Category Archives: Modernist Fiction

You had such a vision of the street / As the street hardly understands;

Prufrock and Other Observations by T.S. Eliot

It’s often thought that modernism is difficult, inaccessible, not the sort of thing most readers will enjoy. When the BBC carried out a survey to discover Britain’s favourite poet though the winner was T.S. Eliot, high priest of Modernism with a capital M.

It’s not a surprise of course that the winner was a poet taught in schools, few people read poetry after school (poetry often seems more written than read). I find it a cheering result, at least partly because Eliot isn’t the easiest poet to read (though he’s not nearly as hard as his reputation might suggest). It’s certainly a much better result than the BBC’s 2003 best novel survey which came up with a top 100 list that was staggering for its obviousness and mediocrity.

I didn’t vote in the poll, but if I had I’d have voted Eliot too. The reason I’d have voted Eliot isn’t The Wasteland, masterpiece as that is, but because he wrote what is probably my favourite poem – The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.

Prufrock_And_Other_Observations

Prufrock and Other Observations was first published by The Egoist in 1917. Nowadays there’s a lovely little Faber and Faber imprint – pocket sized and printed on good quality paper and generally a pleasure to hold (as the Faber poetry volumes tend to be).

Prufrock and Other Observations contains twelve poems of varying lengths and styles. Of these the big beast is clearly The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, but there are other stand-outs such as Portrait of a Lady; Preludes (“And then the lighting of the lamps”); Rhapsody on a Windy Night; Morning at the Window; Aunt Helen; Hysteria; La Figla che Piange; as well as arguably lesser efforts such as The Boston Evening Transcript; Cousin Nancy; and Mr. Apollinax. I suspect Conversation Gallante is also a lesser effort, but one I liked and I’ll talk a bit more about below.

There isn’t a single poem in this collection that hasn’t been the subject of exhaustive academic analysis, none of which I have read. There isn’t a poem here which hasn’t been comprehensively picked clean of references, inspirations, influences and subtexts. I don’t do this for a living though, nor do I have exams to sit, which means that I have the luxury of just reading the poems for themselves, taking from them those parts that speak to me.

Here, after an introductory quote from Dante in the Italian, are the opening lines of Prufrock:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question. . .                               10
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

This is profoundly alienated language – “muttering retreats”, “restless nights in one-night cheap hotels”, “Streets that follow like a tedious argument”. There’s a sense of a grubby, tawdry reality. This is an internal monologue weighed down by the futility of its own debate (I’m aware there are other argued interpretations).

What follows is a man arguing with himself as to whether or not to confess his love for a woman. He plays through the whole encounter in his mind – the journey to her, climbing up her stairs, and then the impassable barrier of indifferent decorum.

Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions
And for a hundred visions and revisions
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

The poem is rich with images taken from religion and myth – opening with Dante, referencing Hamlet, John the Baptist, Lazarus, mermaids. Against all that though is the suffocating mundanity of a room with tea and polite conversation and the sheer impossibility of breaking through to something that actually has meaning, something profound (Mr. Apollinax brings out these contrasts much more clearly, but for me to lesser effect).

The poem is suffused with desire:

Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)

but there is no certainty that the desire is in any way returned. Polite Edwardian England has no place in it for passion. Prufrock, middle-aged and painfully conscious of his own absurdity, has no power to shake the age and transform it.

Eliot then shows the gap between the dream and the suffocating reality, leading to some of the most painful lines I have ever read:

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

That gap, that pause for reflection between stanzas, makes the line “I do not think that they will sing to me” hit like a hammerblow. It underlines the full tragedy of Prufrock’s (far from unique) situation. It is a poem which speaks of disenchantment, not just in the obvious sense but in that referred to by Josipovici in his What Ever Happened to Modernism? Prufrock is modern, as is the world, and our old dreams are dead and all we have in their place is form emptied of substance.

Preludes and Rhapsody on a Windy Night also explore the disillusionment brought by mucky prosaicism and the sheer pain of existence among indifference, as does Morning at the Window (repeated below in full):

They are rattling breakfast plates in basement kitchens,
And along the trampled edges of the street
I am aware of the damp souls of housemaids
Sprouting despondently at area gates.

The brown waves of fog toss up to me
Twisted faces from the bottom of the street,
And tear from a passer-by with muddy skirts
An aimless smile that hovers in the air
And vanishes along the level of the roofs

Again there’s that impressionistic conjuring of the city and the urban environment, there’s that feeling of terrible isolation and there’s that wonderful and surprising juxtaposition of images – “the damp souls of housemaids”. Above all though, for me, there is disenchantment and alienation. If this were religious poetry I would talk here as I would have with Prufrock of how the sacred remains barely visible but forever out of grasp in a fallen world, but it’s not religious poetry and the world isn’t fallen because the truth is worse than that. If the world were fallen we could climb back up, be restored to grace, but grace was only ever a dream and human voices have woken us.

The last poem I’ll single out to discuss is much lighter in tone, and it’s Conversation Gallante. Here it is, also in full:

I observe: ‘Our sentimental friend the moon!
Or possibly (fantastic, I confess)
It may be Prester John’s balloon
Or an old battered lantern hung aloft
To light poor travellers to their distress.’
She then: ‘How you digress!’

And I then: ‘Someone frames upon the keys
That exquisite nocturne, with which we explain
The night and moonshine; music which we seize
To body forth our own vacuity.’

She then: ‘Does this refer to me?’
‘Oh no, it is I who am inane.’

‘You, madam, are the eternal humorist
The eternal enemy of the absolute,
Giving our vagrant moods the slightest twist!
With your air indifferent and imperious
At a stroke our mad poetics to confute — ‘
And- Are we then so serious?’

This is Eliot in much more playful form. It’s not a great poem as say Prufrock is, but it does capture nicely a certain kind of flirtatious conversation, of the woman constantly slightly ahead of the narrator. The majority of the speech is the man’s, apparently driving the conversation, but at each turn the woman outwits him and he finds his flurry of words effortlessly parried with a single line.

There is of course again here an example of the fantastic being defeated by the mundane, but for me at least without the despondency carried by the other poems. I’ve been in that situation, trying hard to impress someone who knows that’s what I’m doing and who doesn’t plan to make it easy for me, and there is an inherent comedy to it which Eliot is well aware of.

The poem illustrates one final point, which is that throughout this collection (and perhaps in Eliot’s poetry more broadly) it’s men who are sensitive and experience deep emotions for which they have no outlet. Women by contrast are sometimes attractive, but rarely reflective. Eliot is brilliant and his poetry is I think as good as art gets, but he writes firmly from a male viewpoint. Even with that though Eliot’s perception is so acute, his observations so universal, that I would have thought as many women as men would recognise themselves in his work.

In a way Eliot’s gender representations reminded me of a conversation I had years ago, where I described to a woman how as a teenager I’d sometimes been awed by girls I thought too cool to approach – utterly diminished by their impenetrably aloof beauty and unable to even speak to them. I’d naively thought it a uniquely male experience, but of course it isn’t. Her comment was that she’d had the same thing with some boys, and why wouldn’t she? Disillusion, desire, the need for something beyond the everyday, if these aren’t fundamental human experiences then what is?

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Filed under Eliot, T.S., Modernist Fiction, Poetry

a style of scrupulous meanness

Dubliners, by James Joyce

Dubliners is a portrait of paralysis. In the first story it’s a literal paralysis, the last illness of a dying priest. It extends beyond him though, to a much wider moral, political and national paralysis. Both the entire collection and each story within it is superbly written and observed. It’s a book with a mammoth reputation, that even so isn’t praised as much as it should be.

Dublinersactual

Dubliners consists of fifteen short stories, told from the perspectives of increasingly mature protagonists (moving from children eventually to married adults). Some are easily read by anyone, with only perhaps the odd word of period slang to cause any difficulties. Some (particularly Ivy Day in the Committee Room) are hard to follow without at least some knowledge of 1914 Irish current affairs (which I distinctly don’t have).

This isn’t a collection where you should read one story, pause for a few days then return later to read another, spacing them out and perhaps interspersing them with other books. While there are no real links from one tale to the next there is a cumulative effect here which is greater than any of the individual parts. Each story stands alone, each is exceptional, in combination though they form a masterpiece.

Joyce’s Dublin is a colonised city, an occupied city. It’s a provincial place, not yet the Dublin of international literary fame that decades later this book in part helped it become.

Lives here revolve around three key Ps: priests, pubs and propriety. By priests I don’t mean faith – the Church is simply another social institution that provides rules to live by but no vision to be inspired by. Over the course of the stories Joyce turns his eyes to religion, politics and literature among other things, but none of it offers any real escape from a timid and tawdry Ireland.

To an extent then this is state of the nation stuff, but if that’s all it were nobody would read it now. Who cares after all about the state of a nation a century past, before its independence, before it found its own identity? Part of Joyce’s brilliance is that he shows that a nation is simply its people, and here it’s his focus on his characters’ inner experience that makes this timeless. Well, that and the writing.

Joyce enters the thoughts of children, of drunks and scoundrels, of young men and women both, of mothers ambitious for their daughters and husbands jealous of their wives’ past loves. There’s a fierce interiority here, literature as a profound telepathy taking us inside another’s experience and through it illuminating something wider.

Often much of the content of a story is left unsaid. In one, An Encounter, two boys out for the day meet a man who seems more interested in them than is entirely natural. He leaves them briefly, the strong implication being that he goes off to masturbate nearby, then he returns and the conversation moves into uncomfortable territory:

He said that if ever he found a boy talking to girls or having a girl for a sweetheart he would whip him and whip him; and that would teach him not to be talking to girls. And if a boy had a girl for a sweetheart and told lies about it then he would give him such a whipping as no boy ever got in this world. He said that there was nothing in this world he would like so well as that. He described to me how he would whip such a boy as if he were unfolding some elaborate mystery. He would love that, he said, better than anything in this world; and his voice, as he led me monotonously through the mystery, grew almost affectionate and seemed to plead with me that I should understand him.

Nothing really happens. Once or twice as a child myself I met men like that. Men who seemed to have an odd interest in talking to me, and whose chosen subjects of conversation weren’t those you’d normally raise with children. One once worried me so much I went into the nearest shop and asked the manager to hide me until he’d gone. After a while he went, so I went on my way.

