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.

A Year End Post of Sorts

Mircea Cărtărescu’s Nostalgia is a world in miniature, and also, a people. In fervent minds such as Maria Gabriela Llansol’s and his, ideas come together from will to achievement to produce an extraordinarily rich vision, a higher synthesis in which contrasting ideas come forth to forge an incomparable unity. Like every brilliant work, Nostalgia and Llansol’s Geography of Rebels trilogy need nothing. The tone and flavour of their work makes allusions to art that has gone before, but they are uniquely their own. Made of nothing but words they transmit  a vital atmosphere that seems freshly formed from nothing.

Of this year’s reading, a good year in which I’ve read several fine works that will stay with me for a long time, it is these two writers that give me both the passionate excitement and the contemplative rapture I find only from literature. Both stem the flow of time and leave me refreshed to perceive the world with altered lens.

I am reading Nostalgia again, so I shall begin the new years’s reading as I end this one. The list below summarises the books that stayed with me from this year’s solitary and mediative pursuit of reading literature. In Jon Fosse I think I may also have found another literary companion to accompany me through the dark forest of the next decade. I’ve long awaited a translation of Bazlen’s Notes and it was all I hoped it would be.

Fanny Howe, The Wedding Dress
Hermann Broch, The Sleepwalkers (t. Willa and Edwin Muir)
Reading and re-reading Maria Gabriela Llansol’s trilogy (t. Audrey Young)
Ricardo Piglia, The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: Formative Years (t. Robert Croll)
Reading Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle end to end (t. Don Bartlett)
Moyra Davey, Moyra Davey
Roberto Bazlen, Notes Without a Text (t. Alex Andriesse)
Thomas Bernhard, The Loser (t. Jack Dawson)
Jon Fosse, An Angel Walks Through the Stage and Other Essays (t. May-Brit Akerholt)
Mircea Cărtărescu, Nostalgia (t. Julian Semilian)

A special thanks to Andrei, keeper of The Untranslated blog. It is through him that I discovered both Llansol and Cărtărescu and, of course, to the bold translators and publishers that interpret these remarkable texts into the English language.

All is Quiet

in his essay, Karl Ove Knausgaard captures concisely and perceptively the literary qualities of Thomas Bernhard, Michel Houellebecq, Jon Fosse and by extension his own writing; “the presence we feel has to do with a certain receptiveness, a certain alertness, a certain temperament, and what this opens up for us in the text. The strange thing about writing is that the self seems to let go, that what in our self-conception normally keeps the I together, becomes dissolved, the inner being reconfigurating in new and unfamiliar ways.”

I’ve yet to read Fosse’s fiction, but the essays that Knausgaard describes are collected in An Angel Walks Through the Stage and Other Essays (trans. May-Brit Akerholt) from Dalkey Archive. I require more time with the essays, but am fascinated with his singular way of looking at literature and art.

That it is influenced by Maurice Blanchot reminds me yet again to spend more time with his work, as what Fosse describes is close to what I seek and am fortunate to find in my literary touchstones: “Whereas telling connects with the social world, the narrative situation itself, and moreover comprises some element of entertainment, writing, Fosse seems to believe, connects with something else, with that part of our language which perhaps communicates only itself, like a stone or a crack in a wall.”

Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser

Yesterday’s blog post recording the fact that I’ve just read Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser was silly and pointless. I apologise for wasting anyone’s time. It’s symptomatic of my struggle to find a way to write about my reading life without adding to a profusion of largely valueless book reviews. My reading is helped by the foreknowledge that I may write something about what I am reading, even if that writing is confined to my private journal. That there still seems to be some interest in this blog encourages me to persevere to write in a public place.

In this 1992 Quartet Books edition of The Loser, a rewarding afterword by Mark Anderson is provided at the end, far more valuable than any introduction, which I tend not to read until after I’ve read a book anyway, if at all. Anderson describes how Bernhard’s fiction changed after writing the five volumes of his autobiography, projecting aspects of his self onto public figures like Wittgenstein, Mendelssohn and in the case of The Loser, Glenn Gould: ‘These later texts are all part of what might be termed Bernhard’s imaginary autobiography—his own life story rewritten according to the lives of his artistic and philosophical doubles.’

It is this tension that supplies some of the insistent pulse of this story, the coexistence of the autobiographical and the fictive, a narrator that is and is not the writer, voices that are both human and text simultaneously. The ambiguity of the narrator provides sufficient ironic detachment that the tirade is more comedic than serious. As this documentary reveals, little use is made of Glenn Gould’s actual biography, just sufficient to draw parallels with Bernhard’s own life. Our lives are only interesting when contrasted against another.

In his afterword, Anderson also points out that both Gould and Bernhard ‘shared a dislike for individualist art forms . . . based on progression, climax, and reconciliation.’ It is perhaps one of several reasons I am enchanted by The Loser—aside from a seemingly endless fascination with those drawn to reclusive existences—the apparently fugal structure that underpins Bernhard’s novel and the resistance of plot and conclusion.

Gould’s interpretations of Bach’s Art of the Fugue are a mainstay of my personal musical canon. If you share my fascination please read this lengthy, quite brilliant post, which argues strongly against applying a fugal metaphor to experience of the The Loser.

A Hopeless Search (Peter Weiss)

‘With Kafka everything was permeated by his terror of contact. His pain was in the intellectual sphere; he portrayed the battle of ideas, of conflicting feelings. He found himself on a hopeless search for the closeness of others, he dreamt of a community, a reprieve, a reconciliations and constantly he had before him the unattainable, the impossible,’

Peter Weiss, Leavetaking and Vanishing Point, p.246

With the news that an English translation of the second volume of Peter Weiss’s three-volume The Aesthetics of Resistance is finally in sight comes a personal reminder that I must make a further attempt to scale the first volume.

In preparation I’m reading Ian Hilton’s monograph, Peter Weiss: A Search for Affinities. It’s part of a small set I’ve started collecting of Oswald Woolf’s Modern German Authors series, which also include monographs on Ilse Aichinger, Peter Handke, Gottfried Benn and Johannes Bobrowski, all writers of interest.