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Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Friday, September 19, 2014

The lawn of genre: Wittgenstein Jr by Lars Iyer

In the relaxed confines of the LRB Bookshop on a warm August evening, Lars Iyer marked the publication of his fourth novel by telling an audience that as a youngster he had been drawn to philosophy rather than fiction as a means to find a way to live, to think his way to life. It's an old question – how to live? – and one often so pressing that philosophers have made it central to their lives. This indeed used to be the definition of a philosopher: someone who lived consistently with their beliefs. Ludwig Wittgenstein is one example. For his character Wittgenstein Jr, Iyer says philosophy is also "a kind of spiritual progress", with Socrates and Augustine as his own key figures. So why did Iyer himself turn from philosophy to writing fiction?

How to live? is a simple question too of course, as light as a falling leaf and easily brushed aside as you join a queue to have your copy signed. Without noticing, you're soon dealing with ephemeral demands and the question is answered for you. Iyer said that by the time he was established as an academic in the subject, teaching and supervising, researching and presenting papers at conferences, publishing books, philosophy itself had been displaced. The pressure of having to justify every turn in an argument with references and footnotes covering all contributions and all angles meant the youthful quest was replaced by bureaucracy and career concerns in which "spiritual progress" equalled redundancy. How then to ask the question again?

Fiction marks his answer, a form defined by a lack of pressure, by freedom, so we shouldn't be surprised that the drama of each novel he has written persists in the distressing absence of a philosophy by which to live; a certain weight. In the Spurious trilogy, it is found in the double-act despair of W. and Lars as they float like schlubby cherubim in search of God's anchor while, in Wittgenstein Jr, the drama emerges from the asymmetry of a troubled Cambridge philosophy tutor and his lightweight, hedonistic students. The philosopher perplexes, irritates and fascinates them in equal measure with his silences and gnomic remarks. I will teach you differences. Philosophy stands between us and salvation. They decide he has modelled himself on the real Ludwig Wittgenstein, and so the fun begins. "When will he present an actual argument? – Mulberry's taking bets."

After a while the stand-in Wittgenstein becomes more talkative. He implores his students to dispense with Cambridge cleverness and Cambridge pride in order to face the challenge of his philosophical lesson. The anxious silences are due to paranoia. He believes the Cambridge dons are out to destroy him, as he seeks a utopia of "after philosophy" in which "the light on a particular afternoon will be as rich as the collected works of Kant". Cambridge University stands for what obscures such light, it stands for the hegemony of English philistinism, English parochialism, for a landscape flattened by the English steamroller.
All of England was once a lawn, Wittgenstein says. The whole of the country, with its uplands and lowlands, with its suburbs and towns, was once the quintessence of lawn. [...]
And it was in the name of the English lawn that the enemy within was kept down, Wittgenstein says. The Peasants' Revolt was crushed for seeking equality on the English lawn. The Diggers were transported for declaring that the English lawn was part of the commons. [...]

