Posts Tagged ‘ literature reviews ’

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.

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.

Berg by Ann Quin

My review of Berg by Ann Quin has been published at ReadySteadyBook:

Berg by Ann Quin

Ann Quin was something of a rising star at the time of her premature death in 1973, but has since been all but forgotten. The author of four novels, she has the distinction of being one of relatively few British writers to be published by John Calder (this edition is a reprint by the admirable Dalkey Archive Press), placing her in the company of such avant-garde figures as Beckett, Robbe-Grillet, Burroughs and Henry Miller.

Read it here…

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.

The Loser by Thomas Bernhard

It was not without a certain amount of trepidation that I approached my first novel by Thomas Bernhard. His reputation precedes him, not only as an unrelentingly bleak, misanthropic monger of doom, but as one who considers such niceties as grammar, punctuation and paragraph breaks – not to mention middlebrow fluff like plot and characters – to be an affront to art. A semi-formed picture was already present in my mind of a perfect storm uniting high modernist impenetrability and bone-dry Germanic austerity – Beckett meets Sebald on a particularly depressing day. Flashbacks of desolate hours spent trying to frube a semblance of import out of The Unnameable long prevented Bernhard, guilty by vague association, from ever making it to the top of my reading list.

I was right on one front – Bernhard gives new meaning to the excellent and seldom-used phrase ‘cantankerous misanthrope’. Never have I experienced such energetically all-encompassing negativity. Salzburg is “the sworn enemy of all art, a cretinous provincial dump with stupid people and cold walls where everything without exception is eventually made cretinous”. Vienna is “that profoundly despised city”. “The ride from Vienna to Lintz is a trip through nothing but utter tastelessness” and “From Lintz to Salzburg things aren’t much better”. The inconspicuous town of Chur has the distinction of being “particularly distasteful”, whose taverns “served the worst wine and most tasteless sausages”, whose inhabitants are “despicable in their Alpine cretinism” and in which “a person can be ruined for life… even if he spends only one night there”. It isn’t hard to see why Bernhard, perhaps the most internationally acclaimed Austrian writer since Robert Musil, isn’t quite afforded the status of National Treasure in the country he slagged off with such virtuosic fervour.

However, despite, and in part because of this rampant pessimism, Bernhard is frequently guffaw-on-public-transport funny, a raconteur of negativity. The Loser is a new shade of black comedy, a romp through the bitter recollections of a failed concert pianist in the hours following the funeral (suicide, naturally) of his only remaining friend. The tale of three musical prodigies who trained together under the tutelage of the legendary Vladimir Horowitz in Salzburg – the caustic narrator, the real-life piano genius Glenn Gould and the eponymous loser, the recently deceased Wertheimer – the novel takes place pretty much in real time, taking the form of narrator’s recollection of the thoughts he had while sitting in an inn on the afternoon of Wertheimer’s funeral.

This set-up leads to the distinctive double and triple removal techniques used by WG Sebald, whom Gabriel Josipovici has called Bernhard’s “more humourless disciple” (much as I love Sebald, I’m always bemused when people try to claim that he’s funny – he isn’t). The obsessive repetition of “I thought”, “he said, I thought” and even “he said, Glenn said, I thought” at the end of Bernhard’s meandering sentences reminds us of the premises of the novel at every turn, insistently preventing the narrative from attaining any illusion of objectivity.

It also seems to be one of Bernhard’s signature techniques to pattern and repeat key words, phrases and syntactic figures in a way that is almost musical. This has the surface effect of mapping out the interior workings of the narrator’s mind, but at the same time – by reminding us that this is the narrator’s recollection of his thoughts rather than the original thoughts themselves – it uncovers the techniques he uses to turn them into a literary narrative. This sort of repetition, it is implicitly acknowledged, is literature’s way of creating the effect of interior thoughts. If you actually stop to think about it, the continuous and artistically modulated narrative of The Loser bears very little resemblance to the thoughts one might conceivably have while sitting in an inn after a funeral.

Through an elegantly paced series of flashbacks and internal anecdotes, we trace the relationship between the three friends, defined by their reaction to Glenn Gould’s genius. While Glenn Gould retreats from the world in slavish devotion to his art – becoming, as Bernhard’s tells us in the first sentence, “the most important piano virtuoso of the century” – Wertheimer and the narrator resign themselves in different ways to a life of inevitable failure in the face of his genius. Both give up the piano and battle suicidal depression. The narrator devotes himself to a rambling, unfinished philosophical essay ‘About Glenn Gould’, while Wertheimer attempts to reinvent himself as a human scientist. Yet while the narrator retreats in misanthropic resignation, Wertheimer self-destructs, eventually hanging himself.

As in Beckett, within this bleak and unmitigated landscape it is gallows humour that pulls us through, and both the narrator and Wetheimer are perversely engaging raconteurs. Wertheimer bears more than a passing resemblance to Saul Bellow’s Von Humbert Fleischer – the self-destructing poet, based on Bellow’s friend Delmore Schwartz, who is the eponymous subject of Humboldt’s Gift. Both are case studies of the crippling burden of predetermined artistic failure. Whereas Wertheimer begins his  demise when his talent is eclipsed by that of Glenn Gould (who first christens him ‘the loser’), Humboldt is plagued by the impossibility of realising his over-reaching poetic aspirations, “to be cosmically and magically articulate, able to say anything”.

Whereas Wertheimer self-destructs by feeling too intently, the narrator hides behind the iron curtain of his own misanthropy. Indeed, as we only access Wertheimer and Gould second hand, pre-digested by the re-imagined thoughts of the narrator, The Loser is really a self-portrait. It is also, behind the acid façade, a confession and a study in despairing loneliness. The narrator’s affection for the only two friends he ever had is channelled all the more powerfully by his aggressively anti-sentimental refusal to acknowledge it. The deadpan final words of the novel therefore achieve a greater elegiac resonance than could be achieved by any more overt display of sentiment: “I asked Franz to leave me alone in Wertheimer’s room for a while to put on Glenn’s Goldberg Variations, which I had seen lying on Wertheimer’s record player, which was still open.”

In the light of retrospect, the epigrammatic first sentence – Suicide calculated well in advance, I thought, no spontaneous act of desperation – are the bitter words of the last man standing, a prisoner with no escape route. Gould and Wertheimer may be dead, but it is the narrator who is left alone, burdened with their memories. In the end, there is only one real loser.

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.