Sunday, January 23, 2011

Notes on Notes on Stendhal

Proust, in his Notes on Stendhal, is appreciative of Stendhal's 'eighteenth-century style of irony', 'pessimistic morality', and 'Voltairean elegance' (even as he points out that Beyle disliked Voltaire). He notes also:

Rejection of all but spiritual emotions, renewed vitality of the past, indifference to ambitions, and tedium of scheming either when near to death (Julien in prison; no longer ambitious. Love for Mme. de Rênal, for nature, for reveries) or consequent on indifference caused by being in love (Fabrice in prison, though here the prison represents, not death, but love for Clélia).

He describes too a third reason for this indifference to ambition in Stendhal's work: 'emotion at the sight of nature and almost always on heights'; and yet Proust can't help observing that these 'feelings are straightforward, in keeping with picturesquely situated places' as already, here, he is anticipating his own preoccupations in In Search of Lost Time: the emotional responses that can arise, unexpectedly, from more ordinary, unpicturesque experiences, such as the smell of petrol, a biscuit dipped in tea or the feel of uneven paving stones underfoot.

Proust writes that Stendhal's maxim is 'never repent', which the latter evidently shares with his character Gina, the Duchessa of Sanseverina:

There were two salient points in the Duchessa's character: she always wished what she had once wished; she never gave any further consideration to what had once been decided. She used to quote in this connection a saying of her first husband, the charming General Pietranera. 'What insolence to myself!' he used to say; 'Why should I suppose that I have more sense today than when I made up my mind?' (The Charterhouse of Parma, Part 2, chapter 8)

This very un-Proustian determination to move forwards without looking back that allowed Stendhal to write The Charterhouse of Parma, supposedly, between 4 November and 26 December in 1839 -- a César Aira ahead of his time -- leads to the insouciance of sentences such as:

We have forgotten to mention in the proper place that the Duchessa had taken a house at Belgirate, a charming village and one that contains everything which its name promises (to wit a beautiful bend in the lake). (Part 2, ch 10)

In his long essay Contra Sainte-Beuve, Proust writes about how Sainte-Beuve, a well known literary critic in Stendhal's day, preferred to judge a writer's worth by analysing the writer's character via interviews with friends and anecdotal accounts -- a practice, for all its absurdities, not so very different to much current literary journalism, where the exotic details of an author or the biographical or historical subject often attracts more interest that the writing itself. By this method Sainte-Beuve pronounced that Stendhal's novels were 'makeshifts' and 'detestable', and as for the man himself:

Beyle had a fundamental rightness and sure-handedness in his treatment of intimate relationships which one must never fail to acknowledge, the more so when one has spoken out one's mind about him.

As Proust immediately adds: 'All things considered, a good fellow, that Beyle!' Not quick to anger, luckily for Sainte-Beuve.

It is Sainte-Beuve's signal failure to appreciate the literary worth of writers like Stendhal through this method that seems to have set Proust writing, via Contra Sainte-Beuve, in the direction of his great novel of extended ironic complexities, In Search of Lost Time, where nobody is how they seem and great art is made by weak, even laughable little men like Vinteuil because, as Proust writes in Contra Sainte-Beuve:

a book is the product of a different self from the self we manifest in our habits, in our social life, in our vices.

Even to write at all is to subject yourself to its ironic possibilities.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

You don't know what you know

Perfect, I think, this distillation by Mark Thwaite from Donald Rumsfeld, of all people, and Slavoj Žižek:

you don't know what you know, nor what you don't know, nor hardly even who you are, and it is only in the writing that you might find out.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


One of the few benefits of reading a free download copy of Stendhal's The Red and the Black on my Ipod Touch -- in fact there are several benefits, including the saving of space on my bookshelves or in my bag and the way, via the white on black view in Stanza, I can read in bed at night without an external light or being dazzled by the screen, all of which are outweighed by not having a book to flick through in any natural way or to represent, idolatrously, the much loved book that I would always want within reach of this desk -- one of these several benefits is that I am able to do a word search through the entire document (I cannot write book), and so, after I had finished it, when I wanted to find once more that famous passage about a novel being 'a mirror carried along a high road' that is so often used to justify a simplistically realist approach to writing, I searched for mirror. Predictably, perhaps, I found more than I'd noticed in the first reading.