But never was the English lawn so lush as in the great universities of England! Wittgenstein says. Old expanses of lawn, strewn with meadowsweet and buttercups in high summer. Crocuses blooming in spring.
The numbers soon dwindle to the handful of students whose comments and exchanges narrate the novel, including the aristocratic Ede, convinced of his own destiny, the sore-thumb Benwell, a working-class boy from up north, the Kirwin twins lost without a war in which to die a futile death and who instead throw themselves into vigorous sports, Mulberry in his obscene T-shirts and the self-effacing Peters, the shy Newcastle boy with a crush on his tutor and who records what everyone says. His cartoon of campus life is one of the joys of Iyer's new-found freedom. Wittgenstein Jr takes a walk on the lawn:
Posh students everywhere. Rah boys in gilets and flip-flops, with piles of bed-head hair. Rugby types, as big as fridges, all red-cheeked health, their voices booming. Rah girls dressed in gym gear and pony-tails. English roses in horse-and-hound clothing, as though fresh from the gymkhana. Yummy-not-yet-mummies in fur-lined Barbour. Ethno-sloanes, with string tops and slouch bags. Sloane-ingénues with big cups of coffee, sweater sleeves half pulled over their hands.
But why is it so pleasurable? At first this sounds like the classic and contemptible English light comedy in which characters are ridiculed for the Schadenfreude of harassed commuters, generic personas dancing on the end of the author's strings before a garishly painted state-of-the-nation backcloth. Perhaps because such hyperbole is counterbalanced by Wittgenstein Jr's apocalyptic vision of philosophical rapture. Combined and in opposition they have a peculiar effect on the reader, both ecstatic and deflating, so that even as one savours the possibility of another life, another world, there is also the absurd present. While Iyer convinces us of Wittgenstein Jr's spiritual yearning and captures the aura of his namesake with minimal brush strokes, the madcap students remind us it is of course only a novel and that the characters are inventions, that the stifling conformity of Cambridge is an exaggeration and that Wittgenstein Jr is not Ludwig Wittgenstein. Everything is weightless. But this is also necessary, because lightness enables flight. When Tibor Fischer judged the book "too long" he might have added that such airborne hyperbole is always too long and even one excessive, declaratory fictional sentence might already be too much, popping up like a molehill on the lawn over which the donnish greenkeeper might then stand, tutting.

Wittgenstein Jr comes to an end as the carefree life of a student comes to an end. Salvation of a sort is offered to Wittgenstein Jr, but he disappears. A clue to his whereabouts was seen earlier when students go to his room to check on his well-being and spy scraps of paper tacked to the wall with only one word visible: APERION, Anaximander's word for the eternal or cosmological infinity (also spelled "apeiron" but this is how it appears in the novel). Perhaps this is an additional mark of excess to the one Derrida says signifies the participation in a genre without membership, a mark that is itself not part of the genre yet necessary for its distinction and recognition. Aperion then is the mark of a universal principle of existence, an abstraction outside of life that nevertheless makes life possible and is apparently sensible only in the light of a particular afternoon and in the freedom, lightness and excess of writing, and yet which, as Fischer's cavil confirms, must also succumb to the ever-encroaching English lawn.

Back in the LRB Bookshop, the event drawing to a close, the audience was given a chance to ask questions. As hands went up and a microphone passed around, I wondered what it would mean for lightness to become as heavy as academic philosophy, with its own bureaucracy and career demands, for it to be a kind of spiritual regression, for aperion to be only a word tacked to a wall, and then how a writer might evade the lawn of genre. But I didn't ask the question. Perhaps Wittgenstein Jr's disappearance is the answer.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

A silhouette of itself: Taipei by Tao Lin

Some novels offer the perfect opportunity for reviewers to palliate otherwise desolate and sundered lives. Notable examples in recent years include Vila-Matas' Montano's Malady, Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones and Tao Lin's first novel Eeeee Eee Eeee. There are many others but Tao Lin's Taipei, published last year, is an extreme case. One reviewer found relief in the "vapid stupidity" of its prose, another in its "massive discharge of waste matter", a third in its "mindless kitsch". As we watch them scurry in haste to the well-furnished bunkers of polite literary society, we can infer each reviewer found clarity and meaning in the apophatic trial of the real thing, leaving only smeared pages of abandoned review copies fluttering on the waste land above.

Meanwhile, those still exposed to the breeze might be better able to recognise the gifts of subjecting experience to writing, or perhaps that should be subjecting writing to experience. The two are often difficult to tell apart, which might be why such hacking is routinely accepted as the task of critics: everything must be kept clear and fiction must remain a desirable product for consumers. But just as the words Taipei and Tao Lin run into each on the outer cover of this novel, so the artist's struggle to articulate a relation to the world disappears into the work of writing so that neither can maintain a discrete identity.

