Saturday, October 23, 2010

Péter Nádas

To begin, I will hardly mention that The Book of Memories, by Péter Nádas, is technically perfect, because, as rare as technical perfection (and, of course, I am being slightly excessive) is, in prose, or anything else for that matter, this book, which is overpowering, impressed me in many ways, and I want to start by mentioning those ways that are the most personal, and, in my mind, the least obvious and, probably, the least important. I will begin with the author's note:
It is my pleasant duty to state that what I have written is not my own memoirs. I have written a novel, the recollection of several people separated by time, somewhat in the manner of Plutarch's Parallel Lives. The memoirists might be conceivably all be me, though none of them is. So the locations, names, events, and the situations in the story aren't real but, rather, products of a novelist's imagination. Should anyone recognize someone, or - God forbid! - should any event, name, or situation match actual ones, that can only be a fatal coincidence, and in this respect, if in no other, I am compelled to disclaim responsibility.
The author's note, of The Book of Memories, I read before anything else: before the blurb; before the first page; before the glorious Susan Sontag quote – The greatest novel written in our time […] – on the front cover of the recent Picador reprinting; and, before reading even a page of the novel, picked at random, from somewhere inside the enormous book, which is a long-standing and unselfconscious practice of mine that I almost always adhere to when I am contemplating a new book purchase. I'm not sure exactly what I knew of Péter Nádas – I knew his name at least, that is certain – before the day I bought his book, although I suspect that when I saw the title on the shelf, spine-out, something registered with me: perhaps the memory of an article I once read, or a friend’s remark from long ago? To be clear, it was not a book I had planned to read. And, yet, for whatever reason, recently, in a crowded (!) and fashionable (!!) bookstore, I pulled The Book of Memories from the shelf, and turned to the author's note, which, I think, was a good and proper introduction to Nádas, and I am very glad it happened. 

In his author’s note, Nádas establishes, with typically delicate precision, as he sidesteps the possibility of his book being confused with fact, his refusal to take for granted anything at all, which is characteristic of The Book of Memories. Turns of phrase that might seem to protrude, or to be excessive, are irreplaceable to Nádas, whose subject is consciousness, and whose setting is Communist Eastern Europe. History is at its most severe and hard-nosed, and is experienced with rare sensitivity and sensuality; the kind of drawn-out, aesthetic, and prosaic reflection that is characteristic (normally, or, more precisely, in Proust) of the bourgeois drawing rooms of twentieth century, modernist literature.

This vision is delivered by a narrator, in fact, by multiple narrators, for whom there is no limit to the number of times a human experience – sexual desire, mistrust, jealousy, disgust – can be broken down into smaller and smaller units, considered and reconsidered until the moment itself, which just seemed under thorough investigation, about to give up answers and offer meaning, has become impossibly distant, and vertiginously far below. Nádas rises to heights that few authors, which I have ever read, can reach.
Come to think of it, he never set foot in the house on Stargarderstrasse either; we were forever hiding or, more precisely, we were trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, which was something I was quite adept at, it came easily to me, a sort of behaviour that alluded, unpleasantly, to my past: once, on a Sunday afternoon in front of the building, when Stargarderstrasse was all but deserted, though anyone could have concealed himself behind drawn curtains, on a dull-gray November afternoon when everyone was sitting at home watching TV, drinking coffee, and we both felt we could not say goodbye, we didn’t really have to, we could have stayed with each other, except that we’d been together for three days and our protective shell which kept everything and everyone out was getting thicker and thicker and we had to break out of it, we had to part, spend at least one night alone – I wanted to take a bath, and Melchior’s flat had no bathroom, you had to use a washbowl or the kitchen sink, I felt dirty, wanted to be alone for the afternoon and evening at least, catch my breath, and then, before midnight, run downstairs and call him from a public phone, hear his voice while leaning against the cold glass of the booth, and perhaps go back to his place – and we agreed that he would walk me to the corner of Dimitroffstrasse, and then he’d buy cigarettes at the tobacco shop under the elevated that stayed open on Sunday, but we couldn’t tear ourselves away from each other; first he said he’d walk me only one more block, then I asked him to walk another; we couldn’t just shake hands, it would have been ridiculous, awkward, and cowardly, but we had to do something; we avoided looking at each other, and then he held out his hand, if only because we wanted to touch some part of each other, and so we kept holding hands; there was no one on the street, but this was not enough, it was his mouth that I wanted, there, in front of the house, that Sunday afternoon.

