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Thomas Bernhard anew

Hello there. It is a crisp and windy morning in the quaint village near the Ruahine range in New Zealand where I am presently parked in a tranquil cottage not far from the railway line. That may seem a contradiction as the wagons roll along the track, but it isn’t – the noise, even at 3 AM, is not at all irritating.

For months I have been working through the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard’s memoir Gathering evidence, the second of his non-fiction books I have read. That makes it sound like a chore, which in a sense it has been – I am not the only one to complain about the small type of the edition I bought that has made the physical act of reading literally tiresome. This is especially true as one of Bernhard’s  stylistic trademarks is not to have paragraphs. He starts, and keeps going. . .and going. . .and going. The writing is however a pleasure in itself; he is arguably the best post-war writer of all I have read. That’s saying a great deal when you consider wonderful stylists like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Gunter Grass, but for me it is true.

Even though I enjoy and admire his fiction, Bernhard’s memoirs show him at his finest. There is a gritty integrity to Gathering evidence that for any writer is a challenge, as there also is to his shorter piece, Wittgenstein’s nephew. Bernhard did not flinch from the world he saw, experienced and depicted, and did not hesitate to draw tough-minded conclusions plainly if without rancour.

Celine, whose approach and style must have influenced Bernhard, wrote that “first  you’ve got to pay for it – then you can use it”. Celine’s point was about fiction, made up stories that the French writer argued needed to be based on personal experience. In Celine’s case this experience was often harrowing, if self-inflicted. Bernhard started off badly, an unwanted child born out of wedlock in the Netherlands where his mother had gone to give shameful birth, and made his mark through tough-minded assertiveness. He paid for it and paid for it, then mined it, magically transforming the dross of an often terrible youth into gold.

There were differences between Celine and Bernhard. Celine’s anti-Semitism drove him unwillingly into the arms of France’s Vichy collaborators in their outpost in Sigmaringen, Germany, while Bernhard, who began his adult life as a reporter for a socialist newspaper, turned his most cruel microscope on Austria’s Catholics and Nazis and later on the poseurs of a rekindled Austrian cultural renaissance. Yet both were anarchists. . .and felt deeply for those whose lives were blighted by the system that surrounded and shaped them.

What makes them cousins of the pen beyond perspective, however, is style. Bernhard took his cue from an apparently unending scroll while Celine famously used the ellipse, but for both, the effect was the appearance of raving that is anything but. A film of a Billy Connolly routine shows the wonder comic’s style was very much like that. Connolly tells stories, seems to wander and then comes back to the beginning to make his point. “You thought I had forgotten, hadn’t you?” he scolded his audience. “This is my technique!” Just so. What seems to effortless and even artless, is high art.

Bernhard wrote the five parts of his memoir in a certain order, ending them with his earliest experiences. The translator of Gathering evidence (or perhaps an editor) chose to put the last one first, to keep the memoir chronological. I should have skipped that one, and read it last as was Bernhard’s intention. I understand what he was doing, and I may read that section again.

 
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Posted by on March 27, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

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No mere bagatelle

This blog is mostly about writing and this is the 24th post. It is also the fourth draft, a bad sign. Initially I had thought this would be a kind of swan song, a farewell to the difficulty I have had with the French writer Celine, ever since he first burst into my consciousness in the 1970s. Discovering that one of Celine’s three “anti-semitic” pamphlets had been translated into English, I reckoned that at last I would be able to make up my own mind about what he was on about, to consign him to some pigeonhole or other, and move on.

It hasn’t worked out like that. Reading Bagatelles pour un massacre, translated (anonymously) as Trifles for a massacre, has not settled Celine into a comfortable spot in my spirit, even a little bit. Instead this “pamphlet” – it is nearly 350 pages long – set my mind on a wild ride; yet again this exasperating man has challenged me about  fundamentals: about writing, about thinking, ultimately about life itself. I suppose I was foolish to imagine it would be otherwise, that he would not find a way to get under my skin.

