David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: May 2003 (page 2 of 2)

“The Invention of Morel”, Adolfo Bioy Casares

By far Bioy Casares’ most famous story, “The Invention of Morel” is still fairly obscure, despite being plugged (and strongly influenced) by his friend Borges, and supposedly being the basis for Last Year at Marienbad. I don’t know that it is the perfect work of genius that Borges claimed it is, but it’s certainly ahead of its time for 1940, and the ideas that fuel it are a grade above what Bioy Casares typically used in his work. Bioy Casares lacked Borges’ intensity and his sheer inventiveness, but in “The Invention of Morel,” he used what he had well.

The nameless narrator is a fugitive who has escaped to a remote, abadoned island that has the stigma of disease over it. He sees himself as an outcast, and the story begins to play out a ultra-Robinson Crusoe scenario, as the narrator’s links to reality appear to be severed in Wittgensteinian fashion. Will he lose his capacity for language? Will he lose his humanity? Yes, but this process is interrupted, then furthered by the sudden appearance on the island of a number of refined sophisticates, including the beautiful Faustina, whom he falls in love with. This despite the fact that none of them will acknowledge his presence. Other strangeness occurs, notably the presence of two moons and two suns in the sky.

It’s impossible to go further without revealing the main conceit, which is held back for over half the story, but there’s a pleasure to be had to it being revealed over the course of the story, so please imagine a tacky little spoiler warning here.

The narrator’s inability to relate to the others seems to be symbolic. He could be dead and existing as a ghost similar to the narrator of Nabokov’s The Eye (my favorite of his works, incidentally). His unspecified crime could have cast him out from the fabric of humanity and left him socially invisible. He could be imagining or recreating life on the island when he is in fact alone. But these are all wrong; the hints of anomie are, ultimately, a blind. The explanation is that he is not seeing people, not quite; what he is seeing is a projection of a recording made of past events, but a projection that has its own reality and is being superimposed on the island (hence the two sun and two moons). The leader of the group, Morel, concocted the invention, which will endlessly replay the week they spent on the island years ago. The downside is that at the time of projection, the force of the superimposed reality is so strong as to draw the life from those recorded and place it in the projected copies. Morel says, “When all the senses are synchronized, the soul emerges,” and he means it literally: the recreation in reality of the past events supplants the current reality of their participants.

Bioy Casares combines two themes in unorthodox fashion. There is the circular time/eternal recurrence theme that so fascinated Borges. In 1941 he wrote:

In times of ascendancy, the conjecture that man’s existence is a constant, unvarying quantity can sadden or irritate us; in times of decline (such as at the present), it holds out the assurance that no ignominy, no calamity, no dictator, can impoverish us.

And Bioy Casares evokes both the horror and the wonder that a week of reasonable existence with only minor troubles should become an eternal prison for its unknowing participants. The second theme is the transmigration of consciousness from the original person to the replica, which then plays out its part endlessly, never knowing that it has done it countless times before, nor that is not the original person–partly because it is. Bioy Casares uses a consciousness thought experiment decades before they came into vogue: if you were to create a copy of a person in an identical context, what would there be to differentiate the copy’s consciousness from the original’s? Since Bioy Casares adopts an emergent view of consciousness in the story (see Morel’s quote above), the answer is that they cannot coexist. It takes the inversion of “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” where the picture and not the man is subject to time, and inverts it again, so that the playback of a recording of events takes on greater reality than the continued existence of the subjects.

The injection of ideas on consciousness is brief but it elevates the story from pure fantasy to the level of, say, Borges “Funes the Memorious.” There, a man remembered everything and was crippled by it; here, people have the identical set of empirical situations played out for them, with no additional memory of it, while the metaphysical conditions change totally. Morel claims his machine creates nothing, only replicates what exists, but Bioy Casares makes it clear that the machine restructures reality. Bioy Casares also implies epiphenomenalism–the idea that internal experience supervenes on material reality without being able to affect it–since under the new conditions of Morel’s machine, the participants are absolutely unable to acknowledge that anything has changed.

The basic concepts here were used in many, many science-fiction novels later on (though not so many beforehand, as far as I know); the story is unique for its alienation from the consciousness that persists on in the projections. In nearly all other stories of shifting metaphysics, the characters still obtain a working knowledge of the problem at hand, which ultimately provides their only satisfaction; here, Bioy Casares sets up a situation in which they cannot. Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation provides the closest echo I can think of, and it too gets around the self-knowledge issue by giving the reader more information than any character has. “The Invention of Morel” plays utterly fair and is more successful in contradicting any conception of what the “consciousness” of its characters could be.

