Sebald’s untranslated interviews

Only recently did I become aware of Auf ungeheuer dünnem Eis, an anthology of interviews with W.G. Sebald, edited by Torsten Hoffmann. Who knows why it isn’t translated? Beyond offering insight into Sebald’s early concerns, his sometimes surprising sources, and his manner of composition, it gives much to consider for writers inclined to reckoning with disaster and tragedy, but hopeful of sidestepping the sanctimonious kitsch and self-regard that often thwart the longing for gravitas.

Most interesting for me were the frequent references to natural history: concerning Karl Kraus, Sebald speaks of the “corruption of society as an almost natural-historical phenomenon”; the same goes for the degradation of syntax and grammar between the seventeenth and early twentieth centuries, and particularly of the conception of mankind:

What a Roussea produced in a single day in correspondence alone, composed in consummate French! For us today, such a thing is almost impossible, and I have the feeling that our weakening grasp of language across the course of time is a generalized, almost natural-historical phenomenon.

Mankind does not consist, as we still hoped in our liberal daydreams in the 19th century, of emancipated, autonomous individuals. It constitutes an at times heterogeneous, but in principal homogeneous mass. This mass has a molecular structure – that is, individuals – which may transition into another aggregate state. The more one heats a mass, the faster the molecules move, and all at once, the point is reached at which the fluid of mankind takes on a gaseous form.

… the individual, the lone autonomous essence, the superordinate, that is a mere dream we have elaborated in our bourgeois epoch. In fact, man is a collective phenomenon…

Regarding his method, Sebald speaks frequently of bricolage and of the need to foment coincidence, by travel and by an intimate engagement with primary source materials (an aspect of Sebald’s work seemingly lost on his legions of imitators):

This is a form of aboriginal labor, of pre-rational thinking, in which one rustles about in casually accumulated debris until a pattern somehow emerges.

On the importance of the material in his work: Things have a mute history… in objects, something like a mute, wordless history is condensed.

On Kafka: he experienced his own life as illegitimate.

He dwells as well on the diminished meaning of place-names in a time of unrelenting progress, of the relation between architectural monumentalism and paranoia, the evocativeness of black-and-white photography, the distinction between melancholy and depression, but I ought not quote too much here. The most painful and also most poignant impression the book leaves me with is Sebald’s sense of the transitory nature of the human perspective, which emerges as the outgrowth of overdetermining organic processes and will vanish, despite the delusion of individual sovereignty, at those same processes’ behest, leading one to wonder to what extent the longing for suicide inspired by the unfathomable magnitude of life on earth is actually a form of nostalgia…

NB: The translations here are approximate and should not be quoted.


