The Well of the Past

… Thomas Mann brought his very important contribution: [ to these questions: what is an individual and wherein does his identity reside?] we think we act, we think we think, but it is another or others who think and act in us: that is to say, timeless habits, archetypes, which – having become myths passed on from one generation to the next – carry an enormous power and control us (says Mann) from “the well of the past.”

Milan Kundera, Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts. trans Linda Asher. Faber and Faber, 1995 (1993).

Mann’s contribution mentioned here by Kundera is from Joseph and his Brothers. I bought a copy today in an edition of just under 1500 pages, daunting and exciting in equal measure. It recalls the idea Mann started to develop through Hans Castorp in Magic Mountain, straying into Jungian, perhaps even Gnostic realms.

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Suspending Moral Judgement

Suspending moral judgement is not the immorality of the novel; it is its morality. The morality that stands against the ineradicable human habit of judging instantly, ceaselessly, and everyone; of judging before, and in the absence of, understanding. From the viewpoint of the novel’s wisdom, that fervid readiness to judge is the most detestable stupidity, the most pernicious evil. Not that the novelist utterly denies that moral judgment is legitimate, but that he refuses it a place in the novel. If you like, you can accuse Panurge of cowardice, accuse Emma Bovary, accuse Rastignac – that’s your business; the novelist has nothing to do with it.

Milan Kundera, Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts. trans Linda Asher. Faber and Faber, 1995 (1993).

Whether we can ever come to a novel completely free of moral values is arguable, but it must be desirable that the attempt to suspend beliefs and values is in a reader’s interest if literature is to have the potential to change us.

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JM Coetzee’s Slow Man

In Slow Man Coetzee almost fails, or rather he makes the reader expect him to fail, by braving deep metanarrative but drawing back from any of the expected or even easy narrative threads.

Late Coetzee is playful, Nabokovian; in Slow Man’s case bringing back Elizabeth Costello, a narrator from earlier work to explore again issues of language and sexuality through a prism of weary old age. Coetzee has a finer touch than Nabokov though; his metadiegetic game playing, in this case, succeeds precisely because he knows when to pull back from self-absorbed, self-referential fiction that devours itself.

This Slow Man, like its successor Diary of a Bad Year, which I’m reading, is literature to admire not love. There is satisfaction in narrative as an act of construction but it is less easy to enter the kind of fictional space that leads to total immersion. And perhaps that too is deliberate, a game with the reader, deploying language in a way that is slippery, that eludes truth and falsity, that renders the project more tentatively and, in its way, is more accessible to self-reflection.

I’ve spent a few hundred hours thinking about and reading Coetzee’s work. After Diary of a Bad Year I’ll read The Childhood of Jesus. Of the novels that’ll be the end for me of what exists to date. I’ve read the fictionalised autobiography and consider that trilogy Coetzee’s finest work to date, though Life and Times of Michael K holds a special place in his oeuvre. I also plan to read soon The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy, his dialogue with psychologist Arabella Kurtz.

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You’ll End Up Reading Peter Handke

I read Peter Handke’s The Afternoon of a Writer after watching Tomas Espedal’s hauntingly powerful interview. In the interview Espedal says:

Reading has its own logic. No matter where you start you’ll end up reading Thomas Mann sooner or later. You’ll end up reading Marguerite Duras – and you’ll end up reading Peter Handke. If you read a lot … if you spend your whole life reading, you’ll arrive at those writers.

This particular Handke is the last I’ve read of three that I bought a few years ago on the strength of Steve Mitchelmore’s review. The Afternoon of a Writer is a boundless exploration, somewhat like Rilke’s Malte on a writer’s contradictory needs for both solitude and a social existence.

The narrator, also like Malte, is one of those autobiographical scapegoats into which a writer pours their mental and emotional torments. Unlike Rilke’s incoherent prose though, Handke’s language is natural, minutely observed lights and shades, even during a momentarily grotesque dream sequence, an incredible passage that forces the reader to question the reliability of the narrator.

