The Attraction of Things by Roger Lewinter (tr. Rachel Careau). New Directions. $13.95, 128pp.
Story of Love in Solitude by Roger Lewinter (tr. Rachel Careau). New Directions. $10.95, 64pp.
Arriving in elegant, bilingual editions beautifully translated by Rachel Careau, The Attraction of Things and Story of Love in Solitude are the first two books by Roger Lewinter to be published in English. Although written in the 1980s, these works seem anything but dated. Instead they feel immune to literary fashion. They exert the fascination of something done carefully, even exhaustively, for its own sake rather than to please anyone else.
Each book is composed of a number of short sections: you could call them vignettes, or anecdotes, or prose poems. The ones in Story of Love in Solitude stand by themselves; those in The Attraction of Things cover various periods in the narrator’s life.
Lewinter is a French Swiss writer and translator. He’s also, it seems, a very private person. Most of what you’ll find about him online comes from what the publisher tells us on the covers of these editions. Lewinter’s parents were Austrian Jews. How and when they managed to make their way to France, where Lewinter was born in 1941, is unclear, as is how straightforward was their decision to move to Geneva when Lewinter was only two, at a time when Jews were unable to enter Switzerland from France.
At first glance, this reticence is strange. After all, Lewinter himself is at the center of these books. Yet we end up knowing hardly anything about him. Mostly we learn about his work, especially his translations of German language writers, including Rilke, Karl Kraus and, most importantly, the “wild analyst” Georg Groddeck, whose The Book of the It (1923) influenced Freud in his adoption of the term “the id.”
It’s tempting to think that Groddeck offers a key to Lewinter’s work. The Book of the It changed his thinking about the mind’s relation to the body: “if all sickness had to be understood as an oracle, the human body ceased to be materially an object and became, essentially, the space the mind takes in its sights: its field of instruction.”
Yet before deciding we’ve found the source of Lewinter’s fascination with perception we should remember that the very unorthodoxy that appealed to Lewinter about Groddeck also characterizes Lewinter’s unusual approach to Groddeck. After delving deeper into Groddeck’s work, Lewinter concluded The Book of the It was, “of no interest at all to me, precisely because that book was accessible.”
What interests Lewinter about Groddeck is everything in him he doesn’t understand. Although he calls Groddeck untranslatable, he translates him anyway, “through an act of faith, clearly blind.” The decision to translate Groddeck is the opposite of a decision: “it was vital, like predestination, to which one can only acquiesce; left to personal judgment was only the discovery of the means to respond, within the agreed-upon schedule, to life’s requirement.”
“Discovering the means to respond to life’s requirement” is a good way to describe the strange qualities of Lewinter’s prose, which struggles to describe the narrator’s response to a world that simultaneously attracts and resists him. The voice that narrates this struggle isn’t easy to follow. The syntax is at once convoluted and propulsive. Here’s a typical excerpt; the narrator has arranged to have a coffee with a man he’s attracted to, a vendor at a farmer’s market:
[A]s he approached me from behind, taking off his gloves to slap them together, exclaiming, “It’s hell out today,” turning back to him with a start—waiting for him, I was looking over some books at this stand at the flea market—, when I saw his body, which, lifting my eyes to his face, I suddenly had the feeling that I only had to stretch out my hand to make mine, a force beyond my control gripping the nape of my neck had made me move away without a word…
That last phrase captures in miniatures the experience of reading Lewinter: we succumb to the text as though to a force beyond our control, yet the force incites distance more often than intimacy with what we read. This quality makes Lewinter strangely, almost compulsively readable: strange because almost nothing happens in his texts, compulsive because the extraordinary sentences, replete with qualifications, hesitations, and parenthetical asides, pull readers along.
I often found myself lost, utterly unsure of where I was or what the narrator was even talking about, until I happened upon a sudden moment of illumination. For example, until I read the words “to make mine” in the flea market passage I couldn’t make sense of that “which,” especially since it is followed by the parenthetical clause “lifting my eyes to his face.”
