Can one trust a sonata? Charles Newman, In Partial Disgrace, pt 2

[Of the Professor v. Felix:] The difference between them, after all, was that the Professor truly believed he was the first mortal to set foot in the mind, and like every true colonial assumed that mere priority allowed him to name it and submit it to his laws.

 Like Sterne’s protagonist, Newman’s (Iulus) talks endlessly about his father, Felix (Protestant ‘Marxisant’ and advocate of ‘hands-on mysticism’, who ‘liked it out there on the edge…where one could write in order to stop thinking, and lose the shame of being an author’); here’s some of his advice to the boy:

1. Neither marry nor wander, you are not strong enough for either. 2. Never believe any confession, voluntary or otherwise. And most importantly, 3. [In Latin first, then in English:] Everyone has a cleverer dog than their neighbor; that is the only undisputed fact.

Psalmanazar's Formosa

An illustration from Psalmanazar’s phoney account of the people of Formosa – as fantastic a fake memoir as those of Felix and Iulus. Picture via Wikimedia Commons

Then there are the Pynchonian names of the central characters: Felix Aufidius Pzalmanazar, the ‘Hauptzuchtwart [dog-breeder] Supreme’ and ‘historian of the Astingi’ – a fictitious tribe of the central European plains, in the country of Cannonia (where at dusk ‘everything is the colour of a runaway dog’!), loosely equivalent to Hungary – alludes to the French impostor or con-man, Georges Psalmanazar (1679-1763), who became a brief sensation in Augustan England with his exotic traveller’s tales of ‘Formosa’ and his fake memoirs – a prototype Felix (or Newman).

Much of the novel consists of long, Socratic ‘savage debates’, a ‘battle of the polymaths’, a ‘rhetorical onslaught’, between the sceptic-stoic Felix (who claims, in a typical paradox, that ‘Dialectics do not interest me, though like ballsports, I am good at them’) and his soulmate-antagonist, the Professor, ‘the master speculator’ as Felix provocatively calls him, a thinly disguised Sigmund Freud, who brings a series of disturbed dogs to be analysed and trained by the renowned dog-trainer/breeder – a clear dig at the failings of psychoanalysis, for the Professor can’t cure (or even understand) his own neurotic dogs (see the quotation at the head of this post, which sums up the philosophical difference between them):

“You’re no Jew, Berganza,” he often giggled, “just a Calvinist with a sense of irony.”

Another of those literary allusions with multiple levels of significance is Felix and the Professor being likened for these endless Socratic disputes by Felix’s wife, Ainoha (possibly a name derived from a Basque place-name known for its image of the Virgin Mary, and girl’s name, Ainhoa; or is it just a pun on ‘I know her’?) to Scipio and Berganza: these are the two dogs whose satiric colloquy, with its rhetorical-polemical format based on Erasmus’ Praise of Folly, forms one of the Novelas ejemplares of Cervantes (1613).

I could say so much more about this novel, with its multiple layers and highly charged prose, and wide-ranging, esoteric-comic material, such as the Astingi people’s culture and religion – ‘savage and disconcerted’, Felix calls them), or aphorisms like ‘You can get away with murder in America, but only in Europe can you be really bad’. But it’s more than just a clever puzzle or palindrome of wordplay (though there’s nothing wrong with that) – there’s some interesting insight into Newman’s views on the writing (and reading) process, with which I’ll end (having touched on it briefly in my previous post).

Newman In P Disgrace coverIn a chapter called ‘Ex Libris’ Newman gives Felix’s son Iulus’ account of Felix’s huge literary project: to write a history of the Astingi disguised as a Traveler’s Guide ‘in order to make a market for it’ – which sounds like a dig at American publishers. His description could serve as a heartfelt insight into Newman’s own obsessive, meticulous, never-ending collector’s writing methods and technique:

Working at top speed, he usually produced about one hundred and twenty sentences of impossible terseness per night.

He goes on with what looks like a self-portrait, and a grim discussion of what In Partial Disgrace cost to write:

Writers are people who have exhausted themselves; only the dregs of them still exist. Writing is so real it makes the writer unreal; a nothing. And if one resists being a nothing, one will have the greatest difficulty in finishing anything.

Nor did I know that in his hyperfastidious, shamelessly private mind, he was envisioning a nonexistent genre. For no one ever writes the book he imagines; the book becomes the death mask of creation, it has its own future and survives like a chicken dancing with its head cut off. And the spy knows this better than anyone; to write anything down is to take colossal risk. In life you can mask your actions, but once on paper, nothing can hide your mediocrity.

Ouch.

Later, when shadowy CIA spook Rufus is reflecting on his (triple) agent Iulus’ reports, this is his conclusion:

Of course, there will be those who will ask how far can we trust such a narrator? This is rather like asking the question: can one trust a sonata?

