This Space

  • Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)
  • "Perhaps the best resource in English on European modernist literature" – Irish Times
  • "the shameful lowlands of writing" – Kafka
  • Also available in book form

Monday, February 05, 2018

"The pure, ungraspable fire": JM Coetzee's Jesus novels

Elizabeth Lowry's skilled review tells you all you need to know about JM Coetzee's The Schooldays of Jesus, more or less. It recognises that the "mysterious Spanish-speaking country, this place of refugee souls" in which the two protagonists make their new lives "stands for our embodied earthly life", and that their new home city Novilla is also "the genre in which the characters find themselves, the novel itself". It's why the novel is not very enjoyable, she says; a flimsy metafictional construct allowing Coetzee to indulge in Platonic dialogues as unappealing as the bread and bean paste eaten by Novilla's inhabitants.
On the evidence of this austere, barely realised mise-en-scène, it is difficult not to feel that Coetzee, like Plato, is no longer much interested in the accidents of our quotidian human world, the shadows on the cave wall. He is after essence alone, the pure, ungraspable fire.
Having now read both this novel and The Childhood of Jesus, I share Lowry's judgment, though not as a criticism. While not being a major enthusiast for his work, I have often defended Coetzee from the reviewing consensus on his post-Disgrace novels (which, it should be emphasised, is essentially a British consensus). Except those novels are still clearly of this world, engaging with the meat industry, autobiography and relationship triangles, so the criticism seemed churlish. In both of these novels, however, defence is not so easy, as one proceeds as if over a desert gradually populating with generic CGI figures and buildings, familiar in many ways and yet obviously a construct; a science fiction landscape denuded of that genre's imaginative twists and flourishes. And because the story is thereby infected by an air of arbitrary invention, the drama becomes not one of action and consequence but overall meaning or purpose. Even if we enjoy the story on face value, which I did, the shadow of allusion projected by the titles remains, leaving one in the semi-dark. We are used to fiction being justified despite its indulgences because it can tell us what life is like "in the era of Trump" but, when the title of a novel about imaginary refugees in an imaginary dry land alludes to the founding figure of the civilisation of the book, it can only generate anxiety about clues to a hidden message.

So the crossword puzzler goes to town. There's Jesus in the titles, of course, and there's an ethereal woman whose surname is Magdalena; there's a character called Dmitri straight out of Dostoevsky and there's Davíd reading Don Quixote, so some vowels and consonants are already in place. However, as Jack Miles points out, there is also in Simón and Davíd's undocumented previous lives the allusion to the Myth of Er referred to in Plato's Republic in which after death "souls are reincarnated only after crossing Lethe, the River of Oblivion", so the allusions might be only the distant splashing of that river; alluding to a tradition, yes, but also the void over which that tradition stands. After all, they too are only books. Don Quixote, for instance, is known as a satire of idealism that plays on the reader's forgetfulness that the novel is the very work and presence of the ideal. In order to laugh knowingly at the knight-errant's delusions, we must delude ourselves in the same way, which is why John Barth claims it is not only the first novel but the first postmodern novel, itself evidence that the history of the novel should be regarded vertically rather than horizontally.

As Lowry pointed out, while enchantment is absent in the novels, idealism is where they're set, summarised by Joyce Carol Oates as a "quasi-socialist state in which conformity, mediocrity and anonymity are both the norm and the highest values". It is a utopia divested of the idea of another world. However, such a world is suggested when Simón reads Don Quixote to Davíd. The boy becomes upset when he does not receive clear answers to his questions about what the story leaves out, so like a wilful, childish knight-errant he makes up nonsense phrases for himself claiming they're part of the story, before tearing through the pages and not reading the words. Simón's patience is tested:
'Why are you handling the book so roughly?’
‘Because. Because if I don’t hurry a hole will open.’
‘Open up where?’
‘Between the pages.’
‘That’s nonsense. There is no such thing as a hole between the pages.’
‘There is a hole. It’s inside the page. You don’t see it because you don’t see anything.’
Such is the lure of the written word, and it prompts the question: do we turn to novels because of an urge to descend into these holes, to access the other side of the river; that is, unable as we are to accept the world as it is, to seek a land without metaphor? If so, realism is the inverted gospel of this ideal, and the post-Disgrace reviewing consensus its choir, represented in the novels by Simón's determined acceptance of the world as it is. The Jesus novels test its patience in particular not because they are too reliant on fantasy or conceptual indulgences, but because they are too realistic, if realism means including questions about its own existence and value. They present the world in a realism as pure as a dream. Everything in a dream is present for a reason, only that reason is unclear, cloaked in the darkness of sleep, and we become aware of the darkness only when we awake. The child Davíd is thereby the awoken insurgent in such a land, as Jesus was in his, and writing in ours.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Smothered Words by Sarah Kofman

