apocalypse

ICE BY ANNA KAVAN

Read it, they intone. Not as a distraction from the chaos but as an explanation. Everywhere you look: bodies crushed under avalanches of snow; hardy men torn apart by a substance as soft as tissue paper; babies blue, and harder than stone, ripping through the air like bullets. I have seen so many things. Awful things. They call it the end of the world. But this is not the end, this is still something. The end will be a relief. The end, the end. I’m fooling myself. There is no end. I am the cockroach. I have survived; I will survive. Soon I will be the only one left. The bitter wind that carries their voices to me will then be mute.

Read it, the cold wind says, and then you will understand. What will I understand? There is no place for that now, for the goal of understanding is progress. And we are going nowhere, not even backwards. The only movement comes from the ice and the snow, that constantly shifting, vertical and horizontal, oppression. An arctic prison, built around a void. They have public readings. For an hour or two they stop killing each other, or digging, and read together; or one reads and the others listen. The book begins, I have been told, ominously. A man is lost, hopelessly lost, and he is almost out of petrol. It is night-time, and this is telling, for isn’t the dark traditionally where danger lurks? The man drives into a petrol station and is issued a warning. A real bad freeze-up is on the way.

Read it, and all will become clear. Yet everything is murky. Who is he? Where has he come from? Where is he going? You are aware that something bad has happened, something irreversible, but details are sketchy. A ‘disaster’ is mentioned, which has ‘obliterated the villages and wrecked the farms.’ Later, it is suggested that there may have been ‘a secret act of aggression by some foreign power.’ A nuclear explosion, perhaps. Confusion, rumour, theory. The truth is you will never know. And what good is knowing anyhow? There is then, and there is now. No one in the book is named; no countries are identified either. Instability, uncertainty dominates. But you must deal in certainties, if you are to stay alive. There is the ice, and there is the girl. And these two things are connected. Of this much you can be sure.

Read it, they chant day and night, although, strictly speaking, there is no night-time anymore. There is no darkness, no rest. There is bright icelight, and no one can put it out. The earth is a giant glittering discoball. The girl. She is, the man admits, an obsession. He is infatuated; he could think only of her. In fact, the man is only really interesting in relation to how he views, treats, and thinks about, her. Throughout the book he is intent on finding her. This is, essentially, the plot: he finds the girl, and then he loses her again. He finds, he loses. He finds, he loses. It should be tedious, but it is oddly moving. And often disturbing. He wants to save her, from the disaster, from the warden.

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Read it, for the girl. She is important, of course. She has a body ‘slight as a child’s.’ It is repeatedly emphasised. Her physical immaturity, and vulnerability. She has thin and brittle wrists. She is almost weightless. She is neurotic, fearful, mostly silent. She is emotionally vulnerable too. To be frank, the repetition in the first half of the book seems artless. She is weak; she is otherwordly. You wonder how many times you need to be told. Yet you must remember that we only have access to his words, that this – like a child – is how he sees her. Isn’t it – her childish, delicate appearance – his obsession, not the author’s? The man needs her frailty, in order to justify his need to feel protective of her.

Read it, and perhaps you will make up your own mind. I don’t know. I have little interest in books. I will not yield to their demands. I simply listen and I observe. And I endure, like the cockroach that I am. There is a point in the book when the man speaks of the girl as though she is a dog. I believe that this is significant. He had to win her trust. She comes when she is called. Isn’t it the case, therefore, that he sees himself as the owner, the master, of this timid animal? The relationship between the girl and the man is not based on love, but power. He credits himself with the power to save and also the power to destroy. The girl is destroyed, or hurt, numerous times throughout the novel. By the ice. By a dragon. By the warden. By the man himself, of course. In the first half, she is repeatedly persecuted, killed. She submits to it without resistance.

Read it, and you will agree that it is a novel about systematic abuse, about victims and victimisers. This is why they like it, why it speaks to that gang out there, outside my window. It isn’t the ice, it isn’t the parallels between that and this; Anna Kavan could not see into the future, she did not predict what was going to happen. Not even they believe that. It speaks to their now unleashed desire to crush and maim those who are weaker than they are. If the world is a nightmare, if unreality is reality, then anything is permissible. The girl wasn’t born to be a victim, she was trained, you might say, by her mother, who kept her ‘in a permanent state of frightened subjection.’ And as a victim she needs the man, and the warden, as much as they, as the victimisers, need her; they sustain each other.

Read it, they demand, not once, but repeatedly, until the words become your words. Bearing all this in mind, you understand the man’s actions, his mission, differently; he is not simply searching for the girl, he is stalking her. He is a sadist. He finds her bruises ‘madly attractive.’ He argues that her ‘timidity and fragility seems to invite callousness.’ He derives an ‘indescribable pleasure from seeing her suffer.’ And you, as the reader, feel complicit because you enjoy it too – when the ice overwhelms her, when it entraps her – as these are the moments when Kavan’s writing truly astonishes. It is beautiful only in these moments. Her death: over and over again. I don’t know if that was intentional.

Read it aloud, so that those who are within earshot can also be redeemed. The ice! The ice! Sometimes I feel as though it lives, it breathes, and we are simply performing rituals, and sacrifices, in order to please it. You can draw comparisons between the girl and Kavan herself; both silver-haired, both with mother issues. The author was a heroin addict, and the girl’s appearance is certainly consistent with that. Thin, pale. And the ice, of course, and the snow, which engulfs, and entraps. You might argue that this – the ice – is her addiction; that it is the drug that is destroying her. There is a dragon, remember. A dragon. The level of self pity, and self-obsession, is incredible. To write a novel about one’s own destruction and link it to the fate of the world. No, I find that the most uninteresting theory of all.

