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Thursday, April 03, 2014

Reading on: Diary of the Fall by Michel Laub

In his diary Kafka said he enjoyed reading books of letters and memoirs because they helped him find some distance from himself and become the author's counterpart in their experiences and feelings. Nothing very unusual about that of course; it's why many of us read. Except Kafka recognises the self-deceit involved. On closing the book, he says he's always surprised that such an escape is possible because "experience inclines us to think that nothing in the world is further removed from an experience than its description". The experience he refers to here is his own writing tormented by a dynamic of trust and suspicion. In 1904 it's an "axe for the frozen sea inside us", in 1922 it is a "descent to the dark powers". At this time however, as a reader, he recommends submitting to a book in order to find "a clear road into what is most human".

What needs to be noted about this entry is that it is written in the third person plural and that I have assumed it is Kafka speaking for himself, as if the experience that inclined him to think that nothing in the world is further removed from an experience than its description is itself an experience and, in order to be written down, has to be removed from any connection to the singular self. Syntax sets Kafka at a distance.

Michel Laub's Diary of the Fall is presented as its title suggests in short, labelled entries written in the first person, lulling us into the comfort and security of a singular self. This allows the reader to do exactly as Kafka recommends because a diary immediately engages one in a confidential drama removed from the formal procedure of a literary novel. It is also one with which we will feel entirely familiar as readers of literary novels: the mystery of a man who survived Auschwitz and then killed himself in middle-age, leaving only mystery in his wake. Much later his son discovers a notebook containing only idiosyncratic definitions of certain words. Nothing is so far from the son as his father's experience, and there is no access except this notebook. To add to the burden, he has now been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and is writing to preserve what memories he has left. The diary of the grandson then – the novel we are reading – rises up between the twin voids of past and future with a question inherent to the diary form: what does it all mean? In the grandson's case: his alcoholism, his successive marriages and the bullying of the only non-jew in his school, a boy from a poor, single-parent family. The question "What does it all mean?" thereby assembles the ingredients of a classic literary fictional dish: race, class, guilt, history, inheritance, obsession, addiction and memory.

While this sounds like the next prize-winning novel you won't be able to put down or forget, there is something peculiarly resistant about Diary of the Fall: it is so easy to read, its personable narration insinuating so effortlessly these resonant themes, that hints toward an impending revelation never stop coming, yet which never quite arrives. Surely, I thought reading on, this design is too easy as a fiction, almost a caricature of a creative writing class exercise to compose a narrative with the most overt, button-pressing themes of literary fiction for this to be the last word. While there is a development – a wholly unremarkable one that only reiterates the novel's generic qualities – I was reminded of Kafka's recommendation and that "reading on" might be the key.

After reading Diary of the Fall, try to find a significant passage and you'll notice there are no page numbers by which to navigate. At first I assumed it was because my advance copy was incomplete, but then I realised it was entirely in keeping with how a diary works: each day is marked to mitigate the extemporaneous repetitions of a solitary voice subject to his own ignorance. Continuity from one page to the next is not important. Both reader and writer are compelled to move forward all the while suspecting what's new is only a feeble recurrence of other entries, other stories and other lives. He imagines his grandfather's experience by reading Primo Levi's If this is a man, raising the possibility that everything we've reading about, including the narrator's own past, is a secondhand reconstitution based entirely on reading. His most pressing memory is the bullying of João, a Christian boy who was left to fall when given the birthday bumps by his Jewish schoolmates. For this to be a real diary, the dovetailing of smaller and larger stories appears too neat. Whatever their truth status, they are disproportionate experiences seeking order in a terrible meaning or meaninglessness. The dairy's own fall is held in abeyance.

What remains is the possibility of meaning and access to experience. To achieve this might mean strengthening or undoing the neat unity imposed by the book. Unwilling or unable to do either, the diary form must enact literary fictional bad faith by obscuring freedom and confinement, formlessness and form, to approach and retreat from its goal, never quite able to convince itself its value – a dynamic inertia that could go on forever. The author might have used the alibi of most literary novels by "painting rich characters" and introducing violent developments to mask the narrative impasse, so it's admirable that for the most part Michel Laub follows the logic of the form: the grandfather and father, the diarist's wives, João and the events that mark their lives are always only ghostly presences in this nightly dance of the diary. The narrative is relentlessly provisional.

In a metafictional sleight of hand, the diarist wonders if this restraint is enough, a move that raises the issue of intention and mastery. If the fiction is under the author's control, the expression of limits and pained distance suggest that literary fiction is a charade and is as useless as the grandfather's notebook for providing access to experience. The diary format is then a sop to our enduring gullibility. History, he decides, might be "nothing but the accumulation of massacres that lie behind every speech, every gesture, every memory", which would mean every aspect of this unhappy situation is itself the legacy and revelation of disastrous history:
... if Auschwitz is the tragedy that contains in its essence all those other tragedies, it's also in a way proof of the non-viability of human experience at all times and in all places – in the face of which there is nothing one can do or think, no possible deviation from the path my grandfather followed during those years.
                                                                                  (Translated by Margaret Jull Costa)
The grandfather's path was one of repression and suicide, the other, taken by the father, one of stoic realism; a different kind of denial exposed by Alzheimer's. So what is this current path of writing a diary other than a third in which writing reveals only its non-viability as a medium for sharing experience; a likelihood reinforced by its familiarity as a literary product? Writing here maintains a relationship with experience like bare feet tracing a sinkhole beneath an increasingly threadbare carpet, unwilling or unable to fall through. Perhaps the ambiguity between unwilling and unable is what Kafka meant by "what is most human".

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Boyhood Island: My Struggle: 3, by Karl Ove Knausgaard

It's been said that Boyhood Island is "the most Proustian" of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle series, and while this is true that both Proust and Knausgaard present intense remembrances of childhood, the same could be said of many other novels, for example Tomas Bennerhed's The Ravens, recently published by the Clerkenwell Press and, like Boyhood Island, a novel of a 1970s childhood set in Scandinavia. Both Proust's and Knausgaard's would surely be lost among them were it not for what sets them apart.

What sets them apart might best be summarised as the lingering uncertainty of their status as novels. For all the differences between the authors that are finally destructive to the casual comparison, there is a common pressure exerted by the formal quality of each narrative voice: an essayistic spirit set within a distinct, first-person predicament refusing the comfortable distance of the knowing third person and, because of that, demanding that the reader participates in the questing nature of the narration.

While the Overture to In Search of Lost Time emerges from the uncertain place between dreaming and wakefulness, Boyhood Island merely introduces a discussion of the status of childhood memory. After a traditional family scene of moving into a new house on a Norwegian island narrated with objective confidence, Knausgaard interrupts the nostalgic flow and admits that he doesn't remember any of it himself: the action and dialogue is an invention based on family legend. As the distance is made explicit, there is no blurring of generic edges.
Memory is pragmatic, it is sly and artful, but not in any hostile or malicious way; on the contrary, it does everything it can to keep its host satisfied. Something pushes a memory into the great void of oblivion, something distorts it beyond recognition, something misunderstands it totally, something, and this something is as good as nothing, recalls it with sharpness, clarity and accuracy. That which is remembered accurately is never given to you to determine. (Translated by Don Barlett)
This is certainly a truism yet, placed before a narrative explicitly based on the author's own life, it introduces anxiety to the mournful dejection that personal memories invariably provoke, making what proceeds less an indulgence than a nervous exploration of what remains. As a writer then, Knausgaard, like Proust, must navigate a path between the total freedom offered by the constraints of genre – amply demonstrated by Tomas Bennerhed's reliance on heavily descriptive prose to dissemble its lack of truth and necessity – and the silence of terminal uncertainty. It is here that Knausgaard retreats from Marcel's quest to recover the living presence of the past and instead sticks to a straightforward narration of everyday life. There are only two, brief, vertiginous diversions that resemble anything like those in the first two volumes and what elevates them beyond fictionalised memoir, and, as a result, the sly and artful come to the fore.

He writes that young Karl Ove took great pleasure in not defecating when he felt the need, sticking his fingers up his backside to smell what he held back, which means we have the author of a six-part autobiographical work reporting that he was anally retentive as a child! He then enjoyed the relief of letting go, a feeling perhaps similar to completing the sixth and final volume of My Struggle. Moreover, he is told off by his teacher for revealing in class the reasons for a classmate's broken home and that he should learn some social decorum. Are these anecdotal precursors of later life too good to be true? Sometimes it seems that way, especially as much less trivial events are later pushed toward the void.

