Thursday, December 31, 2009

This Space's books of the year 2009

Why should one novel be my favourite of the year rather than any other? When I read this list in a comment on John Self's Asylum, I found an answer. If reading a book prompts only Publisherspeak – disturbing, intriguing, insightful – then it can be discounted. Each summary there is like a bullet in the neck of each book. 

I choose Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones as my favourite novel of the year because it was a shock to the literary system; a shock in three ways. First, the intense, almost overpowering gravitational pull of the narrative. It affects not only the reader but the novel itself. It is the furious axe for its own frozen sea. Second, the reception in the mainstream of literary USA was a shock not so much for its cluelessness – such books are necessarily misunderstood – but for the imbecilic, self-blinding character of the reviews.  Michiko Kakutani's contempt probably emerges out of America's repressed awareness of its pressing need for denazification, with Ed Champions' video offering the best argument ever made against literary blogging.

The third shock was to recognise how a contemporary work of such length and about such a subject can also be as intimate as Proust's. My habit-formed assumption that only brief novels engineered like tiny, intricate timepieces could achieve this was shattered. Still, my next two favourite novels were like that: Dag Solstad's Novel 11, Book 18 and Jean Echenoz's Ravel. Distance as intimacy.

Of course, my non-fiction choice has to be The Letters of Samuel Beckett, but I'd also like to mention Kevin Hart's The Dark Gaze: Maurice Blanchot and the Sacred. It was published five years ago but I re-read it this year and was surprised by how much we had changed. Looking forward rather than back, Hart has edited the forthcoming collection of Blanchot's Political Writings. It's scheduled for April, so take Gary Barlow's advice and have a little patience.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Hope and oblivion

Daily for these final weeks of the year, I have listened to The Morning Paper, the opening song to Smog's 1997 LP Red Apple Falls. Usually this is done as I walk twice a day to and from an office. It's a short song of only forty-one words set to piano, acoustic guitar, hurdy-gurdy drone and reticent trumpet. It sings something simple:

The morning paper is on its way
It's all bad news on every page
So roll right over
And go to sleep
The evening sun will be so sweet

I roll right over
And I have this thing

Red apple falls

(These are the words as I hear them. The CD sleeve adds one or two that Bill Callahan's vocal elide.) The song isn't outstanding in the manner of those that follow – Blood Red Bird, Red Apples and To Be of Use – so why do I return to it with such apparent need? Clearly there's the lyrical turning away from the routine toward dream – emphasised by both the uplift of the music as it breaks out of stuck-needle repetition, and by the uncharacteristic tenor of Bill's vocals. It is also a prelude to a sequence of songs in which dream and sleeplessness play across one another. For this reason I'm sure it provides succour. However, this isn't because the song issues an explicit recommendation of withdrawal. Rather, there's something about the two final lines and how they stir me. And I have this thing / Red apples falls. It's difficult to put into words because I am stirred by what is probably wordless. So I suppose it's a sense of exposure to something buried, something otherwise passed over.

So what is this thing, red apple falls? For Bill Callahan I assume it is the inspiration and creation of this sequence of songs; their emergence from somewhere other than himself yet also inseparable. In this way The Morning Paper plays the same role in the LP as Earthy Anecdote by Wallace Stevens does at the beginning of his first collection Harmonium and at the beginning of the Collected Poems, and the role of Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, Borges' story which he placed at the beginning of Ficciones. Both poem and story preface collections that maintain themselves in the pressured air between reality and imagination – the world and the book – and each introduction is a microcosm of the book to come. Yet each is also more than a microcosm because each is also part of a collection, both separate and inseparable. Stevens' poem ends when the firecat sleeps and allows the bucks freedom of movement, which would be the writer writing without threat from the bristling real. Without a threat, the poem can go on forever or stop right there – choices which are essentially the same – whereas, when the firecat wakes, the bucks have to swerve to the left and to the right in swift, circular lines to create the poem we're reading and, by extension, the rest of the book. In Borges' story, the narrator resists the usurpation of the world by the idealism of Tlön merely by writing a history of the change, making connections and thereby introducing causation into a world where causality had otherwise been eliminated. We wouldn't be reading this story or that poem but for the exposure of sovereignty to what threatens it. It's no coincidence that the second song of Red Apple Falls begins with a waking to the cry of a blood red bird. Red Apple Falls then is itself an exposure; this thing cannot be contained; it is just the beginning.


