Tuesday, December 31, 2013

To be contemporary is to rise through the stack of the past, like the fire through the mountain

Although, as Mary Oliver observes in her nearly twenty-year-old guide to writing, A Poetry Handbook, 'in the world of writing it is originality that is sought out, and praised, while imitation is the sin of sins', the role of imitation in the development of voice is decidedly under-valued. In fact, '[t]he profits are many,' she writes, 'the perils few.' (p. 13) And later: 'Emotional freedom, the integrity and special quality of one's own work -- these are not first things, but final things. Only the patient and diligent, as well as the inspired, get there', (p. 18) with the practice of imitation, we infer, making up the more inspired moments of this long drudging. Proust would agree, and it could be said that the entire oeuvre of Orhan Pamuk meditates on the problem and, indeed the necessity, of imitation when it comes to being yourself, as he would call it. There is something shilly-shallying in this word 'imitation', however -- even in her own handling of the word as it occurs within a couple of pages. When addressing the concern of apprentice poets to stay contemporary by only reading current publications she writes:

...perhaps you would argue that, since you want to be a contemporary poet, you do not want to be too much under the influence of what is old, attaching to the term the idea that old is old hat -- out-of-date. You imagine you should surround yourself with the modern only. It is an error. The truly contemporary creative force is something that is built out of the past, but with a difference.

Most of what calls itself contemporary is built, whether it knows it or not, out of a desire to be liked. It is created in imitation of what already exists and is already admired. There is, in other words, nothing new about it. To be contemporary is to rise through the stack of the past, like the fire through the mountain. Only a heat so deeply and intelligently born can carry a new idea into the air. (pp. 11-12)

We imitate and it drains us of something; we imitate and we are filled. Is there something in the time delay of imitation where we imitate something from another period, another context, even another language -- something in its apparent dead-aliveness, its mountain strata -- that sends us upwards, as Oliver has it?

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Their diurnal stars are all the shining holies

I've had Lars Iyer's Exodus lying part read (differently part read) at various times beside my bed for the past year. This is not because his novel, as people often complain of novels, 'didn't pull me through' -- or perhaps it is, since 'Literature should be boring!', as W. says in Exodus somewhere. Henry James once described reading Swann's Way as 'inconceivable boredom associated with the most extreme ecstasy which it is possible to imagine' (and my awareness that this is not only true but the highest possible compliment might even be the very reason I am still steadily rereading À la recherche du temps perdu, which will no doubt take the rest of my life -- a rest of my life that I am in no hurry to race to its end).

For all the protagonists' discussions of end times, Exodus is not at all a teleological narrative. I see Lars and W. agitated and blousy: bickering in a mid field of university canteens and parsimonious conference spreads, with a greyish green moor spreading out on all sides towards an encircling horizon (and an empty bottle of Plymouth Gin rolling around between the drain and the glass doors). Their diurnal stars are all the shining holies -- Kierkegaard, Weil, Duras, Blanchot, Badiou, Rosenzweig, Rosenstock, Gandhi, Marx, Žižek, Kafka, Krasznahorkai, Tarr -- as well as the faceless but ethereally beautiful Essex postgraduates. For some reason, I see W. as dry skinned, thin and woody; Lars, we are continually reminded, has a white, soft middle: they are the yin and yang of our emptying world. Theirs is a sidereal time with all stars, for the moment, descending, but there is something that remains, still, after the stars have passed. Try as he might to leave them utterly stranded, Iyer keeps his protagonists warm from the rumours of thinkers, in the thought of thinking, and we huddle beside them, trying to believe, even as we despair a faux Kierkegaardian despair, in all of this faithful thinking for ourselves.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The frown in Beckett's What Where

Today, at the Australian premiere of the new English language film production of Beckett's What Where, which is yet to be released, the actor who played V and hence was on screen for the entire running of the single eight minute take -- for which it had been necessary to make twenty seven attempts -- told us after the screening that he'd lost his voice as the filming progressed and even now (nearly one year later) it had not recovered. The actors had had to strip all the emotion from their voices. They also had to stay completely still during takes; they weren't to blink -- even when their eyes were closed, they had to keep their eyeballs from moving.

