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Monday, 20 December 2010

David Markson's Readers Block 2

A blocked pipe, frozen; a bath that wouldn’t drain and then a flood through my kitchen ceiling: nothing to do but call a plumber, mop up, wipe down, sit unbathed and wait for the plumber to arrive, which he does by the day’s end but, before he does, from Amazon, David Markson’s Reader’s Block drops through the letterbox.

I dip it into it.

The dip becomes a dive.

How to describe this novel without it seeming arid and self-conscious, but the excerpt below does it best: a series of indented paragraphs – sometimes no more than a word, a title, a name - in which an author known as Reader attempts to spell out to himself the novel that seems always to be evading him.

The novel’s form is that of a notebook –a writer’s notebook, but almost, too, the kind of commonplace book a reader might keep - and, as Markson’s Reader forages his imagination (or his memory?) to pad out the fugitive work, other facts, anecdotes, quotations rise up:

Boethius was executed by having a thong inexorably tightened about his temples; Anne Sexton drank vodka as she waited for the closed garage to fill up with fumes; Roland Barthes was hit by a laundry truck; Rupert Brooke and Alban Berg died from insect bites.

Knut Hamsun was a horse-car conductor in Chicago; Cervantes was a tax collector; Maugham, Larkin, Virgil and Moses were stutterers; Wallace Stevens could not bear to say out loud the word ‘womb’; Rossini wore a wig and, in chilly weather, he wore two

William Butler Yeats was an anti-Semite; so was Chesterton, Kant, Heidegger and Martin Luther – these accusations come as regular as heartbeats - and, yes, why didn’t Kafka call Joseph K a Jew and ‘be done with it.’

102 boulevard haussmann; 26 Piazza di Spagna; Roslyn Harbor, Long Island

‘But at that moment the door opened and a personage entered who was a stranger to all present’ (Dostoevsky); ‘Our sister, Death’ (Francis of Assisi); ‘But who are you? You are not from the castle, you are not from the village, you aren’t anything.’ (Kafka?); ‘Yesterday at eight o’clock Madame Bérenge, the concierge, died.’ (?); and, decades afterwards, locked indelibly in Reader’s mind, the last two pages of Good Morning, Midnight;

Susan Sontag, writing on Elias Canetti, described the notebook as 'the perfect literary form for an eternal student,’ and every writer is an eternal student, perpetually learning yet again - and as if for the first time - the same set of skills to answer the same problems, the previous solutions no longer available.

Sontag wrote that the notebook holds that the ‘self that one constructs to deal with the world,’ and Markson’s Reader is battling both to deal with and construct a fictional world as well as fending off the troubled facts of what might be his own experience as he imagines:

A character, the Protagonist… a house… a house by a cemetery?... a house in a cemetery… no, a house on a beach!... no, a cemetery. And why is the Protagonist alone? Might there be others? Women? A woman. A wife? If so, are there children? Where are they now?

And as Reader moves these figures and thoughts, teases them from the shadows, reality’s darker backing promises either to peel back or advance even further forward.

David Markson's Reader's Block 1

S A L O N ’ S B O O K S O F T H E Y E A R


+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +

By David Markson
Dalkey Archive Press, 193 pages

Someone nodded hello to me on the street yesterday.

To me, or to him?

Someone nodded hello to Reader on the street yesterday.

Church bells were already ringing, to announce the Armistice in November 1918, when word reached Wilfred Owen's family that he had been killed in battle one week before.

Picasso made Gertrude Stein sit more than eighty times for her portrait.

And then painted out the head and redid it three months later without having seen her again.

Pablo Casals began each day for more than seventy years by playing Bach.

I have, Reader has?

Reader has come to this place because he had no life back there at all.

Someone nodded hello to him on the street yesterday.

Anna Akhmatova had an affair with Amedeo Modigliani in Paris in 1910 and 1911. Late in life, not having left Russia again in a third of a century, she would be astonished to learn how famous he had become.

In 1579, when Shakespeare was fifteen, the population of Stratford would have been little more than fifteen hundred. Is it a safe assumption that he knew the woman named Katherine Hamlet who fell into the Avon that summer and drowned?

Emily Dickinson became so extravagantly reclusive in the second half of her life that for the last ten years she did not once leave her house.

Even among the most tentative first thoughts about a first draft, why is Reader thinking of his central character as Reader?

Gray's Elegy is 128 lines long. Gray spent seven years writing it.

If forced to choose, Giacometti once said, he would rescue a cat from a burning building before a Rembrandt.

I am growing older. I have been in hospitals. Do I wish to put certain things down?

Granted, Reader is essentially the I in instances such as that. Presumably in most others he will not be the I at all, however.

Fighting with his wife, drunk, Paul Verlaine once threw their three-month-old son against a wall.

Thumbed pages: read and read. Who has passed here before me?

Saint Thomas Aquinas was an anti-Semite.

Only Bianchon can save me, said Balzac, near death.

Bianchon being a doctor in Le Pere Goriot.

His life evidently static. Alone, seemingly without occupation or achievement, his means meager.


Anthony Trollope said he had read Fenimore Cooper's The Prairie at least three dozen times.


Perhaps someone from a shop Protagonist had stopped in at, a clerk? Or merely someone in a friendly mood in passing?

Severn, lift me up, I am dying.

Don't breathe on me, it comes like ice.

The world is my idea.

Saint Augustine said his first teacher was also the first person he ever saw who could read without moving his lips.

Back to Salon’s Book Awards

Neither Fantasy Nor Realism

This, via this space

Neither fantasy nor realism

Ramona Koval: You say modernists look with horror at the proliferation in modern culture of both fantasy and realism, both Tolkien and Graham Greene, both Philip Pullman and VS Naipaul, out of respect for the world. Tell me what this horror entails. Why?

