Monday, May 31, 2010

Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin

In the middle ages, fishing from the Danube was a way of life but, now, it is rare.

Certain Romanian folk songs tell the story of a white monastery with nine priests, on a white island, on the Danube.

The Black Forest is the origin of the Danube, Europe's second longest river. From Germany, it flows eastwards, for almost 3000km, passing through, or forming, the borders of ten countries, into the Black Sea.

The river marked the border of the Roman Empire and the Danube basin is the site of some of the earliest examples of human civilization. In 3000 BC, for example, the Vučedol people, who are famous for ceramics, lived on the Danube.

The Bulgarian National Anthem extols the Danube as a symbol of the country's natural beauty.

The German tradition of landscape painting was developed, during the 16th century, in the Danube valley.

The Blue Danube was the name of the first British Nuclear weapon.

Homer and Hesiod refer to the lower Danube as the Okeanos Potamos. There is an island at the end of the lower Danube, Alba, where Apollo is said to greet the rising sun. Achilles, in one account, was buried on this Island.

In English, we have used the French word Danube, to name the river, since the Norman conquest of England.

The French word comes from Latin, in which the river was called Danubius, Danuvius, and (from the Greek word, Istros) the Ister.


The Ister

by Friedrich Hölderlin (trans. Michael Hamburger)

Now come, fire!
We are impatient
To look upon the Day,
And when the trial
Has passed through the knees
One may perceive the cries in the wood.
But, as for us, we sing from the Indus,
Arrived from afar, and
From the Alpheus, long we
Have sought what is fitting,
Not without wings may one
Reach out for that which is nearest
Like so
And get to the other side.
But here we wish to build.
For rivers make arable
The land. For when herbs are growing
And to the same in summer
The animals go to drink,
There too will human kind go.
This one, however, is called the Ister.
Beautifully he lives. The pillars’ foliage burns,
And stirs. Wildly they stand
Supporting one another; above,
A second measure, juts out
The roof of rocks.
No wonder, therefore,
I say, this river
Invited Hercules,
Distantly gleaming, down by Olympus,
When he, to look for shadows,
Came up from the sultry isthmus,
For full of courage they were
In that place, but, because of the spirits,
There’s need of coolness too. That is why that hero
Preferred to come here to the wellsprings and yellow banks,
Highly fragrant on top, and black
With fir woods, in whose depths
A huntsman loves to amble
At noon, and growth is audible
In resinous trees of the Ister,
Yet it seems
To travel backwards and
I think it must come from
The East.
Much could
Be said about this. And why does
It cling to the mountains, straight? The other,
The Rhine, has gone away
Sideways. Not for nothing rivers flow
Through dry land. But how? A sign is needed,
Nothing else, plain and honest, so that
Sun and Moon it may bear in mind, inseparable,
And go away, day and night no less, and
The Heavenly feel warm one beside the other.
That also is why these are
The joy of the Highest. For how
Would he get down? And like Hertha green
They are the children of Heaven. But all too patient
He seems to me, not
More free, and nearly derisive. For when
Day is due to begin
In youth, where it starts
To grow, another already there
Drives high the splendour, and like foals
He grinds the bit, and far off the breezes
Can hear the commotion,
If he is contented;
But the rock needs incisions
And the earth needs furrows,
Would be desolate else, unabiding;
Yet what that one does, the river,
Nobody knows.


Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin (1770 – 1843) was a German lyric poet. He wrote his poem, Der Ister, about the Danube River, taking its ancient name for his title, before his madness reached its full height.

Hölderlin was a Romantic. He studied with Hegel and Schelling and was acquainted with Schiller, Goethe and Novalis. As a young poet, he worked as a tutor, a position from which he was dismissed for his intolerance of his pupils, and, briefly, joined the clergy. He struggled financially. He wrote in fragments, rewriting and remaking his older poems, leaving spaces and unfinished lines. He fell in love with an older woman, Susette Gondard, the wife of his employer. He wrote about his love for Suzette in his poetry, before she died of influenza. Not long after Suzette’s death, Hölderlin was declared mentally ill and became a patient of Dr. Ferdinand Authenrieth, who invented a mask that prevented his patients from screaming. When he was discharged, considered incurable but harmless, a sympathetic carpenter called Ernst Zimmer gave him a home. He stayed in a tower attached to the carpenter’s house for the next 36 years until his death. (There is a resemblance to the second half of Robert Walser’s life, a century later). He became something of a tourist attraction and would write short poems, off-the-cuff, for visitors.

