walter Benjamin, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Leon Trotsky take hits from which their reputations will never recover." What on earth, I wondered, had Benjamin done, said or written that could ruin his reputation as one of the greatest critics of the 20th Century? Garth Risk Hallberg of The Millions Blog helps to explain in part five of his long review. Of course, it's political. "How terrifying it is to see a fine mind in the grip of ideological fervor" Hallberg remarks, "I mean James', of course."
Apart from being a thinker whose sensibility - which can in no way be construed as ideological - has changed my life, Benjamin should be enrolled among James' angels. He was a victim of totalitarianism, killing himself in the Pyrenees when it seemed he wouldn't be able to escape the Reich. But because Benjamin practiced a syncretic version of Marxism, and would become popular, posthumously, with leftist academics, James can't let him die with dignity.
I am tempted to respond further but Praxis blog is more comprehensive than ever I could hope to be. It also reveals James' thoughts on Paul Celan's poetry: apparently he says it is "marred by its difficulty – a difficulty produced by Celan's need to find a refuge from harsh reality." Can there be a more insensitive reading? But James doesn't stop there: "Number me among the almonds Celan says. James responds: At the time I noted this instruction down, I couldn’t resist the unwritten addition: And call me a nut."

I shall have to resist writing anymore as I have two new year resolutions ready: one is to write fewer fire-fighting or abusive blogs and the other is to read as many of the four volumes of Benjamin's Selected Writings as possible. The latter should encourage the former.

PS: As I chatted about Charleston on the train, the cultural equilibrium was maintained when Geoffrey of Rainbow walked up the aisle. I'm not sure Clive would approve: George is obviously a pinko.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

"I admired the fog and its affinity to the mountains"

Not the mountains in this case but Ditchling Beacon on the South Downs this afternoon (as taken on my phone camera after I'd cycled up through the fog). The line comes from Indian Summer (Der Nachsommer), a novel from 1847 by Adalbert Stifter - an influence on both Sebald and Bernhard - which Tales from the Reading Room inspired me to read. "It's a coming of age novel in which very little happens," Litlove writes "but its emotional climate is one of achingly suppressed passion." This is a perfect summary of the 380 pages (of 475) I have read so far. "It's extraordinary" she adds. It is that. I wonder how many other novels have such faith in such silence?

Thursday, December 20, 2007

"I just can't blog about that crap any more!"

The main reason I write - this and everything else - is to have done with it. If I write something, I can forget for a while. Trouble is, the spikes that provoke the need for the soothing act of writing have multiplied of late. Instead of writing a response I daydream about floating off in the opposite direction with a serenely disengaged blog like Spurious and wood s lot or, like Ed Champion this week, turning full time to more respectable forms. (Perhaps these latter forms enable one to forget correspondingly larger things and for longer?). Then I saw this desperate post by a blogger focussing on "Internet Marketing, Social Media & Software Development":
I just can't blog about that crap any more! I have become known for being an honest blogger, and yet I have not been honest over the last four weeks and it’s started to show. This last week I have seen my subscriber numbers drop daily and it doesn’t surprise me one bit. I sit at my computer, feeling like nothing means anything anymore, staring at some pointless online video about affiliate marketing. I’m trying to write a review and all the while in my head I’m thinking "I don’t care, I really don’t give a shit, what am I doing?" and I imagine that comes through in my writing.
How I wish every such blogger would take heed of this cry. The advantage for the literary blogger is that the emotion expressed here is where literary blogging must start; if not in the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart, then with what really matters.

Today, among many other possible links, there's Lenin's Tomb's report on a secret air war and "the rolling wave of massacres" it has led to, and of course its utter lack of presence in liberal democratic consciousness (the kind of cultural amnesia Clive James doesn't seem so bothered about). This leads to news about Mark Curtis's new book Dirty Wars, "a penetrating history of the British government's sponsorship of radical Islamic terrorism, from Iran, Afghanistan and Libya to the July 7 bombings". I wonder if it will get as many reviews as the Nick Cohen and Anthony Andrews abominations did this year?

Back to literature, there's Ellis Sharp's review of Lee Rourke first book of fiction Everyday, to which Mark of RSB responds with a necessary qualification of its definition of Establishment Literary Fiction (which is his theory and nobody else's). I also want to respond to Ellis' criticisms of Aharon Appelfeld's The Age of Wonders - mainly to explain why the clichés, the "lazy" sentences he identifies or the more serious focus on the author's Zionism (about which I won't argue) are not what make his novels unique.

