Beckett’s Friendship by André Bernold

Nietzsche reflected on the abyss that exists between individuals and wrote that in order for friendship to exist, friends must learn “how to keep silent”. In Beckett’s Friendship: 1979-1989 André Bernold explores the affirmative silence inherent in the work and person of Beckett with whom he was linked in friendship over the last decade of Beckett’s life. Derrida wrote that “friendship does not keep silence, it is kept by silence.”

To Bernold, silence is a defining feature of his friendship with Beckett, a silence broken with brief, staccato conversations as much about overcoats and cigars as about literature. Bernold is consistent with other reminisces of Beckett in noting his generosity and attentiveness but what is moving in this book is the carefully noted accounts of Beckett’s rituals, his handwriting and his preoccupation, for one so taciturn, with voice. The observations are sensitive and avoid drifting into the creepy territory inherent with this sort of memoir.

There are unique moments captured which bring nothing but joy like Beckett’s eagerness to hear about the qualities of voice of Bernold’s professors Delueze and Derrida, and the comment that: “According to Milton, I reminded him, angels do not laugh, they only smile. ‘So what,’ he replied while laughing, ‘they are laughing behind our backs.'”

I was a Beckett nut by the time I was twenty and though I visited Paris often towards the end of Beckett’s life never bumped into him as I hoped. Bernold’s story of the two friends coming together in a dark café in Paris brought together by mutations of thought and silence gains its power from imagining myself into that banquette seat across the table from that famous physiognomy.

Complete List of Books Read in 2015

For those not inclined to delve into the guts of this blog here’s a list of the 78 books I read in 2015.

