When young and full of fellow feeling, Professor Joseph Skizzen has been tormented by the thought that the human race (which he naïvely believed was made up of great composers, a few harmless lecherous painters, maybe a mathematician or a scientist, a salon of writers, all aiming at higher things however they otherwise carried on) … that such an ennobled species might not prosper, indeed, might not survive in any serious way—symphonies sinking like torpedoed ships, murals spray-canned out of sight, statues toppled, books burned, plays updated by posturing directors; but not, older, wiser—more jaundiced, it’s true—he worried that it might (now that he saw that the human world was packed with politicians who could not even spell “scruple”; now that he saw that it was crammed with commercial types who adored only American money; now that he saw how it had been overrun by religious stupefiers, mountebanks, charlatans, obfuscators, and other dedicated misleaders, as well as corrupt professionals of all kinds—ten o’clocks scholars, malpracticing doctors, bribed judges, sleepy deans, callous munitions makers and their pompous generals, pedophilic priests, but probably not pet lovers, not aborists, not gardeners—but Puritans, squeezers, and other assholes, ladies bountiful, ladies easy, shoppers diligent, lobbyists greedy, Eagle Scouts, racist cops, loan sharks, backbiters, gun runners, spies, Judases, philistines, vulgarians, dumbbells, dolts, louts, jerks, jocks, creeps, yokels, cretins, simps, pipsqueaks—not a mensch among them—nebbechs, scolds, schlemiels, schnorrers, schnooks, schmucks, schlumps, dummkopfs, potato heads, klutzes, not to omit pushers, bigots, born-again Bible bangers, users, conmen, ass kissers, Casanovas, pimps, thieves and their sort, rapists and their kind, murderers and their ilk—the pugnacious, the miserly, the envious, the litigatious, the avaricious, the gluttonous, the lubricious, the jealous, the profligate, the gossipacious, the indifferent, the bored), well, now that he saw it had been so infested, he worried that the race might … might what? … the whole lot might sail on through the floods of their own blood like a proud ship and parade out of the new Noah’s ark in the required pairs—for breeding, one of each sex—sportscasters, programmers, promoters, polluters, stockbrokers, bankers, bodybuilders, busty models, show hosts, stamp and coin collectors, crooners, glamour girls, addicts, gamblers, shirkers, solicitors, opportunists, insatiable developers, arrogant agents, fudging accountants, yellow journalists, ambulance chasers and shysters of every sleazy pursuit, CEOs at the head of a whole column of white-collar crooks, psychiatrists, osteopaths, snake oilers, hucksters, fawners, fans of funerals, fortune-tellers and other prognosticators, road warriors, chieftains, Klansmen, Shriners, men and women of any cloth and any holy order—at every step moister of cunt and stiffer of cock than any cock or cunt before them, even back when the world was new, now saved and saved with spunk enough to couple and restock the pop … the pop … the goddamn population.
—Middle C, by William H. Gass
translated by Michael Hofmann
Our laws are unfortunately not widely known, they are the closely guarded secret of the small group of nobles who govern us. We like to believe that these old laws are scrupulously adhered to, but it remains a vexing thing to be governed by laws one does not know. I am not thinking here of various questions of interpretation and the disadvantages that stem from only a few individuals and not the population as a whole being involved in their interpretation. These disadvantages may in any case be overstated. The laws after all are so old, centuries have worked on their interpretation, even their interpretation has in a sense become codified, and while there is surely room still for interpretation, it will be quite limited. Moreover, the nobility has no reason to bend the law against us, if only because the laws were in their favour from the very beginning, the nobility being outside the law, and that is why the laws seem to have been given exclusively into their hands. There is wisdom in this disposition – who could question the wisdom of the old laws? – but it remains vexing for the rest of us. Presumably that is not to be avoided.