The best edition of the Scott Moncrieff/Kilmartin translation
Where Knausgaard might become realigned with Proust is the tension in the book created by opposing ways of life. In Swann's Way, the child Marcel walks two paths in the country surrounding his home: going in opposite directions and accessed by different gates, the Méséglise Way is full of lower class sexuality and sensuous nature, while the Guermantes Way presents the aura of history, nobility and the glamour of high society. Each represents a core example for Marcel's understanding in later life and the potential for happiness – what Deleuze called his apprenticeship to signs. Each has its appeals but are apparently irreconcilable. Which should he choose? Knausgaard has similar paths: the island's wooded landscape full of schoolmates, adventure and exciting temptations, and the one provided at home under the Panoptic gaze of his tyrannical father. How will the boy deal with such competing pressures? Outside he behaves recklessly, testing the limits of his freedom while at home he cringes with fear at the probable consequences. Knausgaard has acknowledged the "dynamic force in this book" is:
the difference between the freedom outside and the prison-like state inside, and how the latter very slowly influences the former, and in the end changes it fundamentally. Another word for that would be integration, I think. The eye of God ends up inside, so that, in the end, you take care of judgment and punishment yourself.
Perhaps a supplication to greater powers sums up the reckoning with the past and present that the book sequence displays and why it began with the death of his father. However, in Time Regained, the adult Marcel takes the Méséglise Way again and discovers it is in fact physically linked to the Guermantes Way; there wasn't such a profound opposition and, in revising his assumptions, makes him more aware of continuities and possibilities for revising ongoing assumptions. The proximity of separate paths turns out to be true of Karl Ove's paths too, leading us to a better comparison than with Proust's novel – that of Kafka and his father, or, more specifically, George Bendemann and his father.

The Judgment begins with Georg's self-assurance that he can write about his life to his friend in Russia without worrying too much about the consequences. Writing is freedom. But this is soon ended by his father when he reveals that the Russian friend knows all about Georg's self-serving behaviour because he, the father, has been in contact with him all along. Georg's suicide then is a submission to the power that reveals itself to be present in writing too. His suicide is the murder of writing by means of writing. Compare this with Karl Ove's actions as his family prepares to leave the island idyll. The teenager finds himself out of God's sight and, at a school camp, he and other boys pursue girls and behave in ways that readers will have to read and judge for themselves, if indeed they notice it all, so cursory is the description. Collusion with other boys is significant here because it dilutes responsibility, allowing the brute instincts of teenagers to stand in for the 'suicide' of the oppressed little Karl Ove; these girls disappear into the distance like a roadkill in a rearview mirror. Writing is as pragmatic as memory.
I guess I have a talent for humiliation, a place within me that experience can’t reach, which is terrible in real life, but something that comes in handy in writing. It seems as though humiliation has become a career for me.
Behind this confession is perhaps what is most disturbing about Boyhood Island: the possibility that father's tyranny is growing in the little boy even as he appears to resist it, or, to be less personal and less judgmental, the manifestation of the manipulative power that secretes itself within even the most open, honest, self-abasing act.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Existential OuLiPo: The Illiterate by Agota Kristof

Today marks fifty days since I began learning German on Duolingo, a website I discovered by chance. That is, fifty days in a row. I know this because the site rewards continuity and persistence. Online e-learning has now enabled me to progress far further than I had ever imagined possible. Many years ago I signed up for a schoolroom course in which "immersive" interaction with neighbours in the new language was the sole method of learning. No lists of nouns, no gender tables, no rules of grammar. We didn't even look at words. I should have known better: this was how they taught French at junior school and my persistent memory of that time is of our teacher Mrs Hollick repeating out loud the question Qu'est que c'est? and me being resentful that the spelling I had seen in my mind was not the one she eventually wrote on the blackboard. Not only did "Kiskersay" lack the letter K, it was several words with vertical dashes inserted apparently at random. I never learned French, and the German course was a waste of time.

I need to look at words, to see their shape and how they relate to each other. Perhaps this visual imperative is why I am uncomfortable at author readings, as the voice appropriates the agitated silence of letters on a page. This has nothing to do with me, I think.

Mehr nicht!

Learning German has no apparent motive. Yes, I have German friends and many of my favourite authors write in the language and perhaps one day I'll be able to read Kafka, Rilke, Celan, Bernhard and Handke in the original, but the translations have already been more than enough. I do not fetishise the master text as composed by the great man. If it makes any sense, I would say I am drawn more toward the other of the original. This could mean that I think criticism should be less analyses of textual nuance than exposure of the work's silence to the Lebenswelt.

So what if, in handling the original manuscript, the writer's editor had made a mistake on a crucial point and the text was never corrected? So what if the editor's error was then compounded by the printer and was itself never corrected? That makes two mediating barriers. And so what if the editor's error compounded by the printer was compounded further by the translator, and then by the editor of the translation, and then by the printer of the translation? One should use Occam's Razor only to slash the throats of New Critics.

Agota Kristof says she also struggled to learn French. Unlike her native Hungarian, it is not a phonetic language, so the difficulty was amplified. But she didn't give up and The Illiterate is her account of moving to a new country, living in its language and eventually writing Le grand cahier, her extraordinary novel translated as The Notebook, both now published by CB Editions.

The need for language is there from the start:
I read. It’s like a disease. I read everything that comes to hand, everything that meets my glance: newspapers, schoolbooks, posters, bits of paper found on the street, recipes, children’s books. Everything that is in print. I’m four years old. The war has just begun.   [Translated by Nina Bogin]
For another seventeen years this continues, but then the uprising in Hungary forces an end and, to escape persecution, she makes the dangerous crossing of the border into Austria. The welcome they receive and the hospitality of the locals is a pleasant contrast to what reading Thomas Bernhard might lead one to expect of his fellow countrymen. The refugees are dispersed and Kristof, her husband and child end up in Neuchâtel in Switzerland where she begins work in a factory. Life is settled and safe and, you would think, happy. However, the loss of home, family and language dominate her life:
We expected something when we arrived here. We didn’t know what we were expecting, but it was certainly not this: these days of dismal work, these silent evenings, this frozen life, without change, without surprise, without hope.
A chapter entitled 'How do you become a writer?' – First of all, naturally, you must write. Then, you must continue to write – hints a more passionate and wilful person behind the quiet, cool prose: the two years it took to compose what she calls "short texts based on my childhood" that make up Le grand cahier pass in four and a half lines. And while she shares Thomas Bernhard's expressive reticence displayed in My Prizes, his own book of little personal essays, this appears to be a quality imposed by the French language rather than, as Gabriel Josipovici suggests in his introduction, a personal artistic credo. (Of course, it could be both.) The simplicity and directness of the prose prevails upon Kristof in the manner of a formal constraint as practised by OuLiPo, that legendary band of French writers for whom mathematical patterns and linguistic games provide an armature for literary creation. In Kristof's case, however, the constraint is imposed out of existential necessity. Whatever the cause, Josipovici welcomes the effect, as it means "her books are, thankfully, free of the overwriting which one finds in so much of the best post-war Hungarian authors".

One wonders then how much exile, silence and the struggle for a voice made Agota Kristof the writer she became, and how stifled or stifling she may have been as a writer of Hungarian rather than French literature. The new language does not then suppress the writer as reveal what she would not have discovered otherwise, making the space between home and exile a living presence. Samuel Beckett provides surest evidence of what happens when a writer adopts or is adopted by a language. Perhaps such a constraint is what I seek in learning German, as this sort of thing is easy to write after all.

