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Every current of fashion or of worldview derives its force from what is forgotten. This downstream flow is ordinarily so strong that only the group can give itself up to it; the individual—the precursor—is liable to collapse in the face of such violence, as happened with Proust. In other words: what Proust, as an individual, directly experienced in the phenomenon of remembrance, we have to experience indirectly…studying “current,” “fashion,” “tendency—as punishment, if you will, for the sluggishness which keeps us from taking it up ourselves.
- Walter Benjamin
In many an era, the method of storytelling has come into question, just as ideas of the “new novel” that challenges or defies convention have come into being. It is timely just now to ponder whether the “new novel”, if it in fact exists, is something that could be spoonfed to our fair Nation or “territory“–ponder because of so many comments that abound concerning the legitimizing of the illegitimate and the grounding down of anything too challenging for the “wholly toothless”, if one is to mix this ghastly metaphor with anything regarding literary appreciation or cultivation of said skill.
Steven W. Beattie of Quill & Quire is most certainly not alone in his expression of editorial Herzschmerz, adding to the chorus of genteel kvetches I am often subject to when fishing for reviews for innumerable texts by amazing Canadian authors–genteel kvetches about fiscal constraints and click-driven ad-dependent celebrity-stalking media feeds, but on a Lemon Hound blog post titled “Gasping for Air” which included my latest book of fiction among a handful of books that
are not the kinds of books that would appeal to the cozy sensibilities that seem to be driving so much of our literary culture these days.
Beattie also asks:
[If] the major media outlets and award juries tend to focus solely on predictable, easygoing fare, where does that leave writers who have ambitions to do something different or less familiar?
I am hardly going to take the (reading?) public to task for preferring a bona fide honest-to-goodness supertrue creative non-fiction about some idea of the North or prairie life to some of the more innovative “fledgeling” experiments I am in continual contact with. If you’re bristling over my dissing of frozen nethertropes concerning National identity, please check out Life Below Zero, an episode of Doc Zone with Ann-Marie MacDonald about Canada’s conflicted relationship with winter.
Crude stereotypes aside, I feel it is sufficient to point out that books are more likely to get attention based on their content rather than their uniqueness in terms of language and/or form, and even more attention if that content is or can be narrowed down to the size and dimensions of a screenplay proposal. This is nothing new–perhaps the oldest complaint among poets and experimental writers, save that one’s sandwich board upon a soapbox nowadays would likely read MORE CONTENT / LESS AGGREGATION. However, even I know when to defer to my betters:
Several years ago I was talking with a woman who had been brought up in Saskatchewan but was now involved in the writing world and living in central Canada. Here’s what she said: “If I have to read one more novel that starts with a prairie farm wife, old before her time, leaning on her broom on the unpainted porch and looking out at the blighted fields, I will puke!”
I was awfully glad to hear such sentiments from a person in the book world. There was a time when I liked naturalism more than anything else in fiction. I mean when I was about twenty-one. And I do not begrudge writers and readers their love of the realist text with all its description and characterization and survival. Readers have been trained to expect description and so forth, and they way what they think is a continuity between their books and their world.
This excerpt comes from “Doing Our Own Reading”, George Bowering’s introduction to And Other Stories (Talonbooks), a collection of Canadian short fiction. This includes many fine examples of what might almost be termed “flash fiction”, to use more recent jargon. One of the included stories that I had the pleasure of hearing on Denman Island was Audrey Thomas’ “The Man with Clam Eyes”, which is about a woman in a cabin nursing a broken heart with wine when she uncovers a manuscript with a peculiar typo in it that serves to dramatically underline the unreliability of what is being told, in the outline of a story within a story or by the woman herself.
In his introduction, Bowering rather liberally takes Henry James to task for his expressed reliance upon true events for his fiction, although in leading up to Ethel Wilson, he describes her as “a kind of realist”, one “who loved form” as if that were so very different from James himself. Of course, I have felt drawn to Wilson and James because of their writing being so inextricably bound up with questions of form, and it is reasonable to consider that in spite of what James did or did not say in his extensive critical writings, the true events that perhaps inspired his middle to late novels are in each case the smallest part of the expression one becomes deeply immersed within.
James often relates the art of painting to what he specifies is literary art, and in “The Art of Fiction” (which Bowering references in his introduction) he explains the difficulty in communicating one’s methodology to another individual or an audience, a manner that is best known to oneself:
His manner is his secret, not necessarily a deliberate one. He cannot disclose it, as a general thing, if he would; he would be at a loss to teach it to others. I say this with a due recollection of having insisted on the community of method of the artist who paints a picture and the artist who writes a novel. The painter is able to teach the rudiments of his practice, and it is possible, from the study of good work (granted the aptitude), both to learn how to paint and to learn how to write. Yet it remains true, without injury to the rapprochement, that the literary artist would be obliged to say to his pupil much more than the other, “Ah, well, you must do it as you can!” It is a question of degree, a matter of delicacy. If there are exact sciences there are also exact arts, and the grammar of painting is so much more definite that it makes the difference.
In James’ article in The New York Times titled “The Future of the Novel”, he once again draws a parallel between painting and a particular kind of writing:
The novel is, of all pictures, the most comprehensive and the most elastic. It will stretch anywhere–it will take in absolutely anything. All it needs is a subject and a painter. But for its subject, magnificently, it has the whole human consciousness.
