I’m for the Hôtel de la Louisiane

“. . . I have a room for 400 francs a month and at last I will be living within my own and other people’s income. I am tired of acquaintances and tired of friends unless they’re intelligent, tired also of extrovert unbookish life. Me for good talk, wet evenings, intimacy, vins rouges en carafe, reading, relative solitude, street worship, exploration of the least known arrondissements, shopgazing, alley sloping, cafe crawling, Seine loafing, and plenty of writing from the table by this my window where I can watch the streets light up… I am for the intricacy of Europe, the discrete and many folded strata of the old world, the past, the North, the world of ideas. I am for the Hôtel de la Louisiane.”

Cyril Connolly, Hôtel de la Louisiane

Five Possible Verdicts

“As readers, we remain in the nursery stage so long as we cannot distinguish between taste and judgment, so long, that is, as the only possible verdicts we can pass on a book are two: this I like; this I don’t like. For an adult reader, the possible verdicts are five: I can see this is good and I like it; I can see this is good but I don’t like it; I can see this is good and, though at present I don’t like it, I believe that with perseverance I shall come to like it; I can see that this is trash but I like it; I can see that this is trash and I don’t like it.”

W.H. Auden, A Certain World: A Commonplace Book

Broadcasting Ambiguity

Sir William Empson by Fay Godwin

“Yet only writers (and certain kinds of reader) will believe they can never leave language to the side of any question.”

“Empson wants us to see literature as a kind of continuum, a viaduct from mind to mind …”

“Empson writes (in the poem “Letter I”), “I approve myself, dark spaces between stars,” and [Denis] Donoghue says, “You have to be an Ancient rather than a Modern to put yourself between that verb and that object.”

“But Empson doesn’t state the important corollary, perhaps because he thinks the judgment of a critic’s work needs to be left to that critic’s readers. The corollary is this: “if criticism can’t explain, can’t peg things out in words, it can, often magnificently, show us what there is to be looked at, prove there is a crossroad where we so far have seen only a single well-trodden track.”

“It strikes me that modern critics . . . have become oddly resistant to admitting that there is more than one code of morals in the world, whereas the central purpose of reading imaginative literature is to accustom yourself to this basic fact.”

Michael Wood. On Empson (2017)

A Frenetic Somnambulism

“Few people at this hour – and I refer to the time before the breaking out of this most grim war, which is coming to birth so strangely, as if it did not want to be born – few, I say, these days still enjoy that tranquility which permits one to choose the truth, to abstract one in reflection. Almost all the world is in tumult, is beside itself, and when man is beside himself he loses his most essential attribute: the possibility of meditating, or withdrawing into himself to come to terms with himself and define what it is he believes and what it is that he does not believe; what he truly esteems and what he truly detests. Being beside himself bemuses him, blinds him, forces him to act mechanically in a frenetic somnambulism.”

José Ortega y Gasset, The Self and the Other (1939)

“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/Are sweeter”

Iphigenia as a priestess of Artemis in Tauris sets out to greet prisoners, amongst which are her brother Orestes and his friend Pylades; a Roman fresco from Pompeii, 1st century AD

We can lose ourselves in reverie of how Aeschylus might have staged his Oresteia in 458 BC; how his four hypokrites performed the four plays that constituted this journey from mythological darkness to Athenian radiance (originally the trilogy ended with a satyr-play called Proteus); of the dances Aesychlus is said to have taught his choruses, from the Argive elders in Agamemnon, to the captured slave-women of The Libation Bearers, those haunting furies in Eumenides, and the supposed randy satyrs that brought the tragedy to a close in Proteus.

My Penguin Classics edition, translated by Robert Fagles, includes an essay, The Serpent and the Eagle, written by Fagles and the classicist William Stanford. They correctly say little of the performance but what they say is agreeable:

“The words alone may hold the life of the thing itself. The music they create, the scenery, the acting, the complete consort dancing together in the theatre of our minds may well be all we need. Perhaps – but this may be too daring – a performance of the Oresteia in the mind of a twentieth-century reader may be even more moving than it was in the crowded, often restive Theatre of Dionysus at the first performance. At least we can do with the written words what no Athenian could do when they were spoken on the stage; we can stop and wonder and look back and tease apart the subtleties and pregnancies of Aeschylus’ style, so that while we lose theatrically we gain in imaginative power. As Keats has said about a different genre of Greek art, ‘Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/Are sweeter.’ And perhaps with Greek drama, richer, too.”

Leopardi’s Pessimism

Gilbert Highet’s elegant account of Count Giacomo Leopardi urges me to make time for those notebooks awaiting my time and attention. Beckett also found Leopardi simpatico, describing himself in a letter to MacGreevy as “one who is interested in Leopardi and Proust rather than in Carducci and Barrès”, adding many years later that Leopardi “was a strong influence when I was young (his pessimism not his patriotism)”. Highet’s sentence rests on his phrase: “if properly understood and managed”.

