Monday, November 30, 2009

The Waste Land and Suttree

And another echo of Suttree:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?

—T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land (1922)


This, I think, is an interesting one, because Eliot's modernist warning seems to have echoes of the malevolence that is hidden behind the humour and warmth of Suttree.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Parzival and Suttree

From Parzival, by Wolfram von Eschenbach:

Their battle had come to the point where I cannot refrain from speaking up. And I mourn for this, for they were the two sons of one man. One could say that 'they' were fighting in this way if one wished to speak of two. These two , however, were one, for 'my brother and I' is one body, like good man and good wife. Contending here from loyalty of heart, one flesh, one blood, was doing itself much harm.

This has strong echoes of the constant twinning in Suttree, the battle raging within him, most prominently portrayed in the guise of the stillborn brother.

Mann and myth (2)

In a post below I commented on what I perceived to be Thomas Mann's naivety in not recognising the rise of a mythologically fuelled ideology in 1930s Germany. Well, perhaps he did. This is from an article on Mann's use of myth by Thomas Hollweck:

It is of considerable interest how Thomas Mann described his decision to embark on this mythical journey back in time, because the Sketch, the Lebensabriss, was written in 1930, when the memory of the beginnings of the novel was still fresh and when the “barbaric myth,” as he would call it, was loudly asserting itself in Germany and elsewhere. Mann was keenly aware of this, as he distinguished his personal interest in the myth from that of some of his ideological contemporaries. He writes: “And these interests of today are not inappropriate tastes for a time of life that may legitimately begin to divorce itself from the peculiar and individual and turn its gaze upon the typical – which is, after all, the mythical.” And then he goes on emphatically: “I do not say that the conquest of the myth, from the stage of development at which we have now arrived, can ever mean a return to it. That can happen only as a result of self-delusion.


His antidote was to establish a kind of mythical psychology because, he felt, the 'anti-intellectual bigots' preferred to keep myth and psychology apart.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

McCarthy in the LA Times

A curiously ambivalent article in the LA Times on Cormac McCarthy by Scott Timberg, to tie in with the release of the film version of The Road. It seems to discern a McCarthy bandwagon picking up speed and is determined not to board it. Timberg seems to rely pretty much exclusively on the opinions of Kenneth Lincoln, who produced a very peculiar (but highly readable) critique (of sorts) of McCarthy's work, almost reducing the plots into a series of parodies. I'm not sure he's who I would turn to if I wanted a rounded picture of McCarthy the writer.

Lincoln is quoted as saying: "His writing was horrific at the beginning, then he wrote about the West." Now, that's an interesting comment. Given that McCarthy's later works are every bit as horrific as the earliest works - the body count in No Country and The Road is far, far higher than The Orchard Keeper or Outer Dark or Child of God, for example - you are left wondering whether Lincoln actually means horrible rather than horrific? And, if so, would you accept as credible the views of someone who can mix up such entirely different words?

Timberg then describes No Country as 'the author's only tightly plotted genre work,' which is as wrong as you can get, really. It isn't a genre work, it is a philosophical novel that appropriates some of the conventions of the crime genre; and the plot can only be described as 'tight' if one ignores the various howling mistakes, improbabilities and non-sequiteurs which, if it were truly a genre novel, would make it an extremely poor one. As a philosophical novel, on the other hand, they work.

However, it ends with a quote from Lincoln which I actually think sums up McCarthy perfectly. "But I think we're going to need a strong stomach to get through the next 100 years," he says. My feeling is that this is exactly what McCarthy is trying to tell us.

Mann and myth

Thomas Mann:

For the myth is the foundation of life...Certainly when a writer has acquired the habit of regarding life as mythical and typical there comes a curious heightening of his artist temper, a new refreshment to his perceiving and shaping powers...

One might say that such a phenomenon alone could be the "lived myth"; nor should we think that it is anything novel or unknown. The life in the myth, life as a sacred repetition, is a historical form of life, for the man of ancient times lived thus...

Life, then – at any rate – significant life – was in ancient times the reconstitution of the myth in flesh and blood; it referred to and appealed to the myth; only through it, through reference to the past, could it approve itself as genuine and significant. The myth is the legitimization of life; only through and in it does life find self-awareness, sanction, consecration.