Read it, study it, and memorise it. Almost all copies were submerged under the ice. What we have has been rewritten, from one or two master copies. Still, teams of men and women are excavating as I speak, chipping away at the glass that mirrors their toil. An Original is precious. It could buy you life, or death. I prefer the latter. The man is dreaming, terrible dreams; they are a side effect of the drugs he takes. He admits this early on. There is no mystery. The girl is ‘the victim I used in my dreams for my own enjoyment.’ Case closed. There is reality and lucidity; there is unreality and hallucination. The warden with his ‘vicious scowl’, his ‘aura of danger.’ The man and the warden [and her husband] are the same man. The man and the warden and the ice. The black hand. The dragon. All one and the same. Am I spoiling things? Who am I spoiling it for? You all know the book better than I do, for I have never even glanced at a page.

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THE SLYNX BY TATYANA TOLSTAYA

I am a butcher. Only I don’t work with meat, I work with words. Cutting, slicing, trimming. All for Vladimir, the great and powerful, and The Good Russian People. Give me War & Peace and I’ll hand you back a pamphlet. That’s progress, comrades. When they gave me the job they said that I would be serving my country by preventing the spread or dissemination of dangerous materials. Most people don’t realise how dangerous literature is. They focus too much on bombs and guns, and forget all about the clever metaphor. No one ever dropped a clever metaphor on a village of women and children, they say. Well, that means I’m doing my job properly. They’ll give me the Order of Lenin one day, no doubt. Recently I’ve been working on The Slynx. Cutting, slicing, trimming. It’s hard work, comrades. First, you have to read the book several times. You don’t want to miss anything, to let anything through that ought not to get through. Vladimir, the great and powerful, would not to be pleased. And when Vladimir is not pleased someone gets it. I thought about the title for a long time. Slynx. What is it? What does it mean? Is it some kind of code? According to Tolstaya, who wrote the book, it is a strange, mysterious creature that grew out of the nuclear explosion that has, in a sense, created the world that she describes. Well, ultimately I decided to get rid of it. The title, I mean. You can’t be too careful. I renamed the book The Sensible Adventures of Comrade Benedikt. There are a lot of weird creatures in the book; mutants, I guess you would call them. One woman has multiple cockscombs; there is a man with ears all over his body; another man can breathe fire. Tolstaya calls these defects or mutations Consequences. While I wasn’t too entertained by all that – in fact I found it rather silly and distracting – I let it go. I saw nothing in it to corrupt The Good Russian People. You have to be careful not to censor too much, otherwise our citizens will have nothing to read, to keep them busy and stop them from thinking for themselves. Stop Worrying, Let Vladimir Think For You, goes the popular slogan. Oldeners are people who were born before the blast, and survived it. They remember. Memory, comrades, is perhaps our most potent weapon. Sometimes I meet someone who can recall the original books, before I got my hands on them. ‘Where is the rest of it?’ they say.’ It’s all there, comrade,’ I reply. ‘My arse it is!’ they say, ‘I know something about books, comrade, and I can tell you that there is a character in this one called Bazarov.’ We were talking about Turgenev, of course. ‘And yet, now there is no Bazarov!’ I told him that he was imagining things. Bazarov! You made that up, comrade. Whoever heard of such a name, you silly shit! The problem with post-apocalyptic literature is that it is, generally speaking, not half as clever or inventive as the author thinks it is. Take The Slynx, for example. The blast has left people mutated, with strange powers? Ok then. And these people are ignorant of what existed before the blast? Dandy. The ignorant ones make mistakes about, mispronounce or misunderstand the things that existed before the blast, so that morality becomes more-allity, for example. Well. Let’s be honest, all this is pretty standard stuff, you really expect this sort of thing, it’s a formula. I once worked on Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, comrades, and I can tell you that The Slynx is very similar indeed. Very similar! Now, I’m not a writer myself, you know, I’m an editor, and being an editor I know something about authorial decisions, so to speak. If I could have spoken to Tolstaya I would have said, ‘comrade, does your book have to be so similar to other books of the same sort? Isn’t doing something that has been done many times before, with only minimal changes, rather pointless, in fact? ’ And she’d probably turn up her nose at me or laugh or call me an unpleasant name, like Kulak, but I would be right, of course. And she’d probably point out to me that The Slynx is a satire, that the ignorant masses are meant to represent our own ignorant masses, The Good Russian People. Sure, sure. But then I would likewise point out to citizen Tolstaya that satire, or allegory, is itself the province of the lazy and unimaginative, because it is necessarily obvious, otherwise the nincompoops wouldn’t get it. Take Kapek’s War with the Newts [which I wittled down to a still generous 30 pages], in which human beings colonise a race of newts. Well, the newts are, of course, meant to represent all the races or peoples that we have attempted to colonise ourselves. And one has to ask oneself, well, what was the point of that? It is as though satire allows you to do really obvious things, to make points even a child would grasp, just because you’ve changed humans to newts. No, comrades. If you want to want to write about colonisation, do so; it is artistic cowardice to hide behind a bunch of lizards. What elevates The Slynx is the narrative voice, which is buoyant and charismatic, although somewhat naïve and simple-minded, like Hucklebery Finn after a hard blow to the head. It is such a charming voice, albeit strongly reminiscent of Bohumil Hrabal or even Gogol. Hrabal was a Czech novelist whom Vladimir, the great and powerful, despises. I once let one of his novels through, with major cuts of course, and Vladimir got so angry he punched a bear square in the face. That wasn’t very nice, if I may say so. Aleksy, the bear, wasn’t expecting it, having agreed to a wrestling not a boxing match. One of the hardest parts of my job is managing humour. It is very easy to ruin a funny book if you make too many alterations. For example, you might leave in three quarters of a joke and expunge the punchline. And that is bad. A joke without a punchline is like an army without a general. The Slynx, I must confess, is very funny indeed. It is not a sophisticated humour, because sophisticated humour is not actually funny, I’ve found. Sophisticated humour makes you smile, often with only one half of your mouth. Real humour, on the other hand, draws ugly sounds from your throat. I made some very conspicuous noises when reading this book. Fortunately, I work alone, and so no one would have heard me, except the spiders in the corners, and spiders won’t denounce you if you laugh at the wrong thing, comrades. For example, I was much amused by the izba where you pick up your wages by putting your hand in a narrow hole and grabbing what you can, hopefully without injuring your hand or arm too much, while the hole where you pay your taxes is wide, spacious and unlikely to harm you. I had to get rid of all that, obviously, but it did make me chuckle. I liked the Degenerators too. They are a kind of workhorse, hairy but with human features and the ability to speak. They pull troikas and sleighs. They are foul-mouthed. I imagine that they are the peasantry, the Muzhiks in Tolstaya’s world. Of course anything to do with the peasantry had to go, which is a shame as I think you would have got a kick out of the Degenerators. Sometimes I will cut something but save it for myself. This is foul weakness in me, I know. At home I have a scrapbook full of pages, quotes and phrases that are likely to unsettle The Good Russian People and lead them towards uselessness and a lack of right-thinking consciousness. I, however, as a government employee, am immune to that horrible potentiality. So I kept a little something from The Slynx.* I would also have liked to have taken home all the parts and pages about the recreation of culture, which obviously I had to eradicate, but I considered that too much of a risk. The Oldeners, if you recall, can remember life before the blast, and so they yearn for a return to that way of life. One of them, Nikita Ivanich, puts up signs to indicate what and where certain places used to be. I found that rather moving. He has Benedikt carve a wooden statue of Pushkin too, in an attempt to reconnect with the past. Of course, in our beloved Rus we are always surging towards the glorious future, a future helmed by Vladimir, the great and powerful, so this kind of soft peasant sentimentality is just not on. I’m ashamed, I tell you, but there was something in this retracing, this desire to remake a lost world  – the manners, the monuments etc – that got to me, that made me blub, bub. I guess Tolstaya is making a serious point too, about how humanity is drawn towards culture, how we strive towards it. We need books and art, I guess. There is a lot written about literature in The Slynx. There are also numerous quotations throughout the text, mostly from our Russian writers. In my time, I see around me a weird kind of fetishisation of art, and books in particular, where people will loaf in shops smelling and caressing them. And of course this is classless decadence, but when you consider that citizen Tolstaya is Russian, and that people like me have censored works of literature for many years, her characters’ obsessions with books doesn’t seem so odd. For The Good Russian People a book is not just something you pick up at the store because H.R.H. Oprah Winfrey has had it stickered. You do not pass it on to your neighbour simply because you know that she likes brutal murders and bondage hanky-panky. A book is a statement, it is a kind of protest. It is, in short, a serious business. We Russians, at least, understand this. You do not suppress something unless you recognise its power, comrades.

