Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Blogblog: on litblogs and critblogs

Dan Green proposes a new category of book blogs: critblog. It's a useful distinction because, as his post explains, the proliferation of literary weblogs has been led by "superficial chitchat and literary gossip" rather than critical engagement with the oracle. His post reminds me of the daily shock of trawling through dozens of RSS feeds with only the slightest glimmer of interest. While hoping for reviews, speculation, discussion or just original links, I read instead three dozen reports of the death of a famous young author - as if I or anybody else was unaware of Ed Champion's grim post from several days before.

This year I've wondered if the blog form had run its course. Did it reach a peak around 2006 as a friend has suggested to me? But what would reaching a peak mean? Dan laments the growth of blogs that do little "to the development of the litblog as a medium" - indeed, they circumscribe it to a bland daily digest - and reveals his plan to "inaugurate a new project" encompassing "more formally-developed critical essays, specifically essays on contemporary American fiction". I'm sure this is a good direction in which to go (as The Quarterly Conversation has proven). However, we should be clear: this is not blogging; a blog brooks no development. That is, if development is the cultivation of a project moving toward a positive fulfilment.

In 2000, when I began writing on Splinters, the idea was to draw attention to the essays, reviews and interviews on the wider site; an eddy in an otherwise stagnant backwater. It also enabled me to write on literary issues without having to expand an aside into an essay or review. Priority was always given to the longer form. Over the years, as blogging's profile rose, I still took time out to write long about Celan, Roubaud, Blanchot and, later, Sebald and Richard Ford, as well as individual reviews, believing this would rid myself of a certain lack. Perhaps there was a hope that the two would combine to form a distinct voice against the prevailing potatohead culture. If such a hope lived then, it's dead now. If we accept that winning is profile and popularity, the potatoheads have won. See, for example, the Guardian Book Blog's suspiciously minimal blogroll. The literary intellectuals at the newspaper evidently prefer to promote chicklit chat even though it makes Loose Women sound like an Oxford High Table.

Even though?

Anyway, such hope is a mirage looking back into the desert of the past. I have always written for reasons that are clear to me: to understand and unpack why, despite being island-bound and monolingual, I sense such an affinity to writers from the European mainland, and why English commensense realism and the happy freedoms of postmodernism* are irredeemably alien to me. If there are readers out there who recognise this feeling and who might then be saved from the dutiful reading of the latest potatohead favourite in order to find their own way, then my efforts have not been in vain.

*Postmodernism is a misnomer. It is the Victorianism of our age. Postmodernism is to Modernism what Victorianism is to Romanticism: a relapse, a celebration of unwitting failure, a backslide into the snug of timeliness and commerce. Modernism is still to come.

The amusing thing about the rise of the blogging idiots - some in their unstately pleasure-domes, some in their Nick Cohen caravans - is that they herald not the decline in newspaper book coverage and, with it, the associated glorious benefits to all, but its success. Rather than facing up to books as unique interruptions to daily life, newspaper book coverage has corralled literature into the interminable chatter of culture. Blogging follows. However, blogging has the small advantage of being able to make the silence of literature its focus. A literary editor would not sanction such pretentious nonsense, as the absence from newspapers of our best reviewers attests.

But I must have said this all this before. Repetition is a necessity of blogging and I used to be happy with that. Yet now, as the delay in the fulfilment of writing becomes a cage rather than a clearing, another indistinct form becomes more attractive. How many blogs have been written in order to open the way for what blogging has replaced?! The question would then be: can another form maintain this spirit of need and enquiry toward its imaginary completion?

Imagine then, a book.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Sony Reader response

For the last couple of weeks I've been using a Sony Reader. In researching it before arrival, I was excited by the possibility of being able to read PDF files and long Word documents in comfort, as if they were books. How many times have I begun reading, abandoned reading, begun reading again and abandoned reading again such matter? Despite warnings of issues with formatting, I was eager to begin reading again ... again.

First impressions upon arrival were deceptive and threatened initial hopes. It seemed rather small. The screen has no backlight and there is no colour, so one's eyes are not drawn let alone delighted. Mark at RSB has said already that he thinks it is cul-de-sac technology and thus ephemeral. It certainly doesn't shout very loud. However, the odd thing is that, for me, it's precisely this sense of a blocked road that will enable e-Readers to survive. The Sony Reader's problem is that perhaps it serves its purpose too well: that is, it enables the reading of books as we read them now, as books.

