New Criticism

David Winters; Infinite Fictions: Essays on Literature and Theory; Zero Books, 2015

As a self-taught student of literature and theory, the internet has been my university. Easy access to the wide array of considerate writing and thoughts concerning contemporary literature, art and culture has been invaluable. As any reader that avails themselves of this sphere will know, the webs and pathways created through this source can widely open one’s awareness and pursuit of so much material that otherwise would perhaps remain distant, foreign, overwhelming. The “ivory tower” remains distant, impenetrable, self-concerned. And thus, from the interconnected and referential world of online critical output, I am grateful when I learn of books such as Infinite Fictions by David Winters. Such a book is quite refreshing because, whereas I quite enjoy the click-and-consume aspect of digital culture, bringing home a book of insightful, relevant and forward moving pieces such as this one unites the two sides of my reading life.

These short essays, or reviews, on contemporary literature and theory are so far excellent, in that Winters has the ability to create perceptive, considerable readings of these works, while maintaining an accessibility I quite value. He is not attempting to write over his readers’ heads, to wow them with his obvious knowledge, but serves to construct a bridge to works otherwise less known, or perhaps, to offer alternate ways of considering these works when read. Of course, some of the authors are quite highly regarded: Lydia Davis, Sam Lipsyte, Gordon Lish, Gerald Murnane, but the majority are those working on the forefront of contemporary literature, mostly lesser-known (at least to the main current of American literature) and Winters introduces the books and offers interesting commentary, without falling into the academic practice of doing a paragraph-by-paragraph deep analysis of the texts, but also succeeds in doing more than giving us a simple gloss of each paragraph illustrated with generous chunks of quoted text (which can be useful, but oftentimes this style of review feels exhaustive and less insightful than I would like). Instead, there is a middle ground of considerable analysis and general review.

From his somewhat personal reflections in the introduction, which again, feels like a fresh and approachable stage for the following pieces, one gets the notion that Winters is a passionate reader and thinker of what he’s read, and it is that marvel, that connection to his own life and the reading life within, that he brings to this work. Essentially, it is enthusiasm for the enrichment critical thought brings, not enthusiasm for showing others his critical thought, that seems to give this collection value beyond the ideas contained within.

With more of the book to get through, I find myself excited to follow Winters’ considerations, and after a reading I feel myself invigorated to seek those pathways in my own reading.

Undercurrents of Influence

As I read into the world of Jon Fosse, there is a strong acknowledgement of having experienced this particular kind of sensibility once before. Years ago, I came across the short Icelandic film The Last Farm, by Rúnar Rúnarsson. At the time of viewing, I was completely moved, and later I found, somewhat haunted by the residual effect, an aftershock that always flowed beneath the current of my artistic development and cultural consumption.

It is a fairly obvious and simple film, with the kind of drama that can easily garner emotional responses, but there was something in the austerity of its fjord-rimmed boundaries and austere semi-arctic landscape that had a subtle shock (or now years later, perhaps I see this impact as a communication with inherent personal sensibilities) on my then rapidly expanding understanding of global art. It is a film that explores loneliness, independence, and finality, and though less acknowledged in the story of aging and dying, it speaks to deliberate attempts at non-conformity.

The film follows an elderly man, presumably the last farmer of the desolate and run-down last farm, and his vigorous final preparations. With the sea always in the background, this proud figure moves old wood and machinery, digs in the earth, and eats his meals alone, all the while he attempts to dissuade his daughter from visiting and avoids a prolonged visit from a neighbor. By now, we know that this man’s wife lies deceased in her bed upstairs and his work is that of a determined husband resigned to not live without her. Through the scenes of dialog (the two scenes of communication in this film seem like a lot for such a short time span, and yet their deployment creates an excellent tension), we learn that he and his late wife are destined to be relocated to the retirement community. As the conclusion becomes somewhat clearer, there is a sense of inner cheering for the obstinate farmer and there is a strong sympathy for the plight of the elderly. Growing old has its advantages, but the negative side of aging is widely understood and acknowledged, and what is captured so well in The Last Farm is the resignation a partner must feel when left behind. Suicide, both active and passive, is often a dark side of this stage of humanity, and within this turmoil, the hero of this story strives to maintain his pride and dignity, his independence, his communion with his wife. In the way that he was likely a pragmatic farmer, he also understands there is certain things that must now happen.

