Thursday, December 28, 2023

Notes from overground

Seventeen years ago my copy of Richard Ford's The Lay of the Land was delayed in the post and arrived long after the novel had been reviewed in all the big newspapers so, instead of riding the wave of publication, I was dragged under by its backwash. I had to answer a question not one of the reviews asked: Why is Frank Bascombe writing this?

However, one question my readers might like answered first is: Why are you reading Richard Ford?! His work is hardly a paragon of the short, aesthetically constrained European Modernist novel this blog champions, and in fact appears to be a prime example of the dreaded lyric first-person narration dominating prize-winning British and American "literary fiction". Indeed, the Wikipedia entry for Independence Day says it is written in "Harold Brodkey-style" – not that, please, not that! I don't have an answer except that, prompted by a review in the NME I read in 1986 [1], I bought The Sportswriter and read it three times in my first years of reading and never became disillusioned with it as I did with the novels of John Updike and Philip Roth, the big name American authors of the time.

The reason why I'm writing about Frank Bascombe again is because my answer to the initial question was glib. I realise this now. It appropriated a phrase Frank uses that is typical of the man himself, also glib. (The review is no longer online but is the first chapter of this book.) And while I began to reread The Sportswriter and The Lay of the Land without any intention of raising the question again and only for pleasure and happy anticipation of Be Mine, the unexpected fourth volume (fifth if you include the short stories), I nevertheless found a scene that raised it for me.

Frank visits a widow called Marguerite as a "sponsor", a friendly stranger willing to listen to someone who is either lonely or just needs someone to talk to. In their initial introduction Frank half-remembers a one-night stand years they had had when he showed her around a house but isn't absolutely sure and isn't sure if she's half-remembering the same thing. They settle down for a serious chat and she tells Frank she has an urge to confess something but cannot imagine what exactly. However, she reckons that if there is something buried in memory, like "you once fucked your realtor" Frank thinks to himself, it's best left that way:

"I call it a need to confess. But maybe it's something else."
"What else could you maybe call it?
Marguerite suddenly sits up even more erectly, her softened features alert. "I haven't really thought about that."
"You might just have to make it up, then."

Isn't this condition precisely what constitutes Frank Bascombe's presence, his need to write, and explains why Richard Ford keep returning to makes things up with this character? Both would have to stop if Frank (or Richard) had a decisive act to confess. We are sponsors for both. How had I missed this before? I could point to the stupefaction induced by The Lay of the Land's 726-page first-person narration, but it was really that I wanted to say something profound about writing that turned out to be glib. 

The exchange jumped out this time because confession is a key word in Gabriel Josipovici's essay Act and Action in the Spring 2022 edition of Raritan (not online). The inconspicuous title conceals a brief history of a rich literary tradition in which Bascombe is now part, and for me explains what is missing from the almost-univeral praise given to the novel series.

Not that Bascombe features in the essay at all, with the most recent literary character cited being TS Eliot's "little old man" Gerontion, the first few lines of whose poem provides an epigram. He is looking back on his life and expressing a sense of its unreality. He had not been part of any great event of history to give it that meaning and instead "has spent his entire life waiting for some kind of life-giving rain which never comes". Josipovici shows that expressions of the same sense emerged before this in different ways in different characters: in Melville's Bartleby, in Henry James' John Marcher, and in the indecisive young man in Kierkegaard's Either/Or who, like Bartleby, can see no reason to do one thing because he could just as easily do the opposite. The condition is traced back to the Protestant revolutions of the 16th century that eroded a sense of community, a condition intensified after the French Revolution when it seemed that anyone whatever their social status could rise to become a leader like Napoleon or a billionaire like Rothschild. "Still most people were neither, nor were they ever likely to be. This realization led not just to resentment but to melancholy and depression". Josipovici draws a comparison with Hannah Arendt's discussion of slaves in the ancient world fearing they would live and die without leaving a trace of their existence:

Though slavery was abolished in the West in the course of the nineteenth century, the curious fact is that it was in that precise period that many people began to feel that they themselves had in a strange way been deprived of freedom and visibility, that they too were destined to pass away leaving no trace that they had ever existed.

We don't have to think for too long before recognising its presence in the way Reality TV and social media promises visibility and meaning to people, but it's not something that we see in contemporary novels, which tend to be seeking visibility and meaning by appealing to marketable social and political fashions rather than exploring why both are in demand. The essay finds its pathological effects especially clear in Dostoevsky's early novels featuring minor civil servants involved in drudge work, with its most extreme expression found in the spite and despair of Notes from Underground. Whenever the Underground Man tries to forge an identity, to become someone in the world, he is appalled to find it is always an act. No matter what he does, he remains an actor. The disconnect is why he has to write "because only in this way can he get close to his particular condition, which is one of perpetual volatility, unable to anchor himself in the world". Of course, his narrative is also an act, leading to the silence and invisibility he feared most.

