Saturday, November 22, 2008

Literature is not Innocent

Following up on my post from last week, responding to Zadie Smith's essay in the New York Review of Books, "Two Path for the Novel": Why might the narrative modes of what Smith calls "lyrical Realism" not be justified? Not because they are old, or even necessarily because someone else has used them. I think there are a few reasons. Here I will discuss just one of them. They are not justified, not least because, to quote a character from Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives, "Literature isn't innocent."

Literature is not innocent. What does this mean? Zadie Smith refers to "the Anglophone novel", a term that obviously covers a lot of area, given the extent of the British Empire and the widespread influence of both British and American cultural products. I think this is a clue. For Smith, Joseph O'Neill's Netherland represents the path of "lyrical Realism" (a term, Anthony Cummins suggests, possibly meant to specifically counter James Wood's famous denunciations of so-called "hysterical realism"); Mark Thwaite's favored term is "Establishment Literary Fiction". I'd like to revive for a moment the term "bourgeois novel". If we remember that the bourgeois novel was in cultural ascendance during the heyday of the British Empire, I think we can get closer to having a handle on it.

Let me revisit a portion of the passage from Edward Said's Culture and Imperialism that I have already excerpted. Said writes:
. . . the almost oppressive force of Marlow's narrative leaves us with a quite accurate sense that there is no way out of the sovereign historical force of imperialism, and that it has the power of a system representing as well as speaking for everything within its dominion, Conrad shows us that what Marlow does is contingent, acted out for a set of like-minded British hearers, and limited to that situation.

Yet neither Conrad nor Marlow gives us a full view of what is outside the world-conquering attitudes embodied by Kurtz, Marlow, the circle of listeners on the deck of the Nellie, and Conrad. By that I mean that Heart of Darkness works so effectively because its politics and aesthetics are, so speak, imperialist, which in the closing years of the nineteenth century seemed to be at the same time an aesthetic, politics, and even epistemology inevitable and unavoidable. For if we cannot truly understand someone else's experience and if we must therefore depend upon the assertive authority of the sort of power that Kurtz wields as a white man in the jungle or that Marlow, another white man, wields as narrator, there is no use looking for other non-imperialist alternatives; the system has simply eliminated them and made them unthinkable. The circularity, the perfect closure of the whole thing is not only aesthetically but also mentally unassailable.
While empire is pursued and maintained abroad, daily life in the metropolitan center continues in its shadow. Narrative papers over everything; everything is rendered comprehensible through narrative. The novel presents a world that makes sense, passing over certain details in silence, while other details make it abundantly clear how much the narrated world depends on the activities of empire, as Said shows, for example, with Sir Thomas Bertram's lengthy absences, attending to the far off Antiguan plantation, in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. Said is far from reductively political; he neither condemns nor dismisses the classic European novels. On the contrary, he treasures them as great works of art. But he is arguing that the peace and prosperity of the English countryside in Austen's novel are not possible without the unseen violence of slavery, and that this fact is present in the novel, though obscured by most readings. And the same is true of the narrative form of the bourgeois novel in general (whether it be the Bildungsoman or imperial adventure or travel narrative or fictional biography, etc; thanks to Edmond Caldwell for the link). I think this basic point is indisputable.

In a post addressing Lionel Shriver's idiotic harangue against writers not using quotation marks, Dan Green reminds us that:
"Literature" of course is itself a concept that develops during the 19th century and after as an umbrella term that attempts to gather "poetry" together again with its now renegade forms, fiction and drama, precisely in order to make them available to the newly literate middle class as "good for" such readers. However, even this dilution of literary value--by which literature becomes valuable not in and for itself but as a tool of education and emergent nationalism--assumed that the appreciation of works of literature was something to aspire to, that "great books" required an elevation of taste and skill, although "common readers" could indeed reach this higher level.We now appear to have reached the point where literature can be relevant only if it turns itself into just another "inviting" mass entertainment.
It is not just the concept of Literature that develops in the 19th century, but the idea of Culture itself, its chief virtue being as "a tool of . . . emergent nationalism". I'm not so sure that this represented a "dilution of literary value", as Dan puts it, but he's of course right to note that this is when literature begins to appeal to a larger class of literate people, a class that needed to be incorporated into the dominant work of the day--which is not to say that writers set out to serve this function. But, as resistant to the idea of "learning" from literature as some of us might be, it can't be denied that one of the chief cultural functions of the novel was to normalize the reality and activities of Empire, nor that cultural artifacts contribute to what we "know" about the world, whether or not we are consciously aware of the specific contributions themselves. In his book, Said repeatedly stresses that it is "too simple and reductive to argue that everything in European or American culture . . . prepares for or consolidates the grand idea of empire." However, it would be "historically inaccurate to ignore those tendencies--whether in narrative, political theory, or pictorial technique--that enabled, encouraged, and otherwise assure the West's readiness to assume and enjoy the experience of empire." And the novel does this work not just with its "content" but also through its formal properties, which of course can never be easily separated.