From Josef Winkler, Graveyard of Bitter Oranges

I no longer remember Volker Lehrer, the older of the teacher’s two boys, save that he used to wear leather short pants and red wool stockings, that he was a dim-witted loser who tried too hard, and that he used to wrestle on the ground with his brother Gabriel, who liked to run up behind him and kick him in the seat of his leather trousers. Perhaps I remember Gabriel better because he is dead, and it arouses me more to write about the dead than to write while I think about the living. When his mother, Frau Bergjordan, as we used to call her, wanted him to come home, she would open the living room window in the schoolhouse where they lived, put a shrill black whistle to her lips, and empty her lungs into it. Does she stand sometimes before his grave, stuff the mouthpiece of her black whistle between her lips, and call out to him, telling him to come home? Dinner’s ready! You’ve got homework to do! There’s nothing else for you to do in the village once the evening bells have rung! Gabriel Lehrer took his life a few years after Jakob and Robert, who hanged themselves from the same rope in the parish house barn in my village. Gabriel was found dead by his mother and father, with a bullet in his blood-drenched head, in his parents’ room in Villach. His father, who taught me in my first two years of school, also took his own life a few years later. He died of an overdose of sleeping pills; shortly before, the doctor had diagnosed him with terminal cancer. He, who had spent his retirement traveling all over the world, said a few days before his death, Soon I will take my final journey! Sometimes, when he heard his mother’s long, shrill whistle, Gabriel would hide out on the Aichholzers’ farm, in the stables among the restive horses, in the hay shed, or behind the mill, and he would stay there for hours without moving. Ten or twenty times, and half an hour later ten or twenty times more, and again, ten or twenty times after another half-hour, and ten or twenty times after twenty more minutes had passed, his mother would blow her lungs out into the mouthpiece of the shrill black whistle, peering between the two flaps of the open window on the second floor of the schoolhouse and looking left and right before giving up for another hour. When she lies on her deathbed, will she breathe her last sigh into the black whistle she used in the village to summon her two sons, Gabriel and Volker? The church bells resounded through the village at eleven in the morning and seven in the evening. Through the snowcapped village, irregular and strident, Miss Bergjordan’s whistle would blare whenever she wanted her two boys, who were always fighting, closer to hand. Lunch is ready! The water’s running in the bathtub! The wood’s not been chopped yet! Back when I used to steal money from my father or mother –– I no longer know exactly from which, maybe from both, to split the blame, the debt they owed me for my birth –– I would go to Paternion and buy stacks of Fix and Foxi comics from the shortsighted tobacconist, whom I stole from often enough too, and after I had leafed through them, I would give them to Gabriel Lehrer to read. Sometimes we would sit in an old carriage in the Aichholzers’ tool shed behind the stables. Chickens would run past us or settle down not far from our feet, nestling their bodies in the warm, dry earth, and peacock feathers lay here and there, the warmth of the birds’ bodies still present in the feathers’ waxy white quills. Gabriel Lehrer would ask me where I got the money to buy the comics. I would give an evasive answer. I used to take the church circular from house to house, I was the first acolyte, and in the spring I sold bouquets of snowdrops to passing tourists, from a young age I earned my own money, like the street children in Naples. Besides the comic books, I bought profiteroles, macaroons, and cream horns that we devoured in the carriage shed, bent over those tawdry stories. Gabriel Lehrer would trade these pulps the next day at the high school in Villach, and that day or the day after, we would be able to settle in again, the sharp scent of chicken dung in our noses, and pore over our reading in the Aichholzers’ shed until his mother’s shrill whistle would make us raise our heads. We would hide the dime store sagas under a dusty board in the carriage shed and set a time to meet back there, so we could read further. Later he suggested I give him the money so he could go to Villach and buy new Fix and Foxi comics, because the selection, as he described it, was much better there than in the country tobacconist’s. Resolutely, while my mother wandered through the cemetery with her watering can, I walked into the pantry, opened a drawer, and took out her wallet. If there was only one tenner among the loose change, I wouldn’t touch it; but there were many mixed in, so I took one, maybe even two. A few days later, Gabriel Lehrer –– who has taken his own life, like his father, in the interim –– brought me the tattered, ratty pulps he claimed to have bought with my money. Does he now, lying beneath the earth –– with blood still pouring from the bullet wound in his head –– read to the end those Fix and Foxi comics we never managed to finish, because the shrill piping of his mother as she leaned out of the house, looking around between the two flaps of the windows, blowing over and over into her black whistle, always interrupted us?

Graveyard of Bitter Oranges is available from Contra Mundum Press

Hegel, art, freedom


FullSizeRender-2.jpgI recently found a page of notes on Hegel’s lectures on aesthetics in an old notebook I was tearing pages out of. It begins with a note on Alberti. Whether the sculptor or the poet is meant, I have no idea, and strangely, I have no memory of reading either. The notes seemed interesting, so I have transcribed them below.

  1. As in Alberti, the notion that the significant difference between art and craft is achieved through freedom of action.
  2. Art represents at once the fracture effected by the progress of the mind and the mind’s attempt to remediate that fracture, which comes to appear, in a certain way, as a form of distress.
  3. In fact, it is the perception of freedom, of intention, that separates one’s understanding of artistic as distinct from natural beauty, and provokes the special sort of attunement we reserve for art objects.
  4. The an-und-für-sich Seiende  in Hegel must be the primal perception of another being experienced in its twin possibilities of menace and object of conquest (be it violent, erotic, domesticating) – these are our most basic modes of understanding other beings… [This drifts into notes that are partly illegible, and incomprehensible where they are not.]
  5. In terms both of form and content, art is constrained by its relation to the spirit. The nature of every genre of creative act (art, science) is defined by the specific limits that demarcate its realm of action from that of pure freedom.

Peter Weiss, Again

This morning Michael Orthofer posted a link to an article in the FAZ about the history of a self-portrait by Peter Weiss, and bemoaned the relative obscurity into which Weiss had fallen. These things are hard to quantify, but it is true, at least anecdotally, that one hears less about his theater than, say, twenty years ago; and translations of his prose into European languages seem never to have appeared in sufficient frequency or abundance to establish him as a novelist worthy of canonical status. Much of his work remains unavailable to those who don’t read German, the majority of what is translated is now out of print, and his current publishers are mostly small outfits specializing in leftist literature, theater, or (in the case of the French translation of Aesthetics of Resistance) sociology and cultural criticism.

This is unfortunate for many reasons, among them the degree to which Weiss anticipated, in his novels, many stylistic innovations that have now become common currency (the question of Weiss’s influence, particularly outside of German-speaking countries, is not one I am knowledgeable enough to address). To my mind, Weiss’s early narratives represent a sort of fictional equivalent of the phenomenological investigations of memory, embodiment, and selfhood carried out by those imminently humane and attentive thinkers, Merleau-Ponty and Paul Ricoeur. Weiss’s early fiction practices a sustained, deliberate observation of what Antonio Damasio has called “the feeling of what happens,” and produced a novel type of autobiographical writing as distant as possible from the grand European tradition that extends from Chateaubriand and Rousseau through Dichtung und Wahrheit to Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Words. The result produces a kind of dislocation similar to Robbe-Grillet’s better-known works; but the humane seriousness of Weiss’s writing prevents it from lapsing into the gimmickiness that exasperates me in Robbe-Grillet.

Did the twentieth century produce a more radical novel than the Aesthetics of Resistance? This kind of question is always absurd: who has read enough to answer? Especially when, as Tim Parks suggests in several recent essays, the presumptions on which the occidental canon was founded are irreparably damaged, and any intelligent person must admit that not all values are transmissible through translation and indeed, that an aptitude for translation may necessarily imply a degree of departure from what is essential in a book’s original culture (a favorite example of mine is Los ilusos by Rafael Azcona, a beautiful, moving little book that would hold no charm whatsoever for a reader unacquainted with Madrid, with the tribulations of the postwar years, with a kind of partly gallant, partly childish eroticism peculiar to a certain generation of Spanish men, or with a particularly Castilian brand of literary mediocrity). But if one thinks of the big names, of Hunger, Ulysses, The Waves, The Death of Virgil, and so on –– it seems to me that, for all their singularity, they remain concerned with the traditional problems of storytelling and Weiss’s novel is the first I know of to point toward a kind of novel in which the primacy of narrative is cast aside and the possibility of doing something completely different arises.

That Weiss chose to frame his novel around the preoccupations of left-wing politics undoubtedly prejudiced its reception. The argument for the exclusion of politics from literature has never been rigorous, but the sloganeering readers, critics, and teachers who propound it have also never been inclined to thinking deeply. Perhaps, as his political concerns come further toward the forefront, Weiss’s openly partisan, openly accusatory approach will be vindicated; but the fact that the most indisputable tenets of Marxism remain in ill odor even now, when technocracy is dismantling Europe’s social democracies and the American right and center are bent on rolling back the Great Society, gives little hope. It must be stressed though that Aesthetics of Resistance remains a work of art, and has little in common with the ham-handed morality tales of socialist realism in its vulgar permutations.

Rainald Goetz, Büchner Prize 2015

Rainald Goetz doing his thing

Rainald Goetz doing his thing

It was announced yesterday that Rainald Goetz had won the 2015 Georg Büchner Prize, joining the storied ranks of Paul Celan, Friederike Mayröcker, and Elias Canetti, among others. The choice is a somewhat controversial one: Shigekuni, who knows more about German literature than I do, declared Lutz Seiler and Marcel Beyer of more merit, while the equally knowledgeable Katy Derbyshire, whose post about her ill-fated choice to go to a Rainald Goetz reading would make a lovely short film, hints that he may be a men’s writer (this is particularly worth noting since women seem in general to get short shrift at the Büchner, winning around 12% of the time).

Though the word “deserve” is almost meaningless and the idea of awarding literary performance a highly suspect one, particularly given the well-documented behind-the-scenes chicanery among literary prize juries and the dismaying degree to which prize money goes to further refining the snobbish indulgences of writers who are already well-off instead of helping those who need to buy food and pay rent, I admire Goetz’s work and feel it is particularly relevant for our time.