(Claude Monet – Rouen Cathedral – Figures 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6)
This description seems apt in terms of James’ own novels, as his later work reminds me of Claude Monet’s thirty plus attempts to capture a “true” subject, Rouen Cathedral. It matters not so much that a friend of Henry James was given some advice in a garden at an artsy party, even if it gave life to the much celebrated speech to little Bilham.
What must or should concern us is that James, surely as much in love with the sentence as Marcel Proust or Gertrude Stein, or for that matter Ethel Wilson, took the time to “paint” a variegated and lengthy linguistic texture around that singular event, in what was to become immediately recognizable as his style of periphrastic circumambulation, creating The Ambassadors, a novel that interests me not because it relates a “true event” but because on some level it runs counter to that ardent cri de coeur to live one’s life that is placed in the mouth of the protagonist Strether, who for the duration of the book looms rather large as if he were a hero of consciousness, influencing others through some mysterious radii of his mental workings instead of through his actions.
Of course, I am splitting hairs, as Bowering is making a point about novelistic and storytelling conventions. In The Darkness of the Present (The University of Alabama Press), Steve McCaffery goes a step farther than most, pointing out that in groundbreaking novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Laurence Sterne “abruptly defamiliarizes the reading experience by simultaneously interrupting both the narrative flow and the book’s bibliographic conventions with a decorative marbled leaf.” In his novel, Sterne is clearly parodying the novelistic convention of heroic conception and parentage although McCaffery offers us Karen Schiff’s observation that Shandy’s father’s ejaculation is likely to have rather persistent representation in the original marbled page, which in terms of colour is at the very least may be thought of as organic.
Also, please don’t try this at home unless you are experienced.
A 1773 edition of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, open to the famous marbled page – The Laurence Sterne Trust
Drawing upon theories about Fra Angelico’s portrayal of “unfigurable” theological ideas in four small panels of marmi finti, McCaffery suggests that
painted or fictive marble comprises a meta-materiality that deploys one material (paint) to create a representation of a different, formless, material (marble). Going beyond this iconic function, the marmi finti are designed to convert the viewer’s gaze and introduce through the negation of orthodox figuration the mystery of precisely that which cannot be figured within a figure.
Out of this argument also arises an unconventional convention of challenging, or even defacing what is known in order to get at what is unknown, in what McCaffery calls “arguably the most formally egregious anglophone text of the eighteenth century..both anomalous to its age and prescient of the innovative novels of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.”
Bowering gives naturalism its due, as does James and J.K. Huysmans, who in his 1884 preface to his incendiary novel A rebours has a fair amount of praise to give Emile Zola, although he also describes the atrophy of Naturalism:
Naturalism was getting more and more out of breath by dint of turning the mill for ever in the same round. The stock of observations that each writer had stored up by self-scrutiny or study of his neighbours was getting exhausted. Zola, who was a first-rate scene-painter, got out of the difficulty by designing big, bold canvases more or less true to life; he suggested fairly well the illusion of movement and action; his heroes were devoid of soul, governed simply and solely by impulses and instincts, which greatly simplified the work of analysis. They moved about, carried out sundry summary activities, peopled the scene with tolerably convincing sketches of lay-figures that became the principal characters of his dramas. In this fashion he celebrated the Central Markets, and the big stores of Paris, the railways and mines of the country at large; and the human beings wandering lost amid these surroundings played no more than the part of utility men and supers therein. But Zola was Zola–an artist a trifle ponderous, but endowed with powerful lungs and massive fists.
One of the illustrations by Arthur Zaidenberg from the 1931 Illustrated Editions issue of À rebours.
Huysmans goes on to describe an amusing walk in the country with Zola, who charges him with dealing a terrible blow to Naturalism and for leading the school of writers (imitators) astray. Huysmans remains in staunch defense of a principle akin to James’ idea of keeping one’s manner of writing to oneself, not through intentional furtiveness but on account of difficulty in expressing one’s method. This is out of what feels like sheer necessity, as Huysmans indicates:
There were many things Zola could not understand; in the first place, the craving I felt to open the windows, to escape from surroundings that were stifling me; secondly, the desire that filled me to shake off preconceived ideas, to break the limitations of the novel…
J.K. Huysmans’ Against Nature (Dedalus Books)
Huysmans’ novels are indeed to me a breath of fresh air, including his most notorious book À rebours (translated as Against Nature, also taken as “Wrong Way”) which follows the decadent excess of a wealthy aesthete who catalogues centuries of literature, scents, flowers, passions in a fin de siècle spectacle of sensuous exhaustion. It is noteworthy that Oscar Wilde delighted in its strangeness and used it as the basis for his own novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.