Gabriel Josipovici: The last part of that phrase is something that I touched upon when I was saying that this is not simply a clever modernist trick that springs from a desire to make the reader see that everything that can be said about the world is still going to leave a lot unsaid which is there in the world. So, in a way, they are trying to make you ... just as much as the lyric poets are trying to make you ... see the world itself as it is out there, and what I was saying there was I think this proliferation of fantasies from Tolkien through to the Harry Potter books and Philip Pullman and so on, is a curious sort of indication of the way in which we would rather just turn away from the world and live in pseudo myths and mythologies, and they are pseudo, they're not the real thing as they were in cultures that really had myths and really believed in them. And similarly I think straightforward realism also stops you actually recognising this mysterious thing that our lives are open, are not going to be subsumed in a narrative we can easily tell, but we are constantly going to come up against something which is much more mysterious, much stranger, much more un-inchoate than we imagine.
Part of a transcript from interview on ABC Radio National of Australia about Josipovici's What Ever Happened to Modernism?

Cups to Australian talk radio in general and cups to the estimable Josipovici - although it has to be said that Pullman uses fantasy to critique Christian myths in which he thinks we should no longer believe, and that both Rowlings and Pullman write for children and there is no harm and every delight in encouraging a love of fantasy in such readers - is there a modernist book for children? As CS Lewis in An Experiment in Criticism put it:
children are indifferent to literary fashions. What we see in them is not a specifically childish taste, but simply a normal and perennial human taste, temporarily atrophied in their elders by a fashion.

It's adult readers who read such books - and write them - fantasies unengaged by the mind, without considered thought, set in feudal and monarchical worlds, sexist and sexless, and who seem wholly accepting in such fiction that there is a spiritual, political and moral elect (fated to be so by birth), that evil is immediately identifable by black costumery and that twisted visages reliably indicate twisted souls.

And I'm not quite sure I have ever read a 'straightforwardly realist' text. Greene's 'realism' is not Naipaul's; neither writer say everything that can be said about the world, and each of them leave much unsaid and utter only as much as each of them can - which, for both, even when similar (A Burnt-out Case/ A Bend in the River), is also, eerily and necessarily unlike.

Friday, 30 July 2010

James Merill: Christmas tree

Not seasonal - nor is the snow bound picture of the Stevens' house below - but I came across this after reading the first chapter of Helen Vendler's Last looks, Last Books. The chapter is downloadable here, and worth the read.

To be
Brought down at last
From the cold sighing mountain
Where I and the others
Had been fed, looked after, kept still,
Meant, I knew--of course I knew--
That it would be only a matter of weeks,
That there was nothing more to do.
Warmly they took me in, made much of me,
The point from the start was to keep my spirits up.
I could assent to that. For honestly,
It did help to be wound in jewels, to send
Their colors flashing forth from vents in the deep
Fragrant sable that cloaked me head to foot.
Over me then they wove a spell of shining--
Purple and silver chains, eavesdripping tinsel,
Amulets, milagros: software of silver,
A heart, a little girl, a Model T,
Two staring eyes. The angels, trumpets, BUD and BEA
(The children's names) in clownlike capitals,
Somewhere a music box whose tiny song
Played and replayed I ended before long
By loving. And in shadow behind me, a primitive IV
To keep the show going. Yes, yes, what lay ahead
Was clear: the stripping, the cold street, my chemicals
Plowed back into Earth for lives to come--
No doubt a blessing, a harvest, but one that doesn't bear,
Now or ever, dwelling upon. To have grown so thin.
Needles and bone. The little boy's hands meeting
About my spine. The mother's voice: Holding up wonderfully!
No dread. No bitterness. The end beginning. Today's
Dusk room aglow
For the last time
With candlelight.
Faces love lit,
Gifts underfoot.
Still to be so poised, so
Receptive. Still to recall, to praise.

Wallace Stevens: The House was Quiet and the World was Calm

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

Dreams of Monochrome Men

dv8 The Cost of Living

DV8 - Enter Achilles

Talk to Me

Theatre on film is so stagy - the audience either give a standing ovation or walk out and the stage itself seems a too thin a place for magic to occur - but, in Almodovar's Talk to Her, perhaps because he films it so simply, he does get what it is to sit in a theatre and witness a performance.

That he is filming two dances by Pina Bausch helps. The trailer for Talk to Her only suggests the brilliance of the film, but it is cut to suggest that the whole film might be choreographed by her.

And, in addition, this:

Monday, 19 July 2010


This, from LRB: I'm not convinced that this string of epiphets does much to convey contemporary Liverpool, but it does evoke a Liverpool and it makes a tuneful litany


Jamie Mackendrick

Toledo la rica, Salamanca la fuerte, León la bella, Oviedo la sacra, y Sevilla la grande.

Liverpool the impoverished, the liverish, the void, the full,
the self-besotted, the blarney-argoted, the blitzed and blackened,
the bella-brutta, the rag-rich, the moss-stained sandstoned,
the green-lung’d, the ricket-ridden, the loud and adenoidal.

Liverpool the last-to-be-served, the least-accounted,
the over-arched and undermined, the mother-tongued and plurilingual,
the Catholic-Protestant, the cap-in-hand, the hand-
to-mouth, the pub-encrusted and the hovel-haunted.

Liverpool the riverine, the ocean-avid, the slaveship-tainted,
sugar-whitening, matchstick-making, slum and dockland
refuge of Lascars, Chinese, Irish, Jews, Somalians.

Liverpool the deserted, the polluted, the de bon aire,
the clinker-built and shipwrecked, the chameleon,
the edge-of-everywhere-and-nowhere’s-centre.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

The Animator: Adam Thirlwell on Charles Dickens

This review of Michael Slater's biographical study of Charles Dickens is by Adam Thirlwell - a critic more wayward than James Woods or Wyatt Mason, perhaps because, as a fiction writer, his approach is more idiosyncratic, with less laying down of laws and more of a search for a personal method.

He is a critic who hits and misses with his insights - somehow that's part of the narrative tension in his generously cerebral and wide-ranging novel, Miss Herbert - but he is more than capable of enthusing a reader to visit or revisit a text with a new perspective.

This review, from The New Republic led me to read The Old Curiosity Shop, a novel everyone thinks they know even without reading it, but its many surprises are indicated in Thirlwell's piece, which looks at Dickens' output as a whole, and is, in its way, as good a overview of Dickens than the ones given by George Orwell or GK Chesterton.


