My Year of Reading: 2016

I bear no guilt for reading fewer books this year than any other in recent memory – I regret only my morbid fascination with the sulphurous news, as the worst aspects of human nature become manifest. My natural refuge in literature has proved insufficient distraction to the horrifying potency of watching vultures tearing at a creature’s entrails, gripped and subdued by the grisly pantomime. I don’t wish to drown in the spectacle. I must find balance and some self-discipline, though only imagine that this year is merely grisly prelude to further gross stupidity and narcissism next year.

It is Jorge Semprún’s writing that proved most alluring this year. In writing Literature or Life, he chose to end a “long cure of aphasia, of voluntary amnesia” to write this lightly fictionalised memoir, controlling and channeling his complex memories of the evil exerted during his incarceration in Buchenwald. I read backwards to the lyrical reticence of The Long Voyage, an almost dispassionate account of the cattle train journey to the concentration camp”. Semprún reassures that it is possible to both write poetically and read about barbarism. Literature or Life is one of those books that sit on one’s shelves for years before one is compelled to read even a sentence. The image that lingers most intensely from Literature or Life is his consideration of which books to take on a return to Buchenwald to film a documentary about the camp. In the end he opts for Mann’s The Beloved Returns and a volume of Celan, who perhaps has written the greatest poems about the Holocaust. Semprún quotes a verse from Celan, “hoping, today/ for a thinking man’s/ future word/ in my heart.”

Another book that languished unread on my shelves was a fine first edition of Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai. Greatness resides in this wonderfully singular story of a mother and son obsessed with Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai. I was swept helplessly along by the the torrent of DeWitt’s thought who brings into her novel not only Kurosawa but Ptolemaic Alexandria, Ancient Greek and Fourier analysis. There is a curious quality to the work –stark, lonely, even sadistic– it is one of the most original novels of our time, original as regards sensibility.

I discovered Max Frisch’s work this year. Frisch’s novels offer up a world where no-one is allowed to rest easy; self is thrown back upon uneasy self. There is no escape. Not that Frisch is without hope; his novels unfold the twisted and often darkly comic search for a way out. It is Homo Faber that made the deepest impression, its melancholy cadences contrasting with the ice burn revelation of an incestuous relationship with his daughter.

This year also gave me Anna Kavan’s haunting imagery. The stories in Julie and the Bazooka and I am Lazarus read like a heightened version of Burroughs’s fantasies. Kavan can be gruesomely funny, but with a richness that lies in her proximity to the sensory and the unconscious. It is the chilling tales of narcosis wards that remain, months after reading these stories, the struggle to awaken from speechless unconsciousness. Kavan’s writing, though piercingly clear, is best taken in small doses for its horror and loneliness weighs numbly on the heart.

I’ve read Christopher Logue’s Homer in part during its long evolution but War Music collects all the parts of his adaption of the Iliad into a single edition. This is Homer channelled through Logue’s erudition and the jarring of modern technology. It is a creative ‘translation that shouldn’t work but Logue invigorates an epic that always appears modern.

As the year approaches its end, Reiner Stach’s Kafka: The Early Years is casting a very strong spell over me, This first volume is the last of three to be published due to an overhanging lawsuit. Auden wrote, “Biographies of writers are always superfluous and usually in bad taste”, but there are a few brilliant, definitive biographies that count as essential. This and Stach’s companion piece Is that Kafka? restore Kafka from cliché so we might return to his writing anew.

Here is a list of the 55 books I’ve read so far this year.

A Poem by Inga Ābele

what are you my beloved night pragmatist
darkness in rings
wine and an ancient harpsichord in the corner

snakes sleep in alcohol do you see
you said –
how profligacy sleeps
waiting for the kiss of awakening

there’s such a profession – to attract looks
and to spin away in the sparks of the furnace

Inga Ābele, Night pragmatist. Trans. Inara Cedrins

Logue’s Homer

Robert Fagle’s Iliad is bright and powerful. Without sacrificing Homeric style, Fagles brings a modern voice to the Iliad. I also love Alice Oswald’s Memorial, an idiosyncratic and gorgeous account of the Iliad that puts force at the centre of the poem, without any of what Simone Weil calls “moments of grace,” those rare glimpses of love and friendship that serve to contrast the force and violence. I’ve eyed George Chapman’s translation, by all accounts pyrotechnic in parts. Instead I turned to the late Christopher Logue’s War Music: An Account of Homer’s Iliad.

