Disburdenment Through Reading

This recent piece in the LA Review of Books seized my attention, and as a consequence I’m reading Uses of Literature. It is one of those rare books of literary criticism, if you are fascinated as I am by the phenomenon of reading, that thrills quite as much as the books under its consideration. 

Of all the reasons I read, Rita Felski captures, in the following fragment, possibly the most important-to me anyway-reason to read, that of disburdening ourselves of those blind spots that come to us through birth, class, gender, colour, sexuality, or any other of the many ways we arrive at who we are.

The Lacanian picture of the child gazing entranced at its own idealized self-image thus falls notably short as a schema for capturing how literature represents selves. The experience of reading is often akin to seeing an unattractive, scowling, middle-aged person coming into a restaurant, only to suddenly realise that that you have been looking into a mirror behind the counter and that this unappealing-looking person is you. Mirrors do not always flatter; they can take us off our guard, pull us up short, reflect our image I. Unexpected ways and from unfamiliar angles. Many of the works we call tragic, for example, relentlessly pound home the refractoriness of human subjectivity, the often disastrous gap between intentions and outcomes, the ways in which persons commonly misjudge themselves and others. We can value literary works precisely because they force us – in often unforgiving ways – to confront our failings and blind spots rather than shoring up our self-esteem

Rita Felski, Uses of Literature. Blackwell Publishing, 2008

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With Long Rests

 Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) by Ellen Riley and Cédric Charleuf (2014)

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) by Ellen Riley and Cédric Charleuf (2014)

That portrait of Gerard Hopkins in the Lit. Sup., so quiet, so thoughtful, so almost prettily devout. Strange to think that many, many years ago he actually sat in that position, with folded hands (although they are not there), with secret, slightly hooded eyes, with gentle, posed mouth and soft tongues of hair lying on his forehead, licking sleekly down beside his ear.
Then the verbose article that tells one nothing [plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose] – nothing of the secret from which his genius sprung. It is an insult to hide his secret – to pretend that he was “normal”, in other words ordinary.

The Journals of Denton Welch. Edited by Michael De-la-Noy. Allison and Busby, 1984 (1952)

Remember that its [my poetry’s] performance is not reading aloud with the eye but loud, leisurely, poetical (not rhetorical) recitation, with long rests, long dwells on the rhyme and other marked syllables, and so on.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Felix Randal

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Felix Randal the farrier, O is he dead then? my duty all ended,
Who have watched his mould of man, big-boned and hardy-handsome
Pining, pining, till time when reason rambled in it, and some
Fatal four disorders, fleshed there, all contended?

Sickness broke him. Impatient, he cursed at first, but mended
Being anointed and all; though a heavenlier heart began some
Months earlier, since I had our sweet reprieve and ransom
Tendered to him. Ah well, God rest him all road ever he offended!

This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears.
My tongue had taught thee comfort, touch had quenched thy tears,
Thy tears that touched my heart, child, Felix, poor Felix Randal;

How far from then forethought of, all thy more boisterous years,
When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers,
Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal!

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Denton Welch’s Maiden Voyage

I resolved to read Denton Welch this year, enthused by Des’s advocacy, though the timing was determined by catching sight of a rather distinctive edition of Maiden Voyage, his first novel, in one of the Cecil Court bookshops: an American first with dust wrappers and end papers drawn by Welch.

With measured and precise description, Welch applies a loupe to people and objects. Although my copy is an American edition, I wonder whether an American reader would get the same pleasure from Welch’s empathetic observation of the nuances of that colossal curse of the English, its class system. Welch’s way of noticing the small things of life ends up creating a fictional (lightly autobiographical) world of epic proportion, one that is singularly alluring.

An extraordinary tension is set up in Maiden Voyage. As Michael Schmidt writes in his study, The Novel: “Welch’s prose is full of paradoxes, his stories of themes that are more telling for being undeclared.” The novel’s narrator often appears reserved, almost priggish, though there is a homoeroticism that almost but never quite breaks surface. It is similar to the sexual tension that suffuses Patricia Highsmith’s writing.