For a long time, everyone has known that Paris was the capital of the nineteenth century, the city where the modern was invented: the society of the spectacular. But everyone was wrong. The capital of the nineteenth century was London. Think about it. Walter Benjamin’s symbol of the Parisian modern was the arcade. The arcade! In London-according to the social campaigner Henry Mayhew, there were 300,000 dustbins, 300,000 cesspools, and three million chimneys. It was there that the truly modern was invented: industrial, overpopulated dirt. Its symbol was the slum. London was managed by a majority of minority trades, all in the business of garbage: bone-pickers, rag-gatherers, pure-finders, dredgermen, toshers. And London’s greatest describer, who converted the ghostly industrial city into a new world of words, was a novelist who could taxonomically and poetically enumerate, say, the varieties of polluted fog: “Even in the surrounding country it was a foggy day, but there the fog was grey, whereas in London it was, at about the boundary line, dark yellow, and a little within it brown, and then browner, and then browner, until at the heart of the City--which call Saint Mary Axe--it was rusty-black.”

And yet, in public, this same writer could also put on an act like this:

Believe me, ladies and gentlemen, that to the earnestness of my aim and desire to do right by my readers, and to leave our imaginative and popular literature more closely associated than I found it at once with the private homes and public rights of the English people, I shall ever be faithful,--to my death-in the principles which have won your approval. [Loud applause.]

Charles Dickens gave this sincere speech in Sheffield, the city of steel factories, in December 1855, on being presented by the mayor with a service of cutlery. It is unbelievable, perhaps, but it is true: that, too, is the voice of the most avant-garde European novelist of the nineteenth century.

Of all his impersonations, Dickens’s greatest was his fluent mimicry of what the bourgeois public imagined that a novelist should be--through prefaces to his novels, which offered doctored accounts of their geneses as serial sketches in magazines; through his efforts on behalf of the Guild of Literature and Art, or his work with the Royal Literary Fund; through his collected editions (he supervised the following editions: the Charles Dickens, the Cheap, the Library, the Diamond, the People’s, and the Hachette). He had a mania for canonization, for the public paraphernalia of authorship.

And this extended, most importantly, to his biography. Dickens died in June 1870. Seventeen months later, in November 1871, the first Life of Dickens was published by his friend John Forster--an eminent man of letters, the biographer of Goldsmith, Swift, and Landor--who had been appointed Dickens’s biographer by Dickens himself. Dickens gave Forster autobiographical fragments, manuscripts, letters--which were all to be kept secret until the posthumous biography. On its publication, it revealed how autobiographical much of his writing had been--“watered,” as one critic wrote, “with tears of self-compassion.” The pain in Dickens, it turned out, was less a moral philosophy than a natural identification with the marginalized, the defenseless, the lost. And yet such autobiographical pain did nothing to change the essential idea of Dickens as a moralist, and of his novels as didactic agents of social comment.

But the era of psychology, and of social reform, were not alive to the energy in Dickens’s art. His real greatness, I think, lay elsewhere: in his savage, magical style. With the appearance of Michael Slater’s extraordinary biography, which exuberantly tracks the mercurial energy of Dickens’s publication history--as well as his editing and his public readings--it is possible to be accurate to Dickens’s wild originality, the career of his career.

The premise of this new biography is very simple, and wholly admirable. “Mindful of Dickens’s words in his will about resting his claims to the remembrance of his country upon his published work,” Slater declares, “I have focused primarily upon his career as a writer and professional author.” The salacious reader will find the occasional brothel, the passing prostitute. But Nelly Ternan, the actress implicated in Dickens’s separation from his wife around 1857 or 1858, is only a background figure: partly because Slater scrupulously refuses to speculate on unavailable evidence, but also because of his emphasis on that adjective “professional.” The furious energy of Dickens’s production in this biography is astonishing. As well as his novels, Slater gorgeously includes also “the context of the truly prodigious amount of otherwriting that he was constantly producing alongside the serial writing of those books”--the “short stories, sketches, topical journalism, essays, travel writing and writings for children, polemical pieces in verse as well as prose.”

This is a biography of a writer as writer. It is therefore quite unique. “Overfamiliar metaphor,” writes Kundera in The Art of the Novel: “The novelist destroys the house of his life and uses its stones to build the house of his novel. A novelist’s biographers thus undo what a novelist has done, and redo what he undid.” This is not true of Slater. “All their labor cannot illuminate either the value or the meaning of a novel,” adds Kundera. I have always agreed with him; but this great book allows one to imagine a more delicate biographical form--a heuristic instrument for the analysis of spectral themes.

For Dickens’s life--like one of his novels, with its parallel plot--was ghosted by two central motifs. He is the connoisseur of characters acquiring, in the words of the old cliché, a life of their own--like Dr. Marigold, who “came flashing up in the most cheerful manner, and I had only to look on and leisurely describe it.” But he is also the connoisseur of corpses. In Paris, the hidden twin to Dickens’s London, his favorite destination was the morgue. Dickens digested the dead with gusto. He was drawn to the morgue--“dragged by invisible force,” by “the attraction of repulsion.” And this is Dickens’s subject, the invention of his style: the uneasy, queasy hinterland where it is alluringly unclear what is alive and what is not.

One day, in 1911, Kafka finished reading a biography of Dickens and then turned to his diary:

Is it so difficult and can an outsider understand that you experience a story within yourself from its beginning, from the distant point up to the approaching locomotives of steel, coal, and steam, and you don’t abandon it even now, but want to be pursued by it and have time for it, therefore are pursued by it and of your own volition run before it wherever it may thrust and wherever you may lure it.

In this marvelous sentence, where the subject writing and the subject written sinuously swap places, Kafka identifies the mobile essence of Dickens’s lesson for fiction. His great subject is the force that gives anything animation at all. His work constitutes a sustained examination of the conditions for lifelikeness.