In his 1884 Preface, Huysmans speaks almost exclusively in favour of Barbey d’Aurévilly, calling him a “great prose stylist, an admirable novelist whose boldness set all beadledom screaming, enraged by the explosive vehemence of his phraseology.” Marcel Proust also elaborated upon his theories about music and literature in the form of his narrator character in À la recherche du temps perdu, who also touches upon the writing of d’Aurévilly:
This unknown quality of a unique world which no other composer had ever made us see, perhaps it is in this, I said to Albertine, that the most authentic proof of genius consists, even more than in the content of the work itself. “Even in literature?” Albertine inquired. “Even in literature.” And thinking again of the monotony of Vinteuil’s works, I explained to Albertine that the great men of letters have never created more than a single work, or rather have never done more than refract through various mediums an identical beauty which they bring into the world. “If it were not so late, my child,” I said to her, “I would shew you this quality in all the writers whose works you read while I am asleep, I would shew you the same identity as in Vinteuil. These typical phrases, which you are beginning to recognise as I do, my little Albertine, the same in the sonata, in the septet, in the other works, would be for instance, if you like, in Barbey d’Aurevilly, a hidden reality revealed by a material trace, the physiological blush of l’Ensorcelée, of Aimée de Spens, of la Clotte, the hand of the Rideau Cramoisi, the old manners and customs, the old words, the ancient and peculiar trades behind which there is the Past, the oral history compiled by the rustics of the manor, the noble Norman cities redolent of England and charming as a Scots village, the cause of curses against which one can do nothing, the Vellini, the Shepherd, a similar sensation of anxiety in a passage, whether it be the wife seeking her husband in Une Vieille Maîtresse, or the husband in l’Ensorcelée scouring the plain and the ‘Ensorcelée’ herself coming out from Mass.
‘The Hidden Side of a Whist Party’, illustration from Les Diaboliques by Felicien Rops – 1886
d’Aurévilly’s Les Diaboliques (Dedalus Books) often uses a framing narrative to drawn the reader deeper into its mysteries. Once more, in almost all of his stories, we have the added layer of a storyteller of questionable reliability who gives the impression of someone revealing an illicit secret, and not without consciousness of the effect their tale may have. What is more, there is a sense of horror that arises not from graphic revelations or scandals so much as a withholding of those very expectations, reinforcing d’Aurévilly’s notion of a crime more intellectual than physical, as is described in “A woman’s revenge”:
It is of this kind of tragedy that I wish to give a specimen in relating the history of a vengeance of a most terribly original nature, in which no blood flowed, and neither steel nor poison was used; a civilized crime, in fact, in which the narrator has invented nothing but his manner of relating the story.
I was reminded in many ways of Martine Desjardin’s most recent and far edgier novel Maleficium (Talonbooks), in which seven stories are told in confidence to Vicar Jerome Savoie, a 19th Century Montreal priest who has broken the seal of the confessional to record these shocking tales. Through the opening of this mysterious manuscript itself, the reader risks excommunication, or even worse! These decadent tales of transgression and vengeance by the comely woman with the cleft palate, in addition to providing ample entertainment, are perhaps also enacting a kind of cultural and literary redress.
I cannot resist quoting local author Jenn Farrell (and Vancouver’s sweetheart!), author of The Devil You Know (Anvil Press), who provided one of my favourite blurbs:
Lust, greed, retribution, and shame — Maleficium reads like a flesh-bound catalogue of my favourite sins. Desjardins skillfully blends the repulsive with the erotic to craft stories that rise from the past and perfume the air with incense and magic. An intensely pleasurable work that builds, tale by exotic tale, to a dark climax. Forgive me, Father: I loved it.
Evonne Kummer, Nerval pet lobster fashion victim at NY World Fair
Perhaps most celebrated for his walking of a pet lobster named Thibault on the end of a blue silk ribbon in the Palais Royal gardens in Paris, along with his poems Les Chimères, translated to great effect by Robin Blaser in his collection The Holy Forest and tenderly riffed upon by Charles Bernstein for what I understand is an intensely personal poem called “Misfortune”, it is lesser known that poet and novelist Gérard de Nerval was something of a pioneer in the area of “creative non-fiction”, putting together a synthesis of styles found in autobiography, travel writing, and historical novels, at the same time adapting ancient elements of Western mythology into feverish dreams that would resonate with the Surrealist movement.
Gérard de Nerval’s Aurélia is available from Green Integer
This approach that was to have a profound effect on Marcel Proust, who in describing Nerval’s novel Sylvie in Against Sainte-Beuve and Other Essays (Penguin Books), starts to map out the writing process for his own masterwork:
This story, remember, which you call a naïve painting, is the dream of a dream. Gérard is trying to define for himself a strange sensation he had experienced at the theatre, suddenly he realizes what it is, it is the memory of a woman whom he loved at the same time as another woman, which thus dominates certain moments of his life and takes hold of him again every evening at a certain time. And as he evokes those days in a dream-picture, he is taken with a desire to set off for that part of the country, he goes downstairs from his room, has the door opened, takes a carriage and as he jolts towards Loisy he recollects and recounts. He arrives after a night without sleep and what he then sees, detached from reality so to speak by this sleepless night, by this return to a country which is for him more a past existing at least as much in his heart as on the map, is so tightly interwoven with the memories which he continues to evoke that one is constantly obliged to turn back to the preceding pages to find out where one is, whether this is the present or the past recalled.
