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?

All That Exists is Egotism

Few beings have ever been so impregnated, pierced to the core, by the conviction of the absolute futility of human aspiration. The universe is nothing but a furtive arrangement of elementary particles. A figure in transition toward chaos. That is what will finally prevail. The human race will disappear. Other races in turn will appear and disappear. The skies will be glacial and empty, traversed by the feeble light of half-dead stars. These too will disappear. Everything will disappear. And human actions are as free and as stripped of meaning as the unfettered movements of the elementary particles. Good, evil, morality, sentiments? Pure ‘Victorian fictions.’ All that exists is egotism. Cold, intact, and radiant.

Michel Houellebecq
H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life

In an odd way, summarising Michel Houellebecq’s work as a series of (mesmerising) quotes affirms the significance of his worldview-and the appeal of his nihilism for me-in a way that gets a little lost when I engage with each work on its own.

I hadn’t intended to read Houellebecq’s Lovecraft book, but these quotes propel it to my essential reading list. At the moment I’m reading The Map and the Territory for the first time, which I’d been saving as my only unread Houellebecq fiction, or so I thought but somehow Lanzarote escaped my attention. Did I read somewhere that Houellebecq intends to stop writing fiction? At some point I must read the BHL engagement, and then perhaps reread Houellebecq from the beginning.

How Rubens Sees Orpheus

In Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of The Imagination Grace Dane Mazur asks of Rubens’ Orpheus painting, “Pretend that you do not know what this painting is about. Look at it with eyes fresh and innocent and unknowing; ask yourself what is going on.”

Katie Roiphe’s In Praise of Messy Lives

That Gawker regularly vent their unsophisticated spleen on Katie Roiphe may be thought a reason to read her books. Much of the other invective that streams towards Roiphe appears to be a result of her mid-90’s polemics on campus rape.

I don’t know if this was the case during those debates, but Roiphe does seem courageous enough to argue against the grain in In Praise of Messy Lives, though in this case her target is conventional marriage and parenthood, and what, if any, putative advantages a nuclear family confers on a child compared to single parenthood (roughly half of all first children in the US are born to unwed mothers). Ropihe’s arguments are eloquent and convincing, but rarely stray beyond the confines of a narrow bourgeois demographic.

In Praise of Messy Lives also includes some entertaining pieces of literary criticism including a contentious defence of the US literary old-guard’s (Roth, Updike etc.) depiction of sex, compared to its vapid portrayal by the following generation (DFW, Franzen etc.) My favourite of these essays is the study of the depth of Joan Didion’s influence on later American women writers. Apart from a feeble essay on Jane Austen, Roiphe fails to acknowledge any writing outside the US, but this insularity that blights American literature is far from isolated to Roiphe.

For a flavour of Roiphe’s style I can recommend this superb article: Want To Understand Sexual Politics? Read This Novel. There also a good NYT review of these essays.

Uncommon Readers

A genuine interest in criticism is an achievement in creation.

Marianne Moore

In selecting the title for this post, I should point out that it in no way refers to that dreadful Alan Bennett novel, but is a term that Christopher Knight uses to single out three especially perceptive readers: Denis Donoghue, Frank Kermode, and George Steiner. In his book Uncommon Readers, Knight describes these as critics “who bring to their reviews less a position (though positions they have) than an acute intelligence, prepared to be provoked by the last book they have read and to place it at the centre of a discussion that ripples outward.”

Donoghue, Kermode, and Steiner are generally considered rather conservative, anti-theory critics, but such labels are unnecessarily reductive. James Wood is the contemporary public critic placed in a similar pigeon-hole. All three of the former are touchstone critics that I’ll read for their insight into literature, but also because of the lucidity and elegance of their work.

Virginia Woolf in How It Strikes a Contemporary wrote that any common reader possesses the capacity to interpret a text, providing they are willing to be intellectually challenged. Her goal was to create a system in which a common reader is also a common critic. My Links list on the right of this blog connects to several common readers and critics who would fit into Knight’s definition as uncommonly perceptive readers.

Criticism is rewarding when it confirms my perspective, but thrilling when it changes the way I see a book (or film or whatever). These are the critics I turn to repeatedly, not just for their insight into literature, but also for the sheer headiness of their writing: Christopher Ricks, Virginia Woolf, Hugh Kenner, Susan Sontag, Joseph Brodsky, Martha Nussbaum, Gabriel Josipovici, Edward Said, Harold Bloom, Cynthia Ozick, Guy Davenport, Marjorie Perloff, Zadie Smith, and Helen Vendler.

No doubt there is someone significant that I’ve forgotten from this list. Please feel free to remind me, or let me know of the critics you read for sheer pleasure.


Beckett’s Search for a Form

‘Ah, the old questions, the old answers, there’s nothing like them.’

Occasionally Pascale Casanova overreaches to support the supremely elegant argument of Samuel Beckett: Anatomy of a Literary Revolution, but this is infrequent, and I more or less agree with her historical, formal reading of Beckett, a riposte to the Blanchotian interpretation. Whether or not you fall in with Casanova’s historical criticism of Beckett, her textual analysis is magnificently enjoyable.

