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Monday, December 27, 2021

Favourite books 2021

If such things matter, and they don't, my book of the year is Peter Holm Jensen’s The Moment. As I wrote in April, it’s one in which the writer seeks “a modest, self-effacing place within the intersection of time and eternity” and can be read again and again for this reason, as one's deepest concerns, otherwise diluted by public pantomimes, take form in the patience of attention. To recognise this again is always a surprise.


Before and after such recognition, I'm often confused by how much Karl Ove Knausgaard’s writing stirs me, embarrassed even, because his books are unremarkable in many ways (the public ways); not remotely what others misunderstand as modernist or, that horrible word, experimental. But I can't deny the same recognition, and it's the intersection taking form in the otherwise straightforward narrative that explains my response to The Morning Star, which stands out among the novels I've read this year.

Time is a constraint on two other of my books of the year: Gabriel Josipovici's 100 Days, the result of a plan to write 100 essays in the 100 days of the first lockdown of 2020 (reaching 83 in the end), on subjects prompted by each letter of the alphabet, and Ellis Sharp's Twenty-Twenty, which presents itself as an autofictional chronicle of each day of the year, following Uwe Johnson's Anniversaries from which 'Ellis' quotes in the early months of the year. Apart from the calendar constraint, the two couldn't be more different: one "deceptively slight, disarmingly circumstantial...a joy to read" as Ben Hutchinson says in his review, the other bitter, unforgiving, bordering on monomaniacal.

They do have one more thing in common: opinions which will upset or confound many. A key understanding of Josipovici's work in general comes when he asks "Why does my heart leap when I see a sculpture (Giacometti) or a painting (Bonnard, Hammershøi) of a figure in a closed room?" And answers that what they have in common is the depiction of limits. He cites other works by Beckett, Sterne, Stravinsky and Stockhausen that affect him in the same way:

So that my equally visceral dislike of the piano music of Schumann and Chopin and the symphonies of Mahler may be explained by the feeling they evoke in me that they are trying to lull my spirits rather than awaken them. And the same with so many novels and realistic paintings and sculptures. But also with abstract art like Pollock’s and Rothko’s, however different they may be, and with purely OULIPIan creations like the novels of Harry Mathews.
What moves me then is the depiction of the outside world, of human beings, which at the same time recognises that it is depiction and not ‘life itself’ and is prepared to press hard to see how far that brings freedom and how far enslavement.

By coincidence, Twenty-Twenty begins with an epigram in which a prisoner in darkness touches the wall of his cell so that "his fingers may tell him what his eyes cannot", which happens to be from Josipovici's 1996 book Touch. So rather than art being, as is commonly presented and understood, a brief and illusory release from the closed room, it is for both in their own way, an enquiry into the possibility of freedom. In Ellis Sharp's case, it is freedom from the prison of British political and cultural life in which local escapism is fine but political possibility is not, hence the culture's elevation of middlebrow epigones to greatness, while those in the great tradition of dissent and art are marginalised. In an entry for February the first, Ellis is reading Ian McEwan's Guardian article on Brexit which, Ellis says, "oozed with the complacency of the globetrotting liberal intellectual". Later, he reads John le Carré's speech accepting the Olof Palme Prize: "Another smug, narcisstic writer, Ellis thought":

'Palme loved being the irritant. Relished it. Relished being the outsider voice,' Le Carré remarked, adding 'And now and then, I have to say, it does the same for me.' David Cornwell an outsider? St Andrew's Preparatory School, Sherborne School and Lincoln College, Oxford. And what could be more banal and conformist than Cornwell's politics? Dutiful mention of North Korea, ISIS, Iran, Russia, China and talk of nuclear threats but complete silence about Israel's armoury, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, events in Yemen. A dutiful assault on 'Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party' which, had it been elected, would have meant David Cornwell paying a great deal more in tax. The usual generalised reference to Labour anti-Semitism without a shred of evidence. Agreeable reflections about his privileged life as a globetrotter. No mention of carbon footprints or climate catastrophe. A fabulously wealthy old man and potboiler king wallowing in self-satisfaction.

There are 400 more pages like this. It reminds me of Journey to the End of Night when Bardamu says "Every virtue has its own indecent literature". We need more of such indecency in virtuous English literary culture.