Next is Michael Roloff catching up on some recent Handke publications, including news of Morawische Nacht, a 500-page "prose work" forthcoming from Suhrkamp. After the last novel though, I'm not sure if I care anymore.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Some thoughts on the death of criticism

"It's tough being a serious critic in these relativist times" says John Crace in his article Is criticism dying, or is that just your view? (link via TEV). "These days, all opinions and prejudices are equally valid. So if you think [Mark] Wallinger is crap, then he is crap." But this is why serious criticism remains a challenge. Rather than dying, criticism begins with relativism. Criticism is as inevitable as breathing, wrote one of the last century's greatest critics in 1922. Serious criticism is breathing only at higher altitude.

Crace writes about the subject in relation to Ronan McDonald's new book The Death of the Critic. He wants critics to reach a wider market like scientists, philosophers and historians. A good way to do this would be to advertise the names of good but neglected critics but I don't see any here, which is a shame. McDonald is said to put criticism's decline down to three things: "the egocentrism of the 1980s", "the evidently self-serving practice of friends reviewing each others' books" and "the legacy of the Oedipal desire of the generation of critical theorists who learned at the feet of men like Leavis to kick aside the old values of their teachers." This is a bizarrely journalistic diagnosis by an academic! The fate of criticism follows the fate of art: so what about the legacy of Modernism and consumerist democracy? We might have very prominent novelists but, in terms of literary history, they produce hollow echoes that no amount of prize committees and fresh-faced pundits can insist are anything else. This too is a problem of criticism. It doesn't know how to prescribe without appearing elitist. My solution is to ignore it. Charging others with elitism is a form of self-hatred. As McDonald says, "the relativists are making judgments, even if they insist they are not". But he also says "In a world of celebrity critics and blogs, there has to be place for a more evaluative response of the academic". Indeed, welcome aboard. But what are these unnamed celebrity critics and blogs doing if it isn't evaluative?

However much one refutes relativism, it keeps coming back to haunt. That is its essential nature. Justin O'Connor's argument against it quoted by Crace reiterates Eliot, but then refutes itself with the example:
regardless of whether you like Ian McEwan's novels, you have to accept that his judgments on literature carry more weight, simply because he is a practitioner, engaging with writing every day.
If this were true, he could say the same of Barbara Cartland. Perhaps even more so as she wrote more. I can't be sure if O'Connor's article goes onto say this, but it's how these writers engage that makes the difference. The reason both authors fail my test of criticism is because their fiction relies on an unchallenged narrative authority. Such is their lack of engagement. I'll be more taken with the words of a writer who cannot engage with writing or, equally, one who is aware that he engages too much! I'm encouraged that McDonald "would like to see more of an overlap between critical and creative writing" because that's precisely how I see literature going on.

It's revealing the serious criticism perceived here to be missing is defined as "academic" - something assumed to be above vulgarities like commerce and populism - yet is also routinely dismissed for its "wilful obscurantism". There are contradictory demands here. It seems there is a desire for unpretentious consumer guides that also offer a definitive, philosophically-engaged overview placing works within the literary canon. So O'Connor affording McEwan weight can be seen as a means of covering both bases: the author's popularity combining with the evident craft of his books. Instead I would say those who offer worthwhile criticism are those, regardless of profile, who address the pressing issue of authority. The worth being, in simple terms, its way of opening up art's complex relation to life. Saying "Mark Wallinger is crap" does the opposite. Let's all make that criticism die.

Monday, December 17, 2007

A share of essential bewitchment

What follows is Emilie Colombani's review of Maurice Blanchot's Chroniques littéraires du Journal des Débats avril 1941-août 1944, new from Gallimard. The French original will appear next month in Transfuge magazine. Our thanks are due to Charlotte Mandell for this translation.