There is some sort of explanation for this: Celine used his life as the source material if you like for his fiction, and the life he led put him “out there” – exposed with all his idiosyncracies to very, very public view. The result was a blend of fantasy and reality that is at the very least spectacular. There was nothing easy about him; many of his opinions weren’t just unfashionable but were highly objectionable, offensive even to his adoring public and friends. The painter Gen Paul, a long-time comrade, was so stung by his thinly disguised portrayal in the post-war novel Normance that he was unable ever to trust Celine again: it was almost as if Celine relished the ostracism his writing provoked, yet he complained again and again about how badly he was treated.

Despite the anti-semitism, Celine’s reputation has otherwise recovered in the past generation.

Of course his stature is relative: most people have never heard of him. If you google his name you will get many more hits of Celine Dion. Yet Celine’s rehabilitation if not complete has been nonetheless wholesale: almost all his works have been translated from the original French into English and other languages, he has websites devoted to him, there are photo books of his tumultuous life; you can buy the t-shirt with his photo on it. In his last book he wrote that “in two hundred years I’ll be helping the kids through high school” but perhaps he won’t have to wait that long. Some of his work has been translated as obvious university study material, with English on one page and the original French on the facing page.

Is he worth it? Does he deserve the t-shirt? Until a few years ago, that was impossible to say for anyone reading him in translation, and almost for any Francophone: the writing that caused so much trouble during his life, and had by the deliberate common consent of the literary establishment, in France and elsewhere, been regarded as outside the pale, was no longer easy to get in its original editions and was not (and is not) reprinted, though it is available online.

Now that Bagatelles is available however anyone can see what the fuss was about  without taking anyone’s word for it, even if the other two “anti-semitic pamphlets” –  Les Beaux Draps (The fine mess) and L’ecole des cadavres (School for corpses) –  are still off the menu. Bagatelles is enough to see the basis for Celine’s ostracism. Though he has also been criticised for his activities during the war, in particular letters and interviews he wrote and gave, he denounced some of the material appearing under his name at the time as deliberate forgeries aimed by Germans and collaborators at tying him into support of the Nazis, and pointed the finger at his accusers for collaboration. Notably he gave Sartre, who had once championed him (his first novel, La nausee [Nausea] was prefaced with a quotation from Celine’s play, L’eglise, The Church), a very rough time: his reply to Sartre can be found on the net.

It is also true – though it doesn’t say anything for or against Celine – that collaboration was widespread in France during the German occupation, that  protest was at best muted when Jews were deported to be slaughtered in the camps, and that attacks on collaborators and alleged collaborators have more than a tinge of a guilty conscience.

Celine answered the charges against him after the war with characteristic invective and claimed in his last book that he was, and had always been, an anarchist, and it is hard to square his supposed support for Nazism with some of his remarks about Hitler and “Aryan baloney”.

In spite of all this, it seems to me to be a kind of sideshow, a distraction. What is proper with a writer is to look at her or his work as literature, to read it on its own terms, whatever these may be, before interposing judgment on even the most outrageous ideas. Judgment, to be fair, has to come later. So what my plan here is, is to treat Bagatelles as literature, to examine it, and its arguments, from that perspective. Celine was a genius without doubt, and to respond to his genius we really need to approach his work seriously, and not to dismiss anything at all out of hand.

On any level Bagatelles is an incredible book. It is often screamingly funny, and its many barbs are frequently sharp and pointed in the right ways: his attacks on French drunkenness and on the Soviet Union must have made uncomfortable reading for French intellectuals – indeed French people – when Bagatelles was first published, but for the first he makes a striking and well-documented case, and for the second its truth is now widely acknowledged.

That is very far from all. Celine rips through the French literary establishment with customary vigour, and his analysis of global fiction is interesting and perceptive. His denunciation of the modern media is also, to paraphrase John Major, “not entirely without merit”.

