This Space

Sunday, July 09, 2017

The world as refuge: re-reading The Space of Literature

But where has art led us? To a time before the world, before the beginning. It has cast us out of our power to begin and to end; it has turned us toward the outside where there is no intimacy, no place to rest. It has led us into the infinite migration of error. For we seek art's essence, and it lies where the nontrue admits of nothing essential.

As part of a plan drawn by nostalgia and anxiety, I have been re-reading a few chosen books, wondering how might they re-present themselves to me after years of superficial memory and neglect. I have written about one I read in May. In June I re-read Blanchot's The Space of Literature (as translated by Ann Smock).

The first few pages of the second felt like a chore blocking the discovery of new books – haven't I read this enough? – but I was soon reading each chapter as if it was I was returning home after decades of wandering. What I write now will be an attempt to understand and explain this reaction so won't be a comprehensive summary. The italics are quotations.

The first thing to say is that 'criticism' isn't the right word for The Space of Literature, and, despite the many philosophical terms, allusions and adoptions, most notably from Heidegger, 'philosophy' isn't either. What sets Blanchot apart from any definable genre is that his writing exposes itself to its own analysis, or, rather, the analysis exposes itself to writing lacking such a possessive pronoun.

The opening chapter asserts the 'solitude' of the written work: To write is to break the bond that unites the word with myself. The work is even separate from the book, which we might see as a vessel borne on the surface of a submarine current: Writing is the interminable, the incessant. This means that the space of the title is not a privileged realm for a few "great writers"; it does not have borders or features with rules to be learned but is at a remove from such power. Mallarmé felt the very disquieting symptoms caused by the sole act of writing.
Blanchot cites Kafka's comment that he has entered literature when he replaces 'I' with 'He', but adds that this metamorphosis is more profound: In doing this, the writer belongs to a language which no one speaks, which is addressed to no one, which has no center, and which reveals nothing. Mastery over words puts the writer in contact with a fundamental passivity that cannot be grasped: To write is to make oneself the echo of what cannot cease speaking. Instead, in a stirring paradox, mastery consists in the power to stop writing, to interrupt what is being written. This a curious formulation. When we admire the tone of a particular writer, he says, it is not the writer's voice we admire but the intimacy of the silence he imposes on the word. He compares this to classicism in which the calm of the regular form guarantees a language free from idiosyncrasy, where impersonal generality speaks and secures the writer a relation with truth. But such calm requires the stability of an aristocratic society in which a part of society concentrates the whole within itself by isolating itself well above what sustains it. We might say that genre fiction is an aristocratic form.

Blanchot's preface to The Space of Literature

The imposition of silence is necessary because writing is an exposure to an outside – what might have been called the divine, the sublime or the infinite, and which Blanchot refers to the other night or the other of all worlds. And it is in incantatory prose and such hyperbolic phrases, otherwise unthinkable in literary criticism, that exposes us to how strange literature is in itself. Once you become accustomed to what at first appears as anachronistic and even absurd (certainly to English eyes – I remember a friend giggling as he read the opening pages), you might also recognise such excess defines us as human: in excess of body, in excess of world, akin to the internal perspective of language that Noam Chomsky has described and the excess of consciousness Mallarmé called this drop of nothingness. And if we are drawn to poetry and to the poets Blanchot writes about, it is their strange excess that sets their work apart and deserves to be addressed without being neutralised within the stability of a regular form. This is also why The Space of Literature appeared so vital to me upon re-reading; it does not stand aside from its subject.

