From Michael Hofmann’s rather brilliant piece on Kundera in the new LRB (paywalled, I think). Here, he’s talking about Kundera’s characters and sex.
Kundera has an old – and I would say, a dated – trust in sex. Sex as the expression of or the stand-in for or the earthly (or heavenly) representative of personality or inner life. […] Whoever they are, sex tests them and keeps the score. Do they use rude words or not? Do they prefer darkness or do they like to leave the lights on? Do they shut their eyes or keep them open? Are they thinking of the person they’re with, or of someone else? Kundera is touchingly interested and trusting in what he finds out: they are about the only stage directions you get in his books. Where other observers might contend our species is at its most generic in bed, and any differences we might display there are either faddish or not interesting, that, for example, the way we like to shop is altogether more expressive and revelatory, Kundera takes another view. He deserves the label ‘erotic politician’ more than Jim Morrison ever did.
I’m in the very early stages of trying to write something about the representation of sex in contemporary (and relatively contemporary) novels. One question that I’m asking myself – and asking the works that I will talk about – is a relatively obvious one: how has the representation of sex changed since the arrival of ubiquitous internet pornography. I’m hoping that the answer isn’t as obvious as the question. But Hofmann’s paragraph above expresses perfectly part of what I am thinking – the part that we have left behind.
We no longer believe, or at least have begun to doubt, that sex is personally-revelatory, a pathway to the demonstration of some sort of personal (or interpersonal) quiddity. Perhaps pornography has something to do with this – what at first can seem intriguingly distinct comes to seem something else entirely when it dawns on you that there are hundreds of thousands of these totally unique things. (Every snowflake is different, yes, but the fact that there are so goddamned many of them, each a unique shape of their own, might start to make you wonder whether it matters that each one is different. That is to say, difference become less and less interesting the more that you realise everyone is different, but in an utterly random, meaningless way.)
Fiction, since its modern prose forms arose, has always been tantalised by sex. The romance suppresses it in sublimating it (or maybe it’s the other way around). But maybe now, with everything all out in the open, or at least nearly everything, fiction faces a bit of a problem. And instead of Kundera’s epiphanically-revelatory sexuality, we have the grim grinding of Houellebecq’s (and other’s) characters – grinding aimed at a sort of transcendence, still, but we can’t help but know that the joke, as it was on Emma Bovary, is always on them.
From this morning’s FT:
Monday’s emergency summit of eurozone leaders is likely to set the tone for markets for the week and could even be the tipping point in the Sisyphean epic being played out between Greece and its creditors.
A ‘Sisyphean epic’ is an interestingly semi-oxymoronic concept. Sisyphus’s whole story in Greek myth is a bit epical – meaning, at least, that it’s a long story, and a rather convoluted one. (Some versions of it have him as the father of Odysseus too – which would at least make him the progenitor of the greatest epical protagonist ever).
But generally when we today refer to Sisyphus, we’re talking about the end of his story, which involves a tragical turn. And in particular, we don’t so much remember the hubris or even the chain of events that lead to his punishment – but only the punishment itself, the perpetually fruitless rock rolling. It’s hard to think of this scene, the only one most of us know, as epical: Coming soon, to a cinema near you – the latest and bestest CGI epic masterpiece: Sisyphus Rolls His Stone, Forever – in 3D.
But despite – or perhaps because of – its oxymoronic nature, the concept of a ‘Sisyphean epic’ does have a certain ring of truth when it comes to Greece, and its citizens, and citizens around the world who are dealing with life in the age of austerity. Sisyphus receives a form of punishment disproportionate to his crimes, and one that turns the momentary crisis into a perpetual situation. But most importantly, Sisyphus’s end mirrors the festina lente experience of life under austerity – an ever increasing struggle for ever diminishing possibilities of reward. For what Sisyphus’s problem is is not simply pushing the stone up the hill over and over and over again. It’s also – perhaps more deeply – the fact that he must be aware of the fruitlessness of his task, as well, hellishly, of his inability to do anything other than to continue to participate in this sadistic game.
