Saturday, November 22, 2008

The original is not Laura

Ever since the story broke, I have had no opinion on Dmitri Nabokov's incertitude over the fate of The Original of Laura. Every news update and every call to honour or disobey his father's dying command left me indifferent. And rather than force an opinion out of a concern to engage with the latest literary debate, I pursued disengagement. Now that he's resolved to publish, I realise why no opinion formed: to destroy or to publish is the same act.

In its spectral, unread presence, The Original of Laura is the promise we preserve even after a novel is read and discussed. As it is, unlit, waiting to burn, unopened, waiting to be read, The Original of Laura is always the great work it can never be.

Hoping for a bad review

Like Mr Orthofer at The Literary Saloon, I want to see Novel 11, Book 18, Dag Solstad's latest novel in translation. Unlike him, however, I was disappointed by Shyness & Dignity, perhaps because Paul Binding writing in the TLS said that "Solstad ... shares [Thomas] Bernhard's galvanic anger" and I had expected something more than ordinary. I would not have been interested without that brief comparison. [UPDATE 2021: I've since re-read Shyness & Dignity and have revised my opinion: it's a wonderful novel.]

Reviews often have this trip-flipping effect. Melissa McClements' exasperated reading of Vila-Matas' Montano's Malady was enough to make me go out and buy the book. By happy coincidence, she's reviewed Novel 11, Book 18 too. Before reading it, I braced myself with hope and anticipation for another display of offended sensibilities. "It might be a profound exploration of philosophical ideas" she concludes after a plot summary "but as a novel it’s an emotionless and unsettling read." Oh. Isn't being unsettled an emotion, and are ideas anything other than philosophical?

It's impressive how well McClements uses key words to their full potential: "profound" is here freighted with so much disdain it glows. Still, I would have welcomed an explanation of the title which is what first excited me about his work. Harvill Secker can be forgiven its health-bringing truncation of Montano's Malady for the English market by retaining such a bleak heading. Like Michael Orthofer, however, I wonder why they didn't promote it by sending a copy to European fiction's most enthusiastic Britlitblogger.

Monday, November 17, 2008

"Spear in hand": judging a literary prize

One memorable revelation to be found in Blanchot's Epoch - an edition of Edinburgh University Press' journal Paragraph dedicated to the eponymous author - is that fifty-one years ago Blanchot helped to launch a new literary prize: the Prix de mai [sic]. "The question of literary prizes is an annoying one" begins the wonderfully unenthusiastic launch article he wrote for the newspaper L'Express.
This relic of school speech-days, this habit of getting together, on the part of people without authority nor mandate, to assert that such and such a book, rather than some other, deserves glory, and even to confer glory upon it, this choice which represents nothing so much as the desire of the reading public not to have to choose and to be able to speak about books without ever having to read them, the plots and intrigues that arise as a result, the interests of publishers (here at least there is something solid), the restless movement of curiosity, contentment, and discontent, a mixture of anecdote and untested opinion, which is part and parcel of literary society, the irresistible need, whenever a new literary prize is set up, only to select books that are likely to be popular and thereby acquire an authority of which it is claimed that, once one possesses it, good use will be made of it, albeit that on every occasion what first comes to mind is self-promotion, as though the point is not to celebrate a book, but the prize itself - and alongside this the growing discredit into which all prizes have fallen, hand in hand with the bizarre confidence that one is always ready to have in oneself, the always recurring temptation to try to take advantage of this absurd situation in order to steer it back towards a more promising outcome: one could continue forever listing the consequences each one of us has to face as a result of the habit of literary prizes, a habit which is widespread in the world, but, in France, is already something of an obsession. [Trans. Leslie Hill]
Fifty years on, the obsession has spread. If what he says is all too familiar and true, why did Blanchot get involved? "Perhaps we are all making a mistake" he concedes.
What then is [the judges] intention? This is very precise. What they have in common is the shared thought that there is still something to be expected from the novel. But what is it that they expect? Certainly not more novels ... but precisely books that are slightly different or slightly irregular, which are not yet novels, but give shape to new possibilities, or put a face on what does not yet exist.

The writers associated with the Prix de mai have no other priority than that of sharing their concern for these new possibilities.
Last Thursday, the longlist for the Warwick Prize for Writing was announced; twenty books ranging across forms, not just the novel, not just fiction. See The Guardian's report for the list. One of the reasons I was happy to get involved in judging the prize is precisely the hope to give shape to new possibilities in writing.

One point of order needs to be made: the judges did not choose the longlist. This was left to the 5,000-strong staff and honorary graduates and professors of the University of Warwick. Perhaps for this reason, and because it is the inaugural prize, the list is slightly less radical than we might have hoped (I would have loved some Philosophy and online writing for example). However, as Erica Wagner says, the twenty books won't enable anyone to "fall into the trap of thinking that you always know the sort of book you like to read".