Maiden Voyage tells the story of a boy brought up in east Asia, after his mother’s death he is sent off to an absurd English public school, which he loathes, and from which he briefly absconds. As this storyline so exactly matches my own, I’m the ideal reader for Welch’s story. But beyond that, I am utterly compelled by his attention for small things. Elemental truths lie behind the sights, smells and sounds of apparently banal objects. Writers like Woolf, Proust and Welch sharpen our sights for things that would otherwise remain invisible to us.

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The Ideology of the Trivial

Another writer, quintessentially English I believe, on my reading radar is Barbara Pym. Any Pym enthusiasts care to stoke my curiosity?

This passage from Judy Little’s The Experimental Self: Dialogic Subjectivity in Woolf, Pym, and Brooke-Rose interested me, both by its references to Denton Welch whose work I’m currently exploring and Virginia Woolf, and also because I strongly support its argument in favour of (apparently) trivial details in narrative of all kinds. I wrote yesterday of my enjoyment of an ingenious sentence using the brand colour of a (once) well-known laundry whitener, Reckitt’s Blue, to pin down in text the precise colour of the Virgin Mary’s robe.

Several times in her journals and letters, Pym records her fascination with the trivial, with the details of everyday, noncrisis activities. Referring to Denton Welch’s request for more details (about food, homes) from writers, Pym suggests that a reader is most interested in these things not because they provide sociological information but “because they are pleasing in themselves.” The everyday experience is not only interesting but valuable. Her romance writer, Catherine Olliphant, says as much in Less Than Angels:
“The small things of life were often so much bigger than the great things, she decided, wondering how many writers and philosophers had said this before her, the trivial pleasures like cooking, one’s home, little poems especially sad ones, solitary walks, funny things seem and overheard”. As she suspects, other writers have indeed affirmed her pleasure in the small or trivial, it may be that Catherine is recalling Virginia Woolf. In the novels and journals, Pym several times quotes or responds to Woolf who advised in “Modern Fiction”: “Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small.” 

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Woolf’s The Voyage Out and Denton Welch

Time to sample a new writer’s work. After two rewarding months in the company of old chestnuts WG Sebald and Virginia Woolf, next on my reading list is Denton Welch’s Maiden Voyage. Des, curator of The Far South Project Blog, brought Welch’s work to my notice in his round-up and Judy Kravis at pocketbook rather wonderfully juxtaposed Walser and Welch recently.

The opening pages of Welch’s Maiden Voyage offered up this sentence: ‘I kept waking up so that my dreams were mixed up with the wallpaper, and somehow the Virgin Mary appeared and disappeared, dressed all in Reckitt’s blue.’ Of course, Wilde’s ‘this wallpaper will be the death of me – one of us will have to go’ comes to mind, wrongly attributed as his dying words. Using the brand colours of a laundry whitener to locate in a reader’s mind the precise blue worn by the Virgin Mary is exquisite, as is the idea of dreams being mixed up with wallpaper, in a room described moments earlier with its ‘warm and depressing’ pink tones.

Denton Welch moved in similar circles to Virginia Woolf and it seems only her suicide that stopped them ever bumping into one another.

Before I leave Woolf’s The Voyage Out behind, I ought mention that I found Helen Ambrose one of the most fully-developed, living, breathing characters I’ve met so far in a novel, more tangible even than Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse. It wasn’t any surprise to read in the Dictionary of Real People and Places in Fiction that Helen Ambrose was ‘accepted by Virginia and Vanessa as a portrait in some salient aspects of Vanessa’. Her intimate understanding of her sister poured into a fictional creation gives Helen extraordinary depth. To have read Moments of Being and the early Woolf diaries is to appreciate the degree to which The Voyage Out is, like many first novels (at least to informed readers), is ‘drawing from life’. The novel itself is a bit contrived but far from a minor novel. Forster summed it up well as ‘strange, tragic, inspired’.

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Woolf’s The Voyage Out

A day’s rest at the midpoint of a Sebald-inspired odyssey gives me the opportunity to combine a view over an energetic line of mountains with the final chapters of Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out. I refrain from adding an of course, but though this may be minor Woolf (arguable), it is yet a major novel by any writer’s standards. The language is tuned, exquisite, and Woolf succeeds in establishing characters, particularly the women, more conscious and real than the skiing tourists spoiling my view of the mountain-tops sitting exposed under this glorious sun.

