Tuesday, June 27, 2023

This kingdom by the sea

Published in 1912, it’s about the fall of the repressed writer Gustav von Aschenbach, when his supposedly objective appreciation of a young boy’s beauty becomes sexual obsession.

This is how BBC Radio 4's In Our Time sets up a discussion of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice among three academics and Melvyn Bragg. 

It explores the link between creativity and self-destruction, and by the end Aschenbach’s humiliation is complete, dying on a deckchair in the act of ogling.

Soon after the introduction, Karolina Watroba goes to the heart of why the novel (I suggest we stop using "novella") is the subject of a prominent British arts programme when she says that readers find the novel "very disturbing" because the narration goes from describing Tadzio's body in minute detail to a "very high abstract theoretical level of ideas", isolating the boy from his surroundings and transforming him into an object. It's a double whammy: British prurience channelled through a suspicion of intellectuals. 

Getting closer to the form of the novel, Sean Williams says it addresses "a long-standing problem in art" about how much the artist needs to suppress in order to be productive, especially if the desires involved are morally questionable, and how much they live out these desires in order to flourish as a person, which echoes Erich Heller's 1958 book on Mann in which he summarises the subject as "the war between form and chaos, serenity of mind and consuming passion".

There's nothing that isn't insightful, informative and stimulating in the discussion, and yet this disturbance in the reader remains unexamined once it has been used to generate interest. As I listened, I wondered if this apocryphal reader's hand-wringing about Aschenbach's behaviour and intellectual justification for that behaviour, and thereby suspicions about the private life of the author, is a projection of the reader's concern for their own behaviour as a reader, which is, as Bragg says of the novel, "greatly about the gaze, the look".

The pleasure of reading novels is generally considered a form of escapism, but publically justified as a means of gaining knowledge, appreciating aesthetic form and developing empathy for other people, otherwise unattainable outside of the work, whether it is a social-realist novel about three generations of Polish miners or philosophical musings generated by a Polish minor. If it has to be justified, it's because it's also a beach holiday in which one lounges between the form of the land and the formlessness of the sea, gazing through mirrored sunglasses, warmed by a sun that burns others, and in control, a witness and judge without consequence.

So imagine a novel in which questions of knowledge, aesthetic form and empathy are overt features and necessary to the plot. What might it look like? Death in Venice of course, as the form is foregrounded in contrast to its content, not to mention its setting in a literal holiday and literal beach. In the story itself, there's the carefully repressed desire for a certain kind of knowledge, displaced by its mitigation in Platonic appreciation, while others are in the form: the In Our Time discussion remarks on the comparatively excessive description of physical attributes in what Erica Wickerson calls "an incredibly cinematic text", both of which imply voyeurism, emphasised by the fact that Tadzio is not given a voice in the novel, which also draws attention to its want of empathy in (Wickerson again) its "manipulated narrative perspective". If all narrative is manipulation, its perspective is rarely so blatant. It's blatant in Nabokov's Lolita and Nicholson Baker's The Fermata, both comparable to Death in Venice in this and other, fairly obvious ways. What disturbs the reader in Death in Venice in particular is that they become Aschenbach's double, a position we project onto Mann; that we share a fascination for what is beyond us. 

The war Erich Heller refers to above takes place, he says, "with Death presiding over it as judge and ultimate conqueror", and Karolina Watroba points out that, if you include the title, Death in Venice begins and ends with the same word. She also points out that the original German adjective for the "abandoned" camera that sits on the shoreline as Aschenbach dies in his beach chair is "herrenlos", which she says means "without master" and is used by Mann to move away from subjectivity to objectivity. I wonder then if "unmanned" may be a more appropriate translation. Perhaps this is what losing oneself in a work means; the wish for an end, to go beyond the end.

Sunday, June 18, 2023

Wall by Jen Craig

“This novel gives the reader one of the best depictions of thinking in fiction that I have read in a long time” – Talking Big

"... combines exactitude and vagueness, immediacy and distance, to approximate how scatty, worm-like human thought might be represented on the page" – The Saturday Paper

“the skeletal frames of [Craig’s] narrative plots are barely visible beneath the roving stream of consciousness that encases them” – Sydney Review of Books

"Craig’s work constructs an idiosyncratic monologue …. that traces the thoughts of a London-based artist whose father, a hoarder, has died in Sydney" – Sydney Morning Herald

Such appreciations of Jen Craig's third novel testify to a distinctive remove from the default facility of the anglophone novel, with an incremental intensification of the narrative form taken in Since the Accident and Panthers and the Museum of Fire. However, I'm doubtful of the reviews' characterisation of Wall as a relocation of thought from mind to page, not only because the novel is presented as a letter, but also because it ignores the tension generated by inheritance that constitutes the novel in its basic plot content: between daughter and parents, anorexia and hoarding, the artist and the art world, and its form: the inheritance from literature, in which thought is already writing.

The reviews also testify to their own concern for inheritance. While the foreground purpose of comparing Jen Craig's prose style to that of David Foster Wallace, Henry James, Samuel Beckett, William Gaddis, Gerald Murnane, László Krasznahorkai, Jon Fosse and Mathias Énard and, most commonly, WG Sebald, who voiced his own anxiety about literary inheritance, is to situate an author in a market bustling with reading choices, the background noise, made clear in the excess of the list, is anxiety about the value and meaning of art going forward, perhaps in the hope that the future of the novel lies in its past. It's no coincidence that a similar anxiety generates the narration of Wall. The purpose of the letter is to announce that its writer, an installation artist, has given up on making a version of Song Dong's installation (about hoarding) which had promised art-world success and thereby relief from the impossibility of completing an original installation (about anorexia) in recognition that, rather than in opposition, one is the correlate of the other. Without explicit awareness, we realise we are reading in a space outside of such possibility and impossibility; a space set aside from the ambition and despair, from success and failure, from value and meaning, from going forward; a space often shared by Thomas Bernhard's narrators, such as the two brothers in On the Ortler, recently translated in The Rest is Slander, which also takes the form of a letter. While the names listed are valid comparisons, this may be Wall's most significant inheritance, one in which the will contains the unthinkable.


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