Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Her Last Day on Earth

AVA, by Carole Maso

"Where is the ebullient, infinite woman who, immersed as she was in her naivete, kept in the dark about herself, led into self-disdain by the great arm of parental-conjugal phallocentricism, hasn't been ashamed of her strength?" 

Helen Cixous, "The Laugh of the Medusa"

Many of the ideas of  Cixous are rather more elegantly expressed in the great classic work of feminist aesthetics, A Room of One's Own.   My friend and I have discussed the question of a uniquely "women's writing" (ecriture feminine) at some length.  I have expressed the view that there is a form of literary expression unique to women, and though I am unable (still!) to specify what I mean, my view is that women's novels and poetry in the modernist and post-modernist mode encompass a sensibility that no male writer could duplicate.  By coincidence, I reread parts of Kate Millet's Sexual Politics this past week and found that she shared my view--Millet also asserted that there is a "writing of the body" that belongs to women (and to Jean Genet).  My friend has hesitated to accept this viewpoint and "yearns to believe" that gender can be overcome, that empathy and full identification with others is possible.  I wondered, foolishly as I now see it, if a man could write Sense and Sensibility; my friend rightly reminded me of Trollope and of George Eliot, writers whose male and female characters are equal in psychological depth and (in Cixous's terminology) bodily verisimilitude.  My counterpoint to the argument from fictional realism was to cite the great modernist novel Mrs. Dalloway, a book I cannot imagine a man could write, but then, of course, there is Michael Cunningham's The Hours, a more than competent piece of ventriloquism, a book that, once again, forces me to wonder about my thesis--that men cannot write women and that Cixous is right to find in women's fiction a unique form of expression, a literature freed from the phallocentricism--to use a convenient, if awkward and demeaning bit of shorthand--of Western culture.  

Then I read Carole Maso's extraordinary novel AVA and felt vindicated: surely this is a book that no man could write (I asserted, phallocentrically).

Ava Klein is dying of a "rare blood disease."  The novel is a recording, or perhaps an opening,  of the rich contents of Ava's mind, the vestiges of her flickering consciousness, as it alights on memories, dreams, desires, and illusions--evoking lovers, travels, ideas and associations, as well as plenty of banalities--just in the way one imagines the diminishing consciousness of any person (of you or I) dancing among sentences that are mere (!) representations of who we once were. A few pages into AVA and  I thought I was in for another take-off on the Tractatus--a fictionalized rehash of those aphoristic paradoxes Wittgenstein offered as the end of philosophy.  But after twenty pages I felt myself fall into Ava herself--there was no need to make comparisons or to think of some other writer or character.  In her dying, Ava became gloriously alive. 

It's pointless to review-quote AVA since the impact of the novel is cumulative--any one page seems meaningless or at least too cryptic to bear much significance by itself.  This novel isn't just "stream of consciousness" in the Joycean sense but something more subtle; Maso recreates ("pictures" is, I think, just the right word, in a Wittgenstein mode) the horrible reality of dying, the sheer intensity of one's desire to cling to life through the exercise of memory.  AVA is all eros and no thantos.

"Who gave me life/Continues to give me life."  Yes, this is a novel as poetry: fragments of thought that are broken and reassembled a few lines later; tropes repeated over two-hundred and fifty pages; themes that need to be recomposed by the reader: theories of feminist literature (Cixous), Schubert's brief life and works, the streets of Paris, the Holocaust, the difficulty of writing...Maso breaks consciousness down to the level of aide-de-memoir: "The poet writes love; the poet writes death," or the single word, "Treblinka" repeated over and over in slightly different contexts and therefore each time possessing a unique resonance.

Maso, like David Markson, breaks the traditional novel down into its most basic unit--the sentence. No, that isn't quite right. In fact, Maso's text has a staccato quality that makes Markson seem long-winded: there are about 5,000 or so individual bits of Ava Klein's memory in AVA--words, sentence fragments, sentences, short paragraphs.  Naturally as I read the book I thought of the unlikelihood of any traditional venue reviewing such an odd duck of a novel: where's the plot? The character development? And at the same time I was stirred by the possibilities for fictional expression Maso opens for those who find the realist novel stultifying.  In an interview given to the editor of "Rain Taxi," Maso says this about traditional narrative forms:

"The kinds of mysterious, hypnotic, lyric leaps that happen in the first two books become the method of AVA. To me all my work is of a piece. I feel slightly perplexed I must say when I hear AVA is not narrative. I think it just redefines narrative, reformulates it. It's like where Ava says somewhere "and if not the real story, then what the story was for me." I don't think it's such a good idea to assign to old definitions of what narrative is to new work. The worst thing of all, and I've probably already said this, is to emerge already constructed. Somewhere most writers entered a pact, some weird silent agreement was made as to what story is, character, time, all of that. What passes for narrative in most fiction I just find senseless. Literally, I cannot make sense of it. For me, narrative does not reside in these old, artificial notions. Narrative in AVA is refigured; I think that is true."

I love her comments on the "weird silent agreement".  A narrative must be whatever it needs to be to convey the mystery of character or the depths of the "story".  Honestly, is life lived as stories or as  shards of memory?  How do we go through the day?  Do we think in "rational arguments," mystical koans, or bits of trivia mixed in with images of the past that express our longings and desires? Are we screens onto which are projected Aristotelian rising action, denouements, tragedies, and climaxes, or the bearers of mostly incoherent bits and pieces of memories and dreams?   I can't speak for anyone else, but my internal life is far more closely allied to Ava Klein's than to Nathan Zuckerman's. 

Then there remains the question--could a man have written this Ava?  I wish I knew.

AVA is published by Dalkey Archive.

Interview with Carole Maso here http://www.raintaxi.com/online/1997winter/maso.shtml

George Ovitt (2/5/14)

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