Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Conversations with Burton Pike

Tomi Ungerer, Moon Man
On Friday I had the pleasure of visiting my Doktorvater, Burton Pike, in his little New York City apartment, in a tall tower-like building surrounded on all sides with the new New York of boutiques and bars and young, eager, rich people zipping about their perennial busy business. Earlier, I had stopped in at McNally-Jackson on Prince Street, to see what the hipsters were reading. The New York Times had just printed an article in the style section about the bookstore owner, Sarah McNally, and how she spent her Sundays. Apparently, she is reading Musil's "super old book, The Man without Qualities," and the Times printed a quote from the novel about rushing about--the modern condition. At the bookshop, I bought Burton a copy of Carl Seelig's wonderful book, Walks with Walser (trans. by Anne Posten), which documents Seelig's visits to Walser in the mental hospital, and the hikes they took together, stopping at little Swiss inns and restaurants for exquisite little feasts, well lubricated with lovely cold wines and refreshing spirits, peppered with Walser's bon mots and reminiscences. A lost world, but one still accessible in words, paradoxically available in a shop that is the very epitome in some ways of the new world that seems to cancel out the old one. Walser told Seelig things, things that no author today would dare to say.

Burton was telling me things too, and I should have been taking notes as he reminisced about his life, including stories about his long-time friend, Tomi Ungerer (who had been cancelled back in the 60's, for the unpardonable sin of being both a children's book illustrator/writer and someone who drew erotic or pornographic drawings). Burton had Ungerer's books and pictures in piles along two sides of the living room, about to be sent to an archive at an American university. They had met in Switzerland, when Burton was on a Fulbright, I think. And Burton was enchanted with Ungerer's wild spirit. There was much drinking and, I gather, wandering about late at night along ancient streets. Over the years, he would watch Tomi draw, images seemingly appearing out of nowhere...a line of ink becoming a building, a person, a situation, and he would ask Tomi how he created what he did, but Tomi was unable to tell him. The creation, an enormously prolific generation of images, seemed a miracle. Astonishing.

He told me of his time teaching American literature in Germany, including putting on a Gertrude Stein play with the students. He had a little office and the students would come knock on the door. Like all the other professors, he would say, "Herein" (come in), and they would come and sit down, but say nothing. Eventually, he asked one of them why they came, if they had nothing to ask. This student told him that all the other (German) professors would also say "herein," but that once they came in, the professors would send them away, telling them that they had no time. Apparently, they just wanted to experience the novel sensation of being welcomed by a professor.

He mused about how we end up being what we are and doing what we do, saying that with him the big life choices seemed to come mostly by chance. In high school, the music teacher had called to him in the hall way, "You're tall; do you like music? Do you want to play the double bass?" And he did like music, so he did. This led to some of the most joyous experiences of his life, including playing in a jazz trio and singing in the midst of a choir of voices in Switzerland, singing the Saint Matthew's Passion, a wonderful experience he likened to being a thread in a carpet.

And why, and how did he come to be fluent in German and French. Another mystery. But perhaps related to his love of music, his innate sensitivity to rhythms and cadences, melodies and tones, something that has meant a great deal for his translation work. When translating the Nachlass to The Man without Qualities, he has said that he was stuck until he discovered that Musil read his drafts aloud to Martha. Then he began to read the words aloud, discovering the key to how to translate them. It was all about the sound. Perhaps this is also why he always remembered what a German professor had told him about Thomas Mann, when Burton admitted to be working on him: "Er hat," the professor declared, "kein Melos" (He has no melody). Musil certainly does.

We talked about Musil's sentences and decided that they had a particular remarkable pattern. While Kafka's sentences begin saying one thing and often end up contradicting what their beginning states, Musil's sentence begin with something familiar and then proceed onto something deeper. They complexify along the way. And in so doing, they teach us how to think. We even attempted a sort of musical version: la la la da la da/da la da la da da/ PLUMP. An approximation of how he sort of leads one along lightly and calmly, and then sort of drops a small bomb towards the end, to wake us up.

We talked of contemporary fiction, which he found mostly shallow and uninteresting compared to the depths and infinite unfathomableness of Musil and Proust. He also spoke quite a bit about Woolf's To the Lighthouse, as a remarkable example of how a work has its own life and parameters.Once a work has come into a certain form, it sort of crystallizes there and the poor artist cannot alter it any further. The only choice at that point is to start another work. The great books are great, he suggested, largely because of their perfectly idiosyncratic forms--forms related intrinsically to their authors' idiosyncratic natures. The strangeness of the beginning of In Search of Lost Time, the impossible unending form of Musil's Man without Qualities, the oddity of Kafka's Castle. And it should go without saying, that we are not talking about some sort of forced attempt to be new or avant garde, but rather of a true impression taken of the very particular personal individual strangeness of the authors, a faithful impression, unadulterated by some preconceived idea of what a novel should or should not be.

