Spurious, by Lars Iyer

How fitting that a book called Spurious, that started life as a blog, should be a frontrunner for the Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize. This not being the Booker, Spurious is neither a state-of-the-age doorstopper, a fictional resurrection of a misunderstood historical personage, nor a parochial lament warbled from the banks of the Liffey. It is instead a series of blogpost-sized snippets following the repetitive interactions of a tragi-comic double-act – the down-at-heel narrator Lars, and his hilariously harsh friend W.

Lars and W. are relatively undistinguished philosophy tutors at English universities, and both are united by a feeling of utter inadequacy, irrelevance, stupidity and, well, spuriousness in the face of their intellectual heroes. They meet, talk, drink, despair and console, but mostly W. just mercilessly – and hilariously – abuses Lars. In one particularly funny passage, W. compares their friendship with that of Blanchot and Levinas – except whereas the French philosophers exchanged correspondence of depth, significance and high seriousness, W. and Lars draw each other pictures of cocks on the internet. Their problem, W. notes, is that neither of them is a Kafka – they are both Brods.

Spurious is an un-English book in several ways – partly because of its complete lack of interest in the mode of mainstream, lyrical realist fiction that is so dominant in this country, but also due to its subject matter and tone. W. and Lars’s heroes stem from the tradition of continental modernism – from Kafka, Heidegger, Blanchot and Beckett to Bela Tarr – and they are infused with a very European anxiety. The book also owes a great deal to Thomas Bernhard, who is unmentioned but whose presence is unmistakable throughout.

Following the distancing technique employed by Bernhard in novels such as The Loser and Old Masters, the entire narrative is reported to us by a narrator (Lars), who is the passive figure in most of the interactions. Thus the book consists for the most part of the thoughts and opinions of W., though the only narrative access we have to him is second hand. This introduces an aspect of what James Wood calls ‘double unreliability’ – we know that W. has been rewritten by Lars, but we don’t know to what extent. As in Bernhard, the characters’ voices are subsumed in the act of narration, reinforcing the insurmountable distance between art and life, and the fundamental impossibility of writing.

Indeed it is this sense of distance and impossibility that is perhaps the central current running through Spurious. Lars and W. are anachronistic figures chasing a seriousness and authenticity of intellectual experience that seems to be no longer attainable. Even their despair is ironic, clichéd and absurd – the very possibility of authentic thought seems to have withered and died, suffocated by the intellectual giants in relation to whom their failure is assured.  As with Bernhard and Beckett, Spurious is pulled along by gallows humour, but the bleakness and despair underpinning it is real too.

Spurious will probably remain a cult book that appeals primarily to those with the sort of intellectual interests that lead them to empathise with Lars and W. That said, for all its acknowledged spuriousness and self-mockery, it is a book that responds to serious questions in a way that is honest, thoughtful and deceptively profound. It is, in the best possible sense, the opposite of the sort of book that normally wins the Booker Prize. That it will have to make do with that award’s tongue-in-cheek inversion is therefore entirely appropriate.

Taste of Cherry, by Abbas Kiarostami

Watching Taste of Cherry is an intensely claustrophobic experience. Shot on digital film mostly from the inside of a car, it follows a middle-aged man, Mr Badii, as he spends a day driving around the charred, industrial hilltops on the outskirts of an Iranian city. With lengthy takes of seemingly unscripted dialogue, he engages a series of men – a worker, a plastic bag collector, a young soldier, a guardsman, a trainee priest, and a taxidermist – in small talk, trying to lure them into his car. If he succeeds, he drives them to a shallow grave on a secluded hillside and makes them a proposal: in return for a large amount of money, they are to return to the hillside at 6am and call out his name. If he answers, they are to help him out of the hole. If he does not, they are to cover his body with twenty spade-fulls of earth.

So in one sense the film is a character portrait of a man preparing to end his life, though any intimacy we gain is by virtue of sheer proximity. We spend a great deal of the film quite literally looking into Mr Badii’s face from the passenger seat. Kiarostami filmed a lot of the footage by just driving around with him, pointing a digital camera in his face, and we certainly get an insight into his manner and small-talk, the morbidly quotidian chat-up he uses to disarm his passengers enough to make his offer. But we know virtually nothing else about him or his reasons for wanting to die. In this sense he functions in part as a constant, an inscrutable premise. For the first half of the film at least, the narrative tension doesn’t really come from whether or not he will follow through with his plan to kill himself, so much as the varying reactions of the passengers to his proposition.

