Masterpieces and Memory

Julien Gracq, who died in 2007, wrote with great elegance and lucidity. He deserves to be more widely read. This a passage from Reading Writing, on the novel:

Of a poem, there is no form of memory other than its exact memorisation, line by line. No reconnection with it is possible aside from its literal resurrection in the mind. But the memory one retains of a long and exacting work of fiction, of a novel, last read or reread years ago-after all the work of simplification, reconstruction, fusion, and readjustment that the elision of memory brings with it-would, if the matter were not so evasive by nature, provide a very interesting topic of study. In fact, if such a study could ever present some reliability, it would provide new information on the structure and secret resources of works of fiction.

We would have to compare the memories that avid readers of good faith distantly retained of the same work, and have them recount their idea of the book-or rather what remains of it, omitting any references to the text-from memory, to note the fairly regular recurrence of the shipwreck of entire sections that have sunk to the bottom of memory, and flashpoints, on the contrary, that continue to irradiate it, and by whose light the work is reconstructed in an entirely different way. Another book would appear beneath the first-the way another painting appears beneath an X-rayed painting-that, to the economic map of a country, would be a little like a map of its energy source.

Empire of the Sun and Literary Adaptations

From this discussion with Iain Sinclair about J. G. Ballard:

I saw Empire of the Sun again the other day, and it’s Spielberg more than Ballard though it’s reasonably close to the book.

I recently saw the film again and came to the same conclusion. It was a polished, Disneyfied interpretation, with overtones of Merchant Ivory. I’d love to see a Peter Greenaway rendering. Greenaway’s obsession with sex and death is well matched with Ballard’s themes. Ballard’s book Crash, interpreted faithfully (but ultimately disappointingly) by David Cronenberg is frequently juxtaposed with Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, as controversial films.

It is a cliché to discuss how a particular film is a disappointing adaptation of a particular book. Is there a film that has aesthetically advanced the original text? Perhaps Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire or The Great Gatsby, almost certainly The Third Man.

In Julien Gracq’s discerning book Reading Writing he offers this insight:

But the reader of a novel is not a performer following notes and tempo step by step: he is a director. And this suggests that, from one brain to another, the sets, cast, lighting, and motion of the performance become unrecognisable. Whatever the explicit precision of the text-and even against it, if he so desires-the reader decides (for example) on the acting of the characters and their physical appearance. And the best proof of this is that the interpretation of a film adapted from a familiar novel almost always jars us, not because of its arbitrary nature, but most often because of its fidelity to the formal indications of the text, with which, while reading it, we have taken the greatest liberties.

This, of course, must be correct. The conclusion is that one should never, never watch film adaptations of books that you love and know intimately. But, of course, it is always impossible to resist.

A Ballard Theme

Finishing JG Ballard’s The Kindness of Women completed the trilogy of autobiographical reading following the writer’s death in the spring. Reading it after The Miracle of Life: From Shanghai to Shepperton, and after watching Christian Bale play Jim Ballard in Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, added to the understanding of this complex individual. It is hard to reconcile the recurrent themes that Ballard addressed in his fiction with the thoroughly nice, whiskey-swilling suburbanite of his autobiographies.

I read Ballard intensely in my twenties and kept up with each successive release. Before his death I was never drawn to his autobiographical work. I am pleased to have made the effort to comprehend the man, to the extent autobiography offers any insight.

Concrete Island , though a minor Ballard, is my personal favourite, surreal and utterly terrifying.

There is much devoted and some fanatic enthusiasm for Ballard. Is it inspired by the perennial influences in his stories or the sheer normality of the man that wrote them?

Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone

Carlos Fuentes’s Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone is a fictionalised account of a torrid relationship with actress Jean Seberg. The authenticity of the relationship has been questioned. It is a odd though passionately written book, set in the years immediately after 1968. Subsequent reading of J. Edgar Hoover’s targeting of Jean Seberg and her sorrowful ending deepens the intensity of the tragedy.

In the collaboration that takes place between writer and reader, my reading of this story is affected by a memory of a torrid but doomed relationship. The memory adds colour and augments the sense of participation. This is of course the case with any good fiction that is able to tap into shared emotional states. It is one of the reasons to read.

Fuentes, writing in praise of the novel:

I find, in all great novels, a human project, call it passion, love, liberty, justice, inviting us to actualize it to make it real, even if we know that it is doomed to fail. Quixote knows he fails, as do Pere Goriot and Anna Karenina and Prince Myshkin. But only through the consciousness, implicit or explicit, of such failure, do they save, and help us save, the nature of life itself, human existence and its values as lived and proposed and remembered by all the ages, all the races, all the families of humankind, without alienating themselves to an illusion of unending, certified progress and felicity.

A First Reading of Carlos Fuentes

I love and I write to obtain an ephemeral victory over the immense and infinitely powerful mystery of what is there but does not show itself … I know the triumph is fleeting. On the other hand, it makes invincible my own secret power, which is to do something – this very moment – unlike anything in the rest of our lives. Imagination and language show me that, for imagination to speak and for language to imagine, the novel must not be read as it was written. This condition becomes extremely dangerous in an autobiographical text. The writer must be lavish in presenting variations on his chosen theme, multiply the reader’s options, and fool style with style through constant alterations in genre and distance.

Currently reading Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone by Carlos Fuentes. A strange book but perhaps a writer to read more widely; Bloom lists A Change of Skin and Terra Nostra in the Western Canon.

Postmodern Fiction

It is not surprising that the novel has borne a disproportionate amount of the burden of being ‘postmodern’, because its hitherto usual ‘discourses’ – in the relationship of author to the text, its apparently liberal or ‘bourgeois individualist’ construction of unified character, its relationship to historical truth – lay it at so many points open to a postmodern critique. From modernist mastery and open formal control, respect for autonomy and individualism, and claims to historical explanatory force, all to be found, for example, when Joyce writes about Dublin or Faulkner about the South, we move towards a playful, disseminatory falsifying account of characters, who may exist on so many planes at once as to lack all plausible psychological unity. The postmodernist novel doesn’t try to create a sustained realist illusion: it displays itself as open to all those illusory tricks of stereotype and narrative manipulation, and of multiple interpretation in all its contradiction and inconsistency, which are central to postmodernist thought. Its internal theorising, its willingness to display to the reader its own formal workings, is also typically postmodern, not just in the novel, but also in film, for example in Godard’s adaptation of the Brechtian technique of the interpolated sign-post or text, and also in visual art, which is so often ‘about itself’ in this period.

– Christopher Butler, Postmodernism