writing in the post-ulysses age: henri lefebvre on the techniques of claude simon

Word Power Books

 

 

henri lefebvre on joyce, the new novel and the writing of everyday life…

 


Thus it is by chance and not by chance that this particular day — a sixteenth of June at the beginning of the twentieth century — was significant in the lives of a certain Bloom, his wife Molly and his friend Stephen Dedalus, and as such was narrated in every detail to become, according to Hermann Broch, a symbol of ‘universal everyday life ‘, a life elusive in its finitude and its infinity and one that reflects the spirit of the age, its’ already almost inconceivable physiognomy’, as Joyce’s narrative rescues, one after the other, each facet of the quotidian from anonymity.

 

The momentous eruption of everyday life into literature should not be overlooked. It might, however, be more exact to say that readers were suddenly made aware of everyday life through the medium of literature or the written word. But was this revelation as sensational then as it seems now, so many years after the author’s death, the book’s publication and those twenty-four hours that were its subject matter? And was it not foreshadowed already in Balzac, Flaubert, Zola and perhaps others ?. . . .

 

Ulysses is diametrically opposed both to novel presenting stereotyped protagonists and to the traditional novel recounting the story of the hero’s progress, the rise and fall of a dynasty or the fate of some social group. Here, with all the trappings of an epic — masks, costumes, scenery — the quotidian steals the show. In his endeavour to portray the wealth and poverty of everyday life Joyce exploited language to the farthest limits of its resources, including its purely musical potentialities. Enigmatic powers preside. Bloom’s overwhelming triviality is encompassed by the City (Dublin), the metaphysical speculations of ‘amazed’ man (Stephen Dedalus), and the spontaneity of instinctive impulses (Molly); here is the world, history, man; here are the imaginary, the symbolic and the prophetic . . . .

There are many ways of interpreting what is still known as the ‘new novel’ (apart from considerations of success, failure, tediousness or interest). It can be seen as a methodical attempt to create a rational style that deliberately avoids tragedy, lyricism, confusion and controversy, aiming instead at a pure transparency of language that might almost be called spatial. This ‘objective’ clarity could be seen as a sort of projector isolating the object on a stage if one were to overlook the fact that objects must first be created; it is a product neither of the subject as creator nor of the object as creation, but only of language imitating ‘reality’. Can one even say that a story is being told? A story is no longer a story when words are reduced to bare necessities. Time is cancelled out in the process of exploring it, when the quest for a perfect recurrence, a coming and going in time, is achieved by means of pure prose, of writing reduced to its essence. The simultaneity of past, present and future merges time with space and is more easily realized in a film than in literature, where ‘novelistic’ implications are always present. Moreover it is not every subject that can be submitted to such a formal elaboration: things, people, gestures, words. And can anyone be sure that time will not intervene and disrupt such permanence? Is everyday life’s changelessness a guarantee? Films and literature use everyday life as their frame of reference but they conceal the fact, and only expose its’ objective’ or spectacular aspects. Writing can only show an everyday life inscribed and prescribed; words are elusive and only that which is stipulated remains.

 

Let us take an example. Shall we select for our particular example of ‘objective’ writing, the writing of strict form, a distinguished scholar or a novelist? If a novelist, who shall it be? We have made the arbitrary choice of Claude Simon in his book Flanders Road, because there is a certain affinity between this book and Ulysses notwithstanding the differences that distinguish them; an affinity that makes comparison possible while enabling us to note the contrasts. In both works short periods of time expand, dream and remembrance recreate a universal everyday life; in both we find the eternal triangle, wife, husband and lover; symbols and word-play abound. In Claude Simon there is a Blum, in Joyce a Bloom, a coincidence that suggests a connection perhaps not wholly unintentional on the part of the later author.

 

‘Oh yes! … ‘ Blum said (now we were lying in the darkness in other words intertwined overlapping huddled together until we couldn’t move an arm or a leg without touching or shifting another arm or leg, stifling, the sweat streaming over our chests gasping for breath like stranded fish, the wagon stopping once again in the dark and no sound audible except for the noise of breathing the lungs desperately sucking in that thick clamminess that stench of bodies mingled as if we were already deader than the dead since we were capable of realizing it as if the darkness the night …. And Blum: ‘Bought drinks?’, and I: ‘Yes. It was … Listen: it was like one of those posters for some brand of English beer, you know? The courtyard of the old inn with the dark-red brick walls and the light-coloured mortar, and the leaded windows, the sashes painted white, and the girl carrying the copper mugs … ‘

 

Fine. Now let us compare this to what we had noted in Ulysses.

