Saturday, 11 April 2015

300 pages of Parallel Stories




I notice a trend in book reviewing these days; or rather a conspiracy between publishing houses and book reviewers: a European novel, any European novel, often meeting very low standards of craftsmanship, is translated and published amidst a flurry of enthusiastic PR sound bytes that bombard me with the “discovery” of an important/great/unique/original modern voice from abroad; book reviewers lap this up and, notwithstanding the novel’s unredeemable shabbiness, exalt it like the new something. For instance, My Struggle is the modern-day In Search of Lost Time, and Karl Ove Knausgård is the new Marcel Proust. If anything, this myopic sycophancy helps me know that most reviewers have never read Proust and command but a vague, generic notion of what he performed as a novelist: he’s just the French guy who wrote a long-winded, multi-volume autobiographical novel about memory full of mundane details and no plot. Basically they have familiarity with the gewgaws anyone can glean from the back cover synopsis. It doesn’t surprise me that those champions of contemporary Scandinavian literature omit or downplay Knausgård’s stunted verbal skill, his non-existent imagination for unexpected metaphors, his inability to combine words we’d never think possible of combining; nor do they decry his excessive use of flat declarative sentences that describe things – rocks, trees, people, clothes, cars, buildings, emotions – in the most ordinary, straightforward way; or lament his poor vocabulary that comes straight from a kindergarten classroom or a newsroom; in sum, they never mention the enormous gulf between Knausgård and Proust regarding style. I’ve also noticed that many recognize Knausgård’s numerous flaws as a novelist: in conversations with some defenders of him, I’ve even noticed that if pressured to give me examples of “good writing” from his novels, they’ll confess that praising Knausgård concerning trifles like metaphor and linguistic inventiveness is a complicated, embarrassing business. But in spite of perceiving all those problems, consensus will insist that My Struggle is a “great novel.”

I have a theory why this occurs. I could chalk it up to the general ignorance of book reviewers; they’re a worthless lot, I know that. Bill Henderson once edited a book called Rotten Reviews, collecting the stupid things the press wrote about great novelists; one could easily fill a book of fawning reviews devoted to fleeting successes that no one reads anymore. This era could provide matter for dozens of volumes. But I fear something more insidious than traditional stupidity turns mediocrities like Knausgård into modern Prousts. I believe these encomia stem from a sense of guilt and overcompensation. A few years ago people learned with shock that Americans don’t translate a lot; this served as a call to arms to many small publishers to fill the gap, and so a new era of foreign fiction translation started with remarkable missionary zeal; one entity even named itself Three Percent, that being the percentage of foreign books translated in America. It didn’t help that Horace Engdahl, of the Royal Swedish Academy, around the same time accused American literature of being too insular. I think many fiction writers, editors and reviewers are afraid of looking too insular, too provincial and so they praise indiscriminately whatever reaches their shores. Afraid of offending, they automatically turn everything with a whiff of world literature into a modern masterpiece. This was no doubt great news for foreign novelists: no matter how small and insignificant their talent is, their chances of being “discovered” went up; meanwhile Alexander Theroux, whose Darconville’s Cat puts to shame just about anything translated from Europe in the last 10 years, not only can get his old novels reprinted but had difficulties finding a publisher for Laura Warholic and had to resort to a comic book publisher. I guess he’s not up to the standards of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, publishers of Knausgård. Theroux, one of the great masters of English-language prose, cannot compete with Italian Elena Ferrante, Frenchman Patrick Modiano (practitioner of “the style blanc” like Edmund White so aptly called it), and his mediocre countryman, Michel Houellebecq, who writes with the dryness of a reporter relating a presidential debate. A lightweight like Enrique Vila-Matas, who writes book porn designed to hit readers’ g-spots (oh, a book about an old-fashioned book editor pining for the days when literature was taken seriously; you know, the usual rose-tainted bullshit about how the past used to be so much better; I’d be more impressed if he wrote a metafictional novel about a fanatic lover of literature planning to assassinate a lightweight novelist called Enrique Vila-Matas in order to free shelf-space for superior novelists) is translated and praised, whereas Gonzalo Torrente Ballester, a novelist who deals in more refine intellectual pleasures, continues to languish in almost absolute obscurity outside Spain.

This business of the number of translations has created a false dichotomy between American and world literature; instead those who pretend to care about literature should be worrying about the matter of quality versus mediocrity. The fact that many bad European novelists can’t get translated into English isn’t as dire to me as the fact that an American novelist can’t get published in his own country; those Americans who complain about the lack of translations, where were your concerns for literature when Sergio de la Pava had to self-publish A Naked Singularity? What are you doing to bring Theroux back into print? Why are you so obsessed with discovering European literature, when you don’t even know yours?

And it’s not just substandard European literature making it to the USA; it’s also the best American literature failing to cross its borders. From my position in Portugal, I observe and deplore the way American novelists are treated. I endure the ignorance of people who generalize about American literature as one that is not serious, demanding or innovative, who think that it is merely entertaining and composed of best-sellers about vampires and symbologists. The truth is, most great American novelists are practically unknown outside America. I live in a country where a nobody like book reviewer James Wood has two translations, but no one’s ever read William H Gass’ masterful, thought-provoking essays; Lydia Davis, the lady of the one-sentence short-stories, becomes instantly famous because of the Man Booker International, but no one has heard of Guy Davenport, who writes something more complex than disposable one-sentence short-stories. Jonathan Franzen and Paul Auster are the faces of contemporary American fiction, their works are urgently translated within months or a year of their publication, but John Barth and William T Vollmann had to wait until 2014 for their first translations. And then there’s the impact the American book reviewers have on what European fiction is translated here. Elena Ferrante, a boring chronicler of contemporary Italian using forgettable raymond-carveresque prose, showed up here around 2001, was duly ignored and vanished quickly; that’s the logical way to treat writers who don’t add anything to literature. But in 2014 she returned, this time people took notice, praise was universal. What alchemic process turned her into a “genius,” like a reviewer here called her? What happened in those 15 years? Well, it happened that James Wood wrote a glowing review about her; and since we all know Wood is the “greatest living critic of his generation,” no one dared question his judgments. It shocks and worries me to see his name mentioned in a Portuguese review of an Italian novelist, clearly as an appeal to authority; just in case the Portuguese reviewer’s word isn’t good enough for the reader, just in case the reader has doubts, just in case he hesitates, here’s the foreign, American authority to reassure him that it’s alright, nay, crucial, to believe in Ferrante’s genius. This example of lack of self-esteem in reviewers who don’t believe their own tastes is as disgusting to me as seeing a collection of Saul Bellow’s short-stories promoted with Wood’s name on the cover; it’s reached a point where Portuguese publishers perceive Wood as important and powerful enough to sell, by his name alone, a book to readers.  I find this worrying, it smacks of insecurity, submission, inability to judge for one’s self, lack of confidence in one’s own tastes and experiences, and the fear of articulating one’s own words. Editors stop taking chances on obscure, unknown writers, stop believing their instincts, they let others decide for them, and throughout the world everything is translated at the same time, choices become uniform, strangling diversity, novelty and surprise. Today America is so powerful it can not just export/impose its worst writers, it can even export/impose other nations’ A text in the right New York newspapers will elevate anybody to the status of master.