The fictional container that is the descendant of the bourgeois novel today can at times appear rather different than the Victorian novel of the 19th century. But just as capitalism has no trouble co-opting rebellion or counter-culture, or even eventually insurrection, for its own systemic ends, the novel sucks in everything around it. The novel purports to be the genre-less genre: it can and does contain anything. It has absorbed the techniques of the modernists, smoothing them out, transforming them into mere items in the writer's toolbox, as if those techniques had not been arrived at as a result of highly personal responses to what those writers perceived as an artistic crisis.

Returning to the question of innocence, focusing on the United States for a moment. One common theme in American history is the strange notion of American "innocence". It remains astonishing that, in a country founded on genocide and slavery, Americans have been able to appear innocent, if only to themselves. And yet the idea persists. The United States, and Americans generally, have good intentions, the story goes, and just don't understand--or even know about--all the damage that is caused by American so-called bumbling on the world stage. Not only do we act innocent of the crimes that maintain our standard of living, we innocently consume cultural artifacts as if there were no question at all that we have the absolute right to be entertained, and that our entertainment is untainted by the violence of the American enforcement of the global capitalist system, that our consumption of entertainment is innocent. But our pleasures do not exist in a vacuum. That pretty, well-written, journalistic novel has a pedigree, a pedigree of cultural work in service of Empire, the ongoing consequences of which we may choose to ignore as we read yet another iteration, but that choice is itself the function of this process and an enormous privilege.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Public Vice

I have to admit that there have always been apparently basic things about economics that have been incomprehensible to me. One example of this can be exemplified by an image that has, for me, been symbolic of the Great Depression as a whole: piles of apples, with prices set ridiculously low, yet going to waste, rotting, because still no one can afford them. Deflation, of course (link via American Leftist).

A few weeks ago, Paul Krugman, every Liberal's favorite economist, wrote about the decline in American consumption, the "long-feared capitulation of American consumers". In doing so, he touches on another example of what I'm talking about. He provides some numbers showing this decline in consumption and reminds us that this is unusual, since Americans "almost never cut spending". Americans, of course, have been without any manufacturing base for some time and have thus long since been relegated to the role of the world's consumers. Krugman doesn't say anything about this. He does, however, try to explain why the "timing of the new sobriety is deeply unfortunate". He writes:
. . .one of the high points of the semester, if you’re a teacher of introductory macroeconomics, comes when you explain how individual virtue can be public vice, how attempts by consumers to do the right thing by saving more can leave everyone worse off. The point is that if consumers cut their spending, and nothing else takes the place of that spending, the economy will slide into a recession, reducing everyone’s income.In fact, consumers’ income may actually fall more than their spending, so that their attempt to save more backfires — a possibility known as the paradox of thrift.
Here, Krugman helps me to better understand what my problem has been. We are continually told that, collectively, we do not save enough--Americans' savings rate is effectively zero--while at the same time we are constantly told to consume more, that consumption will save us. Krugman's paragraph essentially makes it plain that the economic system does not serve people, rather people serve the system. Not that this was news to me.

