Wednesday, December 29, 2010

To their 'logical conclusion'

As soon as I finished reading The Lover, by Marguerite Duras (translated by Barbara Bray), I began it again. This was not out of any conscious intention to read it a second time, it just happened naturally, out of itself, out of the way of reading that the book had set going. And so, it was from the remarkable, evanescent brutality of the writing itself, rather than the easily sensationalised, easily exoticised, bare facts of the story, that I emerged for a minute, before deciding to resubmerge:

The story of my life doesn't exist. Does not exist. There's never any centre to it. No path, no line. There are great spaces where you pretend that there used to be someone, but it's not true, there was no one. The story of one small part of my youth I've already written, more or less -- I mean, enough to give a glimpse of it. Of this part, I mean, the part about the crossing of the river. What I'm doing now is both different and the same. Before, I spoke of clear periods, those on which the light fell. Now I'm talking about the hidden stretches of that same youth, of certain facts, feelings, events that I buried. I started to write in surroundings that drove me to reticence. Writing, for those people, was still something moral. Nowadays it often seems writing is nothing at all. Sometimes I realize that if writing isn't, all things, all contraries confounded, a quest for vanity and void, it's nothing. That if it's not, each time, all things confounded into one through some inexpressible essence, then writing is nothing but advertisement. But usually I have no opinion, I can see that all options are open now, that there seem to be no more barriers, that writing seems at a loss for somewhere to hide, to be written, to be read. That its basic unseemliness is no longer accepted. But at that point I stop thinking about it.

Again: is it only through propinquity that Duras gets compared to Bernhard, but this time I recognised the same moment of realisation, where the narrator becomes aware of an unswerving, even ruthless power to determine:

Nothing escaped my notice -- or, at any rate, nothing essential. I decided how much streptomycin I needed,  not the doctors, though I let them continue in the belief that  it was they who made the decisions, because otherwise my calculations would not have worked out. I let my tormentors go on thinking that they decided what was to be done, whereas from now on it was I who decided. (Gathering Evidence)

Suddenly, all at once, she knows, knows that he doesn't understand her, that he never will, that he lacks the power to understand such perverseness.  And that he can never move fast enough to catch her. It's up to her to know. And she does. Because of his ignorance she suddenly knows: she was attracted to him already on the ferry. She was attracted to him. It depended on her alone. (The Lover)

And for all their complete difference -- the one driving in through the mind and at the mercy of the body, the other through the body and, perhaps, at the mercy of the mind -- this sentence from Duras, which could have been Berhard's:

How I managed to follow my ideas to their 'logical conclusion'.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

If only unconsciously

There is no useful reason to compare Thomas Bernhard with Umberto Eco apart from the contingency of bedside book piles but, coming almost simultaneously to the end of Bernhard's Gathering Evidence and Eco's Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, I see for the first time how stark is the difference between them -- how writing means survival for the one just as it is the product of a leisured and highly erudite mind for the other -- and how in fact the relative position of their books on my bookshelves shows that I must have already evaluated these same thoughts, if only unconsciously, at least once before.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Some or another glimpse in his mind

There is a kind of music, or at least very recognisable rhythm, in the writing of Gerald Murnane. It is also clear that there is nothing at all obviously musical in this writing that seems to proceed word by word in the most measured, matter-of-fact way possible – so careful to insert itself into a manila cross-referenced folder in one of the numerous steel filing cabinets which, as we learn from his fiction, line the upper storey rooms of his mind – and where a blind has been pulled over a view of extensive level grasslands the better to report (a word Murnane uses often) images that come to this mind about 'a country on the far side of fiction’, as he puts it in his latest book of fiction, Barley Patch.

In fact, regarding the only reference to music in Barley Patch that I could find (not counting the muffled sounds of radio race broadcasts heard through a closed door), only a certain sort interests the narrator:

The sound was what he called scratchy and many of the words were inaudible, but he heard enough to be able to feel what he hoped to feel whenever he listened to a piece of music: to feel as though a person unknown to him in a desirable place far away from him desired to be in a place still further away.

