Tag Archives: goethe

Blurred Lines – Matters of Fiction and Nonfiction

9 Mar

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Everyone has an idea about the way a bookstore should be arranged in a perfect world. To some, we would be better off if there was only one fiction genre, to be called ‘Fiction.’ That would probably work, though I’m loathe to imagine what it would be like if those customers were ever correct in the grammar of their questions who came into the bookstore of my employment asking, ‘Where is the nonfiction section?’

There is a brand of novelist who detests the distinction between a Western novel and a Science Fiction novel to such a degree that one would think he was battling something he considered tantamount to racism. This brand of impartiality is usually espoused by writers of fiction embarrassed by the very corners of the bookstore to which their publishers have cast them or by writers who, due to contract or mere niche, are unable to easily switch genres in mid-career, causing them much professional resentment. Once in a while, an intellectual like Samuel Delany comes along with a direct interest in and rigorous dedication to the problem of genre and just what makes it what it is. The summit of Delany’s discourse on genre goes something like this: Genres, though they cannot be said to have no basis, are over-determined. Genre is not so much a way of writing as it is a way of reading.

In other words, when one enters a bookstore and opens a book titled Nova by a Samuel R. Delany and sees that its cover art portrays planets, stars and spaceships, one can put a safe bet that concurrent imagery will be featured, at least in part, in the text lying behind the binding. But for over-determined reasons, if the reader is familiar at all with the tradition or simply in touch with the way that markets cater to expectations, he knows that the book is not going to be a book set in space but which quickly isolates itself to a room in which nothing but Jane Austen types of plots and resolutions take place over tea and dances. He knows that the drama will somehow involve the characters in a spaceship, headed toward one of those planets and various technological, cultural, and biological malfunctions. The existence of the genre—and its marketability—depend on this kind of faith that the reader will approach the text with a set of presuppositions that will tell her what kind of attention to give the text.

This is just the same with different kinds of texts lumped together rather clumsily as ‘Nonfiction.’ The difference is that writers of Nonfiction are less willing to admit it. All but the shrewdest of biographers of Marilyn Monroe are doomed to deny that the very word ‘biography’ doesn’t automatically denote a sense of truth concerning the life of their subject and that their account is just as susceptible to the lies and prejudices of the great many people by whom information about the subject came about. Even less are those but the shrewdest of biographers willing to admit that their own tacit prejudices and presuppositions about the subject’s life may have seeped through the text.
If one portrayer of one subject can marginalize the story to such a localized degree, imagine what an entire tradition of thought, what an entire culture can do to history itself. Thus, we arrive in the section of the bookstore that deals with Art Criticism, World War Two, History of the Romani People, Mythology, or any number of sections formed out of genres. We approach these texts with faith that the authors conveyed this information in such a way that the narrative does not compromise the actual events (dates, places, births and deaths). If we were to believe—or if we were told—that the narrative compromised these things, we would be dealing with fiction.

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Sometimes the distinctions within one piece of text are clearer in intention than others, and we might find ourselves reading something that would count as a hybrid between Fiction and Nonfiction. We’re not talking about alternate history per se. We’re talking about a text that alternates between what is believed to be real by the wider society and what is completely intended as artificial. Some books do a good job of cluing the reader in on when the book is committing the crime of fiction and when it is eliciting an act of truth. Others intersperse so many different kinds of genres in such short space that the reader feels she is forced to stand back and look at the whole as though it were a completely unique genre to itself.

Roberto Calasso is one such writer. Even though the blurbs on the back of The Ruin of Kasch will tell people right up front what is happening in the book, the reader is forced to experience a page in which every piece of text is broken up the same way. The aphorisms don’t look any different from the fictive paragraph about Goethe’s birthday, nor does this look any different from the anecdotes and mini essays on art, culture, numbers, Marxism and sacrifice. Such books cause wars in bookstores concerning where they belong on the shelves. Because a large portion of Kasch deals with Tallyrand, many bookstores categorized it with French History. The blurbs within claim it as a novel in disguise. It is probably better to go with its author’s description of it when he was interviewed by The Paris Review—that it was, simply, a ‘narrative.’

