Monday, January 9, 2012

First of 2012! Orwell, Calvino, the Anxiety of Reading, and the Danger of Stories

After my shameful report on my year in reading, it occurred to me that although I will never read enough to be a top literary blogger, if I'm going to keep a literary blog at all (if only for the amusement of myself and a few friends), I really ought to read a bit more. As a child and adolescent I lived under the pleasant illusion that I was well-read, which was true compared to both the peers and adults with whom I was surrounded; in university I was disturbed to discover that I was better-read than the average English student. But I'm not a serious or “ambitious” reader (to use the adjective I came across in a literary blog the other day) by the standards of the blogosphere, where bloggers posts lists of 30 to a hundred books they've read in a year. This sort of blogging tends does tend to bleed into bragging, like telling the world how many push-ups you can do at a time, an attitude to reading reinforced by the percentage bar on e-books, constantly informing you how much progress you've made (which, incidentally, puts the emphasis on you and your agency rather than, as with old-fashioned checking how many pages remain, on the book). The difficulty, rather than the pleasure, of reading has moved to the forefront of our experience (perhaps our definition) of it, turning it into an onerous duty alternately on behalf of the Self or the Book (both supreme), and God forbid you should take a lot of pleasure in reading, and devote a lot of reflection to what you've read, without reading a lot of books. In our positivist world we have no time for intangibles like quality of experience, only for measurable tangibles.

Orwell and The Overpraise of Books

Publishers have responded to the modern reader's sense that there's too much to read and too little time with series like Penguin's Great Ideas: little, cheap books of classic essays or collections of essays by well-known authors. I impulse-bought several of these in the last couple of years and then wondered when I'd ever get around to them. Now that I've launched my project of reading The Books in My House, however, I'm starting with these, and I've already knocked down one book in 2012: the Orwell collection Books & Cigarettes. The Penguin series is sure to multiply the number of books I read in 2012, though not necessarily the number of pages (or words, if we can no longer go by pages in the era of digital reading).

I have read – probably in Harold Bloom, who is not an admirer of 1984 – that Orwell's real strength as a writer lay in his essays rather than his fiction. I have only the dimmest memories of 1984, which I read in early adolescence (along with Animal Farm, which went right over my head), but I definitely enjoyed this slim collection, many of whose subjects bear on this problem of Modern Reading, starting with the first, title essay, which laments (in 1946) the willingness of the public (including the author) to spend its money on leisure activities like cigarettes, beer, and movies compared to its reluctance to spend it on books. Nevertheless, Orwell is not sentimental (or, in stark contrast to the literary blogger, bragging) in his attitude to books, which he characterizes, “There are books that one reads over and over again, books that become part of the furniture of one's mind and alter one's whole attitude to life, books that one dips into but never reads through, books that one reads at a single setting and forgets a week later....” In the second essay, “Bookshop Memories,” in which Orwell recollects his experiences of working in a second-hand bookshop, he writes, “Seen in the mass, five or ten thousand at a time, books were boring and even slightly sickening, and in the third essay, “Confessions of a Book Reviewer,” where he describes the misery and squalor of the life of this instance of the literary professional (“He might be a poet, a novelist, or a writer of film scripts or radio features, for all literary people are very much alike”), “It is almost impossible to mention books in bulk without grossly overpraising the great majority of them. Until one has had some kind of professional relationship with books one does not discover how bad the majority of them are.”

Misery, squalor, and Sartrean disgust are consistent presences in Orwell's essays, climaxing in the two longer essays that end the collection, one, “How the Poor Die,” describing his experiences in a French hospital in 1929, the other his childhood experiences in a boarding school. The last, longest essay is a tour de force of autobiographical writing, starting from the personal (and traumatic) to take a wider, sociological and psychological view. The result is interestingly Freudian – especially since a quick google search for Orwell and Freud turns up a 1978 Virginia Quarterly Review essay that claims, based on the biographical evidence, that Orwell considered psychoanalysis quackery and exhibited no interest in Freud.

Nevertheless, in “Such, Such Were the Joys” (written by 1947 and published in 1952, according to the note at the end of the essay), Orwell draws what can only be considered psychological conclusions – and fascinating ones – based on his recollection of childhood experiences and his subjective reactions to them, and writes about childhood sexuality (with reference to a group masturbation scandal) in the frank manner that I, at any rate, associate with the influence of Freud on intellectuals in the first half of the 20th century (and from which I think we've largely retreated). To me, nothing could sound more Freudian than Orwell's interest in the inner life – the alien world – of the child, and his (ultimately scientific) method of approaching it through an honest recounting of his memories, undistorted by sentimentality, moralizing, or projection of adult values.

