A Form of Attunement

Image from the series “The double and the half” – Slow Panic by Hanan Kazma

In Lyrical Philosophy, Jan Zwicky writes:

“Resonance is a function of the integration of various components in a whole. (Integration, not fusion. Resonance occurs in the spaces between.)

In pure, schematic argument, ‘content’ is of no interest. The form does not arise from it. The form itself is unidimensional. Only the most minimal resonance is possible, the most rudimentary of non-algebraic meanings. The spaces in analysis are necessarily discontinuities, not chambers.–Integrity is a form of attunement.”

Echoes and resonances are central to Zwicky’s writing on Wittgenstein, her suggestion that you might take a number of randomly selected propositions, say half a dozen, from the Tractatus and see them not only as self-sufficient utterances, but also appreciate their bell-like resonant interconnectedness.

As Zwicky remarks, “Imagine doing a similar thing with randomly selected sentences from one of the standard treatises of systematic philosophy.” To what extent I understand Zwicky on Wittgenstein I find her account insightful enough to tackle the Tractatus directly, aided from to time by Michael Morris’ elegant Routledge ‘guidebook’.

I am struck by this idea of resonance to the point of waking up at three o’clock in the morning buzzing with associations. Many of the utterances in Tractatus appear bland, even unoriginal, taken as single entities, but the cumulative effect and patterns start to appear, if only flickeringly.

The resonances work a little like memories, which, for me, arrive primarily in image form; the associations between memory images being deeply resonant. Resonance is spatial, occurring as Zwicky writes “in the spaces in-between”, not unidimensional, and these associations do not arrive in linear form.

To drag another analogy into this raggedy post, I could compare it with my library where, for me, it makes sense to shelve my newly acquired Zwicky and Wittgenstein beside Rilke, Walser and Akhmatova, my library organised by resonance and not by alphabetisation. Wittgenstein wrote that philosophy should only be written as poetry, so these shelf companions somehow seem more fitting.

With Wittgenstein, and in the same sense Zwicky, I read slowly, retracing my steps often to push against the resistance to comprehension. I recall Wittgenstein acting as the benefactor to the poet, Georg Trakl. When he first read Trakl’s poems, he confessed, “I don’t understand them. But their tone delights me. It is the tone of … genius.”

Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co.

After spending most of November with the resolute voice of Brigid Brophy, my inclination was for something more wavering. Enrique Vila-Matas’s Barleby & Co., eighty-six footnotes commenting on an invisible text, satisfied this urge despite a sense that it doesn’t quite succeed as a novel.

Has everything been written? Can language and fiction capture life in any meaningful way? The works of writers like Beckett, Kafka, Musil, Celan, Walser, Duras circle around these questions. In Bartleby & Co., Vila-Matas’s narrator asks “What is writing and where is it?”

For some time now I have been investigating the frequent examples of Bartleby’s syndrome in literature, for some time I have studied the illness, the disease endemic to contemporary letters, the native impulse or attraction towards nothingness that means that certain creators, while possessing a very demanding literary conscience (or perhaps precisely because of this), never manage to write; either they write one or two books and then stop altogether or, working on a project, seemingly without problems, one day they become literally paralysed for good.

Had this introduction been to a work of literary criticism by a particularly perceptive critic, I can imagine few more exciting themes for scrutiny. As a work of fiction and limited to some extent by choosing to structure the novel as a series of footnotes, generally marked by brevity and concision, the investigation of Bartleby’s syndrome is comprised of a superficial recounting, mostly anecdotal, of what Vilas-Matas calls ‘writers of the No’.

For the most part this is quite satisfying to someone absorbed by stories of writers and their milieu but by the time the footnotes hit the high sixties I was craving more depth. Of course, Vilas-Matas is sufficiently astute to recognise the potential fatigue.

. . . I am going to have to fall sooner or later, like it or not, since it would be naive of me to ignore the fact that these footnotes are beginning to look more and more like Mondrian’s surfaces, full of squares which give the viewer the impression that they extend beyond the canvas and see – of course! – to encapsulate infinity, and, if this is the way I am heading, as I think I am, I shall be forced into the paradox of eclipsing myself by a single gesture.

