Friday, February 10, 2012

"At Best I Am Able To Capture..."

Peter Handke's long essay A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is an elegy for his mother, a quarrel with memory, and a complaint against language. Handke wrote the piece in two months in early 1972 following the suicide of his mother, in a compulsive attempt to understand a woman he'd largely ignored as an adult, and to wrestle with the implications of rendering a life, another's as well his own, in language. (The book was originally published in 1972 as Wunschloses Unglück, and reissued in English in 2002 by New York Review Books Classics with an introduction by Jeffrey Eugenides, who knows a thing or two about grief and language.)

Handke pits "facts"—biographical details of his mother's life before and after his birth, culled chiefly from conversation and letters—against "formulations," versions of and guesses about his mother enacted against the broad emotional terrain of memory and desire: "[I]sn't all formulation, even of things that have really happened, more or less a fiction?" he asks. "Less, if we content ourselves with a mere record of events; more, if we try to formulate in depth? And the more fiction we put into a narrative, the more likely it is to interest others, because people identify more readily with formulation than with recorded facts. Does this explain the need for poetry?"

As in many works of autobiography, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams masquerades as a biography, and the true drama takes place more in the composing, in the wrestling of a writer's materials, than in the life being described. Strewn throughout his essay are laments of language's difficulties. In a fantastic four-page parenthetical near the middle of the book, Handke writes (I'm excerpting):
"(Of course what is written here about a particular person is rather general; but only such generalisations, in explicit disregard of my mother as a possibly unique protagonist in a possibly unique story, can be of interest to anyone but myself. Merely to relate the vicissitudes of a life that came to a sudden end would be pure presumption.

These two dangers – the danger of merely telling what happened and the danger of a human individual becoming painlessly submerged in poetic sentences – have slowed down my writing, because in every sentence I am afraid of losing my balance. This is true of every literary effort, but especially in this case, where the facts are so overwhelming and there is hardly anything to think out.
Consequently I first took the facts as my starting point and looked for ways of formulating them. But I soon noticed that in looking for formulations I was moving away from the facts. I then adopted a new approach – starting not with the facts but with the already available formulations, the linguistic deposit of man’s social experience. From my mother’s life, I sifted out the elements that were already foreseen in these formulas, for only with the help of a ready-made public language was it possible to single out from among all the irrelevant facts of this life the few that cried out to be made public.


In stories we often read that something or other is “unnameable” or “indescribable”; ordinarily this strikes me as a cheap excuse. This story, however, is really about the nameless, about speechless moments of terror. It is about moments when the mind boggles with horror, states of fear so brief that speech always comes too late; about dream happenings so gruesome that the mind perceives them physically as worms. The blood curdles, the breath catches, “a cold chill crept up my back, my hair stood on end” – states experiences while listening to a ghost story, while turning on a water tap that you can quickly turn off again; on the street in the evening with a beer bottle in one hand; in short, it is a record of states, not a well-rounded story with an anticipated, hence, comforting, end.
At best I am able to capture my mother’s story for brief moments in dreams, because then her feelings become so palpable that I experience them as doubles and am identical with them; but these are precisely the moments I have already mentioned, in which extreme need to communicate coincides with extreme speechlessness. That is why I affect the usual biographical pattern and write: “At that time… later”, “Because … although”, “was … became nothing”, hoping in this way to dominate the horror. That, perhaps, is the comical part of my story.)
Handke's grim, Eastern European humor is evident in that last sentence, but his essay is not humorous but bleak, and tremendously sad. And beautiful, packed with telling, evocative details of post-War Germany and Austria, a cinematic re-telling of a period even as that period—and the woman living in it—remain frustratingly unknowable. Near the end he writes, in an oft-quoted passage, "It is not true that writing has helped me. In my weeks of preoccupation with the story, the story has not ceased to preoccupy me. Writing has not, as I at first supposed, been a remembering of a concluded period in my life, but merely a constant pretense at remembering, in the form of sentences that only lay claim to detachment."


I read Handke's book as I was in the middle of Nathalie Sarraute's Childhood, written when the French author was in her 80s, and published in 1984. Both books struggle with the burden of remembering, of recognizing the sometimes enormous, unbridgeable distance between the rememberer and the writer. Where Handke attempts a measured, somewhat objective perspective of his troubled mother, tumbling occasionally into emotional moments of affection and grief, Sarraute invites us to overhear her most intimate of recollections as those memories are batted around by competing voices in her imagination. If personal essaying is the shape of thinking on the page, than Childhood is one of the most idiosyncratically shaped memoirs of recent times, nothing short of a conversation between Sarraute and herself(selves): "You really believe that?", "But what could it have been?", "Why, I wonder...", "Where did that come from, all of a sudden," "Be careful, or you'll be getting pretentious...": all of the moments of doubt and self-interrogations left on the essayist's cutting-room floor here become the text itself. David Lazar in "Occasional Desire" (in the strong collection he edited, Truth in Nonfiction) describes the back and forth between these inner voices as "a meditation on memory, a theory of memory by necessity incomplete." Childhood is essentially chronological but, as in any autobiographical chronology, the movement forward is fraught with stops and starts, u-turns, and prized moments or shards of moments glinting brightly against the broad, calendar-driven background.

