Nothing Lasts Forever: Three Novellas by Robert Steiner
Review by Will Rees
Captured by the Nazis in 1940 but spared for his French uniform, a Jewish thinker spends the next five years imprisoned in the Stalag. He reads voraciously, we well know -- Hegel, Proust, Rousseau -- but it's also during this time that he makes plans to write a novel, un roman philosophique. The thinker's name is Emmanuel Levinas and he will go on to become one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century. The projected novel is called Eros and thankfully is never written (a novel called Eros being something that should never be written). Reading Robert Steiner's collection of novellas -- bearing the equally unpromising title, Nothing Lasts Forever -- I can't help wondering if they're an attempt to fill that hole, admittedly in a more debauched way than the prudish Lithuanian would ever dream. Steeped in the philosophy of alterity, they detail the fraught relationships of three couples -- all lived amid the possibilities and impossibilities of difference, distance, and dissymmetry.
The themes covered by each novella are love, death, and betrayal; love, death, and betrayal; and love, death, and betrayal -- respectively. In "Into the Green Ocean Deep" a dying woman and "the man who loves her" spend their last days together in an apartment overlooking the sea. They smoke cigarettes, drink whiskey, and indulge their newly-heightened appetites for sexual deviancy. Stripped of all the banalities of cohabitation, in the face of death their relationship approaches the Absolute. Death for Steiner is ambivalent: it at once erases love, and makes it perfect. "The closer she is to death," he writes, "the closer they are to each other because they won't have to remain close forever."
Under the shadow cast by the woman's death the lovers try to transgress the limit it imposes; they seek absolute proximity where the distance that separates them -- that already pulls them apart -- will be erased. "No matter what they do they look into each other's eyes in order to conceal nothing since concealing nothing has becomes the only reality they have the time to invent. And yet, as they know too well, it's that very distance they're soon to lose: the distance that won't be maintained but destroyed when she dies and becomes a corpse, a thing among things, a jealously-guarded idea no longer absented by her presence. "After she dies," writes Steiner, "he'll be the arbiter of her past" and will "fall into the despair of an unreliable memory." The melancholic tyranny of the survivor. Forgetting, it turns out, might be less of a betrayal than remembering; remembering being simply forgetfulness that has forgotten itself. "If I've forgotten her face it's because our passion wasn't the stuff of which scrapbooks are composed."
The story makes for bleak reading. That said, a kind of eschatological hope insinuates itself at certain moments, though not one that's of much comfort. Ultimately we will go on. But it is our masochism -- everything that lies beyond the pleasure principle -- that will allow or force us to do so: we live on in order to suffer the blows with which we hit ourselves. A strange sort of resilience. At one point we read, "they shared the formidable recognition that nothing would occur to either of them to make life bearable and yet they would bear it." And then: "She concluded that by despising his life he'd condemn himself to afflictions and infirmities until he ate himself alive, but he would survive the ordeal in order to eat himself alive every day for the rest of his life." If this equivocates between condemnation and exoneration, then doesn't that sound about right? It will be unbearable; nonetheless you will bear it.
"Inviolate" is about a woman tending to her comatose husband, soon to die after falling from a high -- and highly metaphorical -- balcony. As death is withheld from the dying life is shown to be too short, and too long. The story takes place within the margins of a world -- in the protracted abeyance of the end. It's a compelling idea, but "Inviolate" is the collection's weakest story; the characters are just too uninteresting to offset Steiner's antiseptic yet dense prose. Comprising just two paragraphs and unrelentingly repetitive, it probably succeeds in capturing the monotony of watching guard over a loved one in a coma, but that doesn't make it any more interesting to read. (Besides, boredom has formed the topic of longer and more compelling pieces of writing. It needn't be boring.)
The third piece, "Negative Space," is the strongest. It's the only one to adopt a first-person narrative and this counterbalances its more discursive aspects. Standing at the end of a twenty-year marriage broken off by his wife in an act of betrayal, a man prepares to submit his ruined relationship to a "post-mortem" -- one that will occupy him for years, maybe for the rest of his life. Like the others, it's a story of a person who, in losing the person he loves, also loses himself.
For Steiner, the contented lovers live in a state of blissful meaninglessness, one achieved through the accomplishment of a meaning that doesn't draw attention to itself. At the end of his relationship, the protagonist "remember[s] what I had forgotten over twenty years of our marriage because I had no reason to remember it," and thus becomes a "victim of the meaning of life." Suddenly the last twenty years are a dream from which he has awoken. Sleep now is impossible, and he must examine for the first time the meaning of a life that has come undone, has torn at the seams.
Thus he sits on the terrace -- that space already outside of, and yet still attached to, the private universe -- and subjects his relationship to a rigorous examination so that "nothing will be left in the shadows." Of course his mistake, in searching for clarity, is to forget that what's important, perhaps fundamental, about a relationship always remains shadowy, is allergic to the light of day and evaporates before the impassive gaze. That's why, in his obsession with an absolute nudity where everything will be laid bare, he knows that he won't be reminded of his love for his wife, or even her betrayal -- "years from now, I would think of her as a faithless nude on a death slab." The love relation can't be denuded of its forms, disambiguated; it exists in the ways that it dissimulates itself. Untie the knot, and the string disappears. A relationship can't be grasped from the outside, even from the terrace; it can only be lived from the invisibility of the inside. But that inside no longer exists. That's why, a victim of the meaning of life, he can only hope to approach that which remains shadowy, dark, perhaps nothing; can only cast light on the intractability of his predicament.
Some reviewers have compared Steiner's work to Beckett's. This is strange. For Beckett, seriousness and humor aren't mutually exclusive, so much as mutually dependent. His work is dark and terse, but it's loaded with a sly wit that only ups the tragedy. Steiner, on the other hand, writes dark, troubling, and yet almost entirely humorless prose. When painting such a dark picture, one ought to use lighter brushstrokes. After all, without bathos, things begin to sound ridiculous; when it's entirely lacking, humor has a tendency to insinuate itself at all the wrong moments. Isn't it telling that any hint of comedy comes from Steiner's unrelenting moroseness? "From the balcony," he writes at one point, "he finds sunbathers enduring futility." "[R]elentless misery wouldn't move anyone anymore [sic] than relentless sunset," he writes later, seemingly deaf to the self-inflicted irony.
Steiner's novellas read more like those of the great French post-modernists -- Marguerite Duras, Maurice Blanchot, Georges Bataille -- though without the limpid subtlety of the first two, or the philosophical complexity of the latter. His writing is dense and clinical, often weighed down by its morbid peregrinations. Too often we get the sense that he has something about love or sex or death that he really wants to tell us; his characters mere conduits for his often (though not always) derivative reflections. I'm not suggesting that characters ought to be three-dimensional or even believable, but they shouldn't feel like pretexts.
Steiner's novellas are interesting, as Levinas's novel would have been interesting. But ultimately they fail for the same reason that the great philosopher's would have: in their desperation to say something, they close the space where something might announce itself. They read as though they've already settled on an answer. This is ironic, considering they're about the ambiguity and ambivalence of relations. Their mistake is to try and delineate that ambiguity, to make it into a theme, rather than letting it speak itself in a constant reassertion of the question. Interesting then; but like the relationships of which it speaks, lifeless.
Nothing Lasts Forever: Three Novellas by Robert Steiner