This of course is a novel and not to be judged as a work of literary criticism. The difficulty is that the shadow of the narrator is so muted that it is all to easy to forget it is a fictional treatment. It has precisely the wavering quality I hungered for after so much Brigid Brophy but like Never Any End to Paris the overall impression is of something slight. In the end I shall treat it more like a work of non-fiction and follow some of the very many literary trails that Vila-Matas lays down in pursuit of his Bartlebys.

Literary Phantoms

Frequently after reading a book I am left with what I have come to think of as mental images, particular sentences that linger and freely associate with other thoughts. They hang around a while as vestiges of language, haunting echoes. Only, they aren’t really images. Not quite pictures, more shadowy impressions, phantoms of text that play incessantly on my mind for days, sometimes weeks.

Sentences from Elfriede Jelinke’s Her Not All Her have left a temporary (I hope) memory phantom. It is those that follow the opening line:

Your soul is peeping out of your body as though a work lay there inside you like a slumbering goddess, wanting to get out, even in her sleep. That’s how it seems to me at least. Things that peep forth often annoy people who want to be forthright themselves. This soul, then, has a nice stretch inside you, as though what it wanted was to become language but then never have anything to do with itself again.

In this text, Jelinek’s voice is interwoven with Robert Walser’s voice. The question Who speaks? is implicit throughout. We know that Walser spent the last thirty years of his life in a mental hospital. During that time he wrote almost nothing. Though suffering from depression Walser acted normally. When pressed by a visitor about whether he was writing he responded, ‘I’m not here to write, I’m here to be mad.’ It is tempting to romanticise Walser and his illness, to imagine that under that melancholy, misdiagnosed as schizophrenia, lay a definitive work, more wonderful even than the masterpieces Walser left. It is what I see in the sentences above. During those thirty years what does Walser think? What thoughts failed to be recorded, turned into language, converted into another masterpiece? Or where there no thoughts, just the dullness of depression interspersed with cocktails of drugs?

Her Not All Her by Elfriede Jelinek

For reasons I can’t really explain there’s a fusing of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Robert Walser in my mind. I’m unable to think of one without the other. I suppose they were contemporaries and both shared a passion, even obsession, with the way that language can be used to show, or obscure, the world. That aside, their paths could not be more different. Walser’s journey ended in a mental hospital, unable, or unwilling to write.

It is from this point that Her Not All Her loosely resuscitates Robert Walser. Elfriede Jelinek, in a beautiful Cahiers Series publication, uses Walser’s voice as the starting point for a prose-poem about language, memory and artistic creation. I’ve read it twice and am very taken with the beauty of Jelinek’s prose (as translated by Damon Searls). It is written to be performed on stage and not intended as a short story, a performance I’d love to see one day.

Alongside the prose are a series of reproductions of Thomas Newbolt’s ‘Head’ paintings. Newbolt’s work is new to me, but I am as stunned by his powerful paintings as by Jelinek’s prose.

This is a cryptic work that I am nowhere near the end of unpicking and contemplating. If you have read this edition, I’d love to have a conversation to see what you make of it.

Walser’s Response to a Request

Robert Walser’s Response to a Request ends with the chilling lines,”Only one of your hands is to be seen, reaching up from the smoking ruins. The hand is still moving a little, then the curtain descends.” Walser’s curious short story takes the form of an experienced thespian offering advice to an aspiring actor. The mental image of the reaching hands bring to mind Keat’s disturbing poem This Living Hand:

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed—see here it is—
I hold it towards you.

My version of Walser’s Response to a Request is the first story in Serpent’s Tail edition of The Walk collection. The picture above shows the more recent Paul North translation titled Answer to an Inquiry which comes in a numbered and signed edition, with a limited edition letterpress print from Friese Undine’s Walser series.

The Melancholy of Resistance by László Krasznahorkai

‘I tell you: one must still have chaos within oneself, to give birth to a dancing star’. Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra.