The young poet Wilhelm Waiblinger, who would visit him in the tower, wrote at length about his friend’s sheltered life:

[…] For music had not yet abandoned him completely. He still played piano correctly, though in a highly eccentric style. Whenever he plays, he sits at the instrument all day long. He will follow a childishly simple notion, turn it around, and play it back hundreds of times all day until one can endure it no longer. And along with this come quick, spasmodic fits which force him to race like lightning across the keyboard with his long, overgrown fingernails clattering all the way. It is the greatest displeasure for him to have these trimmed, and he has to be tricked like a stubborn and capricious child into having it done. When he has played long enough to stir his soul, he suddenly closes his eyes, lifts his head and begins to sing as if he wanted to pine and waste away. As many times as I heard it, I could never figure out what language it was; but he sang with an excessive pathos, and it sent shivers through every nerve to see and hear him in this way. Melancholy and sorrow were the spirit of his song, and one could tell that he had once been a good tenor. […]

Part of Waiblinger’s essay, from which the above quote comes, "Friedrich Hölderlin's Life, Poetry and Madness" (1830), can be read at the Walter Benjamin Research Syndicate (link). It is fascinating.

Hölderlin felt the presence of the ancient Greek gods in his life and represented them in his poetry. J. M. Coetzee, in his article The Poet in the Tower (link), writes,

Hölderlin wrote enthusiastic, rather strident poems of a pantheistic bent celebrating the universe as a living whole infused with divinity. Their immediate model was Friedrich Schiller, but their philosophical underpinning was ultimately Neoplatonic. As his motto, Hölderlin adopted the Greek phrase en kai pan, one and all: life is a harmonious unity, our goal must be to merge with the All.

He was, in Coetzee’s eyes,

a déclassé intellectual alienated from church and state, aspiring toward a utopia in which poets and philosophers would be accorded their rightful due; more specifically, a poet constitutionally trapped in a backward-looking posture, mourning the passing of an age when gods mixed with men (“…My friend, we have come too late. Though the gods are living,/Over our heads they live, up in a different world./…Little they seem to care whether we live or do not”).

And, yet, Hölderlin was popular with Nazis. His poetry aroused, what was considered, a call to the German people. He was a poet, who, “could be made to speak for both a lost past and a National Socialist future.” Coetzee describes Hölderlin’s standing in Nazi Germany:

In Germany the Hölderlin centenary of 1943 was celebrated on a grand scale. Ceremonies took place across the country; hundreds of thousands of Hölderlin readers were printed and distributed to German soldiers. Why this philosopher-poet, elegist of the Greek past and foe of autocracy, should have been adopted as a mascot of the Third Reich is not obvious. Initially the line followed by the Nazi cultural office was that Hölderlin was a prophet of the newly arisen German giant. After the tide of the war turned at Stalingrad, that line was amended: Hölderlin now spoke for European values being defended by Germany against the advancing Asiatic, Bolshevist hordes.

O take me, take me up into the ranks,
so that I do not one day die a common death!
I do not want to die in vain, what
I want is to fall on the sacrificial mound
For the Fatherland, to pour out the heart’s blood
For the Fatherland.

