My Struggle, Part I: Confusion and Value
As part of my “Deep Vellum Month” experiment, I decided to move from the toponymy—and topography—of Iceland to geography. Or rather, “geography,” as in the Geography of Rebels by Maria Gabriela Llansol.
Like with most of the books I’ve been reading of late, I knew basically nothing about this book before picking it up. (And picking it up for a silly linguistic connection between one book’s topic and another’s title. Make reading serendipitous again? NO MORE.) Even if I had, I’m not sure what I would’ve gleaned from this:
Throughout the three novels in the Geography of Rebels trilogy, historical figures such as Ana de Peñalosa, Friedrich Nietzsche, Saint John of the Cross, and Thomas Müntzer cross time and spatial barriers to become vehicles for a reality that only exists within the mind, exploring freedom of narrative and language in a literary universe of Llansol’s own creation. Life and death become interwoven in a web of words as the boundaries of history and identity unravel.
(Does everyone but me know who Ana de Peñalosa and Thomas Müntzer are?)
There’s a dual-purpose to jacket copy: on the one hand, it should work in concert with blurbs, cover image, and other metatextual elements to entice potential readers; on the other, it should provide readers with certain guideposts to approaching the work—especially if it’s on the experimental end of things.
Which is exactly where this trilogy resides.
Here’s the opening paragraph to The Book of Communities:
in that place there was a woman who did not want to have children from her womb. She asked the men to bring her their wives’ children so she could educate them in a large house with only one room and only one window; she wore a black shawl close to her face; she had a distant way of making love: with her eyes and with her speech. Also with time, for since the days of her great-grandmother, going back to any era was always possible. Moving, she sometimes looked intently at a place the most beautiful in her house the whole house
A few pages later on:
we three wrote leaning against the railing, dying on our feet, not knowing whose mouth articulated what we said. Saint John of the Cross, fearful to suddenly begin levitating, leave our company, and, not least, become ridiculous because at that time all my lovers walked in the oratory, or rather, the great entrance to the garden.
I’m not even mentioning the innovative layouts that pop up in the first thirty pages—the breaking of the text into two columns, the insertion of a two-column text in a different sized font in the middle of a paragraph, etc.
Here’s the main point: I read the first thirty pages of this book last night and had no idea what I was reading. I like to brag to myself that I’m totally into complicated, confusing, experimental books, but after that first bit of Geographies I was wondering what the point of reading this was, since I wasn’t getting anything out of it.
Which is a question that comes up with regard to any number of “difficult” classics: why bother? Is there any point to making me work so hard to understand this? There’s nothing to grasp onto! Where is Jack Ryan?
A couple years ago, my friend Vince Francone decided to read Finnegans Wake over the course of twelve (or so) months, and I decided to join him and read along. There is no book in the English language that is more complicated to get into than Finnegans Wake. Full stop. By comparison, Geography of Rebels is like a Dick and Jane primer.
There is one crucial difference though: There exist, in English, numerous guides or studies of Finnegans Wake that help to open it up to new readers and, more importantly, make arguments about its overall value.
Whenever you’re struggling with a really challenging book—be it challenging for linguistic, structural, or stylistic reasons—there comes that moment when you have to decide whether the payoff is worth the effort. Am I going to get enough out of Geography of Rebels that I should spend a couple hours a night wading through its ambiguous, layered, abstracted prose?
There’s a larger question that’s best left untouched hiding in this: what do we get out of reading fiction in general that makes it worth our while? But whereas one can dance around that when you’re talking about a thriller (it’s for entertainment!), it’s a trickier question when we’re talking about a book that’s seemingly lacking in both characters and plot.
Thankfully, there’s an introduction from Gonçalo M. Tavares that should shed some light on the “why read Llansol” question.
This is also about sudden illuminations infiltrating what seemed to be a sleeping beauty-sentence. A kiss that awakens the sleeping beauty, that causes it to leap up; not a quiet awakening, but a leap forward, leap upon leap, an excessive leap, beyond the limits of the leap—a leap forward. Thus Llansol’s text. At times we seem to be in the calm, expected sea, and then suddenly, those sentences that make us stop, that demand we read with a pencil, underline, salvage the sentence from that place, from the book, carrying it to the everyday, to reality.
“telling them that, with such cold weather, those sitting in the middle of the horses’ blood would win” (The Book of Communities)
Sure! I guess?