Dickens can animate anything. Even an oyster opener: for what happens to oyster openers, wonders Dickens, in an improvised moment in a letter from Montreal in 1842, when oysters are out of season? “Do they commit suicide in despair, or wrench open tight drawers and cupboards and hermetically-sealed bottles for practice? Perhaps they are dentists out of the oyster season. Who knows?” Dickens’s animating style discovers the uncanny energy of the commonplace. For Dickens is the great novelist of junk: the décor of hotel restaurants, the clutter of secondhand shops, the wallpaper in pretentious dance schools. London was supremely the city of the industrial, and the industrial was so savagely modern that it was impossible to keep up: everyone lived among the outmoded, among cherished objects which had lost their use value. This was Dickens’s discovery--the surreal poetry of what is obsolete, or seems to be obsolete. His life was spent observing how much a life became a collection of useless, loved objects.

London was the capital of the nineteenth century, and Dickens was its greatest flaneur. In London he walked and walked--making sure of his “fifteen miles a day”: “If I couldn’t walk fast and far, I should just explode and perish.” He was the great ambulatory writer. In particular, he liked to walk at night. Slater’s biography records how much he was the genie of gaslight--able to compare, for instance, the quality of gaslight in London and in Paris: “London is shabby by daylight, and shabbier by gaslight. No Englishman knows what gaslight is, until he sees the Rue de Rivoli and the Palais Royal after dark.” In Paris, illuminated, Dickens could therefore be found “wandering into Hospitals, Prisons, Dead-houses, Operas, Theatres, Concert Rooms, Burial-grounds, Palaces, and Wine shops”--which all became a private “rapid Panorama.” In 1855, he mentions “some of the strange places I glide into of nights in these latitudes.” The idea of gliding is wonderful; but then Dickens has a whole vocabulary of flaneuring. In London, he asks a friend to come with him on one of his “great, London, back-slums kind of walk[s].”

It was on these walks that Dickens discovered the everyday--his profane illuminations. When his sketches, which first appeared in magazines, were collected in book form, Dickens added a new term, with its hesitant hyphen: “Illustrative of Every-day Life and Every-day People.” But the border between his early sketches and his serial fiction is distinctly porous. His style swarms everywhere. And the everyday was “lumber,” it was junk:

The walls were garnished with one or two large maps; and several weather-beaten rough great coats, with complicated capes, dangled from a long row of pegs in one corner. The mantel-shelf was ornamented with a wooden inkstand, containing one stump of a pen and half a wafer, a road-book and directory, a county history minus the cover, and the mortal remains of a trout in a glass coffin.

The style of this flaneuring novelist was, then, founded on the observation of the city. Like all great novelists, of course, he tried to occlude the sources of his style. In one of his earliest sketches, “The Prisoner’s Van,” he included a brief manifesto (which he cut when the piece was collected into a book):

We have a most extraordinary partiality for lounging about in the streets. Whenever we have an hour to spare, there is nothing that we enjoy more than a little amateur vagrancy--walking up one street and down another, and staring into shop windows, and gazing about us as if, instead of being on intimate terms with every shop and house in Holborn, the Strand, Fleet-street and Cheapside, the whole were an unknown region to our wondering mind.

Dickens had the talent not to be averse to the shameful emotions--prurience, or curiosity, or self-deception, or hypocrisy: the shameful emotions without which no noble knowledge would ever be acquired. His style was formed in the voyeuristic city--London, with “that great heavy canopy,” as he wrote to Bulwer Lytton in 1851, “lowering over the housetops.” The walker alive to the smoggy city of junk: this was Dickens. And the usefulness of the city was very simple. London was a laboratory where the human was transformed into surface in as concentrated a form as possible. Or, as one of his best critics, John Carey, puts it, Dickens’s territory was “the border country between people and things, where Dickens’s imagination is mostly engaged.” And so it was where everything was always on the point of transforming from the animate into the inanimate, or vice versa. For anything, and anyone, can undergo a metamorphosis: it just depends on the strength of someone else’s will, desire, fetish--or belief.


In his novels of reanimation, Dickens went for ghosts, for guilt, for bottled fetuses and effigies: for murder. His necromantic imagination needed corpses. Dead bodies are his constant prop. What else could he do? His subject was how strange the transition was between the live and the dead. But the motifs are all subject to the mechanics of his sentences. A sentence, for Dickens, was the medium in which he could investigate how reversible lifelikeness was. The effect of Slater’s book--so lavishly truffled with quotations from the vast range of his prose--is to emphasize how thoroughly Dickens was inhabited by this process of style. His life was itself a constant experiment of writing, of quickening by form. And so we must take the time to enumerate the elements of Dickens’s sentences. They constitute the true events, after all, of any novelist’s biography.

In 1869, in his inaugural address as president of the Birmingham & Midland Institute, Dickens confessed something to his audience: “My own invention or imagination, such as it is, I can most truthfully assure you, would never have served me as it has, but for the habit of commonplace, humble, patient, daily, toiling, drudging attention.” Drudgery is the ritual of Dickensian transformation. It enabled inspired detailing, such as a slum with its “starved white horse who was making a meal of oyster-shells.” And it also produced exuberant squiggles: a child reading the newspapers, “which are so very large in proportion to himself, shorn of his hat, that when he holds up The Times to run his eye over the columns, he seems to have retired for the night, and to have disappeared under the bedclothes.” And it emerged in the full dense complexity of a sentence like this: “Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes--gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.” The sentence describes a comic apocalypse--but then Dickens’s style itself may be called a comic apocalypse, energized by the twin engines of personification and metaphor, where everything and everyone can be transformed into the uncannily alive or the uncannily dead. So it becomes impossible to say how far a metaphor is ornament, or instead a precise description of what is seen.

Dickens’s techniques are constant experiments with what we accept to be real. And so, alongside the metaphoric transformation of the everyday, he loved inversely to transform everyday metaphoric activity into literal sentences. The revolutionary Russian critic Shklovsky once suggested that literary style was there to increase our knowledge of reality: “to lead us to a ‘vision’ of this object rather than mere ‘recognition.’” His example was Tolstoy’s baroquely literal description of an opera: “In the middle of the stage sat young girls in red bodices and white skirts. One young girl, very fat, and attired in white silk, was sitting separately on a low bench to which a green cardboard was attached from behind. They were all singing something.” But Dickens had been there already--more intensely, poetically literal than Tolstoy--watching Macbeth at the Theatre Royal in Chatham, confused by the ontology of double casting: “Many wondrous secrets had I come to the knowledge of in that sanctuary: of which not the least were, that the witches in Macbeth bore an awful resemblance to the Thanes and other proper inhabitants of Scotland; and that the good King Duncan couldn’t rest in his grave, but was constantly coming out of it and calling himself somebody else.”

