Gasping for Air

Echoes of D. H. Lawrence’s Pansies, ‘Darkness submerges the stones’ in the twlight thick underdusk in apprehension of being submerged under one’s books. Peter Kien also appears, cocooned from others by his library. I’ve never been able to finish that novel, equally beguiled and repulsed. A shared thought that arrived during the first lockdown when I began packing up books, some to go to friends, others to my local secondhand bookshop, my library almost halved in volume over the last two and a half years. Not yet old but ageing, and wishing to carry less weight; my mind more likely to weave itself warmly into a cocoon of its own thoughts than require another’s associations.

Reading A Horse at Night, in which Amina Cain writes, “What is it that happens when a narrative allows us to look at an image longer than we are ‘supposed’ to?” Echoes from the evocation of how and why she reads. The network of lines that link two places on the map interest me less than the landscape around the plotline. Voice, images, sense of place, atmosphere. For me these are the echoes long after the memory of the chain is dissolved. The vigorously evoked image of the young lady pricking her finger with a needle is almost all that remains of Byron’s comic cantos. Mariana appears, possibly that shade of blue on the cover of A Horse at Night, or just because this book chimes so well with my sense of autumn, or Keats’, ‘They could not sit at meals but feel how well / It soothed each other to be the other by’. Amina Cain: ‘It means a different kind of peace when he is here with me. It is not pure solitude, but I am not, it turns out, a purist.’

When Paul Theroux visited Borges in his dark Maipú flat, he noted ‘prints by Piranesi and books, a collection of Everyman classics and shelves of poetry in no particular order, all battered and sprouting paper page markers, with “the look of having been read”‘. Borges’ library though was small, his memory carrying what seemed an infinite memory of books.

True Poems and Available Reality


During this torrid summer I’ve found refuge in the poetry of Geoffrey Hill, a writer who celebrates an elusive reality of mythical dimensions. The ‘marked / visible absences’ at the centre of Tenebrae share common ground with Samuel Beckett’s failed attempts to express the inexpressible and Maria Gabriela Llansol’s deliberate move away from narrativity into metaphor and figure.

Hill’s meticulous use of language renders stark the impoverishment of the vocabulary of much contemporary writing, contaminated by the sound-bites of social media and journalism. To strive against this impoverishment and in search of a particular clarity Hill is indebted to the OED, the ‘rock out of which my present discourse is hewn, the quarry of my distinctions and definitions’.

Language reveals itself though Hill’s voice. This restorative character, distinct from quotidian discourse, is what draws me to writers like Beckett, Llansol and Friederike Mayröcker. It is where, to paraphrase Wallace Stevens, I find an hour of inexpressible bliss.

I’m a mere dilettante reader of poetry with a desire to apprehend better, sceptical that a non-poet can write about a poem penetratingly. I would however like to feel less inadequate. The following request yielded some good suggestions and may provide new ways to engage with and appreciate poetry’s unique powers.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Sunday Notes

In 100 Days, Gabriel Josipovici, approaching his eightieth year, writes of trying to resist his innate sense of immortality, to be able to approach the inevitability of death with equanimity. It is, I suppose, the only way to contemplate the fact of death, our conspiracy to keep it unconscious a first and necessary line of defence.

Today, prompted by reading Karl One Knausgaard’s The Morning Star, I consulted the tables of life expectancy in England. Unless I get seriously ill or die in an accident I will experience roughly twenty-five more birthdays. Time enough maybe for another couple of thousand books though I do sometimes wonder what I miss when huddled in a fortress of literature. The Morning Star is infuriating and compelling in equal part. It ends with an extraordinary essay that gave me a sense that I should read the whole book again after carefully rereading the essay. I looked up some reviews and learnt that it may have been added as an afterthought and that The Morning Star is the first of a series.

In his novel, Knausgaard refers to a three-volume treatise on death, The Realm of the Dead: A World History, by Olav O. Aukrust. If it exists, it is not translated into English. It is a sufficiently compelling area of study for me to turn to online sources to order Philippe Aries’ The Hour of Our Death, recommended by Daniel, Thomas Laquer’s well-reviewed The Work of the Dead, and successfully look for my unread copy of Robert Pogue Harrison’s Dominion of the Dead (thanks, Steve).

This week I bought Bruce Kirmmse’s new translation of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling and his earlier translation of The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air, both also prompted by The Morning Star. In London I also picked up a copy of Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik, Carolyn Forché’s In the Lateness of the World (primarily for the poem Museum of Stones, but there are several others of interest), Peter Handke’s newly translated essay collection: Quiet Places, and a second-hand copy of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.

Sunday Notes

This week I returned to Samuel Beckett, to Company, in which he changed his habit of writing firstly in French. I thought I’d read it before, but I am not so sure. Company alludes frequently to earlier work, and it may be that, instead of rereading, I am hearing echoes of The Unnamable, How It Is, and Murphy.

When reading Beckett’s later work, I often think of Lydia Davis’s comment that, “[Beckett and Joyce] evolved to a point where they seemed to . . . write more and more for their own pleasure and interest.” It is, I think, a lazy judgement in Beckett’s case, whose prose is never less than lucid, though it is sometimes difficult, that struggle between (reference T. S. Eliot)  words and their meanings.  If a writer like Beckett is hard it is because the problems he is trying to resolve are difficult. (In the case of Joyce and Finnegans Wake, I’m with Davis, though it must have been amusing to compose).

Both books I finished this week were slim, yet will repay rereading several times. The other, Annie Ernaux’s Simple Passion. Her forensic examinations of her narrators’ lives, in this case of a two-year lover affair with a married man, are always compelling. I’m reading them all, at least those available in English translation, chronologically.

I ordered  four books this week from Alma Books, home of what was once Calder Publications. Each book is written by John Calder: The Garden of Eros, Pursuit, The Philosophy of Samuel Beckett, and The Theology of Samuel Beckett. I’m enjoying immersion in the post-war Paris literary scene via The Garden of Eros. I also dipped into Valerie Dodd’s George Eliot: An Intellectual Life, which arrived after a two-month wait.

Sunday Notes

Today is Epiphany II, the second Sunday after Epiphany. About a month ago I decided to listen to each Bach Cantata, as performed by John Eliot Gardiner, The Monteverdi Choir and The English Baroque Soloists. It isn’t a question of religion, (to which I answer ‘yes and no’ when asked), just a way to spend more time with my music collection.

The picture above is one of those currently exhibited at Victoria Miro, a selection of Paula Rego works that are rarely shown. I don’t think any were included in last year’s magnificent Tate Britain retrospective. Those in the Depression series are particularly remarkable.

Peter Bradshaw was right in his assessment of The Father, which I watched last night. It is deeply moving and more than a little scary to anyone closer to the end of life than the beginning. It brought to mind a line from a poem by Hayden Carruth: Words misremembered, ideas frayed like old silk. The economy of that last phrase has stayed with me long after I forgot the poem.

I’m reading The Iliad again, this time in a modern (2015) translation by Caroline Alexander. Is this the first translation of the poem in English by a woman? It is readable, elegant even without rhythmic regularity, but it will have to go far to substitute for Fagles as my favourite.  Alexander’s translation successfully competed for my attention over Clare Carlisle’s Spinoza’s Religion, her pious reading of Spinoza’s Ethics. I found her argument compelling and hope to return to her book later in the year.