Proust, not unlike James, was concerned with how our memories tend to falsify “true events” and also how some literature is therefore like certain inaccuracies found in paintings. A number of innovative writers in the first quarter of the 20th century were preoccupied with the way in which time is distorted through narrative, through the way it is being told:
For me, voluntary memory, which is above all a memory of the intellect and of the eyes, gives us only facets of the past that have no truth; but should a smell or a taste, met with again in quite different circumstances, reawaken the past in us, in spite of ourselves, we sense how different that past was from what we thought we had remembered, our voluntary memory having painted it, like a bad painter, in false colours. Already, in this first volume, you will find the character who tells the story and who says “I” (who is not me) suddenly recovering years, gardens, people he has forgotten, in the taste of a mouthful of tea in which he has soaked a bit of madeleine; he could have remembered them no doubt, but without their colour or their charm; I have been able to make him say that, as in that little Japanese game where you soak flimsy bits of paper which, the moment you immerse them in a bowl, spread out and writhe and turn into flowers and characters, all the flowers in his garden, and the water-lilies of the Vivonne, and the good people of the village and their little houses and the church, and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, whatever can take on shape and solidity, has emerged, town and gardens, out of his cup of tea.
According to Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life (Picador), he discusses Virginia Woolf’s despairing of Proust before going on to discover her own unique means of expression and her own astounding “post-Proust” novels:
The path from depression and self-loathing to cheerful defiance suggests a gradual recognition that one person’s achievements did not have to invalidate another’s. . . . Proust might have expressed many things well, but independent thought and the history of the novel had not come to a halt with him. His book did not have to be followed by silence; there was still space for the scribbling of others, for Mrs. Dalloway, The Common Reader, A Room of One’s Own, and in particular, there was space for what these books symbolized in this context—perceptions of one’s own.
Of course, de Botton also speaks of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (Aziloth Books), exceptional for its brilliant and painterly description of the life of inanimate things. Also, it is important to remember that Proust greatly refined rougher autobiographical sketches (many of which can be found in Jean Santeuil) for his seven volume masterwork, for example turning a volatile tantrum-throwing brat into a charming little boy longing for a goodnight kiss. The immediate is smoothed out to the point that the first person is a kind of third person narrative. We would perhaps not be able to swallow his lengthy essayic digressions, were they not penned in a winsome anecdotal style after Montaigne and others.
Volker Schlöndorff, Jeremy Irons and Ornella Muti on the set of the film Swann in Love
There is a tendency to reject part or all of Proust’s narrative on first or even subsequent readings. His opening overture in Swann’s Way, akin to the opening for a Wagnerian opera of questionable length is for some almost unbearably quotidian. For my own part, I read a separate copy of the brilliant section “Swann in Love”, which works as a standalone novella, and then started the whole thing over. However, upon returning to this beginning part through rereading, a charm is now perceived, as when returning to a scene painted by Vermeer and suddenly noticing an element that was originally overlooked.
For the utmost consistency and quality, Modern Library has D. J. Enright’s revisions of the late Terence Kilmartin’s acclaimed reworking of C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s translation of Proust’s seven volumes
In order to truly appreciate his writing, it occurs to me that one must really immerse oneself in his aesthetic system to the point that one’s means of observing and perceiving are inexorably altered. As in great paintings or works of music, through cultivation of understanding and study of them, these musical fragments and archetypal silhouettes have a unique ability to resonate in the present.
(Two surviving pages from the official “Morseskin” notebooks)
Fortunately, Liam Neeson taught me to “fail better”, Beckett-style
Reluctantly, I am skipping rather lightly over the work of Samuel Beckett, and that is because after about three years of pouring over his novels and labouring over my own Beckett project, I have abandoned hundreds of cobwebbed pages because his style of aesthetic and existential narrowing is too confining for me at this stage of my writing life. It is ironic, as I receive kind words from select friends about its musicality and “monologic rhythms,” one of whom calls this kind of work the “orange sorbet” of life, the questionable dessert between other written works, that I have come to think of as an emotional receptacle full of illusory sufferings and falsified memories. Indeed, it is a great relief to let go of such a thing and that feels something like life, the outside, dare I say even the love of others. Grumble grumble. If this sounds too sappy, here’s an excerpt from Beckett’s short essay “Proust” to add some gristle to the ongoing sorbet:
But if love, for Proust, is a function of man’s sadness, friendship is a function of his cowardice; and, if neither can be realized because of the impenetrability (isolation) of all that is not ‘cosa mentale’, at least the failure to possess may have the nobility of that which is tragic, whereas the attempt to communicate where no communication is possible is merely a simian vulgarity, or horribly comic, like the madness that holds a conversation with the furniture. Friendship, according to Proust, is the negation of that irremediable solitude to which every human being is condemned. Friendship implies an almost piteous acceptance of face values. Friendship is a social expedient, like upholstery or the distribution of garbage buckets. It has no spiritual significance. For the artist, who does not deal in surfaces, the rejection of friendship is not only reasonable, but a necessity. Because the only possible spiritual development is in the sense of depth. The artistic tendency is not expansive, but a contraction. And art is the apotheosis of solitude.