My problem with the phenomenon of the rotting apples was that, in my youth and ignorance, I did not understand why the price of the apples mattered; I didn't understand why they couldn't simply be given to people. And yet, I felt that there must be some obscure reason, and I had no doubt it would be a good one and that if I studied economics I would grasp it. The fact, however, is that there is no good reason. But we've so internalized the idea that capitalism is the natural order of things that we simply accept the notion that food can and will go to waste alongside masses of people starving to death.

Krugman's article points to another element of capitalism that is deeply troubling. Any system in which "individual virtue can be public vice", in the manner in which he is discussing, is simply and profoundly wrong.

Since what I'm suggesting with the example of the apples sounds dangerously like communism, allow me to close with a quote from an article by David Graeber (link via From Despair to Where?--apologies to Stuart for quoting much of the same passage!):
Consider here the term "communism." Rarely has a term come to be so utterly reviled. The standard line, which we accept more or less unthinkingly, is that communism means state control of the economy, and this is an impossible utopian dream because history has shown it simply "doesn't work." Capitalism, however unpleasant, is thus the only remaining option. But in fact communism really just means any situation where people act according to the principle of "from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs"—which is the way pretty much everyone always act if they are working together to get something done. If two people are fixing a pipe and one says "hand me the wrench," the other doesn’t say, "and what do I get for it?"(That is, if they actually want it to be fixed.) This is true even if they happen to be employed by Bechtel or Citigroup. They apply principles of communism because it’s the only thing that really works. This is also the reason whole cities or countries revert to some form of rough-and-ready communism in the wake of natural disasters, or economic collapse (one might say, in those circumstances, markets and hierarchical chains of command are luxuries they can’t afford.) The more creativity is required, the more people have to improvise at a given task, the more egalitarian the resulting form of communism is likely to be: that's why even Republican computer engineers, when trying to innovate new software ideas, tend to form small democratic collectives. It's only when work becomes standardized and boring—as on production lines—that it becomes possible to impose more authoritarian, even fascistic forms of communism.
(This passage is strikingly similar to that found in a pamphlet I read a few years back--called, I think, "What is Anarchism?". The simple idea was that anarchism is what we do everyday in order to get things done. I found this to be a remarkably liberating idea. Meanwhile, the other day I rejected a comment from a brave anonymous soul, which read as follows: "Please leave the Western world. We have no room for socialists. We like our people independent of mind and carefully guarding and accumulating property." No doubt.)

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Not everything can be bought off

Towards the end of Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said discusses the different oppositions, intellectual and otherwise, to the systemic evils of capitalism and imperialism, employing along the way the work of Immanuel Wallerstein:
. . . the exilic, the marginal, subjective, migratory energies of modern life, which the liberationist struggles have deployed when these energies are too toughly resilient to disappear, have also emerged in what Immanuel Wallerstein calls "anti-systemic movements." Remember that the main feature of imperialist expansion historically was accumulation, a process that accelerated during the twentieth century. Wallerstein's argument is that at bottom capital accumulation is irrational; its additive, acquisitive gains continue unchecked even though its costs--in maintaining the process, in paying for wars to protect it, in "buying off" and co-opting "intermediate cadres," in living in an atmosphere of permanent crisis--are exorbitant, not worth the gains. Thus, Wallerstein says, "the very superstructure [of state power and the national cultures that support the idea of state power] that was put in place to maximize the free flow of the factors of production in the world-economy is the nursery of national movements that mobilize against the inequalities inherent in the world system." Those people compelled by the system to play subordinate or imprisoning roles within it emerge as conscious antagonists, disrupting it, proposing claims, advancing arguments that dispute the totalitarian compulsions of the world market. Not everything can be bought off. (p.334-5)

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Forcing into Existence

"Of the canonical Latin Americans of the 20th century--Vallejo, Neruda, Borges, Paz, Lezama--Paz is probably the weakest poet, the one who is most willful in forcing poems into existence that don't really need to exist." - Jonathan Mayhew (italics mine)


Failure called Joy

". . . I saw that our struggles and dreams all tangled up in the same failure, and that failure was called joy." - Amadeo Salvatierra, in Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives (p. 379)


Thursday, November 13, 2008

Two paths for the novel?

