For a decade: 33 theses, reflections, quotes

In yesterday’s post on This Space, Steve commented in passing that Time’s Flow Stemmed recently celebrated (25th January to be precise) its tenth anniversary. While I did mention the milestone on Twitter I forgot to mark the occasion here, so in observance of this blog’s first decade, over five-hundred years after Martin Luther apparently nailed his treatise to the door of Wittenberg’s church, I offer my own 33 theses, random reflections and treasured quotes:

  1. “The work of art may have an ideology (in other words, those ideas, images, and values which are generally accepted, dominant) as its material, but it works that material; it gives it a new form and at certain times that new form is in itself a subversion of ideology.” – T. J. Clarke
  2. Prose fiction is the art of excess. It is better when large, loose and baggy
  3. Poetry, on the other hand, is the place for concentrated lyrical expression
  4. “Consciousness is only attainable after decades of being honest with yourself followed by more decades of honest observation of the world. Even then, consciousness is mostly illusion.” – John Rember
  5. Attention to form is the greatest force for literature
  6. “This, therefore, is the praise of Shakespeare, that his drama is the mirror of life; that he who has mazed his imagination in following the phantoms which other writers raise up before him may here be cured of his delirious ecstasies by reading human sentiments in human language, by scenes from which a hermit may estimate the transactions of the world and a confessor predict the progress of the passions.” – Samuel Johnson
  7. Literary interpretation is inherently unstable
  8. Free indirect style is the novel’s most useful contribution to literary endeavour
  9. “If you enjoy the opinions you possess, if they give you a glow, be suspicious. They may be possessing you. An opinion should be treated like a guest who is likely to stay late and drink all the whiskey.” – William Gass
  10. There are good and bad books, artistically and possibly ethically
  11. There are also good and bad readers
  12. “I’ve described my experience of reading as immersion in a peculiar kind of fictional space. Above all, what fascinates me about that space is the idea that it might be infinite; that the world opened up by a book might exceed that outside it.” – David Winters
  13. Reading is selfish, but an essential aspect of enlarging life and the self (or illusion of self)
  14. Reading should be social; conversing about what you’ve read augments the pleasure of reading
  15. “Writing and reading are not separate, reading is a part of writing. A real reader is a writer. A real reader is already on the way to writing.” – Cixous
  16. The Death of the Author is a delusion
  17. “In truth, there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross.” – Nietzsche
  18. We will never know the people in our lives as profoundly as we can know the characters in a novel
  19. “As for those people who will not welcome this kind of writing, which they call obscure because it is beyond their understanding, I leave them with those who, after the invention of wheat, still want to live on acorns.” – Joachim du Bellay
  20. Difficulty in fiction is normally pleasurable
  21. Form shapes critical thinking and enhances perception
  22. Rereading is richer than first time reading as it eliminates the distraction of suspense
  23. Most literary criticism discerns in its subjects the evidence its theories predict
  24. The problem for writers of fiction in Britain in the 20th and, so far, in the 21st century: how to write and publish brilliant, sublime prose in a country and culture that shrinks with horror from intellectualism
  25. Coetzee’s Disgrace is a rare example of a great book adapted into a great film
  26. Virginia Woolf is Britain’s last great and important novelist
  27. More than well-structured narrative, it is the texts on the fringes I keep coming back to, notebooks, diaries, letters, fragments, what Genette called pre-texts
  28. All the roots of Western literature may be found in Aeschylus
  29. Greatness and perfection are not necessarily the same thing
  30. “My writing wasn’t entirely about the books ‘under review’ so much as my internal ‘reading experience’.” – David Winters
  31. “How can you, after Proust and Joyce and Kafka and Faulkner, sit down and write a novel?… Answer: you have to. And the you have to is a private cancer, a private tumour of the soul.” – George Steiner, Paris Review interview
  32. I find it hard to endure writing in the third person
  33. ” . . . deepening what there was in her of sweetness and listening – for this was her nature.” – Lispector

To those that read Time’s Flow Stemmed, whether for a decade, or as a recent discovery, I offer my profound thanks. I used to explain that I wrote here for myself, but that is the worst kind of deceit, a self-deceit. I am thrilled that this blog has readers and offer an apology that I am even further from understanding literature than I was at the beginning.

