August: Contemporary English Language Books

Magnolias, the whetted irony of postmodern narrative, Socrates, and the pellucid veil of translated literature. Of all these I suffer from ambivalence.

I surround myself with books, about which I am also ambivalent. Sometimes I would like to own fewer books, but I keep buying and collecting books. What I like is the literature that happens to be contained in the books in the form of fiction, but also poetry, essays, religious and philosophical writing, and critical writing about art and literature.

According to the graphs and charts on LibraryThing, where I catalogue my books, almost sixty percent of the books in what I call my library is what Kate Briggs in This Little Art terms twice-written: translated literature.

I read a lot of literature in translation as I have a little French, but no German, or Norwegian, or Portuguese, or Romanian, no Spanish or Ancient Greek, and just a little Latin. Briggs writes: “When it comes to writing and reading translations the question of what is wholly normal or truly plausible, of what was really said or written gets suspended, slightly”. I allow translated literature to seduce me because I agree with Jon Fosse’s contention that, “uniquely literary qualities can often be translated . . . because literature is more linked to the sentence, both to the single sentence and to the text, the poetry collection, the novel, as a kind of mega-sentence, than to the word, and therefore more linked to rhythm than to sound”.

Recently, my ambivalence resurfaced. Should I make more effort to read literature with, as Virginia Woolf put it in her broadcast on Craftsmanship, the right words in the right order? Certain words and lines of Aeschylus, of Paul Celan and Friederike Mayröcker, have a definite hypnotic effect on me, but, of necessity, these are mediated by the labour of a translator? What about the contemporary? Instead of dwelling in murky, hundred-times explored worlds, what of the black squiggles of today?

August found me plunged deeply into books recently published in the English language. I read books by Deborah Levy, David Keenan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi, Susanna Clarke, Sam Riviere, Rachel Cusk, Gwendoline Riley, Damon Galgut, and Claire-Louise Bennett. Some of these were good books, with memorable atmospheres, and lines that set off interesting thought-trains. Some just passed the time, most were uninteresting to me. Only one, I would argue, contained literature, that is, held life within it, sufficient life to become an imperfect conduit to what feels like my soul.

Which one contains literature, you ask? I have little to say about it because, finally, what can I possibly say that can express a text to you? This book operates on multiple levels simultaneously, blurring distinctions, crossing boundaries. It is self-conscious, introspective and demonstrates an extreme awareness of the imperfection and power of words. If it can be said to be about anything, perhaps it is about privilege, or lack of it, and control, or the lack of it. Checkout 19 opens, “Later on we often had a book with us”. Between those words and its closing pages, a small bit of the writer’s relationship, conveyed in writing, to the enigmatic nature of life (and death) is revealed.

Thoughts on Reading Kate Briggs’ This Little Art

In an essay on Stendhal, Roland Barthes wrote, translated by Adam Thirlwell, of the marked difference between Stendhal’s journals and the richness of his novels: ‘What happened between the Travel Journal and The Charterhouse of Parma, is writing.’ Kate Briggs, in This Little Art asks a similar question about the idea of the art of translation and whether it would be more appropriate to consider the translator as a craftsperson or artisan, rather than an artist. Helen Lowe-Porter, after all, ‘didn’t write [The Magic Mountain], as [she] would no doubt have also been very ready to concede.’ Briggs quotes Lowe-Porter: ‘You see, the job is to some extent an artist job,’ adding ‘she refused to send a translation to the publisher until she felt as though she had written the book herself.’

My first reading of Mann’s The Magic Mountain was twelve years ago. I was late to Mann, overly influenced by Nabokov’s disdain, who considered Mann one of those ‘puffed-up writers’ that traded ‘in great ideas’. I read Helen Lowe-Porter’s translation over a couple of weeks, too quickly for I was skipping over some of the extended philosophical debates between Settembrini and Naphta. After this somewhat fierce first reading, unable to part company with the author’s voice, I immediately read the book again, taking more time to unpick not only the face offs between the liberal and the Marxist, but also the context for the rival revolutionary forces the two intellectuals represented. After following several rabbit holes, I had spent quarter of the year with Mann’s book and its related reading.