More evidence of the value of distance comes in her chapter about the death of Stalin. She knows of no Russian dissident who has addressed his catastrophic influence on the national identity and culture of countries like Hungary.
What do they think, those who suffered under their tyrant, what to do they think about those "unimportant little countries" that suffered, in addition, under foreign domination, their domination? That of their country. Are they ashamed of it, or will they be ashamed one day?
Her role model for dealing with such shame, with standing outside and alone, is a writer to whom she admits devotion. This writer "never ceased to criticize and to denounce his country, his era, and the society in which he lived" albeit with love and humour as much as with hate and anger. She wishes there were more like him: "Thomas Bernhard will live on eternally as an example to all those who pretend to be writers". Agota Kristof's own name might easily replace his within this sentence.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

An excursion via Thomas Bernhard's My Prizes

After days of inert wondering why Thomas Bernhard's My Prizes felt like more than "a weakish book" and thereby, according to the dictates of professional reception, valuable only for throwing the so-called greatness of his novels into finer relief, or, rather, why it felt that this so-called weakness was in fact a strength in the same way that the illness, or, to be more precise, the double illness that I was enduring, demanded the choice of an episodic book to read was fortunate, as it enabled me to consider basic questions rather than suffering to read another product of industry-friendly dilettantism, I read Ingeborg Bachmann's brilliant short essay on her friend and discovered she had asked questions about Thomas Bernhard that had also nagged at me:
The fact that a certain person writes at a distance from contemporary literature and increases this distance through solitude... is already a reason for not knowing how to begin to do him justice. Where does he belong, what does he want, where are his points of reference (to what end?), in which conversation, hence in which non-conversation, does this monologue of his participate, what does he have to say and to whom?     [Translated by Flowerville]
Yes, I thought, what makes Bernhard uniquely disturbing appears to have something to do with his personal reticence, a silence reminiscent of the terrible solitude out of which his characters begin to speak and yet which seems to have been Bernhard's only way of speaking, a kind of self-stifling game, or something to do with how his work emphasises the solitude necessary to all writing, its remove from Sunday Supplement profiles, bookshop signings and prize ceremonies (hence their spectacular proliferation) and why it is best to go, like Bernhard, in the opposite direction, even if that means reinforcing exceptional solitude.

The Notting Hill Editions' edition

After reading Bernhard, one is left with the impossibility of doing justice to the silence behind the game. Clearly this is due to the moderating activity of the critical act and its tendency to orchestrate traditions rather than self-blinding before singularities, but this is also present in the malady of existence, as brought forth by Thomas Bernhard so clearly in his narratives. So, yes, My Prizes is a minor work, a collection dredged from the publisher's bottom drawer and dilute compared to the novels, and, yes, while the anecdotes expose the grotesque vanity and philistine violence of municipal art culture so brilliantly that it is probably enough only to celebrate the comedy, the anger and the excess of My Prizes, none of this would express anything new or worth saying. Every week someone announces to a startled world how funny and dark Bernhard is or how unfunny and dark Bernhard is, and everything they say is true or not true and not worth saying again

The Alfred A. Knopf edition

But what might be worth saying again is the significance of the recurring ambiguity of the reckless acts in Bernhard's fiction, something repeated throughout My Prizes. In the first essay he needs a suit for a ceremony and at very short notice chooses one from the rack of a posh menswear store. After the event he decides it's too small, takes it back to demand a replacement, which, to his surprise, he receives. For the next prize he decides the money should go towards buying a house, so an estate agent lines up twelve farmhouses in upper Austria for a full day's viewing. The first is mouse-infested, has damp-rotted floors and is much to big, but, before he's seen the second let alone the twelfth, he decides to buy it there and then. Days follow in which he frets over the decision: the prize money will pay only an installment – so where will he find the money to pay the remainder let alone refurbish the building? We don't find out but we know from elsewhere the farmhouse became his country retreat for the rest of his life. Later, another prize pays for "storm windows".

Another prize prompts him to buy a car despite having never driven one. In a showroom he sees a Triumph Herald and once again buys it on the spot, demanding the example on show to drive away immediately. He drives to Croatia where he and his "aunt" had rented a villa. In his room he writes the terrifying novella Amras, sends it to his publisher and, to clear his head, goes for a drive along the coast and promptly has a life-threatening accident. Back in Vienna, he hires the best and most expensive solicitor to deal with the case and frets about the extravagance given the regular ill-fortune of cross-border justice. But once again things work out and he gets more money in compensation than he had ever hoped for.

Not My Prizes

These are just a few examples of reckless behaviour from the nine essays but, as I said, they appear throughout his work. I've mentioned before the famous bike ride in Gathering Evidence and the abrupt changes in habit that recur in various novels, such as the beginning of Gehen, translated as Walking, apparently his breakthrough work stylistically. Except in My Prizes he doesn't talk about his work! The car and the crash are discussed in detail but Amras itself, this extraordinary work whose 50th anniversary it is this year, is mentioned only in passing and almost dismissively as "romantic, something born of a young man who'd been reading Novalis for months".

The most notable example of behavioral change comes at the beginning of the valedictory novel Extinction, with perhaps the greatest opening sentence in modern literature.
On the twenty-ninth, having returned from Wolfsegg, I met my pupil Gambetti on the Pincio to discuss arrangements for the lessons he was to receive in May, writes Franz-Josef Murau, and impressed once again by his high intelligence, I was so refreshed and exhilarated, so glad to be living in Rome and not in Austria, that instead of walking home along the Via Condotti, as I usually do, I crossed the Flaminia and the Piazza del Popolo and walked the whole length of the Corso before returning to my apartment in the Piazza Minerva, where at about two o’clock I received the telegram informing me that my parents and my brother, Johannes, had died. Parents and Johannes killed in accident. Caecilia, Amalia, it read.                                            
                                                                [Translated by David McLintock]
The implicit connection of the change in Franz-Josef's routine to the change in his fortune comes from the excess of detail within the proliferating clauses and the desolate two-sentence telegram that follows immediately. But how can they be connected? The connection is both obvious and absurd. However, rather than seek cause and effect, we need only see this perplexity as the birth of the narratives we are reading and the voices of individuals rising from the predicament of "exigency, necessity, inexorability", as Bachmann describes it.

This is the key to Bernhard's radicalism and why he is more than a scourge of bourgeois pretensions, or whatever else the critics say, and why it's impossible to pin him down. His prose soars, exploding like fireworks illuminating the landscape for a moment before plummeting to earth in darkness. If he knew where he belonged, what he wanted, what he had to say and to what end, in what conversation or non-conversation he might participate, his work would be very different; das gewöhnliche Zeug, to borrow Kafka's uncle's phrase: the usual stuff.

In 1970 – during the Mexico World Cup in fact, as you will see – Bernhard starred in Drei Tage, a filmed monologue (a translation of which you can read here) in which he suggests why his style of writing does not escape what is written about:
The thing I find most terrifying is writing prose…it’s pretty much the most difficult thing for me…And the moment I realized this and became conscious of it, I swore to myself that from then on I would do nothing but write prose. Of course I could have done something completely different. I have studied many other disciplines, but none of them are terrifying.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Munro Doctrine

Two years ago, walking by the sea, I listened to the New Yorker's fiction podcast in which the writer Lauren Groff read aloud her choice of story from the magazine's history: Alice Munro's Axis. It was pleasant company for three-quarters of an hour, telling the story of two women, Grace and Avie, as they reach adulthood in the postwar years, go to college and begin relationships. For Groff, reading an earlier story by Munro was an epiphany and changed her mind about fiction. As a young writer, the writers she wanted to emulate were "very experimental, the breakers of the form". "I didn't scorn but I didn't love the realists" she says, but, after reading the story, she "looked up and the whole world had changed". Munro is "a revolutionary" in what she does with time and structure, "but it's not super-flashy; it's very deep". "Alice Munro does time and structure better than almost anyone", seeing time as "layers of tissue as opposed to a linear way", which is "incredibly interesting in a short story format".

The narrative twist of Axis is that the fictional events are narrated from the perspective of fifty years in the future when the past re-enters the present via a chance meeting, something that's bound to resonate with readers of a certain age, as it did with me. Nevertheless, two years on and surprised that Munro had been awarded the Nobel Prize, I listened again hoping to appreciate why the committee chose this "master of the contemporary short story" over other living writers. In the end, it helped me appreciate a lot more.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Kafka: The Years of Insight, by Reiner Stach

You have made me unhappy. I bought your "Metamorphosis" as a present for my cousin, but she doesn't know what to make of the story. My cousin gave it to her mother, who doesn't know what to make of it either.
So begins a letter to Franz Kafka written in 1917 by Dr Siegfried Wolff, a veteran of the trenches. He goes on to list other family members equally perplexed by the story and pleads for some help to protect his reputation: "Only you can help me". Apparently there is no evidence of a reply. Not that possession would help much: perplexity towards Kafka's fiction hasn't ceased despite the deluge of secondary material. Sometimes it is expressed with Wolff's politeness, sometimes with a journalist's boorish impatience. "Great antipathy towards Metamorphosis", was Kafka's own response. "Unreadable ending. Imperfect almost to its very marrow".

The problem with Kafka's fiction is that while in general the surface presents a generic world, recognisable even to those of us living a century later, the content is not familiar; it does not counsel the reader with wise observations on the human condition or provide practical information and descriptions of places for the reader to absorb and use in their lives; there isn't even a happy ending in sight. The only resort for the reader is critical: "What do I make of this?".

