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.

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2015 (updated)

These are not reading resolutions. Writers promising literary gifts lead me astray too easily for these ideas to be fixed in any way.

This year I read widely covering fifty or so writers, concentrating my reading more deeply only twice on Houellebecq and Anne Carson’s work. In 2015 I’d like to read more deeply into the work of some of my favourite authors: alternative Dante and Homer translations (and Adam Nicholson’s The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters) ,  more Ballard’s short stories, always more Beckett, John Berger, Roberto Calasso, more Anne Carson, the new Tom McCarthy, Robert Musil’s diaries, Hélène Cixous, Coetzee, Jenny Diski, Dostoevsky, Marguerite Duras, Pierre Hadot, Houellebecq’s new one if translated next year, Kafka’s short stories, László Krasznahorkai, Clarice Lispector, Bourdieu, Doris Lessing, Nabokov, Alice Oswald, Robert Macfarlane, Nietzsche, Atiq Rahimi, WG Sebald, Thomas Mann, Christa Wolf and Virginia Woolf.

Beyond these ‘old chestnuts’ (as Beckett called his favourite authors) I’m looking forward to unexpected surprises within the pages of the following new books, either missed in 2014 or due in 2015, by authors I have not read before:

  1. Kirmin Uribe – Bilbao – New York – Bilbao
  2. Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric
  3. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor – Dust
  4. Ceridwen Dovey – Only the Animals
  5. Karin Wieland (trans. Shelley Frisch) – Dietrich & Riefenstahl: The dream of the new woman
  6. Can Xue – The Last Lover
  7. Anna Smaill – The Chimes
  8. Han Kang (trans. Deborah Smith) – The Vegetarian
  9. Paul Celan – Breathturn Into Timestead
  10. David Winters – Infinite Fictions: Essays on Literature and Theory

There are several other writers whose older works I’d like to get around to exploring sometime soon including Jens Bjørneboe, Martin Shaw, Ivan Illich, Eva Hoffman, Ivan Goncharov, David Abram, Ágota Kristóf, Rebecca Solnit, Tomas Espedal and Elfriede Jelinek.

As always, distractions are greater than my ambition, but if I manage to take in a decent selection of the above I’m expecting a good year in reading. There are several other titles I have my eye on but I’m mindful of your patience and Molloy’s admission that ‘if you set out to mention everything you would never be done.’

Marlen Haushofer’s The Loft

What began almost too quietly opened up into an extraordinarily powerful story, driven by beautiful writing (translated by Amanda Prantera) and a compelling narrator. Plotless, comprising a series of memories and encounters, the simplicity belies a complex and psychologically compelling story that dissects an apparently functional family with devastating force. The narration is simple, words meticulously chosen, the story develops to show how the world appears to orient itself around the Other. Ending as simply as it began, without resolution, the novel is close as you can get to immaculate.

Haushofer, who Elfriede Jelinek cites as an influence, is better remembered for The Wall which I shall be reading next.

Literary Phantoms

Frequently after reading a book I am left with what I have come to think of as mental images, particular sentences that linger and freely associate with other thoughts. They hang around a while as vestiges of language, haunting echoes. Only, they aren’t really images. Not quite pictures, more shadowy impressions, phantoms of text that play incessantly on my mind for days, sometimes weeks.

Sentences from Elfriede Jelinke’s Her Not All Her have left a temporary (I hope) memory phantom. It is those that follow the opening line:

Your soul is peeping out of your body as though a work lay there inside you like a slumbering goddess, wanting to get out, even in her sleep. That’s how it seems to me at least. Things that peep forth often annoy people who want to be forthright themselves. This soul, then, has a nice stretch inside you, as though what it wanted was to become language but then never have anything to do with itself again.

In this text, Jelinek’s voice is interwoven with Robert Walser’s voice. The question Who speaks? is implicit throughout. We know that Walser spent the last thirty years of his life in a mental hospital. During that time he wrote almost nothing. Though suffering from depression Walser acted normally. When pressed by a visitor about whether he was writing he responded, ‘I’m not here to write, I’m here to be mad.’ It is tempting to romanticise Walser and his illness, to imagine that under that melancholy, misdiagnosed as schizophrenia, lay a definitive work, more wonderful even than the masterpieces Walser left. It is what I see in the sentences above. During those thirty years what does Walser think? What thoughts failed to be recorded, turned into language, converted into another masterpiece? Or where there no thoughts, just the dullness of depression interspersed with cocktails of drugs?