Reading Jerusalem (Jerusalém, 2005; tr. from the Portuguese by Anna Kushner, 2009) is a remarkable experience. The novel’s concise, straight-forward style complements its weighty philosophical questions on the nature of evil. It recalls some of my very favorite novels by Fyodor Dostoevsky whose chaotic and meandering discourses on the essence of evil sit in sharp contrast to Tavares’ slim volume, but to my mind, one is no less brilliant than the other.

Jerusalem

Jerusalem takes place in the pre-dawn hours of an unnamed city as five sleepless people leave their respective homes and go out into the night. Each is searching for solace from the mental and physical suffering that afflicts them. Their lives are linked. You become aware of the connective fibers via flashbacks that create context for the characters’ nocturnal perambulations. However, much of what you come to learn about how these lives are joined never becomes known to the characters themselves.

The protagonist is Mylia, a psychiatric patient and the ex-wife of Dr. Theodor Busbeck, a prominent psychiatrist. Mylia and Theodor become estranged when Mylia has an affair with fellow asylum resident, Ernst. In short succession Theodor is told of the affair and discovers that Mylia is pregnant with Ernst’s child. Mylia gives birth to a son, Kaas, in the asylum, and Theodor takes the child and raises it as his own. Soon after Kaas is born, Mylia is forced to undergo sterilization surgery that causes her constant physical pain and threatens her life a decade later.

While Mylia remains locked away in the asylum, Theodor seeks fame through an ambitious research project — he will graph the incidence of evil throughout history in order to demonstrate whether, over time, it has been increasing or decreasing. He concludes that evil is not in decline, that, “we will all get our turn to be massacred,” and that civilization will end when there is equilibrium between the forces that impose and the forces that receive violence.

Theodor believes that immoral thoughts are a sign of insanity, more so than immoral acts, and this conviction leads him to institutionalize Mylia. Eventually, Mylia is discharged from the asylum. But her “exile” to the outside world ends when she is faced with evil deeds, not just immoral thoughts. At the novel’s close she returns from exile to live again in her Jerusalem, this time a hospital for the criminally insane.

The philosophical underpinnings of Theodor’s theory converge with the moral questions that the characters confront. Acts, thoughts (including those of Theodor himself), and the fates of Mylia, Ernst, and Kaas are, in a manner of thinking, case studies for Theodor’s thesis.

Tavares’ writing is spare and powerful, and it is perhaps best displayed in the vivid language he uses to describe sensory experiences: touch, pain, hunger — especially hunger. Hunger that is a sign of life, a pain that battles with and temporarily conquers the pain of disease so that to feel hunger is to be alive and distant from death, and hunger that is insatiable, savage, and horrible. These two types of hunger are forces in opposition, and in the end a balance is reached: Hinnerk’s hunger leads to Kaas’ death; Mylia’s hunger leads to Hinnerk’s death.

There are a surfeit of novels that address man’s compulsion to commit evil against his fellow man, but Jerusalem demands your attention because Tavares’ execution and imagination are fresh. What otherwise might have been a difficult or pedantic read is, in Tavares’ skillful hands, a masterful and original exploration of one of the enduring questions in art and life.

Liked it? Take a second to support The Mookse and the Gripes on Patreon!
By |2015-01-14T13:37:04-04:00January 15th, 2015|Categories: Gonçalo M. Tavares|Tags: |13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. Lee Monks January 15, 2015 at 5:15 am

    Nice review. This has been on the TBR pile for quite some time: a timely reminder to try it.

  2. Miguel St. Orberose January 15, 2015 at 9:43 pm

    He’s a writer of utter mediocrity. When he attempts similes and metaphors, they’re usually stale, commonplace shit. His vocabulary is of the kindergarten variety. He’s never heard of subordinate or coordinate clauses. All his sentences are short. And straightforward. Like a Hemingway’s. He writes 3 to 4 books a year, which should give you a good idea of how much time (and effort) he puts into anything he writes: 4 months tops, if we’re being kind. Dostoevsky? That’s insane! Dostoevsky is lively, hilarious, touching, intelligent, imaginative, precise, intimate. Tavares only has a tiresome but fashionable nihilism that gets misinterpreted as deep, and his usual choice of grave themes – oohhh, Evil! Aahhh, crazy people! – make him sound more intelligent and sophisticated than he is.

