Friday, August 25, 2017

The walled and the book

What draws me back to Thomas Bernhard's novels is the wish to appreciate again how each is set in motion. The Loser begins like this.
Even Glenn Gould, our friend and the most important piano virtuoso of the century, only made it to the age of fifty-one, I thought to myself as I entered the inn.
Now of course he didn't kill himself like Wertheimer, but died, as they say, a natural death.  [Translated by Jack Dawson]
There is the familiar subject matter of early death pressing on the narrator, which is compelling in a regular way and enough to distract one from the form, but the pressure is there too in the in medias res pulse of "Even", an unusual word with which to begin a novel ("Auch" begins the original, in case you're wondering), which gives a sense of urgency or desperation to the narration, but then there's the displacement of its immediacy in "I thought to myself" and the sarcastic italics around the cliché. It's an odd combination: dark thoughts and qualifying pedantry. In 1974, Gabriel Josipovici recognised the same dynamic in another author: "When we think of Saul Bellow's work, we think of a certain tone of voice, a tone of voice that combines the utmost formality with the utmost desperation." This is also what draws me back to Saul Bellow's novels.

Formality and desperation together – this is what I am drawn too. One alone might lead to muso chin-stroking over craftmanship, and the other alone might lead to down-to-earth endorsements for a tour de force of expressive brillance, but when alone neither is quite able to acknowledge their limits: one coats suffering in layers of well-wrought sentences while the other masks literary artifice by turning it up full blast with extremes of language or subject matter. By combining the two, one shows up the weakness of the other, as one end of a see-saw shows up the lightness and the heaviness of the other. In beginning The Loser like that, Bernhard sets the see-saw in motion, something that is both light and heavy, comic and terrible, and impossible to pin down. For me at least, reading like this becomes as fun as riding a see-saw. But not only fun.

George Shaw: Scenes from the Passion: Wednesday Week

The combination of formality and desperation also drew me to this painting, especially as it captures the experience of a provincial working-class English childhood: the straight lines, the brick patterning, the muted colours, the limited horizons. The title is said to provide "echoes of the melodrama and self-importance often characteristic of the adolescent" but it also echoes the latent holiness in Winter Landscape with Church by Caspar David Friedrich and, in terms of experience, Trees and Bushes in the Snow.

Trees and Bushes in the Snow (1828)

As Joseph Koerner puts it:
You do not stand before a ‘landscape’ since the thicket blocks any wider prospect of its setting; nor do the snow and alders, pushed up against the picture plane, quite constitute the monumentality of a 'scene’, for they provide no habitat for an event.
Looking back, it doesn't seem to be a coincidence that, when I visited the Kunsthalle Bremen, the only postcard I came out with was one of Friedrich's Das Friedhofstor. Could formality be the echo of enchantment and desperation the wall?

The question lurking behind these attractions and choices is not one of enchantment but: how does one overcome the wall? But perhaps this question is misleading. When discussing his early frustrations with writing, the author who described Saul Bellow's tone of voice talks about what he learned from certain authors:
Proust had given me the confidence to fail, had driven home to me the lesson that if you come up against a brick wall perhaps the way forward is to incorporate the wall and your effort to scale it into the work. I had read Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras, and been excited by the way they reinvented the form of the novel to suit their purposes – everything is possible, they seemed to say. But when you start to write all that falls away. You are alone with the page and your violent urges, urges, which no amount of reading will teach you how to channel. ‘Zey srew me in ze vater and I had to svim,’ as Schoenberg is reported to have said. That is why I so hate creative writing courses – they teach you how to avoid brick walls, but I think hitting them allows you to discover what you and only you want to/can/must say.
What draws me back to Bernhard is to appreciate his discovery and how he incorporated the brick wall. Re-reading his first novel seems to have helped with that. Frost was published in 1963 but was the last to be translated into English. This might be because it isn't quite like those that define his style and certainly not as economic. It is the narrative of a medical student visiting the ageing painter Strauch who has lived for many years in an Austrian mining town. The student's task is to report back to the Strauch's estranged brother, and the novel takes the form of a diary of his encounters with Strauch, who is prone to monologues. The book is divided into twenty-six chapters representing twenty-six days. Compare the following paragraph from the day seven with the one from The Loser.

from Frost, translated by Michael Hofmann

Bernhard has always displaced the dominant character's voice in a novel – Prince Saurau who appeared four years later in Gargoyles is the most memorable. Yet even when the dominant character is the narrator, as it tends to be in his later novels, it too is displaced, either in time, as in the "I thought to myself as I entered the inn", or in writing, as in the "writes Atzbacher" in the first line of Old Masters. But earlier works like Frost and Gargoyles are relatively routine in terms of style and are distinguished mainly for the eloquence of their expression of existential despair. Strauch describes paranoid hallucinations and the student is reporting back; nothing unusual here. Seven years after Frost, however, in a film also divided into days, Bernhard more or less repeats Strauch's experience as his own, which offers an insight into the shift in style.

