A Well-stocked Head and a Better Stocked Library

Reading writers like Mathias Enard and Tomasi di Lampedusa is not only greatly entertaining but also cajoles me to read only the best books. Both writers wear their massive erudition lightly. Gilbert Highet, the Scottish-American classicist used the terrific phrase (to which I aspire, true to autodidactic form): “a well-stocked head and a better stocked library”.

I started this year with the intent of reading widely, dipping into the ocean of contemporary literature. For every Mathias Enard, I abandoned another dozen frightful books, none of which wasted my time but served to further teach me what to avoid. My literary taste remains omnivorous but I shall default to the late D. G. Myers advice: “Read no book before it is ten years old (in order not to be influenced by the buzz”. I shall of course occasionally, whimsically ignore that advice in the hope of discovering more writers like Mathias Enard and Rachel Cusk. Very, very occasionally the hyperbole is justified.

The best books are inexhaustible and capable of transforming, for a time, how we perceive the world. My reading life is ruled by serendipity, one book leading to another. Enard, for instance, prompts me to reread Annemarie Schwarzenbach, Edward Said and Claudio Magris, also to explore the work of Isabelle Eberhardt, Ernst Bloch, Georg Trakl, Sadegh Hedayat, Faris al-Shidyaq and Leopold Weiss.

For the time being though I’m taking a detour, one I take regularly, back to older books, to the hymns of Homer via Peter McDonald, and to a recent edition of Gilbert Highet’s The Classical Tradition: Greek & Roman Influences on Western Literature. This might then be a gateway to Werner Jaeger’s Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, translated also by Gilbert Highet.

Earthly Existence

“Perhaps my sense of reality is not very highly developed, perhaps I lack a sound and reassuring instinct for the solid facts of our earthly existence; I can’t always tell memories from dreams, and often mistake dreams, coming to life again in colours, smells, sudden associations, with the eerie secret certainty of a past life from which time and space divide me no differently and not better than a light sleep in the early hours.”

Annemarie Schwarzenbach, All the Roads Are Open. (trans. Isabel Fargo Cole)

A Bad Person

Through flowerville (I think, though I can no longer find the original reference) I discovered Annemarie Schwarzenbach’s work. I’ve been reading three books published by Seagull Books, drawn as much to Schwarzenbach as her writing. I do hope that Schwarzenbach’s letters find a good translator and publisher.

I’m having a run of Bohemians.

The following is from an Afterword to her Lyric Novella, though I think it is the travel diaries I prefer; she writes beautifully of landscape and skies. Though, to quote Wilde, the truth is rarely pure, and never simple, this excerpt strikes me as refreshingly truthful.

When she is lonely, she writes him a sort of love letter in which she categorically denies any possibility for loving a man: ‘Incidentally, you are so sure of yourself, so conceited in your hyper-criticism, so endlessly alone due to your knowledge. [ . . . ] For I also believe that you are a bad person. Weak, vain and wicked, like all men, because they do not have the same humility as we women do.’

Annemarie Schwarzenbach
Pariser Novelle II

Autumn Books

It is my favourite time of the year for book buying, when publishers release the highest volume of compelling books. Most of the books I buy during the year are older releases, filling gaps in my collection of the thirty or so writers I return to repeatedly (the ‘I Prefer’ list in my side-bar). Occasionally I am drawn in by a new writer on the scene (Teju Cole) or by newly translated writers. Here are some of the books I have pre-ordered and look forward to reading in the colder, darker months:

  1. The second volume of Samuel Beckett’s letters covering the war years and the period when he wrote The Trilogy.
  2. Impossible Objects – Interviews with the inspiring Simon Critchley, covering tragedy, poetry, humour and music.
  3. 1Q84 – The long-awaited Murakami which I won’t be reading until the noise has passed.
  4. Pascal Quignard’s Sex and Terror and The Roving Shadowsa writer endorsed by two great readers.
  5. All the Roads are Open and Lyric Novella by Annemarie Schwarzenbach. A new writer to me but both books sound deeply fascinating.
  6. Professor Andersen’s Night – Dag Solstad. I enjoyed Shyness and Dignity and the brilliant Novel 11, Book 18.
  7. Dukla – Andrzej Stasiuk (review).
  8. The Map and the Territory – Michel Houellebecq’s latest provocation, his books draw me in like a rubbernecker at an accident scene.
  9. Parallel Stories – Péter Nádas. Though I must read A Book of Memories (“The greatest novel written in our time, and one of the great books of the century.” Susan Sontag) first.