As an example of Nazism appropriating writing, it has a particular sharpness because of the lecture course, entitled Hölderlin Hymn “The Ister”, delivered by Martin Heidegger at the University of Freiburg, in 1943. Without Heidegger, Nazism’s recruitment of the lyric poet might be dismissed without reflection. Nevertheless, Heidegger decided to deliver his most sustained thoughts on the essence of politics via Hölderlin’s poem The Ister. Here is Coetzee, on the relationship between Heidegger, Hölderlin and Nazism:

The fortunes of Hölderlin under the Nazis are intricately intertwined with his fortunes in the hands of his most influential interpreter, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger’s meditations on the place of Germany in history are carried out largely in the form of commentaries on Hölderlin. In the 1930s Heidegger saw Hölderlin as the prophet of a new dawn; when the Reich collapsed he saw him as the consoling poet for dark times when the gods withdraw. While in rough outline this account squares with the Nazi version, it does an injustice to the seriousness with which Heidegger reflects on each line of Hölderlin. To Heidegger in “the completely destitute time” of the present (he was writing in 1946), when the relevance of poetry is everywhere in doubt, Hölderlin is the one who articulates most clearly the essential calling of the poet, namely to speak the words that bring a new world into being. We read Hölderlin’s dark poetry, says Heidegger, not so much to understand him as to keep in contact with him until that future arrives when he will at last be understandable.

Heidegger is still infamous today for his support of Adolf Hitler and his membership of the Nazi party, from May 1933 until May 1945. And, yet, his book, Being and Time, is, I gather, one of the most important philosophical works of the 20th Century. The debate, over whether he was an anti-Semite and whether his politics complicated his philosophy, is long and was recently revitalised by an English translation of Emmanuel Faye's book, Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy, which I haven’t read. There are some good reviews online, however, which précis its argument, here, here and here (there are others). Martin Cohen, in his review for Times Higher Education (link), touching on Heidegger’s treatment of Hölderlin, said the following:

In 1942, the year of the Final Solution, Heidegger is to be found working on an idea in a poem by Friedrich Hölderlin. Faye notes that philosophers are ignorant of the significance of Hölderlin - but that the answer is very easily obtained by perusal of Nazi texts.

Heidegger uses Hölderlin as part of a theory explaining how the historic mission of Ancient Greece was passed to the German volk. Heidegger thinks that the Germans and the Greeks sprang from a shared root somewhere in the East. "The name Heraclitus is not the title of a philosophy of the Greeks long run dry, no more than it is the formula for universal humanity as such. In truth, it is the name of an original power of Occidental-Germanic historical existence.

Heidegger's development of Hölderlin is to add a kind of swastika symbol, as he outlines a new philosophical justification for racial purity based on passing via distress to light.

I don’t know how Heidegger should be read, but I can’t help thinking that in a speech made to the Heidelberg Student Association in 1933, he sounded, at the very least, cruel:

A fierce battle must be fought against this situation in the National Socialist spirit, and this spirit cannot be allowed to be suffocated by humanizing, Christian ideas that suppress its unconditionality.

Heidegger’s Ister lecture, on the other hand, as far as I understand it, discusses the meaning of poetry, the essence of politics, ancient Greece, modern Germany and Technology. He considered Hölderlin, as yet, unheard. The lecture is divided into three parts and can be read, in full, here (link). Nothing Heidegger wrote is, to me at least, easily understood, however, at the start of Part One of his lecture – “Poetizing the Essence of the Rivers” – he makes some remarks which, with literary criticism in general in mind, make considerable sense:

What this lecture course is able to communicate are remarks on the poetry it has selected. Such remarks are always only an accompaniment. It may there be that some, or many, or even all of these remarks are simply imported and are not “contained in” the poetry. The remarks, in that case, are not taken from the poetry, not presented from out of this poetry. The remarks in no way achieve what is in the strict sense of the word could be called an “interpretation” of the poetry. At the risk of missing the truth of Hölderlin’s poetry, the remarks merely provide a few markers, signs that call our attention, pauses for reflection. Because these remarks are merely an accompaniment to the poem, the poetry itself must in the first instance and constantly be present as what comes first.

And, putting aside sense, for the moment, his concluding statements have a mysterious and beautiful magnetism:

These relations have their own essential prevailing and flowing. The poet is the river. And the river is the poet. The two are the same on the grounds of their singular essence, which is to be demigods, to be in the between, between gods and human. The open realm of this between is open in the direction of the holy and that essentially prevails beyond gods and humans.

In 2004, a film tracing the path of Heidegger's 1942 lectures, following the path of the Danube, was released by David Barison and Daniel Ross. It is a beautiful thing.

