Literature is humbug, art is where it’s at

April 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

Lukasiewicz also disappoints.

It is interesting to note that one could have divined this from the title — “How to be a great artist on the example of Thomas Mann” — which is gimmicky, indicating a kind of concept book, along the lines of “How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer”.  I have never yet read a well done concept book.  Experience suggests that perhaps one simply cannot be done.  Let that be a lesson for the future.

(A man on a rampage in the world of culture has constantly to judge a work by its cover so as to avoid a bad one — the disappointment, the loss of time — and clutches for the strangest of clues to help him choose.  Weirdly, some very odd clues do work:  there is no reason to think that just because Kiarostami makes good films, and he is Iranian, another Iranian film maker might make good movies, too, yet this is precisely how I discovered Makhmalbaf.  Here is to irrational clues).

The truth is more prosaic:  the title lies.  It is attached not to a concept book (one written to answer the title’s challenge), but to a series of essays which had been written for a number of different occasions.  For republishing they may have been rewritten somewhat — a line added here another there — to make it seem that they are all about the process of creation (which is envisioned in the stolid, 19th century manner, complete with metaphors of birth and Genesis).  I say that these lines must have been inserted later because many essays do not add up to a sensible whole: and no surprise: it is impossible to transmute an essay about management of cod fisheries into an essay about the great inflation phase of the Big Bang by adding a sentence here or there.

Not, at any rate, coherently.

Which is perhaps why the title is a valid give away.  A haphazard book which does not hold together needs to rely on a good title to give it shape.  Bad books need good titles more than good ones.  Good ones can be titles anything.  Death in Venice, for instance.

Mainly, the book fails the purpose set forth in its introduction.  It starts by observing, truly, that

one reads the Buddenbrooks, one reads Death in Venice, The Magic Mountain, Doktor Faustus, not necessarily in that order, but one reads them.  A few, perhaps a dozen years later, one reads them again and it is, of course, a completely new reading.  Later, on some occasion, for instance when a quotation is needed, on reaches out for the book, leafs through, finds the passage, but in the meantime one has fallen for it again, and one reads it, all the way to the end.  And this repeats.  After the nth time, one would like to be able to answer for oneself the question just what it is that grips us in this manner when we read Thomas Mann.

But the observations that follow are sadly of the usual literary-critical sort:  a kind of game of free association: this reminds the author about Schoppenhauer and that about Goethe and that again about Hauptmann.  In chapter X of Y character Z says “good morning” which are, funnily enough, the same words spoken by character W in chapter V of T.  Etc.

Either Lukasiewicz mistakes what she likes about Mann; or what she likes about Mann — what “pulls her in” — is not what pulls me.  Because I freely associate no matter what I read or hear.  Ergo, what pulls me into Thomas Mann — literally sucks me in — cannot be my ability to free associate about it.

Indeed, the best I have been able to say about what sucks me into Thomas Mann is that it is written strongly — some of the most amazing passages in The Magic Mountain for me are the descriptions of the most ordinary things — meals — second breakfast the room is “white with milk”; covering oneself with a blanket; the taste of a Maria Mancini.  Mann can write about a man walking in the street, putting one foot after the other, and I will read it with burning cheeks.  The hackneyed answer is that the cause is style — but what about it?  If there is any point to aesthetics it is to try to identify the causes of why something works.  I am unable to think aesthetically about Mann.  I don’t understand how the style does it.

In the center of the book is a concept essay:  the Magic Mountain Alphabet, with 25 mini chapters with titles like “A as in Mr Albin” and “B as in bobsleys”.  A touching concept — a pseudo-systematization of knowledge, the very essence of play.

A similar dictionary has once been written about Slowacki with a entry “ladder” describing at length how Slowacki has once, while on holiday in Switzerland, snatched the love letter of a young girl and ran from her up a ladder, while she chased him threatening to tell what she had seen in the garden.  It ended in a blow away sentence:  “But none of this matters; what matters is this:  the ladder, Slowacki upon it, and before him, in all its glory, the shining mirror of Lake Leman.”  The whole story, in other words, was a head-fake, a set up.  So such concepts can work provided one does have 25 interesting things to say about the book.  As it is, Lukasiewicz has only four or five.

It is perhaps inevitable that books about literature have to disappoint.  After all, their authors, one assumes, would rather write literature if they could; the fact that they do not betrays them as de minorum gentem.  This is perhaps why one of the most famous writers on earth today in private confesses that “literature is humbug, art is where it’s at”.


