Thursday, December 6, 2012

In fact depth does not matter

It is through our writing that we see this a little more clearly, or so we kid ourselves, as Bernhard's Rudolph observes:

I might call myself relatively independent. But shackled and imprisoned like everybody else. Impelled by disgust rather than possessed by curiosity. We always spoke of clarity of mind, but never had it. I don't know where I got this sentence from, perhaps from myself, but I've read it somewhere. Perhaps it will turn up among my notes sometime. We say notes to avoid embarrassment, although we secretly believe that these sentences which we blushingly call notes are really more than that. But we believe the same of everything to do with ourselves. This is how we swing ourselves over the abyss, not knowing how deep it is. And in fact the depth does not matter if everybody falls to his death, which we know to be the case. (Concrete)
Rudolph also reflects on some of the words his maternal grandfather hated or loved. 'Thought process' was an expression that he hated; 'cacophony' one that he loved.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

In the unsettling of narratives

It is appropriate that I should first write about Samuel Frederick’s new book, Narratives Unsettled: Digression in Robert Walser, Thomas Bernhard, and Adalbert Stifter, on this blog, which itself is nothing but a collection of many digressive acts. In fact, I'll start with one: The Oxford English Dictionary credits Chaucer with being the first to use the term in English, in the sense of ‘[d]eparture or deviation from the subject in discourse or writing’: ‘It were a long disgression Fro my matere’, Troilus & Criseyde i. 87 (143). Almost from the very beginning of vernacular English fiction, then, the digressive possibility is noted and taken up in the very same breath: ah, the delight of breaking the fine crystal of one narrative illusion just as you are spinning the glass of another; the joy of fashioning a story from nothing more than a narrative voice. Of course digression is not exclusive to English and, as Frederick points out, neither it is confined to any particular literary period. In his Introduction, in an evocation of a small shuffling (digressive) dance, he describes the way his study has been organised to cover the work of three writers in their three distinct but not sequentially arranged moments in Germanic language literary history.

Although this is Samuel Frederick’s first book-length publication, Narratives Unsettled draws on his earlier research into the narrative strategies of Robert Walser, and read together, develops a carefully argued engagement with assumptions about the equivalence of plot and narrative inherent to much of narratology but particularly to Peter Brooks’ influential work, Reading for the Plot: Design and intention in narrative. These are the very assumptions that seem to dog every do-it-yourself novel writing discussion, from kitsch online advice pages to university workshops. Perhaps the most questionable aspect of Brooks’ approach is his placing at the defining centre of narrative a model of narrative plotting that is predicated on an expression of masculine desire which expects nothing more, despite Brooks' own excellent analyses of the ‘perversions’ of Flaubert and the ‘unreadable report’ of Conrad, than tumescence and release. In this model, digression becomes a way of extending Barthes’ dilatory centre – as if only through some leather clad sex toy whose purpose is to increase the longing and capacity for ejaculation. In his notes to an earlier paper, ‘Re-reading Digression: Towards a Theory of Plotless Narrative’, published in Textual Wanderings: The Theory and Practice of Narrative Digression (2011) Frederick writes that his own critical approach draws on Susan Winnett’s critique of this male sexualised model ('Coming Unstrung: Women, Men, Narrative, and the Principles of Pleasure', 1990). Frederick’s important contribution to this discussion is to explore what he considers to be the inability of this way of figuring narrative desire to account adequately for the unique narrative properties of digression. In both that earlier paper, and now more extensively in this book, he proposes a theory of digression that allows for its independence from plot: one that is based, not on serving a teleological figuring of narrative desire, but a more playful desire or impulse to tell beyond the significance of the things to be told in themselves. Narrative, he argues, is not identical to plot, and he demonstrates this claim by analysing the narrative strategies of Robert Walser, Thomas Bernhard and Adalbert Stifter: three writers in the German language whose writings span more than a hundred years, from the mid nineteenth to the second half of the twentieth century. He is concerned to emphasise the essential narrativity of these writers’ highly digressive fictional works, arguing that their digressive modes of proliferation, rupture and dispersal are fuelled by narrative energy. To describe such works as ‘antinarratives’ or even just ‘experimental prose’, he writes, would be to capitulate to the very assumptions about the equivalence of narrative and plot that he is seeking to critique and hence to elide the aleatory and seemingly trivial aspects of everyday lived experience which plot, with its goal-oriented desire, is constituted to ignore.

Frederick dedicates two chapters – almost an entire half of the book – to Robert Walser. This in itself is a delight. Here we read about how plots might proliferate to the point where there is no clear plotted line to follow, no tense pursuit of release, and how Walser saw his pieces all working together to comprise ‘one long plotless, realistic story’ where, by ‘realistic’, he is referring to the only entirely realistic aspect of any writing: that when we write, what we write is simply the product of our writing.

After Walser, Frederick writes about what he calls the ‘infinite continuum’ in Thomas Bernhard’s Verstörung (Gargoyles). As the conventional plot of the first part of the novel breaks down, the Prince’s monologue, taking over, enacts a passionate indifference, where the inchoate experience of the overwhelming, the mad, is wrest free from the limiting distortions of the plotted or what Frederick calls the 'narrative whole'.

In chapter four, we read about how Adalbert Stifter’s highly digressive, and as Frederick writes, ‘diffuse’ novel Indian Summer, so disturbed its readers that successive editions of the work radically reduced its three volumes of over 1,300 pages – one 1940 edition butchering it to less than 60 pages – as they were concerned to remove everything that did not pertain to the supposedly real story which, as Frederick demonstrates, is an insignificant aspect of the work: the entire novel having been focussed on the time after this story and its very texture dependent on the feel of the resulting narrative dispersal.