Le Carré of course was a prominent signatory of this letter saying he couldn't vote for Corbyn's Labour party because it would be "to surrender in the fight against anti-Jewish prejudice". Note the other signatories and see if you can find any complaints from them about who runs the party now and its treatment of its Jewish members like Diana Neslen and Riva Joffe:

Click on the image to see the tweet

Look at the names again and you'll notice what else they have in common, which brings me to my final book of the year: Didier Eribon's Returning to Reims, a sociological yet often hair-raising memoir of how his sexuality alienated him from the working-class family and community in which he grew up, and how that background alienated him from the privileged intellectual community he moved into. It was published in translation several years ago but I read it alongside Cynthia Cruz's The Melancholia of Class and Catherine Liu's Virtue Hoarders, both published this year. The former is a study of artists who also move away from their working-class backgrounds to find success but find the past casts a long shadow (including Jason Molina, whose songs are also part of Emil's playlist for The Morning Star), the latter an analysis of the class who sign such letters to the Guardian.

What stood out for me in Eribon's book was his account of the "vast offensive" begun in France "to facilitate an organized shift to the right of the politico-intellectual field". Eribon's career at Libération, the daily newspaper founded with the support of Sartre and Foucault, came to end as a result. This process has been happening to the British left, becoming blatant and successful after the election of Jeremy Corbyn, and is something Ellis Sharp reflects in his extensive quotation of dissent from regular civilians and independent journalists using social media and websites, which has been relatively free from this offensive, but now appears to be facing a similar threat. Eribon's memories of his family's Communism are especially poignant in this regard, as he says of his mother: "her dreams in life were not of becoming rich, but rather of light and of freedom". When I read the names of those who signed such letters and promoted the scam, I see them smashing lightbulbs and slamming prison doors. I hope one day they know what they have done. As it is, these books are only small cracks in the wall my fingers found in 2021.

Tuesday, December 07, 2021

"Every day I have to invoke the absent god again"*


I really enjoy this YouTube channel despite my general lack of interest in films. The presenter’s restrained voice-over is ideal for one approaching its concerns; imagine a lullaby sung by Werner Herzog. I envy him the medium for its music, its visuals, even its potential for income, but, above all, for the critic's ability to watch a film within a few hours. It often takes me several weeks to read and re-read a book and then another several to excavate something worth saying about it. I wish there were more literary critics (one, even) who asked questions of books as Like Stories of Old asks of films – in this case, why films about a character's crisis of faith resonates so deeply with someone who does not consider themselves religious – and produced something as graceful and moving as this.

Vlogging about books, by contrast, is an abomination. I stare at the talking head and pity the book as its cover is flashed up to the camera like a packet of biscuits. Why do spoken words incline me to think nothing is further from the written word?

Such distance, however, is key. Like Stories of Old’s latest video quotes a critic’s statement that Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life is a film “you don’t just watch; it’s a movie you enter”. No doubt this is true, as Malick's films tends to be exceptions to my negative opinions about cinema, but it does highlight the critic's instinct to mitigate the primary attraction of film: the passivity of the viewer.

In the shot of Liam Neesom's character crying out into the void (from which film, I'm not sure), I recognise the attraction of the form, and my doubts. We watch in a relaxed silence similar to that of the silence into which he is pleading. We are impressed by his talent for transformation, but we are not beside him; the anguish burning his face is rhetorical hyperbole to mitigate the necessary failure of the form. Contrast this with Javier Bardem's recitation of the old Irish prayer St. Patrick’s Breastplate in Malick's To the Wonder. We watch there too, yes, but, as we are held at a distance from the character, seeing what he sees, we join his search and wonder (which is closer to the experience of reading). The sequence can stand for the entire film, its central relationship in particular, in which intimacy and distance are as one. Meanwhile, the BBC's cheerful film reviewer wants things spelled out like in the press release.