“His closest links in classical literature are with Lucretius the Epicurean, who believed that creation and the life of man were a pure accident, having no significance beyond itself; that nature was neither kindly nor hostile to us, but indifferent; and that the only sensible purpose of living was to attain, through well-spaced and well-chosen pleasures and an intelligent understanding of the universe, a calm and reassured happiness. Like Lucretius, Leopardi is a materialist; like him he admires the charm of the Greek deities, although he knows that they have really no effective connexion with our world; like him he looks at human excitements and efforts with astonished pity, as we do at an ant-hill struck by a falling apple. But–here is the fundamental difference not only between Leopardi and Lucretius, but many modern poets and nearly all Greco-Roman poets–the conclusion that Leopardi draws is that life, because of its futility, is a cruel agent where death is welcome; and the conclusion of Lucretius is that life, if properly understood and managed, is still liveable. Even Greek tragedy does not mean that life is hopeless; but that, at its most terrible, it still contains nobility and beauty. Perhaps because of the sickness which afflicted both Leopardi’s body and his soul, he was never able to fight through to this truth. At least, not consciously. Yet, as an artist, he grasped it. His chief debt to classical poetry and his truest claim to equal the great lyric poets is that he sees his tragic subjects with sculptural clarity, and describes them with that combination of deep passion and perfect aesthetic control which e recognise as Greek.”

The Vital Eternity

A thought of Thomas Traherne’s, quoted in Christopher Rick’s True Friendship, resonated throughout my reading of Gilbert Highet’s The Classical Tradition: “Men do mightily wrong themselves when they refuse to be present in all ages and neglect to see the beauty of all kingdoms.”

This gently instructive phrase came to mind again while reading Richard’s post on La Chanson de Roland. His book-related blog is one of a minority that is prepared to listen to literature across the gulfs between ages, that doesn’t limit his reading to this materialistic, contemporary age; other blogs of similar inclination include Wuthering Expectations and The UntranslatedThese always worthwhile and often brilliant bloggers are prepared, as far as possible, to become a medieval knight while reading Roland, or an English aristocrat while exploring Trollope, rather than attempting to twist a narrative into an elusive contemporary context.

Highet is more forgiving of Christianity than is my tendency, and his book is dated in its almost exclusive focus on male writers, but he is powerfully eloquent in tracing the enduring influence of Greek and Roman culture on literature through the ages. It leaves me with a renewed and urgent determination to learn Greek and refresh my schoolboy Latin.

In Highet’s conclusion he writes: “The difference between an educated man and an uneducated man is that the uneducated man lives only for the moment, reading his newspaper and watching the latest moving-picture, while the educated man lives in a far wider present, that vital eternity in which the psalms of David and the plays of Shakespeare, the epistles of Paul and the dialogues of Plato, speak with the same charm and power that made them immortal the instant they were written.”

A Well-stocked Head and a Better Stocked Library

Reading writers like Mathias Enard and Tomasi di Lampedusa is not only greatly entertaining but also cajoles me to read only the best books. Both writers wear their massive erudition lightly. Gilbert Highet, the Scottish-American classicist used the terrific phrase (to which I aspire, true to autodidactic form): “a well-stocked head and a better stocked library”.

I started this year with the intent of reading widely, dipping into the ocean of contemporary literature. For every Mathias Enard, I abandoned another dozen frightful books, none of which wasted my time but served to further teach me what to avoid. My literary taste remains omnivorous but I shall default to the late D. G. Myers advice: “Read no book before it is ten years old (in order not to be influenced by the buzz”. I shall of course occasionally, whimsically ignore that advice in the hope of discovering more writers like Mathias Enard and Rachel Cusk. Very, very occasionally the hyperbole is justified.

The best books are inexhaustible and capable of transforming, for a time, how we perceive the world. My reading life is ruled by serendipity, one book leading to another. Enard, for instance, prompts me to reread Annemarie Schwarzenbach, Edward Said and Claudio Magris, also to explore the work of Isabelle Eberhardt, Ernst Bloch, Georg Trakl, Sadegh Hedayat, Faris al-Shidyaq and Leopold Weiss.

For the time being though I’m taking a detour, one I take regularly, back to older books, to the hymns of Homer via Peter McDonald, and to a recent edition of Gilbert Highet’s The Classical Tradition: Greek & Roman Influences on Western Literature. This might then be a gateway to Werner Jaeger’s Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, translated also by Gilbert Highet.

