Monday, March 30, 2009

The space of possibility

Every critic is really a woman at the critical age, spiteful and repressed.
              Cesare Pavese, Diaries 1937.
OK, Pavese has a regrettably incorrect opinion of the most oppressed members of society, but isn't he unfair to women too?

Anyway, the critic side of me regrets the dismissive comments left on Garth Risk Hallberg's long post on Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones and the first of Andrew Seal's superb posts on the same novel. (The latter's second is particularly good even without the opening reference). However, despite this, the regret has been a factor in enabling me to 1) avoid commenting on Ed Champion's terminal confirmation of what we've long suspected (what does it tell us about the value of print reviewing that Andrew Seal wrote his review for nothing?) and 2) to isolate the critical impulse driving my reviews and, thereby, the spite of the comments, something which might also be placed under "repressed". The other factor was listening to Sebastian Faulks on Desert Island Discs on Sunday morning. So the rest of this will try to distill it into boring discourse.

The Kindly Ones is perhaps the first novel I have read and felt the need to write about before any hype kicked in. Had it been another, quieter publication, such as Tao Lin's Eeeee Eee Eeee or Thomas Glavinic's Night Work, then the review itself would have been enough. All three novels, however different and however removed from the vicious modernist circle familiar to this blog, prompted long attention because they opened a space making narrative possible, even necessary. Or, to put it another way, the space became palpable only through writing like this. Each review was an attempt to make this space clear and thereby to ease future readers into a different kind of reading than that practised elsewhere.

In Maximilien Aue's case, it is the space that, in crude terms, has opened between life and death. He becomes able to speak because he has escaped the vengeance of the Furies but can tell his story only under the threat of their return. Or perhaps the narrative is the vengeance itself and, by writing, Aue is trying to escape into life or death. Either way, the novel offers an example of how to write from within a particular predicament. Rather than falling into generic means, the form and dynamic of the narrative emerge from the particulars of the case. It is why The Kindly Ones moves between, among other forms, bureaucratic prose and dream-like reverie; not because it enables the author to display his mastery - though it does that too - but because it is necessary to the narrative. The Kindly Ones is, as Beckett said of Finnegans Wake, not about something, it is that something itself. It should be read accordingly.

In a similar way, Eeeee Eee Eeee emerges from the breach between possibility and actuality and, because of that, can be read as the gleeful or distressed cry of fiction itself. And, to move on swiftly, in Night Work, sleep is the Kindly One taking its revenge by disrupting the protagonist's solipsism, which is also the solipsism of the novel. In each case, an existential predicament becomes one with the form of the novel; they are inseparable. And, for this reason, they cannot be regarded as a solution or as a cure. When such a space is opened, reading for me becomes more gripping than a generic thriller, more emancipatory than narratives borne on identity politics and more fun than a comedic romp. The space becomes one's own possibility. What then upsets me about the reviews and prompts me to comment so bitterly is that I sense this space is being close down, obscured by ephemeral discussions of extra-literary morality and genre nit picking. Away from this, one can begin to imagine writers to come inspired to produce the kind of work that exceeds the limits offered by a few sops to verisimilitude, fashion and contemporary mores.

Which brings me to listening to Sebastian Faulks on Desert Island Discs. When he spoke about his writing career, I recognised how alien this space is to English novelists. So why did I bother to listen? Perhaps because the peculiarly saccharine sentimentality of the English middle class continues to fascinate me. (One also sees it in the films of Anthony Minghella). Why is there such reverence for 3-for-2 novels and such contempt for real writers unless long dead? (It's why I'm also fascinated by Dove Grey Reader, the Leni Riefenstahl of Richard & Judy's Britain.)

Faulks seemed troubled only in the ostensible subject matter. He spoke about the inspiration for Birdsong. The form was a given. Listening, I felt the same queasiness that rises when viewing those many creative writing websites offering tips for developing ideas, for keeping abreast of one's characters and for producing realistic dialogue. Faulks has mastered these techniques and now it was only a question of producing another volume before escaping to the holiday home in France. As he also alluded to a certain post-religious Humanism, I wondered if writing melodramas about world-shattering events is a means of neutralising them much as the massacres of Afghan civilians by Christian rockets is neutralised by the euphemisms of BBC journalism. Is this healthy? If nothing else, the question should be where writing begins.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Learn to write with pain

In this impressive instance, reading a bunch of pricks doesn't mean you have landed at Harry's Place.

Of course, the first literary tattoo can be found here.



Monday, March 23, 2009

A pure kind of literary criticism

Following my long review of Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones, in which I quote Beckett describing his experience of reading de Sade as "a kind of metaphysical ecstasy", a friend pointed to Beckett's respect for etymology and how this might colour my assumption of his words. Ecstasy, according to the etymology dictionary she cited, is "from the Greek: ekstasis 'trance, distraction,' from existanai 'displace,' also 'drive out of one's mind'." There is also its use "by 17th century mystical writers for 'a state of rapture that stupefied the body while the soul contemplated divine things,' which probably helped the meaning shift to 'exalted state of good feeling'." With this in mind, perhaps I should not have shrunk it to mere 'pleasure'. However, I think it is also fair given that Beckett referred only to "a kind" of metaphysical ecstasy. After all, the pleasure of reading is always "a kind" of pleasure, always a promise or remembrance of pleasure - both true and misplaced - which can be extended adjectivally to indistinguishable heights and depths (and, incidentally, thereby becoming literature itself).

Uncertainty in reading is also a pleasure, an insufficient kind. The yearning necessary to it is an expectation of something more timely, more real; at least transferable. Hence the ready alibis of social relevance in subject matter or of popularity or, alternatively, of the joys of an imagination run wild. Yet what of the weightless burden of the work itself? This is not a question meant to fetishise the text, a call to swoon before the attractive vertigo of possibility. The irony of close reading is that the horizon recedes the closer one gets and the unvariegated blur mistaken for clarity. The question needs to be reset: what kind of uncertainty does writing as an activity manifest?

Both directions - toward and away from the work - are at least mitigated by human hope: for debate and definition. Hope is not a feeling we associate with Samuel Beckett, though the existence of his writing alone should be enough to refute the impression. My friend suggested his experience of reading de Sade was one of "profound spiritual alienation", which seems right because it confirms my review's alliance of his letter with Kafka's: "we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we love more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide." Yes, always like; alienated even from that. But what if the book is itself the disaster? This is one question my review sought to raise. The Kindly Ones and, I imply, all writing emerges from an endless fall between states, the fall of Kafka's The Hunter Gracchus; a disaster of infinite deferral. This is a story featuring the port of Riva and, in Italian, "gracchio" means jackdaw, as does "kafka" in Czech. If it needs spelling out, the protagonist becomes Kafka the writer. This is how I find myself reading books (or, rather, all texts): each is an allegories of its own existence, of an immovable silence, of an unbreachable distance. To pre-empt the inevitable, this isn't an intellectual reading - connoisseurship - but one of recognition.

And today this is how I find myself re-reading Blanchot's The Writing of the Disaster (1980) for the first time in many years; a book always working toward and away from itself. Writing in the TLS as far back as 1995, Gabriel Josipovici lamented this late work as it represented Blanchot "the Hegelian and Heideggerian sage and Utopian political thinker" rather than "the finest literary critic of the 20th Century". Yet, against the blurb which turns the book's focus on "the disasters of the century - world wars, concentration camps, Hiroshima, and the Holocaust", I read it as a kind of literary criticism, a pure kind: "The disaster ruins everything, all the while leaving everything in tact. It does not touch anyone in particular; 'I' am not threatened by it, but spared, left aside". This reminds me of the time reading The Kindly Ones and the Blanchot-like objectivity its narrator maintains. It's also a reading justified by the title which has (at least in English) the double meaning of writing about the disaster and the writing done by the disaster. Moreover, the opening words echo The Essential Solitude from The Space of Literature (1955): "He who writes the work is set aside; he who has written it is dismissed. He who is dismissed, moreover, doesn't know it. This ignorance preserves him."

