December: Extended Reading Notes

Reading wildly all over the place, but with those converging lines I’ve written about providing more direction to my reading than I prefer to concede. To end my reading for 2013, a few thoughts on those books I finished over the last month.

Robert Fagle’s exceptional translation of the Iliad has superseded Richard Lattimore’s as my personal favourite. It is bright, powerful and pulls you relentlessly through the narrative without sacrificing Homeric style. Fagles has found the balance between loyalty to Homer’s language and the need to remove the cobwebs and find a fresh modern voice. I have his Odyssey to read soon. A conversation with a reader in the Comments to my post on reading the old dead Greeks has convinced me to read both George Chapman’s and Christopher Logue’s Homer, the latter first. At Max’s suggestion I also read Alice Oswald’s Memorial this month and was taken aback at the brilliance of her portrayal of the Iliad, in which she brings to the foreground the minor characters of the Iliad, introduced briefly by Homer merely to die horrid deaths. In doing so, Oswald evokes fresh revulsion for the senselessness but inevitability of slaughter and warfare.

After my thrill of discovering Clarice Lispector’s work with Água Viva, as is often the case I waited a considerable time to read another of her books. In this case, my reticence was misplaced as Near to the Wild Heart and A Breath of Life were no less dazzling. I’m less convinced of the inevitable comparison with Virginia Woolf, but see more resonance with Beckett. I need to think more about this, but there is something of the same apprehension about literature’s inability to express anything, and instead falling away towards silence. In each book, including her phenomenal first, written while in her early twenties (which is astounding), Lispector rises above fiction’s banal conventions. She compels every word to hard labour, extracting every drop of meaning from the fewest words, though she, like Beckett, is not a minimalist in that overworked sense. Like Beckett, Woolf or Duras, Lispector’s work make delicious demands of her readers, though with sentences that are completely available. I’ve lined up The Passion According to G.H. and The Hour of the Star to read in the next few weeks.

I mentioned briefly the personally transformative role that Pierre Hadot continues to have, which deepens with my reading of his Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision. This is part of a self-reflective journey that I feel is to a great extent outside the reaches of language, as in Hadot’s reflection on Plotinus: “… the spiritual world was not for him…a supercosmic place from which he was separated….Neither was it an original state…lost….Rather [it] was nothing other than the self at its deepest level….It could be reached immediately, by returning within oneself.” My contemplation of the relationship between theory and practise of ancient and modern philosophies is taking me back to old dead Greeks with Plotinus and Heraclitus, and further back towards Vedic texts.

What else in December? David Markson’s Reader’s Block kept me curious enough to get to the end, but it felt like style over substance. I’d rather read John Berger for more accomplished minimalism. I came to Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s A Brief History of Yes eagerly, and finished with thanks for its brevity. My first Ryszard Kapuściński book, which I approached with trepidation (because it appears that Kapuściński might have been one hell of a shitty human being), was better than expected: Travels with Herodotus is clunky written (or translated), and I could pick all sorts of holes as a piece of ‘literary reportage’, but I left with a warmth for the voice of the narrator, and expect to read another Kapuściński one day. Finally, Hélène Cixous never disappoints, and Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing in which she writes of her literary loves is one of those books I shall return to regularly for its radiance.

9 thoughts on “December: Extended Reading Notes

  1. I love the Fagles translation of The Iliad – it’s extremely powerful. I haven’t read Lattimore’s, can only compare to Pope’s (which is just outdated).

    I am very much hoping to read as much Cixous as I can this year (other projects permitting). I’ve loved everything of hers I’ve had the chance to read. But it is not much at this point, and I’d like to get a better background.

    And I’ve got Beckett lined up to read as well. I am curious – are you reading him in French? He did his own translation so I suppose it doesn’t matter. Or maybe I need to compare them… see how he chose to re-write each in English.

    • Cixous is so prolific that I’ve barely dipped into her oeuvre. I plan to remedy that as much as possible this year, including reading some of her fiction.

      I’m lazy with Beckett and read him in English, though now you mention it I will pick up the trilogy in French for the fun of comparison.

  2. I’m going to check out the Fagles. I bought the Oswald I mentioned to you but haven’t read it myself yet. I’m looking forward to it more having read this though.

    I’m deep in Proust at the moment, but Lispector’s Hour of the Star is in the offing once I finish that. What translations are you using? There’s been some interesting debates there with the most recent translator arguing that earlier ones smoothed out and sanitised her work, robbing it of much of its spiky originality.

    Sounds like a good December Anthony.

    • Thanks for pointing me to the Oswald book, I loved it, intelligent and powerful.

      I’m reading Benjamin Moser’s translation of Lispector’s The Hour of the Star at the moment. So far, I haven’t read a Lispector that I didn’t find incredible. I’ve got a couple of short stories translated by Elizabeth Bishop, which I guess would qualify as an earlier translation. I read them soon too.

      I’m taking four months break in between gigs, so having an opportunity to do some serious reading.

      • That’s the translation I have. I don’t speak Portuguese, but I do Italian which permits me to understand some written Portuguese. Accordingly, I spent an hour or so comparing passages between his translation, a rival translation and the original text before deciding which to buy. His was plainly closer, just as he claimed (as far as that crude technique I applied can tell, anyway).

        I don’t recall the other translator, but it wasn’t Bishop.

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