David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: ideology (page 4 of 4)

2.1.6 Mme Swann at Home: Bergotte Himself

There is something very particular about Bergotte that I want to point out because I believe it illustrates how cagey Proust is about letting “authority” seep into his novel. I’ve already mentioned how the people who have most influenced young Marcel, like Bloch and Bergotte, but also Swann and Odette, are invariably undercut by being painted in a very different light, either in their interactions with others, or through being seen differently in the past or the future.
In the case of Bergotte, you have the first character who could be considered a genius. His effects on people are mixed. He can be so novel in his verbiage that people are disappointed, because they cannot attach it to anything in their experience. The impression he makes is decidedly not rational:

Doubtless again to distinguish himself from the previous generation, too fond as it had been of abstractions, of weighty commonplaces, when Bergotte wished to speak favourably of a book, what he would emphasise, what he would quote with approval would always be some scene that furnished the reader with an image, some picture that had no rational meaning. “Ah, yes!” he would exclaim, “it’s good! There’s a little girl in an orange shawl. It’s excellent!” or again, “Oh yes, there’s a passage in which there’s a regiment marching along the street; yes, it’s good!”…And it is true that there was in Bergotte’s style a kind of harmony similar to that for which the ancients used to praise certain of their orators in terms which we now find hard to understand, accustomed as we are to our own modern tongues in which effects of that kind are not sought. (598)

This “kind of harmony” is more insidious than the substance of what Bergotte is saying. We’ve already seen his impact on Marcel, which contained as much of Marcel as it did of Bergotte, and Bergotte’s attunement to a certain type of intellectual disposition at the expense of his interactions with those around him, but the emphasis on his mode of speaking further points away from the substance of what he says and more towards the style, one which fosters agreement even when the reader isn’t sure with what he is agreeing. The influence of the style seems unavoidable:

There were other characteristics of his elocution which he shared not with the members of his family, but with certain contemporary writers. Younger men who were beginning to repudiate him and disclaimed any intellectual affinity with him nevertheless displayed it willy-nilly by employing the same adverbs, the same prepositions that he incessantly repeated, by constructing their sentences in the same way, speaking in the same quiescent, lingering tone, in reaction against the eloquent and facile language of an earlier generation…His way of thinking, inoculated into them, had led them to those alterations of syntax and accentuation which bear a necessary relation to originality of mind. (598)

What the younger writers take from Bergotte is not his ideology, which they reject, but the power in his style. Yet it is through his style that he wields his influence, both over people who cannot quite comprehend what he is saying, and in the next generation of writers.
The notion of speech that is more about style and influence than ideological substance puts me in mind of Mynheer Peeperkorn, from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Let me start by saying that I find Mynheer one of the most irritating characters in literature, and he’s a good part of my low estimation of the book. But his flaws and Mann’s flaws are relevant to what Proust does with Bergotte. Let’s take a look at some of Mynheer’s speech:

“Gentleman–,” the Dutchman said, raising his lance-nailed captain’s hand in a gesture that both implored and commanded. “Fine, gentlemen, agreed, excellent! Asceticism–indulgence–sensual lust–let me say that–by all means! Eminently important! Eminently controversial! And yet, permit me to say–I fear that we are about to commit a–ladies and gentlemen, we are avoiding, we are irresponsibly avoiding the holiest of–” He took a deep breath. “This air, ladies and gentlemen, this day’s foehn air so rich in character, so tenderly enervating, suggestive and reminiscent of spring’s fragrance–we should not breathe it in merely so that in the form of–I implore you: we should not do it. That is an insult. For its own sweet, simple sake, we must totally and fully–oh, and with our highest and most perceptive–settled, ladies and gentlemen! And only as an act in purest praise of its properties should we then release it from our–but I must break off, ladies and gentlemen. I must break off in honor of this–” (582)

