Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Anxieties of the writing life

The blurb on the back of Brian Castro's novella, Street to Street, claims that it is a 'comic-tragic enactment of the anxieties of the writing life' -- an observation with which Castro scholar, Bernadette Brennan, would no doubt concur, since '[f]or Castro, grief and anxiety', as she writes without further explanation in her review of the work, are the 'critical edges of writing'. And yet, or so I first thought, my reading experience of Castro's novella was a dilatory rather than a harried one -- there seemed to be nothing of the sort of driving voice that we might find in works by Sebald, Woolf, Proust, Svevo, Duras or, Castro's favourite as he once wrote in HEAT: Thomas Bernhard. The voice in Street to Street is elegiac, gently comic, fond, and yet all the time accompanied by the lingering smell of booze-sodden cardboard, nineteenth century skirtings, mid-twentieth century bathrooms, and sudden, lonely stretches of misted boggy roads. After all, an aged black dog called Dante accompanies the protagonist -- the writer-academic Brendan Costa -- to the very end, and the book, as we learn, is narrated by his affable, floppy-eared, soft-bellied friend and academic-in-decline who is known as the Labrador. If I did sense the thin wire of anxiety in the book, I thought, it was only in those frequent occasions when the narrative moved so seamlessly between Costa and his mirroring biographical subject, the brilliant, alcoholic poet-academic Christopher Brennan, or vice versa, that I constantly had to look back a little and check: an effect that never failed to unsettle me and which, as a result, gave the whole piece, as it developed, a hallucinatory and hence rather beautiful double outline. Castro's work, like that of his protagonist, Costa, is alive to the deceptively shambling and usually opaque, goggling aspects of those feelings that are hardest to hold onto:
Costa was not offering a biography of Brennan, not even a minor, muddy one, picking the stones of false memory. He was thinking of one loose thread: the way a life unravels, falls apart, becomes dissolute, not for all of the obvious reasons like alcohol or disastrous relationships or depressive illnesses, but through mood. Conditional, jussive, optative, subjunctive, irrealis. His life had not happened, is not likely to happen etc. A grammar of moods. (17)
Feelings that take very palpable form:
He was outside himself too much; his inside was becoming a hollowed shell he would hold up to his ear in old age and hear the murmur of failure, the sea of forgetting and obscurity. In Memoriam. The shudder of Tennyson's lines. (97)
He told Mallarmé how alcohol had hidden the realisation that the back of one's head was something which, upon apprehending it and perceiving its strangeness, delivered to the subject the most overwhelming insight and dismay. But the back of one's head was not about realisation; it was about concealment.... The back of his head was what he didn't want to see.... He had bought a bowler hat and had worn it everywhere. But when he looked in the mirror he didn't see bourgeois civility, only self-deception (130)

If anxiety in a text can be traced to the finely wrought workings of perspective and a muted but unsettling affect, Castro's novella draws a long quiet draught of it.