On a personal level the answer takes the regular form of what to say in discussion with friends on the common ground of 'a good read' but, in the public and more private arenas, this is more problematic. Over the decades there have been innumerable readings of Kafka's fiction named under various scholarly disciplines, each one underwriting his stories with a theoretical rigour lacking in everyday communication. This guarantees at least three things: that Kafka's fiction can be contained by structured analysis, has value only insofar as it confirms the premises of that analysis, and that the stories are capacious enough to accommodate an infinite number of disciplines. The first and second are full of promise for the reader keen to learn and use fiction as proof of theoretical authority. They also nullify the superstitious power of the object while allowing it to live like an insect quivering in a spider's web. However, these guarantees are possible only insofar as one is able to deal with the inherent bad faith of the third: why choose the Freudian reading over the Marxist? Or, if you think the Existentialist reading fails, what do you think of the Gnostic one? In bringing social esteem to the daydream of fiction, analysis raises fiction to new heights or depths of impenetrability, leaving the third guarantee full of despair because the number and variety of readings demands a decision, sending the reader back to the beginning of the search, only this time in the shadow of an entire library. Who is quivering now?

Biography offers a compromise in that it is a craft requiring certain constraints yet without the rigidity of a theoretical armature: it is both authoritative and curious. The Years of Insight, Shelley Frisch's translation of the third and final volume Reiner Stach's definitive life of Kafka, begins with a scene-setter of Prague at the outbreak of the first world war and the crowd-pulling recreation of a trench from the frontline, which Kafka visited and which of course immediately suggests inspiration for The Burrow. We are on familiar ground here. But this is no series of suggestive coincidences. Instead Stach allows the reader to sense the free play of contingent conditions of Kafka's life, enlarging the picture when large events such as the war intervene, or switching the focus to characters like the actor Ludwig Hardt, the journalist Milena Jesenská and the agricultural adventures of his sister Ottla when their influence is entertaining (as in Hardt's case) or profound, as in the other two. This means there is much less of the prurient conjecture tainting Saul Friedländer's recent book. Stach continues with Kafka's magical reunion with Felice Bauer in Marienbad before the relationship ended for good, the postwar epidemic of Spanish flu, which Kafka caught and miraculously survived, the creative burst he found in his sister's tiny cottage beneath Hradčany castle and, finally, the discovery of his tuberculosis and the years of convalescence in various sanatoria; a time that included living on a farm in Zurau, writing The Castle, another fraught engagement, the affair with Milena and, finally, moving to Berlin with Dora Diamant.

Stach argues that such contingency troubled Kafka, which in turn infuriated his closest friend, Max Brod. Whereas Brod was constantly publishing in multiple genres, performing at readings, making a public stand for Zionism, his friend was fastidious in the extreme, preferring not to push himself, commit to a movement or even pursue a living by writing. However, there is a brief glimpse of Kafka's possible other life when in 1916 he was invited by an art gallery in Munich to present "a literary evening" using his own work. He would be mixing with the German avant-garde including Rainer Maria Rilke. But it was in the midst of war and Kafka's reading of In the Penal Colony did not rouse the audience. As always, Kafka accepted the criticism and was not apparently distraught by the poor reviews in the Munich press. Stach writes that for Kafka "the concept of twists of fate stood for the absolutely unendurable" and, despite its apparently failure to convince others, this event at least convinced him this was necessary: he was a writer in essence and not a celebrity cruising the social whirl.

We know how important the act of writing was to Kafka in regards of those twists of fate from the letter to his father written two years later. That it was unsent is less important than it was written. Stach argues that Kafka was "impervious to abstract reproofs" but was "receptive to prelinguistic gestural, spontaneous outbursts", and presents a list of an eclectic treasury where "absolute authenticity" could be found, so we might see the gesture of the letter as primary. It becomes clearer in the first line of the letter: he is unable to answer his father's question as to why he is so afraid of him precisely because he is afraid. He could not contain the answer in his head in order to answer. Silence is the answer. This made writing all the more challenging because it is always threatened by the gravity of rhetoric and overt content. Silence is the proof that cannot be admitted to court. So how to at least approach the prelinguistic in writing? We can see how Kafka tries in other first lines, this time of the diaries:
The onlookers go rigid when the train goes past. 'If he should forever ahsk me.’ The ah, released from the sentence, flew off like a ball on the meadow.
Plain observations were it not for the uncomfortable presence of what they release in meaning, or lack of it. In March 1912, after writing part of a story in his diary, he stops and reveals his dissatisfaction:
Nothing, nothing. This is the way I raise up ghosts before me. I was involved, even if only superficially, only in the passage, ‘Later he had.…’ mostly in the ‘pour’. For a moment I thought I saw something real in the description of the landscape.
These involving moments had their equivalents in his life. He regarded the eruption of tuberculosis as an outburst of authority and wrote in order to appreciate the meaning. More happily, in a letter from Marienbad, he tells Brod of Felice Bauer's trusting gaze in the time they spent alone: "I got my bearings somewhat while she, who had always held out her hands into the utter void to help, helped again, and with her I arrived at a human relationship of a kind that I had never known before". "This gaze remained the symbol of everything good," Stach writes, "the assurance that redemption was only only conceivable but feasible". Just a gaze; nothing said. Four years earlier he had noticed Felice's "bony, empty face that wore its emptiness openly" and, no matter how suspiciously unromantic it may read to modern eyes like Friedländer's, he was immediately attracted to her and the possibility of a marriage in which "harmony ... runs beneath any opinions" and "cannot be analyzed but only felt". Marriage was otherwise the false, abstract, oppressive realm of the father. Their subsequent correspondence eroded that potential for harmony, the ghosts of rhetoric drinking their written kisses. He felt it again in Marienbad when he joined the Rabbi of Belz and his entourage inspecting the sights of the spa town, writing in detail to Brod about that too, fascinated by the "serene, happy faith" of the man and his followers yet not convinced he was in the presence of mystic knowledge: "I think that the deeper meaning is that there is none and in my opinion this is quite enough."

Reading the letter, one can't help but wonder what a biography might be like if the subject could be observed like the Rabbi of Belz, without interrogation and judgment. What might we see instead? This may be the province of another genre but the virtue of The Years of Insight is that it contains so many small details like Dr Wolff's letter and the Munich expedition that one is able to sense Kafka's as a living presence rather than a repository of secrets emitting evidence for the prosecution. But this is why Kafka has such renown: his stories hurtle forward, embodying what can only be felt not analysed: the pressure driving Georg Bendemann to throw himself from a bridge minutes after quietly sitting at a desk writing; the interruption of routine when Gregor Samsa is transformed into an insect and descends quickly toward death, continuing with his sister Grete stretching her young body on the family's celebratory picnic. What can we make of this terrible momentum? Perhaps Kafka felt Metamorphosis imperfect because its length obscured the overall gesture of the story and the short, aphoristic writings in the Bohemian countryside attempted a resistance to this tendency – sentences as gestures ("A cage went in search of a bird"). Writing seems to usurp metamorphosis and while at first its abstract definitions offer a defence from change, it then becomes a tormenting, unfulfilled promise of freedom ("My prison-cell – My fortress"). Writing's remoteness drives the perverse enthusiam of the penal colony's officer for a form of execution in which writing is engraved in living flesh, guaranteeing its authority but, in this case, killing the one who values it so highly. In the opposite way, what kills the hunger artist is an absence of nourishment. Starvation is the truth misconstrued as art. For this reason it would have made no difference to Kafka had the audience in Munich been more enthusiastic about his story; it was not about confirmation of a writer's mastery.

The unfortunate irony then is that Kafka's own authority as a writer largely rests on Dr Wolff's misapprehension that there is a deeper meaning requiring more than the movement of the stories and which only the author or sundry experts can impart. While readers of The Years of Insight receive a rich and moving account of the pressures of one man's life in a certain time and place, the true authority of the biography is felt in what is glimpsed around the accumulated detail, and even more so in what gets lost: photographs taken with Felice Bauer ruined because she inserted the film back to front, the stash of notebooks written in Berlin confiscated by the Gestapo, the life not lived because it was ended prematurely by a disease that would soon be curable and, most of all, what happened to his friends and family years later. It is not an authority of power.

