A Brief History of Portable Literature and The Illogic of Kassel, by Enrique Vila-Matas

kassel“Only from the negative impulse, from the labyrinth of the No, can the writing of the future appear,” writes the narrator of Vila-Matas’s 2000 work, Bartleby and Co. If literature’s negative impulse was once directed at a world that it critiqued or transfigured from a position of relative detachment, in Vila-Matas’s work that negation has turned inward, and is directed against literature itself. His novels resist their own status as literature, but can only do so by confronting it and taking it as their inescapable subject matter. This is not quite the playfulness of postmodern metafiction, though it is certainly metafictional and in some ways playful. Instead of postmodernism we might instead call it post-literature. The trope of the funeral for literature employed in Dublinesque is one that might be applied to Vila-Matas’s work as a whole, underpinned by an irony that is closer to the gallows humor of Samuel Beckett or Thomas Bernhard than it is to the exuberance of John Barth or Thomas Pynchon. Modernism was always among other things the pursuit of forms of expression that stand outside of and contradict the logic of an increasingly commodified culture, which packages experience into easily assimilated units of meaning. If postmodernism is in some sense a liberation from the prohibitions of modernism and an embrace of commodity culture, Vila-Matas’s work is a tragicomic confrontation with modernism’s dwindling conditions of possibility in the era of postmodernity.

Read the full review at Music & Literature

My Struggle Volume 3, by Karl Ove Knausgaard


My review of the latest instalment of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle has been published at Music & Literature:


In his emphasis on everyday objects, Knausgaard is like a man in the dark fumbling around for physical reference points as he tries to find his way to the light switch. The flatness of his style is paradoxically infused with the very “uncontrollable longing” for the past that compels the undertaking, present in its very absence. Given the impossibility of reliable recollection, the listing of physical coordinates—kitchen utensils and clothing, the innumerable family meals whose constituent parts are so pedantically itemized—is a way of anchoring his writing in the real, minimizing the inevitable distortions and transfigurations of literary style. Yet rather than a naïve quest for transparency, the underlying premise of this approach seems to be a deep mistrust, perhaps even a sense of shame towards writing. Like ripping off a band-aid, Knausgaard approaches narrative writing as a necessary evil, the more tolerable if performed quickly and unceremoniously.


Read the full review here: http://www.musicandliterature.org/reviews/2014/5/27/karl-ove-knausgaards-my-struggle-vol-3 


The Restless Supermarket by Ivan Vladislavic


My review of Ivan Vladislavic’s novel The Restless Supermarket has been published at Music & Literature:

Narrated by the cantankerous Aubrey Tearle, a retired proofreader of telephone directories with a penchant for verbosity and an evangelical mania for linguistic propriety, The Restless Supermarket is among other things a remarkably sustained act of ventriloquism. A self-styled guardian of the word-hoard, Tearle sees the “declining standards” of linguistic propriety in a South Africa on the cusp of revolutionary change as not only an affront to intelligibility, but also continuous with a wider decline in “standards of morality, conduct in public life, personal hygiene and medical care, the standard of living, and so on.” Brandishing his holy scripture, the Oxford English Dictionary, Tearle is on a quixotic quest to “correct” a South Africa in a period of flux; narrated in the final years of the century as it “declines to its conclusion,” the novel’s main events take place in late 1993, on the eve of the birth of the new South Africa.

Read the whole review here:  http://www.musicandliterature.org/reviews/2014/2/18/ivan-vladislavis-the-restless-supermarket

Days of Heaven, by Terrence Malick

My piece on Terrence Malick’s 1978 film Days of Heaven has been published over at Static Mass Emporium:


Terrence Malick holds a unique place in my personal canon of film directors, partly because I discovered his films at a watershed moment when a passing interest in cinema was turning into something more consuming. His films fuse a European formalism and philosophical seriousness with a classically American pastoral aesthetic and sense of nostalgia. They hover somewhere around the boundary between the popular and the recondite, giving them the character of a strange cultural hybrid.

Malick’s debut feature, Badlands, is superficially a classic American crime film concerning a young runaway couple, borrowing from Bonnie And Clyde and the long prehistory of road trip narratives that forms a central current in the American cultural imagination, from Twain to Kerouac, The Wizard Of Oz to Easy Rider. Yet this traditional material is refashioned by the modernist narrative device of the unreliable narrator. This casts an uncertain light on its nostalgic aesthetic and throws the focus narcissistically back onto the film’s form as the key to its meaning.

Though Malick has never completely shed his connections with classically American cinematic tropes, his films have become progressively more abstract and formally adventurous. His later films are ponderously paced and heavily aestheticized visual poems, seemingly influenced by Andrei Tarkovsky. Meditations on time, memory and spirituality, they are also investigations of the relationship between form and content.

Days Of Heaven sits at the intersection of early and late Malick, retaining some of the cohesion of Badlands while pointing the way to the more ruminative style ofThe Thin Red LineThe New World and The Tree of Life.

Read the full piece here

The Master, by P.T. Anderson


Billed as PT Anderson’s ‘scientology film’, The Master is really an enigmatic melodrama about everything and nothing. This is its strength, in a way, but also ultimately its weakness. Continuing in There Will Be Blood’s vein of hammed-up thespian intensity, like that film The Master focuses on two larger-than-life characters. Freddie Quell is an emotionally damaged WW2 veteran and wildly self-destructive drinker, whose benders involve alchemising lethal moonshine from ingredients like cough syrup and (literal) rocket fuel. However, most of the pre-launch hype has surrounded his counterpart, the bombastic, pseudo-messianic shyster Lancaster Dodd, inspired by South Park’s L. Ron Hubbard.

Quell falls under the influence of Dodd by chance, having wandered onto a cruise ship rented by Dodd’s cult, during the course of one of his binges. The two strike up a strange mutual dependency, with Quell falling under the spell of Dodd’s charismatic oratory and cod-spiritual guidance. Quell’s priest, psychoanalyst and surrogate patriarch in equal parts, Dodd is also in some ways a kindred spirit and mirror image. In a strangely triangulated pact, he feeds off Quell’s childlike reverence, growing ever more dependent on Quell’s dependency.

Dodd also, it is hinted, develops something approximating Quell’s physical dependency for the potent cocktails he concocts. Just as There Will Be Blood concerns the intoxicating effects of the will to power, religious fervor and primal animosity, The Master concerns the parallels between those of belief, personality, and alcohol. Both films make more sense if you bear in mind that, in one way or another, the characters spend most of their time completely wasted.

As is immediately discernible, then, this is not Anderson’s personal critique of the tenets of scientology, an exercise that would be unlikely to merit two and a half hours of any thinking person’s attention.  The cod-philosophy that Dodd spouts is clearly spurious, but its details are arbitrary and only briefly gestured at. Anderson is clearly interested in belief and where it comes from, but he is primarily concerned with the human compulsion, need, manipulation, desire and force of personality that creates it, not the details of that which is believed. Even when a rare, educated listener challenges Dodd as he spouts his ludicrous metaphysics, the focus is on the human content of his violent and paranoid reaction, rather than the truth-content of the objection.

If this is a character film rather than an issues film per se, that is not to say that Anderson does not attempt to locate his characters within the specifics of their time and place. Indeed, the film is full of gestures towards wider themes. Quell is a lost boy who has no idea how to take control over his life having been cast back into civilian society after the war (though the latter is never shown). His search for a surrogate family is underwritten by his own rootlessness, his father having drunk himself to death and his mother having died in an insane asylum. He makes a living for a time by taking family photographs in a shopping centre – the ultimate symbol of America’s mid-century crisis of spirituality – creating endless reconstructions of the idealized nuclear unit from whose authentic reality he is alienated.

Yet if Anderson intends Quell to embody some sort of wider truth about the postwar condition, this intention is at odds with Joachim Phoenix’s caricature posturing – which is not to say that it isn’t an extraordinary performance. In many ways it is a remarkable display of method-acting rigour. Indeed, Pheonix’s sneering, maniacal intensity recalls that of Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog films like Aguirre, The Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo and Woyzeck.

Yet the uses to which Herzog and Anderson put this sort of performance are very different. Herzog’s Kinski films are defined by Wagnerian excess – explicitly, in the case of Fitzcarraldo. The histrionics of Kinski’s performances are matched by Herzog’s overreaching metaphysical bombast. Their elemental intensity recalls classical tragedy, serving to dissolve the individuality of Kinski’s personas and elevate them to the realm of archetype. Herzog’s purpose is not to create a sense of empathy or three-dimensional believability in the case of Aguirre, any more than Homer’s is in the case of Achilles.

Anderson is interested in filming similarly spectacular and histrionic performances from both his leading men, but he also seems to want to domesticate them in a way in which Herzog has no interest. This creates a conflict. Anderson seeks to examine Quell and Dodd and tap into their interiority, understanding the human motivations that underpin their relationship. But their performances are so external and aestheticized in their studied thespianism that they remain remote. Quell and Dodd are neither believable enough to be fully human, nor representative enough to be compellingly symbolic. They neither fully achieve nor transcend the particular. The result is caricature.

There is much to admire in The Master, but it is not a film that ever achieves more than the sum of its parts. Indeed, the main impression I left with is that Anderson is an interesting and talented director who has fallen into the trap of believing his own hype. Profundity, much like humour, is something that can’t really be forced. The earlier films that launched Anderson’s reputation, Boogie Nights and Magnolia, are triumphs of style, offbeat humour and imagination, but they are not works of any particular artistic or philosophical depth. They are films that are not about anything per se; they merely are – in a way that is unforced, singular and vital. The Master, in contrast, is a work that in its desperate striving to say something meaningful about life ultimately fails to attain a life of its own.

Tabu, by Miguel Gomes

The latest offering from Portuguese auteur Miguel Gomes, Tabu revolves around a series of unresolved oppositions: realism and romance, fact and fiction, the metropolis and the colony, the internal and the external, the narrator and the narrated. Not only is the film structured around thematic contrasts, formally it is split into two bipolar halves: present and past or, in its own literary terminology, Paradise Lost and Paradise. The former is a prosaic study of urban alienation, while the latter is a self-consciously poetic melodrama set in colonial Africa.

The thread that links the two sections is Aurora, a senile old lady who gambles away vast chunks of her fortune and rambles semi-coherently about filial plots, the machinations of her taciturn maid Santa, and escaped crocodiles. We encounter her through the eyes of her neighbor Pilar, a lonely middle-aged spinster and Catholic do-gooder. Along with Santa, they form the central triangle in a low-key urban character study that resembles a less dramatic Haneke or a less wry Kaurismaki.

The themes are all there: the impossibility of communication, the atomization of modern life, the arbitrariness of a faithless world, the failure of multiculturalism. The characters are ideas with names. Santa (saint), an impoverished African immigrant, remains as utterly inscrutable as her postcolonial generic precedents would lead us to expect (she even secretly reads Robinson Crusoe). Pilar’s (pillar) Catholicism insulates her against the meaninglessness of her lonely existence. The surreal poetry of Aurora’s demented monologues provides a contrast to the unrelenting prose of daily life. All of which, while not without its merits, on first viewing errs on the side of obviousness and didacticism.

However, the film is flipped upside down by a second section that could scarcely be more stylistically incongruous. An elderly stranger, Gian Luca Ventura emerges like a ghost from Aurora’s past and recounts to Pilar the tale of their histrionic romance, set at the foot of the remote African Mount Tabu. Replete with elemental passion, shattered taboos, elopement, murder, betrayal and tragic separation, the tale breathes life back into the dead themes whose very absence haunts the opening section. The world is re-enchanted before our eyes in a manner whose potential spuriousness we are more than willing to temporarily forget.

The contrast is as much stylistic as thematic. The neo-Bressonian minimalism of the opening section gives way to an unashamedly lyrical homage to the silent era, all aestheticized black and white shots of verdant mountainsides in the setting sun and smoldering close-ups of the youthful star-crossed lovers. The section is soundless other than the atmospheric hum of crickets and the disconnected voiceover of the now-elderly protagonist telling the story at Aurora’s wake in Lisbon.

Reviewers have invoked Terrence Malick as a reference point, and the magic-hour lighting, leisurely panoramas and enigmatic voiceover would all seem to suggest his influence. The unconfirmed relationship between word and image serves as the formal crux in Malick films such as Badlands and Days of Heaven, and Tabu utilizes a similar structural instability. We do not know whether what we watch in the second half is a visualization of the events from an omniscient perspective, a projection of Gian Luca’s memories as he sees them in his mind’s eye, as they are transfigured in the romance-starved imagination of the listening Pilar, or even a commentary on the way we the audience might perceive his memories to look because of our own preconditioning by the very cinematic norms and clichés it employs. In a sense it doesn’t matter – the effect lies in the uncertainty.

If the section’s aesthetic were merely intended as homage to a bygone cinematic era we might dismiss it as mere trainspotting or self-indulgence. But the romanticizing cinematic language is problematic. On the one hand it serves to poetically exaggerate and universalize its themes in the manner of classic middlebrow melodrama. But on a more subtle level it emphasizes the potentially violent subjectivity of nostalgia. Stripped of their sentimental baggage, the events it depicts are largely destructive, culminating in the hastily covered-up murder of an entirely undeserving victim. Like the ironically fairytale aesthetic that disguises the violence of Badlands and Days of Heaven, this treatment conceals the nature of the events it describes.

The second section, then, provides a mythic counterweight to the drab social realism of the first, which purports to merely show things to us ‘as they are’. But this is rather more than dramatic relief or escapism. For one thing it calls into question the limits of cinematic realism, underscoring the gap between appearance and quiddity. Just as the characters in the first half are unable to really communicate or empathize with one another, our window into Aurora’s tumultuous past – outrageously distorted or downright untrue though it might be – serves to emphasize the inauthenticity of appearance. Though the realism of the first section pretends to document concrete reality, the second half shows that it has communicated nothing of its characters’ inner lives. The actual nature of the present is as fugitive and hypothetical as that of the past.

If the purpose of the second section were merely to correct our initial reading of the first with a revelation of the past, while juxtaposing the prose of the present with the poetry of nostalgia, it would have run the risk of triteness. Yet its complexity stems from its ambiguous relation to any notion of objective truth. By retaining an uncertain relationship between the words that form the historical data of the narrative (themselves potentially unreliable) and the aestheticized images that relay it to us visually, Tabu refuses to give us an authentic version of events to fall back on.

Indeed, the truth of the film lies somewhere within the very contradictions inherent in its opposing forces. The poetic truth of the second section is as selective, questionable and incomplete as the prosaic truth of the first. The whole remains inaccessible. Ultimately Tabu serves as a monument to the glorious futility of any attempt to impose a narrative upon the world.

The Walk, by Robert Walser

This review was originally published in 3:AM Magazine

‘Every American hungers to move’, writes John Steinbeck in Travels With Charley. He may be right, but by and large they hate to walk. The quintessential mode of conveyance in the US novel is the vehicle: by wagon for Faulkner’s mourners or Steinbeck’s wage-slaves, by boat for Melville or Twain, by car for Kerouac, Hunter S. Thomson or Tom Wolfe, by motorbike for Robert M. Pirsig, or on horseback for Larry McMurthy or Cormac McCarthy. When McCarthy strips his characters of a ride in The Road it feels like a symbolically loaded statement.

Back in the Old World we are rather more tied to our bipedal roots. Indeed, if many of the great American novels are in one way or another about road trips, the modern European novel is similarly obsessed with walking: from Proust’s miasmic peregrinations around Combray, to Doblin, Bely and Joyce’s more metropolitan flaneur-isms, or more recently Sebald’s psycho-geographic ramble around East Anglia in The Rings of Saturn, which has contributed to a new UK-based walking craze through the likes of Iain Sinclair, Will Self and Robert Macfarlane. (Beckett, as usual, defines this trend by negation, constraining his characters to more stationary forms of existential bewailment. If movement is allowed, it tends to involve either an ignominious end in some distant roadside ditch or, at a push, dragging oneself along face-first in the mud).

This transportational preference has its formal and thematic correspondences. The macho, open-road tradition of the Great American Novel privileges romantic excess, the formless howl rather than the European well-wrought urn. If the American novel has retained something of the frontier mentality, we crowded Old World-ers are more interested in constraints, both actual and formal. The US has Catch 22, Gravity’s Rainbow, Underworld and Infinite Jest, Europe has the nouveau roman and OULIPO. If American literature is about discovery and new beginnings, Europeans are crushed by the weight of history. American idealism throws off the paralyzing subjectivist shackles of post-Enlightenment thought and hubristically gropes for the thing itself, while Old Europe turns ever further inward, locked into its own ruminations on the writing process and the suffocating grip of worn-out categories of being. While the American novel aspires to be – in the words of Saul Bellow’s narrator Charlie Citrine – ‘magically, cosmically expressive and articulate, able to say anything’, the European novel is preoccupied with the impossibility of actually saying anything at all. In fact, if there is another quintessential subject for the modern European novel alongside walking, it’s writer’s block.

These twin topics are the backbone of Robert Walser’s masterfully enigmatic 1917 novella The Walk, as they were in some ways the defining states of his life.  His predilection for the former is immortalized in the eerie photo of his corpse, collapsed in the snow during the course of one of his perambulatory excursions from the psychiatric hospital in which he spent his final years. And writer’s block – that defining symptom of modernist anxiety from Hugo von Hofmannsthal to Kafka, Beckett and Pessoa – is one of Walser’s enduring subjects. Just as one of his most important descendants Thomas Bernhard’s novels tend to consist of the thing that his protagonist does or writes instead of writing their magnum opus, the narrator of Walser’s The Walk imagines himself out in the world on various trivial matters of business, on an excursion he has taken in order to cure his writer’s block.

The narrator describes his outing as an escape from the ‘room of phantoms’ in which he has been failing to write, emerging out of the darkness and silence of literary composition into the light of experience and sensation. Yet of course this is an illusion: what we are reading is writing, not walking. It is a piece of writing masquerading as writing’s opposite, literature in the guise of non-literature:

“As far as I remember, I found myself, as I walked into the open, bright, and cheerful street, in a romantically adventurous state of mind, which pleased me… Everything I saw made upon me an impression of friendliness, goodness and youth. I quickly forgot that up in my room I had only just a moment before been brooding gloomily over a blank sheet of paper.”

Walser establishes an opposition between the world as Apollonian lightness and the text as Orphic darkness. The narrator may feel inspired to communicate his experience of this world of the senses, but – as he reminds us by foregrounding the act of composition – he can only do so by returning to his ‘room of phantoms’ and entombing it within another text.

We can recognize in this the classic contradiction facing the modern European author: the chasm between experience and representation, referred to by the theorist Rene Wellek as the ‘ontological gap’ separating the world and the text. Baudelaire’s painter of modern life may be a flaneur or ‘gentleman stroller of city streets’, but the writer who converts this world into black marks on paper is a solitary creature locked in deadly battle with his own failure to recreate it. “Real books”, writes Proust in Time Regained, “should be the offspring not of daylight and casual talk but of darkness and silence”. Literature may aspire to communicate some of the instantaneity of experience, but somewhere along the line it has lost faith in the validity of its own methods of doing so.

While a sense of the impossibility of reclaiming the past through writing resonates beneath The Walk, it is at least superficially concealed by comedy. Indeed, the abject failure of Walser’s prose to recreate anything resembling the world outside of the text is the book’s running gag. The formal design of the novel functions in part as a liberating device that allows Walser to write joyously and exhilaratingly badly. His style is a cascade of self-consciously literary adjectives, balanced somewhere between heavy-handed and absurdly overwritten. A lady he encounters on the stairs “presented to the eye a certain pallid, faded majesty”; a passing scholar is “Incontrovertible power in person, serious, ceremonial and majestical”, his gait “like an iron law” and his hat “like an irremovable ruler”. Yet in these adjectives we hear not the objects they describe, but the groping for literariness: when does one ever think these things, encounter these sentiments?

Whereas realists go to great and artful lengths to write dialogue that conveys the necessary narrative information to the reader while still appearing natural and believable, Walser’s direct speech rejects even the most basic attempts to conceal its authorial purpose. Why describe his own reaction to a statement when he could merely make his interlocutor describe it for us?:

“Your features are suffused this very moment with an appreciably great joy. Your eyes are shining. Your mouth, perhaps for the first time in years, because pressing daily troubles (and consequently a sorrowful mood and all sorts of dark thoughts) have forbidden you laughter, now has about it unmistakably a trace of laughter. Your previously darkened brow looks decidedly serene”

We can hear in much of this curiously gauche posturing a parodic echo of the polite Victorian realist novel. The post-Flaubertian stylist is a tortured syllable-counter endlessly searching for the bon mot, the mysterious confluence of euphonious vowel and well-weighted cadence that will momentarily exalt the quotidian and transport his reader to the spine-tingling Nabokovian realm of aesthetic bliss. Yet Walser’s style and structure is directed at throwing this romantic process into comic relief, exposing the absurdity at its core. The writer toils away in his ‘room of phantoms’, desperately disgorging verbiage onto the page in his doomed attempts to transform the mundanities of experience into great literature. Yet all that emerges from it is artfully framed failure.

If Walser’s comic dialogue with the language and gestures of literary convention is at times gleefully impish, it would be a mistake to regard The Walk as anything so self-evident or easily categorized as satire. Its vision is too opaque, its meaning too enigmatically unfulfilled, its contours edged with darkness. Walser was one of Kafka’s favourite authors, and the oneiric seamlessness of Kafka’s more surreal narratives such as The Castle or Description of a Struggle is immediately recognizable. The narrator moves from one distorted interaction to another in a kind of lucid dream, a liminal state that seems to draw from both conscious and unconscious, blurring the straight lines of the former with the associative fluidity of the latter. The persona of the narrator evaporates within this mnemonic haze, the self who took the walk irreconcilable with the self who attempts to recreate it.

Indeed, while Walser’s narrator only hints at the malaise that underpins his comic riffing, the more the discord builds the more we come to realize that it conceals a kind of desperation. Stripped of its tragi-comic verbal plumage, what really takes place in Walser’s story may be expressed as something like this: a writer, faced with the despair of his untouched manuscript, rushes out into the world in search of inspiration. However, all he finds there is bourgeois mundanity: a bookseller peddling popular trash, a sycophantic bank clerk, a garishly painted butcher’s shop, an overbearing lady patron. Back in his miserable room he attempts to mobilize the rhetoric and devices of literary history to infuse this meaningless series of events with grandeur and significance – but somehow the spark fails to kindle. Perhaps the world was once an enchanted place full of great and significant happenings, the raw material that the writer need only sculpt into literary form to produce great art. Yet somehow this magic has disappeared. When he tries to write literature, what comes out is not the world, is not him, is not life, at all. Indeed, all he can express is literature’s absence from the world.

The great artist, so the cliché goes, attains a surrogate immortality. But at the end of the story we leave Walser’s narrator enveloped in nightfall: the darkness of a world and a self that cannot be reclaimed, that is gone forever the instant it has passed.

Note: Originally published (in German) in 1917, The Walk is reissued by New Directions. Christopher Middleton’s classic translation has been updated by Susan Bernofsky to correspond to a rewrite of the story that Walser himself considered the definitive version.

My Struggle, by Karl Ove Knausgaard

This review was originally published at ReadySteadyBook.com

Towards the end of the shattering first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s memoir My Struggle, he cuts from a scene of particularly sepulchral intensity to a flashback describing his days interviewing writers for a student newspaper. On one such occasion, while interviewing the author Kjartan Fløgstad, he forgets his notepad and is forced to try to recreate the interview from memory.  But it’s impossible. Even with the questions to hand his memories of the conversation are “too vague, too imprecise”. Having called up Fløgstad for some ‘follow-up questions’ he manages to cobble together a version that seems faithful enough, and submits it to the author for review. The response reads as an ironically prescient in-joke:

“I opened it. Held the printout of the interview. It was covered with red marks and red comments in the margin. “I never said this”, I saw, “Imprecise”, I saw, “No, no, no”, I saw, “???”, I saw. “Where did you get that from?” I saw.”

Knausgaard’s six-volume tell-all has become a literary sensation in Norway, partly due to the lavish acclaim it has drawn from more bookish quarters, but mainly due to the juicy controversy stemming from its warts-and-all portrayal of Knausgaard’s family. This, the first volume to be translated into English, centers on his enigmatic father, who walked out on the family and later barricaded himself in his mother’s house and systematically drank himself to death. Knausgaard pulls no punches in laying bare the desperate squalor in which his father spent his final days, and the very public fallout with surviving members of the family over Knausgaard’s version of events has made the book an unlikely bestseller.

Prescience aside, the anecdote demonstrates the fundamental impossibility of Knausgaard’s project. If he cannot recount a single conversation without scandalizing his interlocutor with flagrant distortions and misrepresentations, what can his memoir ever be but the most arrant of fictions? Even the passage itself is a double negative, a self-cancelling invalidation. As a remembered anecdote that Knausgaard uses to demonstrate the impossibility of really remembering anything, it negates its own purported premises, even as it undermines those of the entire undertaking. This awareness of his alienation from the past underpins Knausgaard’s approach to his subject matter. He may be able to dredge up disparate fragments, images, even the odd madeleine-prompted moment of uncanny convergence, but as Thomas Bernhard’s narrator puts it in Extinction, for the most part the past – even yesterday, even the last second – is nothing but a gaping void. Memory is to a greater or lesser degree fictional, and that is before one even confronts the problematics of writing, of subjugating experience to the outrages of narrative form and the corrupting medium of language.  Knausgaard reflects:

“You know too little and it doesn’t exist. You know too much and it doesn’t exist. Writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows. That is what writing is about. Not what happens there, not what actions are played out there, but the there itself. There, that is writing’s location and aim. But how to get there?” (p. 190)

Even self-knowledge becomes unreliable once it is detached from intuition, and has been assimilated into a personal narrative. Truth isn’t a question of content but of sense and feeling; an event; a verb not a noun. For Knausgaard, writing is a lie deployed in the service of exhuming and recapturing this fugitive truth. But writing muddies the water with its own manipulations and falsehoods, from the weight of usage and association to the gestures of ritual and convention, the charade of literary voice. Knausgaard thus chooses a way of ‘taking us there’ through his writing that is risky, oblique and at times disconcerting. Distrusting the tyranny of the adjective, he bases his style around flatness and matter-of-fact detail. For the most part he lets significations arise out of form and structure, the internally generated resonances and associations carried by objects themselves, rather than laying them on a plate for us through the line-by-line expressiveness of literary prose. Rather than channeling experience, Knausgaard’s dispassionate delivery more often than not serves to accentuate our distance from it:

“On the way downstairs a huge surge of tears overcame me. This time there was no question of trying to hide it. My whole chest trembled and shook, I couldn’t draw breath, deep sobs rolled through me, and my face contorted, I was completely out of control.

“Ooooooooh,” I said. “Ooooooooh.”

The subject matter sits uncomfortably with the anti-emotive, matter-of-fact style. The symptoms are simply presented in a non-hierarchical list (‘My whole chest…’), free of any of the inflective legwork we expect prose to do in order to enhance the sense of that to which it refers. Part of the uncanny effect of Knausgaard’s approach to his subject manner is this resistance to almost any kind of literary voice, rejecting its heightened sensibility on a line-by-line level and instead opting for a cumulative effect based on form rather than style. His prose rejects one of the central mechanisms of traditional literary aesthetics: enhancing and evoking subject matter through imitation. Like when Keats imitates the sticky sibilance of an overripe apple, or Dickens or Joyce modulate their sentences to evoke fog or snow. Knausgaard simply doesn’t bother with any of this, which becomes a kind of oppositional statement in itself. His stubbornly deadpan delivery accentuates the rupture between now and then, the void that separates the historical self from the self that tries to recapture experience and recreate it through prose. Yet this is not the mannered, deliberately enigmatic Dirty Realist minimalism of Hemingway and Carver, or even the offhand garrulousness of Kerouac. It lies somewhere much closer to the tone of Imre Kertesz’s remarkable novel Fateless, in which the narrator revisits Auschwitz and rather than emoting just ingenuously describes what he sees.

In Knausgaard the resistance to emotiveness is not merely a way of confronting the ineffability of trauma without reducing it to the forms and codes of habit, though this is undoubtedly partly where he is coming from. It is also down to a more general, pervasive sense of the impossibility of writing, of which the recollection of trauma is merely an extreme example. It is much more obviously impossible to convey the actual sense of Auschwitz than it is to convey the actual sense of the dinner-table atmosphere of one’s childhood, or the feeling of playing in a rubbish band, or making a pot of coffee or lighting a cigarette; there is much more at stake in its being subsumed into the normalizing network of shared association. But it is ultimately an amplification of the same incongruity. The sense of a moment passes through words like so many grains of sand through despairing fingers. If Knausgaard is to overcome this problem he must do so obliquely.

What does it mean to say that Knausgaard’s artistic effects arise from form and structure rather than style? Take, for example, the line that begins the passage that deals with his father’s death and its aftermath, the real subject matter of the book: “I was almost thirty years old when I saw a dead body for the first time”. This comes on page 222, but it is really the book’s beginning. The events that the narrative concerns – Knausgaard’s confrontation with the squalid house in which his father died, and his attempts to make sense of the events that drove him to what was in effect a prolonged suicide – are all to come. Yet Knausgaard prefaces this all with 222 pages, consisting of a mixture of saturnine overtures, philosophical asides, quotidian detail and fractured anecdotes from his youth, that can at times seem slightly directionless. However, in retrospect it becomes clear that by doing so he creates the conditions under which the objects and events that the main narrative concerns can become meaningful, independent of the stylistic shortcuts of a more conventionally literary treatment. We can well imagine a lyrical memoir in which the above sentence serves as a killer opening. It might continue with evocative prose that transports us inside the mind of the observer, creating resonance and an illusion of empathy. Yet this is not how Knausgaard continues. He merely dispassionately describes what happens:

“It was the summer of 1998, a July afternoon, in a chapel in Kristiansand. My father had died. He was laid out on a table in the middle of the room, the sky was overcast, the light in the room dull, outside the window a lawn mower was slowly circling around a lawn.”

