Posts Tagged ‘ modernism ’

The Walk, by Robert Walser

This review was originally published in 3:AM Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.