On Secret Readers

Three novels about three women whose secret lives as readers are the truth of their existence: The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery; The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett; and An Unnecessary Woman, by Rabih Alameddine. In Barbery’s book, the secret reader is a middle-aged concierge in a French apartment building. Gruff and stupid as far as the lodgers are concerned, secretly she’s a connoisseur of fine literature, art, music, and film. In Bennett’s book, the secret reader is the queen, whose accidental brush with a traveling library and a bibliophilic staffmember birth her as a reader in the senescence of her reign. And in Alameddine’s book, the secret reader is a Beiruti divorcee and former bookshop owner, whose hidden, private life is devoted to translating books into classical Arabic, unbeknownst to anyone. Three novels; three secret readers. Together these books justify me in declaring a sub-genre: the sub-genre of the secret reader.

All three secret readers are middle aged or elderly women. Two suffer the obscurity of poverty, and one the obscurity of fame. (Who is more invisible as a person than the figurehead of a dead empire?) Each of these secret readers is the sort of person that our producerist, patriarchal, youth- and sex-worshipping societies would write off as unimportant and insignificant. And yet, by reason of their secret lives as readers, they are more significant, in the proper sense of the word, than a dozen vapid CEOs, celebrities, or sports icons. For the secret readers, each deed and observation signifies, pointing beyond itself to the vast and echoing chamber of cultural memory in which they live. They are significant: but are their lives, therefore, important? The three novels I’ve mentioned almost seem calculated to pose the question of the importance of the reading life in its extreme form: they will be either a reductio ad absurdam or a final vindication of the curious way that some of us, we readers, choose to pour days and weeks of our lives into a strange, still, silent activity.

The secret readers in these three novels are nothing or they are everything.

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Cioran: The Ex-fanatic

Emil Cioran is my favorite among the small group of fascists whose brilliance or historical importance constrains one to read them despite everything. He’s not as good a philosopher as Carl Schmitt or Martin Heidegger, but he’s an infinitely superior writer.

Like many other ex-fascists, Cioran appears to have been too proud to make an honest admission like this: I endorsed Hitler and promoted Romania’s Iron Guard; I praised bloodshed as an intensification of life and indulged in racial mysticism; I contributed by my writing to the greatest moral catastrophe of the 20th century. Instead, he liked to regret his youthful “ravings,” taking the position that what was so bad about his fascist views was the sincerity or passion with which he expressed them. That’s just worming cowardice. And he liked to spin his disillusion with fascism into a general lesson about the dangers of “utopia” in general. Nonsense. To dilute the specificity of your own crimes by loudly regretting they belonged to a category that includes less egregious things is the counterpart to guilt by association: it’s pardon by association, and it’s just as fallacious.

Cioran dealt with his youthful fascism not by explicitly denouncing it (he seems to have been ashamed of his past to the point of silence, though it caught up with him in his second life, when somewhat against his will he became famous as a writer in French), but by inscribing a bloody circle of thorny aphorisms around it. “I am an idolater of doubt, a doubter in eruption, a fanatic without creed, a hero of fluctuation.”

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A Personal Canon

I am drawn to fantasies of restriction and asceticism. The idea of being locked in a room with just a paper and pen until I’ve written a book gives me a strange longing. Also retreats from the world of all sorts, fasts and abstentions, solitude and the disconnection of long journeys without means of communication. So it’s no surprise I love the idea of a desert island bookshelf. Worse things could happen to me than to be stranded alone forever with nothing to do but reread my personal canon. In the spirit of Anthony, blogger extraordinaire at Time’s Flow Stemmed, here’s what I’d want along with me. This could also serve as a handy guide to understanding me, my ways of thought, and my private obsessions. If you’ve read some of these, we have things to talk about. 

I think I’ll update this from time to time, as a personal testament. Because it does change.

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On Melting

Reading poetry requires both a great deal of effort and a great deal of stillness, which is probably one of the reasons so many people are afraid of it. It requires effort because there’s no easing into it. You must come to a poem ready to pay attention from the first word. And as you read, deciphering upended syntax and coping with the semantic shock of poetic juxtapositions and new images, you can’t really relax and enjoy it until you’ve worked through it. But it also requires stillness: you haven’t really read a poem until you’ve received its effect in a single impression. It reminds me of playing the piano. From inside a piece, as a pianist, you don’t really hear it properly until you’ve so thoroughly mastered it that you can let yourself play it while some other part of you, somehow, sits back and listens. Likewise the stillness of poetry is the stillness of a performance contemplated from within. What Nabokov said about books in general applies even better to poetry: you can only reread a poem.

The demands of poetry not only make it difficult, they make it dangerous.

First there is the danger of bad poetry. Because you can only reread a poem, you can’t really prejudge a poem. Some of the best poems aren’t very appealing until you’ve put in the work. But a bad poem makes you angry if you’ve worked at it, understood it, and stilled yourself to receive it. Encountering an inferior poem with the intensity of a poetry reader is liking gulping down a large mouthful of bad milk. It’s vile; but it’s too late.

Second there is the danger of exposing yourself to something genuinely traumatizing. By the time you’re receiving a poem as a single impression, you’ve essentially turned yourself into a single, large, thrumming nerve. You’ve opened yourself to the language and imagination of another person in a way that leaves you defenseless against the emotions and ideas their constellation of words might introduce into your delicate system. In a way, the process of reading poetry is the process of melting your own defenses, exposing the tender, gasping animal whose preferred tactical relationship to life is to be frozen away from it, safe behind the ice of indifference and inattention.

*

In the summer of 2016, a long-frozen reindeer carcass thawed out and almost caused an anthrax epidemic. It had been buried in the Siberian soil for perhaps 70 years, until a deep layer of permafrost temporarily melted, turning up the rotting meat. Two thousand living reindeer were infected, as well as dozens of humans. Populations had to be airlifted, herds of reindeer quarantined. At least one child died. It could happen again, since the permafrost will surely melt in coming summers, as we continue to break heat records. Perhaps this summer. More anthrax, or worse, could be waiting in the ice, waiting for the next big melt.

*

I’m writing a dissertation in defense of evil stories. I use the term “evil stories” to mean stories that portray evil characters or evil actions. Moralists of various stripes have targeted such stories at least since Plato, claiming that they are wrong to experience, that they normalize evil, or that they contaminate their audience. (That language of contamination shows up everywhere: evil is a disease, moralists think, a contagious disease.) There are so many dimensions to the question — from whether one’s response to a work of art is even amenable to moral judgment, to how our autonomic tendency to imitate what we see or imagine might make unrelenting exposure to violence, for example, psychologically dangerous for anyone, no matter how gentle or ideologically opposed to violence they are. So I’ve had to focus on one very narrow subset of the problem, on what is called secondary simulative imagination. That’s the way you inhabit a character’s perspective to make sense of narrative statements about them — is it morally dangerous to inhabit an evil perspective? (I don’t think it is, with certain exceptions, and provided it’s not the only kind of imagining you do.) But I could very easily have written about poems, or rather about the types of literature that entail melting.

