This Space

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Proust regained

I recommend very highly for anyone who has read or not read In Search of Lost Time Brian Nelson's The Swann Way, the first volume in a new translation of the entire novel by diverse hands, in this fine and very affordable paperback from Oxford World's Classics. His translation of the chapter Swann in Love, a novel in itself more or less, was published separately in 2017, so this edition includes Combray and Place Names: The Name

This is the third translation of Du côté de chez Swann following Scott Moncrieff/Kilmartin and Lydia Davis', and the third version of the title. It's a pity (no doubt for publishing reasons) they can't all be Swann's Way, as the flow of the two esses and double double-u into the final wye has the mellifluous quality of Proust's prose.

I don't have any French (not since the ransom was paid anyway), so I can't judge it as a translation, but reading this version was like rediscovering Proust, puffing away the dust of Great Literature. I found the narrative clearer, the scenes funnier, the characters more distinctive – Aunt Léonie, Dr Cottard, Swann and Odette in particular – and the existential pressure of perception closer to the surface. And Proust's study of Swann's jealousy – "the shadow of his love" for Odette – is simply breathtaking.

Over the years I've written about Proust, most of it (like this) bookchat ephemera, but here, bar the final one, is a short list of longer, more in-depth posts:

Extratemporal meditations, on Miguel de Beistegui's Proust as Philosopher.

Encountering the fabulous point, indirectly on Józef Czapski's Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp.

When now? on Gerard Genette's Narrative Discourse

Can there be a pure narrative? is also the question opening Blanchot's essay The Experience of Proust, not included in selected bibliography for The Swann Way despite it being undoubtedly the best essay on Proust's novel and Brian Nelson having edited Leslie Hill's After Blanchot.

Perhaps most enjoyably, Albertine Asleep, my recording of a reading of a passage from The Captive broadcast in the early hours of the morning on the BBC World Service in 1978 that marks my discovery of Proust. It also includes the word mellifluous

And talking of my discovery of Proust: a few years after the radio broadcast, I watched the Channel 4 series The Modern World: Ten Great Writers, which also had a huge impact on me, if only then of atmosphere. In the episode below Terence Kilmartin says that Proust is the most intelligent man who ever wrote a novel (obviously, this was long before Tony Parsons). The episode also features Michel Butor.

Finally, if we needed a guarantee of equal quality for the second volume, Charlotte Mandell's name would be enough, and the good news is that I understand her translation is due in 2024.

Monday, October 23, 2023

Kevin Hart and the outside

There are two reasons why listening to Kevin Hart's interview on the Hermitix podcast, and reading his new collection and The Dark Gaze for the second time, has helped me to recognise what I have forgotten, missed, misconstrued or misunderstood in Maurice Blanchot's writing or, rather, setting all that side as inevitable, what has been a distraction from what matters to me in his writing and in reading generally.

The first is the signal clarity of Hart's summaries whose presence in the source is shrouded in paragraphs as long, seductive and mind-expanding as Proust's. And while Proust's prose is bright and Blanchot's "darkly incantatory", the implications of what he writes, felt with a palatial intensity, often vanish as soon as one of Marcel's ecstatic instants. Such vanishing is also the product of what Blanchot calls "the light, innocent Yes of reading", which is not worth losing in favour of knowledge.

The other reason is that Hart is a theologian, unique in Blanchot studies. Most scholars constrain their discussion to Blanchot's relation to writers and philosophers of the last 200 years, but Hart includes medieval Christian mystics. For Blanchot, he says, belief in God is a belief in an original unity, a belief in oneness and, for him, to do away with God means doing away with unity of the Self, of the Book, and of the Subject (all of which he gives leading capitals). He is prepared to accept a world without such grounding in unity. Except Blanchot's atheism is something other than a straightforward deletion: "As Heidegger warned," Hart writes in The Dark Gaze, "the absence of God is 'not nothing' but on the contrary is the fullness of a vast and complex heritage, and...that 'The flight of the gods must be experienced and endured'":

If Blanchot interprets this experience by way of atheism, he acknowledges that the deity returns as a ghost in the assumptions of philosophy and in the reserve on which literature calls. [...] To deny God is not thereby to eliminate transcendence; it is to see how that question is transformed and where it takes up its new abodes.

