The Limits of Virtuoso Language
Is the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier an 'immoderate realist'? Some might wonder whether Carpentier is a realist at all, but it might be difficult to claim he isn't immoderate in his attention to detail. The term moderate realism comes from J. M. Coetzee, and James Wood utilises it in How Fiction Works. Moderate realism, Wood tells us, "describes a way of writing in which the kind of detail we are directed to does not yet have the kind of extravagant commitment to noticing and re-noticing, to novelty and strangeness, characteristic of modern novelists..." Moderate realism often works on a need to know basis, where description is kept to a minimum unless point and purpose resides there. It is writing tense with the effort of definition, to use Raymond Williams' lovely phrase in Reading and Criticism, but not high on its own literary ingenuity. Sometimes one feels reading literary virtuosos that they can do anything with the language except keep their mind on the story.
Yet, lest we be accused of antediluvian and philistine predilections, we don't mean by keeping one's mind on the story hurtling from one narrative event to the next, but from one pertinent arena of exploration to the following one. Often one feels with the immoderate realist that the writing pays attention to itself to the detriment of other elements that consequently undermine the very descriptive brilliance attained. There is a beautiful passage from Vladimir Nabokov's short story, 'Time and Ebb', with the narrator saying "my mother died when I was still an infant, so that I can only recall her as a vague patch of lachrymal warmth just beyond the limit of iconographic memory." But we might wonder for how long was this young child breast fed, or does he have memories way before accepted recollection? For a third person to say the baby felt a vague patch of lachrymal warmth is one thing, for a first person narrator to claim he can almost recall it is something else. It is a wonderful piece of writing, but its context makes it stunning to read but implausible as detail. We can admire the prose but can we believe in its psychology? The writing is astonishing but the arena of exploration weak.
In Carpentier novels like Baroque Concerto, The Lost Steps and The Kingdom of this World, and in the short story 'Journey Back to the Source', we have descriptive passages that can be dawdled over for their beauty, even as we might wish the writer would get on with exploring the situation. In The Lost Steps we can understand the principle behind the book's determination to be descriptively vivid. As the novelist says in the note concluding the book: "I feel called upon to make clear, to satisfy the reader's natural curiosity, that beyond the place called Puerto Anunciacion, the landscape reproduces the very precise vision of little-known and rarely, if ever, photographed places." In this novel that focuses on a composer venturing into the jungles by the Orinoco river, Carpentier wants to capture a world in words that has yet to be invaded by the visual image. "Damp rose over the Great Plateaux. The mists of night still lingered between the Forms, spread veils that grew transparent and disappeared as the light was reflected from a cliff of rosy granite and descended to the level of the great sleeping shadows." Carpentier continues: "At the foot of the green, grey black walls whose summits seemed to melt into the fog, the ferns shook off the light hoar-frost that enameled them. In an opening that could hardly hide a child, I observed a life of lichens, mosses, silvery pigments, and vegetable rust in a minute scale, a world as complex as that of the great jungle." This photographic writing, possesses something of Williams' idea of writing tense with the effort of definition. Equally, in the short story 'Journey Back to the Source', the narrator describes a moment where the world moves backwards in time. "Birds returned to their eggs in a whirlwind of feathers. Fish congealed into roe, leaving a snowfall of scales at the bottom of their pond. The palm trees folded their fronds and disappeared into the earth like shift fans. Stems were reabsorbing their leaves, and the earth reclaimed everything that was its own. Hairs began growing from antelope-skin gloves. Woollen blankets were unravelling and turning into the fleece of sheep in distant pastures." If the former passage indicates the photographic, the latter hints at the cinematographic, with the images created a little like those courtesy of a rewind button. This is moderate writing because the context justifies the descriptive delineation.