In some ways, I wish I had. Simulative imagination requires you to adopt certain perspectives, to mentally mime attitudes and actions you might abhor and pretend to believe propositions you might reject, but what I’m calling “melting” isn’t about the content of consciousness at all, but its quality. Melting is exposure, openness, receptivity. Is it susceptibility? Perhaps someday I’ll investigate the question more formally.

*

Memory itself is a form of numbness; it cheats the senses. You feel neither sorrow nor joy. You feel that you’re feeling nothing. —André Aciman, from “Rue Delta”

Does writing […] seek out words the better to stir and un-numb us to life—or does writing provide surrogate pleasures the better to numb us to experience? —André Aciman, from “Intimacy”

*

When I was a weird, homeschooled child, I read C.S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy. For a long time it was my favorite book. It’s an autobiography / bildungsroman / conversion story. Lewis describes feeling an intense pang, a mixture of longing and pleasure, which first surprised him in relation to Norse Mythology and the romantic idea of “the north” in general. When I read this I sat up. I’d had this exact pang myself. And not just for northerness — though I knew exactly what he was talking about — but in relation to other things as well. Certain kinds of science fiction that made me aware of deep time and vast spaces gave this mixture of longing and pleasure; likewise a selection of pictures in an atlas on my parent’s shelves; also Madagascar, the name and what I imagined the place to be like.

Ultimately, Lewis claims that “joy”—his rather inexact name, I think, for “wonder”—is a sort of clue that you should love god. He makes a very Augustinian argument to the effect that all love is more or less indirect love for god. Ho hum; I found this to be untrue.

When I first read Surprised by Joy I had been suppressing my inclination to dwell on the things that gave me this mixture of pleasure and longing, because it also tended to make me sad and lonely. But Lewis lead me to think I should dig up the feeling if I could. This was probably the first time I tried to make myself feel something — or rather, to make myself feel more intensely in general — and so I encountered for the first time that very adult problem of numbness.

I tried to feel “joy” for a whole day, and got absolutely nowhere with it. The inaccessibility of a feeling scared me. Was I becoming hardened and insensible, withdrawing from life at a wizened thirteen years old? By evening all my projects and plans seemed insignificant beside the over-riding necessity of getting that feeling back. I got out all the books and music and images that had ever made me feel “joy.” It’s a good thing I didn’t have access to alcohol. And I read some poetry. I’d just discovered serious poetry, and owned a large collection of Dover Classics of the Romantics. I think I read from Wordsworth that night, or some other poet whom I now find laughably innocuous, but to whom I was, then, insanely susceptible.

Anyway it worked. But it worked too well. Undoubtedly I was aided by the fact that my stress had produced a migraine variant, the bane of my youth, during which I’d hallucinate or undergo intense mood swings, followed by head-splitting pain. This might have helped, but I’d tenderized my soul with poetry, and things went profoundly to shit. I had, I think, the poetic equivalent of a bad trip.

I remember lying cowering in bed that night, torn apart inside with terror and gusts of emotion, hallucinating that I could hear a small child’s voice in the wind outside my window muttering an endless string of obscenities. I couldn’t sleep and it was unbearable, and finally I banished the mood by writing about it in my journal (I still have it, a shaky entry describing a waking nightmare). Which was how I discovered the prophylactic possibilities of writing.

But the larger point here is: I’ve been careful with this business of melting ever since.

I have to laugh when people claim that reading’s on the way out because it can never compete with the vividness of other media. I don’t see it. Perhaps you can only make that claim if you’ve never put in the effort to read poetry, never melted. As an adult with access to the full pharmaceutical, social, and interpersonal range of techniques for combatting numbness, I’ve never found a solvent as reliable as poetry.

*

After Trump was elected, everybody started reading poetry. Some great stuff was written on the subject, but I couldn’t help thinking the deepest explanation for this sudden, collective turn to a specific form of literature had to do with melting. The trauma of the onset of our very own kakistocracy, and the unexpected and disturbing way it happened, put us in an exposed state we normally have to work to arrive at. Imagine trying to read a story when your nerves are primed for poetry. What you need is the explosive force of compressed imagery and subtle words, not analysis or narration: you need the fountain of poetry not the river of prose.

Our numbness isn’t the only thing that’s melting. As half the world, it seems, makes its way ideologically left or right, the frozen assumption that there is a “center” in matters of poverty and environmental catastrophe, justice and respect for difference, has revealed itself to be an illusion for the first time to many people.

We live in a melting time. Our icebergs are melting, our hearts are melting, our illusions are melting. It’s dangerous, a little heady, and unavoidable.

*

What will we find when the ice has fully melted, I wonder. The toxic carcasses of dead reindeer? Poetry?


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On the Forced and the Glib

I know I’m an incompetent blogger. I don’t post anything for weeks, and then I dump multiple three thousand word essays on you in the space of a few days. I redesign this website more often than I write for it. I resolve to blog about every book I read, then promptly fall silent for a month. I invite you to vote about what I should write, then ignore your decision. Moreover, a distressing drama plays itself out inside me when I do manage to post something. Immediately afterward I castigate myself that what I posted was slight or inelegantly written, or I wish I’d saved up the idea and pitched it somewhere else.

Why have I persevered? Why not delete this blog, and turn the website into a mere list of my publications in other venues, a list that the discipline of not blogging might cause to grow faster?

I really can’t answer that question. All I know is that if I try to stop blogging I regret it until I start again. A blog, its astounding potential audience, its editorial and aesthetic autonomy: what writer could possibly resist that siren call? Well, obviously plenty do resist. But I can’t help suspecting they’re either unaware, incompetent with computers, or, deep down, unwriterly. A blog is just too good an opportunity to pass up.

But is an opportunity ill-used better than an opportunity foregone? What am I even doing here?

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On five of my favorite books

It occurred to me today, International Women’s Day, to write about five of my favorite books.

Alberta and Jacob, by Cora Sandel

Cora Sandel is the pseudonym of Sara Cecilia Görvell Fabricius. She was born in 1880, in Norway’s capital city, Oslo (then called Kristiana). But her family moved to Tromsø when she was 12 because of some money problems. Tromsø is the northernmost city in the world. It was a cheap place to live, and it sounds all but uninhabitable. During the winter it turns into a snowglobe, and from the end of November until the beginning of January it remains shrouded in “polar night”: the sun stays below the horizon. This climate, you will learn, if you read the first volume of Sandel’s autobiographical trilogy, feels exactly as crushing as it sounds.

Alberta and Jacob delicately balances claustrophobia and spacious illumination. It reflects its setting. Alberta, like Cora, is the daughter of an official in an extremely northern town. Her family is recently impoverished, and they wear poverty badly, with all the upward envy and downward terror that characterizes the pathologically middle class psyche. She and her brother strain against the poverty of spirit the family’s poverty of money has created. Alberta is desperately shy, and secretly she is a poet. Despite her own fragility she goes to great lengths to cover up her brother’s misdeeds, suffering tortures of suspicion from their angry, peevish mother.