Its apparent abode in modern literature has been a recurring theme on this blog in recent years, slowly turning it away from bookchat and straightforward reviews as I discovered what drove both and what both concealed. But I may have misconstrued the presence of the not-nothing permeating the books I have written about here in those years. Even as someone entirely untouched by religious observance, instruction and practice, and certainly not new age "spirituality", have I made of it something more than it is, "acceding to a secular occult" to use Hart's words, going in the opposite direction to Blanchot's "anonymous, distracted, deferred, and dispersed way of being", appropriating petty escape as quasi-mystical, projecting the possibility of gnosis onto the blank intuitions of reading?

An answer of sorts comes when the presenter of the podcast assumes Blanchot would not be sympathetic to a religious thinker like Meister Eckhart and Hart replies that it's not that simple: Blanchot thought that Eckhart and other theologians concerned with apophatic thought and negative theology were onto something, only he thinks it wasn't God they were approaching but "the outside, the neutral, or the impossible".

It's unclear whether each word is meant as an equivalence of the other two, but I will assume they are. In the new collection he says the outside "can be discerned in "intransitive writing", which he says for Blanchot means "literary writing". Writing poetry and narrative can be defined as "something that happens when we respond to the outside", when the singular 'I' is displaced, as writing replaces the object with an image, as a portrait replaces the sitter. In the new collection he describes the process as "the perpetual passing of being into nothingness" and in The Dark Gaze: "To write is to transform the instant into an imaginary space, to pass from a time in which death could occur to an endless interval of dying." If we still regard a work of literature is a product of mastery, this should challenge us, as should the recent proliferation of novels created by AI that have swamped the Amazon bookstore as it dispenses with the encounter with the presence and biography of an author.

On the side of the reader, we might see the effects of displacement in the focus in reviews on story, stylistic tour de force and subject matter or, in literary criticism, on technical analysis and the tracing of an author's oeuvre. Nevertheless, the experience of something other than being in familiar time and space forms the cultural awe and reverence for books, but which in these displacements is immediately instrumentalised out of recognition; defining it as an experience is evidence enough of domestication. It is instead closer to a non-experience, and so the demand for it to mean something in the world, to be made real in some way; hence the vacillation between passion and ambivalence for books, more often than not patronising the act of reading as an indulgence, an escape, at best a tool with which to tackle current affairs. For some, however, a grave resonance remains: the eponymous character in Saul Bellow's novel Mr Sammler's Planet, who, like Blanchot in real life, survived a firing squad in the second world war, is captivated by Meister Eckhart: "Mr Sammler could not say that he literally believed what he was reading. He could, however, say that he cared to read nothing but this." Blanchot may provide understanding of such care as an experience of, as Hart writes, "the ceaseless oscillation of being and nonbeing", an awareness of "a neutral state that can only fascinate us and, in doing so, bind us to itself".

Despite all this, Hart complains that Blanchot is "less than clear" on the definition of the outside, though "perhaps we should not expect someone who mainly writes literary columns in journals to supply rigorous answers". He must surely know already that Blanchot mainly wrote literary columns because the outside can only be approached indirectly, intransitively, often in a performative mode (the light, innocent Yes of writing), so the answers may be considered rigorous in respect of the outside.

Hart also notes that "it is odd that many of his readers who work in colleges and universities have not sought clarification". Well, there is at least one book published in the same imprint whose title suggests otherwise. However, William Allen writes that "Blanchot never precisely defines what he means by the outside, because its status as the outside makes definition impossible", so perhaps this can be included under Hart's note. Nevertheless, the book does contain a description of how the experience of literature at least raises the question of the outside.