The only revealing piece of biographical information we glean is when he tells a young soldier that he looks back upon his military service as the happiest period of his life, a time of friendship and companionship. Now, we infer, he is wretchedly lonely, and it seems reasonable to presume that this is part of his suicidal motivation. But though this interpretation is implicitly encouraged, it is not substantiated in any way. It’s also perfectly conceivable that Mr Badii was either never in the army, or was and hated it, and merely makes his claim as a way to disarm the young soldier. The film trades on this kind of elliptical uncertainty, refusing to give us the sort of easy answers that allow us to stop thinking and questioning.

Indeed, the film uses uncertainty to explore the two-edged sword of our connections with other people. On the one (pessimistic) hand, it reinforces our insurmountable isolation, the impossibility of ever having true access to the thoughts and feelings of another human being. Mr Badii spends most of the day being confronted with barriers, trying to chip through the guardedness, suspicion and awkwardness of the people he meets to attain a sufficient state of intimacy that will allow him – with no small amount of grim irony – to persuade his passengers to help him end his life. When asked about his reasons for wanting to kill himself, Mr Badii replies that it is pointless to explain since even if another person were to know the events that caused it, they would still be incapable of feeling his pain.

Yet we are also presented with an optimistic counterargument in the form of the final passenger (the taxidermist), who embodies warmth and disinterested concern. He tells Mr Badii the story of his own attempted suicide when, having given up all hope in life, he went out one morning to hang himself from a tree. However, having climbed the tree he picked a cherry and tasted it. He suddenly realised that he was staring out at a beautiful sunrise. Some school children came and asked him to shake the tree, and cherries fell down for them to taste. Suddenly he no longer wanted to die.

So the protagonist is presented with two opposing arguments – the cold, pessimistic logic that dictates that one person is damned to solitude, and the human, epicurean counterargument that says we can overcome this isolation through sense experience, or good old fashioned faith. With the apparent simplicity of a medieval morality tale, the film sets up for its final scene as an either/or, preparing us for either a consummation of the ruthless logic of philosophical pessimism, or the leap of faith that will give him the strength to carry on.

And then, having meticulously built to this final scene, Kiarostami pulls out the rug. We are faced with a final shot of the protagonist’s face in the shallow grave, eyes open, from which it is impossible to tell if he is dead or merely waiting for the taxidermist to arrive and help him up, symbolically and literally, out of the hole. After a lengthy blackout we switch to a mise en abyme, showing the shooting of the film – with the actor, Kiarostami himself and the crew conversing by the hillside, shot on grainy hand-held film. We then pan round to the group of soldiers whom we have previously seen marching in the film, ‘off-screen’, larking around looking happy. The critic Roger Ebert, who hated the film, saw this as a tacky gimmick, the sort of postmodern ‘distancing effect’ that does nothing but ram its own cleverness down your throat. Unfortunately he completely misses the point.

As in Nabokov’s wonderful short story Signs and Symbols – also concerning suicide – Kiarostami is in one sense setting the artificial logic of the narrative, which invests images with significance and symbolism, against the resistance of events to this form of explication. The structural similarities are striking. Nabokov’s story is about a suicidal young man who suffers from ‘referential disorder’ in that he thinks everything in the world – every sign and symbol – refers to him: ‘Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme’.  The short narrative ends with a phone call to his parents, which we are invited by the structure of the story to presume will be the hospital informing them of his suicide. But in taking up this hermeneutic invitation we would be suffering from a form of the same referential mania from which he suffers, falling victim to the bad faith of fiction’s artificial structures of meaning and causality – faith in which, it is implied, would constitute a form of insanity.

Similarly, Kiarostami meticulously builds up his narrative to the either/or final scene in a way which confers potential inevitability on one of two outcomes: the logical death-spiral resulting in suicide, or the leap of faith leading to redemption. Depending on our reading, there is evidence in the signs and symbols of the preceding narrative for the structural inevitability of either outcome. On the one hand, the flashes of human connection that illuminate the stilted interactions, the warmth of the taxidermist, the beautiful shots that we and the protagonist witness as he sits by the graveside. On the other, the rigid logic that makes these transient comforts meaningless in the face of death. Like Nabokov, in letting us make our own decision about the outcome, Kiarostami reinforces the disjunction between the structures of art and the structurelessness of life.

