All this talk (or rather, reading) about the development of seismology to which I’ve been exposing myself lately has instilled a burning need for some honest-to-goodness modernism. All of those earnest 19th-century Europeans tromping around and beyond the continent’s borders, trying to be objective and proper and to note dispassionately the time and duration of a temblor when thrown out of their beds for the first time: well, the bearing of those eager beavers had me thirsting for the particular variety of literary clarity only someone like Robert Walser can provide, and so I flew straight into the arms of his Jakob von Gunten.
I especially love when tales from this particular subset of time and place also happen to be set in an educational environment, one of my favorite examples being Robert Musil’s Young Törless. The fact that said genre’s depictions of boarding school life are often stark and cruel*, and that they still have me feeling slightly cheated that I never experienced that form of institutional existence, speaks volumes for these authors’ way with words– but in particular, for their ability to bring out those environments’ pervasive, saving air of mystery, especially with regard to instructors. Anyone, even lowly public school kids like me, who’s ever had a crush, whether platonic or more, on some beloved teacher, will know what I’m talking about.** I can only imagine how much more heightened is the intensity of sick teenage infatuation when everyone’s living on the same premises, and when adolescent imaginings and naïveté only feed off of and strengthen each other without respite. At the same time, those authority figures who seem so immune to your own youthful anxieties, and who have no desperate need of guidance or intense friendship, become even more alluringly mysterious and (because they have to be even more purposeful than their off-campus counterparts about guarding their privacy) maddeningly out of reach.
There’s so much to love about this book– but as should now be no surprise, I zeroed lovingly in on its way of portraying students’ obsessions with their teachers, and the disappointments or uncertainties that may emerge if said authority figures actually end up reciprocating a young person’s desires for a personal relationship. And so, Jakob lets us know early on that “… [he was] always thinking of him, of both of them, of him and Fräulein, the way they go on living here with us boys. What are they always doing in there, in their apartment? How do they keep themselves busy… perhaps one day I shall penetrate into these inner chambers… I know it, somewhere here there are marvelous things.” And as his daydreaming invades his reality, we’re sometimes unsure of how Herr or Fräulein Benjamenta is really acting, whether either or both is truly confessing to him (precisely what the love-struck student hopes for!)– but we do catch glimpses of Jakob’s disillusionment as the brother and sister become a little more human for him: “Everything’s collapsing, the classes, the effort, the rules… Something is going on and I don’t understand it yet;” “I’ve been, at least, in the authentic inner chambers, and I must say, they don’t exist.”***
Even though Jakob looks as though he might finally set aside his fantasies of the principal and his sister (and maybe even of his own aim in being at the institute), his acceptance of his own self-delusion reveals what we may all be longing for on some level, and why so many of us will agree to the tenets of doubtful, yet guiding, propositions, beliefs, and people: namely, at least having something to hold onto. As Jakob decides, “This person suits me and I’m not asking myself why any more.” **** Even if it means having to continually repair and reconstruct– and overcome being let down by– an image crafted of your own imagination and longing; even then, it’s a bit of a relief to stop having to ask yourself why.
* This characterization doesn’t really apply in Jakob von Gunten– but the school in it is still really not a model of educational aspiration.
** I still have very little understanding of why I, at least, thought teachers possessed some transcendent quality, that their everyday routines were somehow fraught with special allure. Yes, yes; I’ve always wanted to learn everything anyone could teach me– but that doesn’t even come close to explaining this particular emotional mystery.
*** Citations in this paragraph are from Robert Walser, Jakob von Gunten, transl. Christopher Middleton (New York: New York Review Books, 1999), 17-18, 128, 139. Probably the most devastating tale of what schoolgirls’ naïve fantasies about their teachers could result in is depicted in the 2002 film, Blue Car, with David Strathairn turning in a creepily, believably brilliant performance of a could-have-been.
**** ibid., 176. Also, this is the completely wrong place for this question, especially since I’m addressing the end of this book– but who is this brilliant translator and introducer-of-the-work, Christopher Middleton? I don’t believe I’ve ever been driven to find out more about the introducer’s own work, based on his/her introductory remarks– but this Mr. Middleton has made me terribly curious about what other literary output he’s got up his sleeve.
After rounding up one more bag of book-loot yesterday (two worthwhile sales in two days!), I headed back to my lair to finish The Rebels. Things didn’t, as I’d hoped, take any sort of sincerely sinister turn. Rather, what seemed initially to bear the beautiful-yet-horrific possibilities of a Young Törless turned out in the end to have settled for a somewhat vaguely-explained, not-truly-scandalous-or-memorable climax. As I noted in my brief Goodreads and LibraryThing reviews, Márai just didn’t take things far enough or do them clearly enough. Not an unpleasant read, though; just an indication that the author could have been much bolder.
I’m not sure whether George Steiner has said anything about Márai (cursory investigations aren’t turning anything up), but it would be interesting to hear his thoughts on the man and/or his work. I’m nearing the end of Steiner’s Language and Silence, and although I can only take so much of literary criticism (an attitudinal stance I feel Steiner himself might oddly enough share or have shared at some point), his sometimes-curmudgeonly analysis of pretty much anything never fails to be engaging.
