“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Intentional Fallacy and Edouard Leve's Suicide

According to the most precious intellectual resource of our time--by which, of course, I mean Wikipedia--the intentional fallacy is a term that "in literary criticism, addresses the assumption that the meaning intended by the author of a literary work is of primary importance. By characterizing this assumption as a 'fallacy', a critic suggests that the author's intention is not important." The principle was a tenet of the academic movement known as the New Criticism--a method of literary criticism that emphasised the literary/rhetorical aspects of a text and argued for textual interpretations based on the internal linguistic evidence within a text, rather than by relying on historical, biographical or theoretical methods of analysis. Later on, the intentional fallacy was the one of the chief pieces of evidence used to convict the New Criticism of ahistoricism (or of prefering synchrony over diachrony, if you prefer the Marxist/Hegelian way of saying the same thing), a charge still levied against the New Critics today.

That being said, the academy's attacks on the New Criticism have largely been a case of protesting too much; the fact is that virtually every high school and undergraduate literature seminar is run along practices and methodologies espoused by the New Criticism--specifically that rational human beings can uncover the "meaning" within a text through close reading. And by extension, the intentional fallacy is a pretty sound general concept: sure, we can probably agree that Melville meant to include a whale in the novel Moby Dick, but would we agree that he intended it to be a fable about the impossibility of humans mastering nature (which is, incidentally, the most boring interpretation of Moby Dick I can think of)? And even if Melville had intended the latter, would it limit other readings of Moby Dick, or make them less "correct"?

The problem of intentionality is further compounded by the fact that writers are notorious liars (how strange for a group of people whose career involves making things up!), and even their own speeches, notes, and diaries, as a result, are often treated more like the statements of an analysand than gospel truth. The fact of the matter is that, once a book has been published, the author can no longer claim authority over its meaning (indeed, book reviews are predicated on this notion).

But Eduoard Leve's novel Suicide presents a serious problem for the notion of the intentional fallacy. In the novel, the narrator recounts a series of interactions with a friend (addressed throughout as "you"), who, as we learn in the opening pages, has committed suicide. Ten days after delivering this manuscript to the publisher, however, Leve took his own life. It is impossible, or so it seems to me, not to read the novel in light of this fact.

The translator's thoughtful essay at the end of the book emphasises that Leve's own suicide and the fictional suicide within the book are different in many ways, but, in point of fact, Suicide is a book that plays with these very concepts of identity. The narrator claims that he was never really close with "you" while "you" were alive, but the level of detail about "your" internal psychological states radically undermines this claim. Like in Bergman's great film, Persona, Leve's characters--the narrator's "I" and his friend's "you"--slowly merge into a singular entity over the course of the novel. Unsurprisingly, this gesture is emphasised by the fact that "you" has a variety of difficulties in accepting his own subjectivity.

On a formal level, Suicide is written in appropriately spare prose, but flows in a stream-of-conscious type of narrative that would appeal to fans of Bernhard (although without Bernhard's trademark irony). My only qualm, ironically, concerns the book's final gesture, which requires a stark formal shift into verse, that doesn't quite work, although it is possible that the verse does not translate into English as well as the prose. All in all, Suicide is a phenomenal little novel well worth a read, and a brilliant introduction to Leve (this is his first novel translated into English). As a result, I am now very much anticipating the publication of his book Autoportrait, due to be published by the always-brilliant Dalkey Archive next year.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Neo-Naturalism and Jean Echenoz's Lightning

In a review of Tom McCarthy's C from last year, I noted that McCarthy's novel--despite its much-vaunted use of ideas from second-wave cybernetics and Systems Theory--was really an updated version of naturalism that shares more in common with Thomas Hardy than the formal innovations of Modernism. The main innovation in C is that, instead of making its protagonist a Christ-like innocent as in Jude the Obscure, the main character, Serge, is a flat, affectless figure typical of "postmodern" texts. In the year since making this argument, however, I've noted that McCarthy is just one among a larger "movement," including such authors as Michel Houellebecq, Goncarlo Tavares and Jean Echenoz, producing work that could broadly be described as a form of neo-naturalism.

