He receives, no, not receives, he purchases the new Coetzee in the Waterstones Islington. There was another time when these things would arrive in the mail, early. Something has happened, he thinks, dampening the joy of the new book, as he purchases it.
It is a good Saturday. Without a hitch there is transportation and a bit of shopping, there is walking and there is a baby swinging happily in a swing. Later there are supermarkets, and a pub, and diners for each and then television.
Spousal arguments. There is a certain adhesiveness that makes them what they are. A kind of glue that locks you into the cage of the dispute. There are times that he thinks, generally in the aftermath of such things, “Listen, just unstick yourself from these things. Listen, just avoid the entanglement that two literary-minded people (for his wives have been literary-minded people) can find themselves in, with all of the meta-points about the meta-points of the facts or non-facts about what has just been said.” It never seems to work, or works only temporarily.
If pressed beyond the initial answer (“I teach”), and the easy, second one (“English literature”), when pressed he would answer, truthfully: “I teach argument.” When, on other occasions, he is pressed – often passive-aggressively – about the importance of argument in their writings, he answers evasively. He conjures in these cases something half understood about the art and discipline of rhetoric, of its gradual evolution into his (our, in this case) field. And then it usually gets down, often for a second time, to the nuts a bolts: You want to say something that is true but arguable. Not something everyone would instantly disagree with, nor, just as importantly, something everyone would agree with instantly. Imagine a sensitive reader, a reader like you, and what they might be surprised, but not shocked, to hear about this. Imagine a context into which you’re arguing: what is the conventional wisdom, what is it that intelligent people who’ve read this that you’ve read too think, what do they think without complexification, complexification that only you -in this case can add?
There are arguments about sex, he thinks, but is sex a sort of argument? Too easy, that turn. But think of the arguments – or pseudo-arguments – that sex has, as it were, engendered. “Da mihi castitatem et continentiam, sed noli modo.” It’s not an argument, but an engenderment of one, or actually many – arguments about sex and time and grace and god. But of course, leaving god aside, sex is what links us…. That is not right, he thinks…. Sex is the name (better) of one of the main links between us and time and grace, if not god.
Again, it was a perfect day, as perfect as they come. Arguments deferred, shops shopped, food eaten, swings swung upon, arguments deferred until the end.
So, he has accompanied two of his three daughters back to New York (actually, now, New Jersey, where he is from) on the plane and returned to London. He sat in the same seat on the same airplane going and coming. And this marks the end of the summer.
Customs agents hear the story that they ask for. “Yes, there and back in 24 hours. It’s a long day, a long day.” He can tell whether the wonder whether to smile or frown. At any rate, they do not hastle him.
On the first night back with just his wife and baby, his “usual family,” a movie is decided on for after the baby is asleep. The Commune – a Danish film available on Curzon-on-Demand. It is, by and large, what you would expect. Set in the 1970s, it details the rise and fall of a idealistic social experiment where a guy, who has inherited his father’s gigantic house, is talked by his wife into keeping the place, allowing several of their friends to move in – to form a commune – until all hell breaks loose.
Or sort of breaks loose. The virtue of the film, he thinks as he nears the end of it, is that it doesn’t quite play out the usual tropes of this sort of “60s-70s hangover films.” Sure, someone – the male protagonist – takes up with a younger woman in lieu of his wife, but you can see this in the trailer. Music, which turns from diegetic to non-diegetic, signals something softly ominous for the daughter of the family. And there’s a spot of tragedy, again signalled quite early on, that is under-reacted to. It’s sophisticated, he thinks, how instead of playing out an explosion, there’s some trouble and then a retreat to the everyday – the wine-soaked dinners continue, at funerals people still pass around food to munch on, people promise to leave and then do despite everything else.
It’s an issue of focalisation, in the end. The tragedy and disruption occurs, but not necessarily for everyone and not all the time. Scandinavians are good at this sort of thing, he thinks. The quick shift that saves it all, the film, from a crash that is at once inevitable but also obvious and thus boring.