One hundred and twenty years later, Frank Bascombe expresses the same condition: "I was always able to 'see around the sides' of whatever I was feeling", he says in The Sportswriter. "If I was mad or ecstatic, I always realized I could just as easily feel or act another way if I wanted to." It infected career as a novelist:

'Seeing around' is exactly what I did in my stories (though I didn’t know it), and in the novel I abandoned, and one reason why I had to quit. I could always think of other ways I might be feeling about what I was writing, or other voices I might be speaking in. In fact, I could usually think of quite a number of things I might be doing at any moment! And what real writing requires, of course, is that you merge into the oneness of the writer’s vision—something I could never quite get the hang of...

Oneness of vision is he says "a minor but pernicious lie of literature" and by falling into conventions fails to tell the truth of 'seeing around'. Nevertheless, there is irony in Frank's post-abandonment career in the convention of sportwriting because he likes to think athletes have a oneness of vision and "probably think and feel the fewest things of anyone at important times". He can spin upbeat stories out of their victory or defeat, leaving readers satisfied. One of the most distinctive qualities of the novels is the way Frank defines by people their activity, as if they're disappearing into whatever they do: "the slow joggers, the single-dog walkers, the skinny men with metal detectors—their wives in the van waiting, reading John Grisham", each of whom he is both contemptuous and envious. He feels the promise and threat of disappearance entering a hardware store and smelling "the cardboard and corrugated-metal and feed-store aromas of all the dervish endeavors a human can be busily up to". This is not far from the young man in Either/Or, though Frank is no longer young. When he interviews a sportsman who doesn't fit the visionary template and instead wants to share his anxiety and despair, Frank refuses to admit to him that he feels the same. To us, his sponsors, it's clearly a front, an act. So the narration might then be said to be the actor stepping off the stage. At last, literature is not falling for the pernicious lie. 

This may be a good thing for literature, but what use is it for Frank, for us? Unlike Dostoevsky's characters, Frank has a busy work and family life, he has no money worries, and he's respected in both professions he takes up; in effect he is the Overground Man, seen and heard by all. The same can be said of Richard Ford, and yet the sickness continues; both are seen and heard precisely because of the sickness. If Frank seeks oneness in romantic relationships, they never last. He tells Vicki Arcenault he wants to marry her but instead of feeling happy anticipation of a romantic weekend citybreak what he feels is "in a word: a disturbance". [2] Across the series, the only women with whom he seems to have uncomplicated relationships are Mrs Miller, the fortune-teller he pays to make banal, generalised predictions, and Betty, the Asian masseuse, with whom he becomes infatuated. He owes them nothing but money and they give him what he wants as far as that money goes. Both echo the Underground Man's encounter with the prostitute Liza, a relationship also based on playacting. It seems the more a civilisation is centred on commerce, the more people become actors and reality a script. It's no coincidence both "Mrs Miller" and "Betty" are not their birth names. This is may explain why one typical sentence in The Sportswriter stands out as exemplary of Frank's condition, the condition of the modern actor, the condition of the modern world, and so the contemporary novel. He is driving through his hometown after visiting Mrs Miller and comes to one particular road:

I idled down Seminary Street, abstracted and empty in the lemony vapor of suburban eventide.

Frank's lonely self is wandering, blank and unengaged down a street named after a college building that trained clergy in the theology and protocols of a transcendence, a oneness, both of which are no longer ongoing though each maintains a presence in the street's name and the unnamable, abstract longing in those who live in its vaporous shadow. The building has been replaced by suburban houses designed for a middle-class professionals to enjoy a polite atmosphere as they drift into the eventide of their lives. I quoted this line in my 2006 essay as an example of "fancy phrasing", a caricature of what distinguishes "literary fiction" from overtly commercial genre fiction, and I expressed regret for Richard Ford's resort to the "event glamour" [3] of a robbery and shooting at the end of the third novel without realising how it epitomises literary fiction's concentrated expression of the human condition and the frustration with "opaquely written novels" as Nick Hornby called them, those said to prioritise style over story, a frustration that drives publishers to offer bad faith mitigation to the reader with promises of titillating transgressive action. Ultimately, however, such action is as unsatisfying as fancy phrasing, as both are formed by words and words only. What can be done?

