Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Gift by Vladimir Nabokov

Down the helical stairs of the bus that drew up came a pair of charming silk legs: we know of course that this has been worn threadbare  by the efforts of a thousand male writers, but nevertheless down they came, these legs – and deceived: the face was revolting. Fyodor climbed aboard, and the conductor, on the open top deck, smote its plated side with his palm to tell the driver he could move on. Along this side and along the toothpaste advertisement upon it swished the tips of soft maple twigs – and it would have been pleasant to look down from above on the gliding street ennobled by perspective, if it were not for the everlasting, chilly thought: there he is, a special, rare and as yet un-described and unnamed variant of man, and he is occupied by God knows what, rushing from lesson to lesson, wasting his youth on a boring and empty task, on the mediocre teaching of foreign languages – when he has his own language, out of which he can make anything he wants – a midge, a mammoth, a thousand different clouds. What he should be really teaching was that mysterious and refined thing  which he alone – out of ten thousand, a hundred thousand, perhaps even a million men –knew how to teach: for example – multilevel thinking: you look at a person and you see him as clearly as if he were fashioned of glass and you were a glass blower, while at the same time without in the  least impinging upon that clarity you notice some trifle on the side – such as the similarity of the telephone receiver’s shadow to a huge, slightly crushed ant, and (all this simultaneously) the convergence is joined by a third thought – the memory of a sunny evening at a Russian small railway station; i.e., images having no rational connection with the conversation you are carrying on while your mind runs around the outside of your own words and along the inside of those of your interlocutor. Or: a piercing pity – for the tin box in a waste spot, for the cigarette card for the series National Costumes trampled in the mud, for the poor, stray word repeated by the kind-hearted, weak, loving creature who has just been scolded for nothing – for all the trash of life which by means of a momentary alchemic distillation -  the “royal experiment” is turned into something valuable and eternal. Or else: the constant feeling that our days here are only pocket money, farthings clinking in the dark, and that somewhere is stocked the real wealth, from which life should know how to get dividends in the shape of dreams, tears of happiness, distant mountains. All this and much more (beginning with the very rare  and painful so-called “sense of the starry sky,” mentioned it seems in only one treatise (Parker’s Travels of the Spirit), and ending with professional subtleties in the sphere of serious literature), he would have been able to teach, and teach well, to anyone who wanted it, but no one wanted it – and no one could, but it was a pity, he would have charged a hundred marks an hour, the same as certain professors of music. And at the same time he found it amusing to refute himself : all this was nonsense, the shadows of nonsense, presumptuous dreams. I am simply a poor young Russian selling the surplus from a gentleman’s upbringing, while scribbling verses in my spare time, that’s the total of my little immortality. But even this shade of multifaceted thought, this play of the mind with its own self, had no prospective pupils. 

[ .  .  .  .]

.  .  . reviews poured. Professor Anuchin of Prague University (a well-know public figure, a man of shining moral purity and of great personal courage – the same Professor Anuchin who in 1922, not long before his deportation from Russia, when some leatherjackets had come to arrest him but became interested in his collection of ancient coins and were slow in taking him away, had calmly said, pointing to his watch: “Gentlemen, history does not wait.”) printed a detailed analysis of [my] Life of Chernyshevski in an émigré magazine appearing in Paris.

“Last year [he wrote], a remarkable book came out by Professor Otto Lederer of Bonn University, Three Despots  (Alexander the Misty, Nicholas the Chill, and Nicholas the Dull.) Motivated by a passionate love for the freedom of the human spirit and a burning hatred for its suppressors, Dr. Lederer  in certain of his appraisals was unjust – taking no account at all, for instance, of that national Russian fervor which so powerfully gave body to the symbol of the throne; but excessive zeal, and even blindness, in a process of exposing evil is always more understandable and forgivable than the least mockery – no matter how witty it may be -  of that which public opinion feels to be objectively good. However, it is precisely this second road, the road of eclectic mordancy, that has been chose by Mr. Godunov- Cherdyntsev in his interpretation of the life and works of N.G. Chernyshevski.”

“The author has undoubtedly acquainted himself thoroughly and in his own way conscientiously with his subject; undoubtedly, also, he has a talented pen – certain ideas he puts forward, and juxtapositions of ideas, are undoubtedly shrewd; but with all this his book is repellant. Let us try to examine calmly this impression.

“A certain epoch has been taken and one of its representatives chosen. But has the author assimilated the concept of “epoch’? No. First of all one senses in him absolutely no consciousness of that classification of time, without which history turns into an arbitrary gyration of multicolored spots, into some kind of impressionistic picture with a walking figure upside down against a green sky that does not exist in nature. But this device (which destroys, by the way, any scholarly value of the work in question, in spite of its swaggering erudition) does not, nevertheless, constitute the author’s chief fault. His chief fault is in the manner in which he portrays Chernyshevki.

“It is completely unimportant that Chernyshevski understood less about poetry than a young esthete today. It is completely unimportant that in his philosophical conceptions Chernyshevski kept aloof from those transcendental subtleties which please Mr. Godunov- Cherdyntsev. What is important is that, whatever Chernyshevski’s views may have been on art and science, they represented the Weltanschauug of the most progressive men of his era, and were moreover indissolubly linked to the development of social ideas, with their ardent, beneficial, activating force. It is in this aspect, in this sole true light, that Chernyshevski’s system of thought acquires a significance which far transcends the sense of those groundless arguments – unconnected in any way with the epochs of the sixties – which Mr. Godunov-Cherdyntsv uses venomously ridiculing his hero.