What is most interesting to him, despite the drama that does or does not happen, that is or is not staged, however, is the presentation of the male protagonist. An academic architect with family money, he is shown in his office several times during the film. He tries to build something that will allow him to escape the office – but in the course of the film this never happens. He also yells, toward the end, that he needs to “do some work” and not be distracted by these problems with women. The work never seems to get done. The problems that he has, for the most part, he has made for himself or somnolently walked into. He sleeps with a student, yes – and one who is (very cannily) cast not only to seem like a younger version of his wife, but also at the same time far too old, at least at one initial glance, to serve in the capacity of the “younger woman.” He is hip to things until he isn’t, he is generous until pushed, and then he is not, he is injured by what happens due to the tragic arc of the film, not ultimately, not really, not really at all.
It’s very difficult for writers to get on television in America.
Due to the BBC, it’s relatively easy for writers to get on television in the UK.
Thesis: these facts, and the pressures and opportunities that come or don’t come with them, have a lot to do with the ‘shapes’ of intellectual culture in the two places. Whereas in the USA, culture seems for the most part divided between something that can be emblematised by the yipping commentary on a NASCAR race on the one hand and on the other a graduate seminar in the Rhetoric Department at Berkeley, the culture in the UK can start to feel like just a a drawn-out closing monologue, set in a rustic pub, after the presenter has taken us on a wellies-on walking tour of Hadrian’s Wall.
Appreciated this rendering, in the New York Times, of the narrative temporality of the Federal Reserve as a sort of pseudo-Beckettian inversion of the logic of drama outlined in Aristotle’s Poetics:
It’s almost as if the Fed were designed to confound explanation of it, precisely so the Rick Sterns of the world could never hope to influence it. Aristotle, in his ‘‘Poetics,’’ described a formula for emotionally engaging drama that screenwriters still consult to this day, with central characters and a plot that moves from a beginning through a climax to resolution. Presidential elections can be molded into this Aristotelian structure perfectly, as can many major news stories.
The Fed, by contrast, seems more like somebody sat down with a copy of ‘‘Poetics’’ and carefully constructed its opposite. There is no beginning to Fed action; it’s always there, always acting, even when its action is to not make any changes. There is no natural climax. It’s just an ongoing conference between a group of economists. And it is never resolved. There is no single moment when the Fed is done.
In this formulation, the Fed is essentially an anti-dramatic, or even anti-evental, organisation. It is an institution designed, in that sense, to keep narrative from happening.
From (what was chosen to be) the first page of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King:
Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the A.M. heat: shattercane, lamb’s-quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek. An arrow of starlings fired from the windbreak’s thatch. The glitter of dew that stays where it is and steams all day. A sunflower, four more, one bowed, and horses in the distance standing rigid and still as toys. All nodding. Electric sounds of insects at their business. Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time. Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite. Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.
“Insects all business all the time.” The line breaks – in its brilliance, but a brilliance that comes of its impersonation of a cliché – the lyrically chanting list of “stuff in a field.” (One can almost see an inspirational poster made of the phrase, the drone ants lifting improbably [if relatively] enormous items in their eternal effort to keep calm and carry it on. A horrific poster in an Amazon fulfilment centre?) It’s as if one part of realism (that Barthian effet de réel that comes of the mentioning of objects that serve no role in the plotward establishment of meaning) intersects with another notion of realism, the one mentioned in the post to which this one is an addendum – the deflationary mode, that which operates through the undercutting of lyricism, the bringing of things down to earth.
It’s an intersection like a minor car accident is an intersection, a comedic if jarring one. That’s what we sometimes forget about realism, perhaps, just how funny it is, is often meant to be. A higher form of comedy.
Lydia Davis in her foreword to the new collection of Lucia Berlin’s short stories:
A description can start out romantic – “the parroquia in Veracruz, palm trees, lanterns in the moonlight” – but the romanticism is cut, as in real life, by the realistic Flaubertian detail, so sharply observed by her: “dogs and cats among the dancers’ polished shoes.” A writer’s embrace of the world is all the more evident when she sees the ordinary along with the extraordinary, the commonplace or the ugly along with the beautiful.