A decaying Hungarian town is reluctant host to a visiting circus offering the spectacle of ‘the biggest whale in the world.’ The circus’ arrival, accompanied by a gang of refractory hoodlums, catalyzes the town’s entropy and sparks a single, violent night of vandalism and murder.

The travelling circus is dominated by an enigmatic ‘Prince of darkness’ who foments the night of savagery. In a town characterised by its feckless or drunken civic leaders, emerges the indomitable Mrs. Eszter, who deserves to  be remembered as one of literary history’s most unscrupulous villains, with plans to ‘spring-clean’ and restore pride to the degenerate town. Mrs. Eszter, in her cunning, recalls Stendhal’s brilliant Duchess Sanseverina. Beauvoir said of Stendhal,”[He] 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”.

Though the Prince and Mrs. Eszter, adversaries only in appearance, accelerate the story’s events, it is the misanthropic Mr. Eszter and his slow-witted disciple that are the main protagonists of Krasznahorkai’s story. Mr. Eszter withdraws to his drawing room, apparently in search of musical purity, but in fact to turn away from the dissolution of the town and its people.

The world, as Eszter established, consisted merely of ‘an indifferent power which offered disappointment at every turn’; its various concerns were incompatible and it was too full of noises of banging, screeching and crowing, noises that were simply, the discordant and refracted sounds of struggle, and that this was all there was to the world if we but realised it. But his ‘fellow human beings’, who also happened to find themselves in this draughty uninsulated barracks and could on no account bear their exclusion from some notion of a distant state of sweetness and light, were condemned to burn for ever in a fever of anticipation, waiting for something they couldn’t even begin to define, hoping for it despite the fact that all evidence, which every day continued to accumulate, pointed against its very existence, thereby demonstrating the utter pointlessness of their waiting.

Punctuating Mr. Eszter’s solitariness, Valuska, thought of as the town-idiot, delivers his freshly laundered clothes and meals. Valuska becomes embroiled with the gang of hoodlums and their orgy of violence; his subsequent disappearance awakens Mr. Eszter from his self-absorption.

I’ve seen Krasznahorkai’s style (first two sentences here) likened to Thomas Bernhard’s, although I am reading both in translation, but the similarities seem superficial. There is less humour in Krasznahorkai, at least in The Melancholy of Resistance, more ominousness, with the phantasmagorical terrain familiar to Kafka and Walser. Comparison to either of those writers may be puffery on the basis of a single book, but The Melancholy of Resistance is sublime.

James Wood writes, “His demanding novel “The Melancholy of Resistance” is a comedy of apocalypse, a book about a God that not only failed but didn’t even turn up for the exam. The pleasure of the book flows from its extraordinary, stretched, self-recoiling sentences, which are marvels of a loosely punctuated stream of consciousness”. My disagreement with Wood is that the novel is demanding; as László Krasznahorkai explains: “You know, the problem is that anything that’s the least bit serious gets bad PR. Kafka got bad PR, and so does the Bible. The Old Testament is a pretty hard text to read; anyone who finds my writing difficult must have trouble with the Bible, too”.

Krasnahorkai has written six novels, only two are in English translation (all translated so far by George Szirtes); I’ll be reading War & War soon, followed in March by Satantango.

Inner Workings by J. M. Coetzee

Literary essays by novelists are rarely worth reading. Coetzee, like Woolf and Kundera, is an exception. Inner Workings is compiled from five introductions by Coetzee to contemporary editions of works by Graham Greene, Arthur Miller, Robert Musil, Samuel Beckett and Hugo Claus, together with 15 essays for The New York Review of Books.

Two-thirds of the book deals with the literary achievement of the generation of cultured Jewish writers that emerged from the wreckage of the House of Hapsburg (with Walser, Musil and Celan my high-points). The last third is primarily post Second World War British and American writers, and a few contemporaries.

