Monday, November 21, 2016

The Poetry of Great Prose

I believe in the magic and authority of words.

                               René Char

“You want to write great fiction? Then read poetry.” It’s what I tell young writers all the time. Surely such late great novelists as Joseph Conrad, Marcel Proust,  Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce spent many a patient hour at the feet of their favorite poets. Only glance at their fiction and see. Read the opening pages of Heart of Darkness, of In Search of Lost Time, of To the Lighthouse, and try (just try!) to restrain your admiration, your awe. Read but the last few paragraphs of Joyce’s short story "The Dead” and you’ll be struck at once by the genius and poetry of this complex, this revolutionary, this beautiful prose.  

Of course it makes sense: literary modernism—the movement within which the language of each of these writers was forged—was distinguished, above all, by the patent, if sometimes tacit, determination to elevate the lowly novel as a form to the time-honored status of poetry. And how did these writers achieve this? By making their prose more expressly poetic, by coopting and adapting for the novel and short story many of the conventions by which poetry as an art was best known. Of these many and venerable traits, perhaps the one these writers found most appealing was the dense, allusive, often highly symbolic nature of the language itself. No longer would their prose be just the invisible cousin to plot and character and theme, the wire by which the current was carried to the bulb, but would boldly take its place beside them in the tale, regularly calling attention to its charms, sometimes—drunk with wonder at itself—even obscuring what happens and to whom (see Molloy and Malone Dies, see Ulysses, see Finnegan’s Wake)! 
Rita Dove once said that “Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.” It is an idea affirmed by poet Frances Mayes in her remarkable introduction to the reading, appreciation, and writing of poetry, The Discovery of Poetry. Again and again she insists that poetry is the language art for the way it teaches us about the often simple words we use each day, restoring weight and consequence to our expression, to our every verb and noun, to our every comma and period and dash. Good writing is deliberate writing; it is language under pressure—a fact well known to poets. Indeed arguably no writers put more pressure on their language than poets, toiling daily with the challenge of capturing the obvious and the ineffable, with “the naming of things into their things.” Poets are nothing if not meticulous, obsessive, precise. Writes Edward Arlington Robinson, “This morning I deleted the hyphen from ‘hell-hound’ and made it one word; this afternoon I redivided it and restored the hyphen.”

Crazy? I don’t think so. It’s what poets do, restlessly reinventing our language for us (its glory, its purpose, its pitfalls, its might) and by extension our very sense of ourselves—as people, as human beings. As much as ever now we are our words, our poets (and the novelists who revere them) the subtle crafters of our being, our fate. Writes the great modernist, T.S. Eliot, “For last years’ words belong to last years’ language/And next year’s words await another voice.” 

Here again are some of my favorite novelists—each of them steeped in poetry—who have answered Eliot’s call: Lowry, Barnes, Cela, Ellison, Castellanos, Bellow, Qian, Saramago, Camus, Carpentier, Oe, Böll, Dorfman, Niwa, Voinovich, Manea, Ishiguro, Rushdie, Gordimer, Saghal, Jin, Brink, Malamud, Cortázar, Gao, McCarthy, Styron, Amado, Pamuk, Vargas Llosa, Jelinek, Klíma, Stein, Wright, Grossman, Mistry, Gombrowicz, Lispector, Morrison, Sabato, Silko, Pavese, Coetzee, Nabakov, Kahout, Olesha, Oz, Levi, Okri, Appelfeld, Bernhard, Platanov, Farah, Aksyonov, Fuentes, Bolaño, Ulitskaya, Emecheta, Sebald, Unsworth, Martin, Trevor, Erdrich, Kaniuk, Petry, Naipaul, Szabó, Hong, Chacel, Borges, Bowles, Yehoshua, Sōseki, Tišma, Walser, Ford, Head, Green, Duffy, Abish, Cohen, Ghalem, Agnon, Baldwin, Handke, Ivo, Rulfo, Benet, Mahfouz, Ali, Megged, Murdoch, Hrabal, Novakovich, Bowen, Houllebecq, Ocampo, Zhang, Rodoreda, Asturias, Sábato, Soyinka, Müller, Fox, White, Adler, Vollmann, Ford, Lenz, Márquez, Platonov, Toer, Narayan, Schulze, Carey, Wallace, Bedford, Ying, Nooteboom, Achebe, Arenas, Desai, Páral, Énard, Lamming, Robbe-Grillet, Kraznahorkai, Machado de Assis, Del Paso, and Gass.

Peter Adam Nash

Sunday, November 13, 2016


Roberto Calasso, K

"If I go away, I told myself, sitting in the iron chair, I shall only be going away from a country in which I no longer have any place and in which I have never found happiness. If I go away, I shall be going from a country in which the towns stink and the inhabitants of the towns have become coarsened. I shall be going away from a country, I told myself in the iron chair, in which the only model of behaviour is set by the so-called wild animals."  --Thomas Bernhard, Concrete

This past week, I would imagine, has seen record sales for books like Concrete and The Castle. There are plenty of fine books that take politics as their subject, but there aren't many serious books that are as funny as Kafka's, and no one writes witty monologues like Bernhard. Books, in other words, that provide not so much distraction as direction. 

