Gunn, Bohemians and Cole

I’ve read a few books this month without the time to reflect on them here, so some disconnected thoughts on what I’ve read lately.

During a Twitter conversation in which I confessed to abandoning Gunn’s latest novel The Big Music, Michelle persuaded me to read Kirsty Gunn’s Rain. There is a calm beauty in Rain that almost seemed excessive to the demands of the story. I read it twice, taking pleasure in the subtle details: the tension between childhood and adulthood, the elegiac characterisation. Early in her narrative Gunn writes, “… but already the air was touched by the promise of our destination.” The brief novel is filled with these lyric images that disrupt the apparent simplicity of the narrative. Though I was moved by the beauty of the writing, I was detached from the story itself, and somewhat indifferent at the end of a second reading.

An urge drew me to read Henrietta Moraes’ autobiography Henrietta. Moraes was the epitomic upper class Bohemian of London’s 1950s and 1960s, seduced by Lucian Freud, painted by Bacon at least two dozen times. When Moraes died in 1999, her son, barely mentioned in the autobiography, considered scattering her ashes around the pubs where she spent a large part of her dissipated life. Terribly written but moving nevertheless, Henrietta is part of a longer term project to read around Soho and London of the years before the-excuse the cliché-swinging sixties.

As soon as Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief arrived, I set aside other reading to spend time with the book that came before Cole’s staggeringly good Open CityJames Wood’s review of Open City called it a “novel as close to a diary as a novel can get, with room for reflection, autobiography, stasis, and repetition.” Every Day is for the Thief is in similar vein, and reads as the warm-up work to Open City, lacking some of its punch, but beautifully evocative of the rhythms of daily life in Lagos. The lightness of tone masks the intensity and seriousness of the narrator’s frustration with his return to Lagos after a long absence from the city.

Voice of the Sea

What keeps coming to mind during my current Michel Houellebecq binge is that beneath the surface of his nihilism and despair is an un-extinguished faith in the redemptive potency of love and friendship, a hope that he realises is unfulfillable but impossible to abandon.

This afternoon, feeling a little dour, I took a break from my Houellebecq bender to reread some of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, which I read at Francis’ recommendation some years ago. Once again I came across a favourite paragraph, underlined in pencil, which she repeats at the start and end of her novel.

The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.

The sea, in both deadly and enriching form, is almost a character in The Awakening, and Chopin’s poetic description stands in relief to the sparseness of the rest of the text.

How Rubens Sees Orpheus

In Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of The Imagination Grace Dane Mazur asks of Rubens’ Orpheus painting, “Pretend that you do not know what this painting is about. Look at it with eyes fresh and innocent and unknowing; ask yourself what is going on.”

Carole Maso’s Defiance

How to purge the horror. Not possible. At best give it shape and name.

Incarcerated, awaiting the death penalty, the protagonist of Carole Maso’s Defiance, depicted in the tabloids as a modern-day Medea, gently discloses her devastating, destructive life. Presenting the novel as the journal of an unrepentant double-murderer gives Maso the freedom to explore a story of victimisation and sexual abuse from an unfamiliar angle. That Maso brings to Defiance the intelligence and erudition evident in Ava also helps to lift her novel from the more mainstream discourse of victimhood.

Though beautifully written, the essence of the novel that male violence is endemic in our culture is authoritative and unyielding. Maso’s story is in many ways reminiscent of the Aileen Wournos narrative (as played memorably in Monster by Charlize Theron), the essential difference being that Maso’s protagonist, Bernadette, is a mathematical prodigy. Throughout the story Maso challenges the reader to question the game Bernadette is playing with her readers, her social worker, and others.

An Idiotically Decorated Box

Both intrigued and undecided by Carole Maso’s Ava. A fragmentary novel, which impels with the force of allusion and cadence of the sentences. As with Markson’s fragmentary novels, I am not certain that the fragments cohere sufficiently as a narrative. But I am only two-thirds into Ava and will finish (and then intend to read her Defiance.) I want to capture here a couple of the fragments that accord so neatly with my view of the world I wish that I had written them (I did in my notebook, uncredited, so in a few years time I will think I did!):

No character in Beckett has ever admitted that existence is other than a cruel joke. But here in Company Beckett reaches into a darker dark than he has hitherto plumbed, to ask if the poor jokester didn’t, after all, create us, his joke, to keep his lonely self company? This is a way of asking if in our profound and agonising loneliness we have invented the jokester, God, to keep ourselves company?

And what is company? What have we not done for its sake? For everything human we have made up, beginning with our names. Our laws, our quaint systems of kinship, our cities, our technology, a Victorian clergyman’s carefully researched study of the Sumerian cosmology-fiction all. We’ve made it all up, to hide the mystery in an idiotically decorated box.

