Thursday, December 29, 2011

Though I would not have it look as though I wanted to complain

There's a strange panting, obsessive quality to the narrator in Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus. Significant is the narrator's confession early on:

It was the time in which our du was rooted, the time when he too must have called me by my Christian name, I hear it no more, but it is unthinkable that at six or eight years he should not have called  me Serenus or Seren just as I called him Adri. The date cannot be fixed, but it must certainly have been in our early schooldays that he ceased to bestow it on me and used only my last name instead, though it would have seemed to me impossibly harsh to do the same. Thus it was -- though I would not have it look as though I wanted to complain.

In Mann's extensive communication with Herman Hesse, whose The Glass Bead Game unsettled him by what he saw as its resonance with Doctor Faustus, and with whom he grew closer and closer over the years, neither Hesse nor Mann ever use anything but the formal address and never the first name only.

I picture Mann writing his Doctor Faustus on a hard wooden seat.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Supposed misinterpretations

It is ironic that Nicholas Zurbrugg should accuse Beckett of misreading Proust. His own study of the two writers, with its many clods of such unwieldy terms as 'positive modes of non-habitual action', is frequently disturbed by sudden irruptions of impatience with Beckett's supposed misinterpretations of Proust (so many little snide remarks that it is hard to believe that Beckett could ever have given the 'attention and assistance' to Zurbrugg's project that the Acknowledgements declare). My suggestion is that you don't look too closely at Zurbrugg's own reading of Proust. On page 65, for example, he begins an analysis of the 'Daltozzi suivant les femmes' incident in Jean Santeuil, only to forget, on the following page, that the narrator of the book is no Marcel and so is not actually Jean Santeuil at all, but a third person narrator. Little slips like these weaken his position on Beckett the critic, who at worst seems only to have been exuberantly perverse rather than shoddy in his analysis of Proust in his eponymous essay.

I am, however, indebted to Zurbrugg for drawing my attention to Beckett's first novel, the posthumously published, Dream of Fair to Middling Women. Just the image suggested by the title, as it resonates with Proust's second volume of A la Recherche du Temps perdu: A l'ombre des Jeunes Filles en fleurs (in Grieve's translation: In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower), is deliciously funny.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Love is space and time measured by the heart

Recently a friend was given a birthday card with a picture of Proust on the front along with the line: 'Love is space and time measured by the heart'. Initially I was incredulous: whatever else Proust wrote, I was thinking, he couldn't have written a line like that, and especially one so easily absorbed into a trade that deals in inanities. I had to find that line. Surely it doesn't mean what it seems to mean: a soft focussed thought after a glass of champagne on a cliff by an ocean.

Of course, I was under-estimating the birthday card trade. If you put the quote into Google it comes up as is as one of the most quoted lines from Proust's tome of nearly one and a half million words. Every other person has posted it on their blog. It's certainly up for grabs. I'm curious about the translation, though. The original C. K. Scott Moncrieff translation of the French, 'L'amour c'est l'espace et le temps rendus sensibles au coeur' is pretty literal: 'Love, what is it but space and time rendered perceptible by the heart'.  The Moncrief and Kilmartin translation, revised by D. J. Enright, is hardly different: 'Love is space and time made perceptible to the heart'. The active measuring heart on the birthday card -- where does it come from? Google doesn't say.

But context is everything. The line comes near the end of 'The Captive', where Marcel is torturing himself by imagining the lesbian adventures of his beloved Albertine. In the Enright revised translation, the preceding sentences read:

How many people, how many places (even places which did not concern her directly, vague haunts of pleasure where she might have enjoyed some pleasure, places where there are a great many people, where people brush against one) had Albertine -- like a person who, shepherding all her escort, a whole crowd, past the barrier in front of her, secures their admission to the theatre -- from the threshold of my imagination or of my memory, where I paid no attention to them, introduced into my heart! Now, the knowledge that I had of them was internal, immediate, spasmodic, painful. Love is space and time made perceptible to the heart. (p. 440)

If you look in the wonderful index in the' Guide to Proust', published at the end of volume six of the 1996 Vintage edition, it is possible to find some other great one liners about love. Why, I wonder, has nobody thought to put on the front of greeting cards, one of the following:

'Love is an incurable malady'

'To be harsh and deceitful to the person whom we love is so natural'

'... love, even in its humblest beginnings, is a striking example of how little reality means to us'

Sunday, November 6, 2011

De ne rien ajouter de son propre cru

I am yet to track down the essay in which this appears, but according to Nicholas Zurbrugg's Beckett and Proust:

Perhaps the most important of all Proust's early dictums is his assertion, in his essay 'John Ruskin', that: 'le premier devoir de l'artiste est de ne rien ajouter de son propre cru' (CSB, 111) (the artist's first duty is never to add anything from his own imagination). (p. 42-43)

Saturday, November 5, 2011

What is there left but physical violence?

It was only by chance that I got to see Richard Mills' opera, The Love of the Nightingale. 'Flu had kept the legitimate ticket holder at home and in bed. On Tuesday night, after a long day at work, my companions and I thought we'd be struggling to stay awake through the whole two and a half hours, but in the end there was not a moment to haze over. Here was Opera in all of its capitalised extravagance: blood, lust, rape, torture, revenge and murder.

The Love of the Nightingale is an opera about violence. In the program notes, the librettist, Timberlake Wertenbaker, writes:

Where does violence come from? I cannot answer this but I feel instinctively that it has to do with being silenced. Not to be able to express something, even anger, not to be listened to, what is there left but physical violence?

All this is absolutely clear in the libretto. As King Pandion tells his guest, Tereus, before the classic interlude of the play within the play (or opera within the opera), 'the playwright always speaks through the chorus', and the refrain of the female chorus throughout the entire production is 'we do not have the words'. Philomele was once, as Procne her sister describes for her ten year old son, 'full of words and laughter'; when Procne confronts Tereus with the rape and mutilation of this sister -- he has cut out her tongue -- his answer is that he had no words. But did you ask? respond the women.

The chorus of women is the shimmering centre of the opera. In the program notes, the composer describes how he wrote not only for their 'separate personae' but also for their 'complex single composite character of many dimensions'. Along with the smoothly sliding platforms on the stage and the muted colours (all the better to set off the deep rose of Aphrodite's dress and the brown-red shock of blood on Philomele's white shift), the chorus mesmerises us with its circling anxieties and the tonal clusters of its piercing ululations.

My only reservation about the performance had to do with the final section of the opera: the scene where the main characters, at the height of their pursuit and anger, have been turned into birds. In itself this resolution or non resolution after Ovid could have been peculiarly beautiful; it could have been short and wonderful and strange. Initially the effect of the change in mood after the metamorphosis is refreshing. The muddy drama of blood and lust has given way to the simplicity of a pervasive white light with only touches of clear pink and blue and yellow; the clothing, like Philomele's hair at the end, is uniform white. The figures arrange themselves on the now becalmed wooden platforms. The family that had rent themselves apart -- Procne, Itys, the son that she, her sister and the Bacchae had killed in a frenzy of rage, and the instigator of the violence: her husband, the bearded Tereus -- now hug each other in an unlikely image of reconciliation that evokes, in the details of its colouring and clothing (even the beard!), images of the blessed in religious tracts, such as this one that I found on the Mormons' website, under God's Plan of Happiness:

The aunt, Philomele, prompts the nephew whose neck she had lately hacked at, to ask the kind of sweet, innocent questions that the previously sword-obsessed, petulant child would never have asked. Here the theme of the opera -- words and wordlessness, and the importance of questions -- is delivered to the child and the audience. As the lecture dissolves into virtuosic, inarticulate song, it does not so much become the soaring climax of the whole opera -- although it is also that -- but a great relief. Were it not for this unfortunate attempt at an epiphany, The Love of the Nightingale might have eventually convinced the most immovable of audiences -- those that had stayed away and so made our tickets cheap for no other reason than that the opera was contemporary -- and in decades it would have joined the Turandots and La Bohèmes as regular fare.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The same artifical attempt at the real

It is an interesting experience, once in a while, to read books that are seemingly effortlessly written and effortlessly read. They project the same temptation, as soon as you start them, as card game applications on an iPod; what happens to the boy, you wonder, even though the outcome is usually too cute, too deliberately quirky -- the whole of the story too entirely defined by the same artificial attempt at the real that you have read a hundred times before (I won't identify what I've been reading as it would be unfair -- the book was never meant to be anything other than what it is). This reading I've been doing is reading, certainly, but I know it is not the same as when I read the books that I have herded around my desk.

Surely this doesn't have to be so. After the publication of Orlando and during early paddlings into The Waves -- called then The Moths -- Virginia Woolf notes in her diary on 28 November, 1928:

Indeed I am up against some difficulties. Fame to begin with. Orlando has done very well. Now I could go on writing like that -- the tug and the suck are at me to do it. People say this was so spontaneous, so natural. And I would like to keep those qualities if I could without losing the others. But those qualities were largely the result of ignoring the others. They came of writing exteriorly; and if I dig, must I not lose them? And what is my own position towards the inner and the outer? I think a kind of ease and dash are good; -- yes: I think even externality is good; some combination of them ought to be possible.

