Thursday, January 31, 2019

at this point where we pause

Coming off Jean-Paul Richter last year into Heimito von Doderer’s The Merowingians, or, the Total Family, 1962, tr. Vinal Overing Binner, I thought at first that the book’s digressions were Richterian (spontaneous-seeming romanticisms) but as I went on I disagreed with myself. This was a machine, a machine-book, making itself through machine-understanding, by comprehending narrative as a machine that depended on the invention of a vital component to generate form. Once it had invented that component, whatever it was (Dr. Horn’s method of diagnosed repressed anger in his patients by observing the width of the angle between their feet), it allowed itself to create digressions around it (expanding a comment about “the reader’s fury” on page 347 by adding “whose foot angle, at this point where we pause in our questionable reporting, must have already reached an impressive degree”). So it fed like an animal on this machinery, and grew to whatever shape it needed to be to accommodate that digression: chapters odd lengths toward the end, etc, all justified by the machine (first half of the twentieth century he had lived through, Doderer, the age of Buster Keaton and Duchamp’s Large Glass, the machines).

The flesh of the characters becomes mechanical (representing its feelings not through ineffable Richter sighing but via reliable foot-angles) and anger can be switched off (when Dr. Horn leads the sufferers through a scientifically calibrated process that introduces them first to stamping music and then to a room filled with smashable ceramic statuettes). To turn the anger back on again (why? Because a completely cured citizenry would put the Dr Horns of the world out of business) you introduce simple irritations, such as artificial grit in the pockets or a bad manufactured smell. A quote from Doderer’s diary in Jorg Kreienbrock’s Malicious Objects, Anger Management, and the Question of Modern Literature, 2012, is helpful: “Anger caused by a small trifle (which objectively would not be more than a trigger, in French a déclic), like a breakfast ruined by an indolent waitress or other caricatures of domestic misfortune, functions as the inserted sparkplug for everything we have on our mind.” So there is something “on our mind,” in the author’s opinion, something that exists before the sparkplug. The flesh clicks on and off like a machine but it is not empty.

Why does he insist on anger? Why is that the form of expression he chooses for the otherwise unexpressed feelings? Thinking back on The Merowingians in the light of that quote you remember the constant slappings, the punches, the beatings, the incidental details like Richenza manifesting her reaction to the Count by kicking him through a door and “[giving] him such a working over that his gaunt face swelled like a pumpkin”; the number of characters who are dominated by rage, revenge, or violence (Childerich III, Schnippedilderich, Pippin, Horn's clients, the sisters Karla and Sonka who “exhibited a repellent and truly detestable savagery”, etc); the war at the end, the general resort to brutality. The perpetual selection of anger is the unsaid thing in the book. The déclic for the selection is writing. Before that there is a why with no answer. (Is the book is ever aware there is a why?)

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

their yearnings unsung

Playing his piano, Norwid’s Chopin manifests the perfection that Poland is unable to realise; the completeness of Pericles, or of Orpheus on his lyre, a perfection that comes into the world through a physical effort that is superhuman but also tempered, attentive, “softly”:

… like when boys battle boys –
– The keys still resisting
The source of their yearnings unsung
They softly push back on their own.*

When he separates “one moment” from “one moment,” with his comma, Norwid gives the poem something that it doesn’t have anywhere else, an indissoluble capsule of time where one of the actions he imagines (the otherworldly spirit of perfection perpetually existing) can really belong. If “one moment” can live on its own then it has Pericles inside it. I am only writing this because the missing comma in that one translation still bothers me more than other one-word or one-punctuation mark things that have stopped me recently, like “nozzle” for a goat’s nose in William Carlos Williams’ The Desolate Field or the impression I had during page thirty-one of The Blue Octavo Notebooks, that the translators must have been happy when they found the right words for a cute and boring line Kafka copied from the Jewish monthly Der Jude on December 11th, 1917: “The Bible is a sanctum, the world, sputum.” Kafka, on his own, doesn’t write this sort of banality-cloaker. When he plays with repetition he does it to create a paradox by putting two or more things in tension. “We hold the world fast and complain that it is holding us.” But the partnership of “hold” and “holding” looks straightforward for the translators compared with sputum and sanctum, and my thoughts about the heroism on page thirty-one had nothing to do with what the line meant.

*tr. Jerome Rothenberg and Airie Galles

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

a great brooding-oven

Each century provides us with new things to conceal,
A territory that offers no purchase to the curious eye of affection,
Overgrown with loneliness, its ever denser leaves.

Günter Eich, Dreams, from Angina Days: Selected Poems, 2010, tr. Michael Hofmann

Now-a-days, when forests are burned to charcoal faster than they grow again, the only thing to be done is to warm the climate a good deal, and turn it into a great brooding-oven, kiln, and field-oven, so as to save the trouble, and obviate the necessity, of having stoves in the houses. And this has been in some measure attended to by careful Commissioners of Woods and Forests, who have cleared away the forests as much as they could, they being full of late winter. When one thinks how very beautifully modern Germany contrasts with that which Tacitus mapped, warmed as it is by the mere cutting down of the forests, we have little difficulty in feeling convinced that a time will come when, there being no more timber at all, we shall arrive at such a temperature that the atmosphere itself shall be our fur pelisse.

Jean-Paul Richter, Flower, Fruit and Thorn Pieces; or, the Wedded Life, Death, and Marriage of Firmian Stanislaus Siebenkaes, Parish Advocate in the Burgh of Kuhschnappel (a Genuine Thorn Piece), 1877, tr. Alexander Ewing

The last one for this year. Sorry, René Char. Sorry Déwé Gorodé.