“But he makes fun, not only of his hero: he also makes fun of his reader. How else can one qualify the fact that among the well-known authorities of Chernyshevski a nonexistent authority is cited, to whom the author pretends to appeal? In a certain sense it would be possible if not to forgive then at least to understand scientifically scoffing at Chernyshevski, if Mr. Godunov-Cherdyntsev were a heated supporter of those whom Chernyshevski attacked. It would at least be a point of view, and reading the book the reader would make a constant adjustment for the author’s partisan approach, in that way arriving at the truth. But the pity is that with Mr. Godunov-Cherdyntsev there is nothing to adjust to and the point of view is ‘everywhere and nowhere’; not only that, but as soon as the reader, as he descends the course of a sentence, thinks he has at last sailed into a quiet backwater, into the realm of ideas which may be contrary to those of Chernyshevski but are apparently shared by the author – and therefore can serve as a basis for the reader’s judgment and guidance – the author gives him an unexpected fillip and knocks the imaginary prop from under him, so that he is once more unaware as to  whose side Mr. Godunov- Cherdyntsev is on in  his campaign against Chernyshevski – whether he is on the side of the advocates of art for art’s sake, or of the government,  of some other of Chernyshevski’s enemies who the reader does not know. As far as jeering at the hero himself is concerned, here the author passes all bounds. There is no detail too repulsive for him to distain. He will probably reply that all these details are to be found In the ‘Diary’  of the young Chernyshevski; but there they are in their place, in their proper environment, in the correct order and perspective, among many other thoughts and feelings which are much more valuable. But the author has fished out and put together precisely these, as if someone had tried to restore the image of the person by making an elaborate collection of his combings, fingernail pairings, and bodily excretions.

“In other words the author is sneering throughout the whole of his book at the personality of one of the purest and most valorous sons of liberal Russia – not to speak of the passing kicks with which he rewards other progressive Russian thinkers, a respect for whom is in our consciousness an immanent part of their historical essence. In his book, which lies absolutely outside the humanitarian tradition of Russian literature and therefore outside literature in general, there are no actual untruths (if one does not count the fictitious ‘Stannolyubski’ already mentioned, two or three doubtful details, and a few slips of the pen), but  that ‘truth’ which it contains is worse than the most prejudiced lie, for such truth goes indirect contradiction to that noble and chaste truth (the absence of which deprives history of what the great Greeks called ‘tropotos’) which is one of the inalienable treasures of Russian social thought. In our day, thank God, books are not burned by bonfire, but I must confess that if such a custom were still in existence, Mr. Godunov-Cherdyntsev’s book could justifiably be considered the first candidate for fueling the public square.”

After that Koncheyev had his say in the literary annual The Tower.  .  . 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Pepperoni by Donald Barthelme

Financially, the paper is quite healthy. The paper’s timberlands, mining interests, pulp and paper operations, book, magazine, corrugated-box and greeting-card division, film, radio, television, and cable companies, and data- processing and satellite-communications group are all flourishing, with overall return on invested capital increasing at about eleven percent a year. Compensation of the three highest paid offices and directors last year was $399,500, $362,700, and $335,400 respectively, exclusive of profit-sharing and pension-plan accruals.

But top management is discouraged and saddened, and middle management is drinking too much. Morale in the newsroom is fair, because of recent raises, but the shining brows of the copy boys, traditional emblem of energy and hoe, have begun to display odd, unattractive lines.  At every level, even down into the depths of the pressroom, where the pressmen defiantly wear their  square dirty folded-paper caps, people want management to stop what it is doing before it is too late.

The new VDT machines have hurt the paper, no doubt about it. The people in the newsroom don’t like the machines. (A few say they like the machines but these are the same people who like the washrooms.) When the machines go down, as they do, not infrequently, the people in the newsroom laugh and cheer. The executive editor has installed one-way glass in his office door, and stands behind it looking over the newsroom, fretting and groaning. Recently the paper ran the same stock tables every day for a week. No one noticed, no one complained.

Middle management has implored top management to alter its course. Top management has responded with postdate guarantees, on a sliding scale. The Guild is off in a corner, whimpering. The pressmen are holding an unending series of birthday parties commemorating heroes of labor. Reporters file their stories as usual, but if they are certain kinds of stories they do not run. A small example: the paper did not run a Holiday Weekend Death Toll after Labor Day this year, the first time since 1926 no Holiday Weekend Death Toll story appeared after Labor Day (and the total, although not a record, a substantial one.)

Some elements of the staff are not depressed. The paper’s very creative real-estate editor ha been a fountain of ideas, and his sections, full of color pictures of desirable living arrangements, are choked with advertising and make the Sunday paper fat, fat, fat. More food writers have been hired, and more clothes writers, and more furniture writers, and more plant writers. The bridge, whist, skat, cribbage, domino and vingt-et-un columnists are very popular.

The Editor’s Caucus has once again applied to middle management for relief, and has once again been promised it  (but middle management has Glenfiddich on its breath, even at breakfast). Top management’s polls say that sixty-five percent of readers “want movies,” and feasibility studies are being conducted. Top management acknowledges, over long lunches at good restaurants, that the readers are wrong to “want movies” but insists that morality cannot be legislated. The newsroom has been insulated(with products from the companies Echotex division) so that the people in the newsroom can no longer hear the sounds in the street.

The paper’s editorials have been subcontracted to Texas Instruments, and the obituaries to Nabisco, so that the staff will have “more time to think.” The foreign desk is turning out language lessons (“yo temo que Isabel no venga,” “I am afraid Isabel will not come”). There was an especially lively front page on Tuesday. The No.1 story was pepperoni – a useful and exhaustive guide. It ran right next to the slimming-your-troublesome-thighs story, with pictures.

Top management has vowed to stop what it is doing – not now but soon, soon. A chamber orchestra has been formed among the people in the newsroom, and we play Haydn until the sun comes up.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Confessions of Zeno by Italo Svevo


See my childhood? Now that I am separated from it by many decades, my farsighted eyes might perhaps reach to it if the light were not obscured by so many obstacles. The years like impassable mountains rise between me and it, my past years and a few brief hours in my life.

The doctor told me not to obsess too much looking so far back. Recent events, he says, are equally valuable to him, and above all my fancies and dreams of the night before. But I like to do things in order; as soon as I left the doctor (who was going to be away from Trieste for some time) I bought and read a book on psychoanalysis, so that I might begin from the very beginning and make the doctor’s task easier.

It is not difficult to understand, but very boring.

I stretched myself out after lunch in an easy chair, pencil and paper in hand. All the lines disappeared from my forehead, my mind completely relaxed. I seemed to be able to see my thoughts as something quite apart from myself. I an watch them rising, falling, their only form of activity. I seize my pencil to remind my thoughts that it is their duty to manifest themselves. At once the wrinkles gather up on my brow as I think of the letters that make up every word. The present surges up dominating me; the past is blotted out.

