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.

Uncommon Readers

A genuine interest in criticism is an achievement in creation.

Marianne Moore

In selecting the title for this post, I should point out that it in no way refers to that dreadful Alan Bennett novel, but is a term that Christopher Knight uses to single out three especially perceptive readers: Denis Donoghue, Frank Kermode, and George Steiner. In his book Uncommon Readers, Knight describes these as critics “who bring to their reviews less a position (though positions they have) than an acute intelligence, prepared to be provoked by the last book they have read and to place it at the centre of a discussion that ripples outward.”

Donoghue, Kermode, and Steiner are generally considered rather conservative, anti-theory critics, but such labels are unnecessarily reductive. James Wood is the contemporary public critic placed in a similar pigeon-hole. All three of the former are touchstone critics that I’ll read for their insight into literature, but also because of the lucidity and elegance of their work.

Virginia Woolf in How It Strikes a Contemporary wrote that any common reader possesses the capacity to interpret a text, providing they are willing to be intellectually challenged. Her goal was to create a system in which a common reader is also a common critic. My Links list on the right of this blog connects to several common readers and critics who would fit into Knight’s definition as uncommonly perceptive readers.

Criticism is rewarding when it confirms my perspective, but thrilling when it changes the way I see a book (or film or whatever). These are the critics I turn to repeatedly, not just for their insight into literature, but also for the sheer headiness of their writing: Christopher Ricks, Virginia Woolf, Hugh Kenner, Susan Sontag, Joseph Brodsky, Martha Nussbaum, Gabriel Josipovici, Edward Said, Harold Bloom, Cynthia Ozick, Guy Davenport, Marjorie Perloff, Zadie Smith, and Helen Vendler.

No doubt there is someone significant that I’ve forgotten from this list. Please feel free to remind me, or let me know of the critics you read for sheer pleasure.

 

‘How to Read Literature.’

J. Hillis Miller was part of the ‘Yale School,’ along with Paul de Man and Harold Bloom. Initially associated with Derrida, their strategy of deconstruction was little more than a way of prolonging the intellectual snobbery of American New Criticism, incisively critiqued in later years by Geoffrey Bennington and others.

From the J. Hillis Miller Reader comes this essay How To Read Literature, which I quite enjoyed for capturing the aporia or unresolvable contradiction between the urge to “read rapidly, allegro, in a dance of the eyes across the page,” and a wish to pause “over every key word or phrase [..] anxious not to let the text put anything over” you.

I am less convinced by the essay’s conclusion that, outside the academy at least, critical reading robs readers of the necessary mystification to maintain a love affair with literature. What do you think?

Links of the Week

Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter.

Tomas Sedlacek interview: “Consumption works like a drug. Enough is always just beyond the horizon”.

Michael Stein’s review of On the Road to Babadag: Travels in the Other Europe by Andrzej Stasiuk.

Judith Butler talks about how to read Kafka.

A Shadow Remains explores [Phillip] Toledano’s personal history as he considers the impact that love and loss has had on his life, and the life of his family.”

ŽiŽek’s essay on Kieślowskis’ fascinating ‘The Double Life of Véronique’.

Brief but fascinating thoughts about the implications of Ray Brassier’s tough Nihil Unbound.

Interview with JG Ballard (in his Shepperton home)[in English after introduction].

Eleanor Wachtel’s 1995 conversation with Harold Bloom about The Western Canon.

“On visits to Cambridge University late in life, Jorge Luis Borges offered revealing last thoughts about his reading and writing.”

Bunker archaeology.

Subversive and brilliant adbusts. “Advertising makes people … detest their appearance”.

Foucault and social media: I tweet, therefore I become.

On literature and evil, the only recorded TV interview with Georges Bataille.

Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy – full text [PDF] of Neoliberalism and its crisis.

Open City by Teju Cole

Open City is narrated by Julius, a part Nigerian, part German psychiatry student. Beginning with a strong Sebaldian influence as Julius aimlessly wanders around the streets and parks of New York, the story develops into a modern inquiry into the foundation of personality, memory, nationhood and dislocation.

Although written in the first person the narrator remains at a distance, a lonely, bookish character, more comfortable discussing literary or musical influences (Mahler, Coetzee, Barthes) than developing a relationship with a childhood friend or dying professor. This distance allows Cole, as James Wood explains below, to make his novel ‘as close to a diary as a novel can get, with room for reflection, autobiography, stasis, and repetition.’

In The Western Canon, as Biblioklept mentioned recently, Harold Bloom argues ‘that it is the strangeness and originality of a work that confers its literary power.’ Both terms are comfortably conferred on Teju Cole’s Open City, a staggeringly good novel of great potency.

Cole’s novel is subject of a strong review from James Wood:

But I hope the prospective reader will turn that first page, because the novel soon begins to throw off its obvious influences. The prose relaxes into a voice rather than an effect, and it becomes apparent that Cole is attempting something different from Sebald’s project. Eschewing the systematic rigor of Sebald’s work, as well as its atmosphere of fatigued nervous tension, Cole has made his novel as close to a diary as a novel can get, with room for reflection, autobiography, stasis, and repetition. This is extremely difficult, and many accomplished novelists would botch it, since a sure hand is needed to make the writer’s careful stitching look like a thread merely being followed for its own sake. Mysteriously, wonderfully, Cole does not botch it.

