Getting Into the Soul of Things

May 8, 2009

posted by Rachel Shine

this was originally published in Tin House

Getting Into the Soul of Things

Milan Kundera

“My objection to his book is that the good is too much absent,” said Sainte-Beuve in his review of Madame Bovary. Why, he asked, does this novel not have in it “a single person who might console and give ease to the reader by some picture of goodness?” Then he points the young author to the right path: “In a remote province in central France, I met a woman, still young, superior in intelligence, ardent of heart, restless: a wife but not a mother, with no child to raise, to love, what did she do to make use of her overflowing mind and soul?  . . .  She set about becoming a delightful benefactress . . . She taught reading and moral development to the children of the villages, often few and far between . . . There are such souls in provincial and rural life; why not show them as well?  That is uplifting, it is consoling, and the picture of humankind is only the more complete for it.”  (I have emphasized the key terms.)

It is tempting for me to jibe at this morality lesson, which irresistibly recalls the improving exhortations of the recent “social realism.”  But, memories aside, is it really so inappropriate for the most prestigious French critic of his time to exhort a young writer to “uplift” and “console” his readers by “a picture of goodness,” readers who deserve, as do we all, a little sympathy and encouragement?  In fact George Sand, in a letter some twenty years later, told Flaubert much the same thing:  Why does he hide the “feeling” he has for his characters?  Why not show his “personal doctrine” in his novel?  Why does he bring his readers “desolation,” whereas she, Sand, would rather “console” them?  As a friend she admonishes him: “Art is not only criticism and satire.”

Flaubert replies that he never sought to write either criticism or satire.  He does not write his novels to communicate his judgments to readers.  He is after something entirely different: “I have always done my utmost to get into the soul of things.”  His reply makes it very clear: the real subject of the disagreement is not Flaubert’s character (whether he is kind or cruel, cold or compassionate) but the question of what the novel is.

For centuries painting and music were in service to the church, a fact that in no way  lessened their beauty.  But putting a novel to the service of an authority, however notable, would be impossible for a true novelist.  It makes no sense to try to glorify a state, let alone an army, with a novel!  And yet Vladimír Holan, enthralled by the men  who liberated his country (and mine) in 1945, wrote The Soldiers of the Red Army, beautiful, unforgettable poems.  I could imagine a magnificent painting by Frans Hals that would show a “diligent benefactress” surrounded by peasant children whom she is training in “moral development,” but only a very foolish novelist  could make that good lady a heroine as an example to “uplift” his readers’ minds.  For we must never forget: the arts are not all alike; each of them accedes to the world by a different doorway.  Among those doorways one is exclusively reserved to the novel.

I say “exclusively” because to me the novel is not a “literary genre,” one branch among many of a single tree.  We will understand nothing about the novel if we deny that it has its own muse, if we do not see it as an art sui generis, an autonomous art.  It has its own genesis (which occurred at a moment specific to it); it has its own history, marked by phrases that pertain to it alone (the highly important shift from verse to prose in the evolution of dramatic literature has no equivalent in the evolution of the novel; the histories of the two arts are not synchronous); it has its own morality (Hermann Broch said it: the novel’s sole morality is knowledge; a novel that fails to reveal some hitherto unknown bit of existence is immoral; thus “getting into the soul of things” and setting a good example are two different and irreconcilable purposes); it has it specific relation to the author’s “self” (in order to hear the secret, barely audible voice of “the soul of things,” the novelist, unlike the poet or the musician, must know how to silence the cries of his own soul); it has its time span for creation (the writing of a novel takes up a whole era in a writer’s life, and when the labor is done he is no longer the person he was at the start); it opens itself to the world beyond its national language (ever since Europe added rhyme to rhythm in its poetry, the full beauty of a verse can no longer be transplanted from one language into another; by contrast, faithful translation of a prose work, while difficult, is possible; in the world of novels there are no state borders; the great novelists who claimed descent from Rebelais had nearly all read him in translation.)

