Forster and the Literary Forebears

When EM Forster lectured at Trinity College in 1927, he opened his series of lectures on the novel (collected in Aspects of the Novel) provocatively:

No English novelist is as great as Tolstoy-that is to say, has given so complete a picture of man’s life, both on its domestic and heroic side. No English novelist has explored man’s soul as deeply as Dostoyevsky. And no novelist anywhere has analysed the modern consciousness as successfully as Marcel Proust.

Any thoughtful reader will instinctively see the idolatry in Forster’s remarks, and wish to argue for the English novelist, but ninety years later his charges stand, certainly in respect of English novels. The major figures that come to mind, Conrad, Graham Greene, Woolf, perhaps Doris Lessing, certainly not Forster himself, don’t adequately counter his specific charges.

What of the third more sweeping remark? Can we now favourably compare Proust’s insight into  modern consciousness with Beckett, Kafka or Mann?

Digressive Interior Journeys

It isn’t often that a writer’s voice and concerns register deep enough that I end up scouring second-hand sources for first editions of their work. Jenny Diski becomes the thirty-first writer housed in that hallowed subsection of my library reserved for those I will likely read and reread in their entirety. My old chestnuts, listed here, are an idiosyncratic bunch that will match no other reader’s list of favourite writers, but are each, in different ways, as integral to my central nervous system as my spinal cord. My slowly expanding Jenny Diski collection breaks up the fairly long-term on-shelf relation of Clarice Lispector and Simon Critchley.

I read Diski’s début novel Nothing Natural when it was first published in the late eighties and recall little beyond its potency. Almost thirty years later, it is Diski’s essay on her recent cancer diagnosis that drew me back to her writing with all the force of a rare-earth magnet. This is the first instalment of a memoir to be published in parts in the LRB (which also persuaded me to resubscribe to the LRB).

Disk’s piece encouraged me to buy On Trying to Keep Stilla series of elegantly crafted and very funny essays narrating Diski’s intense desire for inertia-within the confines of writing a travel journal. These are the sort of digressive, meandering essays in which I take great pleasure, no less because of Diski’s even greater commitment to seeking silence and solitude.

Diski’s collection of essays and reviews in A View from the Bed confirms my first sense that I’m reading someone cut from a similar mould in the pursuit of inner space and silence. Glimpsing the world retracted through Diski’s eyes is a vivid and rewarding experience. This is equally clear on reading What I Don’t Know About Animals, Diski’s exploration of our relationship with animals, which probes their minds with similar intentions to Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am (which Diski also explores in her book). She writes with precision and elegance, exploring her chosen subjects with honesty and clarity. My intention is to read the non-fiction and work towards the novels.

Everybody Knows This Is NOWHERE

This morning I started reading Everybody Knows This Is NOWHERE after breakfast and did little else until I finished reading Alice Furse’s story. Though a first novel, it in no way feels like a work of apprenticeship.

Though the setting and characters are thoroughly contemporary, it has the feel of a work of the modernist movement, its sparse style, Furse’s gift for understatement, allusion and irony, the attentive depiction of the heroine’s preoccupations in an alienating office environment and within a relationship that has hit a dead end. This is very conscious artistry that dispenses of traditional narrative concerns such as plot, event, and facile resolution of the character’s circumstances.

The writer’s meticulously disciplined style and skilful rendering of character through intuitive understanding of dialogue, powerful imagery and metaphor expands the range of the novel. The novel’s heroine is unnamed, her boyfriend identified only as the Traffic Warden, yet each are fully drawn and well-defined in their own right, they each represent an impressive portrait of the atomised condition of life in the twenty-first century.

Everybody Knows This is NOWHERE signals the début of a distinctive voice in English fiction, and a style that I cannot wait to see further developed and refined in later novels.

Data Output on Negative Capitalism

A selection of snippets from J. D. Taylor’s Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era (published 2013), an incisive diagnosis and series of responses to the current economic and cultural malaise.

Neoliberalism is the political model of financial capitalism and represents the current political and economic consensus of leaders in Europe, China, and the West. It is an economic argument that unregulated financial trade is the best model for a self-sustaining and meritocratic economy. Whilst it is debatable how fundamentally violent, competitive, or power-seeking human life is, rather than working towards a cooperative and regulated social democracy as I will argue for, declaring capitalism as the best basis for a developed society is dangerously destructive, crisis-ridden, and ultimately fascistic. Capitalism intrinsically negates individual and collective capacity for equal political representation, social rights, and quality of life, given that its base assumption is that the value of life s determined by its success in individually accumulating and trading wealth. The more powerful capitalism is-that is, the more wealth can be observed to be concentrated in the hands of a very small cabal of effective capitalists – the less the lives of individuals and communities on low-incomes matter. There is no ‘good’ capitalism, and the system is by no means in a state of crisis, unless perhaps its sustainability is threatened by the growing anger of social democratic revolt sweeping the globe.