 

a) Here we find no acknowledged, pre-established referential; the place is a place of desolation, a landscape laid waste by war and rain where corpses .rot in the mud and slime, a sinister collaboration of civilization and nature. The symbolism is spatial, the place being the only stable thing there is. We are never sure in what moment of time the story is situated, nor in which tense is the narrative; and we do not need to know. Memories are centred around the place, symbolized and actualized by it as they flow from the remote past. In the course of the narrative, which proceeds in cycles, men are the playthings of fate; they circle around the place and their circling leads to death or captivity at the hands of the enemy.

 

b) Man’s fate is not enacted here against a backdrop of normal everyday life; we are in time of war. And yet it is the quotidian that is conjured up. The past, before tragedy took over, was controlled by logic and order, or so it seemed; in reality logic and order, and meaning too, were only paving the way to tragedy (eroticism, passion and love), with its sequel of disillusions. The extraordinary in everyday life was everyday life at last revealed: deception, disappointment. . . . Passionate love turned out to be terribly similar to love without passion, the passion only accentuating the void and the hunger it was supposed to satisfy but from which it really stemmed. Could this be the cool style unambiguously replacing the hot style of the preceding period? In a cold passionless voice the author tells of passion, its illusion and its disappointments; the quotidian is unavoidable, and even those who believe they have eluded it are its victims; married couples and lovers are alike frustrated and betrayed, the first in everyday life, the others in the life of tragedy. The cycle of betrayals and frustrations spirals down from remembered time, in fact through a century and a half as the narrative passes from generation to generation; remembrance negates temporality.

 

c) Language becomes the only referential, as the ‘real’ referential is abolished by truth; the author has fashioned a reality from speech where the sentence conveys similarities, disparities, the order and disorder of impressions, emotions, sensations, dialogues (that are not really dialogues), solitude, in fact everything that serves to build up a ‘character’. The writing imitates speech in an attempt to purify or perhaps to exorcize it. The critic J. Ricardou calls it the ‘verso of writing’, but if he is right then this verso corresponds exactly to the recto. It is indeed the very essence of writing, a literature passed through the crucible of literalness and aiming at total precision. Though it simulates speech, speech has disappeared, the writing is a linear trajectory; and meaning too has vanished, whether proper, figurative, analogical or hermetic; everything is made explicit; signs are distinct in their difference and the difference is entirely revealed in the significance. A voice or voices? A toneless voice, a writing that is precise and pure as musical intervals fixed by pitch. Connotations? Harmonics? Yes, adjusted by pitch and thus eliminating fluidity, extensions of sound and boundlessness. Time is divided into similarities and disparities before it dissolves into memory and fate, which are almost identical. Even the word-play is exposed, stated and explained. This pure writing has attained freezing point in so far as this point is pure transparency. A comparison with atonality will perhaps make this clearer; there is no determining note (referential), therefore no repose; there are interruptions but no beginnings or endings; there are intermissions but nothing that really corresponds to anact or an event, only memories and sentences; the semantic theme has changed, it has lost the alternate tensions and easings corresponding to beginnings and endings, actions and happenings, situations that emerge and conclude. Significance, translated into an elaborate verbal form, replaces expression; the theme disintegrates and is recomposed around the literal, without ambiguity or polyphony (or polyrhythm or polyvalence). The writing aims at saying everything that can be written; the writer’s ear is attuned to depth and he rejects all that is not perfectly clear; he does not attempt to entrap depth, it is there.

 

At one end of this skyline dominated by important works we observed the emergence of everyday life, the revelation of its hidden possibilities; at the opposite end everyday life reappears but in a different perspective. Now the writer unmasks, discovers, unveils; everyday life becomes less and less bearable less and less interesting; yet the author manages to create an interest in this intolerable tediousness simply by telling it, by writing, by literature. Our investigation has thus exposed a definite change both in the things written about and in the way of writing. We are not concerned here with further ramifications such as the contemporary theatre (Ionesco, Beckett), poetry (Ponge), films (Resnais, Godard), etc.; nor with any attempt at generalization. We only wish to underline the metaphysical function of contemporary literature. We shall come across these problems again and again under different aspects. The ‘world’ is divided into the world of everyday life (real, empirical, practical) and the world of metaphor; metaphorical writing, or the metaphorical world of writing tends either towards artificial oppositions and illusory contradictions or towards self-destruction in the comedy of insanity (existentialism, Artaud); but this is not the place to analyse these sub-divisions.

 

—Henri Lefebvre, Everyday Life in the Modern World (translated from La vie Quotidienne Dans le Monde Moderne, published in 1968 by Editions Gallimard), Paris, pp 2 – 3, 8 -11.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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