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'.