>Saul Bellow disappeared off the edge of my literary radar. Perhaps he caught the tailwind of my growing disenchantment with the novels of Philip Roth. Gabriel Josipovici’s brilliant essay on Saul Bellow, in his 1977 collection The Lessons of Modernism, has reinvigorated a neglected passion. This year sees the publication of a collection of Bellow’s letters and a third volume of The Library of America series. Both of which I look forward to reading.
The essay on Bellow recalls that unique tone of voice, that combines “the utmost formality with the utmost desperation.” He goes on to say:
Bellow has been described as a great realist; as a follower of Dreiser and the American urban naturalist tradition; as a great fantasist, especially in Henderson the Rain King; and as the last of the Yiddish storytellers. But these are ways of shrugging of the demands of that voice, of avoiding its implications by placing it safely in a literary or historical context. Bellow is too important a writer to have this done to him.
“Just as,” continues Josipovici, “according to Proust, all Dostoevsky’s novels could well be called Crime and Punishment and all Flaubert’s L’Education sentimentale, so all Bellow’s could be called Dangling Man.”
It is with Dangling Man I will start my Bellow immersion in the autumn. Inspired by Bibliographing’s Melville project, my intention is to read the fifteen novels, short stories, essay collection and Bellow’s memoir.
What I’ve termed my disenchantment with Philip Roth is, I hope, merely a phase. I can only endorse the suggestion of starting to read Roth with The Ghost Writer, an exceptional novel. The Library of America recently issued a sixth volume in the Roth series, and a new novel is due.
>In Alberto Manguel’s Royal Society of Literature lecture, he comments that:
The English speaking reader has been most unfortunate. Borges cannot be read, in my opinion, in English. There is no valid translation of Borges in English today. There is one exception, which I will come to in a minute, but all sort of abominations have been practised on the work of Borges.
Manguel criticises publishers’ decisions to divide Borges’ work into separate collections of poetry, non-fiction and fiction. Borges’ main intention, Manguel says, was to destroy the barriers of genre.
>This evening I discovered the Royal Society of Literature’s archive of lectures. I am particularly looking forward to listening to Alberto Manguel’s Reading the Universe and Christopher Ricks’ True Friendship.
This afternoon, whilst browsing the shelves of a rare books shop, I found a Caspar David Friedrich book. Though, unfortunately, the text is German, the photographs of Friedrich’s paintings are stunning.
Friedrich is a new, thrilling discovery. Jospovici’s latest book includes an outstanding chapter that juxtaposes Friedrich’s painting with Wordsworth’s poetry.
. . . Joseph Koerner has some remarkable pages, in his book on Friedrich, about the painter’s fondness for what he calls the Rückenfigur, the figure who is and is not the painter, who is and is not the viewer, who stands at the limit of the picture, with his back to us, so that what we see is not what he sees, but him seeing.
It is a good week for Josipovici books. In Charing Cross Road I found Josipovici’s first novel The Inventory and, to my great satisfaction, The Lessons of Modernism.
>Yesterday’s post, acknowledging my difficulty in understanding Blanchot’s The Space of Literature lead to some useful comments. Stephen’s advice lead me to read the insightful essay at the centre of Blanchot’s work, Orpheus’ Gaze, which I read a several times, in two different translations.
Today I’ve been reading the first lecture in Simon Critchley’s Very Little … Almost Nothing, devoted to his own struggle with Blanchot. Critchley concedes, “. . . when writing on Blanchot, I confess that I feel very much in the dark, fumbling here and there for a thread.” This thread, for me, came from the reading of Orpheus’ Gaze. Critchley, making some comments in general, elucidates better than I am able the insight I obtained from my reading of Orpheus’ Gaze:
Blanchot’s original insight, obsessively reiterated in his work, is that the desire that governs writing has for its (impossible) origins this experience of the night, which is the experience of a dying stronger than death . . . Writing is not a desire for the beautiful artwork but for the origin of the artwork, its nocturnal source; which is why Blanchot defines the writer as ‘the insomniac of the day’.
For Blanchot, the possibility of literature is found in the radical impossibility of creating a complete work.
My intention is to re-start my exploration of Blanchot’s work with The Work of Fire, keeping this insight to the fore.
>After a morning reading Maurice Blanchot’s The Space of Literature, I conceded defeat. I can understand the words but meaning eludes me. Online I seek guidance and find:
. . . that if one wants to experience the full scope of Blanchot’s critical writing, and perhaps these works are his most influential, then one might begin with The Work of Fire (1949), The Space of Literature (1955) and The Writing of Disaster (1980).
This early essay [The Work of Fire] holds the kernel of his approach to the question of literature and would be one of the best places to start reading his work.
Sampled, The Work of Fire appears less opaque and perhaps a better starting point.
Later, reading Simon Critchley’s Very Little . . . Almost Nothing I find:
Reading Blanchot is, in a sense, the easiest of tasks. His French is limpid and clear, it is daylight itself; almost the French of the Discours de la méthode. And yet, as nearly everyone who writes on Blanchot points out, his work seems to defy any possible approach, it seems to evade being drawn into the circle of interpretation. The utter clarity of Blanchot’s prose would appear to be somehow premised upon a refusal of the moment of comprehension and the consequent labour of interpretation and judgement. Absolutely clear at the level of reading, yet fundamentally opaque at the level of comprehension; a vague fore-understanding that somehow resists being drawn up into an active comprehension.
For now, the plan is to read Critchley’s book as preparation for The Work of Fire’s arrival next week.
>Kundera’s latest book, reviewed here by Geoff Dyer, is on order. Geoff Dyer’s new book, due in October, is on pre-order.
>Why don’t any English publishers emulate the Library of America or La Bibliothèque de la Pléiade? Both produce attractive reference editions of the great literary works of their nation.