Hypertext, Paratext, Metaphor, and My Confusion

January 18, 2010 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Dictionary of the Khazars.

Before moving on, just a few words about this book’s complex structure (you could say, “overly, needlessly complex” — yeah, let’s say that) and how I went about reading it.

Pavic wanted readers to participate as full partners in creating his fiction: he wanted them to skip around in it, picking how they want to read (within certain reasonable patterns), not following a single preordained pattern of linear reading.  This is an analog hypertext, in other words.  The book has “Preliminary Notes,” followed by three dictionaries (more like encyclopedias, actually): Red, Green, and Yellow Books, with entries related to the Khazars from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish sources and perspectives, respectively.  Then there are two appendices.  So far as I can tell, these are appendices and not incorporated into the entries only because Pavic wanted them to be read after the other entries.  It’s not as though the content of the entries themselves is so overly focused.  The substantial entries are linked stories, for all their trappings as scholarly entries.  There are also two slightly different versions of the book: a “Male Edition,” and a “Female Edition,” differing by one paragraph.

I read the book like so: first, the preliminary notes.  Then I read the four entries included in each of the three books, which seemed fairly introductory to me.  Then I started following links in those entries to other entries, which led to a more or less chronological reading, with a few exceptions: from entries on the historical Khazars of the 7th-10th centuries and their conversions to other religions, to entries on the three characters of the 17th century linked by their dreams and the creation of the destroyed first edition of the Dictionary of the Khazars, to entries on the 20th-century characters studying the history of the Khazars in one way or another.  I read the first appendix after it was linked in the text, somewhere in the middle; I read the second appendix and closing author’s note at the end, since they were never linked anywhere in the text.

The metafictional apparatus by which the book purports to be a reconstruction and expansion of a lost 17th-century original (of which two copies, one written with some kind of magically poisoned ink, survived) never quite worked for me.  Mostly it just confused me.  It’s certainly a good example of the kinds of bibliographic muddles one can get into in researching old books, and trying to understand the sources of those books; and the idea that the sources of the three books of the different religions need to talk to each other to understand the entire story of the Khazars is also an important one.  But the artifice is never convincing.  The entries are, for the most part, incredibly detailed but also somewhat random: the list of entries is much more novelistic than scholarly or lexicographical.  The gaps in knowledge seem convenient. Partly I think this is an epistemological critique, a way of reconstructing a whole race, a people that have been forgotten precisely through such Western exercises as the compilation of historical sources and archival material.  If that’s the case, I don’t think it’s entirely successful.  Somehow it just seems messy.

Part of my problem with the book, I suspect, is also with the often baffling language.  Is this a translation problem, a problem of my lack of knowledge, or a problem of my method of reading — if I’d read the book in another order, would I have caught the meaning behind some of these perplexing metaphors and constructions?  Indeed, in many cases there is a connection to another entry or a recurring character, but not in nearly all cases. Just for three instances chosen at random from many, if someone can fill me in on what might be meant by “She always thought she had three Fridays until dinnertime” or “‘Do you know how many mouth holes the Jews have?’ his mother asked that day as he ate” or “…Cohen had swallowed a soaring bird with his left eye,” I’d appreciate it.  Few of these weird folkloric metaphors and surrealistic intrusions into fictive reality struck a chord with me; mostly they were just frustrating.  (Though at least in the case of Dr. Suk’s entry it seems possible that all or most of the events are taking place within a dream, which lends the tone and language some credence.  By and large, the dreams in the book are more lucid and straightforward than the supposed reality.  Perhaps I’m looking at the book with two eyes when I should be looking with one, as Pavic would have it.)

The Ludic Game

October 22, 2009 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Nights at the Circus.

Now I am faced with a horribly difficult question, a question that has bothered me to distraction (no shortage of distractions on the good ol’ Web), a question I’m still not quite sure how I’m going to answer: just what do I think of these chimps and these clowns?

There are both, in spades, in the second section of this book, set in St. Petersburg.  There are also a communicative pig, two tiger attacks, and a very strange finale that I’ll also have to discuss.  But I keep coming back to the chimps and the clowns.  What the hell’s going on here?

This section reminded me of a favorite book, in need of rereading: Stephen Dobyns’ The Wrestler’s Cruel Study, which should be a cult classic, though I’ve never met anyone else who’s heard of it, much less read it.  (Maybe I just don’t get out enough.)  That book also involves some intelligent primates, and has a similar kind of madcap energy and balance of philosophical heft and absurdist incident to Carter’s book, and especially this second section.

But about the monkeys.  Chimps, actually, to be specific.  They are Lamarck’s Educated Apes, twelve of them.  When we meet them, they’re rehearsing their act, a classroom scene.  But they seem to be actually learning, and discussing; and, we find out later in the chapter, they can, indeed, write (or at least their leader, the Professor, can).  Lamarck is an abusive drunk; the chimps end up striking out on their own, after Colonel Kearney, the circus’s owner, cheats them.