Echenoz's Lightning--like C--focuses on issues surroudning the development of technological modernity as a series of complex networked systems, and its central figure Gregor (a thinly disguised portrait of Nikola Tesla) is  a deeply neurotic man who also possesses an exceptional genius for inventing new technologies linked to electricity. Ultimately, though, Lightning is a far more successful book than C for two reasons: 1) its relative brevity means that its strident antihumanism doesn't feel repetitive, and 2) the narration itself has an arch tone that gives the text a much-needed layer of irony.

At the same time, though, the book is not without its flaws. The first 50 pages, in particular, read more like a summary of events than a narrative, and, as such, will seem largely superfluous to anyone who has even a passing familiarity with Tesla's life. Later in the book, however, Echenoz begins to offer a more unique perspective on the events of Tesla's life, and Lightning ultimately develops into a stirring and wonderfully odd little book.

But for all it's merits, my only objection to Lightining is that, for all its ingenuity, it's ultimately the second-best version of Tesla's life presented in recent years, since the best is undoubtedly this:

Friday, November 18, 2011

Book Review: In Red by Magdalena Tulli

"In Red, the new novella from Magdalena Tulli, tells the story of the ill-fated town of Stitchings. From the very first sentence, though, Tulli makes it clear that this will not be a story that ends happily: ‘Whoever has been everywhere and seen everything, last of all should pay a visit to Stitchings.’ Tulli is regarded as one of Poland’s most important writers and it is easy to see why: her unusual prose is charged with irony and ambiguity that leads in a variety of unexpected directions, and it is the strength of her unusual narrative voice that ultimately knits together the disparate material in this wonderfully strange book."
Read more over at Readings website.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

On Life Kills and Moron-Proof Books

Below is a video of my (very brief!) launch speech for Miles Vertigan's excellent debut novel Life Kills. (Synopsis: Unpopular books, a Peter Sloterdijk-inspired reading of the novel, AusLit's love affair with boring realism, moron-proof books).

Monday, November 14, 2011

Tibor Fischer on Parallel Stories

Over the weekend, Tibor Fischer published what could certainly be called a scathing review of Nadas's Parallel Stories. Although I have major concerns about the review, we are agreed on the unnecessarily repetitive scatology of the book:

"Every time a new male character appears you fear he's going to be wanking or investigating his foreskin in a line or two (and he will be). The only relief from cocks is the occasional intervention of some labia or a clitoris. Doubtless, Nádas has some artful justification for this, but it's like having your face jammed in someone's crotch – it gets exasperating very quickly, and there's still 900 pages to go."

Fischer is right about this, but, at heart, this review is an attack on an intellectualized continental aesthetics and an assertion of pretty typical Anglophone aesthetics--that books should appeal to everyone, serve as an entertainment, and not, God forbid, challenge a reader in any way:

"And the Germans, it seems to me, have encouraged the Teutonic notion that anything entertaining or exciting must be lightweight or pulp. Serious writing has to be … serious, and hard work. If you're not straining, it ain't literature. László Krasznahorkai and Peter Nádas seem to be particular exponents of this attitude."

This is the same sort of "common sense" aesthetics that English reviewers used to assail Coleridge back when he incorporated Kant's philosophy in his literary criticism. It was wrong then, and it's wrong now. I don't recall any reviews of Atonement complaining that McEwan's book wasn't a 900-page experimental novel, but it appears that every experimental novel is expected to justify its existence, as if the mere publication of such a work is an insult to the mythical figure of the "average reader." It's about time that reviewers who should know better stop pretending that wilful philistinism is some kind of enlightened or democratic position. Sadly, in most popular literary criticism, this soft form of anti-intellectualism appears to be the dominant paradigm.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Exclusion Clauses

Over at Kill Your Darlings, Emily Bitto has an excellent piece on the disappearance of long sentences from contemporary literature, touching on two issues I've written on before: 1) the formal conservatism of contemporary Australian--and, by extension, Anglophone--prose (see here, for example), and 2) the relationship between minimalism as an aesthetic doctrine and creative writing programs (and for my thoughts on CW programs, see here and here).

