David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: coetzee (page 2 of 3)

Laszlo Krasznahorkai: War and War

I said I’d been holding off reviewing this book, originally published in Hungarian in 1999 but only translated into English now, until I knew more of what to make of it, and I’m not sure if I’m quite there yet. But the past week has been personally rather lousy for me, and overlapping as it does with the conflagration in the Middle East between Israel and, well, nearly everyone else, War and War has been at the front of my mind in ways that I cannot totally quantify. The way it treats the amorphous yet concrete intersection of the personal and political is so convincingly evocative of my current admixture of petty personal woes and fatalistic political worries that I have to say that it is the book for now.

I thought Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance a fantastic book, a haunting and violent political allegory that had more to say than a hundred contemporary books. I wrestled with it as I do with Musil, Riding, Gass, and too few others. In its sweeping, uncanny world, it is the book J.M. Coetzee has tried to write several times, but never quite succeeded. (I think Waiting for the Barbarians comes closest.) So I looked forward to War and War, also translated by the poet George Szirtes, as the most promising book on the horizon this year.

War and War is a remarkable novel, and it is drastically different from Krasznahorkai’s previous novel. Stylistically, the huge sentences and paragraphs are there, as is the sheer bleakness and black humor, but this book is far more oblique. It is not an allegory, but neither is it a realistic narrative, nor a fantasy, and as unusual as his past work was, War and War is sui generis. It is intensely personal, and I think it works hard to defy easy analysis. Krasznahorkai was quite explicit about the narrative and thematic construction of The Melancholy of Resistance within the text; here he draws back whenever the text is about to be too conclusive.

The story is odd and spare. A Hungarian scholar, Korin, has located a historical manuscript of tremendous importance to him, and he wants to share it with all humanity. To do so, he goes to New York, the heart of the living world, makes acquaintances with some unpleasant characters, and purchases a computer and web site to post the manuscript. He describes the manuscript at length to everyone he encounters. Korin is quite touched (and out of touch), and by the time of his eventual suicide, one wonders how he made it so far.

The manuscript is something else entirely. We only hear about it through Korin’s descriptions, but it is one strange beast, placing four somewhat nebulous travelers in various historical times and places from Greece to Italy to Africa, usually just before some sort of catastrophe or war. Often their bete noir, the Mephistophelian Mastemann, makes an appearance. The manuscript becomes hazier and more chaotic, according to Korin, until he himself has no idea what to make of it, other than being convinced of its utter importance. His most explicit summary comes towards the end, speaking of the possible author Wlassich and the four men:

It was a way out that this Wlassich or whatever his name is, was seeking for them, but he could not find one that was wholly airy and fantastical so he sent them forth into the wholly real realm of history, into the reality of eternal war, and tried to settle them at a point that held the promise of peace, a promise that was never fulfilled, though he conjures this reality with ever more infernal power, with ever more devilish fidelity, even greater demonic sensitivity, and populates it with the products of his own imagination, in vain as it turns out, for their path leads but from war to war, and never from war to peace, and this Wlassich, or whoever it is, despairs ever more of his one-person, amateurish ritual, and eventually goes completely off his head, for there is no Way Out. (203)

Needless to say, Korin is living this nightmare himself, though in a rather abstruse manner. The severity with which he goes about his life, even the simple matter of traveling to New York and publishing the manuscript, is difficult to bear at times. It is this historical weight, the constant sense of grand war and a society that is too great and heavy with suffering for a person to contain, that is the heart of the book, as inexplicable as it may be. Korin suffers it constantly and acutely. Krasznahorkai does not give any simple explanation, or any real explanation at all, for Korin’s condition, in which the historical and personal have collapsed and are overwhelming him. But the “historical” is not quite what we read in the papers and in books; it is, as Korin says, “the version that has triumphed by stealth.”

