A Bad Person

Through flowerville (I think, though I can no longer find the original reference) I discovered Annemarie Schwarzenbach’s work. I’ve been reading three books published by Seagull Books, drawn as much to Schwarzenbach as her writing. I do hope that Schwarzenbach’s letters find a good translator and publisher.

I’m having a run of Bohemians.

The following is from an Afterword to her Lyric Novella, though I think it is the travel diaries I prefer; she writes beautifully of landscape and skies. Though, to quote Wilde, the truth is rarely pure, and never simple, this excerpt strikes me as refreshingly truthful.

When she is lonely, she writes him a sort of love letter in which she categorically denies any possibility for loving a man: ‘Incidentally, you are so sure of yourself, so conceited in your hyper-criticism, so endlessly alone due to your knowledge. [ . . . ] For I also believe that you are a bad person. Weak, vain and wicked, like all men, because they do not have the same humility as we women do.’

Annemarie Schwarzenbach
Pariser Novelle II

Kadaré’s History of Literature

Ismail Kadaré

Ismail Kadaré

Although I’ve heard Ismail Kadaré’s name as a potential Nobel literature laureate, I’ve not read any of his work (if you know his books, is there anything you’d recommend?), but I enjoy his Paris Review interview, and particularly his response to a question about literary genre:

Not at all! For me these genre divisions do not exist. The laws of literary creation are unique; they don’t change, and they are the same for everyone everywhere. I mean that you can tell a story that covers three hours of human life or three centuries—it comes to the same thing. Each writer who creates something authentic in a natural way, instinctively also creates the technique that suits him. So all forms or genres are natural.

Listen, I think that in the history of literature there has been only one decisive change: the passage from orality to writing. For a long time literature was only spoken, and then suddenly with the Babylonians and the Greeks came writing. That changed everything, because before when the poet recited or sang his poem and could change it at every performance as he pleased, he was free. By the same token he was ephemeral, as his poem changed in oral transmission from one generation to the next. Once written, the text becomes fixed. The author gains something by being read, but he also loses something—freedom. That is the great change in the history of literature. Little developments such as division in chapters and paragraphs, punctuation, are relatively insignificant; they are details.

For example, they say that contemporary literature is very dynamic because it is influenced by the cinema, the television, the speed of communication. But the opposite is true! If you compare the texts of the Greek antiquity with today’s literature, you’ll notice that the classics operated in a far larger terrain, painted on a much broader canvas, and had an infinitely greater dimension—a character moves between sky and earth, from a god to a mortal, and back again, in no time at all! The speed of action, the cosmic vision in a page and a half of the second book of the Iliad is impossible to find in a modern author. The story is simple: Agamemnon has done something that has displeased Zeus, who decides to punish him. He calls a messenger and tells him to fly to earth, find the Greek general called Agamemnon, and put a false dream into his head. The messenger arrives in Troy, finds Agamemnon asleep, pours a false dream into his head like a liquid, and goes back to Zeus. In the morning Agamemnon calls his officers and tells them that he has had a beautiful dream and that they should attack the Trojans. He suffers a crushing defeat. All that in a page and a half! One passes from Zeus’s brain to Agamemnon’s, from the sky to earth. Which writer today could invent that? Ballistic missiles are not as fast!

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.

A Neoliberalism Reading List

(Re)reading from first to last, as I have recently, Michel Houellebecq’s entire body of translated work leaves me in little doubt that he is the only novelist in the west truly capturing the pernicious effects on individuals living through this latest manifestation of capitalism, a neoliberalism whose influence reaches deep into notions of individualism and identity.

Carole Sweeney’s reading list below is as good as any I’ve seen on the history of capitalism in the twentieth century, and most particularly on the rise of neoliberalism. I’ve read some of these and plan to read the others, and welcome any other reading suggestions along similar lines.

  • Luc Boltanski, Ève Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism
  • Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of our Times
  • Krishnan Kumar, From Post-Industrial to Post-Modern Society: New Theories of the Contemporary World
  • Ash Amin, Post-Fordism: A Reader
  • David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism
  • Gilles Lipovetsky, Hypermodern Times
  • Paolo Virno, Michael Hardt, Radical Thought in Italy
  • Zygmunt Bauman, Globalization: The Human Consequences
  • Susan Strange, The Retreat of the State: The Diffusion of Power
  • Henry Giroux, Against the Terror of Neoliberalism: Politics Beyond the Age of Greed
  • Traces of Individuality

    It is wrong to pretend that human beings are unique, that they carry within them an irreplaceable individuality; as far as I was concerned, at any rate, I could not distinguish any trace of such an individuality. As often as not it is futile to wear yourself out trying to distinguish individual destinies and personalities. When all’s said and done, the idea of the uniqueness of the individual is nothing more than pompous absurdity. We remember our own lives, Schopenhauer wrote somewhere, a little better than a novel we once read. That’s about right: a little, no more.

    Michel Houellebecq
    Platform

    Idées Fixes of the Week

    Girl in a Blanket (1953) Lucian Freud

    Freud’s captivating Girl in a Blanket appears on the front cover of Henrietta Moraes’ memoir, Henrietta, which I have sampled in small doses alongside Colin Wilson’s Adrift in Soho. I’m fascinated with the louche, hedonistic Soho that stretched between the beat and post-hippie eras. (Moraes called the unfinished sequel to her memoir Fuck Off Darling, which is of course just perfect) Nothing of the Bohemian lifestyle that Moraes and her milieu lived could be tolerated in our age of surveillance, net curtain twitching and consumerism as economic ideology.

    I suspect that Michel Houellebecq would’ve fitted neatly in with Morae’s crowd. They would have appreciated his Beckettian mirthless humour, the finest, or at least healthiest, antidote to nihilism. My rereading of Houellebecq’s oeuvre continues, impeded only by my return to wage-orientated labour after four blissful months of reading, travel, navel gazing and walking.

    Briefly but intensely compelled to dip into Angela Carter’s work last week, nagged during an insomniac night with echoes of her highly wrought style in the depiction of sexuality in Houellebecq. There are surely broad similarities in the caustic and subversive humour of both writers. I am overdue an immersion once again in Carter’s work.

    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.

    Gentle Resignation

    It doesn’t amount to much, generally speaking, a human life; it can be summed up in a small number of events …

    Fortunate today to have been able to spend several hours reading Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory and though I’ve got another eighty or so pages to go, it seems clear that this is his major work to date. The twelve years that separate it from Atomised (The Elementary Articles) are evident in the fully realised characters, and the maturity of its metaphysics. I may write a little more about it when finished, but I am inclined to go back and reread the earlier works. This is a drive-by posting to drop off a couple of quotes that resonated.

    Olga loved him, he repeated to himself with a growing sadness as he also realised that nothing would ever happen between them again; life sometimes offers you a chance, he thought, but when you are too cowardly or too indecisive to seize it life takes the cards away; there is a moment for doing things and entering a possible happiness, and this moment lasts a few days, sometimes even a few weeks or even a few months, but it only happens once and one time only, and if you want to return to it later it’s quite simply impossible. There’s no place for enthusiasm, belief and faith, and there remains just gentle resignation, a sad and reciprocal pity, the useless but correct sensation that something could have happened, that you just simply showed yourself unworthy of this gift you had been offered.

    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.