About Anthony

To quote Samuel Beckett's letter to Thomas MacGreevy (25 March 1936), 'I have been reading wildly all over the place'. Time's Flow Stemmed is a notebook of my wild readings.

My Desert Island Bookshelf

Marooned on a desert island, these are the books I would wish to accompany me. I set one simple rule: one book per writer.

Mathias Enard, Compass
Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable
WG Sebald, After Nature
Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts
Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook
Franz Kafka, The Castle
Homer, Iliad
Geoff Dyer, The Colour of Memory
Roger Deakin, Notes From Walnut Tree Farm
Dante, Purgatory
Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
James Joyce, Dubliners
Marguerite Duras, Moderato Cantabile
Simone de Beauvoir, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter
Stendhal, The Charterhouse of Parma
Peter Handke, Repetition
Jorge Semprún, Literature or Life
Laszlo Krasznahorkai, War & War
Pascal Quignard, The Roving Shadows
JM Coetzee, In the Heart of the Country
Mahmoud Darwish, Memory for Forgetfulness
Clarice Lispector, Agua Viva
Kate Zambreno, Book of Mutter
Roberto Calasso, La Folie Baudelaire
Tomas Espedal, Tramp
Christa Wolf, Cassandra
Grace Dane Mazur, Hinges
Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard
Claudio Magris, A Different Sea
Max Frisch, I’m Not Stiller
Brigid Brophy, The Snow Ball
Denton Welch, A Voice Through a Cloud
Nick Hunt, Walking the Woods and the Water
JG Ballard, The Kindness of Women
John Berger, Bento’s Sketchbook

(Pure whimsy and volatile by nature)

Lampedusa’s The Leopard and Biography

“Prince Giuseppe di Lampedusa has meant so much to me that I find it impossible to present him formally.” Written by E. M. Forster in his introduction to Two Stories and a Memory, continuing, “His great novel The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) has greatly enlarged my life–an unusual experience for a life which is well on in its eighties. Reading and rereading it has made me realise how many ways there are of being alive, how many doors there are, close to one, which someone else’s touch may open.” In these sentences, Forster reminds me of Woolf’s words: “It is the gift of the novel to bring us into close touch with life.”

Forster captured something essential of the The Leopard, once calling it “That great lonely book.” Somehow in considering briefly its themes of all-pervading decay and mortality, what was less obviously apparent, until stumbling over Forster’s phrase, is that the novel is suffused with ideas of aloneness, loneliness, and alienation. It is easy to see The Leopard’s appeal to Forster, whose novels are, in different ways, ruminations on our yearning for transformative connections. Connection eludes the elderly Prince of Salina. Lampedusa’s story seems to suggest that the language we use to connect to other human beings is filled with misunderstanding and might itself be the barrier that prevents communication.

Every book is the outcome of a period of aloneness, and each reader’s experience with a book a way of being in communication with another mind. Perhaps a particular appeal of literature is to those that find such connections particularly elusive. The Leopard resists simple generalisation but is a sublime expression of human loneliness.

In my enchanted state after finishing The Leopard, I chose to read David Gilmour’s magnificent biography of Lampedusa, The Last Leopard, curious how important the autobiographical drive behind this novel was. Gilmour confronts this question, eventually agreeing with Lampedusa’s English translator Archibald Colquhoun who writes, “Don Fabrizio is neither historical symbol, family memoir, self-portrait, nor wish-fulfilment, and yet something of all four.”

After writing The Leopard, Lampedusa, late in life, crossed a threshold of creativity, going on to write two further stories and even a new novel. He begun a memoir and wrote over a thousand pages of literary exegesis. His story entitled The Professor and The Siren is a magical fantasy about a professor’s life changing encounter with the Siren Lighea, daughter of Calliope. Lampedusa proposes a revision of the myth of the Sirens, “Don’t believe the stories about us. We don’t kill anyone, we only love.”

Renton’s Critique

““Begbie and the like are fucking failures in a country ay failures. It’s no good blaming it on the English for colonising us. Ah don’t hate the English, they’re just wankers. We are colonised by wankers. We can’t even pick a decent, vibrant, healthy culture to be colonised by. No. We’re ruled by effete arseholes. What does that make us? The lowest of the low, the scum of the earth, the most wretched, servile, miserable, pathetic trash that was ever shat into creation. I don’t hate the English. They just get on with the shit they’ve got. I hate the Scots.”

