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Infinite Fictions

By Richard Marshall.

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David Winters, Infinite Fictions, Zero Books, 2014.

‘A feeling of deep sadness is always a warning to be heeded’ advises Burroughs. When reviewing any book of reviews there’s a sense of a solitary meeting in the loneliest place, of being on the brink of a sentence both mortal and disowned. But the intensity of David Winters pushes towards a dimension of sentences in extremis, a theatre of endeavour, a portability of silence edging to the sadness and astonishment of language consummating its defeats. This is the narrow depth of David Winters temptations. He writes with a vast interior spirit, writing against forgettable repetition to illuminate an intimate singular brilliance without the dredge of a thesaurus:

‘Fictional space… that space is the idea that it might be infinite, that the world opened up by a book might exceed that outside it. I get glimpses of this infinity in the linguistic fractals fashioned by Lish’s brilliant student, Jason Schwartz. But I also see it in the South African author Ivan Vladislavic, who has written a Borgesian fable about an unlimited library of unwritten books.’ The mood he brings to reading is one of something immediately closing in and the atmosphere is a luminous claustrophobia. He reads towards the one space backwards which is an infinite opening out to both the read and the unreadable. Reading for Winters is a Beckettian agony, a perfect hell that is optional but nevertheless the opposite of recreational.

What we want from the critic is some guidance , ‘some inexhaustible source of light and silence’ as Winters says. Reading Winters we’re thrown back into a wintereisse of hopeless existence, the low-rising darkness bringing the curtain down on writing itself. We get ‘art as solace’ and the flirtation between ‘theory and contemplation’ as ‘…nothing but waking men’s dreams, and sick men’s phantasies.’ When the read world is at permanent risk of fading out on prepositional phrases every three seconds then the world spooks out enormous phantoms, drawing lines, casting cursing, the present ordering the past with words that inch closer to each other or else push away.

Winters sidesteps the old theory wars not by closing his eyes to that rather sordid paraphrasal drama but by supplementing the matter with something welling up from recursively winding inner depths of reading, discharging a ‘… psychic life of theory – the level at which it is less a technical instrument than a totem or talisman; a charm that we clasp to our hearts.’ Some sentences Winters writes are ones that take your evening away because they show what your own reading habits have betrayed. This creates a tension as you push on, feeling a bit resentful that days are coming when there’s going to be a reckoning.

Winters reads Renata Adler knowing that ‘ some of the things that had meant the most to me, I had completely misunderstood’ . Winters shares a sense of encompassing discouragements and errors that are themselves the shared predicament of the reader. Reading is a kind of hopeless love, unrequited more often than not, often a secret. Winters’ state of the reader here is Elizabeth Hardwick’s where she finds that ‘ … in reading, I enter a kind of hallucinatory state’, or Eve Sedgwick who ‘…evokes the “speculative, superstitious” reading practices of young children, for whom understanding ‘seeps in only from the most stretched and ragged edges of competence.’ Winters is a febrile presence, a haunted figure haunting his books, who, like all ghosts, is a summation just wanting to start over again. He paints himself into his own corner, crouching over the pages with a melancholic luminous concern. He’s sharing the fate of his heroes, taking pity on the mystery of his cast of shadow writers and their readers. Beckett imagined Belaqua in this role: Winters creates a limbo, a negative pantheon, a secret canon where there’s still a problem but one that makes involution and digression realer. And reality unreal again of course. Reading is that map that contains itself, which in turn contains the map that contains itself too, and so on. It’s Valazquez’s ‘Las Meninas’ which includes Valezquez painting ‘Las Meninas’, and the proper telling of the 602nd night’s story in ‘The Thousand and One Nights’, the one where Scheherazade tells the story of the king himself, a story including its own telling, which in turn would contain the telling of that telling, and so on infinitely. You get the drift.

Each reading works out of the peculiar danger of these examples of infinite involutions. He reads Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s “A Brief History of Yes’ in terms of a ‘language as astonishment’ which involves the ‘ risk of rendering criticism redundant’. He lets us roam in the past for our best minding. It is a book that uses ‘a technique of telling over and over again’ that is ‘not so much a ‘novel’, more an attempt to render the structure of sorrowful memory.’ Reading Marcom he retrieves her retrieval of a time that once made time work, catches her catching ‘ …the love that remains after the beloved has gone.’

