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)