In the accompanying documentary, the director (Asmus) describes the way that, unlike for his other television productions, Beckett did not arrive with a predetermined plan for What Where. Originally the actors were to be upright, as in the staged show -- at one point, we learned, Beckett had even thought of giving them fezzes to wear (an allusion to 'the political situation in Turkey', according to Asmus) -- but in the end, in the German production, as we heard from the Australian producer (Uhlmann) today, the actors were confined to dentists' chairs -- just as in this production they were made to sit in chairs that had added contraptions to keep the heads still that the cinematographer/ editor (Denham) had made. Uhlmann told us that it had been Asmus's suggestion to Beckett -- once it had become clear that there were no longer to be heads with bodies on the screen as there were on stage, but heads alone -- that the actors close their eyes rather than bow when their faces re-emerged from the dark.

After the screening, one of actors told us that he'd noticed (in the finished film) the slightest suggestion of a frown on one of the other actors when he re-emerged with his eyes closed -- a frown which Uhlmann and Denham admitted that they had never noticed (and which Asmus would very likely have wanted to expunge had his attention been drawn to it in time) -- and that this had made him think that this character -- whose name he'd forgotten just as he'd already forgotten the name of his own character -- that this character, alone among all of them, had moral integrity.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The substance of all writing lives

To read Brian Castro's piece in the Sydney Review of Books on W. G. Sebald's A Place in the Country is to be filled with a rapt anxiety, as if you've just been given what turns out to be a nestled series of semi-transparent boxes that you have to hold onto with your fingertips in case, just by trying to keep the pieces from falling out, the whole thing breaks in your hands. Of course, I will have to read the essay again. I imagine it was the lepidopterist in Nabokov that understood rereading to be the only way to keep such shells from getting crushed. It is enough that Castro's prose is as shaped by the slow-developing beauties of 'scribal-ambulism' that he identifies in Sebald, Walser, Rousseau (the boxes could well be infinite):

Sebald’s beginnings have a sinuous resistance to beginning. After all, if writing is such a compulsive burden, then at least walking exercises a different compulsive faculty that exorcises thought. Scribal-ambulism then, may have a curative effect on melancholia, but one that Rousseau found was, in the end, untenable. The clarity of the world, for which this ultimate autobiographer yearned, the transparency he sought, could not be sustained. As Jean Starobinski asserts, the inner life and external reality cannot be compatible. Interiority is essentially a failure in relating to reality, and this is the substance of all writing lives.

That is why the beginning of each ‘walk’ taken by Sebald, by Walser, by Rousseau, embodies anxiety. It is a preparation for meeting the shock of the real and its resistance to being possessed by the mind. Anyone aware of sensible seeing would understand the furtive nature of writing, its opposition to clarity and transparency, its irrational refusal to speak for its author, its invention of a negative dialectic. There is a lot of fiddling about in order to get into a place, and that ‘place’ is ultimately a place in the language which will not yield to a universal historiography – Starobinski, for example, avoids dates in his study of Rousseau.

I will ask: is it possible to (re)read and walk at the same time? I would like to do that.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Within the narrow range of these two eyes

Some years ago, when J. M. Coetzee's book Slow Man first came out, I took a Murrays coach down to Canberra for the day -- I only intended to stay the day, such was my dedication, I liked to think -- just to listen to Coetzee speak at the National Library. No one had warned me. I had no idea that the talk I was travelling over seven hours in one day to listen to would never materialise: that Coetzee would only read from his new book Slow Man (which I had finished reading on the coach down) and would say not a single word more than that. Actually, this is not true because, not long after I resigned myself to this long day's journey with little more than a small white-haired man reciting in the darkened lecture hall heart of it something that I had already read for myself, I got to hear him speak five unexpected words to me.

I had joined the book signing queue in the library foyer. An attendant, having announced that Coetzee would only be signing one book for each person, then walked down the queue asking for and writing our names on yellow post it notes that he attached to the front of our books. When at last I got to the front of the queue I was struck by how quickly Coetzee was able to take in the spelling of my name -- he hardly looked at it -- before writing his dedication in my book (admittedly my name is very short). But then, as I stepped aside, my turn now over, I saw a copy of his book of essays, Stranger Shores, in the Library bookshop window and went in to buy it. I then did the unthinkable by rejoining the queue. This time, when I made it to his desk, Coetzee again hardly looked at my name, but he fixed me with his pale unmoving narrowed eyes and said, 'This is your second time,' before writing, all the same, a second time, in a second book for me.

