Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The horizon of narrative

The first time Hans Henny Jahnn's trilogy Fluß ohne Ufer came to my attention was in Reiner Stach's biography of Kafka. I noted that of the "five monumental unfinished ruins of modern German-language prose" that includes two by his subject, River Without Shore is the only one still to be translated into English. A few years later, China Miéville recommended The Ship, the first part of the trilogy that had been translated over forty years ago. Imagine a longer, more expressionist version of The Stoker and you have a good idea of what it's like. It made me wish the rest was available in English, not out of some generalised curiosity but an unfocused yearning, as if the German volumes resting on a bookstall stood for the generalised promise of all unread books, the fulfilment of which also remains untranslated.

It wasn't until I read Landscape as the Origin of Music, Noor de Winter's essay published in the first edition of Reliquiae, that the content of the trilogy revealed itself and suggested in part why it remains untranslated: "full of reflections on music, nature and the creation of art", Fluß ohne Ufer "tells the story of fictional composer Gustav Anias Horn and his friend Tutein, their travels and friendship". This is a long way from an uncanny thriller and much closer to Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus. No wonder publishers have shied away. "Anias" the essay explains, "is haunted by the possibility of permanent pain without salvation" to the extent that, on a trip to Norway, he empathises with the suffering of birch trees whose leaves are used to feed livestock. He develops "a supernatural longing" to "capture the melody of the soil, the song of the gravel on which the birches grew".

De Winter describes Anias as an artist-as-listener rather than "someone who imprints his vision upon his surroundings"; he is "someone through whom a vision of something else can be transported, translated, transformed". In this way the landscape is an unread book whose translation takes another form. The literal nature of this transformation is revealed when Anias discovers that birch bark looks very much like mechanical piano rolls whose growth rings can be transliterated into written music.
Ever-changing interpretations braided themselves into each other, appeared like a deluge of strange harmonies suddenly dissolving, falling apart to lamenting antiphonies. [...] When I had played this music I knew it didn't originate in me, it came to me. A miraculous telluric power of disclosure had used me.
However miraculous, the essay concludes by acknowledging that such music "can express only something of the wonder that [Anias] experienced in the birch grove" and that it is "perhaps the lot of the artist-as-listener to acknowledge the deficiency of any particular realisation of their theme".

This final point reminds us of the closeness we have to the book and distance to its object. While we read of Anias' project and perhaps become enchanted by his example and practice, what we read is the opposite of any epiphanic vertigo we might experience before a landscape or listening to a piece of music. Any lyricism the narrative might have is a result of the animation of the distance between itself and its subject. Music is its own unmediated presence; literature is entirely mediation. We are like Anias himself with the only difference being that our realisation of deficiency is itself the experience of art. An impoverished experience, we might think. So what does this mean for the novel if, as Walter Pater wrote, "all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music"?

The difference between the novel and music appears like that between sociology and sleep: the first only a matter of comprehension and density and, the second, a matter of their absence. The curious thing about "the condition of music" is its lack of content. Music can lead one to sense an elemental pressure irreducible to notation or lyric sheet. If we compare it to a vision of nature, the condition is equivalent to where a landscape leads: the blank horizon. From stoney escarpment and dense copse to lush meadow and glistening stream, the eye is drawn to the empty sky in the distance; an epiphany without manifestation. The urge to capture the experience can be seen in the incessant and forlorn posting of heavily filtered nature photographs.

In contrast, there is no visible horizon of the novel. The reader experiences the book by descending into a literary landscape: walking along a dirt path, sheltering in a dappled grove, paddling in a stream. The horizon is obscured. Poetry, which may be thought more tuneful, is elevated by being set to music – think of Blake's Jerusalem – while a novel turned into an opera has no bearing on the original. What's closer might be the Proustian epiphany in which time opens and collapses like a concertina, except, again, this is narrated like Anias' experience of telluric power. We might therefore assume that even closer is dreamlike, automatic writing taking precedence over conscious mastery, allowing the chance effects of music to occur. But this would seem to diminish the form, at best subordinate it to music and nature. Notice that the distance between Ulysses and Finnegans Wake is immeasurably greater than that between a Bach fugue and a Schoenberg piano piece. Yet what if you read novels to approach that horizon? Where is the horizon of narrative?

Perhaps merely asking these questions defines a particular experience of reading and indicates a fundamental disconnection with the prevailing mode of reading fiction, which focuses on the foreground and, if it is aware of something more, misplaces the horizon, like Bach admirers seeking the true Goldberg among all his variations. What's lacking from literary criticism is the expression and investigation of this experience and even though, for me, this must be its primary purpose. It's why Knausgaard's My Struggle is such a remarkable work. He is able to unite the banality of a life with the unaccountable experience of art. So perhaps indirection is the necessary future of the form, although, as Fluß ohne Ufer demonstrates, it has always been the form, waiting to be translated, a song waiting to be heard, a clearing waiting for daylight.


  1. Now I want to read it.

    Apologies if this is too tangential, but when you write, "This final point reminds us of the closeness we have to the book and distance to its object," do you also think the object status, to look at it from a different perspective, will become harder or just different for e-books? I find that physical books embody some of my memories of the interaction thanks to the cover, the weight, the paper, and that they join with the content to make for a full investigative experience. An ereader would not offer that, but maybe it offers something else.

    Just a thought.

  2. Hi Jeff, by "object" I meant the ostensible subject of the book – our closeness to the narrative as a narrative but distance from the object of narration, such as a character walking down a street or a table in a room. Perhaps I should have used "subject" but, at the time, I thought "object" stood for the physical thing. Now I see the ambiguity.



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