And yet she continues, recalling something of Kafka's repudiation of 'the shameful lowlands of writing' after his breakthrough with 'The Judgement' (23 September 1912):

The idea has come to me that what I want now to do is to saturate every atom. I mean to eliminate all waste, deadness, superfluity: to give the moment whole; whatever it includes... Waste, deadness, come from the inclusion of things that do not belong to the moment; this appalling narrative business of the realist: getting on from lunch to dinner: it is false, unreal, merely conventional. Why admit anything to literature that is not poetry -- by which I mean saturated?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

So now I am alone in the world

'So now I am alone in the world, with no brother, neighbour or friend, nor any company left me but my own.' Thus begins Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Reveries of a Solitary Walker and for pages we walk with him -- so close that we could be inside his head as he rambles along the unimaginable country lanes stretching then out of Paris and looks out at the child who has been convinced not to come near him any more, or the elderly veterans whose natural affability has been poisoned, as he claims, by evil reports which he is powerless to prevent -- and so it comes as a huge surprise when, as he describes in the Second Walk, after being knocked unconscious by a runaway Great Dane, which sets him falling down a slope and injuring his jaw and the left side of his body:

My wife's cries when she saw me made me realise I was in a worse state than I had thought. (p. 40)

The mention of this wife, or woman, was enough to change my reading of the rest of the book: how to read about solitude and the agonies and comforts of such solitude, when all along there has been a woman intimate to him whose company is so assumed, so invisible, that it rates almost as nothing at all? Much as I loved the rhythm of the writing and the elongated meditations, even rants, it was also spoilt by an imagined Pythonesque version of the book that begins:

'So now I am alone in the world, with no brother, neighbour or friend, nor any company left me but my own.'

'No you're not.'

'Shut up.'

Saturday, September 17, 2011

I see shades of blue everywhere

If you bear in mind Chekhov's legendary advice that if you hang a gun on the wall during the first act of a play, it needs to go off in the last -- advice that is sound if you want the netting of your plot to be taut and ultimately unsurprising -- there's a curious effect in W. G. Sebald's The Emigrants. Certainly, the gun in the first chapter goes off a second time near the end of it: the man (Dr Henry Selwyn) who is observed testing the report of his old game hunting rifle in the framing of a window shoots himself with the selfsame rifle only eleven pages later. Then the guns repaired by Corradi in the second chapter -- in the narrator's childhood -- are taken out into the garden so that the gunsmith can 'fire a few rounds in the air for sheer pleasure, to mark the end of the job.' (p. 38) But after this, there are no further reports -- no obvious but delayed result -- only the muted sounds of cities coated with soot and ash and dust: the muffled layering of memories over the still discernible treasures of once splendid emporiums, laden docks, music and iridescent insects. The deaths -- and there are many to come -- are so quiet, even drained. In the Jewish cemetery near the end of the book, the grave on which the narrator lays a stone has only a single body in it, although four names have been cut into the gravestone. Sebald's narrators write both here and in On the Natural History of Destruction about how the sight of rubble had always been intimately associated with cities when they were young  -- and, strangely, with the excitement and possibility that these cities suggest to someone who has moved there from a small village or town. And yet these journeys elsewhere soon become haunted remnants of journeys, and there are always the shadows of birds flying overhead and the landscape itself, become an almost featureless plain, is left with only the faintest of tracings by the lives that have passed over it:

I see shades of blue everywhere -- a single empty space, stretching out into the twilight of late afternoon, crisscrossed by the tracks of ice-skaters long vanished. (218)

Others have written about the butterfly man. While I'm yet to read these accounts, I have to admit that I found the butterfly man to be the one occasionally forced element of the book. When Ambros Adelwarth is said to have told his doctor, just before his final and ultimately fatal session of electric shock therapy, that he forgot to turn up for a previous session because '[i]t must have slipped my mind whilst I was waiting for the butterfly man', the explanation is too fey, too neat; there is the butterfly man from the first chapter, we understand by then, and he must be included. The figure of Nabokov -- as both a child and an adult -- with his ridiculously large butterfly net, is definitely, in part, a comic figure with its seeming, if eccentric, healing powers, as Max Ferber discovers on the top of Grammont. But Ferber also finds that the meaning of its passing through his life eludes him. He can never succeed in making its portrait afterwards, and considers his attempt to do so 'one of his most unsatisfactory works' (p. 174). There is an ominous faerie quality to the 'messenger of joy', or so Luisa Lanzberg thinks of boy she had once seen with the butterfly net, '... to signal my final liberation' (p. 213 - 214) -- an image that only signals, in the end, the soundless death of her fiancé and a further narrowing of the path 'that grew narrower day by day and led inevitably to the point I have now arrived at' (p. 208) -- that is, to the imminence of her murder by the Nazis. In fact, the butterfly man -- at first just a clipping reminiscent of other photographs that the narrator sees (p. 16) -- is the strongest sign of the hand of the author -- that this book of 'prose writing', as Sebald liked to see the writing tradition in which he was working -- a kind of Speak, Memory as runs the unspecified title of the Nabokov autobiography that Mrs Landau is reading when Paul Bereyter of chapter two first speaks to her -- is actually more fictional, more artfully crafted, than it sometimes appears from the dizzying heights of reading, when like an entranced moth or bird, you pass over its nearly paragraphless pages and its blurred photographs -- all this evidence that is being gathered, as Landau puts it of Bereyter in a Berhardian moment -- at too great a speed, even as you appear to be hardly moving at all.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Of (engendering) pleasure in French and English

Here Catherine Rey describes the role of pleasure in writing -- 'of (engendering) pleasure in French and English' as the video notes put it. She also talks about the freedom she gained from putting 17, 000 kilometres between herself and the weighty literary tradition of France -- a distance which seems not to have succeeded in separating her from her favourite writers of the past, many of them French.  In this video she is being interviewed by Andrew Reimer, translator of The Spruiker's Tale and her essay, 'How Do Salamanders Die?'

It is with their own flesh that they feed their books

In her essay 'How Do Salamanders Die?' in HEAT 9, New Series, the French-Australian writer Catherine Rey contends that 'writers work on themselves, on their own souls, it is with their own flesh that they feed their books.' And, a little later: 'all novels are autobiographies and all autobiographies are novels.'

But we must 'never forget that something dangerous lurks behind the finest texts'; Michel Leiris's preface to L'Age d'homme, she writes, has helped her to 'live and write'. She quotes:

What goes on in the field of it not bereft of value if it remains 'aesthetic', anodyne, free of sanctions, if there is nothing in the act of writing a work which would be the equivalent... of what is for the torero the bull's steely horn, which alone -- by virtue of the physical menace it harbours -- confers a human reality on his art and prevents it from becoming something other than the futile grace of a ballerina?

In the only two books that have been translated into English so far -- The Spruiker's Tale and Stepping Out -- there is cruelty, anger, rebellion. Catherine Rey's writing is energised by a voice so continuous, so charged, it is almost without breath:

Plenty of artists will palm off adulterated goods on you wrapped up in pretty packaging -- art is a means of buying yourself a conscience on the cheap, the charlatans who get rich on the world's misery know this. But writing doesn't deliver you from anything, writing is not a form of salvation, writing doesn't wash away your filth. What you write is you, so much so that the older you get, the less you hide. The more you have a duty to refuse to divert, in Pascal's sense of the term, for diversion creates distance whereas what's required is precisely the opposite: what you need to do is to get nearer to yourself. And not to be afraid of giving yourself to be read, for you have to know how to give. To reject clichés and to lay your cards on the table by revealing the inner things, indiscreet, shameless things, that we normally conceal. Otherwise literature's a dead loss. (Stepping Out, p. 179)

'I write because they haven't yet cut out my tongue,' concludes the narrator of Stepping Out. 'I write because I'm still not frightened.'

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

It is really no more than a gesture sketched to banish memory

In W. G. Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction, he comments on the 'rather unreal effect' of the eyewitness reports of the fire-bombing of German cities towards the end of the Second World War -- an unreal effect that suggests to him the workings of 'rumour-mongering and invention'. He analyses the clichés:

The reality of total destruction, incomprehensible in its extremity, pales when described in such stereotypical phrases as 'a prey to the flames', 'that fateful night', 'all hell was let loose', 'we were staring into the inferno', 'the dreadful fate of the cities of Germany', and so on and so forth. Their function is to cover up and neutralize experiences beyond our ability to comprehend. The phrase 'On that dreadful day when our beautiful city was razed to the ground', which Kluge's American investigator encountered in Frankfurt, Fürth, Wuppertal, Würzburg and Halberstadt alike, is really no more than a gesture sketched to banish memory. (p. 25)

It is as if the over-use of this second-hand language is the one thing that assures the speaker or writer that they have at last found an approved expression against which the inexplicable peculiarities of their own experiences might be elided.

