Tag Archives: Marcel Proust

How big are the words modernists use?

It’s a fairly straightforward question to ask, one which most literary scholars would be able to provide a halfway decent answer to based on their own readings. Ernest Hemingway, Samuel Beckett and Gertrude Stein more likely to use short words, James Joyce, Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf using longer ones, the rest falling somewhere between the two extremes.

Most Natural Language Processing textbooks or introductions to quantitative literary analysis demonstrate how the most frequently occurring words in a corpus will decline at a rate of about 50%, i.e. the most frequently occurring term will appear twice as often as the second, which is twice as frequent as the third, and so on and so on. I was curious to see whether another process was at work for word lengths, and whether we can see a similar decline at work in modernist novels, or whether more ‘experimental’ authors visibly buck the trend. With some fairly elementary analysis in NLTK, and data frames over into R, I generated a visualisation which looked nothing like this one.*

*The previous graph had twice as many authors and was far too noisy, with not enough distinction between the colours to make it anything other than a headwreck to read.

In narrowing down the amount of authors I was going to plot, I did incline myself more towards authors that I thought would be more variegated, getting rid of the ‘strong centre’ of modernist writing, not quite as prosodically charged as Marcel Proust, but not as brutalist as Stein either. I also put in a couple of contemporary writers for comparison, such as Will Self and Eimear McBride.

As we can see, after the rather disconnected percentages of corpora that use one letter words, with McBride and Hemingway on top at around 25%, and Stein a massive outlier at 11%, things become increasingly harmonious, and the longer the words get, the more the lines of the vectors coalesce.

Self and Hemingway dip rather egregiously with regard to their use of two-letter words (which is almost definitely because of a mutual disregard for a particular word, I’m almost sure of it), but it is Stein who exponentially increases her usage of two and three letter words. As my previous analyses have found, Stein is an absolute outlier in every analysis.

By the time the words are ten letters long, true to form it’s Self who’s writing is the only one above 1%.

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Collocations in Modernist Prose

Screen Shot 2017-07-24 at 14.51.47I have recently begun to experiment with Natural Language Processing to determine how particular words in modernist texts are correlated. I’m still getting my head around Python and NLTK, but so far I’m finding it much more user-friendly than similar packages in R.

Long-term I hope to graph these collocations in high-vector space, so that I can graph them, but for the moment, I’m interested in noting the prevalence of the term ‘young man’, Self and Baume being the only authors that have female adjective-noun phrases, and the usage of titles which convey particular social hierarchies; Joyce, Woolf and Bowen’s collocations are almost exclusively composed of these, as is Stein’s, with the clarifier that Stein’s appear shorn of their ‘Mr.’, ‘Miss.’ or ‘Doctor’.

Here’s all the collocations in the modernist corpus:

young man; robert jordan; new york; gertrude stein; old man; could see; henry martin; every one; years ago; first time; long time; hugh monckton; great deal; come back; david hersland; good deal; every day; edward colman; came back; alfred hersland

Canonical modernist texts:

young man; robert jordan; gertrude stein; henry martin; new york; every one; old man; could see; years ago; long time; hugh monckton; first time; great deal; david hersland; come back; good deal; every day; edward colman; alfred hersland; mr. bettesworth

Contemporary texts, Enright, Self, Baume, McBride:

fat controller; phar lap; von sasser; first time; per cent; could see; old man; one another; even though; years ago; new york; front door; young man; either side; someone else; dave rudman; last night; living room; steering wheel; every time

Djuna Barnes

frau mann; nora said; english girl; someone else; long ago; leaned forward; london bridge; come upon; could never; god knows; doctor said; sweet sake; first time; five francs; terrible thing; francis joseph; hôtel récamier; orange blossoms; bowed slightly; would say

Eimear McBride

kentish town; someone else; first time; last night; jesus christ; something else; years ago; five minutes; every day; hail mary; take care; next week; arms around; never mind; every single; little girl; little boy; two years; soon enough; come back

Elizabeth Bowen

mrs kerr; lady waters; mrs heccomb; major brutt; mme fisher; lady naylor; miss fisher; good deal; said mrs; first time; lady elfrida; one another; young man; colonel duperrier; aunt violet; last night; ann lee; one thing; sir robert; sir richard

Ernest Hemingway

robert jordan; old man; could see; colonel said; gran maestro; catherine said; jordan said; richard gordon; long time; pilar said; thou art; pablo said; nick said; bill said; girl said; captain willie; young man; automatic rifle; mr. frazer; david said

F. Scott FitzGerald

new york; young man; years ago; first time; sally carrol; several times; fifth avenue; ten minutes; minutes later; richard caramel; thousand dollars; five minutes; young men; evening post; old man; next day; saturday evening; long time; last night; come back

Gertrude Stein

gertrude stein; every one; david hersland; alfred hersland; angry feeling; family living; independent dependent; jeff campbell; julia dehning; mrs. hersland; daily living; whole one; bottom nature; madeleine wyman; good deal; mary maxworthing; middle living; miss mathilda; mabel linker; every day