Kiarostami could have achieved this effect if he, like Nabokov, had simply ended on uncertainty, leaving us to decide the outcome. Yet the complexity is multiplied by the closing image of the soldiers. The effect of showing us the group of smiling soldiers transplanted from the parameters of the narrative is to relieve them of their symbolic function and show them to us as a free-standing image. It undercuts the arbitrary meanings we impose through the narratives we construct – both good meanings, in the sense that they make life explicable for us, and bad meanings, in that they can trap and suffocate us, imposing inevitability where it may not otherwise exist.

Yet even outside of the narrative boundaries, the image of the soldiers cannot be merely an image. It confers a kind of choice upon us that in itself demands allegiance to a paradigm. Does the group of soldiers evoke the happy period of the man’s life in the narrative (implying the ascendancy of the optimistic interpretation), or did this period never even exist and arise simply from misinterpretation (reinforcing the pessimistic interpretation)?

There is no answer, and the image serves to suggest multiple philosophically loaded meanings while reinforcing its own essential meaninglessness. And within the context of the paradigm created by the film, this could be ‘bad’ meaninglessness leading to despair, or ‘good’ meaninglessness undercutting the logical death-spiral driving the main character to suicide. It is up to us to confer meaning on what we see, but – as Kiarostami shows us by ripping down the barriers between what is and isn’t a part of the plot – we can never do so free of artificial paradigms.

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.

Zone, by Mathias Enard

There are books that make a big deal out of narrative form, and books for which it is the elephant in the room. In the broadest terms, the conflict might be expressed like this: realism in fiction isn’t actually anything like reality, so the kind of novel that blithely tries to kid us that it is ‘holding a mirror up to the world’ and ‘addressing the prevailing issues of the day’ actually does nothing of the sort. These books may be well written, but they are also in an inescapable sense limited, redundant, outmoded, disingenuous. But an inverse parody also opens itself up: books that make this limitation their only subject – narcissistic narratives that, rather than mirroring reality, are fixated by their own reflection – run the risk of becoming solipsistic, introverted and self-obsessed.

Zone, the fourth novel by French academic Mathias Enard, is in a very obvious sense a book that makes a big deal out of narrative form: it is written in a gargantuan stream-of-consciousness run-on sentence that is interrupted only by 24 chapter breaks, and three excerpts from the (utterly conventional) novel that our subject, from whose eyes we peer and whose thoughts we inhabit, intermittently reads. So the form of the book self-consciously is its content; rather than fading into the background like Flaubert’s omniscient narrator (present everywhere but visible nowhere), the mode of delivery insinuates itself throughout the novel as the dominant thematic thread. The subject, Francis Servain Mirkovic, a dissipated French-Croatian secret services agent and veteran of the Balkans War, is on a train journey from Milan to Rome. The narrative consists of his thoughts in real-time, each chapter consisting of one of the 24 train stops en route. Along the way he will, in fragmented and disjointed fashion, recollect, mentally skim and ruminate upon events that synthesise the personal and the historical, merging the disarray of his own situation, his unacknowledged drink problem (he is ruinously hungover on the day in question, and his thoughts have the sort of visceral, oneiric lucidity that often follows a particularly savage binge), to shards of horror recollected from the war, and his encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of conflicts that have beset the Mediterranean ‘Zone’ that gives the book its title.

Enard has stated that he wanted to write a ‘contemporary epic’, and Zone is that rare beast – a novel that is simultaneously narcissistic and panoramic, outward-looking while locked into the consciousness of an individual, cut off from the outside world by his frontal cranium. Zone’s 24 chapters imitate the structure of Homer’s Iliad, a modernist reworking of the martial epic, but its fragmentary, anecdotal structure equally recalls another classical paradigm – Ovid’s Metamorphoses (though Ovid’s Benny Hill approach to the mischievous, fun-loving sexual violence of Zeus and co is converted to the brutality of modern, systematic war rape, a recurring preoccupation).


Regardless of your definition, modernism is a large and disparate tradition, and Zone can be placed in a Joycean maximalist camp that is at odds with the Beckettean minimalist school. Beckett famously stated that Joyce had gone as far as one could go in the direction of addition, and his moment of artistic direction came when he realised that his own path was one of subtraction. The conflict concerns the fundamental approach to the intersection of consciousness and narrative; in the loosest terms, whereas the Joyce of Ulysses adapts narrative form to consciousness – in a way that, while virtuosic, remains relatively assured of the validity of its methods – Beckett investigates the impossibility of reconciling the chaos of consciousness with the fixity of literary narrative. Whereas Joyce purveys a kind of ‘realism of consciousness’ (in the terms of Eric Auerbach) in which he attempts to show that he can write about everything, Beckett confronts the impossibility of actually writing about anything.

Thomas Bernhard’s novels also often take place in real-time inside the mind of a central character, but they are relentlessly self-questioning, self-ironising, and impossible to pin down. Instead, like the symbolic tapestry Joyce builds from the framework of Homer’s Odyssey, one feels that in Zone the form is primarily rhetorical, a kind of commentary on the epic paradigm. Moving in opposition to the syllabic regularity of Homer’s Alexandrines, Zone rhetorically evokes the formlessness of contemporary experience, the breakdown of the unified historical narrative in contrast to the neat structures and symmetry of the classical mythological imagination.

Yet the chaos is adumbrated by the rigidity and order of its formal outline. In a sense, it is a form defined by its artificiality, as it follows the ineluctable motion and interconnected straight lines of the rail network; the very rhythm of the train as it moves from stop to stop mediates the pace of the narrative. In this, Zone is a throwback to an earlier wave of modernism, when the novel was still searching for new formal possibilities rather than facing up to its own formal impossibility, and when the vogue technique for doing so was montage, which is essentially what Enard’s method amounts to.

Within the history of modernist aesthetics, montage carries an ideological baggage of its own. Georg Lukacs famously equated the montage aesthetics of Joyce and Doblin with an irrationalism whose logical conclusion was fascism, in opposition the realism of Thomas Mann (who, incidentally, most of us now would think of as a modernist). For Lukacs, realism addressed the ‘objective totality’ of his historical age, a Marxist aesthetic value stemming from the dictum that ‘the modes of production of every society form a whole’. Montage was socially irresponsible, decadent, solipsistic.


Enard overcomes this solipsistic impulse through the use of a rather too-good-to-be-true protagonist, upgrading from the Joycean everyman, with his limited historical understanding and quotidian concerns, to an international man of mystery whose thoughts naturally cover the political and historical ground that Enard really wants to address, while avoiding the faux objectivity of the Tolstoyan summary narrative eye. This allows Enard to largely ignore the likely limits of individual historical awareness and thus regain by stealth some of the panoramic scope traded in along with 19th Century omniscience.

In a sense Enard is having his cake and eating it, checking verisimilitude at the door by constructing a best-case-scenario protagonist whose perspective has little relation to common experience. Sure, Mirkovic is padded out with a personal dimension of sorts (he drinks too much and sleeps around from time to time, suffers from the odd bout of post-traumatic stress), but essentially he is a figure of pure fantasy – or put another way, he is a rhetorical figure, just as Enard’s narrative is ultimately a rhetorical form. Despite appearances, the ultimate aim of Enard’s run-on sentence is not psychological verisimilitude. This is reflected in the manner of his prose, which rejects the disjunctive form of Leopold Bloom’s broken phrases for a modulated flow whose rhythm chugs on like the motion of the train; it is more Daedalus than Bloom, and more stylised and coherent than any 500-page train of thought could ever really be. There is evidently a limit to what Enard is willing to concede to verisimilitude, and perhaps this is a decision informed by an acknowledgement of the limits of the stream of consciousness technique; as Beckett discovered, there is only so far that prose can go towards recreating consciousness. Prose is still prose, and consciousness is still consciousness. Realism of consciousness is ultimately no less doomed to failure than old-fashioned Balzacian realism.