Yesterday I tried to let myself go completely. The result was that I fell into a deep sleep, experiencing nothing but a great sense of refreshment, together with an odd sensation of having seen something important while I was asleep. But what it was I could not remember; it had gone forever.

Today, though, this pencil will prevent my going to sleep. I dimly see certain strange images that seem unrelated to with my past; an engine puffing up a steep incline dragging endless coaches after it. Where can it all come from? Where is it going? How did it get there at all?

In my half-waking trance I remember it is stated in my textbook that this system will enable one to recall one’s earliest childhood, even when one is in long clothes.

At once I see an infant in long clothes  but why should I assume it is me? It does not bear the faintest resemblance to me, and I think it is probably my sister-in-law’s baby, which was born a few weeks ago and displayed to us as such a miracle because of its tiny hands and enormous eyes. The poor child!

Yeah – remember my own infancy, indeed!

Why it is not even in my power to warn you, while you are still an infant, how important it is for your health and your intelligence that you should forget nothing. When, I wonder, will you learn that one ought to be able to call to mind every event of one’s life, even those you would rather forget?

Meanwhile, poor innocent, you go exploring your tiny body in search of pleasure; and the exquisite discoveries you make will bring you in the end disease and suffering, to which those who least wish it will contribute. What can one do? It is impossible to watch over your cradle.

Mysterious forces are at work within you, child, strange elements combine; each passing moment contributing its own reactive elements.

Not all this moments can be pure, with such numerous chances of infection. And then – you are of the same blood as some I know well. Perhaps the passing moments may be pure; not so the long centuries that went into your making.

But I have come a long way from the images that announce sleep. I must try again tomorrow.  .  .


When the doctor gets the last part of my manuscript, he will have to give me back the whole. I should be able to write it all over again with absolute certainty now; how was it possible for me to understand my life when I did not now what this last part was going to be? Possibly I only lived all those years in order to prepare for it!

I am not so naïve as to blame the doctor for regarding life itself as a result of disease. Life is a little like disease, with its crises and periods of quiescence, its daily improvements and setbacks. But unlike other diseases life is always mortal. It admits no cure. It would be like trying to plug up the orifices of our body, thinking them to be wounds. We should die of suffocation almost before we were cured.

Our life today is rotten to the root. Man has ousted the beasts and trees, has poisoned the air and filled up the open spaces. Worse things may happen. That melancholy and industrious animal – man- may discover new forces and harness them to his chariot. Some such danger is in the air.

The result will be a great abundance – of human beings!

Every square yard will be occupied by man. Who will be able then to cure us of the lack of air and space? The mere thought suffocates me.

But it is not only that: every effort to procure health is in vain. Health can only belong to the beasts, whose sole idea of progress lies in their own bodies. When the swallow realized that emigration was the only possible life for her, she enlarged the muscles that worked her wings, and which became by degrees the most important part of her body. The mole went underground, and its whole body adapted itself to the task. The horse grew bigger and changed the shape of his foot. We know nothing of the development of certain animals, but it must have existed, and can never have injured their health.

But spectacled man invents implements outside his body, and if there was any health of nobility in the inventor, it will surely be absent in the user.

Implements are bought and sold or stolen, and man goes on getting weaker and more cunning. It is natural that his cunning should increase in proportion to his weakness.

The earliest tools only added to the length of his arm, and could not be employed except by the exercise of his own strength. But today a machine bears no relation to the body. The machine creates disease because it denies what has been the law of creation throughout the ages. The law of the strongest disappeared, and we have abandoned natural selection.

We need much more than psychoanalysis to help us.

Under the law of the greatest number of machines, disease will prosper and the diseased will grow ever more numerous.

 It’s possible, too that some incredible disaster caused by machines will lead us back to health.

When all the poison gases are exhausted, a man, an ordinary man of flesh and blood, will in the quiet of his room invent an explosive of such potency that all the explosives today in existence will seem like harmless toys beside it.

And another man, made in his image and in the image of al the rest, but a little weaker than them, will steal that explosive and crawl to the center of the earth with it, placing it just where he calculates it would have the maximum effect. There will be a tremendous explosion, but no one will hear it, causing the earth to return to its nebulous state and go wandering through the heavens, free at last from parasites and disease.

Day of the Dead by Malcolm Lowry

“Have you ever been to Canada?” he asked her.

“I’ve been to Niagara Falls.”

They rode on, Hugh still holding her bridle. “I’ve never been to Canada at all. But a Canuck in Spain, a fisherman pal of mine with Macs-Paps, used to keep telling me it was the most terrible place in the world. British Columbia, at any rate.”

“That’s what Geoffrey used to say too.”

“Well, Geoff’s liable to be vague on the subject. But here’s what McGoff told me. This man was a Pict. Suppose you had land in Vancouver, as seems reasonable. So far not so good. McGoff didn’t have much use for modern Vancouver. According to him it has a sort of Pango Pango quality mingled with sausage and mash and generally a rather Puritan atmosphere. Everyone fast asleep and when you prick them a Union Jack flows out of the hole. But no one in a certain sense lives there. They merely as it were pass through. Mine the country and quit. Blast the land to pieces, knock down the trees and send them rolling down Burrard Inlet.  .  . As for drinking, by the way, that is beset.” Hugh chuckled, “everywhere beset by perhaps favorable difficulties. No bars, only beer parlors so uncomfortable and cold that serve beer so weak no self-respecting drunkard would show his nose in them. You have to drink at home, and when you run short it’s too far to get another bottle –“

“But-“ They were both laughing.

“But wait a minute.” Hugh looked up at the sky of New Spain. It was a day like a good Joe Venuti record. He listened to the faint steady droning of the telegraph poles and wires above them that sang in his heart with his pint-and-a-half of beer. At this moment the best and easiest and most simple thing in the world seemed to be the happiness of these two people in a new country. And what counted seemed probably the swiftness with which they moved. He thought of the Ebro. Just as the long-planned offensive might be defeated in  its first few days by unconsidered potentialities, so a sudden desperate move might succeed precisely because of the number of potentialities it destroys in one fell swoop.  .  .