Irvine Welch, Trainspotting
Lively, potent critique and sharp dialogue, before Welch’s novel descends into self-parody. Much of it is pretty horrible but with the current tension with Westminster seemed somehow appropriate.

Narrating War

“Was it not noticeable at the end of the [First World War] that men returned from the battlefield grown silent—not richer, but poorer in communicable experience? . . . A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn street car now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remain unchanged but the clouds, and beneath those clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny fragile human body.”

Benjamin, The Storyteller.

A poignant text, of course. Something of the reality of mechanised warfare silences the storyteller. A particular relationship between the breaking of narrative frames and the shattering of the world. Sebald, Semprun push the same questions. Just a few notes, maybe something more another time.

Criticism, Blogging and Lampedusa’s The Leopard

If you aren’t following Robert Minto’s blog you’re missing some thought-provoking posts on the essence of criticism and blogging. I’ve been contemplating his On Apophatic Criticism post, which scrutinises, in part, Stephen Mitchelmore’s approach to criticism on my favourite book blog This Space.

Minto also categorises criticism into five varieties. I’m not sure how he would classify my writing about books, “book chat” perhaps; like astrology, I see elements of what I attempt in a number of his categories.

My interest in literature, and art in general, is shaped by curiosity about how others perceive or know the world. How do others perceive some thing (abstract or material) as a distinct object of perception, and how does this compare with my understanding. Kant says we don’t perceive things in themselves: “What may be the case with objects in themselves and abstracted from all this receptivity of our sensibility remains entirely unknown to us. We are acquainted with nothing except our way of perceiving them.” I’ve never quite understood why everyone isn’t as haunted with this suggestion as I am. Perhaps they are, but don’t feel a need to create a blog to  babble on about it. As a consequence, I’m naturally intrigued with literature as literary object, about words, sentences, form and so on, but from a conviction that literature engenders an imaginative perceiving that is transformative, for a time at least, of the world before us. To read literature with sympathy, intuition, intelligence, comprehension and grace enriches perception and deepens our interpretive function.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze – The Father’s Curse: The Son Punished (1777)

Reading Lampedusa’s The Leopard this week, in which Greuze’s painting is given a structural and thematic role depicting the twin themes of decadence and sexual indulgence in the context of the story’s overarching theme of death. The painting leads into the beautiful final chapters, ‘Death of a Prince’ and ‘Relics’ in which Fabrizio determines that he has truly lived only two or three years of his life–all else was just boredom and pain. The painting reinforces Lampedusa’s autobiographical story about the social decline of his noble family into the middle classes.

If a reading of The Leopard begins with a sense of the book’s seductive prose and its inherent melancholy, where does the transition happen from a perception of the book as a work of literature to a transformative experience? What happens when we interrupt “normal’ life to occupy ourselves with something that isn’t of our life but enriches it in an unexpected way, giving it, if one is lucky, a new, deeply felt meaning? Exploring these questions are what compels me to read and to write about that experience on this blog.

Words, Words, Words

“Mr Pickwick belongs to the sacred figures of the world’s history. Do not, please, claim that he has never existed: the same thing happens to most of the world’s sacred figures, and they have been living presences to a vast number of consoled wretches. So, if a mystic can claim a personal acquaintance and clear vision of Christ, a human man can claim personal acquaintance and a clear vision of Mr Pickwick.”

Fernando Pessoa, Charles Dickens

“He would have sacrificed ten years of his life, he once remarked, for the privilege of spending an hour with Sir John Falstaff.”

“He never left his house, recalled Licy, ‘without a copy of Shakespeare in his bag, with which he would console himself when he saw something disagreeable’; at his bedside he kept The Pickwick Papers to comfort him during sleepless nights.”

David Gilmour, Introduction to Lampedusa’s The Leopard

“Many men with no great claim even to mere wit could have made most of Shakespeare’s jokes, as jokes. It is in the creation of the figures who make those jokes that genius underlies wit; not what Falstaff says but what Falstaff is is great. The genius made the figure; the wit made it speak.”

Fernando Pessoa, ‘Erostratus’

  1. Lampedusa’s The Leopard
  2. David Gilmour’s The Last Leopard: A Life of Giuseppe di Lampedusa
  3. The Pickwick Papers
  4. Both parts of Henry IV
  5. Pessoa’s poems and prose

“”Words are not the things they name”

“Words are not the things they name: they are the bridges we extend between things and ourselves. The poet is the conscience of the words, that is, the nostalgia for the actual reality of things. True, words were also things before they were the names of things. They were things in the myth of the innocent poet, that is, before language, the glimpsed paradisal accord. Innocent speech: silence in which nothing is said because everything is said, everything is saying itself. The poet’s language feeds upon that silence which is innocent speech.”

