David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: January 2010 (page 1 of 3)

Gabriel Josipovici: Everything Passes

As Richard says, this was written as part of a proposed symposium on Gabriel Josipovici’s Everything Passes, and so it wasn’t meant to stand alone as it does here. I somewhat assumed people would have read other assessments already, such as Paul Griffith’s excellent breakdown. See also Dan Visel’s commentary and Stephen Mitchelmore’s.

The key moment of Everything Passes, I think, comes very close to the end, when, having been frequently treated to slightly varying descriptions of a man standing at the window over the course of the book, our main character Felix now describes the room in his spoken description of a near-death experience (apparently drawn from the experience of Schoenberg’s that inspired his intense String Trio):

–I saw myself standing in an empty room, he says. I was standing at the window, looking out through the cracked pane.
–Then I saw my face at the window, behind the cracked pane. Looking out.

For me it came as a revelatory moment, for two reasons: first, Felix is revealed to be the one who has had this vision that has so frequently recurred; and second, this is the only time the vision is given from a definite vantage point, that is, from outside the window. Both of these are in contrast to the structure of the book to that point, which has presented the narrative in present-tense, third person, seemingly from a God’s-eye view. To be shown the same scene in nearly the same words through Felix’s eyes is to imagine that for the whole course of the book he has been staring the whole time at himself, that this disconnected and pointilistic narrative was constructed by Felix himself. Except not quite by Felix, because Felix is behind the glass now, the object of viewing. The viewer stands outside the glass. Who is this viewer?

The easiest analogue to draw is that of a near-death experience, with the common report of a person seeing himself from some vantage point above his actual body. I don’t find this very compelling. I would rather see it as a device used to expose the literary vantage point of the reader. We find that the vague narrative of a life assembled over the course of the book has been part of the experience of that narrator, rather than only the narrative structure imposed on the life by the author, standing between us and Felix. Except now that Felix is the narrator, looking through the window outside, he is no longer the man inside the room. Who is this man?

I don’t know that the book permits an actual answer to this question. Felix changes from object to subject as we go from observing him to seeing through his eyes, and then we realize that we may have been staring through “his” eyes the whole time, staring at a doppelganger who plays out larger and smaller pieces of his life. The superimposition of these frames, those of text, life memories, cultural knowledge, subject, and object, is what gives the book its doubly vertiginous quality, miming contrasting forward and backwards motions on different levels. I do wish that the content of the memories had been closer to the loaded material of Josipovici’s In a Hotel Garden, where the weight of history and catastrophe gave the sparse text an immediacy missed here. In Everything Passes, as the details of a life not particularly well-spent accumulate, the life drains from its narrative as we learn more of the man behind the window, as it does from Felix himself.

Stefan Zweig

Paul Raymont reacted to Michael Hofmann’s incredibly nasty attack on Stefan Zweig by resolving to read more Zweig. I don’t particularly want to defend Zweig, but going after his suicide note was really a bit much:

Zweig left a suicide note which, like most of what he wrote, is so smooth and mannerly and somehow machined – actually more like an Oscar acceptance speech than a suicide note – that one feels the irritable rise of boredom halfway through it, and the sense that he doesn’t mean it, his heart isn’t in it (not even in his suicide).

It makes my attack on Michael Haneke look like a paean to his work. But I don’t think Hofmann’s assessment is too far off. I was easier on Zweig five years ago, but now I’m inclined to dismiss most of his work. What gets me is not his writing style or pretensions, but the shallow psychologizing that infects his fiction, a crude caricature of what Broch, Mann, and especially Musil were trying to achieve concurrently (and with only partial success; Musil is the only one who I would rate on that front, and even he runs into deep trouble at spots). But even among the second-rate writers, I rank him below Werfel and Schnitzler because of his lack of originality. The more from that period (or elsewhere) that I read, the less Zweig seems to offer. And what I said before still holds true: the best book I’ve read by him is his autobiography, The World of Yesterday, which is the work of a man surrounded by his literary superiors and quite aware of it. Contra Hofmann, who finds it smug and obnoxious, I think the autobiography does have a fair chunk of humility to it, with the smugness being a defensive posture.

So while Hofmann is busy thrashing Zweig for a multitude of sins personal and literary, the real problems get buried. Where Hofmann sees him as fake and commercial, I just see him as bland and conventional. Successful milquetoast writers do tend to annoy those with more fiery dispositions, but I think Zweig is too inoffensive to get to me. I feel the same way, though, about Hofmann’s beloved Joseph Roth (who, incidentally, had the poor taste to be friends with Zweig), the least innovative of the Germanic modernist writers. Still, the Zweig revival baffles me, though I’m less baffled when I see that Clive James is a Zweig fan. (Actually, it sounds like James wants to be Zweig.)