As someone who has tended towards the long sentence in my own fiction, I agree that there is a bias against the long sentence; I've lost count of how many literary editors I've encountered believe that good editing entails turning every long sentence into a series of shorter ones. I'll also just note two other points that weren't mentioned in the piece, which I think add to Bitto's argument:

1) The long sentence is actually the preferred vessel for English Lit. over its long history. Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century British and U.S. writers consistently use sentences with multiple dependent clauses and the like. In fact, it is the preference for a journalistic, "economical" prose--as promoted by Hemingway, E.B. White, and, later on, William Zinsser (although their ideas can be useful!)--that is actually the exception. The long sentence, historically speaking, has been the rule.

2) Having taught and studied creative writing in the U.S. and Australia, I don't think that minimalism is "officially" promoted as the writing style. Rather, there's a subtle pressure, or a predisposition towards minimalism. Just as most English Literature departments will have a de facto preference for Continental Theory over Analytic Philosophy (a preference I share), few CW programs actually foist minimalism on students as a requirement. Aside from one absolutely horrendous CW instructor, all of my teachers were very supportive of my own work with long sentences.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Book Review: The Opportune Moment, 1855

I've got a review of Patrick Ourednik's The Opportune Moment, 1855 up over at the website of Readings Books and Music. Here's the opening:

"Czech author Patrick Ourednik’s newly translated novella, The Opportune Moment, 1855, tells the story of a group of expatriate Europeans attempting to start an anarchist commune, called the Fraternitas Free Settlement, in Brazil. But from the very outset, the reader knows that the settlement is doomed; the novel opens with a letter, dated March 1902, written by the leader of this anarchist collective – a man affectionately referred to by his followers as ‘Older Brother’. While the letter is meant to serve as a sort ofapologia pro sua vita, Older Brother’s self-important and grandiloquent expression of his lofty ideals spills over into comic pastiche, and his laments about the failure of the commune emphasise his own unwillingness to take any responsibility for its collapse. While he bemoans various problems with his plan’s execution – particularly his poor choice of volunteers for the first wave of settlers – he refuses to admit any error and stands by his principles." Read the rest here.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Don't Trust the Writer

Joseph McElroy (author of Night Soul and Other Stories) has written a short piece on why he refuses to answer questions about where he gets his ideas from; it's a wonderful antidote to most writers's thoughts on this topic, and not only does he (correctly, in my opinion) argue that authors don't understand were there work comes from, but also offers a fairly interesting conception of what a good story should do:

"What can happen? my stories ask, as I ask of my life and yours. Not only what did happen, but mainly: What can happen? A story about a boomerang thrower in Paris, or a story about a father and his infant son in his crib in the dark making sounds that the father begins to make sense of during three successive desert nights. What can happen? Sometimes I’ll read just the beginning of a story to an audience and ask where it could go from there. But the writer is mainly invisible, and the story stands on its own between the reader and the writer and would have to be about both if we could only know, but stands on its own and belongs to the reader and in the great differences among the stories in my book Night Soul might even sometimes suggest to you the reader how to read it."

Read more here.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Struggling through Peter Nadas's Parallel Stories

Peter Nadas's 1138-page novel Parallel Stores was published by Farrar Straus and Giroux at the end of October, and it's being touted, by its publishers at least, as a Proustian "masterwork" of world literature, much in the way that Roberto Bolano's 2666 (not coincidentally also published by FSG) was back in 2008. The novel took Nadas seventeen years to write, and was another four in translation, so it has been germinating for a long time. The book has also begun to receive some glowing reviews (see here, here and here). Before talking a little more about why I think there's good reason to be skeptical of these claims, I want to note two things: 1) there are some absolutely brilliant moments in the book (the opening forty pages, in particular, are excellent), and 2) I actually have only read about 400 pages of it. I realize that point #2 should disqualify me from making any comment at all, but I think there are very specific local issues with the book, and I haven't yet seen these noted in detail, although Scott Esposito's post at Conversational Reading does deal with many of the other problems (and this post is also meant to serve as an explanation of why I am unlikely to finish the book).