The Encounter opens with children playing wild west games and reading pulp western and detective novels. The two boys go in search of real adventure, the narrator saying that “The mimic warfare of the evening became at last as wearisome to me as the routine of school in the morning because I wanted real adventures to happen to myself. But real adventures, I reflected, do not happen to people who remain at home: they must be sought abroad.”

Dublin though has no real adventure. Instead it has poverty, sectarian division, sailors who do travel to distant places but to whom the boys never speak, and a random pervert.

I could easily write 2,000 words or more just on An Encounter, and countless academics of course have. These are stories that are as rich as the time you want to give them – every one of them could easily have an essay written on it that would be much longer than the story itself. It isn’t necessary though, and arguably isn’t desirable, to approach them with antennae alert for symbolism and technique.

This quote is from the story A Little Cloud. In it a dissatisfied man with a young family meets up again with an old friend who’s made a success of himself in London since they last met.

He remembered the books of poetry upon his shelves at home. He had bought them in his bachelor days and many an evening, as he sat in the little room off the hall, he had been tempted to take one down from the bookshelf and read out something to his wife. But shyness had always held him back; and so the books had remained on their shelves. At times he repeated lines to himself and this consoled him.

I found that paragraph almost unbearably painful. There’s a whole marriage-full of needless incomprehension captured there. A popular theme in pre-pill literature was the writer’s (male writer’s, they were always men) fear of the pram in the hall; of domesticity as enemy to art and of wives who cared more about paying for the weekly shop than they did about literature or music or whatever. A Little Cloud explores that fear, but questions it too because that pram is an easy thing to blame.

Looking back at that quote, is it the wife that’s holding the protagonist back? He’s chosen family, there’s no sense here that his wife somehow trapped him. His friend made a different choice, chose adventure (overseas, again there’s no adventure to be had in Ireland). The protagonist’s wife isn’t why he isn’t living his dreams, rather he simply didn’t have the courage to live them.

Dubliners is full of these moments of private doubt and disappointment. The drama here is not some narrative arc (many, most, of the stories end without clear resolution), instead it’s born of the intensity of private emotions – emotions all the more intense for most of them never being expressed.

Joyce has a wonderful ear for dialogue, and many of these tales would work particularly well as audiobooks. In this excerpt, from the first story The Sisters, two women discuss a priest’s recent death:

My aunt waited until Eliza sighed and then said:

—Ah, well, he’s gone to a better world.

Eliza sighed again and bowed her head in assent. My aunt fingered the stem of her wine-glass before sipping a little.

—Did he . . . peacefully? she asked.

—O, quite peacefully, ma’am, said Eliza. You couldn’t tell when the breath went out of him. He had a beautiful death, God be praised.

—And everything . . .?

—Father O’Rourke was in with him a Tuesday and anointed him and prepared him and all.

—He knew then?

—He was quite resigned.

—He looks quite resigned, said my aunt.

—That’s what the woman we had in to wash him said. She said he just looked as if he was asleep, he looked that peaceful and resigned. No one would think he’d make such a beautiful corpse.

—Yes, indeed, said my aunt.

The awkwardness of the conversation, the skipping over words too sensitive to say (—Did he . . . peacefully?), the sheer banality of the sentiments expressed, it’s all of it utterly credible and utterly dispiriting because so credible. The story shows the priest as a learned man (not something you could assume of clergy back then, I’ve no idea as to now). This though is his congregation. This is what Ireland had to offer his education. There is no mystery here, no sense of some great beyond for which he was the gatekeeper. Just sherry in front rooms and the importance of things being done properly, whatever that might mean.

As I hope that quote also showed, there’s nothing stylistically daunting here. We’re not into the wilder experimental territory of Joyce’s later works. There’s depth, but accessible depth. Joyce’s descriptions are clean and matter of fact:

He had himself bought every article of furniture in the room: a black iron bedstead, an iron washstand, four cane chairs, a clothes-rack, a coal-scuttle, a fender and irons and a square table on which lay a double desk. A bookcase had been made in an alcove by means of shelves of white wood. The bed was clothed with white bed-clothes and a black and scarlet rug covered the foot. A little hand-mirror hung above the washstand and during the day a white-shaded lamp stood as the sole ornament of the mantelpiece.

He’s also a master at capturing people or places in a single telling, but often also very funny, sentence or phrase. These are from a range of stories:

He had a brave manner of coming up to a party of them in a bar and of holding himself nimbly at the borders of the company until he was included in a round.

The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces.

I thought little of the future. I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I could tell her of my confused adoration. But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.

Her beliefs were not extravagant. She believed steadily in the Sacred Heart as the most generally useful of all Catholic devotions and approved of the sacraments. Her faith was bounded by her kitchen but, if she was put to it, she could believe also in the banshee and in the Holy Ghost.

More interestingly though, even when I didn’t understand the context of a story I often found I’d still understood the mood it was aiming for. I mentioned up front that the story Ivy Day in the Committee Room was hard to follow without a knowledge of then-contemporary politics. The story deals in issues of stillborn nationalism and the gap between current politicians and the semi-mythologised Charles Stewart Parnell who died in 1891. Parnell may well be a major figure in Irish history, but I barely recognised the name and had no idea what it meant to people in the 1910s or today.

Even so, take a look at the following paragraph:

The old man left the hearth and, after stumbling about the room returned with two candlesticks which he thrust one after the other into the fire and carried to the table. A denuded room came into view and the fire lost all its cheerful colour. The walls of the room were bare except for a copy of an election address. In the middle of the room was a small table on which papers were heaped.

I wrote a note against that which simply said “Britain after Rome”. It reminded me of the dark ages, of the sense of civilisation having left and of barbarians making fires in ruins left by better men. I’ve read up since, and it’s fair to say that’s part of what Joyce was going for. He’s a good enough writer that even though I recognised none of his references, I still felt the significance of what he was trying to convey.

It would be easy to continue, but I’m already over the 2,000 words I said I could could spend just on An Encounter, so it’s time to stop. I’ll end with a quick note on editions. I have two, the Canongate one above with the Colm Toibin introduction and a Penguin Modern Classics edition.

If you’re studying Joyce, or you’re not from the UK or Ireland and want help with what may be a lot of obscure references, then you want the Penguin version. If you’re reading as I was for pleasure then you don’t, because it has such a density of endnotes that they become an interruption to the text. The Canongate was note free, which arguably is going too far the other way. Of the two approaches I prefer the Canongate, but the Penguin notes are very helpful even if there are far too many of them (at one point an endnote explains what RIP means, which I don’t think is that difficult for most readers).

The Toibin introduction in the Canongate is exceptionally good. It has some wonderful insights (“The characters in Dubliners were consumers before they were citizens.”) and is as beautifully written as you’d expect of Toibin. The foreword is legitimately available for free at the Guardian here.

Edit: I forgot to link to Emma of Book Around the Corner’s review, which is well worth reading and which comes with an excellent discussion in the comments. It’s here.

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Filed under Irish Literature, Joyce, James, Modernist Fiction

SOMEWHERE IN LA MANCHA, in a place whose name I do not care to remember

Don Quixote, by Miguel De Cervantes and translated by Edith Grossman, the first volume

How do you write about a book widely considered as being the first modern novel, the first novel in the sense in which we use that word today? A book thought by many, some of whom have even read it, as one of the greatest ever written? Well, the same way as any other I guess. Nothing kills literature faster than treating it with respect.

Emma of bookaroundthecorner has mentioned in the past having a mental category of daunting books. If ever a book fit that category, it’s Ulysses. And perhaps Gravity’s Rainbow. But however you cut it, Don Quixote is probably in the top three.

It’s not just a question of sheer physical bulk, though the Grossman translation clocks in at around 940 pages which isn’t to be sniffed at (though by way of comparison, the first two Game of Thrones’ novels alone add up to over 1,500 or so). It’s also a question of complexity, of unfamiliarity, and if I’m honest of the question of whether I’m up to a book that important.

What does it mean though to be up to a book? It speaks to us or it doesn’t. We enjoy it or we don’t. If others get more from it, well, that’s great for them but it doesn’t diminish our own experience of it (or shouldn’t anyway). If I knew more about early 17th Century Spain, about chivalric literature, about the cultural scene Cervantes was part of there’s no doubt that I’d take more from this book. That isn’t, however, a reason not to read it.

grossman-cover

What’s odd when you start Don Quixote is of course how familiar so much of it is. Don Quixote, the old knight driven mad by his books of chivalry who imitates what he read in them as if it were all true. Sancho Panza, his loyal if not particularly bright squire. Rocinante, Don Quixote’s broken down old nag of a horse. The makeshift armour, and of course the windmills.

If it were just all that this would be a fun book, but not perhaps a great one. It’s also though a satire of contemporary politics and of popular fiction, it embraces exploration of psychology rather than mere recounting of deeds, it mixes tragedy and comedy so that as I read it I alternated between laughing and being appalled. It asks whether it’s better to live in a mediocre and indifferent reality rather than a glorious but wholly fallacious fantasy. It’s all that and more. It’s slippery.

Don Quixote inhabits a dream of a better world, a dream informed by the chivalric romances that he has read so many of (and which the book sets out to skewer, an element of satire perhaps slightly less topical now than when it was written). His is a kingdom inhabited by noble knights, beautiful and virtuous maidens, sorcerors both helpful and maleficient, giants and magical devices of great power. It is literally a wonderful place, driven by grand passions. A knight errant can do great deeds, be remembered in this world and rewarded in heaven.

Don Quixote inhabits a Spain driven by commerce and petty cruelty. His world is one inhabited by grasping innkeepers, lecherous prostitutes, irreligious priests, bandits and poverty. It is a profoundly vulgar place, driven by self-interest. A man can do what he likes and can get away with, but in the end he like everyone else will die and be forgotten.

“That’s the way,” said Sancho, “I’ve heard it said in sermons, we should love Our Lord: for Himself alone, not because we hope for glory or are afraid of punishment. But I’d rather love and serve Him for what He can do.”

It’s that contrast, the gap between Don Quixote’s shining and beautiful dream and his grubby reality, that drives the book’s comedy and its tragedy. I loved watching Don Quixote justify to Sancho Panza the absurd outcomes of their adventures by reference to evil enchanters and strange illusions and truths that only a true knight can see. At the same time, it’s hard to avoid the realisation that much of the book consists of an old man with dementia being repeatedly humiliated and beaten.  