Each of these quotes comes from Mann's address i Freud and the Future. What concerns me is that he delivered this address in 1936, only a few months after Hitler entered the Rhineland, and the full evil of that lunatic's appropriation of mythology as a way of promulgating an ideology was quickly becoming evident. There is a startling naivety about it, and I do not believe that this is so only in retrospect: Mann, it seems to me, was truly naive. Of course, he later came to write Doctor Faustus, a notably darker work, so perhaps his romanticism was finally tempered by reality.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Jungian analogy

Carl Jung:

We have then to describe and to explain a building, the upper storey of which was erected in the nineteenth century, the ground floor dates from the sixteenth century, and a careful examination of the masonry discloses the fact that it was reconstructed from a dwelling-tower of the eleventh century. In the cellar we discover Roman foundation walls, and under the cellar a filled-in cave, in the floor of which stone tools are found, and remnants of glacial fauna in the layers below. That would be a sort of picture of our own mental structures. We live in the upper storey, and are only dimly aware that our lower storey is somewhat old-fashioned. As to what lies beneath the superficial crust of the earth we remain quite unconscious

So far so good. I can go along with this, it's a neat formulation. I'm not totally convinced, particularly when it comes to the glacial fauna which, it seems to me, is stretching the history of the 'building' to an extreme in order to create a link to the unknown, or unconscious. But okay, let's go on.

But the deeper we descend into the past the narrower the horizon becomes, and in the darkness we come upon the nearest and most intimate things, till finally we reach the naked rock floor, down to that early dawn of time when reindeer hunters fought for a bare and wretched existence against the elemental forms of wild nature. These men were still in the full possession of their animal instincts, without which their existence would have been impossible. The free sway of the instincts is not consistent with a powerful and comprehensive consciousness. The consciousness of primitives, as of the child, is of a spasmodic nature; his world too, like the child's, is very limited. Our childhood even rehearses, according to the phylogenetic principle, reminiscences of the pre-history of the race and of mankind in general. Phylogenetically as well as ontogenetically we have grown up out of the dark confines of the earth.

This is where, it seems to me, Jung descends into babbling. There is positively no proof that early man's consciousness was 'spasmodic', and his world is only limited to the extent that physically it was confined to where he could walk. The leap from that to the suggestion that his entire world - physical but also mental - is limited is unsustainable.

And thus the whole analogy begins to fall into discredit. I can certainly see that an individual's beliefs, ideals, memories can be seen as settling within him like some sort of archaeological layering, and it could then be theoretically possible to slice through it to see the genesis of those beliefs. I will even allow that some of this is undoubtedly subconscious or unconscious. But to go back to the naked rock floor, not only of my existence but of mankind itself, and try to extrapolate from this general mass something that is useful about my personal state, is a futile pastime.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A story far older than its years

There's been a good discussion in one of the posts below about what makes a great writer and great writing, and whether writers can transcend the barriers of their history and society to achieve an element of universality. Shakespeare wrote in Elizabethan times, in Elizabethan language, presenting an Elizabethan worldview, but still he speaks to us today, because his themes are universal. We've had some debate as to whether that is truly the case, or whether an artist must always be circumscribed by his or her environment.

My own view is that there is something timeless about great literature. To that end, I was struck by this, from the foreword of The Magic Mountain, which I am just embarking on at Donigan's suggestion:

[This story] is far older than its years; its age may not be measured by length of days, nor the weight of time on its head reckoned by the rising or setting of suns. In a word, the degree of its antiquity has noways to do with the passage of time...


This is the universality of great fiction. It exists in a time and is defined by that time, but it also, simultaneously, exists outside of time, in the mind of the reader, drawing on our human history and human hopes, backwards and forwards through time. The Modernists were motivated in large part by the destruction of the First World War. We cannot really understand that now, not from their particular point of view, but their works still speak of the pity of it and we still respond.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Revenge of the real

Another foray into the 'end of the novel' debate, this time by Zadie Smith in The Guardian. It's a very good essay, thought provoking and, although I don't fully go along with her, she makes some excellent points.

Her starting point is the apparent coincidence of a number of authors - Foer, Drabble, Achebe - writing essays recently, rather than fiction. Why?, she wonders.

She then refers to a forthcoming work by American novelist-essayist David Shields, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, which sounds like it will be a provocative polemic. As Smith, who has read a pre-publication copy, describes it, Shields:

argues passionately for the superiority of the messy real – of what we might call "truthiness" – over the careful creations of novelists, and other artists, who work with artificial and imagined narratives. For Shields it is exactly what is tentative, unmade and unpolished in the essay form that is important. He finds the crafted novel, with its neat design and completist attitude, to be a dull and generic thing, too artificial to deal effectively with what is already an "unbearably artificial world".

Okay, there is much to agree with here. But equally there is much to disagree with. I have argued before about novels which are so intent on promulgating their theme they wrap it ever tighter round the narrative, until it becomes utterly constricting. Every damned event has to be linked to the theme somehow, every character has his or her role to play, and it all begins to feel utterly artificial. So, to that extent, I completely agree with Shields.