A Legacy, by Sybille Bedford

Sybille Bedford was born in 1911, and she lived all the way until 2006. Her parents were German aristocrats. Her father died when she was 14. Subsequently she and her mother lived in Italy and France, and she studied in England. She knew Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht, and she was friends with, and wrote a biography of, Alduous Huxley. She wrote in English, but her ambit was the world.

A Legacy draws upon the history of her German family and the atmosphere of pre-war German culture. It’s extraordinary and I have written about it at length elsewhere, and this passage from my review is representative of my feelings about the book:

The military, the government, the churches, the gambling houses, the art world, the press: all receive their barb. Bedford’s depiction manages to be both loving and uncompromisingly critical. Family stories and the glowing fragments of childhood memory conveyed to her a story about her forebears, set in a society that was destroyed by two world wars. She appropriates that story with cynical nostalgia. She laments what was lost but remains perfectly aware that the seeds of cataclysm had already been planted, their vicious tendrils evident to anyone who looked closely enough: anti-semitism, militarism, political polarization. The extraordinary feat of A Legacy is to be both an intimate family drama and an objective exposition of history.

A Manual for Cleaning Ladies, by Lucia Berlin

Lucia Berlin had an exciting but difficult life. She was born in 1936 to an Alaskan miner, but when her father went off to war she traveled south to El Paso with her mother, where she met the first drunk to enter her life, her dentist grandfather. After the war, the whole family moved to Santiago, Chile. There Lucia brushed up against high society; and her mother became an alcoholic. She came back to the states for college and… Anyway, I won’t keep narrating her life, because it’s very involved, featuring a lot of different places, multiple love affairs, children, debilitating diseases, struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, and a terrible, undeserved, nearly lifelong obscurity.

She died in 2004, and in 2015 A Manual for Cleaning Ladies, a collection of her wonderful stories, was published to great acclaim by FSG. They are stories about work and life and trouble, and they’re poignantly observed and relentlessly witty. I wrote about them here.

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, Simone Beauvoir

I don’t need to tell you who Simone Beauvoir is, right? Famous existentialist and feminist; author of The Second Sex and lots of novels, some of which, like The Mandarins, are very good. But my favorite of her books is the first volume of her autobiography. All the volumes are excellent, but the first, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, is a masterpiece.

I’ve read it five times. It’s the rich history of a girl embracing her powers and achieving her freedom, but it’s pierced throughout by a counterpoint, the story of Zaza, Beauvoir’s first best friend. Zaza dies in a most allegorical fashion at the end of the book. The last line is this:

We had fought together against the revolting fate that had lain ahead of us, and for a long time I believed that I had paid for my own freedom with her death.

Zaza, I think, is the “dutiful daughter” in the title — not Beauvoir herself. Beauvoir’s self-revelatory efforts, in this first volume of the autobiography, are a framing technique for the story of Zaza. This suspicion is confirmed by the fact that in the first part of the second volume of the autobiographical series (The Prime of Life), Beauvoir mentions that she wrote Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter in order to discharge a debt. A debt, one presumes, to Zaza.

Zaza and Simone undergo similar awakenings to books, to art, and to romance. Beauvoir makes it a point to reiterate at strategic moments — illuminated in retrospect by that shocking final line — that their taste, their ideas, their hopes, their goals for intimacy were basically identical. Despite Beauvoir’s relatively early apostasy from her Roman Catholic childhood faith and Zaza’s patient abiding in it, despite Beauvoir’s quiet rebellion against the totalitarian intrusions of her parents and Zaza’s idealization of filial piety, the double portrait is unmistakably that of moral, aesthetic, and intellectual twins. In the end, Zaza literally dies from the moral conflict between her aspiration to freedom and her religiously buttressed commitment to filial duty. Beauvoir’s personal Bildungsroman turns out to be another tragedy: Zaza’s death marks the end of Simone’s childhood. Thereafter, the value of freedom with which she had flirted as a rebellious daughter is confirmed by an intimate object lesson: the dutiful daughter, the dead one.

Offshore, Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald was born in 1916, into the intellectually brilliant Knox family, and she distinguished herself as a student at Oxford, after which everybody expected her take her place on the cultural scene as a serious writer. But instead she married an alcoholic soldier and had a bunch of babies, all of whom became her exclusive dependents in short order. The bulk of her her adult life was spent feverishly scraping by, and she was unable to properly launch her literary career until she was 57. But when she launched, she damn well launched. She wrote twelve books in the next twenty years, including two biographies and ten novels, as well as lots of essays and stories.

Literally everything Fitzgerald wrote is a precious literary jewel that you should track down, hoard, and delight in. (And while you’re at it, you should read Hermione Lee’s biography of her.) But my favorite is Offshore. Like several other of her first few novels, it mines the experiences of her working life (and then her last novels are historical fiction of an altogether transcendent variety). Offshore takes its material from Fitzgerald’s time living in a houseboat on the Thames. Like everything she wrote it is laconic and ravishing, psychologically astute, funny, tragic, utterly unpredictable, and composed of pointillist-precise sentences. I will never be able to write like her, but she is my constant vision of narrative near-perfection when I write stories.


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On Apophatic Criticism

The Hatred of Poetry, by Ben Lerner, is an accessible introduction to a kind of literary criticism that beguiles and frightens me. I think of it as “apophatic” criticism: the literary analogue to apophatic theology. Apophatic criticism rejects facile approaches to literature, and locates its highest values in the failure of texts. But we’ll get there. First, The Hatred of Poetry.

This excellent, short book is — surprise! — about hating poetry. Paradoxically, Lerner is a good poet and a lover of poetry, who hates poetry: “I, too, dislike it and have largely organized my life around it and do not experience that as a contradiction because poetry and the hatred of poetry are inextricable”. His thesis? That hating actual poems is loving the idea of poetry. To hate existing poems, or the limits of actual poetry, is to love virtual poetry, the poetry that cannot exist but seems to linger as a dream behind actual poems. With admirable dialectical tenacity, Lerner ropes in every variety of poem-hating, theoretical, emotional, and practical, to support his thesis:

Great poets confront the limits of actual poems, tactically defeat or at least suspend that actuality, sometimes quit writing altogether, becoming celebrated for their silence; truly horrible poets unwittingly provide a glimmer of virtual possibility via the extremity of their failure; avant-garde poets hate poems for remaining poems instead of becoming bombs; and nostalgists hate poems for failing to do what they wrongly, vaguely claim poetry once did.

All these variants of the hatred of poetry are negative testimonies to the value of true Poetry. Given the impossibility of approaching Poetry in mere poems, “great poets as different as Keats and Dickinson express their contempt for merely actual poems by developing techniques for virtualizing their own compositions — by dissolving the actual poem into an image of the Poem literary form cannot achieve.” And great critics, we might add, express their commitment to Poetry by pointing out where merely actual poems fall short and highlighting the places where great poets virtualize their own compositions.

This is what I call the apophatic criticism of poetry. Whence the word “apophatic”?

Apophatic theology is a logical development of the idea of monotheism. Back when I was any sort of Christian, I became obsessed with it for this reason. If god is not a creature, a created thing, and is, in fact, the author of existence itself, then that presents a major problem for theology, the study of god, the attempt to describe god. There appear to be only two possibilities: analogical language, saying what god is “like,” or negation, saying what god is not. All the well-known language of worship and devotion in actual religious traditions is basically analogical, the attribution of creaturely qualitites to the uncreated solely as comparisons, not as real and therefore contradictory predication. But what kind of analogy makes any sense if there is no basis for comparison? If I say Donald Trump reminds me of a badger being eaten by a smaller, hairier badger, either I mean that they, such a badger and Donald Trump, share some feature, or else I’m talking nonsense. But in the case of an analogy between the uncreated and a creature, there is no possible feature they could share. So how is analogical language anything but the purest fabulism? The other way to talk about the uncreated is through negation. Saying what the uncreated is not involves no claim, explicit or implicit, about some shared ground between the created and the uncreated. Given the danger of misattribution involved in any analogy, perhaps the negative way of theology, apophatic theology, is the most accurate way to speak about the uncreated.

It should be obvious by now why I want to borrow the word “apophatic” for the kind of criticism exemplified by Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry.

Now this kind of criticism can seem very austere and limiting at first. How boring would it be if poetry critics did nothing but talk about the failure of poetry? Lerner leaves himself an out at the end of his book:

[P]oems can fulfill any number of ambitions other than the ones I’m describing. They can actually be funny, or lovely, or offer solace, or courage, or inspiration to certain audiences at certain times; they can play a role in constituting a community; and so on. The admitted weakness in the story I’m telling about Poetry is that it doesn’t have much to say about good poems in all their variety; it’s much better at dealing with great or horrible instances of the art. (And I didn’t pretend to know where the art beings or ends: Another essay might look at how hip-hop, or spoken word, or other creative linguistic practices take up or by-pass the contradictions I’ve been describing.) But the story is illuminating because it helps account for the persistent if mutable feeling that our moment’s poems are always already failing us — whether our moment is 380 B.C. or 731, or 1579, of 1819, or 2016.

Thus The Hatred of Poetry is an exploration, for Lerner, merely of one very important feature of the poetic experience. What would a more uncompromising apophatic criticism look like?

*

An uncompromising apophatic criticism would look like the writing of Steve Mitchelmore. He does something like what Lerner does with poetry, but he does it with literature in general, and he doesn’t, well, compromise on the validity of his method.

You may have heard of Mitchelmore from his blog This Space. Not so long ago, he made the excellent decision to turn a number of posts from that blog into a book, entitled This Space of Writing, published by Zero Press. When I found out about this book, I purchased it with glee.

I discovered Mitchelmore’s blog when I was a college student. Without going too deeply into it, I was a miserable person then: I was cooped up in a terrible university I had chosen for religious reasons, and those religious reasons were beginning to get complicated, to slip away, and I was waking up to the profound intellectual poverty of my surroundings. I felt alone in my enthusiasm for books and philosophy and history, despite a lively social life and intense involvement in all kinds of curricular and extracurricular activities. So I spent a lot of time holed up in quiet corners, desperately reading, or looking for real live intellectual models and virtual friends on the internet. I stumbled onto This Space and encountered a way of talking about books that seemed as far above me in intellectual seriousness as I felt I was above my fellow students. Mitchelmore clearly valued books more than anyone I’d ever met. But he had some secret technique or method of approach that guided everything he said while evading all my attempts to isolate it. He’d developed a kind of discourse that seemed to turn every story into a text about reading and writing itself.

Mitchelmore’s essays have none of the fat that characterizes commercial criticism or the different kind of fat that characterizes book blogging. He writes with an intensity of focus that either sucks you in or makes you scornful. Those seem to be the two responses his blog draws: and the critical response to his book has been no different.

In a blog post called “Mehr Nichts” (it’s also included in the book), he asks at the end: “What does it mean to acknowledge the limits of writing?” And it was only after I had read Mitchelmore for many months, as a teenager, that I realized this was the question, or the kind of question, guiding his work. He prefers fiction that raises the question; and he reads all fiction, the good and the bad, with the question in mind.

Before I clued into this apophatic method, I found Mitchelmore’s writing difficult for a very specific reason: it rebuffed my desire to imitate it. I was deeply impressed by his irascibility toward other reviewers and by the way he seemed to dive into a text, causing it to disappear by becoming more intensely itself. But when I tried to read that way myself, or to discriminate between the critics and novels who offered or allowed for that way of reading and those who didn’t, I continually arrived at the “wrong” conclusions. Like Churchill, who supposedly taught himself politics while he was stationed in India by reading volumes of the debates of parliament, determining his own views and reasons about each issue, and then measuring them against the reported outcome of the actual debates, I essentially taught myself to read like an apophatic critic (or tried to) by seeing what book Mitchelmore had written about, trying to read that book as I imagined he would, and then comparing my experience to what he wrote.

It sounds more slavish than it was. I’ll write more on some other occasion about Mitchelmore, his book, and what his blog meant to me in college, because he deserves the attention, and I owe it to the role he played in my self-education. His book also requires its own post because to really show what he’s up to would require zeroing in on how he talks about specific texts, and I can sense this post will already be rather long without a digression of that kind.

In fact, that is the very the feature of an apophatic criticism that most appeals to me: despite the way it might seem abstract or predictable from an outside description, in practice it is more deeply focused on the real (or virtual?) object in front of the critic than any other form of criticism.

*

I approach the question of criticism from a practical standpoint. It interests me as a writer of criticism who needs a method rather than as a scholar in pursuit of the most defensible theory. From that perspective, and ignoring all the subtle distinctions of scholars, I see basically five varieties of criticism.

(1) Consumer advice. It measures a book against what it imagines readers want, and passes judgment on whether you, the consumer, ought to buy it. Is it a beach read? An aspirational read? A good read to give someone for Christmas? (The language of “reads” rather than “books” is symptomatic of consumer advice criticism.)

(2) Reader response. This kind of criticism is essentially a self-report. I liked the book or I didn’t, and this is what I liked or didn’t like about it. Nothing wrong with reader response, but it’s fundamentally autobiography, and therefore inevitably about the reader more than the book. The vast majority of book blogging is reader response.

(3) Textual-rhetorical criticism. Here the reviewer attempts to determine what the author was trying to do, and judges whether they succeeded or not, based purely on an appraisal of the text. In the hands of a perceptive and knowledgeable critic, it can be quite illuminating. It’s where you turn when you’ve been puzzled by a book and want a hand thinking about it. It can also very easily shade over either into disagreeable arrogance, when the critic ventures ex cathedra mind-reading of an author, or else into boring apologetics, when the critic reads an author’s goals out of their text without separating vision from actuality.

