Distance and Partitions

Ben Parker has a perceptive and contrarian take on Karl Ove Knausgaard in the Los Angeles Review of Books, perhaps the best essay yet on Dancing In the Dark, the fourth volume of My Struggle. Parker begins with the observation that many novels “contain a spectral double, another book trapped within their pages” — Cervantes’ parody of an illicit sequel to the first volume of Don Quixote, for instance, or Tristram’s father’s Tristrapedia in Tristram Shandy — and then considers the purposes towards which Knausgaard incorporates fragments of his father’s diaries into his own work. One of his purposes, perhaps unsurprisingly, is to sharply differentiate himself from his father, which eventually leads Parker to the assertion that My Struggle in its totality “is an attempt to create distance and partitions, to police psychic boundaries.” Parker goes on to support this assertion, more or less convincingly, by carefully and compellingly reading the novel’s aesthetic strategies as an almost necessary outgrowth of the experiences that prompted Knausgaard to write it: Continue reading →

Notes on The Notebook

How does a novel as slim and opaque as Agota Kristof’s The Notebook generate such extraordinarily unsettling power? Two twin brothers arrive at their grandmother’s house in the Little Town, not too far from the nearby Big Town, to wait until there is an end to the war consuming their country. In plain, unadorned prose, they describe the details of their new lives and their interactions with the grandmother they never knew until now. Their descriptions accumulate in the pages of a notebook that amounts to a compendium of their best “compositions”:

This is how a composition lesson proceeds:

We are sitting at the kitchen table with our sheets of graph paper, our pencils, and the notebook. We are alone.

One of us says:

“The title of your composition is: ‘Arrival at Grandmother’s.’”

The other says:

“The title of your composition is: ‘Our Chores.’”

We start writing. We have two hours to deal with the subject and two sheets of paper at our disposal.

At the end of two hours we exchange our sheets of paper. Each of us corrects the other’s spelling mistakes with the help of the dictionary and writes at the bottom of the page: “Good” or “Not good.” If it’s “Not good,” we throw the composition in the fire and try to deal with the same subject in the next lesson. If it’s “Good,” we can copy the composition into the notebook.

To decide whether it’s “Good” or “Not good,” we have a very simple rule: the composition must be true. We must describe what is, what we see, what we hear, what we do.

For example, it is forbidden to write, “Grandmother is like a witch”; but we are allowed to write, “People call Grandmother the Witch.”

It is forbidden to write, “The Little Town is beautiful,” because the Little Town may be beautiful to us and ugly to someone else.

Similarly, if we write, “The orderly is nice,” this isn’t a truth, because the orderly may be capable of malicious acts that we know nothing about. So we would simply write, “The orderly has given us some blankets.”

We would write, “We eat a lot of walnuts,” and not “We love walnuts,” because the word “love” is not a reliable word, it lacks precision and objectivity. “To love walnuts” and “to love Mother” don’t mean the same thing. The first expression designates a pleasant taste in the mouth, the second a feeling.

Words that define feelings are very vague. It is better to avoid using them and stick to the description of objects, human beings, and oneself, that is to say, to the faithful description of facts.

There are a number of forces at work here that combine to produce a distinctly unnerving effect that runs throughout The Notebook. The pluralistic narration, which doesn’t let up for an instant, prohibits readers from ever being sure about exactly who is speaking at any given moment. The proliferation of narrators whose identities remain unspecified leaves the twins largely depersonalised. Then, too, the abstraction of setting, in conjunction with the menace of an encroaching but otherwise indistinct war, means that readers do not know exactly where and when The Notebook takes place. Eventually, of course, in the second half of the novel, enough details are spilled to allow readers to infer that the conflict in question is the Second World War and that the twins are seemingly located somewhere close to the border between Austria and Hungary. But the nature of this revelation, delayed and only implicit, underscores the oddity of the entire situation. At the same time that the twins avowedly affect a prose style as dispassionate and as devoid of value judgments as it can possibly be, a style that they believe enables them to chronicle their lives with the utmost precision, they also synthesise their voices and leave their surroundings indistinguishable in a way that countermands their stylistic objectives. They also maintain a resolute focus on the minutiae of their exercises without directing any thought towards the war of almighty proportions that engulfs the world around them, and they begin playing a series of bizarre psychological games without ever explaining their motives or their aims. The twins have an explicit dedication to linguistic precision, and an extraordinary capacity for it, and yet they make narratorial decisions that obscure what their words would otherwise render clearly. What, then, is the use of striving after prosaic clarity at the level of the sentence when events as significant as a war are marginalised without explanation and mindgames with a significance known only to the twins are conducted without explication? Prose style and narrative focus are distinctly at cross-purposes here: like a vehicle with two engines propelling it in opposite directions, The Notebook is a novel trying to tear itself apart.