The first reference to a mirror in The Red and the Black occurs in Part 1, Chapter 18, in the scene where the protagonist, Julien Sorel, in great irritation at being rebuffed, goes in search of the young Bishop of Agde on behalf of the abbe Chelan, and finds him in 'an immense gothic chamber', before 'a portable mirror framed in mahogany', 'gravely giving benedictions' in practice for the arrival of the king.  When Julien approaches, the 'costliness of his lace-bordered surplice brought Julian to a standstill some distance away from the magnificent mirror.' Once Julien realises that this young man in the lace-bordered surplice is the Bishop of Agde, his dreams of 'Napoleon and martial glory' are supplanted by speculations on the wealth of the Agde bishop's living. Then, just before the king arrives:

Outside the door were gathered on their knees four and twenty girls, belonging to the most distinguished families of Verrieres. Before opening the door, the Bishop sank on his knees in the midst of these girls, who were all pretty. While he was praying aloud, it seemed as though they could not sufficiently admire his fine lace, his charm, his young and pleasant face. This spectacle made our hero lose all that remained of his reason. At that moment, he would have fought for the Inquisition, and in earnest.

A moment that recalls, in advance, the transports of Madame Bovary.

The second reference to a mirror occurs in a dialogue that Julien overhears in Part 2, Chapter 1, where a middle aged man, disillusioned by the political complications of living in the countryside, is returning to Paris. 'The history of England,' he says to his companion, 'serves as a mirror to show me our future'  -- a metaphor not so different to the one in the famous passage that I was looking for.

The third reference to a mirror is in the chapter that follows. Here a pair of mirrors combine with the general opulence of the the household of M. de La Mole to intimidate Julien:

He would have enjoyed perfect self-possession, had the dining-room been furnished with less magnificence. It was, as a matter of fact, a pair of mirrors, each of them eight feet high, in which he caught sight now and then of his challenger as he spoke of Horace, that still continued to overawe him.

Then, in chapter 19 of Part 2, in an extended parenthesis on the amorous deliberations of young Mathilde de La Mole, which begins with, 'This page will damage the author in more ways than one', comes the section I was looking for:

Ah, Sir, a novel is a mirror carried along a high road. At one moment it reflects to your vision the azure skies, at another the mire of the puddles at your feet. And the man who carries this mirror in his pack will be accused by you of being immoral! His mirror shows the mire, and you blame the mirror!
A similar reference occurs later on, in chapter 22, in another extended, tongue-in-cheek parenthesis:

'If your characters do not talk politics,' the publisher retorts, ' they are no longer Frenchmen of 1830, and your book ceases to hold a mirror, as you claim...'
The last mirror is in the following chapter, in which a minister of government frequently studies Julien's face where he sits in a clandestine royalist meeting -- for whose cause he is about to risk his life even though he detests everything that it represents.

The mirror as an apparently expedient investigative tool, but embedded in ironic parentheses; the mirror as an image of dazzlement.

This brought me to rereading the section 'Beyle, or Love is a Madness Most Discreet' in W. G. Sebald's Vertigo (book, not ebook this time). It was impossible not to notice the mirrors: first the mirror in which the young Beyle (Stendhal):

now observed the figure he cut in his mirror. He felt transformed... once fully apparelled in the uniform of a dragoon, this seventeen-and-a-half-year-old went around for days on end with an erection, before he finally dared disburden himself of the virginity he had brought with him from Paris. Afterwards, he could no longer recall the name or face of the donna cattiva who had assisted him in this task. The overpowering sensation, he wrote, blotted out the memory entirely. So thoroughly did Beyle serve his apprenticeship in the weeks that followed that in retrospect his entry into the world became a blur of the city's brothels, and before the year was out he was suffering the pains of venereal infection...
And so, the second mirror:

Late autumn, however, had brought dejection with it. Garrison duties increasingly oppressed him, Angela seemed to have little time for him, his disease recurred, and over and over again, with the aid of a mirror, he examined the inflammations and ulcers in his mouth and at the back of his throat and the blotches on his inner thigh.
Sebald's last reference to a mirror in this section on Beyle occurs on the very next page, after he is greatly disappointed by seeing Il Matrimonto Segreto for the second time since 'although the theatrical setting was perfect and the actress playing Caroline a great beauty' unlike the Caroline with the missing tooth and squint in the first production, 'he was unable to imagine himself among the protagonists as he had in Ivrea.'