A novelist from the worst Europe has to offer is the Hungarian Péter Nádas. He’s been hailed as a new Proust too; this is a cliché of reviewing by now; everyone’s likened to Proust. In recent years I’ve seen Orhan Pamuk, and Modiano compared to Proust. They’re all the new Proust, but not as much and not as often as Knausgård is the new Proust; Knausgård is the new Proust in lots of reviews, it’s almost impossible to read one without finding that comparison; Modiano is, at best, the new Proust three eights of the time periodicals afford him. One of course wonders if Proust would be considered a new Proust if he were published nowadays; most likely, like Theroux, he couldn’t even get published. You see, the things that make Proust Proust are the things that make him unmarketable these days – long-winded sentences, long digressions, attention to the beautiful sentence, the Flaubertian belief that the most ordinary thing can always be described in a new, riveting way, the sacredness of revision, the goal of perfection – and also the reasons why Theroux had to fight off dumb editors who wanted to tamper with his last novel, which prompted him to work with Fantagraphics, the only publisher "willing to publish the full manuscript without carping or cosy abridgements." Proust took decades to polish his masterpiece; Knausgård who a tacky 3,000-page novel in a rush, in a few years. Who genuinely gives a fuck about Proust and his legacy?

But I was talking about Nádas; the bletcherous novel the New York newspapers are trying to convince me that is a masterpiece is a beast called Parallel Stories. It’s long, over 1,000 pages. Part of its status comes from this: its size imposes respect; long novels just demand acquiescence and reverence. It’s a historical novel about Hungary from the 1930s to the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s about several families and personal relationships, and there are tangential bits and bobs about concentration camps, Nazism and Communism. It’s one of those novels about lots of characters coming and going, meeting and falling apart, human stories with social problem in the background. Basically it’s a traditional 19th century novel. The novelist tries to pretend it’s not by doing all those things dear to modern novelists, like getting rid of punctuation marks and quotation marks; you know, little cosmetic tics just so you know you’re in the presence of an iconoclast who’s not going to write the traditional novel.

He’s also modern in that dunce-brained sense of hating plot and narrative: stories jump back and forth, and reviewers have noticed that attempts to piece everything together is nearly impossible. I tried, and failed, so I agree. But then again, I didn’t venture much beyond page 300. On page 68 I wrote this marginalia: “I give up giving a fuck.” This resentful, spiteful text is what happens when someone continues to read for more 230 pages after giving up giving a fuck. However while I read I failed to find anything Proustian; I guess the comparison, as so often is the case, stems from the lazy observation that both wrote “long books.” Reviewers cling to the superficial elements and ignore the style that makes Proust a wordsmith of the highest calibre and Nádas a mere journalist. As it happened with Knausgård, reviewers are honest enough to admit that the novel suffers from verbal ineptitude, but they brush it aside in the name of, I don’t know, themes (War! Soviet Union! Oppression! Ruminations about the Body!) and a sense of gravitas (holding that book makes you feel its physical weight, which gets confused with its depth). So we have Adam Kirsch telling us that literature isn’t about words, really, that’s just a mix-up, literature is what you get in spite of words:

But when a novel has little stylistic allure, and little narrative momentum, and no sense of humor, and deals with the history of an unfamiliar country, and is more than 1,100 pages long, its virtues will become irrelevant to many readers.

He actually declares novels contain many more virtues beyond stylistic allure, narrative momentum, and humor. Kirsch belongs to that school of thought that believes that so long as novels teach us something about history and philosophy, or the human condition, or about the times we live in, or fulfil the great duty of making us feel more human (that’s always popular with readers, isn’t it?), then those virtues annul the fact that they’re poorly written. That’s nice, but do you know when I feel human the most? When I’m reading kick-ass prose! And let’s not forgot another problem: the perception of Europeans as more profound and serious writers. Parallel Stories, many will point out with awe, is a novel by a man who lived during the Soviet Union, I mean does that not carry solemnity? Can such a novel not be anything other than dignified? Which American novelist can boast of political repression? Who can show the wounds, physical and emotional, of political turmoil? Norman Mailer getting arrested during a protest and spending a night in jail with Noam Chomsky pales when compared with secret police and gulags. European novelists, it must be said, should thank Franco, Salazar, Hitler and Stalin and the dictators of the 20th century, and Nazism and the Soviets, and the Holocaust, and STASI, and civil wars and colonial wars. Were it not for them, half their reputation as novelists would be gone immediately. Because if they didn’t have the horrors of history from which to extract readymade novels, obese with profundities that impress gullible people, they’d have to be judged on their skills with words, and then they’d truly fucked.

Kirsch may not think that the absence of “stylistic allure” should harm the virtues of Parallel Stories, but it’s what I noticed above all.

Drollic characters amble through the novel, unable to muster interesting thoughts or perform memorable actions. Plot does not exist. And yet the novel opens with a strong beginning, one that tricks the reader. A young student, Döhring, finds a body in a German park. Policemen arrive, including Dr. Kienast, who behaves like a Leonardo Sciascia inspector. He shows a bizarre sense of humour while interviewing the witness: “In fact, the amused detective was merely recalling what he had read in some silly magazine, sitting in the dentist’s waiting room a few days earlier, namely that in Germany every year about seventeen thousand students enrol for studies in philosophy and twenty-two thousand in psychology. This would mean that during a whole generation more than a million people would be busy with the mechanics of the spirit and the soul, a big number indeed, though  the number of people dealing in commerce, finance and military matters is several times larger.” He has some unusual traits: “The body had at least another half hour before cooling off completely; its scent would live that long. Dr. Kienast felt a strong urge to sniff the entire body as a police dog would. Although he did not dare do it, in his professional eagerness he could not fend off the attraction of the dead body. He sniffed the air, he sensed the bitter smell of stale tobacco piercing the affected fragrance of the body. As if he wary of such a perfume. In fact, he was amused by his temporary cowardice.” Ah, sniffing corpses? Now that’s creepy, that’s a character to follow. “He was considered weird, a person who had to be allowed to have his way and be told to stop only if he was about to mix one up in some dark or unclean business.” But unfortunately he’s stopped by the novelist and the only dark or unclean business is the one pertaining to all the body odour and faecal matter that runs throughout the novel, as if the action took place in the Augean stables. You see, this sniffing business isn’t a particular trait, it’s endemic to the novel: Before the first chapter ends we realize smell is the main sense characters use in the novel. Kienast’s married to a woman described as “an evaluator of fragrances.” In no time Nádas is spending more pages describing shit and piss and their interaction with characters than anything else:

“He licked the taste of his prick from his palm and wasn’t bothered by the strong smell of his ass either. But he wouldn’t dare reach into his hole yet. He was always a bit afraid of reaching into soft shit, but his rectum seldom remained unclean. It had grown light enough by the fire for him to see himself grow darkly erect against the flames, his purple bud open and then close under the folds of skin; but it wasn’t so light that he would have to be ashamed ... If it got dry, he made it more slippery with his spittle, but the excitement had already squeezed out the fore liquid, the liquidum seminale, also known as seminal fluid, through the wide-mouthed urethra, which made it slippery and increased his pleasure.”

