Over the past couple of weeks I've read three vaunted books: Bruno Arpaia's The Angel of History, J.M. Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year, and Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach. All three were flawed, of course, because all novels are flawed. Literature is, after all, a project of failure: "Try Again. Fail again. Fail better." The Coetzee, however, stands head and shoulders above the other books: why?

Arpaia's story of the last months of Walter Benjamin's life reads like an accomplished novelisation of the film of Benjamin's trials and tribulations in trying to protect the manuscript of Passagen-Werk (what we now know as The Arcades Project) whilst fleeing Nazi Germany and trying to cross into Spain over the Pyrenees to the relative safety of Portbou. Intertwined with Benjamin's tale, told in the third person, is the first person narrative of Laureano Mahojo, a Republican militant who fought in the Spanish Civil War. His memories of the war form the background to the focal point of the novel when, one night, he meets Benjamin, and their lives briefly entwine.

Both the first and third person narratives disappoint, but in different ways. The tone of the former is deliberately that of the storyteller. Laureano is speaking directly to someone he addresses irregularly as "my son": we, the reader, are thus spoken to, admonished, involved quite directly. Aware that the Benjamin story is what we've come for, Laureano teases us that the detail of their meeting is soon to come, but first he wants to tell his own story, lay down in full the context of that meeting (at one level of abstraction, this does nicely reinforce the fact that the Spanish Civil War was an essential precursor to the coming slaughter of the Second World War). Confidently, he gives a bravura performance telling of his part in the heroism and folly of war. But the very coherence and detail of the linear narrative undermines any notion that Laureano's memories are anything but a story created by Arpaia. The author's eloquence foregrounds a lack of authenticity that is never investigated or even recognised. There is an awful, self-assured rhetorical quality that forbids deep involvement on the part of the reader who can never forget that this is a story and is never given the credit for a recognition that needs to be shared by the writer.

The parts dealing with Benjamin himself amount to a decent potted biography of his desperate last months. But they are arch and over-dramatised. At no point are Benjamin's thoughts on the novel used by Arpaia to help him investigate what it is he is doing writing his own book about the German critic.

McEwan's On Chesil Beach is airless, arid, almost pointillist. Exact and pedantic -- the work is claustrophobic and inorganic. It never becomes an artwork because it isn't an investigation into anything: it is the laying bare of a meticulous plan. McEwan doesn't write to discover, he writes to deliver his knowledge about his puppet characters. There is no silence in the work, there is only witheld information, which is quite a different thing. Is the starched writing a kind of pathetic fallacy for his characters' inward desperation? No. McEwan eschews empathy -- his writing constitutionally unable to create it -- because of his overarching need to direct. He is, perhaps, the best exponent of Establishment Literary Fiction that we have ...

Coetzee's latest effort is infuriating and frustrating in parts, as I said in the brief review of it I posted yesterday. But its investigation into itself makes it an invigorating read. I find myself, however, at odds with what I perceive to be Coetzee's project of deep irony that underpins his recent work. The provisionality that grounds, yet undoes, all writing can be addressed in a modernist or a postmodernist way: the search for new ways of investigating the endeavour of writing; or scepticism towards the possibility of such an address. When that scepticism is wrapped inside the investigation itself, absurdity beckons.

Readers Comments

  1. I think maybe you are being a bit hard on this book. Isn't the brevity of those essayistic passages an example of a late style, pared down to its elements? Ripe? Contrast the McEwan with its over-conscious deliberate straining through many words after...very little.

  2. Spot on with McEwan! Absolutely spot on! BTW, wait til you see Verso's (interest declared!) 'Walter Benjamin's Archive' - you will love it, guarantee!

  3. What is Verso's "Walter Benjamin's Archive"??

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