As for the Way Out…Krasznahorkai leaves it somewhat open. The end uses a couple of metafictional conceits. One of them is quite a punchline, and the other is touchingly ingenuous. Both reinforce that Korin’s nightmare is meant to be shared, as it is Krasznahorkai’s and his readers’. In his online introduction, Krasznahorkai says:

…there was an unexpected, fierce, poignant vision: a couple of people running for life in timeless devastation and meanwhile taking stock of all that they have to say good-bye to.

The book I started to write in 1992 rests on this vision, and given the feeling I had while working on it that there were less and less people who would grasp the meaning of a vision like mine, from 1996 on I tried to get in touch with them. I had been writing messages for two years and dividing them into separate sentences I had them published in literary journals. Then in 1998 I sent a kind of a last message, a story forwarded as a letter and entitled Megj&#xc3&#xb6tt &#xc3&#x89zsai&#xc3&#xa1s /Isaiah has come/ in which the future hero described the roots, origin and spirit of the novel announced to be published the following year.

Perhaps Krasznahorkai is trying to resituate Beckett and Kafka’s private mirrors of the self in known historical reality, a goal with which I am wholly sympathetic. His open conception of a narrow readership seems in line with this goal, and it matches the book’s concept as well, since Korin and the four travelers are such aberrant figures. I don’t know if I’m included in that readership, but for the last week I’ve felt like I am, felt shaken as Korin does.

RIP Grant McLennan

Always the modest one in the Go-Betweens next to Robert Forster’s arty stance. I remember reading Forster remark that McLennan had little ability to edit himself or judge his own work, so McLennan would come in with a dozen songs thinking that he was done, and Forster would throw out most of them. This is the sort of thing that doomed Ford Madox Ford (87 novels, according to Coetzee) to second-string status, but pop is more concise, and McLennan’s best still overshadows most of his competition.

His finest moments, for me: Cattle and Cane Dusty in Here

And one more obscure gem: Heaven Says

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.

pica on Roberto Bolano

The always brilliant pica has an entry up on Roberto Bola&#xf1o&#x92s La literatura nazi en America, soon to be translated for us non-Spanish speakers. What with the recent fuss over Bolano, I’m glad that the rest of his work has been deemed worthy of translation. I was much impressed by By Night in Chile, and indications are that his work was extremely heterogeneous, so a number of surprises await. One unifying thread, however, seems to be literature’s complicity in mortal crimes and political horrors. As English, French, and West German writers seem often to have dealt with this theme from too theoretical a standpoint (see Coetzee, Blanchot, Grass, etc.), the visceral approach of Latin American writers like Bolano and Augusto Roa Bastos makes a necessary counterweight.

Now, who’s going to translate Dmitry Galkovsky?

Update: My admin informs me that comments have now been repaired. In the meantime, Posthegemonic Musings takes issue with quite a bit of what I’ve said here. I’ll say more later, but I still believe there is a difference between works like Coetzee’s dry statement of colonialism, Foe and Grass’s endlessly discursive The Rat, and the much more immanent horror displayed in Bolano’s By Night in Chile. There are more exceptions (Lins, Cortazar, Lispector, for example) than there are exemplars, but Bolano and Roa Bastos still share more with the Eastern European trend of authors like Vaculik and Krleza than they do with the political literature of many other regions. Not that they aren’t theoretical, but they seem to be more talented at not letting the theory overwhelm the story.

J.M. Coetzee: Elizabeth Costello

What a frustrating book this is. I have had varied responses to much of Coetzee’s fiction, finding it anywhere from brilliant (Waiting for the Barbarians) to bloodless (Disgrace) to pretentious (Foe), so I didn’t get around to his first post-Nobel fiction until now. But I must say that I admire his willigness to put out a book that will completely alienate Nobel punters, as well as be so open to misinterpretation.

The book is a collection of “stories” (“Lessons”, they’re titled) about the elderly writer Costello, who, having long ago written a famous revisionist version of Ulysses from Molly’s point of view (called The House on Eccles Street), now listlessly attends conferences on various literary topics. She has no passion for these topics, and no shortage of contempt for the fanboys and other writers that attend the conferences. The one issue that does stir her to her feet is animal rights, which she pursues with the single-minded intolerance of the zealot, comparing animal slaughter to the Holocaust.

