Barthes on Barthes

You sense in Barthes by Barthes the vertiginous pleasure that Roland Barthes found in reading himself like a text. Composed of fragments that dissect belief and the nature of writing, his illusionary autobiography is joyful [playful], often brilliant. Michael Wood quotes Barthes’ description of himself as ‘un sujet uncertain’. (Richard Howard’s translation, ‘a fellow of doubtful nature, whose every attribute is somehow challenged by its opposite’.) A thinker, a writer before his time, Barthes would have taken naturally to the form of the blog.

From the fragment to the journal

With the alibi of a pulverised discourse, a dissertation destroyed, one arrives at the regular practise of the fragment; then from the fragment one slips to the “journal.” At which point, is not the point of all this to entitle oneself to write a “journal”? Am I not justified in considering everything I have written as a clandestine and stubborn effort to bring light again, someday, quite freely, the theme of the Gidean “journal”? At the terminal horizon, perhaps quite simply the initial text (his very first text was concerned with Gide’s journal).

Strait is the Gate by André Gide

“Who was this Gide whose name [he] uttered one afternoon, almost furtively, and with a smile that seemed to ask forgiveness for his audacity?”

Introduced to the writing of André Gide by an early mentor, Simone de Beauvoir feasted on everything he wrote. This early Gide story takes its title from the King James bible, “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” Thrown by the blurb on the back cover of my Penguin Classics edition, which reads, “A devastating exploration of aestheticism taken to extremes,” I was half way through before I realised the typo: for ‘aestheticism,’ read ‘asceticism’.

Though there are nods toward modernism, Strait is the Gate is fundamentally a Romantic story of doomed love. Gide writes exquisitely; the suppressed agonising of the three primary characters, Jerome, Alissa and Juliette is visceral in its despair; the final chapter is almost unendurable.

Written in the first-person, Gide uses letters and a diary to present contrasting perspectives. During an uneasy walk after a long absence, Jerome narrates:

My head was aching so badly that I could not extract a single idea from it; to keep myself in countenance, or because I thought that the gesture might serve instead of words, I had taken Alissa’s hand, which she let me keep. Our emotion, the rapidity of our walk, and the awkwardness of our silence, sent the blood to our faces; I felt my temples throbbing; Alissa’s colour was unpleasantly heightened; and soon the discomfort of feeling the contact of our damp hands made us unclasp them and let them drop sadly to our sides.

Days later, when the couple have again parted, Alissa writes:

But when our lugubrious expedition to Orcher came to an end without a word, when, above all, our hands unclasped and fell apart so hopelessly, I thought my heart would have fainted within me for grief and pain. And what distressed me most was not so much that your hand let go of mine, but my feeling that if yours had not, mine would have done so, for my hand no longer felt happy in yours.

Alissa adds a postscript to this letter with the phrase, “[...] your love was above all intellectual, the beautiful tenacity of a tender and faithful mind.” I am much taken with the concept of an ‘intellectual love,’ so devastatingly accurate; I write it in my notebook and repeat it throughout the day.

Reading and Premeditation

There are book bloggers I admire for their unfaltering dedication to a premeditated sequence of reading. Though I enjoy planning my reading, impulse often overtakes my carefully nurtured plans. This post is a corrective for me, an attempt to continue to read with some premeditation.

In November I stated:

Next year I plan to complete my immersion into Saul Bellow’s novels, read my unread Virginia Woolf novels and more of her diaries and essays, and read more deeply of Kafka’s non fiction. Also on my list is to sample more deeply the works of Cynthia Ozick, Thomas Bernhard, Robert Walser, Marguerite Duras and Peter Handke. I’m musing with trying once again to sustain a reading of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. Somewhere in the back of my mind I’m also thinking it is time to reread Proust and Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, but we shall see. I hope also to discover a new writer or two from my Reading the Girls List.

In December I declared:

My plan next year is to read a lot more Woolf. I expect also to immerse myself into the literary output of Coetzee, Flaubert, Kafka and Bellow, each of whom, to different degrees, I am mildly obsessed with at present.

In January I asserted:

In my twenties and thirties I read (and in some cases understood) much more philosophy, and I intend to read more in this area this year, particularly keen to reread Kierkegaard. Of poetry, my ambition is to read Anne Carson more deeply and to tackle Wallace Stevens.

Further back, at the end of last summer I declared:

It is with Dangling Man I will start my Bellow immersion in the autumn. Inspired by Bibliographing’s Melville project, my intention is to read the fifteen novels, short stories, essay collection and Bellow’s memoir.

The year started as planned with some Kafka and Duras, but Simone de Beauvoir has commandeered my attention. Not just her writing but a posthumous influence that is leading me towards André Gide, Alain-Fournier, Henri Bergson and a rereading of Sartre. Along the way, I have adopted a desire to read all Nabokov’s novels and to tackle some Muriel Spark. There are also some choices of The Wolves that tempt me, starting with February’s Our Horses in Egyptby Rosalind Belben.

