The Loser: A Novel

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An Element of Perversity: The Millions Interviews Katharine Kilalea

OK, Mr. Field—the debut novel from the South African-born, London-based writer Katharine Kilalea—is the story of a man and a house. Mr. Field, a concert pianist who lives in London, suffers a wrist injury after a performance of Chopin’s “Raindrop Prelude.” With the payout he receives, he buys a house in Cape Town that he had read about on the train before the accident occurred and moves there with his wife, to her mild dismay. The house, known as the House for the Study of Water, is no ordinary structure. It’s one of a number of replicas of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, a modernist building that stands outside Paris.

As Mr. Field and his wife begin their new life in the House for the Study of Water, their home’s alienating architecture begins to take a toll—first on their relationship, and ultimately on Mr. Field’s grip on reality. Take, for instance, this passage, in which he gazes out a window after a gust of wind blows out the glass:
Everything was exactly the same as it always had been, of course it was, but there was something vague about the way my eyes registered the world. Whereas previously I could see things clearly—the trees, even their individual leaves—now when I looked out the low-flying gulls were almost indistinguishable from the white specks that came off the tops of the waves. Things were on the cusp of not being themselves. I had the idea that it wasn’t my vision deteriorating but the very glue which held the objects of the world together growing old and weak.
Kilalea’s lucid prose absorbs the reader into Mr. Field’s increasingly uncanny experience of his surroundings and himself. This slow, steady unhinging reveals the strangeness of his world—and ours—anew.

Kilalea was kind enough to answer my questions about the novel over email.

The Millions: What was the initial impulse behind writing OK, Mr. Field? How did that first idea develop into what the novel became?

Katharine Kilalea: Some time ago I visited the Villa Savoye, which most people seem to love, and hated it. I’d already spent over a year writing a dissertation on the perversity of the building—the unnaturally narrow shape of its windows, the coyly hidden position of its entrance—without seeing it in its actuality, so I was surprised to discover that the building, which in my imagination had been something wonderful, was in fact very ordinary. And so unsexy! The stud walls were so porous that I could hear people in other rooms, talking, going to the toilet—presumably, if you lived there, having sex. It reminded me of the overexposed feeling I’d get when writing (or publishing) poetry. I was working for Farshid Moussavi, the architect, at the time. “Why are you writing a book about a building that you hate?” she said. Sometimes it occurred to me that if I could work out why I hated the Villa Savoye I might understand what I hated about writing poetry. Sometimes it seemed like I was using the Villa Savoye to write about a feeling, a kind of desire I suppose, which I was reluctant to write about directly because (in the same way as one ought not to take too much pleasure in an ice cream, say, or a dog, or a question) there’s an element of perversity in it. The building stood in front of that feeling, or stood in for it, as if substituting the words “feeling close” with “being close.”

TM: OK, Mr. Field is concerned, in part, with the interplay between outward order and internal disarray. I see that conflict as embodied in the House for the Study of Water, which is this impeccably designed living space that becomes the site for its occupant’s unraveling. It’s a feature, too, of the way you’ve designed the novel itself: Its motion is careful and its prose restrained as the world of its protagonist comes apart. Do you see that tension between order and disorder as an animating force in the novel? Is it a feature of the act of writing?

KK: The idea of order in a novel is, I think, quite literally the ordering of events. That’s what animates a novel, the knowledge I have from the moment I open it that something is going to happen, the business of waiting, trusting that one thing will lead to another to some climax or conclusion. It’s interesting; in poetry, “order”—rhythm, especially—guards against disorder, whereas in a novel, order stands against dullness. Which differentiates fiction from life—makes it more sexlike than lifelike—because in life, of course, there’s the possibility that nothing will change, nothing will happen. The tension, for me, is the wedge which this idea of progress drives between fiction and life. Is what makes a novel worth going on reading so different from what makes a life going on living? (What makes me go on living? Nothing. I just do!) I paid attention to climaxes while I was reading. The climaxes of some of my favorite books, instead of being moments of clarity or revelation, seemed to be points of disappearing or dissolving. They had a vague, misty quality. In The Magic Mountain, having spent hundreds of pages waiting for Hans Castorp to finally speak to Claudia Chauchat, their conversation is in French so I can’t understand it. Having spent weeks reading about K.’s quest to reach the Castle, Burghel’s offer to help is met with a smile, not because the object of K.’s desire is finally within reach but because he’s about to fall asleep.

TM: Another contradiction that seems to lie at the heart of the novel is the way that structures meant to foster intimacy can instead inspire isolation. As a definition we encounter in the novel has it, a house is “a machine for living in together,” yet it’s the House for the Study of Water that drives Mr. Field and his wife irrevocably apart. Music, too, often functions as a way of bringing people together, but in the novel it works in the opposite way: Mr. Field’s performance of Chopin’s “Raindrop Prelude” early in the novel alienates him from his audience, and when he plays it again later, alone, it carries him further into himself. What is it about those structures for connecting us—homes, songs—that can instead cut us off from one another? What makes that an interesting subject to you?

KK: I’m fascinated by the difference between loneliness and too much intimacy. The Villa Savoye seemed to think of intimacy as a kind of heightened proximity to other people—seeing each other and hearing each other and being with each other constantly. That much “togetherness” would drive me mad. In fact, Le Corbusier’s descriptions of how his buildings bring their inhabitants closer to nature reminds me of Daniel Schreber (famously analyzed by Freud), whose psychosis took the form of an overly intimate relationship with the outside world: The sun spoke to him, birds read his thoughts. Schreber tried to drown out the voices by reciting poems and playing the piano. So he used music as a way of keeping things out, shutting himself in. That’s my experience of music: The more I’m carried away by it, the more I find myself thinking about myself.

TM: This is your first novel but your second book. Your first was a book of poetry. How was writing this book different from writing poetry? In what ways, if any, do you see the novel as continuous with your poetic project?

KK: Somewhere between writing my book of poetry and this novel, I wrote a long poem which I think of as the hinge between the two. The poem is the opposite of prosaic—the images don’t make sense, the syntax doesn’t make sense, some of the words are nonsense. It was written at a time when, for reasons that were never clear, I had great difficulty in expressing myself. I was unable to speak properly; I couldn’t finish sentences and often couldn’t find the right word at the right time. Perhaps the music of the poem supplemented those unfinished thoughts and made sense of them, because I couldn’t write poems after that. Then, after a while, sentences started to appear. I miss poetry, but it’s a great relief to be able say something rather than having to convey it intravenously, as is the way of poetry.

TM: Many of my favorite recent novels were written by writers who began their careers as poets—Ben Lerner, Garth Greenwell, Anna Moschovakis, and you. Would it make sense to you to think of the contemporary English “poet’s novel” as a form with certain specific characteristics? What might those be?

KK: I’m not at all confident about this, but here goes … I wonder whether Ben Lerner and Garth Greenwell’s novels (I’m looking forward to reading Anna Moschovakis) share a cynicism about instinct, or the naturalness of feelings. There is a sense of feelings behind feelings, thoughts beneath thoughts; you settle on something only to discover, a moment later, something different buried beneath it. It makes it impossible to land anywhere, which is something I recognize from poetry, the sense that everything must be unsettled, that you think of a thing one way, but really …

TM: One of the features of OK, Mr. Field I found most compelling is the subtle prominence of animal life, from the sea or sea-adjacent creatures (seals, squid, seagulls) discussed when Mr. Field goes to the restaurant to the spider that he sets on fire to the dog that becomes his companion. What role do you see animals as playing in the novel?

KK: It’s not easy to describe feelings. You can only describe what caused them or what it looks like when a person is smiling, crying, etc. The thing about animals is that, since they can’t speak, perhaps, their bodies are very articulate—they seem to register feelings with their whole bodies through tail wagging, head cocking, etc. Also, although animals seem to experience roughly the same feelings as we do—guilt, affection, enjoyment, being left out, etc.—they’re not expected to be moral. For example, whereas people are expected to experience attraction to other people, preferably ones of a similar age, background, and so on, dogs are allowed to hump table legs or handbags.

TM: In an early scene, when Mr. Field meets Hannah Kallenbach, he notices a shelf filled with “big books, the kind of grand European novels which concern themselves with the human condition.” I thought of this as a winking way in which the novel both acknowledges the tradition of which it is a part (it’s also a novel that explicitly concerns itself with the human condition) and differentiates itself (it’s not a big book). Elsewhere, you’ve mentioned The Magic Mountain as an influence. What other books do you consider OK, Mr. Field in conversation with?

KK: I do miss the modernist project’s ambition to tackle death, love, the meaning of life. I’m still anxious about the meaning of life! There were a few books which were—are—always on my desk while writing: The Magic Mountain, Correction, The Castle, and Peter Sloterdijk’s Bubbles, all of which I treat as odd love stories: for death, a castle, a soap bubble, a foetus, a placenta … Bernhard’s Correction and The Loser were too thematically similar to OK, Mr. Field to ignore, though anyone trying to write while reading Bernhard knows how terribly infectious his style can be.

TM: In the novel, Mr. Field moves from England to South Africa, which is the reverse of the path of your own life. What, if anything, do you see as distinctly English or South African about the novel, or even distinctive of the interchange between the two?

KK: OK, Mr. Field was initially set in the Alps—as an homage to The Magic Mountain, I think—but I’d only been there once, so halfway through, I transposed it into South Africa, which I knew better. I realized, then, how dominating a presence South Africa can be, because suddenly I felt the need to write in great detail about its sunsets, the seaweed, etc. (which felt wrong: too much looking out, not enough looking in). There is a perverse pleasure in withholding that visual description, because the landscape is beautiful, yet that restraint seems common among South African novelists: Their books have an arid quality; they don’t sing. The changing of countries at the last moment was also willfully contrary, a corrective to the unspoken regulation that a South African writer should concern themselves primarily with South Africa and things associated with South Africa.

TM: What are you reading and working on now?

KK: I’m about to re-read Lolita. It’s not my favorite Nabokov, but I’d like to write about, and think about, sexuality, in an amoral way.

