May 2012

Elizabeth Bachner


Wholly Beautiful: Reading The Road to Reality

I’ve had this John Cooper Clarke poem running through my head as I clomp around the hot city, all the verses running together and switching order. “The bloody train is bloody late, you bloody wait you bloody wait, you're bloody lost and bloody found, stuck in fucking chicken town. The bloody view is bloody vile, for bloody miles and bloody miles, the bloody babies bloody cry, the bloody flowers bloody die, the bloody food is bloody muck, the bloody drains are bloody fucked, the colour scheme is bloody brown…” And I don’t know why, New York City isn’t like chicken town at all, it’s the kind of place you come on purpose, and I’m not waiting for a train, I’m walking and I’m getting here, I’m getting there, going the places I meant to go, the color scheme isn’t brown, but this poem has been in my system for four or five days, sometimes that happens. The way a novel or a poem or a memoir gets inside is so complicated, so inexact. There must be a law of physics or mathematics that explains it, which is why I’m trying to read Roger Penrose’s The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe even though I don’t understand it (which is not Roger Penrose’s fault.)

On Monday I went to an Elias Khoury reading. When someone asked a question about the typology of dreams in As Though She Were Sleeping, he hinted that he hadn’t created these categories, it was his protagonist who’d made them, and when someone else asked him about how he’s chosen a character’s name, he explained the way another character had named her. He said, “If a novel is good, you forget the writer and only remember the characters. And if a novel is bad, you forget both,” and I wish that could be true, I feel like I’m surrounded by bad novels and their authors, each sometimes unforgettable. He went on to say that either way, the writer is just a signature, a scribble on the page, and either way, if you write a book you become one of its readers. In response to some other question, he said it takes him four or five years to write a novel, and usually he develops some kind of love situation or love affair with at least one of the characters, and so his life becomes “very difficult.” At that point the people on either side of me laughed, but I felt a nasty pang in the back of my chest, again, and I nodded, and I thought, Yes! My life has become very difficult.

I always think about the authors, of good novels and bad novels, of ghostwritten memoirs and memoirs full of lies, of poems and self-help books, of guidebooks and studies. I think about their freckled skin, their healthy or unhealthy urinary tracts, their sexual encounters, the reasons they compromise and write bad books, or the ways they write brilliant books but keep from dying before they’re finished. When I read truthful characters who are really alive, or poems that harm and transform the reader, I think about how the writer helped get them on paper, and what his or her human life was like, getting them there.

I’m reading Bizarre Books: A Compendium of Classic Oddities, by Russell Ash and Brian Lake. Most of the books are ones you might read and forget, or remember for the wrong reasons, but I think about the authors, the earnest ones, the cynical ones. After all, it can take a longer portion of a human life to write Acne at Your Fingertips or Cancer: Is the Dog the Cause? or My Prostate and Me than to write a beautiful little volume of poems that gets awarded a Nobel Prize someday, or a beautiful book of poems that never gets considered for any prizes. It all brings up questions about why we live the ways we live, how much what’s visceral can be made conscious, what the hell we’re doing here, what “we” means.

“Oh Sonetchka!” wrote Dostoevsky to his niece in the late 1860s, as he started outlining one of what turned out to be eight different plans for The Idiot, “…I know for sure that if I had two or three secure years for this novel, as Turgenev, Goncharov, and Tolstoy have, I would write a work that they would talk about for a hundred years! I’m not at all bragging… The idea I have is so good and so pregnant with meaning that I worship it. And yet what will come of it? I know beforehand, I’ll work on it for eight or nine months and I’ll make a mess of it. Two or three years are needed for something of this kind.”

Dostoevsky had left Russia to improve his health and find a bit of luck, but instead his seizures got worse, and so did his gambling addiction. Everywhere he and his new wife lived was always cold, their flats were grim and dreary, and they were hounded by creditors. He hated Geneva, which was pretty but “really disgusting, one has to pay too dearly for the panorama alone.” It was “boring beyond belief” and filled with drunks. In January 1968, just as he was about to send the novel to his publisher, he destroyed most of what he’d written and started the whole thing again (“What I had written ceased to please me, and if you stop liking it you can’t do it right”). He wrote a new first part in 23 days. It was, according to Edward Wasiolek, the editor of Dostoevsky: The Notebooks for the Idiot, “magnificent, and Dostoevsky knew it was magnificent,” but then he had no idea how to continue the novel. The first part was almost self-contained. The idea -- “to depict the wholly beautiful man” -- had tortured him for a long time, he wrote. “But I was afraid of writing a novel about this idea because it is too difficult and I am not up to it. But the thought is very tempting and I love it.”

