Working the Room By Geoff Dyer

Once you’ve read the essays in Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, there is little need to also buy Working the Room, but I am a Geoff Dyer completist.

Additional are essays on photographers Larry Burrows, Jacob Holdt, Martin Parr and Trent Parke, and explorations of: D. H. Lawrence: Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tobias Wolff: Old School, Richard Ford: The Lay of the Land, and Alan Hollinghurst: The Line of Beauty.

The Hollinghurst essay stood out, convincing me that I ought to read The Line of Beauty:

There are literally thousands of impeccably nuanced touches like this in the novel. Hollinghurst, in James’ own words, is one on whom nothing is lost.

Otherwise Known as the Human Condition by Geoff Dyer

My memories of reading Geoff Dyer’s first essay collection Anglo-English Attitudes is bathed in the glow of idyllic location. We had driven for several hours from the Massif Central, south-central France, to find we were a day late for our hotel booking. An apologetic host explained that our room was now occupied by the mistress of a French politician, who preferred to sleep alone. There were no rooms available until the next day.

After providing us with refreshments, our host managed to find us lodging at a nearby hotel. This turned out to be the former home of the Marquis de Sade. We had discovered, by chance (it is always by chance, deliberation robs us of the true thrill), the ‘perfect hotel.’

Most of the essays I recall joyfully from Anglo-English Attitudes make it into Otherwise Known as the Human Condition. This book also includes all but six of the essays published in Working the Room.

Those I enjoyed most are the longer essays. Dyer is at his best with room to digress, with room for his exuberance to infect the reader. The essay on William Gedney is breathtaking. Dyer bears his erudition lightly, gently rousing Joyce, Coleridge, Walter Benjamin, Marguerite Yourcenar, Walt Whitman, Henry Miller and Fielding to help explore the tragic life of this autodidactic photographer.

Before finishing these essays I have been inspired to order a few photographer’s monographs, add a couple of novels to my wish list and listen to some jazz I hadn’t heard before. This isn’t dry criticism that you read solely to fine-tune your critical functions, Dyer inspires you to share his passions.

The Dodecahedron or A Frame for Frames by Paul Glennon

Inspired by the deliberate writing constraints of Oulipo writers, Paul Glennon uses a dodecahedron as scaffolding for his collection of short stories The Dodecahedron or A Frame for Frames.

In ‘Some Clippings for my Article on Machine Literature’, an interview with the creator of Amanuensis, software to create books, we read:

He goes on to describe a novel based on the geometry of the dodecahedron. ‘Each of the twelve faces represents a different narrative. The thirty edges represent the relationships between these stories. The twenty vertices . . .’ Plunge’s girlfriend of five years, who has been coaxed outside to help hold the whiteboard, raises her eyebrows ever higher as he goes on.

‘It’s a bit much,’ concludes the girlfriend. The structure almost gets in the way of twelve superb short stories. Perhaps anxious that readers might not appreciate the cleverness of using a dodecahedron to define the relationship between each short story, Glennon provides an explanatory Afterword. I understood the constraint from the title of the story collection. Knowing the structure adds an allure to reading the stories, but by the end it feels somewhat over-laboured.

The interrelationship between the stories is fascinating. In the first story, ‘In My Father’s Library,’ a young boy consumes his father’s ‘special’ books to keep them from three sinister investigators. The different repercussions of this act, in later stories, is exhilarating. Glennon is an imaginative storyteller who creates memorable worlds.

By the conclusion of the book, we are no wiser about which of the various stories represent the ‘true’ interpretation. The collection is all the better for that ambiguity.

Thanks to The Wolves for the inspiration to read this book.

The Function of the Arts

The wonderful quote below is from a Paris Review interview with poet John Hall Wheelock:

Most of us pass through life in a state of semi-anesthesia, with life itself blotted out by the business of living. We shut out life itself in order to carry on and survive, and the function of the arts is to pierce that shield and make us suddenly reexperience something that we’ve always known but haven’t been experiencing anymore.

The Autodidact

A cliché: he read avidly, Everything he could. Spotting someone reading a book on unfamiliar, offbeat subjects people sometimes ask, “Why are you interested in that?” To which, for an autodidact like [William] Gedney, there was only one reply: because it is interesting. He amassed and hoarded knowledge and then, if something caught his eye-a potential photograph-he would bring to bear on that instant or incident everything he had learned and read. It didn’t stop there, though, because his ideal of self-sufficiency was underwritten, naturally, by self-generating curiosity. The more he saw, the more he wanted to learn. The more he learned, the more he saw. It wasn’t enough to train himself to see; he had also to understand what he saw, to become more articulate in the language of sight.

