Alternative Prepositions for Sebald’s Writing

January 26, 2013 § 1 Comment

Reading now: 20 Lines a Day; Vertigo.

In surely the most interesting passage I’ve ever read about prepositions, Harry Mathews discusses their use in the common phrases for writing, and alternatives used more rarely:

Would it be possible, and if so what would it be like, to write around, or in, or into — to write around politics, write in compost preparation, write into love, write at fiction, write inside the genesis of the universe, write outside a friend?… Writing around a subject or person seems a promising possibility.  The subject or addressee would play a role like the letter e in La Disparition — never appearing and at the same time figuring as an object of unrelenting attention, staring us in the face all the harder for never being named.  Writing in might require participation in the subject at the moment of writing… (All writing would be an act of writing in writing.)  Writing into: discovery, aggressive curiosity.  Writing at: against, or towards, or in haphazard approach…. And writing outside: out of a context larger than the subject, so that we can at last see it whole, as if we had only five minutes left to live, or five seconds.

A brilliant entry in 20 Lines a Day, and a lovely, tangential description of many of the productions of the Oulipo.

This is also a useful framework for thinking about Sebald’s work: in its idiosyncratic blending of memoir, criticism, biography, fiction, etc., it seems to make more sense from the application of prepositional phrases like Mathews’ than from describing it as writing “about” any one thing, or within any one genre (or even any combination of genres).  I suspect, in fact, that Sebald might have thought of his own works in similar terms, though I doubt he ever read Mathews’ work.  Sebald and Mathews, writing in the 1980s, were both catching something in the mental atmosphere of the time.

In the “All’estero” section of Vertigo, Sebald describes the narrator’s (his) arrival in Milan, and purchase of a map:

My bag slung over my shoulder, I strolled down the platform, the last of the passengers, and at a kiosk bought myself a map of the city.  How many city maps have I not bought in my time?  I always try to find reliable bearings at least in the space that surrounds me.  The map of Milan I had purchased seemed  a curiously apt choice, because while I was waiting for the quietly rumbling photo-booth where I had had some pictures taken to yield up the prints, I noticed on the front of the map’s cardboard cover the black and white image of a labyrinth…

sebald

The arrow at the top of the map’s labyrinth is crucial: Sebald writes in and into labyrinths, and reading him requires plunging into that labyrinth, as well.  Labyrinths of memory, history, and geography, as well as labyrinths of fiction and nonfiction.  That this passage gives a glimpse of Sebald waiting for the development of those photos that would, at least potentially, populate his published books is a fine example of how he’s writing (and photographing) in the labyrinth as he experiences it.  (Incidentally, that inexplicably poignant image of the mustached German awaiting his snapshots make this one of my favorite passages thus far in the book.)  At other points, the narrator describes times on a train, at a hotel, in which he is successful in writing: he’s writing in the labyrinth as he himself experiences it.  Meanwhile, the first section of the book, a meditation and biography of the 19th-century writer Marie Henri Beyle, comes to be seen retrospectively as writing into the labyrinth.

At the same time, and to introduce additional prepositions to Mathews’ alternative lexicon, Sebald also writes atop or, perhaps, alongside.  Here, he is writing atop Kafka’s story “The Hunter Gracchus,” with some sentences quoted verbatim in new contexts, and alongside much of Kafka’s oeuvre.  Indeed, “All’estero” seems a fine example of the concept of “critical fiction” currently being advocated by the writer and publisher Henry Wessells, interrogating the earlier work “to form a critical response and a satisfying fiction.”  (Kafka appears to lend himself particularly well to this form; Guy Davenport, for instance, has also explored his stories and biography in this way.)

Finally, and most obviously, everything I’ve read so far by Sebald is very much a writing around: of the Holocaust, of overwhelming grief.  And, in many ways, it is also writing against cultural amnesia and personal loneliness.

Mines of Nonfiction, Veins of Fiction

April 22, 2012 § 3 Comments

Finished a while ago: The Emigrants, by W.G. Sebald, and The Periodic Table, by Primo Levi (translated by Raymond Rosenthal).

Reading now: Selected Writings, by Lady Gregory.

Reading next: My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, by Mark Leyner.

