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Robert Fagle’s exceptional translation of the Iliad has superseded Richard Lattimore’s as my personal favourite.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.

Links of the Week

Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter. Some of the links to PDFs disappear quickly so download them promptly.

'The Reader' - G. Richter

‘The Reader’ – G. Richter

Dr. B or : How I learned to stop worrying and love cinema post: The Gaze and its psychoanalytical implications in Richter, Graham and Beckett’s art.

Faust Series Opus 9 post: 13 Tips for a Writing Friend (After Benjamin, Baudelaire etc.)

Judith Butler’s Undoing Gender (2004) [Full- PDF] -”recent reflections on gender and sexuality, focusing on new kinship, psychoanalysis and the incest taboo, transgender, intersex, diagnostic categories, social violence, and the tasks of social transformation.”

This is treasure for me, discovering a trove of Guy Debord’s letters. “Although I have read a lot, I have drunk even more.”

Bookslut reviews Viktor Shklovsky’s A Hunt for Optimism:

It lacks so much that readers generally gravitate to that even Shklovsky’s clinical prose can seem like an obstruction. But those that can tolerate the writer’s embracing of polyphony and multiplicity will undoubtedly see that there is a very serious mind at work.

These three interpretations of Charles Bukowski’s Melancholy are intriguing. My preference is for the first performance.

Salon’s review of James Wood’s The Fun Stuff. Enjoyed the review though I’ve no urge, presently, to buy the book despite enjoying much of Wood’s writing.

Full Stop’s review of Suzanne Scanlon’s Promising Young Women, which I expect to read some day:

This is the brilliance of Suzanne Scanlon’s debut: by casting Lizzie as a self-aware cipher in conflict with the critical reader, Scanlon refuses the same act of diagnosis that her novel critiques.

A collection of films inspired by Angela Carter, exploring the gothic, mysterious and magical themes of her work.

Three-part documentary about Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Indonesian writer of the staggeringly good The Buru Quartet.

Green and yellow: the colours of Brazilian Modernism.

Twenty years on, Elaine Showalter’s revised introduction to A Literature of Their Own. [PDF]

Leszek Kolakowski’s The Death of Utopia Revisited (1982).[PDF]

JM Coetzee on the novels of Saul Bellow.

Women on the market by Luce Irigaray (“applies Marx’s analysis of the commodity to the status of women – objects circulated by men to reproduce a male-dominated society.”)

Links of the Week

Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter.

From the Gallery of Lost Art, Lucian Freud's painting (stolen) of Francis Bacon.

From the Gallery of Lost Art, Lucian Freud’s painting (stolen) of Francis Bacon.

The Tate’s Lost Art Blog.

The Society of Authors list 50 outstanding translations from the last 50 years.

Marjorie Perloff’s essay Hugh Kenner and the Invention of Modernism.

In this scheme of things, Kenner’s bête noire was, not surprisingly, Bloomsbury. For him, the Bloomsburies were not Modernists but late or post-Victorians whose innovations—including the rejection of conventional plot and characterization—masked perfectly traditional English values.

A Guardian guide to Arvo Pärt’s (one of my favourite composers) music.

From Love Dog, Masha Tupitsyn’s superb film blog: Faces #3 (Charlotte Rampling). “Charlotte Rampling’s face did not express or show anything until it had lived through at least 50 years”.

Courtesy of Biblioklept, Guide for New Readers of Stendhal’s Charterhouse by Italo Calvino (Collected in Why Read the Classics?).

Brief reviews of Chantal Akerman’s films.

AV Club interview with Chantal Akerman.

Spectacularly intimate: a MUBI Notebook interview with Claire Denis.

From the Bookslut archives: A Soul Turned Inside Out: Clarice Lispector, Hélène Cixous, and L’Écriture Féminine.

Adam Palay: An Interview with Richard Powers.



Links of the Week

Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter.

Translations of works by Augusto Monterroso (by Adam Thirlwell).

Andrei Konchalovsky’s enjoyable, if not entirely accurate The Odyssey (complete film).

The first ten Penguin books – Treasures of the Bodleian.

New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies.

John Newman on Architecture and Aging.

An interview with Blake Butler (2012).

Angela Carter’s Gothic Bride and subversion of the white wedding dress trope.

Interview with Helen DeWitt including discussion about the brilliant Lightning Rods.

Now interconnected and fully searchable, the virtual digital Loeb Classical library.

Addicted to Chekhov – Lloyd Evans on why we’ve all become hooked on the Russian playwright.

Review of the terrific Madness, Rack, and Honey essay collection by Mary Ruefle.

The Precession of Simulacra by Jean Baudrillard.

Remembering Baudrillard: Wither Baudrillard’s World?

Static Mass’ take on Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse, an examination of nihilism and the death of God.

HTMLGiant’s review of Mathematics: (a novel) by Jacques Roubaud.

Michelle’s excellent review of Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva.

Links of the Week

Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter.

