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.

Exuberance and Decay: H.D.’s Visions and Ecstasies

Everything below this paragraph is taken from Visions and Ecstasies, a series of essays by the American writer H.D. They are collected in a volume published by David Zwirner Books, part of a series I enjoy collecting. The pages in this volume are few, but there are genuine ideas to be found from an unfamiliar perspective, amidst a stream of merely intelligent thought. H.D.’s brief list of pornographic literature would make a satisfying winter reading list.

‘My sign-posts are not yours, but if I blaze my own trail, it may help give you confidence and urge to get out of the murky, dead, old, thousand-times explored old world, the dead world of overworked emotions and thoughts.’

***

‘Two or three people, with healthy bodies and the right sort of receiving brans, could turn the whole tide of human thoughts, could direct lightning flashes of electric power to slash across and destroy the road of dead, murky thought.

Two or three people gathered together in the name of truth, beauty, over-mind consciousness could bring the whole force of this power back into the world.’

***

‘There is plenty of pornographic literature that is interesting and amusing.

If you cannot be entrained and instructed by Boccaccio, Rabelais, Montaigne, Sterne, Middleton, de Gourmont and de Régnier there is something wrong with you physically.’

***

‘But a man has intellect, brain—a mind in fact, capable of three states of being, a mind that may be conscious in the ordinary, scholarly, literal sense of the word, or sub-conscious—those sub-conscious states varying in different states of dream or physical feeling, or illness, delirium or madness—a mind over-conscious as well, able to enter into a whole life as Leonardo entered, Euripides, the Galilean with his baskets and men’s faces and Roman coins—the first hermits of the Ganges and the painter who concentrated on one tuft of pine branch with its brown cone until every needle was a separate entity to him and very pine needle bore to every other one, a clear relationship like a drawing of a later mechanical twentieth-century bridge builder.’

***

‘I draw the curtain across my window, across them, their impertinence and their greatness. I cannot bear to think of them. But with my fingers stained with moss and scratched with whortleberry and oak-tangle, I open a little Tauchnitz volume.

With my fingers too, rather than with my eyes, I read these poems.’

***

[Anacreon] ‘is gone. There floats this legend through old text-books, a date, an anecdote, but he, he himself is gone. He is gone, cruel in his immortality. He has left us—he has left me, and before me fingering this little volume, there is a path, set with small white paving-stones, a little edge of white marble, laid in long, even, slender, graceful books, stone blocks, imperceptible curves, two steps, columns, very small, very perfect.’

Evolutionary Translation

Quote

“Yet with lyric verse as charged as Celan’s, the translator enters its evolution. Hölderlin knew this vis-à-vis Sophocles, Rilke vis-à-vis Valéry, to name the German poets whom Celan prized. In After Babel George Steiner writes about translation at its fullest, saying the process culminates in restitution: something is given back to the source in return for what is lost. After all, the act of translation repeats an original poem with a difference: each line of verse in English, reflecting backward towards its origin, is scrolling one line closer to the future.”

John Felstiner, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew

Marianne Moore’s Sinuous Truths

Moore writing at her desk.

Paul Celan translated several of Marianne Moore’s poems into German for a 1952 German edition of Perspectives USA, a short-lived magazine started by New Directions founder, James Laughlin. In his Celan biography, John Felstiner writes, “[Celan] responded to her verbal acumen with his own, and without mind-bending exertion. The first two poems went into German cleanly, though without her intricate rhyming and syllabifying. And What Are Years? had a clear call on him . . . Moore’s sinuous truths fit Celan’s own ever-aggravating struggle.”

It is the first poem that kindled my appreciation of Moore’s poetry, though it isn’t necessarily characteristic of her writing. Felstiner presents a truncated version of the poem in the Celan biography, which includes the question mark after the title, surely as Celan would’ve also come to know the poem. Moore did not like the question mark

“Miss Moore told me that she did not want the question mark after the title. “In my ‘What Are Years’ the printers universally have insisted on putting a question mark after the title: ‘What Are Years?’ It’s not that at all! It’s a meditation: ‘What Are Years. What Are Years.’ You’re thinking about it, not asking anyone to come and answer you. But they won’t have it that way.”

It has been too long since I reread Moore, who may be underappreciated today, so I take this opportunity to quote her compelling poem, without the question mark.

What Are Years

What is our innocence,
what is our guilt? All are
naked, none is safe. And whence
is courage: the unanswered question,
the resolute doubt, —
dumbly calling, deafly listening—that
in misfortune, even death,
encourage others
and in its defeat, stirs
the soul to be strong? He
sees deep and is glad, who
accedes to mortality
and in his imprisonment rises
upon himself as
the sea in a chasm, struggling to be
free and unable to be,
in its surrendering
finds its continuing.
So he who strongly feels,
behaves. The very bird,
grown taller as he sings, steels
his form straight up. Though he is captive,
his mighty singing
says, satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
This is mortality,
this is eternity.

The Function of Art

Quote

Art restimulates inspirations and awakens sensibilities
that’s the function of art
A boy whenever he had a problem
he called this rock up out of the mud
he turned into a rock
he summoned a vision of quiet
The idea is independence and solitude
nothing religious about my retirement
religion from my point of view
it’s about this grass
The grass enjoyed it when the wind blew
It really enjoyed the wind leaning this way and that
So the grass thought the wind a great comfort
besides that it blows the clouds which make it rain
In fact we owe all our self being to the wind
We should tell the wind our gratitude
perhaps if we fall down and abase ourselves
We can get more — we can avoid suffering
That’s religion
solitude and independence for a free mind

— Agnes Martin, Writings