Monsters

Reading Middlemarch with no particular desire to finish reading Middlemarch brought home to me just how much I love reading what Henry James denounced as ‘loose baggy monsters’ or very long books (as defined, say, of more than five hundred pages).

I don’t think Middlemarch is that loose or baggy, quite the opposite in fact. It is a novel of immense discipline with a great deal of thought put into the architecture and the skeleton building. Nor do I think looseness is such a bad thing in a novel. Looseness gives one room to breathe, to slow down.

There is something in the psychological experience of burrowing into a long and expansive novel that is very special. That isn’t too say I don’t admire writers who can achieve the concentrated unity of an effective shorter novel, but all too often they rely overly much on plot, creating those tiresome “page-turners” that end up being exhausting and ephemeral. Besides, are monsters such a bad thing? The word stems from monstrum, something that upsets thought, that lives at the edge of reason, and that is an apt word to underpin the unsettling, time-shifting nature of a long, complex novel.

So I have in my sights some other monsters that I’ve not read before. This might be a year I read only another dozen books:

  1. Alexander Theroux, Einstein’s Beets
  2. Péter Nádas, Parallel Stories
  3. Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet
  4. Cora Sandel, Alberta trilogy
  5. Peter Handke, My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay
  6. George Eliot, Daniel Deronda
  7. Katherine Anne Porter, Ship of Fools
  8. Divine Comedy (Dorothy Sayers’ translation)
  9. Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries
  10. Thomas Mann, Joseph and his Brothers
  11. Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage (last four books to finish)
  12. Maybe more Nádas, or Tolstoy, or Weymouth Sands, or rereading Proust or Karamazov, or . . .

If you have a favourite monster I’ve not mentioned please drop into comments.

Her Wifely Devotedness

Evidence of George Eliot’s brilliance is easy to find in Middlemarch, but there are some passages incapable of any discernible improvement:

“There was no denying that Dorothea was as virtuous and lovely a young lady as he could have obtained for a wife; but a young lady turned out to be something more troublesome than he had conceived. She nursed him, she read to him, she anticipated his wants, and was solicitous about his feelings; but there had entered into the husband’s mind the certainty that she judged him, and that her wifely devotedness was like a penitential expiation on unbelieving thoughts — was accompanied with a power of comparison by which himself and his doings were seen too luminously as a part of things in general. His discontent passed vapour-like through all her gentle loving manifestations and clung to that inappreciative world which she had only brought nearer to him.
Poor Mr. Casaubon! This suffering was the harder to bear because it seemed like a betrayal: the young creature who had worshipped him with perfect trust had quickly turned into the critical wife; and early instances of criticism and resentment had made an impression which no tenderness and submission afterwards could remove. To his suspicious interpretation Dorothea’s silence now was a suppressed rebellion; a remark from her which he had not in any way anticipated was an assertion of conscious superiority; her gentle answers had an irritating cautiousness in them; and when she acquiesced it was with a self-approved effort of forebearance. The tenacity with which he strive to hide this inward drama made it the more vivid for him as we hear with the more keenness what we wish others not to hear.”

An Empty Gesture

The universe is a unity
making itself manifest
through an infinite number
of relative phenomena
in part accessible to our senses
(in their relativity).
Only through things
do we sense the unity.

Wols. Aphorisms and Pictures (1971)

It is quite possible to hold literature in high regard and recognise its dangers. You remember Plato’s Republic denies writers a place. Rightly, for in the perfect community they are superfluous and hazardous.

Why read? Transformation. The characteristic feature of literature is the way it transforms. Is it possible to imagine oneself without literature, a person who had never read transformative literature? I have tried to make separate reading as an act of transformation, and reading as consumption.

To avoid writing that is expression for the sake of expression. Is this the nature of blogging? Expression mattering more than what is expressed. As Richter wrote, “As a record of reality, the thing I have to represent is unimportant and devoid of meaning, though I make it just as visible as if it were important”.

Why blog? To think. The demand to think about what I read, to reflect upon my position in a collaboration between writer and reader. Even if I fail to write about what I am reading, the act of blogging here for so long is sure to make me think as though I am to write about what I read. To tell the truth, these days I write in my notebooks more. The more I’ve written about literature, the less I understand. The less I have to say.

With the misery and suffering in the world, reading, writing sometimes feels ridiculous, contemptible. There is one ally only against barbarism – friends. Why blog? For the people I’ve met through blogging. A small handful but they are dear to me. A blog lives by companionship.

We want to understand literature. Why not try to understand birdsong? There are so many things I love, the night, trees, waves, everything around, but I don’t feel I must understand them. I read autobiographies as though this might help to understand literature, but understanding writers is of no more use to understanding literature than understanding birdsong. Perhaps less.

To read as an adventure into unknown worlds. To blog as a simple expression of complex thoughts. An attempt to destroy illusion and reveal truth.

Maria Keyrouz – Byzantine Chant

On the whole I found boarding school a period of uninterrupted boredom, though took some relief each morning in compulsory attendance at the school chapel. Though I don’t consider myself a believer I’ve always loved churches for the architecture and the music.

Later when I spent a year in Paris, on one of my weekly visits to a favourite bookshop, I discovered Église Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, built in the 13th century, one of Paris’ oldest religious buildings, a place of worship for Melkite Christians. I was fortunate to hear one of the oldest forms of Christian liturgy: a rite for Easter Saturday.

It seemed an appropriate time to share a favourite piece of music. Sometime after discovering Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre – a venue also for one of the last “Dada excursions” – I found a cassette tape, in a market stall on the banks of the river, of the extraordinary Maria Keyrouz singing at the church. She sings a Byzantine chant for Easter.

It is a very ancient, Middle eastern form of music, a hypnotic and unearthly drone, the sound perhaps that angels would make.

Invisible Thoroughfares

George Eliot structured Middlemarch as an eight part novel, serialised bi-monthly, resulting in a four-volume book. Each of the sections, she wrote, have a ‘certain unity and completeness within itself’. Each, she expected would be the ideal length to read at one time. I’m finding my reading going slower than Eliot would have preferred, partly down to extensive travelling, but also as it is an intense novel that rewards care.

In writing about her young doctor Lydgate, on whom Charles Bovary casts a shadow, it seems to me that she outlines in part her own intellectual approach to writing Middlemarch:

“But these kinds of inspiration [cheap narration] Lydgate regarded as rather vulgar and vinous compared with the imagination that reveals subtle actions inaccessible by any sort of lens, but tracked in that outer darkness through long pathways of necessary sequence by the inward light which is the last refinement of Energy, capable of bathing even the ethereal atoms in its ideally illuminated space. He for his part had tossed away all cheap inventions where ignorance finds itself able and at ease: he was enamoured of that arduous invention which is the very eye of research, provisionally framing its object and correcting it to more and more exactness of relation; he wanted to pierce the obscurity of those minute processes which prepare human misery and joy, those invisible thoroughfares which are the first lurking-places of anguish, mania, and crime, that delicate poise and transition which determine the growth of happy or unhappy consciousness.”

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.

287,644

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”