Tuesday, August 03, 2021

A review from abroad

In April 2016, a review by Alexander Carnera of my book This Space of Writing appeared in the Norwegian edition of Le Monde diplomatique as a supplement to the delightfully named Norwegian newspaper Klassekampen. Even though I can't read Danish, it was not only a highlight of the book's publication but one of the nicest things to happen in my life. It has now been translated by Peter Holm Jensen, to whom I am very grateful, so please allow me to indulge and post it here. (The dates at beginning have been amended.)


A sensitivity to the invisible

Can literature change our lives? For Stephen Mitchelmore, literature occupies a unique space that challenges the reality hunger of our time. Perhaps reality only exists as a tension between intimacy and distance. 

By Alexander Carnera

As a counterbalance to what he saw as the increasing commercialisation of literature, in November 2000 the British critic Stephen Mitchelmore became a blogger for Spike Magazine, and eventually started the blog This Space in 2004, where he’s been posting reviews ever since, all the while developing an enviable approach to thinking about literature. His explorative, essayistic reviews are rich in perspectives and a sense of wonder, and characterised by a restless and generous temperament. Mitchelmore doesn’t commit to any particular genre, and often begins his reviews by relating personal experiences. Quotes, comments and narrative passages blend into a mosaic in which different voices are confronted with each other. Reading him, one senses an engagement and curiosity that aren’t primarily motivated by passing judgement. Rather, he sees literature as a living encounter in which something is at stake for both writer and reader. 

The title of his first book, This Space of Writing, refers to a kind of non-place where literature again feels possible. He’s selected 44 texts from the blog, in which he discusses a wide variety of novels by the likes of Richard Ford, Tao Lin and Karl Ove Knausgaard, as well as, for example, the significance of ancient cave paintings for modern writers and the ‘reality hunger’ that drives contemporary media – always with an eye for the strange space of literature. 

The space of literature 

Mitchelmore often has interesting things to say about the book as a medium, about literary criticism, and high and popular culture, but his central reflections have to do with how literature affects our lives. He devotes many pages to thinking about the relationship between fiction and life, why we read, what we expect from books, and about why writers write: is it a vocation, a way of dealing with pain or loss, or something else? At the same time, he’s wary of the contemporary trend – exemplified by David Shields’ best-selling cultural bible Reality Hunger – of inflating writing and art into something that captures ‘life itself’. Collages of quotations, docudramas and autobiographies don’t necessarily bring us closer to the real, Mitchelmore points out, and in fact run the risk of creating abstract images of the very reality they seek to show. ‘To ask what life is in itself’ is a dead end. The task is rather to explore the ‘thresholds’ of experience. Here we find what Mitchelmore calls the space of literature. 

The Danish dictionary informs us that the word erfaring (‘experience’) is etymologically linked to the phrases at udforske (‘to explore’) and at rejse igennem (‘to travel through’). Hence the term bevandret, which describes someone well-versed in a field or experienced in life. Someone who’s encountered and dwelt in something different and unknown. In his efforts to describe the ‘space of literature’, Mitchelmore uses spatial metaphors and constellations of words such as distance and presence, light and shadow, intimacy and distance, visible and invisible. The space of literature is a uniquely porous and at the same time demarcated place where life is in flow and thoughts and feelings are born. 

The reader becomes a Nazi 

In a good essay on the controversial Austrian author Peter Handke, Mitchelmore writes that Handke, who draws on actual family relationships and experiences in his narratives, explores these kinds of limit experiences. Handke weaves his own walks and journeys into fictional narratives. Writing for him is a way of circling around blind spots and invisible transitions between what he understands and what he doesn’t. A good writer doesn’t succumb to the temptation of feeling he must necessarily realise his longings or dreams. Rather, his work confirms ‘that there is no crossing of the threshold if this threshold is a portal to a transcendent realm’. And it’s precisely Handke’s way of ‘patiently circling around the threshold’, which can never quite be crossed, that enables him to write deeply evocative books about what it means to be alive. 

In a long essay titled ‘The huge difficulty of dying’, Mitchelmore asks whether literature, despite the distance it inevitably creates to its subject matter, can alter our experience of lived life. Mitchelmore’s example here is the Nazi soldier Maximilien Aue in Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, who, before he returned to civilian life, took part in the Nazi atrocities. He now lives at a distance from these violent murders, but the convenient ease with which they were carried out has left its traces. The body speaks its own language, resulting in vomiting, nausea and diarrhoea. But what about the mind? 

