Easter Sunday

Yesterday, a superb day, though already unpleasantly warm. For the second time I go to the Bonnard exhibition. This morning I found my notebook entry from 14 February 1998 about the last Bonnard exposition in London. I was more easily satisfied then. I find pleasure in the high-key broken colour palette, but unlike twenty years ago, it is now the gracefully decomposing still-lives I find most mesmerising.

Looking through my photographs of Maria Gabriela Llansol’s Lisbon library I spotted Stefan Zweig’s Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky book. I’ve read little of Zweig, deterred mostly by the scale of his oeuvre. Being a completist I have an irrational nervousness about being drawn to writers with monstrous bodies of work, also an idea that if he wrote so much, a lot of it must be mediocre. Surely? I read enough of the Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky book online to be compelled to reread Le Père Goriot (Dr. Krailsheimer’s ‘generally accurate’ translation) until 4:00 A.M. Devoted to Balzac in my twenties, and on my fourth or fifth reading of Goriot, it fascinates me how my reading of Balzac has changed since my youth; how much more real his creations seem now I’ve met such ambitious, venal people outside of literature.

My Year in Reading: 2018

This may seem an unyielding impression, but reflecting on my year’s reading is somewhat disheartening. Much of what I read this year amused, entertained and perhaps at the time even excited me. Little has stuck to the bone. It glistened and was gone. It isn’t that the writers I read lack skill or talent. Alive or dead, they serve the desires of the culture industry effectively. (The books I read are the tip of a much, much longer list of others I abandoned.) Nevertheless, more than most years I fell for the appeal of books as items of consumption.

It isn’t that I am incapable of appreciating popular culture, just that, in the limited time available, I wish to take art more seriously. It is a troubling time politically and too easy to use culture as palliative, rather than as the proverbial axe for the frozen sea inside, or to help to enrich perception and participate in the strange otherness of existence. As one of my favourite discoveries of the year wrote, “I have to say I never got over my shock that there is a world and it is living.” Nor me, and there is too little of life to waste too much time on mere entertainment.

Fanny Howe also wrote, “The struggle to foster a culture informed by art and literature was soon to be stifled by the military, scientific, and monetary complex. Some people knew this and found the loss unbearable, most didn’t notice.” Adorno would have agreed wholeheartedly. Next year I resolve to submit less to what is cosy and predictable. Easier written than lived up to in a political and social climate that feels like a headlong rush towards totalitarianism and environmental collapse.

That said, there were some books I read this year that inscribed the experience and condition of being human. Knowledge as being-formation, rather than reading for sensation. These are in order of impact on mind and spirit.

  1. Maria Gabriella Llansol, The Book of Communities (trans. Audrey Young). It is the first of a trilogy, published in English translation as a compilation.
  2. Fanny Howe, The Winter Sun and Nod. The first is non-fiction; the latter I have just finished and will read again immediately.
  3. J. M. Coetzee, The Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays of Jesus. I thought the first a better book, technically, but both were rewarding.
  4. V. S. Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival.
  5. George Eliot, Middlemarch. Flawed, but sufficiently thought provoking that I will read more Eliot.

What is left of 2018 will be spent reading the other novels in Fanny Howe’s five-novel compilation, Radical Love.

Thanks to Steve for compelling me towards The Enigma of Arrival, and to flowerville for shaping much of my reading over the years, this year particularly in the direction of Fanny Howe.

A Short Shelf of Writers Writing on Writers

In Oranges and Peanuts for Sale, Eliot Weinberger writes, “The writing of writers tends to last longer than standard literary criticism, and not only because it is better written. Critics explain their subjects; in writer’s books, the subject is explaining the author.”

A short shelf of writers writing on writers that forever changed how I read those writers:

  1. Simone Weil’s The Iliad, or the Poem of Force
  2. Robert Duncan’s The H. D. Book
  3. André Gide’s Dostoevsky
  4. Colm Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop
  5. Hélène Cixous’ Reading with Clarice Lispector
  6. John Cowper Powys’ Dorothy Richardson
  7. Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson
  8. H. D.’s Tribute to Freud
  9. T. S. Eliot’s Dante
  10. Hélène Cixous’s Zero’s Neighbour: Sam Beckett
  11. Dorothy L. Sayers’ Papers on Dante

I’ve been particular with definition here, choosing only single study books written by writers  with an accomplished body of their own work. Michael Wood’s On Empson didn’t quite make the cut, nor any of Cynthia Ozick’s writing on Henry James, nor André Bernold’s delightfully odd memoir Beckett’s Friendship. It’s a very personal list; please let me know in the Comments section of any of your favourites.

 

“degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation”

Described as a sequel to his memoir, My Bright Abyss, I shall be reading backwards, getting to the prequel after He Held Radical Light, which I’ve just finished reading three times, back to back.

Wiman is a poet wrestling with spiritual matters yet nothing to him is more central and worthy of attention than the raw facts of living. His optimistic thesis is that no one is spiritually so out of reach as to be forever removed from communication with things infinite and mystical.

“I’m usually suspicious of claims that privilege one generation’s experience, always of some form of suffering, over another’s. (Why do we never compare our joys or our relative capacities for experiencing joy?) Contemporary culture is awash with anxiety over the disease of anxiety, the endless onslaught of technology, and the diminishment of individual attention our electronic immersion entails. It’s a genuine problem, no question, one I feel myself, but it’s not as new or as dependent upon contemporary technology as we make it out to be. Way back in 1790, in his “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” Wordsworth decried the “degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation” against which his poetry–interior, meditative, focussed on common people and things–was trying to find an audience. The argument is more eloquent and sophisticated than we’re used to, but the heart of his critique would make a fine tweet.”

Christian Wiman, He Held Radical Light

Eliot, Schmidt: Sinking into Tranquility

It would be boring to say much about Middlemarch, acknowledged by so many as the most accomplished English-language novel of the nineteenth century. It affected me like a piece of fine music, in part making me happy, others sad, but also like, say, Beethoven’s late sonatas, I would find it difficult to adequately explain the magic of Middlemarch to someone. Its psychology is quite brilliant and Eliot may not be bettered at breathing individual life into her characters and their relationships with each other. But these things have been uttered before to the point of triteness.

The length and depth of Middlemarch, combined with the strange magic of Eliot’s prose gave me an immense tranquility, and I came to realise that this happens often when allowing myself to sink into very long novels.

It isn’t only books of fiction that have this power to disengage us from ourselves. My renewed enthusiasm for long works gave me the momentum to start Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography. At over a thousand pages it may appear forbidding but quickly one discovers it has no arid scholarliness, but is a refined and witty history of the novel in English. It has the effect of Montaigne or Marcus Aurelius. With no distinction between the writer and the writer’s voice, it is possible to feel a sort of intellectual rapport with Schmidt, not aways in agreement, but as with any affinity, a difference that is stretching.