Much of the comedy is at the character level, but there is a great deal too at a metatextual level. In one scene two characters go through Don Quixote’s library in his absence, deciding which books should be burnt as dangerous and which preserved as worthwhile:

But what’s that book next to it?” “La Galatea, by Miguel de Cervantes,” said the barber. “This Cervantes has been a good friend of mine for many years, and I know that he is better versed in misfortunes than in verses. His book has a certain creativity; it proposes something and concludes nothing. We have to wait for the second part he has promised; perhaps with that addition it will achieve the mercy denied to it now; in the meantime, keep it locked away in your house, my friend.”

Similarly, Cervantes has fun with the conceit that this isn’t actually his book but merely one that he has found and had translated  (apparently a common literary device at his time):

Saying this, and grasping his sword, and protecting himself with his shield, and attacking the Basque were all one, for he was determined to venture everything on the fortune of a single blow. The Basque, seeing him attack in this fashion, clearly understood the courage in this rash act and resolved to do the same as Don Quixote. And so he waited for him, shielded by his pillow, and unable to turn the mule one way or the other, for the mule, utterly exhausted and not made for such foolishness, could not take another step. As has been said, Don Quixote was charging the wary Basque with his sword on high, determined to cut him in half, and the Basque, well-protected by his pillow, was waiting for him, his sword also raised, and all the onlookers were filled with fear and suspense regarding the outcome of the great blows they threatened to give to each other, and the lady in the carriage and all her maids were making a thousand vows and offerings to all the images and houses of devotion in Spain so that God would deliver the squire and themselves from the great danger in which they found themselves. But the difficulty in all this is that at this very point and juncture, the author of the history leaves the battle pending, apologizing because he found nothing else written about the feats of Don Quixote other than what he has already recounted.

Cervantes loves playing this kind of game with the reader. There’s often a sense of him winking at you, commenting on what he’s doing as he’s doing it and knowingly playing with the artificiality of his form. This is not a book you can disappear into, a sort of alternate reality that offers escape from the everyday.

Gabriel Josipovici in his What Ever Happened to Modernism? argued that Don Quixote was the first modernist novel, and while so far at least I don’t fully agree with him (I think he underemphasises the traditions that Don Quixote grew out of) he does still have a point. Most fiction does present a world that the reader can escape into, a sort of Quixotean alternative to the quotidian. Cervantes denies that. As you read he reminds you that you are holding a written artefact, crafted by a person behind the narrative. Ironically Don Quixote is a novel that precludes the reader from the Quixotean experience that fiction generally offers.

I don’t want though to give the impression that reading Don Quixote is a highbrow experience. The more you dig the more you’ll get out of the book, certainly there’s more in there than I’ve discovered, but it’s also deeply rooted in physical comedy and a certain theatre of the absurd:

“… come here and see how many molars and teeth I have lost, because it seems to me I do not have a single one left in my mouth.” Sancho came so close that his eyes were almost in his master’s mouth; by this time the balm had taken effect in Don Quixote’s stomach, and just as Sancho looked into his mouth, he threw up, more vigorously than if he were firing a musket, everything he had inside, and all of it hit the compassionate squire in the face. “Mother of God!” said Sancho. “What’s happened? Surely this poor sinner is mortally wounded, for he’s vomiting blood from his mouth.” But looking a little more closely, he realized by the color, taste, and smell that it was not blood but the balm from the cruet, which he had seen him drink, and he was so disgusted by this that his stomach turned over and he vomited his innards all over his master, and the two of them were left as splendid as pearls.

This is of course only a review of the first volume. The second volume was written about ten years after the first, which means that for the book’s earliest readers this first volume was all there was. I’ve found before with major classic works that were published over a space of years that it can be much more rewarding not to try to swallow them all at once. There’s a risk of turning a book into a chore if you don’t allow yourself a break, whereas if you take it in the original installments you can have the pleasure of looking forward to the next part.

In this case I’m particularly pleased to have taken that approach. The first volume of Don Quixote contains two interpolated novellas within the text. These are stories told by characters within the narrative which bear no particular relation to the wider story. One is a tale of the perils of too rigorously testing your wife’s fidelity, while the other is a romantic tale of adventure among the Moors.  Apparently this sort of interpolated text was routine in Cervantes’ day, As the ever-helpful endnotes explain – “it was a fairly common practice to insert a romantic tale with Moorish themes into works that otherwise seemed to have little to do with either romance or the Moors.”

Unfortunately, I haven’t the faintest interest in romantic adventures with the Moors, and so I found that part of the book fairly heavy going. In the context of knowing that I was just reading the first part that was fine. There was plenty otherwise that I liked and there was an end in sight. Had I been going straight on to the second part I might have been a bit more demoralised by having to plough through a section that I just plain didn’t care about with several hundred pages to go afterwards.

My edition is the Edith Grossman translation. I’ve not read the original, but I can say that the language here is fluid and lively and a pleasure to read. The volume and content of the endnotes is well chosen – not so many that you drown in references, but illuminating and identifying elements I might have missed or explaining things that genuinely puzzled me. There’s also a nice sense of humour occasionally in the explanations, as here where Grossman explains a latin quote:

These lines are from Ovid, not Cato, and they translate roughly as “Nobody knows you when you’re down and out.”

As I write this I’m preparing to launch back in and read the second part. Perhaps that’s the best compliment I can make, both to the book and the translation. I’ve read some 450 pages so far and I plan to read another 500 or so more. I’m looking forward to them. This really is a great book, and like most great books while it can seem a little forbidding from a distance once you launch into it it’s quickly apparent why it’s lasted as long as it has.

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Filed under Cervantes, Miguel de, Modernist Fiction, Spanish Literature

It was in those days when I wandered about hungry in Kristiania

Hunger, by Knut Hamsun and translated by Sverre Lyngstad

I’ve read few novels as unsparing as Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. Written in 1890 it follows the needless descent of a young writer into starvation and alienation. The novel doesn’t blink, doesn’t look away even for an instant. Put that way it can sound like a work of social critique, but it absolutely isn’t. It’s much more interesting than that.

hunger

The unnamed narrator lives in Kristiana, now known as Oslo. He survives by writing freelance newspaper pieces and pawning his few possessions bit by bit (down to the buttons on his coat). Increasingly though he’s too hungry to write, and the pawnshop gives less on each visit as he slowly works through anything he owns of any value. As time goes on he goes longer and longer without food, becomes more and more estranged from the society around him.

The book opens with him living in a dismal one room apartment, barely furnished. He’s not paid the rent in an age, and time is running out there. He has to leave, and when he packs it becomes quickly evident quite how poor he is:

I decided to buckle down at once and get going with my move. I took out my bundle, a red handkerchief that contained a couple of clean collars and some crumpled newspapers I had carried my bread home in, rolled up my blanket and pocketed my stack of white writing paper.

He finds his situation deeply embarrassing. The blanket isn’t even his, it’s a loan from a friend. As he wanders the streets desperately trying to fill the long days (“I couldn’t go to a café with empty pockets, and I didn’t know of any acquaintance I might look up at this time of day.”) he worries about how he seems to people, keen to maintain some minimum form of appearances:

Meanwhile the green blanket was an inconvenience to me; nor would it do to walk around with a parcel under one’s arm in plain sight of everybody. What would people think of me? So I wondered how to find a place where it could be left for safekeeping for a time. Then it occurred to me that I could go over to Semb’s and get it wrapped; that would make it look better right away, and there would be nothing to be ashamed of any more in carrying it. I entered the store and stated my errand to one of the clerks. He looked first at the blanket and then at me. It seemed to me he mentally shrugged his shoulders in contempt as he accepted the parcel. I felt offended. ‘Be careful, damn it!’ I cried. ‘There are two expensive glass vases inside. The parcel is going to Smyrna.’ That helped. It helped a lot. The man begged my pardon in every movement he made for not guessing right away there were important articles inside the blanket. When he had finished his wrapping, I thanked him for his help like someone who had sent precious objects to Smyrna before, and he even opened the door for me when I left.

The text follows his internal monologue, which moves from depression to euphoria as his brain fills alternately with despair or wild schemes that will restore his fortunes. Perhaps his next article will be bought by a publisher? Surely it will! He can feel now how well written it is, how subtle the thoughts and arguments in it are. Rereading it though, perhaps it’s worthless after all, and anyway he can’t finish it as the hunger causes his head to pound and blocks his focus.

Here there is no Cartesian dualism. The narrator is his body, and his body is hungry. His mind can turn away from food, but not indefinitely and as his hunger increases his character begins to erode. At first he is scrupulously honest, but how honest can one remain without food? It’s important to him to think of himself as an honourable man, but as his hunger grows so does his ability to self-justify his actions. Theft becomes a possibility, sharp dealing, the hunger eats away as much at his conscience as it does his strength. Always however, his hunger remains profoundly physical.

My hunger pains were excruciating and didn’t leave me for a moment. I swallowed my saliva again and again to take the edge off, and it seemed to help. I hadn’t had enough to eat for many, many weeks before this thing came up, and my strength had diminished considerably lately. When I had been lucky enough to get my hands on a five-krone bill by some manoeuvre or other, the money generally didn’t last me long enough for my health to be fully restored before a new hunger spell descended upon me. My back and shoulders had borne the brunt of it; I could stop that gnawing pain in my chest for a moment by coughing hard or by walking extremely bent over, but there was nothing I could do for my back and shoulders.

As the narrator’s plight continues his behaviour deteriorates. He begins to laugh when nothing is funny. Smashes his head against lampposts. Shouts meaninglessly but aggressively at strangers. He becomes paranoid. You’ve almost certainly seen people behaving like that in real life. Most of us cross the road to avoid them.

It’s easy to read this as an attack on the lack of a social welfare safety net, and of how society can ignore the artist. The thing is though, none of that is quite right. As you read it becomes apparent that there is a safety net, he’s just too proud to use it. At one point he’s locked up by the police, and in the morning they give bread to the homeless that they’ve imprisoned overnight for vagrancy. In his pride he pretends not to be homeless, to have been sleeping rough simply through drunkenness, so they don’t feed him.

Time and again he spurns possible help, too proud to accept it. His situation is terrible, but it’s not the fault of a society that will do nothing to aid its most vulnerable. That’s not what’s happening at all. Still, if it’s partly his fault (and it’s only partly, poverty itself begets poverty), does that make it less awful?

