I’ve been on leave from teaching this year, so it’s been a uniquely good 12 months of reading for me, a year when I’ve read for only one reason: fun. Now when I say fun… I’m a book nerd. So I tend to take on “reading projects.” The first was to work toward becoming a Joseph Conrad completist. I’m almost there. I warmed up with critic Maya Jasanoff’s The Dawn Watch: Conrad in a Global World, which granted me permission to remember the capacious scope of his perspective, his humanistic genius. His masterwork was hard work, but Nostromo belongs on the shelf of both the most important and most difficult of the 20th century. The Secret Agent blew the top of my head off—it’s funny and deeply relevant to our moment, about a terrorist bombing gone horribly wrong. Under Western Eyes is all I got left. 2018 isn’t over yet.
But then much fun came in reading whatever, whenever. That started with a heavy dose of Denis Johnson. The new posthumous collection of his short stories, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, is uneven, but the title story is one of the most sublime pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. I do not understand how its series of narratives work together and I don’t want to. I finally read Fiskadoro, which deserves more credit than it gets for starting the cli-fi wave—it’s set in a Florida, a number of years after global ecological catastrophe hits, and everyone thinks Bob Marley is god. All of which led me to Lauren Groff’s Florida. “Snake Stories,” the finest story therein, is as good as fiction gets. Which pushed me toward Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, which from the first paragraph of talky lyrical cadenced prose and sharply depicted parental verisimilitude (I coined that and you can’t have it!) had me hooked. That led me on to Deborah Eisenberg’s Your Duck Is My Duck, which is her most accessible and relevant book to date. Wow is she smart/funny. Which led me to finishing up both Joy Williams’s The Visiting Privilege, and Ninety-Nine Stories of God, which are as different as books by one author come and both revelatory. Which led me on to read three stories from Mavis Gallant’s Collected Stories. In the intro of that book, Gallant implores her reader to read her as she’s meant to be read—one story at a time, put it down for as long as a year or more, pick it back up. So that’s what I do. “The Moslem Wife” is my new favorite.
That’s not what I did for Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black, a book of satirical stories in the Saunders/Vonnegut mode that’s as gleefully violent as it is gleefully intelligent. While I was reading that one I decided I should really read Ottessa Moshfegh’s novella McGlue—also violent, intelligent, and gleefully so. I’ve always wanted to read more of a writer I suspect Moshfegh is disdainful of, Evan S. Connell, and having already been through Mrs Bridge I read Mr Bridge, which is elliptical and wry and smart. Which led me on to James Salter’s The Art of Fiction, which is just a talk he gave at UVA before he died, but which is full of useful advice from one of the best prose stylists of the 20th century. That led me to Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others—Spiotta is one of the most interesting stylists of the 21st, and all her powers are on display here. And that led me on to a new sampling of the work of one of my heroes, Grace Paley, The Grace Paley Reader, which FSG put out last year. I’ve read all her stories, but seeing them paired with her poetry opened my mind to her even more.
So that led me on to poetry! I like to read all of one poet every summer. This past summer it was Louise Glück. Hers might be the toughest-nosed, lithest and sharpest project of our lifetimes. And her books of prose about poetry, American Originality and Proofs and Theories, demand to be read and reread. I also fell in love with the wry perspicacity of Dianne Seuss, whose Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl slew me. Jason Morris’s Levon Helm is full of brilliant right-hand turns, turns of phrase and hard-won truths, and is the winner of the best title in the history of books. Chris Tonelli’s second book, Whatever Stasis (second-best title), made me laugh, then think, which is the right order. My colleague Airea Dee Matthews won the Yale Younger Prize a couple years back, and that book, Simulacra, is as razor-smart as they come, chock full of Plath and Stein and genius. I reread it twice. I also slammed through Galway Kinnell’s Collected Poems, and I never knew how weird and smart his long poem “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the World” was. Which prepped me for the extravagant original voice Daniel Borzutsky brings to The Performance of Becoming Human. I’ll read everything of his now. Same for Monica Ferrell. Her new book You Darling Thing is full of poems that are lyrical, spare, dry as bone.