The significance of the scene arises from the painfully accumulated sensibility we have derived from the previous 222 pages, insidiously, accretively drawing us into the author’s way of looking at the world, his many-sided relationship with his father, the ineffable web of significations contained within the corpse laid out on the table before us and its relationship to the observer. Knausgaard could try and communicate something of this through evocative prose, perhaps using free indirect discourse to try to recreate his mental reaction to what he observes. Yet he knows that this would be a fraudulent way of recreating the ‘there’ of the moment. Instead, through its structure and painfully assembled detail, the novel cultivates a sensibility whereby the signification is able to arise, to some extent, out of the objects themselves. Hence, when Karl Ove and Yngwe pull up outside of the house in which his father drank himself to death, all he needs to do is flatly describe what they see:

“The garden was completely overgrown. The grass was knee-high, like a meadow, grayish-yellow in color, flattened in some places by the rain. It had spread everywhere, covering all the beds, I wouldn’t have been able to see the flowers had I not known where they were…”

Knausgaard doesn’t tell us what he is thinking, because he knows the structure of the novel does that for us. We immediately cast our minds back to our first encounter with his father digging his immaculately maintained garden twenty years previously, a cold, rigidly disciplinarian figure. The contrast with the dissolute slob who drank himself to death does not need to be articulated through high-flung phrases or hand-wringing lamentation; Knausgaard subtly creates a textual structure in which it arises out of the detail itself.

The fault line separating autobiography and fiction was explored by some of the great writers of the 20th century, from Nabokov and Cendrars to Bernhard and Coetzee, though the obvious source text for Knausgaard’s epic is Proust’s A la recherché du temps perdu. Knausgaard’s memoir is a Proustian undertaking not just in the most obvious sense of it being a gargantuan six-volume novelistic examination of the author’s memories, but also in the sense that it tells the story of how it came to be written. It remains to be seen exactly where the remaining five volumes will take us, but even as a standalone Knausgaard’s narrative is circular in the sense that it creates the conditions for its own coming into being in the reader. It engenders the requisite sensibility in the reader who has finished the novel whereby he is able to comprehend something of the full meaning of the author who began writing it. In this sense it is a book that reinforces the Nabokovian diktat that we cannot read, only re-read. And one of the great gifts of this devastating, urgent and original masterpiece is that its resonant last line invites you to do just that: turn back to the first page and start over, all the better equipped to make sense of the journey.

The Kid with a Bike , by the Dardenne Brothers

In Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 Italian neo-realist classic The Bicycle Thieves, a desperately impoverished, salt-of-the-earth Roman worker has his bicycle (and thus livelihood) stolen, shortly after securing a long sought-after gig pasting up posters during the post-war depression. The film follows his quest to recover his cherished mode of conveyance, accompanied by his cherubic son. Along the way they encounter various examples of the dog-eat-dog pragmatism of poverty, illuminated by the odd flash of human warmth, not least that which emerges from their own relationship. Dominated by hardship and misery, the film nonetheless offers a glimmer of redemption in the form of human compassion and forgiveness, a contrast to the alienating indifference of a capitalist system that reduces people to units of currency.

It is tempting to view the Dardenne Brothers’ latest film as a remake or homage, though as tends to be the case in their particularly stark brand of unadorned realism, any of the consolations of humanism are considerably harder won. Whereas De Sica’s social realism depicts the material circumstances of urban poverty but is seduced by the twin temptations of sentimentality and dramatic performance, in the Dardennes the human subject is shown to us at a far more advanced stage of late-capitalist alienation. De Sica’s implied faith in the redemptive transcendence of the human soul is replaced by unknowable, conflicted individuals whose acquisitiveness and occasional flashes of affection are never straightforwardly separable. If the Dardenne Brothers are not always as engrossing or aesthetically memorable as De Sica, at their best they are a good deal more unsettling.

Whereas The Bicycle Thieves is glued together by the fundamental bond between father and son, The Kid with a Bike focuses on Cyril, a 12 or 13 year-old boy who has been casually rejected by his father. Initially the plot concerns Cyril’s attempts to recover his bike, yet it morphs into something more akin to a bildungsroman, a character portrait of a vulnerable yet resilient child adrift in a world in which acquisitiveness and indifference are the norm. An abandoned orphan, Cyril is offered an unexpected lifeline in the form of a hairdresser who encounters him during one of his frequent dramatic flights of rage, and subsequently agrees to foster him. As in De Sica, a bond emerges between the two that offers the film’s promise of redemption. However the sentimentality and idealised character traits (the stoical simplicity of the father, the crowd-pleasing cuteness of the son) that mark that film are absent, or at least presented far more problematically.

Just as their hero Robert Bresson remade Dreyer’s silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc in a way that stripped it of what he regarded as its grotesque thespianism, the Dardennes slam shut the door that De Sica offers us to his characters’ interior lives, rejecting any unnatural expressiveness and obviously scripted dialogue. As in Bresson, the Dardennes’ mode of characterisation is all flatness and surface; physical movement and cinematic syntax take over the work more conventionally assigned to dialogue and performance. We are denied the background information or intimate access that would allow us to readily categorise the characters, or credit them with the clearly differentiated motives, desires and stable traits of traditional humanist subjects.

This alienation ties in with the films’ more fundamental concerns. Though the Dardennes deal with the wrong side of the tracks, they seem to be primarily interested in a form of spiritual rather than material poverty. True, their characters are generally frenetically rushing around struggling to make ends meet, and a lack of material opportunity and hope is a continual backdrop. However, they are not primarily out to shock us with representations of extreme poverty or domestic abuse, or to promote a clear-cut social or political message. Existential themes of meaninglessness and indeterminacy are instead pushed to the foreground, and this makes their films far more unsettling. Whereas a film such as The Bicycle Thieves encourages the utopian interpretation that if it were merely unburdened of an unfair social system mankind might flourish, the Dardennes are as interested in emotional and spiritual forms of alienation as they are in social disenfranchisement. Though they may in some ways be by-products of a dehumanising capitalist system, there is no obvious political solution to the problems they confront.

If this groups the Dardennes films together into one, that is because they are in a sense stages of the same project, corners of a cumulative picture of the world as viewed through the microcosm of the unremarkable industrial city in Belgium in which all their films are set. Through adapting Bressonian techniques they have developed a method by which to translate their worldview into a cinematic form that is at times almost perfectly at the service of content, utilizing and making a virtue of the tendency of film to aestheticize and keep us at arms’ length, rather than attempting to overcome it through artificial means. The immediacy of the medium gives them a mimetic advantage over the Zola-esque novels their films recall, presenting the world to us in its natural state of flux and indecipherability, free of the necessarily reflective dimension of language.