If there is something Proustian about this focus on imagery triggered by sensations that have, often as not, trivial or even superficially unpleasant origins, this, too, is hardly superficial. Murnane has often referred to Proust in his writings. Elsewhere, while still early in my reading of this work, I remarked on a passage in Murnane's writing, which recalled a passage from Proust’s Time Regained. Nearly halfway into Barley Patch I found this connection was not only made explicit but forms an astonishing, even magical, momentary breach – where the text, until now seemingly fascinated with its own often comic pedantry in a room or similarly defined space, evades us in a moment as if through a rent in the wall, and then is seen far off running somewhere else:

The reader should not suppose that I fail to recognise the workings of the imagination in other writers of fiction because I search out too eagerly and read too hastily passages referring to young female persons. I tried to recall just now the occasion when I read for the first time the passage of fiction that has affected me more than any other passage that I have read during sixty year of reading fiction. I seemed to recall that I was walking across a courtyard on my way towards the front door of a mansion. I had been invited to an afternoon party that was then taking place in the mansion. A motor-car just then arriving in the courtyard passed close by me, causing me to step suddenly backwards. My stepping thus caused me to find myself standing with one foot on each of two uneven paving-stones. What happened afterwards is reported in the relevant passage in the last volume of the work of fiction the English title of which is Remembrance of Things Past.

The rhythm of Murnane’s writing has very little to do with the rhythm of Proust’s. In fact, in my own mind – to borrow this image from Murnane – I see these two writers and their fictional worlds, as with their geographical locations (southern Australia and northern France), just about as far apart as it is possible to be on this earth: Murnane, sitting on a serviceable chair in a bare, dry room surrounded by level paddocks of grass, cataloguing his images and sentences with meticulous care; Proust more feverish, writing in long, often attenuated bursts among a clutter of objects now tattered and moist with handling, and as far from the pollen-filled grasslands as he can be. And yet, if Remembrance of Things Past could be summarised as how a narrator came to write a long, extraordinary book of fiction with sensibility rather than imagination, Barley Patch could be summarised as how a narrator came to write a relatively short and deceptively modest book of fiction, which refers to others of his books of fiction, with sensibility rather than imagination and despite his determination never to write fiction again.

Initially, when I was trying to define the musical aspects of Gerald Murnane’s writing, I thought of Glenn Gould's performances of J. S. Bach's Goldberg Variations and so I searched for the kind of measured performance, careful and sensitive, that I remembered hearing once. It was only as I was watching one of these performances that I realised how very little there is that could be called musical in the texture of Murnane’s writing – how in fact it seems to work deliberately against such a reading – and yet I was taken by an aspect of Glenn Gould's performance that I had forgotten about: that Gould always performed while seated on what looked like a very ordinary and therefore low set chair instead of the usual piano stool – and how this brought him very close to the keyboard and the work of his fingers and, together with the apparently unselfconscious, even childish or child-like movements of his eyebrows and mouth as he played, he seemed neither to be particularly concerned nor even aware of anything that was not happening inside of his mind; the kind of childish or child-like concentration, perhaps, that enables the beginnings of the marvel of the work of art – the very beginnings of which the narrator 'reports' in Barley Patch, as a residue of an abandoned work of fiction that the narrator is describing inside what he has warned us elsewhere, is yet another work of fiction:

At such times, he would seem to have made only a toy-landscape, a place more suitable for recalling certain days in his childhood than for enabling him to see further across his mind than he had yet seen. But then he would foresee himself fitting a brownish holland blind to the dormer window and then drawing the blind against the sunlight and then, perhaps, stepping back into a corner of the room and looking at the lines of pegs through half-closed eyes and even through a pair of binoculars held back-to-front to his eyes; and then some or another glimpse in his mind of something not previously seen in his mind would persuade him to go on.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A confluence of themes

Sometimes I notice a confluence of themes in the several books that I'm reading and referring to, or at least a seeming confluence.