Ineradicable Error

Just after World War II, a group of brilliant French intellectuals made famous the word existentialism, so baptizing a new orientation in not only philosophy but also theater and the novel.  As theoretician of his own theater pieces, Sartre, with his great flair for phrasemaking, proclaimed the “theater of situations” as opposed to the “theater of characters.”  Our goal, he explained in 1946, is “to explore all the situations most common to human experience,” the situations that illuminate the major aspects of the human condition.

Who has not sometimes wondered: suppose I had been born somewhere else, in another country, in another time, what would my life have been?  The question contains within it one of mankind’s most widespread illusions, the illusion that brings us to consider our life situation a mere stage set, a contingent, interchangeable circumstance through which moves our autonomous, continuing “self.”  Ah, how fine it is to imagine our other lives, a dozen possible other lives!  But enough daydreaming!  We are all hopelessly riveted to the date and place of our birth.  Our “self” is inconceivable outside the particular, unique situation of our life; it is only comprehensible in and through that situation.  If two strangers had not come looking for Josef K. one morning to inform him that he was under indictment, he would be someone totally different from the person we know.

Sartre’s powerful personality, his double status as both philosopher and writer, lends support to the idea that the existential orientation of the twentieth-century theater and novel must come from the influence of a philosophy.  This is still the old ineradicable error, the belief that the relation between philosophy and literature goes only one way, that insofar as “professionals of narration” are obliged to have ideas, they can only borrow them from “professionals of thought.”  Well, the shift that gradually turned the art of the novel away from its fascination with the psychological (the exploration of character) and brought it toward existential analysis (the analysis of situations that shed light on major aspects of the human condition) occurred twenty years before the existentialism vogue gripped Europe; and it was inspired not by the philosophers but by the logic of evolution in the art of the novel itself.

Situations

Franz Kafka’s three novels are three variants of the same situation: man in conflict not with another man but with a world transformed into an enormous administration.  In the first book (written in 1912) the man is called Karl Rossman and the world is America.  In the second (1917) the man is called Josef K. and the world is a huge tribunal indicting him.  In the third (1922) the man is called K. and the world is a village dominated by a castle.

Kafka may turn away from psychology to concentrate on exploring a situation, but that does not mean that his characters are not psychologically convincing, only that the psychological problematic has moved to the secondary level: Whether K.’s childhood was happy or sad, whether he was his mama’s pet or was raised in an orphanage, whether or not he has some great romance behind him, will have no effect on his destiny or his behavior.  It is by this reversal of the problematic, this other means of conceiving a person’s identity, that Kafka sets himself off not only from past literature but also fro his great contemporaries Proust and Joyce.

“The gnosiologic novel instead of the psychological novel,” wrote Broch in a letter explicating the poetics of The Sleepwalkers (written between 1929 and 1932); each book of this trilogy: 1888—Pasenow or Romanticism, 1903—Esch or Anarchy, and 1918—Huguenau or Realism (the dates are part of the titles), is set fifteen years after the preceding one, in a different milieu, with a different protagonist.  What makes a single work of the tree novels (they are never published separately) is a common situation, the supra-individual situation of the historical process that Broch calls the “degradation of values,” in the face of which each protagonist works out his own attitude: first Pasenow, faithful t the values which are on the point of disappearing before his very eyes: the Esch, obsessed by the need for values but no longer sure how to recognize them; finally Huguenau, who adapts perfectly into a world deserted by values.

I feel somewhat embarrassed mentioning Jaroslav Hašek among these writers whom, in my “professional history of the novel,” I see as the founders of the novel’s modernism, because Hašek never gave a hoot what whether he was modern or not; he was a popular writer in the old sense—a writer-hobo, a writer-adventurer, who scorned the literary world and was scorned by it, author of a single novel which instantly found a very large audience throughout the world.  That said, it seems all the more remarkable that his Good Soldier Švejk (written between 1920 and 1923) should reflect the same aesthetic leanings as Kafka’s novels (the two writers did live in the same city over the same years) or as Broch’s.