Sarah Kofman wrote nearly thirty books between 1970 and her suicide in 1994. The majority have not been translated into English and those that have are expensive, but with titles on Kant, Nietzsche and Freud, you can appreciate their range and seriousness. Derrida and Levinas admired her work so much they joined a campaign to get her the academic recognition she had been denied. However, I want to draw attention to one short book from late in her career.  

Parole Suffoquées was published in 1987 and translated by Madeleine Dobie as Smothered Words, an edition of less than 70 pages comprising commentaries on a short story by Maurice Blanchot and Robert Antelme's The Human Race, an account of his deportation to a Nazi work camp. But that description is not enough if it suggests another scholarly monograph, as the title alludes to the great tragedy of her life. She was a small child when her father, the rabbi Berek Kofman, was arrested by the Nazis and deported to Auschwitz, where he was beaten and buried alive for refusing to work on the Sabbath, a fact that until the opening pages of Smothered Words had remained unspoken throughout her life as a writer: "How can it not be said? And how can it be said? How can one speak of that before which all possibility of speech ceases?"

If the fact is now in the open, the trauma is spoken in response to other texts, interpersing commentary with quotation to such a degree that a single voice becomes a chorus. The other writers enable speech. Smothered Words begins by stating that if one is to adopt Adorno's injunction "to arrange one's thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, so that nothing similar will happen" then:
it behooves me, as a Jewish woman intellectual who has survived the holocaust, to pay homage to Blanchot for the fragments on Auschwitz scattered throughout his texts: writing of the ashes, writing of the disaster which avoids the trap of complicity with speculative knowledge, with that in it which is tied to power, and thereby complicit with the torturers of Auschwitz.
(A passage that ought to be noted by those who accuse Blanchot of anti-semitism.) Given her record of publications, one would expect a more formal, scholarly approach, keeping any personal stake out of the study, but Kofman recognises such speech is compromised and it is Blanchot's example that enabled her to speak of "this event, my absolute", and so mitigate any mastery:
To speak: it is necessary without (the) power [sans pouvoir]: without allowing language, too powerful, sovereign, to master the most aporetic situation, absolute powerlessness and very distress, to enclose it in the clarity and happiness of daylight.
Kofman uses Blanchot's 's 1935 story The Idyll as an example of how writing exercises such mastery. It is the story of a stranger entering 'the Home', a community in which differences between individuals are smoothed out or erased, and in which processes occur that prefigure the camps: welcoming the newcomer by sending him to communal showers, giving him a new name (if not a number) and directing him to a shed where other men live. Kofman discusses the story alongside quotations from Blanchot's postwar reflections on the story to emphasise the idyllic nature of fiction even as it describes terrible things. Storytelling basks in "the 'glory' of the narrative voice 'that speaks clearly, without ever being obscured by the opacity or the enigma or the terrible horror of what it communicates' – not even by death". This is why Blanchot removed the label 'story' from his postwar narratives, famously ending The Madness of the Day with "A story? No. No stories, never again".

Robert Antelme's account of his time in the Gandersheim work camp had to confront this issue. After being rescued by his friend François Mitterand, he experienced what other survivors experienced: "No sooner would we begin to tell our story than we would be choking over it." And so Kofman asks "How can testimony escape the idyllic law of the story?" Her answer goes directly to her father's act of prayer, which was:
the revelation of the word as the place in which men maintain a relation to that which excludes all relation: the infinitely Distant, the absolutely Foreign. A relation with the infinite, which no form of power, including that of the executioners of the camps, has been able to master, other than by denying it, burying it in a pit with a shovel, without ever having encountered it.
A prayer reestablishes "in this situation of extreme powerlessness and violence, a relation beyond all power", offering resistance to the ethic of productivity at the heart of western culture, which Blanchot claimed had reached its apogee in the production of death in the camps. We have only to read something as routine as Tim Lott's recent demand that novelists tell stories to recognise how deeply this ethic is still embedded in our culture. If Antelme's book is not quite a prayer, it is an extremely patient and remarkably self-effacing description of a system of power that worked and starved campmates to death but could never destroy their membership of the human race, that which unified them with their oppressors. Kofman says it is because no community was possible with the SS that there was also the strongest community, the community (of those) without community:
It is not founded on any specific difference or on a shared essence – reason – but on a shared power to choose, to make incompatible though correlative choices, the power to kill and the power to respect and safeguard the incommensurable distance, the relation without relation.
The Nazis justified their attempt to create an idyllic community by, among other things, appealing to Nietzsche's necessarily ambiguous aphorism "Man is the yet undetermined animal". Kofman says Antelme's response would emphasise that ambiguity with a yes and no: "No, if we must take this to mean that a transformation of the species is possible; yes, if this aphorism signifies that in man there is a multiplicity of powers, none of which is ever sure to triumph." She ends the book by emphasising that this is a new humanism, one based on "the infinitely Distant, the absolutely Foreign".

