Monthly Archives: September 2015

Augustus Young’s ‘Light Years’ and the anti-bildungsroman

I’ve already written about the sub-genre of bildungsroman, but just as there are antiromana, capricious responses to the bristling and audacious baggy monsters, there will be anti­bildungsromana. Categories, as they always are in order for the endless conversation about literature to continue, are difficult and the lines that separate one from the other are fraught.

James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is fraught with indeterminacy, we can be fairly sure we’re not meant to take this Dedalus all that seriously, but are we right to dismiss him totally when his life seems to mirror that of Joyce’s? Could we rightly envision him growing up into becoming the kind of writer who was capable of writing Ulysses?

As such, we already have a complicating factor in one of the foundational examples of the genre, Portrait is both for and against the emergence of self through the muddy waters of abstract thought and the wholemeal bread of life experience; the mechanisms are deployed in conjunction and opposition with one another.

I have already mentioned that J.M. Coetzee’s Boyhood’s tendency is more oppositional than not, Coetzee’s flight from the experience of life, choosing hermetic seclusion, repudiating the bildung aspect is firstly, the kind of choice that befits his chilly aesthetic and secondly, probably more realistic, bearing in mind the amount of solitude that is required to commit a novel to paper. Augustus Young’s work Light Years could also be viewed as existing in this contrarian tradition.

Young emigrates from his native Cork to London, to begin pursuing his career as a poet, an avant-garde, modernist one no less. This, predictably enough, is more difficult than he thought. Young’s nationality, coupled with the sometimes obscure nature of his poetry, makes him prone to being pigeon-holed; his readers seem prone to detecting a Celtic note, much to Young’s chagrin, anticipating some of the vitriol in Storytime, a memoir detailing Young’s touring with Light Years.

Growing tired of this and the disappointments that arise from carousing with literary narcissists, motivates Young’s exile from exile and to declare his utilitarian manifesto for his life: “I see myself as a socially useful human being but with a harmless secret. When I die some poems will be discovered. If any are good enough, they will survive. If not, so be it.” This is not only a long way off Dedalus’ plan to “encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race,” it is its exact opposite.

Contributing further to this sense of Young’s writing against the bildungsroman tradition, is in its structure, which begins with a number of childhood and adolescent memories, continues with the adolescent flight from home and then, in its third section, enacts a regression back into childhood and early adolescence, almost as if the embracing of ‘life’ in London repels the book on a structural level, forcing it to move backwards into its earlier stages.

This third part is a short memoir of Young’s childhood. Siblings, parents, childhood friends and ancestral memory, handed down in the form of anecdotes and oral history loom large, much in keeping with Young’s attitude to memory and the genre in which he writes in general (“Memories aren’t true. But you can be true to them”). It equally expresses Young’s wish to be ‘useful,’ immersed in the idiosyncrasies of lived lives, rather than a shallow and solipsistic urban bohemia.


Analysing Works of Hyperfiction


Analysing Works of Hyperfiction


In undertaking an examination of the special affordances to writing that hyperfiction allows, an overview of the development of hyperfiction through the study of central hypertexts would prove very valuable. These texts signalled in the new writing form, and in their interactive capabilities, as well as non-linearity and multi-perspectives, represent a challenge to the sequentiality of printed text. The hypertext titles under examination are Afternoon: a story by Michael Joyce,[1]Patchwork Girl by Shelley Jackson,[2] and Victory Garden by Stuart Moulthrop.[3] Surveying the development of hyperfiction narrative techniques through these hypertexts, helped to inform what shape my hyperfiction would eventually take.

These hyperfiction works are different from the proto-hyperfiction examined in the previous chapter in that they are born-digital. This means that the same narrative is not fully reproducible in another medium, such as printed text. An important rubric throughout this chapter…

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The character of Françoise in Marcel Proust’s ”In Search of lost Time:’ ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’

At this stage, the fourth volume of six in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, it doesn’t need saying that Proust is a hyper-critical author. He doesn’t allow his characters to get away with anything and dwells for sentence after sentence after sentence on their most minute flaws and concealed insecurities. However, there seems to be shades of difference in Proust’s treatment of particular characters based on their class. Regardless of how denigrating he may be towards the Guermantes or the Princess de Parma, their characterisations retain an idealised quality, their personas never lose their sheen of seemingly fundamental decency. The origin of this positive discrimination is somewhat unclear, as the focalisation of In Search of Lost Time’s perspective is so overdetermined. Blame could lie with the narrator, M, who is, after all, hopelessly besotted with all members of the aristocracy, regardless of the depth of their ignorance. Some blame could well be attached to Proust himself, with one eye on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s admiration of rich people, for being in some self-evident way different from the have-nots.

Characters such as Charles Morel and Françoise lack this ‘upper-class’ status, which would otherwise have allowed for their redemption, at least partially, from M’s perspective. Therefore, there is something altogether crueler about M’s probing evisceration of Françoise’s character, considering she is employed as his family’s servant. Françoise also has the dubious honour of being the only character that M has told to her face exactly what he thinks of her, something that he would not dare do to someone with a secure place on a social scale of any kind (as yet, anyway, I have only read the first four parts of six): “’You’re an excellent person, I said smarmily, you’re kind, you’ve a thousand good qualities, but you’re no further on than the day that you arrived in Paris, either in knowing about women’s clothes or in how to pronounce words properly and not commit howlers.’”

M’s identification of Françoise’s primary failing as linguistic is, I believe, revealing. First, her way of speaking is wholly idiosyncratic, because she is from rural France and was not formally educated. This can be seen in her occasional tendency towards exaggeration, at occasions like being found by a member of the family in the kitchen, particularly when she is with her daughter: ‘She’s just had a spoonful of soup, Françoise said to me, and I forced her suck on a bit of the carcass,’ so as thus to reduce her daughter’s supper to nothing, as though it would have been wrong for it to be plentiful. Even at lunch or dinner, if I made the mistake of going into the kitchen, Françoise would make as if they had finished and even apologise by saying: ‘I just wanted a bite of something,’ or ‘a mouthful.’ Her supposed ineptitude in expressing herself exasperates M, who constantly demonstrates his facility in doing so with an endlessly proliferating sequence of sub-clauses erupting at the least prompting.

This relates to another reason for preferring Françoise above all others that populate Proust’s ‘world entire,’ as parts in the novel that feature her are generally an occasion of humour, as M’s frustration with her manifests itself in a haughty and staccato sentence style, often a welcome relief from his normative mode. The second part of In Search of Lost TimeIn The Shadow of Young Girls In Flower, contains what I believe to be the funniest part of the entire novel, if I can be allowed to decide this with two volumes remaining. This section of the novel describes a holiday that M, his grandmother and Françoise take in the coastal town of Balbec. They stay in a hotel and Françoise makes the acquaintance of a number of staff members, butlers and servants, etc. This has unexpected effects for M and his grandmother:

“she had also gotten to know one of the wine waiters, a kitchen-hand and a housekeeper from one of the floors. The result of this for our daily arrangements was that, whereas at the at the very beginning of her stay Françoise, knowing no one had kept ringing for the most trivial reasons, at times when my grandmother and I would never have dared to ring 0 and if we raised some mild objection to this,. she replies, ‘Well we’re paying them enough!’ as thought she herself was footing the bills – now that she was on friendly terms with one of the personalities from below stairs, a thing which had initially seemed to augur well for our comfort if either of us happened to have cold feet in bed, she would not countenance the idea of ringing, even at times which were in no way untoward; she said it would ‘put them out,’ it would mean the…servants’ dinner-hour would be disturbed and they would not like that…The long and short of it was that we had to make to do without proper hot water because Françoise was a friend of the man whose job it was to heat it.”

If that didn’t split your sides, Proust may not be the best place for you to get your laughs.

M probably gets annoyed as he does because he doesn’t want someone competing with him, in the realm of linguistic play, least of all an uneducated woman of the servant class, self-obsessed little twerp that he is.

Marcel Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time:’ ‘The Guermantes Way’ and the mystery of the silent narrator

A large proportion of Marcel Proust’s magnum opus In Search of Lost Time is given over to salon conversations. Salons have a long history as gatherings of educated members of the upper and middle classes keen to discuss art and politics over good food and wine.

Proust makes clear that these gatherings are not mini-utopias of intellectuals forging the uncreated conscience of their race within drawing rooms. Instead, they consist mostly of nouveau riche philistines, uneducated social climbers and artists who compromise themselves through their wishes to succeed within ‘society.’