We praised Iris Murdoch and Natalia Ginzburg and Clarice Lispector, all writers who emphatically saw and wrote in their own idiom. We talked about how Steiner, whose After Babel Burton had encouraged me to read in graduate school, asserted that all language use is a form of translation. A translation of one person's idiolect into something others could approximately understand.

I mentioned that there had been a twitter "thread" asking translators what they love most about translation, and, for his answer, he quoted the e.e. cummings poem, ending in:

there's a hell
of a good universe next door; let's go

And I suppose that sentiment, an American version of the old Baudelairean, "anywhere, anywhere, out of this world," uttered in a room high up above the madding crowd of contemporary New York, as if inside an eternal timeless-spaceless mind, explains a great deal about our love of literature.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Crystalizations of Musil's Unions in the garden of Unnameable Books

It was a wild weekend for me, traveling down from rural Vermont to my old stomping grounds in the New York City area for my father's 80th birthday party on the Upper West Side and for the book launch at Unnameable Books in Brooklyn. On the train down, the two events mingled in my mind as I attempted to prepare something to say for both occasions. In typical Musilian fashion, they seemed gradually to be very related.  Thinking about my father, who seems to eternally refresh and renew himself, who is exceptionally vibrant and open to newness, and about Musil's resistance to closure, his insistence on the "motivated life," and his constant work to reinvigorate language by new seeing, new arrangements, new combinations of words into fresh metaphor, and his "Utopia of the next step," whereby no act may be judged except by what next act it engenders, it all seemed to be about the same thing.
    I ended up writing a speech for my father's party about the universal struggle to become one's self, to find one's voice, to untie one's hands from whatever social and familial conditionings constrain us. It was a beautiful party, but very drunken and went late, including the after-party dancing party and after-dance party present opening, and the drive back to my mother's house in Hastings, where my nephew and I were staying the night. By the next day, waking up in my childhood room (eternal recurrence! The selfsame -seinesgleichen- recurs!), I was foggy-headed, exhausted...well, hung over. And I feared I could not find any of the words or associations necessary to speak clearly or to illuminate even a small sense of what I wanted to impart about Musil that evening at the reading. I wanted it to be meaningful for the Musil-scholars and for the people who were just there to see me, some who were artists and writers, others not, but I could hardly retrieve the most common words in my stupor.
   My sister's lovely new boyfriend drove us all down (mom, my sister, my nephew) through harrowing traffic, and they left me to "clear my head". After drinking a gigantic juice with lots of ginger and mint and a double espresso, I betook myself to the lovely bookshop and its lovely garden and sat, slumped over in a chair, trying to remember something. As I was looking through the first pages of the first story, I suddenly thought I understood something I had not understood before. Crystalization! I said, aloud, and scribbled it down. Not that I had not noticed it before. In fact, we had taken out a footnote about how Musil had probably gotten the image and idea of crystallization from Stendhal's On Love, but in the nature of things, when one is tired and the synapses are loose, one can sometimes slip into a sort of mystical state (an Other Condition, in Musil's parlance), wherein things considered in more sober moods come to suddenly seem earthshaking. I realized that the whole first story, and probably the second too, was an illustration of the oscillations between crystalizations of significance, meaning, forms (with their sharply focused facets) and the dissolution of these temporary arrangements, followed by the planes shifting then into new arrangements or shimmering significance, belief, beauty. Then I "realized" that both the stories in the collection featured second-by-second descriptions of the process by which one may enter the Other Condition, something that I think is not provided anywhere else in Musil. He describes what it is like to be there, and certainly provides many moments of lucid seeing that can only have been culled in such states, but only in these stories  does he explicitly show how one might arrive there.
    Quite graphically, in "The Completion of Love," we see the crystal facets of the husband and wife in their enclosed living room, protected by the green blinds (like closed, and then semi-opened eyelids, a precursor of the garden which surrounds Ulrich and Agathe in the great novel), and then we experience, through Claudine's train journey away from her husband, the dislodgement and then the dissolution of the fixed forms of her married life....and then, later, the new city where she is visiting her daughter, becomes a new enclosed crystal, snowed-in, surrounded by a perimeter that cannot be bridged.  Astonishing.
    The people in "The Temptation of Quiet Veronica" are also separated from the world, enclosed within their house and garden.  Within this microcosm, certain things seem possible that would seem absurd or certainly socially unacceptable, though the opinions of the world do sometimes seep in, and prevail, and prevent actions. Only by getting away from this odd microcosm does Johannes manage to see that he must not kill himself. Though Veronica remains, her world is dramatically changed by Johannes's leaving. She is able to focus even more intensely on her self, her memories, her sensuality, and this focus initiates another Other Condition within a general everyday other sort of condition (since Veronica always lives in an other sort of condition from normalcy). But she breaks out of her normal otherness, to experience a new state of being. And I "realized," while choosing the passages from this story to read for the book launch, and then thinking about them later, that Veronica is an ecstatic. A visionary. While one may mistake her for a sick, confused victim of her childhood experience, this experience is part of what gives her the ability to see the way she sees. And this seeing is an ecstatic, joyous, extra-sensory kind of seeing. She is like one of those medieval visionaries who sees and describes her visions from out of some sickness, some self-starvation, some weakness. The weakness, as is suggested about Johannes a few times, is actually a strength. Her illness, her madness, is a portal to higher seeing. While I realized that her name came from Saint Veronica, whose cloth held the impression of Jesus's face after she wiped away his sweat, I had not really grasped until now, why Musil related her to that Veronica. And then, in an even more confused state, while falling asleep the night after the reading, I wondered if maybe Musil intended for one to imagine that the cloth held an impression, not of Jesus's face, not, then of Johannes's or Musil's own, but of Veronica herself. The female saint alone without her male priestly guardians and spiritual guides, undresses amid a circle of candles. The impression of her body remains in the folds of her cast-off garments.
    When Johannes's letter, from outside the house-garden-fortress, arrives (banging on the house like an intruder), the interior Other Condition of aloneness with God or herself, is destroyed, and day by day its illuminations fade away. In one of the last moments of the story, Veronica makes ephemeral contact with a person passing outside the door of the house. Through the crack under the door, the light from the candle she holds in her hand shines on the stranger's body, like fingers touching him; the air from the outside slips up her shift, under which she is naked. Inside and outside tentatively come in contact. She avoids Demeter, the bestial brother, on the stairs, but though the story is over, life is not.
   What new Other Condition, what new Crystalization will be formed out of the facets of reality? Anything is possible, if we take Walter Pater's advice and refuse to "form habits" and strive, as much as possible, "to burn always, with this hard gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy".