If we consider the novel as an instrument of social analysis, lumping in, albeit clumsily, Balzac, James, Dickens, and contrast this to the novel of introspective reflection, it can be averred, to my mind, that the former has suffered greatly since the beginning of the twentieth century. Particularly in America, when I see these gargantuan kitchen-sink monstrosities that appear every few years with promises of greatness, inevitably accompanied by fanfare declaring that the author has learned Armenian, read ten thousand pages of classified documents, or penetrated the world of underground knife-fighting in the course of his research, I cannot help but think of the necessary compenetration of ego and ambition. Tom Wolfe is not a fashionable writer anymore, but his reviled essay Stalking the Billion Footed Beast remains important reading to the extent that it dissects not only Wolfe’s own artistic failures, but those of countless writers who have come after him, up to and including Franzen, who yammer about “stories” and “real life” and “moral complexity,” contemning both the recondite artifices of “experimental fiction” and the aw-shucks simplicity of the popular novel.

In a beautiful passage of Bowstring, Viktor Shklovsky recollects a scene in Antonioni’s Blow-Up where a group of students is playing tennis. The sounds, the sights are real, but there is no ball between them. For Shklovksy, this is a metaphor of the anti-novel or meta-novel, a form that, for him, has already exhausted itself in less than a century. “Return the ball to the game,” Shklovsky says. There is something true in Shklovsky’s adjuration: after so much reading, and without disparaging their brilliance, there is just not enough meat in Perec, in Bernhard, or in Christine Brooke-Rose to sustain one over the course of a life. And yet I am sure Shklovsky would not agree with the philistinism of Wolfe and Franzen. The vices of so-called experimentalism do not sanction the endless mechanical excretion of novel after novel about generational misunderstanding, clashing cultures, domestic discord, shameful family secrets, integrity in the face of corruption, or the triumph over adversity, irrespective of how much research goes into them.

It is here where I think Rainald Goetz is important. Over the course of thirty years, in formats ranging from theater to collage to techno music to blogs, Goetz has trained his eye on many of the signal phenomena of the present day; but the concept of research, as handed down from Balzac and Flaubert, has been foresworn as an arrogant pretense in favor of a self-abandonment within the confines of the subculture the author is attempting to approximate. This is a difference not so much of method as of posture: certainly, when Goetz writes about the art world, about music or finance, he is well-versed in the subject matter, but the idea that any aspect of culture can be understood from without is abandoned as mere arrogance. As Goetz states in Celebration:

Intellectuality remains a class destiny against which revolt is possible.

Goetz received doctoral degrees in psychiatry and history before embarking on his first novel Irre, an exploration of madness that could be described as a punk-rock reimagining of Goffman’s famed work on asylums. His guiding light is the famed social theorist Niklas Luhmann, who analyzed cultural phenomena as complexity reducers whereby the chaos of unprocessed life is reduced to comprehensible and manageable symbolic values within closed systems. Goetz’s recognizes that the symbolic values encompassed by the numerous worlds into which contemporary society is divided (art, music, finance, and so forth) are not inhabited by, but are rather generative of, distinct types of subjects, and that any understanding of these worlds is incomplete without some sense of the feeling of being inside them.

A criticism that has been leveled against Goetz, particularly during the publication of the various volumes of the project Heute Morgen, is a lack of analytical distance: what if this guy’s just doing coke, hanging out with DJs, and having a laugh at our expense? My sense is, on the one hand, that Goetz’s project of undermining the author’s role as analyst, of calling into question the potential of analysis as typically conceived, precludes the distance some readers might find comforting; and on the other, that distance is already presumed in the act of reading, and that Goetz trusts the reader to take his writing at something more than face value.

In any case, while I personally am indifferent or even hostile to many of the phenomena he describes (I would happily throw Jeff Koons in a gulag, for example), Goetz’s engagement with popular culture is far more interesting than the embittered boilerplate about the world going to hell in a handbasket that is the specialty of so many men of letters.

Goetz is little translated: his books are hard, and a lot of them deal very specifically with German public figures that other countries don’t care about. His play Jeff Koons is out in English, Irre was published in French but is out of print, the really cool-looking Dutch press Leesemagazijn has picked up a few of them, and Sexto Piso is bringing out Irre in Spanish.

