David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: kleist (page 3 of 3)

Gabriel Josipovici: In a Hotel Garden

I consider Gabriel Josipovici one of the best literary critics around (most recently, his brilliant essay on Grimm and Kleist), and as usual, I tried in vain to put his criticism aside when I read this novel. I was half-aware of Josipovici’s orientation and apparati while reading In a Hotel Garden, but in this case it wasn’t such a bad thing.

The back of the book says:

The narrator Ben relates to his friends his enthralling encounter with a Jewish woman in the Dolomite Alps. The tale of her compulsive visit to a hotel garden in Siena–where her grandmother fell in love with a man soon to be a victim of the Holocaust–illuminates Ben’s half-lived life….

With the exception of a factual mistake that is the crux of the book, this is indeed all that happens in this short novel. It’s a summary, not a teaser. The ultimate resolution, such as it is, is that the garden may be the wrong garden after all, and the significance that the other woman, Lily, attaches to it is mistaken, at least in the literal sense. There is no particular elaboration on the subject matter, something I believe Josipovici explicitly intended.

For, knowing Josipovici’s concern with Blanchot and his attention to language as a form of living and dying (as opposed to, say, a representational mechanism), what meaning there is lies in the dialogue. The novel is mostly dialogue, and the chapters delineate conversations between sets of characters. The early chapters, between Ben and his wife and friends, are aggressively and off-puttingly banal: the quotidian routines of holiday and family life. The conversations between Lily and Ben affect a change in style as well as content: the frustrating non-communication of much of the book gives way to a laying-out of the discourse, as the pace of the conversation slows down and the speakers appear to consider their words in a qualitatively different way. I won’t attempt to describe it, for the book’s strength is in achieving this distinction in text alone, and its goal (I believe) is to do so in a way that resists explication.

What is made explicit does not qualify as any sort of eloquent epiphany:

–You said this morning that when you saw the garden through the doors
of the hotel it was like coming home, he said.


–What did you mean?

–As if I’d known it all my life, she said. As if at last everything was going to come clear…As if it was where I came from, she said. As if once I entered that garden I would know who I was.

Such vague simplicities grate, but I came to decide that they were not meant as profundities in themselves, but as indications of a different sort of verbal struggling. Josipovici lashes himself fiercely to the mast of everyday conversation and refuses to build out of it or on top of it, preferring to present such conversation unadorned and elaborate on it purely through small variation and contrast. Like Blanchot, the result still feels to me like a mental schema overlaid onto characters, rather than one emerging through characters. But as an alternative to traditional presentations of dialogue–expository, developmental, and ornamental, for example–I find it productive. I’m not convinced or converted, but I am happy that the novel asked me for a different kind of reading, I asked why, and I was able to find an answer.

A la Fin Du Temps Perdu

I’ll try not to give away too much here, but the multiyear Proust reading has come to an end, even if the blog hasn’t. Since this isn’t an in-depth analysis but only my own reaction on finishing what is the longest book I’ve ever read (I can’t think of anything else that even comes close), I’m putting it on the main page. For you all who haven’t finished it, I don’t think there is much in the way of spoilers below, but it’s about finishing the book, so caveat emptor.

This is a very personal book. Towards the end, Proust describes a work of literary art as being an edifice built around the writer, to be seen and interpreted by visitors from the outside. There are works of fiction that don’t take this stance, works that attempt to generalize over all of life and speak in universals. In this view, the author is merely a conduit for a noumenal world. Shakespeare, of course, falls into this category, as do Dostoevsky, Homer, Melville, Faulkner. But Proust is very explicit that the vision he is projecting is a mirror of his own mind and little else, not that he needs to be explicit about it. In many ways Proust is as hermetic as Kafka or Kleist in his unshakeable devotion to his own perspective. It’s apparent that the problems he faces–and the ultimate answers he arrives at–are ones quite specific to himself and his own situation; i.e., that of a brilliant writer in active society.