Josipovici's answer comes when he turns to Dostoevsky's next novel in which the familiarly desperate lead character acts more decisively. Raskolnikov kills the pawnbroker and her sister in order "to be someone rather than the no one he feels himself to be". And has the same realisation that it hasn't transformed his life at all and has in fact made it worse. Josipovici turns again to Hannah Arendt and how she contrasts the Greek and Roman concept of action with the modern, found in the distinction of action with and without accompanying speech. Without speech, action would be done effectively by performing robots: "Speechless action would no longer be action because there would no longer be an actor, and the actor, the doer of deeds, is possible only if he is at the same time a speaker of words." Actions on their own, then, such as Frank idling along a street, are meaningless in themselves, and so Raskolnikov's dreadful act is meaningless without his confession.

Arendt both helps us to understand the underlying logic of Crime and Punishment and frees us from having to see it, as Dostoyevsky himself and most of his commentators ever since have seen it, in purely Christian terms. For when Sonya insists that he must give himself up and confess his crimes … she is merely putting in a popular Russian form what, according to Arendt, the classical world perfectly understood. It is only when Raskolnikov can speak to others, telling them what he has done, that he can move beyond playacting and finally find some kind of peace. For the first time he is fully something: not “a criminal who has confessed,” but one who confesses. Confession, the finding of words for his deed, is an action, not a state. But that too is where the book has to end, for speech/action cannot of its nature be permanent.

This is not the end of the essay however, as Josipovici believes Arendt places too much stress on the bond between word and deed, and provides an example from his own life of an action in which "we can retain the idea of self-disclosure, of the actor surprising him or herself in the act they perform, of something radically new appearing...without needing to make speech crucial to the situation". It's a story of his mother's decision as she sought to escape the clutches of the Gestapo with her small son in tow, one that readers of 100 Days and A Life won't have forgotten. Indeed, the latter title is indicative of Josipovici's practice as a writer: in his novels there is a concern for shape and, in his critical writing, an ambivalence for strict oppositions, such as playacting and the essential self. It's something caught in one line of Be Mine in which Frank says "I don’t believe I have an essential self, though if I have one it is always on display". If his sense of apartness causes him despair, he also relies upon it to exist; as a fictional invention, his display is essential for his self. For Josipovici, this is the case for every novelist, as it enables something radically new to appear, hence why those who suspect novels are thinly disguised autobiography entirely miss the point and shouldn't be reading or reviewing them. For Dostoevsky this means "dramatizing multiple falsehoods to reach the point where something that is not falsehood emerges". It is the shape of a life, of a novel, that requires attention:

a shape made up of many tragedies and many triumphs but that is somehow more than the sum of all these. But neither they nor we can fully grasp it until it is over—while we live we can only grope, trusting in time.

The length of Frank's narration is an attempt to find its end in order to grasp the sum of its meaning, but does it just "grind to a halt" without discovery as one of "the most scathing reviews of the year" claimed? [4]

It's appropriate that Josipovici's essay begins with a quotation from TS Eliot, as the end of the Frank Bascombe novels can be found in its beginning. In the opening scene of The Sportswriter Frank is in a cemetery awaiting his ex-wife to mark merely by their silent presence what would have been the birthday of their first-born son Ralph and, at the end of Be Mine, he's taking his second son 47-year-old son Paul towards a grave, albeit rather like the novel series itself, by a roundabout route. Paul has a terminal diagnosis and the novel follows father and son on a valedictory road trip to Mount Rushmore, repeating a trip Frank made in as child with his parents. Much of the drama and comedy comes from the patient, organised father dealing with his otherwise-engaged, incapacitated son. And then, after the long build up to the journey and the long journey itself with all of its detours and digressions, as they enter the park Paul exclaims "Oh wow" when he sees all the attractions supplementing the mountain sculptures: "This is great. I love this". Suddenly for Frank his son is not only the cranky lump in a wheelchair but also the enchanted boy we saw in The Sportswriter sending notes by pigeon to his dead brother he imagines is still alive and living far away. "How often do anyone's best-laid plans work out?" Frank asks. "How often are promises kept and destinations arrived? Buddhists profess all is the journey. Abjure arrival. But what do they know?"

Frank, and perhaps Richard Ford, has finally found peace as he dedicates his time and effort to someone else without expecting anything in return; an end to commerce. The narrative enacts a movement towards his own death, off-stage like Ralph's and Paul's, and so a literary death, one that will never arrive, as we can return to the beginning of The Sportswriter and start the journey all over again, a beginning which is also an arrival.



[2] Note for what it's worth that the title of Thomas Bernhard's second novel Verstörung (published in English as Gargoyles) translates as Disturbance.

[3] A phrase of Saul Bellow's, or perhaps Martin Amis'.