While the book comprises close readings of Blanchot's novel The Most-High and the récit The one who was standing apart from me, I have to constrain my attention to the introduction in which Allen addresses Blanchot's image of the "two slopes" of literature found in the essay Literature and the Right to Death (an image and title that Allen says is also unclear). There is the slope familiar to us all with its uncomplicated, common sense representation of things in the world – the kind that "protests against revelation" as Blanchot puts it –  and there is the other slope "by which things are separated from themselves and destroyed in order to be known, subjugated, communicated". In the hyperbolic terminology of the essay, there is the revelation of death in the enabling of things in the world to be communicated. Only it's a death that never quite occurs, as language never quite appears in itself nor disappears into its object, and in this impasse each slope is exposed to the other "without however converging on it, leading to an endless ambiguity about the presence of meaning"; we cannot locate meaning solely in language or in the world so there is an anxiety we overcome only in the violence of denial or by seeking sanctuary in the hypotheses of scholarship. 

Allen provides an example of ambiguity in a bravura passage on the consequences of the slogan "Liberty or Death!". In pronouncing it, the revolutionary impresses us with their heroic stance, but also frightens us by placing themselves at a distance from everyday values. In doing so, death becomes a part of everyday life, "coextensive" with liberty:

If the claim initially appears as all or nothing, then it quickly transforms into all and nothing, insofar as both outcomes are the same at this extreme, and this leads to its further transformation as all is nothing. But...this is not nihilism, as the status of the two terms has changed utterly in being so removed from ordinary values. What is exposed is a netherworld beyond their simple alternation or negation, a world that presents itself absolutely and also removes itself leaving neither a presence nor an absence.

I imagine we could apply the political "Liberty or Death!" to the literary "War on Cliché!", in which what we experience as a defamiliarising phrase liberating us from habit soon becomes a cliché itself deadening its impact, which thereby demands endless war and endless dying. Martin Amis' later writing became obsessed by death cults only because they revealed his own.

If I have been distracted from what matters to me in reading, it may be in seeking an accommodation of exposure to this netherworld within a culture that recognises only power and control. This blog is a prime example.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Further in the opposite direction

Modernity is supposed to be the moment when religious claims and systems of authority reveal themselves to be human-all-too-human fictions that lack divine legitimation. Religion is supposed to wither away. But this itself...can be understood as a religious claim: the very groundlessness, the very contentlessness of the messianic call is what makes it religious. Modernity, on this account, might be understood as the fulfilment of messianic thinking. The relation to the divine can now be revealed in its contentlessness as an empty transcendence. And when that happens, a whole theological vocabulary puts itself out of use, ready for new appropriations outside traditional religious practice.

This is from The Opposite Direction: Taubes, Bernhard and the Gnostic Imaginary, an exceptionally rich essay by Lars Iyer. 

The title offers a marvellous advancement on my haphazard post on Bernhard, also entitled The opposite direction, and another on Gnosticism called The withdrawal of the novel, both of which can be found on this blog but also in my unfallen from no press freely downloadable epub or PDF collection.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

The disaster of writing: My Weil by Lars Iyer

"When a plane crashes, a bomb explodes, a city floods or a pandemic begins, Lucy Easthope's phone starts to ring" says the blurb to her recent book subtitled Stories of Love, Loss and Hope from an Expert in Disaster, and goes on to report rapturous praise from critics and common readers alike, that it became a Sunday Times bestseller, a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, and was chosen as a book of the year by The Telegraph and New Statesman. Disaster is good for business.

It's also good news for academic departments assailed by reform in the public sector, as studying disasters provides an ideal opportunity to supply measurable outputs demanded by university management. The journal Disaster Studies for example publishes papers "that examine how disasters are anticipated, experienced, governed, and understood". The range of events listed suggests a disaster can be more than atom bombs and asteroids, leaving room for all kinds of events requiring examination. In Lars Iyer's latest novel, the Philosophy department of a Manchester university has been rebranded as The Centre for Disaster Studies to surf the neoliberal Tsunami. For its PhD students, this is fine.

