Saturday, November 29, 2008

Sketches

1.

She looks bored, and also bored of the present. Her brown hair, which looks darker from a distance, is not in an unsightly mess. She is quite mindful of how she looks, for from all her experience, only looks matter. The world is distant, at a distance from her. Even her framed portrait, nailed to the near wall looks estranged from her. That face glows with affectation, with deft and light make believe. The joys of times past mean nothing to an estranged present. Only the present matters, present love, present joys.Her finely manicured nails, the expensive shawl that covers her knees, the careless bored look on her face, these merge together, and united in an unwholesome whole, they suggest the cultivated boredom of that hour. But these images are deceptive, for we know nothing. We pretend that our glib words have described a person. We only alter reality with words for the truth of the matter is, she is neither waiting for someone nor has someone left her. She is mortally bored, of life, of herself, of the dense rain outside.Since we never asked her, she never spoke of the night traced across her face, of the dense meanings of the unlived night, of the pain of fixity. She does not believe, she has lost faith in love. Her face, still somehow expectant, waits for a future hope. That is only a guess.


2.

Everything is in the voice, the hesitant notes of the voice, in the waiting, in the expected prompting. He wants something that you cannot or do not want to give, both of you acknowledge the presence of that surmise, of that wall to admitting it. And yet you both speak of the weather, the frost that has settled in since yesterday, of the fog, the dense fog. But you return again to pursue the thread of this conversation, you are testing the water, he is testing you. And you know that it is you, you must acknowledge the presence of this tension, of this thing that cannot be mentioned, for it does not matter how much frost has settled outside, who cares about the fog so long as you come out of this conversation unharmed, so you think, and he tells you exactly without saying it, now exactly, the thing that you both cannot speak about or express in words. The catch is in the voice, in the words, the hardness is in the inflection and not in the frost. This conversation has failed you because you have failed him.

Friday, November 28, 2008

He struts on the silent stage, alone

The actor struts on the silent stage alone. There is no audience to watch him act and so he must act alone. This is not intentional for an actor wants an audience and a few spectators, an actor cannot strut on a silent stage alone. The lines have been rehearsed, the act perfected, the lines repeated again and again in his head, but there is no audience to watch him, he struts silently on the silent stage alone. If he delivers perfectly on the stage, alone on the silent stage, if he acts perfectly and this act is not witnessed, it goes unseen, he goes unheard, then he is not seen alone, strutting on a silent stage alone. So he stands now, after delivering his lines, rehearsed again and again in his head, having acted to perfection, the rehearsed lines, the perfect part, the perfect part alone on a silent stage, as he struts on the silent stage, alone. There are no sighs, there is no applause or disappointment to great his performance that he had rehearsed to perfection, for he has played this role many times, spoken these lines again and again in his mind, has walked this stage again and again in his mind. But unlike now, he has always seen an audience, even if it has been in his mind. But he struts on the silent stage alone, and there is no audience to watch him, so what is not seen does not exist and what is not whispered is not heard. And so too with life generally and so too when words are not spoken to people who have not heard them thus, like actors who go unseen and unheard and with authors who are not known or with songs that are not sung. For what use is a book that is not read and a song that is not heard, even if that book has been written to perfection and the song sung to perfection, for the book and the song thus remain unwitnessed and unheard and thus do not exist.

Such were his thoughts, like the unseen and unheard actor's, as he was making his way home, thinking of the actor, an actor rehearsing his lines, repeating them again and again many times in his head, such were his thoughts as he was walking home. For what is not said and not heard go unwitnessed and unheard and thus do not exist, like the actor who struts on the silent stage alone, to act his act silently with no audience to watch him act. As he makes his way home, he knows that the changes are taking place inside him but these are not seen or heard and thus go unwitnessed and unheard. So, as he walks alone, a walk that is walked alone, unseen and unwitnessed, a melancholy walk, he thinks of the actor on the silent stage, the actor who struts alone, on the silent stage alone, and there is no audience to watch the actor, as he struts alone on the silent stage. And so with him too, as he he makes his way home, alone.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Mar Jawaan -

How superfluous, he thought

How superfluous these philosophical concepts are he thought, as he made his way home through the driving rain. Life, the lived and unlived life, the lived in memory life, the looming uncertainty of life shows us its face and we present ourselves to this life, the only thing that we know about it or are forced to know, without wanting to know it or desire it and we live it and then thinking in silence about these silent questions that chase us daily, we are reminded of these philosophical questions that are framed in concepts, in neat words and terms, of schools of thought. We learn of the men and women who have thought them, who with the force of rhetoric have given the passive world a few concepts to make sense of itself, to make sense silently, of a silent world. What use these concepts he thought again as he tried making his way through the driving rain? The words he should have spoken today or yesterday or even before to acknowledge the distress and silence and pain of the person in distress and silence and pain were driven out of his mind by the physical force of an insistent world. And yet, as he made his way through the driving rain, this falling silent rain, this pouring rain and vapour, he realized the unnecessary importance of certain philosophical questions and concepts that he had heard people explain and describe, words like ontology and existence and being and time. Some such words like existence and being and time that he had never understood, for he kept thinking of that person with longing eyes, the separation of distances mapped by furrows and lines on a face chosen for distances and lines.

How was it possible to live without acknowledging to himself, as he made his way through this driving rain, the insistent and unrepentant farce of these philosophical questions, of these philosophical concepts, of terms like ontology and existence and being and time when he had left unexplained to that person he had left behind, when he had not told the person he had left unaddressed the question of silence? How can a person, making his way through insistent rain explain to another person, the sullen silence of silence and the inability to express, to surmount with words the hermitage of sensitivity, the inability to acknowledge the distress and silence and pain and the distress and silence and pain of the person left behind? How can philosophy, with the coldness of its anarchy explain the distress and silence and pain of closing windows on a previous life and let us live and walk sometimes through the driving rain, as he was walking now, through the driving rain, with questions like ontology and existence and being and time? The most important things in life, like acknowledging the distress and silence and pain, the silence and failure of expressed and unexpressed words, witnessed and unwitnessed pain, and trying to surmount, with useless words the hermitage of sensitivity, these important things were being left behind and such were his thoughts as he made way home through the driving rain.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

La Comedia Finita



So declares Pechorin at the end of Lermontov's small masterpiece A Hero of Our Time. Written much before Turgenev's superfluous men came on the Russian stage, this novel is a testimony to Lermontov's great talent, though it is his only completed novel. Lermontov's reputation as a poet was safe while he was alive and during his time he was considered next only to Pushkin. In fact, he wrote a great elegy on Pushkin, resulting in his being punished by demotion to a military detachment of lesser standing and transfer to the Caucasus. A hero of our time is based on the exploits of our so-called hero in the caucasus, in areas in Chechnya and Daghestan and in many ways, this novel is semi-autobiographical, containing details from the author's own life.

This novel appeared in a serialized form and as a novel during Lermontov's short life and brings to the fore a character quite complex and interesting. Even though Pechorin types started appearing in Turgenev's fiction later and also Tolstoy's much later, Pechorin is not simply a superfluous man and cannot be dismissed only as such. His character and personality are richer, his thoughts more complex than a regular superfluous man. He is given in to more introspection than usual and even though he remains a man of action, he still comes across as uncertain and indecisive, half interested in everything and loaded with contradictions. This personal tendency, this prey to contradictions forms an important aspect of the narrative of his life. He is prone to philosophizing but also dismisses it quickly. He demands to be respected and loved and is easily dismissive of others. He wants power, he tells us so, he knows that ambition leads only to power and yet, in one stroke, very near acquiring that, he throws any such opportunity to acquire power or status.

Pechorin looks rebellious but is not, he is argumentative yet mild in manner, he is lazy but willing to act. This is evidenced by the duel he is forced to accept and after the initial reluctance is over, he executes it according to a well made plan. He shows no pity for the man he ends harming and yet, he appears to be so kind before that. Pechorin however reveals an evil streak when it comes to winning and breaking hearts, throwing them asunder, toying with impressionable girls and young princesses with title and ambition against the sheer beauty of a Caucasian countryside. The Pechorin type is more poetic than appears on first evidence and yet more ruthless than evident. He scoffs at the concept of fate and pre-destination and yet is quite independent in mind and thoughts and action.

The novel is written in four parts, each seemingly unrelated to each other and yet part of a cohesive whole, with a style of narration and self deprecating wit that was far ahead of its time. The novel abounds in nature descriptions, adventurous and funny anecdotes and a psychological analysis at various human situations including places and people. The attempt by the Russians to subdue the native Caucasians forms the untold narrative of the text. Lermontov does not go into the details of the local political situation and it seems justifiable, as the story is not that of the murderous Asiatics, as one character says, but that of Pechorin. Pechorin is in these parts only because he is fated to and yet prepared to end up in a hostile place. Lermontov's considerations or sympathies are not Asian but Russian and in realizing this character, as he explains in his preface, he is attempting a certain critique of the social situation in Russia of those times. As Lermontov says, this book is not about one person but those of the vices of a generation.