Writing Smothered Words did apparently determine something in Sarah Kofman. As Madeleine Dobie explains in her superb introduction to her translation, after it was completed "she was no long able to write in the language of mastery". Later, as this website reports, she "became unable to do the things she loved most dearly—reading, writing, listening to music, watching films and looking at works of art". Unfortunately, as far as I know, only one of her remaining books has been translated into English, so I cannot say what form they take. The one book, Rue Ordener, Rue Labat is a "plain and unadorned" memoir of her childhood and teenage years, moving from the house in one street from where her father was arrested and to another where she became torn between her mother and a Christian woman who had taken them in. The first page suggests that all reflection and analysis, if not writing, had come to an end, and why.

I have often wanted to write something about Smothered Words, not because of its subject matter – which at best I feared had attracted me because of the common assumption that extreme experience is a guarantee of value or, at worst, as some kind of Schadenfreude – but because of how the subject matter affected its writing. I wanted to write about the book because it is written in the voice of a person subject to her own experience. As one embedded in academic methods, this was especially intriguing. While the seamless inclusion of quotations has been mentioned, Dobie notes that "a significant number" of these in the French text are erroneous, suggesting it had been written with some urgency, as if the Scotch tape patching up her pen was starting to disintegrate. A notable example is on the very last page where the quotation "after Auschwitz there is no word tinged from on high...that has any right unless it has undergone a transformation" is attributed to Antelme rather than Adorno. I half-wish the errors had been repeated in the translation, as this is as would maintain and perhaps further the movement away from mastery, and may even reveal more. Blanchot is known for quoting from memory and not caring to amend where it is mistaken.

Kofman's mastery of scholarly writing and its transformation in Smothered Words is a profound example of what I sense is necessary on our own very mundane level. I have always been aware that my writings on this blog were written under the light of one subject or experience filtered through the prism of books, becoming present to me only in the colours emerging in this way. The epigraph to the very first essay I posted online makes this clear with its qualification that the revelation is also its own eclipse. Much of my disappointment and frustration with reviewing and critical writing has come from when I stray from this light in favour of engagement with a literary culture that is preoccupied with consumer evaluations and magisterial labelling rather than more fundamental questions about the presence of writing in our lives. So I present this post as a recommendation, both of Sarah Kofman's work and the direction it offers to those seeking to eclipse their own light.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Kingdoms of recurrence: To Duration by Peter Handke

"I’ve tried to read Karl Ove Knausgaard. But it is impossible… My Struggle lacks air. Literature needs a little air.Peter Handke
"In his fiction [David Grossman] has always been a serious writer, a dealer in big themes – too serious for my taste, I find his books lack air.Gabriel Josipovici

I read these two statements within a week of each other and have to ask: what is air? A falsely innocent question of course, as both comments surely wish only for relief from the weight of the world pressing on the words, which is after all what storytelling offers – the "all-appeasing And then..." as Handke has described it elsewhere.

But what if air is something apart from that familiar alibi of escapism from too-serious life? If the fiction of who made the statements is any guide, air is a quality of lightness in relation to big themes rather than a retreat from them. It fills the high meadows of Repetition, in part about a brother lost in war, and In a Hotel Garden, in part about the legacy of the Holocaust. So perhaps it is also a matter of literary style, that which provides the aesthetic pleasure some claim is key to the reading experience of literary fiction so-called. Yet contrary to Handke, I think the first two volumes of My Struggle also have air, if the ghostly presence of the numinous over a dense narrative is air.

