For The New Republic, I wrote about the perils and promises of life-writing as they are depicted in the memoir of James Atlas, a biographer of Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow. Read my review here.
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.
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.”
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.
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?
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?
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.
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?
(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.
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.
(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?
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:
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.
Once upon a time, I genuinely enjoyed rereading myself. Homeschooled, unexposed to any serious literature fresher than the nineteenth century, I harbored a prose-crush on Nathaniel Hawthorne. The same labored syntax could be found in my sentences, the same archaic diction, the same reliance on periodicity, apostrophe, and the indefinite pronoun. By contrast to my anachronistic affectations, everything I read in newspapers and magazines seemed inferior, simplistic, discordant. For the brief years of my naivety, I really thought I might be something special as a writer.
Then I discovered the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Spent the next decade cleaning the cobwebs off my verbs and dusting my lines for commas. Learned not to sound like a breathless nymph from the era of corsets and hysteria who had picked up her diction from the Authorized Version. And I really read.
After you’ve really read, you don’t think you’re special anymore. With Thomas Browne and Joan Didion and William Gass and Samuel Johnson and Samuel Delany and Elizabeth Browning and George Eliot and Henry James and Penelope Fitzgerald all living in your head, looking over your shoulder, sniffing at your choices — well, you know the truth.
Still, I never thought I’d get this deep into self-loathing. Lately it’s physically painful to read something a month old. I saw my last Open Letters essay featured in A&L Daily and instead of delight I felt a shudder of horror — I had almost accidentally clicked the link and put myself face to face with the gibbering abortions of my own brain. It’s bad. You don’t even realize.
Sometimes it’s worse than others. After a few pints or a single stiff drink, I can just about make it through something I’ve written in the last year without choking on my own bile. But in the full clarity of the morning, after my coffee, in peak mental form, I would rather drag steel wool across the jelly of my own eyes than face those limping phrases.
Aha! — Subjectivity, you say. But nope, that’s not it. I’ve tested this. The ends of Orwell’s essays and the beginnings of Austen’s novels are just as ego-meltingly wonderful in any state of mind. It’s only the palatability of my own sentences that varies with my appetite, temperature, hydration, and the dilation of my pupils.
Supposedly this sort of wretchedness is a good sign. Disliking your own words means you haven’t reached the acme of your powers of expression. We can hope. But isn’t it also possible that ability and taste are out of joint? The strength of my disgust and admiration for the prose of others used to give me confidence that I possessed some kind of ear or ghostly sense, rare of its kind, for proportion and euphony, line and color. I can hear meter easily and my teachers always praised my scansion and I can appreciate le mot juste. But the repeated disappointments of my own writing make me increasingly nervous that fineness of perception does not endow skill as a matter of course.
But there’s no giving up. Mere failure can’t stop a man besotted with Calliope. You just keep studying the masonry of syntax, the husbandry of diction, the dance steps of style; you just keep learning how to trawl for metaphors and plant those parallels fathoms-deep, unobtrusive, and resonant. And you read. And you suffer in the name of unachievable perfection.
Don’t all writers have a hidden nerve, call it a secret chamber, something irreducibly theirs, which stirs their prose and makes it tick and turn this way or that, and identifies them, like a signature, though it lurks far deeper than their style, or their voice or other telltale antics?
These words are by André Aciman and they apply to him also, though it can be difficult to look beneath his style, which is so unusual, so beguiling in its coils and toils, that it’s often the first thing critics mention. So let’s dispose of that style summarily and look at what “lurks far deeper,” then return to the style to consider it as a manifestation of that deeper thing.
The uniqueness of Aciman’s style follows almost entirely from his willingness to write long sentences. His sentences are remarkable for more than their length, but length is their precondition. Because Aciman is willing to give himself space, to sacrifice the sacred cow of modern English prose—immediate, self-effacing intelligibility—in pursuit of more rarefied aesthetic goals, he simply has more room to experiment. Long sentences, as should be mathematically obvious, have more possible variations than short sentences. Many of Aciman’s long, recursive sentences have an exploratory feeling, as if he is always probing into the terra incognita of syntactic hinterlands. Here’s a lovely example:
You go out into the world to acquire all manner of habits and learn all sorts of languages, but the one tongue you neglect most is the one you’ve spoken at home, just as the customs you feel most comfortable with are those you never knew were customs until you saw others practice completely different ones and realized you didn’t quite mind your own, though you’d strayed so far now that you probably no longer knew how to practice them.
Within these long sentences, Aciman performs miracles of subtle rhythm and felicitous diction. He seems to feel what few writers, however inventive and vigorous their prose, feel anymore: the difference not just between the right and the wrong word, but between the beautiful and the ugly word. His sentences are beautiful, but they’re emphatically not his signature, hidden nerve, secret chamber.