Ignorance of writing's disastrous remove might preserve its utilty, and perhaps this is how it must be. So where is this leading? Perhaps The Writing of the Disaster merely reaffirms and reinhabits Kafka's letter and its romantic effusion. However, I'm drawn back to it because right now it is literary criticism as a kind of metaphysical ecstasy, again probably the wrong word.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The huge difficulty of dying: The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell

In 1938, living in Paris and short of money, the little known writer Samuel Beckett agreed to translate de Sade's Les 120 journées de Sodome. He confided in his friend Thomas McGreevy about concerns for his career if he was associated with such a book even though he believed it transcended its reputation.
The obscenity of surface is indescribable. Nothing could be less pornographical. It fills me with a kind of metaphysical ecstasy. The composition is extraordinary, as rigorous as Dante’s.
Soon after, of course, the war began and the project was abandoned. Beckett escaped to an unoccupied zone while de Sade's novel proved to be an insufficient realism. For this reason alone it is difficult to comprehend let alone accept the implications of Beckett's appreciation. It would mean that the pleasure he took in reading unrelenting descriptions of sexual violence and cruelty is in effect no different to that gained from reading Jane Austen, another of Beckett's favourites at the time and, by his own account, no less pornographical.

What's more, his rapture and comparison of de Sade to Dante suggests that compositional rigour manifests divine power. As readers, we are close to omnipotence, elevated from the trials and duties of worldly existence, able to create and destroy at will. Literary pleasure is thereby in itself independent of human community; a singularity become universal. Even as it evokes fraternity, the unique gift of art tends toward tyranny. What is to be done?

One of those attracted to the gift was a young Franz Kafka. Aged 21, he sought to resist the ease of solitary power. Writing to Oskar Pollack, he expressed a self-desftructive literary manifesto:
I think we ought to read only books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn't wake us like a blow on the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good God, we would be just as happy if we had no books and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we love more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.
Is Les 120 journées de Sodome such a book? Perhaps. But where does this need for axe-like books lead us? Eighteen years later, having written many of his greatest works, Kafka recognised the darkness in the initial romance:
Writing is a sweet and wonderful reward, but for what? In the night it became clear to me, as clear as a child's lesson book, that it is the reward for serving the devil. This descent to the dark powers, this unshackling of spirits bound by nature, these dubious embraces and whatever else may take place in the nether parts which the higher parts no longer know, when one writes one's stories in the sunshine.
This is why Kafka ordered Max Brod to burn his manuscripts, not out of extreme literary scrupulosity or modesty, though these too are close to the writer. Kafka, like Beckett, had counted upon literature to nourish an otherwise emaciated life: "Writing sustains me," he says in the same letter, "but is it not more accurate to say that it sustains this kind of life?".

If Kafka is right and writing is - however hyperbolic it might sound - in unwitting service of the devil, then what is the alternative: not writing? What would it mean for the individual striving for what is apparently beyond words to turn away from art yet still seek to defrost the frozen sea? An answer is presented in Jonathan Littell's novel The Kindly Ones. What has so far been received as an historical fiction examining the psychology of genocide is also, and perhaps more significantly, a reiteration of Kafka's revelation.

When we meet Maximilien Aue he is a respectable business and family man, a manufacturer of lace somewhere in France. Before that, however, he tells us he was a Nazi intelligence officer working inside Hitler's imperial war machine. In order to remain alive and free he has had much to conceal. Now, as we begin to read this book - his memoir - he is a writer too. What has caused the break in cover, the end of silence? At first, Aue claims to want to reveal "how it happened" and that his will be an edifying story, "a real morality play" in which we will learn something about the Holocaust, and of course he and his book has been judged accordingly. Yet, as we prepare ourselves for the long repetition of a story we know so well from other sources, the warning from history, the ease with which respectable men become savage killers, Aue moves further back:
If after all these years I’ve made up my mind to write, it's to set the record straight for myself, not for you. For a long time we crawl on this earth like caterpillars, waiting for the splendid, diaphanous butterfly we bear within ourselves. And then time passes and the nymph stage never comes, we remain larvae – what do we do with such an appalling realization?
This then is a personal story rather than Aue revealing his universality. As is soon made clear, he is no Everyman; nobody ever quite is. Even at this later stage in life, Maximilien Aue is still himself alone, crawling through life, waiting to fly. Suicide, he admits, is an option and imagines a hand grenade against his chest: "And then at last happiness, or in any case peace, as the shreds of my flesh slowly dripped off the walls." But no, he hasn’t chosen suicide despite its promises. He's writing instead. Why? It was a question asked in their own lives and in their own ways by both Beckett and Kafka, and both were appalled yet still compelled to continue. In Aue's case, the answer has a history as long as his life: "Ever since I was a child," he says, "I had been haunted by a passion for the absolute, for the overcoming of all limits". From that time, he dreamt of becoming a great pianist with "cathedrals at my fingertips, airy as foam" and then wanted "above all else to study literature and philosophy". But circumstances conspired and he became a doctor of law instead. Undisclosed at first is another outlet for his passion, perhaps because it involves a deeper heartbreak.