To read Lewinter is to mimic his own sudden discovery, after months of debilitating back pain, that he is able, without ever before having practiced yoga or indeed physical exercise of any kind, to execute the lotus position: “its effect brought about, in one breath, relief: the body instantly reorganized on its axis, like a planetary system harmoniously entering into gravitation.” We labor through clauses that seem to have no relation to each other until we grasp a word or phrase that snaps everything into place—what was meaningless becomes meaningful.
Characteristically, Lewinter doesn’t set out to solve his back pain with yoga—it just happens: “suddenly the technique appeared simple to me, and, impulsively, I got up to execute at once the movement I had visualized.” What is true for the narrator is true for readers as well. We need to allow ourselves to be visited by sudden illumination. It’s like when you have a name at the tip of your tongue. Focusing on it gets you nowhere. But when you let your attention wander, it bursts unbidden into your memory.
Reading Lewinter is hard work, no question, but we have to learn to accept that we won’t always understand. If we can reach a state of free-floating attention, we are more likely to be able to experience sudden moments of illumination.
Echoing the subtitle of The Attraction of Things, “Fragments of an Oblique Life,” we might thus best describe Lewinter an oblique writer, less in the sense of indirection than of the slantwise. Obliquity is everywhere in these books. In one text, the narrator catches sight of a spider “on the transverse edge of the alcove, obliquely above [his] head.” In another, he maneuvers himself into position to check out a man he is attracted to: “I could… by placing myself at a slight angle let my eyes wander over him.” In a third, he prowls Geneva’s flea market, looking for collectibles, especially early opera recordings pressed in St. Petersburg and shawls from Kashmir.
Yet even though chance rules the way he acquires these objects, the objects themselves are highly patterned. The narrator values what comes from chance more than chance itself. Paradoxically, then, these chance encounters take on a quality of inevitability or fate. Perhaps this paradox explains the narrator’s otherwise puzzling response when his father gives him a secondhand volume of Rilke: “I didn’t even try to look at [it], putting it away on the shelf behind the headboard of my bed, to await the moment when I would no longer be unreceptive to it.”
The narrator understands both that he isn’t ready for Rilke, but also, as his “no longer” suggests, that one day he will be. Lewinter routinely shuttles between waywardness and certainty; he is an errant writer who always arrives at his destination. Nowhere is this oscillation more apparent than in his distinctive syntax.
Like so many of the great twentieth century prose writers, Lewinter is a master of the sentence, which, more than the anecdote or section or chapter or even the text as a whole, is the unit of significance that matters most to him. Most of these sentences stretch across several pages, making it hard to give an accurate sense of his style.
Take, for example, this excerpt from a seven-page-long sentence in “Passion,” the second of the three texts in Story of Love in Solitude. The narrator’s beloved camellia plant, once vigorous, has begun to drop its leaves. Perhaps not coincidentally, the plant’s distress coincides with the narrator’s struggles to translate Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, a struggle he fears may have been “irradiating” the plant even as the plant, and perhaps the struggle, has invigorated him. Increasingly alarmed—the leaves have been “reduced to a network of veins”—the narrator digs into the potted soil and finds a mass of decay:
[M]aggots, yellowish white, about a quarter of an inch long, crawling on the surface, immediately went back belowground; and removing the soil then with the tip of a leaf, I discovered yet another type of maggot, perhaps half an inch long, threadlike, translucent, like a fine rice noodle; and so, the insecticide sticks recommended by the florist seeming to me insufficient to check the likely proliferation of parasites—the leaves, invariably the strongest, of other branches were now decimated—, on September 23, reluctantly—dreading the effect on the swollen flower buds—, I applied a liquid pesticide—I had to water the plant with it, at the rate of one tablespoon diluted in a quart of water, three times at ten-day intervals—; the mixture absorbed, the soil—a