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.

An Attitude Towards Life

‘Greece for our purposes means not a race, but a culture, a language and literature, and still more an attitude towards life, which for us begins with Homer, and persists, with many changes but no breaks, till the closing of the Athenian lectures by Justinian.’ p.26

‘The spirit of man does not live only on tradition; it can draw direct from the fountain-head. We are dealing with a permanent type of human culture, which is rightly named after the Greeks, since it attained its chief glory in the literature and art of the Hellenic cities, but which cannot be separated from western civilisation as an alien importation.’ p. 28

‘A national character may be best exemplified in its rebels, a religion in its heretics. If Nietzsche was right in calling Plato a Christian before Christ, I do not therefore regard him as an unhellenic Greek. Rather, I trace back to him, and so to Greece, the religion and the political philosophy of the Christian Church, and the Christian type of mysticism.’ p. 29

‘The industrial revolution has generated a new type of barbarism, with no roots in the past. For the second time in the history of Western Europe, continuity is in danger of being lost. A generation is growing up, not uneducated, but educated in a system which has little connexion with European culture in its historical development. The Classics are not taught; the Bible is not taught; history is not taught to any effect. What is even more serious, there are no social traditions. The modern townsman is déraciné: he has forgotten the habits and sentiments of the village from which his forefathers came. An unnatural and unhealthy mode of life, cut off from the sweet and humanising influences of nature, has produced an unnatural and unhealthy mentality, to which we shall find no parallels in the past. Its chief characteristic is profound secularity or materialism.’ p.38

‘Quite logically the new spirit is in revolt against what it calls intellectualism, which means the dry light of reason to the problems of human life.’ p.38

Religion by William Inge. In: R.W. Livingstone. (Ed.). The Legacy of Greece. pp. 25-56.

A Short Shelf of Writers Writing on Writers

In Oranges and Peanuts for Sale, Eliot Weinberger writes, “The writing of writers tends to last longer than standard literary criticism, and not only because it is better written. Critics explain their subjects; in writer’s books, the subject is explaining the author.”

A short shelf of writers writing on writers that forever changed how I read those writers:

  1. Simone Weil’s The Iliad, or the Poem of Force
  2. Robert Duncan’s The H. D. Book
  3. André Gide’s Dostoevsky
  4. Colm Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop
  5. Hélène Cixous’ Reading with Clarice Lispector
  6. John Cowper Powys’ Dorothy Richardson
  7. Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson
  8. H. D.’s Tribute to Freud
  9. T. S. Eliot’s Dante
  10. Hélène Cixous’s Zero’s Neighbour: Sam Beckett
  11. Dorothy L. Sayers’ Papers on Dante

I’ve been particular with definition here, choosing only single study books written by writers  with an accomplished body of their own work. Michael Wood’s On Empson didn’t quite make the cut, nor any of Cynthia Ozick’s writing on Henry James, nor André Bernold’s delightfully odd memoir Beckett’s Friendship. It’s a very personal list; please let me know in the Comments section of any of your favourites.

 

The Voice of the Book

Quote

“A man who has read Book XXIV of the Iliad–the night meeting of Priam and Achilles–or the chapter in which Alyosha Karamazov kneels to the stars, who has read Montaigne’s chapter XX (Que philosopher c’est apprendre à mourir) and Hamlet’s use of it–and who is not altered, whose apprehension of his own life is unchanged, who does not, in some subtle yet radical manner, look on the room in which he moves, on those that knock at the door, differently–has read only with the blindness of physical sight. Can one read Anna Karenina or Proust without experiencing a new infirmity or occasion in the very core of one’s sexual feelings? To read well is to take great risks. It is to make vulnerable our identity, our self-possession.”

George Steiner, from the essay Humane Literacy in Language and Silence

Engaging with a Book

There are, I suppose, two ways to read a book. Perhaps many more. I tend to inhabit a book, giving rein to a flight of imagination that affords me the opportunity to see through the eyes of a character. Others, I imagine, spectate from afar like viewers at a puppet show.

I read Christa Wolf’s No Place on Earth twice recently, a kind of double reading on the first occasion, when I read it straight through and started again at the beginning and read it straight through again without a break. It is the sort of book that I’ll read five or six times, and still be ready to read again.

Observing a writer’s world through their eyes, or sometimes, just the eyes of a particular character, can be so ineffable, so very fertile, that I wish to prolong the encounter for as long as is possible. Another time, reading a book like Max Frisch’s Homo Faber, the view is unsettling, discordant even, which is fecund in a different way, but still worth drawing out, only to emerge after a double reading, anguished but purged

There are writers I wish to engage with to the greatest extent, seeking out all they write: stories, letters, diaries, everything. They offer a rare chance to disturb in some small but permanent way how I conceptualise the world. It is the very best form of escapism, a boundary crossing, a chance to step over a threshold from one self to the other, not just intellectually but on a deep, emotional level. These writers that I set out to read to completion disengage me from myself, silently and profoundly. Who would I be, I wonder, without the alchemical transformation caused by writers like Dante, Christa Wolf, Denton Welch, Virginia Woolf, Mathias Énard, Roberto Calasso, Doris Lessing, Samuel Beckett, Kate Zambreno, Homer.

It isn’t only fiction that provides voluptuous literary encounters. When reading nonfiction, without that distinction between a writer and a writer’s voice, it is possible to develop what feels uncannily like a friendship. Such friends are Gilbert Highet, Walter Kaufmann, Plato, Hélène Cixous, Marcus Aurelius, who have each influenced my life for the better. This intellectual endowment, this gift that is reading, is transformative. Sometimes enchanting, not always comfortable or easy, but that is the nature of friendship.