Poor Folk

Fyodor Dostoyevsky
In November 1844, Dostoyevsky finished writing his first story. He confides in Diary of a Writer that he had ‘written nothing before that time’. This was 22 years before the publication of Crime and Punishment, and 36 years before The Brothers Karamazov. Having recently finished translating Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet, he suddenly felt inspired to write a tale ‘of the same dimensions’. But he was not only prompted by artistic aspirations. Poverty also played a part. In a letter to his brother, Mikhail, just a few months earlier, he mentions being satisfied with a work-in-progress, and his hopes for greater financial stability: ‘I may get 400 rubles for it,’ he wrote, ‘and therein lie all my hopes.’

First published in 1846, Poor Folk was both a critical and financial success, with one prominent critic hailing Dostoyevsky as the next Gogol. It is a short epistolary novel that traces a five-month love affair. And while it certainly owes something to Balzac’s masterpiece, the role that money plays in determining people’s fates has a distinctly Dostoyevskyan bite. Financial difficulties plagued the Russian novelist’s career, and are a recurrent theme throughout his work, from the destitute student of Crime and Punishment to The Gambler, written to pay off gambling debts. The writer confessed having money troubles in letters to his brother, and hoped Poor Folk could offer some kind of reprieve. It is through his pen, he says, that he hopes ‘to save the whole situation’, considering suicide as perhaps his only other alternative. Money, then, was one of the novelist's chief motivations, and one of his signature themes.

Poor Folk's narrative is conveyed through letters, exchanged between a middle-aged copy clerk and a young woman who lives nearby. Their correspondence gradually reveals a mutual emotional dependence, and offers lively and entertaining observations on human behaviour and nineteenth century life. But it is perhaps on the question (or problem) of money that the narrative is at its most powerful. From the beginning, their relationship and the lives they lead are fated by society’s economic demands. The narrative is part love affair, and part social commentary, exploring the way money defines individual status, and even love, as a series of financial transactions. Dostoyevsky’s characters are compelling and sympathetic, yet at the same time offer convincing psychological portraits of poverty’s devastating effects.

In a period of economic instability and at times profound struggle, it is worth suggesting Dostoyevsky as one of our truly modern writers. His work, which is dark and comic by turns, takes a long look at the political and economic structures that determine our lives. It is polemical but entertaining, philosophical but easy-to-read. His characters, though preoccupied with the demands of nineteenth century life, still feel modern and relevant today, whether they are civil servants or manual labourers. Nietzsche once described Dostoyevsky as the ‘only psychologist from whom I had something to learn’. And I think there is something valuable in that remark. I am not suggesting that we read Poor Folk to learn something new, far from it: the genius of Poor Folk lies in how it tells us what we already know.

Penguin Classics have published Poor Folk in an edition that also includes ‘The Landlady’, ‘Mr Prokharchin’ and ‘Polzunkov’. Translated with an introduction by David McDuff.

White Noise

Don DeLillo
You might be forgiven for considering Don DeLillo’s White Noise as a survival manual for contemporary life. Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, the novel’s relevance continues as a philosophical checklist of twenty-first century culture. On its initial release in 1985, DeLillo’s novel stood out for its wry commentary on the ubiquity of commercialism — ‘Mastercard, Visa, American Express’ — and its portrayal of neurotic anxiety at the heart of the Western nuclear family. The novel inaugurated a new phase in the American writer’s career, sparking a series of bold and ambitious books that includes Libra, Mao II and Underworld. But, for me, White Noise remains DeLillo’s signature work.

What strikes most readers about the novel is its unique narrative voice, a tone of ironic detachment that evokes everyday scenes with cutting insight. White Noise is a rare breed, skillfully presenting weighty themes and complex ideas with a playful humour and a lightness of touch: whether in its uncanny portrayal of domestic routine, or for its disquieting revelations of characters’ deep-rooted anxieties.

The narrative of White Noise feels both modern and strangely timeless: Jack Gladney, chairman of the department of Hitler studies at a North-American university, struggles to reconcile himself with the inevitability of his own death. It is one of the eternal dilemmas of Western literature, but cast in terms of cultural obsession and commodification. Gladney’s philosophical struggle (or cold and simple fear, however you want to look at it) is contextualized by trips to supermarkets, airports and motels. The novel seems to encompass everything, from tabloid sensationalism, to chemical disaster, to the ethics of searching someone’s garbage. The commonplace is invested with a sense of the surreal and the absurd, as Gladney attempts to justify his life and establish a meaning, or truth, to his existence.

White Noise is fascinated by the literal and metaphysical infrastructures of Western society - its architectural ground-plan, and its psychological effects. From the ubiquity of the ‘universally-pronounceable’ brand name, the mass-produced bumper sticker as a marker of individual expression, or the perverse dream logic of the Hollywood movie. White Noise is drawn to themes of commercialism, media representation, and societal collapse, ‘the dark side of consumer consciousness’. It examines memory and nostalgia with a postmodern twinkle in its eye, perhaps as little more than commodities found on a supermarket shelf. One character asks whether it is possible to feel homesick for a place even when you are there: this is the world White Noise evokes.

Like J. G. Ballard, who saw a death of affect in the press fascination with the Kennedy Assassination, DeLillo critiques our place in a world of increasingly fragmented and unstable media realities. With an ironic nod to news sensationalism, DeLillo adopts apocalyptic motifs to chronicle our everyday: surveying the Western family through a lens of cultural disaster and individual struggle. Twenty-five years since its initial publication, White Noise feels like an important and ongoing philosophical experiment, where, for the first time, the writer imagines what it really means to die in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Panasonic.

Published in The Spectator Book Blog.

How to Stop Living and Start Worrying

Simon Critchley
Since when did happiness, wisdom and contentment become the cornerstones of a fulfilling life? Whatever happened to doubt? Instability? Melancholia? This month, Polity Press are releasing How to Stop Living and Start Worrying, a collection of interviews with Simon Critchley which playfully parodies the conventional self-help manual. Through a series of conversations with Carl Cedeström, Critchley sketches an alternative view of the role philosophy plays in our lives today, covering an ambitious range of topics: from science and religion, to poetry and politics, love and humour, life and death.

Critchley, a philosophy professor who teaches in New York, takes us step-by-step through the major themes of his work in an entertaining and accessible way. Each interview takes the form of an informal, improvised chat on a theoretical topic, elucidating terms and concepts with helpful metaphors and memorable anecdotes. Jokes also play a key role in the overall tone of the book, illuminating central ideas with a lightness of touch.

How to Stop Living and Start Worrying begins with a biographical sketch of Simon Critchley’s early life and career. He relates his fascination with the radicalism of the 1970s punk music scene, and acknowledges his debt to the Penguin Modern Classics series (Orwell, Huxley, Sartre). His introduction to philosophy is cast in social and economic terms, where the work of Lois Althusser, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida were inseparable from the demands of political activism. Critchley’s interest in philosophy is also characterized by unexpected events, from traumatic physical injuries to the death of his father. Philosophy is valued as an everyday practice that we can all pursue, enabling reflections on the world and ourselves.

But the interviews provide an interesting counterpoint to the traditional self-help manual. Casting out the assumption that we are free and autonomous individuals, Critchley and Cedeström discuss human experience in terms of finitude and contingency. Finitude defines individuals according to a limit, whether it is death, or the limit of perception; while contingency acknowledges that we are culturally-constructed by social forces.

If there is a feel-good pep-talk element, it takes the form of acknowledging one’s impotence and incapability, the contradictions and discrepancies that structure our identities, and our experience of the world. In a world where the self ‘can never achieve mastery or authenticity’, philosophy forms part of a continual process of emancipation from dominant social norms and values - a talking cure for existence that goes on as long as we do. For Critchley, philosophy accepts that we are ‘ontologically defective’, or, as Nietzsche puts it, Human, All Too Human.

Included among the discussions are reflections on love, examined for its transgressive potential, and humour, for its ability to disrupt and subvert Western cultural values. Critchley’s ideal self is one aware of their limits, able to see what is ridiculous about existence and so able to laugh at themselves. Relationships with others are also deemed essential, but not as an experience of contentment; rather, as ‘a trial and a struggle’, an experience of love as the ‘experience of infinite demand’ which ‘doesn’t know itself’.