[4] One of the most scathing reviews of the year according to Book Marks is this one in the TLS, which begins with literary gossip and moves on to suspicion of the author's intentions and the people who "favour fiction that showcases the mundane" (it cites Knausgaard as well as Ford). It wonders if it's because "the swathes of mediocre prose..are quite easy to read". Even if one doesn't enjoy it, Ford's prose is anything but mediocre – I am reminded reading the novels of John Self's description of Adam Mars-Jones' Cedilla as "a coral reef made of a billion tiny Crunchie bars" – and Knausgaard's workmanlike prose puts stress on such ease with the fleeting presence of the infinite. The review quotes passages of scatological dialogue and says "It is hard to tell whether Ford thinks these moments are funny". In what way would an answer change the book? Most bizarrely, the review is "certain" that "Frank’s hokey, homespun wisdom is offered to us entirely without irony". This must be one of the strangest comments ever made by a professional reviewer. The existence alone of the four novels is ironic, as every expression of such wisdom is ironised in its performance. The review ends by wondering why Richard Ford "is taking up fresh shelf space in 2023". Perhaps a more pressing question is why the august TLS continues to include such defiantly narrow-minded criticism.


Tuesday, December 05, 2023

The enigma for criticism

To this day, I can learn only from bad films. The good ones I watch in the same spirit in which I watched when I was a kid. The great ones, even when I see them many times, are just an enigma. 

Werner Herzog describes a few "bad films" in his autobiography, all from his childhood, but neither names them nor the "great" films he's seen many times. The absence of titles enhances the aura of greatness as we are left to imagine numinous light oozing into each frame of an imaginary film. By naming, we focus on particulars: director, actors, subject matter, scenes, cinematography, soundtrack, awards, controversies; lyrics of the sirens' song drawing us to the innocent doom of criticism. But what else can be said about the greatness of enigma, the enigma of greatness?
If the lack of titles appears to be a cop out, as it does to me and David Trotter, with Herzog threatening to become "a dilettante of intangible sensations" as Charles Swann is described in Proust's novel, his legend as a filmmaker appears to depend on such reticence, with his career owing much to instinct and chance. The book is a catalogue of bizarre decisions, coincidences, and outrageous fortune, good and bad. On filming a prehistoric image in the Chauvet Cave discovered in 1994, he recognises similarities with lithographs made by Picasso in the 1930s, and asks: "are there images that slumber within us and are sometimes set free by some sort of jolt?". He believes there are, and "somehow all my works have pursued such images". He cites the 10,000 windmills in Signs of Life and the steamship being hauled over a hill in Fitzcarraldo.  

What is the value of such images? Again, Herzog doesn't specify, but it must be related to the concept of "ecstatic truth" he says requires another book to explain (another apparent cop out), but is, essentially, the shadowed illuminations of creativity, the familiar technique of defamiliarisation. If that is the case, what is the value of such truth?

"The image is always sacred", writes Jean-Luc Nancy, standing apart from "the world of things considered as a world of availability". For this reason, the sacred should not be confused with the religious. The religious is "the observance of a rite that forms and maintains a bond" while the sacred "signifies the separate, what is set aside, removed, cut off". Understanding the sacred in this sense is enough to excuse Herzog's reticence and to distinguish his films. The cave wall paintings in Cave of Forgotten Dreams are available to us in the obvious, visual way, but we're also set aside, removed and cut off. This is what distinguishes them.
The greatness, or part of the greatness, of an Aeneid, of a View of Delft, of a Don Giovanni, of a Ulysses, rests in the fact that they are, in an essential way, closed. By this I do no mean to say that these works of art are difficult, or obscure – what could be more limpid than the light that hovers over Delft? – but that they are mysterious at their core.
In historical terms, compared to cave paintings, the works John Banville cites in an essay were completed yesterday, and in naming them Banville tempts us toward the gossip of particulars, with greatness becoming a critical cliché. Once again, how can criticism look beyond them? The title of Blanchot's collection La Part du feu suggests it can by referring to the share of a work taken by fire, the uninhabitable side of a firebreak, and yet the essays focus on particular authors and particular works, and particular elements in those works, means either that the particulars are precisely what leads us toward what's closed, or to awareness that there is something closed. Herzog's images are also the result of extreme patience and tenacity with particulars: 
I never see the truth as a fixed star on the horizon but always as an activity, a search, an approximation.
The appearance of a new star fixed in the sky sets Karl Ove Knausgaard's novels The Morning Star and The Wolves of Eternity apart even as the content becomes increasingly prosaic: the latter has 400 pages dedicated to a short time in a teenager's small-town life. The star is closed to the characters, its presence looming without meaning over their local concerns. As such the star becomes an image of the novel as it relates to its content, which in The Wolves of Eternity gradually becomes the force generating its content, which, as I argued in my review of The Morning Star, correlates to the withdrawn presence of the Book in our lives.
Perhaps works become great by generating images their content dissimulates, and this is why they appear to be closed, mysterious at their core. A star is, of course, a fire.


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