So what to do? Thirty pages in, I understand nothing of this book and am not particularly enjoying that sensation. At the same time, I feel like this is exactly the sort of challenge that I should be championing—one that fits the sort of anti-realistic aesthetic that I want to promote. And it feels lame to give up so easily, a few dozen pages into only the second Deep Vellum book I wanted to tackle for the month.
Going back to the cover for a moment. There are four blurbs on here. One from Eduardo Lourenço (?) about how “Llansol will be the next great Portuguese literary myth, alongside Pessoa himself.” One from the TLS referencing how Llansol is “one of the most fascinating Portuguese writers of the twentieth century.” A bit from Ben Moser’s afterward comparing her to Clarice Lispector, and one from Tyler Malone that I’ll quote in full:
Imagine Clarice Lispector speaking with specters. Imagine Emily Dickinson seeking and finding a community. Imagine Hilda Hilst rebelling further into the madding crowd. Imagine Virginia Woolf as a Lisbon-born medium channeling displaced waves of consciousness. Imagine Fernando Pessoa as a woman building edenic spaces outside of our time-space continuum.
I love Virginia Woolf, respect Lispector, dig Hilst, and am currently reading Pessoa for the Two Month Review (and have loved him for more than a decade). Given that, I think I have to keep reading. If this book is being placed in that company—by a reader I know and admire—then there must be something there that I’m missing. But how will I find what I’m missing?
Geography of Rebels gathers three short books by the Portuguese writer Maria Gabriela Llansol [. . .] In The Book of Communities, The Remaining Life and In the House of July and August, fragment flows into fragment with a marked disinterest in any conventional plot that might guide the reader, yet a common tone binds the three works. Names recur, most notably that of Ana de Peñalosa, along with those of several famous, mostly German, mystics from the past. As this group goes on walks, talks, observes the surroundings and writes, Llansol inhabits one mind after another, constantly shifting the view.
The experience is that of reading a kind of poetry, in which the primary objective is not necessarily clarity of content, but rather the production of a certain emotional state. The text itself often splits into a visual poetry of columns, staggers into fragments ragged in unusual ways, and dissolves from solid paragraphs into sections cut by line breaks. The writings, grouped under various quirky titles, read as if they come from a set of personal notebooks, and could extend forever; [. . .]
The above is from Jessica Sequeira’s review of Geography of Rebels for the Full Stop website. Aside from a TLS review that I can’t access in full—the same one referenced above and quoted on the jacket copy—Sequeira’s is the longest piece about this book that I could find online. And although it echoes the jacket copy in part, it also provides a viewpoint for how to approach this book—as poetry producing an emotional state, rather than as a narrative constructing a plot, or an amorphous character study.
Much like jacket copy, book reviews function in a few ways simultaneously. The worst are simply advertisements, such as the infamous “best books of X” lists that I’ve pilloried here for years, or, on the opposite side of the spectrum, self-indulgent attempts to show off the reviewer’s erudition and fine-tuned way of expressing their opinions about books. Both of those options leave most informed readers rather disappointed. A review could be a straight recap of the plot, devoid of stylistic criticism or a strong opinion on the part of the reviewer; or they could consist entirely of the reviewer’s assessment of the writer’s ability to write, whatever that means to the reviewers. (Some prefer winding Jamesian sentences that aspire to be desconstructed by a middle-aged grammar school English teacher; others value pace and motion, a plaintive prose that is more evocative than cerebral.) Regardless of the approach, the standard review passes a judgement on the book—is this worth reading?
At the same time, whether the review praises the book or not, it provides an approach to the book. A take on what the author is playing at over all these pages, all these words. Whether or not it succeeds, the vast majority of books are at least trying to do something. Maybe they just want to entertain, or the book wants to convey a specific idea, series of ideas, high concept premise that blows the reader’s mind. Maybe it’s a delicate structural game, or an emotionally manipulative novel that’s meant to leave you in tears.
Or, as in most cases, it’s a number of these things. Which is what gives the critic license to provide a specific take. This stood out to me. The author was trying to do Y, but X got in the way. More of Z would’ve made B an A. The best reviews present an approach to the book. A reader of the review—or blog post, or Goodreads comment, or podcast, or Twitter opinion—comes away with a bit of knowledge that will give them a “head start” when going into a book.
It’s up to the reader to accept or reject this particular reading, but at least it’s something to watch for, to hone in on. With a book like Geography of Rebels, which in itself offers the reader almost nothing to grab on to, a smart review can make all the difference. Poetry. Tone. Emotion.
the text immersed in the horses’ blood tells of the adventure in the desert and how it liberated the mind from all spiritual imperfections and all earthly desires. It entered into that inner darkness where sensitive and invisible things can be penetrated through the snow, supported only by the ascent and ascending.