Winters reads hard to find the ideal and the real held apart by style. His deft immersions dredge up lifelike magic. He approves Derek Attridge where ‘singularity’ works. Attridge writes stuff ‘…that surprise , that disturb, that find new modes of representation and new objects to represent’. Certain truths require new expression because ‘… fidelity to experience necessarily deforms familiar language ’. Attridge’s shy catacomb is ‘so wholly centred on … style… [it] seem[s] secreted , not constructed.’ We’re at an extreme here. Words are tweaked across a risky abyss daring to be more important than life and death. Language is a bodily disjecta.

Sam Lipsyte’s ‘The Fun Parts’ buys the hiding conclusiveness of ‘torque’, ‘swerve’, ‘refactoring’ where ‘the job is not to know what you are going to find.’ Winters recalls Walt Whitman’s ‘filament, filament, filament, out of itself; ever unreeling them – ever tirelessly speeding them’ which is apt and doesn’t bog us down in anything. Rather it propels us into Like Sugar Dissolving, Lydia Davis and ‘The End of the Story’ which is disarmingly ‘difficult to comprehend.’ Here be Blanchot and Leiris and Josh Cohen’s ‘ Reflexive Incomprehension’, where a ‘… studied casualness of tone, the very American ordinariness of its idiom, has the paradoxical effect of inducing us to listen to an anterior dismension of language… bringing to light a stubbornly untranslatable enigma at the heart of the ordinary… Davis … forcing us to hear resonances of the unknown in the most familiar.’ This works like an apocryphal passport, and we seem to be travelling across the same boundary twice each time so we understand this: ‘Writing is a shadow that casts its own shadow.’ There’s an exemplary destiny in this, and a mystic feel that Michael Hoffman calls the ‘ visionary negative,’ and Thad Ziolkowski the ‘ high analytical vertigo.’ It’s prose gazing on prose but only because a) prose was only born yesterday and b) ‘literary reflexivity undercuts received ‘truths’ so as to express a deeper truth, at a further turn of the screw.’

Winters connects this to Levinas’s ‘il y a’ and his idea of a stratum of ‘.. undetermined, anonymous being’ that silently subtends lived experience. With Lydia Davis we get ‘a kind of epistemological echo’ whose minimal, muted and numinous answerlessness is balancing as if above an abyss. He cites Davis saying that ‘ … what interested me, in the end, was how the narrator’s mind worked, not the actual experience of the love affair.’ Davis final sentence ‘ since all along there had been too many ends to the story, and since they did not end anything, but only continued something, something not formed into any story, I needed an act of ceremony to end the story’ secretes a finality of ‘something not formed’ and Winters critical act works as its mirroring dream. This picks up Schopenhauer’s notion that dreaming and wakefulness are pages of a single book and reading them is the equivalence of living. Frederick Beiser in his recent ‘After Hegel’ writes of the forgotten ‘Pessimism Controversy’ which places Schopenauer at its dead centre. ‘The central thesis of Shopenhauer’s pessimism is as simple as it is shocking: that life is not worth living.’ From this arose ‘one of the most intense controversies of the late nineteenth century: the Pessimismusstreit.’ Winters’ reading seems to be an answer to that pessimism, switching the metaphor back on itself to piggyback onto Nietzsche’s own answer to pessimism i.e. life without literature is a mistake and art gives life an artful meaning.

Winters meditates on the possessive capacity of literature via Roland Barthes riffing on Mallarme’s distinction between ‘album’ and ‘book’. It’s done as if part of the Pessimismusstreit where pleasure, work, love, suicide, freedom and death are the rub. The ‘Book’ represents the ‘… representation of the universe, homologous to the world,’ which becomes the object, the visibility and audibility of ‘the totality of reality and history, from the perspective of transcendence.’ The ‘Album’, by contrast, represents the ‘ not-one, not-ordered, scattered, … pure interweaving of contingencies, with no transcendence.’ Winters takes Valery’s ‘It is strange how the passage of time turns every work – and so every man – into fragments’ so ‘nothing whole survives, just as recollection is never anything more than debris, and only grows sharper through false memories’ as an answer to Silenus’ answer to Midas’s question about what’s the best life; ‘ not to be born, not to be, to be nothing’. A ruin, even a fragment, it is better than nowt.