Wish I’d had the time to write about Levi via Sebald before now, when those thoughts have fossilized.  But the serendipity of having Levi on my shelf to read right after Sebald was so nice that I wanted to record the delight, however briefly.

Both of these books are about the central trauma of the twentieth century, the Holocaust — or more accurately, about the complicated ramifications of that trauma, ramifications which we are still living with, still trying our best to ignore.  (I’ve been reading a bit about Palestine lately.)  There is Adorno’s famous quote, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”; no artists have agreed (more or less by definition, else they would not be artists), and I don’t even know if Adorno’s beef was with prettification or adornment (pun intended) of bare fact, or untruth, or entertainment imperatives, or appropriation of survivors’ and perpetrators’ experiences, or if he meant the word “barbaric” more literally as a comment on Civilization.

Sebald and Levi each embed fiction in their nonfiction.  In “Nickel,” one of the more memorable sections of Levi’s memoir, he recounts his attempts as a chemist to extract and enrich the small percentage of nickel found in the rock extracted from an Italian mine.  During his time in these “asbestos-filled solitudes,” he feels the desire to write fiction for the first time since childhood, and composes two fascinating tales of lead and mercury, alchemical fables of a particularly poetic, gorgeous sort.  He includes both in the middle of his memoir, and introduces them as follows:

They have had a troubled fate, almost as troubled as my own: they have suffered bombings and escapes, I had given them up for lost, and I found them recently while going through papers forgotten for decades.  I did not want to abandon them: the reader will find them in the succeeding pages, inserted, like a prisoner’s dream of escape, between these tales of militant chemistry.

“I did not want to abandon them”: Levi, a survivor of Auschwitz, had thought his fictional creations lost in the ravages of the war and its aftermath, but rediscovers them and inserts them “like a prisoner’s dream of escape” in his memoir.  Whether this loss and rediscovery is literal or metaphorical is an interesting question — did Levi really not know they were among his papers, or not know how to use them, in his years of working through his wartime experience?  Are these tales even to be understood as actual historical documents — are they fictional fictions (not truly written by Levi at the time, but fictions created later to reflect on his experience at this time, with a “nonfictional” frame of having been discovered later) or nonfictional fictions (actual historical documents rediscovered by Levi)? The kind of question that must be answered by resort to archival research.

Levi recollects the violence done to the land by the mining process, and admits that he “did not realize” that the end result of his work, were he successful, would have been to support the war effort of the Germans and Italians who would attempt to murder him and all his people.  And yet there are these tales “like a prisoner’s dream of escape”: already he felt a prisoner in his country, in his self, dreaming of islands and magical transformations.

Nickel mine in Canada.

It strikes me that, in creating The Emigrants, Sebald the writer acts somewhat like the reverse of Levi the chemist: he creates a mine of sorts, threading his nonfiction through with veins of fictional ore.  He creates a whole, an act of healing.  The fiction enriches reality, and is not to be so easily extracted, or at all.  It is to be understood as part and parcel of its context: history, consciousness, life.

Gone to Ithaca with the Butterfly Man

April 1, 2012 § 1 Comment

Finished: The Emigrants, by W. G. Sebald.

Reading next: The Periodic Table, by Primo Levi.

The Emigrants is perfect, and as such it is hard to talk about, because it doesn’t need any help in making itself understood.  But it’s also irresistible to talk about it, because it is so beautiful, and there are so many avenues of inquiry to pursue.  There’s its profound and necessary engagement with the legacy of the Holocaust in Germany, and in the collective memory of the German people; there are its style and structure, the very long paragraphs and sentences which do not really seem long, but only unhurried, patient, quiet, melancholy, and the enigmatic, fragmentary epigrams and photographs that are Sebald’s trademark; there are the dreams, my God! the dreams, and the dazzling array of characters that flit into and back out of the narrative, and the globe-trotting settings that Sebald sketches so well; there is, in the background always, an exploration of nature and the environment, and its manipulation and abuse by humans, and its resilience and its danger, that bears some relationship to Werner Herzog’s films (though Sebald’s gentler, and less crazed about nature being murderous).

Most of all, for me, there are the intertwined themes of memory, time, truth, and fiction.  And let me start, in this post, by just enjoying one of the motifs that draw these things together so beautifully.  I speak of the “butterfly man,” Vladimir Nabokov.