His sentences are festivals of the flickering, the passing, the dying, the obsolete. He inherits the use of junk allusion invented by the English poets: by Pope, and Swift, and Dryden--the geniuses of mock epic. (Henry Fielding’s description of what he was up to in his novels was, significantly, this doubly oxymoronic definition: a “comic Epic-Poem in Prose.”) In The Pickwick Papers, the everyday kitsch allusion is duly incorporated: “‘Mrs. Leo Hunter has many of these breakfasts, sir,’ resumed the new acquaintance--‘“feasts of reason, sir, and flows of soul,” as somebody who wrote a sonnet to Mrs. Leo Hunter on her breakfasts, feelingly and originally observed.’” For what is more junk than unwittingly plagiarizing Pope, the greatest ironist of the glibly serious? But Dickens’s true innovation is to incorporate this kitsch appropriation of the classics into his own mobile narrative voice, as in his Hamletian description of

the Harmonic Meeting at the Sol’s Arms; where the sound of the piano through the partly-opened windows jingles out into the court, and where Little Swills, after keeping the lovers of harmony in a roar like a very Yorick, may now be heard taking the gruff line in a concerted piece, and sentimentally adjuring his friends and patrons to Listen, listen, listen, Tew the wa-ter-Fall!

(The Sol’s Arms, I should add, whose tables are hyper-realistically “ornamented with glutinous rings in endless involutions, made by pots and glasses.”)

The profound innovation of Dickens’s style is in this way of describing the human as endless superficiality, infinitely bathetic: a bricolage of bric-a-brac. His profundity is precisely in the refusal of depth. He is often attacked for the creation of caricatures, not characters. As a binary opposition, this seems as uselessly simplistic as Forster’s division of characters into the flat and the round. It fails to honor the way his vision of what is real, what is alive, is tense with what is dead. His characters, therefore, are necessarily collections of repetitions. When describing the character of Skimpole in Bleak House, Dickens described him as “a delightful manner reproducing itself under my hand.” A character, for Dickens, is a self-reproducing entity; as artificial as a self--another system of repetition.

Famously, Dickens’s daughter Mamie recorded interrupting her father at composition--when he was, she said, performing a “facial pantomime” in front of the mirror. Dickens did not invent: he imitated, he mimicked. “I don’t invent it--really do not, but see it, and write it down.” Instead of the novel as psychology, he copied out his hallucinations: the repetitive gestures of his characters’ bodies, the repetitive jingles of their speech. With these gestures and jingles, he constructed the collages of his scenes:

“We are all weak creeturs,” said Mrs. Corney, laying down a general principle.

“So we are,” said the beadle.

Nothing was said, on either side, for a minute or two afterwards. By the expiration of that time, Mr. Bumble had illustrated the position by removing his left arm from the back of Mrs. Corney’s chair, where it had previously rested, to Mrs. Corney’s apron-string, round which it gradually became entwined.

“We are all weak creeturs,” said Mr. Bumble.

Every novel by Dickens is already an illustrated novel. The actual illustrations are just confirmations, tautologies.


But it is not just the sentences. Dickens’s form is the novel, after all. His plots, like his sentences, are forms of resurrection. All Dickens’s great novels--from Dombey and Son, through Bleak House and Little Dorrit, toOur Mutual Friend--use multiple plots that resolve themselves, gradually, into one: characters are reborn under new names, or discover their true bloodline. Each individual plotline seems unrelated. But every novel turns out, in the end, to be a family romance. And this formal property possesses its artisanal double; the resurrections of Dickens’s style--from Dombey and Son onward--were facilitated by his new way of working: to use folded sheets of paper, divided into sections, to plan out his novels in their serial parts and chapters. With this, he planned the ballet of his characters, the choreography of his plots.

Early in his career, in Oliver Twist, Dickens defended the novel as a place for steep transitions--like “all good murderous melodramas” where the comic and the tragic alternate, “as the layers of red and white in a side of streaky bacon.” Some readers thought that this was overly dramatic, but for Dickens it was the structure of “real life.” The difference was that in real life we did not notice the transitions “from well-spread boards to death-beds, and from mourning weeds to holiday garments,” because “there, we are busy actors, instead of passive lookers-on.” This principle of transition was the central method by which Dickens constructed a fiction. Like a morgue, it was a system that produced the irony of transition: the abrupt juxtaposition of the living and the dead.

It was a lesson, the reader discovers, that he would learn himself. (Life is so philistine in its exaggerated care for form!) On April 14, 1851, Dickens gave a speech to the General Theatrical Fund dinner, praising the resilience of the actor who came “from scenes of affliction and misfortune--even from death itself--to play his part before us.” And then Dickens left the dinner--and was told that his infant daughter, “with whom he had been happily playing just before leaving home,” had died.

Life, as always, had a double plot. Later, when he was writing Little Dorrit, Dickens wrote a note to himself, wanting to intensify this way in which a plot could enact deaths and resurrections--a plot would be a structure to produce the parallels that would unify the vast city: “People to meet and part as travellers do, and the future connexion between them in the story, not to be now shewn to the reader but to be worked out as in real life. Try this uncertainty and this not-putting of them together, as a new means of interest.”