Far be it from me to doubt that witnesses of the time remember a great deal, and that it can be brought to light in interviews. On the other hand, the records of such interviews run along surprisingly stereotyped lines. Among the central problem of 'eyewitness reports' are their inherent inadequacy, notorious unreliability and curious vacuity; their tendency to follow a set routine and go over and over the same material. (p. 80)

Via Steve at The Cosmos Zoo, I came across Daniel Mendelsohn citing the instance of a bereaved mother who declares on the local news network her almost meaningless but presumably heartfelt desire for 'closure' after her child was shot accidentally during a drive-by shooting.

It could only be that the cliché is the first thing to hand -- the one that you can cover yourself with quickly -- but one with the additional benefit that it still connects to ideas so seemingly grand that your job in finding words to match the immensity of an occasion can be seen to have been done thoroughly and well.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

How he was adapting the Gothic novel to local conditions

It was more than half my life ago that I first read Patrick White's The Eye of the Storm. White was still, then, living at 20 Martin Road opposite Centennial Park. One of my university lecturers claimed to live just a few doors away from him and had once brought him one of her supposedly legendary and very Canadian lemon meringue pies. I can imagine that White, whose books testify to his fascination with the humblest of culinary products -- baked custard, chops, mutton fat and cabbage -- might have scraped off the fluff and given it to his dogs (Manoly probably wouldn't have liked it), just to see if the lemon part underneath wobbled.

I have reread White since then. Perhaps two years ago I reread what I liked to think of as my favourite White, The Solid Mandala, but having discovered, after seeing Judy Davis in Benedict Andrews's version of Chekhov's The Seagull at the Belvoir, that she was soon to appear alongside Geoffrey Rush and Charlotte Rampling in a screen adaptation of The Eye of the Storm that was already in post-production -- I realised it was imperative to reread the book before the film filled over the detail, and now, like my father who will always say the concert he has just heard is the best concert he has ever been to, I'm in danger of revising my favourite White.

The texture of White's writing is unmistakable. Among hedgings of modals, transitive verbs without objects, third conditionals and lopped off clauses -- 'She should have disliked; instead he had not shed his admiration, first for his client's wife, then for the widow' --'if his head was still his to use, it wouldn't be for long' --'There on the staircase everyone was stuck as usual the night that Athol Shreve.'  (p. 26, 294, 90) -- the vivid plasticity of his images is often startling:

Before returning home, she had taken a brief holiday in Suffolk: the frosted roads, the hedgerows with their beads of scarlet bryony on withered umbilical cords, her own solitariness (when hadn't it been? though never a colder, harder one) shocked any smugness out of her. (p. 167; all quotations are from my 1982 reprint of the 1973 Penguin edition)

This last sentence is actually from the very chapter of this book, chapter 3, which was sent by the Australian newspaper in 2006 as a supposed first chapter to twelve publishers and three literary agents as a hoax. Not only, as the Australian probably predicted, was the material rejected by all who bothered to reply, none of the editors or agents recognised White's characteristic writing style notwithstanding the obvious anagram of his name (Wraith Picket) and the near identical title (The Eye of the Cyclone). Since The Eye of the Storm was published in 1973, the same year that White became the first (and still only) Australian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, the fact that they failed to recognise the work that is emblematic of this achievement, let alone acknowledge its worth, is sobering indeed.

Despite his seeming irrelevance to the contemporary literary publishing scene in Australia, a simplified version of one aspect of White's writing has lived on in Australian popular films and television shows of the last twenty years. When White writes about seemingly ordinary, uneducated Australian characters, he uses dialogue and free indirect discourse to present easily hurt, self-absorbed, naive men and women whose compulsion to make awkward, heart-felt declarations is only partially realised in their acts or their speech. These characters pick their way through unheroic, even thoroughly disappointing settings, which are nonetheless animated by a curious will of their own: 

Outside 'Miami Flats' the street was looking extra livid: the fluorescence had not yet been switched off to accommodate the light of morning. She walked briskly, but suspicious, as though expecting to skid on something: one of the empty milk bottles left to roll in the gritty shallows. Crossing the Parade she avoided glancing to the right because of the PHARMACY sign, and soon afterwards arrived at 26 Gladys Street, where Mrs Vidler was scrubbing the step.

She looked up: a large brown-skinned woman with suds to halfway up her arms. 'Vid and I might worry about you, love, if we thought there was any cause for it.'

'For all you know, I could have been prostituting myself at the Cross.' Flora Manhood was that exasperated she added for good measure, 'A Negro.'

Viddie laughed for the joke. 'Mr Pardoe called and left a message.'

'What message?' She could hardly bear it.

'Vid put it in yer room.'

Flora went in, and there was the envelope, exactly in the centre of the Vidlers' cleanly table.

She wouldn't open it at once, but did sooner than she intended because what was the use?

Dear Flo,
You can only misunderstand me. I honestly love you. COL ( p. 182 - 183)
Here, and in other scenes such as the Warrawee dinner, the Watson's Bay lunch and the evening at Snow's in 'Miami Flats', it is not difficult to recognise the origins of the so-called 'quirky' or 'off-beat' Australian comic films of the 'nineties, such as Muriel's Wedding and Strictly Ballroom, as well as the eponymous Kath and Kim duo of the long-running television series -- whose names, I am yet to be convinced otherwise, could only be a direct reference to the photographic images of Prowse's estranged wife and daughter -- 'These 'ull make yer laugh!' -- in White's much later novel, The Twyborn Affair. The Eye of the Storm abounds in characters with exaggerated features and accents, such as Athol Shreve 'the turncoat politician and tame social bull' (p. 92) and the afternoon nurse Flora's overweight, albino cousin Snow with her unzipped trousers and her girlfriend Alix, 'a clotted-creamy woman, with the necklaces of Venus, and black hair built up high' (p. 176):

'And now there's my friend Alix. Alix was sold on the idea from the start. She'll be home any moment.' Snow looked at her wrist. 'She's a sales-lady -- at Parker's in the lonjeray.' (p. 175)

Empurpled, obese, drunken characters collapse in gutters, flail through broken rickety chairs and shake the plaster from the ceilings of their own bathrooms. I lost count of the farts. White must have been describing his own literary approach when Dorothy, the daughter of the dying, matriarch Elizabeth Hunter -- mother, mummy, with all its suggestive opulence and dessication -- overhears at a North Shore dinner party an 'Australian Writer' describe to his neighbour 'how he was adapting the Gothic novel to local conditions.' (p. 282)

What is different or extra to the Kath and Kim take on this 'Gothic' approach is the clarity of White's observations, the dark to very dark tones of his irony, the almost Proustian analysis of motives and associations, and the subtlety of his literary resonances and references, which include Shakespeare, Joyce and even Winnie the Pooh -- '"We shall be late if we don't make a move." Late for what, she could not have told...' (p. 418) -- as well as Stendhal, whose impossibly admirable, incestuously driven heroine, 'the Sanseverina' in The Charterhouse of Parma, haunts 'Bill' Hunter and, later, his daughter Dorothy.

And in addition to all this, there is an extraordinary feel for Sydney as a place: for the still palpable sleaze of the red brick flats behind Anzac Parade, the industrial grey of Botany, the scruffy edges of Centennial Park, the heavy azalea-fringed mansions of Warrawee; this achievement reminding me of the evocations of the city in Christina Stead's For Love Alone and Seven Poor Men of Sydney, a writer whose significance White celebrated when she became the first recipient of the Patrick White Award, which he set up with his Nobel prize winnings for those Australian writers who have received inadequate recognition for their contribution to Australian literature.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

It says: a whole form of literary pretence is over

In his interview by Bibliokept, Lars Iyer describes what it means to be 'posthumous' as a reader and a writer, referring to the philosopher Franz Rosenzweig's use of the term and then, resisting Rosenzweig's presumption of an enduring culture of literary master-works, locating us all as posthumous to it:
Reviewing Jean-Luc Godard’s film Every Man For Himself, Pauline Kael writes, ‘I got the feeling that Godard doesn’t believe in anything anymore; he just wants to make movies, but maybe he doesn’t really believe in movies anymore, either’. Without agreeing with Kael’s assessment of Godard, I’d like to paraphrase her formulation: I think literary writers want to write literary fiction without believing in literature – without, indeed, believing in anything at all.

It seems to me that the literary gestures are worn out – the creation of character, plot, the contrivance of high-literary language and style as much as the avoidance of high-literary language and style, and the abandonment of most elements of the creation of character and plot. The ‘short, elliptical sentences’ of which the blogger of Life Unfurnished writes, the ‘absence of fulsome description’, the ‘signs of iconoclastic casualness’, the ‘colloquialisms’, the ‘lack of trajectory’, the ‘air of the incidental’: all are likewise exhausted.