In his final chapter, the Coda, Frederick asks: ‘what are we left with in a narrative bereft of plot?’ To this he replies: ‘On the formal level, we are left with the raw impulse to tell that unsettles the plotted whole of conventional narrative. But from a hermeneutic perspective (especially one with an evaluative edge), we might say that we are left with something else, namely: the pointless and insignificant minutiae of everyday life.’ And yet, we well might ask now, aren’t so many current undigressive literary novels taken with these very kinds of unimportant-seeming details? Haven't we often read about protagonists touching their lips to stone or wondering at the lengthening of a shadow or the refuse blowing along a deserted road? The difference, I would argue, is in the way that the language of such books endows these details with a certain solemn significance so that the resulting moments are held and so become essential nodes in the narrative whole. Frederick’s analysis of the various editorial attacks on Stifter’s novel is instructive here. In one such edition – Weitbrecht’s apparent improvement on Heckenast’s 1870 version of the book – Frederick demonstrates how, in the section that includes Heinrich’s approach to the Rose House, the description of the blossomed covering of the house is retained, perhaps surprisingly given the editors' enthusiasm for the knife, while the sequence of actions and thoughts leading up to Heinrich’s discovery of the house – actions and thoughts that are essential to an understanding of the way Stifter arranges his work in a careful exploration of place rather than time – are excised. Therefore description of insignificant details per se is not considered anathema to a cherished view of the narrative whole. I would suggest that a piece of fiction might dilate all it likes on the significance of apparently insignificant details so long as these details can be approached with hushed and reverent literary words that might seem to respect this narrative whole. Even a seemingly disgusting or shocking object might be written about in this (w)holy way since it will then serve a greater narrative tumescence; but if a writer wants to convey the actual feel of the trivial, the foul, the meaningless, the overlooked, the digressive voice has a far better chance. Perhaps this is the very reason it is often excised. After all, who wants to be reminded? As Frederick concludes:

Digression is that distinctive and therefore indispensable mode of telling that undoes the plotted structures in which the pointless has no place, opening up a new narrative landscape where instead – as a reminder of our shared fate – it is allowed to be, without being neglected or overlooked. In this way digression rescues the insignificant, which is our fate, from being forgotten.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

A complex symbolic rendering of emotional life

While, in my memory of Susanne Langer's work on symbolic form, she seemed too quick to assign certain aspects of experience to one art form or another, her ideas on 'livingness' in a work of art -- as opposed to the quality of the 'dead' in an unsuccessful piece -- still explains so much about what is worth having and keeping in writing. In Philosophical Sketches, she writes that works of art are 'forms expressive of human feeling' and, for her, form includes 'a permanent form, like a building or a vase or a picture, or a transient, dynamic form like a melody or a dance, or even a form given to imagination, like the passage of purely imaginary, apparent events that constitutes a literary work.' I would only add that some literary works -- for example, those by Borges, Bernhard, Sebald, Murnane -- somehow spill beyond her event-focussed definition of a literary work.

Kenneth Wright, in Mirroring and Attunement, describes her approach:

For Langer, then, the work of art is a complex symbolic rendering of emotional life in a form that enables apprehension of its being rather than comprehension of its meaning. Its non-verbal symbols articulate the shapes and textures of living experience rather than its cognitive definition, and because they present this semblance in analogical form, she called them presentational symbols. Art does not, in the manner of language, describe experience but offers it directly to our senses through iconic forms. It is not an alternative means of expressing emotion but a means of revealing its forms in a concrete, yet quasi-abstracted way.

I have to admit my fondness for this definition, if only because it resonates with my very first thought on this blog.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

goes a little something like this

It is nearly a fortnight ago now since I saw Chris Mann perform live as part of Machine for Making Sense -- that is (this time) with Amanda Stewart, Jim Denley and Rik Rue. There were perhaps two or three sheets of paper in front of him and from these he performed what must have been thousands and thousands, if not always words, then phonemes and utterances and deliberate, highly musical hesitations. Playing with the dots on his website -- even clicking on one and then another -- you can get a sense of passing by someone who has spun himself into buzzing solitariness on a street. Now imagine this in a band. And yet you have to watch him perform to understand to what extent his gestures are essential to the experience. I thought I might have been able to find a video of him or the whole ensemble afterwards, somewhere on the net, but apart from his website, and the iTunes app. of the same name (you have to persist if you want to find it), there is nothing -- or perhaps, not nothing, but what there might have been has been coloured over by a U.S. idol of the very same name, who will hold the microphone as he doesn't, will close his eyes with passion, exactly as he doesn't, and deliver a song which, if described by the other, might have been the occasion, say, for 'goes a little something like this'.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Faithful to the library

Last month, when Milan Kundera accepted the prix de la BnF at the same venue, the National Library in France, he revealed that for several years now he has added to all his contracts a clause stipulating that his novels can only be published in 'traditional' book form. Pierre Assouline, blogging for Le Monde, quotes from this speech (an extract which you can also hear being read aloud by Alain Finkielkraut on Radio France). I'll attempt a very inexpert translation below:

Je n’ai aucune envie de parler de la littérature, de son importance, de ses valeurs. Ce que j’ai à l’esprit en ce moment, c’est une chose plus concrète : la bibliothèque. Ce mot donne, au prix que vous avez la bonté de m’accorder une étrange note nostalgique ; car il me semble que le temps qui, impitoyablement, poursuit sa marche, commence à mettre les livres en danger. C’est à cause de cette angoisse que, depuis plusieurs années déjà, j’ajoute à tous mes contrats, partout, une clause stipulant que mes romans ne peuvent être publiés que sous la forme traditionnelle du livre. Pour qu’on les lise uniquement sur papier, non sur un écran. Cela me fait penser à Heidegger, au fait apparemment paradoxal que, lors des pires années du XXème siècle, il se concentrait dans ses cours universitaires sur la question de la technique, pour constater que la technique, son évolution accélérée, est capable de changer l’essence même de la vie humaine.

Voici une image qui, de nos jours, est tout à fait banale : des gens marchent dans la rue, ils ne voient plus leur vis à vis, ils ne voient même plus les maisons autour d’eux, des fils leur pendent de l’oreille, ils gesticulent, ils crient, ils ne regardent personne et personne ne les regarde. Et je me demande : liront-ils encore des livres ? c’est possible, mais pour combien de temps encore ? Je n’en sais rien. Nous n’avons pas la capacité de connaître l’avenir. Sur l’avenir, on se trompe toujours, je le sais. Mais cela ne me débarrasse pas de l’angoisse, l’angoisse pour le livre tel que je le connais depuis mon enfance. Je veux que mes romans lui restent fidèles. Fidèles à la bibliothèque.