Hamsun here is making it hard for us to have the comfort of pity. One can’t read this and simply think, oh, isn’t all this shocking. Something should be done. Hamsun ultimately makes it clear that the narrator’s situation is fairly easily escaped, just not on the terms he sets for himself. That’s why I talked about the book being unblinking, what we’re examining here isn’t the society that the narrator falls between the cracks of, but his internal experience of his situation. His plans, justifications, thoughts, flights of emotion.

Hunger is famously semi-autobiographical, and because of that it’s easy too to assume that the narrator has talent as a writer since Hamsun himself does. If so, do we have a condemnation of how a bourgeois society ignores and devalues art? The text though is largely silent on how good the narrator actually is. He does write some decent pieces for some of the local newspapers, but nothing spectacular. He’s driven to write, but does that actually mean he’s good at it? Again the reader is denied the comfortable option, it becomes apparent that it’s the narrator’s idea of himself as a writer which is itself in part the source of his predicament.

Hunger then is an inward-facing novel. Time here passes not steadily, but psychologically. When the narrator has food a week can be disposed of in a sentence, then a single hungry half hour can take a page. The focus here is on the internal experience, things exists as they are perceived, not as they are in the world. Everything is seen through the prism of the narrator’s viewpoint.

The point of interest here is the process of thought, which is of course a process of language. In one scene the narrator imagines he’s created a new word, but he doesn’t yet know what it means. It’s an act of mania, and the text follows his ricocheting thoughts as they echo around his head. I’ve read plenty of novels which feature stream of consciousness, but few that capture it so accurately.

In a sense, Hunger is the collapse of 19th Century narrative fiction. The characteristics of the 19th Century novel, the detailed descriptions of the characters’ environment, the interest in social context, the godlike authorial perspective casting its gaze over a panoply of richly detailed fictional personalities, all of that is discarded here. Instead we have a descent into the self which results in the collapse of that self. The narrator is left without god, without society, without the values he called his own, ultimately even without language that he can rely on.

This edition of Hunger comes with a hugely perceptive foreword by Paul Auster. It’s well worth reading, and while it contains spoilers it’s fair to say that this isn’t really a book where knowing the ending matters. I could quote the entire foreword, and even were this not easily the best translation into English available I’d recommend this edition just to get hold of what Auster has to say. Auster describes Hunger as “existential art”, “a way of looking death in the face”, death “as the abrupt and absurd end of life.”

This is the essence of Modernism. It is the confronting of meaninglessness, an act which is intrinsically absurd since it is an attempt to bring meaning to meaninglessness, an attempt which by definition cannot succeed. At the end of his essay Auster evokes Beckett:

Hamsun’s character systematically unburdens himself of every belief in every system, and in the end, by means of the hunger he has inflicted upon himself, he arrives at nothing. There is nothing to keep him going – and yet he keeps on going. He walks straight into the twentieth century.

Of course, none of this occurs in a vacuum. I talked before about how this differs from 19th Century fiction, but that’s shorthand, because this is 19th Century fiction. It’s the strand of it though that was moving away from the dominant form of that time, and which would soon(ish) give rise to writers such as Joyce, Beckett, Woolf and indeed eventually Paul Auster. If you’ve any interest in any of them and haven’t read this, you’re in for a treat.

I’ll end with a word on translations. Get this one. There’s an 1899 translation by George Egerton which while accurate is censorious, removing the novel’s (admittedly few) erotic scenes and so fundamentally changing the tone of the book. There’s then a 1967 translation by American poet Robert Bly, which is I understand riddled with questionable interpretations, errors and outright changes. There’s a lengthy translator’s afterword here which explores the difficulties with the previous translations in forensic detail, but the upshot of it is that if you’re reading this in English then this is the copy you want.

Hunger sat on my to be read pile for some time. The prompt to finally read it came from this review by Emma of Book around the Corner. That’s the beauty of the blogosphere. What newspaper would have released a fresh review of a book from 1890, however well regarded? Emma did though, and her review inspired me and led to my discovering this extraordinary work. Blogs aren’t for me a replacement for newspaper reviews (though that’s a topic for a blog entry all its own), but they do provide something that increasingly the newspapers don’t. Breadth of coverage.

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Filed under 19th Century Literature, Hamsun, Knut, Modernist Fiction

So we drove on towards death through the cooling twilight.

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I reread The Great Gatsby because of the Baz Luhrmann film. Sometimes I find films can affect how I read books – a film’s interpretation can overwhelm the text stripping a myriad possible interpretations down to just one. I didn’t want when next I read the book to see Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, Carey Mulligan as Daisy. The danger seemed all the greater given I like both actors and both seem to me quite astute choices for their respective parts.

As it happens, I still haven’t seen the film. That’s ok though, because any reason to reread a book as good as The Great Gatsby is a good reason.

Gatsby

That’s the original cover, so loved by Fitzgerald that he wrote it into the book “I had no girl whose disembodied face floated along the dark cornices and blinding signs,”.

First off, The Great Gatsby isn’t about any one thing. Ten bloggers could write ten pieces about it, each with their own take, and what’s more they could all be right. That’s part of why this is genuinely a great book. In under 200 pages it contains multitudes. For me, on this reading, the key themes were mortality and money, but on another reading I could well come back with something quite different.

Nick Carraway is a comfortably off young man just starting to make his way in the world. He’s a veteran of the Great War, now working in bonds in New York. He lives on Long Island in a small house next door to a vast mansion which hosts extraordinary parties to which much of fashionable New York and the eastern seaboard appear to be invited. His place isn’t much to speak of, but it does have “the consoling proximity of millionaires”.

Nick’s the narrator, but here’s the thing – he doesn’t narrate events as they happen. He narrates in hindsight, everything he speaks of is already gone. Everything that follows needs to be read in that light, as something past and receding into memory.

Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.

Over the water live Nick’s old college friends, his cousin Daisy and her husband Tom Buchanan. It’s because of them that he meets his neighbour, Gatsby, who loved Daisy years past and has kept her image inside him. Gatsby has only built his huge mansion so that he can live opposite Daisy. He only throws his parties in the hope that she might come to one. Gatsby is enthralled to a love that’s long since slipped from his grasp.

Soon Nick is part of their charmed circle, a friend to Gatsby because Nick is a route back to Daisy. Nick though is an outsider in their world, present only by chance. Gatsby and Tom Buchanan are both extraordinarily rich. Daisy grew up with money and has since married it, she knows Tom has affairs but she doesn’t leave him. Daisy and  Tom are insulated from the world by Tom’s money, settled now in Long Island but with no great attachment to it or any other place.

They had spent a year in France for no particular reason, and then drifted here and there unrestfully wherever people played polo and were rich together.

The other member of their little group is Jordan Baker, a professional golfer, Daisy’s friend and for a while Nick’s girlfriend. Jordan doesn’t have the money that Gatsby or Tom do, but she has celebrity. Nick merely has a job. If it weren’t for his connection to Daisy these people wouldn’t look twice at him. 

Few authors capture the allure of money quite so well as Fitzgerald. Here’s Daisy and Jordan at dinner:

Sometimes she and Miss Baker talked at once, unobtrusively and with a bantering inconsequence that was never quite chatter, that was as cool as their white dresses and their impersonal eyes in the absence of all desire. They were here, and they accepted Tom and me, making only a polite pleasant effort to entertain or to be entertained. They knew that presently dinner would be over and a little later the evening, too, would be over and casually put away.

There’s a tendency for people to assume that Daisy is a great beauty, a stunning creature who inspires overwhelming passions. The text though doesn’t support that. She’s certainly pretty, but so are a great many women of her set. She is a bright and attractive young woman of the upper middle classes who married well. Her charm is in part born of the utter confidence of never having to work, never having the slightest financial concern. Her voice is perhaps her best feature. Nick tries to work out quite what makes her voice so special, then it finally clicks – ‘Her voice is full of money’.

Fitzgerald captures here a truth of the jazz age. Most people never lived it. This is lifestyles of the rich and famous, 1920s style. It’s a collision of money and celebrity, washed down with champagne and soundtracked by the hottest acts of the age. Even as it’s lived it’s fleeting, and that’s part of what makes it wild because everyone knows the parties can’t last forever.

Daisy is drawn back to Gatsby, now as rich if not richer than Tom. She’s discontented, bored, and Gatsby returned is something new. The summer accelerates into disaster, Gatsby, Daisy, Tom, Tom’s affair, all an onrushing car crash that leaves shattered lives in its path.

I talked above of how Nick is an outsider, but Gatsby is too of course. The book is full of people hinting as to how he made his money, but in 1920s America the truth is it doesn’t need spelling out how a man comes from nowhere to a vast fortune. Nick describes Gatsby as “an elegant young roughneck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd. Some time before he introduced himself I’d got a strong impression that he was picking his words with care.” Gatsby is a showman, an imitation of a man from Daisy’s world. It’s not for nothing the book’s titled “The Great Gatsby”, with the impression that carries of Gatsby as a circus act.

Gatsby is also a gangster, an oligarch, a man of great fortune whose origins don’t bear examination. He’s obsessed with Daisy, but Daisy is in some ways more than a person to him, she’s a symbol. Daisy was the first rich girl he ever dated. That’s what made her so special. She was an ice cream on a hot day, and an emblem of an America beyond his grasp that yet he did briefly hold in holding her. That’s why it’s a mistake to think that Daisy is especially desirable. She’s vital to Gatsby because of what she was to Gatsby, money and class in a summer dress.

Gatsby is driven by nostalgia. He’s chasing a dream which he’s clothed in Daisy’s flesh but it’s not truly Daisy, and she’s not really the girl he remembers. If Gatsby were poor Daisy would never consider preferring him to Tom. Gatsby knows that, it’s partly why he’s not poor any more.

In the classic Anglo-American 19th century novel money dominates all. This is a pre-social security world, one with no safety net. The concept of ruin is often interpreted morally, and that’s part of it, but it was also profoundly fiscal. A family that fell into ruin could no longer support itself. That’s why 19th century fiction is so obsessed with incomes and dowries.