(4) Contextual-rhetorical criticism. This kind of criticism also attempts to judge an author’s intended act of communication and whether they achieved it, but relies upon all kind of sources (textual or not) beyond the book. Much of what I write in my formal book reviews for places like Open Letters Monthly and The Los Angeles Review of Books could be classified this way. I tend to use biographical events, intellectual history, letters, genre considerations, and so forth, in my attempt to figure out what a given book is up to. I make no pretense of ginning up the author’s vision from the text alone. Some of my favorite critics, like Fredric Jameson and Walter Benjamin, practiced this variety of criticism. Obviously it lends itself to political and materialist interpretations, but don’t let my list of critics or my own example limit the range of the method. I’d say a blog like Wuthering Expectations is contextual-rhetorical criticism too, even though the context drawn upon is primarily literary history. Obviously I love this kind of criticism. It has one serious disadvantage, though: it melts the specificity of a text into its context. The book becomes a node whose meaning arises from a conjuncture of other things. Perhaps that’s fine and we should reject the consideration of uniquely “literary” dimension of experience. (I’m not accusing the critics I mentioned of harboring that opinion; I just think it’s a practical implication of only writing contextual-rhetorical criticism.)

(5) Apophatic criticism. I’ve already described it, but to recap: it’s a way of writing about literature that treats it as a commentary on itself, a seeking for its own limits. It searches for a specifically literary dimension of experience, and necessarily it excludes other concerns, including the rhetorical, because its interest is not in the text as an occasion for communication, but in textuality as such.

There is one other way of writing about books — which I call “book chat” — but it’s more of a style than a method, so I won’t include it among my unscientific numbered set. It’s a plummy, belletristic, gossipy way of writing. Though not a text, the extremely enjoyable podcast Backlisted is a great example of book chat. V.S. Pritchett’s reviews were often this way, too. It’s a fine way to write about books; but I’m not sure it’s properly a form of criticism at all. (Surely anything that aspires to be a form of “criticism” must involve measuring something against something.) Really what book chat resembles is fan-centered sports-writing, of the Bill Simmons variety, but without falling into mere reader response. Yes, fundamentally it’s the discourse of fans. Perhaps it bears the same relation to apophatic criticism that popular devotion bears to the apophatic theology in monotheistic religions.

*

An important stage in my journey to atheism and irreligion was the way station of apophatic theology. For me, deciding that the negative way of theology was the only logical and appropriate way to speak or think of the uncreated called much of the everyday business of religion into question: the side of religion involved in building a community and living a certain way seemed more and more earthly and political, while the side involving an attempt to contemplate god seemed disconnected from the earthly altogether. Ultimately the tension proved insupportable, and my religious life split and transformed into socialist politics on the one hand and philosophical and aesthetic speculation on the other. But my point here isn’t to narrate my autobiography, it’s to ask whether apophatic criticism doesn’t spell a danger to work as a critic similar to the danger apophatic theology poses to religion.

I think the escape hatch that Lerner gives himself, quoted above, is unrigorous. Having conclusively determined that actual poetry is always inadequate as Poetry, he nevertheless permits himself to discuss the actual value of “good” poetry. And I’m at a loss to understand what he means by “good poetry.” To be a good X is to possess in the highest degree the qualities that make an X an X; and that is precisely what he has decided poetry cannot do. He has argued that poems are endemically imperfect. So what he means is that poems can be good for things other than the poetic. This would be like saying a shiny spoon with a hole in it was a good spoon because you can use its shiny surface as a mirror: in fact, it’s not a good spoon, it’s a bad spoon and a good mirror.

A critic can certainly write actual criticism, valuable criticism, which asks what non-literary things literature is good for. The contextual-rhetorical criticism that I often practice, for example, can, I think, be pleasant to read, instructive, even edifying. But is it literary criticism? Shouldn’t literary criticism involve judgment as to a work’s success as literature? In that endeavor, I think, apophatic criticism has no peer. Which is why I value Steve Mitchelmore’s work so much.

My admiration presents me with a problem, though. Apophatic criticism is difficult to read, and it will never, I suspect, be particularly popular. So does that mean that the professional critic must fall short of properly literary criticism? “Success, in the sense defined by the reviewers,” writes Mitchelmore, “would be failure.”

*

My college fascination with Mitchelmore’s This Space ultimately lead me to his sources. To Maurice Blanchot and Gabriel Josipovici, among others. In the course of reading from and around Blanchot, I lucked onto the brilliant essay “A Phenomenology of Reading,” by Georges Poulet. It’s a bizarre text that begins as an exploration of the experience of reading, ultimately settling on a description of reading as a sort of possession of one’s faculties, and then takes a sharp turn into discussing the various types of literary critic, among whom he singles out several critics contemporary to him, including Maurice Blanchot, the ur-apophatic critic.

I’ll conclude by quoting without commentary a passage from Poulet which touches directly upon apophatic criticism:

[The critic] can make language a pure crystallizing agent, an absolute translucence, which, suffering no opacity to exist between subject and object, promotes the exercise of the cognitive power on the part of the subject, while at the same time accentuating in the object those characteristics which emphasize its infinite distance from the subject […] the maximum lucidity thereby achieved only confirms a separation instead of a union. […] I may […] separate myself so completely from what I am contemplating that the thought thus removed to a distance assumes the aspect of a being with whom I may never establish any relationship whatsoever. […] the act of reading has delivered me from egocentricity: another’s thought inhabits me or haunts me [but I] keep [my] distance and refuse to identify.


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Notes on Reiner Stach’s Kafka

I write a lot of book reviews, but I strain against the form. I write them because they’re a vehicle for telling stories and working through my thoughts, a vehicle that editors are actually willing to publish, where they wouldn’t just publish my maunderings sans occasion (or at any rate, I don’t think they would).

But each time I write a long book review, I shelve a pile of ideas that don’t fit the angle. My latest piece — about Reiner Stach’s magnificent three-volume biography of Franz Kafka, written for Open Letters Monthly’s February issue — felt particularly tragic in this respect. So I had an idea. Why not start publishing “annexes” to my reviews, here on this blog, in which I briefly adumbrate some of the ideas and observations I couldn’t fit into the formal review?

Well, here you go. Some additional notes on Reiner Stach’s Kafka. (It would be a shame not to read first the essay to which these notes are an annex, so please do that!)


(1) Kafka loved to read biographies. He was indiscriminate though. Explorers, writers, politicians, activists — he didn’t seem to have a type of biography he liked so much as a style. Here’s Stach:

In devouring numerous biographies and autobiographies, Kafka was searching not for the minutest details but for the characteristic ones that revealed the structure and essence of an entire life — only these were “true,” in his view, and everything else a conventional frill.

If you’ve read my main review, you’ll know that this matter of “truth” is quite important to Kafka. He used the word to indicate something like aesthetic coherence and authenticity. Moreover, he sought to build his own life around such truth, forming some very distinctive, ascetic habits, principals, and preferences.