Lightness, style, the numinous – air could be all three.

Two editions of Repetition published by The Last Books (2013) and Minerva (1989)

For Filip Kobal, air is something else again. At the beginning of his journey into Slovenia on the trail of his long-lost brother, he is drawn to a 'blind window', a bricked-up, set-in part of a station wall:
The significance of the blind window remained undefined, but suddenly that window became a sign, and in that same moment I decided to turn back. My turning back—and here again the sign was at work—was not definitive; it applied only to the hours until the following morning, when I would really start out, really begin my journey, with successive blind windows as my objects of research, my traveling companions, my signposts. And when later, on the evening of the following day, at the station restaurant in Jesenice, I thought about the shimmering of the blind window, it still imparted a clear message—to me it meant: “Friend, you have time.”
What sets this apart from escapism is that the discovery arrives not as the regular epiphenomenon of narrative but inherent to it, and as part of a novel it becomes something more than the report of a private epiphany because of the patience taken by the reader to get there. By performing a similar act of attention on a similar journey, the reader receives the same message, breathes some air. Reader, you have time. The blind window has become the book.

In another of Handke's works closely related to Repetition, the truest definition of air is sought head on. We have had to wait for it however. Die Wiederholung was published in 1986 and Ralph Manheim's translation two years later. In the same year Handke published Gedicht an die Dauer but that has had to wait 27 years to appear in Scott Abbott's translation To Duration. It's been worth the wait.

An example follows on the next page. On the way to the post office Handke hears two voices: one calling his name across a crowded square, which is when he realises he has left the manuscript of Die Wiederholung on a market stand, and another from a quarter of a century before in another city. Duration has this uncanny quality, akin to Proust's loops in time revealed in otherwise banal situations. He writes that he has experienced duration "as a traveller, as a dreamer, as a listener, at play, as observer" but, as Marcel discovered too, it cannot be relied on. When he tries to approach the essence of duration, only individual words come to mind: "spring, snowfall, sparrows, waybread, dawning, dusk, bandage, harmony." Duration is the presence of "the less conspicuous, the more poignant" and is why Handke is writing a poem and not a treatise.

Once the subject and its uncertain context is set, the poem describes places and emotions that require less conspicuous and more poignant details to approach the essence of duration, details that might otherwise be swamped by the grand events of headline-grabbing novels or drained by the abstractions of Philosophy. Briefly ashore on boat trip around the coast of Turkey, Handke and his friends hike to a cove and forage for food to accompany a lobster back on the boat.
At the cove stood an almond tree,
its shells half open like sky-mussels.
I climbed up and shook the branches,
on the ground below
a patter and drumming
that even today,
back in the cold continental air,
resounds in my ears.
They pick grapes, figs and pomegranates, and go swimming in the wine-coloured sea. While this appears to be the blissful escapism we assume is key to duration, for Handke it is "darkened by an uneasiness, by a melancholy, by a pain" that turned him to stone, feeling he had no right to the experience. He was "a living spirit only...while working, in the usual nook, bent over the words". It was only on returning to his unkempt garden at home "with grey seed head shooting up from the grass" that he felt duration and recognised "ecstasy is always too much".

Duration is then "the adventure of the mundane" often so fleeting that it's "not worth talking about", which would explain why 'air' is cited yet never defined and regularly conflated with escapism. For Handke, however, it is worth "holding on to through writing", and this must be his task; "It must be my true love":
And I must,
if the moments of duration are to spring
   from me
and give my stiff face a form
and insert a heart into my empty breast,
practise, year in and year out,
my love.
Such dedication he says makes writing worthwhile, when it might otherwise be dismissed as indulgence when not feeding the organs of reportage. To Duration thereby also embodies duration and provides the possibility of duration to the reader. And this is where the specific genre of writing about duration becomes significant, why 'air' in a work of literature depends on genre, hence 'Gedicht' in the German title.

Rear covers of Repetition and To Duration

The concept of duration is of course associated with the philosophy of Henri Bergson, and Handke acknowledges this with an epigraph from Introduction to Metaphysics that claims our intuition of duration requires many different images, presumably those embedded in the poem. This relates to Bergson's complaint that the terms we use to designate time are borrowed from those we use for space, so the means of our understanding of duration is what masks duration; it "refuses to consider transition," seeking instead the singular and unmoving. Philosophers have assumed it necessary to move out of time in order to go beyond human intelligence, but, Bergson argues, we are already outside of time and therefore must "get back into duration and recapture reality in the very mobility which is its essence".

