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This article is taken from PN Review 265, Volume 48 Number 5, May - June 2022.

Foreground and Background Gabriel Josipovici
Karenin’s Discovery
Chapters 8 and 9 of Part II of Anna Karenina form a, perhaps the, crucial turning-point of the novel. What has until then been tacit, barely acknowledged, now comes out into the open as Karenin decides to confront his wife with the fact that her actions are giving rise to gossip in society; and then, when he actually confronts her, both discover feelings in themselves and in the other they didn’t know existed.

The four or five pages this takes are a perfect example of Tolstoy’s narrative art and of his ease with the conventions of nineteenth-century fiction, with the unobtrusive narrator guiding us into the depths of the characters’ thoughts and emotions within a well-realised setting:
When he reached home he went into his study, as usual, and seated himself in his armchair, and opened a book on the Papacy at the place marked by a paperknife. He read until one o’clock, just as he usually did, only now and again rubbing his high forehead and jerking his head, as though to drive something away.
Eventually he puts down the book. Anna has still not returned from her dinner-party. He goes into the bedroom, now openly troubled by conflicting emotions:
He experienced a sensation such as a man might feel who, quietly crossing a bridge over a chasm, suddenly discovers that the bridge is broken and the abyss yawns below… For the first time the probability of his wife’s falling in love with anybody occurred to him, and he was horrified.

He did not undress, but paced up and down with his even step over the echoing parquet floor of the dining-room, lit by a single lamp, over the carpet of the dark drawing-room, where a solitary light shone upon the large, recently-painted portrait of himself hanging above the sofa, and on through her sitting-room, where two candles burned, illuminating the portraits of her parents and woman friends and the pretty knick-knacks on her writing-table, so familiar to him. Through her room he reached the door of their bedroom and turned back again (p.158–9 in Rosemary Edmunds’ 1954 Penguin translation).
The calm, unhurried pace of the narration, mirroring Karenin’s unhurried perambulation through the apartment, effortlessly conveys his thoughts as well as describing for us the ambiance in which he and Anna live, but at the same time it manages to convey to us things about Karenin and his wife of which neither of them is aware. As with the listener to a Beethoven piano sonata or symphony, the reader here is given the sense of being able to let himself go and to let the narrative take him along with it, confident that it will lead him deeper into himself as well as into the story. Every detail is significant yet is so intimately a part of a fully realised continuum that it is only at a second or third reading or hearing that we start to see just what the novelist or composer is up to.

What Tolstoy is conveying in these two passages is both the solidity and comfort of Karenin’s way of life and the way it has bolstered and reinforced what is probably an innate tendency to selfishness and even to smugness. He settles down in his (i.e. his habitual) armchair to read a book that has nothing to do with his life yet is not some frivolous novel but rather a serious work of history. However, something is troubling him of which he is not even aware. As usual he goes on reading till one o’clock in the morning, ‘only now and again rubbing his high forehead and jerking his head’ – and now Tolstoy ventures something more than a simple description: ‘though to drive something away’. He may imagine it is a fly but we know that it is an unwelcome thought.

And now that thought comes out into the open, preceded by a graphic image of impending danger, that of a man walking calmly across a bridge over an abyss, only to realise half-way across that the bridge is broken and ‘the abyss yawns below’. At this point, finally, he lets the thought he had been resisting all evening enter his consciousness: ‘For the first time the probability of his wife’s falling in love with anybody occurred to him, and he was horrified.’ That ‘horrified’ [uzhasnulsia] is brilliant: it leaves open whether it horrifies him because he loves her or because of the interruption it might cause to the comfortable flow of his life and the damage it might do to his reputation.

