About Anthony

Like all those possessing a library, Aurelian was aware that he was guilty of not knowing his in its entirety.

The obscure desire to go on living . . .

“I’d need only close my eyes, even today. It wouldn’t take any effort—on the contrary, the slightest distraction of a memory brimful of trifles, of petty joys, would be enough to summon that ghost. Distraction from the shimmering opacity of life’s offerings. Only a moment would suffice, at any moment. Distraction from oneself, from the existence that inhabits and possesses us, stubbornly, obtusely: the obscure desire to go on living, to persevere in this obstinacy for whatever reason, or unreason. It would take only a single instant of distraction from oneself, from others, from the world, an instant of non desire, of quietude this side of life, an instant when the truth of that long-ago, primal event would rise to the surface, and the strange smell would drift over the hillside of the Ettersberg, that foreign homeland to which I always return.

It would take only a moment, any moment, unguarded, at random, out of the blue, at point-blank-range. Or just the opposite: a carefully considered decision.

The strange smell would immediately invade the reality of memory. I would be reborn there; I would die if returned to life there. I would embrace and inhale the muddy, heady odour of that estuary of death.”

Jorge Semprún, Literature or Life. (trans. Linda Coverdale)

What I’ve Been Reading

Valerio Adami

Valerio Adami

It’s a long time since I’ve begun to read a book with such expectation and hope as in reading The Last Samurai but I am greatly impressed with its brilliance, originality and construction. I’ve read comparisons between the writing of David Foster Wallace and Helen DeWitt but it seems to me that they do a great disservice to DeWitt, whose subtle allusion contrasts the excessively redundant exposition of Infinite Jest. DeWitt’s story is open-ended, often playful but dexterously peels layer after layer of cultural realities to question and subvert the meaning of education. A new edition of The Last Samurai is published by New Directions. The book deserves a wider audience for its uncommon, unsettling story.

I also read Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things, a collection of his essays previously written and published. As always with such compilations, the quality is mixed, the most commendable being those on the subject of photography. Cole’s intellectual and visual sensibilities are acute and he draws together photography and politics to show how our world is shaped by images and their unreliability. In writing of photography’s slippery relationship with reality, Cole echoes Sontag’s description of photography as making works that are “no generic exception to the usual shady commerce between art and truth.”

I’ve been engrossed with Eva. K. Barbarossa’s Adelphi Project and the intriguing list of titles accumulated in the Biblioteca Adelphi, so I finally made time for Roberto Calasso’s The Art of the Publisher, both elegant and insightful and further fuel for an imagination already fired by the Biblioteca series, birthed by Roberto Bazlen and now managed by Calasso. The greatest pleasure of Calasso’s essay compilation is his consideration of some of his favourite publishers—Giulio Einaudi, Luciano Foà, Roger Straus, Peter Suhrkamp, and Vladimir Dimitrijević. What Calasso also gave me in this collection is this extraordinary Bazlen quote: ‘The world now is a world of death – formerly one was born alive and gradually one would die. Nowadays one is born dead – and some manage to come gradually to life.”

This summer I’ve been rereading Michael Hofmann’s poems, slowly and somewhat obsessively. Hofmann is a passionate reader of boundless curiosity, whose reading accumulates impressions that are woven into his rich and sensual autobiographical poems. It is nerve-wracking revisiting a poet nostalgic from youth but the work remains fresh and full of magic, and I’ll be continuing my journey back through Hofmann’s languorous waltz with language.

Sylvia, Leonard Michaels (one to read)


“The brush swept down and ripped free until, abruptly, she quit brushing, stepped into the living room, dropped onto the couch, leaned back against the brick wall, and went totally limp. Then, from behind long black bangs, her eyes moved, looked at me. The question of what to do with my life was resolved for the next four years.”

Leonard Michaels, Sylvia

The Tongue’s Atrocities

christopher-wood-the-card-players

The Card Players – Christopher Wood

The life of an honest man must be a perpetual infidelity. For the man who wishes to remain faithful to truth must make himself continually unfaithful to all the continual, successive, indefatigable renascent errors. And the man who wishes to remain faithful to justice must make himself continually unfaithful to inexhaustibly triumphant injustices.

Charles Péguy, in Bar Cochebas

[Post title – Geoffrey Hill, in History as Poetry]

Iris Murdoch’s The Italian Girl

hopper.penn-coal-townIn The Italian Girl, it struck me, as it did last time I read Iris Murdoch’s fiction, that the writer she brings most to mind is Flaubert. Both deliberately adopt narrative techniques to slide between the voice of the narrator and lead character, but what brings them closer together is the sense we are watching the action from outside of the window.

