Ingrid Caven, by Jean-Jacques Schuhl

I was sitting watching the opening credits of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The American Soldier and noticed the name Ingrid Caven on the screen, and I thought to myself, I’ve got a book called Ingrid Caven by some French writer – part of that project I had once to read some of the winners of the Prix Goncourt; – I wonder if there’s a connection. So I dug it out of my pile of books and started reading it.
It turns out she was a German singer, who occasionally worked as an actress, and who was Fassbinder’s muse – she even married him (seriously, I’d always thought Fassbinder was gay!) – and then later also was Yves Saint Laurent’s muse. So we have this tale of her life, from being a little girl in Hitler’s Germany and serenading the troops, to becoming a famous singer and actress and hanging round with Fassbinder and Yves Saint Laurent and other celebrities in that sixties and seventies world of film-making and fashion and drug-taking (with occasional brushes with the Baader-Meinhof gang) in Germany, in France, in New York – a world which can’t help but fascinate; – and Schuhl is for the most part such an attractive writer – just along the lines Obooki likes: all nice long flowing jumbled sentences and human insight; – thinking again, here’s another writer who deserves to be better known; – the structure of the book all a jumble too, jumping about here and there in her life; going round in circles; and it is only towards the end – or maybe halfway through – that you start thinking, I’ve read all this before, this novel really isn’t getting anywhere anymore and maybe it could have done with being cut by half (it’s only 240 pages); Schuhl just doesn’t know where to stop.
But at times thinking too, what is all this? The life of Ingrid Caven, a real person, who meets other real people; so where is Schuhl getting all this information from – not merely the things that happened to her, but her thoughts and reflections on them, the causes of her personality; really quite intimate things. Is he just making all this up? The novel is told from the point of view of someone called Charles, who is now Ingrid’s lover – her companion – who has replaced Fassbinder and Yves Saint Laurent; but there’s not much to this Charles character in comparison – one wonders why she’s taken up with him; he seems outside it all, an onlooker; – and it is only in the last part that Schuhl lets it slip that he is Charles; that he is Ingrid’s companion in reality – in a post-modern postscript which otherwise adds little to the foregoing.
But I did enjoy it for the most part, especially as per the beginning of this post, because I’m gradually making my way through all of Fassbinder’s films at the moment.

Little Novels, by Arthur Schnitzler

After the last late post for Spanish Literature Month, here’s an early one for German Literature Month (if you like).

I’d never read any Schnitzler before. For a long time I had him confused in my mind with Stefan Zweig: that is to say, I considered him a fairly dull bourgeois writer I wouldn’t be interested in (a bit also like Thomas Mann). I think on the whole, without doing any other research than reading these stories, that he does probably come from that world. I was spurred on to read him when I came across his name mentioned in Éduoard Dujardin’s simultaneously self-deprecating and obsessively self-regarding essay, Interior Monologue, as someone who used the stream-of-consciousness technique prior to Joyce. In fact, he seems to be the only writer (aside of course from Dujardin himself) whom Dujardin is (albeit churlishly enough – “(o)ne cannot deny, in any case, that it is very near to it”) inclined to admit as a forerunner of Joyce; and who, much to Dujardin’s chagrin, didn’t, unlike Joyce, derive the idea from Dujardin himself, but just came up with it of his own accord because it seemed an obvious thing to do. This is of course his book Leutnant Gustl, which I didn’t read.

I read instead a collection of novellas/stories, Little Novels (published 1929), which seems to be a selection from throughout his career, in which there is very little trace of the stream-of-consciousness technique, with perhaps the exception of the story Blind Geronimo and his Brother, which is in time quite close to Leutnant Gustl. Here is Carlo, Geronimo’s brother, deciding whether to commit a robbery:

Carlo got up, as if something were driving him thither, and laid his forehead against the cold window-pane. Why had he got up? … To think it over? … To make the attempt? … What! … It was impossible and besides it was a crime. A crime? … What do twenty francs mean to such people who travel a thousand miles for their pleasure? They would not so much as miss it. He went to the door and opened it gently.