Setting a Rant to Music: On Adapting Thomas Bernhard’s ‘The Loser’ for the Opera

In 1998, I wrote music for a production of Friedrich Schiller’s play Mary Stuart at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.  The director was my friend Carey Perloff, the music was sung by the spectacular men’s vocal ensemble Chanticleer, and the translation of the text was by the writer and Village Voice theater critic Michael Feingold.  There can be a lot of down time for a composer and a translator during theater rehearsals so Michael and I passed the time telling each other stories about books we should be reading, and Michael suggested I read Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser.  So I did.  As soon as I got back to New York I picked up a copy and I was immediately hooked by the power of the novel, especially the psycho energy of the narrator.  Written in the first person as a continuous stream of jumbled information — one giant paragraph — and changing its focus and time and location and perspective and subject matter with almost every other sentence, it really felt like a rant to me — a condescending, angry, smart, rich, witty, not very nice man ranting about his life.  I couldn’t read it silently.  I ended up yelling the entire book to my reflection in the mirror in my bathroom, from start to finish, which was very exciting.  And that day I started imagining what it would be like to add music to it.

I was drawn to the tightness of the language, the intensity of the character and to the self consciously indirect way the story is told, but most of all I was drawn by the subject matter.  The novel tells the story of a man, never named in the book, who wanted to be a concert pianist when he was young.  He was good enough to participate in a master class with Vladimir Horowitz, but in the same class was a young Glenn Gould, and the knowledge that Gould would always be a better pianist than he could ever be destroyed his life, and the life of his best friend, Wertheimer, who was also in the master class.

There is not much plot.  The narrator’s friend Wertheimer has just killed himself, causing the narrator to reflect on their relationship together, their relationship to Glenn Gould, to the people and places and history of their native Austria, to their wealth and class, and to the odd philosophical thoughts they explored over the years to keep their various Glenn Gould fetishes alive.  And Wertheimer has a sick relationship with his sister, which is discussed in great detail.  Eventually there is a little bit of action — the narrator goes on a trip to Wertheimer’s hunting lodge to see if he can find Wertheimer’s notebooks, which may contain writings about the narrator, or about Glenn.  That is pretty much it.

One way to read the book is as a painful meditation on disappointment.  This is certainly a theme that runs through many of Bernhard’s novels.  The Loser has its own special type of disappointment for musicians, however, which is guaranteed to hit us where we are most vulnerable.  To become a musician is to throw yourself into years of study and practice and hard work, all of which you must pursue wholeheartedly and without compromise, before you can even begin to ask yourself if it might pay off.  It is an immense struggle just to get yourself to a high enough level of sophistication and proficiency that you can see and understand just how much higher you will need to go.  The close connection in The Loser between the erudition of the narrator and his disappointment feels all too real to us.

This feeling was also very real to Thomas Bernhard.  Like his narrator, Bernhard trained to be a musician, before a health crisis forced him to give it up.  Many parts of the novel are autobiographical, with odd fake details about Gould that in real life were facts about Bernhard himself.  Most of these details are tiny — about various diseases or locations.  Bernhard’s sense of musical disappointment, however, is fundamental to the novel.  Not only does it feel authentic throughout, but it also plays into a musician’s deepest fear, that he or she will never be good enough.

I had a very personal connection to reading the book and I wanted to preserve that, to make sure that my own reading remained the center of the piece.  And my opera really is in the service of the reading of the book.  I made the libretto entirely out of the (excellent) translation into English, I didn’t change a single word or the order in which any of the text occurs, just trimming it all for length — I wanted to preserve its odd and compelling flow.  And I had an idea of how to stage it that would keep our attention on how the character of the narrator is revealed, and not on the actions described or the physicality of the performers.  I wanted to keep everything as true to a reading of the book as I could make it.

I began with cutting the text into a workable libretto.  There is only so much one singer can sing, so there was a lot of amazing, significant material I had to cut out.  I omitted almost all the nasty things the narrator has to say about Austria and Switzerland, which is a huge part of the book.  I ended up having to take out many things that are quite important — I left out that the narrator is a failed writer, I left out Wertheimer’s funeral and burial, that Wertheimer was Jewish, etc.  What I tried to keep were the things that allow us to see better into the persona of the narrator.  Our perception of him changes across the novel, as Bernhard shows us more of his inner life.

It is this aspect of Bernhard’s storytelling that ended up exciting me the most as I went about adapting it.  It seemed to me that managing our perceptions of a character could be a new way to focus action in an opera. Opera traditionally includes love and death and revenge and coincidence and mistaken identity and elephants — usually a lot goes on.  I loved the idea that the dramatic shape of an opera could be made only out of the changes in how we perceive the motivations of a character, and how the music reveals him to us.

I have also been the stage director for this opera.  For the staging I wanted to make physical the separation that the narrator feels from Glenn Gould, and from the life that he did not lead.  I had the idea to seat the audience only in the mezzanine of the Opera House at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and build a platform right in front of us, on which the narrator stands.  It seems like he is floating in space, telling us his story, within the giant void of the empty hall.  Two thirds of the way through the piece, the stage behind him begins to glow, revealing a piano floating in the air.  A pianist begins to play, a very delicate and simple music.  We can’t hear it very well, because in front of us a man is singing, very intensely and directed right at us, about his miserable life.  What I hoped we would feel in this staging is that there is something blocking our path to the beauty of the piano on stage, just as the narrator’s path to the piano became blocked.  We become frustrated at not being able to hear the music.  Frustration is a big part of the reading of The Loser as well.

I am grateful to all the amazing musicians who have helped me make this piece — the commanding Rod Gilfry as the narrator, the very sensitive piano virtuoso Conrad Tao, an ensemble of great musicians put together by Bang on a Can and conducted by Karina Canellakis.  Most of all I am grateful to the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and in particular the courageous Joe Melillo, for commissioning this work and for letting me make it.

A Piano Quartet

Watching Eugenio Mira’s thriller Grand Piano last month, I finally realized why my piano career ended in a disastrous recital at a local church and not at the Met. Had my piano teacher scrawled, “Play one wrong note and you die” across my sheet music in addition to her helpful but not particularly inspirational fingering suggestions, I probably would have practiced more diligently.

Such is the minatory note that greets Grand Piano’s Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) upon opening his scorebook during his comeback performance. (As if the written warning weren’t enough, Selznick’s mysterious tormentor, hidden in the auditorium with a sniper rifle, reinforces his message through an earpiece: “Come in late and it’ll be the last downbeat you ever play.”)  It has been five years since Selznick has melted down while attempting his old teacher’s fiendishly difficult composition, “La Cinquette,” an “unplayable” piece that is the perfect accompaniment to an unwatchable movie.

As the skittish virtuoso begins to play “La Cinquette” and its lightning quick final four bars approach, the reason behind the villain’s obsession with perfection is revealed, at which point the antagonists dutifully report to the rafters to fight. Wouldn’t dueling pianos have made more sense?

I hate to ask too much of a movie in which a pianist texts for help while casually accompanying the orchestra, but Grand Piano had a potentially interesting conceit about the wrongheaded, nay pathological demand for artistic perfection. Predictably, the motivation turns out to be more material than aesthetic, and the facile moral of the story urges Selznick to embrace the amateur spirit: since the audience will never know if he makes a mistake or not, he resolves not to be such a perfectionist.

While the following three piano-themed books—Alan Rusbridger’s Play it Again, Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser and Murray Bail’s extraordinary The Voyage—are all inexplicably devoid of sniper rifles, they do present slightly more nuanced takes on perfection and its discontents.

In the memoir Play it Again, the Guardian newspaper’s editor Alan Rusbridger attempts to learn Chopin’s first Ballade, a piece that, while not as technically demanding as the mythical Cinquette, still poses its challenges. Notable among these is the “nightmare coda,” which, as Rusbridger tells us, “the best pianists in the world fear. It’s presto con fuoco — demonically fast — and syncopated.” In thriller-movie fashion, he refers to one challenging leap as a “trapeze of death,” though the stakes of making that leap are obviously lower than in Grand Piano. After all, to quote the review of an amateur concert in which Rusbridger participates, “It’s only really music critics and piano teachers who can’t abide the imperfect.”

Rusbridger categorizes his project as “part of a much broader experiment in how to use your time, how to relish — and revel in — being an amateur.” He has less time than most, especially during the period in question, which saw Rusbridger consumed by the paper’s work on the Wikileaks scoop, phone hacking scandals, and the European financial crisis. In the book’s best scene, he travels to Libya to help free a captured freelance reporter. Once in Tripoli, the longeurs of hostage negotiation provide the amateur with a rare opportunity to perform in public:
And so I sit down in Tripoli, in the middle of a civil war, on a ledge above an echoing and virtually deserted restaurant — with just the faintest hint of Frank Sinatra over the muzak system — and play the first few pages of the Chopin Ballade. I see a few faces craning up at me, but soon they go back to their scrambled eggs and grilled tomatoes.
At least the tomatoes stayed on the plates, which means he couldn’t have played all that badly.

The narrative line of Play it Again could be tighter, but there is something about the very capaciousness of Rusbridger’s diary — interview with pianists, scholars, and brain surgeons, monitoring the Twittersphere for Ballade recordings, endlessly debating over which piano to buy — that builds up the tension as he gets closer to playing the piece. On the eve of the performance, there is still a “whack-a-mole feeling to it all” that adds to the drama: “Just as I tidy up one corner of the piece another starts falling apart.”

Unsurprisingly then, Rusbridger takes heart in one pianist’s verdict that uncertainty only adds to the overall effect: “Perhaps this coda is never more exciting than when a few notes are missed.” In other words, Chopin’s piece, and especially the coda, benefits aesthetically from a certain thrilling imperfection. Rusbridger finds further support for this idea from the New Yorker music critic Alex Ross. Ross explains his theory that a “cult of precision” developed along with the classical music recording industry: an “emphasis on togetherness, on technical control” that made earlier recordings seem “sloppy, less controlled than we hear nowadays” and set an incredibly high bar for live performances. What could be achieved by splicing together takes in a studio cannot easily be reproduced at a concert. According to Ross, a welcome reaction has already begun to occur, a “loosening” of the restrictive pursuit of a “perfect performance” in favor of a more creative approach.