The new title has the double advantage of more accurately describing philosophy not as a love of knowledge and the pursuit of wisdom but recognition that the stars have fallen (the etymology of 'disaster'), and also of concealing the abyss between Philosophy and Business Studies, the pseudo-academic discipline gradually replacing the Humanities, allowing the students to remain hidden within the system despite their opposition. Indeed, two of them are called Marcie and Valentine, hinting at a Gnostic hope of another world, a better world, an intellectual equivalent of Lucy Easthope's practical redemption. While their studies may lead nowhere but back into Manchester's destitute working-class districts, it is resistance to the demonic world embodied by Business Studies. They look at its students – keen, smartly dressed, actually writing their theses – and ask: "Where’s their doom? Where’s their crushedness? Their diseases of the soul? There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with them."

Readers of Lars Iyer's two previous novels Wittgenstein Jr and Nietzsche and the Burbs will relish the familiar chorused voice of hyperbole as the students seek to distinguish their studies from the banality of their everyday lives, as well as recognise the passive sentences describing the students' location – The Ees. A clearing. A long-sunken basin. Water, ankle deep. – situating the students as italicised observers of a world indifferent to their hysterics. The Ees is a swampy wasteland in the city used as a dump by locals but has a mystical aura for the students: "You come to the Ees to lose yourself. To be forgotten."

Also as in the previous two novels, an intellectual doppelgänger of a long dead philosopher enters to shake things up. In this case it's a new student calling herself Simone Weil, a convert to Christianity, challenging the students' incipient paganism. "Isn't God dead?" the students ask, and she says, yes, the "God of the philosophers is dead". Instead, God withdrew from the world in order to create it and evil, the very thing that appears to prove his non-existence, is "the very thing that reveals him in his truth". God's goodness shows himself through what we do, so rather than reject the world, we should seek to do good in the world, as she does by giving money to the homeless, speaking calmly to the madman on the bus, and praying for the addicts and the drunks. 

Such selflessness, however, a giving oneself over to something unknown, something outside, is also the promise of the Ees. In this way the novel appears to set up a debate about the best way to deal with what's missing from our lives and from the world – indulgent escape or self-sacrifice? – and it would have taken place if My Weil was not itself subject to disaster. What's missing from our lives and the world is precisely what the novel as a genre seeks to provide: a space filled with presence that is also, like a literary equivalent of Wittgenstein's duck-rabbit illusion, saturated in absence. We cannot see one without the other. The anxiety this provokes is everywhere in novels, the blurbs of novels and the review pages promising all kinds of events ("an act of shocking violence") and special information contained within a novel to mitigate absence, which must go without saying. 

For James Joyce, said Beckett, "there was no difference between the fall of a bomb and the fall of a leaf”. For us, too, in reading. The intensity of My Weil's bombing campaign of ideas and expression is matched only by its leaf-like lightness, the futility of which we cannot ignore even as we lose ourselves in its comedy. The effect is to open a space, a clearing like the Ees, for the presence of the black and empty sky to be raised in a novel. 

The word 'clearing' has to be noted as an allusion to the translation of Lichtung, the word used by Heidegger as he sought to return philosophy to its beginnings in ancient Greece. It is in those beginnings, however, that he also saw the end of philosophy as the sciences that developed "within the field that philosophy opened up" turned philosophy into "the empirical science of man" governed by systems of method, what he calls cybernetics:

This science corresponds to the determination of man as an acting social being. For it is the theory of the regulation of the possible planning and arrangement of human labor. Cybernetics transforms language into an exchange of news. The arts become regulated-regulating instruments of information.

It has led to a culture in which its "technological-scientific-industrial character" has become "the sole criterion of man's world sojourn". A clearing for such a return would be the equivalent of a dead end of a forest path apparently leading nowhere that opens into the light where trees have been removed. But, Heidegger says, "philosophy knows nothing of the clearing", hence his turn towards poetry as the potential for such light.