Nabokov appears, in one way or another, in each of the four stories here.  In the first, a slide of the subject, Henry Selwyn, resembles “a photograph of Nabokov in the mountains above Gstaad that I had clipped from a Swiss magazine a few days before.”  Sebald then inserts the photo of Nabokov (which you can see in this fine blog post on Sebald and Nabokov), holding his butterfly net in his dowdy shorts.  Speak, Memory is certainly the work most directly referenced here, with its emphasis on the fictional motifs which Nabokov delighted in finding in his own life story, its use of photographs to bring memory back to life.

But if anything, Sebald out-tricks the old trickster himself.  In the second story, Speak, Memory itself appears, being read by Lucy Landau when she first meets Sebald’s teacher Paul Bereyter, who is resting and trying to come to grips with his “condition” of claustrophobia and possible mental illness.  This seems a remarkable coincidence, but not impossible; it is only the fact of its being the second mention of Nabokov that tips the reader off that something beyond fact is going beyond here.

In the third story, “Ambros Adelwarth,” Nabokov himself becomes a presence in the book, an irruption of the fictional in the form of a real person.  This one story, incidentally, is an epic in its own right, and one of the most memorable reading experiences of my life, in a scant 80 pages (including photographs).  The words epic and Nabokovian become unavoidable and inseparable after the following passage:

In the mirror of the hall stand he had stuck a visiting card with a message for me, and I have carried it with me ever since.  Have gone to Ithaca.  Yours ever — Ambrose.  It was a while before I understood what he meant by Ithaca….The sanatorium, which was run by a Professor Fahnstock, was in grounds that looked like a park.  I still remember, said Aunt Fini, standing with Uncle Adelwarth by his window one crystal-clear Indian Summer morning.  The air was coming in from outside and we were looking over the almost motionless trees towards a meadow that reminded me of the Altach marsh when a middle-aged man appeared, holding a white net on a pole in front of him and occasionally taking curious jumps.  Uncle Adelwarth stared straight ahead, but he registered my bewilderment all the same, and said: It’s the butterfly man, you know.  He comes round here quite often.

Have gone to Ithaca.  In the context of Sebald’s tale of Adelwarth, the phrase resonates through many emotions, many meanings, many allusions.  When we first read the phrase (and see an image of the visiting card itself) it reminds us of the Odyssey: Ithaca is the long-awaited (or is it long-avoided?) homeland, and the homesickness that afflicts so many of the characters is foregrounded here.  But the deep loneliness of Ambros, and his evident feeling of homelessness, also leads one to believe that the Ithaca here may be an eternal home: the grave.  The sanatorium that Ithaca finally signifies partakes of both of these associations, especially as “home” (Germany) seems, as one character puts it, “some kind of insanity lodged in my head.”

But Ithaca is also home of Cornell University, where Nabokov taught for much of his life, so we are prepared for the appearance of the lepidopterist himself.  Its gorges and waterfalls provide the sublime landscape for the tragic demise of Ambros, the willful self-destruction of his submission to shock treatments.  At the end, he wears “armlets made of some satin-like material” and a “green eyeshade” to ease his headaches.  Dressed like a dealer in one of the gambling palaces he’d visited with his companion Cosmo, he is late for his last appointment because he is waiting for the “butterfly man.”

Nabokov makes his most important appearances in the last story, “Max Ferber.”  He “popped out of the bloody ground” to save Ferber from suicide in Switzerland.  And then he appears again, in the memoir of Ferber’s mother, Luisa Lanzberg, as a ten-year-old Russian boy, already chasing butterflies.  He sticks in Luisa’s memory when her beloved Fritz proposes to her:

…though everything else around me blurred, I saw that long-forgotten Russian boy as clearly as anything, leaping about the meadows with his butterfly net; I saw him as a messenger of joy, returning from that distant summer day to open his specimen box and release the most beautiful red admirals, peacock butterflies, brimstones and tortoiseshells to signal my final liberation.

A “messenger of joy.”  A beautiful, misguided phrase.  For the beauty of the first meeting of Luisa and Fritz is not a harbinger of joy and happiness: he is lost to her, and so is another beloved, and so, finally, is she herself, in the murder of the European Jewry.  And yet the joy existed: the joy was there, at the time, if inevitably lost to the irretrievable past, the past from which Germany has been cut off by the enormity of its guilt, from which its Jews have been cut off by the horror of their slaughter.  The indelible fictions that Nabokov prized above all others, those intricately patterned tapestries of language and image and metaphor, are the fictions of memory.  Beyond its status as fiction or memoir or autobiography, this book is a collection of memories, in all their messy, misremembered, pseudofictional glory.