That is why I call it a stairway because its steps and articles are secret, hidden to all sensitivity and understanding. That is why he says he went in disguise.
Although Sequeira pooh-poohs the comparison between the comparison between Llansol and Lispector that the marketing copy leans into (“beyond the common substratum of Portuguese, the two writers really are quite different”), those above paragraphs invoke the same sort of emotion that I get when reading the Lispector books that I have a hard time connecting with. The Chandelier comes to mind, although there are others. This sort of abstract prose that is based in allusion, in trying to articulate a miasmic, yet explorable inner sensibility leaves me cold in a way that Sarraute’s novels—arguably trying to accomplish the same affect—never do.
That has to be one of the most pretentious and shitty sentences I’ve written in these posts all year. I know it’s an attempt to raise myself up to Llansol’s the literary level which, like with Lispector’s, has received near universal praise. I’m the one who doesn’t get it, so in my response, the path of least resistance is to simply say “it pales in comparison to X, which is obviously superior, and which you hopefully haven’t heard of.” That sentence—that exact sentence—is the sort of thing that would lead me to tweet “fuck this review” and say dumb reactionary things on the next Three Percent Podcast.
Here’s the truth: I don’t get Geography of Rebels and I enjoy trying to get it and I want to justify putting this book down and moving on. And all those feelings make me uncomfortable.
Most readers don’t care about reviews. Most readers have never read a Lit Hub list. Most readers can’t name five book critics whose taste is in line with theirs. Most readers don’t talk to booksellers. But that’s not true for any of you who are reading this. If you’re this deep into this neverending post (you should see the notes written out for the rest of this . . . and for part II), you know bookstores, book influencers, and names of specific publishers you follow. You are not the average reader. I am writing this for you.
That’s one point that I disagree with in terms of Sequeira’s review. She points out that Llansol “reads as more sincere, more genuinely absorbed in religion and historical mysticism, less interested in ‘hooking’ the reader or crafting infinite strategies to attract the reader to what she is saying,” which I 150% agree with, but she contrasts that with Lispector, and although I can see where she’s coming from, I think there are some Lispector titles that verge into this “reader-disinterested” realm.
What is the obligation of the writer to the reader, really? And vice-versa? What obligation do I, as someone who will never ever review a book for the New York Times or New Yorker or any other influential outfit, yet can not stop myself from writing these posts week after week under the possibly delusional idea that they have some impact, even if that impact is solely in making Kaija and Anthony laugh out loud? If I’m somewhat of an influencer within the sub-sub-sub-realm of international translated high-minded literature, do I have a responsibility to fully engage with Geography of Rebels before setting it aside? Does my expression of disinterest and confusion belittle this book unfairly? Possibly.
There are two other really smart reviews of this book online. Here’s a bit from the one at The Modern Novel:
Through the use of imagery and the voices of the characters, she conveys the importance of these people in European intellectual life and history, while also conveying the role of community of women, the role of nature and a radical view of religion. It is a beautiful book, generally eschewing plot and other features of a conventional novel, which may make it challenging but very much worthwhile.
And from The Untranslated:
The magnificent heterotopia, constructed by the Portuguese author out of the debris of European history and culture, brings together Thomas Müntzer, the leader of the ill-fated peasant uprising during the early Reformation, St. John of the Cross, the Spanish Catholic mystic and poet whose masterpiece Dark Night of the Soul (La noche oscura del alma) narrates the peregrination of the soul on its way to the unity with God, and Friedrich Nietzsche, a rebel philosopher par excellence. The real protagonist of this tripartite extravaganza, however, is the sensual and cerebral Ana de Peñalosa, the major driving force of the community of rebels. She is also a mystic, as well as an intellectual whose goal is to recreate some kind of transcendental space exclusively devoted to knowledge. Known today as just a marginal figure to whom St. John of the Cross dedicated the four stanzas of The Living Flame Of Love (Llama de amor viva), Ana de Peñalosa takes centre stage in Geography of Rebels to tell her story and the story of a Europe torn between the Reformation and Counter-reformation in a unique and utterly absorbing manner, weaving a complex tapestry of allegories, symbols, allusions and revelations, which is likely to invite just as many interpretations and learned discussions as the poetic heritage of her more renowned admirer.
Both of those, but especially the latter, are intense in their specificity and ability to provide a baseline for what Llansol is, page-by-page, writing about. I eventually Googled Ana de Peñalosa and got to her connection with St. John of the Cross (different from Saint John of the New Testament for those following along at home), but that’s about it.