But really, it’s like Schnitzler doesn’t consider stream-of-consciousness to be a new way of conveying inennerable aspects of the modern world, but merely a technique one might or might not use in telling a story – and which, for the most part, at least here, he doesn’t. For quite fundamentally all the pieces in this book are stories, of the very traditional story-teller variety – which is probably why Schnitzler is largely overlooked these days – in this country at least; – just try to find any of his works in a bookshop – saving A Dream Story of course, which was used as the basis of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and which at the time of its release was given away free by a Sunday newspaper so that copies of it continue to flood secondhand markets (and which of course I’ve never read, despite being the one person who actually liked the film); – but no one wants stories these days, not with good ideas and plots and twists; they want dull stories about everyday lives with no surprises in which someone learns something not very interesting about something or about themselves.

The writer in fact whom Schnitzler reminded me of the most is Isak Dinesen, which is high praise in Obooki’s world: stories with their own intrinsic interest and insight into human affairs, aside from a good plot. I assume this collection is chronological, though I only have a few dates to go by and the fact that the stories get better, and more insightful, as the collection goes along. In particular, I’d pick up the first story, The Fate of the Baron (about jealousy), and then everything from Andreas Thameyer’s Last Letter (also about jealousy) to the final story, The Death of a Bachelor (again, about jealousy), which I think, along with Dead Gabriel (once again, about jealousy), is the best: the former, because it’s such a good idea; and the latter because it’s an interesting investigation into particular human emotions; – in fact, I’d have to admit, as an observer of humanity Schnitzler seems to have a lot of the same interests as me.

So I’ll be reading some more Schnitzler soon, specifically Fräulein Else, which certainly does look like it’s written using interior monologue, since that’s the other one I have (annoyingly there were two other Schnitzler books I could have bought but which had vanished by the time I returned to the shop, forcing me to buy instead Conrad’s Romance and something dull by William H Gass; – seriously, do people actually think William H Gass is a good writer?).

Plays: One, by Ramón del Valle-Inclán

During Spanish Literature Month (it is still Spanish Literature Month, isn’t it?) it’s traditional for me to read something by Ramón del Valle-Inclán: the past few times it’s been his seasonal sonatas, a series of novellas about the Marqués de Bradomín, a Don Juan sort of character and fervent Carlist, which I remember as fairly traditional; – this time I read Plays: One – and I have to say, the contrast is vast. In fact, the contrast between the three individual plays in this edition is pretty vast; and it’s unusual to come across such discrepancies in the body of an author’s work, even if that work is spread of a wide period of time (here, from 1902-5, the sonatas, to 1919-22, the plays).

Plays: One contains three plays: Divine Words (1919), Bohemian Lights (1920), Silver Face (1922). Divine Words is pretty extreme: a bit perhaps like Beckett transposed into a Spanish picaresque setting. The plot is basically this: a boy who is born with severe physical disabilities is used by his mother to beg off strangers; when his mother dies, there is a dispute between over who will look after – and thus exploit – this child; and then there’s a large cast of other picaresque characters – thieves, charlatans, mountebanks, whores – who proceed across the stage. We are very much dealing then here with the lowest rung of society, where everything is to be exploited in the fight for survival and there is an absence of any worthwhile human qualities. (It’s more extreme than anything you’d find for instance in Zola, or probably Faulkner).

Bohemian Lights is set in entirely different world, although one which again suffers from an acute shortage of money: the world of artists. What is this like? It’s like the Nighttown episode from Ulysses (or, I was more inclined to say, since I’d read it so recently, it’s like the central section of Luis Martin-Santos’ Time of Silence). Two artists, Max Estella and Don Latino, wander through the artistic demimonde of Madrid (?), meeting other artistic folk, becoming involved in a revolutionary protest, being arrested and jailed, visiting a brothel (they always visit brothels in these things). And that’s it, pretty much: a vision of the talented and rejected – a self-portrait; – oh, and Rubén Darío (who was a friend of Valle-Inclán) makes an appearance, along with the Marqués de Bradomín.

