Who Would Have These Bookshelves?

Review of Tunnel Vision by Kevin Breathnach. The Stinging Fly, 27 May 2019.

Lines, and more generally the notion of linearity, play an important part in Kevin Breathnach’s Tunnel Vision, which is hardly surprising given the title of this singular masterpiece. In one chapter the railway lines in a movie run parallel to lines of mephedrone snorted off the cover of a Susan Sontag, themselves echoed, in a later piece, set in Paris, by lines of coke on a carefully selected Henry Miller paperback. There are also the blurred lines between the two Goncourt brothers, whose voices merged in their journal to the point of being indistinguishable (until Jules started dying, that is). The most striking example is provided by the closing essay — the only one not to be primly justified — where the text erodes away, as though gradually swallowed up by negative space. Eventually a thin vertical line is all that remains in the middle of the last pages, mimicking the skyscraper the narrator has been observing and finally enacting the eponymous tunnel vision.

This bravura piece owes its name — ‘Cracking Up’ — not only to the breakdown of sorts Breathnach was experiencing, but also to a Mondrian that caught his attention, at the time, in Madrid’s Reina Sofia. What he focuses on in this painting is the ‘off-whiteness’ of the white, ‘shot through with cracks’ — the kind of palimpsestic blankness exemplified (although it would be too obvious to point out) by Erased de Kooning Drawing. Elsewhere in the book, an overexposed window in a photograph by Stephen Shore is described in terms reminiscent of a Rauschenberg monochrome: ‘Whatever went on outside in Idaho that day has been effaced by that white abstract panel of light with a claim on the spiritual’. ‘Closer Still’ features four reproductions of Elizabeth and I, a picture that André Kertész cropped in radically different ways. Or rather it does not: the actual portrait never appears owing to copyright issues. Instead, the four versions are illustrated by black squares of varying sizes, highlighting the cropping process, but also, inevitably, conjuring up Malevich. As Breathnach puts it in ‘Death Cycles’ (quoting without naming, thus simultaneously invoking and erasing, another writer) ‘erasure is never anything more than a particularly profound form of preservation’. This oscillation between inscription and effacement — permanence and flux, figuration and abstraction, totality and fragment, long take and montage, not to mention pedantry and profundity — lies at the heart of Tunnel Vision.

Horizontality and verticality too, with the text a battleground between the two. The lines I found most puzzling, causing me to retrace my steps on several occasions to check if they had not changed position, appear (conspicuously enough) at the beginning of the first essay. Breathnach is describing Berenice Abbott’s Self-portrait with a Large-format Camera (1926) in beautifully granular detail: ‘The geometry of her cardigan is echoed in the ridges of the open door behind her, while the busy horizontal lines of her skirt rhyme with the camera’s bellows, that accordion-like box between the lens and viewfinder, which enables the lens to be moved with respect to the focal plane — for focusing’. The emphasis on the latter word is ironic, however, as the busy horizontal pleats on Abbott’s skirt are very much vertical. The reader (and indeed author) need only refer back to the picture reproduced two pages prior (or any other pleated skirt for that matter) to see that this is patently so. I find it difficult to countenance that such a meticulous writer — who, of his own admission, was once given to underlining in red ink the ‘errors of grammar, judgement and tone’ perpetrated by ‘a particular Irish Times literary critic’ — could have overlooked this error, however insignificant it may be. Whether deliberate or not, Breathnach’s misreading of the skirt is a synecdoche of Man Ray’s misprision of Abbott herself (as a mere assistant and ‘fetish object’ despite her obvious talent and subversion of gender stereotypes). It also acts as a nice little estrangement effect, which I like to think was planted there quite on purpose.

*

Tunnel Vision never coincides with itself: it is always somewhat distanced through reflexivity or dispersal (just as the narrative voice undermines itself through self-deprecation). Chapter titles, for instance, appear in fancy square brackets. The rationale behind this idiosyncratic presentation becomes clear in an essay called ‘[Square Brackets]’ (literally, a mise-en-abyme squared) where we learn that David Rieff used these symbols to embed his editorial notes within the text of Susan Sontag’s journal. Their presence, here, signals that Tunnel Vision comes ready equipped with editorial notes: it is a book and its own exegesis rolled into one. This is exemplified by the ‘editorialising effect’ Joan — one of several girlfriends — has on Breathnach, prompting him to redact from recurring anecdotes whatever elements did not meet with her approval on first airing: ‘I was never conscious of what I would not say until I heard myself not say it’. The entire work retains a similar air of provisionality due, in part, to its confessional tenor — its Augustinian quality. Assumptions are made, often as a result of cultural pretensions, which later turn out to be totally erroneous (the Telefonicà skyscraper bears no relation to art nouveau; the foundations of the Ehrentempel were never demolished; Shakespeare and Company’s well-furnished essay section contains no glaring omissions). All manner of sins are depicted in these pages, but they are redeemed by virtue of being confessed, so that two realities end up coexisting duckrabbit-fashion. Breathnach both is and is not a compulsive liar and pedant addicted to drugs and pornography, in the same way that Proust’s work can only be narrated by a reformed snob. The Breathnachian narrator is, crucially, an accomplished writer, whereas his younger iteration lies about being hard at work on a novel (‘I didn’t even have an idea for one’) and struggles to complete a simple email.

Self-dispersal often takes the shape of duplication. In Madrid, which is described as another Paris, the author is constantly mistaken for a British or American citizen when in fact he is, of course, Irish. The Spanish capital becomes the stage for a re-enactment of the most famous passage in Leaving the Atocha Station. At the beginning of Ben Lerner’s celebrated debut, the protagonist (whose mythomania and cultural posturing mark him out as a forerunner of Breathnach’s textual avatar) fails to experience the anticipated rapture in front of a painting in the Prado. Something very similar happens — or fails to happen — here in the selfsame museum, where Breathnach seeks out the work of Ribera precisely because it ‘seemed charged with the kind of dramatic intensity [he] usually had trouble identifying in Old Masters without first being directed to it’.

In ‘Death Cycles’, where he pays homage to his great-uncle — Liam Whelan, one of the eight Manchester United players who perished in the 1958 Munich air disaster — everything seems to be a simulacrum of something else. The German city is a ‘reproduction’ of its antebellum incarnation. There are two accidents, two memorials and even two footballers. Breathnach — who, I hasten to add, has the good taste to be a City supporter — was once groomed to follow in his late relative’s footsteps: ‘I was very much aware even then that I was taking part in the reconstruction of Liam Whelan’. It is almost as though the author were exploring the road not taken; visiting an alternative version of himself in some parallel universe.

There are many other instances where I is another. When reading out loud a message he has painstakingly drafted, Breathnach realises all of a sudden that he is channelling his ‘father’s reading voice’. At the cinema, he observes himself as though he were ‘some hypercritical version’ of Eleanor, who is sitting right next to him. In the last pages of ‘Veronica’, ‘you’ seems to refer to Colette and ‘I’ to the narrator until ‘I’ reminisces about ‘you’ being caught short on a coach trip, ending up ‘with the bottle-neck wrapped so tightly around your dick’ that ‘the piss just wouldn’t flow’. Either some hitherto undisclosed information about Colette has just been revealed in passing (and indeed pissing) or pronouns and identities have shifted along the way to the point of undecidability.

The author’s observation that the ‘first-person speaker grows increasingly unstable and fragmented’ is made apropos of Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina, but he could just as well be talking about his own work — which, no doubt, he is. The subjectivity on display in Tunnel Vision is so tentative and malleable that it always requires an audience. In Madrid, for instance, he wanders through sundry ‘major cultural institutions’ in a manner ‘somehow faintly suggestive of sex having already taken place’. He spends a great deal of time in Café Commercial ‘trying discreetly to be observed, reading books, large ones, held at such an angle as to place the title in clear view’. In church, he smiles ‘a private smile, intended to be seen’ before performing — for the sole benefit of a student of his he has spotted and is feigning to ignore — a hilarious ‘looped montage of strange facial tics and expressions’.

Roland Barthes’s theory, Breathnach reminds us, is that the writer’s journal fell out of fashion at the time of the nouveau roman ‘because the “I” no longer recognised itself as a stable and singular entity’. Paradoxically enough, it is probably for the very same reason that autofiction and essayism are flourishing today. As Rachel Cusk put it, ‘autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts’ — a process that Barthes was actually instrumental in initiating. With its blend of memoir and criticism, Tunnel Vision is an attempt at producing a self-portrait through the study of self-portraiture, so that what we end up with is the portrait of a self-portrait. From this perspective it is reminiscent of the aforementioned Berenice Abbott picture, which turns out to be a portrait masquerading as a self-portrait. What it resembles most, however, is the glass skyscraper, described at the beginning of the book, which is ‘camouflaged by the surroundings reflected on its mirrored façade’. Part of Breathnach’s self-portrait is indeed hiding in plain sight; concealed by all the quotations that are an integral part of the work rather than mere adornments. This is particularly the case throughout ‘But I Did That to Myself’, where a lengthy excerpt from Malina on the verso is mirrored by the author’s own presentation of Bachmann’s novel on the recto. By curating this personal canon — which also includes the likes of Walter Benjamin, Djuna Barnes, Clarice Lispector, Stéphane Mallarmé, Robert Bresson, Claudia Rankine and Thomas Mann — Breathnach is placing himself within a lineage; constructing a ‘cultural identity’ for himself. Although he claims to be someone ‘whose sense of identity and self-worth has for years been grounded in the conspicuous and frequently unfelt enjoyment of high culture’, he is in fact rewriting these authors’ works within the text of his own life. What he is showing off is not so much that he has read all these books, but rather how they have read him.