For Barthes, ‘the future of the book is the Album’. Winters reads Davis in the light of this: ‘The book is destined to become debris, an erratic ruin; it is like a sugar cube dissolving in water. Some parts sink; others remain upright , erect, crystalline, pure and brilliant.’ It’s enough.

When discussing Dawn Raffel’s ‘ In the Year of Long Division’ Winters makes clear his own affliation to Gordon Lish, legendary senior editor for fiction at Alfred A. Knopf and progenitor of ‘The School of Lish,’ which is where Raffel comes out from. In her is work that ‘eschews information in favour of mystery.’ She picks up the Pinter ultimacy where ‘this speech is speaking of a language locked beneath it. That is its continual reference. The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don’t hear.’ Winters cites Raffel: ‘ there is a way that whatever you turn away from owns your heart.’ Winters brilliantly suggests something like the ‘pratfall into the Infinite’ exemplified by Lars Iyer’s ‘Dogma’ as a limiting code for today’s writers and then questions it sympathetically.

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Admiring Iyer’s working a theatre of endeavour beneath literary heights so language comes back as hilarious ‘smut, chimp noises and made-up german’, ending in ‘something laughably less than literature’ Winters asks: ‘ does ‘Dogma’ succeed in making a more serious statement of the failure? That is, can it somehow slough off a “false” literariness by pointedly falling short of it?’ Winters thinks not.

Winters shows us Tor Ulven’s ‘Replacement’ which ‘immerses us in a storyless world’ where ‘nothing stands out any more than anything else.’ Patterns possess ‘no pattern at all.’ Decay is just a ‘lowest multiple’. On Christine Schutt’s ‘Prosperous Friends’ he writes of her as ‘a writer’s writer’ immersing us in ‘a secret world of love and suffering’ from the legendary Gordon Lish school of ‘loosened association, antic behaviour, autism and morbid ambivalence.’ What we spend time with here is ‘an intricate indirectness’ which Winters connects to George Steiner’s sense of the ultimate as sounds running through silent prose . Steiner says that ‘the sensory, emotional data of music are far more immediate than those of speech… they may reach back to the womb….’ and Winters listens attentively to this as part of Kristeva’s notion that ‘melancholy is incommunicable.’ So this is the great wrenching despair that writing and reading is all about: ‘ … our job is to raise it to the level of words, and of life.’ Winters hasps Drabble on jigsaws: ‘ Books, too, attempt to impose a pattern, to make a shape. We aim, by writing them, to make order from chaos. We fail.’ A two-liner from Lish italicizes this whole farrago: ‘Was maybe seven, when, come summer, was required to spend it killing Japanese beetles. Oh, and, remaining bent to the grass, dig out, tear out, wrench out – with all my defeated wiles – crabgrass.’

Next up Winters settles in for the inpenetrable everyday of Enrique Vila-Matas’s ‘Dublinesque’ whose ‘… exaggerated fanaticism for literature’ again seeks the tension of what is already there but this time goes inwards. For Winters he is like Freud : ‘ a dreamer in broad daylight’ where sentences answer to ‘the unfathomable dimension.’ He also detects a Joycean prosaic lurking in a ‘… grey rhythm’ which recalls Benjamin, where the equation reads: ‘ the everyday as impenetrable, the impenetrable as everyday.’ Winters reads Vila-Matas so that the act of critique draws its own limit so that ‘the book itself becomes unaccountable, exceeding the reach of our reading.’ Winters relates each unpacked object to everything else. Sentences and words respond to others and themselves. What we receive in reading this is an ever-expanding refining of the initial composition. That starting point is eroded then by this subtle process. In lines like ‘even the rain beneath which all the dead once fell in love will have faded away’ Winters reads ‘secret forces’ and ‘metaphorical associations’ whereby ‘a code lay concealed behind every scene in his life.’ Lish is quoted as saying once: ‘ Curve back in your stories in every possible way: thematically, structurally, acoustically’ and I think here’s the reason why Winters says of ‘Dublinesque’ that ‘The novel is not a puzzle to be solved. It has already solved itself, bringing what was buried back to life. This is a book in which things are no longer concealed; where writing and reading revivify whatever we thought was dead inside us.’