A Book Feverishly Devoured

From her diaries of 1926, Simone de Beauvoir’s admiration for a book:

A revelation, an immense help was this book already almost known and whose first half I feverishly devoured. I must finish it and then reread it and meditate on all its pages. No longer dead people like Gide or Barrès; a living example of fever, of ardor, and of beauty. There are things about me I have understood. There are words I would want to have written. There are some I have almost written. There are others I have so often thought. Through their lives, I have seen mine emerge, and desires, hopes, and promises were afloat in every corner of this room, deliciously overwhelming me.

Unfortunately my French is inadequate for reading the Correspondance of Jacques Riviere et Alain-Fournier that inspired de Beauvoir.

>Completed Reality Hunger

>

The debate is old but David Shields, in Reality Hunger, revivifies the argument against artifice in the novel. Forget conventional fiction is his manifesto, the energy in literature today is found in essays, memoirs, diaries and non-fiction. His book is a collage, constructed from a mixture of his own content and excerpts and quotations, very hip hop.

A major focus of Reality Hunger is appropriation and plagiarism and what those terms mean. I can hardly treat the topic deeply without engaging in it. That would be like writing a book about lying and not being permitted to lie in it. Or writing a book about destroying capitalism but being told it can’t be published because it might harm the publishing industry.

However, Random House lawyers determined that it was necessary for me to provide a complete list of citations; the list follows …

. . . . . . . .

If you would like to restore this book to the form in which I intended it to be read, simply grab a sharp pair of scissors or a razor blade or box cutter and remove pages 210-218 …

Part of the argument is persuasive. There is terrific vigour in writing that blurs the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction. Ryszard Kapuscinski, Geoff Dyer, W. G. Sebald, and J. M. Coetzee create first-rate novels. The diaries, essays and letters of writers like Woolf, Chekhov, Gide, Musil, Beckett are amongst their finest creations.

The validity of Shield’s contention falls down, for me, on the premise that there is such a thing as a “standard” novel. I’m currently reading Zadie Smith’s essays (terrific by the way), in a discussion about Eliot and the Victorian novel she writes:

What is universal and timeless in literature is need - we continue to need  novelists who seem to know and feel, and move between these two modes of operation with wondrous fluidity. What is not universal or timeless, though is form. Forms, styles, structures – whatever word you prefer – should change like skirt lengths. They have to; otherwise we make a rule, a religion, of one form; we say. ‘This form here, this is what reality is like,’ and it pleases us to say that …

Thankfully the form continues to evolve. David Shields provides many examples of contemporary writers successfully moving the style of novels forward. But the need is for literature to contain multitudes. As much as I am enjoying Zadie Smith’s essays and read Reality Hunger with genuine enthusiasm, I relish the freedom to pick up The Brothers Karamazov, follow it with a David Markson, then segue into Cervantes. Too much reality gets old. Though I don’t entirely buy David Shield’s argument, the book is a great read and there are some terrific quotations, as long as you haven’t taken a razor blade to the citations to know their origin.

Virginia Woolf – A Writer’s Diary

When she was 36, Virginia Woolf imagined an older version of herself reading her diaries:

If Virginia Wool at the age of 50, when she sits down to build her memoirs out of these books, is unable to make a phrase as it should be made, I can only condole with her and remind her of the existence of the fireplace, where she has my leave to burn these pages to so many black films with red eyes in them But how I envy her the task I am preparing for her! There is none I should like better.

Reading this extract of her diaries ninety-one years years later, it seems that Woolf wrote her diaries with posterity in view. This edition A Writer’s Diary comprise extracts made by Leonard Woolf to “throw light upon Virginia Woolf’s intentions, objects, and methods as a writer.” He writes:

I have been carefully through the 26 volumes of diary and have extracted and now publish in this volume practically everything which referred to her own writing. I have included also three other kinds of extract. The first consists of a certain number of passages in which she is obviously using the diary as a method of practising or trying out the art of writing. The second consists of a few passages which, though not directly or indirectly concerned with her writings, I have deliberately selected because they give the reader an idea of the direct impact upon her mind of scenes and persons, i.e. of the raw material of her art. Thirdly I have included a certain number of passages in which she comments upon the books she was reading.

The third part is compelling. You could have a wonderful time reading through Woolf’s own reading list. Woolf is an epic reader. As Moyra Davey says in her essay The Problem of Reading

Woolf laid out some of her core ideas about books and reading. A great proponent of voracious, indiscriminate reading, everything from “bad” contemporary novels to the forgotten memoirs and letters one discovers buried in secondhand bookstores. Woolf would concur with Calvino that to really appreciate the classics one must come at them from the vantage point of contemporary literature. It is only then that one can experience “a complete finality about [the classics] . . . a consecration [that]. . . we return to life, feeling it more keenly and understanding it more deeply than before.”