Yet if we admire the precision of Carpentier's prose it can seem less meaningful because, just as we questioned the brilliance of Nabokov's passage due to the implausibility of the memory, sometimes in the Cuban writer's work the effort has gone into the descriptionbut not quite into the situation. The description lies in what is seen, but the situation indicates the force of circumstances the characters are within. Late in The Lost Steps, the first person narrator says "the daily tasks, the frugal fare ? mainly tapioca, fish and cassava bread ? had thinned me down, firming my flesh to my bones. My body had become lean, defined, its muscles girded to its framework. The unnecessary fat I had carried, the pale, flabby skin, the fears, the groundless anxieties, the forebodings of disaster, the throbbings in the solar plexus, has disappeared." It comes as a bit of a surprise: most of the time this narrative figure seems to have been disembodied, the sort of narrator we find in Laurie Lee's A Rose for Winter, where the narrator isn't a strong existential force passing through a series of situations, but a man aloof to his own presence as he becomes very much secondary to the descriptive purpose. When in The Lost Steps we have had so many passages on the natural environment, we might have wished for a few more on the narrator's body in relation to this environment. We may have wanted more on the process of that body becoming hard, of adapting to the environment it is in.
Yet perhaps part of Carpentier's project resides in the reversal of perceptual hierarchies. That instead of focusing on man adjusting to his circumstances, he concentrates on the environment dwarfing man, and making the narrator's own body an afterthought next to the wondrous landscape. Not long after the narrator's remarks about his body, he says "no human choreography can equal the eurhythmy of a branch outlined against the sky. I asked myself whether the higher forms of the aesthetic emotion do not consist merely in the supreme understanding of creation. A day will come when men will discover an alphabet in the eyes of chalcedonies, in the markings of the moth, and will learn in astonishment that every spotted snail has always been a poem." The passage suggests a deliberate inversion of the anthropocentric and thus the writer's purpose isn't to acknowledge the phenomenological and existential predicament in the world into which man has been thrown (lebenswelt), and where he acknowledges the anxiety of his existence, but instead exists in a state of awed surprise. Where the former demands a constant existential vigilance that we find in Hamsun, Kafka, Kelman, Handke and Coetzee, for example, the latter creates a descriptive enthusiasm that dilutes the self and foregrounds the world.
In such an approach metaphors and similes are deployed as properly defamiliarising devices: images that undermine the presence of man and emphasize instead the presence of the object. If we think of certain passages in Carpentier's Baroque Concerto we can see how this works. "Muffled footsteps sounded in the corridor of sleeping birds. The nocturnal visitor had arrived, swathed in shawls, doleful lachrymose, playacting in anticipation of her farewell present ? a rich necklace of gold and silver inlaid with stones, apparently precious, which, of course, she would have to take to the goldsmith's shop tomorrow for appraisal ? begging, between sobs and kisses, for better wine than this, since that in the carafe from which they were now drinking (though alleged to be Spanish wine) was a wine with lees, and the less said of it the better ? for she knew whereof she spoke ? syringe wine, wine good for rinsing the 'groove', saying so in the colourful terms with which she sprinkled her amusing vocabulary, although master and servant out of pure doltishness drank it...." And so the sentence goes on as the human centre barely holds. Here is another fragment: "In the greyness of water and hazy skies despite that winter's mildness; under the grisaille of clouds, shaded with sepia, that painted themselves below upon the soft and ample swelling wavelets ? languid in their foamless rocking ? that spread or merged in receding from bank to bank; amid the wash of palest watercolours that blurred the contours of churches and palaces with a moistness manifested in seaweed rones upon the stairways and jetties..." The scene setting goes on for another half page. If we contrast Carpentier with Handke we notice the basic difference between writing that describes the scene to the detriment of man, and the acceptance of consciousness as the centre of description. "Undecided as I was, I felt utterly confused. The pneumatic drill was making star-shaped cracks, as when one walks on the surface of a frozen puddle. One of the cracks reached almost to the soles of my shoes. Shaken by the sound of the drill, I looked down..." (Repetition)
In Carpentier's work we aren't exactly sure where consciousness is, as though the description takes precedence over the situation and obliterates it as drama. The second passage from 'Baroque Concerto' that we quoted is a painterly account delaying the anthropocentric drama. It is as if the problem Carpentier has with the world is only one of description: how to capture in language what we can see so vividly with our eyes. There is no situation in the colloquial sense, no problem with the world that is as great as the aesthetic obstacle that words generate when we are trying to describe things. In the introduction to Baroque Concerto Carlos Fuentes says, "Carpentier's fascination with Utopian thought reveals that his true historical interest has little to do with facts and much to do with language and music as vehicles of the historical imagination." When we insist that Carpentier has no problem with the world, we aren't at all saying he has no political position on it. Numerous sources make clear the writer's Marxist leanings, with C. Conway for example mentioning an anecdote about someone writing to Carpentier about his politics and the writer replying: "you may inform your teacher that I am a Marxist..." (The Incomplete American). No, it is more that the writing itself does not create conflict between self and world. When Carpentier offers a description it needn't become a situation, it remains within the realm of the described, where for Handke the very act of description generates a situation: the self and the scene can't easily be separated. In the Handke passage quoted, we notice the very strong presence of self . "I felt utterly confused." "Shaken by the sound of the drill." Sights and sounds frequently traumatize Handke's figures, and this has nothing to do with an event where terror would be understandable; it can be generated from the smallest of situations. Whether it happens to be the pneumatic drill, witnessing someone on a bus who reminds the narrator of himself when he was a young man as the boy laughs out of synch with the others, or describing his father's presence when he walks into the house and where the atmosphere would become unpleasant, the self is manifest. Neither settling for the brilliance of description, or moving towards the narrativizing of event, Handke's work is as if constantly aware of the lifeworld ? man's place in ongoing act of existential and phenomenological negotiation.
