Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Lydia Davis and the Cosmogony of Capitalism

The average reader may not realize it, but we are living in an age of great political fiction. For a while after the Cold War literature lost its combativeness; the hegemony of Western mercantilist structures and the apostles of “liberal economies” turned the figure of the auteur engagé redundant, anachronistic even; “history” had had reached its finality and those living in the last decade of the millennium could boast of being the Last Men, that is, those who had solved all the apparent contradictions of the market. Only a few matters, more of makeup than essence, remained to iron out, and consequently novelists took up minor issues without ever questioning the foundations from which their flaws emerged: so David Foster Wallace savaged TV and the entertainment industry (Infinite Jest) in a gross simplification of Gerry Mander, sometimes even backpedalling from the aggressiveness of Four Arguments Against Television. And William Gaddis served a satire of litigious greed (A Frolic of His Own) without taking that phenomena to its matrixes. Meanwhile Don DeLillo seemed to take the end of the tensions for granted, with the “past,” or its currently-accepted simulacrum, stable enough to allow measurement and weighing and understanding, for a generation at least: thus the nostalgic novel about the 1950s, Underworld, pining for the dualities of a bygone era that would restore meaning to a growingly-obfuscating world on the threshold of Globalization. Others pushed further into the past, like the confusing, bloated novel by Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon, a pointless exercise that only fugaciously makes a connection between Enlightenment and Capitalism and the birth of the modern financial system. Melancholy laughs were safer than deep analyses. What all these novels showed was that a vast police tape cordoned off the present, making it impossible to examination save the corrupt authorities credentialed for it; thus crimes occurred without anyone able to cry foul.

For a while it seemed that politically-conscious literature had lost its edge, that it barely amounted to a residue during the false era of opulence that ended so tragically in 2001. Since then however a new breed of fiction writers has emerged to challenge the neo-bourgeois assumptions of the current world order. Unfortunately the political writing of our time cannot be said to be as free as in the heyday of Robert Coover and Ishmael Reed; 9/11 brought new challenges, and enforced and normalized an oppression and vigilance that forced many writers to feign vacuity, to seem to talk about illiterate banalities when in fact they’re writing acidic critiques of the system and speaking truth to power. Not without reason many writers think the government spies on them. Lydia Davis, the voice at the forefront of this generation’s indignation, stands out as a writer of great symbolic density whose messages, in order to be fully understood, must be rearticulated from an oblique modality to an enunciatory modality. This means academia, far from seeing its role threatened by the growing closing of the American mind, sees its function reasserted as the hierophant bridging the void between literature and the layman. A case-study is the apparently simplistic short-story "Idea for a Short Documentary Film," from Davis’ 2007 collection, Varieties of Disturbance:

Representatives of different food product manufacturers try to open their own packaging.

Behind this the story, which is no longer than this sentence, Davis performs some of the most extraordinary verbal feats in American letters since Nabokov. Like a poet, she condenses multiple allusions and polysemies in the space of mere verses. But unlike the old aristocratic émigré, living in his silly made-up worlds, Davis hurls her readers back to the immediacy of phenomenological actuality.

For instance, what to make of the fact that the short-story has 12 words? What does that make us think of? 12 members has a jury and 12 are the signs of the zodiac; and indeed this story is simultaneously a cosmogony and a theodicy. Less attentive readers may not have noticed that the first letter of the first word is in all-caps, that is, it’s isomorphic to a capital letter, capital of course being also the English word for the German Kapital, which in turn is the title of Karl Marx’s foremost critique (from the Greek word kritikós, someone good at judging, which we all hope jurymen are) of capital in modern times. Davis’ cosmogony, therefore, her new creation myth for our neoliberal age, starts with money. William Gaddis, in JR, only started the novel with the word money; Davis goes one step further, capitalism and writing converge into the semantic-epidermal network of the Word. But she plunges deeper, making explicit of all the whiffs of meaning only implicit in language. Balzac once famously said that behind every fortune there is a crime. Davis not only agrees but she gives the adage precision. The capitalized word representatives contains rep which is homologous to rape/rip (off), while also alluding to Jack the Ripper and linking the plight of the Victorian woman with the challenges of the modern woman, whose social victories have come under threat in recent years, forcing her to once again become a housewife, a mere reproduction machine, “to open her packaging,” as the short-story bluntly says, for the patriarchal forces the representatives represent, who urgently need her to restock the shelves of society with fresh consumers.

But there’s also pre or prey, as in preying on the weak; there is sen or sin, showing that although Capital is our era’s creation myth it is also its own original sin (creation and sin together, or as Marx would have called it, “the internal contradictions); and finally we have tatives, a phonetic rendering of the noun phrase the thieves.

So we have rape, preying, sin, thievery. Now notice how the short-story ends with packaging, which of course is a pun on peck and aging, as in pecking the aged, attacking the elderly, the welfare state, overriding the rights generations fought to conquer, obliterating the future itself. With her oblique style, Davis conjures some of the most horrifying images in contemporary American fiction. In a way this short-story is the bleakest dystopia since Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, except it has a social consciousness.

Of course all cosmogonies need their Armageddon. Taking imagery from popular science, but giving it much better use than Mr. Pynchon ever did, she uses the black hole as the concluding image of the narrative. Notice how the sentence ends with a black dot, in which we can persuade ourselves to see lack (in the dictionary sense: “deficiency or absence of something needed, desirable, or customary”) and do(ub)t, that is, uncertainty, anxiety, fear, the instruments with which the political-financial system keeps citizens weakened and distracted from their oppression.  In this new parable of creation, the “real” reality begins with God-Capital and ends with a cosmic conflagration of existentialist anguish, the black hole precipitated by the implosion of the collapse of the world financial system reverting Mankind to barbarity and scarcity. That much is signalled by the part about the food product manufacturers (different obviously stands for Globalization), introducing around the plot’s halfway point the theme of man reduced to a beast of primary desires and needs.