*Hölderlin in a letter to Susette Gontard, June 1799

Sunday, November 07, 2021

The Morning Star by Karl Ove Knausgaard

I began reading The Morning Star without any prior knowledge of the contents, just as I had begun reading every other book of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s since receiving an ARC of the first volume of My Struggle long before he shone above us like the morning star in this novel. This time, however, after having read the most of the opening chapter, a friend happened to mention Knausgaard had claimed it is a horror novel, following the example of Stephen King’s The Stand in which multiple characters narrate their experience of an apocalyptic event. I was then resigned to expect drama to enter the familiar world of everyday Norwegian lives narrated here much like the everyday Norwegian life in My Struggle, which until then I was enjoying in the same way. 


However, now that I’ve read all 666 pages, I can say I continued to enjoy it in the same way, perhaps because no apocalypse occurs, at least in the sense we understand it. What drama appears is not vast destruction but closer to the Greek meaning of apokalypsis: disclosure in the everyday sense and revelation in the theological. In The Morning Star there are only uncanny events in the corner of each individual’s everyday narrative: from excessively warm weather and wild animals appearing in great number, to characters who are apparently alive when they're dead, and, of course, the appearance of a new star in the sky. So comparisons to the horror genre are deceptive, as The Morning Star more closely follows volumes one and two of My Struggle in which the apparent banality of a human life presents itself against a background of absent meaning which is nevertheless forever impending, never quite arriving, no matter how many events promise resolution of the questions they present, which is why it’s surprising that Sam Byers’ very negative review reckons Knausgaard has “enriched” the My Struggle project “with a new and welcome undertow: unnamed dread”. Unnamed Dread could be My Struggle’s alternative title. It's unname is there in the face in the sea young Karl Ove sees in TV footage in volume one and the sky in Constable's painting in volume two over which he weeps in the realisation that it can be depicted, if not named.

Naming what is unnamed in the novel – attaching public meaning where private meaning lacks – is not only expected by the reader and demanded by the reviewer but inevitable, as a book is defined by its submission to unity, from its title and all the way down through its sentences to its final full stop. The book differs from an everyday human life because the latter's meaning becomes a question only when it becomes a narrative, when something happens: a great love, a break-up, an illness, a bereavement, losing a football match; when what happens becomes something outside oneself; a genre narrative. This is why applying labels such as autofiction and horror by writer, reader or reviewer is an avoidance tactic, as it provides a name for the outside where its meaning is otherwise withheld. Byers is inadvertently on the right track when he calls The Morning Star “a literary supernova", which he uses as a metaphor for "the entire Knausgårdian project entering spectacular, all-consuming heat death”.

This is not an idea that has fallen apart in the execution, it’s a novel that dreams of having an idea, a novel that, over hundreds of pages, seeks meaning in everything from the boiling of an egg to the passing of a soul into the afterlife, only to come back empty-handed.

Indeed, what comes back is not an idea but the uncanny presence of the novel itself, emphasised here by what Byers calls its "bloated and inconsequential" content. That is, the novel and the Novel (if there is really any difference), an object of obscure fascination, an obscurity named to obscure it; the novel as the morning star, appearing in our heavens where heaven had previously retreated, further brightening what was otherwise already bright but which we could not see until it appeared, under whose blaze we sweat because nothing dies, hence the multiplication of animals and characters who remain alive despite their death, and an artist character whose most distressing symptom of mental illness involves resisting this fact, and in the final chapter an essay "On death and the dead" which nevertheless turns into a ghost story, as if the novel seeks its own end in vain, becoming the ghost of itself.

In 1969, Maurice Blanchot observed that:

Essays, novels, poems seem only to be there, and to be written in order to allow the labor of literature … to accomplish itself, and through this labor to allow formulation of the question "What would be at stake in the fact that something like art or literature exists?" (Translated by Susan Hanson)
The question is unintelligible to us because it is one, Blanchot says, the "secular tradition of aestheticism has concealed, and continues to conceal". Perhaps if we pay closer attention to the relentless, indeed interminable, presentation and inevitable evasion of the question, which Karl Ove Knausgaard fails to evade better than most, we may begin to hear what the ghost has to say.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

The end of literature, part four

This tweet has been seen thousands of times since it was posted on the 82nd anniversary of Britain and France declaring war on Germany. Not that the coincidence means much. At least, no more than what the general population, interest and powerful mean here, or indeed what poetry means. As the hundreds of responses attest, they are generalities enabling a culture to oversee the remnants of what escapes it; that which it either reveres, ignores or dismisses, with an equal lack of consequence. One response is from the Editor-in-Chief of the magazine where Danielle Rose is Poetry Editor. Or was. 