DFW’s Horror Avant-Garde

August 9, 2011 § 3 Comments

Finished long ago: The Pale King.

A long-belated short note on The Pale King, and DFW’s oeuvre more generally.  To wit:

Is DFW secretly a horror author?  Or a literary author most deeply interested in horror?

Mixing and reappropriating genre conventions has been de rigueur for the belletrist since at least Burroughs, and DFW does some of that, especially with the science-fiction elements of Broom of the System and Infinite Jest (and the great Incandenza filmography, which is itself a parody of avant-garde genre-play).  But Wallace consistently writes in the horror tradition — both using the tropes of the genre (film and fiction) and using unusual techniques to evoke the responses with which it is typically associated — beyond a postmodernist’s appraisal.

Section 48 of The Pale King, which is a brilliant little chunk of discrete horror-comedy, brought this up.  That section, written entirely in dialogue, utilizes the central trope of horror going way back to its Gothic roots — the careful withholding of information to heighten fear of the unknown and let reader’s imagination do the dirty work itself.  But there are ghosts here.  And Toni Ware’s harrowing tale.  And IRS paranormals.  The title is a perfect horror title, with its allusion to the Grim Reaper or other mythic figures of inhuman power.  (Aside: By my count there are at least three characters in the book who could be argued to be the titular king, but I’m not sure any of them were really intended as such.)  (Aside 2: I’m deeply curious about the placement of section 48, which really seems like the kind of thing DFW might’ve placed near the beginning.  Though it strikes me as akin to the first chapter of Infinite Jest, in its cryptic description of a traumatic event integral to the action of the work, perhaps it was be more like the herd of feral hamsters or other asides in that book, and wasn’t actually going to lead anywhere.)

Once you start looking for it, it’s just about everywhere.  Brief Interviews with Hideous Men has horror throughout, in the interviews and elsewhere.  Oblivion has the nightmarish title story, elucidated by my lovely wife here.  Countless anecdotes and incidents in IJ beyond the “wraith” and the grave-digging; the mysterious events at Enfield, for instance.  The Broom of the System is a kind of Wittgensteinian horror tale: The Word Terror.

Beyond all of that, there’s something in horror that seems central to DFW’s worldview and its expression.  Being trapped in a web or spiral, being unable to express one’s self adequately or at all, being out of one’s own control as the unthinkable happens, having heightened consciousness in some ways but a sense of being buried in others: central motifs in DFW’s work, and in nightmares, and consequently in horror.  Almost all of DFW’s fiction is horror fiction at some level: work dealing with the uncanny, awful, and broken in human beings and their societies, the things that we try to keep submerged and the things that are nevertheless surfaced.

The Pale King, § 9 and the “Clever Metafictional Titty-Pincher”

July 24, 2011 § 2 Comments

Now reading: The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace.

The Pale King is classified on its title page as “An Unfinished Novel,” by David Foster Wallace.  The “Editor’s Note” that follows this title page (and the important copyright page on its verso) makes it clear that this is… well… not untrue, exactly, but also not the straight dope.  The book is by David Foster Wallace and Michael Pietsch, his editor.  TPK, as DFW left it, was an unfinished novel, but this is not that TPK.  This TPK is an assemblage put together from DFW’s papers by Pietsch, in an order approximating what Pietsch thought DFW might have wanted, or at least what Pietsch and/or others at Little, Brown/Hachette thought most interesting and/or viable in bookstores.  It’s a collage.  It’s not how DFW left it; it’s something different.  The closest correlative I can think of is the posthumous publication of Emily Dickinson’s poems, altered in a multitude of ways.  As I read it, I find that I have to keep telling myself: This isn’t even close to a finished piece of work.  This isn’t a novel.  This is a bunch of stuff put in a “best-guess” order by a knowledgeable editor who, while I will forever appreciate his putting in the time and effort to put this book together, is not David Foster Wallace, and had arguments with DFW about what belonged in his books, and put together a book as he, the editor, saw fit, without any input or pushback from the author, who wasn’t done with the thing to begin with.

