Sunday Notes

Finding a writer and book that you never knew existed is a pleasing serendipity. Steve Mitchelmore listed with his favourite books of 2021, Gabriel Josipovici’s 100 Days and Ellis Sharp’s Twenty-Twenty.

Steve’s description of Sharp’s book was compelling. I have some resistance to the term ‘autofiction’, but Twenty-Twenty sits in that mode of life-writing that acknowledges the impossible sincerity of autobiography, but invokes the genre at the same time as addressing its fictional nature. The constraint of both this and Josipovici’s book is time, to record daily for a year. Both struggle against the compulsion to write, but succeed in reshaping the autobiographical genre to their needs, in Sharp’s case to rail against the treatment of Palestinians, Zionism and the way in which the Labour Party dealt with the largely unproven accusations of anti-Semitism. Framing his polemic is an elusive listing of books read, films and television programmes watched, meals eaten, and daily appearances of his  daughter. Twenty-Twenty is as mesmerising as Jacques Roubaud’s The Great Fire of London, which also addresses the question of how language can be coerced to give an adequate expression of lived experience.

I’ve not returned to Caroline Alexander’s translation of The Iliad. Instead I started reading a collection of Ellis Sharp’s essays: Sharply Critical. I went to the bookshop this week to pick up a copy of Byung-Chul Han’s latest book, Hyperculture, Antonio Scurati’s M : Son of the Century, and Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey. In the post yesterday was a copy of George Eliot’s translation of Spinoza’s Ethics.

The picture at the top is a pastel by Chantal Joffe, which has been much in my mind this week.

Rereading and George Eliot

Inevitably, perhaps, distraction came during Book 3 of The Iliad. To admire dedicated rereaders, as I do, is insufficient inducement to compel me to turn to an old favourite again, not often enough to make me a Nabokovian good reader; “A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.” I shall settle for dilettante reader status for now and promise to try better. Ellis Sharp’s Twenty-Twenty kept whispering my name, linked in my mind to Gabriel Josipovici’s 100 Days, both of which Steve listed as his favourite books of last year. I’ve been dipping again into the latter, rereading with great pleasure.

This afternoon I went to a bookshop to buy George Eliot’s Scenes of Clerical Life. Before adopting her nom de plume, Eliot taught herself Latin and spent a decade translating Spinoza’s Ethics, the first translation into English, unfortunately not published in her lifetime. Only after completing this project did she turn to writing fiction, Scenes being her first published collection of stories.

In a letter to Dr. Payne in 1876 Eliot wrote, “My writing is simply a set of experiments in life—an endeavour to see what our thought and emotion may be capable of—what stores of motive. . . give promise of a better after which we may strive to keep hold of as something more sure than shifting theory.” I am fascinated to explore how Eliot’s ideas found expression in her fiction. Clare Carlisle, in an interview, argued that Eliot is a philosophical novelist. My plan is to trace Eliot’s thinking through the fiction. This will, of course, involve rereading Middlemarch as I progress chronologically, if I am able to resist the distractions of a library with over six-hundred unread books.

Sunday Notes

Today is Epiphany II, the second Sunday after Epiphany. About a month ago I decided to listen to each Bach Cantata, as performed by John Eliot Gardiner, The Monteverdi Choir and The English Baroque Soloists. It isn’t a question of religion, (to which I answer ‘yes and no’ when asked), just a way to spend more time with my music collection.

The picture above is one of those currently exhibited at Victoria Miro, a selection of Paula Rego works that are rarely shown. I don’t think any were included in last year’s magnificent Tate Britain retrospective. Those in the Depression series are particularly remarkable.

Peter Bradshaw was right in his assessment of The Father, which I watched last night. It is deeply moving and more than a little scary to anyone closer to the end of life than the beginning. It brought to mind a line from a poem by Hayden Carruth: Words misremembered, ideas frayed like old silk. The economy of that last phrase has stayed with me long after I forgot the poem.

I’m reading The Iliad again, this time in a modern (2015) translation by Caroline Alexander. Is this the first translation of the poem in English by a woman? It is readable, elegant even without rhythmic regularity, but it will have to go far to substitute for Fagles as my favourite.  Alexander’s translation successfully competed for my attention over Clare Carlisle’s Spinoza’s Religion, her pious reading of Spinoza’s Ethics. I found her argument compelling and hope to return to her book later in the year.

January: A Start

“The constant, fundamental underlying urge is surely to live more, to live a larger life.”

— Ludwig Hohl, The Notes

It is in the spirit of Montaigne that Ludwig Hohl writes in The Notes. You might call him a philosopher, but, if so, it is in that real sense that one uses philosophy to fashion a way of passing the world through your being. The Notes or On Non-premature Reconciliation will sustain me in the same way as Leopardi’s Zibaldone. Each one of us in our own medium, fearing that we may not be sufficient to our brief lives on the earth, that we might fail to embrace this life with enough joy, enough consciousness, with death closer than the nearest corner. This is Hohls’s project: to recognise the possibility of humanity. This edition is translated by Tess Lewis, razor-sharp imagery and language, reads like it isn’t a translation.

Also in this new year, Monsieur Proust’s Library by Anna Muhlstein. Come not for the bibliophilic fantasy of a weekend spent in Marcel’s well-appointed book-room, but to read Proust through the eyes of someone who knows the text deeply and intricately. Worth the time just to draw attention to the presence of Ruskin in Proust: “I don’t claim to know English. I claim to know Ruskin”.

Reading intentions – 2022

Such that they are. Readers that persist with this blog will detect that though my intentions  are good, my attentiveness to anything resembling a plan is not. There will be Ancient Greek and Roman literature in new translations (Homer, Sappho, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Catullus, Lucretius, Virgil, Horace, Ovid and Seneca). I’ll be sampling Katherine Mansfield’s stories, and rereading Dostoevsky. I’d also like to get to Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers. Expect me to keep dipping into my favourite authors. The rest, as always, will be serendipitous wild reading.

Playing a Ghostly Part

Nadja, translated by Richard Howard. Such a beginning augurs a pyrotechnic display of style. The sentence is direct yet constrained. I am drawn in by its rhythmic effect, enhanced by the numerous minor vacillations. I will memorise these lines and play with them for a few days. I might even read on.

Who am I? If this once I were to rely on a proverb, then perhaps everything would amount to knowing whom I “haunt.” I must admit that this last word is misleading, tending to establish between certain beings and myself relations that are stranger, more inescapable, more disturbing than I intended. Such a word means much more than it says, makes me, still alive, play a ghostly part, evidently referring to what I must have ceased to be in order to be who I am. Hardly distorted in this sense the word suggests that what I regard as the objective, more or less deliberate manifestations of my existence are merely the premises, within the limits of this existence, of an activity whose true extent is quite unknown to me.