Thursday, November 03, 2005

"Does it have to be written?"

John Banville, Athena (New York: Random House, 1996), $13.00
Jeanette Winterson, Written on the Body (New York: Vintage, 1992), $11.00

Britain's most important literary award, known as the "Man Booker Prize," was given to John Banville recently. This has angered many people, including one reviewer for The New York Times, whose taste is very different from mine and whose prose I cannot read. If only Janet Maslin were given the chance to review Mr. Banville's work from now on, we might expect that the assessments would at least be intelligent and interesting.

In any case, the controversy concerning Mr. Banville has to do with his refusal to be polite about distinguishing between literature and the middlebrow trash that tends to be mistaken for literature by many people. Political correctness, sadly, has become a category of literary merit for some reviewers, such as the tin-eared Times reporter -- whose name shall not pass my lips -- so that "niceness" becomes an authorial requirement. My review of The Da Vinci Code should make this point clearer.

I have been reading Chinese literary theory and social critique, finding it surprising how similar developments in Chinese culture over the past thirty years have been in comparison with developments in Europe and America.

With the emergence of a global market in commercial goods -- and a strong newly productive and affluent sector of the population in China -- new cultural trends meeting the needs of these people (with extra money and newly-formed aesthetic interests) have exploded on the scene. The tension between market popularity and aesthetic achievement still exists in China, as in all societies in postmodernist conditions. The solution suggested by scholars I have been reading is similar to the suggestions of thinkers like Umberto Eco, Richard Rorty, Stanley Fish and others.

The trend is towards hybridization of commercial-elite cinema and literature in artworks that break down those categories. New Chinese art is both popular and aesthetically ambitious. See Zhang Yiwu, "Recent Changes in Contemporary Chinese Literary Trends," in World Literature Today, July-August, 2007, at p. 15 ("Today's 'rejuvenated' writing is an outcome of mass culture and the market in the new age of globalization.") and Zhang Nin, "The Basic Features of Contemporary Chinese Culture," in World Literature Today, July-August, 2007, at p. 13 ("... some intellectuals support the [new] mass culture's liberalizing effect, which has broken many years of taboo desires and accomplished partial freedoms at the level of sensual experiences ...")

In fact, most of the best (as opposed to popular) American writers of the twentieth century can hardly be described as nice or good people by contemporary "Upper West Side" standards. Banville's response was characteristic: "Frankly, I am gratified to see myself vilified and the jury vilified." Banville said this to Sarah Lyall, over a splendid dinner, followed by a sip of white wine and a gentle belch. "His Love of Words Rivals His Contempt for Critics," The New York Times, November 2, 2005, p. E1.

Mr. Banville is Irish. This excuses many sins. Explaining his criteria for distinguishing literature from drek, Mr. Banville explained that he asks himself a key question when evaluating a novel: "Did this book have to be written?" This is a good question.

I have read some of Mr. Banville's prose and I can attest that it is stunningly beautiful at times, even unforgettable. There are genuine and powerful emotions in his writings, which are also about literary creation and language. Banville's books certainly have to be written. I think there is at least one novel that I have to write. His writing is self-conscious and self-aware at all times. It glories in language in a very Irish, Oscar Wilde-like way, which you either love or you don't. And I do.

The Times reviewer does not like Mr. Banville's most recent novel, which I have not read. From what I have seen in reviews, that novel entitled The Sea, gestures at Iris Murdoch's earlier Booker-winner, The Sea, the Sea. I will refer to some of Banville's work that I can recommend to anyone who enjoys good writing. A word of caution, Banville's novels are not thrillers and are hardly page turners, but they are profound meditations on, for example, the nature of evil in The Book of Evidence and The Shroud. To piss everyone off, Banville has decided that his next novel will be a mystery, though not middlebrow trash. We hope.

Banville does not so much "hold a mirror up to nature," as examine the distorting prism of language itself. He sets these mirrors -- language and the mysteries of the literary encounter -- opposite each other, so as to make the reader dizzy. Metaphysics dances with emotions in his texts.

Let's take a theme, say, longing -- aching, heart-crushing longing for a woman one loves -- and compare the "handling" of this theme by two contemporary novelists, both of whom I admire and from whom I have learned a great deal. First, Banville:

My love. If words can reach whatever world you may be suffering in, then listen. I have things to tell you. At this muffled end of another year I prowl the somber streets of our quarter holding you in my head. I would not have thought it possible to fix a single object so steadily for so long in the mind's violent gaze. You. You. With dusk comes rain that seems no more than an agglutination of the darkening air, drifting aslant in the lamplight like something about to be remembered. ... A car creeps up on me from behind, tyres squeaking against the sides of the narrow footpaths, and I have to stop and press myself into a footpath to let it pass. How sinister it appears, this sleek, unhuman thing wallowing over the cobbles with its driver like a faceless doll propped up motionless behind stippled glass. It shoulders by me with what seems a low chuckle and noses down an alleyway, oozing a lazy burble of exhaust smoke from its rear end, its lollipop-pink taillights swimming in the deliquescent gloom. Yes, this is my hour all right. Curfew hour. ...

Now the genderless, nameless protagonist-narrator of Jeanette Winterson's beautiful novel:

Why is the measure of love loss?

It hasn't rained for three months. The trees are prospecting underground, sending reserves of roots into the dry ground, roots like razors to open any artery water-fat.

The grapes have withered on the vine. What should be plump and firm, resisting the touch to give itself in the mouth, is spongy and blistered. ...

... You said, "I love you." Why is it the most unoriginal thing we can say to one another is still the thing we long to hear? "I love you" is always a quotation. You did not say it first and neither did I, yet when you say it and when I say it we speak like savages who have found three words and worship them. I did worship them but now I am alone on a rock hewn out of my own body. ...

Notice that all of nature, including the weather, conspires to remind the forlorn lovers in these stories of their pain and loss. Forget the "pathetic fallacy" and just listen, listen to these words. Read them aloud. Try them on young people who don't read much and see what happens. Look at their eyes. Don't let anyone tell you that nineteenth century Romanticism is dead and gone. It isn't -- only the century in which these ideas emerged is now gone, the ideas are forever. No wonder Banville likes to wear a long scarf. No wonder he's Irish.

These writers should be burned for witchcraft. They conjure and call upon the most painful memories of readers -- readers who see themselves again on that horrible rainy night in their own lives, staggering under the weight of a painful loss of someone loved, someone hungered for, whose taste lingers on the lips, whose touch has burned one's flesh. Their words have the effect of pulling long nails out of one's heart -- and each of the nails has only one woman's name written on it -- a name that is written on me, on my flesh. Her name is inside me. Tragically, some people are incapable not only of experiencing such love, but even of understanding it. Worse, they are sometimes (very thorough, highly detail-oriented) book reviewers for major newspapers, or even therapists.

Compare the quotations above, with this poem by Edward Thomas, who must have had a bit of Irish in him too:

Like the touch of rain she was
On a man's flesh and hair and eyes
When the joy of walking thus
has taken him by surprise:

With the love of the storm he burns,
He sings, he laughs, well I know how,
But forgets when he returns
As I shall not forget her 'Go now.'

Those two words shut a door
Between me and the blessed rain
That was never shut before
And will not open again.

Get these books and read them. Then listen to Beethoven's "Pastoral," the great 6th Symphony, and if you tell me it's about the fucking weather, I will not speak to you again.

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