OK so wow this is getting long, but being on leave apparently I had a lot of time to read. Cheston Knapp’s debut essay collection Up Up, Down Down is as intelligent as any book I’ve read this year, and he is a true inheritor to DFW’s explosive genius. I would gladly read Marilynne Robinson on the history of drywall, and What Are We Doing Here? is about a lot more interesting stuff than that, including the most erudite readings of the ills of American culture published this year. The title essay should be required reading for anyone who teaches at, attends or has attended a college or university in America. Mary Gaitskill is also a longtime favorite, and her Somebody with a Little Hammer is like a Christmas gift for every day of the year—“Lost Cat,” the long personal essay at its center, will now be on my syllabus every year. I clenched my teeth and everything else through Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury and Bob Woodward’s Fear. The latter was just godawful. Maybe next year we could do the Year in Attempting to Unread? Oh, and I just finished Jill Lepore’s new long history of the U.S. through the lens of Il Douche’s presidency, These Truths, where I learned more about polling and the failings of our Constitutional democracy than I thought possible.
OK OK this is getting long but I feel like we all sometimes forget that we read journals like the air we breathe. This was a particularly good year for The Paris Review—editor Emily Nemens’s first issue had exciting new work by Claire Vaye Watkins and Louise Glück. Tin House is on fire, and the Candy issue was a winner, with an essay by Rebecca Makkai about Hungary that’s right in my wheelhouse, and a deeply weird dark story by Julia Elliott. The May/June issue of The Kenyon Review alone had poems by Bruce Smith, Terrance Hayes and Jorie Graham. Bradford Morrow’s Conjunctions is always great, and its “Being Bodies” included an essay by Rick Moody on Lazarus that I’ve been thinking about since. The last issue of Salmagundi had essays on cultural appropriation by Allan Gurganus and Thomas Chatterton Williams that clarified things for me. And let’s all shed a tear for Glimmer Train, a tiny mag that launched a thousand story collections. I just read an issue with stories by Jamel Brinkley and future star Alexandra Chang, and it will be sorely missed.
OK OK OK I’m almost there I promise! This fall I went on a jag of reading two contemporary European writers I think will be up for Nobels in the next decade. The first is Hungarian novelist Lazlo Krasznahorkai. He’s already been short-listed for the International Booker Prize twice, and won once, and with each of his books New Directions puts out his legend grows. His masterwork Satantango feels like the starting point—or did, until The World Goes On came out this year. It’s a beautiful object, and as naturally both a story collection and a novel as anything I know. This also sent me back to reread Samuel Beckett’s Murphy and Molloy, as I think Krasznahorkai might, along with Coetzee and maybe Bernhard, be the only writer I’ve read who is a true inheritor of the Beckett strain. I had a similar excitement for German writer Jenny Erpenbeck, whose Go, Went, Gone is maybe the best fiction yet written about the refugee crisis. I had to go back and re-read the last two pages multiple times to fully appreciate their genius.
OK OK OK OK! I’ll stop but only after saying that my favorite mode of reading is reading side-to-side religious texts and contemporary books on physics, and then thinking a lot about cosmology. It keeps me sane. My three favorite reads of 2018 were Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time, Adam Becker’s What Is Real, and the audio version of Richard Feynman’s The Feynman Lectures. The audiobook is Feynman lecturing at Stanford in the 1960s, and it’s like listening to a character from The Godfather telling a rapt audience about how quantum physics works. Among other things it’ll make you nostalgic for heavy regional accents.
Alongside that reading, I read the Quran, and Idries Shah’s The Sufis, along with David Biale’s epic history of Hasidism, called… wait for it… Hasidism. Biale finished the book alongside a dozen other scholars, and it is and will be the standard on its subject for decades to come. And lastly, I’ve been reading the teachings of Reb Nachman, father of Breslov Hasidism, with a rabbi friend. This reading cuts against the grain of everything above. It is not to grow informed or to seek new aesthetics. It’s a minimalist endeavor. Every page of his Likutey Moharan is a revelation and an enigma, and it calls to be read very, very slowly. Like, three or four pages a week. It slows me, calms my mind and realigns me. We should all find time for reading projects like that.
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This year marks the 60th anniversary of Waiting for Godot’s English publication — Beckett’s self-translation of his original French play, En Attendant Godot, back into his native language. Godot was not Beckett’s first attempt at French composition; he had begun writing poetry in French as early as 1938 and translated Murphy into French in 1939. But Waiting for Godot was Beckett’s major foray into what would become his career-long routine of composing in French and self-translating into English. In the curious underworld of Beckettian translation studies, it’s a vexed topic. Some critics consider the doubled nature of Beckett’s oeuvre its distinguishing quality. Certainly, Beckett’s eccentric writing practice makes his bilingual corpus unique in the history of literature. But how do you classify self-translated texts? They eschew traditional categories, dwelling in some foggy realm between translation, revision, and authorial re-interpretation.