However, what he is describing is bad writing. And, in arguing so fundamentally against the novel's ability to catch the essential randomness of existence, he is relegating the whole of literature to the level of bad writing. That isn't so. It doesn't have to be like that. There are writers out there who very satisfactorily manage to overcome the sort of objections that Shields is raising. Let me cite Cormac McCarthy, for example, and I'm not naturally a great defender of his, but No Country For Old Men, for all its faults, is a superb example of a novel managing to mirror the unpredictability of life and not conform to a tedious, pre-arranged structure and plot. In strictly literay terms it is almost barking mad: everything is set up for a major showdown between Ed Tom and Chigurh, and yet they never meet, because Chigurh is badly injured in a car wreck and limps into the distance; the whole novel charts Chigurh's relentless pursuit of Moss, and yet Moss is killed off-page by the Mexicans; the novel ends with a long dialogue between Ed Tom and an old man we haven't even seen before, and then with Ed Tom recounting a dream he had about his father. It's a crazy ending, but it works. Absolutely nothing that the traditional novel would lead the reader to expect in No Country For Old Men actually happens.

Smith then explains further Shields' thinking:

He recommends instead that artists break "ever larger chunks of 'reality' into their work", via quotation, appropriation, prose poems, the collage novel . . . in short, the revenge of the real, by any means necessary. And conventional structure be damned. To make the point, Reality Hunger is itself without obvious authorial structure, piecing its arguments together by way of scattered aphorisms and quotation, an engaging form of bricolage. It's a tribute to Shields's skill that we remain unsure whether the entire manifesto is not in effect "built" rather than written, the sum of many broken pieces of the real simply shored up and left to vibrate against each other in significant arrangement. The result is thrilling to read, even if you disagree with much of it, as I do.

Hmm. Doesn't that sound awfully like the sixties and seventies experimental stuff that grew up around Robbe-Grillet and co? And doesn't it sound equally artificial?

Smith has the same reservations. She makes the excellent observation:

Novels... are idiosyncratic, uneven, embarrassing, and quite frequently nausea-inducing – especially if you happen to have written one yourself. Within the confines of an essay or – even better! – an aphorism, you can be the writer you dream of being. No word out of place, no tell-tale weak spots (dialogue, the convincing representation of other people, plot), no absences, no lack. I think it's the limits of the essay, and of the real, that truly attract fiction writers. In the confined space of an essay you have the possibility of being wise, of making your case, of appearing to see deeply into things – although the thing you're generally looking into is the self. "Other people", that mainstay of what Shields calls the "moribund conventional novel", have a habit of receding to a point of non-existence in the "lyrical essay".


That is spot on. In the past year I've written far less fiction than in the past, and have instead been writing academic essays. I like both, and I particularly enjoy researching, creating ideas, formulating theses, arguing them, coming to conclusions. It's very satisfying. But it isn't the same as writing fiction. It doesn't give the same exhilaration. It doesn't have the same sense of danger - that feeling that you might, just might, find out something about yourself that you don't like, but can't escape. The novel allows a degree of freedom that the essay simply can't. Shields appears (on the basis of what I've read in the Smith article) to have a valid point but he argues it to an untenable extreme.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Time and myth

Reading up on Jungian archetypes at the moment, and trying to decide whether Jung was a charlatan or a scientist. This is G. Van Der Leeuw on myth and time, an area of particular Jungian interest:

Time and myth belong together. Myth creates time, gives it "content and form." This is still implicit in the calendar: "An III de la Republique," "in the tenth year of Fascism," "AD 1949." Time was determined by an event that emerged from the unconscious at the moment when it was given form... For myth and so-called reality are indissolubly interwoven. When they read the earliest history of certain tribes or people, scholars wonder: is it myth or history? mythical usage or real usage?... But the whole question is false. Myth is life and life is myth.

Now, I think it is tendentious to say that time in these (or any) epochs of change 'emerges from the unconscious at the moment they are given form'. There is some truth in it, but it is not an absolute truth. Pol Pot, for example, definitely declared Year Zero, but to say that the Christian era began in year 1 AD, with everyone immediately understanding that shift from unconscious to conscious thought, is clearly anachronistic. It didn't happen like that. The principle is reasonable, and therefore they underlying premise that myth and time are closely interlinked is also acceptable, but to posit this as a universal truth is unsound reasoning.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Legend of a Suicide by David Vann


Legend of a Suicide is a collection of five short stories and a novella, loosely brought together to form a narrative whole. In that respect I’m not sure it’s entirely successful – some of the short stories were previously published separately and the collection feels as if it has been artificially brought together, particularly in the concluding story – but otherwise this is a very fine piece of work.

At a time when so called memoirs are regularly being revealed as fiction, Vann takes the opposite approach and fictionalises real events from his life. The central fact is that his father committed suicide in 1980; Legend of a Suicide is Vann’s attempt to understand that event, to put it into some form that can accommodate his feelings of guilt and anger and pain and loss. The stories in this collection each approach that single, real event and offer different perspectives, different ways of understanding. They build into something deeply moving and impressive. There is a tremendous amount of pain here, but the wonder of the writing is that it is simultaneously extremely funny, at times laugh out loud so. To do that without falling into bathos is a fine trick.

There is a strong strain of American writing about fathers and sons, all the way back to Huck Finn and his feckless Pap, through Papa Hemingway and undoubtedly embracing Cormac McCarthy, whose ambivalent relationship with his father seems to inform his every work. Legend of a Suicide, with the tormented pairing of Roy and his father, James, adds to the canon, particularly in the novella, Sukkwan Island, that is the emotional heart of the collection. In this, Roy and his father attempt to live in the Alaskan wilderness, in a wooden cabin miles from civilisation. They are hopelessly unprepared. They catch a multitude of fish, hoping they will last them through the winter, but have no idea how to preserve them effectively. They are robbed by a scavenging bear. They go for long hikes and come close to dying from exposure. Roy is deeply unhappy but stays for his father’s sake. Throughout, the mental health of the father, never robust at the best of times, deteriorates. Roy hears him crying each night in bed. He displays a degree of solipsism extraordinary in a father ostensibly caring for his son. 'But what about me?' he whines to Roy after the boy says he wants to go home. He feels no compunction about telling his son in graphic detail – catching crab lice, for example – the various infidelities which have punctuated his two marriages. His grip on reality slips. Tragedy ensues.

It would have been easy to turn James into a caricature, into a weak and self-obsessed fool. And, indeed, he is weak, self-obsessed and foolish, and yet Roy’s love for him is understandable and credible, and helps turn him into a rounded individual rather than a mere receptacle for failure. The relationship between these two people, a man and a boy, is beautifully drawn. In this, there are at times strong echoes of Hemingway, both in the language and the handling of character (and also, in truth, the obsession with catching fish), but Vann’s is a distinctive and impresive voice, and Legend of a Suicide is a substantial piece of psychological fiction.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

David Vann on Blood Meridian

Ah synchronicity, don't you love it? I've just finished David Vann's Legend of a Suicide and am in the process of doing a review of it, and here he is in today's Guardian writing about Blood Meridian.

When he first read Blood Meridian, he was actually in the process of writing the main section of Legend of a Suicide. That does figure, as landscape, an essential element of McCarthy, is similarly very strong in Vann; the brooding sense of menace, too, of how close we all are to losing the veneer of civilisation, is reminiscent of McCarthy. Vann does particularly well, however, to maintain his own voice: McCarthy's is so strong and distinct it woul be easy, if reading him a lot, to fall unintentionally into parody or imitation, but Vann's beautiful, crisp language is very different from McCarthy's biblical registers.

McCarthy is 'the writer all American writers have to measure themselves against', according to Vann. High praise indeed, and possibly not misplaced. He concludes with an interesting statement:

A great American novel can only be anti-American, and Blood Meridian, like Toni Morrison's Beloved, focuses on our greatest shames, in this case our genocides and our desire for war, contemplating in its final chapters the slaughter of the buffalo; also the slaughter of innocence in the form of a dancing bear, and the slaughter of any would-be penitents, including the kid. The last look west has to see nowhere else to go.

I'm curious about this idea of anti-Americanism. Is that true of the great American novel? Certainly, American writers have never been afraid to be critical of America, from Huck Finn onwards, but the essential core still seems to me to be highly positive about America. Critical yes, but anti no.

Morte d'Urban by JF Powers


Morte d’Urban is a most unusual book, a sort of Babbitt with cassocks: big business and the machinations of the Catholic church, it’s an odd mixture indeed. I really don’t know what to make of it. It was published in 1962 and won the National Book Award, beating Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools and Updike’s debut, Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories, which is quite an impressive array of literature. Nonetheless, it’s probably fair to say that Powers hasn’t stood the test of time all that well.

The central character is Father Urban, a priest in the Order of St Clement, a mediocre order which has no great claim to utility. ‘The Clementines were unique,’ we are told, ‘in that they were noted for nothing at all. They were in bad shape all over the world.’ Seemingly unique among them, Father Urban is possessed of ability and charisma. He is a popular speaker and, more significantly, helps draw money and backers to the order, most notably the businessman Billy Cosgrove, who proceeds to donate significant funds. One might have expected this to serve Father Urban’s career prospects well, but that would be to underestimate the politics at the heart of any organisation. Father Urban is sent to deepest Minnesota. There, he is quickly embroiled in a series of DIY disasters as he attempts to stop the Order’s building from collapsing around him, performs admirably in the role of parish priest and shows more entrepreneurial skill when he establishes a new golf course in the grounds. Life couldn’t get much better for Father Urban, could it? Oh yes! Quickly followed by Oh No!

It’s a fun book, a sly satire in which the target isn’t particularly the Catholic Church, as much as organisations in general. The humour is gentle, as is the action. It’s a far cry from the political fictions we think about in sixties American. Father Urban is an engaging and humane character, an everyman that everyman would secretly quite like to be: slightly cleverer than average and a touch aloof, but warm-hearted and kind, thoughtful to the last. The novel charts the conflict of this good man with a system that is designed with the lowest common denominator in mind.

I suspect, though, that Powers is aiming at something deeper, too. This is not mere whimsy. Father Urban straddles the secular and religious worlds, but is not entirely comfortable in either. He is too proud, cynical and worldly for the cloistered environs of St Clement’s, but too wholesome and decent for the opportunistic outside world. Thus, the ending, in which the general sunniness of the novel dissipates somewhat, reflects a spiritual ambivalence which is surely not directed purely at the church but, more widely, at all of us?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Short Circuit: a guide to the art of the short story


Also received in the post (purchased direct from Salt Publishing, rather than Amazon, for reasons see here) a terrific reference source, Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of The Short Story. This is edited by Vanessa Gebbie, a very welcome occasional contributer of comments on this blog and, like me, a former student in Alex Keegan’s online writing group, Boot Camp. Our times in Boot Camp barely coincided – I was making my first tentative forays as she was leaving – but, nonetheless, I’ve come to know her work well, and her first collection of stories, also published by Salt, Words from a Glass Bubble, is well worth buying. Vanessa knows about short stories, and so do the contributers she has gathered for this collection. I think it may become a definitive work.

I’ve read half a dozen or so of the essays so far, and skimmed through the rest, and there is good stuff here. I’m not usually very good with ‘how-to’ manuals, mainly because I won’t be told ‘how to’: the contrarian in me instinctively makes me do the opposite of what I’m told, even if I agree with the advice. That’s Calvinist atheists for you – we do a good line in nose-cutting.

Anyway, the advice here is good, in large measure because it isn’t dogmatic. At one point in her article, Lane Ashfeldt says: ‘I have no wish to waffle mystically about ‘inspiration’ here. A book on the craft of short story writing should provide more concrete advice than that.’ Agreed, and I think she goes on to provide that advice admirably, but what I like about this collection of essays in general is that what you don’t get is the usual collection of ‘thou shalts’ and ‘thou shalt nots’ of writing craft advice, the sort of nonsense that tells you to write two pages of drivel show in order to avoid telling the reader that ‘Johnny was in a fearful temper because he had a bad case of piles.’ No, what we have here is measured, considered advice on a range of subjects.

Our old mentor, Alex Keegan has a chapter to himself on, as you would expect from AK, theme. As ever, he makes it appear utterly simple, perfectly obvious, seductively easy. Then you go away and try to write something and you realise it isn’t that easy. I remember the first time I ‘got’ theme, at a workshop at AK’s house. After three days of Alex talking about theme, theme, theme, it suddenly made sense. I understood. I looked around me in a state of wonder and the world seemed different, somehow. I was ‘the guy who got theme’. It was a revelation. I went straight to AK’s kitchen to write a story, and what a story that was. Theme was oozing out of it, from every comma and semi-colon, every full stop, every sloppy dash. Every description, every shred of dialogue screamed ‘theme’. It was a thematic symphony, an oratorio, a meisterwork. If I’d only bothered to put a plot in there that story would have been sensational, I tell you. But reading Alex’s brilliant article I sense, again, the nearness of understanding how theme actually works. It left me itching to go and write something, and what better praise can any writing craft article have?

There’s other excellent material, too. Paul Magrs, in a fine, chatty piece, offers the following advice: ‘The skilled writer will make the first person narrator say things they don’t mean to.’ By coincidence, as I was reading that I’d just read a very fine piece by David Vann, Legend of a Suicide (review to follow) which revealed some of what Magrs said, using a very simple but effective technique that I don’t think I’ve seen before. He describes (in first person) his main character breaking into his own house, and trying to deduce from the evidence lying around what sort of people might live there: Robert Burns’s ‘to see oursel’s as ithers see us’ brought to reality, as it were. And in doing this, the character does reveal stuff about himself, but in layers of detail of which he is unaware, and he tells us far more than he realises he is doing. It’s beautifully done. Elaine Chiew also offers excellent advice, including a section on epiphanies which I will probably devote a separate posting to.