James Joyce

buck mulligan; said mr.; martin cunningham; aunt kate; says joe; mary jane; corny kelleher; ned lambert; mrs. kearney; stephen said; mr. henchy; ignatius gallaher; father conmee; nosey flynn; mr. kernan; myles crawford; cissy caffrey; ben dollard; mr. cunningham; miss douce

Marcel Proust

young man; faubourg saint-germain; long ago; caught sight; first time; every day; one day; great deal; des laumes; young men; could see; quite well; next day; one another; would never; nissim bernard; victor hugo; would say; louis xiv; long time

Samuel Beckett

said camier; said mercier; miss counihan; lord gall; miss carridge; mr. kelly; panting stops; said belacqua; mr. endon; said wylie; said neary; one day; otto olaf; dr. killiecrankie; come back; vast stretch; mrs gorman; push pull; something else; ground floor

Sara Baume

even though; tawny bay; living room; old man; passenger seat; bird walk; maggot nose; shut-up-and-locked room; stone fence; food bowl; lonely peephole; low chair; old woman; kennel keeper; rearview mirror; shih tzu; shore wall; safe space; every day; oneeye oneeye

Virginia Woolf

miss barrett; mrs. ramsay; mrs. hilbery; young man; st. john; could see; years ago; peter walsh; mrs. thornbury; miss allan; said mrs.; young men; mrs. swithin; human beings; wimpole street; mrs. flushing; mr. ramsay; mrs. manresa; sir william; door opened

Anne Enright

new york; per cent; eliza lynch; dear friend; years old; even though; first time; came back; years ago; long time; michael weiss; señor lópez; living room; every time; looked like; could see; one day; said constance; pat madigan; mrs hanratty

Will Self

fat controller; phar lap; von sasser; one another; old man; could see; first time; per cent; dave rudman; let alone; front door; young man; skip tracer; quantity theory; jane bowen; los angeles; young woman; either side; charing cross; long since

Flann O’Brien

father fahrt; good fairy; father cobble; said shanahan; mrs crotty; said furriskey; said lamont; mrs laverty; one thing; sergeant fottrell; said slug; old mathers; public house; far away; cardinal baldini; monsignor cahill; mrs furriskey; red swan; black box; said shorty

Ford Madox Ford

henry martin; hugh monckton; edward colman; privy seal; mr. bettesworth; mr. fleight; young man; mr. sorrell; sergius mihailovitch; young lovell; new york; jeanne becquerel; lady aldington; kerr howe; anne jeal; miss peabody; mr. pett; great deal; marie elizabeth; robert grimshaw

Jorge Luis Borges

ts’ui pên; buenos aires; pierre menard; eleventh volume; richard madden; nils runeberg; yiddische zeitung; stephen albert; hundred years; erik lönnrot; firing squad; henri bachelier; madame henri; orbis tertius; vincent moon; paint shop; seventeenth century; anglo-american cyclopaedia; fergus kilpatrick; years ago

Joseph Conrad

mrs. travers; mrs verloc; mrs. fyne; peter ivanovitch; doña rita; miss haldin; mrs. gould; assistant commissioner; charles gould; san tomé; chief inspector; years ago; captain whalley; could see; van wyk; old man; dr. monygham; gaspar ruiz; young man; mr. jones

D.H. Lawrence

young man; st. mawr; mr. may; mrs. witt; blue eyes; miss frost; could see; one another; mrs bolton; ‘all right; come back; said alvina; two men; of course; good deal; long time; mr. george; next day

William Faulkner

uncle buck; aleck sander; miss reba; years ago; dewey dell; mrs powers; could see; white man; four years; old man; ned said; division commander; general compson; miss habersham; new orleans; uncle buddy; let alone; one another; united states; old general

Re-reading Eimear McBride’s ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’

A book that I’m looking forward to reading, that doesn’t exist yet, is an academic account of how Irish contemporary fiction went, in such a short space of time, from social realism, to the precociously sentenced art writing with dissociative narrators that now composes the Irish literary milieu. It’s the sort of thing that was probably brewing for a long time, these trends tend to be, but I first became aware of it when Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing was published in 2013. It caused a bit of stir in the literary press at the time, for its supposed uncompromising experimentalism, and its fraught, J.K. Rowling-esque publication history. Critics compared it to Marcel Proust or Samuel Beckett, but I don’t think there was a single review that didn’t mention James Joyce.

In the works of Sara Baume, Joanna Walsh or Claire-Louise Bennett, there are certainly comparisons to be made along these lines, but I think McBride is the novelist of the current generation who is suffering most egregiously under these comparisons. This leads to a kind of distortion that McBride has spoken about recently, saying that it’s ‘a way of not being seen’. Claire Lowdon, writing on McBride’s prose style in Areté, has used the Joyce comparisons as a way of demeaning the novel’s experimental qualities, saying that they are ‘redundant’ and ‘artificial’:

Having invoked Joyce, Joyce has to be McBride’s standard. She has taken all the difficulty and none of the brilliance.

