Sunday, May 13, 2007

Pale aspens grew, and yews ever dark

Talking of Polish literature, I recently read a translation of the Witold Gombrowitz novel Cosmos in which, among other things, a strange young man strangles the pet cat that belonged to a young woman he is obsessing about . Oddly enough, the next book I read was Knut Hamsun’s Mysteries in which another strange young man poisons the pet dog of the young woman he is obsessing about. Maybe it is not so unlikely a coincidence given that both novels belong to what James Wood, in an excellent article on Hamsun, describes as ‘the kind of Modernist novel which largely ended with Beckett - of crepuscular states, of alienation and leaping surrealism, and of savage fictionality’.

In Cosmos the action shifts late in the book from a claustrophobic pension in southern Poland to the expansive landscape of the Tatra Mountains. After a journey by carriage the characters ‘turned a corner, and came to towering walls and pinnacles, contorted piles of rock and deep chasms...’ However, the book’s protagonist (a student described in the blurb as ‘seedy, pathetic and witty’) cannot help perceiving all this Sublimity in the same way he dissected the microscopic landscapes of the pension’s hot rooms and scruffy back yard. The mountains seemed ‘too much, too much, too much. Weight, mass, piles rising into the sky, piles collapsed, general chaos, huge, swelling mastodons that appeared and a moment later vanished in unruly confusion into a thousand details and then suddenly reassembled again into majestic edifices. It was just as in the thicket or looking at the wall or the ceiling or the rubbish where the pole was, or in Katasia’s room, or looking at the walls and cupboards and shelves and curtains where things also formed themselves into shapes and configurations. But there they had been only little things, here there was a mighty storm of matter...’ (trans. Eric Mosbacher).

The way the action moves outside whilst the characters maintain the strange obsessions of their indoor life reminded me of other Modernist works (of the kind described by James Wood in the quote above). For example, there is the strange landscape garden surrounding the house of Mr Knott in Samuel Beckett’s Watt. ‘In it pale aspens grew, and yews ever dark, with tropical luxuriance, and other trees, in lesser numbers. They rose from the wild pathless grass, so that we walked much in shade, heavy, trembling, fierce, tempestuous. In winter there were the thin shadows writhing, under our feet, in the wild withered grass...’ It is not exactly a pastoral idyll: ‘Birds of every kind abounded, and these it was our delight to pursue, with stones and clods of earth. Robins, in particular, thanks to their confidingness, we destroyed in great numbers.’ The garden is surrounded by barbed wire and ‘through this fence, where it was not overgrown by briars and giant nettles, similar gardens, similarly enclosed, each with its own pavilion, were on all sides distinctly seen.’

Then of course there is Franz Kafka, whose novel Amerika, if read after The Trial and The Castle, has the same kind of effect – liberated from the Kafkaesque city, the protagonist nevertheless wonders through a dreamlike landscape still characterised by the illogical traps and obstacles found in those other books. There is a similar sense of constrained freedom in Mervyn Peake’s Titus Alone, where we at last encounter the landscape beyond Gormenghast castle. And one can go on to imagine other places transfigured in this way - say, a sequel to Robert Walser’s Jacob von Gunten set in the mountains of Austria, or a follow-up to Pinter’s The Birthday Party where all that menacing weirdness is somehow transferred outside the boarding house to the beach or the sea...

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