Tag Archives: rilke

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.

These Thoughts Were Made For Walking

8 Jul

Walking has done little for humanity outside of providing us with health, exercise, scenery, fresh air, perspective, and the greatest literature the world has ever imagined. Granted, not all novelists and poets were champion walkers. Just the best ones were. As for philosophy, there is no sitting. To discourse on the nature of the sitting philosopher would be the same as writing an essay on dry water.

Jesus most certainly couldn’t have been as fat as the Buddha. He moved around too much. It is for this reason along with his instruction to his disciples ‘to go into all the world,’ that Christianity is a walking religion. In the history of Judaism, I think we can all agree that the art of walking is a pretty much inevitable association. Islam has a great amount of boasting to do about its use of horses but unfortunately, as far as walking goes, they are champions of the circle.

The writer Will Self wrote a book called Psychogeography, in which he recounts his experiences walking thousands of miles across the world. His initial inspiration was the French Situationist, Guy Debord, who first coined the phrase which served as the title of Self’s book. Debord described ‘Psychogeography’ as ‘the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.’ Their aim (so to speak) was to wander aimlessly through the streets of Paris at night, often drunk on lots of red wine, and write down what they saw in relation to their feelings about it. In doing so, they hoped to destroy the conventions of capitalist society—or something.

Self explained in his lectures when touring for the book that some of the streets in Paris are so wide because they were designed in anticipation of being able to control mobs. For him, walking from his home in South London all the way to the Heathrow airport, hopping on the plane and then walking from the JFK airport to his hotel, is all a way of subverting the psycho-political constraints on geography set by those who have most influenced history. His body remembers the walk as the pivotal part of the journey, where as the flight is simply a break between two landscapes joined by his mind. Self’s paranoia has always been a more cheerful one than Guy Debord’s. Self had this to say when interviewed by Russell Brand: ‘I’m trying to destroy the machine-man matrix that has gripped our heads and is destroying us … No it’s just I enjoy a walk.’

There does seem to be a fine line between those who do something for enjoyment and those who do something out of the firm conviction that it is nutritional for them in some way. The former, perhaps, would be categorized as sensualists, the latter, romantics. Rilke, like Rimbuad, spent the better part of his life walking across the world. Because Rilke was more of a romantic, he seems to have been more agreeable in the eyes of his peers. But if we can consider Rilke a romantic, Rimbaud was most certainly an unadulterated sensualist. In between his marathon strolls from country to country, he won his way into the hearts of men and women, fell out with them, almost died several times, and ‘seduced’ Verlaine. Most of this occurred after he retired from poetry at the age of 20, already having revolutionized every form of verse and prose imaginable. The dandified ideal of Baudelaire’s flaneur didn’t even begin to describe this highly irascible, insatiable little bastard, Rimbaud. One imagines him marching rather than strolling, turning his nose up to the robbed and beaten, marching around the criminals and continuing on his way. ‘Impatience’ doesn’t hardly seems fitting to describe him when reading about his character. We see him completely annihilating everything that stands in his way, not a single thought or care for what bridge he will burn, what tie he will sever or what medical problems he’ll acquire. He doesn’t even give himself the opportunity to be impatient, and we sense this in his poetry. We get the feeling while reading him that wherever he wants to go, he has long ago set out that direction.

Henry Miller, who seems to be remembered for sex more than anything else, probably wrote about walking more than he wrote about sex. There was food too. He also needed a job. Sometimes he just wanted one cup of coffee or a cigarette. Sometimes he needed a vision. As he walks through Brooklyn, Paris, the forests and coastline of Big Sur, we’re told just as much about the landscape of his inner world as we are the physical landscape. He was one of the more conscious followers of Nietzsche’s certainty that the greatest thoughts are ‘moving thoughts.’ But what a fortunate position Miller was in compared to Nietzsche. Mr. Miller went most of his life well-loved with lots of friends and lots of women. Nietzsche, having very little of love, friends or women—by what seems like some cosmic joke—still managed to contract syphilis, while little Henry got by with a few manageable cases of the clap. Somehow, Nietzsche managed to walk as much as eight hours at a stretch, often high into the mountains, despite constant nausea, migraines, indigestion and a severe lack of sleep. One has to hand it to a man that miserable for trying to construct ‘the greatest affirmation of life’ in the philosophy of the Eternal Recurrence—a thought that ultimately came to him while walking-which allowed him to ponder on the possibility that life would just repeat itself over and over, exactly the same as he’d lived it.

