My Year in Reading: 2021

If any writer could be said to have exerted an influence on my reading this year, it would be Gabriel Josipovici. One influence does not preclude another and the claim might equally apply to Gerald Murnane or Friederike Mayröcker. The latter died, aged 96, this summer, but to share a time with such writers is a flaming beam during an otherwise wretched year. These are writers of subtlety, not stylists, nor meticulous crafters of the perfect sentence, though a very many of their sentences, to quote Nietzsche, turn into a hook, pulling something incomparable from out of the depths.  What can be more exhilarating than to follow the thoughts of such singular human minds?

Of all years, in this I read and abandoned more contemporary fiction than normal, an attempt to read against the grain. It is of no surprise that there are few novels first published today worth reading. That could describe any age. There is simply too much in most fiction: superfluous style, too many adjectives, too little space to open a door to ones own reflections. What is left when we finish a book is the mood or atmosphere, described so lucidly by Jenny Erpenbeck: the most important things sink deeper in our memories, we internalise them, take them into our bodies, and they stay there, blind and mute.

Sharing the interior lives of others through their literary creation arguably tells us more about the world than any other medium. Three novels this year offered the sharp light of an autumn afternoon, providing a glimpse of the inner spaces of their creators: Jacques Roubaud’s The Great Fire of London, Peter Weiss’s Leavetaking, and Gabriel Josipovici’s Moo Pak. Formally each could not be more different, but what they provide is a serious portrayal of the human condition in its infinite forms.

That description could equally apply to Friederike Mayröcker’s And I Shook Myself a Beloved, translated by Alexander Booth. It is a fiction too in the sense that all journeys into inner worlds are fictions, but it is primarily a recounting, in dark tones, of her relationship with life partner Ernst Jandl. It is a raw meditation, but lifted by its strange and unquestionable beauty.

Art restimulates inspirations and awakens sensibilities / that’s the function of art, wrote Agnes Martin in Writings. This collection of her letters, lectures and journals is exceptional and was fine company and, like David Sylvester’s Interviews with Francis Bacon, offers insight beyond the specifics of a particular artist or perspective.

This wasn’t particularly a year for poetry, but I discovered Derek Walcott’s White Egrets. These are quiet and conservative poems, with a vivid expression of personality. He has Larkin’s gift for evocative phrase-making and Heaney’s nuanced appreciation of landscape. The poems addressing his canonical artists: Uccello, El Greco, del Sarto, Blake, Van Gogh, and Constable, are particularly  memorable.

Next year I plan to draw in my reading, depth over breadth, thinking through even the minor works of my talismanic writers. There will possibly be more poetry, certainly less contemporary fiction, probably more Ancient Greek and Roman literature, but thankfully I’ve always been hopelessly inadequate at charting the serendipitous direction of my reading life.

Wakeful glimpse of the wonder

Quote

‘Celebration . . . is self-restraint, is attentiveness, is questioning, is meditating, is awaiting, is the step over into the more wakeful glimpse of the wonder – the wonder that a world is worlding around us at all, that there are beings rather than nothing, that things are and we ourselves are in their midst, that we ourselves are and yet barely know who we are, and barely know that we do not know all this.’

Martin Heidegger, quoted as the epigraph to the first chapter of Richard Polt’s Heidegger: an introduction.

I’m preparing for another attempt to read Being and Time, encouraged by Danyl McLauchlan’s Tranquility and Ruin. I read the latter out of curiosity, thinking I was reading against the grain, but instead found his writing on metaphysics, meditation, Heidegger and effective altruism thought provoking. It’s another rabbit hole, but not so different from the Andrei Bely-Nietzsche train of thought I was chasing before reading McLauchlan’s book.

A Meditation on the Experience of Reading

Since the beginning of 2020, when for two months I was unable to concentrate on any reading unrelated to the latest news—I think of it as my fallows: a temporary but necessary restorative hiatus—I’ve thought a great deal about the experience of reading and particularly the feelings that arise when reading successfully, that is so deeply that time’s flow is stemmed, so vividly that we forget that we are reading, but instead fully enter into a world conjured up somewhere between the mind of the writer and a reader.

What makes an impression when I open the first pages of the book in my hand is what essayist Philip Lopate describes as ‘a voice in the ear’. When encountering a writer for the first time, hearing this voice through the texture of sentences and paragraphs, getting a sense of the world unfolding in our imagination, following a line of thought, takes a little time. Sometimes, if fortunate, the words on the page quickly reveal the blast-furnace of brilliance, that open flame that is evident from the first pages of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. On other occasions, Sebald’s The Emigrants comes to mind, as does Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart, the whispering heat becomes evident as the world of the book reveals itself. Some such books become tutelary spirits taking us somewhere we wouldn’t have found alone, others become companions for years or decades.

Once satisfied that that I will allow a writer’s voice to remain in my mind, this isn’t always fully under my control—once I abandoned a book three times, only to be convinced of its disruptive magnificence on the fourth attempt—then reason can lower its guard and allow the world of the book to fully unfold. If the voice in the ear has wielded its key, the door opens to make clearer the atmosphere of a particular book. That elusive combination of voice and atmosphere, similar I think to the German Stimmung, is, for me, what remains long after I have forgotten particular sentences, plots and characters.

Literary atmosphere is not fact, but possibility, a sensory experience closely related to a third element that often defines how central a book will become to my reading life: the spirit of place (genius loci) or world created by a writer, distinctive in all the writers that make up my necklace of tutelary companions, particularly so in the writing of Gerald Murnane, Marguerite Duras, Maria Gabriela Llansol and Thomas Mann.

When I look at the shelves of those books that endure as a personal canon, it is not the characters, or the story, or a plot that unite them; each and all of these can get in the way of what makes a book come alive to me. Nor is it style, which if evident can be too much, or too short a thrill: literary fireworks that dazzle and disappear just as quickly.

That point of encounter between the writer and the reader, in the example of this amateur reader, that allows a book to become an imperfect conduit to what feels like my soul, or at least somewhere greater than just mind or body (and the body is always involved), is always some fine and subtle layering of the voice in the ear, the spirit of a conjured world and that invisible but authoritative atmosphere. When these layers are in perfect balance, those few indispensable books, to borrow from Augustine, are deeper in me than I am in me.

Thoughts on finishing Gerald Murnane’s A History of Books

It may well come as no surprise to anyone except me that the word exhilarating derives from the same roots as hilarity and hilarious. I had thought exhilarating to describe a frothier emotion than to make merry, to cheer or to gladden greatly (definitions provided by Skeat). It is a word that often comes to mind when I reflect on a certain type of reading experience, that brought about, for me, by the writing, for example, of Clarice Lispector and Gerald Murnane, two writers that share little else in common. To gladden greatly, on the other hand, seems no less a correct way to describe how I feel during and after reading the writing of these two transformative writers.

It is this transformative quality that makes me unable to read their books one after another, for besides being exhilarating, having one’s way of perceiving literature and the world changed to a small or significant degree is not an experience to be expended profusely. It is worthy of careful reflection. However many of their books I read, I am unable to see the world in the way that Lispector or Murnane describes their perception. This is part of why I devote so much of my life to reading. How else is it possible to share for a few moments in so different a perspective?

There are writers whose writing has plunged me into reading binges of weeks or months, when I am compelled to read their books, often chronologically, one after another, in some cases on multiple occasions over several years. These are, I suspect, the writers that come closest to sharing, to a lesser or greater degree, something of how I perceive the world. The experience of following their thoughts from sentence to sentence, book to book, is no less exhilarating at the time, but being more comprehensible is perhaps less taxing. These writers, the subject of my periodic reading binges, tend to be those that, many years later, I feel that I have, in some indefinable way, outgrown, or maybe just absorbed.

These other writers, whose books I feel a need to ration, spreading the rewards of  transformed perception over time, are ultimately what I crave, though their fertilising pleasures are in short supply.

Talismanic Identifications and Ghostly Demarcations

There was a time when I drifted between reading books of poetry and fiction without a thought for the writer; choosing what to read next— there was no enduringly impatient stack—was a function of where the endlessly reflective waves induced by the last book led me, or more prosaically, whatever caught my attention when browsing in my nearest bookshop.

Around my early twenties, a different whole seemed to fall into shape and I begun to pay attention to certain writers and, setting a pattern that has followed throughout my reading life, to read them to completion, seeing the inevitable minor works as a pathway to answering the thousand questions that arose around the major books.

Once I drew up a list of best books, what I termed a personal canon, but this would prove a shot-silk, a slippery list that refused stability. What, after all, is best? The Canon? Or those books that once read refused to be forgotten, crystal-carbon in memory? What of those evanescent books thought of as favourites, where little lingers beyond perhaps an atmosphere, or a single character?

Instead, in what I optimistically term my maturity, I choose writers over specific books, and my choices embody what Anthony Rudolf in Silent Conversations terms: “magical thinking, talismanic identifications and ghostly demarcations”. There is a distinction between those I read that will probably always be read whilst there are literate readers to be found, say Samuel Beckett, Anton Chekhov, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, James Joyce and Charles Baudelaire.

There are those I read closely because I am, for reasons not always fully understand, intrigued by the way they think or observe the world, for example Peter Handke, Gerald Murnane, Dorothy Richardson, George Oppen, Clarice Lispector, Christa Wolf, Mircea Cărtărescu and Enrique Vila-Matas. Time and the quick sands of taste will decide whether each find a home in posterity.

There is a far stranger category of writers I have only sampled, yet fascinate me deeply: Maurice Blanchot, Ricardo Piglia, Marguerite Duras, Hans Blumenberg, Laura Riding, Arno Schmidt are all examples, but I could name a dozen others. These interest me as much for the lived life as the work, though I always plan to explore the latter more deeply.

Reading books becomes a way to find the writer, or at least to see a glimpse of that writer’s mind. In doing so, I find that I am a part of all that I have read, that reading is a process to becoming. The more I contemplate the act of reading and of what I read, the stranger it seems. I understand less than I did when I began. Where once writing seemed certain and assured, as I moved toward the depthless prose of the writers that I came to consider part of my pantheon, the more I felt strangely included in that writer’s thought process.