Sunday, June 22, 2008

A note on James Wood's She's Not Herself

I was intrigued to see James Wood's review of Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances begin with a reference to Georg Büchner's Lenz. By coincidence, I read this astounding story only this morning and am still reeling from the experience. Wood says it is "a harbinger of European modernism" and lists its indirect descendants. From this close, I'd add Nabokov's Signs & Symbols, though Wood's focus is unreliable narrators while mine is ... well, unfocussed. There is one obvious direct descendant: Celan's Conversation in the Mountains but Wood adds another:
[In] the book most obviously indebted to "Lenz," Thomas Bernhard’s devastating novel "The Loser," the narrator labors to convince us that his friend, Wertheimer, is the real "loser," while the reader can see that the poor narrator himself hardly escapes that terrible designation.
While not wishing to be pedantic (well, not all of the time), this interpretation relies on the unfortunate translation of the German original Der Untergeher, which might be translated literally as The Undergoer or The One Who Goes Under. The Loser just doesn't cover it.

Wertheimer's suicide which occurs before the book begins is a form of going-under that he and the narrator saw in the virtuosity of Glenn Gould's playing of the piano. For both, witnessing Gould's sublime talent signalled the end of their own musical careers. In that sense, both are losers. Yet Wertheimer has gone under. The narrator might then be said to be the real loser, thus meeting Wood's interpretation. But he has just written this book, the one we are reading - this sublime, virtuosic novel borne on the failure to go under.

An anorak's aside: James Wood reviewed the translation of The Loser when it was published in Britain back in 1992. As you can see from my annotated image of the clipping, he upset me at the time by calling Bernhard "a drastically limited artist, despite the bloated claims made on his behalf" (Italo Calvino, for instance, called him "the greatest writer in the world"). Oh for more limited artists! We'll have to make do instead with this week's half-dozen-or-so 750-page ambitious novels taking on or tackling the history of the 20th Century.

McEwan's silence

Richard Seymour of Lenin's Tomb asks: "Is it possible to survey Britain's most celebrated littérateurs and not find them repulsive?". Based on their novels alone, the answer has to be a resounding NO! But that's not what provoked our blogger's question. It's in response to Ian McEwan's latest interview in which he defends his "dear friend" Martin Amis from vaguely attributed accusations of racism. Along the way he reveals that "I myself despise Islamism". While Seymour answers better than anyone what McEwan says, I'll take issue with what he doesn't.

However "controversial" Amis's comments or "brave" McEwan's position on the indigenous culture of neo-colonies, both are red herrings. Nowhere in this interview does McEwan express any regret, let alone horror and shame, at his nation's responsibility for the deaths of more than a million people in Iraq and Afghanistan. (There's not a word about his fictionalised apologetics either). One would have thought the continuing aggression of the most powerful army in the history of mankind and its allies would be more pressing than media-enabled paranoia about a foreign religion. In the last century, should the population of Weimar have been more concerned with rumours of Jewish "blood libels" than what was being carried out in their name just up the road?

While McEwan asks for his fellow subjects to start "to reflect on Englishness: this is the country of Shakespeare, of Milton, Newton, Darwin", he does not reflect that this is also the country of Prince "Bomber" Harry, a member of the English royal family involved in military attacks on civilians. During his time in Afghanistan, he is said to have guided fighter jets "towards suspected Taliban targets". In mitigation, McEwan can, with the rest of us, claim not to know what is really happening. After all, the London media that fawns over each of his claustrophobic and inorganic novels tends not to report that the "suspected Taliban" are often women, children, wedding parties and even herds of sheep. (Maybe we'd hear more about it if they lived in tower blocks).