Lowdon’s reading is important and thorough, but I have problems with it. The most significant one being that I think it’s nonsensical to say that just because a work is in some way formally indebted to Joyce has to be 1) as good, 2) as innovative and 3) as good and as innovative in exactly the same ways. I think it’s a very strange point to make that we should benchmark a writer relative to their influences , particularly when this is a comparison furthered more by the laziness of critics than something that McBride has taken upon herself. It’s also inadequate to assume McBride and Joyce’s modernisms are coterminous; I happen to think that they’re rather distinct in a number of significant ways.

Firstly, it’s clear that A Girl is more formally aligned with the Wake than with Ulysses, but taken relative to the former, A Girl manifests far less attention to the materiality of language. In A Girl, there’s less puns, there’s less references, there’s less leitmotifs. It’s also possible to make sense of A Girl without reference to other works. But it’s a mistake to regard this as McBride’s failure to live up to her twentieth century modernist aesthetics. An example from the novel’s opening that Lowdon cites reads as follows:

For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.

‘Wait and hour and day’, carries with it the vague association with the phrase ‘a year and a day’ but it doesn’t strictly make sense in that context, there’s no clear reason for the semantic distortion. But there’s also no requirement that there is, nor that it add up to some enormous mythic framework in the same way that the Wake does. I think that once we approach the novel from this position, one which takes account of McBride’s actual concerns, we’ll be able to come to a more sophisticated understanding that doesn’t amount to downgrading her because of her perceived inadequacy in relation to Joyce.

By her own admission McBride retains an interest in nineteenth century novels with less self-consciousness about their language or processes of meaning-making. She has cited the work of the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky as significant, particularly as an example of proto-modernism, or modernism in a nascent stage of its development, wherein human intersubjectivity was beginning to make itself known within the novel while the tenets of realistic fiction was still trying to accommodate it. Being aware of the fact that The Lesser Bohemians is not the novel under discussion, it’s important to note the way in which it demonstrates this interplay. Within the context of what has been referred to by the author as a ‘modernist monologue’ there is a very sensationalistic narrative in which a character lays out their life story in a very direct and straightforward manner in the same way that you might find extended and directly rendered narratives nested within nineteenth century novels. McBride has said that this is a very deliberate formal mechanic which is pertinent to the text’s thematic concerns, as it is a novel about relating to another person in spite of one’s traumatic past:

In the end you tell a person and you have to use the words that they’ll understand.

What makes McBride’s modernism distinct then, is the centrality it gives to the conveying of narrative information, deploying it as a means of bringing the reader closer to

physical experience, to write about the female experience…the reader can partake in the experience.

McBride has said that the language of A Girl, was written in a way that would create a physical experience for the reader, an immediacy on the page that is reminiscent of theatre. She’s expressed frustration at the content of many of her reviews which have emphasised the quality of the language at the expense of the novel’s content, which she regards as very significant. This stands in contrast to the tradition of the Wake or other modernist works famed for their unintelligibility, such as Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress is a novel that she has spoken about dismissively for being ‘too navel-gaze-y.’

This stated interest in what the book is ‘about’ and a reader-centric ethic, is I think at least a partial reversal of expectations within the modernist tradition. McBride’s modernism is therefore conceptualised, not as a constructed textual estrangement from reality, but an attempt to bring it closer, to a dwelling-place of authentic being. Not that it’s likely to close off such comparisons in the future.

Wastepaper Basket Part II: Les Mortes

***Health warning: I’m putting this here because I realised it’s unpublishable, and I’ve recycled the good parts into a different thing***

Les Mortes

There’s a football match on tomorrow. Or a rugby match the day after. There is a sporting event of some kind to be staged in the near future, of this I am certain. The occasion itself is unimportant though; the result is that the pub is empty. The yuppies are conserving their testosterone in their settlements on the commuter belt, rather than crowding the place, by their stances making even standing, or holding a drink, seem like contrived things to be doing. The bartender is leaning easy, either against the bar, watching the newsreader’s mouth flap, or against a wall behind him, polishing a glass. I sit at the bar and I order a coffee. Drinking coffee after five is what writers do, in lieu of getting drunk and going mad.  

I spend forty minutes being dissatisfied with what I’m writing, watch my ideal gather itself into existence, maybe just for a moment, before slipping again into just a crust of ink left on a page, over which I gibber in apologetics. I scribble, doodle idly, rage against the feckless muse stewing herself in some lake. I can see her now in a hushed glade blasted by yellow light. I wonder what she’s waiting for.

Eager for distraction, I watch the threshold of the public house; I feel its presence to be tinged with an accusation, like a blank page setting its mute face in mine. I wonder who will be the next person to walk through that door.  Whoever it is, perhaps they can redeem me, redeem all this, the differengenera in ink into a fluent jaunt. I wait with the bartender, my unwitting accomplice in the itch of expectancy, for ten minutes, before a young-ish woman walks in.

If she is older than me it is not by a wide margin. Some inferior novelist might refer to her as ‘willowy,’ ‘lithe’ or ‘svelte.’ She makes an enquiry of the barman before sitting or ordering: have you a socket around that I could use? He says that he does and after settling herself in the corner, she orders a glass of red wine. I watch all this happen while giving the impression that I am absorbed in the first volume of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. In the original French of course. Have I neglected to mention that I’m reading Proust in the original? I rarely do.