We may see here discussion of the death of the novel in a similar context rather than one of quality and cultural relevance, as the contemporary literary novel has little more to offer than an exchange of news by other means, while the popular genres offer a happy escape into the repetition of storytelling. The end of literature follows the end of philosophy as it is usurped by the unendlicher Verkehr of information. 

In a dark night in the Ees, Valentine announces that "Only French prose-poetry philosophy can save us now" and so they read aloud from Blanchot's The Writing of the Disaster, a book whose own blurb sells it relevance to modern literature "haunted by world wars, concentration camps, [and] Hiroshima", the familiar examples of disaster, and that a new academic study applies to a reading of recent novels because in them "an understanding of critical events – death, ecological catastrophe, pandemics – is possible", but what the students read suggests something else entirely:

Between the disaster and the other there would be the
contact, the disjunction of absent meaning—friendship.

Marcie, reading (just able to make out the words):

It is in friendship that I can respond . . . a friendship
un . . . un . . . shared . . . without reciprocity . . . friendship
for that which has passed leaving no trace . . .

The relation to the other is disastrous: that’s what this book argues,
Ismail says. It’s a break with what we know. With earthly order.
Like Simone . . . , I say.
Is Simone disastrous? we wonder.
She dresses disastrously, Gita says. Those nun-shoes . . .

The novel is in this sense the disaster for us, as Simone is for the group, and as Wittgenstein and Nietzsche were before, and as is indeed the bathos of Gita's remark; for a brief time there is a loosening of the ties that bind us not only to the earthly order and that of the stars, the cosmic order, but also to the order of philosophy and literature. But what follows? The lost soul of the group, Johnny, seeks to push friendship into something more with Gita, which she says is not a wise idea. "Why not? I say. Why—really—not? Don’t you see—this might be a chance. A chance for what? Gita asks."

For the same not to be the same, I say. For one day not to follow another. For the inevitable not to be inevitable. For cog not to be locked into cog . . . Wouldn’t you like to think that we’re on the brink of something? That something’s about to happen?

A phone, ringing.

Sunday, July 23, 2023

A loss of problems

Martin Amis' novels were among those I read when I began reading novels – one read what was being talked about on television and in newspapers. Money was the first quickly followed by each and every one that preceded it, including the journalism in The Moronic Inferno, which I may have read twice, and London Fields in the year it was published. This was when I realised that reading Amis had been time well spent; time that from then on I would no longer waste. This was forgotten and reaffirmed several years later when I borrowed copies of The Information and Experience, and it was only out of duty that I read The Zone of Interest when I wrote something about Claude Lanzmann's Shoah.

The same can be said of the novels of Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie, and JG Ballard, the big names of Britain’s literary scene in the 1980s and 90s, and Philip Roth and John Updike of the USA’s (the exception was Saul Bellow). Why did I feel mild indifference reading their novels compared to the entirely different feeling I got reading various European novels (and Saul Bellow)? To my surprise, the names of Amis, McEwan and Ballard have appeared several times on this blog over the years, often as I seek an answer to this question. The news of Amis’ death brought those early days back to me and now, with the death of Milan Kundera whose Unbearable Lightness of Being was the catalyst of recognition, I am thinking about it again. 

I read various postmortem articles invariably focusing on Amis' style, many of which Jack Arden says in an excellent piece create "the impression that style was also more than this – something supra-personal”. I was certainly seduced by Amis’ style in Money – I remember the effect of reading the verb "sharking" on the first page (coincident no doubt with the "Martian" poetry I was reading at the time) – but evidently there wasn’t, for me, much more than style, and while I could assume this was because, as Terry Eagleton says, Amis "was the great poet of the postmodern metropolis", subject matter that sparks nothing in me, one could also say Proust was a great poet of the modern metropolis (in Sodom and Gomorrah at least), and my discovery of Proust never became a waste of time. Eagleton’s article would also suggest my lack of interest in their novels follows distaste for the liberal politics of "the Amis group" – to which he adds Christopher Hitchens, James Fenton and Clive James – except the writers whose work excited me did not do so for political reasons; Saul Bellow’s reactionary tendencies being evidence of that. But it’s here that Eagleton gets closer to the difference when he describes the rightward trajectory of the group: Hitchens, for example, moved from being a "practising Trotskyist at Oxford" to "dining with the architects of Western butchery in Iraq". But, he says, "the relation between politics and letters is more complex than that, as a glance at the great modernist writers would suggest":

