About Anthony

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

Olga Tokarczuk’s House of Day, House of Night

No place carries a stronger spirit of place in our memory than the places where we spent our childhood years. It is through the gift of our senses that we conjure up a place. What comes first when I think of the place where I spent my childhood is the uniform, relentless glare of a tropical sun, surrounded by an endless tangle of every shade of green, then comes the encompassing smell of the humid air and the gurgling jungle sounds. Only afterwards does my mind add the spectral presence of people, names and detail. An ordinary place for one person might be a sacred place for another.

Olga Tokarczuk lives in rural Lower Silesia, a region of Poland that was first integrated into the country after the Second World War. In a recent interview, she said: ““I’m lucky to have such an empty piece of land to describe because in Polish literature there are no legends or fairy-tales about it.” Nowa Ruda, a Polish mining town of medieval origin, with this history is recreated in Tokarczuk’s House of Day, House of Night.

Tokarczuk calls these her “constellation novels”, in which she creates an interstitial space, into which she adds “stories, essays and sketches” and gives room for a reader’s “imagination to form them into meaningful shapes”. If you’ve read this post of my experience of reading you’ll not be surprised that I am strongly drawn to novels that create depth from composing a literary atmosphere rather than through narrative plot or historical context.

In this novel, Tokarczuk’s characters are not quite freed from History, but they are far less constrained to follow conventional narrative conjectures. She conjures an exterior landscape that is projected into the interior spaces of her characters in a way that feels rich and alive. Those interior spaces feel as much part of the landscape as the spaces the characters inhabit and wander through. Reading House of Day, House of Night is to sense an impending catastrophe, but one that allows a decampment to another space.

Enrique Vila-Matas: Montano’s Malady

“I have no literary interests, but am made of literature. I am nothing else and cannot be anything else,” wrote Kafka in one of the five-hundred letters saved by his on-off fiancée Felice Bauer, a condition further exemplified in his short story In the Penal Settlement, in which a prisoner is punished by needles inscribing a text onto his skin, doubly punished by being forced to simultaneously read the inscription in a glass refractor.

In Montano’s Malady, Enrique Vila-Matas’ narrator invokes Ital Calvino as, “one of the first friends to open Tutankhamen’s tomb, by which I mean Pavese’s diary, a dangerous diary because it might infect whoever reads it with despair.” Vila-Matas’ narrator is afflicted by being “literature-sick”, so saturated with literature that it permeates every sphere of his life.

Montano’s Malady, like the other books of his I’ve read, is composed as a form of autobiography of questionable factual accuracy. His fictional universe is one of depths, leading a reader on a quest for core truths about origin and identity, a search that is never quite satisfied. It is reminiscent of Nabokov’s later fiction, a precarious dance of seven veils that I got bored with eventually, feeling overly manipulated. Persist through the manipulations of the first eponymous chapter and the reward is a story that combines structural complexity with a lightness of touch.

A Meditation on the Experience of Reading

Since the beginning of 2020, when for two months I was unable to concentrate on any reading unrelated to the latest news—I think of it as my fallows: a temporary but necessary restorative hiatus—I’ve thought a great deal about the experience of reading and particularly the feelings that arise when reading successfully, that is so deeply that time’s flow is stemmed, so vividly that we forget that we are reading, but instead fully enter into a world conjured up somewhere between the mind of the writer and a reader.

What makes an impression when I open the first pages of the book in my hand is what essayist Philip Lopate describes as ‘a voice in the ear’. When encountering a writer for the first time, hearing this voice through the texture of sentences and paragraphs, getting a sense of the world unfolding in our imagination, following a line of thought, takes a little time. Sometimes, if fortunate, the words on the page quickly reveal the blast-furnace of brilliance, that open flame that is evident from the first pages of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. On other occasions, Sebald’s The Emigrants comes to mind, as does Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart, the whispering heat becomes evident as the world of the book reveals itself. Some such books become tutelary spirits taking us somewhere we wouldn’t have found alone, others become companions for years or decades.

Once satisfied that that I will allow a writer’s voice to remain in my mind, this isn’t always fully under my control—once I abandoned a book three times, only to be convinced of its disruptive magnificence on the fourth attempt—then reason can lower its guard and allow the world of the book to fully unfold. If the voice in the ear has wielded its key, the door opens to make clearer the atmosphere of a particular book. That elusive combination of voice and atmosphere, similar I think to the German Stimmung, is, for me, what remains long after I have forgotten particular sentences, plots and characters.

Literary atmosphere is not fact, but possibility, a sensory experience closely related to a third element that often defines how central a book will become to my reading life: the spirit of place (genius loci) or world created by a writer, distinctive in all the writers that make up my necklace of tutelary companions, particularly so in the writing of Gerald Murnane, Marguerite Duras, Maria Gabriela Llansol and Thomas Mann.

When I look at the shelves of those books that endure as a personal canon, it is not the characters, or the story, or a plot that unite them; each and all of these can get in the way of what makes a book come alive to me. Nor is it style, which if evident can be too much, or too short a thrill: literary fireworks that dazzle and disappear just as quickly.

