Marguerite Yourcenar, Sistine

‘For men’s memory resembles those weary travelers who disencumber themselves of some useless baggage at each stop. So that they arrive naked, with their hands empty, at the place where they are to sleep, and on the day of the awakening will be like infants who know nothing of yesterday.’

‘Imperfect beings become agitated and couple in order to complete themselves, but purely beautiful things are as solitary as the grief of man.’

‘For everything keeps silence, even our soul—or else it is that we cannot hear.’

‘I am no longer young enough to attach importance to a separation, even if it is definitive. I know too well that the beings we love and who love us best are imperceptibly departing from us at every moment that passes. It is in this way that they depart from themselves.’

‘Man who invented time, then invented eternity for contrast; but the negation of time is as vain as time itself.’

‘A person’s love is such an unexpected gift, and so little deserved, that we should always be surprised that it is not taken back sooner.’

‘One possesses for all eternity only the friends from whom one has parted.’

Marguerite Yourcenar, Sistine, from That Mighty Sculptor, Time (trans. Walter Kaiser)

Christa Wolf’s One Day a Year 2001-2011

Christa Wolf’s One Day a Year is without equal. With remarkable resolve, Wolf described one day, the twenty-seventh of September, for five decades. This latest edition completes what is available in English translation. The earlier volume is inexplicably out of print but available at a premium. We have translator Katy Derbyshire and Seagull Books to thank for completing the project with the years 2001-2011.

I feel at home within the fluid form of Christa Wolf’s diary of sorts, where you sense that she luxuriates in what feels like a personal composition without the tension of public display. Each twenty-seventh of September, Wolf builds texture from whatever happens in her day, combining her thoughts on weighty world events, private reading and what Virginia Woolf called the dailiness of inessential trivia.

This project situates the fabric of Wolf’s life at its centre. Her anxieties about her weight and ageing, the books she is reading her–now fully grown–children’s birthdays and illnesses, mingle indiscriminately with her thoughts on social and political causes, the latest American wars, and the minutiae of what husband Gerd is cooking for the evening meal.

For compassion and lucidity, Wolf’s One Day a Year bears comparison with similar works, which present daily life as an artistic construct: the diaries of Virginia Woolf, Pepys and André Gide. She succeeds in creating remarkable substance from the impalpable and evanescent fabric of daily life.

Wittgenstein on Europe, America and Whistling Dixie

“I will say, posthumously, that Europe is the world’s sore affliction, that you in America who have taken the best that Europe has to offer while hoping to avoid the worst are, in your indigenously American phrase, ‘whistling Dixie.’ All your God-drenched thinking replicates the religious structures built out of the hallucinatory life of the ancient Near East by European clericalists, all your social frictions are the inheritance of colonialist slave-making economies of European businessmen, all your metaphysical conundrums were concocted for you by European intellectuals, and you have now come across the ocean in two world wars conceived by European politicians and so have installed in your republic just the militarist mind-state that has kept our cities burning during since the days of Hadrian.”

Christa Wolf, quoting Wittgenstein, from a preface in Doctorow’s City of God. I’m unable to find the source of this quotation. If you know, please let me know. I shall clearly have to read the Doctorow, which the NYT reviewed concluding, “The ideas are certainly there — the idea of New York, the idea of God, the idea of literature. But where is the novel?” If anything, that only increases its allure.

[Postscript: I’m reasonably sure that this is a fictional Wittgenstein quote.]

Confoundedly Well Informed

“I once took an interest in astronomy, I don’t deny it. Then it was geology that killed a few years for me. The next pain in the balls was anthropology and the other disciplines, such as psychiatry, that are connected with it, disconnected, then connected again, according to the latest discoveries. What I liked in anthropology was its inexhaustible faculty of negation, its relentless definition of man, as though he were no better than God, in terms of what he is not. But my ideas on this subject were always horribly confused, for my knowledge of men was scant and the meaning of being beyond me. Oh I’ve tried everything. In the end it was magic that had the honour of my ruins, and still today, when I walk there, I find its vestiges. But mostly they are a place with neither plan nor bounds and of which I understand nothing, not even of what it is made, still less into what. And the thing in ruins, I don’t know what it is, what it was, nor whether it is not less a question of ruins than the indestructible chaos of timeless things, if that is the right expression. It is in any case a place devoid of mystery, deserted by magic, because devoid of mystery. And if I do not go there gladly, I go perhaps more gladly there than anywhere else, astonished and at peace. I nearly said a dream, but no, no.”