In his most recent book, The Barley Patch, Gerald Murnane writes:

For many years I wrote, as I thought, instinctively. I certainly did not write with ease: I laboured over every sentence and sometimes rewrote one or another passage many times. However, what might be called my subject-matter came readily to me and offered itself to be written about. What I call the contents of my mind seemed to me more than enough for a lifetime of writing. Never, while I wrote, did I feel a need for whatever it was that might have been mine if only had had possessed an imagination.

echoing Proust who, in Time Regained, includes the following in parentheses:

It may be that, for the creation of a work of literature, imagination and sensibility are interchangeable qualities and that the latter may with no great harm be substituted for the former, just as in people whose stomach is incapable of digesting this function is relegated to the intestine. A man born with sensibility but without imagination might, in spite of this deficiency, be able to write admirable novels. For the suffering inflicted upon him by other people, his own efforts to ward it off, the long conflict between his unhappiness and another person's cruelty, all this, interpreted by the intellect, might furnish the material for a book not merely as beautiful as one that was imagined, invented, but also in as great a degree exterior to the day-dreams that the author would have had if he had been left to his own devices and happy, and as astonishing to himself, therefore, and as accidental as a fortuitous caprice of the imagination.

and Christina Stead, in a letter she wrote to Thistle Harris in 1942, that was recently quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald:

I am opposed to inventing in life. Life is so strange, and we know it so little, that nothing is needed in that direction: we need only study: but real invention is needed in placing and rearranging, and re-creating. 

and Thomas Bernhard, on beginning to write, in Gathering Evidence: a memoir:

What is important? What is significant? I believed that I must save everything from oblivion by transferring it from my brain onto these slips of paper, of which in the end there were hundreds, for I did not trust my brain. I had lost faith in my brain -- I had lost faith in everything, hence even in my brain.

Tightens the mechanism

The blurb on the back of the Vintage edition of Thomas Bernhard's Gathering Evidence: a memoir, has it that the young Bernhard 'ran away from home', when it was from the grammar school that he ran, running 'in the opposite direction', doing 'an about-turn in the Reichenhaller Strasse' to an apprenticeship in the Scherzhauserfeld Project. Nearly the whole of the third volume, The Cellar: An Escape, traces and retraces this about-turn in the Reichenhaller Strasse, the escape itself a circling and an entrenchment, the wind up movement that tightens the mechanism and so energises the release.

The blurb also claims that the book 'recalls the novels of Dickens'. If this is the case I can only imagine it as a mad kind of Dickens, where Pip forever goes over his first fateful journey to and from Miss Havisham's and much is made of the contradictions in his emotions, his perceptions of others and the ironies of the journey; where Joe, at the end of the volume, calls out to him that 'Nothing matters' before easing his stomach over his workman's trousers and getting back to leaning on his pneumatic drill.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The first edition

When I learned that Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children was being reissued next month to mark the novel's seventieth birthday in October this year I took down my loved, yellow-paged Penguin edition, with the wonderfully hideous cover image from an Alton Picken painting seeping into what has to be a tea stain on the spine and the back under a pocked plastic covering, and was tempted for a moment to reread it at once. The fact that I haven't yet started to do this is not at all to do with the unfortunate state of the book. Like Proust's Marcel, who has his own very personal idea of a first edition library, I have no intention of waiting for the reissued edition whose cover is oddly reminiscent of Quentin Blake's designs for Roald Dahl's children's books, however much Jonathan Franzen's essay in the New York Times might have made me curious about his anticipated introduction. My Penguin edition is the edition in which I first read this extraordinary, unremitting and, as I remember it, disturbing and utterly confirming book in my first or second year at university -- disturbing in the sense of a stick raking the bottom of a muck pool and confirming in the way that, for almost the first time in my life, I could see that there were words that could describe everything that was disturbed, and in the describing lost nothing of its particularity nor the peculiar estranged mood that, but for the words that pinned them, I might never have imagined other people experiencing and so, as the character Louie might have put it, just not believed. Of all Stead's novels it is the earlier ones, and particularly the ones set in Sydney -- Seven Poor Men of Sydney, For Love Alone, and The Man Who Loved Children (which, although it was set at the publisher's insistence in Washington D.C., has the smell of the original location on it) -- these three Sydney books that have this extraordinary combination of mood and articulation, where every word is alive to something that might have been stirred and turned over for the very first time in its existence.

As Jonathan Franzen writes, Christina Stead has been unjustly neglected. When Patrick White, Australia's first and only Nobel laureate of Literature (not counting J. M. Coetzee for the moment) used his prize money to set up an award for under-appreciated writers, she was its first recipient. I can imagine how much that would have stung, no matter how genuinely White had always admired her work.

