The Epic of Words

Time and again in my afternoons on the plateau, I applauded the epic of words. And I laughed as well, not the laughter of ridicule, but the laughter of recognition and complicity. Yes, there is a word for the bright spot in a cloudy sky, a word for the way an ox runs back and forth on a hot day when he’s stung by a horsefly, for flame suddenly bursting from a stove, for the juice of stewed pears, for the star on a bull’s forehead, for a man on all fours extracting himself from the snow, for a woman’s stocking up on summer clothes, for the sloshing of liquid in a half-empty bucket, for the trickling of seeds out of seedpods, for the skipping of a flat stone over the surface of a pond, for icicles hanging from a tree, for the raw spot in a boiled potato, for a puddle in clayey ground. Yes, that’s the word.

In trying to select a favourite passage to reveal the languid beauty of Peter Handke’s Repetition I could have selected from so many pieces. I have a notebook filled with passages from Repetition. It is an extraordinary book, which I urge you to read. WG Sebald has written a wonderful essay [PDF] about Repetition.

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. Some of the links to PDFs disappear quickly so download them promptly.

Naked Lunch Screenshot

Naked Lunch Screenshot

William Burrough’s seminal Naked Lunch [PDF], a great book to dip into, to read in any order. Great stuff, as is Cronenberg’s film interpretation.

I’ve read Rilke since adolescence and, in a sense, cannot imagine how differently I would view art and beauty without his influence. The ten letters in Letters to a Young Poet [PDF] have enriched me immeasurably since first reading the lines, “Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody. There is only one way. Go into yourself.”

In The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow) [PDF] Derrida looks at the animal in Western Culture.

Derrida’s Writing and Difference [PDF] collects many of his early essays and lectures. Derrida’s writing at this stage is vibrant and, by Derridean standards, approachable. Included in this book is Cogito and the History of Madness, in which Derrida notably takes on Foucault’s concept of madness.

In this last Derrida link {PDF], he interviews jazz saxophonist/composer Ornette Coleman, revealing on both sides.

Deborah Parsons’ Theorist of the Modernist Novel [PDF] traces modernism through the texts of James Joyce, Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf.

Maurice Blanchot’s short, dreamlike novel, The Last Man [PDF].

William Gass’s short essay on language in fiction, The Medium of Fiction [PDF].

everything lost is a curiosity, an obscure, early notebook written by William Burroughs in Latin America during 1953, provided in handwritten and transcribed form.

Sometimes I think that Vladimir Nabokov’s lectures are better than his fiction. Lectures on Russian Literature [PDF] is brilliant. You won’t agree with Nabby on everything but you can’t fail to be stimulated by his arguments.

A brief, worthwhile essay on trauma narratives: Mending to Live: Memory, Trauma and Narration in The Writings Of Kazuo Ishiguro, Herta Müller and W. G. Sebald [PDF].

Raoul Vanigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life is a key text of the Situationists, covering broadly similar ground as Adorno, the ways that late capitalist society can pervert communication and depersonalise “subjects”.

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.

Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, film for the modern world: http://bit.ly/PcTXpZ

From Kafka to Sebald – essays on narrative form in modernist fiction: http://t.co/jJTPALWh

Maurice Blanchot and Fragmentary Writing by Leslie Hill – Preview: http://t.co/Qdjli4NO

Judith Butler – On Never Having Learned How to Live: http://bit.ly/VhrwJP

“Deleuze always insists on grasping the virtual , as it were ‘behind’ the actual.” http://bit.ly/Rd93b9

The HTMLGiant Beginner’s Guide to Deleuze: http://bit.ly/PgNudD

Frederic Jameson on Realism and Utopia in The Wire: http://awe.sm/n71Th

Fascinating piece on memory by Jenny Diski: http://awe.sm/o71JJ

Glenn Gould Explains the Genius of Johann Sebastian Bach: http://bit.ly/PEToVK

Roberto Calasso interviewed by Lila Azam Zanganeh: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6168/the-art-of-fiction-no-217-roberto-calasso

“Books are sublimely visceral, emotionally evocative objects that constitute a perfect delivery system.” http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390444868204578064483923017090.html

Remarkable colour photos from inside Nazi-occupied Poland, 1939-1940: http://t.co/n4R1Tjdy

God’s Angry Man — Werner Herzog (Full Documentary):http://bit.ly/RdqkB5

Aldous Huxley’s Most Beautiful, LSD-Assisted Death: A Letter from His Widow: http://bit.ly/PDZdTc

The story behind Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures album cover: http://thecreatorsproject.com/blog/the-story-behind-joy-divisions-iconic-iunknown-pleasuresi-album-cover

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.

