Exploration and Discovery List Part 1

From my pocket notebook, a list of twenty writers to explore; a memory prompt for when I am browsing in a bookshop. Most came as further reading from a book I’ve read, or passing comments on social media that intrigued me. Beyond cursory sampling I’ve read nothing of their work.

  1. Paula Gooder
  2. Matei Calinescu
  3. Vittorio Hösle
  4. Anton Shammas
  5. Miguel de Beistegui
  6. David Nowell Smith
  7. Susan Woolfson
  8. Roger Foster
  9. Christine Brooke-Rose
  10. Rachel Moran
  11. Michel-Rolph Trouillot
  12. Amitav Ghosh
  13. Roy Scranton
  14. Ricardo Piglia
  15. Ann Quinn
  16. Jacqueline Rose
  17. Edmond Jabes
  18. Max Tegmark
  19. Caleb Everett
  20. Agnes Collard

Thoughts on Ben Lerner’s 10:04

There is a different time when I wouldn’t have finished reading Ben Lerner’s 10:04. As Borges says in his Paris Review interview: “I think a writer always begins by being too complicated: He’s playing at several games at the same time.” Lerner’s games are almost a catalogue of David Lodge’s characteristic postmodern strategies of contradiction, discontinuity, excess, short circuit, all played against each other. This may be writing on the very edge of fiction, but in a different way than Rachel Cusk although there are similarities in the use of autobiography to ask questions about the nature of self and identity.

At this time I am more willing to be implicated with Lerner’s preoccupations and voice, to play along with his inventive text. I’m curious enough to want to see how he tells his story and continue to enjoy writing that enmeshes the writer in the very structure of their fiction. It is less subtle than Cusk’s trilogy and will appeal more to readers that are fascinated with games of literary production.

It isn’t just a book that plays games with form, otherwise I may not have finished my reading. Lerner chooses and arranges the elements that go into his story so that the past becomes an artefact of narration. The very concept of a past constructed through memory, selective by nature, suggests that the past itself is just another story, no longer accessible in its original form. That such a personal, but essentially fictional past, is integral to the creation of self-identity is also the argument Rachel Cusk makes so powerfully in her trilogy.

Forthcoming Books of Interest

There is nothing like refitting a library to make one appreciate how extensive a reading-backlog has somehow established itself as an almost living being. It makes me think fondly of the Joanna Walsh short story. Her story rests on the irresistible premise that all your unread books might step from your shelves in the shape of a polyphonous reader to share with you some conversation and a glass of wine. (I recently contributed a personal selection of short stories, which included Walsh’s story, to Jonathan Gibbs’ terrific A Personal Anthology.)

I am trying to buy fewer books, but these are forthcoming over the next twelve months and will escape any such caution:

T. J. Clark, Heaven on Earth: Painting and the Life to Come
Christophe Bident, Maurice Blanchot: A Critical Biography
Michelle Bailat-Jones, Unfurled
Maria Gabriela Llansol, Geography Rebels trilogy
Karl Ole Knausgaard, Inadvertent (Why I Write)
Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries
Dan Gretton, I You We Them
Joshua Sperling, A Writer of Our Time: The Life and Writings of John Berger
Simon Critchley, Tragedy, the Greeks and Us
Rachel Cusk, Coventry: Essays
Yiyun Li, Where Reasons End
Kate Zambreno, Appendix Project: Talks and Essays
Marguerite Duras, The Garden Square
Annie Ernaux, Happening
Mathias Enard, Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants
Clarice Lispector, The Besieged City
Daša Drndic, E. E. G. and Doppelgänger
Agustín Fernández Mallo, Nocilla Lab

A Idea Bubbling Away

What remains of fiction read in our most formative years? An atmosphere, certain sentences, some nuances of character, memories anchored in the place and time a book was read. A quarter of a century after reading a story I still retain not-quite images, not-quite sensations, but definite specific memories. A woman sitting on a thistle in order to fix a memory; a teenager-who would become a junkie-coming to Swiss Cottage to meet his sister; a man hidden underground while spies search overground for his traces, each memory almost as real as if they had happened beyond the pages of a book.

I read differently in those days, before the internet, when I relied on browsing and serendipity to lead me from one book to the next. When I read something that made the world feel charged, made me see, hear, sense the world around me in new ways, I read and reread, often reading a book three or four times in a row, and again after a few month’s break.

Those books, which wouldn’t fill much more than a typical shelf make me curious. Some of them are almost certainly poorly written, many riddled with cliché, some maybe ideologically unsound, but what would it be like to return to them now, to re-explore those early encounters?

Would it be awful, inadvisable to put together a short reading list? It would be primarily a list of male writers, curated not to allow an imbalance of science fiction. There would perhaps be some William Gibson, a Patricia Highsmith, maybe Kingsley Amis, Trevanian, Winston Graham, Iain M. Banks, Kem Nunn, maybe a Neal Stephenson, almost certainly a Richard Allen or two, perhaps Anne Tyler, Paul Theroux, J. P. Donleavy, Douglas Coupland or Nicholson Baker and Margaret Atwood. (There is also a very long list of those I know I couldn’t stomach again.) This is probably a rotten idea. I hope it goes away.