In his dejection:

He was one of the last to quit the cloakroom, and in leaving he gave a parting glance at his reflection in the mirror and, thus confronting himself, posed for the first time the question that was to occupy him over the ensuing decades: what is it that undoes a writer?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Everything changes with age

To admit that initially I thought I was disappointed with Milan Kundera's most recent book of essays, Encounter, is also to admit that I missed something that seemed to be absent from the first pieces: a certain light, epigrammatic urgency, where short enumerated sections follow one another with such assurance that, as much as you might disagree with some of what is said, you find your thoughts moving quicker -- your own direction, to your surprise, cleared for a moment, or just more clearly marked out.

In the first essay, 'The Painter's Brutal Gesture: On Francis Bacon', the numbered sections are, somehow, looser than I expected; the whole piece is darkened by a slower pace and ends, to the surprise of the seasoned Kundera reader, with a section of verse. Here he also trials something which he uses elsewhere in this volume, most notably in 'The Total Rejection of Heritage, or Iannis Xenakis': where he includes sections of much earlier writings (1980) to juxtapose more recent pieces (2008), from which to build his reflections.

In 'The Total Rejection of Heritage, or Iannis Xenakis', he writes that reading his old text he feels 'a spontaneous urge to obliterate' certain sections which, in hindsight, seem 'absurd', and yet this very urge to destroy them disturbs him and engenders more questions. Throughout the book of essays, familiar ideas about the 'birth' and the 'apotheosis' of and the 'farewell to the age of the novel', and 'first' and 'second' periods are undercut in a footnote where Kundera announces, for the first time to my knowledge, that these designations are an '(entirely personal) idea of periodization in the history of the novel (and the history of music as well)'; these ideas of seemingly confidently delineated periods in the history of art being 'strictly my own'. Here is Kundera modifying himself.

In his previous books of essays, when Kundera invoked such ideas as the dark possibility of 'when Panurge no longer makes people laugh' (Testaments Betrayed), and when 'the novel's history will have ended' (The Curtain), the energy of his writing has always triumphed; we read such lines as these final ones in The Curtain --'For the history of art is perishable. The babble of art is eternal' -- and somehow, perversely, we are refreshed: Milan Kundera is sounding off. All is right in the world.

This more vulnerable Kundera, in Encounter, disconcerts.

The honesty and the quieter pace of the essays here, however, builds into a more intimate experience of reading. There is a section in his piece on Anatole France which reminds me of Gerald Murnane in Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs -- when he talks about the 'vague memories' that reading can leave:

We all talk about the history of literature, we claim connection to it, convinced we know it, but what, concretely, is the history of literature in the common memory? A patchwork of fragmentary images that, by pure chance, each of thousands of readers has stitched together for himself.

Still, there are the characteristic sharp observations by which we know Kundera is still alive and watching, such as his short piece about 'The Comical Absence of the Comical', which ends with the description of this 'world of humorless laughter, where we are condemned to live'. His pieces on Anatole France and Janáček are strong (even as the latter includes characteristic, irritable asides); the final essay, 'The Skin: Malaparte's Arch-Novel', fiercely sad, its end an echo of 'the "senseless accident" that is life' that concludes the opening piece on Francis Bacon.

In 'The Secret of the Ages of Life (Gudbergur Bergsson: The Swan)', Kundera observes:

Increasingly I think (a truth so obvious and yet it constantly eludes us) that man exists only in his specific, concrete, age, and everything changes with age. To understand another person is to understand his current age. The enigma of age -- one of those themes only a novel can illuminate.

He is now in his early eighties and it is over ten years since he has published a novel -- that seemingly innocent term, which means so much to him. In Encounter we see how Milan Kundera has at last had the strength to turn his irony on himself and, while it is strange sometimes, the resonance is long.