The only person he has ever loved, he says, is his twin sister, Una. Their incestuous relationship ended before adulthood yet persists in Aue's inner life. He dreams of returning to the time when they were inseparable, swimming as one in the sea, their parents absent. She dominates his thoughts and behaviour. He claims to have had exclusively homosexual encounters since solely in order to submit to penetration, to be Una even as he remains himself; a repetition of transcendent love. Of course, this threatens serious repercussions in the ranks of the Nazi Party which regards homosexual behaviour a crime. Yet the Party plays a similar role in Aue's life. Its ideology also presents itself as a form of overcoming, a transcendence of the limits of the self, an ascent into the Lebensraum of the world at large. To achieve this it too demands submission to the penetrating will of another, the Führer. Aue is prepared to do whatever it takes, whether this means transgressing Nazi law or by following its orders to the letter.

His narrative is arranged in seven long chapters each with a musical title. It opens with Toccata, a rhetorical flourish, and then continues with Allemande I & II in which Aue is posted to the Crimea in the Ukraine and, as the title suggests, links arms with his fellow Nazis to pursue occupation and suppress resistance. This includes arranging and carrying out mass executions of local civilians. As readers, we experience these through Aue's eyes alone - we are not introduced to Jewish victims but see them from a distance, almost as if Aue is writing one of his official reports. Their suffering is beyond description. Yet, rather than mollify the reader's anguish, Aue's objective narrative style deepens it. We have no sentiment to assist us beyond the experience. Despite also feeling disgust, Aue claims to have got through the experience himself by holding to the belief that the massacres are necessary for the long-term Nazi goal. However, it should be emphasised that such events against civilians are relatively rare in the novel and that Allemande I & II is taken up mainly by the intrigues of SS politics and his research projects into the ethnicity of the various populations in the Caucasus. The latter involves long, engrossing digressions with no violent disturbances. It means that when, after eighty pages or more, we return to the clearings in which thousands of Jews are to be slaughtered, we are provoked into feeling the dizzying absence of inevitability, the removal of the comforts of teleology. It is a peculiar horror considering it is a familiar subject in our culture.

Indeed, there are many passages in the book in which terrible things happen that serve no apparent purpose beyond their cumulative power. Many events are not resolved later in the novel and so leave the reader stunned and seeking some kind of release from meaninglessness. For instance, Aue joins a patrol in which a Ukrainian peasant woman is shot by accident. However, before she dies, her unborn child is saved - cut from her womb and wrapped in a shawl - by a German soldier, only then for an indifferent officer to dash the baby’s head against a wall, furious that effort has been spent on a peasant's life. One expects a lesson to be drawn, for ramifications, but the telling of the event is all that remains. However, for all Aue’s ability to distance himself, this ease of killing does begin to have an impact. His body insists on vomiting and expelling diarrhoea. Also, his mind begins to pursue an understanding:
This was what I couldn't manage to grasp: the yawning gap, the absolute contradiction between the ease with which one can kill and the huge difficulty there must be in dying.
What can he mean? As a Nazi, such difficulty is surely beside the point, which is the destruction of Germany's enemies. In defending his intellectual concerns, Aue insists it is vital "to comprehend within oneself the necessity of the Führer's orders", otherwise one is "nothing but a sheep, a slave and not a man". There is a contradiction here too as rational consent to such necessity must also lead to the same condition; it is in the nature of submission. The problem that has been revealed is that submission is always incomplete; there is always the yawning gap. Submission is as impossible as death: "even with the rifle at the back of your head or the rope around your neck, death remains incomprehensible, a pure abstraction, this absurd idea that I, the only living person in the world, could disappear. Dying, we may already be dead, but we never die, that moment never comes, or rather it never stops coming".

