David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: May 2009

Tail Chasing

It is commonly assumed that the first human picture of the world was a mess: fragmentary sensations, unstructured but simply registered by unreflecting experience, severally endowed with spirits or demons by the just-evolving human imagination, only reprocessed later into coherent schemes by prehistoric bricoleurs who constructed the first categories. The earliest world-pictures we know about, however, are not of this kind. Human intellects make sense of things and, if anything, err on the side of coherence. Geniuses of my acquaintance, who almost seem clever enough to make sense of the world if they so wished, are more likely to accept it as a muddle than the common man who invests it with a transcendent character of its own or recognizes it as filled with divine purpose in which nothing is out of place. Pluralism and chaos are harder to grasp – harder, perhaps, to understand and certainly to accept – than monism and order. For a whole society to accept an agreed world-picture as senseless, random and intractable, people seem to need a lot of collective disillusionment, accumulated and transmitted over many generations.

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

Ferenc Karinthy: Metropole + Thomas Glavinic: Night Work

I read these two books consecutively without knowing that they both try to address a particular problem in novels, and not knowing that one succeeds and one fails. The problem is that of a novel about the total alienation of a main character, where the character cannot, for one reason or another, communicate with any other person, and so the perspective is that much more limited.

In Karinthy’s Metropole, the main character Budai mysteriously ends up in a foreign land in which people only speak a language that bears no resemblance to any of the five he knows, and he has horrendous difficulty making himself understood. In Glavinic’s Night Work, the main character Jonas wakes up one morning to find that every other person in the world has disappeared without explanation. In both novels, I got the suspicion that there would not be an explanation for the mysterious circumstances, and in both cases I was right. In both novels, the problem of the single character is slightly finessed by the introduction of a second, opaque quasi-character. And both depend on a careful flow of logical, rational actions to substitute for character-driven conflict: in Night Work, it is Jonas setting up cameras to film parts of the world he has visited; in Metropole, it is Budai analyzing newspapers and other writings to try to derive some knowledge of the foreign language. So why is it that Metropole holds interest while Night Work quickly grows tedious?

The easy answer would be that Metropole does have other characters, albeit non-speaking ones, such as the elevator operator Epepe (or something like that, as Budai has great trouble with the phonemes of the other language) and the hotel workers and the policemen and the revolutionary workers he gets caught up with toward the end of the book. But I don’t think that is the reason.

Rather, it’s that Metropole is the book that fulfills its conceptual bargain with the reader. Both books ask you to suspend your disbelief for a very unlikely scenario, implying that this horrific but imaginary scenario somehow relates to, well, life as we know it, and is not merely an illogical nightmare. We must see the characters as deploying recognizably human characteristics in their respective hypothetical situation. We must feel that this single character is someone we care about, because there is nothing else left to care about in the novels’ worlds. The human world has shrunk to the size of a single person.

Budai, in Metropole, is consumed by the need to communicate. The book strains belief at times because of how stunningly unhelpful the residents of the foreign city are (this is the sort of language that Chomsky claims could not exist, so utterly different is it from any known language; it makes Quine’s gavagai query look trivial in comparison). But Karinthy plays fair. We aren’t asked just to assume this; we go through the careful, logical steps that Budai takes to try to decipher the language, his tentative encounters with the elevator operator, the monetary system, and the subway system. And so by the time the situation begins to appear truly terminal, Budai’s frustration was palpable because I had followed his every step. The situation was real. And though the alienation is of an entirely different sort than that of Kafka’s novels, the emphasis on sheer inexorable process in conveying the difficulty of the situation is similarly effective.

In Night Work, however, logic breaks down too quickly. I was willing to accept that the electricity in this peopled world stays on way too long while the internet dies immediately, but after the first hundred pages or so of scene-setting, leaving notes in case someone shows up, eating, sleeping, and so on, Jonas runs out of things to do, and even the practical problems of his new life are easily elided (I myself was waiting for the power to run out, but it never happens). He remembers things about his rather mundane life before the disappearance. He becomes consumed with philosophical thoughts about being himself, being other people, witnessing events, not witnessing events, Zeno’s paradox, simultaneity, and so on. But Glavinic has front-loaded the philosophy, having Jonas think his new phenomenology before he acts on it, and so readers are dragged into this new pattern of behavior that has somehow determined a course of action for Jonas, just not one that seems to come out of any necessity. To the extent that these are everyman characters because their ability to define themselves in opposition to others is greatly curtailed, they cannot just simply go insane, but must justify their eccentric actions to the reader if they are to maintain relevance. No Exit would not be of interest if the three characters hated each other from the moment they came in.