That point of encounter between the writer and the reader, in the example of this amateur reader, that allows a book to become an imperfect conduit to what feels like my soul, or at least somewhere greater than just mind or body (and the body is always involved), is always some fine and subtle layering of the voice in the ear, the spirit of a conjured world and that invisible but authoritative atmosphere. When these layers are in perfect balance, those few indispensable books, to borrow from Augustine, are deeper in me than I am in me.

Thoughts on finishing Gerald Murnane’s A History of Books

It may well come as no surprise to anyone except me that the word exhilarating derives from the same roots as hilarity and hilarious. I had thought exhilarating to describe a frothier emotion than to make merry, to cheer or to gladden greatly (definitions provided by Skeat). It is a word that often comes to mind when I reflect on a certain type of reading experience, that brought about, for me, by the writing, for example, of Clarice Lispector and Gerald Murnane, two writers that share little else in common. To gladden greatly, on the other hand, seems no less a correct way to describe how I feel during and after reading the writing of these two transformative writers.

It is this transformative quality that makes me unable to read their books one after another, for besides being exhilarating, having one’s way of perceiving literature and the world changed to a small or significant degree is not an experience to be expended profusely. It is worthy of careful reflection. However many of their books I read, I am unable to see the world in the way that Lispector or Murnane describes their perception. This is part of why I devote so much of my life to reading. How else is it possible to share for a few moments in so different a perspective?

There are writers whose writing has plunged me into reading binges of weeks or months, when I am compelled to read their books, often chronologically, one after another, in some cases on multiple occasions over several years. These are, I suspect, the writers that come closest to sharing, to a lesser or greater degree, something of how I perceive the world. The experience of following their thoughts from sentence to sentence, book to book, is no less exhilarating at the time, but being more comprehensible is perhaps less taxing. These writers, the subject of my periodic reading binges, tend to be those that, many years later, I feel that I have, in some indefinable way, outgrown, or maybe just absorbed.

These other writers, whose books I feel a need to ration, spreading the rewards of  transformed perception over time, are ultimately what I crave, though their fertilising pleasures are in short supply.

The Passion for Solitude: Jacques Roubaud’s The Great Fire of London

“The answer is contained in the one feature unifying the four passions [walking, swimming, writing and reading] to which I’ve just dedicated, respectively the last four ‘paragraphs’: namely, a fifth passion, situated as it were behind the four others, like the sign or figure of their kinship: the passion for solitude.”

If writing is cathartic, it is as much about the sharing of pain with others, and a necessity to publicly acknowledge loss, rather than deal with uncomfortable silences, that compel the therapeutic need to express grief in concrete form. Writing provides a way to transcend the ordinary dialogue of mourning with its codes and conventions. In his The Great Fire of London, the death of Jacques Roubaud’s wife and the inevitable ending of his parents’ lives are meditated through his memories of them and their shared and past existence. The book is a prolonged beginning (Roubaud uses the term branch) of a much more extensive project, controlled through an elaborate set of textual devices informed in part by his love of mathematics.

Reading Roubaud’s novel is a vertiginous experience, occasionally feeling that one is making no less an effort than the writer during its creation. Through an unusual deployment of interpolations and bifurcations, Roubaud sits between two mirrors that face each other to explore the nature of memory and writing. As the one who is simultaneously the narrated, the narrator and writer, Roubaud explores similar terrain to Coetzee, who described a similar intention, “finding one’s way into the voice that speaks from the page, the voice of the Other, and inhabiting that voice, so that you speak to yourself . . . from outside yourself.” Roubaud carefully layers his elliptical portrait, but like many who are solitary by instinct, reticence is part of his style.

There is mourning and regret in The Great Fire of London, but this is not a melancholic or elegiac book. The short, numbered fragments that make up each of the six chapters can be read in linear fashion, or by drifting back and forth between each relevant interpolation and bifurcation. These elements don’t feel like capricious interruptions, but serve to explore aspects of perception and contemplation. The recondite and difficult fifth chapter begins with the suggestion that it “can be omitted during a first reading”, which, with hindsight, is advice that should be taken if a reader is to arrive at the final chapter with sufficient energy.

I had no intention to write about The Great Fire of London. If any book deserves a second reading, it is this solemnly beautiful book, but, after a haunted night filled with the imagery and atmosphere of this novel, it dawned on me that I am compelled to write about it in order to unburden my first reading experience.

Roubaud’s The Great Fire of London sits on the shelf next to its two sequels. There are six branches to the now completed Project, the last of which in the edition above, branch five of the Project, entitled La Bibliothèque de Warburg, is unlikely to be translated into English anytime soon, so my creaking French must suffice to allow me to explore that remarkable library that I find so fascinating. I will also reread Alix Cleo Roubaud’s Journal, last read seven years ago.

Sometimes it seems daunting just how many books there are yet to read—possible treasures that we may never make time for— one discovers a book like The Great Fire of London, which serves as a reminder of the scarcity of books that can open us up to an edenic and intense quietness, an experience that disrupts our quotidian view of the world. The treasure-trove of such books is small, and the gap between their uncovering seems to widen in proportion to age, which at least makes a reading life less overwhelming.