This Space

Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Monday, June 29, 2015

Both together: Migrations by Gabriel Josipovici

The main reason I still write this blog is to maintain a contact with the need or condition that drove me to read and write in the first place; a need often misdirected in pursuit of what the industry is talking about. Long silences here report stout resistance to the temptations of disinterested reception. But what is this need? Only chance can reveal it, as a fall might graze a knee. So one night at 10pm I happened to be looking for the availability of another book when I noticed a bookseller had priced Gabriel Josipovici's 1977 novel Migrations at £90. My copy is in better condition, I thought, and picked it off the shelf for an inspection.

Beneath the epigram in Hebrew I had written a translation: Arise and go, for this is not your rest (Micah 2:10). Fortunately, it was in pencil and I scrubbed out the words. But why? I have no intention of selling and the copy stands for sentimental memories of my first reading as a student in January 1992: the anonymous protagonist pacing his bedroom, vomiting into a basin, drinking directly from the tap, walking about town under a burning sun, looking into shop windows at bundles of shoes tied together, slumped beneath a lamppost or over a café table with a nearby stranger offering him a cup of tea: Ere, the man says. Av some of mine.

The scenes never stop to clarify a traditional back story, nor even to insert narrative conjunctions, so that the café scene in one paragraph moves straight into another in which the man is pacing to and fro in his bedroom. A scene from adulthood moves then without pause to a scene from childhood, yet not as in stream of consciousness but something less secure, less comforting, not contained within a mind but as if the meaning of each lived moment is sought in repetition and in order to resist the constant migration of mind and self. The apparent distress of the protagonist in this quest is described with a mixture of clinical distance and romantic metaphor and simile.
The bulb hangs down in the middle of the room. It is lit, making the curtainless window appear like a black mirror in which only the blub itself is reflected. But the light is poor and seems to have difficulty reaching the walls of the big room. Even the washbasin and the bed are in shadow.

Silence flows away from him in dark rivers.

Falling backwards, in a wide arc, he stretches out his hand to grip the lamppost and encounters only air. The black sky presses on his face like a blanket.

Everything flows away from him. It flows outwards and away in dark rivers.
The rhythms of repetitions and returns build an uncommon presence, as if the words have been typed directly onto the page, indenting the paper with the urgency and confusion of a writer trying to catch up with the world and himself. So, soon after 10pm, I had started reading Migrations and before midnight I had read 50 pages. And this is why I read: the gifts of chance rediscovery, of being returned to real needs, which is also why I remember Thomas Bernhard, aged 19 and on the edge of death, reading Dostoevsky's The Demons: "Never in my whole life had I read such an engrossing and elemental work ... it had shown me a path that I could follow and told me that I was on the right one, the one that led out".

The elemental in literature is often misconstrued from outré subject matter or writing described as raw and unmediated, yet in Migrations the elemental appears as the subjection of form and content to the logic of its title: constant becoming in constant undoing; constant undoing in constant becoming; the logic of birth and death. So the man is unnamed not in order to protect identity but to loosen the binds of identity, to allow time to colonise the means by which the identified resists time and self erasure. The man senses constant movement in everything around him – when he orders a beer it tastes of urine: "of everything that has been ejected".

The paradox here is that the attempt to inhabit migration in a narrative automatically includes the quest for unity and permanence; a novel is a monument to unity and permanence. Literature takes possession of the elemental, becomes a still point in the hub of its vicious circle and thereby becomes a means to express, analyse and perhaps to lead out of terror and comfort without denying either. The man explains to someone what is like in this space:
–First of all, he says, there is this stifling. This effort to draw breath. As if time had become a blanket someone was stuffing into your mouth and the more you opened your mouth the more blanket was stuffed in and the less chance there was to breathe.
–Go on, she says.
–I–he says. I don't–
She watches him. She smiles. – Go on, she says.
He looks down at his hands.
 –Well? she says.
 –Lazarus, he says.
To be alive is to sense the winding sheets of burial as they take hold and then as they unwind to leave not fresh air to breathe but a pile of dust. Lazarus, he says, embodies despair and desperation, and he, the man without name, embodies the madness of the paradox thrashing beneath the surface of the paper:
What man wants, he says, is to speak in the way as he eats. He wants to cry out, to talk, and then for his words to fill himself and the person he is addressing as substantially as a great big chunk of animal meat. That's what we all want. Not the one, not the other. Both together.

Migrations was Josipovici's fourth novel, with Hotel Andromeda last year being his eighteenth, but very little else compares with its extreme expression of the major themes of his work. At 230 pages it is also by far his longest novel, and yet it is perhaps closest to Everything Passes of 2006, which at 60 pages is by far his shortest. A few years after it was published, Josipovici wrote a short afterword to a collection of his reviews in which he describes the reception of this and two later novels:
It is a shock to any artist who has only thought of getting things 'right', of pinning down that elusive feeling which is the source and end of all creative activity, to wake up one morning and find himself labelled 'experimental'. Yet this is what happened to me.
The Times and the Daily Telegraph, he says, used the term to patronise or damn with faint praise what didn't fit into the familiar round of English novels. Worse, the London Review of Books referred to him as "prominent among those who are anxious to free the novel from any hampering subservience to the outer world" and having "a lingering but still severe case of the Robbe-Grillet syndrome", the first part of which makes no sense with Migrations, steeped as it is in the physical reality of London's streets, unless one assumes the novel should be a branch of reportage. The furore after the publication in 2010 of What Ever Happened to Modernism? and lack of reviews, let alone major awards, for a novel as great as Infinity in 2012 suggests things have not improved. But if, like me, you wish to maintain a contact with the condition that drives you to read in the first place, there is a way to arise and go from such travesties. Watch out for your knee.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Panthers and the Museum of Fire by Jen Craig

"Where now? Who now? When now?"

The famous opening lines of Samuel Beckett's The Unnamable constitute a modern invocation to the gods at the start of an epic. Only this one appears not at the beginning, not even in medias res, but at the end, where there are no gods, and no end.

"I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know"

Answers emerge to provide aesthetic balance, if nothing else, but at least one is conclusive: the unnamable has a name of sorts ('the Unnamable') and the positive spin placed on the words that follow – "you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on" – has enabled writers to accommodate them as gee-ups from a personal trainer as they climb the purgatorial mountain of Literary Achievement. Pick up any contemporary novel, read the first paragraph and see how each sets down the where, the who and the when right from the start, as if to go on is rather to go back.

Appeals to explicit subject matter and dramatic events have become invocations in a godless time, as we seek a grounding in the hereafter of writing. What's especially notable then about Jen Craig's Panthers and the Museum of Fire is how it destablises such invocations:
For a long time I have dreamed of such a breakthrough, I thought as I set off from my flat in Glebe on that Monday morning – walking to a café in Crown Street for no other reason than to meet the sister, Pamela, so that I could give her back the manuscript Panthers and the Museum of Fire supposedly unread, as she had insisted on the phone only two days after she'd given it to me.
This is both straightforward and unaccountable: the specific where is an anonymous spot on the way between the two places where the ostensible action is, the who is the narrative I, perhaps Jen Craig herself – but then who wrote the manuscript with the same title as the book we're reading? – and when is the walk itself, except it appears incidental to the reports of the breakthrough and the café meeting, which seem far more significant whens and, as a result, all three entwine to displace any certainty on their priority.

Perhaps priority should be placed on the narrative itself, which would be convenient because writing is exactly what the dreamer regards as the breakthrough she had been seeking, now given so unexpectedly by Panthers and the Museum of Fire, a manuscript written by Sarah, an old school acquaintance, into whom the narrator had bumped on the street one day, leading to a series of events, including Sarah's death, possibly as an indirect result of her excessive weight, culminating in the supposed non-reading of the manuscript. Each event and the narrator's commentary is reported with reference to where she is on the walk between Glebe and the café on Crown Street, with the events that occur on that walk included too, and also with recollections of how she had related the events before the walk to her friend Raf at some point in the recent past, either at a gastropub in Potts Point, or over the preparation of prawns before a dinner back in Glebe, or over the phone to report the remarkable breakthrough she had experienced the night before.

Confused? You won't be.

Sarah's surviving sister had asked the narrator, knowing she had literary flair, to read the manuscript discovered in her papers, with a view to making something of it, perhaps redemption for Sarah's otherwise sad and lonely existence, an existence not helped by the narrator's tactical avoidance of her. Instead it redeems the narrator's existence, with the odd parallel being that the narrator's name is the same as the Jenny Craig weight loss company, or would be had she not shortened it, which is expanded upon in another odd parallel when the narrator explains she had been anorexic at the time the company had made its name, causing her all kinds of social grief.
No anorectic can bear advice, and particularly no advice that touches on or even seems to touch on our inviolate selves. [...] All those who haven't been anorexic themselves have no idea about anorexia because they have never led an anorexic existence, and it is the anorexic existence – the nature of this existence – which matters more than anything else in the world to an anorexic. An anorexic needs to exist in this way because there is nothing else in their existence but existence itself; everything else in the world they have given up for this existence; the anorectic is an addict of the anorexic existence.
While this might draw us to comparisons with the self of Kafka's Hunger Artist unviolated by nourishment and, like Sarah, dying off-screen, except in her case apparently from too much nourishment, it would be better read in tandem with Metamorphosis, as change is the horror driving that story, with the previously inviolate selves of Gregor and Grete undergoing transformations right at the beginning and right at the end, with Sarah as Gregor to the narrator's Grete; one's death allowing the other to stretch her limbs or, in this case, make a breakthrough in her writing.

Such assertive monologues do then suggest a neurotic focus on self and the inevitablity of change: the stability of former being dependent on the latter only in its stubborn resistance. This is a theme consistent with Jen Craig's first novel Since the Accident, in which the narrator's sister, the one for whom change came in catastrophic form, describes how a closing door had changed her attitude to the art workshop she had just attended as part of her recovery:
It was stupid, she said, and it was only a measure of her suggestibility after the workshop that she should have let herself be panicked by a door that was sliding shut. She'd thought until that moment that, unlike the others, she hadn't been affected by all the talk of creativity and images at the workshop, but the door had shown her otherwise. Before the workshop, she thought, the door would just have been a door and not a symbol of an impending disaster or an urgent and life-changing choice.
The fear of impending disaster, caused by an excessive attention to signs, is of course the disaster itself and, worse, appears to be prompted by what we otherwise assume to be its consolation: artful self-expression. The comedy and distress of the situation is very much in keeping with the experience of Panthers and the Museum of Fire, which is neither one of comedy nor of distress but both at the same time, impossible to separate, and in which the entangling energy of the narrative is at one with the panicked immobility of the narrator.

The bizarre title, about which I'm sure you're still asking, embodies these dynamic oppositions, as the intrigue and promise in panthers and fire is then displaced by mundane facts. The words come from road signs pointing to a rugby league club called the Panthers and a genuine museum of fire, both with gift shops selling even more signs on T-shirts and mugs. Except the title, like the signs on the T-shirts and mugs, retains the promise of something beyond rugby club and museum, even if they are found in the rugby club and museum, a promise found in a manuscript only ever present as a title, as a sign of things to come. Where now? Who now? When now?

Such promise and its displacement reminds me of the author of the line Es ist alles lächerlich, wenn man an den Tod denkt, and anyone who loves the work of this author will find similar, blessed relief in Jen Craig's fiction. For all their differences, they share an unaccountable joy in writing within absurdity and impossibility, despite and because of absurdity and impossibility. It is from Thomas Bernhard's acceptance speech when he received the Austrian State Prize for literature and caused a government minister to storm out of the building in disgust. Everything is ridiculous when one thinks of death – perhaps the ultimate breakthrough.

Jen Craig blogs at Being in Lieu and Absurd Enticements.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

'Foreign to the resources of literature'

In the early days of blogging, I often wrote about book prizes. At that time I trusted the aura of a shortlist, drawn by what I assumed was the light of Literature shining down and carving deep relief into the profile of an otherwise flat novel. But I also often complained precisely because once read the books themselves didn't seem to deserve such attention, while others that did were ignored. After a while, in fact after serving on a jury, it became clear that I was fascinated instead by the aura of the impersonal force of a collective honour rather than in the books themselves. The books themselves are incidental, as a glance at the titles of previous winners will confirm. For me the aura now illuminates only the book equivalent of the picture of Dorian Gray decaying in an attic while below literary professionals in brightly lit rooms swoon over its prettified worldly companion. Yes, prize-winning literary novels are a genre in themselves: rhetorical exercises, inbred descendents of mummified classics rather than sui generis acts of writing. Nothing to see here. But sometimes the shock of what prizes overlook is a revelation.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Albertine Asleep

For a short time, I stayed up most of the night. In the long summer months between years at school – my guess is 1978 – there was no all-night radio let alone all-night television. Instead I would listen to the BBC World Service on unreliable Medium Wave reception. One night around two in the morning, an actor with a mellifluous voice read an extract from what I now know as Swann's Way. This was before Terence Kilmartin had updated Scott Moncrieff's original translation.

Next day, as I played football in the local park, I told my friends of this book that spent half an hour to describe someone (Swann) ringing a doorbell. Inside, however, my amused tone was tempered. Secretly, I was impressed. The following week there was an extract from another part of the novel, of which I have no memory, and in the third and final week, he read the section known as Albertine Asleep (which Anne Carson has had some fun with recently). And I taped it. The tape still exists.

A blog comes to one in the dark

What follows the break wasn't going to be posted. I wrote it last week and decided it would be more effective to summarise on my Tumblr blog and then publicise on Twitter. To my surprise, bar one message of support, there was no response. The silence was instructive.


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