Making Fires with ‘I’ by Wolfgang Hilbig

Despite the intermittent rain I’ve been making fire this weekend, by percussion, striking flint against iron to generate sparks that glow and ignite my tinder. Though on this occasion, I’m not in the woods, but in the comfort of my library, sparking Wolfgang Hilbig’s ‘I’ against Samuel Beckett’s How It Is.

Hilbig’s novel is situated within the social relations of the former German Democratic Republic, depicting the life of a Stasi informer. ‘I’ feels like an exorcism, a chilling novel of neurosis and nightmare, neutralised through being rendered as fiction, a story that searches for resolution between the conscious and unconscious compulsions of its narrator.

Like Beckett’s How It Is, Hilbig’s ‘I’ requires attentiveness to figure out what is going on behind the basic plot level (to the extent that plot exists in either novel). Hilbig plays with the idea that when hearing a story, we experience it a present tense, even when it is recounted in the past.

Like Beckett, Hilbig gets closer than most writers to the actuality of our thought processes, made up as they are not only of a flow of information but with their gaps and misremembering. Rendering these processes in text is difficult and though ‘I’ is less cryptic than How It Is,  both are great novels and repay immersion to synchronise a reader with the prose’s ebb and flow.

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All Damned

In a gloomy corner of hell reserved for readers, the damned clutch copies of the books they dislike most. The masters of scholarly misunderstanding and the critics who turned a profit on review copies fight over the armchairs in which no one may sit. Instead, they crouch in the corners, where a little light lingers, trying to decipher the notes on the backs of their hands. Sometimes they open the books they carry and gaze dumbfounded at the spaces between the lines. The room is lined with shelves and the shelves are crammed with books, more books than you could read if you lived to be two hundred years old, but the damned, who have all the time in the world, are not allowed to touch.

Ivan Vladislavić, The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories. Seagull Books, 2012

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Beautiful Books, Bibliophilia and Vladislavić’s Loss Library

If I were asked which publisher I admire most, I should say Seagull Books. In truth, possibly because I never request and very rarely accept review copies, I give individual publishers little thought (though I do also have fondness for Sylph Editions’ Cahiers Series). It is of course individual writers and their work that interests me.

I am especially fond of Seagull Books for two reasons: their commitment to making printed books that aspire to the highest aesthetic standards, and the specific writers and translators they publish. As this excellent essay on Seagull Book states, “Seagull’s identity hinges on Kishore’s personal encounters with writers and translators he meets, signs on, gets to know and not just likes but lavish affection on. His passion for a certain kind of publishing expresses itself as a romantic yearning, the professed need to be close to the great, to return to that word, in literature and art.”

At the moment I am slowly reading Ivan Vladislavic’s The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories, slowly because the essays inside are light, bright, and sparkling. David Winters captures their essence well in this review. Essays aside, the book itself is a joy, including the 12 collages by Sunandini Banerjee that accompany each essay. You can tell that this is a publisher that cares deeply about the books they produce.

Seagull Books has the depth and quality of backlist that feels like you can pluck off their shelves any one of the editions and be almost assured of a singularly rewarding experience. This afternoon I rummaged through my library and collected all my Seagull titles together, which includes old chestnuts like Sartre, Bernhard, Handke, Quignard and Schwarzenbach, but also new discoveries await like Nooteboom, Clément and Hilbig.

It is the sort of backlist that ignites my inner bibliophile urge to collect everything, but thankfully the scale of Seagull’s backlist outstrips the funds at my disposal.

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A Lilac So Magical

A passage below from a letter that Alejandra Pizarnik wrote to Léon Ostrov.

I love that you stole an ice bucket from the de Flore. I, for now, behave sensibly, only a few books. But if I had to steal something it would be the façade of a certain collapsed house in a little town called Fontenay-aux-Roses, whose railway station is filled with roses. The windows of the house have lilac-coloured glass, but of a lilac so magical, so like a beautiful dream, that I wonder if they penetrate beyond the house. Maybe if I go in, I’ll hear a voice: “I’ve been waiting for you for so long.” And I won’t have to search any longer.