(This surely must be less annoying in German.) After thirty pages of this sort of thing, you can’t wait for the impotent old life force to off himself. Yet in the book, this sort of logorrhea gains him a little cult following who cheerfully follow him and his irrational ramblings off the cliff of reason. The protagonist Hans Castorp decides that the rational characters “simply shrank beside Peeperkorn” and discusses how Mynheer being drunk “only made him grander and more awe-inspiring,” and it’s all very uninspiring, no more so than when Mynheer opens his mouth. That he’s patently saying nothing is a fact; it’s his mystical life force or whatever ineffable thing Mann was thinking about on that day that is the attractive force. It’s unconvincing because there is nothing of that attraction communicated in the book.
Bergotte, on the other hand, does come across as a great spirit, less in what he says or what he does, more in the description of that effect. It’s made more convincing by the portrayal of it as only part of his nature, and the description of how his particular genius can sometimes estrange him from people as much as enamor people of him. With Mann, Mynheer is the nonnegotiable life force, while with Proust, Bergotte is presented in terms of his effects on particular types of people. There’s some, but not much, “there” there.
So while Mynheer Peeperkorn belongs to a line that eventually extends down to Jubal Harshaw and “Henry Miller” the character(not in their positions in the novel, but in their universal effects on those around them–see also Wyndham Lewis), Bergotte is Oz and the man behind the curtain simultaneously, as well as a heterogeneity of experience that does not permit him to be one thing to all people.
The contrast is deeper than the nature of the individual character; it’s a question of approach, and it reminded me of a passage from way back in “Combray” in the first volume:

These were the events taking place in the book I was reading. It is true that the people concerned in them were not what Francoise would have called “real people.” But none of the feelings which the joys or misfortunes of a “real” person arouse in us can be awakened except through a mental picture of those joys or misfortunes; and the ingenuity of the first novelist lay in his understanding that, as the image was the one essential element in the complicated structure of our emotions, so that simplification of it which consisted in the suppression, pure and simple, of “real” people would be a decided improvement. A “real” person, profoundly as we may sympathise with him, is in a great measure perceptible only through our senses, that is to say, remains opaque, presents a dead weight which our sensibilities have not the strength to lift. If some misfortune comes to him, it is only in one small section of the complete idea we have of him that we are capable of feeling any emotion; indeed it is only in one small section of the complete idea he has of himself that he is capable of feeling any emotion either. The novelist’s happy discovery was to think of substituting for these opaque sections, impenetrable to the human soul, their equivalent in immaterial sections, things, that is, which one’s soul can assimilate…It is the same in life; the heart changes, and it is our worst sorrow; but we know it only through reading, through our imagination: in reality its alteration, like that of certain natural phenomena, is so gradual that, even if we are able to distinguish, successively, each of its different states, we are still spared the actual sensation of change. (91)

What is Proust doing if not to portray, first, the repetitions and lack of change amongst characters, and second, the simultaneous coexistence of contradictory characteristics in a character depending on the situation?
I find this to be the best answer to the charges of myopia that I and plenty of others have leveled against the novel, of asking why the vagaries of these high-class French people have any significance. Well, to do the sort of examination here, I believe that Proust had to stick very close to his own past experience, mutating it but hardly abandoning it. I don’t see how he could have constructed such elaborate characters except by starting from known exemplars and then reconstructing/reshuffling them. I could be wrong, but that’s my best guess. Proust’s endless efforts to detach his writing from one particular view of his situations also goes a way to redeeming the choice of subject matter, since it becomes secondary to the approach.
This is probably the penultimate entry on “Mme Swann at Home,” which is by a wide margin the richest section in the first two books. (The remaining section of Within a Budding Grove is thankfully much more linear and breezy.) It’s hardly self-contained, so it’s bizarre that it begins the second volume, but there you have it. The message that I take from it, above all else, is that everything–past, present, and future–is subject to revision over time. Of course, a thousand pages of showing that principle in action over everything and everyone Proust can think of has a far more profound effect than just saying it.

The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo

Of all the articles I’ve seen dissecting the decision of the Pentagon to show Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers as a primer in urban warfare by an insurgent indigenous population, none have addressed what I always thought was most interesting, the portrayal of the the triumph of the resistance as unavoidable destiny. The film’s politics are not ludicrous because of factual inaccuracies or one-dimensionally propagandist speeches, but because it’s all played as a game of dialectical materialism, in which a certain outcome will inexorably result.

The Slate article summarizes the movie, but it gives the film too much moral depth. When I watch The Battle of Algiers, Pontecorvo’s attitude is that all the actions of resistance are necessary, particularly the violent ones. The outcome is predetermined, as Colonel Mathieu implies: the proles will rise up against the oppresors, and they will win. Pontecorvo never rejects the idea of “sustained and bloody insurrection.”

(This sort of thing was popular in the 60s, and Pontecorvo is better at it than most. It’s far more politically engaging than Godard’s insane Weekend, which drags two garbagemen out in front of the camera in the middle of the picture to talk about what wonderful progress the revolution is making.)