Writing of Jason Schwartz’s ‘John The Posthumous’ Winters finds the book ‘…articulates an alien linguistic world woven together from Biblical quotes, opaque legal cases, and allusions to Winslow Homer’s paintings’ but in its final gasp ‘all that’s left is the trauma of narrative’s aftermath.’ This is very good. Winters steers us through the aboutness of the novel, taking seriously Lish’s advice that ‘A story must be about what it is about and must continue to be about what it is about.’ What we have here are … ‘not stories but feelings of fragmentation and loss’ , ’an aura of a story’ and Winters detects in this evidence of Lish’s method of ‘walking backwards’, ‘consecution’ to capture ‘a totalized form of attention.’

Winters uses Gabriel Josipovici’s ‘Hotel Andromeda ’ to directly ask: ‘How can art address those aspects of life that elude direct expression?’ Winters is a good guide, pointing us to Peter De Bolla; ‘ … there lies the insistent murmur of all great art; the nagging thought that the work holds something to itself, contains something that in the final analysis remains untouchable, unknowable’, Joseph Cornell the artist’s sense of the ‘untouchable, unknowable’ lying in plain sight, Barthelme’s sense of writing as ‘ not knowing’, of all literature ‘writing into the silence.’ The emotional tone of Winters’ book is encapsulated here in an entire epistemology of incompleteness and doubt. He sees this as an intricate ‘entanglement’ where all seems unfinished though ended. Winters makes palpable Adorno’s ‘… consistent consciousness of non-identity’ as an answer to the pressing questions. In a way his essay on Josipovici’s, ‘Infinity: The Story of a Moment’ supplements the answer, driving in from another angle to the same position. What the novel here does is glean its meaning in a voice struggling not to fall silent. In asking: ‘why should the sequence of notes be the essence of music?’ Winters answers that ‘a sound is not a step on the way to something else’ but is itself ‘… a world, an infinite world.’ (Although as Malcolm Budd would remind us, from the fact that music is in essence an abstract art ‘… in that music as an art-form is not based upon music’s capacity to represent or to refer to items in the physical world…’ he says that ‘… it would be mistaken to conclude that the experience and value of music must be essentially unrelated to the non-musical world.’)

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Marek Bienczyk’s ‘Transparency’ is read by Winters as expanding the titular theme to ‘ … truth and illusion… the hobby of existence, the graspable handrail against which we may lean our very being, something we might even try to pour a text in’ (great phrase) which he takes to the speculative philology like Vico and ‘the connections between transparency and the expressible.’ Winters choice of Vico here seems particularly apt, the same Vico modern writers like Manzoni, Foscolo, Hamann, Herder, Goethe, Marx, Michelet, Joyce, Beckett, Ungaretti, Pavese and Carpentier, all revere, ‘drawn by the enigmatic quality and the tantalizing obscurities of Vico’s imagination’ as Giuseppe Mazzotta has it. Mazzotta continues:

‘The weave of literature and philosophy, of … the oracular or visionary and the rational clarity of the thinker… is too messy, too dark or daemonic for contemporary historians/antiquarians, for post-Hegelian historians of philosophy, for sociologists of literature (who like to think in terms of percentages, demographics and what not). They like to think of culture as a question of rational strategies, institutional power, deadly erudition or antiquarianism etc.

This visionary aspect—identifiable with Homer, Dante, Petrarch, the tragic theater, Shakespeare, Tasso, Cervantes, Calderon, Bacon, Racine, the Biblical prophets etc—threatens the scholars’ sense of neatness and Cartesian clarte` . Yet, this “strangeness”, this sense of the traveler, say Ulysses, who arrives unexpectedly to the shore of Nausicaa, is the best part of Vico’s thinking. I think he would have loved Emerson and Whitman, and he would have been amused (I don’t know if this is the right word) by Nietzsche’s fantasies about the Hellenic world.’

