September 7, 2017

Bernhard's demons



What would Thomas Bernhard's desert island reading be like? If his novels were any indication, his library must be heavy on philosophy and white male writers. But his memoirs would provide more definite titles and authors. The epigraphs of his five-part memoirs were selected quotations from Voltaire, Montaigne, Pascal, and Novalis. His grandfather's shelves contained: Works of Goethe (volume 4), Shakespeare's King Lear, the poems of Dauthendey, Christian Wagner, Hölderlin, Schopenhauer's Parerga and Paralipomena.

I had read Hamsun's Hunger, Dostoyevsky's Raw Youth, and Goethe's Elective Affinities, and I had made notes on what I had read, a practice my grandfather had observed throughout his life. I tried keeping a diary but immediately gave up. I could have had contacts with all kinds of people at the Vötterl, but I did not want any, being satisfied with the company of my books and with the long expeditions I made into the vast, undiscovered continents of the imagination. Hardly had I woken up and conscientiously taken my temperature in accordance with the rules, as I had done every morning for months, than I turned to my books, my closest and most intimate friends. It was in Grossgmain that I first discovered reading. This was a sudden discovery which proved decisive for my subsequent life. This discovery—that literature can at any moment provide the mathematical solution to life and one's own existence provided that it is put into gear and operated as though it were mathematics, so that in time it becomes a form of higher mathematics and ultimately the supreme mathematical art, which can be called reading only when we have mastered it completely—this discovery was one which I could not have made until my grandfather had died ... Through reading I was able to bridge the gulf which yawned beneath me even here and was thus able to rescue myself from moods which could have led only to destruction. [1]

Literature as mathematics, then as higher mathematics and supreme mathematical art, was reminiscent of Atzabacher's attributed belief in the "high art and the highest art" in Old Masters. Bernhard confessed to reading mainly European writers, mostly from the collection in his grandfather's shelves. The "principal works of Shakespeare and Stifter, of Lenau and Cervantes, though I cannot claim that I understood them in all their rich complexity". Laurence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey, Montaigne, Pascal, Péguy, and Schopenhauer. (He read a lot of poetry and philosophy, in addition to having later on a life-long daily addiction to reading newspapers.) Verlaine: check. Trakl: check. Baudelaire: check. Dostoyevsky: check.

Dostoyevsky above all else. The young Bernhard was smitten by the Russian's voluptuous specter of self-destruction, particularly in The Demons. It was a watershed for him. And it was a book to emulate. A path-breaker. It was like a medicine to his sickly body.

Never in my whole life have I read a more engrossing and elemental work, and at the time I had never read such a long one. It had the effect of a powerful drug, and for a time I was totally absorbed by it. For some time after my return home I refused to read another book, fearing that I might be plunged headlong into the deepest disappointment. For weeks I refused to read anything at all. The monstrous quality of The Demons had made me strong; it had shown me a path that I could follow and told me that I was on the right one, the one that led out. I had felt the impact of a work that was both wild and great, and I emerged from the experience like a hero. Seldom has literature produced such an overwhelming effect on me. ... What I needed I had found in The Demons. I searched the sanatorium library for other such elemental works, but there were none. It would be superfluous to enumerate the authors whose books I opened and immediately shut again, repelled by their cheapness and triviality. Apart from The Demons I had no time for literature, but I felt sure that there must be other books like it. But there was no point in looking for them in the sanatorium library, which was chock-full of tastelessness and banality, of Catholicism and National Socialism. How was I to get hold of other books like The Demons? My only chance was to leave Grafenhof as soon as possible and look for my demons in freedom.

Who could blame the young, tubercular writer if the anarchic-revolutionary tendencies of the Russian novelist offered him the way out? There were many chilling scenes in Bernhard's novels, but his memoirs were scene after scene of perversity and absurdity. He unpacked them all: "the war and its aftermath, my grandfather's sickness and death, my own illness, my mother's illness, my family's despair, the depressing conditions under which they lived, the hopelessness of their existence." Intermittently, he was confined in hospitals, death ward, and sanatorium, waging personal battle against his illness in such graphic and painful ways. I still could not forget the scene wherein a doctor performed a pneumothorax on him.

The patient has to lie on the bed in the doctor's surgery while air is introduced between the diaphragm and the diseased lung by means of a thin tube; in this way the tubercular lung cavity is collapsed so that it can re-seal. I had often witnessed this procedure. It is painful only initially, after which the patient becomes accustomed to it and thinks no more about it. It becomes a routine experience, and although the patient is always afraid beforehand, by the time it is over his fear is proved to have been unfounded. However, it is not invariably unfounded, as I was soon to discover.

"Absurdity", for him, "is the only way forward. it was a way I knew, the only one that led anywhere." His recollections were a conflation of all his lifelong frustrations, all the absurd situations he found himself in.

One day, while this highly respected doctor (he was in fact a professor) was injecting me with air, he went over to the telephone, leaving me on the bed with the tube in my chest, and rang up his cook to give her instructions about his lunch. After a good deal of to-and-fro about chives and butter and whether there should be potatoes or not, the professor brought the debate to an end and deigned to return to his patient on the bed. He injected a further volume of air and then told me to step behind the X-ray screen. This was the only way to discover how the air had been distributed. Hardly had I taken the required position than I was seized with a fit of coughing and passed out. I just heard the professor say, My God, I collapsed the other lung!

Borges postulated that all literature, in the end, is autobiographical [2]. Everything literary is non-fiction, including fiction. This is probably because the reverse is also true. In Bernhard, the reenactment of his younger self's troubled life was truthful only in the sense that it was only ever an approximation: "Truth is always wrong, even if it is one hundred percent truth. Every error is pure truth." This pure dose of contradiction was his literary framework, in novels and autobiography both.

Language is inadequate when it comes to communicating the truth, and the best the writer can offer is an approximation to the truth, a desperate and hence unreliable approximation. Language can only falsify and distort whatever is authentic.

W. G. Sebald borrowed heavily from this aesthetics of falsification. Bernhard's pragmatic and practical outlook in life prepared him to adopt the stance of the skeptic. Not for him Sebald's attempt to recapture the literary equivalent of restitution and atonement. War was not a romantic concept in which to set off one's destiny. He realized that even after the war ended, he never actually escaped from it. War was his state of nature. And so he would not be troubled by any notion of being a casualty of the war, or by the imaginary burden of surviving it. The shadow of war was the shadow lurking in his lung. He considered himself well-trained in skepticism and rebellion, but these were often manifested in complaints and extreme irony. He was prepared for the worst. Armed with memories and demons (books), he happily searched out for more demons: the elemental and monstrous kind. The supreme calculus in mathematical prose. The raging demons that built his personal canon.



Notes:

[1] Quoted passages were from "Breath: A Decision" (Der Atem, 1978) and "In the Cold" (Die Kälte, 1981), by Thomas Bernhard, in Gathering Evidence and My Prizes, translated by David McLintock and Carol Brown Janeway (Vintage International, 2011). Passages in bold are my emphases.

[2] From "A Profession of Literary Faith" by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine, in Selected Non-Fictions, ed. Eliot Weinberger (Penguin Books, 2000).

August 31, 2017

Atxaga's colonial design



Seven Houses in France by Bernardo Atxaga, translated from Basque into Spanish by Asun Garikano and Bernardo Atxaga, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Harvill Secker, 2011)


The humorless and no-nonsense Chrysostome Liège was the pivot around which Bernardo Atxaga's dark comedy about a short stop at turn-of-the-century Congo revolves. But it was not until the last few chapters, with the characters fully developed to breaking point and with the entry of the assuming journalist Lassalle to observe a duel to the death, that the pitch nature of the comedy was revealed: the novel was as black as the black mamba. For while the story was clothed in the reality of colonialism, Atxaga elected to tweak the story such that the central human rights violations appeared to be glossed over. He must be using negative capability (if that was the right phrase here) to the extreme. He had designed a seemingly ordinary tale of ordinary characters living in ordinary circumstances. Except that they weren't. Chrysostome's unbending will not to touch a woman was a throwback of sorts in a macho novel of obvious design: the desire for and conquest of women, the rape of women, as the obvious correlative of colonialism.

