American Life Unlimited

Chapter 1 of Henry Miller’s Nexus is about, among other things, the mystery of Dostoevsky and the monotony of New York City.

He finds a line he’s scribbled in his notebook, which he thinks is “probably from Berdyaev.” It says: “After Dostoevsky man was no longer what he had been before.” He starts to think about how Dostoevsky might have transformed the world. He sees the evidence in the parallels between the characters he’s read about in Dostoevsky and the characters he’s met in New York.

“American life, from the gangster level to the intellectual level, has paradoxically tremendous affinities with Dostoevsky’s multilateral everyday Russian life. What better proving grounds can one ask for than metropolitan New York, in whose conglomerate soil every wanton, ignoble, crack-brained idea flourishes like a weed? One only has to think of winter there, of what it means to be hungry, lonely, desperate in that labyrinth of monotonous streets lined with monotonous homes crowded with monotonous individuals crammed with monotonous thoughts. Monotonous and at the same time unlimited!”

It’s difficult to see what Miller’s point is, and he doesn’t go into much detail. But it’s interesting that he saw this parallel. It fits in with the broader point he would make elsewhere, that true literature must be connected to life, and the great authors are the ones who make this connection, by writing works that speak directly to the human spirit. The height of ambition would be to write a book to end all books, so that that writing would no longer be necessary and life could just be lived. This was, in a way, what Miller was hoping to do with Nexus: at long last finish telling the story of “Mona” so that he could be done with writing and spend the rest of his life living and painting.

Miller would never have become a writer in the first place if he hadn’t believed that there exists an essential connection between life and literature, and that the act of writing brings with it a new and deeper mode of living. Not all are born to be writers, but for those that are writing is a necessary part of life. The whole of life, you might say, in the sense that writing is the essence of a writer’s life, giving meaning to every other part. By striving to fulfil his ambition to be a writer, Miller was also striving to live his truest life and be his truest self. No wonder he saw the shadow of great literature in the lives of the ordinary – and extraordinary – people that surrounded him.

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Notes on Gogol’s Old-Fashioned Farmers

The world is all “in an uproar,” says Gogol. And yet here is peace and quiet: the house of the owners of a small village in the Ukraine, with its bright garden full of trees and hanging fruits, and the pleasant smells of cooking and delicious things to eat.

Even the barking of the dogs is peaceful, so lazy are they, basking in the large garden. Even the squeaking of the old doors of the house is pleasant, each one singing its own song as it opens and closes on its ancient hinges.

The peace here is so deep, how could anything disturb it?

Gogol teases us with different tragic ends the tale might take. What if the house burned down? the old man says. But he is just teasing his wife, who is horrified at the thought, and of course the house does not burn down.

Why shouldn’t I go to war again? says the old man. And his wife scolds him for saying such a thing: he would surely be killed immediately, an old man on the battlefield. And his ancient guns would surely burst before they would fire a shot.

But of course he is just teasing his wife again, and the old man will not meet his end in battle.

And then one day tragedy strikes. The old woman has a premonition that she will die, and soon she is buried. The old man cannot understand it. He lifts his eyes and looks about and asks Why? Why have you buried her?

And there is so little to tell after that. The old man weeps, and the narrator sees that these are no longer tears of passion, but signs of “a heart already growing cold.” And when the old man believes he hears his wife’s voice in the garden calling him to the grave, he almost immediately succumbs, and is soon buried in turn.

The What Ifs in any story are interesting: what if the house had burned down? Would the couple have found a new lease of life elsewhere? And what if the old man had gone to war? Would he have perished, and his wife been the one to die of grief? In these What Ifs are the seeds of new stories, new possible worlds that the writer might have created. But more interesting for me, in this story, is the certainty that the wife feels, at that crucial point in the story Gogol has chosen to tell, that she will die. The writer is able to make us feel that we are witnessing something inevitable, an action carried out by Fate upon a helpless mortal. How does he create this effect?