The woman types intermittently, leaning into the screen and then sitting back to consider. The screen’s light illuminates her face bluely and makes her expression of placid disinterest seem improbable. She has disturbed the library air of the pub; it smells like outside now. With a sadness that breaks inside me, tectonically, I realise that she is quite beautiful. I would attribute it to the light from her screen, it is autumnally – no, wait, it is, soothing, perhaps oceanic in ways. But this impressionistic crossword of description is tedious, I’ll confess that I noticed her attractiveness already, when she first came in, I just didn’t mention it at the time, it would’ve been uncouth. Courtships are much more admirable before they’ve happened, before all the dithering starts.

I get excited for a moment, realising that my sadness might yield something worth recording, something that could be wrung out. The pen is ready, but the feeling doesn’t give anything up, it just sort of, sits there in the chest, obstinate and fat. I order a beer.

Unreason, or the rude stupidity of jumping the gap into action, is something that has to be done. One cannot think one’s way into doing. This is because the mind is a catastrophiser, an enemy of acts. It is a poor compatriot. It is in tribute to this turncoat, thought, that of my doing, I will remain silent.

The conversation is in its moderate, early stages. Where she works, what her name is, these sorts of things. Noticing my book, she produces her own, a slim novel. But I am not deceived, it is one that I have read, one of my favourites.

—Do you like it?

—Yeah, I love it. It’s so good.

She places it, cover down on the table.

—It is a little grim though.

—Grim?

—Yeah, just, a bit too close to the bone sometimes.

These are astute enough, not incorrect observations. Seeing this line of enquiry reach its natural end, I point to her computer.

—What are you working on at the minute?

—I thought you’d never ask. Breakthrough stuff.

She turns the laptop around so that I can see the spreadsheet that she’s authoring. I look at it without reading, for as long as I assume it is polite to look at a spreadsheet.  

—Looks heavy. I can’t deal with that stuff myself.

—Oh, it’s not too complicated, there’s no functions or anything.

—Doesn’t look that way. These cells here are overflowing.

She laughs.

–No, really, look, they’re just long because they’re full addresses.  It is a list of the constituency offices of sitting TD’s.

—That is exciting. Why would you be working on something like that?

—Because I am competent enough for my boss to trust me with the most important job in the whole company, to verify the addresses that we send our branded calendars out to at the end of the financial year.

—Must be complicated to keep track of that many, I say, letting her go out of focus as I take a drink. The liquid has reached a point a little past the glass’ half-way bulge.

—Yes and no. It’s all on Google after all. The only thing is I have to make sure that I have their old addresses in there.

I make my face register puzzlement, just a dash.

—Old addresses? Why’s that?

—Well, I’m, dead, and that makes it a bit more…difficult.

—Oh.

She looks at me.

—Is that a problem?

—No. Course not, why would it be?

—Because of the way you said ‘Oh’ like that. Like you thought I was…weird or  defective or something.

—No, no, I don’t think that.

Her gaze is still on me. If I couldn’t see it, I’d be able to feel it. It might be time to concede.

—Really, I don’t. I was a bit surprised. …this’ll sound bad, but you are the first dead person I’ve ever spoken to.

She raises her glass,

—Well you could start by maybe not using the word ‘dead,’ thanks.

downs it.

—I’m sorry, I don’t mean to offend. ‘Person of post-living’ isn’t it?

—Yes. It, is.

I don’t think I’ve ever met a person-of-post-living. There was a PPL society around campus when I was in college, running mixers and balls and such. And I’ve read a take about how Goths who wear pale make-up are appropriating necro-culture for its cachet, without having to deal themselves with any of the structural oppression that comes of being a person-of-post-living. Is there something in that for a conversation? I don’t really want to find out – I’d rather get us away from all this in truth.

—How, how is it?

—Being dead?

—Well, yes.

She sighs, looks tired and past me, regarding the empty glass and the news beyond it.

—You don’t have to, and it must get annoying to have idiots like me ask, but I’d like to know. What do you do all the time? You don’t sleep, right?

—We can. We just don’t really need to.

The conversation is bereft now, it’d almost make you wish the match was on, to have some man screaming advice at an athlete, maybe have the edges taken off the silence.

—Since I am still here, rather than somewhere else, wherever somewhere else is, I must have made some sort of mistake while I was alive. Since I spent so much of my time in the office, I think it must’ve been some oversight in work, somewhere. So I go in every day, take care of a couple of new things, then, after closing my boss lets me use the place to go over old paperwork, spreadsheets, adjusting the gutters in some of the documents on my old computer, scan old paperwork to adjust my spelling, grammar and,

She taps her laptop.

—checking addresses.

As she runs over her tedious itinerary, counting them off on her fingers, she over-enacts how her surplus of tasks outnumbers the fingers she can count them off on, with a jollity that mocks me slightly. I like it.

Another article I read broached the idea that persons of post-living exist in order to right a wrong during their lives was morally toxic and propagated the idea that the post-living must be in servitude to the living and to their prior selves. I decide not to tell her this, no lifesplainer I.

—It must be hard to keep track of everything that you could have made a mistake in. Do you have some kind of system of rotation?