  1. Pascal Quignard, Abysses. trans. Chris Turner
  2. Pascal Quignard, The Roving Shadows. trans. Chris Turner
  3. Pascal Quignard, Sex and Terror. trans. Chris Turner
  4. Giorgio Agamben and Monica Ferrando, The Unspeakable Girl. trans. Leland De La Durantaye and Annie Julia Wyman
  5. Enrique Vila-Matas, Bartleby & Co. trans. Jonathan Dunne
  6. Jack Robinson, by the same author
  7. William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Troilus and Cressida
  8. Denton Welch, I Can Remember and Narcissus Bay from Where Nothing Sleeps
  9. Brigid Brophy, Michael Levey, Charles Osborne, Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without
  10. Brigid Brophy, Flesh
  11. Brigid Brophy, Baroque–’n’–Roll
  12. Brigid Brophy, The Snow Ball
  13. Brigid Brophy, The Finishing Touch
  14. Brigid Brophy, Hackenfeller’s Ape
  15. Brigid Brophy, The King of a Rainy Country
  16. Marguerite Duras, Practicalities. trans. Barbara Bray
  17. Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique
  18. Jessa Crispin, The Dead Ladies Project
  19. Milan Kundera, The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts. trans. Linda Asher
  20. Milan Kundera, Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts. trans. Linda Asher
  21. JM Coetzee, Diary of a Bad Year
  22. JM Coetzee, Slow Man
  23. Scott Abbott and Darko Radaković, Repetitions
  24. Peter Handke, To Duration. trans. Scott Abbott
  25. Peter Handke, The Afternoon of a Writer. trans. Ralph Mannheim
  26. Tomas Espedal, Against Art. trans. James Anderson
  27. Tomas Espedal, Against Nature. trans. James Anderson
  28. Tomas Espedal, Tramp. trans. James Anderson
  29. Michel Houellebecq, Submission. trans. Lorin Stein
  30. Catherine Clément, The Call of the Trance. trans. Chris Turner
  31. Lydia Davis, The End of the Story
  32. Josh Cohen, The Private Life: Our Everyday Self in an Age of Intrusion
  33. Thomas Mann, Railway Accident. trans. Helen Lowe Porter
  34. Wolfgang Hilbig, ‘I’. trans. Isabel Fargo Cole
  35. Ivan Vladislavic, The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories
  36. The Letters of Samuel Beckett 1941-1956
  37. Ullrich Haase and William Large, Maurice Blanchot
  38. Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, Fra Keeler
  39. Fleur Jaeggy, SS Proleterka. trans. Alastair McEwen
  40. Kathy Acker | McKenzie Wark, I’m very into you. ed. Matias Viegener
  41. Han Kang, The Vegetarian. trans. Deborah Smith
  42. Marek Bieńczyk, Transparency. trans. Benjamin Paloff
  43. Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric
  44. Kevin Hart (editor), Nowhere Without No: In Memory of Maurice Blanchot
  45. Bae Suah, Nowhere to Be Found, trans. Sora Kim-Russell
  46. Max Frisch, Man in the Holocene, trans. Geoffrey Skelton
  47. Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul: Memories of a City, trans. Maureen Freely
  48. Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me
  49. Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus. trans. Helen Lowe-Porter
  50. Eduardo Galeano, Voices of Time: A Life In Stories. trans. Mark Fried
  51. Barbara Pym, Quartet in Autumn
  52. Eduardo Galeano, Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone. trans. Mark Fried
  53. Ágota Kristóf, The Illiterate. trans. Nina Bogin
  54. Simon Critchley, Memory Theatre
  55. Ágota Kristóf, The Third Lie. trans. Marc Romano
  56. Ágota Kristóf, The Proof. trans. David Watson
  57. Ágota Kristóf, The Notebook. trans. Alan Sheridan
  58. Barbara Reynolds, The Passionate Intellect
  59. Denton Welch, The Journals of Denton Welch
  60. Denton Welch, A Voice Through a Cloud
  61. Denton Welch, In Youth is Pleasure
  62. Jens Bjørneboe, Moment of Freedom. trans. Esther Greenleaf Murer
  63. Rita Felski, Uses of Literature
  64. Denton Welch, Maiden Voyage
  65. Virginia Woolf. The Voyage Out
  66. Samuel Pepys. The Diary of Samuel Pepys
  67. Alice Oswald. Tithonus, 46 minutes in the life of the dawn
  68. Virginia Woolf. Moments of Being
  69. The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with WG Sebald
  70. WG Sebald. A Place in the Country. trans. Jo Catling
  71. WG Sebald. After Nature. trans. Michael Hamburger
  72. Ed. Jo Catling and Richard Hibbit. Saturn’s Moons: WG Sebald-A Handbook
  73. WG Sebald. The Emigrants. trans. Michael Hulse
  74. Philippa Comber. Ariadne’s Thread: In Memory of WG Sebald
  75. WG Sebald. Vertigo. trans. Michael Hulse
  76. Tim Parks. Where I’m Reading From
  77. Virginia Woolf. Jacob’s Room
  78. Walter Kaufmann. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist

“A literary sanctuary unlike any other” … Time’s Flow Stemmed approaches its 8th year

“To me, it is a literary sanctuary unlike any other” an anonymous reader told me in a comment this year. How long to bask in the light of one little phrase?

When in January 2009, I issued my first Time’s Flow Stemmed blog post I had little idea how long this adventure might last. Most blogs are fleeting and fragile, like the lacy tracings on the window on a frosty morning. This was my third attempt at blogging and I assumed it would once again be a transitory initiative. As for readers I expected no more than a few indulgent friends who would soon weary of my ramblings about books.

I set out with some clear intentions:

  • This blog is literary meaning I talk only about books. I’ve strayed from time to time but always found my way back.
  • I write about my reading experience, not try to write reviews.
  • There would be no advertisement or free books accepted from publishers. On a few occasions I’ve bent the last rule to include books I would have bought myself.
  • I’d rarely write negative reviews because I don’t finish books that fail to move me in some way.

There have been some pleasing moments along the way. Time’s Flow Stemmed has grown to over 1000 posts in 7 years. WordPress issues an annual report: today I learnt that on average 140 readers a day visit the site. A great deal more than I ever expected!

This year has been busy away from the blog, engrossed in building a business that has nothing to do with literature. Unfortunately I’ve never managed to find coexistence between my need to earn money and my love of literature. Communication tailed off a bit this year and is likely to change little in 2016.