“The thing to do,” he went on, “is to get out of Vancouver as fast as possible. Go down to one of the inlets to some fishing village and buy a shack slap spang on the sea, with only foreshore rights, for, say a hundred dollars. Then live on it this winter for about sixty a month. No phone, no rent. No consulate. Be a squatter. Call on your pioneer ancestors. Water from the well. Chop your own wood. After all, Geoff’s as strong as a horse. And perhaps he’ll be able really to get down to his book and you can have your stars and the sense of the seasons again; though sometimes you can swim as late as November. And get to know the real people: the seine fisherman, the old boat-builders, the trappers, according to McGoff the last truly free people left in the world. Meantime you can get your island fixed up and find out about your farm, which previously you’ll have used as a decoy for all you’re worth, if you still want it by then – “

“Oh, Hugh, yes – “

She all but shook her horse with enthusiasm. “I can see your shack now. It’s between the forest and the sea and you’ve got a pier going down to the water over rough stones, you know, covered with barnacles and sea anemones and starfish. You’ll have to go through the woods to the store.” Hugh saw the store in his mind’s eyes. The woods will be wet. And occasionally a tree will come crashing down. And sometimes there will be fog and that fog will freeze. Then your whole forest will become a crystal forest. The ice crystals on twigs will grow like leaves. Then pretty soon you’ll be seeing the jack-in-the-pulpits and then it will be spring.

They were galloping.  .  . Bare level plain had taken the place of scrub and they’d been cantering briskly, the foals prancing delightedly ahead, when suddenly the dog was a shoulder-shrugging streaking fleece, and as their mares almost imperceptibly fell into the long untrammeled undulating strides, Hugh felt the sense of change, the keen elemental pleasure one experienced too on board a ship which, leaving the choppy waters of the estuary, gives way to the pitch and swing of the open sea. A faint carillon of bells sounded in the distance, rising and falling, sinking back as if into the very substance of the day. Judas had forgotten: nay, Judas had been, somehow, redeemed.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The World As I Found It by Bruce Duffy

Revisited (Lecture  in the spring of 1991)

A revealing question for me now is whether I would have written the novel – if there would have been the same reason to write it -  had there been a biography. No, I suspect not. But does this mean, then, that it was  my aim to write essentially a fictionalized biography?

Not at all. As I saw it, being “first”, if you will, put me in prime fictional territory. By leaving most of my readers no other single authority to turn to for the truth, the book would raise  a lot of difficulty. Difficulty in deciding what it was and difficulty in deciding what was true and what wasn’t.

While taking me to task for the “accountability of my sources,” one critic blunders onto this tension in the book. He writes: “It is difficult not to be distracted by the wealth of historical detail [Duffy] has incorporated to guarantee that his Wittgenstein will be confused with the real Wittgenstein.”

Ah! That liberating word confusion.

To further confuse things, I rejected the advice I was given several times, namely, to observe the wryly tactful tradition of roman a clef. I writer whom I greatly respect found my failure to do this a grievous aesthetic error.  So be it. In Shakespeare’s time to write plays about Julius Caesar or Prince Hamlet was not a bothersome thing, but today it is, I’m afraid. In an era of experts and unprecedented specialization – in a time when I should say we cripple ourselves by ceding far too much to the wisdom of experts – a book like mine is bothersome, for some to the point of being disorientating. For all our self-conscious poses, for all or irony and formal sophistication, not to mention our exposure to the strategies of modernism and postmodernism, many of us like our categories straight. We are greatly bothered by confusions f fact and fiction. We are bothered by a novel that, say, in its prologue adopts the seemingly trustworthy voice of biography only to monkey with the facts: This is unsportsmanlike, like impersonating a rightful officer of the law. Be more radical and experimental! Says one camp. Be more conventional! Says the other. When they rap my knuckles, critics seem to hold out these two shining alternatives, often seemingly at the same time. But again, their advice enshrines what too many naively expect nowadays. Straight categories. Fiction as some literary substitute for the old Classic Comics. Above all, the epic, churn-‘em-out complacency of that form I almost uniformly detest – “historical fiction.” These by now are old tactics that do not trouble anyone.

While we’re at it, why didn’t I use footnotes? Believe it or not, in an early crisis with the book, my publisher’s editorial board wanted me to fill the back of the book with them. Footnotes! I hit the roof! Does a general give away his battle plans? Does the heretic recant? To me, footnotes would have been a profound aesthetic error, not to mention an act of cowardice. Happily, though, I convinced my wonderful editor, and as a compromise, I added the preface.

But the came another crisis. Apparently a fact-checking copy editor called my editor almost in tears, exasperated to find pages covered with truths and errors .  .  .  and, yes, even the troublesome king of France. What a mess. Much like life, mais oui?

Look, I hope this doesn’t all sound too pat. For an author to say he always knew exactly what he was doing – now that’s a real fiction.

Of course I got it wrong. Still, some people feel that I got an uncanny amount right, an impression that frankly surprises me when I realize in many cases how little I knew and how much I made up. David Pinsent’s diaries. Wittgenstein’s father’s letters, and most of Wittgenstein’s letters, too. Wittgenstein’s family –his sisters, brothers, his father. Wittgenstein’s friend Max and the entire World War I  sequence. All this and more I made up. In fact, writing the book has taught me this: No one knows, not even those who knew Wittgenstein. Maybe especially those who knew Wittgenstein.  .  .

I don’t scorn the truth- or the biographer’s art. I respect the biographer’s great tact and judgment, probity and intuition. But, you see, my instincts are radically different: They tell me to mix up,  forget, bury and burn – to recombine and fuse disparate elements in perhaps was a more confused and deliberately irresponsible attempt to create a kind of universal life. By ‘universal life,” I man a life that finally goes beyond its seeming subjects. For me, you see, this is not finally a book “about” Wittgenstein or philosophers, but rather a creation story examining the very forms of like in this world as I found it. That is, the world that all of us have found – the world we found and doubtless will find again only in more disguised forms, as we end this dark century and begin the next.
.  .  .  .  .