In spite of its brevity, this novel raises aesthetic, political, psychological and realistic questions than do far heavier novels. It is essential to remember that the mood here is practical, post-romantic and fatalistic and superfluous.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Love has died

Love has died, he knew, as he left that warm tavern, with nothing left but the lingering aroma of coffee, a few laughs and a few shared common sentiments, mostly acknowledged out of good manners than any firm convictions. Love has died he thought, as he walked the way to his rooms, having left the warm tavern behind, with nothing but the almost dazed recollection of memories, those that he was not even sure of now, such memories as do sometimes so richly haunt a person, even a man.It seemed beyond belief how love could die so easily, as he had heard or seen before though such things always happen to the stranger, to the unknown man or woman, in the papers, in a corner of some forgotten corner of some memory. How strange was it, it seemed to him, to convince himself that from now onwards life would be the same night and day but different, for the dominant belief of his life, the over-riding emotion of his wakeful hours had been snatched, been shattered by the reality of revealing time. How matter of fact, how un-nerving and yet how sudden, how bereft of feeling itself and yet how mellow this feeling, how unthoughtful and yet how full of thought was this thought that kept echoing in his mind, this thought that there was no love in his life any more, that love had died, this thought as he walked to his rooms, on this particularly uncold but windy night, on this unusually slow moving night, this night that had been drawn from a list of lonely nights.
Love has died, he knew and with each step away and each step towards this new reality, something was dying inside him as something hard, something cold and something fishy, something like death was taking hold of him, with each step towards this new reality, with each step away from that warm tavern, from that warm person that he had once known, towards that very cold person he had become.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Where does such tenderness come from?

Where does such tenderness come from?
These curls that I stroke with my hand
Aren’t the first that I’ve stroked, and I
Knew lips that were darker than yours.

Stars rose in the sky and faded,
Where does such tenderness come from? –
And glowing eyes also rose and faded
Right next to my own two eyes.

And I used to listen to greater hymns
In complete darkness, at night,
Betrothed - Oh, tenderness! -
On the chest of the singer himself.

Where does such tenderness come from,
And what do I do with it, you, sly,
Adolescent, vagabond singer,
Whose eyelashes couldn’t be longer?

Marina Tsvetaeva

Monday, November 17, 2008

Only this night

this being the most self important mood
and this night the least clear
this being the saddest song
and this the least remembered
only this night has some existence.

tomorrow the day will reveal noiseless rain
and the same of the old
restive heart, sad fingers
the ceaseless unromance of existence
only this night has some existence.

the worst pain of night is the
most ludicrous of all things during day
it reveals only a profusion of sentiment
and the most vague logic and this
only this night has some existence.

the pile of books inside and the unstoppable
rain outside piles sadness upon sadness
but when it is day it reveals the stupidity
of this heart and the vague logic of the previous night but
only this night has some existence.

the saddest songs of the night
go to pieces during the day
as do my sad fingers and your romantic vows
and my sighs and your voice
but only this night has some existence.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Turgenev's Love Stories

Even in his most obvious politically oriented novels, Ivan Turgenev's novels have a constant theme of love running through them and even the most dedicated of his nihilist revolutionaries has one or another kind of heartache. But I want to refer not to his great novels but to his longish short stories, a medium that Turgenev exploits brilliantly, tailor made as it seems for the subtle evocation of mood and character, humour and comedy, romance and tragedy, themes that are so evident in his stories.

I am referring first to his story called Asya, the idea of which was conceived whilst Turgenev was adrift in a boat on the Rhine. Asya has often been unfavourably compared to his masterpiece First Love but in no way is Asya inferior.
Asya lives on a hilltop with his brother Gagin in a small town on the Rhine. One day they meet the narrator of the story N, and being Russians they drift into small talk.This leads to further meetings and soon the narrator thinks that he is in love with Asya. But Asya is a free spirit, her own emotions and feelings are hidden from her, for she does not know what feelings really are, what love is. Strange is Asya but stranger still the heart that beats inside her, a heart that makes her restless, agitated, happy and sad, almost simultaneously. In Asya, a kind of dual nature alternates rapidly, making her seem passionate and unfriendly and unpredictable.