Woolf’s more conventional novel introduces readers, as a rather flat minor character, to Mrs Dalloway, next seen in the eponymous novel in which Woolf perfects her tunnelling technique to put readers directly into the mind of her characters to create a richer, less linear sensation.

I’ve many favourite passages in The Voyage Out to which I keep returning, circumventing the natural flow of the narrative. Most of these relate to books and reading. Everyone in this book reads or has a passionate opinion of a particular book or of reading in general. In this passage, the wonderful Rachel Vinrace has gone walking, armed with Gibbon in one hand and Balzac in the other:

Never had any words been so vivid and so beautiful-Arabia Felix-Aethiopia. But those were not more noble than the others, hardy barbarians, forests, and morasses. They seemed to drive roads back to the very beginning of the world, on either side of which the populations of all times and countries stood in avenues, and by passing down them all knowledge would be hers, and the book of the world turned back to the very first page. Such was her excitement at the possibilities of knowledge now opening before her that she ceased to read, and a breeze turning the page, the covers of Gibbon gently ruffled and closed together. She then rose again and walked on.

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Dostoevsky by Charles Bukowski

against the wall, the firing squad ready.
then he got a reprieve.
suppose they had shot Dostoevsky?
before he wrote all that?
I suppose it wouldn’t have
mattered
not directly.
there are billions of people who have
never read him and never
will.
but as a young man I know that he
got me through the factories,
past the whores,
lifted me high through the night
and put me down
in a better
place.
even while in the bar
drinking with the other
derelicts,
I was glad they gave Dostoevsky a
reprieve,
it gave me one,
allowed me to look directly at those
rancid faces
in my world,
death pointing its finger,
I held fast,
an immaculate drunk
sharing the stinking dark with
my
brothers.

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Moments of Being (Virginia Woolf)

Mere memories. Moments of Being is a collection of unpublished autobiographical writings of Virginia Woolf, centred on A Sketch of the Past, in which Woolf saws her memories into slices. As always with Woolf, there are surprises within a work that is by turn shocking, saddening and witty. It also serves as a contemplative study of the telescoping effect of memory recollection.

Bergson wrote that until a memory arrives in the present it is cold, lifeless. Woolf’s memory of her beloved mother’s death “unveiled and intensified . . . perceptions, as if a burning glass has been laid over what was shaded and dormant . . . as if something were becoming visible”, unshades memories of people visitable only in memory. It brought to mind afresh a long forgotten memory of a man who delivered groceries to my childhood home in Brunei, an effervescent, laughing man, harrowed with grief after losing his son, my five-year old friend, to appendicitis.

Woolf also writes about how her fiction and memory served each other:

Further, just as I rubbed out a good deal of the force of my mother’s memory by writing about her in To the Lighthouse, so I rubbed out much of [my father’s] memory there too. Yet he obsessed me for years. Until I wrote it out, I would find my lips moving; I would be arguing with him; raging against him; saying to myself all that I never said to him; how deep they drove themselves into me, the things it was impossible to say aloud. They are still some of them sayable; when Nessa for instance revives the memory of Wednesday and its weekly books, I still feel come over me that old frustrated fury.

But in me, though not in her, rage alternated with love. . . . ‘You must think me,’ he said to me after one of these rages—I think the word he used was ‘foolish’. I was silent. I did not think him foolish. I thought him brutal. . . .

How this text may have evolved and changed had it ever come to publication is worthy of contemplation. It is raw Woolf, naked and revealing, but deeply insightful.

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WG Sebald: Bibliography of Secondary Literature

In the next few days I’ll draw to a close my present immersion into Sebald’s work, leaving The Natural History of Destruction, Campo Santo, Across the Land and the Water, Unrecounted and For Years Now for another day.It’ll prolong the moment when I can only reread Sebald, and also give me the chance to take a breather from his unique atmosphere of mourning and ghosts.  Sebald’s work induces in me a particular sensation of vulnerability and melancholy; splashing about in the deep end is luxurious in its own peculiar way, but immersion can become overwhelming. (Though I’m considering reading some Woolf next so simply substituting another flavour of haunting and reflecting on the work of memory.)