It is an incident with her cat that speaks as a sign to the old woman. The cat goes missing, running away to live with the wild cats in the wood nearby. And then days later the cat returns half starved. The old woman feeds it, but when she reaches down to touch the cat it runs off: it has become an entirely wild creature now. It is this that she takes as a sign that death has come for her.

I don’t understand why the cat is a sign of death in this story. Perhaps a Ukrainian or Russian reader of the time would have understood. What is important for me is the certainty with which she reads the sign: it speaks to her directly. And the seemingly arbitrary form that the sign takes heightens this effect for me: the message appears as something just for her, something unique. We have no option but to believe that the woman has read something of Fate in the incident. I imagine how much weaker the effect would have been if something that was to me more recognisably unlucky had happened, like a black cat crossing her path, or a mirror breaking. Her belief, in its dreary familiarity, might have seemed superstitious and ill-conceived. Comical even. As it was, she could only have read this highly original sign of the disappearing cat through some definite and highly personal means, written as it was just for her.

It’s this application of the unique and concrete that gives the story its power. The cat must be a sign: so the old woman tells us. I have nothing to compare it to, this unique event, and so it speaks for itself of the mysteries of the universe. And so the power of mystery is given concrete form in Gogol’s expert attention to detail.

(I’ve been reading “Old-Fashioned Farmers” in The Overcoat and Other Short Stories by Nikolai Gogol. The translation was published by Dover Thrift Editions.)

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Notes on Gogol’s The Overcoat

Gogol’s The Overcoat is a story of a lowly government official in Tsarist Russia. His job is to copy out documents.

There’s a curious ambiguity in the narrator’s feelings for the official: on the one hand he is described as miserable: as a new-born he cried “as though he foresaw that he was to be a titular councillor.” On the other hand, when we see the man grown up there is no denying that he is content in the limited life he leads, and he is passionate about his job, having a special love for some of the words he copies, and dreaming about lines of text even when he is out on the street, so that he feels he is copying even when he is away from his desk. In sum, he is a ridiculous character, but the narrator hints that perhaps it is not so bad to be ridiculous in this way.

He is a man who lives an unassuming, solitary life. An absurd life, we might say, since it seems so devoid of meaning: his mind is only ever occupied with whatever work is put in front of him by other people, and he seems never to have pondered the meaning of life, let alone taken any steps towards wresting control of his life from the hands of others and evaluating it for himself.

A change awaits him, in the form of a new coat, and after this change his past life will seem to have been empty without it. How could life have had any meaning then, before the overcoat entered his life? (I think there have been overcoats in my life, things that changed everything forever and rendered my past life meaningless. Reading Plato for the first time at age 17.)

Suddenly, everything is shaken. A period of transition: things don’t make sense now the way they used to. He is learning to see the world differently. The coat is distracting him from his work so that he almost makes a mistake in his copying – something unheard of before now. We get no indication that he regrets the distraction: though he was at first wary of something new entering his life – the word “new” itself inspiring horror – once work begins on the coat he can hardly contain his excitement. In his past life he was an obsessive, passionate person, passionate about small things – the lines of the documents he copied out, his favourite words – and now he is obsessed with the coat. When the coat is finally finished, we’re told, it is the most glorious day of his life.

Just as we felt the passion of the man for his lines, so we feel the loss of the overcoat when it is stolen. He had sacrificed so much for it. It is really a tragedy to live in a world where one has to starve in order to save the money to buy a coat.

Finally the man dies. And the narrator gives us a summary of his life: a life lived largely unnoticed until those last days where he “appeared a bright visitant” in his shining new coat. Such a short span in which the man was truly alive.

I am left wondering what happened to that coat. How long did it continue to shine for? Perhaps it was sold after it was stolen, and ended up in the hands of another who would love and care for it. Or perhaps it slowly fell to pieces, just as, I suppose, it would have eventually in the hands of the poor official.

This tale of the emergence of this bright flash of light, this wonderful coat, and the tragic demise of the man, is perhaps a more beautiful tale than the alternative: to have had the man survive and keep the coat and for it to gradually fall apart as he struggled on in poverty. Though comical, The Overcoat is undeniably a sad tale from beginning to end, the sour taste of poverty throughout.