There’s a bit at the beginning of Macedonio Fernandez’s The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel) in which he talks about how to defeat “skip-around readers.” I’m paraphrasing here, but he dismisses modern readers who can’t focus on reading a book from start to finish, but jump around, getting a taste and pretending they understand the book fully. His attempt to “defeat” them is to disorder his book, to make it so nonlinear that when they skip around, they end up reading it in a completely linear fashion.
Trying to read Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet in chronological order is a chore. This book is built for the skip-around reader, the person who skims. Spoiler alert: That’s how I ended up approaching the Llansol, and man, is it a better book if you just give the middle finger to the idea of page 2 coming after page 1.
Going back to Macedonio—Borges’s mentor, a true intellectual rebel—even as he was toying with his “skip-around” readers, he was addressing them. He was concerned with their experience. Even that joke quoted above is tongue-in-cheek: Look, I know this is as confusing as fuck, but I did it on purpose because *wink* if you put the pieces together it’s really quite fun and fulfilling. I would argue that he can’t even make a joke about the non-linearity of the text and skip-around readers without having his “true” readers in mind.
I don’t think Llansol cares about her readers at all.
Which is a damning thing to say in 2018. In our moment of intersectionality, sensitivity readers, and identity-politics driven readings, it’s not acceptable to just say whatever, readers be damned like it once was. Sure, there’s a huge chasm between latent racism and Llansol’s ability to cerebral herself into an audience of one, but the impulse stems from a similar place—the cult of the genius. A societal belief in the artist as somehow “above” or “separate from” society, infallible given their creative gifts, implicitly granted license to say whatever they want because what they have to say with either change society’s thinking or change how we think about artistic possibilities can give rise to both beautiful and horrifying results.
Every reviewer who has ever put finger to keyboard knows that “self-indulgent” is the code word for books in which the author thinks they’re a genius, but doesn’t accomplish anything unique. Calling a book “self-indulgent” is akin to throwing it on a garbage fire in today’s world. Although we tolerate more self-indulgent, Kardashian-esque tweets in 2018 than we should ever have to suffer, the idea of writing for oneself, without being reined in, without being told what’s acceptable in terms of societal or aesthetic norms—it’s somehow horrifying. That’s the mark that every author strives to avoid.
Except Knausgaard. And maybe Llansol (R.I.P.).
There is a difference though: Knausgaard is self-indulgent to the extreme, yet always has the reader in mind; Llansol’s disinterest in the reader is what makes her writing so self-indulgent.
(That is another sentence construction so lazy and pathetic in its self-affirmation—”X is A to B; Y is B to A”—that I would tweet out a big ol’ 🖕 to this entire post. Eat shit, Post.)
I’m only a mere 81% of the way through My Struggle: Volume Six (making me 94% of the way through the entire sextet?), but there’s never been a moment in which I’m not aware that Knausgaard is aware of me as a “reader.” Most readers think he’s boring, and that’s fine, that’s an acceptable reading. (Conversely, the self-proclaimed intelligentsia think he’s a genius, which is equally off-mark in my opinion.) When Knausgaard is at his most “boring,” he’s also at his most manipulative. Pessoa’s heteronym, Vincent Guedes, insists upon his nature, upon his disengaging from life because life is “disquiet” and “suffering.” Knausgaard shows you boring to make you feel like he’s like you.
The most exciting thing I did today was walk my son to the coffee shop. He was in his stroller. He wouldn’t sleep like usual. He spent the entire time trying to grab everyone’s seats. I skipped around in Geography of Rebels. I tried reading aloud to him. “When she went in, it reminded her of a tower.” I wanted to think about the passive voice, but he wanted to go home. He has a cough and every cough feels like the worst cough when you’re a parent, even if you know, in that rational part of your brain, that the only survivors in the world are the kids who can survive colds. I took him home and along the way tried to think about how to write a book review about not writing a book review that would both undercut my own sense of self and make everyone agree with me. Is writing just Scientology performed in different outlets?
That’s life. Exciting things aren’t always happening, Jonathan Franzen.
The block quote above is ironic, but in keeping with the Knausgaard version of self-indulgence—we’re all diurnal creatures, every once in a while we can drift off and have abstract, meaningful thoughts about life, death, relationships, progeny, and the influence of history.
I prefer being “bored” in fiction to being intentionally overwhelmed by meaning.
But that might just be me?