Apropos of Globalization, now of course Davis knows you can’t write different without rent, which operates on the double pun of rent money and the verb to rend (“to separate into parts with force or violence”): she no doubt intends the way the Western capitalist nations rent out the rest of the world to their representatives, rending the world apart, feeding, or preying (remember “food products” from words 4 and 5) on their inequalities and social asymmetries, which they manufacture with deliberation. In essence the emerging world is just a menu that pays for being its own meal to the rich (is it even necessary to point out the play on manu/menu and that in Latin factura becomes the modern factura, or bill and invoice, in Romanic languages like French, Spanish and Portuguese? The short-story won’t be fully understood unless we draw from the author’s experience as translator). At the same time Davis takes a strong stance on job scarcity: notice the disproportion between nouns and verbs: only two words out of 12 constitutes verbs, that is, words that act, that work, whereas the nouns (or substantives [for substance, goods, richness)] overwhelm the text, much like shortage of jobs, in this austerity-harmed economy, are hampered by the lack of financial investment, the banks hoarding it all in secret offshore accounts while companies disappear one bankruptcy at a time. Kapital here becomes the dyad of capital and capitol (Washington D.C.), linking the banks with politics for the current state of the world while also drawing parallels with the Roman capitol of imperial times, making this short-story at the same time one of the most eloquent indictment of covert neo-colonialism: imperialism did not finish, it just changed forms and geographies.

Therefore Davis gives us a parable, or rather a pa-rable, a conflict set in scene between a Jungian archetype we may simply call Pa, an all-mighty figure of authority, and the rabble, between the rich and powerful and the dispossessed; but parable also invokes a pair, and what famous pair do we have in creation myths? Able sounds just like Abel, and symbolism about keepers killing their wards runs through this text. Much like Cain killing Abel, banks have killed the economy, betraying their duty to watch over and to look out for the proverbial little guy.

Finally we can’t forget that, with some imagination – it’s irrelevant if the author intended this reading; the text’s elasticity permits it – the par in parable can be turned into pas, meaning not in French, making it not able, which with a further help from imagination we can convert into disabled, which brings us full circle to the attack on the elderly, the welfare state, the future that will not come into fruition thanks to these dictatorial filmmakers from the title.

It can then be said that this short-story is a parable wherein Capitalism is seen as a God, pitted against the failing forces of Humankind; an angry, hungry god absorbing all resources; an oppressive God who sets back female social conquests; a creation myth and modern apocalypse that foretells an obliteration in the black hole. In Davis’s text is the entirety of the current history since Reagan and Thatcher. In 12 words she achieves what Don DeLillo failed to map in Underworld: a cartography of greed and betrayal, a hymn to a self-destructed species, a maudlin meditation on the recrudescence of conservatism, uttered with the eloquence and vitality and terror of a biblical verse. But there is no New Testament here. We are in the desert, wandering below a tyrannical authority figure, without comfort from priestly lies.

Is it depressing? Yes. Is it hopeless? It certainly is. Davis proves that authentic art can carry political messages without compromising aesthetic vision. Although concise the story packages a lot and its themes reverberate countless times through the narrative, accumulating, obsessing, transforming themselves, like Bach variations, to make sure we understand what it’s saying. The syntax of course is deceptively simple at times, even declarative, to show the strangling of imagination and complexity in modern times, the rise of anti-intellectualism coeval with the hegemony of performative ambitions; look how the title alludes to the obsession with filmmaking, in a single sweep mixing Guy Debord and Mark Zuckerberg. Don’t forget she was writing in 2007, before Facebook gained the importance it currently has. Lydia Davis not only displays the finest verbal skill since Shakespeare, she’s also our modern-day William Blake, a prophet of fire and thunder.

That's not a pussycat, that's a communist.

Miguel M. Miguel is a philosopher, teacher and editor of The Marxist Review of Books. His most recent book is called Further Spectres of Derrida. He currently teaches at the Johns Hopkins University.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Women and Men and Singing Dragons

I can open the novel on any page and shudder at the horrors:

Why scapegoat? Because history through scapegoat turns Cruel to Fair, Revenge to Reciprocity, shifts windows to present a parallel sacrifice: so Jim Mayn’s father Mel (upon Sarah’s suicide) is your widowed scapegoat for his ignorance of life’s sweet mystery – when from his office where he’s known for saying, “Let’s look at the history,” he came home, though homeward not quite to (and latish) Jim’s penetrating mother – ever late to her who seemed not to leave the house much (when did she? and when did lower Main Street see her? when did Jim’s grandmother up the street see her, her daughter? do we not know?) – and coming home, Mel is tired and yet threatening to bend someone’s ear (though never tweak), even hers, he wants to tell all at the end of the day: about reviewing Wilkie’s One World (oh it was his lovely hair and Saint Bernard eyes – Sarah chilled her husband’s fervor – that made you think Wilkie the Democrat’s Republican) but Sarah’s not political – never mind the newspapers in the family since long before even her mother Margaret’s continental adventures of the early nineties; or Mel wants to tell about Should we subscribe to the new wire service (1941-41-ish) – or Mel’s telling (at the end of the day) all about Pennsylvania cousin running for mayor “over there,” for God’s sake, son of if-you-recall uncle who ran from restaurant to restaurant with the dynamite-tossing anarchists during the vacation in Paris 1894):

… while she too is scapegoat . Sarah (if angelwise we many descend on her who one day around the end of the wars put her foot down – but on the sea, we head added as if in poetry as if we didn’t know as if some additive from unknown within us) – and escaped at least that life; though wasn’t he the one who wasn’t there? (he left to go downtown! Jim’a father, the husband Mel Mayn, if not Grace’s Lou).