Regarding the literary flourish

October 25, 2011 § 1 Comment

I am myself guilty of the sin.  In my former life, when I wrote frequently for a largish audience, mostly female and with interests considerably more middle-brow than my own, I was often tempted to end an essay on batiks — or Villa Farnesina, or whatnot — with a pretty sounding something on the topic of love.  It worked wonders — my readers ate it up — and I managed somehow to pretend to myself that it was not a sin.

Yet, it is a sin:  human life is a wasting asset, to waste other people’s time pretending that you are telling them something while you are just feeding them drivel is well nigh a criminal offense.  (Yes, if you do not, your readers will find other ways to waste their life, but then the sin is theirs, not yours).

It is also a professional failure:  writers are makers of texts like cobblers are makers of shoes.  For a cobbler to make a useless shoe — i.e. one which cannot be worn — would be a professional crime; for a writer to make a text which cannot be understood — because it means nothing — must also be one.  How can it not disqualify him?

The entire second half of The Island of the Day Before is just that kind of empty flourish:  once Father Caspar has sunk in his hilarious diving bell (“how can it not go wrong?” we think as we read about it), it is apparent that Eco has spent himself; and, drained of all ideas, he is stalling:  he is playing for time.  The “Romance of Ferrante” manages to keep things afloat for a while, but eventually it becomes painfully clear that there is nothing there, only repetition:  take Robert’s inordinately long meditation on possible life forms on other planets — the topic has already been treated in the duel scene, 25 chapters back; Robert’s overlong meditation adds nothing to it — nothing, that is, except words.

Likewise, Pamuk’s My Name Is Red runs out of juice after chapter 11 (when, in a brilliant formal trick, following the story told by a painted leafless tree, the hero sees the love of his life through a naked tree sparkling with sleet).  While in this case the next three-quarters of the book are probably entirely due to the publisher’s insistence that one cannot make money printing a 90-page novella, and therefore he cannot print it; Pamuk’s Black Book is in its entirety his sin alone: no part of it ever needed to be written; certainly, no part of it ever needed to be published.  The publisher — mercenary like the rest of his trade — wanted to make a buck pushing text by a famous writer; but what was the writer’s excuse?  That he had a mortgage to pay?

It isn’t clear why Eco went on and on, once he’s run out of stuff to say.  Surely, since Eco’s stature allows him to force a publisher to print Diario Minimo; he could also have forced him to print an unfinished novel (hint:  market it as “open-ended”), a mere trifling 200 pages long?  Unlike Pamuk, Eco has sold movie rights to his other work:  surely, he has enough dough, if anyone does, to spare us drivel?

Is it possible that Eco wrote the entire second half of The Island of the Day Before not realizing that he had run out of ideas and that he was extemporizing?  Or are authors like certain kinds of birds (cf. Tetrao urogallus) who so love the sound of their own voice that they can not notice when they have gone off?


Surely, Lesser does have a point in her final pages when she says that there is something special about the silence which falls at the end of a Shostakovich string quartet.  In a way, this is true about all well-structured music: each string quartet, having established a key, then modulated away, then gone through all kinds of development, eventually returns to its point of origin — often to its opening bar; the satisfying sensation of completion which this brings about can only be appreciated when the last chord has sounded (obviously); which is why the silence which falls at the end of the quartet seems so rich, so resounding, so pregnant with meaning:  it is filled with reflection; our minds are busy digesting; only now do we appreciate the enormity of what he have just heard; and it takes time to take it all in.  Thus, the ovation always comes too soon and I welcome Borodin Quartet’s innovation to leave the stage silently without taking a bow, thus leaving the audience alone with its task of reflection.

I hope I have just demonstrated above that an OK paragraph can be written on the silence which follows a Shostakovich string quartet.  Clearly, it doesn’t take a genius to think of something to say and — to say it with as few words as possible.  But it is challenging to write eleven paragraphs on the topic, perhaps impossible (music being, after all, about itself alone and nothing else, perhaps all one can do in response to a cycle of string quartets is… to write one’s own?).  Whatever the case, certainly Lesser is not the person to do it:  the last four pages of her book come across as vacuous and repetitive, a kind of…  verbal froth.

Pretty, yes, but signifying not much.  In fact, the same could be sad for the whole Epilogue:  it is too long, it has too many words in it.  Half that length, perhaps a quarter, would have sufficed.

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