Silver Face is a bit more of a return to the world of the Marqués de Bradomín, and is largely concerned with the demonic Don Juan Manuel Montenegro (Bradomín’s uncle), who is the archetypal feudal lord and an even more notorious womaniser than his nephew, and who decides one day to ban anyone from crossing his land – mostly peasants on the way to the market, but also later some churchman doing the Lord’s work. Anyway, things escalate and once again any concept of morality is generally far from the thoughts of any of the characters (particularly the clergy).

All good fun. None of the plays has a traditional theatrical plot: they are more like visions which gradually start running out of control – the introduction compares them to Brecht, and since I happen to be reading some Brecht at the moment (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui; The Life of Galileo) I found myself having the same thought. Nor do Valle-Inclán’s plays seem to get put on much, not just because he continues to be as overlooked as he was when he was writing, but because they don’t seem much written with the theatre in mind; – the commentary here suggests they are cinematic; but I feel they are probably just whatever visions Valle-Inclán found running about his head.

Time of Silence, by Luis Martín-Santos

I just happened upon this book in a charity shop in the first week of July, so I bought it and read it for Spanish Literature Month. I thought I might vaguely have heard of it before somewhere.

Despite the occasional savage review, I do usually start books optimistically; – and normally this continues for a few pages at least, before the poverty of thought and style start to bore me. Perhaps because I’ve struggled with so many books recently (including other ones for SLM) and really can only any longer find myself persevering with works of the very highest standard, I began Time of Silence with a fair degree of disinclination and prejudice; and nothing in the first part dissuaded me from this. Something about experiments on mice and cancer; scientific jargon; short sentences – little to impress.

At some point though, which in retrospect I imagined was much further on, at the point when our hero Pedro and his assistant Amador descend into the shantytown in the Madrid suburbs, but which may in truth have been much earlier, my mind changed and I began to think that this novel, written by a man unknown in the country (at least, he has no English Wikipedia page) was the best novel I’d read this year (which isn’t saying too much, since I haven’t read too much) and moreover one of the better ones of the last century.

Perhaps it was sentences like this description of Madrid on p.11:

The city is so stunted, so lacking in historical substance, treated in such an offhand way by arbitrary rulers, capriciously built in a desert, inhabited by so few families rooted in its past, far from the sea or any river, ostentatious in the display of its shabby poverty, favored by a splendid sky which almost makes one forget its defects, ingenuously self-satisfied like a fifteen–year-old girl, created merely for the prestige of a dynasty, … bereft of authentic nobility … incapable of speaking its own language with the correct intonation … having no authentic Jewry … rich in dull theologians and poor in splendid mystics … [and so on for a page or two]

From then on, I found the writing marvellous, and it began to fulfil for me the one value of any worth in literature: that is, every time I remembered it, I wanted to pick it up again and continue reading. Martín-Santos certainly has a way of approaching narrative I find at almost every moment pleasing, though I’d have to pay a good deal more attention to being a critic than a reader to decide precisely what this is.

Since this meant to be a learned review, however, aspiring to claim more than just “it was great”, let me make a few easy comparisons: I thought at first it was like Joyce’s Ulysses, it had shifting view-points and stream-of-consciousness bits and seemed to be taking course over a single day and there was a nighttown scene where our hero visited a brothel; but then I began to think it was a bit more like Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury, for it was more wide-ranging than Joyce, there were intimations of a plot developing, people were involved in sin, satire abounded and the sentences wandered where they liked; but then I settled on it being more like Bely’s Petersberg, because there were many capricious changes of style, and a sort of thriller plot was developing. Yes, it is like all these things; and it also reminded me of Juan Goytisolo too, those rants of his against Spain and the Spanish, though here it is more controlled, more considered and intelligible.

Read it then, if you can find a copy.

(This was Martín-Santos’ only novel. He was soon after killed in a car-crash.)