Samuel Beckett, Molloy

Heinrich Boll’s Billiards at Half-Past Nine

It takes a time for Heinrich Boll’s Billiards at Half-Past Nine to reveal its intensity. Its rhythm is established, its shape discernible, before our subliminal seismograph detects a suggestion of its force. This, my first Boll, brings to mind Walter Pater’s incitement for art to burn with a gem-like flame. Each sentence, translated by Samuel Beckett’s friend and translator, Patrick Bowles, is chosen for its part in driving with as much intensity as can be borne without collapsing its narrative into a smouldering wreckage.

My reading is circling around Imperial and Weimar Germany, especially émigré life abroad: that brilliant generation of German intellectuals that fled the Nazi regime to make lives in Paris, Amsterdam, Prague, Oslo, Vienna, New York, Los Angeles, Shanghai, Mexico, Jerusalem, and Moscow. Those exiles and their children who changed western artistic and cultural life for a generation. Boll’s protagonists in Billiards at Half-Past Nine are those that remained, with a postwar imperative of reconciliation and reconstruction.

He situates a family of three generations of architects within the discourse of an acceptance of violence and sanctioned sacrifice for political ends not as heroes but as contestants. Boll shatters the conventional, temporal flow of narrative to drive us towards a grief-stricken looking glass. As an order emerges from the rubble of conflicting desires and provocations, each protagonists’ predicament compels toward a perfect moment, which like all such moments is fleeting but decisive.

Michael Hamburger In Conversation

Michael Hamburger 1974 R.B. Kitaj 1932-2007 Presented by Rose and Chris Prater through the Institute of Contemporary Prints 1975

‘Some of the poems I wrote in the USA are responses to my discoveries of wilderness and wild life, on the walks that were my main compensation for enforced absence from home, others to the civilisation that has become ours, since American monetarist and free market ideology were imported by Margaret Thatcher.’ p.16

‘Paradox has been at the root of my life, as a poet and otherwise. That may be why it’s been as difficult for me to make sense of what I’ve been or done as it’s proved for other people.’ p. 19

‘All I can say now is that I’ve made peace with parts of both Pound’s and Eliot’s works, in the teeth of their opinions and stances, because good poetry is always more and other than the opinions that went into it or can be read out of it.’ p. 20

‘[English literary] snobbery has diminished, replaced by sensationalism about ‘celebrities’ and the cult of publicity for publicity’s sake, measured in figures not quality, and the political prejudice has been replaced either by tolerance or by indifference. Now it’s indifference to all good writing that isn’t sensational my translations are up against; and it makes little difference whether they are from the German or another language, when the same indifference meets even the work of English poets who happen to have won no competitions nor attracted publicity for something other than the merit of their work. The nearest things to general assessments of a writer’s work now appears in obituary columns. If the better newspapers were interested in extending that privilege to writers who have withstood neglect and are still kicking, they would have given that amount of space and care to people who are only candidates for death; not as a boost to those writers but as a service to readers.’ p. 44

‘It’s the disappearance of criticism, not notice, that is fatal to the continuation not of imaginative writing, but of its reception; and the substitution of irrelevances for criticism …’ p. 44

‘No one but Michael Hofmann has ever seriously set up the Aunt Sally he pretends to knock down. It is true that readers of Celan’s last poems have been exasperated by them beyond the bounds of deciding that he went too far, driving his language beyond the bounds of what poetry can do. I have no quarrel with such readers who are free to give up and look elsewhere.’ p. 47 [Hofmann argued in his review of Felstiner’s book on Celan that ‘there is even a case for saying there is no point in translating’ Celan.]

‘I’m sure I’ve been as irascible  as the rest of the tribe [‘literati’], but although I can always be relied upon to moan about something – and my friend Christopher Middleton used to call me ‘Gloomburger’ – I’ve done my best not to squabble in my own interest, but about matters I feel strongly about. I must say, too, that in a world always imperfect I find nothing more boring than an obligatory cheerfulness; or the pretence of it that’s expected of one. It doesn’t make for interchange of any kind.’ p. 64

Michael Hamburger: In Conversation with Peter Dale (1998)

Beckett’s Stirring Still

We seldom see what is staring at us. Think of Stirrings Still while reading Cees Nooteboom, who writes, “The young man knew that too, and later made increasing use of omission as the most essential feature of his art, his last book, only ten pages long, describing his own demise as he lives through it.”

Beckett’s last book, lauded as one of the most beautiful books of the last hundred years, quarter-bound in Parisian parchment, with natural linen and cotton boards, stamped with a motif by Louis le Brocquy in eighteen carat gold. This edition of 226 copies, with nine lithographed illustrations by Brocquy, signed by the illustrator and Beckett.

Part 1, in the opening line of the third paragraph, we encounter the jarring polysyllabic whithersoever. Beckett, though frail and breathing with the help of an oxygenator, expressed dismay that he had not given approval for the final proofs of this special edition, in which his neologism is misspelt as withersoever. In some of his friends’ copies of this edition, he took the opportunity to correct the error by hand, perhaps further enhancing  their future market value.

