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.

 

Christa Wolf’s One Day a Year 2001-2011

Christa Wolf’s One Day a Year is without equal. With remarkable resolve, Wolf described one day, the twenty-seventh of September, for five decades. This latest edition completes what is available in English translation. The earlier volume is inexplicably out of print but available at a premium. We have translator Katy Derbyshire and Seagull Books to thank for completing the project with the years 2001-2011.

I feel at home within the fluid form of Christa Wolf’s diary of sorts, where you sense that she luxuriates in what feels like a personal composition without the tension of public display. Each twenty-seventh of September, Wolf builds texture from whatever happens in her day, combining her thoughts on weighty world events, private reading and what Virginia Woolf called the dailiness of inessential trivia.

This project situates the fabric of Wolf’s life at its centre. Her anxieties about her weight and ageing, the books she is reading her–now fully grown–children’s birthdays and illnesses, mingle indiscriminately with her thoughts on social and political causes, the latest American wars, and the minutiae of what husband Gerd is cooking for the evening meal.

For compassion and lucidity, Wolf’s One Day a Year bears comparison with similar works, which present daily life as an artistic construct: the diaries of Virginia Woolf, Pepys and André Gide. She succeeds in creating remarkable substance from the impalpable and evanescent fabric of daily life.

Man finds it easier to imitate

“Habit is everything, even in love,” says Vauvenargues, and you remember La Rochefoucauld’s maxim? “How many men would never have known love if they had never heard of love?” Are we not justified in asking: How many would never be jealous, if they did not hear jealousy spoken about, and had not persuaded themselves that it was imperative to be jealous?
Yes, convention is the great breeder of falsehood. How many are forced to play their life long a part strangely foreign to themselves? And how difficult it is to discern in ourselves a feeling not previously described, labelled, and present before us as a model! Man finds it easier to imitate everything than to invent anything. How many are content to live their lives warped by untruth, and find, none the less, in the very falsity of convention more comfort and less need for effort than in straightforward affirmation of their personal feelings! Such affirmation would require of them an effort of invention utterly beyond them.

Reading André Gide’s Dostoevsky I am reminded again to read Gide’s journals that I bought after reading of Sontag’s admiration. Like his subject, Gide possesses acute psychological insight.

Gide’s novel, Strait Is the Gate, which I read twice, is full of subtle truth. I still recall the mood the novel evoked in me. Incidentally, my edition of Strait Is the Gate was translated by Dorothy Bussy, sister of Lytton Strachey, whose letters to Gide are also rather amusing.

Barthes on Barthes

You sense in Barthes by Barthes the vertiginous pleasure that Roland Barthes found in reading himself like a text. Composed of fragments that dissect belief and the nature of writing, his illusionary autobiography is joyful [playful], often brilliant. Michael Wood quotes Barthes’ description of himself as ‘un sujet uncertain’. (Richard Howard’s translation, ‘a fellow of doubtful nature, whose every attribute is somehow challenged by its opposite’.) A thinker, a writer before his time, Barthes would have taken naturally to the form of the blog.

From the fragment to the journal

With the alibi of a pulverised discourse, a dissertation destroyed, one arrives at the regular practise of the fragment; then from the fragment one slips to the “journal.” At which point, is not the point of all this to entitle oneself to write a “journal”? Am I not justified in considering everything I have written as a clandestine and stubborn effort to bring light again, someday, quite freely, the theme of the Gidean “journal”? At the terminal horizon, perhaps quite simply the initial text (his very first text was concerned with Gide’s journal).

Strait is the Gate by André Gide

“Who was this Gide whose name [he] uttered one afternoon, almost furtively, and with a smile that seemed to ask forgiveness for his audacity?”

Introduced to the writing of André Gide by an early mentor, Simone de Beauvoir feasted on everything he wrote. This early Gide story takes its title from the King James bible, “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” Thrown by the blurb on the back cover of my Penguin Classics edition, which reads, “A devastating exploration of aestheticism taken to extremes,” I was half way through before I realised the typo: for ‘aestheticism,’ read ‘asceticism’.

Though there are nods toward modernism, Strait is the Gate is fundamentally a Romantic story of doomed love. Gide writes exquisitely; the suppressed agonising of the three primary characters, Jerome, Alissa and Juliette is visceral in its despair; the final chapter is almost unendurable.

Written in the first-person, Gide uses letters and a diary to present contrasting perspectives. During an uneasy walk after a long absence, Jerome narrates:

My head was aching so badly that I could not extract a single idea from it; to keep myself in countenance, or because I thought that the gesture might serve instead of words, I had taken Alissa’s hand, which she let me keep. Our emotion, the rapidity of our walk, and the awkwardness of our silence, sent the blood to our faces; I felt my temples throbbing; Alissa’s colour was unpleasantly heightened; and soon the discomfort of feeling the contact of our damp hands made us unclasp them and let them drop sadly to our sides.

Days later, when the couple have again parted, Alissa writes:

But when our lugubrious expedition to Orcher came to an end without a word, when, above all, our hands unclasped and fell apart so hopelessly, I thought my heart would have fainted within me for grief and pain. And what distressed me most was not so much that your hand let go of mine, but my feeling that if yours had not, mine would have done so, for my hand no longer felt happy in yours.

Alissa adds a postscript to this letter with the phrase, “[…] your love was above all intellectual, the beautiful tenacity of a tender and faithful mind.” I am much taken with the concept of an ‘intellectual love,’ so devastatingly accurate; I write it in my notebook and repeat it throughout the day.

Reading and Premeditation

There are book bloggers I admire for their unfaltering dedication to a premeditated sequence of reading. Though I enjoy planning my reading, impulse often overtakes my carefully nurtured plans. This post is a corrective for me, an attempt to continue to read with some premeditation.

In November I stated:

Next year I plan to complete my immersion into Saul Bellow’s novels, read my unread Virginia Woolf novels and more of her diaries and essays, and read more deeply of Kafka’s non fiction. Also on my list is to sample more deeply the works of Cynthia Ozick, Thomas Bernhard, Robert Walser, Marguerite Duras and Peter Handke. I’m musing with trying once again to sustain a reading of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. Somewhere in the back of my mind I’m also thinking it is time to reread Proust and Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, but we shall see. I hope also to discover a new writer or two from my Reading the Girls List.

In December I declared:

My plan next year is to read a lot more Woolf. I expect also to immerse myself into the literary output of Coetzee, Flaubert, Kafka and Bellow, each of whom, to different degrees, I am mildly obsessed with at present.

In January I asserted:

In my twenties and thirties I read (and in some cases understood) much more philosophy, and I intend to read more in this area this year, particularly keen to reread Kierkegaard. Of poetry, my ambition is to read Anne Carson more deeply and to tackle Wallace Stevens.

Further back, at the end of last summer I declared:

It is with Dangling Man I will start my Bellow immersion in the autumn. Inspired by Bibliographing’s Melville project, my intention is to read the fifteen novels, short stories, essay collection and Bellow’s memoir.

The year started as planned with some Kafka and Duras, but Simone de Beauvoir has commandeered my attention. Not just her writing but a posthumous influence that is leading me towards André Gide, Alain-Fournier, Henri Bergson and a rereading of Sartre. Along the way, I have adopted a desire to read all Nabokov’s novels and to tackle some Muriel Spark. There are also some choices of The Wolves that tempt me, starting with February’s Our Horses in Egyptby Rosalind Belben.