Agamemnon

There is the sea and who shall drain it dry?
It breeds the purple stain, the dark red dye
       we use to color our garments,
costly as silver.
This house has an abundance. Thanks
      be to gods, no poverty here.
Oh I would have vowed the trampling of
      many cloths
if an oracle had ordered it, to ransom this
      man’s life.
For when the root is alive the leaves come
      back
and shade the house against white dogstar
      heat.
Your homecoming is warmth in winter.
Or when Zeus makes wine from bitter
      grapes
and coolness fills the house
as the master walks his halls,
righteous, perfect.
Zeus, Zeus, god of things perfect,
accomplish my prayers.
Concern yourself here.
Perfect this.

Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, (trans. Anne Carson from An Oresteia)

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2016

On the last winter solstice I posted some well-intentioned reading ideas for 2015. I always intend to read fewer new (to me) writers to concentrate on my old chestnuts and I closed gaps in my reading of Mann, Coetzee, Handke, Virginia Woolf and Sebald. Even the minor works of great writers display brilliance and this intention to read deeply and not broadly continues. I’m looking forward to new books from Anne Carson, Geoff Dyer and Jan Wilm’s Coetzee study.

In my year in reading post I wrote of the thrill of discovering Brophy, Welch and Espedal; each writer will undoubtedly make up some of what I read next year. I’m also looking forward to reading more Han Kang, Wolfgang Hilbig, Giorgio Agamben, Pascal Quignard and Ivan Vladislavic, all who produced books that moved me in some way this year.

Writers I don’t yet know but expect to sample in 2016 include Janice Lee, Jean Rhys, Werner Jaeger, Ivan Goncharov, Philippe Jaccottet, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Ingeborg Bachmann, Claude Cahun, Robert Gál, Yves Bonnefoy and Peter Weiss. There’ll be others but these are in my sights at the moment.

At the moment my mind is anchored in ancient Greece and Rome. My reading year is coming to an end with Giorgio Agamben’s and Monica Ferrando’s The Unspeakable Girl, a work of some power published by the brilliant Seagull Books, and Pascal Quignard’s Sex and Terror, which feels like the only book one could read after The Unspeakable Girl.

My inclination at the moment is to dwell in antiquity for some time, perhaps read Chapman’s Homer, which shaped Troilus and Cressida. I’ve acquired some Loebs and assorted ancient Greek plays that I may make time for over the Christmas break. Being overwhelmed by Troilus and Cressida convinces me that I must fill in some of my reading gaps in Shakespeare’s oeuvre.

The fault and glimpse of newness often leads me astray so expect distractions. If the year ahead holds surprises as great as Brigid Brophy, Denton Welch and Tomas Espedal I’ll be a fortunate reader.

Thanks for reading along in 2015 and for taking time to discuss books with me here, in person and on Twitter. I love little more than to discuss books so more conversation please!

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2015 (updated)

These are not reading resolutions. Writers promising literary gifts lead me astray too easily for these ideas to be fixed in any way.

This year I read widely covering fifty or so writers, concentrating my reading more deeply only twice on Houellebecq and Anne Carson’s work. In 2015 I’d like to read more deeply into the work of some of my favourite authors: alternative Dante and Homer translations (and Adam Nicholson’s The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters) ,  more Ballard’s short stories, always more Beckett, John Berger, Roberto Calasso, more Anne Carson, the new Tom McCarthy, Robert Musil’s diaries, Hélène Cixous, Coetzee, Jenny Diski, Dostoevsky, Marguerite Duras, Pierre Hadot, Houellebecq’s new one if translated next year, Kafka’s short stories, László Krasznahorkai, Clarice Lispector, Bourdieu, Doris Lessing, Nabokov, Alice Oswald, Robert Macfarlane, Nietzsche, Atiq Rahimi, WG Sebald, Thomas Mann, Christa Wolf and Virginia Woolf.

Beyond these ‘old chestnuts’ (as Beckett called his favourite authors) I’m looking forward to unexpected surprises within the pages of the following new books, either missed in 2014 or due in 2015, by authors I have not read before:

  1. Kirmin Uribe – Bilbao – New York – Bilbao
  2. Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric
  3. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor – Dust
  4. Ceridwen Dovey – Only the Animals
  5. Karin Wieland (trans. Shelley Frisch) – Dietrich & Riefenstahl: The dream of the new woman
  6. Can Xue – The Last Lover
  7. Anna Smaill – The Chimes
  8. Han Kang (trans. Deborah Smith) – The Vegetarian
  9. Paul Celan – Breathturn Into Timestead
  10. David Winters – Infinite Fictions: Essays on Literature and Theory

There are several other writers whose older works I’d like to get around to exploring sometime soon including Jens Bjørneboe, Martin Shaw, Ivan Illich, Eva Hoffman, Ivan Goncharov, David Abram, Ágota Kristóf, Rebecca Solnit, Tomas Espedal and Elfriede Jelinek.