Yet some of him she kept. Some Lou. So did she throw away the wrong part? (asked our resident angel rabbi with honed wit resuscitating old MacDune’s athletic twist that the Matter angels are part made of is not really corporeal! – which is why angels can in great numbers occupy one place – whereas a human person)…

            no Jew Lou, the name that Lou is short for’s, yes, Ripley) – her man, her one-time man with R.R. on the combo-lock (tho no more in it than in all the dumb stuff they employ telepathy to send) attaché (maybe nuclear emergency) case who goes such a long time without breathing that maybe we expected him to evolve, easing us of our jittery distance which ‘mung angel is code for what went on between them, and on and on – just plain inertia- no crying-out-loud, no fistiquiff, ‘twas mystery why (pir-quoit) they stayed nor split. (pp. 161-162)


I detested reading Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men; and I could have left it at that if The Untranslated hadn’t asked me for a review. Less and Less I see the point of writing about novels I don’t like; the brevity of life imposes upon one a need for priorities. These days I deal with negativity in my private affairs so much that I try not to bring it into the safe haven that I have turned my blog into. Writing about McElroy’s novel doesn’t make sense to me unless I use this opportunity to write about novelists I do like.

First of all I faced the prospects of reading McElroy’s legendary 1987 novel with enthusiasm; I had heard about his infamous difficulty, but I filed it away as a variation of the nonsense that makes quite enjoyable novelists like William H. Gass, Thomas Pynchon and even Vladimir Nabokov – how he of all people earned that reputation astonishes me – sound intimidating, unrewarding, and unpleasant; so I bought Women and Men with relish, anticipating the pleasures McElroy would give me, like other American novelists who emerged during the ‘60s have. Well, regarding the pleasure part, the English language invented the word jowfair for what happened next.

Imagine spending over a thousand pages with two ordinary quidam explaterating in stream-of-consciousness, to the rhythm of endless, chronologically-fragmented schizothemia, about their uninteresting, uneventful lives, routines and aspirations, in clumsy, rough prose that offends your aesthesis, not so much with the sheer impenetrability of its logorrhoea, as with its absolute ugliness. One’s a journalist, the other gives female masturbation workshops, but don’t let this fool you; sometimes I think McElroy had in mind a parody of ‘70s feminism, but what in another writer’s hands would have provided countless laughs, in his it merely seems contrived. I asked you to imagine their company for one thousand pages, but in fact I gave up just before I reached three hundred, the whole brevity of life impositions business…

Like many of his coevals, Elroy rarely cultivated the essay form; I find this regrettable because they tend to provide good insight into their minds and methods. However in 1974 he did write Neural Neighborhoods and Other Concrete Abstracts. At least I can say that title and content mirror their author’s perfectly. John Barth’s essays have the humour and narrative thrust of his novels, they impel me forward; Gass writes essays as delicate as his fiction, poring the same attention into their sentences, inducing me to pause to savor a metaphor or alliteration. McElroy, in turn, wrote his essay with the same choppiness, opacity and disorder that makes his novel nearly impenetrable and hostile. Still some bits shone with grim, cautionary meaning: “Reading Gravity’s Rainbow at last in the Spring of ’74, I felt again and again that it could have been stronger if Pynchon had found a way to crystallize some quantities of chronicle and ambiguous humor into forces of contemplative form that would do more justice to all that he sees and knows.” Oh, dear, he belongs to that type, doesn’t? He prefers contemplation to humour. This rang alarms in my head. “It may be that Pynchon is too humanly appalled, too much a would-be narrative entertainer, and too temperamentally much the apocalyptician to make a purer and fuller use of his technology and science.” Wait, did he just complain that Pynchon adheres too much to narrative? Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, notorious for its formlessness? McElroy thinks it has too much form? Perhaps somebody could rise the level of chaos and shapelessness a bit; perhaps he was the man for the job. As I read this essay, after having endured a few pages of his unbearable tome, in hope of finding an explanation, I thought to myself, “This is what you write when you think Pynchon is too structured, too narrative, too tight; you write something like Women and Men.”

At this point I should applaud McElroy for crossing new limits, expanding the boundaries of the novel, innovating the form; I know I should relish at “new syntax,” like experimentalism paladin Ben Marcus does when he’s not writing conventional novels like The Flame Alphabet. I wanted to applaud this novel; it’s long and complex, and took a decade to write, it makes huge demands, and people I admire praise it. It seemed just like the type of novel I was reading. But now, honestly? I don’t give a shit. I don’t give a shit about the motto of Modernism, I don’t give a shit about subverting the expectations of the novel, I don’t care if Steven Moore considers McElroy a genius.

You see, somewhere around November 2013 my reading habits changed. As you all know, I have written a novel; I began writing it in September 2013, and by October I had a first draft finished, an enormous pile of dung that left me despising myself for having produced a substandard novel with which to pollute the world, exactly what I had promised myself I would not do.

Despondent, I examined myself to understand what had gone wrong, besides lack of literary gifts. Being November, José Saramago’s birthday, I had finished re-reading The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, so I started thinking about everything that novel could do that mine couldn’t. It made me think of the omnipresent narrator’s voice, the metafictional asides, the nonchalance with storytelling, the pervasive humour. It made me think of another novel I had recently read, Gonzallo Torrente Ballester’s Fragmentosde Apocalipsis. This novel has one of the most wondrous events in any book I’ve ever read: at one point the narrator, who’s also the author living inside the novel and commenting on it while he builds its narrative, decides to take his girlfriend on a trip to an island where a docile singing dragon lives. Since he’s the author he can do whatever he wants, so he just imagines themselves flying and up they go, arriving quickly on the island, where he instantly conjures the singing dragon because he can. As I thought about these two novels in tandem, I asked myself, “Why can’t my novel have singing dragons whenever I want? Where did I go wrong with it?” I’m sure I’m not the first person in the history of novel writing to ask that question. My novel, at the time, obeyed a simple structure: a protagonist narrated a series of events, with a few temporal jumping back and forth, about his life from childhood to his present situation. I came to hate the oppression of this format on my imagination; I couldn’t abandon this protagonist’s experiences, I had to tell everything from his perspective, and to make matters worse I hadn’t made him a particularly interesting character. The novel, in its primitive form, was bland, insipid and devoid of redeeming merits.