For, true to the oxymoron, austerity shrouds life in an anti-narrative structure. Not non-narratives: there are stories, struggles, and the like. But, as with Sisyphus as he time and time again dramatically shoulders his stone and once more begins his ascent, the stories and struggles are haunted from the start by an ever decreasing chance of a turn, a resolution, a positive accomplishment at the end. The stories keep running, but for more and more, the efforts that would be chronicled are rendered absurd right from the start. But we, like Sisyphus, are doomed to to keep on playing them out nonetheless.
I read papers. I subscribe to two (in the old fashioned paper version – I subscribe to six on the iPad) which are dropped every early morning through my mailslot in a wake-me-up kind of way. And I read one on the way home – the Evening Standard. I like living in a city that has an evening paper, a rare thing nowadays. And I was happy when it went free, although it did occur to me to consider the horrific changes in my home metropolis’s weekly paper, The Village Voice, when the same happened to it.
But I think I’m about to stop reading The Evening Standard, as much as a habit and sometimes a pleasure it is. What they tried to do to Labour in the city was one thing, despite what happened with the actual vote. And you know, I could do without daily updates on what’s happening in the capital’s poshest private schools. (Doesn’t seem to be on-line, but there’s an article today on page 8 about “muck-up day” at £14,000 a year City of London. Last week, there were two articles in the first 10 pages about Westminster School and its parents and pupils).
But what’s really making me throw the towel in – and make a decision to read something better on the way home tomorrow and for the tomorrows to come – is Lebedev’s, and thus the paper’s, weird edit-free support of the Tory candidate for London mayor, Ivan Massow.
An article praising him seems to appear every day. (As with the potential of a Labour national victory, feels as though Lebedev is a bit terrified of what might happen to him and his extended stay in London were Labour to win, though with the mayoralty, I doubt it’d be anything as bad as the end of the non-dom exemption). Massow seems like an OK guy – despite the fact that he seems to have a lot to get out in front of with today’s article, entitled “I’m a gay, dyslexic ex-alcoholic… vote for me.” (One suspects that a left candidate with the same “credentials” might get a different treatment from the Standard – take for instance the fact that he seems to have impregnated his lesbian roommate. One wonders whether Sadiq Khan would get a calm “explainer” opportunity if that was the case with him.)
But anyway, what’s annoyed me today is a single sentence in the latest puff piece they’ve run for Massow. The paragraph in which it’s contained runs:
“It’s been true since Dick Whittington that anyone can come to London and make it even if they have nothing in their pockets. In New York it’s all about what university you went to. In Paris you have to be Parisian. But London is a city that loves outsiders.”
That sentence about New York is simply a lie. If anyone was editing this rubbish, or even mildly “curating” it, that sentence would have to come out. Let’s take a look at the facts.
London has had two mayors. One was Independent-Labour, who – it is true, never went to university. The other, the Tory, well, yes, he went to Balliol College, Oxford. Which is about as “what university (and secondary school of course) you went to” as you as could possibly get.
On the other hand, let’s do a (relatively) recent list of New York City mayors and their undergrad alma maters:
Bill DeBlasio – New York University
Michael Bloomberg – Johns Hopkins University
Rudy Giuliani – Manhattan College
David Dinkins – Howard University
Ed Koch – City College of New York
Abraham Beame – City College of New York
So we’re back to 1974 with that. There’s one “elite” university on the list (Hopkins- though it’s not really a “king-maker”) and another one (NYU) that’s become very expensive now, but certainly wasn’t considered elite when DeBlasio attended it. In other words, what Massow’s said is complete bullshit – propagandistic bullshit that at once shines his own “self-starter” badge as well as shimmies up to his “aspirational” audience. So… whatever, it’s a throwaway line, right? Well, if I’m going to read a newspaper, and if even if it’s going to pimp for a candidate, I’d like there to be at least a semblance of honesty, objectivity, and backchat-upon-factual-error. Massow’s simply wrong in his claim – and no one at the Standard cares. Or they do, but they’re wise enough to know that crossing their oligarchical boss is probably a very, very bad career move.