Life needn’t be against power, not when life itself is an operation of power, at present directed against its own interests. Rather, the blinkers of neoliberal capitalism need to be removed from social life. Each of us must re-programme ourselves to think beyond the mean profit principle, anxiety and cynicism of the neoliberal era.

The irony of neoliberalism is that it doesn’t involve free markets at all. It has historically required specific intervention by governments and intergovernmental global agencies into the markets, forcibly deregulating them and transferring public property into private hands. It is maintained with regular state intervention, from continued sales of public assets or resources to financial institutions. It is a state-imposed mechanism.

When deprivation of activity and agency is combined with a more practical inability to be at home because of longer and more unstructured working hours, a powerful process is at work: a fundamental disempowerment through alienation and a negation of workers’ time, space and mature ability to make independent decisions. Home CCTV systems have been sold by security companies and are increasingly popular, whilst the public spread of CCTV was marked by a new televised form of entertainment, as drunks, criminals and even reality TV contestants amused and entrained record audience figures via recorded CCTV footage. Pervasive monitoring of celebrities and political figures has dominated the scoops and scandals of the British tabloid press, as surveillance equipment and paparazzi have come to constitute the source of political information an popular entertainment. The individual is emptied of all agency except their capacity to also become part of consumer entertainment, and so the infantilised masses contemplate themselves as passive spectacle, the signal point of fascism as Walter Benjamin warned. As ‘reality’ becomes a fixture of television programming, observe a new phenomenon of online self-commodification through Web 2.0 profiling, blogging and use of twitter to immediately share thoughts (and thereby assume their worth), and the rise of home-made pornography. Galloway and Thacker describe this self-commodification with a new motto for the digitised era: ‘Express yourself! Output some data!’ I in turn LOL and dutifully retweet this, ‘Like’ its Facebook page, or repost it on my utterly tedious micro-blog.

Stepping Lightly on the Volcano

Quote

For months on first knowing you, I said to myself here’s one of these talkers. They don’t know what feeling is, happily for them. Because everyone I most honour is silent – Nessa, Lytton, Leonard, Maynard: all silent; and so I have trained myself to silence; induced to it also by the terror I have of my own unlimited capacity for feeling – when Lytton seemed to be dying – well yes: I can’t go into that, even now. But to my surprise, as time went on, I found that you are perhaps the only person I know who shows feeling and feels. Still I can’t imagine talking about my love for people, as you do. Is it training? Is it the perpetual fear I have of the unknown force that lurks just under the floor? I never cease to feel that I must step very lightly on top of that volcano.

Letter to Ethel Smyth (1931)
Virginia Woolf

Jonathan Gibb’s Randall

'black painting' - Ad Reinhardt

‘black painting’ – Ad Reinhardt

Satire is a demanding form, an act of aggression that can easily fail. Freud’s depiction of jokes as repressed hostility is evident in the sadistic satire of Anthony Burgess, and the snobbishness of Evelyn Waugh’s self indulgent attacks.

To qualify as satire a denunciation has to be potent, yet yield pleasures for a reader in sharing an act of narrative violence. Jonathan Gibb’s Randall aims its satire at the Young British Artists of the contemporary art world of the 1990s, starting with an act of literal violence, the killing of Damien Hirst, “hit by a train and killed, apparently when drunk”. Its secondary target is that period of the late 1990s when the shock-troops of New Labour’s marketing department set out to rebrand Britain as Cool Britannia, uniting in common purpose a bunch of mostly white males that included the YBAs, pop musicians, second-generation yuppies and media figures.

Randall not only captures the slightly hysteric mood of this period, but also nails its target with deftness and a degree of affection. It is perhaps successful because that hint of amused fondness balances its satirical offensiveness. But don’t take that to mean that Randall’s satire is insipid, it is exquisitely cleansing and gloriously funny.