Anthony Uhlmann's essay, 'Signs for the Soul' in Sydney Review of Books on Coetzee and Murnane -- principally Coetzee on Murnane -- cannot help therefore but evoke two pairs of unmoving narrowed eyes for me: Coetzee's by the glass walls of the National Library foyer and those that, Murnanesque (that is, in my mind), hold an entire world steady, as a plate of glass pressed horizontally to their surface (famously he has never worn sunglasses, and photographs always show him with eyes and mouth narrowed against the persistent weather of outer Melbourne). Breaking the spell, though, I reach for my copy of HEAT where I find the ordinary but Murnane-written words in 'The Breathing Author':

Apart from what lies right now within the narrow range of these two eyes (points again to eyes), everything that I am aware of or have ever been aware of is somewhere in the far-reaching landscape of (my) mind. Of course, I acknowledge the existence of other minds, but such is my view of things that I can only see those minds and their contents as being located where all other imagined or remembered or desired entities are located -- in the landscape of landscapes; in the place of places; in my mind.

Uhlmann rather beautifully sets the two authors facing each other:

While all writers necessarily make use of both methods in generating a sense of the meaningful in their works, there are different degrees of emphasis, so that readers might notice one kind first and skate over the importance of the other kind in particular writers. In terms of emphasis, Coetzee seems to be a writer who values the external: his works enter into a dialogue with what is outside, though what is outside his works are not only real world problems, but other works, other books. Foe (1986), for example, refers to Robinson Crusoe (1719) and The Master of Petersburg refers to Dostoevsky’s Demons (1872). In terms of emphasis, Murnane seems to be a writer obsessed with the internal: the networks of images he creates – his marbles, his plains, his horse races with their silks and patterns of movement – recur not only within individual works, but throughout all of his works, creating a field of meaning that seems somehow self-contained. Yet, in fact, Coetzee depends as much on internal resonance, just as Murnane depends as much on external resonance, to create meaning.

Coetzee can enter into a dialogue with Murnane in a way that Murnane, who claims he no longer reads new fiction, cannot with Coetzee. And when Coetzee refers to other writers in his books, he never really refers to them, even when he names them. Rather, he offers deliberately distorted images of them – so that his character Foe is not Daniel Defoe but an idea of the writer, and his Dostoevsky is not the historical author but an idea of the writer. Yet perhaps this deliberate distortion is a kind of dialogue: a doubleness that enables meaning to emerge. Coetzee shows us how people communicate even, and perhaps especially, when they fail to understand one another.

Or is it that Coetzee’s principle figure is that of the writer (the one who sits in a room and sends out messages to the world from the self), while Murnane’s is that of the reader (the one who sits in a room and takes the world inside the self). Yet both are others of the self, and the figure that makes the writer other for Coetzee is the reader. The figure that makes the reader other for Murnane is the writer.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The writer is a phobic

'The writer is a phobic,' writes Julia Kristeva in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, 'who succeeds in metamorphizing in order to keep from being frightened to death; instead he comes to life again in signs.' Without writing, then, does the writer curl in the corner -- the writer, without writing, trammelled by nightmares of wolves in trees -- or is there still that pregnant secret, like the Blanchotian child's vision of an 'absolutely empty' sky?

Monday, July 1, 2013

Its tumescence in the throats of serpents

Near the end of Maud Ellmann's The Hunger Artists: Starving, Writing and Imprisonment, her own writing moves so sinuously -- indeed so beautifully -- through the transformations of edible substances that you can almost see how the hands of Richardson's Clarissa, Kafka's Hunger Artist, the inmates of the H-Blocks of Long Kesh and Coetzee's Michael K, would have rushed to shield their eyes and then their mouths:

What is food, that it should be so fearsome and desirable? And why are all these hunger artists so desperate to resist its captivation? Food is the prototype of all exchanges with the other, be they verbal, financial or erotic. Digestion is a kind of fleshly poetry, for metaphor begins in the body's transubstantiations of itself, while food is the thesaurus of all moods and all sensations. Its disintegration in the stomach, its assimilation in the blood, its diaphoresis in the epidermis, its metempsychosis in the large intestine; its viscosity in okra, gumba, oysters; its elasticity in jellies; its deliquescence in blancmanges; its tumescence in the throats of serpents, its slow erosion in the bellies of sharks; its odysseys through pastures, orchards, wheat fields, stockyards, supermarkets, kitchens, pig troughs, rubbish dumps, disposals; the industries of sowing, hunting, cooking, milling, processing, and canning it; the wizardry of its mutations, ballooning into bread, subsiding in soufflés; raw and cooked, solid and melting, vegetable and mineral, fish, flesh, and fowl, encompassing the whole compendium of living substance: food is the symbol of the passage, the totem of sociality, the epitome of all creative and destructive labor.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

A photo of a facsimile of a drawing

And, to complete this uncharacteristic run of images: a photo of a facsimile of a drawing done, as the Franz Kafka Museum tells us, while the artist was working at the Assicurazioni Generali (1907-08), with glass, dust specks and damp stains (either facsimile or authentic).

