On Long Works

How do you decide on the proper length for any work?  It’s not the same question as deciding when a painting is finished or considering the ways in which it can be left unfinished.  The interesting thing about very long texts can sometimes be how they got to be that long.  Finnegans Wake isn’t literally the longest book in the world, but how could you outdo it for intricacy, crucial for working out how long it will take to get to the end of it.

Among its other effects, the Covid epidemic has driven me to seek out long books, because I want things that will last a long time.  This hasn’t been a conscious plan until now, but perhaps its length had something to do with my gravitating for example to Vladimir Nabokov’s longest work, his 1000-page Commentary on Pushkin’s blessedly short ‘novel in verse’ Eugene Onegin.  Illogically, I group with Nabokov Jozef Czapski’s Lectures on Proust, a brief work about an enormous one, that drew me because he gave these lectures in a Soviet prison camp and never wrote them out.  They only exist because his listeners thought it worthwhile to reconstruct them.  I am beginning to wonder if they won’t project me into a reading of Proust, on which illness has pushed me to embark at least once before.

Reading about the circumstances of the Proust lectures reminded me of another prison-camp product, Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales.  I didn’t know until recently that there are 1300 pages of them.  The collections I read in the 1980s were just a sample.  How could you know what this writer really amounts to based on such a small selection?  Isn’t the most remarkable thing about this great act of recall that he pursued it so persistently, until his piercing little shards formed a single work as long as this?

At the beginning I thought I would write about Shalamov standing on the threshold (looking out from page 50, say) and imagining the vast expanses beyond.  Now it is too late for that; I have rushed ahead to p. 300 and lost the freshness of the first glimpse.  I’ve done the same with a poetic work of monstrous extent which I have also just taken on, Melville’s Clarel, a 500-page verse epic set in the Holy Land, taken on because I can’t believe that a writer as interesting as Melville would have persisted long enough to produce a poem much longer than Paradise Lost which wasn’t compelling.

In Moby Dick Melville is often at his best when he cuts freest from the narrative and submerges himself in the ocean of language.  It’s too early to say if Clarel bears out these hopes.

In the meantime, a film.  A film that in its different versions ranges anywhere from 145 to 210 minutes, the longer versions being the director’s favourites, the shorter ones obeying the dictates of the studio.  The plot of the film is absurdly or magnificently simple.  It is an extended car-chase (briefly pursued in a biplane by one demented group) down/ up? the Coast Highway of California.  The protagonists have been multiplied mercilessly to make space for about a dozen famous comedians who are each upstaging the others, crossing and tangling paths, getting lost and breaking down, fighting with each other.  It is a simple gag—what a strange expression, as if we might choke on laughter—painfully extended.  I saw the shortest version and can’t imagine how it could reasonably be lengthened—are there whole new episodes and stars? If 13 is good, won’t 14 be better? Or does the longer form just lengthen the pain of an existing awkwardness?  The most interesting comic writers and actors must often be pushing toward the limits of comedy, philosophical not in the deeply reflective sense but a sense abstract and not truly particular, escaping the limits of individuality into types of human potential.

When I started blogging I was pleased when the subject carried me unexpectedly to greater lengths, 1000, even 2000 words, though it seemed dangerous to let them go far beyond that.  Now I dream of a short one and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World doesn’t seem the ideal stimulus for this.

Except if you concentrated on one of the most inventive elements in the whole film, the credits by Saul Bass, ‘Saul Bass’ who was really a couple to which Elaine Makatura, the female partner made a key contribution.  These credits, which seem to go on forever and actually last two or three minutes, pack in a wonderful series of transformations, a globe from inside of which a saw appears, cutting doors and windows, out of which crowds spill, or via which gangs enter, a globe which becomes an egg by a quick dramatic stretch, brooded on by a hen, breaks open, spawns a chick, is tied back together, cuts loose as a balloon, flies, deflates, spits out a pile of words that clatter like dominoes and carry the names of important functions in the film, make-up, sound, stills etc.

So I thought I wanted to analyse this shifting poem of images, not in colour but in two-tone, a kind of harsh minimal vocabulary like a cartoon, sometimes violent like a cartoon, always moving.  So I sat down to follow these credits carefully on the screen of a laptop, stopping the action looking for stills which would make good illustrations, and found that none of them would.  When you stopped the frames, the life went out of them.  On top of that, they were all in widescreen, a weird invention of the 1950s or 60s when cinema was locked in a death clasp with television and had to find visual effects TV couldn’t duplicate.  By now TV screens are all widescreens of a kind and have lost their own battles with later sorts of display.

Some of Saul Bass’s most radical shake-ups make letters and words into beings or at least give them a kind of mechanical life.  I wonder if the designers were consciously harking back to when writing was pictures.  They brought about a poetic condensation of the two or three hours of material expanded and diversified in the film into 2 or 3 minutes of action drawn by the hand of the designer and projected at a speed or speeds that challenged the eye to follow it.  By comparison, the film that came immediately after seemed delightfully, impossibly old fashioned.

Moral: The antidote to a long work is a short one (and vice versa).

5 thoughts on “On Long Works”

  1. Robert,
    For length, it’s hard to be Knausgaard’s The End, at around 900 pages. I have a limited capacity to read about visits to the 7\ 11 or what he is feeding his kids, so I eventually skipped to his 100-page-plus essay on Hitler and Mein Kampf, which is extraordinarily perceptive and where he goes hand-to-hand with some of the big historians. Then to a dense analysis of a poem by Celan, which led me to the tragic correspondence of Celan and Ingeborg Bachman. (I had just come across of a photograph of her; it was not so much that she was beautiful but radiated intelligence. ). And so forth. I think I read pretty much all of the book, but as a collage. I think this kind of reading is a result of my powers of concentration becoming shredded by the internet. One day I will read Proust, too. All best, Geoffrey

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  2. Hello Bob, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World was a family favorite – my Sicilian grandmother, who moved her family to Southern California after the war, was friends with Jimmy Durante, the guy who “kicks the can” at the beginning of the film. Richard and I have been really enjoying all your posts, Camille

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