But what's it like to use? As with most new gadgets, it took some while to get use to the navigation and functionality. First, the ON/OFF button is a slider on a spring so, as one is expecting a click, one's instinct is to slide it across again, thus switching it off before it has awoken. Second, the page-turning buttons are also small and, worse, unsatisfying to the touch, while the other buttons seem to have very limited purpose. Third, the menu screens are utilitarian if not ugly and the speed of formatting and page-turning is surprisingly slow, certainly for one used to broadband. In use, it felt not so much cutting edge as strangely retrograde, the equivalent of expecting an iPod yet receiving a Walkman with a C90 and Fast Forward only instead.

Yet, after a weekend of using the Reader as my only source of reading matter, I realised the expectations set by music and phone gadgets obscure what makes the new technology ideal. After all, it had to take a particular form: the book.

My test run consisted of three documents: a 10,000-word .rtf file, a 33-page PDF file of an essay by Eduardo Cadava on Barthes' Camera Lucida, and a real live eBook of Paul Auster's The Book of Illusions. The latter, I assumed, would test the Reader's ability to cope with a compulsive page-turner.

I read the Word document in a couple of hours. The alternative would have been to read it on screen or to print it. The difference offered by the Reader was a revelation. I did not read the rtf document as a yet another work-in-progress but as a book. While others might lament that there was no means of editing or writing notes on screen, the lack of additional control or interaction with the words meant reading became the sole activity. Patience was required, particularly as 10,000 words equated to 63 Reader pages at the highest level of zoom. However, free of distraction, and because the Reader is comfortable to hold (like a modest hardback), patience came easily. What's more, when the transfer from page to page was slowed to several seconds with the unformatted PDF, patience was enhanced and prompted even more concentrated engagement. And, with 50 pages left of The Book of Illusions, I'm picking up the Reader as if it is a book and, for the same reason, unable to put it down.

Mark has also speculated that the technology might one day find itself "bundled back into mainstream devices (notebook laptops and phones)" which might in turn draw in those who otherwise would not read. Perhaps this will be a good thing. However, it would have less to do with the civilisation of the book than the culture of information: books as tools, books as guides, books as repositories; the movement towards a form of communication that is immediate, transparent, enabling and, ultimately, solipsistic. What the Reader relies upon instead, what it emphasises and encourages, is the face to face engagement with the singular form of the book.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Thomas Glavinic: Night Work

If the writer is, as Maurice Blanchot declares, a daytime insomniac, then the reader is his sleeper sunk in the other's impossible dreams.

But what of the boundary separating one from the other? If we recognise a space between writer and reader, between the sovereign self and the unavowable community of booklovers, between mastery and oblivion, does it exist in a purely metaphorical realm, an unlit border crossing with inattentive guards perhaps or a no-man's land littered with corpses and literary critics? Or could it be that the space is before us, for real, hidden in plain sight?

I recognised Thomas Glavinic's name from the 2007 German Book Prize so picked the copy from the library shelf for a closer examination. It wasn't the shortlisted Das bin doch ich (which has yet to be translated) but an earlier novel Die Arbeit der Nacht: “An ordinary man wakes up on an ordinary day to find that he's the only living creature in the city ....”.

A library worker had added a sticker to inform clue-blind readers that this is Science Fiction. However, Daniel Kehlmann's praise for the book opens this to question: “Night Work is”, he says, “a wonderful, big novel about ... the uncertain border between waking and dreaming”. That would make it Austrian science fiction then, just as Kafka's Der Verwandlung is Austro-Hungarian science fiction. Indeed, the literal translation of the title The Work of Night implies that night is at work in the story as it was in Gregor Samsa's sleeping body. This is very much the opposite of sleepless agency implied by Night Work and it marks out the territory of the novel far more accurately than any other label.

By day Jonas works hard to explore his lonely situation. The bulk of his story is taken up with descriptions of his thoughts and behaviour. He looks around the silent city, he adopts an Alfa Romeo, he redesigns his flat. In this sense, the book is workmanlike realism, written in the third person as if there is indeed someone else in the world who knows more. We're with Jonas as he awaits change, seeing signs in every minor scene, every leaf blowing across a path. But nobody answers his phone calls, nobody responds to the notes he leaves all over Vienna, and he sees nothing in the video recordings set up across the city. We are not rescued by a twist in the tale. Glavinic maintains the reader's fascination because the relentless lack of revelation infects every new situation with ominous promise. After 150 pages, with tension and exhaustion becoming indistinguishable, and with over 200 pages still to go, I feared he would lose nerve and introduce a grand explanation. There was no need, the original title is revelatory enough: what happens happens in the dark.