—No…I just have a feeling about this spreadsheet. It was the first thing I did when I got the job. It used to be for the interns but my boss had me do it every year as a sort of, in-joke.  

—Lucky you.

She smiles in acknowledgement.   

—What if, what if your mistake isn’t around anymore?

—Pardon?

—Well, you said you’re looking at paperwork going back. Isn’t some of that stuff shredded by now, or, haven’t the computers been replaced since you were there?  

She thumbs the table’s edge.  

—I guess, I try not to think about that sort of thing.

—Would you like another drink?

I pull out my wallet and we both look at it. There’s something obscene about it in my hand, it looks like something that should be sheathed out of decency.

—No. No, I better be…getting off soon. Thanks anyway.

But she doesn’t move, and we sit there for a while, roasting in the quiet. I start to panic, and make the promise to help her with her spreadsheet, send it along. Sure I know my way around Excel. She laughs and says that she will, but she isn’t sure whether someone else rectifying her mistake would work. So I say, with a lack of tact that I blame on the beer, that the history of literature has many examples of the dead enlisting others’ help to correct their mistakes. Hamlet was one. She thought about it and agreed that I was right. She would send me the file. My phone gave an obedient ping. (Ping!)

This little exchange was the last one of note and I began to gather my affairs about my person. She began shutting down her PC. I, jacketed (Ping!), sort of hovered at the table, at the door, outside, depending on her progress. She wore a thick box-coat, belted at the waist with a furred hood. I kept noticing these details, because I was quite out of my mind in panic over what to do next.

Whoever moved first, we were kissing. I’d wondered what it would be like to kiss a person of post-living, to kiss her, whether her mouth would feel differently from someone who was alive. So I was too reflective, more in interior monologue than the physical, trying to quantify the difference. But there was none to be detected. I allowed my mind to numb, and waited for it to be over.

I left her, she walking out of town, me having to go back through. I opened the email while rounding Merrion Square’s first corner, and appreciated the tree branches that crowded through and over the black railings, protruding over the gutters in my sight into the park. Because I did not stop to take my glances, I allowed myself to enjoy the filmic intermittence with which the foliage parted, the way it swam past, or turned into itself, like tar being churned. The emptied square seemed grand in the dark. The spreadsheet looked in order, but I wouldn’t be able to check the back-end till I get to a desktop. I probably won’t, I realised. Male desire is a tragic thing.

Modernism, Post-Modernism and Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Psychology’

katherine-mansfield

I’ve yet to tell anyone what my PhD research question is without boring them. In the interests of brevity, key in not murdering conversational rhythm dead, I’m not above lying about what it involves, so I tell people I’m counting which authors use full stops and how many, and what that might mean. I suppose that I can’t blame them, just the word ‘modernist’ turns people off.

So, what it is that I am actually doing is utilising an open-source programming language (R) to ingest and index a large corpus of modernist prose authors, (using a wide-ranging definition of ‘modernist,’ to bring us beyond the tens and twenties of the nineteen hundreds to the fifties, in order to include people like Doris Lessing, for example) and compare them on the basis of a largely arbitrary range of stylostatistical indices (richness of vocabulary, sentence length, punctuation usage, among others) with a number of living authors who have, at one time or another, identified themselves as writing within the modernist tradition, as re-vivifying a presumably extinct ethic of novel-writing. These contemporary modernists will be Eimear McBride, Will Self & Anne Enright.

My hope in doing so is to move beyond the essentialistic critical reception of Anne Enright and Eimear McBride as existing within a canon of Irish modernism, consisting only of Joyce, Beckett and Flann O’Brien, which reviewers are always keen to broach in analysing their works. Who’s to say Gertrude Stein might not be a better comparison? Or Proust? Or Woolf? Via computation and pseudo-formalistic analysis, I hope to focus my comparisons, and the comparisons of others, a bit more accurately.

All this justifies the Hegelian trajectory sometimes imposed on discussions of the novel as a genre; as if there was the modern novel, then there was the post-modern novel and now there is what we have now, the execrably named post-post-modern novel, or the newly sincere novel, which isn’t much better. How are we draw these lines, and are literary scholars doomed forever to cut the timeline of literature into ever thinner slices?

It is David Foster Wallace I think, that offers us the two best means of segmenting the modern from the post-modern in literary terms, by shaking his head and refusing to answer. But then he does answer, in two ways, though the first answer is Foster Wallace’s way of not answering, while still mounting a very astute point.

Answer the First

‘After modernism.’

Answer the Second

‘…there are certain, when I’m talking about post-modernism, I’m talking about, maybe the black humourists who came along in the nineteen sixties, post-Nabokovians, Pynchon, and Barthelme, and Barth, De Lillo…Coover…’

What engages Wallace about these authors, as he goes onto explain in the interview, is the fact that they wrote novels that were absolutely bristling with self-conscious possibilities; of the text as a text that is mediated, constructed, conflicted, created in the act of its reading, writing and post-mortem discussion(s), the writer as historically constructed, discursive persona and the reader as persona. So we have two things we can probably say about literary postmodernity. It is a temporal phenomenon, kicking off after whenever it is that modernism petered out, and secondly, that a post-modern text is more self-conscious than a modernist one.

