Thoughts on Fanny Howe’s Nod

Waves Breaking against the Wind c.1840 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N02881

Still five days remaining, but Fanny Howe’s Nod might be a place to rest for the year. Maybe some poetry or philosophy to conclude. Some big books this year, Middlemarch, Schmidt’s The Novel, Anthony Rudolf’s Silent Conversations; each absorbed over a month. But it feels good to have read fewer books, to have read better and reflected more.

So pleased to have discovered Fanny Howe and Nod is a little special. Perhaps I’ll spend the remainder of the year reading it again. A third reading. I like to finish an extraordinary  book and reread it immediately, without the tension of reading for discovery, just for immersion in its depths. There is plenty of water in Nod, the sea one of its small cast of characters. There is also annihilating human cruelty, more intense than the story’s despair, deliberate cruelty of the sort that often only occurs within the protection of unconditional love, malignant cruelty that destroys self-love.

Yet Nod is not hope-less. It lacks the unredeemed and desperate cruelty of Ágota Kristóf’s trilogy, stories of such saturated excess it took years to almost forget. Nod‘s characters are not diabolical, merely human. Howe allows us to glimpse the rationale, to grasp the ethics, the desire that underpins the cruelty. For this is also a story steeped through with desire and longing, human loneliness taken to an almost infinite degree.

There is great subtlety in Howe’s work, whether in Nod or in the essays of The Winter Sun and The Needle’s Eye. Her roots as a poet are evident in the attentive, meticulous prose. I want to read everything.

A Year in Reading: 2015

Denton Welch’s last work stands at the head of a list that marks a fine year’s reading with the discovery of three writers whose work has changed me: Brigid Brophy, Tomas Espedal and Welch

Denton Welch’s A Voice Through a Cloud is alive throughout though left incomplete by his death. Welch’s characteristic eye for detail and ear for dialogue is clear in all his work but in A Voice Through a Cloud he maintains an unstable tension that keeps his light touch so very serious. The smiles of acknowledgement and tears become impossible to separate. It’s hard to imagine a finer book in any year and his other two novels are small but magnificent.

If pressed I’d name Brigid Brophy’s The Snow Ball as the finer of her novels that I read this year, an elegant tale of female eroticism that splices together Brophy’s twin fixations of Mozart and Freud.

What Welch, Brophy and Tomas Espedal share is the sense that they are all writing their lives in fiction, fulfilling an attempt to smuggle reality into their art and doing so with force of intellect, originality and passion. Any of Espedal’s three translated works would serve as a book of the year but Tramp will be one I return to again and again. That all three are published by Seagull Books simply underlines my deep-seated affection for their vision.

Those writers aside, this was also the year I read Ágota Kristóf’s trilogy, novels that led by precise description and a fierce power that lay in what was left out. Little was left out of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, in HT Lowe-Porter’s translation, a brilliant conception of the demonic, also explored in Wolfgang Hilbig’s disturbing but equally singular “I”.

Two works of literary criticism stood out this year: Rita Felski’s Uses of Literature and David Winters’s Infinite Fictions; both offered profound insight, refined by doubts and perplexities and in both cases suffused with a love of literature.

Espedal’s Tramp was a good companion novel to Jessa Crispin’s The Dead Ladies Project which beautifully navigated the indeterminate space between memoir, biography and travel narrative.

Like Beckett’s Murphy, this year the macrocosm intruded into the freedom of the microcosm, i.e. the job-path became all consuming, leaving less time to read and write here. That said I expect to read seventy or so books by year end, respectable enough given other commitments which include discovering a zest for public speaking.

Literary Couplings

The sun is calm and bright, but it isn’t yet quite warm enough to idle outside with Denton Welch’s I Left My Grandfather’s House. So observant Welch’s eye for details of character and architecture, his voice so tender after the cool elegance of Ágota Kristóf’s prose, though the latter’s autobiographical The Illiterate inevitably presents a warmer, more personal note than the novels.

It’s pleasing to tack between Welch and Kristóf, a shot of elegant, slightly oily brandy to accompany a bittersweet, zippy espresso. Now, perhaps back to Kristóf, having tracked down a copy of Yesterday.

Last week, I also read Simon Critchley’s experimental Memory Theatre, a somewhat curious yet thought provoking work. Critchley  as mystic recalls Yeats’ essay on magic, in which he writes, “whatever the passions of men have gathered about becomes a symbol in the Great Memory, and in the hands of him who has the secret it is a worker of wonders, a caller-up of angels or of devils.”