Although I’ve posted some personal pieces here, it isn’t a diary, more a chronological journal of my reading passions. It is also a sincere attempt to engage in a conversation about literature, whatever that is. I don’t find many people in my social circle that share my heterogeneous literary tastes, so it’s been a tremendous pleasure to have these conversations here, on social media and in person, in London and other cities all around the planet.

Thanks for reading. Please forgive this indulgence. Speak soon!

Pascal Quignard’s Work

Pascal Quignard’s work belongs in a no-mans-land between what is long since past and what is still to come, reeling on the edges between literature, antiquarianism and philosophy. Texts like The Roving Shadows and Abysses seem so fresh yet also inevitable in terrain carved by writers like Calasso, Sebald, John Berger and Cixous. To find Quignard’s precursors you could go further back to Montaigne, Bacon, even Erasmus.

I have such hunger for these works that find new ways of questioning and expressing knowledge. Quignard’s work demands and refuses easy interpretation in the way that older essayists used the form to test ideas, where cognition proceeds through flashes and rereading (I read The Roving Shadows once before). Structured as a mixture of fragments and lengthier, more structured essays Quignard reflects on the philosophers of Greece and Rome (mostly but not exclusively) interwoven with touches of autobiography and outrage.

I also read Sex and Terror which uses visual arts to explore the edges where Greek civilisation and Roman civilisation overlapped with seismic reverberations that are still being felt in the present day. It is less demanding than the other two, but equally enlightening.

Chris Turner’s translation of all three books (once again from the wonderful Seagull Books) is so beautiful that I intend to collect a couple in the original French to see what I am missing. Quignard’s work is important, moving and powerful in equal measure and deserves to leave a significant trace. He is one of those writers who will divide my life (not just reading) into a before discovery and after.

Michel Foucault, ‘a kind of criticism’

I can’t help but dream about a kind of criticism that would try not to judge but to bring an oeuvre, a book, a sentence, an idea to life; it would light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea foam in the breeze and scatter it. It would multiply not judgments but signs of existence; it would summon them, drag them from their sleep. Perhaps it would invent them sometimes-all the better. All the better. Criticism that hands down sentences sends me to sleep; I’d like a criticism of scintillating leaps of the imagination. It would not be sovereign or dressed in red. It would bear the lightning of possible storms.

Michel Foucault, The Masked Philosopher, The Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, Volume 1, New Press, 1997 (1994)

Georges Bataille on Jules Michelet

He was obviously guided by a certain anguish even led astray by it-while he was writing a book or burning with a dark passion. In a passage of his Journal (which I have been unable to read, it is not accessible, but on this point I have obtained from others adequate details) he says that in the course of his labours it would happen that inspiration failed him: he then would go downstairs and out of his house, and enter a public urinal whose odour was suffocating. He breathed deeply, and having thus “approached as close as he could to the object of his horror,” he re­turned to his work. I cannot help recalling the author’s counte­nance, noble, emaciated, the nostrils quivering.

Georges Bataille on Jules Michelet (1946)
Preface to la sorcière

There is another world

There is a world in which ages are not equal, the sexes not undifferentiated, roles not equivalent and civilisations not easily confused with one another.

There is a world in which the ignorant are not the equal of the learned, the oral does not have the same ‘voice’ as the written, nor the vulgus as the atomos, nor barbarians as civilised beings.

There is another world.

*

There is a world that belongs to the shore of the Lethe.

That shore is memory.

It is the world of novels and sonatas, the world of the pleasure of naked bodies that love the half-closed blind or the world of the dream that loves it even more closed, to the point where it feigns the darkness of night or contrives it.

It is the world of magpies on graves.

It is the world of solitude required for reading books or listening to music.

The world of tepid silence and idle semi-darkness where thought drifts, then suddenly seethes with excitement.

Pascal Quignard, The Roving Shadows. trans. Chris Turner. Seagull Books, 2011 (2002)

Revisiting an old friend, my first Quignard and one of those coincidences that provides much joy: I had forgotten that The Roving Shadows is, in part, a tribute to Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, which Des has highly recommended to me. It was awaiting me under the Christmas tree this morning.