That Proust’s excavation is so complete and so brilliant makes the work paradoxical. As I had been told by friends, Proust ends on a high, bringing together many threads from earlier in the work, and the feeling on finishing is one of satisfaction and completeness. It is the opposite of Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, which embraces the world and everything in it only to shatter and fall apart, because Musil’s world expanded and mutated faster than his book. But the paradox makes leaving Proust an ambivalent experience. On finishing his work, I did not feel as though I was carrying the entirety of the book with me in my head (though I have assimilated parts of it quite thoroughly). Rather, it was like leaving a cathedral and having the doors shut behind you.

I held off reading the end for about a week, precisely because I knew that finishing it would mean leaving Proust’s world. Proust never had to deal with that problem; even having written the end, the refinement of the gigantic middle could have easily been stretched to accomodate far more days than he had. The polar emotions that greeted me at the end were comfortable satisfaction at being at the brilliant summit of the end of the book, followed by the blinding readjustment that you have on walking out of a dark theater into the sunlight. And then the question, “Well, what do I read next?” (A: I think it has to be Beckett.)

Is it, in the words of an old professor, the greatest thing ever written? I can’t say that it is, because part of me feels that admitting that would be to narrow the scope of my world to that of Proust’s. But is it the greatest success ever written, a book that sets out very specific terms and fulfills them beyond any expectation, comparable to Joyce or Kant? Possibly.

Gabriel Josipovici on Grimm and Kleist

Gabriel Josipovici recently had an article in the TLS on the Brothers Grimm. Aside from being generally fascinating and throwing fairy tales, the Midrash, Kleist, Benjamin, and others into the mix, it has this particular striking passage:

What happened to the Grimm Tales in the course of fifty years of “revision” was that they were transformed from tales told by speakers who were deeply convinced that they were true (whatever meaning one assigns to the term) into tales told by writers (Wilhelm Grimm, in effect) who did not believe in them and therefore added scene-setting, morality and psychology to make them both attractive and meaningful. It also gives us a hint as to why a novelist like Dickens had (and still has) the effect he had on his readers: he was one who knew “how to be a child”. However, it was perhaps Kleist alone among the writers of the century who really grasped what was at issue here. His great novella, Michael Kohlhaas, takes many of the elements that go to make up the Grimm Tales and stands them on their head, bidding an anguished farewell as it does so both to community values and to the power of wishful thinking. But Kleist had no successors, and, by and large, nineteenth-century novelists and storytellers took the path of Midrash and romance, still the staple diet of readers of twentieth-century fiction, with neither writers nor readers quite believing what they are doing, but under a strange compulsion to pretend that they do.

[Just now I notice that Steve Mitchelmore at This Space quoted the exact same passage.]

As a lover of Kleist and his iconoclastic position in literary history, I will certainly defend the uniqueness of “Michael Kohlhaas,” a tale of brutal revenge interrupted about two-thirds of the way through by several fairy tale devices. Why is it that Josipovici calls this out as designating an abandoned road of fiction?

First there is the matter of what road was taken. What is the nature of this pantomime compact between writers and readers which Josipovici only mentions briefly? Modern day American fiction has evolved into a sort of psychological shorthand, in which physically descriptive details and moody variations on images have come to point to a shortlist of mutually agreed upon emotions. By definition, none of them are particularly original. A look through Raymond Carver will isolate the basic vocabulary of jealousy, love, sex, family, etc., etc., but the vocabulary has been with us back through Updike and Cheever all the way to the malaise of Sinclair Lewis, the schemata of John Dos Passos, the tough guy tactics of Hemingway, and the decadence of Fitzgerald. (I don’t especially care for any of these authors.) There is an aspect of the fairy tale and the fable to tales that share this vocabulary, because they tell us what we already know–or rather, reiterate what we’ve already heard. The pretense lies in perpetuating the myth that these stock emotions have an emotional veracity transcending their unoriginal artifice.