I have no wish to talk about literature, of its importance or values, and only have a mind to do so now for one very solid reason: the library. This word gives the prize that you have had the generosity to award me a strange, nostalgic note, because it seems to me that Time, as it continues its merciless march forwards, has begun to put books in danger. It is because of this fear that, for several years now, I have been adding a clause to all of my contracts stipulating that my novels may only be published in the traditional form of the book: that they can only be read on paper and not on a screen. This makes me think of Heidegger and of the seemingly paradoxical fact that, during the worst years of the twentieth century, he focussed his university lectures on the question of technology, observing that the rapid development of technology is capable of changing the very essence of human life.
Here is an image that is entirely commonplace these days: people walking in the street, no longer looking at their immediate surroundings, not even looking at the houses around them. With wires hanging from their ears, they gesticulate and shout. They don't look at anyone and no one looks at them. And I wonder, do they still read books? Possibly yes, but for how long into the future? I have no idea. We have no way of knowing what the future holds. When it comes to the future, we always err, I know. But this does not relieve me of fear, of fear for the book as I have known it since childhood. I want my novels to stay faithful to it: faithful to the library.

The Histrionic

It was entirely by chance that we were offered tickets last night to Thomas Bernhard's The Histrionic (or so it has been translated by Tom Wright for the Sydney Theatre Company and Malthouse Theatre production at the Wharf) -- in fact entirely by chance that I even got to hear of the production at all since, unlike Bernhard, I don't read newspapers from cover to cover every day, or whatever the online equivalent might be.

For its 1984 Salzburg premier the play had a 'real dunghill' on the stage, as Gita Honegger writes in her biography of Bernhard; at the Wharf here in Sydney there were wood shavings scattered over the small wooden stage on the stage, as well as a beautifully foul and bloodied stain at one edge of it and all the way down the steps that led to the kitchen, as if someone had vomited up blood sausages on the previous Tuesday and not yet got round to scrubbing the floor. We were treated, though, to the gratifying odours of frittata soup at an emblematic family meal that only Bernhard could have created, as nobody seemed able to eat but the one who could rant.

There is something of Gargoyles or Verstörung in the play (Honegger explains that the title of the US publication of this novel is misleading as Verstörung means 'perturbation'): something about its being set deep in the Alp-clefted centre of Austria, where illness and maiming and the shrieking and stench of blood-let animals in filthy stalls keeps reminding us that the apparent freshness and freedom of the glorious landscape all around is no more than yet another figuration of the claustrophobia. And such an impression, after all, is not so far from our own experience here on the edge of our wide, stained continent of dazzling sands, bush and beaches. As Billie Brown, playing Bruscon, retched the words Utzbach and Austria from the edge of his little stage, I could have sworn that the last time he did it, 'Austria' sounded like 'Australia'.

Monday, July 16, 2012

But as I had no powers of observation at all

Even though on the very next page he describes for us the patterned grey damask of the napkins at Gilberte's house, the narrator of À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs succeeds in making us believe:

Mais comme je n'avais aucun esprit d'observation, comme en général je ne savais ni le nom ni l'espèce des choses qui se trouvaient sous mes yeux, et comprenais seulement que quand elles approchaient les Swann, elles devaient extraordinaires,  il ne me parut pas certain qu'en avertissant mes parents de la valeur artistique et de la provenance lointaine de cet escalier, je commisse un mensonge. (p. 76)

But as I had no powers of observation at all -- as usually I would know neither the name or specific nature of the things that I happened to see -- and understanding only that when they had some connection to the Swanns they became extraordinary -- it did not seem by any means certain that, in drawing my parents' attention to the artistic value and the remote origins of the staircase, I was lying to them. (my very loose translation...)
Perhaps this is because, for Proust, the details of things are always mimetic, always expressive of somebody or a relationship to that somebody -- and so expressive too of the disturbing power of the mores that buffer them stiffly there, that the particularities of those objects are at the same time 'exigées par l'étiquette et particulière aux Swann'.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

A pair of shorts

Last week I bought a pair of shorts at the publisher's launch: Varamo and Recluse.

Along with Evelyn Juers, author of Recluse, I have long been interested in the myth that the origin of Charles Dicken's character, Miss Havisham, was Newtown's retiring nineteenth century inhabitant, Eliza Donnithorne. Even as I have discovered over the years that there is nothing at all to the supposition, when I wanted to read Great Expectations to my children over the summer holidays one year, it mustn't only have been the fact that the story opens in a graveyard that had made me decide to start the reading early one summer evening during a picnic in Camperdown Cemetery, where Eliza was buried in her father's grave in 1886. Although I began reading it to them on Christmas Eve, as the book itself begins, this was simply a co-incidence; it is only late on a Christmas Eve when, all the preparations for both Christmas and the coming long months of summer, have at last come to a necessary close with the shutting of the shops. I must have thought of Magwitch though, and mused that his imaginary, antipodean adventures might have brought him to this cemetery or at least to this settlement at the terminus of a short nineteenth century omnibus ride from Sydney where, even in her lifetime, Eliza Donnithorne was rumoured to have been the model for the character which all of England and its colonies feared and so loved for her bitterness and her mad, white wedding gown and mouldering feast.

Despite her careful, persistent research, however, Juers finds that Eliza remains nearly as elusive to outsiders as she was while she was still alive and so, in place of a detailed portrait, the book stretches an extended, dizzying web of connections -- with details of Eliza's relatives, her associates, the descendents of the children she might have known in England and India -- around this quiet, almost unknown centre. So powerful is Juers's evocation of these connections that we feel what a relief it must have been for her to live on the other side of the world from this network of well-wishers who could never understand why it was, once her father had died, that she didn't come home -- that is, home to England.  The most precious aspect of Eliza that Juers discovers is this love of seclusion and, along with this, her love of books. Far from a cobwebbed, dank and reeking inner chamber, Juers has us imagining a replete and well-read sanctuary on the doorstep of the increasingly busy main street of Newtown, and as well as this, a generous heart. Miss Havisham might have brought up a young girl to wreak her revenge on all of the male world but Eliza Donnithorne, we learn, never turned a beggar of either sex away. Recluse is a gently paced extended meditation on reclusion -- a reclusion that we no longer wish to disturb.

