Friday, January 9, 2009
Below is a passage from a novel called Shyness & Dignity by Dag Solstad, translated from the Norwegian by Sverre Lyngstad. It represents a rare thing in my own reading, being a small literary essay that mostly evades the two standard voices of literary essays (the voices of academia and of journalism). In this passage Solstad's fictional character Elias Rukla dreams of being worthy to become a fictional character.
He mostly read novels of the 1920s, which were a concept to him: Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Hermann Broch, Thomas Mann, and Musil were the authors he liked to read, and they were all authors of the 1920s to him. Also James Joyce, though he did not like him, but all the same he considered him a 1920s author because that way you could perceive the broad outlines of the twentieth-century European novel. Strictly speaking, few of his 1920s authors were actually authors of the 1920s, in any case not without considerable reservations. Like Kafka. Kafka did not write a single book in the 1920s, most of what he wrote appeared even before 1914, but who is more of a 1920s author than Kafka? And Thomas Mann was originally a nineteenth-century author, but his great books, The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus, were novels of the 1920s, despite the fact that Doctor Faustus was actually published after World War Two. And Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time – most of the work was written before 1914 and very little in the 1920s. But it is the 1920s that have given them their character, not only because most of the works of these writers were published then, and attracted attention then, but because it was felt so right that they are placed in the 1920s when one considers that, for five whole years, the old Europe was going under in a futile, purposeless, and utterly ruthless bloodbath in the muddy trenches of Flanders. That Europe survived that war is the truly historical riddle of our century, which must be understood at one time or another, in any case by me, Elias Rukla thought. And these novels of the 1920s, as Elias Rukla conceived of them, are stimulating also because they do not differ from one another according to whether they were actually written before 1914, during the Great War of 1914-18, or after it, in the actual 1920s (like The Magic Mountain) or for that matter later, in the 1930s or 1940s – indeed, Elias Rukla could point to novels written up to our own time that he would not hesitate to call novels of the 1920s. The Trial, The Guermantes Way, The Sleepwalkers, The Man Without Qualities, The Magic Mountain (and also Ulysses, if you will, though it is a dead end, Elias Rukla insisted stubbornly to himself), they are all hypnotic, soberly descriptive novels of the same historical domain, our century at the point in time where truth has become clear and painful. Why Elias Rukla was so taken with the novels of the 1920s, he did not know; he could not recognize himself in them, if that is what one would suppose, but he liked their style and temperature, however much the individual 1920s authors differed among themselves, both in style and temperature. What he found again were the mental jolts caused by the great European war, found again in his own mind eighty years later. His own country had been a neutral outskirt during that war, in any case as far as the Flanders trenches were concerned, and yet his innermost being belonged to the regions where these jolts were still reverberating, and this is something that more people than I ought to have reflected upon, Elias Rukla thought, both the fact that the 1920s can be found before the cause of the 1920s, the 1914-18 war, and that the jolts from it can be found in my mind, despite the absence of historical documentation, Elias Rukla thought, slightly puzzled. Perhaps I ought to include Kundera, too, as a 1920s author, though I've previously refused to do so because his work is so marked by another postwar era, Eastern Europe after 1945, and not by the 1914-18 war, but judging by what I am saying now, that should not be a hindrance, if I am to use myself as reader as an example, and that, of course, I must be allowed to do, and then, figuratively speaking, Kundera will fit in perfectly as a 1920s author, and since I value him so highly and all – yes, I do, thought Elias Rukla – Kundera is also an author of the 1920s. But of the old 1920s authors he gradually came to like Mann the best. At first it had been Kafka, then Marcel Proust, but lately he had begun to like Thomas Mann more and more. And that was because he had a curious idea that Thomas Mann was the only author who could have written about him, Elias Rukla, and that Mann could have written down his entire narrative without self-pity, without whining, and with a rare irony, completely different from the kind of irony that is fashionable in our time, the Mannian irony, which is not used as a defence against reality but is a discreet hint that, when all is said and done, as eventually happens, this fate too (in this imagined instance, that of Elias Rukla) is rather unimportant, though it certainly is a fate and as such must be studied, as it certainly can be. To qualify oneself for being the central character in a novel is, of course, an achievement in itself, and with what right do I imagine I can be seen as such a character, and in a novel by Thomas Mann at that? Elias Rukla thought, on the verge of shaking his head at himself. Thomas Mann would not have been interested in my soul, or in my soul's darkness, by itself, and why in the world should he take any interest in it? But I imagine that he might have derived a certain pleasure from describing my wanderings across the floor tonight, in my apartment in Jacob Aalls gate, where I'm walking back and forth, plagued by the fact that I am a socially aware individual who no longer has anything to say, Elias Rukla thought. Actually, Thomas Mann was the only writer of the 1920s who would at all have considered an offer from Elias Rukla to turn him into a character in a novel. He could vividly imagine turning up for an audition to be selected as a fictional character and being scrutinized by the novelists of the 1920s. He could see how they declined with thanks, one after another, he saw Marcel Proust barely raise an eyelid before casting a brief, meaningful, ironic glance at his colleagues, before Celine's coarse laughter (yes, Celine is also an author of the 1920s, a typical one, though Journey to the End of the Night was written in the thirties) resounded in Elias Rukla's ears. Only Thomas Mann would take the poor candidate aspiring to be a fictional character seriously. He would have looked at Elias Rukla and asked if he could, in a few words, say why he was of the opinion that precisely his fate was suitable as fictional material, either in the capacity of a central character or a minor figure, for, after all, if one has the ambition to be a central character, one must have a clear understanding that one can also be suitable as a minor character – that is a condition that must be agreed to before any author will take the slightest interest in one's fate, he thought Thomas Mann would have said to him. And after Elias Rukla had given an account of his life – and that would, whether I stammered or not, be a model of brevity, he thought – Thomas Mann would give him a reserved but friendly look, he thought, and say, Well, I can't promise anything, as there is no way I can fit you and your life into my present plans, as far as I can see, but there will be other times after this, and then we can possibly come back to the matter. I don't promise anything, quite the contrary, yet it should be sufficient to keep you from being discouraged and make you continue your life as before, even if you should not be granted the privilege of entering one of my novels as a character. Well, this is how Elias Rukla had spent evening after evening, staying up late fantasizing, a bit shyly, about his own life and its possibility of at least making contact with the literature he valued most of all, well, perhaps also a bit shamefacedly because he was afraid he was putting too big words into the mouth of Thomas Mann in the matter of judging whether he was suitable as a character in one of his novels, or that it would not do for him, even if only in his thoughts, to have Thomas Mann express an opinion about his possibilities as a character in one of Thomas Mann's own novels. We were now far into the 1990s and, dazzled by modernity, Norwegians had already begun to look forward with eagerness to the millennium and the presumed spectacular fireworks that would mark the occasion, Elias Rukla thought with a barely audible sigh.