>Mostly Bellow, Some Roth

>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.

>Abominable Borges’ Translations

>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.

>Mediation and Conversation

>

 Culture in whatever form-art, thought, history, religion-is for meditation and conversation. Both are necessary sequels to the experience. Cultivation does not come automatically after exposure to the good things as health follows a dose of the right drug. If it did, orchestra players would be the most cultivated people musically and copy editors the finest judges of literature. Nor does “reading up” on art suffice unless it spurs mediation and conversation. Both are actions of the mind along the path of finesse.

Jacques Barzun

>It’s Only a Sunfish

>

No man is equipped for modern thinking until he has understood the anecdote of Agassiz and the fish:

A post-graduate student equipped with honours and diplomas went to Agassiz to receive the final and finishing touches. The great man offered him a small fish and told him to describe it.

Post-Graduate Student: ‘That’s only a sunfish.’

Agassiz: ‘I know that. Write a description of it.’

After a few minutes the student returned with a description of the Ichthus Heliodiplodokus, or whatever term is used to conceal the common sunfish from vulgar knowledge, family of Heliichtherinkus, etc., as found in textbooks of the subject.

Agassiz again told the student to describe the fish.

The student produced a four-page essay. Agassiz then told him to look at the fish. At the end of three weeks the fish was in an advanced state of decomposition, but the student knew something about it.

Ezra Pound

The Rückenfigur

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.

>The Insomniac of the Day

>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’.

And:

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.

>A Refusal of the Moment of Comprehension

>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).

And:

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.

The Wit of Virginia Woolf

Contrary to the portrayal of her melancholic disposition in contemporary culture, it is Virginia Woolf’s humour that emerges most forcibly in the essays that make up the first volume of The Common Reader.

Gossiping about seventeenth-century diarist John Evelyn Woolf writes:

Ignorant, yet justly confident that with his own hands he might advance not merely his private knowledge but the knowledge of mankind, Evelyn dabbled in all the arts and sciences, ran about the continent for ten years, gazed with unflagging gusto upon hairy women and rational dogs, and drew inferences and framed speculations which are now only to be matched by listening to the talk of old women round the village pump.

Or when describing the habits of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle:

No fears impede her. She has the irresponsibility of a child and the arrogance of a Duchess. The wildest fancies come to her, and she canters away on their backs. We seem to hear her, as the thoughts boil and bubble, calling to John, who sat with a pen in his hand next door, to come quick, ‘John, John, I conceive!’

The drollery, evident in these essays, was commented on recently by Woolf’s nephew Cecil who said:

Despite her rather sombre appearance, Virginia could be extremely funny.The image she has in some people’s minds of a sad and deeply depressed woman is false. (Nicole Kidman in The Hours springs to mind.) Quite the contrary. Leonard remembered that during the First World War when they sheltered in the basement of their London lodgings from enemy bombing, Virginia made the servants laugh so much that he complained he was unable to sleep. My recollection of her is of a fun-loving, witty and, at times, slightly malicious person.

Acerbic wit aside, there is insight aplenty in Woolf’s essays. Particularly fine is the analysis of Jane Austen, and Woolf’s encouragement to read all her books:

The second-rate works of a great writer are worth reading because they offer the best criticism of his masterpieces.

Woolf not only considers the work of long-dead authors but also discusses her contemporaries. In a perceptive essay on modern novels she comments:

Any one who has read The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man or, what promises to be a far more interesting work, Ulysses, [(Woolf had read the magazine, The Little Review, which published the first thirteen, and part of the fourteenth, episodes of Ulysses)] now appearing in the Little Review, will have hazarded some theory of this nature as to Mr Joyce’s intention. On our part, with such a fragment before us, it is hazarded rather than affirmed; but whatever the intention of the whole, there is no question but that it is of the utmost sincerity and that the result, difficult or unpleasant as we may judge it, it is undeniably important.

Woolf’s reaction to Ulysses was ultimately unfavourable. In her diary she wrote, “I finished Ulysses and think it is a mis-fire. Genius it has, I think; but of inferior water. The book is diffuse. It is brackish. It is pretentious. It is underbred, not only in the obvious sense, but in the literary sense.” In the final essay in The Common Reader, written four years after her essay on modern novels, she comments briefly, “Ulysses was a memorable catastrophe – immense in daring, terrific in disaster.”

Written for the Common Reader these essays are engaging and accessible. The extraordinary quality of the writing lead me gently and enjoyably through all the essays, whether about modern literature, mad duchesses or the literary poverty of not knowing Greek. One final excerpt which adequately summarises the writer behind these essays:

But literature is stern; it is no use being charming, virtuous, or even learned and brilliant into the bargain, unless, she seems to reiterate, you fulfil her first condition – to know how to write.