    He’s a good writer for people who like to pretend they read Literature but don’t want to put an effort into reading difficult books: short books, short paragraphs, short sentences, elementary vocabulary, a monotonous, ponderous voice throughout – that’s his formula; it’s a fac-simile of Literature.

    Why bother with him, when this world still has living, active writers such as António Lobo Antunes, William H. Gass, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Joseph McElroy, Vargas Llosa, Eco, Ismael Kadare, Robert Coover, William Vollmann?

  3. Lee Monks January 16, 2015 at 7:04 am

    Oof! Well, maybe I’ll slip it right back in the pile then….(that list at the end basically contains half my favourite writers, which makes this post all the more persuasive…).

    Miguel: are you opposed to simplicity per se or do you ultimately feel that the medium is often the message?

  4. Miguel St. Orberose January 16, 2015 at 8:06 am

    Lee, I think Kafka and Borges (my favourite writers) achieved an abundance of effects with a remarkable economy of means; but Tavares is neither. I just can’t help seeing a current and worrying change in favour of straightforward, simplistic, bland prose, what Edmund White has called “le style blanc”: Nobel Prizes for Munro and Modiano in detriment of far more challenging authors, the public adulation over the reissuing of John William’s Stoner, the international discoveries of Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard (who writes like a journalist) by suspicious taste-makers like Franzen, David Shields and James Wood who are opposed to difficult, challenging, experimental prose.

    Many of these writers don’t have anything in their favour except the ability to convey (or fake) a sense of importance because of the “important” themes they tackle: Evil! The decline of civilization! Life and death! They bang you on the head with how incredibly relevant and urgent they are. Tavares is definitely in this category. A lot of the acclaim he receives is because of the themes his work conveys, not the way they’re explored. And I think that happens because people are conditioned to look at literature as if its chief purpose were to convey ideas and not aesthetics. Then social scientists and philosophers, which is what most book reviewers secretly want to be, can talk about how much this novel and that novel supports some pet concept of theirs, and then feel their existence validated, all the while ignoring HOW they were written.

    But to my mind expression is what counts. We can’t forget a book is a collection of words put together; the WAY they’re put together matters. In the hands of a virtuoso like Nabokov, a banal trip to a shopping mall is a literary event; the topic of evil in the hands of a writer like Tavares, whose prose isn’t better than what you can get from Nature magazine, is monotonous, trite, forgettable. I’ve read two books by him and all I remember is how poorly organized the prose was; you can tell he doesn’t revise a lot.

    And I like writers who revise, I like writers in control, I like the alliterative effects of Gass and the extravagant vocabulary of Alexander Theroux; and 20 metaphors per page a la Lobo Antunes, and the scientific, pedantic erudition of Pynchon, I like weird shifts in points of view and impossibly long sentences where I can lose myself in their rhythms, I like pastiches, I like prose that gets away from the ordinary blandness and predictability of everyday speech. if I didn’t like that stuff, why would I read literature instead of Nature? Why would I want to read literature that doesn’t give me everything literature can give me? Why would I settle for less than that?

  5. Betsy January 16, 2015 at 8:51 am

    Lori – nice introduction to what looks like a challenging author.

    On the subject of sentences, I notice this sentence by Tavares, quoted by Mark O’Connell in his 2012 review of Jerusalem in the New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/look-at-your-hands):

    “Theodor Busbeck kept thumbing through his book, in which there were several photographs of corpses lying one on top of another on a stairway: small bodies, large bodies, naked, men and women joined together in a parody of pornography, a parody of obscenity, see it nestled in between those bodies, one on top of the other—an inverse obscenity, the opposite of the kind that exists between living, healthy things: the obscenity of stasis, without pleasure, without excitement, the obscenity of bodies that would never be desired again, bodies with nothing to offer but horror—an endless, material, indifferent kind of horror—as though to trick you into thinking you aren’t looking at people at all, not at men, women, and children reduced to lifeless skin and bone, but at something else, something homogenous, inanimate, a material, a substance: not even something dead, not even the remains of human beings who had once been alive and full of friendly or antagonistic energy—no, merely bodies, bodies that now seemed as though they’d never even been alive: members of an entirely different species, a species that had experienced such enormous obscenity that it had been definitively removed from the core family of Homo sapiens, as represented here in the library by one of its exemplary units: a doctor.”