Russell found himself beset by all sorts of crazy and not-so-crazy fears. The sensational premise of his article “Are Parents Bad for Children?” seemed almost diabolically prescient now. Late at night like this, especially when he was working, , it was sometimes painfully clear what would happen with Dora and the children. He could see it all very mathematically, as if their predicament were a sprawling and unwieldy theorem based on an immutable logic that only he was cold and abstruse enough to see. Still, the truth came to him slowly now. He was well past the age of being thunderstruck, or even wanting calamitous moments of vision. Rather, Russell now saw the truth by degrees, the light trickling  down like dust motes in the general disarray. The dust might be brushed away or tidied, but it was always accumulating.  .  .”

A House for Mr Biswas by V.S. Naipaul

Often, while Shama moved heavily about the back verandah and the kitchen, Mr. Biswas sat before the typewriter on the green table, inserted a sheet of Sentinel paper, typed his name and address at the top righthand corner, as the Ideal School and all the books had recommended, and wrote:

                              by M. Biswas

At the age of thirty-three, when he was already the father of four children.  .  .  .

Here he often stopped. Sometimes he went on to the end of the page; sometimes, but rarely, he typed frenziedly for page after page.  Sometimes his hero had a Hindi name; then he was short and unattractive and poor, and surrounded by ugliness, which was anatomized in bitter detail. Sometimes his hero had a Western name; he was then faceless, but tall and broad-shouldered; he was a reporter and moved in a world derived from the novels Mr Biswas had read and the films he had seen. None of these stories was finished, and their theme was always the same. The hero, trapped into marriage, burdened with a family, his youth gone, meets a young girl. She is slim, almost thin, and dressed in white. She is fresh, tender, unkissed; and she is unable to bear children. Beyond the meeting the stories never went.

Sometimes these stories were inspired by an unknown girl in the advertising department of the Sentinel. She often remained unknown. Sometimes Mr Biswas spoke; but whenever the girl accepted his invitation – to lunch, a film, the beach –his passion at once died; he withdrew the invitation and avoided the girl; thus in time creating a legend among the girls of the advertising department, all whom knew, though he did not suspect, for he kept it as a heavy, shameful secret, that at the age of thirty-three Mohun Biswas was already the father of four children.

Still, at the typewriter, he wrote of his untouched barren heroines.  He began these stories with joy; they left him dissatisfied and feeling unclean. Hen he went to his room, called for Anand, and to Anand’s disgust tried to play with him as a baby, saying, ‘Shompo! Gomp!’

Forgetting that in his strictness, and as part of her training, he had ordered Shama to file all his papers, he thought that these stories were as secret at home as his marriage and four children were at the office. And one Friday, when he found Shama puzzling over her accounts, and had scoffed as usual, she said, ‘Leave me alone, Mr. John Lubbard.’

That was one of the names of his thirty-three-year-old hero.

‘Go and take Sybil to the pictures.’

That was from another story. He had got that name from a novel by Warwick Deeping.

‘Leave Ratni alone.’

That was the Hindi name he had given to the mother of four in another story. Ratni walked heavily, ‘as though perpetually pregnant’; her arms filled he sleeves of her bodice and seemed about to burst them; she sucked in her breath through her teeth while she worked at her accounts, the only reading and writing she did.

Mr Biswas recalled with horror and shame the descriptions of the small tender breasts of his barren heroines.

Shama sucked her teeth loudly.

If she had laughed he would have hit her. But she never looked at him, only her account books.

He ran to his room, undressed, got his own cigarettes and matches, took down Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, and got into bed.

It was not long after this that Mr Biswas, painting the kitchen safe and the green table with a tin of yellow paint, yielded to an impulse and painted the typewriter-case and parts of the typewriter as well.

For long the typewriter remained unused, until Anand and Savi began learning to type on it.

But, still, in the office, whenever he had cleaned his typewriter or changed the ribbon and wished to test the machine, the sentence he always wrote was: At the age of thirty-four, when he was already the father of four children.  .  .  .

The End of National Socialism by Martin Amis

The place was Bozano, in alpine Italy (and the time was the spring of 1946). My remaining Bormann relatives had met an unlikely fate: they were in a German concentration camp (it was called Bozen from 1944 to ’45). But there was no more slave labor, no more flaying and cudgelling, no more starvation, and no more murder. Full of DPs, POWs, and other internees awaiting scrutiny, it was Italian now, with un-abundant yet appetizing food, reasonable sanitation, and many cheerful nuns and priests among the helpers. Gerda lay in its field hospital; Kronzi, Helmut, Heine, Eike, Irmgard, Eva, Hartmut and Volker were in a kind of military marquee nearby. I said,

“Were the Americans beastly to you, Tante?”
“Yes. Yes, Golo, they were. Beastly. The doctor, the doctor – not me, Neffe, but the doctor – told them I had to have an operation in Munich. Every week there’s a train. And this American said, That train’s not for Nazis. It’s for their victims!

“That was cruel, dear.”

“And they think I know where he is!”

“Do they? Mm. Well if he made it out he could be anywhere. South America, I’ll bet. Paraguay. Landlocked Paraguay, that’d be the one. He’ll send word.”

“And Golo. Were they beastly to you?”

“The Americans? No, they gave me a job .  .  . Oh. You mean the Germans. No not very. They were dying to be beastly to me, Tante. But the power of the Reichsleiter held good to the end. Like your lovely parcels.”

“Perhaps it isn’t the end.”

“True, dear. But it’s the end of all his power.”

“.  .  . The Chief, Neffe. Killed as he led his troops in the defense of Berlin. And now it’s all gone. The end of National Socialism. That’s what’s so impossible to bear. The end of National Socialism! Don’t you see? That’s what my body’s reacting to.”

The next night she said with a vexed look,

“Golo, are you still rich?”

“No ,darling. That’s all disappeared. All but three percent.” Which was actually far from nothing. “They took it.”

“Ah well, you see – once the Jews get a whiff of something like .  .  .

“It wasn’t the Jews, my dearest. It was the Aryans.”

She said comfortably, “But you’ve still got your paintings and object d’art.”

“No, I’ve got one Klee and one tiny but very nice Kandinsky. I suspect all the rest found there way to Goring.”