The hero is young, Asya younger and soon we know that she was conceived illegitimately, Gagin only sharing a father with her. The moment of truth, when Asya wants to hear the word Love from the narrator's mouth and the narrator's disbelief at his lack of understanding, of what he wants and what love means leads to unhappiness in the end. Everything could be linked to her birth, this matter is not far from her mind and as sometimes happens in these stories, the heroine must lose herself in a higher evocation, in a higher calling to redeem herself in her own eyes and lift her falling esteem. This is either in joining a monastic order or in marrying an older richer person. What the hero must decide in practical life is actually quite different from the idealistic dreams of love or any other higher lofty idealism and this is made evident crushingly, in spite of the beautiful and serene scenic surroundings.

Contrast this with First Love, which is a tale written with superb restraint and a wonderful recalling of all that is so reminiscent of love , be it first or second. The emotion of love, evoked in our young narrator on seeing Zenochka is brilliantly described. There is no other greater master than Turgenev when it comes to evoking a mood, a sketch, however ephemeral or transitory it might be, whether it is a lake, a meadow or an inconstant wisp of cloud. The ecstasy of going through the emotion itself, the blush of first love, the hesitant stuttering doubts, the yes and the no, the torment of meetings, the nights, the separations and the usual accompaniments of love are all described vividly by Turgenev. However, Zenochka too sacrifices herself for another ideal and our hero, an adolescent lover is left baffled and scarred by her nature and behaviour. Zenochka has died, the hero is older and everybody can seemingly get on with life.

The greatness of this story is that even though at its heart it is a love story, I have always ( having read this story a few times) reflected on its real theme. Zenochka's unhappiness is the direct result of her poverty and her exploitation at the hands of the hero's father is the culminating crescendo of this story. But in Turgenev's hands, it does not seem so, for his vision is so supreme and his generosity so large that even his social protest lacks the ordinariness of simple rebellion and rises towards an aesthetic of expression. That there is a insurmountable distance between the likes of Zenochka and the hero is made clearer more through the process of portrayal than through any rhetorical device and as for the hero, his love is the pure symptom of adolescence and thus untainted.

The best aspect of the story is in the cast that Turgenev has assembled, the suitors or "lovers" of Zenochka, who, irrespective of time or season, revel in gay abandon as their mistress, at her whim or fancy summons them and then kills them for their sport. The character of Zenochka and her sublime inner beauty, the freshness of spirit and the radiance of her spontaneous actions is in marked contrast to either the later Turgenev heroine who is more confident, bold, always poor but generally a revolutionary, but calm and staid. Zenochka is so different to Lisa ( House of the Gentry) and markedly so from the Dostoevskyian heroine, who is always epileptic, usually tubercular, poor, illegitimate and is either about to die or will die later, betrayed or betraying.

Turgenev's love stories are about the reality of being actually unhappy and the small amounts of happiness that we encounter sometimes in our lives, whatever the time, climate or period.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Robbe - Grillet : Jealousy

In Robbe-Grillet's world, the object is supreme. Any object. It has everything because inside it, we have no access. The surface is all. We move in this world of objects and some of these happen to be living. The characters that inhabit that world do speak, but so do the other sounds that we are supposed to hear, of tropical kinds, like the noises of crickets. The arm is raised, the hair is combed, people shift positions, they eat and move but the unending gaze is constant in its gaze. It sees all various trajectories, from different angles, giving the eye different vistas to comprehend. The blinds make up this world. Sunlight falls at certain angles, shadows shift, light changes, it gets dark. The outside is different from the inside because there is no access to the inside.


In distinction from the classical narrative, with which we are generally familiar, Robbe-Grillet offers a narrative that might appear broken but is not so. On a closer careful reading, what is seemingly vague and difficult is earnestly very easy to comprehend. This is a world where we are forced to see after we hear. In a straightforward conventional narration, the images that are offered are unique to each reader, for the substance of each reading conveys different meanings to us all. Here, the text is actually an image. Thus different images are presented before us, each preceding one linked in a circular manner to the one that follows. As we proceed, the passages are repeated at intervals, with the addition of another detail that had not been furnished previously. Thus what we thought we had seen was incomplete, for it has been completed now, after another look. Thus the outside object has been restored as it is, in time.

The above is evident in Jealousy, a beautifully crafted novel by Robbe-Grillet. We are introduced or seduced into this mathematical world by the unknown narrator or in this case by the absent narrator. There is only the gaze or the camera, as scenes and projections are made visible to us. The images are thrown at us, one after the other in a tropical plantation but not in Africa. The gaze, his wife perhaps called simply A, her friend Franck, and her servant boy, a native. The plan of A'a house is described in the minutest detail but most of the action takes place on her veranda, witnessed by unseen animals, birds, insects, sounds and smells. A sits next to Franck who is their neighbour. The action mostly describes Franck visiting A quite often, having dinner, drinks and casually talking of some mundane things. Then they decide to go together to town for a day, he looking for a new truck and A for shopping. However, truck trouble delays their return and they spend the night in town only to return the next day. The gaze waits and then nothing happens. The novel ends.