Within reason, that is. I doubt Ross would approve of the “creative” approach offered to Rusbridger by the Russian pianist Boris Berezovsky: “The pedal in Chopin…will help to cover up some things which normally without pedal would come sticking out. It helps to cover up mistakes and other stuff — so just put it on and enjoy.”

In The Loser, Thomas Bernhard dramatizes the depressing limits of technical perfection: that unbridgeable gap between virtuosity and genius. Whereas Rusbridger delights in the communal pleasures of amateurism, Bernhard delves into the merciless antagonism of artistic sublimity: strong characters devour weak ones, “piano artists” are superior to “repulsive” pianists and the genius of Glenn Gould’s “piano radicalism” exposes the mere virtuoso’s fundamental amateurism.

The novel is a paean to the humming wunderkind Glenn Gould, the Canadian who made his name with a recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations at the age of twenty-two. In his brilliant practice sessions, he “interprets” for hours on end without mistake, playing, as Bernhard puts it, inglennuously. Such is the power of the strong artist: to become an adverb.

There’s a Nietzschean element to Bernhard’s Gould, misconstrued by “the whole world…as the absolute weakling of artists.” Gould is a “transcendent artist,” a “ruthless person toward himself” who has attained an “inhuman state” and possesses a “terrible…magnificence” that destroys lesser artists. In one incredible scene, Gould, an “athletic type” whose hunched posture at the piano belies his incredible strength, laboriously chops down an ash tree he claims is “obstruct[ing] his playing.” He doesn’t even think to ask the property’s owner: “If something is in our way we have to get rid of it…If we ask first we’re already so weakened that it’s bad for us, may even destroy us…”

The narrator and a man named Wertheimer, whom Gould genially dubs “the loser” immediately upon meeting him, are two promising pianists. They first hear Gould playing in Salzburg where they have all come to study with Vladimir Horowitz. The two are immediately and “fatally wounded” by Gould’s playing:
Glenn had played only a few bars and Wertheimer was already thinking about giving up…For a decade we study the instrument we have chosen for ourselves and then, after this arduous, more or less depressing decade, we hear a genius play a few bars and are washed up…
The two men react differently to the cruel revelation of their inescapable amateurishness. The narrator derives a perverse sense of strength from achieving a “thoroughly extraordinarily degree of perfection” and then giving it all up when confronted by the fact of Glenn Gould. By contrast, Wertheimer never could “admit his own failure.” An “unrelieved emulator,” he eventually hangs himself after playing the piano for two weeks non-stop while hosting a debauched party, his attempt to copy Gould by committing suicide by Bach. (In Bernhard’s slightly altered version of Gould’s death, the recluse suffers a stroke while at his piano.) The narrator’s analysis of his friend’s suicide reveals that the antagonistic language deployed throughout is not merely rhetorical:
Whereas the Goldberg Variations were composed for the sole purpose of helping an insomniac put up with the insomnia he had suffered from all his life, I thought, they killed Wertheimer.
To play inglennuously is to play fatally, at least to those few virtuosos who wish desperately to become adverbs themselves.

Murray Bail’s latest marvel, The Voyage, documents the aesthetic peril of perfection by focusing on the instrument rather than the player. Frank Delage is an Australian piano manufacturer who has developed an innovative new concert grand while “operating from a political, industrial and musical outpost, Sydney.” Delage comes to Europe to introduce his new model and its distinctive sound to “music-saturated” Vienna, a city awash in Bosendorfers, Bechsteins, Faziolis, and of course Steinways. Once there, he gets tangled up with the illustrious Von Schalla family — pursuing the mother and grand musical patron Amalia, pursued by the daughter Elisabeth and frequently waylaid by the boorish patriarch Konrad, who asks the inventor if he has “a small area in the back of your brain, allocated to ‘hopeless and impractical ideas.’”

The titular “voyage” refers both to Delage’s largely unsuccessful Viennese adventure and his journey back to Australia on a container ship, where he is accompanied by Elisabeth, who lounges about their cabin in various states of undress eliciting the impressionistic, fragmented tale from her captor. (Not without a certain frisson that partially explains her rash decision to join him, she imagines Delage as a “raider [who] manages to escape with his plunder.”)

To try to sell his product in a place “stuffed full of pianos” is a bit like carrying coals to Newscastle, but Delage’s failure to export his piano goes deeper than problems of supply and demand. At one point, Delage gets an influential, splenetic critic to hear his new instrument. The critic is clearly struck by the invention, reflecting on it deeply before delivering his verdict in the middle of a crowded footpath as people are forced to walk around him, a marvelous little display of indifference to the public and its complacent opinions. His speech identifies the hidden flaw in the perfect instrument:
The sound of the Delage piano, he said, was too pure…it was a new sound, clean and precise…But he said it doesn’t allow for imperfections. A person playing a Delage would be exposed with every note…And that would be alright, except it was not a technical mistake, it showed a misunderstanding of art — he said ‘catastrophic misunderstanding’…As listeners, we actually want an imperfect result. It is human, and therefore closer to human understanding. Otherwise, it was beyond understanding. He finished by saying that whoever invented such a perfect piano would be just as unforgiving in life.
The piano reflects on the narrowness of its inventor, revealing an aesthetic as well as a moral failing. Delage’s European education, which begins to address both, entails nothing so much as seeing that “Pianos were not the only things that were complex.”

A trace of Bernhard can be heard in the rants against Vienna’s “spiritual and artistic exhaustion” and its creaking floorboards, the “loose joints of conservatism,” though The Voyage is Jamesian through and through: an ultra-fine comedy of manners that dramatizes the struggle between “New World ingenuity” and “worn-out, overdecorated Europe.” In a wonderfully understated phrase that captures how much the novel does with so little, Bail tells us that Delage returns from Europe “with a young woman from Vienna, and a slight change in personality.”

Delage’s guide and patron is not that young woman but her mother, Amalia von Schalla, who takes pity on the inept but hopeful salesman and the “dangerous instrument everyone here wants to run a mile away from.” The “alert, shining” Delage breaks through the sclerotic in Amalia, who is like
the Steinways, Bechsteins, Bosendorfers gathering dust in silent rooms in Vienna, their lids closed, like Europe itself, a place hardly able to breathe, a matter of raising the glossy black lids, waiting to release sounds.
Part of Amalia’s attraction for Delage stems from his particularly New World bad taste (quite distinct from the Old World bad taste on display in its ornate drawing rooms). Delage clowns for her, performing a “ridiculous trumpet fanfare with his mouth” when unveiling the one piano he has shipped over, which stands out because of its garish “nicotine brown, the color of a bantam rooster.” To demonstrate the superiority of his piano’s sound, Delage plays her a loud, improvised honkytonk tune, “hardly appropriate under the circumstances, completely inappropriate, as a matter of fact.” As charmingly inappropriate as his mismatched socks and his daring pursuit of the regal and “remote” beauty.

There is something in Europe, whose “people had so many extraordinary thoughts, and didn’t mind saying them,” that prompts Delage to act the fool, a creature just as likely to amuse as to affront. And thus in spite of himself, he eventually offends his patron grievously, prompting an exasperated Amalia to tell him: “You have a courageous piano…but you do not know how to behave.” (A great example of a non-native English speaker describing an object with a word at once slightly wrong and precisely right.)

Whether Delage learns how to behave, or whether learning to correct his particular misbehavior is necessary at all, is less important than Delage’s wish to “expand beyond” the mechanics of his invention. What makes this “voyage” particularly Jamesian is that it involves nothing so vulgar as an epiphany but rather an aesthetic and moral attunement; Delage catches the contagious complexity “spreading” from Amalia and her daughter, the one “C major, the other A minor”:
The intricate situations in Vienna had become unavoidable, he had to take them into account, attractions were stronger than information or the difficulties of manufacturing or selling…By the time he had left or fled Vienna, he was a modified person.
But only slightly modified, like an altered chord. That our last view of him is lying prone on the ground, gathering his wits having tripped upon disembarking, in no way ironizes his subtle metamorphosis. Delage simply needs time to adapt his body and mind, neither of which is as perfect an instrument as his piano, to its new frequencies.

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A Passion for Immortality: On the Missing Pulitzer and the Problem with Prizes

A literary controversy (or what passes for controversy in our fairly tame circle) erupted last month when the Pulitzer Prize Board elected not to award a Pulitzer Prize for a work of fiction.  It was the first time they had done so since 1977.  The reason why this can happen has to do with the way the Pulitzer Prize Board’s selection process works: three initial readers — this year they were novelist Michael Cunningham and critics Susan Larson and Maureen Corrigan — pore over several hundred books published in the previous year and settle on three finalists. Then they turn this list over to the twenty members of the Board, eighteen of whom have voting power (who knows why the board includes two members who can’t vote) to pick one. A majority vote among the Board is required to select a winner. This year, a majority could not come to agree on one book.

The three books nominated were: Swamplandia!, the second book by my friend Karen Russell, a garrulous oddball romp that forays into satire and surrealism; Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson, a decorated luminary on his way to becoming an old guard figure as our village elders like Vonnegut and Updike are vacating their positions; and The Pale King, the unfinished last novel of David Foster Wallace, the most energizing, polarizing, and influential literary voice of our generation, his reputation as a genius now safely beatified by his suicide.

Apparently not one of these three books was liked enough unanimously by ten people on the Board, and so none was awarded the most prestigious literary prize in America this year. “There’s always going to be dissatisfaction, frustration,” said Sig Gissler, the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, regarding the indecision. “But [this year] the board deliberated in good faith to reach a decision — just no book got the majority vote.”