Perhaps aware of this problem, Glavinic introduces “the Sleeper,” the name given by Jonas to his sleepwalking and sleeptalking self. The Sleeper is, in a word, uncanny: the Sleeper videotapes himself staring at Jonas’s video camera, points to spots on walls, and does other vaguely menacing (and eventually very menacing) things. And he is the best thing about the book. Confronted with an other that is part of himself, I was thrown back into Jonas’s position and fascinated that the end of al other life on earth had caused a part of him other than his conscious self to assert itself. Unfortunately, the resolution of the Sleeper plot is not particularly satisfying, but while the Sleeper makes his malevolent communications to Jonas, the book is gripping. I wonder if Glavinic considered doing more with this plot, because any connections between it and the rest of Jonas’s projects are purely theoretical, barely held together by increasingly abstract and disconnected ruminations on time and self.

And so I return to Metropole, where Budai remains resolutely practical, carefully observant, and increasingly stressed, and the narrative never goes slack. He is a character one would want to have in the situation the novel presents. Whereas if someone asks me what I would do if I were suddenly the last person on earth, I could point to Night Work and say, “Probably not that.”

Nikolai Leskov: The Enchanted Wanderer

I only heard of Leskov recently (Irving Howe and Walter Benjamin both wrote about him, so perhaps this is my fault), and I can’t understand why he isn’t better known in English. Leskov may not be in the absolute top rank, but he certainly deserves a place alongside other big 19th century names like Goncharov, Lermontov, and Shchedrin. But no, even though his most famous story, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” was turned into an opera by Shostakovich, there’s very little on him in English. Leskov is less spiritual and more folkloric than his contemporaries, preferring not to deal in big concepts like family and fate, and perhaps this makes him less archetypally Russian. But especially in the massive novel-length tale “The Enchanted Wanderer,” he pulls off an extended anti-everyman epic that has echoes of the less satirical (and less crazy) side of Gogol, but even more so, Kleist.

I adore Kleist, and I follow Gabriel Josipovici’s line that Kleist was a singular and oppositional figure in Germanic literature, pointing away from the dominant trends of the time. Leskov is nowhere near as perverse, but the willingness with which the stories blithely take hairpin turns and lapse into burlesque is something Leskov has to himself.

“The Enchanted Wanderer” plays up the blitheness, as our hero, the strong giant Ivan, is not the most reactive sort, and greets his many crazy and painful picaresque adventures with more nonchalance than anything else. For most of the story, his calm ability to take things in stride comes as simply an odd quirk, but by the end it appears integral to Leskov’s portrayal of the world. He is a reluctant storyteller. Late in his life, as a monk, some people on a boat ask him to tell his long life story, and he eventually agrees.

The story then has several more or less discrete sections with jarring transitions between them. Here’s a synopsis:

  1. He is born as a serf and becomes a horse driver for his lord. One day he inadvertently kills a monk, who returns to him in a dream at night. The conversation he has is typical of his attitude:

    “You took my life without giving me a chance of repentance.”

    “Well,” I replied, “it’s tough luck and I’m very sorry, but what do you expect me to do about it now? I didn’t do it on purpose, did I? Besides,” I said, “what have you got to grumble about? You’re dead and that’s that.”

    …”You will suffer many hardships and adversities, but you will not die until the day appointed for your doom, and then you’ll remember your mother’s promise and you’ll become a monk.”