I was out with a friend, a photographer and sculptor, and we were talking about that feeling that you’ll never do your work again, that it’s just gone, and how real that feels, how you believe it completely every time, and how unreal it feels when the brick in your chest dissolves and you start to work again. Also how knowing that somebody made something -- or if not, that it’s a piece of infinity, from somewhere or nowhere, governed by unknown laws -- doesn’t make it less real. I’ve fallen in love with imaginary characters. If it happens with one created or manifested by a novelist, it blurs with your own life and the people you know in your own life, the way toxic particles from bad groundwater or bad air (or from the dog?) can get inside your own breasts or brain and give you cancer. If it happens with a character you’re writing, well, then your life becomes very difficult, although, isn’t life very difficult anyway?

I’m always looking for guidebooks and self-help, I’m fishing through this compendium looking for better self-help than what I’ve got -- they have everything, there’s How to Be Plump, How to Avoid Work, How to Abandon Ship, Enjoy Your Gerbils, The Art of Faking Exhibition Poultry. I read memoirs, comparing strangers’ lives to my own life. I found one called Happens Every Day, written by a blond actress from an early Whit Stillman movie I liked, about how she moved to Oberlin and her professor husband dumped her and their two little kids to go off with the sleek, brunette, half-French 18th Century literature specialist. The title comes from something the half-French rival says, when they’re supposed to be friends, and they’re at the movies, and the author asks her how someone could possibly just up and abandon his wife and children. “It happens every day,” the rival answers, and it does. I used the memoir to explain to myself how lucky I am to get rejected now (or is it my protagonist who’s rejected, my protagonist who’s lucky?) -- because what if I/she/we got our (her?) wish and things worked out, and she and her love interest took trips together to sunny places with clean air and sat on benches together under the visible stars out in the country, and then he left her for one of those small-breasted, olive-skinned women with European accents who don’t get shy ever, and who somehow find it easy to tell men that they love them. This could happen to her or to me, and maybe I wouldn’t be able to stop it. It’s better this way! I tell myself, even though I don’t mean it. And I don’t know why I’m rooting for this protagonist when she’s so narcissistic and unlikable, and when I have such complicated feelings of my own for her lover, who is so painfully close to me, so hurtfully far away from me, intimate and unreachable, the way in every mirror there’s a real face.

Somehow I always end up back with novels or poems running around inside me, or I’m running around inside them, I turn back from memoirs to novels. I have relationships with the characters in The Idiot, close and deep and troubling and entirely one-sided relationships, and I’m pretty sure that no matter how much I think about it, or how much I read about it, I’ll never really understand how they were made and how they got here, just like I’ll probably never figure out how I got here.

When he reads an amazing novel, Elias Khoury said, he’s convinced afterwards that he’s the one who’s written it. (He used the example of Camus’s The Stranger back when he’d first read it.) But when you write a novel, he explained, you become a signature, a scribble, a name unrelated to the characters that are now (that were always?) outside of you. You’re a reader among many readers, right away. This is true if you write with no other readers, too, I think, because all of the imaginary readers are real.

In 1919, Herman Hesse wrote a small essay about Dostoevsky’s idiot, his sweet prince. “Myshkin is different from others because, as idiot and epileptic, and at the same time a very clever person, he has much closer and more direct relations with the unconscious than they do. For him the highest experience is that half-second of supreme receptivity and insight that he has experienced a few times, that magical ability for a moment, to be able to be everything, to empathize with everything, to sympathize with everything, to understand and accept everything in the world.” And I think again about the clever, epileptic Dostoevsky. After he finished The Idiot, he wrote, “I am dissatisfied with my novel. I did not express a tenth of what I wanted to express, although I refuse to give it up. I still love the idea even though I was not able to bring it off.” I think about the difference between the writer and the protagonist, and the writer’s lovers and the protagonist’s suicidal lovers, the difference between reality and reality and life and life and life. Of course, The Idiot was written when the fortysomething Dostoevsky had mellowed a bit with age. In an 1844 letter, at age twenty-three, frantic about debt and in need of a bestseller, he wrote, “What matters is that my novel should cover everything. If it does not work, I will hang myself.”

“He has not only had strange and magnificent thoughts and inspirations,” wrote Hesse about the idiot prince, “but more than once he has stood on the magic threshold where everything is affirmed, where not only the most farfetched idea is true, but also the opposite of every such idea.”

The Brothers Karamazov was Dostoevsky’s final book, after he’d packed in his maximum years of human living and suffering -- illness, those cold flats, the threat of death, prison (also obviously very cold), bad reviews, debt, addiction, semi-madness, losing children to tragic disease. I don’t know whether this is soothing or not. I think, yes, maybe soothing -- that after writing some novels that were genius but didn’t completely pay the bills or resolve the laws of the universe, he got old -- or, older, at least, older than twenty-three -- and he didn’t hang himself, and he wrote this enormous novel, which some people love now and others don’t. A novel which couldn’t and didn’t “cover everything” in its 800ish pages, the way no novel or memoir or guidebook or poem, or work of quantum physics, or brave act, or cowardly act, or human life or inhuman life or suicide or birth can cover everything, but which made it into the fatty tissues under my skull, into Einstein’s nervous system, into a Yul Brynner movie, into dusty libraries, pressed with new ink.

