Samuel Beckett, Paris, 1964
Coetzee on Beckett (1992):
Beckett has meant a great deal to me in my own writing – that must be obvious. He is a clear influence on my prose. [...] The essays I wrote on Beckett’s style aren’t only academic exercises, in the colloquial sense of that word. They are also attempts to get closer to a secret, a secret of Beckett’s that I wanted to make my own. And discard, eventually, as it is with influences.
It is In the Heart of the Country that Beckett’s influence seems most clear in Coetzee’s work, but also apparent in Waiting for Barbarians and Life and Times of Michael K. In the latter Coetzee writes memorably of, “a stone, a pebble that, having lain around quietly minding its own business since the dawn of time, is suddenly picked up and tossed randomly from hand to hand,” paying quiet homage to Molloy’s famous sequence.
[November 2013: The link originally in this post, to a NYRB Coetzee review of Beckett's letters is now subscribers only, so I've changed the original post.]
People are always shouting they want to create a better future. It’s not true. The future is an apathetic void, of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past.
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
I adore Richard Rorty’s introduction to the Everyman edition of Nabokov’s Pale Fire:
But Nabokov helps us remember that we can only respect what we can notice, and that it is often very hard for us to notice that other people are suffering. He also reminds us of the main reason why it is so hard: we all spend a lot of time inventing people rather than noticing them, reshaping real people into characters in stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, stories about how beautiful and rare we are.
It doesn’t surprise me that Christa Wolf had difficulties writing Patterns of Childhood. Wolf says that she made thirty-eight attempts to begin this fictional autobiography, the reconstruction of her memories of a childhood under Hitler’s National Socialism.
Though the work is complex and often extraordinarily beautiful, I found myself deflected by the text, partly by the frequent need to reflect on Wolf’s concepts of selfhood and history, and partly due to a puzzling estrangement from the narrative. This may be the first time I have abandoned a book (temporarily perhaps) that I found both beautiful and profound. Why this should be the case intrigues me and I haven’t a precise explanation. I found the communication between family members, mother-daughter particularly, somewhat formulaic. The narrator addresses herself in the second person, and her past self, Nelly, in the third person. This unusual autobiographical point of view may account for the distance I felt from the work.
Wolf’s Cassandra has been much on my mind since reading it a fortnight ago. I tracked down a 1984 edition published by Virago Press that includes four companion lectures, which illuminate its background and implications. I’ve also tracked down Wolf’s Medea, which flowerville suggests outclasses Cassandra.
It is interesting that we either fictionalise or become tongue-tied when it comes to personal matters. We may have good reason to hide from ourselves (at least to hide certain aspects-which amounts to the same). But even if there is little hope of an eventual self-acquittal, it would be enough to withstand the lure of silence, even concealment.
Patterns of Childhood
A dozen pages in to Patterns of Childhood and I am willing time to pause, so I can remain within Christa Wolf’s narrative for as long as possible. So early but at the moment I have yet to read anything better on the theme of remembering and fictionalising our pasts, particularly those holy days of childhood.
Cassandra, most beautiful daughter of Priam and Hecuba, Trojan royalty, is punished with the fate of seeing truthful prophecies and never being believed. Cassandra who foresaw not only the fall of Troy but also the means and time of her death (and that of her children) at the hands of vengeful Clytemnestra.
But this is evil, see!
Now once again the pain of grim, true prophecy
shivers my whirling brain in a storm of things foreseen.
Cassandra who long haunted my thoughts after first reading Aeschylus (first Richard Lattimore’s and then Anne Carson’s Agamemnon) for her divination of the fearful death of her children and herself.
Christa Wolf deconstructs the fall of Troy in Cassandra, using the epic as a framework to scrutinise violence, patriarchy and repression. Artfully written, Cassandra substitutes the heroic, Homeric perspective of the Trojan War with a heroine’s perspective that allows one to read a familiar story from a revitalised critical direction. Though Wolf’s novel can be read as connecting ancient times with the contemporary, it wears its allegorical nature delicately, and with rational distribution of culpability across gender lines.