Opposite those who walked to conduct the lonely business of figuring out the entire universe were those who walked to enmesh themselves in the otherness of people outside their class, like Dickens. Nabokov walked ten miles a day in search of rare species of butterfly, writing an occasional out-of-sequence sentence on a note card, meant ultimately for a novel. Somehow, old Nabokov still managed to become roly-poly on hard candy, which is probably just as much of a feat in light of his walking volume as his actual walking volume. Whitman, in an act of bravery almost unheard of today, tried his hand at selling his own Leaves of Grass door to door. Another champion walker, our Walt wandered the neighborhoods, forests, boulevards and alleyways with immense curiosity and love of life, though we certainly don’t have a problem imagining him stopping every now and then to lay in the grass and sniff his own armpits.

One thing we can gather from The Gospels is that the Devil is impatient with walking. He gave up on Christ after only three temptations in the space of forty days. You’d think he’d be able to squeeze a few more in. Or perhaps our lesson is this: that the Devil has very limited resources when out in nature. The Devil is a city man—a pimp and an alleyway crap shooter, a leader of an underground drug cartel. Emerson and Theroux knew this, and Heidegger most certainly knew it for a time at least … On that note, is it really such a surprise that when Heidegger left nature he became a Nazi?

God has given the gift of wisdom to the bi-pedals. No mollusk, cephalopod or crustacean has yet created a work of any real merit, though it may be a bit premature to rule them out just yet. Just as Henry Miller assured us that some of Joyce’s Ulysses was meant to be read on the toilet, we can be certain that some thoughts can only be thought while walking. And you can tell the difference, can’t you? Doesn’t Camus’s The Stranger reek like a smoked-in, farted-in, sexed-up hotel room? It is not a novel of moving thoughts but festering thoughts. Dostoyevsky’s Notes From the Underground may be written from a room, but one can feel it running, at least. One can feel it cursing as it moves all directions, picking up stones and throwing them out ahead of itself. Sophie’s Choice,  however, is the perfect reflection of a mind preoccupied with masturbation until something else comes and preoccupies it—not to mention the fact that it is also one of the greatest examples of sadism toward the reader written in the past century. The Adventures of Augie March, however, not only walks, but runs, leaps, stops for breath and even soars into the sky with Augie’s eagle.

The Golden Bowl takes a few strolls, but only long enough to run back to stuffy rooms to share gossip. But those strolls seem sufficient enough in supplying us with moving, looping, curling, obsessive thoughts. A Death In Venice doesn’t make the cut. This is the narrative of a man on a rocky boat, unable to walk his obsessive thoughts into coherence. The Picture of Dorian Gray makes the cut. Not only does it reflect the thought of one who has walked much, but one who has walked and then stopped to rest for a while in forbidden places before moving into the light again–could we expect less from Wilde?

Ulysses is most certainly a walking novel, among many other things. But it must be listed among the great walking books for it contains everything that could happen while moving: errands, distraction, idleness, jealousy, anxiety, reflection, conversation, and even the occasional second or two one requires to wipe a glob of snot on a rock.

You can see the difference. It has to do with energy. It just may be that even the walk itself is a product of this energy and the walking thought with it. It hardly seems that all the great walkers were in extraordinary physical shape. Many of them were quite weak and sick. But they were people of great mental health. They assaulted their senses with new perceptions to appropriate, digest and dispense. They quelled the sitting anxieties of stuffy afternoon rooms by sweating a bit in the sunlight. They measured the architecture of their minds against the architecture of nature and found them forming a third nature—or is it the only real nature, the one identified by interdependence between the two?

And though there do exist many other great works that aren’t necessarily moving ones at all, it is the moving works in the end which remind us that satiation, adventure and perhaps peace of mind are only as far away from us as one’s foot is from the ground and one foot from the other.