Unlike her contemporary Brigid Brophy, who breathes life into her characters so effortlessly their traces ghost around one’s library for months, Murdoch never seems to climb inside, preferring to be the puppeteer, choreographing the protagonists to explore her theories of power. Perhaps better than Flaubert is a comparison with Edward Hopper, whose characters give us room to fill a space with sweet and grievous yearnings.

Whereas the basic material of The Italian Girl is little different from innumerable fictional family dramas—that complex relationship between an adult and his or her mother—Murdoch’s extravagant vortex of characters subverts a tired trope into something more grand. The distancing and near contempt for these characters is enhanced by Murdoch’s use of satirical chapter headings. The projected distance of looking at her characters through a window in this way intensifies their sense of loneliness and paralysis.

There is an intensity to The Italian Girl that compels me to dip deeper into Murdoch’s fiction. Perhaps next I’ll turn to the longer The Sea, The Sea.

An Element of Impossibility

calassoYesterday I came across an admirable plan to read each book of the Biblioteca Adelphi. That is 653 books published to date. It is no less absurd that the notion I’m contemplating to read the Seagull Books backlist from the beginning to present day, a more modest catalogue of 400-odd books. You can follow Karen Barbarossa’s journey.

Adelphi Edizioni in Milan is a remarkable publisher. A Twitter acquaintance, not given to hyperbole, said she’d ‘consider being published by them a higher honour than the Nobel Prize.’ Singular writer Roberto Calasso has worked for the firm since its founding by Roberto Bazlen in 1962 and became its Chairman in 1999. Discovering Karen’s plan led me to read Calasso’s The Art of the Publisher. The following are from the first essay Publishing as a Literary Genre:

“. . . a good publishing house is unlikely  to be of any particular interest in economic terms.”

“It would appear that a publishing business can produce substantial profits only on condition that good books are submerged beneath many other things of very different quality.”

Aldus Manutius “was the first to imagine a publishing house in terms of form. Form is crucial, first of all, in the choice and sequence of titles to be published. But form also relates to the texts that accompany the books, as well as the way in which the books are presented as objects.”

” . . . all books published by a certain publisher could be seen as links in a single chain, or segments in a serpentine progression of books, or fragments in a single book formed by all the books published by that publisher.”

” . . . literature loses all of its magic unless there’s an element of impossibility concealed deep within it.”

I’ve been hoping for some years that Bobi Bazlen’s Writings, letters and notebooks for the most part, find an English translator, perhaps even a Seagull Books venture, and continue to contemplate my Seagull Project.

 

The State of my Wish List of Books

It struck me recently that there is a direct correlation, perhaps even an ideal relationship, between the state of my thumos and my wish list of books. At times it seems nothing I intend to read will cleave the frozen sea, so I cut and slash to its bare essentials. Fiction particularly slides, is intentionally forgotten, often as the voices of human affairs and their intertextual associations become too striking.

One must read something—where else can we escape ourselves—and this time it is D J Enright that lent me his axe, in the form of his genuinely witty and extremely intelligent The Alluring Problem: An Essay on Irony. It may sound a little like a dull undergraduate seminar, but is an oblique form of literary criticism masquerading as a study of irony as style in literature. It is a capricious amalgam that includes some illuminating writing on Proust and Freud, without getting bogged down in academic theorising. We are in safer hands with critics of Enright’s time as they were invariably better read and it is a joy to follow their untethered intellect as it capers back and forth across the literary ages. Somewhat comforted and revived by Enright, I tracked down his trilogy, memoir and commonplace books: Interplay, Play Resumed and Injury Time, and also a couple of the recent volumes of Auden’s Complete Works, prose from the 50s and 60s.

It is to Enright’s gently sardonic musings that I credit the expansion of my wish list of fiction, laying aside the aridness of combing news and social media for the latest play of politics in which each side understands neither the other or itself. As Winnie reflects in Happy Days, ‘One loses one’s classics’ so after breaking away reluctantly from another reading of Dante, I’ve turned to Luis de Góngora, “the Spanish Homer,” and his two-thousand line poem The Solitudes, translated by Edith Grossman. It is beautiful, quite difficult, and shall be my companion for some days to come.

Idées Fixes of the Week

“Intellectual nihilism becomes boring in the end because it just seems to be an expression of unresolved adolescence. Moreover, in practise it is tied to a substantive conservatism: all attempts at serious analytical explanation are derided, leaving force and established mores in possession.”

Stefan Collini’s essays on the literary and intellectual culture of Britain from, roughly, the early twentieth century to the present, from which the above fragment comes, are stimulating and thought provoking. I’ve been reading the essays in Common Reading and intend to read his latest Common Writing, before taking in his earlier Absent Minds.