[Update: I will be translating Goetz’s Irre for Fitzcarraldo Editions. The book is due out in Fall 2017.]


Peter Weiss, Holding Hands

Between the ages of fourteen and twenty-eight, I knew nothing of Peter Weiss, save that he had written a play called Marat/Sade that had been directed by Peter Brook, toward whom my attitude was antipathetic, in spite of my knowing next to nothing of his work, because a friend of mine whose yen for the putatively radical excluded aesthetic or logical rigor had once droned on about him for what felt like an eternity while we were having dinner. I had seen Marat/Sade on the bookshelf of the same English teacher who lent me The Cenci by Antonin Artaud. Though my intellectual pretensions at the time were such that I forced myself to read some thousand or so pages of the horribly half-baked D.A.F. De Sade, I did not ask to borrow this play by Peter Weiss.

In 2005 I moved to Barcelona, because I had never been to Europe and I wished to improve my hardly passable Spanish. For ten weeks I read only in that language, laboriously, with a dictionary: Milan Kundera’s The Curtain in the grey paperback published by Tusquets, the works of Gombrowicz in white gloss covers by Seix Barral, Imre Kertész’s I, Another by the magnificent publisher Acantilado, perhaps a few other things. Then I went one day to the Laie in Carrer de Pau Claris. The English writer John Lanchester was there, he had won a prize for his book Fragrant Harbor, translated into Catalan as Port de les aromes, I still do not know why they didn’t translate it as Port fragant, which sounds prettier to me. I told him how highly I thought of his books The Debt to Pleasure and Mr. Phillips. He didn’t seem to care.

I was sitting with an issue of the Guardian and reading an interview with John Banville, whom my then-partner wanted me to read. Banville was asked his opinion of contemporary writers. To avoid accusations of cattiness or favoritism, I avoid commenting on my compeers, he said, but I will say the death of W.G. Sebald strikes me as an enormous loss for literature

A week later, I bought The Rings of Saturn, which I read three times in three consecutive days. Then I bought and read the other books of his that were available, even though the novels were expensive imports and were moreover published by Vintage, whose English paperbacks I try never to buy because they yellow quickly and smell of newsprint and I do not like the rough feel of the cheap paper on my fingers. Two books were only available in hardcover: On the Natural History of Destruction and Campo Santo, which had just come out.

This is only relevant to what I am thinking about today insofar as I must have read Sebald’s essay on Peter Weiss, entitled The Remorse of the Heart. How strange, I thought this morning, that the adulation of Sebald, a writer I idealized for years and because of whom I would read Jean Améry, Thomas Bernhard, Michael Hamburger, Cheateaubriand, Robert Walser, and Marianne Fritz, did not compel me to seek out Peter Weiss, whose writing is so important for me now. I may have had the sense, because Marat/Sade was so well known, that Weiss was one of those writers it was permissible to pretend to have read without doing so. But this morning I am looking back at the essay and there is something unpleasant and tendentious in it. The marked general inclination in Sebald to paint his favored artists in martyrial tones occludes the textured visual sensitivity and generosity of spirit that marks Weiss’s writing as something much more ample than the moral obduracy that Sebald stresses.

In 2010 I wrote the following in my still-unpublished first novel The Philosophy of a Visit:

That frisson was the thrill, I tell myself, the blend of fear and elation, that accompanies a child’s explorations in the stage of disattachment, so-called, those first forays into pleasures in which one’s mother plays no part; though this too is something I cannot confirm from memory, but have only read about it a book, something that resonates and hence requires that I should look further into the meaning of the phenomena of resonance, a thing I have not done even now.

The pleasure on that day was of crossing a road that lay between the daycare center and my neighborhood. It was always busy with cars, and my mother had warned me to stay away from it. A great deal is made by developmental psychologists of childhood success in instrumental undertakings: the criminologist Lonnie Athens, for example, posits early success in the use of violence to achieve a predetermined end as a crucial stage in the growth of the violent criminal; conversely, repeated failures may lead to perversions of longing, as when fetishes come to supplant normative urges in circumstantially impotent subjects. At any rate, no person can be happy without at some time doing what he fears, and thereby allowing the sense of freedom in himself to be born: and running across the road at dusk, my hand in my sister’s, is the first memory I have of liberty and its most basic form in my mind. It was cool that night, and though one can never be sure about such things, it is for that reason, I believe, that I have always felt freest in a frigid climate like that of Central Europe, and find the heat of the Mediterranean or of the American South so oppressive.