Schematically Bagatelles is an advance on his previous novels because it takes the “novel as delirium” another step: whereas Mort a Credit retains the formal fictional structure of a novel, Bagatelles begins as a novel only to transpose into non-fiction – maybe. Ferdinand becomes Celine, becomes Ferdinand. This is artfully contrived.

All this however skirts around Celine’s core themes. As the title suggests Bagatelles sees the coming conflict with Germany and seeks to persuade France to avoid it, to refuse to become embroiled in war with Germany. (As an aside, when he “lost the argument”, he volunteered immediately and became a ship’s doctor on a vessel that was sunk in the early days of the war.).

And it does this from a perspective that is both astonishing and alarming. It turns out that there is a global conspiracy, and that the French aspect of this conspiracy has the Jews undermining everything in a grand plan to take over the world. Everywhere he looks, Ferdinand/Celine finds the dread hand of  the Jew…not just finance, but communism! not just politics but film, not just film but the editorial policies of newspapers and book publishers, not just that but the vineyards debauching the French nation, not just that but…there is nowhere the Jew is not judging, scheming, conniving, thwarting…thrusting France into a cataclysm with Germany, when if there is an enemy, it is the Soviet Union. He has been there, and seen what it is really like, and it is not pretty.

And the greatest undermining of all – of the ethnicity of the French people. What scheming wee creeps can’t achieve, sex will…later in his life, Celine imagined the Chinese taking over (“the Chinese in Brest”) and achieving the same magical result: no more France, no more French (he then called the French “Vrounzais” to show the bastardisation of “French blood” by immigrants).

Celine constructs this argument far more cunningly than I have managed to make it seem here. He has a Jewish friend to show that he does not conflate every single Jew with the “Jewish conspiracy”, and even has this friend slagging off “the Jews” with the same invective Celine will later employ; his Jewish boss in the League of Nations gets equal measure of brickbat and bouquet: he takes care, that is, to distinguish the individual, the personal, from the “ism” even as he mocks this view, and mocks himself for holding it!

The friend shows true friendship too, and ends warning Ferdinand/Celine of the consequences of his irrational attacks on “the Jews”, just as does his non-Jewish artist mate.

To Jewish people what is not highly offensive about this is not worth thinking about, but those who should be most offended are the French. Indeed, whatever crimes Celine may find to lay at the door of the Jews are as nothing compared to the weakness and uselessness of the French people. So the Jews are in control of the alcohol industry? Who makes French people drink it? (Celine became a teetotaller at some stage).* The Jews are in control of the French novel, of French literature and literary journals, and the international fiction markets? Who makes anyone read the output? See the films? Go to the theatre? The ballet? Celine goes on and on and on about the fecklessness of the French, their hopelessness…their uselessness…the truth as he recounts it is that the French are too weak to resist. It is already too late.

And this is the contradiction in Celine’s account of reality: the massacre he seeks to avoid is already pre-ordained, and the plea he makes is already certain to be ignored, by his own testimony.

Worse, the vision he evokes to avoid the impending slaughter is in itself flawed. Who are these “French”? There is no static “French nation” any more than any other “nation”; the France of Celine’s time had a different ethnic mix and geographical extent than fifty years before, and fifty years before that and before that…One can find maps of “France” stretching to the banks of the Rhine, and if one looks back far enough, maps of France taking in England! That is to say, the “French people” have been a mixture of peoples more or less forever, so what is the big deal with adding new elements? Er, none whatsoever. Celine claimed, over and over, that he didn’t mind Jews as long as they stayed out of France. He saw Jews as “negroid” people, and he said he didn’t mind blacks on the same basis. He had a great time in Africa and the only thing he didn’t like was “tom-tom” music (presumably referring to the jazz of his time); he just wanted Africans to stay in Africa, and Jews to stay in Palestine.

