Sunday, August 23, 2020

The end of literature, part three

On the evening of December 12th, 2019 a numbed grief descended over the land, and has lain there ever since. At that time a mild alternative to barbarism was being put to death. Back in 2015 when, against all odds, a lifelong socialist and campaigner against racism and imperialist wars became leader of the Labour Party, I made a prediction. His leadership would at first create a surge in support as people saw the values he stood for and the policies he offered, equivalent in magnitude, I said, to Thatcher's in 1979. But once corporate media had time to organise and focus, it would be destroyed. I cited Chris Mullins' 1982 novel A Very British Coup as a fictional precedent. This is exactly what happened. What I didn't predict was how such organisation and focus would itself rely on fiction. 

The numbed grief is also numbed horror at how such a mild alternative was presented as a terrible threat to all we know and love, and how those who took the fiction seriously were co-opted so that their anti-racist sentiments ended up favouring practising racists, their feminist sentiments were co-opted to silence reports of the mass murder of women (among others), and their pro-human rights sentiments were co-opted so that they came to admire the most brutal terrorist group imaginable and its assault on a society much like their own. The cynicism and cruelty with which these inversions were manufactured exposed more clearly than ever the demonic infestation at the heart of the political and media class. 

But this isn't a post about British politics. It begins as such because the same numbed feelings descended when I looked at the thirteen novels on this year's Booker Prize's longlist, and because it reveals a similar inversion of progress.


I studied the brightly coloured spines for the basic information, read descriptions of the contents of each and listened to the judges acclaim the list as "an excitingly diverse" selection full of "bold, fresh and accomplished" writing, without generating the slightest throb of interest. I wondered if, after all these years, my appetite for novels had gone. Even if I had long lost faith in book prizes to bring to light novels that deserve more attention, this was a singularly dispiriting selection, as it appears to offer not the slightest challenge to the form, only indulgence in familiarity dressed up in colourful clothing.

Perhaps these books need to be saved from their champions; what, after all, do those adjective mean when applied to writing? The first canto of Dante's Inferno is "bold" and "accomplished" and remains "fresh" after 700 years, but these words don't begin to say anything about the poem. They are words borrowed from a marketing department.

By contrast, many readers expressed excitement: Candice Carty-Williams says she's "sort of in love" with the longlist because it features "several black authors and debut female writers". She says it's "only a good thing" that one of the novelists, Brandon Taylor, said “I didn’t write this book for the white gaze”. Remember when John Carey said the modernists wrote works to exclude the masses and that was only a bad thing?

I went to the Booker Prize website to seek enlightenment about the novels in the hope that marketingspeak would be toned down and the books would be revealed in truer light. It reports that one novel is about "a world ravaged by climate change", another about "the hope and potential of one young girl and a fledgling nation", while others "[lay] bare the ruthlessness of poverty", contain "piercing social commentary", or are about “sexuality and race", "a life of violent crime", and "what it means to be a woman at war". There are even two about that subject matter nobody ever mentions, "love and loss". 

So here too diversity is the selling point, extended to subject matter. It is as if the judges sought to include everything and everyone – diversity par excellence – in order to suppress doubts about the conditions under which everything and everyone is revealed.  

What is happening when book prizes and the coverage of them has much less concern for the books in themselves than for the identity of the authors and their extra-literary agendas? 

Of course, this focus dominates mainstream literary reception. The symptoms are clear in Veronica Esposito's essay explaining why she's "falling out of love with Modernist Literature": while its books once "understood what it was like to be me", they do so no longer, and she's moved on to those that do.

In addition to discontent with older novels, there have been rumblings of the same with the contemporary novel and its place in the cultural landscape. First there's this anonymous waft of gas from a winged chair in a gentleman's club, and then there's Joseph Epstein's more fragrant equivalent, both coming from politically conservative standpoints, which the Booker longlist is implicitly keen to resist, and rightly so, yet the wish to emancipate different 'voices' above all else has lead to an apparently formally conservative selection of novels, correlating to the concern to protect progressive ideals for fear of enabling those that might honour them in practice and settling instead for the most vicious, illiberal of postwar governments, which might also be praised for the diversity of its ministers, but which of course makes not the slightest difference to their barbaric policies. 

The confidence of marketingspeak of the Booker Prize reveals only a profound lack of confidence in the novel as an artistic force, while history shows change is possible in art and politics only ever from a refusal to compromise; from always going in the opposite direction.

