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.

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2018

A month shy of this blog’s anniversary and it strikes me how subtly but incessantly my reading tastes have morphed over these nine years. It is both a strength and weakness of relatively long-term blogging that one’s earlier inclinations and opinions are maintained for public viewing. As WordPress’ statistics show, readers frequently access earlier posts that now make me wince. Opinions, perceptions, comparisons are perpetually recast. They are also metamorphic. That is not to say today’s impressions are more discerning or refined, but there is little guarantee that the ‘this is’ of today will not change to the ‘this is not’ of next month.

Since starting the blog, I’ve unsystematically read hundreds of books. I am selfish about what I read, driven by serendipity. Where the books lead, I follow. Without checking the lists I keep, I’ve forgotten more of the books that I’ve read than I could recall, but they are nevertheless connected in some vast storehouse of memory, each book connected with the one preceding it and the one that followed. A book read nine years ago may spark a decision today to pull another book off my shelf today.

Next year, my reading will take a different tack. This might last for months. It might take all year, but I plan only to read one book for quite a long time. T. S. Eliot wrote, “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them; there is no third.” My inclination has always been towards Dante, but unlike Shakespeare (arguably), to read The Divine Comedy slowly, attentively and patiently, one needs to be willing for submersion in what is outside the text. So, one book but requiring one to read around, behind and between Dante’s strange poem.

This isn’t my first time making this journey. I’ve read Inferno several times, Purgatorio twice, but have yet to make my way to Paradiso. Dozens of other texts, stories and histories are alluded to within those 100 cantos. Many more were influenced by Dante’s sublime poem. I don’t know how long this project will last. Until I get bored or, more likely, get led down another rabbit hole.

Aside from several translations of Dante, my initial guides will be Virgil (naturally), Prue Shaw, Dorothy Sayers, Erich Auerbach, Graham Harman and Peter Hawkins.

I do intend to come up for air from time to time, with other plans to read more Jan Zwicky, Dorothy Richardson and Peter Handke during the year.

NB: Long term readers of this blog will know how fickle are my reading intentions.

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.

Pessimism Transformed (For We Must Go On)

“It’s Johnson, always Johnson, who is with me. And if I follow any tradition it is his.” Beckett. Quoted in Frank Doherty, Samuel Beckett

“If by excluding joy we could shut out grief, the scheme would deserve very serious attention,  but since however we may debar ourselves from happiness, misery will find its way at many inlets and the assaults of pain will force our regard, though we may withhold it from the invitations of pleasure, we may surely endeavour to raise Life above the middle point of apathy at one time, since it will necessarily sink below it at another.” Johnson, Rambler 47

“I am interested in the shape of ideas, even if I do not believe in them. There is a wonderful sentence in Augustine: I do wish I could remember the Latin. It is even finer in Latin than in English. ‘Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume, one of the thieves was damned.’ That sentence has a wonderful shape.” Beckett. Quoted in Frank Doherty, Samuel Beckett


Leopardi’s Pessimism

Gilbert Highet’s elegant account of Count Giacomo Leopardi urges me to make time for those notebooks awaiting my time and attention. Beckett also found Leopardi simpatico, describing himself in a letter to MacGreevy as “one who is interested in Leopardi and Proust rather than in Carducci and Barrès”, adding many years later that Leopardi “was a strong influence when I was young (his pessimism not his patriotism)”. Highet’s sentence rests on his phrase: “if properly understood and managed”.

“His closest links in classical literature are with Lucretius the Epicurean, who believed that creation and the life of man were a pure accident, having no significance beyond itself; that nature was neither kindly nor hostile to us, but indifferent; and that the only sensible purpose of living was to attain, through well-spaced and well-chosen pleasures and an intelligent understanding of the universe, a calm and reassured happiness. Like Lucretius, Leopardi is a materialist; like him he admires the charm of the Greek deities, although he knows that they have really no effective connexion with our world; like him he looks at human excitements and efforts with astonished pity, as we do at an ant-hill struck by a falling apple. But–here is the fundamental difference not only between Leopardi and Lucretius, but many modern poets and nearly all Greco-Roman poets–the conclusion that Leopardi draws is that life, because of its futility, is a cruel agent where death is welcome; and the conclusion of Lucretius is that life, if properly understood and managed, is still liveable. Even Greek tragedy does not mean that life is hopeless; but that, at its most terrible, it still contains nobility and beauty. Perhaps because of the sickness which afflicted both Leopardi’s body and his soul, he was never able to fight through to this truth. At least, not consciously. Yet, as an artist, he grasped it. His chief debt to classical poetry and his truest claim to equal the great lyric poets is that he sees his tragic subjects with sculptural clarity, and describes them with that combination of deep passion and perfect aesthetic control which e recognise as Greek.”