Sunday Notes

Today is Epiphany II, the second Sunday after Epiphany. About a month ago I decided to listen to each Bach Cantata, as performed by John Eliot Gardiner, The Monteverdi Choir and The English Baroque Soloists. It isn’t a question of religion, (to which I answer ‘yes and no’ when asked), just a way to spend more time with my music collection.

The picture above is one of those currently exhibited at Victoria Miro, a selection of Paula Rego works that are rarely shown. I don’t think any were included in last year’s magnificent Tate Britain retrospective. Those in the Depression series are particularly remarkable.

Peter Bradshaw was right in his assessment of The Father, which I watched last night. It is deeply moving and more than a little scary to anyone closer to the end of life than the beginning. It brought to mind a line from a poem by Hayden Carruth: Words misremembered, ideas frayed like old silk. The economy of that last phrase has stayed with me long after I forgot the poem.

I’m reading The Iliad again, this time in a modern (2015) translation by Caroline Alexander. Is this the first translation of the poem in English by a woman? It is readable, elegant even without rhythmic regularity, but it will have to go far to substitute for Fagles as my favourite.  Alexander’s translation successfully competed for my attention over Clare Carlisle’s Spinoza’s Religion, her pious reading of Spinoza’s Ethics. I found her argument compelling and hope to return to her book later in the year.

January: A Start

“The constant, fundamental underlying urge is surely to live more, to live a larger life.”

— Ludwig Hohl, The Notes

It is in the spirit of Montaigne that Ludwig Hohl writes in The Notes. You might call him a philosopher, but, if so, it is in that real sense that one uses philosophy to fashion a way of passing the world through your being. The Notes or On Non-premature Reconciliation will sustain me in the same way as Leopardi’s Zibaldone. Each one of us in our own medium, fearing that we may not be sufficient to our brief lives on the earth, that we might fail to embrace this life with enough joy, enough consciousness, with death closer than the nearest corner. This is Hohls’s project: to recognise the possibility of humanity. This edition is translated by Tess Lewis, razor-sharp imagery and language, reads like it isn’t a translation.

Also in this new year, Monsieur Proust’s Library by Anna Muhlstein. Come not for the bibliophilic fantasy of a weekend spent in Marcel’s well-appointed book-room, but to read Proust through the eyes of someone who knows the text deeply and intricately. Worth the time just to draw attention to the presence of Ruskin in Proust: “I don’t claim to know English. I claim to know Ruskin”.

Reading intentions – 2022

Such that they are. Readers that persist with this blog will detect that though my intentions  are good, my attentiveness to anything resembling a plan is not. There will be Ancient Greek and Roman literature in new translations (Homer, Sappho, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Catullus, Lucretius, Virgil, Horace, Ovid and Seneca). I’ll be sampling Katherine Mansfield’s stories, and rereading Dostoevsky. I’d also like to get to Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers. Expect me to keep dipping into my favourite authors. The rest, as always, will be serendipitous wild reading.

Playing a Ghostly Part

Nadja, translated by Richard Howard. Such a beginning augurs a pyrotechnic display of style. The sentence is direct yet constrained. I am drawn in by its rhythmic effect, enhanced by the numerous minor vacillations. I will memorise these lines and play with them for a few days. I might even read on.

Who am I? If this once I were to rely on a proverb, then perhaps everything would amount to knowing whom I “haunt.” I must admit that this last word is misleading, tending to establish between certain beings and myself relations that are stranger, more inescapable, more disturbing than I intended. Such a word means much more than it says, makes me, still alive, play a ghostly part, evidently referring to what I must have ceased to be in order to be who I am. Hardly distorted in this sense the word suggests that what I regard as the objective, more or less deliberate manifestations of my existence are merely the premises, within the limits of this existence, of an activity whose true extent is quite unknown to me.