Now the breakthrough that made my novel writing a great joy throughout the year of 2014 was my realizing that I needed to shift from a first person to third person narrator, to make myself free to roam, digress, jauk, dwale and astrogate through my novel in whatever directed I wanted; follow a different path whenever my instincts told me that there was some fossicking to do in the vicinities; forget the protagonist for a while, do something else, come back later, he’ll still be there.

I didn’t add a singing dragon to it, but the actual Universe shows up as a character, busy trying to answer a question the desperate protagonist asks him; and angry Muses intervene too, and God promenades through an art gallery taking notes for the next time he wants to have a go at a better Creation; and I describe the collapse of the Sistine Chapel as if it were a paternalistic wild life documentary; and the deranged protagonist has dialogues with his sigmatism-sounding cerebellum (get it?); I even have talking animals, because at this point all the rules of good taste have been broken anyway. Torrente Ballester can keep his singing dragon! Not many pages go without my reminding the reader that there’s almost no adherence to verisimilitude here. More than an omniscient narrator, Torrente Ballester showed me that I should instead strive to produce an omnipotent narrator, who can do whatever he wants whenever he feels like it, without any regard for reality.

As I continued my self-examination I asked myself why I wanted to write, but before that I had to ask myself why I like to read. And as I slowly got rid of the predictable and false reasons – because it makes us feel human (as opposed to what?), because it teaches us about others (shouldn’t we learn that from dealing with others? Aren’t books actually stealing time away from others?), because they’re mirrors to reality (don’t we have newspapers for that?) – I realized I enjoy books because I like strange stories with strange characters doing strange things; I like humour and suspense; I like surprises; I like novels with arcana and useless but delightful factoids (mine’s full of them); I like novels that celebrate imagination in itself. During the first months I had written the novel others expected me to write, the default novel, what Steven Moore in The Novel: an alternative history as “straightforward, lightly romanticized stories of recognizable people out of everyday life, usually narrated in chronological sequence and in language no different from that of the better newspapers and journals.” Beginning with my second draft I swore to myself I wouldn’t write this!

Regarding this matter I received considerable inspiration from American novelists. Although Torrente Ballester and Saramago took care of my impasse with content, I had trouble with form. Then around mid-2014 I read Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Alexander Theroux’s Darconville’s Cat, then Gass’ Middle C, and a quartet of António Lobo Antunes novels, and I let their beauty, delicateness, musicality, ample vocabularies, unpredictable metaphors and similes seduce me. Before I knew it I was rewriting my novel – it went through 5 or 6 drafts – incorporating their lessons. By the end of Summer 2014, I had a good idea of how I wanted my novel to be: funny, surprising, unpredictable, gripping, totally unrealistic, highly attentive to language and vocabulary, hopefully not indifferent to human interest, and I daresay even erudite; this last part comes from making the mistake of reading The Recognitions; after that I learned that a novelist can never be too erudite.

Whether I achieved my goals is irrelevant. What matters is that at some point my tastes and interests greatly changed. Writing a novel has changed me. I don’t think it has made me a better person; in fact it has made me more selfish, easily irascible, nitpicky, solitary, and even bitter. But when I write I don’t worry about that. I just about gave up a life, I spent more money than I should have on reference materials, stopped going to the movies. I learned to take pleasure in many things I don’t recommend: spending an hour trying to craft an alliterative sentence or weaving an inner rhyme; transferring marginalia from reference books to Word documents; browsing the dictionary for the right word I don’t mean Flaubert’s bon mot, which concerned creating a sense of elegance; I mean the exact, correct word for that thing you think there isn’t a word for. Did you know that the tips of shoelaces are called aglets? That to cloffin means to sit idly by a fire? That the inability to recall a precise word is called lethologica? The problem with becoming obsessed with words in one language is that I became obsessed with them in another. Too much Theroux ruins a person’s sanity; maybe that’s why he’s out of print. I’ve lost count of the hours I plundered dictionaries, catalogued words, made excel sheets organized by theme; I basically created my individual, open-ended thesaurus which I augment every day. I also have lists for rhymes and alliteration, which led to new discovered; I’ve discovered, for instance, that the best consonant to make alliterations with in Portuguese is the latter t; you have greater chances of finding a word wherein the stress falls in a t-sounding syllable than any other. I’m not crazy, by the way. I’ve also discovered that assonance is really hard in Portuguese, although a-sounds are more common; e sounds are alright, I-, o- and u-sounds are very rare, although not impossible to use if I browse entire dictionaries looking for words. That also means walking around with notebooks and writing down am unusual word every time it comes to me, paying attention to the sounds in them. It also means sometimes getting up in the middle of the night to write down a word that I know will greatly improve the book if it replaces another word in the sentence. And so many more degrading, embarrassing things have afflicted me that I don’t recommend writing novels to anyone.

But novel writing has the further disadvantage of turning me intolerant to other novels. I turn to the great novelists I like to keep me inspired and challenged; they’re navigational stars orienting me safely to my destination. Writing has shown me the importance of concentration instead of dispersal; rather than constantly looking for new novelists, I return to the ones I know will give me that necessary jolt; I need novels that constantly tell me, “You need to be this good, you have to do better, you can’t be satisfied with the shit you’ve written,” I’ve become quite choosy.