Although I’ve only read the three Handke books, I am drawn to his interior canvas and his haunted seriousness. As The Afternoon of a Writer draws to its end, the nameless narrator’s loneliness reaches a point that one cannot imagine it being broken.

Phil from The Last Books kindly sent me To Duration, a long Peter Handke poem that I am looking forward to reading next. It is translated by Scott Abbott, a writer whose collaboration with Zarko Radakovic has lead to two books I plan to read, Vampires and A Reasonable Dictionary and Repetitions. The latter follows a character in Peter Handke’s Repetition into what is now Slovenia.

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Tomas Espedal’s Against Nature, Against Art

Tomas Espedal’s Against Art and Against Nature are exquisite, as good as anything I’ve ever read. Our modern preoccupation with, and anxiety about, intimate interpersonal relationships comes through in the precarious and peevish relationships between the narrator and his wives, girlfriends and children.

I read them both this week, oases of erudition amid a chaotic, exhausting time at work; both invaded my sleeping dreams to the point of wakefulness. Both books continue my love affair with Seagull Books.

Espedal writes perceptively of modern affluent society, where one time concerns of hunger, disease, catastrophe and religion  are replaced with an almost obsessive concern for our personal relationships. His narrator is unable to truly grasp the blind spots or emotional roadblocks that stand in the way of achieving emotional fulfilment through his human relationships.

Art and literature, essentially solitary pursuits, offer Espedal’s narrator a way to, as David Winters writes in Infinite Fictions, “withdraw from the world, while bringing us back toward it.”

Sparing prose, translated by James Anderson, that drifts close to poetry in its condensed style makes me think that Espedal’s undertaking is similar to what Knausgaard attempted in his study of the impossibility of intimacy, but I only read the first edition of Knausgaard’s autobiographical novel so I may have missed something. It amused me to come across this piece in Against Nature:

We lay side by side and read. We read our separate copies of the Knausgaard books, began at the same time and read in tandem, suddenly she’d put down her book and look at me: Did you read that? she’d ask. How does he dare, it’s quite extraordinary, he must have a screw loose, she’d say.

Then we’d read on.

Until I put down my book and looked at her; Did you read that? I’d ask. How does he dare, it’s quite amazing, he’s destroying himself, I’d say.

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Tomas Espedal’s Tramp

Reading Tomas Espedal, Tramp (Or The Art of Living a Wild and Poetic Life), always a heartbeat away from stuffing a few items into my worn leather backpack and sneaking silently towards the coast. Feeling the urge to sleep in unfamiliar hotel bedrooms and wander well-trodden footpaths through strange woods.

Tomas Espedal is a fresh discovery, in another beguiling Seagull Books edition. Espedal writes with Denton Welch’s yearning, combined with his acute observation of both people and landscape. But there is also something reminiscent of Robert Walser, perhaps in a narrative stance that avoids emotion and records the episodes of his journeys around Europe and Turkey with little or no commentary. His text only rarely attempts interpretation, a characteristic familiar to any long-distance walker.

Also familiar to the long-distance walker are the meandering digressions. Tramp mirrors the journey that a mind takes when walking fifteen, twenty miles  day, one moment self-reflective, another nostalgic, another moment lost in a train of thought about Giacometti’s mother and the artists’ s nightly visits to Parisian brothels.

I need new stout leather boots. But perhaps it is safer to turn to another of Tomas Espedal’s books than order another pair of boots.

Homesickness. It’s an inevitable part of all journeys, we’re exhausted and wish for home; the homesickness grows, strengthens and permeates every part of the body; the feet want home, the hands, the heart, the thoughts want home. We’ve had enough, seen enough, heard enough, experienced more than we can bear, and the homesickness spreads through our bodies like a lazy indifference, a lethargy that can no longer be bothered to relate to further moves and changes, meetings and places. The journey back has already begun, we think of home and are going home in our thoughts, even though we’ve still got a long journey ahead, we haven’t reached the halfway mark, but it’s as if the road has made a subtle turn, it’s rounded a bend and after that bend the direction is different; it’s treading slowly and imperceptibly back.