That is enough for the moment. Just as Karenin needs to move in order to digest what he has only just allowed himself to think, so the reader needs to be returned to (apparently) simple description. For though Tolstoy seems to be merely describing Karenin’s perambulation through the flat, the description of the rooms he walks through, the parquet of the dining-room, the carpet of the drawing-room, and especially the pictures hanging on the wall and the way they are lit, nudge us further into an understanding, more acute than Karenin’s own, of the man, his background, and his assumptions. Most damning of course is the self-portrait on the wall, with the solitary light shining upon it, testifying to his sense of his own importance; but as he moves into his wife’s sitting-room we also learn about her through the attention drawn to the portraits of her parents and friends on the walls and to the ‘pretty little knick-knacks on her writing-table’. This world, hers within his, as it were, is clearly a source of comfort to her, but it also suggests the sense of imprisonment of which, like him, she is hardly aware.

But I suspect I have been insensitive to Tolstoy in describing him as ‘nudging’ the reader. What is so remarkable about Tolstoy is that we rarely have the sense, as we do in lesser writers, of any of this as having been planted so as to make the points the author wishes to make; rather, they form part of a whole which, we sense, arises in Tolstoy’s imagination and which he has the skill to convey to us. To see them as planted is to read too suspiciously.

The novel deflects suspicion in many ways, but especially by taking into its orbit not only the story of Anna and her husband but also of her brother and his wife and of Kitty and Levin. The sections we are looking at are followed by the wonderful passages on Levin, who has retreated to his country estate to try to get over the pain of Kitty’s rejection of his marriage proposal; and by the short section on the coming of spring in the countryside in particular, which takes us from individual human crises to the larger rhythms of nature, which is both oblivious to these things and at the same time and perhaps for precisely that reason, strangely consoling. That is what people mean when they talk of Tolstoy’s epic style. Like Homer, who can describe a warrior falling from his chariot, pierced through with a javelin as like a diver leaping from a high rock into the sea, Tolstoy’s art of narrative juxtaposition helps us to see individual lives within a larger whole.

And yet. Being where we are, with Proust and Kafka and Joyce and Woolf between us and Tolstoy, it is impossible not to see, if even for a moment, what I have described as part of a whole as being one item after another planted there to further the author’s purpose. We have in a sense been made bad readers of Tolstoy by what stands between him and us. We cannot help but think, at least on occasion, reading him, of the artist putting the construct together to persuade us of the truth of his vision rather than allowing ourselves to live unquestioningly in his world. This is something we never do with Homer, even though there are a great many more artists standing between him and us. Why is this?

In part I think it is because with Homer we are clearly in an oral world. The bard tells us from the outset that he is reliant for his story on the Muse and every line reminds us of this fact: the Muse (or the tradition) gives him his material and his form (fixed epithets, lines with their strict rhythmic rules, and so on) and he shapes it. Tolstoy, on the other hand, is an individual with a distinctive style and set of concerns. He is wonderful in the way his nature is, in his most successful works, like Shakespeare’s, ‘subdued / To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand’ (Sonnet 111). Yet the fact that we note this as an achievement suggests that it is a kind of overcoming, a kind of warding off.

What is it that is being overcome, warded off?

Background and Foreground
When Marcel Duchamp remarked in an interview that ‘the imperative to paint in background is degrading for a painter’ he was, as so often with him, articulating in a brief sentence what it would take a long disquisition to unpack. Essentially, he was questioning the nature of the art of the West with which he had grown up, an art that felt the need to persuade the viewer that what he or she was seeing enclosed within the frame was a faithful reproduction of something that already existed, whether a known historical episode, a story from mythology, a landscape or a figure. When the relations between the artist and his patron or market were unquestioned this was taken as natural, it was the kind of thing the patron wanted and the artist was there to produce it, for a fee. But once artists began to question the market and to ask what it was they were in effect doing, they began to feel that what they were making they were making in the first place not because they needed to earn their living but because it was something they wanted to do or felt called upon to do. What this was, of course, was not clear, but that it had to do with self-fulfilment, with what, in the case of a painter like van Gogh, could even be called a religious vocation, rather than with money or prestige was not in doubt. And with that came the sense that every stroke of the brush was significant and had in a sense to be accounted for. The consequence was the gradual disappearance in non-academic artists, of the dichotomy between background and foreground, whether in van Gogh or Cézanne, or in the parallel case of music, in Schoenberg or Varèse.

