Wednesday, September 18, 2019

A walk in the park

After days stuck indoors, I went for a walk in a park and, rather than listen to myself, I listened to Michael Silverblatt's interview with Ariana Reines about her new book. Bookworm is an oasis of public discussion of novels and poetry because it discusses novels and poetry.

Reines says A Sand Book is unusually long for a poetry title because she loves long books, books that "go beyond themselves", and she wanted to write a work that bore witness to her experience of many, various cultures, and for that experience to stay with her. Silverblatt tells the listener that Reines "travels the world seeking revelation" and her poems take the reader by the scruff of the neck to be "shocked, horrified, filled with joy". At four minutes into the show she reads a poem called Bohemian Rhapsody. Perhaps you could listen and comment below with your thoughts in response (if only to conceal my own).

Despite wanting only to listen and not respond, when Reines said she loved books that go beyond themselves, I muttered out loud the book is the beyond, and then couldn't help but explain this assertion to myself. Sometimes I long for the desert.

I am going for a walk, I thought, to do nothing else but stretch my legs and clear my head. I was not expecting the walk to go beyond itself. What would that even mean? I could break into a run, I suppose, but that would mean only walking faster. Perhaps to go beyond itself walking needs to become flying. I would need a jetpack for that, I thought. The park has swings for children, which imitate flying, sort of, I thought, which would be safer. Going high and low, back and forth, in complete safety, like reading a poem perhaps, unless someone pushes too hard and frightens you, like JH Prynne, I thought.

It was at this point I remembered that the park began as a communal garden for surrounding villas which were never built so, I thought, a garden has gone beyond itself to become a park. Perhaps then a book is more likely to go beyond itself the bigger and longer it is, perhaps to become more than one book, and then possibly more than two, maybe even a shelf of books, which might then become a library, which might then become a building, a part of the world to visit for revelation.

You're being disingenuous, I thought. It is clear in what Ariana Reines means. The book goes beyond itself by describing the world in all its variety, by exploring what's out there. That is what she means. And the more of the world it goes into, the better, hence all the towns and cities featured in the book, which Michael Silverblatt asks Reines to list as a guarantee of such going beyond.

This is the entirely normal, I thought, nothing to get worked up about. It merely continues Plato's ancient distrust of the voice from elsewhere, since intensified by the scientific revolution in which what enables truth to appear, that which makes it true, is never discussed, emerging more recently in less coherent form as Reality Hunger. And yet despite this common-sense suspicion, there is also a reverence for the written word, evident in the heightened tone adopted when Reines reads Bohemian Rhapsody and the peculiar practice of pronouncing the title after a respectful pause with the same wistful solemnity as the poem despite the introduction making it clear what the title is, as if the words had an almost sacred power. What is going on? I asked myself.

As I continued along the perimeter path, forming sentences in my head and no longer listening to what was being said, I realised that the garden became a park because of the absence of surrounding villas, and so too, I thought, the book. The book comes into being only in the absence of the world. It exists only in the absence of the world just as the park exists only in the absence of the villas. For a book to go beyond itself is therefore unintelligible, because the beyond is necessary to the book. It is always already beyond, I thought, immediately regretting having thought of that critical cliché. Don't ever use that phrase, I told myself. So the question is not how does a book go beyond itself, I thought, but how does the world go beyond itself?

By becoming a book, of course, I thought, disappointed with the banality of the answer, although it was then I realised with pleasure that the writer who first made that claim shares my initials. It is the anxiety and discomfort caused by the consequences implied by this condition that bothers me, as it explains why the book is always subordinated to the world. You've written about this before, I thought, so you're going over familiar ground, the same old ground. Over the years you've seen many books promoted with a promise of going beyond the page, tempting the reader with a story interrupted by an act of shocking violence, and of course people are forever writing bucket lists of all the things they'd like to before they die: bungee jump or visit the Grand Canyon, swim with dolphins or get a tattoo. Acts of shocking predictability, I thought. A bucket list is a curious literary genre: an autobiography ghostwritten in advance, written over a life in which nothing happens except life itself, just as nothing happens in a book except a book, I thought; each entry a chapter heading to a series of CORGI-registered adventures; labels pasted over a void.

Seeking an end to this train of thought, I decided to sit by the pond and stare at the concrete. Why does the world need to go beyond itself? I thought anyway. Bucket lists never include develop a serious illness, or experience sadness without respite for years on end, or lose the only person you will ever love. These things happen anyway, I thought, as confirmed by the benches lining the boundary of the park, each displaying a plaque engraved with a dedication to a person who had, they all said, enjoyed the park in their lifetime. How did this enjoyment manifest? I wondered. Did they leap around with a grin on their faces the moment they stepped over the boundary, or were they overwhelmed by tears of happiness as they trod on the grass?