*This is what I kept:

“I only wanted books—nothing more—only books, only words, it was never anything but words—give them to me, I don’t have any! Look, see, I don’t have any! Look, I’m naked, barefoot, I’m standing before you—nothing in my pants pockets, nothing under my shirt or under my arm! They’re not stuck in my beard! Inside—look—there aren’t any inside either—everything’s been turned inside out, there’s nothing there! Only guts! I’m hungry! I’m tormented!…”

THE MELANCHOLY OF RESISTANCE BY LASZLO KRASZNAHORKAI

PART 1: https://booksyo.wordpress.com/2014/05/25/war-and-war-by-laszlo-krasznahorkai/

I no longer want to be a police officer, said the police officer as he left the station, the police officer who had been, in effect, thrown out of the station by his boss, because he couldn’t take his eyes from the message, was somehow hypnotised by it, would have happily carried on looking at it for hours or days or weeks or years or even for the rest of his life, which is probably why his boss, perhaps sensing that something was wrong, that something ‘out of the ordinary’ was happening, had slammed the laptop shut and told his subordinate to leave, had even contemplated the possibility of having him forcibly removed, because the expression on the police officer’s face when the message was taken away, that ‘truly important message’ that the still missing [P] had passed to the fisherman, that ‘strange image,’ was genuinely alarming, was a look somehow both malevolent and yet vacant, and that look, the boss said later to his wife, had given him ‘the creeps,’ and, in all fairness, it would have, at one time, given the police officer the creeps too, had he been able to see his own face, or if the look had been on someone else’s face, but his own face, or the face of anyone else, was of no concern to him whatsoever now, would never be of concern to him again, because, if he was forced to sum up his current mood, which he would, in truth, have found very difficult, it was that nothing mattered anymore, that all was lost, that we, by which he would mean the human race, were one step away from oblivion, absolute chaos, and this mood, this idea, had somehow been implanted into him by the message, the message that he was still able to summon up in his mind, was at that precise moment in time summoning up in his mind, and as a result of being so taken up with this message the police officer did not notice that, despite it only being 4pm, the city had been thrown into total, obliterating, darkness, which, had he been capable of expecting anything where the sky was concerned, would have been contrary to his expectations, because it ought not to have been so dark so early, [in fact the sky had ‘never been that dark before,’ according to an old woman at her window], which could perhaps be explained by the absence of stars, for there were no stars in the sky, and, what’s more, the darkness wasn’t even relieved by streetlights as, almost as though they had been caught unawares, they remained off, which was possibly a good thing, because it meant that the police officer could not see the suddenly, inexplicably, rising waters of the River Don, nor the rising water in the sewers and drains, all of which had begun to break and overflow, leaving everything – the pavements, roads, and grass etc – under a ankle-deep layer of dirty water and sludgy excrement, a potentially hazardous, certainly unhealthy, situation, if you were out in the street and walking through it, but there appeared to be no one in the streets at all, no one except the police officer, who was still thinking about [P]’s message, although this thought was now supplemented by thoughts relating to [P]’s diary, which the police officer still had in his possession, this diary that was now most important to him, a diary that he now believed was crucial, and the key to finding [P], that crazy kid who the police officer was intent on locating, for reasons that he could not yet comprehend, but which had nothing to do with any kind of formal investigation.