Just as Kasch used Tallyrand as its rhetorical launch-pad, Callasso’s La Folie de Baudelaire uses the poet of its title. The book’s being put in the poetry section of the bookstore is misleading. The book is not necessarily about poetry, but about the very subject of modernity and how Baudelaire’s thought acted as its template. Just as artful and narrative as it is theoretical, we smell the streets of Paris and feel the sheets in the brothels and we hear the chatter in cafes and see the windows blinking on and off at night, all while Baudelaire haunts some place among it all, acting as a double agent between God and Satan.

Embellishments of real life, like Henry Miller’s writings, might serve to interest a reader looking for something with a narrative resembling fiction but which launches into all kinds of philosophical abstractions, anecdotes and asides. Some of the works of Geoff Dyer alternate quite clearly between fiction and nonfiction, as do the works of William Vollmann, especially in his book Atlas.

The works that interest me most now are those which seem to contain an unironic internal narrative rupture. I say unironic because the works in question are a little older and woollier, when the novel form wasn’t quite as rigid or bound by as many aesthetic laws as it seems to be today. One work that comes to mind is The Sorrows of Young Werther. The tormented main character’s personal diaries meet a friend’s removed account, so that we can logically witness the tragic end. While one could argue that this sort of unconscious use of narrative rupture is manipulative—merely a means to tug on the reader’s heartstrings—I would argue that more recent works of ‘experimental’ fiction, often lumped in as ‘postmodern,’ employ many of these same techniques but for reasons that compromise the internal integrity of the text. Whether a Robert Coover or a John Barth tries to play metafictional games with the readers to teach them about the act of reading by simply reminding them that they are reading, or whether a David Foster Wallace tries to invert these very tactics for some lofty moral purpose by using almost identical narrative ruptures, we are dealing with a kind of fiction that seeks to arrive at some point outside of itself—that tries to transcend itself. But to what purpose?

We may fall endlessly back into arguments between art-for-art’s sake and art that is socially utilitarian, but nothing can convince me that Nabokov’s Pale Fire is not the summit of this sort of narrative gamesmanship that his American academician successors aped every chance they had. Yet at the same time, in Pale Fire, when I read John Shade’s poem, I don’t feel as though I am being tricked into thinking outside of the book. When I read Charles Kinbote’s forward and commentary on that poem which comprise the novel, I feel invited back to a different, personalized interpretation of that poem to serve a narrative rupture—though perhaps ‘rupture’ is not the best word, for it is more like a sort of narrative flowering. Pale Fire does not talk down to the reader and it does not wink or offer transcendence if only you would recognize that it is a fake product. It works off of its own energy and locates all of its meaning only in the world of the book.
Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge probably has more in common with the works of Henry Miller, Hunter S. Thompson and Charles Bukowski than fans of any of them would care to admit. I name them all together for, with the exception of Henry Miller, they all wrote highly fictionalized accounts of their own lives using distinct alter-egos. Rilke’s narrator, however close to Rilke he might be, is not Rilke. The highly transient, listless Rilke was always embellishing his distant blood link to a reputable aristocracy, as though believing himself to be a lost prince from some older world (a real life Charles Kinbote?) while his Brigge is able to tell us precisely who his relatives are and just how distant he is from them. On a much simpler level, Rilke’s Notebooks is a novel narrated by a struggling writer, as are the others mentioned above. But in this book, few are the adventures and episodes of this struggling writer as would happen in a Factotum or a Post Office. Rather, in this book, Brigge can develop some of his most frightening conclusions about the world where the real life Rilke might have only flirted with them in his poems and more so in his letters. It is Brigge who concludes his accounts with his final, lonely views on love by turning the tale of The Prodigal Son inside out—that it was the son who needed to forgive his family for loving him.