People don’t behave like that and it is impossible not to think that Celine knew this as well as anyone. Later he described warfare as “movements of peoples”, and his “Chinese in Brest” remark was more aware than anti-semitism allows.

Celine wanted to be judged on the basis of his “novel as delirium”, even when he didn’t mean it. It was clever, indeed ingenious, but in this sense a failure. He could say, “Bagatelles comprises the delirious ravings of a paranoid man and should not be taken seriously as argument”**, but there is far too much serious argument in it for that claim to succeed. The section on  drunkenness for example, is crammed with facts and shows evident research, and the sections on literature and fellow writers far from crazed. It is in this sense, ultimately, that Bagatelles is a failure: as literature. It was a bold and even courageous attempt to push ahead a theory of writing that Celine had already established as his own, but he allowed his real preoccupations to get in the way.

This supposed pamphlet is nearly 350 pages long, and many of the “arguments” in it are repeated, when the new versions add little if anything. Even the (very funny) jokes are repeated, embellished and elaborated, but too worn for effect. If Celine were writing today, using a PC with all the text editing tools available to anyone able to  “hunt and peck” on a keyboard and use a mouse, he very well may have delivered a much different text to his reading public. There seems to this reader to be a great deal of “draft” in Bagatelles, as if Celine was keen to get the thing out and couldn’t be bothered going through proofs and rewriting again and again. And it is precisely in those parts that are the most offensive that the most repetition is found – it is as if he couldn’t be sure which bit bit better so left them all in, hoping the teeth would not seem worn by the end.

After his excursion into politics, Celine’s writing became overelaborated; his impressionistic and emotional colouration became too much really. It took nearly a decade before he realised this wasn’t working and retreated to a more restrained style, that was all the more elegant and eloquent for it. Before he published Normance, the second part of Fable for another time, he seemed to believe that it would be welcomed by his public as a great literary advance. To me, it is almost unreadable.

Bagatelles is not unreadable. Its anti-semitic diatribes are unfortunate, in that on any level, from argument through to art, they fail. In my second novel, Evilheart, the protagonist argues that the “petit bourgois” foundation of anti-semitism enfeebles anti-semitic art and that writers and others’ anti-semitism shows through in their work as weakness, and never as strength. The argument traverses Wagner – a notorious anti-semite – and painters including Cezanne and Degas, both “anti-Dreyfusards”, seeing in the former a willingness to put this view aside when picking up the brush, and in the latter a more limited palette: Degas lost important patrons because of his refusal to stop propagandising on behalf of those who believed Dreyfus guilty.*** Celine started out as Degas, and finished, shall we say, as Cezanne. In a later interview he said he got involved in things that were none of his business, “to do with the Jews”.

But he did not resile, or recant; he never changed. He just left it out,  referring to the trouble he had got into, but not, as with the three “pamphlets”, foaming at the mouth over the Jewish cabal. Yet the anti-semitism and the amazing insights into life as it is lived by all of us, that “life of quiet desperation” as the American Thoreau put it, live cheek by jowl. They can’t really be separated in this man: where he succeeded as a writer he transformed this kind of hatred into a generalised hatred, and he transformed his beliefs into general ones, not about France, not about Jews, but about life. In these  passages, and these themes, and they are many, he remains one of the greatest writers ever.

Anti-semitism is a characteristic of the petit-bourgeois milieu in any society – those people who are not “workers” and who despise them, and who envy, fear and hate those above them. Celine mined these emotions in ways never before seen, and handled since but awkwardly.  Evilheart‘s protagonist has Celine’s characters ending up “at the wrong end of the pool cue”.  ass in the air and about to get reamed…in Bagatelles Celine frequently speaks of a gnat being reamed by an elephant…the way I feel about him, when he’s on about life he has transcended  his background to speak universal truth, and when he is on about Jews he has succumbed to it.