A book, repeated the landlord, as the detective, who had been tasked with finding both missing people, by which we mean [P] and the police officer originally in charge of the case, for the police officer had now also disappeared, shone a torch in his face, which wasn’t some kind of interrogation technique, but was necessary due to what the local people were calling ‘the blackout,’ the blackout being the total, obliterating, inexplicable darkness that had descended on the city, a blackout that could not be alleviated with street-lighting because electricity had gone out too, perhaps due to the flood, and so the local population had taken to carrying torches, the prices of torches as a result going ‘through the roof,’ and it was one such torch that was shining in the face of the landlord, [P]’s landlord that is, who had been, the detective thought, the last person to speak to the missing police officer, the police officer who, according to the landlord, had called on him and demanded to be let into [P]’s apartment, because he needed to search the apartment again for clues, a request that struck the landlord as strange, certainly, but not the sign of a crazy man, no, he didn’t start to think the police officer was crazy until they were inside the apartment and he began to tear it apart, an act that, make no mistake, he would be seeking damages for, and the point of this search, this tearing apart of the flat, was, it turned out, a book, a Hungarian book, written by someone called Laszlo Krasznahorkai, a name he remembered because the crazy police officer kept shouting it at him, the landlord that is, as though he expected him to know the book and to know precisely where it was, if it was even there at all, which, fortunately, it was, fortunately because he ‘probably would’ve torn down the whole apartment block’ if he had not been able to find it, and you’re sure the name of this book, asked the detective, is The Melancholy of Resistance? and the landlord nodded, for he would probably never forget the title, it being part of an experience that was perhaps the most terrifying of his life, the police officer acting, in the landlord’s words ‘like a savage animal,’ one that had been shot with a tranquilliser dart that had not taken effect, but only served to ‘piss the beast off even more’ and so, yes, he was absolutely sure that the title of the book that he had been looking for, and which he eventually found in the rubble of the apartment, was The Melancholy of Resistance, and was written by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, and, no, he had no idea at all what the significance or importance of this book was, only that the police officer thought it was absolutely imperative that he read it, and in particular that he should be able to read [P]’s copy, because, the police officer had shouted, [P] was the only one who could help him, and that he was ‘sorry, very sorry,’ for having to behave in this manner, for destroying the apartment in this way, but that, unfortunately, was the way the world was going, that it was hurtling towards total destruction, so this destroying of the apartment was merely a taster of what was to come, what was, he sniggered, ‘already here,’ and what most frightened the landlord about all this was that when the police officer turned the book over and, shining his flashlight on it, read the blurb on the back, slowly and reverently, as though reciting a prayer or passage from a holy book, that, total destruction, or apocalypse, or something very similar, was the subject of the book, and, well, look outside why don’t you, does that not look like an apocalypse to you?

He wanted to know if I had read the book, said the English Literature professor of the local university, who, apparently, the police officer had briefly kidnapped, and who had turned up at the police station to report the crime, quite independently of the ongoing investigation into [P]’s and the police officer’s disappearance, not at all being in a position to make the connection, and not being in possession of any of the facts concerning the current case, his sense of events being no more complicated than that this blackout, and the subsequent strange, and dangerous, atmosphere sweeping the city had resulted in a crazy bibliophile kidnapping him and interrogating him as to the merits of a relatively obscure Hungarian author and his book The Melancholy of Resistance, which, the professor was pleased to report, he had read, for he felt sure that if he hadn’t read it the madman might have killed him, ‘all on account of a book, if you can believe that,’ a book that the madman was very insistent on discussing, especially in relation to another Krasznahorkai novel called War & War, which, by all accounts, the police officer had disliked initially but which had subsequently grown in stature in his mind, aided by some message he had been exposed to, and it was the style, first of all, that he wanted to discuss, and how the sentences in Melancholy were shorter than those in War & War, less complex, and probably not as beautiful, but, and he was most insistent on this but, it was, the style that is, more uniquely his own in this novel, less blatant in its debt to Thomas Bernhard, who he had never read by the way, and this Krasznahorkai style was most obviously manifested in the way that he embedded conversation within the text by placing spoken phrases in commas, a technique that the police officer thought was much more successful and interesting than italicising these phrases as he tended to do in the novel War & War, especially as it was often cliched phrases that were put in commas, which struck him as a nice way of highlighting the abundant use of cliched phrases by ordinary people, without it feeling as though the author was a bad and lazy writer who was reliant on these phrases because he lacked the talent to transcend them, and of course there was still very few paragraph breaks, if any, and very few chapters, and the sentences were still long by ‘normal standards,’ and while the well-known Krasznahorkai themes were ‘present and correct,’ he preferred the way that they were presented in Melancholy, he preferred Melancholy‘s wrapping paper, found the story more inventive, featuring, as it did, a whole town falling apart, literally and morally, coinciding with the arrival of a strange circus and their main attraction, and while War & War was also about disorder, was also apocalyptic, by focussing mostly on one man it was possible to see this man as crazy, to dismiss his ideas as those of a lone madman, and so, while the characterisation was perhaps stronger in War & War due to this more narrow focus, Melancholy was the better book, and besides characterisation wasn’t his strong suit anyway, ‘not even in War & War,’ shouted the police officer, but that it was ideas and scenes where Krasznahorkai excelled, and that these ideas and these scenes spoke to him ‘in a deep way,’ because he, the police officer, firmly believed that the whole world was going down the toilet, that he had been unable to see it, until he had received a message that is, and that now his eyes were open, that it wasn’t that God did not exist, but that He had turned his back, hence the blackout, which was the shadow of God’s back, and that he now saw that people were like actors on a stage in an empty theatre gesturing ridiculously, pompously, self-importantly, to no one, to no audience, and that at last someone, having lost patience with this poor performance, was tearing down the theatre itself, and he wanted to draw his attention, the professor’s, he said, to the passage where Eszter explains that while he always thought music was our one shot at perfection he had now realised that it was nothing more than a way of deluding ourselves into thinking the world was better than it is, that music is a way of covering up our faults, is an act of misdirection, diverting our attention away from the truth, and, almost crying now, the police officer that is, he went on to tell him about the scene where Valuska explains the movement of the planets – the earth and moon etc – to a bunch of drunks in a pub, getting them to act out that movement, each patron a planet, and how this was both funny and touching, and how that is an extremely difficult thing to pull off.