(I’ve been reading The Overcoat and Other Short Stories by Nikolai Gogol, published by Dover Thrift Editions.)

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Creation is Grace: Notes on Daniil Kharms

I’ve been reading I Am a Phenomenon Quite Out of the Ordinary: the Notebooks, Diaries, and Letters of Daniil Kharms (published 2013) and trying to get a picture in my mind of the kind of person Kharms was.

“Creation is grace,” he writes. You can’t force inspiration: you need to be in the right place (at your desk, or out for a walk) and have the right attitude (mind focused on your work, or mind free and alert for new signs), and when the time is right the ideas will come. You’ll sweat them out, or they’ll fall on your head like raindrops.

“I’ve begun writing in my notebook every day. Dangerous, might stop living.” He keeps writing to stay sharp and alert, but it is always a compromise: how much of life can I miss out on to make sure I see the life I do live with the eyes of a writer?

The notebooks and letters, as they are presented, are fragmentary and disconnected: ideas for stories unwritten, plans made and unmade. One of my favourite parts, a to-do list for an evening in May:

For May 12, 1926

“7pm – 10:      Read Dostoevsky The Village of Stepanchivoko.

“After dinner:  Memory exercises.

“12 midnight:  Lights out.”

And the very next line:

“Lyonka came by and the plan changed.”

It’s such a wonderfully ordinary human story, of plans made and thwarted. And leaves so much to the imagination. And it tells us what these notebooks are all about: possibility. These notebooks are like a talisman for Kharms, and by clinging to them he holds close to himself the possibility that things might turn out right, that he might not fail as a writer after all. Because it’s important to be joyful, to do the thing you love for its own sake, whatever is happening in your life. So keep writing.

“I’ve got to really hurry to get the next thing written. How to speed that up?” It’s not as simple as just sitting down and writing it. Anything of value will arrive in its own time, and cannot be hurried. Hard work is the least you can do.

Kharms often appears very superstitious. He opens a Bible at random or rolls some dice to tell his fortune. He knows that something else, some power other than his own, is required for everything to come together. You can’t do it alone – no one ever has.

When you’re lost, every step you take is an experiment, every direction seems as good as any other. In Kharms’s notebooks, diaries, and letters you can see vividly the struggle of an artist as an ongoing cycle of experimentation.

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Notes on Gogol’s “The Nose”

Nikolai Gogol’s story of “The Nose” opens with a macabre scene: a nose found in a loaf of bread. Perhaps this is going to be a murder mystery.

But then the story becomes absurd: the nose found its way into the loaf of bread after having got up and left the face of Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov, and going around town pretending to be a state councillor.

The nose is finally apprehended. There are gaps in the story: we never find out how the nose found its way into a loaf of bread, nor do we hear how it got to shore after being thrown into a river. And finally the nose fixes itself again to Kovalyov’s face. He wakes up one morning and there it is. Until that point the Collegiate Assessor had been unable to reattach the recovered nose, but now it is back, and no reason for the nose’s sudden change of heart is given.

The narrator himself points out all that is unlikely about the story: How could a nose just get up and walk around? Why would it pretend to be a state councillor, of all things? How could it get stuck in a loaf of bread? And the narrator’s conclusion is: doesn’t every tale include such unlikelihoods and omissions of detail? How likely, really, is anything that happens in the world? We might add the philosophical question: Why is there, after all, something rather than nothing?

The day the nose is reattached, Kovalyov spends the whole time checking every mirror he can find, as he walks the streets in triumph: the nose is there, he reassures himself, every time he sees his reflection. The nose is there. Imagine such a thing as still having a nose from one minute to the next being remarkable! And yet it is, along with so many other small miracles we take for granted every day. This, for me, is the lesson of the story.

(I’ve been reading The Overcoat and Other Short Stories by Nikolai Gogol, published by Dover Thrift Editions.)