Rebecca Solnit elegantly explains ‘mansplaining’.

Byung-Hun Min’s expansive grayscale landscape photography.

Anneleen Masschelein on Dylan Trigg’s The Memory of Place: Flesh World: On the New Uncanny.

A Conversation with author and architect, Suad Amiry.

Martin Scorsese’s Film School: The 85 Films You Need To See To Know Anything About Film.

Ingmar Bergman’s sensual Summer films and the transience of youth. Seasonal Disorder by José Teodoro.

Waggish post: On Georges Dreyfus’ 15 years as a Buddhist monk & Buddhist scholasticism: The Sound of Two Hands Clapping.

Simon Critchley, Atheist Religious Thinker on Utopia and the Fiction of Faith.

The wonderful Rebecca West, an interview from the BBC archives.

Face to face with JG Ballard, interview from the BBC archives.

Sven Birkerts’ brilliant essay on Sebald’s Vertigo.

Jacques Derrida: The Last Interview. [PDF]

Brian Dillon: reading Barthes throughout his formative intellectual years.

The Imaginary Museum: Collecting Paul Celan.

Brilliant interview with Simon Critchley:’On Philosophers, Violence, Humour and Tragedy’.

How to begin reading Gilles Deleuze.

Book List

In no particular order, this is a list of my favourite writers/books. Of course, it is incomplete.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Pale Fire and Speak, Memory and literary lectures
Franz Kafka
Geoff Dyer
JG Ballard
Simone de Beauvoir
Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook
Hélène Cixous
Judith Butler
Peter Handke’s The Weight of the World
Søren Kierkegaard
Marguerite Duras
JM Coetzee
Robert Walser
Roland Barthes
Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup
Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
Pascal Quignard’s The Roving Shadows
John William’s Stoner
Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea
AM Homes
Patrick Leigh Fermor
Jay Griffith’s Wild: An Elemental Journey
Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s War and War
Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness
Samuel Beckett
Simon Critchley
Noam Chomsky
Roger Deakin
Carlos Fuentes’s Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone
Ruth Reichl’s Endless Feast
Teju Cole’s Open City
Jenny Erpenbeck’s The Visitation
Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? and The Lessons of Modernism
Virginia Woolf’s later novels and diaries
Jospeh Heller’s Something Happened
WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn
Don DeLillo’s Underworld
Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening
Marcel Proust
Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva
Dante’s Divine Comedy
Kate Zambreno’s Heroines
Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych
James Joyce’s Ulysses
Richard Power’s The Time of our Singing
Will Ferguson’s Hokkaido Highway Blues

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.

Sophie Calle: stalker, stripper, sleeper, spy – From following a stranger to Venice to burying her mother’s jewellery at the north pole, Sophie Calle is France’s foremost artist of the unexpected.

Sophie Calle: Detail from Take Care of Yourself (2007).

Violette Editions: Sophie Calle’s Double Game, which takes the form of a double jeu, a ‘double game’, between the work of Sophie Calle and the fiction of Paul Auster.

Sub Rosa post: The unconventional world of Mary Ruefle.

The Art of Memory post: Pictures of Gerhard Richter’s Atlas.

Stephen Mitchelmore essay: Looking and Looking Away – WG Sebald’s fiction and On the Natural History of Destruction.

In lieu of a field guide post: Vila-Matas’s lecture novel (A review of Never Any End to Paris).

Javier Marías essay: The Hero’s Dreadful Fate (The decline of Westerns).

Guardian review: Introduction to Antiphilosophy by Boris Groys – An electrifying set of essays on continental thinkers.

Logos essay (Stephen Eric Bronner): Modernism, Surrealism, and the Political Imaginary.

In lieu of a field guide post: Woman in the Dunes (directed by Teshigahara Hiroshi).

London Cross – A straight line walk across London: If you walk across a great city such as London in two straight lines, south to north and east to west – a cross-section – what do you find?

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.

Pure Literature

Biblioklept’s excellent post ‘Why I Abandoned Chad Harbach’s Over-Hyped Novel The Art of Fielding After Only 100 Pages’  is worth your time, as are the comments that follow about the nature of ‘literary fiction.’