However, because Carpentier's writing doesn't possess this dimension, it perhaps relies much more strongly on the startling image and the rhythmic attention to the sentence. It is not in Carpentier that the thought will startle (as it frequently does in Handke), more that the image will pleasingly surprise as it is freshly offered and rhythmically precise. This is evident in the following passages from The Lost Steps. "When, above the black axe-edges, the dividing compasses of the winds, and the still higher steps, the volcanoes emerged, our human prestige came to an end, just as that of the vegetable kingdom has ceased earlier. We were the lowest of beings, silent, benumbed, in a wasteland..." "There seemed to be fruit; but the roundness and ripeness of the fruits were feigned by oozing bulbs, fetid velvets, the vulva of insect-eating plants like thoughts sprinkled with syrup, dotted cacti that bore tulips of saffron-coloured sperm a handspan from the ground." The writer is a visual witness, trying to capture the insignificance of man in a world which has no need of his existence, and has for many centuries lived without it.
Now this isn't to insist Carpentier's narrators have no place in the work. The back cover blurb of The Lost Steps talks of the "introspective flights of the hero", evident when the central character says, for example, "I had never felt so light, so well installed in my body, as that morning." Or, "the sun got between my legs, warmed my testicles, ran down my backbone, broke against my breast, darkened my armpits, covered my neck with sweat, possessed, invaded me...I felt once more the tension and the throb that sought the dark palpitations of vitals plumbed to their depths..." It is simply to claim that the narrator's place isn't quite a wedge of demanding consciousness in the face of the planet. The mystery resides less in the self than in the quotidian world, in a place of great and endless fascination that man first and foremost is enchanted by and attempts to describe. What matters in such an instance is a large vocabulary, rather than a personal one: the range of words available to the writer, rather than a narrower selection that speaks for the writer. Like Nabokov and Joyce, Carpentier revels in words rarely found on the literary page but commonly enough utilised in other contexts. Whether it is "grisaille" "bucentaur", "tabard" (all from Baroque Concerto) or "esparto", "caduceus" and "macerate" (from Lost Steps), "benzoin" and "entablatures" from Journey Back to the Source, Carpentier is a writer who names things.
But don't all writers name things? Isn't this their very job: to put into words what other people describe rather more vaguely? Yet there are writers whose virtuosity manifests itself in their use of words, and others who use words as if to say this is all we have, and no matter how specifically we name something, that doesn't mean we are any closer to saying what we mean or that we are necessarily understood. It is as if words don't always name things, but cover them up, allow us to master objects with our tongue just as we master them with our hands. It is a form of assertiveness, certainly, but have we made them speak for us and through us?
