David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: childhood (page 5 of 5)

Proust 1.1 – Overture

Marcel thinks back to earlier years lying in bed.

This is the proper introduction to the whole endeavor, and Proust spends fifty pages leading up to the famous madeleines segment, in which his childhood memory is brought forth in Romantic fashion through the eating of the little morsel.

Such is his aim, but since ROTP is about nothing if not minute digressions and explorations, I found the theorizing and abstract internal experience less persuasive than the recreation itself. Which is fitting, since the intended effect (as stated) is one of transparency, of a recreation of the past as immanent, not remembered as shadows. The town of Combray, all its sensory data, come back to him via the conduit of the madeleine.

But there’s another memory that has already been detailed, that of his attempt to get his mother to give him a goodnight kiss after he has been put to bed, presented as though he were pulling some sort of heist. He slips a note to Francoise, his aunt’s cook, to be delivered to his mother, and after his father’s unexpectedly kindly intervention, he gets his kiss and then some: his mother stays in his room that night. It’s the solipsism that’s striking: it’s presented as though the feelings of the kid there and then are the size of the world, and no objective perspective of the adult (except for verbal embellishment and refinement) will interfere.

So there is the sensory memory, and the emotional memory, and the intent is to present both unfettered. What’s not clear is if they’re considered the same type or if they fall under different rubrics. But since questions and not answers are going to be the order for at least a thousand pages or so, best not to consider it further right now.

Also, I can’t forget this passage, from the reticent, snarky family friend M. Swann:

The fault I find with our journalism is that it forces us to take an interest in some fresh triviality or other every day, whereas only three or four books in a lifetime give us anything that is of real importance. (27)


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.


The Return of Philip Latinowicz, Miroslav Krleza

This novel is not what it appears to be. The pretty language and calm, depressed reminiscing give no idea of the grotesque violence that will end the story. Out of context, it seems pointless, but no, there is a reason to it. Krleza just waits a very long time to tip his hand.

Six years after The Return of Philip Latinowicz, Miroslav Krleza wrote On the Edge of Reason. Reason is an excursion into the tyranny of society that anticipates Camus’s The Fall: its style is lean and forcefully direct, and until the end, when it turns into a Communist polemic, it is a balanced indictment of the forces of justice in high society, and the tacit complicity of refined culture with the unseen brutality that feeds it. The Return of Philip Latinowicz is written in a drastically different style. The political and ethical content disappears, replaced by an obsessive, measured chronicling that owes much to Proust. The styles appear incompatible, not just contrary but totally independent. The answer is that Krleza is working against the style of Return even as he writes in it; the book undermines its seeming pretenses. Adopting Proust’s methods and talents, Krleza eventually uses them to mount an assault on him.

Philip is a morose, sedentary painter who returns to his provincial hometown in Croatia to search for inspiration. There is little that is actively bothering him, but there is nothing to suggest joy or involvement. The first third of the book is little more than a detailed chronicling of Philip’s senses as he wanders through the town. There are undercurrents of misery, nostalgia, and disgust, but they remain shadowed by the immanence of the description.

The detachment persists in the middle third, which is a series of detached childhood and adolescent memories with no clear direction to them. One acquaintance is followed for a while, then dropped, and another is picked up and dealt with. The lack of emphasis or acuity in the narration gives the writing a gauzy quality. It resembles Krleza’s contemporary Bruno Schulz, but while Schulz embraced a child’s view of illogical cause and effect, Krleza strips the rationality out of the text. The descriptions of childhood cruelty and classism don’t have any reaction at all associated with them, so the effect is disinterest, not pathos.

The ironic component is that a more “objective” description of the events, without Philip’s distancing tactics of attending to the smallest physical sensation, would be more traditionally provocative and more empathy-provoking. Even in translation, the style in The Return of Philip Latinowicz evokes Proust, but the goals are opposing. Proust wants to recreate the past as present through his writing; Philip is trying to remove himself from it. He thinks, in one of the rare moments that he lapses into generalization:

His idea of the infenalization of reality. This idea, doubtless a diabolical and unhealthy conception, was that in life phenomena have in fact no internal logical or rational connection! That life’s manifestations unfold and develop one beside another, simultaneously: with the sort of infernal simultaneity of the visions of Hieronymus Bosch, or Bruegel…The tall, grimy steeples with dragon’s heads, whitened waterspouts and marble behinds; and the fat Carolina; the English horses, bon jour, Monsieur, the voice of a caged jay,–and everything melting like the chocolate wrapped in silver paper, everything dragging along like Joe Podravec’s coach, everything foolish and swamplike as Pannonia itself!

It’s not a new sentiment, but it’s one that is difficult to pull off in fiction that has basic demands of narrative and interest. It’s even more difficult when the author (Krleza) does not agree with it. The first two thirds of the book are a beautifully written depiction of an attitude that Krleza finds poisonous, and a great attack on apolitical modernists from the inside. I don’t know to what extent Krleza uses Philip’s style in his other work, other than that it is totally absent from On the Edge of Reason, but his disapproval of its intent and its effects makes his mastery of it rather anomalous.

It’s in the last third that the book both falls apart and explains itself. Some of the earlier characters show up and play parts in a little psycho-drama. Philip casually gets involved with Bobocka, the wife of the miserable businessman Balocanski, and strings her along without realizing it (he comes to believe she’s manipulating him). A Greek named Kyriales shows up to assault Philip and anyone in range with Cioran-like nihilism. All of this ends very badly. The shock of the violent ending doesn’t sit well with Philip’s detached observations, Kyriales’ pompous meanderings, or even the melodrama of the love triangle, but that’s the point.

Krleza was a dedicated Communist, and his aim is to strip away the harmlessness and the intimate nature of philosophically-tinged bourgeois novel and replace them with brutality, which he considers to be more honest. In his speech and manner, Kyriales is a caricature of Naphta, from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, full of piss and vinegar, spewing Hobbesian and Malthusian arguments to shut out all comers. Mann treated Naphta’s views with respect; I don’t think that Krleza does. They both meet the same suicidal fate, but in The Return of Philip Latinowicz, it seems more pointless than fitting, a waste of a good brain. Likwise with Bobocka and Balocanski and Philip himself, whose defects originate in an unwillingness to confront the basic artificiality of their existences. In this respect, it is closer to Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight than to any so-called “novel of ideas.”

Krleza ends the book with blood on the floor and all that has gone before torn up and dismantled. It is shamefully satisfying, especially to those who are tired of the much-vaunted life of the mind, but deeply disturbing.

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