Our highly scientific mindset notices key words here such as essence and metaphysics and suspects a superstitious, perhaps even religious tendency on the horizon, with literary critics concurring in suspicion to question the distinctly unexperimental prose nature of Handke's poem, which might have otherwise provided it with an alibi, even if it can be read with some rigour alongside Bergson's philosophy and gained thereby some academic Brownie points. Bergson, however, argues that science itself is metaphysical in its origin and became scientific as we know it only as it demanded expression in static terms: "In short, pure change, real duration, is a thing spiritual or impregnated with spirituality". Metaphysics-as-science claimed to go beyond experience, but:
what it did in reality was merely to take a full and mobile experience, lending itself to a probing ever-deepening and as a result pregnant with revelations—and to substitute for it a fixed extract, desiccated and empty, a system of abstract general ideas, drawn from that very experience or rather from its most superficial strata. One might as well discourse on the subject of the cocoon from which the butterfly is to emerge, and claim that the fluttering, changing, living butterfly finds its raison d’être and fulfillment in the immutability of its shell. On the contrary, let us unfasten the cocoon, awaken the chrysalis; let us restore to movement its mobility, to change its fluidity, to time its duration.        [Translated by Mabelle L. Andison]
It is clear from this why literature's cultural stock has fallen in recent decades while the multi-coloured shell of popular science and so-called reality hunger has risen. We have been conditioned to doubt the value of novels and poetry, with air-as-escapism filling the atmosphere, suggesting the value they retain is the brief but happy absence from full and mobile experience, which is after all provided in more accessible and concentrated form by Hollywood blockbusters. Against this tendency WG Sebald, in a remarkable essay from 1995, substantiates Handke's resistance to this devaluation:
In Repetition, Handke allows the peculiar light which illuminates the space under a leafy canopy or a tent canvas to glisten between words, placed here with astounding caution and precision; in doing so, he succeeds in making the text into a sort of refuge amid the arid lands which, even in the culture industry, grow larger day by day .
I have read Repetition several times since the hardback was published in 1988, the second or third year of my reading life, and still retain the afterglow of what I would call the magical light its prose evoked to me at that time, which might explain why I value it as others do their books of childhood. This has often confused me because at first glance it is no different to any other first-person Bildungsroman and does not have the overt stylistic quirks of classical modernism to distance it from so-called literary fiction – nothing experimental here. Sebald offers an explanation, which aligns the novel to Bergson:
In every case, the metaphysic developed in Handke’s newer books, which aims to translate the seen and perceived into language, remains undiscussed. There is obviously no longer a contemporary discourse in which metaphysics may claim a place. And yet art, wherever and whenever it may take place, bears the closest ties to the realm of metaphysics. In order to explore this proximity, the writer requires a courage which should not be underestimated.
It is only since reading To Duration all these years later that I am able to recognise that what makes Repetition distinct is its acknowledgement of the necessary movement of reflexivity within reading and writing. The present of writing and the past of life come together as and in duration, as the great opening line attests, containing as it does almost the entire novel to come: "A quarter of a century, or a day, has passed since I arrived in Jesenice on the trail of my missing brother." The qualification is pure air.

It is the novel as novel and poem as poem, kingdoms of recurrence, that enable this, something a theory or a treatise can never achieve. As he practises, bent over the words:
Staying at the task,
the one dear to me, the chief one,
impeding, thus, its obsolescence,
I feel then, perhaps,
the shudder of duration,
incidentally each time,
while cautiously shutting a door,
while carefully peeling an apple,
while crossing a threshold attentively,
while bending down for a thread.
Note that these events of duration go against that cardinal rule of creative writing: show don't tell. The work is instead showing itself, as Repetition shows itself, as a veiled metafiction, a commentary on its own genesis, production and effects, which places it in a sequence with Proust's novel. For Filip Kobal, writing is the means to not only recover the past but to gain a future. 
What I had experienced at the age of twenty was not yet a memory. And memory meant not that what-had-been recurred but that what-had-been situated itself by recurring. If I remembered, I knew that an experience was thus and so, exactly thus; in being remembered, it first became known to me, nameable, voiced, speakable; accordingly, I look on memory as more than a haphazard thinking back—as work; the work of memory situates experience in a sequence that keeps it alive, a story which can open out into free storytelling, greater life, invention.
For the reader, the book is a necessary part of that greater life.