Interpretative Revelation

Quote

But all at once it dawned on me that this
Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme;
Just this: not text; not the dream
But topsy-turvical coincidence,
Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.
Yes! It sufficed that I in life could find
Some kind of link-and-bobolink, some kind
Of correlated pattern in the game,
Plexed artistry, and something of the same
Pleasure in it as they who played it found.

Nabokov, Pale Fire (62-63)

Katie Roiphe’s In Praise of Messy Lives

That Gawker regularly vent their unsophisticated spleen on Katie Roiphe may be thought a reason to read her books. Much of the other invective that streams towards Roiphe appears to be a result of her mid-90′s polemics on campus rape.

I don’t know if this was the case during those debates, but Roiphe does seem courageous enough to argue against the grain in In Praise of Messy Lives, though in this case her target is conventional marriage and parenthood, and what, if any, putative advantages a nuclear family confers on a child compared to single parenthood (roughly half of all first children in the US are born to unwed mothers). Ropihe’s arguments are eloquent and convincing, but rarely stray beyond the confines of a narrow bourgeois demographic.

In Praise of Messy Lives also includes some entertaining pieces of literary criticism including a contentious defence of the US literary old-guard’s (Roth, Updike etc.) depiction of sex, compared to its vapid portrayal by the following generation (DFW, Franzen etc.) My favourite of these essays is the study of the depth of Joan Didion’s influence on later American women writers. Apart from a feeble essay on Jane Austen, Roiphe fails to acknowledge any writing outside the US, but this insularity that blights American literature is far from isolated to Roiphe.

For a flavour of Roiphe’s style I can recommend this superb article: Want To Understand Sexual Politics? Read This Novel. There also a good NYT review of these essays.

Heraclitus at the Edge of Language

“The truth is that Heraclitus attracts exegetes as an empty jam pot wasps; and each new wasp discerns traces of his own favourite flavour.” Jonathan Barnes, from The Presocratic Philosophers. He goes on to say, “The existence of such diverse interpretations of Heraclitus’ philosophy will sow seeds of despair in the mind of any honest scholar …”

I posted a few excerpts of Richard Geldard’s Remembering Heraclitus, and thought it a lucid exposition, but with a strong personal flavour, portraying Heraclitus as a mystic, likely influenced by the Vedics and a forerunner of Marcilio Ficino, the Gnostics, up to and including the American Transcendentalists. With Barnes’ caution in mind I’ll admit to seeds of despair (as much as I’d like to follow Geldard wholeheartedly with his arguments), preferring to side with Nietzsche that Heraclitus was neither mystic nor materialist. Geldard’s parallels in the epilogue between Heraclitus, Roger Penrose, and the quantum consciousness hypothesis probably whistled way over my head but didn’t strengthen Geldard’s broader contentions.

Next I’m reading Charles Kahn’s drier (more sober) interpretation of Heraclitus’ fragments that interest me by treating Heraclitus not only as a first-rate philosophical thinker but also as a brilliant literary artist. This is the Heraclitus of George Steiner, who wrote so beautifully:

It is the most “stylish’ of philosophers, those most alert to the expressive constraints and resources of stated thought, to its implicit cadence, such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, who look to Heraclitus. It is Novalis, practitioner of the Orphic fragment, and Heidegger the neologist, the craftsman of tautology. Rhapsodic and oracular intellects recognise in Heraclitus the fundamental, generative collision between the elusive opacity of the word and the equally elusive but compelling clarity and evidence of things. Immediate or hurried apprehension, the colloquial, misses this decisive tension, that, in Heraclitus’s celebrated duality, of the bow and the lyre. To listen closely-Nietzsche defined philology as “reading slowly”-is to experience, always imperfectly, the possibility that the order of words, notably in metrics and the metrical nerve-structure within good prose, reflects, perhaps sustains the hidden yet manifest coherence of the cosmos.

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.

We Are Alien

Quote

Guy Davenport (1927-2005), The Symbol of the Archaic in The Geography of the Imagination (David R. Godine, Publisher, 1997), p. 19-20:

[..] we are alienated from all that was most familiar. Basically he [Charles Olson] meant that we no longer milk the cow, or shoot the game for our dinner, or make our clothes or houses or anything at all. Secondly, he meant that we have drained our symbols of meaning. We have religious pictures in museums, honouring a residual meaning in them, at least. We have divorced poetry from music, language from concrete particulars. we have abandoned the rites de passage to casual neglect where once we marked them with trial and ceremony.

Thirdly, he meant that modernity is a kind of stupidity, as it has no critical tools for analysing reality such as the ancient cultures kept bright and sharp. We do not notice that we are ruled by the worst rather than the best of men: Olson took over a word coined by Pound, pejorocracy. Poetry and fiction have grieved for a century now over the loss of some vitality they think they see in a past from which we are by now irrevocably alienated.