When the unusual and disappointing decision was announced, the reaction among the literati—writers, I suppose, and critics, and a vast rearguard of booksellers, bloggers, and book geeks on Twitter who have greatly expanded and diversified the circle of conversation in recent years — was like the moment in the courtroom drama when the unassuming girl on the witness stand calmly says something that suddenly changes everything, and the room bursts all at once into a frenzy of barely contained whispers. What’s more, the Pulitzer Prize Board was pissing on a parade that already felt drenched. Just a few days before, the hobbits of the publishing industry had been dismayed when the Justice Department sued three major publishers over e-book pricing, siding with Amazon like Saruman sided with Sauron, whose ominous red eye sweeps across the land from his Dark Tower in that northwestern Mordor, Seattle.

Ann Patchett, a novelist who last year published a book eligible for the prize (State of Wonder, a novel as magnificent as her other masterpiece, Bel Canto), and now also a bookseller, as she recently opened an independent bookstore in Nashville (so she’s got two horses in this race) maligned the Pulitzer Board’s non-decision in a widely read op-ed piece in The New York Times. “If I feel disappointment as a writer and indignation as a reader, I manage to get all the way to rage as a bookseller,” she writes. She argues that the bestowal of a Pulitzer Prize has the power to get people excited about a book in particular and books in general, and under the shadow of our current zeitgeist, it’s a bad time to put down literature. “What I am sure of,” she writes, “is this: Most readers hearing the news will not assume it was a deadlock. They’ll just figure it was a bum year for fiction.”

Patchett’s piece is heartfelt and impassioned, and in some respects I agree with her — but what this controversy mostly did was remind me of how fundamentally I dislike the whole idea of literary prizes at all. I believe with all my soul that the concept of a board of twenty journalists — or people of any profession for that matter, it doesn’t really make a difference who they are — awarding a prize to a work of art, putting an official stamp of approval on one book and thus by implication saying the other books published that year aren’t as good, should strike us as misguided, shortsighted, and dumb.

I’m not saying this in a sour-grapes way, as a novelist who also wrote an eligible book that was published last year. If I were awarded the Pulitzer, it’s not like I’d fling it in their faces. Obviously I would kiss their feet with gratitude. I have benefited greatly from a literary prize, the Bard Fiction Prize, for which I am hugely grateful, and was nominated for a couple of others, the Dylan Thomas Prize in the UK and the Young Lions Fiction Prize here (which Karen Russell did win, by the way). These prizes can help writers out tremendously, especially early in their careers, giving them prestige, publicity, and money, and for that, they’re a good thing. But this isn’t about me — I’m making this argument not as a writer, but from a more abstract standpoint, from a big-picture view.

There was a shrewdly observant piece in n+1 that was rerun in Slate last year by Chad Harbach (whose roaringly hyped novel, The Art of Fielding, also came out last year) titled “MFA vs. NYC,” and given the headline, which pretty much spells it out, “America now has two distinct literary cultures.  Which one will last?” I found the piece spot-on about its observation that our literary culture is sharply bifurcated into two contingents, one concentrated in the publishing mecca of New York City, and the other scattered far and wide across the land at various colleges and universities. Harbach is sharply critical of MFA programs, essentially making all the usual arguments against them and coming down on the side of NYC. After I got an MFA at the ur-program, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I moved to New York City, because I figured that’s where writers go, and I’ve lived there for the last few years. So I feel I’m in a commodious place from which to observe these two literary cultures, and I must say, though both the insular little MFA world and the New York City world of literary culture come with their own and different forms of attendant bullshit, there is far, far — and I mean far — more bullshit in NYC.

The difference between the two cultures becomes most profoundly evident contrasting the books that get talked about at the bar over after-class or after-work drinks, respectively. There are many books I came to fall in love with that altered the course of my writing and changed what I thought could be done with literature that were recommendations from some of my friends in the MFA program. We would excitedly talk about what we had been reading lately, or great books we had read before — it was a conversation that was happening constantly and everywhere. A quick list of things I discovered in grad school from my friends’ recommendations that hugely affected me would include the philosophy of Antonin Artaud, the poetry of Paul Celan, Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s, the stories of Mavis Gallant, Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser. And I dashed out that list in part to illustrate that we were not exactly shrieking and hyperventilating about the brand-new hot young rising stars of American fiction. (Well, some of us were, but I wasn’t one of them. And indeed in retrospect I notice how most of what I just listed were the recommendations of my poet friends, by necessity bound for academia, if they were lucky, and not for the networky New York literary scene.) Of course, we wanted lustily to be those hot young rising stars of American fiction soon. But when we talked about books, we would pull out the interesting and unusual jewels of our collections the way a music geek will pull out a rare LP in a plastic sleeve. We didn’t really give a shit about what book won what prize and did such-and-such really “deserve” to win the Pulitzer? Those are the kinds of gossipy, facile book conversations you have in New York, where everything is in some way tainted with commerce. Ours were the conversations of collectors, enthusiasts, purists, of people genuinely interested in the art itself, and I miss them.

All that is by way of suggesting that literary prizes are mainly manifestations and obsessions of that buzzy New York literati hive, which can become less of a hive and more of an echo-chamber. It’s an observable phenomenon: a book comes out, which for whatever reason gathers a tsunami of critical praise that perpetuates itself — for by the time the great wave makes landfall, some critics may either be hesitant to disagree with their peers, timorously fearing that they’re missing something everyone else can see (Naked Emperor syndrome), or what’s more probable, their perception has been primped by the power of suggestion, in the same way we are more likely to declare a fine wine magnifique if we know before tasting it that the bottle cost a hundred dollars than if it cost ten. This is why sometimes quite mediocre books wind up vaunted with widespread and lavish praise, and are sometimes even buoyed all the way up to the Pulitzer. But mediocre books getting overpraised does not bother me seriously, as I would rather let ten guilty men go free than hang one innocent — it irritates me far more when truly great books are ignored, which happens all the time.

A book has a vertical life and a horizontal one. The vertical life is what happens to it up to, during, and very soon after its publication; the horizontal life is what happens as the years and decades and even centuries slide by. As the Pulitzer is awarded to a work of fiction published in the previous year, all it can take stock of is a book’s vertical life, which sometimes can be deceiving. I’m sure this helps explain some of the more embarrassing retrospective head-slaps in the Pulitzer’s history, such as when, in 1930, it awarded the prize to Oliver La Farge’s Laughing Boy — a second-rate and now utterly forgotten book by an utterly forgotten writer — for the year in which both Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury were published. It’s perfectly natural they would make that mistake; back then, Faulkner and Hemingway were not yet Faulkner and Hemingway, they were just a couple of young writers who happened to be named Faulkner and Hemingway. The Pulitzer Board would try to atone for their sin years later by awarding them both (Faulkner twice) prizes for far lesser works after their reputations were already secure. The hype of the moment does not necessarily translate into lasting luminance. Just scroll down the list of all the past winners of the prize, and count how many you’ve ever heard of. Start at the bottom and move upward chronologically, and you’ll find the occurrence of familiar names increases as we move closer to the present. This is not because the Pulitzer Board has gradually been growing wiser — it’s because we’re living now, not a hundred years in the future. Then we’ll see. We can’t help it — we’re blinded by our own times; all prizes are like that, and that is why, as a measure of what is good and what is not in art, they are not exactly the trustworthiest oracles.

Also, a twenty-member prize board may be seducible by groupthink. I trust groupthink more when we’re talking about the long and justice-bending arc of history, not twenty journalists (eighteen of whom have voting power) talking about fiction, which is not even their forte. Come to think of it, why have we been letting a roomful of people who don’t necessarily know anything about literature tell us what the best book of fiction was last year, year after year? Why didn’t they just let Michael Cunningham, Maureen Corrigan and Susan Larson pick it? I would be more interested to hear their opinions on the matter, anyway. (The 2012 board did include one — exactly one — fiction writer, past winner Junot Díaz. The only other person on the board I’d heard of was New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who I’m sure is a wonderful man but the dude writes like a clown honks a bicycle horn.)

Let me tell you a story about the problem with a group of people of about that number locked in a room trying to come to a decision about a work of art, fiction specifically. The stakes here are much smaller, but the phenomenon I believe is similar. For a short time I was a submissions reader for a fairly well-known, medium-cachet literary review. There were usually about ten to fifteen of us around the editorial meeting table.  Each of us would read through the slush pile and select a few stories we liked, and then the boss would Xerox the top stories for everyone, we’d all go home and read them, pick out our favorites among those, and at the next meeting discuss which stories to put in the issue. After all our arguing and deliberation, usually the pieces that wound up being selected for publication were not the most interesting, or what I thought were the best of what we had to choose from. They were the pretty good pieces that we could all compromise on. Because a truly great and interesting work of art will have both its loving defenders and its outraged detractors, such a work is intrinsically less likely to be selected for honor by a large committee. That is the nature of good art: it provokes. I agree with Churchill that democracy is the worst form of government except all those others that have been tried from time to time, but not when it comes to lionizing certain novels over others. That I prefer to do on my own, thank you very much.

Historically, this obsession with prizes — and its grandchild, the micro-hysteria over those “best-of” lists that seasonally return to stipple the hills like dandelions — seems to be an impulse particularly characteristic of the twentieth century and beyond: the first Nobel Prize in Literature went in 1901 to the great Sully Prudhomme (what, you’ve never heard of him?), the first Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1918 to Ernest Poole for His Family, the first National Book Award in 1950 to Nelson Algren for The Man with the Golden Arm, the first National Book Critics Circle Award in 1975 to E.L. Doctorow for Ragtime, and the first PEN/Faulkner in 1981 to Walter Abish for his How German Is It. I’d say the only one of those that’s still well remembered today is E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (although I happen to have read Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm — it’s pretty good).

However, there’s also an argument that this misguided impulse is not necessarily so much a modern one as an inherently human one (and we have plenty of those), when one considers that in ancient Greek festivals, prizes were given out, as they were for the more objectively measurable outcomes of athletic contests, to the best plays. But this phenomenon was in evidence even back then — that of the critics of the time failing to recognize what history would discover greatness in: angered and confused by the way he broke the conventions of Greek drama, the judges snubbed Euripides.

The next-to-next-to-last time the Pulitzer Board chose not to award a prize at all was in 1974, when all three of the readers recommended Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and every member of the Board categorically denied it. Considering what a rambunctious, rebellious book it is, and considering the long life it has since enjoyed as both a cult classic and a classic, a necessary item on the bookshelf of every druggy collegiate pseudo-intellectual on his way or not to becoming an intellectual, fiercely hated by many and by many fiercely loved (and both parties have their points), it is so fitting that that, of all books, would be bestowed this negative honor; if anything, it’s an enduring badge of coffee-shop cool, and it well deserves it  Of course Gravity’s Rainbow can’t win a Pulitzer. It would be like a punk band winning a Grammy.

Here’s a question. Imagine Satan were to appear in a sulfurous cloud as the host of some Faustian game show, on which the contestants, who are artists at inchoate and uncertain stages of their careers, are forced to confront interesting spiritual dilemmas. Old Scratch says to the Young Writer, I offer you a choice between two fates. In the first, he says — and this seductive vision appears in an orb of smoky light hovering above his outstretched claw — your books are met with blazing success. Every critic fawningly gushes over your work. You’re heralded as a genius. You’re interviewed on TV and on widely-syndicated NPR programs, your phone won’t stop ringing with interview requests. Packed houses at every reading you give. The New York Times Best-Seller List. The money rolls in, you easily clear your outrageous advances. You win the National Book Award, you win the National Book Critics Circle Award, you win the PEN/Faulkner, you win the Orange Prize if you’re a woman, you win the Pulitzer. The movies based on your books hit the screens with famous actors and actresses playing your characters, and everyone says the books were so much better. This is your life. But! — and the vision vanishes — know this: after you die, after your life of literary celebrity, interest in your work will fade. None of the shadows you made will stick to the cave walls because, in the end, none of the cave-dwellers was moved to chalk its outline when it was there. Over time, the world will forget you. Or, behind door number two… The world, if it ever knew you, will forget you in your own lifetime, and you will die in obscurity, uncelebrated, unfulfilled, destitute, and bitter. But! —in the years following your death, your work will be rediscovered, and one of your books in particular will even become a classic that lives on for many generations and forever changes the landscape of our collective imagination. In other words, you’ll be Herman Melville.

Now, both of these are rare and lucky fates. If the variables were at all uncertain — if in the first case there was a chance your work would be remembered, and in the second there was a chance you’d remain forgotten — it would be a much harder decision. But I’d like to think that any artist who is truly interested in art would choose the second option in a heartbeat. I know I would, and I’m not too humble to say so. It’s the first option, not the second, that’s the Faustian bargain: heaven on earth, hell for dessert.

The reason a real artist would choose the second option over the first has nothing to do with any inner nobility — far from it; in fact each fantasy springs from the same megalomaniacal, insatiable hunger. (It’s no coincidence that Hitler was a failed painter and Franco a failed poet. The heart of an artist beats wild and greedy in the chest of every despot. It’s the very same source of energy that produces both.) It is because, while worldly recognition may be an object of lust, immortality is an object of love. As I once read in Plato’s Symposium, and was so amazed by their truth that I’ve never forgotten these sentences, “the soul has its offspring as well as the body. Laws, inventions and noble deeds, which spring from love of fame, have for their motive the same passion for immortality. The lover seeks a beautiful soul in order to generate therein offspring which shall live for ever.”

This is why, for any artist, dying in obscurity is among the worst nightmares. If I had a time machine, I would visit Herman Melville at his deathbed and tell him the good news from the future, so he might go into that good night with some sense of satisfaction. But on second thought, why wait until the very end? I’d go further back and tell him sooner, give him something to help him through those nineteen years he spent growing old as a customs inspector, his public literary career long dead in the water after the critics of his day shouted him out of town as a crackpot, though he was still returning home every night to quietly scribble out poetry and a novella that would be published many years posthumously as Billy Budd. On third thought, seeing as he was in fact working on Billy Budd, and wasn’t so frustrated he’d completely given up writing, maybe somebody already told him. On fourth thought, maybe he didn’t need anyone to tell him, because he knew he was a genius and held out hope the world might one day see it.

All in all, I would urge readers to not pay too much attention to big prestigious literary prizes. In a perfect world, I would wish for every writer a magical bag of money that is never empty (to level the financial question) and simply do away with them all: no Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, no National Book Award, no PEN/Faulkner, no Man Booker, no Nobel Prize in Literature. Let writers write, let critics have their say, let readers read, let time decide.

It doesn’t really matter, though. Even without the magic moneybags, and even with the swells of cacophonic hype surrounding all the literary prizes and all the literary darlings of any given moment, history will plod on, and the Ozymandias of now will be the half-sunk and shattered visage of later. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who never won a Pulitzer, will remain F. Scott Fitzgerald, and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Booth Tarkington will remain Booth Tarkington. And anyway, I am absolutely certain there have been many writers the equal of Fitzgerald who, through their own bad luck or other people’s bad taste, were never published and never read, let alone given prizes, and it’s especially to these unknown soldiers of literature that I raise my glass. John Kennedy Toole killed himself believing he was doomed to be one of them, and he most certainly would have been, had his mother not accosted Walker Percy years later with his manuscript of A Confederacy of Dunces, which went on to win a twelve-years-posthumous Pulitzer Prize. It was a nice gesture.

Some Other, Better Bernhard, or the Rights and Wrongs of Readership

Maybe you’ve seen them, stranded in shoals of the fiction section in some out-of-the-way used bookstore: the black-clad members of the cult of Thomas Bernhard. Incurably bookish, ninety percent male, they hand you well-thumbed copies of The Loser and The Lime Works and stare fixedly into your eyes.

“Bleak stuff,” they say, “but then again, what is life but one long bleak expanse in which all human experience is ground down, endlessly ground down by bleakness and incurable human stupidity?”

They stuff his novels into your jacket pocket with furtive hands that smell of strong coffee and tobacco.

“Don’t worry,” they whisper. “It’s funny, if you can stand it.”

They say it like it’s a challenge.

I’m exaggerating, of course. We wouldn’t be experiencing such a flowering of Thomas Bernhard’s literary reputation if all his supporters were maladjusted young men malingering in coffee shops and contemplating the depths of human misery. But what is striking about even the most thoughtful and culturally astute admirers of Bernhard is that their praise often resembles the scenario I’ve mentioned above: an exhortation to read, read, read the mad Austrian, but always with a caveat: only if you dare.

Hence Claire Messud, recommending The Loser on National Public Radio, felt obligated to issue a warning: “you will not find it pleasant.” Thus Geoff Dyer, who has written exceptionally well about Bernhard, calling him “the funniest writer… also one of the most profound,” felt the need to add that “Bernhard is nothing if not interminable.”

Hello, I’d like to read the novel by Thomas Bernhard that was recently recommended me by the fellow from the Guardian. Yes, please: the interminable one.

But by far the most virulent example of this sort of behavior comes from the pen of Ben Marcus, in an essay he wrote for Harper’s in 2006. Although it’s more than half a decade old, it still serves quite well as a reference point for the current understanding of Bernhard, as well as a fascinating case study in what a certain kind of writer (or reader) takes away from Bernhard’s novels. Marcus writes:
Bernhard was altogether unconcerned with immunizing a reader against his surgical attacks on humanity, and if he made a blood sport of novel writing, he did it with a zeal and a gallows humor that is unrivaled in contemporary literature. His formally radical novels, which sometimes blasted into shape as a single, unbroken paragraph, were manic reports on such fixations as the futility of existence; the dark appeal, and inevitable logic, of suicide; the monstrosity of human beings; and the abject pain of merely being alive. Bernhard’s language strained the limits of rhetorical negativity: if his prose were any more anguished, it would simply transmit as moaning and wailing.
Novel-writing as “blood sport?” Rhetorical negativity? Moaning and wailing? Not to mention the military word choice: “blasted,” “transmit,” “attacks.” This is the sort of language that would normally be used to send readers running for the hills, but Marcus makes a strength out of disgust and darkness, fashions it into a sort of badge of honor, a platonic ideal of negativity that separates the men from the boys, the wheat from the chaff. One gets the sense of a perverse sort of initiation into the pleasures of unpleasant fiction.

And yet, Bernhard is experiencing a flowering beyond what one would expect from a cult author. Consider the extensive reissue project undertaken by Vintage, culminating in the recent publication of Bernhard’s pseudo-memoir, Gathering Evidence, bundled with his satirical treatment of his own fame, My Prizes. Stroll through the B’s in the fiction section of your local Barnes and Noble – hurry, you might not have much time – and you’ll find a series of delightful paperbacks to catch your eye.

How did such an unpleasant author fashion such a stunning coup? Is it because he isn’t as unpleasant as everyone says he is? What if all this talk about the Bernhard’s “blood-sport” amounts to a colossal mis-reading of the entire canon, a mis-reading which says more about the readership than it does about Bernhard?

The first secret, shared only by the initiated, is that Bernhard is very funny.

Bernhard himself wrote a sort of self-mocking description of his particular brand of humor in his novel The Lime Works, placing the manifesto in the mouth of his antihero Konrad:
Whatever point a man like himself reached, arrived at, all he ever reached or arrived at was irritation, further irritation. But all of it was ultimately so comical, it’s all more comical than anything, which is why, he is supposed to have said, it is all quite bearable after all, because it is comical. All we have in this world is the very essence of comedy, and do what we will, we can’t escape from this comedy, for thousands of years men have tried to turn this comedy into tragedy, but their efforts had to fail, in the nature of things.
This from the mouth of a man who has subjected his wife to grotesque experiments and then shot her in the head with a shotgun. So yes, Marcus is partially right: gallows humor.

