Beautifully Complex

At some point we must accept, often with some reluctance, that there are complexities we shall never grasp; in physics perhaps, music or pure mathematics. Biology is equally complex, though more comprehensible, but without ever losing a sense of wonder that everything emerges from a single cell. Evolution and the sheer range of resultant species is, for me at least, never less than mind-blowing.

This complexity is what brings me back, time and again, to Béla Bartók’s music. It is complicated, perhaps even alienating at first, but with persistence, with time spent listening to absorb and try to understand the themes, is very rewarding.

I would argue that Bartók’s string quartets are second only to Beethoven’s. It is to the first movement that I return often, which, like us, grows out of a single cell and becomes something profound, deep and beautifully complex.

Those Sixteen Years (Virginia Woolf)

Harold Bloom on Virginia Woolf’s novels:

“That genius first fully manifested itself in 1925, and continued in full strength for the sixteen remaining years of Woolf’s life. Her absolute works are Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), The Waves (1931), The Years (1937), and Between the Acts (posthumously published, 1941). Five extraordinary novels culminate with her masterpiece; once I preferred To the Lighthouse, but at seventy I reread Between the Acts more frequently . . . the best preparation for understanding Mrs. Dalloway was to read The Winter’s Tale. That would also be the proper prelude for reading Between the Acts.

* * * *

Leonard Woolf on Virginia Woolf’s novels:

The Waves seems to me a great work of art, far and away the greatest of her books. To the Lighthouse and Between the Acts should also, I think, live in their own right, while the other books, though on a lower level of achievement are, as I said, “serious” and will always be worth reading and studying”

Self-knowledge is Impossible (Beauvoir)

Reading through old common-place books, I come across this context-setting from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Prime of Life. Beauvoir’s memoirs are marvels with so much more immediacy than the novels. I repeat this piece in my latest common-place book and here on my blog as it is necessary to remind oneself often.

“[..] I still believe to this day in the theory of ‘transcendental ego’. The self has only a probable objectivity, and anyone saying ‘I’ only grasps the outer edge of it; an outsider can get a cleaner and more accurate picture. Let me repeat that this personal account is not offered in any sense as an ‘explanation’. Indeed, one of my main reasons for undertaking it is my realisation that self-knowledge is impossible, and that the best one can hope for is self-revelation.”

This week: Middlemarch, Kathleen Ferrier’s Winterreise.


11 Mar 2014

All writing is autobiography. My blog, I discovered today, comprises almost 300,000 written words of autobiography, a meandering through my library. There are sufficient words for three good-sized books. There are more words than make up Middlemarch, which I’m reading, and at that familiar stage when I don’t want a book to end. This is not to draw any comparisons between Middlemarch–or any other novel–than my unedited stream of consciousness. I write this blog in order to retain more of what I read, and to participate in a conversation about literature. It surprises me that so many of my blog’s readers live in the U.S., more than double the number from U.K. I read mostly European novels, few American ones. I never expected to write so much on my blog, to be writing here for over nine years. The novel I’d like to write is spread over seven notebooks and will probably never come together into a single form. I am firstly a reader, living my life through living so many lives in addition to my own. As Paul Valéry observed, “If each man were not able to live a number of lives beside his own, he would not be able to live his own.”

Middlemarch Thoughts

George Eliot, Middlemarch. Everyman’s Library, 1991 (1930); Pelikan M800 Blue-striped (Robert Oster Summer Storm ink); Darkstar Collection Notebook

“We learn to read Middlemarch in the probing light of James’ treatment; we then return to The Portrait of a Lady and come to recognise the transformative inflections of its source.”

It is an idea of Steiner’s that I like, his contention that we can think of a reversal in chronology, in that we understand Eliot’s earlier novel better through the reading of the latter. As Christopher J. Knight writes in Uncommon Readers, “James reads Middlemarch, and then writes The Portrait of a Lady. Is the James novel art or criticism? In Real Presences, Steiner contends that it is both.”

In an early review, Edith Simcox described Middlemarch as like ‘a Wilhelm Meister written by Balzac’; George Eliot’s first biographer, Mathilde Blind, compared her to George Sand, Honoré de Balzac and Gustave Flaubert. So, it seems only natural to finish Balzac’s Père Goriot and then read Middlemarch, followed perhaps by The Portrait of a Lady.

Middlemarch is, of course, fascinating and steeped in Eliot’s profound knowledge of European literature and culture. Her passion of the mind is clear, and I like the book’s intensity and seriousness. You can find in Miriam Henderson, the central character in Richardson’s Pilgrimage much in common with Eliot’s Dorothea, that awareness of the impossibility of knowing what is ‘other’, nor even ourselves completely, subject as we are to the lure of imagined states and compelling metaphors.

Dorothea also suggests Zbigniew Herbert’s Mr Cogito and the Imagination (so beautifully translated by Alissa Valles). It is a favourite poem that is never far from my mind.

“he longed to understand fully

-Pascal’s night
-the nature of a diamond
-the prophets’ melancholy
-the wrath of Achilles
-the fury of mass murderers
-the dreams of Mary Stuart
-the fear of Neanderthals
-the last Aztecs’ despair
-Nietzsche’s long dying
-the Lascaux painter’s joy
-the rise and fall of an oak
-the rise and fall of Rome”

Poetry of the Will

Film music should be subliminal, but in rare cases it rises above the film to a level that is distracting. Every time I’ve watched the part of The Shawshank Redemption underscored by Thomas Newman’s Brooks was here, I’ve leaned into the music and missed the scene. It is sublimely sad, simple and economical in the way that is typical of Newman’s music.

