Transitory mental representations recorded on off-white paper in black printing ink convey a sequence of ideas from one self to another. Though we can describe the pattern recognition that makes this complex act possible, it is no less extraordinary that our species evolved cortical space surely wired originally for an entirely different process. How much is lost in the translation between one self and another we can only speculate as so much of reading is shaped by associative memories, environmental encoding and personal experience. However eloquently we can describe the science of reading, the improbability of reading and its transformative potential never fails to fill me with something close to spiritual awe.
Despite modernist literature’s attempt to stimulate a less socially conservative form, prose fiction remains locked into realist, figurative linear narrative, a form perfected in the nineteenth-century novel. Although other art forms, with different degrees of success, have shaped and stimulated their audience’s curiosity, literature seems unable to move substantially away from books that are easy to understand and consume, works that function to confirm preexisting assumptions.
There won’t be a large audience for Maria Gabriela Llansol’s fiction. It belongs to an earlier attempt to find a more authentic way than linear narrative to represent those transitory mental impressions. It is structured more like the way our minds swerve this way and that, pursuing different recollections and allusions, blending together voices from what we’ve read and lived. The absence of a subjective ‘I’ is as unsettling as when we first appreciate how illusory is our own experience of self as an integrated, cohesive character. Oscar Wilde is aware of the challenge of art, writing, “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.” This propensity is asserted powerfully in the contemporary popularity of auto-fiction, embodying the narcissism that may be the hallmark of our age.
After a second reading, I’m reluctant to stop reading Llansol’s Geography of Rebels trilogy, an exhilarating mental and sensual experience that compels the reader to use their own imaginative resource.
The following extended passage is from Brigid Brophy’s The Snow Ball. I doubt that I’ve read a better description of a face anywhere; it improves on Jane Austin with just a smidgen of Oscar Wilde. If I never read another word of Brophy’s work, this passage would afford me sufficient proof of her immense artistry.
Her face did not preclude her from being an attractive woman, any more than theirs precluded decorative putti from being decorative. But it was, or it provoked, a question of taste, a question of style. Anyone who contemplated forming an intimate relation to this face must ask himself whether he possessed such a taste and, possessing it, was prepared to develop it. That would demand that he immerse his senses in it, undergoing a larger and larger dose of exposure to it, until he became in a way calloused. The face would yield sensuous pleasure: but the sensualist must undertake an ascetic self-discipline first. He must harden himself to tolerate a tragic face whose tragedy was couched in half-formed baby features which, individually smudged and then squeezed up close together, had finally slipped or been twisted sideways in relation to the face, making it the face of an immortal baroque baby pettishly carrying into middle age the impress of being newly, and distortingly born.
Anna, whose own answer had long been Yes, she could tolerate it, cherished her face without pity or special pleading. She knew that to the eye of love its spoiled prettiness presented hints, minimal but recurrent, of the erotic, like the idea of an unfrocked nun. In the eye of self-love, the mirror, she had found its infinite rococo complexity infinitely interesting. A beautiful face might lead the mind that contemplated it into a daydream so unimpeded as to verge on sleep. Anna’s face, like one of those lizards called monsters, would have startled you awake if you had been asleep to begin with, so grossly did it contradict every dream satisfaction: and yet it was to the imagination that it was addressed: it was as much a flight of fancy as a swag of putti supporting a cloud; the word it recurrently brought to mind was fantastic.
From the Preface to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde’s criticism of Victorian art:
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.
The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.
The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass. The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium.
Caliban, an anagram of the original Spanish canibal, aka the drunken, wildman of Shakespeare’s The Tempest; all this richness alluded to in a few lines of Joyce’s Ulysses:
Laughing again, be brought the mirror away from Stephen’s peering eyes.
-The rage of Caliban at not seeing his face in a mirror, he said. If Wilde were only alive to see you.
Drawing back and pointing, Stephen said with bitterness:
-It is a symbol of Irish art. The cracked lookinglass of a servant.
The length of Ulysses notwithstanding, Joyce is economical with words, creating depth that opens up slowly, with attention.
That last line, alluding to Oscar Wilde’s Intentions:
I can quite understand your objection to art being treated as a mirror. You think it would reduce genius to the position of a cracked looking-glass of a servant.
If you are reading, or better rereading Ulysses, doing so accompanied by Frank Delaney’s weekly podcast (linked below) is highly recommended.
John Berger’s Here is Where We Meet is poignant and elegant. I had read little of Berger’s work but got drawn in by Geoff Dyer’s enthusiasm. This is Berger’s description of being cultivated by an early mentor:
Sometimes there were several, one on top of the other, so that I might chose George Orwell. Down and Out in Paris and London. Marcel Proust. Swann’s Way. Katherine Mansfield. The Garden Party. Lawrence Sterne. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. Henry Miller. Tropic of Cancer. Neither of us, for different reasons, believed in literary explanations. I never once asked him about what I failed to understand. He never referred to what, given my age [11 years old] and experience, I might find difficult to grasp in these books. Sir Frederick Treves. The Elephant Man and other Reminisces. James Joyce. Ulysses. (An English edition published in Paris.) There was a tacit understanding between us that we learn – or try to learn – how to live partly from books. The learning begins with looking at our first illustrated alphabet, and goes on until we die. Oscar Wilde. De Profundis. St. John of the Cross.
Here is Where We Meet is a memoir, of sorts, and a good place to begin a wider reading of John Berger’s many books.
In a later passage, Berger describes the basis of a successful, for a time, relationship:
For different reasons, the two of us believed that style was indispensable for living with a little hope, and either you lived with hope or in despair. There was no middle way.
Style? A certain lightness. A sense of shame excluding certain actions and reactions. A certain proposition of elegance. The supposition that, despite everything, a melody can be looked for and sometimes found. Style is tenuous however. It comes from within. You can’t go out and acquire it. Style and fashion may share a dream, but they are created differently. Style is about an invisible promise. This is why it requires and encourages a talent for endurance and an ease with time. Style is very close to music.