And:

“Putrefying urine, the translucent drops of semen that bubbled forth at the most innocent sensual excitement, the dried remains of the previous night’s ejaculation and the excretions of his penis, now swelling, now shrinking under the uncircumcised foreskin, were the ingredients that produced this lasting, penetrating odor. He kept sniffing it, drew it across his lips.”

People fart, piss, shit, bleed, sneeze, orgasm, leak milk from their breasts. But the smell dominates. Open any page at random and you’ll find them, the oozing body, the stench, the shit, busy nostrils at work:

130: “Familiar smells were mixing in the thick steam.”
137: “He did not understand why he smelled the smell of shit so strongly, and then who was the one who smelled it.”
145: “The scent was almost too sweet, yet overall it was rather dry and acrid.”
181: “Not to smell the shit anymore.”
206: “On his fingers, he had to preserve the secretions and exudations of his body.”
263: “The darkness no longer smelled of sausages in stewed onion and tomatoes, that was certain.”
737: “She asked if the others were aware of the smells, because she was, even as she spoke.”

It’s like reading Patrick Susskind’s The Perfume, except he had minimum skills as a storyteller. These characters are so sensitive to the smell of shit you’d think Nádas created metapneustic organisms.

And the experiment yields the same results with cocks; at any given page I can read about someone touching his penis or testicles. “He hadn’t yet touched his testicles,” we’re told about someone in page 214. But give him time, sooner or later he will, Nádas’ characters can’t keep their hands off them. Somewhere else:

“He could be satisfied with his cock.
   His cock had a nice curve. There were women whose clitorises were located unusually high; his wife was one of them.
   He didn’t mind; at least he could feel each time that he could satisfy even those women.
   That’s how they lived with each other.”

Turn to page 414 and it’s there, the almighty cock: “At the mere thought, at the mere fancy of the possibility of such proximity, my cock filled my hand and began to grow stiff.” On 638: “I shit on the listless cocks of all those jokers.” And pussies; I could make a list of pussy references the size of a porn star’s cock. There’s more cock and pussy in this novel than in the entire oeuvre of Philip Roth. That’s not a compliment. If only it had the dialogues, vivid characters and comic situations he comes up with.

You know, if this were a Stephen King novel (and as far as I’m concerned, it is) and every character suffered from bromidrosiphobia, we’d mock him for writing samey characters without individuality, wouldn’t we? We’d have a good laugh at the old hack for writing one-dimensional characters who share the same traits, isn’t that right? We’d talk about the excess, the lack of subtlety in how he explores the relationship between ourselves and our bodies, isn’t that true? But thanks to the double standards of official book reviewing, in Nádas’ amazing novel it’s alright for every character to be exactly the same concerning olfactory obsessions: “Kovach exuded rough goodness, and somehow it was also his nature greedily to collect all bodily pleasures, to hoard them senselessly, as if one could store enough warmth of female and male bodies or scents of male and female pubic hair and stockpile them for leaner times.” They can all have the same traits, be tiresomely identical, without distinguishing features, and we’ll call it the great literature!

If this novel shows anything is that hygiene standards before the fall of the Berlin Wall were pretty low in the oppressed peoples of the East. Or maybe the BO serves as a symbol of moral rot, like the flies in Sartre’s play. You can believe anything you want when you wander into the woods of wondering, eventually you always find the witch you were looking for. But I do wonder if in a novel about shit, the act of writing shitty prose is not in itself a way of fusing theme, content and style. It may just be I’m seeing this the wrong way. In any event, the prose is quite atrocious:

   “A young man who ran in the park every dawn had discovered the body. He was the only one the investigators could question. It had been completely dark when he set out, and he ran almost every day on the same path at the same time.
   Had it not been so, had not everything been routine and habit, had not every stone and shadow been engraved in his mind’s eye, he most probably would hot have discovered the body. The light of distant streetlamp barely reached this far. The reason he noticed the body, lying on and half dangling off a bench, was, he explained excitedly to the policemen, because on the dark coat the snow had not melted at all. And as he was running at a steady space, he related a bit too loudly, the whiteness flashed into his eyes from the side.”

This is newspaper prose. You could find this in a crime report. And although it is a scene depicting a crime, it doesn’t explain why the rest of the novel seems written for readers with the reading comprehension level of a British tabloid. Other parts, though, sound like the weather report: “The rain threatened to fall on that early cold spring morning but did not, as for days it had not, and the weather remained as it had been all along.”

Another annoyance is the pervasive short paragraph:

   “Ultimately it was the sight of his body that restored her calm.
   She stopped fuming.
   As if she knew what had happened and as if she were reinforcing her realization with a clumsy nodding approval.
   The maid replaced the receiver and remained where she stood, facing the wall. She had to turn away, not to see anyone, for at least a second.”

And:

   “The next morning, the priest climbed the tower too.
   Who knew what might be happening there.
   He wanted to see what was causing the threatening silence.”

Why paragraph breaks here? Is the reader too dumb to follow Nádas for more than 4 words? He needs a breather between them? Why not just write: “The next morning, the priest climbed the tower too. Who knew what might be happening there. He wanted to see what was causing the threatening silence.” What’s the difference? What’s this mania with short sentences? Is he afraid his readers will get lost in his complex web of language? Reading this novel is like being talked down to by a mongoloid. Every page, every time I have to endure another of his tiny, microscopic sentences, I hear Nádas whispering, “Oh, reader, you’re such a moron I have to take it slow with you; I have to explain all of this very clearly because my novel is such a staggering work of complexity, you’d get lost without my assistance.” Fuck him! Give me Torrente Ballester’s 50-page paragraphs instead!

Then there’s the description of things. This is where the Proust comparisons really gave me a chuckle. What to say of sentences like:

“The sirens of receding ambulances slowly dissolved in the wind.”