So, I might say that it feels appropriate that I started my relationship with The Book of Memories, in which the question of authorship poses itself, almost by force, with a reading the author’s note. Nádas’s central narrator is an author; he is the author of the memoir at the centre of the novel, which could almost be said to constitute the novel, and he is also the author of a partial novel, set in the previous century, that is within, or alongside, and which interacts with, explains, and compliments, the story of his own life. Time is a permeable membrane, through which the two narrators, one the product of the other’s imagination, move. Nádas allows the present to glide decades into past, mimicking the natural behaviour of memory. And then appears a third voices that announces itself with a shock, intruding into the narrative in such a way that the novel changes, not in shape or in form, but as if appearing to shed its skin.

I will bring to a close this attempt to convey admiration and explain something that I found very difficult to understand myself: The Book of Memories is great, in every sense of the word, and grand, and beautiful, and my sentences cannot describe its own, which, as I mentioned at the start, I found, in some ways, perfect.


And, although I am not sure if I should try anymore to communicate the essence of this book, there are others who have written articles on Péter Nádas, and reviews of his work:

Eva Hofmann, in her review of The Book of Memories, “The Soul of Proust Under Socialism” [link], in which a good summary of the plot can be found (I didn’t have the heart or the ability to attempt one myself), wrote: 
The many parallels between the two writers -- they are both prone to incestuous longings and schizophrenic splitting, both become involved in bisexual triangles -- suggest a reiteration of archetypal urges, situations and scenarios, in history as well as in individual lives. Recurrence is inscribed in the novel's form, which mimics the movements of memory and glides effortlessly from the present into successive strata of the past. For the contemporary narrator, his adult affairs revive recollections of growing up in postwar Budapest, and the impetuous, multivalent infatuations of his adolescence, especially with a compellingly beautiful boy named Krisztian. The youthful narrator -- detached, precocious, aware of every stirring of his own impulses -- feels both magnetically attracted to and painfully excluded by his schoolmates, whose bondings and hostilities he observes with an almost preternatural sensitivity. At the same time, he is electrically alert to currents of affection and conflict within his own family. His charismatic, intimidating father is the state prosecutor in the Stalinist regime, and may have heinously informed on a friend who is also his wife's lover. The narrator himself engages in slyly sadistic games with his retarded sister and in vengeful rummagings through his father's secret papers. His most poignant feelings are reserved for his terminally ill but charming mother, with whom he shares nearly forbidden tenderness.
There is a also a notable review of Fire and Knowledge by Deborah Eisenberg [link], and a profile of Nádas on the New York Times website [link].

And what of his other books? Susan Sontag, the great champion of Nádas in English, in a short article on his plays [link], had the following remark to make:
Péter Nádas has written in a variety of forms since his first book, a collection of stories published in 1965; anglophone readers had to wait until 1997 to discover him, when A Book of Memories (1986), his maximal masterpiece, finally appeared in English. To start one’s reading of a major writer with that writer’s most ambitious, most accomplished, bulkiest book is bound to foster misreadings. There are sizable peaks surrounding this Everest. But it will take time to take their measure.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Milan Kundera

I'm not sure yet whether I will read Milan Kundera's new book of criticism: Encounter. I remember reading The Art of the Novel very fondly and I suspect that, at the time it had a strong influence on my reading, the effects of which may still be visible - I don't know. In fact, to this day, every time I cross paths with his opinions, he always seems to be saying things I find interesting (and, more importantly, readable), even if I do not agree with him. But, what does it matter if I agree with him, or not? Take the comments in the interview bellow as an example.

The Dalkey Archive website [link] has a catalog of interviews, with authors such as Julio Cortazar, Jose Donoso and William Gaddis, available on its website. Those which I have read, I have enjoyed. I have copied an excerpt from the interview of Kundera, conducted by Lois Oppenheim.
[...] Lois Oppenheim: This seems entirely reasonable to me. In fact, I can’t see what more could be wanted than the guarantee of authenticity that the copyright provides. You have provoked many discussions about Central Europe, All of your fiction takes place in Czechoslovakia and even in your theoretical work, The Art of the Novel, Central Europe is very important. Would you mind clarifying just what this notion of Central Europe represents for you, just what its real perimeters are?