Bagatelles begins and ends with ballet scripts the author hopes to have staged.**** Later on, these and others were published with the tongue-in-cheek title Ballets without music, without dancers, without anything. So far as I know, no music has ever been written for them and they have never been performed. Not all of them are great, but the ones in Bagatelles are not at all bad, and it would be interesting to see them produced.

When I first encountered Celine, he was liberating to me, both in a literary and a personal sense. He stood up and took the hits for the most incredible ideas, and he could write like no one else had ever written. His sad verdict on life was tempered by a kind of perverse optimism – “So life is futile. What are you going to do about it?”

Celine’s paradoxical answer to that question is found in Bagatelles. It is a tragic  answer, futility piled on futility. His motives may have been sick, and even evil, but he gains full marks in my book for the courage he showed then and after. This has been a great lesson for me, and I am still thinking about it.

* There is some evidence that Celine was an alcoholic, or had alcoholic tendencies, and that he stopped drinking as a result. In his second novel his character is shall we say led astray by drink, and by the time of Bagatelles Celine is anti-drink; in his last trilogy he says more than once that he drinks only water.

**This is me putting words into Celine’s mouth.

***Any good biography of Degas will recount his attitudes; Evilheart goes on about what it meant for his art.

****Naturally, the Jews stand in the way…in Paris as in Russia…

 
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Posted by on November 6, 2012 in influences, Uncategorized

 

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Celine encore – part one!

 

This blog is mostly about writing, and this, its 19th instalment, is yet more about the French novelist Celine, whose influence on me I wrote about in an earlier post. It’s rather long – dear reader, please accept my apologies for this. You don’t have to read it though of course I hope you do, and enjoy it.Originally I was going to write about something else – about greatness, what it means and why it matters, and I’ve got the bones of this stored quietly away as a draft. But I decided to go back to Celine partly because of my thinking about greatness. Celine has affected me more than any other “modern” (meaning 20th century and beyond) writer, and I am far from alone in being influenced by him. In my opinion he was a great writer but not a great man, and not everything a great writer writes is great.
Celine’s anti-semitism, as I wrote in my earlier post, has troubled me for a long time, but it was difficult to get a real handle on it as the so-called “pamphlets” he wrote that included these wild-eyed views were hard to find even in French, and not translated into English. However “Translator Anonymous” a few years ago did translate the first of his three “anti-semitic” “pamphlets”, Bagatelles for a massacre as Trifles for a massacre and posted it on the internet. Trifles is only available in this form, it’s free, and I’ve got it on my e-reader. The translation is actually very good as a translation, but there is a large number of literals and the formatting means many of the notes (that reveal the quality of the translation) appear in odd places in the text.
The translator says in a short introduction that it has never been illegal to publish Trifles because of its anti-semitic content but that Celine’s widow has never given permission – implying that she is still alive (she would be at least 80) and that the translation is illegal on copyright grounds. Readers should be able to make up their own minds about Celine’s views, the translator says. Well, I am a pretty keen believer in copyright, but it’s out there now, so I’m reading it. And there is a perhaps specific case to be made for new editions and translations of Celine’s most scurrilous works: the translator has a point.Though I am only half-way through Trifles there are some things about it that are worth saying now.One of Celine’s techniques as a writer was to intersperse “lucid” prose with “delirious” episodes, usually as a consequence of the narrator’s having got malaria many years previously. The first time he used this technique was in his second novel, Mort a credit variously translated as Death or Credit or Death on the Instalment Plan, but he used it frequently after that, and in the first part of his final trilogy, Castle to Castle, he employed it with terrific effect to bring the past into the present and justify his reprise of wartime experiences, and his sometimes crazily expressed views about life.

Yet in this “pamphlet”, which is in fact 344 pages long, and technically at least a novel, he does not use this technique. There aren’t any excuses: this is straight from the lip in every respect. Unless the narrator – Celine always uses a narrator – wakes up suddenly at the end, this raving is compis mentis raving.