My own take would introduce a third encapsulation, and that is that post-modernism is an outgrowth from, and potential response to, modernism, rather than a rejection. This will come as a surprise to exactly zero people, and gets me to the fault line of this issue; that it is impossible to speak in broad terms about any literary grouping worth discussing that wouldn’t be essentially true of any other one. Literature’s pesky way of valuing ambiguity, referentiality and innovation ensures this.

As I was reading Katherine Mansfield’s Collected Short Stories, and Virginia Woolf’s novel The Voyage Out, I was trying to locate some qualitative phenomenon that one would not find in a post-modernist novel. And I was unsuccessful in doing so. I might say that post-modernists are more prone to textual experimentation than the modernists were; I’m always disappointed by modernist writers’ words appearing in a linear, left to right, up to down way. You’re more likely to find an image, a font change, or interruptive clause in the counter cultural writers coming in Gaddis’ wake.

But, self-consciousness is not a quantifiable phenomenon, and to say that it increases or decreases is at least a little futile. (In the context of a literary discussion that is. Given a wide enough scope of inquiry, everything is futile.) To say that post-modern novels are self-conscious to an extent that was impossible before the sixties is untrue; Don Quixote encounters a counterfeit version of himself during one of his sagas, which was Miguel de Cervantes’ clever method of criticising those who were distributing pirated, unofficial and non-canonical versions of the Quixote. Laurence Sterne also provides a blank page in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy; a Gentleman, so that the reader may draw a character according to how they think she might look. As always, far more valuable literary discussions operate in the range of the qualitative rather than the quantitative. As such, back to Mansfield.

One could turn to a story such as ‘Psychology’ for example, which appears in Bliss and Other Stories. It is a story of about six pages, deriving its title from a pseudo-scientific movement that was then disrupting the notion that the self was knowable, and that we acted according to rational impulses. It’s a bold title, and by choosing it, Mansfield promises us much about what it is that motivates us, how we judge, how we interpret. But, rather than calling the story something like ‘What It Is To Be Human,’ she calls it ‘Psychology,’ shifting the focus from some Platonic realm wherein such lines of enquiry are easily defined, to the discipline or institution of psychology itself. Which is of course, carried out by a human agent, just as flawed and prone to unreason as the subject, and, in Mansfield’s time at least, male. And no one writes about how stupid men can be better than Mansfield.

The story represents two unnamed characters, male and female. The narrator makes it clear that they are deeply attracted to one another, perhaps even in love, but something, whether it be their own defensiveness or social convention, prevents them from expressing it. Mansfield represents this by doubling the presences in the text, providing each character with a ‘secret self.’ Significantly, these secret selves, at one or two points speak with the same voice:

‘Why should we speak? Isn’t this enough?’

Their ‘real’ conversation is stilted and awkward. The male character makes up an excuse to leave and in response, the female character inwardly rages:

‘You’ve hurt me; you’ve hurt me! We’ve failed!’ said her secret self while she handed him his coat and stick, smiling gaily.’

In her despair, the female character is overly affectionate and glad to receive a normally unwelcome friend, then writes a letter to the departed object of her affection, in which she is far more at home with expressing herself, almost as if the mediated, imaginative space of a letter is far more comfortable than the ‘real’ social encounter, in which both of them flailed.

The subject they discuss, is the ‘psychological novel,’ which I have seen practicing modernist authors use as a term which refers to the work that they and their contemporaries are doing with the novel form. (Joyce refers to Proust taking it as far as it can go in Á la récherche.)

It might not be a stretch to see Mansfield as doing some meta-commentary in referring to the psychological novel and in having here two characters, explicated in terms of their inner, imaginative psychology far more illustrative than in their outer, social one. So, we have a story that is pointing to its ‘about-itselfness,’ throughout, a narrative concerning the discontinuity of self-hood and the intractable crevasse that separates our inner being from the outer world. The contours of the inner/outer are perhaps more clearly drawn than you’d get in something written today, but were double-blind test to be arranged, adjusted for historical changes, (appearance of trains, telegrams v. planes & the internet) the emphasis upon social convention, the use and meaning of the word ‘gay,’ I’m not sure that a reader could be relied on to tell the difference between a modernist and a post-modern text.

Maybe it might be more useful to say that post-modernism is like modernism, only more so.

Wordsworth Editions & Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’ and ‘The Voyage Out’

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I have mixed feelings about Wordsworth editions of classic texts.

Yay

They are cheap.

They are books.

The spines are standardised and tasteful.

The introductions generally include stimulating, wide-ranging analyses involving detailed, close-reading from experts in their field.

Nay

Footnotes are sparse and selective.

The poetry editions don’t give enough space to individual poems; you might get three different poems appearing on the same page if they’re short enough. White space should be retained, it’s an interpretative matter, dammit. Where the hell am I supposed to write my marginalia? On my phone’s memo pad or something? Hah?!

