Archive for the ‘ classics ’ Category

Ferdydurke by Witold Gombrowicz

I’ve always been intrigued by the relationship between the title of a novel and its content. If there’s one thing that postmodern literature tells us, after all, it is that the act of naming – of claiming the right to narrate and define – is a political act and an exercise of power. And it seems to me that the majority of novel titles fall into one of a few loose categories that each come pre-loaded with a certain type of generic baggage and history. The name of a novel, after all, is usually the first thing we know about it. How far do names reflect content, and how far do they provide a lens through which we perceive its meaning and coherence?

Some examples. Many classics take the name of a character, like a portrait – King Lear; David Copperfield; Emma; Tom Jones; Ana Karenina; Madame Bovary etc. In doing so these novels direct the focus of their content, from before the very first sentence, towards the psychology of a central protagonist. We tune our reading to the wavelength of the bildungsroman, the kunstlerroman, the tragedy and so on, all kitted out with with their own particular codes and tropes, patterns and inevitabilities.

There are titles that refer our attention to an event or chain of events whose significance and causality they will explore: The Odyssey; The Illiad; The Adventures of Augie March; The Trial; The Life and Times of Michael K. Though these novels may concern themselves with a central protagonist, they imply from the outset that their focus is outward – on the sequence of events in which a character takes part – rather than inward, on the way they internalize those events.

Other novels define themselves by their thematic or philosophical concerns: War and Peace; The Unbearable Lightness of Being; Crime and Punishment; Sense and Sensibility; Freedom. These tend to be novels with an essayistic function, the narrative constructed as a way of exploring an abstract subject. Dostoevsky calling his novel Crime and Punishment rather than Raskolnikov instructs us to universalize his actions and experience, placing our focus on the general rather than the particular.

Then there are statements that hold themselves up to be reinforced, ironized or contradicted by the narrative: Tender is the Night; In Cold Blood; I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings; For Whom the Bell Tolls. Or outward-looking, panoramic novels that provide a pre-definition of a society or condition that they aim to dissect: Vanity Fair; Underworld; Infinite Jest; The Bonfire of the Vanities; The Age of Innocence. Or those that take the name of a defining symbol contained within the narrative, which is in turn pre-identified for the reader as a synecdoche, marking symbolic trails out in advance: The Tin Drum; The Golden Bowl; Light in August; The Glass Bead Game; The Road; The Line of Beauty.

This is not to overstate the extent to which a name alone defines a narrative. How differently would we approach, say, Saul Bellow’s Herzog and The Adventures of Augie March if they were instead called Augie March and The Adventures of Herzog? Would we read The Adventures of Herzog as a postmodern pastiche of the classic American bildungsroman, subverting the idealism of The Adventures of Huckleberry Fin as a commentary on the fragmentation of the individual in contemporary America? Probably not (the odd undergraduate bullshit-merchant here or there notwithstanding), but the coherent outline we superimpose onto its content in retrospect might look a little more shaky without a name that holds it all together for us.

This fits into the general process by which we perceive and compartmentalize meaning. The name of a novel is the first link in a semiotic chain that extends through the aesthetics of the cover, the blurb and quotations on the sleeve, and the picture of the author (large or small, colour or black and white, brooding or smiling?) right through to the typeface and spacing of the text, that has a formative effect on the way we aggregate the meaning of the words that we read. After all, the ‘form’ of a novel is something that we often talk about as if it were concrete, but in practice we can only really comprehend it in the abstract. In fact, if we are to take Terry Eagleton’s droll definition of a novel as ‘a piece of prose fiction of a reasonable length’, then one of the few identifiable features that marks out a novel is that we can’t experience it all at once.

Everybody reads, sees or hears something different in a piece of art of any medium, but the process of reading a novel means that our reception of it is affected by chronology in a unique way. In a film or play, a piece of music or a short poem, the movement and chronology is mediated by the performance. Yet in a long prose narrative, each reader imposes, to a greater extent, his own chronology and experience on the act of reading. Even if we can read a novel in a single sitting – though in the vast majority of cases we don’t – we still only retain a subjectively reordered hierarchy of remembered events, passages, words, phrases or moods.