The filmmakers travel upstream from the Black Sea, at a Sebaldian pace (although they approach their subjects much more directly than Sebald), interviewing philosophers - Bernard Stiegler, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe - and taking in the intellectual and political history of the river. Gracefully, the film moves from an archaeological site, to a concentration camp, to the lecture theatre at Friburg University where Heidegger spoke, and to the castle where Marshal Petain fled in 1945, without ever giving the impression of exerting itself. The style is elegiac, meditative and glowingly intellectual.

The highlight of the film is Steigler's interview, but at no point is it any less than hypnotically brilliant. At times, the river and the light become Romantic, sublime, and the spirit of Hölderlin is made cinematic. Barison and Ross illustrate philosophy. For a more in-depth review, see James Chamberlin's article, Draggin' The River: The Ister (link).

The film closes with an original recording of Heidegger reading, in German, Hölderlin's poem, Der Ister:

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Jorge Luis Borges

W. G. Sebald said,
My medium is prose, not the novel.
Which, I can't help thinking, is true also of Jorge Luis Borges. Although, applied to Borges, and if left unaltered, the quote loses some of its punch, given that he never wrote novels. Still, if you don't mind substituting 'short-stories' in the place of 'novels', it makes for an interesting comparison.

It helps, mind you, that Sebald was, overtly, influenced by Borges. One of the pleasures of reading either writer is puzzling over the references to literature, which fill their books. In The Rings of Saturn, Borges is one of Sebald's reference points: the short story, "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis, Tertius", from Ficciones (1956), appears more than once. Indeed, Sebald borrows some actual prose from Borges towards the end of Chapter 3.

Both writers have a style that might be called documentary, although the word is not very helpful for understanding the singular beauty of either. It is difficult, and not necessarily very interesting, to classify either writer. Sebald's style, and, therefore, by extension of my comparison, Borges's style, I think, was well described by James Wood, in his review of The Rings of Saturn, where he also made some unrestrained comments about fact and fiction:
What is remarkable about The Emigrants and about The Rings of Saturn is the reticent artificiality of Sebald's narration, whereby fact is taken from the real world and made fictional. This is the opposite of the trivial "factional" breeziness of writers such as Julian Barnes or Umberto Eco, who take facts and superficially destabilize them within fiction, who makes facts quiver a little, but whose entire work is actually in homage to the superstition of fact. Such writers do not believe deeply enough in the fictional to abandon the actual world. They toy with accuracy; they are obsessed with questions of accuracy and inaccuracy, for even inaccurate facts, to such writers, have a kind of empirical electricity, since they connect us to a larger informational zealousness. This informational neurosis makes their fiction buzzingly unaffecting. Facts are a sport for such writers, a semiotic superfluity, ultimately quite readable.
In an interview, from 1977, recently published online (link), Borges described the relationship between his reading habits and his writing, which, I suspect, may be, inadvertently, relevant:
Encyclopedias have been, I’d say, my life’s chief reading. I have always been interested in encyclopedias. Well, I used to go to the Biblioteca Nacional in Buenos Aires — and since I was so shy, I felt I could not cope with asking for a book, or a librarian, so I looked on the shelves for the Encyclopædia Britannica. Of course, afterwards, I had that book at home, by my hand. And then I would pick up any chance volume and I would read it. And then one night I was richly rewarded, because I read all about the Druses, Dryden, and the Druids — a treasure trove, no? — all in the same volume, of course, “Dr–.”

Then I came to the idea of how fine it would be to think of an encyclopedia of an actual world, and then of an encyclopedia, a very rigorous one of course, of an imaginary world, where everything should be linked. Where, for example, you would have, let’s say, a language and then a literature that went with the language, and then a history with it, and so on.
As an aside, I guess that he had recovered from his timidity, by the time he was appointed director of the Biblioteca Nacional in Buenos Aires, in 1955.

