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.

The Physical Pleasures of Dancing and Writing

Quote

Perhaps one reason why both [Virginia Woolf and T. S. Eliot] of them were able to go on writing so extraordinarily well was that, despite the views they held and the bundle of prejudices they, like all of us, carried with them, they remained close to the child and the adolescent in themselves, ever responsive to the physical pleasures of dancing and writing.

Gabriel Josipovici, Eliot in His Letters, from The Teller and the Tale

Things Happen

The Family, 1988 by Paula Rego

This weekend, finally, Paula Rego’s retrospective at the Tate Britain, the first time I’ve seen most of these extraordinary paintings outside of books. Spanning seven decades from the surreal to the austere, the experience was as powerful as seeing Goya’s black paintings in Madrid for the first time, the same feverish intensity. The same day, the first visit in almost two years to the Royal Opera House for Leos Janácek’s Jenůfa, also the first time I’ve seen and heard a live performance of the first opera I bought on CD when still a teenager (for reasons I no longer recall).

Asmik Grigorian as Jenůfa and Karita Mattila as Kostelnička in Claus Guth’s staging of Janáček’s opera at the Royal Opera House

Reading this weekend took the form of drifting between Virginia Woolf’s essays, Geoffrey Hill’s Now and Collected Poems, 1952-1992, Jacques Roubaud’s essays on poetry, and slowly rereading Charlotte Brontë’s Villette. I’m also continuing to languidly thin my library, aiming for a collection that is both smaller and more concentrated.

Ovid in the Third Reich

By Geoffrey Hill

non peccat, quaecumque potest peccasse negare,
solaque famosam culpa professa facit.

Amores, III, xiv

I love my work and my children. God
Is distant, difficult. Things happen.
Too near the ancient troughs of blood
Innocence is no earthly weapon.

I have learned one thing: not to look down
So much upon the damned. They, in their sphere,
Harmonize strangely with the divine
Love. I, in mine, celebrate the love-choir.

Dorothy Sayers’s Dante Essays (volumes 1 and 2)

For the most part thought-provoking essays (lectures) on Dante’s Comedy, which, relatively late, became a ruling passion of Dorothy Sayers’s life. There are few lay people today with the substrate of theological understanding to offer such a richly specific perspective, particularly of the Paradiso, which, thus far, resists my effort to read beyond the first three cantos. Neglected place-markers in the multiple translations of the Comedy in my library evidence previous distraction.

Sayers’s interest in the Comedy after reading Charles Williams’s The Figure of Beatrice extended, in the ultimate act of literary criticism, to her translation of all three books of the Comedy. Hers is a lively translation, enjoyably readable and lacking the archaisms that earlier translators seem unable to resist, however inappropriate a response to Dante’s Italian.

Across both volumes (there is a third that I haven’t read yet) the essays are inevitably uneven, but those with an interest in the Comedy will find much that is rich and stimulating in both books. They join a small library of books that offer fresh perspectives on this magnificently curious medieval treasure.

Seeing to the Bottom of the Vessel

“How . . . how can I speak from my core; there is nil. I have turned thirty-six and shall never have children. I am a shrivelled person, I have sucked myself dry; I am a figure of fun; an object for curiosity; an old maid; or I shall be, old; don’t suppose I don’t mind. I do mind.”

Rosalind Belben’s decidedly original novel contemplates the distance between aloneness and loneliness. Published in 1979 it offers a more conscious version of that sub-genre of the early twentieth century, the spinster novel, a rendering that is wholly interior and includes an extended exploration of sexual frustration.

In her diary, Virginia Woolf writes, “I have entered into a sanctuary; a nunnery; had a religious retreat; of great agony once; and always some terror; so afraid one is of loneliness; of seeing to the bottom of the vessel.” I know of no other novel that offers the reader a glimpse of the bottom of the vessel with such lucidness as Belben’s Dreaming of Dead People. It is wrapped in a particular atmosphere that conveys a sense of the existential aridity of isolation and loneliness, perhaps too familiar for some during this last terrible year.

It is a struggle to write through what Ilse Aichinger describes as the “undergrowth of banality” when thinking of such a stunningly alive yet deeply sad novel. Better perhaps to judge Belben’s nuances and pitch from an extended passage:

“I would laugh because I had come near enough to grasp that when all’s said and done – it isn’t said and done – you are beyond the point of caring about your books, or seeing the world first, or spending the rest of your money, or altering your will, or making a list of your treasures, or finding a beautiful landscape to die in, or fussing over your body and the redemption of your soul: you are flopped full length on your sofa, in your own room, gazing your last on the blur of your bookshelves – for the innocent reason that it happens to be the way you are facing; you are gone beyond the physical life; you are too near the fathomless bottom, dear nothing and nothing dear; you are not murmuring, even, howl, howl, howl, howl, howl, though you may be conscious of what is dead and what is alive. You may just write a letter to someone, sounding cheerful. No, that’s not true. Nothingness. And numbness. And blank, without either desolation or will.”