What then is the alternative to what I call "about novels", as defined in contrast to Beckett's description of Joyce's Work in Progress as "not about something" but "is that something itself"? 

How might we recognise a novel going in the opposite direction?

My reaction to novels is often more physical than it is intellectual, so to codify the genre would betray that feeling. But perhaps this feeling can be described, or described for me.  

In his short book addressing why he writes, Karl Ove Knausgaard quotes a passage from War and Peace in which after a dinner Prince Andrei asks Natasha, the woman he is courting, to sing. As she did so, he "felt tears choking him" because "something new and joyful stirred his soul". Why this unexpected emotion?

The chief reason was a sudden, vivid sense of the terrible contrast between something great and illimitable within him, and that limited and material that he, and even she, was.
Knausgaard then adds his commentary:
The contradiction between the illimitable that dwells within us and our simultaneous limitation and earthboundness is the driving force behind all literature and all art, or so I believe, but not only that; the longing to equalize the difference, suspend the contradiction and simply exist in the world, undifferentiated from it, is also an important part of all religious practice. (Translated by Ingvild Burkey)

While the quoted passage is a narrated part of a novel and remains 'about' so that it is a condition only described to rather than experienced by the reader, its value lies in its description of the rare atmosphere experienced in some novels that cannot be attributed to what they're about; something for which a marketing department could not supply words. What's significant here is the revelation of what Andrei's 'love' for Natasha means and what it depends upon: the incarnation of an irreducible distance and, at the same time, its overwhelming presence. So instead of seeking a novel that is War and Peace for our time, or whatever, I propose we look for novels that become that revelation, so a reader becomes the Prince as he listens to Natasha singing at the clavichord. Knausgaard's book title suggests this is not necessarily something the author has any control over, which also suggests the focus on the writer rather than the work turns everything into a game of personality and mastery.

Knausgaard's example from Tolstoy is the less melodramatic version of Kafka's famous call for "the books that affect us like a disaster....". What would that kind of book look like?

Soon after the passage from War and Peace, Knausgaard says that, as a writer struggling with his writing, he was stuck between feelings induced by entertainments that carry no obligation yet provide an illusion of an engagement with meaning (watching Games of Thrones is his example), and feelings that "cannot be transmitted, cannot be sold" and are "yours alone until you die". This, he says, produces a work such as Mallarmé’s A Tomb for Anatole, a long poem written after the death of the poet's eight-year-old son and never intended for publication but handed to its original editor in a small box 63 years after Mallarmé's own death.

It contains no sequence of events and hardly any address or communication, for grief is mute, turned toward darkness and emptiness, and so is the language of this poem. Reading it, there is no sense of drama, no burst of sorrow or sudden shock, the poem doesn’t convey emotions, it is the emotion itself, its rending apart of meaning, coherence, language.

For the reader there is perhaps nothing to gain from reading such a work except to feel distant, excluded, bewildered, frustrated, offended even. However, Knausgaard's connection of the Prince's reaction to religious practice may help us to appreciate why Kafka's call and Mallarmé's work depend on extreme experiences, as they address what escapes meaning in the absence of faith and the disenchantment of the world, out of which the novel grew. This may be how writing recovers something of what has been erased by modernity and the novel.

A book like A Tomb for Anatole could never appear on a Booker Prize list of course, first of all because its the wrong genre and because, like Jacques Roubaud's The Great Fire of London, another generically uncertain work written after the sudden death of the author's wife, its original language is French. But it is precisely this obsession with genre that is the problem. We need to remember that the novel emerged at the time when the authenticity of dominant genres came under question. There's Samuel Johnson's famous criticism of Milton using a pastoral elegy to express grief at the death of a friend: "Where there is leisure for fiction, there is little grief." The genre label acts like a filing cabinet in which the author can whip out the relevant file, write an entry according to the template within, and whip it back in again. Clunk. 

We have been in a filing-cabinet time for many years now, and perhaps it will carry on clunking for a long time to come. The "about novel" is that filing cabinet – full of bold, fresh and accomplished files. Instead, I long for those works which affect us like the song and its singing affected the Prince, for novels which struggle for generic definition and lay on the floor in diverse locations discarded by the office drones. This is how we may recognise a novel going in the opposite direction.


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