But is that all? No. Against this sparse "story", Robbe -Grillet weaves a web, a web in which the reader has to eventually fall, reluctantly at first and then, with a wilful abandon. The gaze of narration describes everything in detail and it seems, suspecting A's supposed infidelity and whilst waiting for her or having dinner with the two of them or while simply sitting, the narrator describes everything that he sees, everything that the surface of any object could possibly show in the most clinical manner. And to it are added the constant refrains, the going back, narrative shifts, repetitions, the addition of new details to previously described things, again, another time, yet again, once more, once more, till the reader, I at least, longed for more, more of the same, the same paragraph, the same object. Running through the novel is the returning back to a stain on the veranda wall, left by a centipede that Franck has crushed. This incident is described many times, over and over again till assumes a central motif.

There is a passage from this novel which has become notorious and in an essay on Robbe-Grillet, Bruce Morrissette says that it was read and parodied on radio many decades ago. I might copy it on my blog soon but the passage below is really brilliant:

"The brush descends the length of the loose hair with a faint noise something between the sound of a breath and a crackle. No sooner has it reached the bottom than it quickly rises again toward the head, where the whole surface of its bristles sinks in before gliding over the black mass again. The brush is a bone coloured oval whose short handle disappears almost entirely in the hand firmly gripping it.
Half of the hair hangs down the back, the other hand pulls the other half over one shoulder. The head leans to the right, offering the hair more readily to the brush. Each time the latter lands at the top of its cycle behind the nape of the neck, the head leans farther to the right and then rises again with an effort, while the right hand, holding the brush, moves away in the opposite direction. The left hand, which loosely confines the hair within the wrist, the palm and the fingers, releases it for a second and then closes on it again, gathering the strands together with a firm, mechanical gesture, while the brush continues its course to the extreme tips of the hair. The sound, which gradually varies from one end to the other, is at this point nothing more than a dry, faint crackling, whose last sputters occur once the brush, leaving the longest hair, is already moving up the ascending part of the cycle, describing a swift curve in the air which brings it above the neck, where the hair lies flat on the back of the head and reveals the white streak of a part.
To the left of this part, the other half of the black hair hangs loosely to the waist in supple waves. Still further to the left the face shows only a faint profile. But beyond is the surface of the mirror, which reflects the image of the whole face from the front, the eyes......doubtless unnecessary for brushing......directed straight ahead, as is natural".

The whole art of Robbe-Grillet lies in inviting the reader, initially reluctant, hesitant and slightly unsure into this mathematical world of descriptions, mirrors, windows, blinds and doors, shadows, each exactly described and charted. But is that all. Robbe-Grillet would feel offended if any hidden meaning was ascribed to his fiction or in this case this narrative. The stain has been variously interpreted but I find it closed to myself and think of it as a device to draw us towards an unforgettable central motif of this novel.......this relentless obsession of the narrator or the hidden gaze in analyzing everything in detail. Various reviews suggest murder or impending murder but I am compelled in only seeing this maze of shadows, of the most acute and the most brooding of descriptions.

Robbe-Grillet's style is extremely addictive, enchanting and yes, hypnotic. The sentences, in one repetitive rhythm and strain after another leave you asking for more for, the more the repetitions, the more sinister the effect, the more desperate the narration and the more hideously invisible the gaze. Consider the below:

"The lustrous black curls fall free to the shoulders. The flood of heavy locks with reddish highlights trembles at the slightest movement the head makes. The head must be shaken by tiny movements, imperceptible in themselves, but amplified by the mass of hair, creating gleaming, quickly vanishing eddies whose sudden intensity is reawakened in un-looked for convulsions a little lower......lower still......and a last spasm much lower".

The mundane nature of the word "amplified" is instantly negated by the hypnotic trance of what follows, of spasms that are lower, much lower. One must learn to read this fiction, this art. We get lost in the eddies of Robbe-Grillet's words, each intense, a bit more intense......and towards the end, much more.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Alain Robbe - Grillet

It is said that a few decades ago, the 6th arrondissement of Paris was buzzing with delight at the supposed failure of Robbe-Grillet's novel Jealousy. The novel had been withdrawn from bookshelves and the literary critics of the day had decimated it into near oblivion. But much water has flown down the Seine since then and Robbe-Grillet's reputation as one of the pioneers of the novel roman, as an experimental writer par excellence is legion in itself. This speaks much of literary fashion as it does of reviewers and critics.

