From his big messy life comes this novel, which is seamless

You know that thing where you read something, love it, plan to write a piece on it, but then you watch a movie, read something else …time goes by?  And in the meantime, you’ve also discovered walking long distance; taken up boot making; or you took that train trip and now you want to write poems about what you saw from the moving window. But by now you’re making plans to write that short course; you’ve started a new game; or fallen in love; and you’ve taken up French again, as recently as last week, and today is the day you’ll actually read all those tabs you’ve had open since Sunday! If like me you get that hopeless feeling you’re too unfocused to be a real artist, maybe also like me you’ll feel inspired by the writer who is the focus of this month’s Literary Punk podcast: the 19th Century master of the psychological novel, Tolstoy.

220px-Lev_Lvovich_Tolstoy‘December 15: attends performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. […] Mixed relations with Turgenev; close to Botkin, Reads Balzac, Tocqueville (L’Ancien Régime), Goethe, and Don Quixote. […] March 25: witnesses a guillotining in Paris. July 12 – 20: loses heavily at roulette in Baden-Baden. July 24: on way home sees and admires Raphael’s painting of the Madonna in Dresden. […] 1858 March: reads Gospels, starts unfinished story […] begins passionate affair with married peasant ‘.  Tolstoy’s diary entries, in The Cambridge Companion to Anna Karenina, Edited by Donna Tussing Orwin, CUP, 2002, p6. 

This very big writer’s life didn’t seem to do his art any harm. If you read his diary entries alongside the incredible bibliography he pursued, such as the one presented in the ‘Chronology’ of the excellent volume cited above, Tolstoy’s life reads like his novel! And his novel reads to us of him.

The miracle of Anna Karenina (1878) is that all of Tolstoy’s multitudinous living and reading comes together onto these pages, seamlessly. From that big messy life emerges this novel, “Flawless art” in the opinion of Nabokov; a “masterpiece” if you’re Dostoyevsky (whom, by the way, T “loved”). Tolstoy scholar Barbara Lönnqvist locates the seamlessness of Anna Karenina’s buttery prose with her precise comment: “The character’s integrity and independence and the author’s view of the person are welded together so that no seams are noticeable” (2002, p80).

“I have noticed that any story makes an impression only when one cannot make out with whom the author sympathises.” Tolstoy, 1867 (2002, p80).

For the latest episode of Literary Punk, my guest in the Hookturn studio for a very Russian style conversation that includes everything – laughter, tears, joy, years, books, sex, love and death – is the delightful writer, editor and Feminist commentator, creator and host of Cherchez la Femme and director of Girls On Film Festival, Tavarisha Karen Pickering. We talk about how it’s impossible to side with anyone in this tale of adultery and family. KP: “There are no villains in this story.”

‘1857 April – May: idyllic two months in Switzerland: “I am gasping from love, both physical and ideal. […] I am taking a very great interest in myself. And I even love myself for the fact that there is so much love of others in me” (d, May 12).’ Tolstoy’s diary, in The Cambridge Companion to Anna Karenina, Edited by Donna Tussing Orwin, CUP, 2002, p6.

Tolstoy is Anna, full of love! And of course he is Levin.  More interestingly, Tolstoy is a rhythm between the two unforgettable characters of the novel, Anna and Levin, and the unspoken (non-Symbolic) or marginal relation between them and their interleaved stories. How curious, that the driving and memorable ‘love affair’ of the book is not the lovers, Anna and her Vronsky, but the crossed ‘boundary’ between Anna and her Levin, and the coming undone that goes on there. Randomly arranged dialogues if you like, located in each other: passionate love alongside passionate intellect; emancipation then belonging; diversity beside unity. Sex and death. Desire and Realism. Difference and inclusion. Karen commenting so beautifully in the podcast said, “Tolstoy is at the edge of his boundaries.” Philosopher Isaiah Berlin put it this way, Tolstoy longed for unity but celebrated diversity (1953).