Similarly, for all its teeming oddball peripheral characters, César Aira's Varamo, translated by Chris Andrews, has a quiet, if anxious, narrative thread through the middle of it. It has the feel of one of Italo Calvino's tales of urban naives: Varamo like a Marcovaldo or Mr Palomar -- but with an additional touch of Russian-style bureaucracy: a Mr Palomar as described by Gogol. Varamo is set in 1923 -- the height of literary modernism; in 1922 T. S. Eliot had published 'The Wasteland', and the flavour of this broad period of modernism is everywhere, from images of Varamo in his bowler hat in the 'crepuscular landscape of Panama'  -- suggestive of paintings by Magritte -- to the moment when, carrying his tiny mother with the ease that Kafka's Georg Bendemann carries his own paranoid parent in 'The Judgement', I almost expected Varamo's mother suddenly to grow tall, strong and frightening and take over the story with her wrath as Georg's father does. But Varamo is a tale that resists our desire for such elaborations. It is fitting that Varamo's seemingly surrealist attempt at embalming a fish and constructing a scene of it playing a piano -- no great modernist or surrealist statement in Varamo's eyes, but just a scene that he thought 'would be amusing, and was bound to appeal to customers' and hence to bring him extra cash to supplement his meagre public servant wage -- that this attempt should end with a half dead poisoned fish that his mother cooks for their dinner and a model of a piano that he can never get right, for even as he tries to imagine a piano as Cezanne might have done -- as 'basically made up of cubes embedded in one another' -- the object that he produces after many attempts, 'didn't look like a piano at all, even to him'.

The theme of money and deception is there from the beginning, when Varamo is paid his wages in counterfeit notes which he is too slow off the mark to hand straight back to the cashier. His fish sculpture fails, but fortune, or at least a reprieve in his financial anxieties, comes in the form of three pirate publishers hungry and ready to pay two hundred pesos for 'something really new'. I will quote what Chris Andrews himself read at the launch as it is a perfect comic scene:

'Do you write?' Varamo smiled and said no, amused by the thought. It had never occurred to him. 'But we're open to local writing, especially if it's the work of intelligent and cultured people like yourself. You wouldn't like to try?' Varamo replied that it was tempting. But he had no experience, he didn't even know the basics of the writer's craft... 'That doesn't matter at all,' the publishers exclaimed. On the contrary: in barbaric lands like the Americas, writers produced their best work before learning the craft, and nine times out of ten, their first book was the strongest, as well as being, in general, the only one they wrote. Since Varamo had no counter-arguments left, he improvised an obliging fantasy: 'For a while I've been wanting to write a book, to record what I've learned from my experiences as an amateur embalmer. I've even come up with a title: How to Embalm Small Animals.' Had he known what a keen interest his declaration would provoke, he would have kept his mouth shut. The three publishers expressed their desire to publish the book straight away. 'When can you deliver the manuscript?' 'Does it have illustrations?' 'I have enough paper ready for a good print run.' 'I'd do it in hardcover.' Although the project was a castle in the air, Varamo felt he should rein it in somehow: he said that he still hadn't received satisfactory results with his embalming. 'That doesn't matter!' The thing was to make it look like real work; in the current phase of capitalism, work was coming to resemble play, and losing its necessity; that was why instructions were the way of the future, a poetry of instructions freed from the tyranny of results. They continued in the same vein for a while, but Varamo wasn't listening, and eventually he interrupted them. 'I have an idea: what about How to Embalm Small Mutant Animals, wouldn't that be a more attractive title?' The publishers gaped in amazement. They were thinking: He's one of us.
This is the only mention of mutants in the book, as far as I can recall, but there is one of Aira's famous shifts in genre a little earlier where, in an essayistic digression on the 'free indirect style' and the technique of improvisation, the narrator expands on the playful conceit of the book being a 'historical reconstruction' of Varamo's consciousness while the future poet plays domino solitaire and and his mother cooks the poisoned and mutilated fish that we will soon forget for, in this kind of narrative, the fish doesn't need to be fired in the the final scene.

On the back of both of these volumes from the new Giramondo series, Giramondo Shorts, I read the following:

it is time perhaps to cherish
the culture of shorts

This is a reference, as I learned last week, not so much to the short attention span that I have heard referred to so often that it has ceased to have any meaning, but to the sometimes humorous, humble fey of Les Murray as given creased and stretchy form in his poem: The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever -- the whole of it an image of being in this country that I recognise, if only from certain quirk-loving books and films that must have drawn their sustenance from Patrick White's Mrs Poulter and Mrs Dun and their less wordy men down Terminus Road over four decades ago in The Solid Mandala. I'm not sure what Les Murray would make of either Varamo or Recluse. Perhaps he would see them as relying too much on the webbing of words and not enough on the loved, worn edges of the dominoes themselves. And yet he might surprise me. After all, I, who never ordinarily wear the sartorial sort myself nor read his poetry more than rarely, bought this pair of shorts last week with Les Murray lines on the back.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A fundamental desire to tell over the contents of what may (but may also not) be told

Narrative digression, perhaps because of its very association with wandering off-topic, going astray, loitering around, failing to get to the point and beating around the bush (or um den heißen Brei herumreden, as we learn from reading Samuel Frederick on the writings of Robert Walser -- 'to talk around the porridge'), actually seems to be a highly contested literary concept. In Textual Wanderings: The Theory and Practice of Narrative Digression, the last of the contributors to this book of excursions, Christine Angela Knoop, even asks whether this narrative feature is a viable concept for literary studies at all.