Because of course DFW did all sorts of things with structure and fragmentary narratives and disjointed timelines and complicated plots in his finished fiction.  So it can seem like a real, live DFW novel.  But it’s not.  And that’s horribly sad.  (And seriously: I don’t think it was close to being done.  I think this was another Infinite Jest-scale work.)  But it is a helluva thing in its own right, and I’m glad to have it.

All of this ontological and classificatory speculation is germane to the book itself, as it turns out.  Section 9 is the “Author’s Foreword,” and it’s clear from the footnotes and other internal evidence that DFW did want this Foreword to be somewhere a ways into the book (I mean, I really don’t mean to say that Pietsch is a bad guy for putting the book together; it was clearly a heroic effort and labor of love, and he did his best with the assignment he chose, which was to make a pile of papers into a salable product.)  In it, DFW claims that the book is a memoir, not fiction at all, but is called a novel for legal purposes.  It’s weird and tricksy, exactly the “kind of clever metafictional titty-pincher” DFW claims in this very chapter that the book is not.

Because, look: for reasons that are as yet unclear to me (and I suspect may never be clear to me), DFW wrote himself into the book.  He claims to have served as an IRS employee in the mid-80s after leaving college, having written papers for cash.  Two of the biggest chunks of narrative in the book (though not the biggest) are concerned with this DFW character. He goes to some lengths to convince readers of this “foreword” that the book is factual, including the following:

Our mutual contract here is based on the presumptions of (a) my veracity, and (b) your understanding that any features or semions that might appear to undercut that veracity are in fact protective legal devices, not unlike the boilerplate that accompanies sweepstakes and civil contracts, and thus are not meant to be decoded or ‘read’ so much as merely acquiesced to as part of the cost of our doing business together, so to speak, in today’s commercial climate.

DFW explicitly dismisses the idea that he’s playing on different definitions or kinds of “truth” here (i.e., that the book is all true in an emotional or aesthetic sense, the typical claim for fiction’s “truthfulness”).  He also, interestingly, refers to himself as “primarily a fiction writer,” which is not the way most of the general reading public knew him: more people read his very popular nonfiction, at least before his death.  And maybe he hoped to bring together those two published personae — DFW the avant-garde fiction writer, and DFW the genius profiler and cruise-ship-interrogator — in this book.  But maybe what DFW was mostly up to with this “Foreword” was an attempt to sort of cut the Gordian knot which the reading of literary fiction of his sort has become.  The stakes, frankly, have become so small, and he wanted to raise them.  As he points out in this section, people care about “made-up stuff” in memoirs in a way that they do not in fiction, much less metafiction or belles lettres.  I think the Foreword might be a way of asking us to read and act like it’s all true, even if it’s not.  To pay attention to it, especially when it’s “user-unfriendly” or boring, as though it were as true as the “real world,” which was part of the point of metafiction in the first place (I think, though in the past I’ve thought of it more as pointing out that the “real world” is as structured and narrative-based and “false” as the fictional ones).  Because even if the work is demonstrably clever and metafictional, he absolutely did not want it to be a “titty-pincher”: a kind of low-stakes, slightly hurtful, slightly titillating prank.

All of this is somewhat undercut by the book’s unfinished nature: the discussions of legal reviews of final drafts and wrangling with editors and such is all obviously impossible, even if you take out the biographical information.  It gives the section a kind of melancholy hilarity, this knowledge that DFW wrote all this without any of said legal reviews or editorial agonizings having taken place.  Presumably some less grandiose approximation eventually did, made much easier by his decease and the chapter’s obvious falsehood accruing therefrom.

David Copperfield’s Greatest Hits, Numbers 13 and 14

January 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

Now reading: David Copperfield.

Once again, favorite lines from each chapter:

Chapter 38:

I cannot describe the state of mind into which I was thrown by this intelligence.  The shock of such an event happening so suddenly, and happening to one with whom I had been in any respect at variance — the appalling vacancy in the room he had occupied so lately, where his chair and table seemed to wait for him, and his handwriting of yesterday was like a ghost — the indefinable impossibility of separating him from the place, and feeling, when the door opened, as if he might come in — the lazy hush and rest there was in the office, and the insatiable relish with which our people talked about it, and other people came in and out all day, and gorged themselves with the subject — this is easily intelligible to any one.  What I cannot describe is, how, in the innermost recesses of my own heart, I had a lurking jealousy even of Death.