If Paul Celan saw no difference between a poem and a handshake, this is the sucker punch.  

Celebrate, community, passion, vision: words desiccated by a thousand corporate press releases. The magazine's website even refers to world-class volunteers. Words and phrases like this became so notorious under the New Labour administration that robust is now included under W in the UK's Civil Service style guide of words to avoid.

But why should I lump an arts magazine in with neoliberal technocrats? Isn't this an admirable project to spread the value of art as far as possible in society? Well, yes, it is, on first glance. 

Catherine Liu writes about another project admirable on first glance. After Barack Obama became US president, To Kill a Mockingbird returned to the school curriculum. Here is the definition of literature we can accept as having genuine power, as it teaches readers "a critical lesson about literature and empathy". Obama was keen for the return because, he said, reading allowed him to put himself in "someone else’s shoes" and as such was paraphrasing the novel's hero Atticus Finch who despite the anger and hatred directed at him defends a black man accused of raping a white woman. The novel has become a document of the postwar progression towards a fairer society culminating in the election of a black man as president. The New York Times' chief book reviewer even called Obama the reader-in-chief: "He was liberalism’s dream come true", Liu writes, with the return of To Kill a Mockingbird to the curriculum emblematic of a return to progress: "Atticus was not just genteel and antiracist but he was the most virtuous member of his community...the ethical center of a barbaric and racist world." And so Obama. 

Except, Liu observes, there was no "massive reinvestment in public schools and public universities" to match that of the past because the Obama administration "wanted to revive the early 1960s era of high liberalism, but in style only". And style, like Barren Magazine's managerial vocabulary, is everything. During Obama's presidency, he deported more undocumented immigrants than any other president before him, dropped over 100,000 bombs on eight different countries, including white phosphorus and depleted uranium, ramped up drone executions and the persecution of whistleblowers, bailed out Wall Street while thousands of his supporters lost their homes, overthrew the elected goverment of Honduras, put white helmets on the terrorists destroying Syria, and continued military and financial backing of the apartheid state to the south. So while he outdid the crimes and brutal policies of his graceless Republican predecessor, his elegance and literary sensitivity enabled liberals to see only a reflection of their admirable intentions, just as the female secretary of state reflected their proud feminist principles despite her decisive role in the Honduran coup, as called out by indigenous activist Berta Cáceres, who was assassinated soon after.

So, while there was the impression that the value of art was being used to uplift society, Liu says Harper Lee's novel fits in perfectly with the superficial stylings of liberalism as it "is filled with hatred of the angry, defiant, pleasure-seeking poor white people represented by the awful Ewells", promoting "the idea of the deserving poor and the undeserving poor". Obama's educational reform in which literature played its part was instead "a euphemism for an ongoing war against unionized workers and the lower ranks of white-collar professionals."

With more than half of American children having experienced public assistance at some point or another in their short lives, it seems sadistic to make them read a novel about a noble, virtuous lawyer and the evil public assistance–abusing poor people trying to kill his family. If poor ninth graders pay attention in their language arts classes, they must feel humiliated by their family’s willingness to take what the worthy poor of Harper Lee’s novel refuse.
The perception of this administration's virtue is a classic case of vertical solidarity: a black man and a woman in positions of power received PMC backing because they were examples of enormous social progress that also enables them to unsee the profound suffering caused by their policies, or, no better, to blame the victims. Liu notes a truth obvious to everyone outside the liberal bubble that the electorate's subsequent disillusionment with Mr Hopey-Changey "hardened into reactionary antiauthoritarianism" soon exploited by Donald Trump and, in the UK fed up with the neoliberal consensus, the campaign to leave the EU.

The connection between this and the question of whether poetry has any power is that the literary arm of the PMC has slowly taken over online literary coverage to instrumentalise it for professional and virtuous purposes. Hence the title of Catherline Liu's book:

The PMC as a proxy for today’s ruling class is shameless about hoarding all forms of secularized virtue: whenever it addresses a political and economic crisis produced by capitalism itself, the PMC reworks political struggles for policy change and redistribution into individual passion plays, focusing its efforts on individual acts of “giving back” or reified forms of self-transformation. It finds in its particular tastes and cultural proclivities the justification for its unshakable sense of superiority to ordinary working-class people. If its politics amount to little more than virtue signaling, it loves nothing more than moral panics to incite its members to ever more pointless forms of pseudo-politics and hypervigilance.

This might be the job description of the editor of the Guardian's book pages, whose agenda, summed up by the final sentence, influences so many as they search for authority in an otherwise marginal medium (a white male announced not long ago that for the next twelve months he would "read only books by women of color". Catherine Liu again: 'Liberal members of the credentialed classes love to use the word empower when they talk about "people," but the use of that verb objectifies the recipients of their help while implying that the people have no access to power without them.')

I've written before about the takeover but have hesitated to approach the subject again partly because it is a game lost in advance in a culture that is passionate about celebrating a diversity of voices guiding readers toward the rhetoric of humanism in which literature is vehicle for all the hyphenated selves: definition, expression, assertion; ideal for a form in search of a certain kind of power or a mirror, mirror on the wall


The other reason for hesitation is because it appears to be impossible to discuss the alternative. In an essay on the rise of paperback culture in the 1960s, Maurice Blanchot notes that a culture always requires a limit leaving "an outside in relation to which and in opposition to which we come together and take refuge in our apparently limitless freedom". He summarises the outside as that which is resistant to universal comprehensible, something "we reject without knowing it" but whose exclusion is necessary for assimilation to take place, enabling communal self-congratulation on an historic victory over elitism. The emergence of affordable paperbacks enabled the circulation of all kinds of ideas new and old. On first glance, this also appears to be a progressive move, but, as Will Large explains in more detail, it might not be so straightforward: 

Today we feel that we can comprehend, debate and discuss everything. There is nothing that we could not publish, no idea that cannot be explained and made digestible to the public, from quantum mechanics to the late thought of Heidegger. Have we not thought more than ever before? Is not our culture a great thinking engine, and are not our heads simply bursting with ideas? But the more we know, the more everything has become ‘clearly and accessibly written’, the less what really matters is thought. For everything that is difficult has to be stripped out by necessity. ‘Difficult’ here does not just mean complicated, so that all the mathematical equations have to be taken out of the introductions to modern physics, but what cannot be thought, or what is not allowed to be thought. This is not a question of censorship, for there is no censorship on the great conveyor belt of books, but something much worse. The more we understand the less we understand what cannot be understood.

Culture is thereby a "powerful collective machinery that silently and imperceptively, day and night, pursues its task" of assimilation, even of the most unlikely work. Blanchot's topical example is the "happy surprise" of the top literary commentators when they reviewed a translation of a book by Trotsky. They discovered not a dangerous revolutionary but a "true man of letters" like themselves and whose statement that "everything is permitted in art" could be used against the "communist exigency", which, Blanchot notes, thereby reduces the meaning of such freedom to nothing. A work's power becomes indistinguishable from the building blocks of genre fiction.

In recent years, the sense of what not being able to understand what cannot be understood has preoccupied my experience of reading and so the focus of posts such as A walk in the park and The withdrawal of the novel. It might be conveniently called the outside, but this is a miserable cliché and better defined by Joseph Kuzma in his summary of Blanchot's characterisation of the Freudian unconscious "as a radical exteriority":

something that is not only indeterminate and unknowable, but that pulls man outside himself, outside everything he believes himself to be, outside everything that would comprise for him a center irreducible otherness that precedes any installation of identity – an obscurity more ancient than even the most primitive form of outside that is neither another world nor a hidden world. 

While we may recoil from such hyperbole as it is a long way from the everyday experience of reading, it does suggest that the literary pages' fixation on the social identity of an author and how a work tackles current affairs in its subject matter is a sublimated accommodation of the pull of the outside, with the subsequent proliferation of virtuous reading plans proving them right. The blurb for a forthcoming book expresses this reserve in terms of assimilating world events:

Durs Grünbein argues that we are faced with the powerlessness of writing and the realization, valid to this day, that comes from confronting history. As he muses, “There is something beyond literature that questions all writing.” 