Cautious minds might be surprised at first glance to note that just a few years after Maurice Blanchot’s death, and to honor the centennial of his birth, Gallimard (under the imprint Les Cahiers de la NRF) has published a book by Blanchot that has such a "journalistic" title. Nothing could seemingly be further from a newspaper review than the work of the man who introduced us to a concern for "plain" speech, the search for the "neuter," and an obsession with purity in literature. The titles of the collections of essays by the author of The Space of Literature in fact resound in our ears like so many denials of that non-essential speech, that stream of inchoate words that in Blanchot's view, following the traces of the Mallarméan precept, are the characteristic of oral communication, a communication that will never "make up for the defects of language," whose insistent rumor journalism, especially these days, so often takes pleasure in spreading. What’s more, we know the symbolic, if not falsely polemical, quality of the dates themselves on which Blanchot published these articles, from April 1941 to August 1944. Evil dates, according to some distasteful inquisitors, who will note that the Journal des Débats was one of the publications authorized by Vichy. To those people one can only counter with the lucidity of the texts and this plea for freedom, which appears in the course of an article on Tocqueville where Blanchot exalts "the spirit of discernment during a time when the unquestioning mind was triumphing, the purely intellectual passion to know and not to be duped when enthusiasm is driving everything, even politics." How can we not see this as an indictment in miniature of the totalitarian inclinations that dominated Europe at the time? Of course we have to admit that by his deliberately "disengaged" position, hostile to any partisan spirit and to any stance that might betray his systematic mind, this close friend of Emmanuel Levinas would always remain the custodian of a distinct tradition that holds art as something that cannot be appropriated by the sirens of current events, even if they be malevolent. Some might find this displeasing, and it is true that Blanchot's aristocratic taste for shadow and secrecy may have given rise to a number of questions. But that a writer so sure of his resources could claim as his own the sole happiness of meditating on literature and "on the silence unique to it," to use the expression that figures as an epigraph in a number of the first editions of his texts, no doubt seemed too strong for some to ignore.

There is however no rhetorical posturing in Blanchot, nothing even that could signal that exclusive and rather outmoded cult of "art for art’s sake." If, like Valéry’s Monsieur Teste (about which one of the most brilliant readings ever offered can be found in this collection), Blanchot is more fascinated by the workings of the mind than by its results, he is not one of those Neo-Parnassians who live idly remote from the preoccupations of the city. For him as for Sartre, although in a very different way, literature can only be a matter of "communication," yet in the noblest and strictest sense of the word. Every work forms with its audience a dialectic relationship where the distinction between essential and non-essential is never simple. The presence in this collection of a large number of texts which are actually "book reviews" in the strictest sense in that they comment on the recent publications of novels that were not necessarily destined to be epoch-making (and in fact were not) bears witness to this. Who remembers Luc Dietrich's L’Apprentissage de la ville, Julien Blanc's L'Admission, or Elisabeth Porquerol's Solitudes viriles? Authors who were obscure even in their own time and yet whose works carried within them, despite their defects and their weaknesses, the demand for literary questioning: "We cannot help but try to discover why these works, so different in method, seem to falter at the same point on the slope, and even if successful, resemble each other in their common lack of success." Adherence to this "impossible community" of minds so dear to Hölderlin, the terms of which Blanchot would revisit later on in The Book to Come and The Infinite Conversation, comes at this price, and cannot dodge the threat, consubstantial with the work, of its "disaster." We also sense, in this series of articles that follow a chronological order (which is by nature impervious to the syntheses of thought) a constant desire to submit texts and authors to an interrogation whose precise forms Blanchot does not yet grasp at that date but whose urgency he anticipates. The writer and thinker's work is present here in gestation – that taste for the margins, for the boundaries of the work established and mummified by public recognition, a mummification that keeps increasing as the recognition grows – thus his surprising pages on the Notebooks of Montesquieu (an author so long museified in those impeccable monuments that are The Spirit of Laws and Persian Letters, and in whom we had not suspected such reflexivity), or on the work of Balzac faced with the demiurgic challenge of La Comédie Humaine, or these reader’s notes full of perplexity on Chateaubriand's or Sainte-Beuve's relationship to politics, a strange and paradoxical relationship in which we might recognize, between the lines, the link both of vigilant demand and imperious rupture that Blanchot felt with his own century. For the author of The Madness of the Day was not only one of the writers who along with Kafka, Pessoa, Musil, Freud and Broch most keenly confronted European literature with the almost somnambulistic relationship it has with its founding myths, that share of essential bewitchment that still survives in the core of rational thought and its certainties. He was also one of those discreet observers who in a kind of peaceful and nostalgic shadow never stopped reminding us that literature in its infinite movement is this long waking dream that saves us from all the sleeps of reason.
Emilie Colombani

