An Act of Resistance

‘But one day the why arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement. Begins – this is important. Weariness comes at the end of the acts of a mechanical life, but at the same time it inaugurates the impulse of consciousness. It awakens consciousness and provokes what follows. What follows is the gradual return into the chain or it is the definitive awakening. At the end of the awakening comes, in time, the consequence: suicide or recovery.’

‘To think that the work of art can be considered at last as a refuge for the absurd, it is itself an absurd phenomenon and we are concerned merely with its description. It does not offer an escape for the intellectual ailment. Rather, it is one of the symptoms of ailment which reflects it throughout a man ́s whole thought. But for the first time it makes the mind get outside of itself and places it in opposition to others, not for it to get lost but to show it clearly the blind path that all have entered upon.’

Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

Returning from a trip that took me from LA to NYC, speaking to emboldened Conservatives bolstered by the pervasiveness of a rising right, what was most visible was the social vulnerability on the streets. As I write this, the UK is governed by an unelected and xenophobic administration expecting great success at an imminent election. Each day brings further frightening developments barely reflected in a neutered media.

This blog reflects my passion for a literature that ‘awakens consciousness and provokes what follows’, but it is sometimes difficult to sustain the concentration necessary when witnessing daily the destructiveness and xenophobia. Will literature help understand poverty beneath the cloud of abundance and extraordinary consumption, or the loneliness of rampant individualism? Is community, literary or otherwise, even possible in this late capitalist society?

Art, for Malraux, was triumph over death, the only thing that resists death. It is a beautifully simple idea. Deleuze wrote something similar: ‘The act of resistance has two sides. It is human, and it is also the act of art. Only the act of resistance resists death, whether the act is in the form of a work of art or in the form of human struggle.’

On the flight from LA, I watched Oliver Assayas’ Non-Fiction, essential for those passionate about literature, but also its themes of individualism and loneliness. Social criticism is the film’s undercurrent, with complex and multi-layered characters that, exposed in vulnerable moments, display aspects and emotions that people prefer to conceal. It isn’t preachy, nor are there moral judgements, but an encounter with an artist that handles painful subjects with honesty and courage. This is the possibility of art, whether film or literature, a place where dreadful things happen in a parallel existence, creating the chance for us to encounter our unplumbed fears and the Other within.

Holiday Reading – Piglia and Vila-Matas

I had travelled to Saint-Mézard, a remote commune in southwestern France, bringing with me books by Ricardo Piglia, Enrique Vila-Matas, Renee Gladman and Lucy Ellman. As is often the case, I read less than expected, preferring for much of the time to lose myself in contemplation, sitting quietly listening to the birdsong and observing the landscape. As Vila-Matas wrote, “Here in this village . . . where the hours pass in a slow but lively fashion, I think only about life.”

What little I read, Piglia’s diary, in which he fictionalises himself, and Vila-Matas’ novel in which he pretends to be writing a private diary that is trying not to become a novel, made me think mostly of the absurdity of all the time I spend deciphering symbols on a page that purport to represent life. It seems a decidedly odd way to use the apparently endless, but definitely finite and limited time alive, particularly during a week in which a radical, hard right—unelected—administration has taken control of this country.

Writers like Piglia and Vila-Matas—both books, The Diaries of Emilio Renzi and Mac & His Problem are brilliant—highlight this absurdity. In both cases, thought itself is given a fictional characteristic and placed into a character (or series of characters). In this way the history of fiction can be represented as a progression that represents the idea of the Other. Both books express the Other by means of varied signs that mark distinct ruptures in the idea of writing and the nature of fiction. I’m doubtlessly explaining this badly. It made more sense as a conversation over a glass of local wine. Camus wrote, “We can only ever have a dissonant relationship with the world because we seek out truths about it that we cannot find or verify.”

Zona by Geoff Dyer

Without reservation, I am a deep-seated admirer of Geoff Dyer’s work. Since reading his D. H. Lawrence book I have continued through each of his titles. Last year I went to a talk that Dyer gave on Camus, (available here, but registration needed for the full video. It is worth it when you have a free 55 minutes.), when he spoke of Camus as a kindred spirit. It is a similar, extraordinary kinship I feel for Dyer’s writing. There is a connection beyond some murky similarities in our backgrounds.