Despite being of the same bloodline, and though it shares many of the broader virtues that make them so unsettling and indispensible, The Kid with a Bike in my view ultimately falls slightly short of the devastating cogency of films such as L’Enfant and Rosetta. Though the first half of the film is flawlessly crafted, in the second there is a tailing off that I would suggest can be traced to both structural and thematic problems that are absent from their best work. The ending of the film is in a sense a reprise of that of The Bicycle Thieves. In that film the father, driven to desperation, steals a bike from a crowded square only to be chased down by an irate mob. Though initially out for revenge, the owner of the bike relents upon seeing the man’s defenceless child, and opts for forgiveness. The son too forgives the father and, as the film ends with a shot of them walking away hand in hand, materially destitute but somehow spiritually enriched, we are left with an image of humanity that transcends the dehumanization of material want.

Similarly, The Kid with a Bike ends on a note of hope and redemption. Cyril has briefly become caught up with a local small-time dealer, and in return for a bit of mild buttering up commits a robbery that involves him – somewhat implausibly in an otherwise rigorously realistic film – knocking out a father and son with a baseball bat. He is saved from the path of juvenile detention and seemingly inevitable ruin by the man he has assaulted, who agrees to forgive him and drop charges. Cyril is ultimately able to return the compliment when the man’s son attempts to exact revenge and briefly fears he has killed him. In an apparent nod to its own artificial symmetry, Cyril is also knocked out only to come around minutes later having suffered no serious ill effect.

Part of the deflation that takes place with this late storyline comes from the fact that not all of its details are particularly believable; but this would not be a primary concern if it served a more compelling essayistic function. The problem for me is that the ending feels rather too determinate, dissipating some of the energy generated through the powerful portraiture of the opening half of the film. In the Dardennes’ best work the final scene arrives as a crescendo that is also a paradox, an inevitability that somehow also manages to question and redefine all that has gone before – like the emotional outpouring at the end of L’Enfant that is rendered all the more shattering for its stubborn indeterminacy, or the sheer relentlessness that marks the final crescendo of Rosetta. Both scenes confer on us an urgent interpretative choice, as in the devastating final shot of Trouffaut’s The 400 Blows when the young Antoine is frozen in an unexpected close-up, looking almost pleadingly into the camera as if to ask ‘what now?’

In the more optimistic closing note of The Kid with a Bike, we can still hear some characteristic undertones: the conflict between that which is shown and presumed, and the probability that the symmetry of the plotline is coincidental and ultimately meaningless. As Cyril cycles off into the sunshine we have no idea what he is thinking, whether he will manage to choose a better life than that which seemed his fate, whether he will collapse from a brain haemorrhage following his concussion, or indeed whether he will make it home at all without being hit by a lorry. Yet it failed for me to gather these conflicting possibilities into the sort of compelling paradox that makes films like L’Enfant and Rosetta so piercing and resonant. As an addition to the Dardennes’ body of work it sits somewhere short of the apex, but it still does enough to demonstrate why they are of a completely different order of significance to 99% of the films that will be showing in a cinema near you this year – and for that reason it demands to be seen.     

The Melancholy of Resistance, by László Krasznahorkai

This review was originally published at ReadySteadyBook.com

Fans of Bela Tarr’s wonderful film adaptation Werckmeister Harmonies will be familiar with the basic outline of this dense metaphysical parable: a circus turns up to a remote Hungarian town boasting the world’s largest whale, and provokes a mysterious outpouring of carnivalesque violence.  However, what Tarr viewers may be unprepared for is its thematic and philosophical richness. In many ways The Melancholy of Resistance is an old-school European ‘novel of ideas’ in the dialogic tradition of Dostoevsky through Conrad and Mann, yet it is also back-lit with a Kafkaesque disquiet. Tarr’s film is still probably better known than its source text among an English-speaking audience, and Werckmeister Harmonies is characteristically austere and inscrutable; it relies on surface and silence, and makes a virtue of its own cryptic lack of explanation. While these elements are present to some degree in Krasznahorkai’s novel, it is considerably more discursive, more tonally varied in its surrealism and dark humour, and more stylistically baroque than one might expect given the rigorous minimalism of Tarr’s treatment.

Whatever avant-gardeist reputation Krasznahorkai may have amassed thanks to his long sentences and Bernhardian distaste for paragraph breaks, his material is some of the oldest in literature: in fact, the symbolic devices read at times like a post-Nietzschean take on Elizabethan tragedy. There are two major interconnected metaphorical codes running through the novel. On one hand, the giant dead whale is a symbolically loaded literary signifier, somewhere between leviathan, Moby Dick, a mysterious memento mori and a Trojan horse that smuggles into the town the seeds of its destruction; yet on the other it maintains the stubborn silence of materiality and non-being, a monument to the indifference of the phenomenal world. Meanwhile the thematic opposition of order and disorder – a throwback to the central mechanism of Shakespearian tragedy – is animated through the prism of the philosophical worldviews of four main characters: Mrs Plauf, Mrs Eszter, Valushka, and Mr Eszter.

The book highlights the schism between their various belief systems and its violent events. We begin the novel through the eyes of Mrs Plauf, an uptight petit bourgeois, as she journeys back by train across the frozen plains of central Hungary in an unseasonably Baltic November. Written in free indirect style, the journey is unsettling: a disheveled drunk apparently misinterprets her innocent adjustment of her bra, and attempts to follow her into a toilet. On her return to the town she witnesses a rabble of strange men, a random outbreak of violence, a power cut – the stuff of pathetic fallacy. Though her insular frame of reference is gently mocked, it nonetheless foreshadows in its own naive vocabulary the eventual outbreak of violence. The latter is unleashed on the town in unreasoning ferocity by a strange mob led by the Prince, a mysterious Zarathustran prophet of doom recalling Cormac McCarthy’s Judge Holden.

The violence is juxtaposed with various illusions of order. Mr Eszter provides the major articulation of the order/disorder theme in the form of the despair to which he has been driven by his research into musical tonality. Eszter’s pessimism recalls that of a Bernhardian narrator, right down to his study of musicology, hermeticism, obsessive negativity and tragic-comic literal-mindedness. Bernhard’s most pessimistic novel Correction concerns the logico-philosophical death-spiral of a character, loosely based on early Wittgenstein, who  effectively manages to reason himself into non-existence. Driven to despair by the impossibility of aligning thought and experience, he obsessively ‘corrects’ the imperfections of an autobiographical text until he is driven to destroy both it and himself in the ultimate act of self-correction. This deadly rupture between representation and fact – the remainder that leaks through the illusions of order we cognitively impose on the flux of the phenomenal world – is represented through Eszter’s studies in musical tonality.