As if to show his full hand, Enard underlines the artifice of his narrative through the use of every 19th century realist’s favourite trick: coincidence. At the beginning of the novel, just before Mirkovic boards the train, a tramp offers his hand, saying ‘comrade one last handshake before the end of the world’, an event which sets Mirkovic’s fevered mind in motion and sparks the narrative that we read. Enard lays his rhetorical cards on the table by repeating the phrase to bring his narrative to a halt, flaunting the gap between what we have just read and reality (“he suddeny offers me a cigarette, he says so my friend one last smoke before the end? One last smoke before the end of the world”).

I’ll admit I was in two minds about this excessively neat ending, but I think I’ll let Enard get away with it as a means of bringing the rhetorical nature of the exercise to the surface. In a sense Enard constructs a form that gives him the scope to combine the panoramic ambition of realism with the constraints of subjectivity, and in doing so weaves a dense symbolic pattern that implicates its form into its thematic concerns in a satisfying and sophisticated manner. It would be tempting but too easy to merely contrast the stream-of-consciousness narrative we read with the highly formulaic, conventional realist war novel that Mirkovic dips into on three occasions during the narrative, with the implication that one is somehow real whereas the other is not. In fact, by sandwiching his modernist narrative between a big juicy realist coincidence, Enard acknowledges that this form is in its own way just as false and constructed as any other. But in Enard’s hands it is alive with rhetorical and symbolic possibilities.

The Tree of Life, by Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick has been referred to as an American who makes films with a European sensibility. A former student of continental philosophy who dropped out of his PhD at Oxford over an argument about Wittgenstein, Malick has never had much to do with the Hollywood establishment, and his status as a mythic recluse is enhanced by a glacial production rate of just five films in nearly 40 years. Like just about everything Malick has directed, The Tree of Life is an enticing and unusual combination of the sort of highbrow narrative experimentalism one associates with European art-house cinema, infused with a lush, and occasionally heavy-handed romantic lyricism that connects it to a more classically American pastoral tradition. The result is something like a Calvin Klein advert scripted by Alain Robbe-Grillet, and inter-spliced with outtakes from the Discovery Channel. Sound strange? It is, pretty. But it somehow works.

The film takes as its subject a 1950s suburban American family, a married couple and their three young sons. Malick has never been shy about employing rigid gender roles in his films, and the parental characters are classically Freudian. The opening voiceover from the mother of the family speaks of the eternal metaphysical (materialists: this isn’t for you) conflict between grace and nature. This sets up a framework through which to view the warring maternal and paternal principles, and their formative effect upon the three boys; however, though the mother’s monologue sets this conflict up as a clash between the ruthlessness of nature and the redeeming spirituality of religious grace, the forces at play could also be interpreted through a Nietzschean Apollonian/Dionysian paradigm, or indeed as some sort of negotiation between rationalism and empiricism. The uptight, disciplinarian father (Brad Pitt), is the realist, empiricist and pragmatist: a military engineer who is also a talented musician, he runs a borderline-abusively tight ship in order to toughen up his sons in preparation for the demands of the real world. The mother, meanwhile, is an impractical dreamer, both idealistic and idealised, who is inadequately equipped to deal with life’s more prosaic demands.

Telling the story of the family through a cryptic succession of fragmented flashbacks, The Tree of Life weaves together several key thematic threads: an investigation into the formation of personality, a study of bereavement, a recreation of the distortions to which memory subjects childhood, a rumination on, yes, the origins of the universe (Malick is nothing if not grandiose), along with a subtle interrogation of traditional film narrative methods and their shaping effect. In classic Malick style, the premises of the narrative remain shrouded in mystery, the audience left to do much of the interpretative legwork in piecing together a narrative that is primarily visual, a fragmented chain of heavily stylized images overlaid with various more or less cryptic voiceovers. What we can readily gleam is that an older version of one of the sons (we infer it to be Jack, the eldest), a disillusioned architect played by Sean presumably-not-paid-by-the-word Penn, lapses into an extended reverie concerning his childhood and his deceased brother when he sees a tree being planted outside his New York office.