What happens first is that Jonas discovers not the apocalypse but singular existence, distance from the world. On the first page, making breakfast, the bread-knife slips:
He'd cut himself to the bone, but he didn't appear to have damaged a tendon. It didn't hurt, either.
He holds his hand under the cold tap and inspects the cut.
No one, himself included, had ever seen what he could see. He'd lived with this finger for thirty-five years without ever knowing what it looked like inside.
The unique presence of the inside of his finger and the unique experience of witnessing such unique presence heralds many other moments like this. In effect, his entire existence becomes a round of unique moments. By coincidence or not (and it makes no difference) indeterminate epiphanies like those experienced by Jonas also appear on the opening page of My Year in the No-Man's Bay by Glavinic's illustrious elder compatriot Peter Handke. The novel lists extreme experiences which seem to signal both something and nothing at all including, as it happens, the accidental cutting of a finger to the bone. The narrator also rinses it under a stream of cold water: "Part of me was numb" the narrator says. "The other part carried on with the day as though nothing were amiss". They prompt him to become, or try to become, a passive observer and, in his work as a writer, to present the world as it is; bone white. To write, what's more, against what until then had been a self-contained universe, itself a kind of death; a world without others. The work of the outside - something working through him - proved fruitful to his life as nothing else had:
For me, nothing can sweep that fruitfulness from the world. From it I know what it is to exist
For Jonas, the experience is similar except that he wants to return to the community of friends and family without losing his new found land of the self. It means he must be there to witness it all. But how can the world and his witnessing coincide? There's a clue in the novel's epigram from Kundera's Immortality expressing the belief that there is no happiness in living. "But being, being is happiness. Being: transforming oneself into a fountain into which the universe falls like warm rain." Jonas' adventures can be seen as a rage to become that fountain, a channel through which all the world can flow.

In the first scene of Kundera's novel, the narrator is captivated by a single gesture of a woman which seems to remove forty years of bodily aging. "There is a certain part of all of us that lives outside of time" he observes. Jonas as himself, apparently alone, is deprived of time and is, though he may not be conscious of it, trying to maintain the timelessness of the gesture that is his life. In his wanderings around Vienna, he finds himself at a fairground shooting stall firing a few shots.
He hung up another target and slowly crooked his finger.
He had always fancied that you could die of slowness by prolonging some everyday action indefinitely - to infinity, or, rather, to finality - because you would depart this world while still engaged in that process. A step, a gesture, a wave of the arm, a turn of the head - if you slowed that movement more and more, everything would come to an end, more or less of its own accord.
His finger curled around the trigger. With surprising clarity, he realised that he must long ago have reached, yet failed to reach, the point of release.
Yes, the world would end of its own accord but he wouldn't quite be there. He'd be engaged always elsewhere in an endless, timeless action. This might explain why the novel appears overlong.

Whatever his fancy, Jonas remains subject to human time. He has to sleep. It is here that the novel becomes subject to the logic of its title. As he needs to witness everything so he must witness the night. He sets up a camera to film himself asleep. What he sees is someone else, someone he calls “the Sleeper” engaged in actions his waking self cannot recall. An apparently unbridgeable division is recognised. The work of sleep undermines his conscious life to the extent that, by the time Jonas is engaged in his most ambitious plan, he has more or less lost conscious control. He becomes both his biblical near-namesake Jonah down in the sides of the ship sleeping soundly as the storm rages and the terrified sailors above fearing for their lives. How can the two be reconciled?
So the shipmaster came to him, and said unto him, What meanest thou, O sleeper? arise, call upon thy God, if so be that God will think upon us, that we perish not.
Jonas as the shipmaster asks the same question, makes the same demand of his sleeping self. In the bible story, the sleeper knows that he has been chosen and must sacrifice himself to calm the seas. Once overboard he is swallowed by a large fish and, three days later, vomited onto dry land to complete his worldly mission set by God. Jonas' sacrifice is more ambiguous. Night Work ends in a grand valedictory gesture in which he begins to die of slowness, begins to witness eternity. For the book itself, the point of release has been reached and has, as a result, failed, but necessarily. The reader is awoken, vomited back into the world. We have been subject to the work of the night. There it is, the book. A division is recognised.

