A Year in Reading: 2014

A sense of despondency settled on me as I totted up the number of books I completed this year. Sixty-four read to date in 2014, a hefty reduction from the eighty-five to a hundred I used to consider my yearly run-rate. I can’t even excuse myself by pointing to any especially taxing or lengthy books, though I am abandoning unsatisfying fiction earlier and earlier-there were at least a dozen I gave up within twenty pages.

Absorption with the short-term high of Twitter is the root of my distraction. Twitter has given me an opportunity to converse with, and in many cases meet, many serious readers and thinkers around the world, but how to balance that blessing with its qualities as a massively capacious time sink? One way or another I need to reduce the distraction.

Three writers dominated my reading this year: Michel Houellebecq, Anne Carson and Jenny Diski. Houellebecq, unlike the other two, is no great stylist but is the only fictional writer I know who so precisely captures in fiction what it is to live through this latest manifestation of capitalism, a neoliberalism whose influence reaches deep into notions of individualism and identity. Carson enables me to agree with Harold Bloom’s assessment of literary genius, as defined by a writer’s ability to widen and clarify our consciousness, and intensify our awareness-Carson has been augmenting my consciousness for some time, and I fully expect that to continue. Diski’s quietism and unsociability continually provides me with those prized moments when you come across a thought or feeling you’d thought particular to you-those moments when it feels like a hand has come out and taken yours.

Those writers aside, the books that impressed me this year, in the sense of becoming deeply fixed in my mind are the same books I’ve bought for friends, urging them zealously to read immediately. There are five that are each extraordinary in the own way: Grace Dane Mazur’s Hinges: Meditations of the Portals of the Imagination, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, Atiq Rahimi’s A Curse on Dostoevsky, Jonathan Gibbs’ Randall and Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams.

Last year I omitted the geeky statistics influenced by Twitter snark the year before, but fuck the cynics (I’m so bored of world-weary cynics). This year half of the books I’ve read are by women writers, not a deliberate practice but a pleasing one in the year of Badaude’s #readwomen2014 action. About 60% of the books I read are non-fiction, the same proportion are by either French or British writers. About a third of the fiction I read is translated, a proportion that seems to be consistent year on year.

This year I read a lot more work by writers I hadn’t read before, including two exceptional debuts by Catherine Lacey and Alice Furse: in  both cases I look forward to reading their follow-up books. I became acquainted with the work of Carole Maso and Elena Ferrante and intend to read their work more deeply (and, of course, the writers I mention above).

I also discovered the Dark Mountain Project, a network of thinkers who are shaping a cultural response to our ecological, political and social unravelling. Discovering others that so closely share my thoughts provides relief even when the line of thinking is overwhelmingly pessimistic. Via Dark Mountain I was lead to Nick Hunt’s Walking the Woods and the Water, a journey in the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor, which I am currently reading. I recommend it highly to anyone that has read Paddy Fermor’s books, it is every bit as evocative and beautifully written.

I don’t feel that I’ve been a consistent blogger this year (haven’t even written of many of the books I’ve mentioned above), so was very pleased to get name-checked by the Guardian book blog. I am thrilled that, despite my inconsistency, a couple of hundred readers a day drop by Time’s Flow Stemmed. Thank you very much for your interest.

Discovering the Dark Mountain Project.

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Last night’s launch event for the sixth issue of Dark Mountain corroborated my initial impression of the community that surround this network of writers, musicians and artists. I’ve been immersed daily in the writing and art of this network since discovering the Dark Mountain project a month ago. Time’s flow was most definitely stemmed as, late one night, I chanced on and read the Dark Mountain manifesto .

Recently I fell out (perhaps irrevocably, though I hope not) with a once close friend who thought my world outlook too bleak, from both an ecological and socio-political perspective. It isn’t the first time I’ve been accused of an overly desolate interpretation of the world in which we find ourselves, just one of the more painful incidents. Hence the sustenance I’ve been able to find in reading the beautifully produced Dark Mountain books (currently on Issue 5). The Dark Mountain project is comprised of a community that “see the world is entering an age of ecological collapse, material contraction and social and political unravelling, and we want our cultural responses to reflect this reality rather than denying it.” The affinity that has accompanied my reading of the poems, essays, and stories in the Dark Mountain books evokes a sense of kinship.

I’ll be reading the 5th and 6th issues of Dark Mountain, and waiting for the 2nd issue to arrive with its beguiling Rima Staines cover. (In the serendipitous nature of the Internet, I unearthed Dark Mountain after supporting Hedgespoken, a “travelling off-grid theatre,” an extraordinary project, discovered in turn by looking online for opportunities to explore my fascination with myths and storytelling). I also intend to read David Abrams and Ivan Illich, both writers that have influenced Dark Mountain.

Cataract of the Spirit

The passage below, Beckett rehashing Schopenhauer, is from Mark Nixon’s study of Beckett’s tour of Nazi Germany, Samuel Beckett’s German Diaries 1936-1937. My library copy has to go back today. They come with a price tag suitable only for institutions, but they are so rich and insightful I’m going to have to spring for a copy.