I know where to find them, said the detective to his boss, who, like the very best detectives, was prone to these intuitions, although his boss was sceptical to say the least, believing that the two crazy kids, a strange description considering the missing police officer was 35, had both ‘done themselves in,’ probably by jumping in the River Don, which by now was like a seething brown monster snatching away anything within striking distance, and that it didn’t really matter anyway, as it seemed the whole world, the city itself, the earth, was intent on doing itself in, and was ‘going to take us all with it whether we liked it or not,’ and so the detective, who wasn’t quite so pessimistic – who saw in the state of the city nothing more sinister than civil disorder, a situation that could be rectified, by extreme force if necessary, not the first signs of an apocalypse – mumbled an insult under his breath and prepared to leave the station, which was a brave thing to do, what with the blackout still ‘in full swing’ and the flooding getting worse by the day, and the large intimidating crowds of people reported to be blocking the streets, most of whom had, in the initial stages of the unrest, actually tried to stay indoors, but had been forced out into the open by the flooding of their homes and/or the now rampant burglary, looting and arson of their properties and possessions, who, once the acrid air had hit their nostrils, once confronted by the overwhelming, some would say liberating, sight of the criminal minority in action, had been absorbed into it, and had taken up the looting and arson etc of which they had themselves been victim, so now almost the whole city was outdoors, and it was this situation that the detective was about to step into, all for the sake of finding two missing people, despite it being the case that far more than two people had gone missing recently, and an even larger number were dead, but it was perhaps the case that in times of chaos one had to hold onto something, one had to maintain some order in your life, even if that is an entirely pointless and absurd police investigation, to get you through the day, to keep you from submitting to ‘the call of the wild,’ like seemingly everyone else in the city had done, those crowds that the detective was about to come into contact with as he passed through the door of the police station, the crowds that, to his immense surprise, almost as though they were ‘taking a breather,’ or had run out of mischief to cause, or were waiting for something important, were at that precise moment strangely subdued, with most people standing around, their hands in their pockets, around the large bonfires they had built, staring, the detective now noticed, intently at the sky, and so, the apparent calm being enough to convince him that he wasn’t in immediate danger, the detective approached one of the bystanders and asked him what everyone was doing, to which the man replied that they were ‘looking for the stars,’ even though there hadn’t been a single star in the sky for weeks, as though these people had been conditioned to expect them, and therefore still sought that illumination in the sky, the endeavour almost becoming a new form of worship, as for hundreds of years people had sought answers in the sky, and now they were seeking comfort in it, a comfort that was not forthcoming.          

You’ll never believe what I witnessed here, said the detective to the looter, who had been ‘just passing’ when he spied the open door and opportunistically ‘decided to investigate,’ the detective who, thought the looter, spoke unnaturally loudly, as though the two men, those ‘crazy kids,’ were still alive to hear him, which was ‘certainly not the case,’ here being the Crucible Theatre by the way, which is where the detective’s intuition had told him the men would be, and he was right of course, as they were there, he could vouch for that, and, although it may be hard to believe, one of the men was still alive when he entered the theatre and made his way towards the front of the main stage, because there on the stage he found the police officer, yes, quite alive at that time, and standing and singing, not well, quite badly in fact, but singing nonetheless, and at first he couldn’t place the song, it being an old one, one that he hadn’t heard many times before, but had certainly heard a couple of times at least, the line of the song he recognised being ‘And I saw my reflection in the snow covered hills till the landslide brought me down’ and so the detective stopped for a while and listened, as he tried to retrieve the name of the song from his memory, and the police officer continued to sing, [‘Oh, mirror in the sky, what is love? Can the child within my heart rise above?’], seemingly oblivious to anything else, even though the detective was standing in plain sight and so, despite the semi-darkness, a darkness alleviated somewhat by some lit candles positioned around the edge of the stage, must have been spotted, if not also heard as he had made his way to the front, therefore one must assume that the police officer was choosing to ignore him, had gone blind, or was even crazier than the detective had imagined he would be, a theory given more credence by the body, the naked body, that was sitting in a chair next to the standing, and still singing, police officer, this body that was slumped over a guitar, despite the obviously careful placement, a body that was, the detective now saw, the body of the missing [P], no longer missing but very clearly dead, and naked, a nakedness the detective felt sure could be explained by the suit of clothes the police officer was wearing, which was a too-small tuxedo, the shirt front spattered here and there with blood, and he couldn’t suppress the almost amusing thought that the duo looked like some kind of grotesque version of Simon & Garfunkel, but, and this was the problem, the detective wasn’t sure, now that he was once again outside, if he had actually seen any of this, or whether it is merely what he wished he had seen, there in the Crucible Theatre, because it would justify everything, a scene so macabre, so gruesome, so thoroughly absurd, that the only legitimate response one could have in the face of it was insanity, a worthy insanity, and not this, this quite ordinary madness that he saw all around him.