Was Atxaga making his obvious point all the more pointed? What was happening in the background, Africans tortured and murdered, losing their lives left and right, every little thing to do with the victim, was shunted out and were described as an aside, as "matter-of-fact".

One Sunday, when the palm wine had been flowing freely, the Lieutenant had the idea of organising a shooting match to decide who among the officers deserved the title of the William Tell of Yangambi. He would provide the cartridges, so no one need worry about that.
...
A few children were brought from a nearby mugini, and the competition began with more than a dozen participants prepared to shoot at the apples that were placed on each child's head. Not wanting to disappoint the Lieutenant, Lopes and the other officers did not try very hard, but Chrysostome was incapable of pretence and he played fairly and honestly, treating the second highest-ranking officer in Yangambi as if he were just another soldier. He split open five apples with five bullets, while the Lieutenant managed only two.

The unspeakable was never spoken, but the chilling effect was the same. In just a few words but with such tremendous implication, cruelty was as if normalized and made more palpable. That Schiller play was surely some kind of a marker in the story.

As it turned out in a flashback, Chrysostome's resolve was maybe another rationing of indirection on the part of the novelist. At the heart of hearts of this enigmatic central character, provincial and religious and fundamentalist attitudes resided. His uncompromising self might just be the key ingredient to start a war, any war, or an economy built on forced labor, or dabbling in all forms of perversity, in all colors of slavery. Chrysostome was equally guilty as every officer around him. When his girlfriend had died in the hands of Lieutenant Van Thiegel who tried to rape her, Chrysostome could only utter in religious terms: "The Lord's ways are strange indeed ... Who would have thought that he would seek the help of that filthy drunk [Van Thiegel] to save my purity?"

The novel's title referred to the vested interests of Lalande Biran, the highest ranking officer in Yangambi, in working in the Congo. In order to secure for his wife seven houses in France, Lalande Biran colluded with his bosom friend and fellow poetaster Duke Armand Saint-Foix ("Toisonet"), well-positioned in the retinue of King Léopold II. Friendship and exploitation went hand in hand as they embarked on the smuggling of ivory and mahogany from Congo. The opposite of Chrysostome, Lalande Biran would weekly satisfy his appetite for women and girls. Fearing syphilis, he would only take virgins as a rule. The classic conquistador. Virility as the most valued virtue of those in power.

When the second clean-up operation began in Yangambi, there was only a week to go before Christmas. A despatch from the AIA informed Lalande Biran that since the journalist Ferdinand Lassalle would be bringing the most up-to-date of cameras with him, it would be best if the older, uglier natives were removed from Yangambi and kept in an enclosure in the jungle until the visit was over.

Sure enough, the plan to hide the ugly and the old natives was executed, and the caged ones were almost forgotten in the jungle in the interim. No matter how much he lingered at the stage of those in power, what was hiding in the backstage was Atxaga's vision of humanity. There, with the stage hands and the prop men, he put up a mirror in which to examine the naked self. An intense, Western self-examination, that most Socratic of virtues, was unfolding.

By focusing on the daily lives and travails of the officers in the Congo, Atxaga had made Congo the true state of the world. Life in the Congo was also life outside it. People would behave in the same manner (corrupt, greedy, lecherous) wherever they are. Lalande Biran pursued his writing of poetry even in the Congo. His muse had not left him in dark times of the dark age. Who ever said that there's no poetry after the Holocaust?

The Roi du Congo was progressing so slowly that it was easy to forget that you were travelling down the River Congo. He [Lassalle] had to make a conscious effort to think this in order to remind himself where he was: in the heart of Africa, not in Europe. This, however, was a physical truth, not a spiritual one. His spirit was still in Europe, and his greatest joy was knowing that his stay in Africa was coming to an end.

What was a Basque writer doing in Congo? A writer's imagination was untethered, in free reign. This Basque novel was really a novel of Basque. At the same time it was a novel of Africa. And it was a Western novel. The geography mattered less than the spiritual component. By normalizing cruelty, he had only reinforced the blindness of the perpetrators to their crime. The Zola anecdote recounted by the journalist was on point.