The movie is still brilliantly effective because it is extremely rare for a movie to portray pawns of historical (Marxist) inevitability with such dignity. Viewers identify with these scared, nervous agitators, who hardly understand their own Hegelian destinies, because they slot into the role of the noble revolutionaries in Pontecorvo’s dialectical framework. They’re made noble by their role in the historical process. It’s not until after the movie finishes that you realize that you’ve bought into Frantz Fanon without even realizing it. Pauline Kael said:

The Battle of Algiers is probably the only film that has ever made middle-class audiences believe in the necessity of bombing innocent people–perhaps because Pontecorvo made it a tragic necessity…It’s practically rape of the doubting intelligence.

The sentiment is right, but I think she was slightly off the mark. Middle-class people would never sincerely believe in the need for their own self-destruction, but Pontecorvo does a good job of tricking them into sympathizing with their enemies. It’s less the tragedy that gets them than the sheer manipulation with which Pontecorvo plays up the revolutionaries and alienates viewers from the middle-classes of the film. Yet he does it in the context of macrohistorical forces, which is an amazing trick.

You have to wonder how effective it was on the Pentagon employees who watched it–probably not at all. But the real irony here, the huge irony, is that the Pentagon would air a movie that privileges ideology over facts, where the straitjacket of Marxist progression is tightly fitted over the messy (and less noble) Algerian resistance, in which the outcome is determined before the action even starts. No matter what the doubts of the individuals carrying out their historic tasks, says Pontecorvo, there was never a chance that Algiers would not be freed from French rule; first principles dictated it. There is no need for pragmatism or realism, nor for compromise, only for a decisive, inevitable show of force, destined to succeed. The distance between that vision and what actually happened in Algeria–decades more of authoritarian rule and poverty–is the real lesson the Pentagon (and the DoD, and Fox News, and the Weekly Standard, etc.) should take from the film.

“Literary Theory and Historical Understanding,” Morris Dickstein

Morris Dickstein writes on “Literary Theory and Historical Understanding” in a diffuse article that exemplifies the doom of the provider of an afterword to an anthology. He has to provide an authoritative, paternal perspective without being dismissive of the disparate viewpoints enclosed. The result is skeptical and non-reductionistic, both good, but confusingly equivocal. But I like Dickstein, and he makes some good points that bear blunt extraction.

He treats three main forms of modern literary criticism:

  • New criticism, the more classical approach of close reading, attempting to ferret out tropes and devices that form the shape of a work, usually in a vacuum-sealed context. (F.R. Leavis, Cleanth Brooks, Northrop Frye, Helen Vendler, etc.)
  • New historicism, that which roughly tries to place work in a very specific historical context, play down the individualistic nature of authorship, and show novels as products of obvious and submerged social forces. (Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Benn Michaels, Nancy Armstrong, etc.)
  • New theory, that which uses a deductive approach from some overarching framework, often political and/or Hegelian, to produce architectonic schemas to apply to work. (In my opinion this is the most varied category he uses, and can include everyone from Harold Bloom to Jacques Derrida to Tzvetan Todorov to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick to Michael Denning.)

The categories are debatable and overlap; Dickstein admits that. But despite his problems with new historicism, Dickstein essentially gives it a pass over what he says is the staid new criticism and the impotent new theory.

My instinct has always been to group theory and historicism closer together than any other pairing: both can be tremendously reductive and both are inclined to load the dice with an a priori political view which is then used to bludgeon authors into the needed positions. (Read David Lodge’s academic novels of the 70’s for treatments of both approaches.)

But Dickstein strongly pushes the view that it’s theory and new criticism that share a similar self-marginalization and conservatism. Theory, in his mind, was constructed as an apolitical ghetto:

Theory set out to revolutionize the academy, where it had taken refuge from an unsympathetic society. It aimed at a radical transformation of the interpretive disciplines, only to burden them with a sense of skepticism, disillusionment, and broken connections. During the backlash years of Nixonian demagoguery and Reaganite restoration, theory became catastrophe theory, a way of compensating for the sense of impotence, or of recouping failure by showing that it was inevitable, even as critics asserted their power over the text, their refusal to be dominated by its structures, themes, or rhetorical patterns. Emphasizing ideology over interpretation, literary scholarship became a way of seeing through literature, of not being taken in by it.