sudden myriad of threadlike maggots, translucent, which lifted up twisting in every direction, contorting themselves in broken convulsions before slackening, struck down—heaved; and now, from everywhere, the yellowish-white maggots surged up, wandering across the surface, not dying instantly like the others, and two millipedes, driven from a clump of short branches at the base, streamed out, attempting to climb onto the trunk—so this was what I had found, ten days earlier, near the window, three feet from the pot, and had taken for a dead caterpillar—; faced with this devourment endlessly pouring forth—an hour, meanwhile, had gone by—, beginning to doubt that the treatment could be more than palliative—in the evening, by artificial light, the soil still shuddered—, and the second application, then the third, provoking the same cataclysm, I realized beyond any doubt that there was no other remedy than to transplant the tree—though this be fire and sword—, since the old leaves, pocked, fell in such numbers that wide gaps formed in the previously impenetrable thicket, while the flower buds, whose swelling had stopped with the first treatment, began to wither and soon fall as well; despite everything, still hesitating—I applied the pesticide six times—, when, in the middle of December—the Sonnets had been finished since October 5—, upon my return from a brief stay in Paris, discovering, in the evening, at the foot of the tree, the same teeming, I made up my mind and took the camellia, on December 18, to a horticulturalist to whom I had presented the case, by telephone, at the beginning of November—in a Tribune de Genève from the summer, I had read an article on the alternative approaches he used to combat parasites, and unlike other nurserymen and florists, he had listened to me—, his diagnosis now confirming my own: it would be necessary, though it would have been better to wait till spring, to cleanse the roots and changes the soil—that the rotting of the maggots was moreover poisoning—, and, he said, to cut back the tree because of the destruction of its roots; without my expecting that the camellia, when, on December 22, I came back to retrieve it, would be, broken lyre, the stump of its former self…
Even an attentive reader is likely to get lost in the passage’s many digressions. The narrator seems almost compulsive in his need to provide more and more detail, whether by piling on adjectives (as in his description of the second kind of maggot as “perhaps half an inch long, threadlike, translucent, like a fine rice noodle”) or by adding apparently superfluous information (do we need to know the narrator returns from Paris “in the evening” to find the plant still infested?). Verbs and nouns are separated both within parentheses and by parentheses, sometimes even within a single clause:
[T]he mixture absorbed, the soil—a sudden myriad of threadlike maggots, translucent, which lifted up twisting in every direction, contorting themselves in broken convulsions before slackening, struck down—heaved.
By the time we make sense of the logic of that parenthetical clause—in which “a sudden myriad of threadlike maggots” is “struck down,” though Lewinter’s phrasing is in fact even stranger, since “struck down” is used intransitively: he says the maggots “struck down,” not the maggots “were struck down by something” or “struck something else down”—we might be forgiven for being bewildered by that final “heaved.” It takes us a moment to remember that it’s soil from the first part of the clause that is heaving.
In fact, reading this passage again, I’m not sure that the parenthetical material isn’t simply an extended description of soil, likened via apposition rather than metaphor to “a sudden myriad of threadlike maggots” that is or has been “struck down.” The soil is absorbent, but readers might not be.
So determined is Lewinter to throw obstacles in our way that he divides and interrupts the flow of the syntax even when it would be more natural not to:
without my expecting that the camellia, when, on December 22, I came back to retrieve it, would be, broken lyre, the stump of its former self .
Lewinter could easily have written something like “when I came back to retrieve it on December 22” or “it would be like a broken lyre, the stump of its former self.” But in translating his prose into “good sense”—in smoothing over those abrupt, even awkward modifying phrases—much would be lost, most importantly, the challenge to grammatical and conceptual coherence at the heart of the way Lewinter understands the relation of consciousness to the world.