Three days before he died, in the Autumn of 2001, Sebald gave a fiction workshop at the University of East Anglia. David Lambert and Robert McGill attended and their notes were published by Hamish and Hamilton in the fifth edition of Five Dials (link). Sebald, who shared Borges's writerly affection for encyclopedias, is reported to have told his students,
Look in older encyclopedias. They have a different eye. They attempt to be complete and structured but in fact are completely random collected things that are supposed to represent our world.
On the matter of fact and fiction, and, more specifically, the role of fact in fiction. His comments echo those of Wood:
It's always gratifying to learn something when one reads fiction. Dickens introduced it. The essay invaded the novel. But we should not perhaps trust "facts" in fiction. It is, after all, an illusion.
His advice, neatly laid out in dot points, is obscure, meandering, wonderful and personal. Everyone dot point is valuable reading material. This quote is one of my favourites:
There has to be a libidinous delight in finding things and stuffing them in your pockets.
What's more, the epigraph to The Rings of Saturn, a neat example of Sebald's eye for thoughtful (and somewhat documentary) prose, comes from the Brockhaus Encyclopedia:
The rings of Saturn consist of ice crystals and probably meteorite particles describing circular orbits around the planet's equator. In all likelihood these are fragments of a former moon that was too close to the planet and was destroyed by its tidal effect.
I can think of two quotes from Borges, which, in my eyes, also ally him with Sebald. Both authors took pleasure in letting memory become fantasy, fantasy become memory.
It is a general rule that novelists do not present a reality, but rather its recollection. They write about real or believable events that have been revised and arranged by memory. (This process of course has nothing to do with the verb tenses that are being used).
My story will be faithful to reality, or at least to my personal recollection of reality, which is the same thing. The events took place only a short while ago, but I know that the habit of literature is also the habit of interpolating circumstantial details and accentuating certain emphases.

I read the second quote, recently, in the opening paragraph of a short story, "Ulrikke", from The Book of Sand, which, I was interested to see (link), can be read at the expense of Argentinian government, provided one drinks coffee at the right places...

Finally, below is Part 1 of a documentary (the rest is also on YouTube) on Borges called The Mirror Man, which is written by Alberto Manguel, no less. Manguel, now a celebrated homme de lettres, worked in the Pygmalion Anglo-German bookshop in Buenos Airesas when he was a young man, where he, famously, read out loud to Borges, who could no longer see, in the 1960s.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Édouard Levé

I can't help wondering how Édouard Levé spent his last days. At the age of 42, he was a writer and artist who, from a distance, seems to have been working regularly. His fourth literary work, Suicide, had just been completed and submitted to his editor (the reputable Paul Otchakosky-Laurens). He had published books of his photography and conceptual art. Then, on the 15th of October 2007, at the age of 42, he hung himself at his apartment. Editions P.O.L. published his final work in France the next year, in 2008.

Suicide is, at least formally, an unusual, experimental novel. Levé's style resembles his photography (as seen above, on the cover of the Folio edition), disciplined, sterilised, piercingly monotone and, almost cynically, unsentimental. The tone is resigned, downcast. This technique, however, is effective and, impressively, he brings to life a character, who was already dead on the first page.

The subject is an anonymous, twenty-five year old man who has, suddenly, wilfully, killed himself. He is on the way to play tennis with his wife but turns back at the last minute, he has forgotten something; he shoots himself. (A scenario, which had appeared at the end of
Levé's earlier work Autoportrait). The novel opens with a description of that day and, thereafter, unfolds as a something of a character portrait, composed of fragments of memory, without any obvious pattern in their telling. These memories are framed by the voice of an older, also anonymous, friend. The narrator (je) addresses himself to the dead (tu), a technique that, often, succeeds in unsettling the reader: as if it were addressed to us, after our death.