Mathias Enard’s Compass

James Joyce wrote of “an ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia”, exhibiting characteristic Joycean contempt for a reader of limited duration of attention. In this sense, Mathias Enard’s Compass, while eminently accessible, is likely to be best appreciated by those with insomniac intensities, and an equivalent propensity to pursue homologous trains of thought. Franz Ritter, the insomniac musicologist whose consciousness is our sole companion in Compass, as all insomniacs is accustomed to wholly phenomenal interpretation which, as Terry Eagleton wrote, “refuses to be duped by the habitual experience of things, searching instead for the invisible mechanisms which gives birth to them”.

While Compass is greater than its themes, it is essentially a novel of digressions, during which Franz learns that the pursuit of love may demand acts of abnegation. Schubert, Magris, Balzac, Beethoven, Proust, and Mendelssohn are only the lighter cavalry. Enard writes, “Sarah had mentioned the Great Name, the wolf had appeared in the midst of the flock, in the freezing desert: Edward Said. It was like invoking the Devil in a Carmelite convent.” Without becoming moralistic, Compass is a political novel that gently analyses Said’s characterisation of Orientalism, not just as a secondary expression of the wonders and apparent evils of the East, but as a form of imperialistic domination that concerns itself with the control of real people and real geographical territories. Enard, like Said, writes to oppose power structures, but unlike, say, Foucault, is at heart hopeful that through discourse such structures can be confronted and dismantled.

In a world that has become afraid of intelligence, Compass – slowly, I imagine, and carefully translated by Charlotte Mandell – is a deeply intelligent novel, a book that I could vanish into forever. In Barcelona, Robert Hughes quotes the Catalan writer Josep Ferrater Mora, “The man with seny [an untranslatable term meaning something like common sense, perhaps also wisdom and intelligence] renounces neither salvation nor experience, and is always trying to set up a fruitful integration between both opposed, warring extremes.” Mathias Enard, on the strength of Compass, but also Zone and Street of Thieves is indisputably a man with seny.

Earthly Existence

“Perhaps my sense of reality is not very highly developed, perhaps I lack a sound and reassuring instinct for the solid facts of our earthly existence; I can’t always tell memories from dreams, and often mistake dreams, coming to life again in colours, smells, sudden associations, with the eerie secret certainty of a past life from which time and space divide me no differently and not better than a light sleep in the early hours.”

Annemarie Schwarzenbach, All the Roads Are Open. (trans. Isabel Fargo Cole)

My Desert Island Bookshelf

Marooned on a desert island, these are the books I would wish to accompany me. I set one simple rule: one book per writer.

Mathias Enard, Compass
Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable
WG Sebald, After Nature
Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts
Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook
Franz Kafka, The Castle
Homer, Iliad
Geoff Dyer, The Colour of Memory
Roger Deakin, Notes From Walnut Tree Farm
Dante, Purgatory
Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Marguerite Duras, Moderato Cantabile
Simone de Beauvoir, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter
Stendhal, The Charterhouse of Parma
Peter Handke, Repetition
Jorge Semprún, Literature or Life
Laszlo Krasznahorkai, War & War
Pascal Quignard, The Roving Shadows
JM Coetzee, In the Heart of the Country
Mahmoud Darwish, Memory for Forgetfulness
Clarice Lispector, Agua Viva
Kate Zambreno, Book of Mutter
Roberto Calasso, La Folie Baudelaire
Tomas Espedal, Tramp
Christa Wolf, Cassandra
Grace Dane Mazur, Hinges
Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard
Claudio Magris, A Different Sea
Max Frisch, I’m Not Stiller
Brigid Brophy, The Snow Ball
Denton Welch, A Voice Through a Cloud
Nick Hunt, Walking the Woods and the Water
JG Ballard, The Kindness of Women
John Berger, Bento’s Sketchbook

(Pure whimsy and volatile by nature)

Lampedusa’s The Leopard and Biography

“Prince Giuseppe di Lampedusa has meant so much to me that I find it impossible to present him formally.” Written by E. M. Forster in his introduction to Two Stories and a Memory, continuing, “His great novel The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) has greatly enlarged my life–an unusual experience for a life which is well on in its eighties. Reading and rereading it has made me realise how many ways there are of being alive, how many doors there are, close to one, which someone else’s touch may open.” In these sentences, Forster reminds me of Woolf’s words: “It is the gift of the novel to bring us into close touch with life.”

Forster captured something essential of the The Leopard, once calling it “That great lonely book.” Somehow in considering briefly its themes of all-pervading decay and mortality, what was less obviously apparent, until stumbling over Forster’s phrase, is that the novel is suffused with ideas of aloneness, loneliness, and alienation. It is easy to see The Leopard’s appeal to Forster, whose novels are, in different ways, ruminations on our yearning for transformative connections. Connection eludes the elderly Prince of Salina. Lampedusa’s story seems to suggest that the language we use to connect to other human beings is filled with misunderstanding and might itself be the barrier that prevents communication.