Lewinter’s obtruding parenthetical insertions overturn the conventional relationship between dominant and subordinate ideas. The very idea of the parenthetical suggests something unnecessary, an aside subordinate to the main point. In Lewinter, however, the main point is nothing without those seemingly extraneous elements. After all, when independent clauses are so interrupted by subordinate interjections, assertions, and qualifications that we can barely follow their through-lines, what does it mean to call them independent?
Yet to challenge coherence isn’t to overturn it: Lewinter’s texts are hard to read but they still make sense. Though the offsetting dashes and qualifying phrases hinder our ability to move smoothly from the beginning of a sentence or an idea to its end, the texts as a whole are carefully composed. We struggle with the texts’ meaning, but not because they’re meaningless.
Perhaps this undoing of the distinction between argument and aside, independent and subordinate clause, explains why so many of Lewinter’s little texts concern little things (the maggots and the potted plant of our example; elsewhere, a spider or a shawl). They are about the relationship between those things and a narrating consciousness.
Lewinter learned from Groddeck that the body is nothing other than “the space the mind takes in its sights.” But at the same time, the mind needs to set its sights on something. The narrator needs the things of the world he is so attracted to; in fact, that attraction effaces the narrator. It doesn’t much matter what he makes of the things he describes at such length. Look again at the long passage about the camellia. The narrator speaks once of “dreading” what the pesticide will do to the plant, once of “doubt[ing] that the treatment could be more than palliative,” and once of “realiz[ing] beyond any doubt” that he’ll need to transplant the tree. These are the only indications of his thoughts or feelings. The passage’s energy doesn’t come from his reactions. And yet it would be wrong to say that only the object matters, for what catches us in Lewinter’s prose is the way the often quite ordinary things in it are described. The self makes its presence felt indirectly (by describing the objects of its gaze) rather than directly (by telling us how it feels).
When we read the title The Attraction of Things we ought to hear not an attraction to things but rather the attraction that composes things, the attraction that things are. That attraction at once necessitates and exceeds a perceiving, narrating subject. The relationship between objects and the narrator is one of attraction-repulsion, a drawing closer and a pushing away. What’s true of objects is true of other people: the same paradoxical effacement and aggrandizement of the narrating self is evident. Attraction draws subjects and objects together, but without creating a fixed relationship between them. This is as true sexually as it is philosophically: objects and subjects cruise each other in Lewinter’s prose.
Indeed, in The Attraction of Things the narrator responds to an ultimatum from a woman he is apparently engaged to (it’s the first and last we hear of it) by cruising the public toilets on Place Saint-Gervais, where he had previously “encountered someone … who didn’t appeal to me but whose waiting affected me.” The encounters between these men, which might be sexual, and which end as abruptly as they begin, are described by the narrator as existing only in fleeting, often drunken moments, “which made of two bodies brought together the mere stopping-off point in an impersonal connection that, through the necessary surrender to his arbitrariness ravishing my body,” utterly drains the narrator.
An attraction that forms no attachment: perhaps this description explains what otherwise bewilders in this book. Namely, the narrator’s claim, just a few pages later that, after being invited to perform in a friend’s production of Sophocles, he has given up the theater because “it would be impossible for me to act without consenting to homosexuality, which would have overwhelmed me, whereas I was aiming for control over it.”
I don’t think the narrator wants to demonize homosexuality. He wants instead to reject the identity position that comes with a term like “homosexuality.” Lewinter is a queer writer, not a gay one. He resists the hetero-homo binary; he depicts states of feeling that can’t be reduced to a particular form of subjectivity or identity position.
