David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

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Werfel, Zweig, Yesterday, Tomorrow

For Werfel, the decisive things were the emotional aspect, the romantic idea, the lyrical substance–the power of language. He did have a language of his own! Unlike Stefan Zweig, who is simply an intolerably poor writer. Zweig blows himself up, he inflates ideas that he doesn’t even have. Whereas Werfel is prodigal with his ideas but often doesn’t know how to make anything out of them. He was an infinitely greater natural talent than Musil, but Musil is the infinitely more interesting writer. I think I know what Werfel lacked: he hardly ever questioned himself. He could be a Marxist, he could be an anarchist or a conservative, he could be a Catholic–it was all interchangeable, it all depended on the moment’s whim, idea, emotion. That is where Karl Kraus’s evil eye did, after all, see the truth: while writing was a necessity for Werfel, while he had the urge to express, what he then wrote–the actual message–was totally interchangeable. Werfel pulled himself under, time and again. That was a talent of a great writer who destroyed himself.

Hans Mayer (from Peter Stephan Jungk’s Franz Werfel)

Where to begin? Hans Mayer is an interesting, obscure (at least to me) figure by himself: a quasi-Marxist critic in the line of Lukacs who broke with the orthodoxy before it turned inward on itself; a more plainspoken sort who is still dedicated to analyzing literature in a Marxist context.

While it removes him from the heavily theoretical line of Adorno to Jameson and onward, Mayer was still far more aggressively radical than someone like Irving Howe, a liberal who loved his milieu too much to question its precepts. I like Howe, but many of his essays seem as much relics as their time as Lionel Trilling’s, as compared to Gore Vidal’s literary essays of the same period (50’s and 60’s), which seek out extremes that Howe shunned. Perhaps the closest American analogue for Mayer is Morris Dickstein, a theorist who wants books to work and succeed, who is always subjugating his own essayistic practice to that of those who he prizes most highly: the great writers of fiction. But here, he treats two writers (Werfel and Zweig) whose lives bore them out more than their fiction did.

Yet Mayer damns Werfel and Zweig in this passage for entirely different reasons. Stefan Zweig is dismissed for being a weak thinker, while Werfel is criticized for thinking too much, in too many directions, such that it paralyzed his writing. Both writers met with a good deal more success than Musil, Zweig for a long series of popular biographies, Werfel for all sorts of things, particularly two long but well-written potboilers where, indeed, the lyricism takes over.

But I think he dismisses Zweig too quickly. Zweig was a frail mortal amongst the giants of his age: Broch, Mann, Kraus, Musil, Canetti. His autobiography, The World of Yesterday, differs from Elias Canetti’s memoirs of Vienna in the 20’s, in that Zweig lacks Canetti’s ego. Zweig’s book is suffused with the knowledge that he could not match the minds around him; while he could (and did) meet with popular success, there is never the hint of the visionary about him. His works dispatch small ideas efficiently; his novella The Royal Game is considerably more compact than Nabokov’s The Defense in dealing with the theme of chess-as-obsession. While Werfel throws himself at ideas and produces pages upon pages, Zweig approaches them tentatively and knows when to finish. (Accusations of inflated ideas seem inflated.)

Zweig and Werfel have similar places in my mind; neither of them is on a par with the best of their time, and the works of both have a small spark that keeps them vivid in my memory. Werfel may have been more heat than light, but the heat has not survived. Yet Zweig wrote a humble autobiography in which he looks backward quietly, and called it The World of Yesterday (DIE WELT VON GESTERN), which Werfel could never have done. Yesterday seems to have been all Zweig had at that point; having fled to Brazil from Europe, despondent over the war and unable to envision a new life for himself or for Europe, which he claimed had destroyed itself, he committed suicide.

Werfel, productive to the end, survived the war and two heart attacks. He was planning out several future projects and living the good life in Hollywood when he died in 1945. His endless ideas were at least as good to him as they were to his work.

Aharon Appelfeld, Badenheim 1939

Aharon Appelfeld’s great achievement is in presenting the mind of a survivor; not that of a “Holocaust survivor” per se, but that of a person who has been through such severely dehumanizing and existentially threatening experiences, and the permanent damage done to their psyches.