Towards the beginning of the story we learn that one of the sons –strongly hinted to be the middle of the three – dies at the age of 19, a period not otherwise touched upon at any point in the film. This immediately reverses a cinematic norm; we are hit with the emotional crescendo at the very beginning of the film, before we have any real context for it, and we spend the rest of the film trying to work out what exactly has happened, when, how and to whom. Malick has a penchant for this kind of concealment and indirectness, like the sudden and psychologically unexplained murders that are central to both Badlands and Days of Heaven. If we are to come to somehow empathize with the characters, we must do so incrementally and indirectly; Malick refuses to give us the sort of easy, sham access to their thoughts and emotions implicit in traditional spoon-fed characterization, and instead imitates life by keeping us insurmountably on the outside. We are consequently denied the facile emotional release of a head-on confrontation with the circumstances of the parents’ grief, which to devotees of Hollywood convention may be interpreted as perverse. We instead experience their grief as a mere spectacle shorn of its context, a series of outward gestures without an established cause. By refusing us the summary objectivity of the classic realist narrative eye Malick draws us into the plot, activating us by making us piece together the causes and referents of the dissociated reactions we observe.

In fact, many of Malick’s effects are dependent upon his subtly eroding the contractual trust that we place in the nature of the sequence of images we are watching. In place of a more classic unreliable narrator figure such as those used in Badlands or Days of Heaven, a dialogue is taking place throughout between the very sequence of images Malick places before us, and the norms, conventions and assumptions that we use to interpret them as a recognizable narrative whole. There is a sense in which Malick’s approach amounts to a critique of realism, in a way that is far more closely engaged than in a surrealist such as David Lynch. Whereas late Lynch films such as Inland Empire or Mulholland Drive reject the conventions of realism wholesale and instead move in phantasmagoric, dreamlike chains of vaguely associative images, Malick mostly confines himself to more traditional and circumscribed scenarios. It is the manner in which he reveals a chain of events, rather than the chain of events themselves, that forms the basis of his engagement with cinematic convention.


On a formal level, The Tree of Life in many ways resembles a cinematic equivalent of the nouveau roman of Robbe-Grillet and Simon. Indeed, central to the theory of the nouveau roman was Robbe-Grillet’s distinction between the classic realist novel (of which Balzac, as in the eyes of Barthes and Becket, is the prime exemplar) that places the reader in a passive position, and the ‘new novel’, which activates the reader by forcing him to take on an active role in piecing together the adumbrated form of a fragmented and incompletely revealed narrative.

The (novel) author today proclaims his absolute need of the reader’s cooperation, an active, conscious, creative assistance. What he asks of him is no longer to receive ready-made a world completed, full, closed upon itself, but on the contrary to participate in a creation, to invent in his turn the work – and the world – and thus learn to invent his own life. 

Countless works of modern narrative art – from Beckett’s Molloy to Robbe-Grillet’s The Voyeur and Le Clezio’s The Interrogation, to films such as Kurosawa’s Rashomon or Michael Haneke’s Hidden and The White Ribbon – use the trope of the detective story as a way of activating the reader, and bringing to the surface the process by which we, as the consumers of a work of narrative art, are complicit in its effects in our role as the solvers of the mystery. Yet in The Tree of Life we are faced with something less playful and more mystical, cryptic and abstract. We may try and find an answer to the mystery but one senses that, as in a Thomas Bernhard novel, all we are ultimately likely to find there is a painstakingly achieved aesthetic effect that is held together by the very absence of any definite answer to the questions it raises. The film styles itself as a flashback, placing us in the mind of the central character as he remembers his childhood, but contains events he could not have witnessed. It gestures at a completeness that it never fulfills, refusing to differentiate between potential interpretative angles and provide the one thing we normally expect film to provide: an objective representation of events. As in life, that is something we must construct for ourselves.

All of this played out just fine at Cannes, where Malick won the Palm D’Or, but it will be interesting to see how it goes down with the cinema-going public. The relatively lavish budget and the presence of Brad Pitt and Sean Penn on the bill is likely to draw plenty of punters who have little interest in the tricks and ambiguities so central to Malick’s engagement with his subject matter, his ongoing dialogue with narrative modes and conventions, and the overreaching bombast of his pseudo-metaphysical enquiry. The near-unanimous audience reaction at the screening I attended in New York (it doesn’t come out in the UK until next month) was one of bemusement, boredom and mistrust. There were most of a cinema’s worth of audible sighs of relief when the film came to its abrupt end, alongside a smattering of ironic applause.