If Henry Miller developed an alter-ego, he didn’t bother to change that alter-ego’s name. Rather, he changed the name of his second wife and a few of his friends. God knows how much of it was real; given the way that his books are filled with passages in which friends, acquaintances and lovers compare him to Jesus, speak incessantly about his genius and pretty much seem addicted to his personality altogether, I would suspect, precious little.

If only as a nice break, I’m drawn to books that follow the sort of path laid out by the works listed above. They are fictions that do not seem like fictions and real events that couldn’t possibly be real.

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The Chapter

14 Feb

Whether read on scrolls, leaves, pages, napkins or computer screens, every reader needs to take a break now and again. Perhaps, before the art of punctuation was invented, the ancient readers approached texts intuitively and paused where it suited them. Perhaps they were bad at this and that’s why punctuation was invented.

A period is a nice place to take a breath. But what about stopping for the night? Bookmarks only work to an extent. Chapters are much more congenial, showing that the writer is in agreement with the reader and that the book must, at some point, be set on the nightstand and the light shut off (depending on the kind of reader you are—Some people blaze bleary-eyed through a book and come out the other side of the morning tired at work or school or gym).

But are chapters not a little tyrannical, too? It is by them that the author tells you how to read the book. But then, one could argue, punctuation does much the same. Language tells us how to think just as thoughts tell us how to speak.

The chapter, as a convention, seems to arise precisely from the means by which the book is published. In the nineteenth century, it was common for books to be published in journals. It was conducive to the medium that one chapter fit easily within the binding. It was usually meant to be consumed in one sitting like a television show today.

How does one chapter a book? How does one break a chapter up? Titles of chapters varied. You could do like Dickens and go with a simple Chapter One or Chapter 1. Or, simply, One. The minimalism of 1 has its appeal; it forces fewer presuppositions on the text. The more ambitious writers title their chapters like poets do poems. The latter-period Dostoyevsky resorted to the comical habit of titling chapters things like

Chapter 17

“You lie!”

in which a character, at some point in the chapter, utters the phrase, ‘You lie!’

Dostoyevsky in particular, along with a great many others of the journal-driven variety, wrote books featuring dozens and dozens of short chapters whose breaks would, by today’s breaking standards, seem wholly arbitrary. Every once in a while, the cliffhanger would take effect and an unexpected guest would walk into the room. The next chapter would immediately feature a description of the unexpected guest’s face or some exciting news he had to offer. Then other chapters would simply find their place between two pieces of dialogue, as if to trick the reader into a sort of maieutic excitement.

With Beckett and Joyce, we reach an immensely unjournalistic kind of novel. The chapters are books in themselves, written as though to be consumed in one sitting though this is often impossible.

A book like Gaddis’s JR, which plays with the theme of communication, is not split up by any chapters in the entirety of its 700 odd pages. Rather, the ‘breaks’ are densely written vignettes between bits of exhaustive dialogue which act as mechanisms to transition one scene and set of characters to another—the book being a series of literary French Scenes.

Gaddis’s first novel, The Recognitions, though divided up more conventionally, is by no means conventional within the chapter. In a chapter of this book, years might pass or days might pass, or perhaps a single meal which then turns into a meal months later. The second of two famous party scenes in the book runs to about 85 pages, making up the entirety of a chapter. Upon my second reading of the book, I realized with great amazement, after spending several hours on these 85 pages, that I was taking as much time on this party chapter as I would an actual party—a chapter written in real time.

For some writers, chapter breaks are merely something cumbersome to fit in. Certain long-winded writers of epics are always itching anxiously for the place they can finally end their thought so that they can go on to the next. For other writers, the chapter is a source of salvation—a means to switch first-person perspectives or a means to include a little aside or to issue a complete narrative rupture.

William T. Vollmann used fake chapters as a plot device in You Bright and Risen Angels by listing the names of unwritten chapters to give the reader an idea of what events take place after the actual book finishes.