Vico then stands for the visionary depth charge of transparency for Winters. He takes us through a sequence of shifting landscape, starting from Aristotle’s ‘there is only transparency’ as an underlying reality which science makes redundant. But because ‘ the heart of man changes more slowly than the world’ we’re given the outlaw enthusiasm of Rousseau: ‘Rousseau believed that the heart of man could speak… he saw how language could become a transparent medium for the will of speech, for everything that wishes to be expressed… with no secrets and no depths to be fathomed or understood.’ We twist like Elvis to French and one side of an immense triangle gives us ‘Lumiers’ and then across another line, ‘ Aufklarung in German’ where like in the downbeat cool of Fassbinder’s film ‘Chinese Roulette’ we hear Winters throw down a Jungian bet: ‘Now we’ll see.’ He cracks the insular claustrophobia of consumer capitalism, says it obliges a ‘transparent heart’ where Transparency has become a tool of the status quo, and then does the equivalent of staring at his shoes. He knows he’s done enough. But he stays on the track, tracing ‘the houses, palaces, domes and arcades packed into the prose of the nineteenth century’ which is a straight line to Benjamin’s Arcades Project and Adorno standing ‘ at the crossroads between positivism and magic.’ There’s a moment in Sinclair riffing on Olson riffing on Dylan that ends: ‘Keep moving, keep in, speed, the nerves, their speed, the perceptions, theirs, the acts, the split second acts, the whole business’ which is about ‘projective verse’ of course but also becomes an oblique sidewise look to Bienczyk: ‘If glassmakers and architects hadn’t invented transparency melancholics would have.’ What I mean is that Winters gives a kind of theoretical dogma that swims in the sea of husked out language, a kind of terminus. It’s a profound meditation in itself on the loneliness that is the heart of language itself, and writing’s desperate contract with readers who may or may not exist.

It’s a navigation route: the Ist way is about: ‘divergent ways of seeing… seeing without having… a shimmering collision of sight and frustration.’ Winters feels this, how the depressive gaze reifies real experience and returns as ‘magical’. The 2nd way is thus: ‘the upward gaze’, a ‘broken, aborted transcendence.’ It’s a brief renewal of a world that’s fallen apart each time someone cares to mention it. It depends on someone at the very least trying that. Winters catches Bienczyk talking about ‘ … the shared striving for pure light in their texts, their striving for emptiness, for silence… their abandoning of the real, the concrete, the perceptible, the living, in favour of the motionless, the fading, the falling silent’ and curates the ghostliness of ghosts Beckett, Barthes, Blanchot. We are feeling their absence in this, absentees on two sides of a solipsistic bind – one with the reader, the other the reader’s reader. Winters then switches over to the novels of Andrzej Stasiuk and ‘landscapes with minimum human activity’ where ‘life has either not gotten going, or has already been extinguished.’ There’s an unread Aristotelian transparency which flirts with the idea of‘ the idea organizing the cosmos’ which then ‘flirts with silence’ in a debouche of ‘negative idealism.’ Winters offers imperatives: Chateaubriand to Joubert, Beckett to Axel Kaun, language as ‘a veil one has to tear apart in order to get to… the nothingness lying behind it’ as a closet drama where we are left with Bacon’s screaming man who sees it. There’s a colour over this, a cyan atmosphere worthy of ‘Nighthawks’ where Bienczyk takes a last dram muttering hope to the waitress: ‘if life has its own utopia, perhaps nothingness does too.’ It’s a masterpiece of readerly damnation.