*

Perhaps what Tunnel Vision really aspires to be is a self-portrait without a self. The second essay — ‘Tunnel Vision’ justement — hints at this latent desire for unselfing. It revolves around Train Ride Bergen to Oslo, a Norwegian movie consisting of ‘a single shot filmed on a camera inside the driver’s cabin of the no. 602 to Oslo, inhabiting a train’s-eye view for all seven hours, fourteen minutes and thirteen seconds of its running time’. Through this ‘train’s-eye view’ the spectator ‘is given to identify with a subjectless gaze’. Similarly, in a quote which closes the ‘Shape of Silence’ chapter, Lynne Tillman casts Peter Shore’s Uncommon Places as a visual memoir that dispenses with all traces of interiority: ‘That kind of journal is similar to displaying the contents of a refrigerator. The question occurs: who would have this refrigerator?’ Which, in turn, begs the question: who would have these bookshelves?

Colette, we learn, keeps an old Libertines poster on her bedroom door as a ‘token of nostalgia’ — which goes to show how much of a young person’s book Tunnel Vision is, with its sex, drugs, travelling and millennial nostalgia for the early noughties. Significantly, it is a young person’s book that refuses to come of age; a book that wants to begin and only begin, ‘like a painter’s eternally fresh canvas’ (a Robert Bresson quote used as an epigraph). When the narrator turbocharges his sex life with mephedrone, he confesses: ‘It was not an orgasm I was seeking, but the continued build-up to one’. Under the influence of this stimulant, he pleasures himself ‘in fragments’ — Colette having become largely surplus to requirements — watching, in succession, a virtually identical ‘titfucking’ scene from up to ten different films all opened in different tabs on his computer. The revelation that the beginning of one of the essays was deliberately misleading is followed by the following flippant remark: ‘So chalk up my introduction as a false start if you like’. Tunnel Vision — which is divided into three parts, each containing three chapters — is introduced by three prefaces entitled, somewhat provocatively, ‘Not I’, ‘Not II’ and ‘Not III’. These ‘false starts’ are akin to a musical overture containing themes that will be developed later. They are also reminiscent of Berenice Abbott’s ‘false exposures’: in order to put people at ease, the photographer would begin sessions by taking a few pictures without any plates in her camera. A self without a portrait; a portrait without a self: Breathnach’s work hesitates between the two.

Like Eleanor’s smile, Tunnel Vision always strives to look as though it means something else. It is a book without qualities that comes in flat-pack form, refuses to settle into a definite shape and shuns univocal meaning. It begins with the evocation of a gigantic bust of Karl Marx that was disassembled into ninety-five pieces, in 1971, and transported from the Soviet Union to East Germany, where it was put back together again. ‘Considered alone,’ the author muses, ‘how many of these parts were recognisable as Marx?’ This is precisely the question that hovers over his own text, in the making of which he unmakes himself, resurfacing in disseminated form (to paraphrase Barthes). This is what the author admires in the Mondrian and what the reader will admire in the author: ‘I liked the strict division of parts and the way these parts seemed to balance, without me knowing how or why’.

Secondhand Avant Garde

Geoff Dyer, “‘Based On a True Story’: The Fine Line Between Fact and Fiction,” The Observer 6 December 2015

The dizziness occasioned by WG Sebald lay in the way that we really didn’t know quite what we were reading. To adapt a line of Clint Eastwood’s from Coogan’s Bluff, we didn’t know what was happening — even as it was happening to us. That mesmeric uncertainty has diminished slightly since the Sebald software has, as it were, been made available for free download by numerous acolytes, but a similar categorical refusal informs Ben Lerner’s 10.04, “a work,” as his narrator puts it, “that, like a poem, is neither fiction nor nonfiction, but a flickering between them”. The flicker is sustained on an epic scale — in a thoroughly domestic sort of way — by Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume My Struggle series. A side-effect or aftershock of Knausgaard’s seismic shakeup was to make us realise how thoroughly bored we had become by plot. Rachel Cusk addressed and exploited this in her wonderfully plotless novel Outline, which was shortlisted for last year’s Goldsmiths prize.