J. J. Long, in his introduction to Textual Wanderings, cites Susan Sontag's conclusion to her essay 'Against Interpretation' (1964) -- where she states that in 'place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art' -- as the call that prompted a shift in the discourse of narratology, after which narratives came to be read in terms of desire. He then goes on to describe what appears to have been a reappraissal of the dynamics of plot through the smeared lens of a Freudian, phallo-centric notion of desire, and lists Roland Barthes's S/Z (1970), Ross Chamber's Story and Situation: Narrative Seduction and the Power of Fiction (1984) and Peter Brooks's Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (1984) as key texts in furthering the steam. While J. J. Long himself is alert to the possibilities and intricacies of digression -- and has written extensively, for example, on the work of such writers as W. G. Sebald and Thomas Bernhard -- he seems to hold very closely to the Brooksian idea of narrative, where digression is a means for prolonging the pleasurable anticipation of a consummation of desire at the end of a narrative. He maintains that even Sebald's digressive writing in The Rings of Saturn, which tries to resist this end impulse, as he argues, is finally unable to detach itself from its exigencies, as the narrator's walk comes to an end, the narrative ends, and even the last word in the German text is Heimat, or 'home' and as such finds its comfortable end; in other words, digressivity, as he writes, 'can never fully detach itself from teleology'. It might try but it will always fail.

I can imagine that the first contributor to Textural Wanderings would very likely have wanted to challenge J. J. Long on this point. In his essay 'Re-reading Digression: Towards a Theory of Plotless Narrativity', Samuel Frederick rearticulates what J. J. Long had described as digression's resistance to plot, but goes on to question the validity of any assumption of plot as being identical to narrative, and therefore comprising its resistant core. He then, through a close reading of the proliferation of possible beginnings and refusal of endings in the work of the Swiss writer, Robert Walser, suggests that digression can actually become 'an alternative mode of narrative movement' to plot in radically digressive texts. Frederick concludes by identifying a different figuring of desire in narrative: 'a fundamental desire to tell over the contents of what may (but may also not) be told' [Frederick's emphasis].

In his 'Reflections on the Fruitful Error', Richard Hibbit, the next contributor, expands on an obsolete meaning of 'error' -- that is, an act of wandering, as derived from the Latin 'errare' (to wander) -- to explore chance and accident as intrinsic and positive components of the writing process as a whole. Quoting Naomi Leibowitz, he describes how Montaigne's ability to embrace what seem to be imperfections -- 'disease, defect, digression' -- is essential to any understanding of the achievement of his work. He even cites Nietzsche in attributing Goethe's strength as a writer to his 'digression through error': that is, Goethe's non-literary activities in the sciences and visual arts. Hibbit finishes his essay with an implicit loosening of J. J. Long's end-tied reading of Sebald's The Rings of Saturn as 'an archetypal digressive text: a text about digressions which was created by a digression, or a text about error as wandering which was created by error as mistake'.

The third contributor, Jena Habegger-Conti, unfurls John Bath's capacity for infinite story generation and infinite expansion in resistance to telos in ''On with the Story!' John Bath's Theory of Narrative Digression'. She argues that in Bath's works, 'digression is not only equated with the storytelling, it is the story' [Habegger-Conti's emphasis]. This kind of narrative -- obviously and explicitly aligned to the Scheherazadian model of infinitely postponing the end -- draws our attention to the slips and tucks that achieve this illusion: to the Mobius band, the arabesque and the Mandelbrot set, as well as to Lewis Richardson's study of the English coastline, where the shoreline could be said to be infinite in terms of the infinite possibility of increasing the degree of what is measurable in every cove, every rock, every grain of sand, its microscopic structure and so on -- an image which could not help but tug at the residue of Sebald's excursion along a section of the English coastline in The Rings of Saturn elsewhere in this volume, distorting it beautifully as perhaps it would wish to be distorted.

Olivia Santovetti's overview of four major digression-inclined Italian writers in 'Italian Digressions' points out that what is generally regarded as the founding Italian novel in the nineteenth century, Alessandro Manzoni's  I promessi sposi, came about through an embracing of the looser possibilities of the new form as opposed to the strict requirements of the classical genres then in vogue in Italy, which enabled him follow his two main interests of poetry and history in the one text. For Manzoni, Pirandello and Gadda, we read, digression is an enabling feature in their narratives. For Pirandello, digression -- at least in his first-person narratives -- works against a naturalist distortion of what he calls 'bare life', becoming a tool that humour could exercise in the procedure of 'scomposizione' or 'dissection'; for Gadda, digression attempts to represent the impossible 'groviglio' or  'tangle' of reality. Santovetti then describes how Italo Calvino, famously noted for his love of 'linear writing', came to be fascinated by the possibility of multiplicity in digression after an encounter with a giant Tule tree in Mexico in 1976, where he was prompted to wonder whether its 'chaotic wastage of matter and forms' was the one thing that enabled the tree to 'give itself a shape and maintain it', and that the 'transmission of meaning' might depend on this 'excess of manifestation'.

In Will McMorran's chapter, ''I've started so I'll -- ': Marivaux's La Vie de Marianne', McMorran describes Marivaux's characterisation of a female narrative voice in this incomplete novel as one that deviates from plot on account of its more conversational, socially-inclined, epistolary style, and messily feminine reluctance to keep to the central concerns of the plot. Throughout, McMorran argues that 'the very idea of digression indeed only arises within the context of a progressive narrative: the more driven a plot appears to be, the more pronounced any deviation from that plot becomes in the reader's imagination'. He is concerned to argue that the digressive aspects of the book are inextricably tied to the progress of the narrative -- a narrative, however, that never realises the expected telos of the revelation of the narrator's identity due to Marivaux's failing to complete the novel (just as he failed to complete Le Paysan Parvenu): the serialised installments of the piece simply coming to an apparently arbitrary end.