The conversations between the attendees at these salons are rendered in Proust’s deadpan manner, a mode in which he is particularly adept. The idiot comments of the idiot attendees are expressed with a minimal amount of overt editorial glossing on the part of the narrator, allowing the members of the petit gentry to condemn themselves out of their own words and actions. If one were to open the third instalment in In Search of Lost Time, The Guermantes Way on a random page, one is more likely to find one of these people sounding off on something on which they understand little about than not.

Note: So it actually took me five tries of a random page to find a demonstrative example. The first paragraph on page 236 reads: “But still, don’t lets fool ourselves; the charming views of my nephew are going to land him in queer street. Particularly with Fezensac ill at the moment. That means Duras will be will be running the election, and you know how he likes to bluff,’ said the Duc, who had never managed to learn the precise meaning of certain words and thought that bluffing meant, not shooting a line, but creating complications.”

The effect of this exhaustive rendering of banal conversation is to suffocate the reader through over-exposure to the awful things that these boring people say, making it almost impossible not to despise these poor deludes. However, the appearance of a seemingly endless succession of conversations that the narrator is privy to prompt a question or two.

Getting access and moving through the ranks of society is a nuanced process. One risks becoming a figure of fun for others, being exiled from them altogether for being perceived as a flatterer or for attending other salons, namely, not showing sufficient loyalty to one’s hosts. Therefore each salon abides by a particular code of behaviour that one should not violate, if one wishes to maintain one’s position within them. The Verdurin salon demands absolute loyalty, the Guermantes insist that art and other ‘serious topics’ are too tedious to be discussed and for Odette Swann (née de Crécy)’s salon, being an anti-Semite is, (ironically, considering M. Swann is Jewish) a bonus.

‘Wit’ and ‘eloquence’ are prized traits for any would-be salon attendee and these terms are placed within perverted commas to demonstrate how advisedly they are used in this instance; both manifest themselves more frequently as obnoxiousness. Therefore one wonders how the narrator seems to succeed in gaining access to these exclusive social clubs when he barely speaks; all the space he provides is given over to the conversation of others. Are we as readers supposed to believe that in this hyper-critical environment that the narrator, M, is allowed to sit back in silence, committing every word of the conversations of others to his memory and be invited back week after week? Especially since even the most trivial detail or impression can send him into a two or three page verbal effusions at the least notice?

One suspects that he is guilty of saying exactly the same kind of shallow nonsense enunciated by those around him and covers himself by devoting all his time to describing the foolishness of others.

Augustus Young’s ‘The Nicotine Cat’ and How To Live

There is a school of thought that argues that we read literature in order to better understand the world, ourselves and how to live. On the one hand I am sympathetic to this point of view. Literature can bolster our emotional intelligence, imaginative faculties and our empathy, as anyone who has cried after having one of their favourite characters meet their demise in some way can attest to.

However, there’s a problem here. Not only is it probably simplistic to say that our empathetic faculties are enhanced by having them used, as if they were a bicep, but it is also a bit beside the point to treat literary history as a massive instruction manual, when in fact, what most novels can tell us about life and how to live it is fairly minimal. It is also indicative of attitudes to literature that develop in a neoliberal era as if reading a novel is only worthwhile if one is up-skilling one’s life management techniques.

This is probably why we see the rise of literary critics interpreting novels as just that, such as Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life. According to de Botton, Marcel Proust’s six volume work In Search of Lost Time which details the life of a precocious and rich young man as he makes his way as a literary dilettante in late-nineteenth century Parisian salons has enough to tell us about ourselves that Proust can be read as a moustachioed Stephen R. Covey. Declan Kiberd’s Ulysses and Us, is another case, intent on reclaiming a self-consciously difficult and defiantly non-inclusive elite novelist for today’s working man.

Oh, according to de Botton, Proust also anticipated the breakthroughs of neuroscience and we all know how marketable science is, right? Great branding, that science.

At the same time, one wouldn’t want to throw one’s lot in entirely with Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater and the other assorted aesthetes that proclaimed art’s uselessness. According to this group, all art has to do is to look pretty, like a bouquet of flowers or a tastefully folded handkerchief in one’s shirt pocket. I find this perspective to be ahistorical, paradoxical for the sake of being so and fundamentally, boring.

Both schools are guilty of believing that living, reading and thinking are somehow easily separable activities, rather than existing as a palimpsest, with overlaps and conflict and dialogue between each layer. This is the perspective that we get on life, literature and the consequent relationship between the two in Augustus Young’s The Nicotine Cat.

