David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: January 2006

J.M. Coetzee: Slow Man

The collective aggrievement from critics that greeted Elizabeth Costello’s appearance in Slow Man was the sigh of the Nobel prize winner again not doing what he was supposed to do. Instead of writing another Disgrace, he brings back the consternating title character of his last book, this time in a metafictional conceit, as she proclaims herself the author of Slow Man.

I argued before that the critics mostly got Elizabeth Costello wrong, particularly in identifying Costello with Coetzee. Here again the reviews make a mishmash of this superficially simple book. John Lanchester makes the huge mistake of saying that the titular slow man, Paul Rayment, “will not act. He refuses to animate the narrative he is in.” A read of the book reveals this to be false: Rayment actually traces a traditional narrative arc through the book. After losing his leg in a bicycle accient, he entangles himself in the life his at-home nurse Marijana because he is attracted to her, and eventually comes to fund the education of her son, though not without some conflict with her husband. His actions with Marijana are impetuous and embarrassing, but the ultimate end is a happy one, perhaps the happiest ending Coetzee has ever committed to paper. The injury serves a higher purpose.

There is a post-colonial aspect to the narrative of a relatively poor Croatian immigrant acting as a nurse to an injured, privileged white man. The main difficulties in the narrative arise from the white man’s burden tactics Paul adopts to get closer to Marijana, and Marijana’s discomfort with them. Through seeing her son as a person, not a means to an end, Paul grows out of this type of relation, but the connections with earlier Coetzee works, particularly Foe and Disgrace, are inarguably present, if not blatant. Pankaj Mishra teases out some of these connections in his review, but falls short of fitting the pieces together.

But this time the postcolonial theorizing is fake, or at least highly artificial. For the first seventy pages, before Costello shows up, it is all in Paul’s mind. He has an accident, and he feels a bit of attraction to Marijana, but he doesn’t do anything about it. Every action he takes that moves the actual plot along is contrived or advocated by Costello. She arranges an affair that spurs Paul to make a move on Marijana, then either berates or flatters him into keeping it up despite Marijana’s clear disapproval. Without Costello’s intervention, it is clear, Paul would quite sensibly have never acted on his feelings for Marijana, and the story–the meat of the book–would not have taken place. Likewise, Costello provides Paul with impeccable facts about Marijana and her family that he could not otherwise find out and verify.

Costello’s presence illuminates exactly how unlikely Paul’s actions are and how contrived the circumstances must be for them to come about. Costello browbeats him: “Become major, Paul. Live like a hero. That is what the classics teach us. Be a main character. Otherwise what is life for?” And he does. But Costello’s aims are hardly virtuous. She is not as irritating as she was in Elizabeth Costello, but her irrationality and wildly inflated sense of herself are still plenty obnoxious. We are given some excerpts from her fiction this time, and they are not good:

It is old plasticine, from the last Christmas stocking. The pristine cakes of brick red, leaf green, sky blue have bled into each other by now and become a leaden purple. Why, he wonders–why does the bright grow dull and the dull never bright? What would it need to make the purple fade away and the red and blue and green emerge again, like chicks from a shell?

[This raises the point that Costello is not likely to be the author of the pristine, controlled prose of Slow Man.]

Costello is ultimately in search of a story and the machinations she sets in motion are necessary to obtain it. People have focused on the tricky relationship between Costello and her characters, but Coetzee is more significantly focused on the relationship between author and reader. To what extent, he asks, does the effectiveness of fiction rely on these sorts of manipulations remaining hidden from the reader? Slow Man attempts to show a novel from the side of creation rather from the side of consumption, and the subject of the novel–this postcolonial narrative–self-destructs as a result of the exposure. It specifically damages the very symbolism and allegorical resonances that underpinned Disgrace and Foe, because Paul’s reticence is forever separating him (in the Heideggerian sense of alienation) from being thrown into the narrative role that he does eventually play. Costello’s presence amplifies this dissonance beyond all else.