The skeptics had a point in the sense that Malick lays it on pretty thick. This is a film that leaves itself open to accusations of pretentiousness at times, in which whole sequences seem to have been shoehorned in purely because they look good without serving any particular narrative function, and I’ll never know what was going through Malick’s mind when he decided to reel out the dinosaurs. But nonetheless it would be a shame if the reputation of the film suffers for the disparity between its high profile and its relatively obscurist pitch. The Tree of Life contains some of the most visually stunning sequences I have ever seen, and for these as much as its narrative cleverness one can imagine it being studied for years.  What’s more, whereas Malick’s stubborn refusal to grant us simplistic access to character and motives could have resulted in sterility, his fragmented and dissociated reconstruction of childhood contains enough vivid scenes and glimmers of personality that he ends up achieving a hard-won empathy that is somehow more valuable for the lack of shortcuts. It isn’t often you see a big-budget film replete with Hollywood stars that has genuine artistic ambition. And ambition is one thing that nobody is likely to accuse The Tree of Life of lacking.

Old Masters by Thomas Bernhard

Old Masters is an equation without a solution. Thomas Bernhard is an author who habitually treads the invisible line between plausibility and caricature, the insightful and the ridiculous. Everything in the two of his novels that I have so far read (The Loser and Old Masters, though I am currently mid-way through Correction and have by this point pretty much resolved to read them all in reasonably quick succession) refuses to be pinned down, or to fit into a stable category. In Old Masters this polysemy is encoded at every level, and results in a narrative whose every word refuses to be attributed to an established character or perspective, to be reliably ingenuous or disingenuous, or to confirm or deny its own seriousness.

The novel is based around form rather than plot, and its elaborate narrative framing generates its effects. Atzbacher, the narrator, goes to an art gallery and has a conversation with a friend of his called Reger. That, in a manner of speaking, is pretty much all that ‘happens’ – so far so straightforward.  But here’s where it gets complicated. As in The Loser, the story is recounted pretty much in real time, taking the form of the narrator’s recollection of the thoughts that he had on the day in question.  However, while The Loser is narrated in the first person, Old Masters, through the use of two words in its opening sentence, disrupts the relationship between story and storyteller:

Although I had arranged to meet Reger at the Kunsthistoriches Museum at half-past eleven, I arrived at the agreed spot at half-past ten in order, as I had for some time decided to do, to observe him, for once, from the most ideal angle possible and undisturbed, Atzbacher writes.

We are immediately confronted with a category problem. Until its final two words, the sentence presents the reader with relatively few issues. We’re used to this set-up: a narrator figure is telling us a story about something that happened to him in the past. Along the way there will probably be characters and events. He will probably give us his opinions about people and things, express his emotions and feelings, and, if we’re really lucky, he will unwittingly reveal, through the author’s clever use of words, things about himself that he isn’t even aware he is revealing. Perhaps this chain of events, and the way in which he relates it to us, will hold the key to why the narrator is who he really is. We may learn something from this.

But hang on a minute, what does this “Atzbacher writes” mean? Whom can we pin it to, and can we even trust it? We can fairly easily adjust our critical sense to deal with a scenario wherein what we read is being written by a character called Atzbacher (we’ve all read epistolary novels, after all), but does Atzbacher write “Atzbacher writes”? This is a question without an answer. Is Thomas Bernhard reading out to us, as it were, the document that Atzbacher has written? The present tense “Atzbacher writes” carries its own ambiguity. It could be Thomas Bernhard the novelist parenthetically interjecting (though an actual parenthesis, or perhaps even an asterixed note at the bottom of the page, would have helped make this more clear) to inform us that what we are reading is, fictively, a document written by a character called Atzbacher. But then it could equally be part of the plot. We use the present tense to describe what a character ‘does’ in the book – so is Thomas Bernhard the novelist writing a novel in which a character called Atzbacher is currently, in the fictional ‘now’ of the novel, writing what we are reading? Do these words – all of the words in the book – belong to a character called Atzbacher or a writer called Thomas Bernhard?

The polysemy of the narrative is thus ensured from the outset, but becomes increasingly complicated due to the relationship between the two central characters, Atzbacher and Reger. Bernhard is fond of using narrative removal strategies that prevent us from straightforwardly pinning the voice and opinions of the narrative to a given character at a given moment. In this we can see his major influence on W.G Sebald, who in this country remains a more widely read and revered figure. Sebald’s Bernhardian novel Austerlitz consists mostly of a narrator figure recounting the thoughts and opinions of a character called Austerlitz, as they were related to him in a series of conversations. Similarly, in Old Masters, nearly the entire novel consists of the thoughts and opinions of Reger – mostly wild tirades against every aspect of Austrian culture and society – reported to us by Atzbacher.

