Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: February 2005 (page 2 of 2)

At the Gate


I ordered my horse to be brought from the stables.

The servant did not understand my orders. So I went to the stables myself, saddled my horse, and mounted.

In the distance I heard the sound of a trumpet, and I asked the servant what it meant.

He knew nothing and had heard nothing.

At the gate he stopped me and asked: “Where is the master going?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “just out of here, just out of here. Out of here, nothing else, it’s the only way I can reach my goal.”

“So you know your goal?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied, “I’ve just told you. Out of here–that’s my goal.”

–Kafka

Imre Kertesz: Liquidation

Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.

–Beckett, Molloy

This quote, the final lines of Molloy, begins Imre Kertesz’s Liquidation. To quote Beckett in this way, to quote the final, self-consuming lines of one of his more insular works as a preface to one’s own work, is almost presumptuously audacious. By doing so, Kertesz sets a challenge for himself, that he can go on writing after Beckett has stopped. That Kertesz can take the master of pushing language and fiction to its limit of meaning, and say more when Beckett could not.

It is, I think, only in this light that the book attains its true resonance and meaning. Liquidation is elliptical and convoluted, while Kaddish for a Child Not Born and Fatelessness had been forcefully direct. It deals in postmodern layers of textuality and reality, and as far as I can tell, leaves many of these issues open.

The more undisputed aspects of the plot: B., so named for the tattoo on his thigh given to him when he was born as a baby in Auschwitz, has committed suicide. His friend Kingbitter goes through his papers and finds a play that appears to anticipate what he is going through right then, a play by B. taking place after B.’s suicide, describing how his acquaintances sift through his papers, looking for a mysterious, unfinished, vanished, liquidated novel.

From there things become unclear. It is not evident that the novel ever emerges from the play/novel that B. was writing, or that, indeed, the novel was ever beyond it in the first place. Snippets of dialogue in script form alternate with narratives from several characters that appear to continue the story of the script. B.’s mysterious novel (or is it a play?) appears and disappears: its existence is revealed as a surprise, then a lover says that she has burnt it at B.’s request. Yet it is this novel, or parts of it, that appear to constitute the text of Liquidation itself. The story of the liquidated novel, in the words of B.’s wife, is similar to that of Kertesz’s Kaddish For a Child Not Born: a man who cannot allow himself a child in the wake of Auschwitz and so torments his wife and drives her to divorce. But Kingbitter himself observes that this is nearly B.’s story as well.

To summarize: the suicide B. has written a piece (call it A) about his acquaintances losing track of a piece (B) he wrote about his own life and the lives of those around him. A and B are quite similar, though partially complementary, as the contents of B are disputed and change over the course of Liquidation between a reflection of the reality depicted in A to a wish-fulfillment of the emotions that B., Kingbitter, and others feel robbed of, owing to the Holocaust. And A and B bear some resemblance to Liquidation itself, which is, of course, raising all of these ambiguities.

To what end is this indefiniteness? It follows from the Beckett quote, which is itself a chronicle of writing and erasure; Molloy describes the shrinking of the world to the size of a pen setting ink to paper, and the collapse of the distinction between subject and chronicler. Kertesz’s portrayal of this idea comes close to the end, when Kingbitter observes some “down-and-outs”:

They were storyless people, and that notion awakened a tacit sympathy in Kingbitter. He was well aware, of course, that each of them had their own sad story that had brought them to this, but Kingbitter supposed that by the time they had been brought to this, those stories had long lost any significance (if such stories can have any significance at all).

A common thread in Kertesz’s work is the absence of the ability to construct a story for one’s self. Liquidation is about the endeavor to do so in spite of it. We are given storyless survivors, and B.’s shifting writing is his attempt to give narrative shape to lives that have been robbed of it. He wishes to write out the story of his friends, and to write them out of the Holocaust. The attempt fails; it collapses in on itself because the writing ultimately detaches itself from the reality of the situation. At the end of Liquidation, we have only more confusion because every sentence has taken us further away from the people themselves, into the false raining night.

Weeks Without Books

I pruned my library during a move last year, dumping about 25 percent of what I had. It was the first time I’d ever disposed of so many books at once, and it still doesn’t sit well with my collector tendencies. Most of what I dumped was of little merit. Considering that I held on to a couple atrocious Milan Kundera books, I couldn’t imagine that I’d miss anything that didn’t meet the bar. (I was wrong: I have wanted to loan James Wood’s The Book Against God to a friend, and I will write about it soon.) But the process was still painful enough that I’ve generally avoided purchasing things since then that I didn’t think I had a reasonable chance of wanting to hold on to for a long time. Very few books fall into this category, so the acquisition rate has dropped drastically. The New York libraries have more than picked up the slack.

(The New York Research Library in the humanities, in midtown, doesn’t allow checkouts. You fill out a form, submit it, wait for the book to be brought from the unseen stygian depths to a window, and you sit down with it until the library closes.)

I’ve just spent three weeks in hotel rooms far away from my apartment. No libraries, and only a handful of books that I packed into my suitcase over the laptop. Long-term hotels don’t provide bookshelves, only refrigerators, stoves, and DSL, and the white stucco walls (a California staple) easily overpower the low-key furniture.

So it was off to the bookstores to acquire, just for the sake of having a baseline of literature to think about and read, only to find that it all seemed so out of place in suburban California. There are those who sustain their life in literature when all around them is antiseptic and staid. Not me. I fell into the homogeneous world of strip malls and chain stores and haven’t yet extricated myself. The books were missives from another universe entirely; they may as well have been the Voynich manuscript. The numbing drive up and down El Camino Real, full of identical strip malls that passed by like a looped background from The Flintstones, limited my own vocabulary. There are no hapax legomena in Silicon Valley.

Lars at Spurious writes of weariness in Kafka’s The Castle. (His observation that the castle is “co-extensive with the village” is spot-on.) K. in The Castle may be wearier and suffer more set-backs than Josef K. in The Trial, but he moves. It is the horrible stasis of The Trial, in which two chapters were swapped without incident for decades, that I find more disturbing. K. of The Castle is on the move, and the world moves and shifts with/against him.

So it’s good to be back amongst the shelves with the irregular colors and contours of book spines, the chill of winter weather, the sense of a worthy opposing force internally and exernally. Normal posts to resume shortly….

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