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Houellebecq Strikes a Pose

In the latest issue of The Quarterly Conversation, Adrian Nathan West captures my  sentiment in the immediate aftermath of reading Michel Houellebecq’s Submission:

The worst fate a writer can suffer is to become a “writer”: for ease to eclipse inspiration, for fluency to allay the long struggle with words, for the dreadful void of the inchoate work to become schematic and ho-hum, like an instruction manual. Yet the writer-as-cultural-figure is an inevitable facet of the present, when the commodification of literature and the compression of news, entertainment, and what was once known as high culture into a vague but ubiquitous entity called “media” has led to writers vying for “exposure” alongside politicians and athletes.

There are very few contemporary writers as lucid as Houellebecq on how neoliberal capitalism has woven itself into the affective, cultural and physical sites of everyday life. But in Submission, Houellebecq’s typical dejection is turned to shaky satire reminiscent of the naïve socio-cultural projections of Philip Roth.

Even minor Houellebecq is always worth reading, but it feels rather like his prominence as a ‘bad boy of letters’ has gone to his head and Submission is striking a pose, rather than the usual meandering but luminous exposition on this world we inhabit.

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American Immigration

We’re building in precisely the same way in the country as we build in the cities, and our first glimpse of a rural community is like the first glimpse of any suburb: a petrol station, a shopping centre. American villas, satellite dishes. Presumably television has taught us how homes should be built. Big garages, new gardens, patios and barbecues; the Norwegian-American family, standing in the garden grilling, disguised as Norwegian. American immigration is greater than Norwegian immigration to the US. But the Americans have arrived in a somewhat unusual way, they have ridden and driven, sailed and flown, shot and broken their way into Norwegian homes, into Norwegian living rooms, right out of the television screen and into Norwegian daily life.

Tomas Espedal, Tramp. trans. James Anderson. Seagull Books, 2010 (2006)

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Catherine Clément’s The Call of the Trance

It isn’t easy to imagine the audience Seagull Books had in mind for Catherine Clément’s The Call of the Trance, insufficiently comprehensive for anthropology or psychology students though of some interest to both. Perhaps they were thinking of readers of boundless curiosity open to a series of loosely linked essays on the subject of trance or catalepsy throughout different times and social groups; if so, they found the right audience.

These days, at least in western civilisation, we pathologise the trance experience, correlating it with the neurotic. It wasn’t that long ago that the ecstatic experience was a mark of sainthood within the Catholic church, and plenty of other cultures still honour trance and catalepsy. Clément’s book keep me thoroughly absorbed for a few train journeys. These socio-religious essays on the trance experience offer a little re-enchantment in an age in which mysticism and eccentricity are now increasingly feared.

Sunandini Banerjee’s jacket design, showing John Collier’s Priestess of Delphi (1891) is another example of an exquisitely produced publication from Seagull Books.

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Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story

Dilettante reader that I am, I abandon books without regret, often after fifty pages, bored by their banality, loquacity, or simply tired of their particular contrivance. But with Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story I persisted despite resistance to its flat, controlled prose. Davis’s recounting of obsession is the antithesis of Chris Kraus’s bitter I Love Dick or Ferrante’s woozy The Days of Abandonment.

Something more interesting is going on in The End of the Story, less lamentation and more microscopic scrutiny of obsession from within the possessed mind of the narrator. Davis unearths the powers of images which shape and order a particular type of madness. After about a hundred and twenty pages, I found the particular rhythm of Davis’s dispassionate prose. As in trauma, numbness is not the absence of a reaction; the numbness is the reaction.

Understanding this enabled me to better make sense of Davis’s description of the shaping of an obsession. It is concerned with this imaginary landscape from which we view our relationships with the other, particularly those complicated by eroticism. The narrator’s insistence to persevere with a novel about her obsession recalls Bataille’s announcement in his Nietzsche book: “Motivating this writing-as I see it-is a fear of going crazy.”

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