Archive for the ‘ non-fiction ’ Category

The House of Exile by Evelyn Juers

“The best writing occurs on a narrow ledge between fact and fiction”, states Evelyn Juers midway through The House of Exile. “That uneasy place the poet Wallace Stevens calls the metaphysical streets of the physical town”. She would say that, really. The House of Exile is described as a ‘collective biography’ but in reality it inhabits just such a street in just such a town. In his 2010 book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto David Shields called on contemporary artists to shake off the hackneyed garb of fictional plot and imaginative flight and bring art and reality together in their work. The House of Exile is precisely the sort of work that Shields’ book prophesies – a genre-blurring confluence of novelistic prose and historical documentation, primary sources mixed with fictional techniques and unashamed departures into the realm of speculation, amplifying the element of fiction contained within any biography.

 Despite its novelistic style and fictional elements, The House of Exile is founded on biographical practice. It follows the Mann family – primarily Heinrich, the left-wing German novelist, activist and anti-fascist campaigner, and Thomas Mann, his more illustrious but less sympathetically portrayed younger brother – as they are forced to flee their homeland by the rise of the Nazis, and eventually driven across the Atlantic by the outbreak of WW2. However, though devoting plenty of time to reconstructing their personas out of historical detritus – their novels, diaries, pieces of correspondence, newspaper reports, testimonies of friends and associates – Juers’ vision is more panoramic than that of the conventional biographer. She assembles a loosely connected cast of peripatetic artists and intellectuals that encompasses some of the most important names in modern European letters: Musil, Doblin, Kafka, Benjamin, Brecht, Woolf, Joyce, Roth, Bloch. For anyone with an interest in continental modernism this is wonderfully rich material, yet the book’s narrative pacing and elegant design are such that it can be enjoyed without too much prior knowledge.

Indeed, the material is sufficiently fascinating – framed by the political and aesthetic debates of the era, with illuminating insights into the personalities and day-to-day lives of its most important artists – that Juers’ more overt fictional interventions are not always entirely welcome. Her project is an interesting and admirable one, following in a rich tradition of works that probe the intersection of fact and fiction: JM Coetzee’s trilogy of BoyhoodYouth and Summertime, the semi-fictional works of WG Sebald, Vladimir Nabokov’s artfully reconstructed memoir Speak, Memory, right back to Marcel Proust. Yet in practice the more obviously fictionalized moments are those that tend to be Juers’ least successful. An inauspicious opening vignette involving Brecht, Heinrich Mann and his wife Nelly, would be indistinguishable from a supermarket-shelf potboiler if not for the names of the characters (“He turned toward them and waved. The Californian sun glinted from his glasses like the sword of Zorro”).

The book is top-loaded with this kind of literary posturing, as Juers sets the scene by introducing us to the main characters – first during their purgatorial wartime stint in the US, before imaginatively transporting us back to the childhood of the Mann brothers in Germany.  Unfortunately it doesn’t do us, or her, that many favours. The problem is that during these moments Juers comes across as a frustrated novelist, adopting a lyrical style that doesn’t play to her strengths. That which is presumably meant to sound profound often just sounds clichéd: “Julia mourned as only a child mourns, with an unwavering fidelity to all she’d lost”; Heinrich produces his work “in hot flushes of creativity”; “the excitement of the moment coursed through his veins and he could not stop the chain of thought”.

In general Juers’ fictional refashioning of her material works best when it is least obvious, and it recedes into the background as the book progresses, squeezed out as history plunges toward the abyss of WW2 and all of its attendant horrors. Juers takes care to occasionally remind us of the hybrid nature of what we are reading by punctuating the narrative with nudge-nudge wink-wink references to aesthetic statements such as Stevens’ ‘metaphysical streets’, or openly acknowledging the artistic license involved in the act of narration (“St Paul, she might have told the young man serving in the shop, found his refuge in a cave”).

She might convince us more when she recedes into the background, but throughout Juers is responsible for shaping our attitudes towards the main characters, whether overtly or insidiously. Virginia Woolf emerges as flighty, introverted and eccentric, but charming and full of irreverent insight; Joyce is a self-obsessed bore who “was upset that the publication of Finnegan’s Wake was upstaged by the war”; Heinrich Mann is warm, generous and admirably energetically in his convictions; Thomas Mann, on the other hand, is a conceited big-time Charlie who hobnobs in Princeton with Einstein rather than speaking out against the Nazis, and is frequently referred to as uptight, priggish and repressed. In a kind of reverse characterization Juers also portrays him as plagued by sexual arousal, seemingly colouring him with some of the traits of Aschenbach, the protagonist of his own Death in Venice.

