Some weeks my reading ends up in unexpected places. I thought that I’d spend this week reading André Gide’s diaries of the period when Paris was under Nazi occupation. But I’ve been reading Byung-Chul Han. A couple of years ago I read The Burnout Society and last year, The Scent of Time (and would recommend both). Han I like because he diagnoses better than any contemporary thinker what it is to live in this age of hypercommunication and hyperactivity.
Add Michel Houellebecq’s fiction to the brew, with his identification of twenty-first century masculine bitterness, and you’ve got a decent set of windows to view the condition of our age. But I like Han better than Houellebecq. The latter’s reactionary nostalgia overshadows his understanding of the world to a great extent. In both cases I like to see the world through their eyes, especially when they don’t confirm my own perceptions. I’ve been reading Han’s snappily-titled Capitalism and the death drive, and The disappearance of rituals, the latter perhaps his strongest work since The Burnout Society.
A couple of additions this week: Steve Hanson’s A Shaken Bible and Complicities: British Poetry 1945-2007, purchase of the latter evidence of a further attempt to indirectly approach J.H. Prynne’s work, before reading an annotated edition of The Oval Window.
in his essay, Karl Ove Knausgaard captures concisely and perceptively the literary qualities of Thomas Bernhard, Michel Houellebecq, Jon Fosse and by extension his own writing; “the presence we feel has to do with a certain receptiveness, a certain alertness, a certain temperament, and what this opens up for us in the text. The strange thing about writing is that the self seems to let go, that what in our self-conception normally keeps the I together, becomes dissolved, the inner being reconfigurating in new and unfamiliar ways.”
I’ve yet to read Fosse’s fiction, but the essays that Knausgaard describes are collected in An Angel Walks Through the Stage and Other Essays (trans. May-Brit Akerholt) from Dalkey Archive. I require more time with the essays, but am fascinated with his singular way of looking at literature and art.
That it is influenced by Maurice Blanchot reminds me yet again to spend more time with his work, as what Fosse describes is close to what I seek and am fortunate to find in my literary touchstones: “Whereas telling connects with the social world, the narrative situation itself, and moreover comprises some element of entertainment, writing, Fosse seems to believe, connects with something else, with that part of our language which perhaps communicates only itself, like a stone or a crack in a wall.”
Alicia Kopf’s Brother in Ice is subversive. At the beginning I went along with her story as I share Kopf’s evident fascination with the heady days of polar exploration, of nations racing to be first to reach an ever-moving target. I expected little more than a day or two’s immersion into a contemporary novel, of the kind I don’t read often~mostly because they offer nothing that I can’t find better developed in a novel that is tested by time=but what I found instead was an intricate study into how a modern human being constructs their idea of identity.
References to social media situate this contemporary novel but that isn’t what I mean by modernity. Children born in the late twentieth century may be brought up happily or unhappily, closer or more disconnected from their families, but the way they interpret and define themselves will be different from children in nineteenth century novels. What is clever and modern about Kopf’s novel is her feeling for how relationships with parents, the balance between selfishness and altruism that sets the tone for inter family dynamics, has shifted in secular, post-Freudian Europe.
If evidence of post-modernity can be discerned in the conflicts and compromises of family life, it is the degree to which modern human beings construct their identity from the terms of their private lives. The relationships in Kopf’s story, hopeful and tragic, are built from the substrate of exponentially increasing levels of narcissism and self-interest. In the end, Kopf’s family saga disguised as an account of a study of polar exploration, looks beyond the despair addressed at length by contemporary writers like Michel Houellebecq and offers the possibility that we can use language and, by extension, thought to see beyond our crisis of narcissism,
Somewhere around St. Petersburg and W. Somerset Maugham, it became clear that The Dead Ladies Project isn’t to be shoehorned into any of the recognisable classifications that exist for contemporary memoirs. Superficially, The Dead Ladies Project is a meandering meditation about a Grand Journey wandering in the landscape of literary, some by association, women (and a few men) who are either unappreciated or little known. Each chapter is built around an excursion and mines the life of Crispin’s ‘dead ladies,’ some that she admires unreservedly, like Claude Cahun, and others, like Rebecca West and Jean Rhys, with whom she lovingly dissents.
Each of the chapters is beautifully executed. On each of three readings I picked a different favourite journey, though I suspect the Nora Barnacle chapter is the one will bewitch me for longest. Or the Maugham. Or the Rebecca West.
But Crispin is more unique among contemporary travel writers and memoirists for her courage in using The Dead Ladies Project as a backdrop to engage with the core existential questions of how to live in a sociopolitical (perhaps I should say biopolitical) system that subsumes all sexual, sensual and social experience. Crispin wrestles with two familiar extremes, that of enjoying the freedom of libidinal hedonism, contrasted with withdrawal into monadic seclusion. What is distinctive to Crispin in The Dead Ladies Project, compared to a writer like Houellebecq that travels down similar roads, is that despite the despair and dark humour, there is optimism. How rare to come across an imagination fresh and rich enough to shift our vision, even by a small degree, on the society that is coming into view.
In the latest issue of The Quarterly Conversation, Adrian Nathan West captures my sentiment in the immediate aftermath of reading Michel Houellebecq’s Submission:
The worst fate a writer can suffer is to become a “writer”: for ease to eclipse inspiration, for fluency to allay the long struggle with words, for the dreadful void of the inchoate work to become schematic and ho-hum, like an instruction manual. Yet the writer-as-cultural-figure is an inevitable facet of the present, when the commodification of literature and the compression of news, entertainment, and what was once known as high culture into a vague but ubiquitous entity called “media” has led to writers vying for “exposure” alongside politicians and athletes.
There are very few contemporary writers as lucid as Houellebecq on how neoliberal capitalism has woven itself into the affective, cultural and physical sites of everyday life. But in Submission, Houellebecq’s typical dejection is turned to shaky satire reminiscent of the naïve socio-cultural projections of Philip Roth.
Even minor Houellebecq is always worth reading, but it feels rather like his prominence as a ‘bad boy of letters’ has gone to his head and Submission is striking a pose, rather than the usual meandering but luminous exposition on this world we inhabit.