That isn’t to say I dislike the scene or the film, which teeters on that edge between hopelessness and hope. But the music is the greater thing. Thomas Newman is a mystical, almost metaphysical composer of film music.

I’m reading Balzac’s Le Père Goriot, A. J. Krailsheimer’s translation, distinguished by its lively dialogue and closeness to the original. It is a terribly sad and harrowing story. Newman’s score came to mind when I read, “The capacity of emotions to distil a kind of energy is quite remarkable”. His music is all about emotion and mood, also Balzac’s supreme talent.

Much as I like Dickens, his characters are caricatures, for comic or pathetic effect. They convey mood but I never believe in their existence. Balzac’s characters live and breathe and have a life long beyond the completion of the story.

“Père Goriot was sublime. Eugène had never before had the chance of seeing him transfigured by the ardour of paternal love. The capacity of emotions to distil a kind of energy is quite remarkable. As soon as he begins to express a strong and genuine emotion the most brutish of men gives off a special fluid which alters his features, animates his gestures, modulates his voice. Often under the stress of passion the dullest human being attains the highest degree of eloquence in concepts, if not in actual words, and seems to move in a realm of luminous brightness. At the moment that old man’s voice and gestures communicated his feelings with all the intensity that marks out the great actor. But are not our finer feelings the poetry of the will?”

Alicia Kopf’s Brother in Ice

Alicia Kopf’s Brother in Ice is subversive. At the beginning I went along with her story as I share Kopf’s evident fascination with the heady days of polar exploration, of nations racing to be first to reach an ever-moving target. I expected little more than a day or two’s immersion into a contemporary novel, of the kind I don’t read often~mostly because they offer nothing that I can’t find better developed in a novel that is tested by time=but what I found instead was an intricate study into how a modern human being constructs their idea of identity.

References to social media situate this contemporary novel but that isn’t what I mean by modernity. Children born in the late twentieth century may be brought up happily or unhappily, closer or more disconnected from their families, but the way they interpret and define themselves will be different from children in nineteenth century novels. What is clever and modern about Kopf’s novel is her feeling for how relationships with parents, the balance between selfishness and altruism that sets the tone for inter family dynamics, has shifted in secular, post-Freudian Europe.

If evidence of post-modernity can be discerned in the conflicts and compromises of family life, it is the degree to which modern human beings construct their identity from the terms of their private lives. The relationships in Kopf’s story, hopeful and tragic, are built from the substrate of exponentially increasing levels of narcissism and self-interest. In the end, Kopf’s family saga disguised as an account of a study of polar exploration, looks beyond the despair addressed at length by contemporary writers like Michel Houellebecq and offers the possibility that we can use language and, by extension, thought to see beyond our crisis of narcissism,

Winter Reading II

Perhaps Michelle mentioned Marie Chaix to me; something compelled me to order these three that seem in some way connected, but that is arguably true of any writer’s work. More Balzac, in this case rereading a favourite from childhood that I’ve not revisited since. Also another Morselli that from its description was irresistible.

These will see me through what is left of winter.

Winter Reading

An occasional springlike fragrance in the air buoys the soul, yet my reading still speaks of winter: a mixed clutch of writers, some new to me, others old favourites. The re-emergence of one of my favourite blogs inspired me to sample both  Morselli and Guilloux; Balzac, a long-time companion is also calling.

At the moment, I am reading Adrian Nathan West’s translation of Harmut Lange’s Positive Nihilism: My Confrontation with Heidegger. Its slim form belies its depth, perfect for a wintry evening.

Perfect for the season also is Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber’s Passacaglia. Its opening four notes perhaps refers to the traditional hymn to the Guardian Angel,

Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival

It is difficult to put aside The Enigma of Arrival. Its lack of linearity, its repetitions and uncertainties mirror all too familiarly bone-deep memories of melancholy. To inhabit The Enigma of Arrival is to immerse oneself almost too deeply into its narrator’s solipsism and sadness.

On the front cover of this Viking first edition, the book in hand is declared The Enigma of Arrival: A Novel, that subtitle a reminder that this is creation not memoir. I think there is nothing quite like this novel. It disturbs and enchants, or rather disenchants. After the conventional cover to cover reading, I reread Part 2, the narrator’s contextualising his arrival in Part 1 to a cottage in Wiltshire, then turned back to Part 1 and read it through again.

There is a famous racehorse, at one time kept in a paddock near the narrator’s cottage while awaiting death. Naipaul writes, “In a short time the horse ceased to be in the paddock. It had died. Like so many deaths here, in this small village, like so many big events, it seemed to happen off-stage.” Everything happens off-stage to this narrator, even the sister’s death that draws the novel to its conclusion. Naipaul seems more drawn to events peripheral to the major occurrences. In this way it seems not to be a novel at all; it eludes material that would be central to a novel. If not a novel, it is certainly something else.

This something else is what I’ve been reluctant to put down: “How sad it was to lose that sense of width and space.” But it feels almost indulgent, in that way one must force oneself to get out of bed on a melancholy day, for to remain is of far greater danger.