I’ve been struggling with novels lately, reading the first ten pages and setting the book aside. At the moment I’m drawn to non-fiction, philosophy, essays, short stories, letters and diaries. I attribute my disposition to Ulysses.
I’ve written about this year’s blows to the head, the sublimity I found in reading To the Lighthouse and Ulysses.What coalesced my understanding of the expansiveness I found in those books was my subsequent reading of What Ever Happened to Modernism?
I am drawn to novels that bear few traces of being fiction, which write beyond the artifice of character and plot. A work may be perceptive, stylistically and aesthetically pleasing, it may momentarily excite or intrigue, but I feel the need for more than that. I want to read books that force themselves deep into my marrow. Of course, Kafka said it more eloquently:
Kafka wrote to his friend Oskar Pollak, ‘I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow on the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, at a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.’
The penultimate line of that paragraph is pinned on the notice board beside me – A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. It has been for five years but I barely assimilated its message. Over the years my reading biography has shifted, widened, entire genres have fallen away. Though my journey has been different from Richard of The Existence Machine, the place of arrival is similar. Not just Modernists, but books that dare to push into that expansiveness, that place where the words go beyond the language.