Previously I’ve compiled bibliographies of worthwhile secondary literature of writers whose work I hold in affection, Beckett and Kafka in particular. In Sebald’s case, Terry Pitt’s Vertigo should be the first stop for English-speaking Sebald obsessives, followed by Christian Wirth’s Sebald site for German speakers.

I’m sure the list below isn’t definitive. It represents those publications that caught my attention, which I plan to get around to reading sometime. If you think I’ve missed any that are worthwhile please let me know in comments.

  1. Saturn’s Moons: WG Sebald – A Handbook. Legenda, 2001. If you only buy a single piece of secondary material, this is the one to get. Jo Catling and Richard Hibbit have compiled an extraordinarily rich resource, including a huge secondary bibliography. The chapter on WG Sebald’s library alone makes this book worthwhile.
  2. Searching for Sebald: Photography After WG Sebald. Institute of Cultural Enquiry, 2007. There are some fancy editions of this book, but I have a softcover version. I have barely dipped into this beautifully produced book. Photographs in Sebald’s books constitute a parallel narrative, so I’m looking forward to studying this closely at some point.
  3. The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with WG Sebald. Seven Stories Press, 2007. I’ve read and enjoyed the Tim Parks essay, and will finish the other essays and interviews before moving on from Sebald.
  4. WG Sebald: History – Memory – Trauma. Walter de Gruyter, 2006. Looks like an interesting collection of essays, including Sebald’s Amateurs by Ruth Franklin.
  5. Reading WG Sebald: Adventure and Disobedience – Deane Blackler. Camden House, 2007. In his thoughts on the book, Terry Pitts said, “I will say that I found myself feeling that Blackler was often articulating how I feel as I struggle to understand why reading Sebald is unlike reading just about anyone else.”
  6. WG Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity – JJ Long. Columbia University Press, 2007. Sebald’s work in context with the ‘problem of modernity’ looks right up my street.
  7. WG Sebald: A Critical Companion. Edinburgh University Press, 2004. Essays and poems include those by JJ Long and Anne Whitehead and George Szirtes.
  8. The Undiscover’d Country: WG Sebald and the Poetics of Travel. Camden House, 2010. Terry Pitt’s posts on this publication.
  9. After Sebald: Essays and Illuminations. Full Circle Editions, 2014. I picked this book up at its London Review Bookshop launch. Intriguing collection of essays by artists and writers as diverse as Coetzee, Tacita Dean, Robert Macfarlane and Ali Smith.
  10. Sebald’s Bachelors: Queer Resistance and the Unconforming Life – Helen Finch. Legends, 2013. I enjoy Helen Finch’s blog and Twitter account, and am very interested to read a book that Terry Pitts calls, “one of the most important books on Sebald to date”.
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Sebald, Benjamin – Life-Bio-Mapping

In Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Chronicle,  he wrote, “Memories, even when they go into great breadth, do not always represent an autobiography.” Memories may appear as text in Benjamin’s fragmentary reminiscences of Berlin, but his explorations go deeper than memoir, in a form that dissolves genre, and widens its reach to embrace philosophical and political concerns.

Adorno wrote, it “was as if [Benjamin] had paid a horrible price for the metaphysical power of what he saw and what he attempted to express in infallible words; as if he spoke as a dead man in return for his ability to recognise, with sobriety and calm, things which the living are not normally capable of recognising.” The same observation could so easily have been made of Sebald. Both Adorno and Benjamin were important influences on Sebald’s thought and writing, their books filled his library more than any other writers.

Since reading Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz six years ago I’ve been accumulating Sebald’s other published works. I’d mentally categorised the four ‘prose fictions’ (Sebald’s preferred term) as the great works, and fully expected the poems and literary essays to be minor augmentations. After reading After Nature and A Place in the Country, I now see that Sebald defies this sort of canonical classification.

His books, regardless of form, are one vast symbiotic composition; the form changes but the labyrinth assembly of memory, places, personalities, images and recollections is undeviating across all the work. In Berlin Chronicle, Benjamin wrote, “I have long, indeed for years, played with the idea of setting out the sphere of life-bios-graphically on a map.” In his mapping of subjective histories, Sebald completes what Benjamin began.

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