This morning, I was reading Weiss’s Abschied von Eltern, translated into English as Leavetaking. He writes about his family’s maid:

I went out into the street holding Augusta’s hand. My exploration of the city is connected for me with the pressure of Augusta’s hand. The streets rise in front of me with their creaking, iron-rimmed wheels, with their haze of tar and malt and wet dust, with their warehouses whose facades the chains of the hoists rattled, and in whose warehouses the shapes moved about in the uncertain light between packing cases and sacks. We penetrated ever deeper into the alleyways, arcades, and tucked-away squares, past the soot-blackened, scaly, bescribbled masonry walls, until through the gateway arches and down worn-out flights of steps we came to the dikes and onto the docks where the masts of ships stood out against the smoky sky, where watery reflections flickered on the ships’ sides, where black and yellow faces peeked out of the round portholes and shouted out strange words, where the pennants buffeted on the taut rigging and screaking cargo cranes swung long necks around. Sometimes scenes from these wanderings suddenly surface in my dreams, first impressions which have preserved their glassy transparence and sharpness of focus, they show places, often without any recognizable happening, motionless and still, where I had suddenly become aware of my own existence.

In 2012, I began work on a second book, likewise unpublished, called the Aesthetics of Degradation. I was not aware at the time of Peter Weiss’s magnum opus The Aesthetics of Resistance, though I had certainly read the title in Sebald’s essay seven years before. In my book, a nameless narrator considers abusive pornography in light of what one might call an expanded idea of historical determinism, drawing heavily on traumatology, on what I believe to be Bergsonian ideas about identity and duration, though I only really know Bergson at second-hand, and on Jankélévitch’s reconciliation of freedom and determinism through the idea of responsibility. There is no plot as such: the narrator stares at images, reads a book of memoirs, visits an exhibition; the tension that is said to underpin prose narratives derives from the intimate alienation, if I may permit myself such a paradox, between the narrator, his own thoughts, and his eternally deferred moral longings.

In the summer of 2013 I bought a copy of the first volume of Peter Weiss’s Aesthetics of Resistance in German, and this past fall, visiting a syndicalist bookstore in Barcelona I felt compelled from solidarity to support, I took home a one-volume translation of the entire book. The Aesthetics of Resistance marks for me the moment when modernist innovations come into their own, jettisoning the trappings of storyline and character development for something more fluid, free, and ambitious. The unapologetically political bent of the ekphrastic episodes making up the book in no way detract from its artistic power. Reading it, you think of Ralph Ellison’s interview in the Paris Review, when Alfred Chester, the aesthete, tries to railroad Ellison by stating: “Then you consider your novel a purely literary work as opposed to one in the tradition of social protest.” Ellison responds:

Now, mind, I recognize no dichotomy between art and protest. Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground is, among other things, a protest against the limitations of nineteenth-century rationalism; Don Quixote, Man’s Fate, Oedipus Rex, The Trial—all these embody protest, even against the limitation of human life itself. If social protest is antithetical to art, what then shall we make of Goya, Dickens, and Twain? One hears a lot of complaints about the so-called protest novel, especially when written by Negroes, but it seems to me that the critics could more accurately complain about the lack of craftsmanship and the provincialism which is typical of such works.

It is possible that the proscription of didactic or ideological content in art is nothing more than a cavalier platitude of the sort propagated by secondary school English teachers who rail against split infinitives and the comparative stupider, and literary critics who confuse acumen with list-making and the issuance of high-flown ukases (and their patron saint, the intolerable Harold Bloom). But that is not what interests me this morning. What I am thinking about is the degree to which all this ideology and aesthetics might be a mere accretion, like a carapace, atop these irreducible moments that are our true spiritual fundament and define our capacity to understand one another, experiences like holding a hand and walking out into the street.

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.”