The nature of these fragments, and the way they link together to form a whole, is therefore never absolute. Each person necessarily experiences them in a different way, at a different pace, in a different frame of mind, and within the context of a personal vocabulary that determines the connotative meaning of the words themselves. The whole remains inaccessible. The actual nature of a novel is perpetually up for grabs.

The multiplicity of meanings inherent in literary texts is one of the cornerstones of deconstruction, but Wittold Gombrowicz, in his bizarre and hysterical novel Ferdydurke, anticipated many of its arguments in the 1930s. Ferdydurke is in a sense an examination – or collection of examinations – of how meaning is generated and imposed by preexistent structures and forms; from the cohesion of a literary narrative right down to the semiotics of our every gesture and expression. And, like Samuel Beckett’s The Unnameable – another rehearsal of deconstruction’s major arguments in narrative form – the first form that it wriggles out of is that imposed by the baggage of the literary title (Ferdydurke is a Jabberwocky-esque nonsense word, and does not appear anywhere in the novel).

In his excellent non-fiction work Testaments Betrayed, Milan Kundera lists Gombrowicz, alongside Franz Kafka, Herman Broch and Robert Musil, as one of the four major novelists of the 20th Century. While Gombrowicz’s wild irreverence sets him apart from the austerity of much of the European Modernist tradition, perhaps accounting in part for his relative obscurity, Ferdydurke’s themes place it squarely within the Modernist canon. Following a preoccupation that runs through Proust and Kafka via Freud, Ferdydurke begins with the narrator awakening in a state of semi-consciousness that precedes the onset of his habitual persona:

“as I lay awake but still half-dreaming, I felt that my body was not homogenous, that some parts were still those of a boy, and that my head was laughing at my leg and ridiculing it, that my leg was laughing at my head, that my finger was poking fun at my heart, my heart at my brain, that my nose was thumbing itself at my eye, my eye chuckling and bellowing at my nose – and all my parts were wildly raping each other in an all-encompassing and piercing state of pan-mockery”

This is a clear echo – albeit translated into Gombrowicz’s ribald and carnivalesque style – of the famous prelude to Marcel Proust’s A le recherché du temps perdu, much of which concerns a young Marcel’s sleep-induced outer-body reveries:

“Perhaps the immobility of the things that surround us is forced upon them by our conviction that they are themselves, and not anything else, and by the immobility of our conceptions of them. For it always happened that when I awoke like this, and my mind struggled in an unsuccessful attempt to discover where I was, everything would be moving around me through the darkness: things, places, years. My body, still too heavy with sleep to move, would make an effort to construe the form which its tiredness took as an orientation of its various members, so as to induce from that where the wall lay and where the furniture stood, to piece together and give a name to the house in which it must be living”.

Like Kafka’s Josef K., Gombrowicz’z narrator awakens in this fluid state to be confronted with a profound change imposed upon him from outside – he is abducted by a schoolmaster and sent back to school, where he is returned to a state of primordial youthfulness. The style and effect of this narrative is extremely difficult to describe, as it is completely unlike anything else I have read – it wildly oscillates between bizarre slapstick, nonsensical exchanges of childish slang and made-up words, postmodern pastiche, and extended philosophical digressions: Lewis Carroll meets Flann O’Brian meets Proust shouted through a megaphone at Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Sometimes this is intensely irritating (quite possibly deliberately so), but sometimes it is wildly perceptive.

The dynamic that seemingly governs this riot is the tension between form and chaos, wholeness and fragmentation. Gombrowicz is aware like few other authors I know of the illusory nature of coherence – both in literary texts and, by extension, in the forms and structures we use to make life comprehensible, and define ourselves and the world around us:

“do we create form or does form create us? We think we are the ones who construct it, but that’s an illusion, because we are, in equal measure, constructed by the construction. Whatever you put on paper dictates whatever comes next, because the work is not born of you – you want to write one thing, yet something else entirely comes out. Parts tend to wholeness, every part surreptitiously makes its way towards the whole, strives for roundness, and seeks, fulfillment, it implores the rest to be created in its own image and likeness”

In putting this philosophy into novelistic practice, Gombrowicz devises surreal scenarios. Just as any word turns into nonsense if you repeat it enough times on its own (thus separating it from the linguistic structure of which it is a part), in Gombrowicz the separation of any body part from the whole represents a threat to the fragile ontology of the individual. For example, in one chapter, a Professor of Synthetology has an intellectual duel with a Professor of High Analysis, specializing in ‘decomposition’. The latter vanquishes the former by simply naming individual body parts of the Professor of Synthetology’s wife – “The ear, the ear!”… Under the effect of these words the ear immediately came into focus and became lewd” – thus rending her metaphysical identity asunder and leaving her hospitalized. Though recounting the episode in these summary terms does no justice to the absolute insanity of Gombrowicz’s style and effects.

The sometimes irritating childishness of Gombrowicz’s style is borne out of a conviction that the forms and identities of adulthood are arbitrarily constructed and conceal a primordial flux of youthfulness that is our true underlying condition: “The child runs deep in everything”. This is also given a self-reflexive dimension in the form – or formlessness – of Gombrowicz’s fragmentary narrative. Just when it threatens to crystallise into a coherent whole, Gombrowicz will reel off into nonsense, pulling apart the meaning of his own narrative at its syntactic seams:

“And I ask you this in all seriousness and with total responsibility for my words, and likewise with the greatest respect for all your parts without exception, because I know you are all a part of Humanity, of which I am also a part, and that you partly take part in the part of something which is also a part and of which I am also in part a part, together with all the particles and parts of parts, of parts, of parts, of parts, of parts, of parts, of parts, of parts, of parts, of parts, of parts… Help!”

Like Beckett after him and Gertrude Stein before him, Gombrowicz strives to articulate something that precedes the arbitrary structures of language. But Gombrowicz does so with a childish sense of fun that means, though he is often infuriating, he never approaches their impenetrable depths. Whereas Beckett’s last recourse is despair, Gombrowicz’s is nonsense, face-pulling, riotousness and mirth. In fact, if you were to try to sum it up you would probably have to make up a word that sounds like the pre-linguistic, gurgled nonsense of a baby not yet initiated into the structures of meaning that hold together the adult world – something like Ferdydurke.


War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Henry James famously included War and Peace in his list of ‘big, loose, baggy monsters’, reflecting a wider shift in critical values away from the panoramic vision of the realist novel towards the well-wrought formal intricacy of the modernist novel. A major background to this shift is the more complicated relationship modern authors perceived between the text and the world. Whereas the 19th century realist novel is often held (somewhat simplistically) to take its ability to accurately represent reality as a given, a defining characteristic of the modern novel is its more consistent awareness of its formal limits and constructedness.

War and Peace was published in 1869 – just 21 years before Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, and roughly coinciding with authors, like Flaubert, Zola, Huysmans and Wilde, who display a markedly modern sensibility – yet in some ways it feels decidedly of a different era. This is especially the case when considered against the formally attentive bent the European novel subsequently took with the rise of symbolism and later modernism. Tolstoy’s own work subsequently moved towards symmetry of design and plot with Ana Karenina, which that arch formalist Vladimir Nabokov considered superior to War and Peace.

A gargantuan pseudo-historical omnibus that examines a 15-year tranch of Russian history (not to mention ‘history’ itself) from the God-like authorial perspective of Balzac, Dickens and Thackeray, War and Peace is the high water mark of the outward-looking 19th century realist novel. In retrospect it looks like something of a tipping point, coming towards the end of a period when the novel was still chiefly preoccupied with what Lukács calls ‘the objective totality’ of the world around it, before form and consciousness hijacked it and paved the way for much of the avant-garde art of the early 20th century.