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Violence and better critics

"The Paris intelligentsia disengage from real life". This is a headline you can expect to read every few weeks in the British press, particularly in the supposedly sophisticated, supposedly left-wing journals like the New Statesman whose turn it is this month to sneer. As Bernard-Henri Lévy said last week in response to US claims that "French culture is all but dead", the sneering tells us more about the British than it does the French. The author, Andrew Hussey, did more or less the same last year writing about Jonathan Littell's novel Les Bienveillantes, and I really don't want to respond by repeating what I said then. But, if it helps to counter the influence of such cheap, insidious articles, here goes. He begins with a dark scenario of what's happening in Paris now:
In the suburbs, gangs of rioting immigrant youths are once again setting fire to cars and fighting running battles with the police. Unlike in the riots of 2005, which nearly brought the government down, the gangs are armed this time, mainly with cheap hunting rifles and air pistols. They move in small, predatory packs with the stated aim of shooting policemen.
It's like a scene from Resident Evil: Extinction (which I was watching as I wrote this); and almost as artificial.

Against this scene Hussey sets the character of Phillippe Sollers, "the epitome of snobbish, bourgeois, mondain Paris", whose book Un vrai roman: Mémoires is the "biggest literary event of the Parisian festive season" - that is, as defined by the same Parisian press who no doubt provided the juicy details of the riots. He is appalled that Sollers has nothing to say about not only the riots but the "cultural significance" of the Sex Pistols and rap music, and assumes Sollers hasn't heard of either. To Hussey, burning cars and popular music is more real than the life and mind of a 71-year-old man. Yet why are the gangs of rioters not out-of-touch themselves because they know nothing of the cultural significance of Tel Quel, Mozart, Voltaire or Nietzsche? Maybe both are out-of-touch. What might being-in-touch mean? Such are the questions endlessly begged by articles like this.

However, Hussey is right to say that "[o]ne of the most interesting facts about the riots of 2005 and 2007 has been the absolute silence of Parisian intellectuals on the subject". Indeed it is, particularly if it's true. Apart from Sollers himself, there is absolute silence here about names of the silent ones. He decides nothing has been said "because it doesn't fit in with their idea of the real world". So why not use the space available to report on the intelligentsia's idea of the real world? That would tell us more about France, wouldn't it?! Hussey instead sticks with his narrow definition reality as that which is violent, loud and fashionable. Hence:
If Sollers is largely unknown in the anglophone world, this is simply because French writers no longer occupy the central place they did in the days of Sartre or Camus.
For "central" read "fashionable". As the Literary Saloon suggests, it could be that this is due to a lack of English translations - which in turn suggests something about the constricted nature of English-language culture. Such possibilities don't seem to fit with Andrew Hussey's idea of the real world:
Meanwhile, somewhere not too far beyond the cafe tables of the Boulevard Saint-Germain, sirens blare, the police vans tear up the ring roads to the banlieue and another evening of car-burning and violence begins.
This is pure literature. It might be of cultural significance that the writers and thinkers who matter are no longer seduced by or appeal to fashion. We've seen how (for want of a better phrase) younger intellectuals have moved beyond the shallow end of philosophy and literature to find for themselves writers and thinkers who speak of what matters now and always. Soon I'll be posting a translation of a new article by a French writer who has done just that. I'm pleased to say it will also mark the 600th post on this blog.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Links in space

A few items for potential weekend reading:

Good advice: Richard Ford is interviewed by Anthony Byrt:
I ask him for his own take on the relation between writing and truth. Ford pauses, before adjusting [Frank Bascombe's] advice: "Just putting down everything that you think is not going to uncover the truth; what uncovers truth in something is the habit of art. It's when you think, 'I've got to make something out of this for someone else, which I will make well enough that they can make use of it.'
Reading biography: Richard Crary overcomes despair.

Chicago: Edmond Caldwell's story that gets stranger on each read.

Letter: And talking of Chicago, Mark "Midas" Sarvas finds Bellow gold amongst the rest cluttering his home.