Unlike some novelist-turned-critics, Martin Amis leaps to mind, Coetzee’s reviews are courteous and balanced, no histrionic name calling, but with the wit to place a writer firmly under scrutiny. I mostly concur with his implication that Walter Benjamin was a political poseur who frequently reached beyond his ability to sustain a project, but I cannot claim any deep reading of Benjamin.

To add depth to his criticism, Coetzee provides historical context. As an adept in the English, Afrikaans, Dutch and German languages he is also uniquely able to comment on the translators’ craft. Although praising Michael Hofmann for the expression, poise and precision of his English, he has concerns about his translations of Joseph Roth.

A rewarding set of essays from one of the major writers of our day – I’ve already ordered the set of essays that precedes this collection.

An Infinite Amount of Hope

Odd figures recur in the tales of Kafka and Walser, childlike yet with the potential for duplicity. That the assistants in The Castle have their prototype in Walser’s Jakob Von Gunten did not escape Coetzee’s attention.

In Illuminations Walter Benjamin likens these resolute figures to the gandharvas of Indian mythology: “celestial creatures, beings in an unfinished state.”

Benjamin retells Brod’s account of a conversation with Kafka:

‘I remember,’ Brod writes, ‘ a conversation with Kafka which began with present-day Europe and the decline of the human race. “We are nihilistic thoughts, suicidal thoughts that come into God’s head,” Kafka said. This reminded me at first of the Gnostic view of life: God as the evil demiurge, the world as his Fall. “Oh no,” said Kafka, “our world is only a bad mood of God, a bad day of his.” “Then there is hope outside this manifestation of the world that we know.” He smiled. “Oh, plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope – but not for us.”

Benjamin adds, ‘These words provide a bridge to those extremely strange figures in Kafka, the only ones who have escaped from the family circle, and for whom there may be hope.’

Jakob Von Gunten by Robert Walser

In Kafka one also catches echoes of Walser’s prose, with its lucid syntactic layout, its casual juxtapositions of the elevated with the banal, and its eerily convincing logic of paradox.

It is not possible to read Robert Walser without thinking of how he may have influenced Kafka. The quote above comes from a superb article on Walser by J. M. Coetzee. Coetzee eclipses any maundering of mine on both Walser and the artistry that is Jakob Von Gunten.

Thus, read the Coetzee article if you need any encouragement to read Walser, then read Jakob Von Gunten, then finish with more Walser. A final Coetzee quote:

As a literary character, Jakob von Gunten is without precedent. In the pleasure he takes in picking away at himself he has something of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man and, behind him, of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau of the Confessions.

Thoughts on 2010 and 2011 Reading

Before this year is over I have a week on business in New York, and a fortnight’s trip to the Far East. That’s almost forty hours of reading time. I’m looking forward to the periods of sustained concentration, and pondering what to read to occupy those long hours on the aeroplane.

This year is already a watershed in my reading life. My Joycean summer and discovery of the sheer brilliance of Ulysses alone would mark 2010 as pivotal. But in the same year I have fallen heavily for the novels and diaries of Virginia Woolf, and the critical works of Gabriel Josipovici. The thrill of reading Don Quixote is merely the cherry on the trifle.

The transition between years is arbitrary, but a useful juncture for reflection. Next year I plan to complete my immersion into Saul Bellow’s novels, read my unread Virginia Woolf novels and more of her diaries and essays, and read more deeply of Kafka’s non fiction. Also on my list is to sample more deeply the works of Cynthia Ozick, Thomas Bernhard, Robert Walser, Marguerite Duras and Peter Handke. I’m musing with trying once again to sustain a reading of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. Somewhere in the back of my mind I’m also thinking it is time to reread Proust and Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, but we shall see. I hope also to discover a new writer or two from my Reading the Girls List.

I have lost my innate scepticism about the concept of reading groups. This year’s shared reading of Madame Bovary, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and The Waves has been revelatory. The posts and ensuing discussions in comments have, in each case, enhanced my understanding and appreciation of each book. I thank Frances for getting me started and very much look forward to reading, posting and commenting along with some of “The Wolves” selections for 2011. I’ll be posting my thoughts on ‘Vilnius Poker’ later in the week.