Aue cites a need to understand the abstraction as the reason for not requesting a transfer to more traditional war zones. He prefers to remain to seek the "sensation of rupture" brought by the executions, the "infinite disturbance" of his whole being. All the same, like any addiction, the more he attends, the less he feels. If we set aside the impulse to dismiss this as Sadistic delight, we can see that Aue too is enduring the huge difficulty of dying. So why is he fascinated by this space opened between life and death?

While searching for a cure or an answer, Aue expresses admiration for the capacity of the Nazis' adjudged enemy to internalise its beliefs. "When the Jew submitted to the Law, he felt that this law lived in him. National Socialism had to be that too: a living law." Such measured respect for ancient religion over fresh ideology is telling and will resurface elsewhere. It suggests in effect Aue's only means to achieve the desired state is to take Nazism toward its logical fulfilment: that is, to accept obliteration. It means he must die alongside those being killed. But how? It's a question that runs deep throughout this overwhelming novel.

Later on in the Caucasus campaign, it becomes clear the issue extends beyond the particulars of the war. Aue is leading Jewish men toward a forest clearing where his soldiers are preparing a trench. Before the slaughter can begin, they find that the Soviets have been there before. Already there are mass graves in the forest. Wherever a new trench is begun, more bodies appear, each with a bullet in the neck. The officers are agitated, the soldiers dig another trench and the Jews look on and wait. Here is the absolute contradiction in a literary tableau: the living and the dead confronting each other, both intimately close and infinitely distant; neither close nor distant enough. The reader, already discomforted by the horror of the scene and, if not certain, then aware of its likely accuracy to the historical record, is now as impatient as the officers for it to be over. The reader becomes a Nazi and the horror is thereby situated beyond disposable titillation. That said, the scene does seem to be too convenient, too literary, an adaptation of the historical record into a drama for the more discerning voyeur. The scene might also stand as a correlate of The Kindly Ones' literary bloodline: yet another work of fiction about the Nazis devoured by a greedy market, yet another distressing reminder of the Shoah, as if this work of leisure is also disturbing graves in order to kill nameless thousands yet again. Surely there something pathological in the demand for such cruel repetition. Setting aside repugnance in the forest, it does remain necessary to the reader’s experience of this infinitely terrible time before and after an event, a time in which dying persists. It might also be asked: how can the absolute contradiction be recognised by the reader without the means also appearing contrived and distasteful?

The length of the novel, however, works against such impressions. A reviewer might seize extraordinary scenes such as this to present the kernel of the novel, but it is an unfortunate deceit. The primary experience of The Kindly Ones is similar - even at less than a third of its length - to that of Proust's In Search of Lost Time. Proust's novel cannot be reduced to the scenes involving the Petite Madeleine and the uneven paving stone. One could not add even the lesbian sado-masochism at Montjouvain and the debauchery of the Baron de Charlus without losing the intense sensibility of the narrator, nor how our exposure to these four headline events is framed by the rest of the novel in which innumerable characters and events propel the reader forward in fascination. This is why reading the novel is necessary to move beyond its superficial context.

In his search for lost time, Marcel recovers it by chance. The power of an event or an experience is recovered or unveiled for the first time when he least expects it; intellectual control is subverted. Yet, whereas Proust's novel maintains intellectual control in presenting these revelatory moments, Aue's search for lost life demands that the narrative style itself changes to accommodate the meaning of that loss. After the cool, objective style - presented in beautiful clarity by Charlotte Mandell's translation - Aue continues his task of dying by divesting himself of mastery just as he divested himself of control in sexual encounters and in military service.

From the relative comforts of Ukraine, Aue is "sent to join those already dead" at the siege of Stalingrad. He is not so much frightened as intrigued. The conditions are terrible: lice live under uniforms, food is scarce and diarrhoea once again punctuates daily existence. Aue explores the frontline and experiences for the first time being under attack. Suddenly realism descends into pages of dream-like reveries involving Una and dirigibles. This is where the novel seems to be shedding its documentary narrative progression, testing the reader's expectations and patience. When we are returned to a controlling consciousness, the narrative is thereby infected with the danger of its loss; we are now always on the edge of darkness. It descends again during a period of recovery from the surrealist ordeal as Aue visits his mother and step-father in the south of France. Soon it will overwhelm him as well as the novel.