Octavio Paz, Unknown to Himself

In the Hood

I’m back from my travels, and circumscribing Pessoa like a terrier trying to find a way into a rathole. I’ve also caught up on some stimulating blog posts in the alt-lit neighbourhood:

Have you read Lampedusa? I’ve owned the Everyman edition of The Leopard for 15 years but never read beyond 100 pages, though I enjoyed each one of them. This post at Anecdotal Evidence links to an excellent essay by Javier Marías, in which he writes:

“The few people who knew him well were astonished at his encyclopedic knowledge of literature and history, on both of which subjects he possessed a vast library. He had not only read all the important and essential writers, but also the second-rate and the mediocre, whom, especially as regards the novel, he considered to be as necessary as the greats: `One has to learn how to be bored,’ he used to say, and he read bad literature with interest and patience. Buying books was almost his sole expense and sole luxury.”

Isabella at Magnificent Octopus is documenting her reading of Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H. Of course, I immediately want to reread Lispector’s elusive work that pushes at the extreme possibilities of language.

Pykk is unpacking Arno Schmidt’s Collected Stories, 1996, and his longer School for Atheists: a Novella = Comedy in 6 Acts, 1972.

Joe at roughghosts is discovering the wonder that is Mahmoud Darwish’s Journal of an Ordinary Grief, which a dear friend introduced to me some years ago.

Scott W. at seraillon writes compellingly about Emilio’s Carnival and makes it likely I’ll get to Svevo’s work sooner than later.

Fernando Pessoa’s and Rachel Cusk’s “Fertile Dis-ease”

In Eugénio Lisboa’s elegant preface to Carcanet’s A Centenary Pessoa, Lisboa captures Pessoa’s distinctive way of looking at the world. There is much in this description that also accounts, I believe, for Rachel Cusk’s acuity. The two writers are more alike than would seem immediately obvious.

“Fernando Pessoa soon became aware of his acute foreignness, of his being the incurable outsider at the very centre of life, of an excruciating inability really to feel ‘the pains of happy people or the pains of people who live and complain.

Wounded by lucidity, by frigidity, by a sense of distance from living, this same distance, this omnipresent perspective, made his inquisitive mind see things in a clearer or, at the least, in a different way. People like Pessoa learn early in life that the country most of us inhabit, made comfortable by familiar presumptions, is forbidden to them. But the awkward exclusion, an embarrassment in everyday living, this disability that amounts at times to a disease, can prove a fertile dis-ease. Unable to integrate with the habitual, forbidden from happy absorption, unable to see evidence as evident and the obvious as obvious, gazing in always from outside, wondering about ‘facts’ and ‘things’ that others accept without question – such an affliction can lead to a productive amazement.”

 

Something For the Weekend

Detail from a fresco in the 'Tomb of the Diver', c. 470 BC, at Paestum in what is now Italy.

Detail from a fresco in the ‘Tomb of the Diver’, c. 470 BC, at Paestum in what is now Italy.

Schubert, Four Impromptus D 935 (op. 142)

These four Impromptus may not have the dazzle of the Impromptus D 899, but to my imperfect ear the first of the set is one of the most stunning pieces in the entirety of piano literature. Despite a little briskness, Brendel brings both fire and poetry to the piece.

Fernando Pessoa has the intellect and passion of Schubert, and, like the composer, was a richly complicated man that wrote with great simplicity.

“Believing in nothing firmly and therefore accepting as equally valid, in principle (which is as far as they go), all opinions, and considering that a theory is worth only as much as the theorist, an emotion as much as the emotion’s expresser, I could never take seriously the literary dogma that consists in the use of a personality. Personality is a form of belief and, like all belief, impossible for the reasoner.

It’s a short step from believing in outer truth to believing in inner truth, from accepting a concept of the world as true to accepting a concept of our self as true. I don’t affirm that everything is fluid, since that would be an affirmation, but to our understanding everything is indeed fluid, and the truth, unfolding for us into various truths, disappears, since it cannot be multiple.”