Fuentes says that one of the greatest debts to Carpentier in Spanish America is that "he refused the view (and the abundant evidence, alas) that the Spanish language, like much of its political discourse, was exhausted." He also adds "Carpentier did not, let me add, re-discover the treasure houses of the Spanish language" as Fuentes goes on to mention Gongora, Cervantes, and later novelists Galdos and Clarin, all of course precursors to Carpentier. Yet there is no doubt that Carpentier's language is rich as description meets allusion, and where the descriptive assertiveness meets with a cultural assertiveness too. There are references galore in Carpentier's fiction, with music especially evident, but the arts generally well name-checked. This is the revitalisation of the language through the capacity to describe and through the presence of erudition. Though the deeper into the jungle the central characters goes and the more he lets go of his bourgeois western identity (he is a musician writing for films and advertising), he remains very much in contact with high culture. A Greek "drinks homerically". "Over the corpse these peasant women were playing the role of a Greek chorus, their hair falling like veils over the menacing faces of daughters of kings, keening Trojan women cast like dogs out of their burning palaces." "He spoke of what he left behind as though speaking of the walls of Mycenae, the rifled, the peristyles where the goats drowse."
This combination of a broad vocabulary and high cultural referencing might give the impression of a master at work. Indeed Harold Bloom goes so far as to say "time may demonstrate the supremacy of Carpentier over all other Latin American writers in this era." (The Western Canon) Yet as critic Akshay Ahuja says in a blog utilising the Bloom remark, "The older I get the more I notice that the works I value are largely a matter of personal affinity with the authors ? whether their preoccupations and methods line up with mine, either in obvious or more mysterious ways." Carpentier is a writer he greatly admires; Dostoevsky, for example, a writer who seems to Ahuja overblown and given to caricature. If we disagree it is a question of priorities: whether we expect from writing an elaboration of the problem of existence, or a description of it. If we believe Carpentier doesn't impose a sensibility on the world strongly enough, then we will be inclined to regard Dostoevsky as easily the greater writer. But if we believe in the cult of the sentence, then Dostoevsky is a figure we might find vague and often incompetent. Whether it is Somerset Maugham or more critically Nabokov, numerous writers have winced at Dostoevsky's prose style. If we balk at Carpentier's prose it won't be because it has been hastily written, but overwritten. Yet this overwriting for us wouldn't only be a question of prose leaning towards the purple, but prose that hides the very things we look for in a writer like Dostoevsky, as well as other writers we have discussed: Hamsun, Handke and Kafka.
But what is this thing we find in these writers and reckon is absent from Carpentier's work? This isn't a question easy to answer as it means trying to explore a space between the subjective reaction to the work, and a relatively objective explanation for its perceived limitations. Ahuja is happy to say that he is drawn to a writer like Carpentier over Dostoevsky and couches it in a fair opinion, but no more than an opinion. If we conceptualise our response, it will still exist in the realm of the subjective, but can be contained by the conceptual that dilutes that subjectivity and gives it at least an objective quality. It is perhaps a question of what Maurice Blanchot calls the literary space, what Deleuze call putting a hole in the umbrella, what Heidegger would call the thingness of the thing ? all approaches that suggest it isn't about the skill with which one puts words on the page, but the sense of silence and potential exhaustion that surrounds the language.
These are all ideas indicative not of presence, but of absence, and this returns us to a particularly pressing version of Williams' phrase, that idea of language being tense with the effort of definition, and our own remarks about the cinematographic and the photographic dimension of Carpentier's work. The film critic Andre Bazin talked of cinema being the one art form where man's absence is central to its creation. "For the first time, between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the instrumentality of a nonliving agent. For the first time an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man." ('The Ontology of the Photographic Image') The photographic records; it doesn't depict. Clearly Bazin well knew that recording devices could be used subjectively, while literature can be more or less personal according to the figure writing: Dostoevsky pushes the 19th century novel into 20th century phenomenology as Husserl would couch it, existentialist in Sartre's formulation. This is where the imagination is set to work not chiefly in recreating a world that is at least partially given (as we find in Balzac and Flaubert, Dickens and Eliot), but where these very assumptions are called into question. If many a 19th century novel shows a character making their way in the world or failing to do so, the world is solid. But in fiction that explores, in Frederick R. Karl and Leo Hamalian's book title, The Existential Imagination, the emphasis "is on the alienation of man from an absurd world and his estrangement from normal society, his recognition of the world as meaningless or negative, his consequent burden of soul-scarring anxieties, bringing with it his need to distinguish between his authentic and unauthentic self..." If Somerset Maugham could understandably say of Dostoevsky that "his people are all of a piece" and that "the greatest novelists have at least indicated the diversity that is in every human breast. But his men are always themselves", this resides in the importance of a Dostoevskian world, a novelistic life world, that doesn't allow a story to develop and grow when there is a question of consciousness being asked in the first instance.