More than anything reading these extracts has given me an appetite to read the full set of diaries. Whilst you get the sense that Woolf has an eye to posterity, there is an intimacy and candour that enables you to see how life may have looked to this unusual woman.

Woolf and her Bloomsbury set were undoubtedly elitist and moved in the typically restricted social circles of 1920′s London. Her thoughts on reading Ulysses, “I finished Ulysses and think it is a mis-fire. Genius it has, I think; but of inferior water. The book is diffuse. It is brackish. It is pretentious. It is underbred, not only in the obvious sense, but in the literary sense.” The “underbred, not only in the obvious sense” is revealing. Occasionally this restricted, and frequently to Woolf, suffocating view produces moments of laugh-out-loud humour:

Brafani: three people watching the door open and shut. Commenting on visitors like fates-summing up, placing. A woman with a hard aquiline face-red lips-bird like-perfectly self-satisfied. French pendulous men, a rather poor sister. Now they sit nibbling at human nature. We are rescued by the excellence of our luggage.

Given its writer and subject A Writer’s Diarycould not fail to be fascinating. These diaries go further though in placing you right into the emotional roller-coaster of being Virginia Woolf. They are an impeccable preparation for a deeper reading of the novels. For me, even in extracted form, these diaries exceed the insight and sheer enjoyment to be had from the diaries of Robert Musil and André Gide. That is high praise.

World-Weariness

This Summer’s Brick arrived recently.

New to me is Australian author, Robert Dessaix, with a noteworthy article about world-weariness and ageing. On arriving in Naples he writes:

Naples unsettled Stendhal too, it now occurred to me, yet you’d have thought his enthusiasm for travelling (in style, of course) was inexhaustible. He remarked in his Promenades dans Rome that by the time he got here, he wished he could have found the river Lethe, and drinking deeply, forgotten everything he’d seen in Italy and then start all over again. In other words, by the time he got here he knew Naples and Italy too well to fall again under their spell. More than that: he knew life too well. “Alas, in one respect,” he wrote, “all knowledge is like old age, whose worst symptom is the knowledge of life that prevents one from becoming passionate about anything, from behaving madly over nothing . . . Instead of admiring the ruins of the temple of Jupiter, as I did twenty-six years ago, my imagination is chained to all sorts of stupid things I’ve read about it.”

This ennui that casts a cloak over new experiences, particularly travel, is deepened by the consistency of global branding. Marks & Spencer in Reykjavik, Perrier from a corner shop in the Mull of Kintyre, iPods and Starbucks everywhere. It is impossible to re-discover the sensation of discovering Paris or Rome for the first time. It is why you can join expeditions to climb Mount Everest or to the Poles. It is hard to be amazed.

Dessaix goes on to say:

But I’d seen it all before. At a certain point in life, like Stendhal and Chateaubriand, one has. Everything feels repackaged. The crêpe and ice-cream wagons, the miniature train, the hoopla stall, the Africans selling belts and fake Louis Vuitton handbags – even the gangs of teenagers in T-shirts emblazoned with jaunty slogans in English (I Love Beer, Fuck Work and so on) – I’d seen and heard and smelled it all before hundreds of times. It felt like the umpteenth performance of a circus act I’d thrilled to when I was five. Would nothing transformingly beautiful ever happen again?

He finds an antidote in André Gide:

A thick life, that was Gide’s secret. It’s an odd word in English, but one he used over and over again. A good old age in his case, if his diaries are any guide, had something to do with an unfailing appetite for the tightly woven, for turning the basic melodies that shaped his mind from childhood into sonatas, concertos, symphonies, operas, ballets. This makes it sound as if he strove to turn the simple into the complex and grand, but that wasn’t what he did at all: it was a matter of playing with almost endless variations on fundamental themes by reading more widely, rereading with greater attention, staying curious, living fearlessly, and acquiring new passions.

Susan Sontag admired Gide’s diaries. Writing in her diaries at fifteen she states:

Immersing myself in Gide again—what clarity and precision! Truly it is the man himself who is incomparable—all his fiction seems insignificant, while [Mann's] The Magic Mountain is a book for all of one’s life.

I know that! The Magic Mountain is the finest novel I’ve ever read. The sweetness of renewed and undiminishing acquaintance with this work, the peaceful and meditative pleasure I feel are unparalleled. Yet for sheer emotional impact, for a sense of physical pleasure, an awareness of quick breath and quickly wasted lives—hurrying, hurrying—for the knowledge of life—no, not that—for a knowledge of aliveness—I would choose [Romain Rolland's] Jean-Christophe —But it should only be read once.