Friday, January 31, 2020

there is only one book, which we are all reading

I continue to think about Zola and his ideas about the "naturalistic" novel, by which he means what most people think of as the "realist" novel. Realism in the sense that all of the events, settings, characters and actions found in the novel could actually take place in the objectively-real world, and are all bounded by existing social/cultural/historical/etc limits. Zola is talking about novels that reflect "real life" in a mundane manner. Mundane in the "of this earthly world rather than a heavenly or spiritual one" sense, that is, rather than in the sense of being dull. Zola's novels are not dull.

It's this privileging of the mundane, the objectively-real world, that causes me to part company with Zola-the-literary-critic. I've come to realize over the years that, without having really thought about it, I've written a number of novels (nine or ten; I have lost count) that fail to be grounded in the "real" world. I have not, I'm pretty sure, ever written a novel that remains entirely pinned to "this earthly world" from start to finish.

Zola would have an author take the stance of a reporter, a historian or social scientist, who simply shows what he has seen. Everything else is either prejudicial lying or cheap romanticism. My fiction is certainly often built up from things I've experienced or observed in real life, but a bit of real life is only one element among many in my fiction. An incomplete list of the other elements from which I work up a novel would be something like this:

Old Testament stories
Gospel references
Greek mythology (I read Bulfinch's Mythology when I was a kid, and boy did that stick with me)
folk tales/fairy tales
Arthurian myths

Syllogisms! I believe that at some point in every one of my novels, a major character attempts to make an important deduction by use of a clearly-written syllogism. I just love 'em, and why not? Anyway, I have considered calling my novels a form of magical realism, but I don't think I'm really working with my material the way the Latin American authors are. My first novel, The Jack of Hearts Remembers Me (no, you haven't read it), has a protagonist who believes that Jesus Christ is walking one step behind him at all times, Christ's hand on the protagonist's shoulder. The narrative assumes that this is the true state of affairs. But is that magical realism? I don't think so. Is magical realism just another face of metaphor? I don't think so; there's more to it than that, but I can't tell you what that more is.

Antonia Byatt developed, at least for a while during the 1980s-90s, a compositional technique she called lamination, where she would layer materials atop one another if she saw a connection, however tenuous, between them, and if these layers and their connections seemed to her to reveal something true and/or interesting about humanity. This lamination could lead to quite complex narratives. In one of my favorite bits, in one of the Babel Tower books (I forget which, but possibly A Whistling Woman), a wildlife biologist serves a home-cooked dinner to his love interest, and as the dinner progresses, the biologist mentally deconstructs the food served, the staging of the table, his own choice of clothing for the event, and his manner of speaking to his date, all in terms of animal mating rituals, but also in terms that a literary theorist would recognize. Byatt works at multiple levels in this scene, layer upon layer of symbolism and interpretation. A real tour de force. In another volume of this series, Byatt introduces a serial killer, and we see the world through his eyes during his slices of the narrative, as he hallucinates his way from moment to moment, the world bleeding and whispering all around him. None of these narrative strategies are the kind of things that Zola would have accepted as "natural," and he exhorts novelists to do without it all.

Zola of course violated his own rules, for example the cheese symphony in The Belly of Paris, but he later distanced himself from such acts of enthusiasm and claimed he would be a better writer to put such things by forevermore. Zola never lived up to his Naturalism standards, and either did not want to or could not stop making his novels into works of literary art through a variety of means, mostly Greek-style tragedy and mountains of figurative language. Talking drainpipes, synechdotes, tableaux of all shapes and sizes.

I have come to accept that my novels are less somebody's idea of "realism" than they are my idea of myth and folktale, a slowly-stirred pot of every book I've ever read, every idea I've ever heard, all boiling away under the perhaps-too-heavy lid of my moral convictions. What a leaden metaphor, sorry. Anyway, I have thought for years that I'm writing commercial fiction, and I must admit that I am not. None of this is the essay I had intended to write; I was going to say something about how I tend to not experience my reading as compartmentalized, and my memory is so bad that I conflate books/plays/films/conversations so it's as if there is only one book, which we are all reading, all the chapters out of order, all of it fiction and all of it true. Or something like that. I'm trying to convince myself to write another novel, is what's actually going on, and the act of writing this is possibly a step in the direction of writing that. There was no need at all for you to read any of this.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

old movie reviews

A few years ago I watched one of the new James Bond films and it was incomprehensible:

Me: Who is this villain? What does he want?
Ma Femme: He seems very angry. Wait: he’s lecturing his henchmen about being evil. Now he’s opening champagne.
Me: No, it still makes no sense. What’s on fire?
Ma Femme: A big building. Maybe an embassy? No, a factory?
Me: Who’s the woman? Is she a love interest?
Ma Femme: No, she’s–-wait, I think–-no, I have no idea. Now she’s dead. Bond looks so sad.
Me: But didn’t he kill her?
Ma Femme: He seems to regret it.

And on like that, with car chases and machine guns, too.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Zola and the empiricist myth of the given (or, potsherds for the blind)

I continue to ramble about Zola and "realism".

Zola claims that a novelist can (and should) be "but a recorder who is forbidden to judge and to conclude. [...] He himself disappears, he keeps his emotion well in hand, he simply shows what he has seen." A realistic novel (or a "naturalistic" novel, as Zola calls it) is an "experiment on man, which dissects piece by piece this human machinery in order to set it going through the influence of the environment."

When I was reading Zola's literary essays (in a collection from 1894 called The Experimental Novel), my first thought was, yes, Emile, yes, this is what a novelist should do. But then Zola asked, "Why should not literature also become a science by means of the experimental method?" Yes, in an interview with Lionel Trilling, Nabokov refers to "the laboratory" of the novelist, but Nabokov's laboratory is a metaphor for the imagination, not a social science school. The problem is the a novel is not--most emphatically not--an experiment. An author does not observe the Petri dish, he controls every atom within it; the result of the "experiment" is obviously determined entirely by the author.

Zola tells us that it is fundamentally wrong to believe "the pretext that the truth is in ourselves and not in the things" we see in the real world around us. Well, yes, I agree, but when Zola says "the only great and moral works are those of truth," I have to stop and consider things honestly. An author interprets the world; he cannot merely report it. A novel is not a lab notebook. It is a collection of novelistic ideas and suppositions and prejudice, no matter how beautifully and cleverly presented. It is anything but "scientific." A novel is an exercise in the novelist's confirmation bias.

Tolstoy is a good and clear example of this idea, as all of his works proceed from moralistic a priori assumptions about humanity, quite clearly on the surface of the novel. Tolstoy is not shy about moralizing to his reader. And just like Tolstoy, Zola is judgemental. As is every author, though most novelists' prejudices might be plowed deeper under the surface because the thematic material of most novels is pretty slight in terms of morality. But the prejudices and moral/social a priori assumptions are all there and most often are borne out through the machinery of the novel's plot. If they are invisible to you, that is a sign that you share the author's prejudices. Anyway, you all know are aware of this stuff. As readers, I think, we take this for granted, and have learned to recognize and often to just read past the prejudice and cultural weight.

But as a writer, which I suppose I am or at least have been for long stretches of time... all of this battling against the claims of Zola the empiricist realist naturalistic novelist perhaps explains my ongoing current resistance to writing fiction: I cannot be sure that anything I say is true, a state which I find quite uncomfortable and which undermines any confidence I might have in my own works. This is also a primary cause of my relative silence on this blog these days, why I am reluctant to pick up the pen and write anything for public consumption (even the tiny public of this blog). Wovon ich kann nicht sprechen, und so weiter.

Thus also (while I'm about it), the failure of New Criticism: the idea of limiting our discussion to "what's on the page" is absurd, for "what's on the page" will always lose its virginal state as soon as someone reads it, for then "what's on the page" is transformed into an abstraction, an imaginary object in the critic's mind made up mostly of the critic's prejudices and experiences that describes to the critic what "what's on the page" means to him, the critic. The best an honest critic can do is admit the abstraction, and describe the abstraction of the literary critic viewing the written work through the lens of his cultural/social situatedness. We are always a step or two away from "what's on the page," which is itself informed by the unspoken (or unwritten, if you like) cultural/social situatedness of the author, even if we can't see it in the text itself. But if we say, "Okay, I am going to treat this text like it's a shard of ancient pottery, and I will remain absolutely unfamiliar with the biography of the author, and I'll report what I see," we are still looking at this potsherd with the imagination of a critic who lives within a culture, with eyes that will attempt to situate the text within the corpus of texts we've previously read (criticism being essentially the act of comparison or filtering anyway). No matter what we do, we are going to tell ourselves a story about ourselves reading the text, assigning culturally-weighted and determined values to "what's on the page." We never quite touch the text as it is.

