A Certain Kind of European Novel. . .

. . . has been drawing my attention lately. Beginning with Hesse's Steppenwolf, I've made a chain of association: Sartre's Nausea, Rilke's The Notebooks of Malte Laurdis Brigge, Woolf's Orlando, and finally, Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Call them novels of the self in history. I hadn't read Steppenwolf since I was eighteen, when I remember absolutely and distinctly not getting it, except that it ends with a drug trip. Reading Hesse's novel again now, about a man trying to survive turning fifty, rang true in every sense for me -- philosophically and psychologically -- as I try to survive turning sixty in a few months. (Sixty is the new fifty -- perhaps literally, given extended life expectancies.) Like poor Harry Haller, I seem to be going through a process of reevaluating everything -- imaginatively reliving parts of my past in order to make them come out right, recasting my own fiction. I dreamed a couple of weeks ago that I had decided to give up my teaching job in order to "do my MFA over again" because "I didn't get it right the first time." And last night I had a dream -- satire, I hope! -- in which I gave my my university professorship in order to go to work in industry selling frozen food, with Dana Gioia as my boss! Well, he did and does sell frozen food, first literally and now figuratively. There is that wonderful scene near the end of Steppenwolf in which Pablo shows Harry how to rearrange the pieces of his personality on a chessboard, playing with alternatives that nevertheless remain thematically related. That's what the last couple of years of my life feel like. A lot like Harry Haller. So now I have begun the Rilke novel, which I started years ago but never finished -- I know this because I can see my marks in the margins -- but not much of it registered with me. "The main thing is to live," writes Brigge near the beginning. Yes.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

6 thoughts on “A Certain Kind of European Novel. . .”

  1. JD, I was reading very old, mote poetry posts and came re-read some. 1999 was the year so far, and Blaise was the host. I don’t recall when I took the host title. It’s odd, I’ve barely visited for over 6 years. My daughter moved on to university and my son was born, any time to write fadded. So, there’s a tidbit about why I thought to write something here.

    I’m just reading things, pondering, wondering and doing a lot of wishing.

    I read some of Rilke and his bio on wiki. Interesting man. I check in at Slate some time or other, and I’ve learned quite a bit from Pinsky over the years. I think he’s been around since ’97 and before when Slate was a Microsoft pet project. I don’t expect anything, and I hope this doesn’t seem way off track for this blog? Poetry is a very important investment.

    A layman such as myself can find something of depth which to me could be considered unreachable otherwise. I refer to the pursuit of anything literary. Reading is a precious commodity. There is only so much time one can devote to any passion.

    Best to you.

  2. I’m drawn to these kinds of novels too. The characters struggle against large impersonal forces that could reduce them to pawns, but they manage to retain integrity and grow too, often through resistance. Proust and Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities are longer such works that pull the reader into the struggle.

  3. There is something about Proust’s elegance that puts me off a bit & I know the Musil text only by reputation — I really should read it.

  4. I’ve read the first volume of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past twice. I have never ventured any further because of the time commitment, but I do like it enormously. My thought is that this is a book for old age. I think this in the same way that To Kill a Mockingbird is for the adolescent and On the Road works for the twenty year old. The Musil gave me great insight into Wittgenstein and I loved every page.

  5. It’s hinders me to be woefully unread, but it doesn’t embarrass me. I look at each post with something akin to a fresh perspective, hoping to be objective, and avoid being obtuse. Again, I’m not embarrassed by obtuseness, it’s that the meaning I conveyed wasn’t concise. I try harder.

    Ah, motivation is what I’m reading in Rilke at present. To read “THE NOTEBOOKS OF MALTE LAURIDS BRIGGE” http://www.onread.com/reader/1072015 I must utilize resources at my disposal. Ergo, the internet has been an expansive resource for all of my efforts. My gratitude is boundless.

    The beginning of the book is a fixation of environment and remembrance. This lets me act as passanger to memories not my own, a casual observer, without voyeur connotation. In time the context passes toward introspection.

    I find introspection a personal business, and if it’s presented honestly it will come across as such. I’m finding this to ring truthful, as far as expressionism or impressionism can be. I’ve read the bit in wiki and some other points of view. The idea then to create a self image, using literary art form piques curiosity.

    I’m bringing history and preconceptions to my observations. I’ll temper them with self-aware humility. I’m out of my realm, but comfortable nevertheless. Rilke seems comfortable with the images he’s presenting, historical accuracy, and fluidly expressive (poetic) prose. Such as the gardens and Champs-Elysees, beautiful eye candy, and then the poor soul with a crutch imposes memories.

    Knowing WWI is coming can bring something to this read. There are a lot of impressions of death. This writing is as preperation for cataclysmic times to come.

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