Godard: From six years ago, Mike Figgis describes watching the most beautiful film of the 21st Century:
At one point in the screening, I found myself nodding off (it was hot and I was tired) and then something happened on screen and I was holding back some unidentifiable grief and trying not to weep.
Cock-end: Charlie Brooker demonstrates how I behave whilst reading Oliver Kamm on Stockhausen.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Finding a space

How will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by the internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging etc?
I don't have an answer, I just wonder how many more people happened to read Doris Lessing's Nobel acceptance speech because of the internet? Of course, reading online is different from reading a book, even Felicity Finds Love; the hope if offers, for example, of a possible unity as abstract as its binding is real. But reading Lessing's speech and then The Literary Saloon's report on the NBCC's survey results, I wondered about the impact blogging has - not on reading - but on writing. So many more people are writing for a large audience. What an extraordinary change! What impact might this have?
Writers are often asked: "How do you write? With a word processor? an electric typewriter? a quill? longhand?" But the essential question is: "Have you found a space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write?"
Yes, many more are finding a space: however the word is disguised, a whole day may indeed pass in writing ... etc.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

"This Was Thomas Bernhard"

This is the first of an eight-part documentary by the German channel 3SAT on you-know-who. The English language Thomas Bernhard site has kindly put together a single page with all eight embedded for our uncomprehending viewing pleasure. As Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle once sang, I Wish I Could Sprechen Sie Deutsch.

No great loss

Daft not to notice it before: this blog's uncertain direction, or its slightly irregular tone. A little Blanchot, then much Bernhard. Can two other writers be any more different? Three years ago the daydream was to create a space for this kind of post from that time or this one from last week. Both promote an alternative to the prevailing way of thinking about literature. Sometimes I wish it was made up of these kinds of posts only. I've long admired Spurious' tenacious focus on the solitary encounter; its patience in face of the one true end. Last month's post on discomfort with critical distance in Alexander Irwin's Saints of the Impossible and last Thursday's on the devotional songs of Rickie Lee Jones are just so good; inspirational and tranquilising. The blog is itself a literary example of the voice "close to speech" that it wants to hear (albeit a speech in the densest silence of the night):
a speech-song, close to popular idioms, vernacular, and the devotion revealed in a happy deformation of song, the stretching of some part of its elements - its becoming jazz-like, improvisational. And a sense of that voice trying to find something, discovering, and not only the heart of the narrative (in Rickie Lee Jones' case, the Passion). A voice that also discovers something of itself - that looks for itself in the singing. That sings to dwell in itself, looking for itself, losing itself.
But one can't change who one is. When I regret not being Spurious I always recall EM Cioran's brief memoir of Beckett in Anathemas and Admirations:
He disparages no one, unaware of the hygienic function of malevolence, its salutary virtues, its executory quality. I have never heard him speak ill of friends or enemies, a form of superiority for which I pity him and from which, unconsciously, he must suffer. If denigration were denied me, what difficulties and discomforts, what complications would result!
How Spurious must suffer! And then there's my Bernhard:
You have to publish, so that you’re done with what you have to say. Or you destroy everything, burn it in the oven. Just like my mother out of rage burnt the one photo of my father, I burnt whole novels. No great loss.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Spot the difference

This blog's cheerful presentation of the temporary exterior of Cardiff Library and that of a similar one in Kansas City rather hides the appalling differences. Whereas the latter features "influential books that represent" Kansas City, the former features the kind of books with which libraries in this country waste shelf space. This doesn't so much encourage reading as challenge the bookstall at the airport. And I wonder if it's like this because the city councillors appealed to publishers to, er, sponsor the design?


When Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke won the National Book Award recently, I thought what many others must also have thought: oh God, not another "ambitious" work about the US occupation of Vietnam?! I was as despairing as the customer on Amazon responding to The Name of the World: "Please, can these supposed writers of fiction just stop writing about the faculty of small liberal arts colleges?". Perhaps Johnson can write a post-911 next! In his infamous review of Tree of Smoke BR Myers' claimed that:
Underlying the hype [about the novel] is the silly notion that if a work introduces plenty of characters and traipses after them for enough years and pages, it is ipso facto ambitious.
"The true mark of an ambitious work", he adds, "is its style and depth". I agree, but I would add that now another mark is restraint, if not also outright refusal of established literary procedure.

