Monday, 16 July 2012

Nothing is New

My good friend @deniswright alerted me this morning to a Guardian  report about New York's passion for a Hungarian writer called László Krasznahorkai. I'd already read about him, as it happened, in the London Review of Books, and it had become clear to me then that he was, as my little sister once said about the news, when she wanted, aged about six, to change to another television channel, "too interesting" for me, in the same way that Finnegan's Wake always has been.

Having read the article Denis sent, I returned to the book I am reading at the moment, Becoming Dickens, by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, which meant that almost immediately after reading this in Denis's Guardian article:

"Krasznahorkai spoke in English ... offering the opinion that the full stop 'doesn't belong to human beings, it belongs to God', which is why he doesn't much care for paragraph breaks"

I came upon a description of a kind of pantomime one-man show put on each year in London in the 1830s by a character called Charles Mathews. It was called an "At Home", and Charles Dickens loved it. It was one of Mathews's characters that particularly caught my eye:

"Miss Never-End, 'who despises colons and semi-colons, and never in her life could be induced to make use of a full stop'."

Have we become wiser, with our reverence for Miss Never-End's modern representative, or is Krasznahorkai wearing the latest set of emperor's new clothes?

I am not actually posing the question from a position of entrenched conservatism. I genuinely do wonder what is the purpose of fiction that is very hard to get through, despite being,  in small chunks, undoubtedly beautiful and fascinating in its detailed description of an individual experience of existence.

To give a taste of the kind of thing a reader deals with in Krasznahorkai, here is an example, (via his translator, George Szertes, of course, and who knows how much of the passage's beauty is in the original - my Hungarian is nowhere near up to judging  - and how much added by the translator [but that's a whole other question]):

“In the tense silence the continual buzzing of the horseflies was the only audible sound, that and the constant rain beating down in the distance, and, uniting the two, the ever more frequent scritch-scratch of the bent acacia trees outside, and the strange nightshift work of the bugs in the table legs and in various parts of the counter whose irregular pulse measured out the small parcels of time, apportioning the narrow space into which a word, a sentence or a movement might perfectly fit. The entire end-of-October night was beating with a single pulse, its own strange rhythm sounding through trees and rain and mud in a manner beyond words or vision: a vision present in the low light, in the slow passage of darkness, in the blurred shadows, in the working of tired muscles; in the silence, in its human subjects, in the undulating surface of the metaled road; in the hair moving to a different beat than do the dissolving fibers of the body; growth and decay on their divergent paths; all these thousands of echoing rhythms, this confusing clatter of night noises, all parts of an apparently common stream, that is the attempt to forget despair; though behind things other things appear as if by mischief, and once beyond the power of the eye they don't hang together. So with the door left open as if forever, with the lock that will never open. There is a chasm, a crevice.”

I suppose I am really unsure about what fiction is supposed to do. I find it hard to rid myself of the idea that, given reading is an optional extra rather than a necessity, a writer's duty is not to be difficult, but to entertain at least a little - and then, within the entertainment, anything can be smuggled in. Thus, George Eliot, in Middlemarch produced a work in which the reader identified with certain characters in a quite soap-operaish kind of way - or at least I did (barracking from the sidelines, willing Dorothea not to marry Casaubon, et cetera) - and then, within that framework, produced one of the most extraordinary portraits of human existence ever written, studded with perceptive observations and wisdom.

Once duty in fiction shifts from the writer to the reader - I must read this, it's dense and tough but it will surely be good for me, like All Bran - I can't help wondering if the writer hasn't betrayed his audience. I'm not suggesting that Gone with the Wind is better than Finnegan's Wake. I think I'm saying that neither of them are really successful - or perhaps, in the case of Gone with the Wind, that it is successful on its own terms but I find it unsatisfying and, in the case of Finnegan's Wake, or Krasznahorkai's work, that I'm not sure what the terms are that these works are trying to succeed on, but they don't seem to be terms that include giving pleasure to readers - and, if they aren't interested in their potential readers, what is their reason for being, for what is a written work made for if not for a reader?


  1. Bah! Hegel hasn't even finished drawing in his breath at the end of that paragraph, and of course he led off with the first fraction of the verb he will complete just left of the full stop, two pages later. Of course, that's philosophy, not to mention German, but as I recall Proust can spin out a sentence a very long way.

    1. Well actually I think Proust is at his best in small chunks too - and no-one could argue that he made any effort to keep the reader on the edge of his seat with exciting plot twists.

    2. I think he did, though -- the progress of Albertine is a series of twists, and the final revelation of Robert is one too, and there are twists within individual sentences, punchlines or punch-fragments -- or surprise endings -- there's the narrator's description of Francois killing a chicken, for example, which culminates in a punchline of a fact: in spite of his horror he still ate her chickens. He does this fairly consistently, at least in translation: he guides you in one direction and then bounces in with a surprise. The life of Charlus is an ongoing plot twist. A mystery, I mean, with gradual exposure welling up in little drops.

      Or you might have meant plot twists in a different sense. I am not sure.

    3. Krasznahorkai is well pleased with you, although, like China's mighty defensive barrier, your sturdy wall of unrelenting prose was breached slightly toward its western end.

      Or something. The Bulwer-Lytton contest looms.

    4. I liked a lot of that passage of his quoted above, although I was a bit dubious about the human hair moving to a different beat bit.

  2. Umbagollah - I suppose I've always thought of novels as recounting what are essentially stories of quests - will an individual get out of a situation or find love or escape from a desert island - whereas what Proust and, from what I've seen of him, Krasnahorkai appear to be doing is more the kind of thing that poetry readers are used to and requires the same very, very focussed attention that reading a poem requires - but over a much longer than normal space. But then I suppose narrative was only ever in poetic form before the novel. I don't think the chicken incident in Proust that you mention (and since I haven't read all of Proust and have forgotten a great deal of what I have read of it, I don't know the incident myself) constitutes quite the kind of plot twist I was thinking of - something more exciting, unexpected (because almost unbelievable), melodramatic and typical of Charles Dickens was probably in my mind