Milan Kundera: Let’s simplify the problem, an enormous one, and limit ourselves to the novel. There are four great novelists: Kafka, Broch, Musil, Gombrowicz. I call them the "pleiad" of Central Europe’s great novelists. Since Proust, I can’t see anyone of greater importance in the history of the novel. Without knowing them, not much of the modern novel can be understood. Briefly, these authors are modernists, which is to say that they are impassioned by a search for new forms. At the same time, however, they are completely devoid of any avant-garde ideology (faith in progress, in revolution, and so on), whence another vision of the history of art and of the novel: They never speak of the necessity of a radical break; they don’t consider the formal possibilities of the novel to be exhausted; they only want to radically enlarge them.

From this as well there derives another rapport with the novel’s past. There is no disdain in these writers for "tradition," but another choice of tradition: they are all fascinated by the novel preceding the nineteenth century. I call this era the first "half-time" of the history of the novel. This era and its aesthetic were almost forgotten, obscured, during the nineteenth century. The "betrayal" of this first half-time deprived the novel of its play essence (so striking in Rabelais, Cervantes, Sterne, Diderot) and diminished the role of what I call "novelistic meditation." Novelistic meditation—let’s avoid any misunderstanding here: I’m not thinking of the so-called "philosophical novel" that really means a subordination of the novel to philosophy, the novelistic illustration of ideas. This is Sartre. And even more so Camus. La Peste. This moralizing novel is almost the model of what I don’t like. The intent of a Musil or a Broch is entirely different: it is not to serve philosophy but, on the contrary, to get hold of a domain that, until then, philosophy had kept for itself There are metaphysical problems, problems of human existence, that philosophy has never known how to grasp in all their concreteness and that only the novel can seize. This said, these novelists (particularly Broch and Musil) made of the novel a supreme poetic and intellectual synthesis and accorded it a preeminent place in the cultural totality.

These authors are relatively little known in America, which I have always considered an intellectual scandal. But really it is a matter of an aesthetic misunderstanding that is quite comprehensible when one considers the particular tradition of the American novel. In the first place, America didn’t live through the first half-time of the history of the novel. In the second, at the same time that the great Central Europeans were writing their masterpieces, America herself had her own great "pleiad," one which would influence the entire world and which was that of Hemingway, Faulkner and Dos Passos. But its aesthetic was entirely opposed to that of a Musil! For example: a meditative intervention of the author into the narrative thread of his novel appears in this aesthetic as a displaced intellectualism, as something foreign to the very essence of the novel. A personal recollection: The New Yorker published the first three parts of The Unbearable Lightness of Being—but they eliminated the passages on Nietzsche’s eternal return! Yet, in my eyes, what I say about Nietzsche’s eternal return has nothing to do with a philosophic discourse; it is a continuity of paradoxes that are no less novelistic (that is to say, they answer no less to the essence of what the novel is) than a description of the action or a dialogue.
According to the promotional material, Kundera takes the following people (and their work) as his subjects in Encounter: Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Anatole France, Curzio Malaparte, Francis Bacon, Leos Janácek, Federico Fellini, and Dostoyevsky.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Elif Batuman

Lately, I have enjoyed reading anything by Elif Batuman [link]

First, there was her debut book. A collection of essays called, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them:

Batuman writes well about great books (most of her writing can be accessed via her website [link]).  I can't help thinking that it is (almost) always a pleasure to read an author, or critic, writing about something they love (not admire, love). Not because love might improve the quality of criticism - probably the opposite, if anything - but because the willingness of the writing sings from the page. The first essay in the book, "Babel in California", is full of humour and affection (and, I think, love) for Issac Babel. And, it is a good example of Batuman's eye for absurdity and her cleverness:
The first time I read Issac Babel was in a college creative writing class. The instructor was a sympathetic Jewish novelist with a Jesus-like beard, an affinity for Russian literature, and a melancholy sense of humor, such that one afternoon he even "realized" the truth of human mortality, right there in the classroom. He pointed at each of us around the seminar table: "You're going to die. And you're going to die. And you're going to die." I still remember the expression on the face of one of my classmates, a genial scion of the Kennedy family who always wrote the same story, about a busy corporate lawyer who neglected his wife. The expression was confused.
The New York Times review of The Possessed [link] neatly described what makes the book wonderful:
Elif Batuman is clearly one of those people whom Babel described, in one of his Odessa stories, as having “spectacles on his nose and autumn in his heart.” Her autumnal impulses are balanced by jumpy, satirical ones. It’s a deep pleasure to read over her shoulder.
But, Batuman does not always write with love. Some of the most eyebrow-raising moments in take place when she targets (perhaps that is a bit strong) the institution of Creative Writing. In the introduction to The Possessed, she writes about an experience at a writer's workshop: 
I wanted to be a writer, not an academic. But that afternoon, standing under a noisy tin awning in a parking lot facing the ocean, eating the peanut-butter sandwiches I had made in the cafeteria at breakfast, I reached some conclusive state of disillusionment with the transcendentalist New England culture of "creative writing." In this culture, to which the writing workshop belonged, the academic study of literature was understood to be bad for a writer's formation. By what mechanism, I found myself wondering, was it bad? Conversely, why was it automatically good for a writer to live in a barn, reading short stories by short-story writers who didn't seem to be read by anyone other than writing students?

In the second example of her writing I came across, Get a Real Degree, published in the London Review of Books [link], she returns to this topic, this time as part of a book review:
Like many aspiring writers in America, I enrolled in graduate school after college, but I went for a PhD rather than an MFA. I had high hopes that McGurl, who made the same choice, might explain to me the value of contemporary American fiction in a way I could understand, but was disappointed to find in The Programme Era traces of the quality I find most exasperating about programme writing itself: oversophistication combined with an air of autodidacticism, creating the impression of some hyperliterate author who has been tragically and systematically deprived of access to the masterpieces of Western literature, or any other sustained literary tradition. [...]
To my mind, the real cause of shame here is the profession of writing, and it affects McGurl just as much as it does Carver and Oates. Literary writing is inherently elitist and impractical. It doesn’t directly cure disease, combat injustice, or make enough money, usually, to support philanthropic aims. Because writing is suspected to be narcissistic and wasteful, it must be ‘disciplined’ by the programme – as McGurl documents with a 1941 promotional photo of Paul Engle, then director of the Iowa workshop, seated at a desk with a typewriter and a large whip. (Engle’s only novel, McGurl observes, features a bedridden Iowan patriarch ‘surrounded by his collection of “whips of every kind”, including “racing whips”, “stiff buggy whips”, “cattle whips”, “riding crops” and one “endless bullwhip”’.) The workshop’s most famous mantras – ‘Murder your darlings,’ ‘Omit needless words,’ ‘Show, don’t tell’ – also betray a view of writing as self-indulgence, an excess to be painfully curbed in AA-type group sessions. Shame also explains the fetish of ‘craft’: an ostensibly legitimising technique, designed to recast writing as a workmanlike, perhaps even working-class skill, as opposed to something every no-good dilettante already knows how to do. Shame explains the cult of persecutedness, a strategy designed to legitimise literary production as social advocacy, and make White People feel better (Stuff White People Like #21: ‘Writers’ Workshops’). [...] 
Might the ideal of ‘creativity’, taken as a supremely valuable, supremely human faculty, be harmful to a writer’s formation? It seems ominous that the role of creativity in American education originates, as McGurl observes, in Cold War rhetoric: through creativity, America was going to prevail over its ‘relentlessly drab ideological competitor’ and ‘outdo the group-thinking Communist enemy’. The value placed on creativity and originality causes writers to hide their influences, to hide the fact that they have ever read any other books at all and, in many cases, to stop reading books altogether. One telling result of this value is a gap in quality between American literary fiction and non-fiction today. Many of the best journalistic and memoiristic essays in the world today are being written in America. I think of myself as someone who prefers novels and stories to non-fiction; yet, for human interest, skilful storytelling, humour, and insightful reflection on the historical moment, I find the average episode of This American Life to be 99 per cent more reliable than the average new American work of literary fiction. The juxtaposition of personal narrative with the facts of the world and the facts of literature – the real work of the novel – is taking place today largely in memoirs and essays. This is one of many brilliant observations in David Shields’s recent manifesto Reality Hunger, in which he argues that we had best give up the novel altogether. But I don’t think the novel is dead – or, more accurately, I don’t see why it has to be dead. It’s simply being produced under the kinds of mistaken assumption that we don’t make when it comes to non-fiction. Non-fiction is about some real thing in the world, some story that someone had to go out and pursue. It’s about real people and real books, which are, after all, also objects in the world. Why can’t the novel expand to include these things, which were once – in Don Quixote, for example – a part of its purview? [...]
In the final pages of his book, drawing up the merits of programme writing, McGurl ultimately falls back on the one thing the programme really does teach: technique. Countering Eliot’s dictum that ‘art never improves,’ he proposes that literature might, rather, resemble technology or sport, in which ‘systematic investments of capital over time have produced a continual elevation of performance.’ Hasn’t ‘the tremendous expansion of the literary talent pool’ and its systematic training in the ‘self-conscious attention to craft’ resulted in ‘a system-wide rise in the excellence of American literature in the postwar period’? It has. If you take ‘good writing’ as a matter of lucidity, striking word combinations, evocative descriptions, inventive metaphors, smooth transitions and avoidance of word repetition, the level of American writing has skyrocketed in the postwar years. In technical terms, pretty much any MFA graduate leaves Stendhal in the dust. On the other hand, The Red and the Black is a book I actually want to read. This reflects, I believe, the counterintuitive but real disjuncture between good writing and good books. [...]
What really made me fall for Batuman's writing, however, was not her scorn for the craft of writing (although I found myself making small noises of agreement as I read...), but a recent article in the New York Times called Kafka's Last Trial [link]. Her subject is the bizarre legal goings-on that have been taking place in Israel; people are trying to decide what to do with the things Kafka wrote. Batuman's article is great:
[...] One afternoon during my stay in Tel Aviv, I headed to Spinoza Street on the off-chance that Eva Hoffe was home and felt like talking to the press. I was accompanied by Avi Steinberg, an American writer living at the time in Jerusalem. I had become acquainted with Steinberg two months earlier, when he mailed me the galleys of a memoir he wrote about his experiences as a prison librarian. In subsequent correspondence, I mentioned my impending Kafkaesque assignment to report on a “Kafka archive kept for decades in a cat-infested Tel Aviv flat,” confessing to some apprehensions that I would be unable to locate the apartment. Steinberg promptly replied that the address was 23 Spinoza Street, that he had recently rung the doorbell himself but had no answer and that “last week in court, Eva Hoffe’s sweater was covered in animal hairs, possibly originating from a cat or cats.”