As inexplicable and annoying as Dickens’ portrayal of Dora may be, the development of David’s relationship with her is quite well done — you know, besides there being no overt sexual impulse whatsoever — with flashes of surprising truth, such as this admission of jealousy for his beloved’s grief.  That “grasping, avaricious wish to shut out everybody from her but myself,” including the dead.  And that grotesque image of people “gorg[ing] themselves” on news of the unexpected death!

Chapter 39:

Any one of these scouts used to think nothing of politely assisting an old lady in black out of a vehicle, killing any proctor whom she inquired for, representing his employer as the lawful successor and representative of that proctor, and bearing the old lady off (sometimes greatly affected) to his employer’s office.

Really, this sentence stands in for the page-long, almost completely detachable digression (the last paragraph here) about the “kidnappers and inveiglers” who would hustle those in search of marriage licenses or management of an estate into law offices, getting into fights with each other all the while.  Quite a vivid piece of Victorian London street life, that.

Chapter 40:

“When she was a child,” he said, lifting up his head soon after we were left alone, “she used to talk to me a deal about the sea, and about them coasts where the sea got to be dark blue, and to lay a shining and a shining in the sun.  I thowt, odd times, as her father being drownded made her think on it so much.  I doen’t know, you see, but maybe she believed — or hoped — he had drifted out to them parts, where the flowers is always a blowing, and the country bright.”

This beginning to Mr. Peggotty’s tale of wandering, in a chapter entitled “The Wanderer,” comes just after a passage describing the change his travels have wrought on his appearance (but not on his “stedfastness of purpose”).  It’s a short, beautiful chapter, taking place mostly in a pub out of a “heavy, settled fall” of snow.  Something about the chain of passages here made me think of Dickens the genius of genre: how he could slip effortlessly between Gothic, Romantic, domestic, satirical, silver-fork, epistolary, picaresque, more or less all the rest that had preceded him in English literature.  Here he blends Romantic with a touch of mystery, a touch of dialect, and does it while working in these themes of death and, especially, drowning that run through the novel.

Chapter 41:

“Oh!” returned Traddles, laughing, “I assure you, it’s quite an old story, my unfortunate hair.  My uncle’s wife couldn’t bear it.  She said it exasperated her.  It stood very much in my way, too, when I first fell in love with Sophy.  Very much!”

“Did she object to it?”

She didn’t,” rejoined Traddles; “but her eldest sister — the one that’s the Beauty — quite made a game of it, I understand.  In fact, all the sisters laugh at it.”

“Agreeable!” said I.

“Yes,” returned Traddles with perfect innocence, “it’s a joke for us.  They pretend that Sophy has a lock of it in her desk, and is obliged to shut it in a clasped book, to keep it down.  We laught about it.”

Part of an excellent comic dialogue on the standing-up hair and semi-successful courtship of the irrepressible Tommy Traddles.

Chapter 42:

The man who reviews his own life, as I do mine, in going on here, from page to page, had need to have been a good man indeed, if he would be spared the sharp consciousness of many talents neglected, many opportunities wasted, many erratic and perverted feelings constantly at war within his breast, and defeating him.  I do not hold one natural gift, I dare say, that I have not abused.  My meaning simply is, that whatever I have tried to do in life, I have tried with all my heart to do well; that whatever I have devoted myself to, I have devoted myself to completely; that, in great aims and in small, I have always been thoroughly in earnest.

Given a huge enough stone, and a life lived very, very well, you could hardly hope for a better epitaph.  It’s certainly no model of efficiency or precision, but it’s so Dickensy in the profusion of commas and of feeling.

Chapter 43:

Of our kneeling down together, side by side; of Dora’s trembling less and less, but always clasping Agnes by the hand; of the service being got through, quietly and gravely; of our all looking at each other in an April state of smiles and tears, when it is over; of my young wife being hysterical in the vestry, and crying for her poor papa, her dear papa.

Between Dora crying for her father, Jip the spaniel throwing up wedding cake, and Aunt Betsey’s frequent warnings, you’d have to think things aren’t going to end so well for David and Dora.