The reader learns little about the narrator, who remains, more or less, a discorporate voice. Instead, we discover more about his dead friend than we might have expected, from a second-person narrator.
The young man was a serious, sensitive and uncertain person, to whom the world seemed disturbing, even frightening: "Tu n'aimais pas voyager. Tu es peu allé à l'etranger. Tu passais ton temps dans ta chambre." He lives, as though, engaged in an ongoing aesthetic, existential resistance. He is displaced, on the outside of a society, of which he is, almost indiscernibly, in defiance: "Tu croyais qu'en vieillissant tu serais moins malheureux, parce que tu aurais, alors, des raisons d'être triste. Jeune encore, ton dsarroi était inconsolable parce que tu le jugeais infondé." The narrator describes his life anecdotally, recalling, portentously, his wife, his tastes, his antisocial habits, not to mention a dinner party with a psychoanalyst and his mother. The characterisation becomes progressively more inward, more psychologically intimate, and, also, more assertive:
"Tu ne craignais pas la mort. Tu l'as devancée, mais sans vraiment la désirer: comment désirer ce que l'on connait pas? Tu n’as pas nié la vie, mais affirmé ton goût pour l’inconnu en pariant que si, de l’autre côté, quelque chose existait, ce serait mieux qu’ici."
The narrator refers to real moments of companionship between the two men, but, more frequently, to details of his friend's life that are impossibly personal, complicating the narrator and the subject. The voices become, seemingly, two halves: the outspoken, the timid and the curious, in opposition to the silent, the fearful, suicidal - the brave? But, two halves of what? An impulse, a mind, a soul? Levé leaves the relationship unarticulated and vague: "Si tu vivais encore, tu serais peut-être devenu un étranger. Mort, tu es aussi vivant que vif." A sort of narrative schizophrenia appears: the narrator, at one moment, speaking for himself, then, the next, speaking on behalf of the dead. (The book ends with a long poem, composed as series of tercets, a sort of unorthodox epilogue, which is closest Levé comes to a union of the two halves, to a voice without a character). The thoughts of the two men become increasingly indistinct and, in the end, the narrator seems to have the answers to his own questions: "Des regrets? [...] Cet égoisme de ton suicide te déplaisait. Mais dans la balance, l'accalmie de ta mort l'emporta sur l'agitation douloureuse de ta vie."

It would be too simple (perhaps, boring even) to consider Levé's own suicide as the subject of his writing, but it is too difficult to think of the two as mutually exclusive.
Even if, to attempt to reconcile his death with his fiction, is viscous. It is not a question, as it might be with other authors, of unfairly reading him with preconceived notions about his life (and death). Readers of Suicide cannot ignore the question, or problem, of the author's death. The pages of his book reflect his suicide, almost paradoxically; to see them individually is to find them suspended between to parallel, facing mirrors: an infinite series of receding images. Was the book a manifestation (an attempt at self-administered therapy, perhaps) of his would be suicide? Was his suicide the product of having sunk too deep into the subject of self-annihilation? Or, are they both symptoms of a much darker, troubled, something, within Édouard Levé? Perhaps, the more important question is, should the suicide of writer who wrote, "Ton suicide fut d'une beauté scandaleuse," be treated as an aesthetic act? Their relationship is, almost, nuclear, as if to disentangle them would be like splitting an atom. Suicide, as a work of literature, is remade, enigmatically, by the death of the author: "Expliquer ton suicide? Personne ne s'y est risqué."

I don't know when, or if, Suicide might appear in English but the start of the book is available for free, in French, from the P.O.L website, as is some information about upcoming translations in other languages. Below, I have written my own translation of the first two paragraphs.
"On a Saturday in August, you leave your home, dressed in tennis gear and accompanied by your wife. Halfway across the garden, you remark to her that you have left your racket in the house. You return to get it, but instead of heading towards the cupboard near the front door, you go down to the cellar. Your wife doesn’t notice anything, she stayed outside, it’s warm, and she’s enjoying the sunshine. A few moments later, she hears a gunshot. She rushes inside, she shouts your name and, noticing that the door to stairs that lead to the cellar is open, she goes down stairs and finds you there. You’ve shot yourself in the head with the gun that you had carefully prepared. On the table you’ve left a comic book open to a double page. Overcome, your wife leans against the table; the book tumbles, reclosing on itself before she can understand that this was your last message.