On day two, he says he prefers to be alone.

from 3 Days, translated by Laura Lindgren
For Strauch the wall held Technicolor horrors from which he turned away, and perhaps they were for Bernhard himself and this is a displaced expression of that. For the slightly older writer, however, the horrors became a source. Wall and page are 'perfectly alike', so his books are made of walls, not their overcoming. There is no wider prospect because a singular voice blocks the reading plane. Here's the dominating voice of Old Masters, the music critic Reger, who spends his days studying each painting in the Kunsthistoriches Museum just as Bernhard studied each wall in his house.
In all these pictures, if we study them intensively, we sooner or later discover an awkwardness, or indeed, even in the very greatest and the most important creations, a flaw, if we are uncompromising a serious flaw which gradually makes us dislike these pictures, probably because we pitched our expectations too high, Reger said. Art altogether is nothing but a survival skill, we should never lose sight of this fact, it is, time and again, just an attempt — an attempt that seems touching even to our intellect — to cope with this world and its revolting aspects, which, as we know, is invariably possible only by resorting to lies and falsehoods, to hypocrisy and self-deception, Reger said.      [Translated by Ewald Osers]
George Steiner felt that Bernhard lapsed into a 'monotone of hate' in his later work, which is understandable given how close Bernhard gets to the wall here, and also given Steiner's highly pitched regard for what is a necessary part of that proximity. But while Reger's critical mania is easily conflated with Bernhard's own, it too is placed at a distance, with Reger's opinions noted down by his friend Atzbacher and orchestrated by Bernhard, and therefore contained within what could be included among "the very greatest and the most important creations" that Reger treats with such suspicion. Such displacements might be considered a serious flaw in a modern novel, as they evade positivist claims about the world and decline to tell convincing, realistic stories to reflect the world back to us, or conversely they might be celebrated by those who see only a pass-the-parcel game of attribution. But what we have is walls in motion, something as fun as riding a see-saw. But not only fun.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Shattering the Muses by Rainer J. Hanshe & Federico Gori

Televisions schedules have lately featured many programmes following chronic hoarders as they try to overcome their pathological behaviour. The process is always the same: film crews enter outwardly normal homes to find labyrinths of cardboard boxes, magazines and newspapers stacked to the ceiling. Interviews with the inhabitants follow that invariably reveal the hoarding is compensation for a great absence. When attempts are made to clear a room, the owner panics and refuses to let anything go. One man in his sixties insisted on keeping a school textbook found at the bottom of a box because, he said, he was thinking of becoming a teacher. When told it was forty years out of date and useful to nobody, anxiety and confusion contorted his face.

In every programme the viewer becomes a witness to the destruction of hope, with the house clearance acting like L-Dopa on one of Oliver Sacks' patients catatonic for the last forty years slowly discovering their true age. But all is fine in the end because, in the last ten minutes of the show, the hoarder always relents and allows the team to clear and redecorate the house. As the credits role, we see them smiling with friends and family, ready for a fresh start.

Watching what is effectively the same programme over and over emphasises how closely possession and dispossession coincide: a man who holds onto a book as the promise of a better life finds its absence delivers exactly that. It's a concurrence that also gives pulse to Shattering the Muses, a beautifully designed, large format book from Contra Mundum Press, whose pages are illuminated by the flames of the bonfires it documents.

In a stack of quotations, short essays, anecdotes, poems, slogans, drawings and photographs, the book records proclamations against written works from biblical times to those announced by the Nazis, and from the loss of a few books at an airport to the cataclysm in Jaffna. And while there is no obvious narrative, some pages do tell stories, most notably that of Miklós Radnóti as he wrote poems secretly on a forced march across Hungary, hiding them in his jacket.

In the appropriately ominous prose of the blurb, it is said the book "proposes that 'apocalypses' are not eschatological, but ontological, ever-present, continuous events that threaten us", which is certainly borne out by the content. But there is plenty of evidence that Shattering the Muses is not the straightforward humanistic lament over man's inhumanity to manuscripts that this suggests.

There is a tendency to think like the hoarder who sees only what can be 'cashed out' in the world, which we see frequently in newspaper headlines about newly discovered works by famous authors that will potentially "shed light" on them and "enlarge our knowledge". Silence is not something we can talk about in public. It isn't what we expect. It isn't the right kind of knowledge. Perhaps building a library is an attempt to make silence physical.

Whenever the lost books are mentioned, I think of Kafka's Berlin notebooks confiscated by the Gestapo. If only Dora Diamant had given them to Max Brod! Her biographer Kathi Diamant has organised a search of archives in the hope they are somewhere in eastern Europe. It's a thrilling idea: new works by Kafka. And if I daydream about the moment a researcher opens a file and recognises Kafka's spidery handwriting, I wonder also about our uncertain relation to the works we do have. It might be that silence, an apocalypse of sorts, rises up before us there, in every extant work. Is this why we seek the new?

Adding to the hoard might demonstrate a misunderstanding of what Kafka's work reveals to us or, worse, a betrayal. He wrote a story – The Silence of the Sirens – in which Odysseus puts wax in his ears so he could not be lured by the sirens' song. But Kafka adds a further twist on the classical story and says "the Sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their silence". With his ears blocked, Odysseus is the only one who fails to hear it. "And though admittedly such a thing has never happened, still it is conceivable that someone might possibly have escaped from their singing; but from their silence certainly never." Perhaps the absence of Kafka's stories is their great gift to us and why he was so keen to destroy them.


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