“To Belgrade!” cries Švejk; summoned to the draft board, he has himself pushed in a wheelchair through the Prague streets lifting high a pair of borrowed crutches in a martial flourish, to the amusement of the Prague bystanders.  It is the day the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia, unleashing the Great War of 1914 (the one that comes to represent the crumbling of all values, and the final segment of his trilogy.)  In order to live danger-free in this world, Švejk so wildly exaggerates his support for the army, the father land, the emperor, that no one can tell for sure whether he is a cretin or a clown.  Nor does Hašek tell us; we will never know what Švejk is thinking as he spouts his conformist idiocies, and it is precisely because we do not know that he fascinates us.  On Prague beer-hall posters he is always shown as short and round, but it was the book’s famous illustrator who imagined him that way; Hašek never said a word about Švejk’s physical appearance.  We don’t know what sort of family he came from.  We never see him with a woman.  Does he do without?  Does he keep them secret?  No answers.  But what’s more interesting is: no questions!  What I mean is, we don’t care in the slightest whether Švejk likes women or doesn’t!

Here we are seeing a quiet but radical shift in aesthetics: the idea that for a character to be “lifelike,” “strong,” artistically “successful,” a writer need not supply all the possible data on him; there is no need to make us believe he is as real as you and I; for him to be strong and unforgettable, it is enough that he fills the whole space of the situation the novelist has created for him.  (In this new aesthetic climate the novelist occasionally even decides to remind the reader that nothing he is telling is real, that everything is his invention—like Fellini, at the end of his film And the Ship Sails On, where he shows us all the backstage areas and the mechanics of his theater of illusion.)

What Only the Novel Can Say

The action of The Man Without Qualities takes place in Vienna, but as I recall, that name comes up only two or three times in the course of the novel.  Like the word London in Fielding, the Vienna topography is not mentioned and is even less described.  And what is the unnamed city where the very important encounter occurs between Ulrich and his sister, Agathe?  You couldn’t know this: the city is called Brno in Czech, Brünn in German; I recognized it readily from a few details, because I was born there; no sooner do I say that than I scold myself for going against Musil’s intention . . . intention?  What  intention?  Did he have something to hide?  Not at all; his intention was purely aesthetic: to concentrate only on the essential, not to draw the reader’s attention off to unimportant geographical considerations.

The sense of modernism is often seen in the determination of each of the arts to come as close as possible to its own particular nature, its essence.  For instance, lyric poetry rejected anything rhetorical, didactic, embellishing, so as to set flowing the pure fount of poetic fantasy.  Painting renounced its documentary, mimetic function, whatever might be expressed by some other medium (for instance, photography).  And the novel?  It too refuses to exist as illustration of a historical era, as description of society, as defense of an ideology, and instead puts itself exclusively at the service of “what only the novel can say.”

I recall the short story “Sheep,” by Kenzaburo Oe (written in 1958): Onto an evening bus full of Japanese riders climbs a band of drunken soldiers from a foreign army; they set about terrorizing a passenger; a student.  They force him to take off his pants and show his bare bottom.  The student hears muffled laughter all around him.  But the soldiers are not satisfied with this lone victim; they force half the other passengers to drop their trousers as well.  The bus stops, the soldiers get off, and the trouserless people pull their clothes back on.  The other passengers wake out of their passive state and insist the humiliated fellows must go to the police and report the foreign soldiers’ behavior.  One rider, a schoolteacher, sets about hounding the student; he follows him off the bus, walks him to his house, demands his name to publicize his humiliation and condemn the foreigners.  The whole thing ends in a burst of hatred between the two.  A magnificent story of cowardice, shame and sadistic indecency passing itself off as love for justice . . . But I mention the story only to ask:  Who are those foreign soldiers?  They must be Americans, who were occupying Japan after the war.  The author does explicitly call the other passengers “Japanese,” so why does he not specify the nationality of the soldiers?  A matter of style?  No.  Suppose that, throughout the story, the Japanese passengers were facing American soldiers!  The power effect of using that single word, explicitly pronounced, would reduce the story to a political tract—to an accusation against the occupying forces.  Just forgoing that one adjective was enough for the political aspect to recede into dim shadow, and for the light to focus on the enigma that most interested the writer, the existential enigma.