    O’Connell, the reviewer, says of Tavarez’ sentence:

    “The punctuation here—the dashes and, in particular, the five colons—reads like a futile gesture toward order, as though this were a subject in which one thing might follow on from another, on which logic might have some bearing. It’s a reflection, at the level of syntax, of what is going on at the level of the narrative, where a man of science is sitting in a library attempting to impose the machinery of his reason and learning on an unthinkable evil. In trying to figure out what he’s looking at, the most he can do is to literally figure it out: he concludes that the space captured in the photograph is something in the region of forty square metres, and that there are more than a thousand bodies contained in it. These numbers lack any human content, but enumeration seems to be the extent of what is possible when thought has been paralyzed by horror. Tavares (who wrote these novels in his mid-thirties, and is now forty-two) is a professor of epistemology at the University of Lisbon, and it’s tempting to see his fiction as a kind of nightmare intensification of the subject he spends his days teaching. And he has a gift—like Flann O’Brien or Kafka or Beckett—for revealing the ways in which logic can be as faithful a servant of madness as of reason.”

    In his review in the Independent (http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/jerusalem-by-gonccedilalo-tavares-dalkey-1850040.html), Daniel Hahn says:

    “Theodor is a doctor whose grim area of special study is cruelty on a massive scale – concentration camps, massacres of innocents, genocide; he is producing a vast historical assessment of these events, and by surveying how the numbers add up over time (is evil increasing or decreasing?), he means to predict either the end of such atrocities, or the ultimate mega-atrocity that will eliminate everything in some terrible cataclysm – or to conclude that the pattern is regular and cyclical and our species is doomed to repeat the cycle of horrors for all eternity. (He intends to produce a handy formula. He is a scientist, after all, and as such believes that things always ought to add up sensibly.)”

    I now offer my own long sentence:

    These are the peoples which wikipedia lists as the object of genocide in the recent past
    (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_genocides_by_death_toll):

    at least 4,194,200 Jews killed in Europe between 1941 and 1945

    at least 5 million killed in Congo Free State by the Belgians between 1885 and 1905;

    at least 3 million killed in the Far East by the Japanese between 1937 and 1945;

    at least 3 million killed by famine in the the Ukraine organized by Stalin in 1932-1933;

    1.5 million Armenians killed in Anatolia (Turkey) by the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1923;

    at least 1 million killed in Cambodia by the Kmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979;

    at least 1 million Igbo people killed in Nigeria between 1967 and 1970;

    at least 3/4 million Greeks killed in Anatolia between 1915 and 1918;

    at least half a million killed in Rwanda by the Hutu in 1994;

    at least half a million Sudeten Germans killed in ethnic cleansing between 1945 and 1950;

    about half a milion Zunghars killed in Mongolia between 1755 and 1758;

    and the list goes on and on.

    Tavarez is apparently interested in the human impulse toward barbarism – the state in which we freely decide that some people are not people. I argue that Tavarez’ sentences are neither uniformly short, and that his subject is the primary subject after the twentieth century.

    Thank you Lori, for this introduction to Tavarez,

  6. Lee Monks January 16, 2015 at 9:55 am

    Miguel, your comments open up an intriguing debate. I hope Trevor and others join in.

    I think you’re talking about brains, daring and perspective. I completely accept (but will avoid naming writers, there are too many) that adopting a schematic gravitas is rife; that the shoehorning of weighty issues often belies clunky or template penmanship. “Le style blanc”. I see plenty of that. Could that on occasion be a translation issue? A paucity of ideas aside, I daresay the conversion process might change the style somewhat. But yes: totally take the point there.

    I’ve yet to read Modiano. Alice Munro is a writer I’ve a lot of time for: I think many of her pieces are exceptional for very curious and idiosyncratic reasons. Basically she’s an exception, for me. I really do think she’s doing something interesting and unique, that goes deeper than stylistic issues. There are Munro stories that reverberate and endure in my mind that I can’t put my finger on just why that’s the case. I’ve tried, unsuccessfully, to do just that on these message boards! She confounds me a little.

    James Wood seems to vacillate between championing maximalists such as Foster Wallace and then reverting to more classical proclivities. Shields would have everything written like The Executioner’s Song.

    Knausgaard’s My Struggle books are a funny case. He actually said of their production, “I wasn’t trying to be clever, I was trying to say what needed to be said’. I enjoy those books (for the most part) but I’d have a job refuting your comment on his style. They’re catharsis tracts. Part of their worth, for me, is not their artfulness, but their honesty. I go in reading them with my eyes open. He hasn’t reinvented the wheel.