Alejandra Pizarnik. Music & Literature, No. 6, 2015

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Could Have Made Do With Less

Samuel Beckett writing in January 1952 about Waiting for Godot. At this time it had not been staged. I do wish writers took this line rather than assuming they have any unique insight into the meaning of what they write. The work stands alone. Departed. I find this passage so refreshing and beautiful.

I know no more about the play than anyone who manages to read it attentively.

I do not know in what spirit I wrote it.

I know no more of the characters than what they say, what they do and what happens to them. Of their appearance, I must have indicated the little I have been able to make out. The bowler hats for example.

I do not know who Godot is. I do not even know if he exists. And I do not know if they believe he does, the two who are waiting for him.

The two others who pass through towards the end of each of the two acts, that must be so as to break the monotony.

All that I have been able to understand I have shown. It is not much. But it is enough, and more than enough for me. I shall even say that I could have made do with less.

As for wanting to find in all this a wider and loftier meaning to take away after the show, along with the programme and the choc ice, I am unable to see the point of it. But it must be possible.

I am no longer part of it, and never will be again. Estragon, Vladimir, Pozzo, Lucky, their time and space, I have only been able to know a little about them by staying very far away from the need to understand. They owe you an explanation perhaps. Let them get on with it. Without me. They and I have settled our accounts.

Samuel Beckett, The Letters of Samuel Beckett 1941-1956, Cambridge University Press, 2011.

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The Impossibility of Connection

On another day I’ll read László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below hungrily. After an intensely beautiful first chapter, the second chapter begins with an untranslated Italian crossword. This, and the sections being arranged according to the Fibonacci sequence, struck me as overly pretentious, and I set the book aside for another day when I can see these experimentations as audacious and playful, or better, as the integral scaffolding of the book.

Krasznahorkai’s earlier books, especially War & War, have rare brilliance, so I’ll undoubtedly return to Seiobo There Below. In the meantime, after almost reading Ivan Vladislavic, Elfriede Jelinek and Blanchot, I’m heading back to Sam Beckett.

I’ve still two volumes of Beckett’s letters to read; as preparation I glanced over the passages I marked in the first volume. Beside the passage below I have pencilled the impossibility of connection.

Samuel Beckett writing to his aunt of his love to the paintings of Jack Yeats:

The way he puts down a man’s head & a woman’s head side by side, or face to face, is terrifying, two irreducible singlenesses & the impassable immensity between. I suppose that is what gives the stillness to his pictures, as though the convention were suddenly suspended, the convention & performance of love & hate, joy & pain, giving & being given, taking & being taken. A kind of petrified insight into one’s ultimate hard irreducible inorganic singleness.

Letter to Cissie Sinclair, 14th [August 1937], in Beckett 2009: 536

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The Murmur of Language

The words are everywhere, inside me, outside of me … I hear them, no need to hear them, no need of a head, impossible to stop them, impossible to stop. I’m in words, made of words, others’ words, what others … the whole world is here with me. I’m in the air, the walls, the walled-in one, everything yields, opens, ebbs, flows, like flakes. I’m all these flakes, meeting, mingling, falling asunder, wherever I go I find me, leave me, go towards me, come from me, nothing ever but me, a particle of me, retrieved, lost, gone astray, I’m all these words, all these strangers, this dust of words, with no ground or their setting, no sky for their dispersing, coming together to say, fleeing one another to say, that I am they, all of them, those that merge, those that part, those that never meet.

Samuel Beckett, The Unnameable

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An Image of Death

I’ve always disliked that threshold between waking and sleep, when the “I” and the self separate. A flash of recognition from the following paragraph, which opens Aurélia (and is its high point).

Our dreams are a second life. I have never been able to penetrate without a shudder those ivory or horned gates which separate us from the invisible world. The first moments of sleep are an image of death; a hazy torpor grips our thoughts and it becomes impossible for us to determine the exact instant when the “I,” under another for, continues the task of existence. Little by little a vague underground cavern grows lighter and the pale gravely immobile shapes that live in limbo detach themselves from the shadows and the night. Then the picture takes form, a new brightness illumines these strange apparitions and gives them movement. The spirit world opens before us.

