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.

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.

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-

Seamus Heaney and Caillebotte’s Banks of a Canal

Seamus Heaney finished this poem 10 days before he died, meditating on the serene beauty of a canal painted by the French artist Gustave Caillebotte.

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Banks of a Canal

Say ‘canal’ and there’s that final vowel
Towing silence with it, slowing time
To a walking pace, a path, a whitewashed gleam
Of dwellings at the skyline. World stands still.
The stunted concrete mocks the classical.
Water says, ‘My place here is in dream,
In quiet good standing. Like a sleeping stream,
Come rain or sullen shine I’m peaceable.’
Stretched to the horizon, placid ploughland,
The sky not truly bright or overcast:
I know that clay, the damp and dirt of it,
The coolth along the bank, the grassy zest
Of verges, the path not narrow but still straight
Where soul could mind itself or stray beyond.

To burn delight from suffering

When someday this long affliction
will have broken up, like ice,
it will be spoken of
as of the Black Death;
and children on the heath
will build a man of straw
to burn delight from suffering
and light from ancient dread.

Gottfried Keller
The public slanderers

Thomas Mann quoted Keller’s poem in an essay he wrote after the German invasion of Poland in 1939. It seems equally apposite today, but I wonder bleakly whether the hope that our present day affliction will break up is less certain.

Lines on Brueghel’s “Icarus”

Michael Hamburger’s poem is on my mind today, which I unapologetically quote in full below. I’ve always loved the viewpoint that Hamburger chooses for his poem.

The ploughman ploughs, the fisherman dreams of fish;
Aloft, the sailor, through a world of ropes
Guides tangled meditations, feverish
With memories of girls forsaken, hopes
Of brief reunions, new discoveries,
Past rum consumed, rum promised, rum potential.
Sheep crop the grass, lift up their heads and gaze
Into a sheepish present: the essential,
Illimitable juiciness of things,
Greens, yellows, browns are what they see.
Churlish and slow, the shepherd, hearing wings –
Perhaps an eagle’s–gapes uncertainly;

Too late. The worst has happened: lost to man,
The angel, Icarus, for ever failed,
Fallen with melted wings when, near the sun
He scorned the ordering planet, which prevailed
And, jeering, now slinks off, to rise once more.
But he–his damaged purpose drags him down –
Too far from his half-brothers on the shore,
Hardly conceivable, is left to drown.

Writing That Stops Itself

Binge-reading Anne Carson continues with Men in the Off Hours. I’ve just spent a fortnight with Eros the Bittersweet, reading it three times back to back and then a fourth to transcribe large passages into my notebook. It is simply one of the most sublime books I’ve read, and certainly the finest on the nature of desire and love, and how each intertwines with the act of reading and writing.

I keep thinking of how to write about Anne Carson’s work which I might attempt when I’ve finished this reading of her oeuvre, but my reverence gets in the way of any critical insight. Michelle mentioned Carson’s idea of writing/language that “stops itself” which is evident even in the weaker works like Autobiography of Red, with unexpected images like “He switched on the light. He was staring at the sweep hand of the electric clock / on the dresser. Its little dry hum ran over his nerves like a comb.”

But the writer who comes to mind most immediately whose language constantly disrupts thought is Derek Walcott. Last night I reread his dazzling Omeros, and wanted to share these seven exquisite lines (I can’t preserve the spacing on WordPress):

We watched the Major lift
his wife’s coffin hung with orchids , many she had found
in the blue smoke of Saltibus. Then Achilles saw the swift
pinned to the orchids, but it was the image of a swift

which Maud had sown into the silk draping her bier
and not only the African swift but all the horned island’s
birds, bitterns and herons, silently screeching there.

There are, so far, many poems in Carson’s Men in the Off Hours that stop me dead. I have to put the book down and inhabit the silence that her work conjures.

Nocturnal Existence

Given its centrality and necessity to our lives, it seems remarkable that philosophers have to a great extent ignored the phenomenon of sleep, At least one of the reasons I have suffered periodically from bouts of insomnia is that sleep seems so downright mystifying, even alarming.

There’s a chapter in Aristotle’s Parva Naturalia on sleep, Galen also writes of sleep but more in context of dreaming. Thereafter, as far as I can tell, our nocturnal existence is left to the poets and psychologists. An exception is French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy who wrote the fascinating The Fall of Sleep, which amused me for a few sleepless hours last night.

Below is an excerpt from Charlotte Mandell’s translation of The Fall of Sleep by Jean-Luc Nancy (also read by Mandell in the film also below).

I now belong only to myself, having fallen into myself and mingled with that night where everything becomes indistinct to me but more than anything myself. I mean: everything becomes more than anything myself, everything is reabsorbed into me without allowing me to distinguish me from anything. But I also mean: more than anything, I myself become indistinct. I no longer properly distinguish myself from the world or from others, from my own body or from my mind, either. For I can no longer hold anything as an object, as a perception or a thought, without this very thing making itself felt as being at the same time myself and something other than myself. A simultaneity of what is one’s own and not one’s own occurs as this distinction falls away.

There is simultaneity only in the realm of sleep. It is the great present, the co-presence of all compossibilities, even incompatible ones. Removed from the bustle of time, from the obsessions of past and future, of arising and passing away, I coincide with the world. I am reduced to my own indistinctness, which, however, still experiences itself as an “I” that goes along with its visions without, however, distinguishing itself from them.

Pale Notes on Friendship

Agamben: “Friendship is inscribed in the most intimate experience, the one that is most one’s own, the very sensation that one exists. But this also means that in the consent and consensus of friendship, the very identity of friends is called into question. A friend presents me with another self, with myself as other and with another like myself. And yet this reduction of identity happens serenely, almost imperceptibly. It is one of friendship’s gentlest gifts.”

Our friendship was inevitable. It started as a consequence of elective affinities. We had in common a love for Beckett, Woolf, Duras, Rimbaud-though mine was perhaps more reverent. Beckett could do no wrong. Our first encounter took place at her sister’s apartment, overlooking the pretty church on Saint Germain des Prés, a block away from Les Deux Magots, where we would one day make a Salad Périgourdine and cheap bottle of Beaujolais last all afternoon. For some reason I was apprehensive, made even more so by her obvious nervousness. She devoured a bowl of walnuts, cracking each walnut shell with vehemence, a reflection, I thought, of our shared tension. We argued about whether Four Quartets or The Duino Elegies was the most sublime long poem of the twentieth century. I had no parents, she had three.