When visiting a very deep mine, the writer asked the miners how they managed to get the Percheron horses they used for transportation out of the mine, given that the animals were so large and the entrance to the galleries so narrow. One of the miners told him: 'Oh, we don't take them out. They're brought down here when they're only a few months old and then they stay here for good.' According to him, there was no reason to pity the poor beasts. The horses knew nothing else and had adapted to the world they inhabited.

The tragic thing about the world we lived in was that we had become inured to injustices and inhumanities that they just became news stories and headlines for us. Just another one of those wars, another bombing, another refugee drowning. The only way for evil to prosper was for people to become adapted to their comfortable lifeways and to condone or falsely believe in the system. The novel had to end in a duel when everything else was a mockery.

There were no rebels or freedom fighters in this story. Resistance and revolt were mere whispers in the shadows. The only clear instance of rebellion was one slave planting black mambas into the officers' quarters. The focus on Western, colonial perspective and its pursuit of African exoticism at every opportunity was a form of deliberate "discrimination" of novelistic detail. Atxaga knowingly privileged the white man's burden (and voice). But this was a risky novel design to begin with. There's no more need to highlight the discrepancy between the obvious and the not-so, between right and wrong. The attack of the rebels was imminent, as one officer lamented at the novel's end. While infinitely waiting for the barbarians, the savages had already drunk themselves to death on the table.


A late submission to the Spanish Literature Month(s) co-organized by Winstonsdad's Blog and Caravana de recuerdos.




March 29, 2017

Snapshot


Preparing for a few days journey by ship. Books to bring.

A shipwreck! Anthony of Times Flow Stemmed made me reconsider my priority reading list drafted a lifetime ago (on the first year of this blog). What my desert reading looks like I leave to a combination of fortuitous circumstances.


Inter Ice Age 4 – Kobo Abé
The Writing on the Wall – Miklós Bánffy 
Frost – Thomas Bernhard
Selected Non-Fictions – Jorge Luis Borges
Hydriotaphia and The Garden of Cyrus – Sir Thomas Browne
Sakhalin Island – Anton Chekhov
Scenes from Provincial Life – J. M. Coetzee
The Last Samurai – Helen DeWitt
The Lover – Marguerite Duras
The Maias – Eça de Queirós
Visitation – Jenny Erpenbeck
The Siege of Krishnapur – J. G. Farrell
Mysteries – Knut Hamsun
Amerika – Franz Kafka
A Time for Everything – Karl O. Knausgaard
Satantango – László Krasznahorkai
Nada – Carmen Laforet
Women in Love – D. H. Lawrence
Payback – Gert Ledig
Joseph and His Brothers – Thomas Mann
Wittgenstein's Mistress – David Markson
Oleza – Gabriel Miró
The Sea of Fertility – Yukio Mishima
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne – Brian Moore
The Man Without Qualities – Robert Musil
The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll – Álvaro Mutis
But for the Lovers – Wilfrido S. Nolledo
Hygiene and the Assassin – Amélie Nothomb
At Swim-Two-Birds – Flann O'Brien
The Book of Disquiet – Fernando Pessoa 
The Gray Notebook – Josep Pla
The History of the Siege of Lisbon – José Saramago  
Silent Catastrophes – W. G. Sebald
The Case of Comrade Tulayev – Victor Serge
And Then – Natsume Sōseki
Indian Summer – Adalbert Stifter
Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories – Kōno Taeko
Petals of Blood – Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
Territory of Light – Yūko Tsushima
Poemas Humanos – César Vallejo
The Aesthetics of Resistance, vol. 1 – Peter Weiss
The Vivisector – Patrick White
The Waves – Virginia Woolf

February 25, 2017

Joaquín's navels and tales



My wing is ready to fly
I would rather turn back
For had I stayed mortal time
I would have had little luck.
– Gerhard Scholem, “Angelic Greetings”


The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic. Quite a mouthful title for an anthology. I am happy to finally see Filipino novelist Nick Joaquín being made available to a wider audience via the Penguin Classics edition. Coming in April are some of his "tropical gothic" narratives in his famous tropical baroque prose. Apparently, the selections include his several stories and a play from 1940 to 1965. At 480 pages the edition is bound to be a fulsome, moveable feast. In stories like “Three Generations” (1940), “The Summer Solstice” (1947), and “May Day Eve” (1947), Joaquín made a name for himself as a preeminent postwar Filipino writer who displayed a unique approach to storytelling. He fused elements of magic, horror, folk-lore, myth-making, and history into a blend that was entirely unique and alive. I included The Woman Who Had Two Navels (1952) in a reading list of the best Philippine novels in the English language of the past century. The novel is an expanded version of a story of the same title. I do hope that the version included in the Penguin edition was the full novel instead of the origin story so that one would get the full shock value of its mannered telling.