The Nicotine Cat is part of a largely continental genre that goes by the name of autofiction, that attempts to coalesce memoir, art criticism and the essay into one form, all while calling into question the extent to which any objective account of reality, such as one might find in a memoir, could ever be achieved. Autofiction is a fluid category but a niche one, surprisingly, considering how embroiled an author’s work often is in their lives. One could say that more what we read is autofiction than not.

Young is an erudite narrator and his text begins with a sequence of thoughts written on Patrick S. Dinneen, an Irish historian and lexicographer responsible for the 1904 Foclóir Gaedhilge agus Béarla. It is fertile territory for Young, who allows his many encounters with the often idiosyncratic Foclóir to set the tone for a sequence of meditations on exile, language and identity, all important for the remainder of the novel-essay-memoir.

We see Young dispense brief anecdote-inflected histories of figures such as the 19th century Dutch philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, Irish novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett and novelist Henry James. These mini-disquisitions are often prompted by events in Young’s ‘real’ life in the town of Bras-de-Vendres and inflect even the most apparently minor social encounters with a greater depth; the everyday and the erudite mutually enhance each other. As in Storytime, Young’s concealed vulnerability is an important facet of the text; as we see his world from his point of view we see the ideality that can be afforded one within the world of thought is more often than not discommoded by contingency. Ideas that are renounced earlier in the text are dusted off and deployed in earnest in conversation with whetstone-in-residence Welsh, self-consciously from a defensive position.

It is in The Nicotine Cat that we see how literature and learning reach beyond ‘How To Live’ to something more complex and interesting. To demand instruction from it is counter to the nature of autofiction itself and, I would add, contrary to what literature should aspire to be. I want to read books, not WikiHow articles.

Augustus Young’s ‘Storytime’ and New Ireland

The first part of Augustus Young’s work of autofiction is set at a very specific time in Ireland’s contemporary history, in 1998, when the Tour de France had come to the South. It can be a cliché in academic (or pseudo-academic) discourse to identify a particular time as a turning point, a time of transition, internal contradiction etc, but nevertheless 1998 can be productively viewed as such and this comes through in Storytime.

In 1998, Ireland’s growth rate reached 11% and its traffic had just reached two-thirds of the European average. Much of Young’s observations turn on some sense of Ireland becoming an international state, taking its place on the world stage, a moment that is emphasised by the presence of an internationally recognised competition taking place within its borders. Even a policeman that Young briefly engages in conversation seems to be aware of the significance of this cultural moment and remarks to Young, with one eye to the sacred and the other to the secular, that: “the tour is the best thing that has happened since John F. Kennedy’s visit. The eyes of the world are on Ireland and the people have risen to the occasion…Men, women and children. I have not seen the like since the Marian year.”

Of course, this onward thrust of modernisation is tempered by reminders of the past, with the tragedy of the Omagh bombing taking place later in the year. One hesitates in framing these events as time-warps, defective occurrences running in opposition to the over-optimistic view of ‘New Ireland’ when it is still part of our political discourse today. At the same time however, we have B*Witched reaching number 9 in the US and The Corrs going quadruple platinum in Australia.

Young is sceptical that this marks some kind of sea change for the Irish and that the nation can now be said to have a grown-up view of itself. Sitting in a pub Young notes the following: “The bar is crammed with young and old, male and female, sonorously pissed. Backs to the screen. Palls of tobacco smoke obscure the picture, sound deafened by outbursts of laughter and singing.” He dismisses the preparation for the Tour as a ‘tidy towns competition.’

Fortunately, Young does not record mourn for a pastoral ideal of Ireland’s past; he records no nostalgia for a primarily rural society that no longer exists and his criticism of this tendency in Irish letters is present throughout Storytime, most notably in the image of abandoned villages with well-kept cemeteries.

In this paradoxical society, simultaneously mercantilist and globalised while retaining a penchant for fetishising the dead, Young casts himself as a misfit’s misfit, reminiscent of Patrick Kavanagh’s own diagnosis of the country’s woes in the fifties in ‘A Wreath for Thomas Moore’s statue: “The cowardice of Ireland is in his statue/No poet’s honoured when they wreathe this stone/An old shopkeeper who has dealt in the marrowbone of his neighbours looks at you/Dim-eyed, degenerate, he is admiring his god.” Young also shares Kavanagh’s wish to repudiate his role as a poet, preferring the image of the writer as a word mechanic, like Kavanagh’s ploughman: “’I’d rather not be stereotyped as a ‘writer.’ I’m a maker of verbal things, a handyman with words who fashions books.’”