Gatsby’s world is one in transition. The Great War has swept away the old order, but the new one isn’t yet clear.At one of Gatsby’s parties Nick observes:

I was immediately struck by the number of young Englishmen dotted about; all well dressed, all looking a little hungry, and all talking in low, earnest voices to solid and prosperous Americans. I was sure that they were selling something: bonds or insurance or automobiles. They were at least agonizingly aware of the easy money in the vicinity and convinced that it was theirs for a few words in the right key.

That captures in a paragraph the decline of the UK and the rise of the US. The sweeping away isn’t complete though. There have always been Toms and Daisys, securely wealthy and sailing above change (just as their descendants continue to sail above it near a century later). Gatsby’s emerge, they occasionally manage to join the elite, but whatever happens to the new pretenders the old elite never entirely seems to fade away.

The Great Gatsby becomes then an almost forensic examination of new and old money, and of the extraordinary power of money. Tom and Daisy are rich enough to buy off consequence. They harm each other in part because nothing else can harm them. Us against the world only makes sense when the world isn’t already set up to your benefit.

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.…

Above all else, The Great Gatsby is a superbly written book. I could easily fill this piece with quotes, and what’s more with incredibly relevant quotes like the one above, which is the book in miniature. As an exercise in prose this is high art, and made all the higher by its richness in themes (most of which I haven’t even touched on) and the strength of the characters. At the same time, it’s acutely well observed, with a sharp sense of the physical and capturing small details that other novelists wouldn’t even think of let alone describe (I particularly liked how in one tense scene Nick is distracted by his underwear “cimbing like a damp snake around my legs” and of how “intermittent beads of sweat raced cool across my back” – that’s the kind of absurd detail that intrudes all the time in real life but very rarely in fiction).

I’m going to end on one final image, one that captures for me the book’s fascination with wealth. The word glamour used to mean a form of magic, a sort of illusion which seemed more real than reality itself. A glamour was a vision put by a faery or magician upon a thing to make it seem beautiful, desirable, better than muddy reality. The green light is a glamour. Daisy too is glamorous in this sense,  made magical by Gatsby’s memories of her but all the more by her husband’s wealth which keeps her free from the world and her own part in it. A belle dame sans merci.

Daisy, gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor.

I’ve avoided reading other reviews while writing this, as I wanted to first get my own thoughts down. Here though is a piece by Sam Jordison of the Guardian about the role of mortality and the fleeting nature of experience in the novel. Here‘s another excellent piece on what makes Gatsby great, by Sarah Churchwell who recently wrote a well-received book on the Fitzgeralds, and here‘s the first of two tremendous pieces by Lorinda J. Taylor about metaphor and symbolism in the novel (a subject she’s much stronger on as a rule than I ever am). Lorinda’s pieces are quite long, but I do urge you to read them anyway – they more than repay the time required.

Finally, here is a link to one of the odder things on the internet, an NES computer game based on The Great Gatsby. You can play it directly online at this link, and you too can see if Nick can survive Gatsby’s party and the threat of newspaper boys and charlston-dancing flappers. Seriously, follow the link, it’s deeply strange.

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Filed under Fitzgerald, F. Scott, Modernist Fiction, US Literature

He stood in front of the Tegel Prison gate and was free.

Berlin Alexanderplatz, by Alfred Döblin

I read this book badly; much worse than it deserved. When I read it in solid chunks of fifty or a hundred pages it fizzled and raced along, forcing me to work to keep up. When, as I mostly did, I read it in ten or twenty page slices it lost me instead in a sea of disconnected images.

That’s the risk you take with Modernism. It does rather make demands of you.

Berlin Alexanderplatz

Published in 1929, Berlin Alexanderplatz is the story of Franz Biberkopf, a newly released ex-convict determined to go straight. He’ll suffer three tremendous blows, is laid low, but ultimately comes to a kind of redemption, or at least a sense of meaning and self-awareness. Are these spoilers? If so blame Döblin, because the book opens with a foreword which forms part of the novel and in which Döblin sets all this forth. Like Nabokov’s much later novel in Laughter in the Dark, we know where we’re going, what’s interesting is how we get there.

That foreword is the first clue that we may not be in for a straightforward narrative here. Then again, the back of the book with its comparisons to Joyce and Dos Passos (and Dos Passos for me is easily the more relevant of those comparisons) gave that away anyway.

Franz leaves prison fearfully. He’s been institutionalised, and he doesn’t know how he’ll make it outside though he wants to do better than he did before he went in. He takes a tram into the centre, but is soon overwhelmed by the indifferent crowds, by the sights of people doing ordinary things like drinking beer and having lunch. He doesn’t know how to cope, outside the ordered environment of the prison.

A passing Jew takes pity on Franz, invites him into his home and gives him a moment’s refuge in which to find himself again. Franz, and the reader, listen to an old Jewish man tell a story, and by the end of it Franz is ready to head back into the streets and to take on the world. There won’t be many more examples of altruism in the book, and in a German book written in the late 1920s it’s hard not to see some significance in the only real act of kindness coming from Jews.

Berlin Alexanderplatz does have a plot; mostly concerning Franz’s attempt to go straight, his friends and girlfriends and how he becomes entangled against his will with crime once more. It’s actually not a bad story on that level, and it’s not a surprise it’s been made into a TV series and film because Franz’s journey is interesting in its own right.

The real interest though of Berlin Alexanderplatz is its evocation of Berlin as a city. Döblin draws heavily on film techniques of his day, with the novelist’s eye panning like a camera across scenes and with frequent use of montage. Descriptions merge with fragments of adverts, with overheard conversations, fragments of newspapers, even with street signs. Here’s an early example:

From the south the Rosenthaler Strasse runs into the square. Across the way Aschinger provides food as well as beer to drink, music, and wholesale bakery. Fish are nutritious, some are happy when they have fish, and others are unable to eat it, eat more fish, the healthy slimming dish. Ladies’ stockings, genuine artificial silk, here you have a fountain pen with a 14- carat gold point.

Genuine artificial silk, how can you resist?

Berlin is awash with politics and people trying to make a Deutschmark. They all rub against each other, live-stock dealers, thieves, communists, ex-soldiers, the revolutionary left and the far right. Among all this Franz is trying to find his own place, at one point selling gay magazines, at another necktie holders, whatever it takes to get along.

Two days later it is warmer. Franz, who has sold his overcoat and is wearing thick underwear, which Lina got him somewhere, stands on the Rosenthaler Platz in front of Fabish & Co., high class men’s tailoring to measure, excellent work and low prices are the characteristic of our products. Franz is hawking necktieholders. He reels off his patter:

‘Why does the smart man in the West End wear a bow tie when the proletarian doesn’t? Ladies and gents, right up here, you too, Fraulein, and that lady with her husband, children under age admitted without extra charge. Why doesn’t the proletarian wear bow ties? Because he can’t tie ‘em. Then he has to buy a tie-holder, and after he’s bought it, it’s no good and he can’t tie his tie with it. That’s swindling. It makes the people bitter; it pushes Germany still deeper into poverty than she is already. But why don’t they wear those big tie-holders? Because nobody wants to put a dustpan around his neck. No man or woman wants that, not even the baby, if he could speak for himself. Please don’t laugh at that ladies and gents, don’t laugh, we don’t know what’s going on in that dear little child brain. Oh Lord, the dear little head, the little head and the little curls, it’s pretty, ain’t it, but when you have to pay alimony, it’s not to be laughed at, that gets a man into trouble. Go and buy yourself a tie like this at Tietz’s or Wertheim’s or, if you don’t want to buy it from Jews, get it somewhere else. I’m a Nordic, I am.’ He raises his hat, blond hair, red ears standing out, merry bull’s eyes. ‘The big shops don’t have to get me to advertise them, they can exist without me. Buy a tie like the one I have here, and then decide how you’re going to tie it tomorrow morning.’

The patter continues for another page and a half or so, often quite funny, but then that’s part of the point of patter. Notice the little dig against the Jews there, the assertion of racial purity. Later Franz changes profession again:

Franz now peddles Nationalist pro-Nordic newspapers He is not against the Jews, but he is for law and order.

Franz isn’t in fact “against the Jews”, and he knows perfectly well it was Jews who first helped him when he left prison. Franz though is not a reflective man, and if a little anti-Semitism helps pay the rent he’s not the sort to think about any wider issues that might come with that.

In Döblin’s Berlin everyone is hustling in one way or another. Crippled veterans of the Great War beg in the streets; those with jobs mostly seem to be just getting by while pimps and burglars are leading the good life. Berlin is a vast human hive, permeated by adverts, noise and bustle.

Everywhere there are building works, rents are going through the roof, empty political slogans are disgregarded while the promises of literature and philosophy are packaged and commoditised and sold in the same way as ale or life insurance. There’s an extraordinary three page section, too long to quote here, which merges all these elements and more cutting between adverts, description, court rulings, and tiny vignettes showing the marital problems of a couple running a shoe business and the tensions between a poor lawyer and his cleaning lady.

In one harrowing sequence Döblin’s gaze wanders into a slaughterhouse, where he follows cows, pigs, sheep and lambs all going to the slaughter. He observes them dispassionately, no different to how he regards the people who will later eat them. What separates us from them? Perhaps just that we can kill them, and they do not know that and cannot in any event kill us. Döblin’s gaze is not without compassion, but those he watches largely have none.

At these times the narrative wanders like a camera. When that takes you inside the slaughterhouse it’s chilling, when it enters homes and shows neighbours packed in together it’s fascinating. Here’s an example, from the end of a five and a half page passage:

At the very top a tripe butcher, where of course there’s a bad smell and also the howling of children and plenty of alcohol. Next door a baker’s apprentice with his wife, an employee in a printing shop, she has inflammation of the ovaries. Wonder what those two get out of life? Well, first of all , they get each other, then last Sunday a music-hall show and a film, then this or that social meeting and a visit to his parents. Nothing else? Well now, don’t drop dead, sir. Add to that nice weather, bad weather, country picnics, standing in front of the stove, eating breakfast and so on. And what more do you get, you, captain, general, jockey, whoever you are? Don’t fool yourself.

Here’s a slightly different illustration of how Döblin applies this technique:

Opposite, in front of the little Web Radio Store – till further notice free charging of batteries – there stands a pale young woman, her hat pulled down over her face, she seems to be thinking intensely. The driver of the big black and white taxi standing nearby thinks to himself: Is she wondering now whether she ought to take a taxi, and if she has enough with her or is she waiting for somebody? But what she does is to twist about in her velvet coat as if her body were being wrenched, then she walks on again, she’s unwell, that’s all, and has the cramps, as usual. She is about to take her teacher’s examination, today she would have liked to stay at home with a hot water bottle, she’ll be better tonight, anyway.

