Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Jubilant Misunderstanding

The Following Story, by Cees Nooteboom

"Modesty hesitates to express metaphysical concepts directly; if one tries, one delivers oneself up to jubilant misunderstanding."  Theodor Adorno (Nooteboom's epigram)

What are the qualities of memorable books?

Most people would put plot or story above other qualities, and this is a reasonable viewpoint given
the origins of the novel as well as the nature of the its most immediate precursors--Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Troilus, Boccaccio's Decameron, Malory's Morte D'Arthur, Don Quixote (I suppose the first European novel, but I'm not sure how literary scholars classify Cervantes) and other early works which, in prose or poetry, spun out stories that were ultimately rooted in oral traditions.  Great fiction is full of memorable plots and many of us, myself included, were first seduced by stories rather than by the other attractions of great fiction.

And what are these other attractions?  For me, a memorable work of fiction must possess, in order of importance,  a brilliant style (and there are deep taxonomies of great writing unique to every serious reader); interesting ideas; characters who possess the qualities and failings of real human beings (hence, no science-fiction, fantasy, or, for the most part, genre books, aside from certain mysteries whose authors satisfy the other criteria of memorable fiction--there are many such writers).  A good story I consider to be a bonus--I love stories still, but not at the expense of style and ideas, and never at the expense of characters with whom I can live out my vicarious reading life.  I should say that I don't consider myself to be a snob in matters of literature or anything else--I have read a few bestsellers in my day and enjoyed them, and I'll read any book written by George Pelecanos, James Lee Burke, or Michael Connelly--but there are limits, and life is far too short to waste on Malcolm Gladwell, James Patterson, Nicholas Sparks, or, God help us, Bill O'Reilly (newly-crowned king of thanatonic history), just as it's too short to spend it drinking Budweiser or wine out of boxes.  'Quality' isn't just a word for what is better; 'quality' is what we search for in order to serve our deepest needs, in order to fill the emptiness in our intellectual, passionate, and appetitive selves, spaces whose filling allows us not merely to be entertained but to grow as persons, to become persons. 

That's Cees Nooteboom in his study.  Two weeks ago I'd never heard of him, or read a word he'd written.  My colleague Peter Nash came into my office holding a copy of Nooteboom's novel All Soul's Day, a book I hope he'll write about.  If Peter liked Nooteboom, I knew I would too.  I decided to read him at once and started with his Roads to Santiago, a travel book about, obviously, Spain, beautifully written, engaging, full of ideas.  Travel writing is a genre of non-fiction about which I am extra selective--I don't like guidebooks to places I'll never go--but Nooteboom's Spain was as much a place of the imagination as a destination in the world.  So it was with great anticipation that I purchased The Following Story, a slender novel published in 1991 whose story is odd beyond imagining (in a good way), and which bristles with interesting ideas, features a thoroughly unlikeable but unforgettable narrator, and, in the English version of Ina Rilke, is full of beautiful writing, some of which I'll quote in a moment.

The plot of The Following Story, once recapitulated, sounds "thin," as book-chat columnists are prone to say.  Herman Mussert, a disagreeable and even creepy former classics teacher and guidebook writer goes to bed in his home in Amsterdam and wakes up--of all places--in Lisbon, scene of his one great, passionate love affair, a brief, torrid romance with a fellow teacher, twenty years before.  The novel is almost entirely an interior monologue, Mussert's musings on his past, on his ill-fated adulterous affair, and his apparent nocturnal transference (how to describe such a thing?) from his home to a hotel in Lisbon.  Once in the Portuguese capital, if he is indeed there, Mussert thinks a lot about Pessoa, as anyone would, but of course his thinking about the great poet of shape-shifting reinforces the central idea of the novel--nothing is fixed, all, as Heraclitus believed and as Ovid demonstrated, is in flux. 

Anyway, not much to hang your hat on if you're a plot person.  Not a New York Times type of book for sure. But Nooteboom, who is some kind of genius at weaving intricate ideas and themes and references into a remarkably fugal construction--e.g. a reference on page 11 flows through the entire book, gathering momentum and resonance as more bits and pieces of the story arise--or, since Mussert loves Ovid above all writers (he is translating the Metamorphosis, which seems an especially pointless labor given the inimitable brilliance of the Golding translation, the very one Shakespeare morphed into some of the greatest stories in any language) perhaps one should see The Following Story primarily as a meditation on the notion of shape-shifting, Mussert as the hero with a thousand faces, the doughy countenance of Socrates shifted into the face of a scholar, a lover, a fool, and, finally, a tragic figure, a childless and unloved Lear. ("I had waked up with the ridiculous feeling that I might be dead...")