In a lengthy interior monologue Eszter outlines his erstwhile conception of music as the representation of cosmological harmony that redeems the Schopenhauerean misery of the world:

“Ever since he was young he had lived with the unshakeable conviction that music, which for him consisted of the omnipotent magic of harmony and echo, provided humanity’s only sure stay against the filth and squalor of the surrounding world, music being as close an approximation to perfection as could be imagined”

Yet Ezster’s obsessive, tonal-mathematical studies into the inner workings of harmonics have led him to a devastating discovery: the seven-tone European scale operates at a departure from absolute purity of pitch. The works of Brahms, Beethoven and Mozart do not adumbrate some transcendent cosmological harmony, but are in fact, mathematically speaking, aberrations. In ‘natural’ (ie tonally equidistant) tuning the works of Bach are nothing but a horrible clamour; harmony is in fact an illusion concealing, in Bruchner’s famous words “that screaming that men call silence”. The masterworks that Eszter had regarded as evidence of the redeeming possibility of the unity of object and idea are in fact merely “evidences of human failings”, and this for Eszter has the profoundest of philosophical implications:

“music was not the articulation of some better part of ourselves, or a reference to some notion of a better world, but a disguising of the fact of our irredeemable selves and the sorry state of the world, but no, not merely a disguising but a complete, twisted denial of such facts: it was a cure that did not work, a barbiturate that functioned as an opiate”

Whereas Ezsther’s despair is purely conceptual (he has retreated from the world, we are told, “to recline on his bed and banish boredom by composing, day and night, sentences like variations ‘on the same bitter theme’”), his unlettered companion Valushka undergoes before our eyes his own Weberian ‘disenchantment of the world’, played out in the pre-conceptual domain of the aesthetic.

Whereas Eszter attempts to rationalize the world through the metaphor of harmonic correspondences, the unlettered Valushka aestheticizes it through a rhapsodic intuition of totality. Regarded as a village idiot, Valushka delivers letters, entertains the punters at pub closing time with his rapt demonstrations of the movements of the planets, and performs nightly circuits of the city, watching over it like a guardian angel. Valushka is enchanted by a dimly comprehended image of ‘the regal calm of the universe’, a platonic realm to which the phenomenal world is a mere shadow dance. His initial reaction to the appearance of the great whale is “to cry aloud that people should forget the whale and gaze, each and every one of them, at the sky”; yet even its dumb mass is soon subsumed into his belief system as a sign that points to ‘the apparently lost unity of things’.

Whereas Eszter reasons himself into his fallen state, Valushka’s disenchantment is a consequence of the senseless violence that the strange circus unleashes on the town, brutally exposing the illusory nature of his idealism: “he no longer believed the world was ‘an enchanted place’ for the only power that really existed was ‘that declared by force of arms’”. In Krasznahorkai’s world of will and representation, the latter is doomed to failure; the ascendancy of predation is personified in the eventual rise to power of Mrs Eszter, a corpulent macchiavel. She takes advantage of the violence to seize control of the town council, monopolizing the use of legitimate violence through her affairs first with the chief of police, then with the army colonel brought in to quell the rioting.

It is not merely systems of belief that crumble in the face of the brute facts of appetite, predation and decay, but even the normalizing network of everyday language. As one captured rioter rants at his moralistic interrogator:

“Because you don’t talk, you “whisper” or “expostulate”; you don’t walk down the street but “proceed feverishly”; you don’t enter a place but “cross its threshold”, you don’t feel cold or hot, but `’find yourselves shivering”, or “feel the sweat pouring down you”! I haven’t heard a straight word for hours, you can only mew and caterwaul; if a hooligan throws a brick through your window you invoke the last judgment, and because your brains are addled and filled up with steam, because if someone sticks your nose in shit all you do is sniff, stare and cry “sorcery!”

The Prince’s followers seem to be in some sense attempting to purify the town by correcting it into rubble, pure matter cleansed of the aberrance of form. Yet if the quaint language of the townspeople is absurd, groundless and irrelevant – codifying the sustaining illusions of their insularity – so too are the enchanted metaphysical ravings of Valushka, and Eszter’s mannered expressions of despair. Ultimately, for any metaphorical foreshadowing contained in Eszter’s learned analysis of the tonal system, or the townspeople’s quaint intimations of the apocalypse, neither has any effect on the outcome. The destruction that is wrought on the town is ultimately impervious to metaphor, a manifestation of the sheer indifference of the material world. In the Nietzschean terms of the Prince the destruction of the town is a kind of fatalistic correction, an Etch A Sketch end of the world:

“A town based on lies will continue to be a town based on lies… What they do and what they will do are both based on lies and false pride. What they think and what they will think are equally ridiculous. They think because they are frightened. Fear is ignorance. He says he likes it when things fall to pieces. Ruin comprises every form of making: lies and false pride are like oxygen in the ice. Making is half: ruin is everything”

As if to vindicate its own anti-metaphysics the novel ends with a scientifically detailed five-page account of Mrs Plauf’s bodily decomposition, as Mrs Eszter – a personification of the will to power – looks on at her graveside. In a cruel twist of structural inevitability, she has been raped and murdered – an ironic vindication of her slightly laughable paranoia at the start of the book. In a novel that evokes the utter, crushing indifference of the phenomenal objects that we invest with meaning and significance, it is fitting that the very eyes through which the narrative begins are ultimately ground down into dust, in the rigorously dispassionate language of biological description. The man who sinisterly tries to follow Mrs Plauf into the toilet on the train may indeed have had the last word, a perversely ironic fate that screams utter indifference even as it apes the nightmare visions of her own petit-bourgeois paranoia. Either way, her beliefs have no effect on her fate.

Nor is the novel itself exempt from this bleak vision. It too will succumb to the indifferent corrective force of material fate. Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, that hopeless idealist, ends his confession with an elegant appeal to the “the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita”. But for Krasznahorkai, even ink has its shelf life:

“It ground the empire into carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and sulphur, it took its delicate fibers and unstitched them till they dispersed and had ceased to exist, because they had been consumed by the force of some incomprehensible distant edict, which must also consume this book, here, now, at the full stop, after the last word.”