What this passage does is show the difference between film and literature. Film can show the outside of things, and does so much more efficiently than language can. Film though can’t show us what’s on the inside, and so Döblin uses his language-camera to show us the Berlin not just of people’s homes and streets, but of their thoughts too.

Berlin Alexanderplatz is then a challenging novel. It demands close concentration, and when I couldn’t do that the result was that I became deeply confused about who was who and what was going on. When I did pay attention though, it unpacked itself into a brutal vision of the life of a city, and showed itself as a huge accomplishment.

It’s a moral book. That’s clear from the outset of course, when we’re told that Franz will receive three setbacks on his path to self-knowledge, but it’s present too in a frequent use of the most powerful biblical language and imagery, applied to lives as far from biblical as one can imagine.

The last 150 pages or so of Berlin Alexanderplatz I read over a weekend, and it was a joy. I read while listening to early Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, to Bix Beiderbecke with Frankie Trumbauer, and to Jelly Roll Morton. They work with it, because the book itself is a form of jazz, pushing its own boundaries and veering so far on tangents you wonder how it will ever get back to the main themes and yet it does. It pulses, full of rude life and the vitality of a new century in which anything, everything, is possible.

Is it worth reading, given the challenge it represents? I think so, yes, but again like the best jazz it’s not background music to listen to while making polite dinner conversation. It’s not a book that goes down easily; it’s not tasteful. Franz Biberkopf is in many ways as unsympathetic as a protagonist can be (particularly as details of his past crimes and his propensity to violence against women become clearer), and yet he is the spirit of his age, hustling and prepared to do whatever he needs to, steeped in blood and error yet perhaps not beyond hope.

Is it still relevant? Here’s a final quote, taken from a diatribe from one of Franz’s political friends which Franz only part listens to:

Not the satisfaction of human needs, but the expectation of profit is at the hands of modern production. Every technical advance multiplies the wealth of of the possessing classes to an infinite degree, in shameless contrast to the misery of vast sections of the community.

As I write this some 83 or so years have passed since this was published. Sadly, despite that great passage of time, it remains a contemporary novel.

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Filed under Berlin, Döblin, Alfred, German Literature, Modernist Fiction

a better, fairer future

Satantango, by László Krasznahorkai and translated by George Szirtes

Normally I hate writing reviews weeks after finishing a book. It tends to make the task much harder, as details start to blur and impressions fade. In the case of Satantango those concerns don’t really apply. Firstly, because the impression this book made will take a lot more than a few weeks to fade; and secondly because there was never any way that Satantango was going to be easy to write about however quickly I’d written my review.

Here’s the first sentence of the novel:

One morning near the end of October not long before the first drops of the mercilessly long autumn rains began to fall on the cracked and saline soil on the western side of the estate (later the stinking yellow sea of mud would render footpaths impassable and put the town too beyond reach) Futaki woke to hear bells.

I was going to quote the first paragraph, but the book has no paragraphs, just some 270 or so pages divided into twelve dense chapters. I suspect that makes it sound unapproachable, and I won’t lie, it’s not the most accessible book out there. It’s a book that requires effort on the part of the reader. It’s also though easily one of the best works of fiction I’ve read this year and one that more than repays the reader’s dedication.

The first six chapters describe a small Hungarian village. Once an industrial estate, the factory the village served is long since closed and now only a handful of inhabitants remain. They exist in a slum of mud, spiders and decay; in a landscape that psychologically as well as physically has a post- (or perhaps pre-) apocalyptic feel to it.

Rumour reaches the village of the return of two men long thought dead: Irimiás and Petrina. Irimiás is seen as a messianic figure, his arrival will mean a chance of escape, renewal, at the very least change. The first six chapters of the novel count up, I through VI, towards the arrival of Irimiás and Petrina and the remaining six count down, VI to I, from that arrival. Here Godot turns up, but it’s questionable whether he was worth waiting for.

The people of the estate live in a condition of mutual despair and loathing. The local teenage girls sell themselves in the disused factory, but have few customers. Futaki, whose perspective opens the book, is sleeping with another man’s wife. The local doctor is concerned only with his own ailments and with his relentless cataloguing and observing of the habits of the other villagers.  This is a place without purpose peopled by those who though technically neighbours are each fundamentally alone.

The book swiftly reveals Irimiás and Petrina as police informers, dubious adventurers and con-men. Their interest in the village is predatory; they bring no salvation. The flyleaf of the book suggests that Irimiás may be the devil, but though the book is shot through with religious imagery there’s no real evidence that he has any importance beyond that the villagers place on him.

Satantango is a mudslide of prose. Translator George Szirtes has spoken of Krasznahorkai’s language as a “slow lava flow of narrative, a vast black river of type.” There is a hallucinatory sense to the text, with apparent realism turning to symbolism or dream without pause or comforting marker of where one state ends and another begins. On the second page Futaki has a vision of “himself nailed to the cross of his own cradle and coffin” as he looks at an acacia twig. Later a roomful of drunkards is covered in spider webs as they gradually fall asleep – a thing that makes no logical sense but yet which seems inevitable within the book’s insular context.

Here’s another quote, illustrating how Krasznahorkai makes use of language:

The table beside Halics made a creaking noise and the rotting wood of the bar gave a low sigh like the quiet easy movement of an old carriage wheel over the buzzing chorus of horseflies: it conjured the past but also spoke of perpetual decay. And as the wood creaked, the wind outside, like a helpless hand searching through a dusty book for some  vanished main clause, kept asking the same question time and again, hoping to give a “cheap imitation of a proper answer” to the banks of solid mud, to establish some common dynamic between tree, air and earth, and to seek through invisible cracks in the door and walls the first and original sound, of Halics belching.

Notice the use of quotes there. Characters frequently speak in what appear to be set phrases, folk-sayings or received wisdom. Sometimes the narrative itself does the same. Each time these phrases are placed in quotation marks, as if flagging their essentially phatic nature. I’m not of course familiar with common Hungarian sayings, but some of these phrases appear highly unlikely to be traditional or ever used outside of this novel. That makes the quotation marks unreliable, perhaps themselves meaningless, ironically underlining the impression already given of speech without thought.

Spoilers are essentially meaningless with a book like this, though I’ll avoid them anyway out of courtesy to those who’d prefer to discover that for themselves. The novel consists of a combination of black comedy, petty yet vicious cruelty, Beckettian existentialism and Kafkaesque farce. At times it feels near-medieval, with the villagers at one point forming a procession of fools on a pilgrimage to the empty shrine of the abandoned factory. It should be relentlessly depressing. The imagery is of mud, rain, death, mould and decay. The village is a slough of meaninglessness populated by fear, greed and stupidity, and the outside world seems little better.

What’s it ultimately about? It’s hard to say; it feels almost like the wrong question (or I’m the wrong person to answer it anyway). It doesn’t come with answers; it just is. Reading it I become as lost as the characters, sensing meanings and chasing after them but finding them slipping from my grasp just as I seem to reach them. In the end all I am left with is the language itself; Krasznahorkai’s sentences that seem to twist upon themselves continuing long after all sense should demand that they stop and yet still remaining no longer than they ought to be. Here’s just one sentence, by way of final quote:

The entire end of October night was beating with a single pulse, its own strange rhythm sounding through trees and rain and mud in a manner beyond words or vision: a vision present in the low light, in the slow passage of darkness, in the blurred shadows, in the working of tired muscles; in the silence, in its human subjects, in the undulating surface of the metaled road; in the hair moving to a different beat than do the dissolving fibers of the body; growth and decay on their divergent paths; all these thousands of echoing rhythms, this confusing clatter of night noises, all parts of an apparently common stream, that is the attempt to forget despair; though behind things other things appear as if by mischief, and once beyond the powers of the eye they no longer hang together.

This is a spectacular translation of a genuinely gifted writer. It’s an extraordinary piece of writing; mesmeric. It is the opposite of escapist, rather it is a book that addresses directly the problem of existence in a universe without meaning and without ultimate authority. Perhaps then it’s natural that it’s a book that has no answers, because the world has none.

Here are three other reviews of the book, each of which I thought particularly insightful: from the New Statesman, here; from the blogger Bookslut, here (some spoilers); and from an online magazine I’m unfamiliar with, here (the last paragraph of that last review explains how the book’s structure reflects the structure of the tango, something which not knowing the dance I couldn’t speak to myself). If you read this and you’ve reviewed it on your own blog please leave a link in the comments below as I’d be fascinated to know how others who’ve read it found it.

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Filed under Hungarian Literature, Krasznahorkai, László, Modernist Fiction, Szirtes, George (translator)

Dried stains on sheets.

Three, by Ann Quin

Ann Quin’s second novel, three, is superbly written. It’s a book as much about its own form and structure as it is about story, although here form and story cannot be separated. It’s less than 150 pages long, but is distinctly not a quick read.

Leonard and Ruth are a middle aged couple. Until recently they had a younger woman identified as S living with them. S is dead, drowned, though whether by suicide or accident is unclear. Leonard and Ruth speculate as to what happened, and their conversations intertwine with excerpts from S’s diary and audiotapes which she left behind. The language is frequently confusing, intentionally so, and requires extremely close attention to tell who is speaking. Sometimes, often, I would have to backtrack to find the thread of a conversation. This is not an accident.

Here’s the opening couple of paragraphs:

A man fell to his death from a sixth-floor window of Peskett House,

an office-block in Sellway Square today.

He was a messenger employed by a soap manufacturing firm.

Ruth startled from the newspaper by Leonard framed in the door-way. Against the white-washed wall. A wicker arm-chair opposite the Japanese table. Screen. Sliding doors. Rush matting. A mirror extended the window. Gardens. A bronzed cockerel faced the house.

What’s the latest then? Fellow thrown himself out of a window. Ghastly way to choose. But Leon her wasn’t like that – I mean we can’t really be sure could so easily have been an accident the note just a melodramatic touch. No one can be blamed Ruth we must understand that least of all ourselves. Yes yes I know and one could say it was predictaable her sort of temperament. I don’t know. You mean you don’t really care Leon? Ah you should know the answer to that my love.