“She stood in the doorway of the sitting room, a little wet, the fluffy pink terry-cloth bathrobe barely gathered around her ample body, in her high-heel slippers, her bleached, tousled hair still dripping.”

“André Rott’s pitch-black wet hair fell on his forehead, he knitted his thick eyebrows almost distrustfully, and his dark eyes, adorned with lively long and curvy eyelashes.”

“His forehead was bony, lumpy, and convex, his nose thin, hooked, with a very prominent ridge.”

This is Raymond Carver, this is point and describe what you’re seeing in the most mundane and direct way possible. This is literature exiled from aesthetics. Nádas may as well have told me to go stare in a mirror, because he sure as fuck isn’t showing me anything I haven’t seen before.

It’s impossible to read a single page without a cluster of clichés, stock phrases, and commonplaces infecting everything. About a character, Nádas lets us know that “his body was thin as a blade.” A character  has “unruly hair” and a “gleaming white forehead.” People wipe “pearls of perspiration” from their foreheads. A “soul shudders” inside somebody. I didn’t notice any “soul shivering,” but it’s probably between pages 700 and 1000. There’s somebody about whom “All artificial materials made him sweat like a pig.” Has anyone actually ever seen a pig sweat? A woman feels stuff, emotions perhaps, in the “depth of her soul.” Characters suffer “pangs of conscience,” no doubt from being characters belonging to writers who burden them with stock phrases like “pangs of conscience.”  

And the stale metaphors and similes pour on: we learn somewhere that “outside the wind roared,” because what else does the wind do in novels but roar?

Something happens to somebody “And then he bellowed so loudly that the woman’s enormous body trembled like a leaf.” How else could she tremble? This is a novel where things are “seared into one’s brains,” although expressions like “seared into one’s brains” are the lazy type that sear into my mind as fleetingly as a culacino on a counter.

Should I bring out more?

“The realization struck her like lightning.” Has a realization ever struck a character as other than a fucking lightning? Are they paying royalties to Zeus?

“Pain assailed her in merciless waves.” Ah, the famous waves of pain, so great, so gigantic, so overwhelming they jump from novel to novel, no one escapes their grip, like a tsunami.

“She started out on the wet street in the hazy December cold.” A good thing to know that streets in Hungary are as cold and hazy in December as in the rest of Europe during that month.

“The fire had long yellow tongues.” My God, how extraordinary! The fire described as having long and yellow tongues! I never saw that one before. Even though anyone who’s ever seen a fire the first thing he thinks is that it looks like long yellow tongues, no one ever dared describe the fire as long, linguiform and yellow. Nope, Nádas had to remind us that the fire is long and yellow and linguiform. We readers who venture into Nádas’ verbal skill will sure get our money’s worth on ostranenie, won’t we? Yes, sir, I will never look at fire again without thinking of this highly original way of describing fire. It’s like I’m looking at fire for the first time, a veil removed, nay, burned, a veil burned by a long, yellow-coloured, linguiform fire.

And the sky? Did I mention the sky yet? “They all walked together for a while under the pitch-dark sky, which was occasionally rattled by the din of distant battle.” It’s a good thing it’s a pitch-dark sky; imagine that, saying that the night has the colour of pitch.

“Above the floating heads, the sky was a saturated blue.” Fuck me, a saturated blue! A saturated blue! The sky, a saturated blue! Where does this man come up with these gems? What Arabian Night treasure-filled caves did he pillage for these unique marvels? Fancy that, a sky saturated blue.

More stock images: “The enormous, muddy river with its deep current, this is the familiar river, but familiar from where.” I think sometimes this is a metafictional novel where Nádas is taking the piss with all those clichés. The one about the familiar river, that has to be on purpose! It’s like he’s saying, “I’m going to feed you the most garden-variety sentences I can come up with, and you’re still going to call that shit great literature! Fuck you, assholes!” He knows, the smug son of a bitch knows that people are going to read the New York newspaper reviews and are going to curb their memories of thousands of past novels describing rivers in colorless, flat, anodyne ways with predictable adjectives.

And when he attempts lyricism, oh God. Somewhere he talks about somebody’s “ache of the soul.” It’s telling that he doesn’t specify which disease. António Lobo Antunes in a novel mentions a “colitis of the soul.” Precision, rigour, sharp imagery, those are the virtues of Lobo Antunes, none of Nádas shit-coloured fuzziness.

“Ever since then, she had had to find a roof for every single night. This was not a figure of speech.” Well, no, it’s not, it’s just another stock phrase, a commonplace, a cliché. Although I guess we could consider it a metonymy wherein roof stands for house or home. But of course it’s not a figure of speech; Nádas would have to be acquainted with them. This guy wouldn’t know a figure of speech if Cicero came back from the dead to teach him rhetoric.

More problems abound, but it’s time to wrap up, so I’ll just add some minor examples: the annoying habit of saying one thing without showing it. We’re told that “André had a penchant for biting sarcasm that he found difficult to restrain when it came to Ágost.” Apparently he restrained it quite well because I didn’t notice it up to that point. Perhaps he displays his sarcasm around page 980 or so, I don’t know.

Then there’s the clumsy pairing of words: “They completed simultaneously the two entangled sentences whose meaning they couldn’t really comprehend in the chaotic cacophony.” OK, “chaotic cacophony.” Now, what is wrong in this? Well, think of this, dear reader: does “harmonious cacophony” make sense to you? What the fuck is a cacophony if not chaotic? If it weren’t chaotic, it wouldn’t be cacophonic, it’d be euphonic. Sloppy writing, there’s no other word for it. And we’re still just on page 194.

“I was wading into the deserted jungle of the city, and there was no way back.” How is a jungle deserted? Aren’t jungles teeming with activity and life? Isn’t that why we have expressions like “city jungle,” and “concrete jungle,” because the way we all live together, clogged, fighting for resources, resembles the way species survive in jungles?

And I can’t help pointing out the constant repetitions: “He placed it in his lap, possibly so that at the same time he could squeeze his testicles stuck between his thighs. And since his weenie was already between his thighs, it grew painfully hard.” Look, why not just write: “He placed it in his lap, possibly so that at the same time he could squeeze his testicles stuck between his thighs. And since his weenie was already between them, it grew painfully hard?” I don’t know where the 18 years went to, but they sure weren’t employed removing redundancies. Writing a 1000 page like this is easy, when you’re so careless you repeat yourself three times per page.