We would not think of Dostoevsky or Kafka as cinematographic or photographic writers in the way we are so describing Carpentier. While Carpentier will describe the scene, often more existentially focused writers will provide a focal point of personal expression. The Cuban writer will set the scene with an immoderate realism that seems to contain as much information as a camera unavoidably happens to. But while the camera merely has to be turned on; the writer has to turn images into words, to know the names of the many things he chooses to describe. Thus this passage from The Lost Steps is surely cinematic. "The bus was climbing, climbing with such an effort, groaning through its axles, ploughing through the shrill wind, swaying over the precipices, that every slope it left behind seemed to have been achieved at the cost of unspeakable suffering to its whole disjointed frame. It was a sad looking vehicle, with its red roof, climbing and climbing, holding on by its wheels, steadying itself against the rocks between the almost vertical sides of a ravine." In contrast we can think of a Kafka passage from the story 'The Hunter Gracchus'. "Nobody will read what I write here, nobody will come to help me, even if there were a commandment to help me, all the doors of all the houses would stay closed, all the windows would stay closed, all the people would lie in their beds with the blankets drawn over their heads, the whole earth one great nocturnal lodging. And there is a sense in that, for nobody knows of me, and if anyone knew of me he would not know where I could be found, and if anyone knew where I could be found he would not know how to help me. The idea of wanting to help me is a sickness, and it has to be cured in bed." We can see a quite different tension of definition at work, with Carpentier brilliantly capturing the groaning mass of metal crawling up a mountain; Kafka revelling in the mind's acute keenness, leaving no trace of the thought unquestioned. The latter is a product of the existential imagination; the former still well within the realm of dramatic imagination: a mind at work not with the absurd reasoning of a Kafka, but the processing skills of a writer trying to make vivid the breathtaking scene. Here Carpentier does create the dramatic situation, yet not quite the imaginatively existential.
We needn't attack Carpentier for failing to be Kafka, we needn't even insist that his style can seem old-fashioned in a post-Kafkan literary world. But we can perhaps say that if we find Carpentier curiously exhausting, surprisingly unilluminating, it rests on an immoderate realism that is deliriously descriptive but existentially thin; that he is someone who revels in the words' own keenness rather than the mind's. Fuentes might claim that "the sum of Carpentier's work is, indeed, a magnificent verbal cathedral, one of the grand structures of the Spanish language in our century", but if the metaphor is nicely formulated, we might wonder whether it contains an obsolescence too: a sense that both language and God can't so easily be called for the defence. One wouldn't want to claim Carpentier as any sort of naive realist: a story like 'Journey to the Source' is a reverse narrative published long before Harold Pinter's Betrayal and Martin Amis's Time's Arrow, and Carpentier's virtuoso vocabulary is part of a 20th century fascination with arcane words nobody has pushed further or more experimentally than Joyce.
Yet we may be reminded of a remark offered by James Kelman in an Edinburgh Review interview with Duncan McLean, when he responded sceptically to Anthony Burgess's idea that Joyce was the great figure of modern literature because he could do amazing things with the language. Kelman replied that he didn't see things that way: there were possibilities in Kafka far more challenging than those offered by Joyce. "Kafka was doing things that Joyce couldn't do [no matter Kelman's enormous admiration for the Irish writer], Kafka was doing things that Joyce was not capable of doing. The Castle is far superior [to Joyce's work], just in terms of the sort of possibilities that are contained in the work." Kelman talks about the desire to remove distance, to get as close to the "I voice" as one can, with numerous British writers consequently passing for the second-rate, from Waugh to Greene, Golding to Larkin: complacent figures for Kelman. Burgess's remarks about Joyce aren't that dissimilar to Fuentes's on Carpentier, but Kelman, Handke, Kafka and others help us to understand that we are not viewing the world but actively inside it, and no matter how brilliant our use of language happens to be, no act of escapology can put us outside of that fact. Carpentier seems a writer not quite willing or able to show us the reality of being in this lifeworld.
© Tony McKibbin