Monday, September 11, 2006

Three for one

Posts Referents and recursives and
Fiction, briefly ear-marked Crumley's Mobius Dick. There was something else hidden away which I came across when searching for the name of the book while today in the middle of a letter I was writing to someone about writing and film-making: an impromptu note written immediately after finishing the book. I wrote :

Andrew Crumey's novel brought my attention to another method of writing a novel, illustrated by the book itself and in a novel he refers to in the text: E T A Hoffmann's Tomcat Murr.

I admit to being tired while reading the book, not being able to concentrate fully and not gaining the full benefit of Crumey's erudition or the way he structured the novel, though have frequently thought something along these lines would be a good way to tackled a story idea or two of my own. It has all been done before. This does not detract from the discovery I just made by reading Mobius, but makes it even more fascinating: another of those you just never know what's round the corner moments.

Turning to reviews of Mobius to fill me in on the story, which I had read a little tired and distracted but determined to finish, I went by some circuitous route, landing – as is often the case on web seaches - on an article by Maureen Farrell: “God Is With Us": Hitler's Rhetoric and the Lure of "Moral Values". This led straight to Knowledge and Propaganda by Joseph Goebbels, which seems like a must for most intelligent readers. Though this was swiftly followed by a rapid reading of a Wiki on Godwin's Rule. I thought this might be something to do with old William Godwin, the father of Mary Wolstonecraft. It turned out to be a rule which states that before long you are saying someone is like Hitler because you fervently disagree with his views. This rule has its sub-rules - devised by others, not Godwin - including one which says that all online discussions on liberertarianism end up with accusations about people behaving like Hitler in not agreeing fully with their liberating views. [Always been draw away from your aim: hoping somehow something extraneous might also help]

E.T.A. Hoffmann's book, written about 1830, under the German title Katr Murr is described briefly in this review at

This is a combination of writerly methods and about about stray words and references to other books such as the Magic Mountain and Musil's Man Without Qualities.

The reason I kept on reading Mobius beyond page 5 or so was a conversation between a scientist and and a literary type which began to mention Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, a bbok I have a fixation on. This is partly explained by where and when I read The Magic Mountain: at a sitting [ or was it two] and at a time when I identified with and saw myself to be much like Hans Castorp. Bildungsroman. Hence the story stayed with me over many decades. I was totally in tune with it when I read it, and have constantly returned to the feel of the novel, if not the whole text, numerous times.

There are many features to the Mann novel : the symbolism - analogs, metaphor - of the sanitorium might be enough for most people, with the lung disease, tuberculosis, standing in for the diseases of civilisation – or is that civilisations, I am never quite sure which. Then there is the debate between the two protagonists, Settembrini and Naphta, which always seemed like a [good] way for intellectuals to go on about what they believed in: continuously, while eating, walking, tobogganing, sleeping, and hardly leaving room for a breath of air or an acknowledgement that someone else was present or that other things in life mattered such as love, illness and dying. Remember the scene in Wadja's Danton where - who was it? - reads as he is being led out of prison towars the tumbril.

Even in Crumey's novel we have a discourse on Mann as if he never became as famous as he did, where his life and work did not lead to the Nobel prize for literature he eventually received. This is quite amusing when you know he wrote many other books and died a boring old man.

The pull of the narrative at the beginning of Mobius is purely intellectual. You may or may not get the references to ETA Hoffman and the significance of this to Schumann, the composer who went loopy, but it all looks pretty interesting for anyone of an intellectual arty turn of mind.

Before long Buddenbrookes has been mentioned and you are on swiftly onto to quite a long section on Robert Musil. This is strange and interesting to me because I know quite a lot about Musil, though never having finished The Man Without Qualities. Even stranger is reading about Musil in Mobius Dick within hours of having read the news that Musil's anniversary is being celebrated. I'm interested in Musil and Mann. It kept me reading Mobius Dick.

Mobius is a novel and Crumey is a novelist but this is also about Crumely's knowledge of all this stuff. There is no question he has read books and understands them, or appears to do so from what he writes in the novel. Though you can never tell when you don't really understand it well yourself. Interesting because it is these people and books which you are interested in, which you read in a novel randomly picked up, and read because you know what a mobius strip is and therefore have an incling of what the the book might contain from the jokey title Mobius Dick. It is only much later in the book that you also learn that this title is a play with Mobius in connection with the name of the writer Philip K Dick, who most people who read quite a few books have heard of but not read.You have no real idea why this connection should be so clever because you haven't read Dick at all, but go along with it because you do know about Mobius strips having made innumerable versions as a teacher at the end of term in a desperate attempt to keep children amused during last lesson of term by getting them to cut them in half horizontally.

It is soon clear the factual details in Mobius are being distorted – but only because you have some prior knowledge to work with: not a great deal, but you begin to see how this novel is going to mean different things to different people according to the extent of their prior knowedge. With no knowledge at all, or extremely little, the reader is left to pick up the smallest clues that some of this text is misleading or inaccurate. In this case it would seem to be describing true events but is obviously deceiving you in some way which you can't quite make out. If you have read a lot of the aforementioned authors and books, you will quite baturally be beginning to laugh like a drain at the authors cleverness at constructing such a novel, though the actual jokes aren't that funny.

Anyone who knew nothing of Mann or the next character in tMobius, the physicist Schrodinger - who pops up in a description which (for those who might know) harks to Dr. Krokowski in The Magic Mountain - would miss the cat connection. Not many would know Schrodinger's life story, even if they knew something vague about his cat - which is either dead or alive in a box which is a thought experiement for some reason is too complicated to understand unless you are a quantum mechanical physicist.

It is not long before it becomes apparent to the discerning reader that the details don't matter: you are being prepared for something a bit more complicated than mere (or is that more?) facts, though the number of individual storylines, which a quick check shows are up to four by page by about page 50 or so, are already asking the questions such as which is the story and which is not the story? And what are the other stories? Or, Is there no story but stories? And, Will these stories be connected to each other in any way? Ought I (just in case there is no plot which brings them together) be paying careful attention to the mere details in order, later, to see in what way they might be connected?

It is at page 95, under the John Ringer storyline, which begins in chapter 1, and might thusly suggest is the main one, that Crumey makes Ringer remember the reason he has bought E T A Hoffmann's, The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr, which he recalls he has listened about in a lecture in which is explained what Schumann's suite Kreisleriana was inspired by.

The next paragraph says:

Johannes Kreisler, a musician, is writing his autobiography. But his cat Murr mixes up all the pages and writes his own life story on the reverse sheets. So the novel consists of two parallel narratives, Kreisler's and Murr's, intercutting randomly. It was one of Franz Kafka's favourite novels; and Ringer could see why Schumann too was so impressed, given that the cpmposer's own divided self ultimately landed him in a lunatic asylum.

It is here, overtly, the author has told us the secret of his own novel, though whether it is to be an exact copying technique of the one described is not clear. However, the reader will now go back over the previous chapters in his mind - flicking back maybe - seeing that this is what might be happening. Some may have read Tomcat Murr or know the technique used to construct it. Unlikely. If so, they will be less interested in the structure of Mobius.


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