For me, I hardly dare to turn the pages again. Franzen, near the end of his essay, writes about a similar anxiety, but how after only five pages of rereading The Man Who Loved Children could confirm that he 'wasn't wrong'. I think I'm not so much doubting the quality of the book but fearful that the mood I remember so well might no longer translate -- that by rereading it I might either lose it altogether or see it change as I read and thus disintegrate or become something else. Marcel does not want to reread François le Champi as he is sure that everything it means to him won't be able to withstand the rereading and yet I know from my much more recent reading of Seven Poor Men of Sydney that Stead is a considerably better writer than Sand and, more importantly, surely, it's the book and the experience of reading it that I care about rather than the earlier self it evokes. And so, I tell myself, I shall reread it soon, very soon, if I can dare to do so, but in the first edition, my first edition.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Great strange machines

Perhaps it is only because I am rereading James Joyce's Dubliners alongside a rereading of Thomas Bernhard's Gathering Evidence: a memoir -- not obvious companions in the pile of books beside my bed but such is the happenstance of reading -- that I notice just how much the material for each author has stuck in his craw -- the sourness, the bodies, the small flutterings of inept kindliness -- which, stewing there, fuels the great strange machines of their work.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The desired restitution of the self

After paddling some swells in the internet, I discovered this quotation on BLCKDGRD from William H. Gass, from a 2008 edition of Harpers Magazine that is now too tricksy to find outside a library or a subscription. Here in an essay called 'Go forth and falsify: Katherine Anne Porter and the lies of art', he describes the making of voice in writing:
Whether unconsciously or by intent, the writer chooses subjects, adopts a tone, considers an order for the release of meaning, arrives at the rhythm, selects a series of appropriate sounds, determines the diction and measures the pace, turns the referents of certain words into symbols, establishes connections with companionable paragraphs, sizes up each sentence's intended significance, and, if granted good fortune because each decision might have been otherwise, achieves not just this or that bit of luminosity or suggestiveness but her own unique lines of language, lines that produce the desired restitution of the self.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A monstrous quality

Daniel Green, in his most recent post on the Reading Experience 2, concludes his analysis of 'newness' with:

Art is worth our attention when it takes a "subject" and makes it aesthetically compelling. At that point the subject becomes irrelevant.

Initially this put me in mind of Kundera who writes, in The Art of the Novel, that Kafka 'transformed the profoundly antipoetic material of highly bureaucratized society into the great poetry of the novel; he transformed the very ordinary story of a man who cannot obtain a promised job (which is actually the story of The Castle) into myth, into epic, into a kind of beauty never before seen.'

But Green has gone further than the possibility of a transformed 'subject' here - further than even Proust's description of his work as a sort of optical instrument for the reader to read within themselves. I am reminded of Deleuze using Malcolm Lowry's term, 'a sort of machine', in Proust and Signs, to analyse the mad, webby construction of the Search. I am reminded, too, of the writing of Thomas Bernhard - as well as his description, near the end of his memoir Gathering Evidence, of reading Dostoevsky's The Demons:

Never in my whole life have I read a more engrossing and elemental work, and at the time I had never read such a long one. It had the effect of a powerful drug, and for a time I was totally absorbed by it. For some time after my return home I refused to read another book, fearing that I might be plunged headlong into the deepest disappointment. For weeks I refused to read anything at all. The monstrous quality of The Demons had made me strong; 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 work as an optical instrument, a machine, a drug, a monstrous quality; the experience of reading the 'subject' itself.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

That very part of the mind

In my bookshelves - or should I say shelves and piles - one book is always leading to another, or something read somewhere else (such as in a blog post) gets me searching for the edition of HEAT that has Brian Castro writing about W. G. Sebald and Thomas Bernhard, and so leads (after a thumbing through of other editions) to another piece of his, a story called 'My Nervous Illness' in HEAT 21, New Series, which begins:

It was while reading Jean-Paul Sartre's monumental study of Flaubert, The Family Idiot, that I fell into an 'epileptiform' state. That was Flaubert's words, not mine. It signified hallucinations, anxiety, a vague seeking for sequestration. For me, it seemed to occur every July in the southern hemisphere and sometimes, when I was in the northern hemisphere, in December, most notably on a Christmas morning, when, for example, while staying in a bed and breakfast...though there was no breakfast that morning as the owners were away...I was somewhere near the Cumbrian Lakes...I recall taking a walk along an old trading route marked with a stone wall and met a man who looked like Wordsworth.
Castro's writing - particularly his short pieces - bring to life that very part of the mind that looks up from the computer to the shelves and across at the piles of books and magazines and notes, that stirs, while you are walking, say, along a particularly busy road where the sight of the girded gap that is the building which you have always known to be there gets you thinking about other gaps, other similar experiences of being brought up short, and then so to the paving-stones after Marcel's near accident in Time Regained, and perhaps the wishfully prescriptive Kundera who would never have noticed; about something you have written elsewhere, a person you talked to that morning, or only talked about, and another book whose title eludes you but whose cover, for some reason, embodies everything you thought as you were reading it even if you are someone who tells everyone you know that covers don't matter.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

This fixation on story

Daniel Green, in his blog The Reading Experience 2.0, notices how discussion around the supposed impact of the e-book on the writing of fiction seems to take for granted a resulting diminution of interest in sentence level writing as opposed to 'story':

It's not very clear to me why the author of this article thinks that such a turn to "storytelling" has something to do with e-books or the internet. There's nothing in the electronically-delivered format that mitigates against "sentences" except to the extent that the e-medium abandons text and becomes entirely devoted to visual imagery--in which case it will have merely become a cousin to film and video. Perhaps the implication is that the "digital" environment is creating some new form of narrative partly in language and partly in. . .whatever it is that is supposedly replacing language, but if so no attempt is made to specify what this new form might be, nor why, even if such a beast is rising to be born, this would mean that fiction in sentences won't continue to be written. Frankly, the article as a whole seems just another manifestation of the paranoid projection casting the cybersphere as some kind of phantasm that is becoming increasingly common among erstwhile cultural gatekeepers who feel themselves endangered by it.

He continues on to raise important issues about 'this fixation on story':

However, it does seem to me that fiction writers can be separated into those whose first loyalty is to sentences and those for whom that loyalty is to "story." When the latter look at the history of prose fiction, apparently what they see is a collection of narratives, a practice devoted to the crafting of narrative. Some of these narratives are more "traditional" than others, some emphasize external action while others explore subjective responses to events, but finally the work exists to present readers with a story.This fixation on story has only been reinforced by the dominance of film and television as popular sources of narrative. Rather than taking the expropriation of narrative by these visual arts as an opportunity to discover alternative strategies for creating literary art in prose, strategies that inherently require attention to "sentences," most "literary fiction" continues to compete with film and tv as suppliers of narrative. 


Sunday, October 31, 2010

Where there is nothing but foreground

Perhaps there are simply two ways to write a novel. In the section 'Works and Spiders' in his second book of essays, Testaments Betrayed, Kundera compares Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain with Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities, which were both set just before the 1914 war in Europe, and whose authors, who were near contemporaries, published their works only six years apart (the publication for the ultimately unfinished Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, however, being only for the first two parts).

Kundera describes how in The Magic Mountain, Mann develops his themes through reference to a wide body of research, as if to convince his reader by its carefully amassed body of information:

Mann makes use of every means offered by the various branches of knowledge - sociology, political science, medicine, physics, chemistry - to illustrate this or that theme; as though he hoped by this popularization of knowledge to create a solid didactic base for analyzing themes;

And yet all this is a distraction, Kundera argues: 'to my mind, too often and for overlong stretches, this diverts his novel from the essential - for let us remember, the essential for a novel is what only a novel can say.'

For, as he continues:

In Musil, theme analysis is another matter: first, it has nothing multidisciplinary to it; the novelist doesn't set up as a scholar, a doctor, a sociologist, a historian [...] Second, as opposed to Mann, in Musil everything becomes theme (existential questioning). If everything becomes theme, the background disappears and, as in a cubist painting, there is nothing but foreground. It is this abolition of the background that I consider to be the structural revolution Musil brought about.