Allegedly this novel took 18 years to write. That’s a lie, a fabrication, some marketing hustle. This novel did not take 18 years to write! If Nádas spent the editor’s advanced money on hookers and a Lamborghini, and then had to rush it, I understand. But don’t insult me by saying he took 18 years of his life to write this! Don’t fucking lie! Don’t fucking tell me this novel took more time to write than Ulysses, Fado Alexandrino, Ada or Ardor, Madame Bovary, War and Peace, The Maias or A Frolic of his Own. At best this novel took one year for research and perhaps 18 months for writing. Surely there was a typo: they meant months instead of years.

I have the suspicion Nádas had more ambition than talent; he wanted a sprawling novel about European history, with all of it: the death camps, the Holocaust, the Nazis, the Soviets, but he didn’t have any craft to shape it into actual literature that transmits any sense of aesthetics. This is a facsimile of literature. It’s like he managed to write a novel, not with language, but in spite of it. This novel isn’t really about European history, it’s about the triumph of Raymond Carver’s style. “It’s a lot of hooey, the whole text, every bit of it, said the man standing stark naked in the door of his cabin.” A lapsus linguae?  “Boredom is what’s killing us,” another character complains. I’ll maintain that Nádas is writing a metafictional joke to make fun of people who consider this great literature. This novel is shit. The people who mock Paulo Coelho praise this; the same who’ll use Coelho’s awful prose against him, pretend not to see it in the pages of Nádas. Many of the people praising this ugly novel are obviously suffering from kalopsia. If the adulation this mediocrity has received indicates something, is that there’s been a tremendous loss of sense of beauty, nobody knows what an exquisite literary text is anymore.

48 comments:

  1. Ah, I see Irascible Miguel is back--how fitting for this novel, at least the little I've read of it to date before taking the break from it I already told you about. And I agree in general lines about the dangers of romanticizing literature in translation rather than just assessing its worth as literature. Anyway, having read even less of Parallel Stories than you did, I'll let your Nádas criticisms stand in for many of my own. However, I do think that calling Vila-Matas a "lightweight" is a bit like calling Borges a lightweight; Bartleby & Co., as just one example, is a great variation on the Pierre Menard fake essay gag extended to novel length with sparkling wit at times and quite a bit of verve. Not lightweight at all in my opinion although I do understand that not all Vila-Matases are created equal (I hated the last thing I read by him after enjoying the previous ones).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, Dublinesque was lightweight, too nostalgic, and even manipulative; designed deliberately to appeal to book lovers with its carping for a glorious bygone era of serious book publishing. Give me a break!

      But I'll take your recommendation, Richard, and try his Melville-inspired novel.

      Delete
  2. I haven't the luxury of time to read the first volume of My Struggle which I enthusiastically bought online. There was an attempt to read it before but I was sidetracked. I immensely enjoyed A Time for Everything.

    Modiano, Houellebecq, and Vila-Matas's Dublinesque are all barely half-read. Jury is still out. I have some problems with Dublinesque but like Richard I appreciated the other novels of Vila-Matas.

    I suppose it's all relative since a lot of readers who aren't professional critics (in Goodreads, for example, some readers whose reading taste I respect) do see something good or valuable in what Knausgaard and Ferrante have written. Now that you mention the lack of beauty in writing. Perhaps beauty and lyricism are the very absolutes being questioned. Some discerning readers are tired of beautiful, well-written prose. The fact that they dig the "pedestrian" style of some writers perhaps say something about the need to escape the stunning beauty of well wrought prose. It's not so much the commonness of the "bad" writing but the consistency to stick to this kind of writing. The accumulation of it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Some discerning readers are tired of beautiful, well-written prose. The fact that they dig the "pedestrian" style of some writers perhaps say something about the need to escape the stunning beauty of well wrought prose. It's not so much the commonness of the "bad" writing but the consistency to stick to this kind of writing. The accumulation of it.

      Really? But well-written beautiful prose is so hard to find. Those readers must be spoilt rotten. And how can you get tired of well written things anyway? I find it hard to believe.

      Delete
    2. pesahson: You misunderstand me. I meant precisely the beautiful and well-written prose that is easy to find. There are a lot of "literary novels" nowadays that mean well and that contains poetic language (well-meaning novels churned out by creative writing workshops, for example) but overall fall flat because they lack vision. Beautiful books are written in a kind of foreign language, said Proust. For some reason, what strikes us as ugly in a work, may be virtue in the eyes of another reader. Adam Kirsch paraphrased it differently, but the sense is the same: "According to Proust, one proof that we are reading a major new writer is that his writing immediately strikes us as ugly. Only minor writers write beautifully, since they simply reflect back to us our preconceived notion of what beauty is; we have no problem understanding what they are up to, since we have seen it many times before. When a writer is truly original, his failure to be conventionally beautiful makes us see him, initially, as shapeless, awkward, or perverse. Only once we have learned how to read him do we realize that this ugliness is really a new, totally unexpected kind of beauty and that what seemed wrong in his writing is exactly what makes him great."

      Delete
    3. Rise, I didn't know about A Time for Everything; the theme promises interest, provided Knausgaard doesn't ruin it with his awful prose.

      Like pesahson, I also don't believe people are tired of well-written prose, although I think that's the case because they never liked it that much to begin with. The rise of literacy and the new outlets for writing - blogs, websites, facebook - have led to an unprecedented age of text production. But although we're writing more than ever, and although almost everyone can write, I think the banalization of writing has led to a decrease in ability to judge quality writing. In the past, there were two sources for reading: newspapers, which were bad, and literature, which had a more elaborate language. Now everyone can write, but not everyone can write very well, however the fact that people are constantly bombarded by texts from blogs and facebook walls and whatnot will have an impact on how people perceive quality writing. Someone growing up who is constantly exposed to these texts, will begin to find them the rule. That's why so much flat prose becomes, not only accepted, but praised. That's the 'normal' writing nowadays. I believe this has had influence in the way several novelists are received nowadays. There are portions of My Struggle that you could plant in any of those confessional blogs and you'd never imagine they had come out of a so-called genius. When the prose of genius is indistinguishable from the prose of bloggers and reporters, then I think we have a problem.

      Delete
    4. Your Proust and Kirsch quotes are interesting, but problematic. For one thing, a "foreign language" is not an incomprehensible language; English is a foreign language to me and I understand it. I don't know Proust well enough to guess what he intended by that, but he may have just meant that there is pleasure in discovering and learning a foreign language, pleasure even in its hard work. Now I don't mind having hard work with Saramago (at first I had anyway), or Lobo Antunes (still struggle with him once in a while), or Gaddis, because I know there are rewards, and often the language itself is the reward. With Knausgaard, first of all there's no hard work because it's basica, ordinary writing; and if the hard work involves having to give up my standards of quality to make allowances, then I prefer not discovering his foreign language, which must be of one neanderthals and troglodytes anyway.