All in all, it's a depressing lurch to the right. Twenty-five years ago, McEwan wrote the screenplay to The Ploughman's Lunch, a film that went against the political grain of the time. It showed in negative light Thatcherism's "promotion of self-interest, of ruthless dedication to obtain a desired goal". The main character is James Penfield, a social-climbing journalist played by Jonathan Pryce. He is writing a revisionist history of Britain's imperial adventure at Suez in 1956 in order to curry favour. As Channel 4's feature says, he is "keen to keep his political paymasters happy [by adopting] an extremely right-wing, partisan tone." There's a memorable scene at the end in which Pryce walks around the floor of the Conservative Party conference during Michael Heseltine's rallying speech. This was the famous post-Falklands War conference with the stage at the Brighton Centre designed to resemble the bridge of a battleship. It is as if Penfield is surveying the ruins of his own victory. As a person, he is empty; hollowed out by ambition. At the time I recall being struck by his definition of professionalism: "knowing instinctively what you can and cannot do".

Take a look The Afghan Victim Memorial Project and then try to curl up with the latest award-winning unit from one of our most celebrated literary professionals.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

A review of Senselessness

"This is a brilliantly crafted moral fable, as if Kafka had gone to Latin America for his source materials." So says Russell Banks recommending Horacio Castellanos Moya's first novel to be published in English. "I've not read anything quite like it", he adds. It's a puzzling addition considering he's just compared the novel to Kafka. However, it does make one thing clear ...
Find out what by reading my review of Senselessness posted today at Ready Steady Book.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Passages of escape: new Kafka

In the post below, I began writing about Sir Richard Burton in order to point toward a collection of Kafka's writings that has never before been translated. Franz Kafka: The Office Writings is a 440-page book made up of "articles on workmen's compensation and workplace safety; appeals for the founding of a psychiatric hospital for shell-shocked veterans; and letters arguing relentlessly for a salary adequate to his merit." They were composed, Princeton UP says, during Kafka's years as a lawyer with the Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute.

Kafka might not seem to have much in common with Burton except, perhaps, a rage to write. However, as Douglas Shields Dix reveals in his brilliant essay The Man Who Disappeared: Kafka Imagining Amerika, Kafka was enthralled by travel books and memoirs and, as Max Brod reported, "he had always a longing for free space and distant lands". Shields Dix explains why:
Between 1911 and 1914, Franz Kafka wanted to disappear. More precisely, he desperately sought a way out of the existential predicament of his life as he had been living it then, and towards a life that would yield him the necessary conditions to allow him to follow his chosen path of writing. It was during this period that he came to realize that the only true way out was through writing itself.
As his first novel Der Verschollene (translated by Michael Hofmann as The Man Who Disappeared) features distorted descriptions of American reality, we might read it as the lonely fantasy of a compulsive writer who never left Europe. However, remaining at home might not be the straightforward result of Kafka's "hesitation before birth". Shields Dix quotes a contemporary report of immigrants seeking the freedom of these fertile lands who turned up without any means of support before crops could be grown let alone yielded: "Like unreasoning children, they thought that could they but once reach the beautiful green slopes of the promised land, their poverty and trouble would be at an end." They remind me of the critics such as those quoted in yesterday's post who believe that if only writers would write about "the world at large" then somehow all would be well in both fiction and the world; as if fiction is a just branch of investigative journalism. It's no coincidence that Diana Sheets thinks the cardboard cut-out confections of Tom Wolfe is "our world"! Shields Dix essay explains why writers like Kafka are more likely to set us free (as readers and writers if nothing else):
Kafka's novels do not operate as a social critique, but as a mapping of social assemblages, and therefore a dismantling of them - and, consequently, as a way out. While these social assemblages appear inescapable, there are always interstices from which passages of escape emerge. We tend not to think of Kafka in this way, as his novels and other writings seem so claustrophobic and even paranoid, but the "ways out" he explores are intensive rather than extensive, and consequently they do not represent the form of escape as something occurring in the world. As I have suggested, the writing of Amerika simultaneously works through and rejects the physical, extensive escape of departing for America (or anywhere else), and opens an interior, intensive space of writing where Kafka finds a different, freer reality.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Sir Richard Burton: Rimbaud in reverse