This is very extreme, basically positing theory as a defense mechanism, and a way of exerting academic superiority not just over texts, but over the common readers who allow themselves to be manipulated. As such, Dickstein paints theory as dishonest and petty. It is a thesis that has recently been taken up by Happy the Tutor. I don’t think it applies in all the cases he believes. Harold Bloom prostrating himself before the altar of Shakespeare and Derrida humbling himself before Poe, among others, seem to advocate an egalitarian engagement and sparring with texts. But both structuralist and the more extreme deconstructionist approaches do advocate such a strict reframing of the work under consideration as to evoke Hamilton Burger browbeating a witness.

Are they, by nature, apolitical, or even conservative? I don’t think the question has a definitive answer, but it’s hard to deny that very little of practical, political worth has come out of theory (Richard Rorty’s strained efforts included). And this willful seclusion has both a cause and effect relationship with the marginalization of the literary academic institution.

Does this match up with the anemic and unimaginative beast that Dickstein makes of classical close reading and new criticism? Partially. The myopic focus on linguistic devices over ideology, character, and authorial intent makes trudging through, for instance, Leavis’s dissection of T.S. Eliot heavy going, but Dickstein sells it short. To the extent that there is still a moral underpinning of the proposed reading, Leavis is selling more than mere lists of tropes. I disagree with Leavis, but at least it’s there. Now, you can say that Leavis isn’t a pardigmatic new critic and five pages of Cleanth Brooks would have me climbing the walls, and you’d be right, but the empiricism is similar, as is the lack of engagement with the world at large, which is the point on which Dickstein condemns them. But that doesn’t quite justify some of the harsher points Dickstein makes about theory, nor does it give much credence to the (heavily conditional) elevation of historism:

Historicist readings too often seem idiosyncratic, empirically tenuous, or merely suggestive. In addition, they are often all too predictable in their political sympathies. Eager to weigh in on the side of the insulted and the injured, they seem determined by their well-meaning political agendas. Yet compared with other ways of reading, they call upon a larger knowledge of the world, and often do more to link literature or theory to the actual flow of human life.

Here I’m skeptical. Analysing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in an exclusively feminist context is valuable, but the degree to which the interpretation crowds out all others is more blinkered than illuminating. (I’m not picking on feminist readings here: so much has been done to Hawthorne in the Puritan context that he can hardly be read for the first time. Melville survives better because his books are too big, literally and metaphorically. I do think Shelley has been done a similarly large disservice.) If the new historicists haven’t been especially good historians, they’re plugging as much a false engagement with literature as the theoreticians. But the key word is “engagement”:

The radical students I taught in the late ’60s were scarcely bent on deconstructing the residues of metaphysics in Western humanist texts. On the contrary, they responded with passion to the classics as subversive works whose humane promise remained unfulfilled. They connected with art and philosophy not because it was canonical but because it felt so fresh, so immediate — and so visionary. Blake, Dickens, Ruskin, and Lawrence seemed like their contemporaries, not the authors of musty classics. Never had the Great Books felt more relevant than when the whole direction of society was in play. The lineage of deconstruction takes us back not to the politics of the ’60s but to its ultimate betrayal and blockage.

What I come away with is Dickstein’s agenda that it’s time for critics to involve themselves in reality again, and if the new historicists are a little shallow or reductionistic, by all means condemn them, but be aware that their aims are noble and practical in the best Thomas Dewey sense. Unfortunately, I believe that this way lies social realism and dreary Upton Sinclair novels. Dickens is so absorbed in his time and place he’s his own new historian, but someone like Blake so defies a historicist reading that Dickstein’s use of him here undermines the point. While Dickstein makes a case that much theory has no place except to belittle greater authors, he basically ignores the longstanding tradition that isolation and myopia have produced in academia, which I’m not yet prepared to discount.

Dickstein makes all these criticisms and more, quite blatantly, against the new historicists, and still seems inclined to give them a break, because of the political agenda. The historians, like Dickstein did, can still serve to point would-be radicals to the ideals set forth in the classics. It’s just that by privileging the near-term practical outcome over the purity of the methodology, they are offering image over substance, much as the 60’s themselves did.

[Probably more to come on this…one afterthought is that I probably shouldn’t have used the word “political” when referring to the broader attitude of “engagement.”]