The Franz Kafka Society has a facsimile of Kafka's library, which is open, as I discovered from the sign in the bookshop one Wednesday afternoon, on Tuesdays only.

You might then be able to imagine how I felt the next day when I decided to ask whether it were possible after all to have a look at the library, since it was my last afternoon in Prague and the adjoining bookshop still appeared to be open -- there were no barriers at all between the one and the other -- only to be told that, since it was a quarter past five, the facsimile library had only just closed.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A new life

Only to say that finally my novel Since the Accident, which went out of print last year, has a new life as one of those books that shrink and spread on a screen.

Friday, June 21, 2013

This head waiter, who stands like a dog in front of every guest

There's a Café Savoy in Prague, but it is not where Kafka once got to see performances in Yiddish by the Jewish theatre company from Lemberg in Galicia. These days the original Café Savoy is now a restaurant called Katr where you can grill your own meat, and where the suspended exhaust fans are not completely incongruous with any image you might have had of the dining facilities in a penal colony.

In Katr, when I was leafing through my Vitalis edition of Kafka's drawings, I came across the picture of a 'Grumpy Man in Black Suit' that the editors have placed alongside the following excerpt from his diaries:

Then suddenly we see Löwy, who had seemed to have vanished, being pushed towards a door by head waiter Roubitschek with his hands and possibly also his knees. He was simply to be thrown out. This head waiter, who stands like a dog in front of every guest, including us earlier and later on, with a dog-like nose which sinks over a large mouth closed by humble jowls. [Diary, 14th October 1911]

An image, of course, which I left clearly visible on the table for a short while.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Cut me to the ever-more prominent bone

Right from the start, in Fiona Wright's remarkable piece on Christina Stead's For Love Alone, illness, literature and the hunger for a disembodied notion of love twine themselves around each other in a deft feat of reflective writing:

That year I read, for the first time, Christina Stead’s For Love Alone (1945). I was nineteen. It was a set text. I remember I disliked the male protagonist Jonathan Crowe for his self-obsession and coldness, which I thought extended to the book as a whole. I remember that I thought it old-fashioned and too rigidly structured to feel poignant, to feel real. But there was one section that stopped me dead, and that remained for years as my overriding memory of reading the book. Teresa, the intelligent and passionate heroine, she who suffers for love alone, is working in a factory in Redfern and saving all her money in order to buy passage to London. Rather than pay for trams between the ferry terminal and the factory, Teresa walks. From Circular Quay to Redfern and back, every day. She saves money; she goes hungry rather than pay for lunch, and she walks, both ways, each day. And Stead’s description of Teresa’s physical exhaustion, of the ravages of hunger on her body, cut me to the ever-more prominent bone.

It is many years since I read For Love Alone, but I also remember the walking and the striving -- the hunger less so. Perhaps it was all of a piece and I simply took the hunger in the walking and striving for granted. In Stead's Seven Poor Men of Sydney, the city is netted with it. Louie, in The Man Who Loved Children, although described as fat and clumsy -- perhaps indeed because she is described as fat and clumsy -- is charged at her centre by a void that she hears, sometimes, as pulsing with the sound of the hooves of a stranger's horse.

Stead's vision, in these earlier books has such a desperate, highly charged, sensitivity to the vastness of place and the comparatively microscopic human interactions that occur within it that I remember, when I read what I only now realise was just a posthumously revised novel, I'm Dying Laughing: The Humourist (since given away), I was so disappointed that I allowed my interest in her work to die. It is very likely, then, that my view of her 'earlier books', at least as compared to the later ones, is considerably distorted by this hiatus in my reading. Fiona Wright's essay suggests, however, that I have not misremembered their effect. After all, I too read and starved and walked these strange gritty streets under their enormous, empty, buffeted skies that no tourist brochure on Sydney will ever get close to depicting.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

How many bloggers are really doing anything more?