This man and his deeply sincere relationship with his wife, his farm, and the surrounding sea, this life of repetitive tasks and spirituality (a bible is placed on his wife’s body, and a wooden cross marks her grave, therefore, we are not exactly sure of the nature of his personal spiritual feelings, as we never see him interact in this way) feels like a visual embodiment of Fosse’s world. I came to Rúnarsson’s film first, and I believe that experience has enhanced my reading of Fosse, given me a contextualization for understanding the austere and geographic element of his work. In addition, the farmer of this film inhabits the quiet self-determination that many of Fosse’s characters maintain; a self-consciousness, a loneliness, and a communion with landscapes that seem to reflect these qualities.

*The Last Farm was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film in 2005

Morning and Evening

Jon Fosse; Morning and Evening; Trans. Damion Searls; Dalkey Archive Press, 2015

Three books into Fosse’s work, and it begins to feel like an immersion. The patterns of his language, the repetitions of his characters, the backdrop of fjords, silence and water. It is an enjoyable dive, one that fosters contemplation and self-removal; much in the way breath exercises bring about similar responses. Upon completion of this book, a surprising word came to mind: gentleness. I found myself surprised by this, it is perhaps not a word that gets associated too often with contemporary literature, particularly literature from other parts of the world, and certainly not with the books under the Dalkey Archive flag. And yet, Fosse handles life, death, love with not quite brazen sentimentality, but a kindness to his characters and to his own spiritual convictions.

Morning and Evening, relates the main character Johannes’ experience of the cycle of his own birth and death, and explores the betweenness of these poles in a compact and mesmerizing way.

Through what Fosse has written elsewhere, the context and execution of this meditation on the spiritual and corporeal is not surprising. Fosse is a spiritual person, who has related the mystical nature of the writing experience, and I get the sense that this work was a way for him to see how close he can get to the realm of spirits, memories, and afterlife. The simplicity and repetition of the prose, the recurring scenes and dialog, the deliberate use of subtle tension, (all techniques Fosse deploys as the very nature of his “style”) keep us from understanding this as simply a man’s ghost story.

In the first section, in stilted dialog and intense interior thought, full of closed space, primal sounds, and musings on God, the birth of Johannes is recounted. In the next section, the elderly Johannes wakes with a strange feeling, physically invigorated, lighter than he has come to expect. Johannes takes this as simply odd but good fortune. He wonders at the loneliness within his house and follows a regular morning routine of coffee, cigarettes and breakfast. From here the book moves into a quiet series of surreal experiences that fill in the moments of connectivity that give Johannes his sense of being in the living world. It is here, in these interactions, that Fosse opens the possibility of the spiritual realm and our human attachment to the earthen, comprised of, when it’s all said and done, of a few meaningful moments and human connections. This microcosm of our lived experience is really a part of our spiritual existence, and Fosse seems to be musing, that the line between the two spheres is not all that separate, however, to get to the space of this connecting thread, one must turn away from the world. As Johannes is going through his day-long journey, he is continually encountering the past, namely, Peter, his old friend whom he knows has passed, and Peter interacts with others that have passed, and then his deceased wife, Erna, and fishing with its associated memories. This looking away from the world has its ties to Fosse’s self-admitted influence from Norwegian Puritanism, and the notion of creating a private about-facing world in which one lives separate from the outer main world. Fosse seems to be writing this into being with Johannes’ final experiences, which cause him more confusion than anxiety.

And this is the gentle aspect of the work that struck me. The characters are creations of caring, kindness, gentleness, simplicity. In fact, the scene of most tension is experienced through the first living person depicted in the story, Johannes’ daughter, whose interaction with her father (his invisible spirit actually) unnerves her, the presence is even deemed evil by her. This deliberate portrayal of fear of the dark, unknowable division is key to Fosse’s use of the residual in his work. Memories, spirits, places all seem to haunt his turned-away worlds, and yet we know from Johannes’ perspective, there is not much fear. And the final concluding segment of this book, which simulates many television cliché portrayals of such scenes of “crossing over”, is so openly celebratory, not ironic or cynical, that one simply appreciates Fosse’s authorial openness to deliver what he presumably deemed his best artistic effort in writing about such matters as life, death, and the potential hereafter, and yes, Fosse’s sea is there till the end.