What, then, is to be done? As writers, as readers, we are posthumous. We’ve come too late. We no longer believe in literature. Once you accept this non-belief, once you affirm it in a particular way, then something may be possible.
And yet despite or even because of this resistance -- the affirmation of his non-belief and its ability to flower into what he calls a 'legitimate strangeness', particularly through the work of blogging -- Iyer retains what many might see as an unexpected faith in the century old possibilities of the avant-garde:
Spurious is a book on its hands and knees. For me, it feels like the last book, the last burst of laughter before the world ends. But it also feels like the first one, because it has loosened the hold of the past. It says: a whole form of literary pretence is over.
An enviable energy -- perhaps the only way to blog, to write.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

I was only cured of this mania much later

Since The Life of Henry Brulard is still lying next to this computer, I thought I should add to to Scott Esposito's thoughts 'On How Writers Write' the following observations by Stendhal/ Beyle. On the one hand he laments:

I always waited for the moment of inspiration to write.

I was only cured of this mania much later. [...] This folly seriously affected my productivity; even in 1806 I waited for the moment of genius to write.

[...] If, around 1795, I had spoken of my intention of writing, some sensible man would have told me: "Write something every day for a couple of hours, genius or no genius." Such a remark would have induced me to make good use of ten years of my life which I have idiotically spent in waiting for genius. (p. 144-5)

And yet later:

About 1794, I was foolishly awaiting the moment of genius. Something like the voice of God speaking from the burning bush to Moses. This silliness made me waste a lot of time, but may perhaps have prevented me from being satisfied with the semi-commonplace as are so many writers of talent (for instance M. Loeve-Veimars). (p.229 - all italics are Stendhal's)

Thursday, July 7, 2011

And of course a book exists only as a consequence of antitheses

This is what happens when you move from the page onto your own staked paths through the embedded white screens of the internet: an inevitable resonance. Here Stendhal (Beyle), fuelled by contempt, intent on his focus on what 'appears' to him 'at certain moments':

I declare once again, and once for all, that I supremely and sincerely despise M. Pariset, M. de Salvandy, M. Saint-Marc Girardin and the other braggarts, the mercenary and Jesuitical pedants of the Journal de Débats; but that doesn't make me think myself any closer to the great writers. I don't consider myself to have any genius, which would guarantee my worth, other than that of painting a faithful likeness of Nature, which appears to me so clearly at certain moments; in the second place, I am sure of my perfect honesty, of my adoration for the truth; and in the third place I am sure of the pleasure I take in writing, a pleasure which reached frenzy in 1817, at Milan, at M. Peronti's, Corsia del Giardino. (p.188)
And Douglas Robertson's translation of Krista Fleischman's interview with Thomas Bernhard just after the release of Woodcutters in 1984:

FLEISCHMANN:  Woodcutters—the book is subtitled “An Excitation.”

BERNHARD: Yes, because the style of the book is somewhat excited; its very subject, musically speaking, can’t be written about in a peaceful key, and has to be written about in an excited key.  You can’t write about this stuff in complete calm, as you do in conventional prose; instead, you sit down and straightway you’re excited by the very idea itself, and when you actually start writing, you’re still excited by the style.  The book is written in an excited style.

FLEISCHMANN:  And would you say the excitement increases the closer one gets to the conclusion? 

BERNHARD: An excitation is something that keeps increasing until the very end.  And so the book naturally ends in a state of total excitation by the city of Vienna, in embraces and annihilation all at one go, in a hug-like chokehold on Vienna, and [in my saying] Vienna, you are the best and at the same time the most horrible of all cities, as I daresay anybody else would about his home town.

FLEISCHMANN: So [the excitation emerges] out of [these] antitheses?

BERNHARD: Well, yes; those are the basis of a person’s existence; and of course a book exists only as a consequence of antitheses.  If a book, even a book that’s not an excitation, is one-sided, then it’s simply worthless.

FLEISCHMAN: Was it the period you [were writing] about that excited you so much?  Or was it something else that got you so riled up?

BERNHARD: [It was] my memory [of it].  Thirty years after the fact it’s certainly not the period [itself] that excites you, but the memory [of it], which you make present to yourself, and then you notice that it’s all basically [composed of a bunch of] more or less open wounds; you squirt a bit of poison into them, and the whole thing catches fire, and then an excited style materializes.  And then, you know, certain people cross your path and when you see them, they, you know, drive you crazy, and then you introduce them into just this genre of book, namely an excitation.

FLEISCHMANN: But surely with distance one ought to be able to write about the past more composedly.

BERNHARD: That’s the big cliché about contemplating the past, and it’s obviously totally false.  Old people can write books like that when they’re sitting paralyzed in their armchairs, but it’s not my mode, not yet; maybe the day after tomorrow I’ll still be excited; whenever I write anything, even something peaceful, I’m still basically excited.  In any case, excitation is a pleasant condition; when your blood is sluggish, excitation gets it moving, pulsing; it keeps you alive, and consequently keeps the stream of books flowing.  Without excitation there’s absolutely nothing; you might as well stay in bed.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Only in opera buffa can I be moved to tears

Although Stendhal's autobiographical fragment, The Life of Henry Brulard, was eventually published in 1890, I haven't yet been able to ascertain whether Proust ever read it. Had he been aware, for instance, that Stendhal compares a novel to 'a fiddle-bow, the reader's soul is like the violin which yields the sound' -- and this in a context where he writes about the extraordinary effect on his 'crazy' soul of 'Séthos (a dull novel by the Abbé Terrasson)'? In these memoirs, the effect is everything:

I cannot see things as they really were, I only have my childish memories. I see pictures, I remember their effects on my heart, but the causes and the shape of these things are a blank. It's still just like the frescoes of the [Campo Santo] at Pisa, where you can clearly make out an arm, but the piece of fresco beside it, which showed the head, has fallen off. I see a sequence of very clear pictures, but I only know what things were like in so far as they affected myself. And even this aspect of things I remember only through the recollection of the effect it produced on me. (p. 138)
We have a sense that Stendhal as a man was often overwhelmed by his reactions to things and people. For many years he considered himself as someone who hated 'Nature' for no other reason than the disingenuous praise heaped on it by his father and his hated aunt, Séraphie. Grenoble, where he grew up, provokes an almost physical disgust:

Everything that is mean in vulgar in the bourgeois way reminds me of Grenoble, everything that reminds me of Gr[enoble] fills me with horror, no, horror is too noble a word, with nausea. (p. 70)
He has strong reactions to certain writers: 'I loathe almost equally descriptions in the manner of Walter Scott and the bombast of Rousseau' -- reactions he might even, later, come to regret, as when he writes that 'the rhythmic and pretentious phrases of MM. Chateaubriand and Salvandy made me write Le Rouge et le Noir in too clipped a style.' And yet this very antipathy also enlivens him:

I am neither timid nor melancholy when I write, and run the risk of being hissed; I feel full of courage and pride when I am writing a phrase which will be spurned by one of those two giants of 1835, MM. Chateaubriand or Villemain. (p. 187)

He was writing these memoirs, it must be remembered, at the end of 1835 and into the early months of 1836.

And yet for someone so seemingly led by his passions -- or perhaps because of it -- he intensely dislikes the emotional manipulation of certain kinds of writing or even 'real life' experience:

Only in opera buffa can I be moved to tears. Opera seria, by deliberately setting out to arouse emotion, promptly prevents me from feeling any. Even in real life a beggar who asks for alms with piteous cries, far from arousing my compassion, makes me consider, with the utmost philosophical severity, the advantages of a penitentiary.

A poor man who does not say a word to me, who does not utter lamentable and tragic cries as they do in Rome, and who crawls along the ground eating an apple, like the cripple I saw a week ago, touches me immediately, almost to the point of tears. (p. 307)
Perhaps the moment that, for me, most anticipates Proust in la Recherche is where he writes about his obsession with the actress Mlle Kubly and the poor quality posted bills that advertise her appearances:

What transports of pure, tender and triumphant joy when I read her name on the bill! I can still see that bill, the shape of it, the paper, the printed letters.

I went to read that beloved name in three or four of the places where it was billed, one after the other: at the Jacobins' Gate, under the vault of the Garden, at the corner of my grandfather's house. I did not merely read her name, I gave myself the pleasure of re-reading the whole bill. The somewhat battered type used by the bad printer who produced this bill became precious and holy to me, and for many long years I loved it more than finer lettering. (p. 188 - 189)

Friday, June 3, 2011

How Marcel becomes Proust

In one of the narrow aisles on the eighth floor of Fisher stack, at Sydney University, I came across Thierry Marchaisse's fascinating book, which deserves to be translated: Comment Marcel devient Proust: Enquête sur l'énigme de la créativité ('How Marcel becomes Proust: an inquiry into the enigma of creativity' would be an approximate translation, although it is likely that the English title would use 'became'). Here Marchaisse argues that in September 1909 Marcel, still only a thirty-eight-year-old dilettante, experienced a significant breakthrough and how it was not just greater self-discipline that got him at last working on À la recherche du temps perdu, which was clearly of a very different order to his previous book, Les Plaisirs et les Jours, or even the then unpublished but superficially similar Jean Santeuil.