Discovery of Collini’s work is timely as I have little appetite for fiction at present. I found David Bellos’s Is That a Fish in Your Ear? rewarding. Its humour is endurable; lurking beneath is a decent study of the art and ethics of translation along the lines of Edith Grossman’s Why Translation Matters.

Last night, on my way back from listening to Alexander Kniazev & Nikolai Lugansky perform at Wigmore Hall, I listened to a Craig Raine interview on Radio 4. I find Raine’s work puerile but he quoted a letter of Henrich Heine’s that I found both unusual and beautiful. The “macaroni” is a good touch.

“There is nothing new to tell you, my dear Robert, except that I am alive and still love you. The last will endure as long as the first, for the duration of my life is very uncertain. Beyond life I promise nothing. With the last breath all is done: joy, love, sorrow, macaroni, the normal theatre, lime-trees, raspberry drops, the power of human relations, gossip, the barking of dogs, champagne.”

Speaking Around the World in 13 Languages

“Knowing just nine of them [vehicular languages] – Chinese (with 1,300 million users), Hindi (800 million), Arabic (530 million), Spanish (350 million), Russian (278 million), Urdu (180 million), French (175 million), Japanese (130 million) and English (somewhere between 800 and 1,800 million) – would permit effective everyday conversation, though probably not detailed negotiation or serious intellectual debate, with at least 4.5 billion and maybe up to 5.5 billion people, that is to say, around 90 per cent of the world’s population. (The startlingly wide range of estimates of the number of people who ‘speak English’ reflects the difficulty we have in saying what ‘speaking English’ means.) Add Indonesian (250 million), German (185 million), Turkish (63 million) and Swahili (50 million) to make a baker’s dozen, and you have at your feet the entire American landmass, most of Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals, the great crescent of Islam from Morocco to Pakistan, a good part of India, a swathe of Africa and most of the densely populated parts of East Asia too.”

This is a fascinating passage from David Bellos’s Is That A Fish in Your Ear: Translation and the meaning of everything (2011), which turns out to be just the book I wanted to read today.

Learning enough of these thirteen languages to make sensible conversation seems a reasonable goal. My daughter and I speak English as a first language, and between us either speak/write or are learning six others (in her case: Ancient Greek, Russian, French and Japanese; in mine: Latin, French and Malay, from which Indonesian is not an unimaginable leap); now just to decide whether to begin a single new language or to tackle two simultaneously.

Maggie Nelson’s Argonauts, Genre etc

I’m reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. It makes me think of the instability of a literary work, that it is always being understood or subverted through and by other work one has read. Where does meaning come from? The following paragraph is quoted all over the place, another jab, at one level, at the conventions of realist fiction.

“That’s what we both hate about fiction, or at least crappy fiction—it purports to provide occasions for thinking through complex issues, but really it has predetermined the positions, and hooked you on them, rendering you less able to see out, to get out.”

The sentence clearly functions as a performative utterance, but also captures the struggle many have with contemporary narrative fiction, the sort of fiction that David Shields inveighs against in Reality Hunger. It is stuffy and confining.

Essays like The Argonauts and Adrian Nathan West’s Aesthetics of Degradation aren’t a new form, but act as a rejection of genre boundaries. Do I particularly care what is made up if I enjoying following Nelson and West’s thinking on the page? Not even remotely. Use whatever techniques of fiction are available to explore themes of love, sexuality, memory and the nature of existence. Give me the space to think though complex issues and I’ll reward a writer with my readership, for what it is worth (clue: very little).

A Month of Max Frisch: Notes from a Reader’s Diary

One of my favourite literary magazines, The Scofield included my Frisch reading diary in their latest issue, devoted entirely to Max Frisch and his work:

There are writers I read just once and those whose books I read reverently once a year. Reading Sartre’s Nausea transports me to the salt marshes on the Brittany coast where I lay in the grassy dunes and vowed to read this novel every year. This annual tradition unites Sartre’s nauseating stone with the sucking stones which Beckett’s Molloy collects from the shore, another novel I read annually without fail.

There are other writers in whose words, sentences and paragraphs I must immerse myself the way some people soak for hours in hot baths. I devote myself to a single writer’s work and, if I read carefully, get some sense of the contours of their thought, its darkness and yearnings. Over the last year I conversed in this way with Pascal Quignard, Brigid Trophy, Denton Welch and, this February, with Max Frisch.

Saturday

Beckett, who showed scant interest in contemporary writers, read several of Frisch’s books including Sketchbook 1966–1971 and Homo Faber (which Beckett read twice, letter to Barbara Bray, 2 February 1960).