Nowhere is the development clearer yet nowhere is it more difficult to grasp than in the field of the novel. For background, in what we call the classic novel, is more than a question of setting, more, to return to Tolstoy, than the apartment through which Karenin walks in his anguished attempt to understand what it is that is happening to him and his marriage. It is Karenin himself and his life-story, Anna and her life-story, Levin and Kitty and Vronsky and Oblonsky and all that we learn about them, unobtrusively, from Tolstoy.

And not just what we learn about Oblonsky’s sybaritic nature or Vronsky’s relations to his regiment, but every detail, however tiny, however insignificant, however ephemeral, in the larger picture presented to us, and which helps Tolstoy build up his portrait of a failed marriage and its tragic consequences. Here, for example is a moment, one might say an insignificant moment, in the shoot undertaken one evening by Levin and Oblonsky, who has come to visit him at his estate in the country:
In the thicket the birds chirped louder and more busily. Nearby a brown owl hooted, and Laska gave a start, took a few cautious steps, and, putting her head on one side, pricked up her ears again. A cuckoo was heard on the other side of the stream. It called twice on its usual note, and then gave a hoarse, hurried call and broke down.

‘Fancy, the cuckoo already!’ said Oblonsky, appearing from behind a bush. (180)
This is what we love Tolstoy for, his ability to encompass both Karenin’s anguish and these two friends out shooting snipe on an early Spring evening. But, a Duchampian sceptic might ask, where did this owl come from, this cuckoo? The thicket, the birds, the dog – they have all been conjured up by Tolstoy in order to convey to us the feel of this moment. They are there to set the scene, to make us feel Levin’s happy integration in his rural life, which is as real for him as his love for Kitty in St Petersburg, if not more so, just as Vronsky’s passion for horses is as real if not more so than his love for Anna; and all this helps Tolstoy tell  his story of Anna and Kitty and Karenin and Levin and Vronsky and Oblonsky. But, the Duchampian would say, am I condemned to invent all these details till the end of my working life?

But what is wrong with that? we might respond. And no doubt Duchamp would answer, Nothing, but it’s not for me, I personally find it degrading to be asked to do it. And behind that ‘I’ is Duchamp’s wager that it is he who speaks for the artist of his day, not those who would slavishly follow Tolstoy.

You do not ask what is the background of Bloom in Ulysses or Estragon in Waiting for Godot or Cinoc in Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual. You may be given it but it is quite likely to be contradicted elsewhere in the works in which they appear. Not because the writer is teasing us, but because he doesn’t know. Or rather, if that answer is seen as too coy, because he could have chosen for it to be this or this or this or this and there is nothing to allow him to decide which. Any back story, such a writer feels, would inevitably be arbitrary, and therefore would inevitably have the stamp of a subjective choice by the author, which forces him to ask: Why should I pick one out and pretend it is true simply for the satisfaction of my reader? Have I really given up so much in my life, made the choice of spending hours every day writing fiction, merely to satisfy my reader?

Listen to one Duchampian story-teller, Hamm in Beckett’s Endgame: ‘It was an extra-ordinarily bitter day, I remember, zero by the thermometer… It was a glorious day, I remember, fifty by the heliometer, but already the sun was sinking down into the… It was a howling wild day, I remember, a hundred by the anemometer. The wind was tearing up the dead pines… It was an exceedingly dry day, I remember, zero by the hygrometer. Ideal weather for my lumbago…’ Each of these possibilities could be made plausible, readable, by Hamm. But he feels, as no doubt Beckett feels, that such story-telling is merely his way of keeping himself from facing the fact that ‘you’re on earth, there’s no cure for that!’