I never went inside that house. Yet, I knew the garden, the ground floor and the cellar. I have replayed the scene hundreds of times, always in the same setting, which I imagined the first time they gave me an account of your suicide. That house was on a street; it had a roof and a rear façade. But none of that exists. There is the garden, where you walk out in the sunshine for a final time and where your wife waits for you. There is the façade toward which she runs when she hears the gun shot. There is the entrance, where the tennis racket sits, the door to the cellar and the stairs. Finally, there is the cellar where your body lies. It is intact. Your skull didn’t explode like they told me. You are like a young tennis player, resting after a match on court. It could be said that you are sleeping. You are twenty-five. You know more than me now about death."
There is a good profile, in English, of Édouard Levé at the Berlin Review of Books, which provides some more biographically information, as well a slew of media available online in French from, to name a few, Le Magazine Littéraire, Télérama, and Le Figaro.

And, finally, here is a video of the writer, reading a passage from his first work of prose, Oeuvres.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Robert Walser

Fortunately, Robert Walser (whose short story, Balloon Journey, lends its name to this page) is published more and more, these days, in English. As a matter of fact, some of his prose has been made available online, by Harper's Magazine, in the images below.

The first piece opens in a way that is beautifully characteristic of Walser's style and, more than faintly, touched by the madness, which, towards the end, became him.
"Jaunts elegant in nature now lay in the past for this sorrowful man, who in the course of time might well have amassed quite respectable skills in crossing his arms and gazing pensively at the ground before him."
Immediately, there is a mood of uncertainty ("might well"), of unfulfillment and disappointment about the past and about life. This mood, however, is, just as quickly, undermined by an image that describes the triviality, or emptiness, of ambition and status ("skills in crossing his arms and gazing pensively"). To be unrealised, or disappointing, might be tragic, but to be "respectable" and self-important is, it seems, just a little, ridiculous.

The story resembles two character portraits: father and son. The father lives in a stark, unpeopled, world, ruled by obligation. The description is hesitant: "His youth had been framed, as it were, by severe, naked, tall, blue, I mean to say joy-deficient cliffs." Walser's narrator has no compunction about realigning a metaphor, mid-way through a sentence, or emphasising, tautologically, an unsettling detail: "He was constantly pondering how to earn his daily bread, which, being rare, was difficult to come by." The condition of the world is anthropomorphic; the father is, not just, "favored" by fortune but, "followed" and "prompted" by deprivation, and "befriended" by loneliness. He turns his back on pleasure, entertainment, a "young beautiful woman who served him well by making a good impression on his arm," and remains, "incapable of emerging from his worries". He is a character to whom the world happens, but who accepts the conflict inherent in existence, and, all-in-all, who is rendered firmly in the image of his maker.

The son, on the other hand, is very different case: "a certain precious entity - by which I mean the worrying - was not imparted to him." There is something untoward in the son's approach, which has the narrator at a loss, afraid, it seems, even to describe him: "my pen can scarcely find the courage to depict him or sketch his portrait." The willful self-sacrifice, of the father, is absent in the son, "who sat in his room reading, at pains to consider himself happy." The longing to be agreeable, to appear happy, is the mark of immaturity; of a saccharine and offensive naivety. There is the hint of a challenge to anyone, who may share this longing: Admit your insincerity. The world is a hard, all-defeating place; to act otherwise, is deceitful.

With his hesitance, to describe the son, stated, the narrator launches, with wonderful perversity, into an ornate, extended metaphor, for that very purpose. This is the zenith of the story: an Arcadia, which, "in an illusion-promoting manner", is replete with, "meadows, trees and paths, fountains splashing in pavilions", "swans with plumage that appeared to singing", and, even, a figurative "bride" and "bridegroom". It is a friendly, unrealistic vision of material bliss, with which, Walser disagrees. The metaphor is, above all, ironic. The son does not embody paradise, he answers to the demands of other people, who, "limited his activities to well-mannered comportment". He is, pleasingly, vapid and will suffer no indignity. Is this a response to the father's own downtroddenness? Above all, however, he is doomed:
"What people expected and almost found appropriate to wish for, in light of his preciousness, came to pass. An illness took hold of him, and he let it bear him away until he departed."
This final sentence, delivered in the passive voice, enacting the nature of the son's existence, turning against, and colouring with irony, the rest of the narration, makes its point: to be pleasant, thoughtless and indifferent, is a terminal condition.


