Sunday 24 March 2019

The burble of Virgil's mind

The last volume of The Struggle (by Karl Ove Knausgaard, Harvill Secker, 2018) is titled The End. I am reading it very slowly. It's practically a stand-alone book, even though it's the last in the series. I don't think one needs to have read the previous five volumes to understand this one. 

He roams all over the place. I am reminded of the way Talmudic scholars allow themselves the luxury of tangents: he explores to the right and to the left, wandering off to both sides of the path he is on before going forward, analysing Hitler's Mein Kampf on the one hand and Paul Celan's Death Fugue on the other.

I read at night when I'm tired so I don't read for long and I miss getting a sense of the broader sweep of his writing. I do feel that he writes without restraint, no shyness, no reserve, it is all on the page: I read to celebrate his courage hoping maybe to learn how to do something like that one day, though I do not have his intellect. I shall reread him in due course, I'm already looking forward to it.

In the course of his artful rambling, he mentions Hermann Broch, of whom I had never heard. Our wonderful Central Library - closed two days ago because the building has suddenly been deemed unsafe in an earthquake - our wonderful Central Library had duly produced their old (1946) and battered copy of Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil for me, which I am now reading, alternately wanting to throw it across the room and becoming more and more enamoured of the characters. 

Yet another Jew forced to flee Germany. Broch's book was first published in the US in English rather than German, thanks to Eva Starr Untermeyer, a gifted translator who was also a poet. His language is florid, to say the least, his sentences long, one could say that he indulges in perseveration  - same words and terms repeated with slight variations as if they were being examined with care from all possible aspects - and yet.

Almost at random from the middle of p. 54 - the text flowing without a break, without paragraphs, one solid bloc on the paper -

'...the square patch of heaven stretched over the court now permitted the stars to be seen again, their breathing light once more visible though occasionally dimmed by the smoke-clouds trailing beneath them, but even these were permeated by the soft, drizzling tone-mist, sharing in the wandering-weaving misty murmur which impregnated the courtyard and shrouded each single thing, objects, odors and tones blended, mounting towards heaven in the stillness of the night...'

One has to work one's way through this - what does the 'breathing light' of the stars mean, or a 'drizzling tone-mist'mean? Until Virgil's thoughts become more interesting, such as the moment when, deathly tired, he enters the room which has been allocated to him courtesy of Augustus Caesar, and finds everything perfectly suited to his state of mind and his state of ill-health:

'Nothing was lacking, an armchair for contemplation stood near the bay-window and the commode stood in the corner of the room; the luggage was piled up in a way easy to handle, the manuscript-chest was pushed by special order near the bed, everything fitted so neatly, so noiselessly, exactly as an invalid could have desired it, but still this was no  longer the beneficence of Augustus, this was just the smooth planning of an irreproachable, fully equipped, royal household, there was no friendship in it.'
I understood that the extreme sensitivity and great attention to detail which characterise the previous descriptions are entirely Virgil's. (Another reader would probably have realised this sooner.) This one simple sentence: 'there was no friendship in it' stands alone and strong against all the previous burbling. The burbling is the burbling of Virgil's mind, his on-going response  to whatever happens around him, a burbling which, unsurprisingly, is different in quality, more precise, more focussed, more insightful, than that of an ordinary person's mind.

I am hooked. 

I want the opportunity to think about the way Broch writes in comparison with Knausgaard. I am only half-way through The End and find myself now immersed in The Death of Virgil. I shall reread what Knausgaard says about Broch, it may help me understand them both better.

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