Christa Wolf: One Day a Year: 1960-2000

It might seem, at first appearance, a little daunting, this six hundred and eighteen page book that promises to recount in exacting detail One Day a Year for forty years, those between 1960 and 2000. Daunting, unless, of course, you are acquainted with the writing of Christa Wolf, for this will hardly be your first Wolf. If you’ve been fortunate  enough to read her Cassandra, Medea, or the first-rate City of Angels, you’ll already be looking forward to immersing yourself into this autobiography of sorts, of a writer of such high cultural seriousness as Wolf.

Aside from the fascination of following Wolf’s reluctant self-revelation over such an extended time, her book also provides the sublime backdrop of history as Wolf becomes ever more disillusioned with the communism of the German Democratic Republic, whilst retaining an unshakeable faith in the economic–if not humane–ideals of Marxian socialism.

Juxtaposed with the historical context, Wolf writes of her meals with husband ‘Gerd’ Wolf, the books she is reading, her literary friends and influences–Anna Seghers, Nelly Sachs, Günter Grass, Max Frisch and especially Heinrich Böll–and the unfolding lives–birthdays, marriages, divorces–of her daughters. Beneath the macro and micro history lies Wolf’s agonising struggle to escape the boundaries of her recurring depression, realising early the important metaphysical necessity of writing.

It is impossible to read One Day a Year without bringing to mind another writer’s veiled autobiographical works, that of her near-namesake Virginia Woolf. For both writers, writing was a therapeutic act, a way of transposing trauma into literature. Both found it difficult to write about their inner selves. As Woolf wrote so poignantly in The Waves, “But how to describe the world seen without a self? There are no words.”

I Insist Upon Mysteries

“Addendum, three days later: Interestingly enough, I “forgot” to mention an entire train of thought that occupied me on that day, which lies almost a week in the past. Surprising even to me, during the evening conversation among the four of us, I said that I actually did not believe that I could still call myself a Marxist. Not that I would not consider Marxist economic thought–above all with respect to its criticism of capitalism–to be correct and important. but that thought represents only a small segment of human life–just like politics, which has held us in its clutches for far too long. And, perhaps the most important thing: I doubt that the role the economy plays in the motivation of human deeds and misdeeds is as determining as Marx claims. They, the Marxists, concede themselves very little with human nature, which–even that has developed historically–works against them with enormous irrationalities that transcend their own economic interests. The sober economic calculation: if it would at least prevail! No, it probably lies within Marxism itself, as it has presented itself until now, that it could come down to this purely pragmatic economic doctrine and to this utilitarianism, from which not another spark can be struck and which yields nothing for art. I insist upon mysteries that cannot be unveiled by applying an economic law, and upon human autonomy that the individuals cannot surrender to a higher organisation with its claims of omnipotence, without destroying his or her own personality.”

Christa Wolf, One Day a Year (September 27, 1980) (trans. Lowell A. Bangerter)

Engaging with a Book

There are, I suppose, two ways to read a book. Perhaps many more. I tend to inhabit a book, giving rein to a flight of imagination that affords me the opportunity to see through the eyes of a character. Others, I imagine, spectate from afar like viewers at a puppet show.

I read Christa Wolf’s No Place on Earth twice recently, a kind of double reading on the first occasion, when I read it straight through and started again at the beginning and read it straight through again without a break. It is the sort of book that I’ll read five or six times, and still be ready to read again.

Observing a writer’s world through their eyes, or sometimes, just the eyes of a particular character, can be so ineffable, so very fertile, that I wish to prolong the encounter for as long as is possible. Another time, reading a book like Max Frisch’s Homo Faber, the view is unsettling, discordant even, which is fecund in a different way, but still worth drawing out, only to emerge after a double reading, anguished but purged

There are writers I wish to engage with to the greatest extent, seeking out all they write: stories, letters, diaries, everything. They offer a rare chance to disturb in some small but permanent way how I conceptualise the world. It is the very best form of escapism, a boundary crossing, a chance to step over a threshold from one self to the other, not just intellectually but on a deep, emotional level. These writers that I set out to read to completion disengage me from myself, silently and profoundly. Who would I be, I wonder, without the alchemical transformation caused by writers like Dante, Christa Wolf, Denton Welch, Virginia Woolf, Mathias Énard, Roberto Calasso, Doris Lessing, Samuel Beckett, Kate Zambreno, Homer.