In relation to this, listen to Is there too much culture?, an enthralling podcast from the director Mike Figgis, as part of the Free Thinking "festival of ideas in Liverpool", in which he diagnoses cultural stagnation. He asks us to imagine the youth of 1957 aping the youth of 1907. But it's unthinkable. Yet the youth of 2007 ape those of 1957; the sound and look of popular music now is basically the same as then. Figgis puts this down to an excess of memory. He says we need to let go, and looks forward to a time when the dam breaks and the stagnation is washed away. In real terms, he wants an end to the archival nature of culture (which would upset the British Library podcasters who ran a panel precisely on the importance of saving an author's entire output!). How this might happen, he doesn't say, but the diagnosis is sound when it comes to "ambitious" novels, and to most current literature too, in which aping the past is endemic. So I wonder, can a writer precipitate the collapse? Ah, now that's an ambition.

The mire of words

As I haven't read the book, I can't say for sure whether BR Myers' hatchet-job on Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke is fair, but I had a similar response to The Name of the World, which I had picked up because of the intriguing title and impressive encomia. I found the writing awkward and indistinct; like so much of US fiction in fact: an apparently thoughtless mix of the literary and colloquial, with each undermining the other. Of course this is an unforgivably impressionistic description. In mitigation, I don't have a copy and Myers' review does rather confirm it. (Terry Pitts' review of Marianne Wiggins' The Shadow Catcher seems to identify something similar.)

Myers reduces the issue to the rotting of the "application of word to thing". Literary prose "becomes slushy and inexact, or excessive or bloated, the whole machinery of social and of individual thought and order goes to pot." However wrong he is in his identification of a cure, I think he's identified the central problem. It's been addressed from a different angle recently, and the crisis that led to Modernism can, in crude terms, be traced to a felt disintegration in the relation between representation and the thing it represents. Kafka expressed it when Gustav Janouch asked his opinion of the drawings of Oscar Kokoschka:
I do not understand them. Drawing derives from to draw, to describe, to show. All they show me is the painter's internal confusion and disorder. [...] In that picture the roofs are flying away. The cupolas are umbrellas in the wind. The whole city is flying in all directions. Yet Prague still stands - despite all internal conflicts. That is the miracle.
Expressionism then is Establishment Literary Fiction now; both rely on an embedded confidence in its chosen medium; producing culture as in mould. Kafka's words help me to understand what's missing from most of the fiction I feel obliged to sample: the hard-won voice.

Friday, December 07, 2007

New Blanchot collection

For those of you with French, Chroniques littéraires du Journal des débats: Avril 1941-août 1944 is a new, 685-page collection from Gallimard of weekly reviews written by Blanchot.

A third of the reviews have already appeared in the English translation of Faux Pas and this collects the rest. It includes pieces on, among others, Dante, Rabelais, Descartes, Blake, Joyce, Mallarmé and Valéry.

The rest of us will have to wait for a translation :(

Thursday, December 06, 2007

A crucial moment in the history of art

Adam Kirsch redeems himself from scorning book blogs by noting the utter wrongheadedness of Peter Gay's new book Modernism: the lure of heresy. Along the way, Gay writes "the modernist novel is an exercise in subjectivity" and "for Mondrian subjectivity was all". This "subjectivity", Kirsch writes
... is precisely what is missing from the most genuinely modern artwork. Where is the self in "The Waste Land," a poem that notoriously has no "I," and whose speakers seem to follow one another like voices overheard in a crowd? What could be more "objective" than the geometric grids of a Mondrian painting, which could almost be generated by an algorithm?
Gay's gross misunderstanding suggests that this grand overview of Modernism is worse than unreliable. Yet many other reviews have been respectful if not also full of praise. Rupert Christiansen notes only two "significant" errors, not one being Kirsch's, and says "one could recommend the book wholeheartedly to a bright A-level student or undergraduate in search of a broader picture", Sophie Ratcliffe hails it as "an enormous achievement" and Terry Teachout calls it a success and Modernism "a thing of the past".

What stands out in the reviews is the coverage given to the artists' extra-artistic opinions and behaviour. As Tim Rutten explains, Gay spends time assessing "T.S. Eliot's anti-Semitism and Charles Ives' homophobia" and Knut Hamsun's "chilling idolatry of Hitler". While this is certainly relevant to Modernism, it isn't unique to it, as we know from Peter Ackroyd's biography of Dickens, so why the fuss? In this light it's significant for this history that Gay is, as Rutten also explains, "unsympathetic - even slightly uncomprehending - in his treatment of Samuel Beckett". Perhaps this is because Beckett doesn't offer such easy assimilation with biographical nuggets. He was above all an artist.