My favorite of his works are The Immortal Bartfuss and The Iron Tracks, which in turn present two very different personalities, one obsolescent, one vengeful, both beset by the same sense of pointlessness, that they have outlived whatever meaning could be ascribed to their lives, and that their meaning should have come in death. (Alexander Kluge has occasionally treated this theme with great success.) The Holocaust looms in their memories, but hardly ever articulates itself; it is shown through who they currently are, not by what happened in the past, and Appelfeld’s talent in this is acute. Arnost Lustig and Imre Kertesz have achieved similar portrayals, but Appelfeld’s has always been for me the most immanent. And not without reason. Compare this quote from a Lustig interview:

CER: It must be difficult to forget your experiences from Holocaust.
LUSTIG: No, not at all. I’m not thinking about it. I’m writing about it. It’s very different. It’s like you had two lives; one “literature&#x85life as a writer” and one real, existential.
CER: So when you write about the Holocaust, it isn’t a process of coming to terms with your experiences?
LUSTIG: I’m not writing about it. I write about a lot of other things. It’s only set at that time. Look, every writer can write only about what he is familiar with, what’s under his skin. So I write about what I really know. I could write about anything. But why would I write about everything when I can write about something in-depth? Literature tries to discover something that is invisible in a man, something mysterious: his impulses, his incentives, the causes of his actions. Why he is acting the way he’s acting. Unexplained things. In that case it doesn’t matter if you write about a concentration camp.

with this quote of Appelfeld’s, from an interview shortly after Badenheim 1919:

Q: What is your main difficulty as a writer?
APPELFELD: You see, first of all, to be a Jewish writer is a heavy obligation. My close family was killed. My natural environment, my childhood, my sweetest memories were killed. And so it&#x92s a kind of obligation that I feel; I&#x92m dealing with a civilization that has been killed. How to represent it in the most honorable way&#x96not to equalize it, not to exaggerate, but to find the right proportion to represent it, in human terms.

For Lustig, the experiences become background for literature; for Appelfeld, they are the literature. It may make Lustig the more imaginative writer in that regard, but Appelfeld at his best has a styleless immediacy that I have never seen Lustig reach.

But this is not Appelfeld’s only theme. Badenheim 1939 is one of his more famous works, and deals with vacation resort housing the bourgeois of Austria. Many of them are Jewish, and at the end, when they are taken off to the camps under the pretense of being separated and relocated, many of them are still oblivious to their impending doom. A late speech by a sick, crippled rabbi, dismissed by all the book’s characters, explains the theme:

“What do they want? All these years they haven’t paid any attention to the Torah. Me they locked away in an old-age home. They didn’t want to have anything to do with me. Now they want to go to Poland. There is no atonement without asking forgiveness first.”

The rabbi’s voice took the column of people by surprise. He spoke in a jumble of Hebrew and Yiddish. The people could not understand a word he said, but his anger was obvious.

The problem is that Appelfeld is not an ironist. Superficially, the novel appears to be the mirror image of many of his other books: the great unspoken tragedy in the past in The Iron Tracks becomes the great unforeseen tragedy in the future in Badenheim 1939. But the symmetry is not so simple. Appelfeld moves the locus of his representation out of the Jews’ minds (they are, in general, portrayed as unsympathetic victims) and into the setting itself.

There is a forced allegory with two groups of fish in a tank, one of which massacred the other, and the question of whether they should be separated. There is much gaiety while they ignore the increasing anti-semitism in Austria and Germany. And most directly, there is this passage, about the cloistered, stuffy Professor Fussholdt:

Professor Fussholdt read the proofs of his book. At one time his lectures had given rise to quite a controversy in academic circles. It was he who had called Theodore Herzl “a hack writer with messianic pretensions,” and his associates “petty functionaries who jumped on the golden bandwagon.” Martin Buber too did not escape his barbs. It was Fussholdt who had said that Buber couldn’t make up his mind if he was a prophet or a professor. If anyone deserved the title of a great Jew, according to Fussholdt, it was Karl Kraus: he had revived satire. And now the professor was sitting and proofreading his latest book. Who was he attacking now? The journalists, the hacks, so-called “Jewish art”? Perhaps his book was about Hans Herzl, Theodore’s son who had converted to Christianity. Or perhaps it was a book about satire, the only art form appropriate to our lives.

It is too leaden for irony. Appelfeld writes as though he is not just impatient with his own characters, but furious at them. He has internalized the material so deeply that these people can only be portrayed as fatally misled suckers, who have bought into the notion of civilized Germany so deeply that they have forsaken the roots and the only other people whom they can really trust: their own. It’s not that Appelfeld is off the mark here; just ask Walter Rathenau, who considered himself as much German as Jew, and was assassinated by right-wing extremists. The problem that his view is so closely identified with the viewpoint of his survivors that he comes off as moralizing. There is little to be learned from the people he portrays, other than that in his opinion, they were wrong. They followed their country, not their people.

