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)