It isn’t only fiction that provides voluptuous literary encounters. When reading nonfiction, without that distinction between a writer and a writer’s voice, it is possible to develop what feels uncannily like a friendship. Such friends are Gilbert Highet, Walter Kaufmann, Plato, Hélène Cixous, Marcus Aurelius, who have each influenced my life for the better. This intellectual endowment, this gift that is reading, is transformative. Sometimes enchanting, not always comfortable or easy, but that is the nature of friendship.

“Every True Reader is a Writer in Force”

“Yes, exactly. But every true reader is a writer in force. A true reader is someone who remakes the other’s book. Besides, it’s the movement itself of the book. When you open a book, first of all, it’s a harsh act, because you break it. You open it up, to get out what’s inside. You begin your reading with the first page. You read the first page, you think you’ve retained it all. When you turn the page, what remains of the first, in the second? One or two phrases, an emotion at the moment of an encounter. You read the second page, go on to the third; of the second that you have nonetheless read completely, few things remain. All the rest gets erased. And gradually like that until the end. At the end, the book that you’ve enjoyed, that you’ve read with the greatest attention, becomes a book that’s fragmented by you, by the important pieces of your reading. It’s with that, that you will make your own book. And the author is always surprised when they cite a phrase of his when there were other phrases right beside it that perhaps seemed more important to him. For example, in my own experience, in the last book of The Book of Resemblances there are one or two phrases that were extremely important for me, phrases about myself, that revealed a lot of things. At least I thought so, that they were going to stop there and say, “Ah, look at this, here.” Well, even my closest friends didn’t see these phrases. What does that say? That says you can’t, you, transmit something through the book. It is blank each time. You can’t say, on a certain page, “Here it is,” because the reader doesn’t understand. Finally, it’s that all books work or they don’t. And when it does, it works according to the reading that you have given it. Of my books there have been the most contradictory readings.”

from this interview with Edmond Jabès

A Horrible Vision of the Future (1966)

“I elucidate my observation that there are people, an increasing number of people it seems to me, who resemble those sick people in the realm of normality: who keep their feelings and passions well tempered, never reach the verge of a real conflict, are able to swallow everything, if not process it, never know devotion or even moral steadfastness in love, nor see any reason or it . . .
Yes, he says, that is technology. It produces this human commodity, and we cultivate it–But to have to live among such people is a horrible vision of the future . . .–How so? You can still live among mentally ill people who still have all that. Besides, no hereditary biological mutations occur among these people, everything can be reclaimed in coming generations. If technology is not apathetically imitated, they way the pupil copies the teacher’s A, but if we play with it . . .”

Christa Wolf, One Day a Year (trans. Lowell A. Bangerter)

Christa Wolf, City of Angels

Cassandra, Medea. In Christa Wolf’s retelling of these old stories, there are no more heroes. Her project is ideological, the dismantling of myth to uncover the inherent manipulation. By groping her way into the past, Wolf provides a different way to look at our present situation.

In the earlier No Place on Earth, Wolf’s reference points are taking shape, and will be further developed in the two later works. Though political, she is much more than a mere polemicist, explicitly playing with a concept of memory beyond Socrates’ slab of wax, closer to the idea that memory is what makes perception possible, and that our interpretation of reality, based on our memories, is our principle source of wisdom.

In her last novel, City of Angels, these themes coalesce in a book that blurs all the traditional boundaries between reality and fiction. These are my favourite books, surprising and felt in equal measure. Wolf projects instances of her life onto a protagonist that is simultaneously subject and character. But none of that is what makes this novel so brilliant. It is rather the way we inhabit her protagonist’s mind, Wolf’s mind, as its exploration of its own subjectivity and recollection unfolds. As Brodsky wrote, “Evolution is not a species’/adjustment to a new environment but one’s memories/triumph over reality.”

Old Questions

“If such things as primitive communism, group-marriage, and matriarchy were admitted into the beginnings of Greek civilisation, what would become of the dogma, on which the ruling class leant more and more heavily as the city-state declined, that its economic basis in private property, slave labour, and the subjection of women rested on natural justice? If the writings of the later materialists, Demokritos and Epicurus, had not perished, we might well have possessed a more penetrating analysis of early Greek society than Aristotle’s. But they perished partly for that reason. Plato wanted the works of Demokritos to be burnt, and his wish has been fulfilled.”

George Thomson,  Studies in Ancient Greek Society: The Prehistoric Aegean

Review of this rather curious, but fascinating book.

On Guard Against Herself

“She knows too well the causes which can trigger in a woman some unconscious response to a man: mere self-absorption, the dread of an ignominious loneliness. The man, driven by egotism to think himself irresistible, has the knack of interpreting such signals, no matter how covert, as an open invitation. She must be on guard against herself, all the more so because she considers herself capable on an uncalculating and boundless self-surrender.”

Christa Wolf, No Place on Earth, (trans. Jan van Heurck)