In his characteristic way, Barthes' essay on Robbe-Grillet called Objective Literature, Barthes talks about a place for Robbe-Grillet as a novelist, in spaces unoccupied since Balzac, Zola and Proust. He situates him in a place where the new novel as exemplified by Robbe-Grillet moves from the interior to the exterior. The thrust of his writing or its "whole purpose is upon an object, its being there and to keep it from being something". Like a photographer's image, the object in front of us is described but only from the surface without any intentionality, without it falling back to having a meaning, surface or hidden. The object exists on its own, for itself. As Barthes says, for Robbe-Grillet, "the object has no being beyond phenomenon, it has no allegory, not even opaque, for opacity somehow implies a corresponding transparency, a dualism in nature. His language does not explode but is a progression of names over a surface".

It is quite true that Robbe-Grillet's prose is not seemingly poetic, it is not prose poetry but it has a haunting aesthetic to it. The solidity and carefulness of description has a brooding air, the almost mathematical geometry of his character's movements have the unforgettable symptoms of melancholy about them. Anyone familiar with Last year in Marienbad can discern that. At the same time, Robbe-Grillet returns again and again to his objects, till he seemingly exhausts their surface or their surface meaning ( though meaning has no place in his order). This endless repetition works in a different way too for it ultimately serves a purpose in his fiction which is to convey the essence of circularity, that of time. For instance, in Marienbad, we end up where we began and so too in The Erasers. Under his gaze, the objects, as Barthes says, "undergo mutation".

"Visually", says Barthes,"it is impossible for a man to participate in the internal process of dilapidation.......no matter how fine you slice the units of decay......the visual dispensation of the object is the only one that can include within it a forgotten time, perceived by its effects rather than by its duration, and hence deprived of its pathos". The circularity of his time does not allow his objects to fade, they lie insistent for further gazes. Even though the lack of any metaphysic or allegory or inner meaning is repeatedly highlighted by Robbe-Grillet's critics, The Erasers is generally considered open to various meanings of form and allegory and the author seems to have planted clues for those who can unravel them. The geometric patterns of the place where this novel unfolds has the plan of Thebes and thus whether his fiction is entirely one of surfaces, of a surface metaphysic must be questioned too. From the phenomenon to the phenomenological, he can quickly traverse to the metaphysical. I also personally feel, and here I dare to disagree with Barthes, that the objects exemplified and described by the writer have lost something with the passage of time and some hints of that loss are not left entirely untouched by Robbe-Grillet.

This post has been prompted by my reading Robbe-Grillet recently and at present. It also is clear that some of his books are badly titled in English, for example The Voyeur which may however have some commercial reasons. I am currently reading his novel Jealousy and plan to read his other works too and hopefully write in more detail soon. His death, at the beginning of this year is truly a great loss to the world of literature and cinema.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Restlessness is in the grass

Restlessness is in the grass
the cottages are seized by turmoil
the bell strikes me Lord
my God
the doves are wild
the moon is on edge
its sickle pierces my flesh
Lord unrest is in the sty
and at the edge of these brooks
that do not flee from the snow
my God tree and fish too
are seized by restlessness.

Thomas Bernhard, from In Hora Mortis

Sunday, November 09, 2008

from Gathering Evidence

"And to write about a period of one's life, no matter how remote or how recent, no matter how long or how short, means accumulating hundreds and thousands and millions of falsehoods and falsifications, all of which are familiar to the writer describing the periods as truths and nothing but truths. His memory adheres precisely to the events and their precise chronology, but what emerges is something quite different from what things were really like. The description makes something clear which accords with the describer's aspiration for truth but not with the truth itself, for truth is quite impossible to communicate. We describe an object and believe that we have described it truthfully and faithfully, only to discover that it is not the truth. We make a state of affairs clear, yet it is never the state of affairs we wished to make clear but always a different one. We are bound to say that we have never communicated anything that was not the truth, yet throughout our lives we have never stopped trying to communicate the truth. We wish to tell the truth but fail to do so. We describe something truthfully, but our description is something other than the truth. We ought to be able to see existence as the state of affairs we wish to describe, but however hard we try we can never see this state of affairs through our description. Knowing this to be so, we ought to have given up wishing to write the truth long ago and so given up writing altogether. Since it is not possible to communicate and hence to demonstrate the truth, we have contented ourselves with wishing to write and describe the truth, as well as to tell the truth, even though we know that the truth can never be told. The lie, since we cannot circumvent it, is the truth. What is described here is the truth, yet at the same time it is not the truth, because it cannot be. In all the years we have spent reading, we have never encountered a single truth, even if again and again what we have read has been factual. Again and again it was lies in the form of truth and truth in the form of lies, etc. What matters is whether we want to lie or tell and write the truth, even though it can never be the truth and never is the truth. Throughout my life I have always wanted to tell the truth, even though I now know that it was all a lie. In the end all that matters is the truth content of the lie. For a long time reason has forbidden me to tell and write the truth, because that only means telling and writing a lie; but writing is a vital necessity for me, and this is the reason why I write, even if everything I write is bound to be nothing but lies which are conveyed through me as truth. Of course we may demand truth, but if we are honest with ourselves we know that there is no such thing as truth. What is described here is the truth, and at the same time it is not, for the simple reason that truth is only a pious wish on our part".