Lane Ashfeldt sums the book up nicely with a fine quote from my old favourite, Kurt Vonnegut: ‘You can’t really control a piece of fiction... Part of the technique is to lose control.’ Alex Keegan explains what that really means in inimitable style:

I do not need to plot. I do not need to plan. I do not need speeches and carefully placed metaphors. I just live the story, go to the right places, allow my ‘ordinary man’ to be exposed to the waves, and record what he does. What he does will contain meaning. What he does, what he feels, is what the story means.


See how easy it is when you free yourself? This is what I think is essential in fiction writing, and the fear is that the creative writing courses that are proliferating and the writing craft textbooks which are appearing will stifle the essential creativity that allows you to ‘lose control’ or leave your characters to explore meaning. The joy of Short Circuit is that it doesn’t allow that to happen. It just makes you think. Creative writer, get thee off and write (but remember some plot).

Wednesday, November 11, 2009



Waement the deid
I never did,
But nou I am safe awa
I hear their wae
Greetan greetan dark and daw,
Their death the-streen my darg the-day.

Alexander Scott, Coronach

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Mao II by Don DeLillo


While characters must act in recognisable and credible ways, it is nonetheless a precarious pastime to criticise a novel based solely on the actions of its protagonists. ‘So and so just wouldn’t have done that,’ is a common enough comment in criticisms of fiction but, it seems to me, the inherent certainty of such a stance leads to the peculiar outcome whereby a reader’s understanding of a character is elevated above that even of the writer who created it. If you have faith in a writer, you must trust him or her in turn to have faith in their creations and let the characters work out their actions for themselves. Character-driven implausibility of plot is therefore a criticism I use rarely. One exception is Cormac McCarthy’s Llewelyn Moss who, at times in No Country For Old Men is self-evidently the most cautious man in the history of the world, but then, when he finds the transponder among the millions of dollars he has just stolen – which must inevitably bring the gangsters steaming towards him – rather than running for cover he sticks the transponder in his bedside cupboard and lies on the bed staring at the ceiling. Surprise, surprise, that nice Mr Chigurh then turns up: plot contrivance or what?

Another such implausibility could be the action of Don DeLillo’s character, Bill Gray, in Mao II. Or perhaps not. In that DeLilloan juncture where postmodernism and tradition meet, nothing is that straightforward. And in Mao II, after all, DeLillo’s focuses are the arts and terror, specifically the diminished and diminishing role of the writer in a world where terror has become an everyday commodity. This link between reality and fiction has long been a source of angst to the writer, of course, with fears that an increasingly perverse world can now offer more and greater madness than any writer can create. Philip Roth, in 1961, complained that ‘the actuality is continually outdoing our talents [as writers].’ (And as Court Merrigan points out on his blog, Roth is still saying the same thing forty-eight years later, presumably on the grounds that if he says it for long enough he’ll eventually be proved right.) Further back, Karl Kraus, the Austrian satirist, also noted the near impossibility of his calling when reality could so easily outstrip the satirist’s imagination. And not only that, but this unhealthy new symbiosis has more malevolent undercurrents: ‘If the reporter has killed our imagination with his truth,’ he wrote in the 1920s, ‘he threatens our life with his lies.’ And so we have reality poisoning our art, but poisoning our lives as well. O arta o mores, one might say, although that is only a partial truth. There is always something cyclical about art and reality, just as mimesis is much more than mere mimicry. And so that cautionary quote of Kraus could easily be countered by another, by Heinrich Boll: ‘Art is always a good hiding-place, not for dynamite, but for intellectual explosives and social time bombs’. So what do we have in Mao II: art being destroyed by reality, or reality getting a kicking from art? The answer, alarmingly, is more the former than the latter.

The facts are these: in a world of crowds, Bill Gray is a recluse, a Salingeresque writer who hasn’t been photographed in forty years and lives in complete isolation, attended only by his obsessive assistant Scott and Scott’s ex-Moonie girlfriend Karen. His writing is blocked, and for years has been drafting and re-drafting and re-redrafting his third novel, which he knows is already complete. As each year of public silence unfolds, his fame grows and in this way, of course, his writer’s block increases proportionately. And then, unexpectedly, Bill agrees to be photographed by an artist, Brita, whose life work is to capture writers of every sort on film. This is not the implausibility I alluded to at the start; it is merely the catalyst for what comes next.

Interspersed with the main narrative are vignettes from late nineties Cosmopolita: a Moonie mass-wedding ceremony; the deaths of Liverpool football fans at Hillsborough; the death and burial of Ayatollah Khomeini; the banality of fundamentalist terrorists. The novel is located, as usual with DeLillo, slightly askew from what we might consider normality, in terms of either traditional narrative or in the narrative structure; DeLillo’s world is not as determinedly surreal as, for example, Paul Auster’s, and it is much more effective for that. Reading a Don DeLillo novel offers the reader the sort of disconnection the new Mrs de Winter must have initially encountered at Manderley: everything seems in order, but nothing quite is. Thus, the scene is set for implausibility.