Indeed, Tolstoy is all things, and the expression of in-between things, such as those that exist outside the spaces between the chapters, the unrepresentable because deeply unconscious things – the Lacanian Real at the edges of the Realism, if you like. Flaubert said of Tolstoy, “What an artist, and what a psychologist!” Tolstoy’s psychological novel naturally prefigured the psychoanalytical theories of Freud, and his work also carries the extant energy of another new medium for his time: that of the media, a new and radical movement of ideas out to the multitudes.

You could understand someone who hadn’t read him for questioning the punkness of his book, and its inclusion in this podcast series. Considering the trajectory of the novel, it’d be easy to refute Anna’s story, her infamous ending. But it’s an ending which is not the end, and that discursive last chapter is political! Too much so for its day: the journal editor Katkov, who published all previous instalments of the serialised novel, refused to print the finale.

Its writer was most proud to call himself – along with Lermontov – a member of the non-literati. Tolstoy was a radical and censored voice within the Russia of the Tsars. His writing was banned, seized at the presses. And one of his most radical contributions to literature was his imagination for sharing it around:

“I would very much like to put together a cycle of reading, that is a series of books and selections from them which would all speak of that one thing most needful to a person, namely, what life and the good are for him”                                                                                                                                                                                               Tolstoy (2002, p25).

For this reason I nominate the very radical Count, Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy, as a patron honorary of Literary Punk. For his socialist ideals about sharing around the profound human potential of Literature, and for his ecocritical understanding of the cultivation of joy:

‘1894  June 14: “As I was approaching Ovsiannikovo, I looked at the lovely sunset. A shaft of light in the piled up clouds, and there, like a red irregular coal, the sun. All of this above the forest, the rye. Joyful. And I thought to myself: No, this world is not a joke, not a vale of ordeal only and a passage to a better, eternal world, but one of the eternal worlds, which is good, joyful, and which we not only can, but must make finer and more joyful for those living with us, and for those who will live in it after us” (d). Tolstoy (2002, p32).’

To the beauty of coming undone: Joyful! 

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy, (1878), Translated by Rosemary Edmonds, Penguin, 1954.

The Cambridge Companion to Anna Karenina, Edited by Donna Tussing Orwin, CUP, 2002.

The Hedgehog and The Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Isaiah Berlin, 1953.

Image: Tolstoy, en.wikisource.org

MEDEA: Let be. Until it is done words are unnecessary.

IMG_0306 Experiential representative of the unspeakable, or misogynist construct? Embodiment of chaos that refuses to be excluded, or miner of the individual-political conundrum where the semiotic and the symbolic order meet, or all of the above? Only one thing is certain, in his protagonistes of Medea, Euripides has gifted scholars and contemporary theatre companies alike with a puzzle the equal of any riddle in Ancient Greek mythology. For Season 2 Episode 4 of Literary Punk I’m joined by Denise Varney, Professor of Theatre Studies in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne, as we grapple with Medea‘s legacy: the equation of an arguably violently constructed and murderous female protagonist, and the excess of the filicidal mother. For the purposes of the discussion we’ll be using the 1963 Penguin edition with a translation by scholar Philip Vellacott.

JASON: If only children could be got some other way / Without the female sex!                If women didn’t exist / Human life would be rid of all its miseries. Medea’s story unfolds within the private context of Jason’s organised betrayal, and the wider public context of organised misogyny. Her argument is set against the future of an Athenian society in the process of becoming a democracy, as that city formed what scholar Vellacott terms “the forces of civilization”(8). For the length of the drama she stands without the Attic project of social order and self-control, and ironically before the citizen audience of that Greek city who were themselves subjected to the organised language of rule, subject to the Jasons who controlled whom or what was to be excluded from the new democratic society-in-process. Medea’s language works seamlessly across, on the one hand, pre-loaded patriarchal rhetoric: “We were born women – useless for honest purposes / But in all kinds of evil skilled practitioners”(29); and on the other, her call for a new politics, “A time comes when the female sex is honoured; That old discordant slander / Shall no more hold us subject”(29). But across these modes there is also chaotic slippage, what the Nurse provides for example, words which Medea calls “unnecessary”(42), arguably because they are problematic for her, new discord delivered fresh as blood in statements like: “She hates her sons”(18).