Friday, September 12, 2008

See also

Pinter podcast
The British Library has posted a 47-minute podcast interview with Harold Pinter. Recorded this month, Pinter "discusses his work in forthright terms" and asserts that "to tackle injustice, our job is to look for the truth and tell it". See also the Pinter Archive blog.

One such truth might be the death twenty-two days ago of 91 men, women and children in "a 6-hour air and ground assault by U.S and Afghan commando forces". 61 children, 15 women, 15 men. Marc Herold reports. It's a truth that seems not to have troubled the blogosphere. What was that Chomsky said about ants? See also The Afghan Victim Memorial Project.

Proust's additions
"In 1913, the novel was to be 1500 pages; by 1922, when Proust died, it was 3000. How did it grow to such proportions?". Alison Winton provides answers in the two-volume Proust's Additions next month from Cambridge University Press (though it seems to be a reissue of a thirty-year-old edition). See also Blanchot's answer in the much shorter The Experience of Proust (part of The Book to Come).


Nicholas Murray calls it "the war against serious writing" while Lee Rourke sees "a sanitised agenda that force-feeds an eager public the dross we see masquerading as literature these days". Yes, it's Man Booker Prize shortlist time!

Both writers are staggered by judge Louise Doughty's banalities excusing the deeply conservative selection. Her notion of what constitutes "literary skill" further lubricates the Prize's slide into Thumping Good Read territory. There are enough book prizes already rewarding such books. As the most prominant literary prize in the UK, the Booker should draw attention to works that interrupt mere craftsmanship as they seek more than "a good plot" and "finely tuned sentences". Though not a novel (and thereby ineligible), Lee Rourke's own Everyday is an admirable example of a writer going in the opposite direction to the Man Booker.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Light is the lion ...

One may call it mania, madness, or psychosis — a chemical imbalance in the brain — but it presents itself as energy of a primordial sort.
Oliver Sacks reviews Michael Greenberg's Hurry Down Sunshine, a book about his daughter Sally's transformation.
Greenberg likens it to "being in the presence of a rare force of nature, such as a great blizzard or flood: destructive, but in its way astounding too." Such unbridled energy can resemble that of creativity or inspiration or genius — this, indeed, is what Sally feels is rushing through her — not an illness, but the apotheosis of health, the release of a deep, previously suppressed self.
Later, a doctor says to Sally: "I bet you feel as if there's a lion inside you".

The link between mental health and creativity is now a relatively familiar subject. Still, Sacks' compassionate account with its beautiful, unruffled prose is a mood brightener in itself. However, lately, reading with increasing unease the smug, paranoid and irrational assertions on literary and political messageboards and blog comments, I've wondered how much mental illness accounts for online debate and, perhaps more importantly, how much it has silenced.

By the way, if you recognise Greenberg's name but can't place it, he writes an excellent fortnightly column in the TLS.

The draft from the well

The correspondence opens with Celan's poem "In Egypt", which he sends to his beloved, with the dedication "to one who is painfully precise", on her 22nd birthday. It contains a motif, so tantalising and uncomfortable, that it foreshadows the conflicts to come.
Sign and Sight translates a German newspaper article on the publication, fifteen years before it was originally scheduled for release, of Herzzeit, the correspondence between Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann. As the article says, Bachmann wrote her PhD thesis on Heidegger, a subject with which we know Celan was familiar. Later Bachmann became friends with Thomas Bernhard who went on to make pained fun of her high regard for the philosopher. She appears as Maria the poet in Extinction whose companion Eisenberg "loves the same philosophy" and shares her "ideas about poetry". Could this be Celan? Probably not. But I sense some residual jealousy. In her biography, Gitta Honegger reports that: Bernhard bragged that Bachmann was in love with him, but 'she was too much for him'. And in another of his novels, the main character Reger says "I feel sick to his day" that "one of my best women friends wrote a dissertation about Heidegger". Heidegger "that ridiculous Nazi philistine in plus fours ... a charlatan who merely utilized everything around him and who, during that utilization, sunned himself on his bench at Todtnauberg." To see for yourself where such sunning took place, Another Heidegger Blog (now deleted) provides some dreamy (or smudged) wallpaper for your desktop, including a close-up of the "Sternwürfel drauf" as mentioned in Celan's great poem.


Please email me at steve dot mitchelmore at gmail dot com.

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