There are fascinating observations on the work of Sigmund Freud, Samuel Beckett, Henrik Ibsen, and others; alongside broader reflections on suicide, suffering, mourning and immortality. In fact, few books include such a diverse range of references: from the Sex Pistols, Aristotle and Woody Allen, to Mozart, Kafka and Barack Obama. The collection spans the gap between high art and popular culture, sacred and profane, the academic and the everyday.

How to Stop Living and Start Worrying is an illuminating survey of Critchley’s work to date, and through a series of accessible dialogues examines the relevance of philosophy to our day-to-day lives. It’s a useful introduction for beginners, and an indispensable resource to anyone interested in Critchley’s writing. Stop what you’re doing, and start reading.

Writing Beckett's Letters

George Craig
The title of George Craig’s recent book, Writing Beckett’s Letters, is both playful and paradoxical. And it prompts the question: how can Craig claim to be the author of someone else’s correspondence? The answer is both simple and complicated: Craig is a translator. He has spent the last fifteen years as part of a band of scholars, translating literally thousands of letters written by Samuel Beckett from French into English. It is a job that few are cut out for, involving long hours of arduous transcription and the seemingly endless search for that most elusive of things: the right word.

The work forms part of a hugely ambitious project, culminating in a four-volume edition of Samuel Beckett’s Letters. The first part, released in 2009, covered much of Beckett’s early period: intellectual development, his move to Paris, his encounters with James Joyce and the European literary scene. Its publication ushered a new period in the scholarly appreciation of Beckett’s work, whilst offering a rare glimpse into the personal and artistic life of this most private of writers.

As Cambridge University heats up its Press for the second volume, to be published this September, Craig offers a privileged peek into one of Beckett’s most fertile creative periods. The next in the series will span 1941 to 1956, covering the writer’s war years, his famous Trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable) and the first performances of Waiting for Godot. Writing Beckett’s Letters offers an almost tangible sense of Beckett’s artistic notions during this period, no doubt aided by the abundance of high-quality colour reproductions of letters and postcards that illustrate the volume. Craig’s dedication to the project is apparent from the beginning, and the book becomes a meditation on the importance of language in Beckett’s writing, and the task of the translator.

Craig begins with an overview of Beckett’s correspondence with art historian and critic Georges Duthuit. The letters begin in pre-war Paris, span the Occupation, and culminate with Beckett’s post-war experiments with French prose. For Craig, Duthuit was something like the ‘ideal interlocutor’ to Beckett, a person to whom ‘anything could be said’. As a result, the letters grant a very rare insight into Beckett’s artistic development throughout this crucial period, and form the basis of what was later published, in drastically abbreviated form, as the Three Dialogues. Craig suggests that these letters be considered a powerful and creative body of work in their own right, ranked alongside Beckett’s revolutionary work in drama and prose.

Alongside reflections on Samuel Beckett’s literary work are observations on the process of translation. To begin, for instance, is the challenge of an accurate transcription: at times, nothing short of impossible. Craig writes that ‘Beckett is the first to recognise how difficult his hand is (“my Ogham”), and the letters abound in promises to be more careful, to do better. But these are like New Year resolutions: well intended, but never binding.’ The task of the translator is further complicated by Beckett’s use of multiple languages, a common practice in his correspondence that is never signalled. Craig addresses these problems engagingly with examples from the letters themselves, and manages to make the tricky elements of his work into fascinating points of discussion.

There are also several interesting insights into Samuel Beckett’s character. There’s a hint of his fondness for gardening, for instance. An impression of his opinions of criticism and academic discourse: ‘Even Maurice Blanchot, one of the very few critics of whom he speaks with real approval, will lose him by being, in Beckett’s view, too theoretical.’ And, among several of Beckett’s quirks, Craig identifies his tendency to resist flattery whenever possible: he scanned ‘descriptions of human behaviour (particularly his own) for signs of flattery, or indeed of anything complimentary, and [replaced them with] correspondingly unfavourable descriptions’. Beckett’s self-deprecatory gestures are finely illustrated by an anecdote concerning French publisher Jérôme Lindon: Beckett suggested that if Lindon would insist on publishing his unsatisfactory early work, Mercier et Camier, it might comprise part of a larger compilation entitled Merdes posthumes (posthumous shit).