Thursday, June 6, 2019

The Architecture of Possibility, an Essay on Lapsus Lima/The Nightjar

I encountered a fascinating Portuguese woman (on Twitter), who invited me to write this little essay for her alluring online journal. Read the whole thing (and enjoy the rest of the journal) here:


Sunday, June 2, 2019

Book Launch and Reading: Save the Date

A reading and book launch, hosted by Contra Mundum Press, of my new translation of Robert Musil's Unions: Two Stories, on Sunday evening, June 23rd at 7 p.m. at Unnameable Books, 600 Vanderbilt Avenue (at St. Marks) in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, hopefully in their garden. 
And please spread the word to any other people who might be interested! 
More details to follow. 
And here is information about the book: 

Monday, May 27, 2019

Musil's Writings on Theater: excerpts in new Columbia Journal

Musil would have been quite chagrined to not have his name on the cover of the new Columbia Journal #57, though Patti Smith and Eileen Myles are there, both, I believe, admirers of his work. Probably, had they been asked, they would have been proud to have their names next to his. He was known to complain about such things from his (rightfully) disgruntled position as under-appreciated genius, second-best to the "Grossschriftsteller" (Big-shot writer)Thomas Mann, and other lesser lights who captured the public's attention. But, in any case, he is inside, in the form of a number of excerpts from my new translation project: Theater Symptoms: Robert Musil's Plays and Writings on Theater (coming out with Contra Mundum Press in 2020).  The pieces are included thanks to Ellyn Gaydos, non-fiction editor of this edition of the journal (and brilliant writer).