    I agree with you on ideas/aesthetics. But Nabokov is operating on an entirely unique plane. He’s an absolute master: it doesn’t matter what he’s talking about. He’s writing great music. Very few can do that. You’re putting everyone else up against the Gods, Miguel!

    What do you make of these two writers: Cheever and Aira?

    I spent years hating naturalism after loving it. There was a period where I would only read experimental or at least formally innovative stuff. Barth, Barthelme, Gaddis, Gass, Coover, Pynchon, Fuentes, Markson, Vollmann (still perhaps the best American writer I’ve read), Cortazar, Quin, Kavan and so on. But I’ve reintroduced naturalist writers over time. I love your refusal to accept any less than the extreme limits. I do think, though, that there’s plenty to go at that hits other kinds of fictional extremes, style aside. Ulysses is written that way in order to get to those places and to capture that insurmountably elusive abundance of everything, the music of the chaos of consciousness. But for me there are quiet, unflashy things out there that deserve attention for different reasons. Their lack of pyrotechnics may be inextricable from their powerful aims.

  7. Trevor Berrett January 16, 2015 at 12:36 pm

    Oh, I’ve got to jump in here, Lee, as Miguel writes off some of my favorites authors! I’m a bit busy today, but I will sit down with this. I’ve also got to come up with the perfect comment to show Miguel precisely how wrong he is :-) .

  8. Trevor Berrett January 16, 2015 at 2:48 pm

    Betsy’s comment is excellent in explaining some of the reasons I respect Tavares’s work. I don’t think it’s as simplistic as Miguel makes it sound. Even at his most simplistic, which I think we find in The Neighborhood series, there is a lot going on under the surface, and, besides that, I find those stories so delightful I don’t care. The one on Walser, in particular, is delightful and terrible; it really tapped into my own dread that Walser’s story inspires. As for Tavares writing a lot in a year, that is true. But he’s not writing long novels all the time. Most of his work is relatively short. I don’t know, but I’d bet if we went by page count, he’s writing about the same amount as other full-time authors. Plus, I think the rapid fire is part of his point, strangely. I find his work important, but I haven’t read it all or even a large proportion of it, so I’ll acknowledge my perspective is probably more limited than Miguel’s. Regardless, what I’ve read leads me to consider Tavares an important writer.

    But John Williams and Alice Munro are two of my all-time favorite authors, and I want to talk about them here.

    I consider them challenging all the time, though their challenges are not so apparent on the surface. Speaking simply of style and flare, Williams effectively mimics the style of a dozen Roman orators in Augustus, each different, each masters, and each with the goal of clarity. I see nothing wrong with clarity if that’s the goal; in fact, achieving such clarity when discussing such complexities is remarkable. This is what I think is so brilliant about Stoner, whose first few paragraphs are so beautifully simple and so profound to me I almost couldn’t bare to read the rest of the book.

    As for Munro, I simply cannot understand folks who consider her writing simple. Why, just earlier this week I pointed out a passage where she does things with verb tense to achieve a wonderful effect. Further, even if in a particular story her sentence-by-sentence style isn’t as complex as some of the other authors you mention, she does things with structure that most writers could not even mimic. It’s wonderful stuff, and I consider her win of the Nobel one of the most “right” things to have ever happened with book awards.

    Miguel, you do raise some fantastic points about people being “conditioned to look at literature as if its chief purpose were to convey ideas and not aesthetics.” I agree with this, and I see the downside your imply, but I don’t necessarily think people are wrong to look at it that way. For the record, I have a similar complaint about the way most people watch movies, only there it is another level removed: they see movies as a way to convey a narrative and not ideas or aesthetics. But I don’t think any of this is wrong, per se; it’s about being open to the whole spectrum, I think. Though I disagree with your implication that Munro and Williams (and Ferrante and Knausgaard) are not doing interesting things with aesthetics. I think they are exploring fascinating things with the way they have chosen to write. Knausgaard’s forward momentum leads to some clunkers and boring passages, and yet that is, to me, part of the exploration. As you said, “the WAY they’re put together matters.” When Ferrante can so blithely, mercilessly, clearly explore the moment her characters husband says he’s leaving her, as she does in Days of Abandonment, I think she’s exploring the subject with the method itself.