EXTRACT FROM [P]’s DIARY:

I remember kites that would not fly, fish that would not bite.
I remember licking a blade of grass and showing my friends the bloody paper-cut.
I remember standing by the open window of the top-floor flat I lived in as a child,
My arm outstretched, dangling a chewed-on pencil over the abyss,
And how that was the scariest thing I have ever done.
I knew nothing then.
I knew everything.

WITTGENSTEIN’S MISTRESS BY DAVID MARKSON

In the beginning, I worried about the style.

It looks like How It Is, is what I told myself upon opening the book.

Naturally I did not want to read something that appeared to be so much influenced by How It Is.

How It Is being the Samuel Beckett novel I least enjoyed.

Generally speaking, I like Samuel Beckett a lot, but How It Is did confuse and bore me a little.

Although, upon reflection, Wittgenstein’s Mistress is nothing like How It Is.

Markson’s novel is actually influenced by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

Being a philosophy graduate, I have rolled around on the floor, so to speak, with Wittgenstein’s book.

Yet I cannot speak about it with any authority. For it confused and bored me a little.

The most I can probably say about it is that it consists of short declarative statements.

Wittgenstein’s Mistress also consists of short declarative statements. Hence the title, I suppose.

Wittgenstein’s Mistress is not, however, a philosophy text, like Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. It is a novel by a now dead American.

The novel by the now deceased American includes plot and characters. As novels tend to do.

I ought to point out that Wittgenstein’s Mistress serves up less plot and fewer characters than most novels, which is not to say that this is a bad thing.

There is only one character, if I am being honest. Her name is Kate.

There is only one character if you choose to ignore the cat.

The cat, however, may not actually exist. So it may be wise to ignore it.

Kate believes herself to be the last person on earth, which probably explains why there are so few characters.

There is a very real sense of loneliness in the book, as one would expect of course.

This is emphasised by Kate’s search for a probably non-existent feline.

Kate’s desire to reach out and connect with another living creature moved me very much.

Which is to say that there was something in the idea of the last person on earth searching for a probably non-existent feline that had a strong emotional effect upon me.

If you consider that we live in a society where a good number of our species go to great lengths to avoid other people, Kate’s predicament seems all the more moving.

I should point out, however, that Kate’s predicament may not be all that it seems.

It is possible that Kate is not the last person on earth.

It is possible that she is suffering from some form of madness precipitated by a tragic or painful event.

As one progresses through the book there is a gradual revealing of, or hints at, some kind of personal crisis, which may account for her madness. If she is, indeed, mad. Which she may not be.

It is to Markson’s great credit that one comes away from the novel without a definite opinion.

Markson allows just enough of a peek into Kate’s personal life to create some doubt as to the veracity of her claim.

Her claim being that she is the last person on earth, of course.

Perversely, for a novel about the last person on earth, reading Wittgenstein’s Mistress made me feel less alone.

2666 BY ROBERTO BOLANO

I was speaking to someone recently about the band Radiohead. Now, I really like a couple of their songs, but, on the whole, I find the group excruciating to listen to. The problem is probably best summed up as a clash of personalities: mine and the lead singer’s. Of course, I’ve never met Thom Yorke, and as a rule I prefer to withhold judgement on people I do not know, but in his case I can’t help myself. It would be unfair to disparage without providing evidence, so here goes:

– Thom Yorke once claimed that melody made him feel sick [I don’t even like traditionally melodic music, but this irked me].

– The constant allusions to the torturous recording process, as though he’s so much of a damaged genius that it takes years of hair-pulling and hand-wringing to birth these flawless records.

– The lyrics.

– The h in Thom.

– The cover art.

– The lyrics.

– The pompous political blather in interviews.

– The lyrics.

On those lyrics, let me expound my objection a little bit: I know that song lyrics are mostly awful. I get that. Even the lyricists that are meant to be top-notch, your Dylans and so forth, are still pretty terrible. However, Thom’s lyrics annoy me like no one else’s, because not only are they rubbish, they are nonsensical rubbish, and, what’s more, the man himself seems to regard them as mind-expanding and heart-rending statements of profound and painful insight. Profound?

Cracked eggs, dead birds scream as they fight for life!

Dead birds screaming as they, uh, fight for life…fighting for life, even though they are, um, dead…screaming, but, er, dead. Fuck off with that shit.

What has any of this got to do with 2666? Well, prior to reading it I thought I hated Roberto Bolaño in much the same way. His most highly praised work, The Savage Detectives, based on the reviews etc I had read, always struck me as having been written specifically to irritate me. A book featuring a roving gang of poets called the Visceral Realists? Oh, please. An On the Road for a new generation? I despise the beats, hippies, and bohemians; they can turn on, tune in, drop out and fuck off as far as I’m concerned. Then there are the stories about how Bolaño would turn up at poetry readings, heckle the more famous poet on stage, and proceed to read his own poetry from the back of the hall. Oh no no no no no no; seriously now, I just can’t take it.