We carry with us the turmoil of our conception

We carry with us the turmoil of our conception.
There is no image that shocks us that does not remind us of the acts that made us.
Humanity is endlessly the product of a scene that pits two-male and female-mammals against each other, whose urogenital organs, provided abnormality overtakes them and once they have become distinctly misshapen, fit one inside the other.

Pascal Quignard, Sex and Terror. trans. Chris Turner. Seagull Books, 2011 (1997)

I may never be able to write much about this book, not at least until I’ve read it again and even then it is the sort of book that takes weeks, month, a lifetime, to absorb. These are just the opening lines of the introduction and shorn of context but in three sentences suggest the acuity, subtle wit and boldness of Quignard’s work. I think I could spend next year just reading and thinking about this book. It would be a year well spent.

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2016

On the last winter solstice I posted some well-intentioned reading ideas for 2015. I always intend to read fewer new (to me) writers to concentrate on my old chestnuts and I closed gaps in my reading of Mann, Coetzee, Handke, Virginia Woolf and Sebald. Even the minor works of great writers display brilliance and this intention to read deeply and not broadly continues. I’m looking forward to new books from Anne Carson, Geoff Dyer and Jan Wilm’s Coetzee study.

In my year in reading post I wrote of the thrill of discovering Brophy, Welch and Espedal; each writer will undoubtedly make up some of what I read next year. I’m also looking forward to reading more Han Kang, Wolfgang Hilbig, Giorgio Agamben, Pascal Quignard and Ivan Vladislavic, all who produced books that moved me in some way this year.

Writers I don’t yet know but expect to sample in 2016 include Janice Lee, Jean Rhys, Werner Jaeger, Ivan Goncharov, Philippe Jaccottet, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Ingeborg Bachmann, Claude Cahun, Robert Gál, Yves Bonnefoy and Peter Weiss. There’ll be others but these are in my sights at the moment.

At the moment my mind is anchored in ancient Greece and Rome. My reading year is coming to an end with Giorgio Agamben’s and Monica Ferrando’s The Unspeakable Girl, a work of some power published by the brilliant Seagull Books, and Pascal Quignard’s Sex and Terror, which feels like the only book one could read after The Unspeakable Girl.

My inclination at the moment is to dwell in antiquity for some time, perhaps read Chapman’s Homer, which shaped Troilus and Cressida. I’ve acquired some Loebs and assorted ancient Greek plays that I may make time for over the Christmas break. Being overwhelmed by Troilus and Cressida convinces me that I must fill in some of my reading gaps in Shakespeare’s oeuvre.

The fault and glimpse of newness often leads me astray so expect distractions. If the year ahead holds surprises as great as Brigid Brophy, Denton Welch and Tomas Espedal I’ll be a fortunate reader.

Thanks for reading along in 2015 and for taking time to discuss books with me here, in person and on Twitter. I love little more than to discuss books so more conversation please!

The Unspeakable Girl by Giorgio Agamben and Monica Ferrando

To be sure, it is never language itself, language as such at work, but always am I speaking from a particular angle of inclination of its own self, concerned with outline and orientation. There is no reality, reality must be sought and won.

The statement above, written by Paul Celan in 1958, preceded his recognition that he wrote poems ‘to orient myself, to find out where I was and where I was meant to go, to create a reality for myself’. Such an undertaking is also typical of Beckett’s Malone, who writes daily ‘in order to know where I have got to’. This probing spirit seems to me at the heart of Seagull Books’ publishing project.

How else to provide rationale for publishing The Unspeakable Girl, this exquisitely beautiful book filled with dozens of images by Monica Ferrando?

Kore alla luce, pastello su carta nepalese

The essay at the heart of the book is by Giorgio Agamben, a thinker who fascinates me for reasons I haven’t fully understood, perhaps for his ability to produce work that endlessly opens the door for further exploration. In this book Agamben explores a story that has intrigued humanity since ancient times, that of Persephone or, in this case, the ‘unspeakable girl’ whose name was considered ill-omened because of its association with her position as Queen of the Dead.