I've now got a copy of Gabriel Josipovici's review of the book hidden behind the Irish Times' pay wall. He calls the book "appallingly bad" and offers far more errors:
The Rite of Spring dates from 1913, not 1911; The Waste Land is not ‘five poems assembled under one title’, and to believe it is surely disqualifies one from speaking at all on the subject of Modernism; the figure with the enormous penis in Baselitz’s early painting, Great Night Down the Drain is not female (Baselitz tells us he was thinking of an image of Brendan Behan); L’Année dernière à Marienbad is not taken from a novel by Robbe-Grillet. And so on and on.
But his critique differs from all the others by arguing that Gay's discussion of Modernism as "a single historical epoch" is inadequate to the subject:
The book is a wonderful example of Walter Benjamin’s theses on history and his argument that because positivist history does not question it cannot get a handle on the multiform events that form the past. To compare Gay’s plodding 500 pages with five pages of Barthes or Blanchot or Erich Heller is illuminating: for them Modernism is not a period, like Mannerism, but a crucial moment in the history of art, when art arrives at an understanding of itself, a degré zéro beyond which there is only silence. Grasping this they can see what it is Modernist artists were really up to, from Mallarmé to Beckett, and they can see the relations of Modernism to Romanticism and beyond, to that first modern European intellectual and spiritual crisis, the Reformation. In so doing they are at one with the authors they are looking at. Compare Gay’s bland, ‘No doubt Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the choral last movement had much to answer for,’ with Wendell Kretschmar’s impassioned lectures in Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus on why Beethoven never composed a third movement to the piano sonata opus 111 and on Beethoven and the fugue. In a few pages Mann succeeds in conveying the issues that faced Beethoven and have faced composers ever since, while Gay cops out comprehensively with his ‘much to answer for’. The best that can be said for this sorry production is that it provides us with a lesson on the poverty of a certain kind of history, but, at 500 pages, that is a lesson that most students will be happy to dispense with.

Poetic injustice

What's more absurd than a 15-day prison sentence for breaking blasphemy laws in Sudan? Well, a liberal democracy giving a nine-month suspended sentence to a naive young woman for writing bad poetry. Clive James must be really worried.

Scorning book blogs: replacing a deleted post

Apparently all my scorn in the post this replaces should have been directed at Adam Kirsch and not Gail Pool. Profuse apologies to Gail Pool. In mitigation, Wolcott's review is ambiguous about where the quotation comes from, though seeing as it's a review of a specific book, you would have thought such a long quotation would be from there. I deleted the post and replaced it with this near identical version, and though I'm sure it was covered at the time of publication, it still deserves a kicking.
Literary criticism is only worth having if it at least strives to be literary in its own right, with a scope, complexity, and authority that no blogger I know even wants to achieve.
The key words here being "I know". This is James Walcott quoting from Adam Kirsch's attack on book blogs. Kirsch fails to provide any specific examples of book blogs, but he wouldn't have written that sentence if he knew Dan Green's The Reading Experience or Richard Crary's The Existence Machine. And if he doesn't know either, then he is unqualified to generalise about book blogs. Not that it stops him.
The only useful part of most book blogs, in fact, are the links to long-form essays and articles by professional writers, usually from print journals.
The key words here being "only", "professional" and "usually". A professional editor would demand examples and clarification of the other two words. Another obvious use of book blogs is to provide self-satisfied professionals with a straw man, and if those useful links are "usually" to print journals, what do the exceptions reveal?

It so happens I'm also a professional writer, though not in the field I would prefer. What I consider more important is that which I write out of a need to speak. The last "long-form essay" I wrote was a year ago, about Richard Ford's Sportswriter trilogy. The form suited what I had to discover. Usually, however, a shorter blog post is appropriate. It's often much more of a challenge to write short. Sometimes I wish James Wood used a fifth of the words he writes nowadays. (Which reminds me of a critic of Derrida's long-winded style, influenced, he said, by having to pad-out three-hour seminars. Compare this with the concise reviews and essays by his friend and mentor Blanchot, who remained outside professionalism.)