Because history, with its agitations, its wars, its revolutions and counterrevolutions, its national humiliations, does not interest the novelist for itself—as a subject to paint, to denounce, to interpret.  The novelist is not a valet to historians; history may fascinate him, but because it is a kind of searchlight circling around human existence and throwing light onto it, onto its unexpected possibilities, which, in peaceable times, when history stands still, do not come to the fore but remain unseen and unknown.

Thinking Novels

The novelist’s mandate to “concentrate on the essential” (on what “only the novel can say”)—doesn’t it support critics who object to an author’s reflections as an element alien to the novel form?  Indeed, if a novelist utilizes means that are not proper to him, that belong more to the scholar or the philosopher, is that not the sign of his inability to be fully a novelist and nothing but, the sign of his artistic weakness?  And moreover: Don’t meditative interpolations risk transforming the characters’ actions into mere illustration of the author’s theses?  And again: Doesn’t the art of the novel, with its feel for relativity of human truths, require that the author’s opinion stay out of sight, and that all thinking be left to the reader alone?

The answer from Broch and Musil was utterly clear: they flung the doors wide and brought thinking into the novel as no one had ever done before.  The essay called “The Degradation of Values” interpolated into The Sleepwalkers (it takes up ten chapters scattered thought the third novel of the trilogy) is a series of analyses, of meditations, of aphorisms on the spiritual condition of Europe over the course of three decades; impossible to call that essay inappropriate to the novel form, for it is what lights the wall against which the fates of the three protagonists crash, what binds the three novels into one.  I can never emphasize it enough: integrating such intellectually rigorous thinking into a novel and making it, so beautifully and musically, an inseparable part of the composition is one of the boldest innovations any novelist has dared in the era of modern art.

But there is something more important, in my view: For these two Viennese, thinking is no longer felt to be an unusual element, an interruption; it is hard to call it “digression” for in these thinking novels it is constantly present, even when the novelist is recounting an action or describing a face.  Tolstoy or Joyce had us hear the phrases going through the heads of Anna Karenina or Molly Bloom; Musil tells us what he himself is thinking as he levels his long gaze on Leo Fischel and his nightmare performances:

    A conjugal bedroom, with the lights out, puts a man into the position of an actor who must play before an invisible perterre the flattering, but by now rather stale, role of hero behaving like a roaring lion.  For years now, Leo’s dark audience has not given off the faintest applause at the presentation, nor the slightest sign of disapproval, and surely that’s enough to rattle the healthiest nerves.  In the morning, at breakfast, Klementine was stiff as a frozen corpse and Leo strained to the point of trembling.  Their daughter Gerda would see it herself regularly, and from that time on she thought of conjugal life, with horror and bitter disgust, as a catfight in the dark of night.

Thus did Musil go into “the soul of things,” that is, into the Fischel couple’s “soul of coitus.”  Through the flash of a single metaphor, a thinking metaphor, he casts light on their sex life, present and past, and even into their daughter’s future.

To emphasize:  Novelistic thinking, as Broch and Musil brought it into the aesthetic of the modern novel, has nothing to do with the thinking of a scientist or a philosopher; I would even say it is purposely a-philosophic, even anti-philosophic, that is to say, fiercely independent of any system of preconceived ideas; it does not judge; it does not proclaim truths; it questions, it marvels, it plumbs; its form is highly diverse: metaphoric, ironic, hypothetic, hyperbolic, aphoristic, droll, provocative, fanciful; and mainly it never leaves the magic circle of its characters’ lives; those lives feed it and justify it.