After the miasma of the front line, Aue retreats to Berlin and becomes deeply involved in Nazi bureaucracy. He has meetings with Himmler, Eichmann and Mandelbrot, a grotesque fictional player right out of Kafka. He attends a musical soiree at Eichmann's home and watches as the bureaucrat plays the violin: "his eyes rivetted to the score; he didn't make any mistakes, but didn't seem to understand that that wasn't enough". From here, despite the calm of imperial offices, that lack of understanding takes its toll. Aue's life and Germany's war begin to unravel. Illness and Allied air raids encroach on the social whirl and a traditional romance with a local girl is threatened; the vengeance of the Furies - the kindly ones of the title - is revealed.

One last time Aue encounters the huge difficulty of dying by visiting first an underground factory and then Auschwitz itself, both populated and run by the living dead. Given leave by Himmler's bomb-damaged ministry, he turns his attention to Una, "the thought of whom never releases me and leaves my head only to seep into my bone, the one who will always be there between the world and me". He travels to Pomerania where she and her crippled composer husband live. But their mansion is empty and thereby becomes a stage for Aue's final attempt to submit, to close the distance. It's a bizarre chapter particularly as the reader had been very aware of the Russian advance and expecting Aue's escape to be the focus of the narrative.

His return to Berlin maintains these expectations but by now it is too late and the kindly ones have swamped Aue's mastery, turning a sub-plot mystery into a Kafkaesque comedy. It is a difficult loss for the novel to bear and gives the impression of a failure on the novelist's part. However, there is one particularly unlikely scene involving the Führer himself that ends any doubt. It is clear we are at the end, when the huge difficulty of dying is finally over. Only not quite. Even as the kindly ones wreak their power, there is an excessive moment, a residual space in which dying never comes. We recognise the condition; it has been with us all along and has never been silent. Indeed, the absolute contradiction sustains Maximilien Aue; it inaugurates his narrative. Had he not fallen into the yawning gap between life and death, he would not be writing this account of the war and we would not be reading it. The reader, his accomplice, is thereby also sustained. But then what kind of sustenance is it?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Be in no doubt (just this once)

In the 1930s ... there was no public man, and we have to see the letters as merely one of many ways in which an ambitious, confused and tormented young writer attempted to discover who he was and what it was he wanted out of life and art. These early letters, in other words, are, like the early poems and stories, in the strict sense essais, the trying out of a voice, a tone, even, at times, another language.
Gabriel Josipovici takes a long look at volume one of The Letters of Samuel Beckett.
What we now need is the other three volumes to appear as quickly as possible and then for CUP to issue a selection of the most interesting letters, with absolutely minimum annotation, in a one-volume paperback. Because, be in no doubt about it, if Godot and Molloy lit up the dreary landscape of writing in the immediate post-war era, these letters are set to do the same for the new century.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Jacques Roubaud: From The Loop

During the night, the mist on the window had turned to ice. I see that it was still night, six-thirty, seven o’clock; wintertime then, and dark outside; no details, only darkness; the windowpane covered with the patterns of the frozen mist; on the lowest pane, on the left-hand side of the window, at eye level, in the light; this light from an electric bulb, yellow against the intense darkness outside, opaque and wintry, clouded by the mist; not a uniform mist, as when it rains, but an almost transparent frost, forming patterns; a web of translucent patterns, with a certain thickness, the slight thickness of frost, but with variations in this thickness, and, because of these miniscule variations, forming patterns on the glass, like a vegetal network, an entire system of veins, a surface vegetation, a cluster of flat ferns; or a flower.
From The Brooklyn Rail, an excerpt from Jacques Roubaud's The Loop forthcoming from Dalkey Archive. This is the second part or branch of the six that make up The Great Fire of London.

The first volume Destruction was published in translation in 1991. Still to come (we hope) are translations of: Mathématique: récit, Poésie: récit, La Bibliothèque de Warburg and La Distraction.