There are many remarkable passages in Childhood, many of them originating in Sarraute's memories of childhood and her fraught relationship with her mother. In one passage, Sarraute essays an intensely melancholy period where she was beginning to reckon with the power of the imagination and language to conspire against her. "Ideas" begin to plague her, ideas being young Nathalie's word for uninvited thoughts invading her growing, fertile mind, specifically the thought that her doll was more beautiful than her mother, an awful, transgressive thing to have to believe and accept. Excerpts:
How beautiful she is... I can’t tear myself away from her, I hold Mama’s hand more tightly, I keep her back so that we can stay there just a few more instants, so than I can go on looking in the window at that face... contemplating it...
—It’s difficult to see in retrospect what was so fascinating about that doll.

—I can’t really manage to understand. All I can see is her rather vague face, smooth and pink... luminous... as if lit from within... and also the proud curve of her nostrils, her lips, with their corners upturned... The thing I especially recall is my wonderment... everything about her was beautiful. Beauty—was that. That was what it was—to be beautiful.
   I suddenly feel something like embarrassment, slight distress... it’s as if somewhere inside me I have bumped into something, something has come and knocked into me... it takes shape, it acquires a form... a very precise form: “She is more beautiful than Mama.”

—Where did that come from, all of a sudden?

—For a long time it was enough, when I happened to think back to that moment...


Now that this idea has entrenched itself in me, it is not just a matter of willpower for me to dislodge it. I can force myself to uproot it, to put another idea in its place, but only for a time... it’s still there, crouching in a corner, ready to get up at any moment, to push everything else out of its way, to occupy the whole space... It seems that trying to keep it down, to suppress it, only increases its growth. It is the proof, the sign of what I am: a child who doesn’t love its mother. A child who bears the stigma of something that separates it, that outlaws it from other children... the light-hearted, carefree children I see laughing, shouting, chasing one another, swinging in the garden, in the square... and I am on my own. Alone with that something, which no one knows about and which no one, if told about it, would be able to believe.
   I give up trying to struggle, trying to conjure up once again the face in the window and to place it side by side with Mama’s face... for that, I know, will only entrench the idea more firmly...
   And in any case, the doll has vanished of her own accord, carrying with her the idea I had fixed on her... But its place has immediately been taken... another, similar idea has come to replace it. Perhaps it is even this new idea that has dislodged it...

  Something that used to be in me has gone, something that is in all the other children, the real children... those rapid, limpid, running waters, like mountain streams, torrents, they have turned into the stagnant, muddy, polluted waters of ponds... the waters that attract mosquitoes. You don’t need to tell me again that I wasn’t capable of conjuring up these images... what is certain is that they convey the exact sensation produced in me by my pitiable stare,
  Ideas arrive at any moment, they sting, ah, here’s one...and the tiny barb digs in, it hurts... “Mama’s skin is like a monkey’s.”
  That’s how they are now, these ideas, they take all sorts of liberties. I look at Mama’s décolletage, her golden, suntanned arms, and all of a sudden a little devil in me, a malicious little sprite, like the “domovoi"’ that play all sorts of tricks in houses, splashes that idea up at me: “Mama’s skin is like a monkey’s.” I try to wipe it off, to rub it out... it isn’t true, I don’t believe it... I didn’t think that. But there is nothing to be done, the furry coat of a monkey glimpsed in a cage in the zoo came, I don’t know how, and alighted on Mama’s neck, on her arms, and here is the idea... it hurts me...
   I call Mama to the rescue, she must make it better... “You know, Mama, I have another idea now..." She immediately looks annoyed... “Now what is it?" “Well, I think... that your... skin is like a monkey’s...” she will look to see what I have there, what has grown in me, against my will, we’ll look at it together... it’s so ridiculous, grotesque... we can only scoff at it, she will go off into one of her gales of laughter, which always make me laugh with her, we shall both laugh at it, and the idea will go back where it came from...where it was born... somewhere outside me, in a place I don’t know... Or else, Mama will say: “Well, I’m delighted. You remember how sweet those little monkeys were.”
—A reply that you are imagining now...
Later, Sarraute overhears her maid complain that Sarraute's mother is stingy with the help staff, and Nathalie can't bear the thought of having a mean mother. To her great relief, at dinner she watches her mother serve the maid a portion of meat equal to the mother's, but later her mother will serve the maid a smaller, less generous portion. The obsessive way that Sarraute dreads the evidence of her mother's unfairness is translated powerfully, and it's sad to read, for what Sarraute is really dealing with here is her coming-of-age, not only as a growing daughter who's confronted with seeing her mother in an unflattering light, but as a nascent writer burdened with remembering, and naming, it all, and with the unfortunate detachment from the world required of independent thought. Decades later, her memories still pulse as dialogue between the accepting and the unaccepting Nathalie.


I recently flew from New York City to Chicago. Nasty weather required that we fly considerably further north than planned, so when the plane approached Chicago it did so flying due south, heading down Lake Michigan, parallel to the Illinois shore. The lake is breathtakingly large, larger than I imagined or pretended to know from maps. We approached Chicago at dusk, in a misty fog. The skyline came into view as a collection of hulking, brown-gray shapes; I recognized the buildings, but there was an otherness to the city for which I was unprepared. Uncanny, the city's gradual appearance. I wish I'd had my camera. What struck me was the inevitable difficulty and disappointment I knew I'd experience later trying to describe the sight. The cityscape was there, I knew it, recognized it, yet it was filtered through something that seemed to affect its very shape, leaving it only half-recognizable. What do I do with that? How does language make sense of a fact that changes outline and color?

1 comment:

Richard Gilbert said...

Great post about what sound like two amazing books. I think the way they describe difficult childhood and its aftermath is more common than the clean adventure narrative memoirs that become bestsellers. They are trying to understand what can't be, trying to explain what can't be. Too murky, like that skyline.