January 11, 2013 by Marcus Speh
Heads Up. I’ve given you a lot of heads and citations this last month on Facebook. It’s been a month dominated by Victorian writers (most notably: Henry James), Victorian novels and illustrations, and some literary criticism (Joseph Epstein, Ford Madox Ford). I hope you enjoy the kaleidoscope of my predilections most of which manifested themselves in the course of my novel research which forces me to write through time and space like a mad scientist. Like four months ago when I last did this, each post is accompanied by a minor meditation of transient significance. Click on any picture for a detailed view.
Jealousy. From all that I have read it seems to me that H.G. Wells, who wrote a book specifically to make fun of the style of Henry James, was but jealous of the older man’s skill. Wells, of course, was as different as one could possibly be: an economic upstart, highly successful with the public, a writing scientist and sometime politician (with the Fabians), steeped in sexuality and affairs, battling Victorian prudery. Altogether a personage and writer to be admired just like James but for different reasons. David Lodge has written highly readable fictional biographies about both James (“Author! Author!”) and Wells (“A Man Of Parts”), with the loving lashing tongue of the satirist.
A Game of Thrones. Queen Victoria stands for so many contradictions that I don’t even know where to begin: prudery vs. the outside and prostitution on the inside (the fallen madonna); the sentimental, regressed desire to withdraw to a cottage in the hills (immortalized by a later age as Middle-Earth’s “Shire”) vs. the horror unleashed by the Empire in the colonies; the foundation of modern realistic writing vs. the mistrust against uncovering the power of libido in the unconscious (a task that fell to Freud)…Victorian England is where the constructivist separation between you and me was agreed upon, as expressed by George Gissing:
“It is the mind which creates the world around us, and even though we stand side by side in the same meadow, my eyes will never see what is beheld by yours, my heart will never stir to the emotions with which yours is touched.”
Writers and their audience. This post caused quite a discussion at Fictionaut focusing on the relationship between the reader and the writer, or the reader is (real and imagined) and the writers (real and imagined). It probably needs to be revisited again and again by every writer throughout the lifetime. I have this belief that just as we take some of the source material for our writing from the field of humanity surrounding us, the collective unconscious if you will, we also return something to it when we make art, independent of anyone consciously registering or reading the result of our art-making. A simpler way to put it would be that art always changes the world even if only you are changed by it. If I write a story this changes me even if nobody sees it and in effect my behavior changes…and the world has moved on a little. Some may call this extremely tiny and meaningless but we are not talking about ego here but rather, I suppose, soul or field of influence and meaning.
Brave New Worlds. Always, always torn, as a participant of these brave new worlds of social media, between skipping and salvaging. One of the better excuses that I have for my own ambivalence is that there has never been an audience of over 1 billion for anyone or anything. The force field created by these millions dominates the day.
At times, I find it hard to tear myself away, and other times real-life thankfully intervenes, and once in a while (as happened this last week) I’m grateful for the ongoing global dialogue. Special thanks to some of you, who engage at a high level of discourse, who offer more than tiring daily trivia. Nothing against trivia, of course: we all thrive on them, we sit on them like on a plush pillow of nought. There would be no peaks without the troughs.
A James Conspiracy. I meant for this to be the year of reading Proust and perhaps that will still happen, but instead it’s turning into the year of reading Henry James. Right from the very start (of his novel-writing) I’d say if James himself had not successfully tampered with his own beginnings: in his last decade he reworked many of his novels and stories and turned out the so-called New York edition of his works. These include his famous prefaces for the edited versions (which amount to an entire course on the Art of Fiction on their own). — I was surprised to find out that many publishers simply publish the version of James’ work that they prefer rather than what must be considered the definite edition. This affects books from James’ early period like “Roderick Hudson” and “The American”. The publishers are not forthcoming with a lot of information: sometimes, there is a “Note on the text” that states the fact and justifies it by claiming that the earlier version sounds more “fresh”. In one case (Penguin), samples from both editions are printed next to one another…but there’s nothing obvious about preferring the early James. Electronic editions (including those of Project Gutenberg and Kindle—though to be fair practically the only way to get hold of some of the later James is via electronic archive) completely suppress the existence of the later version. Worse of all, often the preface which was written for the new version and the old “fresh” version are printed together (of course, without an explanation). This practice smacks of butchering and I’m surprised nobody seems to care (conspiracy!?). For “Roderick Hudson“, I have compared both the earlier (1875) and the later (1907) version: the later James is always more accurate, less cliched and more complex. But this isn’t Dan Brown: this is Henry James, the master of consciousness, the literary Freud of the English language, the grand master of the artistic self, soi-disant twin of Marcel Proust and son of Ivan Turgenev, brother to William James…here is what looks like a comprehensive list of e-texts.