The post-war European landscape held a profound and inevitable influence on Samuel Beckett’s writing, whether in prose, poetry, or performance, and Craig draws attention to its fragmentary, spectral presence in the letters. Twentieth century violence and atrocity hover in the margins of some of Beckett’s signature texts, from Waiting for Godot and Endgame to The Lost Ones and Catastrophe: but contemporary historical or political issues are never discussed explicitly in the work. Craig identifies a similar pattern in Beckett’s letters, where references to the Holocaust are briefly mentioned, but never expanded upon. In one letter, Beckett writes ‘Robert Desnos (Corps et biens) died like Péron on his way home from deportation’. As Craig rather hauntingly puts it, ‘There is no further comment’.

For me, the most fascinating elements of George Craig’s slim, compact volume are his comments on the influence of French on Beckett’s body of work. From the mannered speech of the Parisian intelligentsia to the rural argot of farmers and manual labourers, all voices find a home in Beckett’s texts.

Whilst George Craig’s book is neatly timed to anticipate the next volume of Beckett’s Letters, it is more than just a preview of things to come. To Beckett scholars and enthusiasts, the appeal of this book is obvious, tightly-woven with rare insight and beautiful reproductions. But it is also a thoughtful and engaging introduction to the problems of translation, and a testament to the status of correspondence as a kind of art-form. To paraphrase Craig’s description of Beckett and Duthuit’s correspondence, this is a work that abounds in strange, unexpected things.

George Craig, Writing Beckett’s Letters
16 in The Cahiers Series
Sylph Editions and the Centre for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris
ISBN 978-0-9565092-7-7

Gathering Evidence: A Memoir

Thomas Bernhard
An extract from 'The Cellar: An Escape', part of Thomas Bernhard's autobiography, Gathering Evidence:
From my grandfather I had acquired the habit of rising early, almost always before five. It is a ritual I still preserve. Despite the unremitting force of inertia and in full consciousness of the pointlessness of everything we do, the seasons are met with the same unchanging discipline every day. For long periods I live in isolation, isolated both in mind and in body. I am able to cope with myself by subjecting myself completely and unswervingly to my needs. Periods of absolute productivity alternate with others in which I am utterly unproductive. Subject to every vagary of my own nature and of the universe - whatever it is - I can get through live only with the help of a precise daily routine. I am able to exist only by dint of standing up to myself - in fact, of consistently opposing myself. When I am writing I read nothing, and when I am reading I write nothing. For long periods I read and write nothing, finding both equally repugnant. There are long periods when I detest both reading and writing, and then I fall prey to inactivity, which means brooding obsessively on my extremely personal plight, both as an object of curiosity and as a confirmation of everything I am today, of what I have become over the years in circumstances which are as routine as they are unnatural, artificial, and indeed perverse.

Thomas Bernhard, Gathering Evidence: A Memoir
Translated by David McLintock

The Case for Books

Robert Darnton
In July 1995, entrepreneur Jeff Bezos opened a new kind of bookstore. Inspired by recent leaps in modern technology, Amazon.com opened its doors to a different kind of consumer, set to the discordant soundtrack of the 56k modem. The concept followed the familiar principle of the mail-order catalogue, an accessible list of titles and cover artwork, enabling ‘browsers’ to shop from the comfort of their own home. But Amazon.com became one of a new generation of retailers, eschewing the expense of the printed catalogue in favour of an interactive online presence.

As its consumer base continues to grow, online mail-order companies have become big business. Since 1995, the Amazon founder has been featured on the cover of Time Magazine and sells everything from light fixtures to baby clothes. A UK-based online bookstore, The Book Depository, offers browsers the opportunity to see consumer orders as they are being made, via an interactive online map. Even the traditional bookstore, from Waterstones to Oxfam, holds a strong online presence – with many deeming to provide computer terminals in-store for browsing customers. Up until recently, the only thing that has remained static is the books themselves - but perhaps not for long.

The last five years have witnessed an increase in demand for electronic books and periodicals. It has been driven, in part, by the creation of a new kind of consumer, ecologically-aware and in constant search of convenience: even those of us who remain skeptical, even hostile, to the e-book are probably tempted by some kind of non-print format from time to time. But it is also worth considering the status of the book as a printed commodity item in a struggling global economy.

