The Power and the Story

Something written in the state of Denmark


Kjartan Fløgstad

Copyrighted by Kjartan Fløgstad and Mindship International. All rights reserved.

©: Sunday, June 29, 1997

During the past 25 years, from the early seventies until now, I have published nine books which, with some degree of accuracy, can be called novels. These nine books constitute, together with a number of more or less theoretical pieces, the reason I feel I can justifiably pronounce on the art of novel-writing.

All the same, I am very reluctant to lay claim to the authorship of nine novels. Of the books I have published during the eighties and nineties, the last one is a travelogue, one is a biography, three are straightforward collections of essays. As far as the others are concerned, I have called only one a novel, and that one is also, as I see it, the most problematic of the lot, U 3 (1983) .Fyr og flamme (Fire and flame, 1980) has the subtitle Av handling - the division into two words changes the sense from "A thesis" to "On action". And Det 7. klima - The 7th Climate (1986) purports to be a literary biography.

I do not think that the genre I have allotted each of these books to is arbitrary. On the contrary I know it is deliberate. I also know that it has to do with a distaste for the novel, a distaste shared by many of my most able colleagues, one which has led them to stop writing novels, or at least to stop publishing them within the commercial editorial system.

Obviously this consciousness of unhappiness about the novel is not recent. It is not for example a product of the general skepticism of the 1980's and 90's. In the sixties, when I published my first books, I thought, like most young writers then, that the novel was a hopeless and antiquated literary form. Historical novels, psychological realism: they both killed the novel stone dead. The genre transformed life into fate, people into characters, memories to plots, the course of life into chronology. The novel was an individualizing bourgeois remnant - Tyrannosaurus Text. But liberal individualism presupposes equality. And in society inequality reigned. For as long as I have been writing novels, the question of the aesthetics of the novel has for me been inextricably bound up with the question of Socialism. With political questions in other words. And my experiences as an author of novels seem to indicate that the form is that part of the content which is political.

Amongst the ideally equal members of the elite in the ideal bourgeois society, the novel is supposed to have been a significant formative force in the negotiation of a public opinion. The collapse of a bourgeois public sphere in which ideas are freely negotiated has also eradicated the basis on which novels could form opinion. In addition the comprehensive organization of society diminishes the significance of public opinion. Factual prose, news and newzak, reports and documents displace the arena in which the novel and literature generally can operate in the direction of the least organized sector of our social lives, towards the sphere of the intimate, and towards the outer margins of society, to sub-groups and sub-cultures. Apparently, people that have power seldom read novels. As they often make a point of saying in their interviews, they still have an unread copy of Kissinger's memoirs on their bedside-table, whilst they spend their days plowing through a more than ample sufficiency of memoranda, reports, and resumes.

Epic fiction in the form of the novel has less and less impact on public opinion. In turn public opinion has less impact on the way society is governed. According to the sociologist Dag Osterberg this implies that the reading of novels becomes "A form of institutionalized resignation in relation to the ruling class".

The novel is probably the best literary genre with which to discuss social problems and politics. The arguments I have already outlined nevertheless give reason to believe that the political consequences of novel-writing and novel- reading are exceedingly limited. There have been innumerable examples during the past few years which appear to support the notion as a kind of policy of impotence, a replacement for politics somewhere between the social engineering of the various organs of State administration on the one hand, and the fundamental Utopian criticism of social theory on the other.

But doesn't narrative prose still perform its traditional basic task as entertainment? By entertainment I mean the naive or cynical repetition of something which has been said before as though it were new and were being said for the first time. The novel's suitability to this highly respectable and important enterprise has been undermined from two sides during recent decades: by the visual media led by television, and also by so-called real life in the form of memoirs and popular biographies.

Nonetheless, more and more, rather than fewer, novels are published, at least as far as I can see. The printing industry is operating at full capacity. Every month the book-clubs involve a hundred thousand readers in a gigantic read-in. This book of the day or book of the month is generally a novel. As a branch of industry the picture looks bright for the novel. But then there is the question or whether this branch of literary production might not be comparable with another exemplary piece of modernist heavy industry, the electro-chemical smelting industry, which with raw materials from the most lugubrious of suppliers carries on producing much as before. Now, however, it only produces trivia, ferrous alloys and aluminum, and not the gleaming bright metallic future it once fabricated.

As we all know, the novel has been called the cathedral of the bourgeois. In this house of God, public opinion thundered from the pulpit of fiction down over the best leather reading chairs, where the sinful public shrank before the Word and at the same time caught a glimpse of all the tempting and fantastical forms of the world through the stained-glass arch-windows in the novel's wall of words. In this its Catholic form the novel has undoubtedly collapsed and become a verbal ancient monument.

But outside the Mother Church, reformers have been at work. In the writings of the old heretics like Lucian of Samosata, Rabelais, Sterne and others, there are examples of even the morally worn machine of prose fiction being able to accommodate the totality of language, exploit poetically all its resources, and make possible that text which neither the author nor the subject, but the text itself can tell.

The poet nothing afirmeth

And therefore never lieth

Sir Philip Sidney wrote as early as the sixteenth century, and I'm sure meant it as a piece of advice to those novelists today who are so busy forgetting in public what they understood a little of in their political past, who are creeping to the cross, completing circles and making a stand for the end to all reflections and for all the so-called human values.

As the last few years have shown way beyond all doubt, the possibilities we have to express ourselves publicly under late capitalism contain many notable tensions and internal incongruities. (And of course it probably appears meaningless to go on about Post-Modernism in a society where the dominant public sphere has hardly managed to reconcile itself to Modernism. It manages to reconcile itself to modern industrial society only to the extent to which it sees it as civilizing and progressive, not as culture.)

In aesthetic terms the sequel to modernism defines itself as Post-Modernism through, amongst other things, the extinction of the objectivity by mass- culture; through the demotion by signs of the real to something imaginary; through the apprehension that all discourse, even scientific discourse, is controlled by everyday language; and through the insight that we are not masters of our own utterances, but that language consumes its speakers.

But above all else the significance of Post-Modernism and my paradigmatic deconstruction to the writing of novels, lies in its marking the transition in society from a product-based to a market-based economy which realizes the surplus value of a product by ensuring its consumption. If we see the work as the basic principle of post-modernity, then Post-Modernism describes the transition by which the fundamental structuring and formative force in society is no longer Work but Communication. Post-Modernism expresses then the displacement of our Utopias from a concept of work to a concept of communication.

And this, the new as well as old Right and post-modernized Socialists rejoice in a well mixed choir, means that the social phenomena is finished, politics have had it, history is over, Utopia canceled, Marx dead, and the workers no longer constitute a class which will free itself and therefore everybody else. Instead we have a non-class of non-workers. In a couple of words: the dialectics of enlightenment have been overcome, the grand narratives have been finished.

Personally I have a suspicion that the rejoicing is premature, or rather, that those who wish to rejoice had better get on with it pretty quickly, before the little narratives they are rejoicing about begin to grow bigger. This is the reason I can't quite bring myself to muster the elegiac pathos which so many unexpected and tragic deaths would seem to require: Marx, History, Society, The Dialectic. They were so close to us, and we had expected so much of them.

Although it is easy to confuse one's own experiences and particularly the experiences of one's own generation with History itself, there is still reason to believe that the changes in society we have seen in the recent past really do express a leap in the forward march of history. The totalisating force of the media and or mass-communications represent a completely new and historically unique saturation and colonization of society and of the unconscious. This does not in itself mean that Marx's analysis of a different stage in the development of capitalism is no longer relevant. On the contrary one can see media-capital as the purest form of capital which has so far existed, since it means the expansion of capital into sectors where culture was still no commodity. This represents a formidable expansion. Industry becomes culture, and culture becomes industry. Who are the coterminous subject-objects of the culture-industry?

With the advent of Post-Modernism the 'sculptural adjuncts' which gave Modernism its energy disappear. Industrial culture expressed itself figuratively in the turning lathe, in the car, the machine-gun, pinions with their teeth biting into each other, in the strike in masses of workers on the way on foot or by bike to Victorian red brick factory-buildings, with their particular silhouette, their copper-pipes, chimneys and their rounded arch-windows.

The technology and antagonisms of our time do not appear visually in the same way. The outer casing of the computer has no emblematic or visual force to remind us of the incomprehensible complexity of the electronics within. At the same time there is the suspicion that it is precisely beneath this casing that the poetics of the new technology is concealed.

Here, amongst the contradictions of the system of linguistic production, between data and Dada, the novel can still in some way or other put down its collective memories and generic experiences. The question is, though, when the words of all discourse are echoes of each other, when genre is present in every word we utter: Is it then possible to speak straightforwardly and clear ly, honestly, justly, and unambiguously, or must we be satisfied with writing in genres which constantly mirror themselves in each other's reflections with writing little, and ever smaller narratives, which eventually fall utterly silent?

A positive answer to this question implies a political reclamation of our sense of place and the construction of a new spatial and social world, where the relationship between Me and The Other once again becomes thoroughly visible and intelligible. This is not an offer from the Post-Modernists, who merely invite us to be content in a state of reification and amnesia.

The humanists have always said that I, that every individual human being, is meaningful. The Deconstructionists claim that Nobody and nothing is meaningful, and if we are to believe the Post-Modernists, everybody and everything is equally meaningful. Translated into critical practice these positions surprisingly frequently amount to the same thing.

If, on the other hand, we say that We are meaningful, we place meaning in a social context. We are saying that there is no meaning but that we can create it. We then conceive of society as language, partly because language is that part of our social existence which is most thoroughly socialized. An emphasis on language is therefore equivalent to a defense of collective, social values.

This has consequences for the relationship between author and reader. If it is We, together, and not Me behind this lectern or behind my typewriter, who are full of meaning, then the author must, in the best traditions of the essayist, assume his own level of knowledge and intelligence in the reader, and in the case of the writer of fiction, also his own cheap fantasies.

In other words it is not simply a matter of creating characters in novels. It is at least as important to create a Utopian reader, and see if anyone finds it worth their while to realize this Utopia.

Often, when I talk about books and literature, I am asked: "Whom do you write for?"

The answer has always been simple. I write for myself and for nobody else. At the same time I have novels published, and the novel is for everybody, that's the whole point of it, it is for the Other, and this Other must not be confused with a tranche of the market or with a group of consumers. It is there, between us, that the field on which we play the novel lies. And the tension between concept, thought, criticism - which has a tendency to manufacture unpleasantness - and the genre, which does its best to please.

After this last going over with concepts, configurations, confrontations, and conflagrations, the terror of the symbol or the symbolic terror is over for this time at least. That's it and that's all.

I have not finished. But it's over.

You may now begin to applaud.


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