At a symposium on e-literature that I went to earlier this week, Professor Joseph Tabbi, an expert on 'the effects of new technologies on contemporary fiction', as his bio puts it, made the observation that critical and reflective work wasn't happening in blogs, and while I must say that I've noticed this is often true -- how many bloggers are really doing anything more than operating a more dreamy, expansive version of Twitter, working (sometimes extremely hard) in their own newsagency-cum-corner-of-the-loungeroom-or-café to distribute or just describe chunks of sounds, words or images that someone else has made? -- I would like to think that the blog can do more than this. If it likes.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Without being able to say precisely what theatre is

Last night: the first of four previews of Sydney Theatre Company's The Maids by Jean Genet, with the director and co-translator, Benedict Andrews, climbing onto the stage before it started to alert us to the fragile, improvised aspect of the play, and the possibility that the live editing work of the video artist and the equally improvisatory work of the 'actresses', as he called Cate Blanchett, Isabelle Huppert and Elizabeth Debicki, might be interrupted by 'technical hitches'. I am very glad to say that neither were.

This draws me to consider this vulnerable but in fact very important centre of the production more closely. While the video designer and operator (Sean Bacon), behind one of the tall dark sheets of mirroring glass on either side of the stage, seemed to pull against all the brighter gestures of the play with the concentration of his unchanging expression, it was hard not to attribute the audio delay in the images on the screen at the back of the stage to his very serious-seeming processing of the whole. I also couldn't help recalling, in contrast, the way the video artist-glued-to-camera figure in the opera Project Inc.'s production of The Audience and Other Psychopaths at the old Performance Space (nearly ten years ago) had ducked under a clothesline that was pulled across the middle of the stage and pushed into the nervous audience; the apparent necessity of keeping his eye pressed against the viewfinder turning the video artist into the object that was his camera, as if this hybrid creature, that kept wandering through and prodding at our vision, were just some strange extension of the stage itself. In The Maids last night, I could see, however, that such a monster could never have been born. The proscenium arch was there to make us conscious of our viewing and so conscious of needing to process what we were viewing, just as Sean Bacon was viewing and processing what he was seeing through the many layers of glass between him and the players and flowers and objects on the stage (and behind it): conscious of how the entire production was a viewing, and a momentarily delayed, processing of the whole; the eye and the camera having had to come loose. There could be, I had to admit, no other expression on the video artist's face but the one of concentrated watching: a watching that was aware that it was also being watched by the audience. In the director's note, Benedict Andrews writes that his 'first impulse for The Maids was the idea of the mise en abyme -- the mirror that reflects a mirror'. We participate, even as we are subjected to, the odd fragility of this labyrinth.

Jean Genet's instructions for the playing of The Maids begins with the one word: 'Furtive'. This is indeed the word that had to be moving Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert in all their extraordinary, raw webbing of the stage. The moment the Mistress, played by Elizabeth Debicki, arrives, what seems to be her excessive height dwarfs them, when perhaps it is only, as Genet puts it, her inability to 'know just how stupid she is, just how much she's playing a role' which scatters the maids to either side of her, the extreme differences in stature between the players only adding to the wonder of the effect.

During the two hours of the production I found myself becoming pulled into the softly nodding but very private fakery of the world of The Maids (although Genet stipulates that the flowers on the stage should be 'real', the occasional stiff, gleaming green filigree of plastic stem, often enlarged on the screen, had been included, no doubt, in gentle defiance) only to emerge a little stunned and quietened at the end of it. From the seeming sobriety of the applause at the end I suspect that other audience members had been similarly affected. Like Marcel, in À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, it might take us some time to comprehend what we saw and heard.

Jean Genet is perhaps referring to this very intimate and, ironically -- for all the luxurious abundance of the staging -- unadorned experience, when he writes in those same instructions to the players:

Without being able to say precisely what theatre is, I know what I won't let it be: a description of everyday gestures seen from the outside: I go to the theatre to see myself, on stage (reconstituted in a single character or with the help of a multi-faceted character and in the form of a story), such as I wouldn't know how -- or wouldn't dare -- to see myself or dream myself, and such as I nonetheless know myself to be. So, the job of the actors is to don gestures and get-ups that allow them to show me to myself, and to show me naked in my solitude and the way I revel in it.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A series of increasingly brutal events unfold

How is it that some blurb writers can get a book so wrong? Whoever was asked to describe László Kransznahorkai's Satantango for the Tuskar Rock Book edition, with its green hazed version of the relentlessly self-duplicating, entirely empty-looking European forest that's on the front of several of my editions of Thomas Bernhards, must have just looked at the proposed cover and, after flicking through the manuscript for a bit and then googling around, decided, in a way that the novel itself makes impossible, that for the folk in this 'desolate Hungarian village', 'The Devil has arrived in their midst' and 'soon takes on a messianic aspect, as he plays on the fears of the townsfolk and a series of increasingly brutal events unfold'. The character Irimiás may or may not be the Devil; he may or may not be 'swindling [the villagers] out of a fortune', as the blurb tells us, but the only brutal event that occurs after Irimiás's stirring speech is that the character Futaki is kicked in the face and seems to have 'lost a part of his incisor, the skin on his lower lip was broken', as the novel tells us in dance III of the second part.