  2. He continues at his job as a horse driver until saving the life of his lord’s son, at which point he becomes a caretaker of pigeons and such. But after a cat eats the pigeons and he cuts off his tail, he is punished and humiliated and flees to become a robber.
  3. He is soon found by another landowner who trusts him immediately to be the nursemaid for his wife and child. But the wife’s lover prevails on him to let the wife and child run away with him, and taking a moral stance that the lovers should be together (after initially wanting to beat up the lover), he helps them get away and then runs off from his job.
  4. He shows up at a horse fair and displays his expertise in judging horses, then gets into a flogging fight with a Tartar, whom he kills. The Russians present try to haul him off to trial, so he flees with the Tartars to the steppe.
  5. The Tartars like him too much and hold him hostage on the steppe for ten years by implanting bristles into his heels, making it difficult even to walk. He has several wives and children.
  6. At age 33, he is finally able to flee from the Tartars (converting them to Christianity beforehand via some prestidigitation) by finding corrosive earth that allows him to open his heel and remove the bristles.
  7. Ivan is hired by another lord for his horse judging skills.
  8. He meets up with a mysterious magnetizer who leads him through Kleistian nightmares and hallucinations in order to cure him of drink.
  9. Still employed, he meets up with some bizarre gypsies, falling in love with the captivating dancer Grusha, to whom he loses a huge amount of money. His master goes to see Grusha the next night and buys her from the gypsies as a mistress.
  10. Grusha becomes miserable, the master grows tired of her and imprisons her in a remote cottage. She escapes and returns to our hero, demanding that he kill her to put her out of her misery. He reluctantly agrees.
  11. He joins the Russian army and, wanting to die over his guilt for killing Grusha, he embarks on a suicide mission, miraculously surviving and defeating the Tartars. He tries to confess killing Grusha, but no one believes him, and he is made an information clerk in St. Petersburg as a reward for his heroism.
  12. In St. Petersburg, he beats up an actor for harassing a young actress and loses his job as a result. Finally out of options, he joins a monastery.
  13. In the monastery he wrestles with his sins and with the Devil himself, finally driving off his torment through extreme fasting.
  14. A Jew hangs himself near the monastery and our hero thinks that his ghost is Judas and is tormenting him during the night. Turns out to be a cow.
  15. He gets frustrated while setting up a service one day and knocks over a bunch of candles in anger. He is imprisoned in a pit in the monastery for months, but he doesn’t find it too bad, and acquires a gift of prophecy.
  16. He takes the trip that began the story, meaning to go to some saints’ tombs and pray there, for he foresees more war and will leave the clergy and take up arms if war breaks out: “I want to die for my people!” he says, and the story ends.

This gives a decent idea of the eccentric nature of the story, but not of what lifts it above the level of a picaresque folktale. It’s in the telling that Leskov draws the pieces together, not just in his maintaining certain traits to the narrative but also in how he rejects other more conventional ones.

Leskov seems to have had a thing for telling stories that go on longer than their expected end point. “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” famously does this, but here it’s even more perverse. The whole story is structured to lead up to Ivan joining a monastery and fulfilling his prophesied destiny, and yet when he does finally become a monk, the story goes on as if nothing has changed. He still gets into misadventures, he still falls into slapstick antics, and he still suffers in his usual nonchalant way. Far from being any particular destiny for him, his engagement with religion turns out as arbitrarily as everything before.

So if the destiny angle is not fulfilled, what forms the commonality of his adventures? It’s Ivan’s character. Ivan is not a cerebral man; he primarily acts out of instinct, and he doesn’t learn much from his experiences. He is not appreciably different from his younger self at the end of the story. But throughout, his reactions follow a certain moral pattern. He can act out of rage or out of kindness, but he tends to show a great sympathy for women and possesses a sense of honor that seems more innate than situational. If he feels bad about something, no one is able to stop him from proclaiming his unworthiness; if an authority condemns him for something he believed to be right, he ignores the conflict and just walks off. And these reactions spring forth fully formed from his unconscious; he seems to watch them as they happen rather than choose them, and this is complemented by his blase attitude toward the strangest happenings (shown well in the dialogue above, where he is ridiculously at ease with the ghost of a man he just inadvertently killed). And he has no lessons to tell to his audience on the barge; he’s just telling a story.

So while there is a melancholic fatalism to the plot, Ivan’s personality makes it difficult to greet the events with any sort of tragic sense, because his own attitude is such that he knows he will survive anything, even if he doesn’t wish to. This makes him very much the archetype of a “wanderer,” but one without angst and one untroubled by regret, concerned neither with salvation nor damnation. Yet he is not a holy fool in any sense, as he suffers greatly and maintains a consistent, though buried, moral posture throughout. As with Kleist, the whole story holds together in spite of its refusing any easy shape that it might fit.

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