To name desire is to reduce rather than to refine it, as we see most clearly in “Nameless,” the final part of Story of Love in Solitude and the most beautiful section of these two beautiful books. It’s about the narrator’s attraction to a man who sells vegetables at an outdoor market, though “attraction” doesn’t do justice to the currents that pass between them:
[S]o that, Thursday, when I saw him, lifting his eyes as he noticed me waiting at his stand, blush, overpowered then, lowering his eyes immediately, by a smile that transfigured him, in my incredulity that I could appeal to him—the enlightenment that had struck me when I saw him, was it anything over than this certainty?—, I remained before the sweetness of the gift in its simplicity, but the feeling that I had only to stretch out my hand—purity, a matter of a movement of exact madness, depending on that instant—, transfixed, while he now offered me the peas—I asked myself whether he knew that he was radiant—, in the fullness of his restrained happiness not seeming even to expect anything from me, speechless before his resplendence, which, in its modesty, I would have doubted as I moved away if his warmth, spreading to me, hadn’t lightened me until Saturday, when, at the return of the flea market, at eleven thirty, I again found myself in front of his stand—I no longer recall whether he was alone—, rebelling at there being only one admission, which I couldn’t accept, that wouldn’t be indecent—noticing me, he had blushed again—, so that I indicated—when to his look I had responded, “Oh you know…,” turning bright crimson he had cried out in a tone rendered despairing by its intensity, “But I know nothing!”—the peas, which he gave me, stammering, “Good day,” and turning away, flashing with anger; while on Monday, having regained his self-control, he greeted me with a neutrality he never again abandoned…
It won’t spoil anything to say that the encounter, narrated in a single sentence of which this excerpt is only a small part, ends inconclusively. But unlike all other sentences in these books, this one breaks off: a final, dangling colon suggests that the logical consequences of this act cannot be named.
But maybe they don’t need to be named. As this passage shows, the text has rendered subject and object, narrator and vendor, I and he interdependent.
Looking at any given clause in this excerpt, it’s easy to be confused about who is being referred to. Who, for example, is “overpowered” here? Is the narrator overpowered by the other man’s blush? Or is the man overpowered by his own transfiguring smile? Does the clause “in my incredulity that I could appeal to him” modify the way the smile transfigures the seller, by offering the reason for it? Or does it modify the way the narrator, after the parenthetical phrase about enlightenment, remains transfixed before the sweetness of the other man’s gift?
Lewinter’s idiosyncratic syntax challenges any clear distinction between observer and observed, self and other. Perhaps it is this uncertainty—expressed in difficult but thrilling prose—that constitutes, to paraphrase Lewinter on Groddeck, the thing in his writing we can’t understand. When I said at the beginning of this essay that Lewinter’s texts seem immune to literary fashion, I didn’t mean they’re like nothing else. They fit into a literary tradition that dates back at least to the early nineteenth century, from Büchner, say, through Proust and Rilke down on to Beckett and Bernhard and Sebald, and which continues in some of the most interesting English-language writers today, such as Teju Cole, Lydia Davis, and Garth Greenwell.
These writers employ extraordinary—often extraordinarily long—sentences offered by a first person narrating consciousness whose main preoccupation is with the very fact of his or her narration. Whatever their differences, these writers agree that the modulations of syntax are the best way to present consciousness. Yet the obliquity that appears so often in Lewinter’s texts also characterizes his relation to this tradition.
The narrator of a novel by Bernhard or Sebald, say, is so much more shaped by an overriding emotional tone (of hatred, say, or melancholy), so much more obviously a person than Lewinter’s narrator. The latter is elusive, barely cohering into anything like a coherent consciousness, let alone anything as solid as a character. And yet through the force of style, the peculiar way of narrating its relation to the world it is so attracted to, this narrator is just as palpable as if he’d told us everything about himself.
Although we can place Lewinter in a recognizable literary tradition, what makes him so distinctive—and the arrival of these works in English so exciting—is the demand his work places on us. To read Lewinter is to succumb to the power of a syntax that always flirts with unintelligibility and to accept that what we can’t fully understand in a text might be the most valuable thing about it.
Dorian Stuber teaches at Hendrix College and blogs about books at www.eigermonchjungfrau.wordpress.com. He has written for Open Letters Monthly, Numéro Cinq and Words without Borders.
Read More on this Subject:
No related posts.
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Dorian Stuber