The risk taken by such prose is in stark contrast to scholarly method that corrals prose into pens of reason isolated from the distress of the infinite. While it resists the temptations of fascination, which is necessary for its purpose, it does not assume the guarantees it expects. As Blanchot writes in a later book:
Reason … does not begin in the light of an evidency by which it would seize itself, but rather in an obscurity that itself is not manifest and whose discovery, seizure, and affirmation alone put thought to work, causing it to find and to extend its own light.
Blanchot turns the light off to reveal such obscurity. In a disconcerting move, reaffirming the unaccountability of literary space, he rejects the familiar priority of real-world over literature in which artistic activity is often portrayed as unrealistic, escapist and even in denial of the world, gaining acceptance only if it submits to the superiority of the physical world. For Blanchot, while the artist often seems a weak being who cringes within the closed sphere of his work where...he can take revenge for his failures in society, it is instead the artist who is exposed to the greatest threat: the loss of self and world in the space of literature:
It is then that Rimbaud flees into the desert from the responsibilities of the poetic decision. He buries his imagination and his glory. He says "adieu" to "the impossible" in the same way that Leonardo da Vinci does and almost in the same terms. He does not come back to the world; he takes refuge in it; and bit by bit his days, devoted henceforth to the aridity of gold, make a shelter for him of protective forgetfulness.
In later life, Rimbaud is said to have denounced his past work, refusing any further mention of it, which, for Blanchot, "shows the terror which he still felt and the force of the upheaval which he could not undergo to the limit. He is reproached with having sold out and deserted, but the reproach is easy for those who have not run the risk". The bottomless abyss belongs to art.

So much for escapism.

Re-reading The Space of Literature has reminded me why so much fiction leaves me confused by indifference and why criticism and reviewing often seems beside the point. While a novel's subject matter might be powerful and important, its story compelling, the prose style especially seductive and its sentences beautifully formed, such wealth often seems beside the point. The same goes for its social and political relevance, for a survey of its formal structures and for revelations of provided by psychological analysis. They might seem very insightful and pressing, but essentially beside the point, which is itself unlocatable. But what other reasons can there be for reading a novel?

Blanchot recognises how such a question is ironed out in book culture, with the general reader who makes a livelihood in a world where the clear daytime truth is a necessity [and] believes that the work holds the moment of truth within it constantly translating the work into ordinary language, effective formulae, useful values while, on the other hand, the dilettante and the critic devote themselves to the 'beauties' of the work, to its aesthetic value. Everyone, it seems, is happy. And with the advent of the internet, these groups have become indistinguishable. Witness the routine use of the word 'experimental' to champion, mitigate or patronise anything that doesn't quite meet either process, without any question of what 'experimental' might mean in in the first place.

To give an idea, Blanchot returns instead to the experience of writing before any of these ideas come into play. If the writer is devoted to the work, they are drawn by it toward the point where it undergoes impossibility. That is, when writing empties itself of the world and appears to writer as empty, without value. It is an experience Blanchot calls the very experience of night:
In the night, everything has disappeared. This is the first night. Here absence approaches – silence, repose, night. Here ... the sleeper does not know he sleeps, and he who dies goes to meet real dying. Here language completes and fulfills itself in the silent profundity which vouches for it as its meaning.
This is not a negative however, as it is where craft and determination gets the writer through the night in order to produce books. We can recognise how night maintains itself in the popularity of, for example, Horror or Gothic fantasy, in which we are exposed to the darkness in human life and to the black-hole of a non-human world. Except, we all know it is only the thrill of a fairground ghost train. It is in this context that Blanchot divides night in two: When everything has disappeared in the night, 'everything has disappeared' appears. This is the other night.
We enter into the night and we rest there, sleeping and dying. But the other night does not welcome, does not open. In it one is still outside. It does not close either; it is not the great Castle, near but unapproachable, impenetrable because the door is guarded. Night is inaccessible because to have access to it is to accede to the outside, to remain outside the night and to lose forever the possibility of emerging from it.
Blanchot's essay on Beckett's trilogy is the most famous expression of this condition. Not even the best creative writing course can help. This might be why indifference stands before me and devouring novel after novel. Many might be impressively wrested from night but they are also recognisably resistant to the other; even the latest 'experimental' hit reaches for the same gifts of silent profundity. Despite this, I am still drawn to novels, many of which are not in the least avant garde, as my enthusiasm for In a Hotel Garden demonstrates. So what is going on there; have I fallen for sentimentality? My response would be that this also shows how novels might dwell in what Blanchot calls the torn intimacy of an alliance between the activity of book making and the passivity of writing, as the characters seek to bring to life what haunts them and yet do so only in the dissimulation of speech and stories. And not only the characters.