Ulrich is in Count Leinsdorf’s ministerial office on the day of a major demonstration.  A demonstration?  Against what?  The information is provided but it is secondary; what matters is the phenomenon of the demonstration in itself:  What does it mean to demonstrate in the streets, what is the significance of that collective activity so symptomatic of the twentieth century?  In stupefaction Ulrich watches the demonstrators from the window; as they reach the foot of the palace, their faces turn up, turn furious, the men brandish their walking sticks, but “a few steps farther, at a bend where the demonstration seemed to scatter into the wings, most of them were already dropping their greasepaint: it would be absurd to keep up the menacing looks where there were no more spectators.”  In the light of that metaphor, the demonstrators are not men in a rage; they are actors performing rage!  As soon as the performance is over they are quick to drop their greasepaint!  Later, in the 1960s, philosophers would talk about the modern world in which everything had turned into spectacle: demonstrations, wars, and even love; through this “quick and sagacious penetration” (Fielding), Musil had already long ago discerned the “society of spectacle.”

The Man Without Qualities is a matchless existential encyclopedia about its century; when I feel like rereading this book, I usually open it at random, at any page, without worrying what comes before an what follows; even if there is “story” there, it proceeds slowly, quietly, without seeking to attract attention; each chapter in itself is a surprise, a discovery.  The omnipresence of thinking in no way deprives the novel of its nature as a novel; it has enriched its form and immensely broadened the realm of what only the novel can discover and say.

The Frontier of the Implausible Is No Longer Under Guard

Two great stars brightened the sky over the twentieth-century novel: that of surrealism, with its enchanting call for the fusion of dream and reality, and that of existentialism.  Kafka died too soon to know their writers and their aesthetic programs.  Still, and remarkably, the novels he wrote anticipated the two aesthetic tendencies and—what’s more remarkable still—bound the two together, placed them in a single perspective.

When Balzac or Flaubert or Proust wants to describe someone’s behavior within a specific social milieu, any violation of plausibility is out of place, aesthetically inconsistent, but when the novelist focuses his lens on a problematic that is existential, the obligation to give the reader a plausible world no longer comes into play as rule or necessity.  The author can be far more casual about that apparatus of data, descriptions, and motivations meant to give his story the appearance of reality.  And, in some borderline cases, he can even find it worthwhile to put his characters in a world that is frankly impossible.

After Kafka crossed it, the frontier to the implausible was left with no police, no custom guards, open for good.  That was a great moment in the history of the novel, and lest its meaning be mistaken, I caution that it was not the nineteenth-century German Romantics who were its precursors.  Their fanciful imagining had a different meaning:  Turning away from the real world, it was seeking after a different life; it had little to do with the art of the novel.  Kafka was no romantic.  Novalis, Tieck, Arnim, E. T. A. Hoffmann were not who he loved.  It was André Breton who worshipped Arnim, not he.  As a young man, Kafka and his friend Max Brod read Flaubert, passionately, in the French.  He studied him.  It was Flaubert, the master observer, he took for his teacher.

The more attentively, fixedly, one observes a reality, the better one sees that it does not correspond to people’s idea of it; under Kafka’s long gaze it is gradually revealed as empty of reason, thus non-reasonable, thus implausible. It is that long avid gaze set on the real world that led Kafka, and other great novelist after him, past the frontier of the plausible.

Einstein and Karl Rossman

Jokes, anecdotes, funny stories—I don’t know what term to choose for the sort of very short comical tale I heard so much of in the old days, for Prague was its world capital.  Political jokes.  Jewish jokes.  Jokes about peasants.  And about doctors.  And an odd kind of joke about absentminded professors who for some unknown reason always carried umbrellas.

Einstein finishes a lecture at the university in Prague (yes, he did teach there for a while) and is getting ready to leave the hall.  “Herr Professor, sir, take your umbrella, it’s raining out!”  Einstein gazes thoughtfully at his umbrella where it stands in a corner of the room, and answers the student:  “You know, my good friend, I often forget my umbrella, so I have two of them.  One is at the house, the other I keep at university.  Of course I could take it now since, as you say quite correctly, it is raining.  But then I would end up with two umbrellas at the house and none here.”  And with these words he goes out into the rain.