Kraus is a fascinating example, though, since he represents an anti-authoritarian voice, but a wholly secular one. I wish that Appelfeld had said more about Fussholdt and, by way of him, Kraus, since while there is little surprise in seeing the idle classes disregard warning signs, seeing the intellectuals do so is far more interesting (if ultimately not too surprising either). Does Appelfeld find Kraus and satire to be falsely sanitizing forces while evil storms are brewing? He’s not the sort to answer this question, but the anger comes through. But when spoken in the voice of the author, attacking these future victims, the book loses its poise.

Appelfeld emigrated to Israel very early on, and in the interview above, he speaks as though he were a follower of Ben-Gurion, a forceful but pragmatic Zionist. (It’s worth remembering that Zionist founder Theodore Herzl wasn’t interested in Jerusalem.) The recent Ha’aretz interview with Appelfeld seems to have disappeared from the archive, but via a tip from The Elegant Variation, I located an copy of Ari Shavit’s interview with Appelfeld. It’s difficult to summarize, since he doesn’t articulate a clear political standpoint, and I recommend reading the whole thing. There are two things that stand out. First is that this is a man who is more concerned with intra-Jewish struggles than with anything else: Zionism vs. Europeanism, settlers vs. land-for-peacers, internalized self-hatred, etc. Second is the constant turning back on his own thoughts:

I am careful to keep things in proportion. Precisely because I went through terrible things. But in the past two years I have stopped using the bus and I am ashamed of it. I am afraid that the bus will blow up and I am ashamed that I am afraid the bus will blow up. And when I sit in a cafe in Jerusalem, I am not relaxed. The cafe could blow up, too. And when my granddaughter goes to school, we ask whether she came back or not. Maybe something happened. Now the emotional side is something interesting. Because in the Holocaust I was a boy who lost his parents and lived the life of an animal, I should have been taken to a madhouse immediately afterward. Or to a hospice.

This form of servitude to one’s own emotions is what Appelfeld has lived with and expressed in all his work. It does not express itself in ideology; when he attempts to do as much, as in Badenheim 1939, the effect is muted. But in his chronicles of survivors, it is precisely the right tool.

Robert Musil and Walter Rathenau

Maybe now is the time to learn German. Karl Corino’s massive, 2000-page biography of Robert Musil was recently published, and apart from articles in the New Left Review and the TLS, I haven’t seen much mention of it in my English-speaking circles. Philip Payne, who translated and edited the English reduction of Musil’s diaries, did the TLS review, about half of which is present at that link.

For me it’s tantalizing, since it relates something that remains very oblique even in the diaries, which is Musil’s ongoing and shifting relation to the The Man Without Qualities, which he was creating for decades. I’m skeptical of the theorizing over Musil’s syphilis and the hint that Musil wasn’t especially good for his friends. Speaking about the brilliant but flighty and capricious Clarisse, from MWQ, and her real-life parallel Alice Donath, Payne says:

(Clarisse, like Alice, goes mad after her marriage and is eventually placed in an institution; one wonders whether Musil’s wedding gift to Alice of Nietzsche’s Collected Works, or his letter inviting her to become his “little sister” contributed to her troubles.)

Without knowing the details, I have to wonder if Payne has spent too much time with Musil and his (many) flaws. Ray Monk grew to despise Bertrand Russell while working on his biography, and I’m sure that Musil’s unyielding, single-minded genius could easily have the same effect.

But I’m intrigued by the talk of Musil’s increasing isolation from his work’s sources: not just temporally, but even personally, as he stopped associating with friends who had been the novel’s models. This, however, seems secondary to Musil’s situational problem, which is that history had left him behind:

In a letter of 1934 to his friend the satirist Franz Blei, Musil, given his desperate personal situation and the Nazi takeover in Germany, compares his continued work on The Man without Qualities to “the diligence of a woodworm, boring through a picture frame in a house that is already ablaze”.

The metaphor alludes to the Reichstag fire, but also to Musil’s own task. He was, very carefully, tearing apart the liberal and nationalistic ambitions and ideals personified in the characters of MWQ. The failure of “the barren conceit of the brain” manifested in the Great War is the constant theme, and there is no greater representative of the brain of statecraft than Arnheim, whom Musil repeatedly dissects as brilliant, but shallow. Arnheim was modeled on Walter Rathenau, the businessman and foreign minister who became one of the most prominent international negotiators in post-Versailles Germany, until he was assassinated by anti-Semitic right-wingers in 1922, removing one more obstacle in the way of the ideological and political ascent of Nazism.