Then there’s the matter of priority: which text — French or English — emerges as the authoritative version? The English “translations,” written in Beckett’s native tongue, throw into question the “originality” of the original French texts. After all, don’t the French originals already imply the work of translation? Most scholars agree that the two versions of Godot should be studied side-by-side. In this way, any notion of priority is annulled, and the possibility of locating an “original” text, so central to our conceptions of artistic production, is all but swallowed by this black hole of textual duality.
The key concern, though, is the question of motivation: Why did Beckett, an Irishman, choose to write in French and why, after achieving considerable success in that language, did he insist time and again on returning his work to the language of his homeland? Beckett himself provided a string of reflections on the issue. In a 1937 letter to his friend Axel Kaun, he explained,
It is becoming more and more difficult, even senseless, for me to write an official English. And more and more my own language appears to me like a veil that must be torn apart in order to get at the things (or the Nothing-ness) behind it. Grammar and Style. To me they seem to have become as irrelevant as a Victorian bathing suit or the imperturbability of a true gentleman. A mask…Is there any reason why that terrible materiality of the word surface should not be capable of being dissolved?
Here Beckett expresses a desire to rid himself of the baggage of traditional English. Only by divesting himself of the “irrelevancies” of grammar and style, he thought, could he approach something like the truth beneath the “mask.” Since Beckett held such excessiveness and irrelevance of language to be endemic to English, he began experimenting with French, a language in which he claimed, “It is easier to write without style…[French] had the right weakening effect.”
This rejection of style figures, in a letter dated later that same year, as a sort of violence against language: “From time to time I have the consolation, as now [Beckett is writing in German], of sinning willy-nilly against a foreign language, as I should love to do with full knowledge and intent against my own — and as I shall do — Deo juvante.” What’s remarkable in these passages is the sense of desperation — indeed, of fervent compulsion — that drove Beckett to abandon his mother tongue. That English seemed to him “senseless” and “irrelevant,” a sort of falsity or façade that he felt compelled to “tear apart” and, finally, to “sin against,” throws Beckett’s bilingualism into a considerably darkened sphere. He wasn’t just playing around with language when he switched to French; the change marks neither an indulgence in the sport of interlingual word play, nor the disciplined resolve of a man fashioning himself a sort of writing exercise. Rather, the move from English to French was motivated by a fundamental necessity. It is as if Beckett required French for his very survival as a writer. Given the caliber of his early (English) work, it does not seem unreasonable, after all, to suggest that his status as literary genius is closely linked to his adoption of the French language.
But then, why was English unequal to Beckett’s aims? Part of the answer may lie in his relationship to James Joyce. Critics have cited their close friendship and Beckett’s perception of Joyce’s unparalleled achievements as the source of his need to escape English — to emerge from beneath Joyce’s shadow. There’s little doubt that Joyce’s legacy haunted; Beckett’s early work reveals an apish simulation of his mentor. A 1934 review of More Pricks than Kicks maintained, for instance, that Beckett “imitated everything in James Joyce — except the verbal magic and the inspiration…the whole book is a frank pastiche of the lighter, more satirical passages in Ulysses.” Beckett’s biographer, James Knowlson, also noted that Beckett’s 1932 novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, was “very Joycean in its ambition and its accumulative technique.” During this period, Beckett even mimicked Joyce’s research style, using dictionaries and reference books and weaving into his novel hundreds of quotations from other works of literature, philosophy, and theology. That his early style so closely resembled Joyce’s is hardly surprising; Beckett called Joyce’s work a “heroic achievement…that’s what it was, epic, heroic, what he achieved.”
Still, this seems a somewhat simple assessment. Joyce’s elaborate use of language stands in opposition to the minimalism Beckett sought, but Joycean prose can hardly be considered the language of traditional, highly-stylized English. In fact, disparate as their styles seem, Beckett and Joyce might be said to unite, in a manner, on the level of their reworking of the English language. If Beckett reached English through French, Joyce introduced the mother tongue to French, German, Italian, Latin, and other languages besides. In short, if Beckett’s reworking of English contrives to escape Joyce, it is an escape that simultaneously mimics him, for Joyce had already endeavored a great escape of sorts.
The genteel “gentleman’s” English that Beckett despised was more closely embodied by someone like Samuel Johnson, a literary figure of special interest to Beckett. He made a pilgrimage to Dr. Johnson’s birthplace, scrupulously perused the pages of Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, and filled his journals with notes on Johnson from which to compose a play. Though Beckett was fascinated by the man, he probably received his work somewhat differently: Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language and reputation as the authority on English letters easily rendered his name synonymous with the brand of English Beckett struggled to shake off. Of course, if English in Beckett’s mind was the language of Johnson, it was also the language, however refashioned, of Joyce. Sitting down to write in English, Beckett inevitably composed a Joycean English.
Beckett’s relation to his literary forefathers and to the English language — his near-violent desperation to do away with English and simultaneous adoration for Joyce’s work — is a case study in the complexities of literary influence. Harold Bloom (in The Anxiety of Influence) famously tried to de-idealize our notion of how one writer forms another — to refute the idea of literary creation as a carefree experience of muse-dappled inspiration and present it instead as an arduous, anxious, even diseased process: “Influence is influenza — an astral disease. If influence were health, who could write a poem? Health is stasis.” At once enraptured by his forefather’s work and nauseated by its effect on his own stunted writing, Beckett fled into a foreign tongue.
His is an unusual and extreme instance of poetic anxiety. Beckett didn’t just try to “get outside” his literary forefathers, which is how Bloom thinks most great writers produce original work. He tried to get outside even the language in which they wrote. In his adoption of French, Beckett may have recalled Joyce but he also rejected him. It wasn’t possible for him to innovate within the confines of the English tradition. He needed to rid himself of the language entirely — its echoes and associations — in order to open himself up to the potential for original artistic production. Beckett’s French texts — and, by extension, their English translations — are the result of this radical attempt to “get outside,” the anxiety of a writer infected not merely at the level of his forefather’s work, but at the level of the very language he employs.
Writing in French, Beckett adopted a new literary personality — a French life, a French set of texts, a French identity and reputation. It was his attempt to make a fresh start. But there is no clean slate on which to write, no mind wiped blank of history and influence — only the accumulation of voices, the last of which was his own. In En Attendant Godot and his other French texts, Beckett “sinned” (as he longed to do) against English and his literary forefathers. In Waiting for Godot and his English texts, he brought the sin home, facing down English — the language, the canon, Joyce, everything that had exiled him from his native tongue. Working through French, Beckett succeeded, finally, in writing himself into the English literary tradition.
He isn’t, in the end, strictly a writer or strictly a translator in any single work. Instead, Beckett’s texts collapse those identities, suggesting that authorship is always a matter of translation — the translation of experience into thought and thought into writing. His point in persistently translating his own work seems to have been to confuse us, to complicate the distinction between original and translation so that we are compelled to understand language generally as a kind of translation — and original texts as the consequence of texts that have come before: a vast lineage of influence and interpretation. Beckett just added a further leg to the journey, creating along the way twinned masterpieces in French and English.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
As usual, my job as a book critic dictated much of my reading this year. My favorite book of the year — the best book of the year, I think — is Hilton Als’s White Girls, which I reviewed for the Chicago Tribune. The following are some of the best books — there were also sundry poems, comics, essays, and horror novels — I managed to read for free:
I first read Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes in my mid-twenties, sitting on the floor beside a bookshelf in Borders because I couldn’t afford to buy the book. I’d picked it up with the intention of leafing through it a bit, having heard it referred to here and there in reverential tones. I started reading and, astounded, didn’t get up again for two hours. This there-but-for-grace loser’s manifesto, this perfectly sane cry. Someone called it the best novel written in English since The Great Gatsby, but it seemed to me much better than that. Rereading it fifteen years later, without overlooking its flaws, I’d place it above every American novel except Moby-Dick, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom!
Hobbes’s Leviathan is not nearly as funny as A Fan’s Notes, but I can now almost agree with William H. Gass that Hobbes was one of “the three greatest masters of English prose” (in case you were wondering where my obnoxious impulse to rank works of literature comes from). More arduous were Fredric Jameson’s Hegel Variations: On The Phenomenology of Spirit and Hubert Dreyfus’s Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division 1. And no matter what you believe or think you believe, Denys Turner’s Thomas Aquinas is well worth your time.
I reread some favorite books this year — Thoreau’s Walden, Freud and Breuer’s Studies in Hysteria, Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading, Samuel Beckett’s Murphy — and added some new ones to the category: Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, Emil Cioran’s The Trouble with Being Born, and Confucius’s Analects (in both the D.C. Lau and Burton Watson translations). It’s a pity Weil and Cioran never met.
Scary fun: David Quammen, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic; Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer; Michel Houellebecq, The Map and the Territory; George V. Higgins, The Friends of Eddie Coyle; Derek Raymond, He Died with His Eyes Open; Edward St. Aubyn, The Patrick Melrose Novels.
Finally, two books I’m reading at the moment: T. M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God and Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. As a sort of free-floating Kierkegaardian becoming-Christian on the Way or whatever, I’ve spent a lot of time loathing conservative American Protestants — people who believe in the Rapture, or that the earth is six thousand years old, or that homosexuals are going to hell, or, um, that there is a hell. People who take the Bible literally except for the part about selling your shit and giving the money to the poor. I grew up around such folk. But of course my condescension and hostility are beside the point, forms of cultural capital that — oh, you know the drill. Luhrmann’s and Worthen’s books cut through all that by attempting to understand evangelicalism from within, critically but sympathetically and without easy irony. Worthen’s is the more scholarly study, tracing the variety of evangelical movements, complicating received wisdom about their anti-intellectualism. Luhrmann reads like good journalism. Embedded in an evangelical church, she tells real people’s real stories. She occasionally betrays a lack of theological grounding, referring to God as “a powerful invisible being” and assuming a dualism of soul and body (Turner’s Aquinas would help her on both points). And she frames much of her discussion in terms of an opposition between science and religion that rather begs the question. But I’m learning things on almost every page (and, again, I’m still reading these books, so perhaps my concerns are addressed at some point in the text): the evangelical practice of speaking in tongues seems to have arisen, after lying almost completely dormant since the Acts of the Apostles, in my birthplace of Topeka, Kansas, in the late nineteenth century; the path of the religious right was blazed by the hippies. I still think conservative evangelicalism is wrong about almost everything — society, theology, politics, Christianity, people, love, God, sex, family, economics. And I still believe, with Reinhold Niebuhr, that the rabid intransigence of fundamentalism is a clear sign of its own doubt and insecurity (which makes it quite dangerous). But that’s precisely why I’m grateful for these books, which deepen our understanding and broaden our empathy.
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Albert Parry’s Garrets and Pretenders, the best and most colorful cultural history of Bohemian artists and their “skylight-addicts,” was first published in 1933. Over the intervening 80 years, the coffee shop seems to have displaced the garret as the prime source of real or imagined literary production, but caffeine is no match for the afflatus that drafty garrets provide. As affordable real estate becomes increasingly scarce — and as a new breed of “micro-units” are cropping up in cities — we should pause to reflect back on the enduring appeal of an imperiled genre: the garret novel.
The two classic 19th century examples are Henri Murger’s Scenes from the Life of Bohemia and George du Maurier’s Trilby, which sings of the “happy times of careless impecuniosity” and of artists “with Paris for a playground, and its dear old unregenerate Latin quarter for a workshop and a home!” Ever since, the increasingly fraught search for an ideal room of one’s own has produced surprising variations on the garret novel.
Despite the garret’s military roots as a watchtower from which “to defend, preserve” (from the Old French, garir), our cultural imagination has long associated those cramped quarters less with archers than with easels. And yet the connection between watchtowers and workshops holds. All good art is obsessive, driven by a compulsion to express and shape, and to be obsessed, etymologically, is to be watched closely, occupied, besieged; Samuel Beckett would describe his postwar burst of writing as the “siege in the room.” Both the observant artist and the watchful sentry, then, are each under attack in their garrets, the latter from without and the former from within.
The following garret novels introduce memorably reclusive protagonists, skylight addicts who, in their zealous guarding of their charmed rooms, stay true to the fortifying history of garrets.
Two female artists, Sirena and Nora, the former internationally renowned and constructing a sprawling installation entitled “Wonderland,” the latter a schoolteacher and artist manqué building dioramas of Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Alice Neel, and Edie Sedgwick in their own “habitats,” agree to share a workshop in a converted Somerville warehouse. The studio is enclosed by a “high chicken-wire fence, in which fluttered the tattered remnants of plastic bags, like flags of the apocalypse.” The insides are of a “bleakness unimagined,” and next door is a factory producing “millions of tiny Styrofoam beads, a particularly noxious undertaking that seemed designed to cause horrible cancers in those who worked there.” There is a mephitic whiff of the demonic about the place that renders the women’s artistic Eden as ripe for corruption as was Adam and Eve’s.