But not always gallows humor, and not always humor about the gallows. Sometimes the humor is about more quotidian stuff, like clothes. Consider this riff from The Loser, in which the protagonist Wertheimer ruminates on Tyrolian folk costume.
If she wanted to invite guests he wouldn’t allow it, said Franz, she also wasn’t permitted to dress the way she wanted, had always had to wear the clothes that he wanted to see on her, even during the coldest weather she was never allowed to put on her Tyrolian hat, for her brother hated Tyrolian hats and hated, as I also know, everything connected with Tyrolian folk costume, as of course he himself never wore anything that even vaguely recalled Tyrolian folk costume, thus here, in this region, he naturally always stood out, for here everybody always wears Tyrolian folk costume, above all clothes that are made from coarse loden wool, which is actually quite well suited for the quite dreadful climatic conditions in the lower Alps, I thought, he found Tyrolian folk costume, like anything that even reminded him of Tyrolian folk costume, deeply repugnant.
I would offer this as one of the funniest sentences in the history of European literature. It is also, no matter how you look at it, neither a keening wail of misery or a ruthless display of novel-writing as blood sport. It is representation of an author in fine and firm control of his ironic faculties, capable of resting a sentence on the keenest edge – the angle of absurd laughter.

I, for one, will never again hear the phrase “Tyrolian folk costume” without breaking out into hysterics.

Here’s more in the same vein: the following paragraph from Frost, cited in Marcus’ essay.
In fact: the hideous thing. You open your chest of drawers: a further molestation. Washing and dressing are molestations. Having to get dressed! Having to eat breakfast! When you go out on the street, you are subject to the gravest possible molestations. You are unable to shield yourself. You lay about yourself, but it’s no use. The blows you dole out are returned a hundredfold. What are streets, anyway? Wendings of molestation, up and down. Squares? Bundled together molestations.
What are streets, anyway? There are times, in the middle of his expertly modulated rants, when Bernhard resembles nothing so much as the most single-minded stand-up comedian you could ever imagine. What’s the deal with streets, anyway?

Having to get dressed! Glory at those exclamation points, let them tickle your eye. Having to eat breakfast!

Now, this is not to say that Bernhard is not bleak, not funny, not interminable (at times). I am only suggesting that in playing up certain sides of Bernhard his admirers are selling an image which is woefully incomplete, an image which neglects many of the sides which make a writer capable of masterpieces.

In fact, of all the sides of Bernhard which are routinely neglected, the humorous Bernhard sometimes gets the best treatment. Geoff Dyer, for instance, understands; understands so well, in fact, that there are beautiful humorous sections of his great pseudo-essay on D. H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, that seem as if they were pulled straight from The Loser. Even Marcus, in his Harper’s essay, admits to an appreciation of Bernhard’s “light comic relief.”

What seems always to be neglected, amongst this sea of praise for the author’s supposed hatred for all the things of this world, is what one might call the softer side of Bernhard: the side which incurable misanthropes, thinking they have found a brother with which to hurl rage and bile at the horrors of this world, might easily miss.

There is beauty in Thomas Bernhard, if you are willing to look for it, and sadness. Not despair, mind you, or aesthetic perfection; not intellectualization thereof, but the genuine article. There is even love, of a difficult kind, in the sense of love for a place in which you can no longer live, love for a homeland that has harmed you, and which you love deeply without ever quite forgiving.

Here, for example, is the unnamed narrator of Correction, writing about the way he and his friend took to school in the morning, through the Aurach river gorge.
Suddenly I no longer had to hold back anything. I said, putting off a little what I’d primarily meant to say, that my finest memory, and probably Hoeller’s as well, and Roithamer’s too, was my memory of our walks to school together… I could remember those thousands, hundreds of thousands of weather conditions on our walk to school, abrupt shifts in the weather, I felt them suddenly take place, transforming our way to school from one minute to the next and thereby transforming us inside from one minute to the next, and the incessant changing of colors in the woods and in the Aurach as it tumbled headlong from the woods down to the plain.
There is anger here, and bitterness, too, but there is another sort of emotional register on display, as well. It exists in that simple phrase which appears in the middle of the sentence: I felt them suddenly take place. It is this feeling that we need to concern ourselves with, as readers, to understand that Bernhard is capable of more than just wailing in rage and misery. It rests in a phrase like this one: the incessant changing of colors in the woods and in the Aurach as it tumbled headlong from the woods down to plain. This phrase – and many others like it in Correction, which deserves to be called Bernhard’s pastoral novel – displays a distinctly unfashionable but extremely important novelistic gift: the ability to set the reader firmly in the middle of an emotional state, an emotional state by which they cannot help but be deeply affected.

Sometimes this power rises softly, like that bit about the Aurach gorge. Other times it appears in the middle of a particularly vicious, sarcastic rant, and it feels like being in the eye of a tornado. It is, above all else, a distinctly pleasant feeling. After all, visceral linguistic sensation is one of the deepest pleasures afforded by fiction.

Bernhard is also capable of sadness. When I say sadness, I don’t mean the solitary, monomaniacal despair people often reference in regard to his obsessed narrators. I mean the sadness of humans in relation, in their inability to connect to each other.

Consider this section in The Lime Works, concerning Konrad and his wife:
At bottom it was nothing more than an infinitely sad story of a marriage, astounding, shocking if you chose, and yet it could just as well be regarded as almost laughably commonplace, even though it might seem strange, extraordinary, crazy to the superficial observer. But there was no use talking about it. The mitten: while watching her knit his mitten he asks himself: Why is she knitting that mitten, always the same one? but he also asks himself why, instead of continually working on that mitten, doesn’t she take time out to mend his socks, patch his shirts, his torn vest, all my clothes have big holes in them, everywhere, he said to himself, but she sits there knitting that mitten. Her own cap needs mending, so does her blouse, too, but not, she keeps working on that mitten. The lime works have been the finish of her, he thought, watching her work on that mitten.
Marcus claims the following about Bernhard: “His project is not to reference the known world, stuffing it with fully rounded characters who commence to discover their conflicts with one another, but to erect complex states of mind — usually self-loathing, obsessive ones — and then set about destroying them.” But the truth of the matter is that self-loathing, obsessive narrators can also be round, can also live in the known world, can have wives and childhoods and pains. And what can be more obsessive and also more real than a husband watching his wife obsessively knitting and re-knitting a single mitten – a mitten he doesn’t even want – while the rest of their lives crumble about them? This is not grand despair; it is small and desperate sadness.

Hundreds of examples abound of these small, precise emotional details. Roithamer’s trip to the music festival in Correction, where he miraculously shoots twenty-four paper roses and then, in despair, gives them all away to a random girl. The bicycle ride in Gathering Evidence, where Bernhard describes the initial freedom and eventual despair of a young child escaping his town on two wheels, only to have the grand machine break down and strand him in unfamiliar territory.

Grand despair is a great hobbyhorse for the intellectual, precisely because it can be intellectualized away, or worse, traded in conversation for some obscure aesthetic satisfaction. Small sadness provides no such feeling of satisfaction. It gets under your skin, it works its way deeper. What makes Bernhard such a compelling writer is that he builds his vistas of grand despair from the tiniest building blocks, the most rote disappointments. His lofty edifices rest on the lowliest and most traditional of observations, and though they are painful and stifling constructions – like the Cone in Correction that Roithamer builds for his sister – they are all the more horrible for feeling real.

Any famous author undergoes a reduction in the public eye. To those who have yet to read them, David Foster Wallace is footnotes, Lydia Davis is neurotic brevity, Georges Perec is that guy who didn’t use the letter e. Our responsibility as champions of the writers we love is to overcome the reductive impulse and try to portray as best we can the immense complexities of the writers we love, to resist at all times the propensity to fit capacious literary work into the smallest possible box. What makes the literary reputation of Thomas Bernhard so strange is that his champions seem to be uninterested in presenting anything but one side to the public, even as they recommend him.

One could think of many hypotheses for this. Perhaps people want to keep Bernhard to themselves, for fear of his being co-opted by the masses; this hinges on the idea that a suicide-obsessed Austrian writer of incredibly long sentences and rampant repetition will go over like gangbusters with the American middlebrow reading public. Fat chance.

Maybe the fault rests in the slippery nature of humor; this is, after all, the same country that took a hundred years or so to get around to Melville’s ironic turn of phrase. Who’s to say that in a hundred years people won’t be crowning Bernhard as misunderstood comic genius? Except that a vast percentage of the people who love Bernhard now already get the humor; the problem is that, like Ben Marcus, they only see it as suicide’s humor, and so they shelve it in with despair.

The fault, it seems to me, is the idea of Bernhard: his perfection as a literary figure, as opposed to his existence as an actual creator of prose. Consider this the ideal recipe for a cult writer. Take the bleakest of all bleakness, mix in enough convoluted prose style to warn off the philistines, sprinkle with a dash of black humor, then put it in the oven until it has baked to perfection. Only perfection never arrives, as it never arrives for Bernhard’s characters – characters one suspects the man’s more faithful readers sometimes wish they could become. So the faithful reader never eats, which is no great loss, since eating would entail too much pleasure; the idea of eating it is aesthetic pleasure enough.

But you are interested in writers, I assume, not the images of writers, and so it is my responsibility as a lover of Thomas Bernhard to give you the roundest message I can muster: for those of you who may have been frightened away by the overwhelming anhedonia of his supporters, I say, do not be afraid. There is no initiation. You do not need, as Ben Marcus once said, half-jokingly, 355 years of schooling and the safety of a steel cage to read Thomas Bernhard. Please partake of the paperback feast which Vintage has now set before you. Despite all reports to the contrary, there is pleasure here.

The Millions Interview: Nikolai Grozni on Music, Misfits, and Mythology

Nikolai Grozni’s debut novel, Wunderkind, is a searing tale of music behind the Iron Curtain, two years before the fall of Communism. Konstantin, a 15 year-old piano prodigy, is a student at the Sofia School for the Gifted, and spends his time raging against the inhumanity of the regime, acting out, rebelling against his teachers, and playing the piano with desperate abandon. It is an outright autobiographical text, Grozni admits; he himself was an accomplished concert pianist in his youth, and studied at the Sofia School for the Gifted in the late 1980s. After stints at the Berklee College of Music and a Buddhist monastery, he obtained his MFA in creative writing from Brown, and currently lives in France.