Marchaisse refers to Proust's own claims that la Recherche was basically 'une demonstration' and compares it to Andrew Wiles's presentation of Fermat's last theorem in 1994, where one of the main points of the 'demonstration' was that it was performative. This breakthrough, Marchaisse explains, came about when Proust, while working on Contre Sainte-Beuve, read Romain Rolland's Jean-Christophe, a serialised, digressive novel in the first person about the narrator becoming a composer. As a piece of writing, Jean-Christophe seems not to have impressed Proust at all, but never-the-less, as Marchaisse argues, it seems also to have suggested to him a formal solution for how he could bring together in one work what hitherto he had been trying unsuccessfully to do in the separate fictional and critical strands of his writing -- a formal solution which hinged on a careful, highly conscious use of the first person that enabled him to develop an infinitely expandable and yet rigorously determined text analogous to the mathematical marvel of a Mobius band.

Unlike Jean-Christophe, which could never, as a novel, enact the music that the eponymous narrator is supposed to be able to produce by the end of the work, la Recherche enfolds the narrator into the substance of the text that the narrator is preparing to write, which is the text itself. Marchaisse points out that one of the 'signes manouches' that Proust has left in his work of this 'mobienne' intention is the peculiar way, ignored by printed editions, that the last full stop on the very last page of his manuscript does not come after the supposed final word of the novel, 'Temps', but after the word 'Fin' or 'the end'.

Monday, May 23, 2011

I regard, and have always regarded my works as lottery tickets

Next month it will be 179 years since Stendhal began his Memoirs of an Egotist (Souvenirs d'Egotisme, the last a word he borrowed from English) when he was 49 years old and yet it reads as fresh as if he'd just posted it on the internet thirty minutes ago. He wrote it twenty or thirty pages at a time in order to force a spontaneity that might push past the kind of self-aggrandising narrator he despised. In the first chapter he writes:

I am profoundly convinced that the only antidote which can make the reader forget the everlasting 'I's' the author is going to write, is perfect sincerity. Will I have the courage to recount what is humiliating without salvaging my self-esteem with an infinite series of prefatory remarks? I hope so. (p. 33: mine is the 1975 Chattus and Windus edition, translated by David Ellis)
The reader doesn't forget these 'I's', but grows fond of him. This is no rare, fragile, poetic sensibility, but a narrator who cheerfully describes himself as fat, short and ugly and yet worries about the swirling vacancy inside his head when he attempts to examine it:

I don't know myself and it's this which distresses me sometimes when I think about it at night. Am I good or bad, clever or stupid? (p. 33)

The project of writing the memoirs hinges on this candour, although it also could well be undone by it:

What I am writing seems very boring; if it carries on like this it won't be a book but an examination of conscience. I've hardly any precise memories of this stormy, passionate period. (p. 49)

This is a narrator whose memories, as he admits, aren't clear, who changes his characters' names as he writes, who stops every now and then with remarks such as this:

Where was I?... Good God, how badly written this is! (p. 58)
And yet it is the assuredness of the voice, or perhaps of the project itself -- his quest for self understanding as he writes -- that draws the reader along with it. He trusts his instinct over and against the fashion of the day:

I had long arguments with Lussinge. I maintained that a good third of Sir Walter Scott's talent was attributable to a secretary who went to the country and roughed out for him descriptions of the countryside on the spot. I found him then, as I find him now, weak in his depiction of passion, in knowledge of the human heart. Will posterity confirm the judgement of contemporaries who place the Tory baronet immediately after Shakespeare? (p. 140)
This instinct that drives the narrative forwards in the way he wants, omitting what bores him, extemporising on what doesn't, is an approach not too different from what the Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabel calls 'palavering':

I have forgotten to describe this salon, Sir Walter Scott and his imitators would have been prudent and begun with the kind of description of physical surroundings I loathe. I find them so tedious to do, it stops me writing novels. (p. 69)

And yet he did write novels, as we know. Gabriel Josipovici, whose own novel writing evolved from a similar irritation with the conventions of description writing, claims in The Mirror of Criticism that the 'birth of the novel is coterminous with the birth of the extemporal vein' -- a suggestion that the novel might actually rely on this palavering, this following of the instinct and eschewing of those conventional expectations that stultify, for the writer, the work of the writing.

When Stendhal in his forties at last turned from his abortive attempts to write drama to writing novels instead, he seemed to have found his metier. And yet, for all his confidence in his literary instinct -- or perhaps because of it -- in Memoirs of an Egotist he appears insouciant of the immediate and even medium term reception of everything he wrote:

Quite often in society I used to come across people who would congratulate me on one of my works: I'd written very few then. The compliment and my reply done with, we didn't know what to say to each other. These Parisians, who expected some frivolously pat reply must have thought me very gauche, and perhaps proud. I'm accustomed to seeming the opposite of what I am. I regard, and have always regarded my works as lottery tickets. I don't expect to be reprinted before 1900. ( p. 90)

Friday, May 6, 2011

Then a pitiable faculty developed itself in their minds

In his Guardian review, Steven Poole compares the comic protagonists in Lars Iyer's Spurious to Bouvard and Pécuchet in Flaubert's last, unfinished novel:

If Flaubert's Bouvard and Pécuchet had just sat around bitching instead of investigating the world's knowledge, the result would have resembled this novel. It is a tiny marvel of comically repetitive gloomery.
Although, when I read Spurious, so many other comic duos suggested themselves to me, as they have to others -- duos such as Laurel and Hardy, and Vladimir and Estragon -- I had also thought of Bouvard and Pécuchet, if only for the physical echo of these two Flaubertian buffoons, with their mismatched figures and outlandish clothes. Even the inexplicable, unstoppable damp in Lars's flat recalls the dust, the stains and the airlessness of Pécuchet's place in Paris and, later, the gradual disintegration of the country house in Normandy.

While Bouvard and Pécuchet investigate one discipline after another through a great number of books -- with the exception, as Raymond Queneau is said to have observed, of mathematics -- W. and Lars in Spurious circle through philosophy, messianic studies, the films of Béla Tarr and the problem of Kafka -- or more specifically, Kafka and Brod (and, as if to outdo his grand-sires Bouvard and Pécuchet, W. makes continual attempts to teach himself complex mathematics). In Spurious, Iyer, like Flaubert, seems to be centrally, even anxiously concerned with stupidity:

'Do you think it's possible to die of stupidity?' W. sighs. 'Not as a consequence of that stupidity', he notes, 'but from stupidity and shame', W. asks me, 'do you think you could die of shame, I mean literally die?' (Spurious p. 11)
Then a pitiable faculty developed itself in their minds, that of observing stupidity and no longer tolerating it. Trifling things made them feel sad: the advertisements in the newspapers, the profile of a shopkeeper, an idiotic remark overheard by chance. Thinking over what was said in their own village, and on the fact that there were even as far as the Antipodes other Coulons, other Marescots, other Foureaus, they felt, as it were, the heaviness of all the earth weighing down upon them. (Bouvard and Pécuchet chapter 8)
Strangely, the free Project Gutenberg English version of Bouvard and Pécuchet, or perhaps I should say the 1904 edition copyright by M. Walter Dunne which Project Gutenberg is using, finishes at the end of this chapter: where the characters, at the point of stringing themselves up, spy through the skylight in their garret an alluring scene that leads them to the almost stage-lit spectacle of the village in prayer in the church for Christmas Eve:

Their breasts swelled with sobs. They leaned against the skylight to take breath.

The air was chilly and a multitude of stars glittered in a sky of inky blackness.

The whiteness of the snow that covered the earth was lost in the haze of the horizon.

They perceived, close to the ground, little lights, which, as they drew near, looked larger, all reaching up to the side of the church.

Curiosity drove them to the spot. It was the midnight mass. These lights came from shepherds' lanterns. Some of them were shaking their cloaks under the porch.

The serpent snorted; the incense smoked. Glasses suspended along the nave represented three crowns of many-coloured flames; and, at the end of the perspective at the two sides of the tabernacle, immense wax tapers were pointed with red flames. Above the heads of the crowd and the broad-brimmed hats of the women, beyond the chanters, the priest could be distinguished in his chasuble of gold. To his sharp voice responded the strong voices of the men who filled up the gallery, and the wooden vault quivered above its stone arches. The walls were decorated with the stations of the Cross. In the midst of the choir, before the altar, a lamb was lying down, with its feet under its belly and its ears erect.

The warm temperature imparted to them both a strange feeling of comfort, and their thoughts, which had been so tempestuous only a short time before, became peaceful, like waves when they are calmed.

They listened to the Gospel and the Credo, and watched the movements of the priest. Meanwhile, the old, the young, the beggar women in rags, the mothers in high caps, the strong young fellows with tufts of fair down on their faces, were all praying, absorbed in the same deep joy, and saw the body of the Infant Christ shining, like a sun, upon the straw of a stable. This faith on the part of others touched Bouvard in spite of his reason, and Pécuchet in spite of the hardness of his heart.