So, for the most part, on the basis of these objections, I tried to avoid the author as much as possible, and as a consequence I had no idea about the furore surrounding 2666 prior to and upon publication. I’m not even sure I knew he had passed away. In fact, a lot of the time I got him confused with Paulo Coelho. Then, one day, when wandering around my local bookshop, I spied a large imposing hardback book out of the corner of my eye. I love big books, they call to me like weighty wrist-wrecking sirens, so I trundled over and picked it up. Oh, it’s some shit by that guy who wrote The Savage Detectives and The Alchemist, I thought to myself, and so I put it down and left the shop. A few weeks later, though, I was back. Again, my eye alights on the book, again I pick it up. 2666. The title intrigued me. I check the cover: some bumph about murders. I think about buying it; I tell myself that I won’t read it, that I just want to, y’know, own it and hold it and caress it; but then I remember the transsexual behind the counter, his large hands, and badly applied make-up, and how he always talks to me about the books I buy, and I just don’t want to get into that kind of conversation, not about someone like Bolaño.

The upshot of this rambling is that it took me quite a while to find the pluck to buy and read 2666. Indeed, I experienced the same level of resistance and dread intermingled with a perverse curiosity that I feel when someone tries to play me the new Radiohead record. So, yeah, I didn’t have high expectations, but I couldn’t help myself. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those people who read things they don’t like merely to be able to say that they read it. I bought and read the book because something about it spoke to me, some hard-to-define thing rapped on my brain with its knuckles giving me no peace until I did. And I am so glad, because aspects of the book still haunt the back-alleys of my mind.

Yet, it starts breezily enough with a Borgesian tale of a group of academics on the trail of an obscure author; and it’s all a bit Scooby Doo, and all a bit ridiculous [intentionally so, for the most part. Bolaño is funnier than he is often given credit for], but there is a point of interest here, for bibliophiles anyway, which is the current obsession amongst academics and the publishing industry for unearthing forgotten masterpieces and great obscure writers. There are numerous examples of this in recent years: Marai, Grossman, Banffy, Szerb, Zweig, etc. I’m not disparaging this trend, it has brought to the surface some wonderful novels, but I felt at times as though Bolaño was perhaps lampooning it.

Intermission: why are all of Bolaño’s men incredible lovers? They seem to be able to bring a woman to orgasm by raising an eyebrow.

The heart of the novel, the section upon which it either succeeds of fails as a truly great work, is the murders. For me, without this section the book would be occasionally charming, and diverting, but lacking in any substance [although it is worth noting that some readers seem to find this part of the novel hard-going]. The Part About The Crimes, to my mind, is an incredible piece of writing, is amongst the finest sections to be found in any hulking tome out there. For me, those long and difficult wrist-wreckers are defined by the scenes, the passages, that leap out of the text and burn themselves into your consciousness. Let’s be honest, in nearly all 900+ page books there are peaks and troughs, that is part of the appeal, but it is the height of the peaks that usually separates the very good ones from the truly great ones.

The Part About The Crimes is pretty much as it sounds. There are a series, a seemingly relentless series, of grisly murders of young women. It ought to be repetitive, it ought to reduce these shocking acts to a level of reader-tedium, but it doesn’t. One should be thinking after about twenty of them: Oh no, not another; I’m bored by this shit now. Yet, the opposite is the case; each crime is subtly different, each draws you in, as you ponder both the similarities and differences and start to wonder if they have been committed by the same man or different men. More than any other novel dealing with murder and brutal crimes 2666 makes you consider, makes you feel, just how habitual, how ubiquitous violence is. One begins to feel overwhelmed by it, but by highlighting each and every one they never feel like a mere statistic, and this is Bolaño’s greatest achievement.

You may well ask, what is 2666 about? Honestly, I don’t know. There is a sense of a world falling apart, or spiraling out of control, and yet, to all intents and purposes, despite some theories about how the book is set in the future [that 2666 is a date, the year the novel is set] the world of 2666 is our world; and I found that devastatingly moving, because the idea of a world, of humanity, collapsing under the weight of its own faeces aligns with my own feelings. And Thom Yorke’s too probably.

THE CASTLE BY FRANZ KAFKA

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Greetings comrades!

Welcome to Learn about the Humanoids 101. My name is Cocky, or Cock for short. Stop sniggering! You’re here, of course, because of the blast. I always knew that this day would come, that the most powerful humanoid government on earth would pick on the wrong country one day – who would have thought it’d be Switzerland? – and the whole planet would go up: kaboom! Nuclear holocaust! Anyway, I want to welcome Keith Richard to the ranks. Hi Keef! I know he’s not a roach, comrades, but, well, there was just no way of getting rid of him; so, please, make him feel at home. I’ve chosen to begin our lessons with a look at one of the humanoids’ favourite authors, Franz Kafka, and in particular his book The Castle. I will also be sharing some complimentary evidence in the form of a diary, written by [P], who ran the excellent book blog books, yo. while he was alive, and was actually reading the book in question at the time of the blast.

So, what does Kafka tell us? Primarily, that being a humanoid was a shitty gig. You know how we watched them for many years, scurrying around, scuttling from home to work to the pub and home and to work again, wasting their time engaged in meaningless activities and concerned with pointless preoccupations? And, you know how they were constantly in anguish because they could never find any satisfaction [yes, yes, Keef, settle down] or peace or recognition? Well, that’s Kafka’s work in a nutshell! The novel The Castle begins with a character, K., arriving in a village to take up a job as a land surveyor. Thing is, the people there claim to have never asked for, nor do they need, a land surveyor. And, so, we see in evidence that humanoid existential conflict: the desire to be needed, to feel appreciated, to be acknowledged, while at the same time being ignored and resented. The locals are hostile towards K. and seemingly want to push him away, which, in classic humanoid fashion, actually increases his desire to stay. Not like us, comrades! We have dignity! We tried to keep out of their way by hiding in the toilet or the shower! I’d like to read from [P]’s diary now, and share his thoughts on the beginning of the book.