Cover design is patchy. The Woolf and Mansfield ones had nice art-deco type pieces on their front, but recently they’ve begun using some awful examples of digital art. Just look at this pseudo-photorealistic shitshow.

bad

They’ve done similar things to the Joyce editions, in ways that hurt my heart, so I won’t include an image, suffice it to say that I so much prefer the ones that used to be on the cover of the Wordsworth Finnegans Wake, which features a painting by Markey Robinson. The below image isn’t what’s on the Wake cover, I couldn’t find a version of it online, but it’s from the same series, and the cover could well be a detail from this canvas.

joyce

This brings me to one of the other perhaps dubious choices made by Wordsworth editions, in publishing A Room of One’s Own, an essay based on a series of lectures Woolf gave to female students in Cambridge with her novel The Voyage Out. On the one hand, this is a good thing, and even more cheap, two books for the price of one and all that, but, what are the implications for how we read the texts when they’re sat so close to one another?

Well, it has the consequence of making it seem as though The Voyage Out is a fictionalised re-iteration of what Woolf conveys in the polemic that precedes it. I wouldn’t posit that it actually is, but the essay inevitably operates as a screed through which The Voyage Out is perceived.

The Voyage Out depicts Rachel Vinrace, a sheltered young woman going away from home for the first time with her aunt Helen Ambrose and her husband Ridley. As the narrative develops, Rachel begins to further her own education, under the auspices of her aunt and the wider group of upper-middle class ‘intelligentsia,’ partially modelled, as most of the Woolf novels that I’m familiar with are, on Woolf’s own experiences with the intellectual coterie of the Bloomsbury Group. The Voyage Out’s title is a loaded one; Rachel is travelling outwards in an inner sense, exposing herself to atheism, the abstract ideas of her day, aswell as the more literal voyage to South America.

This metaphorisation of space is also central within A Room of One’s Own; in her introduction to the essay, Sally Minogue points to the ambiguous nature of the word ‘room.’ It is not only an actual physical space, necessary for a female writer in order that she may sit down and write, but alongside this autonomy in the space of the room, there is an implied wider connection with others. A room, after all, must be within a house, which is in turn a metaphor for the wider tradition of female novelists, the Brontës, Eliots and Austens, without whom, Woolf’s writing would never have been possible, as she herself puts it.

The oscillation between being inside or outside the novelistic tradition is significant for Woolf as it becomes a necessity for female novelists to salvage their own tradition. Seeing that they have been silenced or marginalised for so long, they must exert themselves, perhaps to compensate for the lack of a cultural and financial infrastructure that a male novelist may depend on. Woolf senses that this greater imperative on the female novelist brings with it a vitality that seems advantageous.

One might disagree, and see this positive spin on enforced individualism as unhelpful and Woolf would certainly not have been called an ‘ally’ in the contemporary sense. She disapproves of promiscuity, and, references a would-be biographer, Winifred Holtby, daughter of a Yorkshire farmer, as someone who, ‘learnt to read, I’m told, while minding the pigs.’ This snobbishness and disregard for the material circumstances of women of a lower class is an unpleasant feature of Woolf’s writing, and is surprising, considering that A Room of One’s Own advocates for wider access to education for women.

This political myopia is attributable to Woolf’s aesthetic concerns, as she disliked materiality or political beliefs making themselves clear in a writer’s work. She preferred instead the notion that through art, the material may be transcended, which is ironic considering how informed her work is by her own social position; Woolf is probably the standard bearer of the English fin de siècle bourgeois class. Her own background, her material advantages seems, in this ideological position, to have been rendered invisible to her. The material condition of the lower classes is what she objects to. The disabled, too. She doesn’t like them either.

What are we to make of the fact that Rachel Vinrace dies, spoiler alert? In the Victorian novels that I’ve been unfortunate enough to read, death is often used to reinforce conservative moralising, one thinks of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of d’Urbervilles, Madame Bovary, for instance, but in the case of The Voyage Out, Woolf may be protesting this usage of death for political ends. She is not, unfortunately, protesting how protracted these affairs are when they are rendered, but the language in which these are conveyed. Woolf’s style becomes mechanistically descriptive and neutral: (“The second day did not differ much from the first day, except that ther bed had become very important, and the world outside, when she tried to think of it, appeared distinctly further off.”) not sentimental, as one finds in the ghastly death scene, one of many, in Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son:

“Yes, yes. No other stranger would have shed those tears at sight of him, and called him her dear boy, her pretty boy, her own poor blighted child.

‘Remember Walter, dear Papa,’ he whispered, looking in his face. ‘Remember Walter. I was fond of Walter!’ The feeble hand waved in the air, as if it cried ‘good-bye!’ to Walter once again.”

Rachel’s fever makes her inchoate and delirious; making her incapable of such indulgent faffery in her last moments. What is being critiqued here is Rachel’s failure to not get married, so soon after having achieved a degree autonomy. She merely exchanges one sequence of patriarchal variables for another in choosing to marry Hirst.