Some years ago I began to read A Rage to Live, a huge biography of Sir Richard Burton and his wife Isabel. On the first page I looked at there was an account of how Burton got his distinctive facial scar during an attack on his party by Somali tribesmen in 1854:
The barbed spearhead of the javelin, thrust with precision and power of a warrior who had hunted and fought with such a weapon all his life, entered Richard’s left cheek travelling in a downwards direction. It pierced the roof of his mouth, transfixing the top jaw to the lower, dislodged some back teeth, and punched an exit through the right cheek.
I was reminded of this because, last week, Channel 4 broadcast Victorian Sex Explorer, a documentary on Burton presented by the actor Rupert Everett. This anecdote wasn't covered as it concentrated on Burton's army career in India and the scandalous rumours that followed his undercover work in a male brothel there. However, neither this nor the African action had prompted my interest. For all the undoubted attraction of Burton's adventures, what intrigued me is that Wikipedia's selected bibliography of books he either wrote or translated runs to 43 volumes. Everett does discuss contradictions in Burton's life but this was not one of them. Is it a rage to live that leads to such productivity? Perhaps Burton was a Rimbaud in reverse: giving up the world in order to write. It's odd how fascination with his life depends on such abnegation.

It's a fascination borne on habitual denial. We see it everywhere in literary discussion. Not long ago in the Christian Science Monitor, Diana Sheets complained that:
Literary fiction ... has become relativistic and solipsistic, donning the vestments of social justice at the expense of truth. It celebrates interior thought or consciousness while denigrating the discomforting landscape of the real.
Indeed, it is so discomforting for Sheets that she offers no real world examples. Instead, she instructs fiction writers to "dispense with solipsistic preoccupations of self and love and family – and reclaim classic virtues and the work of examining the world at large."

But then look what happens when those making such injunctions condescend to offer examples: a creative writing student in a lecture by the Bulgarian-born author Ilija Troyanov reports his demand that writers "avoid 'ego-lit' and write about something entirely foreign" which the student claimed staked out "the ground between him and Peter Handke ... and other explorers of internal worlds." As I pointed out at the time, if Troyanov's demand isn't utter nonsense, the example is.

By coincidence, Troyanov has a novel newly published in translation and, believe it or not, The Collector of Worlds is about Sir Richard Burton. From what I've read about the contents, his writing career is not featured.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Scars of blogging

This book is about the emergence of rapture in thought, an inquiry into what it enables us to think.
Such is the alluring opening line of Jill Marsden's After Nietzsche published by Palgrave in 2002. A friend who knows told me it is an excellent book; mine for £55.

There's an absorbing discussion not unconnected to this unfortunate fact at Scars of Différance - a blog that enables those unable to afford such sums to think by linking to downloads of translated books by European philosophers - from Agamben to Wittgenstein via Deleuze, Heidegger and Lacoue-Labarthe - following a comment by an American translator bitterly offended by such benefaction. The blogger's evident hurt at the comment ("what a brute way of speaking to the other") and impassioned defence is well worth reading, as are the many further comments.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

In the final twelve days January, I saw just one television programme. The TV was on the end of a mechanical arm over my bed. It wasn't much use because I was photophobic and the bright lights burned my eyes. Instead, I listened to a commentary with my eyes clamped shut. This was how I watched a BBC documentary on Amarna, the city founded by the pharaoh Akhenaten. You can watch extracts here.

I was quite taken by the absurdity of moving a capital city 400 miles into the desert to establish a new religion dedicated to Aten, the sun god. I might have known why at the time; now it's a mystery. Only now do I recognise the irony of listening in the dark to the story of light - a religion of light. At the time, I held the name Akhenaten in mind and lived another life. Perhaps that was enough. Yet now?

Much later, when I picked up a book on the subject, it reminded me of nothing.


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