Sometimes it does seem that Juers harbours something of a grudge against Thomas, the much-fêted elder statesman of German letters who has so overshadowed Heinrich in posterity. Thomas’ patrician disapproval of Heinrich’s wife Nelly – 17 years his junior and a former housemaid whom Thomas regards as common and crass – seems to have done little to endear him to our historical demiurge. After driving a distraught Heinrich home following Nelly’s funeral, we are told: “Thomas believed Heinrich did not have a cent because Nelly had spent all of his money, and on top of that, had incurred debts. In the evening, Thomas continued reading Kierkegaard”. No appeal is made to historical evidence to substantiate this self-absorbed and uncaring portrayal, and accordingly it reads as something of a low blow against one whom mortality has deprived of his right of reply.

Indeed, telling the story of the peripheral figures overshadowed by Thomas Mann’s imposing reputation seems to be one of the motivating factors behind Juers’ book. Despite being surrounded by a dream team of 20th century literary giants, it is Nelly who emerges as the unlikely hero of the piece. In her passion, warmth and humility she is everything that Thomas is not, and Juers makes no attempt to hide her personal affection. She, along with so many of Germany’s most talented sons and daughters, does not live to see her homeland liberated from the horrors of Nazism. It is this looming spectre of historical inevitability that gives Juers’ entire narrative its tragic undertone, and makes this absorbing work such an emotionally as well as intellectually engaging read.

What ever happened to Victorian realism?

What is literary fiction? This question is more semantic than philosophical – what is the nature of the books to which the term ‘literary fiction’ now refers? Because it seems to me that these two words mean entirely different things to different people. Depending on where you stand, ‘literary fiction’ can either mean ‘stuffy pretentious books by middle class white guys that nobody actually enjoys reading’ or ‘the sort of middlebrow realism that tends to win the Booker prize’. Astonishingly, these statements even seem to refer to the same authors. Are the likes of Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes excessively bookish and cerebral, or is the mere suggestion that anyone might think this symptomatic of a more general dumbing down of literary culture, as recently argued (sort of) by Gabriel Josipovici?

For Josipovici, it isn’t really the likes of Amis and McEwan who are the problem. The problem is that a highly conservative and above all commercialised literary culture upholds their sanitised and derivative novels as great works of art. In a sense, I’m inclined to agree. Every era has its popular novelists and no doubt they have always been overrated in many people’s eyes. But the peculiarity of our current climate is the relentlessness of the commercial machinery that elevates a popular storyteller like McEwan into some sort of bastion for serious literary art. The commercial and the critical motives have never been so incestuously intertwined. In order to be ‘great’ or a ‘masterpiece’ (of which apparently dozens are now written every year) a book no longer has to tell us something new – it has to do so in a manner which is ‘entertaining’ and palatable to the masses.

Part of this surely stems from the market forces of ‘literary fiction’, a sort of rapidly expanding, upwardly mobile literary bourgeoisie. A common – and slightly lazy – caricature of current literary fiction is that it is essentially a rewrite of naïve Dickensian/Balzacian Victorian realist fiction, the sort of fat tome that supposedly – though I sometimes wonder if people who make this accusation have actually read Bleak House or Vanity Fair or Middlemarch – seeks to hold up a mirror to the world around it and doesn’t spend a single second questioning the appropriateness of its linguistic resources for doing so.

But is this really accurate? Does it really describe the sort of novel that Josipovici (albeit briefly – for those who have only read the reviews, his book is not, in fact, an extended polemic against Ian McEwan) rails against in What Ever Happened to Modernism? I think not. There’s something more complicated than this going on in – or at least going on behind – the works of the big ‘literary fiction’ writers whom Tom McCarthy disdains as the ‘copywriters for the concern of middlebrow humanism’. Not necessarily better, but more complicated.

More complicated because people can and do argue the opposite perspective – that these novels represent the integration into popular literary culture of modernist narrative techniques. An example of this is John Mullan (a UCL professor, no less), who wrote a piece in the Guardian not long ago about the prevalence of non-conventional (ie non 19th-century realist) narrative forms in contemporary ‘literary fiction’ practitioners. Novels like Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow, which is told backwards; David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, a Russian Doll of six elaborately embedded narratives; Ian McEwan’s Atonement, with its clever metafictional sting in the tail; AS Byatt’s Possession, with its postmodern playfulness. I mean, even Wolf Hall was written in the present tense. Is this not, in fact, a golden age in which narrative experimentation is more widely accepted than ever before?