Logue breaks the rules. He is unable to read a word of Ancient Greek, relying rather on existing translations. He ignores Homeric style, introducing contemporary poetic techniques, and as if that isn’t sufficiently iconoclastic he creates new episodes and fashions a narrative of his own. Logue’s Homer has been dribbled out incrementally since 1959 and he still hadn’t finished when he died in 2011. It shouldn’t work but the sublime of Homer in the hands of Logue becomes exquisite and exalted. This edition brings all of Logue’s Homer into one book, including various unplaceable fragments.

Homer’s resonance rings out over millennia. His story is both ancient and modern. In the following passage it is possible to see how Logue helps us to see the Iliad through fresh eyes:

They passed so close that hub skinned hub.
Ahead, Patroclus braked a shade, and then,
And as gracefully as men in oilskins cast
Fake insects over trout, he speared the boy,
And with his hip, his pivot, prised Thestor up and out
As easily as later men detach
A sardine from an open tin.

Oilskins? “Braked a shade”? And that licentious “later men”? Logue’s Homer, in a single edition, is a work of utter brilliance.

Claudio Magris’s A Different Sea

the-dreamer-1840-jpglargeOne morning as I was riding my bicycle–I must have been around five or six years of age–I was struck by the sensation of being ‘me’. It hadn’t occurred to me before but the feeling persisted for several minutes. I saw myself for the first time as distinct from the people around me. In Sartre’s essay on Baudelaire, he writes that “Everyone in his childhood has been able to observe the accidental and shattering apparition of the consciousness of self.” When I was able, much later, to think coherently about that sensation of personal identity, I understood it to be composed of a person’s past and present.

Claudio Magris’s A Different Sea is a narrative about a protagonist seeking non-being, an experiment with living each moment fully, without desire or projection. His sense of self is fashioned by “Homer, the tragedians, the Pre-Socratics, Plato, and the New Testament in the original Greek, and Schopenhauer – also, of course, in the original; the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Sermon of Benares and the other teachings of Buddha; Ibsen, Leopardi, and Tolstoy.” Magris raises important questions that many of us struggle with about personal autonomy, authenticity and identity–how to make the transition from an aesthetic to ethical selfhood? His protagonist, Enrico Mreule, choses an austere, solitary life that leads not only to his own progressive mental deterioration but that of the people he choses to have around him.

Man is not a particularly dignified species but it is compelling to read an account of a character with a heroic, fate haunted conception of self. Enrico, like Philoctetes who he admires, tries to establish a life solely dependent on himself but of course, like all of us, is enmeshed in a web of complex forces. Past relationships and emotions are a crucial part of our consciousness of self. To disregard such forces is to put our sense of identity at risk. Magris’s novel is all too brief, but remarkable to follow Enrico’s life journey from nobility to pity, and use the space to reflect on human nature and the values that ought govern a human life.

A Parisian Memory

In the last days of enjoying long childhood-afternoons, in that transitory place between child and adult, I went to live in Paris. While at boarding school, I was profoundly affected by Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. He cast a portentous shadow over Paris and its beauty was insufficient compensation for the confusion of its streets. In time I’d find Paris the most thrilling city I’d ever lived, but not until I’d found my cold, dark room in a garret above a century-old bookstore with shelves full of books by left-wing philosophers.

The decision to go to Paris was whimsical, partly for a dark, brooding woman who looked like Zelda Fitzgerald –or perhaps Lou Andreas-Salomé, I can no longer recall–but also borne of a vision of roaming the endless hallways of the Louvre and other art galleries, confronting the secrets of the masterpieces. By day and night, Paris unfolded as I walked its streets, returning to my room with gifts of young artichokes, Mont d’Or cheese and village Burgundies, which were stored on the small balcony that served as our refrigerator.