In his essay “Dickens, Griffith and the Film Today,” written in 1944, Sergei Eisenstein hailed Dickens and his use of the intercut double-plot as the ancestor of cinema--the inventor, in prose narrative, of montage. Montage, after all, depended on parallel action. “Griffith arrived at montage through the method of parallel action, and he was led to the idea of parallel action by--Dickens.” Eisenstein went on to describe both “Griffith’s montage exposition” and also “a montage progression of parallel scenes, intercut into each other.” I admire this invocation of Dickens, alongside the early art of cinema; but it is important to see how Dickens’s art of montage was more advanced than Eisenstein’s. The idea of the parallel is everywhere in Dickens’s notes. In August 1862, about to begin work on Our Mutual Friend, he remarked to Forster about his germinating idea of a structure: “bringing together two strongly contrasted places and two strongly contrasted sets of people with which and with whom the story is to rest, through the agency of an electric message.”

An electric message! This is Dickens’s description of a parallel, and its importance, I think, is this. The parallel allows a novel to become a whole force field, a living and expanding universe--an animating network of motifs--or, in his terms, a network of “shadowings.” As he told Wilkie Collins--that other master of melodrama--a plot was an impersonation of fate: “I think the business of Art is to lay all that ground carefully, but with the care that conceals itself--to shew by a backward light, what everything has been working to--but only to SUGGEST, until the fulfilment comes. These are the ways of Providence--of which ways, all Art is but a little imitation.”

Dickens, the novelist, impersonated Providence. This is another way of saying that he impersonated the city. It is the city, after all, where such fateful parallels happen with the densest rhythm. The city, as Eisenstein knew, is where montage was invented: “that head-spinning tempo of changing impressions with which Dickens sketches the city in the form of a dynamic (montage) picture.” London was the capital of the nineteenth century, and its form was montage.

Dickens, it is true, used the montage form to prove that the rich could not separate themselves from the poor, to prove the “connexion” that existed “between many people in the innumerable histories of this world, who, from opposite sides of great gulfs, have, nevertheless, been very curiously brought together!” He was hysterically exercised by the way in which civilization could ignore the fact that it was barbaric. Before Walter Benjamin’s famous late thesis on history--“there is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism”--Dickens had already noted the inanimate animation. The urban graveyard at the center of the city, “with every villainy of life in action close on death, and every poisonous element of death in action close on life”: “a shameful testimony to future ages, how civilization and barbarism walked this boastful island together.”

But this does not imply that Dickens had a coherent politics. In his essay, Eisenstein criticized the implications of Griffith’s montage: “the structure that is reflected in the concept of Griffith’s montage is the structure of bourgeois society.... And this society, perceived only as a contrast between the haves and the have-nots, is reflected in the consciousness of Griffith no deeper than the image of an intricate race between two parallel lines.” Eisenstein, I assume, would have been similarly infuriated by Dickens. Dickens, after all, annoyed Brecht, and he dismayed Lukács, who lamented “the limitations of Dickens’s social criticism, his sometimes abstract-moral attitude towards concrete social-moral phenomena.” But why must Dickens have a politics? He was a novelist. He had a style instead.

Dickens’s politics was just a mode of feeling. He had been marked, after all, by one particular experience of living death--when he worked at a blacking factory off the Strand in 1824, when he had just turned twelve, and his family was almost bankrupt. Slater records the humiliating everyday detail: along with his partner, Bob Fagin (Fagin!), Dickens worked, with remarkable speed and dexterity, at the window--so remarkably, writes Slater, that passersby “used to stop to stare admiringly in at the window by which they worked.” Dickens was transformed into a spectacle. And this experience comprehensively haunted him. Every time Dickens let his imagination become frivolous, the Blacking returned. At Christmas, the Dickens family played a parlor game in which everyone had to remember a sentence made up by the family, and add another phrase. According to his son Henry, “My father, after many turns, had successfully gone through the long string of words, and finished up with his own contribution, ‘Warren’s Blacking, 30, Strand!’”

A theory of the political in literature needs a theory of feeling: this is a conclusion that may be drawn from the life, and the biography, of Dickens. A theory of junk needs a corresponding theory of the sentimental. The sentimental, after all, is just the junk of feeling, its hollow repetition. Dickens often described himself having “a real good cry” when he wrote. Such outbursts were constant. On April 21, 1849, writing in The Examiner, Dickens quoted from an inquiry into a recent scandalous case of children who had died of cholera in a baby farm. When the scandal was uncovered, the surviving children had been taken to the Royal Free Hospital--where the nurses fed them milk and bread. And, Dickens reported, there was a child who could not eat: “No; he held up his hand, and said, ‘Oh, nurse, what a big bit of bread this is!’”--“a little touch,” added the writer, “of a peculiarly affecting kind, such as the masters of pathos have rarely excelled in fiction.”

The masters of pathos: there is real admiration in that phrase. Dickens was not at all embarrassed by the sentimental. And yet he was also an expert in compassion, which was not fake. He institutes the modernist examination of fake and true feeling: what is live and what is not. “I should not like to hear the charge of sentimentality made against this strain that runs through Bleak House,” observed Nabokov rightly, at his lectern, in his Lectures on Literature. “I want to submit that people who denounce the sentimental are generally unaware of what sentiment is.” And he added: “Dickens’s great art should not be mistaken for a cockney version of the seat of emotion--it is the real thing, keen, subtle, specialized compassion.”

The compassion is there most decisively in Dickens’s generous precision to minor characters. Like, say, Mrs. Piper, who comes to the Sol’s Arms in order to present her minor evidence at an inquest:

Mrs. Piper lives in the court (which her husband is a cabinet-maker), and it has long been well beknown among the neighbours (counting from the day next but one before the half-baptizing of Alexander James Piper aged eighteen months and four days old on accounts of not being expected to live such was the sufferings gentlemen of that child in his gums) as the Plaintive--so Mrs. Piper insists on calling the deceased--was reported to have sold himself.

Mrs. Piper is just a flicker in that vast electric network that Dickens called Bleak House--and she is permanent. With Mrs. Piper, the reader comes upon the center of Dickens’s life-giving style, in the care lavished so quickly on lesser figures. For there is also truth in cliché, in the way a self freezes into its gestures. In the end, the self can be content with very little--like a cabman who is given twopence, which he receives “with anything but transport, tosses the money into the air, catches it over-handed, and retires.” Nabokov commented: “this gesture, this one gesture, with its epithet ‘over-handed’--a trifle--but the man is alive forever in a good reader’s mind.” And then he added: “A great writer’s world is indeed a magic democracy where even some very minor character ... has the right to live and breed.” This, in the end, is the flimsy, ethereal, convincing politics of Dickens’s prose: not in his speeches, or his newspaper campaigns, but in the democracy of his fiction, in its massive crowd of animate extras.


