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.

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.

Sunday Notes

Todd Hido, Untitled #2431

Some weeks my reading ends up in unexpected places. I thought that I’d spend this week reading André Gide’s diaries of the period when Paris was under Nazi occupation. But I’ve been reading Byung-Chul Han. A couple of years ago I read The Burnout Society and last year, The Scent of Time (and would recommend both). Han I like because he diagnoses better than any contemporary thinker what it is to live in this age of hypercommunication and hyperactivity.

Add Michel Houellebecq’s fiction to the brew, with his identification of twenty-first century masculine bitterness, and you’ve got a decent set of windows to view the condition of our age. But I like Han better than Houellebecq. The latter’s reactionary nostalgia overshadows his understanding of the world to a great extent. In both cases I like to see the world through their eyes, especially when they don’t confirm my own perceptions. I’ve been reading Han’s snappily-titled Capitalism and the death drive, and The disappearance of rituals, the latter perhaps his strongest work since The Burnout Society.

A couple of additions this week: Steve Hanson’s A Shaken Bible and Complicities: British Poetry 1945-2007, purchase of the latter evidence of a further attempt to indirectly approach J.H. Prynne’s work, before reading an annotated edition of The Oval Window.

Sunday Notes

In May 1940, with the fall of France less than a month away, André Gide wrote in his journal, “The events are too serious; I have no further attention but for them.” There was, I think from time to time, a prolonged period when the world seemed less eventful, but that is more a reflection of the state of mind of the commentariat and where they choose to direct their attention.

I finished reading Andy Wimbush’s Still: Samuel Beckett’s Quietism. It is an unusually eloquent academic text, convincing in its reading of Beckett’s fiction, particularly of Murphy and How It Is. It serves equally as a study of the origins of Quietism and how Beckett moved in the direction of an ethical, non-solipsistic quietism in both his writing and thought.

Most of my subsequent reading this week was of Beckett’s early stories and poems. Beckett did not appear fully formed as a writer, and while it may be possible to detect faint intimations of the brilliance of his later writing, it is often buried beneath an affected sententiousness.

There is however a pleasure in tracing the early labours of a writer. This is why I so frequently feel compelled to acquire everything written by a favourite author. I have a tendency to see the complete works of a writer as forming a single body of work, and enjoy following chronologically a particular writer’s journey.

No acquisitions this week, but anticipating with pleasure the publication of Peter Handke’s collected essays, and a new translation (by Shelley Frisch) of Kafka’s aphorisms, edited by Reiner Stach. Both are listed for March publication, although the latter’s publisher page indicates later.

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.