About Anthony

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

Paul Griffiths’s The Tomb Guardians

Antiquity brings to mind a jigsaw puzzle, and the work of a writer, whether historian or novelist, is like the jigsaw enthusiast who must assemble the fragments to establish a complete picture. The analogy is quickly strained as there is neither a pre-established image to use as a guide, nor would each puzzle maker agree on the final picture. Antiquity is perhaps better perceived as a palimpsest in which each interpreter removes older surfaces to present a different picture.

In The Tomb Guardians, Paul Griffiths enters into a dialogue with German artist Bernhard Strigel’s renaissance paintings of the four Roman soldiers assigned to guard the rock-cut tomb of Jesus Christ. Jewish tradition forbade burial within a city’s walls, and the gospel of Matthew introduces the figures of the guards to perhaps counter any claims that Jesus’ body had been removed by his disciples.

It’s a commonplace story interpreted many years after the event in different ways in each of the gospels with added detail from the apocryphal gospels.The attraction of this book comes not from the familiar story, but the performance of the story. Griffiths gives voice to the guards and to an academic preparing a lecture about Strigel’s paintings, taking a familiar tale and revealing inspired variations of it, to elevate something commonplace into both a perfectly composed exploration of human frailty, and some of the finest art criticism I’ve encountered.

My Year in Reading: 2021

If any writer could be said to have exerted an influence on my reading this year, it would be Gabriel Josipovici. One influence does not preclude another and the claim might equally apply to Gerald Murnane or Friederike Mayröcker. The latter died, aged 96, this summer, but to share a time with such writers is a flaming beam during an otherwise wretched year. These are writers of subtlety, not stylists, nor meticulous crafters of the perfect sentence, though a very many of their sentences, to quote Nietzsche, turn into a hook, pulling something incomparable from out of the depths.  What can be more exhilarating than to follow the thoughts of such singular human minds?

Of all years, in this I read and abandoned more contemporary fiction than normal, an attempt to read against the grain. It is of no surprise that there are few novels first published today worth reading. That could describe any age. There is simply too much in most fiction: superfluous style, too many adjectives, too little space to open a door to ones own reflections. What is left when we finish a book is the mood or atmosphere, described so lucidly by Jenny Erpenbeck: the most important things sink deeper in our memories, we internalise them, take them into our bodies, and they stay there, blind and mute.

Sharing the interior lives of others through their literary creation arguably tells us more about the world than any other medium. Three novels this year offered the sharp light of an autumn afternoon, providing a glimpse of the inner spaces of their creators: Jacques Roubaud’s The Great Fire of London, Peter Weiss’s Leavetaking, and Gabriel Josipovici’s Moo Pak. Formally each could not be more different, but what they provide is a serious portrayal of the human condition in its infinite forms.

That description could equally apply to Friederike Mayröcker’s And I Shook Myself a Beloved, translated by Alexander Booth. It is a fiction too in the sense that all journeys into inner worlds are fictions, but it is primarily a recounting, in dark tones, of her relationship with life partner Ernst Jandl. It is a raw meditation, but lifted by its strange and unquestionable beauty.

Art restimulates inspirations and awakens sensibilities / that’s the function of art, wrote Agnes Martin in Writings. This collection of her letters, lectures and journals is exceptional and was fine company and, like David Sylvester’s Interviews with Francis Bacon, offers insight beyond the specifics of a particular artist or perspective.

This wasn’t particularly a year for poetry, but I discovered Derek Walcott’s White Egrets. These are quiet and conservative poems, with a vivid expression of personality. He has Larkin’s gift for evocative phrase-making and Heaney’s nuanced appreciation of landscape. The poems addressing his canonical artists: Uccello, El Greco, del Sarto, Blake, Van Gogh, and Constable, are particularly  memorable.

Next year I plan to draw in my reading, depth over breadth, thinking through even the minor works of my talismanic writers. There will possibly be more poetry, certainly less contemporary fiction, probably more Ancient Greek and Roman literature, but thankfully I’ve always been hopelessly inadequate at charting the serendipitous direction of my reading life.

A Protective Escort from the Sidelines

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It had seemed to him that such a writing process was appropriate not merely to the particular subject matter but also to the times themselves. Didn’t the narrative forms of previous eras—their consistency, their gestures of conjuring up and mastering (strangers’ destinies), their claim to totality, as amateurish as it was naive—when employed in modern books strike him nowadays as mere bluster? Varied approximations, some minor, some major, and in permeable forms, instead of the standard imprisoning forms, were what he felt books should be now, precisely because of his most complete, intense, unifying experiences with objects: preserving distance, circumscribing; sketching in; flirting around—giving your subject a protective escort from the sidelines.

Peter Handke, The Jukebox, translated by Krishna Winston

The Degrading Temptation of Tasks

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The idle apprehend more things, are deeper than the industrious: no task limits their horizon; born into an eternal Sunday, they watch—and watch themselves watching. Sloth is a somatic skepticism, the way the flesh doubts. In a world of inaction, the idle would be the only ones not to be murderers. But they do not belong to humanity, and, sweat not being their strong point, they live without suffering the consequences of Life and of Sin. Doing neither good nor evil, they disdain—spectators of the human convulsion—the weeks of time, the efforts which asphyxiate consciousness. What would they fear from a limitless extension of certain afternoons except the regret of having supported a crudely elemental obviousness? Then, exasperation in the truth might induce them to imitate the others and to indulge in the degrading temptation of tasks. This is the danger which threatens sloth, that miraculous residue of paradise.

E. M. Cioran, The Sundays of Life, (translated by Richard Howard)

 

Three Necessary Languages

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There are three sacred languages: Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, which are the most outstanding in the entire world. For in these three languages, the case of the Lord was written upon the cross by Pontius Pilate. For this reason, and on account of the obscurity of Sacred Scriptures, the understanding of these three languages is necessary so that you may reference one of the others if an expression in one of the languages presents some doubt to your mind about the meaning of a word or its interpretation.

Isidore of Seville, translation from Senteniae Antiquae