In fact, Orwell is so unsentimental on the subject of children that he argues (again, based on his experience) that children are not especially loving, and in fact may feel disgust, loathing, and incomprehension towards adults. It makes one wonder – if we do not sentimentalize the child (as Freud didn't, either), why are we concerned about the horrors he suffers due to the values of society and sadism of adults – about the shame and humiliation to which he's senselessly subjected? The only possible answer is that everyone is, at one point, a child; that children are among the class of the powerless and, although the concept is a relatively new one, human beings with rights; and that the experiences of childhood affect the adult one becomes, the society one shapes, and one's treatment of the powerless. The essay also gives the impression that although children are not kinder, more innocent, or more loving than adults, they are morally superior in one respect: they have not yet fully accepted the cruel, ugly, and incoherent values of society. Or rather, they do accept them (children are naturally conformist), but subjectively they know that these values are lies: they are still aware of the conflict between subjective, emotional experience and the consciously unquestionable truth of authority – the basic psychological conflict of childhood in Orwell's essay. Children still know, subjectively, that two and two equal four, whatever they are told; adults are no longer aware that any difference exists at all between truth and lies. (Orwell deals with totalitarian distortion of truth, or destruction of the concept, in the U.S.S.R. and its effect on infatuated leftist European intellectuals, in “The Prevention of Literature,” where he writes, “Freedom of the intellect means the freedom to report what one has seen, heard, and felt, and not to be obliged to fabricate imaginary facts and feelings.”)

Calvino and the Story in Postmodern Fiction

At midnight on January 1st, 2012, I was in the middle of the final novel fragment in Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, making it both my last read of 2011 and my first read of 2012. It seemed like an excitingly fitting way to transition into a new year, reading the protagonist's recounting of an apocalypse that's resulted from what had appeared to be his fantasy of using the power of his mind to obliterate everything he dislikes in the world around him, starting with the surrounding buildings and ending with... everything. When the feat has been accomplished, strange officials (“the men from Section D”) approach him and congratulate him on ushering in a new era that they will control, whereupon he regrets his work but find he can't undo it. To erase is easier than to create.

For those who don't know (I didn't before I started reading it, though I knew of the title), the conceit of If on a Winter's Night a Traveller is that the protagonist, the Reader (addressed as “you”), tries to read the book you are reading, or one called that and written by Italo Calvino, but gets cut off by a manufacturer's defect, and his efforts to get hold of the rest of the book place a series of apparently, but not actually, related books in his hands, each of which he is also cut off from reading for increasingly absurd reasons, at the same time becoming involved in an international conspiracy to replace the truth in books with tricks and lies. The chapters of If on a Winter's Night, recounting the Reader's adventures and the progress of his romance with the Other Reader, alternate with these beginnings of novels, which are pastiches of various genres, from the crime novel to European rural realism to Japanese quasi-pornography. Not straight pastiches, however, but liberally laden with postmodern strangeness (including those hoary tropes to which Bolano pays tribute, the mirror and the void), as well as a lot of kinky sexuality. The broadest pastiche of all, however, is the plot of “the novel itself,” with its conspiracies, Manichean agents and counteragents, and incidental UFO references.

The term “postmodern playfulness” still gets thrown around a lot, even though it's been thrown around so much that its lost all meaning and, therefore, usefulness as a critical phrase, since although it's true that a certain kind of playfulness, or lighthearted self-reflexivity, characterizes a lot of postmodern fiction, not all postmodern playfulness is alike – in fact, the playfulness of any two postmodern authors is distinctly different. Calvino's self-reflexivity and playfulness in If on a Winter's Night could not, for example, be more different from Bolano's in Nazi Literature in the Americas, although inventiveness and the vignette form are central features of both works (and after “postmodern playfulness,” “inventiveness” is the primary quality that comes to mind in reference to both). Calvino's playfulness is untinged by the sinister or any interest in evil, although like Bolano he is fascinated by violence, and he repeatedly returns to the subject of death. Maybe what I mean is that Bolano's playfulness slightly mitigates his sinister subject matter and tone, the reverse is true of Calvino: one's first impression is of playfulness, which is slightly mitigated by encroachments of the sinister and a sense of dread. In addition, while Bolano's inventiveness closes in on itself and gives the impression of privacy and inscrutability, Calvino's opens out towards the reader, issuing in lucid thematics and metafictional discourses on the nature of reading.

As much as I enjoyed Calvino's reflections on reading, especially as they bear on the odd experiment of the novel, this metafiction, and the plot about truth versus lies in novels (or different kinds of novels), were for me the least interesting parts of the novel. (Naturally, they're the things you'd have to write about if you were writing an academic essay on it.) Leaving the pastiches as the most interesting parts. They are not, in fact, much like the beginnings of novels (even allowing for their postmodern elements); rather, they are complete fictions in their own right, albeit with cliffhanger endings, with thematics and protagonist psychology established more thoroughly than they would be and plot developments occurring faster and thicker than they would in the beginning of any novel. They are, in other words, performances of invention and strangeness – of interest – that could not possibly be sustained for the length of a novel. Even if the writer could keep it up, the reader would become exhausted (and, perhaps partly for that reason, partly due to the lack of a single, sustained plot, I found my attention dimming towards the end of the book, as I did with Nazi Literature). And yet we wish writers could sustain, and readers endure, that level of inventiveness; that reading could always have that intensity, without the dull bits that allow readers to rest between dramatic episodes, without lapses of attention even during the most interesting parts.