What do I like in a novel? I like imagination: The Third Policeman, The Master and Margarita, Nights at the Circus, The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr. I like the intrusion of the fantastic in everyday reality: Jorge Luis Borges, Garcia Márquez. I don’t mind difficulty and hermeticism so long as the narrative rewards me with humour and entertainment: I'll gladly endure Lobo Antunes’ tortuous prose just to enjoy his lyrical acidity; I don’t mind fishing in 18th century dictionaries to understand paragraphs of Aquilino Ribeiro. Now this is where McElroy comes in; I don’t like his novel because it has nothing to offer me in return for my hard work; if I unravel the humorless, cumbersome stream of consciousness of his two protagonists, I’ll end up with… what? The life stories of two ordinary people whose existences are indistinguishable from those I see around me? What does that add to my life? I don't want literature to reflect; I want it to add, give me what real life can't give me. Reading this novel is like having direct access to a Facebook wall inside someone's head; why would I want to get inside the heads of ordinary people? I may as well go roll around a junkyard for fun.

I was reading a book on Eça de Queiroz and came across this great sentence about The Relic, my favourite novel by him; it turns out his first biographer, João Gaspar Simões, was quite irate about this charming and hilarious novel; JGS saw it as a betrayal of the author’s Realist creed, a rejection of his sharp social analysis, which was just a copy of what everyone else was writing in Europe at the time. Alas, he couldn’t appreciate a really original novel. “A picaresque anecdote, without cultural responsibility nor psychological verisimilitude,” he summed it up dismissively. I love this sentence because it perfectly describes my own novel. More and more I feel tired of psychological verisimilitude. I walk in the streets, look at people, and don’t find them very plausible or realistic; I find my characters more substantial and captivating than most people I know. Another negative effect writing has had on me: it has heightened my misanthropy. But Women and Men expects me to be dazzled just because McElroy created these hyper-realistic consciousnesses, and he uses stream of consciousness to so we can have a more direct, non-language-mediated access to consciousness, because apparently that's a desirable goal, and I should applaud and admire because we all know novels are supposed to create realistic consciousnesses. I’m supposed to cheer at a novelist who’s locked himself in a prison that doesn’t allow him to flex his imagination in whatever direction he wants just for the hell of it. Uh, nope, I’m not going to play that game. I prefer pedantic Tomcat Murr writing his autobiography; I want Behemoth causing mischief in Moscow; I long for singing dragons.

I don’t have anything to review Women and Men about; basically my problem with it is that it’s not the type of novel I want to read. I accept that, I see the foolishness of criticizing a novel for not being what I want it to be. These days I prefer to praise, that’s why I surround myself with great novels I know will have my praise.  And nowadays I’m in no mood to praise a novel that is so imaginatively restricted – that favors the miniature instead of that mural; that follows Marc Rothko instead of Giovanni Paolo Panini – that it precludes a novelist from adding a singing dragon; for me that is a faulty novel that should go back to the draft stage. That’s how I think about novels these days; I don’t know if it’s a rational way of thinking about novels, but I feel quite happy this way. More than I ever did reading Joseph McElroy.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Guy Davenport: A Table of Green Fields

Not long after discovering Paul West, I read Guy Davenport (1927-2005) for the first time. Essayist, translator, painter, poet and short-story writer, Davenport never became a household name, prompting John Jeremiah Sullivan to define him as a cult writer, but one whose “work has none of the thinness of the cult writer” and “who seems destined to endure.” I think so; I hope so. With West Davenport shares the qualities of imagination and eloquence; he does not have West’s lexical wizardry, instead his writing builds around short, powerful, epigrammatic sentences, like the ancient Greeks he translated. One short-story in A Table of Green Fields, for instance, doesn’t have commas. A voracious reader and a college teacher for decades, erudition also naturally seeped into his fiction. Like Jorge Luis Borges, we can say of him that he writes books from other books; armed with infinite knowledge, Davenport takes us in journeys through time, geography, the sciences and the arts to instruct us and delight us. “Writing, like painting, was my escape from the academy,” he said to Sullivan.

Davenport saw writing as play, as having fun. Although he flirted with a creative writing course, he soon saw the limitations of traditional writing. “At Duke I took Prof Blackburn's Creative Writing course (Bill Styron and Mac Hyman were in the class) and got the wrong impression that writing is an effusion of genius and talent.  Also, that writing fiction is Expression of significant and deep inner emotion.  It took me years to shake off all this.  Writing is making a construct, and what's in the story is what's important.  And style: in what words and phrases the story is told.  (William Blackburn, the full name.  His guiding us all toward autobiographical, confessional, "emotional" writing is -- in reaction -- why I write about concrete objectivities that are fairly remote from my own experiences.  I like to imagine how other people feel in a world different from my own.).” To his short-stories he gave the names of “assemblages” and “collages.” In an interview to B. Renner, apropos of how he wrote, he added: “I put in what seemed good images and quotations, and hoped that they'd work.” A Table of Green Fields, containing ten stories, demonstrates this method: usually they involve real-life figures, obscure episodes culled from biographies or history books, digressions into essayism, a constant change of structure, and jarring juxtapositions of sources and styles. A lover of the concrete and visual, his approach to character eschews interiority and favours action and landscape; personality is in speech, gestures, and mood.

The first story, called “August Blue,” constitutes a synthesis of the book’s strengths and weaknesses. Each of its four sections jumps around in time and character, and their interconnectedness comes out obliquely, if at all. The first section starts with Jesus’ boyhood and resembles the start of any other story. “On the way to school, just past the bird market, there is one of the largest fig trees in Jerusalem. It was believed by some to be as old as the temple and to have a special blessing on it whereby the figs were fatter and sweeter than any others in the world, except, of course, in the Garden of Eden. They were, in color more blue than green. The milk that bled from its stems when you pulled one of its figs cured warts, the quinsy, and whooping cough.” Jesus’ classmates long to taste those figs, and Jesus unexplainably obtains some for them. In the classroom their teacher lectures them about the Phoenician and Phoenician alphabets and how the Hebrew letter alef relates to them (Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel has an excellent chapter on this, by the way), then they discuss the letter yud and Jesus miraculously produces figs to give his teacher. His classmates call him meshuggeh, the Yiddish word for crazy.