That would be desire.
Desire’s a funny thing. It’s a pain, a discomfort, because it signifies a lack. When you desire something, you move toward it restlessly, hoping you’ll get it and desire will cease. But if you get the thing you want, and have no further desires to prick you with further discomforts, likely you’re bored. Boredom is even more uncomfortable than desire. And so the life of someone attentive to their own gratification will be a constant rocking to and fro between desire and its fulfillment and the emptiness that brings. Perhaps the lowest point of all is to be bored so intensely that you begin to desire to desire something: and this desire, this meta-desire, a second order self-consciousness of the lack of desire, is numbness.
These three moments in the movement of desire are basically the entire focus of Aciman’s writing. Writers with such exclusive focus upon their theme are rare. If he were a lesser writer, this narrowness of vision would make him minor; but I think he plumbs the depths of his theme, makes the minor major by sheer thoroughness.
The book I read recently which prompts these reflections is called Alibis. It’s a collection of travel writing, but as, I imagine, anything Aciman writes will tend to do, each piece bends toward evoking and analyzing the workings of desire: “it is not the things we long for that we love; it is longing itself. . .”
When Aciman visits a place, his regard slides off the present into memories of his own dreams of the future. You know that aesthetic, the retro-future? The future as imagined by someone from the 50s, say? That’s Aciman’s experience of the present: he revisits a place and remembers how he imagined it otherwise. He experiences this both as a painful thwarting, and, self-consciously, as an exquisite pleasure. So when he goes to visit Rome, where he lived as a boy, he thrills with nostalgia for the memory of how he despised the streets he is now seeing, how he used to imagine them as the streets of other cities from the books he escaped into. Or when he writes about New York, he imagines how it might have appeared to Walter Benjamin if he had managed to escape France and emigrated to America. “What we ultimately remember is not the past but ourselves in the past imagining the future.”
But boredom is also there in the elaborate pains Aciman takes, when visiting or revisiting a place, to arrange the most exquisite sensations, to ensure that he will stir up the most poignant desires. And when he fails, he complains about numbness, and turns to writing to kindle the missing fire, and then turns against writing with doubts about its suitability for the therapeutic role in which he’s cast it: “Does writing, as I did later that day, 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?”
If these brief adumbrations of the theme he explores at excruciating (and exquisite) length, in every variation, haven’t made it clear, I’ll say it bluntly: Aciman’s travel writings use terrestrial geography as a pretext to explore the geography of consciousness. These essays, and the travel that occasioned them, are themselves pretexts for inner journeys away from the places his outer journeys are toward. The full title of the book is Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere. That word “elsewhere” does typical Acimanian double-duty, alluding both to the fact that this is a book of travel essays, and to the fact that Aciman himself is always elsewhere than where he travels to.
I say this is about desire, because I think Aciman raises to the level of an all-absorbing theme a dynamic of universal significance—desire itself—but Aciman himself seems to interpret his hidden nerve, secret chamber, signature, as exile. In childhood his family was forced to move from his birth city, Alexandria, and also to descend socially due to the circumstances of their departure. So he attributes his “parallax” vision, his constant absence from the present in favor of the speculations of the past or the counterfactual future, as a consequence, an internalization of the fact of exile: “an exile is a person who is always in one place but elsewhere as well.” His sense of exile is so complete that it has no relation to place; it’s an exile in time, a complete exile, permanent, irrevocable: “This feeling of being cut off from oneself or of being in two places at the same time is as though what was left behind were an amputated limb, something that was cut away from us and was not allowed to travel with us—an arm, a grandparent, a baby brother.”
So, given this absolutely unwavering interest in the dynamics of desire as raised to consciousness by the fact of exile, what are we to make of the style? Is there a connection between those lovely long sentences and the displacements of desire? I think so, yes, absolutely.
For one thing, at their most expansive and wandering, his very long sentences act out the displacement he’s usually describing. With imperceptible slippage, clause by slippery clause, he leads you to a thought that leaves you wondering: where did that sentence begin? You wonder not in a startled, confused way, as when the run-on sentence of a bad writer startles you into attention by a sloppy failure to be consistent in tense or precise about antecedents: no, instead it’s the kind of wondering that comes from wandering, as when you look up from your walk and realize you don’t know where you are are because you got lost in thought and then in reality, or when you’re trying to meditate, to think of nothing, and catch yourself cleverly metamorphosing this well-intentioned nothing into elaborate daydreams.
But the best part about the perfect fit between Aciman’s style and his subject is that he professes to be as helpless in the former as he is in the latters. He regales us with the intricacies of his travels by foot into memory because that’s just how he can’t help but experience those travels, and likewise, “cadenced prose, for all its pyrotechnics, is also a way of hiding that I can’t write as plain a thing as an ordinary sentence in English.”