As always, distractions are greater than my ambition, but if I manage to take in a decent selection of the above I’m expecting a good year in reading. There are several other titles I have my eye on but I’m mindful of your patience and Molloy’s admission that ‘if you set out to mention everything you would never be done.’

A Year in Reading: 2014

A sense of despondency settled on me as I totted up the number of books I completed this year. Sixty-four read to date in 2014, a hefty reduction from the eighty-five to a hundred I used to consider my yearly run-rate. I can’t even excuse myself by pointing to any especially taxing or lengthy books, though I am abandoning unsatisfying fiction earlier and earlier-there were at least a dozen I gave up within twenty pages.

Absorption with the short-term high of Twitter is the root of my distraction. Twitter has given me an opportunity to converse with, and in many cases meet, many serious readers and thinkers around the world, but how to balance that blessing with its qualities as a massively capacious time sink? One way or another I need to reduce the distraction.

Three writers dominated my reading this year: Michel Houellebecq, Anne Carson and Jenny Diski. Houellebecq, unlike the other two, is no great stylist but is the only fictional writer I know who so precisely captures in fiction what it is to live through this latest manifestation of capitalism, a neoliberalism whose influence reaches deep into notions of individualism and identity. Carson enables me to agree with Harold Bloom’s assessment of literary genius, as defined by a writer’s ability to widen and clarify our consciousness, and intensify our awareness-Carson has been augmenting my consciousness for some time, and I fully expect that to continue. Diski’s quietism and unsociability continually provides me with those prized moments when you come across a thought or feeling you’d thought particular to you-those moments when it feels like a hand has come out and taken yours.

Those writers aside, the books that impressed me this year, in the sense of becoming deeply fixed in my mind are the same books I’ve bought for friends, urging them zealously to read immediately. There are five that are each extraordinary in the own way: Grace Dane Mazur’s Hinges: Meditations of the Portals of the Imagination, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, Atiq Rahimi’s A Curse on Dostoevsky, Jonathan Gibbs’ Randall and Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams.

Last year I omitted the geeky statistics influenced by Twitter snark the year before, but fuck the cynics (I’m so bored of world-weary cynics). This year half of the books I’ve read are by women writers, not a deliberate practice but a pleasing one in the year of Badaude’s #readwomen2014 action. About 60% of the books I read are non-fiction, the same proportion are by either French or British writers. About a third of the fiction I read is translated, a proportion that seems to be consistent year on year.

This year I read a lot more work by writers I hadn’t read before, including two exceptional debuts by Catherine Lacey and Alice Furse: in  both cases I look forward to reading their follow-up books. I became acquainted with the work of Carole Maso and Elena Ferrante and intend to read their work more deeply (and, of course, the writers I mention above).

I also discovered the Dark Mountain Project, a network of thinkers who are shaping a cultural response to our ecological, political and social unravelling. Discovering others that so closely share my thoughts provides relief even when the line of thinking is overwhelmingly pessimistic. Via Dark Mountain I was lead to Nick Hunt’s Walking the Woods and the Water, a journey in the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor, which I am currently reading. I recommend it highly to anyone that has read Paddy Fermor’s books, it is every bit as evocative and beautifully written.

I don’t feel that I’ve been a consistent blogger this year (haven’t even written of many of the books I’ve mentioned above), so was very pleased to get name-checked by the Guardian book blog. I am thrilled that, despite my inconsistency, a couple of hundred readers a day drop by Time’s Flow Stemmed. Thank you very much for your interest.

Writing That Stops Itself

Binge-reading Anne Carson continues with Men in the Off Hours. I’ve just spent a fortnight with Eros the Bittersweet, reading it three times back to back and then a fourth to transcribe large passages into my notebook. It is simply one of the most sublime books I’ve read, and certainly the finest on the nature of desire and love, and how each intertwines with the act of reading and writing.