It is actually important to note that dance III is not the third chapter in the second part: it is the fourth. As K. Thomas Khan writes in his review of Satantango, the novel is constructed as a Möbius strip, with the change in direction occurring somewhere in the sixth dance, and the dances or chapters numbering backwards after this. A Möbius strip is a figure of infinity: somehow, so very gradually, the inside of the strip becomes the outside. You get to the end of a piece only to realise that you need to keep reading because the work hasn't stopped.

This is the first Kransznahorkai I have read. As it turns out, Satantango was the first written, but the third to be translated into English by the poet and translator, George Szirtes. I have read, somewhere, that it is Kransznahorkai's most accessible book; that it reads like the first novel it is.

No matter. Satantango is one of those reading experiences that holds you under water, as the little girl Esti does the cat (so: does the cat die from ingesting poison or from drowning? Is it important to know for sure?). You could read the book for its inexorable realism, despite the rapid enwebbing of everything in the bar by spiders that are never seen -- for the mud, the interminable rain, the bitter depravities of the villagers, their stink, their gulping throats --  but when you come to dance IV of the second part, which is called, appropriately, 'Heavenly vision? Hallucination?', suffice it to stop and stare. In fact all through the novel there are fine loose threads: where there is free indirect discourse, it is strewn with short quotations which might refer to something that a character might have said in retrospect or even on an entirely other occasion, the intimacy of narrative voice rendered even more intimate by these whispering fragments, and yet also unsettled, even suspect -- after all, the tone of the fragments is often formal, stiff, stuffy -- at the very same time.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

A chair threatened, bougainvillea clawed

How is it that great, wide books like this one exhaust me? I spend all day, all night, running just ahead of the converging tides. The adage, I couldn't put it down, should always be a compliment except that when uttered by some, like me, it will also be an admission of a failure of nerve: that I only read Questions of Travel thus because it was too difficult to savour it in any other way.

De Kretser's novel is as beautifully written as it is also vivid, encroaching. It swells along with one of its protagonists, Laura, and, by the end of it, the sea -- the very girth of the world. The hallucinatory, the rotting real, the worthless but moving detritus of cheap bead bracelets, red crystal tea light holders, socks with stilettos and paintings of teary cherubs, find their digital doublings and treblings in the growth -- and death -- of brightly made web pages. The book's other protagonist, Ravi, as if only in proportion to this monstrous excess, shrinks, his expertise hollowing out as his grief for his murdered wife and son in Sri Lanka scours each day that he lives.

Questions of Travel is also a book placed carefully in its Sydney undulations. It is at once suggestive of the resonant land, sky and seascapes of early Christina Stead as well as a myriad of Patrick White, set here and elsewhere, whose anarchic, rhetorical splendour is recognisable immediately in such lines as:

A shuttered villa flanked by cypress candles might have been only hostile if it hadn't called up the brittle modern heroines, bravely rouged, of doomed Katherine Mansfield.

It was one of those days when her soft yellow moustache was in evidence.

Paul Hinkel was navigating past dangers. A chair threatened, bougainvillea clawed.

The Whitely loomed: one of his bulging female landscapes, all rusty buttocks and rock. Laura could have vanished into it.

There are many questions of travel, all of them opening one into the other -- from the perspective of the Ravis, Varunikas and Nimals as much as from the Lauras -- and yet the dark unanswerable sound that E. M. Forster made central to the 1924 edition of his novel is there, too, in the vast material press of a world that exceeds understanding: the world as it is becoming for Laura's age-addled father, and as it became for her friend Theo, whose child Laura didn't want to have, and whose taste for kitschy clutter and drink and the recounted trauma of his mother rose up to choke him.

I will have to sleep off this one.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Prodigiously alive

When Michel Leiris encountered the work of Alberto Giacometti -- and wrote the first ever piece about this then still relatively unknown sculptor in the journal Documents in 1929 -- he immediately recognised the 'tender sphinx':

One finds some objects (paintings or sculptures) capable of responding more or less to the exigencies of true fetishism, to the love of ourselves, projected from the inside out and clothed in a solid carapace which imprisons it within the limits of a precise thing and situates it, like a  piece of furniture of which we can make use in the vast strange chamber we call space...like the true fetishes which one can idolize (those which resemble us and are the objective form of our desire), prodigiously alive.... the beautiful expression of that emotional ambivalence, the tender sphinx that one always nourishes more or less secretly, at the center of oneself.
Of course, I'm relying here on Laurie Wilson for this piece of Leiris (pp. 95-96). Why is it that the journal, Documents, is so impossible to find, either in libraries nearby or the long white depth of the web?