In his late work Beckett grows more relaxed, less angry. But what drives his writing, both constrains and releases it, does not change. ‘A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine.’ That is how Company begins. A voice, he soon explains/discovers ‘devising it all for company.’ The voice may tell him to imagine, and this will allow him to remember and so to produce his most serenely autobiographical work. Yet those memories or imaginings are licensed, so to speak, only by being anchored so firmly to a voice coming to one in the dark – and Beckett exploits with relish the fact that ‘one’ is both oneself and anyone.

Anna Karenina gives the impression that it is, somehow, writing itself. Tolstoy’s mastery is seemingly so effortless that once – usually with the first sentence – we have entered this world we cease to think of it as a story and think of it as – what? In truth we don’t think of it at all, we just read and allow the work to fill our imagination. Perhaps we should call it an unfolding, both an unfolding of the many lives we encounter in the course of the book and of our own sense of ourselves and our own possibilities. In this again it is like a Beethoven sonata or symphony. For contrary to what is often said, Beethoven’s power over us comes not from the assertion of his mighty will, his overwhelming personality, but from the sense that it is not a piece of music that is unfolding before (and within) us but life itself, our own life in particular. You never feel this with Mozart or Haydn, with them there is always the sense of a performance, of something made and  then remade in the concert hall for us each time we attend a concert. And the same is true of Bach and indeed of all music before Beet­hoven.

We might then say that the artists of the modern era I have been talking about go out of their way to remind us of what came naturally to Mozart and Haydn: that this is a construction, something made and remade as we watch, listen, read. But the modern work of art differs in one fundamental aspect both from its nineteenth­century predecessors and from the art of earlier times. It no longer feels natural to perform, it no longer seems required by society. And so for the modern artist filled with Duchampian scepticism there is something inherently absurd, inherently impossible about the whole enterprise.

And yet it is not enough to suggest a course of treatment for this scepticism, or to point to their contemporaries who do not seem infected by it. For, to them – and, believe me, they have looked – there is no treatment available and what they feel about their uninfected contemporaries is that their work is in a strange way hollow, unreal. They seem to be like that pseudo-swimmer Kierkegaard talks about, who hung himself from the ceiling in a harness and moved his arms and legs vigorously and imagined he was swimming.

Can we decide who is right here?

Full and Empty Speech
There is a fascinating letter by Paul Celan in which he insists that reality for the poem is in no way something fixed, predetermined, but something that is at issue, something to be questioned. He returns to this in his lecture, The Meridian: the poem does not describe, he says here, it is an exploration, an activity. And we feel this as we read Proust or Woolf or Beckett, that the work is not the transcription of a story which the author is telling us but rather is itself a movement of discovery. The philosopher John Mepham explains this in a fine essay on Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. ‘The traditional novel,’ he writes, ‘is a form of representation which involves the creation of an imaginary but well-ordered fictional space. Within this space are represented the relationships, the dramas and the destinies of individual lives.’ ‘Well-ordered’ is the key here, for though the story may involve apparently confused and chaotic accidents and the depiction of crises in the lives of the characters which they often do not comprehend it is a precondition of the novel that the narrator is immune to this (that is why Tristram Shandy, written in the 1750s, in which this axiom is under assault from the very beginning, feels such a modern work, so out of place in its time).

