Concentrated Exchanges

“The concentrated exchanges between Valéry “who does not forgive himself for not having been a philosopher” (Cioran) and Alain who may not have forgiven himself for not being a great novelist, like his beloved Balzac, are themselves components of a cardinal dialogue. Shorthand and the tape recorder have restored to modern philosophy some of the viva voce spontaneities and openness to questioning advocated by Plato. A considerable measure of Wittgenstein’s teaching survives in the guise of notes taken by auditors and conversations as recalled by pupils or intimates. On the banks of the Cam as on those of the Illissus. Even so mountainous a word processor as Heidegger propounds his considered views on language in dialogue with a Japanese visitor. The counter-authoritarian, anti-systematic tenor of twentieth-century philosophic instruction is restoring to orality something of its ancient role. Innovation, stimulus emanate from a Strauss or Kojève seminar. Disciples differ fruitfully over the master’s dicta and intentions. Already there is something dusty and self-defeating about vast magisterial tomes such as Jaspers on truth or Sartre on Imagination, treatises as monologue. “Dreams are knowledge” taught Valéry in his “Cimetière marin” and dreams tended to be brief.”

George Steiner, The Poetry of Thought

Steiner’s analytical reading of lyrical thought “from Hellenism to Celan” is illuminating to a similar degree as his Grammars of Creation, What I appreciate most of Steiner’s writing is not just his dissective interpretation of another writer’s thought but that he always responds with a rich meditation of his own in a way that often bears no relation to the original text, yet always comes with considerable creative force.

A Virtuoso of Disguise

“. . . in each disguise I assumed I looked better and more natural than in the last. I might appear as a Roman flute-player, a wreath of roses twined in my curly locks; as an English page in a snug-fitting satin with lace collar and plumed hat; as a Spanish bullfighter in spangled jacket and broad-brimmed hat; as a youthful abbé at the time of powdered wigs . . . whatever the costume, the mirror assured me that I was born to wear it, and my audience declared that I looked to the life exactly the person whom I aimed to represent.”

A passage from Thomas Mann’s translation of Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, translated by Denver Lindley. This reminds me to make time one day to reread Doctor Faustus and Death in Venice. Both versions I read were Helen Lowe-Porter’s translations, now generally seen as not only dubious but in the case of the latter substantively altered  out of puritanism. David Luke’s Death in Venice is considered more faithful, and we are fortunate to have John E Wood’s translations of Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus.

The Convalescent Quartet

The Busch Quartet performance of Beethoven’s A Minor Quartet – I always start at 17:29 -the third movement.

Although I have little technical knowledge of musical form, music plays as large a part in my life as literature. These last few months I’ve revisited pieces that have shaped my love of music.

The entire Op. 132 is characteristic of the unpredictability of late Beethoven, but this third movement, which Beethoven annotated as Hymn of thanksgiving to a deity from a convalescent, written to mark his recovery from a long and debilitating illness, never fails to turn me inside out. The two very fast sections that mark the transition between the three agonizingly slow chorale sections always give me a jolt, but are easily recognisable as the thrill of feeling better after those slow, timeless drowsy days of lying ill.

There is an otherworldly essence to Beethoven’s late quartets that somehow seems to anticipate so much of music to come.

The Sweet Session of Silent Thought

This is such a wonderful anecdote:

“It was 1937, the Soviet Writers Congress. It was the worst year. One of the worst years. People disappeared like flies everyday. They told [Boris] Pasternak, “if you speak they arrest you, and if you don’t speak they arrest you — for ironic insubordination. There are 2,000 people at the event. It is a three day event. Just off stage stands Zjdanov, the Stalinist killer, police killer. It was a three day meeting and every speech was thanks to brother Stalin, thanks to Father Stalin, thanks to the Leninist-Stalinist new model of truth — not a word from Pasternak. On the third day his friends said, “look, they are going to arrest you anyway, maybe you should say something for the rest of us to carry with us.” He was well over six feet, incredibly beautiful, and when Pasternak got up, everyone knew. He got up and I’m told you could hear the silence still Vladivostok. And he gave a number. A number, and two thousand people stood up. Thirty. It was the number of a certain Shakespeare sonnet — of which Pasternak had done a translation which the Russians say, with Pushkin, is one of their greatest texts, so Shakespeare: when I summon up remembrance of things past. A sonnet of Shakespeare on memory. And they recited it by heart, the two thousand people, the Pasternak translation. It said everything. It said: you can’t touch us; You can’t destroy Shakespeare; You can’t destroy the Russian language; You can’t destroy the fact that we know by heart what Pasternak has given us. And they didn’t arrest him. Well, even if the sons of bitches do arrest you — it’s too late. The people already have your treasure with them.”

The Pythagorean Genre

This weekend I continued reading George Steiner, a Faber and Faber paperback (1985) edition of his Language and Silence, first published in 1967. Few living writers inspire me to acquire and read all their books. Reading Steiner somehow makes the world feel more understandable. His work merits concentrated, slow reading and note taking. With an average of twenty pages, the essays are perfectly paced to allow time for reflection between each.

Steiner is one those great readers, on a list with Nabokov, Empson and Woolf, who seem to have read everything worth reading. He’s also a terrific prose stylist. In a field (the literary essayist) filled with overinflated reputations and accompanying egos, his literary criticism is erudite, smart and always reaching toward larger themes.

A favourite essay so far is The Pythagorean Genre, ostensibly about the decline of the novel:

“But there are other possibilities of form, other shapes of expression dimly at work. In the disorder of our affairs–a disorder made worse by the seeming coherence of kitsch–new modes of statement , new grammars of poetics for insight, are becoming visible. They are tentative and isolated. But they exist like those packets of radiant energy around which matter is said to gather in turbulent space. They exist, if only in a number of rather solitary, little understood books.

