Max Frisch’s An Answer from the Silence and Sketchbooks

Although I felt there was something unconvincing about Man in the Holocene when I read it last summer, I found myself often thinking about the work since. I will read it again soon but I think my disappointment was in Max Frisch’s failure of pessimism, that he felt it necessary to relieve the bleakness at the end of Herr Geiser’s story, at least on the level of a realistic reading of the work. I wonder now whether I misread the serenity of the closing pages, particularly since exploring Frisch’s other work more closely.

It was An Answer from the Silence that drew me back to Frisch, encouraged also by Beckett’s interest in his work. Beckett didn’t go out of his way to engage with contemporary writers so evidence that he owned and read Frisch impelled me to dive deeply into his work this month.

An Answer from the Silence deals with that crisis that presents itself when we realise with horror our responsibility for the hollowness of our existence. If we have chosen to stay in dreary jobs, disastrous relationships, without love, the failure to do something about our wasted lives is ours alone. As Frisch writes, “Why don’t we live when we know we’re here just this one time, just one single, unrepeatable time in this unutterably magnificent world.” Frisch’s narrator stares deeply into this abyss as must we all to reach maturity and finds, of course, no answers. Not even love provides that answer.

Translated by Mike Mitchell and published by Seagull Books, An Answer from the Silence is a perfect book to start an immersion into Frisch. Its tender, lonely torments flow warmly over icy depths that further persuade me that a second closer reading of Man in the Holocene might be more revealing.

This week I also read Frisch’s Drafts for a Third Sketchbook, also translated by Mike Mitchell and published by Seagull Books, who have the rights to both his earlier Sketchbooks (Tagebucher) for publication next year. This didn’t stop me tracking down a 1974 edition of the second Sketchbook 1966-1971. I’m nothing if not a completist when obsessing about a particular writer’s work.

Frisch’s Sketchbooks present short form entries in diary format, self-reflective observations  about contemporary events and, in Drafts for a Third Sketchbook, his recounting of the illness and death of his close friend Peter Noll. Although written as a diary or sketchbook, a tight narrative microstructure suggests these meditations were meticulously written and refined. Several themes are woven throughout: the bitter ironies of ageing and the question of how to die. It is clear, at least from the little I’ve read of Frisch’s work so far, that these are the fundamental themes and concerns throughout his writing, no less in his novel Homo Faber, which I am reading at present.

 

Beckett Without Walther’s Rock

Dürer's Melencolia IOne night as he sat at his table head on hands he saw himself rise and go. One night or day. For when his own light went out he was not left in the dark. Light of a kind came then from the one window.

Samuel Beckett, Stirrings Still

Such a deep affinity with the way Beckett portrays self. Beckett mentions Walther, “To this end for want of a stone on which to sit like Walther …”

I sat upon a stone,/covered one leg with the other,/and set my elbow on them/I nestled in my hand/my chin and one of my cheeks./In this position I started pondering/How one should live in the world.

Walther von der Vogelweide, Codex Manesse

Marguerite Duras’ The Man Sitting in the Corridor


Marguerite Duras writes short, boundless stories. As in many of her stories, in The Man Sitting in the Corridor she starts tentatively, turning frequently to the future perfect to situate the past of her story in the future. Though disturbing and sexually provocative, there is nothing pornographic in the scenes, robbed of texture and tension by the pace and hollowness of the characters.

Much of the narrative tension in The Man Sitting in the Corridor is created by the third person, the voyeur quietly observing the sadomasochistic events from an unseen distance. The fourth person, another voyeur, is the reader left unsettled by the awful force of the story. This is late Duras at her most terse, destabilising the cold-bloodedness of pornography by stripping it bare of any erotic charge.

This edition of The Man Sitting in the Corridor is published by Foxrock Books, named after Beckett’s birthplace and founded by Barney Rosset, founder also of Grove Press which brought Beckett to Americans’ attention.

Space for Quignard, Archilochus, Sappho

Pleasure and action make the time seem short. Like our valiant Moor though with barely the determination. Indebted in an odd way to some dreadfully ponderous journeys that opened space for reading, of course more of Pascal Quignard’s brooding.