The myth of the abduction and rape of Demeter’s beautiful daughter as she picked a narcissus (in the Orphic version of the tale) played a central role in the Eleusinian cult and Mysteries, a series of rituals that included fasting and drinking of Kykeon, a hallucinogenic  at the heart of these initiatory rites. The early Christian church expended much energy attempting to suppress the existence of the Mysteries. In the second part of this book Monica Ferrando presents her translations of Greek and Latin source materials.

The audience for this wonderful book, I suspect, is not huge, hence my love and respect for Seagull Books’ inquisitive and curious nature. Agamben, as always, but aided by Ferrando’s images and translations, opens up new pathways for thought into image philosophy, mythology and literary criticism, an encounter that compels wandering in further exploration. The exploration is interminable.

Mystery Cults and the Novel Form

If there is somewhere today where an echo of the ancient mysteries can then be heard, it is not in the liturgical splendour of the Catholic Church but in the extreme life resolutions offered by the novel form. Whether it be Lucius in The Golden Ass or Isabel Archer in Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, the novel places us before a mysterion in which life itself is at once that which initiates us and that into which we are initiated.

Giorgio Agamben, The Unspeakable Girl. Trans. Leland De La Durantaye. Seagull Books, 2014 (2010)

Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co.

After spending most of November with the resolute voice of Brigid Brophy, my inclination was for something more wavering. Enrique Vila-Matas’s Barleby & Co., eighty-six footnotes commenting on an invisible text, satisfied this urge despite a sense that it doesn’t quite succeed as a novel.

Has everything been written? Can language and fiction capture life in any meaningful way? The works of writers like Beckett, Kafka, Musil, Celan, Walser, Duras circle around these questions. In Bartleby & Co., Vila-Matas’s narrator asks “What is writing and where is it?”

For some time now I have been investigating the frequent examples of Bartleby’s syndrome in literature, for some time I have studied the illness, the disease endemic to contemporary letters, the native impulse or attraction towards nothingness that means that certain creators, while possessing a very demanding literary conscience (or perhaps precisely because of this), never manage to write; either they write one or two books and then stop altogether or, working on a project, seemingly without problems, one day they become literally paralysed for good.

Had this introduction been to a work of literary criticism by a particularly perceptive critic, I can imagine few more exciting themes for scrutiny. As a work of fiction and limited to some extent by choosing to structure the novel as a series of footnotes, generally marked by brevity and concision, the investigation of Bartleby’s syndrome is comprised of a superficial recounting, mostly anecdotal, of what Vilas-Matas calls ‘writers of the No’. 

For the most part this is quite satisfying to someone absorbed by stories of writers and their milieu but by the time the footnotes hit the high sixties I was craving more depth. Of course, Vilas-Matas is sufficiently astute to recognise the potential fatigue.

. . . I am going to have to fall sooner or later, like it or not, since it would be naive of me to ignore the fact that these footnotes are beginning to look more and more like Mondrian’s surfaces, full of squares which give the viewer the impression that they extend beyond the canvas and see – of course! – to encapsulate infinity, and, if this is the way I am heading, as I think I am, I shall be forced into the paradox of eclipsing myself by a single gesture.

This of course is a novel and not to be judged as a work of literary criticism. The difficulty is that the shadow of the narrator is so muted that it is all to easy to forget it is a fictional treatment. It has precisely the wavering quality I hungered for after so much Brigid Brophy but like Never Any End to Paris the overall impression is of something slight. In the end I shall treat it more like a work of non-fiction and follow some of the very many literary trails that Vila-Matas lays down in pursuit of his Bartlebys.