Even these seeming laws can only be guessed at. It is a tradition that they exist and were entrusted to the nobility as a secret, but it is not more than an old – and by virtue of its age, a plausible – tradition, nor can it be more, because the character of the laws demands that their existence be a matter of secrecy. If we citizens have from time immemorial closely observed the actions of our nobles, if we own books written about them by our forefathers and have in a sense taken their lessons forward; if we think we can discern in these infinitely detailed chronicles certain principles that would appear to suggest the existence of a law here or there; and if we try to govern our behaviour in accordance with these most carefully sieved and ordered conclusions – all this still remains very doubtful, perhaps nothing more than a game of logical inference, because quite possibly the laws we try to guess at don’t exist at all. There is a small body of opinion that upholds this belief and that seeks to prove that if any law exists, then its form can only possibly be: the law is what the nobility do. This body of opinion sees only arbitrary acts on the part of the nobility, and disdains the folk tradition, which in its opinion has brought only slight, more or less accidental benefits, and done a great deal of serious harm, since it has given the people a false sense of security towards coming events, and left them helplessly exposed. The harm is indeed undeniable, but the large majority of our people sees its cause in the insufficient weight of tradition, and believes that much more work should be done on it, and that its materials, however vast they appear to us, are still far too small, and that centuries will have to pass before it is sufficient. This view, so pessimistic where the present is concerned, only brightens up with the belief that one day a time will come when tradition and its study will reach full term, everything will have been made clear, the law will have become the property of the people, and the nobility will have disappeared. This is not said with any animus towards the nobility, not at all and not by anyone; better to hate ourselves because we are not yet able to be found worthy of the law. And that is why this on the face of it very attractive opinion, which believes in no law as such, has remained so small, because it completely accepts the nobility and its right to exist. There is a necessary self-contradiction here: a party that would reject the nobility as well as belief in the laws would straightaway have the entire population behind it, but such a party cannot come into being, because no one dares to reject the nobility. We live on the razor’s edge. An author once put it this way: the only visible unquestionable law that has been imposed on us is the nobility, and who are we to rob ourselves of the only law we have?
Franz Kafka’s ‘The Problem of Our Laws’ – ‘Zur Frage der Gesetze’ – was translated by Michael Hofmann.
—London Review of Books, Volume 37, Number 14, 16 July 2015
“That romantic disease, originality, all around we see originality of incompetent idiots, they could draw nothing, paint nothing, just so the mess they make is original … Even two hundred years ago who wanted to be original, to be original was to admit that you could not do a thing the right way, so you could only do it your way. When you paint you try not to be original, only you think about your work, how to make it better, so you copy masters, only masters, for with each copy of a copy the form degenerates … you do not invent shapes, you know them, auswendig wissen Sie, by heart …”
—The Recognitions, by William Gaddis.
The ship’s surgeon was a spotty unshaven little man whose clothes, arrayed with smudges, drippings, and cigarette burns, were held about him by an extensive network of knotted string. The buttons down the front of those duck trousers had originally been made, with all of false economy’s ingenious drear deception, of coated cardboard. After many launderings they persisted as a row of gray stumps posted along the gaping portals of his fly. Though a boutonnière sometimes appeared through some vacancy in his shirt-front, its petals, too, proved to be of paper, and he looked like the kind of man who scrapes foam from the top of a glass of beer with the spine of a dirty comb, and cleans his nails at table with the tines of his salad fork, which things, indeed, he did. He diagnosed Camilla’s difficulty as indigestion, and locked himself in his cabin. That was the morning.
—The Recognitions, by William Gaddis.
Because there is plenty to listen to here; because we must always listen to the language; it is our first sign of the presence of a master’s hand; and when we do that, when we listen, it is because we have first pronounced the words and performed the text, so when we listen we hear, hear ourselves singing the saying, and now we are real readers, we are participating in the making, we are moving the tune along the line, because no one who loves literature can follow these motions, these sentences, half sentences, of William Gaddis, very far without halting and holding up their arms and outcrying hallelujah there is something good in this gosh awful god empty world.
—William H. Gass, introduction to Dalkey Archive edition of The Recognitions, by William Gaddis.
“It’s always a projection back into the past, the idea that there was a single moment when you decided to become a writer, or the idea that a writer is in a position to know how or why she became a writer, if it makes sense to think of it as a decision at all, but that’s why the question can be interesting, because it’s a way of asking a writer to write the fiction of her origins, of asking the poet to sing the song of the origins of song, which is one of the poet’s oldest tasks. The first poet in English whose name is known learned the art of song in a dream: Bede says that a god appeared to Caedmon and told him to sing ‘the beginning of created things.’ So while I assume I was asked to talk about how I became a writer with the idea that my experience might be of some practical use to the students here, I’m afraid I have nothing to offer in that regard. But I can tell you how, from my current vantage, I have constructed the fiction about the origins of my writing, such as it is.