The Adventures of Augie March allowed itself all the voluptuous tendencies of the old big European books to ruminate on some philosophical idea at the beginning and endings of its chapters, though the chapters themselves are quite long.

The Bible was chaptered and versed long after its writing. Perhaps writers who prefer to practice their craft off-the-cuff with no mind for cutting their work into marketable, bit-sized baby pieces would prefer the same for their own work.

Others make an art of it. Often, the structure of a book may be determined by the way its chapters come falling out of the book like cards with so many clues on them. Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship has a curious beginning. Several short chapters comprise one meal as Wilhelm tells his loved ones about his memories of puppeteeing with his peers as a child. These little pulsing spurts of story, broken up so frequently, were perhaps meant to act as a little selah in an introduction not labeled something so marketable, like ‘Prologue.’ It is a subterraneous introduction, implied in the tone and pace of the text. As Goethe’s chapters get longer and longer, the fragmented story of puppeteering from the beginning suddenly struck me, while reading, as a strange memory, almost as though I was trying to recall a dream. I was able to recall all of the different, subtle shifts in perspective that this method of splicing awarded, which colored my view of the hero and how he acted for the longer stretches of text later in the book.

If pausing is also about reflection, it is little wonder that we impose a book-like structure to our own lives. How often, when speaking of changes, do we ‘open a new chapter?’ The forms of life and the condition of the universe have, perhaps, already planted the chapter-structure in our minds. Are the seasons not chapters? Are hours not scenes? Are our lives not stories from which we would like to take a break now and again so that we might reflect on what they mean before entering them again? Perhaps the similarity is a bit unfair. With life, we don’t have the luxury of re-reading any of the chapters.

Read more at http://www.emergenthermit.com

Conversations with James Joyce — A Review

16 Feb

http://www.amazon.com/Conversations-James-Joyce-Arthur-Power/dp/1901866416

The foreword to this edition of the book is determined to, at once, paint its author as a genius worthy of Joyce’s friendship and to divulge to us the most sensational instances of their meeting before we even get a chance to read about it ourselves.

Forgiving the clumsy beginning, we’re then introduced to a token of this particular genre whose most remarkable predecessor—and, surely, a direct model was Conversations with Goethe. Like Eckermann’s Goethe book, Arthur Power’s book is autobiographical in structure but slight on the ‘auto’ at just the instant when the star-artist arrives on the scene of our narrator’s life. At this point, minimal narration segues into a lot of lit-talk.

Though the forward by David Norris suggests that Mr. Powers is humbly portraying a younger, bohemian, ‘romantically-inclined’ version of himself in the shadow of a great genius, one can’t help but think that perhaps Mr. Powers thought, in fact, that he was the one best equipped to match wits with the great Joyce. After all, we’re only warned in the beginning by Powers, ‘My point of view has changed and coincides more with his, but such was it then, and as such I have left it.’ As close to Joyce’s mind as Powers’ mind might have become later, Powers never gives the reader any direct indication that he later disavowed his hatred of Ulysses. He preferred Joyce’s previous works which he thought were more ‘romantic’: Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Joyce’s frequent defenses give us some of the most personal insights into the heart of one of the most important books of the twentieth century. Of the work of his latter period, he says,

The important thing is not what we write, but how we write, and in my opinion the modern writer must be an adventurer above all, willing to take every risk, and be prepared to founder in his effort if need be. In other words we must write dangerously: everything is inclined to flux and change nowadays and modern literature, to be valid, must express that flux. In Ulysses I tried to express the multiple variations which make up the social life of a city—its degradations and its exaltations. In other words, what we want to avoid is the classical, with its rigid structure and its emotional limitations. The mediaeval, in my opinion, had greater emotional fecundity than classicism, which is the art of the gentleman, and is now as out-of-date as gentlemen are, classicism in which the scents are only sweet, but I have preferred other smells.

And we get plenty of other smells. Not many other novels before or after Ulysses feature a prominent scene with its main character on the john.