The sixth contributor, Maebh Long, in 'Stepping Away: Radical Digressivity and At Swim-Two-Birds', engages with the fact that some narratives, in comprising, as Maebh Long writes, 'non-originary fragmentation whereby digressions proliferate to the point of wholly dissolving any stable centre or core', and where the text 'will fail as a unit to begin definitively and conclude categorically', achieves a disruption of what Samuel Frederick in his earlier chapter calls the 'totalizing... whole' constructed by plot. Long points out a significant aspect of many narratives of this kind: that the narrator's life often enacts a 'mimesis' of the author's and, through a series of what she calls 'contaminated frames', the 'author becomes a point of radical digression, as he or she is written into the text and becomes fragmented into author-self and text-self, creator and created'.

This interest in the figuring of the author in the radically digressive text is further explored by Rhian Atkin, in 'Tell It Again, José! Some Principles of Digression in Saramago'. Here she examines the idiosyncratic use of punctuation in Saramago's texts, which enables him to blur the distinction between the discourse of the narrator and the other characters (a technique whose effect made me think of Mikhail Bakhtin's idea of 'dialogism'...). Atkin concludes that Ross Chamber's notion of 'supplementarity' is crucial to a reading of Saramago's narratives since each of them is often presented as only one of a number of possible manifestations of a story that the narrator is always inviting others to tell in another way ('contá-la doutra maniera').

In the final essay of Textual Wanderings, Christine Angela Knoop poses a question in the title of her piece: 'Is Digression a Viable Concept for Literary Studies?'. Primarily a critical engagement with Olivia Santovetti's book, Digression: A Narrative Strategy in the Italian Novel, Knoop examines what she calls the 'excursus', or 'a temporary abandonment of the plot' in an attempt to question the boundaries of such a distinction and asks whether the 'suggestion of textual hierarchy' in the assumption of the plot as the place from which the existence and function of digression can be determined is useful for 'literary texts at large'. Through a reading of Milan Kundera's work that is informed by his focus on thematic integrity, Knoop points out that 'a digression from theme is harder to imagine than a digression from plot' and asks: 'What could a text digress from if its message derives from its final form, including that which in other interpretations would be called digressive?'. The greatest difficulty I found with Knoop's argument was that, in acknowledging the interpretive issues in any discussion of theme in a narrative -- which, as she argues, will always change with the reader -- after she concludes that 'novelistic digression' is a 'necessary oxymoron' and that its possibility is tied to the transitory reading of a particular audience, she still declares it to be 'a parallel narrative strategy' even as she continues to argue that it is not 'a textual feature that can be clearly discerned prior to interpretation'. 

On the whole, I would say, Textural Wanderings: The Theory and Practice of Narrative Digression is an excellent introduction to the key lines of thinking in this wanderingly digressive field. The engagement is fresh (I could imagine the intensity of the tentative small talk over the thick china cups during the conference tea breaks at the University of Leeds in 2007, from which, as we are told in the Preface, the idea for this volume of essays arose). Occasionally, though, with all the discussion of telos and narrative and story and plot, it wasn't always clear in some of the essays how exactly 'story' could be distinguishable from either 'narrative' or 'plot'. While Samuel Frederick defines 'story' as 'the meaningful whole that plot constructs', for example, there must still be an essential inclusion of 'narrative' in this term as, at the end of his chapter, our minds are sent spinning when he declares that 'digression, in freeing narrative from plot's control, can participate in generating a new kind of narrative, that is, a necessarily nascent narrative mode which appears in the form of a beguiling, because seemingly impossible, storyless story' -- an image which is nonetheless completely entrancing, as is the thought of a universe that, within its own limitless existence, includes sites of unmaking that cannot be contained.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

No sooner are you, than you are no longer, a writer

At the near centre of Maurice Blanchot's The Writing of the Disaster, this necessary counter to every misguidedly encouraging self-help writing programme:

What Schlegel says of philosophy is true for writing: you can only become a writer, you can never be one; no sooner are you, than you are no longer, a writer.


The mortal leap of the writer without which he would not write is necessarily an illusion to the extent that, in order really to be accomplished, it must not take place.


What happens through writing is not of the order of things that happen. But in that case, who permits you to claim that anything like writing ever does happen? Or is it that writing is not such that it need ever happen?

For, even -- or perhaps, above all -- when considering Kafka, who at one moment wrote that he was Literature:

How absurd it would be to address this question to the writer: are you a writer through and through? In everything you are, have you yourself become writing -- vital and activating? This would be to condemn the writer to death or foolishly to deliver his funeral eulogy.

And so, inevitably, this Blanchotian, sentence, which has Kafka in every part of it:

Whoever writes is exiled from writing, which is the country -- his own -- where he is not a prophet.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

We were ventriloquised

I wonder if the Lars Iyer of the "Nude in your hot tub, facing the abyss (A literary manifesto after the end of Literature and Manifestos)" would feel either amused or annoyed to know that, as I finished Dogma -- his sequel to Spurious -- I was not thinking so much any more of Flaubert or Beckett or even Laurel and Hardy but of some ribald mixture of very contemporary pairings on Anglophone television: Bernard and Manny in Black Books and Jonathan and Ray in Bored to Death. Picture a Bernard criticising a Manny who can draw like Ray and who will take his gentle, devious revenge in a comic strip -- now book -- that will nonetheless bare the embarrassing innermost obsessions that the character Ray might think invisible and which the illustrator-writer Ray -- the Ray we cannot meet on television -- will chortle about, the tears running down his face until they drip onto his large and necessary belly; picture a W. with the endless, abject hopefulness of a Jonathan somehow mixed with the constant Bernardian invective against his hairier nemesis and sort-of friend. And of course all the alcohol as well as the vermin and the dirt and the damp of the Black Books book shop; and the occasional dream of girls.

And speaking of girls: the Sal character really almost breaks the surface in Dogma this time. She is no Fran of Black Books -- that would completely changed the shape and weighting of the novel -- but she has the other woman's mouth. Indeed, as if commenting on her role in the previous book, as much as on her almost unacknowledged but very ordinary and even crucial role in their American lecture tour -- a tour during which Iyer enjoys evoking the ridiculous dancing chicken from Herzog's Stroszek and the double suicides of Bruno and Ian Curtis (these more anxious and romantic Karl Rossmans):

'You twats', she says, 'why did you leave me behind?'