      As for Kirsch, that's basically modernist spiel that would preclude, for instance, Nabokov, whose English novels were praised from the start; and Gass too. Is there a record of a time when the ancient Greeks didn't consider Homer a great poet? All the major Greek tragic playwrights won prizes at the City Dyonisia during their lifetime; Aristophanes' new brand of comedy got him prizes immediately. But then again was there ever a people more concerned with beauty and quality than the ancient Greek?

      Kirsch just repeats the old, boring pseudo-conflict between innovation and tradition that won't fucking die, even though Modernism has; it's a false dichotomy like American literature and world literature. Somewhere T.S. Eliot warned that the pursuit of originality eventually leads to perversion; I think he's right, the urge to be original and different at all costs will justify the most ridiculous and laziest "experiments." Although modern painting is a worst offender than literature. These people just lost sense that they should be talking about quality versus mediocrity.

      Being literature a medium of language, I have a simple standard of quality. Quality writing involves the ability to combine words in ways ordinary humans can't, and to keep doing it for lots of pages. When I read chunks of modern prose that could have come from a newspaper article or a science magazine, then I know I'm not reading quality writing. I want each sentence to sound as if it were written for the first time; the familiarity of Knausgaard's prose is something I can do without.

      Delete
    5. Just to add to the Greek playwrights: of course Cervantes and Shakespeare and Camões' popularity started in their own time, in their own lifetimes actually and just increased from there on. But then they all wrote before Modernism turned quality and impenetrability synonymous.

      So I don't agree at all with Kirsch's repetition of arguments put together before he was even born, which is rather ironic in a man so serious about originality and innovation.

      Delete
    6. Rise, I think I get what you meant. It seems we disagree about what "beautiful" means. For me it is a high praise, something elusive and not just competent writing that can be taught. I don't think it means it's just about pretty things in a pretty manner with some metaphors thrown in. I still think it's rare and it requires talent/god's gift or whatever you believe in.

      Delete
  3. Great to read a proper Jeremiad. It is sometimes too easy to forget the pleasure of exceptionally well crafted prose, although honesty and obduracy can make something of the less fluent sentence maker. This post also has the great benefit of removing any feeling of obligation to read some of the longer novels on some modern literary canons, although once again I feel that I must read Gass (and maybe re-read A Frolic of My Own, my least favourite Gaddis.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Séamus, I agree honesty, or vision, belong to literature; I learned as a fledgling, would-be novelist that I need to write from conviction to get the sentences out; writing involves a dose of arrogance, a belief in possessing an important truth. I think writers don't, but it's imperative they believe they do. Few writers, except perhaps beings like William Blake, have valuable truths.

      But so much of this modern 'honesty' is just confessional, exhibitionist prose derived from a current obsession with reality shows, egotism and performance; nowadays everyone records their lives and thoughts in youtube, blogue, facebook, twitter, everyone is urgently in need of being heard - it's the age of the pundits who can talk on TV about every topic as if they were Renaissance Men - and there's a voyeuristic hunger for those who'll lay bare everything about them, like Knausgaard. It's such a hunger people will ignore aesthetic worth. But without aesthetic worth, I don't see why I should read his flat prose novels instead of following a Swedish blogger writing about his life.

      I sincerely don't think honesty is that important; it's never been easier to be well informed, that hasn't stopped the world from being a mess. But I do think there's value in order, organization, and the search for beauty and perfection as exemplified by writers like Lobo Antunes and Nabokov. I think those things matter more than honesty, for reasons of mental hygiene. And I much prefer admire genius to honesty; anyone can be honest, it doesn't take hard work being honest, just a change in personal values and a bit of courage. Being a genius takes hard work, Lobo Antunes rewrites his novels 10 times; Gass spent 20 years writing a novel. Those are not values cherished in our time, and that's why I prefer them.

      Delete
    2. I mostly agree, although there is a big difference between honesty and exhibitionism. Part of honesty involves the question - Is this good enough? And real honesty may take genius, because it can be harder to untangle our own motivations than those of others.

      Delete
    3. I think honesty takes less genius than courage; in Knausgaard's case, also courage to risk boredom. But since I don't think fiction needs boredom, that's not a courage I welcome. The problem I have with him, amongst other things, is the notion that honesty, raw honesty, is enough, it's the school of "what matters is what is said, the message." And I, lately, have been leaning more to the school that says, "the way it's told is what matters." Especially because after 5000 years of fiction and investigation of the human condition, all the honesty in the world can't cover up the fact there's nothing new to say about it. Honestly, Séamus, what can a middle-aged ordinary Swede in 2015 tell me about the human condition that is mind-blowingly genius?

      Delete
  4. Hmm, I didn't mind this one as much as you did, although I didn't overly love it, but there's a lot to be said in defence of it (even if you're not keen on the writing).

    One thing has to be said though - if you read this in English, why are you heaping all the blame on Nadas and none on the translator?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Tony, a stale metaphor is stale in any language; I'm sure Hungarians are as fed up with characters being described as "thin as blades" and "shivering like leaves" as English readers are. Or they should be if they're discerning readers.

      And your insinuation against the translator illustrates how much foreign literature has become a sacred, hands-off artefact. I've read pages of Saramago and Lobo Antunes in English, they're just as good and fresh and surprising as in Portuguese. Translators can't carry all the blame; sometimes foreign fiction is just not as great as the PR would have readers believe.

      Delete
    2. so maybe just one quick example from memory:
      chaotic cacophony <-> unseliges Stimmengewirr

      Delete
    3. Seems that there was a problem with my first post... its gone... christ... anyway... Tony, in short, you are right... I just compared some of the phrases of the English version with the German version... the problems are not there AT ALL in the German one... it really seems to be a problem of the translation...

      Delete
    4. I can only advise people to try out the German version if you can understand it... it is a significant and very relevant work of literature...

      Delete
    5. So it's all translation. maybe the English translator ruined the original. Maybe the German translator improved the original.

      Delete
    6. If the latter, maybe someday someone will translate the good German version into English.

      Delete
    7. maybe you are not interested in any reasonable debate?

      Delete
    8. Am not sure about you guys, but I am quite obsessed with comparing different translations of books, it is naive to assume that you cannot completely butcher a book in translation. One example that made me scream: the German version of One Hundred Years of Solitude. I read English and German translations in parallel, the German was very strange, the English wonderful, then I spend a long afternoon with a Spanish speaking girlfriend where we compared problematic phrases in detail with the Spanish original... the German translation was complete crap... there is still only this single German version to this day, it is sold in the millions, you would not believe

      Delete
    9. one more thing, all these Hungarian authors, they basically all speak very good to perfect German, some of them basically life half of the time in Germany... the German translation of Parallel Stories took the translator 6 years (if I remember correctly) with quite some interaction with the author...

      Delete
    10. We all believe you! No one here assumes anything like that. Everyone who stops by St. Orberose is interested in how translation works.