Kafka’s America begins with that same motif, an umbrella that is cumbersome, a pest, forever getting misplaced: Karl Rossman is lugging a heavy trunk through the crowd disembarking from an ocean liner at the port of New York.  Suddenly he remember he’s left his umbrella back on the lower deck.  He entrusts his trunk to the young fellow he met on the voyage, and as the passage behind him is jammed, he runs down an unfamiliar staircase and loses his way in the corridors below; finally he knocks at the door of a cabin where he finds a man, a coal stoker, who immediately starts complaining to him about his supervisors; the conversation goes on for some time so the fellow invites Karl to make himself more comfortable, to have a seat on the bunk.

The psychological impossibility of the situation is dazzling.  Really, what we’re being told—it can’t be true! It is a joke, and of course at the end Karl winds up with no trunk and no umbrella!  Yes, it’s a joke, except that Kafka doesn’t tell it the way one tells jokes; he lays it out at length, in careful detail, describing every move such that it appears psychologically credible;  Karl climbs awkwardly onto the bunk, laughing embarrassedly at his clumsiness; after listening to the stoker’s long account of humiliations, he suddenly realizes with startled clarity that he ought to have “gone and got back his trunk instead of staying here and giving advice.”  Kafka pulls the mask of the plausible over the implausible.

In Praise of Jokes

Jokes, anecdotes, funny stories: they are the best evidence that a sharp sense of the real and an imagination that ventures into the implausible can make a perfect pairing.  Rabelais’ Panurge does not know any woman he would care to wed, yet being of a logical, theoretical, systematic, foresighted turn of mind, he decides to settle immediately, once and for all, the fundamental question of his life: should a man marry or not?  He hurries from one expert to another, from a philosopher to a lawyer, from a clairvoyant to an astrologer, from a poet to a theologian, and after very lengthy investigations he arrives at the certainty that there is no answer to this greatest of all questions.  The whole Third Book recounts nothing but this implausible activity, this joke, which turns into a long farcical tour of all the knowledge of Rabelais’ time.  (Which reminds me that, three hundred years later, Bouvard and Pécuchet is also an extended joke that surveys the knowledge of a whole period.)

Cervantes wrote the second part of Don Quixote when the first half had already been published and known for several years.  That suggested a splendid idea to him:  The characters Don Quixote meets along his way recognize him as the living hero of the book they have read; they discuss his past adventures with him and give him the opportunity to comment on his own literary image.  Well, that’s just not possible!  It’s straight fantasy!  A joke!

Then an unexpected event shakes Cervantes: another writer, a stranger, anticipates him by publishing his own sequel to the adventures of Don Quixote.  In his second part, which he is in the process of writing, the enraged Cervantes attacks the man with ferocious insults.  But he also makes prompt use of this ugly incident to create a further fantasy:  After all their misadventures, Don Quixote and Sancho, exhausted and gloomy, are already on the way back to their village when they meet a certain Don Alvaro, a character from the accursed plagiarism;  Alvaro is astounded to hear their names, for he is a close friend of an entirely different Don Quixote and an entirely different Sancho!  The meeting takes place just a few pages before the end of the novel: the characters’ unsettling encounter with their own specters; the ultimate proof of the falseness of all things; the melancholy moon glow of the final joke, the farewell joke.

In Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke, Professor Pimko decides to turn Joey, a thirty-year-old man, into a boy of seventeen, and force him to spend his days on a high school bench, a student like all the rest.  The burlesque situation conceals a question that is actually quite profound:  Will an adult systematically treated as an adolescent eventually lose the sense of his true age?  More generally:  Will the man become what others se and treat him as, or will he muster the strength, despite everything and everyone, to salvage his identity?

Basing a novel on an anecdote, on a joke, must have seemed to Gombrowicz’s readers a modernist’s provocation.  And they would be right: it was that.  However, it had very old roots.  At the time when the art of the novel was not yet sure of its identity or its name, Fielding called it “prosai-comi-epic writing”; it should be kept always in mind: the comic was one of the three mythical fairies leaning over the cradle of the newborn novel.