One of the many cool things about Stach’s biography is that I think Kafka would have enjoyed reading it. (Well, no, he would probably have cringed at the thought of a biography about himself; but I mean it’s the kind of biography he would enjoy.) While Stach maintains a narrative thread — and often inserts a chapter that stands out like a short story, as it follows Kafka in detail through one day, or one incident — he is focused on structure and essence. I wonder if Stach consciously tried to create the kind of biography Kafka would have liked?


Franz Kafka and Felice Bauer.

(2) Kafka’s suspicion that bachelorhood was a condition for art reminded me, naturally, of Kierkegaard, and also of Henry James. Kierkegaard famously conducted a dramatic and disastrous relationship with Regine Olsen, a relationship that reached an ignominious denouement when Kierkegaard pretended to be horrible in order to force Regine to break up with. He ghosted her and traveled to Berlin to write the first of his astonishing books, while requiring voyeuristic reports from friends back in Copenhagen on the fallout from his abandonment. And then he obsessed over and wrote about Regine for the rest of his life anyway, even after she happily married someone else. Henry James, on the other hand, was gay; but he also thought about bachelorhood as a way of being, a permanent observer status, and he meditated often upon a lost quasi-love, his cousin Minny Temple. (Colm Tóibín’s The Master is wonderful on this subject.)

Kafka noticed the resemblance between his own contretemps with Felice Bauer and Kierkegaard’s with Regine Olsen. He read Kierkegaard’s journals and commented on the parallel.

Unlike James and Kierkegaard, however, Kafka never gave up on the possibility of a balance between intimate social relations and literature. Despite the evidence of the apparent poverty of his life in comparison to either of the others, he actually harbored a more utopian vision of everyday life than either one. Kafka wrote: “Only on our death beds can we allow things to remain bad once and for all.”

And in fact, in his brief, beautiful relationship with Dora Diamant, his ungovernable hope seems to have received the benison of a happy ending. We don’t usually think Kafka in the same sentence as a happy ending. But I felt like he had a somewhat happy ending.


(3) Kafka was exposed to and highly sympathetic toward socialism. His classmate Rudolf Illovy introduced him to it; and apparently Kafka sometimes even wore the symbol of socialism, a red carnation in his buttonhole.

Lily Braun: Memoirs of a Socialist

For Kafka even to have flirted with socialism was an affront to his father, a way of siding with the shopkeepers of the Kafka fancy goods store against the authoritarian owner of the place.

It also happens that Kafka’s absolutely favorite biography was Lily Braun’s Memoirs of a Socialist.

But like many other ideological flirtations in Kafka’s life (notably with Zionism), he seems not to have found it possible to commit himself to socialism as a “truth” in his sense. Stach suggests his understanding of oppression went deeper than mere political repression and material inequality, embracing more profound, universal, existential “prospects of identification, stability, and even security.” The implication being that socialism has a surface-level understanding of what it means to be precarious and insecure. Personally, I’m far from convinced this is an exclusive disjunction. I’d like to read more about Kafka’s relations with socialism and socialists.


(4) The three volumes of Stach’s trilogy have a curious relation to each other. Each of the volumes overlaps to some degree. They are not just arbitrarily severed lengths of one biographical chain: they are each books with their own themes and internal structure. Perhaps this was necessary because they were written out of order (2, then 3, then 1). Book 1 assembles the elements of an image: of an essentially static psyche, of a writerly habitus, technique, and ideal, of a set of social pathologies. Book 2 shows their most blazing incarnation, in the long debacle of Kafka’s first failed engagement to Felice Bauer, which also prompted the frenzies of writing in which he produced, among other things, his most famous works: “The Metamorphosis” and The Trial. Book 3 is about the ramifications of this established and paradigmatically demonstrated pattern, as even desperation, mortal illness, access to fame, changes in the composition of the family, fail to break the pattern or Kafka’s life or mar the image he presents. The appearance of the same picture in books 2 and 3 of Kafka with Felice Bauer (a sort of engagement photo) contributes to the sense of the books’ separateness, or individual self-containment.


Robert Musil, 1925

(5) Stach is really good with counterfactuals. What if the interaction between Kafka and Robert Musil had blossomed into a real friendship and Musil had helped Kafka move to Berlin and take up fulltime writing? What if James Joyce, Italo Svevo, and Franz Kafka had all visited the spa they liked at the same time and gotten to know one another? In each of these cases, how might the history of literature have changed?


(6) I enjoyed it when Stach would settle down to augment the drama of a moment. Biography ought to be, among other things, a dramatic art. An example of this came when he was about to describe Kafka’s first meeting with Felice Bauer, at his best friend Max Brod’s house. This meeting set Kafka on a crazy emotional and literary roller coaster for years. There are moments in literary history, Stach says portentously, which stand out for their awesome significance, and then he launches into this delightful list, saying Kafka’s evening at the Brod’s was like:

the transformation of the dilettante Jean-Jacques Rousseau into a critic of civilization one October afternoon in 1749 while he was on the road from Paris to Vincennes; Hölderlin’s first encounter with Susette Gontard, later known as Diotima, on December 31, 1795, in Frankfurt am Main; the hatching of the idea of the “eternal return of the same” in Nietzsche’s mind after a stroll at Lake Silvaplana in early August 1881; and Valéry’s renunciation of literature one stormy night in Genoa on October 4, 1892.


(9) I could have written a whole essay just on Stach’s intermittent discussions of Kafka’s craft as a writer. I just want to quote a few fascinating bits and pieces from across the three books.

An insight into the way Kafka learned to produce the flat yet sparkling affect of his descriptions:

One passage in the first version [of “Description of a Struggle,” Kafka’s first long-ish extant prose fragment] reads: “The train started up so slowly that it seemed irresolute.” Kafka was unhappy with that wording, and replaced “irresolute” with “weary,” but he ultimately opted for a totally different solution, which switched the perspective and transformed the psychological expression into an impression: “The train started up so slowly that one could picture the revolution of the wheels.”

The function of Kafka’s diary within his overall literary production:

It appears as though Kafka was inventing a new variant of the diary that enabled him to keep on writing in addition to and after his literary work; it was still literary, but without working toward a narrative goal. If a story resulted, so much the better—and this was an occasional outcome. If not, at least he had “written.”

Kafka and metaphors:

He never treated metaphor as an afterthought, and he definitely never sought one out. In the beginning — such is the first law of Kafka’s universe — is the image, and more than a few of his texts can be read as expansions of one memorable image, as a demonstration of what an image can yield.

He suggests we can understand much of Kafka’s work as, essentially, speculative fiction:

Someone roars with laughter at a solemn occasion. Someone is pursued by two little balls he cannot shed. Someone wake up one morning as a bug. Someone stops eating. How will it go on from there, assuming that everything else in the universe remains unchanged?