Tuesday Links

Possibly a one-off but some links below to web sites that inspired me this week, all of which I wish to come back to in the near future:

Interpolation’s reasoning for reading good literature.

The Millions’ consideration of Harold Bloom.

The freshly minted Why Not Burn Books?

I am excited about Geoff Dyer’s next book, a study of one of my favourite films.

A Geoff Dyer  (But Beautiful) Spotify playlist.

A Haruki Murakami Spotify playlist.

Spotify writers’ playlists.

Hans Henny Jahnn, an intriguing writer, sadly very little in English translation.

>Completed Madame Bovary

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In her ‘Note on the Translation’ of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Lydia Davis writes, “‘A good sentence in prose,’ says Flaubert, ‘should be like a good line in poetry, unchangeable, as rhythmic, as sonorous.’ To achieve a translation that matches this high standard is difficult, perhaps impossible.” Reading a translation of Madame Bovary is a compromise, a dilution not only of style but of idiom.

Intending to satirise the bourgeois of his day, not bourgeois with any Marxist connotations but referring to the philistine obsessed with material circumstances, Flaubert drew heavily on his work-in-progress, the Dictionary of Accepted Ideas. Over three decades, Flaubert, recorded in this Dictionary his personal irritations and as Davis describes, “certain traits such as intellectual and spiritual superficiality, raw ambition, shallow culture, a love of material things, greed, and above all a mindless parroting of sentiments and beliefs.”

The dialogue between Emma Bovary and her husband and lovers, and, of course, the pedantries of Homais, are lifted straight from Flaubert’s dictionary. Hugh Kenner adds, “If the Dictionary is useless for guiding conversation, it is useful for the writer; and the writer who used it was Flaubert himself, turning, it would seem from entry to entry precisely like a correspondence-school novelist . . . For the dictionary entries on which he based the discourses of Emma and Léon, Flaubert need not have listened to thousands of Emmas and Léons; he could have gotten “Sea: image of the infinite” [from their cliché-filled introductory conversation] directly out of other novels, and perhaps did.”

With Madame Bovary, Flaubert writes a study of provincial life as polished and crafted as a diamond, but also commences a life-long theme, “Writing books about what books do to the readers of books, one eye always on the sort of thing his own book is going to do to its own reader.”

And what Flaubert does in Madame Bovary, is to present a dubious array of unsympathetic characters, whom he subsequently annihilates with apparent relish. “Who are the ‘good’ people of the book?” asks Nabokov in his precise examination of Madame Bovary, concluding, “Emma’s father, old Rouault; somewhat unconvincingly, the boy Justin, whom we glimpse crying on Emma’s grave, a bleak note; and speaking of Dickensian notes let us not forget two other unfortunate children, Emma’s little daughter, and of course that other little Dickensian girl, that girl of thirteen, hunchbacked, a little bleak housemaid, a dingy nymphet, who serves Lheureux as clerk, a glimpse to ponder. Who else in the book do we have as good people?The best person is the third doctor, the great Lariviere, although I have always hated the transparent tear he sheds over the dying Emma.”

As I complete my rereading of Madame Bovary, I remember why she always has my sympathies in the end. Not only because of her savage destruction by the book’s narrator, Flaubert if you go back far enough, but also because she represents the repressed sensuality within us. Our response to the ennui of everyday life is to throw ourselves into work, our children, our work, or to self-medicate with alcohol, tobacco or drugs, or any combination of these. A part of us, I suspect, however deeply repressed, wants to live with the abandon of Emma Bovary.

My much-younger reading of Madame Bovary had left an impression of an artist producing the last Victorian novel. Although there are traces of high Romance, this novel presents romance of a baser nature, and a closer pre-cursor to the Moderns. Kenner, drawing a straight line between Flaubert and James Joyce, makes the point, “His [Flaubert] tight, burnished set pieces slacken considerably in translation: if we want to see something in English that resembles them, we cannot do better than consult Ulysses, where Bloom’s cat ‘blinked up out of her avid shameclosing eyes,’ or ‘Frail from the housetops two plumes of smoke ascended, pluming, and in a flaw of softness softly were blown,’ or ‘Two shafts of soft daylight fell across the flagged floor from the high barbicans; and at the meeting of their rays a cloud of coalsmoke and fumes of fried grease floated, turning.'”

Lydia Davis counted nineteen translations of Madame Bovary, there are at least a dozen film interpretations, numerous serious critical works, by writers like Nabokov, Sartre and Proust. The book’s irresistible attraction is undeniable. There are few novels I have read three times; clear evidence of Madame Bovary’s masterpiece status is that multiple readings illuminate different facets.