In her recent essay in The New York Review of Books, "Two Paths for the Novel", Zadie Smith says some important things about fiction, things that are rarely discussed in mainstream venues such as the NYRB. In the essay, Smith discusses two books that have been widely praised: Joseph O'Neill's Netherland (unread by me) and Tom McCarthy's Remainder (my review here). For Smith, with these two novels "a story emerges about the future for the Anglophone novel." She writes: "The two novels are antipodal—indeed one is the strong refusal of the other":
A breed of lyrical Realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked. For Netherland, our receptive pathways are so solidly established that to read this novel is to feel a powerful, somewhat dispiriting sense of recognition. It seems perfectly done—in a sense that's the problem. It's so precisely the image of what we have been taught to value in fiction that it throws that image into a kind of existential crisis, as the photograph gifts a nervous breakdown to the painted portrait.
It may be too-perfect, but Netherland is also formally aware of the problems with "lyrical Realism" and its effects, effects it wishes to traffic in anyway. Smith spends some time showing how the book does this, how class and formal anxieties are packed into the book's narrative, both its content and its mode. Smith again: "It's a credit to Netherland that it is so anxious. Most practitioners of lyrical Realism blithely continue on their merry road, with not a metaphysical care in the world, and few of them write as finely as Joseph O'Neill." Thus one path. McCarthy's Remainder represents for Smith, then, the other path, the refusal of Netherland, the refusal to traffic in the effects of "lyrical Realism".

Some have cluelessly read the piece as a "critique of Realism", which it is not. Others, such as the newly resurrected Rake, reduce the essay to merely another salvo in the "Realism v. Not-Realism debate". (And, though he is generally on the not-Realism "side" of this tiresome battle, the Rake is able to say he couldn't quite get on the Remainder bandwagon because its narrator is unpleasant, its repetition tiresome, its sentences not pretty enough. Thus, in my view, affirming the values represented by "lyrical Realism".) In a sense, Smith encourages this sort of reading of her essay by positioning the two novels in one of two "paths" the novel might take or have taken. In fact, this is my main quibble with what is an otherwise excellent, much-needed essay. For there is only one path, the well-worn one. The other so-called path is in fact an "anti-path". Just as there are no models, there is no path for the real writer.

Let's look at what Mark Thwaite has to say about this well-worn path, in a post addressing some of the responses to Smith's essay:
The Victorian novel with a few Jamesian knobs on (lyrical Realism, [Establishment Literary Fiction], call it what you will) is not the only path the novel can take. Its dominance means that each year a flood of Booker-ready novels in the sclerotic genre of literary fiction are declared masterpieces. Some of them are near-perfect embodiments of the genre which their near word-perfect amanuenses have bodied forth, but that perfection pushes them far away from literature itself.
A few Jamesian knobs, perhaps even some techniques devised originally by the Modernists, for we are not complete reactionaries, certainly not. And some may fetishize these Modernist techniques, or writers, to the point that others can comment that, "[t]here was something about Modernism that seems to have hypnotized people who liked it into thinking that there never had been anything else ever." Except that in this view the Modernists are reduced to innovators, ground-breakers--and one may simply "like" or "dislike" them--for it all comes down to entertainment, does it not? Indeed, all narrative is rolled in as part of "the novel", with occasional deviations from the accepted norm effectively reinforcing the view of what the novel really is. It is simply taken for granted that writers, as Gabriel Josipovici puts it, "are now free to plunder from all traditions, selecting what we want and dismissing the rest." But, without worshiping them as Gods (for how much would that miss the point?), what the Modernists were concerned with cannot be just swept aside, cannot be truly absorbed into the main stream of literary history. For it seems to me that the forgotten, ignored (or possibly just not understood?) meaning of Modernism is writing as an event, art as an event, where writing in the old, accepted, "conventional" ways are simply not suitable, not justified. This is language echoing what McCarthy himself has had to say on the matter: "Modernism is not a movement, nor even a way of thinking, but an event: an event with which any serious writer has, in some way or another, to engage, and to which they should respond." Whereas for most, Modernism was a moment in time, its "advances" duly absorbed into the body of the novel in the name of progress, what if we look at it, instead, as this event, an event that is ongoing, "eternal, interminable", in Steve Mitchelmore's words? (I've taken Steve's words from this highly suggestive post from last year, in which he names Dante as one of the top European Modernists. What might it mean to include Dante in such a grouping? What if we thought about literature in these terms? The implications of this are staggering.)

