There is a voyeuristic aspect to reading journals and diaries, a suggestion of breaching someone’s privacy, eavesdropping on supposedly private thoughts. In the case of published diaries, particularly those read as literary texts, this encroachment is neutralised with the knowledge that the writer intended their publication.
This raises the question of a diary’s ‘authenticity,’ whether by virtue of being presented as literature, experiences are created, or revised for the benefit of a future audience. Genre authenticity is also directly linked to psychological aspects, whether we can ever know ourselves well enough to render our lives accurately in writing. My general practise is consider all diaries and autobiographical works as partially fictive with a well-meaning (usually) but ultimately unreliable narrator.
It is not entirely clear in the case of Alix Cléo Roubaud whether she intended her journal for publication. In a poignant introduction, poet and mathematician Jacques Roubaud, writes, “I knew of her journal’s existence, but I had not opened it while she was alive.” After Alix’s death, Jacques was left all her writing and photographs, “to do with as I would deem necessary.” This edition reproduces her photographs to go with he moments when she writes of them.
It is the intertwining of Alix’s photographs and words that carve out the depth of intimacy, truth and beauty within Alix’s Journal. The reader is situated squarely as voyeur in the space between Alix and Jacques Roubaud. The discomfort that this situation illicits, and the combination of literary and philosophical reflections with the insignificant details and concerns that attach to all our realities, make Alix’s Journal a uniquely exquisite reading experience.
Following two readings of Alix’s Journal with the discovery and viewing on YouTube of Jean Eustache’s short film Les Photo’s d’Alix was almost unbearably moving.
There is plenty about Cyril Connolly that I dislike, particularly his crushing Waugh-like snobbery, but he could turn a phrase, not half as exquisitely as he would have wished, but his writing has elegance and soul.
Today, in Paris, Connolly has captured my mood:
…I have a room for 400 francs a month and at last I will be living within my own and other people’s income. I am tired of acquaintances and tired of friends unless they’re intelligent, tired also of extrovert unbookish life. Me for good talk, wet evenings, intimacy, vins rouges en carafe, reading, relative solitude, street worship, exploration of the least known arrondissements, shopgazing, alley sloping, cafe crawling, Seine loafing, and plenty of writing from the table by this my window where I can watch the streets light up… I am for the intricacy of Europe, the discrete and many folded strata of the old world, the past, the North, the world of ideas. I am for the Hôtel de la Louisiane.
I saw here more clearly than anywhere that it is impossible to separate layers of culture, that they interpenetrate, that the earlier cult shines through that of the present, and through that earlier cult shines a cult more ancient still. I saw that there is virtually nothing more enduring than the rituals which it is the storyteller’s job to reinterpret as needed. Behind the secularised narrative lies the saint’s legend, behind the legend the heroic epic, behind the epic the myth.
Below is an extended quotation from Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring. The book is a beautifully written, lovingly researched, fascinating account of why writers drink. It is one of those discursive, genre-busting books that I enjoy so much. Laing succeeds in offering an alternative way of reading Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Cheever. This passage concerns John Berryman, whom I must read sometime soon.I quote without further comment a passage that continues to play on my mind.
A line came into my head then. It was from another Dream Song. What was it? Something about pieces. ‘The pieces sat up and wrote’? Yes.
Hunger was constitutional with him,
wine, cigarettes, liquor, need need need
until he went to pieces.
The pieces sat up and wrote.
The overwhelming infantile wail of that need need need, too urgent even for punctuation. If you carry that sense of starvation – for love, for nourishment, for security – with you into adulthood, what do you do? You feed it, I suppose, with whatever you can find to stave off the awful, annihilating sense of dismemberment, disintegration, of being torn apart, of losing the integrity of the self.
There are the terrors of the infant waiting for the breast, or they are if you read Freud and Melanie Klein; and these are the terrors of the adult whose childhood sense of security was ruptured before they managed to build a sturdy enough skin with which to face the world. Hardly any wonder that the Dream Songs are so obsessively interested in the state of being skinless or having one’s pelt ripped off or stripped away. Indeed, Berryman once joshed bleakly to his editor about having them bound ‘blue-black’ in scraps of his own skin.
Suspected to be the iceberg that sank the RMS Titanic, there is supposedly a red smudge, like the Titanic’s red hull, near its base at the waterline. In iceberg jargon this would be termed a pinnacle, an iceberg with one or more spires. As we all know, typically only one-ninth of the volume of an iceberg is above water. Thank you for reading my rambling, but why did I get distracted by icebergs?
The theory of omission, which Ernest Hemingway termed the iceberg theory, is what lead me down an internet rathole labelled iceberg. In The Art of the Short Story, Hemingway wrote, “A few things I have found to be true. If you leave out important things or events that you know about, the story is strengthened. If you leave or skip something because you do not know it, the story will be worthless. The test of any story is how very good the stuff that you, not your editors, omit.” It is this theory that drew me to Hemingway and keeps me reading his work despite the macho posturing that I find tedious.
