The School of Talent

I was recently thinking about symbolism, and decided to take a closer look at its effects in the worlds of art and music. That is the subject of a later post; however, thinking about symbolism, and of personal taste, reminded me of Scriabin and thus of Rachmaninoff. As can be easily ascertained, they had near-identical lives and were great competitors at the Conservatoire. Both, after this, then wrote superbly pale Chopin imitations (the difference, I think snidely to myself often, is that Rachmaninoff kept on writing these). It’s not that hard to see how the two diverged (hint: drugs, friends, megalomania) but it is interesting how location drives art; most authors from a certain place are far more similar than composers from that place. (Auden is far closer to Spender than Britten is to any Englishman but for his mentor Bridge.)

But I think there is a wider point to how nationality defines art – the terms of the artistic conversation. This is where the Anglophone world diverges mist obvously from Europe. On the one hand is the Anglophone, especially Anglo-American, worldview, predicated on realism. Jeffrey Eugenides once said that one of his books was written ‘in C major’, and that’s how American fiction in particular works. It’s tonal. Viewed through this paradigm, hysterical realism – say – may look innovative, but it’s still very much in the tonal system. Safran Foer, for instance, may have done the equivalent of modulating from C major to D flat major, but he still is firmly within the Western (i.e. Anglophone) tradition. To an outsider, the difference may barely be perceptible.

European fiction, on the other hand, is like modal music; elliptical, inconclusive, and most of all, different. The European conversation remains based around a shared acceptance of modernism which simply does not exist in the Anglophone world. Faulkner is the only American author of the canon who really enters into this side of the debate. Interestingly, this  doesn’t mean that European fiction is formally experimental, in use of language and packaging – Ulysses, for instance, not In Search of Lost Time. The great Spanish postmodernist Juan Goytisolo is probably the most experimental European around. (Krasznahorkai does experiment occasionally, but he’s more in the Bernhardian, ‘reflective’ (to use my coined, unwieldy phrase) style.) Which brings me to the most influential European author of the past quarter-century, to my mind: Thomas Bernhard. Just look at the authors somehow influenced by him: Kadare, Nooteboom, Cartarescu, Knausgård, Nadas, Lobo Antunes, Marías, the late Sebald, Handke, Müller. Some of them do have more obvious antecedents, but an obsessive narrator, recursive style, claustrophobic atmosphere, and a preoccupation with perceived reality are fairly standard in modern European fiction. Bernhard honed modernism to its finest, latest, and ultimately self-destructive point; an apt legacy, a final correction.

But the two conversations (I’m wholly unqualified to speak on Africa and Asia, but I suspect Latin America has its own internal debate, albeit one closer to the European style) are moving farther apart from each other than at any other point in the last century. The reflective post-modernism influential in Europe is not just ignored, but condescended to; European audiences are presumably too stupid to see through the ‘turgid – even bombastic – introspection’ (New York Times, on Pascal Mercier) which makes European fiction so inferior to those Kakutani, Garner, Maslin, or Peck limn so furiously. At the moment, European fiction ingests much from Anglophonia – there are still many European realists, after all – but the post-modern of Europe (not as relentlessly innovative as the hyphenless version, but building on the doubt at the root of its hyperactivity; metamodernism?) are being damned constantly by the English-speaking world. Even the currents which reportedly make US fiction more exciting than UK offerings won’t keep flowing from Dickens forever. This is one thing James Wood has right in The Broken Estate; this is one thing mere regionalism can’t disguise. Of the ‘two paths for the novel’, only one engages with the literary history of the twentieth century, with the interior, with the international; a path some writers are miming going down, without ever committing themselves. Modernism’s legacy in the rest of the world has proven itself with hallucination, introspection, the imprint of emotion. Every word of a modernist work and of its (sometimes estranged) brother, the reflective post-modern, advanced into deepest lyrical essay, is an artistic gamble. This is why the thrilling, ramshackle epics of consciousness – Knausgård, Bolaño, Nádás, Marías, Cartarescu – are almost exclusively international; the conversation is audacious because it has been forged from the adventurous legacy of the modern, but a modern in profound inquisition – even opposition – to itself. In the Anglosphere, the modern (‘news that stays news’, cathartically written) hasn’t yet been born – or, at least, right now, made only of straw.

The Pulitzer

Tomorrow sees the announcement of who (if anyone!) wins the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and two finalists. Fresh off my successful Folio Prize predictions, I have some suspicions for tomorrow

The Dark Horses

Karen Russell has a previous nomination for the prize, and I think she has a good chance. For this category, however, I think I prefer Kristopher Jansma. Percival Everett is a major outsider, but not as acclaimed as either Edwidge Danticat or Anthony Marra, the latter of whom I don’t think will be involved.