It is not the actual list that matters. Anyone can add to it or take away under the impulse of his own recognitions, It is the common factor in these works–the reaching out of language towards new relations (what we call logic), and in a wider sense towards a new syntax by which to tempt reality into the momentary but living order of words. There are books, though not many, in which the old divisions between prose and verse, between dramatic and narrative voice, between imaginary and documentary, are beautifully irrelevant or false. Just as criteria of conventional verisimilitude and common perspective were beginning to be irrelevant to the new focus on Impressionism. Starting in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, books have appeared which allow no ready answer to the question: what species of literature am I, to what genre do I belong? Works so organised–we tend to forget the imperative of life in that word–that their expressive form is integral only to themselves, they modify, by the very fact of their existence, our sense of how meaning may be communicated.”

Steiner gives some examples of an ‘apparently discontinuous, idiosyncratic series’ that he calls the ‘Pythagorean genre’, beginning with Blake and Kierkegaard, embracing Nietzsche, Péguy, Karl Kraus, possibly Walter Benjamin ‘had he not died early’, Broch, Lévi-Strauss, Wittgenstein, and ending with Ernst Bloch, ‘the foremost living writer in the ‘Pythagorean genre’.

The Voice of the Book

“A man who has read Book XXIV of the Iliad–the night meeting of Priam and Achilles–or the chapter in which Alyosha Karamazov kneels to the stars, who has read Montaigne’s chapter XX (Que philosopher c’est apprendre à mourir) and Hamlet’s use of it–and who is not altered, whose apprehension of his own life is unchanged, who does not, in some subtle yet radical manner, look on the room in which he moves, on those that knock at the door, differently–has read only with the blindness of physical sight. Can one read Anna Karenina or Proust without experiencing a new infirmity or occasion in the very core of one’s sexual feelings? To read well is to take great risks. It is to make vulnerable our identity, our self-possession.”

George Steiner, from the essay Humane Literacy in Language and Silence

The Mailman

“If one could write a single page of Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, why in the hell would you want to write a book about them. There are light years between the acts of creation and even the finest criticism and commentary ….. Pushkin had a wonderful image: he said ‘you’re the mailman; please carry the letters’. And it’s fun and exciting; I am immensely grateful for my life and profession. I am a mailman and sometimes I have been able to carry the letters to the right box, to the right readers, saying: read this, look at this. I’ve never mixed it up with writing the letter, as Pushkin most unkindly reassured us.”

In an earlier post I shared a quote on this theme. In his Desert Island Discs interview, George Steiner makes the point differently but with great clarity.

All That is Difficult Because it is Excellent

“It happens to be blindingly obvious to me that study, theological-philosophic argument, classical music, poetry, art, all that is ‘difficult because it is excellent’ (Spinoza, patron-saint of the possessed) are the excuse for life. I am convinced that one is infinitely privileged to be even a secondary attendant, commentator, instructor or custodian in some reach of these high places. I cannot, I must not negotiate this passion. Such negotiation, of which ‘political correctness’ is an infantile, deeply mendacious tactic, is the treason of the cleric. It is as in the unreason of love, a lie.”

George Steiner, Errata

Ah, George Steiner. Thank you.

The ‘Motion of Spirit’ in Translation

“If the vast majority of translations fall short of the source-texts, there are those which surpass them, whose autonomous strength obscures and marginalises the humbler ‘self’ of the original. I call this betrayal ‘transfiguration’…..What a truly inspired (very rare) act of translation offers in reparation is something new that was already there. This is not mysticism. Any thoughtful translator will know precisely what I mean…..Where it is wholly achieved, great translations being much rare than great literature, translation is no less than felt disc rouse between two human beings, ethics in action”.

– George Steiner, Errata

Most Anticipated New Books for 2018

In the first few months of last year I sampled rather more contemporary fiction than is usual for me. Frankly much of it wasn’t to my taste and ended up abandoned. Contemporary literature in any period tends toward mediocre, so it wasn’t too surprising.

This year, my new book purchasing will be much more restrained. These are those I am most looking forward to.

It isn’t any surprise that Seagull Books dominates the list as they have impeccable taste in bringing forth newly translated treasures. I also expect to make some new discoveries through my subscription to the always intriguing Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Giorgio Agamben, Pulcinella: Or Entertainment for Children (trans. Kevin Attell)
Giorgio Agamben, The Adventure (trans. Lorenzo Chiesa)
Friederike Mayröcker, Requiem for Ernst Jandl (trans. Rosalyn Theobald)
Ilse Aichinger, Bad Words (trans. Uljana Wolf and Christian Hawkey)
Pascal Quignard, Villa Amalia (trans. Chris Turner)
Rachel Cusk, Kudos
Claudio Magris, Journeying (trans. Anne Milano Appel)
Dag Solstad, Armand V (trans. Steven T. Murray)
Dag Solstad, T Singer (trans. Tiina Nunnally)
Peter Handke, The Great Fall (trans. Krishna Winston)
Jon Fosse, Scenes from a Childhood
Esther Kinsky, River (trans. Iain Galbraith)
Clarice Lispector, The Chandelier (trans. Benjamin Moser and Magdalena Edwards)
Cesare Pavese, The Beautiful Summer
Alberto Manguel, Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions
Joanna Walsh, Break.up
Kate Zambreno, Drifts (since confirmed for early 2019)
Ismail Kadare, Essays on World Literature Shakespeare, Aeschylus, Dante