Money, American Fiction, Rainald Goetz

Recently noxrpm tweeted: “I will write the great (anti) American tax inversion novel.” This was said in jest, but it strikes me as an excellent idea. Money is the great lacuna in contemporary American fiction. A proper investigation of the theme would require enormous energy and the reading of vast quantities of a literature for which, I have to confess, I have very little sympathy, and my thoughts on the subject therefore cannot but be cursory in character. There are undoubtedly counterexamples of which I am ignorant; I am speaking impressionistically, but it can at least be affirmed that money and its allocation and their relationship to justice, while being vital aspects of present-day life, particularly for the billions of people shut out from the commercial rituals by which one achieves happiness or security, is far less present in the writing, not only of Americans, but in fact of the majority of the writers of today, at least in the languages I can read. Increasingly, money and freedom have become indistinguishable from one another: the poor are so often sent to prison for the failure to pay fines that the Economist, a far from radical publication, has come to speak of new debtors’ prisons; “intergenerational earnings elasticity” has been shown surprisingly static in many so-called democratic nations, and at the same time, wealth brings hitherto undreamt of pleasures and trifles as well as escape from virtually every convenience of modern life, from waiting in line at the airport to being stuck in traffic, at least in Mexico, where a system of private toll roads caters overwhelmingly to tourists and the country’s elite.

But we see almost none of this in Franzen, McCarthy, Ben Lerner, Sheila Heti, or, to look beyond America’s borders, in Knausgaard, Krasznahorkai, Peter Nadas, Bolaño. The list is nearly endless. Feints are occasionally made: the title of The Corrections derives from a market correction following the 2000 tech bubble, but the changes wrought by economic turmoil in that novel are largely esthetic, with merely adumbrated moral undertones the author never bothers to properly enumerate (this seems, incidentally, a hallmark of Franzen’s style); Tom Wolfe seems abstractly to comprehend that money might play an important role in others’ lives, but his amusement at his own talent for churning out one Dickensesque caricature after another eclipses the ethical imperative to actually inquire into the emotional and spiritual texture of the world he purports to depict. But in general, the two strains that seem to dominate contemporary fiction are a more or less supercilious, more or less walled-off philistinism that resorts to the literary novel for entertainment while vaguely intimating it might have some other abstract value, something to do with empathy and sensibility as a result of which it is alleged to transcend the merely popular; and then the nearly innumerable offshoots of literary modernism and postmodernism, the dominant tendencies of which are the ludic, in Oulipo-type conceits, and, increasingly, more or less maudlin solipsism.

In our conversation, noxrpm asked to what extent I thought workshop fiction had played a pernicious role in all this. Undoubtedly a great one. First because, if we may be honest, the ideology of workshop, with its anti-elitist, aw-shucksy maxims that remind one of nothing so much as the canned wisdom of AA sponsors who incidentally mentored a good number of their luminaries, nips in the bud those immodesties that with time flower into the singularity of style: can one imagine Thomas Bernhard making it through a workshop? Second because the workshop approach guarantees a certain pre-selection for economic class, which coincides to a great degree with ethnic background; third, because the enormous power of nepotism in the literary world has guaranteed a privileging of the workshop style in the journals and book publishers without the acceptance of which a literary career is impossible.

This may be pessimistic, but I doubt anyone who can read in other languages or who has some sense of what is happening elsewhere can fail to be dismayed by the tin-eared complacency, the effete self-absorption, the absolute refusal to delve deeper into the lives of others and the social and economic mechanisms that determine them, that characterize the contemporary American novel.

Some time back, when people were indulging their indignation about the 1% the way they are now indulging their indignation about Ferguson, Missouri, Teju Cole posted something on Twitter to the effect that, while it was worthwhile to cast a critical eye on the 1% and their offenses, we should not forget all the other things that the other 49% can do but choose not to. This is exactly right, and I have a feeling that the moral credit that would accrue to a widespread movement simply to be better, to be kinder, more generous, and more understanding, would have far more effect than any caviling about the responsibilities of a group of people whose manner of existence is basically predicated on the systematic negation of these responsibilities. The fact is, for all the umbrage one sees on social media, in the news, and so forth regarding gender injustice, racial injustice, economic disparities, and so on, successful American writers do not give a fuck; or perhaps the concept of giving a fuck needs to be redefined in an era when everyone at least believes himself informed and is endowed with a so-called voice to spread the word and online culture has allowed the translation of conscience and generosity to enter the realm of the merely symbolic, just as erotic urges have been channeled into online pornography and aggression into video games. Perhaps, just as Peter Singer, Devi Shetty, and others have tried to qualify how much a human life is worth in dollar terms in order to quantify conscience and give concrete meaning to ethical impulses, there should also be a price attached to the concept of giving a fuck.