Paul Griffiths’s The Tomb Guardians

Antiquity brings to mind a jigsaw puzzle, and the work of a writer, whether historian or novelist, is like the jigsaw enthusiast who must assemble the fragments to establish a complete picture. The analogy is quickly strained as there is neither a pre-established image to use as a guide, nor would each puzzle maker agree on the final picture. Antiquity is perhaps better perceived as a palimpsest in which each interpreter removes older surfaces to present a different picture.

In The Tomb Guardians, Paul Griffiths enters into a dialogue with German artist Bernhard Strigel’s renaissance paintings of the four Roman soldiers assigned to guard the rock-cut tomb of Jesus Christ. Jewish tradition forbade burial within a city’s walls, and the gospel of Matthew introduces the figures of the guards to perhaps counter any claims that Jesus’ body had been removed by his disciples.

It’s a commonplace story interpreted many years after the event in different ways in each of the gospels with added detail from the apocryphal gospels.The attraction of this book comes not from the familiar story, but the performance of the story. Griffiths gives voice to the guards and to an academic preparing a lecture about Strigel’s paintings, taking a familiar tale and revealing inspired variations of it, to elevate something commonplace into both a perfectly composed exploration of human frailty, and some of the finest art criticism I’ve encountered.

My Year in Reading: 2021

If any writer could be said to have exerted an influence on my reading this year, it would be Gabriel Josipovici. One influence does not preclude another and the claim might equally apply to Gerald Murnane or Friederike Mayröcker. The latter died, aged 96, this summer, but to share a time with such writers is a flaming beam during an otherwise wretched year. These are writers of subtlety, not stylists, nor meticulous crafters of the perfect sentence, though a very many of their sentences, to quote Nietzsche, turn into a hook, pulling something incomparable from out of the depths.  What can be more exhilarating than to follow the thoughts of such singular human minds?

Of all years, in this I read and abandoned more contemporary fiction than normal, an attempt to read against the grain. It is of no surprise that there are few novels first published today worth reading. That could describe any age. There is simply too much in most fiction: superfluous style, too many adjectives, too little space to open a door to ones own reflections. What is left when we finish a book is the mood or atmosphere, described so lucidly by Jenny Erpenbeck: the most important things sink deeper in our memories, we internalise them, take them into our bodies, and they stay there, blind and mute.

Sharing the interior lives of others through their literary creation arguably tells us more about the world than any other medium. Three novels this year offered the sharp light of an autumn afternoon, providing a glimpse of the inner spaces of their creators: Jacques Roubaud’s The Great Fire of London, Peter Weiss’s Leavetaking, and Gabriel Josipovici’s Moo Pak. Formally each could not be more different, but what they provide is a serious portrayal of the human condition in its infinite forms.

That description could equally apply to Friederike Mayröcker’s And I Shook Myself a Beloved, translated by Alexander Booth. It is a fiction too in the sense that all journeys into inner worlds are fictions, but it is primarily a recounting, in dark tones, of her relationship with life partner Ernst Jandl. It is a raw meditation, but lifted by its strange and unquestionable beauty.

Art restimulates inspirations and awakens sensibilities / that’s the function of art, wrote Agnes Martin in Writings. This collection of her letters, lectures and journals is exceptional and was fine company and, like David Sylvester’s Interviews with Francis Bacon, offers insight beyond the specifics of a particular artist or perspective.

This wasn’t particularly a year for poetry, but I discovered Derek Walcott’s White Egrets. These are quiet and conservative poems, with a vivid expression of personality. He has Larkin’s gift for evocative phrase-making and Heaney’s nuanced appreciation of landscape. The poems addressing his canonical artists: Uccello, El Greco, del Sarto, Blake, Van Gogh, and Constable, are particularly  memorable.

Next year I plan to draw in my reading, depth over breadth, thinking through even the minor works of my talismanic writers. There will possibly be more poetry, certainly less contemporary fiction, probably more Ancient Greek and Roman literature, but thankfully I’ve always been hopelessly inadequate at charting the serendipitous direction of my reading life.