Wednesday, April 13, 2022

"When now?"

Out of curiosity, I read a few novels that over the last year have received the highest praise on social media and literary podcasts, and have appeared multiple times in newspaper Books of the Year choices and on prize shortlists, and one that even won a prize. I wanted to see what industry and independent opinion considers the very best of contemporary literature written in English, and was surprised to discover there was nothing special or distinct about them; nothing at all. What, I wondered, had thrilled others while, after thirty or so pages of patient reading, my eyes began to drift over words, sentences, and then whole pages? Once again, eleven years on, I asked myself: do you really have an interest in novels?

I soon recognised it had nothing to do with the stories or the humour, passion, skill and intelligence with which they were told, each of which appears to be what draws the high praise, and no doubt deserved for these reasons, but instead the relentless temporal stability in the clear, taken-as-axiomatic delineation between the narration and what is narrated. It helped me to recognise that the foregrounding of the relation between the two is a key factor in what stirs me when reading novels: Dante in the Vita Nuova, for example, if we can overlook the generic uncertainty for a moment, moving between the time of writing and the lost time of a living Beatrice "so mercury jumps like a spark" (as Charles Singleton describes it), or simply the clause in "A quarter of a century, or a day, has passed since I arrived in Jesenice on the trail of my missing brother", the opening line of Peter Handke's Repetition. While this may appear to be a small point, a matter of taste like a demand for realistic dialogue or "relatable" characters, I think it has implications for what fiction can offer and why so many contemporary novels written in English, whether the content relates to current affairs and thereby becomes "as real-time as novels get" (a line used in a recent review), suggesting urgency and the potential for real-world awareness, or is deemed experimental and worthy of our attention and admiration because of the unfortunate cultural prestige this term has developed, nevertheless remain, to me, inert.

To explain why, it may to help to look at an excessive example from Narrative Discourse, Gérard Genette's analysis of the temporal structure of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past which, in Scott Moncrieff’s translation of the title, has become an alibi for wistful nostalgia in the simple delineation of event and its confident narration. Instead, in a single passage, labelled alphabetically in this passage from Sodom and Gomorrah, he finds fifteen narrative sections:

(A) Swann now found equally intelligent anybody who was of his opinion, his old friend the Prince de Guermantes and my schoolfellow Bloch, (B) whom previously he had avoided (C) and whom he now invited to luncheon. (D) Swann interested Bloch greatly by telling him that the Prince de Guermantes was a Dreyfusard. "We must ask him to sign our appeal for Picquart; a name like his would have a tremendous effect." But Swann, blending with his ardent conviction as an Israelite the diplomatic moderation of a man of the world, (E) whose habits he had too thoroughly acquired (F) to be able to shed them at this late hour, refused to allow Bloch to send the Prince a circular to sign, even on his own initiative. "He cannot do such a thing, we must not expect the impossible," Swann repeated. "There you have a charming man who has travelled thousands of miles to come over to our side. He can be very useful to us. If he were to sign your list, he would simply be compromising himself with his own people, would be made to suffer on our account, might even repent of his confidences and not confide in us again." Nor was this all, Swann refused his own signature. He felt that his name was too Hebraic not to create a bad effect. Besides, even if he approved of all the attempts to secure a fresh trial, he did not wish to be mixed up in any way in the antimilitarist campaign. He wore, (G) a thing he had never done previously, the decoration (H) he had won as a young militiaman, in '70, (I) and added a codicil to his will asking that, (J) contrary to his previous dispositions, (K) he might be buried with the military honours due to his rank as Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. A request which assembled round the church of Combray a whole squadron of (L) those troopers over whose fate Françoise used to weep in days gone by, when she envisaged (M) the prospect of a war. (N) In short, Swann refused to sign Bloch's circular, with the result that, if he passed in the eyes of many people as a fanatical Dreyfusard, my friend found him lukewarm, infected with Nationalism, and a militarist. (O) Swann left me without shaking hands so as not to be forced into a general leave-taking.
Which he then aligns with nine temporal positions labelled this time with numbers:
(1) the war of 1870; (2) Marcel's childhood in Combray; (3) a time before the Guermantes soirée; (4) the Guermantes soirée, which we can place in 1898; (5) the invitation to Bloch (necessarily later than this soirée, from which Bloch is absent); (6) the Swann-Bloch luncheon; (7) the addition of the codicil; (8) Swann's funeral; (9) the war whose prospect Françoise envisaged and which, strictly speaking, occupies no definite position, since it is purely hypothetical, but which—in order to place it in time and simplify things—we may identify with the war of 1914-18. The formula of positions is then the following: 

While this provides riches for those wishing to analyse the technical features of narration, such as the separation between an event and its narration, it obscures what presents itself in the separation, whose presence intrigues and stirs me especially when it is becomes a factor in narration, as it does across the expanse of In Search of Lost Time. The presence of the first is very familiar to readers and is indeed what we long for when opening a novel and reading the first line, yet is invariably camouflaged by all kinds of alibis, excuses and mitigations of which Proust's is an ideal example, as it contains the density of detail in its storytelling we expect from any great novel of society, enabling the reader seeking to instrumentalise the purely superfluous pleasure of reading for technical, cultural and sociological advantage. And yet it is also the poorest example, as we can also find in Proust that which Walter Benjamin recognised as "the rudiments of an enduring idealism". The reason why it is more than any great novel of society is its revelation of time, the famous instants in which time is erased, or, rather, in which time is transfigured in its erasure. 

What presents itself then is the question of the time in which the narration of the novel takes place, and which the example above begs an answer. It's a deceptively simple question with an equally deceptive answer: the time the writer is writing on the page. But in taking this answer for granted, we reveal to ourselves that what we demand of a book is an effacement of this time, which also means an effacement of the author. The regular fussing we see in reviews and social media over genre designations and features is a classic example of how narration is not in possession of the author but partakes of something shared; something outside of the jurisdiction of any single reader or writer no matter how much we try to anchor this outside by celebrating a particular author for their "genius". This is why writers prefer to dislodge such praise because they recognise more than anyone that the work is not their own. 

So if in repeating the first two questions opening The Unnamable, Maurice Blanchot asks of the narrator of Samuel Beckett's books "Where now? Who now?", we can ask the third of the narrator of In Search of Lost Time: "When now?". And if Blanchot answers the second question with the neutral, we can answer the third with eternity, if we understand the eternal not as the absence of time but time in its pure state, which is how Nietzsche's eternal recurrence has also been interpreted, a conception which itself presents an intriguing parallel to what is most familiar to us in the effacement of the separation of event and its narration. Indeed, it is what we long for when opening a novel: the unchanging, consoling content, stories recurring each time they are read, perhaps even without being read but recognised as recurring inside the covers lined up before us on a shelf, the awareness of which excites and inspires us with the promise of an escape from the ravages of real time while, at the same time, threatening a profound melancholy in the awareness of the remove of pure time, hence throwing anchors into the deep.

The ability to arouse excitement and alleviate despair forgives the recent novels, their writers and those who believe they are very best of our time and following a great tradition, as they maintain trust in the dissimulation necessary for novels to keep writers writing and for publishers to keep publishing. Despite this, I think of Erich Heller's description of Kafka's The Castle as "a terminus of soul and mind, a non plus ultra of existence" and compare it with Jean Cocteau's recognition that Proust, writing at the same time as Kafka, was on a "blind, senseless, obsessive quest for happiness", and wonder if there are novels being written and published now subject to what presents itself in the time of narrative, whether understood as a terminus or as the possibility of happiness. Is such literature still possible?


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