And while it’s a novel with a narrator, it’s a novel in which the author takes back the wheel whenever he pleases, and forgets about being “Ferdinand” and becomes Celine.

He’s got a lot of anger, and a lot of targets to shoot at with that anger. It’s not just about Jews, even though he manages – sometimes with incredible cunning – to find them behind practically everything he doesn’t like.

It’s these other things that are worth talking about now; I’ll wait till I’ve finished the book to talk about the anti-semitism in more detail.

Celine could really write; he had a gift for it. Much of Trifles is screamingly funny – and extremely filthy in ways that could even today render this book unpublishable by reputable publishers. One of his literary biographers said that when he was tried in absentia after the war – he had made a dash to Denmark – that the audience, there to watch his figurative flaying, burst into laughter when excerpts of Trifles were read.

But he lost control of his imagination at some point. He took himself too seriously, and it looks to me that this book began this sad chapter in his life. Even if there were no anti-semitic elements in it,Trifles is not a great book because it is so over-written. He makes some acute points about other aspects of life, and there are turns of phrase that are wonderful. But there are too many of them, by a very wide margin.

The following two novels/pamphlets (L’ecole des Cadavres and Les Beaux Draps) have not been reprinted or translated, but the supposedly more serious novels, and fragments have been: Casse-pipe (Cannon-fodder), an excerpt from an apparently much longer work that was lost when his belongings were ransacked in the closing days of the war; Guignol’s BandLondon Bridge, and Feerie pour une autre fois translated as Fable for another time, with its sequeal Normance. Apart from Guignol’s band, which for other reasons is not a great novel, all these share the quality of being over-written to a fault.

Celine only returned to a more settled narrative form with Conversation with Professor Y before embarking on the trilogy that was his final work.

External sources suggest that Celine really believed he had developed a new and even revolutionary style in that middle period of his life and that the over-elaborated and repetitive quality of these books was an asset rather than a turn-off. He imagined for example that Normance, an account of the bombing of Paris in 1944, would restore his reputation; it didn’t. What he thought was a tour-de-force was an oppressive bore: he wrote in the preface to Guignol’s Band that writers in the future would “telegraph or you won’t write at all”, a lesson the master all too evidently forgot.

Trifles seems to have been the first of these too-much tangos. A previous non-fiction essay on his trip to the Soviet Union, Mea Culpa, was admirably concise.

And in a writing sense, that’s a real shame. Setting the anti-semitism aside for the time being, there is a great deal of value in Trifles that is squandered, sometimes because it is sandwiched in among screeds of raving, and sometimes just because he goes on too long about it, making the same point again and again. “The novel as delirium”, as one of his biographers called it, becomes the novel as tedium.

Celine’s first novel, Journey to the End of Night, was translated into Russian after it was published in 1932 apparently under the mistaken impression that the author was a communist, but the Soviet royalty system meant Celine could only spend the money in the socialist paradise, so he went. To say he wasn’t impressed is a very mild way of putting it. Mea Culpa was a precis; Trifles gives the detail and it’s not a pretty sight. Celine’s insights into Soviet life deserved better.

It is possible that Celine was an alcoholic who gave up drinking without the benefit of a programme like Alcoholics Anonymous; later in life he said he drank only water, and in Death on Credit he has an account of his narrator’s loss of control after drinking. Trifles includes a broadside against the French fondness for drink, in particular but not only wine, that should give pause to people who think that the French people are civilised drinkers unlike say, Scots or New Zealanders, or Russians.

Trifles also has full measure of Celine’s views on literature and on writing, especially  the French literature of his time. He is not very nice either to English and American fiction.

Celine didn’t think much of his French contemporaries. He believed they lacked the experience of life that made writing worth reading, and that they lacked skills that made writing worth doing. Focusing on grammar, rooted in the classics whose very fact of translation or rendering in another tongue made them unworthy, they made for a literature of “imposture” able to survive only by virtue of a monstrous profession: teachers.