The Possible Contenders

Alice McDermott actually has a very good chance, I think, certainly better than the unlikely Claire MessudThomas Pynchon is surely the intriguing outsider here, for once; he’s overdue, and this is probably his finest book since Mason & DixonPhillipp Meyer doesn’t have the best chance, to my mind, but should still be seriously considered, and Jhumpa Lahiri is highly unlikely, I think.

The Front Runners

The race in this section seems to be between Rachel Kushner and George Saunders. Can Saunders beat Kushner has he did with the Folio Prize? I suspect the answer is yes; Kushner has quite possibly had too much hype not concentrating on the book as such, while Saunders rather deserves his award, after quite a long time. I doubt McBride really has a chance, but deserves thought.

My Picks

Edwidge Danticat fits as an outlier, Alice McDermott has had success in the past, and (an all-female shortlist is unlikely) George Saunders is suitably acclaimed. Who can win out of those? I’m really not sure, but am tempted by… Saunders! Or McDermott. Or maybe Danticat.

The Most Acclaimed Writer in the English Language of the Past Twenty Years Is…

1. Margaret Atwood (32)
2. Ian McEwan (25)
3. Peter Carey (21)
4. Hilary Mantel (20)
5. Alice Munro (17)
6. Rohinton Mistry (17)
7. J.M. Coetzee (16)
8. Phillip Roth (16)
9. Colm Tóibín (16)
10. Andrew Miller (15)
11. Tim Winton (14)
12. Jim Crace (14)
13. Zadie Smith (14)
14. David Malouf (13)
15. Marilynne Robinson (13)
16. Alex Miller (13)
17. Doris Lessing (12)
18. Don DeLillo (12)
19. Sebastian Barry (12)
20. Edward P. Jones (11)
21. Julian Barnes (11)
22. Barbara Kingsolver (11)
23. Ali Smith (11)
24. Jennifer Egan (10)
25. Junot Díaz (10)
26. Carol Shields (10)
27. Shirley Hazzard (10)
28. Jonathan Franzen (10)
29. Beryl Bainbridge (10)
30. Rose Tremain (10)
31. Sarah Waters (10)
32. Michael Ondaatje (9)
33. Salman Rushdie (9)
34. Kate Grenville (9)
35. Esti Edugyan (9)
36. Carrie Tiffany (9)
37. Justin Cartwright (9)
38. V.S. Naipaul (8)
39. Paul Auster (8)
40. Cormac McCarthy (8)
41. Graham Swift (8)
42. Michelle de Kretser (8)
43. Andrea Levy (8)
44. E.L. Doctorow (8)
45. Richard B. Wright (8)
46. Joyce Carol Oates (8)
47. Kazuo Ishiguro (8)
48. John Banville (7)
49. Anne Enright (7)
50. Jhumpa Lahiri (7)

Methodology:
6 for author, 3 for book win, 2 for shortlisting (finalists in lower case))

Nobel
Neustadt
Jerusalem
Asturias

Booker 
Black 
Costa

Pulitzer
NBA
NBCC

GGs
Giller

Miles Franklin
NSW Premier’s Awards

Impac 
Baileys Women’s Prize

Tiebreak: nobel, author, number of top prizes, conversion rate, number of prizes included, number of international awards, number of years awarded over, number of countries awarded by, number of minor awards

The Palace of the Mind

Having resumed normal service after April Fools’ Day, I came across an excuse to talk about two of my favourite authors; Javier Marías and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Firstly, even though I’ve read all of Marías’ novels (well, I’m still working on Your Face Tomorrow), I’ve never read his shorter works. Even Written Lives, a book of essays about some of my favourite authors, has slipped past me, including – I think – this gem. (Researching this, I came across this, which may actually be the essay in Written Lives; looking for a memorable piece I once read in the Threepenny Review by Marías (some of the actual reports from the mysterious organisation in Your Face Tomorrow) I found a lot of capsule biographies (a Spanish language form? Perhaps the idea is connected to the cronica inspired by Fénéon; Borges was certainly a master of the form, while Bolaño is also a decent essayist-biographer) included in the New Directions compilation, so I’m unclear). Marías’ books often read to me like a collection of set-pieces (not pejoratively meant), but you experience the collective impact of a novel in the way its worldview is coloured through its narration and how that in turn colours your own life. Marías’ greatness is (I’m thinking of “On the Honeymoon” and the Celia passages from Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me) that the experience you the reader and ‘I’ the narrator have there change your perceptions of all of the rest of the novel, particularly once you come across the same words or phrases repeated; the litany of seeing and how we respond to that sight. (Very early this morning, in the middle of abstract personal musings, the words ‘what a disgrace for me to know your name, even though I may not know your face tomorrow’ pounded into my mind. Does that now seem obsessive? Possibly. Does it prove the impressive fixation Marías can produce? Definitely). At the risk of over-extending a weak metaphor, Marías’ work reminds me of an opera (actually, its beauty reminds me more of Impressionistic piano works, but the weak metaphor depends on the damn opera!). There are the true set pieces, the seemingly separate and, in terms of plot, unnecessary passages that are like operatic choruses, the incidental music or interludes of humorous, sometimes tangential passages which still require an understanding of the plot to fully parse their point, which is description, and finally the plot scenes, or the recitatives. To take A Heart So White, there is the chorus “On the Honeymoon”, the heads of state meeting interlude, and the opening suicide recitative. Marías’ mission is comprehended in the format of a novel; he is surely the subtlest of the maximalists. (The other irritating thing about The Savage Detectives is that Bolaño is so very desperate for the world to realise he’s a maximalist writng maximalist novels maximilistically (look at me! I can write a sprawling maximalist epic! Make sure you all get how maximalist I am! I’ve just introduced a huge maximalist cast!) he can’t be bothered to use his immense talent to construct a realist plot worth engagement, a reflective meditation worth thought, or a surreal magic worth revelling in).

