‘We have no models, we have only precursors’

It would be easy for this blog to become a whirlpool, rotating obsessively around a small handful of writers that, to my mind at least, carve out a highly individual niche; perhaps a series of whirlpools that interconnect only at the periphery, and in doing so twirl off creating other eddies and vortexes. That sounds like a description of my reading mind. Two writers I keep returning to over the last few weeks, at night particularly, trying to understand why these two have captured so much of my waking and dreaming attention.

What is it that draws close the writing of Mircea Cărtărescu and Maria Gabriela Llansol? They are both European writers in the broad sense that they call upon a common pool of themes, myths and visions. Their writing appears, from what is translated heroically into English, to be marked by a transgression of genre, seeking instead to dance in the spaces between realism, magical realism, poetry, essay and analysis. Both writers summon strange figures to an oneiric imaginary geography, slipping in and out of the dramatis personae that is above all a way of constructing a form of hermitic autobiography. One could argue that their novels’ narrative fabric exists primarily as a device for reflection. There is also the space in which their stories function, bound not by a common conception of time but spatially, an amazing world where time sags and slows, dissolving into seemingly bottomless holes.

Both write in dialogue with ancient sources (the Bible and Ovid came quickest to mind) and also a strange world of literature that explores metafiction and intertextuality, inevitably hearkening back to old touchstones like Borges, Kafka, the Woolf of Orlando, even Nietzsche, and to writers I tasted and disregarded like Pynchon and García Márquez.

[The title of this post is from Roberto Bazlen’s Notes Without a Text.]

Martin Hägglund’s This Life

“The brevity of my life is made salient by the forms of time to which I am recalled.”

“What I do and what I love can matter to me only because I understand myself as mortal.”

“The sense of finitude—the sense of the ultimate fragility of everything we care about—is at heart of what I call secular faith.”

“I call it secular faith because it is devoted to a form of life that is bounded by time.”

“I seek to show that any life worth living must be finite and requires secular faith.”

The “idea of secular life as empty or meaningless is itself a religious notion.”

The central thesis of Martin Hägglund’s This Life is summarised in his introduction. His book then labours to go beyond critical philosophy, developing his arguments through readings of the Bible, Buddhist philosophy, Greek and Roman Stoics, and writers like Augustine, Kierkegaard, Spinoza, Augustine, C. S. Lewis and Charles Taylor. In the most rewarding chapter, he reads a secular confession in Knausgaard’s My Struggle. Finally, he turns to Marx’s argument that renders spiritual freedom the essential attribute of human labour.

The book seems unnecessarily verbose, not to disguise weak reasoning, but an excessive use of circumlocution. I was also surprised that Feuerbach is missing from Hägglund’s pantheon of writers, as from what little I understand of this undervalued thinker, his is a highly elegant argument that dissolves religious essence into human existence, without finding, it necessary (a strength of Hägglund’s) for an aggressive tearing-down.

That said, Hägglund’s thesis is substantive and thought provoking. It succeeds in moving Knausgaard forward in my reading plans, and reminds me to reread Feuerbach, a thinker I read with great enjoyment in my twenties.

Here is a proper review of Hägglund’s book.

Knausgaard / Hägglund (Secular Faith)

“Only what slips through one’s fingers, only what is never expressed in words, has no thoughts, exists completely. That is the price of proximity: you don’t see it. Don’t know that it’s there. Then it is over, then you see it.”

– Karl Ove Knausgaard, Autumn

“I read such a secular confession in Karl One Knausgaard’s My Struggle, which can be seen as a contemporary response to Augustine. Knausgaard’s painstaking attention to a secular life places us in the midst of everyday existence. Like Augustine, he explores the care that binds us to others and how the experience of time cuts through every moment. But while Augustine seeks to turn us toward eternity, Knausgaard turns us back toward finite lives as the heart of everything that matters. The animating principle of his writing is one of attachment to finite life, which is all the more profound because it remains faithful to the ambivalence of any attachment. Devoted to secular life, we can be moved both to bliss and devastation, hope and despair, success and failure. Knausgaard, then, makes vivid what it means to keep faith in a life that is bound to die. This secular faith, I argue, opens the possibility for all passion and meaningful engagement.”