I’m taking an outrageous liberty to pull out, sans context, ten sentences that made me suck a tooth in contemplation:

  1. This heroic [Blanchotian] imagery has proved one of the surest ways to obscure the specificity of literary form, to refuse Beckett any aesthetic impulse, the search for a form therewith being reduced to an artifice unworthy of the quest for ‘authenticity’.
  2. His refusal of the presuppositions underlying realism, representation, and credence in literary ‘truth’ can only be understood if we hypothesise that he spent his whole life working on a radical aesthetic revolution: literary abstraction.
  3. The literary abstraction he invented, at the cost of a lifetime’s enormous effort, in order to put literature on a par with all the major artistic revolutions of the twentieth century – especially pictorial abstraction – was based on an unprecedented literary combinatory.
  4. [..] [Beckett] is led to question, one after the other, all the ordinary conditions of possibility of literature – the subject, memory, imagination, narration, character, psychology, space and time, and so forth – on which, without our being aware of it, the whole historical edifice of literature rests, so as to achieve the gradual erasure of its images in ‘the dim and void’.
  5. From the Second World War onwards, he deliberately situated himself in relation to the whole literary and pictorial avant-garde he mixed with in Paris – and definitely not Existentialism or the Theatre of the Absurd, whose presuppositions were alien to him.
  6. The literary transmutation to which Beckett subjects philosophy is thus a prosaic metamorphosis, a kind of novelistic secularisation, restoring to abstract, elevated speculations their quotidian banality.
  7. The aesthetic and logical inversion that was to be effected in Beckett’s texts on this basis had found its initial form or formulation: in order to escape the ‘I cannot paint’, it is necessary to paint what impedes painting.
  8. It was the desire to usher literature into formal modernity that enabled him gradually to abandon the presuppositions of representation and take as his object the very impediment to representing reality; or rather, to discover new literary tools to deliver the death blow to the object, whether extinct or not, and its representation.
  9. The autonomy of each text is a kind of reiterated manifesto against the foundations of what had hitherto been regarded as a constitutive of the literary (or at least literary narrative), and which Beckett’s whole oeuvre shows to be nothing but the stamp of the profound conservatism of literature, incapable of ridding itself of the presuppositions of realism.
  10. Beckett proceeds by successive breaks, but also by am immense totalisation of the most successful processes, experiments. and failures attempted in each of his texts, including the oldest ones, in order to arrive at a progressive, systematic pruning of his language.

Christopher Ricks’s Beckett’s Dying Words

There is enormous expressive force in Christopher Ricks’s Beckett’s Dying Words; Ricks shares what Beckett fulfils for him. With a no-doubt decrepit OED by his side he analyses Beckett’s word choice. Ricks’s book traverses the space where a critical work itself becomes a classic.

The following passage begins a section in which Ricks aims a critical lance at sloppy Beckett scholarship:

One currently tempting lie is that there is no such thing as the real. Beckett takes care to resist this temptation too, this easing of the mind and of life.

Here are four moments in Beckett’s fiction when something horribly real is set before us, and when it would seem to me a perverse derogation from the art to insist that words, of fascinatingly used of course, are all there is. These moments speak of the body’s failing, as well as of the brain’s failing to get its instructions heeded by the body. Delays. Thwartings. Chalk.

And how in her faint comings and goings she suddenly stops dead. And how hard set to rise up from her knees.

A man would wonder where his kingdom ended, his eye strive to penetrate the gloom, and crave for a stick, an arm, fingers to grasp and then release, at the right moment, a stone, stones, or for the power to utter a cry and wait, counting the seconds, for it to come back to him, and suffer, certainly, at having neither voice nor other missile, nor limbs submissive to him, bending and unbending at the word of command, and perhaps even regret being a man, under such conditions, that is to say a head abandoned to its ancient solitary resources.

The man has not yet come home. Home. I have demanded certain movements of my legs and even feet. I know them well and could feel the effort they made to obey. I have lived with them that little space of time, filled with drama, between the message received and the piteous response.

She sits on erect and rigid in the deepening gloom. Such helplessness to move she cannot help.

In all of these, supremely in the last, it is not simply the ‘syntax of weakness’ but the incarnation of the human reality of it all, of piteously bodily weakness, and of the strength to contemplate it, and realize it, which is so moving.

Many recent critics of Beckett will have none of this. They make nothing of his art.

There is enough secondary Beckett literature to fill Lake Matano, a fate deserved by most of those books. Beckett’s Dying Words is one of the exceptions.

Ricks on How to Read Beckett

So that although it makes sense to read Beckett, as many do, as a writer who is oddly criss-crossed, a writer who manages to be excruciatingly funny despite his possessing a deeply dispiriting apprehension of life, the opposite makes sense too: the conviction that Beckett’s apprehension of death is not dispiriting, but is wise and fortifying, and therefore is unsurprisingly the lens of his translucent comedy.

