An Eternal Moment

I thought again of our snug place in the leaves under the fallen tree, looking out on to the rising hill with the smoky curtain of rain falling into the stiff still green bracken, and the curiously high squeaking of some solitary wood pigeons and then their gurgling coo. An eternal moment always dissolving which will yet re-occur a thousand, thousand times to a thousand, thousand other people when we are dead, who will look out in the same way through the windows in their heads and see the falling rain, the bracken, the pattern of the oak bark, and wonder, and go on wondering for years.

Denton Welch, The Journals of Denton Welch, Allison and Busby (1984)

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A Balloon of Emptiness

It seems astonishing to me the leap that Denton Welch makes in A Voice Through a Cloud. His two earlier novels show a way of observing the world that often provokes and startles.

The leap Welch makes in A Voice Through a Cloud is in the clarity of access it offers, or simulates, into the mental world of his narrator. It is impossible not to be drawn deeper and deeper into the place where Denton’s perceptivity meets the characters and objects that surround his narrator. This sense of deep intersubjectivity recalls Mann’s The Magic Mountain.

I’ve just reread Welch’s rendering of the scene in which his invalid narrator meets a couple of other invalids from another care home in a blowy, seaside town. It is exquisitely described, the loneliness and isolation of long-term illness that draws these strangers together for the briefest of moments.

They both said ‘Hullo'; I was made to shake hands; there was a little sad heartiness, then nothing. We stood in a circle round a balloon of emptiness which was swelling all the time, forcing us farther and farther apart.

A page or two further, Welch’s narrator is awake in the night and hears a barking dog.

I would imagine his cry coming across the fields, the brimming icy ditches and the bare hedges glittering with black drops of water. Perhaps it came from some lonely farm where he was chained up in a cobbled yard. The chain would grate and clink like a ghost’s as he ran from side to side, barking and waiting for the answer which never came. At last his tail would curve down through his legs and he would huddle back into the dank straw in his barrel.

That balloon of emptiness and that dog’s bark waiting for the answer that never came have sufficient texture to last me for days.

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Denton Welch’s Daydreams

The earlier novels are charming, filled with longing and remarkable imagery, but it is in Denton Welch’s A Voice Through a Cloud that his style and way of viewing the world come together to extraordinary effect.

His narrator, highly autobiographical, is in hospital after a horrendous road accident, and prone to daydreams that extract him from the grimness of his surroundings and the tremendous pain he experiences. Here’s a passage I have read so very many times:

In one part of the garden, behind powdery orange walls, a dirty old gardener in leather clothes worked, turning up the damp earth in soft chocolate chunks, or picking dew-sprinkled cabbage leaves, which glinted and changed from purple to grey-green as if made of shot silk. 

Out of doors my nostrils were always filled with the smell of humid earth and dank grass, and my heart with the pleasure-fear of seeing ghosts and apparitions. I would be led to explore other disused wings of the house, where dry-rot was turning the wainscot to dust, and where bird- and mouse-droppings broke the smoothness of the floor, making miniature mountains on a vast plain. In the corners of the rooms velvet bats hung upside-down, and whispering little gusts of wind, which were really evil powers and emanations, swept through the openings where doors had been brutally torn from their hinges. Spikes of wood still clung to the mangled brass. Smashed panels grinned hideously.

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Holding Fast to Laughter

Studies for the Heads of Two Soldiers in the Battle of Anghiari (1504-05) by Leonardo da Vinci.

Studies for the Heads of Two Soldiers in the Battle of Anghiari (1504-05) by Leonardo da Vinci.

But this laughter is the reason why the Tuscans invented science and the clear Tuscan drawing in their cool paintings; laughter means distance. Conversely: where laughter is absent, madness begins. Every time I’ve had a chance to observe an outbreak of psychosis or a first-rate clinical anxiety neurosis the signal has been given in the absence of humour – one is potentially insane. The whole art of learning to live means holding fast to laughter; without laughter the world is a torture chamber, a dark place where dark things will happen to us, a horror show filled with bloody deeds of violence.

*****

It is related of Leonardo da Vinci that he had a laughter which was so beautiful that those who had heard it could never again forget it.

*****

Of Leonardo we know that he laughed this bubbling laughter of gold, which was the Florentine laughter in the deepest sense. Yet Leonardo was not a happy man, and his laughter had nothing to do with happiness.

*****

Dante also has this laughter.

Jens Bjørneboe. Moment of Freedom. Norvik Press, 1999 (1966)

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Disturbing Fiction

It must have been at thirteen, fourteen at most that I found a piece of fiction both repugnant and riveting in equal measure. I remember the fiction. It was Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Perhaps I was too young to read Kafka, or maybe already too old. The word repugnance is fitting with its late Middle English sense of offering resistance, from the Latin repugnant - opposing.

After the horror of Gregor Samsa’s transformation and death in The Metamorphosis comes the chillingly cold final pages when the mood lightens and the family head out for a stroll, equally transformed and full of joy. I still recall the terrible loneliness and vague anxiety that came over me as I read those pages and threw the book aside, resisting to the end its abominable conclusion. Then, the same day I picked it up and read from the beginning again. And again; each time the same feeling of terrible anxiousness.

It fascinates me, how these twenty-six squiggles on a page can induce such sensation. Thomas Bernhard’s fiction does the same thing, and, more recently Jens Bjørneboe’s Moment of Freedom, which I set aside six days ago, more repelled than compelled. But it has been on my mind all week, and last night I submitted, allowing its moments of acute brilliance to overcome my opposition.

In Rita Felski’s Uses of Literature, she writes of being transfixed by Sartre’s Nausea, a text I read annually for its intellectual and visceral force, like an assault. Felski writes, “Here, indisputably, was the literature of extremity, of what Foucault and others call “the limit experience,” a bracing blend of solipsism, paranoia, brutality, and despair, where the standard supports and consolation of everyday life are ruthlessly ripped away.”

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A Few Scraps of Wisdom

What else, indeed, have I learned from the masters who taught me, the philosophers I have read, the societies I have visited and even from that science which is the pride of the West, apart from a few scraps of wisdom which, when laid end to end, coincide with the meditation of the Sage at the foot of the tree? Every effort to understand destroys the object studied in favor of another object, of a different nature; this second object requires from us a new effort which destroys it in favor of a third, and so on and so forth until we reach the one lasting presence, the point at which the distinction between meaning and the absence of meaning disappears: the same point from which we began. It is 2,500 years since men first discovered and formulated these truths. In the interval, we have found nothing new, except — as we have tried in turn all possible ways out of the dilemma — so many additional proofs of the conclusion that we would have liked to avoid.

Claude Lévi-Strauss. Tristes tropiques (1955)
[via]

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The Profound Pleasure of Reading

One hundred and twenty-three readers visited Time’s Flow Stemmed so far today, inconsequential compared to some popular book blogs, but a normal day’s statistics for this blog. It never fails to both surprise and delight me that people should take some pleasure from my thoughts about the books I read. Comments in these days of social media are rarer but occasionally one is left that inspires a moment of fearlessness.

Today, in response to this post, John Lancaster wrote, “This is the first time I’ve posted a comment on any blog. I really want to thank you for also giving me lots of writers to discover. Even more important, I find your defence of reading as a worthwhile activity in itself very sustaining.” Comments like this get to the very core of why I blog.

Until very recently my greatest fear was of public speaking, not remotely uncommon, but one that lead me to decline, avoid, or wriggle out of many speaking opportunities, some, on literature, that I might have enjoyed. Last year I resolved to tame the public speaking demon with an intensive six-month program.

The video below is of a sort of graduation event to mark the conclusion of the program, a performance in front of over a hundred viewers. I had no intention to post it here. I may regret posting it, but John’s comment has inspired a moment’s recklessness given that it is a defence, of sorts, of reading and sits with the theme of my last two posts. If watching the video is simply too painful, this post about the summer I really started reading covers the same ground.

Thank you, John Lancaster.

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Solace Through Reading

It seems to me that literary critics fall into two groups. There are probably more, but for the sake of this post, two will do.

Most aspire to emulate nineteenth century men of letters, bloviating endlessly, mostly, it seems to me, to force some tendentious idea of fiction down readers’ throats. (Think James Wood, with his obsession for a form of realism.) They write the same review over and over. Read one, you’ve read them all. Why do the exist in their legions? Perhaps for those timorous readers that don’t have an opinion until they’ve been told what to think. When I read their reviews I think of a bad-tempered, constipated man (they are always men) hunched, muttering as they two-fingerly punch the keyboard, before sitting back to bask in applause (and their payment).