What would happen if this weekend Keith Gessen or Garth Risk Hallberg wrote a review for the New York Times proclaiming that Geography of Rebels was far superior to Finnegans Wake? Would that change my opinion of Llansol’s “self-indulgence”?
Simply that. Yes. I would assume I am more wrong and stupid than usual.
That’s all it takes. Someone I respect telling me I should like something.
How many steps removed is our late-capitalist moment from fascism?
Remove art from the conversation for a moment. How often are new gadgets purchased because they’re “cool”? Because “how could you live without them?”
This sort of thinking was eschewed in 1990s high school settings—see Heathers (and not the bullshit remake) and the advent of actual “alternative” music, such as Nevermind—yet has resurfaced in subtle, yet incredibly powerful ways. But now we embrace the signifying art/objects/opinions that give us entrance to the tribe we most closely align with. We all know our own shibboleths and how to perform them.
I want your approval. If the Man Booker tells me this is the “best book,” it’s the best book. To so, so, so many people. It’s easier that way. One way to reduce the tension of living is to belong.
That might be the real secret behind the advent of Knausgaard in Norway and the world. Not fitting in, but in a way that was ultra-concerned about The Reader, fully imagined. The words and sentences are never that abstract, because you have to be able to feel what he feels. (See part II of this post to be horrified by that statement.) But no one else was doing this when he did it. He tried something risky and didn’t couch it in abstractions 1% of the 1% willing to read a book could figure out. When you pay attention to every second of your life, you realize how much time you just waste. We don’t see it, because we think our waste is actually a thing of value, but it rarely is. One aspect of Knausgaard’s approach is to unmask this. The writer isn’t brilliant every second of the day, especially not when picking out prawns and crackers.
Does a nonprofit press have to “fit in”? If a tastemaker—and no, I’m not one, but I can play one on my blog—says a book is good or bad, is it actually good or bad? Probably not! The number of books that are elevated through singular opinions is disturbing to anyone who has read about behavioral economics and/or Hitler’s rise to power. (Quick clarification: See part II of this essay, which will be about Knausgaard’s reading of Mein Kampf in My Struggle: Volume Six. This book has taught me more about Hitler’s life than any history class I ever took, which, I know, is on me, but it’s also proof that a book like My Struggle can be weirdly impactful when read at the right moment.) If something is anointed, it’s soooooo much harder to have an original opinion. That’s how power works.
If the New York Times tells me Geography of Rebels is great? I’ll read it. But what about the thousand books a year they don’t get to, but are solidly good? And the 2-3 of those that are brilliant? The NYT is barely more of an arbiter than I am when you get right down to it. AND THAT IS TERRIFYING TO ALL OF US. Two major ideas of twenty-first century thought about limitation of our brains are that a) you don’t know what you don’t know + what you know, and b) you “know” what you “know” because of unrecognized biases of the mind. Both of these destabilize the idea of “objective evaluation,” which is dangerous when used in manipulative (re: PR) ways.
Let’s apply that to the nonprofit publishing world for a second: If I’m a reader for a National Endowment of the Arts grant and I think that a press is publishing “sub-par work that doesn’t deserve taxpayer money,” I could, theoretically, help get them defunded. That would—in a lot of instances—end that press’s existence. And why? Because I, as a panelist/critic found a book self-indulgent or “bad”? (FYI: I have seen this happen. I can’t talk specifics, but there is a recording of me saying “fuck that!” in a government file, so I guess I can cross that off my bucket list.)
The world is a scary place. For the first time since Chernobyl, I feel like I’m more likely to die of non-natural, cultural-environmental causes than not. (Let’s all drink ourselves to death? WRONG ANSWER.) I feel like the democracy of Twitter, and “the Internet” before it, has consolidated in ways that play straight into the worst trends of today’s capitalist moment. I respect Pessoa’s personal pessimism, and yet question why we think everything he wrote is automatically “great.” (Underlining quotes to impress Twitter fans doesn’t impress me.)
This is why—and yes, we’re entering into the last phase of my 52-week plan for these posts with this statement—I believe non-profit presses represent an interesting substratum of 2018 diversity in publishing. They are publishing the unpopular books that need to exist to keep book culture interesting.
I’m certain other readers will approach Geography of Rebels and fall into its shifting images and evocative prose. The Pessoa-like quality of Llansol’s writing. And that’s great for them!
For me, I like complicated prose that’s less based in evaluating the self in spiritual ways, and more about cerebral games that you can figure out through close reading and logic. And with that said, it’s time to move over to the Oulipian offerings Deep Vellum is bringing out this month.