The Sound and The Fury, by William Faulkner

Despite its notoriety, I didn’t find The Sound and The Fury that difficult a read. It helps of course that I’ve read it before, and know the structure and the plot; and that I’ve read a lot of Faulkner and know his wiles. I remember last time being frustrated at the character Quentin, who seemed the most unstable and even to change sex; – but these days I’m aware of Faulkner’s penchant for multiple characters with the same names (see too his previous novel, Sartoris / Flags in the Dust) – of which in this novel we have (at least) three sets: Quentin, of course, and Quentin; then the two Jasons (the son and narrator of part three, and also the father); and there’s two Maurys (Uncle Maury; and also Maury is Benjamin’s given name – from which it is changed, I think maybe, in retrospect, at the will of the mother, so that Benjamin is less associated with her family – Uncle Maury is her brother, generally mocked by the Compsons). The latter two pairs are just by the by: at the most they lead to a full sentences’ worth of puzzlement.

Of the four parts, Part One, told from Benjy’s point of view, is the most notorious; but if anything I found certain passages of Part Two (told by Quentin the brother) more difficult. The difficulty in Benjy’s section is more around time-shifts: the action takes place over part of a day, but in reality mostly takes place in Benjy’s mind, scenes from the past which are brought back in his memory; – yet Faulkner puts in enough clues to make all this comprehensible: in particular, you can begin to gauge when a scene took place by the presence of certain secondary characters. Part two is similar in general structure, but there is much more concentration, on Quentin’s part, on the world immediately around him, and the forming of a clearer and coherent picture of the past, though again not everything is explained (and I would say, never is).

These two passage are bordering on stream-of-consciousness, but I didn’t think any of the book was told in a pure stream-of-consciousness manner: Faulkner fills in the picture a lot more than, say, Joyce; and his consideration in this respect is much appreciated; – indeed, in general I feel with Faulkner that he pushes things, but always gives the reader just enough information that he doesn’t become wholly frustrated and annoyed. The last two parts, the first told by Jason and the second for the most part merely narrated, are much easier going; and in fact, I found, much less interesting: firstly, because Jason himself is less interesting as a person, and has a much less interesting world-view; and secondly because the story has already been told; they don’t add much; – the fourth part, in particular, struck me as nothing but an unnecessary coda to the rest – though giving Faulkner a chance to return to his more baroque style, which he tragically eschews for the most part of the narrative.

I commented in my review of Flags in the Dust that that book was marred (and criticised and left unpublished) because Faulkner’s viewpoints were split into too many different narratives which didn’t really cohere; and perhaps he took this criticism on board, since The Sound and The Fury sticks with those multiple viewpoints (as do all his novels up to this point), but concentrates them now on a single narrative; – which I think is more successful, but suffers – as I feel do all such books – from in the end being measured by the worse rather than the better of those narratives.

All of which is in terms of style and structure, but there’s an awful lot of content in The Sound and The Fury too. I became intrigued after a time by the notion that Faulkner was heavily influenced in this book by Zola. (I know he was into French writing – but more poetry, I think; – the symbolists). This notion though of a family degenerating over several generations through the function of heredity is pure Zola – the Compsons are just the Lantiers – the Rougon-Macquarts; – the mother, particularly in the latter half of the book, perceives everything in the Compson (father’s) side of the family as morally evil and inherently selfish (even while defending Quentin the daughter, who is the Nana character and very much a Compson); – and this is for me the true centre of the narrator: for Faulkner portrays them as quite the opposite: Caddie is the truly loving, selfless character – as fundamentally seen in her attitude to Benjy; for it is only really Caddy who cares for Benjy; and as a consequence Benjy only really cares for Caddy; – his mother, you feel, would rather he hadn’t been born, and only ever complains about his presence; Jason – who is throughout the novel portrayed by Faulkner as utterly selfish – would have him locked away in an institution; neither Quentin’s attitudes to Benjy are ever fully established; and the father remains ever a distant, ironic figure; – but it is clear Faulkner’s sympathies remain with Caddie and the latter three, and we are to see the mother as wrong, deluded.

