January 20: too much meaning

I ordered ‘Heine:the tragic satirist’, a study of the poetry of Heinrich Heine by Siegbert Prawer which I have a fond recollection of. What came in its place was the autobiography of Lance Armstrong from the year 2000, before the revelation of his drug cheating. This edition was in German and entitled ‘wie ich den Krebs besiegte und die Tour de France gewann’ (How I beat cancer and won the tour de France). How this mix-up happened is unclear, but the upshot was me having a look at the Armstrong autobiography. What it brought home to me is the degree to which poor writing reveals most about the person who writes it. You only need to read a few lines to get the flavour of the man: a braggard; a control-freak; a man obsessed (for whatever reason, cynically or not) with the myth of America and Texas, with the sanctifying connotations of family and fatherhood. He is right out of a cheap Hollywood picture aimed at the middlest of middle America. The writing reeks of it from page one on. Sometimes, as a reader, you want to eschew the human. You want prose that is terse and monochrome, that does not reach for the standard, easily communicated junk myths. I am in that mood at the monent and I find myself reading the French new novel, notoriously flat, what was called at the time ‘chosism’ (thingism or objectism) because of its interest in complex descriptions of objects and mechanisms and rejection of facile human interest. There is a Cezanne retrospective on in London at the moment. He, too, in his portraits, was accused of avoiding the human, of painting people as if they were ‘still lifes’ (it was said he told his models ‘Be an apple. Be an apple’). And when you look at the portraits the figures in them give nothing away, they are inscrutable. It is ‘chosism’ applied to people. Is this anti-human? I don’t know. But sometimes you just want it. You want things to be uninterpretable, unsymbolic, unemblematic, just there. You do not want the equivalent of the self-obsessed Lance Armstrong autobiography, where every sentence is screaming hysterically its needs and desires and intenions. Too much meaning.


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