Walking through the city center, we discussed the mystery of Kafka’s testament. Steinberg saw in Kafka’s cryptic letter to Brod another version of the parable of Abraham and Isaac. (Kafka wrote several retellings of this story in 1921, the same year he first mentioned to Brod that he wanted his work to be burned.) Kafka, Steinberg suggested, wanted to prove that he was ready to incinerate the child of his creation, simultaneously knowing and not knowing that Brod would step in and play the role of the angel.

“The thing is,” Steinberg said, “we only have Brod’s word for any of this. What if Kafka never even told him to burn his stuff? Has anyone ever seen that letter? What if this is all some big idea Brod had?”

Similarly paranoid thoughts cross the mind of nearly everyone who studies Kafka. At a certain point you realize that everything — even the picture of Brod as a good-natured busybody who ignored Kafka’s wishes — comes from Brod himself. “Don’t write this down — I don’t want to be the laughingstock of the academic community,” one scholar told me, having ventured the idea that Brod himself had composed all of Kafka’s writings and, alarmed by their strangeness, attributed them to a reclusive friend who worked at an insurance office.

Spinoza Street is in a quiet residential neighborhood lined by flat-roofed stucco buildings. The dingy off-pink stucco facade of No. 23 was partly obscured by a tree with enormous glossy leaves that were apparently being eaten away by something. Parked under the tree were a broken shopping cart and an old bicycle. Behind a large protruding window, enclosed by two layers of metal grillwork, lay an indistinct heap of cats. Some commotion involving a blackbird took place in one of the trees, causing six or so cats to look up in unison, elongating their necks. The breeze turned. A terrible smell wafted toward us. [...]