Ah, there’s so much more than this too.

Next up: As I Lay Dying, which was the first Faulkner I read.

Arthurian Romances, by Chrétien de Troyes

One of the things I’ve wondered in my reading of Arthurian romances is why the Monty Python team ever made their Quest for the Holy Grail. I watched it recently, and it is a good parody; it certainly knows its stuff. But after all, why bother? Nobody reads Arthurian romances any more; the world of chivalry clearly has no relevance to the modern world (not, at least, as I’ve experienced it). It hasn’t been in fashion since the Renaissance. (I conclude that one of them – probably Terry Gilliam – and this based on the nature of his other films; you can’t go far in Arthurian romance without coming across The Fisher King – just happened to be interested in the subject).

Like most people, despite being British, I was not brought up on Arthurian romance. I may have read a book about Arthur when I was young; I may even have seen some films; but no one ever cared to teach me about it. Perhaps this is because it falls between the worlds of history and fiction (certainly a lot of the history books of the time, which I’m also currently reading, tend to disparage Arthur whenever they can). But I’m of the impression that the British aren’t generally too interested either in the literature or the history of the period between the Roman and the Norman conquest (perhaps they are scared off by its extreme characteristic of immigration), while I on the other hand find myself increasingly drawn to its chaos. Not, of course, that this is the literature of that period; it is a backward-looking literature that only really begins in the twelfth century. Besides, we like to believe we are drawn from the civilised Latins and Greeks, not a psychotic amalgam of Celts, Danes, Norseman and Germans. And of course the other thing which probably puts off the British is a lot of Arthurian Romance, like the work of Chrétien de Troyes, was written in French.

Chrétien wrote five Arthurian Romances (along with maybe a few other things), of which I’ve now read three. I tried a few years ago to read his first romance, Eric and Enide, but only recall it as turgid stuff which has coloured my view of Arthurian Romance ever since. These other three are however of much better quality.

Yvain (The Knight with the Lion) is about this knight who kills this woman’s husband and then marries her and then goes away to seek adventure, promising to return in a year, but then forgets his promise and goes mad and lives naked in a forest for a bit where he befriends a lion. He then forms a knightly tag-team with this lion, which involves him being challenged by various unchivalrous knights and ogres, who always want to fight him at odds of two or three to one, but stipulate that he’s not allowed to use the lion, because that would be unfair. Yvain agrees to this, and tells the lion not to get involved, but the lion often seems not to understand this injunction.

Lancelot (The Knight of the Cart) is more of a quest-type story. A man turns up at Arthur’s court one day saying if someone would lead Guinivere into a certain dark forest, then he’ll kidnap her; so someone leads her into the forest and he kidnaps her. Then Lancelot and Gawain set out to rescue her, and go through various trials, until eventually Lancelot does rescue her, whereupon they embark on an adulterous affair. On reflection, the whole work may actually be an elaborate allegory of adultery; I should read it again. There is a lot more to these works than I’m making out in these precises.

Perceval (or the Quest for the Holy Grail) is the earliest extent account of the quest for the holy grail, and gives us many of its salient features – not least the issue, which had seriously puzzled me in my reading of another Arthurian romance, of Perceval failing to ask a question he should have asked – a matter seemingly of some importance in Arthurian legend. Much of the mystery here may come from the fact that Chretien never finished this work.

Another aspect of Perceval is that it often borders on burlesque. Even though we are close to the origin of Arthurian romance, there’s already something of the self-parody about it. Perceval has been brought up by his mother in complete ignorance of the world; when he first encounters a knight, he doesn’t even know what he is – he assumes his armour is some sort of natural carapace. Then throughout the work Perceval retains this character of the innocent abroad, which is used to good comic effect and often reminded me a lot of Robert Walser’s narrators. I found myself wondering too, what really divides this romance from a novel; and was Cervantes’ contribution of the knightly burlesque so very new after all? I need to read Cervantes soon.

All good, enjoyable stuff, which should be read more and better known.