Few of the reviews of Elizabeth Costello have addressed some of the most perplexing problems of the narrative. James Wood, always keen on religious readings of fiction, insists on a liturgical interpretation:

Far from being evasive, I think that Coetzee is passionately confessing, and that his entire book vibrates with confession. The reference to Ivan Ilyich is the key. Simply put, Coetzee’s subject is death. Costello’s lectures are about the lives of animals, and that means also the human animal. It is by contemplating her own death that she can enter the suffering – the millions of deaths – of animals. Our mortality is animal mortality. And likewise, to think about animal death is to think of our own death.

What Wood ignores is how truly obnoxious Costello is. Her empathy for animals rings false because she treats those around her (her son, her colleagues, her ex-lovers, her fans) like garbage, simultaneously condescending to them while demanding indulgence for everthing she does. Worse, she’s hardly eloquent. Her arguments are irrational, trite, and mindlessly syllogistic:

“As for animals being too dumb and stupid to speak for themselves, consider the following sequence of events. When Albert Camus was a young boy in Algeria, his grandmother told him to bring her one of the hens from the cage in their backyard. He obeyed, then watched her cut off its head with a kitchen knife, catching its blood in a bowl so that the floor would not be dirtied.

“The death cry of that hen imprinted itself on the boy’s memory so hauntingly that in 1958 he wrote an impassioned attack on the guillotine. As a result, in part, of that polemic, capital punishment was abolished in France. Who is to say, then, that the hen did not speak?”

If I were Coetzee, I would be very worried that after writing a book in which specious arguments such as this take up so much room, the arguments would be mistakenly attributed to me. (Justifiably so: The Observer condemns him for holding Costello’s opinions, and David Lodge’s review gives entirely too much credit to her opinions.) Indeed, had I not read Coetzee’s other work and his essays, I’d be tempted to assign these views to him. But Coetzee has never written like this. His criticism is coldly rational, well-researched, and often insightful. (I highly recommend his book of essays Stranger Shores.) And I cannot imagine that Coetzee would ever take seriously the theses of Costello’s speeches. Coetzee has compared Costello to Christa Wolf and Doris Lessing, and I don’t believe the comparison is meant to be flattering. Both writers are polemicists notorious for deducing fictional circumstances from preconceived ideas, and so it is with Costello. She is partly, but not entirely, Coetzee’s strawman.

Oliver Herford’s perceptive review in the TLS is the only one to have gotten at Costello’s lapses qua fiction:

Costello is impatient of the proprieties of public argumentation, preferring “to think in similitudes rather than reason things out”. This is a novelist’s failing, perhaps, but it occasions some spectacular lapses. She starts, too, from positions of provoking extremity…but passes rapidly from violent identification to a blank disbelief in what she has undertaken to say.

Elizabeth Costello is a thin, disagreeable character and an obvious contrivance – an unreliable surrogate whose obsessions and inconsistencies are conventionally opposed but never effectually challenged; she does not stay even to answer her own idle self-questioning, of which there is an exasperating amount.

All this is painfully illustrated when Costello interprets other works of literature and philosophy. Herford points out that her interpretation of Kafka’s “Report to an Academy” is absurdly off the mark, but so are all of her interpretations. She disagrees with Thomas Nagel, saying she can know what it is like to be a bat. Of “A Modest Proposal,” she says:

If it is atrocious to kill and eat human babies, why is it not atrocious to kill and eat piglets? If you want Swift to be a dark ironist rather than a facile pamphleteer, you might examine the premises that make his fable so easy to digest.

In passages like these Costello reminds you of your freshman year roommate who lambasted you all year long for eating meat before giving up vegetarianism sophomore year. Or consider this gem concerning Ulysses, which she purportedly knew well enough to rewrite:

I do not like that other world, writes Martha Clifford to her pen pal Leopold Bloom, but she lies: why would she write at all if she did not want to be swept off to another world by a demon lover?