Rainald Goetz

Rainald Goetz

In any case: after I had left off a moment this conversation with noxrpm, I suddenly recalled that I had forgotten to mention a person who for me is one of the major writers of our time, and the only person I am aware of who has grasped these matters head-on, with the lyrical force proper to an artist and the theoretical rigor the contemporary scene demands: the German novelist Rainald Goetz. A student of Luhmann, Weber, and Foucault, Goetz has turned his eye on a multitude of contemporary phenomena, from asylums to rave culture the art market to global capitalism, through the lens of system differentiation. To my knowledge, nothing of his work has been translated apart from one play into English and one novel into French, and a few incidental pieces. Goetz is on a short list of dream authors for me to translate, but I imagine he will be a difficult sell.

[Update: Fitzcarraldo editions will be publishing my translation of Irre in the Fall of 2017.]


Suhrkamp author page for Rainald Goetz (in German)

*with thanks to noxrpm for the conversation, Michael Wood, who maintains the English Google Site on Rainald Goetz, and Petra Hardt for introducing me to Goetz’s work.

Poppy and Memory


Good morning, Magda,

I saw your quote from Mohn und Gedächtnis, which I believe to be one of the most significant passages in Celan’s work, this morning, and I wanted to ask you what you thought the affinity between memory and poppy might be. When I read it, I always think of these words of Beckett, rendered here at third hand, because I don’t have the English original with me:

Proust had a bad memory… He who has a good memory remembers nothing, because he forgets nothing. His memory is uniform, a slave of routine, at once function and condition of his impeccable habit, an instrument of reference rather than of discovery…

This strikes me as particularly relevant in the case of Celan for whom the curtailment of individual memories (or figments of prosthetic recollection, which are the same, such as the sister who appears in so many of his poems) and the preponderance of negative space, of snows and skies, gives the bare objects that appear an almost theological force. You probably know that Celan received electroshock treatment in 1967; among the effects of this still-controversial remedy is a wiping-away of whole swaths of memory; for probably sentimental reasons, I always imagine this happened earlier with Celan. But then it is considered by many researchers that life itself is narrative, and by others that depression is, fundamentally, a defective manner of encoding memories, so that everything appears more general, less distinct under the shadow of encroaching darkness. These are things I need to think about much more, but it is nice to be reminded of them, so that I, who also have a questionable memory, not for these reasons, but because I am always jumping from one thing to another, can write this down as a reminder to pursue them further. Best wishes.

Marianne Fritz II

Note cards and diagrams from Marianne Fritz's work room.

Note cards and diagrams from Marianne Fritz’s work room.

Perhaps no other author has carried further the idea of literature as a vocation than the Austrian Marianne Fritz. After the publication of her first novel, Die Schwerkraft der Verhältnisse, which was supported from a stipend by the state, she ceased giving interviews and seems to have appeared in public only rarely . For her second novel, Das Kind der Gewalt und die Sterne der Romani, she had a scale model of the town in which the book was set placed in her work room to better visualize the geography in which the plot unfolded. Due to its monumental size and difficulty, her work is often considered within the context of so-called outsider writing, but this label is far from appropriate to a writer whose working methods were so rigorous and references so broad as those of Fritz, not to mention someone whose talent, while not without controversy, was recognized by numerous prize juries and by Siegfried Unseld, who took her on at Suhrkamp as a house author. I am inclined to think her sex has been unhelpful to her fortunes: there is a tendency to be more charitably disposed, more ready to accept on credit, the “genius” of men who shut themselves away in rooms than that of women, who get saddled with labels like “hoarder” and “cat lady.” In any case, her work is of nearly unprecedented scope: after a thin first novel and a substantial second one, in 1985 she published the 3600-page Dessen Sprache du nicht verstehst, and in the late 1990s the first two volumes of Naturgemäß, which run nearly double the length of the book that preceded them. Fritz continued to work on Naturgemäß until the moment of her death; pages of the third volume, which has not yet been printed, can be consulted here