Good Friday

In the Isabella Plantation, I read Mircea Eliade’s Journal I, 1945 – 1955 (translated by Mac Linscott Ricketts). Sitting on the bench in the sunshine, in this quiet woodland garden, surrounded by the first flowering of the Japanese azaleas, sensing for the first time the imminence of another summer. Where is it that Dostoevsky writes of the possibility of our realising a form of existence which one could consider “heaven” on earth? Later I looked it up, but at the time I was pleased not to have brought my mobile, and given in to the urge to follow my train of thought online. I stayed in the moment and was able to spot a Kirin, the pale, pink flower within a flower.

Mircea Eliade’s Journal is mainly a series of everyday reflections on books, artists, memories of Romania and observations on life in Paris during the post war days. They are intelligent and precise, and I’d like to read all four volumes, and perhaps his autobiography, being interested to know more about his time in Asia. If you know Eliade’s work, perhaps you could suggest what of his work is worth reading. I realise that I’ve lost interest in stories, preferring fragmented narratives, journals, works of philosophy and poetry.

Thoughts on Mathias Énard’s Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants

What is it of Mathias Énard’s prose that is so beguiling? The latest to be translated into English by Charlotte Mandell, Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants, is made up of straightforward declarative sentences, smoothly plotted and without the tortured density of novels like Zone or Compass.

I’d been reluctant to read this latest, despite being bewitched by each of the three previous novels published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, disliking historical fiction by instinct with its strained effort to recreate period. Énard’s story is more of a mood piece, avoiding the tedium of historical documentation. There is a quiet immensity to his story; though crammed with impressions, Énard imposes a form on his material that heavily filters his research through a mediating intelligence.

What I am left with is a dark vitality, a sequence of quiet passages that celebrate the reticent beauty of Istanbul (Constantinople), and an artist’s endeavours. Énard makes the period and city palpable because, as in the other novels, he writes so effectively about distance—those distances between lovers and would-be lovers, achievement and ambition, and that between pride and humility.

The Aura and Assurance of my Dreams

Self-portrait (Van Gogh, 1887).

There are times when my reading goes into a self-cancelling tail-spin, most often when a book sends me off tracking allusions and word origins. A single word can lead me to multiple volumes in the grip of excited etymologising.

Many curious words turn out be rather dull etymologically, but occasionally there are the thrills of the exotic. Fernando Pessoa writes, “After I’ve slept many dreams, I go out to the street with eyes wide open but still with the aura and assurance of my dreams.”

Although the etymology of aura is quite diverse, it commonly refers to the perceived halo surrounding an object or figure. Russian occultist, Madame Blavatsky, whose disciples included William Yeats, defined aura as a “subtle invisible essence or fluid that emanates from human and animal bodies and even things,” or, “a psychic effluvium.” Walter Benjamin used the word differently in his essays on Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, writing of its protagonist, Prince Mishkin, “he is surrounded in a quite unobtrusive way by an aura of complete isolation.”

Surprisingly its origin is not from the Latin auris, from which we get aural, even though a less common use of aura is to describe the premonitory sensations that come before an epileptic fit, with occasional auditory hallucinations such as hearing music of words. Dostoevsky wrote of “ecstatic aurae” preceding his first epileptic seizure and recurring verbal and nonverbal auditory hallucinations, including the sound of someone snoring. (Freud controversially argued that Dostoevsky suffered not from epilepsy, but neurosis.) My OED asserts that aura is from Greek and Latin for breath and breeze. We could be said to breathe aura, to absorb it into our body, which is how Pessoa appears to embark on his walk, sustained by his dream aura.

The Roadside Inn

“I see life as a roadside inn where I have to wait around until the stagecoach from the abyss pulls up. I don’t know where it will take me, because I don’t know anything. I could view this inn as a prison, for I’m compelled to wait in it; I could view it as a social centre, for it’s here that I meet others. But I’m neither impatient nor common. I leave those who will to converse in the parlours, their songs and voices conveniently arriving at my post. I’m sitting at the door, feasting my eyes on the colours and sounds of the landscape, and I softly sing — for myself alone — empty songs I compose while waiting.