The meeting of life and art is a familiar theme in fiction of course, and while some are content play with biographical fact and bibliographical fiction in order to run amusing rings around an audience, for example Adam Thirwell characterises Philip Roth's fiction as "daring the reader to confuse [fictional] doubles for the original" by "making the life and the art seem like disguises for each other", Tao Lin approaches it more anxiously and without the distance of mastery. The novel is narrated in traditional third-person omnicience reporting the thoughts and actions of Paul, a 26-year-old New York writer with a family in Asia, with specific attention on his relationships with soon-to-be departed girlfriend Michelle and new girlfriend, soon-to-be wife Erin. They go to literary events, visit his parents in Taipei, "ingest" prescription painkillers and Ecstacy, mention how "depleted" they feel, watch movies on their MacBooks, make movies on their MacBooks, but nothing ever generates an event to disrupt the core of their existence or the narration of their existence. If there is nothing especially radical here in literary terms, it does generate a mix of blankness and disquiet in the reader. The repetition of "ingest" and "depleted" throughout blows air between word and experience to the point where neither has any weight, so we read them without gaining what reviewers persuade us to expect in terms of narrative development. Disquiet then is the impossibility of anything happy emerging in our otherwise pleasurable habit of reading. We are not moving forward. So while Taipei evokes the apparent insignificance of our modern lives, what might be dismissed as literary posturing and provocation is instead realism become tragically unreal.

Critics are also suspicious of the social media references as indicative of a cynical contemporaneity, spurred on by the author's persona presented in the same social media. It is true that Paul and his friends are embedded in contemporary American culture to an alarming degree – there is only one novel mentioned to compare to the learned references to philosophy and literature in Montano's Malady and The Kindly Ones – and yet, as a result, the friends float free of any contact, like despairing ghosts in the machine. Their culture is a given, a plateau of distraction and superficial interaction – fast food restaurants, chain stores, electronic goods, movies on Netflix – but, like a plateau, lacking any decline or elevation. Seeking relief, Paul notes that he has just sent his longest email via iPhone and then listens to his favourite music track on high volume and repeat, concentrating on the drums or the bass "so that he becomes memoryless". The reason why it is his favourite is as inconsequential as the iPhone email record and the track appears to be his favourite only because it comes closest to enabling the condition whereby he loses the self compelled to make such distinctions. While for Estragon and Vladimir everything is promised in the form of Godot, in Taipei, there is only the promise of nothing. All of which leaves the status of this novel in question. What kind of relief does yet another novel about relationship issues and existential gloom offer?

Recently I suggested the reason why the works of Marcel Proust and Karl Ove Knausgaard maintain a fascination with readers is not due to the extreme length of their books or similarities in subject matter but instead the ambiguity of their genre: both are presented as novels yet are so closely aligned to the reality of the authors' own lives that we read them more aware of everyday mystery and chance than in a traditional memoir, and far more so than in 'gritty' realism. While the coy name change moves Taipei closer to Roth/Zuckerman territory than to the same-name first person of Proust and Knausgaard, this is a necessary function of the condition of interchangeable signs without meaning from which the novel emerges: Paul is barely himself, and it is no joke. So while Taipei might not gain the aura of Proust and Knausgaard, it shares their struggle.

Going beyond the insouciance overt in his earlier novels, Taipei both enacts a fundamental alienation and seeks a cure within its means. While considering the state of their relationship:
Paul thought that he would stop thinking about himself and focus on Erin, but instead, almost reflexively, as a method of therapy, began thinking about suicide, then became aware of himself, a few minutes later, earnestly considering—or maybe only imagining—trying to convince Erin that they should commit suicide together. [...]
Paul began to feel, in a way he hadn’t before, like he comprehended double suicide—the free and mysterious activity of it, like a roller coaster descending only into darkness, but accessible from anywhere, on the theme park of Earth, always open.
Comprehension is only a moment, only 'like' and never itself, and occurs so rarely that it flares like fireworks of dark matter, promising, much like writing, much like reading, the presence of mass where mass cannot be seen. The novel resolves without resolution as darkness is pondered again by Paul, in bed with Erin sleeping beside him, thinking of the "glistening, black, mound-shaped mass" of a monkfish she ate in a restaurant and whose picture he then looked up on Wikipedia to show her. He feels emotional contemplating "the light-absorbing mass of it, a silhouette of itself", just as we might contemplating this novel. It helps to palliate otherwise desolate and sundered lives.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Critical Perspectives on Gabriel Josipovici

Revue LISA, a print journal published by the University of Rennes, has a very welcome edition dedicated to the work of Gabriel Josipovici. It is also online.