Christopher Ricks
Beckett’s Dying Words

Not Touched By The World

My unique relation with my work – and it is a tenuous one – is the making relation. I am with it a little in the dark and fumbling of making, as long as that lasts, then no more. I have no light to throw on it myself and it seems a stranger in the light that others throw.

This quote, that opens the first volume of Beckett’s letters (1929-1940), brings to mind an incident James Knowlson covers in his superb biography Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett. (Read Knowlson’s book if you have any interest in Beckett. It is nectar.)

Adorno met Beckett on several occasions. Despite Beckett’s insistence to Adorno that the character “Hamm” in Endgame contained no allusion to Hamlet, Adorno’s subsequent essay Trying to understand Endgame further developed Adorno’s Hamlet theory. This undoubtedly triggered a reference Beckett made a few years later when questioned about Endgame: “Endgame will be just play. Nothing Less. Don’t worry about enigmas and solutions. For these we have well-equipped universities, churches, cafés du commerce and so on”.

Adorno, incidentally, at the time preceding his death, was working on a series of marginalia to the novel Unnamable, which he considered Beckett’s masterpiece. The motto of Adorno’s marginalia was, “The path of the novel: reduction if the reduced”.

Beckett continues to preoccupy me into the late summer, and, most likely, autumn season. I read Anne Atik’s How it Was: A Memoir of Samuel Beckett, a deeply personal, moving memoir of what Beckett meant to Atik and her family as a close family friend.

Last night I reread this Quarterly Conversation interview about the publication of Beckett’s letters. It is excellent on several levels but especially for this summation by artist and art historian Avigdor Arikha about why Beckett meant so much to him:

When I asked Avigdor Arikha, on one of the last times I met him shortly before his death, if he could tell me why it was that Beckett had mattered so much to him—he had told me he missed him more and more every day—he explained to me that he was the one person he had ever met—in such a full and dramatic life—who in some part of him “n’était pas touché par le monde” (was not touched by the world). By “the world” he intended, as he went on to explain, all that is low and dirty and nasty. Every time I sit at my desk to work on the letters, or almost every time, I feel I am experiencing the truth of what Avigdor told me that day.

Even as a reader of Beckett I recognise this quality as what draws me not only to his prose but to the man, his life, letters and library. Kafka matters in precisely the same way.

Links of the Week

Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter. Some of the links to PDFs change or disappear, so if something interests you download it quickly.

Christine Brooke-Rose

Christine Brooke-Rose

Are we in the process of forgetting Christine Brooke-Rose? I hope not as she is an extraordinary writer and critic. Her memoir-novel Remake is an extraordinary example of experimental autobiography that has stayed with me since reading it ten or more years ago. Brooke-Rose’s fiction is often compared to Ann Quin and BS Johnson, as well as her French compatriots George Perec, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Phillipe Sollers. As well as a bloody exciting writer, Brooke-Rose was an astute critic. You’ll get a feel for her style in this essay [PDF] on Franco-Bulgarian philosopher Tzvetan Todorov. I also recommend Brooke-Rose’s quartet Out, Such, Between and Thru.

William Wordsworth’s The Prelude [PDF], which I consider his finest work. I’m not a huge Wordsworth enthusiast, but parts of it blow me away.

I’ve only dabbled with Paul Ricoeur’s work, intrigued by his complex Freud and Philosophy: An Essay in Interpretation in which he positions psychoanalysis as a language rather than a science. I was convinced by what I understood of his argument, and keep intending to read Ricoeur’s work more extensively. This Introduction: Reading Ricoeur [PDF] usefully establishes Ricoeur’s work as an exploration of the problem of human capability, or what Ricoeur termed the anthropology of the capable human being.

If you only ever read a single literary theory primer, Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle’s Literature, Criticism and Theory [PDF] is my suggestion. Illuminating and well-written.

Another of those complex French philosophers, Bernard Stiegler writes on technology, time, consumerism and politics. His essay on Suffocated Desire, Or How the Cultural Industry Destroys the Individual [PDF] reads beautifully in parallel with Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception [PDF], which is life-altering material for me, and which I wrote about earlier in the year.

Robert Musil’s Young Torless [PDF] is a classic bildungsroman on the twin themes of innocence and experience.

Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle [PDF] in which he introduces, among other concepts, the death-drive.

The concept of paratexts might seem a little geeky, a theoretical cul de sac, but I love flicking through Gérard Genette’s little book Paratexts: thresholds of interpretation [PDF], about those elements that accompany a published text: blurbs, author’s name, the title, preface or introduction, or illustrations, thresholds that shape one’s reading of a text.

The Companion to Russian Literature [PDF] is brimful of essays spanning Russian literature from the Middle Ages to the post-Soviet period. I’ve only read a few to date but recommend those of Katerina Clark and W Gareth Jones.

Chris Janaway’s advocacy for Schopenhauer as the greatest philosopher: