Thursday, September 29, 2016

say yes today

Speaking of Jelinek reminded me of Eric’s comment on Lust, here. (“Think of what a strange work of art she has produced.” True.) Lust (more than Wonderful Wonderful) exists at angles to, or in defiance of, all books that progress through a series of events and end in a logical culmination of those events – it does not progress and not-progressing is one of its points (here’s life: repetition then death) – instead it establishes a set of more or less static situations and repeats them: the son is needy, first one way, then another; the man and the woman have sex and then they have it again, and sometimes it happens in the bath, another time in the kitchen, and each time Jelinek explains it with some different cohesion of context (“Blindly the woman cashes in her security from the man’s spitting dispenser,” “It wants to dwell within thy hallowed halls,” “His rain comes pouring from the cloudburst”) but the act itself occurs potentially endlessly, with the inevitably of genre, since in genre certain things are always going to happen. The nature of the individual genre establishes the type of thing that will happen but genre itself is the presence of them happening. Richardson’s Clarissa is noteworthy because it has both the forward progress and also the repetition with intensities.

The woman in Lust breaks from her home, finds another man, goes through sex with him and cycles back again to her husband. Breaking away does not make anything fundamentally different. Here the possibility of the progress that other books love, is teased. Sex is a pleasure for her husband and she wants a repetition of one pleasure with the other man. “She wants to hear that young man say yes today, having heard him yesterday.” (“Yes/today” and “yesterday” must be the translator Michael Hulse giving you a lick of Jelinek’s musical-clotted style.) But the young man is brutal and contemptuous. The woman does not have pleasure, she has a brief mastery of difference in repetition. The escape and discovery are like a parody of the idea of a quest. The treasure is supposed to transform things. This is pathetic.

The woman causes a rupture that ends the book but she has not attacked the repetition of sex. She has not removed herself, she has not deleted her husband. Even if she had, we have been told that Austria is full of the same mentality: erasing two people would not dissolve it. When Pausanius (c. AD 110 – c. 180) describes the oracle of Trophonius in his Description of Greece, he outlines a series of ritual acts that the petitioner has to undergo before their request is fulfilled, when they are allowed to descend into the rock and come out disoriented, with a revelation if they are lucky. (Sensory deprivation or exposure to volcanic gas, theory says: one or the other.) That visit to the cave is the end of their personal repetitions but the next person will have to undergo them too: the repetitions continue to exist. You could make a strip of patterned wallpaper long enough to wrap around the globe and it would still be exactly the same pattern at the beginning and end, without entropy, a piece of artificiality or art, not biological, although biology is present in the commission of the acts or marks themselves. (Genre is also resistance against entropy.) So the end of Lust has to be an explosion, which is the only way to calm down for a moment and have a straight line without patterns. “But now rest a while.”

Monday, September 19, 2016

she has followed her instructions to the letter

Near the end of Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman, 1951, the character Natalie follows her friend into a dark forest where she realises that this good companion has been employed all along by a presence that somehow wants to abduct her. “She has done as she was told then, Natalie thought; she has brought me here with friendship and without force, she has followed her instructions to the letter and will probably be commended.” What is the presence? Earlier on the bus the two friends guessed that the other passengers might be agents of “them,” but the conversation is so ambiguous that it’s possible for the reader to understand “them” as something fairly routine: a power of convention that wants to repress an imaginative high school student; that sort of they. Now, though, when Natalie anticipates the presence in the woods, it is as if she is expecting a murderer. It is not the powers of society, it is a phenomenal force that draws her specifically away from society in order to approach her. Its strength does not seem to be located anywhere outside her belief in it: not in any institution or animal physicality.

Hangsaman is always discussed as if that event is a manifestation of the trauma that was repressed after a sexual assault in chapter one. Why is it necessary for trauma be shaped like a magical serial killer? This seems like a key question in Jackson and the answer must lie unanswerably outside the books as well as inside them. If you can say why Natalie’s family ignores the evidence of the assault then you might know why Eleanor in the Haunting of Hill House, 1959, has to steal a car, drive away, and be mentally possessed by an unfamiliar structure, why it is necessary for the structure to seem (supernaturally) familiar to her; why, in other words, the exposition of her character has to happen there, and not in the home where she has spent eleven years caring for her dying mother. All of Hill House can be read as a return to the last fifty pages of the earlier book.

(I think that by publishing Hangsaman Jackson found the other story.)

When I started writing this post I was wondering how Jackson might have changed her work if she had been able to read Elfriede Jelinek. Specifically I wondered if she might have lost the magazine archness veneering her sarcasm, if she might have looked at Otto, Gretl, and the twins in Wonderful Wonderful Times / Die Ausgesperrten, 1980 and recognised her own cynicism towards families, the conviction of Natalie’s father that his desires are best and that his disdain for his wife is justified, the wretchedly obedient self-hatred of the wife herself which Jackson makes as unpitiable as possible, for both authors will prickle at benevolence. I was disturbed by what I interpreted as the author’s voluntary or habitual defanging of herself. In Jelinek’s translated sentences play and anger are the same thing: the sentences are negatively energised, the play is jeering, whereas Jackson’s play is play apart, in a place where people have time to sit comfortably every now and then, writing calm, wry statements about the little things in life: a leisure place, and as such it exists apart from the anger or panic or disgust that supply the sentences with their meanings. But there is always something theoretical to appeal to in Jelinek when the characters act on that sarcasm: there are patriarchal mores or the denialism of postwar Austria; there is no ghost they. Jackson is unsealed, more careless, she hides (Jelinek exposes); she is (idea) not writing Hangsaman to reveal a fictionalised sexual assault but to conceal one, as if some wound, not necessarily sexual, has already happened and now it needs obfuscation to hide it away.

Monday, September 12, 2016

come to hear a little more

Society is the unit of enclosure in Richardson; also the space of letters. The books are their own enclosures in a way that a fiction with nature descriptions is not, since the material of a book is never nature and it can’t mimic nature; cannot be like a twig or rock; a book can’t come from nature; so every detail in a Richardson book is a reinforcement of enclosure in its own implied matter. (This should be qualified by a reminder of the Alps in Grandison, vol. 4 ch. 39.) Richardson, as an author of fiction books, was born from a volume of model letters that his friends Charles Rivington and John Osbourne convinced him to write for them, “a little book (which, they said, they were often asked after) of familiar letters on the useful concerns of common life; and, at last, I yielded to their importunity” (letter to Aaron Hill, 1 Feb., 1741). He owned a printing business and they were his colleagues in the trade. You assume that they didn’t feel like writing the model letter book themselves; maybe not trusting their own abilities, or else they didn’t have time, or it seemed easier to bug their friend, who had never written a work of fiction before, though he had edited some of the books that came through his presses, and had once composed a pamphlet of advice for apprentices, The Apprentice’s Vade Mecum, 1733. Something in what he was (what was it: what was he?) encouraged them to ask him several times to write this Familiar Letters, which was composed in 1739 and published eventually in 1741. “While I was writing the two volumes, my worthy-hearted wife, and the young lady who is with us, when I had read them some part of the story, which I had begun without their knowing it, used to come into my closet every night with – ‘Have you any more of Pamela, Mr. R.? We are come to hear a little more of Pamela’ &c. This encouraged me to prosecute it.” They did not have to ask him directly, according to him (their asking-him asked him, not they) – he flew into it “so diligently, through all my other business, that, by a memorandum on my copy, I began it Nov. 10, 1739, and finished it Jan. 10, 1739-40.” The epistolary formula stimulated him to invent it, the never-alone to and fro motion, which he combines with the direct me-to-you of instruction (the idea of vade mecum never left him). These two actions at once. He is always with people.