And then there’s the clowns.  And there are twelve of them, too, actually — or is it thirteen, with Judas-Walser?  The comparison to the apostles is made explicit; Buffo the Great, the clown’s leader, as Christ.  After some earlier fun with a travesty of the resurrection, they have a travesty of the Last Supper, which leads to a very drunk Buffo losing his mind, trying to kill Walser and getting committed.

They’re a gloomy lot, these clowns, given to philosophy and quotations from somewhat unlikely sources.  King Lear, for instance.  The “twin” musical clowns, Grik and Grok, engage Buffo in an exploration of uselessness and nothingness:

“…turned into more than the sum of our parts according to the dialectics of uselessness, which is: nothing plus nothing equals something, once—”

“—you know the nature of plus.”

….But Buffo wasn’t having any.

“Bollocks,” he said, heavily, belching.  “Beg pardon, but balls, me old fruit.  Nothing will come of nothing.  That’s the glory of it.”

And the entire company repeated after him soft as dead leaves rustling: “That’s the glory of it!  Nothing will come of nothing!”

So what are we to make of these two groups of twelve?  The Professor and the chimps carry themselves with a dignity and sense of decorum all out of line with the behavior of the rest of the circus, and most especially with the obscene, scatological, debased clowns.  I am not sure what the import of all of this is supposed to be, quite honestly.  The messiness of humanity does seem to be part of “the glory of it,” in Carter’s eyes, and also part of the tragedy of it (see Mignon’s story, about as messy as it gets: the messiness of murder, and abuse, and abject poverty).

Colonel Kearney calls his circus “the Ludic Game,” and one wonders if that’s how Carter saw this book — or at least the Petersburg section of it: her mind at play, over matters serious and frivolous alike, amusing itself and hopefully others.  The section ends with what sure seems to be a flight into surrealism or plain and simple magic, as Sophie escapes an evil Grand Duke’s clutches by dropping a toy train onto his gorgeous carpet; we then find ourselves suddenly on the real Trans-Siberian Express.  It’s a disorienting section break, one I’m not exactly sure I’ve interpreted correctly, and one no author who wanted her readers to remain straight-faced would have undertaken.  But it also seems to fit with a St. Petersburg episode so superabundant with ideas, stories, and language.

Decadent Surreality

March 22, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Against Nature, by J.-K. Huysmans.

This is regarded as the key text of the Decadent movement which is best known by the works of Oscar Wilde.  It is quite easily the most foppish book I’ve ever read: Literature Dandified.  So far, at least, it is quite persistent in its celebration of “taste,” its abhorrence of the mob, and its ugly streak of misogyny.

There are manifestos strewn here and there throughout the first four chapters, but the root of them all seems to be this, from chapter two:

The main thing is to know how to set about it, to be able to concentrate your attention on a single detail, to forget yourself sufficiently to bring about the desired hallucination and so substitute the vision of a reality for the reality itself.

As a matter of fact, artifice was considered by Des Esseintes to be the distinctive mark of human genius.

Nature, he used to say, has had her day; she has finally and utterly exhausted the patience of sensitive observers by the revolting uniformity of her landscapes and skyscapes….

So our “hero,” Des Esseintes, decides to isolate himself in a villa on a hill outside of Paris.  He spends his time alone, keeping vampire hours, contemplating the furnishings he’s chosen, his art collection, his book collection (and his walls are bound like books, in “orange morocco”), his perverse fancies and desires.  It’s amazing how much it reminds me of surrealism, and both Huysmans and Des Esseintes seem to be longing for just such a movement.

For instance, chapter four is devoted to Des Esseintes’ attempt to bring out “the silvery glints running across the weft of the wool” of an Oriental rug, by placing on it a “huge tortoise.”  However, the brown of the shell does not have the effect he anticipated — so he has it gilt.  Even this gilt does not prove to be enough, however, so he has a design of precious stones set onto the shell, simulating a Japanese drawing of flowers.  Leading to the image of an aesthetic turtle lumbering across a gorgeous rug.  (The turtle dies, of course: “it had not been able to bear the dazzling luxury imposed upon it.”)

This incident reminds me of nothing so much as Raymond Roussel: there are similar set pieces in Impressions of Africa.  It also reminds me of some of the OuLiPo writers, Harry Mathews especially, and Perec.  It’s also an extended example of the dominant metaphoric motif in the book: things from nature — insects, plants, weather — are compared to items in Des Esseintes’ artificial world, and, by the alchemy of metaphor, somehow transformed into them.

I love this stuff: so far, Against Nature is mostly description, metaphor, incident for the sake of striking image, and pure belletristic language.  There have been chapters devoted to an alternate history of Latin literature and linguistics, the aforementioned turtle chapter, and an ekphrastic chapter on two artworks by Gustave Moreau featuring Salome.

However, it is amazing how the book disregards both any concern about money and any feeling for people — in general, really, but especially those without taste, which really seems to be everyone but Des Esseintes.  There seems to be a pull back towards feudalism and a push forward towards fascism in the work.  Acting on the desire to be left alone, the hermetic, Decadent ideal, leads to those who would get into everyone’s business running the world.

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