‘William Gedney’ by Geoff Dyer

William Gedney Photographs and Writings
Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library

The Uncanny

Freud in his famous essay mentions “the constant recurrence of the same thing” as a symptom of “the Uncanny.” In [Idris] Khan’s picture of every page of the recent Penguin edition, the black gutter at the centre throbs like a premonition of an op art void. It makes you wonder if, as well as psychoanalysis, Freud also invented the Rorschach blot. In the background, two of the paintings discussed by him, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa and The Virgin and Child with St. Anne, peer through a shifting sleet of type like emanations of the unconscious or something. It’s only a book-only a photo of a book-but it pulses like a living thing.

Idris Khan by Geoff Dyer

Poem Without Forgiveness

The husband wants to be taken back
into the family after behaving terribly,
but nothing can be taken back,
not the leaves by the trees, the rain
by the clouds. You want to take back
the ugly thing you said, but some shrapnel
remains in the wound, some mud.
Night after night Tybalt’s stabbed
so the lovers are ground in mechanical
aftermath. Think of the gunk that never
comes off the roasting pan, the goofs
of a diamond cutter. But wasn’t it
electricity’s blunder into inert clay
that started this whole mess, the I-
echo in the head, a marriage begun
with a fender bender, a sneeze,
a mutation, a raid, an irrevocable
fuckup. So in the meantime: epoxy,
the dog barking at who knows what,
signals mixed up like a dumped-out tray
of printer’s type. Some piece of you
stays in me and I’ll never give it back.
The heart hoards its thorns
just as the rose profligates.
Just because you’ve had enough
doesn’t mean you wanted too much.

Dean Young

What’s the Best Time to Visit Nevada?

Have you been to Black Rock Desert, Nevada? Its source convinces me of the authenticity of this photograph. The caption reads, “Minerals, algae, and cyanobacteria give this geyser in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert its brilliant colours.” It takes my breath away.

I’m reading Geoff Dyer’s latest compendium of essays, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition. Initially I was irritated that the book is a selection from two collections of Dyer’s essays that I already own: Anglo-English Attitudes and Working the Room. I guess that this edition is for the American market. My irritation was short-lived, Dyer is a brilliant essayist. The ‘Visuals’ section is best read with a screen to hand to seek out the photographers and places he mentions.

Surface meets Surface

Growing up in an obscure far eastern country, I never acquired the taste for television. A neighbour acquired a black and white set, bolstered by an obscenely long aerial, and once a week all the kids in the neighbourhood would visit to watch a fuzzy rendering of Skippy. Later the country established its own network, with a diet of six hours of Islamic prayer, followed by two English language programmes: one half hour comedy show and a forty-five minute detective show, then back to prayer. For the English programmes, imagine Happy Days, followed by Starsky and Hutch. After an initial euphoria I lost interest, and watching television went the same way as stamp collecting.

Later on, I became hungry for news. Each day I would read three or four newspapers a day. I subscribed to a politically balanced selection of current affairs magazines. On my train to work I read the Financial Times and the Guardian, on the way home I skimmed the Times or caught up with the latest New Statesman, Spectator, Private Eye or Economist. I never read the sports section, or cared for celebrity or royal gossip, but looked for articles that extended my knowledge of how countries or parties or people functioned. Gradually though, over a period of two or three years, I came to realise there is little of value to be found in newspapers, and as with television I lost interest. Today, my consumption of news is a brief scroll down the headlines on my Guardian and Al Jazeera English apps on my iPad, and the output of a handful of tweeters and blogs.

Just so hollow and ineffectual, for the most part, is our ordinary conversation. Surface meets surface. When our life ceases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip. We rarely meet a man who can tell us any news which he has not read in a newspaper, or been told by his neighbor; and, for the most part, the only difference between us and our fellow is that he has seen the newspaper, or been out to tea, and we have not. [Thoreau: Life without Principle]

Otherwise, my reading time is reserved for books, a few magazines, a small number of favourite blogs, and the odd article that someone brings to my attention.

Literature with Added Fibre

The frequently cryptic Umberto Eco, in Confessions of a Young Novelist, explains that, ‘whatever postmodernism might be, I use at least two typical postmodern techniques.’ On occasion he employs ‘double coding’ (a term coined by architect Charles Jencks), which ‘is the concurrent use of intertextual irony and an implicit metanarrative appeal.’ The example Eco provides is from The Name of the Rose:

[The novel] begins by telling how the author came across an ancient medieval text. It is a blatant case of intertextual irony, since the topos (that is, the literary commonplace) of the rediscovered manuscript has a venerable pedigree. The irony is double, and is also a metanarrative suggestion, since the text claims that the manuscript was available through a nineteenth-century translation of the original manuscript-a remark that justifies some elements of the neo-Gothic novel which are present in the story. Naive or popular readers cannot enjoy the narrative that follows unless they are aware of this game of Chinese boxes, this regression of sources, which gives the story an aura of ambiguity.