In a sense, the sort of outward-looking, social and historical epic of which War and Peace is the prime exemplar became outmoded by the new technologies that marked the dawn of the modern world. As film and photography gave artists new ways of capturing reality, literature’s task began to move away from directly representing it and became centred on subjectivity.

Fitting obediently into this cultural narrative, in its scope and techniques War and Peace has a strikingly filmic quality. The way that it juggles interlocking storylines, cutting between characters and plotlines, zooming in to focus on intimate detail before panning out to place it in context, is a blueprint for visual narrative. Especially in the first two of its four books (each the length of a longish novel), Tolstoy keeps his commentary and moralising to a minimum, emphasising showing over telling. The result is an incredibly vivid and nuanced evocation of 19th century Russian aristocratic society, which may account for its apparent popularity with historians – Simon Schama provides a glowing soundbite on the cover of my edition, with a more extended dithyramb coming in the form of an afterword by Amazon reviewer and sometime historian Orlando Figes.

Whereas in Dickens or Thackeray, characters – no matter how memorable or compelling – never quite shake off their cartoonish wrapping, Tolstoy had a genius for uncanny verisimilitude. A big part of this is his rejection of easy novelistic shortcuts. Of the principle characters – Pierre, Natasha, Andrey, Nikolay, Pyotr and Sonia – none has a defining trait, is associated with a descriptive or stylistic motif, or serves an obvious function as the vehicle for a particular theme or idea. We may feel like we know these characters in a way that draws us into the novel and causes us to willingly suspend our disbelief, but we do not ‘know’ them in the sense that we can accurately predict what they will say or do in a given situation – a rigidness of character generally only perceived in retrospect or in fiction.

When Pierre erratically rides a horse around the frontline of a battle, or impulsively attacks a French solider who is leering at a Russian girl; when Natasha breaks off her engagement with Andrey and attempts to elope with Kuragin; when Andrey heroically seizes a flag and impersonates a general to ward off enemy fire at the Battle of Austerlitz; when Nikolay gambles away his fortune over a game of cards; none of these events follow the artificial logic that makes up the coherent argument of the conventional novel, wherein characters have rigid personas with predefined ideas and characteristics.

In Dickens, characters are generally reliable – you know John Jarndyce and Esther Summersone will be morally impeccable, you know Murdstone will be a complete bastard, you know Gradgrind will be rigorously utilitarian, you know Silas Wegg will be venal and you know Mr Micawber will be genially profligate, regardless of the situation. In Tolstoy, as in life, a character’s actions only seem characteristic, fitting into the neat logic of the narrative that makes up their identity, in retrospect.

The incontinence of War and Peace’s design, its hectoring morality, its misguided array of Homeric epic similes, and its slightly pompous lectures on the philosophy of history may seem to mark it out as a contrast to the more self-conscious path that modern fiction took in its wake. But in its approach to character and identity, War and Peace helps blaze the fictional trail later explored by Kafka, Proust and Joyce.

The Castle by Franz Kafka

(Franz Kafka – giant of Modernist literature and pioneering Shoreditch twat)

What is it that makes Kafka’s fiction so important? There are more readily identifiable features in other major modern authors that make it more straightforward – perhaps due to a sensibility their work has helped shape – to account for the esteem in which they are held. The face-melting prose of Nabokov or Henry James; the allusive density of Joyce or Proust; the psychological subtlety of Woolf or Eliot; the social sweep of Dickens or Tolstoy; the flashy metaphysics of Musil or Mann.

But it is more problematic to find a relevant subsection under Great in which to file Kafka. The style is understated. There are none of the extended dialectical workouts we find in the more overtly cerebral modernists, and there’s little in the way of technical trickery. Like Beckett after him, if Kafka makes it new it is primarily by subtraction rather than addition, stripping his prose of most of the stylistic adornments that classical aesthetics have taught us to admire.  Kafka doesn’t trade in quotable turns of phrase but in granitic paragraphs, an incremental build-up of subtly dissonant sentences whose overall effect is not so much to impress us as make us feel unsettled and slightly seasick.