In writing, Aue begins to understand: ‘This was what I couldn’t manage to grasp: the yawning gap, the absolute contradiction between the ease with which one can kill and the huge difficulty there must be in dying.’ Mitchelmore examines Aue’s tortuous efforts to resolve this contradiction. The atrocities line up to be confronted. A crucial incident happens during the Caucasus campaign. Aue leads a group of Jews to a clearing in a forest where his soldiers are digging a trench. But before the killing can start, the soldiers discover that the Russians got there first, and that there are already mass graves in the forest. Each trench they dig reveals new corpses. The officers are worked up, the soldiers start a new trench, and the Jews stand by watching. 

‘Here is the absolute contradiction in a literary tableau: the living and the dead confronting each other, both intimately close and infinitely distant; neither close nor distant enough’, writes Mitchelmore. To endure the savagery taking place around him, Aue must adopt the ideology of Nazism as if it were a law or a religion. In this way, he can abstract from the atrocities he faces. The reader, too, is disturbed by the horror of the scene but is ‘as impatient as the officers for it to be over’. Thus, says Mitchelmore surprisingly, the reader ‘situates [the horror] beyond disposable titillation’ and ‘becomes a Nazi’. For Mitchelmore, the scene seems too conveniently ‘literary’ given its very real historical subject matter. Then what is a novelist to do? 

The point is that Aue’s search for his lost life can’t be captured in a single scene. For Mitchelmore, the question is how literature can evoke an experience of crossing a threshold which can also be recognised by the reader. It’s a question of time, of developing the narrator’s ‘intense sensibility’ over the course of the narrative. The title of the essay, ‘The huge difficulty of dying’, refers to the search for a border the narrator himself can’t locate. Something must die so something else can be born. But in writing, one can’t simply recreate what’s been lost by recalling past events from one’s life, whether gruesome incidents or troubling childhood episodes. Merely writing them down fails to lift them above the level of anecdotes. Giving a past event life requires embedding it in the time of the narrative and letting its traces and consequences grow in the reader. This lends it a kind of necessity and makes it harder to dismiss. There’s no guarantee of this happening, of course, but as Mitchelmore stresses, Aue’s ‘task’ – the work of writing – is an exercise in confronting the dark threshold state between military service, submission and incomprehension. This task sustains him, keeps him alive. 

Voids in the cave 

Mitchelmore has studied a number of key works on cave paintings in art history and archaeology by Georges Bataille and Maurice Blanchot among others. In Mitchelmore’s view, ancient cave paintings speak of humanity’s ‘transgression against nature’ as something essential to becoming human. But this experience of becoming something other than what nature has made us also serves as a lesson in the problematic birth of art and representation. 

When the first human beings depicted their lives on damp cave walls, they may have appeared to be ‘unconsciously’ part of nature, but this act of creation also meant that they began to stand out from other species. Their art looked like a demonstration of power over nature, but perhaps revealed their weakness even more clearly: the ‘realisation of the inability to return to that pre-human state’. These people now came into contact with something they’d never seen in nature. With their paintings, they cut the umbilical cord to what formerly they could confidently identify as their own: their own activities, lives, hunts. The twisted red, black and yellow bodies of humans and animals must have begun to look alien to them. Gazing at them, they may have felt as though they glimpsed another possible reality. One imagines that, surprised by their own paintings, they reached out their hands to try to touch a reality that had taken on a life of its own. The discovery must have made them tremble. In an essay on the Lascaux cave paintings titled ‘The Birth of Art’, Blanchot writes: 

This strange feeling of ‘presence’, made up of certainty and instability, scintillates at the edge of appearances while remaining more certain than any other visible thing. And it is this same feeling, it seems me, that is found in the impression of first art, an impression with which the paintings of Lascaux fascinate us, as if, before our eyes, art were lit up for the first time by the torches’ glow and asserted itself suddenly with the authority of the obvious.     [Translated by Elizabeth Rottenberg]

Mitchelmore draws a thread from these ancient works of art to contemporary life: modern art, he says, lacks a given natural order in which to mirror itself and lives on as a longing to recreate the same miracle. But this longing takes the form of a kind of struggle in a void. As Blanchot writes of the Lascaux artist: ‘This void separating him and the natural community is, it seems, what revealed destruction and death to him, but he also learned, not without pain or misgiving, to use this void: to make use of and deepen his weakness in order to become stronger.’ In creating art, human beings discover a new space between themselves and nature, a space that can never be fully grasped and that pursues them like a shadow. A gap, a voided space where death makes life possible. Perhaps art is humanity’s attempt to turn this weakness into strength: to enter this space in order to learn how to see.

