Looking around my study this morning for a prompt for a post, still with the idea in the back of my head of doing versions of list posts on a Tuesday, I pulled out Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser from the shelves.
Selecting a page at random, I came upon this passage:
“Our starting point is always that we don’t know anything about anything and don’t even have a clue about it, he said, I thought. Immediately after setting to work on something we choke on the huge amount of information that’s available in all fields, that’s the truth, he said, I thought. And although we know that, we continue to set to work on our so-called human-science problems, to attempt the impossible: to create a human-science product, a product of the intellect. That’s madness! he said, I thought. Fundamentally we are capable of everything, equally fundamentally we fail at everything, he said, I thought. [Thomas Bernhard, The Loser (1983, tr 1991) p 66]
That pattern of layers and layers of speech acts and cognition – he said, I thought – is characteristic of Bernhard. So too the desperate madness of the intellect that is dramatised in these strangely fugal rants.
This kind of narrative – from inside the head of an obsessed intellectual – is the one that I often default to, or it might be better to say it is the one that I am currently practising. The layers of speech acts and cognition – there might be technical literary term for this mode of speech, but I do not know what it is – allow a dialogue of perspectives even within the lonely and obsessed monologues that are Bernhard’s novels.
As I am practising it, this kind of soliloquy is not really a stream of consciousness so much as an essay of consciousness, in which I take up and reflect upon my own mental events from different perspectives. And it allows a kind of interpenetration of the theme of an essay with the biography and self-presentation of the narrator. So my prose work does not seek to reproduce the typical scenes, dialogue and narrative arc of fiction. It follows my internal monologue about a set of related stories – about a breakdown, Ivan the Terrible, my encounters with the powerful, stories of violence and power from history, a train journey from Beijing to Moscow, and many reflections, fantasies and observations triggered by recalling all these narratives. If it works, it creates a kind of interesting set of associations and discoveries through the interleaving of these stories, which as the writing proceeds reveal many symbolic kinships between these several layers of the story.
Writing this down here reflects a new found confidence that this prose work will be completed. I had tried different forms before to tell the story of Ivan the Terrible. But, having read Berhnhard and Sebald, and having been entranced by this style of voice, I found writing a conventional prose historical fiction ultimately uninteresting. So I am giving birth to this odd monstrosity that perhaps only I will ever love.
Let me say my thanks, however, in this list post to those authors and their works that have influenced me in this project. I do not say I will match these authors’ artistic achievement. I only say that I am working through my own response to their influence by writing this book.
Books from my shelves that influence how I am writing my my main prose work
1 Thomas Bernhard, The Loser – which is an account from Wertheimer of his struggle with not matching Glenn Gould’s artistic virtuosity, leading ultimately to his self-destruction
2 Thomas Bernhard, Correction – which is a kind of account of a murder or a suicide through constant correction of differing perspectives.
3 Thomas Bernhard, Lime Works – which is another portrain of a strangely obsessed intellectual, which has the epigraph “But instead of thinking about my book and how to write it, as I go pacing the floor, I nfall to counting my footsteps until I feel about to go mad.”
4 Thomas Bernhard, Wittgenstein’s Nephew – which is perhaps his most accessible work, and is a deeply moving story of his friend Paul Wittgenstein, the philosopher’s nephew who suffered from mental illness and the treatment that society gives to we, the mad.
5. W.G. Sebald, Rings of Saturn – Sebald has acknowledged Bernhard’s influence, and for me this is Sebald’s most mesmerising work that interleaves essays on Thomas Browne, Roger Casement, Joseph Conrad, silk works and much besides, all with a dark bass note obsessing about the traces of destruction and ruin that can be found everywhere you look. This book is very much the model for my main prose work.
6 W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz – a purer narrative than Rings of Saturn, more fictional in a way and less essayistic, but still with the echoes of refracted thought.
7 W.G. Sebald, Vertigo – a more divided work, less symbolically cohesive than Rings of Saturn, and with more accounts of the author’s own difficulties, and his experiences of vertigo when travelling to his homelands.
8 Marcel Proust, In search of lost time – Of course, Proust wrote before both Bernhard and Sebald, but his great book, that is the telling of the symbolic redemption of his life through art, is also a model for my own prose work, in which I must symbolically destroy power in order to serve art.