Precision and Translation

The Complete Review links to an OpenDemocracy article bemoaning the lack of attention towards translated work. Although it’s true that there are classics out there deserving of translation (I’d really like to read Stanislaw Lem’s Summa Technologie some day), I have to wonder if the small percentage of translated books relative to others in the U.S. is really due to a specifically American dislike of translated work, rather than the sheer amount of American books that are produced. There is a European holism that produces a lot of German-French exchanges, as well as even more double translations from some obscure language (in addition to Albanian and Hungarian, Polish seems to count here for Gombrowicz as well as Lem) to French to English. But even that wouldn’t fully account for what the article describes.

Dilday is dismissive towards the academy, but it is the university that institutionalizes a real bias against translated literature. In the most prestigious universities, you study “English,” or else “comparative literature” in the original languages. There are very few opportunities to read translated literature; they are usually in cultural history classes, or else pet projects of professors that wouldn’t attract enough students otherwise. I don’t know if this attitude is present in most other countries, though I know it is England.

There are problems. There was a British imprint called “Quartet Encounters” that went out of business around the time when I was visiting the Strand in Manhattan often. Faced with a battery of obscure European novels, often in the less popular languages, I picked one or two up each time I was there. The list now doesn’t seem as imposing as it did then, but the eclecticism is admirable: for a subset, consider Martin Hansen, Ismail Kadare, Par Lagerkvist, Boris Vian, D.R. Popescu, Stig Dagerman, and Stanislaw Witkiewicz (I still wish I’d bought Insatiability, unreadable as it is). With matte covers, tasteful abstract cover art, there was a certain weight to the presentation, but the translations were, on the whole, pretty bad, pet projects of Englishmen or maybe student work.

(A good tip-off is whenever translators punt the problem of the familiar vs. polite second-person by using “thee” and “you”, respectively. The most egregious example I can think of is George Szirtes’ translation of Deszo Kosztolanyi’s Anna Edes, where a lothario seduces a woman by saying:

“I love you. Only you. I love thee.” Having addressed her formally so far, he whispered the last pronoun…'”Thee, thee. Say it. Thee. You say it too. Say it to me. Thee…thee…”

To be fair, Szirtes seemed to do an amazing job on The Melancholy of Resistance.)

But to echo Borges, what is lost is often miniscule compared to what is preserved. What you lose, however, is the authority to know exactly what was said, and what’s left is the uncertainty that one turn of phrase may or may not have a hidden resonance, that a language-specific idiom could not possibly communicate the same thing as whatever is in the original. The Quartet Encounters translations made this obvious, which in one sense was helpful. I had to treat them on the level of the abstract ideas, characters, and plots communicated imprecisely, not the specifics of the language. With few exceptions, I was not able to do this at university, and I appreciated the bald awkwardness of many of the translations, which pushed me away from the particulars of the words.

New Grub Street, George Gissing

New Grub Street does not, as you would expect, justify its five-hundred page length, which gets padded with detours and subplots about inheritances and the melodramatic deaths of several characters, but it is very finely etched when it focuses on its two fundamental incompatibles: writing and money. Gissing is so relentlessly materalistic in his focus that the writer’s life looks inconceivably horrible by the end of the book: his characters exercise their meager talents towards prostitution or invisibility.

Gissing is similarly impersonal in discussing the rationales his characters give for writing, and the effect is savage, even when Gissing pleads for compassion. The overall impact is similar to George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying, but that book’s Gordon Comstock is able to renounce writing for a happier career and existence, as Orwell himself did for a short period. Gissing is utterly fatalistic about people saddled with an artistic temperament.

It’s late 19th century London. Jasper Milvain writes witty crap for slick weeklies while Edwin Reardon toils in obscurity on unpopular, uncommercial novels before trying his hand unsuccessfully at hackwork. His friend Harold Biffen works on his self-proclaimed revolutionary work of social realism, Mr. Bailey, Grocer. Meanwhile, the elderly Alfred Yule writes academic literary essays that no longer appeal to the magazines, for which he recruits the uncredited help of his daughter Marian, who, it is implied, is the most talented writer of the lot, not that anything ever comes of it. All of them follow painfully predictable trajectories, enlivened by the unceasing machinery of thought, justification, and bitterness around their particular situations.