I notice, however, that Zweig has already had his posthumous revenge: Anthea Bell’s translation of Zweig’s Burning Secret has won the Schlegel-Tieck translation prize. The runner-up is Hofmann’s translation of Fred Wander.

Joyce and the Past

No-one here to hear. Tonight deftly amid wild drink and talk, to pierce the polished mail of his mind. What then? A jester at the court of his master, indulged and disesteemed, winning a clement master’s praise. Why had they chosen all that part? Not wholly for the smooth caress. For them too history was a tale like any other too often heard, their land a pawnshop.

Had Pyrrhus not fallen by a beldam’s hand in Argos or Julius Caesar not been knifed to death? They are not to be thought away. Time has branded them and fettered they are lodged in the room of the infinite possibilities they have ousted. But can those have been possible seeing that they never were? Or was that only possible which came to pass? Weave, weaver of the wind.

Ulysses I.2

This passage (ominously quoted by the Times sportswriter before he said “It is clear that the International Cricket Council (ICC) has been pondering long and fruitfully on this text from the great book”) is thought by Stephen early on in Ulysses, and I read it as one of the most evident unifying points between Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Stephen and Bloom both blatantly invoke the difficulty of accepting the past, Stephen with his “History is a nightmare…” attitude and Bloom with his entire family life and family history. (And really Stephen with his family as well, for family and death are two of the great Catholic/Platonic pillars around which Joyce’s work revolves.)

Specifically, the issue is one of accepting the erasure of possibilities and the cementing of tragedy by the passage of time. The obsession with alternate possibilities and counterfactuals embodies the otherworldly gnosticism that Joyce frequently rejects and ridicules. This passage in the second chapter is mirrored quite precisely by one from the penultimate chapter, when Bloom sadly contemplates “the irreparability of the past [and] the imprevidibility of the future” in abandoning the idea of Stephen as a surrogate son. Bloom comes to some acceptance of time’s branding. With Stephen it is less clear.

But I do think Joyce not only endorsed this acceptance but urged that the tragedy be memorialized and (secularly) sanctified. In the climatic passage of III.3 in Finnegans Wake, when the Four Old Men or whatever you want to call them excavate the mound of sleeping, dead HCE and the screams of history come pouring out, a torrent of war calls, mournings, and death:

— Crum abu! Cromwell to victory!
— We’ll gore them and gash them and gun them and gloat on them.
— Zinzin.
— O, widows and orphans, it’s the yeomen! Redshanks for ever! Up Lancs!
— The cry of the roedeer it is! The white hind. Their slots, linklink, the hound hunthorning ! Send us and peace ! Title ! Title !
— Christ in our irish times! Christ on the airs independence! Christ hold the freedman’s chareman! Christ light the dully expressed!
— Slog slagt and sluaghter! Rape the daughter! Choke the pope!
— Aure ! Cloudy father ! Unsure ! Nongood !
— Zinzin.
— Sold! I am sold! Brinabride! My ersther! My sidster! Brinabride, goodbye! Brinabride! I sold!
— Pipette dear! Us! Us! Me! Me!
— Fort! Fort! Bayroyt! March!
— Me! I’m true. True! Isolde. Pipette. My precious!
— Zinzin.

The men are senile and HCE/Shaun is sleepy or dead, so there is an elegaic quality to the chapter, but here there is no hiding the raw horror, the actual and endlessly repeated fall of man. (It’s some of the least confused verbiage in the whole book; the mysterious “Zinzin” is theorized to be the ringing of the phone that the old men are listening in on.) I read it as a codification of that which must be spoken not to be forgotten, repressed, and/or ignored, in order to speak honestly and fully of the “irreparability of the past” and not think it away.

Maryla Jonas Plays Chopin

One of the loveliest (but also melancholic) renditions of anything I’ve ever heard, from the underrecorded and neglected Maryla Jonas. It’s only 2 minutes; give it a listen.

Mazurka Op. 68 #3

From a Time article in 1946:

She was in bombed-out Warsaw when it fell. The Gestapo agent who found her in the city’s ruins tried to persuade her to go to Berlin to play for the Nazis. She refused and was sent to jail.

