The Loser

Bernhard’s body of work does not reward immersion. His books require concentration. The right time. I am slow at making my way through his oeuvre. I read Old Masters and Wittgenstein’s Nephew, the latter twice, in both cases spellbound by the cascading sentences. Now The Loser.

‘Thousands of his notes set end to end, I thought, and published under the title The Loser. Nonsense.’

This 1992 Quartet Books edition, with a wonderful cover. Bernhard’s obsessions painted onto Glenn Gould, an eccentric genius that craved aloneness. It is extraordinarily good, a book to read and reread with unabashed joy. That such books exist is evidence perhaps that our species merits its brief window of existence.

Why The Loser now? Drawn in by the Feeling Bookish podcast, a refreshingly unpolished production by Robert Fay and Roman Tsivkin, two frequently enchanted readers that chat about good books.

Care of the Self

‘Raulff: As I understand it, almost every philosopher has had a vision of the good and the right or of a philosophical life as well. What does yours look like?

Agamben: The idea that one should make his life a work of art is attributed mostly today to Foucault and to his idea of the care of the self. Pierre Hadot, the great historian of ancient philosophy, reproached Foucault that the care of the self of the ancient philosophers did not mean the construction of life as a work of art, but on the contrary a sort of dispossession of the self. What Hadot could not understand is that for Foucault, the two things coincide. You must remember Foucault’s criticism of the notion of author, his radical dismissal of authorship. In this sense, a philosophical life, a good and beautiful life, is something else: when your life becomes a work of art, you are not the cause of it. I mean that at this point you feel your own life and yourself as something “thought,” but the subject, the author, is no longer there. The construction of life coincides with what Foucault referred to as “se deprendre de soi.” And this is also Nietzsche’s idea of a work of art without the artist.’

From this 2004 interview.

Inoperativity as the Real Truth

‘While for the ancients it was labour—negotium—that was defined negatively with respect to the contemplative life—otium—moderns seem unable to conceive of contemplation, inoperativity, and feast otherwise than as rest or negation of labour.’

Giorgio Agamben, Creation and Anarchy (trans. Adam Kotsko)

Philosophy and Potentiality

‘After many years spent reading, writing, and studying, it happens at times that we understand what is our special way—if there is one—of proceeding in thought and research. In my case, it is a matter of perceiving what Feuerbach called the “capacity for development” contained in the works of the authors I love. The genuinely philosophical element contained in a work—be it an artistic, scientific, or theoretical work—is its capacity to be developed, something that has remained—or has willingly been left—unspoken and that needs to be found and seized. Why does the search for the elements susceptible to being developed fascinate me? Because if we follow this methodological principle all the way, we inevitably end up at a point where it is not possible to distinguish between what is ours and what belongs to the author are reading. Reaching this impersonal zone of indifference in which every proper name, very copyright. and every claim to originality fade was, fills me with joy.’

Agamben’s writing is a voyage. There are passages like the one above that stop me reading any further, for the need to admire and reflect at length. This is from Adam Kotsko’s translation of Creation and Anarchy, lectures held at the Mendrisio Academy of Architecture.

Literary Yearnings

On shelves in various rooms of my home are over a thousand books I’ve yet to read. I want to read them all of course. I want also to read the catalogues from the art exhibitions I visit, and the programmes from my regular opera attendances. Then there’s the journals I can’t do without: The White Review, PN Review and The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and my weekly TLS, which these days invariably comes late, three or four at the time. I skim the FT daily on my iPad, and the headlines from the Guardian, Daily Mail, New York Times and Washington Post.

In an average year I read around sixty-five books, so in the event of house arrest for unforgivable literary consumerism, I have sufficient reading material for at least fifteen years, slightly less perhaps if I can resist the allure of social media. On the other hand, I’ve decided to spend more time on developing my inept film literacy, so I could possibly stretch existing supplies out for up to twenty years, especially if I make time for those art catalogues and opera programmes.

Surrounded by unread books, unwatched films, with the treasures of London’s galleries within fifteen minutes of my office, why is it that the writers I most want to read are not those on my shelves, but those effectively unattainable because they are not translated into a language I can read?

One of this year’s most thrilling moments was the delivery of Roberto Bazlen’s Notes Without a Text. I’ve been translating fragments for at least a decade from the Biblioteca Adelphi edition. More recently I’ve been possessed by Maria Gabriela Llansol’s work since reading and rereading the Geography of Rebels trilogy. Translating from Portuguese is enjoyably difficult but glacially slow work.

This week I’ve been reading Alejandro Zambra’s Not to Read. I am drawn to Zambra’s voice, particularly his essays, translated by Megan McDowell; he writes with precision and extreme generosity. This book gathers essays written for the culture section of a Chilean newspaper. He writes about writing, books he has read, and has fuelled a few more literary yearnings for the difficult to obtain novels of Josefina Vicens and the journals of Paul Léautaud and Raúl Ruiz.

Style of Necessity

Quote

‘I’m sure Ribeyro knew this phrase of Paul Léautaud’s: “What I most like is literature that is written like a letter.” Léautaud was pointing to a style, the style of necessity. When we read other people’s letters, we are looking for a zone of necessity that is often absent in fiction. No clamouring narrators, no startling characters. In short, it does us good every once in a while to pause happily for a while on the steps that lead up to literature.”

Alejandro Zambra, Not to Read (trans. Megan McDowell)

Missing: twelve years of weekly letters written to my father from school.

Paul Collier: The Future of Capitalism

With less than two weeks remaining before a general election that offers nothing but an intolerable choice between populists and ideologues, Paul Collier’s The Future of Capitalism (2018) offers some clear-headed diagnosis and ideas about how to reshape a derailed capitalism.

Jeff Taylor wrote, “The political spectrum may be linear, but it is not a straight line. It is shaped like a horseshoe.” Drift far enough left or right of centre and ideologies both gravitate to authoritarianism. Social democracy appears to be in existential crisis. Collier’s analysis of why we’ve lost our sense of obligation to others is lucid and crucially important.

The force of Collier’s book is in his synthesis of “moral philosophy, political economy, finance, economic geography, social psychology and social policy.” At a time when despair often seems the only possibility, his book offers some relief that there is a progressive and pragmatic path to healing the divisions in our social and economic fabric. The question is how long it will take for our political spectrum to swing back from extremes.