Control over life and death  

Many writers, disappointed in the contemporary state of the novel, have left the form behind and opted to write non-fiction. One of these is the British author Geoff Dyer, who sees war – waged by al-Qaeda, the Pentagon, across the Middle East – as the grand narrative of our time, which for him has made the novel superfluous. Literary fiction is outmoded, he says, not up to describing contemporary reality: the way forward is creative non-fiction. In his eagerness to promote new hybrid forms, Dyer has found his counterpart in the war correspondent. But according to Mitchelmore, Dyer’s dismissal of the authority of literary fiction is based on a reductive view of the novel as a vehicle of ‘information and meaning’. Moreover, Dyer overlooks the fact that creative non-fiction, governed as it is by ‘current events’ and ‘cultural relevance’, often leads to poor craftmanship reminiscent of genre fiction. War reportage, according to Mitchelmore, brushes over chance and thus the nuances of actual events: ‘Unlike in the novel, the author here has no control over life and death. In this – perhaps paradoxical – way, war reporting has erased chance from writing. Paradoxical because, while chance fills the lives of the soldiers, it is erased in the telling: everything is necessary, already written in nature.’ 

 If we follow this reasoning, the interesting question regarding the current debate about the Danish writer Carsten Jensen’s novel The First Stone isn’t whether it’s more credible because he himself was a war reporter in Afghanistan and wrote articles for a Danish newspaper, but whether in his language he evokes the ambiguity and shadowy nuances that can bring the reader closer to the reality of being in a warzone. According to Mitchelmore, it’s the author’s distance, formal techniques and ability to write from different points of view – the book’s invisible scaffolding – that give the reader an experience of a specific reality, as a tension between visible and invisible forces. But strictly speaking, his critique targets neither the likes of Carsten Jensen nor non-fiction as such. Chance is also a condition for the war correspondent, both in the form of the random events of war that the author tries to capture, and the words she or he chooses to describe them, which aren’t as far from fictional narrative as they might seem. To some extent the war correspondent controls his or her description of life and death through these choices, much like a writer of fiction. 

But there’s a difference. Both the literary writer and the war reporter work to give repressed, invisible forces narrative and form. What’s at issue according to Mitchelmore is how ‘writing leaves traces’; how to represent the contrast between the visible and the invisible, light and shadow. In this vein, Mitchelmore also reviews the French author Pascal Quignard, who sees literature as a way of working with fleeting forms and shadows without succumbing to the temptation of bringing all to light. Art should offer a way into what’s shadowed over by habit. Another of Mitchelmore’s examples is Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, a spinster’s story from her youth, when she was the governess of two children in a secluded country estate. Initially charming, the children appear to be haunted and corrupted by the ghosts of the estate’s former servants. Is it the fantasy of a madwoman or are the kids really evil? 

Henry James makes the ‘decisive choice’ to tell the story in the form of a letter by an outsider, in this case the governess. Mitchelmore draws attention to the fact that the epistolary form creates a space between the narrative and the events. This opens up a distance between the words and the scenes they describe that highlights the ambiguity of the children’s innocence, which is inseparable from their cruel acts. This distance enables James to develop and refine the plot (which he was initially told in the form of an anecdote) for his own purposes. Ambiguity here is more than the sociological uncertainty that arises when a war correspondent has to choose what to report on when the situation on the battlefield changes. 

Ambiguity in literary language has to do not with producing a ‘raw’ clarity, but a clarity associated with the not-quite-visible, the hard-to-access, the obscure. This is an ambiguity Mitchelmore glimpses in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s writing. 