If it weren't for Sal, we are led to understand, W. and Lars wouldn't have even got as far as they did on their tour. She consents to take photos of W. and Lars larking around for Facebook: did she erase them afterwards as she threw away all the Jandek CDs that Lars had burned for W.? There are no photos of Lars among the many photos of friends, or so we read, on Sal and W.'s walls in their huge, three-level house in Plymouth -- fresh and airy, as it seems after the damp and rats of Lars's flat, and with the seeming perfection of W.'s measured approach to scholarship, as well as everything suggested by Sal and W.'s room (so "calm, generous and large-windowed"). Every morning, as we read in Lars's narrative, W.:

... leaves Sal lying there in the warm bed, and goes to work. Is she impressed by this commitment? -- 'She thinks I'm an idiot', W. says.

Already aware that all is about to be taken from him, W. asks Lars to take photos of the house. W. then takes him around his favourite haunts, "to document his Plymouth years" -- the years during which, as W. suspects, the great "idea" that they might have had could well already have occurred to them but promptly been forgotten in a haze, as we imagine, of stupidity and alcohol. Lars is instructed to remember everything now and write it down: a Ray lashed into obedience by a Bernard who is about to lose his shop (and his legs!).

And yet, behind the Bernard and Manny, and the Jonathan and Ray, there are strong Thomas Bernhardian ideas. W. declares that he has invested hope in the idea of Lars's "salmon-leap... In the opposite direction to my dissoluteness and squalor. In the opposite direction to my compromise and half-measures"-- a great salmon-leap that resonates with the extensive exploration of the "opposite direction" in Gathering Evidence. Then, immediately after a section where W. is ridiculing Lars for threatening to surprise him with what he might have to say if he got the chance, there is a page where it is unclear whether it is Lars or W. who is speaking: where, after asking what Dogma "really meant" and "whether it wasn't greater'' than them, the narrator declares:

In truth, we've had no thoughts. We were ventriloquised; we spoke but not with our own voices. We wept, but they weren't our tears. We felt things, great things, but in what sense were those feelings ours?
W. takes up this theme on the following page, but the question of who is ultimately speaking in this novel remains, and this is a serious question, putting us in mind of Bernhard's eponymous The Voice Imitator, where the only voice that this man cannot imitate is his own.

Overall in Dogma there is a kind of on and on feeling: a Lars and W. running to an infinite number of television series with ever more ridiculous insults and situations, even if it will only be a neat Black Books-sized set of three. It wasn't me -- it was him; stop standing there gaping, stupid! But such is the contention of Dogma; such is the literature, perhaps, "on this side of the mountain" as Lars puts it in his anti-manifesto manifesto: "The stars are going out, and the black sky is indifferent to you and your stupidities." This is what we need to write about, we have to understand from the man in the tub.

At the end of Dogma, there is no "sweetness" of an end. Even death eludes them: not only the "sweetness" of the white-bearded Bhishma's timely death, but also the resounding, heroic/anti-heroic death of an Ian Curtis or even one modelled on the bathos-ridden suicide of Bruno in Stroszek that we might have been expecting from the chicken à la Herzog that was proffered at the beginning of the book (the Iyer equivalent of the Chekhovian gun):

What will he say, I ask W., now that the end has come, the endless end? Will he speak of love? Of friendship? Of the life of thought? He'll speak about me, says W. Of not being able to get rid of me. Of my being here, even now...

It's time to die, says W. But death does not come.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

What is it to you how Ruskin feels: feel for yourself

In his Preface to La Bible d'Amiens, Proust writes:

When we work in order to please others, we may fail to succeed, but the things we have done to satisfy ourselves always have a chance of interesting someone else.

Here Proust is referring to his attraction to Ruskin's writings as a whole; he might also have been writing about the effect of the long discipline of À la recherche du temps perdu (in fact at that time yet to be begun) on the readers of the future, which the narrator Marcel anticipates near the end of the last volume when he declares that the work of a writer is 'a sort of optical instrument which he offers to the reader so that he may discern in the book what he would probably not have seen in himself': the work as a physical conduit of thoughts:

...because what emerged from one man's thought can alone one day capture another thought, which in turn has fascinated ours.

In both this Preface to La Bible d'Amiens and his Preface to Sésame et les Lys, Proust struggles to understand what reading is, and more specifically, what was for him a significant but very nearly overwhelming experience: the writings of Ruskin. To the reader of Proust, who, even as she might discount these observations about a writer now thoroughly out of fashion, worries about the effect on her own writing of the rolling clauses of À la recherche du temps perdu, Proust's analysis and dismissal of this anxiety of influence near the end of the earlier Preface is peculiarly comforting:

Admiration for a thought... gives rise to beauty at each step because at each moment it rouses in us the desire for it. Mediocre people generally believe that to let oneself be guided by books one admires takes away some of one's independence of judgment. "What is it to you how Ruskin feels: feel for yourself." Such an opinion rests on a psychological error that will be treated as it deserves by all those who, having thus adopted an intellectual discipline, feel that their power to understand and feel is infinitely increased and their critical sense never paralyzed. We are then simply in a state of grace in which all our faculties, our critical sense as much as our other senses, are strengthened. Therefore, this voluntary servitude is the beginning of freedom. There is no better way of becoming aware of one's feelings than to try to recreate in oneself what a master has felt. In this profound effort it is our thought, together with his, that we bring to light. We are free in life, but subject to purpose: the sophism of freedom of indifference was picked apart long ago. The writer who constantly creates a void in his mind, thinking to free it from any external influence in order to be sure of remaining individual, yields unwittingly to a sophism just as naive. Actually the only times when we truly have all our powers of mind are those when we do not believe ourselves to be acting with independence, when we do not arbitrarily choose the goal of our efforts. The subject of the novelist, the vision of the poet, the truth of the philosopher are imposed on them in a manner almost inevitable, exterior, so to speak, to their thought. And it is by subjecting his mind to the expression of this vision and to the approach of this truth that the artist becomes truly himself.