There is a wonderful piece on Russian Cabaret, one on Yvette Guilbert, and some slashing and burning criticism of the shallow emptiness of contemporary theater. Musil thought that theater should be earth-shaking, challenging, transformative, and he lamented the relative insipidity of the theater of his times, seeing it as a reflection of the general cultural collapse. Read it and weep.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

More on Lispector: Not Just a Depiction of Another Victim of Patriarchy

I promised I would return to conclude my reflections when finished, but I am far from feeling conclusive about the last part of Clarice Lispector's The Besieged City, which is to say: it resonates and reverberates and is probably not fathomable. There were more objects and more animals and I became more and more convinced that Lucrecia, the novel's main voice and main eyes, was not merely a cipher for the objectified woman.
Sometimes I wonder if I am reading the same book as other people. I mean, Benjamin Moser's introduction was beautiful and evocative, and it told me many things I did not know, but I just cannot understand how he could characterize Lucrecia in this way or suggest that female objectification is a central theme of the book. Male objectification is just as prevalent as female objectification. And female agency just as prevalent as male in my reading. But not only Moser's introduction, but the New Directions blurb iterates this reading, starting with these words: "Underneath Lispector's inventive, modernist style is a poignant and radical depiction of a young woman navigating a patriarchal society." It is as if the publishers wanted to reduce Lispector's complex and nuanced depiction of female power and powerlessness to a stereotypical narrative of more of the same. How really belittling that is, both to Lispector's vision and to women in general, as if we were that trapped. This seems to be a pattern, and a dangerous one.
What is really in the novel is much more than more of the same. Much more than a depiction of a victim of patriarchy. There is even a whole chapter towards the end when an older woman admires the beauty of one of Lucrecia's former flames, a young man who is barely capable of uttering a simple sentence. Still, he is a "gem"...all because of his beauty. Lucrecia had admired him earlier in the book, saying she doubted she would ever have another chance to have such a beautiful man. Women do make objects of men, too, in and out of literature. Lucrecia, although married by the end of the book, develops a passion for another man and pursues him with quite a lot of agency, despite his attempts to elude her. She also completes her siege of the city which is her alter ego or strange double, noting its progress (due, in her mind, to her own seeing, her own work in constructing it and fostering it). The city develops from a rural outback smelling of stables (with horses) to a modern city of restaurants and street cars (the horses driven out of town). Shall we infer that she too has been civilized, modernized, stripped of her animality and relationship to nature?
Perhaps not. Once these sieges are complete, the other man conquered, her husband dead of a heart attack, Lucrecia is ready to move on to her next conquest, a new husband, perhaps a new city. Hardly a meek object of any reader's predatory desire. As I mentioned in the last post, Lucrecia's vision of the world may not constitute a great work of genius, but she is attempting to take possession and to delineate her world. She is an artist, if not a great one. As Lispector writes in a letter directed to a critic of the novel included at the end of the book, "'The struggle to reach reality--that's the main objective of this creature who tries, in every way, to cling to whatever exists by means of a total vision of things....One of the most intense aspirations of the spirit is to dominate exterior reality through the spirit. Lucrecia doesn't manage to do this--so she 'clings' to that reality, takes as her own life the wider life of the world". And this merging with the world, this self-identification with objects, with the wild horses, and with the modernizing metropolis that will drive away these horses is effected by means of a language that is almost hallucinatory at times. Ecstatic and vivid, sharp and shimmering, as if the terrible distance between word and thing, signifier and signified, seeing and thing seen, symbol and symbolized, observer and observed were--for one fraction of an impossible second--dissolved. This mystical siege of reality by the imagination, written by a woman about a woman's imagination, is much more interesting than just another tale of another helpless victim of patriarchy.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Objects, Animals, and Personhood (Womanhood Especially) in Musil and Lispector