—Ben Lerner, 10:04
SIR: Why is Karl Stead so narked by The Bone People? His letter (Letters, 5 December 1985) reads strangely from this side of the world, where many, perhaps most, reviews of Keri Hulme’s novel have been unenthusiastic. The story of its publishing history has, of course, raised interest, and several reviewers have hinted that the book’s reputation rests on extra-literary factors. Private Eye offered the most reductive account of this kind. Stead’s letter is a subtler, sometimes contradictory version of this response. He seems to imply that some of the book’s success lies in its ‘fashionable’ association with feminism and ‘Maori-ism’. Feminism, he then concedes, is hardly an issue. The only obvious sense in which The Bone People is feminist is that it has a strong, active heroine. This, however, would also make Pride and Prejudice a feminist novel. In fact, The Bone People is conspicuously empty of women. Its ‘Maoriness’, however, is central. Stead describes one distinctively Maori section late in the novel as ‘spurious’, and more generally seems to imply there is something opportunist in its use of Maori elements. This is neither fair nor accurate. New Zealand is a mixed society, Maori and European. Keri Hulme has written a novel in which one of the central characters is mainly Maori but part-European, a second is mainly European but part-Maori, and the third, the child Simon, is a strange kind of European immigrant. This configuration is used to explore tensions in New Zealand’s mixed, and mixed-up culture. There can obviously be disagreement as to whether or not Joe’s rescue and redemption by the Kaumatua works. But the Maori-European theme is neither spurious nor opportunist. It is very serious, and toughly presented. There is no idealisation of the central Maori character. Joe Gillayley is responsible for repeated violence and the eventual maiming of the European child. One could imagine a hostile Maori reaction to this depiction.
Stead’s long account of the Pegasus award is puzzling. Most readers in this country will never have heard of this award let alone know that Keri Hulme has won it. I can only assume, given the timing of Stead’s letter, that it is offered as an analogy: for Pegasus, read Booker. Perhaps ‘affirmative action’ has been at work again – such hints have been made in this country. Literary prizes are aunt sallies. They are barely respectable, and the wrong work is always selected. Many regard the Booker Prize as a confirmation of mediocrity. Anthony Burgess remarked recently that John Fowles’s latest novel, A Maggot, was too good to be on the Booker shortlist, and Fowles had already asked his publisher not to enter it. Prizes do, however, bring contemporary writing to public notice. The success of The Bone People has contributed to the growing awareness of contemporary New Zealand writing in Britain. Janet Frame is belatedly being discovered. New Zealand poetry is regularly, if uninformedly, reviewed in the TLS. Karl Stead’s last novel was reviewed in the Guardian. This ‘affirmative action’ should be welcomed by all New Zealand writers.
I described Stead’s letter as contradictory because, having suggested there is something meretricious about the novel’s success, he then offers an interesting, often sympathetic reading, pointing, for example, to its careful patterning, something most reviews I’ve seen have missed. But then, in his final paragraph, he buries the novel. There is ‘something black and negative deeply ingrained in its imaginative fabric’, and this is because it ‘presents extreme violence against a child, yet demands sympathy and understanding for the man who commits it’. Understanding is one thing and sympathy another. I learnt something about the intertwining of love and violence from this novel, but it certainly did not make me come to love violence. For all its violence, I find something hopeful, even pacific, ingrained in its imaginative fabric, and this seems to me a measure of its extraordinary power. There is a lot ‘wrong’ with The Bone People, as analysis of the kind Stead performs in the middle sections of his letter can show, but in the end this hardly seems to matter. I’m fascinated by the way that, for me, its flaws make no difference to its overall effect. I can think of very few novels of which this is true. Perhaps it is here, rather than with paranoia about its feminist and Maori credentials, that serious discussion of The Bone People should continue.
University of Kent, Canterbury