Boathouse Encounter

Jon Fosse; Boathouse; Trans. May-Brit Akerholt; Dalkey Archive Press, 2017

In his collection of essays An Angel Walks Through a Stage, Fosse writes much about the mystical nature of his art, how writing for him has spiritual resonance. Mentioned as often, is silence. For Fosse, silence is as much a space or void, as it is heaviness and dread, the unspoken as reality, and in this work, both forms are largely at play. His characters say very little outwardly, and when they do, the statements are short, terse, often simple affirmations. But the entirety of this text is interior. A mind in constant, albeit looping motion. As the textual participant, we read the same phrases over and over again, often nearly whole blocks of identical or similar statements at the beginning and ending of each section, repeated statements about restlessness, small shuffles of movement and sounds, the inability to go outside, and central to the story, the near frantic recounting of the narrator’s encounter with an old school friend.

Only a few paragraphs into this book, with its well-known opening lines about not going out anymore, about being overcome with restlessness, I felt instantly in uncomfortable territory. Generally speaking, being in the mind of literary characters is the one of the main draws to reading fiction, in its otherness, comfort or discomfort, stances we would never personally take, but for me, being in the mind of the narrator, who suffers from extreme “restlessness,” was quite intense, and in my experience, represents the sensations of one who lives with varying degrees of social anxiety. The very nature of anxiety is obsession, looping thoughts that become a crippling reality, and often cause the sufferer to cease interaction with others and in extreme moments have the inability to even go outside. Many repetitive scenario loops take place, a rise and fall situation of pumping oneself up and tearing it all down again, until hopefully the dreaded moment the sufferer is considering has passed, or alternately, and sometimes physiologically painful, the time comes to participate. The horror of such a moment may be simply going to the grocery store, only a few blocks walk, to acquire new coffee, which the sufferer is aware can increase the tendency of these very reactions, all the while, going first thing in the morning to purchase coffee sounds like a far more dreadful way to start a new day, but the knowledge that a headache at 11:30 am the following day from withdrawal is equally unpleasant, and counter-productive to all the work one wants to produce on that following day, because much of the current day’s energy has been sapped into deciding about going to purchase a new can of coffee. I use this personal digression to illustrate the nature of my relation to this text on a very fundamental level. At 118 pages, much of this book reads like this kind of strain.

The core of these reactions has to do with human interaction, and the endless cycles of interpretation that may take place from such an event before and after, and this is the very center of the text in Boathouse. Told to us over and over again is the dread the two friends feel at having to meet one another again, because so many years have passed, there is nothing to say, and there was a moment in that distant past, in that relationship, that was painful, centered around misunderstanding and betrayal, which perhaps also has its roots in the narrator’s innate anxiety disorder.

Much of any accusations of difficulty towards Fosse’s work is based in this repetitious looping. The sentences are not difficult, the structure is quite simple, the vocabulary is rather basic, but it is this testing of resilience and patience, that makes Fosse “difficult.” Yet, he has stated that he tries to be very simple and not difficult. His work gets called haunting, obsessive, dream-like; I think of it as incantatory.

One of the brilliant tricks in this book is when, without changing this looping, ritual-like tone, Fosse’s narrator shifts to the internal perspective of the friend, from which we experience again the micro episodes of tension already written. This to me was such a powerful approach, because really, it is still the narrator telling us the friend’s thoughts, feelings and actions. A kind of interpretation and alienation is happening simultaneously. As the tension continues to mount, between the characters (the two friends and the friend’s wife, where a triangle of jealously, regret, and resentment play out), between the minds of the individuals, and the individuals to their environment, I sensed that the prose grows more fragmentary, de-energized with resignation.

In this work, Fosse masters the micro moment. In the way sufferers of anxiety live in imbalanced moments, moments that outsiders can even hardly begin to scale to their own interpretations of the very same scenario; his characters experience the same obsessive imbalance. Though the rather sudden connection between the narrator and the wife character seems somewhat improbable, as an equation to illustrate this anxiety-ridden microcosm, its works quite well. So much of the looping thoughts and references have little to do with the current situation, but are rooted in a single, apparently minor occurrence from the past that rises from its dormancy to trigger a paralyzing chain of thoughts.