The most ravishing of Seagull Books’ Quignard publications to date must surely be The Sexual Night, whose lavish production makes up almost for my inability to track down an original copy of Quignard’s Sex and Terror, by all accounts equally striking. Quignard’s probing of being, sexuality and our origins is constructed around depictions of sexual imagery from across the ages. He questions how art is used as metaphor and artifice for the sexual night, that darkness that precedes our birth.

Quignard writes, ‘Desire is a much “blacker” thing, a much more “atrocious” thing than modern societies present it as being. The inner meaning of desire is a “ray of darkness”.’ He turns once again to myth to trace out the nature of this blackness and its essential nature. Sex, reading in its broadest sense, nature and death: the quintessence of being.

His On Wooden Tablets: Apronenia Avitia, a less necessary, odder publication from Burning Deck, not without charm; like scrabbling to brush the dust off some fragments in order to piece together the narrative of a life from shopping lists, to-do lists and diary jottings.

Otherwise this week, thinking on flowerville’s a song for staying in, and continuing to explore Jaeger’s Paideia Volume 1, this week’s chapter on Archilochus who took Homeric epic and turned it inward to express both personal and mass sentiment, and Sappho, tenth among Muses, who went further inward to describe innermost sensation with a simplicity and sensuousness that is rarely matched,

A hint to put it aside

It is intriguing why we sometimes persist with reading a novel past the point when we discover a lack of concern for its characters or its way of observing the world. Sibylle Lewitscharoff’s Apostoloff, translated by Katy Derbyshire, is written in brisk, elegant prose but around the midpoint, despite its admirable qualities, I decide to put the book aside and move onto something else.

A bookish narrator that reads Beckett and Lowry kept me going longer than expected, together with the odd references to Greek myth, and a curiosity to find out why a supposedly secondary character, the chauffeur Rumen (“Rumen is our Hermes”) Apostoloff is important enough to bear the story’s title.

But on this reading I go no further, with just a moment to drop off a passage from an enjoyable chapter with the narrator’s insomnia.

Tonight there’s no rain and I can’t get to sleep again. Perhaps I’m in too much of a good mood to sleep. Reading doesn’t help this time, certainly not by this dim and dingy bedside lamp. I’ve got Koba the Dread with me, a gruesome but excellent book about Stalin, and I took the sentence The laughter should have stopped around then as a hint to put it aside. It won’t be of any help to me tonight. I normally pick up a Martin Amis book in the evening and don’t close it until I’ve finished it the next morning. Then I read it at a slower pace again later.

Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun

Water also once gathering together began to prevail, as the story goes, when its waves overwhelmed much of the human race; then when all its force, gathered up out of the infinite, being diverted in some way, moved back, the rains came to a standstill and the rivers diminished in force.

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura. trans. WHD Rouse

The Outrun is interesting in that it isn’t about alcohol addiction. It isn’t misery porn that wallows in abjection. Do Waterstone’s still have that nausea-inducing section called Painful Lives? I only go into Waterstone’s when I know what I want and it’s either contemporary or a classic paperback. There’s little there for me otherwise. If I find The Outrun in that section I’ll move it to Nature Writing though that isn’t quite right either but it’ll get closer to the right audience. The Outrun is about what happens after addiction, not in any generalised way, just what happened when Amy Liptrot stopped drinking.

There’s a strange symbiotic texture here because I know Amy Liptrot from Twitter, or rather I don’t know her but have followed her for several years and have the illusion that I know her. Beyond a brief exchange or two we’ve not even spoken but Amy Liptrot’s free-spirited existence, whether locating male corncrakes in Orkney for the RSPB, wild-swimming in the sea off Papay or living in a beautiful Greek bookshop is always sublimely compelling. As she writes in The Outrun, “I know people on Twitter I’ve never met better than people I’ve sat opposite for months at work or people I went to school with.”

This illusion that you can know someone despite following a catalogue of their days on Twitter is easily dispelled when you read a memoir like The Outrun that reveals the story behind the unconventional existence, which began as a way to elude addiction. Amy Liptrot (this strange knowing-not knowing leaves me uncomfortable with either using ‘Amy’ or Liptrot’ so bear with me) doesn’t shy away from revealing her shoddy treatment of friends and flatmates, the social hells and fucked-up nature of alcohol addiction but quickly moves on to weave observations about landscape and nature with a subtle exploration into the roots of her addictive personality.

Though a contemplative book it isn’t merely a mesh of introspection about personal struggle. Amy Liptrot’s observations about life on the remote islands of Orkney accumulate into some of the most intense and exotic landscape and nature writing available. It is a subtle and moving account of how hard it is to be human among humans, and I very much look forward to any future Amy Liptrot books.

have walnuts in their pockets

A footnote, perhaps the best part of a book that, at least on first reading, like the walnut, yielded little for great effort. This footnote is so beautiful that I may stipulate that I am to be buried with a walnut in the pocket of my favourite Italian cotton trousers.

One day, during the war, I was asked to find an empty strip of land on the plateau de Valensole where Allied planes in difficulty could land. I find a large field that fits the bill but there’s a magnificent three-hundred-year-old walnut tree in the middle of it. The owner of the field was willing to rent it to me, but stubbornly refused to cut down the beautiful tree. I eventually told him why we needed the land, whereupon he agreed. We start clearing the soil around the base of the tree; we follow the taproot . . . . At the end of the root, we find the bones of a knight buried in his armour. The man must have been a medieval knight . . . and he had a walnut in his pocket when he was killed, for the base of the taproot was exactly level with his thigh-bone. The walnut three had sprouted in the grave.

Quoted in Paul Veyne, René Char en see poèmes. Footnote from René Char, Hypnos (Seagull Books, 2014)

Jaeger’s Paideia

Poetry, novels, short stories are remarkable antiquities which no longer fool anyone, or hardly anyone. Poems, narratives—what’s the use of them? There is nothing but writing left.

JMG Le Clézio, Foreword to La Fièvre

This week spent chiefly with the company of Werner Jaeger’s Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, published in Germany in 1931. Jaeger’s modern study of the cultural and educational value of ancient Greece through its literature seems a good direction after immersion in Pascal Quignard’s work.

Though both writers would agree that ancient Greek and Roman culture is part of a continuum, Quignard would rightly sneer at Jaeger’s dismissal of Chinese, Indian, Babylonian and Egyptian culture’s formative influence on the Greek literary conception of mind. Paideia, translated by Gilbert Highet, is a culturally conservative engagement but brilliantly erudite and beautifully translated, so will continue to be my companion for several weeks. I sit with crossed hands during Jaeger’s flights of elitism but little is more interesting than to persist with a brilliant but flawed exploration.

Art surpasses philosophical thought and actual life

[…] it is usually through artistic expression that the highest values acquire permanent significance and the force which moves mankind. Art has a limitless power of converting the human soul—a power which the Greeks called pyschagogia. For  art alone possesses the two essentials of educational influence—universal significance and immediate appeal. By uniting these two methods of influencing the mind, it surpasses both philosophical thought and actual life. Life has immediate appeal, but the events of life lack universal significance: they have too many accidental accompaniments to create a truly deep and lasting impression on the soul. Philosophy and abstract thought do attain to universal significance: they deal with the essence of things; yet they affect none but the man who can use his own experience to inspire them with the vividness and intensity of personal life. Thus, poetry has the advantage over both the universal teachings of abstract reason and the accidental events of individual experience. It is more philosophical than life (if we may use Aristotle’s famous epigram in a wider sense), but it’s also, because of its concentrated spiritual actuality, more lifelike than philosophy.

Werner Jaeger, Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture. trans. Gilbert Highet

Quignard’s The Silent Crossing – thoughts on society

One of the recurrent themes of Pascal Quignard’s Lost Kingdom series, at least across the three volumes I’ve read, is the denial of community. In The Silent Crossing Quignard writes:

To turn one’s back on society, to break off from believing, to turn away from anything to do with looking and to prefer reading to surveillance, to protect those who have passed on from the survivors who denigrate them, to give succour to what is not visible—these are the virtues. The rare ones who have the matchless courage to escape spring up out in the wilds.

Quignard’s turning away from the world is centred on the idea of detachment from given identity. He writes “Do not become the slave of your people in the patronym they gave you within the collective language they taught you. Otherwise, the name they gave you will take the place of your flesh.”

Like an echo before a mirror, this idea has played on my mind for days until, this morning at 4.00am I dug out an old book and found the reference I was seeking. Before this blog, there were times when I was preoccupied with the work of Bourdieu and Badiou (at different periods). In this case I was trying to ferret out references from the work of the wrong ENS philosopher. What I was looking for I found in Badiou, mostly from one of the best introductions to Badiou’s  philosophy, Peter Hallward’s Badou: A Subject to Truth.

I have no competence in philosophy so forgive any misinterpretation. Badiou, like Quignard, rejects concepts of the Other. Hallward writes:

The whole ethical predication based upon recognition of the other should be purely and simply abandoned. For the real question—and it is an extraordinarily difficult one—is much more that of recognising the Same.

Badiou holds that assertions of any group identity are pernicious, writing in his Ethics, “Rimbaud was certainly not wrong when he said ‘I am another.’ There are as many differences, say, between a Chinese peasant and a young Norwegian professional as between myself and anybody at all, including myself.” Assertions of difference, whether social, biological, cultural or other, are not incorrect (or lacking powerful effects) but simply banal. It is not of course that there are no differences between us. There are only differences and each of us is not a self-identity but a self-difference.

Where Quignard and Badiou might differ is that denying community entails a turning away from the world. Badiou is after all Marxist to his core. In response to the Do Not Become What You Are quotation I posted recently, a reader linked to this conversation between Gilles Delueze and Antonio Negri which ends like this:

One might equally well speak of new kinds of event, rather than processes of subjectification: events that can’t be explained by the situations that give rise to them, or into which they lead. They appear for a moment, and it’s that moment that matters, it’s the chance we must seize. Or we can simply talk about the brain: the brain’s precisely this boundary of a continuous two-way movement between an Inside and Outside, this membrane between them. New cerebral pathways, new ways of thinking, aren’t explicable in terms of microsurgery; it’s for science, rather, to try and discover what might have happened in the brain for one to start thinking this way or that. I think subjectification, events, and brains are more or less the same thing. What we most lack is a belief in the world, we’ve quite lost the world, it’s been taken from us. If you believe in the world you precipitate events, however inconspicuous, that elude control, you engender new space-times, however small their surface or volume. It’s what you call pietas. Our ability to resist control, or our submission to it, has to be assessed at the level of our every move. We need both creativity and a people.

This is one consequence I like about Quignard’s work, that it compels so much more thinking and reading. It is like a hunt chasing down allusions and memories that range across Badiou, Lacan, Melanie Klein, Freud and numerous ancient Franks, Greeks and Romans.

Pascal Quignard’s The Silent Crossing

Comparisons of writers call attention to common aspects of their work and in this sense Pascal Quignard and Roberto Calasso are both powerfully expressive writers that gather together tangles of old tales and myths. But the comparison quickly becomes facile. There are polar differences between the two writers despite both being intensely conscious, even philosophical.

I’ve just finished Quignard’s The Silent Crossing, another from Seagull Books, translated by Chris Turner. In French the book was titled La Barque silencieuse signifying the bark or boat in which Charon ferries damned souls across the Styx. This book is volume six in the Dernier royaume or Lost Kingdom series, which Quignard envisages as a set of reflections that will end only with his death. It is mildly irritating that these works are appearing in English translation out of order, having read The Roving Shadows and Abysses, which are volumes one and three of the series. Although each work appears to stand alone, by skipping ahead to the sixth, you get a sense of an essential core, which is perhaps no more than an immersion into the extraordinary mind of Quignard.