Like Orwell, writing in 1946, Calvino, writing in the late 70s, expresses the anxiety of reading that has become so oppressive in our age of information-excess and sentimentality about reading and the book. In the first chapter of If on a Winter's Night, Calvino lists the different types of books that must be considered in making the decision to buy one and not another (or many others). In part:

the Books You've Been Planning To Read for Ages,
the Books You've Been Hunting For Years Without Success,
the Books Dealing With Something You're Working on at the Moment,
the Books You Want To Own So They'll Be Handy Just In Case,
the Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer,
the Books You Need To Go With The Other Books On Your Shelves,
the Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified.

Unfortunately for the devoted reader, reading takes not only time but effort: for the average reader, the shortest book (coming in, say, at a little under or over a hundred pages) will take at least as much time to read as it takes to watch an average-length movie (around 90 minutes), and much more effort. If on a Winter's Night seems to anticipate the eroding attention span of the digital era – the reader can't get past the beginnings of novels and constantly switches from one novel to another. This accommodation of my roving attention is probably the main thing that allowed me to read it much faster than I'm usually able to read most linear narratives of the same length nowadays. (Calvino's protagonist, on the other hand, is a traditionalist who is quite frustrated by not being able to follow the stories through to the end. I was reminded of the Sesame Street children's book classic, There's a Monster at the End of This Book, in which lovable furry neurotic Grover breaks the fourth wall, or whatever you call it in a book, and addresses the reader, imploring her not to turn the pages, and each time making greater efforts to construct a barricade that will prevent the progress of the story. The conceit of the Calvino is like that, but in reverse. TAMATEOTB was published in 1971; postmodern literature for adults took until the end of the decade to catch up with the experimentation of Sesame Street products in their sophisticated prime.)

Without knowing much of anything about Calvino, I suspect that If on a Winter's Night (published in 1979) is influenced by structuralism, that is, the idea that all narrative works are reducible to certain archetypal structural elements and therefore constitute (as Calvino has one of his numbered readers give voice to in the metafictional commentary of the penultimate chapter) One Story or One Book (as all protagonists are one, the abstract Reader, and all love interests One Woman, the Other Reader, who also turns out to be the Ideal Reader for whom the Writer writes). Not only the overarching plot but also all of the novels-within-the-novel are, whatever other genre they belong to, also love stories, with at least one woman appearing in whom the protagonist has an erotic interest before the fragment ends. This, I assume, reflects Calvino's conviction, conscious or otherwise, that eros is the basic motivation behind narrative. Towards the end, the protagonists become more aggressive and rapey towards their love interests, with the Writer (a character in both the framing plot and the diary fragments that make up one of the chapters) even attempting to assault the Other Reader when she shows up to confront him. This does not quite achieve the effect of universality that structuralism assumes, since it's hard to imagine a work of fiction that more absolutely assumes a male perspective, and I got a little tired of the identical episodes of priapism, although to be fair, the protagonist of the Japanese fiction pastische, On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon, is the only character who actually does get raped – by an older woman.

Not while I was reading, but now, in analyzing, If on a Winter's Night reminds me Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE, which also uses a framing plot (a couple of actors are making a movie whose script is cursed and at the same time becoming embroiled in an affair) to justify a series of vignettes that draw on archetypal scenarios – mainly involving sluttish women and brutish men – that obliquely mirror each other. Lynch is the least playful of postmodernists, veering even further to the horror side of surrealism than Bolano, although that's not to say that he doesn't have a sense of humour (I found many of the vignettes in the first half of Mulholland Dr. hilarious). I always thought that the premise of INLAND EMPIRE was derived from The Ring (whose premise was a lot more interesting to me than either the Japanese or American versions): instead of a cursed video tape, there's a cursed script. Although perhaps this was simply the zeitgeist, since Lynch had earlier explored the creepiness of video tapes in Lost Highway, which came out a year before Ringu.

In INLAND EMPIRE, the ur-story is ultimately a cursed Polish folk tale (Eastern Europe being the creepiest, most archaic part of the world according to American movies: see also Val Lewton's Cat People). All other stories are simply “adaptations” of this one, and all share its curse: storytelling is dark magic. Northrop Frye, who attempted in Anatomy of Criticism to identify all of the archetypal structures that make up “literature,” of which every individual story is an iteration, saw folk formulas like nursery rhymes, riddles, and charms as the basic units of literature, representing its basic impulses – a theory I once applied, in a graduate school essay, to The Waste Land. As fascinating as the idea of haunted technology is, the idea of the story as haunted is, for me, even more fascinating. It's the difference between thinking of the image as magic – and dangerous – and the idea of thinking of storytelling and literature that way. Perhaps it appeals to me because we are so used to thinking of books (even fiction, which used to be considered contemptible, with few exceptions – a view of fiction that comes up in Orwell's essays) as “good for us,” which is as much as to say that they're harmless, which is as much as to say that they're ineffectual.

To think of stories as dangerous returns their power to them.

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