Publishers from Penguin to Quercus all ensure a strong connection to the online literary community. Faber and Faber publish an interactive online blog to keep readers up-to-date on news and events. And, among independent publishers, there are companies who use online subscription as a major source of income: Electric Literature is a promising, and sustainable, example of this. As reader habits are changing, so is our definition of the book, and indeed of literature itself.

Amazon and Apple are now rivals in a new kind of Christmas chart, with the Kindle and the iPad both competing for digital readership dominance. And as contemporary debate over the future of the printed word continues, Robert Darnton has released The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future. The book comprises a collection of essays published across numerous periodicals spanning a thirty-year period. They are arranged ‘chronologically’, according to past, present and future, and tap into debates about the history of the book in relation to textual, material and economic changes. Among other things, Darnton focuses on the role that Google is playing on our reading of electronic texts, and its subsequent impact on historical research and literary scholarship. In short, it is a book about how our reading habits continue to change, and how these changes effect how we perceive and interpret meaning. Anthony Mandal has written a brief review of Darnton’s book over at Cardiff Book History:
[...] the collection of linked essays begins with an interrogative piece focused on the Google Books digitization initiative and its potential impact for scholars and readers worldwide in the rapidly changing world of new media. The book continues with essays that focus on the opportunities supplied through the emergent world of digital economies over the last fifteen years. The final section offers some interesting insights into the politics of textual conservation (and how they may have failed dismally in the post-war era), as well as the value of book history and bibliography in sounding the depths of textual uncertainty, effortlessly bringing Shakespeare, commonplace books and Voltaire into his ruminations. [Read more]

Darnton remains cautious of the electronic format as a publishing medium, and raises concerns about the corporate administration of digital libraries and archival resources. One might weigh the removal, replacement or destruction of original hard copies against greater electronic accessibility. But is this necessarily the case? Darnton questions the legitimacy of the claim, and wonders whether corporate ownership might in fact limit public access to important literary and historical texts.  Could a greater reliance on digitization become a barrier to future scholars?

For the sentimental among us, isn’t there also a unique and distinct novelty about the printed page? I suspect Robert Darnton’s The Case for Books is, more than anything, a case for the Bookcase. An argument for the continuing presence of the printed word – as one chapter puts it, ‘a paean to paper’. And does he have a point? For the casual reader, I think there is a lot to be said about the pleasure of flicking pages, creasing spines, and writing your name on the inside cover. (Mind you, Darnton’s scholarly attitude might frown on such an approach to ancient texts.)

Is the age of the printed book coming to an end? I suppose we will just have to keep reading. But Darnton has all bases covered: The Case for Books is available in hardback, paperback, audiobook and electronic editions.

Also published at The Spectator Book Blog

The Handmaid's Tale

Margaret Atwood
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Margaret Atwood’s landmark science fiction novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. Winner of numerous awards, including the 1986 Booker Prize, the novel imagines an alternative America of the near future. Set in the Republic of Gilead, where pollution has sterilized most of the female population, a class struggle arises for the ownership and dominion over women who remain fertile. The protagonist, Kate, is captured while attempting to cross the border into Canada with her family. As she is unaffected by pollutants, she is separated from her husband and daughter, and becomes an enforced surrogate mother for another family. Her name is changed to Offred and she becomes a Handmaid, a mutated functionary of Old Testament values, expected to provide children for a Commander and his wife.

Atwood’s dark reflections on gender roles and sexual politics are often read as a satirical snapshot of the 1980s American landscape, and the novel has since become a central text in the classroom. In 1990, her dystopian vision found its way onto the silver screen, starring Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall. We might even see some trace of the book’s influence on contemporary Hollywood today, in dystopic science fiction enterprises like Children of Men (2006). The themes of the novel, which run from ecological catastrophe, to human rights, to religious fundamentalism, are perhaps more relevant now than ever, and have assumed a new kind of political urgency. The Handmaid’s Tale is a cautionary book. In a tradition that includes Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Margaret Atwood’s warning of the future is perhaps just as much a warning for the present.