Beckett is severe enough to take Proust to task (rather ambiguously) for doing the opposite of this at some point in his grand work, for raising his voice with “the plebs, mob, rabble, canaille.” However severe in tone, this statement relates to the artist’s position in relation to society, surroundings, etc., as the very heave of one’s vision is what receives the lifeblood of one’s energies. In his own “apotheosis of solitude,” Beckett’s novels reach a decadent height in Murphy and lead towards his “Frenchification” to shake free of that Irish style of hyperintellectual decadence in his quarters a stone’s throw away from Wilde and Joyce, deciding to compose his works in French and then translate them into English. The result is a terse minimalist style and a trilogy of novels about the inability to tell or even express a portion of a story, not to mention an elusive search for the assemblage of a self, himself, oneself?
This culminates in even more fragmentation and deterioration of the novel form, suffering a linguistic “breakdown” in Comment c’est (How It Is) and reaching its most abstract apotheosis in En attendant Godot (Waiting for Godot), which is perhaps best understood as a writing process that reaches this point, this inevitable staging of the unstageable. After enumerating possible meanings for “Godot”, including that “inaccessible self Beckett pursues through his entire oeuvre”, in one of his essays, Alain Robbe-Grillet reminds us of the existential nature of the overbearing aesthetic truth in the play:
[T]hese images, even the most ridiculous ones, which thus try as best they can to limit the damages, do not obliterate from anyone’s mind the reality of the drama itself, that part which is both the most profound and quite superficial, about which there is nothing else to say: Godot is that character for whom two tramps are waiting at the edge of a road, and who does not come.
My fascination with work by extremely innovative Irish writers could have easily overwhelmed this piece, including the outlandish parodic style of Flann O’Brien, whose “characters” in the The Dalkey Archive (The Dalkey Archive!) include James Joyce and St. Augustine, but even in passing I want to mention Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea (Penguin Books) on account of the profound effect it has had on me.
Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea
Brilliant poet Sandra Huber was filling me in on this book and I was so eager to read it, she promised to mail it to me INSTANTER once she had read it. Making good on her promise, I was stunned to discover that Murdoch’s tale, told with lovely unreliability by a retired theatrical maven named Charles Arrowby, is the richest culmination of so many of her other novels that also strip away every illusion until the character is forced (along with us) to face up to certain home truths. However, with a truly Shakespearian sleight-of-hand and with a kind of trompe l’oeil effect, it is impressed upon us that our lifelong obsessions and even the most cataclysmic events can weed upward out of aesthetic soil, even the surface of a painting.
I’m also thrilled to pieces that Atlas Press has a new edition of Robert Desnos’ Liberty or Love! available in late March, 2013.
I’ve made no secret of my admiration for the work of French poet Robert Desnos, whose madcap novella Liberty or Love! (Atlas Press), perhaps even stranger than the work of Huysmans, initially inspired my own Surrealist novel Minor Episodes and got my own fiction series The Chaos! Quincunx rolling. Of course, his chapter about the Sperm-Drinker’s Club (for fans of the aforementioned marbling only) is an entirely different take on this concept of “involuntary memory”. Perhaps there are some things we would prefer to forget. For those who want to read more about Desnos and my acknowledgement of “Coast Surreal Territory” (or even for a bit about surreal elements in the work of bill bissett), check out this blog I did for The Capilano Review.
L’Ecume des jours (Mood Indigo), with Audrey Tautou, is in theaters on April 24, 2013
Something that warmed the cockles of my world-weary heart this last non-denominational holiday was a gift in the form of a book by Boris Vian called L’Ecume des jours, very craftily titled in translation Foam of the Daze, described by TamTam Books as:
a jazz fueled Science Fiction story that is both romantic and nihilistic..an assortment of bittersweet romance, absurdity and the frailty of life..a nimble-fingered masterpiece that is both witty and incredibly moving..a story of a wealthy young man and the love of his life who develops a water lily in her lung.
There is a deceptively naive sensibility to the text that echoes the characters, who from the start of the book live in charming luxury. Their descent into poverty, desperation, and ruination lingers in the realm of the absurd, yet with a depth that increases the more one reads. In one topical scene, there is a sincere attempt at an intervention by Alise, who is hoping to keep her boyfriend from squandering all of his money on everything that “Jean Sol-Partre” jots down:
The heart-snatcher retracted, in its prongs was the bookseller’s heart, very small and light red, she separated the prongs and the heart rolled next to its bookseller. She needed to hurry, she took a pile of newspapers, lit a match and threw it under the counter, and threw the newspapers on top, then put into the flames a dozen Nicolas Calas books that she took off the closest shelf, and the flame lashed out on the books with a hot vibration; the wood of the counter was smoking and crackling, vapors were filling up the store.
As a translator of several of Raymond Chandler’s novels, when asked to select and translate an American book, it was natural for the Americanaphile Vian to save a step and decide to become his own “ghost writer” and write the book himself under the pseudonym Vernon Sullivan. In his introduction to his translation of one of these unconventional crime fiction novels called To hell with the ugly, Paul Knobloch writes the following about Vian:
His work foreshadows “le nouveau roman” and the work of Claude Simon and Robbe-Grillet. His ideas directly influenced major postmodern movements such as lettrism and situationism. He also inspired writers working on the fringes of science-fiction and the avant-garde, especially J.G. Ballard.
Window display at Black Scat Books, featuring one of Tam Tam’s editions.