‘Literary fiction’ states Mullan, has its origins in the works of John Fowles, who ‘showed that you can be self-consciously literary and still make money’, and was sparked by the monumental critical and commercial crossover success of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. While I am inclined to come down on the Josipovici/McCarthy side of the fence, I think that by simplifying the debate into some sort of convenient binarism between straight 19th century fiction (bad) and modernism (good) we do ourselves few favours. This is a simplification that Josipovici avoids, but others do not. For example, David Shields’s Reality Hunger seemed to me to relies upon a shallow caricature of ‘the conventional novel’ and a rehashing of the time-honoured foundations of modernism (an anxiety about language and form) that, as Josipovici argues, transcend its temporal manifestations (try reading Don Quixote).

Rather than just being a return to Victorian realism (though it also does this in certain ways) I would argue that literary fiction is, depending on your agenda, either the democratisation or the commercialisation of modernism. On the one hand (democratisation) a work like Martin Amis’ Money is an iconoclastic puncturing of the false idols of modernism, its privileged discourse, its arcane exclusivity, its psychological rigour (is it ultimately any more or less false and constructed than realism’s attentiveness to the ‘real world’?), and, a bit like the Angry Young Men led by his dad, brings it, unpretentiously, to a mass audience.

Or alternatively, Money is a glib, shallow work that uses some modernist party tricks that actually mean something quite serious in the hands of other practitioners, and deploys them in a show-offy manner that impresses a middlebrow audience and provides the sort of commercial fodder that allows Martin Amis to spank thousands of pounds on fancy dental work and bag £500,000 advances (eating his cake), while also being critically lauded by a commercially motivated popular literary press as a serious and significant author (having his cake).

Literary fiction is democratisation in that it has expanded the market, and therefore readership of (relatively) serious fiction. It is commercialisation in that it has squeezed out the genuine avant-garde and replaced it with a more streamlined version that will be more palatable to the masses and therefore sell more copies – it has pushed everything towards the middle. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller becomes Cloud Atlas, Mrs Dalloway becomes Saturday and Howard’s End becomes On Beauty. These aren’t so much novels that ventriloquise straight nineteenth century realism, as Diet Modernism: some of the superficial cleverness of a Woolf or a Forster without the calories.

Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer

Ever since E.O Wilson famously declared there to be two distinct cultures within academia that suffered from “a mutual incomprehension”, the great art vs science divide has entrenched itself in our consciousness. Even as we speak, classrooms up and down the country are in a state of primordial flux, churning out the next generations of these two irreconcilable tribes. One will wear anoraks, develop bad skin and myopia, and form an ironclad will to explain the world through cells, forces and equations. The other will smoke Gaulouises, make flamboyant hand gestures, and develop a penchant for the transcendental.  Science will continue in its belief that everything in the universe can be explained, while art will continue with its gloriously useless flights of the imagination. Never shall the two meet.

Enter Jonah Lehrer. A fresh-faced former Rhodes Scholar with an easy smile and a shapely turn of phrase, Lehrer is a Renaissance man for our times. An Ivy League neuroscience graduate and former assistant in the laboratory of Nobel Prize-winner Eric Kandel, according to his marketing team Lehrer is also blessed with the sort of literary sensibility that makes Keats look like a philistine oaf. What’s more, he has a revelation to make: art and science are merely parallel roads leading to the same truth. Indeed, Lehrer can reveal that art, far from being a rarefied form of escapism with no application to the real world, has repeatedly pipped science to the post. The ‘truths’ about the human mind later eureka’d upon in labs around the world were first articulated in the works of great artists like Marcel Proust, Walt Whitman and George Eliot.

That which we might have thought of as an opposition is really a symbiosis, a ying and yang. In Lehrer’s words (like a good scientist he tells us the conclusion of the experiment before providing his proof), “Science needs art to frame the mystery, but art needs science so that not everything is a mystery. Neither truth alone is our solution, for our reality exists in plural”. So science shouldn’t write off art as a complete waste of time, and vice versa. It turns out that literature can provide more than “a little entertainment, or perhaps an education in the art of constructing sentences”, which is apparently all Lehrer was expecting when he decided to read Proust.  In other news, Joseph Ratzinger continues to subscribe to the tenets of Apostolic Succession and the Nicene Creed, and mammals of the Ursidae family appear to favour arboreal defecation.