One of the most beautiful things about Wunderkind is its contrasts in tone– like Chopin’s Ballade No 2, which Konstantin takes on, knowing that it is “too elusive, too impossible to measure” even to be meaningfully recorded; it begins with a Mozart-esque simplicity, and then moves into more moody territory, before exploding with rage. Grozni captures the angst of adolescence as Konstantin moves through the sad beauty of Sofia in a way that seems almost romantic; but those passages will be followed by reminders of the inhumanity of the world he lives in. It is a landscape that recalls Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go — Grozni’s characters are doomed by the system but full of life and hope, scraps of beauty in a dystopian paradise. With a blistering narrative of violence and lyricism, Grozni captures them playing their instruments.

“Nothing is more difficult than to talk about music,” wrote the composer Camille Saint-Saëns of his own attempts at writing music criticism; “it is already tricky enough for musicians, but it is almost impossible for others: even the strongest, most subtle minds lose their way.” Grozni manages to pull off the near-impossible feat of not only writing about music, but of doing so in a way that pushes the reader to the limits of what language can express.

I had a chance to chat with him when he was in Paris to read at Shakespeare & Co.

The Millions: You really nail the anxieties of being a musician in this book. That passage where Konstantin describes the feeling of becoming incredibly self-conscious while performing, and to continue performing you have to forget what you’re doing again — it’s so right on. To a certain extent, when you’re playing the piano, you have to just not think about what you’re doing. How is it for you with writing? Is there a similar call for conscious unconsciousness?

Nikolai Grozni: Absolutely, only in writing it is much more difficult to achieve. When you play an instrument you can always count on the sounds and harmonies, even accidental ones, to carry you away. With writing all you have is the sound of your own thoughts. It could be maddening, boring, or cathartic.

TM: I think one of the things that says so much about Konstantin and the problems he has living under the Communist regime is the fact that he can’t commit to one set of fingering — “By the time I learned a piece well, I had access to at least three or four sets of fingerings, which added a degree of unpredictability to my playing because I could never really know for certain how my fingers would fall when I walked onstage and faced the grand piano.” This seems irresponsible or self-destructive on one level, but is also perhaps a safeguard against becoming an automaton, because it makes it more likely that you will remain uncomfortably conscious during the performance. How does this fit in with the larger subject of the book? It seems everyone around Konstantin is a Communist automaton, whereas all the “misfits” of the school — Vadim, Irina, Konstantin — have this uncomfortable awareness. It doesn’t necessarily serve them well.

NG: It’s true, Konstantin’s biggest fear is that he will become an automaton, a cogwheel in the system, like all the rest. This affects his piano playing as well. He is constantly aware of the dangers of playing a piece the same exact way again and again. This is the reason why he also can’t write anything during his literature exam — he is afraid that by allowing the thoughts of the teachers, of the apparatchiks, in his head, he will become one of them. What fuels his rebellion is a deep sense of anger at the world around him, and, ultimately, this very anger destroys both him and Irina. But Konstantin wants to fail, that is the paradox. He feels that if he fails he will have proven to himself that didn’t get corrupted.

TM: Your descriptions of the music are wonderfully synaesthetic — did that come naturally? Were you always thinking about music in literary terms, even back then?

NG: I’ve always thought about harmonies, notes, and passages in terms of colors and visual portraits. I think this probably comes naturally to kids with perfect pitch — when you have nothing else to hold on to but sound, you begin adding colors, feelings, and ideas. Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is a perfect example of how a composer sees the music.

TM: Are there other writers who have written about music who influenced you, either positively or negatively?

NG: For me, Franz Liszt’s Life of Chopin is one of the best books about music. Chopin’s letters and George Sand’s diaries are also excellent sources of inspiration. Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser is a fantastic book but there’s not much music in it. When I set out to write Wunderkind I wanted the book to look like a conductor’s score.

TH: You have this fascinating passage in the novel where Konstantin claims that Chopin is the only composer to write in the first person, speaking directly from his own experience, whereas other composers are writing in the third person, telling out about things that happened to other people. It’s an interesting observation coming in the middle of a novel in the first person. Do you share his impatience with the third person?

NG: I love the first person, in writing, in music, and in life. All great modern novels, as far as I am concerned, are in the first person (Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night, Beckett’s The Unnamable, etc.). Incidentally, all three of my Bulgarian novels were written in the third person, and I think there are many advantages of telling a story in an omniscient voice — the ease of changing stage sets, of doing travel, exposition, tension, and, very importantly, humor — but, in the end, I felt that I would never be able to go far enough in revealing consciousness in the third person. For me, the purpose of writing and reading is to understand and reveal the mind, and while there’s a great deal that can be glimpsed and inferred about the mind and the human condition from third person stories like Chekov’s “A Nervous Breakdown,” they can hardly compare with the authenticity, depth, and rawness of the first person narrator in Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground. After all, third person means someone else; first person means you.

TM: Can you talk a bit about the frequent use of mythological material (Icarus; Prometheus; Erebus, god of Chaos; Erinyes, the Furies)? You seem to be rooting Bulgaria in this heroic, invented past; there were so many mentions of Thracians that I had to look them up — they are a tribe from Greece who were apparently the original settlers of Sofia — and was delighted to find that Orpheus was meant to have been king of the Thracian tribe of Cicones!

NG: You don’t have to do a lot of digging in Bulgaria to find the old gods. The pagan past is very palpable and vivid even today. There are cults of sun-worshipers who wake before dawn and perform oblations at sunrise; there are thousands of ancient temples and pagan sites in the mountains, a lot of them still waiting to be excavated. Orpheus is believed to have descended to the underworld by entering a cave in the Rhodope Mountains. On top of that, Bulgaria is a place where black magic has always played a very powerful role. When you hear that someone is a witch or a sorcerer, it’s not at all a joke. People pay a lot of money to destroy someone through magic.

TM: Were you really a monk in India? How did that come about?

NG: I’ve always wanted to live in India. Even as a small child I was convinced that if someone wanted to meet the wise men and learn the truth, he or she would have to go to India and live up in the mountains. So, one day, while I was still in college, I just packed my bags and left for India. I stayed there more than four years, and, yes, I was a Buddhist monk. I learned Tibetan and studied at one of the best Tibetan Buddhist universities.

TM: How did you end up in France?

NG: I’m not sure. It started as a why-not idea, and I’m still here, three years later.


Image courtesy Cara Tobe

The Millions Interview: Kate Christensen

In my household, Kate Christensen–the author of such sharp and fun novels as The Epicure’s Lament and The Great Man–is known as my husband’s second wife.  I don’t mind; how can I fault my man’s impeccable taste?  Christensen’s books are readable, the prose simultaneously unobtrusive and stylish, and her characters are deliciously flawed, rendered with humor and compassion.  She’s a genius at depicting both losers and food in fiction (seriously, about the latter: I’ve cooked whole meals based on passages she’s written).   After finishing her latest–and, in my opinion, her best–novel, The Astral (which is out today), I’ve decided that I don’t want to be Christensen’s sister-wife…I want to marry her myself.

When The Astral opens, failed poet Harry Quirk has been kicked out of his home.  His wife Luz mistakenly believes he’s having an affair with his best friend Marion, and she won’t listen to his defense.  Over the course of the novel, Harry wanders around his long-time neighborhood of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, trying to reckon with his floundering present.  Luz has destroyed his latest book of poems. His daughter, Karina, is a Freegan.  His son, Hector, has been in the clutches of a cult.  Harry has no money, no job, no woman to anchor his days.  The novel, by turns funny, sad and wise, is glittering with insightful and lovely descriptions, and Harry is so far my favorite fictional character of 2011: he’s complicated, stubborn, smart, foolish, vulnerable, and–man oh man–does he feel real.

The Millions: One of my favorite aspects of your novel is Harry Quirk’s first-person narration. Perhaps because he’s a poet, he gets away with crystalline imagery and clever turns of phrase, while still maintaining a conversational, natural voice. I was especially taken with his lists of adjectives, such as this memory of his estranged wife, Luz: “In bed, naked with me, she was kittenish, sinuous, carnal, darling, ravenous, generous, selfish, laughing, violent, intimate, cooing, and soft.” God, that’s fun to type out, and read aloud! Can you speak a little about what went into developing Harry’s voice?

Kate Christensen: Generally, my first-person-narrator characters start talking to me, haunting my skull with their voices, which are not my own, like barflies hanging around yakking about themselves until closing time. And the only way to exorcise them is to start typing what they’re saying and keep going till they shut up. After 300 pages, give or take, they generally seem satisfied and go away, never to return. It keeps happening – there seems to be no cure. And it’s a pleasure to let someone else take over for a while. I get tired of the sound of my own thoughts. Harry took me around the neighborhood where I’d lived for the greater part of 20 years, most of my adult life, the neighborhood I had just left behind forever. His poetic take on the world allowed me to say a kind of lyrical, lingering goodbye to all the places I knew so well and the shed skins of past selves.

TM: One can’t separate this novel from its setting: contemporary Brooklyn, and, more specifically, Greenpoint, where Harry has spent most of his adult life. The novel is peppered with many terrific descriptions of place; take this one, for instance: “I went through the intersection at Greenpoint Avenue, the dingy McDonald’s, defeated Starbucks, opposing Arab newsstands, and onto the old Associated Supermarket with its sexy Polish girls pouting at nothing as they rang up your groceries.” (And, by the way, as a lass of Polish descent, I thank you for all this talk of sexy.) How does Brooklyn, and Greenpoint in particular, shape Harry’s character? I recently read that you now live in New England. Was it easier for you to write New York once you left it?