TamTam Books are doing a wonderful job in reviving these and other novels from the mid-20th century in eyecatching style. In addition to being described as something of a mid-20th century Huysmans on their website, Boris Vian is also defined as engineer, inventor, chronicler of jazz, trumpet player, poet and novelist, creator of spectacles, lyric writer and singer, and pataphysician.
Another sweet gift turned out to be Pierrot Mon Ami (Dalkey Archive) which switched me onto the work of Raymond Queneau. As his principal translator, Barbara Wright, who also writes insightful introductions to his books, refers to Queneau’s desire to return to the inventive expressiveness of language when it was breaking free of Latinate rules, combining everyday colloquialisms with parodies of a lofty writing style. There is an offbeat scattering of ordinariness in Pierrot Mon Ami, yet Queneau’s dramatic positioning of his phrases and scenes emphasizes the naïveté of the title character with Commedia dell’Arte origins.
Also of great interest is Queneau’s first novel Le Chiendent (translated as The Bark Tree and also Witch Grass by New York Review Books), a novel in seven chapters of 13 sections each that begins with a narrator who selects a silhouette out of a crowd of urban commuters to shadow. This “novel-poem” is more in step with Queneau’s involvement with the French literary movement OuLiPo, OUvoir de LIttérature POtentielle (Potential Literature Workshop), a group of writers interested in exploring constrained writing techniques and seeking new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy.
Most notable among OuLiPo works are Georges Perec’s lipogrammatic La Disparition, which omits the letter “E” throughout the text while offering the reader a mystery about the very absence of that very vowel, and also Perec’s delightful La Vie mode d’emploi (Life: A User’s Manual by Godine) which uses his story-making machine or list of constraints to compartmentalize and organize each story in the book about individuals living in the same building.
During the writing of this omnibus scatterpost, I was thrilled to discover that New Directions, a publisher of various Queneau novels, has just released a new expanded anniversary edition of Exercises in Style, ninety-nine retellings of an incident on a crowded bus. Apparently Queneau had been listening to Bach’s The Art of Fugue and when struck by the nature of its theme and variations, he thought of creating a similar work of literature.
In her preface to Pierrot Mon Ami and elsewhere, translator Wright expresses her trepidation about undertaking such a translation:
The question has to arise: Is all this translatable? One answer is that Queneau himself thought it was. When I secretly translated his Exercises in Style (which had told me was the book of his that he would most like to see translated)(and the reason I did so in secret–it took me two years–was because I thought it couldn’t be done), with a great deal of diffidence and no little terror I sent him the result…He wrote immediately: “I have always thought that nothing is untranslatable. Here is new proof.”
La invención de Morel – 1940 dust jacket
Another title of interest is The Invention of Morel (New York Review Books) by Adolfo Bioy Casares, whose early writings, as Suzanne Jill Levine indicates in her introduction to this novella, were heavily influenced by Surrealism’s “automatic writing” and James Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness methods. Evidently, Jorge Luis Borges helped to wean the young man off these styles, encouraging more narrative rigour. The Invention of Morel, concerned with two lovers coexisting spatially in two different temporal dimensions, is an intriguing result of this shift in direction and went on to inspire Alain Robbe-Grillet’s script for Alain Resnais’s 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad along with a number of other films.
Robbe-Grillet’s frustrations with critical feedback in French newspapers and literary journals to his novels The Erasers and The Voyeur, particularly being described as a “difficult” author, led him to write a series of short explanatory articles in the 1950s about the necessary evolution of the novel’s forms, and before long he received the traducement of being the theoretician of a new “school” of the novel.
Robbe-Grillet’s essays on fiction form the book For A New Novel, in which he opines, not unlike Queneau, that the French language has not changed very much in hundreds of years, and that the art of the novel has fallen into a state of stagnation. Robbe-Grillet also takes to task a feeble critical apparatus using terms such as “avante-garde” to malign the writer in question and dismiss any work that gives a bad conscience to the literature of mass consumption. Throughout the book, his emphasis is on the novel as a standalone work of Art and not merely a container for the author’s political views or opinions:
Art is not a more or less brilliantly colored envelope intended to embellish the author’s “message,” a gilt paper around a package of cookies, a whitewash on a wall, a sauce that makes the fish go down easier. Art endures no servitude of this kind, nor any other pre-established function. It is based on no truth that exists before it. It creates its own equilibrium and its own meaning.
Robbe-Grillet addresses attempts at the “anti-novel”, including Jean-Paul Sartre’s La Nausée and Albert Camus’ L‘Étranger under this rubric, referring to Camus’ use of the term “absurdity” for the impassable gulf between people and the world, between the aspirations of the mind and the world’s incapacity to satisfy them, citing “absurdity” as the impossibility of establishing any relation between people and things other than strangeness.