“A few moments of distraction from something worse”

“All of this is dream and phantasmagoria, and it matters little whether the dream be of ledger entries or of well-crafted prose. Does dreaming of princesses serve a better purpose than dreaming of the front door to the office? All that we know is our own impression, and all that we are is an exterior impression, a melodrama in which we, the self-aware actors, are also our own spectators, our own gods by permission of some department or other at City Hall.” p. 22

“What I write, bad as it is, may provide some hurt or sad soul a few moments of distraction from something worse. That’s enough for me, or it isn’t enough, but it serves some purpose, and so it is with all of life.” p. 22

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

Antonio Tabucchi: Pereira Maintains

To come across Antonio Tabucchi’s Pereira in Pereira Maintains is to be visited by an old acquaintance. I’m travelling at the moment, without access to my Poems of T. S. Eliot Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems, but on returning home will disinter T. S. Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes, a piece of drama that, in many ways, shaped the rhythm of Eliot’s writing in The Hollow Men and The Wasteland. In this elegant piece, Tabucchi confirms Eliot’s inspiration: “But there was another reason, literary in origin, which led me to this name: a brief interlude by TS Eliot entitled “What About Pereira?” in which a fragmentary conversation between two friends evokes a mysterious Portuguese man named Pereira, about whom nothing can ever be known.”

In Fragment of a Prologue, part of the Agonistes, Eliot introduces an enigmatic Portuguese gentleman called Pereira, one of the visitors to prostitutes, Dusty and Doris. If I recall correctly, the two women question his trustworthiness, which opens up a fascinating aspect to how Pereira structures Pereira Maintains as a testimony, only revealing what Pereira chooses to reveal in cross-examination.

The energy and direction of Tabucchi’s novel lies in the transition between passivity and action. As such, there are deep resonances with the current political situation in the U.K. and elsewhere. How is one to respond to authoritarianism, from an ethical or political stance? In Pereira Maintains, Tabucchi chooses not to reveal the nature or outcome of the investigation leaving wide open space for a reader to interpret Pereira’s responses and outcome.

”I make landscapes out of what I feel.”

“What is there to confess that’s worthwhile or useful? What has happened to us has happened to everyone or only to us; if to everyone, then it’s no novelty, and if only to us, then it won’t be understood. If I write what I feel it’s to reduce the fever of feeling. What I confess is unimportant because everything is unimportant.”

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, (trans. Richard Zenith). Penguin, 2002.

A Confederation of Souls

“[T]o believe in a “self” as a distinct entity, quite distinct from the infinite variety of all the other “selves” that we have within us, is a fallacy, the naïve illusion of the single unique soul we inherit from Christian tradition, whereas Dr. Ribot and Dr. Janet see the personality as a confederation of numerous souls, because within us we each have numerous souls, don’t you think, a confederation which agrees to put itself under the government of one ruling ego… What we think of as ourselves, our inward being, is only an effect, not a cause, and what’s more it is subject to the control of a ruling ego which has imposed its will on the confederation of souls, so in the case of another alter ego arising, one stronger and more powerful, this ego overthrows the first ruling ego, takes its place and acquires the chieftainship of the cohort of souls…”

Antonio Tabucchi, Pereira Maintains (trans. Patrick Creagh), Canongate Books, 2010

More commonly titled Pereira Declares, this edition has patiently awaited my attention for some years, inspired, I think, by an exchange with Stephen Mitchelmore.

Eula Biss: On Immunity

“Just because we have enemies, Sedgwick proposes, does not mean we have to be paranoid. Our cynicism may be justified, but it is also sad. That so many of us find it entirely plausible that a vast network of researchers and health officials and doctors worldwide would will fully harm children for money is evidence of what capitalism is really taking from us. Capitalism has already impoverished the working people who generate wealth for others. And capitalism has already impoverished us culturally, robbing unmarketable art of its value. But when we begin to see the pressures of capitalism as innate laws of human motivation, when we begin to believe that everyone is owned, then we are truly impoverished.” p.103

“The natural body meets the body politic in the act of vaccination, where a single needle penetrates both. The capacity of some vaccines to generate a collective immunity superior to the individual immunity produced by those same vaccines suggests that the politic has not only a body, but also an immune system capable of protecting it as a whole.” p.132

“When I asked a friend how she would feel if her child contracted an infectious disease and did not suffer from it but passed it to someone more vulnerable who would suffer, she looked at me in surprise. she had not, she told me, considered that possibility”. p. 143

“Misinformation that finds a host enjoys a kind of immortality on the Internet, where is becomes undead.” p.147

Fragments from Eula Biss’s On Immunity: An Inoculation. A powerful, well-researched counteragent to selfishness, fear and self-interest. My edition from Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016.