The question as to why there might be something wrong, suspect, unjustifiable about the "traditional" novel is a topic for a forthcoming post.

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Monday, November 03, 2008

Noted: Edward Said

From Edward Said's Culture and Imperialism:
What makes Conrad different from the other colonial writers who were his contemporaries is that, for reasons having partly to do with the colonialism that turned him, a Polish expatriate, into an employee of the imperial system, he was so self-conscious about what he did. Like most of his other tales, therefore, Heart of Darkness cannot just be a straightforward recital of Marlow's adventures: it is also a dramatization of Marlow himself, the former wanderer in colonial regions, telling his story to a group of British listeners at a particular time and in a specific place. That this group of people is drawn largely from the business world is Conrad's way of emphasizing the fact that during the 1890s the business of empire, once an adventurous and often individualistic enterprise, had become the empire of business. [...] Although the almost oppressive force of Marlow's narrative leaves us with a quite accurate sense that there is no way out of the sovereign historical force of imperialism, and that it has the power of a system representing as well as speaking for everything within its dominion, Conrad shows us that what Marlow does is contingent, acted out for a set of like-minded British hearers, and limited to that situation.

Yet neither Conrad nor Marlow gives us a full view of what is outside the world-conquering attitudes embodied by Kurtz, Marlow, the circle of listeners on the deck of the Nellie, and Conrad. By that I mean that Heart of Darkness works so effectively because its politics and aesthetics are, so speak, imperialist, which in the closing years of the nineteenth century seemed to be at the same time an aesthetic, politics, and even epistemology inevitable and unavoidable. For if we cannot truly understand someone else's experience and if we must therefore depend upon the assertive authority of the sort of power that Kurtz wields as a white man in the jungle or that Marlow, another white man, wields as narrator, there is no use looking for other non-imperialist alternatives; the system has simply eliminated them and made them unthinkable. The circularity, the perfect closure of the whole thing is not only aesthetically but also mentally unassailable. (pp. 23-24; italics in original)

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Saturday, November 01, 2008

Noted: Gabriel Josipovici

Leafing through Gabriel Josipovici's novel Moo Pak for the purposes of wrapping up my brief notes on that novel, I happened upon this passage, late in the book, which I remember, but which in the wake of some of the anthropological stuff I've been reading jumped out at me even more:
The whole history of language and of human culture, he said, is to be found in the decision to renounce the immediate pleasure for the long-term benefit. Aaaaah to Ma-Ma, as Roman Jakobson has so well described it. The task of art, on the other hand, he said, is to find a way of returning to the Aaaah! but in such a way that it can be grasped by others, that it enters the sphere of the social. Is it a coincidence do you think, he said, that both Jakobson and Chomsky are Jews? That Chomsky's first published work was on the Hebrew language? I am of course not suggesting that Hebrew was the original language or is closer to the origins of language than any other language, just as I am not suggesting that Jews were the first at anything whatsoever. I am only wondering out loud, as others must have wondered, though no-one has, to my knowledge, put such ideas into print, for obvious reasons. Nonetheless, he said, the power of Chomsky's work has perhaps retarded rather than advanced our understanding of the origins of human language. For, like so many thinkers before him, but now in full awareness of what he is doing, Chomsky has found the means of cutting man off from his past and so from all other animals. There is a fierce rationality about Chomsky, he said, which more than one commentator, taking up hints in his own writing, has compared to that of Descartes. I myself, he said, prefer to see it as a Jewish trait, like the burning intellectual intensity of a Spinoza or a Wittgenstein. But if he is to be compared to Wittgenstein, he said, it has to be to the young Wittgenstein, for though Wittgenstein lost none of his intensity as he grew older he came to see that our confusions and failures are at least as important as our triumphs and successes and as much in need of explanation. Confusion for Descartes, on the other hand, he said, is something to be eliminated, much as Luther and Calvin wished to eliminate sin. But I am with the later Wittgenstein in this, Jack said, that I believe we eliminate sin and confusion at the cost of eliminating our humanity. On the other hand, he said, we should obviously not make a fetish of failure and confusion.

