Mostly Bellow, Some Roth

Saul Bellow disappeared off the edge of my literary radar. Perhaps he caught the tailwind of my growing disenchantment with the novels of Philip Roth. Gabriel Josipovici’s brilliant essay on Saul Bellow, in his 1977 collection The Lessons of Modernism, has reinvigorated a neglected passion. This year sees the publication of a collection of Bellow’s letters and a third volume of The Library of America series. Both of which I look forward to reading.

The essay on Bellow recalls that unique tone of voice, that combines “the utmost formality with the utmost desperation.” He goes on to say:

Bellow has been described as a great realist; as a follower of Dreiser and the American urban naturalist tradition; as a great fantasist, especially in Henderson the Rain King; and as the last of the Yiddish storytellers. But these are ways of shrugging of the demands of that voice, of avoiding its implications by placing it safely in a literary or historical context. Bellow is too important a writer to have this done to him.

“Just as,” continues Josipovici, “according to Proust, all Dostoevsky’s novels could well be called Crime and Punishment and all Flaubert’s L’Education sentimentale, so all Bellow’s could be called Dangling Man.”

It is with Dangling Man I will start my Bellow immersion in the autumn. Inspired by Bibliographing’s Melville project, my intention is to read the fifteen novels, short stories, essay collection and Bellow’s memoir.

What I’ve termed my disenchantment with Philip Roth is, I hope, merely a phase. I can only endorse the suggestion of starting to read Roth with The Ghost Writer, an exceptional novel. The Library of America recently issued a sixth volume in the Roth series, and a new novel is due.

Abominable Borges’ Translations

In Alberto Manguel’s Royal Society of Literature lecture, he comments that:

The English speaking reader has been most unfortunate. Borges cannot be read, in my opinion, in English. There is no valid translation of Borges in English today. There is one exception, which I will come to in a minute, but all sort of abominations have been practised on the work of Borges.

Manguel criticises publishers’ decisions to divide Borges’ work into separate collections of poetry, non-fiction and fiction. Borges’ main intention, Manguel says, was to destroy the barriers of genre.

Mediation and Conversation

 Culture in whatever form-art, thought, history, religion-is for meditation and conversation. Both are necessary sequels to the experience. Cultivation does not come automatically after exposure to the good things as health follows a dose of the right drug. If it did, orchestra players would be the most cultivated people musically and copy editors the finest judges of literature. Nor does “reading up” on art suffice unless it spurs mediation and conversation. Both are actions of the mind along the path of finesse.

Jacques Barzun

The Rückenfigur

This afternoon, whilst browsing the shelves of a rare books shop, I found a Caspar David Friedrich book. Though, unfortunately, the text is German, the photographs of Friedrich’s paintings are stunning.

Friedrich is a new, thrilling discovery. Jospovici’s latest book includes an outstanding chapter that juxtaposes Friedrich’s painting with Wordsworth’s poetry.

. . . Joseph Koerner has some remarkable pages, in his book on Friedrich, about the painter’s fondness for what he calls the Rückenfigur, the figure who is and is not the painter, who is and is not the viewer, who stands at the limit of the picture, with his back to us, so that what we see is not what he sees, but him seeing.

It is a good week for Josipovici books. In Charing Cross Road I found Josipovici’s first novel The Inventory and, to my great satisfaction, The Lessons of Modernism.

The Insomniac of the Day

Yesterday’s post, acknowledging my difficulty in understanding Blanchot’s The Space of Literature lead to some useful comments. Stephen’s advice lead me to read the insightful essay at the centre of Blanchot’s work, Orpheus’ Gaze, which I read a several times, in two different translations.

Today I’ve been reading the first lecture in Simon Critchley’s Very Little … Almost Nothing, devoted to his own struggle with Blanchot. Critchley concedes, “. . . when writing on Blanchot, I confess that I feel very much in the dark, fumbling here and there for a thread.” This thread, for me, came from the reading of Orpheus’ Gaze. Critchley, making some comments in general, elucidates better than I am able the insight I obtained from my reading of Orpheus’ Gaze:

Blanchot’s original insight, obsessively reiterated in his work, is that the desire that governs writing has for its (impossible) origins this experience of the night, which is the experience of a dying stronger than death . . . Writing is not a desire for the beautiful artwork but for the origin of the artwork, its nocturnal source; which is why Blanchot defines the writer as ‘the insomniac of the day’.


For Blanchot, the possibility of literature is found in the radical impossibility of creating a complete work.

My intention is to re-start my exploration of Blanchot’s work with The Work of Fire, keeping this insight to the fore.