Prompted by his encounter with Brita, Bill now makes contact with his editor for the first time in many years, an old school publishing man called Charlie Everson. Charlie tells him of a young Swiss writer taken hostage in Beirut, and persuades him to travel to London to speak on his behalf, an old writer coming to the aid of the new generation. The man who has barely been out of his own house in decades agrees to do so. And this is still not the implausibility.

Once in London, caught up in a bombing in a London hotel, Bill comes into contact with George Haddad, a Lebanese Maoist and a shadowy intermediary who seems to know a great deal of what is happening in the dangerous underworld of Beirut where the young Swiss writer is being held. The bombing wasn’t important, George tells him, because no-one was killed. The terrorists and the western media each play the same game: ‘The worse the better’. ‘Get killed,’ George tells Bill, ‘ and maybe they will notice you.’

Later, Charlie warns Bill that he may be in danger. ‘You would be worth a great deal more to the group in Beirut than the hostage they’re now holding,’ he tells him. How could they manipulate him into a hostage situation, Bill asks. ‘Lure you eastward somehow,’ Charlie replies. Two pages later the implausibility arrives, writ large in DeLillo’s hand with the warning: ‘implausibility alert’. George invites Bill to come to Athens with him to meet some of the men behind the Swiss writer’s abduction. Don’t be stupid, the reader shouts, what did Charlie tell you two pages ago? Even George agrees. He tells Bill: ‘Of course I’ve asked myself what you have to gain by traveling to Athens under circumstances that might be called – what do we want to call these circumstances, Bill?’

And Bill, speaking for the reader, replies, ‘Shadowy’. And then, of course, proceeds to go to Athens. Clearly, there is much manipulation at work here, and not just of Bill. The reader, too, is being played with, drawn towards an open trap, expected to fall into shouting ‘rubbish, rubbish, he just wouldn’t do that’. Because he does. This is what Bill Gray does, because he can do no other. That is spelled out in a line that could have come straight from No Country For Old Men: ‘Everything has a shape, a fate, information flowing.’

Thus, while McCarthy employs the tyrannous shape of chance and fate to torture each of his characters, here DeLillo gives us the amorphous jeopardy of modernity, the flow of information, that resource which best defines our current world, news as an ‘apocalyptic force’, with its ‘unremitting mood of catastrophe’. This is the way Bill has to act, because this is the way the story has to unfold. To every event a headline, to every headline a public reaction, to every reaction a new angle, a new story, a new hero, new villain, all crowding in, so that the event creates its own news, sets its own agenda. The story was written, the ending ordained before even the first full stop was placed at the end of the first sentence. Just as Llewlelyn Moss sealed his fate the moment he took the drugs money, Bill Gray was lost to the world when the world wrote its own narrative of the Beirut kidnapping. Is, then, Mao II a cosmopolitanist’s memento mori? A warning to the world of what it is turning itself into? One of the key passages comes early on, when Bill tells Brita:

There’s a curious knot that binds novelists and terrorists. In the West we become famous effigies as our books lose the power to shape and influence... Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids of human consciousness. What writers used to do before we were all incorporated.


Novelists and terrorists, he concludes, are playing a zero-sum game. 'What terrorists gain, novelists lose,' he tells George. And George replies: 'the more clearly we see terror, the less impact we feel from art.' Fast forward ten years from when DeLillo wrote this, and the World Trade Center towers, described here as ‘standing windowless, two black latex slabs that consumed the available space’, fell. And fast forward a further eight years, and the world of the arts is still formulating a response to that terrorist event which feels meaningful. After all, that just wouldn’t happen.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Oskar has a new drum


To mark the fiftieth anniversary of The Tin Drum, there is a new translation (actually, a whole series of them, worldwide) overseen by Grass himself. The translator is Breon Mitchell.

Oskar is the closest I have to a hero, so I shall be ordering my copy immediately, but it is going to be very, very strange reading a totally different version. I'm worrying that there will be bits that jar, like the Mona Lisa suddenly wearing a yellow frock, or a middle eight turning up in an Eric Satie Gnossienne...

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The advance and simultaneous decline of civilisation

More from Eric Voegelin:

On the one hand... there begins in the eighteenth century a continuous stream of literature on the decline of Western civilization; and, whatever misgivings one may entertain on this or that special argument, one cannot deny that the theorists of decline on the whole have a case. On the other hand, the same period is characterized, if by anything, by an exuberantly expansive vitality in the sciences, in technology, in the material control of environment, in the increase of population, of the standard of living, of health and comfort, of mass education, of social consciousness and responsibility.