Joaquín dabbled in various genre of writing: drama, novel, short prose, the essay, historical writing, politics and journalism, children's stories, news writing, literary criticism, translation of poems and newspaper columns from Spanish, cultural commentary, biography. In each genre, he used a cosmopolitan approach to writing, balancing wit with drama and sprinkling his prose with some ornate details, some whimsies and whimsical revelations, some occult and mysticism, as in his second novel Cave and Shadows (1983). The inclusion of his famous play A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino (1966) in the Penguin anthology was an inspired decision. The three-act "elegy", which the playwright also labeled as "a novel in the form of a play", was a distillation of his romantic ideas on Spanish Filipino culture, its struggle against modernity and war, symbolized by the protagonists—two spinster sisters—and their tenacious hold on a highly symbolic picture painted by their disillusioned father and inspired by Greek mythology. A Portrait was the writer's statement about art and its role in restoring ceremonial traditions, art and its fragility against the savage wars of peace. The writer was much concerned about the inability of culture (Spanish Filipino customs and ceremonies) to adapt to encroaching lawlessness and to reconcile the history of the past with the chaos of the present. Much like Walter Benjamin's "Angel of History" in On the Concept of History (Thesis IX), after Paul Klee's Angelus Novus (1920), Joaquín's elegiac source spring was looking back at the past with the foreknowledge that the future storm would bring ruin to memory. The play was adapted into a classic 1965 black-and-white film and a modern Filipino musical. In commemoration of the writer's centenary of birth this year, a new musical adaptation will be shown in theaters in the country.




February 21, 2017

Bernhard's cause



"An Indication of the Cause" (Die Ursache, 1975) by Thomas Bernhard, in Gathering Evidence: A Memoir, translated by David McLintock, collected in Gathering Evidence and My Prizes (Vintage, 2011)


I found the city increasingly intolerable as a result of hundreds of sad, squalid, appalling, and mortifying experiences, and essentially it has remained intolerable to this day. To pretend otherwise would be untrue, hypocritical, and dishonest, and it is imperative that I should set down this record now and not later—I must set it down now, while I am still capable of fully recreating my experience as a child and an adolescent in Salzburg, of recreating it with all the factualness and scrupulous regard for truth which are necessary if I am to give a true indication of what it was like to be a schoolboy there. I have to seize this moment when it is still possible for me to say what has to be said, to indicate what has to be indicated, and so vindicate, if only partially, the truth as it was then, the true facts and the true reality. For all too soon the time may come when everything that was unpleasant will be unwarrantably mitigated and appear in a pleasanter light; and whatever Salzburg was to me as a schoolboy, it was never a pleasant or tolerable place, and I should not wish to spare it now by falsifying the true picture.

Thomas Bernhard's motive for his autobiography was clear. When his mental faculties were still clear, and his health still permitted it, he wanted to produce an account of his childhood and schooldays in the blighted city of Salzburg. And so, between the years 1975 and 1982, Bernhard produced the five parts of his memoir. His novels, too, are practically the same hate mail to his city of childhood, with its "mindless blend of National Socialism and Catholicism." W. G. Sebald attributed Bernhard's "factualness and scrupulous regard for truth" to the impending knock on the door, as he mentioned in an interview in December 2001, eight days before he himself received the knock.

Thomas Bernhard was in quite a different league because he occupied a position which was absolute. Which had to do with the fact that he was mortally ill since late adolescence and knew that any day the knock could come at the door. And so he took the liberty which other writers shied away from taking. And what he achieved, I think, was also to move away from the standard pattern of the standard novel. He only tells you in his books what he heard from others.