There are moments when the veil of hope is finally torn apart and the suddenly liberated eyes see their world, as it is, as it must be. Alas, it does not last long, the revelation quickly passes, the eyes can only bear such pitiless light for a short while, the membrane of hope grows again and one returns to the world of phenomena.
Hope is the cataract of the spirit, which cannot be pierced until it is completely ripe for decay. Not every cataract ripens, and many a human being can even spend his whole life within the mist of hope. And if the cataract may have been healed for the moment, it always forms itself again immediately, as does the hope.

Red Skull, Earth, Sea & Sky

Head in Red (1930/31) – Karl Ballmer

Beckett visited Ballmer in his Hamburg studio in November 1936 where he saw this painting and made the following diary entry:

Wonderful red Frauenkopf, skull earth sea & sky, I think of Monadologie & my Vulture. Would not occur to me to call this painting abstract. A metaphysical concrete. Not Nature convention, but its source, fountain of Erscheinung [phenomenon]. Fully a postieri painting. Object not exploited to illustrate an idea, as in say {Fernand] Léger or [Willi] Baumeister, but primary. The communication exhausted by the optical experience that is its motive & content. Anything further is by the way. Thus Leibniz, monadologie, Vulture, are by the way. Extraordinary stillness.

Sensorium of the World

A friend sends me an email to ask if I know the poems of American poet Jorie Graham. I am aware of Graham’s work, thanks to an interview with Helen Vendler who talked of a trend in Graham’s work to return to a perceptual aspect of life:

Who are we when we are living in the sensorium of the world? . . . Any slight shift in the [perceptual] field will cause any entire shift in vocabulary to accommodate it; the sense of the vocabulary is not what you want to get said in a philosophical sense or propositional way, but rather that the world is feeling like at this moment.

Graham’s poetry has this dense, archaeological quality that feels like an initiation into hidden mysteries. I take the time to write out entire stanzas to enjoy wallowing in her range and discursiveness. I often return to these lines from Covenant in Never:

At peak: the mesmerisation of here, this me here, this me
passing now.
So as to leave what behind?
. . . .
And to have it come so close and yet not know it:
. . . .
how the instant is very wide and bright and we cannot
ever
get away with it-the instant-what holds the “know”

Of course these lines draw me back to Beckett’s-as everything returns to Beckett-“expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express”. The insufficiency of selfhood.

One of my favourite London pastimes is to visit the National Gallery and spend a few hours with a single painting. Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus is a very old friend which speaks to me of hospitality and comradeship. There is a “real time” effect in the painting which I couldn’t quite name until Graham’s Paris Review interview (the whole interview is excellent):

Maybe not so strange . . . I often teach a painting of Caravaggio’s, Supper at Emmaus. Christ is sitting before us in an alcove against the “back wall” of the painting. We face into a dinner table covered with things for the meal. We are quite sure that the edge of this table is identical with the absolute front of the canvas. But then one undergoes a troubling sensation. The basket of fruit, the edge of the wicker basket, sticks out into our “actual” space, our here and now. The host suddenly recognizes the stranger at his table as Christ and throws open his arms, like this. [Gestures.] His left hand comes out, beyond the border—further than the sacramental grapes in their wicker—out here into the same air that you (and I) are breathing in the National Gallery. At the same time, his right hand penetrates the crucial illusionistic space, the alcove in which Christ sits. What he does, by going like this, is enact what it is to be “taken” by surprise, to be, suddenly, in that spiritual place where the otherness of the world, of possibility, “turns” one’s soul—taking one off the path of mere “ongoingness” onto the other path of “journey.” At any rate, the host’s gesture connects that immortal-because-imaginary space Christ occupies, with the mortal one of the gallery in which I am standing breathing my minutes—and you suddenly realize Caravaggio has activated what I call the “sensation of real time”: the time of the painting’s represented action has crossed over into the time in which my only days are taking place. So you cannot read the painting without being inside the terms of the painting, which are these graduating degrees of temporality: mortal time, immortal time, represented time, actual time, the “time” of process. The activity of the painting is to do that. The host is crucified in this position—a position the artist is also in—saying, You reader and you subject (God, Christ), I have put you two together. It’s my job. That’s what the meal is. That’s what we eat.

Forster and the Literary Forebears

When EM Forster lectured at Trinity College in 1927, he opened his series of lectures on the novel (collected in Aspects of the Novel) provocatively:

No English novelist is as great as Tolstoy-that is to say, has given so complete a picture of man’s life, both on its domestic and heroic side. No English novelist has explored man’s soul as deeply as Dostoyevsky. And no novelist anywhere has analysed the modern consciousness as successfully as Marcel Proust.

Any thoughtful reader will instinctively see the idolatry in Forster’s remarks, and wish to argue for the English novelist, but ninety years later his charges stand, certainly in respect of English novels. The major figures that come to mind, Conrad, Graham Greene, Woolf, perhaps Doris Lessing, certainly not Forster himself, don’t adequately counter his specific charges.