It is for this reason I am drawn to what is often called metafiction and invariably disparaged as writing about writing, which might still be a turning away from the world, yet only in search of an origin, for what haunts writing. Blanchot offers a genealogy of what has passed in literature:
The work was once the language of the gods, their absence’s speech; subsequently it was the just, the balanced language of men, and then the language of men in their diversity. Then again it was the language of disinherited men, of those who do not speak. And then it was the language of what does not speak in men, of the secret, of despair or ravishment.
What, he asks, does such a list tell us? Only this: that art is constantly invisible to us. What is invisible demands to be seen, and if this suggests a demand separate from literary criticism, it is entirely in keeping with our times, in which origins are strictly taboo. What is left now for the work to say? What has always eluded its language? Blanchot asks. Seventy years after its publication, the answer and challenge proposed by The Space of Literature remains: Itself.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

"Summer reading"

Last week in the TLS the good and the ghastly offered their summer reading plans so, without anybody asking, here's my alternative list.

The left and right choices are related in that, for Bernhard, "Trakl’s influence on my work was devastating; if I had never heard of him I would have come a lot farther by now". (I now realise some time after posting that it's exactly 25 years since I saw the edition below of the Gesammelte Gedichte on display in a small town's library in the Sauerland region of north-west Germany and thinking in that moment of an impossible future.)

There are already two volumes of Bernhard's poetry in translation so, while one can't have too many translations, I do wonder what there is in addition to Princeton UP's In Hora Mortis/Under the Iron of the Moon, also translated by James Reidel, and Peter Waugh's On Earth and in Hell. There's also Reidel's translation of the long poem Ave Virgil, which I believe was written in London, published in Conjunctions: 53.

In contrast to Bernhard, I know nothing about Franz Fühmann but At the Burning Abyss has a great subject and an even better title. It might be worth noting that both this and Bernhard's poetry are published by Seagull Books and both editions are absent from its website (at least, I can't find them). Fortunately, the excellent University of Chicago Press has stepped in with pages for them, with the latter described as "a gripping and profoundly personal encounter" with Trakl's poetry.

The middle choice, The Eroticization of Distance: Nietzsche, Blanchot, and the Legacy of Courtly Love, was prompted by Joseph Kuzma's brilliant essay The Intimate Blanchot, which I read earlier this year. It challenges the assumption that his works "evoke sterility or even coldness" and instead argues Blanchot's fiction and criticism of 1940s and 50s reveals "the most profound intimacy occurs only when separation has been experienced, and affirmed, in its most radical form". This occurs to me as fundamental to the experience of literature. I'm especially keen to read this because, along with Jeff Fort's recent The Imperative to Write and Leslie Hill's Maurice Blanchot and Fragmentary Writing, two of the most remarkable books I've ever read, we appear to be in rich period of Blanchot studies in English. There's also John McKeane's forthcoming translation of Christophe Bident's biography.

What's notable in this list is that there is no fiction. Sometimes, while I await happy contradiction, I wonder if other forms offer more right now. An example might be Pierre Joris' translation of Paul Celan's Microliths, whose publication was postponed from February but, fingers crossed, might appear next month. Meanwhile, extracts are available here.

Finally, what's alternative about my list is that I won't likely be reading any of them, as the combined cost of those pictured is £99.

Monday, June 19, 2017

A commentary on myself

Robert Minto belongs to a rare and special group of people: he bought my book. Even rarer, he wrote a response, classifying it alongside Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry under a new genre, apophatic criticism: “a way of writing about literature that treats it as a commentary on itself, a seeking for its own limits”. Whatever the validity of the label, this is one the best things ever to happen in all my years of blogging, as I realise there are some critics who will never receive anything more than a cheque in the post. If there is one thing that has kept me writing for so long, it has been to find words for an experience of literature that appears to differ so markedly from those at the cash machine, so to have that recognised and appreciated in this way is not only gratifying but a great help.

You can read the whole thing here.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

From this bare island

From the front page of Brighton & Hove Council's free newspaper.

That word, invariably connected to public art: accessible. What does it mean?