MEDEA: About these children. JASON: I’ll provide for them. Cheer up. We can observe political signs deposited in the craft of the revolutionary 5th Century BCE poet; for his day Euripides was controversial regarding his innovations within the form of drama. In terms of Euripides’ modern tone, literary critic Philip Vellacott notes the political inclusion of vernacular language aligned to vernacular suffering (heroes at human-level, specifically female-level, and sans the salve of godly wisdom), along with his innovative use of a female chorus as commentator, as symbolic acts which were staged alongside the Athenian project of civilization vs. barbarism (1963). Further, in Vellacott’s reading Medea’s excess is the action of the “heroic minority” set against the city-state that excuses its own excesses as necessary control; in this schema she is the return of the excluded chaotic.

However, Theatre Studies scholar Varney cautions that in a world post Feminism we must be wary of the value in generating readings that valorise a psychotic outsider Medea. Moreover, Varney argues that Medea’s questions can’t be analysed in the writing alone, but must be played out in answers located across the body of the actors and the staging choices of the contemporary production. Her comment is apposite, given that Euripides was noted for design innovations such as incorporating solo musical performances in the staging of his plays. Certain lines of Medea reference music and its relationship to trauma: “…no one thought of using / Songs and stringed instruments / To banish the bitterness and pain of life”(23); a statement which prefigures twentieth century psycho-linguistics, primarily what Kristeva describes as the healing semiotic modality available to us via music and in the rhythms and murmurs of poetry.

Join us for a fascinating discussion of one of the great dramas of the Attic Golden Age.

[Euripides, MEDEA AND OTHER PLAYS, Translated & with an Introduction by Philip Vellacott, Penguin, 1963.]

Image: useless but skilled, Milte, 2015.

Before Sweden made their gender-neutral pronoun, there was Le Guin.

In season 2 episode 3 of Literary Punk we’re discussing Ursula K. Le Guin’s SF Fantasy experiment in post-gender politics, The Left Hand of Darkness, first published in 1969. I’m joined in the podcast studio by the much admired previous Literary Punk guest: outstanding Melbourne writer and SF scholar, Chris Palmer. True to form, Palmer’s luminous reading of this text will delight both fans of Le Guin’s work, as well as those of you who’ve never encountered either feminist Science Fiction or Fantasy literature.

In the 1987 Modern Critical Interpretations collection of essays featuring The Left Hand of Darkness, literary critic Harold Bloom argues, “Le Guin, more than Tolkien, has raised fantasy into high literature, for our time.”

scan0015 (2)Le Guin’s novel is much awarded, and also controversial for its use of language concerning the gendered honorific and pronoun. The colonising ‘module’, Genly Ai, refers to all Gethenians as ‘Mr’, and this despite their gender-neutral orientation. It’s a stylistic device that the author has revisited in the introductions to successive reprints of the text.

Chris Palmer and I discuss how this apparent gendering conflict within the novel, along with other ambiguities and fallibilities, enact Genly Ai’s Terranly discomfort at letting go of ideological structures surrounding his own dominant sexual power; as Palmer puts it in his brilliant reading: “The narrative is insatiable. Nothing is irrelevant. It wants to include and imagine everything.”

In tension with Genly Ai’s more obvious project to modernise Winter by friendship-as-stealth, we consider how his unconscious resistance to non-gendered intersubjectivity displays the darker side of his goal: the default othering that comes embedded in the violence of his (and our own) phallocentric-sexed (“Pervert”) language system.

“The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.” Le Guin, Introduction to the 1976 edition

This is a work of fiction that gives you philosophy as story: “Truth is a matter of the imagination” (1994, p9). In the novel the outlawed hero of the tale, Lord Estraven, says of the compelling need for all Gethenians to get with the times and incorporate difference: “What does it matter what country wakens first? So long as we waken.” Chris and I discuss what Le Guin’s truth as story has woken in us; the way her narrative has changed the way we think about gender and sexual politics, life and death, and storytelling, possibly in ways that are difficult to articulate.

“Finally, when we’re done with it, we may find – if it’s a good novel – that we’re a bit different…But it’s very hard to say just what we learned, how we were changed.” Ursula K. Le Guin, Introduction to the 1976 edition.

 

 [Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness, Great Britain: Orbit, 1969.]

Image: Winter, © H. Milte, Olinda, Australia, 2008.

Anthony Burgess tore it up and stuffed the pages in his socks to get it back through Heathrow.

Wildflowers for DHL

     Lady Chatterley’s Lover

       D. H. Lawrence, 1928.

For episode #7 of the podcast I’m joined again by Melbourne cultural critic and writer, the delightful Mel Campbell, to discuss D. H. Lawrence’s last novel, his story of Lady Chatterley’s erotic emancipation. Published in 1928, the book was quickly banned in England and the USA for its “obscene” language of forbidden therefore scandalous sexual love. Burgess had to go to Paris to buy his copy, then tear it up and stuff the pages into his socks to get it back through British customs.

“The oak-leaves were to her like oak-leaves seen ruffling in a mirror, she herself was a figure somebody had read about, picking primroses that were only shadows, or memories, or words” (2005, p19).

Mel and I talk about the nature of Lawrence’s language of erotic love and wild flowers. We suggest that what may have been so politically dangerous about DHL’s prose is the “tenderness” (the novel’s original title) with which he describes Connie’s reclamation of her body from the words of her husband, from the word she once was.

Whatever the blood feels”  Political, radical, outlawed writing, a lasting testament to Lawrence’s call for a return to the body and its premiere language of “the blood”, the 1928 novel forecasts the later 20th Century feminist movement of writing from the body. Via her passionate erotic affair with Mellors – the gamekeeper on her husband’s inherited estate – Connie authors her sexual emergence from the punitive history of literary representations of women’s desire.

Almost a century later, and surrounded by much talk of Fifty Shades of Grey, we ask: what is it that makes an erotic novel truly dangerous?

D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, (1928), Barnes & Noble Classics, New York, 2005.

[Original image above: Process, not Position, © Helen Milte, Olinda, Australia, 2012.]

“Is it my imagination, or is it getting crowded in here?”

In this delightful first episode of season 2 of Literary Punk, a couple of local literary imposters discuss Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella, The Metamorphosis, as the source of the modern sitcom.

AndTwoBoiledEggs

Pile into the stateroom on the Punk Ship Hookturn with me and podcaster/producer, Josh Kinal, as we get intimate with fellow stowaways: Franz Kafka and his ungeheuren Ungeziefer, Marx, The Marx Brothers, 3 lodgers, a charwoman, a sobbing sister, Ben Jonson, Larry David, a chief clerk, our parents, our grandparents, and a room service guy delivering some hard-boiled eggs – amongst others.

[Image: courtesy Hookturn]

Driving GUNHEAD with Chris Palmer

Episode 05 of Literary Punk featuring William Gibson is up on Hookturn! Climb on board the decommissioned GUNHEAD, with me and outstanding SF scholar Chris Palmer at the wheel, as we take a drive round Gibson’s 1993 illumination of the cyberpunk future, VIRTUAL LIGHT.

Virtual Light BridgeCommenting in his 2005 collection of critical writings On SF, the late Thomas M. Disch argued: Gibson “is still, on the evidence of Virtual Light, the fastest thinker” of a new generation of SF writers (2005, p146).

For this episode I’m joined by Melbourne scholar, Christopher Palmer, an author widely published on contemporary SF (Philip K Dick, Iain M Banks, China Mieville), to discuss why Gibson’s 1993 book is a luminous novel, both inside and beyond the category of cyberpunk literature.

Dystopia’s not supposed to feel this good! We explore the texture of Gibson’s language and narrative, and the desire of the heterotopian spaces he opens up within the usual tropes of dystopian futures. We talk about the “wonder” of being in Gibson’s “NoCal / SoCal”, where Mies’ God is indeed in the details …of a mixed media off-grid Oakland Bay Bridge, or, as Palmer notes, in the detail of a little punk word like “just”, which accompanies dual protagonists, Rydell and Chevette’s, defiantly improvised relationship with their city.