Death stalks the reading of any biography, even that of a living subject, but this one more than most. For seven years Kafka endured the tuberculosis that would kill him soon after he found domestic contentment with Dora Diamant. This makes for desperately sad reading. But nine years later the Nazis took power in Germany and the three-page epilogue registering without elaboration the fate of his family and friends is an exceptionally desolate space. Reiner Stach concludes by reiterating the fact that Kafka's world was thereby erased and all that remains is his language. This is true enough, yet his request to Brod to destroy all his papers was a necessary gesture in keeping with a deep mistrust of language, and a final gesture we should appreciate in kind.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

An aside on titles

Robinson Crusoe, Jane Eyre, David Copperfield. Novels used to have character names as titles, reaching its peak at the end of the 19th Century; a trend notable in David Lodge's novel Author, Author about the later career of Henry James. When George du Maurier discusses plans for novels and stories with his distinguished friend, the titles are surprisingly mundane: Peter Ibbetson, Owen Wingrave, Sir Edmund Orme and, of course, Trilby. Times have changed. Look at the Booker Prize archives and the only shortlisted novel you'll find with a character's full name as the title is Elizabeth Bowen's Eva Trout from 1970. Ten years later, Martin Amis hints at why there was a sudden fall off: "literature used to be about the gods, then it was about kings, then it was about heroes, then it was about you and me."

Thirty years on, popular novels titles tend to be advertising slogans using cliché and puns to mimic newspaper headlines or TV dramas – Hearts & Minds, Sweet Tooth, Bleeding Edge – while Booker Prize titles tend to use figures of speech to allude poetically to unifying qualities: The Lighthouse, Swimming Home, Umbrella. This might tell us more about one of the two paths fiction is taking. In 1981, Amis reckoned the novel's subject was becoming "about them", by which he meant sleazeballs such as John Self in Money and Rinaldo Cantabile in Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift, yet those titles suggest the direction has always been toward something less apparent, beyond even them.

The obvious implication of the original trend is that the rise of the novel coincided with the decline of religion, authority and community, and what remained for writers was the sundered self. Each name in a title acts like the "Sir" in James' story, signaling the surviving context. Indeed, the very notion of a writer removed from his fellows and charged with this task is part of the same trend, which, according to the scholarly character Felix in Gabriel Josipovici's Everything Passes, is itself a product of the age of print: "[The miracle of print] meant you had gained the world and lost your audience. You no longer knew who was reading you or why. You no longer knew who you were writing for or even why you were writing". This deepens the relevance of metafiction, otherwise considered a frivolous genre. In a letter of October 1900, James himself recognises the not-so-romantic fate of the writer in this new age of self:
The port from which I set out was, I think, that of the essential loneliness of my life–and it seems to be the port also, in sooth to which my course again finally directs itself! This loneliness ... what is it still but the deepest thing about one? Deeper about me, at any rate, than anything else: deeper than my "genius," deeper than my "discipline," deeper than my pride, deeper, above all, than the deep countermining of art.
That such pitiful awareness appears in a private letter rather than in a work of fiction is evidence of a fundamental rupture – though one can certainly imagine John Marcher telling May Bartram exactly this in The Beast in the Jungle, published three years later.

Perhaps a final cultural port has been arrived at with the publication of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle series, in which the mundane intensity of living a singular life saturates each page. Despite this, book one has a fascination with what writing cannot thematise, with what can be approached only as one approaches a mirage. This is what makes it "perhaps the most significant literary enterprise of our times". The original title for the series was Argentina, a distant, exotic land of promise; "a dream country" Knausgaard said. No wonder he now expresses discomfort and even shame about his remarkable work, since the domestic detail dominating critical reception has obscured the shimmering of fresh water on the far side of the desert.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

How does writing fulfil itself?

Jesus was not your everyday literary critic. Luke tells of his teaching in a synagogue:
And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read.
And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,
To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.
And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him.
And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.
We're so used to commentary on literature as secondary, basking in the glow of the object's aura, that the idea of fulfilment is almost impossible to comprehend. This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears. How does writing fulfil itself?

The question relates to my two previous posts, the second of which concludes with Slavoj Žižek's wish to act like the characters in Ágota Kristóf's The Notebook, reading the novel as a guidebook or thought-experiment. Imagine instead Žižek proclaiming himself the ethical monster the novel embodies: this day this novel is fulfilled in your daily paper. If we did, we'd see something other than a "Book that changed me" article. Actually, we'd see something like The Notebook. This is why I expressed surprise that Žižek chose not to include any discussion of the form taken by the novel. Its absence helps one forget while remembering this is a novel he's talking about.

We regard Jesus' pronouncement as a given, an act fundamental to Western culture, and we regard Kristóf's novel as part of an endless footnote to the main work, or we would if it were not a footnote now so vast that it has broken free to bob along on a sea without shore. We can no longer see the continent from which contemporary fiction and critical discourse embarked and from which it mined ballast to keep it afloat. In other words, our reading is an evolved model of that sabbath ritual. Despite the claims of escapism and education, the assumption of healing the brokenhearted, offering deliverance to captives, sight to the blind and liberty to the bruised can be found everywhere in literary discussion, for instance that Guardian series title: A book that changed me.

The first of my two most recent posts approached the problem of this reading evolution with the question: where is the horizon of narrative? The premise was that in a landscape our eyes are drawn to the horizon and this somehow guarantees the presence of what we see and delivers its gift of possibility in an infinity of light. For Christians, the landscape might be Jesus' death on the cross and the horizon his resurrection. However, it's that word light I want to focus on, as it invokes Heidegger's Lichtung, commonly translated as clearing, an open space you might wish for while traversing an otherwise impassable forest and, in Heidegger's terms, a metaphor for where beings are revealed, for truth to emerge from concealment. In terms of narrative rather than Christology or ontology, the horizon or clearing is obscured by solid facts, the trees and foliage, allowing us to bury ourselves in dendrology: who among us prefers the sycamore over the horse chestnut, and why? Or should we be more open to the boabab and the gingko biloba now admirably transplanted into our woods? But most of all, where is the next Great American Sequoia?

So, instead, to rephrase the question, where is the clearing in a novel? Each new book has the clearing as its potential and its self-evidence might explain why I am drawn to a certain reading experience that otherwise goes unexamined in routine reviewing and criticism, mainly because it is both haphazard and subjective. Fortunately online reviewing and criticism has the freedom to bring the work into the orbit of the reader as a body and a life rather than as a consumer.

The experience seems to occur at the level of the sentence rather than the story, though it occurs only within a narrative. Many years ago, I was too early for an interrogation over my unemployment and, passing time browsing a bookshop in the least cosmopolitan city in England, I chanced upon two novels by an Austrian author whose work I was interested in reading but who was then difficult to find in translation. (It was so long ago that both paperbacks were priced £3.95.)

In the gloom and tension of the situation, I opened Across and read the first lines:
I shut my eyes and out of the black letters the city lights took shape. Not the lights of the Old City, but the streetlamps that had just gone on in one of the many housing developments on the southern periphery. The development, consisting of two-storey single-family houses, is situated on the big plain at the foot of the Untersberg.
(Translated by Ralph Manheim)
And, as I did so, the gloom lifted and the tension disappeared, replaced by calm and relaxed concentration. At least, that's the story. At the time, a miraculous one. So why did this passage have this effect? The three sentences are straightforward and do not state anything profoundly meaningful about life. Not even close. Apart from the opening sentence, they could be from a local council planning document. Of course, it is the first sentence that makes it fiction: that odd, contradictory movement of eyes shutting to blackness and light taking shape as a result (there it is again, light), which might explain the transformation of my state into a story: the sense that narrative is parallel rather than subordinate to the conditions of life and one can easily step aside without abandoning one or the other. Among other things. This is how a modern novel might fulfil itself, by creating a clearing for this to be absorbed by the reader.