Lampedusa is another quiet maximalist. His project was breathtaking, but he undertook it – as Marías reminds us in both pieces – after deciding he was mathematically no more foolish than his cousin, just turned to poetry. This isn’t just another realist novel, but it hovers uneasily between modernism and postmodernism, and not in the ambiguous Sebaldian way which makes both eager to claim him. It’s much more clear if one reads some of his fragmentary works. My favourite is Places of My Infancy, a (beautifully designed) New Directions Pearl I read years after The Leopard. That book shows powerfully and discreetly the overwhelming intensity of Lampedusa’s emotions for his (awful, beautiful, saved, ravaged) homeland. Lampedusa himself rarely gets in the way of The Leopard, but I think what makes it such a great political novel – the greatest ever, I think – is its exquisite psychology and delicate symbolism (the dog is one of the greatest devices in twentieth-century fiction; that level of subtlety is what all should aim for). It is a poignant novel, rich in character, but as experimental in its psychoanalytical (Lampedusa’s wife was a psychoanalyst, and I think there is immense potential, not in a Freudian reading as such, but in a psychological interpretation). Lampedusa acheived the amazing; he constructed a novel with a political setting which does not feel ripped from the headlines or a convenient deus ex machina for situational difficulties. His novel is crafted from Sicily’s deserts, and the fact that Garibaldi was by this point part of the island’s mythos make the politics all the more compelling. Lampedusa felt his novel, he felt as the Leopard himself, and the haunting real world is just a step, but a step across a frontier, away from the castle of the Salinas. Both authors are not preoccupied by the political, but rather are circling around it as a symptom of humanity’s malaise or fever (for Bernhard, it would be a disease, but this is a gentler model). They are both masters.

Great American Great

In keeping with the soon-to-be-released John Updike video game and the BBC’s ‘locking a documentary maker in a room with Phillip Roth and forcing them to like each other’ experiment, I will now only read books from America or, at a pinch, the Booker shortlist. I have realised that all these translated authors are probably all drugged, and plausibly even foreign, and thus Can Not Be Allowed Into The Sacred Halls Of The New York Times, and that their fiction does not speak to your average, middle-class, American, who is in her spare time an acute artistic critic of this shamefully unreal fiction. Only some of which is real. Only half of which is fiction. I have considered taking active steps to block out the rest of literary history, like not learning a foreign language, but instead I’ll become a True Fake American and just ignore it. See you in Brooklyn!

Review: Soul and Other Stories by Andrey Platonov

Soul and Other Stories by Andrey Platonov. From Vintage for £9.99

Platonov is a true giant of twentieth-century Russian literature. His books were mutilated by the Stalinist censors and have only been available for two decades, and now suffer the further iniquity of obscurity. He differs from his friend and contemporary Bulgakov in his lack of fantasies and his meditative prose, while his beautiful style is superbly reflected in this well-balanced selection. Often these stories are heartbreaking tales of suicide and oppression, with the grim setting ever present. The title novella, for instance, tells of a community in the Caucasus, devastatingly poor and hungry, forgotten by nearly all. One of them, who as a child was sent to Moscow, now returns, to preach his messianic message to his people. Instead, he finds himself caught up in his memories, and the story ends on a bittersweet note, but one which proves the ‘soul’ commemorated by the title. The interior movements of the mind are beautifully considered in each story. He was unquestionably a master of language; the comprehensive footnotes indisputably add to the stories, and the convoluted measures used to slip resistance past the censors simply adds to the unbearable sadness of the stories. His politics border on the absurd, but nothing should distract from the crystalline wonder of his writing.