Perhaps Rufus has come to see, after his time in the ‘inchoate’, counterintuitive province of Cannonia, that the usual modes of perception, representation and philosophy don’t apply. And that goes for the ways we interpret written texts: genre and verisimilitude are irrelevant, delusions. Here he considers how the Cannonians and ‘their Astingi comrades’ love ‘puzzles and the darkest riddling’:

…for thinking in their view is not real thinking unless it simultaneously arouses and misleads one’s expectations of symmetry. But their love of riddles has a moral dimension which is easily missed; games for them are also always ethical tests.

When Iulus hears the final colloquy of the Professor and Felix, in which his father, whose life’s literary work has blown away on the wind, fiercely denounces conventional historians (and warrior-thinkers like Marcus Aurelius), he (Iulus) is deeply impressed:

Thus ended my aristocratic education. I had learned everything I needed to know for my career. For life with friends and lovers is essentially this: that we assist each other in recovering and rewriting the book which is always blowing away, when the words don’t mean what you say.

An equally apt summary of the novel and novelist is given with Rufus’ verdict on Iulus and his writings, who he knows to be more than just ‘turncoat, nor a cipher, cryptographer…dissembler, or counterfeit’; he’s reflecting, as most of this novel does, on the nature of narrative:

How I would miss his profound but smiling pessimism, his nacreous intelligence, this fideist to the school of gliding. He was one of those strange people who, having rectitude, didn’t need freedom. Even now, rereading his scattered cantos, it is as if he is sitting in the room talking personally with me, the secret of all great writing.

Walter Benjamin, flâneurs, the historical shudder, lorettes and Paul Gavarni

Flânerie again: I turned again today to the opening section of Benjamin’s Convolute M in The Arcades Project, ‘The Flâneur’, a concept which has featured several times here on the blog (dérives in Paris and elsewhere, for example). That’s it in my picture below.

From p. 416 of The Arcades Project

From p. 416 of The Arcades Project

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a helpful introduction to the notion of the flâneur as Benjamin sees it. He’s scornful of that usage which is found too often nowadays, too: the ‘idler’ or ‘tourist’, wandering ‘capriciously’ as Henry James put it, through the urban streets. His is a more charged sense, a key term in his kaleidoscopic presentation of the significance of the city of Paris and its inhabitants in the 19C.

Notre Dame de Lorette, Paris

Bizet and Monet were baptised in this church: 1840 and 1841 respectively. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

I was unfamiliar with the church of ND de Lorette, mentioned there. After a bit of digging online, this is what I came up with:

It’s a church (building started in 1823) on the edge of the 9th arrondissement of Paris, near Pigalle and just south of Montmartre. That is, the red light district. Ah ha.

So I looked up ‘lorette‘ in the OED online (that superb free resource, thanks to Cornwall Library Service):

 A courtesan of a class which at one time had its headquarters in the vicinity of the Church of Notre Dame de Lorette in Paris.

Google took me to this website: France in the Age of Les Misérables. Here I found the following quotations:

“The middle ground between street prostitute and grand dame of commercial sex, the courtesan, lorette became an umbrella term for the kept women set up discreetly in a private apartment by a businessman, professional, or wealthy student… Always elegantly dressed, the lorette peeps out coyly from a theatre box, engages in double entendre with male admirers at a masked ball, displays herself while enjoying the view from her apartment window… the lorette slid imperceptibly across the boundaries of acceptability and social stigma.”

The lorette was bound in many ways by the codes of polite society and yet, was not embraced as a part of that same society. “On the boulevards, she was virtually indistinguishable in costume and appearance from the more fashionable among her lover’s female relations. And in a sense, for men she was quintessentially public property – to be discussed, admired, acquired… In other words there was a radical mismatch between the social and moral codes marking out the lorette within ‘respectable’ society and the way she gained public representation in the spectacle of the metropolis.” (The lorette was essentially a decoration for her lovers, something to be admired and used as needed, but not something for everyday inclusion into society.)

(Nicholas Green, The Spectacle of Nature: Landscape and bourgeois culture in 19th century France by Nicholas Green, Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 1990.

She would be, in Benjamin’s view, a perfect example of the exploitation of the urban poor. Here’s what he says at p. 446:

“We know,” says Marx, “that the value of each commodity is determined by the quantity of labor materialized in its use value, by the working-time socially necessary for its production.”

This would apply as much for the journalist as the courtesan or lorette.

Also mentioned in that opening section in my picture at the start is [Paul] Gavarni. This was the nom de plume of Sulpice Chevalier, a Parisian artist-illustrator (1804-66), noted for his magazine images of characters and scenes of Parisian life. He also illustrated the first collected edition in 1850 of Balzac’s works. So Benjamin’s words resonate at many levels.

Here’s Gavarni’s drawing of a dandy – another central figure in Benjamin, close relation to the flâneur:

[Attribution: By Pline – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0: public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

In April last year I wrote more on The Arcades Project

This section of the book begins with a number of epigraphs, including this by Mallarmé:

‘A landscape haunts, intense as opium’

Below is my picture of the title page, which gives bibliographical details.

Arcades Project title page