I believe that Slow Man is more than anything a critique of Disgrace and his other past works, a way of Coetzee undermining his past techniques and renouncing the artificial narrativity that Galen Strawson has so pungently described. Costello is not a surrogate for Coetzee, but rather an incarnation of any writer’s will and the desire to shape reality into pleasing novelistic shapes through unpleasant means. I had issues with Disgrace because I believed that the character’s acts and destinies were overdetermined by the historical context Coetzee was trying to convey. (James Wood makes similar points.) Slow Man appears to be Coetzee’s confession. Always very self-aware, Coetzee seems to have abandoned the neat psychological and sociopolitical structures of authors like Alberto Moravia and turned not against their methods, but against their certainty.

Harold Brodkey

Jonathan Baskin assesses Harold Brodkey in Bookforum. For however obscure Brodkey is now, I remember his Vintage Contemporaries paperbacks–the first collection and then the big one–as two books that were everpresent in the small fiction sections of suburban bookstores in the days before Borders and Barnes and Noble made extensive selection de rigeur. Then his mammoth The Runaway Soulcame out and Brodkey disappeared overnight, victim of universally bad reviews excoriating his self-indulgence and florid prose. Then a few years later I heard about him again, when he died of AIDS. Now his books are out of print, though readily available for pennies.

Random House and Penguin controlled much of the contemporary fiction that I read as a teenager, and so I read Brodkey with a mixed response. I never connected with his writing, and his story “Puberty” was outright disturbing, a vision of teenage sexuality foreign from anything I knew. The sex writing, which might constitute a good 50 percent of his verbiage, taught me little about either.

Baskin wonders if Brodkey will make a comeback. I don’t think he will. Far from “the American Proust,” Brodkey’s writing is strikingly bad, the sort of thing from which one can learn because its defects are so apparent. Of the passages Baskin quotes, it’s only the final one, reflecting on his imminent death, that carries the clarity and immediacy of good prose. The others avoid it with a secondhand narcissism that illustrates the most common fallacy of aspiring writers: that if the feeling accompanying the writing was sincere and intense, the writing must be instilled with that same significance. Writers learn to look back and see with a detached eye how they failed to communicate. Brodkey, it seems, took longer than most.

Consider (and I must quote from Baskin’s exemplary passages here, since my own Brodkey books are long gone), from “S.L.”:

The elephant-gray mass and rumble of the air, and the itchy, carpetlike closeness of Da’s heat. . . . My face snakily writhes against the fat, resilient bicep of Daddy’s arm. I am now largely on my belly in his arms. “From the backside you look just like everyone else, kiddo–you look like an asshole.” I hang, I arch–like a bowsprit–a branch of the rubbery, muscle-and-spine, oaken pounding-along tree of that man: this is in the state of Illinois, in the now quickening rain; he is running toward the gate of the park: I see the torn rooms of the out-of-doors. Dad says, “NO,” and refolds me in his arms, defining me as Error and A Fool and someone he wants bodily near him, someone whose bodily welfare concerns him: it’s interesting and I start to laugh.

Note how the prose acts as a damper on the emotions that are in play. The word “snakily” throws a wedge into its sentence, conjuring the wrong associations of the scene. Describing “closeness” as “carpetlike” is more confusing than it is enlightening. To “hang” and “arch” is to denote two separate images combined together without explanation. His fathers tree is overloaded as rubbery, muscle-and-spine, andoaken. Dad defines him in an unspecified manner as three divergent things in close succession. The narrator’s response is that he finds it “interesting” and then he laughs. Well, I suppose I often laugh at interesting things too.

“Yes,” comes the defense, “but he still communicatesa feeling.” I disagree and say that Brodkey throws out so many ambiguities that he tricks the reader into imposing conventions onto the scene. The sheer vagueness of the word “interesting” (which I, like you all, was banned from using in high school and which has taken on a wry, ironic cast as I’ve aged) leaves a blank space for readers to fill: they come up with how it was interesting, because Brodkey doesn’t tell them. No doubt Brodkey had a specific image and sensation in his mind, but his sheer failure to convey it is appalling. Brodkey worked with raw, universal material that was familiar to everyone who read him: childhood, love, sex, family. Had he written about something more particular or foreign, his books would have been blatant muddles of confusion. Yet because people can figure out something like what he was trying to say, they mistakenly credit him with having said it in a new way.