I don’t think it would ever be reasonable for us to expect the Standard to present an “unbiased” portrayal of national or local politics, what Lebedev is doing for Massow is over the line. But the point is, they opined against the beliefs the constituency they pretend to journalistically represent. And now, they’re stumping for another one of the same sort. Watch forwhat they’re about to do to any Labour or further left candidates that run for the London office.
For myself, I’ll not be picking up a Standard tomorrow – and won’t be again until the London election is over. I encourage you not to too.
PS. If you want to read a weird wikipedia page, read Lebedev’s. According to it – brief as it is – he’s the strange sort of lucky, but simple, pub owner and restauranteur who also happens to own an 800,000 circulation newspaper. Thinking about buying my local, so that I can do that sort of thing too…
I’m re-reading (as much of) Infinite Jest as I can this weekend, as I’m teaching it (for the first time – I’ve before done The Pale King in graduate seminars) on Wednesday. Made it up to page 318 yesterday, no mean feat, and want to do the same sort of numbers if possible today. Ah, the joys of the end of term. I spent the entirety of last weekend reading Midnight’s Children.
One thing I’m on the look out for this time through Infinite Jest are early signs of the themes of The Pale King. How about this one, on bureaucratic heros. It comes from an essay that Hal Incandenza writes for his Entertainment History class:
Chief Steve McGarrett of ‘Hawaii Five-0′ and Captain Frank Furillo of ‘Hill Street Blues’ are useful for seeing how our North American idea of the hero changed from the B.S. 1970s era of ‘Hawaii Five-0′ to the B.S. 1980s era of ‘Hill Street Blues.’
Chief Steve McGarrett is a classically modern hero of action. He acts out. It is what he does. The camera is always on him. He is hardly ever offscreen. He has just one case per week. The audience knows what the case is and also knows, by the end of Act One, who is guilty. Because the audience knows the truth before Steve McGarrett does, there is no mystery, there is only Steve McGarrett. The drama of ‘Hawaii Five-0′ is watching the hero in action, watching Steve McGarrett stalk and strut, homing in on the truth. Homing in is the essence of what the classic hero of modern action does.
Steve McGarrett is not weighed down by administrative State-Políce-Chief chores, or by females, or friends, or emotions, or any sorts of conflicting demands on his attention. His field of action is bare of diverting clutter. Thus Chief Steve McGarrett single-mindedly acts to refashion a truth the audience already knows into an object of law, justice, modern heroism.
In contrast, Captain Frank Furillo is what used to be designated a ‘post’-modern hero. Viz., a hero whose virtues are suited to a more complex and corporate American era. I.e., a hero of reaction. Captain Frank Furillo does not investigate cases or single- mindedly home in. He commands a precinct. He is a bureaucrat, and his heroism is bureaucratic, with a genius for navigating cluttered fields. In each broadcast episode of ‘Hill Street Blues,’ Captain Frank Furillo is beset by petty distractions on all sides from the very beginning of Act One. Not one but eleven complex cases, each with suspects and snitches and investigating officers and angry community leaders and victims’ families all clamoring for redress. Hundreds of tasks to delegate, egos to massage, promises to make, promises from last week to keep. Two or three cops’ domestic troubles. Payroll vouchers. Duty logs. Corruption to be tempted by and agonized over. A Police Chief who’s a political parody, a hyperactive son, an ex-wife who haunts the frosted-glass cubicle that serves as Frank Furillo’s office (whereas Steve McGarrett’s B.S. 1970s office more closely resembled the libraries of landed gentry, hushed behind two heavy doors and wainscot-ted in thick, tropical oak), plus a coldly attractive Public Defendress who wants to talk about did this suspect get Mirandized in Spanish and can Frank stop coming too soon he came too soon again last night maybe he should get into some kind of stress counselling. Plus all the weekly moral dilemmas and double binds his even-handed bureaucratic heroism gets Captain Frank Furillo into.
Captain Frank Furillo of ‘Hill Street Blues’ is a ‘post’-modern hero, a virtuoso of triage and compromise and administration. Frank Furillo retains his sanity, composure, and superior grooming in the face of a barrage of distracting, unheroic demands that would have left Chief Steve McGarrett slumped, unkempt, and chewing his knuckle in administrative confusion.
I sometimes wonder whether we’re not all getting Knausgaard wrong. It’s not the non-impersonality of it that matters, perhaps. It’s the essayism. The fact that he feels free to slip from narrative into essayistic prose more or less at will. Many of the parts that we tend to remember most vividly are from the essayistic portions. Or, to put it another way, imagine what the texts would be like if they left the essayistic material out – if they were straight “memoir.”
But the second question, then, is what the difference is between this “essayism” that I’m describing and “old fashioned” nineteenth-century narration, the sort that we find in Dickens and Eliot for example. If this were the case, then we’ve just slid backwards, back past the innovations of Flaubert and his progeny, into a space of the wisdom-imparting storyteller, and into a realm where the narrative characters simply play out a morality tale as a backdrop to the droning play-by-play of the authorial announcer.
I’ve just, however, come across an interesting reframing of the issue in Milan Kundera’s 1983 interview with the Paris Review. In the course of discussing the polyphonic nature of Hermann Broch’s writing, the interview asks about an “essay” that is inserted into Broch’s The Sleepwalker.
You have doubts about the way it is incorporated into the novel. Broch relinquishes none of his scientific language, he expresses his views in a straightforward way without hiding behind one of his characters—the way Mann or Musil would do. Isn’t that Broch’s real contribution, his new challenge?
That is true, and he was well aware of his own courage. But there is also a risk: his essay can be read and understood as the ideological key to the novel, as its “Truth,” and that could transform the rest of the novel into a mere illustration of a thought. Then the novel’s equilibrium is upset; the truth of the essay becomes too heavy and the novel’s subtle architecture is in danger of collapsing. A novel that had no intention of expounding a philosophical thesis (Broch loathed that type of novel!) may wind up being read in exactly that way. How does one incorporate an essay into the novel? It is important to have one basic fact in mind: the very essence of reflection changes the minute it is included in the body of a novel. Outside of the novel, one is in the realm of assertions: everyone’s philosopher, politician, concierge—is sure of what he says. The novel, however, is a territory where one does not make assertions; it is a territory of play and of hypotheses. Reflection within the novel is hypothetical by its very essence.
This might be a place to start for an answer about the specific difference of Knausgaard’s writing – and the sort of writing that I am most interested in reading now. Essayistic, in parts, to be sure. But essayistic in a sense that the essay itself turns “fictional” – isn’t the “ideological key” of the novel but rather an utterance on the same level of “truth” as the narration in which it is submerged.
An interesting parallel, perhaps. This is from Elaine Blair’s review of Rachel Cusk’s Outline in The New Yorker:
The novel is mesmerizing; it marks a sharp break from the conventional style of Cusk’s previous work. The characters in her earlier novels presumably share some of her biography—they age as she does, study or teach literature, raise children, tend to the chores of daily life in London or in provincial towns. But they remain smoothly sealed in their fictional worlds. “Outline” feels different, its world porous and continuous with ours, though not for the reasons we might expect. Cusk has not named her narrator Rachel. She does not put a fine point on the verifiability of the novel’s events. Though the narrator is a writer, the novel does not tell the story of how it came to be written. It is not an expansive account of a life but a short account of two days that the narrator spends teaching a writing seminar in Athens. Indeed, “Outline” proposes an unexpected solution to the weariness with fiction which Anne calls “summing up”: Cusk has her characters literally sum things up, making them speak about past events rather than showing those events as they unfold. To paraphrase Anne, why manipulate characters into situations dramatizing jealousy when they can tell us about their jealousy?
