Thursday, March 7, 2013

Writing about not writing - Hofmannthal's "Lord Chandos Letter" and Murnane's Barley Patch

To a certain kind of child, the Viennese ethos of Bildung must have felt so oppressive.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal at first appeared to be the perfect child of Viennese aestheticism, immediately recognized as the city’s greatest poet when he was seventeen.  A central theme of his work, though, was a critique of aestheticism, an inventory of its costs, many of which were presumably felt personally, although Hofmannsthal always wrote with so much distance that there is no way to tell.

In his 1902 story “The Letter” (or “The Lord Chandos Letter”), a writer explains his lack of literary production after a promising start.  It is a description of an aesthetic and linguistic crisis.  His plans to write a kind of “Key to All Mythologies” omnibook leads him into some sort of heightened aesthetic state (“In those days I, in a state of continuous intoxication, conceived the whole of existence as one great unit: the spiritual and physical worlds seemed to form no contrast, as little as did courtly and bestial conduct, art and barbarism, solitude and society…,” 132) which ends in an inevitable crash, but one that takes a strange form.   Words begin to separate from their meaning.  Any concept capable of verbal statement (“This affair has turned out well for this or that purpose”) seems false (“indemonstrable, as mendacious and hollow as could be”, 134).  The problem is with the words, not the concepts:

For me everything disintegrated into parts, those parts again into parts; no longer would anything let itself be encompassed by one idea.  Single words floated round me; they congealed into eyes which stared at me and into which I was forced to stare back – whirlpools which gave me vertigo and, reeling incessantly, led into the void.  (135)

The narrator’s solution is to engage with the world, with the thing itself, and avoid words; his composition of the formal, elegant letter that is the text of the story might appear to be a contradiction,  but that is merely a form, almost a reflex, while his true language is “a language none of whose words is known to me, a language in which inanimate things speak to me and wherein I may one day may have to justify myself before an unknown judge” (141).

What part of this Hofmannsthal experienced himself is a mystery, but by the time he wrote “The Letter” he had abandoned poetry and to some degree fiction (he wrote but did not publish), and instead turned his attention to theater, opera, and essays, from private to public forms.  An enduring, eminently public,  achievement was co-founding the Salzburg Festival.

The “Lord Chandos” quotations are from Selected Prose, Bollingen, 1952, tr. Tania & James Stern.

Hermann Broch suffered a related crisis.  The Death of Virgil (1945) is the novel in which he abandons novels.  I should read it.

The Australian writer of prose fiction Gerald Murnane recently published a long prose fiction, Barley Patch (2010), which begins with the question “Must I write?” and is in effect a fictional novelist’s fictional justification of his abandonment of fiction.  Murnane’s narrator is the one who dislikes the word “novel” and keeps repeating the phrase “prose fiction,” along with many other phrases.  Some readers would find this intensely irritating:

Sometimes, when I was trying to report in one or another passage in my fiction the connection between one or another fictional personage and one or another fictional landscape, I would suppose that one or another of my readers might later have overlooked the passage that I was trying to write in the same way that I had overlooked the foreground and the middle-ground and even the background of the painting mentioned not long before in this piece of fiction and might have seemed to see behind my fiction, as it were, a semblance of the Midlands of Tasmania or of the Canterbury Plains of New Zealand (94).

Murnane’s, or the narrator’s, purpose is fundamentally Proustian, an attempt to pin down specific combinations of childhood memories through the medium of fiction, a search for some kind of impossible truth, but without the Proustian language and imagery that only leads to blurry failure.  If all the author can imagine is that a character lives in “a building of two or more stories,” then that is how the building will be described.  The inadequacies of memory and imagination battle the inadequacies of language.  And the narrator, like Lord Chandos, insists that this is the end, really, no more writing, once he finally explains, in writing, why he gave up writing.

Barley Patch also makes interesting use of Matthew Arnold’s “The Scholar-Gypsy” (1853).  I would like to read someone else’s essay about that.  Thanks in advance.