Berlin’s animals seem to me to be more a matter of painterly than “Flaubertian” realism. Think of all the animals going about their animal-business at the feet of the humans involved in climactic events in Renaissance paintings.
But I do like Davis’s general notion as a starting place: realism is that which undercuts the romantic, the lyrical, the sensational. It’s the worry that you’ve left the kettle on during the climactic meeting, the crying child in the buggy during the hushed but pivotal marital conversation, the iPhone buzzing in the middle of fantastic sex.
I am in Amsterdam on a ‘working holiday,’ and specifically today I’m trying to finish a section about Karl Ove Knausgård. In particular, I am trying to say something more specific and definite about the uncanny power of his evocations of the everyday or the banal.
Other critics have struggled (productively!) to give a clear description of how it works. For instance, James Wood, in his review of the first volume of the series, describes ‘a simplicity, an openness, and an innocence in his relation to life, and thus in his relation to the reader.’ Wood finds himself working through descriptive contortionism in order to describe the strange effects of Knausgård’s prose and its ‘banality is so extreme that it turns into its opposite, and becomes distinctive, curious in its radical transparency.’ Similarly, Zadie Smith has written in the New York Review of Books that:
As a whole these volumes work not by synecdoche or metaphor, beauty or drama, or even storytelling. What’s notable is Karl Ove’s ability, rare these days, to be fully present in and mindful of his own existence. Every detail is put down without apparent vanity or decoration, as if the writing and the living are happening simultaneously. There shouldn’t be anything remarkable about any of it except for the fact that it immerses you totally. You live his life with him.
She seems to be drawing here on the vocabulary of the contemporary enthusiasm for quasi-Buddhist ‘mindfulness’ meditation… When you have to reach to the New Age section of your vocabulary to describe a literary effect, you know you’re in a bit of a strange spot.
Anyway, in the course of this work I decided to have another look in on Hegel’s statements about the ‘prose of life’ in his Aesthetics. It was quite something to be reminded, given where I’m sitting (the picture above is the view from my desk) of the body of artistic work that he is discussing when he uses the phrase:
Yet if we wish to bring to our notice the most marvellous thing that can be achieved in this connection, we must look at the genre painting of the later Dutch painters. What, in its general spirit, is the substantial basis out of which it issued, is a matter on which I touched above in the consideration of the Ideal as such. Satisfaction in present-day life, even in the commonest and smallest things, flows in the Dutch from the fact that what nature affords directly to other nations, they have had to acquire by hard struggles and bitter industry, and, circumscribed in their locality, they have become great in their care and esteem of the most insignificant things. On the other hand, they are a nation of fishermen, sailors, burghers, and peasants and therefore from the start they have attended to the value of what is necessary and useful in the greatest and smallest things, and this they can procure with the most assiduous industry. In religion the Dutch were Protestants, an important matter, and to Protestantism alone the important thing is to get a sure footing in the prose of life, to make it absolutely valid in itself independently of religious associations, and to let it develop in unrestricted freedom. To no other people, under its different circumstances, would it occur to make into the principal burden of its works of art subjects like those confronting us in Dutch painting. But in all their interests the Dutch have not lived at all in the distress and poverty of existence and oppression of spirit; on the contrary, they have reformed their Church themselves, conquered religious despotism as well as the Spanish temporal power and its grandeur, and through their activity, industry, bravery, and frugality they have attained, in their sense of a self-wrought freedom, a well-being, comfort, honesty, spirit, gaiety, and even a pride in a cheerful daily life. This is the justification for their choice of subjects to paint. (Knox translation, 597-8, italics mine).
Work was just about over for the day, and we’ve been trying to decide whether to go back to the Rijksmuseum or not. At least we know where Hegel stands on the matter.