Arthur’s experiences with Joyce are set almost entirely in his living room. Much of Joyce’s lifestyle is hardly surprising to read about. He hated all things bohemian. He didn’t like to go to parties and he didn’t feel comfortable around people.

His wit and black humor are reserved for one-on-one conversations (specifically with Powers in this case) as in one instant where Joyce tells the story of a late acquaintance. He was a fellow Irishman named Tuohy, who became jealous and antagonistic when Joyce became an international celebrity. He once annoyed Joyce by mock-clapping when he entered a room. When Joyce learned that Tuohy had committed suicide in America, Power’s tells us that Joyce ‘showed no emotion.’

—I am not surprised, he said. He nearly made me want to commit suicide too.

Unlike Conversations with Goethe, which is made up of warm, congenial insights into many subjects between friends, Conversations with James Joyce is made up almost entirely of literary arguments. It is impressive that Powers was able to honestly capture (to the best of his memory) the biting, sarcastic quips that Joyce reserved for the former’s favorite writers.

After pages of Joyce tearing apart the beloveds of western literature, it is refreshing to hear how much he appreciates Proust. In this book, however, Joyce’s appreciation of an artist is often traded for Power’s dislike of the same. ‘You should give him more patience,’ he tells Powers, ‘…certainly no one has taken modern psychology so far, or to such a fine point.’

When Powers asks if Joyce is interested in Dostoyevsky, he replies, ‘Of course.’ Dostoyevsky, in fact, earns a brief but high place of praise in this book, probably higher than most other names mentioned.

He is the man more than any other who has created modern prose, and intensified it to its present-day pitch. It was his explosive power which shattered the Victorian novel with its simpering maidens and ordered commonplaces; books which were without imagination or violence.

The book ends abruptly on an unfortunate and sad, yet totally puzzling note—a rift in their friendship. What’s puzzling about this rift is that it is not only vague—having grown in the soil of Joyce’s ‘ill humour’ which came about one night over a meal—but that seems to rest almost entirely on a gross misinterpretation of a statement that Joyce made to lighten the mood.

When Joyce tells Powers about the birth of his grandson, Powers, ‘not being a family man who dotes on children,’ and who was ‘feeling very bitter at that time about the world in general,’ replies to Joyce with a passive, inconsiderate, ‘Is that all?’ When Joyce replies, heatedly, with, ‘It is the most important thing there is,’ Powers, rather than taking it to mean that family is incredibly important to Joyce, speculates to himself,

‘the most important thing there is’ meant that another Joyce had been born into the world. Even to this day, I am still in doubt, for Joyce’s estimation of merit would on occasion suddenly flare up to a point of madness.

‘I cannot see what’s so important,’ Powers replies shamelessly. ‘It is something which happens to everyone, everywhere, all the time.’

The fact that Powers qualifies this callous statement by mentioning his not being a family man, by his irritation at Joyce’s alleged self-perception, and also by his unspoken agreement with Beckett of the world that ‘It had gone on long enough,’ leads one to assume that, inevitably, Powers was of the mind that his own position and attitude was justified. What would seem to be his apparent inability to read the situation years later, or at least, to see how it would appear to the common reader on paper, is comical.

The personal comedy gives way to sadness, however, as Powers rushes through their subsequent, brief meetings before Joyce’s death, which he hears about over the telephone. Thus, the book concludes,

It had not ended, but had lessened as so many friendships lessen when distance puts its cold hand between them, damped as they are by circumstances and time, and by differences of personality. A personality can fuse with another personality for a time, but when that time is over we gradually re-enter the Solitude of ourselves. Then all that remains is the memory of the fire which once warmed us both, and it is fragments of that memory which I have tried to reconstruct.

This memory reconstruction, this fragment is, this already brief friendship is the closest thing we have to discovering Joyce the man. But such is surely as Joyce would have preferred it: that he left behind, not traces of his life, but only his work.