Gissing is so attuned to the peculiar and not entirely attractive self-indulgences of the decent, uncommercial writers that, fairly late in the book, he delivers a straight-up apologia for them:

The chances are that you have neither understanding nor sympathy for men such as Edwin Reardon and Harold Biffen. They merely provoke you. They seem to you inert, flabby, weakly envious, foolishly obstinate, impiously mutinous, and many other things. You are made angrily contemptuous by their failure to get on; why don’t they bestir themselves, push and bustle, welcome kicks so long as halfpence follow, make place in the world’s eye–in short, take a leaf from the book of Mr Jasper Milvain?

But try to imagine a personality wholly unfitted for the rough and tumble of the world’s labour-market. From the familiar point of view these men were worthless; view them in possible relation to a humane order of society, and they are admirable citizens. Nothing is easier than to condemn a type of character which is unequal to the coarse demands of life as it suits the average man. These two were richly endowed with the kindly and the imaginative virtues; if fate threw them amid incongruous circumstances, is their endowment of less value? You scorn their passivity; but it was their nature and their merit to be passive. Gifted with independent means, each of them would have taken quite a different aspect in your eyes. The sum of their faults was their inability to earn money; but, indeed, that inability does not call for unmingled disdain. (425)

To underscore his point, he then kills off both of them, Reardon by sickness and Biffen by pathetic suicide. He pleads compassion for these as others did for Little Nell, Tess, Sister Carrie, and the Rudkus family, which is not an unusual technique except that it is rarely deployed towards someone as seemingly gifted and spoiled as a rational, workaday writer. Gissing’s apologia is compassionate without being wholly supportive; he seems to realize he’s fighting a losing battle. And conspicuously absent from his case is any appeal to the utilitarian benefits of books and creativity, or to the transcendental nature of art. These virtues are, evidently, private. After a genuinely beautiful passage where Reardon describes a sunset in Athens, he says:

I am only maintaining that [this contemplation] is the best, and infinitely preferable to sexual emotion. It leaves, no doubt, no bitterness of any kind. Poverty can’t rob me of those memories. I have lived in an ideal world that was not deceitful, a world which seems to me, when I recall it, beyond the human sphere, bathed in diviner light. (370)

It is the paradox of the book that this, even next to Jasper’s craven instincts, is a more convincing case for Reardon than Gissing’s apologia, but only to people already inclined to be sympathetic to him. Many, even after reading both passages, will still feel more of an attraction to Jasper’s aims:

My aim is to have easy command of all the pleasures desired by a cultivated man. I want to live among beautiful things, and never to be troubled by a thought of vulgar difficulties. I want to travel and enrich my mind in foreign countries. I want to associate on equal terms with refined and interesting people. I want to be known, to be familiarly referred to, to feel when I enter a room that people regard me with some curiosity.

And how reasonable his aims seem. Reardon’s momentary bliss is the exception rather than the rule; mostly he is caught up in unceasing misery in which he writes more out of compulsion than for any pleasure. (Gissing spends a good deal of time discussing the almost physical anguish that he undergoes while attemping to write more commercially.) Following from the apologia, much of the book is an attempt to justify the fatalist view that Reardon, Biffen, and even Yule were destined to end up in their unhappy situations. The afflicted made no conscious sacrifice; they had no choice in their fates, so there is no tragedy. When he is the only one left standing, Jasper sounds a melancholy note of social Darwinist triumph, destined for moderate success and moderate fame, and the book ends, as though by default.

The most striking thing is how New Grub Street doubles back on itself, striving to become as unsentimental a tale of the arbitrarily unfortunate and fortunate as anything by Hardy (or Mr. Bailey, Grocer), but adding in melodrama and other plot machinations to keep things rolling. Gissing’s motives seem fairly uncontaminated, but his case is difficult: social realism and writers are an incongruous pairing, because, as Gissing mentions repeatedly, the average person will think the writers aren’t acting in good faith. Gissing counteracts this inclination through focusing in fine detail on finances and making occasional explicit pleas for mercy. But he has to let in some of the writers’ rationales, frivolous as they may seem, and he paints Jasper as a bad man to help elevate the unfortunates. Gissing’s strategies to maintain the balance between soaring, useless artistic success and hard social realism are at least as fascinating as the gloomy pronouncements on the London writing scene and the literary tastes of the plebes.

Ironically, New Grub Street is finally more effective than what I’ve read of his other, more Hardy-like books. While the particular Victorian miseries have transmuted and migrated, the self-deceptions and self-inflations of artists remain universals, as does the public’s lack of sympathy for those who sustain a Reardon-like existence off of the dole and arts council grants.

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