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'.