I cited him after Smog but I began to think about my response to The Morning Paper while listening to a discussion about Borges on the Entitled Opinions podcast feed between Robert Harrison and Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht. The first half-hour of the show concentrates on Borges' poems and Gumbrecht's wish to renew focus on the specificity of Borges' writing – its attention to detail local to streets in Buenos Aires – against the "philosophical reading" of Borges as a writer of "the plurality of worlds", a reading, according to Gumbrecht, that originated in Foucault. Gumbrecht says this reading overlooks the short narratives and poetry which are instead "epiphanic".  Harrison joins in, finding the poetry to be "confessional" and "individuated in place and time". The other, well-known reading he brushes aside as "brainy". However, prompted by a listener, he challenges the happy agreement by quoting from The False Problem of Ugolino, the second of Borges' nine Dantesque essays  in which Borges adjudicates over the debate about whether Ugolino in Dante's Inferno cannibalised his children or not. As Harrison admits, it ends with a paragraph that belies the epiphanic interpretation:
In real time, in history, whenever a man is confronted with several alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates and loses the others. Such is not the case in the ambiguous time of art, which is similar to that of hope and oblivion. In that time, Hamlet is sane and is mad. In the darkness of his Tower of Hunger, Ugolino devours and does not devour the beloved corpes, and this undulating imprecision, this uncertainty, is the strange matter of which he is made. Thus, with two possible deaths, did Dante dream him, and thus will the generations dream him.
Gumbrecht's reaction is uncharacteristically impatient. He says this is literature trying to do philosophy's job with a general definitions of literature and, as we have philosophy already, literature should stick to what it does best. Literature, he explains, "is much more concrete than other texts" and this concreteness should take precedence in our reading. Again Harrison agrees and calls "banal" the  "deconstructionist notion of the essential undecidibility of literary texts". Gumbrecht goes as far to say that Borges "isn't doing himself any favours" in writing this essay and, in particular, choosing Dante as an example: "Dante is not someone who leaves things in suspension"; he too is a poet of epiphany.  Presumably still avoiding general definitions, Gumbrecht insists that "each time you read [a book], you read it in one way". This is the strength of literature so, if you "suspend" Ugolino between verdicts, you drain literature of its strength. He concedes the reader is always aware of the possibility of the multiplicity of meanings but "the strength is not to stay there but to go back and say 'No! This is what Achilles was like' – this what he was like in the very moment you read him, and this is what I call epiphanic". Note that he doesn't say what Ugolino is like in the very moment of reading.

Before the discussion moves on, Gumbrecht once again contrasts the epiphanic to what he calls "excessively cerebral" readings. But let's look back at what Borges says. Maybe this will show what's so cerebral about it: Thus, with two possible deaths, did Dante dream him, and thus will the generations dream him. Dante's writing and our reading then is characterised as dreaming. Dreams are entirely cerebral in that they are products of the sleeping brain, except our experience of dreaming is not brainy; it is real and uncanny. Events in dreams are experienced as stories; singularly real in the time of sleep, yet also charged with enough mystery to make one return to the details, to read it again, forever unsatisfied. This is why it can never be epiphanic in the sense Gumbrecht argues for: strength in going back. The reading one goes back to is never a single moment of certainty but, as Borges says, "similar to that of hope and oblivion". When I listen to The Morning Paper, hope and oblivion are both promised. The promise is enough for each to be delivered and withdrawn in a moment and for the moment itself to be promised and withdrawn. Such is the epiphanic in art.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Two Lönnrots: new Josipovici story online

Litro, the free monthly literary magazine distributed in London, has published The Two Lönnrots, a new story by Gabriel Josipovici.
As Borges lay dying his mind filled with images of lakes, of vast forests of spruce and pine, an enormous sky. He knew this was Finland, a country he had never visited, but which in these last years had been closer to his heart even than the streets of Buenos Aires in which he had grown up and about which he had written so much and so well.
The story is an excerpt from Heart's Wings a selection of stories to be published by Carcanet next year. In addition to stories from Mobius the Stripper (1974) and In the Fertile Land (1987), the volume will include previously uncollected stories such as the one above.

PS: ReadySteadyBook also has his essay Borges and the Plain Sense of Things.


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