Much more so in Gathering Evidence, the novelist was openly testifying using his own voice, or voices—the voice of his childhood and the retrospective voice of the writer—the horrific experiences he endured firsthand before, during, and after the war. While remembering-slash-writing, his current self was trying to recapture the wounded feelings of his former, thirteen-year old self. Yet he would like to differentiate his description of "how I felt at the time" with "the way I think now". The bursting energy of his tale was derived in part from layers of memory soaked in varying densities of perception. He would shift pronouns from "I" to "he" on page 79, then go back to "I" on page 83. David McLintock also noted his use of shifting perspective in the translator's preface: sometimes he views his youth from the standpoint of the present, at others from another intermediate point.

His appeal to "the true facts and the true reality", however, remained guarded. He knew his story was not distorted because they were based on factual evidence, but he could only give an indication of what he remembers.

The facts are always frightening, and in all of us fear of the facts is constantly at work, constantly being fuelled; but this morbid fear must not lead us to conceal the facts and so to falsify the whole of human history—which is of course part of natural history—and pass it on in falsified form just because it is customary to do so, when we know that all history is falsified and always transmitted in falsified form.

From which we can gather that the writer had divested himself of all illusions of an accurate account of history. And from which we sense that his only protection from falsification was to perceive and create a version of history to the best of his memory and to the best of his ability. He simply had to make the attempt. Here we read about his recollection of multiple suicides of school boys his age and the air attacks skirted by Sebald in his lecture in On the Natural History of Destruction. Bernhard's descriptions of the air raids and their aftermath were some of the most brilliant writing he wrote. They could surpass the supreme irony in Heinrich Böll's accounts of air bombing destruction in The Silent Angel.

Bernhard's aesthetics of falsification was similar to Sebald's own, but only to an extent. Sebald was concerned with the truth (moral rightness) embedded in aesthetic form and feeling. The rightness and truthfulness of a narrative could be gleaned from its aesthetic and literary design. Bernhard, for his part, was concerned with the content and the desire (i.e., personal indications) to communicate the truth of that content. Both confessed to subjectivity. Bernhard acknowledged the impossibility of depicting the absolute reality of the past and, hence, its truth. But in refusing to give up and stand aside, in continuing to write what he knew and remember in order to set the record straight according to his own personal convictions, he was after the truth or an indicative version of it.

What is described here is the truth, and yet at the same time it is not the truth, because it cannot be. In all the years we have spent reading, we have never encountered a single truth, even if again and again what we have read has been factual. Again and again it was lies in the form of truth and truth in the form of lies, etc. What matters is whether we want to lie or to tell and write the truth, even though it never can be the truth and never is the truth. Throughout my life I have always wanted to tell the truth, even though I now know that it was all a lie. In the end all that matters is the truth-content of the lie. For a long time reason has forbidden me to tell and write the truth, because that only means telling and writing a lie; but writing is a vital necessity for me, and this is the reason why I write, even if everything I write is bound to be nothing but lies which are conveyed through me as truth. Of course we may demand truth, but if we are honest with ourselves we know that there is no such thing as truth. What is described here is the truth, and at the same time it is not, for the simple reason that truth is only a pious wish on our part. [from "The Cellar: An Escape", italics in the original, bold emphasis mine]

The immediacy and the urgency of Bernhard's account of the war must be set off against what Sebald diagnosed as a collective repression of wartime narratives and against the self-censorship by leading writers of the time who could not summon their energies to give witness. "Time makes its witnesses forget", Bernhard concluded when nobody remembered what happened on a site of destruction after he questioned them years after the bombing of a building on the same site which killed many employees working in it: "rows of bodies covered by sheets, their bare feet visible on the dusty grass behind the iron railings of the so-called Co-op, and ... trucks arriving ... with enormous consignments of coffins ..." Sebald's thesis on forgetting certainly was indebted to Bernhard's anguish against people who deliberately wanted to forget. Whenever Bernhard talked to people and asked them about what they went through during the war, he was met with "extreme annoyance, ignorance, and forgetfulness." He found this offensive to the spirit, this concerted determination to forget. His desire to remember was his "pious wish" to settle his personal account of history.

The cat in the box was simultaneously dead and alive. But someone, the novelist, had to dare to be the first one to open the box. All that matters is the truth-content of the lie.