Obooki’s Book Club: Tom McCarthy’s C

On the back of my copy of Ernst Weiss’ The Aristocrat (a really interesting writer, by the way, as you’ll see) there’s the following quote by Thomas Mann about Weiss:

To be interesting is certainly the first and perhaps the only demand to be made of a storyteller, the criterion of his talent, much more than with a poet or a dramatist. For if one is to listen to someone, that is, listen for a long time, then he just has to be interesting – admittedly a mysterious and hardly definable characteristic, but you possess this secret and the undeniable something, and it makes you – shall I say : great?

Now I claimed in my half-review of Tom McCarthy’s C that it was an uninteresting work (and I’m not the only one: “boring” was a word that came up a lot in reviews, and not just the bad ones), and by this I suppose what I was meaning was that it didn’t have this same “mysterious and hardly definable characteristic” which Mann attributes to Weiss.

I thought I’d picked out a passage from C to illustrate its uninterest, and for the sake of comparison I’d also quote a passage from Balzac. – It is a little unfair this comparison, after all we are not comparing like with like: on the one hand we have an avowedly avant-garde writer writing an utterly conventional realist novel, while on the other we have an avowedly conventional realist writer writing an utterly avant-garde novel. The subject of the two passage, from a writerly point of view, is: how to describe a variety of objects consecutively in an interesting manner.

Here’s the McCarthy:

He’s got two masts set up. There’s a twenty-two-foot pine on top with fifteen more feet of bamboo, all bolted to an oak-stump base half-buried in the Mosaic Garden. Tent pegs circle the stump round; steel guy wires, double-insulated, climb from these to tether the mast down. On the chimney of the main house, a pole three feet long reaches the same height as the bamboo. Between the masts are strung four eighteen-gage manganese copper wires threaded through oak-lath crosses. In Serge’s bedroom, there’s a boxed tuning coil containing twenty feet of silk-covered platinoid, shellacked and scraped. Two dials are mounted on the box’s lid: a large, clock-handed one dead in the centre and, to its right, a smaller disc made from ash-wood recessed at the back and dotted at the front by twenty little screws with turned-down heads set in a circle to form switch-studs. The detector’s brass with an adjusting knob of ebonite; the condenser’s Murdock; the crystal, Chilean gelina quartz, a Mighty Atom mail-ordered from Gamage of Holborn. For the telephone, he tried a normal household one but found it wasn’t any use unless he replaced the diaphragms, and moved on to a watch-receiver-pattern headset wound to a resistance of eight and a half thousand ohms. The transmitter itself is made of standard brass, a four-inch tapper arm keeping Serge’s finger a safe distance from the spark gap.

And here’s the Balzac (not the original language, I admit, but so far as I understand Balzac wasn’t known as much of a stylist):

At first sight the show-rooms offered him a chaotic medley of human and divine works. Crocodiles, apes and stuffed boars grinned at stained-glass windows, seemed to be about to snap at carved busts, to be running after lacquer-ware or to be clambering up chandeliers. A Sevres vase on which Madame Jaquetot had painted Napoleon was standing next to a sphinx dedicated to Sesostris. The beginnings of creation and the events of yesterday were paired off with grotesque good humour. A roasting-jack was posed on a monstrance, a Republican sabre on a medieval arquebus. Madame du Barry, painted in pastel by Latour, with a star on her head, nude and enveloped in cloud, seemed to be concupiscently contemplating an Indian chibouk and trying to divine some purpose in the spirals of smoke hich were difting towards her.

Instruments of death, poniards, quaint pistols, weapons with secret springs were hobnobbing with instruments of life: porcelain soup-tureens, Dresden china plates, translucent porcelain cups from China, antique salt-cellars, comfit-dishes from feudal times. An ivory ship was sailing under full canvas on the back of an immovable tortoise. A pneumatic machine was poking out the eye of the Emperor Augustus, who remained majestic and unmoved. Several portraits of French aldermen and Dutch burgomeisters, insensible now as during their life-times, rose above this chaos of antiques and cast a cold and disapproving glance at them.

There are three points I like to make about the difference in approach to these lists, and why Balzac’s is more interesting:

  • Balzac dramatises his list; he does not merely list things.  – McCarthy might be inclined to argue of course (I can hear it in the back of my mind) that he is looking at the world objectively (much in the manner say of Robbe-Grillet) and not interpreting it in any way. – Fair enough: that doesn’t stop it being either a) dull, or b) like almost all the literary fiction he despises, precisely because that too does not seek to make lists, scenes etc like this interesting (unlike most of the c19th fiction to which he likes to compare it).
  • In Balzac’s list, I recognise some of things described, others I have an idea of, a few things and references perhaps I don’t know at all. Where I don’t know them, I shrug my shoulders and continue on: it doesn’t matter. – In McCarthy’s list, I don’t know what he’s talking about pretty much from beginning to end: I am not an electrical engineer; I don’t understand any of this. – OK, the work is about technology, about communication; but I don’t need this much boring scene-setting. Just a hint: if you’re going to describe things a reader is unlikely to comprehend, do it either a) in very vague terms or b) quickly (i.e. in about a sentence) and let him get on.
  • A point about the wider work: – McCarthy’s scene does not have what I’m going to call an “angle”. This is the beginning of a chapter; we are being introduced to something new; – apart, that is, from the fact that there’s been a lot about communications in the novel, so that our only kind of thought is likely to be: oh, I see, here’s some more stuff about communications: how clever! – The Balzac passage is seen through the eyes of a protagonist, a man who is in despair and is intending to throw himself in the Seine as soon as it gets dark and is currently killing his time before then by wandering round this mysteriously richly-stocked curiosity shop: – the sentence prior to that quoted is “he was to see in advance the debris of a score of civilizations”; thus, the man who is about to commit suicide is being shown the vanity of all human endeavour.

It is this last notion, about why some symbolism works and some doesn’t, which I’ve been contemplating on and off for a good deal of years now, I guess without coming to any firm conclusions. (Of course, as a writer, I don’t have to come to any conclusions about it: – I merely have to write in a way which succeeds; why it succeeds I can leave to others). My main feeling though is that for symbolism to work it has to be “natural” to the work: – that, for instance, it is reasonable all the objects in Balzac’s curiosity shop should be symbolic, since they are recognised, made, as such by the protagonist. Where symbolism doesn’t work is where it is imposed from outside by the writer, as almost all of McCarthy’s. (I shall now go back and look at Andrei Bely, and find that I’m wrong).

– Oh yeah, sorry: – there’s was also a fourth quality: humour. Balzac’s passage is relatively amusing (I liked “French aldermen and Dutch burgomeisters, insensible now as during their life-times”); McCarthy’s is humourless, unless it might be some obscure joke I suppose that I’m missing.