Nathalie Sarraute, searching for a “missing” novel
Nathalie Sarraute’s hard to find literary work (I was saved by a last minute emergency lend by my good friends at local indie bookseller Pulpfiction Books), including Tropismes and Portrait d’un inconnu (Portrait of a Man Unknown), were associated with the nouveau roman movement, and like Alain Robbe-Grillet, she outlined her ideas of a “new” novel in essay form, notably in 1956 in “L‘Ère du soupçon” (“The Age of Suspicion”), which was considered part of a kind of literary manifesto, as she speaks of in her interview for The Paris Review:
It is a deep conviction that the forms of the novel must change, that it’s necessary that there be a continual transformation of the forms, in all the arts—in painting, in music, in poetry, and in the novel. That we cannot return to the forms of the nineteenth century and set another society in them, it doesn’t matter which. So, that interested Alain Robbe-Grillet—he’s the one who did a lot to launch the nouveau roman. He was working at Les Éditions de Minuit; he wanted to republish Tropisms, which had been out of print. It came out at the same time as Jealousy, and at that moment in Le Monde a critic had written, “That is what we can call the nouveau roman,” though he detested it. It was a name that suited Robbe-Grillet quite well; he said, That’s magnificent, it’s what we need. He wanted to launch a movement. Me, I’m incapable of launching a movement. I’ve always been very solitary.
In Jean-Paul Sartre’s introduction to Nathalie Sarraute’s Portrait Of a Man Unknown (George Braziller), he attempts to explain the idea of a novel that challenges the form and limits of the novel, elaborating upon the term “anti-novel”:
These anti-novels maintain the appearance and outlines of the ordinary novel; they are works of the imagination with fictitious characters, whose story they tell. But this is done only the better to deceive us; their aim is to make use of the novel in order to challenge the novel, to destroy it before our very eyes while seeming to construct it, to write the novel of a novel unwritten and unwritable, to create a type of fiction that will compare with the great compositions of Dostoievsky and Meredith much as Miro’s canvas, “The Assassination of Painting,” compares with the pictures of Rembrandt and Rubens. These curios and hard-to-classify works do not indicate weakness of the novel as a genre; all they show is that we live in a period of reflection and that the novel is reflecting on its own problems. Such is this book by Nathalie Sarraute: an anti-novel that reads like a detective story. In fact, it is a parody on the novel of “quest” into which the author had introduced a sort of impassioned amateur detective who becomes fascinated by a perfectly ordinary couple—an old father and a daughter who is no longer very young—spies on them, pursues them and occasionally sees through them, even at a distance, by virtue of a sort of thought transference, without even knowing very well either what he is after or what they are.
None of this takes into account the “klethorka” (almost recognized by Google as “plethora”) of Kafka inspired texts, including part of The Politics of Knives (Coach House Books)–I want to say the best literary “hatchet job” since Clockfire, Jonathan Ball’s previous book of absurdist theatre premises. Technically not a novel, although in Canada everything seems to be a novel nowadays, the title collection of prose poems offers a series of political statements that are slashed with erasure poetics/official document blackouts. Ball also riffs on my favourite Kafka novel in the section “K. Enters the Castle”:
But … control agencies. There are only control agencies.
They sense this camera track silent, pan slow. Stand
back from the pages, their long looping Ks, power
dormant. Not a shadow moves, no paper flits free.
Even as poetry, Ball’s writing reminds me most of the OuLiPo works and revisions of novel form I have been talking about.
Oh, and Kafka’s Hat. Keep going the way you’re going past the towing yard and just up that walkway and around the corner and into the elevator and up and then out again and you’ll find the bureau you’re looking for and just ask for Patrice and
M.A.C. Farrant’s Down the Road to Eternity is one of my all time faves
I’m a fan of pretty much everything M.A.C. Farrant writes, partly because of the quirky intriguing short fiction she does and partly because of the way much of it appears to transcend our conventional notions of the novel, skillfully reflecting contemporary modes of writing through the media and technology in a wry and unobtrusive manner (ie. not gimmicky or monotonous as some dogmatically conceptual experiments).
Farrant’s recent novel The Strange Truth About Us contains a speaking narrator in the first part “Annotations about an Absence: Going Forward,” followed by postmodern commentary in the form of third person footnotes in the second part “Woman Records Brief Notes Regarding Absence: Benchmarking,” all of which help to weave together philosophical musings à la Baudrillard with more than a touch of Fernando Pessoa’s “disquiet.” In many ways, Farrant’s more recent work echoes the once proud tradition of the prose poem in French poetry and fiction–obviously a vibrant part of the Canadian wordscape but not really received with the same degree of attention or seriousness.
Quant à moi, one of the most hilarious instances in Farrant’s “novel” is a Queneau-like fragment of reportage from a real estate newsletter giving a fresh perspective on a trespassing incident at the narrator’s gated community that she and her partner only got a glimpse of:
Stubbs and MacDonald, who had recently broken
off a romantic liaison, were at their posts in the station
guarding the entrance to the estate. Initially they were
having an argument about their failed relationship but
then, in a spirit of reconciliation, ingested a banned, though
unnamed, substance. This caused them to become placid
about their duties, spending at least the following two
hours appreciating the rare loveliness of the evening,
which they beheld from their positions in the guard
house. From there they could see (they said) the pretty
fires of the homeless flickering in the distance.