 

“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/Are sweeter”

Iphigenia as a priestess of Artemis in Tauris sets out to greet prisoners, amongst which are her brother Orestes and his friend Pylades; a Roman fresco from Pompeii, 1st century AD

We can lose ourselves in reverie of how Aeschylus might have staged his Oresteia in 458 BC; how his four hypokrites performed the four plays that constituted this journey from mythological darkness to Athenian radiance (originally the trilogy ended with a satyr-play called Proteus); of the dances Aesychlus is said to have taught his choruses, from the Argive elders in Agamemnon, to the captured slave-women of The Libation Bearers, those haunting furies in Eumenides, and the supposed randy satyrs that brought the tragedy to a close in Proteus.

My Penguin Classics edition, translated by Robert Fagles, includes an essay, The Serpent and the Eagle, written by Fagles and the classicist William Stanford. They correctly say little of the performance but what they say is agreeable:

“The words alone may hold the life of the thing itself. The music they create, the scenery, the acting, the complete consort dancing together in the theatre of our minds may well be all we need. Perhaps – but this may be too daring – a performance of the Oresteia in the mind of a twentieth-century reader may be even more moving than it was in the crowded, often restive Theatre of Dionysus at the first performance. At least we can do with the written words what no Athenian could do when they were spoken on the stage; we can stop and wonder and look back and tease apart the subtleties and pregnancies of Aeschylus’ style, so that while we lose theatrically we gain in imaginative power. As Keats has said about a different genre of Greek art, ‘Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/Are sweeter.’ And perhaps with Greek drama, richer, too.”

Agamemnon

There is the sea and who shall drain it dry?
It breeds the purple stain, the dark red dye
       we use to color our garments,
costly as silver.
This house has an abundance. Thanks
      be to gods, no poverty here.
Oh I would have vowed the trampling of
      many cloths
if an oracle had ordered it, to ransom this
      man’s life.
For when the root is alive the leaves come
      back
and shade the house against white dogstar
      heat.
Your homecoming is warmth in winter.
Or when Zeus makes wine from bitter
      grapes
and coolness fills the house
as the master walks his halls,
righteous, perfect.
Zeus, Zeus, god of things perfect,
accomplish my prayers.
Concern yourself here.
Perfect this.

Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, (trans. Anne Carson from An Oresteia)

Christa Wolf’s Cassandra

Cassandra, most beautiful daughter of Priam and Hecuba, Trojan royalty, is punished with the fate of seeing truthful prophecies and never being believed. Cassandra who foresaw not only the fall of Troy but also the means and time of her death (and that of her children) at the hands of vengeful Clytemnestra.

But this is evil, see!
Now once again the pain of grim, true prophecy
shivers my whirling brain in a storm of things foreseen.

Cassandra who long haunted my thoughts after first reading Aeschylus (first Richard Lattimore’s and then Anne Carson’s Agamemnon) for her divination of the fearful death of her children and herself.

Christa Wolf deconstructs the fall of Troy in Cassandra, using the epic as a framework to scrutinise violence, patriarchy and repression. Artfully written, Cassandra substitutes  the heroic, Homeric perspective of the Trojan War with a heroine’s perspective that allows one to read a familiar story from a revitalised critical direction. Though Wolf’s novel can be read as connecting ancient times with the contemporary, it wears its allegorical nature delicately, and with rational distribution of culpability across gender lines.

Once again I wish to thank flowerville for leading me to read Christa Wolf. Next I intend to read Wolf’s Patterns of Childhood, the author’s account of growing up in Nazi Germany.

A Year of Reading: 2011

I have read so many exceptional books this year. Samuel Beckett’s trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable) left me breathless, as did the first two volumes of Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, The Prime of Life). My most recurrent author was Geoff Dyer as I read and reread to complete his oeuvre to date (Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, The Missing of the SommeWorking the RoomParis, Trance and Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi), all works of great wit and sensitivity. And there were J. M. Coetzee’s essays (Inner Workings and Stranger Shores), both examples of criticism as works of art in their own right. I finally got around to Thomas Bernhard (Old Masters) and Peter Handke’s work (The Weight of the World and Across), every bit as intoxicating as I’d hoped. Anne Carson’s  translation of An Oresteia was memorable, and only confirmed my wonder for everything she does.

