Jean Echenoz’s Ravel


There is to me a distinct hierarchy in what falls under the category of life-writing. (I don’t particularly like the term life-writing.) After all, there is life-writing to various degrees in every instance of fiction. Can we still agree with Proust’s biographer George Painter who wrote: “The artist has creative imagination, the biographer recreative”? For me, the most exhilarating trend in modern fiction is the blurring of the boundaries. Fictionality is an inevitable part of autobiography. There is no less artistry in de Beauvoir’s memoirs than her novels, though I’d argue the latter are considerably more successful than the former.

I like novels that exist in the interstices between fiction and autobiography, writers like Tomas Espedal, W.G. Sebald, Peter Handke, Kate Zambreno and John Berger who bring the techniques of fiction to explore autobiography in rewarding ways. Techniques of narratology, such as perspective, temporal structure, and motifs are being used creatively to alleviate the tedium of conventional linear (auto)biography.

In truth, it isn’t a new trend, but something writers to some extent have always done. The threshold between fiction and autobiography in the books of Anna Kavan, Dorothy Richardson, Proust and Virginia Woolf is reasonably thin.

Fiction aside, I prefer memoir to autobiography, autobiography to biography; have a great fascination with writer’s and scholar’s letters and diaries, and like least of all fictional biographies. These designations are simplified without getting into all the other terms used to describe experimental life-writing: autotopography, autofiction, heterobiography etc.

This week I read Jean Echenoz’s Ravel. It’s a short book. I read it twice on a long return train journey, and have spent more time thinking about it since. Why I think many fictional biographies make me queasy is that they use fictional techniques to explore interiority or the subjective essence of a real historical individual. They maintain the freedom of a third-person narrator and yet privilege that narrator with absolute knowledge. To be honest, I struggle with fiction that does the same thing.

Echenoz avoids this trap, and in doing so, can be trusted that the broad story of the last ten years of Maurice Ravel’s life is accurate at a factual level. Ravel then becomes a fascinating exploration into how fame distances its subject from those closest to them. The dramatic reconstruction of Ravel’s unraveling (excuse the pun) and death is disturbing, but Echenoz preserves the emotional distancing to defer a reader’s sympathy. It’s cleverly done and very rewarding.

Monsters

Reading Middlemarch with no particular desire to finish reading Middlemarch brought home to me just how much I love reading what Henry James denounced as ‘loose baggy monsters’ or very long books (as defined, say, of more than five hundred pages).

I don’t think Middlemarch is that loose or baggy, quite the opposite in fact. It is a novel of immense discipline with a great deal of thought put into the architecture and the skeleton building. Nor do I think looseness is such a bad thing in a novel. Looseness gives one room to breathe, to slow down.

There is something in the psychological experience of burrowing into a long and expansive novel that is very special. That isn’t too say I don’t admire writers who can achieve the concentrated unity of an effective shorter novel, but all too often they rely overly much on plot, creating those tiresome “page-turners” that end up being exhausting and ephemeral. Besides, are monsters such a bad thing? The word stems from monstrum, something that upsets thought, that lives at the edge of reason, and that is an apt word to underpin the unsettling, time-shifting nature of a long, complex novel.

So I have in my sights some other monsters that I’ve not read before. This might be a year I read only another dozen books:

  1. Alexander Theroux, Einstein’s Beets
  2. Péter Nádas, Parallel Stories
  3. Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet
  4. Cora Sandel, Alberta trilogy
  5. Peter Handke, My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay
  6. George Eliot, Daniel Deronda
  7. Katherine Anne Porter, Ship of Fools
  8. Divine Comedy (Dorothy Sayers’ translation)
  9. Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries
  10. Thomas Mann, Joseph and his Brothers
  11. Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage (last four books to finish)
  12. Maybe more Nádas, or Tolstoy, or Weymouth Sands, or rereading Proust or Karamazov, or . . .

If you have a favourite monster I’ve not mentioned please drop into comments.

The Voice of the Book

“A man who has read Book XXIV of the Iliad–the night meeting of Priam and Achilles–or the chapter in which Alyosha Karamazov kneels to the stars, who has read Montaigne’s chapter XX (Que philosopher c’est apprendre à mourir) and Hamlet’s use of it–and who is not altered, whose apprehension of his own life is unchanged, who does not, in some subtle yet radical manner, look on the room in which he moves, on those that knock at the door, differently–has read only with the blindness of physical sight. Can one read Anna Karenina or Proust without experiencing a new infirmity or occasion in the very core of one’s sexual feelings? To read well is to take great risks. It is to make vulnerable our identity, our self-possession.”

George Steiner, from the essay Humane Literacy in Language and Silence

No End to Reading

The problem is that novels, great novels–whatever that means–are excessive. Reading, by nature, is excessive. How is one ever done with reading? We never quite finish reading great fiction. By the time we finish a book, by the time we have picked a novel to the bones, it renews itself, like that bottle filled with magical waters that never empties.

We might remember plot, or character–the parts that don’t matter–but close the book and its pages fill with more nuance, further intellectual delicacies to be discerned on rereading. What is read is never read, but, to draw on Nabokov, one can only reread a book. Something is always missed, something left to be read.

Great writers are deceivers. They fool us into thinking we have done with their book. As Adorno wrote in Minima Moralia (another book we can only endlessly reread), “it is Proust’s courtesy to spare the reader the embarrassment of believing himself cleverer than the author”.

