Friday, March 15, 2019

Encountering the fabulous point

When the postman delivered the book of Józef Czapski's lectures on Proust, I was slightly disappointed that it was such a slim volume, especially as 82 pages of actual text and a 25-page introduction cost me £10. Compared to the lack of moderation that Czapski says characterised Proust's commitment to his novel once he had abandoned his social and sentimental life, which had been marked by the same lack of moderation, the modesty here is extreme. However, given that the lectures were drawn solely from Czapski's memory of Proust's novel and personal experience of its Parisian milieu and delivered to fellow inmates in a Soviet labour camp, this is more than forgiveable. The mere occurrence of the lectures displays a lack of moderation, let alone their subsequent publication. And the introduction by their translator Eric Karpeles is excellent.

What's more, if I compare the page count to the one secondary work that more than any other has influenced not just my appreciation of what distinguishes Proust's achievement from all other novels but of my fascination with writing in general – the 13 pages of Maurice Blanchot's The Experience of Proust – it is immoderately long. So why this instinctive fuss with measuring? Why this concern for physique rather than metaphysique?

No doubt there is the concern for not being ripped off, but there's also embedded in this the anxiety about what any book amounts to before, during and after it's read, with its physical presence offering the most immediate authority. Once that is over, we seek further organisational information. Last year John Self was perplexed by the appearance of the Penguin Book of the Prose Poem: "What is a prose poem anyway?" he asked. "It’s something and nothing really, isn’t it? Neither use nor ornament." Later, after reading the book, he recanted and accepted the genre is valid. But this raises the age-old issue of labels. I was in Waterstone's this week and saw this table and its sign (with its inexplicable second leading capital).

All of the books below it were as slim as Czapski's, but I wondered how the shop workers decided which books count as novellas and which not. At which point does a novel becomes a novella, and vice versa? It's the old philosophical conundrum raised by Clov in Endgame: "Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there's a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap." At what page does the book become a novel? The same can be asked of Penguin's book. John quotes the introduction's definition of prose poetry, that it "flows by soft return from margin to margin, filling the empty field of the page" and is "unchecked by metre or rhyme", which means it's defined by the technical features of prose.

Aren't such genre distinctions a form of confiscating smuggled goods at the border? Once a book has been read, whether it's 90 pages or 900, such distinctions become irrelevant to the reader, as both have the quality of existing as a book, of being itself and not any other book, which then raises the question of what that quality is in itself; what precisely has been smuggled?

For many years I've been aware of how the end of a novel detaches itself from the rest, as some kind of token closure to what never closes, or token opening to what never opens. As one nears the end of a book, whether it is page 88 or 888, the weight of pages to come grows so light that a certain inner resignation and leave-taking takes place, and the kernel of the book, its essence as itself, attaches to what has passed; however, in the same awareness, I'm aware that it does not attach itself to the beginning, because the beginning needs to go beyond itself to become the book, and not to the middle either, because the middle exists only because the beginning and the end distinguish it as such. And where does the beginning end and the end begin?

Three years ago, I suggested Thomas Bernhard's novel Neufundland, which exists only as a beginning sentence and an end sentence, acts on us as a novel nevertheless because it conjures in the imagination what in other novels is conjured by memory, and the inner resignation or leave-taking not only occurs but is the entirety of the experience of the novel, thereby confronting us with what we might call the Platonic ideal of 'the Book' to which all books appeal, even as they dissemble in doing so. This points to why Proust's novel fascinates me, which has nothing to do its immodest length but because, as Blanchot says, it circles around "the fabulous point where he encounters the event that makes every narrative possible"; a point at the centre of Neufundland despite its extreme brevity.

I tried to imagine an alternative to the abrupt ending of the usual novel, in which this fabulous point might make itself felt, and in doing so I remembered the Pernice Brothers' 2003 LP Yours, Mine & Ours, whose final song ends in the normal way except, if one waits through 23 seconds of silence, a part of Water Ban, the LP's second song, a part which is a kind of ghost chorus, reappears as a ghostly refrain fading into infinity, something that has always intrigued me without my being aware of it. I wonder how this effect might transfer to writing. Perhaps this novel, which some have called a novella, is a good example.


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