And it's early days: book blogging is a new form of criticism under restraint. It has good, bad and indifferent practitioners. As a reader, I make the same decisions online as I make in the bookshop and the library. I don't dismiss fiction because of Tom Clancy anymore than I dismiss online criticism because of Amazon customer reviews.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Literary parasitism

In these seemingly anti-literary times, authors tend to do all they can to support literature; Spanish novelist Enrique Vila-Matas is the first I've seen to treat it like a disease.
Scott Esposito in the superb Quarterly Conversation on my favourite novel of the year. It's a deceptively simple book to follow but fiendishly difficult to summarise. Scott does a brilliant job at that, and is quite right to recognise that it falls away in the second half. But what a fall ...

Derrida - the movie

Today I have been mostly watching this fascinating fly-on-the-wall documentary about Derrida (via Fark Yaralari). Halfway through I remembered it was on December 1st, 2000 that I attended a lecture given by Derrida at Sussex University to mark the opening of the Centre for Modern French Thought. It was so cold in the lecture hall that Derrida wore a white scarf while his host wore a black one. He came across then as he does here: austere yet warm. From what I can remember, he lectured on hospitality, arguing that we must welcome strangers into our lives as if they were family (I think he even said "we should offer them our beds"!). The audience, made up of the cheerfully curious and of career-focussed tutors and postgraduates, tore into his arguments with demanding questions. He welcomed them in the spirit of his lecture; something I appreciated even if I couldn't follow the discussion. Sadly, both Derrida and the Centre for Modern French Thought (which hosted a video of the event) are now closed.


Joyce Carol Oates still bothers people — in all kinds of ways. For more than forty-five years she has been steadily producing novels, short stories, poems, essays, plays. Between the beginning of 2000 and the end of 2005 she published nineteen books. She has written over seven hundred short stories, more than Maupassant, Kipling, and Chekhov combined.
So Michael Dirda begins his NYRB review of four new Joyce Carol Oates books, including her journal. I read the review hoping that the journal might reveal something about her productivity. I wasn't disappointed.
Her journal tells us that she writes from 8 till 1 every day, then again for two or three hours in the evening. And she revises and polishes and reworks page after page after page. Such commitment, coupled with her literary fecundity, unnerves many people. Surely so many books can't be that good, that deeply felt, truly authentic?
Dirda answers with an emphatic No: "there can be no question of [her major novels'] power and conviction". But he can't help but return to the reception!
Still, Joyce Carol Oates distresses more than a few writers and critics. She can raise doubts and misgivings ... in nearly any novelist or essayist. Similarly, critics — on the printed page or in conversation — all too frequently deride Oates's work for its copiousness; some suggest it is the product of obsessive-compulsive behavior. Often, I suspect, this crude reductionism derives from reviewer's angst.
Dirda is almost certainly right in this latter suspicion (though it would have been nice to have some evidence). How can any reviewer possibly have a grasp of this novelist's oeuvre without devoting himself to weeks of research? Yet no matter how accurate, to me this remains a superficial answer. All productive artists generate a despairing envy of some kind, even in those who love what they produce. They are loved because they both mark stages on the way to one's own realisation and resented because they also close off another route.

Joyce Carol Oates' work evokes the same paradoxical despair one feels in a library, or when faced by the list of classics one has failed to read. Precious hope for one's realisation in a book is not diminished but dispersed. The task then becomes to write in every genre and in every form, and then to write every book ever written. For only in this way can one realise the hope of the book, the hope to say everything at last. Yet if one of the most prominent self-realisers cannot achieve this, what hope is there for us?

Saturday, December 01, 2007

More Remainder

Tom McCarthy talks to Ed Champion about Remainder and repetition in a rich, two part makes-you-feel-stupid-but-inspired-too interview. I was enacting my own repetitive behaviour as I listened: cycling the same 26-mile route which includes what the great Miguel Indurain called "the côte de Ditchling Beacon“, a fourth category climb on the 1994 Tour de France (beat that cycling litbloggers!).

Just after reaching the summit, Tom spoke of how trauma, noted by both Freud and anti-Freudian neuroscientists, "instils a propensity to repeat, to return to the traumatic scene". In my case, however, the obsessive following of the same route seeks merely to erase uniqueness; I want the same non-experience each time. If anything happens along the way, I change the route. But isn't that what the guy in Remainder is doing too? The question reminds me of an aspect of the novel the interview mentions only once and very briefly yet has always bothered me. How does the trauma from the sky at the beginning of the book relate to its end in the aircraft? It's another way of asking how artistic creation relates to its cause. To me, the ending hints of the traumatic remainder in art's unworldliness.


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