Monday, March 09, 2009

E M Cioran on Samuel Beckett

He lives not in time but parallel to it, which is why it has never occurred to me to ask him what he thinks of events. He is one of those beings who make you realize that history is a dimension man could have done without.
It just never occurred to Philip Hensher.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

The Aue and the Gory

What has shocked me in reading the reviews of Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones is not so much that they're negative - even positive reviews are often clueless and anyway anything of which Peter Kemp and the intellectual seau de saindoux Andrew Hussey disapproves is worth reading - but their general carelessness, as if the novel had been read through press clippings, as if the experience of 975 pages can be reduced to headlines and blithe summaries dunked in mock disgust. They have reminded me of literary-man-of-the-(knitting)-people John Carey summarising Proust's In Search of Lost Time as a novel obsessed with homosexuality and the French nobility. Even Harry Bagot of Luton could do better than that.

However, bouquets to subdue the stench of literary culture's decay can be found in Ted Gioia's review at Blogcritics, Samuel Moyn's in The Nation (though I think the Zelig comparison is inaccurate), Carey Harrison's at RSB and Daniel Mendelsohn's magnificent review in the NYRB. The latter is particularly welcome as it places the novel in the context of its "Greek ingredients" and French thought in occupied Paris, both of which, Mendelsohn argues, explain why the headline factors of the novel - dismissed as pornography and kitsch by the hacks - are "in fact integral to the novel's moralizing projects".

UPDATE: my review is now posted.

Friday, March 06, 2009

A writer in time

I don't know if what I write are novels, and names don't seem to matter. I quicken at the apprehension of some human drama that is affected by time, and feel the need to find words for what would otherwise remain wordless.
Gabriel Josipovici tells Tamar Yellin what draws him above all to fiction.
[It] has something to do with time, with how human beings respond to time, with what time does to us, the losses it brings, and the sense of possibilities unrealized, but also the Proustian sense of sudden loops in time and the way our lives are sealed off to us but suddenly, in time, open up momentarily.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Non-writers' Rooms

This is the room in which I do not write. The computer screen is open only to hide from sight the three books behind it. I prefer not to be reminded of failure. The one book in view is Maurice Blanchot's The Book to Come as I believe it adds an ironic counterpoint to my otherwise desolate non-writerly existence. It's gone now.

Resting on the Moleskine Ruled Notebook (Large) is a Pilot V7 Hi-Techpoint 0.7 Pure Liquid Ink pen. Both offer promise of annotating the undying torment of my profoundly literary imagination. On the open page you can see the beginnings of what might be the last poem I ever write: "Soya milk, bread, porridge".

The lamp and the candle are never used because darkness enables me to forget the memories they contain. The lamp I stole from a German friend. At the time, I wanted a reminder of his fine, civilised nation as I prepared to leave never to return, while the candle was a gift from a beautiful woman of that same land whom I haven't seen since she discovered I wanted to be a writer. It's a misunderstanding, I told her, and that I could explain, but she had seen the discarded pen caps, the dense scribbles in notebooks and the hoard of unread books. It was too late. She looked into my blank eyes and left.

Above the desk on which I do not write are two pictures. On the right is a photograph I snapped whilst strolling in the Ninth Circle of Hell on the Sussex coast. On the left, out of sight, is a work entitled Ruining by an artist who has since taken up painting.

The only thing on the desk that I have yet to explain is the glob of Icelandic lava. I have no idea what it's doing there. Perhaps it was placed there as a curse to prevent me from writing. Iceland, I understand, is expanding.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Fragments of the true boss

This is the literary sale of the century. Old Head Books & Collections in Skibbereen, a town in County Cork in Ireland, is offering eight books of Blanchot's from his own library.

First up are proofs of L'Entretien infini corrected by Blanchot, a book which is, as the seller charmingly puts it, "one of Blanchot's major engagements with the complex and ethereal ideas regarding the fictional universe that constituted his chief theme throughout a large and diverse opus".

Next are proofs of the récit L'Attente oubli (translated as Awaiting Oblivion). According to the book description, these "may be the only remaining materials reasonably describable as 'manuscripts' to have been preserved from among his effects at his death in 2003, and it was only by chance that these survived – they were salvaged from the rubbish bin by the husband of Blanchot's long-time housekeeper".

Before you join the queue, you should know the first item is priced at over £24,000. The least expensive is another copy of L'Attente l'oubli for £242. Still, if you're in Ireland, shipping is only £1:95.

(Thanks to Spurious for the news).

UPDATE: A couple of years after this was posted, Harvard University purchased the archive. You can read more about how it came about in this conversation, which mentions that they first heard of their availbility through this very blog.


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