The reason for this publication from Harper's, I would guess, is that a new volume of Walser's writing, Microscripts, from which the stories above have been taken, is being published by New Directions this month.

The "microscripts" were written in a minute scrawl, according to Susan Bernofsky, who translated them (as well two recently published novels by Walser, The Assistant and The Tanners). She said the following about them, in an interview on the New Directions Blog:
"Leaving aside the difficulty of the stories as texts, the handwriting they were written in was so tiny that when these manuscripts were first discovered after Walser’s death in 1956 they were thought to have been written in secret code. In fact they were written in a now-antiquated form of German handwriting shrunken down to a height of between one and two millimeters. What’s more, Walser wrote them in pencil, and his pencil was not always sharp. Two scholars in Zurich devoted 12 years to deciphering six volumes’ worth of these texts [...]"

More from, and about, The Microscripts, can be read at Molossus and at Quarterly Conversation. And, short fiction by Walser can be read at Vice Magazine, who have published three other, newly translated, stories.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

James Joyce

There had been no mass for the dead in the chapel and no procession. He had not died but had faded out like a film in the sun. He had been lost or had wandered out of existence for he no longer existed. How strange to think of him passing out of existence in such a way, not by death but by fading out in the sun or being lost and forgotten somewhere in the universe.
 James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Joyce was less elegant when he wrote to his wife, Nora, in 1909, and more like the depraved manic that he appears to be on this cover of Time (The Weekly Newsmagazine) on the 29th of January, 1934. They agreed to exchange erotic letters [link] - which, if you follow the link, to a somewhat brassy website, you will discover, do not disappoint - while they were separated for some months. He was in Dublin, she was in Trieste. The letters Joyce wrote are gloriously Dionysian; jealous, gory, downright hotblooded, and, frankly, at times, borderline rabid. I would, really, like to be able to read Nora's replies...

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Raul Hilberg

A remarkable article, on the Holocaust historian, Raul Hilberg, who appeared in Shoah by Claude Lanzmann, and, to a lesser extent, Hannah Arendt, can be read at the website of the Nation.

I was able to watch all six-hundred and thirteen minutes of Shoah, recently, whilst hospitalised and confined to my bed. Bluntly put, the film is collection of interviews with people who, Lanzmann judges, are in possession of, historically, a word that he stresses, invaluable knowledge of the Holocaust, interspersed with footage of the different places that are referenced. The sheer length, and beauty, no less, of the film and the ineffably terrible subject matter, have a strange, disorientating effect on the viewer, upsetting his, or her, ability to measure time or understand emotion. To watch the film is to feel at the center of something, which cannot be understood by the soul or quantified by the mind. (Watching the film, I was reminded, a little, of The Kindly Ones, by Jonathan Littell, which, despite all its peculiarities, had a similar effect on me.) Lanzmann, as the réalisateur, harasses his subject matter, whilst, as the interviewer, he harasses the people before him (and before us), in the name of disclosure. In turn, the film itself harasses the viewer to face, not only, History, at its most unpalatable, but also the very people in which it lives. The people interviewed were all present for the Holocaust, either as perpetrators, bystanders, or victims, with the very important, and notable, exception - given that, according Lanzmann, it seems, History resides, not in books, but in people - of Raul Hilberg, a historian. Here is some footage, from what is a vast and brilliant film, of Hilberg talking with Lanzmann.

Hilberg is fiercely convincing and there is something relentless about his manner and his intelligence, which gives his interview in Shoah a certain magnetism. His major book, The Destruction of the European Jews, I suspect, is the basis of much of what is known about Nazism today.

As the aforementioned article states, Hannah Arendt called it, "the first clear description of (the) incredibly complicated machinery of destruction," even if, she also said that Hilberg,
"is pretty stupid and crazy. He babbles now about a 'death wish' of the Jews. His book is really excellent, but only because it is a simple report. A more general, introductory chapter is beneath a singed pig."
Still, the same article, by Nathaniel Popper, suggests Arendt may have plagiarised him, in order to write Eichmann in Jerusalem, all the same...

Also, I think the entire film of Shoah (all eight, or so, hours!) is available on YouTube in ten minute clips.