Once again I wish to thank flowerville for leading me to read Christa Wolf. Next I intend to read Wolf’s Patterns of Childhood, the author’s account of growing up in Nazi Germany.
Imagine that anyone could listen to your inner voice, that relentless dialogue that swings from megalomania to despair and all points in-between. How would the world alter if that soundless interior dialogue we carry on with ourselves was broadcast: a personal radio channel available to anyone who knew where to turn the dial?
Tapping into interiority, capturing the capriciousness of this inner dialogue is what Marlen Haushofer does so well in both The Wall and The Loft. Despite The Wall supposedly being Haushofer’s magnum opus, to my mind The Loft is the better novel. The Wall is a thought experiment: take one woman, one cat, one dog and a cow and make them the only creatures alive. How do they cope, physically and mentally?
The Wall is a study in minimalism and repetition, the monotonous regularity of survival and caring for animals. Thrust into a Thoreauvian environment, the narrator writes a report of this existence. What elevates Haushofer’s story from the quotidian is how well she captures internal dialogue, and how beautifully she creates realistic animal characters without ever lapsing into anthropomorphic mawkishness.
Destruction of Leviathan (1865): Gustave Doré
With the enduring presence of that backslappy, foul musical that has become known as Les Miz, it is easy to overlook Victor Hugo’s glorious, gothic novel Les Misérables (1862). I love this piece from a chapter entitled L’intestin de Léviathan:
Winding, fissured, unpaved, cracked, full of quagmires, broken by strange elbows, ascending and descending without rule, fetid, savage, ferocious, submerged in darkness, with scars on its pavements and gashes on its walls, gruesome, such was, viewed retrospectively, the old sewer of Paris. Ramifications in all directions, crossings of trenches, branches, goose-tracks, stars, as in mines, caucus and cup-de-sacs, arches covered with saltpetre, infected pits, scabby exudations on the walls, drops falling from the roof, darkness; nothing equalled the horror of this old excremental crypt; the digestive apparatus of Babylon, a den, a trench, a gulf pierced with streets, a titanic mole-hill, in which the mind fancies that it sees, crawling in the shadows, amid the filth which has once been splendour, that enormous blind mole, the past.
What began almost too quietly opened up into an extraordinarily powerful story, driven by beautiful writing (translated by Amanda Prantera) and a compelling narrator. Plotless, comprising a series of memories and encounters, the simplicity belies a complex and psychologically compelling story that dissects an apparently functional family with devastating force. The narration is simple, words meticulously chosen, the story develops to show how the world appears to orient itself around the Other. Ending as simply as it began, without resolution, the novel is close as you can get to immaculate.
Haushofer, who Elfriede Jelinek cites as an influence, is better remembered for The Wall which I shall be reading next.
The weather on Sunday was atrocious, so I spent the day reading. My early enthusiasm for Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station waned just past the halfway mark, and died all together after a truly awful recreation of the 2004 Madrid bombings, during which the solipsistic narrator wandered around using it as a handy backdrop for his increasingly turgid musings. Disappointingly, the publisher of Leaving the Atocha Station, a Twitter follower who favourited my first tweet promptly un-followed me after the second.
Though tempted to take Beckett’s next edition of letters from my shelf, I resisted and opened up Marlen Haushofer’s The Loft. I think I discovered Haushofer via flowerville, and plan to read The Wall, supposedly the Austrian writer’s magum opus: “The Wall is an existentialist masterpiece that can offer profound consolation as well as the ultimate lesson in loss”. My reaction was the reverse of reading Lerner’s début. Initially I wasn’t at all sure and read fifty pages before going to sleep. I awoke thinking about the characters, drawn to their passage through the book’s pages, and am now thoroughly engrossed, such a gently powerful story. Now to another fifty pages.