Over a wet autumn, I read Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, craving solitude so I could read beginning to end, surrounded by his confidantes, patronesses and lovers. I visited Proust’s grave at Père-Lachaise Cemetery and afterwards ate cold, salty oysters in his honour. To reread passages of Proust today is to be swept back to chestnut trees shedding dark reds and golds in the Luxembourg Gardens, flower beds lapsing to winter, and the taste of duck pâté, spread roughly on a baguette with a wood-handled pocket knife.

On my last day in Paris I ate sweetbreads for the first time at Les Deux Magots, where Beauvoir and Sartre argued philosophy with their entourage, and made un petit express last an hour so I could eavesdrop a conversation at the next table about the limits of knowledge. I copied a line into my notebook from the seventh Duino Elegy, “Nowhere, Beloved, will world be but within us. Our life passes in transformation. And the external wanes ever smaller.”

In Nino’s Attic

Claudio MagrisA new addition to my libraries in fiction collection:

“Up in Nino’s attic in Gorizia they would read Homer, the tragedians, the Pre-Socratics, Plato, and the New Testament in the original Greek; the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Sermon of Benares and the other teachings of Buddha; Ibsen, Leopardi, and Tolstoy.”

Claudio Magris, A Different Sea, trans. M. S. Spurr

America has voted in Donald Trump. – Reading in the afternoon.

Kafka’s diary entry for Sunday August 2nd 1914 was “German has declared war on Russia.– Swimming in the afternoon.” It is echoed in the reaction of Joseph K. to his arrest in The Trial, “Of course I’m surprised, but by no means greatly surprised”.

I don’t use this blog to write about politics, nor do I intend to seek meaning in the unfolding of Trump’s victory, or the devastating British referendum earlier this year. We must all respond individually to the cultural and political framework imposed on us. Like Kafka, I’m surprised, but by no means greatly surprised.

This year is a triumph of the narcissistic selfishness of the social elite and mediocre political and journalistic establishment. In the UK and US, we are now in the hands of a feudal elite intent on evolving the failed neoliberal experiment into a form a government corporation. Both administration’s yearning for rebirth and regeneration, combined with a cynical contempt for social values, are evidence of fascism.

America has voted in Donald Trump.–Reading in the afternoon.

Seagull Books / My Sense of Soul

Regular readers of Time’s Flow Stemmed will know of my profound admiration of Seagull Books. In a time of sweeping intellectual nihilism, Seagull publish books that change the possibilities of art, perpetuating the work of serious publishers like Adelphi and Suhrkamp.

Seagull Books’s annual catalogue combines enticing prose and elegant production. The beautiful 2016-2017 edition includes contributions from some favourite lit bloggers, and also my brief response which follows Naveen Kishore’s “provocation”:

“Soul he said. Soul as the prison of the body. Soul I asked? What about the ones who don’t believe? In soul. Or God. Or religion. The ones that understand the body for what it is. Accept its one-way journey towards the inevitable. The body as decay. Gradual ruin. Eventual crumbling. We all know this. Or those that think the ‘inner core’, or what I presume is a ‘substitute’ for the notion of ‘soul’, is actually just an ever changing, evolving, fermenting mass of literature that grows. And grows. And knows freedom. And fear. And emotion. And love. And death. And every kind of existential angst that any soul worth its weight in gold would know! What about me? I asked. Or you for that matter. We who write and read and write and continue to both read and write while our bodies grow old and tired. But the mind. The mind remains in a state of excitement. Constantly radiant. Its brilliance grows with every new thought. What if we substitute ‘literature’ for ‘soul’ in your proud statement so that it now reads ‘Literature as the prison of the body’. Thing is that this doesn’t hold. Literature cannot be a space that restricts movement. Or freedom. At least it shouldn’t be. It is meant to be a liberating presence. Like its close companion. The dark. For me the dark is important. The dark as a substitute for soul? Maybe. Darkness is essential for literature of meaning to grow and take root.”

My sense of soul is rooted in Aristotle who also used the term psyche in a time before we rooted psychology in the brain, rather as a form or a forming of the whole body. Wax and imprint, like Ovid’s Pygmalion, are one, but this begs the question of how we become one. Identity is a precondition for unity of self, awareness of our selves. The eye is for sight, the ear for hearing but there is no organ of memory, no place in the body where identity can be seen to reside.

In my imagination I venture deep into the caves of Lascaux where humans, sometime between 15,000 and 10,000 BC painted falling horses into the cracks in the rocks. If I imagine carefully I can catch obliquely a shimmering of half-recalled moving images that was perhaps in the mind of a human in this time before language. It seems to me that we retain a sense of this inner life during our dreams, when sound, smells, gestures have primacy over the spoken or written word. Language seems a less direct, less rich way of interrelating with the world around us.

Chimpanzees are thought to have the ability to understand other’s behaviour by inferring from unobservable signs, such as desires, feelings, beliefs and thoughts. If this is true it casts powerful light on fundamental aspects of human nature, of what life might of been like for languageless humans.

Pascal Quignard, indebted to Lacan, likens the acquisition of verbal language to loss, a second death, when an infant’s worldview is transfigured into a system of commonplace signs. Quignard insists that ears are the earliest organs to develop in our prenatal state, that our time in the womb is a long maternal symphony. We lie around, increasingly cramped in non-verbal life until we are torn from our self-contained kingdom into a place of language and identity. Everything we gain is haunted by our loss. Celan captured fully the nature of this tragedy when he wrote, “Whichever word you speak—/you owe/to destruction.”

“Perception,” wrote Bergson, “is completely impregnated by memory-images which, in interpreting it, complete it.” I was only eighteen months old when my mother died. My memory-image of her is of a shadowy nature, based wholly on a small selection of photographs and anecdotes. In memory, my mother is without voice, of which I have no recollection, though she was musical and must have sung to me often. Depersonalisation, characterised by an inescapable sense of strangeness and unreality, is a not uncommon response to sudden loss. My earliest memories are of retreating into a fantasy world where books and drawings soon became more real than the estranged, not-right world around me.

Identity, in the way that Quignard appears to use the term, is a slippery concept. In the case of depersonalisation, identity is extraordinarily elusive. Our unique selves, for the sake of stability, rely on a sense of continuity. The most useful definition for me, is that of William James, who identified the hallmark of personal identity as the “consciousness of personal sameness.” A secure sense of identity is undermined when our concept of self is variable. A state of depersonalisation is often characterised by the appearance of images and sensations from the preconscious, not unlike our non-verbal dream worlds.

Though words are the tools of literature, I think, in some sense, we take for granted the way our identities are transformed by all that literature embodies. While reading, our mind is forming image concepts in the same way it does when using other sensory systems, such as hearing, touch and gesture. The mediation of memory through the vivid images that literature provides, in all their vicarious delicacy, can be redemptive. Didn’t Orwell exhort us to use invigoratingly fresh metaphors to evoke a powerful visual imagery?

Marie Antoinette’s/Blair’s Fool

The headline I catch sight of momentarily across the train is “Blair was like Louis XVI”. The paragraph I read next in Jay Griffiths’s Tristimania:

“The nineteenth-century scholar Paul Lacroix visited Versailles and found an old man living there, with white hair, surrounded by old furniture, old pictures, old knick-knacks and a multitude of relics in the fashion of Louis XVI . . . it was Marie Antoinette’s fool.”

A simple paragraph that contains a novel. Read alongside the newspaper headline it conjures Alastair Campbell, Blair’s fool, the trickster spin-doctor barely hidden in Malcolm Tucker in the series The Thick of It.

Reiner Stach’s Is That Kafka? 99 Finds

Certain ghosts appear and vanish while wandering around Prague, none more so than Kafka. Little of the city Kafka knew remains but he looms in the background, now enthusiastically adopted by his native city, or at least its tourist board. Kafka is now considered a Prague writer, though plays no part in the Czech educational curriculum and is subject to gross simplifications and frequent misinformation by tour guides and locals.