Musil’s engagement with Arnheim/Rathenau is total, but by 1934, it could not have seemed relevant. He was attacking an Enlightenment-derived ideology in one of the better statesmen of the century while National Socialism had taken over the world around him. Excavation of a flawed “frame” was hardly noticeable while the house was on fire.

Musil treats the more extreme aspects in the later parts of the book, introducing the figure of Meingast, a faux-mystical shyster who plays like Kevin Kline quoting Nietzsche in A Fish Called Wanda. Meingast was loosely based on Ludwig Klages, a Spengler-ish conservative, anti-Semitic moron, deservedly forgotten. (I’d rather not link to the stuff that turns up, but if you’d like to be introduced to Klages and his unpleasant breathren such as Carl Schmitt, try looking for them on Google.) While Musil has some fun with Meingast (he’s the only character who is really a caricature), you sense that his heart’s not in it; Meingast is not a challenge. Anyone with a brain would hardly take him seriously. But anyone with a brain was in short supply.

(For an inexact modern parallel, I think of Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, where he condemns the anti-egghead attitude by pointing to how Eisenhower, the “normal guy” candidate, won twice over the wonky, detached Adlai Stevenson. Oh, for such days again….)

Musil wrote “On Stupidity” in 1937, a abstruse (for him) Benjamin-like exercise in postponement in which he never quite gets around to what he wants to say because it would get him in big trouble. I won’t subject it to close reading here, but consider the very end of it:

For because our knowledge and ability are incomplete, we are forced in every field to judge prematurely; but we make the effort, and have learned to keep this error within recognized limits and occasionally improve on it, and by this means put our activity back on the right track. There is really no reason why this exact and proudly humble judgment and activity could not be carried over into other areas as well, and I believe that the principle, “Act as well as you can and as badly as you must, but in doing so remain aware of the margin of error of your actions!” would already be halfway toward a promising arrangement of life.

Why the sudden pragmatism and appeal to modesty, attitudes not particularly present in MWQ? Earlier in the same essay he closes the book on German Enlightenment attitudes, saying that the new task is “to complete the always necessary, indeed deeply desired, transition to the new with the least possible loss.” His plea for caution is an attempt at damage control, with the fatalistic implication that he himself is an anachronism, and that all his brains can only boil the present day down to a homily that should be obvious. Rathenau is long dead, and with him much of the kindling for Musil’s work.

Update: Thomas Pynchon chimes in via Gravity’s Rainbow, shortly before Rathenau is channelled by some Nazis and issues some cryptic mystical statements about industrialization, chemistry, and death:

His father Emil Rathenau had founded AEG, the German General Electric Compny, but young Walter was more than another industrial heir–he was a philosopher with a vision of the postwar State. He saw the war in progress as a world revolution, out of which would rise neither Red communism nor an unhindered Right, but a rational structure in which business would be the true, the rightful authority–a structure based, not surprisingly, on the one he’d engineered in Germany for fighting the World War. (165)

Though Rathenau seems to have had a change of heart post-death, since the live Rathenau never spoke of “The persistence, then, of structures favoring death.”

2.1.5 Mme Swann at Home: Bergotte and Marcel

Bergotte is the author who cast a spell over young Marcel in the Combray section, and via Swann, he is now able to meet him. It comes at such a crucial point in the book, when Marcel is undergoing feverish revision of what had gone before, that Bergotte’s dialogue with him almost solely redeems the possibility of writing, after Marcel had become disgusted with it earlier.
It is not altogether a positive portrayal: Bergotte is an intellectual visionary possessed of a singular vision, even a genius, but he is myopic. He doesn’t quite have clay feet, but one of the overriding themes of Marcel’s interactions with him (roughly pages 592-618, maybe my favorite sequence so far) is how he moves from being Marcel’s idol of earlier years to a incisive, cranky man very different from the image that Marcel had as a youth. More specifically, the earlier image of Bergotte was not that of a person, but of an ideal, the author of words in which he had seen himself perfectly reflected, when in fact what he was seeing was himself in a mirror he had constructed partially out of Bergotte’s words, but which was mostly a projection of his own mind.
I think that for anyone who develops a particular affection for reading in their early teenage years, there is that set of authors which seem directly in tune with our thoughts. They appear to express inner truths that were previously thought unshared by anyone. These authors usually disappoint us later when it turns out that they were aiming at something else entirely, and somewhere in college, we figure out that we have to be a lot more careful before verbal intoxication leads to overly zealous identifying of kindred spirits. After that, those authors go into a very special category where we neither criticize them nor praise them, since we know we’ll be talking more about ourselves than about the authors. And there’s a little bit of resentment to the authors for tricking us so badly, when we were so vulnerable. I’m not yet ready to divulge who’s on my version of that special list.
Bergotte does not disappoint Marcel in such a severe way, though he is acutely aware of the gap between the man he meets and the author he read:

I had told him [Bergotte] everything that I felt with a freedom which had astonished me and which was due to the fact that, having acquired with him, years before (in the course of all those hours of solitary reading, in which he was to me merely the better part of myself), the habit of sincerity, of frankness, of confidence, I found him less intimidating than a person with whom I was very uneasy about the impression that I must have been making on him, the contempt that I had supposed he would feel for my ideas dating not from that afternoon but from the already distant time in which I had begun to read his books in our garden at Combray. (611)

And so he tells Bergotte, after Bergotte remarks on how precocious he is in appreciating the “pleasures of the mind”:

I felt how purely material was everything that I desired in life, and how easily I could dispense with the intellect. As I made no distinction among my pleasures between those that came to me from different sources, of varying depth and permanence, I thought, when the moment came to answer him, that I should have liked an existence in which I was on intimate terms with the Duchesse de Guermantes and often came across , as in the old toll-house in the Champs-Elysees, a fusty coolness that would remind me of Combray. And in this ideal existence which I dared not confide to him, the pleasures of the mind found no place. (613)

Bergotte finds this surprising, and though Marcel is disappointed, he is still encouraged that such discussions can take place, and that the dead image of literature pushed on him by the staid M. de Norpois (around page 488 or so) earlier is not the limits of writing as practiced. Bergotte, not the man (or spirit) that Marcel had imagined, is still able to bring about a meaningful dialogue. Of course, just to emphasize the gap, Bergotte then trashes Cottard and Swann, which hits Marcel like an earthquake:

“[Swann’s] typical of the man who has married a whore, and has to pocket a dozen insults a day from women who refuse to meet his wife or men who have slept with her. Just look, one day when you’re there, at the way he lifts his eyebrows when he comes in, to see who’s in the room.” (615)

But what about Bergotte himself? Though initially appearing aloof, like the locked container of infinite knowledge, he shortly comes off as judgmental, amoral (in how he treats those around him), and petty. (More so than Swann)
His singular, unique vision, as described, should be a tip-off that he’ll eventually be painted as limited by that singularity of his vision. In Proust, strength and depth of feeling in a single direction invariably reveals a corresponding deficit in other directions. The judgment comes down most harshly when Proust pulls back to describe Bergotte’s later years:

[Bergotte] would say also, with a shy smile, of pages of his own for which someone had expressed admiration: “I think it’s more or less true, more or less accurate; it may be of some value perhaps,” but he would say this simply from modesty, as a woman to whom one has said that her dress or his daughter is beautiful replies, “It’s comfortable,” or “She’s a good girl.” But the instinct of the maker, the builder, was too deeply implanted in Bergotte for him not to be aware that the sole proof that he had built both usefully and truthfully lay in the pleasure that his work had given, to himself first of all and afterwards to his readers. Only, many years later, when he no longer had any talent, whenever he wrote anything with which he was not satisfied, in order not to have to suppress it, as he ought to have done, in order to be able to publish it, he would repeat, but to himself this time: “After all, it’s more or less accurate, it must be of some value to my country.” So that the phrase murmured long ago among his admirers by the crafty voice of modesty came in the end to be whispered in the secrecy of his heart by the uneasy tongue of pride. And the same words which had served Bergotte as a superfluous excuse for the excellence of his early works became as it were an ineffective consolation to him for the mediocrity of the last. (599)