Seeking to reward innovation and experimentation, this prize is a good and timely thing — but it’s unfortunate that it’s limited to fiction. While last year’s Samuel Johnson prize went to Helen Macdonald for her beautifully novel H Is for Hawk, much so-called experimental fiction comes in the tried-and-tested form of the sub-species of historical novel known as modernist. Had they been LPs rather than books, several contenders for last year’s Goldsmiths prize could have joined Will Self’s Shark in that oxymoronic section of Ray’s Jazz Shop: “secondhand avant garde”.

My Virtual Novel Was Worth More Than My Actual Novel

Ben Lerner, 10:04, 2014

“Well, your first book was unconventional but really well received. What they’re buying when they buy the proposal is in part the idea that your next book is going to be a little more … mainstream. I’m not saying they’ll reject what you submit, although that’s always possible; I’m saying it may have been easier to auction the idea of your next book whatever you actually draft.”

I loved this idea: my virtual novel was worth more than my actual novel.

Writing as a Form of Displacement

Ben Lerner, Interview by Max Liu, frieze 16 March 2015

I always have to claim not to be doing something in order to do it. . . . You don’t always write what you set out to write, so writing can be a form of displacement.

. . . As a poet, I also ask myself how silence informs words. How is silence felt? How is negative space activated in a poem? So, in both my fiction and my poetry, I’m exploring the ways in which an absence can be felt as a presence.

Impossible to Describe

Parul Sehgal, “Drawing Words From the Well of Art,” The New York Times 22 August 2014

. . . The painting Mr. Lerner, 35, had come to see is Jules Bastien-Lepage’s “Joan of Arc,” which depicts Joan swooning as she hears the call to battle. It’s something of a famous failure, but Mr. Lerner loves its flaws: “I like paintings that depict what paintings can’t depict, like hearing voices.” He said that the “glitches in the pictorial matrix” in this otherwise naturalistic painting — the cartoonish angels, the way Joan’s left hand dissolves into the paint — inspired his new novel’s questions about how artists render phenomena that seem impossible to describe: the passage of time, the texture of consciousness.

“What interests me about fiction,” he said, “is, in part, its flickering edge between realism and where a tear in the fabric of a story lets in some other sort of light.”

A Fictional Farewell to Literature

Ben Lerner, “Each Cornflake,” London Review of Books 22 May 2014 (pp. 21-22)

My Struggle positions itself as an anti-literary project: it’s what Knausgaard writes instead of novels and it describes his increasing revulsion from fiction (broadly construed). If he were to write another novel, he says in Volume 2, ‘it would just be literature, just fiction, and worthless … just the thought of fiction, just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made me feel nauseous.’ My Struggle is sometimes categorised as a novel — by its publishers, for one — but nobody expects us to believe that it’s fiction in any conventional sense, given the verifiability of the biographical details and the huge scandal caused in Norway by its exposure of his real relationships. My Struggle is the chronicle of Knausgaard turning his back on the genre of the novel, a six-volume Lord Chandos Letter intended to exhaust and extinguish all of Knausgaard’s literary ambitions. He has described the writing of My Struggle as an act of ‘literary suicide’: ‘There is nothing left; I can never again write something from the heart without repeating myself, but I wanted it that way. In Volume 6 I even wrote a couple of lines about future novels, stories I’d thought of, just to kill them off. The last sentence in that book is: “And I’m so happy that I’m no longer an author.”‘

‘Literary suicide’ — a death both in and of literature. He’ll empty himself into a vessel, shattering that vessel: ‘I thought of this project as a kind of experiment in realistic prose. How far is it possible to go into detail before the novel cracks and becomes unreadable?’ Knausgaard presents his suicide attempt as anti-literary — I’m going to break the well-wrought urn of aesthetic form by filling it with more description than it can hold — but it’s also an attempt to take the problem of closure into one’s own hands. Suicide is, after all, one way ‘to bring order into the sum of experience’.

… It might seem that I’ve moved abruptly from childishness to death, but at every point in My Struggle, particularly in Boyhood Island, we think of the young Knausgaard as a person who will ‘die’ at the end of Volume 6. We know (at least from Volume 2 on) that the end of My Struggle won’t merely be the end of a novel for Knausgaard, but the end of literature altogether. (This is part of why Boyhood Island — although childhood memories are also crucial in the volumes that precede it — must come after the promise of literary suicide; his earliest memories are saturated with what we know about his future.) My Struggle is a portrait of an artist who will turn his back on art, a Künstlerroman that is also a suicide note, and the method of suicide is in part to put everything down: a suicide by overdose.