In my secondary reading around The Magic Mountain, I came across Timothy Buck’s virulent article in the TLS, in which he meticulously takes apart Lowe-Porter’s translation as ‘a pseudo-Mann’. In This Little Art, Kate Briggs reviews the debate that followed Buck’s critical evaluation. It’s worth pointing out that Buck does not advocate the later translation by John Woods, considering both debased versions of Mann’s German. Briggs approaches the debate about this, and to a lesser extent around the translation of André Gide’s novels, with less sanguine gloom, exploring the divergent conceptions of what translation should be and can be as a historical and cultural phenomenon.

As a primarily anglophone reader—my limited French will not stretch to Proust— I require a translator to meditate with The Magic Mountain and work in many other languages. Briggs quotes Barthes: ‘Of course I can read the great foreign novels translated into French, like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky or Don Quixote, etc,’ and adds: ‘All those novels? Yes, read them. I’ve read them. I have. Let me insist that I have read them.’

What I enjoyed most of This Little Art is the speculative voice. It gives space for me to pause in my reading and wonder if I could insist that I’ve read those books or just English translations of those books. I won’t truly be able to confidently insist that I’ve read Proust until I can read it in the French, nor The Magic Mountain in German, but if I waited to acquire those languages I’d be more like a friend who refuses to read translations, considering them to be lesser adaptions of the great novels. I am grateful to those that practise this little art for the compromises we must make to read life-changing foreign works of art.

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.

Divine Lizards: A Year of Reading

Ambitious readers must, despite carefully acquired insouciance, weigh up their stacks of dusty unread books with the time available before they return to dust themselves. They have surely roughly calculated a number, assuming an average lifespan and being blessed with continued cognitive faculties. It is quite possible that their groaning shelves are already a display of ambition over cold certainty, even without including in the calculation the additional volumes that will surely be acquired, surreptitiously, or with resigned and solemn endurance. Umberto Eco, with a library split over two homes, owned a total of fifty thousands books, necessary he deemed as a research library: “I don’t go to the bookshelves to choose a book to read. I go to the bookshelves to pick up a book I know I need in that moment.”

With non-fiction, deciding what to read is sometimes a reflection of a passing or enduring interest, perhaps in Kabbalah, or human brain evolution, or the Punic wars, often stimulated by something read in a novel or poem, something not quite understood. “Not understanding”, wrote Enrique Vila-Matas, can be “a door swinging open.”Non-fiction is often of the moment, requiring some fresh context and matures less well than poetry or fiction, unless tracing a line of thought through a particular discipline; an exception being theology or philosophy where the peak may well be behind us. Fiction and poetry are usually improved with a patina of age and time.

Poetry is more personal, arising from just the right admixture of form and subject matter, an integrity dedicated to what George Oppen described as “a determination to find the image, the thing encountered, the thing seen each day whose meaning has become the meaning and the colour of our lives.” I chose poets as carefully as I decide what to eat each day, certainly for aesthetic bliss, but also for fascination with the language and thoughts of others. Few intellectual exercises can be more invigorating that to watch the working of another human mind. In some senses, poetry and novels are the only way to see another person from within.

Fiction I choose with equal care, discarding occasionally those novels that, as Jenny Erpenbeck described, fail to “open a door for me into my own reflections.” Peter Schwenger wrote, “When narrative works, when a text is felt, it produces that complex metabolic reaction in us that we call a work’s ‘effect'” It might be that after a time, all is left of a novel in our memory is an atmosphere, or story-line, but as Jenny Erpenbeck wrote, “the most important things sink deeper in our memories, we internalise them, take them into our bodies, and they stay there, blind and mute.” We readers are minds inspired by the books we choose.

Often the books that make the deepest impression, slipping deeply into us with barely a sound, are not those expected to become, to borrow a term from Nietzsche, our divine lizards. There were other attempts over the years to read Gerald Murnane, at least three, but this year with Tamarisk Row I crossed the threshold to discover what might be the only living English language writer both advancing the form and doing something beautiful. With Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs and even more so with A Million Windows I found, against all expectations, a living writer that could slake my thirst for a sustained glance into a mind so very different to my own. Murnane writes as he does from necessity. His inimitable prose does not suffer the superfluous, stylistic postures that tarnish much of twenty-first century English language fiction. His vision is singular and haunts my thinking to the point that I see the world a little bit differently after reading these books. That is all I ask from fiction (and poetry).