May 8th 2014

Started reading The Castle by Franz Kafka. Not sure how I feel about it. K. aimlessly wandering around, and, of course, not actually getting anywhere. Comparison with The Trial? Josef K. had a purpose: to clear his name and to avoid punishment. K. seems almost purposeless, which is a far more depressing take on human existence.

Very insightful words from [P], it’s almost a shame that he was obliterated.

In preparation for this lesson I read numerous old reviews and essays, and it struck me as odd that a significant proportion of them felt that The Castle is cheerier and more optimistic, is less bleak, than The Trial. Josef K exhibits humanoid qualities such as fear and panic and extreme frustration, but his response to his situation is, at least, understandable. Remember that, because it is important. Josef behaves as we would expect him to behave and is, therefore, someone you can, and maybe want to, identify with; he is easy to like and feel for. K., on the other hand, is far more unpleasant, is far less likeable, and more difficult to empathise with and understand. He isn’t caught in a situation beyond his control [he doesn’t, like Josef, wake up to an altered world, in which he is confronted by an oppressive force outside of himself] because it is always possible for him to leave the village. Indeed, the villagers, and his fiancé, actively encourage him to leave. And, yet, he doesn’t. He stays, out of pride or stubbornness or inquisitiveness. And isn’t that a more damning appraisal of humanoid behaviour? They say: you’re not wanted here! You’re not welcome here! You’re not one of us! Look how unhappy and frustrated this is making you! And the reply is: screw you, I’m staying! Two forces butting heads; and for what? With what aim? Isn’t this closer to the humanoids we knew? From [P]’s diary again:

May 9th 2014

Wearying. Like being forced to play the cup-and-ball game for hours, with no ball. K. strikes me as an embodiment of our sense of entitlement. He thinks that he is owed an explanation, owed a job, owed friendly interactions; he is not fighting for a basic human right [like Josef], but is acting out of self-importance.

Ah, those humanoids! How many times did you hear them say: you cannot treat me this way! How many times did we find that phrase on their greasy lips?

It is worth noting that a great many people thought The Castle a religious allegory. That idea appears to have stemmed from Max Brod, the man who refused to destroy the author’s work after his death, and the first English translators, the Muirs. It was Brod who saw in the book a religious angle and so he provided notes and directions for the Muirs, who in turn translated the work along those lines, actually adding things that are not in the original text. And this interpretation of the book appeared to stick, despite later and more accurate translations. [P]:

May 10th 2014

I don’t see a religious allegory in this at all. To label it as such seems almost to do it a disservice, to devalue the work. Ironically, like religion itself, that interpretation serves as a way of making the incomprehensible comprehensible, to make it cuddly and familiar.

Which is not to say that a religious interpretation of the novel does not make some sense; K’s striving towards the castle, to make his way there, could easily be seen as man’s journey towards salvation or the humanoid God. However, I agree with the sadly departed [P], that it does not do the novel justice. K. is essentially amoral, and his journey does not involve self-discovery, or the learning of lessons, so it would make a strange kind of religious allegory. It seems to me to be much more about rationality and logic. K. wants to make sense of what is happening to him, to impose a logical, forward-moving, structure on his time and existence. For example, I was engaged to be a land surveyor in village X, therefore I travelled to village X. This is logical, it makes sense. Yet, then the structure breaks down. The following statement ought to be something like, I completed my work as a land surveyor in village X. But that is not how things turn out. Logic cannot be applied to what happens; his life, his existence, stops moving forward, it comes to a sharp and confusing halt. Similarly, he asks questions and does not get answers, or gets them and they do not make sense, or he makes reasonable pleas or demands which are ignored or dismissed as impossible, as though he is speaking to people bereft of any kind of rational faculty. On the basis of this interpretation one would see the castle itself as knowledge, unattainable knowledge; as understanding. Indeed, that is what K. is ultimately striving for. The castle, he thinks, will answer all of his questions, if only he could get there. But he cannot get there.

While it is not relevant, in terms of improving our understanding of humanoids, it is perhaps of interest to note what [P] wrote in terms of the style of The Castle, which differs from Kafka’s other work:

The conversations are long and often laborious and repetitive; and the novel is made up almost entirely of conversations. I, at times, feel like a melancholy dog watching a washing machine go round and round in circles. Is the book meant to be tedious? Thomas Bernhard is often compared to Kafka, but previously I had paid that comparison no mind. This is the first time I have seen echoes of his style in one of Kafka’s works. Is the book deliberately the way it is, is it a style choice? Or is that, the style, merely a consequence of its unfinished nature? Are those conversations, for example, the sign of poor editing, or a lack of editing, or are they intentionally the way they are, are they that way for effect? Similarly, the grammar here is, well, odd. There are commas where there ought to be full-stops, commas where they aren’t needed at all, and full-stops where one would expect a comma. Do I love this book or hate it?

In a book like this, comrades, with the history it has, with the circumstances surrounding its composition and its publication, it is near impossible to apply judgements as one would with other [completed] works. In any case, the lesson has finished for today. Now, I expect you all to have read the book for your seminars next week; and I look forward to hearing your opinions in detail. The last words for today ought, I think, go to poor dead [P]:

May 11th 2014

This book is making me feel crazy. Am I crazy? Initially I found it disappointing and yet at some point its maddening style got under my skin, so much so that I now feel like it is the work of a genius, a dour comedic genius. It both distresses and amuses me in equal measure. I feel as though it has somehow invaded me.

Ah, there is the bell. See you next week, comrades!