An apostle of impassioned honesty 

Mitchelmore has a problematic relationship with Knausgaard, a writer he refers to as an ‘apostle of impassioned honesty’. Reading the first volume of My Struggle gave him, at first, a rare feeling of holding one of the masterpieces of his time in his hands. He initially dwells on Knausgaard’s ability to unearth images from seemingly banal childhood experiences and magnify them. An example is the footage the child Knausgaard sees in a news broadcast of a face that floats up to the surface of a lake from a sunken fishing boat: an image of death which, when he tells his dismissive father about it, intensifies his difficult relationship with him. At other times it’s works of art that captivate Knausgaard, and imbue him with a feeling of beauty or presence. According to Mitchelmore, these magnifying effects serve to move the writing elsewhere and offer up new ways of seeing. In this sense, the beauty of My Struggle lies in its ability to listen to the silence behind the world’s noise and to experiment in writing with opening spaces that make narrative possible. Mitchelmore is happy to call My Struggle a novel. The way it describes illuminating, enchanting sensations that seem to occur on the surface of life but open up past, present and future is enough to confirm this. 

This technique of course is well known, and many writers have made use of it to great effect. But what matters is the language, as Mitchelmore points out: ‘reality cannot enter into the work without conforming to the pressure of the conceptual unity imposed by a book […] writing plainly about plain things is no more a guarantee of realism than – following Wittgenstein – rain experienced in a dream is a guarantee of its wetness, even if it is connected to noise on the bedroom window.’ But is it a mark of a book’s quality that the author is aware that his descriptions are never sufficient, that pain, boredom, the strange or uncanny always escape language? Doesn’t it remain a question of the form one’s awareness of them takes, of how they’re put into words? Is it enough to observe that Knausgaard describes ad nauseam his difficulty in capturing basic human emotions? 

‘An overwhelming sense of imminence is evoked by Knausgaard so that its banality becomes […] celestial’, notes Mitchelmore. But this sense of immediacy doesn’t lead to a liberating revelation, but rather further frustration. The face on the surface of the lake in the news broadcast and the tears inexplicably provoked by the pattern of the clouds in a painting may hint at the promise of transcendence, but no affirmative transcendence. 

In a world without God, what literature struggles with is its own form, its own identity as literature; a struggle that ultimately can only demonstrate its own failure. This may be why Knausgaard doesn’t strive for a strong style as a writer. Strong themes and a strong style must be broken down before literature can emerge. This breaking down is what is called writing. Writing has more to do with destroying than creating, says Knausgaard somewhere. But one could also shift the emphasis of this statement: destroying is a way of creating, and this demands a unique writerly effort. It may well be that putting his immediate impressions of everyday life into words isn’t enough for Knausgaard, that it doesn’t satisfy him, but this in itself doesn’t mean we’re holding a masterpiece in our hands. 

Insightful disillusionment 

I have a suspicion that Mitchelmore omits important considerations about the ‘reality effect’, which have to do with the kind of effort put into writing and language itself. What grates a little is Knausgaard’s demonstrative, kitchen-sink determination to put everything into the book. For long stretches, this documentary-style accumulation of details dominates the text. But the idea that this accumulation can capture reality is nonsense. In a text on realism, the Danish author and linguist Per Aage Brandt once wrote: ‘Roland Barthes believed that the “reality effect” of a work of fiction is achieved by embedding details in it that do not function as parts of the narrative. I call it the “litter theory”: the more litter that floats around in the space of fiction, the more realistic it’s supposed to be.’ According to Brandt, Barthes thus assumes in advance that the fictional space isn’t realistic in itself, but that it’s originally a space of writing. ‘Barthes is wrong’, says Brandt. ‘When people tell stories and are only concerned with what they’re telling, they naturally create a realistic narrative; the language is spontaneously true to the reality of everyday life’ (1). Perhaps it can be formulated like this: it takes a special writerly effort to break out of the illusion of realism and into an insightful disillusionment. 

Is it reasonable to expect enlightenment or a sensory liberation from literature? To sense, for example, that Rilke harbours the secret of life but never succumbs to the temptation to reveal it, as a reviewer once wrote? For Mitchelmore, literature isn’t simply a question of seeking illumination – not everything needs to be brought to light – but just as much a matter of disillusionment. If literature teaches us to see, it’s because it demonstrates a ‘sensitivity to the invisible’. 

© norske LMD 

1. ‘Om skriften og det virkelige’ (‘On writing and the real’), Weekendavisen Bøger, 29 October 1999. 



No comments:

Post a Comment


Please email me at steve dot mitchelmore at gmail dot com.

Blog Archive

Contact steve dot mitchelmore at gmail.com. Powered by Blogger.