Refusal of the Moment of Comprehension

After a morning reading Maurice Blanchot’s The Space of Literature, I conceded defeat. I can understand the words but meaning eludes me. Online I seek guidance and find:

. . . that if one wants to experience the full scope of Blanchot’s critical writing, and perhaps these works are his most influential, then one might begin with The Work of Fire (1949), The Space of Literature (1955) and The Writing of Disaster (1980).


This early essay [The Work of Fire] holds the kernel of his approach to the question of literature and would be one of the best places to start reading his work.

Sampled, The Work of Fire appears less opaque and perhaps a better starting point.

Later, reading Simon Critchley’s Very Little . . . Almost Nothing I find:

Reading Blanchot is, in a sense, the easiest of tasks. His French is limpid and clear, it is daylight itself; almost the French of the Discours de la méthode. And yet, as nearly everyone who writes on Blanchot points out, his work seems to defy any possible approach, it seems to evade being drawn into the circle of interpretation. The utter clarity of Blanchot’s prose would appear to be somehow premised upon a refusal of the moment of comprehension and the consequent labour of interpretation and judgement. Absolutely clear at the level of reading, yet fundamentally opaque at the level of comprehension; a vague fore-understanding that somehow resists being drawn up into an active comprehension.

For now, the plan is to read Critchley’s book as preparation for The Work of Fire’s arrival next week.

The Wit of Virginia Woolf

Contrary to the portrayal of her melancholic disposition in contemporary culture, it is Virginia Woolf’s humour that emerges most forcibly in the essays that make up the first volume of The Common Reader.

Gossiping about seventeenth-century diarist John Evelyn Woolf writes:

Ignorant, yet justly confident that with his own hands he might advance not merely his private knowledge but the knowledge of mankind, Evelyn dabbled in all the arts and sciences, ran about the continent for ten years, gazed with unflagging gusto upon hairy women and rational dogs, and drew inferences and framed speculations which are now only to be matched by listening to the talk of old women round the village pump.

Or when describing the habits of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle:

No fears impede her. She has the irresponsibility of a child and the arrogance of a Duchess. The wildest fancies come to her, and she canters away on their backs. We seem to hear her, as the thoughts boil and bubble, calling to John, who sat with a pen in his hand next door, to come quick, ‘John, John, I conceive!’

The drollery, evident in these essays, was commented on recently by Woolf’s nephew Cecil who said:

Despite her rather sombre appearance, Virginia could be extremely funny.The image she has in some people’s minds of a sad and deeply depressed woman is false. (Nicole Kidman in The Hours springs to mind.) Quite the contrary. Leonard remembered that during the First World War when they sheltered in the basement of their London lodgings from enemy bombing, Virginia made the servants laugh so much that he complained he was unable to sleep. My recollection of her is of a fun-loving, witty and, at times, slightly malicious person.

Acerbic wit aside, there is insight aplenty in Woolf’s essays. Particularly fine is the analysis of Jane Austen, and Woolf’s encouragement to read all her books:

The second-rate works of a great writer are worth reading because they offer the best criticism of his masterpieces.

Woolf not only considers the work of long-dead authors but also discusses her contemporaries. In a perceptive essay on modern novels she comments:

Any one who has read The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man or, what promises to be a far more interesting work, Ulysses, [(Woolf had read the magazine, The Little Review, which published the first thirteen, and part of the fourteenth, episodes of Ulysses)] now appearing in the Little Review, will have hazarded some theory of this nature as to Mr Joyce’s intention. On our part, with such a fragment before us, it is hazarded rather than affirmed; but whatever the intention of the whole, there is no question but that it is of the utmost sincerity and that the result, difficult or unpleasant as we may judge it, it is undeniably important.

Woolf’s reaction to Ulysses was ultimately unfavourable. In her diary she wrote, “I finished Ulysses and think it is a mis-fire. Genius it has, I think; but of inferior water. The book is diffuse. It is brackish. It is pretentious. It is underbred, not only in the obvious sense, but in the literary sense.” In the final essay in The Common Reader, written four years after her essay on modern novels, she comments briefly, “Ulysses was a memorable catastrophe – immense in daring, terrific in disaster.”

Written for the Common Reader these essays are engaging and accessible. The extraordinary quality of the writing lead me gently and enjoyably through all the essays, whether about modern literature, mad duchesses or the literary poverty of not knowing Greek. One final excerpt which adequately summarises the writer behind these essays:

But literature is stern; it is no use being charming, virtuous, or even learned and brilliant into the bargain, unless, she seems to reiterate, you fulfil her first condition – to know how to write.