A Glossary of Literary-Critical Cliches

The following glossary explains the true and secret functions and unintended revelations of certain common cliches used by reviewers when they are describing books. It is lovingly compiled, since I am in fact a reviewer. I am no doubt guilty of most of these transgressions at one time or another. But it is seriously intended as a relevant tic-list. Every single one of these abominations could be avoided, and a hundred others besides, if we reviewers mustered the strength of purpose to avoid lazy evaluative abstractions. Also, I frequently get carried away in my analysis of unintended revelations, so don’t take anything too seriously.


Acclaimed
– apparent meaning: much praised.
– lazy function: to excuse the reviewer from finding any independent reasons why this author should be more important to you than an equivalent weight of white raisins.
– unintended revelation: The reviewer read a bunch of other reviews of the book first, to get some ideas for their own review, and discovered most of the others were positive; alternatively, the reviewer considers this author too popular to poke with a critical stick.

Characters Come To Life
– apparent meaning: you thought this book was fiction, but it’s actually a necromantic spell.
– lazy function: to imply that a book’s characters are more than under-written stereotypes, but without showing or explaining why this is the case.
– unintended revelation: The reviewer fell asleep while reading the book and dreamed they were being chased by one or more of the characters. And, a fortiori: this reviewer confuses their emotional reaction to a story with its more objective qualities.

Cookie-cutter
– apparent meaning: the characters / books / sentences of the author under review, like your mamma’s gingerbread men, have identical formal dimensions.
– lazy function: to imply that the book under review adhered to genre stereotypes or slavishly imitated another story, but without just showing that by examples.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer reads far too much of this genre / the reviewer has been required to read far too much of this author, and resents it.

Epic
– apparent meaning: this book belongs to the tradition inaugurated by Homer’s Iliad.
– lazy function: to indicate that the book is very long.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer did not finish reading this book.

Hack
– apparent meaning: a writer of copious, unoriginal, uninspiring, but adequate words.
– lazy function: to indicate dissatisfaction with an author’s approach to the book under review, without going to the trouble of establishing where the reviewer can even imagine having done better.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer respects the author’s character but considers them deficient in intellect, taste, or time; also, use of this word often connotes a wary respect based on self-recognition.

Haunting
– apparent meaning: a book that sticks with you in a rather distressing way, much like a ghost, even after its physical presence has gone away.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer (and you too, dear reader) is such a sensitive individual that strong aesthetic experiences painfully color their experience of everyday life.
– unintended revelation: The reviewer was overcome by a horrifying personal memory as they read, possibly as a result of the old guacamole they were eating to give them strength to finish, and they have actually already forgotten the book’s plot (but the after-effects of the guacamole continue, and they’re pretty sure they’re going to have nightmares tonight).

Inimitable
– apparent meaning: Impossible to imitate.
– lazy function: to indicate stylistic distinctiveness, deployed to avoid the hard work of showing and accurately describing what is distinctive about the style in question.
– unintended revelation: The writer under review has such recognizable patterns and mannerisms that they are precisely imitable. They are so imitable, in fact, that you would actually beclown yourself by imitating them. So the word reveals the opposite of what it means, confusing description and prescription.

Laconic
– apparent meaning: short.
– lazy function: to imply the reviewer appreciates (and perhaps aspires to) a certain elegant asceticism.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer was so grateful for how short the book was, he chose to overlook how much it failed to persuade / convince / entertain and instead praised it for its abortive qualities.

Lapidary
– apparent meaning: having the precision of an engraving or inscription on a monument.
– lazy function: impressive-sounding word for prose the reviewer more or less liked without being able to put a finger on why: a word the reader is likely to nod knowingly about without actually understanding.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer is a complete philistine when it comes to the plastic arts.

Lavish
– apparent meaning: to indicate that a book has nice paper, lots of pictures, a well-made binding, and good cover art.
– lazy function: to tactfully intimate this book is expensive as fuck.
– unintended revelation: The reviewer would never have got hold of this book but for the fact that review copies are free; moreover, he will soon make a killing by auctioning it off on Amazon; moreover, he is talking about what it looks like to avoid the fact that the book is uninteresting and pointless in every other way.

Magisterial
– apparent meaning: the author or book under review has great authority.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer has the erudition to distinguish truly original or comprehensively evenhanded scholarship on the book’s topic from all the other shit that’s written about it.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer was impressed by the sheer length of the book, the fact that it was written by somebody famous for being smart, or because he has apparently never read anything else on the subject.

Meticulous
– apparent meaning: extremely careful and detailed.
– lazy function: to weakly praise a thing the reviewer found incredibly boring, but nonetheless felt they ought to like, probably.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer only finished this book because they would have felt guilty otherwise, and they wish to delude themselves into believing that they actually enjoyed it, purely as a psychological defense against the recognition of the true abyss of the reading to $ ratio of their ill-advised career.

Nuanced
– apparent meaning: the author under review makes subtle distinctions.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer is not an ideological hack or fundamentalist of some stripe, but a sophisticated and cosmopolitan thinker, who recognizes the manifold considerations relevant to a contested issue.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer actually agrees with the author’s position on this issue, and suspects that people who don’t agree should be made to read it.

Pitch perfect
– apparent meaning: the author under review never uses the wrong word, and always conveys a scene in words appropriate to its significance or an argument in words appropriate to its gravity.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer is a genuine afficionado of prose style, whose discrimination rivals that of Nabokov.
– unintended revelation: (1) the reviewer agrees with the author’s position, (2) the reviewer probably knows the author or wants to be like them, (3) the reviewer sort of suspects their own prose sounds rather like this author’s.

Poignant
– apparent meaning: profoundly touching.
– lazy function: to express, tactfully, that a story was melodramatic (but the reviewer can’t say so or they’d be either traducing a famous name or trampling somebody’s personal story).
– unintended revelation: the reviewer, dead inside from so much reading, is actually unable to produce a tear unless they use a juicer on an onion and then pour the liquid into their eye with a funnel.

Reads like a novel
– apparent meaning: this book, while not a novel, is as much fun to read as a novel.
– lazy function: to imply that this book is really fun even though its topic sounds boring enough to kill a cow.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer is privately extremely interested in the topic of this book.

Resonant [also as a verb: “this book resonates”]
– apparent meaning: this book is about much more than at first appears.
– lazy function: to avoid the actual work of drawing connections between the book’s content and the things it reminded the reviewer of.
– unintended revelation: as the reviewer read this book, they were thinking about something else.

Seminal
– apparent meaning: very influential, much the way semen is influential in the conception of new humans.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer’s godlike view of the landscape of books allows him to make authoritative proclamations about the subterranean lava flows of literary influence.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer wishes more people would write books like this one, and is also unaware that, most likely, the thing he finds original and influential in the book had been done to death actual centuries before it was written; also, the reviewer is likely male.

