Monday, December 04, 2006

Narrative, deferred

A structural property shared by two books I have read in the past few weeks: they are anonymous narratives of someone else's life.

The story of Jacques Austerlitz – his arrival in England on a Kinder-transport from Prague, his subsequent attempts to discover where he came from and who is – all of this is told at second hand, in W. G. Sebald's haunting novel. These conversations, scattered across Europe over many years, unplanned and structureless, create a sense of insubstantial identity, as if Austerlitz is himself the ghost of his parents.

The effect is quite different in Primo Levi's The Wrench. Here the vicarious narrative traces the exploits of Tino Faussone, itinerant mechanical problem-solver. From his elaborate descriptions of physical and intellectual labour – rigging cranes, distilling acid, beating copper, building bridges, welding steel – we are invited to draw the moral that, except for miracles, "loving your work […] represents the best, most concrete approximation of happiness on earth."

And yet, despite this happiness, what we are given directly is never work itself, but stories about work, told at leisure, over drinks or on aimless walks. It is the prospect of narration that justifies the hardship of work:
[If] there aren't troubles, it's no fun telling about it afterward. And you know, you said so yourself: telling about things is one of the joys of life.
What reconciles the threatened contradiction – is happiness work, or telling stories about work? – is the implicit argument that story-telling itself is work, that Faussone's listener must take the ore of conversation, "grind it, hone it [and] hammer it into shape". The deferral of narrative draws attention to these tasks: it is essential to the book.

It is hard to find a similar explanation for the structure of Austerlitz, which is marked by a second property, no less distinctive than the first: its sentences and paragraphs are enormously long. The first indentation appears on page 27, the next on page 59. A sentence describing the concentration camp at Theresienstadt goes on for eight pages before coming to a stop. The movement is not headlong; it is slow, mesmeric, aimless.

What is the point of these eccentricities of prose, and of form? Merely to generate an atmosphere of dislocation? In a novel about the paralysis involved in having no story – "I am living the wrong life" – there must be more to it than that.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Wrench is a dialogue between two men who engage in the two different kinds of work: the intellectual work of the Levi-narrator character, who is a chemist, and the physical labouring, constructing character of Faussone. But the characters are not sealed off from the other in separate worlds. Both of their lives have had a portion of mystery, and both of them have some aspect of the other. Faussone is not a brute, he is quite reflective, whilst the Levi character is not a pure scientist he is engaged in an immediate, practical and commercial mission.

Which is what Levi's own experience was. In his interview with Philip Roth he insisted he was only a "technician", not a scientist, since he had never made an original discovery or had a new idea. (JN)

11:59 AM  
Anonymous Pacifist Viking said...

Austerlitz, of course, is further complicated by the images scattered throughout the text. These images are necessary to both points you make about the book. First, they contribute to the "sense of insubstantial identity" by being random, various, and somewhat chaotic. It reminds me of the narrator of "The Waste-land" looking over the shards and relics of civilization; these images are part of the structureless, formless, directionless identity and life.

Second, the images almost serve to replace indentations. As a reader, they become natural spots to halt examination of the text, switch focus to examining an image, then returning to the text.

1:52 PM  
Blogger DR said...

Well, this is probably naive, but I'm not quite sure what the mystery is in the case of Sebald. Isn't he very taken with the rings of Saturn, the beauty of rubble? Your use of the words "scattered," "unplanned and structureless," and "insubstantial identity" seem to be getting at just this. The same could be said of your reference to slow, mesmeric, and aimless movement. Unless I'm misremembering his work, this is exactly what he's going for.

9:24 AM  
Anonymous ombhurbhuva said...

Hi Kieran,

Here's a nice description of the practice of work as a 'do'.

I think that when this concept of peace of mind is introduced and made central to the act of technical work, a fusion of classic and romantic quality can take place at a basic level within a practical working context. I've said you can actually see this fusion in skilled mechanics and machinists of a certain sort, and you can see it in the work they do. To say they are not artists is to misunderstand the nature of art. They have patience, care and attentiveness to what they're doing, but more than this there's a kind of inner peace of mind that isn't contrived but results from akind of harmony with the work in which there's no leader and no follower. The material and the craftsman's thoughts change together in a progression of smooth, even changes until his mind is at rest at the exact instant the material is right.

From Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainance by Robert Pirsig.

Quality was probably neglected because it is protoconceptual, more in the order of a primary engagement with the world or a feeling allied with that of Bergsonian duration. Maritain also speaks of the metaphysical intuition of being or the sense of connaturality which you feel the force of rather that merely understand in an intellectual fashion.

Best Wishes,

7:52 PM  

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