The second section introduces us to James Joseph Sylvester, a real-life British mathematician lecturing in pre-Civil War Virginia, and a Jew witness to the xenophobia, laziness and indiscipline that characterises the American privileged class. In the concise, direct way he describes Sylvester’s life, Davenport becomes essayistic: “He was a member of the Royal Society. At age twenty-seven he had distinguished himself with so brilliant a series of mathematical papers that he had been invited to come to Virginia. Jefferson’s plan was to bring the best minds of Europe to dwell in this academic village, as he liked to call it. And now Jefferson was dead, leaving his faculty of European geologists, chemists, linguists, historians, and mathematicians to carry on his work of civilizing Virginia and her sister states.” A remarkable passage, to  me, it illuminates the future – it echoes another famous collection of European minds in America – and builds bridges into the past; a persistent idea I keep finding in my recent readings of John Barth and Thomas Pynchon concerns this idea that America, far from representing a new thing, results from a continuation of European culture, both the culture and the stupidity and narrow-mindedness. Just consider the morons poor Sylvester has to put up with: “Professor Sylvester’s problem was one he had never before met. His students, all healthy, strapping young men from the richest families, were illiterate. They knew nothing. He could scarcely understand a word the said. They came late to class, if at all, accompanied by their slaves. They talked with each other while Professor Sylvester lectured. The strangest thing about them was that they did not want to learn. Take Ballard. He was from Louisiana, some great plantation with hundreds of slaves. He was a handsome lad, beautifully dressed.” And yet these students “duelled, and fought with Bowie knives. They drank themselves into insensibility. They came to class drunk. When Sylvester tried to find out why this was allowed, he was reminded that the students were aristocrats.” As I have pointed out, his xenophobic, slave-holding students disrespect and insult him because of his Jewish roots; he starts carrying a sword cane; when two brothers go too far he stabs one of them and departs Virginia. A happy epilogue explains to us that he gets a job at John Hopkins University and founds the first mathematical school in the USA, “where he introduced the Hebrew letters shin and teth into mathematical notation,” and “[y]ears later, the great Georg Cantor, remembering Sulvester, introduced the latter alef as a symbol of the transfinite.” It took its time but we get a connection, sort of.

The third section, the shortest, describes a journey to a place called Ely Minster. When I finished the story I looked it up and discovered, thinking myself clever, that Davenport had merely transcribed an excerpt from Daniel Defoe’s A Tour Thro' The Whole Island of Great Britain, Divided into Circuits or Journies; but as he explains in the Author’s Notes, he actually mixed Defoe with writings by Samuel Pepys. And the relevance of the Isle of Ely, perhaps, comes from serving as Ludwig Wittgenstein’s burial ground, which I guess has something to do with mathematics, infinity and language, themes from the previous sections.

The final section concerns real-life British painter Henry Scott Tuke, who in 1894 painted “August Blue,” the painting shown in the book’s cover and which alludes to one of Davenport’s favourite themes. Tuke liked to show naked and semi-naked young men, like this:

A naturalistic section set in 1922 (an important year for Modernism, an era and topic that fascinated Davenport), it finds the painter and some male friends enjoying a little outing by a riverbank for something modelling, bathing and apricating. A mystery surrounds one of the painter’s friends, someone called Aircraftsman Ross whose portrait he paints; as the narrative progresses, though, we realize this rank and name cover his real identity. Once you learn it, it changes the narrative’s whole dynamic. The Author’s Notes give a clue to his identity, although you still need to do some sleuthing. I’ve provided you with a few more clues.

What does this section have to do with the rest of the story? I can’t fathom any connection; it may exist, more thematically, or spiritually, than narratively. For me, though, this story encapsulates the book: in some ten pages it shows dazzling erudition, pedantry, fine writing, imagination, strange juxtapositions and lots of cocks.

My favourite story – perhaps because of its conventionality compared to the others – comes right after “August Blue.” “Belinda’s World Tour” starts with an episode from a Franz Kafka biography: allegedly one day the Prague writer met a little girl in the street crying because she had lost her doll; Kafka comforted her by telling her that the doll had left on a journey across the world, and for weeks wrote her postcards. In Davenport’s take, Kafka, in order to help her overcome this loss, “as this was the first tragedy of her life and she was indulging in all its possibilities,” tells her that Belinda met a little boy or doll called Rudolf, “who invited her to go with him around the world. But he was leaving immediately. There was no time to dally. She had to make up her mind then and there. Such things happen. Dolls, you know, are born in department stores, and have a more advanced knowledge than those of us who are brought to houses by storks. We have such a limited knowledge of things.” Unlike realist fiction, instead of describing Davenport creates, he adds, he opens up possibilities; I so much want to believe something like this happened, the great Kafka consoling a child because he couldn’t bear seeing her sad.