Martin Hägglund, This Life

I’ve just started reading Hägglund’s book. It lacks the militant atheist pyrotechnics of Dawkins and Hitchens, arguing instead for a stable concept of secular faith. Fascinating so far, and also lucid in his insight into Marx, of of Knausgaard’s project, developed in greater length in this essay. It nudges me to get back to Knausgaard soon.

Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography

Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography is an odd book. It does almost none of the things histories of literature do. It doesn’t start with Defoe. It doesn’t dissect texts in any conventional sense. Schmidt takes only passing interest in literary critics, preferring to learn about fiction from novelists. It took him twelve years to write The Novel, requiring him to read all the major and minor works referenced for the first time. Schmidt previously concerned himself with poetry rather than fiction. This is not an inward journey into Schmidt’s psyche, yet his voice is strong and distinctive. The book appears to have been written in an ecstatic trance of discovery, yielding as many surprises to the writer as for the reader. It is this quality that makes its thousand plus pages not only effortless but thrilling to read.

We read fiction for many qualities and the more I read the less I understand about why particular books appeal to individual readers: sometimes for style, or the characters, sometimes for insight or form or atmosphere, sometimes there is a perceptible but hard to describe force or tension that makes a story linger long after a book is shelved. Very occasionally all these factors come together to produce those major works that are passed down over time. This is the sociable aspect of fiction, often seen as a solitary pursuit, but few books live long that aren’t shared with friends in conversation or as gifts.

Reading nonfiction is different, although it can share characteristics with fiction, but sometimes what lives long after you complete a book is a sense of companionship, even friendship with a writer that inspires or influences your life. Marcus Aurelius wrote that, “when you have read, you carry away with you a memory of the man himself.”

Schmidt’s simple premise is that fiction is a living organism, with all novels related in some way to one another. As readers we all have a different reading life, starting perhaps with Tintin and progressing to Proust, with many stops and detours in between. As with our own reading lives, fiction goes through times of low and high energy, but intrinsic is the idea of an interchange between writers: without Cervantes and Sterne, Woolf or Joyce would not have written in the way they did. In many ways, Sterne is as contemporary as Woolf, so although Schmidt’s biography is broadly chronological, when necessary he plucks writers out of time in order to situate their work in the ocean of literature.

If you care about the nature and fate of fiction, then you cannot fail to be enriched by the reflection, humour and great subtlety of this line by line celebration of  novels. Schmidt stops his biography at the year 2000 and I can only hope he writes a sequel to bring his thoughts on fiction up to date, if only to keep company with his wonderfully sociable reading life.

 

Eliot, Schmidt: Sinking into Tranquility

It would be boring to say much about Middlemarch, acknowledged by so many as the most accomplished English-language novel of the nineteenth century. It affected me like a piece of fine music, in part making me happy, others sad, but also like, say, Beethoven’s late sonatas, I would find it difficult to adequately explain the magic of Middlemarch to someone. Its psychology is quite brilliant and Eliot may not be bettered at breathing individual life into her characters and their relationships with each other. But these things have been uttered before to the point of triteness.

The length and depth of Middlemarch, combined with the strange magic of Eliot’s prose gave me an immense tranquility, and I came to realise that this happens often when allowing myself to sink into very long novels.

It isn’t only books of fiction that have this power to disengage us from ourselves. My renewed enthusiasm for long works gave me the momentum to start Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography. At over a thousand pages it may appear forbidding but quickly one discovers it has no arid scholarliness, but is a refined and witty history of the novel in English. It has the effect of Montaigne or Marcus Aurelius. With no distinction between the writer and the writer’s voice, it is possible to feel a sort of intellectual rapport with Schmidt, not aways in agreement, but as with any affinity, a difference that is stretching.