You could imagine Pablo Katchadjian’s What To Do as narrating the dreams of Lars Iyer’s two philosophy professors from his extravagantly silly trilogy of novels – Spurious, Dogma and Exodus. It has the tense humour of commedia dell’ arte, a complex improvisation built on a multiplying set of objects and scenarios.
In Katchadjian’s dream sequence narrative, multiple dreams within dreams reverberate like a two-voice sonata as the nameless narrator and his companion Alberto play a rhythmic association game with themes and counter-themes. Each of the dreams carries an individual signature but there are recurrent themes of humiliation, lack of communication, death and anxiety.
As in dreams, there is no conclusion, just a sense upon awakening of the instability of identity. What To Do isn’t incoherent and I suspect if I mapped out the cyclical dream elements I might find an underlying structure; the outcome of each episode moves in gradations to the ministructure of the next. The novel’s ninety-nine pages are best read in a single sitting, perhaps as an indulgent bracer between other books.
It seems like mere moments, but in fact it’s been nine months since my last post listing the forthcoming books I was looking forward to reading. In most cases the books on that last list were acquired, though I’ve read only four of the nineteen listed, though remain interested in reading the others. This year I’m acquiring fewer books, but the following are mostly irresistible:
Antonio Negri, Spinoza: Then and Now
Michel Houellebecq, Serotonin
Denise Riley, Time Lived, Without Its Flow
Rachel Mann, A Kingdom of Love
Yiyun Li, Must I Go
Karl Ole Knausgaard, In the Land of the Cyclops
Naomi Klein, On Fire: The Burning Case for a New Green Deal
J. M. Coetzee, The Death of Jesus
Roberto Calasso, The Celestial Hunter
Vivian Gornick, Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader
S. D. Chrostowska, The Eyelid
Chantal Akerman, My Mother Laughs
Sergio Chejfec, The Incompletes
Kate Zambreno, Drifts
Lars Iyer, Nietzsche and The Burbs
Vladimir Nabokov, Think, Write, Speak
Alistair Ian Blythe, Card Catalogue
Peter Weiss, The Aesthetics of Resistance, Volume II
Luis Goytisolo, The Greens of May Down to the Sea: Antagony, Book II
There is much worth contemplating in Lars Iyer’s responses to these questions on Full Stop, beyond the title: The Situation in American Writing, particularly this point, which is arguably hyperbolic but contains many truths.
As for the audience for serious American writing — I don’t know anyone who reads it, really. America seems to be everywhere; we are living in an American reality. Which makes me want to read anything but American fiction, however ignorant this sounds. I admit to having very little interest in British fiction, either. It seems to me that everything that is alive in fiction today comes via translation.
This idea that it is the omnipresence of American lifestyle that ends up subverting our appetite for American intellectual achievements is recognisable, and compelling.
This excerpt also gave me much pleasure:
You ask whether online criticism has made literature into a more or less isolated cult. Not really. I think literature itself was already becoming an isolated cult. Bernardo Soares, Pessoa’s heteronym in The Book of Disquiet, writes, ‘I am today an ascetic in my own religion. A cup of coffee, a cigarette, and my dreams can easily replace the sky and its stars, work, love and even the beauty of glory. I have, so to speak, no need of stimulants. My opium I find in my soul’. When it comes to literature, many of us have their own cult, their own religion, their own literary sky and stars. But there is a sadness to this, I think. Our stars are toy stars, like the ones which glow on a child’s bedroom ceiling. We are isolated; we read on separate islands. And reading, for us, is a hobby, a pastime, and little more than that, even if it once meant much more than that.
Perhaps it is this that is greatest about Mercier and Camier – its timing, its place in the chronology, the knowledge on the part of the reader, and hinted at by the author, of what’s about to follow. It’s ungainly, but probably not inaccurate, to describe it as a practice piece. In it, Beckett rules out, once and for all, the idea that he can achieve what he wants to achieve in prose with anything other than a monologue. And in doing so, he bids a kind of farewell to what had gone before.
If you’ve read Murphy and Watt you’ll be familiar with both the milieu and characters. Though the protagonists are vastly different, in the banter I kept hearing echoes of Spurious.
We didn’t leave anything in the pockets by any chance? said Mercier.
Punched tickets of all sorts, said Camier, spent matches, scraps of newspaper bearing in their margins the obliterated traces of irrevocable rendezvous, the classic last tenth of pointless pencil, crumples of soiled bumpf, a few porous condoms, dust. Life in short.
Nothing we’ll be needing? said Mercier.
Did you not hear what I said? said Camier. Life.
Echoes. A convict on the moors. Inevitable memories of a better story: Great Expectations. But the location of The Hound of the Baskervilles is infinitely more haunted than the marshes of London and Kent. I have walked across Dartmoor, one of my favourite places, unchanged since Doyle placed his hound there. It is not hard to conjure a fire-breathing hound, or places where prisoners of malicious intent could hide for ever.
I grew away from Doyle’s absurd Sherlock Holmes stories, and their improbable coincidences, whilst still in my pre-nage years, but it is easy to get sucked in. Enjoyable yarns, of a sort best read aloud on a winter’s night, by fireside. No plot summary is needed for The Hound of the Baskervilles, the story is known to all, regardless of whether we have read the story, or seen one of the many film adaptations. It is Dartmoor that is the true hero of Doyle’s tale.
H: ‘It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light. Some people without posessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it.’
He had never said as much before, and I must admit that his words gave me keen pleasure.
H: ‘I am afraid, my dear W. that most of your conclusions were erroneous.’
My own adaptation of the Holmes-Watson banter, but reminiscent of Lars Iyer’s book, Spurious.
Spurious, the blog, has been around for ages. On first publication I resisted Lars Iyer’s Spurious, the book, assuming it was merely a collection of blog posts. You can certainly get a feel for the book by looking at the blog, but as you would expect, the book is less fragmentary, there is a more coherent narrative structure. Just. Imagine a version of Pete and Dud with two intellectuals and a bottle of gin.
Intelligent and painfully funny, Spurious is best read in one sitting, though I was slowed by continually stopping to read excerpts to my family. I had planned to quote some excerpts here, but I am going to read it again instead.