    I don’t want to sound like I’m defending any and all styles and methods as simply being the author’s choice and, therefore, unassailable. I think that terrible things are happening with style in American literature at the moment. But there the vapid style matches the vapid explorations of vapid themes. There too many authors have chosen to write as if they’re writing a sitcom or a drama-by-numbers. I don’t feel they dig deeply at all into their subjects and rest happily on what they probably call wit but that I call cleverness, or wit with no purpose.

    And we see eye-to-eye on many of the authors you prefer. I’m a recent convert to Gass, but there’s no doubt the man is in control of his aesthetics. Indeed, On Being Blue is delightfully about just that kind of thing.

    Anyway, I don’t think I’ve succeeded in conveying this as well as I’d like to because my ultimate goal was to convert you into loving Munro and Williams :-) ! I’ll keep ruminating on this. I think this is important, and thanks Miguel for expressing yourself here so we could enter this conversation.

  9. Lori January 16, 2015 at 4:05 pm

    This is a great discussion. I agree with Miguel about the importance of aesthetics in literature. Authenticity of feeling is what makes a series of words beautiful, and this authenticity can be conveyed exquisitely with a concise, straightforward style. Wharton’s Ethan Frome of Andre Neuman’s Talking to Ourselves, for example. I don’t find these novellas any less artful than say, Faulkner’s Absalom Absalom or Mann’s Magic Mountain.

  10. Miguel St. Orberose January 17, 2015 at 10:45 am

    Lee:

    “Could that on occasion be a translation issue?”

    Well, in Tavares’ case, I obviously read him in the original. Portugal has an excellent tradition of stylists – Eça, Raul Brandão, Aquilino Ribeiro, Agustina Bessa-Luís, Hélia Correia (all so unfairly unknown), and the two international stars: Saramago and Lobo Antunes. Slipping out Tavares’ prose into their is like jumping from kindergarten to College.

    “You’re putting everyone else up against the Gods, Miguel!”

    I wouldn’t mind if everybody wrote like them; and I think we must be critical of those who don’t even try, like Tavares obviously doesn’t, lest they interpret our silence as validation of their lack of ambition. I believe striving for ambition is a laudable goal.

    “What do you make of these two writers: Cheever and Aira?”

    I don’t know either; Aira I’ve read in small excerpts here and there; from what I understand he deliberately does not revise and doesn’t plan ahead; he mentions the surrealists a lot, I think I can see where he’s coming from. I think this level of spontaneity may lead to interesting effects, especially in the unpredictability of the narrative, but I guess he’ll never write many great lines in his life, since they usually don’t come out great in the first try but need to be tweaked later.

  11. Miguel St. Orberose January 17, 2015 at 11:29 am

    Betsy:

    My contention that Tavares writes short sentences comes from my experience with two books by him: “Histórias Falsas” and “Água, Cão, Cavalo, Cabeça,” neither of which is in English. I don’t recall long sentences in them; in fact some paragraphs were as short as one word. I bloody hate that! Your excerpt does much to disprove my assertion, of course, but allow to me suggest that it’s a rather counterfeit, safe long sentence. The dashes that the journalist so poetically waxes on about serve the main purpose of breaking it down into digestible chunks, effectively making each into a stand-alone paragraphs or just periods. Hence:

    “Theodor Busbeck kept thumbing through his book, in which there were several photographs of corpses lying one on top of another on a stairway: small bodies, large bodies, naked, men and women joined together in a parody of pornography, a parody of obscenity, see it nestled in between those bodies, one on top of the other.

    An inverse obscenity, the opposite of the kind that exists between living, healthy things: the obscenity of stasis, without pleasure, without excitement, the obscenity of bodies that would never be desired again, bodies with nothing to offer but horror.

    An endless, material, indifferent kind of horroras though to trick you into thinking you aren’t looking at people at all, not at men, women, and children reduced to lifeless skin and bone, but at something else, something homogenous, inanimate, a material, a substance: not even something dead, not even the remains of human beings who had once been alive and full of friendly or antagonistic energy.