Note: both Repetition and To Duration are available from The Last Books, whose website contains a translation of Sebald's essay as well as a few other Handke-related gems.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Time and the unthinkable

A review of Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Ingvild Burkey

Karl Ove Knausgaard stands in front of a 14th century Swedish castle speaking to a film crew from Melvyn Bragg's South Bank Show. "I don't understand what time is," he says. "Place I can relate to. We are here now and the castle's there now. But I don't understand what it is that someone was there 700 years ago". There is a pause before the camera pans over the castle walls, as if performing a token search for long-dead Swedes. It's an oddly innocent moment in what is otherwise a predictable portrait of a successful author, in which mastery and control of a subject is invariably a given. Other documentaries confronted by such a moment might have rushed to interview physicists and cosmologists and then illustrated their theories with colourful animations and lens flare. Here, there is only innocent utterance.

Knausgaard's new book is this utterance developed over book length. Framed as collection of short essays on diverse subjects written for an unborn daughter, they are suffused by an innocence for time and for when time is apparently in abeyance, as in this hesitation before birth. Knausgaard describes digging a hole in waterlogged ground and seeing a plastic bag "Swollen with water, handles up [hanging] a few feet down in the water" and how, in that moment, he sensed the inexhaustible, something transcending its ephemeral appearance, then adding the date of the sighting, as if to bring it into human time. He senses it in early photography when exposure times meant the human form left no trace and only unmoving objects could be captured on film, so a practice that at first appears to be a straightfoward representation of the human realm reveals a world outside of it altogether. When exposure times improved, people became visible and this uncanny experience disappeared. Knausgaard says he thinks the first human to appear in a photograph is actually the devil because his permanence allowed him to be seen. This wonderfully perverse suggestion is reminiscent of the small boy in My Struggle who sees a face in the sea and the son in A Time to Every Purpose Under Heaven who understands that seagulls are devolved angels. It reemphasises how Knausgaard is a writer deeply affected by the disenchantment of the world and willing to resist the recourse to the rational in order to bring attention to what has been submerged by modernity.

It needs to be said again: the features of Knausgaard's writing that have led to his public success and drew Melvyn Bragg to interview him are only a superficial byproducts of its true subject. When the Norwegian stands before the countryside in the deep south of Sweden telling of how that, as soon as he arrived, he felt at home, it has nothing to do with a personal soap opera and everything to do with the absence the landscape evokes, which, again, is due to time: "everything I see is more or less the same as it must have been in the nineteenth century. Churches, villages, far-flung fields, great leafy trees, the sky, the sea. And yet everything is different". The landscape provokes a powerful nostalgia because "utopia is vanished from our time" and a longing for it can only project backwards onto the past. The churches, he says, are "feats of spiritual engineering" representing "another level of reality" which stood "open to the future, when the kingdom of heaven would be established on earth". If such a feeling suggests a conservative mindset, perhaps one wishing for the reimposition of more hierarchial relationships, his perversity reappears to disarm:
That no one seeks the divine level of reality any more and that the churches stand empty means that it is no longer necessary. That it is no longer necessary means the kingdom of heaven has come. There is nothing left to long for other than longing itself, of which the empty churches I can see from here have become the symbol.
It's a perplexing statement, as if utopia is at best a wilderness, at worst a waste land. But it is also a statement necessary to the form it takes, for if churches are symbols of what has departed, then so too is writing. If the divine is the inexhaustible and the foundation of language, writing can no longer reach for it without departing from common sense and, as a result, appearing quaintly absurd. The inexhaustible might appear in the world, materialising in moments like that of the plastic bag, but the neat opposition of science and superstition means there is nowhere for it to pass into common discourse. In recent years we have seen how the preciously affected language and sentimentality of 'nature writing' has directed what Knausgaard diagnoses as nostalgia for utopia or the divine into popular history and vicarious travel, thereby giving good reason why Knausgaard's writing is generally misconstrued. What he writes toward is almost unthinkable.