  1. I had not heard of Murnane until a month or so ago but he sounded like an interesting writer to look up sometime. Now your writing about Barely Patch has me even more intrigued. I wonder if Philip Roth announcing his retirement is struggling with those dastardly words too?

  2. I had never heard of Barley Patch before but I am amused by the publishers paradoxical description: "In the spirit of Italo Calvino and Georges Perec, Barley Patch is like no other fiction being written today."

  3. I remember reading Lord Chandos' Letter, and not knowing anything more about Hoffmanstahl's career, and wondering how it did actually fit in - or whether, perhaps, it was, as it could be taken, a pure work of fiction. To what extent does it reflect a change in Hoffmanstahl? (As you address).

    This is because I read it because Vila-Matas goes on about it all the time in Bartleby & Co. - another book about a writer who can't read any more and yet nonetheless continues to write, by a writer who also continues to write after writing a fictional book about a writer, who can't writing, writing.

    1. I meant "a writer who can't write any more..." etc.

  4. Barley Patch is just like all of the other books that are not like any other books.

    Stefanie, I omitted all of the stuff in the Murnane book about childhood reading, a detailed study of where the images we associate with books really come from, and why an image from a particular childhood book, maybe not even a favorite book, sticks with us. The reader of fiction who is not bored by the clinical tone will find this interesting.

    And then there is also a lot of stuff about horse racing. The payoff of the horse racing theme is pretty good.

    Murnane has said in interviews that Barley Patch is his last work of fiction, but not necessarily because of the reasons described in the book. He may be more like Roth (Murnane is six or seven years younger) - a person can run out of things to say!

    If I had had the book handy, I would have stuck in a Vila-Matas quote. There must be a good one about Hofmannsthal in there, even if I do not believe a word V-M writes in that novel.

    I don't think anyone knows how the writing crisis in "The Lord Chandos Letter" relates to the actual crisis Hofmannsthal had experienced several years earlier. He is one of the most self-concealed writers I have ever come across (thus displacing the "story" to 17th century England). But it cannot have been the same - Hofmannsthal kept writing, and he kept writing fiction (although he no longer finished or published his fiction).

  5. "Hermann Broch suffered a related crisis. The Death of Virgil (1945) is the novel in which he abandons novels". Yes, you definitely should read it. It's a novel in which Broch abandons novel but not a one where he abandons writing — but it can be a text where you abandon reading and, after your own crisis, discover another way of reading. I remember letting drop the book several times until I tried to read at random, beginning around page 50, going back and then forward, letting pages aside. And it's well worth it.

  6. "it can be a text where you abandon reading and, after your own crisis, discover another way of reading"

    I love that! That is good.

  7. If Murnane in Barley Patch is the way that he is in his other books then "or the narrator's" is my guess, rather than "Murnane's" and the parodies of pedantry ("two or more stories" is ridiculous) and the descriptions that look as if they're planted there for the purpose of going past people -- the Midlands are a dry part of a wet green island, but it's not as if they're legendary for it, "the dryness of the Tasmanian Midlands" is not some sort of byword -- his idea of metaphor is not a comparison with something the reader will recognise (sweet as honey, light as a feather) but something they will not recognise and something that will probably look remote and weird and not even like a metaphor -- are hints, letting you know -- weirdness is a sort of aim here, I suspect, in Murnane, the attempts to touch things pointing to the idea that they're untouchable -- so that the whole book (again I'm just making a guess based on his other work, and I'm, incidentally, trying to put this thought together through the sound of the neighbour's evil stereo going muffledly thoomp thoomp, like a heartbeat inside a massishly furry cat, on the other side of the wall) -- is a renunciation of writing, even without the formal announcement that he's renouncing writing -- because his style renounces it constantly, and takes it up again constantly, in a sort of futile picking action.

  8. Yes, that's it - writing is an act of renunciation. One renounces writing not by not writing, but by writing.