I don’t trash Brodkey out of spite or play, but to try to illuminate via negativa what writing must do and how it can fail, as well as how readers can compensate for it. (And more pertinently, why they compensate for it.) Consider in contrast Stephen Dixon, who has been working with similarly quotidian material for over thirty years. Yet where Brodkey is nebulous, Dixon has always been insistently specific, drawing every distinction and particular out of common experience. It’s not that this sort of concreteness is necessary or even desirable for the material, but even for its sheer lack of flash, Dixon’s writing is far more evocative than Brodkey’s. Brodkey treats himself far more seriously than he treats language. My opinion? To cross Yeats and Wittgenstein: In language begins responsibility.

Bela Tarr: Satantango [2]

(Also see Part 1.)

The story is always a part of the image. In my vocabulary, story doesn’t mean the same thing it means in American film language. There are human stories, natural stories, all kinds of stories. The question lies in where you put the emphasis on what’s most important. There are everyday tidbits that are very important. For instance, in DAMNATION, we leave the story and look at a close-up of beer mugs. But for me, that’s also an important story. This is what I mean when I say that I’m trying to look at things from a cosmic dimension. If I could describe a film fully by telling you the narrative, I wouldn’t want to make the film. It’s time that film frees itself from the shackles of linearity. It drives me crazy that everyone thinks film must equal linear narrative.

Bela Tarr in interview

The story of Satantango is stretched, almost absurdly so, and this may account for why the movie defies articulate enthusiasm. I’ve read many articles on Tarr in the last few days for research, and none of them have adequately made a case for the aesthetics or the meaning of Satantango. The usually articulate Jonathan Rosenbaum has little substantive to say about Tarr. Part of the difficulty is in the evident fact that Tarr is not a cinematic philosopher in the way that Godard or Herzog is. He presents an experience, and an elliptical one at that. Is it too much a leap to compare Satantango to Morton Feldman’s super-long late works, which similarly resist abstraction?

Leaving aside the plot for now, let’s see how Tarr’s style portrays the scenario. I’ve already discussed Tarr’s emphasis on tableaux and close-ups, and the depersonalized camera drift that he shares with Antonioni. The drift is the most telling. Tarr rarely moves the frame with the characters. He remains static while the characters move, or the frame moves while the characters remain still, or both move unsynchronized. Admittedly, he sometimes chases after characters with a steadicam as they walk away from us towards the horizon, but this hardly qualifies as traditional either.  Antonioni is a much more polemical filmmaker than Tarr, but he achieves a similar effect: by ignoring the traditional layering of characters on top of backgrounds, Antonioni flattens the scenes, so that we get the impression that the people are part of a scenic whole. Like Tarr, Antonioni makes his characters shallow and superficial so that we perceive their surfaces and are not drawn to any hypothetical interior aspects. Tarr’s shot of a fly buzzing around in a bar while all else is still is so close to Antonioni (see L’Avventura and, if you must, Zabriskie Point) that I took it as an homage. (It probably isn’t.)

Antonioni uses these techniques in portraying the bourgeois (early-60s) and the hip (late-60s and early-70s) to make overt yet vague statements about the horrors of capitalist culture. (See also Lindsay Anderson in if… and O Lucky Man!.) Tarr works with a more primordial brew of the exploiters and the exploited. I like him more than Antonioni, partly because he avoids the use of flashy visuals, which always smacked to me of hypocrisy in Antonioni’s films. But Tarr’s approach, like Antonioni’s, give a sense of finality and closure, a sense that this is all there is. Anything more, it is implied, would be false, a point that Tarr has explicitly made in interviews. Psychology? Not in this world. Character development? Such a thing does not belong here. Traditional narrative montage? Wholly extraneous. It’s not that I agree with Tarr’s exclusion of these things, but Tarr is adept at enveloping you in his version of reality, with all its exclusions, and this I believe is his greatest strength. The collective effect of Tarr’s flattening, his close-ups, his tableaux, his severe black and white visuals, is to compel the viewer, steamroller-style, to see the whole world in his terms, and only his terms.

It can be thrilling to be so overwhelmed, and I think that this may account for a lot of the raw enthusiasm that greets Satantango. It’s a visceral experience, but one that doesn’t seem manipulative, because Tarr takes such care to avoid all flash.