While we might argue with Kundera about Musil heading this 'structural revolution' - there must be many earlier novels that could be described as works where 'everything becomes theme' (the last volume of À La Recherche du Temps Perdu, for example, had been published three years before the first two parts of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften), there is something entrancing in the notion of works where 'the background disappears', where 'there is nothing but foreground.'

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The ruins of his lyrical world

While I don't always agree with Milan Kundera (he has too little time for Proust, none at all for Virginia Woolf, and too much, perhaps, for Salman Rushdie), in his several books of essays, I enjoy the way he defends with passion and wit the form which he keeps insisting on calling the novel rather than the modernist or post-modernist or traditional or any other kind of novel: a form, which he sees as the most precious remnant of the European modern era - a modern Europe that miraculously spans continents, oceans and even centuries - more a Europe of the mind, and one in constant danger of being lost or forgotten or overwhelmed by foes.

In all his essays he holds firmly to his sense of what the novel can do - its raison d'être, as he calls it, which is to say 'only what novels can say.' He lists the chief foes of the novel: people with no sense of humour (he uses the term Rabelais coined, agélastes), kitsch, which he defines in his Jerusalem Address as 'the translation of the stupidity of received ideas into the language of beauty and feeling' rather than the way it is generally used by Anglophone speakers (which is to describe a kind of tinselly bad taste) and lyricism. In fact, in his so-called essay in seven parts, his penultimate book, The Curtain, he writes:

If I imagine the genesis of a novelist in the form of an exemplary tale, a 'myth,' that genesis looks to me like a conversion story: Saul becoming Paul; the novelist being born from the ruins of his lyrical world.

However, ironically, this image has a little too much of what Kundera says he detests because, although the biblical story tells of someone at last getting to see clearly, the curtain torn, what is this sense of the world that Paul now sees without hindrance? In Paul, Saul has entered what Kundera elsewhere calls the Lyrical Age.

Perhaps one day Kundera will also write of the moment when Paul, through yet another curtain (or is it in fact the same?), becomes once more the Saul that he has always been.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Limpid and beautiful prose

I thought it would be a contrast after C. While still sick with the flu I reached down to the ever growing pile beside my bed and drew up Charlotte Wood's The Children from 2007, which a friend had lent me. Usually I avoid reading this kind of book, but every now and then I begin to doubt my reactions to it. Can it really be that bad? I ask myself. Will those last pages, in particular, make me cringe - those tears at the eyelash moments - those now we are going to realise something important and everything is going to glow and we will all be bathed in it, the characters and I resounding prose notes?

Every now and then - and particularly at moments like these (when I want to distract myself from being too ill to move) - I tell myself that I really shouldn't be so difficult; that I should really give this kind of literary fiction one more chance.

As far as my expectations went, they weren't surprised at all. This was lyrical realism in spades; it was also ELF (having been short-listed for a major award here in Australia). Obviously Charlotte Wood is very good at what she does, and my friend enjoyed it (my friend who is intelligent and widely read). Her writing is extolled as 'limpid and beautiful prose' and there's a great deal of research in it about real things like war atrocities and hospital trauma units.

I suspect that there is a sliding scale that determines many novels of this kind. The more well-researched the detail and the more 'real' (read recognisable from other novels or even movies) characters, the more predictable the tying of emotional ribbons at the end. In this respect at least, C forced the lever and broke the thing.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Reading C

A bout of the flu having laid me low, I at last got to read Tom McCarthy’s C. Susan Wyndham, literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, has called it ‘cool modernist’ in her Undercover column (Oct 9-10, 2010), but while I would agree with the temperature of it, I wonder about the supposed modernism.