I’m not sure I find this entirely convincing. In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf castigates herself for being overly attentive to material conditions, and, from what I’ve said so far, the ridiculousness of her assertion should be pretty clear, for both texts. There is obviously no other choice for a woman seeking to live independently, other than coming into large amounts of money through an inheritance. This is to leave aside the thin nature of the relationship’s development, the Proustian social comedy veers into Restoration farce as Rachel and Hirst are uncertain whether they love or loathe one another, whether marriage is the best or the worst idea, then find all of a sudden that they are very much in love, but only when they’re not speaking; when they do dialogue, they are mostly bickering and bristly with one another.

Hey, maybe it is realistic after all.

William Gaddis’ The Recognitions

William Gaddis’ The Recognitions is a stylistically and generically conflicted novel. On one hand it is, as it is billed by Jonathan Franzen in its blurb, the “ur-text of postwar fiction,” initiating the noble tradition of ‘the penis novel’ (here being a synonym for maximalist, encyclopaedic, post-thing) in contemporary American letters, a tradition extended by William Gass, the aforementioned Franzen, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Don De Lillo &c. As the site of a phallogocentric topos, its critique has a wide scope: organised religion, the commodification of great art, the hyper-mediation of our reality via advertising, are all targets of Gaddis’ ‘pen.’

On the other side of this anticipation of the Pynchon and the general countercultural literary zeitgeist, there is a comedy of manners strain, which relates to the novel to which Gaddis probably owes the most, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Gaddis apes Proust’s capacity to have the many, many characters in the novel condemn themselves out of their own mouths, by reproducing their shallow dilettantish badinage for pages and pages and pages. You may have sensed that I thought this got a bit tedious, and you may be right. The Recognitions is just under a thousand pages and if I had to guess, I would say about sixty-five percent of it is spent convincing the reader how shallow the ‘creative class’ of 1950’s New York is.

That said, there is plenty of space in the maybe 35% of the novel outside of the dialogue, for descriptive prose of undeniable force and virtuosity, though maybe that’s the wrong word. Here also, Gaddis is schizophrenic. On the one hand he follows Proust’s lead, with deeply extravagant similes tortured to within an inch of their lives, drawing on the obscurities of Roman Catholic arcana, as Proust does with Renaissance painting:

“And the shadow he cast behind him as he turned away fell back seven centuries, to embrace the dissolute youth of Raymond Lully, and infatuation with the beautiful Ambrosia de Castello, which she discouraged; and if she seemed to succumb at last, offering to bear her breasts in return for a poem he had written to their glory, it was to show him, as he approached in that rapture of which only flesh is capable, a bosom eaten away by cancer: he turned away to his conversion, to his death years later stoned in North Africa, and to his celebration as a scholar, a poet, a missionary, a mystic, and one of the foremost figures in the history of alchemy.”

lolwut.

The following, I think, is more typical of an autonomous Gaddis ‘style:’

“In the afternoon, he worked at restoring old pictures, or in sketching, a half-attended occupation which broke off with twilight, and Christiane went on her way uncurious, uninterested in the litter of papers bearing suggestion of the order of her bones and those arrangements of her features which she left behind, unmenaced by magic, unafraid, she walked toward the Gare Saint-Lazare, unhurried, seldom reached it (for it was no destination) before she was interrupted, and down again, spread again, indifferent to the resurrection which filled her and died; and the Gare Saint-Lazare, a railway station, and so a beginning and an end, came forth on the evening vision, erect in testimony, and then (for what became of the man who was raised?) stood witness to a future which, like the past, was liable to no destination, and collected dirt in its fenestrated sores.”

One sentence. We might quibble with the repetitive insistence of aimlessness, non-linearity, the relationship established between the death, the Resurrection and Christiane seems forced, but I think there is something in the writing here about the contemporary urban space depending on inversions of perspective and fragmented symbolism which I sense as being deeply vital and original.

Another:

“Undisciplined lights shone through the night instructed by the tireless precision of the squads of traffic lights, turning red to green, green to red, commanding voids with indifferent authority: for the night outside had not changed, with the whole history of night bound up inside it had not become better or worse, fewer lights and it was darker, less motion and it was more empty, more silent, less perturbed, and like the porous figures which continued to move against it, more itself.”

We have an urban cityscape, a panaromic view, some reach into the infinitude, the recursion the earth always makes into night, with all that that evokes. W have an automated authority, indifferently exerted with no agent, moral or otherwise, and I always appreciate a void in a descriptive passage, plural is a bonus.

It is in these deliberately uneven, weirdly punctuated and weirder worded sections that The Recognitions has its best moments I think, far from the endlessly re-hashed cocktail parties where the bohemian residents of Greenwich Village get really drunk, say pretentious things and get off with one another. It’s difficult to enjoy these parts past a certain point, particularly when Gaddis is models the New York patois onomatopoeically, making it clunky, often indecipherable. For some these may be necessary tags; dialogue is rarely signposted and I had to keep notes to figure out who was talking. But it was worth the effort. There are some staggeringly inventive and uncanny moments in the novel that I’m unlikely to forget. Reverend Gwyon’s re-modelling of his church from a Catholic one to one befitting the pagan deity Mithras and delivering a sun-worship ceremony to the horrified residents of his parish in rural Massachusetts is brilliant and macabre set-piece which testifies to Gaddis’ potency as a literary artist, at least when he wasn’t complaining about his peers and critics.