The History of the Novel as Seen from Gombrowicz’s Studio

A novelist talking about the art of the novel is not a professor giving a discourse from his podium.  Imagine him rather as a painter welcoming you into his studio, where you are surrounded by his canvases staring at you from where they lean against the walls.  He will talk about himself, but even more about other people, about novels of theirs that he loves and that have a secret presence in his own work.  According to his criteria of values, he will again trace out for you the whole past of the novel’s history, and in so doing will give you some sense of his own poetics of the novel, one that belongs to him alone and that is therefore, quite naturally, different from that of other writers.  So you will fell you are moving in amazement down into history’s hold, where the novel’s future is being decided, is coming into being, taking shape, amid quarrels and conflicts and confrontations.

In 1953, in the first year of his Journal (he was to keep it over the next sixteen years until he died), Witold Gombrowicz quotes a letter from a reader: “Above all do not comment on your own work!  Just write!  What a pity that you let yourself be provoked into writing prefaces to your works, prefaces and even commentaries!”  To which Gombrowicz replies that he intends to go on explaining himself “as much as he can and for as long as he can,” because a writer who cannot talk about his books is not a “complete writer.”  Let us linger for a moment in Gombrowicz’s studio.  Here is a list of his likes and dislikes, his “personal version oh the history of the novel”:

Above all else he loves Rabelais. (The books of Garantua and Pantagruel are written at a moment when the European novel is just being born, well before any norms; they overflow with possibilities that the novel’s future will bring to pass or will abandon but that, all of them, still live on with us as inspirations: strolls through the implausible, intellectual teases, freedom of form.  His passion for Rabelais reveals the meaning of Gombrowicz’s modernism: he does not reject the tradition of the novel, he claims it but claims it as a whole, with particular attention to the miraculous moment of its beginnings.)

He is fairly indifferent to Balzac. (He resists Balzac’s poetics, erected over time into the normative model of the novel.)

He loves Baudelaire. (He supports the revolution of modern poetry.)

He is not fascinated by Proust. (A crossroads: Proust reached the end of a grandiose journey all of whose possibilities he exhausted; Gombrowicz, possessed by the quest for the new, can only take some other route.)

He feels affinities for almost no other contemporary novelist. (Novelists often have astonishing holes in their own reading:  Gombrowicz had read neither Broch nor Musil; irritated by the snobs who latched onto Kafka, he was not especially drawn to him; he felt no affinity for Latin American literature; he looked down on Borges as too pretentious for his taste; and he lived in Argentina in a state of isolation: of important writers only Ernesto Sábato paid him attention; Gombrowicz returned the kindly feeling.)

He dislikes nineteenth-century Polish literature. (Too romantic for him.)

In general he is reserved toward Polish literature. (He felt disliked by his compatriots; yet his reserve is not resentment; it expresses his revulsion at being caught in the straightjacket of the small context.  About the Polish poet Tuwim he says, “Of any one of his poems we can say it is ‘marvelous,’ but if we are asked what Tuwimian element has made world poetry richer, we would really not know what to reply.”)

He likes the avant-garde of the 1920s and ‘30s. (Though mistrustful of its “progressive” ideology, its “promodern modernism,” he does share its thirst for new forms, its freedom of imagination.  He counsels a young author: first, as in the “automatic writing” of the surrealists, write twenty pages with no rational control, then reread that with a sharp critical eye, keep what is essential and go on that way.  It is as if he hoped to hitch the novel’s cart to a wild horse called “Drunkenness,” alongside a trained horse called “Rationality.”)

He has contempt for “commitment literature.” (A remarkable thing: he does not inveigh much against writers who subordinate literature to the struggle against capitalism.  The paradigm of “commitment art” for him, this writer banned in his now-Communist Poland, is literature that marches under the banner of anti-Communism.  From the first year of his Journal, he reproaches its Manichaeanism, its simplifications.)

He dislikes the avant-garde of the 1950s and ‘60s in France, particularly the “new novel” and the “new criticism” (Roland Barthes). (On the topic of the new novel:  “It is paltry.  It is monotonous . . . Solipsism, onanism . . . ”  On the topic of new criticism:  “The smarter it is, the dumber it is.”  He was irritated by the dilemma these new avant-gardes were posing for writers: it was either modernism their way (which modernism he found jargon-laden, university-ridden, doctrinaire, out of touch with reality)  or else conventional art endlessly turning out the same forms.  For Gombrowicz modernism meant: through new discoveries, advancing along the inherited path.  As long as that is still possible.  As long as the inherited path still exists.)