“Oooh, that fat brute. With his three chauffeurs and his pet leopard and his bison ranch. Mascara. Changing his clothes every ten minutes. Golo! Why aren’t you more indignant?”

I shrugged lightly and said, “Me, I’m not complaining.” Of course I wasn’t complaining, about that or anything else: I didn’t have the right. “Oh, I’ve been very lucky, very privileged, as always. And even in prison I had lots of time to think, Tantchen, and there were even books.”

She worked her shoulders up the bed. “We never doubted your innocence, Neffe! We knew you were completely innocent.”

“Thank you, Tante.”

“I’m certain your conscience is completely clear.”

In fact, I did feel the need to talk about my conscience with a woman, but not with Gerda Bormann . . . The thing is, Tantchen, that in my zeal to retard the German power I inflicted further suffering on men who were already suffering, suffering beyond imagination. And dying, my love. In the period 1941-44, thirty-five thousand died at the Buna-Werke [feeding the slaves would have increased production]. I said,

“Of course I was innocent. It was the testimony of just one man.”

“One man!”

“Testimony extorted by torture.” And I reflexively added, “That’s medieval jurisprudence.”

She slumped back, and went on in a vague voice, “But medieval things.  .  . are meant to be good, aren’t they? Downing .  .  . throttled queers .  .  . in peat bogs. That kind of thing. And duels, Neffe, duels.”

This wasn’t wild talk, about duels (or about peat bogs). The Reichsfuhrer-SS did briefly reintroduce dueling as away of settling matters of honor. But the Germans had already got used to living without honor – and without justice, freedom, truth, and reason. Duelling was re-illegalized after the first Nazi bigwig (an outraged husband in this instance) was briskly shot dead (by his cuckolder).  .  . Now Tante suddenly opened her eye to their full extent and cried,

“The axe, Golo! The axe! Her head sank downwards into the pillow. A minute passed. “All that’s meant to be good. Isn’t it?”

“.  .  .  Rest, Tantchen. Rest, my sweet.”

The next night she was weaker but more voluble.

“Golo, he’s dead. I can feel it. A wife and mother can just feel it.”

“I hope you’re wrong, dear.”

“You now Vater never liked Uncle Martin. But I stuck to my guns, Neffe. Martin had such a wonderful sense of humor! He made me laugh. I wasn’t much of a laugher, even as a child. When I was very young I always thought, Why’s everyone making that silly noise? And even later on I could never see what people found so hilarious. But Papi, he made me laugh . How we laughed .  .  . Oh, talk to me Golo. While I rest. It’s the sound of your voice.”

[Bolo tells her a story of the sadistic behavior of Bormann and his friends, which would spoil the plot.  .  . but Gerda does not find it funny.]

On my last night she made an effort and rallied. She said,

“We have so much to be proud of, Golo. Think of what he achieved, Uncle Martin. I mean personally.”

There was a silence. And understandable silence. What? The intensification of corporal punishment in the slave camps. The cautious dissent on the question of cosmic ice. The deSemitisation of the alphabet. The marginalization of Albert Speer. Uncle Martin wasn’t at all interested in the accoutrements of power, only in power itself, which he used, throughout, for unswervingly trivial ends.

“How he took on the question of the Mischlinge,” she said. “And the Jews married to Germans.”

“Yes. And in the end we just let them be. The intermarried ones. Pretty much.”

“Ah, but he got the Hungarians.” She gave a soft gurgle of satisfaction. “Every last one of them.”

Well, not quite. As late as April ’44 with the war long lost, the cities razed, with millions of people half starved, homeless, and dressed in singed rags, the Reich still felt it made sense to divert troops to Budapest; and the deportations began. You see, Tante, its like that man in Linz who stabbed his wife a hundred and thirty-seven times, The second thrust was delivered to justify the first. The third to justify the second. And so it goes on, until the end of strength. Of the Jews in Hungary, two hundred thousand survived, Tantchen, while close half a million were deported and murdered in “Aktion Doll” in Kat Zet II.

“Mm”, she said, “he always insisted that that was his greatest accomplishment on the world stage. You know, his greatest contribution as a statesman.”

“Indeed, Tante.”

“.  .  . Now, Neffe What’ll you do, my love?”

“Go back to the law, in the end, I suppose. I’m not sure. Maybe keep at it as a translator. My English is getting quite decent. I’ve improved it by hook or by crook.”

”What? it’s a hideous language, so they say. And you shouldn’t really wok for the Americans, you know, Golo.”

“I know, dear, but I am. .  .”

With me this had been the case for some time: I couldn’t see beauty where I couldn’t see intelligence. But I saw Gerda with eyes of love and even on her deathbed she was beautiful. The stupid beauty of Gerda Bormann.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Notes on 'The Novel" by Michael Schmidt

Excerpts (examplars) abstractly organized under the rubrics of FORM, STYLE, CONTENT & THEME


Speaking of Emily Bronte he says that

 ‘her verse strains conventional form; in fiction she strained form too. Form is a means not an end; if the end violates the means, let convention bend. What matters is not fiction but the truth that fiction tells. ‘

.  .  .  .  .

The case for the ‘proper novel’ is still made , not the least by novelists who continue to work in what  they believe to be an unbroken line that stretches from Defoe and Fielding – well, to Howards Jacobson, Hilary Mantel, Nicole Krauss.

But Borges knew that tradition is not synonymous with convention: on the contrary the dry hand of convention is at that throat of that vital and irreducible  thing that is tradition. Taste agrees with convention, judgment is engaged  with extending tradition.  As Don Quixote shows, the author’s tilting-spear against the impotent windmill of convention is irony.

.  .  .  .  .  .

“Miss Gertrude Stein”, wrote Wyndham Lewis “is the best known exponent of a literary system that consists in a sort of gargantuan mental stutter.”  He likens her process to the speech of the mad. “Her art is composed, first, of repetition, which lyricises her utterances on the same principle a that of hebrew [sic] poetry. But the repetition is also in the nature of a photograph of the unorganized word-dreaming of the mind when not concentrated for some logical functional purpose.” This describes at once her method and what it works  away from.

.  .  .  .  .  .