Thoughts on Cusk and Autofiction

There’s some insightful writing around about Rachel Cusk’s trilogy, including the transcript of an interview with Alexandra Schwartz. On my first reading of the last in the series, Kudos, I drifted off about a third of the way through, but I am glad I returned, this time reading the trilogy end to end over a couple of days. I’ve thought whether to write anything much about my reading of Cusk, but have little that would improve on the pieces linked above.

I’d like to read more Cusk, but cannot imagine she can continue to explore the reticent narrator in the same way. There is a controlling quality that becomes a little claustrophobic, that sense of a person seeing without being seen. What I enjoyed most was the clear tension between Cusk’s need to use some minimal tools of fiction to narrate her story, but preserve the subtlety about the implications of her narrative, at least until the last pages of Kudos.

What also interests me is the phenomenon that has come to be called autofiction. It takes further the self-conscious writing of writers like Marguerite Duras into what Cusk describes as writing as close to herself as possible, a merging of autobiography and fiction, an extreme awareness of the self’s fictional status.

Autofiction changes the role of the reader, requiring a greater imaginative contribution. It is both discomfiting and liberating. I’ve returned to Knausgaard’s writing for that reason, enjoying both Summer and Autumn, and fully intend to read his six part series over the winter. I read Deborah Levy’s Things I Don’t Want to Know and The Cost of Living and am hungry for more. In fact, I’m finder it harder and harder to return to the false notes of character and stylised tensions of plot that are the remnants of the nineteenth century novel. It’s just a phase I’m sure.

Re-reading Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy

There are pages when I like Cusk’s writing and passages when I don’t, parts that feel exciting and original, others that fall a little flat. Halfway through reading Kudos for the first time, I stopped–something about Cusk’s highly measured voice–not only stopped but added Cusk’s trilogy to the charity-shop bag that sits beside my desk at all times.

Later I came across these sentences from Outline, “She began to see herself as a shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank. Yet, this shape, even while its contents remained unknown gave her for the first time since the incident a sense of who she was.” I also read an interview in which Cusk says she’d “lost all interest in having a self” (h/t Steve Taylor). I found myself thinking, making lists of books of similar conception, and, of course, had to return again to Cusk’s curious trilogy.

With my second edition of the trilogy I started again from Outline. I always start slowly with fiction, savouring the prose rhythms, then as I get into the thrust of a novel I speed up, carried along by the verbal music, only to slow myself down towards the end, if it is a book of intelligence and wit, unwilling to bring my reading to an end. I have a predilection for thoughtful and subtle books, and am pleased to once again be reading Cusk.

Outline is the opposite of a realist novel, the narrator, as Joshua Corey summarised, “manifests as negative space into which all the other characters pour themselves.” Continuing without a break into the second book, Transit, is for me a better way to read Cusk’s trilogy, the immersion into its calibrated prose refreshes. I don’t know whether Cusk is a great writer, whatever such a word means anyway, but her fiction, at least as expressed in her Outline trilogy, is not straightforward. It is writing that makes me stop and think, active as opposed to passive reading, fiction that questions the reader as much as we question it.

Hardly a Person at all . . .

‘Just as [Walter] Benjamin’s thinking constitutes the antithesis of the existential concept of the person, he seems empirically, despite extreme individuation, hardly to have been a person at all, but rather an arena of movement in which a certain content forced its way, through him, to language.’

‘It is doubtful whether anyone else ever succeeded in making his own neurosis–if indeed it was a neurosis–so productive.’

‘In himself and his relations with others he insisted unreservedly upon the primacy of the mind; which, in lieu of immediacy, became for him immediate.’

‘In the letters this ritual element extends to the graphic image, indeed even to the selection of writing paper, about which he was uncommonly particular . . .’

‘Benjamin experienced the present moment in the “prismatic splendour” of reflection; but he was granted power over the past.’

‘The letter form is an anachronism and was already becoming one in Benjamin’s lifetime; his own letters are not thereby impugned.’

‘In a total constitution of society that demotes every individual to a function, no one is now entitled to give an account of himself in a letter as though he were still the uncomprehended individual, which is what the letter claims; the “I” in a letter has something about it of the merely apparent.’

‘His own letters, by virtue of not at all resembling the ephemeral utterances of life, develop their objective force: that of formulation and nuance indeed worthy of a human being. Here the eye, grieving for the losses about to overtake it, still lingers over things with a patient intensity that itself needs to be restored as a possibility.’

Gershom Scholem and Theodor W. Adorno, editors, The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, 1910 – 1940, Translated by Manfred R. Jacobson and Evelyn M. Jacobson

Theodor Adorno’s opening essay, Benjamin the Letter Writer, five pages of it, is by far the best of this 651 page book. It is no surprise to read Michael Rosen’s comment that, “the Jacobsons’ translation is stiff and unidiomatic to the point of unintelligibility at times.” The Benjamin/Scholem correspondence, translated by Gary Smith and Andre Lefevere is altogether more rewarding, in large part because it provides both parts of the exchange of letters.