Most of the narrative comes in the form of short texts written on the postcards Belinda writes the little girl from around the world, full of national stereotypes and literary jokes. In London “[t]hey all carry umbrellas, as it rains constantly, and long poles to poke their way through the fog.” In Copenhagen they stay “with a nice gentleman called Hans Christian Andersen. He lives next door to another nice gentleman named Soren Kierkegaard. They take Rudolf and me to a park that’s wholly for children and dolls, called Tivoli. You can see what it looks like by turning over this card. Every afternoon at 4 little boys dressed in red (and they are blond and have big blue eyes) march through Tivoli, and around and around it, beating drums and playing fifes. The harbour is the home of several mermaids. They are very shy and you have to be very patient and stand still a long time to see them.  The Danes are melancholy and drink lots of coffee and read only serious books. I saw a book in a shop with the title How To Be Sure As To What Is And What Isn’t. And The Doll’s Guide To Existentialism; If This, Then What? and You Are More Miserable Than You Think You Are.” In Russia “they read serious books here, too. Their favourite author is Count Tolstoy, who is one of his own peasants (they say this distresses his wife.). and who eats only beets, though he adds an onion at Passover.” In Japan “[e]verybody stops what they are doing ten times a day to write a poem. These poems, which are very short, are about crickets and seeing Fujiyma through the wash on the line about feeling lonely when the moon is full. We are very popular, as the Japanese like novelty.” In America “[w]e have seen utopias of Quakers and Shakers and Mennonites, who live just as they want to in this free country. There is no king, only a Congress which sits in Washington and couldn’t care less what the people do. I have seen one of those Congressmen. He was fat (three chins, I assure you) and offered Rudolf and me a dollar each if we would vote for him. When we said we were from Prague, he said he hoped we’d start a war, as war is good for business.”

No other short-story in the book illustrates so powerfully and cogently why I love literature!

Mind you, this playfulness does not exist in all the short-stories; Davenport can also write good, naturalistic narratives.“Gunnar and Nikolai” concerns a sculptor Gunnar, a sculptor, and Nikolai, a teenaged model posing for a naked statue of Shakespeare’s Ariel. “He was the spirit of the air. Like an angel,” Gunnar explains. “Nikolai thought about this, guppying his coffee and sprucing the fit of his foreskin.” Davenport devotes many pages to describing naked teenagers (Nikolai is twelve; his friend Mikkel is 13.) playing with themselves. These short-stories tend to inhabit a remarkably nonchalant and tolerant dimension wherein men don’t panic and throw fits at child sexuality and adults clearly lusting after boys; in fact in these stories everyone’s probably gay or at least bisexual. “Being naked’s fun. My grandma and grandpa, Mama’s mama and daddy, are Kropotkinites, and I’m boss in my own pants. My folks are as broad-minded green as they come, no barbed wire anywhere, good Danish liberals, to the point of being fussy. You know what I mean?” asks the precocious Nikolai. Elsewhere Davenport gives us one of his customary about penile stimulation. “Briefs down, he tickled the neb of his penis, a baby’s innocence in his smile.” Or how about this longer passage between, Nikolai and his friend Mikkel, so unabashedly homoerotic:

   Fox bark, gruff. Nikolai monkeyed from the bed to the sill, replying with a cub’s whimper. Coupled hand and wrist, Nikolai pulled and Mikkel climbed until he had a kneehold, swinging his other bare leg into the room. They sat on the floor, grinning at each other in the dark. They crept like panthers, on fingers and toes, to the bed. Nikolai, naked under the blanket, watched Mikkel tug off his jersey, the tuck of his navel, a dab of shadow on his moonlit front.
   In their shy and democratic privacy under the sheets Nikolai speculated on the interestingly different warm and cool places of the body, flinching from cold fingers and toes, the climate of a bed, the frankness of hands.

No wonder the criticasters hurled the worn-out obscenity label at him. In “The Lavender Fields of Apta Julia” we have a more direct sexual blossoming, this time between straight couples: Julie and Bernard, Marc and Anne-Marie, four teens discovering sex. The first couple has reached the kissing stage at least and wander off to enjoy themselves; the other two, not yet an item at the start of the story, decide to climb a tree, get undressed, bundle their clothes and drop them over their friends to scare them; this prank turns into an unexpected sexual adventure atop a tree. Next day all four reunite, Marc expecting another similar adventure. Unfortunately such experiences don’t quite happen as we plan them, which elicits a beautiful sentence that contains all the magic and sadness of childhood and life in general: “Whatever you’re scheming won’t happen. It never does. Going up the tree just happened. I couldn’t have planned it in a hundred years.”

The longest short-story, “O Gadjo Niglo,” written in sentences built to avoid commas, narrates the story of teenager Jens and two male friends with whom he discovers sex. First he meets Tarpy, a poor, dirty, lonely boy, a sort of village idiot, maltreated by his father; Jens befriends, washes him, and ventures into sexual play with him. As before Davenport doesn’t shy away from details: “He had less hair than I above his peter. His was ginger. Mine was springy and black. He asked if mine felt good. He slid his foot out and waggled it against mine. We were friends. He said we could make it last or come quick and then come again. I was near enough to my sneeze to say quick. My milky drop jumped out. Tarpy took longer to reach his sneeze and hot blush spread up my back and slid down again as a chill when I saw the amount of spunk that he spurted. A blob spattered two fete away. Another just fell short of the first. A third ran into his fingers.” And there’s more, this is the most sexed-up story in the book: “He lay back in the grass with one hand under his head and the other on his peter like a big stemmed pink mushroom. It is as I’ve measured fourteen centimetres long. And there is a mushroom like Tarpy’s peter. Phallus impudicus. Mine is twelve but growing. The more you play with is the bigger it gets. Three times and we would go on a ramble for beetles.” 

Phallus impudicus

Later Tarpy disappears, the narrator gets sick his parents hire a young nurse called Florent to tend him; they become friends and go camping alone, which allows Davenport to write more scenes about penises. Hardly any conflict exists in this short-story, just a succession of events, descriptions of nature and masturbation. Jens grows up, like the girl who lost Belinda he experiences his life’s first tragedy, discovers about friendship and letting go, matures and learns that the world is not a simple place. And yet it never gets dark or pessimistic, it’s also about pleasure and fun, and living in a light-drenched world. “Sweet beyond sweet,” the narrator exalts. About this short-story Matthew Stadler wrote that “Davenport was a kind of naturalist of human Eros--Eros in the mind as well as the muscles.” When Sullivan asked the writer why he wrote so much about naked boys, he replied, “Self-indulgence, I suppose.”