The medium in which these minor characters lived was the mixing and refining solution of Dickens’s voice. Among all the Dickensian system of repetitions, the most repeated element is Dickens himself: his prose style. At his audience with Queen Victoria in 1870, he may have commiserated sedately over “the price of butchers’ meat, and bread,” but he was really a revolution of one. And the key to this revolution, to this style, may be found in his performances.

Around 1843, when he was writing A Christmas Carol, Dickens changed the way he wrote. He developed a more performative system of punctuation: a musical notation of semicolons. And it was also in A Christmas Carol that Dickens allowed his prose to become an electric message between the novelist and the absent reader: “Scrooge, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor who drew them: as close to it as I am now to you, and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow.” When he came to give his famous performed readings, he chose to begin with A Christmas Carol--but he cut that passage, because at last there was no need to remind the absent reader of the absent novelist’s presence.

Before he became a novelist, Dickens had considered becoming an actor. With his assiduous precision, he had practiced “even such things as walking in and out, and sitting down in a chair.” His hero was Charles Matthews, who would come on stage as himself, in evening dress--and then play all the parts, culminating in a final bravura “monopolylogue.” It was an early form of stand-up. And this solo performance of multiple imitations formed the nucleus of Dickens’s style: a new form of prose, based on mimicry.

Mimicry, of course, is based on an idea of the human as repetition. “How easily peculiarities may be acquired by negligence,” observed Matthews, “and how difficult they are to eradicate when strengthened by habit.” Dickens made this offhand observation central to the art of the novel: a sustained analysis of how far the repetitive is the essence of a character, or the appropriation of a self by the other. Dickens is the great comic impersonator. In the vocabulary of the nineteenth century, he is the great assumer. He impersonated other people, and he impersonated himself. This is why his biography is of such prickly and absorbing interest. He performed his own multiple imagination.

He wanted to be ghostly. He liked the idea of the novelist as ghost--as in his idea of an editing persona for his magazine, Household Words: “I want to suppose a certain SHADOW ... a kind of semi-omniscient, omnipresent, intangible creature” which would “loom as a fanciful thing all over London ... a sort of previously unthought of Power going about.” But this was simply a way of describing his infinite vampiric style. And the main subject he haunted was himself. This was the secret he imparted to a Russian admirer, another genius of “good murderous melodramas,” who came to interview him in the summer of 1862. Dostoevsky, who was not yet the author of Crime and Punishment or Demons or any of his major novels, later recounted Dickens’s theory:

There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life. Only two people? I asked.

Toward the end of his life, Dickens decided to add to his repertory of readings the murder of Nancy by her lover Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist. In performance, he continued to create the tale, to embellish the novel, adding extra detail--such as Sikes’s dog, his paws bloodstained, “crawling as if those stains had poisoned him!!” Famously, his enactment of the guilty murderer made Dickens feel like a murderer: he wrote to the painter Frith in November 1868 that his acting was “horribly like, I am afraid”--“I have a vague sense of being ‘wanted’ as I walk about the streets.” A short while earlier, in April 1867, Dickens had written to his friend Robert Lytton that with his performed readings, with “this interpretation of myself (then quite strange in the public ear),” he had hoped to hint at “some new expression of the meaning of my books.” The new meaning, I think, was simple. It was the living proof that Dickens--with gas jets rigged up to shine brightly on his face, because he was, after all, the flaneur of gaslight--had invented the narrator as impersonator.

From Paris, on May 16, 1863, Dickens published an essay in his magazine Household Words. His essay featured the Paris morgue. In particular, it noted the variety of expressions adopted by the tourists when looking at the corpses (adopted by the flaneur, looking at the world):

there was a wolfish stare at the object.... And there was a much more general, purposeless, vacant staring at it--like looking at waxwork, without a catalogue, and not knowing what to make of it. But all these expressions concurred in possessing the one underlying expression of looking at something that could not return a look.

The Paris morgue was the hidden, concentrated form of London--of life. In the horrified italics of this asymmetrical looking, where the world is observed in the form of a waxwork, the disturbed energy of Dickens’s art and life may be found. So horrified by the inanimate, by the world’s junk, Dickens gave himself the infinite task of quickening everything, of impersonating everything--a demiurgic task of animation, through the precarious immortality of art.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

How We Read Online

The Internet Diet Nicholas Carr is a sane guide to how it's changing us.

Nicholas Carr's The Shallows.

In his new book, The Shallows, Nicholas Carr has written a Silent Spring for the literary mind. He begins with a feeling shared by many who have spent the last decade online. "I'm not thinking the way I used to think," Carr tells us. "I feel it most strongly when I'm reading." He relates how he gets fidgety with a long text. Like others, he suspects that the Internet has destroyed his ability to read deeply. "My brain," he writes, "wasn't just drifting. It was hungry. It was demanding to be fed the way the Net fed it."

As Carr embarks, though, he has a firm grip on his brain, admirably subjecting his hunch to scrutiny. He's self-conscious about its Luddite and alarmist spirit and steps back to take the long view. The Internet, he observes, is "best understood as the latest in a long series of tools that have helped mold the human mind." It's similar to other "intellectual technologies" that have reshaped our activities and culture.

By equating the impact of the Internet with the impact of such things as the printing press, Carr is trying to move the whole "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" argument forward. This Web is seismic. It's definitely changing us somehow. Instead of debating whether it's turning us into distractible oafs or a superintelligent collective, let's first look back into history and see how humans have responded to similar transitions. Then, let's see whether the new tools of neuroscience can detect any effects of our current transition.