In Lessing’s The Grass is Singing, the first page of the novel has told us what the end will be. This is a novel not of suspense but of process, as the concluding sentences which do not presume to understand, make clear: “Though what thoughts of regret, or pity, or perhaps even wounded human affection were compounded with the satisfaction of his completed revenge, it is impossible to say.  .  . the integrity of the book is in this phrase, ‘it is impossible to say.’

 Incompleteness, withholding of interpretation from areas the novelist intended to remain unexplained, creates space for readers  willing to subject the darkness.

“Writing is a process of dealing with not knowing, a forcing of what and how .  .  .  The not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. It is not simple, because it is hedged about with prohibitions,
roads that may not be taken.  The more serious the artist, the more problems he takes into account and the more considerations limit his possible initiatives. There is no place for clichés or off-the-peg language, for “content” conventionally conceived. “I think the paraphrasable content in art is rather slight – ‘tiny, as de Kooning puts it. The change of emphasis from what to the how seems to me to be the major impulse in art since Flaubert, and it’s not merely formalism, it’s not that superficial, it’s an attempt to reach the truth, and a very rigorous one.”(Donald Barthelme)

There is the stage method. According to that each character is duly marshaled  at first and ticketed; we know with an immutable certainty that at the right crisis each one will reappear to act his part, and, when the curtain falls, all will stand before it bowing .  .  .  But there is another method – the method of the life we live lead. Here nothing can be prophesied. There is a strange coming and going of feet.  Men appear, act and re-act upon each other, and pass away. When the crisis comes the man who would fit it does not return. When the curtain falls no one is ready. When the footlights are brightest they are blown out; and what the name of the play is no one knows. If there sits a spectator who knows, he sits so high that the players in the gaslight cannot hear his breathing. Life may be painted according to either method; but the methods are different. The canons of criticism can bear upon one cut cruelly upon the other.( Emilie Schreiner, preface to The Story of an African Farm -1883)

In the abundant evenness of Anthony Trollope’s work, an evenness in which excellent novels and dull novels are delivered in the same idiom, at the same steady pace, one is put in mind of Fielding’s “painful and voluminous historian” who feels himself compelled “to fill up as much paper with the details of months and years in which nothing remarkable happened, as he employs on those noble eras when the greatest scenes have been transacted.” Such histories are like newspapers, with the same count of words whether or not there is news; their writers are like stagecoaches that run back and forth on the same route whether or not they carry passengers.


Flaubert developed the style indirect libre; as in Joyce, the thoughts of the characters are set down without preamble, without “he reflected” or “she felt,” so that inner elements carry the weight as “objective” detail. The narration moves, without the reader being consciously aware, between “omniscient” or “objective” and the subjectivities of characters. Their sincerity or candor coexists with the narrative’s irony. Jane Austin did something of the sort, but Flaubert developed into the central principle of his art and reflected on its practice. Gore Vidal finds here “no such thing as a subject, style in itself being an absolute manner of seeing things.” John Cowper Powys compared his prose to a “great cracked bassoon”, which has something of Flaubert’s tone about it. Here is Flaubert’s own instrument: “Human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance, when all the time we are longing to move the stars.”

Proust takes us to the heart of Flaubert’s manner. He resists the strong metaphors that lend “a kind of immortality to style” and seldom rises above the level of the speech of his most common characters. He does not entertain the possibility that this is the point of them, that they are – in Madame Bovary at least – in character, and their colloquial weakness does not draw us way from a character whose perspective we have assumed. Proust concentrates on elements in the prose that are hard to translate, the nature of the language that creates “the great moving pavement” that are the passages of Flaubert. “ There is,” he says, “a grammatical beauty (as there is a moral or a dramatic beauty) which has nothing to do with correctness.” A sentence can begin in one place and end up in quite another, and the forward movement of style is not a compression of completed sentences but an interlocking pattern; a prepositional phrase or subordinate clause rises above its station and governs what follows. Proust speaks of the “hermetic continuity of style” achieved, hence the moving pavement.

. .  .  .  .  .

Philip Roth’s My Life as a Man is about the thrills,  vertigo and final satisfaction of writing from and of the self. Though the self is fictionalized, the fiction is thin, like the convenient shadow-fancies that facilitate onanism. Style over content, a solipsistic spider, decidedly male, stirs its guts and lets out a shimmering thread.

‘The style”, wrote Stevenson, “is therefore the most perfect, not, as fools say, which is the most natural, for the most natural is the disjointed babble of the chronicler,  but which attains the highest degree of elegant and pregnant implication.”

.  .  .  .  .

Martin Amis shares Saul Bellows revulsion to Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. He starts by anatomizing its cliches, then cuts deeper into it. “Equally enthralling and distasteful, it is Waugh’s problem comedy,” he says, likening it to Mansfield Park as “worrying, inordinate, self-conscious, a book that steps out of genre and never really looks at home with its putative author.” Amis locates the effects of Waugh’s snobbery on the writing: “There is  something barefaced, even aggressive, in the programmatic way the novel arranges for its three most un-regenerative characters to claim the highest spiritual honors.” Charles  Ryder’s first conversion is social and sexual;
at Brideshead he is drawn into the baroque. Amis speaks of the disjunction between the novel’s heartlessness and its elaborate and elaborated style: But is the baroque not gesture and effect in lieu  of actual content? The pillars sustain nothing, an architecture of show without substance, to which the current heirs have nothing but the accidental claim of birthright.

.  .  .  .  .

Twain brings back into literary usage, “in this age of mass literacy,” Updike says, some of the properties of speech. “In utterance there’s a minimum of slowness. In trying to treat words as chisel strokes, you run the risk  of losing the quality of utterance, the rhythm of utterance, the happiness.” His example is from Twain: “He describes a raft  hitting a bridge and says that ‘it all went to smash and scatteration like a box of matches struck by lightning.’   The beauty of the ‘scatteration’ could only have occurred to a talkative man, a man who had been brought up among people  who were talking and loved to talk himself. The diction and cadence of written speech are of course not speech but artful contrivance, yet the art tends towards placing the speaker back in the text as speaker: not James’s celebrated ‘point of view.’ but something basic to older traditions of storytelling . The telling is foregrounded  and slowness at all costs avoided.