Oulipo: Existentialismos, John Barth, Georges Perec

Once upon a time there was an author named John Barth, and he wrote a book called The Floating Opera, in which a very nihilistic young man does the Colin Wilson/Arthur Schopenhauer thing and declares there is no purpose in living, acting, or doing, and to prove it he plots to blow up the titular boat, before coming to his revised conclusion: “There’s no final reason for living (or for suicide).” This constitutes the climax of the book. The two descriptors that best apply to the precocious (at least for a man in his mid-20’s in the 1950’s) book are callous and callow, and if not for the fluency of the imagery and environment, the book would just be a signpost on the way to Michel Houellebecq and Bret Easton Ellis.

The basic ethos is mirrored in his second novel, The End of the Road, in which the formula is much the same. Perhaps a little less solipsistic, as the lookalike narrator is given a girlfriend (who dies during an abortion) and more significantly, an existential mentor named the Doctor:

Why don’t you read Sartre and become an existentialist? It will keep you moving until we find something more suitable for you. Study the World Almanac: it is to be your breviary for a while…Take long walks, but always to a previously determined destination, and when you get there, walk right home again, briskly…Above all, act impulsively: don’t let yourself get stuck between alternatives, or you’re lost. You’re not that strong. If the alternatives are side by side, choose the one on the left; if they’re consecutive in time, choose the earlier. If neither of these applies, choose the alternative whose name begins with the earlier letter of the alphabet. These are the principles of Sinistrality, Antecedence, and Alphabetical Priority–there are others, and they’re arbitrary, but useful.

I’ve tried to trim down the Doctor’s obnoxious oratory; it’s internally consistent but seems a little naive in being presented as so contemporary. I’ve known people who used nearly the same argument to justify adherence to the more quotidian tenets of Orthodox Judaism.

(Quoth Rabbi Paysach Krohn:

The Torah extends more prominence to the right hand than it does to the left hand. However with regard to the act of tying, the prominence shifts to the left hand because tefillin are usually tied on the left arm. Therefore although both right-handers and left-handers put on their right shoe first (because of prominence to the right side), there is a difference with regard to tying their laces. The right-hander should tie his left shoe first (because it is on that side that he wears his tefillin) whereas the left-hander ties his right shoe first.

But I digress….)

I’m not particularly interested in how the nihilism turned into the existentialism, but it’s certainly a more generative strategy for the book and for action, any action, on the part of the narrator. And that brings up the question, could the same technique have worked for Barth? (Since it also could have generated the decision, “Let’s have Terry Southern write the screenplay adaptation of The End of the Road, some adjustments may have been required.)

Barth would, only two years later, write the mega-novel The Sot-Weed Factor, totally different than what went before and driven not by any philosophical ideology as the drive to excavate his world until he popped out the other side. This would lead to metafictional excursions like Lost in the Funhouse and especially Letters, a gigantic mess where characters from all his other novels shoot letters to each other and to Barth. The former actually stands taller as a statement of purpose, since Barth makes it very clear that storytelling and storytellers are everything, and he has stuck with that focus ever since. But if I look back on his work and its permutations of fourth-wall-breakages, mythological revisionism, and old-style deconstructionism, the chosen architecture of his conceits seems a bit arbitrary. I don’t use the word prejudicially–Robert Coover’s Pinocchio in Venice has some obvious and less obvious revisions of the Pinocchio symbolism that are fine regardless of the fact that other interpretations were possible and some more obvious–but for an author as generative as Barth, his lack of ideological reasoning behind individual architectural choices is as much a dogmatic tenet as his focus on narratology. And isn’t this starting to sound a bit like the Doctor?

The analogue that I draw on for evidence is Georges Perec, the quintessential Oulipo author, whose novels followed the same path as Barth’s. His early A Man Asleep is the story of a man who is very, very apathetic and dissociative (and, I daresay, depressed). By Life: A User’s Manual (and others, but this is the key one), he’s on to stories of people who have rituals in their own lives: puzzles, cults, writing, etc. The evolution is the imposition of arbitrary structure. You can look at this as experimental, challenging, and unexpected, and you can also see it, as early Barth does, as existential.

And this gets back to the question of the Oulipo and whether, for example, the urge to create complex characters, offer psychological insight, or illuminate mores is fundamentally different from the urge to write REALLY BIG PALINDROMES. I think it has something to do with exactly what the arbitrary structure ethic is. I believe, without conclusive proof, that many of these authors do adopt a defensive, existential mindset, avoiding justifications of their arbitrary method because (1) there is none, it’s arbitrary after all, and (2) the very act of justifying the ethic would cause a regression to the earlier, nihilistic/dissociative state.

Classically, structural decisions are made with reference to advancing a plot or character; with an existentialist writing ethic, this becomes dishonest. It’s preferable to parade the arbitrariness as prima facie.