Common across all three books that I’ve read in this series is a preoccupation  with our first life, the one we forget on the instant of birth, the life that precedes language, precedes our being named, when we live immersed in water, darkness and isolation. Quignard also reflects on the negative aspects of society and the social, arguing Freud’s case that “the opposite of society is maturity.” Common also to all Quignard’s books is his paean to the ecstasy of reading, quoting in The Silent Crossing the sentence I have framed in my library from Kafka’s letter to a friend, “We need books that affect us like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves.”

I’ll be reading and rereading Quignard’s work for years to come. Somewhere in the  collaboration that takes place between reader and writer—perhaps I’d even call it a dialogic struggle in Quignard’s case as there is always the sense that if I read more attentively I might miss less of the assertive power of his work—I’ve fallen in love with the work of Pascal Quignard. It is work that deserves the sort of scrupulous reading I enjoy most.

Do Not Become What You Are

Pindar wrote in his second Pythian ode: Genoi autos essi mathon. Become what you are. No, do not become what you are. What individualises is the proper name or, in other words, the language in which it has its place – that is to say, social control through the internalised voice or, in other word, endless servitude. Do not become the slave of your people in the patronym they gave you within the collective language they taught you. Otherwise, the name they gave you will take the place of your flesh.

Pascal Quignard, The Silent Crossing

Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows

In the morning of August 6th 1945 the American B-29 aeroplane Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Reports always speak of the blinding light and fireball that formed with a surface temperature hotter than the sun. Estimates suggest that the Little Boy atomic bomb killed 80,000 people in a single day and another 140,000 of radiation poisoning and burns by the end of the year.

Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows was published in 1933, an essay length reflection on a Japanese architecture and sensibility destroyed by modern (Western) illumination. Though published 12 years before the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Tanizaki’s polemic is haunted with a prefiguring of the mass destruction that was to come.

As in most recent Western-style buildings, the ceilings are so low that one feels as if balls of fire were blazing directly above one’s head. ‘Hot’ is no word for the effect, and the closer to the ceiling the worse it is – your head and neck and spine feel as if they were being roasted.

No clairvoyance was involved in Tanizaki’s elegy. It is a privileged viewpoint. His essay is more ironic in tone, a baggy, rambling piece of writing that ranges from architecture to hygiene to jade to women to heating levels. And I use those terms as a reader that loves to read discursive, seemingly unstructured essays.

Tanizaki writes, ‘Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty’. To read his essay is to recall a lost world, liminal spaces no longer permitted in a time of of what Pascal Quignard refers to as ‘dazzling, puritanical, imperialist, American neon light.”

Quignard draws a central part of The Roving Shadows from Tanizaki’s essay, about which he writes: ‘I think these pages are among the finest ever written in any of the various societies that have arisen over time …’

Beckett’s Friendship by André Bernold

Nietzsche reflected on the abyss that exists between individuals and wrote that in order for friendship to exist, friends must learn “how to keep silent”. In Beckett’s Friendship: 1979-1989 André Bernold explores the affirmative silence inherent in the work and person of Beckett with whom he was linked in friendship over the last decade of Beckett’s life. Derrida wrote that “friendship does not keep silence, it is kept by silence.”

To Bernold, silence is a defining feature of his friendship with Beckett, a silence broken with brief, staccato conversations as much about overcoats and cigars as about literature. Bernold is consistent with other reminisces of Beckett in noting his generosity and attentiveness but what is moving in this book is the carefully noted accounts of Beckett’s rituals, his handwriting and his preoccupation, for one so taciturn, with voice. The observations are sensitive and avoid drifting into the creepy territory inherent with this sort of memoir.

There are unique moments captured which bring nothing but joy like Beckett’s eagerness to hear about the qualities of voice of Bernold’s professors Delueze and Derrida, and the comment that: “According to Milton, I reminded him, angels do not laugh, they only smile. ‘So what,’ he replied while laughing, ‘they are laughing behind our backs.'”

I was a Beckett nut by the time I was twenty and though I visited Paris often towards the end of Beckett’s life never bumped into him as I hoped. Bernold’s story of the two friends coming together in a dark café in Paris brought together by mutations of thought and silence gains its power from imagining myself into that banquette seat across the table from that famous physiognomy.