To end, an apt conclusion from Harold Bloom, “Though he murders her, Flaubert performs the work of mourning for her, a work that takes the shape of his masterpiece, the purest of all novels in form, economy, and the just representation of general nature.”

>Madame Bovary Pt. 2

>Rereading Part II of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is for me, an odd experience, if only because it is where I expected this story to come flooding back. After all, I read the novel twice before, albeit over twenty years ago. Yet only a faint impression remains, thus I enjoy this remarkable book almost afresh.

A recurring theme puzzled me whilst reading some of the comments on various blogs about Part I. A few commenters reported that they had abandoned Madame Bovary because they found it boring. Boring? I could just about understand readers giving the book up because they find Flaubert’s descriptive prose suffocating or cloying, or because of the lack of sympathetic characters. But boring?

Harold Bloom wrote, “With her [Emma] the novel enters the realm of inactivity, where the protagonists are bored, but the reader is not.” Perhaps Flaubert attracts polarised reactions because Madame Bovary is profoundly unsettling. Bloom again, “I wonder indeed if she does not provoke our fear as well, since she involuntary exposes the contingency of most of our passions. Even our most violent attachments are functions of mere juxtapositions of time and space.”

In the second part of Madame Bovary, the foundation of Flaubert’s pitiless destruction of his protagonist is laid. After the disappointment of Léon’s departure we glimpse the narcissism at the core of Emma’s downfall, “A woman who had required of herself such great sacrifices could surely be permitted to indulge her whims.”

Madame Bovary’s initial seduction, at the Agricultural Fair, by the oily Rodolphe, is my favourite chapter of Part II. The scene’s outcome is predictable but at, “And he grasped her hand; she did not withdraw it,” my immediate thought was ‘no, don’t do it.’ Flaubert succeeds in making this woman sympathetic, despite all.

Thereafter I read slightly breathlessly as the horrors mount: poor Hippolyte’s operation, Emma gets jilted and suffers a nervous or hysterical illness. The illness mirrors Flaubert’s nervous affliction, of which I know little. For me, Madame Bovary leads inevitably to a question: ‘why.’ Why Flaubert, a meticulous writer, who famously declared “I am Madame Bovary” chose to create and then destroy, so mercilessly, this character.

Madame Bovary Pt.1

“The Notion of Procreation was a Delectation” (translating Madame Bovary)

>"The Notion of Procreation was a Delectation"

>Alongside continuing to slowly read Madame Bovary this weekend, I’ve also been reading about the book and its writer. The posts and subsequent discussions that took place in Comments, both here and on the blogs of others participating in Nonsuch Book’s shared reading of Madame Bovary, inspired me to think and read more deeply into the hazards of translating Flaubert’s complicated prose.

Nabokov’s lecture on Madame Bovary is the yardstick, but many serious critics address the art of Flaubert. Both Hugh Kenner and Harold Bloom offer perceptive criticism of Flaubert, but the critic that, in recent years, offers the most penetrating analysis of Flaubert is James Wood.

Wood’s The Broken Estate and How Fiction Works contain helpful insight. In particular this paragraph fascinated and amused me. In the Lydia Davis translation, the sentence is: ” The idea of having engendered a child delighted him,” and shows how close Davis remains to the original.

So what did Flaubert mean by style, by the music of a sentence? This, from Madame Bovary – Charles is stupidly proud that he has got Emma pregnant: ‘L’idée d’avoir engendré le délectait.’ So compact, so precise, so rhythmic. Literally, this is ‘The idea of having engendered delighted him.’ Geoffrey Wall, in his Penguin translation, renders it as: ‘The thought of having impregnated her was delectable to him.’ This is good, but pity the poor translator. For the English is a wan cousin of the French. Say the French out loud, as Flaubert would have done, and you encounter four ‘ay’ sounds in three of the words: ‘l’idée, engend, délectait.’ An English translation that tried to mimic the untranslatable music of the French – that tried to mimic the rhyming – would sound like bad hip-hop: ‘The notion of procreation was a delectation.’

>Completed Don Quixote

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The final thirty-eight pages of Don Quixote sustained me, deliberately, over a whole day. I did not want to leave the sadness and humour of this incredible world behind me. “Don Quixote is the only book that Dr. Johnson desired to be even longer than it already was.”

With the book read I turned to the introduction. Mostly I ignore introductions, or read them after the book is read. This time I wanted further excuse to inhabit the world of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Besides, the introduction to Edith Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote is written by Harold Bloom. I have a soft spot for Bloom. His theme is familiar, drawing comparisons between Shakespeare and Cervantes, Don Quixote/Hamlet and Sancho Panza/Falstaff.

We are inside the vast book, privileged to hear the super conversations between the Knight and his squire, Sancho Panza. Sometimes we are fused with Cervantes, but more often we are invisible wanderers who accompany the sublime pair in their adventures and debacles.

Finishing this book is the end of a long but intensely worthwhile journey. I feel that I have been somewhere and met some delightful people that will stay with me for a long while. Like poor, sweet Don Quixote we are all driven more than a little mad by the stories we read.