My Year in Reading: 2022

The voice remains. It somehow survives that cataclysmic leap from oral epic to self-consciousness fiction. The inimical voice of writers like Beckett, Woolf and Bernhard. This isn’t the first year I read Jon Fosse’s writing, but it is the first in which his voice became a tremendous presence.

I’ve read most of Fosse’s books available in English translation, saving Trilogy, and his writing seems to have that rare transcending quality called literature. In his essay, Anagoge Fosse writes, “Why do we never read with our attention turned towards the thing in literature which makes it so obvious that it both belongs to the world and does not belong to the world? That makes it incomprehensibly comprehensible? Which gives it meaning without meaning? Why don’t we read to see how the paradox of literature is a strange fusion of the extremely heavy and the extremely light, of the material and the spiritual?”

My most cherished literary discoveries encapsulate literature in precisely those terms: writers like Mayröcker, Llansol, Lispector and Murnane. This year, Fosse’s Septology, translated by Damion Searls and Melancholia II, translated by Eric Dickens, left the most significant impression, together with Thomas Bernhard’s Yes, translated by Ewald Osers and Friederike Mayröcker’s brutt, or The Sighing Gardens, translated by Roslyn Theobald.

Much of the summer was spent with Geoffrey Hill’s Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012. A planned chronological reading ended up with the repeated rereading of Tenebrae and For the Unfallen: Poems 1952-1958 before getting entangled, against my usual practice, with explicatory secondary texts. Hill is a highly lucid poet, particularly in his early days. These are poems to get to know throughout a lifetime, but the scholars help to build light.

For a few months, I carefully followed Iain McGilchrist’s prose in The Matter With Things, a book I shall undoubtedly reread, enhanced by my later reading of Geoffrey Hill and Jon Fosse. Perhaps these coincidents only seem so; the future’s roots are buried in the past.

Also notable this year was one of Steve Mitchelmore’s favourites of last year: Ellis Sharp’s mesmerising Twenty-Twenty, which records daily for a year his struggle against the compulsion to write and a return to Beckett’s Company, a reminder to slow down and look back more often.

 

Life, Life, Life!

We create the mood, intense and generalised, unaware of detail, but stressed by some regular, recurrent beat, whose natural expression is poetry, and that is the time to read poetry . . . when we are almost able to write it.

When I was at junior school in London, my English teacher lent me a illustrated volume of poems that he had brought back from a trip to the United States. I read the book cover to cover as though it was a single continuous piece of prose. I have no recollection of the title of the book, though its cover is still retained in memory. That it was American gave the book an exotic air that seems risible now, but was common at the time with the emergence of films and comics from that country.

I read that book under the covers by torchlight discovering Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll for the first time. Children read poetry effortlessly and, of course, six or so years after discovering that I loved to read poetry I began writing poems too. Most of those poems have mercifully disappeared with only a single, painfully self-conscious example from my teenage years still surviving.

Virginia Woolf was not a poet, but I can sympatthise with the sentiment quoted above. These last few years I’ve read poetry with the seriousness that attended my childhood reading of Lear and Carroll, though these days I’ll more likely be reading Geoffrey Hill, Friedrike Mayröcker or Anne Carson, rereading Gerard Manley Hopkins and Wordsworth, or scouring sixteenth and seventeenth century anthologies to chase down Geoffrey Hill references.

I resist the urge to write poems, but I almost feel able and I’m not certain that I’ll be able to hold out indefinitely. In 1945, Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson edited an anthology of their favourite poems, including the following piece in the July section:

Let us go, then, exploring
This summer morning
When all are adoring
The plum-blossom and the bee.
And humming and hawing
Let us ask of the starling
What he may think
On the brink
Of the dust-bin whence he picks
Among the sticks
Combings of scullion’s hair.
What’s life, we ask;
Life, Life, Life! cries the bird
As if he had heard

No mention is made in the book of the poem’s origin, but the editors offer a thank you to Mr. Leonard Woolf for permission to include a passage from the works of Virginia Woolf. Although the poem did not appear in print as a poem before 1945, a remarkably similar prose version opens Orlando, published in 1928.

Taste the Light

Quote

I was afraid the added light had made me lose my diffuse love. On my own I could certainly still be swept with enthusiasm, again and again, helped along by stillness, nature, pictures, books, gusting wind, as well as the roaring highway, and most powerfully by nothing at all, but I no longer took much interest in anything except certain thousand-year-old stone sculptures, two-thousand-year-old inscriptions, the tossing of branches, the gurgling of water, the arch of the sky, or at least I felt it was far too little interest, and far too infrequent.

—Peter Handke, My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay, translated by Krishna Winston

Sphere of Harmony

“we are dealing with living objects of art, they have a shadow, but this must be proven in the practice of language, I say”. Reading Friederike Mayröcker’s brutt, or The Sighing Gardens, translated by Roslyn Theobald. Every written word announces: I have thought this, an affirmation of what appears and disappears in thought. What, I often wonder, would be my character, without the affective shadow of literature?

Mayröcker—”so much to write, suddenly everything is multiplying in front of my inner eye, everything seems to have CAUGHT FIRE again”—is one of a few writers that leave me with the sense that there are things to be sought in literature that have yet to be described. Beckett, at his best, of course; Lispector; Llansol. The old chestnuts. It takes just a simple shift of perspective to stop looking for a pattern in the carpet and see all one has read, all one has become and will be, as the resonance of one vast composition. Or is this a symptom of my immersion in McGilchrist earlier this year?

so we bear witness,
Despite ourselves, to what is beyond us,
Each distant sphere of harmony forever
Poised, unanswerable.

Geoffrey Hill, Funeral Music

Sunday Notes

In 100 Days, Gabriel Josipovici, approaching his eightieth year, writes of trying to resist his innate sense of immortality, to be able to approach the inevitability of death with equanimity. It is, I suppose, the only way to contemplate the fact of death, our conspiracy to keep it unconscious a first and necessary line of defence.

Today, prompted by reading Karl One Knausgaard’s The Morning Star, I consulted the tables of life expectancy in England. Unless I get seriously ill or die in an accident I will experience roughly twenty-five more birthdays. Time enough maybe for another couple of thousand books though I do sometimes wonder what I miss when huddled in a fortress of literature. The Morning Star is infuriating and compelling in equal part. It ends with an extraordinary essay that gave me a sense that I should read the whole book again after carefully rereading the essay. I looked up some reviews and learnt that it may have been added as an afterthought and that The Morning Star is the first of a series.

In his novel, Knausgaard refers to a three-volume treatise on death, The Realm of the Dead: A World History, by Olav O. Aukrust. If it exists, it is not translated into English. It is a sufficiently compelling area of study for me to turn to online sources to order Philippe Aries’ The Hour of Our Death, recommended by Daniel, Thomas Laquer’s well-reviewed The Work of the Dead, and successfully look for my unread copy of Robert Pogue Harrison’s Dominion of the Dead (thanks, Steve).

This week I bought Bruce Kirmmse’s new translation of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling and his earlier translation of The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air, both also prompted by The Morning Star. In London I also picked up a copy of Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik, Carolyn Forché’s In the Lateness of the World (primarily for the poem Museum of Stones, but there are several others of interest), Peter Handke’s newly translated essay collection: Quiet Places, and a second-hand copy of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.