In a lovely essay published as part of his collection Consider the Lobster, David Foster Wallace writes about Kafka's strange wit: 

"What Kafka's stories have, rather, is a grotesque, gorgeous, and thoroughly modern complexity, an ambivalence that becomes the multivalent Both/And logic of the, quote, 'unconscious,' which I personally think is just a fancy word for 'soul.' Kafka's humor--not only not neurotic but anti-neurotic, heroically sane--is, finally, a religious humor, but religious in the manner of Kierkegaard and Rilk and the Psalms, a harrowing spirituality against which even Ms. [Flannery] O'Connor's bloody grace seems a little bit easy, the souls at stake pre-made."

This isn't an easy reading of Kafka, but I think I understand what Wallace meant. There is a laughter of mockery and of mere wit, but the laughter of recognition is the most profound, and the most difficult to provoke. What can you do when you see the bare, unvarnished truth but laugh? And this isn't the chuckle of pleasure or the belly laugh of a tickled funny bone, but the uneasy "oh, yeah, right" that comes to us by surprise, and, at times, painfully, when clarity illuminates some dark corner of life.  Like: K. won't set foot in the Castle and everything he has believed about himself, his calling, has been false, or misunderstood. 

This past week I heard the word "gobsmacked" a few times. As in smacking one's hand against one's mouth in surprise. K., however, seems forever phlegmatic, and appears to take surprise in stride, which is, in itself, funny:

"You should know by now that the question of your being called here is too difficult for us to answer for you in the course of one little conversation," the Superintendent tells K. when the latter inquires about his (mythic) "position" as surveyor at the Castle.

Calasso notes that "All of life is no more than 'a little conversation.' And so the principle of the irrepressible uncertainty of election is once again affirmed." 

Perfect. Kafka makes us laugh, uneasily, because his stories remind us again and again of the continual, confounding, irrepressibility of uncertainty in our lives. What we think we know we don't know, and while we are trying to find out what we do know we pass our time in the Inn, waiting. Callasso reminds us that, in Kafka's world, "Nothing is more dangerous--we must understand--than everyday life. There, even when performing the most casual, inconsequential acts, we must remember we are constantly under surveillance. We must watch our every step, looking in all directions, as if under siege." Like Joseph K., we are "building our case," that is proving we are innocent of charges that are unclear to us and to our accusers as well. 

This is, I think, what Wallace means when he speaks of the religious nature of Kafka's wit. What is harrowing is not knowing what to do, or what we have done, facing the dangers of everyday life without any notion of what happens next. This is metaphysical uncertainty because we are powerless and must trust, therefore, in something, or in someone else. If not God--and definitely not God--then in history, or reason, or humanity. "Not a comforting prospect these days," I laughed, uneasily, sitting in my desk chair.

 George Ovitt (11/13/16)

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Unicuique suum

To Each His Own by Leonardo Sciascia

I have never been fond of thrillers, which tend to make me feel like a puppet on strings. The artifice, the manipulation, is too much for me, too conspicuous, too plain; it is often all (what little) I see. What makes reading such popular fiction so difficult for me, so unsatisfactory, so discouraging finally, is that, much like video, it is generally constructed in such a way as to merely tell you—rather than show you—a tale. By its nature, it asks very little of you, the reader, but that you be passive and receive. It imposes rather than supposes.  

A literary agent who specializes in ‘literary fiction’ recently replied to a query of mine (I’d sent her the opening pages of a novel I’d written) by chiding me, “I hope you’re not one of those writers who think that plot is secondary.” It was everything I could do not to respond, “No, I am not one of those writers. To me, plot isn’t even a tertiary concern.” It would not have been an exaggeration. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “Character is plot, plot is character.” It is what I too believe, that literature is first and foremost the study of character, of what it means to be human, of what it is (may it never be discovered) that makes us tick. Reading literary fiction is nothing if not the expression of a deep-seeded desire to know others, to be less lonely, to see ourselves more truly. It is about confronting—again and again—what Neruda calls “the confused impurity of the human condition.”

Yet there is more to literary fiction than that. Now more than ever, it is also, and essentially, about empowerment and agency in an increasingly coercive,  increasingly anti-democratic world, a blooming corporate sovereignty that depends more on servility and conformity and consumption than on freedom and dignity, on courage and struggle and change. The sort of fiction I live to read (the sort of fiction TR founder George Ovitt and I have extolled for years on this blog—see again his post on The Grapes of Wrath) is that which not only invites me to participate in it, in the active construction of its meaning, its value, but actually requires it, indeed is incomplete, impossible, without me, without my intelligence, my commitment, however uncertain and imperfect they may be. Reading literary fiction is one of the great, time-tested ways of training the heart and mind to participate wholly, urgently, in the world about us, to question and resist, to engage bravely and meaningfully with others. Great fiction doesn’t simplify life but complicates it. It must—or it deceives. 

All of which is to say what? All of which is to say how strangely pleasant it was to read Sicilian author Leonardo Sciascia’s perhaps best known detective thriller, To Each His Own. It surprised me at every turn—its lack of gimmickry, its depth of character, and its language itself, not to mention its brooding, ultimately fatalistic critique of the codes and culture of Sicily, the author’s own home and hell. Philip Hensher puts it best: “Some of [Sciascia’s] books, like the brilliant To Each His Own, look like bleak, inclusive thrillers, and slowly turn into grand indictments of the abuse of power. They are all very different books, united by a ruthless, unsparing gaze, and common subject in power and its abuses.”

To each his own. Yes. To each (and everyone) her own.

Peter Adam Nash