Egil’s Saga

Reading the literature of the world and of past centuries, I find myself generally reflecting how similar we all are, how little anything has changed. Human-beings seem basically to have the same emotions and the same stories connected with them whenever and wherever they have existed. Even in the ancient world, I don’t find emotions that are notably different: I don’t find anything odd in Oedipus acting as he does; Ajax’s reactions seem to me no different to the way anyone would react now. Others have stressed clear differences: between, say, Greek and Jacobean (Christian) drama, but I don’t see any of it; it seems to me to be their delusion, an idle cherry-picking contrivance. Even Heian Japanese literature, which I find the furthest from my experience, still has a lot in common with us (its fundamental interest in sex and love affairs); it is just the extraordinary interest it has in ritual which marks it out.

But Egil’s Saga seems to me the most remote work from my experience of humanity I have ever read. It’s not so much the extreme violence of all the characters in it; but that we’re led into a world where killing people doesn’t seem to be regarded as morally reprehensible in any way. To take an example: Egil’s father, Skallagrim, when Egil is about ten, accidentally kills his Egil’s friend in a berserk rage during a football match; Egil is naturally upset, so during dinner, he takes out a knife and kills one of Skallagrim’s favourite servants in revenge; they don’t speak for a few months, but after that the whole matter is forgotten. More generally, each summer the characters in the book have to make a basic decision: whether to stay at home farming, or whether to get into their boats, sail somewhere and murder everyone they come across, burn their houses and steal all their valuables.

All this is in no way an aberration; it is the way their society is constructed from the top down. Death and violence are never far away; what land or life you hold is at the behest of someone higher in the hierarchy: Skallagrim’s followers live at the behest of Skallagrim; Skallagrim himself holds his land and his life on the whim of the king. (The basic plot is that Skallagrim and the new king don’t get on, so Skallagrim is exiled and goes off to help found the new settlement in Iceland). If you want to survive in this world, you have to maintain your position of authority – your honour, your place in society – by strength and violence. There are basically no laws – or none which can’t be broken. It’s a world of anarchy.

We would perhaps think of this as a world without civilisation; so it seems strange – since we are accustomed to see civilisation and art go hand in hand – that works of art should come out of it. The Iliad, for instance, depicts a world which is not so far removed from Egil’s Saga – there is certainly the implication in the story of the rape of Helen, of a world in which people went marauding and plundering in boats; and of course the entire work is based on the notion of honour; – but The Iliad also seems to have more of a social framework to it, there is a kind of civilisation behind it which I find absent from Egil’s Saga. But the thing is, while we like to believe that as a society we are derived from a Graeco-Romano / Christian tradition, really our society comes out of the society of Egil’s Saga (infused by the other tradition, it is true, but never overriden by it): the Angles, the Saxons, the Danes, the Normans – they all came from the same area of the world as the Vikings.

The idea of honour, for instance, in Egil’s Saga, persists in a degenerate form through the European literary tradition: but where maintaining honour in Egil’s Saga is a matter of life and death; in the nineteenth century, aristocrats end up fighting duels so that they won’t be spoken about behind their backs. (I’ve just been reading Eca de Queiros’ The Maias, which has a lot about honour in it – indeed, if no one cared about their honour in it, there’d be no plot).

The other idea which may strike us as odd in Egil’s Saga is that Egil, aside from being driven by a bloodlust and constantly and brutally killing people, is also a very fine poet. Again, I’m reminded of Heian Japanese literature, where the ability to compose extempore poems is an important social attribute. Egil gets out of various scrapes by sitting down for a few hours and composing a marvellous panegyric. (My favourite character name in the book was a poet called, Auden the Uninspired).

The book may not at all times be artful: these works are essentially chronicles, embellished histories, following the fortunes of a single hero to depict a period of society. I enjoyed all the business of the Norwegians going out and settling Iceland, which runs in the background of the story. (It reminded of the great movement of peoples that exists behind the plot of The Lord of the Rings, which of course is derived from all these Northern tales).

On then to another saga.