Sunday Notes

This week I wrote into my current notebook something that Samuel Beckett is purported to have said in a 1961 interview with Tom Driver: “To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.” Beckett, Joyce, Woolf, each exemplified the search for a form that gestures to a reality that exists beyonds the limits of language. Are there contemporary writers that have an interest in questioning and transcending these boundaries?

Where is the fiction with something serious to say, that reveals what cannot be spoken, in a world of omnipresent data and the incessant chattering of ill-informed charlatans? I find assurance in some of the happy melancholy of Jon Fosse, Peter Handke, Gabriel Josipovici, Friederike Mayröcker, and Gerald Murnane, but I cannot help but think that finding new forms to accommodate the mess may no longer be taking place in books.

I’ve been immersed in Beckett, directly and through Andy Wimbush’s Still: Samuel Beckett’s Quietism. At these times I wonder why I stray too far away from my old chestnuts. I could happily spend the time I have available with my tutelary spirits, but for the old rogue of curiosity.

More time than worthwhile was spent reading multiple news sources to comprehend the situation in Ukraine. It serves merely to emphasise the death of investigative reporting and intelligent analysis. I read, with bored compulsion, half of John Calder’s The Garden of Eros, about the goings-on in the post-war Paris literary scene.

In the post this week: Wittgenstein’s Secret Diaries: Semiotic Writing in Cryptography by Dinda L. Gorlée, preparation perhaps for the publication of the first translation into English of Wittgenstein’s Private Notebooks: 1914-1916 later in the year.

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.

A Protective Escort from the Sidelines

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It had seemed to him that such a writing process was appropriate not merely to the particular subject matter but also to the times themselves. Didn’t the narrative forms of previous eras—their consistency, their gestures of conjuring up and mastering (strangers’ destinies), their claim to totality, as amateurish as it was naive—when employed in modern books strike him nowadays as mere bluster? Varied approximations, some minor, some major, and in permeable forms, instead of the standard imprisoning forms, were what he felt books should be now, precisely because of his most complete, intense, unifying experiences with objects: preserving distance, circumscribing; sketching in; flirting around—giving your subject a protective escort from the sidelines.

Peter Handke, The Jukebox, translated by Krishna Winston

Franz Kafka’s letters. . .

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“But I still can’t comprehend it. Why did I get up back then and, only half-awake, walk over to the bookshelves? Why did I pull out the volume with Franz Kafka’s letters, which revived the moment of my birth in me, and everything else? No, for as long as I can stand it I won’t read any more, for as long as even the shadow of a memory brushes me as I walk past the shelf with his books I won’t take out another volume, I won’t open another page. And this shadow will brush me for as long as I’m still breathing and see the books standing there. No, I won’t read any more. For as long as I’m still breathing, I won’t keep on reading. One thing or the other.”

Ilse Aichinger, Breathing as an Imposition

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.