Talking Nonsense About Literature

Recently I went to a book event. It is rare that cultural happenings are to my liking; at the risk of painting myself histrionic or sanctimonious, I find dispiriting these festivities devoted to the alleged magnificence of some representative or other of occidental culture that make not the least effort to reckon with what rank injustice the hegemony of the aforementioned was established and continues to be maintained –– events which, curiously, tend to be characterized by so extreme an expressive reticence in the person-to-person exchanges that follow them, as though inoffensiveness were some kind of atonement for the ludicrous level of privilege of which such affairs are an excrescence, that it is difficult to tell whether anyone is saying anything at all. Of course, it is less a matter of political correctness than of caginess, because the reading of good writing for pleasure and edification in the United States is nearly extinct, and most alleged readers are failed writers who merely skim books, ignoring the organic process by which a thorough and sensitive reading gives way to notions whose ideal expression, in the course of time, may be found by writing; the watchword of such skimmers is that most American of phrases, let’s cut through the bullshit, and in the sadly accurate recognition that talent and excellence have little to do with literary success when weighed against pretense and cronyism, their interest in books is reduced to the questions what can I take from this and what opinions am I supposed to have. But the conversion of literature from a proper vocation with a robust audience and a prosperous industry behind it into a marginal, nearly fallow offshoot of a nigh obsolete and entirely vague idea of the value of culture has the effect that at such events the number of people with any appreciable influence is negligible; as such, they easily devolve into an eyeing-up and feeling-out of people who may sense themselves rivals or collaborators in potentia but all of whom are more or less fully shut out from the influence system by which literary careers are formed.

At this book event, an author was being interviewed, and reference was made to Thomas Bernhard, a clear influence of his. During the pursuit of this Thomas Bernhard inquiry, three phrases were uttered that hung in my mind: the interviewer mentioned Thomas Bernhard’s autobiographical trilogy; Bernhard’s protagonists, he stated, are always fixated on a single key moment in their past; and, in praise of the urbanity of the author he was interviewing, the interviewer averred that Bernhard sort of flaunted his provincialism, he would never have established the kind of dialogue with high culture you have in your book.

It was difficult not to be reminded of Thomas Bernhard’s account of his reception of the Austrian State Prize in Wittgenstein’s Nephew:

The minister who, in the auditorium of the ministry, gave what is known as my encomium, uttered nothing but imbecilities about me in the course of this encomium, having confined himself to reading aloud from a piece of paper written by one of his functionaries who was tasked with the management of literary affaris: that I had, for example, written a novel about the South Seas, which naturally I had never done. Although I have always been Austrian, the minister declared that I was Dutch. Although I had not the least notion of such matters, the minister declared me a specialist in adventure novels. Several times in his discourse he declared that I was a foreigner and a guest of Austria.

Bernhard’s autobiographical writings comprise a pentalogy and not a trilogy; the notion that his characters’ lives revolve around a single, decisive moment in their past is so lacking in rigor that it could be applied as much to Raymond Carver or Kenzaburō Ōe as to Bernhard; and to characterize a writer whose protagonists almost invariably boast of their reading of Schopenhauer, Pascal, and Montaigne and of their detestation of Austria in comparison with the many other lands to which they have traveled, not to mention their minor obsession with English tailoring, as flaunting his provincialism, is beneath ridicule.

But what one says about a writer at these moments is not to be held to the standard of truth; it need only be truthy, in Stephen Colbert’s memorable formulation. As Pierre Bayard notes, actually to have read a writer may frequently prove a liability, for in general we find ourselves among others who have not done so, and the real writer may diverge so radically from the common conception of him that an attempt to reconcile the two will lead one to appear at best pedantic, at worst clueless.

Increasingly, I notice what I read and hear about books bears less and less relation to the contents of the books themselves. This is alarming because I am not at all a promiscuous reader either of reviews or contemporary literature. If these things are coming to my frequent attention, the condition must be epidemic. Knausgård has been an obvious victim, saddled with the epithet Proustian as a fancy synonym for long, linked to the pseudo-concept-but actually-meme of the banal or the mundane, words which have spread like bedbugs to seemingly every article about him, as though this were something worth commenting on, and rip-roaringness were the salient trait of belles-lettres in the past hundred years. If there were prizes for such things, I would nominate this article in Slate, purportedly about Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, which not only has dispensed with any pretense of originality, openly citing the other pieces from which every factual statement has been filched, apart from those concerning the author’s college poetry seminar, but which also repeats an outlandish error, and as a consequence is forced to print an only slightly less outlandish retraction, from an earlier article in the The Chronicle of Higher Education:

This post originally quoted Heidegger on the “fabrication” (Fabrikation) of corpses in gas chambers and death camps, and, following the Chronicle, suggested that Heidegger might have believed the corpses were invented, rather than manufactured. Scholars have disputed this interpretation, and the sentence has been removed.

“Scholars have disputed this interpretation,” or, in the Chronicle’s slightly stronger wording, “Most scholars now interpret Heidegger’s use of ‘fabrication’ as referring to the process of manufacturing,”: clever ways of avoiding the words: “My bad, I was talking absolute shit about a subject I know nothing about.”