“A Note on Realism” by Robert Louis Stevenson
Style is the invariable mark of any master; and for the student who does not aspire so high as to be numbered with the giants, it is still the one quality in which he may improve himself at will. Passion, wisdom, creative force, the power of mystery or colour, are allotted in the hour of birth, and can be neither learned nor simulated. But the just and dexterous use of what qualities we have, the proportion of one part to another and to the whole, the elision of the useless, the accentuation of the important, and the preservation of a uniform character from end to end—these, which taken together constitute technical perfection, are to some degree within the reach of industry and intellectual courage. What to put in and what to leave out; whether some particular fact be organically necessary or purely ornamental; whether, if it be purely ornamental, it may not weaken or obscure the general design; and finally, whether, if we decide to use it, we should do so grossly and notably, or in some conventional disguise: are questions of plastic style continually rearising. And the sphinx that patrols the highways of executive art has no more unanswerable riddle to propound.
In literature (from which I must draw my instances) the great change of the past century has been effected by the admission of detail. It was inaugurated by the romantic Scott; and at length, by the semi-romantic Balzac and his more or less wholly unromantic followers, bound like a duty on the novelist. For some time it signified and expressed a more ample contemplation of the conditions of man’s life; but it has recently (at least in France) fallen into a merely technical and decorative stage, which it is, perhaps, still too harsh to call survival. With a movement of alarm, the wiser or more timid begin to fall a little back from these extremities; they begin to aspire after a more naked, narrative articulation; after the succinct, the dignified, and the poetic; and as a means to this, after a general lightening of this baggage of detail. After Scott we beheld the starveling story—once, in the hands of Voltaire, as abstract as a parable—begin to be pampered upon facts. The introduction of these details developed a particular ability of hand; and that ability, childishly indulged, has led to the works that now amaze us on a railway journey. A man of the unquestionable force of M. Zola spends himself on technical successes. To afford a popular flavour and attract the mob, he adds a steady current of what I may be allowed to call the rancid. That is exciting to the moralist; but what more particularly interests the artist is this tendency of the extreme of detail, when followed as a principle, to degenerate into merefeux-de-joie of literary tricking. The other day even M. Daudet was to be heard babbling of audible colours and visible sounds. Continue reading ““A Note on Realism” — Robert Louis Stevenson”
I’d been wanting to read a biography of Goya for some time now. For a few years now, his art has come occupy a strange space in the back of my subconscious mind—all the pain and violence and horror of it. Maybe it’s all the Roberto Bolaño I’ve been reading. I’m convinced that if you want to understand Bolaño it helps to have Goya as a visual referent. Also, I cut up an oversized Italian collection of color prints from Goya to hang in my office, so they’re always kinda in my visual field.
Anyway, last week I went by my favorite local used bookstore to pick up a copy of W.G. Sebald’s After Nature that they’d kindly ordered for me and went through the biographies as well to find something on Goya. There were at least half a dozen, but the recently deceased Robert Hughes’s was the most beautiful and most recent, and its opening captivated me: In the first chapter, Hughes describes how a near-fatal car crash in 1999 unlocked the Goya study that he’d been wanting to write for years. The scene unfolds as a bizarre prolonged fever dream, a horrifying narrative informed by Goya’s asylums and bullfights, with the strange layer of modern airport slathered on top.
I’ve read the first 150 pages since then. Hughes’s writing is crisp and the text is rich; Hughes builds a slow case, arguing against Goya’s reputation as a radical but also highlighting the artist’s powers of pathos (not to mention his skill, both raw and refined). Hughes had me hooked with the following paragraph, which could also stand in as a simple description of a decsonstructionist theory of identity:
Goya was in some ways the greatest of all delineators of madness, because he was unrivaled in his ability to locate it among the common presences of human life, to see it as a natural par t of man’s (and woman’s) condition, not as an intrusion of the divine or the demonic from above or below. Madness does not come from outside into a stable and virtuous normality. That, Goya knew in his excruciating sanity, was nonsense. There is no perfect stability of the human condition, only approximations of it, sometimes fragile because created by culture. Part of his creed, indeed the very core of his nature as an artist, was Terence’s “Nihil humanum a me alienum puto,” “I think nothing human alien to me.” This was part of Goya’s immense humanity, a range of sympathy, almost literally, “co-suffering,” rivaling that of Dickens or Tolstoy.