To be continued…


Bela Tarr: Satantango

The doctor sat sourly beside the window, his shoulders and back resting against the cold and damp wall, and he did not even have to turn is head to be able to look out onto the squalid run-down group of houses through the gap between the rotting window-sash and the filthy sprigged curtains come down to him from his mother; he had only to look up from his book, a single glance sufficed to note the slightest change and though every once in a while it did chance to happen that something escaped his attention–either he was deep in thought or because he was abiding in a more distant part of the premises–even on such occasions his excellent hearing always came to his aid: but he was rarely, if ever, deep in thought and left his arm-chair padded wth blankets and his fur coat, even more rarely, the position of which had been determined by the accumulated experience of everyday activities–for he had succeeded in reducing the incidents forcing him to forsake his look-out post beside the window to the barest minimum. This was of course by no means an easy task of the sort that can be accomplished overnight. On the contrary: he had had to amass and arrange, in the most serviceable positions possible, the objects indispensable for eating, drinking, smoking, diary-writing, reading and countless other trifling tasks, and even had to renounce allowing the occasional error to go unpunished out of self-indulgence pure and simple.

Laszlo Krasznahorkai, “Knowing Something,” Satantango

Tarr’s movie adheres to the action of this chapter faithfully: the doctor sketches the scene from his window, drinks until he runs out, then goes to find more booze, visiting some prostitutes along the way. He runs into a little village girl who has a nasty fate in store for her, and eventually collapses out in the woods for the evening. Like much of Krasznahorkai’s fiction, it is narrated in this hyper-discursive, half-interior and half-omniscient style, with physical and verbal action buried amongst ever-burgeoning context. The film replaces this baroque style–it does not approximate it–with extremely long takes, often statically framed, of the objective action and little else. In this segment, one of the more unfilmable, few of the doctor’s thoughts are made public; instead we are treated to the doctor drinking, sketching, drinking, looking, tersely writing down what he sees through the window, drinking, walking, drinking, talking (though the conversation is greatly truncated and simplified from that of the book), drinking, and collapsing.

In Tarr’s subsequent film The Werckmeister Harmonies, based on Krasznahorkai’s brilliant The Melancholy of Resistance, the socio-political philosophical arguments simply never made it into the film. (A friend who had not read the book was at a loss to discern any political statement from Werckmeister.) The loss isn’t quite so drastic here because the action is on a smaller scale, but given that Krasznahorkai collaborated with Tarr on the screenplays for both movies, Krasznahorkai does significant violence to his own original statements. Krasznahorkai’s style and content is in no way approximated by Tarr’s techniques or the film’s stunning length (7.5 hours); Tarr replaces them with a cinematic language that is as unique to its medium as Krasznahorkai’s language is to his. The passage above gives no indication of the utter slowness of the corresponding scene in the film, nor of how long Tarr is willing to focus on a tableau of a man drinking at a window (or walking, or sketching) before anything happens. Nor does the text communicate the impact of the pervasive rain in the film.

The basics of the film are adequately covered in two other articles, “And Then There Was Darkness” and “The Melancholy of Resistance”. The film’s simultaneous fullness and emptiness makes it daunting to discuss, as it’s easy to abandon the fairly simple plot to focus on the details and eccentricities of visual technique, framing, chronology, and the like, since they are so prominent. It is too easy to say that the ten-minute shots of nothing (or one thing) and longueurs are “a different way of seeing,” or that they force us to look more closely and understand more about the characters. For one, they don’t: Tarr creates a unique mood and tempo, but he is ultimately as focused on surfaces as Bresson. The characters of The Werckmeister Harmonies are more fleshed out after thirty minutes than many of Santantango’s characters ever are. And it bespeaks an indulgence granted to those who are audacious enough to make a visually beautiful seven-hour film to begin with. I want to look at how the visual language and the film’s structure do or do not reflect on the thematic content of the film, and that means that no quarter must be given for the innate appealing (or boring) otherness of Tarr’s style alone.

First, some antecedents. Tarr is too often compared to Tarkovksy, when the two are almost polar opposites, and not just in their view of humanity. Tarkovsky continually is attempting to bring out aspects of his landscapes, while Tarr burrows deeper into it. Tarkovsky will film a clump of underwater reeds in an uncommonly beautiful way, and awe is usually one of his goals. Tarr does not give us the extraordinary; he overdoses on the ordinary. Static shots of rusty stoves reinforce their decrepitude; rain and empty fields overflow the film. Tarr has more in common with his fellow Hungarian Miklos Jancso, but aside from lacking Jancso’s brilliant sense of physical space, Tarr is not as aggressively artificial as Jancso, where the camera is as much an actor as anyone. The stylistic heritage is there, but I think it’s a mistake to make too much of a connection.

