Decompression Zone

After several days living in the dappled shade of a forest comprised mostly of ancient giant redwoods, I’m unable, or unwilling, to return to London. I find myself in need of a decompression zone, so have elected to stay for a few days a flat in a small cathedral city. Once a bishop’s wardrobe, this small and moderately cosy flat is in a peaceful close next to the cathedral. These unusually sultry days are spent reading, writing and walking by the river at the end of the large garden. In the still evenings I listen to the choir’s evensong and am accompanied by regular tolling of church bells.

I’m under the spell of Reiner Stach’s Kafka: The Years of Insight, which I finished late last night, and so unable to settle with another book at the moment. While staying at his sister’s farm, Kafka wrote fragmentary notes that have become known to Kafka readers as the Zürau octavo notebooks. Stach writes that these fragments “consist mainly of compactly formulated notes that focus on religious and philosophical questions on good and evil, truth and falsehood, and alienation and redemption.” Stach also writes that “there a few comparable examples of this form in world literature: Valéry’s notebooks (a mother lode of this type of writing, which, however became accessible only after 1945 [and therefore not to Kafka] and, of course, Pascal’s Pensees.”

Serendipitously this sends me back to Valéry’s Notebooks. I bought the first volume with me, together with Calvino’s letters, though I am finding the latter inaccessible, perhaps because such a passage of time has passed since my Calvino obsession.

The Kind of Guy

In this passage from Calvino’s Letters, before he has published a first novel, Calvino reveals his dedication to veracity:

They want articles all over the place and I write them because it takes half an hour to write an article. To write an article not to do an article. To do an article you have to read books, find ideas, roll up your sleeves. In addition I’m the kind of guy who goes from the maximum of superficiality to the maximum of fussiness in a trice. For instance, I want to cite a certain name in a particular sentence in a particular article. Let’s say: Chesterton. Because it sounds good at that point. Chesterton and an adjective. “Olympian like Chesterton.” Or “tormented like Chesterton.” But I’ve never read a line of Chesterton: I don’t know whether he’s Olympian or tormented, whether he has anything to do with what I’m writing. So what do I do? I roll up my sleeves and start looking until I find Chesterton’s works. And I read them. All Chesterton’s works. And I read them. And everything that’s been written about Chesterton. And I read that too. So I write in that particular sentence: “Olympian or tormented or cataleptic or schizophrenic . . . like Chesterton.” That’s it. Meantime two weeks have gone by for three words.

Back to Calvino

Italo Calvino: Letters 1941-1985

Italo Calvino: Letters 1941-1985

I know Michael Wood as the author of Literature and the Taste of Knowledge and Yeats and Violence, both works of literary criticism that I liked very much. Wood both selected the letters in this edition and writes the introduction, saying that the letters reveal not Calvino’s “real self” but his “plain self”: “We eavesdrop not on his secrets but on his devotion to clarity.” (Jonathan Galassi recently reviewed this book for NYRB).

Along with the second volume of Reiner Stach’s Kafka biography, this collection of Calvino’s letters is one of my two most eagerly anticipated books of 2013. Leafing through the index I can see fairly extensive referencing of Barthes, Borges, Kafka, Primo Levi, and Elsa Morante, but also that pretty much every writer I have time for gets at least one mention.

Pursuing a reference to Dante, I came across a lengthy letter addressed to literary critic Mario Motta. I quote a tantalising section below which precedes comments about Kafka, Dante, Conrad, Chekhov and Hemingway

[..] I notice that I’ve started classifying historical figures, writers, cultural movements into “paradisiacal” or not, As happens with these juxtapositions invented on the spot (which also have their own auxiliary usefulness, as long as one doesn’t dwell too long on them), the system always works out: the “paradisiacal” ones are all those I systematically distrust, the “non-paradisiacal” are those from whom I believe I’ve gathered some concrete teaching.

How many paradises there are, for instance, in recent literature! What can be more “paradisiacal” than Surrealism? And psychoanalysis? And Gidean irresponsibility? But even more significant, it seems to me, is the fact that the most coveted myth in modern literature is a regressive paradise: memory. And what can one say about the gelid paradise of the Hermeticists: absence?

Of course, the letters have disarmed me and demand my immediate attention.

Living by Fiction by Annie Dillard

Perhaps it’s me. Annie Dillard’s Living by Fiction is well-crafted. I agreed with her assertions. It is just a little like the fashion for nouvelle cuisine that was all the rage when this book was published. It leaves you hungry for more. Even this Dillard excuses in the introduction explaining that despite her critical training and competence “as a careful textual critic, I have flung this sensible approach aside in favour of enthusiasm, free speculation, blind assertion, dumb joking, and diatribe.”

That I was to read Living by Fiction was inevitable after Amateur Reader (Tom) wrote, “Pale Fire and Ficciones, which she, like me [and me], simply assumes are essential and inescapable Tower of Babel-sized landmarks of 20th century literature, terrain-defining books.”

Dillard writes lovingly about Postmodern fiction, which she chooses to label contemporary modernist, meaning writers like Robert Coover, John Barth, Nabokov, Borges, Italo Calvino etc. After some time analysing technique and style, Dillard debates the value of art and worth of literary criticism, before proceeding to her main argument: “Does the World Have Meaning?’ Approaching this question by asking whether fiction has meaning because “it traffics in knowledge,” she concludes with uncertainty. As I do.

There are one or two terms that fail to translate from American English. The word she uses repeatedly is nonce, as in “for the nonce.” In American English this means “for the time being.” I’m glad I looked it up, much the clearer.