With most of the longlist ahead of me, I will be maintaining my pose alongside the narrator of Vila-Matas' Montano's Malady: "spear in hand, against the enemies of the literary". But does anyone know what happened to the Prix de mai? I can't find a list of winners.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

New Thomas Bernhard

The indispensable Austrian Times reports:
German publishing house Suhrkamp has promised a "sensational release" during next year's Thomas Bernhard year. The publishing house will release "Meine Preise" ("My Awards"), a previously-unpublished prose text from 1980.
Does anybody know about this "Thomas Bernhard year"? Don't they mean "century"?

Saturday, November 08, 2008

An other Lazarus Project

[A] writer of severely limited register, a reductivist lacking the drive to delve deeper into precisely the characters she thought she knew best, whose times, sadly, came to suit her.
So why was this author's first novel to be published in English accepted as a masterpiece by the literary press? Tadzio Koelb exposes the wholesale abdication of critical responsibility in Irène Némirovsky and the Death of the Critic.

Sunday, November 02, 2008


In today's The Observer:
[The scientific] revolution was very different from the one previously wrought by the mathematical and philosophical works of Newton, Locke and Descartes. Those scholars certainly changed our vision of the cosmos, but in a distinctly elitist manner. They used only Latin or mathematical terms to describe their work and limited their numbers to a small circle of savants. The public were excluded.
There's more.

In 1770, Captain Cook set foot in Botany Bay. The public were excluded.

In 1911, Amundsen reached the South Pole. The public were excluded.

In 1953, Edmund Hillary climbed to the summit of Mount Everest. The public were excluded.

In 1969, Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon. The public (without television) were excluded.

Does anyone else feel diminished, their world deadened by the constant appeal to accessiblity; to the idea of a bright-eyed public fascinated by the farthest shores on the sea of thought?

If Newton, Locke and Descartes were elitists, how did they change "our vision of the cosmos"? Was it against their will? What difference would knowledge of their intentions make to what their work discloses? Descartes was French and he wrote Discourse on Method in his native language (not Latin as suggested by the article), so was he "excluding" the English public? Does it follow that if he had written it in English, every chimney sweep and parlour maid from London to Lindisfarne would have devoured it and discoursed merrily on dualism?

It's clear there's an unwitting eschatological fantasy running deep in the broadsheets' mechanical repetition of the demand for accessibility - whether it is for the paradisiacal destiny of humankind, for the greater glory of God or the Guardian Media Group, I can't say, but it's there.
As Holmes makes clear, 200 years ago, poets, writers and scientists shared a common vision of Nature. There is no reason why they should not do so again.
No reason at all, but why is it considered a necessary good? Why do we not hear as often (if at all) journalists calling on writers to turn instead toward philosophy and for scientists to turn toward literature? It might prompt a question: in what way is writing natural? Could literature in fact oppose or redefine what we perceive nature to be? Maybe it has already passed into us unawares?

The cultural cringe toward rational science might close one cultural gap but it diminishes writing as an explorative medium in itself, though I'm not sure enthusiasts would comprehend "in itself". Some don't even comprehend deviation amongst rationalists.

In a podcast, Richard Holmes himself explains that the ideas he writes about in his new book are accessible to us but, at the time, they were as obscure to the man-in-the-street as string theory is now. With this in mind, how do the John Carey parrots squawking in the press think world-historical artists and thinkers manage to change anyone's vision without interrupting habit?

Saturday, November 01, 2008

On a change of epoch

A stupid phrase has been floating around my stupid head for some time now. A stupid phrase: Post-Literature Literature. Capitalised. Literature that comes after Literature, after the whole thing, the whole edifice, has come crashing down. A post-apocalyptic Literature, a Literature that knows the game is up, that it's all finished, that the real world is a greater work of fiction than any particular fiction, and that what's left is to press Literature, what remains of Literature, towards that Reality, to hope it catches fire.
As a historian, I have bad enough taste to believe that we don't learn all that much from history. [However] what drives me to concentrate on the past, to work on the past, is really this desire to re-insert myself - if it was possible, physically - in historical situations. And there I feel something amazing can happen about mood that texts from the past - artworks too, but let's concentrate on texts, especially their prosody, their rhythm, their rhymes and so forth - sometimes seem to have absorbed a mood of the remote past that they can irradiate again, they can wrap you into that. I give you one example that I find absolutely amazing, and this is the most important troubadour of the medieval German language. His name is Walter von der Vogelweide. Now, he was politically changing between differents emperors and kings. He was basically participating in this proto-political situation, the time of the interregnum when it was not clear who would be the emperor. We know that biographically he was hesitant; he was nervous; he was under pressure, and there's a certain moment when this happens when the prosody of his poems is changing. Now you can of course not ultimately prove that but I have the very strong impression that if I recite these poems [or rather] if you read them in class even to people who would not understand the content of the poems, they feel that something is changing. And that, for me, is a completely amazing thing; very precious to me. You feel you can expose yourself, you can wrap yourself physically ... because literature has conserved that into a mood that is no longer capable of happening in your time.
Sepp Gumbrecht discussing the disclosive power of mood with Robert Harrison on Entitled Opinions.


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