Ágota Kristóf’s Trilogy

Each book of Ágota Kristóf’s trilogy is entwined on a smaller scale in each of the books, echoing back the whole of the trilogy. Each successive book unbalances its predecessor to the point that its instability opens up an unbounded dialogism. As I read each book back to back I cannot imagine reading first The Notebook, The Proof two years later, and finally waiting a further three years to read The Third Lie. My aesthetic response would be somewhat muted.

By starting the trilogy with the simple, direct language of childhood, Kristóf disrupts our familiar frames of reference, so when the shocks arrive they have the power of a slap in the face, the visceral response precedes the intellectual. Although the language remains clear throughout the three books, its complexity increases as the protagonists mature and the paradoxes become evident. Picasso said, “Art is a lie that makes us realise the truth.”

The nature of evil is less absurdly simple than history or psychology suggests. The torturer can also be a loving grandfather. Compassion and immorality can exist side by side, as they do with Kristóf’s protagonists.

As is often the case, Michelle’s post led me to the trilogy, which sat on my shelves for some years. Although I read an edition from Grove Press, I suggest these from CB editions. Though the translators are the same, the Grove Press edition of The Notebook Americanises the language: so and so write one another, and the two protagonists are at one point called ‘you two punks.’  Tim Parks writes so well about the inflexibility of American editors. It jars the reading to the point I almost abandoned the book.

Cold Passion

We answer: ‘We don’t want to work for you, madam. We don’t want to eat your soup or your bread. We are not hungry.’
She asks: ‘Then why are you begging?’
‘To find out what effect it has and to observe people’s reactions.’
She walks off, shouting: ‘Dirty little hooligans! And impertinent too!’
On our way home, we throw the apples, the biscuits, the chocolate, and the coins in the tall grass by the roadside.
It is impossible to throw away the stroking on our hair.

Ágota Kristóf, The Notebook. Grove Press, 1997.

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2015 (updated)

These are not reading resolutions. Writers promising literary gifts lead me astray too easily for these ideas to be fixed in any way.

This year I read widely covering fifty or so writers, concentrating my reading more deeply only twice on Houellebecq and Anne Carson’s work. In 2015 I’d like to read more deeply into the work of some of my favourite authors: alternative Dante and Homer translations (and Adam Nicholson’s The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters) ,  more Ballard’s short stories, always more Beckett, John Berger, Roberto Calasso, more Anne Carson, the new Tom McCarthy, Robert Musil’s diaries, Hélène Cixous, Coetzee, Jenny Diski, Dostoevsky, Marguerite Duras, Pierre Hadot, Houellebecq’s new one if translated next year, Kafka’s short stories, László Krasznahorkai, Clarice Lispector, Bourdieu, Doris Lessing, Nabokov, Alice Oswald, Robert Macfarlane, Nietzsche, Atiq Rahimi, WG Sebald, Thomas Mann, Christa Wolf and Virginia Woolf.

Beyond these ‘old chestnuts’ (as Beckett called his favourite authors) I’m looking forward to unexpected surprises within the pages of the following new books, either missed in 2014 or due in 2015, by authors I have not read before:

  1. Kirmin Uribe – Bilbao – New York – Bilbao
  2. Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric
  3. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor – Dust
  4. Ceridwen Dovey – Only the Animals
  5. Karin Wieland (trans. Shelley Frisch) – Dietrich & Riefenstahl: The dream of the new woman
  6. Can Xue – The Last Lover
  7. Anna Smaill – The Chimes
  8. Han Kang (trans. Deborah Smith) – The Vegetarian
  9. Paul Celan – Breathturn Into Timestead
  10. David Winters – Infinite Fictions: Essays on Literature and Theory

There are several other writers whose older works I’d like to get around to exploring sometime soon including Jens Bjørneboe, Martin Shaw, Ivan Illich, Eva Hoffman, Ivan Goncharov, David Abram, Ágota Kristóf, Rebecca Solnit, Tomas Espedal and Elfriede Jelinek.

As always, distractions are greater than my ambition, but if I manage to take in a decent selection of the above I’m expecting a good year in reading. There are several other titles I have my eye on but I’m mindful of your patience and Molloy’s admission that ‘if you set out to mention everything you would never be done.’