I keep thinking of how to write about Anne Carson’s work which I might attempt when I’ve finished this reading of her oeuvre, but my reverence gets in the way of any critical insight. Michelle mentioned Carson’s idea of writing/language that “stops itself” which is evident even in the weaker works like Autobiography of Red, with unexpected images like “He switched on the light. He was staring at the sweep hand of the electric clock / on the dresser. Its little dry hum ran over his nerves like a comb.”

But the writer who comes to mind most immediately whose language constantly disrupts thought is Derek Walcott. Last night I reread his dazzling Omeros, and wanted to share these seven exquisite lines (I can’t preserve the spacing on WordPress):

We watched the Major lift
his wife’s coffin hung with orchids , many she had found
in the blue smoke of Saltibus. Then Achilles saw the swift
pinned to the orchids, but it was the image of a swift

which Maud had sown into the silk draping her bier
and not only the African swift but all the horned island’s
birds, bitterns and herons, silently screeching there.

There are, so far, many poems in Carson’s Men in the Off Hours that stop me dead. I have to put the book down and inhabit the silence that her work conjures.

‘Oh It’s Only the Guardian’

We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist.

[Beckett, from Godot]

The day started badly. I was exhausted after staying up until 2:00am devouring 380 pages of The Red Army Faction, A Documentary History – Volume 1: Projectiles For the People, gripping stuff if you share my fascination for the subject. (For the moment, I’m back to binge reading Anne Carson.)

My friend Joanna posted on Twitter that Mark Thwaite wrote a Guardian article naming this blog as one of his top five literary blogs.

That made my day a hell of a lot better. I don’t make a habit of indulgent, self-congratulatory posts, but being name-checked on the Guardian books blog is big news for me.

So, hello new subscribers. You’ll get a sense of the rhythm and continuity of Time’s Flow Stemmed over time. Perhaps start with the About page. I don’t write book reviews as such, more a stream of writing, extended quotes and links about my wild readings.

Contact is Crisis

As members of human society, perhaps the most difficult task we face daily is that of touching one another–whether the touch is physical, moral, emotional, or imaginary. Contact is crisis. As the anthropologists say, “Every touch is a modified blow.” The difficulty presented by any instance of contact is that of violating a fixed boundary, transgressing a closed category where one does not belong.

Anne Carson
Putting Her in Her Place: Women, Dirt, and Desire
from Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek

Christa Wolf’s Cassandra

Cassandra, most beautiful daughter of Priam and Hecuba, Trojan royalty, is punished with the fate of seeing truthful prophecies and never being believed. Cassandra who foresaw not only the fall of Troy but also the means and time of her death (and that of her children) at the hands of vengeful Clytemnestra.

But this is evil, see!
Now once again the pain of grim, true prophecy
shivers my whirling brain in a storm of things foreseen.

Cassandra who long haunted my thoughts after first reading Aeschylus (first Richard Lattimore’s and then Anne Carson’s Agamemnon) for her divination of the fearful death of her children and herself.

Christa Wolf deconstructs the fall of Troy in Cassandra, using the epic as a framework to scrutinise violence, patriarchy and repression. Artfully written, Cassandra substitutes  the heroic, Homeric perspective of the Trojan War with a heroine’s perspective that allows one to read a familiar story from a revitalised critical direction. Though Wolf’s novel can be read as connecting ancient times with the contemporary, it wears its allegorical nature delicately, and with rational distribution of culpability across gender lines.

Once again I wish to thank flowerville for leading me to read Christa Wolf. Next I intend to read Wolf’s Patterns of Childhood, the author’s account of growing up in Nazi Germany.

Just Something To Go On With

A curious, very beautiful afterword follows Canicula di Anna in Anne Carson’s poetry and essay collection Plainwater. Carson’s closing words capture, with precision and economy, that spaciousness that opens out at the end of a powerful story.

It runs for two and a half pages, but not to spoil the effect if you intend to read Plainwater, here’s an appetizer:

After a story is told there are some moments of silence. Then words begin again. Because you would always like to know a little more. Not exactly more story. Not necessarily, on the other hand, an exegesis. Just something to go on with. After all, stories end but you have to proceed with the rest of the day. You have to shift your weight, raise your eyes, notice the sound of traffic again, maybe go out for cigarettes. A coldness begins to spread through you at the thought; a wish forms. Perhaps it is something about me you would like to know-not that you have any specific questions, but still, that would be better than nothing. I could pour you a glass of wine and go on talking about the sun still upon the mountains outside the window or my pet theory of adjectives or some shameful thing I have done in the past, and none of us would have to leave just yet.

On Rectification

Kafka liked to have his watch an hour and a half fast. Felice kept setting it right. Nonetheless for five years they almost married. He made a list of arguments for and against marriage, including inability to bear the assault of his own life (for) and the sight of the nightshirts laid out on his parents’ beds at 10.30 (against). Haemorrhage saved him. When advised not to speak by doctors in the sanatorium, he left glass sentences all over the floor. Felice, says one of them, had too much nakedness left in her.

Anne Carson
Short Talks

Anne Carson’s Antigonick

Antigonick is a strange book for Carson because, unlike Nox, or If Not, Winter, her translations of the complete fragments of Sappho, or Autobiography of Red, her luminous verse novel re-telling of the Greek myth of Geryon, to all of which Antigonick bears formal and thematic resemblances, it doesn’t fully open up the door to its source text for the reader. Instead, it demands prior knowledge of Antigone in order to really plumb the depths of the work. It’s not really a translation — it’s a re-imagining, what Carson’s Canadian contemporary Erin Moure calls a “transcreation,” with both text and images and the interplay between them transposing Sophocles’ language and themes. The problem is that the work comes alive in spectacular ways only when you put it next to a more traditional translation. (I used Robert Fagles’ with notes by Bernard Knox.) A classicist friend of mine commented that her undergraduates would find Antigonick a fascinating companion text to Sophocles’ play, and I bet that’s true, but I’m not sure it’s a strength. Antigonick strives to be a multi-dimensional artistic work, not a study of or a gloss on Antigone. This is the first book of Carson’s in which I feel her scholarly impulse barricades textual meanings. Usually it provides a generous way in.

Full Stop’s review of Anne Carson’s Antigonick precisely captures my sentiment.”Antigonick doesn’t ultimately work, but when you begin to give it the kind of scholarly reading it demands, you find it has moments of brilliance”.

A Year of Reading: 2011

I have read so many exceptional books this year. Samuel Beckett’s trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable) left me breathless, as did the first two volumes of Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, The Prime of Life). My most recurrent author was Geoff Dyer as I read and reread to complete his oeuvre to date (Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, The Missing of the SommeWorking the RoomParis, Trance and Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi), all works of great wit and sensitivity. And there were J. M. Coetzee’s essays (Inner Workings and Stranger Shores), both examples of criticism as works of art in their own right. I finally got around to Thomas Bernhard (Old Masters) and Peter Handke’s work (The Weight of the World and Across), every bit as intoxicating as I’d hoped. Anne Carson’s  translation of An Oresteia was memorable, and only confirmed my wonder for everything she does.

My surprising fiction discoveries (I am always happily surprised to enjoy a new author’s work) were Teju Cole’s exceptionally exquisite Open CityJ. M. Ledgard’s thrilling Submergence (thanks, Nicole), Vyacheslav Pyetsukh’s The New Moscow Philosophy (thanks Michelle) and Jenny Erpenbeck’s haunting Visitation.

Of the non-fiction, Masha Tupitsyn’s Laconia was charming and thought-provoking (to this day), Michael Levenson’s Modernism was the comprehensive history I was seeking. Stach’s Kafka biography leaves me starving for the next volume. My current book, Helen Small’s The Long Life is (so far) brilliant and a superb way to end the year.

I’m not able or willing to pick out a single favourite from either the fiction or non-fiction categories. I read a few books this year I loathed. Given the author is not living I will give Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels my coveted ‘I Wish I Could Get That Time Back Award’.

Geeky Statistics

  1. 40% of the eighty books I read were in translation (mostly from German), up from 30% last year.
  2. 18% of the books I read were written by women; I am disappointed this is exactly the same as last year.
  3. 52% of the books I read were written by living authors, pretty much the same as 2010.
  4. 58% of the books I read were fiction, up 14% from last year.

Other literary highlights of my year were attending John Berger’s angry and passionate reading of Bento’s Sketchbook and Geoff Dyer’s enlightening talk about Camus.

During 2011, with the help of readers, I compiled a list of female writers we should be reading and bibliographies of worthwhile secondary literature on the works of Kafka and Beckett.

Thanks to my book blogging friends, particularly Emily (Beckett, de Beauvoir) and Nicole (Goethe) with whom I shared reading explorations this year, and Frances whom I joined in a crazed attempt to read all 42 in Melville House’s Art of the Novella series, abandoning the attempt after thirteen novellas. I don’t participate in many read-a-longs but made an exception and had fun during German Literature month, organised by Caroline and Lizzy.