Voegelin then poses the question, how is it possible that a civilization can be advancing and declining at the same time? A partial answer, he explains, can be found through an analysis of modern gnosticism.

Gnostic speculation moved away from transcendence, he suggests, and thus endowed immanentized man with a means of eschatological fulfilment. I’m not sure that eschatological fulfilment can logically be said to proceed from immanentization, but Voegelin then contends that, because of this, ‘civilizational activity [becomes] a mystical work of self-salvation’. Well, perhaps. And perhaps not. This gets to a major problem with Voegelin’s thesis on gnosticism – one which he later came to accept himself – that he includes within his definition of gnosticism such a broad range of beliefs and belief-systems that it becomes impossible to make any logical connection between them. It is quite possible, for example, that National Socialists saw their millennial plans to establish a Third Reich as a ‘mystical work of self-salvation’. But it is quite ludicrous to ascribe such a belief to a follower of scientific reason, and yet Voegelin would indeed class this person, too, as gnostic. However, let’s follow his argument.

The spiritual yearning of the soul, now freed from the Christian ‘sanctification of life’, is now able to devote itself to the ‘more appealing’ divertissement of creating a terrestrial paradise. Voegelin quotes Nietzsche’s contention that there was no need to seek the love and grace of God because one can “Love yourself through grace... then you are no longer in need of your God.’ Voegelin then lists how one may find such self-grace but, once more, his conflation of beliefs becomes problematic: this ‘miracle’ may be achieved through the immortality which attends literary and artistic achievement for the humanistic intellectual; or through the Puritan’s sense of discipline; or the liberal’s contribution to civilizational progress; or through the revolutionary action of a communist or other millennarian. What these have in common, Voegelin suggests, is that in this concentration on intramundane activity there rests a 'premium of salvation'. In other words, these people – Renaissance artists, enlightenment scholars, Puritan fundamentalists, liberal progressivists and fascist dictators – devoted their energies to such a degree towards ensuring their own immortality that they - almost coincidentally - contributed to those extraordinary developments which saw the ‘magnificent spectacle of Western progressive society'. But this is nonsense. It is simply not possible to compare the motivations and actions of such a disparate range of individuals in this way.

Voegelin then concludes his argument with a mischievous sleight of hand, when he further attributes to this range of individuals the beliefs of just one, Comte, presumably on the basis that it is easier to fit Comte’s positivist views into Voegelin's meretricious argument that all gnostics were driven by the need for immortality, by a need for personal salvation. This argument must fail because Voegelin is ascribing religious sensibilities to people who are, in some cases at least, not religious. The idea of personal salvation cannot explain the actions of a scientist.

Comte is then described as a ‘Gnostic paraclete setting himself up as the world-immanent Last Judgement of mankind, deciding on immortality or annihilation for every human being’. We are thus taken to 'the end of progress', to 'holes of oblivion' because 'the death of the spirit is the price of progress'. And in this way, Voegelin argues, civilization is advancing and declining at the same time: its very success is the cause of its decline.

But this argument works only if, firstly, you accept his tendentious conglomeration of a wide range of beliefs into a blanket description of gnostic; and, secondly, if you allow the actions and beliefs of each of these groups to be analysed and defined in religious terms which the holders of those beliefs would not recognise or acknowledge.

The supposed dangers of scientific method

Eric Voegelin, discussing positivism, declares the dangers inherent in sticking rigidly to scientific method:

The destruction workd by positivism is the consequence of two fundamental assumptions... the splendid unfolding of the natural sciences was co-responsible with other factors for the assumption that the methods used in mathematizing sciences of the external world were possessed of some inherent virtue an that all other sciences would achieve comparable success if they followed the example and accepted these methods as their model... [and] the methods of the natural sciences were a criterion for theoretical relevance in general. From the combination of the two assumptions followed the well-known series of assertions that a study of reality could qualify as scientific only if it used the methods of the natural sciences... [T]this second assumption subordinates theoretical relevance to method and thereby perverts the meaning of science. Science is a search for truth concerning the nature of the various realms of being.

Well, it's a seductive argument in some ways, and when one hears the rigid views of Dawkins et al, one can see what Voegelin means. But this is really a piece of sophistry, as revealed by a later quote:

The truth of man and the truth of God are inseparably one. Man will be in the truh of his existence when he has opened his psyche to the truth of God; and the truth of God will become manifest in history when it has formed the psyche of man into receptivity for the unseen measure.

Really, that is tendentious to say the least. Granted, we can take scientific examination to extremes, but we can also take faith to extremes. What evidence can there be to back up that extraordinarily bold statement?