Proust Was a Neuroscientist consists of eight essays, each following the same basic formula: Lehrer tells us the point, or ‘moral’ of a particular artist’s work (yeah, more on that later), and then goes on to explain how this moral was later verified and explained by neuroscience. Walt Whitman’s poetry anticipates the discovery that emotions are generated by the body; George Eliot told us that minds change before we discovered that neurons divide; the chef Charles Escoffier discovered how to unlock the common element that makes food taste delicious before science discovered umami and MSG; Proust discovered the subjectivity of memory before Kandel and Si theorised the function of prions; Cezanne’s post-impressionist paintings portrayed the world as, we have now discovered, it appears before the optical cortex assimilates it into a coherent picture; Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring intuited that dissonance and harmony are states of mind before science knew that the cortifugal network adapts to impose a hierarchy based on the sounds to which it is accustomed; Gertrude Stein’s automatic writing experiments showed that language is held together by an invisible underlying structure that precedes meaning before Chomsky theorised universal grammar; and Virginia Woolf knew that identity is a continual act of self-creation before science discovered that consciousness is generated by neurons and electrical` impulses.

Lehrer covers some fecund ground and deftly synthesises an impressive range of theories and contexts. He writes with journalistic panache, and while it can occasionally feel that he is adapting his material to fit the snappy figures of his prose rather than vice versa (his penchant for ending paragraphs with significant-sounding clichés like ‘Life imitates art’ can sometimes grate), in general Lehrer admirably balances accessibility and detail. In a Gladwellian world where books that elegantly extract meaning from the abstruse and translate it for the masses are the publishing vogue, Lehrer seems well placed to help flesh out a scientific context still frequently overlooked in literary criticism, while showing science that there are limits to its materialism and that art isn’t completely useless. And good luck to him. But to anyone approaching this book from the literary side of the Great Divide, Lehrer’s armchair criticism will be as infuriating as his pop science is enlightening.

The main problem with Lehrer’s approach to literature – and it’s a fatal one – is that he summarises rather than analyses. All too often, in arguing against the reductivist attitude common to science, Lehrer is ironically guilty of reducing the complexity and conflict of the literature he intends to promote as a viable alternative – in short, that which gives it its power and significance – to an overriding message or, in his oddly anachronistic terminology, a ‘moral’ that we can extract from the whole.

Time and again, Lehrer takes the classic undergraduate shortcut of paraphrasing and translating, rather than explaining how and why a passage means what he wants it to mean. Giving a reading of a typically inscrutable passage of Gertrude Stein, he offers this:

This tricky paragraph `is about the trickiness of language. Although we pretend our words are transparent – like a layer of glass through which we see the world – they are actually opaque. Stein is trying to remind us that our nouns, adjectives, and verbs are not real. They are just arbitrary signifiers, random conglomerates of syllables and sound. A rose, after all, is not really a rose. Its letters don’t have thorns or perfumed petals.

While this is undoubtedly true as far as it goes – five minutes on Wikipedia will tell you that in a very general sense this is what most of Stein’s writing is ‘about’ – it doesn’t offer any insight into why Stein wrote what she actually wrote. If this was all Stein was trying to say, she could have saved us all a lot of time and bother by just writing ‘words are arbitrary signifiers’. Lehrer tells us what he takes to be Stein’s intention, but he never actually sheds any light on whether or not her methods were successful in achieving it.

The suspicion that arises from this tendancy is that Lehrer’s main critical criterion for the literature he includes is merely that it is ‘about’ something that fits into his argument, rather than anything to do with its execution. This suspicion was confirmed, at least for this reader, by the Coda. Lehrer upholds Ian McEwan’s Saturday – no sniggering at the back – as a template for the future of the novel as a combination of artistic and scientific endeavour, picking up the baton from Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway as a novelistic investigation of the mind. This dystopian prediction shows off Lehrer’s critical blind spot to full effect. Now, in my personal view anyone who can’t tell the difference between the prose of Woolf and McEwan has no business in making proclamations about the future of the novel. But aside from this, there remains the fact that, while Woolf was an innovator who operated at the formal boundaries of her medium, in selecting Saturday as a modern-day equivalent Lehrer has unwittingly selected a novel that for many is the absolute epitome of middle-of-the-road, run-of-the-mill convention. As one literature professor recently put it in a blog post (in reference to Tom McCarthy slagging off the conventional middlebrow humanist novel):