And this is from Jeffrey J. Williams’s piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education called “The New Modesty in Literary Criticism”:
The change has crystallized around “surface reading.” The term comes from Sharon Marcus, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, and Stephen M. Best, an associate professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley. Marcus broached it in her 2007 book Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England (Princeton University Press), and elaborated on it in the introduction she wrote with Best to a 2009 special issue of the journal Representations on “The Way We Read Now.” (They had been colleagues at Berkeley in the late 1990s and early 2000s.) Surface reading, they suggest, characterizes the work of a rising generation.
A good deal of contemporary criticism has performed “symptomatic reading,” a term that conveys looking for the hidden meaning of a text, using, for example, Marxian, Freudian, or deconstructive interpretation. Fredric Jameson has been one of its most influential practitioners, codifying the approach in his 1981 Political Unconscious to look for “a latent meaning behind a manifest one.” Surface reading instead focuses on “what is evident, perceptible, apprehensible in texts,” as Best and Marcus put it. Thus the critic is no longer like a detective who doesn’t trust the suspect but more the social scientist who describes the manifest statements of a text.
Between Women shows how this works. Marcus examines female friendships in Victorian society, but rather than exposing the secrets underneath normative family life—as much of queer theory, for example, has done—she shows how women’s relations were openly affectionate and sometimes sexual, but not secret, suppressed, or hidden in a closet. Surprisingly, she writes, the companionship among women provided a model for heterosexual marriage. While Marcus gathers her argument from the surface, she casts a wide scholarly net, drawing from Victorian fiction, fashion, domestic treatises, political debates. Marcus calls her approach “just reading.”
So, on the one hand, a new post-fictional stance, or at least one that abandons the rules of the game that fiction writers have long embraced as conducive to the evocation of meaning or significance, however half-lit or opaque. If fiction has long been invested in the distinction between what characters say (to others, to themselves, to us) and what they do – that is to say, fiction has had a long standing investment in what we call irony – Cusk (and others like her) seem to be advocating the abandonment of half of the ironic equation. He says he is in mourning for his wife, but why does he keep staring at his interlocutor’s breasts? She says she doesn’t have a problem with her parents, but why does she keep darting off to take phone calls from her father?
On the other hand, Williams’s piece on literary criticism likewise evokes scholars and critics giving up on a parallel fundamental move of criticism: the discovery and description of latent meanings that subtend the surface playout of the text. Rather than, like the psychoanalyst who knows that “It’s not about my mother” means no such thing, means the opposite of what it claims, scholars have generally taken an approach grounded in a sense that whatever it is a text thinks it’s up to (or the naive reader believes it’s up to) something else has to be at play. This novel is ostensibly about the relations between men and women, but why are the relations between men so much more pitched, interesting, and troubling than those between the two sexes? The stance described – perhaps a bit roughly – by Williams abandons the ironic relation between surface and depth that criticism of so many schools and guises, both conservative and ‘radical,’ has held as its privileged locus of significance.
Hadn’t before noticed this love letter to her future husband near the start of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth:
[T]he schoolgirls of St Jude’s kept to the tried and tested formula. Though Ryan would never be privy to the conversations of the school’s changing rooms, Clara knew. She knew how the object of her affections was discussed, she kept an ear out, she knew what he amounted to when you got down to it, down amongst the sweat and the training bras and the sharp flick of a wet towel.
‘Ah, Jaysus, you’re not listening. I’m saying, if he was the last man on earth!’
‘I still wouldn’t.’
‘Ah, bollocks, you would!’
‘But listen: the whole bleedin’ world has been hit by the bomb, like in Japan, roight? An’ all the good-lookin’ men, all the rides like your man Nicky Laird, they’re all dead. They’ve all been burnt to a crisp. An’ all that’s left is Ryan Topps and a bunch of cockroaches.’
‘On me life, I’d rather sleep with the cockroaches.’