The Mathematics of Madness

“Madness” and “insanity” are the words most often deployed in descriptions of Hilda Hilst’s enigmatic novella, With My Dog-Eyes. It gives voice to “a mind unravelling,” writes Nick Lezard in The Guardian, “and through the gaps we see a horrified fascination with the body, a kind of carnal awareness of existential futility.” “[F]luid, shifting narration tells the story — if you can call it that — of mathematician and poet Amós Kéres’ descent into madness,” adds The Independent‘s Holly Williams, “mov[ing] rapidly between first person present tense, recalled memories, reported speech, and chunks of poetry; between absurdism, theory, fable and filth.” The novel “reads like a long poem,” Juan Vidal concurs in his review for NPR, “with utter insanity pervading each and every page. The vivid, disjointed prose mirrors the troubled mind of our protagonist… an expert in pure mathematics who is losing his grasp on reality.”

For me, however, the most captivating quality of With My Dog-Eyes is not the way in which Kéres’ burgeoning insanity leads his representations of events to become increasingly disjointed. That sort of thing has been done often enough before that it no longer bears remarking on. More captivating here is the way in which the novel’s structure projects a mind so fundamentally, inflexibly logical — so absolutely committed to mathematics — that when his reality begins to lose its logical underpinnings, when he ceases to grasp the causal connections between sequential experiences, Kéres mounts a resistance to insanity by seeking refuge in mathematical logic and marshalling his experiences into a form that follows its rules. Although this choice of form is to some extent suggestive of Kéres’ insanity, I was struck by how it also suggests his striving for coherence in the face of insanity — albeit a coherence that may likewise appear to be tainted by insanity insofar as the structure beneath the novella’s narrative surface is built upon an alternative to narrative logic. Continue reading →

How Works Works

Like many readers of Édouard Levé, I first came to his books when Dalkey Archive published English translations of Autoportrait (2002) and Suicide (2008) several years ago. But while Suicide was arguably the title that received the most attention from critics — in no small part because Levé actually committed suicide ten days after delivering the manuscript to his publisher — I was more taken with Autoportrait for reasons best articulated by Mark O’Connell at Slate:

To describe that book in basic terms is to risk making it sound outright unreadable. It’s a single paragraph, 112 pages long, consisting of a continuous sequence of short declarative sentences, each of which states some or other fact about its author, a relentlessly present “I”. … It’s grueling and madly propulsive at the same time; you kind of want him to stop just saying things about himself, but you also can’t stop reading these things that he just keeps saying. “My uncle’s friend taught me to laugh at things I saw on TV that were not, on the face of it, funny, for example Bobby Ewing’s hairstyle on Dallas,” he writes. “I have not signed a manifesto. If I turn around while looking in the mirror, there comes a moment when I no longer see myself. Raymond Poulidor is one of the least sexy names I know. I like salad mainly for the crunch and the vinaigrette.” It goes on like this, in this arbitrarily funny and boring and horrifying way. The more it goes on, the more facts he asserts about himself, the more the referent — the autobiographical subject, Levé himself — is displaced, defined into obscurity.

“I was as transfixed by the book’s self-possessed commitment to its formal conceit as I was by its blank and pitiless gaze on the reality of pain… [its] strange combination of formal distance and emotional immediacy,” O’Connell writes of Autoportrait — although he writes those words in his review of Levé’s latest posthumous publication, Works, in order to identify the governing aesthetic of Levé’s entire oeuvre. “[T]his is the signature of Levé’s pulverized non-narratives,” he says, “this unflappable insistence on going on like this. He’s never afraid, in other words, of being boring in the service of some larger way of being interesting.” Continue reading →

A Perceptive Diagnosis

Bereft of intellectual or cultural stimulation, they proceed, as minds devouring themselves, to fixate on every sort of insignificance and absurdity, ranting giddily about how awful life is in voices that shriek with loathing and despair.

That’s Cameron Woodhead, writing the capsule reviews in today’s The Age, issuing an off-the-cuff but strikingly perceptive diagnosis of what tends to ail the characters of Thomas Bernhard. I would have used “howl” rather than “shriek” — I don’t sense a lot of hysteria or histrionics in their lamentations; I sense self-awareness and knowing purpose — but, with only two hundred words in which to offer a verdict on Bernhard’s Prose, Woodhead does a remarkably good job of pinpointing the unifying element of Bernhard’s entire oeuvre.