(Edit: this post revised and errors corrected 7/6/10; and again 15/6/10)
While I was in Australia I picked up a copy of Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues’ Portrait of an English Gentleman in his Chateau, which the author described as “like a kiss of peace bestowed on the principle of Evil”, although if he had known the term Ero Guro Nansensu he might have used that as a description instead. Anyway, I didn’t want to rock up at the counter with only that book, which is how I ended up buying the impeccably respectable The Sleepwalkers trilogy (all in one volume) by Austrian writer Hermann Broch — a book one probably should read, I thought, to balance a book one probably shouldn’t.
Broch began writing the trilogy in 1928, taking as his theme “the disintegration of values”. The first book, The Romantic, follows Joachim von Pasenow, a neurotic younger son of Prussian landed gentry whose family puts him in the army. His identity as an officer becomes central to his sense of self; he doesn’t like being out of uniform, and he regards his acquaintance Bertrand, who left the army and went into business, with suspicion and irrational horror. Pasenow has to choose between a woman of his own class, Elisabeth, who he puts on such a pedestal that the thought of having sex with her freaks him out, and a nightclub hostess who he does sleep with and seems to be in love with in an unsurprisingly shallow way. I got the sense (though I could be wrong) that the love story was really only a frame to hang Pasenow’s neurotic ruminations on. The book imitates the style of late 19th century writing, and while it’s exaggerated enough that we know it’s a parody, it still works as a piece of characterisation and storytelling. It cuts off at Joachim and Elisabeth’s wedding night, where the sex problem is solved by him falling asleep. It finishes with a humorous little four-line chapter telling the reader that nonetheless their first child was born eighteen months later: “How this came about cannot be told here. Besides, after the material for character construction already provided, the reader can imagine it for himself.”
Writing on The Sleepwalkers (“The Achievement of Hermann Broch”, 1949), Hannah Arendt notes that this ending “upset(s) the illusion of a created reality”. She asserts that because of it, “The fiction itself is expressly depreciated, its validity is set at an ironical and historical distance…Thus one of the chief pleasures of novel reading, the reader’s identification with the hero, is consciously destroyed, and the daydreaming element, which always had brought the novel suspiciously close to kitsch, is eliminated.” Broch “is never engrossed in, and never permits the reader to become absorbed by, the story itself.”
Sixty years later, I wonder if any reader would be put off identifying with the hero or getting absorbed in the story by a bit of irony and distancing. For that matter, would a theatregoer in Shakespeare’s time? Theatre and film audiences know that characters are fake people animated by real people, and still identify and get absorbed like crazy. No doubt we often turn to novels for a more seamless illusion, but unless that’s all we want, just knocking a brick or two out of the fourth wall isn’t going to eliminate the “daydreaming element”. Even in 1949, or, for that matter, at the time of the book’s publication, I’m not sure that it would have been eliminated. Strong is the reader’s desire to be enagaged by the fiction; easily put off by a few mind-tricks it is not.
No, to guarantee the elimination of the daydreaming element you need to write a really tedious story, dipping into evil without any kisses of peace upon it, about a character who’s a complete shit, which is what Broch does in the second volume of the trilogy, The Anarchist, also set in Germany. The protagonist, Esch, is a self-centred bookkeeper. He has a lot of thoughts about justice, but doesn’t examine his own premises for thinking of something as just or unjust; he’s able to live in a kind of eternal present, making up his own rules as he goes along, thinking with a parody of logic to justify lousy behaviour. [Edit: and I'm now cutting the rest of what I wrote about Esch, because I think I need to read the rest of the book and some more commentaries on what Broch was trying to do with Esch or show through him; I'm also not sure, now, that the daydreaming element is absent from The Anarchist. I think it might be there, maybe, but treated more as a subject on its own than in The Romantic, and more sytematically undermined than in that book, and yet maybe not entirely undermined...maybe.]
On to a general point Arendt makes in her essay: “A gift for story-telling which half a century ago could be found only among the great is today frequently the common equipment of good but essentially mediocre writers. Good second-rate production, which is as far removed from kitsch as it is from great art, satisfies fully the demands of the educated and art-loving public and has more effectively estranged the great masters from their audience than the much-feared mass culture.”
I don’t think Arendt is saying that first-rate writing is distinguished by not satisfying the demands of a fairly literate and cultured public, but that it does set itself above those demands, and if it satisfies them, perhaps does so incidentally. Accordingly, when the average educated schmoe reads great writing, s/he might well be tempted to read it agin the author’s intent, for the sake of enjoying what is enjoyable in it, be that beauty or sensationalism or an attractive character, and pay comparatively little attention to themes like “the disintegration of values”. Of course, there’s great writing to which beauty and sensationalism are essential, and we can read it knowing the author wants us to bathe our souls in her luminous prose, or identify, if with a condom of irony in place, with some fucked-up weirdo.
Which brings me back to Pasenow, and to wondering whether I enjoyed The Romantic in part because of its setting in the upper class world. Whenever we read about the well-to-do, we of course get to vicariously inhabit their homes, wear their clothes and visit their haunts. This pleasure, which comes at the cheap price of a book, certainly helps to sell historical romances and doorstoppers about models and movie stars. It also (whisper) probably helps to sell books all the way up to the peaks of Henry James and Virginia Woolf. Would I have been as interested in Pasenow’s neurotic mind, his mad dad, and Elisabeth’s family, who devote themselves to piling up metaphorical sandbags around a world of genteel comfort, if the sandbagged world was one of ordinary comfort and Pasenow was a bookkeeper? I suspect I enjoyed Pasenow as a sort of sinful indulgence, if not a particularly piquant one; if Duc Jean des Esseintes were the absinthe truffle in a box of useless aristocrats, and Mandiargues’ Montcul the semen-and-shit ganache, Pasenow would be the slightly sickly strawberry cream.
A final question (for now): why is the daydreaming element kitsch? As a fantasy writer I want to ask that, since all fantasy is bathed in the daydreaming element, no matter what else is going on or what po-mo ironies are being committed. And is kitsch always a bad thing? The sentimentality of kitsch can be dangerous because it’s easily turned to progaganda uses; but it can also criticise callous tendencies. Kitsch can sugar-coat a literary pill (though as I said above, there’s the danger of just licking the coating off). The Land of Kitsch may even share a boundary with the sublime, where we meet the gods — who are often gaudy and have been known to try to reach a mass audience. The trick, I think, is to treat kitsch like a would-be lover: see its pickup moves for what they are, and either give or withhold consent to its manipulations. But perhaps I’m wrong, or insufficiently tutored, or whatever you want to call it. (Edit: And maybe I’m misinterpreting what Arendt means by the daydreaming element; perhaps she’s only referring to sentimental identification for purposes of vicarious wish fulfilment and power tripping, so that a work like Gormenghast, which keeps you reading about a bunch of mediocre and awful personalities through the daydreaming power of beautiful writing and an extraordinary setting, would be safe from the kitsch label.)
(…Well, I don’t know whether the lucubrations in this post are up to much, but this is the first time in a long time that the brain fog has lifted enough to let me write something involving actual thought. The irrational anxiety has also diminished somewhat. This may be thanks to recent medical intervention of a rather simple sort, but I’m going to leave it a few weeks more before counting my chickens.)