Here the prose acts as a camera, panning across the room “Screen. Sliding doors. Rush matting. A mirror extended the window. Gardens.” The viewpoint slides across, yet in staccato fashion. The dialogue here can be worked out, Leonard and Ruth speak alternately, but it requires a little thought before that becomes apparent. This is not prose one can lose oneself in.

Ruth and Leonard try to comfort themselves, and they go through the rituals of married life. Their surface troubles are quotidian ones. Underneath though is the question of what S meant to them, how she fitted into their lives and what she brought that they couldn’t provide for themselves. Their conversation ends and Leonard goes out to the greenhouse to inspect his orchids while Ruth goes upstairs to look through S’s cupboards.

What follows is three pages of sustained erotic charge. Leonard strokes the fat leaves of his orchids while Ruth wanders through upstairs rooms naked and searching through piles of clothes. The prose builds up, becomes frenzied, then peaks and tails off. Here’s a taste:

Still murmuring he reached up, brought one down, parted a layer of tiny leaves, and looked in. His fingers trembled. His body sloped. Face flushed in the one stream of light. He pressed the earth in, smoothed over. Paused longer at some, peered into centres, ran a finger along stems, pink against pink laid there.

Breathing slowly, he listened with the plants that sucked, dripped around and above.

She went from room to room, closed windows, doors, cupboards. Tried on clothes, shoes too narrow, hobbled to mirrors. Squeezed into dresses, struggled out, touched the material, traced the design. Folded, unfolded blouses, cardigans. Slipped them on, off, until the bed, floor were covered with layers of clothes. Into which she flung herself, motionless, face buried.

She powdered her flushed face, neck, brushed her hair.

As I say, three pages. It’s prose written in the rhythms of sex, but there is no sex. What replaces it is a sense of frustrated desire, of sex reaching out and infusing the house. As the novel continues there are some actual sex scenes, but they are brief and Ruth refuses when she can. She services Leonard as marital duty, on his relentless insistence (or, on one occasion when she says no, his outright force). It’s not that Ruth’s without desire, it’s that the only desire Leonard cares about is his own.

Against this are the fragments left by S. Most challenging of these are what I took to be the audiotapes, which become prose poems the meaning of which is at first unclear (and much of which never becomes wholly clear). S is recording emotions, impressions, and some of it can be understood in the light of her diaries, but it would I think take several readings of this book to understand most of them and an unreachable kernel would always remain.

This is one of the more accessible audiotape sections:

Surrounded by chairs. Animals released. Octopus faces gullet

corridor. Float from island to island. Inherited from both sides

Sofa. Flora-pregnated

Chippendale chairs. Unchipped. Upholstered in blue.

They call turquoise.

Persian rugs. Second skins. For them.

Warm napkins.

Silverware pawns. Salt-cellar dominates.

Rooms soundproofed.

Paintings

not hung

too small. Not small enough. But still-lifes that she used to do.

Burglar-proofed.

China plates

on the wall. Glass doors. Concealed lighting. White curtains

transparent.

Nursery done in egg.shell blue. Empty.

A special place for the cat. Never used.

Visitors. Change of linen. Every other day.

Existence bound by habit. Hope. Theirs. Nothing to contend

with.

The worst effort not to contradict their next movement

At first.

Again there’s that sense of prose as camera there, but this is more an exploration of significance than space. It’s reasonably easy here to understand what S is saying and what it means to her, but other sections are far more opaque.

This then is a novel of shadows. S played games with Leonard and Ruth in which they would all wear masks and improvise dialogue in mini-plays. Leonard and Ruth fight a pointless battle to keep ramblers off their section of the beach, which they privately own. Everywhere there is ambiguity and boundaries that shift or are ignored.

The Dalkey Archive edition of Three comes with a dismayingly perceptive introduction by writer and academic Brian Evenson. Dismaying because it leaves little for me to add. The best review I could write would be to type out his words. Evenson, rightly, points to Quin’s refusal to resolve the book’s strands. He points too to how the structure unsettles the reader, leaving them with doubt and a lack of finality as to what really occurred. He talks of the book “dragging readers into the text, demanding they plunge into the experience the characters find themselves in. The book refuses to stay at a comfortable distance.”

That’s exactly right. Here Quin forced me to engage closely with what she had written. I had to,  because otherwise I didn’t even know who was speaking let alone what was being said. She brought me into an emotional post-mortem in which the only judgement is an Open Verdict. She infected me as reader with the uncertainty of her characters.

The result is a difficult and often disquieting book. The rewards though match the effort, and unless I have a truly exceptional 2012 or some terrible fate befalls me between now and the end of the year I will be very surprised if this isn’t the second Ann Quin novel to make one of my end of the year lists. Quin has been overlooked, but she shouldn’t be and if you’ve any interest in modernist or experimentalist (a term I dislike) fiction then she deserves attention.

By way of balance I found a more negative review online here, and another positive review here. There’s also quite an interesting general overview of her work here, which to their credit the negative reviewer also linked to.

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Filed under Modernist Fiction, Quin, Ann

all the more human

Flypaper, by Robert Musil and translated by Peter Wortsman

Robert Musil is famous (being a bit generous with that word there for a moment) for his unfinished novel The Man Without Qualities. By all accounts it’s an incredible work. I’m too fond of editors to ever welcome the idea of reading an interrupted book – one that not even the author finished polishing – but I’ve been told that for Musil I should put that prejudice to one side.

Fair enough, but The Man Without Qualities has another barrier besides being incomplete. It’s nearly 700 pages long. That’s a lot to launch into with an author I don’t know.

Enter Penguin Modern Classics with their pocket editions each coming in at around the 60 page mark. Flypaper is a collection of fueilletons, short essays, by Robert Musil. There’s nine of them in this tiny collection, and as an introduction to Musil it’s about as good as it could be. That’s the joy of these little Penguin editions. They cost almost nothing, they’re concise and they’re a tremendous way to try out an author who for one reason or another you might be unsure about investing in.

Each of the nine little pieces in this collection is a small marvel of mercilessly precise observation. The title narrative, Flypaper, consists of a description of a piece of flypaper and the slow death of the flies that land on it. It’s at times hard to read. Partly I admit because I had nightmares about flypaper as a child (someone unwisely left some above my bed at a relatives home, meaning I had a front line view of exactly what Musil describes here. Whether that caused the peculiar horror I still have of the sight of dying insects or whether that fear already existed and so made the flypaper terrible I have no way of knowing). Partly though because Musil takes something as insignificant as the death of a fly and by not looking away invests it with majesty and with a more universal significance.

Here’s Flypaper’s first paragraph, after which it gets much more disquieting:

Tangle-foot flypaper is approximately fourteen inches long and eight inches wide; it is coated with a yellow poison paste and comes from Canada. When a fly lands on it – not so eagerly, more out of convention, because so many others are already there – it gets stuck at first by only the outermost joints of all its legs. A very quiet, disconcerting sensation, as though while walking in the dark we were to step on something with our naked soles, nothing more than a soft, warm unavoidable obstruction, and yet something into which little by little the awesome human essence flows, recognised as a hand that just happens to be lying there, and with five ever more decipherable fingers holds us tight.

Musil then explores the flies ever tiring attempts to free themselves, each miring them more firmly to the paper. He talks of moments of furious struggle, of sudden exhaustion, of the slow despair and futility of a fight against inevitable disability (as wings and limbs become stuck fast) and death.

There is real empathy here, and it is the empathy which makes it so awful. The next, Monkey Island, examines a small island in the heart of Rome. A wide and deep ditch separates the island from the land around it, and on it is a tree and a colony of monkeys none of whom can quite jump or climb that ditch.

This then is the monkeys’ kingdom. Musil’s gaze sweeps over it, from the strongest monkeys who form the royal family of the island to the outcasts who live within the ditch itself. It is a microcosm of us, a point Musil has no need to underline but which cannot be avoided as he shows the social and literal gulf dividing those monkeys who have from those who feed from fallen crumbs.

I won’t describe each essay. They are superbly written. Some, like those first two, draw out uncomfortable truths about our own existence. Some, such as The Painstpreader or It’s Lovely Here are satires, of artistic mediocrity on the one hand and of tourists’ desire to encounter “something that is acknowledged by experts as beautiful” on the other.

The briefest piece, titled Sarcophagus Cover, is a touching description of two ancient Roman sarcophagi that have on them a couple still gazing affectionately at each other through the long centuries. The last, The Blackbird, is a sort of fable different in nature from all that has gone before. Not so much an essay as an example of his fiction, but no less finely crafted. Musil has range.

This next quote is an entire piece, albeit a very short one. I hesitated to quote it, since after discussing Flypaper and Monkey Island there’s a risk of giving the impression that Musil only focuses on the cruel. That’s not true of course. What Musil focuses on is the world.

Fishermen on the Baltic

On the beach they’ve dug out a little pit with their hands, and from a sack of black earth they’re pouring in fat earthworms, the loose black earth and the mass of worms make for an obscure, moldy, enticing ugliness in the clean white sand. Beside this they place a very tidy looking wooden chest. It looks like a long, not particularly wide drawer or counting board, and is full of clean yarn; and on the other side of the pit another such, but empty, drawer is placed.

The hundred hooks attached to the yarn in the one drawer are neatly arranged on the end of a small iron pole and are now being unfastened one after the other and laid in the empty drawer, the bottom of which is filled with nothing but clean wet sand. A very tidy operation. In the meantime, however, four long, lean and strong hands oversee the process as carefully as nurses to make sure that each hook gets a worm.

The men who do this crouch two by two on knees and heels, with mighty, bony backs, long, kindly faces, and pipes in their mouths. They exchange incomprehensible words that flow forth as softly as the motion of their hands. One of them takes up a fat earthworm with two fingers, tears it into three pieces with the same two fingers of the other hand, as easily and exactly as a shoemaker snips off the paper band after he’s taken the measurement; the other one then presses these squirming pieces calmly and carefully onto each hook. This having been accomplished, the worms are then doused with water and laid in neat, little beds, one next to the other, in the drawer with the soft sand, where they can die without immediately losing their freshness.

It is a quiet, delicate activity, whereby the coarse fishermen’s fingers step softly as on tiptoes. You have to pay close attention. In fair weather the dark blue sky arches above, and the seagulls circle high over the land like white swallows.