The effect appears to be a combination of chance and design, which should offer anyone an excuse to start writing. No need for a story. Milan Kundera says "dramatic tension is the real curse of the novel, because it transforms every thing, even the most beautiful pages, even the most surprising scenes and observations merely into steps leading to the final resolution". For a clearing, resolution is hacked away and a path opened. This has happened for me in many places, and these examples come from my early days of reading fiction (the dates are when I first read them). First from Kundera himself and The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1986):
I have been thinking about Tomas for many years. But only in the light of these reflections [on the opposition of lightness and weight] did I see him clearly. I saw him standing at the window of his flat and looking across the court-yard at the opposite walls, not knowing what to do. (Translated by Michael Henry Heim)
Second, in the preface to the first volume of Jacques Roubaud's The Great Fire of London (1995): 
By consigning to paper today the first lines of this prose (manifold in imagination) I am perfectly aware of administering a mortal, definitive blow to what I conceived on turning thirty as an alternative to self-chosen extinction, and which served for over two decades as the project of my existence. (Translated by Dominic di Bernardi)
Certainly there is a quality of valediction here but at the beginning, which surely changes matters. In Kundera's paragraph the narrative is set forth on uncertainty, intellect and imagination. And third in Gabriel Josipovici's novel Distances (published in In the Fertile Land, 1988).
A woman.
The sea.
She begins to walk.
She walks.
She walks.
The staccato rhythm here was like nothing I'd read before and, as each sentence and section built in length, it became like breathing itself. Reading, breathing, walking, clearing. This might be how writing fulfils itself.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

A world without feeling

Twitter is an unreliable arena for literary debate because terms cannot be defined – What is an emotional novel? What is a real emotion? – and one can only misunderstand by assuming answers. Better to move away. Displacement is therefore precisely Twitter's value for literary debate. Lee's rightful distaste for button-pushing novels displaced me to remember a passage in Saul Bellow's More Die of Heartbreak in which the narrator recalls the existential troubles of his uncle Benn Crader, a botanist, an expert in arctic lichens:
Benn once told me that when he landed by helicopter on the slope of Mount Erebus to collect samples, he had felt that he was very near the end of the earth, the boundary of boundaries. "Of course, there's no such thing," he said, "but there's such a feeling."
A scientist, a rationalist, Benn appears to have been hoodwinked into distress by a combination of reality and illusion, and yet, while he knows this, the feeling haunts him. What does it mean that he can't dismiss this illusion? The question might be familiar to keen readers of novels. We are surrounded by such events teasing us with unwarranted emotion, and not just in novels. Beckett's unnamable has bitter fun at the construction of emotion:
They love each other, marry in order to love each other better, more conveniently, he goes to the wars, he dies at the wars, she weeps, with emotion, at having loved him, at having lost him, yep, marries again in order to love again, more conveniently again, they love each other, you love as many times as necessary, as necessary in order to be happy, he comes back, the other comes back, from the wars, he didn't die at the wars after all, she goes to the station, to meet him, he dies in the train, of emotion, at the thought of seeing her again, having her again, she weeps, weeps again, with emotion again, at having lost him again, yep, goes back to the house, he's dead, the other is dead, the mother-in-law takes him down, he hanged himself, with emotion, at the thought of losing her, she weeps, weeps louder, at having loved him, at having lost him, there's a story for you, that was to teach me the nature of emotion, that's called emotion, what emotion can do, given favourable conditions, what love can do, well well, so that's emotion, that's love, and trains, the nature of trains ...
Love and trains, mere mechanics. Beckett had begun writing in French in part to get away from the sentimentality of English, so this – even when translated back – and the headlong nature of the prose, begins to dismantle the mawkish tendency of storytelling. And yet the rough grains of narrative remain and so too the seeds of emotion. The fatal dangers are present in the title of Bellow's novel, taken from a passage in which Benn discusses a journalist questioning him over his botanical research and his sense of guilt over the death of a neighbour:
... he wanted a statement about plant life and the radiation level increasing. Also dioxin and other harmful wastes. He was challenging about it. Well – I agreed it was bad. But in the end I said, 'It's terribly serious, of course, but I think more people die of heartbreak than of radiation'.
Why do we embrace such narratives in which unhappiness is amplified? In his 1920 diary, Kafka wrote a series of entries in the third person, one of which presents a diagnosis:
The fact that there is fear, grief and desolation in the world is something he understands, but even this only in so far as these are vague, general feelings, just grazing the surface. All other feelings he denies; what we call by that name is for him mere illusion, fairy-tale, reflection of our knowledge and our memory. How could it be otherwise, he thinks, since after all our feelings can never catch up with the actual events, let alone overtake them. We experience the feelings only before and after the actual event, which flits by at an elemental, incomprehensible speed; they are dream-like fictions, restricted to ourselves alone. We live in the stillness of midnight, and experience sunrise and sunset by turning towards the east and the west.
The distance of "he" is Kafka's freezer next to Beckett's microwave and extends Lee's twitter statement to affirm that we experience 'real' emotion only by elective agency. We turn to books in order to have emotion in the first place. Otherwise the chimes of midnight are all that we hear.

This kind of existence is deeply unsettling – reading fiction to fabricate meaning, to provide a telos for the interminable, even if we are reading a novel like The Unnamable. As readers, we are like Benn later in More Die of Heartbreak when, stuck in an apartment away from his research, this self-proclaimed "plant visionary" seeks solace by contemplating an azalea and gains emotional stability for weeks communing with its plant nature, only to discover that it is a fake, made of silk from Japan. More comedy, more distress. Yet if we believe this reveals human gullibility, we are correct only to the extent that we too are hoodwinked, because this is only a story, made of silk from Chicago. Benn Crader is an invented character who never visited Mount Erebus, never had such a feeling and never mistook a silk plant for a real one. There is no such thing.

But there is such a story, and we condemn susceptibility in the act of succumbing. Modern writers might suggest that, once cleared of sentiment, the novel has the potential to be the ground of truth, of clinical analysis, a place in which we are no longer hoodwinked; a world without feeling. Except of course this is maintained on a contradiction: storytelling is the means to this world. Beckett's comedy confirms that even the most constricted, stripped-down story is emotional. Even the most overtly heartless, realistic novel relies on a certain kind of sentiment. Swooning under the gaze of its gritty beloved, it refuses the possibility of error or unknowing. Contemporary fiction's impatience with this paradox and its refusal to confront it in form and content actually constitutes the bulk of contemporary fiction, and might thereby trace the fate of humanism. Apparently free of heavenly abstraction, humankind still struggles to ground its story and still swims in a sea without shore, and so, to save itself, clings like Pincher Martin to one remaining outcrop, repressing its fate.

Can the novel let go? The question is the starting point of Vila-Matas' Montano's Malady with its epigraph: What will we do to disappear? The writer's block suffered by the title character suggests it is necessary. He must stop writing in order to write. The author of the epigraph has emphasised that there is nothing negative in 'not to write': "it is intensity without mastery, without sovereignty, the obsessiveness of the utterly passive". If letting go is then obsessive passivity, how might that be written?

Passivity is what's notable in Ágota Kristóf's The Notebook, a novel recently celebrated by Slavoj Žižek and soon to be reissued. What's notable in his description of the story and his wish to be like the "ethical monsters" whose words we read, the twin boys who behave with "blind spontaneity and reflexive distance" promising a world "in which sentimentality [is] replaced by a cold and cruel passion", is that he doesn't mention the form the novel takes: a notebook written by the twins in the first person plural and the present tense. It lacks both the usual ornaments of novelistic prose, has no psychological or emotional description and offers no relief or guidance from a third person. The twins state that the notebooks consist only what they know to be true: "We must describe what we see, what we hear, what we do". This means the writing does more than "tell the story" as Žižek says, it embodies their behaviour and becomes their passion, their obsession, their passivity. The question then becomes: what do we do with this illusion? 

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The horizon of narrative

The first time Hans Henny Jahnn's trilogy Fluß ohne Ufer came to my attention was in Reiner Stach's biography of Kafka. I noted that of the "five monumental unfinished ruins of modern German-language prose" that includes two by his subject, River Without Shore is the only one still to be translated into English. A few years later, China Miéville recommended The Ship, the first part of the trilogy that had been translated over forty years ago. Imagine a longer, more expressionist version of The Stoker and you have a good idea of what it's like. It made me wish the rest was available in English, not out of some generalised curiosity but an unfocused yearning, as if the German volumes resting on a bookstall stood for the generalised promise of all unread books, the fulfilment of which also remains untranslated.

It wasn't until I read Landscape as the Origin of Music, Noor de Winter's essay published in the first edition of Reliquiae, that the content of the trilogy revealed itself and suggested in part why it remains untranslated: "full of reflections on music, nature and the creation of art", Fluß ohne Ufer "tells the story of fictional composer Gustav Anias Horn and his friend Tutein, their travels and friendship". This is a long way from an uncanny thriller and much closer to Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus. No wonder publishers have shied away. "Anias" the essay explains, "is haunted by the possibility of permanent pain without salvation" to the extent that, on a trip to Norway, he empathises with the suffering of birch trees whose leaves are used to feed livestock. He develops "a supernatural longing" to "capture the melody of the soil, the song of the gravel on which the birches grew".

