Struggling to understand what is going on


The 12 cm worm at work

I have written something like this before. In fact, more than once, I am sure. So, why say it again?

Because the topic bothers me greatly. Bothers me? No! It drills me -- like a great jointed, horned, steel-and-tungsten mechanical burrowing worm. (See above). For all the struggle, the business remains unresolved, yet, I will write about it again -- because I must, but also because I think I am making some progress at last.

(Er... Maybe. Bear with me).

This time, I return to the topic on the excuse of having read a review of a modernist German writer. The review is to be found here. (Note the rather cute way in which (I hope) I have managed to post a link and yet remain hidden from the author of the original review to which I am linking... To the same end, all names -- of authors and heroes -- have been removed from this post, because... I wish to speak to you, my friends, not the larger world of admirers of the work in question: years of experience on internet have taught me not to expect to learn anything from debates on it. Nor do I court readership: I am happy if my words are never read by more than the five of you).

Now, I have not read the work in question. And, though I do read German, I never expect to read it. What gives me the right to speak up, then? Well, it is precisely this I wish to speak to you about: the reason why I will not read it.

I will not read the book because, well, thanks to the reviewer, I think I know it already. The review suggest to me that the novel is too much like a lot of other modernist work -- that in fact I know it, have read it elsewhere -- different author perhaps, perhaps a different language -- but I have read it, more than once, and have worse than not liked it.

The work in question, like so much modernist work, appears to me mind-boggling -- and not a little scary -- because of the incongruous combination (as it seems to me) of (on the one hand) great narrative technique -- the descriptions of the technical complexities of the work excite me and make me want to read it right now, right here; and (on the other hand) well -- absolute dullness.

The dullness comes from three directions:

1) uninteresting characters (what can possibly be interesting -- to any healthy human being-- about the sexual travails of a "not-hero"? could someone please explain this to me?);

2) a certain preoccupation with the sordid which I do not share ("Wow! He peed on me!" Well, shucks, for some odd reason, I am determined to manage my life in a manner which will never expose me to being peed on; but if, by some unforeseeable twist of fate such a thing should ever happen -- an unexpected Don Cossack invasion of Northern Thailand, say -- I am sure I would try to forget about the experience rather than dedicate a book to it);

and -- but? -- most puzzling of all -- and this is my central point (after all, lack of interest in dull, boring, ordinary men; and lack of interest in the boulversant facts of life, such as one man peeing on another, can be, well -- local; I mean, it could be a matter of my personality; of the shape of my mind) --

3) total absence of any interest at all in art and culture.

This last is really puzzling to me: weren't these men -- these modernist authors -- think James Joyce, think the author of the book under review -- themselves cultured? Why did they not write novels about the lives of cultured men, then? The lives of cultured men seem to me so much more interesting, so much more worth talking about!

Now, some modern/ist writers can and do write about the lives of cultured men: Mann, who writes about Goethe, an imaginary composer, the Josephus myth; Proust who appears to live a life -- I think one has to take his novel as autobiographical -- which is an adjunct to, or, perhaps, a variation on his encounters with art: his servant makes him think of Italian primitives, a day in the garden -- of stained glass in Chartres, etc.; Parnicki, who writes about the internal lives of intellectuals struggling with new philosophical trends, say, ca. 202 A.D. and trying to make sense of new the outlooks on life risig about them). But not many. Most... most... don't?!

So, then perhaps one could say, perhaps these authors -- Joyce, this guy -- were not cultured? Certainly, their novels don't create an impression of them being cultured, of them engaging in any meaningful way with poetry, or painting, or music, or porcelain, or historiography, or ideology. If they have read the classics, their effect on them lies solely, it seems to me, in the point of style and is otherwise... wholly and completely undetectable. Indeed, if these authors insist on writing about themes such as -- well, being peed on, for example -- (OK, OK, I do get it: the peeing in fact symbolizes a relationship of power and control -- but then perhaps I am not interested in such relationships any more than I am interested in being peed on) -- it means either one of two things: either they have not had strong, memorable, life changing encounters with art and culture; or else they think such encounters are somehow -- trivial, not worth their or their readers' time, compared to the more fundamental (?) experiences, such as being peed-on.

(Which perhaps amounts to the same thing. Really, it does. Think about it).

I can't help feeling that this is a sort of... intellectual failure on their part; and cannot grasp how superior verbal technique can go hand in hand with -- well, a kind of untutored, primitive view of life. It's, as I said above, incongruous: it's like using the great St Jacobi organ (in Hamburg) to play "Fernando". It can be done, certainly. But why do it? Doing so seems a kind of -- slap to the instrument, not so? A kind of... sacrilege?

The problem does not stop there... the reviewer of the book presents himself on his blog as an eminently cultured person, with varied interests pursued in depth... His range of knowledge of the world must be far broader than that of book's hero (and possibly of the book's author's himself). So -- I wonder -- what can possibly interest the blogger in the book in question?

Christ, I so am puzzled.



Anonymous said...

I can't seem to find my way to the review you linked to, so I'm not sure what book is being referred to but I bet I haven't read it, and also won't, so that's not of that much concern.

However, I must say, your issue with cultured people writing about relatively uncultured people strikes me as very odd. I appear to be just as puzzled as you, but instead at your perception of the situation. I do not like to look at art of only beautiful people. It feels to me that life is really vast and I am interested in life and humanity. It touches me. I feel that everyone is complex, you just have to get in their deep enough and then in some basic way, everyone is the same, because everyone feels the same. It's the deconstructing of a person, and their life, and how they feel regardless of their privileges or intelligence. It's true that I like culture and intelligence, but there are so many people in the world who just live and walk around but still feel things as deeply as I do. In fact, more people like this than like the writer's themselves. I often find it irritating, a bit of a cop-out, when an author writes about a character similar to themselves.

I feel writing about people, regular people, but making them grand, even if they are stupid, and mundane from the outside, is where the talent of an author lies. An author should be able to make every character sympathetic, no matter how boring, or vile. Focusing only on cultured, intelligent characters would not do much. These people can be vile, sure, but it's easy to sympathize because they're interesting right away. And that's not very common. Most of the people in this world look boring. They're not.

If the author fails, then the author failed, but I think the attempt makes sense.

Sorry, I am so wordy, and I'm unsure I got my point across.

Sir G said...

I understand how you feel. Perhaps I have not explained my beef weel enough: books about Normal People do not help me. To me, they have all the usefulness of National Geographic specials on Meerkats -- and, to the extent that Normal People are often mean and ugly -- the Meerkat reports are at least prettier to look at. What I want to see is books about people like me who live my kind of life and deal with my kind of situations.

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