Gérard De Nerval, Aurélia and Other Writings.
trans. Geoffrey Wagner. Exact Change, 1996 (1855)

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Fra Keeler’s Influences

Reading is pure pleasure for me, without obligation, professional or otherwise. I abandon books frequently after fifty pages or halfway through, whichever comes first. For every book I finish, three preceding books end up in a bag by the front door destined for the local charity shop. It is rare and fortuitous that I read two brilliant books consecutively.

I’m still thinking about Gillian Rose’s Love’s Work. I’ll read it again very soon, more slowly, pencil in hand this time. I’m curious about Rose’s Adorno book so please let me know if you’ve read it and have an opinion.

Next though I’ll reread Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s Fra Keeler, which I finished this morning. I hope to write more about it soon. It is a distinctive, rather special book. I suggest it’s a cross between Lispector, Nabokov, and just a suggestion of late Beckett, which is probably too high a pedestal for a first novel, but I have been enjoying the afterglow all day, and need to ponder and read it again, immediately.

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi acknowledges at the end of the book that “Fra Keeler would not have been possible without the following constellation of films and books.” I’m posting the list in full because I love lists, but also because I love Fra Keeler, and, as a first novel, reading some of the books on the list that I haven’t read before and watching some of the films enables me to linger, however loosely, in the world inhabited by this remarkable book. If I read a better contemporary book this year, I shall be surprised.

  1. César Aira How I Became a Nun
  2. Attila Bartis Tranquility
  3. Thomas Bernhard Three Novellas and The Loser
  4. Roberto Bolaño Distant Star and By Night in Chile
  5. Luis Buñuel Diary of a Chambermaid
  6. Éric Chevillard Palafox and Crab Nebula
  7. Brian Evenson The Open Curtain
  8. Max Frisch Man in the Holocene
  9. André Gide The Immoralist
  10. Jean-Luc Godard Breathless
  11. Nikolai Gogol Diary of a Madman
  12. Witold Gombrowicz Cosmos
  13. Knut Hamsun Hunger
  14. Alfred Hitchcock Vertigo
  15. Anna Kavan Ice
  16. Imre Kertész Kaddish for an Unborn Child
  17. Abbas Kiarostami Close-up
  18. Jim Krusoe Iceland
  19. Patrice Leconte Monsieur Hire
  20. Doris Lessing Memoirs of a Survivor
  21. Clarice Lispector The Hour of the Star
  22. Jean-Pierre Melville Le Circle Rouge
  23. Marie Redonnet Hotel Splendid, Forever Valley and Rose Mellie Rose
  24. Eric Rohmer Six Moral Tales
  25. Daniel Pail Schreber Memoirs of My Nervous Illness
  26. Muriel Spark The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
  27. Magdalena Tulli Dreams and Stones and Moving Parts
  28. Lynne Tillman This Is Not It
  29. Trajei Vesaas The Ice Palace
  30. Diane Williams Romancer Erector
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Love’s Work by Gillian Rose

Last night, or rather this morning, I stayed up far too late finishing Gillian Rose’s Love’s Work. It was recommended by a friend whose literary judgement I have come to unfailingly trust.

Nick Lezard begins his review of Love’s Work thus, “I struggle to think of a finer, more rewarding short autobiography than this.” I might argue for Woolf’s Moments of Being, but it is autobiography only in a loose sense, and Rose’s work stands as equally singular.

I picked Love’s Work without knowing of Gillian Rose’s scholarship (Adorno, Hegel). Although she writes of her cancer, it is not maudlin in any sense, nor particularly sad. Instead Rose writes of her philosophy, or way of looking at life and intimacy. In doing so, the perspective is fresh, icily frank and genuinely insightful. I’ve thought of her words all day and return periodically to check a passage. It is a book that merits rereading.

Some of Rose’s tenacity is clear at the close of the chapter in which she discusses her incurable cancer with plain style and more than a little wit:

I reach for my favourite whisky bottle and instruct my valetudinarian well-wishers to imbibe the shark’s oil and aloe vera themselves. If I am to stay alive, I am bound to continue to get love wrong, all the time, but not to cease wooing, for that is my life affair, love’s work.

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