C most put me in mind of early Peter Carey – the plethora of objects and processes – but without (and most definitely without) Carey’s tendency to tie lyrical bows at the end. More than anything else, C posits itself as anti-lyrical. When a fellow WWI operator shows the main character, Serge, his tenderly battered copy of A. E. Housman, which makes him ‘think of Shropshire hedgerows’, Serge quotes, provocatively, from the German poet Hölderlin; when his sister is being buried he is preoccupied with his erection and his bowels. Sexual excitement, perhaps predictably, is associated with deformity, danger and filth. There is a strong sense of pollution in the book – of cluttered air spaces and the rubbish and accumulated poisons of millennia. When his provost in London tries to sympathise with what he believes to be Serge’s difficulty in adjusting to civilian life, Serge replies: ‘But I liked the war.’ Serge doesn’t believe in ‘shell shock'. He sees the symptoms in many people, not just those who have been at the front. ‘No, the shock’s source was there already: deeper, older, more embedded…’

The very accumulation of unsentimental scientific detail, facts, objects, perhaps because it builds to this strong sense of pollution, the source of the shock that Serge sees in nearly everyone around him, almost reads as a parody of the kind of novel that I feared it might be – those novels in which you read about the origins of soap and glass, about obsessive (and thereby quaint) engineers or entomologists, about the history of a particular trade route – where the usual lyrically realist narrative is bolstered with so much exoticised information that the average reader, immune to the sentimentality, or rather secretly desiring it, is also able to say of the novel that it was absolutely fascinating.

And yet, is C modernist as some are claiming it to be? From the point of view of Josipovici’s conception of it in What Ever Happened to Modernism? which I also reread courtesy of the flu, I would say it is not. Quite apart from anything else, it’s the assuredness of the main character, Serge, and what turns out to be the predictability of his irrational moments and predilections – the whole elaborate, meticulously researched boy’s own product that it is – which makes me doubtful. The term ‘modernist’ must, to those writing newspaper copy, simply be a description of the level of a novel’s density (not an easy read) or perhaps the only term, now that post-modernism is out of vogue, for describing a novel that so sets itself against every pat lyrical ending, every supposedly beautifully written best seller that surrounds us by the thousands. McCarthy’s book doesn’t seem to me to be alive. This may, however, be his intention.

Monday, October 4, 2010

No mystique

For many reasons I keep coming back to this observation of Gabriel Josipovici (from his Preface to The Lessons of Modernism and other essays, originally published in 1977):

One feels that artists like Stravinsky and Picasso tapped their potential to the full. Yet the point has to be made - and it is made by their work as well - is that there is no mystique about what they have done. It depends less on an entity like 'genius' and more on qualities we can all share, like courage, humility and dedication.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Such depth of learning and lightness of touch

Stephen Mitchelmore, in This Space, has written an in-depth review of Josipovici's What Ever Happened to Modernism:

The title of this book is a question asked by a professor of English and answered by a practising novelist. Apart from Milan Kundera, no other living writer has engaged with modern fiction with such depth of learning and lightness of touch. I have been reading Gabriel Josipovici's fiction and non-fiction for over twenty years but little prepared me for the sustained focus and force of this remarkable book. Until now his literary critical works have been collections of essays, even his book on the bible, The Book of God, is a series of discrete essays. Given a back catalogue which includes the lectures given at UCL and Oxford University, it's predicatable that the new book has been characterised by some as an academic treatise rather than an accessible essay in the classic sense. The deceit needs to be countered not only because it is wrong but because it also confirms Josipovici's verdict on English literary culture as "narrow, provincial and smug". This can be demonstrated by bitter and dishonest reactions, as well as some more respectful if condescending assessments.  Read more....

Saturday, October 2, 2010

And Bernhard needs the nightmare

Rachel Salz reviews One Little Goat's production of Berhard's Ritte, Dene, Voss in the New York Times:

Directed by Adam Seelig, the production wisely avoids naturalism, but the performances aren’t all convincing. Ms. Perreault, in the difficult role of the constant kvetch, adopts a comic tone and mannerisms from another dramatic universe (something more like a sitcom). And Mr. Pettle seems young for Ludwig; he lacks gravity. Their tirades — a chunk of the play — grow tiresome, and you start to tune them out. (They have more zing on the page.)

The abundant cultural references (a partial list: Bach, Beethoven, Schopenhauer, Goethe, Schoenberg, Furtwängler, Webern, Kierkegaard) don’t sit well with these North American actors. They sound rehearsed, not bred in the bone.

So, too often, does this production. The weight of history — Austrian, theatrical and familial — is acknowledged, but doesn’t register as a constricting nightmare. And Bernhard needs the nightmare. It’s his animating force.