Neither, probably. Every experience is a word on a plaque, I thought. I remembered a line copied from a book of essays years before: "Experience deserves its name only if it transports us beyond what constitutes our nature". What constitutes our nature, I thought, is distance: distance from everything; the benches, the trees and grass, the ducks and pigeons, and from distance too. It is an experience of distance, I thought, which is why I'm taking these photographs, which record only distance. The people named on the benches are ghosts here, but they always were, I thought, more or less, along with everyone walking around the park now with their dogs, and maybe their dogs too. If an experience has taken us beyond our nature, it would mean a death of sorts, if not death itself, which is why the unwritten bucket list is more appropriate.

This is why we read so many books, I thought walking out through the park gate, and why we feel the need to talk about them, and why I listen to Bookworm, because we are fascinated by this revelation of distance, without knowing what it is, what it means, or even that it has occurred, in which everything goes beyond itself, becoming itself in its absence.

Sunday, September 01, 2019

Yesterday by Ágota Kristóf

In 2009 Tim Parks warned of the Dull New Global Novel in which "culture-specific clutter and linguistic virtuosity have become impediments" to commercial success. "From the moment an author perceives his ultimate audience as international rather than national, the nature of his writing is bound to change". "What" he asks "are the consequences for literature?".

Dullness, apparently. Parks offers a handful of examples of authors whose novels have been planed to removed the jagged edges of a specific culture, and while he doesn't include Ágota Kristóf, her novel Yesterday might well be the apotheosis of smooth. First published in 1996 and now reissued in a translation by David Watson published a year later, it has only the most mundane features of modern life, and character names vaguely suggesting a generic European state. Otherwise there is nothing specific. No reader will feel confused or alienated by the detail, what there is of it. This is the ghost of the novel Tim Parks feared, only this has nothing to do with the author having an eye on an audience.

As the title suggests, it is a story of what has passed. Sandor is living in exile having gone on the run as a child after stabbing his mother's lover. He changed his name to avoid detection and was brought up in an orphanage. As an adult he crossed some mountains into a different country and got a job in a factory staffed by fellow exiles who speak in their native language rather than "the language of here". Much like Ágota Kristóf's own story, he experiences "days of dismal work, silent evenings, a frozen life, without change, without surprise, without hope". But his dreams are haunted by Line, the girl he left behind and the daughter of the stabbed lover, whom he still loves and hopes will reappear in his life. "In the evenings, I write" he says. As well as the usual daily intrigues and expressions of pain, he records poetic reveries which write allegorical tales over the blank page of his life. It is here that yesterday rises up and torments. Eventually Line does reappear, and yesterday promises to become today. However, Sandor's experience only ever reiterates that while physical exile from one's homeland and one's true love is particular, exile from yesterday is universal.

Yesterday appears following the success of Kristóf's The Notebook, a book that shares with the new one a minimalist prose style, a lack of geographic and cultural specificity, and the conditions of its narrators' childhoods. However, it lacks that novel's formal constraint in which the twin narrators speak as 'we' and only ever report what they see and hear rather than speculate or assert impressions or emotions, which is matched by the ethical imperative they adopt, and which impressed Slavoj Žižek so much. The effect is to exile the reader from the comfort of a first- or third-person perspective, prompting a dynamic of familiarity and distance, recognition and horror. In contrast, Yesterday contains only the subjectivity of the first-person that tends toward self-pity, and its allegorical reveries and acts of violence, whether physical or emotional, are futile attempts to mitigate writing's naturally anhedonic state, which is also the natural state of the exile, so its promise of excitement only ever delivers literary dullness and indifference to the reader.

What content then should a novel seek to end its exile? Perhaps there is none, as action of culture-specific content and linguistic virtuoisity may be significant only as resistance to literature's exile, producing the same indifference. Resistance to literature may indeed be the definition of the form. After all, the novel began with Robinson Crusoe as a resistance to genre and in Don Quixote as a send-up of its idealistic or anhedonic tendency. Crusoe's shipwrecked state might itself be a metaphor of the novelist's exile, which he resists by colonising the foreign land and turning it into a model of yesterday. But the novel, like the island, only ever remains an idealism. In effect, Flaubert's wish to write a book dependent on nothing external is granted with every book.


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