Strap yourself in, get ready to experience Gibson’s language couriers, who deliver directly onto the reader’s nerve endings a constantly improvised crisis: the moment of living the future-Now. 

[VIRTUAL LIGHT, William Gibson, Penguin, 1994]

Writing towards her light

Virginia Woolf tight crop

 

When I entered the world of writing, if I entered that world at all, I wanted it to be the world of Virginia Woolf, the artist whose way of being in writing was so delicately lit that I knew it would allow me to find my way – alone – to where I was going. In her memoir, ‘Sketch of the Past’, Woolf wrote: “If I were a painter I should paint these first impressions…I should make a picture of curved petals; of shells; of things that were semi-transparent…showing the light through, but not giving a clear outline.”(Moments of Being, 2002)

As a new writer I’ve needed a private conversation with such a writer; a place where I could practise, and begin to make my practice. I wasn’t consciously aware of Woolf as I wrote my first shy short story. But I was lucky to encounter To the Lighthouse (1927) in my first year of a BA English Honours. I didn’t even know then that I was becoming a writer. It was just a matter of me, an undergraduate student and that novel, with an essay to write. I still think the best way to learn about writing is by reading writing. Susan Sontag says in Writing As Reading, “to write is to practice, with particular intensity and attentiveness, the art of reading”(Where the Stress Falls, 2001). This is why universities must fund and refund the Humanities discipline of English.

It’s a radically personal thing, finding your path to practicing as a writer. It’s noticeable that people, institutions, superegos in both these forms, will try to organize you into shutting that pathway down. There’s a fear of such play that goes on outside of time structures. People fear your need to be alone, the ordinary days spent wandering outside on the lawn of the summer-house, and that look you get of doing nothing, as Clive James puts it so well. I remember a bloke bailing me up on the forest path once. He wasn’t interested in my research, only in verballing me over the amount of the time it had taken me to write my thesis, once he’d extracted that private information. I advise every becoming writer to take out shares in a knitting mill, because you’re going to need a lot of thick socks for those big clock mouths.

Finishing something is just one thing, an End. The process of making up the writing: that’s about being in a state of achievement.

In To the Lighthouse Virginia Woolf writes of artists-as-children in various states of making up stuff, under the present or non-present gaze of Mrs Ramsay, the mother: “…Mr Carmichael, who was basking with his yellow cat’s eyes ajar, so that like a cat’s they seemed to reflect the branches moving or the clouds passing”; “…Lily Briscoe went on putting away her brushes, looking up, looking down. Looking up”. Woolf’s interest in such ordinary play is about writing “moments of being”(2002). As a writer/publisher with a unique connection to Freud [Freud escaped to London from Nazi-occupied Vienna in 1938; the Woolf’s Hogarth Press in Tavistock Square went on to purchase and publish Freud’s works] Virginia Woolf’s visionary reach is far ahead of her own time in terms of the history of psychoanalysis. By this I mean the shift from Freud’s focus on the phallus in human sexuality, to the importance of the infant and mother pre-Oedipal relationship. Woolf’s novel articulates the imaginary life of Mrs Ramsay and all her subsequent ‘children’ playing on the lawn, fiction straight after Melanie Klein’s Object Relations. Beyond Klein, you could say that D.W. Winnicott’s theory of Playing and Creativity and its relation to re-making the first object, the mother (The Mrs Ramsay) in her wake, is also of particular interest concerning To the Lighthouse. Woolf lost her mother when she was 13.

Milan Kundera says that we’re always forgetting stuff and therefore “Beauty in art: the suddenly kindled light of the never-before-said” of the “novelists’ discoveries, however old they may be, will never cease to astonish us” (The Art of the Novel, 1986).

To write something beautiful, light-tender, I think one needs a paradox: space alone, and another writer, even if she’s a completely unconscious presence. The presence of a non-present mentor, if that makes sense, offering you her hand as light.