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The poem I’ve just read has the narrator reading a newspaper, “letting fall” the pages she has finished with, that rustle and crackle as they are shed. It’s a scene to stir nostalgia, as many of us now no longer perform this daily ritual, getting our news online instead. I miss the thoroughness and fullness of the daily hour spent with the newspaper.

And the narrator of the poem feels a different sort of nostalgia: she is doing exactly as her ex-husband did, as she never did while they were married, content to be, through her husband, at one remove from “the earth’s gossip.” And we see her now in “that sitting waltz,” shedding and folding pages, as she sees herself: engaged in a strange dance that is not quite her own. She cannot help but see herself from outside, the way she would see her husband doing the same, day after day.

After he left she made a vow to read the paper every day. But why? “… If only I had read / the paper …” she says. It’s some kind of bargaining, as if by participating in this alien ritual she could go back in time and make things right. Nostalgia is painful and harmful when we can find happiness only in what is past, and make nothing of the present moment. When you are grieving a loss, for a while you can only look back.

“Count me as a reader of the earth’s gossip,” she says. And for all the dance may look strange and awkward in those lucid moments where she looks across at herself and sees the one she has lost, this dance for now is hers, who she is, and an indication of the new person she is becoming, incorporating and transforming a past that will once again be her own.

(I’ve been reading “On Reading a Newspaper for the First Time as an Adult”, a poem by Sharon Olds. Her Stag’s Leap was published in 2012 by Cape Poetry.)

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I reach for my copy of Plexus by Henry Miller. I’m wondering if I’ve written all I can about Miller. I open the book to find out. There’s always something more in here. Today I read Miller’s version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, his strange spiral version of the tale, itself told in Plexus along with the interruptions from the children he’s telling it to.

What is a story? A state of affairs in the world or in a single human soul, then an encounter, and then something is changed forever. Miller’s Goldilocks story comes around (eventually) in a neat circle, but then this is a fairy tale. We grow out of this sort of story, don’t we? Still, I’m as gripped reading this as the children Miller is telling it to.

Miller often claimed he couldn’t tell stories, and yet here they are: fairy stories, legends of the middle ages, true stories of Miller’s own childhood, records of his dreams … The stories are hopelessly tangled, all taking Miller’s “spiral form,” so that we seem to drift back and forth in time and space. The children are frustrated at first that Henry isn’t sticking to the script.

Plexus is a book for an aspiring writer, asking himself: when am I going to be able to write my own stories? He dreams of being a writer like Miller. Not in terms of style – “imitation is creepy,” writes Steve Aylett, and the writer is ashamed of his own creepiness, familiar alien voices stealing into his writing at times. Our writer wants to be a story-teller in the way Miller is, that specific way of his, unravelling truth as he spins his yarns. This aspiring writer is drawn to fantasy because he can hide himself away in it, but he longs for the ice shock of truth even as he fears it …

Miller’s Goldilocks story seems to be an exception to the rule: he strays from his commitment to truth for the sake of entertaining the children. Where is the truth in a fairy tale? And yet “embedded in all fiction and falsehood there is a core of truth.” All story-tellers will give themselves away in the lies they tell, to anyone listening closely enough. Miller is different because, rather than fall into this trap, instead he throws himself into it: he is committed to writing as a circuitous form of confession, a method for revealing himself obliquely in all that he writes.

Obliquely? Miller gives the impression of directness, no compromise, spitting in the face of convention – and yet all this is an illusion. We never get a direct truth from Miller. This is why everything contradicts everything else in all he writes. “Don’t worry about errors when you’re writing,” he advises. “The biographers will explain all errors.” There’s no statement of fact that could sum up a human being, even if you could hold them forever unchanging in a single moment, and so you forget about facts and instead create a living, breathing portrait, and the only way to create such a vital portrait is through literature.

An essay about a great book is itself a little story. Some mood causes you to take up the book, there is an encounter, and something in you is changed forever … The encounter is one-sided, the essayist hears the voice of the author long dead and can offer nothing in return. And so instead he offers his essay into the void, to anyone who might listen. And if no one is there to listen then at least life will go on and there will be fresh encounters …

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