Gathering Evidence, Thomas Bernhard

2666

I am still waiting for my copy of 2666 but this link here is the first of the few reviews of the book on the Internet. Obviously the sense of the same and the similar is the essence of the reality of literature and Bolano too is no exception. After reading this and other reviews, 2666 seems to take over from where The Savage Detectives had left or let off, and this book describes another search. It is also clear that in his review Adam Kirsch cannot hide that he wanted 2666 to be not as good as he concedes it actually is. But we must not rush.

Another review at the IHT considers that the "The Savage Detectives" looks positively hermetic beside it".(2666) This here is a good guide to 2666 and has some other interesting secondary links as well. And this is an interesting and amusing introduction to Bolano. 2666 seems to be the novel novel, as it is being called. Let us see.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

In Defense of the Dilettante Blogger

Of late, there have been a few attempts in the blogging world wherein certain elements have taken a swipe at the rise of numerous literary bloggers, a thing that is seen as the rise of the idiot blogger. Now , in the past, I have been forced many times to think of my personal attempts at blogging, the value it has, if any, and the ultimate purposes it might serve. The ideal and very notion of blogging has not been an uncritical presence. It has always been a conscious area, even while any self forced absence has been conscious too. However, the reasons why people fancy that they can write, that they should write, are different too. To write, which any amateur blogger thinks they are doing, is obviously an act that only the concerned person can answer. There is a difference between writing and blogging and so long as this difference is not forgotten, the dilettante blogger is not usurping anything at all.

It is important to see how the professional or self declared serious literary blogger, the self anointed literary critic, the self declared messiah of blog land, the new conservative blog land hawk has spawned an entire new area of operation in blog land. Any blog search, even to a new literary dilettante novice will reveal a totalitarian control of what should be read and reviewed and how; you will find in various blogs the same drum being beaten again and again. As you scroll down such self consciously important blogs, pathetically declared as the best of literary coverages and so on, you will find the same blogs being read and promoted everywhere, the same names everywhere and those same comments which smack of self importance, egoistic milking and self declared literary benchmarks.

The literary novice is usually far well read these days than the professional blogger. He or she does not play to the gallery of literary critical establishment. The literary critic is now nothing more than a journalist, reporting rather than discoursing, and in the process adding nothing to the reality of debate. It is, as Daniel Bell calls it, a bourgeois addition to the whole debate, for the response of the new blogger is equal to what the middle-class reader evokes. This journalistic chatter, passed on as serious literary coverage and pasted on blog faces everywhere is cringing to see. On these self declared great literary blogs, where all the self important names are continually mentioned, this totalitarian control does not allow the possibility of an outsider to venture in; an outsider dilettante who might be not only a better writer but definitely more widely read.

Some of these so-called literary portals are devoted exclusively either to promoting each other and thus create a fraternity of literature-land ( and in the process stop judging each other and start judging others) and also to promote certain writers, who incidentally might be either good or bad; these main literary portals on the web today are the equals of those who killed a Keats in earlier times. The value and worth of what is written is exclusive to the reader alone. Each individual reader has the capacity to judge the value of what is read. In the same way, this almost totalitarian control of Internet spaces amounts to nothing less than a kind of imperialism of the net. The dilettante blogger has now got the means to speak about those texts that are either being declared holy or have been declared beyond criticism in the past; he or she also has the prerogative of challenging, even if naively, the current wisdom of our Journalistic seers.