The workshop, at once pestilent and beatific, ultimately teaches Nora a painful but productive lesson: creation and “fouling” are intertwined. Indeed, each woman’s project is an attempt to recreate private worlds even as it exposes them to view. If the studio is a retreat from the world — Sirena’s husband likens it to an elves’ workshop — it finally launches Nora into it, no longer as “the woman upstairs” but as a “murderously furious” artist intent to “fucking well live.”
In Danilo Kiš’s The Attic, we encounter the garret novel in its purest, uncorrupted form:
Hic tandem stetimus nobis ubi defuit orbis. (“Here we finally stand, a place that has fled our earth.”)
So reads the maxim carved into a wall of the titular attic in this enchanting Serbian work. Kiš’s first novel, an English translation of which appeared last year from Dalkey Archive Press, is about a young writer, Orpheus, who is “bound to [his] attic by an unusual, sick passion.” Orpheus devises a site-specific cocktail, “Brandy à la Mansarde,” tames the garret’s legion cockroaches with his lute playing, and sees on its damp walls “wondrous designs of the flora and fauna that bloom and thrive only in dreams.” Who needs an interior decorator amidst such fecund rot?
Among the Belgrade garret’s other advantages, for example a “proximity to the stars,” Kiš stresses its inviolability: “Lord, I’ve been living in that attic as if on another planet!” the protagonist realizes at novel’s end. The Attic is a parody of both the bildungsroman and the classic Bohemian novels of the 19th century, dramatizing as it does the protagonist’s growing awareness of the need to descend from his empyrean heights. For him and his art to mature, he must lower himself, literally, into the world and observe his fellow apartment dwellers rather than the stars.
Orpheus’s dilemma — whether to reign hermetically in his aerie or participate in the “colorful jumble of life” — demonstrates a crucial tension in all novels between a reclusive and an expansive drive; between a retreat into a world of private obsessions and a headlong rush into the great wide world.
Nowhere is this tension more amusingly expressed than with the misadventures of Murphy, Samuel Beckett’s doomed garretphile. Murphy, itself a parodic bildungsroman, chronicles one man’s doomed quest to separate himself from the “big blooming buzzing confusion” around him, a quest that is thwarted — comically and tragically — by the decidedly un-Murphy-like characters around him. That quest is bound up with the anti-hero’s search for the ideal garret. Ever since residing in a Hanover garret as a student, Murphy has been searching for similarly charmed living quarters. However, “what passed for a garret in Great Britain and Ireland was really nothing more than an attic. An attic! How was it possible for such a confusion to arise?” When he stumbles into a job at the Magdalen Mental Mercy seat asylum in London, he is less excited about the prospects of steady employment than his new living quarters: not an “attic, nor yet a mansard, but a genuine garret.”
Paradise at last, it seems, but this is Beckett we’re talking about. The protagonist’s inevitable and explosive demise arises from a faulty gas pipe extending into his garret, a noxious violation of his Edenic space (or the fouling of his Wonderland, to put it in Messud’s terms), the perfect garret he had long sought and finally found. For Beckett, the possibility of establishing such an inviolate cell within the “mercantile Gehenna” of London proves as illusory as Godot’s arrival.
The protagonist of John Cowper Powys’s Maiden Castle, Dud No-man seems as immune to the demands of social life as Murphy. Maiden Castle opens as No-man, a “nameless bastard” and widowed historical novelist, looks up from his bed in his new Dorchester garret and finds that the beams “took the shape…of an elongated and distorted cross.” The rest of the furnishings are similarly charged with its owner’s intensely cerebral, masochistic eroticism and diabolical grotesquerie — martyrs, condemnatory wraiths, and monstrous heraldic carvings. As most Powys heroes do, No-man thrives on such daemonic energies. His garret, with its view of a “region charged with so many layers of suggestive antiquity,” stimulates his historical, psychological, and elemental senses as he writes the erotically charged tale of Mary Channing, the adulteress hanged in 1705 in the nearby Maumbury Rings amphitheatre for allegedly poisoning her husband.
