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.

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.

Jean Echenoz’s Ravel


There is to me a distinct hierarchy in what falls under the category of life-writing. (I don’t particularly like the term life-writing.) After all, there is life-writing to various degrees in every instance of fiction. Can we still agree with Proust’s biographer George Painter who wrote: “The artist has creative imagination, the biographer recreative”? For me, the most exhilarating trend in modern fiction is the blurring of the boundaries. Fictionality is an inevitable part of autobiography. There is no less artistry in de Beauvoir’s memoirs than her novels, though I’d argue the latter are considerably more successful than the former.

I like novels that exist in the interstices between fiction and autobiography, writers like Tomas Espedal, W.G. Sebald, Peter Handke, Kate Zambreno and John Berger who bring the techniques of fiction to explore autobiography in rewarding ways. Techniques of narratology, such as perspective, temporal structure, and motifs are being used creatively to alleviate the tedium of conventional linear (auto)biography.

In truth, it isn’t a new trend, but something writers to some extent have always done. The threshold between fiction and autobiography in the books of Anna Kavan, Dorothy Richardson, Proust and Virginia Woolf is reasonably thin.

Fiction aside, I prefer memoir to autobiography, autobiography to biography; have a great fascination with writer’s and scholar’s letters and diaries, and like least of all fictional biographies. These designations are simplified without getting into all the other terms used to describe experimental life-writing: autotopography, autofiction, heterobiography etc.

This week I read Jean Echenoz’s Ravel. It’s a short book. I read it twice on a long return train journey, and have spent more time thinking about it since. Why I think many fictional biographies make me queasy is that they use fictional techniques to explore interiority or the subjective essence of a real historical individual. They maintain the freedom of a third-person narrator and yet privilege that narrator with absolute knowledge. To be honest, I struggle with fiction that does the same thing.

Echenoz avoids this trap, and in doing so, can be trusted that the broad story of the last ten years of Maurice Ravel’s life is accurate at a factual level. Ravel then becomes a fascinating exploration into how fame distances its subject from those closest to them. The dramatic reconstruction of Ravel’s unraveling (excuse the pun) and death is disturbing, but Echenoz preserves the emotional distancing to defer a reader’s sympathy. It’s cleverly done and very rewarding.

The Real Question

This passage from Gabriel Josipovici’s introduction to his The Mirror of Criticism seems to me to pin down the most real but least well understood question and challenge of literature, any writing that aspires to be literary:

“. . . confirms Kafka in his feelings that the well-written work [Gerhard Hauptmann’s Anna], however well it is written, holds no interest for him. It makes him realise once more (the remark comes in a letter written towards the end of his life) that for him the real question has never been: How can I write as well as this? but: Why should I write this kind of thing at all? And, if not this, then what? The encounter with [Hans] Arp’s work reveals to [Wallace] Stevens, through what it lacks, that the greatest art is an affront as well as a pleasure; that there is an art which is good, intelligent, aesthetically pleasing, but which we will never feel to be really important because it never quite dares to be more than that, to recognise its dangerous power.”

— Gabriel Jospovici, The Mirror of Criticism

Anthony Rudolf’s Silent Conversations

What is evident from the first pages of Anthony Rudolf’s delightful book on the thrills of reading, published by Seagull Books in 2013, is the writer’s generosity, wit and the joy and solace he finds in reading and writing.

Born in 1942, Rudolf faces mortality’s challenge to any passionate but elderly reader of choosing which books to read and reread. As well as reckoning with the matter of finality, Rudolf confesses with some regret a lifetime of being easily sidetracked, Of being a serial “digressionary”, living, as William Hazlitt confessed, “in a world of contemplation, and not of action.”

As a teenager, and in my early twenties, I read a few books well. If moved by a novel, I thought little of reading it four times in a year. I read more poetry than fiction, and devoted a lot of my reading time to history and science. These days I spend less time reading poetry than I’d like, more time on fiction, and have little regrets about reading much less science and history. Assuming many things, including a typical life expectancy of this country, I am exactly halfway through my serious reading life of 80-100 books per year. Mortality, in this sense, is a good thing. The constant awareness that time is limited forces me to chose to read only what has the potential to be impactful.

Rudolf states a definite preference for Hazlitt over his contemporary Charles Lamb, contrasting Hazlitt’s literary style with Lamb’s more journalistic approach. I share his partiality, but cannot help but see similarities between Rudolf and Lamb, not stylistically, but in their leisurely discursiveness and the exploratory nature of the writing.

Silent Pleasures will appeal in most part to readers that enjoy Anthony Rudolf’s voice. Only those that discover in Rudolf a tutelary spirit will persist with its wonderfully ‘baggy’ 748 pages (though 150 of those pages are the bibliography). It contrasts superbly with Michael Schmidt’s The Novel, an altogether more formal, though no less delightful reading adventure. Silent Pleasures is more autobiographical, a series of windows not only on Rudolf the reader and book hoarder (he is quick to make the distinction between hoarding and collecting), but also on his life as a publisher, poet and literary insider.

For me, the pleasure is not only to be gained from Rudolf’s elegant and sensitive voice, but also to the degree our reading tastes and literary touchstones converge. Reading Silent Voices felt like having an unrestricted rummage around a great reader’s library. I would happily spend the rest of my reading days exploring his selections.

Deborah Levy’s Memoirs

These are the first two volumes of a planned “living memoir”. You feel in them the presence of Simone de Beauvoir. Both autobiographical projects go beyond the reconstruction of a life, and Deborah Levy does that strikingly, but these memoirs develop into an exploration of the ethics of human interdependence.

There is a dynamism in Levy’s writing that tempts me to sample her fiction, though in de Beauvoir’s case the memoirs are the best of her work. I am curious about how the highly literary autobiography and fiction spill into each other.

Thoughts on Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room

It is sobering to read an old blog post, one of the hazards of maintaining a blog over any length of time. Five years ago, I described Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers as the ‘very best fiction’. Five years, and five hundred books-later, I no longer know what those words mean. The more I read, the less I know, and I’d now be more cautious about such an epithet. Perhaps I was more open to critical influence; after all, James Wood gushed about The Flamethrowers calling it ‘scintillatingly alive’ and praising Kushner’s storytelling.

What is true is that certain set pieces of The Flamethrowers remain inscribed into my memory. Kushner is a good storyteller, capable of evocative description and reasonably strong characterisation. Her storytelling was sufficiently memorable that I bought and read her latest novel, The Mars Room.

This latest novel, I’d argue, is better written than The Flamethrowers. Five years is a long time after all. It comes across as an honest novel, by which I mean the narrative voice is strong enough that Kushner knows the places and people she writes about. I don’t mean that this is yet another thinly veiled work of autobiographical fiction, far from it, but nor is it a deeply imaginative work that lacks depth or substance. It is grounded in the reality of working class life in a way that feels believable.

Through the eyes and voices of Kushner’s characters, for a couple of days, I sensed the hopelessness of their lives, especially the waste and senselessness of long periods–a lifetime for the main narrator–of incarceration. This is testimony to the strength of her storytelling and, yes, I would apply Woods’ ‘scintillatingly alive’ in this case too. But I offer no guarantees that I will continue to do so in five years time.