Parallel Stories does many things well: its ability to shift between perspectives and characters, often across decades, in a single sentence is impressive and effective, even if it isn't particularly inventive or new (these kinds of shifts, to my mind, are pretty much the stock gesture of what we conceive of as literary Modernism, as evidenced in Joyce, Faulkner, Proust, Woolf, etc., etc.). Moreover, Nadas does a good job of creating a consistently tense atmosphere, and his psychological evocation of characters, particularly the young Dohring and Gyongyver, are also wonderfully evoked, if also heavily indebted to the Modernist psychological novel [Added later: yes, I just said that an "evocation" is "wonderfully evoked," proving that this editor needs an editor]. But the problems with the book are legion and, to my mind, fairly obvious.

Despite all of the brilliant bits in the book, there's basically just no excuse for passages like this: "To this day, he urinated like a little boy. He did not pull back his wrinkly, unusually long, funnel-shaped and pointy foreskin from his bulb, and when he finished he barely shook his member, letting some of the fluid be smeared on his fingers. He'd dig in with his fingers between his thighs under the testicles, where he always found for himself some worthy odor. Only rarely did he risk invading the cheeks of his buttocks to touch the crimped edge of his contracted anus. Perhaps to rub it just a little bit, to reach into it, as an experiment. But it did happen on occasion. The various odors nicely mingled on his fingers where he preserved them for the rest of the day. He saved them for the night, when he would have unhindered access to his body, though he had to be on his guard in the bluish light of the dormitory, listen for and follow with open eyes every little stirring [...]When he couldn't tuck his weenie between his thighs, or couldn't touch it, not even through his pants, because in the boarding school everybody was watching everybody else all the time, he consoled himself with these odors. And this remained the same later too, with his cock, though its odor had become more penetrating."

One's ability to enjoy Parallel Stories is predicated on whether or not you find this kind of writing revelatory, especially since such passages appear on virtually every other page.

Look, I'm not trying to be a prude here--I like Swift's scatological poems, and Joyce's Ulysses and Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, which both have passages that deal with similar, uh, material--but the frequent passages like the above seem indicative of a kind of facile Freudianism (one that's unfair to Freud), which permeates Parallel Stories. One review of the novel, which annoyingly praises Parallel Stories for its "almost Facebook-like approach" also claims that what is remarkable about the book is how it makes "you painfully more aware of your physical body." Although I suspect this was Nadas's intent, I don't think it justifies the ceaseless repetition of passages like the above, and, moreover, the fact is that Nadas's focus on the body, with a few exceptions, is almost always scatological; in this sense, the book actually ignores most of the body in order to focus on a specific set of bodily processes.

I generally like long and "difficult" books, but there's a danger in calling every long and difficult book brilliant simply because of its length and difficulty. Parallel Stories is not a disaster on the level of Harold Brodkey's Runaway Soul, but neither is it a book on par with The Recognitions or 2666. Like many other long books that display brilliance, but aren't complete successes--and I'm thinking of books like William Gass's The Tunnel and Joshua Cohen's Witz, which both veer between the enlightened and the simply tedious--there's no point in attempting to ignore Parallel Stories' significant flaws. And, to me, viewing such work uncritically also gives ammunition to those anti-intellectual readers who believe only pretentious snobs enjoy reading "difficult" books...

Anyway, I am still hoping to finish Parallel Stories, but given my experience thus far, it's probably something I will return to now and then over the course of the next year, rather than feeling compelled to read all of it at once.