The flip side of this is that the author of this hoary old potsherd of whatever vintage has the same, or a similar, problem: he can never quite touch the text, either, or he can never quite get the text to fully touch life, for language is an abstraction; language is not the thing itself which is life. And so it is always impossible to quite say anything accurately, it is always impossible to view any object or activity without prejudice, and it is always impossible to read or hear speech without filtering it through layers of prejudice and cultural indoctrination. No direct communication is possible, and all of our ideas are suspect because we can't see the real world. One is suddenly suffering the plight of Samuel Beckett, unable to say anything yet unable to shut up. Sammy, I feel your pain, I do. Yet he went on, didn't he? Beckett went on, groping blindly into the unknowable dark, talking and talking about what he thought his fingers were finding there.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

eavesdropping on the world

You start from the point that nature is sufficient, that you must accept it as it is, without modification or pruning ; it is grand enough, beautiful enough to supply its own beginning, its middle, and its end. Instead of imagining an adventure, of complicating it, of arranging stage effects, which scene by scene will lead to a final conclusion,"you simply take from life" study of a person or a group of persons, whose actions you faithfully depict. The work becomes a- report, nothing more; it has but the merit of exact observation, of more or less profound penetration and analysis, of the logical connection of facts. Sometimes, even, it is not an entire life, with a commencement and an ending, of which you tell; it is only a scrap of an existence, a few years in the life of a man or a woman, a single page in a human history, which has attracted the novelist in the same way that the special study of a mineral can attract a chemist.
That's Zola, from his 1894 collection of essays, The Experimental Novel. Zola doesn't mean "experimental" the way most of us mean it nowadays, as an exploration of possible forms. Zola means to treat the novel as an experiment, setting up parameters and controls and observing character reactions within the Petri dish of his novel. Zola is talking about the artifice we've learned to call "realism." He tells us that the everyday world can be--indeed should be--the subject matter of great art.

I remember, I think, the first story I wrote, possibly in fourth grade. It was a version of an old folktale about a Fool who rowed a boat out onto a lake one night, intending to reach the far shore. The Fool saw the reflection of the moon in the water and, mistaking the reflection for the real moon, he attempted to pull it into his boat with his oar, lest the moon drown. The Fool lunged farther and farther over the gunwale in his efforts, eventually tipping his boat over. After swimming to the shore, the Fool lay on his back to collect his breath and as he did so he looked up and there, above him, was the moon. He was relieved, for although he had lost the goods he was transporting, as well as his rowboat, he had at least saved the moon. I read this story in a book of tales that I found on a shelf in the classroom.

My version of the story had the moon actually in the lake, tempting the Fool to capsize his boat. My moon was a mischievous satellite. The story ended more or less the same way as in the original. My classmates quickly accused me of plagiarism when the story was read aloud. No, I insisted, I did something with the original, I made something out of it. The woman teaching the class understood what I was up to, at least.

Later, when I was in strange rock bands, I would write lyrics to sing over our strange music. I never quite managed to define what a song is; I only knew when I'd written one. My lyrics (and rock music lyrics in general, let's face it) did not come up to any sort of poetic standards, but I tried always to meet an internal standard, that of saying something true in every lyric. "True" is a slippery word, but I knew what I meant.

My lyrics were constructed of dream images, fleeting real-life images, myths, religious sybolism, and snatches of overheard conversations. Zola would reject most of those sources as false and "romantic", but I was at the same time becoming an observer of my surroundings, and at some level everything happening around me became material, stuff I could do something with. I could make something out of the world.

This was all revelatory for me, but of course poets, novelists, artists, essayists, etc have been turning the world into art for millennia. When a Neanderthal blew a pipeful of red dye against a cave wall, leaving the outline of his hand on the rock, he was leaving us his own hand: he was making art out of the real world, out of something true. He saw that he could do something with his own hand and the red dye and the rock wall. I like to think that the Neanderthal was less interested in proclaiming that he had been there than he was in pointing out that the shape of the human hand is fascinating and beautiful. "Look at this," he seems to say to me. "Have you ever really looked at your hand? What a piece of work, how noble in form, etc."

By and large, I have tried to keep myself out of my artwork. I am not proclaiming that I have been here, there, or anywhere. I like to think that I am invisible behind the work, that the work does not draw attention to the maker, that it draws attention to itself. I am not one of those people whose primary subject is himself. I have, frankly, very little interest in myself. The interesting stuff is all around me, all around us, if we but raise our eyes and open our ears. I don't pretend that my writing sees the world in a unique manner, that I am necessarily saying anything new or saying it in a new way. I have however felt for a long time that I at least am seeing the world, and that I am trying, as best as I can, to say what is true. I can make something from the truth, I think.

Then again, see my next post, contra Zola.