De Winter describes Anias as an artist-as-listener rather than "someone who imprints his vision upon his surroundings"; he is "someone through whom a vision of something else can be transported, translated, transformed". In this way the landscape is an unread book whose translation takes another form. The literal nature of this transformation is revealed when Anias discovers that birch bark looks very much like mechanical piano rolls whose growth rings can be transliterated into written music.
Ever-changing interpretations braided themselves into each other, appeared like a deluge of strange harmonies suddenly dissolving, falling apart to lamenting antiphonies. [...] When I had played this music I knew it didn't originate in me, it came to me. A miraculous telluric power of disclosure had used me.
However miraculous, the essay concludes by acknowledging that such music "can express only something of the wonder that [Anias] experienced in the birch grove" and that it is "perhaps the lot of the artist-as-listener to acknowledge the deficiency of any particular realisation of their theme".

This final point reminds us of the closeness we have to the book and distance to its object. While we read of Anias' project and perhaps become enchanted by his example and practice, what we read is the opposite of any epiphanic vertigo we might experience before a landscape or listening to a piece of music. Any lyricism the narrative might have is a result of the animation of the distance between itself and its subject. Music is its own unmediated presence; literature is entirely mediation. We are like Anias himself with the only difference being that our realisation of deficiency is itself the experience of art. An impoverished experience, we might think. So what does this mean for the novel if, as Walter Pater wrote, "all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music"?

The difference between the novel and music appears like that between sociology and sleep: the first only a matter of comprehension and density and, the second, a matter of their absence. The curious thing about "the condition of music" is its lack of content. Music can lead one to sense an elemental pressure irreducible to notation or lyric sheet. If we compare it to a vision of nature, the condition is equivalent to where a landscape leads: the blank horizon. From stoney escarpment and dense copse to lush meadow and glistening stream, the eye is drawn to the empty sky in the distance; an epiphany without manifestation. The urge to capture the experience can be seen in the incessant and forlorn posting of heavily filtered nature photographs.

In contrast, there is no visible horizon of the novel. The reader experiences the book by descending into a literary landscape: walking along a dirt path, sheltering in a dappled grove, paddling in a stream. The horizon is obscured. Poetry, which may be thought more tuneful, is elevated by being set to music – think of Blake's Jerusalem – while a novel turned into an opera has no bearing on the original. What's closer might be the Proustian epiphany in which time opens and collapses like a concertina, except, again, this is narrated like Anias' experience of telluric power. We might therefore assume that even closer is dreamlike, automatic writing taking precedence over conscious mastery, allowing the chance effects of music to occur. But this would seem to diminish the form, at best subordinate it to music and nature. Notice that the distance between Ulysses and Finnegans Wake is immeasurably greater than that between a Bach fugue and a Schoenberg piano piece. Yet what if you read novels to approach that horizon? Where is the horizon of narrative?

Perhaps merely asking these questions defines a particular experience of reading and indicates a fundamental disconnection with the prevailing mode of reading fiction, which focuses on the foreground and, if it is aware of something more, misplaces the horizon, like Bach admirers seeking the true Goldberg among all his variations. What's lacking from literary criticism is the expression and investigation of this experience and even though, for me, this must be its primary purpose. It's why Knausgaard's My Struggle is such a remarkable work. He is able to unite the banality of a life with the unaccountable experience of art. So perhaps indirection is the necessary future of the form, although, as Fluß ohne Ufer demonstrates, it has always been the form, waiting to be translated, a song waiting to be heard, a clearing waiting for daylight.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Extratemporal meditations: Proust as Philosopher: the art of metaphor by Miguel de Beistegui

We keep coming back and coming back
To the real: to the hotel instead of the hymns
That fall upon it out of the wind. *

Since its publication three years ago, David Shields' manifesto Reality Hunger has helped focus my thoughts on writing: why it still matters, why anyone should still read or write beyond daily utility. That is, the premise of the title and the author's brief commentary has helped rather than the pinched miscellany of the book's content. In fact, to renew that help I need go no further than the very first line, written by the compiler before he expresses his celebrated disillusionment with the routine gestures of contemporary fiction:  
Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art.
Let us pause before prose so rich in cliché and poor in soul.

At first I questioned the assumptions embedded in this line and then presented miscellaneous examples indicating that the hunger is not for reality as such and that Shields' disillusion is the dismal light shining through the twin cataracts of modernity – journalism and scientific positivism – both impermeable to deep history, philosophy, theology and art. Reality Hunger is thereby the literary correlate of New Atheism, a displacement of monotheism mitigated only by its failure to attract the heresiographers infecting the latter phenomenon (though this might be coming to an end).

It has to be said my efforts to resist outweigh anything a refutation might bring forth, no matter how fine the examples. They are untimely. Despite Reality Hunger comprising quotations and brief reflections that might have easily fallen into a Tumblr void, it commands influence precisely because it is a book. The form of a book, any book, transcends the sum of its contents by appealing to a coherent unity and the promised land of truth. The title is that unity. Corporate journalists found the premise congenial of course and the common reader was thereby tuned in to the buzz. A student correspondent of mine reported "energised" discussions on the library steps as his fellows passed the book around; after all, the food metaphor of writing's relation to the world is a tasty, bite-sized morsel.

This power to influence so many with what is effectively a literary gesture is intriguing because Reality Hunger relies on an apparent contradiction more or less identical to that of New Atheism. Implicit in both is a suppressed relation to its zone and manner of expression. In both, radical materialism is demanded from the immaterial space of mind and word, with expression demanding an a priori sufferance of the contradiction. For example, Shields pursues without irony the non-book in the one form that provides an aura of weight and promise to the demand (i.e. the Book). You may say this is a mere point of order perhaps, one casually set aside as one reads and thinks in pursuit of worldly answers to worldly concerns, and easily dismissed as a product of art-for-art's sake aestheticism or ignorant of recent theories of consciousness. Except the point remains because of how these responses are expressed; the light of consciousness does not illuminate itself.

What all this reveals is that the ancient objection to writing remains embedded in western literary culture. In the Phaedrus, Plato reports how Socrates compared written language to figurative painting, impersonal and with no guarantee of a living speaker.
The productions of painting look like living beings, but if you ask them a question they maintain a solemn silence. The same holds true of written words; you might suppose that they understand what they are saying, but if you ask them what they mean by anything they simply return the same answer over and over again.
Writing is thereby aligned to the uncanny authority of sacred places and objects. Both refer to an existence more original than themselves yet all the while pronouncing on the most pressing issues of everyday life, thereby posing problems for those promoting faith in reason and realism. The original has no presence. The premise of Reality Hunger merely echoes Socrates' anxiety about the silence of writing and, moreover, what provides Shields' solution is the same too – a physical guarantee. The cultural phenomenon we are witnessing is the laboured repetition of an attempt to reconcile our expectations with profound uncertainty.

From this the poem springs: that we live in a place
That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves. **
This is why I keep returning to Reality Hunger. Like any obsessive oppositional stance, it is too close for comfort. I share Shields' disillusionment with contemporary literary fiction, especially its ossification into a Booker-winning genre. The difference is that while Shields recommends that novels seek "deliberate unartiness" and include "raw material, seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered", I believe the only way to go is through literature, by becoming apparently more literary, to provoke perhaps even more anxiety, which is why the books I've written about in the last few years confront the remove of writing within the work itself, a risk invariably condemned by conservative critics as self-indulgent theorising.

So what we appear to have is competition between demands differing on mere matters of taste. However, I know my shudder over for the first line of Reality Hunger quoted above is more than a connoisseur's disdain for commonplace phrases and metaphors; sentences affect my experience of the world. Beginning of time, figure out, what the artist thinks – these are cold, shallow words evoking a cold, shallow world. And while this may seem unduly subjective and impressionistic, Socrates' objection to writing suggests a deeper reason, something fundamental to the impulse to read and write and the paradoxical gifts of the novel. What recommends itself then is an alternative model for the relation of writing to the world.

Miguel de Beistegui's book Proust as Philosopher offers just that. Set aside the dry title for now. It is an unfortunate consequence of the title of the French original, Jouissance de Proust. A literal translation – The Joy of Proust – conjures an image of a bearded man grappling sweatily with a curvaceous fountain pen, and those involved were right to reconsider the title. However, jouissance is key because for Proust's narrator the proper search is for a relation to reality that might enable essential knowledge and genuine happiness, even.