“X by Y is, pardon the expression / as it were, [one of the other words in this glossary]”
– apparent meaning: Because I am aware that I am lazy, I am not, in fact, lazy.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer is generally speaking above reviewer cliches, but in this case has found a true instance of the original phenomenon for which the cliche was first invented and is therefore justified in resorting to it.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer is not only lazy, but also stupid enough to think that by parading their laziness they will convince you they are not lazy.

Sobering
– apparent meaning: that this book will make you more serious about life, or about some particular issue.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer is a serious person who gravely applauds the earnestness of others.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer thinks you, the reader, are probably too frivolous about this issue; also, the reviewer was likely drinking as he wrote this review.


To be updated (when I get the chance) with: elegant, luminous, lush, prescient, provocative, riveting, stunning, thrilling, transcendent, unflinching, love-child of author and author, and voice of a generation.

Feel free to contribute addenda in the comments, or to suggest other likely candidates for the glossary!

The Lover, by Marguerite Duras

We project the reality of actual people much as we do the seeming reality of fictional characters.

Madame Bovary is, factually, a noun to which certain verbs are attributed. Functionally, however, she is a person whom you care for or despise, laugh at or despair of, picture in the round, treat as possessing interiority, and, perhaps, even conduct imaginary dialogues with. Likewise your own mother, in the most basic sense, is a series of impressions, conceptualized as a continuous entity, accruing, like a snowplow leaving drifts on either side, attributions of causality. You speculate that she is an outside-with-an-inside-that-seems-to-be-free-and-autonomous. Just like you. You recognize her in certain primordial ways too. I’m not denying that. But most of what you think about her is constructed by your ongoing work of fantasy. Actually, Madame Bovary can seem more real to you than your mother. When you’re tired or your mother transgresses the bounds of your fantasy by doing something unexpected, then at least Madame Bovary is coherent, neatly tucked into her narrative. This mother, though—! She practically dissipates into incomprehensibility unless you maintain her invisible dimensions.

Given the sheer effort you expend to maintain your perception of another person’s independent reality, you seize any shortcut or prefab element you can find. That’s one reason children universally adore stories: stories are prefab fantasies, enormously useful. But besides stories, we repurpose the traits, types, and projected motivations of our fantasies about one person in our fantasies about another. We form an idea of mother, and use bits of it in our idea of father, and so on. (It’s not linear like this, obviously, but circular and recursive.)

Your family, at the level of its fantasy-existence as a collection of real people constantly presumed to be carrying on their own lives outside your head, are all built from one another. This Frankenstein, this family, is nonetheless, for you, the very definition of the real, the distinct, the effortlessly independent and permanently stable surround. Your brothers and sisters and mother and father are the archetypes from which you draw the materials for all subsequent fantasies about the new, supposedly real, people who touch your consciousness.

Well, perhaps one other person adds something incontestably new: your first lover.

The first person who breaches that wall of physical distance, the wall you built up gradually from your naked and bawling babyhood, in clumsy childhood, in embarassed adolescence, in dignified adulthood. Your lover reorganizes the whole settled engine of your fantasies. This traumatizes however it happens.

Marguerite Duras’ The Lover is a very short novel composed of tiny sections that leap back and forth in time and from one plot line to another. It forms a mosaic whose central figures are a fictionalized version of Duras herself—as a 15 year old girl—and her first lover. This lover is the son of a rich man and he is Chinese. Marguerite, of course, was French. She ostensibly goes with him because she wants money. Her mother, a bankrupt widow, stuck in the colonial Saigon, has awoken her to the need for money. And then later Duras thinks: perhaps I did love him.

From what I’ve been able to find out, the autobiographical events from which this tale stems, however, are different in one important way: the real Duras recollected that she only slept with the lover once, due to her racist revulsion from his body.

Imaginary-Duras, though, sleeps with him for two years. She’s a school-girl in colonial Vietnam. Perhaps you know about strained imperial communities that attempt to recreate the homeland’s social world. In such a recreations, polite fictions are continually undermined by the presence of the slave, the exploited, the subjugated, the ostensibly savage. Societies like that don’t handle scandal well (consult Kipling and the early Orwell). Young story-Duras is a scandal even before she takes up with a non-European who has no intention of marrying her. She wears a man’s hat and gold lamé shoes. She has a face, she tells us, that prophecies debauchery, a grown up dissipated face on a pubescent girl’s body. A delightful fictionalization, I thought, and then I found a picture:

This is, I believe, a young Marguerite Duras

Now I see that when I was very young, eighteen, fifteen, I already had a face that foretold the one I acquired through drink in middle age. Drink accomplished what God did not. It aslo served to kill me; to kill. I acquired that drinker’s face before I drank. Drink only confirmed it. The space for it existed in me. I knew it the same as other people, but, strangely, in advance. Just as the space existed for desire. At the age of fifteen I had the face of pleasure, and yet I had no knowledge of pleasure. There was no mistaking that face […] That was how everything started for me—with that flagrant, exhausted face, those rings around the eyes, in advance of time and experience.

For The Lover, Duras won the Prix Goncourt. To win such a major prize with barely a hundred pages: astonishing.

The story shows how one cannibalizes family members in an attempt to construct a fantasy about the lover’s independent reality. She imagines him as mother, father, brother. (“He takes her as he would his own child. He’d take his own child the same way.” Yes, admittedly creepy.) But ultimately, the lover breaches any merely borrowed fantasy. What most people take to be a recognition in later life that she actually loved the lover, and didn’t just go with him for his money, I take to be a surrender to the necessity to form fresh elements of fantasy to cope with his memory.

[I]t was when the boat uttered its first farewell, when the gangway was hauled up and the tugs had started to tow and draw the boat away from land, that she had wept. She’d wept without letting anyone see her tears, because he was Chinese and one oughtn’t to weep for that kind of lover.

What makes The Lover extraordinary, I think, is that it combines these two things: the way a first lover reorganizes the material of your fantasies about other people, and imperialism. Marguerite’s lover resists her existing stock of family fantasies not just by being a lover, but also by being Chinese. The foreignness (and perceived inferiority) of his being Chinese, however, cannot be maintained as a shadowy otherness when he is her first lover. It’s an intractable problem and their “love” does not work out—quite apart from its external obstacle which is, ironically, not her mother (who nonetheless beats her and screams at her for degrading herself with another race, even while accepting the monetary bounty that flows from her daughter’s promiscuity), but his father, who considers the girl beneath them.

At one point in the novel, Duras tosses out a little line that struck me between the eyes like a poleaxe: she says there is a “superstition if you like, that consists in believing in a political solution to the personal problem.” I thought about it and she’s right: there isn’t a political solution to a personal problem. (A thing we are about to learn with searing clarity.) But what is left unsaid—and Duras usually speaks as much through what she doesn’t say as through what she does—is that personal problems might have political origins.

Take her personal problem with that first lover. It wouldn’t be a problem—or not as intractable a problem—without the fact of Imperialism.

And that of course raises the question: though there can’t be political solutions to personal problems, can there be personal solutions to political problems? Well, suppose the novel is an attempt to answer that question. I’ll leave it to you.