Seven months later, a Nazi officer who had heard her play let her out, told her that if she could get to the Brazilian Embassy in Berlin, she could get out of Europe. She walked most of 325 miles from Warsaw to Berlin, slept on the roadside, scarcely ever ate, and does not know how many weeks it took her. But she got to Rio. There she was put in a sanatorium, exhausted and sick. She got word that her husband, her parents and a brother had been killed in Poland. She did not go near a piano for months.

Polish Pianist Artur Rubinstein, visiting Rio, decided to trick her into playing again. He invited her to Rio’s empty Municipal Opera House, asked her to play some chords so he might test the acoustics. She sat down at the piano at 2:30, played until 8. Said she: “It was a put-up job.” She played three years in Latin America, earning enough to pay her way to the U.S., and the $1,400 that a Carnegie debut cost her.

Last week, five weeks after her New York debut, she played again in Carnegie Hall. This time the house was packed and the critics were in their pews. A buxom, platinum-haired woman of 35, her face was heavily rouged to cover the pallor of the past six years. Her U.S. sponsors wanted her to wear a corset; she refused (“I have to feel what I play from the legs up”) Says Maryla: “My first concert is European. Come one artist in old dress, no photogenic, no smiling. Then come complications. The criticisms are too good. Come snobs, I play too pianissimo, too fortissimo, my hair, I am too fat, my dress. My second concert is American concert. Everyone come to see am I really so good. It is not art, it is sport. It is football! If I have goal, bravo! If no goal, goodbye!”

Dostoevsky’s Sequel

James L. Rice in the TLS clues us in to the unwritten second half of The Brothers Karamazov, which sounds like it would have been a good deal better than Gogol’s disappointing sequel to Dead Souls.

Alyosha remains at the end, to face his destiny, uncertain whether it may be for good or evil. His bonding with the adolescent boys in the village, whose leader Kolya is unmistakably a future radical, points the way to the hero’s role in the unwritten sequel.

Dostoevsky discussed his general plan for the Karamazov sequel with a few people close to him, on different occasions with his wife Anna Grigorievna, and the eminent publisher Aleksei Suvorin (a brooding and devoted friend who was later also a confidant of other complex writers, including Vasily Rozanov and Anton Chekhov). The author’s concept found its way not only into their diaries and memoirs published after the Revolution, but also, through rumour “in Petersburg literary circles”, into the front-page report of an ephemeral Odessa daily newspaper on May 26, 1880 – when Book Ten of The Brothers Karamazov had yet to appear. The anonymous correspondent had attended the author’s public reading of bewildering excerpts from the forthcoming instalment. Despite great admiration for Dostoevsky’s genius, the critic complained that most of his characters were mental cases, who sometimes appeared to communicate by psychic means. Rumour in the tsarist capital had it that Alyosha would become the village schoolmaster, and by obscure “psychic processes in his soul” would arrive at “the idea of assassinating the tsar” (ideya o tsareubiistve). Although the Novorossiiskii Telegraf had a circulation of 6,000 and subscribers as far-flung as Kiev, Moscow, Petersburg, Warsaw and Paris, this astounding remark never reached the authorities. It tallies exactly with the diary of Suvorin published forty-three years later (1923), which directly quotes the novelist on Alyosha’s future: “He would be arrested for a political crime. He would be executed” – very nearly the fate of the author himself in his youth. In the sequel there might have been, of course, any number of plots and paths to such a tragic outcome. In one plausible version, Alyosha retreats to the monastery as a clandestine revolutionary.

The surest proof that The Brothers Karamazov was conceived with such a denouement in store is the very name Karamazov: it is very close to that of Dmitry Karakozov, whose point-blank shot at Tsar Alexander II on April 4, 1866, missed its target but heralded an era of terrorism in Russian politics. Karakozov was publicly executed in Petersburg on September 3, 1866. His deed, incidentally, had interrupted serialization of Crime and Punishment – its hero another deranged student dropout with murderous “Napoleonic” ambitions. The Karamazov plot unfolds at the end of August, 1866, so that Dmitry Karamazov’s arrest for the murder of his father occurs at about dawn on September 3, precisely when in real life the would-be assassin Karakozov was led to the scaffold.

Wishful thinking? Rice implies the same wish that I and so many other teenage Dostoevsky readers have had, that he would stop compensating for what really is an obsession with evil and let his books become the ultimate refutation of Christianity and the Good that they so badly want to be. The goodness in them never achieves the grace of, say, this:

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