Saturday, September 24, 2011

World lit versus global lit

What prompts me to a digression on the above subject is a novel I just finished reading, Seven Years (Sieben Jahre) by the Swiss writer Peter Stamm. (Michael Hofmann provides an impeccable English translation.) It has echoes of Albert Camus, absent the worldly heft that gave weight to the novels of Camus and even of Jean-Paul Sartre. Camus and Sartre, after all, had lived through a world war and French colonialism, whereas the characters in Seven Years have lived through times of plenty, until the end, when they encounter the economic downturn of 2008. But before that happens, during their architectural studies in Munich, their travels to Marseilles, the success of their business, they are plagued by existential anomie.

The subject of Stamm's novel, as can be guessed from the title, concerns a marriage. Besides the echoes of Camus and Sartre (particularly in the pared-down narrative style), I also thought of Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage. Again, Bergman made a movie about individuals who were rooted in a historical place and time. History -- in particular war, during which the civilized nations of the world had turned their vast arsenal of "progress" on each other -- had let people down, so to speak, and their anomie was, to an extent, understandable. (Wonderful portrait here of this state of the soul by Richard Cronborg.) The dissatisfaction felt by Mariane and Johan, with their marriage and their lives, related to the disparity between the ideals with which they had been raised and the compromises of everyday reality. The couple in Stamm's novel, Alex and Sonia, are similarly suffering from this disparity, though neither one has a deep historical consciousness. The novel takes place in contemporary time -- the fall of the Wall is mentioned -- but no one has much interest in what that fall represents, aside from the opportunity to make money in the East.

What does Stamm's novel have to do with world literature? Goethe thought of world literature, particularly the work of translators, as a way of allowing us to understand other cultures and peoples and, if not to love or even like them, to appreciate the differences. Goethe lived in a time in which, materially, people in the advancing West were becoming more alike, but Goethe thought that national differences would remain. Goethe's love for the literature of other lands certainly speaks to appreciation of "difference." Yet the fact is that the worldwide commerce that was making people's material lives similar in his time has also led to the uniformity of their moral life. The people in Stamm's novel might be Americans.

This point is made by Tim Parks in his write-up on Stamm in the New York Review of Books: "If you didn't know Stamm was Swiss, nothing in the English translation would betray this blemish." As Parks writes: "Stamm is one of a growing group of writers ... who, whether consciously or otherwise, have evolved a style to suit the requirements of a global literary market. None of these authors writes exclusively or even first and foremost for the country they live in. ... What we are seeing, then, is the development of styles of writing that are no longer to be understood in relation to the literary tradition the author grew up in, but to the new world of international fiction, books translated no sooner written into a dozen languages." I would only add that Stamm's stories and novels of what Parks calls "ordinary emptiness," of "lives without coherence or direction," is a Western phenomenon, again the result of the spread of material affluence with which the West was beginning to be rewarded in the early 19th century.

Picture credits: The Criterion Collection; Richard Cronborg


Anonymous said...

David Foster Wallace now comes to mind. Rather, the review of his final novel, "Pale King," in a recent "Weekly Standard"--no, it was "First Things" I believe. Wallace actually did serious research on and I guess IN the IRS, as in the Internal Revenue Service. Talk about boredom. Yet the reviewer, a Canadian professor and novelist, in a brilliant essay, finds redeeming value in this tragic writer's work--Wallace, a good friend of Jonathan Franzen, committed suicide a few years ago. I'd not even heard of him till I read about Franzen's latest book, "Freedom." Pope Benedict has been in Germany this past weekend trying to plant seeds of renewal in the very Hearts of Darkness, Berlin and Erfurt (home of Martin Luther). He challenges my own tendency to succumb to or at least "imbibe" this negative and "dead end" postmodern, atheistic culture based on a secular solidarity at best. It's a culture that, indeed, we Westerners are immersed in whether we like it or not. The rates of "mental illness," however, seem to be much worse in Western Europe, perhaps especially in the North. Here lately, in Texas, what stirs my heart and mind the most is reading a translation of Hegel's "Essential Writings," now towards the end--his definitions of world history and the type of "subject," no doubt similar to Goethe's, that continues to develop in interdisciplinary studies: art, literature, religion, philosophy. Of course, Hegel's mind ranged over all of this under the rubric of World History. He refers to (Lessing's?) "Education of the Human Race."
"Zusatz. The question of the perfectibility and 'Education of the Human Race' arises here. Those who have maintained this perfectibility have divined something of the nature of mind, something of the fact that it is its nature to have 'gnothi seauton' (he uses the Greek) as the law of its being, and...But to those who reject this doctrine, mind has remained an empty word, and history a superficial play of casual, so-called 'merely human,' strivings and passions. Even if, in connexion with history, they speak of Providence and the plan of Providence, and so express a faith in a higher power, their ideas remain empty because they expressly declare that for them the plan of Providence is inscrutable and incomprehensible. End Zusatz." (p. 307, Weiss ed.).

Anonymous said...

Seven Years... perhaps a nice sequel to this would be the recent Robert Duvall movie, "Seven Days of Utopia." Duvall was drawn immediately to the script but insisted that his character be an alcoholic or recovering alcoholic--I forget which. Probably recovering! Yes, the dysfunction, in the American Dream, has to be redeemed!

I very much appreciate this introduction to this novelist I've not heard of till now. The "universal" quality of such writing indeed seems to owe a debt to Goethe and his acquaintance Hegel if we go back that far. Your point about the world-historic heft of a Camus, a Sartre, is well-taken. Still, the talent that is out there today is astounding. There will never be enough time to get to it all and still make a dent in the likes of Hegel and Goethe and Company. I want to read Gunther Grass, whom Salman Rushdie has called (on Charlie Rose) "our greatest living writer." For some reason Emily Dickinson again comes to mind; she is so intensely aware of her core's participation in the things and in the art, "her" art, the "things" inspire. In our time, the artist arguably has replaced the priest. The philosopher and the literary critic, too. Yet Hegel's respect for religion as Spirit seems evident not least in the fact that towards the end of his life he again returned more frequently to Lutheran services!