A less obvious ghost was Roth’s Zuckerman, perpetually anxious about the relationship between art and life. Zuckerman meets a character who “administers the culture of Czechoslovakia, whose job is to bring the aims of literature into line with the aims of society, to make literature inefficient, from a social point of view”, which seemed  apt.

While in Prague this week, I read Reiner Stach’s Is That Kafka? 99 Finds. Any aspiring or present Prague tour guide ought to be obliged to read this fascinating book, hopefully acting as a gateway drug to Stach’s magnificent three-volume life of Kafka, translated into English, a decade’s work, by Shelley Frisch. (The third and final volume is due next month.)

Despite the lucidity of Kafka’s writing and the ordinariness of his life, he is perhaps more misunderstood than any other writer and subject to easy generalisation. Thanks to the letters, diaries, aphorisms, fragments, parables, and traces we find of Kafka in his extraordinary fiction, we know as much about Kafka as we need. In Is That Kafka? 99 Finds, Stach normalises Kafka, destabilising the Franz Kafka that has become an adjective for an existential condition. Stach delivers 99 facts that could have been relegated to footnotes in his biography but stand alone to give a more colourful picture of Kafka’s preoccupations, and how he wove these as motifs into his stories.

The Other Side of Thought

There are so many passages I might have selected from Nancy’s Corpus, this dense, demystifying discourse on the body in its widest sense. I shan’t write further at this time about Nancy but will explore his antiphilosophy or nonphilosophy further.

Rock: under this body cadence of body, it turns out that our world has deployed a rhythmical world-wideness, from jazz to rap and beyond, a crowd, a proliferation, a glut, a popularity of postures, a zoned, massed, electronic skin, which, if we insist, we can certainly call noise, because in fact it is, to begin with, background noise arising where forms no longer hold sway, no longer make sense (social, common, sentimental, metaphysical)–and where, to the contrary, aesthetics will have to be reworked at the level of bodies with naked senses, deprived of reference points, disoriented, disoccidented, and where arts have to be reworked, through and through, as the technē of the creation of bodies. Yes, noise: it’s like the other side of thought, but also like the rumblings in the coils on the body.”

Jean-Luc Nancy, Corpus (trans. Richard A. Rand)

Lisa Dwan’s No’s Knife

Lisa Dwan - No's Knife (2016)

Lisa Dwan – No’s Knife (2016)

“Where would I go, if I could go, who would I be, if I could be, what would I say, if I had a voice, who says this, saying it’s me? Answer simply, someone answer simply. It’s the same old stranger as ever, for whom alone accusative I exist, in the pit of my inexistence, of his, of ours, there’s a simple answer.”

A kind of troglodyte, amalgamated to the mire, moaning with decrepitude, Lisa Dwan’s subversive prayer in No’s Knife declaimed out loud but felt inwardly reminds me of nothing less than Dante. His muddy bog people in the Stygian marsh, raging, fixed in the slime. Dante’s slothful souls create bubbles on the water’s surface from the hymn gurgling in their throats. Beckett isn’t present in No’s Knife but Lisa Dwan enacts the inferno with Beckett.

Jorge Semprún’s Literature or Life

The Greeks called it Avernus, the Birdless Place, the entrance to the underworld, where according to Virgil ‘no winged creatures could ever wing their way’. Virgil sees no birds until he returns above ground, nor does Molloy on his own metaphorical journey to the underworld saying ‘I had not heard a bird for a long time. How was it I had not heard any in the forest? Nor seen any.’

The conspicuous absence of birds is one of Jorge Sepmrún’s recurring memories of his journey through death in Buchenwald, written about in his staggeringly moving and insightful Literature or Life. ‘No birds left. They say the smoke from the crematory drove them away. Never any birds in this forest . . .’ With these words Semprún greets four soldiers about to enter Buchenwald on the first morning of its liberation.

David Morris, writing on the Freudian uncanny, writes that it [unheimlich] ‘derives its terror not from something externally alien or unknown but–on the contrary–from something strangely familiar which defeats our efforts to separate ourselves from it’. Semprún for many years is unable to write directly of his experience, ‘I start to doubt the possibility of telling the story. Not that what we lived through is indescribable. It was unbearable, which is something else entirely (that won’t be hard to understand), something that doesn’t concern the form of a possible account but its substance. Not its articulation, but its density.’