What Strange Intoxication?

In The Pastons and Chaucer, written by Virginia Woolf for the first volume of The Common Reader, Woolf juxtaposes the life of wealthy but romantic heir, Sir John Paston, with the origin of Chaucer’s use of language in The Canterbury Tales.

Sir John, deemed an unworthy heir to his single-minded father, acquires a corrupting practise:

For sometimes, instead of riding off on his own horse to inspect his crops or bargain with his tenants, Sir John would sit, in broad daylight, reading. There, on the hard chair in the comfortless room with the wind lifting the carpet and the smoke stinging his eyes, he would sit reading Chaucer, wasting his time, dreaming – or what strange intoxication was it that he drew from books?

Drawing her life of Sir John from family letters, Woolf finds the roots of Chaucer’s austere yet beautiful use of language.

Chaucer, it seems, has some art by which the most ordinary words and the simplest feelings when laid side by side, make each other shine; when separated, lose their lustre. Thus the pleasure he gives us is different from the pleasure that other poets give us, because it is more closely connected with what we have ourselves felt or observed.

Reading Woolf on Chaucer brings to mind Ezra Pound’s urging, “Anyone who is too lazy to master the comparatively small glossary necessary to understand Chaucer deserves to be shut out from the reading of good books forever.”

Blows to the Head

It may be that, some years ahead, I look back on this curvaceous year of 2010 as a personal literary milestone, a transformative year. So far in 2010, I have read three books that have redefined my literary appetite.

As a journey, it is similar to the pre-teenage passage when gradually music, and the girl’s hand you held at the beach, supersedes Action Men and comic books. Suddenly some old friends on my library shelves no longer call out to me with quite the same Siren song.

Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Joyce’s Ulysses have fulfilled Kafka’s oft-quoted dictum, “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? …we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”

Making up the third in the triumvirate of blows to the head is Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? I accept that this might be a personal and idiosyncratic choice. As Josipovici says:

My own ‘story’, as I have tried to present it here, discovering what it was as I went along, is that only an art which recognises the pitfalls inherent in both realism and abstraction will be really alive. That is why I warm to the novels of Perec and Bernhard more than to Finnegans Wake or the novels of Updike and Roth, the pictures of Bacon and early Hockney more than to Pollock or Tracy Emin, to the music of Birtwistle and Kurtág more than to Cage or Shostakovitch. . . But I realise that this may be largely because of who and what I am.

I am a common reader. As Woolf wrote, a common reader differs, “… from the critic and the scholar, He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others.” There are, however, uncommon and erudite readers like Jospovici.

What Ever Happened to Modernism? enables me pin down just why some writers and artists electrify me and others leave me cold. It has given definition to what I had previously thought an almost arbitrary, random collection of preferences. I recognise why I buy each new book of several once favourite writers and leave them unopened on my shelves.

In What Ever Happened to Modernism? Josipovici pins down Modernism, and argues that, “… it is a response to the simplifications of the self and of life which Protestantism and the Enlightenment brought with them, in return of course for many impressive achievements . . .” He challenges “… the prevalent English view, epitomised by Waugh, Larkin and Amis, that Modernism that was just a blip in the serene history of the arts,” and argues for its sustained relevance today.

Polemic in part, Josipovici’s book is persuasive and deeply thought-provoking and above all personal:

Naturally I think the story  I have just finished telling is the true one. At the same time I recognise that there are many stories and that there is no such thing as the true story, only more or less plausible explanations, stories that tale more or less account of the facts.

One final quote, succour to English readers:

So many English novelists today confess to wanting to write like Dickens that it might be thought that the difference between England and France and Germany is that we have no great model to look back to, who might give us an understanding of what it might mean to have a European sensibility, that is, to be as English as they come and yet have a real historical awareness. But there is one, as I have suggested: Wordsworth.

Popularity and Artistic Authority

Josipovici develops an argument on the distinction between naivety and simplicity into thoughts on authority:

Not having doubts is a blessed state, but it is not the same thing as having genuine authority. There is something hollow about Balzac, Dickens and Verdi compared with Dante or Shakespeare, but even compared with their older contemporaries, Beethoven and Wordsworth. It doesn’t rest on their frequent clumsiness, for that is to be found in Beethoven and Wordsworth. It rests more on the very thing that is the root of their strength as artists and their enormous success as entrepreneurs: their inability to question what it is they are doing. In that sense they are the first modern best-sellers and in their work one can see the beginnings of that split between popularity and artistic depth which is to become the hallmark of modern culture.