Books emerge that come to define existence for a particular social strata in certain time periods: Geoff Dyer’s gratifying depiction of life in South London in the 1980s in The Colour of Memory hit its target squarely and cleanly, as does Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised of how people and communities disintegrate under neoliberalism. Randall sits between both time periods, skilfully satirising how art and money found common ground in the 1990s.

Woolf: First Memories

This is a passage from Virginia Woolf’s Moments of Being. Though irresistible, I pull back from nostalgia but find it harder with each folded year. I’ve been thinking a lot this week about those childhood bases against which we judge and measure our future ideas of happiness.

If life has a base that it stands upon, if it is a bowl that fills and fills and fills – then my bowl without a doubt stands upon this memory. It is of lying half asleep, half awake, in bed in the nursery at St Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one, two, behind a yellow blind. It is of hearing the blind draw its little acorn across the floor as the wind blew the blind out. It is of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light, and feeling, it is impossible that I should be here; of feeling the purest ecstasy I can conceive.

Pale Notes on Friendship

Agamben: “Friendship is inscribed in the most intimate experience, the one that is most one’s own, the very sensation that one exists. But this also means that in the consent and consensus of friendship, the very identity of friends is called into question. A friend presents me with another self, with myself as other and with another like myself. And yet this reduction of identity happens serenely, almost imperceptibly. It is one of friendship’s gentlest gifts.”

Our friendship was inevitable. It started as a consequence of elective affinities. We had in common a love for Beckett, Woolf, Duras, Rimbaud-though mine was perhaps more reverent. Beckett could do no wrong. Our first encounter took place at her sister’s apartment, overlooking the pretty church on Saint Germain des Prés, a block away from Les Deux Magots, where we would one day make a Salad Périgourdine and cheap bottle of Beaujolais last all afternoon. For some reason I was apprehensive, made even more so by her obvious nervousness. She devoured a bowl of walnuts, cracking each walnut shell with vehemence, a reflection, I thought, of our shared tension. We argued about whether Four Quartets or The Duino Elegies was the most sublime long poem of the twentieth century. I had no parents, she had three.

Gunn, Bohemians and Cole

I’ve read a few books this month without the time to reflect on them here, so some disconnected thoughts on what I’ve read lately.

During a Twitter conversation in which I confessed to abandoning Gunn’s latest novel The Big Music, Michelle persuaded me to read Kirsty Gunn’s Rain. There is a calm beauty in Rain that almost seemed excessive to the demands of the story. I read it twice, taking pleasure in the subtle details: the tension between childhood and adulthood, the elegiac characterisation. Early in her narrative Gunn writes, “… but already the air was touched by the promise of our destination.” The brief novel is filled with these lyric images that disrupt the apparent simplicity of the narrative. Though I was moved by the beauty of the writing, I was detached from the story itself, and somewhat indifferent at the end of a second reading.

An urge drew me to read Henrietta Moraes’ autobiography Henrietta. Moraes was the epitomic upper class Bohemian of London’s 1950s and 1960s, seduced by Lucian Freud, painted by Bacon at least two dozen times. When Moraes died in 1999, her son, barely mentioned in the autobiography, considered scattering her ashes around the pubs where she spent a large part of her dissipated life. Terribly written but moving nevertheless, Henrietta is part of a longer term project to read around Soho and London of the years before the-excuse the cliché-swinging sixties.

As soon as Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief arrived, I set aside other reading to spend time with the book that came before Cole’s staggeringly good Open CityJames Wood’s review of Open City called it a “novel as close to a diary as a novel can get, with room for reflection, autobiography, stasis, and repetition.” Every Day is for the Thief is in similar vein, and reads as the warm-up work to Open City, lacking some of its punch, but beautifully evocative of the rhythms of daily life in Lagos. The lightness of tone masks the intensity and seriousness of the narrator’s frustration with his return to Lagos after a long absence from the city.

Piercing the Veil

We are anxiety-ridden animals. Our minds are continually active, fabricating an anxious, self-pre-occupied, often falsifying veil which partially conceals the world.”

What chiefly pierces that veil is a sharp, direct perception of things which are no part of our own being. For instance:

“I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious of my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important.”

The veil, however, is persistent and terribly hard to detect. In every age it subtly provides new, unnoticed ways of evading reality. Detecting those new forms is a prime business of philosophy, but of course philosophers often find it no easier than other people. (It is always a significant question to ask about any philosopher; “what are they afraid of?”)

Mary Midgley
Sorting Out the Zeitgeist: The Moral Philosophy of Iris Murdoch