With blunt grace, Denis Johnson navigates the line between realism and the American frontier myth in his perfect novella Train Dreams. In a slim 116 pages, Johnson communicates one man’s life story with a depth and breadth that actually lives up to the book’s blurb’s claim to be an “epic in miniature.” I read it in one sitting on a Sunday afternoon, occasionally laughing aloud at Johnson’s wry humor, several times moved by the pathos of the narrative, and more than once stunned at the subtle, balanced perfection of Johnson’s prose, which inheres from sentence to paragraph to resonate throughout the structure of the book.
The opening lines hooked me:
In the summer of 1917 Robert Grainier took part in an attempt on the life of a Chinese laborer caught, or anyway accused of, stealing from the company stores of the Spokane International Railway in the Idaho Panhandle.
Three of the railroad gang put the thief under restraint and dragged him up the long bank toward the bridge under construction fifty feet above the Moyea River. A rapid singsong streamed from the Chinaman voluminously. He shipped and twisted like a weasel in a sack, lashing backward with his one free fist at the man lugging him by the neck.
The matter-of-fact violence here complicates everything that follows in many ways, because Grainier it turns out is pretty much that rare thing, a good man, a simple man who tries to make a life in the Idaho Panhandle at the beginning of the 20th century. The rest of the book sees him trying—perhaps not consciously—to somehow amend for the strange near-lynching he abetted.
Grainier works as a day laborer, felling the great forests of the American northwest so that a network of trains can connect the country. Johnson resists the urge to overstate the obvious motifs of expansion and modernity here, instead expressing depictions of America’s industrial growth at a more personal, even psychological level:
Grainier’s experience on the Eleven-Mile Cutoff made him hungry to be around other such massive undertakings, where swarms of men did away with portions of the forest and assembled structures as big as anything going, knitting massive wooden trestles in the air of impassable chasms, always bigger, longer, deeper.
Grainier’s hard work keeps him from his wife and infant daughter, and the separation eventually becomes more severe after a natural calamity, but I won’t dwell on that in this review, because I think the less you know about Train Dreams going in the better. Still, it can’t hurt to share a lovely passage that describes Grainier’s courtship with the woman who would become his wife:
The first kiss plummeted him down a hole and popped him out into a world he thought he could get along in—as if he’d been pulling hard the wrong way and was now turned around headed downstream. They spent the whole afternoon among the daisies kissing. He felt glorious and full of more blood than he was supposed to have in him.
The passage highlights Johnson’s power to move from realism into the metaphysical and back, and it’s this precise navigation of naturalism and the ways that naturalism can tip the human spirit into supernatural experiences that makes Train Dreams such a strong little book. In the strange trajectory of his life, Grainier will be visited by a ghost and a wolf-child, will take flight in a biplane and transport a man shot by a dog, will be tempted by a pageant of pulchritude and discover, most unwittingly, that he is a hermit in the woods. In Johnson’s careful crafting, these events are not material for a grotesque picaresque or a litany of bizarre absurdities, but rather a beautiful, resonant poem-story, a miniature history of America.
Train Dreams is an excellent starting place for those unfamiliar with Johnson’s work, and the book will rest at home on a shelf with Steinbeck’s naturalist evocations or Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy. I have no idea why the folks at FS&G waited almost a decade to publish it (Train Dreams was originally published in a 2002 issue of The Paris Review), but I’m glad they did, and I’m glad the book is out now in trade paperback from Picador, where it should gain a wider audience. Very highly recommended.
On the heels of last year’s hugely successful first-time-in-English publication of Every Man Dies Alone, the good folks at Melville House have issued another of Hans Fallada’s epic novels, Wolf Among Wolves. Set during Germany’s 1923 economic collapse, Wolf centers on Wolfgang Pagel, a former soldier and itinerant gambler languishing in the corruption of Weimar Berlin.The beginning of the novel focuses on a single summer day in Berlin; Fallada’s naturalist, realist eye paradoxically puts all the minutiae of this world under a microscope even as it expands to capture a holistic vision of life in morally-decadent, post-war Germany. The effect is both devastating and enlightening. It is epic realism, the condensation of the everyday existence of an alien world. Another paradox–behind Fallada’s omniscient, steady, neutral narrative, so plain and descriptive and frank, there lies another voice, a moral, ethical voice that prompts Pagel to transcend the wolf-eat-wolf world. Indeed, Fallada presents a vision of moral cooperation in a world dominated by self-interest. Here’s a passage describing some of Berlin’s heady post-war decadence:
But the girls were the worst. They strolled about calling, whispering, taking people’s arms, running alongside men, laughing. Some girls exposed their bodies in a way that was revolting. A market of flesh–white flesh bloated with drink, and lean dark flesh which seemed to have been burned up by spirits. But worst of all were the entirely shameless, the almost sexless: the morphine addicts with their contracted pupils, the cocaine sniffers with their white noses, and the cocaine addicts with high-pitched voices and irrepressibly twitching faces. They wriggled, they jiggled their flesh in low-cut or cunningly-slashed blouses, and when they made room for you or went round a corner they picked up their skirts (which, even so, didn’t reach their knees), exhibiting between stockings and drawers a strip of pale flesh and a green or pink garter. They exchanged remarks about passing men, bawled obscenities to each other across the street, and their greedy eyes searched among the slowly drifting crowd for foreigners who might be expected to have foreign currency in their pockets.
Melville House’s edition of Wolf Among Wolves is the first unabridged English translation ever–scholars Thorsten Carstensen and Nicholas Jacobs have restored passages originally omitted in Philip Owens’s contemporaneous translation.In his insightful afterward, Carstensen addresses why certain passages were not included in Owens’s original translation, pointing out that most omitted passages showed an inclination toward fairy-tale or mythic structures, aesthetics that “contradict the claim to naturalistic representation” one expects in Fallada’s work. By preserving the occasional “almost surreal mode of perception” omitted in the original, Carstensen argues that:
In short, the fully reconstructed text, with its enhanced inconsistency, provides the reader with insight into a literary aesthetics that is unique among the novels of German modernism: Fallada combines realist prose and ethical concerns with a narrative technique that renders ambiguous what is supposedly a semi-documentary representation, shaped by his very own experiences in the country.
We’re eating up Wolf Among Wolves right now, and will have a full review in time); for now, we recommend you pick it up for some good summer reading.
Just what, exactly, is David Shields’s Reality Hunger supposed to be about? He’s brazen enough to slap the subtitle “A Manifesto” right there under the title, suggesting a work of sustained principles calling for something to change or happen for some reason, but after reading the damn thing, I still have no real idea what he really wants or why I should care. If I had to venture a guess, it seems that Shields is suggesting that we quit reading, writing, and publishing “standard novels” and that “realism” in letters can only be located in lyric essays and other works free from genre constraint (even the memoir is too artificial for Shields, and autobiography ultimately represents facts without truth).
I think what he really wants is authenticity, which repeatedly gets called “reality,” a term he (repeatedly) fails to satisfactorily define. Reality Hunger seems to argue that authenticity in the 21st century must take the form of synthesis, must chop up and recombine disparate elements, genres, cultural artifacts. To that end, Shields’s book is a tour-de-force of citation and appropriation. Aspiring toward an aphoristic tone, Shields organizes the book into 618 short sections over 200 or so pages; most of the sections are not his work, but come rather from myriad sources across different cultures and eras. I have no problem with this (c’mon, this is Biblioklept!) and Shields clearly demonstrates that the practice is hardly new in the history of story-telling, rhetoric, or philosophy.
My real problem is the self-seriousness of it all. Shields aspires to “break” reality into his text by reapportioning and recombining varied citations, but this bid for authenticity is, of course, utterly artificial, often stolid, and not nearly as fun as such a playful medium would suggest. Even worse, it’s not really a proper synthesis; that is, in stacking bits of other people’s work together with some of his own thin connective tissue, Shields hasn’t achieved an authentic blend or, to use a term he’d hate, anything novel, anything new. The jarring stylistic shifts between sections will lead serious readers repeatedly to the book’s appendix to find out who originated the words Shields is copping.
