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.