Martha Clifford’s typo (she meant “word”) has all sorts of resonances, but Coetzee’s meaning is clear: Costello has forgotten the context and has freely interpreted the passage to mean whatever she wants it to mean. She has imposed a tyranny of her own private meanings on everyone and everything.

And ultimately she is a tyrant, especially to her long-suffering son but also to nearly everyone she meets. Her “empathy” is actually the narcissistic projection of one’s own self on to the faces of the downtrodden, a common ailment of the terminally myopic. She sympathizes with people by imagining they feel just like her, unless they disagree with her, in which case she quickly dismisses them as inhuman morons. So it is with literature; if she cannot see herself in it, she dismisses it.

As a satire of the caprices of writers and of the unquestioning authority granted to their polemical pronoucements, Elizabeth Costello is grimly amusing, almost a middle finger to the Nobel Committee. (I suspect that Coetzee is deeply uneasy with their elevation of so many writers with deep moral flaws.) It’s hard not to agree with him after reading things like an interview with the hatefully senile Felipe Alfau. (Thank you Maud Newton for the link.) But especially in the last two sections, which are revisionist versions of Kafka’s “Before the Law” and Hofmannsthal’s “The Lord Chandos Letter”, Coetzee changes the terms. In the first, Costello is denied admission to heaven because she refuses to profess belief in any particular thing. In the second, she takes on the role of Lord Chandos’s wife, and portrays his epiphanies as those of Icarus:

But how I ask you can I live with rats and dogs and beetles crawling through me day and night, drowning and gasping, scratching at me, tugging me, urging me deeper and deeper into revelation–how? We are not made for revelation, I want to cry out, nor I nor you, my Philip, revelation that sears the eye like staring into the sun.

If this is the final “Lesson,” then the object of the lessons has been Costello herself. She has not practiced literary criticism or philosophy over the course of the book, but has she practiced literature? If so, what price has she paid for it? Hofmannsthal gave us the image of a man overwhelmed with profundity that transcended language, yet he expressed it so eloquently that it was easy to believe him. Whatever profundity that Costello has private access to, she is unable to express it: not through misinterpreting other people’s works, not through angry screeds, not through interpersonal relationships. Yet it clearly causes her torment, and for this she does deserve our sympathy. I think that this is what separates Coetzee’s book from the seemingly endless river of literature portraying writers in various states of breakdown and uncommunication: given the abnormality of the writer, he is more willing to see writers in the context of societal normality rather than placing them at the center. Elizabeth Costello is ultimately a portrait of a marginal figure, and her inner pain seems all the more disproportionate for it.

The book also appears to indict much writerly discourse, yet other people over the course of the book speak quite cogently, usually when calmly destroying Costello’s arguments. No, the problem is quite clearly with Costello herself, and since we are never given evidence of Costello’s prior writing talent, it’s impossible to say whether her reputation is deserved. No doubt she is unique and uniquely tormented, but what of it?

Throughout the book, people make the mistake of engaging in discourse with Costello to no positive effect. Perhaps Coetzee wishes to separate literature from the realm of debate, saying that writers are not the sort to participate in argument. They are best left alone to write their books, which then the public can make sense of. But beyond that, Coetzee makes a statement on how dangeous it is to take authors at their intent and at their literal meaning, as well as point out how authors can be their own worst advocates. Coetzee in his essays reads for subtext and subtlety, often questioning the placement of an idea in a literary work rather than engaging with it. With Elizabeth Costello, he has written a work that acts as a warning, since considering Costello’s ideas only leads to silliness and frustration.

The reaction of people to the book–predominantly a willingness to take Costello’s views seriously, as no critic other than Herford mentions Costello’s series of grotesque misreadings of other authors–seems to confirm Coetzee’s concerns. But Coetzee is not so monolithically harsh, since the book is simultaneously a portrait of the vacant inside of one of these authors, and her inability to believe anything truly. Is this, asks Coetzee, who we want to argue with and interpret? Is it wise to hold up the figure of the author and deem him or her a seer, a prophet, or a truthteller? No, better to treat the books autonomously and dispense with the author.

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