Robert Musil called a writer embracing this sort of falsity “a consequence of the fact that he had not learned how to think based on the experience of his own imagination, but rather, with the aid of borrowed terms” (“Black Magic”). Josipovici introduces fairy tales and exposition on them (the “Midrash” he speaks of) as a model for this unfortunate state of affairs, where writers are not only complicit with but actively collaborate in the deferral of reality as they write their books, producing not works of their own imagination but simply justificatory annotations to a helpful lie, removing their integrity in the process.

None of this is found in Kleist, certainly, whose particular psychosis drove him well off any conventional use of borrowed terms. Nor do you find it in Hofmannsthal or Alexander Kluge, who both question these things in their own ways. Josipovici implies that it is the willful perpetuation of myth after its collective falsification that makes for bad art, and I think this is a useful, new abstraction.

Update: Lars Spurious and The Mumpsimus have offered extremely thoughtful responses on the issues Josipovici raises. Lars elegantly asks, “How can we be told of what we don’t know?” Matt Cheney says of “Michael Kohlhaas” (in the midst of a detailed examination of the story), “The text becomes a kind of indifferent god, an object that requires neither worship nor doubt, and is impervious to both.”

I agree on both counts. “Michael Kohlhaas” was such a strikingly individual story that I once sought to rework it in a modern context, as it seemed a story beyond its time and beyond reduction, to assign a sense of unknowing awe to what had grown stale and quotidian. I was not able to do so, but the project still holds an appeal to me, for some future time.

Proust FAQ

Why Proust?
I wanted to keep a journal of reading some sizeable book that I hadn’t yet read, and ROTP is at the top of the list of books I want to have read. Whether I actually want to read it is debatable, but so far, so good.

Why haven’t you read Proust already?
It bored me. I’ve had it sitting on the shelf for a very long time, but never read more than a few dozen pages somewhere in the early volumes without moving on to something a little punchier.
The authors of fiction that most interest me?-people like Musil, Borges, Beckett, Kafka, Mann, Gogol, Broch, Kleist, Faulkner, Joyce, Woolf, and Lem?-tend towards concentrated expressions of ideas and concepts. Most don’t eschew lengthy physical description, poetic and imagistic lyricism, or comedies/tragedies of manners, but they use them as an end to a unified conception, not as distracting scenery for its own sake.
I saw Proust as focusing too narrowly on the gossip around a bunch of narcissistic French aristocrats who had no sense of perspective. Perhaps I was prejudiced in thinking there was less to be made out of this than out of a bunch of infirm old men carving castles in the air in some remote German sanitorium. I’m older and wiser now, but we’ll see.

What’s the point of the entries?
I’m not trying to organize them particularly well. Having forgotten most of what I ever knew about ROTP, I want to copy down the passages that most grab me and provide some context for why they do.
It’s very much a “first reading” endeavor: there’s plenty of stuff I’ll miss or pass over as unimportant, and I see that as unavoidable given that this is meant to be completed in months, not years.
There’s plenty I’m leaving out as well. I’ll easily ignore thirty pages of a witty party in favor of an abstruse philosophical aside. This is as much a document of what I was looking for in the book as what I got from it. (Which, coincidentally, Proust thinks is the most important thing anyway. How apropos!)

What’s your background?
Too educated to be an autodidact, too much of a dilettante to be a scholar. I don’t do this for a living, and I wouldn’t want to.

What conventions are you using?
“Marcel” signifies the character, “Proust” the author.
Page numbers are from the three-volume gray Vintage Moncrieff/Kilmartin edition, pre-Enright revision.