I mean to emphasise the way the childishness of Knausgaard — the radical inclusiveness, the style-less style, the apparently equal fascination with everything — places a tremendous pressure on the end of the book, on closure as a moment when form is achieved and retrospectively organises the work. Because the book makes a bid to be radically co-extensive with a life – ‘there is nothing left,’ everything gets put down — closure has to present itself as a kind of death (unless the book is simply to break off, surrendering to formlessness, to unreadability). The problem of how My Struggle will end is both evoked and deferred across volumes — an effect amplified by the fact that English readers have to wait for each new translation — and that drama of the deferral of form is part of what keeps us reading. Indeed, there’s a sense in which the more inclusive, digressive — even boring — the book is, the more absorbing it becomes (‘Even when I was bored, I was interested,’ James Wood writes). This is because the felt problem of My Struggle’s ultimate form intensifies in relation to Knausgaard’s effort to ‘crack’ the novel by overfilling it with detail. How far will he go?

Breaking of the vessel of art, the renunciation of fiction, literary suicide – these are fictions, and they’re the devices on which the power of My Struggle depends. It’s obvious, for instance, that Knausgaard couldn’t remember his past in the degree of detail the books provide (Boyhood Island opens with an account of how much fiction is necessarily involved in Knausgaard’s acts of memory, especially of his childhood). But the cumulative effect of his descriptions is to suggest the possibility of total recall, a past citable in all its moments: each cornflake, each snowflake. … Perhaps it’s less that we identify with the particular experiences Knausgaard recounts than that his writing makes us feel we might be able to recall our own past, near or distant, with all the texture and urgency of an inhabited present. This is why the extreme inclusiveness of Knausgaard’s attention — and the flatness of the language in which it’s conveyed — is so important: it feels universal, less interested in the exceptional life than in the way any life can feel exceptional to its subject (even if it sometimes feels exceptionally boring). Much of My Struggle isn’t a story so much as an immersive environment.

Of course Knausgaard does leave things out (why, I wonder, is sex described in less detail than cornflakes?), selects among scenes and sentences, but we are caught up in the fiction that he doesn’t. Yet that childish sense of open-endedness, in which everything is equally interesting, is countered by another fiction: that the meaning of My Struggle will be revealed at its end, secured by the author’s death (at least his death qua author). The former fiction is a fiction of formlessness, the undifferentiated, an infinite verticality outside time; and the latter is a fiction that gives form, the imposition of shape on experience, a syntax of events. The constitutive tension of Knausgaard’s work, its internal struggle, is the push and pull between these two fictions. The former is the promise of an artless infinity purchased at the cost of structure; the latter is the promise of a unity purchased at the cost of death. Maybe it’s significant that My Struggle has six volumes while A la recherche du temps perdu has seven. Knausgaard doesn’t offer a strategy for ‘regaining’ time through the power of art; instead he attempts to achieve closure by sacrificing art itself.

The claim to be giving up literature has a long tradition within literature. It’s everywhere in poetry, for instance. As Aaron Kunin has written: ‘The January eclogue in The Shepheardes Calender ends with Colin destroying his instrument, the oaten pipe, and vowing to sing no more songs. In the first poem in his first collection, Spenser says farewell to poetry: hello, I must be going. The gesture is conventional — Spenser got the idea from Virgil.’ Actual Rimbauds are rare. And the claim to be destroying art has been a staple of avant-garde art since at least the First World War: the role of the painter is to abolish painting, and so on. But such assertions tend to be part of an artistic performance, not its overcoming, and there’s already anecdotal evidence that Knausgaard’s ‘suicide’ is theatre. . . .

But what could be less ‘unexpected’? The prizefighter comes out of retirement again and again. … Knausgaard’s renunciation of literature, whatever his conscious intentions, is ultimately a trope, a dramatic attempt to bring order to the mass of text that precedes it.

Even if Knausgaard’s ‘literary suicide’ is an enabling fiction, the association of death (particularly violent death) with the end of My Struggle is troubling. Here we must reckon with the long shadow cast across the volumes by the title. Are we supposed to think of Knausgaard as a failed artist whose violent will-to-order is somehow analogous to Hitler’s? … To put it reductively, Hitler and Breivik are two men — or perhaps two man-children, albeit in a much more sinister sense than Baudelaire’s — who responded to the value vacuum, the bad infinity, opened up by modernity with murder and murderous ideologies; they reacted to the terror of formlessness with the ‘false totality’ of fascism (though this might be overstating the coherence of Breivik’s worldview). . . .