Semprún chooses a ‘long cure of aphasia, of voluntary amnesia’ despite the dangers of suppression, until the suicide of Primo Levi unlocks a need to represent his journey into, and out the other side of death. These memoirs ask the question, how to write of these unimaginable terrors in a way people can hear, can understand? Semprún shows that there needn’t be a disjunction between literature and life, that it is possible to write poetically about barbaric events. Perhaps he demonstrates quite the opposite, that literature (poetry) is precisely the response needed for terrors like Buchenwald.

The obscure desire to go on living . . .

“I’d need only close my eyes, even today. It wouldn’t take any effort—on the contrary, the slightest distraction of a memory brimful of trifles, of petty joys, would be enough to summon that ghost. Distraction from the shimmering opacity of life’s offerings. Only a moment would suffice, at any moment. Distraction from oneself, from the existence that inhabits and possesses us, stubbornly, obtusely: the obscure desire to go on living, to persevere in this obstinacy for whatever reason, or unreason. It would take only a single instant of distraction from oneself, from others, from the world, an instant of non desire, of quietude this side of life, an instant when the truth of that long-ago, primal event would rise to the surface, and the strange smell would drift over the hillside of the Ettersberg, that foreign homeland to which I always return.

It would take only a moment, any moment, unguarded, at random, out of the blue, at point-blank-range. Or just the opposite: a carefully considered decision.

The strange smell would immediately invade the reality of memory. I would be reborn there; I would die if returned to life there. I would embrace and inhale the muddy, heady odour of that estuary of death.”

Jorge Semprún, Literature or Life. (trans. Linda Coverdale)

What I’ve Been Reading

Valerio Adami

Valerio Adami

It’s a long time since I’ve begun to read a book with such expectation and hope as in reading The Last Samurai but I am greatly impressed with its brilliance, originality and construction. I’ve read comparisons between the writing of David Foster Wallace and Helen DeWitt but it seems to me that they do a great disservice to DeWitt, whose subtle allusion contrasts the excessively redundant exposition of Infinite Jest. DeWitt’s story is open-ended, often playful but dexterously peels layer after layer of cultural realities to question and subvert the meaning of education. A new edition of The Last Samurai is published by New Directions. The book deserves a wider audience for its uncommon, unsettling story.

I also read Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things, a collection of his essays previously written and published. As always with such compilations, the quality is mixed, the most commendable being those on the subject of photography. Cole’s intellectual and visual sensibilities are acute and he draws together photography and politics to show how our world is shaped by images and their unreliability. In writing of photography’s slippery relationship with reality, Cole echoes Sontag’s description of photography as making works that are “no generic exception to the usual shady commerce between art and truth.”

I’ve been engrossed with Eva. K. Barbarossa’s Adelphi Project and the intriguing list of titles accumulated in the Biblioteca Adelphi, so I finally made time for Roberto Calasso’s The Art of the Publisher, both elegant and insightful and further fuel for an imagination already fired by the Biblioteca series, birthed by Roberto Bazlen and now managed by Calasso. The greatest pleasure of Calasso’s essay compilation is his consideration of some of his favourite publishers—Giulio Einaudi, Luciano Foà, Roger Straus, Peter Suhrkamp, and Vladimir Dimitrijević. What Calasso also gave me in this collection is this extraordinary Bazlen quote: ‘The world now is a world of death – formerly one was born alive and gradually one would die. Nowadays one is born dead – and some manage to come gradually to life.”

This summer I’ve been rereading Michael Hofmann’s poems, slowly and somewhat obsessively. Hofmann is a passionate reader of boundless curiosity, whose reading accumulates impressions that are woven into his rich and sensual autobiographical poems. It is nerve-wracking revisiting a poet nostalgic from youth but the work remains fresh and full of magic, and I’ll be continuing my journey back through Hofmann’s languorous waltz with language.