The Festival is held once a year across May, heralded on the first Saturday of the month by the noisy, pavement-blocking Children's Parade that disturbs my trawl of the North Laine's secondhand bookshops. Otherwise I never notice that the festival is on, so promotion of these "arts hubs" must be irreproachable in its motivation. After all, as Kate Tempest says in the flyer pushed through each resident's letterbox, art should be "no big deal – just life itself". It's central to her theme of giving people's lives back to them through art: "We are so busy being human, we can lose touch with how bright and clear life is". She recommends attending as many events as possible and treating it "like you are a pilgrim on a quest". In doing so, you might find something that connects you to "a deeper and more soulful level with the truth of lived experience". 

What strikes me in this familiar appeal to accessibility and relevance is the allusion to religious belief and practice, not only in her choice of words but also in her Pint at Emmaus pose. Isn't this what is most removed from the everyday? Of course, the choice of words might be the casual coincidence of marketing hyperbole and democracyspeak, but it does stand out.

In what might also be a coincidence, this month I began reading Eamon Duffy's monumental study of traditional religion in England between 1400 and 1580; that is, before and after the English Reformation. The Stripping of the Altars describes in detail how the Catholic liturgy gave shape to the lives of the ancestors of those to whom Kate Tempest is appealing. It outlines a religious calendar packed with candlelit ceremonies and elaborate processions, with the four main ones embracing pre-Christian festivals marking the turning-points of the seasons. We have only to imagine the transformation of modern society around Christmas multiplied throughout the year to recognise how this would not only knit a community together but give a context to individual devotion. Reading it, one becomes aware of an alien world whose ruins are all around us.

The ghost of such festivals appeared to me as I was trying to cross a road blocked by the Children's Parade or, more accurately, the parents watching from the pavement. The children were excited to be dressed up and ready to march behind a group-made float (the one I saw was a galleon made from turquoise crepe). As they banged their drums and blew their whistles, their natural urge to show off was released and legitimated by the event. Any resentment I felt about the noise drowning out the podcast in my earphones was mitigated by this brief apprehension of the world of my ancestors. For all the relevance to current social and political concerns of the festival's events – Tempest's own performance is "set against a backdrop of global crisis" while a dance event (contain your excitement) "focuses the subjective and objective gaze within private and private spaces" – this simple procession seemed more authentic and effective.

I haven't attended a main festival event since 1993 (an Elvis Costello gig), for the same reason I have never willingly attended church. The Books and Debate category I find especially repellent because of its overt lack of literature. However, last year I did enter a thousand-year-old church to see a fringe performance by Alain Louafi of Stockhausen's Inori. It was the first time I'd heard his music on such a scale.

For 73 minutes (the introduction was precise) Louafi mimed to the music, making gestures synchronised according to the instructions Stockhausen had given him. Sometimes they were prayer-like, sometimes not. Here is a review of the event. All I can say now is that it was like witnessing the religious ceremony of an alien race. Would this be considered 'inaccessible'? It wasn't a question I asked at the time but might be why a few people walked out during the performance. If so, they would have found the night sky inaccessible in the same way.

I cannot say any more about Inori, not only because I lack the vocabulary but because stopping here seems to be necessary. Which leads me to this inexplicably beautiful and moving tweet that Peter Lorimer (not the Leeds and Scotland football legend) posted from Whittlesey in Cambridgeshire after witnessing the Straw Bear procession, which might well say all there is to say about the value of accessibility:

Sunday, May 14, 2017

This business of speech: In a Hotel Garden by Gabriel Josipovici

There is an element, in any good novel, of something that cannot be taken away without dissolving the whole book. If you remove everything else, that’s what remains. But what that core quality is, is hard to say. You can talk about it in negative terms. It’s not that the novel is so terribly exciting from a psychological point of view. It’s not that it has such unusually interesting or original insights into structures of contemporary society. It’s not that it’s so fascinating to get to know the characters, however eccentric or unique or typical. It is something else entirely, and it’s that insoluble quality that has to be there. That’s really all I can say.” – Dag Solstad

Before I had finished reading Mathias Énard’s Compass – the link goes to my review – I re-read Gabriel Josipovici’s 1993 novel In a Hotel Garden, perhaps because it has just been published in French translation and I wanted to remind myself of why I read it so often in the mid-1990s, or perhaps because I felt that, despite its many qualities, something was missing from Compass and this was the first place that occured to me to look for its name. I assumed it wouldn’t hold up to memory and fade in estimation to match the colours on my copy's spine because many of the novels that followed – Moo Pak, Goldberg:Variations, Everything Passes, After and Infinity – are more adventurous or unusual in form and content. Could it be really as special as I remembered?