Tarr’s visual style is ultimately simpler than either of these two, and it relies primarily on two techniques. The first is the static tableau. Tarr often uses slow tracking across these tableaux, but he just as often stays absolutely stationary on a noticeably composed shot. People may drift in and out of the frame, or they may be as fixed in it, or they may caterwaul within it, but the camera almost never follows a character in the normal way. Likewise, the second technique is the extreme close-up of a person’s face while they talk: their face is not contained within the frame, and the viewer is sometimes unsure of their placement in the environment or the placement of others.

There is a bit of Bresson in the tableaux, but the influence of (late) Carl Dreyer is more apparent in their lack of flash. Like Dreyer, Tarr sticks with basics and avoids the ornate; like Dreyer, he uses shots that are almost stage-like in their geometric construction, most notably in the tavern sequence in the middle of the film. But the decentralization of the people from these scenes comes from another source entirely: Antonioni. Godard has used such destabilized scenes, but Antonioni made depersonalized camera drift his specialty. And while they work in very different moods and milieux, Antonioni’s relation of form to theme is extremely helpful in deciphering Tarr’s more oblique constructions.

To be continued…

[Satantango is playing at MOMA until next week. One dead body. Tons of drinking. Cat torture. Waggish says check it out.]

[Also see Zach Campbell’s incisive commentary.]

Gabriel Josipovici: In a Hotel Garden

I consider Gabriel Josipovici one of the best literary critics around (most recently, his brilliant essay on Grimm and Kleist), and as usual, I tried in vain to put his criticism aside when I read this novel. I was half-aware of Josipovici’s orientation and apparati while reading In a Hotel Garden, but in this case it wasn’t such a bad thing.

The back of the book says:

The narrator Ben relates to his friends his enthralling encounter with a Jewish woman in the Dolomite Alps. The tale of her compulsive visit to a hotel garden in Siena–where her grandmother fell in love with a man soon to be a victim of the Holocaust–illuminates Ben’s half-lived life….

With the exception of a factual mistake that is the crux of the book, this is indeed all that happens in this short novel. It’s a summary, not a teaser. The ultimate resolution, such as it is, is that the garden may be the wrong garden after all, and the significance that the other woman, Lily, attaches to it is mistaken, at least in the literal sense. There is no particular elaboration on the subject matter, something I believe Josipovici explicitly intended.

For, knowing Josipovici’s concern with Blanchot and his attention to language as a form of living and dying (as opposed to, say, a representational mechanism), what meaning there is lies in the dialogue. The novel is mostly dialogue, and the chapters delineate conversations between sets of characters. The early chapters, between Ben and his wife and friends, are aggressively and off-puttingly banal: the quotidian routines of holiday and family life. The conversations between Lily and Ben affect a change in style as well as content: the frustrating non-communication of much of the book gives way to a laying-out of the discourse, as the pace of the conversation slows down and the speakers appear to consider their words in a qualitatively different way. I won’t attempt to describe it, for the book’s strength is in achieving this distinction in text alone, and its goal (I believe) is to do so in a way that resists explication.

What is made explicit does not qualify as any sort of eloquent epiphany:

–You said this morning that when you saw the garden through the doors
of the hotel it was like coming home, he said.


–What did you mean?

–As if I’d known it all my life, she said. As if at last everything was going to come clear…As if it was where I came from, she said. As if once I entered that garden I would know who I was.

Such vague simplicities grate, but I came to decide that they were not meant as profundities in themselves, but as indications of a different sort of verbal struggling. Josipovici lashes himself fiercely to the mast of everyday conversation and refuses to build out of it or on top of it, preferring to present such conversation unadorned and elaborate on it purely through small variation and contrast. Like Blanchot, the result still feels to me like a mental schema overlaid onto characters, rather than one emerging through characters. But as an alternative to traditional presentations of dialogue–expository, developmental, and ornamental, for example–I find it productive. I’m not convinced or converted, but I am happy that the novel asked me for a different kind of reading, I asked why, and I was able to find an answer.

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