Silence, inaction, and simplicity is what makes this work successful. To view someone from the outside, be it in the bus, the library, or at the grocery checkout, in all their isolated calmness, in contrast to our unawareness of the possible roiling interiority of that other is the uncanniness Fosse captures so well in Boathouse.

Gaining an Understanding

Jon Fosse; An Angel Walks Through the Stage; Trans. May-Brit Akerholt; Dalkey Archive Press, 2015

“All good art comes into being in a relationship with death, through accepting the great mysterious secret of death, and life.”

If one views art as a necessary, compulsory aspect of the human condition, then what are the depths, or located differently, perhaps the adjacent cosmic fringes, to which we will go to explore its existence? Creative output has been the greatest driving force of our species’ development for many millennia, manifested in both the practical and the secular; we have invented religious structures, re-formed nature, widened our understanding of the cosmos, and have gained deep knowledge of the material minutiae of our world. But in all this contribution, what is art? It is surely colors confined within four corners and hung on walls, texts redefining our perceptions, earth moved and formed into cohesion with its surroundings, and music that consists of 4 min. 33 sec of environmental sound. Within this we have of course Beethoven, Mozart, Arvo Part, Malevich “black squares,” epics of Hell, and much more. We poor ink, and yet more ink, into this wholly subjective arena. But perhaps there is art, product for consumption, and art, production for the sake of the ethereal, the mystical. Fosse is very much formed and concerned with this second realm and its relation to the first.

There are essays herein regarding Fosse’s ideas about voice, narrator, and the true meaning of writing, of which is movement, bringing into existence, and its relation to voice and language as a mystical endeavor. He writes of his love for one of the two official Norwegian languages and his country’s general misunderstanding of their literary master, Henryk Ibsen. These are short pieces, collected from a twenty-year span, written in a clear and sometimes conversational mode. But in these short essays, in this minimal appearing book, what permeates all is Fosse’s conviction about the “other” that is art. Mysticism is the structure on which it seems his entire view hangs. There are many references to silence, space, mystery, the sacred:

“And to me, the novel, to be obstinate, is constantly in search of the lost God,” or;

“…silent speech, full of unknown meaning,” or;

“…like a voice that comes from somewhere far away.”

It is this mystical through-line that I find so compelling here. In the version of our world that is now riddled with the media-based clichés of stimulation, information overload, noise and image bombardment, Fosse embraces silences, emptiness, repetition, simplicity. The longest essay, “Negative Mysticism,” acts as a biographic keystone to this position, where early on Fosse writes, “So silence is perhaps the best way to preserve what we know deepest down.” He expresses ambivalence about relating these ideas, but continues:

“…it is in other words the writing which has opened the religious aspects for me and turned me into a religious person, and some of my deepest experiences can, as I have gradually understood, be called mystical experiences.”

He writes of Norwegian Puritanism and Quakerism in his personal family history, refers to himself as a post-puritan. He chooses to have his novels face away from the world, to be their own universe unto themselves, and the silence and speech of Quaker practice is similar to his approach to writing. One gets the impression these are not “born-again,” expository proclamations, sharing for the sake of proselytizing, but that his positions are fibrous to his understanding of himself as an artist, and that his appreciation of art is rooted in this conviction of the spiritual-mystical. He does not come off as a guru, but as a deeply inward facing individual whose attempts at making art, the speech, silences, and movements of his texts, are forms of personal prayer.

I’m glad to have experienced these pieces as I continue to read through his work in translation. Having read Aliss at the Fire many years ago, a book that seemed revelatory at the time, a beautiful work unlike so much else I have read, I am eager to return to its austere world, with a greater understanding of Fosse’s motivations.

A new space

The intention of Material Archive is twofold. After years of being informed by many well-crafted and informative cultural sites, I see this as a return, a giving back, my way to contribute to the wider digital community of cultural input/output. Literature (primarily in translation), art, film, music, collecting culture, theory, general bibliographic information are all interests of mine, and I have benefited greatly from the labors of passion so many content creators have shared.

Secondly, I intend to use this site as a record of my cultural consumption life. A notebook, a place to explore and expand in the essayistic sense. I am not professionally trained, have only published minor pieces sporadically (the great online journal Quarterly Conversation) and some art appeared in New American Paintings. This, hopefully, is to become a new portfolio in a sense, a place to develop and hold to personal account a deeper reading and seeing life.