Archive for October, 2011

Geometric Regional Novel

October 28, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Gert Jonke

Although Gert Jonke is apparently one of Austria’s most important writers, Geometric Regional Novel (first published in 1969) took twenty five years to appear in English. The precise, official language of the title (which at least includes the word ‘novel’, removing any doubt that this is simply a work of town planning, but at the same time suggesting a need to label) does not clash with our initial impression of the interior:

“The village square is rectangular, bordering on the houses gathered around it; streets and lanes flow into it; other than the well in the centre, in which the paving stone patterns seek their source, and from which they spread out like rays, there is nothing in the village square.”

This indifferent description, however, is at odds with the voices that echo through the novel, two individuals (only ever voices) who want only to walk across the empty square but who “weren’t supposed to be seen” for reasons that are never explained. Each time they think the square is empty, they almost immediately notice something preventing them from leaving their hiding place, giving the apparently peaceful village a sinister air.

Jonke uses this disjunction between style and content throughout. The language is generally bland and passive but the events can range from the unusual to the surreal. He parodies a number of different forms. The visit of an “artist” is described initially as if in a policeman’s notebook using such constructions as “people are said” and “it is reported”, interspersed with snatches of unpunctuated reminiscence. This is then followed by a ‘Report in the fine arts section of the newspaper’ where the man’s fatal accident is lost in a diatribe against “reckless agitators and imitators in the service of the radical Left.” Even diagrams are included, and there is a four page parody of a form which must be completed to walk in the forest, including such questions as:

What do you want to buy?
Do you also want to buy anything else which you are not, however, listing here?
Are you aware that you are a bad person through and through?

A lengthy section is written in the form of instructions to bridge keepers, with much emphasis placed on what they should do in the event of an individual who appears “at all suspicious.” Fear of strangers is a recurrent theme:

“For reasons of security it will be henceforth prohibited to walk through forests and along tree-lined roads in order to protect the population from the black men who hide so well in the shadows of the trees that sometimes they can hardly be distinguished from the darkness of the tree-lined roads.”

The most surreal element (which, according to translator Johannes Vazulik’s afterword, was much expanded in Jonke’s revised second edition, of which this is a translation) is that where the village comes under attack by small birds which eat mortar. In much the same way that a swarm of insects might devastate a village’s crops, these birds remove the mortar from the buildings causing them to collapse:

“…their beaks peck around in the mortar uncontrolledly, hysterically, uninhibitedly, quite violently knocking out the wall as if it were the flesh of their prey…”

Whether the birds represent time, nature, chaos or an attack on the village’s static solidity, it is unlikely the symbolism is entirely straight forward. Only by spraying the walls with water can the destruction be averted.

If there is a plot it applies only to the village square itself. Trees which surround the well are cut down as they are regarded as dangerous. The stumps, which at one point school children sit on, are later removed and replaced by benches. They, too, must go to allow access to the walls of the houses to fend off the birds. Only then is the village square finally empty, though another kind of emptiness has persisted throughout.

Danger rating: Geometric Regional Novel is a novel that, from the title onwards, appears dull when it isn’t. Witty and amusing, it also seems, at heart, rather sad. Luckily another four of Jonke’s novels have been translated ingot English in the last few years.

The Atrocity Exhibition

October 13, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – J. G. Ballard

J.G. Ballard has the unusual distinction of being widely known both for a mainstream novel, Empire of the Sun, and an avant garde one, Crash. Both, of course, have been made into films: the first by the appropriately family friendly Steven Spielberg, the second by the equally suitable David Cronenberg, who had made a career out of ‘body horror’ long before his Ballard adaptation. However, if you thought Crash was a little strange, you need to spend some time with Ballard’s earlier novel, The Atrocity Exhibition, the place where the idea for Crash originated, along with many other aspects of Ballard’s unsettling view of the twentieth century. The book itself has a chequered history: the chapter ‘Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan’ led to the first American edition being pulped, and to an obscenity trial in the UK when published as a pamphlet. (Ballard’s attitude to this? “Of course it was obscene, and intended to be so.” He wasn’t called as a witness for the defence.)

The Atrocity Exhibition doesn’t read like a novel. Each chapter is self-contained and only links to others in the repetition of character names and recurring motifs (though obsessions might be a more accurate description). The main character’s name changes from chapter to chapter – in the first he is Travis, in the second Talbot, and in the third Traven. Of course, the word ‘character’ is misleading: all the characters are representative rather than realistic. Ballard isn’t interested in character development, or even motivation in the sense we would normally understand it in a novel:

“Throughout The Atrocity Exhibition its central character has appeared in a succession of roles, ranging across a spectrum of possibilities available to each of us in our interior lives.”

Ballard uses aspects of the exterior world (landscapes, vehicles, celebrities, news footage) to create representations of the interior world. (This is echoed in the many references to artists such as Salvador Dali and Max Ernst). Characters blend with landscapes and buildings:

“Tallis was immediately struck by the unusual planes of her face, intersecting each other like the dunes around her…The young woman was a geometric equation, the demonstration model of a landscape.”

Perhaps the best examples of this are the lists which appear throughout:

“(1) Spectro-heliogram of the sun; (2) Front elevation of balcony units, Hilton Hotel, London; (3)Transverse section through a pre-Cambrian trilobite; (4) Chronograms by E. J. Marey; (5) Photograph taken at noon, August 7th, 1945, of the sand-sea Qattara Depression, Egypt”

Ballard has said that these lists were produced by “free association”, and they produce, to some extent, in miniature the effect of the novel as a whole.

However, the discontinuity between chapters, and between the titled sections which replace paragraphs within chapters, is not the most alienating aspect of the work; that lies in the prose style itself. Written at times as if a research paper for a scientific journal, the novel is dense with the language of medicine, psychology and geometry. (The chapter title ‘Tolerances of the Human Face’ in fact comes from a scientific paper). This emphasises both the lack of interior / exterior differentiation, and the sense that the novel itself is an experiment. Ballard, however, is experimenting not simply with the representation of reality like other writers, but with questions of what, or even where, reality is.

As well as the recurring motif of the automobile accident, inevitably linked (as most things in the novel are) to sexual arousal, Ballard builds the novel around the assassination of Kennedy, the Vietnam War, sex symbols such as Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, and the aforementioned Ronald Regan. Ballard’s prescience is remarkable: almost everything he refers to is still in the public consciousness forty years later. He also forecasts the growth of celebrity culture and the attraction of filmic violence, whether real or imaginary. In fact, the novel is the internet, with its non-linear narratives based on thematic obsessions, its focus on sex, celebrity, and violence, and its awareness of the relationship of all three to arousal. If the novel is uncomfortable reading, it’s because it feels like it’s still happening.

Danger rating: feels very much like you are entering the mind of a madman – the danger is you might become one. I read the annotated 1993 edition with Ballard’s saner comments in the margin as therapy.