If Reality Hunger approaches having a point, it comes in the book’s penultimate chapter, “Manifesto.” Here, he attacks “standard novels.” The term is appropriated from W.G. Sebald, a writer of marvelous and strange novels that Shields would love to be essays. In one of the few original lines in the book, Shields dismissively writes that “Novel qua novel is a form of nostalgia.” He goes on to argue that the personal/lyric essay is more closely aligned with philosophy, history, and science than novels, and that novels no longer have any legitimate response to these more “real” concerns. Which is utter bullshit, really, and seems more than anything to prove that Shields is probably not that well-read, despite his massive cut and paste catalog. Not that I think that he’s not that well-read. He just picks and chooses, according to his taste, what novels get to escape being “standard.” How can one read contemporary masterpieces like The Rings of Saturn or Infinite Jest or 2666 or Underworld and honestly say that they don’t hold value? Shields, of course, does/would presumably find room for these in his “manifesto.”
The most embarrassing chapter of Reality Hunger, “Hip-hop,” also reveals the most about Shields’s program. It’s also one of the few chapters to feature long sections of Shields’s own original prose. In a turgid, humorless, overly-analytical “defense” of hip-hop and “sampling culture,” Shields describes how hip-hop works, riffing on the function of “realness” in hip-hop, and grasping at the larger implications of a normalized recombinant art form within modern culture. And though I agree with pretty much everything that Shields has to say about piracy and copyright laws, the drastic artificiality of his style and tone is really too much here. It’s like someone trying to explain why a joke is funny.
The worst though is Shields’s assertion that “Our culture is obsessed with real events because we experience hardly any.” The sentence itself is a clever bit of sophistry that falls apart under any real scrutiny. I can name a dozen “real events” that I experienced in the last few hours alone, including eating dinner with my family, talking with my wife, and putting my daughter to bed. Complaining that we are denied “real events,” like the mopes Shields cites from Douglas Coupland’s Generation X who lament their “McLives,” is a way of excusing ourselves from the intensity of being present–at all times–in our own lives. The vapid philosophy of the spoiled whiners in Reality Bites wasn’t attractive back in the early nineties and it’s downright repellent now.
So what does it all add up to? I think that Reality Hunger works well as a description of post-postmodernity. And as much as I’ve ranted against it here it’s actually quite enjoyable as a compendium of clever quotations. As a manifesto though, it’s an utter failure. To be fair, he had no shot of convincing me that the novel is or should be dead. There’s just too much evidence to the contrary.
Reality Hunger is now available in hardback from Knopf.
#1 Stunna James Joyce thinkin’ deep thoughts
James Joyce’s Dubliners was one of those books I read in college, shelved under “got it,” and moved on without a second thought. I just re-read (and then re-re-read) the collection again: there’s much, much more to this book than I remembered. Dubliners has always been overshadowed by Joyce’s later works, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake. A closer reading of these fifteen short stories–which effectively unite as a work of complex structure–reveals that many of the themes of the later masterpieces, as well as Joyce’s rhetorical technique, are prefigured in Dubliners. On the surface, the stories seem straightforward–at least in a modernist/realist sense–slice of life urban literature, stripped of romance. Indeed, Dubliners seems to take all of its characters at an ironic distance, treating the protagonists to a series of negative epiphanies. Joyce explores the literally vulgar language of commerce, rife with trite clichés and placeholders, to show how what is not said in customary discourse jars against what custom does permit. The greatest aspect of psychological realism (whatever that means) in Dubliners results from the conflation of voices at play in the stories. The characters imagine their identities in language, a language culled from equal parts Romantic poetry and Bible verses and street signs and post office directories. The intense self-consciousness revealed by the characters calls for a strange mix of empathy and loathing and ironic distancing and even embarrassment on the part of the reader. I think that this style, combined with the anti-epiphanies figured in each story, is something so thoroughly normal, even expected by the contemporary reader, that it becomes easy to overlook just how groundbreaking and prescient these stories were at the beginning of the twentieth century. If you’ve read these, take the time to re-read them. If you haven’t given Joyce a shot, this is the right place to start.
If you don’t have time to read all fifteen in the collection but still want the rhetorical gist, read: “The Sisters,” “Araby,” “An Encounter,” “Eveline,” “Two Gallants,” “A Little Cloud,” “A Painful Case,” and, of course, “The Dead.” Or, if you’re really pressed for time: “The Sisters” and “The Dead.” Have at it.