It was Man in the Holocene that I rest read last summer, a story, on a surface reading of the text, of an old man losing his memory. In his Paris Review interview, Frisch says it was his favourite of his books. The image of haunted narrator Herr Geiser covering his walls in clippings from cut-up books and encyclopaedias stays with me, despite some disappointment with its apparently cheery ending. I suspect that I misread the serenity of its closing pages and maybe I will reread Man in the Holocene. Perhaps knowing its plot, without the suspense, its ethical construct will be more apparent, but I discover that I’ve lost my copy of the book I read last summer, and instead find a handsome edition of Frisch’s An Answer from the Silence. It has waited patiently on my shelves for several months, and this evening was fine accompaniment to a young Barbera d’Alba.

Please read the rest of the diary here [PDF] or at The Scofield.

My Week’s Reading (mostly porn and politics)

Pornography, as is clear from Adrian Nathan West’s The Aesthetics of Degradation, has moved on from the moustachioed plumbers and sex-obsessed housewives that I recall from the scant attention I paid when such videos were turned on during all-night teenage house parties.

Though far from prudish I’ve never really understand the appeal of pornography, which has always seemed to me the product of a certain type of shameful male hostility rather than fantasy and sexual appetite. What I hadn’t fully comprehended is the mainstream demand for extreme, violent forms of woman-hating pornography. Adrian Nathan West’s The Aesthetics of Degradation explores degrading pornography’s effects on viewers, participants and producers, not only through literary and sociological lens, but also from a personal perspective. It is deeply intelligent, and in between compulsively reading a lot of awful writing about our current crisis, I’ve been reading, rereading and scribbling lots of notes in The Aesthetics of Degradation.

As Robert Musil wrote in The Man Without Qualities, “It is reality that awakens possibilities, and nothing would be more perverse than deny it.” This sentence keeps returning to me in a week in which the radical-right in Britain have pulled off a well-executed coup to win a non-democratic referendum. As Lara Pawson puts it in the most lucid essay written so far about the 23/6 debacle, “The referendum was not democratic. It was fed by a white supremacist media that either deliberately stoked racial hatred or is so deluded with its own whiteness, it couldn’t recognise the hatred it was helping to harness. I hate to break it to you folks, but that is not democracy: it’s the building blocks of fascism.”

In this traumatic week when many of us are trying to pick up the pieces of our crushed sense of self and our futures, I also keep returning to a passage from Adrian Nathan West’s book:

“A self is not a constant, and we understand virtually nothing of what its persistence in time might mean. We do not know what perdures in the self and what is semelfactive, nor what is incidental or essential. We do not know what marks are left by the things we no longer remember, or when a memory persists in concealment and when it is gone forever. The idea of a person with a unitary self may come from what we have been told or have read than our own inner experience of human existence. Maybe another, clearer way of thinking about the variform nature of our being is possible: being as a participle and not as a noun. We do not know how far our way of talking about ourselves is distorted by our way of talking about others, or others’ way of talking about themselves or others, or to what degree the procedures involved in talking-about already distort or conceal our understanding.”

I’ve been unable to read The Man Without Qualities this week. Its questions about how our lives are related to history and how history shapes us, and how we permit history to happen to us, are simply too close to the marrow. It seems that each unfolding of history propels us in a further downward trajectory.

Musil’s MwQ, A Problem of Traffic

From the first page of The Man Without Qualities, it becomes clear that Robert Musil is likely to be employing a radical form of irony. Sometimes I read a passage and find it unsettling without being able to fully understand why that might be so. But it niggles and reverberates until I take the time to explore more deeply.

It could almost be a clichéd opening, describing the weather in great detail on “a fine day in August 1913”. But Musil then starts the second paragraph: “Automobiles shot out of deep, narrow streets into the shallows of bright squares”. Later in the paragraph we learn that Musil is writing of the Imperial Capital and Royal City of Vienna. He goes on to say, “Cities, like people, can be recognised by their walk”, which I like very much though I’m not entirely convinced,

Vienna 1910

This afternoon I’ve been comparing photographs and film of Vienna in 1910-1913 to the city during the 1920s and 1930s. In 1913 Vienna was the centre of a huge empire that covered 20% of Europe. Five years later the empire was dissolved and Vienna was the capital of a small republic. I’m reasonably certain that in 1913, Vienna was a city of electric trams, with horse drawn carriages more common than automobiles. Musil’s speeding automobiles and the trucks and ambulances that follow, make up a familiar landscape of urban sounds as written by the modernists of 1920s and 1930s but I suspect would be less familiar to the streetscape of 1913. The coming war brought the city for automobiles we are only beginning to recover from today.