There is something in what he says about literature, and it is worth noting that the writers he castigates, who are perhaps still read in French – Anatole France, Francois Mauriac, Andre Gide, and others of that period – are almost unread today in other countries unless as class assignments.

Something, of course, isn’t everything. In my own writing, I hope that my experience and the lessons I have learned from it are the basis for “what I have to say”. I write because I do think I have something to say that is worth reading. But writing has to have form; it has to have some kind of “grammar”; writing in a genre, as I do, means accepting some exterior rules and disciplines. Even Celine, with his revolutionary style, was published in books. They have pages that readers turn…even e-reading, like this, makes a pretense of the physical page.And teaching is necessary in life, whether by a parent or a someone at the front of a classroom.

Celine had no doubt of his own contribution to literature; in his last book, Rigodon finished the day before he died, he said that “in two hundred years I’ll be helping the kids through high school”. That’s a ways away yet, but as time has gone on, an increasing number of studies of his life and work have appeared along with translations of his “more serious” oeuvre. For a writer most people have never heard of, there is an impressive number of literary biographies in English – at least six. The University of Texas in Austin has a Celine collection, and there is a French-language society devoted to organising symposia on him. So in the legacy game, he seems to be winning.

Trifles sheds some explanatory light on Celine’s craziness that makes him a tragic figure, but it is possible to go beyond that and find a deeper social tragedy in this twisted figure. There is more to say…

Those of you still here are entitled to at least have a galaxy of stars, beaming happy ones to light up your day…your month…your life.

Thanks for reading.

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Published on September 08, 2012 20:37 •

 
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Posted by on September 9, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“Something completely different”

Yesterday I read a “blog” on the British Telegraph website about a human named Lehrer, who is not the satirical songwriter/singer/pianist Tom Lehrer but another one, Jonah, aged 31. It seems this fellow, who was working for the once-revered New Yorker weekly magazine, had resigned after digging himself a hole the size of the Grand Canyon, just before leaping in.His spadework related to having made claims about quotations from Bob Dylan in a book calledImagine. Lehrer is apparently one of these instant science gurus who tells us astonishing things about the world by linking apparently unrelated “facts”.In this case Lehrer made up the facts about Dylan. The quotes he quotes were made up, and when he was quizzed about them, he lied. Pressed, he lied some more. Eventually he had to admit he lied. His career prospects, which must have seemed quite remarkable up to that moment, now look dim. If you, dear reader, happen to encounter him mopping the floor somewhere later in life, flip him a tip in recognition of the effort he must have spent climbing out of that hole.In recent times – the past twenty years or so – manufactured stuff has appeared in newspapers and magazines with big type over it, only to trash the reputations of the people who created it. There was a case in the Washington Post, another in the New York Times, and finally in the Guardian in Britain. These are all well-known and at least at one time highly-regarded titles, of a liberal bent. It makes one wonder – well, it makes me wonder – what it is in the cultures of these institutions that let these mountebanks in, and once in, to blaze, if briefly, in the firmament.

This is not plagiarism; the writers in all these cases did not copy others’ work – as I have done in the heading of this post, which is a steal from the Monty Python television series so famous no one would ever think I was claiming it as my own. No, they made things up. In Lehrer’s case, he made things up to support a case he could not otherwise have made – “facts” that did not exist to support “facts” that may or may not be true.

We don’t like this. Well, I don’t like it. Yet there is another way of making things up that I do like, that has fascinated me for the whole of my adult life, and that I have even done a little bit myself.

Two of the writers I’ve written about in this blog as influencing my work (and me) are Celine, and B Traven. These very different people lived their literary lives behind a mask, or masks. Traven manufactured a series of them and even now, a lifetime after his death, there are different accounts of who he really was. The obsessive secrecy may originally have had a political motive, but later on…so his “nom de plume”, something many writers adopt, went much further. I admire the man for it.