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The sentences frighten us

When we have sentences in our heads we still can't be certain of being able to get them down on paper, I thought. The sentences frighten us; first the idea frightens us, then the sentence, then the thought that we may no longer have the ideas in our heads when we want to write it down. Very often we write down a sentence too early, then another too late; what we have to do is to write it down at the proper time, otherwise it's lost.
Thomas Bernhard, Concrete
And what's more, Rudolph, when we write other people's sentences down, we feel calm for that moment, but it's only a very brief respite.

Friday, February 15, 2013

An ever-ready faculty of enthusiasm

To George Sand who, in her letter to Flaubert, had predicted that Sainte-Beuve would be 'the last of the critics' -- the 'others' being 'either artists or idiots' -- Flaubert wrote on 2 February 1869:

You spoke of criticism in your last letter, saying it will soon disappear. I think, on the contrary, that it's only beginning. The trend is the opposite of what it used to be, that's all. (In the days of La Harpe, critics were grammarians; in the days of Sainte-Beuve and Taine they're historians.) When will they be artists, only artists, but real artists? Where have you ever seen a piece of criticism that is concerned, intensely concerned, with the work in itself? The setting in which was produced and the circumstances that occasioned it are very closely analyzed. But the inner poetics that brought it into being? Its composition? Its style? The author's point of view? Never.

Such criticism as that would require great imagination and great goodwill. I mean an ever-ready faculty of enthusiasm. And then taste -- a quality rare even among the best, so very rare that it is no longer even mentioned.

What infuriates me daily is to see a masterpiece and a disgrace put on the same level. They put down the mighty, and exalt those of low degree. Nothing could be more stupid or immoral.
He might have been writing only yesterday.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Something of a throwback to the eighteenth century literary salon

I move now from the very tangible livre de poche of the wonderfully weird to a soon-to-be expansive virtual literary salon for all minds that have grown irritated with meek or sycophantic reviewing -- or indeed the ubiquity of satiny promotional shots of writers positioned against bookcases that the biographical piece, which passes for a review, only uses as a visual metonym for assumed writerly credentials (unless an image of a wharf and a turbulent, lived-through sky can do it instead): I refer to the new countering energy of Sydney Review of Books.

One of the most important nooks in this salon is Critic Watch. Here, after a fascinating discussion of the recent reactions to the problem of faint-hearted reviewing, both in Australia and elsewhere, Ben Etherington analyses the puzzling silences and concurrences of 'the Anna Funder phenomenon' in his provocatively titled piece 'The Brain Feign'. He then goes on to respond to what he calls the 'tautology of public and critical opinion', where 'the critics are right because the public are buying the book, the public are right because the critics are recommending it', with a rallying cry that is not so much aimed at the critics themselves but at those of us with a sharp observation about them we might want to share:

What is to be done? The decline polemic is supposed to end with a witty but rousing call for unyieldingly rigorous, critical criticism. In Faint Praise, Gaile Poole suggests that the decline polemic might just be another part of the game:

The venom. The scorn. That asymptotic decline! The charges are so excessive, so extravagant, they rest so shakily on the myth of a Golden Age of reviewing that clearly never existed that it’s tempting to dismiss them as typical publishing fare.

Anyway, another kick up the bum seems pointless when the problem appears to be structural, particularly at the juncture of print’s decline and the self-promotion attending so much activity online.

The other solution has been to establish a new forum for the kind of criticism that the critical critic would like to see. Hardwick’s venom helped to beget the New York Review of Books, which would in turn beget the London Review of Books during a journalists’ strike. Perhaps. But these periodicals draw on an international cosmopolitan elite fanning out from those two most cosmopolitan of cities, both with a plethora of super-elite universities nearby. Such models seem an unlikely panacea for the Australian field.

