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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: nabokov (page 2 of 2)

“The Invention of Morel”, Adolfo Bioy Casares

By far Bioy Casares’ most famous story, “The Invention of Morel” is still fairly obscure, despite being plugged (and strongly influenced) by his friend Borges, and supposedly being the basis for Last Year at Marienbad. I don’t know that it is the perfect work of genius that Borges claimed it is, but it’s certainly ahead of its time for 1940, and the ideas that fuel it are a grade above what Bioy Casares typically used in his work. Bioy Casares lacked Borges’ intensity and his sheer inventiveness, but in “The Invention of Morel,” he used what he had well.

The nameless narrator is a fugitive who has escaped to a remote, abadoned island that has the stigma of disease over it. He sees himself as an outcast, and the story begins to play out a ultra-Robinson Crusoe scenario, as the narrator’s links to reality appear to be severed in Wittgensteinian fashion. Will he lose his capacity for language? Will he lose his humanity? Yes, but this process is interrupted, then furthered by the sudden appearance on the island of a number of refined sophisticates, including the beautiful Faustina, whom he falls in love with. This despite the fact that none of them will acknowledge his presence. Other strangeness occurs, notably the presence of two moons and two suns in the sky.

It’s impossible to go further without revealing the main conceit, which is held back for over half the story, but there’s a pleasure to be had to it being revealed over the course of the story, so please imagine a tacky little spoiler warning here.

The narrator’s inability to relate to the others seems to be symbolic. He could be dead and existing as a ghost similar to the narrator of Nabokov’s The Eye (my favorite of his works, incidentally). His unspecified crime could have cast him out from the fabric of humanity and left him socially invisible. He could be imagining or recreating life on the island when he is in fact alone. But these are all wrong; the hints of anomie are, ultimately, a blind. The explanation is that he is not seeing people, not quite; what he is seeing is a projection of a recording made of past events, but a projection that has its own reality and is being superimposed on the island (hence the two sun and two moons). The leader of the group, Morel, concocted the invention, which will endlessly replay the week they spent on the island years ago. The downside is that at the time of projection, the force of the superimposed reality is so strong as to draw the life from those recorded and place it in the projected copies. Morel says, “When all the senses are synchronized, the soul emerges,” and he means it literally: the recreation in reality of the past events supplants the current reality of their participants.

Bioy Casares combines two themes in unorthodox fashion. There is the circular time/eternal recurrence theme that so fascinated Borges. In 1941 he wrote:

In times of ascendancy, the conjecture that man’s existence is a constant, unvarying quantity can sadden or irritate us; in times of decline (such as at the present), it holds out the assurance that no ignominy, no calamity, no dictator, can impoverish us.

And Bioy Casares evokes both the horror and the wonder that a week of reasonable existence with only minor troubles should become an eternal prison for its unknowing participants. The second theme is the transmigration of consciousness from the original person to the replica, which then plays out its part endlessly, never knowing that it has done it countless times before, nor that is not the original person–partly because it is. Bioy Casares uses a consciousness thought experiment decades before they came into vogue: if you were to create a copy of a person in an identical context, what would there be to differentiate the copy’s consciousness from the original’s? Since Bioy Casares adopts an emergent view of consciousness in the story (see Morel’s quote above), the answer is that they cannot coexist. It takes the inversion of “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” where the picture and not the man is subject to time, and inverts it again, so that the playback of a recording of events takes on greater reality than the continued existence of the subjects.

The injection of ideas on consciousness is brief but it elevates the story from pure fantasy to the level of, say, Borges “Funes the Memorious.” There, a man remembered everything and was crippled by it; here, people have the identical set of empirical situations played out for them, with no additional memory of it, while the metaphysical conditions change totally. Morel claims his machine creates nothing, only replicates what exists, but Bioy Casares makes it clear that the machine restructures reality. Bioy Casares also implies epiphenomenalism–the idea that internal experience supervenes on material reality without being able to affect it–since under the new conditions of Morel’s machine, the participants are absolutely unable to acknowledge that anything has changed.

The basic concepts here were used in many, many science-fiction novels later on (though not so many beforehand, as far as I know); the story is unique for its alienation from the consciousness that persists on in the projections. In nearly all other stories of shifting metaphysics, the characters still obtain a working knowledge of the problem at hand, which ultimately provides their only satisfaction; here, Bioy Casares sets up a situation in which they cannot. Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation provides the closest echo I can think of, and it too gets around the self-knowledge issue by giving the reader more information than any character has. “The Invention of Morel” plays utterly fair and is more successful in contradicting any conception of what the “consciousness” of its characters could be.