Eco elucidates other effects used to give a wink to ‘sophisticated readers’, and concludes:

I admit that by employing this double-coding technique, the author establishes a sort of silent complicity with the sophisticated reader, and that some popular readers, when they do not get cultural allusion, may feel that something is escaping them. But literature, I believe, is not intended solely for entertaining people. It also aims at provoking and inspiring people to read the same text twice, maybe even several times, because they want to understand it better. Thus, I think that double coding is not an aristocratic tic, but a way of showing respect for the intelligence and goodwill of the reader.

The first three sections of Confessions of a Young Novelist provide a compelling, personal insight into Eco’s writing practice and an idiosyncratic dissection of the nature of fiction. Questions like this provide sufficient substance for me to debate until sunrise: ‘If we know that Anna Karenina is a fictional character who does not exist in the real world, why do we weep over her plight, or at any rate why are we deeply moved by her misfortunes?’

The fourth section, a condensed essay on lists, was disappointing and, I assume, added to extend these Richard Ellmann lecturesto book length.

The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal

Fictional endings disappoint, and the conclusion of The Charterhouse of Parma is perhaps its only true imperfection. Although a highly realist novel, Stendhal manipulates his story lines to a displeasingly tidy conclusion. Nabokov wrote to ask an expert in French literature, ‘Did Stendhal even pen a decent sentence?’ Unlike Flaubert, with whom Stendhal shares the ability to construct a precise world, Stendhal is not a meticulous obsessive, sweating over his sentences. He is a narrator, a phenomenal storyteller.

Stendhal successfully adopts an ‘intelligent tone of conversation’. Though he takes readers through the end of the Napoleonic era, and into the political intrigues of nineteenth century Italian court life, he never bogs the reader down with extraneous historical padding. The omniscient narrator, misleading from the first pages, takes no sides as the reader is told the parallel, deeply intertwined stories of the noble Fabrizio del Dongo and his aunt Gina, Duchess Sanseverina.

Of the two, Sanseverina, is better realised and unforgettable in her passion and percipience. The third protagonist Clelia is more illusive, succeeding more in her relation to Fabrizio. Their love story is one of the most sublime in literature, easily overwhelming that of Jerome and Alissa. After Fabrizio’s killing of the ‘mummer’ (sort of mime artist, reason enough to be killed surely), Giletti, he is imprisoned in a debilitating environment. Though Fabrizio has long dreaded prison, it is here he falls in love, for the first time, with Clelia. Despite the dreadful conditions of his imprisonment and the constant risk of poisoning, he initially resists encouragement to escape:

I would expose myself every day to the prospect of a thousand deaths to have the happiness of speaking to you with the help of our alphabets, which now never defeat us for a moment, and you wish me to be such a fool as to exile myself in Parma, or perhaps at Bologna, or even Florence! Understand that any such effort is impossible for me; it would be useless to give you my word, I could never keep it.

Stendhal’s world lives off the page because of the depth of his characters, fully realised, psychologically complex creations. In a memorable scene, Duchess Sanseverina outclasses the Prince of Parma, using contempt and cunning intelligence to apparently win Fabrizio’s freedom. The Prince turns to Count Mosca, her courtly lover, and says, ‘What a woman!’ It is darkly funny at the time but the reader also senses that Sanseverina’s victory over the Prince will not be without cost.

I wrote previously about Stendhal’s treatment of female characters, quoting Beauvoir, ‘He undertook something that no other novelist, I think, has ever done: he projected himself into a female character.’  Beauvoir lead me to Stendhal, so it is appropriate I end these thoughts with Beauvoir, from The Second Sex, in a sentence that evokes the strength of Sanseverina:

The day when it will be possible for the woman to love in her strength and not in her weakness, not to escape but to find herself, not out of resignation but to affirm herself, love will become for her as for man the source of life and not a mortal danger.

Stendhal’s Women

What stands out most, two-thirds of the way through The Charterhouse of Parma, is the life that Stendhal injects into his characters. The plot will fade, the nuances of Italian court life will cease to matter, but in years to come I will remember, of course, Fabrizio del Dongo and, possibly, the forlorn Count Mosca, but undoubtedly Duchess Sanseverina.