I would like to make a different suggestion, and one that does not rely on a spontaneous eruption of critical rigour, nor on creating a Golden Forum. And the model is a local one: the ABC’s Media Watch. It is a wonderful mechanism, not just because it has an unyielding sense of journalistic standards and ethics, and pursues corruption to its inevitable source in journalism’s ever-intensifying commodity character. One just as often tunes in to find out what has been in the news, because it can be more informative, and certainly cathartic, to see somebody filtering the sewage than to plunge in oneself. (Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show plays a somewhat similar role for the 24-hour news cycle in the United States.) What is needed, then, is ‘Critic Watch’. The tasks and ethics of watching criticism would be somewhat different, though. Certainly the ‘invidious backscratching’ would need to be exposed – it seems there is a lot of it around. Its essential function, however, would be to interrogate judgements of taste and the way such conspicuous acts of discrimination shape the literary field. ‘Critic Watch’ would read criticism against its critical object, and consider the plausibility of the judgements being made. It would be something of a throwback to the eighteenth century literary salon and the practice of aesthetic disputation. Not only would critics need to defend their professional integrity, they would need to defend their taste.

Read slowly to avoid complications

As publishers keep pressing on us taller, fatter and wider editions of books that might once have fit in our bookcases but now have to be shoved in side-on so that the bubble-wrap feel-it-for-yourself cover of Michel Houellebecq's latest novel can only been known as Territory -- and that visible only because its neighbours happen to be older and smaller upright volumes -- it is a wonderful thing to come across a magazine of weird literature, as the editors call it, which could be tucked in on any part of your person or your house or flat, no matter how small. It is a marvel, too, because nearly every page in this tiny tome has something that you might want to tear out and affix to the cover of a notebook or the wall beside your desk. Since most of the pieces of 'words', 'flash', art, 'illiterature' and more -- the term 'poetry' is eschewed -- could roll into the pit of your palm, they tempt the light-fingered and those whose art or word-making relies on springing from something lively. A 'Disclaimer' near the beginning of theNewerYork reads: '[Read slowly to avoid complications. You won't like some of this work.]' and then some erasures. I won't try to reproduce the erasures.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Gone in the grate

The central motif of Geordie Williamson's The Burning Library: Our Great Novelists Lost and Found -- Walter Benjamin's idea of the lasting work of art as a slow-burning fuse, or as Williamson has it,  works that continue to glow even as the remnants of more brightly flaring books have 'gone in the grate' -- is actually a melancholy one. As I read this book I could see these glowing works staring without blinking from the dusty coal hearth in our dining room, behind the electric column heater that we never put away as Sydney's weather always changes (and our house is too small -- there is nowhere to put it). Geordie Williamson had hunted out these still warm books in second hand shops, the bookcases of friends and the online market. I imagine they had the smell and toasted edges of the David Foster essay collections I once found in a charity shop in Adaminaby. That said, many of my favourite Australian novels are in this kind of shape, from the unspeakably worn greasy cover of Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children to the multiply broken backed Angus and Robertson editions of John Shaw Neilson's poems and Joseph Furphy's Such is Life. Such is Life indeed.

In his introduction, Williamson quotes from David Ireland's 1979 novel, A Woman of the Future:

It is a continent of dreams we inhabit, a waiting continent. All who have set foot in its bush, its lonely places, know that silence. The continent is dreaming. We have felt it and been afraid...and retired to the outer rim.

While this idea of the continent dreaming has been used so often in the last few decades, and in such a confusion of hurried misappropriation -- in itself suggestive of the very fear that Ireland describes -- it's impossible not to recognise, immediately, the immense complexity of otherness that we continue to avoid.

Williamson adds:

The outer rim is a pretty good description of where we perch today. Some will claim that this retirement is more conscious than fearful, a principled turning away from the centre [....] From where I'm standing, though, in the thick of an intense engagement with a number of neglected Australian authors, it looks more like a loss of nerve.
While Australia, with our penny-a-piece language and the disconcerting similarity, to so many in the northern hemisphere, of our rows of fast food outlets and lowering furniture stores and kitchen showrooms -- along with the apparent absence of successfully titular castles, or at least indigenous multinational brands -- while this country might be more prone to a bargain basement attitude to book production, I found it hard not to think, as I followed Williamson's argument, that he was describing what was happening to Anglophone fiction in every country where it struggles to keep roots in any kind of soil. The difference, perhaps, is that the sheer number of irretrievable cultural and human losses, and the press of the unknown millennia that we feel in every part of this land -- that Delia Falconer describes in such evocative detail in her book on Sydney -- is often balanced by only the slightest or most smugly meaningful of publications and a suspiciously vigorous obsession with real estate.

An edited version of Williamson's introduction can be found here (if this link won't let you read the whole piece, try googling it). Interestingly, in the online edited piece the brief bright book has gone cold in the grate; in Williamson's book, as I read it, it has slipped through the teeth and lies thin and lost in the ash.