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The Necessary Storm

Is the 'Sebald' of his novels Sebald? The erasing line through the centre of the reproduced photograph, the scribbled out middle name in a reproduced identity document: 'Sebald' has passed through the mirror and lives another life. Is he Sebald? Or is Sebald (or 'Sebald') playing a game with us?

The characters of Bernhard, or of Handke are almost exactly the same across the whole of their oeuvres. The same voice, whether the chemist of As I Walked Out or the threshold-expert of Across; the protagonist of No One's Bay is indistinguishable from Kobald of Repetition (and even indistinguishable from the other charcaters we meet in this massive novel.)

Do I mind? I read Handke for the Handkean mood, the Handkean Stimmung; the word is given to me in the same way. He writes for an oeuvre, anyway, not for an individual work: the same themes - the decline of the image, the withdrawal into writing, the evilness of the everyday - the same situations - a meeting with the enemy, an encounter with 'doubles' - the same attitudes - a love of walking, of journeying, a dislike of mountain-bikers, a meticulous recording of the natural world: an oeuvre, which is to say, his eye is on the whole, and his novels beat a path of research.

Fiction as research: but what is to be gained when Handke writes as fiction rather than autobiographically? What is the difference? The same question could be asked of Sebald. But still, the same organisation of themes, the same palette of moods. The books overlap in topic and concern, but each is an aesthetical unity: each rounds itself off. Someday a post on what I fancy Sebald 'discovers' and refines by way of the techniques of his writing. The free indirect discourse at the end of Vertigo, in which Pepys' diaries merge with the narrator's own voice is taken up again in The Emigrants (but I haven't checked the publication dates, and perhaps it is the other way round.)

Fiction, autobiography: but might an autobiography exhibit its own unity, its own weft of themes and topics? And what of those books that seem to fall between fiction and autobiography (Blanchot's The Instant of My Death)? - No absolute distinctions, then. No criteria to set one genre against another. And yet -.

To begin a fiction seems to me an act of great daring. What temerity - to write, and a fiction! The temerity of inventiveness! Perhaps I am like those who distrust fiction writers who would usurp the place of God. But then I remember that certain fictional works are more like a destruction rather than a creation: the world is pared down, 'reduced' as is said in phenomenology, and now in such a way the author is the opposite of God.

How I love those urgent books that seem to streamline every detail, every scene, so as to throw themselves into the uncertain future of reading. No, I do not want the roof lifted from every house, or for every skull to be unscrewed so I can learn of the thoughts of this or that character. And I strongly agree with Steve: if there is to be a protagonist who writes, we must least learn why there is writing, and from where it comes.

This is the marvel of the first paragraphs of Blanchot's Death Sentence, or of Handke's Repetition: it is clear from the first they are written and that writing is necessary for their narrators. Something is at stake. A kind of research is required that must pass by way of writing. Writing, for a time, is everything. I admit that this urgency seems real to me in some novels, and not in others.

Reading Kundera's Immortality a few weeks back, or The Book of Laughter and Forgetting more recently, I wondered whether the narrator hadn't set himself too far back from the events he related - whether he did not play with his characters and us, his readers, a little too much. He is too knowing, I thought to myself; he is too much in command. I do not believe him when he says the latter novel was written for Tamina (was that her name?), the character who ends up on the island of children -.

And there is always the assurance of Kundera's old European culture - when he writes disparagingly on 'popular' music, for example, when he speaks in the manner of the most tedious fogey, trundling out the same cliches about our supposedly dreadful modern world. Much fresher Bernhard's vehement intolerance of nearly everything, past, present and future! An intolerance that does not depend upon the certainties of a vanishing world, or on the emerging certainties of the new one.

Bernhard leaves nowhere for his narrator-protagonists to stand in his novels. Everything is at sea; everyone is at sea, and the waves of his prose dissolve everything but their own great, foaming rhythm. The novels are a gale, but a necessary one. Tomorrow, the sky will be clear again, but only because the present world has been shaken apart. But the storm must come the day after tomorrow, and the day after that - the caustic, world-destroying chaos that rides Bernhard's invectives.

Preferable, too, is Handke's minutae, the setting-down-in-detail of events too small to notice which seems to expose his narratives to the uncertainty of the future - to wager them, to let the form of his novels tremble because of an ambition Handke knows to be impossible: to make an epic of the everyday. He calls the ghosts of Virgil and Thucydides to stand over his writing; but there is no nostalgia, no appeal to the wonder of the Greeks, the Latins. And he calls the ghosts of languages which can name the world in a different way. And he even calls for a people, who will never arrive (but he calls them for that reason - because they will not come). What does he write? Your people exist. They are somewhere else. A different people with a different history. We are not the only ones. You will never be alone.

But those were, concerning Kundera, uncharitable words, and I write them here only to note the idiosyncracies of my own taste. I know I like novels that occupy certain moods and do not let up: Bernhard, Handke, Appelfeld. Those moods - but is that the word? - are everything, and reach me so as to 'reduce' me, suspending those relations to what I regard, for the period of reading and usually a little after, as the inessential.

I wonder what the 'reduction' is that I seek - today's reduction, not that of yesterday, or the day before. Pure writing, the saying of writing, the narrative voice that lets itself speak through the details and events of the narrative: it is not that I seek what lifts itself from the tale, which renders its details irrelevant, but rather that the telling of those details, those events, is charged with a sense of the stakes of that telling. As though narrative were important, and the act of writing filled with danger.

And furthermore, the danger lies in clinging too strongly to the form of the self (Kundera's fogeyism - and shouldn't I also bring in, rather abruptly, the assurance of Auster's prose style, its smoothness, its riskless assurances?) - one propped up by everything stultifyingly and thick-headedly bourgeois (but what is the word, bourgeois doing here? Where does it come from? Another question of taste worth taking up).

Whence the surprise of reading Muriel Spark: a cosy novelist, I had thought, who takes the bourgeois as her topic - the bourgeois and their drawing rooms. But I didn't know how cold a book could be, how mercilessly a narrator can play with her characters (The Hothouse on the East River) like a cat with its prey. Cat's claws through the 'props' of the bourgeois novel, scratching away the unities of time and space, scratching apart verisimiliude, scratching until the wallpaper's torn off and the walls are torn away. That even in a book as fun as The Girls of Slender Means - cat's play again, but the cat half-asleep, not quite ready to kill, but vicious in her drowsiness nonetheless.

Muriel Spark claws her way into a kind of purgatory; her characters are shades and know they are shades - dead already, strange survivors of death, they live on by replaying scenes from their completed lives, replaying them, but also wearing them away, until it is the condition of fiction that wears itself through. This, at least, for Hothouse: a fightening book, a diabolical one - as soon as I finished it, I panickedly sought to contextualise it, reading secondary commentary, looking for interviews. A frightening book, where the void looks through the eyes of the characters. Characters possessed, dispossessed: the bourgeois world is hollowed out, exposed. We are all dead. Everyone, all of us, was already dead.

Taste, then. In a world assured of itself, novels concerned with great destruction and genocide (Appelfeld), with showing its madness and devilish complicities (Bernhard), with peace, with the image, and even the dream of a people (a 'Slovenia' inside Slovenia - Handke). It is true I read novels for a kind of politics, an ethics. For difference, for life - for a kind of scepticism that is the narrative voice itself. This is my 'taste', my demand as I read - for a sceptical writing, for writing as scepticism, as it lets tremble a world that is bound too rigidly to itself.


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