In That Smell, Sonallah Ibrahim is influenced markedly by Hemingway’s style but in ways takes it further, perhaps because it lacks Papa’s machismo. The short work describes a series of scenes that follow a narrator’s release from jail in prose that is honed with Damascus steel, sufficiently laconic to make Salinger appear garrulous. But even without possessing a deep knowledge of Egyptian politics of the period (the translator Robyn Cresswell provides an excellent introduction) you sense the eight-ninths below the surface of Ibrahim’s carefully constructed prose.
The New Directions edition includes also Notes From Prison, a selection of notes on writing and art from Sonallah Ibrahim’s seven years as a political prisoner. Ibrahim’s prison memoirs have yet to be translated, so with a wish to read more of his work I’ve ordered Stealth.
There are several reviews around of Katherine Angel’s Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell ranging from bizarre to intriguing. Each offers an idiosyncratic reading that reveals as much about the reviewer as about the book. As Rumi said, “We are the mirror as well as the face in it.” The Unmastered effect is insidious. What begins as an energetically explicit sexual autobiography subverts itself to become tragic, though this may just be its curious mirror-like effect. The aphoristic style and generosity of white-space in the UK edition invites projection, so perhaps it says more about me than Angel’s beautiful and thought-provoking book that I saw more tragedy than sex.
I’ve written before of my interest in philosophy in its Greek context as a way to live life, rather than as empty discourse. Though I found much that was insightful in Alexander Nehamas’ The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault, I took less from it than from Hadot’s Philosophy as a way of life. Nehamas writes highly perceptively about Plato, Nietzsche, less convincingly about Kierkegaard and Foucault, but gets bogged down occasionally in nuances of definition. Nevertheless it is an engaging and lucid work that complements Hadot superbly.
On to Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers if I can get beyond dispiriting blurbage from bloody Franzen and Colm Tóibín (“American novel”).
My copy of Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick is full of scribbles and underlining, flecked with coloured markers, sections I will now transfer to my notebook. These are mostly in the second part. I enjoyed the first part of the novel but it didn’t feel as remarkable as the second. Soon into the second part my pulse quickened and I read to the end in a frenzy.
Apart from a couple of brief conversations on Twitter I have avoided the pre-text to I Love Dick so read it as fictionalised memoir and essay. Kathy Acker’s influence is palpable, and in turn the influence on Zambreno’s brilliant Heroines. I Love Dick is fifteen years old but “men still ruin women’s lives” and the book will stay relevant until that no longer remains the norm.
The second half of this book blew the top of my head off. Its extended pieces of art criticism are simply brilliant. Although informed by theory, it is not a deeply allusive novel, and stands alone as a serious piece of literature, one using the epistolary form, which I normally avoid but in this case is the only form possible for this particular narrative.
I’ll be thinking a lot more about this book, sitting as it does neatly with Heroines but also with my reading of Cixous. Let me leave behind a small number of the shorter pieces I underlined.
I think our story is performative philosophy.
Who gets to speak and why is the only question.
Men still ruin women’s lives.
To be female still means being trapped within the purely psychological. No matter how dispassionate or large a vision of the world a woman formulates, whenever it includes her own experience and emotion, the telescope’s turned back on her. Because emotion’s just so terrifying the world refuses to believe that it can be pursued as discipline, as form.
There’s not enough female irrepressibility written down.
I think the sheer fact of women talking, being, paradoxical, inexplicable, flip, self-destructive but above all else public is the most revolutionary thing in the world. I could be twenty years too late but epiphanies don’t always synchronise with style.
What happens between women now is the most interesting thing in the world because it’s least described.
Elaine Showalter makes a link in The Female Malady between the diagnosis of schizophrenia and the idea of a woman dividing herself in two by being both the surveyor and the surveyed, quoting from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing: “A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself.” Berger goes on to use the example that at her father’s funeral the woman sees herself weeping.
Yet it’s so impossible to shut out all the voices. Not only: no one will read you (Nietzsche: non legor, non legar.) But: you are mad. When you are told that you are ill, that is something you internalize. Days I worry, wonder-what if I’m not a writer? What if I’m a depressive masquerading as a notetaker? Is this the text of an author or a madwoman? It depends perhaps on who is reading it. Who has read it first. For once you are named it’s almost impossible to struggle out from under the oppression of those categories-it is done, it is done at a price, and the price is daily, and it is on your head.
The big rhetorical leap I’m taking in Heroines is that the impulse to discipline the self or the excessive out of our literature, comes from modernism and is mostly about moral attitudes of the time. In modernism we see this happen more with women writers, whose work and behavior was often critiqued as being TOO MUCH. Too excessive, too autobiographical, and then, not literary enough. There was a simultaneous horror for as well as fetishizing of the feminine in modernism. And now, think in terms of how Sheila Heti’s book was often reviewed. I’m curious why our conversation about fiction seems to often pivot on how fictional a work is. If that makes sense.
From a superb interview in which she discusses her latest book Heroines, an intoxicating and personal study of the wives of Modernism. I will undoubtedly be writing more about the book. You can read an excerpt of the book.