We forget that ur-moment when we first read, no less sensory and traumatic than the primal scene, when words on a page called forth an absent voice, a hermeneutical dialogue that changed us irrevocably. What we read is transformed into ourselves. From this time on our sensory receptiveness to the world is never the same, the moment when, to quote Peter Boxall, we realise it “might be possible to meet with the mind of another with an intimacy and intensity that is unmixed with baser matter”.

 

Leopardi’s Pessimism

Gilbert Highet’s elegant account of Count Giacomo Leopardi urges me to make time for those notebooks awaiting my time and attention. Beckett also found Leopardi simpatico, describing himself in a letter to MacGreevy as “one who is interested in Leopardi and Proust rather than in Carducci and Barrès”, adding many years later that Leopardi “was a strong influence when I was young (his pessimism not his patriotism)”. Highet’s sentence rests on his phrase: “if properly understood and managed”.

“His closest links in classical literature are with Lucretius the Epicurean, who believed that creation and the life of man were a pure accident, having no significance beyond itself; that nature was neither kindly nor hostile to us, but indifferent; and that the only sensible purpose of living was to attain, through well-spaced and well-chosen pleasures and an intelligent understanding of the universe, a calm and reassured happiness. Like Lucretius, Leopardi is a materialist; like him he admires the charm of the Greek deities, although he knows that they have really no effective connexion with our world; like him he looks at human excitements and efforts with astonished pity, as we do at an ant-hill struck by a falling apple. But–here is the fundamental difference not only between Leopardi and Lucretius, but many modern poets and nearly all Greco-Roman poets–the conclusion that Leopardi draws is that life, because of its futility, is a cruel agent where death is welcome; and the conclusion of Lucretius is that life, if properly understood and managed, is still liveable. Even Greek tragedy does not mean that life is hopeless; but that, at its most terrible, it still contains nobility and beauty. Perhaps because of the sickness which afflicted both Leopardi’s body and his soul, he was never able to fight through to this truth. At least, not consciously. Yet, as an artist, he grasped it. His chief debt to classical poetry and his truest claim to equal the great lyric poets is that he sees his tragic subjects with sculptural clarity, and describes them with that combination of deep passion and perfect aesthetic control which e recognise as Greek.”

Mathias Enard’s Compass

James Joyce wrote of “an ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia”, exhibiting characteristic Joycean contempt for a reader of limited duration of attention. In this sense, Mathias Enard’s Compass, while eminently accessible, is likely to be best appreciated by those with insomniac intensities, and an equivalent propensity to pursue homologous trains of thought. Franz Ritter, the insomniac musicologist whose consciousness is our sole companion in Compass, as all insomniacs is accustomed to wholly phenomenal interpretation which, as Terry Eagleton wrote, “refuses to be duped by the habitual experience of things, searching instead for the invisible mechanisms which gives birth to them”.

While Compass is greater than its themes, it is essentially a novel of digressions, during which Franz learns that the pursuit of love may demand acts of abnegation. Schubert, Magris, Balzac, Beethoven, Proust, and Mendelssohn are only the lighter cavalry. Enard writes, “Sarah had mentioned the Great Name, the wolf had appeared in the midst of the flock, in the freezing desert: Edward Said. It was like invoking the Devil in a Carmelite convent.” Without becoming moralistic, Compass is a political novel that gently analyses Said’s characterisation of Orientalism, not just as a secondary expression of the wonders and apparent evils of the East, but as a form of imperialistic domination that concerns itself with the control of real people and real geographical territories. Enard, like Said, writes to oppose power structures, but unlike, say, Foucault, is at heart hopeful that through discourse such structures can be confronted and dismantled.

In a world that has become afraid of intelligence, Compass – slowly, I imagine, and carefully translated by Charlotte Mandell – is a deeply intelligent novel, a book that I could vanish into forever. In Barcelona, Robert Hughes quotes the Catalan writer Josep Ferrater Mora, “The man with seny [an untranslatable term meaning something like common sense, perhaps also wisdom and intelligence] renounces neither salvation nor experience, and is always trying to set up a fruitful integration between both opposed, warring extremes.” Mathias Enard, on the strength of Compass, but also Zone and Street of Thieves is indisputably a man with seny.

Denton Welch’s Maiden Voyage

I resolved to read Denton Welch this year, enthused by Des’s advocacy, though the timing was determined by catching sight of a rather distinctive edition of Maiden Voyage, his first novel, in one of the Cecil Court bookshops: an American first with dust wrappers and end papers drawn by Welch.

With measured and precise description, Welch applies a loupe to people and objects. Although my copy is an American edition, I wonder whether an American reader would get the same pleasure from Welch’s empathetic observation of the nuances of that colossal curse of the English, its class system. Welch’s way of noticing the small things of life ends up creating a fictional (lightly autobiographical) world of epic proportion, one that is singularly alluring.

An extraordinary tension is set up in Maiden Voyage. As Michael Schmidt writes in his study, The Novel: “Welch’s prose is full of paradoxes, his stories of themes that are more telling for being undeclared.” The novel’s narrator often appears reserved, almost priggish, though there is a homoeroticism that almost but never quite breaks surface. It is similar to the sexual tension that suffuses Patricia Highsmith’s writing.

Maiden Voyage tells the story of a boy brought up in east Asia, after his mother’s death he is sent off to an absurd English public school, which he loathes, and from which he briefly absconds. As this storyline so exactly matches my own, I’m the ideal reader for Welch’s story. But beyond that, I am utterly compelled by his attention for small things. Elemental truths lie behind the sights, smells and sounds of apparently banal objects. Writers like Woolf, Proust and Welch sharpen our sights for things that would otherwise remain invisible to us.