One commenter adds, “Also, have you heard of the distinction made in Japanese between literary fiction and ‘pure literature?'” I haven’t but it sounds suspiciously like the old high/middlebrow debate, interesting in an abstract way but endlessly open to debate and reinterpretation. When I have some time I will follow up the sources of the argument .

Biblioklept kicked off a list of ‘strong/strange’ literature, based on a Bloom argument that, ‘it is the strangeness and originality of a work that confers its literary power.’ This position makes sense to me, as does Biblioklept’s ‘short list of relatively contemporary books (past thirty or fifty years) that I think will challenge readers who want more from their novels than a retread of the old-fashioned and well behaved.’

Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, Renata Adler’s Speedboat, David Foster Wallace’s novels and short stories, Cormac McCarthy’s novels (especially Blood Meridian and Suttree), Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker or Kleinzheit, Barry Hannah’s Airships and Ray, anything by W.G. Sebald, William T. Vollmann’s The Rifles or Butterfly Stories, Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask, Lars Iyers’s Spurious, PK Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Gordon Lish’s short stories, Denis Johnson’s Angels, Thomas Pynchon’s V, Don DeLillo’s Underworld or White Noise.

To which I added, over coffee and cornflakes (a dozen others occur to me now):

Most of Geoff Dyer’s work (especially Out of Sheer Rage: In the Shadow of D.H.Lawrence), Peter Handke’s Across, Thomas Bernhard’s Correction, Tejo Cole’s Open City, J. M. Coetzee’s novels, Lydia Davis’s novels and short stories, Gerald Murnane’s Barley Patch and Vyacheslav Pyetsukh’s The New Moscow Philosophy.

UPDATE

Words Beyond Borders offered the following suggestions: The Dictionary Of Khazars by Milorad Pavic and Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow. Saramago and Murakami works would also make my list. Thank you for the two titles, both new to me, and I would endorse Saramago and Murakami.

I don’t wish to poach any suggestions from Bibilioklept, so I have closed this post for further comments. If you have any additions to Biblioklept’s list, please head over to add them here.

Twentieth Century German Novels

Whether due to common themes and/or the willingness to experiment with form and technique, I am drawn to German-language literature (in translation) more than any other. I am excited by two new studies due this autumn, both edited by Stuart Taberner.

Emerging German-Language Novelists of the Twenty-First Century (Camden House) offers fifteen essays examining in detail the major work of contemporary German-language novelists like Daniel Kehlmann, Karen Duve and Alina Bronsky. “Between them they represent a range of literatures in German, from women’s writing to minority writing (from Turkish immigrants and Eastern Europe), to “pop literature” and perspectives on the former GDR and on Germany’s Nazi past.”

The Novel in German since 1990 (Cambridge University Press) presents close readings of a series of brilliant novels including W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, Elfriede Jelinek’s Greed, Herta Müller’s The Land of Green Plums and Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World. “Each novel discussed in the volume has been chosen on account of its aesthetic quality, its impact and its representativeness.”

The Missing of the Somme by Geoff Dyer

There is an almost Sebaldian seriousness to Geoff Dyer’s The Missing of the Somme, also like Sebald is the preoccupation with memory and mortality. This being Dyer’s non-fiction, this haunted exploration of remembrance is loosely interwoven with the road-trip Dyer and his friends make along the Western Front: ‘None of us is quite sure whether we’re on a gloomy holiday or a rowdy pilgrimage’.

We lie on our beds, half pissed. Mark is reading Death’s Men; Paul, They Called It Passchendaele; I read The Challenge of the Dead. Eventually, the other two drop off to sleep. I go on reading. I ‘lie, sleepless, with Ypres on the heart, and then suddenly a grand tumult of explosion, a sound as of the tumbling of heavy masonry’. [..] Paul snoring.

Explaining why he chose to write a ‘war book’ Dyer explains:

And this book? Like the youthful Christopher Isherwood who wanted to write a novel entitled ‘A War Memorial’, I wanted to write a book that was not about ‘the War itself but the effect of the idea [of the War] on my generation.’ Not a novel but an essay in mediation: research notes for a Great War novel I had no intention of writing, the themes of a novel without its substance . . .

Beginning with a meditation on old black and white family photographs, Dyer presents brief ‘notes’, on the Great War as presented in poetry, memorials, architecture, prose, film, photographs and visitors’ books. It might not be the first Geoff Dyer book you should read, but if his writing speaks to you deeply you will want to get to it sometime.