There was a silence; every back was bent, and, at the tinkling of a bell, the little lamb bleated.

The host was displayed by the priest, as high as possible between his two hands. Then burst forth a strain of gladness inviting the whole world to the feet of the King of Angels. Bouvard and Pécuchet involuntarily joined in it, and they felt, as it were, a new dawn rising in their souls.

It is extraordinary to consider the possibility of a novice Anglophone Flaubert reader getting to the end of this e-book of Bouvard and Pécuchet -- a book not easily available in print, unlike Madame Bovary or A Sentimental Education or Three Tales -- and interpreting the book and, perhaps, the whole of Flaubert's work, from such an ending that was never meant to be an ending: such a piece of pure and deliberate kitsch. The French Project Gutenberg e-book, although also unfinished because Flaubert never completed the work, continues on for two more chapters, through the inevitable religious phase into the frustrations of trying to educate the two young beggars, Victor and Victorine -- in itself a testament to the long, sad vanity of Bouvard and Pécuchet's attempts to teach themselves about the world.

For all we know, Lars Iyer's project with Lars and W. may never be completed either. Spurious, we read on the back of the book, will be followed by Dogma in 2012, but in the intervening time, any readers anxious to find more of the lugubrious, whimsical wit of this seemingly highly educated but still very much baffled Bouvard and Pécuchet -- conspicuous in their floral shirts among crowds of slender people in black, as they say -- can always look to the originating blog.

The false ending of the Project Gutenberg English edition of Bouvard and Pécuchet -- the Christmas kitsch epiphany of this seemingly last and crowning scene -- points to something which troubles Flaubert and Iyer: both troubles and intrigues. Stupidity and happiness have long been bedfellows, as Flaubert once very famously observed to Louise Colet:

To be stupid, selfish, and have good health: these are the three requirements for happiness, although if the first is missing, all is lost.

Etre bête, égoïste, et avoir une bonne santé, voilà les trois conditions voulues pour être heureux ; mais si la première nous manque, tout est perdu.  (Lettres à Louise Colet, Jeudi soir, 11 heures. 6 Août 1846)
No matter how hard W. (via Lars the narrator) might insist that he and Lars are both stupid and happy -- in short, that they are Brod, and not Kafka as they might have longed to be -- the narrative pushes past any possibility of an alluring, deadening, blissful stasis. Just to state such a thing in all conviction is to enact a paradox -- to move the writing on:

'These are the last days', says W. 'It's all finished. Everything's so shit', says W., 'but we're happy -- why is that? Because we're puerile', he says. 'Because we're inane. It saves us', W. says, 'but it also condemns us'. (p. 75)
The novel ends with W. declaring that they are lost, but it is in the infinity of their 'chatter', their friendship and the result -- the writing -- in which they (and we, the readers) are lost:

W. wonders whether we too have discovered the infinite in our own way. Our incessant chatter. Our incessant feeling of utter failure. Perhaps we live on our own version of the plain, W. muses. Am I the plain on which he is lost, or vice versa? But perhaps the plain is the friendship between us on which we are both lost, he says. (p. 188)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The language of others is unintelligible to me

The back of the New Directions edition of Roberto Bolaño's Antwerp displays this quotation from Bolaño (in gold lettering on the matte black fabric): 'The only novel that doesn't embarrass me is Antwerp.' This was sufficient incentive for me to buy the book. Not that I actually disliked Last Evenings on Earth -- nor particularly disliked The Savage Detectives, even though I soon lost patience and gave it away, my longing to clear the thick fawn space that it occupied so much greater than any curiosity I had for the rest of it in the end. Simply, I was disappointed -- and especially disappointed given the hype that attaches itself to this book that is no longer in my house. 

In his introduction to Antwerp, 'Total Anarchy: Twenty-Two years later ', Bolaño gives some sense of how this tiny volume might be different to his other novels:

I never brought this novel to any publishing house, of course. They would have slammed the door in my face and I'd have lost the copy. I didn't even make what's technically called a clean copy. The original manuscript has more pages: the text tended to multiply itself, spreading like a sickness.

In the novel itself, although there are the usual maverick writers and slim, prostrated girls -- the usual crime and sleaze -- so much has been stripped from the hard, obsessive core of it, that it's possible to begin to be enchanted. Most fascinating is his use of ellipsis to isolate and make strange the found objects of speech:

But I used to be in a gang and I had the Arab in my sights and I pulled the trigger at the worst possible moment. Narrow streets in the heart of Districto V, and no way to escape or alter the fate that slid like a djellaba over my greasy hair. Words that drift away from one another. Urban games played from time immemorial ... "Frankfurt"..."A blond girl at the biggest window of the boarding house" ... "There's nothing I can do now" ... I'm my own bewitchment. My hands move over a mural in which someone, eight inches taller than me, stands in the shadows, hands in the pockets of his jacket, preparing for death and his subsequent transparency. The language of others is unintelligible to me. "Tired after being up for days" ... "A blond girl came down the stairs" ... "My name is Roberto Bolaño" ... "I opened my arms" ... (from chapter 4, 'I'm My Own Bewitchment' )

Monday, April 11, 2011

Something like a cross between an expensive shirt and a telephone message

Already before his death, Proust must have been anticipating the way 'une espèce d'instrument optique' would be mistranslated in Enright's revised version of the Scott Moncrieff and Kilmartin as 'a sort of magnifying glass', because in the letter in reply to André Lang, which was published in Les Annales only months before he died, he is at pains to explain that he prefers the use of a telescope to the microscope as an analogy of what he is doing in his novel, where he is 'trying to discover universal laws' rather than analysing himself 'in the personal and odious sense of the word'.

Proust wants to emphasise the distance between the writer and the object that he pursues in his writing. As he continues in this letter:

It has to do with drawing a reality out of the unconscious in such a way as to make it enter into the realm of the intellect, while trying to preserve its life, not to garble it, to subject it to the least possible shrinkage -- a reality which the light of intellect alone would be enough to destroy, so it seems. To succeed in this work of salvage, all the forces of the mind and even of the body, are not superfluous. It is a little like the cautious, docile, intrepid effort necessary to someone who, while still asleep, would like to explore his sleep with his mind without this intervention leading to his awakening. Here precautions must be taken. But although it apparently embodies a contradiction, this form of work is not impossible.

Unfortunately I don't have the original French for this letter. The English is from the 1950 translation by Mina Curtiss. In Ronald Hayman's biography of Proust, the translation he cites (which might be his own) is:

It is a matter of drawing something out of the unconscious to make it enter the domain of consciousness, while trying to preserve its life, [not to] mutilate it, to keep leakage to a minimum -- a reality which could apparently be destroyed by exposure to the light of mere intelligence. To succeed in this work of salvage, the whole strength of the body and the mind is not too much. Something like the same kind of effort -- careful, gentle, daring --  is necessary to someone who while still asleep would like to examine his sleep with his intelligence, without letting this interference wake him up.

I like the way, in Hayman's translation, his use of the words 'mutilate' and 'leakage' evoke the delicate, membranous anatomy of some unknown submarine creature; Curtiss's 'shrinkage' and 'garble' deaden the image, turning it into something like a cross between an expensive shirt and a telephone message.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

To make us know an additional universe

Looking back at that letter Proust wrote to Antoine Bibesco in 1912 for the benefit of Gide and Copea in the Nouvelle revue française (NRF), I see that he finishes with:

Style is in no way an embellishment, as certain people think, it is not even a question of technique; it is, like colour with certain painters, a quality of vision, a revelation of a private universe which each one of us sees and which is not seen by others. The pleasure an artist gives us is to make us know an additional universe. How, under these conditions, do certain writers declare that they try not to have a style? I don't understand it. I hope that you will make them understand my explanations.

Proust, it seems, read the contents of this letter when he was interviewed a year later by the journalist Élie-Joseph Bois for Le Temps. Interestingly, the last three sentences, which constitute (to my reading) a direct challenge to Gide's own approach, were omitted in the interview.