What of the third more sweeping remark? Can we now favourably compare Proust’s insight into  modern consciousness with Beckett, Kafka or Mann?

Old Man, Dead in a Room by Charles Bukowski

Bukowski in correspondence with John William Corrington who published Bukowski as the American representative of a tradition of literary outsiders stretching back to Villon and Rimbaud:

‘Old Man, Dead in a Room is my future, ‘The Tragedy of the Leaves’ is my past, and the ‘Priest and the Matador’ is a dawdling in between.

Old Man, Dead in a Room

this thing upon me is not death
but it’s as real
and as landlords full of maggots
pound for rent
I eat walnuts in the sheath
of my privacy
and listen for more important
drummers;
it’s as real, it’s as real
as the broken-boned sparrow
cat-mouthed, uttering
more than mere
miserable argument;
between my toes I stare
at clouds, at seas of gaunt
sepulcher. . .
and scratch my back
and form a vowel
as all my lovely women
(wives and lovers)
break like engines
into steam of sorrow
to be blown into eclipse;
bone is bone
but this thing upon me
as I tear the window shades
and walk caged rugs,
this thing upon me
like a flower and a feast,
believe me
is not death and is not
glory
and like Quixote’s windmills
makes a foe
turned by the heavens
against one man;
…this thing upon me,
great god,
this thing upon me
crawling like snake,
terrifying my love of commonness,
some call Art
some call Poetry;
it’s not death
but dying will solve its power
and as my grey hands
drop a last desperate pen
in some cheap room
they will find me there
and never know
my name
my meaning
nor the treasure
of my escape.

Language and Style

Quote

Ideas are certainly important-who would deny that?-but the fact is, the ideas that operate in novels and poems, once they are unpicked from their context and laid out on the laboratory table, usually turn out to be uncomplicated, even banal, Whereas a style, an attitude to the world, as it soaks in, becomes part of the personality, part of the self, ultimately indistinguishable from the self.

Coetzee
Homage

Digressive Interior Journeys

It isn’t often that a writer’s voice and concerns register deep enough that I end up scouring second-hand sources for first editions of their work. Jenny Diski becomes the thirty-first writer housed in that hallowed subsection of my library reserved for those I will likely read and reread in their entirety. My old chestnuts, listed here, are an idiosyncratic bunch that will match no other reader’s list of favourite writers, but are each, in different ways, as integral to my central nervous system as my spinal cord. My slowly expanding Jenny Diski collection breaks up the fairly long-term on-shelf relation of Clarice Lispector and Simon Critchley.

I read Diski’s début novel Nothing Natural when it was first published in the late eighties and recall little beyond its potency. Almost thirty years later, it is Diski’s essay on her recent cancer diagnosis that drew me back to her writing with all the force of a rare-earth magnet. This is the first instalment of a memoir to be published in parts in the LRB (which also persuaded me to resubscribe to the LRB).

Disk’s piece encouraged me to buy On Trying to Keep Stilla series of elegantly crafted and very funny essays narrating Diski’s intense desire for inertia-within the confines of writing a travel journal. These are the sort of digressive, meandering essays in which I take great pleasure, no less because of Diski’s even greater commitment to seeking silence and solitude.

Diski’s collection of essays and reviews in A View from the Bed confirms my first sense that I’m reading someone cut from a similar mould in the pursuit of inner space and silence. Glimpsing the world retracted through Diski’s eyes is a vivid and rewarding experience. This is equally clear on reading What I Don’t Know About Animals, Diski’s exploration of our relationship with animals, which probes their minds with similar intentions to Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am (which Diski also explores in her book). She writes with precision and elegance, exploring her chosen subjects with honesty and clarity. My intention is to read the non-fiction and work towards the novels.

Duality of Silence

In The World of Silence, Max Picard quotes Goutran de Procius’s Kablina, where he sums up so lucidly the duality of silence, that tension between rapture and fear familiar to anyone that chooses to spend long periods of immersion in silence.

Here in the land of the Eskimos there is no wind in the tress, for there are no leaves. No birds sing. There is no noise of flowing water. No frightened animals flee in the dark. There is no stone to become loose under human feet and fall down a riverbank, for all the stones are walled in by the frost and buried under the snow. And yet this world is far from dead: it is only that the beings, which dwell in this solitude, are noiseless and invisible.
This stillness, which has been so solitary, which has calmed me and done good to my worn-out nerves, gradually began to weigh on me like a lead weight. The flame of life within us withdrew further and further into a secret hiding place, and our heartbeats became ever slower. The day would come when we should have to shake ourselves to keep our heartbeats going. We had sunk deep into this silence; we were paralysed by it; we were on the bottom of a well from which we could pull ourselves out only with inconceivable difficulty.

I’ve read Picard’s odd and very beautiful book for years and cannot recommend it highly enough. There isn’t anything like it. Its closest literary relative must be Susan Sontag’s essay on modernism, The Aesthetics of Silence in which she argues for silence as a means for furthering speech.

Associations. Associations. Emily Dickinson:

The words the happy say
Are paltry melody
But those the silent feel-
Are beautiful-