The Mysterious Muslim Babes of Spain

October 3, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.

That title may seem like a transparent attempt to drum up some misguided traffic (in the grand tradition of my previous posts  “Blogging About Flogging” and “Tales of Ribaldry”), but it’s actually a fairly accurate representation of the key to the action in the framing narrative (really the largest frame within the frame about the manuscript’s later discovery — the first example of the play with time in the narrative, the looping back from the present/future into the past).  There really are mysterious Muslim babes here, presented as such, if not in so many words.  They’re exotically transgressive and objectified and, oh yeah, they may actually be part of a plot to convince our hero, Alphonse van Worden, to reject Christianity and accept Islam, or they may be  succubi.  Did I mention that these sisters, Emina and Zubeida, also claim to be van Worden’s cousins, of the famous Gomelez family, holders of the “secret of the Gomelez”?  It all gets very weird and, for the 1810s, pretty racy (there’s definitely three-way sex going on here, or at least the illusion of such).

So all of that seems like it’s straight out of Orientalism 101, and it surely is, but Potocki also complicates the expected narrative in interesting ways.  Though there are many apparently supernatural events  in which the sisters are (apparently) involved which lead us, the readers, to believe they are demons, van Worden refuses to believe it.  On the seventh day, the sisters are finally able to remove from van Worden’s neck the necklace holding a relic of the true cross; they then consummate their relationship and, in van Worden’s words, “my charming companions became my wives….  And I am led to conclude that my cousins played no real part in my dreams at the Venta Quemada.”  After the consummation, the Muslim Sheikh of the Gomelez appears; but Emina says to van Worden, “… listen carefully to what I am now saying to you.  Do not believe any ill that is spoken of us.  Do not even believe the evidence of your eyes.”

Van Worden bases all of his self-worth in his honor; he has accepted the girls as his wives (granted, after irresistable seduction and some trickery); and so, even when it seems evident to the reader that he is, in fact, at the mercy of either demons or a convoluted plot to win his soul for Islam, he continues to believe Emina’s words.  He believes they are his cousins.  And, as I’ll talk about later, the battle between reason and faith that develops in the text also undermines our own belief in the supernatural events we’ve apparently witnessed.

There’s also Potocki’s very interesting handling of van Worden; he is a rather opaque character.  We often do not receive from him the reactions to stories or events that we might expect; his morality is kept rather vague, except for its grounding in the maintenance of honor; in the middle of the book he retreats into the background, mostly just narrating the events between stories without comment.  His impressions of Islam, especially, are ambiguous.  Later introductions of Jewish, deistic, and other Islamic characters further muddy the waters: the question becomes, how are we the readers intended to react?  There are certainly crude slurs on the Jews and Muslims here — but they are also presented telling their own stories, often quite empathetic stories, and presented as worthy of our attention and interest.

Spain, as a land of Romance and mystery at the time Potocki was writing, plays a part here.  Reading a story set in Spain at the time Potocki was writing could alert the reader to the fact that the story would be fantastic and exotic — operating at a fictional level where some acceptance of and commerce with fictional Jews and Muslims could be permitted.  Also important is Potocki’s shuffling of genre: he’s very self-conscious about playing with the already trite genres his characters sometimes work in, very self-conscious at times of reminding us that we’re reading a novel, an entertainment trying to titillate, intrigue, excite, and amuse us.

Anyway, I clearly have some criticism to read.  In the meantime, the latest developments in my reading so far are the events of the 29th and 30th days.  Van Worden, to prove his bravery to a bunch of people he doesn’t know, goes into the “kingdom of the gnomes” underground.  Two “chthonic divinities” approach him in the dark, which turn out to be his cousins.  They further tempt him to convert, then they have some sex, and then van Worden wakes up alone in the tunnels under a mountain.  This turns out to be “the underground domain of the Cassar Gomelez,” where the secret is guarded by a “dervish” that van Worden meets.  He gives his word not to reveal the secret, and so we are left in the dark; but we do see “a golden tree representing the genealogy of the Gomelez.  The trunk split into two major branches, one of which, the Muslim Gomelez, seemed to unfold and flourish with all the force of a vigorous plant, while the other, representing the Christian Gomelez, was visibly withering and bristled with long and menacing pointed thorns.”

