21 September 2017

Duras's closed door

The Lover by Marguerite Duras, translated from the French by Barbara Bray (Perennial Library, 1986)

Among personal tragedies, what could be more apocalyptic than the breakup of a love affair, even more so if the raw feelings never really subsided despite the distance and the years?

Years after the war, after marriages, children, divorces, books, he came to Paris with his wife. He phoned her. It's me. She recognized him at once from the voice. She said, It's me, hello. He was nervous, afraid, as before. His voice suddenly trembled. And with the trembling, suddenly, she heard again the voice of China. He knew she'd begun writing books, he's heard about it through her mother whom he'd met again in Saigon. And about her younger brother, and he'd been grieved for her. Then he didn't know what to say. And then he told her. Told her that it was as before, that he still loved her, he could never stop loving her, that he'd love her until death.

In the intervening years from the end of the affair the woman became a novelist. Her sensuous phrases and images must be derived in part from her tumultuous, controversial affair with an older man, in part from grief caused by the death of her brother in the war. The Lover by Marguerite Duras was built from sensory images and poetic touches. It did so through repetitions and impressions waylaid by periods and commas. Memory was nudged by portrait images. Visual forms were elucidated, ekphrastic-like.

So, I'm fifteen and a half.
It's on a ferry crossing the Mekong River.
The image lasts all the way across.
I'm fifteen and a half, there are no seasons in that part of the world, we have just one season, hot, monotonous, we're in the long hot girdle of the earth, with no spring, no renewal.

Duras mobilized in her prose the power of these punitive punctuation marks to pause feelings, to pace her long drawn out grief, to startle. Within the photographic context the poetic flourishes worked; in isolation they lost their color. Her Saigon was a closed door that does not budge. 

In the books I’ve written about my childhood I can’t remember, suddenly, what I left out, what I said. I think I wrote about our love for our mother, but I don’t know if I wrote about how we hated her too, or about our love for one another, and our terrible hatred too, in that common family history of ruin and death which was ours whatever happened, in love or in hate, and which I still can’t understand however hard I try, which is still beyond my reach, hidden in the very depth of my flesh, blind as a newborn child. It's the area on whose brink silence begins. What happens there is silence, the slow travail of my whole life. I'm still there, watching those possessed children, as far away from the mystery now as I was then. I've never written, though I thought I wrote, never loved, though I thought I loved, never done anything but wait outside the closed door.

In form, the novel (or novella) was artistic enough. In substance, it was lacking from an apparent slightness of frame. Its strength was in the uncompromising voice. Since then, there had been "novels of voice" with more heft, spun to more apocalyptic effect. Toni Morrison's early novels—Sula, Beloved, Tar Baby, Jazz—came to mind. Or The Book of Proper Names by Amélie Nothomb, which was a hyperactive, less mannered (anti-)love story. They were closed doors that admitted at the slightest provocation. As for The Lover ... it's as if I've never read, though I thought I read.

Doom is upon us—the apocalypse trifecta edition.

07 September 2017

Bernhard's demons

What would Thomas Bernhard's desert island reading be like? If his novels were any indication, his library must be heavy on philosophy and white male writers. But his memoirs would provide more definite titles and authors. The epigraphs of his five-part memoirs were selected quotations from Voltaire, Montaigne, Pascal, and Novalis. His grandfather's shelves contained: Works of Goethe (volume 4), Shakespeare's King Lear, the poems of Dauthendey, Christian Wagner, Hölderlin, Schopenhauer's Parerga and Paralipomena.

I had read Hamsun's Hunger, Dostoyevsky's Raw Youth, and Goethe's Elective Affinities, and I had made notes on what I had read, a practice my grandfather had observed throughout his life. I tried keeping a diary but immediately gave up. I could have had contacts with all kinds of people at the Vötterl, but I did not want any, being satisfied with the company of my books and with the long expeditions I made into the vast, undiscovered continents of the imagination. Hardly had I woken up and conscientiously taken my temperature in accordance with the rules, as I had done every morning for months, than I turned to my books, my closest and most intimate friends. It was in Grossgmain that I first discovered reading. This was a sudden discovery which proved decisive for my subsequent life. This discovery—that literature can at any moment provide the mathematical solution to life and one's own existence provided that it is put into gear and operated as though it were mathematics, so that in time it becomes a form of higher mathematics and ultimately the supreme mathematical art, which can be called reading only when we have mastered it completely—this discovery was one which I could not have made until my grandfather had died ... Through reading I was able to bridge the gulf which yawned beneath me even here and was thus able to rescue myself from moods which could have led only to destruction. [1]

Literature as mathematics, then as higher mathematics and supreme mathematical art, was reminiscent of Atzabacher's attributed belief in the "high art and the highest art" in Old Masters. Bernhard confessed to reading mainly European writers, mostly from the collection in his grandfather's shelves. The "principal works of Shakespeare and Stifter, of Lenau and Cervantes, though I cannot claim that I understood them in all their rich complexity". Laurence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey, Montaigne, Pascal, Péguy, and Schopenhauer. (He read a lot of poetry and philosophy, in addition to having later on a life-long daily addiction to reading newspapers.) Verlaine: check. Trakl: check. Baudelaire: check. Dostoyevsky: check.