«“Modernism as a credo seems faded and old-fashioned, if not obsolete,” Ms. Ozick writes, “and what we once called the avant-garde is now either fakery or comedy. The Village where Auden and Marianne Moore once lived and wrote and walked abroad is a sort of performance arena nowadays, where the memory of a memory grows fainter and fainter, and where even nostalgia has forgotten what it is supposed to be nostalgic about. Distinction-making, even distinction on as I stated the winners will show up as a sole monies that here is about what you are what you to come from over the vocabulary from what you are okay if Idiscerning, is largely in decline. The difference between the high and low is valued by few and blurred by most.” In short, in literature the game of high art, high culture, highbrowism generally, the tradition of Henry James and Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf and T. S. Eliot, is over.
To be replaced by what? Perhaps a great messy mélange of low- and middlebrow writing, admixed with highbrow pretensions, with graphic novels taken as seriously as written ones, screen and television writers being celebrated as if they were of the stature of Thomas Mann or Albert Camus. And yet one wonders how long this lowering of standards, this infantilization of literature, can continue….Might it be that the time for “workshopping” is over and the time to get to work has at long last begun?»
Gravedigging. Poor Ford Madox Ford (geb. Hueffer). A contemporary of such modernizer-giants of literature Henry James and Joseph Conrad (both a generation older than he), he scrambled and fretted and agonized over his own place in the pantheon. Alas, his headstone is much smaller, a bronze where James gets gold and Conrad silver. However, he fabricated worthwhile accounts of his appreciation for both elders. I enjoyed his essay on James and his biographical novel on Conrad with whom he also collaborated on several novels (supposedly forgettable, but I have not read them).
The rich man’s favorite hat. Few months ago, I wrote a German text about being angry with myself after buying books by Thomas Bernhard. I will translate it and post it here at some point. He doesn’t really belong in the same section as all the other heads except that he wears a Trilby, which brings us back to Punch, du Maurier and James.
Initiation. Not a head but makes me think of one! In 1979, the year of Einstein centenary celebrations, as a 15 year old, I visited the Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt in Neuchatel. Though I didn’t know him and though I had not even announced myself (I just rang at his door), he treated me to lunch, listened to my youthful views, took a tape on which I had spoken (!) a few of my stories and (I presume) stories, fed me his favorite dessert (a bit of sorbet swimming in a lake of Vodka) and sent me on my way wholly convinced that being a writer was the best thing any man could be or do or want to be. It took me 30 years to get back to that point but it was a worthwhile journey.
New old realism. Have begun to watch old Bergman movies again. They’re painful. Woody Allen makes Bergman’s style look fun, but he’s more serious (and more existentially obscure) than Woody could ever be. I do this partly because of a new interest in the 1970s and partly, I suppose, because of the way Bergman lets his personas do what they want so that some of the difficulties of just being and living your life, which he, as an oftentimes depressed person, must have felt very acutely, perhaps more acutely than I, but certainly more publicly, because the characters that I have written about so far have not experienced too much moral or intellectual or physical hardship: it feels as if by focusing on the absurd side of life which of course exists and is most attractive to the roaming mind, the real self, the real person, is denied some of its weight. This is a shortcoming that I would like to remedy in my new novel. And Bergman, maybe the whole Swedish aesthetic, could well be one of the guiding lights to reach a new place in writing.
Tolstoy’s “What is Art?” (in the 1995 Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, however) is on my desk these days (Many things are, including dirty handkerchiefs, a Chinese fortune cookie that says ‘It’s not what you know but who you know’, and a Swedish 1 Kroner coin). He writes about the modern (in 1895) tendency of replacing art by “a simulacrum of art”—something not quite real, a diversion, an imitation of the real thing. Now, back to my purely intellectual hole-digging…
Middle Age. Let me close with more male hair (picture: Auguste Rodin, looks like Gabriel Orgrease) and another Epstein quote:
«A wonderful period, middle age, so nondescript and im precise, extending perhaps from one’s late 30s to one’s late 60s, it allows a person to think him- or herself simultaneously still youthful, though no longer a kid. Forty-eight, 57, 61, those middle-aged numbers suggest miles to go before one sleeps, miles filled with potential accomplishments, happy turnabouts in one’s destiny, midlife crises (if one’s tastes run to such extravaganzas), surprises of all kinds.»
— Joseph Epstein (in: The Kid turns 70. And nobody cares.)
So much for January so far so good so fancy 19th century. And I wrote three poems, too, but ssshh don’t tell because as you know I don’t write poems.