Winters knows that Gordon Lish’s ‘Peru’ is for Lish‘… all too grievously true.’ It’s a kind of consistency of ‘consecution’ where ‘there is nothing I will not tell you if I can think of it.’ There are things I could never tell but think, so Lish hardly universalizes. But what we’re dealing out here is an art imperative: we’re with Conrad who says art exists ‘to make you see’, with Pound telling Joyce to make ‘…incarnate the abstraction’. Winters works at the extremity of our plight where for him ‘Lish in Peru must ‘characterise an overall experience.’ Here writing is a perceptual reflex and the novel is a labyrinthine ‘property’, ‘cellar’ and ‘roof’ and rhyme ; ‘… by which I don’t mean rhymes as we generally mean. What I mean is like with like.’ Winters connects this with flirtations of reality disappearing into dreamworlds, ‘Esse est percipi’, Berkeley and Beckett composing dreamscapes as hard as any materialism, places where stones burn the feet. Winters broods on the ledge where composition cuts across ontology not just aesthetics, where consecution becomes a miraculating agent. He recalls Lucretius’ hallucinating composition as a clinamen where our world is born from the swerving of atoms as they fall from heaven. It is the way a system defines its horizon. Winters ends up with something Ed Dorn might have used once : ‘I might side with an even more forceful extinction, in which work of art is newly tasked with eradicating the existing tradition.’ Dorn: ‘ The deceased are the travelers among us,’ or something like.

Winters reading of Ivan Vladislavic’s ‘The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories’ consummates his region of‘case studies in failure.’ Here Winters is watching stillborn schemes and incomplete drafts, ‘the beginning and ending of story-telling’ and is on about ‘The Last Walk’ about Robert Walser’s last walk which ‘carries him onto the silence of a blank page.’ Billy Childish’s painting is a kind of eavesdropping on this, and on Mallarme to Camille Mauclair ; ‘ I only exist on the page; preferably one that’s still blank.’ What is it we see, and what is it we feel where with Walser ‘there is not much else besides snow and the body.’ This is sadness as urgent as our breakdown.

On ‘The Loss Library’ Winters squares up to the responsibilities of reading, like a rehearsed suicide: ‘ When a reader opens one of these books it has consequences in others. Things are shaken up. Matters that appeared to be settled are reopened for discussion. The extent of the disruption depends on the book. There are certain slim volumes, the reading of which would hardly cause a ripple. And then there are others with the power to change everything. Entire books melt away under the reader’s eyes, schools of imitators dwindle to nothing, towers of study guides topple over.’ Writing a book removes it from the library, collapses a wave function and there are things we have to take stock of; ‘the icy death of the author, and the frozen life of the book.’ Winters forces our hand, hints at the colossal price we have to pay sooner or later when we get into this. Corso is the poetry he writes and Winters the prose he reads. His meat is as tough as leather.

Dylan Nice’s ‘Other Kinds’ is ‘about human finitude,’ Heideggerian ‘throwness’ where we’re always ‘Fallen’ and ‘Homeless’ once we’ve accepting the fate of becoming a writer and reader of the writer. Here Winters is slyly trying to take seriously Badiou on Plato’s ‘The Sophist’, mixing the five axioms of ‘ being, motion, stillness, sameness, and the Other’ to establish the miles that lie between us. Winters settles us down with “Wide Skies and wildflowers, Sam Michel’s ‘Strange Cowboy: Lincoln Dahl Turns Five’ and backs us up into the school of Lish again just in case we’d ever thought about leaving. Here he recalls sentences summonsing a new world, a surging synax, Proust’s temporal consciousness, Joyce’s humanist pathos, the obsessive discursiveness of Beckett and Bernhard that then takes shape in The American West! Winters seems to be saying whatever you’re searching for you can have but you’d better cross oceans, plains, forest fires if you’re to get what is within your fingertips.

In Miranda Mellis’s ‘The Spokes’ he finds a story submerged in its situation infringing Todorov’s rule that fantasy ‘…must oblige the reader to consider the world of the characters as a world of living persons… and to hesitate between a natural and supernatural explanation of events…’ . Winters finds ‘occult typologies’ and a ‘transcendent indeterminacy.’ Some stories can’t be told, imagine. Tell that one. Mellis works in ‘reservoirs of silence.’ Winters recalls Frank Kermode who shrugged that the ‘ time-order of novels [is] like a stick in a river.’ Which is just another way of Lowry asking ‘Is this the right place to leave my ashes?’ but at an angle of which Emily Dickinson would have been proud. Writing about ‘The Life and Work of Hob Broun’ Winters takes the digressiveness and destabilisation of the novel as his theme. He is again impressed by the clipped compressed sentences and a fabulism leading to free association that encapsulates the ‘modus operandi: montage, collage, bricolage.’ Again, we’re in a recursion at the school of Lish.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, January 23rd, 2015.