Joseph Conrad was a deep-dyed conservative and misogynist with a virulent hatred of the political Left. Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis supported the fascist cause, while W.B. Yeats, a champion of plans to stop the poor from breeding, flirted with fascism as well. D.H. Lawrence was racist, sexist, homophobic and antisemitic, while T.S. Eliot was a high Tory who championed a quasi-fascistic French movement. Yet all of these figures were radicals — radicals of the Right rather than the Left — and the fineness of their work is related to the depth and breadth of their challenge to a liberal democracy in profound crisis. Besides, there were plenty of modernist experiments on the political Left as well.

Almost all of these writers thought deeply about politics, philosophy and the shape of a whole civilisation, which is hardly true of Clive James. Some of them were powerful visionaries, which is not quite how one would describe Julian Barnes or Ian McEwan. This is one reason why their work, taken as a whole, has never been equalled in the century or so which has passed since it appeared, and certainly not by the Amis group.

While I would dispute that the work of "the great modernist writers" has not been equalled, it's understandable that it appears this way, especially if one's focus is on the Anglophone sphere, as thinking deeply here has been replaced by a condition Wittgenstein defined in his own time:

Some philosophers (or whatever you like to call them) suffer from what may be called “loss of problems”. Then everything seems quite simple to them, no deep problems seem to exist any more, the world becomes broad and flat and loses all depth, and what they write becomes immeasurably shallow and trivial. (Translated by GEM Anscombe)

One can discern this condition across the entirety of Britain's public discourse. Behold in awe and reverence the deep thought underwriting this insight from an honorary member of the Amis group:

Amis himself said he never finished either one of Kafka's novels, but then again neither did Kafka. Very witty, of course, and characteristic: George Steiner once said an Englishman's corner-of-the-mouth "come off it" would have stopped Michaelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel and Beethoven composing the Fifth Symphony. Kafka's "failure" is thereby judged in the context of literary mastery rather than in relation to anything larger; Walter Benjamin, for example, said "it is the fact that his books are incomplete which shows the true working of grace in his writings".

One may object and point out the novels of Amis and McEwan address important issues, with former's books about terrorism, Stalin's Gulag and the Shoah (although curiously not one about crimes closer to home), and the latter's narrativised punditry drawing attention from literary journalists like never before; hardly shallow and trivial. Except the larger questions have been settled, as the Pope of scientism and Cardinal Hitchens insist, which leaves the novel seeking relevance in terms of a public profile, in an absurd war on cliché – the eternal return of a goldfish in its bowl – and in ambulance-chasing pseudo-journalism.

One might characterise the form of the novel as a search for an authority for itself, with genre providing prefab solutions, so a focus on parochial animations is an inevitable development of its Humanism; it demands constant movement to keep up with the times. But the shock of Martin Amis' death should remind us of the thin ice upon which such movement proceeds. Amis described the impulse behind his 1995 novel The Information as "an hysterical overreaction to the certain knowledge that you're going to die" and Julian Barnes, said to be the Gwyn Barry of that novel, wrote a book on the same knowledge. The horror of the self before the ultimate problem is an intensification of the writer's anxiety before the blank page, hence the blossoming of autofiction in the confluence of both. 