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In Brief: William Golding's The Spire

Brief notes on William Golding's novel, The Spire:

Father Jocelin has had an exciting vision. He has ordered an enormous spire be built, to the glory of God, on the site of the old church. Jocelin insists on it, over the objections of the building foreman, who says it can't be done--the foundation will not hold--and other church figures, who say it shouldn't be. We are limited to Jocelin's perspective, what he hears or understands, however dimly, is related in the third person. Strange happenings just beyond his knowing are hinted at, via his uncertain sense of them. It eventually emerges that Jocelin may be mad. It matters not that he is told that the foundation will not--cannot--hold if the spire is built. God will provide. Various calamities ensue as a result of his devotion to his vision.

With Pincher Martin last year, this is the second William Golding novel I've read. I've found them both surprisingly slow reads. It's not that the individual sentences are difficult, but somehow the prose, as with Handke, resists me. I am unable to get into a flow. Though perhaps this is a good thing, perhaps "getting into a flow" all too often allows me to float on the surface of narrative, without attending to what I'm reading. Perhaps this is what "smoothness of surface" is all about. Anyway, Golding's writing is knotty. At various times I have had difficulty even determining what precisely is being narrated. This was a bigger problem for me with Pincher Martin, with its more limited setting and sensory space (open sea, rock, air, brutal conditions), but here, too, the same single-minded devotion to a point of view--all is narrated as seen or understood by Father Jocelin's limited perspective--makes one yearn--I weakly admit--for an authoritative voice. Just as Jocelin is devoted to his vision, Golding is devoted to his. He does not waver. Except that, in both novels, we are unexpectedly graced, in the end, with a voice that knows.


In Brief: Two by Josipovici

Brief notes on Gabriel Josipovici's mid-90s novels, Now and Moo Pak:

Now is entirely in dialogue; not halting, half-sentences a la Gaddis, but discrete moments. Family situations, battles. As in any family, there are conversations about this or that character's future, conversations dwelling on the past, characters expressing anxiety about their own futures, and so on. A very quick read, perhaps too quick. This is one of those books where the title serves as an organizing principle, forcing the reader--or perhaps allowing the reader--to make sense of the narrative. It seems somehow appropriate that I read a novel called Now the day before Mirah was born.

I enjoyed Moo Pak more, after these initial readings at least. Constructed like a Bernhard novel--a single, book-length paragraph, with a narrator recounting the many remarks made by another, the other's concerns being the central focus of the book. Like a Bernhard novel, but lighter, not so relentless, not quite so despairing, though not without despair, or melancholy. Here, the remarks are made over the course of many walks the two characters share and they are stitched together to almost seem like one continuous monologue, with brief interruptions indicating shifting setting, some making it clear that multiple conversations are involved.

The speaker, Jack Toledano, the voice we hear in this would-be monologue, is very similar in some respects, though by no means identical, to Josipovici himself--certain biographical details and literary concerns--so that it often feels like Josipovici speaking to us, as if we were his walking companions. Kafka, Pascal, Wittgenstein, the English, life as an exile, Sterne, Shakespeare, and numerous other topics and literary figures are discussed, but most of all Jonathan Swift, who is in a sense the novel's presiding spirit. The title refers to Moor Park, where Swift lived and worked for many years; Toledano is reportedly working on a mammoth, 800-page history of Moor Park (one of several details, it seems to me, clearly differentiating him from Josipovici; I have a hard time imagining Josipovici writing either a history or an 800-page book). On the book cover, Frank Kermode blurbs the novel as "wisdom literature". I think the phrase is apt.


In Brief: Peter Handke's The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick

Brief notes on Peter Handke's early novel, The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (translated by Michael Roloff):

I've always liked the title of this book. It's suggested to me the excitement of a tension-filled moment. I've recalled those few times when I played goalie. At the ready. Alert. Alive. I wondered what a book with such a title would be like, and it remains suggestive. Certainly, I didn't imagine a novel about a soccer game! Indeed not. But we do have a former goalie, more or less wandering about, it seems aimlessly. Suddenly, he kills a woman. Why? Who knows? Least of all him. His struggle seems to be with being alive in the world, feeling authentic.