      The most likely answer is that the underpaid, hasty, sloppy American translator simplified the original. Translators do sometimes change or even improve things, though, especially when they collaborate with the author. García Márquez said that the English One Hundred Years of Solitude was better than the original.

      Delete
    11. chaotic cacophony <-> unseliges Stimmengewirr <-> szerencsétlen hangzavarban <-> Google Translate from the Hungarian: "unfortunate discord"

      Delete
    12. Here is the complete book in Hungarian, find out yourself, the German translation of the above phrase is quite close to the Google translation :D
      http://dia.pool.pim.hu/xhtml/nadas_peter/Nadas_Peter-Parhuzamos_tortenetek_I-III.xhtml

      Delete
    13. Yeah, I don't think I'm going to be the one doing that.

      Is copyright very short in Hungary? Amazing that the whole thing is available online.

      "unfortunate discord" solves the problems Miguel describes. I wonder what Imre Goldstein was thinking.

      Delete
    14. There is a strange thing going on in the book that impressed me quit a lot: the rhythm of those alternating long and short paragraphs had a tremendous effect on me in the German version, I have still not really understood how or why or what exactly is going on there...

      Delete
    15. "Is copyright very short in Hungary? Amazing that the whole thing is available online."

      yeah, that's a good question actually, I also found all of Krasznahorkai's bookss on that page and from other authors, I am not sure if its legal or not, but hey, I bought the books in English and German translation, that should be enough :)

      Delete
    16. That is a good discussion you started, Birne; I was hasty in my assumption of the translation's quality. I imagined that 4 years were enough time for Imre Goldstein to do a good job.

      Delete
    17. btw, that page I mentioned seems to be some kind of offical and legal thing:
      http://www.firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/UC/article/view/3962/3153

      Delete
    18. This comment has been removed by the author.

      Delete
    19. Ok, I took the time to write down a few more examples:

      sometimes the problem might be the translation:
      e.g.
      „The realization struck her like lightning“
      „Die Erkenntnis überrollte sie geradezu“

      „Pain assailed her in merciless waves“
      „Der Schmerz kam in Schüben über sie.“

      I do not see problems with the German versions...

      sometimes there is no problem at all (if you ask me, but I will not waste time discussing declarative sentences, this is beyond hope here),

      and sometimes the problem seems to be with the reviewer, e.g.:

      „I was wading into the deserted jungle of the city“
      „Ich ging durchs ausgestorbene Dickicht der Stadt“

      the German „Dickicht“ does not have the problems of jungle, but in any case, the latter are the THOUGTHS of Kristof…

      „All artificial materials make him sweat like a pig.“
      „Von jeglichem Kunststoff schwitze er wie ein Pferd.“

      no pig but a horse in German, horses DO sweat, but in any case this is direct speech, these are Döhrings OWN WORDS!! This is also the reason why this is a single sentence paragraph

      “The next morning, the priest climbed the tower too.
         Who knew what might be happening there.
         He wanted to see what was causing the threatening silence.”
      „Am Vormittag des nächstens Tags kletterte auf der Geistliche hinauf.
      Wer weiß, was noch alles kommt.
      Er wollte nachsehen, woraus die bedrohliche Stille bestand.“

      1. sentence: omniscient narrator
      2. sentence: free indirect speech/thought
      3. sentence: omniscient narrator
      that might be the reason for the paragraphs break in this case… it might be easy understandable without these breaks in this example, but in other cases less so, in particular in this chapter, remember that this whole chapter is a dream of Döhring, it is not that easy, sometimes it’s ambiguous as his thoughts in his dream get mixed up with the narrative…

      “Ultimately it was the sight of his body that restored her calm.
         She stopped fuming.
         As if she knew what had happened and as if she were reinforcing her realization with a clumsy nodding approval.
         The maid replaced the receiver and remained where she stood, facing the wall. She had to turn away, not to see anyone, for at least a second.”

      Here the short paragraphs are all about pacing and emphasis, think about the situation, read it in context… I think it is pretty self-explanatory…

      and some instances can also be found in the German translation, thin as a blade, pearls of sweat, etc.

      Delete
    20. I am sorry, I mixed up direct and indirect speech in my previous post... but I think you get it... ;)

      Delete
    21. I think the flow of the text, the rhythm is a very relevant aspect of the book, an aspect that is probably damn difficult to get correctly in translation...

      Peter Nadas on paragraphs and rhythm:
      "Absätze sind sehr wichtig, denn mit dem Absatz fängt ein Motiv an, und wenn ein Absatz endet, kommt auch eine rhythmische Einheit zum Abschluss. Ottlik sagte einmal, er könnte aufgrund der Absätze feststellen, ob ein Text von einem Dillettanten stamme oder das Resultat durchdachter, systematischer schriftstellerischer Arbeit sei. Die Länge und die innere Gestaltung eines Absatzes - das sind komplizierte Dinge. Den Familienroman zum Beispiel habe ich ohne Absätze geschrieben, die Sätze waren sehr kurz. Im Buch der Erinnerung galt die Regel: ein Satz gleich ein Absatz. Hier handelte es sich meist um sehr lange Sätze, und nach langen Sätzen braucht man eine Atempause. Der Absatz liefert das Gerüst des Textes. Das sind nicht bloß formale Dinge, sondern sehr komplizierte Fragen künstlerische Ökonomie. Jukio Mishima, finde ich, hat das am souveränsten gelöst. Er weiß am besten, wie man einen Absatz anfangen muss und wie man ihn - im rhythmischen Sinne des Wortes - zu beende hat. Die Absätze leiten den Leser durch den Text, sie dienen zur Orientierung.

      Delete
    22. and another thing... you might have noticed that the term "saturated blue" turns up in a chapter called "The Real Leistikow" after the painter Walter Leistikow... have a look at his pictures then read the chapter again...

      Delete
    23. Now that I have started to compare passages in detail I find that lots of my favorite passages are crippled in the English version, take this:

      "The poplars tilted up their leaves with their silver undersides, the rich undergrowth under the willows dripped their sap, saplings reached for the light, dwarf elders, sharp grass of tussock, bulrush, meaty‐ leaved saltbush, and emerald‐green moss completely covered the pebbly soil all the way to the edge of the small pond. That the pond’s seemingly motionless surface still moved somewhat could be measured on the narrow strip of sand that with its brimstone‐yellow edge encircled the water. It was as if the water were breathing; its inhalations and exhalations, rising and falling, left telltale wet traces, though it was impossible to know if it was secret waves or a flood tide."