The same anxieties that we have about the Internet, the ancient Greeks had about the new technology of writing. In The Republic, Plato has Socrates famously declare that poetry has no place in the perfect state. As Carr explains, this attack may seem a little out-of-nowhere unless you understand that poetry was Plato's stand-in for the oral tradition of Greek thought. Epic poems like The Iliad were how the Greeks preserved and passed on knowledge from one generation to the next. Plato is arguing that the new technology of writing is superior because it allows for a more ordered and logical transmission of knowledge. Also, you don't have to repeat stuff a hundred times.

Literacy won out, but each new technology gives something and takes something away. The scholar Walter J. Ong looks at oral cultures and sees "verbal performances of high artistic and human worth" that are lost forever in the transition to literacy. But without literacy, he argues, there's no science, no history, no philosophy.

At first, books did not have any spaces between the words, and required a lot of work to understand. They were typically read out loud, and those who could read silently to themselves, like Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, were viewed with amazement. Eventually, punctuation marks and spaces between the words eased the "cognitive burden" of reading. The "deep reader" was born. Readers trained themselves to ignore their surroundings (countering our evolution, which encourages wariness) and to focus on a text. Writers responded to this new reader. "The arguments in books became longer and clearer, as well as more complex and more challenging, as writers strived self-consciously to refine their ideas and logic," Carr explains. Private carrels were built in libraries; reference books sprang up to help the solo reader.

The next earthquake was Gutenberg's printing press. Early booksellers were often seen as agents of Satan, so stunned were people by the sudden appearance of formerly rare and precious volumes. (And at such low prices! Kind of like Amazon.) In a virtuous feedback loop, the public became more literate as more books circulated. The sensitive among us began to complain of information overload. The melancholy Robert Burton had this to say: "We are oppressed with them, our eyes ache with reading, our fingers with turning." Yet books were a hit, a convenient way to reference important information and to learn about the latest ideas. Naturally, there was a fair amount of pornography and trashy stuff floating around, too.

The literary mind began its centuries-long rule. Scientists, authors, politicians, crackpots, and poets could all assume the same basic thing: attentive, book-trained minds would be willing and able to follow their complex arguments and plots.

Carr arrives at the Internet era armed with the latest brain science. I think that science makes him a little too confident in assessing our current moment and less willing to look outside the lab for real-world effects. Brain science is like the new freshman quarterback who shows lots of promise. Biologists and neurologists assumed for a long time that the structure of the adult brain never changed. In the late 1960s, Michael Merzenich discovered that a monkey could remap its brain—a result that was later confirmed in humans. The current theory is that our brains are constantly changing in response to everyday experiences and circumstances.

On the one hand, the fact of our "massively plastic" brains should make us optimistic about our ability to adapt in the face of our own technology. We'll take advantage of opportunities (the spurs to thought supplied by literacy) and work around the losses (the ability to concentrate deeply on a task). On the other hand, we can worry that the rewiring now under way might be exacting too steep a price. Is the kind of brain that engages in deep reading and mindful contemplation like a dying salmon swimming upstream with no chance of finding a mate? "When we go online," Carr writes, "we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning."

Carr's argument is based on the work of scientists studying online reading and brain researchers studying memory and attention. One big problem seems to be hyperlinks. The foundation of the Web acts like a road bump in a sentence. A link causes us to stop reading and evaluate whether or not to click on it—activating the decision-making pockets of our mind. Books present a more passive environment, letting the mind concentrate on the words instead of constantly being on the lookout for new, possibly better words. Carr sums it up this way: "Try reading a book while doing a crossword puzzle; that's the intellectual environment of the Internet."

So what if we are a little distracted? Maybe the Internet is helping us develop new minds, ones that can quickly process and evaluate information in short, directed bursts of attention. Thinkers like Tyler Cowen have argued along these lines. I may not be able to drink deeply of Proust like I used to, but I collect information from a diverse range of sources and am more informed about the things that I care about than I have ever been before. This is where I salute the genius of Carr's title, The Shallows. It's not that we aren't learning things when we scan our sites and feeds, he argues; it's that we are missing out on making the kind of deeper connections of which we were once more capable. We are splashing about in the shallows.

The problem isn't necessarily that the information online is of poorer quality than the information found in books or conversation. The trouble is that we are consuming it in a state of distraction. Carr quotes the neuroscientist Jordan Grafman: "Does optimizing for multitasking result in better functioning—that is, creativity, inventiveness, productiveness?" The studies show that when we try to do two things at once, the attention given to both activities lessens, and we do each more carelessly. Doing more multitasking doesn't mean getting better at doing two things at once; it means continuing to do many things more poorly.

The literary mind was a mind that could pay attention, and attention turns out to be a cornerstone of memory. With our plastic minds, part of learning is converting our working memory (what you are using to read right now) into long-term memory (what was that Carr book about again?). Carr points to research that suggests it's attention that determines what we remember: "The sharper the attention, the sharper the memory." If we are only paying half-attention, if we are distracted by all of the buzzes and dings on our computers, or if we don't bother to pay attention at all because we can just Google it later, we are losing a chance to build lasting connections in our minds. Connections that might one day mingle and mesh in ways that we don't understand, connections that would allow us to frame the world differently or come up with a new solution.

Carr acknowledges throughout The Shallows that it's neither possible nor preferable to rewind technology. He loves his RSS feed as much as the next guy. But because Carr is someone who grew up in the linear, literary mind-set, he's trying to capture the virtues of our "old brains" before they become even more of a rarity. It's tempting to feel he's worrying too much. You may lose an afternoon to pointless Web surfing, but not an entire mind-set. But here I am, making an extreme argument again, when what Carr is saying is actually quite measured and cautious. The Internet is changing us, changing our culture. Perhaps some of these lab experiments are detecting the initial effects of this change. Maybe we're more distractible, more frenzied, less able to concentrate. Maybe these mental tics are part of the turbulence of the transition, a pocket of air as we soar to ever higher intellectual heights. Maybe they aren't.

Whatever our destination, Carr would have us reserve a place for attentive thinking. For to judge by history, he is being not an alarmist but a realist in pointing out that the literary, attention-capable mind, though it may not quite go the way of the chanting Greek poets, will no longer reign. When that happens, our culture will lose something ineffable. And we're likely to have forgotten what it is or was.