It seems part of Musil’s project is to explore how the past is prefigured in the future, which plays a part in catalysing the personalities of those living through a particular period and set of events. Musil writes later, “It is reality that awakens possibilities, and nothing would be more perverse than deny it.” The world opened up by history, reverts to possibilities that await actualisation, what Musil later terms a sense of the possible. Possibilities persist until people bring them to life.

Half of pleasure of reading is trying to figure out what the writer is trying to do, especially with a novel as rich as The Man Without Qualities.

Musil’s MwQ, Control of the Imaginary

Maurice Blanchot preferred to translate Robert Musil’s Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften as L’homme sans particularités or The man without particularities. Musil’s concept for his protagonist, Ulrich, is that he lacks substance, that there is no causal link between essence and effect, that his self is formed and responds impersonally, almost randomly, to elements and events of his environment. As Blanchot puts it, “the man does not accept being crystallised into a character or fixed in a stable personality”.

I’ve never been much of a believer in the entrenched idea that individuals have fixed personality characteristics that are essentially unchanged over the course of a life, so looking through Ulrich’s eyes feels like returning to a comfortable armchair in a favourite corner of a much-loved home. The term personality is rooted in the Latin persona, and ancient Greek pros-opon, and referred originally to a mask worn by actors. That personality is little more than the way we appear to others makes more sense to me.

I’ll be reading The Man Without Qualities for several more weeks. It is slow but delicious to follow Musil’s sentences to their conclusion, and it feels too rich to read more than two of three chapters without transferring underlined parts into my notebooks. I’m resisting the temptation to read anything in parallel as The Man Without Qualities is permeating my dreams, both day and night, and I’m rather enjoying the saturation. I’m reading this book alongside Frances and Richard throughout the summer.

Let me share briefly a description Musil offers of a moment of illumination, not unlike my sensations while reading his book.

“Life’s very shape was completely altered. Not placed in the focus of ordinary attention but freed from sharpness. Seen this way, everything seemed a little scattered and blurred, and being infused all the while with a delicate clarity and certainty from other centres. All of life’s questions and occurrences took on an incomparable mildness, gentleness, and serenity, while their meaning was utterly transformed.”

It isn’t easy to concentrate at a time when the political landscape in this country is facing a radical transfiguration at the hands of fruitcakes, lunatics and not-so-closet racists, but there are few writers more distracting than Musil to elevate oneself away from the cares of everyday existence for an hour or two here or there.

We have gained reality and lost dreams . . .

There was a moment while reading Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities when, like in the careful balance of piano and strings in a late Brahms’ piece, the immense breadth of Musil’s conception became briefly visible.

It is a book that merits slow reading, inevitable as one writes entire passages into one’s notebook. Often I wish there was as little to read as must have been the case in Montaigne’s day, when it was still possible to read everything. In 1571, when Montaigne retired to his tower to study, the printing press was still a novelty. How he must have treasured his Rabelais, Chaucer and Calvin. This extended fragment of The Man Without Qualities captured my attention.

“If it is the fulfilment of man’s primordial dreams to be able to fly, travel with the fish, drill our way beneath the bodies of towering mountains, send messages with godlike speed, see the invisible and hear the distant speak, hear the voices of the dead, be miraculously cured while asleep, see with our own eyes how we will look twenty years after our death, learn in flickering nights thousands of things above and below this earth no one ever knew before; of light, warmth, power, pleasure, comforts, are man’s primordial dreams, then present-day research is not only science but sorcery, spells woven from the highest powers of heart and brain, forcing God to open one fold after another of his cloak; a religion whose dogma is permeated and sustained by the hard, courageous, flexible, razor-cold, razor-keen logic of mathematics.
Of course there is no denying that all these primordial dreams appear, in the opinion of nonmathematicians, to have been suddenly realised in a form quite different from the original fantasy. Baron Munchausen’s post horn was more beautiful than our canned music, the Seven-League Boots more beautiful than a car, Oberon’s kingdom lovelier than a railway tunnel, the magic root of the mandrake better than a telegraphed image, eating of one’s mother’s heart and then understanding birds more beautiful than an ethological study of a bird’s vocalising. We have gained reality and lost dreams. No more lounging under a tree and peering at the sky between one’s big and second toes; there’s work to be done. To be efficient, one cannot be hungry and dreamy but must eat steak and keep moving. It is exactly though the old, inefficient breed of humanity had fallen asleep on an anthill and found, when the new breed awoke, that the ants had crept into its bloodstream, making it move frantically ever since, unable to shake off that rotten feeling of antlike industry.”