About Anthony

Time's Flow Stemmed is a notebook of my wild readings.

A Year, no, Decade of Reading

Yes, yes, it is of course too early for one of my year in reading posts, but I wasn’t going to write one any way. A year is too arbitrary in a lifetime of reading. The phases and disjunctures of my reading life operate more in decades. It’s five on Sunday morning in Beijing and city is quiet. I’m channeling through a Japanese IP address to get access to WordPress.

My decade in reading is charted here on this blog, a strange record of the meandering byways of a life spent reading. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate why I read so coherently at the start, and then for a long time I thought reading was about seeing through another’s eyes. This isn’t of course possible nor does it explain with any clarity how essential books and specifically literature are to my life. Jon Fosse gets closer:

‘Some authors know that they don’t know, yet they still have the feeling of knowing something which cannot be known, something which cannot be pronounced as meaning, but which perhaps despite everything can be said through literature.’

It’s not about good books and certainly not exquisitely written stories, or pacy plots, or believable characterisation. A decade ago I would’ve argued against this perspective. It’s that sense that even the writer of an enchanted text doesn’t quite know the depths she or he has scaled. We don’t have the language to really capture the quickening that occurs when a voice has broken through and communicated something below our conscious mind. The ineffable in all its glorious beauty.

The quivering heart of this year’s reading is Maria Gabriela Llansol’s Geography of Rebels trilogy. Her writing has transformed my way of perceiving writing and the world, which I increasingly think might well be the same thing. These squiggly symbols on a page are a Lascaux of sorts. They shape us as we interpret what we think we perceive.

This is a good year of reading. It is a life-changing decade of reading. It isn’t possible to see who I’d be without all these books, a version of myself that exists somewhere, but I’d rather not meet him.

All is Quiet

in his essay, Karl Ove Knausgaard captures concisely and perceptively the literary qualities of Thomas Bernhard, Michel Houellebecq, Jon Fosse and by extension his own writing; “the presence we feel has to do with a certain receptiveness, a certain alertness, a certain temperament, and what this opens up for us in the text. The strange thing about writing is that the self seems to let go, that what in our self-conception normally keeps the I together, becomes dissolved, the inner being reconfigurating in new and unfamiliar ways.”

I’ve yet to read Fosse’s fiction, but the essays that Knausgaard describes are collected in An Angel Walks Through the Stage and Other Essays (trans. May-Brit Akerholt) from Dalkey Archive. I require more time with the essays, but am fascinated with his singular way of looking at literature and art.

That it is influenced by Maurice Blanchot reminds me yet again to spend more time with his work, as what Fosse describes is close to what I seek and am fortunate to find in my literary touchstones: “Whereas telling connects with the social world, the narrative situation itself, and moreover comprises some element of entertainment, writing, Fosse seems to believe, connects with something else, with that part of our language which perhaps communicates only itself, like a stone or a crack in a wall.”

Secularised Mystics

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‘Some authors know that they don’t know, yet they still have the feeling of knowing something which cannot be known, something which cannot be pronounced as meaning, but which perhaps despite everything can be said through literature.’

Jon Fosse, An Angel Walks Through the Stage and Other Essays (trans. May-Brit Akerholt)

The Most European of all Qualities

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‘. . . Sontag believes that “the need to be alone, together with the discontent of being alone,” is a characteristic of the melancholic, and she arrives at the conclusion that “irony is the positive description with which the melancholic equips his loneliness, his asocial choices,” before she points to the Benjamin who in One-Way Street celebrates the irony, as he calls it, that allows the individual to claim his right or her right to live outside the fellowship, and this, Benjamin writes, is “the most European of all qualities.”‘

Jon Fosse, An Angel Walks Through the Stage and Other Essays (trans. May-Brit Akerholt)

Storytelling Comes Into Being in Community With Others

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‘But on the whole, I am left in peace with my writing. My books are published, a few people read them. If I read my writing, a great pain often washes over me. Perhaps it is like that for others who read what I write. The strange thing is that even if I often feel it hurts when I read my own writing, then it is often a great joy to write it. I think that since I don’t think about the reader, then surely there is little point in publishing what I write. But it is not that simple.’

Jon Fosse, An Angel Walks Through the Stage and Other Essays (trans. May-Brit Akerholt)

‘Well, there you are! There you are, then?’

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‘The celebrated David Hume, the great historian of England, who is known and esteemed for his writings, has not so much talent for [parlour games] as all our pretty women had settled that he had. . . . He had been cast for the part of a sultan sitting between two slaves, and employing all his eloquence to win their love. Finding them inexorable, he had to try to find out the reason of their resistance. He was placed upon a sofa between the two prettiest women in Paris; he looked at them fixedly, smote the pit of his stomach and his knees several times, and could find nothing to say but, “Well, young ladies; well, there you are then! Well, there you are! There you are, then?” He kept on saying this for a quarter of an hour, without being able to think of anything else. At last one of the young ladies got up and said impatiently: “Ah! I suspected as much; this man is good for nothing except to eat veal!” Since then he has been banished to the role of spectator, but iis none the less feted and flattered. . . . All the pretty women have taken possession of him; he goes to all the smart suppers, and no feast in complete without him. . . .’

Mémoires et Correspondance de Mme d’Épinay (Paris 1818), as recorded in Ernest Campbell Mossner’s The Life of David Hume

Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser

Yesterday’s blog post recording the fact that I’ve just read Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser was silly and pointless. I apologise for wasting anyone’s time. It’s symptomatic of my struggle to find a way to write about my reading life without adding to a profusion of largely valueless book reviews. My reading is helped by the foreknowledge that I may write something about what I am reading, even if that writing is confined to my private journal. That there still seems to be some interest in this blog encourages me to persevere to write in a public place.

In this 1992 Quartet Books edition of The Loser, a rewarding afterword by Mark Anderson is provided at the end, far more valuable than any introduction, which I tend not to read until after I’ve read a book anyway, if at all. Anderson describes how Bernhard’s fiction changed after writing the five volumes of his autobiography, projecting aspects of his self onto public figures like Wittgenstein, Mendelssohn and in the case of The Loser, Glenn Gould: ‘These later texts are all part of what might be termed Bernhard’s imaginary autobiography—his own life story rewritten according to the lives of his artistic and philosophical doubles.’

It is this tension that supplies some of the insistent pulse of this story, the coexistence of the autobiographical and the fictive, a narrator that is and is not the writer, voices that are both human and text simultaneously. The ambiguity of the narrator provides sufficient ironic detachment that the tirade is more comedic than serious. As this documentary reveals, little use is made of Glenn Gould’s actual biography, just sufficient to draw parallels with Bernhard’s own life. Our lives are only interesting when contrasted against another.

In his afterword, Anderson also points out that both Gould and Bernhard ‘shared a dislike for individualist art forms . . . based on progression, climax, and reconciliation.’ It is perhaps one of several reasons I am enchanted by The Loser—aside from a seemingly endless fascination with those drawn to reclusive existences—the apparently fugal structure that underpins Bernhard’s novel and the resistance of plot and conclusion.

Gould’s interpretations of Bach’s Art of the Fugue are a mainstay of my personal musical canon. If you share my fascination please read this lengthy, quite brilliant post, which argues strongly against applying a fugal metaphor to experience of the The Loser.