Simone de Beauvoir, an enthusiast for Stendhal’s writing, admired his understanding of women. In The Second Sex, Beauvoir writes [of Stendhal]:

This tender friend of women – and precisely because he loves them in their truth – does not believe in feminine mystery; there is no essence that defines women once and for all; the idea of an ‘eternal feminine’ seems pedantic and ridiculous to him. ‘Pedants have been repeating for two thousand years that women have quicker minds and men more solidity; that women have more subtlety in ideas and men more attention span. A Parisian passer-by walking around the Versailles gardens once concluded that from everything he saw, the trees are born pruned.’

Beauvoir goes on to say:

Stendhal never describes his heroines as a function of his heroes: he provides them with their own destiny. He undertook something that no other novelist, I think, has ever done: he projected himself into a female character.

This is the strength of Sanseverina, true also of Clelia, the second of the duo of women that love Fabrizio. It is through them that Fabrizio learns about the world, but they have a destiny of their own. Allow Fabrizio to fade into the background of Charterhouse, and Sanseverina’s story still screams to be told.

Silent Reading in Augustine

James Fenton rebuts Alberto Manguel’s contention that a passage in Augustine is “the first definite instance [of silent reading] recorded in western literature”:

I consulted Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading (Flamingo), which was published in the same year as Gavrilov’s and Burnyeat’s articles. Manguel believes that the passage in Augustine is “the first definite instance [of silent reading] recorded in western literature”. He is well aware of the evidence to the contrary, but he finds it unconvincing. Thus Manguel: “According to Plutarch, Alexander the Great read letter from his mother in silence in the fourth century BC, to the bewilderment of his soldiers.” [My italics.] But these bewildered soldiers are Manguel’s importation. They have been brought into the story in order to make it seem exceptional. Manguel shamelessly fudges the argument.

A related post.

[indirectly via]

Stendhal: Prototypical Authentic

My recent readings of Sartre and Beauvoir provided the impetus to read Stendhal. Both considered Stendhal a favourite writer.

I’m currently relishing The Charterhouse of Parma; strong characters and such pace, though I can understand Nabokov’s assertion that Stendhal never wrote a great sentence. The man can tell a story but, in my translation, is patently not a stylist.

I’m also reading, as is my inclination, around Stendhal, and fascinated by the argument that Stendhal was a prototypical Sartrean hero of authenticity. Stendhal, Henri Beyle originally, was much preoccupied with the problem of self, summed up by four personal maxims:

  1. Know yourself
  2. Be yourself
  3. Shape yourself
  4. Hide yourself
Stendhal’s goal was to become natural (whatever that means). After failing to live up to these maxims, Stendhal turned, in the second half of his life, to fiction as a way of realising his goal through his characters.
Living up to his fourth maxim, Stendhal used over a hundred pseudonyms. His autobiographical works are Memoirs of an Egotist, his Private Diaries and The Life of Henry Brulard.

On David Foster Wallace

Two articles on David Foster Wallace captured my attention today: an Observer interview with his widow, the artist Karen Green and an LRB review of Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace by David Lipsky and The Pale King: An Unfinished Novel by David Foster Wallace. Both have sealed my decision to read more David Foster Wallace (after chucking aside his first novel).

The interview with Karen Green is deeply moving. Of his suicide, Green says, “[…] that doesn’t define David or his work. It all turns him into a celebrity dude, which I think would have made him wince, the good part of him […].” Of the decision to publish his unfinished novel, Green says, “The notes that he took for the book and chapters that were complete, were left in a neat pile on his desk in the garage where he worked. And his lamps were on it, illuminating it. So I have no doubt in my mind this is what he wanted.”

Of the imminent novel: “The theme of The Pale King is boredom and the ways in which a group of young Americans mitigate its effects to get through working life.” Green adds, “I’d have been interested to hear what he might have done with the idea of boredom in marriage, though,” she says, with a smile. The pervasive monotony of career, marriage, modern consumer-society gets surprisingly little analysis in literature or philosophy (that I’ve come across), which puts The Pale King to the top of my ‘must-read’ pile when it arrives. Ballard was the last writer to powerfully deal with boredom.

The LRB review, written by novelist Jenny Turner, is excellent. Turner writes, “When I started reading Wallace, it was this directness that hit me hardest, this effort to speak openly and straightforwardly about things so obvious and so embarrassing that most of us, most of the time, just ignore them; this eager voice reaching out to touch its knuckles to my being, though both of us know there’s nothing there, really, apart from printed words on a page.”