Readers new to his fiction and criticism would do well to read Vesna Main's Beyond the "Grammar", in which the grammar is "the formulaic apparatus of most novels", and Victoria Best's very moving essay on The Cost of Creativity in his work.

The editor Marcin Stawiarski is also organising Zig Zag, Twist and Turn, a conference on Josipovici's work, to be held at Dalarna University in Sweden this September. Stawiarski has also conducted an interview for the edition containing answers that might surprise those who associate Josipovici with Modernist convolutions:
MS: You say that to be able to write you need two things: on the one hand, the feeling that something must be said; on the other, the feeling that it’s impossible to say it. So that that very impossibility becomes the subject of your work. Is it a form of a writer’s block? Or is there more to it than that?
GJ: No, it’s very simple. Most of the important feelings we have are too deep and complex for words — the feeling of loss, for example, or elation. Or ordinary little things like the effect of sunlight on a brick wall as one walks by. If one is struck by something like that — a big thing like the loss of a loved person, a small thing like sunlight on a brick wall — one wants to find a way of expressing that. It’s not easy. But it’s the only thing that interests me.
France and Sweden seem to be far ahead in recognising the value of one of England's finest writers. Oh, and his new novel Hotel Andromeda is published this week by Carcanet.

A glacier of flights: Dictionary of Untranslatables

Going back to a beloved novel after many years can be a disconcerting experience. Often you wonder what you saw the first time around to prompt such nostalgia and loving reverence. Much of the detail is unfamiliar, alien even. Unlike a poem, whose aura is embedded in words recited both subconsciously and at will, a novel is recovered en bloc, masking many details and existing almost like a Platonic form we contemplate with awe in its absence. But, when trodden again, the perfect lawn has molehills.

In effect, our personal library is a collection of portals to disillusion protected by rows and rows of upright spines. Could this be why packed shelves ferment a curious mixture of peace and anxiety?


My first example is a novel I read one summer in Victoria Park, a small green area behind Portsmouth's main shopping area, and after which reading other novels was never quite the same. In Thomas Bernhard's Concrete an old man in Vienna chooses to leave his estate to a name picked at random from the London telephone directory. His finger alights on one name: Sarah Slother of 128 Knightsbridge – which just seems unlikely given that Knightsbridge is an exclusive road and not especially residential, comparable to a British author choosing Sabine Sänger of Unter den Linden 128. It lacks the randomness it is supposed to represent. Not necessarily a flaw of course and possibly there to maintain Bernhard's mode of disruption – random is never random – except for me it softens the whitewashed wall of prose I had walked into that day. To mitigate such disappointments, we often turn to other superficial features: the objective content of a novel (“X is the Dickens of the Credit Crunch”), the social value of an oppressed group stepping onto the literary stage ("Y is an important new voice"), the cod liver oil of experimental prose ("Zzzzz"). But do we actually recognise these qualities in the first, silent reading?


Perhaps this is why I have read my second example, Peter Handke’s Repetition, at least six times in the 26 years since Die Weiderholung was translated, as I sought to renew the peculiar transformation it imposed back in 1988. While Handke's book, like Proust's, bathed the earth in sunlight, I have always struggled to translate that experience into words. Having written this, I now see WG Sebald used light to characterise the effect of reading this novel:
[Repetition] 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.
[Translated by Nathaniel Davis]
So it is there. Yet superficially the narration is your familiar first person Bildungsroman telling of Filip Kobal’s family and school life in southern Austria in early 1960s, and then of his journey over the border into Slovenia in search of his long-lost elder brother. Certainly there’s something romantic and adventurous about Kobal’s discovery of the towns and countryside of the old Yugoslavia, but nothing you couldn't find in many other novels, and re-reading Repetition has emphasised these similarities. The difference is that the discoveries are presented not as lyrical flights tacked onto the narrative for local colour but as catalysts for Filip’s ability to make the journey, to find something other than his brother and then tell his ability to tell the story (that is, to repeat it). A bricked-in ‘blind’ window seen on the wall of a stationmaster’s house reminds him how forty years before his brother had been rushed to a doctor late at night to save the sight in one eye, which was lost anyway.
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.”
[Translated by Ralph Manheim]
So it might be that Repetition stood out as a refuge in arid lands because it enabled me to recognise signs in my own youthful journey, whereas later they were overlooked as habit replaced wonder. This is another aspect in common with Proust. A third is in how the opening sentence situates the entire narrative to come:
A quarter of a century, or a day, has passed since I arrived in Jesenice on the trail of my missing brother.
That is, the signs guiding Filip's journey require chance and patient attention to show themselves. Whether a day or twenty-five years later is irrelevant, they are present if one can find the means of access. On the other hand, dilettantish demands might invite awareness only of generic features and the awkwardness of specific detail.


While the aura of a novel you've read might be threatened by re-reading, so too can reading one you’ve never read before. Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice is famously about an ageing writer’s infatuation with a 13-year-old boy. To the modern reader it is an uncomfortable scenario, especially as Gustav von Aschenbach, a successful author and married man with a family, has much in common with his creator. For years I never thought to read it, assuming, I suppose, that I knew it already. However, reading it this year was a surprise because the peculiar risk Mann took emerges not so much as creepy self-projection but as a necessary component of the subject. Erich Heller summarises it as "the war between form and chaos, serenity of mind and consuming passion ... with Death presiding over it as judge and ultimate conqueror." For a novelist to approach this war in this way is to court a different kind of suspicion – especially from modern readers more attuned to bullshit than mystic epiphany – but Aschenbach’s dodgy behaviour is the necessary inverse of the essayistic discussion of his life and work in which it is framed, and which is much less famous.

If the aura of a novel is at odds with its detail and what we value is irreconcilable with whatever we are able to say about it, then the act of writing itself must too be part of this dynamic impasse, leaving the author as eager to have access to the gift of the work as much as the reader. Death in Venice is what happens when this impasse becomes the theme. Beneath the dignified, high-bourgeois façade, something lurks in Aschenbach, something great or dark, something like transcendence or death, something like what John Marcher called The Beast in the Jungle, and its imminence and hesitation before birth gives pulse to his story. Soon after we meet him, Aschenbach is finally paying the price for devoting his life to the dignity and serenity of form:
At forty, at fifty, he was still living as he had commenced to live in the years when others are prone to waste and revel, dream high thoughts and postpone fulfillment. He began his day with a cold shower over chest and back; then, setting a pair of tall wax candles in silver holders at the head of his manuscript, he sacrificed to art, in two or three hours of almost religious fervour, the powers he had assembled in sleep. Outsiders might be pardoned for believing that his [two famous novels] were a manifestation of great power working under high pressure, that they came forth, as it were, all in one breath. It was the more triumph for his morale; for the truth was that they were heaped up to greatness in layer after layer, in long days of work, out of hundreds and hundreds of single inspirations; they owed their excellence, both of mass and detail, to one thing and one alone; that their creator could hold out for years under the strain of the same piece of work, with an endurance and a tenacity of purpose like that which had conquered his native province of Silesia, devoting to actual composition none but his best and freshest hours.
[Translated by Martin C. Doege]
What this reveals then is that the aura is not present in the detail but that detail is the only means of access. Colm Tóibín confirms this in audio interview when he rejects the idea that in writing The Master, his novel about the author of The Beast in the Jungle, he was inhabiting the consciousness of an historical individual:
I wrote the first chapter .... and then left it for about 18 months. What happens then ... is that your dreamtime – you're lying in bed in the morning, you're walking along the street – that you start to think more and more deeply into that consciousness you've developed. But it's a question then of cunning and style, of just trying to add detail after detail after detail that seems to you to be true to what the next thing was that happened. And you're inventing, you're inventing, you're inventing, and you're adding. But the main thing is that the sentence structure and the sound of the words equals a tone that you've established from the very beginning, almost in the first sentence. And that adds up strangely to something, or doesn't. But you can't really judge that. You can't really suddenly say: "Oh this is the historical [Henry] James I'm doing". No, this is the next sentence I'm doing. You can only really think in detail.
Later he says that James called himself "a worker, a constant producer", so in that sense was very much like von Aschenbach, except that he never quite suffered the same fate, though perhaps came close when he became infatuated with the much younger Hendrik Andersen. The Master describes an allusive shared visit to the grave of Constance Fenimore Woolson in another ancient Italian city:
Here in this cemetery, which they began to stroll around once more, the state of not-knowing and not-feeling which belonged to the dead seemed to him closer to resolved happiness than he had ever imagined possible.
 And so we are back in the war.  