A disappointing review - evidently that 'being-in-lieu-of-showing' (of which I had high hopes) is not yet, as Salz might put it, nightmarish enough.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The way in which art grapples with reality

After reading yet another review (and broadly sympathetic at that) of Gabriel Josipovici's book, What Ever Happened to Modernism? - a book which I am yet to see reviewed here in Australia - I am struck by how novel most reviewers seem to find it that Josipovici should look for the roots of modernism so many centuries ago - something which Milan Kundera has also done (although he does not call it Modernism per se, but simply the 'history of the novel') and, much earlier - Josipovici himself. Even the point that Eric Ormsby makes in his Wall Street Journal review:

Perhaps the true question raised by "What Ever Happened to Modernism?" is about the way in which art grapples with reality. The 19th-century novelists created characters and set them within a narrative; this was an "arbitrary" process: David Copperfield and Père Goriot are as contrived as the marquise who went out at five. Balzac carried a cane inscribed with the motto "I smash all obstacles." Kafka noted that he himself should have a cane inscribed "All obstacles smash me." Kafka knew that, as Mr. Josipovici puts it, "to be modern is to know that some things can no longer be done."

was anticipated by Josipovici three decades ago in The World and the Book: A Study of Modern Fiction, where he writes in the Preface:
For we must understand that the great modern revolutionaries did not say: 'Don't look at the world the way people have been doing for the last four centuries, it's wrong'; but: 'Don't look at the world the way people have been doing for the last four centuries, it's lazy.'

Monday, September 27, 2010

Only a sort of optical instrument

And Proust on a related object:

L'ouvrage de l'écrivain n'est qu'une espèce d'instrument optique qu'il offre au lecteur afin de lui permettre de discerner ce que, sans ce livre, il n'eût peut-être pas vu en soi-même.

The work of the writer is only a sort of optic instrument which he offers to the reader so that he may discern in the book what he would probably not have seen in himself.

Le Temps retrouvé

Sunday, September 26, 2010


Another interview with Adam Seelig in connection with Ritter, Dene, Voss. Here he defines 'poetic theatre' as something which 'attempts to find clarity through ambiguity.' He continues:

It’s not verse theatre or prose theatre or journalistic theatre. It’s theatre that treats the text as a score (as with Ritter, Dene, Voss) and treats the gap between actor and audience not as an obstacle to bypass, but as a medium through which multiple meanings can emerge. There’s a difference between shining a light directly into the audience’s eyes, and having it pass through a prism.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Elves and other heroes

What is it an inclination away from? 'These aren’t particularly healthy times. A breed of lyrical Realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked,' as Zadie Smith wrote when she reviewed Tom McCarthy's first novel, Remainder, along with Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill nearly two years ago. She has written in this tradition herself, as she admits in the essay - and in fact is yet to show herself to be writing against it, but her analysis is sharp.

Mark Thwaite calls the thing Establishment Literary Fiction - which he shortens to ELF, with all the ironic suggestion, I'm sure, of heroic battles with teeming dark forces.

The question, however, is how to write around or through or under these fast moving highways. Christopher Taylor, in his review of McCarthy's most recent novel C, quotes McCarthy himself: "'Will he turn out,' McCarthy asked recently of the French writer Jean-Philippe Toussaint, 'to have been deconstructing literary sentimentalism or sentimentalising literary deconstruction?'" One aspect that already makes me suspicious when I read about C in reviews is the foregrounding of the material obsessions of protagonists - Serge going for radio waves while his sister goes for insects - which puts me in mind of the way bridge engineering and quilting function in Kate Grenville's The Idea of Perfection - a novel in which every emotional string is pulled. Even if you cut these strings, isn't the material or systems obsessed protagonist already a sentimental trope, a cliché of the nineties and noughties? I'll have to read it and C.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

An inclination away

Reading that One Little Goat's production of Thomas Bernhard's Ritter, Dene, Voss is opening tomorrow in New York - the tomorrow of New York, which necessarily is so much later than ours - I thought it was a good moment to begin this blog - on the generous eve of an inclination away from 'showing-not-telling' toward a kind of 'being-in-lieu-of-showing,' as the director, Adam Seelig, puts it - and, for that reason (and just to help it along a tad), I shall call this blog a Being in Lieu.