The majority of essays are structured to lead a young spirit to think in the open. 'Frames' follows the pattern: an everyday item is described as simply as possible – we all know what frames are but Knausgaard tells us anyway – whose effect is then applied in a more general sense – frames categorise what we can see – before it becomes a metaphor for human striving: the search for authenticity and truth is the wish for "a life, an existence, a world unframed". Potential gifts of the process are also noted: Knausgaard observes that all the chemicals necessary for photography were available in medieval times but the thought of photography was unthinkable and it was only "the slow turn of thought toward the material world" that enabled the discovery. Therefore, if we open ourselves to unframed modes of thinking, perhaps something other than what is expected might emerge. So while at first it is understandable that English reviewers have dismissed Autumn with such knee-jerk language as "the most colossal load of old cobblers" and "brain farts", it does suggest Knausgaard's consciously naive approach is necessary to combat rote thinking. But perhaps we no longer have the strength to let them come to us in their innocence.

It's notable that in the latter of the English reviews, the essays are criticised for being "rough sketches by a man who doesn’t know how to draw" while throughout the value of such knowledge is challenged, and challenged explicitly in an essay on Van Gogh's struggle to commit his life to anything in particular. Painting did not come easily to him; he wasn't a natural and his early paintings lack technique. But Knausgaard says the lightness in his landscapes "resembles nothing else" and comes not from finally acquiring painterly technique but from relinquishing it, adopting instead "a carelessness that allows the world to appear unfettered by how we happen to have conceived of it". He argues that only by committing himself to death does Van Gogh find the conditions to live and to paint as only Van Gogh could paint, with each work dependent "on the look he casts...really being his very last".

Such a commitment could explain why Knausgaard often specifies a date for an experience, as it thereby depends on what happened or what was felt in a human life, resisting a turn toward sterile abstraction. It also points to the influence of Peter Handke, especially in his prose collection Once Again for Thucydides, in which each transcription of an observation is given a precise date and location, and to the long poem To Duration in which "the most fleeting of all feelings" is sought in concrete experience. It is an influence that has, as far as I'm aware, gone unrecognised in the English reviews, despite Knausgaard's stated regard for the author. Given time, both books should become better known.

Friday, August 25, 2017

The walled and the book

What draws me back to Thomas Bernhard's novels is the wish to appreciate again how each is set in motion. The Loser begins like this.
Even Glenn Gould, our friend and the most important piano virtuoso of the century, only made it to the age of fifty-one, I thought to myself as I entered the inn.
Now of course he didn't kill himself like Wertheimer, but died, as they say, a natural death.  [Translated by Jack Dawson]
There is the familiar subject matter of early death pressing on the narrator, which is compelling in a regular way and enough to distract one from the form, but the pressure is there too in the in medias res pulse of "Even", an unusual word with which to begin a novel ("Auch" begins the original, in case you're wondering), which gives a sense of urgency or desperation to the narration, but then there's the displacement of its immediacy in "I thought to myself" and the sarcastic italics around the cliché. It's an odd combination: dark thoughts and qualifying pedantry. In 1974, Gabriel Josipovici recognised the same dynamic in another author: "When we think of Saul Bellow's work, we think of a certain tone of voice, a tone of voice that combines the utmost formality with the utmost desperation." This is also what draws me back to Saul Bellow's novels.

Formality and desperation together – this is what I am drawn too. One alone might lead to muso chin-stroking over craftmanship, and the other alone might lead to down-to-earth endorsements for a tour de force of expressive brillance, but when alone neither is quite able to acknowledge their limits: one coats suffering in layers of well-wrought sentences while the other masks literary artifice by turning it up full blast with extremes of language or subject matter. By combining the two, one shows up the weakness of the other, as one end of a see-saw shows up the lightness and the heaviness of the other. In beginning The Loser like that, Bernhard sets the see-saw in motion, something that is both light and heavy, comic and terrible, and impossible to pin down. For me at least, reading like this becomes as fun as riding a see-saw. But not only fun.

George Shaw: Scenes from the Passion: Wednesday Week

The combination of formality and desperation also drew me to this painting, especially as it captures the experience of a provincial working-class English childhood: the straight lines, the brick patterning, the muted colours, the limited horizons. The title is said to provide "echoes of the melodrama and self-importance often characteristic of the adolescent" but it also echoes the latent holiness in Winter Landscape with Church by Caspar David Friedrich and, in terms of experience, Trees and Bushes in the Snow.

Trees and Bushes in the Snow (1828)

As Joseph Koerner puts it:
You do not stand before a ‘landscape’ since the thicket blocks any wider prospect of its setting; nor do the snow and alders, pushed up against the picture plane, quite constitute the monumentality of a 'scene’, for they provide no habitat for an event.
Looking back, it doesn't seem to be a coincidence that, when I visited the Kunsthalle Bremen, the only postcard I came out with was one of Friedrich's Das Friedhofstor. Could formality be the echo of enchantment and desperation the wall?