    No, merely bodies, bodies that now seemed as though they’d never even been alive: members of an entirely different species, a species that had experienced such enormous obscenity that it had been definitively removed from the core family of Homo sapiens, as represented here in the library by one of its exemplary units: a doctor.”

    or:

    “Theodor Busbeck kept thumbing through his book, in which there were several photographs of corpses lying one on top of another on a stairway: small bodies, large bodies, naked, men and women joined together in a parody of pornography, a parody of obscenity, see it nestled in between those bodies, one on top of the other. An inverse obscenity, the opposite of the kind that exists between living, healthy things: the obscenity of stasis, without pleasure, without excitement, the obscenity of bodies that would never be desired again, bodies with nothing to offer but horror. An endless, material, indifferent kind of horroras though to trick you into thinking you aren’t looking at people at all, not at men, women, and children reduced to lifeless skin and bone, but at something else, something homogenous, inanimate, a material, a substance: not even something dead, not even the remains of human beings who had once been alive and full of friendly or antagonistic energy. No, merely bodies, bodies that now seemed as though they’d never even been alive: members of an entirely different species, a species that had experienced such enormous obscenity that it had been definitively removed from the core family of Homo sapiens, as represented here in the library by one of its exemplary units: a doctor.”

    it’s the same, isn’t?

    If we analyse each segment we realize they form a self-contained unit unto themselves. The first one introduces the character and his action and delves a bit into the theme of obscenity. The second, connected to the first by the repetition of the word obscenity, expands it. The third is devoted to the notion that these pictures dehumanize the dead. The fourth expands on that and acts as a coda: the final word – doctor – segues nicely from the notion that these dead aren’t humans but a “different species” to be studied by a scientist, a doctor: biologist, ethologist, entomologist, whatever.

    if Tavares really had the courage to write long sentences, it’d go like this:

    Theodor Busbeck kept thumbing through his book, in which there were several photographs of corpses lying one on top of another on a stairway, small bodies, large bodies, naked, men and women joined together in a parody of pornography, a parody of obscenity, see it nestled in between those bodies, one on top of the other, an inverse obscenity, the opposite of the kind that exists between living, healthy things, the obscenity of stasis, without pleasure, without excitement, the obscenity of bodies that would never be desired again, bodies with nothing to offer but horror, an endless, material, indifferent kind of horroras though to trick you into thinking you aren’t looking at people at all, not at men, women, and children reduced to lifeless skin and bone, but at something else, something homogenous, inanimate, a material, a substance, not even something dead, not even the remains of human beings who had once been alive and full of friendly or antagonistic energy, no, merely bodies, bodies that now seemed as though they’d never even been alive, members of an entirely different species, a species that had experienced such enormous obscenity that it had been definitively removed from the core family of Homo sapiens, as represented here in the library by one of its exemplary units, a doctor.”

    This would make it harder to break the piece down into basic categories of narrative – introduction, development, conclusion – and I think would be a riskier attempt. But Tavares, from what I know of him, doesn’t like risky (apart from playing around with “risky” topics like barbarism and genocide, oooohhh!), he lives in mortal fear of writing a sentence that could alienate a reader because of its syntax or vocabulary, that could force a reader to read a sentence twice to understand it; he’s deadly afraid of people not understanding him IMMEDIATELY. Basically he likes to have his cake and eat it. In that sense I dare say O’Connell’s pontification about the dash (a “futile gesture toward order” is odd in light of how structured and subservient to the basic three-part, linear plot taught by creative writing the paragraph is) is just a case of The Thinker and The Prover Effect:

    http://gorish.blogspot.pt/2014/05/the-thinker-and-prover-by-robert-anton.html

    I must say I prefer Lobo Antunes’ real long sentences:

    “I’m trying, as I said, to fix in my mind the scene I’ve inhabited for so many months, the canvas tents, the stray dogs, the decrepit buildings of the defunct administration that is gradually dying in a slow agony of neglect: the idea of a Portuguese Africa, which the history books at school, the politicians’ speeches, and the chaplain in Mafra all described in such majestic terms, was, after all, a kind of provincial backwater rotting away in the vastness of space, a sort of housing project rapidly devoured by grass and scrub, a great, desolate silence inhabited by the gnarled and starving figures of the lepers.” This isn’t a long one, but it’s hard to find anyone in the blogosphere willing to type out 20-page sentences. Anyway, the way he mixes several voices and confuses spatial and temporal coordinates, and continues in spite of everything to write with great beauty and music, does more to suggest the futility of order (and to reproduce a persuasive mindscape of modern times) than anything Tavares’ puritan flirtations with chaos and insanity are ever likely to achieve.

    “Tavarez is apparently interested in the human impulse toward barbarism – the state in which we freely decide that some people are not people. I argue that (…) his subject is the primary subject after the twentieth century.”