But in Bernhard this relationship is even more perverse, intertwined and multi-layered. The voices of Atzbacher and Reger are completely indistinguishable. When Atzbacher is narrating his own thoughts, his prose style, his emphatic use of italics, his cadence, his obsessive repetition of key words and phrases, his subject matter, and the sorts of opinions he expresses, are all completely indistinguishable from those that constitute the speech of Reger (as he reports it to us). We can seemingly draw one of two conclusions from this. A). Atzbacher is completely colonised by Reger’s language and attitudes, and merely serves as a mouthpiece for his perspective. Or, B). The only access we have to Reger is through Atzbacher’s words, so he is in fact merely projecting his own perspective onto Reger. Reger, to all intents and purposes, does not really exist. What we are reading is essentially a monologue, with Atzbacher using Reger as a ventriloquist’s dummy.

Again, which of these positions is the true one is a question without an answer. Both theses are equally true and untrue. The fact that this is a piece of writing by Atzbacher rather than Bernhard imagining his internal consciousness (as he does with the narrator character in The Loser), muddies the water even further. It could be Atzbacher’s written recollection of his mental state on the day in question, thus introducing its own narrative unreliability: there is an obvious gap between the composition and continuity of Old Masters, and the flux and disorder of actual mental experience. Or alternatively, the discourse that constitutes Old Masters could just be Atzbacher’s fiction, a rhetorical staging of his views. What we know of Atzbacher at all we get second hand from Reger:

The way you can bear working for decades on a single book without publishing the least part of it, I could not do that… Have you never considered publishing at least a minor section of your work? he asked; some fragment, it all sounds so excellent, your hints about your work

Is this in fact Atzbacher’s unpublished work? We are seemingly invited to infer so, but how can he have been working on it for years previously if all of its events take place on the day in question? Is he just making it all up? Does Reger not, in fact, exist? Can we then even take his evidence as valid? Does it make logical sense to infer evidence of Reger’s non-existence from Reger himself?

As readers of fiction, we want answers to these kinds of question. Are the ghosts in The Turn of the Screw ‘real’? (Answer: no more nor less so than any of the other characters). Who really killed Karamazov? (Answer: both someone and no one). Is the ape in Kafka’s Notes on an Address to the Academy really an ape?  (Answer: no more nor less so than it is really a man). In J.M Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, the eponymous character gives a lecture on Kafka’s story, in words that neatly summarize the quandary in which the truth-seeking reader is left by Old Masters:

We don’t know and will never know, with certainty, what is going on in this story: whether it is about a man speaking to men or an ape speaking to apes or an ape speaking to men or a man speaking to apes (though the last is, I think, unlikely) or even just a parrot speaking to parrots. There used to be a time when we knew. We used to believe that when the text said “On the table stood a glass of water”, there was indeed a table, and a glass of water on it, and we had only to look in the word-mirror of the text to see them. But all that has ended. The word-mirror is broken, irreparably, it seems. About what is going on in the lecture hall your guess is as good as mine: men and men, men and apes, apes and men, apes and apes. The lecture hall itself may be nothing but a zoo. The words on the page will no longer stand up and be counted, each proclaiming “I mean what I mean!” The dictionary that used to stand beside the Bible and Shakespeare above the fireplace, where in pious Roman homes the household gods were kept, has become just one code book among many.

The equipoise Bernhard achieves through these multiple unresolved tensions and ambiguities, is comparable to that achieved in Kafka’s story, and both bounce off our habitual critical search for answers. It is an art of not knowing rather than knowing, a riddle without an answer, an equation without a solution. It is nonsense masquerading as sense. And this, as Reger/Atzbacher/Berhard tells us, is the ultimate fate of all art:

We are fascinated by a work of art and ultimately it is ridiculous. If you take the trouble, for once, to read Goethe more intently than usual, you will ultimately find that what you read is ridiculous, no matter what it is, you only have to read it more often than usual, it will inevitably become ridiculous and even the cleverest thing is ultimately a nonsense.

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.