“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, October 08, 2005

perverse sibyl

“One is left with unappeased curiosity about the Sibyl. Wood says the Sibyl in Virgil's Aeneid is "perfectly clear," but that is hardly the case. The Sibyl tells Aeneas that the way down into the underworld is easy and that the hard thing is to get back. In the ensuing narrative Aeneas has great difficulty finding his way down and flits out with the greatest of ease—through the gate
of false dreams (!). The reader is left thinking, "What can she have meant?”

The quote above is from A.D. Nuttall’s review of Michael Wood’s book on oracles, The Road to Delphi.

Over at The Valve they had a discussion, earlier this week, about novels. The discussion attached to Ben Marcus’ attack on Jonathan Franzen’s line about novels – that the types of novels can be divided between contract and status, with contract being those novels that imply a contract with the reader – this is something you will like to read and feel entertained by -- and status being those that are written to make a place in the world of the novel. Franzen’s has pushed his case by making an argument that is, oddly enough, from status – that the novel will retain its status in it fight against other forms of entertainment by fulfilling its contract.

Myself, I think that Franzen is wrong to think that novels are competing with tv or paintball or movies. Cars don’t compete with airplanes, although cars and airplanes are in the same business of transporting people around. I much prefer the novelist as Virgil’s Sibyl, to whom we go for predictions of a sort.

To change the image: I’ve been reading a terrifically depressing memoir of a life among the death camps by Bela Zsolt, Nine Suitcases. Zsolt was caught up in the increasingly mortal sweeps of Hungarian Jews, but escaped death himself. The memoir is collected from notes he wrote. One of those notes recalls a scene in a synagogue, grotesquely crowded with dead and dying Jews awaiting transport to the camps. Zsolt is approached by a girl who has been told she has a chance of stopping the guard from beating her father to death if she will fuck him. She wants Zsolt’s advice. Ultimately, he doesn’t give her any, but it opens up a memory from 1942. He’s been sent out on a detail to the Russian front. The Hungarian government condemned certain Hungarian Jews to do crushing, menial tasks on the front. So Zsolt is in a battalion in the town of Skarzysko in Poland, and he passes by a lot of shacks in which Jewish women intended to service German soldiers were kept. One of the woman rushes to the fence:

“Another girl, in the last stages of pregnancy who was carrying some moldy bread in a music case, asked us: “Have you got any German books? I’ve just finished what I had today. I have a few days left to read a new one if it isn’t too long.” “Why have you only got a few days?” “Because then I’m going to die. Wait a moment…” and she counted on her fingers. “Seventeen or eighteen days. Then I’ll be in labor. Then they are going to take me behind the bushes and… bang. Dort is der Hurenfriedhof.”

That was where they killed and buried the girls, behind the bushes, because they didn’t want them to give birth to mongrels, and also simply because they were Jews. The girls didn’t mind becoming pregnant; they didn’t have the strength to commit suicide and this was the certain death they longed for. Meanwhile, they still enjoyed life, even their helpless bodies were forced to enjoy it – and they hated themselves for it. And sometimes they would even sing, if the soldiers made them drunk. They got the novels from the soldiers. These novels were about blonde German women and U-Boot sailors. They read them avidly, with the unlucky ones being taken away mid-novel and never knowing what happened next to the blonde and the captain. They would snatch a glance at the very end, however, before being loaded into the NSKK truck that disappeared with them behind the bushes.”

Those novels certainly fulfilled the contract to the very end. And War and Peace would certainly have been too long for the death wait. The novelist has a chance to be literally a sibyl, here, since the underworld is tangibly close – it is just in back, in fact, in the bushes. But I can’t help thinking that these sibyls were responsible for fulfilling their contract, and that the antics of the blonde girls and the U-Boat sailors might have been written into the history, the whole jigsaw puzzle of events, that placed the Jewish girls in the camp in Skarzysko. This is why I don’t think you can sign any contract whatsoever with the reader, that Franzen is promoting a false hope and a false dichotomy. Novelists are perverse sibyls, whose predictions, although immediately falsified, eventually take their revenge on life by gradually altering the conditions by which we judge the lifelike and the artificial.

No comments: