Thoughts on Fanny Howe’s Nod

Waves Breaking against the Wind c.1840 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N02881

Still five days remaining, but Fanny Howe’s Nod might be a place to rest for the year. Maybe some poetry or philosophy to conclude. Some big books this year, Middlemarch, Schmidt’s The Novel, Anthony Rudolf’s Silent Conversations; each absorbed over a month. But it feels good to have read fewer books, to have read better and reflected more.

So pleased to have discovered Fanny Howe and Nod is a little special. Perhaps I’ll spend the remainder of the year reading it again. A third reading. I like to finish an extraordinary  book and reread it immediately, without the tension of reading for discovery, just for immersion in its depths. There is plenty of water in Nod, the sea one of its small cast of characters. There is also annihilating human cruelty, more intense than the story’s despair, deliberate cruelty of the sort that often only occurs within the protection of unconditional love, malignant cruelty that destroys self-love.

Yet Nod is not hope-less. It lacks the unredeemed and desperate cruelty of Ágota Kristóf’s trilogy, stories of such saturated excess it took years to almost forget. Nod‘s characters are not diabolical, merely human. Howe allows us to glimpse the rationale, to grasp the ethics, the desire that underpins the cruelty. For this is also a story steeped through with desire and longing, human loneliness taken to an almost infinite degree.

There is great subtlety in Howe’s work, whether in Nod or in the essays of The Winter Sun and The Needle’s Eye. Her roots as a poet are evident in the attentive, meticulous prose. I want to read everything.

Anthony Rudolf’s Silent Conversations

What is evident from the first pages of Anthony Rudolf’s delightful book on the thrills of reading, published by Seagull Books in 2013, is the writer’s generosity, wit and the joy and solace he finds in reading and writing.

Born in 1942, Rudolf faces mortality’s challenge to any passionate but elderly reader of choosing which books to read and reread. As well as reckoning with the matter of finality, Rudolf confesses with some regret a lifetime of being easily sidetracked, Of being a serial “digressionary”, living, as William Hazlitt confessed, “in a world of contemplation, and not of action.”

As a teenager, and in my early twenties, I read a few books well. If moved by a novel, I thought little of reading it four times in a year. I read more poetry than fiction, and devoted a lot of my reading time to history and science. These days I spend less time reading poetry than I’d like, more time on fiction, and have little regrets about reading much less science and history. Assuming many things, including a typical life expectancy of this country, I am exactly halfway through my serious reading life of 80-100 books per year. Mortality, in this sense, is a good thing. The constant awareness that time is limited forces me to chose to read only what has the potential to be impactful.

Rudolf states a definite preference for Hazlitt over his contemporary Charles Lamb, contrasting Hazlitt’s literary style with Lamb’s more journalistic approach. I share his partiality, but cannot help but see similarities between Rudolf and Lamb, not stylistically, but in their leisurely discursiveness and the exploratory nature of the writing.

Silent Pleasures will appeal in most part to readers that enjoy Anthony Rudolf’s voice. Only those that discover in Rudolf a tutelary spirit will persist with its wonderfully ‘baggy’ 748 pages (though 150 of those pages are the bibliography). It contrasts superbly with Michael Schmidt’s The Novel, an altogether more formal, though no less delightful reading adventure. Silent Pleasures is more autobiographical, a series of windows not only on Rudolf the reader and book hoarder (he is quick to make the distinction between hoarding and collecting), but also on his life as a publisher, poet and literary insider.

For me, the pleasure is not only to be gained from Rudolf’s elegant and sensitive voice, but also to the degree our reading tastes and literary touchstones converge. Reading Silent Voices felt like having an unrestricted rummage around a great reader’s library. I would happily spend the rest of my reading days exploring his selections.

Sunday Preoccupations

It isn’t often I’ll decide to buy a book based on a cover, but my purchase of Anthony Rudolf’s European Hours was inspired by Paula Rego’s magnificent 1977 painting. Subsequently I learnt that Rudolf is Rego’s companion and her main male model. His autobiographical Silent Conversations looks also particularly desirable.

The other two I picked up on the basis of TLS reviews, intending to make time for both this summer.

Annie Ernaux’s The Years, though I’m not yet halfway through, seems truly brilliant. The publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions term it a collective autobiography of Ernaux’s generation. I’m not sure that captures her project fully. It seems more an act of memory, not as exercised through one individual, but an exploration of how memories are shared and transmitted within and by the interaction between multiple individuals of different generations. As Paul Ricoeur put it in his Memory, History, Forgetting (trans. Kathleen Blaney and David Pellauer), “no one ever remembers alone”. It is only through collective memory that we are able to remember individually. I will undoubtedly revise these early thoughts as I read slowly through this remarkable book.

Those serendipitous connections that lead me from book to book: the Ernaux is translated by Alison Strayer, a childhood friend and reading companion of an old favourite photographer and writer Moyra Davey.