More to the point, though, I think the awakening of sexuality is coterminous with the awakening of all sensibility. Joyce certainly makes the one depend on the other. The moment when Stephen Dedalus becomes an artist, he’s looking at what most excites a Victorian, namely a woman’s legs all the way up to the thigh. She’s lifted her skirts, dabbling in the ocean.

All the stories surprise, but not all delight; some surprise because how much disappointment and awkwardness they cause. One story uses William Wordsworth’s sister as the protagonist without really doing anything with that; one called “And” is nothing but the translation of a translation of a real-life papyrus fragment, not even a full page long. “Mr Churchyard and the troll” follows a famous philosopher to Troll Wood to talk to a troll; the troll may be real or the man may just be insane; but knowing who Mr. Churchyard is (and it’s not hard to get the joke) will only improve the story for five or ten seconds, and then it continues to be rather monotonous.

In “The Concord Sonata” Davenport distils Henry David Thoreau’s life into several fragments, of oscillating quality and interest. Explaining part of how he composed the story, he explain in an interview, “The immediate instigation was a search for the source of the mysterious passage in Walden (about losing a dog, a horse, and a dove).  I found it in Mencius (whom Thoreau read in a French translation in Emerson's library).  My first thought was to write a "found at last!" essay, as no scholar of Thoreau had found the source.” Although the story is uneven, he nails the old Transcendentalist in one pithy line: “Thoreau was most himself when he was Diogenes.” Davenport also restates Thoreau’s influence on civil rights leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King. And we learn from him that the author of Walden perfected lead pencils.

He likes weird juxtapositions and uses them abundantly, and sometimes they don’t work: in “Gunnar and Nikolai” he interpolates the story with the Olympian gods talking, for no reason I can discern; in “The Lavender Fields of Apta Julia” he abruptly finishes the story with a brief history of the word lavender. “It was [filmmaker Mike] Leigh,” he says in an interview, “who showed me a new way to end a story: you simply walk away from it after having changed the subject. At the end of Nuts in May, an incomparable satire, the camera finds a pig eating from its trough while the credits run. So I end “The Lavender Fields of Apta Julia” by abandoning the story for botanical information about lavender.”

“Meleager,” another one of his teenage boy stories, is rather cryptic because Davenport switches between the story Sven and excerpts from a 1771 Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry on Geometry; by the time the story shows up stories about sexual blossoming have become repetitive, and I fear the narrative doesn’t improve with such details as: “A figure bounded by four sides is called a quadrilateral or quadrangular figure, as ABDC. Quadrilateral figures whose opposite sides are parallel care called parallelograms. Thus in the quadrilateral figure ABDC, if the side AC be parallel to BD which is opposite to it, and AB be parallel to CD, then the figure ABDC is a parallelogram. A parallelogram having all its sides equal and its angles right is a square.” Imagine this several times in a short-story; not very exciting, I’m afraid. I think pedantry and erudition is only fun when it shows you stuff you wouldn’t know but is worth knowing. This is just a maths lesson from school.

Still, when Davenport hits the target, the stories thrill and enthrall; and his liberal use of allusions and intertextuality invites the reader to try to see things that may not exist, to make connects that he may not have intended. Is there anything to say about the fig tree in “August Blue?” Why does he say there was a fig tree in the Garden of Eden? The fig tree is sexual symbol; does that mean something? In the Sistine Chapel Michelangelo, instead of the customary apple tree, Michelangelo painted a fig tree, to link the eating of the Tree of Knowledge with sexual desire. Should we make something of that? Did Davenport know that? Is that relevant? Or does his erudition give the overeager reader carte blanche to indulge in apophenia and pareidolia? (1). He creates an ambient that just demands over-interpretation.

Finally, I have seen him likened to Borges; I suppose these items built around literature and philosophy permit some comparisons; but then I think Borges and Davenport share the principal similarity of innovating while remaining quite traditional. Borges, for all intents and purposes, just told fantastic stories in the vein of his beloved 19th century British storytellers: he respected classical structure too much to, like Davenport, just stop a narrative without a climax, without a resolution, without something that built to a point that said, “This had to happen.” Davenport, on the other, for all his digressions, grounds his stories a lot more on characters and conventional literary themes: love, freedom, childhood, sexual maturity. You wouldn’t find Borges writing about that; Borges, the man who annulled humans from literature; Borges who turned short-stories into descriptions of concepts – a library with every imaginable book; a book with infinite pages; supernatural artefacts like the Aleph and magical coins – Borges who turned humans into concepts, like Funes the Memorious. Borges turned ideas into characters. Davenport still needs human characters to express his. And Borges still believed in that old contract between writer and reader, I think he wrote to please and entertain and made sure his storytelling and language remained invisible; Davenport is too intrusive, calls a lot of attention to himself. Davenport came late to fiction: his first collection of short-stories, Tatlin, came out in 1974, and although he’s described as a late Modernist, and seldom grouped with writers like John Barth and William H. Gass, to me it seems clear he breathed the same air they did. I don’t mention this in a negative or positive sense, it’s just to explain I think the Borges comparisons aren’t that valid. Nevertheless Davenport, on the strength of this book, is a remarkable, inventive, original writer who deserves to be better known and more widely read. I know I’ll return to his short-stories in the future.


1 My word processor tells me apophenia doesn't exist and recommends using apothecia, the plural of apothecium, that is, “the fruit of certain lichens and fungi: usually an open, saucer-shaped or cup-shaped body, the inner surface of which is covered with a layer that bears asci.” I love it when the machine replaces one arcane word with another. Strangely it also tells me apothecium doesn't exist, although its plural does.