I would say that they still stand as a challenge to any of us writing now.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

At one of the highpoints of culture and civilization

In his monograph on Proust, Edmund White shows himself to be deeply sympathetic to the life of his subject, but as for his work -- apart from his thorough familiarity with it, and such unsubstantiated claims as where he calls Proust 'the greatest novelist of the new century' -- White is inclined to contain the aesthetic implications of what he achieved by hedging it around with the contingencies of time and place:

Perhaps the theory of the primacy of involuntary memory appeals to readers because it assures us that nothing is ever truly forgotten and that art is nothing but the accumulation of memories. This utterly democratic view that we are all novelists who have been handed by destiny one big book, the story of our lives, appeals to anyone who has ever felt the tug towards self-expression but has feared not being skilled enough to get his feelings down. Of course what Proust leaves out of the equation are three essential things: the fact that he happened to live at one of the highpoints of culture and civilization (if not of literary creation); his natural gifts of eloquence, analysis of psychology, and assimilation of information; and finally his willingness to sacrifice his life to his art. (p. 129)

The second and third of these are fair points indeed, but the first I find extraordinary. As White had written earlier -- and which he refers to here, ambiguously, in the parenthesis -- at the time that Proust was writing in Paris, he was hardly surrounded by other great or inspiring literary minds. Proust drew on the writings of earlier times and other language traditions: the writings of Nerval, Balzac, Goethe, George Eliot and, of course, John Ruskin. This over-valuing of the serendipity of place and time -- a form of snobbery that I can imagine Proust would have loved to write about -- seems always to provide the ready excuse for many would-be writers or artists who simply want to explain away their lack of application: if only they were living in fin de siècle Paris, if only they were in New York, if only... Flaubert deliberately kept away from the literary scene in Paris -- in provincial Rouen -- so that he might produce a text as strong and new and strange as Madame Bovary. Proust might have given himself all sorts of excuses for not getting down to write what he wanted to write, but when he felt himself to be dying he forced himself to work as he had never worked before, in his ugly but serviceable rooms on the boulevard Haussmann.

If there were three significant factors in Proust's favour, I would say that, in addition to the last two in Edmund White's list, one of them was that he didn't have to work for his living, and many of us in the world would envy him that.

Friday, March 25, 2011

I have had to show the experience recorded as extended in time

My 1950 edition of Proust's letters is the colour of our third-hand sofa. The only annotations in the book occurs on the page opposite a black and white reproduction of Whistler's Comte Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac portrait, where a previous owner has made pencil corrections in handwriting that is so like my grandmother's I have been trying to imagine her taking such an interest in this 1912 letter to Antoine Bibesco that she would want to correct Mina Curtiss's translation, with Comte Robert Montesquiou-Fezensac's raised right eyebrow challenging her to comprehend Proust's reference to jeunes filles in his letter to Georges de Lauris in 1908 -- this grandmother of mine who, for all I know since I hardly remember her, had been the one to insert a footnote in the following section:

There are novelists, on the other hand, who envisage a brief plot with few characters. That is not my conception of the novel. There is a plane geometry and a geometry of space. And so for me the novel is not only plane psychology but psychology in space and time. That invisible substance, time, I try to isolate. But in order to do this it was essential that the experience be continuous.

Between and a little above the words 'experience' and 'be' in that last sentence my grandmother has written an encircled number one, and at the bottom of the page the footnote reads:

I have had to show the experience recorded as extended in time.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

It can do no other

I didn't expect to find on a discount book table, let alone finish reading -- in the time between dropping off my car for a service and when I had to collect it -- Kafka's The Zürau Aphorisms. I sat with the book near the centre of a one-level suburban concrete shopping complex, in a cafe without windows or walls, with only nominal divisions (such as a child would devise with chairs, plants and posts) from the rest of the interior -- the very antithesis of Kafka's eight month stay in Zürau where, as we learn from Roberto Calasso in the extract from his book K 'Veiled Splendor' at the end of the collection, he was surrounded by rolling hills, meadows, woodlands and animals -- the latter 'more in evidence than people'. The book comprises aphorisms numbered to 109, set either alone or in a pair at the centre of each page, as well as Calasso's introduction, 'Marginalia', and the extract from K. The first aphorism, as I discovered in that cafe, is vintage Kafka: where he shows us an object in his hand and then turns it over and over until it no longer resembles itself (or even the hand):

The true path is along a rope, not a rope suspended way up in the air, but rather only just over the ground. It seems more like a tripwire than a tightrope.

In the introduction and the extract, Calasso describes the way that Kafka, quite contrary to his usual way of writing -- which was to fill notebooks from one edge of the page to the other (not even distinguishing one chapter from the next except by inserting a brief slanted symbol in the middle of a line) -- placed each of his aphorisms on separate, loose numbered sheets of thin yellow paper. Max Brod first published these aphorisms under his own title of Reflections on Sin, Suffering, Hope and the True Way in a collection of Kafka's posthumous writings, Preparations for a Country Wedding in 1953, but without preserving anything of the manuscript's sparse aesthetic. It was Calasso's contact with it in the New Bodleian Library that convinced him that he needed to put together this 2006 edition with more white than words.

If anything, Calasso, like Brod who, as he writes, 'could lend a touch of kitsch to anything', is a little too inclined to support a more hagiographic version of Kafka than the Kafka of the clear, cold editorial eye might have liked him to do (the one who once specified which writings he wanted destroyed, and which to be kept, and whose specifications Brod famously ignored). In 'Veiled Splendor', Calasso states that it is 'impossible to determine why some of the aphorisms on the onion-skin are crossed out: they are not of a particular type, and what's more, some of them are among the most noteworthy.' Calasso preserves these crossed-out pieces in this edition, appending only an asterisk to indicate that Kafka might have preferred he didn't. It was hard to get any sense of which of these aphorisms Calasso had thought 'the most noteworthy'. With a couple of them, I found myself agreeing with Kafka the editor who had once put a line through them. For example, aphorism 58:

The way to tell fewest lines is to tell fewest lies, not to give oneself the fewest opportunities of telling lies.

And aphorism 30:

Goodness is in a certain sense comfortless.

To my mind they appeared too obvious, preserving little of the oblique puzzlement that holds many of the other aphorisms, still moving, to their muted pages, as happens in the first of the aphorisms that are numbered 76:

The feeling: "I'm not dropping anchor here," and straightaway the feeling of the sustaining sea-swell around one.

And this final aphorism:

It isn't necessary that you leave home. Sit at your desk and listen. Don't even listen, just wait. Don't wait, be still and alone. The whole world will offer itself to you to be unmasked, it can do no other, it will writhe before you in ecstasy. (109)

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The poet, he said, is either nature, or he will seek it

What I hadn't quite grasped from Pamuk's lectures, is that Schiller saw the sentimental poet as being engaged in a quest for the ideal in nature:

The poet, I said, is either nature, or he will seek it. The former produces the naive, the latter the sentimental poet.


Should one now apply the concept of poetry, which is nothing other than to give humanity its most complete expression possible, to both of these states, so it ensues, that there in the state of natural simplicity, where man still acts with all his powers at one time, as an harmonious unity, where therefore all his nature expresses itself completely in reality, the poet must imitate the real as completely as possible—that, on the contrary, here in the state of culture, where that harmonious cooperation of its entire nature is merely an idea, the poet must elevate reality to the ideal or, what amounts to the same, represent the ideal.
Perhaps, in this respect at least, not too far from what we thought he might have meant by the word 'sentimental'.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Mr. Pamuk, are you a naive novelist or a sentimental one?

The title of Orhan Pamuk's 2009 Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist, comes, as he explains in his first lecture, from Friedrich Schiller's essay, "Über naive und sentimentalische Dichtung" (On Naive and Sentimental Poetry, 1795-1796). The word 'sentimental' here is a false friend, as Pamuk explains. In Schiller's essay it is intended 'to describe the state of mind which has strayed from nature's simplicity and power and has become too caught up in its own emotions and thoughts.' Pamuk writes about how Schiller had envied what he saw as Goethe's effortless brilliance -- his naivety -- which he saw in contrast to his own more complex tendency to think too much. Pamuk then goes on to reflect:

While reading "On Naive and Sentimental Poetry" thirty years ago, I too -- just like Schiller raging at Goethe  -- complained of the naive, childlike nature of Turkish novelists of the previous generation. They wrote their novels so easily, and never worried about problems of style and technique. And I applied the word "naive" (which I increasingly used in a negative sense) not only to them but to writers all over the world who regarded the nineteenth-century Balzacian novel as a natural entity and accepted it without question. (p.18)

Surprisingly, then, in his Epilogue to the lectures, Pamuk writes:

When I was in my twenties and first read the essay by Schiller that informs this book, I wanted to become a naive writer. Back then, in the 1970s, the most popular and influential Turkish novelists wrote semi-political, semi-poetic novels that took place in rural settings and small villages. In those days, becoming a naive writer whose stories were set in the city, in Istanbul, seemed a difficult goal to achieve. Since I delivered these lectures at Harvard, I have been repeatedly asked, "Mr. Pamuk, are you a naive novelist or a sentimental one?" I would like to emphasize that, for me, the ideal state is one in which the novelist is naive and sentimental at the same time. (p. 189)

Which Pamuk do we believe, the one who speaks first or the one that writes afterwards? Or perhaps there is only the classic Pamuk predicament: that while he thought he despised these naive, childlike writers, all along he just wanted to become one of them -- that he wanted to become somebody else.