Dostoyevsky above all else. The young Bernhard was smitten by the Russian's voluptuous specter of self-destruction, particularly in The Demons. It was a watershed for him. And it was a book to emulate. A path-breaker. It was like a medicine to his sickly body.

Never in my whole life have I read a more engrossing and elemental work, and at the time I had never read such a long one. It had the effect of a powerful drug, and for a time I was totally absorbed by it. For some time after my return home I refused to read another book, fearing that I might be plunged headlong into the deepest disappointment. For weeks I refused to read anything at all. The monstrous quality of The Demons had made me strong; it had shown me a path that I could follow and told me that I was on the right one, the one that led out. I had felt the impact of a work that was both wild and great, and I emerged from the experience like a hero. Seldom has literature produced such an overwhelming effect on me. ... What I needed I had found in The Demons. I searched the sanatorium library for other such elemental works, but there were none. It would be superfluous to enumerate the authors whose books I opened and immediately shut again, repelled by their cheapness and triviality. Apart from The Demons I had no time for literature, but I felt sure that there must be other books like it. But there was no point in looking for them in the sanatorium library, which was chock-full of tastelessness and banality, of Catholicism and National Socialism. How was I to get hold of other books like The Demons? My only chance was to leave Grafenhof as soon as possible and look for my demons in freedom.

Who could blame the young, tubercular writer if the anarchic-revolutionary tendencies of the Russian novelist offered him the way out? There were many chilling scenes in Bernhard's novels, but his memoirs were scene after scene of perversity and absurdity. He unpacked them all: "the war and its aftermath, my grandfather's sickness and death, my own illness, my mother's illness, my family's despair, the depressing conditions under which they lived, the hopelessness of their existence." Intermittently, he was confined in hospitals, death ward, and sanatorium, waging personal battle against his illness in such graphic and painful ways. I still could not forget the scene wherein a doctor performed a pneumothorax on him.

The patient has to lie on the bed in the doctor's surgery while air is introduced between the diaphragm and the diseased lung by means of a thin tube; in this way the tubercular lung cavity is collapsed so that it can re-seal. I had often witnessed this procedure. It is painful only initially, after which the patient becomes accustomed to it and thinks no more about it. It becomes a routine experience, and although the patient is always afraid beforehand, by the time it is over his fear is proved to have been unfounded. However, it is not invariably unfounded, as I was soon to discover.

"Absurdity", for him, "is the only way forward. it was a way I knew, the only one that led anywhere." His recollections were a conflation of all his lifelong frustrations, all the absurd situations he found himself in.

One day, while this highly respected doctor (he was in fact a professor) was injecting me with air, he went over to the telephone, leaving me on the bed with the tube in my chest, and rang up his cook to give her instructions about his lunch. After a good deal of to-and-fro about chives and butter and whether there should be potatoes or not, the professor brought the debate to an end and deigned to return to his patient on the bed. He injected a further volume of air and then told me to step behind the X-ray screen. This was the only way to discover how the air had been distributed. Hardly had I taken the required position than I was seized with a fit of coughing and passed out. I just heard the professor say, My God, I collapsed the other lung!

Borges postulated that all literature, in the end, is autobiographical [2]. Everything literary is non-fiction, including fiction. This is probably because the reverse is also true. In Bernhard, the reenactment of his younger self's troubled life was truthful only in the sense that it was only ever an approximation: "Truth is always wrong, even if it is one hundred percent truth. Every error is pure truth." This pure dose of contradiction was his literary framework, in novels and autobiography both.

Language is inadequate when it comes to communicating the truth, and the best the writer can offer is an approximation to the truth, a desperate and hence unreliable approximation. Language can only falsify and distort whatever is authentic.

W. G. Sebald borrowed heavily from this aesthetics of falsification. Bernhard's pragmatic and practical outlook in life prepared him to adopt the stance of the skeptic. Not for him Sebald's attempt to recapture the literary equivalent of restitution and atonement. War was not a romantic concept in which to set off one's destiny. He realized that even after the war ended, he never actually escaped from it. War was his state of nature. And so he would not be troubled by any notion of being a casualty of the war, or by the imaginary burden of surviving it. The shadow of war was the shadow lurking in his lung. He considered himself well-trained in skepticism and rebellion, but these were often manifested in complaints and extreme irony. He was prepared for the worst. Armed with memories and demons (books), he happily searched out for more demons: the elemental and monstrous kind. The supreme calculus in mathematical prose. The raging demons that built his personal canon.


[1] Quoted passages were from "Breath: A Decision" (Der Atem, 1978) and "In the Cold" (Die Kälte, 1981), by Thomas Bernhard, in Gathering Evidence and My Prizes, translated by David McLintock and Carol Brown Janeway (Vintage International, 2011). Passages in bold are my emphases.

[2] From "A Profession of Literary Faith" by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine, in Selected Non-Fictions, ed. Eliot Weinberger (Penguin Books, 2000).