However, Farrant’s narrative flair offers a modicum of relief from the rigidity of this structure in the third section “Other Prose Surrounding Absence,” returning to the style of a number of her other books. Her writing throughout the book is witty and carefully wrought yet it is hard to evaluate in terms of the unconventional structure. Of course, this is my point, that the critical apparatus is not equipped to really probe too deeply into anything taken to be unusual or difficult. Farrant, as an exceptional book reviewer herself, is all too aware of the irony of diminishing returns for authors of imaginative and innovative books. Recently, she “performed” a tongue-in-cheek review of her own book, in which she offers a lament I am hearing a lot these days:
And book reviews? They’ve gone the way of the typewriter; there aren’t many of them around any more. Review pages in newspapers and magazines have been steadily shrinking. Any way you slice it the formerly fat book review pie has got way small. It’s pretty much crumbs now.
Taking a page from Farrant’s book, perhaps it is time to be more auto-generative as authors than we have been, to create our own “unauthorized” content for ourselves, and naturally, for one another.
This kind of active literary bricolage appears to be the impetus for Sebastian Wigrum, whose catalogued collection of ordinary objects disclose a little more about his character, item by item. Two of my personal favourites are Stendhal’s mirror in connection with his quote that “The novel is a mirror one leads along a road” and a sucking stone from the pocket of a homeless vagabond – Beckett’s Molloy???
Daniel Canty’s Wigrum, a must-have for any literary fetishist, will be available from Talonbooks in October 2013, for the first time in English translation thanks to Oana Avasilichioaei, an astounding poet in her own right whose book We, Beasts (Wolsak and Wynn) recently won the A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry.
One of Canty’s statements about Wigrum invites the reader to approach the novel as a kind of museum of its own keepsakes, histories, tropes, and devices, with forms that are open:
In writing Wigrum, I wished to be faithful to what made me read, made me want to become a writer, and to reassert the strange, melancholy, hold that fiction can exercise over our lives. I turned to the literature I loved, to the objects surrounding me, and to my confused feelings about reality, to make Wigrum disappear back into the literature that gave it shape. I endeavoured to tell a story as if it has already been told, and construct a narrative geometry whose vanishing points are as many entries for the reader into possible worlds, half of my own making, half his. The novel and the book are open forms, tuned to a unique frequency by the heartfelt harmonies of fact and fiction. In the beginning or the end, I hold the truth of these words as self- evident: If I can believe all the stories I am told, so can you.
Canadian icon and consummate artist bill bissett, our “one-man universe”, perhaps most embodies not only this act of being one’s own auto-generative dog and pony show, but also his own cellular divisions of a singular aesthetic principle that is a/the function of his life, in paintings and in poems and what is more, at the interstices of their respective interrelations. It is in fact surprising there is almost no critical framework surrounding bill bissett’s work, which operates on a number of levels. I strongly advise checking out Daniel Zomparelli’s piece about pop culture and memes on the Lemon Hound blog titled “Ermahgerd Perertry or How to Build a Language Overnight.”
For me Carl Peters’ book textual vishyuns: image and text in the work of bill bissett has been helpful as an entry point to understanding bissett’s artistic endeavours in the wake of academic trending upwards towards near absolute reductionism (much of which is outlined in this book), an approach that at its worst indirectly attempts to negate such ancient forms of artistic expression with cultural significance as chant and devalue centuries of iconographic repetition in works of art, an approach that is so astonishingly impoverished it parallels the attrition and moreover extirpation of critical discourse in the public sphere regarding our beloved books. When asked about subjects such as Gertrude Stein’s entirely unconvential Stanzas in Meditation, bissett is by no means lost for words with an answer that embodies precisely what he is discussing:
4 me stanzas in
meditaysyun shows langwage freed from narrativ burdn or xplikayshuns or
upliftments who can xplain words letters as things beings tools in themselvs
regardless uv use interesting mewsik not evreething driving 2 tell storee th
objektiv use uv words without meening freez them n us a zeebra in th
candul lite startuls us as words themselves bcum ar alredee objekts a storee
As Weldon Hunter indicates in a Canadian Literature review, “Peters’ book signifies a crucial starting point for investigation of bissett’s important contributions to Canadian literature, and it also provides some helpful assistance in navigating the Lunarian’s latest work, novel (subtitled “a novel with konnekting pomes n essays”)”
It is entirely possible we could stand to benefit from a little more “langwage freed from narrativ burdn or xplikayshuns or upliftments who can xplain words letters as things beings tools in themselvs.” Hey, here’s a bit of “langwage” from bill bissett’s novel:
Barring that, we can always go back to counting fifty shades of snow. Morse out.
Figure 1. Claude Monet: “Rouen Cathedral, Facade (Morning effect)”, 1892-1894. Essen, Germany, Folkwang Museum
Figure 2. Claude Monet: “The portal and the tower of the saint-romain at morning sun, Harmony in Blue”. 1893. Paris, France, Musée d’Orsay
Figure 3. Claude Monet: “Rouen Cathedral, The Façade in Sunlight”. 1894. Williamstown, USA, Clark Art Institute
Figure 4. Claude Monet: “Rouen Cathedral, Facade (sunset), harmonie in gold and blue”. 1892-1894. Paris, France, Musée Marmottan Monet
Figure 5. Claude Monet: “Rouen Cathedral, West Façade, Sunlight”. 1892. Washington, D.C., USA, National Gallery of Art
Figure 6. Claude Monet: “Rouen Cathedral, West Facade, Sunlight”. 1894.
Washington, D.C., USA, National Gallery of Art