First We Write, Then We Fail

Plato Watching Socrates Read. From Prognostica Socratis Basilei by Matthew Parris

  1. “Any serious student of serious realities will shrink from making truth the helpless object of men’s ill-will by committing it to writing.” Plato, Seventh Letter
  2. “Until writing, most kinds of thoughts we are used to thinking today simply could not be thought”. Walter J. Ong, Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology
  3. “Writing is in no way an instrument for communication, it is not an open route through which there passes only the intention to speak.” Barthes, Writing Degree Zero
  4. “Why write? One important reason is that unless we do there are mental acts we cannot perform, thoughts we cannot think, inquiries we cannot engage in.” Richard Young and Patricia Sullivan, Why Write?
  5. “You write so that the life you have around you, and outside, far from the sheet of paper, this life which is not much fun, but annoying and full of worries, exposed to others, can melt into the little rectangle before you and of which you are the master. But this absorption of swarming life into the immobile swarming of letters never happens.” Foucault, Interview with Claude Bonnefoy
  6. “Every bit of writing is imagined as mass which occupies space. It is the duty of writing, therefore, to admit no other, to keep all other writing out.” Edward Said, Beginnings
  7. “Form fascinates when one no longer has the force to understand force from within itself. That is, to create.” Derrida, Writing and Difference
  8. “Endings then, are faked, as are all other parts of a narrative structure that impose metaphor on the metonymic sequence.” Frank Kermode, “Sensing Endings
  9. “. . . I was sweet when I came down out of me mother. My great blue bedroom, the air so quiet, scarce a cloud. In peace and silence, I could have stayed up there for always only. It’s something fails us. First we feel. Then we fail.” Joyce, Finnegans Wake

Troilus and Cressida and The Iliad

Mark, an occasional but always valued commenter here, exasperated that Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without suggest that Antony and Cleopatra merits greater affection than Hamlet quoted a beautiful line from Troilus and Cressida: “I cannot fight upon this argument;/It is too starved a subject for my sword.” With a free morning available I chose to read Shakespeare’s tragedy, a mature work written towards the end of his run of comedies.

Troilus and Cressida isn’t performed often and though I was vaguely aware it was derived primarily from Homer had little understanding of its power. The opening paragraph from the play’s introduction in my RSC Complete Works, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, describes it perfectly accurately:

Troilus and Cressida perhaps reveals more of Shakespeare’s mature mind at work than any of the other plays. It is highly intelligent, rich in rhetorical complexity and linguistic invention, mentally rigorous, morally sceptical, sexually charged, full of dangerous intellectual and political energy, markedly unpleasant.

Unpleasant it is, which is why I imagine it is infrequently performed. That Troilus and Cressida was written over four hundred years ago is extraordinary as its grim anti-heroic dramatisation of war, inference of sexual assault and demythologising of Homeric heroes feels very contemporary.

Amongst a cast of vivid characters are two commentators, Trojan Pandarus and Greek Thersites, both vile, voyeuristic and overwhelmingly cynical and I imagine a great deal of fun to perform. Thersites carries the best lines, sewer-mouthed and acting as a sort of Greek chorus, nasty but sharp as he summarises the venalities of the Trojan and Greek heroes.

Although I’ve read a small number of Shakespeare’s tragedies several times, I’ve not spent enough time with his work to realise he was producing plays with this much intellectual depth. This goes deeper and darker than Hamlet or King Lear.

The RSC Complete Works suggest that Shakespeare’s Trojan War is notably derived from George Chapman’s 1598 translation, overlaid of course with Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. The latter came highly recommended in the comments to a previous post about Homer, so definitely a translation I’ll be reading soon. I also understand that Charles Williams wrote incisively about Troilus and Cressida in his English Poetic Mind, which I intend picking up when next at Cecil Court.

Thanks Mark for the inspiration for these flights. I discovered a great many other beautiful lines in Troilus and Cressida of which today’s favourite is: I have, as when the sun doth light a-scorn/Buries this sigh in wrinkle of a smile.

Are they not monsters?

graphic-gallery-of-shakespeare-heroines-cressida

 

They say all lovers swear more performance than they are able, and yet reserve an ability that they never perform, vowing more than the perfection of ten and discharging less than the tenth part of one. They that have the voice of lions and the act of hares, are they not monsters?

Cressida, The Tragedy of Troilus and Cressida. The RSC Shakespeare.