Therein, lies the modern paradox. The space of the Internet cannot be justifiably colonized though it can be hogged continuously by the self appointed guardians of literary critical writers. Most of them unfortunately are either failed or failing writers who perhaps should take solace from Bolano's fiction and fictive heroes than create activities, hierarchies and ladders of bloggers and blogging. The dilettante blogger does not have recourse to hidden psychological motives that only the professional critic sees. The novice blogger must write if she/he wants to and in that process a certain meaning to a read text might be achieved. The meanings gleaned might be off the mark but will not be totally wrong for the real exigency is known to the writer of the primary text alone. The dilettante writers blog is one click from deletion but so is the professional self declared best blogger's too. That in itself might be the egalitarianism of the Internet. Everything good and ugly is just a click away from oblivion.

From Real Presences

An extract from George Steiner's Real Presences:

"The usages and values predominant in the consumer societies of the West today are the opposite to those in the imaginary community of the immediate. It is the secondary and the parasitic which overwhelm. Literate humanity is solicited daily by millions of words, printed, broadcast, screened, about books which it will never open, music it will not hear, works of art it will never set eyes on. A perpetual hum of aesthetic commentary, of on-the-minute judgements, of pre-packaged pontifications, crowds the air. Presumably, the greater part of art-talk or literary reportage, of music reviews or ballet criticisms, is skimmed rather than read, heard but not listened to. None the less, the effect is antithetical to that visceral, personal encounter and appropriation designated by Ben Johnson. There is little ingestion; it is the digest that prevails.

At the level of critical-academic interpretation and evaluation, the volume of secondary discourse defies inventory. Not even the computer and electronic data bank are able to cope. No bibliographies are up to date. The mass of books and critical essays, of scholarly articles, of acta and dissertations produced each day in Europe and the United States, has the blind weight of a tidal wave. In the humanities- a general rubric which I will take to encompass literature, music, the arts together with the totality of hermeneutic and normative argument which they occasion.....enumeration verges on the grotesque".
When Everything is Music - Philip Glass

Monday, November 03, 2008

Turgenev : Gentry and Superfluousness

The Russian literary concept of the superfluous man is not new. Turgenev's diary of the superfluous man is well known and in the same tradition, a few writers have tried to elaborate on the same with varying results. However, it is within the ambit of the Russian conception that the superfluous man achieves his full trajectory, needless to say, it is superfluous anyway. I have just finished reading Turgenev's Home of the Gentry, in which, as happens in some of his better known works, the protagonist returns to the country and falls into the pattern of ideas and longing, memory and desire, politics and inaction, love and regret and usually some kind of a failure.

In brief, Lavretsky, our protagonist has returned to his country seat to resume his duties of the landed gentry. However, since he is the quintessential superfluous man, he has decided to plough the land. Herein, Lavretsky is not too dissimilar to us, for in deciding to return to his roots, he follows the well known arc of most of Turgenev's heroes. The difference is in age, in aspect and attire alone and not much in action itself. The main difference from a Bazarov or a Nezhdanov is that Lavretsky has moved away totally from action, from thoughts of any nihilistic nature and has decided to devote himself to solitude. He has somewhat recovered from a painful marriage only to find himself falling in love again with a relative of extreme sensitivity.

Lavretsky decides once again to find happiness only to realize after failing again that it is not possible either to find it or remain happy. In the meanwhile, we have the country seat wherein Lavretsky has a verbal duel with an old friend. This kind of scene is the essence of the Russian literary novel and we have the forerunners of all kinds of storms that were to fall on the Russian scene enacted in Lavretsky's country abode. The difference again is in the manner and convictions of Lavretsky, who in his ploughing of the land maxim, has moved towards the later theories of Bazarov and Nezhdanov, towards the Russianness of Russia, towards Rus, towards some kind of slavophilia and away from Europe. However, Turgenev is no Dostoevsky and his opinions are never extreme or morbid. In his finality, Lavretsky is trying to achieve within his personal space a kind of meaning, to his life and the lives of others around him.

Home of the gentry is not Turgenev's best novel but to understand his entire oeuvre, it is still an essential read. We have all of his usual stylistics, the great descriptions of the countryside, the almost peaceful and sombre paintings of home and hearth and the surrounding anarchy, the passion and the flux of the peasantry. It has his usual motifs without the elan of his later works but the signs are there for further greatness to come. The ideal superfluous man finds full expression here with all his mental passions, his verbal gimmickry, his play and pain and solitude, idealism and love, failure and inaction. We have to look no further to see how Turgenev finds the roots of this superfluous man deep in native soil and find all his rolling angst within.

Alok at Dispatches has in the past devoted a few posts to the concept of the superfluous man and I attach the links. Suffice it to say that with Turgenev, the Russian novel becomes truly great and without his warm passion and steady outlook, it would amount to mere Literature.