Irish literary history is peppered with such iconoclasts, Kavanagh and Young are certainly not the only ones who hold the reading public in contempt for their ignorance and by condemning the Irish for being too materialistic they probably make themselves the norm rather than exception. (Thinking here of Yeats’ ‘greasy till’ and Joyce’s ‘their land a pawnshop’). The redeeming features for both consists in the subtle links made between their publicly expressed venom and their vulnerability, which makes itself apparent in Young’s more reflective, private moments, but not when among others, nor when admonishing attendees at a literary festival for not having more cosmopolitan tastes.

Marcel Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time:’ Present Bias and ‘In The Shadow of Young Girls in Flower’

In one of the more well-worn anecdotes of literary history, Marcel Proust’s masterpiece Du côté de chez Swann was rejected by Humblot, a reader for a publishing house. In a letter, Humblot wrote the following: “My dear friend, perhaps I am dense but I just don’t understand why a man should take thirty pages to describe how he turns over in his bed before he goes to sleep. It made my head swim.”

Trotting out these anecdotes in general introductions to cheep and cheerful Wordsworth editions serve a very particular end, a phenomenon that Julian Barnes describes in an essay written on Vincent Van Gogh’s life and work in the London Review of Books: “this…spurs us towards self-congratulation: look how we who have come later appreciate your work, how superior our eye and taste and sympathy are to those who snubbed and misprised you back in the day.” In other words, we look back at Humblot as perhaps the most tone-deaf reader in literary history, in contrast with us, those who, if the contingencies of fate were only aligned differently, would have been born in late nineteenth century France and would have appreciated Proust’s writing, as so many of his contemporaries did not.

This is to miss, if not the point, a point.

One of the themes that Proust consistently refers to is the relationship that exists between sensibility and habit. The general track of the novel (says I, being currently (almost) half way through) is how the narrator’s sensibility, his openness and receptivity to the world around him in all its strangeness and assorted differengenera comes to be overwhelmed by his habits. Sexual debauchery, love, drunkenness, no matter how novel and abject these feelings are when we first experience them, we, with surprising rapidity become adjusted to them, to the point that we barely can be said to experience them at all.

Habit is not a malign however, though it calcifies our precious and individual sensibility. It is a wholly necessary force, allowing us to grow accustomed to people and places that our sensibility led us to despise instinctively. As Proust writes: “habit…also undertakes to endear us to people whom we disliked to begin with, alters the shapes of their face, improves their tone of voice, makes hearts grow fonder.”

The average sentence length in English writing is around 15-17 words, style guides generally recommend that sentences longer than twenty words be shortened as it is likely that they are unclear or convoluted. From a very rudimentary quantitative analysis, I found Proust’s sentences to be, on average, 35 words long. It is therefore possible to view Humblot as not just the first, but one of the more perceptive of Proust’s critics, immediately getting to the heart of what it is that is unique about Proust’s style.

The point behind Proust’s excessively long sentences is precisely this – their excess. What we judge as a coherent sentence in a novel runs to a certain length. We are accustomed to it and when we read, we are within the realm of habit. Proust’s prose is intended to be shocking, to awaken us to the possibilities of language and thought, to appeal to our sensibilities again by having our texts violently defamiliarised from ourselves.

I would accord more with Humblot’s reading than with the mainstream understanding of Proust as a canonical author, among the other masterpieces that we stock our bookshelves with and rarely read. James Grieve, a translator of À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, speaks pithily of Proust’s irreconcilable strangeness, based on the highly irregular nature of his prose style: “Proust’s reflections, his enunciation of philosophical and psychological truths…are often more importance to him than his verisimilitudes. His composition was often not linear; he wrote in bits and pieces; transitions from one scene to another are sometimes awkward, clumsy even.” If that wasn’t devastating enough, Grieve delivers a final cruelty: “His paragraphing often seems idiosyncratic.”

Far from being a word virtuoso, a fluent weaver of imaginative reality, Proust is in many ways inept and it is in this way that we should appreciate him; his idiosyncrasies are what make In Search of Lost Time such a brilliant and bizarre novel.