John Barth on Calvino and Borges

wood s lot points to the Dalkey’s reprinting of “The Parallels!” Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges by John Barth, a bit of a unfocused celebration of both of them. Barth gives a slight edge to Calvino for his weightless sense of fantasy, which Borges lacks. I give the edge to Borges for super-high-calorie prose. I grow suspicious at metaphorical comparisons of this sort:

It seems to me that Borges’s narrative geometry, so to speak, is essentially Euclidean. He goes in for rhomboids, quincunxes, and chess logic; even his ubiquitous infinities are of a linear, “Euclidean” sort. In Calvino’s spirals and vertiginous recombinations I see a mischievous element of the non-Euclidean; he shared my admiration, for example, of Boccaccio’s invention of the character Dioneo in the Decameron: The narrative Dionysian wild card who exempts himself from the company’s rules and thus adds a lively element of (constrained) unpredictability to the narrative program.

I’m not certain what makes narrative geometry Euclidean versus Riemannian; if you really wanted to make the analogy, the shape it forms in my head is that Borges’s geometry is Riemannian and Calvino’s is Lobachevskian, which is to say that Borges gets myriad usages out of every single atom of his pieces, while Calvino is more expansive. Barth’s point only seems to be that Calvino was considerably more interested in metafictional conceits than Borges, which is true. With a few Lewis Carollesque exceptions (“Borges and I”), Borges was a narrative traditionalist and simply pressed the materials to maximum usage.

Barth makes one point in passing that bears some examination, which is that Calvino and Borges’s shops aren’t where you go for character:

Neither writer, for better or for worse, was a creator of memorable characters or a delineator of grand passions, although in a public conversation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1975, in answer to the question “What do you regard as the writer’s chief responsibility?” Borges unhesitatingly responded, “The creation of character.” A poignant response from a great writer who never really created any characters; even his unforgettable Funes the Memorious, as I have remarked elsewhere, is not so much a character as a pathological characteristic. And Calvino’s charming Qwfwq and Marco Polo and Marcovaldo and Mr. Palomar are archetypal narrative functionaries, nowise to be compared with the great pungent characters of narrative/dramatic literature.

Barth seems to undercut his case by mentioning the two of the most memorable characters in Borges’s repertoire, Funes and “The Secret Miracle”‘s writer-til-death Jaromir Hladik; are they only pathologies? Looking through Borges’s non-fiction, he pays little direct attention to the neuroses of the writers under examination (Swedenborg, Dunne, etc.). Instead, he dissects their belief systems logically and dispassionately, as though the shapes of their imaginations were the key to their souls rather than their “personality.” Likewise with characters: with Dante’s Ugolino (towards the end of the Inferno), Borges abandoned questions of motivation and even fact to locate him as an ambiguous creation intended for a particular effect. Borges isolates his subjects, creating an archipelago of intensely personal islets of private reason. Influences are felt but processed into unrecognizability (see “Kafka and His Precursors”).

From this follow his characters. Asterion of “The House of Asterion” may be a particular product of his unique circumstances, but he is no more pathological than Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt. (And I think Asterion is more memorable.) What’s missing is the emphasis on a psychological character that represents an inner nature, rather than someone who is fully the product of his external circumstances or peculiar gifts. The main difference in Borges’s conception of characters is the lack of alternatives; there is hardly ever a sense of how a character could have been otherwise. Holding out that possibility, the chance that a character in Cervantes or Ariosto could suddenly have the veil drop from their eyes and see themselves as having trod an path based less in fate and more in personal flaws and neuroses.

But this difference seems to spring from a modern conception of psychology rather than any historical conception of character, and the history of fatalism far outweighs that of characters with the psychological depths to evince a simulacra of free will. From Heinrich von Kleist’s madmen and victims to Olaf Stapledon’s exemplars of fantastic conceits, contradiction and inner vexation have usually played a minor role. Borges does abstract the tradition further to remove nearly all arbitrary particulars, but to locate character in those particulars is self-defeating: the overlay is arbitrary.

The charge of characterlessness actually seems more substantiated in Calvino’s later work, where he is striving for aesthetic effect over narrative (moreso than Borges ever did), but that’s still discounting his earlier work, particularly the airy nobleman of The Baron in the Trees, who is as much a character as anyone in Ariosto.

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