KC: In a word, yes. In fact, I was writing about a lot of things I’d recently left behind… among them Brooklyn, a long marriage, and an ancient, ongoing, panicky sense of failure. I wrote this novel about a middle-aged failed poet hieing himself around north Brooklyn, hungry and lonely and filled with regret, yearning, and nostalgia, when I was in the throes of new love, living in Tuscany and Rome and the White Mountains, with a contract for my sixth novel, feeling incredibly lucky, fulfilled, and safe. Harry manifested something internal, something at the core of all this good fortune – no matter what the reason or outcome, having a long, very loving marriage end is shockingly painful. It’s like a death in life. Harry could express a lot of the things I was feeling even as my life pressed on. He and I needed to dwell together in that raw state of disbelieving grief. Harry stayed in Greenpoint for me, faced it all, grappled and wrestled and tried to solve the insoluble mystery of the death of love.

TM: The jacket copy of the galley says that you know “what secrets lurk in the hearts of men.” Pray tell, what are these secrets, and how do you know them? You’ve written a number of wonderful male characters over the years (Hugo Whittier from The Epicure’s Lament is perhaps the most beloved and memorable antihero in contemporary fiction). Do you approach creating male characters any differently than you do female characters?

KC: If I do know some of men’s innermost secrets, it’s only because I share them. Men can be curmudgeons, horndogs, misanthropes, selfish, rebellious, crafty, mischievous, and so forth and still be loved – boys will be boys, their foibles and faults can be charming and funny — but girls are another story entirely. So I couch all my most antisocial, unacceptable, non-feminine tendencies in male voices. But my own Id is flying from the topmast.

TM:  The women in the novel—Luz, Harry’s daughter Karina, Harry’s friend Marion (with whom Luz accuses him of having an affair), and even Christa, Harry’s son Hector’s cult leader —are powerful, competent, opinionated, and self-sufficient. The men, by contrast, strike me as quite lost. Was this intentional? Can you speak about this difference?

KC: It’s not a general statement about men and women by any means. One of the themes I’m exploring in The Astral is the ways in which certain women control, or try to control, other people – their husbands first and foremost, and their children, and in one case, their clients, and in another, their followers. Luz, Lisa, Christa, and Helen all tend to attract men who want to be controlled, who need it on some level, either because it’s what they’re used to from their own mothers or because they lack the internal wherewithal to direct the course of their own lives. There are clusters of relationships around these four women in the novel, all of which are defined by this dynamic.

It was interesting for me to explore this dynamic fictionally because I relate to it so little and always find myself empathizing with the men who fall into such women’s grasps. I’ve had my share of encounters with controlling women. There’s a mechanism at work in them that is deeply foreign to me and which I sought to expose. So yes, on this level, it was completely intentional.

Karina and Marion, on the other hand, are Harry’s gatekeepers, loyal and protective and generous. They seek connection and truth rather than control and power, and therefore serve as the counterpoints to the other female characters in the novel.

TM: Much of the novel is obsessed with the past, and Harry’s longing for a lost time: when his marriage seemed to work, when his kids were young, and his group of friends was intact, before Brooklyn was fully gentrified. Even Harry’s preferences as a poet, for old-fashioned formal structures, speaks of his nostalgia for something that has faded. When you set out to write the book, did you know that this would be a story of man looking backward, and seeing the past anew?

KC: From the opening sentences, Harry’s voice is steeped in the past. The germ of the novel was a man in late middle age, cast out of his home like an old Adam banished by his Eve from a comfortable, domestic Eden. The entire tenor of the book is shaped around this image of paradise lost, and Adam alone, humbled and brought low. His need to understand the past is intense and urgent; he’s a falsely-accused man hell-bent on proving his own innocence and discovering the actual perpetrator of the crime. The book was half inspired by Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth and half by the convention of detective noir in which the accused becomes the crime-solver by default, to clear his own name, and goes around interviewing anyone who can help him figure it out. Harry shambles around Greenpoint, hot on the trail of the cause of the death of love, inquiring and analyzing and picking up clues.

TM: I loved reading about Hector’s activities with the cult, which the book treats earnestly and compassionately, but not without a touch of humor as well—it’s hard not to laugh at people who rename themselves Lake and Bard. What kind of research, if any, did you do to write these sections? Just tell me: Have you ever been in a cult?

KC: No, I haven’t, but my little sister was in a group called the Twelve Tribes for many, many years. About ten years ago, my mother and then-husband and I planned an intervention; the group discovered that we were planning it and blocked it from happening. For several years, we read every book on the subject and met with ex-members and cult exit counselors and also with Steve Hassan, an ex-Moonie and cult expert whose Combatting Cult Mind Control is the most interesting, enlightening, helpful book I’ve ever read about how cults work and why people join them.

I think it’s very easy to satirize cults without any experience of them or education about them, to portray cult members as wacked-out zombies and the cults themselves as one-dimensional jokes. I know too much, have experienced too much, to do anything but treat the entire subject with the earnestness and compassion it deserves – and humor as well, which was one way of coping with the pain and sadness of losing my sister for so many years. (As an aside, she came out of the group with her husband and four children the same week I finished writing The Astral.)

TM:  Because this is The Millions, I have to ask: What was the last great book you read?

KC: Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser.

A Year in Reading: John Williams

It was mostly a year of some pleasant foothills in my reading life, and just one great peak. Best of the foothills first:

I recently finished The Killer of Little Shepherds by Douglas Starr, which tells the parallel stories of Joseph Vacher, a serial killer in late-19th-century France, and Alexandre Lacassagne, a criminologist at the same time and (roughly) place. Their lives didn’t intersect quite as neatly as you might expect, but Starr’s telling is both gripping and smart.

Nearly 10 years ago, I read and fell for The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall, so I was eager to read his follow-up, The Lonely Polygamist. It didn’t disappoint. Udall is an unabashedly old-fashioned storyteller in the mold of John Irving, and he makes the wise decision to tell the story of a family with one husband, four wives, and 28 children by focusing on three characters: Golden, the title character; Trish, the fourth and most reluctant, independent, and lonely wife; and Rusty, a 12-year-old boy whose adolescent troubles are drowned out by the family’s din.

I continued a recent Nabokov kick with The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, which I greatly enjoyed, and I read my first novel by Thomas Bernhard, The Loser, which made me want to read more.

The great peak was Father and Son by Edmund Gosse, published in 1907. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever read. Edmund was the son of Philip Gosse, a naturalist and fervent Christian who resisted the ideas of Darwin. Edmund’s memoir — which I learned about in A.N. Wilson’s God’s Funeral, about the various ways in which Victorians lost their faith — tells of his upbringing and his eventual rejection of his father’s beliefs. In many ways, it’s a simple story, but the telling, both funny and profound, is brilliant. By the middle of the book, I was bracketing about every other paragraph. I’m sure I’ll read it again in its entirety someday. 

More from a Year in Reading 2010

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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PEN World Voices Report: The Art of Failure

Late Thursday night, after several PEN events and many drinks, a European friend and I succumbed to the temptation to make sweeping generalizations about the state of literature in America and abroad. Most of our aperçus wouldn’t withstand scrutiny in the sober light of morning, but I liked his epiphanic declaration that one of the worst things a piece of writing can be is “harmless.” By that standard alone, the work of the Austrian novelist and playwright Thomas Bernhard (1931 – 1989) is high art. As Horacio Castellanos Moya put it at “The Art of Failure,” an evening panel on Bernhard at the Austrian Cultural Forum, “Bernhard is a snake. He has rattles. He has poison.”Castellanos Moya knows whereof he speaks. He is the author of Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador, as well as the recently translated Senselessness, which adapts Bernhard’s long, rhythmic sentences into a Spanish-language idiom. The other “Art of Failure” panelists – scholar Fatima Naqvi, LIVE from the NYPL impresario Paul Holdengräber, and novelist Dale Peck, – had their own insights into Bernhard’s misanthropy. Naqvi has made a career out of studying it, Holdengräber is the scion of a Viennese family forced into exile during World War II, and Peck has raised hackles with his poison-pen reviews of fellow writers.It was odd, then, that “The Art of Failure” started off on a lethargic note. Moderator Jonathan Taylor, author of a recent Bernhard article in The Believer, was a soft-spoken, even phlegmatic host, and the panel’s format – in which each guest spoke for ten to fifteen minutes before conversation began – seemed ill-suited to its subject. Both Naqvi and Peck seemed to have over-rehearsed their opening remarks. And though Castellanos Moya – “This guy is writing because he doesn’t want to go out killing people!” – added some verve to the proceedings, Holdengräber concluded the first part of the discussion with an apt question: What would Bernhard think of us?Not much, apparently. Bernhard, according to Naqvi, was a strident opponent of bourgeois cultural institutions like PEN World Voices and the Austrian Cultural Forum. He looked contemptuously on all forms of dilettantism and groupthink. Indeed, part of what Bernhard meant with his frequent invocation of the word “failure” and its synonyms was the condition of dilettantism. Like his countryman Wittgenstein, (whose nephew appears in one of Bernhard’s novels), he held himself to standards few writers are capable of observing.If the Bernhard panel failed to achieve rigor or purity, though, it did, in its second half, grow into something more involving. As monologues gave way to actual discussion, the panelists began to explore Holdengräber’s proposition that “there is something hygenic in [Bernhard’s] misanthropy.” Postwar Austrians, according to Naqvi, worked so hard to efface the strain of National Socialism in the culture that they often risked harmlessness. In novels such as The Loser and Correction, Bernhard made a place in postwar Austrian literature for a modernist aesthetics of opposition.Dale Peck, whose critical writings I find both embarrassingly self-involved and hostile to the seductions of literature, proved to be surprisingly eloquent on Bernhard’s aesthetics. He spoke of the importance of “[giving] yourself over” to Bernhard’s totalizing sensibility and the anxiety it produces. And perhaps Bernhard didn’t always live as he wrote; Taylor offered evidence that Bernhard listened to Prince.Ultimately, questions about the merits of Bernhard’s Weltanschauung remained unresolved. Those panelists who have flirted professionally with dilettantism seemed almost intimidated by Bernhard. And perhaps the novelist’s shade was hovering above us, watching in disgust. Still, in an age when literature too often flirts with harmlessness, the value of a room packed with Bernhard enthusiasts (and neophytes like myself) seemed beyond dispute.

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