I’d be willing to bet that what he’s ultimately referring to is what all of us are implicitly referring to when we make this sort of statement, and that’s Ian McEwan’s Saturday. Do you know what I mean? I used to joke at the beginning of my courses on modernism that I wished I could assign everyone the title The Utterly Conventional Novel – some sort of Platonic ideal of “straight nineteenth-century fiction” that we could all read and then use as a benchmark against which we could measure the changes that happen with modernism. Somehow Saturday seems to have come to serve as just that in our time

Again, it’s tempting to suspect that Lehrer mainly chooses Saturday because it’s ‘about’ science. This tendency to define a novel by its subject matter is also evident in an apparent obliviousness to literary form as a generative component of the meaning to which he enjoys such unproblematic access. Mostly he just ignores it, but on the rare occasions when Lehrer does condescend to talk about form, his writing is tellingly vague: “And while her realist form touched upon an encyclopedia of subjects, her novels are ultimately concerned with the individual”, or, “the sprawling realism of Eliot’s novels ended up discovering our reality” – both statements that would elicit a snort of derision from any professor marking an undergraduate essay. Lehrer later quotes Proust’s contention that “The kind of literature which contents itself with ‘describing things’, with giving them merely a miserable abstract of lines and surfaces, is in fact, though it calls itself realist, the furthest removed from reality”.  How does this fundamental difference in the way that Proust and Eliot represented the world – one largely objective, one entirely subjective – help produce the meaning that he so glibly summarises? Again, Lehrer seems to approach literature primarily as a well-written message, rather than as a combination of form and content.

While the chapters on Whitman, Eliot, Proust, Stein and Woolf all suffer from this flaw, Lehrer is more convincing when talking about music and painting, and the Cezanne and Stravinsky chapters are the most successful in the book. Non-literary art fits more naturally into Lehrer’s style of analysis because he is able to equate the form – the actual substance – of the works of art in question with the neural` processes he describes. There are fewer external ideas to jar with the materialism of the explanation. He is able to offer enlightening discussions of how the discords of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or the colours of a Cezanne painting interact with our auditory or visual sensors. But in literature – an art of words problematically connected to ideas – no such directness is possible. Lehrer is instead content merely to equate these processes with a dominant idea or ‘moral’ that he has himself extracted from the aesthetic whole. This approach is inescapably reductive.

It is probable that the constraints of space and the simplifying demands of writing for a popular audience forced Lehrer to gloss over the details of the texts he addresses. He is clearly a precociously talented writer and thinker (he was just 25 when Proust Was a Neuroscientist first came out in the US), and for all the frustrations of its Wiki-happy concision Lehrer casts some interesting contextual light on his chosen authors, even as he cheerily bulldozes the complexity of their works. However, interesting though they are, the specific links Lehrer draws between art and science tend to be pretty tenuous. For example, Eliot’s intuition in the 1860s that our personalities are fluid and subject to change does not in any specific way anticipate Pasco Rakic’s discovery in the 1980s that neurons divide. If, as Lehrer puts it, ‘life is chemistry and chemistry is physics’, then any experiential observation has a material micro-explanation. But Eliot wasn’t talking about cells, she was talking about personalities – and Lehrer is guilty of a classic false syllogism. Just because Eliot wrote of the nature of personalities, and personalities are ultimately derived from neurons, it does not necessarily follow that Eliot was writing about neurons.

Of course art anticipates science in very general ways.  We may not have verified the mechanism by which the mind changes on a physical level until the 1980s but its effects have been a preoccupation of literature since Shakespeare. The opposite scenario would be an ironic inversion – like starting to feel depressed because a doctor diagnoses you with depression. We tend to experience things – say, gravity, or respiration – before we work out why and how they happen. If we understand science to be empirical verification – explaining why what is, is – then it follows without saying that art must explore the experiences that science later finds a way to explain. Again, perhaps commercial demands forced Lehrer to make rather more of this not-exactly-groundbreaking argument than he would otherwise have done. A book using literary examples as a way of exploring the philosophical connotations of the discoveries of neuroscience may not have been as easy to market. But it might have made more sense.