American Writers of the 1950’s

Eudaemonist goes after Randell Jarrell’s Portraits from an Institution:

I now understand why people go ga-ga for Kerouac: general American fiction of the 1950s was rotten…When seen against the backdrop of such insipid, feeble prose as Jarrell’s, where flashes of wit last no longer than a firefly’s flickering (and provide, if I may say so, rather less illumination), Kerouac’s writing, for all that it is petulant, adolescent, and puerile, at least has some spark.

(Jarrell was not the only poet to try his hand at a campus novel. Weldon Kees’s Fall Quarter is quite dull and loses its way early on, torn between social criticism and an unwillingness to indict as viciously as Kees did in his essays.)

Speaking as an avowed detractor from the beats, seeing them as an anti-intellectual offshoot of more self-conscious European surrealist/dadaist movements, I always saw the 50’s as a time of post-war retrenchment. Popular genres (mystery, sf) had been established and were being elaborated on and toughened. William S. Burroughs, not quite a beat, was still writing sordid books like Junky and Queer (not published until later, but still…) that derived from Nelson Algren’s work of the 1940’s. Authors like Hubert Selby and John Rechy would follow this arc in the 60’s, but it is not typical in any way of the 50’s. Likewise with John Barth’s first two novels, which would not have stood out had he not drastically shifted tacks afterwards.

On the more socially conscious front, Dos Passos and Sinclair Lewis’s complaints did not yet seem appropriate again (and their writing was far too clunky to stand on its own aesthetically), and Faulkner’s Southern chronicles became rote and nearly pastoral. Faulkner still won the Pulitzer–twice–seemingly by default, once for the failed stretch of A Fable, which reads like an intentional shifting of weight to “larger” (not really) issues.

But there are several 50’s authors that had and continue to have a huge impact on writing style and people’s expectations of the demarcated beast that is “American fiction.” J.D. Salinger, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, and Richard Yates all got their start in the 50’s, and none ever really made an impact beyond what they accomplished in that decade. Even Bellow, who held some of himself back for later, spawned upstarts Philip Roth and Joseph Heller before he could wrangle back any significant influence, and settled for becoming an elder statesman who would write books about Allan Bloom. All of them outlined areas that became de facto concerns in what could get published.

Cheever and Yates both specialized in malaise. Cheever’s version had darker, more perverse undercurrents to it (submerged homosexuality quite large among them), while Yates stuck to the surface of things and painted anomie devoid of content. Cheever may have had the richer vision, but Yates was more precise, he knew exactly what wall he was hitting, time and time again, while Cheever wandered.

Bellow was dabbling in a self-mythology based around the already-forming detritus of Jewish intellectual circles of past decades, which were fast being reduced to the parochialism of The New York Review of Books (as well as Irving Kristol’s neoconservative movement, but that’s not literary). But hardly less than Cheever and Yates, he was working on a blank slate of American culture based around a middle-class that hadn’t dominated when Dos Passos and Sinclair Lewis had been writing. The context of all of their writing was post-Freudian psychology, the self-defeating self-reflection that produces neurosis. With much less of the weight of history than corresponding European novels of the same time, they drew from the sociology of the moment, and constructed a view of middle-class intellectual and non-intellectual life that produced its own problems. It revolves around the psychology of the little gesture, the meager possession, the sentimental attachment, and the bland statement. These took on specific associations, so that every fictional character looking at a gray building or working in a garden or cooking dinner or walking down a sidewalk came to signify certain things about American life.

Many, many American fiction writers have been dealing with this landscape since, from John Updike to Raymond Carver to Grace Paley. Salinger introduced an element of religious or quasi-religious purity in his work, which was later developed by Walker Percy, among others, but as I get older I see Salinger more as a peculiar variation on the other three, glorifying a narcissistic but extremely personal and effective view of family as a non-historical response to Yates and Cheever’s monotonic views. It is a less robust response than Bellow’s, which has made it harder to imitate. That hasn’t stopped people from trying, though.

These are far from the only movements, but in terms of disproportionate impact, I think the figures above stand out. Many literary magazines today print stories that almost exclusively conform to the boundaries set out: ahistoric, neurotic, drawing from quotidian symbols. And I don’t believe there has been a group since that has had anywhere near as much impact. (For a while, I thought Don DeLillo was doing pretty well in reorienting the field towards a more reductionistic, impersonal psychology, but scions like Steve Erickson and Stephen Wright seem to have faded fast.)

In comparison, there are the roads not taken, those of Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and even Nabokov, whose Pnin is a less claustrophobic statement on the social life of the academy. There is Flannery O’Connor, whose pacing and plotting were appropriated, but not her modern gothic sensibility. And there’s William Gaddis, whose The Recognitions I never finished, but who was clearly working towards a more epic, contextual tableau, even if he seemed to get mired in the details.