If, as is sometimes said, Kafka’s voice epitomises the era in which he lived, he doesn’t approach the historic circumstances of that age head-on, but rather through a variety of oblique and often surreal removal strategies. This is especially pronounced in the short stories. A low-level office worker wakes one day having been transformed into a giant insect (‘Metamorphosis’); a dog ruminates on the meaning of life (‘Investigations of a Dog’); a chimpanzee delivers an address to an auditorium (‘Notes From an Address to the Academy’); a subterraneous mole-like creature obsessively guards its burrow against imaginary intruders (‘The Burrow’).

This technique is rarely far from allegory, yet, in an evasiveness familiar to anyone who has tried to construct a consistent argument about Kafka, nor is it straightforwardly or reliably allegorical. If you were to catch Ian Dowie discoursing on Kafka, he would probably call this ‘unpindownability’.

Perhaps due to the more extensive fictional furnishing required to deck them out, Kafka’s novels operate at a less dramatic remove from reality as we know it, but clearly they cannot be said to reflect it without subjecting it to strange and unsettling alterations. This unnerving assault on our perception of normality is given perhaps its most sustained and disorienting expression in The Castle.  A dream-cum-nightmare in which many of the causal links on which we depend to make sense of the world have been removed, the experience of reading the novel is akin to listening to an endless dissonant crescendo. An ever-thickening suspension chord, it refuses at every turn to provide the resolution that instinct and experience leads us to demand.

K, the protagonist (insofar as such a conventional term has meaning in such an anti-conventional narrative), is a character on an endless quest, an interminable middle without a beginning or an end. He arrives by carriage one snowy night at a nameless village at the bottom of a castle in the mountains. Having found a spot in a crowded inn in which to spend the night, K is awoken by an official from the castle demanding to know whether he has permission to stay in the village. (It’s worth noting that the idea of waking up to be confronted by altered circumstances – during that limbo period preceding full consciousness which Proust describes as the time during which we are briefly free of our habitual persona – acts as the catalyst in arguably Kafka’s three most important works, The Castle, The Trial and Metamorphosis).

From here, K is plunged into a vortex of bureaucracy and confusion as he pursues a mission to gain approval from the castle. However, the premises of this mission are neither explained, nor is it ever resolved. We never know K’s real purpose for coming to the village, the exact nature of the legitimation he seeks, and what he intends to do once he has achieved it. K is referred to as the Land Surveyor, but even this may be a case of mistaken identity, as he seemingly adopts the title at random. Throughout, chronology, the relationships between characters, their motivations, identities, and the attitudes that underlie their incomplete and semi-nonsensical interactions, are all undermined to create a heightening sense of absurdity.

As readers accustomed to certain novelistic norms of sequence and causality, we play our role by trying to piece together the fragments to form an explicable whole. We follow K’s disconnected course – trying all the time to mentally weave together the disparate strands into a common thread to which we can give the name ‘meaning’ – only to discover that this process is in itself the book’s destination, at once its beginning, middle and end. ‘Meaning’ isn’t a noun but a verb in Kafka, an act in which we participate rather than a state toward which the narrative travels. Ever the incomplete allegorist, Kafka creates an experience that serves as a kind of analogue for the modern condition even as it undermines the entire idea of a ‘condition’, or stable state of being to which we can pin our identity.

Which brings us back to the question of what makes Kafka great. Though his method seems to work by chipping away at the edifice of our knowledge of the world and undermining the links that we put in place to make it explicable, if The Castle were merely a random and meaningless sequence of events, there would be little reason to be affected or impressed by it.

As in other surrealist narratives that I admire such as David Lynch’s film Mulholland Drive or Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Unconsoled, there is both a warped logic that gives the seemingly disconnected events some sort of aggregate meaning, and – perhaps most crucially – a humanity that makes each individual scene memorable and affecting.  And for my money, the paradoxical way in which Kafka manages to tap deep into his characters’ humanity, while undermining and deferring the knowledge and presumptions on which that humanity is based, is one of the main places in which we can locate his genius.