I've mentioned problems I've had with reading Handke in the past. Here, too, there is resistance. His fairly simple sentences seem unsteady; I have trouble moving from one to the other, though eventually I read on. I've read with interest Edmond Caldwell's two posts describing what he calls "the Handke Effekt". I haven't read either of the novels under discussion in those posts, but his observations seems relevant to my experience. Perhaps I hold on to expectations of a different kind of narrative, one that Handke refuses to offer, refuses because it is unjustified.

Not nearly as good as Across, it seems to me, but a worthy read.


Novel Thoughts

While I've read a number of novels since In Search of Lost Time, I probably won't get around to writing much about them. But that doesn't mean I don't have anything to say about any of them, however brief or truncated. Here are notes on some of them; other novels have their own posts.

Molloy, Malone Dies, & The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett:
Gabriel Josipovici has written in a few places about how, as a young man feeling urgently the need to write, he felt overwhelmed by the examples set by such writers as Tolstoy, Conrad, Dickens, George Eliot. Their works seemed complete, hermetically sealed, sure of themselves. It was writers like Proust and T.S. Eliot who helped show him the way out of his problem, with their inclusion of, awareness of, failure in their work. Beckett, too, of course. "Fail better", and so on. I've felt a twinge of recognition in reading Josipovici's words. As I've said here before, my problem was even more acute: I refused to even acknowledge the need to speak. There were however times when words would occur to me, formal ideas perhaps, and I'd immediately discount them as invalid. Which brings me to Beckett's prose trilogy. I actually read these before finishing Proust. Where I'd previously said that I didn't want to read any other fiction till I'd finished In Search of Lost Time, I found myself bogged down, unable to get started with the fifth volume, The Captive. With none of my available non-fiction doing it for me either, I opted for Beckett. It was just what I needed: I quickly read Molloy and Malone Dies, though The Unnamable was somewhat slower going, as might be expected. I feel a great affinity with his writing, in a way that's hard to describe, so I won't try to cram it in here. But there's something familiar here, a recognition. I'll be reading a lot of Beckett in the coming years.

Bartleby & Co. and Montano's Malady by Enrique Vila-Matas (both translated by Jonathan Dunne): It's uncanny: here is a writer seemingly addressing the very things I've been thinking about, perhaps without my always knowing it, though certainly the correspondence with what have been ongoing concerns here is obvious. Lars is right, of course, there are no models. But it was nice, semi-inspiring even, to come across such assemblages of writers confronting these similar types of problems. Writers of No; refusals; the sickness of literature, literature as sickness. I must, however, admit that my attention flagged while reading both, and the second was in particular a slog for me to finish. Almost as if he'd made his point, and I grew increasingly weary of the elaboration (though no doubt he needed to see his conception through, and can I blame him?).

To the Lighthouse and Orlando by Virginia Woolf:
Ten months into the year, and I've only read two books written by women? Wow. Woolf was long one of those writers, like Joyce, who represented for my imagination "difficulty" in literary Modernism. This, of course, was without reading a word of her writing. Mrs Dalloway changed that slightly, some years ago. These even more so. They were a great pleasure to read, particularly To the Lighthouse. In both, I especially enjoyed the short passages describing the artist's vision and process, one of which I excerpted elsewhere. Other than The Waves, which is already on my to-read list, what else of Woolf's fiction should I read? All of it?

Diary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee:
I'm with Waggish and Steve on this one. Actually, in this case, I suspect I will have more to say about it. For now let me just say that I'm amazed that readers still insist on assuming that the "opinions" in this book are necessarily held by J.M. Coetzee himself, and that their content have much to do with the success or failure of the book.

The Immortal Bartfuss by Aharon Appelfeld (translated by Jeffrey Green):
This is the first Appelfeld novel I've read that takes place after the Holocaust. I'm sorry to report that I have very little to say about it at this time.

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