The novel’s conflict derives not from within the spiritually magnetic garret but from without. Maiden Castle is about a man with an intense attachment to solitary enjoyment — sexual, oneiric, imaginative, ambulatory, and masochistic — who is drawn into the very set of social, filial, and romantic relationships from which his intense egotism had so long protected him. But again, the developmental narrative can’t gain traction within the psychically saturated world of the novel’s protagonist. No-man, who describes himself as a “Bronze Age invader” with the soul of a “neurotic nun,” proves ultimately too bizarre, too attached to his garret and environs, to become anything other than what he is.
It would be quite the feat to out-cathect Dud No-man, but Godfrey St. Peter comes close in his attachment to his garret study in Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House. Throughout the novel, St. Peter is exhausted by the professional and familial responsibilities he is too moral to shirk. His malaise obliquely stems from his memories of the “richly germinating” Tom Outland, the deceased student, amateur archeologist, and inventor who had appeared at the Professor’s house years earlier with tales of excavating an Ancestral Puebloan settlement, Cliff City, perched atop the Blue Mesa (a fictionalized Mesa Verde).
The Professor’s House opens as St. Peter is reluctant to move into a new and garret-less house. Despite being “the most inconvenient study a man could have,” it is not without its charms. The attic has a distant view of “a long, blue, hazy smear—Lake Michigan, the inland sea of his childhood,” an idyllic framing that blends into Tom Outland’s similarly hued Blue Mesa. As the Professor lets Outland into his study (to the jealous disapproval of his wife), so does Outland admit the Professor to his elevated sanctuary and shares with him that “glorious feeling…of being on the mesa, in a world above the world.”
If The Professor’s House is dominated by these elevations — Cliff City and the less sublime attic — it is also about the pain of being expelled from them. Both the mesa and the attic are prone to contamination, by a disillusioning commercialization or by (yet another) noxious gas leak. Of all the works, Cather’s is the most elegiac in tone. It best captures the vulnerability of such precious spaces, the pathos of sacrificing them and learning to “live without delight.”
The previous garret novels have staged a struggle between isolation and inclusion, but Thomas Bernhard’s Correction boldly and unequivocally asserts a reclusive vision. As his protagonist, Roithamer, epigrammatically explains: “What we do secretly, succeeds.” A scientist, Roithamer embarks on an architectural project whose audacity would make Howard Roark blanche: a giant Cone in the exact center of the Kobernausser forest (supposedly designed to ensure the perfect happiness of his sister). Roithamer secretly plans the construction from within the garret of an equally audacious project, a house built by his friend Hoeller in “the most impenetrable and so the darkest possible” section of the Aurach gorge. The builder takes possession of Hoeller’s garret so completely that it soon becomes Roithamer’s garret and infused with his thoughts. After the Cone’s completion and Roithamer’s suicide, the unnamed narrator himself takes possession of the garret and undergoes a kind of siege himself, possessed by its Hoeller-garret-thoughts, a Germanic compound noun so mellifluous that it is a small wonder it hasn’t yet gone viral.
At one point, Roithamer calls humans “chronic deserters of original ideas,” a definition of mankind as elegant as it is rueful. The Cone, monstrous in its perfection, is one such original idea, and as such demands a kind of desertion from life. Roithamer wholeheartedly embraces the terror and splendor of isolation, the dreadful necessity to “be absolutely alone in our room” in order to experience the supreme, if awful, majesty of inhabiting a world of one’s own making.
If I have focused too much on the obsessive aspects of garret-thoughts (there’s that Germanic construction again), let me remedy that with a brief demonstration of their conjuring power. In Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan, Gormenghast Castle’s forbidding stone walls virtually seal its inhabitants into a world of “iron ritual.” However, Fuchsia, the reclusive daughter of the castle’s lord, manages to carve out her own “attic kingdom” from within the stony realm, a “world undesecrate” that she fills with imaginary characters:
This was the loft which was for Fuchsia a very secret place, a kind of pagan chapel, an eyrie, a citadel, a kingdom never mentioned, for that would have been a breach of faith — a kind of blasphemy.
It is this wondrous element — secretive, reverential, mythic — that best explains why the garret is so treasured and fiercely guarded by their visionary inhabitants, who devise dreamscapes from within the elevated confines that rival the awesome landscapes without: private Wonderlands, the mystical Dorchester ruins, the sublime darkness of the Aurach gorge, and the richly “germinating” intimations of Cliff City.
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