Every book is the outcome of a period of aloneness, and each reader’s experience with a book a way of being in communication with another mind. Perhaps a particular appeal of literature is to those that find such connections particularly elusive. The Leopard resists simple generalisation but is a sublime expression of human loneliness.

In my enchanted state after finishing The Leopard, I chose to read David Gilmour’s magnificent biography of Lampedusa, The Last Leopard, curious how important the autobiographical drive behind this novel was. Gilmour confronts this question, eventually agreeing with Lampedusa’s English translator Archibald Colquhoun who writes, “Don Fabrizio is neither historical symbol, family memoir, self-portrait, nor wish-fulfilment, and yet something of all four.”

After writing The Leopard, Lampedusa, late in life, crossed a threshold of creativity, going on to write two further stories and even a new novel. He begun a memoir and wrote over a thousand pages of literary exegesis. His story entitled The Professor and The Siren is a magical fantasy about a professor’s life changing encounter with the Siren Lighea, daughter of Calliope. Lampedusa proposes a revision of the myth of the Sirens, “Don’t believe the stories about us. We don’t kill anyone, we only love.”

Renton’s Critique

““Begbie and the like are fucking failures in a country ay failures. It’s no good blaming it on the English for colonising us. Ah don’t hate the English, they’re just wankers. We are colonised by wankers. We can’t even pick a decent, vibrant, healthy culture to be colonised by. No. We’re ruled by effete arseholes. What does that make us? The lowest of the low, the scum of the earth, the most wretched, servile, miserable, pathetic trash that was ever shat into creation. I don’t hate the English. They just get on with the shit they’ve got. I hate the Scots.”

Irvine Welch, Trainspotting
Lively, potent critique and sharp dialogue, before Welch’s novel descends into self-parody. Much of it is pretty horrible but with the current tension with Westminster seemed somehow appropriate.

Narrating War

“Was it not noticeable at the end of the [First World War] that men returned from the battlefield grown silent—not richer, but poorer in communicable experience? . . . A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn street car now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remain unchanged but the clouds, and beneath those clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny fragile human body.”

Benjamin, The Storyteller.

A poignant text, of course. Something of the reality of mechanised warfare silences the storyteller. A particular relationship between the breaking of narrative frames and the shattering of the world. Sebald, Semprun push the same questions. Just a few notes, maybe something more another time.

Criticism, Blogging and Lampedusa’s The Leopard

If you aren’t following Robert Minto’s blog you’re missing some thought-provoking posts on the essence of criticism and blogging. I’ve been contemplating his On Apophatic Criticism post, which scrutinises, in part, Stephen Mitchelmore’s approach to criticism on my favourite book blog This Space.

Minto also categorises criticism into five varieties. I’m not sure how he would classify my writing about books, “book chat” perhaps; like astrology, I see elements of what I attempt in a number of his categories.

My interest in literature, and art in general, is shaped by curiosity about how others perceive or know the world. How do others perceive some thing (abstract or material) as a distinct object of perception, and how does this compare with my understanding. Kant says we don’t perceive things in themselves: “What may be the case with objects in themselves and abstracted from all this receptivity of our sensibility remains entirely unknown to us. We are acquainted with nothing except our way of perceiving them.” I’ve never quite understood why everyone isn’t as haunted with this suggestion as I am. Perhaps they are, but don’t feel a need to create a blog to  babble on about it. As a consequence, I’m naturally intrigued with literature as literary object, about words, sentences, form and so on, but from a conviction that literature engenders an imaginative perceiving that is transformative, for a time at least, of the world before us. To read literature with sympathy, intuition, intelligence, comprehension and grace enriches perception and deepens our interpretive function.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze – The Father’s Curse: The Son Punished (1777)

Reading Lampedusa’s The Leopard this week, in which Greuze’s painting is given a structural and thematic role depicting the twin themes of decadence and sexual indulgence in the context of the story’s overarching theme of death. The painting leads into the beautiful final chapters, ‘Death of a Prince’ and ‘Relics’ in which Fabrizio determines that he has truly lived only two or three years of his life–all else was just boredom and pain. The painting reinforces Lampedusa’s autobiographical story about the social decline of his noble family into the middle classes.

If a reading of The Leopard begins with a sense of the book’s seductive prose and its inherent melancholy, where does the transition happen from a perception of the book as a work of literature to a transformative experience? What happens when we interrupt “normal’ life to occupy ourselves with something that isn’t of our life but enriches it in an unexpected way, giving it, if one is lucky, a new, deeply felt meaning? Exploring these questions are what compels me to read and to write about that experience on this blog.