The question lurking behind these attractions and choices is not one of enchantment but: how does one overcome the wall? But perhaps this question is misleading. When discussing his early frustrations with writing, the author who described Saul Bellow's tone of voice talks about what he learned from certain authors:
Proust had given me the confidence to fail, had driven home to me the lesson that if you come up against a brick wall perhaps the way forward is to incorporate the wall and your effort to scale it into the work. I had read Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras, and been excited by the way they reinvented the form of the novel to suit their purposes – everything is possible, they seemed to say. But when you start to write all that falls away. You are alone with the page and your violent urges, urges, which no amount of reading will teach you how to channel. ‘Zey srew me in ze vater and I had to svim,’ as Schoenberg is reported to have said. That is why I so hate creative writing courses – they teach you how to avoid brick walls, but I think hitting them allows you to discover what you and only you want to/can/must say.
What draws me back to Bernhard is to appreciate his discovery and how he incorporated the brick wall. Re-reading his first novel seems to have helped with that. Frost was published in 1963 but was the last to be translated into English. This might be because it isn't quite like those that define his style and certainly not as economic. It is the narrative of a medical student visiting the ageing painter Strauch who has lived for many years in an Austrian mining town. The student's task is to report back to the Strauch's estranged brother, and the novel takes the form of a diary of his encounters with Strauch, who is prone to monologues. The book is divided into twenty-six chapters representing twenty-six days. Compare the following paragraph from the day seven with the one from The Loser.

from Frost, translated by Michael Hofmann

Bernhard has always displaced the dominant character's voice in a novel – Prince Saurau who appeared four years later in Gargoyles is the most memorable. Yet even when the dominant character is the narrator, as it tends to be in his later novels, it too is displaced, either in time, as in the "I thought to myself as I entered the inn", or in writing, as in the "writes Atzbacher" in the first line of Old Masters. But earlier works like Frost and Gargoyles are relatively routine in terms of style and are distinguished mainly for the eloquence of their expression of existential despair. Strauch describes paranoid hallucinations and the student is reporting back; nothing unusual here. Seven years after Frost, however, in a film also divided into days, Bernhard more or less repeats Strauch's experience as his own, which offers an insight into the shift in style.

On day two, he says he prefers to be alone.

from 3 Days, translated by Laura Lindgren
For Strauch the wall held Technicolor horrors from which he turned away, and perhaps they were for Bernhard himself and this is a displaced expression of that. For the slightly older writer, however, the horrors became a source. Wall and page are 'perfectly alike', so his books are made of walls, not their overcoming. There is no wider prospect because a singular voice blocks the reading plane. Here's the dominating voice of Old Masters, the music critic Reger, who spends his days studying each painting in the Kunsthistoriches Museum just as Bernhard studied each wall in his house.
In all these pictures, if we study them intensively, we sooner or later discover an awkwardness, or indeed, even in the very greatest and the most important creations, a flaw, if we are uncompromising a serious flaw which gradually makes us dislike these pictures, probably because we pitched our expectations too high, Reger said. Art altogether is nothing but a survival skill, we should never lose sight of this fact, it is, time and again, just an attempt — an attempt that seems touching even to our intellect — to cope with this world and its revolting aspects, which, as we know, is invariably possible only by resorting to lies and falsehoods, to hypocrisy and self-deception, Reger said.      [Translated by Ewald Osers]
George Steiner felt that Bernhard lapsed into a 'monotone of hate' in his later work, which is understandable given how close Bernhard gets to the wall here, and also given Steiner's highly pitched regard for what is a necessary part of that proximity. But while Reger's critical mania is easily conflated with Bernhard's own, it too is placed at a distance, with Reger's opinions noted down by his friend Atzbacher and orchestrated by Bernhard, and therefore contained within what could be included among "the very greatest and the most important creations" that Reger treats with such suspicion. Such displacements might be considered a serious flaw in a modern novel, as they evade positivist claims about the world and decline to tell convincing, realistic stories to reflect the world back to us, or conversely they might be celebrated by those who see only a pass-the-parcel game of attribution. But what we have is walls in motion, something as fun as riding a see-saw. But not only fun.


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

Blog Archive


Contact steve dot mitchelmore at Powered by Blogger.