Celine was more elaborate, and in a way more interesting. He was a doctor, and his real name was Louis-Ferdinand Destouches, Celine being his mother’s first name. The one word was his original nom-de-plume. When he was outed, shortly after the publication of his first book, he dropped the pretense, and many of his later works were published as by “Louis-Ferdinand Celine”. “His” character in his books, which are a bizarre kind of fictionalised autobiography, is usually called Ferdinand.

Celine manufactured a whole lot of stuff about himself that Traven never needed to do. He made up facts about his life, made up opinions he held even, to keep the public at bay. When he discussed writing, he held forth with ideas he almost certainly never took seriously. And when the guard dropped, and a peek at the “real” writer and thinker was somehow revealed, it was unclear whether it was, in truth, the dinkum oil*, or another pose.

Celine’s attitude in this was that the work is what matters, and the public’s craving for insights into the personality of the creator should not be satisfied. It should not matter if he was handsome, tall, short, ugly, if he believed in witchcraft, or whatever. Each work should stand on its own.

There is of course something in this that is true, but Celine so mixed up his own life and opinions with his work, that it often seems like special pleading. The anti-Semitic ravings of his pamphlets are known, from other sources, to reflect his real views, and his mockery of them within his works becomes a kind of defence against the attacks he must have known were bound to come, a peculiar false modesty: “Don’t pay any attention! Only, do…”

Well, as I said earlier, there is something romantic, something attractive to me about these secretive personalities, and I’ve had a slash at this on my own. In 1984, I wrote a non-fiction pamphlet and self-published it in the country where I live, New Zealand. New Zealand law requires three copies of everything published to be sent to a central clearing house as part of building a national “collection”, complete with “bibliographical details” about the author.

As it happened, I did not want too many people to know who wrote this pamphlet. Armed with Traven’s example, I made up a character, gave him another birthdate, and sent the required three copies up to the National Library. They swallowed it, and the book was duly listed under the nom-de-plume.

Imagine my surprise when, several years later, I picked up a book on the same topic in a bookshop and, flicking through it, suddenly hit on the nom-de-plume. There was an index and my goodness, this fellow I had created had morphed into a great number of entries, a sort of weird guru whose knowledge was used as a stick to beat the targets of this new author.

Later on I used the name to keep up the reputation of my creation in shorter pieces for various radical publications, but in 1992, I put him to bed finally and forever (well, I think so anyway). He had an interesting life, and in future may become a tiny footnote in a tiny corner of the intellectual history of my adopted country.

How far does my wee creation, or B Traven’s various disguises, differ from this Lehrer fellow’s? They are not in the same league, I reckon. The ideas I put forward were real ideas; they didn’t rely on the identity of a made-up author to be true or not: they stood or fell on their own. Traven’s books are good novels, or not, whatever his real name and whoever he really was. Lehrer’s “facts” are not facts, just as his “quotes” are not quotes.

Celine’s case is a bit different. He made up a “real” persona no one was meant to take seriously – or that’s how I see it – at the same time he made up a fictional one “not meant to be taken seriously” but actually at least partly meant to be taken seriously.

But he was, after all, writing fiction. We may know that his characters, his “Ferdinand” and others, espouse his views, whatever gloss he puts on them, but we also know that his books are fiction – novels. I think Celine felt that the harassment he got because of the anti-Semitic views he expressed in his novels was unfair precisely because they were novels and hence “not true”, a view as naive as his beliefs about Jews.

For Lehrer, then – no comfort. He too is “completely different”. Nice mop technique, Jonah.

Make as many stars as you like out of moonbeams, and stick them in your imagination. Dear reader, you are fabulous!

*dinkum oil – the real thing. Traditional Australian slang sometimes heard in NZ.

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Published on August 04, 2012 16:14 • 23 views • Tags: anti-semitismb-travencelinejonah-lehrermonty-pythontom-lehrer

 
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Posted by on September 2, 2012 in random chatter

 

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