Dyer’s latest book Zona has as its foundation Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, which has haunted me through three successive viewings. I am far from finished with Stalker so I am thrilled Dyer chose (and was permitted) to weave his discourse around (almost) a shot by shot post-mortem of the film. If you haven’t read Dyer before or seen Stalker, I recommend you watch the film and start elsewhere with Dyer.

At one point Dyer writes,

There are no clichés in Tarkovsky: no clichés of plot, of framing, no clichés of music to underline the emotional meaning of a scene (or, as is more usually the case, to compensate or make good for an emotional meaning that would be absent were it not for the music). Actually, we need to qualify this slightly; there are no one else’s clichés in Tarkovsky.

By the time you’ve read several of Geoff Dyer’s books, fiction or non-fiction (these categories become irrelevant), the same statement could so easily apply. Conceptually and in its realisation Zona is reliant on Dyerian cliché, but that is not a negation of the book’s virtuosity. Dyer’s writing is idiosyncratically brilliant for its immunity from the traditional contrivances of literature. Ostensibly about Stalker, Dyer digresses far from his original theme. This latest Dyer is brilliant, but on this occasion please don’t expect objectivity.

A Year of Reading: 2011

I have read so many exceptional books this year. Samuel Beckett’s trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable) left me breathless, as did the first two volumes of Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, The Prime of Life). My most recurrent author was Geoff Dyer as I read and reread to complete his oeuvre to date (Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, The Missing of the SommeWorking the RoomParis, Trance and Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi), all works of great wit and sensitivity. And there were J. M. Coetzee’s essays (Inner Workings and Stranger Shores), both examples of criticism as works of art in their own right. I finally got around to Thomas Bernhard (Old Masters) and Peter Handke’s work (The Weight of the World and Across), every bit as intoxicating as I’d hoped. Anne Carson’s  translation of An Oresteia was memorable, and only confirmed my wonder for everything she does.

My surprising fiction discoveries (I am always happily surprised to enjoy a new author’s work) were Teju Cole’s exceptionally exquisite Open CityJ. M. Ledgard’s thrilling Submergence (thanks, Nicole), Vyacheslav Pyetsukh’s The New Moscow Philosophy (thanks Michelle) and Jenny Erpenbeck’s haunting Visitation.

Of the non-fiction, Masha Tupitsyn’s Laconia was charming and thought-provoking (to this day), Michael Levenson’s Modernism was the comprehensive history I was seeking. Stach’s Kafka biography leaves me starving for the next volume. My current book, Helen Small’s The Long Life is (so far) brilliant and a superb way to end the year.

I’m not able or willing to pick out a single favourite from either the fiction or non-fiction categories. I read a few books this year I loathed. Given the author is not living I will give Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels my coveted ‘I Wish I Could Get That Time Back Award’.

Geeky Statistics

  1. 40% of the eighty books I read were in translation (mostly from German), up from 30% last year.
  2. 18% of the books I read were written by women; I am disappointed this is exactly the same as last year.
  3. 52% of the books I read were written by living authors, pretty much the same as 2010.
  4. 58% of the books I read were fiction, up 14% from last year.

Other literary highlights of my year were attending John Berger’s angry and passionate reading of Bento’s Sketchbook and Geoff Dyer’s enlightening talk about Camus.

During 2011, with the help of readers, I compiled a list of female writers we should be reading and bibliographies of worthwhile secondary literature on the works of Kafka and Beckett.

Thanks to my book blogging friends, particularly Emily (Beckett, de Beauvoir) and Nicole (Goethe) with whom I shared reading explorations this year, and Frances whom I joined in a crazed attempt to read all 42 in Melville House’s Art of the Novella series, abandoning the attempt after thirteen novellas. I don’t participate in many read-a-longs but made an exception and had fun during German Literature month, organised by Caroline and Lizzy.

Vilnius Poker by Ričardas Gavelis

Depending on the definition of the borders of Europe, the ancient city of Vilnius lies close to a site claimed to be the geographical centre of Europe. This strategic position presumably lies behind a disastrous sequence of wars and occupations that have beset the city since its establishment in the early 1300s. Set in 1970s, Vilnius Poker casts the city as unmistakable villain.