The most remarkable section of this thoroughly remarkable novel--so many ideas packed into 115 pages!--is the playful use of the ancient/perennial theme of water-crossing.  The novel ends with a small party of men from various walks of life--a priest, a journalist, a scholar--being escorted across some great unnamed sea; of course, one is meant to think of the Styx. In the midst of the journey a Chinese scholar, a victim of the Cultural Revolution, reveals to Mussert that the poet Qu Yuan, who antedated Ovid by three centuries, was also, like Mussert, banished, ferried across a river to an unknown land: 

I gaze my last upon the river bank,
The autumn breeze blows chill.
I halt my carriage here within the wood
My steeds beside the hill.
In covered vessel travelling upstream,
The men bend to their oars;
The boat moves slowly, strong the current sweeps,
Nearby a whirlpool roars.

I set out from the bay at early dawn,
And reach the town at eve.
Since I am upright, and my conscience clear,
Why should I grieve to leave?
I linger by the tributary stream,
And know not where to go.
The forest stretches deep and dark around,
Where apes swing to and fro.

The beetling cliffs loom high to shade the sun,
Mist shrouding every rift,
With sleet and rain as far as eye can see,
Where low the dense clouds drift.
Alas! all joy has vanished from my life,
Alone beside the hill.
Never to follow fashion will I stoop,
Then must live lonely still.

(From "River Crossing")

To cross to the other side: to love someone who doesn't, who couldn't, love you; to live in an imaginary world of heroes and gods but to find in their stories not heroism or divinity but pathos and tragedy; to be dead, or dying, and not to know it--these are the richly textured themes that bind The Following Story together and that caused me, immediately upon finishing the novel, to go back and read it a second time.  It turns out that I missed a great deal on my first reading. Nor did I appreciate as fully as I might have the beauty of the writing:

"Like Qu Yuan [Professor Deng (!) the Chinese scholar] now felt captive in a diseased era in which he did not wish to live, and then he had seen the wheels of change revolving once more and he had turned his back on the world and fled. He quoted [Qu Yuan]: 'I experienced calumny in the morning and expulsion the very same night.' Taking his poem as his only luggage, [Deng] had started walking until he reached a river, and thus he had left behind his life, like a discarded object on the shore. The water had weighted down his clothes; he had floated like a little boat and had waited for the wind to rise so he could embark on his great voyage.  Around him he had heard the water murmuring in all sorts of voices, very soft and gentle it had sounded. He gestured to [Mussert] with his arm, he had almost vanished already, as if he were made of a delicate, immensely old material, and you had made the same gesture and already got to your feet..."   

There's much more in this vein; hallucinatory writing, deeply poetic, psychologically astute, tragic in tone, without irony. 

Ideas, characters, hypnotic passages, scenes that linger in one's mind for days (the ending!)--and a bit of plot to hang the whole thing on--what a book!  It's a puzzle, a mirror, a pastiche of a thousand other books, a pendulum, an invisible city full of cabinets of wonders.

Ovid understood that the boundaries of the visible world are fluid--that gods and men and women move from one sort of being to another without, at times, knowing that they have.  And this kind of flowing from one state of being to another is, of course, exactly what great fiction accomplishes--as I read Nooteboom's remarkable novel I felt yet again the power of the great Buddhist idea of 'conditioned arising,' that 'I' am not anything at all but a momentary collocation of circumstances--a bit of memory, some sensations, unfocused desire--and that, in a moment, like the fall of Icarus, the momentary self disappears, makes way for the next and the next, and the following stories that each of us calls our life.

The Following Story, translated by Ina Rilke, is published by Harvest Books, the old Helen and Kurt Wolff imprint at Harcourt. 

For Qu Yuan (340-278 BCE) see with a generous selection of poems by the "Father of Chinese poetry" 

George Ovitt (10/16/13)

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