Clarice Lispector. Look at those seeing eyes!
I have been reading Clarice Lispector's novel, The Besieged House, newly translated by Johnny Lorenz and published by New Directions. And this after just being so immersed in my own translations of Musil's two novellas in Unions. All of the stories depict women who are deeply preoccupied with objects, subjectivity, animals, and the sometimes fluid, sometimes rigid boundaries between them. For another essay I was writing, on women who like to look, the good parts of objectification, female mate choice in the animal world, and the animistic vision of things, I had been thinking about all of this for some time, remembering all of the brilliant depictions of objects coming to life in Modernist fiction, objects with trembling boundaries, objects that then play dead or dumb as their suspicious "owners" try to glimpse their fugitive aliveness. Consider Hofmannstahl's famous "Lord Chandos Letter" and his less famous "Letter from One Who Has Returned" (which you can read here in my translation: https://issuu.com/contramundum/docs/hfa___9.1.2015 ), or the things seen dissolving and coming back into form in so many Virginia Woolf novels; consider the gaze of Malte Laurids Brigge in Rilke's novel, the nauseated narrator who is learning to see, or Sartre's Roquentin. In Musil's two novellas in Unions, the objects sometimes mock the fraught women who gaze upon them, sometimes bring comfort in their solidity and seeming unconsciousness (oh, to be an unconscious thing, the women seem to think, without my constant analyzing neuroses!), and in the opening scene in the first novella, they echo the harmony between the married couple in a shimmering almost still-life, its stillness only interrupted by the sound of tea hitting the bottom of a china cup. And for the heroine of Lispector's novel, Lucrecia, who feels she must work very hard to constantly see objects, delineate and name them, keep them in their places, or even to somehow create and recreate them in her dreams, the object world is a constant obsession. Since this is a blog and not an academic paper, I am not going to bother to furnish examples from the texts. Believe me, they are there. Find them yourselves if you just graze the pages!
     Animals, too, are essential to the women in these stories, most obviously to Veronica in the second novel in Musil's Unions and to Lucrecia in Lispector's novel, but also to Claudine of "The Completion of Love," whose reflections often turn to animal metaphors, and to the question of animal consciousness/unconsciousness, and to the sometimes tenuous and even dissolved boundary between human and animal desire. Lucrecia's animals are horses, and she imagines at times that she herself is a horse, walking on hooves. Veronica, of course, concentrates on some chickens copulating before her eyes and a memory of a beloved dog, but general animal metaphors are rife, as she wishes she could be like an animal, simply doing things (particularly erotic or maybe violent things) without consciousness, compunction, or social awareness or consequence.
    What is going on here? Why all these objects, why these animals? And what could it all have to do with the other concerns (philosophical, erotic, narrative, aesthetic, social) of these works of fiction? Reading Lispector has helped me to clarify some presentiments that were haunting me in Unions. Benjamin Moser, who edited The Besieged City and wrote its introduction, opines that Lucrecia represents the objecthood of women in Lispector's novel, that Lispector is embodying Simone de Beauvoir's concept of the objectified woman who is seen but does not see. Strange that he says this, since most of the novels pages are filled with Lucrecia seeing! Yes, she is orchestrating her role and her pose as a woman in a world where her attractiveness is important to her identity, but she is much more. She is the agent and the subject of her own objectivity and the objectivity of the world, the city, the people and things around her. She is, in fact, an artist of her world, not necessarily a good one or a successful one, but her self-appointed task is to see and to create the city and herself, so they may be seen by others. That is the work of an artist. And the creation of a woman writer, who herself is doing just that. Just as many readers might see Claudine, of Musil's "The Completion of Love" as an object of the predatory male gaze, helpless and victimized, I see her as an agent of her own desires, who is engaged in a quest to discover her self through a risky experiment. She gives her self or at least her body to men to test her own boundaries, to find her self and to "complete" the very strong love she has for her husband. She is not a victim, but a woman experimenting with the boundaries of her own autonomy by transgressing them.
    Lucrecia is a virgin and for her everything is still frustratingly held at bay. She feels the space between self and other person and other thing almost painfully. I feel that something in her longs for and is terrified of being besieged, being displaced by another's presence in her body and mind. A man inside one's body and mind tends to push one's self out of the way (not to mention a baby, which literally sucks a mother's consciousness and life-blood!), or at least to fill up a great deal of who one is. To become one with another person is both an eclipse of and an expansion of self (in "The Completion," the narrator suggests that by merging together Claudine and her husband cut off the world, but expand the space inside their two-selves; also, they seem to cut off roads to different abandoned but still hearkening parts of themselves that cannot live within the new structure of the marriage). When Claudine goes on a solitary journey, she comes back to her self and the abandoned parts haunt her.  Veronica, who is a virgin like Lucrecia, discovers her sensuality, which was confused between the attentions of two men. Lucrecia, lone, separate, inviolate, virginal, never yet breached by another, feels awkwardly out of touch with the things and people outside her borders. She is hyper vigilant about her own role of keeping the world in order. What cataclysm awaits were the world, the city, her body, besieged?  How is such a siege accomplished? Will it hurt? Will I still be myself? Will I still be whole? Or will I finally be made whole?
   Yeats said that Virginity renews itself with the moon. Thus all lovers know that the renewal of the act of love and the pauses in between does not solve the problem of self and other, or of animality and consciousness, or personhood and objecthood, subjectivity and objectivity, but that all of conscious life is an interplay between all of these states and that one must find multiple perspectives and ways of seeing (and being seen), all valid, but some more life-affirming and more fruitful than others. These woman are searching for the best ways to be their selves with others, in and out of the world. No easy task for anyone, but possibly more challenging for women, or for women who affirm their own role in making the world through seeing.
   I will come back and conclude when I have finished reading Lispector's novel, but for now I reach out my hand to you in an invitation to consider these questions with me....