In sum, then, the 50’s still seem a flagship decade for one of the most dominant breeds of American fiction, as well as its height. There is little that Christopher Tilghman writes about that could not be gleaned (albeit indirectly) from Richard Yates, thirty years earlier. Lorrie Moore adds a touch of Bellow’s eloquent mythologizing to very similar material. Which is to say, there are clearly identifiable “American writers of the 50’s,” in a way that there aren’t of subsequent decades. It’s as though time has stood still.

Kobo Abe

Donoso’s The Obscene Bird of Night also reminds me of Kobo Abe, particularly his insane works of the 70’s, The Box Man and Secret Rendezvous. As long as we’re drawing cross-continental comparisons, William Burroughs is there too, but Burroughs more surrealist, later work is pedantic and decadent in a too-familiar way. These two books of Abe’s aren’t familiar. They don’t seem like successes, and it’s not easy to say that they succeed on their own terms, because they don’t appear to have their own terms. Calling them pretentious is besides the point, since the books don’t have a pretense towards anything in particular. Psychological and and political intimations turn out to be complete blinds; what mostly flows out of the books is deep, total sickness. Apart from Inter Ice Age 4, an early work which gets mired in the tropes of science fiction, most of Abe’s translated books do have a purity about them.

I discovered Abe through The Woman in the Dunes. At the time I was a huge Camus adherent, and the summary of a man trapped in a sand pit with a woman who has lived there for years, makes it sound similar to any number of existentialist works of fiction. It’s not. Attempts to draw a metaphor do not work, since the book remains focused on the constraining of the man with a fundamentally unresponsive woman, and his very real interaction with the sadistic villagers keeping him there. The slow madness that overcomes him stems from the particular (and odd) circumstances rather than any speculative human condition. Far from existential, the story has more in common with Nabokov, especially the finely-ground fantasies Invitation to a Beheading and Bend Sinister, though it’s far more realistic than either. Teshigahara’s film of the book also seems to misunderstand it (though it has an amazing, crackling score by Toru Takemitsu), adoping long shots of dunes that don’t fit with the relative lack of desperation on the man’s part.

By the 70’s, Abe had headed away from anything close to realism. The Box Man revolves around a series of men who walk around with boxes on their heads, with doppelgangers and fakes, disconnected memories and self-consciously pompous meanderings on the integrity of being a box man. Michaela Grey offers an excellent description of the book, but I disagree with her tying it to Derrida: Abe remained focused on personal identity and integrity and was never concerned with purely textual matters. But the book is nuttier than what comes out in the article, since Abe never builds up any credibility in the narrative. The only strand that rings true is one about the noetic nature of being a box man, an affirmation that can’t be obtained externally. This in turn implies that any individual section of the book is dubious, since in total they are the ramblings of one or more men whose ability to place themselves in the world is falling apart. Apart from the surreal surface, here is where there is the most commonality with Donoso’s The Obscene Bird of Night, in its resolute lack of commitment to any particular reality.

Secret Rendezvous is more narratively coherent, but only furthers the idea that individual plot points, characters, and settings are losing all intrinsic meaning short of inciting a vague, sickly psychosexual aura. The narrator’s wife is abducted one morning by an ambulance, and he journeys through the labyrinthine hospital attempting to find her. There is a nice twist on Kafka, when the frustrated narrator is allowed full access to the hospital’s surveillance tapes, only to find that there are so, so many hours of tape that he’ll never be able to derive anything from them. Again, the mental state of the man is subordinate to the organic disease around him that he seems oddly distant from. When, at the end, he ends up leading an entourage including a girl whose bones are dissolving, the enviroment mirrors the girl by not remaining firm enough to grasp. The parallel to Kafka is most appropriate here, but the “characters” are as indeterminate as the landscape. Where Kafka dealt with amorphous persecution, Abe simply pulls the rug out from everything he touches.

There is, at the heart of these books, very little interest in character or psychology, despite the trappings that appear. The next book he wrote, The Ark Sakura, is far less disorienting, but the main character, a paranoid survivalist, spends the last third of the book with his leg caught in an industrial toilet and the other characters are one-dimensional. The book is essentialy a Stevenson-like adventure story, and the abrupt end pushes the unreality of what’s gone before, as he finally emerges from his cave into the light:

Beyond the transparent people lay a transparent town. Was I transparent, then, too? I held a hand up to my face–and through it saw buildings.

The situations Abe deals in do not raise epistemological or existential questions; they are deranged treatments of metaphysics. The question is whether the shifting realities and, in The Box Man, pseudo-philosophical ramblings amount to something that is prior to experience and organized thought. With Donoso, I believe it is. With Abe, they seem detached from thought altogether: some sort of objectification of humans. The perversions in his books often come off as heartless, but Abe may be pushing for metaphysical heartlessness.

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