The phrases there. “A very tidy operation.” The fishermen with their “kindly faces” impaling the worms. The transition from fat life to “squirming pieces” and the tidy convenience of the sand-filled drawers. The fingers that “step softly as on tiptoes”. Marvellous imagery culminating in that final vision of freedom and beauty and utter indifference. To the fishermen the worms are no different to the hooks or the drawers; the gulls are part of their scenery, as they are to the gulls.

I’ve not commented on the translation. Obviously I’m not familiar enough with German to read the original (or I would have), so I can’t say how faithful this is. I can’t say that of any translation really. Still, the language is spare and precise and beautiful and I can’t believe but that Wortsman has done an excellent job here.

The point, as I understand it anyway, of the Penguin pocket editions is to tempt readers to try new writers. For me it’s worked. I’ve tried Musil, who I knew about but was daunted by, and I’m no longer daunted. I plan now to pick up a copy of his short novel The Confusions of Young Torless and that going well I think The Man Without Qualities is looking a lot more enticing than it once did. Well done Penguin.

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Filed under Austro-Hungarian Literature, Central European Literature, Fueilletons, Modernist Fiction, Musil, Robert

It was like difficult music heard for the first time.

Murphy, by Samuel Beckett

Murphy has one of the most arresting opening sentences I’ve read.

The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.

I’ve barely started the book and already there’s a sense of futility, of inevitability. It’s a jarring sentence, both in terms of content and structure. It left me immediately unsettled.

What follows is no more comforting. Here’s the entire first paragraph of Murphy:

The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. Murphy sat out of it, as though he were free, in a mew in West Brompton. Here for what might have been six months he had eaten, drunk, slept, and put his clothes on and off, in a medium-sized cage of north-western aspect commanding an unbroken view of medium-sized cages of south-eastern aspect. Soon he would have to make other arrangements, for the mew had been condemned. Soon he would have to buckle to and start eating, drinking, sleeping and putting his clothes on and off, in quite alien surroundings.

Already Beckett is ignoring many of the customary rules of fiction. The paragraph is deeply repetitive. It takes a fairly long time to tell us very little in terms of solid information. Murphy lives in West Brompton in a condemned mews in a residential area. Shortly he will have to move. That’s it. You could pull out a little more, but in terms of bare fact there’s not a lot more to say.

Dig a little deeper though and there’s something more interesting. There is the phrase “Murphy sat out of it, as though he were free”. What does that mean? Is he not free? Is there something special in how he sits? When Murphy sits “out of it” is that just out of the sun or out of it in some wider sense?

Murphy lives “in a medium-sized cage of north-western aspect commanding an unbroken view of medium-sized cages of south-eastern aspect.” The only distinction between one set of cages and another is Murphy’s presence in one and in the differing aspects. But who cares what aspects they have? As a reader what use is knowing an aspect?

Then too there is the sense of routine which is created by the words “eaten, drunk, slept and put his clothes on and off”. It’s a routine that’s shortly to be transplanted to “quite alien surroundings.” If though this mews is so indistinguishable from its surroundings what does it matter if Murphy is transplanted?

So many questions from just one paragraph. The book’s barely begun.

The story here is both notional and absurd. Murphy is an Irishman living in London. He is attractive to women, though there’s no reason he should be. He and various other characters pursue each other and are pursued while holding conversations of quite remarkable irreality. Incidents may make sense in isolation, but in combination give rise to a plot which is both simple and yet hard to follow. The characters are barely distinguishable and make no attempt at credibility.

Beckett delights in language. He delights too in playing with the reader. Early on Murphy is on his own, tied hand and foot to a rocking chair. He tied himself to it, naked, and he enjoys sitting and rocking until his mind becomes quite separated from his body.

If Murphy is tied hand and foot though, and tied himself, how did he tie his last hand? He couldn’t have. Someone else must have. But nobody else is present.

Of course that’s not true. Someone else is present. Two people in fact. Beckett and me. If Murphy’s hand is tied and he couldn’t have done it and I didn’t do it logically Beckett must have done it. The author is within the book, not explicitly but necessarily.

There wasn’t a page in Murphy that didn’t contain words I didn’t know. Most books don’t have any words I don’t know. I’m a lawyer. Words are my business. Here many were deeply obscure, but I came to realise some were also just plain made up. I could stop every few sentences and research what something meant, or I could just go with the flow and accept that the language would stream around me part understood and part bearing an implied meaning from context. Sometimes the meaning, if it existed, would be (was) wholly unclear.

So then, thin characters, a flimsy plot, frequently opaque language, events that couldn’t happen as described, it’s no surprise Beckett’s not topping the bestseller lists. The traditional novel is essentially realist, and this decidedly isn’t.

What it is though is well written. Beckett apparently did better later, but there’s plenty here to enjoy. By way of example, in one passage a woman runs out on to the street having discovered a violent suicide. Beckett reflects: “Her mind was so collected that she saw clearly the impropriety of letting it appear so.”

That’s tremendously astute and for me very funny. It’s absurd that it should matter how one reacts, that one should think of such a thing at all when someone has just died. As Meursault finds out in The Stranger though how one reacts to a death can be very important indeed.

As jokes go it’s a particularly tragic one. Beckett has a vicious sense of humour. It’s not so much that he’s cruel (though at times he does tip over into cruelty) as that existence is cruel and he’s laughing at it or at us (or both) and so the laughs become uncomfortable.

Murphy is full of humour. In fact that’s mostly what makes it ultimately enjoyable to read. Sometimes it’s mordant (I do love that word) observations such as in the quote above. Other times the comedy is less straightforward. I found the following paragraph again extremely funny, but I’ve read Plato. If I hadn’t I’m not sure I’d have got the joke:

Thus Murphy felt himself spit in two, a body and a mind. They had intercourse apparently, otherwise he could not have known that they had anything in common. But he felt his mind to be bodytight and did not understand through what channel the intercourse was effected nor how the two experiences came to overlap. He was satisfied that neither followed from the other. He neither thought a kick because he felt one nor felt a kick because he thought one. Perhaps the knowledge was related to the fact of the kick as two magnitudes to a third. Perhaps there was, outside space and time, a non-mental non-physical kick from all eternity, dimly revealed to Murphy in its correlated modes of consciousness and extension, the kick in intellectu and the kick in re. But where was the supreme caress?

Later there is a reference to the “beatific idols of [Murphy's] cave”, underlining the Platonic motif. Descartes is another frequent reference point here with his famed mind-body duality (which it’s fair to say Beckett here seems unpersuaded by). I’ve read too that Spinoza is referenced, but I’ve not read Spinoza so can’t speak to that.

I’m going to digress for a moment. Murphy is a book containing an awful lot of references. I got the ones to Plato and Descartes, I didn’t get the ones to Spinoza (if they’re there). I’ve no doubt there were some I didn’t even realise I wasn’t getting.

That’s obvious here, but it’s potentially true of any book. Apparently Lee Rourke’s The Canal on some views has references in it to Leda and the Swan. If you read my review you won’t find any mention of that – I didn’t notice them. So it goes. I like to see the currents beneath a book’s surface, but I have to accept I won’t always do so. That’s not a problem. It’s a good thing. If we saw everything what room would there be for rereading? For later consideration?

Beckett plays then with language, with propriety and with philosophy. He plays too with his own role as author and with the reader’s as reader:

Miss Counihan sat on Wylie’s knees, not in Wynn’s hotel lest an action for libel should lie, and oyster kisses passed between them. Wylie did not often kiss, but when he did it was a serious matter. He was not one of those lugubrious persons who insist on removing the clapper from the bell of passion. A kiss from Wylie was like a breve tied, in a long slow amorous phrase, over bars’ times its equivalent in demi-semiquavers. Miss Counihan had never enjoyed anything quite so much as this slowmotion osmosis of love’s spittle.
The above passage is carefully calculated to deprave the cultivated reader.

That last sentence breaks out of the fiction. The book becomes curiously self-aware. It recognises its own artificiality. It blocks the possibility of escape into the text because as reader you cannot pass through the text into the story. Even if you could get past the tied breve (no idea) and the bars’ times its equivalent in demi-semiquavers (seriously, no idea) that final sentence makes it quite apparent that none of this is real.

I wouldn’t call Murphy an easy read. I had to think about each paragraph, often each sentence. I had to pause to consider what words meant, or might mean here. Beckett uses intentional misspellings, created vocabulary, motives so alien as to be near horrific (Murphy becomes an attendant in an insane asylum and dreams of one day himself becoming a catatonic).

At times in fact Beckett rather overdoes all this. One conversation between three characters goes on for several pages (several too many) with everything almost making sense but none of it ever quite doing so (except apparently to them, but they don’t exist and the sense they make of nonsense underlines their impossibility). Pynchon pulls that sort of thing off well. I wasn’t wholly sure Beckett did. Often the book is a delight, but occasionally one has to eat some linguistic Brussels sprouts to get to the playful literary chocolate mousse.

As the novel continues Murphy seeks to separate the mental and the physical. To retreat from the shared world into his own internal world. There is though no lasting retreat possible. If you’ve seen Waiting for Godot you know the territory. There is literally nothing to wait for. There is literally nowhere to escape to.

I said above that I understand Beckett went on to write better books. Here there is still some recognisable version of our world. There are hospitals, cafes, parks. Beckett is at his best though when playing with language and thought alone. None of his characters are, or are intended to be, sympathetic but that doesn’t excuse his rather doubtful (distasteful even) observations on, and portrayals of, women. If Murphy were to be improved it would be by less contact with Beckett’s external reality. Ironically it is when it attempts to show our world that it is least convincing.

Murphy as a character is in a sense engaged in a quest for meaning, for self-realisation even. The problem is that there is no meaning to be found. The mind is not in fact separate from the body. The world of forms does not exist. There is nothing to be realised.

Murphy the book struggles to break free from the inherent constraints of its own form (as Murphy the character tries to break free from his). The author’s invisible hand implied in tying Murphy to the chair, the asides direct to the reader, the made-up words, all of it acts to tear the novel down from within. Perhaps the last joke of Murphy though is on Beckett.

Murphy tries to undermine its own authority as a text, but ultimately it can’t do so because it relies on that very authority to make the attempt. Perhaps in the end Murphy says too much to be able to talk about nothing. Godot says less, and so more.

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Filed under Beckett, Samuel, Irish Literature, Modernist Fiction