This is such a sneaky technique, and Proust loves it. (He did the same with Swann, and there are frequently other references to the futures of other characters.) To pull back drastically and look at Bergotte years later, a self-deluding shadow of his former genius, pulls the rug out from any authority Bergotte once had. Whatever follows from Bergotte–and what follows does have a profound effect on the young Marcel–has its authority weakened. It is only a variant of Proust’s techniques elsewhere, where he destabilizes authoritative words and thoughts by revising them, but this nearly seems cheap. What redeems it is the idea that the same words, and indeed the same thoughts, could be used by a single man at different points in his life and carry completely different implications: at one time false modesty over one’s genius, at a later time a sad excuse. It makes the later Bergotte, whom we haven’t met yet, explicable and sympathetic in the terms of his current self.
For comparison, Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities deals heavily in the irony that the great plans of his Austrian political figures in 1912 will come to nothing when the war breaks out, but he only refers to it sparingly. The only reference that comes to me offhand, in fact, is almost in passing. I’ll quote the passage, if only to illustrate how differently Musil deploys his judgments (and also because I like it so much):

Had Arnheim been able to see only a few years into the future, he would have seen that 1,920 years of Christian morality, millions of dead men in the wake of a shattering war, and a whole German forest of poetry rustling in homage to the modesty of Women could not hold back the day when women’s skirts and hair began to grow shorter and the young girls of Europe slipped off eons of taboos to emerge for a while naked, like peeled bananas. He would have seen other changes as well, which he would hardly have believed possible, nor does it matter which of those would last and which would disappear, if we consider what vast and probably wasted efforts would have been needed to effect such revolutions in the way people lived by the slow, responsible, evolutionary road traveled by philosophers, painters, and poets, instead of tailors, fashion, and chance; it enables us to judge just how much creative energy is generated by the surface of things, compared with the barren conceit of the brain. (443)

Is it just me, or is there actually a bit of overlap here in their concerns, if not their tones? It reads like a defense of Marcel’s lack of interest in Bergotte’s “pleasures of the mind.” Now, Musil truly isn’t interested in the surfaces he references, while Proust makes them the center of the novel. If Proust does have an affiliation with one of the German writers of that era, it’s Mann, who I’ll get to next time.

The Confusions of Young Toerless, Robert Musil (pt 1: Autobiography)

Young Toerless begins with a quote from Maeterlinck, who was an avowed influence on Musil, but one that he later appeared to discount. In The Man Without Qualities, there is a half-sneering reference to “Maeterlinck’s batik-wrapped metaphysics.” What Musil quotes is one of Maeterlinck’s typically mystical statements about the ineffability of the noumenal; i.e., that there is an objective, external indisputable world about which our words are unsatisfactory approximations:

As soon as we put something into words, we devalue it in a strange way…We delude ourselves that we have discovered a wonderful treasure trove, and when we return to the light of day we find that we have brought back only false stones and shards of glass; and yet the treasure goes on glimmering in the dark, unaltered.

Later, Musil seemed to discount the purely objective nature of the noumenal and weighed words and objects more equivocally. There were problems in mapping, but one did not have such high precedence over the other. Rather, it was the illusion of the noumenal that led people like Oswald Spengler down some dark paths.

Yet Toerless would appear to buy into it. The story is a fairly explicit tale of the torture and torment, sexual and otherwise, of one German boarding school boy by three others. The philosophy is nascent, but more on that later. Maeterlinck’s statement, though, doesn’t map too clearly onto any of the low-grade (by Musil’s standards, anyway) philosophical discourse, nor onto the eventual mental breakdowns of the victim (Basini) and Toerless, one of his torturers. It maps most clearly onto a process of autobiographical remembrance.

Musil explicitly denied the autobiographical content of the story. The boarding school background matched his very closely, and J.M. Coetzee claims that specific models for each character are known. I don’t know, but it’s not crucial that the facts or the characters have real-life equivalents. Dennis Potter said of The Singing Detective, “Just because the disease [psoriasis] is mine, and just because the childhood background is mine, doesn’t make it autobiographical.” His statement is unconvincing not because the work is imaginary, but because a certain level of experiential overlap, the question is no longer meaningful. Characters cannot run so free when imprisoned in an environment that is more remembered than imagined.

You can grant that the characters, even Toerless himself, are loose composites and still leave the content of the book as essentially autobiographical, and that is the key here. There is a scene very early on describing Toerless’s friendship with a young prince, which is broken after Toerless attacks his opinions with “the ridicule of the rationalist.” The parameters of the dispute are left completely undocumented, unlike the explicit Nietzschean meanderings of the main characters later. The tonal emphasis is on remembering and the presentation of a mental state of character in the act of reconstructing a past event by following the remnant emotions. Toerless can’t do it; his memory is approximate and the motives beyond his ability to comprehend. This is where the Maeterlinck quote is most appropriate, and where the book is most effective.


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