In a Hotel Garden is certainly a very quiet novel, told almost entirely in dialogue and set in everyday situations, which one reviewer compared to those in the gentle comedy of Posy Simmonds’ cartoons of English middle-class life. It begins with two friends chatting while walking a dog on Putney Heath. Ben tells Rick about his holiday in the Dolomites with his girlfriend Sandra, in particular about meeting Lily, an Englishwoman staying in the same hotel. His curiosity is piqued because she hestitates to explain her reasons for visiting northern Italy. At first she says she needed space to think about her relationship with her partner Frank in London, who she would probably leave if she didn't love his dog so much. Ben has the chance to learn more because, as Sandra struggles to adapt to the altitude, he spends more time with Lily, chatting over coffee and then trailing in her wake on a day-long walk in the mountains. However, rather than the beginning of a traditional love triangle, the drama surrounds Lily’s reticence and Ben's persistence in trying to get her to talk.

When she finally does, she admits she wasn’t sure herself what draws her back to this part of Italy. She now realises it is because of a story her grandmother had told her about how, as a young woman on holiday in Siena with her family, she had met a young Italian man, also with his family and staying in the same hotel. They spent a great of time together in the hotel's garden. A romance appeared to be developing, even though he was already engaged and he had to leave soon for Trieste to continue his studies. They agree to meet in the same hotel the next time the family visits but, before that happens, he writes to tell her that he is marrying his fiancée. Despite this, he keeps writing letters as if nothing had happened. She never replies. Eventually he stops and his final contact is to send her a toy donkey, a gesture that upsets and offends her. Soon she gets married herself and has a family, but cannot let go of that time in the garden, repeating words to her young granddaughter:
The garden in Italy, she would say. I don’t know how I imagined it. The word garden took on a kind of magic for me. The words hotel garden. The words garden in Italy. The garden, she would say. The hotel garden.
Later, we learn that the reason the young man stopped writing was because he and his family were killed in the Holocaust. So this is a Jewish story too and Lily’s wish to find the garden becomes more complicated than the usual stuff of romance novels. Indeed, the novel's epigraph is from midrash on Genesis 39 – "Potiphar's wife too wished to belong to the history of Israel".

Back home in London, and after much deliberation, Ben contacts Lily and they meet up beside the Thames and it is here she tells him that what happened to the Jews in the past came alive for her through the young man in the garden. 
It came to me at the airport, she says. Why it was so important, that garden. It's as if that day their whole lives were present to them, their lives before and their lives after. Everything that would happen and not happen and all that would happen and not happen to their descendants. Everything. Enclosed in that garden. Held together by the trees and the wall and the silence. That's why I had to go there. To feel it for myself.
She shakes Ben's hand, says goodbye and crosses Hungerford Bridge, leaving him alone and as confused as ever. What had happened between them? Would she want to see him again? Was he only ever an inadvertent means to work through her personal issues?

The answer might not be present to Ben because it lies in the garden of the novel. When they're talking over coffee about the sights in Siena, Ben asks Lily if she had seen the mosaic in the cathedral, as it had always been covered up whenever he visited. Lily has: it depicts Absalom, third son of King David, hanging from a tree, his hair caught in low-hanging branches as he tried to escape from a battlefield. Lily says the rabbis point out that he who had gloried in the length and beauty of his hair to win popularity and undermine his father died for the same reason. Lily wonders if life can really have a pattern like that, and if we can become aware of it while in the middle of it. She decides we cannot.

To answer his questions, Ben returns to what appears to be his own pattern: talking. He talks to Lily, he talks to Rick, he talks to Francesca. This would seem harmless but, on their return from holiday, Sandra leaves Ben, without a word. Ben glories in talking about Lily and his relationship dies by it. And if we notice Ben's pattern, we begin to notice it throughout the novel: Lily talks to Ben, Ben talks to Rick, Ben talks to Francesca, and Lily's grandmother talks to the young man in the hotel garden and then talks to Lily about talking to the young man in the hotel garden. These conversations are always with someone at a certain remove: friend, granddaughter or complete stranger. Lily says her mother probably had no idea about the garden story. So what's going on here? The effect on what is said is peculiar, as Ben observes to Francesca:
– And I can’t get over this business of speech, he says.
One talks about things that could change one’s life but it’s just like talking about the weather.
In a Hotel Garden is very quiet novel because the central drama indeed appears no more pressing than the weather, and this is because we too are at a certain remove whatever the illusion of intimate access novels appear to allow. It should be no surprise then that Josipovici's novels, especially those as quiet as this, often provoke ambivalence because, while it isn't 'experimental' in any obvious way and cannot be patronised as such, neither is it a hefty tome with large characters or intense action. Indeed, it's not difficult to imagine a 500-page historical fiction following the parallel lives of Lily's grandmother and the young man, their brief intersection and their very different fates, with all the period detail you'd expect and with the holocaust narrative looming as large as a royalty cheque. And easy to imagine a keen reviewer telling us how it "tackles" themes of war, love and loss, and proves historical fiction "deserves more recognition". One might say these novels glory in life, and it's no coincidence that the novel Ben takes on holiday and fails to read is Henry James' The Ambassadors with its European setting, theme of liberation from a cramped culture and famous line "Live all you can, it's a mistake not to." If we assent to its demand, as so many do, hence its fame, why do we need its place in a novel to assure ourselves and others of its truth?

What suggests itself is that, however much we valorise living all one can, whatever we experience, distance takes possession of it. Everything that happens is already a book, even if it is one as evanescent as Lily's standing in the hotel garden. That is, what she experiences there is itself a novel. Everything is enclosed there, held together by the trees and the wall and the silence. It's why she had to go there. 

In a Hotel Garden investigates this paradoxical condition in which experience is never itself until it is what we understand as distance from experience, and therefore cannot rise above its implications. While dialogue – talking – appears to be as natural and realistic as can be, it is also as artificial and stylised as Howard Hodgkins's painting that graces the British edition. (Hodgkin once explained that he paints to recover the emotion of a place or situation and stops when that emotion returns, even if the painting is as artificial and stylised in comparison to its origin.)

I bought my copy of In a Hotel Garden on 9th February 1993. The date is written on the inside cover in red felt tip. Fifteen days later, Josipovici appeared on BBC Radio 3 to discuss the novel with John Tusa, Howard Jacobson and Kate Figes. Tusa began by asking if the title was chosen because 'hotel' and 'garden' had special meaning for Judaism: hotel standing for dispersion and exile, garden for the Garden of Eden. Josipovici was uncharacteristically fazed, so Jacobson asked if 'In' might have more meaning. He went on to say that he wrote the novel because, if he could say what he wanted to someone, he would say it to them in person and not write a novel. This adds an external displacement to those internal to the novel and substantiates the strange necessity of displacement, of writing fiction.

"Fifteen days later" was Wednesday, 24th February 1993: the day Bobby Moore died, the day the BBC broadcast a production of Beckett’s Endgame featuring Charlie Drake, and the day I drank a half a bottle of vodka in an hour, something I had not done before or have done since. I have no idea how I managed to record the TV and radio shows, but I did, hence the detail included here. Re-reading it again after twenty years has been a revelation, much like Lily returning many times to Italy only to discover the reason late on, and much like the author's 1977 Migrations two years ago. The revelation is I think that a book as quiet as this is necessary to enable a certain kind of speech; a speech displaced from speaking. And this is why I quoted Dag Solstad at the beginning. What's intriguing about In a Hotel Garden is that what one cannot take away without dissolving the whole book is not in fact present. Its core quality is that the core is absent, or is itself an absence that seeks to be filled with speech, and it might be this that drew me back.


Please email me at steve dot mitchelmore at gmail dot com.

Blog Archive


Contact steve dot mitchelmore at Powered by Blogger.