Joan Didion celebrates, as it is hard not to do, V.S. Naipaul’s resistance to theories and his dependence on fact.  Theory and ideology are ‘no more than scaffolding, something to be erected or demolished; something imposed (a word Naipaul often uses in relation to ideas)  on the glitter of the sea , the Congo clogged
with hyacinth, the actual world”  She looks at the opening of Guerillas and notes, “The pink haze of the bauxite dust on the first page .  .  .  tells us what we need to know about the history and social organization of the unnamed island on which the action takes place, tells us in one image.” A luminous, billowing image, with color, smell, peril in it, tells us “who runs the island and for whose profit the island is run and at what cost to the life of the island this profit has been historically obtained, but all  of this implicit information pales in the presence of the physical fact, the dust itself.” Naipaul traffics in facts. He sees and feels them with a Homeric impartiality and clarity. He is not a comforting writer any more than Gibbon or Conrad is.”

.  .  .  .  .  .

Steinbeck to a writer friend who told him correctness in writing was necessary “good manners,” “But I have no interest in the printed word. I would continue to write if there were no writing and no print. I put my words down for a matter of memory. They are more made to be spoken than to be read. I have the instincts of a minstrel rather than those of a scrivener .  .  . When my sounds are all in place, I can send them to a stenographer who knows his trade and  he can slip the commas about until they fit comfortably and he can spell the words so school teachers  will not raise their eyebrows when they read them. Why should I bother?” No wonder his writing was susceptible to film treatment: it came to him as images and voices.

.  .  .  .  .  .

‘The style”, wrote Stevenson, “is therefore the most perfect, not, as fools say, which is the most natural, for the most natural is the disjointed babble of the chronicler,  but which attains the highest degree of elegant and pregnant implication.”


When Sinclair Lewis was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930, he rendered the coup de grace to the Howells in his address, “The American Fear of Literature.” He began in a friendly patronizing voice, almost like Howell’s. “Mr. Howells was one of the gentlest, sweetest, and most honest of men,” and then, to the jugular, “but he had the code of a pious old maid whose greatest delight was to have tea at the vicarage. He abhorred not only profanity and obscenity but all of what H.G. Well’s had called the jolly coarseness of life.” Only the Great War put an end to his stifling influence on American letters. His greatest achievement was “to tame Mark Twain, perhaps the greatest of our writers, and to put that fiery old savage into an intellectual frock coat and top hat.” His type survived. Lewis’s medicine, magisterially administered, tried to purge the republic of American letters of one of its most persistent types.

Lewis spared his Nobel audience the whole story of his struggle .  .  .  He comes from a country in which most of us – not readers alone but even writers – are still afraid of any literature which is not a glorification of everything American, a glorification of our faults as well as our virtues.

“If the citizens of the United States were indeed the devoted patriots they call themselves, they would surely not thus encrust themselves in the hard, dry, stubborn persuasion, that they are the first and best of the human race, that nothing is to be learnt, but what they are able to teach, and that nothing is worth having, which they do not possess.” (Frances Trollope, Anthony’s mother, after her time in Ohio, 1827)

Theodore Dreiser was warned by his boss, “a most eager and ambitious and distressing example of that pseudo-morality which combines a pirate-like acquisitiveness with an inward and absolute conviction of righteousness,” that he wanted novelty, not the “mush” of other magazines. But nothing should be accepted that did not strongly appeal to the common reader, and everything had to be “clean”. “a solid little pair of millstones which would unquestionably end in macerating everything vital out of any good story.”

Gore Vidal cannot abide  John Updike’s ingratiating obedience to the reader. His conservative politics and his comfy aesthetics express “blandness and acceptance of authority in any form.” He “describes to no purpose,” aspiring to be “our good child.” His final verdict: “Updike’s work is more and more representative of that polarizing within a state where Authority grows ever more brutal and malign while its hired hands in the media grow ever more excited as the holy war of the few against the many heats up.

.  .  .  .  .  .  .

Henry James distanced himself from Howell’s notion that American freedom from custom, class, and ingrained tradition was liberating for the novelist. In the first place, did such freedom, could such freedom, really exist in society? “It is on manners, usages, habits, forms, upon all these things matured and established, that a novelist lives – they are the very stuff his work is made of and in saying that in the absence of those ‘dreary and worn-out paraphernalia’ which I enumerate as being wanted in American society, ‘we have simply the whole of human life left,’ you beg (to my sense)the question. I should say we had just so much less of it  as these same ‘paraphernalia’ represent, and I think they represent an enormous quantity of it.”


Provincialism is a theme central to European and then American fiction. It has to do as much with attitude as with location. We have experienced its effects  in Stendhal, where Julien Sorel slowly rises out of it, and then is destroyed by it. Balzac does not trust the reader as Stendhal does: he underlines what he means with essayistic strokes. “Far away from the centers of light shed by great minds, where the air is quick with thought, knowledge standstill, taste is corrupted like stagnant water, and passion dwindles, frittered away upon infinitely small objects which it strives to exalt. Herein lies the secret avarice and tittle-tattle that poisons provincial life.  The contagion of narrow-mindedness and meanness affects the noblest natures; and in such ways and these, men born to be great, and women who would have been charming if they had fallen under the forming influence of greater minds, are balked of their lives.”

Thomas Hardy’s theme is individual un-fulfillment in time. His vision is of a past unrealized, full of potential: “Everything glowed with a gleam,” but “we were looking away.” The past with its choices is placed beside a present those choices impoverished. Life is ever “a thwarted purposing.”  “The English peasant lived and still lives in a milder, flatter world than Hardy’s,” says Pritchard, “a world where conscience and self-interest keep down the passions, like a pair of gamekeepers.”

Joseph Conrad ends his “Note” on his first book (Almayer’s Folly, 1895) with the words: “the curse of facts and the blessings of illusions, the bitterness of our wisdom and the deceptive consolation of our folly,” an epigraph for his entire oeuvre.

Stevenson is not far away. He wrote, ”No man lives in the external truth, among salts and aids, but in the warm, phantasmagorical chamber of his brain, with the painted windows and the storied walls.

There is no such thing as unfictionalized fact: as soon as a fact finds a context, it behaves in accordance with it.