Anne Carson’s Translation of An Oresteia

Absent Presence 2004, by Ken Currie

Traditionalists beware. An Oresteia is not a fusty, complex translation of Aiskhylos’s (Aeschylus to most of us, but I’ll run with Carson’s version for consistency) trilogy. On another plane, Robert Fagles and Richmond Lattimore can be heard thunderously grumbling.

Carson’s adaptation takes Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, and matches it with Sophocle’s Elektra and Euripedes’s Orestes.  In doing so, she offers a very different reading of the trilogy that begins with Agamemnon’s return from the Trojan war and ends, surprisingly happily, with Apollo’s intervention to prevent a continuation of the tragic cycle of events. In a brief notes section, Carson quotes the director that persuaded her of the merits of this perspective:

I always think of these three tragedians as being associated with different times of a metaphoric day. Aiskhylos is dawnlike, with iconic ideas, images, and action emerging into the light of consciousness. Euripides presents a twilight where everything is susceptible to tricks of a fading light, where tonalities are hard to grasp, where one moment is an azure sunset, the next a starless night. Between them, Sophokles, under the glare of a noon sun that leaves nothing exposed.

With a limited background of Greek tragedy, I am not certain whether presenting an Oresteia combining the work of three playwrights is a fresh perspective, but it is remarkably potent.

Dramatic events aside, it is not possible to ignore Carson’s translation. Her language mutations are almost Joycean (“blackmouthing bitch”). Just occasionally I thought the translation into modern idiom went too far: the slave talking of “real bad shit happening” (though Carson qualifies this as “another quaint barbarian idiom”). That aside, the language is exhilarating, showing the continued importance and brilliance of these tragedies.

Inevitably, translations of this exuberance send me not only to Carson’s other Greek translations ( Euripides in Grief Lessons), but also to other Greek plays, even if I will have to settle for Lattimore’s less newfangled translations.

I recommend Emily’s detailed review of this translation.

A Ghost-Companion

I need a Ghost-Companion, seventh on Andrei Codrescu‘s list of ten tools of poetry in The Poetry Lesson. As the narrator explains to his “Introduction to Poetry Class”:

[A Ghost-Companion] is a poet, dead or alive from this big poetry book, whose last name begins with the same letter as yours. This is a poet that you will study all semester, read deeply, understand well, google till you’re satisfied, and call on when you feel some difficulty. Any difficulty. Your Ghost-Companion will be a great and generous soul, who will come to your aid not just for assignments, but also in other situations that neither you nor I can now imagine.

My needs are different. I don’t plan to write poetry anytime soon. I wrote plenty of adolescent angst-inspired poetry, and was sufficiently mortified to unearth one when clearing out some boxes recently. But I do want to extend my poetry reading beyond my favourites. Discovering Anne Carson’s work last year was thrilling. I need to discover a new poet, a Ghost-Companion.

Who to choose?

I abide by  Codrescu’s criteria, the narrator offers me, “Bachmann, Balestrini, Baraka, Beckett, Bei Dao, Bernstein, Berrigan, Blackburn, Brecht, Breton, Burroughs and more Bs than that. An embarrassment of riches.” Tempted by Brecht, scared of Burroughs, I remember spotting a Bei Dao book at the wonderful Nonsuch Book blog. Inspired by a moment’s serendipity I select Bei Dao. I have my Ghost-Companion.

Dry Season

First it’s the wind from home
the father like a bird flying
over a river of drowsy haze
suddenly changes course
but you’re already sunk in the fog

supposing memory wakes
like the night sky in an observatory
you clip your fingernails
close the door open the door
friends are hard to recognize

until letters from the old days
completely lose their shadows
at sunset you listen closely
to a new city
built by a string quartet

The Glass Essay

Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony & God is introduced modestly by Guy Davenport:

Poets distinguish themselves by the way they see. A dull poet is one who sees fashionably or blindly what he thinks poets see. The original poet sees with new eyes, or with imported vision (as with Eliot seeing like Laforgue or Pound like the Chinese). Anne Carson’s eyes are original.

Of the exceptional The Glass Essay Davenport goes on to say:

The test of poetry, however, is easy. Read “The Glass Essay”, a poem richer than most novels nowadays. See how its utter clarity of narration it weaves and conflates one theme with another, how it works in the Brontës as daimons to preside over the poem and to haunt it, how it tells two strong stories with Tolstoyan skill, how it reflects on its themes in subtle and surprising ways.