Vilnius suffers, oppressed by inactivity and somnolence, remembering the Iron Wolf like a dream. It should have howled through the ages, but grew decrepit long ago, sickened with throat cancer; its metastases eat away at the city’s brain too. Perhaps only we two, Vilnius and I, are still alive.

The Iron Wolf howled in the dreams of Vilnius’s founder Grand Duke Gediminas. Freud may have diagnosed repressed homosexuality, but a pre-Freudian pagan priest interpreted the Iron Wolf as the castle (now called Gediminas Castle) and city that the Duke would establish as the capital of the Lithuanian lands.

Only the ancient castle in the new city is unavoidably real: a lonely tower, emerging from the overgrown slopes of the hill-the phallic symbol of Vilnius. It betrays all secrets. The symbolic phallus: short, stumpy and powerful. An organ of pseudo-powers that hasn’t been able to get aroused in a long time. A red three-storey tower, a phallic NOTHING, shamelessly shown to everyone, Vilnius’s image of powerlessness. The great symbol of a castrated city, of castrated Lithuania, stuck onto every postcard, into every photo album, every tourist brochure. A perverted, shameless symbol: its impotence should be hidden, not acknowledged, or it should at least pretend it’s still capable of a thing or two. But the city has long since lost everything-even its self respect. Only lies, absurdity, and fear remain.

This lonely tower in Vilnius embodies the central themes of this extraordinary book: powerlessness, fear, impotence, absurdity, corrupted sexuality and dissimulation.

The book’s translator, Elizabeth Novickas, describes Vilnius Poker succinctly as follows:

When asked to come up with a summary of what the book is about, or a single section that could characterize it, I find myself groping at so many things that I’m completely at a loss. Yes, I suppose one could summarize something of the plot: there is a murder, a love story, four narrators, a number of characters, a more or less concrete time frame, and most certainly a concrete place, but how to include that time also goes around in circles, and on two occasions actually stops? And what to do with details of the plot that get told over and over, so that in the end you hardly know which version to believe, much less how to describe it? The best I can come up with, without writing a doctoral thesis on the subject, is also the simplest: this is a piece of fiction about life. The four narrators are all flawed people, but they are all people nevertheless, including the last narrator—the reincarnation of one of the characters as a dog. They make us squirm at their rawness, cringe at the depth of their self-deceptions, laugh at their stories, and in the end, when we see what cards they have been dealt, break our hearts.

Behind the story, with its reverberations of The Matrix, Orwell’s 1984 and a dose of David Icke, is also a potent commentary on modern culture and modernism.

I saw how playfulness, fantasy, and metaphysics disappeared from European literature-the kanukized throngs demanded block-headed descriptions of everyday life. Painful and tragic dreams disappeared; their place was taken up by idiotic realia, a hundred Zolas and Dickenses. The throng was concerned about bread, so literature had to write about bread. The soul slowly disappeared from it, the body came to rule over everything: how the character is dressed, what house he lives in, how much money he has. After Vivaldi, improvisation disappeared from music; music slowly lost its depth of meaning. Hegel, drowning in alcohol, blathered about his trinomial dialectic, and Europe immediately fell behind a thousand years, since even the dialectic of the ancient Chinese I Ching is many times more complex and real.

The influence of Kafka is palpable, Gavelis references Kafka directly and subtly throughout the book, but also draws into the narrative Camus, Sabato, Plato, Joyce and Beckett.

I could tell her why I can’t stand Beckett, the most moral writer of our times. (I can’t stand Beckett, even though picking up a book of his I feel a quiver of respect. He is perhaps the only one who was able to look at a man with God’s indifferent eyes. He quite honestly showed the sorry state of the kanuked man the way it really is.)

Of course, as in any work of almost five hundred pages, there are deficiencies. The first part is more essential than subsequent sections, where Gavelis feels the need for expository narrative. Part Three,  Stefa’s narrative, is powerful, but if I had closed the book after Part One I would consider Vilnius Poker superlative, rather than merely brilliant.

My introduction to Ričardas Gavelis’ Vilnius Poker is thanks to Emily’s suggestion for the “non-structured book group.”