Ray Davis says something similar:

Embodying this recognition of survival’s triviality in the very work of survival is the point and foundation of the works’ significance.

But I believe the examples he references, Roubaud and Beckett, are in the minority. In most existentially-created works of this sort more commonly would reject this statement, as the statement itself is meaningless under the precepts of the work’s creation. You only get significance of this sort if you return to the nihilistic stage that most of the books work so hard to avoid.

More commonly, Barth’s approach, as with the more mechanistic approach espoused by the Oulipo, generates its significance because it works: it generates books. Lots of books. Lots of poems. This isn’t to denigrate the existential writing approach. But there are certain types of “significance” that its works often can’t contain, or admit.

Berg, Ann Quin

Berg comes to the small British town where his absentee father lives, checks into a boarding house, sleeps with his father’s girlfriend, and eventually kills his father. There’s some nonsense involving a wooden dummy, long passages about the look and feel of the town, and occasional imagistic reveries of self-hatred and other-hatred. Quin is stingy about what she gives you to work with, and I felt for a lot of the book that I was reading it forty years too late (it was written in 1964). So there’s a missing context–what is it?

Although Quin inconsistently pulls back from a formal, abstruse description to pure stream-of-consciousness, she mostly sticks to a literalism that doesn’t go beyond its settings. (The obvious conflict between the “low” occurrences and setting and Berg’s stilted, hyper-affected prose underpins the book.) There is slow-motion physical comedy that is undeniably reminiscent of Beckett, and slow-motion objective observation that brings back bad memories of the endless, neutral descriptions of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Erasers, but underneath the language, the allegory, and a couple narrative blinds that don’t seem to add up to much, the consistently boorish behavior of everyone involved, particularly the supporting characters, points to a different facet of mid-century modernist novels, best exemplified by Raymond Queneau. Not the Queneau of The Blue Flowers or The Sunday of Life and definitely not the Queneau of Exercises in Style; instead, the Queneau of Pierrot Mon Ami and Zazie dans le Métro, self-consciously provincial novels dealing with trivial events, whose “statements” are have very little to do with any ideology obeyed by their characters. Rather, they’re “about” Queneau’s rejection of any greater internal meaning his plots could take.

(For another, more morbid take on the same principle, see the work of Carlo Emilio Gadda. I find Gadda very difficult to read because his mystery melodramas don’t ever add up, and not just because they don’t end. Gadda deals with the whole anti-mystery concept in a very literal way, and his general effect is far more nihilistic than Céline, simply because Gadda is trying so hard.)

Queneau’s books are the most concentrated example of the folklorish anti-meaning approach, but Italo Calvino was working in the same area in Marcovaldo and even in the earlier Baron in the Trees. Quin is too concerted (and, possibly, too British) to be as carefree as either, but Berg doesn’t read like a rejection of Queneau’s approach, more of an evolution of it. The distancing techniques, fantasies, and Freudian plot don’t overpower what is ultimately a story about a very alienated and angry boy screwing around in a small British town. It’s strongest when Berg is dealing with the small-minded landlady and tending to his incontinent father; it’s weakest when Quin goes straight for symbolic effect and has Berg abruptly dress up in drag to be manhandled by his father. Quin needs basic realism to push off against, and when the course of the plot seems predetermined, the rationale for the abstract style disappears.

What is the rationale? It has something to do with taking the trappings of provincialism–boorish behavior made charming, Keystone Kops slapstick–and recontextualizing them. It had already been done with mythology and history, but despite the Oedipal situation, Berg isn’t really about the past but about the specificity of a present that much closer to reality than to any literary idiom. Coming from a tradition that was far less fanciful than that which Queneau worked from, Quin had more territory to explore, but it makes you wonder how much she came back around to her Bloomsbury antecedents: the sensory overload of the prose at points almost resembles D.H. Lawrence.

No matter; the book is Quin’s (not Berg’s) triumph of literary fancy over rather terrible, base circumstances, even if it reads like a temporary victory. It is superior to books that came down the pipeline many years later dealing in the same sort of alienation, mostly American works like Gordon Lish’s Extravaganza and Jay Cantor’s Krazy Kat, which have too much affection for their sources to work at the same level as Berg. And when the writing calms down, as it does for brief spells, the small village is reminiscent of that in the Membranes‘ “Tatty Seaside Town” (1987), so that part of the book has dated fine.

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