The problem of the recognition of the death for writers was addressed by Kierkegaard in his 1848 book On Authority and Revelation, an appropriate title given the expressed impulse and subject of those two books:

Since our age … is supposed to be an age of movement, it then is not unlikely that many people's lives go on in such a way that they have premises for living but do not arrive at any conclusion – just like the age, which is an age of movement that has set the premises in motion but is also an age of movement that has not come to the conclusion. The lives of such people go on until death comes and puts an end to life, yet without, in the sense of a conclusion, bringing the end with it.     [Translated by Hong and Hong]

The revelation of death provides authority from the outside for the lack of ultimate meaning in one's life.

Such a person can, in proportion to his gifts...go on and become an author, according to his opinion of it. But this opinion is an illusion. For that matter, he may...possess extraordinary talents, exceptional knowledge, but he is not an author, even though he produces. His writing will be just like his life, material; perhaps this material will be worth its weight in gold, but it is only material. ... No, although he writes, he is not essentially an author; he can write the first part, but he cannot write the second part; or, lest there be misunderstanding, he can indeed write the first and second parts, but then he cannot write the third part – the last part he cannot write.     

What then is to be done to complete a work?

In order to find the conclusion, it is first and foremost necessary to perceive very vividly that it is lacking and thereby in turn very vividly to miss it. 

No doubt giving up on Kafka's novels is in keeping with what one aspect of what their incompletion reveals, but it also suggests an unwillingness to face the other because of what it would mean for authoring novels, and perhaps a wish for novels to face the other is why I turned away from the Amis group and why, for me at least, Kafka's fragments remain a living presence despite the increasing obscurity of his problems.

Sunday, July 09, 2023

The end of something

Thirteen years ago I posted The beginning of something to mark the fifteenth anniversary of Spike Magazine (not to be confused with Spiked Online), which I helped to found when the world wide web was forming, and to comment on the direction online literary culture had taken. By that point, the magazine was moribund and I was writing for (the unfortunately named) Ready Steady Book, which has become worse than moribund. There is no significance in the curious fact that both editors now work in businesses that specialise in underwater activities and that I used to work in one, but I would like to think there is.

When I read Ulysses for the first time, I made a list of words Joyce uses that were also used to name British submarines in the first half of the 20th century: Stoic, Spartan, Sybil, Selene. I found forty-five more. As these names indicate, ancient Greek and Roman culture was very familiar to the officer class of the empire and the names suggest a wishful continuity with mythical and martial traditions. Another submarine was called Telemachus, a word that doesn't feature in Joyce's novel despite its title. Officers would have pronounced it Tell-em-ackus, while those on the lower decks pronounced it Telly-mackus. Nowadays, the officers are likely to be more familiar with another Homer.

If such rambling is leading anywhere, it is to note the end of something. Not online literary magazines but their potential as an alternative to corporate literary coverage, as resistance to a tradition of consumerism, gossip, aesthetics and neutralisation. This may explain why they become moribund and those that remain lack any apparent vision or purpose, becoming landfills of reviews, essays, interviews, poetry and fiction "without truth or necessity", the words Blanchot used in a letter to Sartre quoted in my original post.

In the past, I have argued that it was because the form has been usurped by the same professional managerial class that took over British politics and media circa 1997. But that may be only half the story, as the form does not lend itself to a sustained approach to the unique space of writing. That is, the distinction we recognise, appear to know instinctively, between the everyday and literature, between criticism and its object, and yet which endures as a oracular presence we habitually avoid. Indeed, the culture demands that we avoid it despite relying on its aura. Hence my call for the solitary mutiny of blog writing. It's why I insist on continuing in this damned wilderness. But even book-reviewing blogs tend toward the same inherited format and clichés. With no expectation at all, I suggest adapting Lars Iyer's Dogma rules for academic papers, as set out later in the novel with the same title. So, Review Dogma:

  • No character names
  • No plot summaries
  • No quotations
  • No genre labels
  • No reference to isms
  • No comparisons
  • No moralising
  • Contra Dan Green, no dispassionate analysis
  • No keeping to at least one of these rules

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.


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

Blog Archive

Contact steve dot mitchelmore at Powered by Blogger.