In this book of connections between stories and among different levels of stories, this episode reminded me of a story-within-a-story-within-a-story, the Principessa di Monte Salerno’s Story on the thirteenth day.  The Principessa shows her guest underground vaults containing automata made of jewels and precious metals, incredible lost treasures from the history of art, and many other wonders; but it turns out that she is a demonic ghost who, when alive, “publicly declared that she possessed paradise on earth” and renounced Christianity, and now haunts the ruins of her former paradise.  It was all an illusion.  I wonder what this all means for the fabulous underground lair van Worden visits; and I wonder if he wonders about that story, which he heard, and whether he’s meant to connect it to what he appears to be experiencing.

(As a footnote: these two episodes are strong reminders of Victoria Nelson’s The Secret Life of Puppets, pretty much the most awesome work of criticism I’ve ever read, with its examination of grottoes, automata, speaking idols, and the submerged irrational in art, language, literature, culture.  I know I’ve plugged it before; I’m doing it again now.  Surprising she didn’t discuss this book, actually, although she does mention it once.)

The Murakami Book and What to Call It

August 19, 2008 § 3 Comments

Now reading: The Raw Shark Texts.

A cat is one of the three main characters in this book. The main characters have trouble knowing themselves, much less connecting to someone else. We’re acquainted with something called the Un-Space Exploration Committee. To confirm all suspicions, the epigram to Part Three is a Murakami quote. Yes: we are dealing with a Murakami Book here.

There’s no satisfying name for this genre yet, and perhaps there never should be, since part of the whole point of the genre is that it is willing to use any number of genres to tell complex stories that can get at cultural mores, philosophical underpinnings, the individual and the relationship, and both pleasurable and terrifying aspects of dream-logic. The desire for a name does seem to be increasing: there are those calling this kind of thing “New Fabulist Fiction.” The hoary old nomenclature, I guess, is “metaphysical detective story.” But that’s both too narrow and too broad, since anything could be a metaphysical detective story.

I tend to think of Haruki Murakami as the godfather or founder of this non-school of like minds, although I’ve no idea if that’s accurate or not. Mostly I just read him first, and he’s better than most of the others I’ve read, and seems to be a giant influence. He does seem to be sui generis, though: I can’t really trace some of the most Murakamian characteristics of Murakami to any other author. (I mean, Chandler’s all over Hard-Boiled Wonderland, sure, but who the hell else would pair that idiosyncratic world with the End of the World?) But I may just not be well read enough. Kelly Link’s a prototypical New Fabulist, if that’s what we’re calling them (which I don’t think we should, because who were the Fabulists?) (And while I’m on the subject of Link, Magic for Beginners probably should’ve been on that embarrassingly personal list last post. Jeepers, what a book.)

The last book in Murakami-thrall that I read was David Mitchell’s Number 9 Dream. It was something of a disappointment. Hall’s book is far, far better, and takes its Murakami influence in an interesting new direction. It’s great to see a talented author mining the Murakami-weirdness-vein, a mile deep but fairly narrow (by which I mean, when you see something that’s Murakami-weird, you know it, and it goes to the bone, but it doesn’t happen all that often. Mr Nobody in this book? Murakami-weird.) He’s doing his own things with it, too, which is awesome: using the effect, and something of the style, but not slavishly imitating. So much of Number 9 Dream seemed that way to me: more of a pastiche than a creative use of source material.

Anyway, you could say New Fabulism is just another name for Fancy Genre Writing. You could say it is just another name for non-realism. (Murakami, especially, would be sure to disagree with that, I think: a lot of his writing is realism, and he’s translated some of the biggies, like Carver and Fitzgerald, although Fitzgerald’s a lot weirder than everyone seems to think. Remember the billboard in Great Gatsby?) I think the key to this kind of writing might be its insistence on the “real world,” or some recognizable version thereof, as a place where weird shit happens. It is a kind of alternate realism, maybe. Dream realism. Deep realism. (I’d love to see DFW tackle a novel like this, although a lot of the stories in Oblivion could be construed this way, actually.) It seems to be about layers of meaning, in a way that builds upon high-postmodernism but actually moves past it, for once. And about the ways in which fantasy worlds are a part of the real world: we’ve made them such, and many occupy them much more fully than the “real” world.

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