Back from a superb mini-vacation, during which I did only enough reading to finish the Musil collection. The final section consists of some short essays and stories, a few of which reveal the sparkle of a fantastic smartass. In “Oedipus Endangered,” for example, the author uses the etymological link between “womb” and “lap” (the word is the same for both in German) to speculate that Freud formed his theories on the Oedipus complex around the very historically determined mode of dress that constituted a woman’s lap: “In this sense the basic experiences of psychoanalysis definitely derive from the clothes of the 1870’s and 1880’s and not from ski togs. And if you look at people in bathing suits, where is the womb or lap today?” (325)
|Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.|
Similarly, his thoughts on the either creepy or invisible nature of most monuments (“Monuments”), and what appears to be a sort of I’ve-had-it approach to talk of sports’ uplifting nature (“Art and the Morality of the Crawl”) won’t fail to elicit a sarcastic snigger of agreement here and there. Probably the best piece from this section, though, is “The Blackbird,” which I wouldn’t say is exactly Kafkaesque, but it does provide enough of that enjoyable and thought-inducing “Hnh?” reaction that it could probably be read alongside “A Report to an Academy” or “A Hunger Artist,” just to see what sorts of stylistic and narrative turns pan out.
And now, heading back to the daily grind– and all the reading that helps me face it– I’ll probably have much more of a literary nature to ponder over the coming days. Next up? Either some Anna Kavan or Per Petterson, maybe George Saunders’ latest. In the immediate future, though, dinner.
Just a few more stories left to read in the Musil collection. Since finishing Young Törless, I’ve gone through “The Perfecting of a Love” and “Grigia”– both of whose characters seem to accept their own conclusion that true love of a person is realized, strengthened, and/or purified through being unfaithful to that very person. The conviction takes on a different place of prominence in the two stories; in “Perfecting,” the entire narrative is centered around exploration of that idea, whereas the essentially same conjecture only forms a momentary realization in the protagonist’s mind, and is connected with seemingly larger thoughts on eternity (where the guy will be “linked” with the wife he’s left behind) and death, and the interplay between those two. I’m mostly convinced that “Perfecting”‘s Claudine wouldn’t want to make any generalizations beyond her own case; with “Grigia”‘s Homo, on the other hand, I get the sense that the man would be comfortable with turning his own feelings into a loose theory of the value of unattachment which, among other things, paradoxically links one person to another.
I’m not out to argue one way or the other about this thought or about the “morality” of the characters pondering it. Rather, I’m wondering more about when an idea takes hold of a writer to such a degree that, ceasing to be just one more question to explore, s/he can’t shake it, and it becomes a (near-)constant theme or feature of that person’s work, maybe even the idea to which that wordsmith feels called to devote his/her life. The author who comes immediately to mind is Ayn Rand– and although I’m not talking expressly about her over-insistence on individual autonomy and (to me) general lack of compassion and skewed approach to living with other human beings, what often hits me most about her work probably can’t be disconnected from those aspects of her narratives and/or “philosophy.” What I find odd about Rand is that, in spite of a mindset that would seem to lend itself to characters’ full assumption of independence, there’s an awful lot of glorification of women sacrificing themselves for the sake of an abusive or borderline horrible man. Howard Roark rapes you, and you’re supposed to find the experience glorious and revelatory? We the Living‘s Kira is supposed to put up with a frequent brute like Leo, just because he has an indomitable spirit? Admittedly, living through the Russian Revolution would probably mess anybody up to some degree (hence, probably, Rand’s domineering selfishness), but the seeming celebration– and narrative persistence– of these dysfunctional relationships surely had earlier roots.
|“Repetition,” by ThinkDraw|
You can only engage in so much psychological speculation on authors through their work– and if you go too far down that road, you’ve completely abandoned the story as a story, and you might as well just try to set up a reality-TV series featuring the writer in a shrink’s chair. That is, are we more interested in what motivates a story, how a theme got into it, or what that story does, how it moves and what it says? None of these questions is or should be totally inseparable from any of the others, of course– and maybe one of the things critics have pondered or are interested in is what the right balance between all of those factors is, whether for reader or writer. I’ve got a few more stories to go in my Musil collection; we’ll see, if his love/(un)faithfulness question pops up again, if he can offer any more insight into the matter.
|Source: Wikimedia Commons.|
Boy, do I love those Modernists! Try to top Kafka, Walser, Benjamin, or Babel (yes, I’m counting him), and most authors from that crowd, and you’ve got a huge challenge on your hands. The latest evidence of my enthusiasm comes from the fact that, in tackling a collection of Robert Musil’s stories, I’m rereading* Young Törless, the first selection to feature in said volume.
I have a hard time describing just what it is that makes the greats from the early 20th century stand out so much; the best I can offer is the sense that these writers are just plain solid. They pull off an intellectual sophistication that engages unashamedly in disciplined soul-searching and social criticism without turning florid, sappy, dogmatic, or cynical. And even though the worlds they describe are in reality even further removed from my own existence than is the poetic universe created by Frost (as discussed here yesterday), something about them never feels alien. That last observation could have something to do with the fact that I was much more immersed early on with European literature than with American, but that personal-historical item doesn’t quite serve to explain things.
Might it all come down to a sort of nostalgic yearning for an intellectual golden era that never really existed? Doubtful. As much as I love the literature and the thought of regularly writing and receiving handwritten correspondence (with a fountain pen, no less!), you couldn’t pay me enough to live according to pre-World-War mores, no matter what sort of great conversations and inspiration could be found within that world, and that’s assuming I’d be lucky enough to befriend even one of those luminaries.
What I’d like to say, at the risk of sounding like a New Age romantic, is that there’s some intellectual-emotional connection, or some shared genetic sensibility between at least this reader and those authors of old that’s survived more or less unbroken. That may be what good literature is supposed to keep alive: the ability to go and live beyond an informational transaction, and institute an impossible conjuction within and throughout time. But before I turn flowery, I’ll just leave you with a link to what for me is the hands-down best example of that shared wavelength: Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library.” Dig in.
* I very rarely reread a book.