A Year in Reading: 2014

A sense of despondency settled on me as I totted up the number of books I completed this year. Sixty-four read to date in 2014, a hefty reduction from the eighty-five to a hundred I used to consider my yearly run-rate. I can’t even excuse myself by pointing to any especially taxing or lengthy books, though I am abandoning unsatisfying fiction earlier and earlier-there were at least a dozen I gave up within twenty pages.

Absorption with the short-term high of Twitter is the root of my distraction. Twitter has given me an opportunity to converse with, and in many cases meet, many serious readers and thinkers around the world, but how to balance that blessing with its qualities as a massively capacious time sink? One way or another I need to reduce the distraction.

Three writers dominated my reading this year: Michel Houellebecq, Anne Carson and Jenny Diski. Houellebecq, unlike the other two, is no great stylist but is the only fictional writer I know who so precisely captures in fiction what it is to live through this latest manifestation of capitalism, a neoliberalism whose influence reaches deep into notions of individualism and identity. Carson enables me to agree with Harold Bloom’s assessment of literary genius, as defined by a writer’s ability to widen and clarify our consciousness, and intensify our awareness-Carson has been augmenting my consciousness for some time, and I fully expect that to continue. Diski’s quietism and unsociability continually provides me with those prized moments when you come across a thought or feeling you’d thought particular to you-those moments when it feels like a hand has come out and taken yours.

Those writers aside, the books that impressed me this year, in the sense of becoming deeply fixed in my mind are the same books I’ve bought for friends, urging them zealously to read immediately. There are five that are each extraordinary in the own way: Grace Dane Mazur’s Hinges: Meditations of the Portals of the Imagination, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, Atiq Rahimi’s A Curse on Dostoevsky, Jonathan Gibbs’ Randall and Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams.

Last year I omitted the geeky statistics influenced by Twitter snark the year before, but fuck the cynics (I’m so bored of world-weary cynics). This year half of the books I’ve read are by women writers, not a deliberate practice but a pleasing one in the year of Badaude’s #readwomen2014 action. About 60% of the books I read are non-fiction, the same proportion are by either French or British writers. About a third of the fiction I read is translated, a proportion that seems to be consistent year on year.

This year I read a lot more work by writers I hadn’t read before, including two exceptional debuts by Catherine Lacey and Alice Furse: in  both cases I look forward to reading their follow-up books. I became acquainted with the work of Carole Maso and Elena Ferrante and intend to read their work more deeply (and, of course, the writers I mention above).

I also discovered the Dark Mountain Project, a network of thinkers who are shaping a cultural response to our ecological, political and social unravelling. Discovering others that so closely share my thoughts provides relief even when the line of thinking is overwhelmingly pessimistic. Via Dark Mountain I was lead to Nick Hunt’s Walking the Woods and the Water, a journey in the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor, which I am currently reading. I recommend it highly to anyone that has read Paddy Fermor’s books, it is every bit as evocative and beautifully written.

I don’t feel that I’ve been a consistent blogger this year (haven’t even written of many of the books I’ve mentioned above), so was very pleased to get name-checked by the Guardian book blog. I am thrilled that, despite my inconsistency, a couple of hundred readers a day drop by Time’s Flow Stemmed. Thank you very much for your interest.

Discovering the Dark Mountain Project.

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Last night’s launch event for the sixth issue of Dark Mountain corroborated my initial impression of the community that surround this network of writers, musicians and artists. I’ve been immersed daily in the writing and art of this network since discovering the Dark Mountain project a month ago. Time’s flow was most definitely stemmed as, late one night, I chanced on and read the Dark Mountain manifesto .

Recently I fell out (perhaps irrevocably, though I hope not) with a once close friend who thought my world outlook too bleak, from both an ecological and socio-political perspective. It isn’t the first time I’ve been accused of an overly desolate interpretation of the world in which we find ourselves, just one of the more painful incidents. Hence the sustenance I’ve been able to find in reading the beautifully produced Dark Mountain books (currently on Issue 5). The Dark Mountain project is comprised of a community that “see the world is entering an age of ecological collapse, material contraction and social and political unravelling, and we want our cultural responses to reflect this reality rather than denying it.” The affinity that has accompanied my reading of the poems, essays, and stories in the Dark Mountain books evokes a sense of kinship.

I’ll be reading the 5th and 6th issues of Dark Mountain, and waiting for the 2nd issue to arrive with its beguiling Rima Staines cover. (In the serendipitous nature of the Internet, I unearthed Dark Mountain after supporting Hedgespoken, a “travelling off-grid theatre,” an extraordinary project, discovered in turn by looking online for opportunities to explore my fascination with myths and storytelling). I also intend to read David Abrams and Ivan Illich, both writers that have influenced Dark Mountain.

Cataract of the Spirit

The passage below, Beckett rehashing Schopenhauer, is from Mark Nixon’s study of Beckett’s tour of Nazi Germany, Samuel Beckett’s German Diaries 1936-1937. My library copy has to go back today. They come with a price tag suitable only for institutions, but they are so rich and insightful I’m going to have to spring for a copy.

There are moments when the veil of hope is finally torn apart and the suddenly liberated eyes see their world, as it is, as it must be. Alas, it does not last long, the revelation quickly passes, the eyes can only bear such pitiless light for a short while, the membrane of hope grows again and one returns to the world of phenomena.
Hope is the cataract of the spirit, which cannot be pierced until it is completely ripe for decay. Not every cataract ripens, and many a human being can even spend his whole life within the mist of hope. And if the cataract may have been healed for the moment, it always forms itself again immediately, as does the hope.

Red Skull, Earth, Sea & Sky

Head in Red (1930/31) – Karl Ballmer

Beckett visited Ballmer in his Hamburg studio in November 1936 where he saw this painting and made the following diary entry:

Wonderful red Frauenkopf, skull earth sea & sky, I think of Monadologie & my Vulture. Would not occur to me to call this painting abstract. A metaphysical concrete. Not Nature convention, but its source, fountain of Erscheinung [phenomenon]. Fully a postieri painting. Object not exploited to illustrate an idea, as in say {Fernand] Léger or [Willi] Baumeister, but primary. The communication exhausted by the optical experience that is its motive & content. Anything further is by the way. Thus Leibniz, monadologie, Vulture, are by the way. Extraordinary stillness.

The Banality of Brilliance

To speculate about whether Proust was a snob is as superfluous as debating the degree of Joyce’s egotism, though we could construct an argument that Proust would have been unfitted to dissect the society of Recherche without a social climber’s desire. And Joyce writing in A Portrait  that the “artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails” feels more like his defence of a narcissistic narrator than a personal attitude. Neither quality detracts from the brilliance of either writer, and arguably both characteristics are disproportionally present among writers of the time (or perhaps any time).

Both qualities are in the foreground of the story Joyce told Frank Budgen (Further Recollections of James Joyce, 1955) of being introduced to Proust at a supper party for Stravinsky and Diaghilev. “Our talk consisted solely of the word ‘No.’ Proust asked me if I knew the duc de so-and-so. I said, ‘No.’ Our hostess [although observers claim this question came from Joyce] asked Proust if he had read such and such a piece of Ulysses. Proust said, ‘No,’ And so on.”

Though the two men apparently sat beside each other and later shared a cab home, no written record exists of their encounter, though there is no shortage of biographical speculation about conversations about health and truffles.