      The last clause does not even make any sense at all... the German makes sense and is rather beautiful:

      "Die mit ihrem sibrigen Blättergeflecht vibrierenden Espen, die von schwerem Saft tropfenden Weiden, darunter das üppig wuchernde Unterholz. Aufstrebende junge Bäume in den Lichtflecken, Ackerholunder, scharfe Moorgräser, Binsen, fleischig blättriger Ampfen und smaragdgrünes Moos hatten den Kieselboden bis an den Teich überwachsen. Dass die reglos scheinende Wasseroberfläche sich mit der Zeit doch etwas verschoben hatte, sah man an dem handbreiten Sandstreifen, der schwefelgelb das Wasser umgürtete. Als atme das Wasser. Eine feuchte Spur verriet sein Ein- und Ausatmen, sein Ebben und Fluten, auch wenn man nicht wusste, wann es seine heimlichen Wellen warf, wann es sank und sich hob."

      Delete
    24. I do not even know if anybody will read all of my crap :D but anyway, for the others, the sweating pig part in context:

      "Döhring was quietly resisting, as though grumbling a bit.
      Breathing or not breathing, he said, he couldn’t bear artificial material on his body. There is no nylon or who knows what kind of synthetic, whether
      with small pores or large, that wouldn’t cause a rash, chafe his skin, and give him little sores.
      All artificial materials make him sweat like a pig.
      He deliberately used strong words. He hoped to lure the unknown person from behind the mask."

      Now, please tell me, who is to blame here, Döhring or the author?

      Delete
    25. And please, nobody come crying that Imre Goldstein is a well established translator bla bla

      I do not give a damn anymore, I have seen lots of 'established translators' totally fuck up a book...

      translator have highs and lows like all other people, they have personal problems, get sick, get old, get distracted or just do not like a book personally... a good translation needs LOVE AND SKILL... and sometimes a book is just beyond someone's intellectual capabilities...

      take the German translation of Krasznahorkai's War And War... the translator is rather well known or even famous for bringing numerous Hungarian books into German... but that particular translation is a total mess nevertheless (as the author has confirmed in interviews)... but all reviews from that time, really all of them, blame the author: "so we know that the translator Hans Skirecki is a capable translator, he did a good job on other books of the same author, so the problem cannot be with the translator, it MUST be that the author just wrote a bad novel"... yeah, right... no! it was all the translator's fault, the book is just much more demanding languagewise than the ones before, that's all... and the translator was getting old or whatever...

      Delete
    26. I do not even know if anybody will read all of my crap.

      I'm too much in awe of your feistiness and insistence to reply, Birne. Remind me never to talk trash about one of the novels you like again!

      Just a note, though: I'd still blame the author for the pig sweat. You can invoke the fact that the character is talking in clichés as befits him - the popular free indirect style - but for me the probem also includes characters who speak in clichés. I'm Team Nabokov on that, if to avoid language clichés all characters have to be hyperintelligent geniuses, then make them all hyperintelligent geniuses. I just want exquisite prose from sentence to sentence, from cover to cover.

      I guess I'm tired of the prosaic part of prose.

      Delete
    27. HAHA

      Yeah, but before any wrong ideas come up, I have a lot of issues with the book myself, serious issues. However I am nowhere as negative about it as you are. The book is a failure in some respects but certainly not in all...

      Coming back to sweating pigs:
      I know what you mean. And I would agree to some extend.

      However, I think the author also makes fun of Döhring from time to time (e.g. in the underwear shopping episode). Döhring is not the smartest guy, not really likeable, a jerk in many respects, and I really think that - at least in case of Döhring - the author is using such lines as the one above with the pigs to deliberately make fun of him.

      When the book came out in Germany, Ulrich Matthes (a famous stage actor, I love him) gave readings of selected chapters of the book and he brought out the funny side of such episodes in a quite remarkable way.

      Delete
    28. In American English, "sweat like a pig" is a common expression, a 100% pure cliché. A translator could only justify using it if he is making a substitution for an entirely banal expression from the original language, one so common that no one notices any comedy or contradiction.

      No American reading the book would find the phrase especially funny. We hear it frequently, so frequently that the pig has vanished. It's dead language.

      What expression to Germans use to say they perspired excessively?

      Delete
    29. oh, we also have sweating like pig, "schwitzen wie ein Schwein", and I would say that its status is exactly the same as in English

      however, nobody uses the expression "sweating like a horse" (which is the English equivalent of the German version in the book) so in that sense Döhring's statement has a surprising effect for German readers... of course, I do not know about the Hungarian original, neither about the author's intentions

      Delete
    30. So, in the German version you have a rather surprising and unexpected statement of Döhring that gets emphasized by the author by putting it into a separated single sentence paragraph. And given the context of the chapter, this has a funny effect, at least in the German version. But you are right, this gets 'lost' in the English version (assuming that the German is close to the Hungarian original). If that's true, the English version would be another example of how you can spoil a translation.

      Delete
  5. Some disconnected notes:

    Now I understand your Wood animus. Wood is apparently not nearly as influential in the U.S. as he is in Portugal! How irritating that would be. He is not a nobody here, but he is pretty close. He is an order of magnitude less important in the US than the librarian Nancy Pearl, and she is dwarfed by a number of talk show hosts.

    Pamuk is a sponge. I have seen him copy Calvino, Borges, and Kafka. I suppose he has at least one book where he sponges up Proust. How that makes him Proustian is beyond me, but as you say many reviewers are unfamiliar with literature. The Knausgaard-Proust thing seems to have been a prank the author played on his gullible reviewers.

    You have perfectly identified why I never read another Vila-Matas novel after reading Bartleby & Co., despite sore temptation. What do I want with a novel that reads as if it had been written for me, as if I commissioned it?

    You are attributing too much to Carver - again, I know, responding to this Portuguese idea of Carver. In the US, he has receded. The program fiction ideal is now pretty firmly the kitsch beauty, the "lyrical" prose, people have been discussing above. Much like contemporary art, except that artists have discovered that they only increase their prestige when they admit that their beauty is fake.

    More importantly, Carver and his editor Lish would have been horrified by those clichés. Their whole point was to exterminate that kind of language even if they had to kill literature in order to do it. Carver and/or Lish would have howled with drunken pain if they had allowed "The sirens of receding ambulances slowly dissolved in the wind." Much less "struck her like lightning."

    That one is almost beyond belief. Is this post a prank, with you knowing full well that no one has read this entire monster with attention, so no one can say what is really in it?

    The other possibility is the one you raise at the end, that the prank or parody belongs to Nádas. The works of Karl Kraus are filled with clichés and dead language, all of which he has directly plagiarized from other people. Maybe Nádas has written a gigantic collage. Given what has been going on in Hungary, there must be plenty to work with.

    Since these comments have no organizing principle, I will end by saying that A Naked Singularity is awesome and everyone who comments here should read it.

    ReplyDelete