My surprising fiction discoveries (I am always happily surprised to enjoy a new author’s work) were Teju Cole’s exceptionally exquisite Open CityJ. M. Ledgard’s thrilling Submergence (thanks, Nicole), Vyacheslav Pyetsukh’s The New Moscow Philosophy (thanks Michelle) and Jenny Erpenbeck’s haunting Visitation.

Of the non-fiction, Masha Tupitsyn’s Laconia was charming and thought-provoking (to this day), Michael Levenson’s Modernism was the comprehensive history I was seeking. Stach’s Kafka biography leaves me starving for the next volume. My current book, Helen Small’s The Long Life is (so far) brilliant and a superb way to end the year.

I’m not able or willing to pick out a single favourite from either the fiction or non-fiction categories. I read a few books this year I loathed. Given the author is not living I will give Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels my coveted ‘I Wish I Could Get That Time Back Award’.

Geeky Statistics

  1. 40% of the eighty books I read were in translation (mostly from German), up from 30% last year.
  2. 18% of the books I read were written by women; I am disappointed this is exactly the same as last year.
  3. 52% of the books I read were written by living authors, pretty much the same as 2010.
  4. 58% of the books I read were fiction, up 14% from last year.

Other literary highlights of my year were attending John Berger’s angry and passionate reading of Bento’s Sketchbook and Geoff Dyer’s enlightening talk about Camus.

During 2011, with the help of readers, I compiled a list of female writers we should be reading and bibliographies of worthwhile secondary literature on the works of Kafka and Beckett.

Thanks to my book blogging friends, particularly Emily (Beckett, de Beauvoir) and Nicole (Goethe) with whom I shared reading explorations this year, and Frances whom I joined in a crazed attempt to read all 42 in Melville House’s Art of the Novella series, abandoning the attempt after thirteen novellas. I don’t participate in many read-a-longs but made an exception and had fun during German Literature month, organised by Caroline and Lizzy.

Anne Carson’s Translation of An Oresteia

Absent Presence 2004, by Ken Currie

Traditionalists beware. An Oresteia is not a fusty, complex translation of Aiskhylos’s (Aeschylus to most of us, but I’ll run with Carson’s version for consistency) trilogy. On another plane, Robert Fagles and Richmond Lattimore can be heard thunderously grumbling.

Carson’s adaptation takes Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, and matches it with Sophocle’s Elektra and Euripedes’s Orestes.  In doing so, she offers a very different reading of the trilogy that begins with Agamemnon’s return from the Trojan war and ends, surprisingly happily, with Apollo’s intervention to prevent a continuation of the tragic cycle of events. In a brief notes section, Carson quotes the director that persuaded her of the merits of this perspective:

I always think of these three tragedians as being associated with different times of a metaphoric day. Aiskhylos is dawnlike, with iconic ideas, images, and action emerging into the light of consciousness. Euripides presents a twilight where everything is susceptible to tricks of a fading light, where tonalities are hard to grasp, where one moment is an azure sunset, the next a starless night. Between them, Sophokles, under the glare of a noon sun that leaves nothing exposed.

With a limited background of Greek tragedy, I am not certain whether presenting an Oresteia combining the work of three playwrights is a fresh perspective, but it is remarkably potent.

Dramatic events aside, it is not possible to ignore Carson’s translation. Her language mutations are almost Joycean (“blackmouthing bitch”). Just occasionally I thought the translation into modern idiom went too far: the slave talking of “real bad shit happening” (though Carson qualifies this as “another quaint barbarian idiom”). That aside, the language is exhilarating, showing the continued importance and brilliance of these tragedies.

Inevitably, translations of this exuberance send me not only to Carson’s other Greek translations ( Euripides in Grief Lessons), but also to other Greek plays, even if I will have to settle for Lattimore’s less newfangled translations.

I recommend Emily’s detailed review of this translation.

Folio Greek Tragedies

Though I have mixed feelings about Folio Society editions, these are tempting. All the Greek tragedies in five volumes:

In five volumes, the extant works of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides are gathered, with newly commissioned prefaces for each volume: Ruth Padel on Aeschylus, Simon Goldhill on Sophocles, and Peter Stothard, Lawrence Norfolk and Germaine Greer each introducing one of the Euripides volumes. The translations used, from the University of Chicago editions, have become the standard texts. A total of 33 great works of art are included, such as Pallas Athene attributed to Rembrandt and The Bacchae by Luca Giordano, with each plate tipped in, facing the title page of the play in question.