Thus we have the happy paradox of becoming ourselves only as we become obsessed with the work of another (and perhaps even start to imitate this other, as Orhan Pamuk might add: there is much of Proust in Pamuk), and as a result of which 'our critical sense' is not engulfed but 'strengthened' -- an unexpected bonus. Certainly, Proust is serious in his cool analysis of what he calls 'idolatry' in the work of his beloved Ruskin. In the Preface to La Bible d'Amiens, Proust presses him hard: this Ruskin who, he finds, is too guilty of idolising the objects he describes to be entirely perfect; who occasionally writes sentences thinking more about the cadence of the words in their series than any precision of meaning. It is an issue that Proust continues to pursue in his Preface to Sésame et les Lys, where he analyses the temptation of the 'literary man' who, instead of realising that reading 'is at the threshold of spiritual life; it can introduce us to it; it does not constitute it':

...reads for reading's sake, to retain what he has read. For him, the book is not the angel that flies away as soon as he has opened the doors of the celestial garden, but a motionless idol, which he adores for itself, which, instead of receiving a true dignity from the thoughts it awakens, communicates an artificial dignity to everything that surrounds it.

He describes the general temptation to make a fetish of the subject matter of a much loved piece of artwork or book:

"Take us," we would like to be able to say to Maeterlinck, to Madame de Noailles, "to the garden of Zealand where the 'out-of-fashion flowers grow,' on the road perfumed 'with clover and Saint John's Wort'..."

These objects might seem to project an almost holy literary significance in themselves when, 'in reality', as Proust goes on to argue, 'it is mere chance acquaintance or family ties, which, giving them the opportunity to travel or reside near them, have made Madame de Noailles, Maeterlinck, Millet, Claude Monet choose to paint that road, that garden, that field, that river bend, rather than others.' There is, however, a great irony in all this: Proust himself seems only to have ever travelled in his life so as to be able to see the world through the eyes of Ruskin, unless it was in pursuit of another idol: a lover; Proust perhaps the greatest idoliser of all. And yet it is clear from the body of his writings that, should he now happen to catch sight of tourists sampling the crumbs of a madeleine dunked in tea with bewildered concentration in Illiers-Combray -- this town-sized fetish, far bigger and more established than any road or field according to Madame de Noailles, and long outlasting any residue of Ruskinian interest in the Cathedral of Amiens -- this part of him would groan aloud.

Proust's many years of work on Ruskin's writings, both as translator and commentator, is often described in terms of one long procrastination, with his mother's far too forceful encouragement, at the expense of the 'real' work of À la recherche du temps perdu -- a distraction from which only his mother's death could save him -- but it is in fact impossible to envisage his ever being able to write such a work without this impassioned engagement with the other's writings, and the inevitable disillusionment as his 'critical sense' came alive. The struggle with the temptations of idolatry -- which he notices in his own relationship to reading Ruskin as well as in the work itself -- provides the structural frame of La Recherche: the temptations and weaknesses and partial realisations of Swann and the temptations, weaknesses and more clearly realised conclusions of Marcel, which will lead, it is implied, to the production of the actual book we are reading -- a literary Mobius band: a 'sort of optical instrument' with which we, impassioned readers as well, might see not only what he means but what in fact we mean ourselves.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

A good formula to test the quality of a novel

Nabokov's penchant for Robert Louis Stevenson reminds me of Borges's for G. K. Chesterton. In his preparation for a series of lectures on European Fiction for Cornell University in the United States, Nabokov had written to Edmund Wilson seeking his advice on which English works to include. Wilson had responded by suggesting Austen and Dickens, to which Nabokov replied, 'I dislike Jane, and am prejudiced, in fact, against all women writers.' He then declared: 'I shall take Stevenson instead of Jane A.' Although Nabokov later revised his opinion of her and included Wilson's recommendation of Austen's Mansfield Park along with Dickens's Bleak House in his lecture series, he retained Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" notwithstanding Wilson's dismissal of this writer as 'second-rate'.

There it is, then, this lecture on Stevenson, as published in the edited versions of Nabokov's lectures, Lectures on Literature: a curious inclusion among Austen, Dickens and Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Proust's The Walk by Swann's Place (Nabokov's translation of the title), Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" and Joyce's Ulysses. Despite his admission in the lecture on Kafka, that in "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" there is 'none of that unity and none of that contrast' that is found in the 'fantasies', as he puts it, of Kafka and Gogol -- and that Stevenson's characters 'are characters derived from Dickens, and thus they constitute phantasms that do not quite belong to Stevenson's own artistic reality, just as Stevenson's fog comes from a Dickensian studio to envelop a conventional London' -- despite this admission of the story's derivative qualities, "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" remains right in the physical centre of his series of lectures: between Flaubert and Proust.

A clue to the story's hold on him, perhaps, is given in the introductory remarks, "Good Readers and Good Writers":

It seems to me that a good formula to test the quality of a novel is, in the long run, a merging of the precision of poetry and the intuition of science. In order to bask in that magic a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle even though we must keep a little aloof, a little detached when reading.
Near the beginning of his lecture on "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", Nabokov states: 'There is a delightful winey taste about this book; in fact, a good deal of old mellow wine is drunk in the story: one recalls the wine that Utterson so comfortably sips.' Such delicious sensations are not to be analysed. During the series of lectures, Freud is dismissed variously as a 'medieval quack' and 'the Viennese witch doctor'.

I wouldn't be surprised if there were similar associations for Borges in his fondness for G. K. Chesterton. Once, in an effort to understand Borges's preference for this writer whose photographs and even penned self-portraits show him to be something like a large, softened leather, tobacco-smelling couch,  I bought an over-priced, oil-fouled, cloth-covered edition of his collected Father Brown stories (once red) from Gould's Book Arcade, whose rotting spine came off as soon as I tried to turn its pages. I read several stories before giving it away (probably, after all, just back to Gould's), and remember now only something about an arrangement of corridors only slightly less brown than the corridors in Arthur Conan Doyle's tales of Sherlock Holmes, and as crowded and musty as the furthest, most inaccessible and slightly urine-smelling aisles at the back of the Arcade where I found it, very likely, on the floor.