The book begins by outlining the fundamental problem of Marcel's life, which may seem familiar: a present of disappointment, frustration and suffering with a future of profundity and joy promised in the form of romantic love, great art and the natural world. When fulfilment appears imminent, disappointment, frustration and suffering remain, only in different forms: the object of his love provokes intense jealousy, what he understood as great art fails to lead him into the world of truth he had awaited so keenly, and the beautiful, fragrant hawthorn bushes he adores give him asthma attacks. Worse, when he wants to requite this condition by producing a work of "infinite philosophical meaning", everything he writes, whether richly imaginative or solidly realistic, dies on the page.

In Search of Lost Time takes its form in the revelation that a key reason for such a condition is that Marcel neglected to include the failure of infinite philosophical meaning as part of infinite philosophical meaning. Fantastic and realistic modes of creativity are both provisional, merely epiphenomenal, and always trumped by solitude and the external world. Once Marcel begins to explore and animate the space opened by experience and the expectations it refuses to fulfil then a different world begins to unfurl and, what's more, enables him to write something of infinite philosophical meaning. The exploration is embodied in the opening scene of the novel as Marcel wakes up and negotiates the boundary between dream and reality, much like Gregor Samsa in Metamorphosis. Waking to change then becomes a constant.

De Beistegui presents Marcel's discovery in philosophical terms: there is a lack at the heart of being – "an ontological deficiency" – that is original and fundamental to the structure of experience. The actual world escapes us because such distance is constitutive of human experience, with the real being "its very own self-absence". What Marcel experiences as hunger are the signals of what lies beyond this condition. The epiphanic moments we all know from the petite madeleine episode enable Marcel to realise his unhappiness is a form of inattention to these signals and impatience to grasp what they indicate. The signals correspond to a unity much like rhymes in a poem and the deficiency can be redeemed only by attention to rhymes across time and space. What made Marcel unhappy were the attempts to fill the lack by "a strategy of compensation"  – physical possession, genre craft or Dionysian indulgence – or by "recapturing or reproducing the 'thing' that's lacking" – reality, realism. Joy is possible only in searching for the enchanted experience of time's absence, as presented in the book we are reading, which takes time.

De Beistegui follows Maurice Blanchot in the uncontroversial claim that the main subject of In Search of Lost Time is the possibility of writing, but offers a less hazardous reason. While for Blanchot writing is situated in the lack and the novel's content is a translucent density penetrated very occasionally by rapturous singularities that make such density possible, for de Beistegui writing is a means of seeing reality differently. It "transfigures life, reversing it, not into its opposite but into its other or flip side":
Literature is the flip side of the side that coincides with reality, the wrong side or the inside of the real and the sign of another meaning of experience. Far from fleeing the real ... literature actually tracks it and weaves it, spinning and following its thread. The threads that make up its text or its fabric ... are the threads of the real itself, and its mission is to trace and disentangle them. In the process, literature lets itself be carried off to where the real flees its own self-presence. [Translated by Dorothée Katz and Simon Sparks)
From this we can see that to respond to the signals of the real requires a certain kind of writing, not one of lyric reverie or bureaucratic notation but precarious combinations of both. If the real is its own self-absence, it is not self-sufficient and thereby reliant on the literary project. This is why de Beistegui highlights the art of metaphor in Proust, with a wonderfully provocative rider: "Metaphor is not fancy or mistress of error and falsehood but the figure of the real in its self-transposition or transfiguration. The conversion of matter into spirit but only as an implicit dimension of matter itself".

It is a paradoxical situation, one that worries at habitual commonsense: life is elsewhere, or, in Marcel's terms: the only true paradise is a paradise lost. Marcel's life is pierced by signals that, enabled by metaphor, set off a chain of correspondences opening to a unified experience. However, if metaphor is "rooted in the very structure of experience and not simply a rhetorical trope" then the quality of that life resides in the quality of those metaphors, the quality of attention and the quality of writing. It makes literature all the more demanding. In Search of Lost Time is a kind of bildungsroman leading to the challenge of this discovery. Marcel shows that the true paradise relies less on formal memory than on chance recognition, those rapturous singularities. It is not a direct product of masterful agency and is therefore always on the brink of falling back into petrifying genres. It's why the novel does not follow the overt facts of Proust's life, and explains why he did not publish the 800-page Jean Santeuil and why one reader quoted in Reality Hunger insists Proust is "at base an essayist" and In Search of Lost Time is "not fiction". She is in the hotel but blocks her ears to the hymns.

If we recognise metaphor as the key to unlocking the temporal prison cell, we can then also appreciate why the central stories of In Search of Lost Time concern romantic love: Swann's pathetic obsession with Odette, Saint-Loup's for Rachel, and Marcel's own for Gilberte and Albertine. "The real significance of love" de Beistegui writes "is epistemological: it drives us to imagine what we're unable to know". But, as a character in John McGahern's Amongst Women says: "Nothing is so bad as having to imagine". Marcel first meets Albertine as part of a "little gang" of young women he watches from afar in the seaside town Balbec. In fact, it is the gang that attracts him; he wants to be amongst young women in flower. They exist for him like the summer landscape of beach, sea and sky: a  larger existence he cannot attain. Eventually Albertine becomes his lover but her other life – "the vague and non-existent universe" of her excursions with Andrée, another member of the little gang – provokes jealousy so much that she becomes the title of the fifth volume: The Captive

Some of the most rhapsodic passages in In Search of Lost Time are dedicated to Marcel's fascination with the distance at which Albertine holds herself, even when he has her within his four walls. It is here that Proust's unique blend of lyricism and intellectual reflection is especially powerful. They are also problematic for contemporary readers. De Beistegui highlights one in particular in which Marcel watches Albertine asleep:
Stretched out at full length upon my bed, in an attitude so natural that no art could have devised it, she reminded me of a long blossoming stem that had been laid there, and so in a sense she was: the faculty of dreaming, which I possessed only in her absence, I recovered at such moments in her presence, as though by falling asleep she had become a plant. In this way her sleep realised to a certain extent the possibility of love. Alone, I could think of her, but I missed her; I did not possess her. When she was present, I spoke to her, but I was too far absent from myself to be able to think. When she was asleep, I no longer needed to talk. I knew that I was no longer observed by her. I no longer needed to live on the surface of myself. 

By shutting her eyes, by losing consciousness, Albertine had stripped off, one after another, the different personalities with which she had deceived me ever since the day when I had first made her acquaintance. She had called back into herself everything that lay outside, had withdrawn, enclosed, reabsorbed herself into her body. In keeping it in front of my eyes, in my hands, I had an impression of possessing her entirely, which I never had when she was awake. Her life was subjected to me, exhaled towards me its gentle breath. I listened to this murmuring, mysterious emanation, soft as a sea breeze, magical as a gleam of moonlight. ... What I felt then was a love as pure, as immaterial, as mysterious as if I had been in the presence of those inanimate creatures that are the beauties of nature. And indeed, as soon as her sleep became at all deep, she ceased to be merely the plant that she had been. Her sleep ... was to me a whole landscape. [Trans. Scott Moncrieff]
Recently Anne Carson had fun at Marcel's expense, with the audience appreciative of the comedy of Marcel's apparently sexist solipsism, treating Albertine as an object of play in his fantasy. But we can see in this passage how Albertine changes from plant to breeze, from moonlight to landscape, and how then she is like everyone, separate, herself, and yet part of a larger universe. Encountering her escape is as important for Marcel as anything else. For him, the possibility of love appears in the revelation of the correspondences her deep self exhibits:
Albertine's complete throughout all her metamorphoses; she's a bird, a plant, a landscape, she's Odette, Andrée, Marcel, all of them at once and even simultaneously, while we can never say what she truly is, essentially. Like the world in general she's always in a state of becoming, a composition of matter that connects with others and, doing so, becomes something else entirely.
This is what de Beistegui means by "the conversion of matter into spirit but only as an implicit dimension of matter itself". The real is always revealed in something else with no need to privilege one over the other and no need to rage for one order or the other. In this sense, the transcendent is immanent to our own lives, so much as we can write, and write well.

I'm aware that De Beistegui's ontology and theory of metaphor have their own genealogy in European thought, for example Gilles Deleuze – another philosopher who wrote on Proust – and Hans Blumenberg. But this is a review not a patent office and I shall leave tracking those threads to others. Reading Proust as Philosopher reminded me of the personal value of critical analysis of single works, how it can crack open the carapace of a classic work of art without bleeding it dry: adding rather than cancelling. It stands alongside last year's translation of Quentin Meillassoux's The Number and the Siren as a work that corresponds to what is apparently most untimely.

* Wallace Stevens, from part IX of An Ordinary Evening in New Haven
from part IV of Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction


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