Friday, February 25, 2011

As I prepare to transform my thoughts into words

It is interesting that, according to his lectures published in The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist, the visual is so important to Orhan Pamuk, not only in the writing of his own novels but of the form, as he sees it, in general:

Here is one of my strongest opinions: novels are essentially visual literary fictions. A novel exerts its influence on us mostly by addressing our visual intelligence -- our ability to see things in our mind's eye and to turn words into mental pictures. (p. 92) 

Certainly his own process of composition, as he describes it, would seem to bear this out:

When I write a chapter, a scene, or a small tableau (you see that the vocabulary of painting comes naturally to me!), I first see it in detail in my mind's eye. For me, writing is the process of visualizing that particular scene, that picture. I gaze out of the window as much as I look down at the page I am writing on with a fountain pen. As I prepare to transform my thoughts into words, I strive to visualize each scene like a film sequence, and each sentence like a painting. ( p. 93 - 94) 
Many of his novels -- at least those that have been translated into English -- do have a strong visual character. Here I am thinking of My Name is Red and The White Castle -- especially of its final, elliptical scene -- moments in Snow and, similarly, moments in The New Life -- where certain very visual images (particularly of objects) resonate throughout the writing -- as is also the case in his most recent novel, The Museum of Innocence, which might have been constructed, or at least yearned to have been constructed, out of the objects or images of these objects alone.

What is most fascinating about his stated opinion in these lectures is that Orhan Pamuk sees the visual primarily in terms of landscape painting. 'Most novelists,' he declares in his first lecture, 'sense that reading the opening  pages of a novel is akin to entering a landscape painting.' And, in the fourth: 'looking at a landscape painting is much like reading a novel.' From both these lectures and his memoir, Istanbul: Memories of a City, we learn that, in his youth, before turning to writing, Pamuk had wanted to be an artist: in fact, a landscape artist. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that he should see what he is doing in these terms. Snow, which he has described elsewhere as his first and only political novel, begins with a visual description of the landscape passed in a journey through a blizzard between Erzurum and Kars. After all, as Pamuk writes on the opening page, 'our traveller [had] glued his eyes to the window next to him.'

In all his novels, however, the voice of the narrator and/or the protagonist soon presses further forwards of any suggested landscape: the narrative moving quickly into the nebulous no-place and often distorting obsessions of the mind. The narrator interrupts Ka's journey in Snow with his reflections as soon as the eyes at the window have fallen asleep. On the first page of The Black Book, after a brief evocation of the streets of Istanbul, the narrator writes that Galip 'wanted to explore in full sunlight the willows, the acacias, the climbing rose in the enclosed garden of Rüya's tranquil sleep' and thus begins a labyrinthine journey through the obsessions of Galip and everyone he meets during his search for his wife in the landscape of Istanbul which he both sees and fails to see for itself. Even in My Name is Red -- which is the novel significant, as Pamuk claims in his Epilogue, for being the one during which he 'developed [his] ideas on the visual aspects of narration', the opening chapter 'I am a corpse' enlarges more upon the obsessions whirling around and through the rotting head of the corpse than the well or the landscape around it where, we have been told, the corpse has been thrown.

Significantly, the one novel of his, at least in English, that Pamuk doesn't get round to mentioning in the course of these lectures is the novel which promoted him to bestseller status in Turkey, although not yet in the West: The New Life: a novel whose intense, forward moving narrative blurs the division between scenes and suggests less a sequence of tableaux -- and much less a film in any conventional sense -- than the somnambulant obsessions and gothic distortions of dreams. 

For the record, it is also interesting to remember that this book, as we learn in Pamuk's Other Colours: Essays and a Story, was conceived and written, as if to provide some respite, during the two year hiatus it created in the writing of his more consciously visual novel -- at least in its intentions: My Name is Red.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The vivid illusion that the world has a center and a meaning

In the recent publication of Orhan Pamuk's 2009 Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist, he writes that when he was starting out as a novelist in his twenties, he was somewhat intimidated by the importance and role given to the notion of 'character' in E. M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel, where the character of the protagonist with all his or her peculiar and artificial quirks is supposed to determine every other aspect of the novel, including the plot:

I sensed that human character was not nearly as important in real life as Forster said it was in literature. But I would then go on to think: If it's important in novels, it must be important in life too -- after all, I don't know much about life. [Pamuk's italics, p. 64]

It was only as he experienced more of life, and as he wrote his novels, that he found that despite aspiring to create great memorable characters such as Anna Karenina, it wasn't the peculiarities of character which interested him. Character, he discovered, was greatly over-rated. Pamuk explains that this view of character -- a view which is based on a highly artificial construction, and yet has, as he writes, 'aspects bordering on the mystical'  -- has come to dominate creative writing courses, where students are often taught lists of rules and dumped with assumptions that no one has thought to question. In the Epilogue to this collection of lectures he returns to these courses that seem to run on the edge of things, making do with the leavings of others: describing how Forster's book 'has been dropped from the syllabus in university English departments and exiled to creative-writing programs, where writing is treated as a craft and not as a spiritual and philosophical act' -- whether 'real or imagined,' he might have added, as he later describes the 'center' which, for Pamuk, turns out to constitute the generative heart of the literary novel.

One of the most carefully developed ideas in this series of his lectures is this one that literary novels, as distinct from genre novels -- whose purpose, it seems, is to make us feel at home -- are written to both suggest and conceal that they have a secret centre from which viewpoint the entire novel can be understood. Returning to Aspects of the Novel towards the end of the series, he uses Forster's idea of a guiding principle to investigate this aspect of literary fiction that he feels has been neglected by both literary critics and historians:
I have taken issue with E. M. Forster's idea -- the popular notion that, as the novel is written, the major characters take over and dictate its course. But if we must believe in a mysterious element in the writing process, it would be more appropriate to believe it is the center that takes over the novel. Just as the sentimental-reflective reader goes through the novel trying to guess exactly where the center is, the experienced novelist goes along knowing that the center will gradually emerge as he writes, and that the most challenging and rewarding aspect of his work will be finding this center and bringing it into focus. (p.157)
There is, he writes, no single centre to a novel; he even writes that this centre can be a masterful illusion:

The greatest literary novels -- such as Anna Karenina, In Search of Lost Time, The Magic Mountain, and The Waves -- are indispensable to us because they create the hope and the vivid illusion that the world has a center and a meaning, and because they give us joy by sustaining this impression as we turn their pages. (p.173)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

While thinking that work will never get done

At the end of his speech for the awarding of the Georg Büchner Prize, Thomas Bernhard, who would have turned eighty today (Austrian time), had he both decided and been able to live that long, writes:

The problem is always to get work done while thinking that work will never get done and nothing will ever get done... The question is: to go on, heedless of the consequences, to go on, or to stop, to call it a day... it is the question of doubt, of mistrust and impatience. (Bernhard's ellipses)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Dracula and the iPhone

In chapter two of Bram Stoker's Dracula, we read the following description given to the eponymous Count of the estate in England he is purchasing through the young English solicitor's clerk, Jonathan Harker:

The house is very large and of all periods back, I should say, to mediaeval times, for one part is of stone immensely thick, with only a few windows high up and heavily barred with iron. It looks like part of a keep, and is close to an old chapel or church. I could not enter it, as I had not the key of the door leading to it from the house, but I have taken with my Kodak views of it from various points.

The notes at the back of the book explained that Kodak was 'a trademark name for the portable photographic camera invented by George Eastman in 1888 which has a continuous roll of sensitised film upon which successive negatives are made.'

According to David Roger's introduction to the novel, Bram Stoker first began taking notes for the book that came to be known as Dracula in 1890 -- that is, only two years after this version of the camera was invented. The novel was finished in 1896 and published the following year. Dracula abounds with relatively new technologies: journal entries are dictated onto phonograph (which, the notes tell us, was invented by Thomas Edison in 1877) and transcribed onto portable typewriters (which Jonathan's wife Mina praises as a very handy invention). The young solicitor's clerk writes his own entries in shorthand when incarcerated in Dracula's castle to escape the diabolical but traditionally schooled intelligence of the Count.

Even so, the Kodak stood out as I read the book, and not least for the reason that it has no real role in the plot. Jonathan Harker tells the Count that he has taken photos of the English estate with this Kodak, but there are no explicit references to these photos: it is not even clear that he brought them with him. The only relevant images referred to directly in the castle are maps. Jonathan, too, might have taken his Kodak along on his journey to Transylvania, but if he had he must not have got round to developing the photos, since we learn later in the novel that the characters find their way through Dracula's native country by following the descriptions transcribed from Jonathan's shorthand account of his first visit.

A collision of the very new with the ancient and little understood seems to be very much at the centre of the Gothic.

From googling, I have learned that the iPhone was released in mid 2007 -- that is, only three and half years ago. I've been thinking it's possible that, if Stoker had been working on Dracula now, he might have had Jonathan taking photos on his iPhone and, forgetting to upload them onto his computer or to print them out before his journey, finding that his iPhone battery has run out in the castle (which is still many centuries behind) and so, being unable either to show the Count the pictures of the English estate or to take photos of where he is for future reference, has him writing in phone text abbreviations in his boss's once trendy Filofax that is now little more than a leather-bound collection of dog-eared shopping lists for the firm -- very glad that this late 1980s bit of pre-computer equipment can come to his aid when all else fails.