New Jersey

This was meant to be a review of Dictionary of Untranslatables, Princeton UP's heroic translation of Vocabulaire Européen des Philosophies, that includes entries on familiar words with deep register – Demos, Drive, Duty – and on more seductive obscurities that defy satisfactory translation – Daimôn, Desengaño, Dichtung. But one of the reasons why I can't attempt a normal review is because the Dictionary itself is a model of digression and refuses contemplation en bloc, thus emphasising the threat posed by concepts as a function of the war under which they came to exist in the first place.

As Howard Caygill says in his more conventional review, the urge to produce such a book with its intellectual histories, vast array of diverse interpretations and extensive bibliographies (detail upon detail), "is largely a product of the Enlightenment" and, I would add, a key weapon in an implicit war. We are always on the brink of chaos, perhaps already unknowingly engulfed and grasping for a float.

On page 636 of the Dictionary, ten double-columned pages are launched under the heading MEMORY / FORGETFULNESS. It has four chapters with sub-sections that themselves contain further sub-sections and under them, even more. Under II: The Making of the Past comes D: The fiction of total knowledge and under that is 3: Mallarmé's break with tradition: The freeing of forgetfulness. The entry by the late Jean Bollack is an impressively concise summary of the poet's "Orphic search for a truth hidden within language" and uses his poem Le vierge, le vivace as the defining statement of his art and "which makes forgetfulness a condition of poetic song".
Poetry in the figure of a swan leaves behind it “ce lac dur que hante sous le givre / le transparent glacier des vols qui n’ont pas fui” ( Beneath the frost of a forgotten lake / Clear flights of glaciers not fled away; trans. John Holcombe ). The world of life is thus divided, and also leaves behind the raw matter of frozen traces: “Un cygne d’autrefois se souvient” ( In past magnificence of another day / The swan remembers ). It remembers its lost glory as in a mirror: if it escapes, it is because it has resisted and not given in to incantation and celebration. Its poetic means have transported it elsewhere, and forgetfulness is the line that is crossed by verbal transcendence, with art finding a way to create for itself another world.
The translation used here is not one by which this poem came to me but Robert Lowell's with its "hard, neglectful lake hoarding under ice / a glacier of flights than never fly" and "The swan ruffles, remembers it is he". In this way even a poem that seemed to be an unchanging literary terra firma is now threatened, and this Dictionary is the ocean. Perhaps this is why Thomas Bernhard's wall of prose meant so much to me that day – the novel was the thing itself, the detail was not key but rather the overall movement, the constant working, the constant repetition of sentences shored against the ocean. Moreover, the translation is not exceptionally important: the book is an object added to the world, a gap in the universe and propels itself into existence under that awareness.

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.


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