‘But what,’ asks Mepham, ‘if we lack this sense of epistemological security? What if our experience seems fragmented, partial, incomplete, disordered? Then writing might be a way not of representing but of creating order.’ ‘Think,’ he says, ‘about the memory one might have of a person one has loved.’ It is rare that our feelings in this instance are clear and orderly. Rather,
we might have the feeling that the remembered person escapes us, is ungraspable, cannot be contained in our minds except as a disordered flow of particular fragments of memory of some particular scenes, some images, gestures, a tone of voice, haunting phrases, perhaps particularly significant colours and sounds… Then we would feel… that there was something to be said but that we lacked the means of saying it.
In that case, he says:
Narration would not be the embodiment of some pre-existing knowledge, but the satisfaction of the desire to speak with appropriate intensity about things of which our knowledge is most uncertain.
Mepham’s remarks remind me not of traditional criticism but rather of certain modern trends in psycho­analysis, and especially of Lacan and his school. A recent essay on Perec and psychoanalysis makes the point well:
Psychoanalysis is not straightforwardly the talking cure in the sense of a cure by talking. It is also, equally, perhaps even more important, the cure for talking – for a certain kind of talking that Lacan called ‘empty speech’, a form of speech he distinguished from its opposite, full speech. He defined full speech as follows: ‘Full speech is speech which aims at, which forms, the truth such as it becomes established in the recognition of one person by another. Full speech is speech which performs.’ (Roger Bacon, Georges Perec, W, and the making of The Memory of Childhood’, Raritan, Fall 2020, pp.92–118)
The reason for what Beckett described as cacoethes scribendi, the mania for writing (Greek kakos, bad, + ethos, innate tendency) of writing, and whose hold over him he never ceased to lament, is simple: it is the desire to achieve that ‘full speech’ of which Lacan speaks. But unlike the psychoanalysts, who, in their more optimistic moments, imagine that a successful cure, meaning the finding of such speech, is possible (Freud was more realistic or pessimistic at the end of his life in talking of ‘Psycho-analysis Terminable and Interminable’), the writers, in particular Kafka and Beckett, seem to feel that while writing can lead towards such speech it will also, inevitably, fall short of it.

What neither Kafka nor Beckett can say, but what we feel, reading them, is that the struggle to achieve a full speech itself leads, if not to fullness of speech, then at least away from the failures of a facile and empty speech, and that that, for us humans, is enough – though for someone like Virginia Woolf, Celan or Berryman, it was, alas, in the end, not enough.

To the Lighthouse is a particularly apposite example of course, because, as Virginia Woolf herself acknowledged, the book is her attempt to bring to life, for her, her long dead mother. But Mepham’s remarks apply to all the modern works I have been talking about. Of course there is a sense in which even so well-ordered and controlled a work as Anna Karenina, like any great work of art, is only written because its author will not fully understand what it is he wants to say till he has written it. But the differences are nevertheless profound. So profound that we may well feel they inhabit different universes.

Reading and Writing
There are times, when I am tired or unhappy, when only the Tolstoy and Dickens mode of story-telling will help me, only works where I can forget myself in the creations of the author. I go to them precisely because they lack the self-consciousness of their modern counterparts or their precursors. On the other hand there are times when Tolstoy and Dickens feel lifeless, fossils of a bygone age, when only Tristram Shandy or Kafka will satisfy me. Only they, I feel at such times, will quicken me, remind me of what is important in life and of what art can do.

The differences are even more marked when it is a question of my own writing. What a reasoned account of the differences between the ‘classical’ and the modern, such as I hope I have given, misses, is the violence and pain behind Duchamp’s remark that it is degrading for the artist to be asked to fill in the background. For example, when I write down: ‘It was a warm spring evening and the moon was out’, my whole body cries out against it. To stand by it would, I feel at such times, be a betrayal, a denial akin to Peter’s of Christ in the Gospels. Similarly, if I were to write about a man who feels that he suddenly sees into his wife’s soul, and notes ‘that the depths of her soul, always open to him, were now closed against him’, the one sentence I could never write is precisely this one. The excitement of writing the book would lie, for me, in conveying this without ever saying it.

The prohibition is the spur. Only that which asks to be said but for which there are no words will generate new work that is genuine and therefore good. Peter Handke, in his moving account of his mother, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, puts it like this: ‘The utmost need to communicate goes to hand in hand with the ultimate speechlessness.’ But it is Emily Dickinson who puts it best of all:
In many and reportless places
We feel a Joy –
Reportless, also, but sincere as Nature
Or Deity –

It comes, without a consternation –
Dissolves – the same –
But leaves a sumptuous Destitution –
Without a Name –

Profane it by a search – we cannot
It has no home –
Nor we who having once inhaled it – Thereafter roam.

This article is taken from PN Review 265, Volume 48 Number 5, May - June 2022.

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