The unshackled cultivation of Rimbaud

Unsettling collection of photos of life in a 1938 psychiatric hospital

“Ridiculously beautiful locations are tough…”

The Paris massacre that time forgot, 51 years on

The TLS try to classify the ‘unclassifiable’ Clarice Lispector

Guy Debord’s letters (1957-60)

English translations of all 12 journals of the Situationists

Collection of photos of the uprising and general strike in May 68 in France

“Katie Kitamura has earned comparison to great writers like Nadine Gordimer and Herta Müller.”

Melville House is republishing Mary Maclane’s ‘I Await the Devil’s Coming’

Surrealism and the Literary Imagination: A Study of Breton and Bachelard

AM Homes is a ‘social arsonist’ (as opposed to an anti-social arsonist?)

Simon Critchley – 8 part series on Martin Heidegger & Being and Time

“if I can’t have womb tanks I don’t want your revolution.”

Read the first chapter of César Aira’s new novel, The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira

The Madness of Reason

I can still reason-I studied mathematics, which is the madness of reason-but now I want the plasma-I want to eat straight from the placenta.

The other day I posted some thoughts about Clarice Lispector’s brilliant Água Viva. Often when I complete a book, particularly one as rich as this one, I’ll spend some time on a second close-reading, looking for patterns and motifs I may have missed on my first reading.

I became ensnared by the sentence quoted above, specifically the phrase, ‘the madness of reason’. The phrase links two words that could almost be binary opposites. Madness, aside from its use to define mental illness, is linked to extreme foolishness, wildness, chaos. Reason, however, is identified with logic, practicality, common sense.

I decided the answer lay in Foucault and spent three pleasant hours immersed in his texts, specifically his argument that, at a specific period, madness was isolated from reason as unreason. Madness reached a symbolic peak during the Renaissance, depicted in the art, philosophy and literature of the time as innate in man. You only have to recall Shakespeare’s fools, my favourites are the gravediggers in Hamlet, whose role is to undermine reason with folly, demonstrating the madness of reason.

Though I haven’t yet bought Benjamin Moser’s Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector I found an excerpt, which made more of the phrase, “mathematics, which is the madness of reason,” and Lispector’s mystical use of numbers. In this lay an answer of sorts.

“My passion for the essence of numbers, wherein I foretell the core of their own rigid and fatal destiny,” was, like her meditations on the neutral pronoun “it,” a desire for the pure truth, neutral,unclassifiable and beyond language, that was the ultimate mystical reality. In her late works, bare numbers themselves are conflated with God, now without the mathematics that binds them, one to another, to lend them a syntactical meaning. On their own, numbers like the paintings she created at the end of her life, were pure abstractions, and as such connected to the random mystery of life itself. In her late abstract masterpiece Água Viva she rejects “the meaning that her father’s mathematics provide and elects instead the sheer “it” of the unadorned number: “I still have the power of reason-I studied mathematics which is the madness of reason-but now I want the plasma-I want to feed directly from the placenta.”

I rarely read secondary literature until exhausting a writer’s own oeuvre, though I am wondering whether I ought to reverse  that custom.

Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva

Benjamin Moser, in his introductory essay to Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva, writes “Clarice pushed her language as far as it could go without risking incoherence. The book was written in fragments, and Olga Borelli’s editorial method, she wrote, was ‘breathing together, it’s breathing together.’” In Água Viva Lispector eschews traditional narrative structure and adopts a fragmentary form more familiar to readers of Beckett. Though Lispector evinces a Beckettian influence her style is less bleak, and takes less risk of a total collapse of meaning.

In the first fragment, Lispector writes,”Hallelujah, I shout, hallelujah merging with the darkest howl of the pain of separation but a shout of diabolic joy.” Aside from its expression of worship, hallelujah is musical composition based on the word. The shape and essence of Água Viva is atonal music, describing an arc through repetition and difference. She goes on to write,”You don’t understand music: you hear it. So hear me with your whole body.”

I see that I’ve never told you how I listen to music-I gently rest my hand on the record player and my hand vibrates, sending waves through my whole body: and so I listen to the electricity of the vibrations, the last substratum of the reality’s realm, and the whole world trembles inside my hands.

Though the fragments are not arranged by logic or driven by plot or circumstance, they are joined by their adjacency. An intimation begun in one fragment may be driven into the next or never reprised. The coherence of the work is the quivering tension between joy and pain, and the perception of endurance.

Água Viva’s narrator is a painter, turned to writing, using language to pin down time, that moment of an instant-didn’t someone define an instant, a ‘now’ as of three second’s duration? Lispector writes, “I want to put into words but without description the existence of the cave that some time ago I painted-and I don’t know how.” Without description, with plain prose, Lispector’s imagery creates a depth of mood evocative of a richly painted canvas. Its brilliance, like that of a fine painting, is that you could quite happily lose yourself for hours in its artistry. As Bergson wrote, “No image can replace the intuition [of being], but many diverse images, borrowed from very different orders of things, may, by the convergence of their action, direct consciousness to the precise point where there is a certain intuition to be seized.”

This New Directions edition of Água Viva is translated by Stefan Tobler. My first Clarice Lispector book has disarmed me utterly with no less a thrill than my discovery, a long time ago, of Duras, Beckett and, more recently, Darwish.