Then there are those rare creatures like David Winters and Rita Felski who simply must read, for whom reading, and thinking about literature, and writing about the books they love, is as necessary as breathing. To quote a line from David Winters’s superb introduction to Infinite Fictions, “I’ve tried to rationalise my critical practice, but finally it’s about something basic and frail: art as solace.” Or as Rita Felski writes in her brilliant Uses of Literature, “Reading may offer a solace and relief not to be found elsewhere, confirming that I am not entirely alone, that there are others who think and feel like me. Through this experience of affiliation, I feel myself acknowledged; I am rescued from the fear of invisibility, from the terror of not being seen.”

In my last post I wrote about the part literature plays in my life as a project of disburdenment. Of near equal importance is this act of solace. We exist but did not choose existence. Existence transcends reason. It is inexplicable, absurd. What to do but seek the refuge of another mind, in the only way we can attempt to inhabit another mind: through literature.

As David Winters writes, “I’ve never known who I am [..] Reading is really a dual movement: books allow us to withdraw from the world, while bringing us back toward it. In reading we disappear, and yet we resurface.”

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Disburdenment Through Reading

This recent piece in the LA Review of Books seized my attention, and as a consequence I’m reading Uses of Literature. It is one of those rare books of literary criticism, if you are fascinated as I am by the phenomenon of reading, that thrills quite as much as the books under its consideration. 

Of all the reasons I read, Rita Felski captures, in the following fragment, possibly the most important-to me anyway-reason to read, that of disburdening ourselves of those blind spots that come to us through birth, class, gender, colour, sexuality, or any other of the many ways we arrive at who we are.

The Lacanian picture of the child gazing entranced at its own idealized self-image thus falls notably short as a schema for capturing how literature represents selves. The experience of reading is often akin to seeing an unattractive, scowling, middle-aged person coming into a restaurant, only to suddenly realise that that you have been looking into a mirror behind the counter and that this unappealing-looking person is you. Mirrors do not always flatter; they can take us off our guard, pull us up short, reflect our image I. Unexpected ways and from unfamiliar angles. Many of the works we call tragic, for example, relentlessly pound home the refractoriness of human subjectivity, the often disastrous gap between intentions and outcomes, the ways in which persons commonly misjudge themselves and others. We can value literary works precisely because they force us – in often unforgiving ways – to confront our failings and blind spots rather than shoring up our self-esteem

Rita Felski, Uses of Literature. Blackwell Publishing, 2008

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With Long Rests

 Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) by Ellen Riley and Cédric Charleuf (2014)

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) by Ellen Riley and Cédric Charleuf (2014)

That portrait of Gerard Hopkins in the Lit. Sup., so quiet, so thoughtful, so almost prettily devout. Strange to think that many, many years ago he actually sat in that position, with folded hands (although they are not there), with secret, slightly hooded eyes, with gentle, posed mouth and soft tongues of hair lying on his forehead, licking sleekly down beside his ear.
Then the verbose article that tells one nothing [plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose] – nothing of the secret from which his genius sprung. It is an insult to hide his secret – to pretend that he was “normal”, in other words ordinary.

The Journals of Denton Welch. Edited by Michael De-la-Noy. Allison and Busby, 1984 (1952)

Remember that its [my poetry’s] performance is not reading aloud with the eye but loud, leisurely, poetical (not rhetorical) recitation, with long rests, long dwells on the rhyme and other marked syllables, and so on.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Felix Randal

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Felix Randal the farrier, O is he dead then? my duty all ended,
Who have watched his mould of man, big-boned and hardy-handsome
Pining, pining, till time when reason rambled in it, and some
Fatal four disorders, fleshed there, all contended?

Sickness broke him. Impatient, he cursed at first, but mended
Being anointed and all; though a heavenlier heart began some
Months earlier, since I had our sweet reprieve and ransom
Tendered to him. Ah well, God rest him all road ever he offended!

This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears.
My tongue had taught thee comfort, touch had quenched thy tears,
Thy tears that touched my heart, child, Felix, poor Felix Randal;

How far from then forethought of, all thy more boisterous years,
When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers,
Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal!

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