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.