This sense  of writing that touches the bases of life is how I emerged from reading Jeremy Cooper’s Ash Before Oak. I persisted past the perception that this was the diary of a solitary man living remotely, something like Roger Deakin’s Notes From Walnut Tree Farm, not a form or theme I dislike when I feel like vicarious escape, but something darker and more raw, closer to V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival. Unlike Murnane’s writing that compels me to read every word he wrote, I feel no urge to find out more about Cooper or his work, merely content to spend time with his book that captures so well the unsettling nature of an arrival coloured by memory. It might not add anything to literature, but it opened up a space for peace and contemplation.

This was a year when I read a lot more poetry: Auden, Larkin, that kind of thing, but it is Natalie Diaz’s collection in Postcolonial Love Poem that I read and kept on my study desk to reread almost daily. Diaz deals in elaborate symbolic imagery, but the writing is both exuberantly beautiful and concrete, reflecting not only her lived experience, but an intelligent portrayal of the human condition. She took me into alien realms and stimulated in no small way a transformed view of reality. I’m looking forward to reading her first collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec.

The essays in Jenny Erpenbeck’s Not a Novel: Collected Writings and Reflections are uneven and, as is the nature with a collected edition, repeat themselves a little, but this is nevertheless an insightful series of essays on her early life in East Germany—a place of rich and near endless fascination—and her experience of writing and reading. Erpenbeck comes across in her novels as a deeply serious writer of poetic and ethical integrity. These essays enrich the reading of her novels to the point I intend to reread them all chronologically after another reading of the pertinent essays.

It is unusual that I read more non-fiction and poetry than novels, but no real surprise in this uncommon year when I read nothing for five weeks, listening only to music for artistic sustenance. Peter Schwenger’s At the Borders of Sleep is an unconventional work of literary criticism. It addresses Borges’s statement that “literature is nothing more than a guided dream”. My experience of reading the book was sufficiently intense to trigger a hypnagogic vision during that liminal stage between being awake and falling off to sleep. It was also a reminder of the radical mystery of literature and its affects. It brought to mind a sentence of Gerald Murnane’s, “When he paused from following the text, or even when one or another book was far from his reach, even then he had access not only to narrated scenes and events but also to a far more extensive, fictional space, so to call it.”

However wretched this year has been, to finally have in my possession Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, his encyclopaedic collection of images collected to tell a story of how ideas and rituals persist over time, and how we humans fit into a cosmic context, is genuinely thrilling, a memorable event against a bleak backdrop. Georges Didi-Huberman’s Atlas, or the Anxious Gay Science not only provided a brilliant pathway into the Atlas, but gave me space to reflect on the interrelationship between philosophical thought and art history.

Beyond a contemplation of the books I read this year that left the deepest imprint, what is this post that has rambled on far too long? What am I? Am I a blogger again? I’ve no idea. I’ve written more this year than any other, mostly in my notebooks, but felt an need to write into the internet again.If you’ve read this far, please accept my thanks and wishes that the year ahead proves far less interesting than this year.

Paul Collier: The Future of Capitalism

With less than two weeks remaining before a general election that offers nothing but an intolerable choice between populists and ideologues, Paul Collier’s The Future of Capitalism (2018) offers some clear-headed diagnosis and ideas about how to reshape a derailed capitalism.

Jeff Taylor wrote, “The political spectrum may be linear, but it is not a straight line. It is shaped like a horseshoe.” Drift far enough left or right of centre and ideologies both gravitate to authoritarianism. Social democracy appears to be in existential crisis. Collier’s analysis of why we’ve lost our sense of obligation to others is lucid and crucially important.

The force of Collier’s book is in his synthesis of “moral philosophy, political economy, finance, economic geography, social psychology and social policy.” At a time when despair often seems the only possibility, his book offers some relief that there is a progressive and pragmatic path to healing the divisions in our social and economic fabric. The question is how long it will take for our political spectrum to swing back from extremes.