    This is the type of mentality I’m talking about. First of all, there were genocides before the 20th century; third, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature, a book about violence, actually proposes the opposite: that violence and barbarism, statistically speaking, has been decreasing in spite of much evidence to the contrary. I’m not sure I agree with him, but it’s worth taking into consideration what someone who’s studied the matter has to say, and not just novelists. Thirdly, if the phenomenon is so generalized, we don’t need novels to push them down our throats. Do we really go about so ignorant of this horror you wikipediaed that we need novels to educate us? if a novel WANTS to talk about it, fine, but please let’s not make them look important JUST because they do – that’s what I mean about faking gravitas. “Ada or Ardor” is a novel about two people in love, it doesn’t talk about genocide or the tendency for barbarism, but each sentence sings in a way Tavares’ annual output of 4 rushed novels doesn’t. Fourth, considering how widespread that horror and violence is, I think that’s one more reason to give so much importance to aesthetics. Unless you actually think Tavares’ lines can stop the next Holocaust, we may as well just accept evil is part of us and try to make up for our inherent evil with creating beautiful things. Alternatively we could try to become better people to avoid future Holocausts, but becoming a better person also has next to nothing to do with reading really well-written novels, no matter how hard people try to find links between one and the other.

  12. Miguel St. Orberose January 17, 2015 at 12:12 pm

    Trevor:

    “I think they are exploring fascinating things with the way they have chosen to write.”

    I know I speak forcefully and harshly, but in the end I have to agree with this. Although I love the pyrotechnics of, say, the American post-modernists, there’s really no one method of expression for literature. And I think each writer should write the way he wants to write. In my mind, quality and overt complexity are indissociable, but that’s because I like weird, unusual, challenging things for their own sake. That doesn’t preclude my admiration for the straightforward prose writers like Borges, Kafka or Leonardo Sciascia. Although in their cases I think there are many interesting and strong things going on in terms of plot, ideas and narrative possibilities that dispense more elaborate forms. But I continue not to find anything greatly redeeming in writers like Tavares, Munro, Knausgaard and Williams.

    And yet, much to my chagrin, I think they represent the dawn of a new trend in literature; I sense post-modernism is coming to an end; I see many people clamoring for authentic, truthful literature (true to life, whatever that means, the way James Wood likes it), more concerned with expressing feelings and whatnot than linguistic artifice and Nabokovian aesthetic bliss. I think they’re going to do what the minimalists of the ’80s didn’t, overthrow the ’60s writers, and I’m not sure that’ll do us any good. If Knausgaard’s an indication, most “great” literature in the future won’t be particularly distinguishable from the misery lit of the ’90s; we may yet come to see Angela’s Ashes as a brilliant but unjustly-ignored pioneer of future literature, the rediscovered Moby Dick of Knausgaard-inspired amazing fiction about changing diapers told in journalistic prose; and Paulo Coelho’s claim that he’s better than Joyce because he makes complex ideas look simple, who knows, we may yet all come to see wisdom in that and grant The Alchemist the importance we failed to acknowledge for decades.

    More and more that seems a plausible dystopia to me. And remember: THAT happened because people like YOU bought the NYRB reissued paperback of John William’s Stoner! I bet you didn’t weigh the consequences of your actions, did you? How does that make you feel, Trevor, to know that you’re a small part of the escalating momentum that will destroy Literature and bring about the Dark Ages? To know that because of YOU challenging, ambitious young novelists will have to go underground, publish in ephemeral indie publishers that will close down before paying royalties? To know that because of YOU they’ll have to be on the lookout against inquisitorial critics who’ll slander them and vilify them for not writing Authentic Literature set down by the new dogma? To know that because of YOU they’ll be forced to recant their heresies, submit to the hosts and peddle boring, straightforward novels about unemployed taxi drivers? To know that because of YOU, before we reach a new Enlightenment for the novel, thousands of novelists will have to perish in battle against the vested powers that will lie and kill and torture and bribe and adulate to maintain the hegemony of the realistic, straightforward, truthful novel?

    How does THAT make you feel, Trevor, uh, Mr. Oh-I-love-books-so-much-I-even-have-a-blog? Apostasy, do you know what that means? You didn’t think things through at the time, did you? Did you?!

    ;)

  13. Trevor Berrett January 17, 2015 at 3:18 pm

    Dang! I knew that my comment hadn’t convinced you, Miguel! And double dang — I had no idea I had a hand in the degradation of literature :-) . And triple dang — your dystopia is truly horrific!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.