For Blanchot, that something beyond is literature itself: a work's "irreducible distance" is that which the culture of assimilation can grasp "only as a lack – a lack in ourselves, a lack in the work, and a void of language". We can see this in the anxious and patronising jurisdiction provoked by Danielle Rose's tweet. Blanchot suggests an alternative follows from Trotsky's claim that "the new art will be an atheistic art" but in which the God under whose protected we remain is Humanism. He wonders "(by which improbably heresy?)" we may leave "the enchanted knowledge of culture". Perhaps the parentheses around the question as much as the question itself is where Blanchot opens a space for us to continue.

Thursday, September 09, 2021

Dead Souls by Sam Riviere

Even before one begins reading Sam Riviere’s first novel there is despondency as one registers that the title is a duplication of the English translation of Nikolai Gogol’s Мёртвые души, the novel in which a character seeks to buy dead serfs from their owners but who have yet to be removed from property registers and are thereby still taxed. It suggests that Dead Souls is an already belated publication, posthumous even, perhaps following the fashion for novels with commonplace phrases for titles or as allusions to past glories; the incontrovertibility of the one winning credence for the other. 

As one begins to read, the suggestion is affirmed yet complicated by the repetitious and pedantic phrasing of the sentences, the italicised paradoxical reversals of sense, and the long speeches reported by the first-person narrator, which is an overt adoption of Thomas Bernhard’s prose in which pedantry and repetition form an intoxicating music, paradoxical reversals are commonplace, and telescoped narration displaces the narrative centre and the guarantee it provides. Concerns about belatedness are acknowledged as the subject reported by the narrator is a case of literary plagiarism by a poet called Solomon Weise, whose surname is a German word that can mean melody, the manner or fashion in which one acts, or wise – the Wisdom of Solomon of course – while other characters soon appear called Christian Buch and Christian Wort, surnames that mean book and word in the language of the country in which the Gutenberg Bible was first produced and whose religious establishment was challenged by words nailed to a door. 

Weise had been ostracised by the poetry establishment because new technology has detected that his poetry is not original, and the bulk of the 320 pages are filled by the narrator reporting his monologue over drinks in a Travelodge bar describing the highways and byways of his life since being forced to withdraw from a poetry scene dominated by two sinister groups called the scolastici and the grammatici. The digressions, both perplexing and entertaining, are reminiscent of Tom McCarthy's Ballardian novels and which, to add to the despondency, Toby Litt says has much in common with the Contes Nocturnes of ETA Hoffmann. One narrates Weise’s retreat from London to the Norfolk town of Diss, an obvious allusion to the city of Dis, where Dante-like he encounters the damned souls of provincials, one of whom is an ex-prisoner of war who tells a story about becoming entranced by a fellow prisoner’s recitation of a poem in a foreign language, which later turns out to be not a poem at all but coordinates to an underground stash of riches which on being freed he can find and loot for himself. This is an obvious analogy of the various promises of poetry: an escape from the prison cell of the self it offers in the time of reading and, afterwards, the currency one can spend from one's fortress of cultural knowledge, and, perhaps most promising of all, access to mystic secrets concealed beneath the surface if only one can decode the poem, hence despondency for those who haven't read Gogol's novel, Hoffman's stories or know next to nothing about the manifold implications of the German Reformation, as they wonder if they shed light on the secrets of this novel and thereby of literature itself. All of which leads back to our initial unease with the belatedness and artificiality of its title and narration. 

As Solomon Weise ends his spoken-word Bildungsroman and parts company from the narrator, we no longer ask whether the allusions, analogies and the Bernhardian pastiche are clues and feel no need to go into search of the secret because we recognise it is a question and quest borne by the form and content of the novel itself and in the pleasure we take in following the highways and byways. The secrets of poetry or literature in general are nowhere to be found in publication, sales or recognition by the movements codifying the means of judgment (or in judgment at all), but in the perplexity of the reading experience itself, which appears to be too late, not an experience at all, or opposed to experience; posthumous even.

Update: See a much better review by Huw Nesbitt.


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