Night will fall for us all and the stagecoach will pull up. I enjoy the breeze I’m given and the soul I was given it with, and I no longer inquire or seek. If what I wrote in the book of travellers can, when reread by others at some future date, also entertain them on their journey, then that’s fine by me. If they don’t read it, or are not entertained, then that’s fine too.”

—Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquietude (t. Richard Zenith)

Sadly a Happy Woman

‘Yes, she felt a perfect animal inside her. The thought of one day setting this animal loose disgusted her. Perhaps for fear of lack of aesthetic. Or dreading a revelation …’ p.10

‘And was there a way to have things without those things possessing her?’ p.23

‘The impression that if she could remain in the feeling for a few more instants she’d have a revelation—easily, like seeing the rest of the world just by leaning from the earth towards space. Eternity wasn’t just time, but something like the deeply rooted certainty that she couldn’t contain it in her body because of death; the impossibility of going beyond eternity was eternity; and a feeling in absolute, almost abstract purity was also eternal. What really gave her a sense of eternity was the impossibility of knowing how many human beings would succeed her body, which would one day be so far from the present with the speed of a shooting star.’ p.35

‘Eternity was not an infinitely great quantity that was worn down, but eternity was succession.’ p.36

‘From that day on, Joana felt voices. She understood them or didn’t understand them. No doubt at the end of her life, for each timbre heard a wave of her own reminiscences would surface to memory, she’d say: how many voices I’ve had …’ p. 66

‘Because the last ice cubes had melted and now she was sadly a happy woman.’ p.101

‘… in that same, strange, deceptive room where the dust had now won out over the shine.’ p.104

‘Sunday is something like Christmas trees …’ p.161

There are comparisons between Clarice Lispector’s and Maria Gabriela Llansol’s writing that I resisted as too easy. But they share Spinoza’s God and Nietzsche’s joyous, brooding presence. My second reading of Lispector’s Near the Wild Heart, translated by Alison Entrekin, richer and deeper than the first. Dorothy Richardson, in the early parts of Pilgrimage, is traversing similar plains.

 

Personal Voice

‘ . . . we are affected every moment of our lives by pressures for which a not wholly satisfactory analogy is the pressure of the air around us. I can’t conceive of the discovery and development of a personal voice that is totally or even largely unaware that its existence is threatened the whole time by those things in discourse or communication which are alien to its own being. One shapes the personal voice in some way. One either does or one doesn’t. And I would distinguish the first-rate artist from the others by precisely this ability. He or she is first-rate to the extent of having realised, often with very great difficulty, the personal note amid the acoustical din that surrounds us all. And the lesser artist is so because he is less able to hear and to elicit the voice of the authentic self from the many voices of the not-self and, indeed, from the many voices of our time, which are themselves drastically inauthentic.’

—Geoffrey Hill, The Paris Review interview (2000)

This strikes me as an acute way of defining the major and minor writers of any age.

Poor, fragile Macabéa

‘Everything in the world began with a yes. One molecule said yes to another molecule and life was born. But before prehistory there was the prehistory of prehistory and there was the never and there was the yes. It was ever so. I do not know why, but I do know that the universe never began.’ p.11

‘The more genuine part of my life is unrecognisable, extremely intimate and impossible to define.’ p.12

‘Who has not asked himself at some time or other: am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?’ p.15

‘Why do I write? First of all because I have captured the spirit of the language and at times it is the form that constitutes the content.’ p.17

‘Of one thing I am certain: this narrative will combine with something delicate: the creation of an entire human being who is as much alive as I am.’ p.19

‘I have grown weary of literature: silence alone comforts me. If I continue to write, it’s because I have nothing more to accomplish in this world except to wait for death. Searching for the word in darkness.’ p. 70

Clarice Lispector, The Hour of the Star (t. Giovanni Pontiero)

This earlier translation by Giovanni Pontiero (Carcanet, 1986) is more fulfilling as a work of art than the later New Directions edition. I can’t comment on the success of the translation, but think Pontiero’s version a better piece of writing.