I’ve reached page 1038 of The Road to Reality, the part about beauty and miracles. Roger Penrose writes that these not-unrelated things -- beauty, miracles -- are powerful internal driving forces that have strongly influenced the direction of all theoretical research, but aren’t always mentioned in “serious scientific writings,” for fear that beauty and miracles stray too far from what is seen as proper scientific procedure. He mentions Georg Cantor’s theory of the infinite, which he says is, in his opinion, “one of the most profoundly beautiful mathematical contributions in the whole of mathematical history. However, extraordinarily little of it seems to have relevance to the workings of the physical world as we know it…” (The things Doestoevsky’s characters say about beauty: beauty is a riddle. Beauty can overthrow the world.)

And this clears some things up for me, because I’ve been trying to understand this theory, trying to read the works of Cantor’s opponents and critics, and I don’t understand any of it but I find it crushingly, absurdly beautiful anyway, maybe because I am not a physicist or a mathematician, or maybe because I’m a writer and, other than my body and my life, most of what I have to do my work with is limited sequences of rearranged symbols, brutalized or seduced by some unfathomable dynamics of alchemy or magic or magnetism into containing infinity, and so maybe if I can master all of this I won’t be sad anymore, maybe figuring out mirror symmetry will bust the love of my life out of the pages of my unwritten book. Penrose points out that, while the workings of the world are still unknown, including in his own work on twistor theory, we’ve already answered some terrifying ancient questions over the past century, and, “it is frequently possible to act in a positive way.” I definitely don’t understand twistor theory, but the beauty of its language is almost shocking. If I’m on a road somewhere, I’m not certain whether reality is my destination. Roger Penrose (in his seventies when he wrote The Road to Reality, now eighty-one) seems okay with that, okay with destinationlessness, with representations and manifestations of the impossible, with illusions that aren’t illusions at all. It’s all beautiful, miraculous, scary. It doesn’t make any sense.

“To know how the contents of the universe behave,” he writes, “does not seem to tell us very much about what it is that does the behaving. This ‘what?’ question is intimately connected with another deep and ancient question, namely ‘why?’”

“The first notes for The Idiot,” writes Edward Wasiolek, “are uncertain, complex, and remote from the final version of the novel. They are not easy to understand. The reader is likely to be impressed on first reading with a bewildering diversity of actions, characters, and relationships. Dostoevsky seems to have started with certain situations, dramatic nodes, without having a clear idea of how different situations relate to one another, or why his people act as they do.” Dostoevsky “looks for his ‘beautiful’ Idiot from the first plan and in the seventh he finds him.” Through the “teeming world of shifting, flickering, failing possibilities… Doestoevsky will change almost everything, but he will not change the situation. Characters will be born, die, and be reborn; they will take on flesh and waste away... Dostoevsky is sure of the gestures, even when he is unsure what they mean… The notes for The Idiot are a record of a search for what Dostoevsky knew he had to find… The Idiot is one of the world’s great novels, and in between the great man who created it and the great novel lie the notebooks.”

I don’t know how my own life would be if I’d never read that John Cooper Clark poem, or I’d never read any schadenfreude-y infidelity memoirs, or I’d never read The Idiot or any writer’s notebooks. And if I’d never existed, would that change the world at all? Its hows or its whats or its whys? And then -- what if Dostoevsky hadn’t tried to write novels? What if he had just been a military doctor, a non-novelist epileptic gambler in a series of cold rooms? And then, what if he had never destroyed and rewritten that first draft of that first part of The Idiot? And then, what if all of those notebooks had been lost somewhere? And what if -- the big what-if -- Dostoevsky had been gifted with all the warmth and money he wanted, with all the privacy and time to work that he wanted, with three years like Turgenev or Goncharov or Tolstoy?

It still rankles, this idea that there are great people who matter-- —Dostoevsky -- and lesser people who matter less (Edwin R. Willis, co-author of The Longevity of Starved Cockroaches?), but then again of course I believe this idea in some way, I live in its reality or it lives in mine. It’s seductive, even though it’s clear that we’re all in the same boat -- skin-covered, struggling.

Lately I notice some other realities, too. Lately I see how my city is bloody. Lately I see how, if you look at it a certain way -- and only if you look at it a certain way -- the view is vile for miles and miles. Nothing is going to come off the way I think it’s going to come off. What I think is going to happen in round one isn’t the same thing that I’ll actually discover in round seven. Even if we’re hard-headed skeptics, says Roger Penrose, “we should not turn down a miracle when it is presented to us!... The miracle is the fact that these seemingly gross absurdities of experimental fact… can all be accommodated within a beautiful mathematical formalism,” and this is true with any novel, with any good or bad book, any poem. It’s only an arrangement of twenty-six letters, or the number of letters in the alphabet of its first language -- limited. Innocent.