A Different Continent

It was three months after the Russian army had occupied Czechoslovakia; Russia was not yet able to dominate Czech society, which was living with anxiety but (for another few months) with a good deal of freedom: the Writers Union, alleged to be the hotbed of the counterrevolution, still had its houses, published its journals, received guests.  At the Union’s invitation, three Latin American writers came to Prague:  Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, and Carlos Fuentes.  They came quietly, as writers.  To see.  To understand.  To give heart to their Czech colleagues.  I spent an unforgettable week with them.  We became friends.  And just after they left I had the opportunity to read the Czech translation proofs of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

I thought about the anathema the surrealists had cast upon the art of the novel, which they stigmatized as antipoetic, closed to any free imagination. Well, García Márquez’s novel is free imagination itself.  One of the greatest works of poetry I know.  Every single sentence sparkles with fantasy, every sentence is surprise, is wonder:  the book is a stunning retort to the disdain for the novel as proclaimed in the Surrealist Manifesto (and at the same time a fine homage to surrealism—to its inspiration, to its breath, which blew through the century.)

It is also proof that poetry and lyricism are not two sister notions but notions that must actually be kept well apart.  For García Márquez’s  poetry has no relation to lyricism, the author is not confessing, not exposing his soul, he is not drunk on anything but the objective world he lifts into a sphere where everything is simultaneously real, implausible, and magical.

And there’s this as well: the whole great nineteenth-century novel made the scene the basic element of composition.  García Márquez’s novel travels a road heading in the opposite direction: in One Hundred Years of Solitude there are no scenes!  They are completely diluted in the drunken floods of narration.  I know no other example of such a style.  As if the novel were moving back centuries, toward a narrator who describes nothing, only recounts, but recounts with a freedom of fantasy never seen before.

The Silvery Bridge

A few years after that Prague encounter, I moved to France, where, as chance would have it, Carlos Fuentes was the ambassador from Mexico.  I was living in Rennes, and on brief visits to Paris I would stay at his place, in a garret of his embassy, and we would have breakfasts that stretched into endless discussions.  Suddenly I saw my Central Europe as an unexpected neighbor to Latin America: two edges of the West located at its opposite ends; two neglected, disdained, abandoned lands, pariah lands; and the two parts of the world most profoundly marked by the traumatizing experience of the baroque.  I say “traumatizing” for the baroque came to Latin America as the art of the conqueror, and it came into my naïve land carried by an especially bloody Counter-Reformation, which roused Max Brood to call Prague the “city of evil.”  I was seeing two parts of the world that were familiar with the mysterious marriage of evil and beauty.

We would talk, and a bridge—silvery, light, quivering, shimmering—formed like a rainbow over the century between my little Central Europe and the immense Latin America, a bridge that linked Matthias Braun’s ecstatic statues in Prague to the mad churches of Mexico.

And I thought too about another affinity between our two homelands:  they held key positions in the evolution of the twentieth-century novel: first the Central European novelists of the 1920s and ‘30s (Carlos called Broch’s Sleepwalkers the greatest novel of the century): then, some twenty or thirty years later, the Latin American novelists, my contemporaries.

One day I discovered the novels of Ernesto Sábato.  In The Exterminating Angel (1974), which overflows with thinking like the books of the two earlier Viennese, he says explicitly that in the modern world, abandoned by philosophy and splintered by hundreds of scientific specialties, the novel remains to us the last observatory from which we can embrace human life as a whole.

A half century before him, on the other side of the planet (the silvery bridge was still vibrating above my head) the Broch of The Sleepwalkers, the Musil of The Man Without Qualities thought the same thought.  At the time the surrealists were elevating poetry to the topmost rank of the arts, those two were awarding that supreme place to the novel.

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