The True Fool

These Yale editions bring a simple joy. Glad to start the year off with Twelfth Night. I am squarely in the category of those who prefer to read Shakespeare in the book. The roars of laughter that spill over from those in an audience eager to signal that they understand the jokes are as irritating at a Shakespeare performance as they are at Beckett’s plays. As Virginia Woolf writes in her essay on Twelfth Night, there will be little in common between a performance of Malvolio and the fantastic, complex creature we have conjured ourselves.

From the Yale notes we get the following: ‘198 Like aqua-vite with a midwife There is no certain explanation of the phrase. Either midwives used distilled liquor to induce labour, or midwives by tradition drank excessively.’

My Year in Reading: 2022

The voice remains. It somehow survives that cataclysmic leap from oral epic to self-consciousness fiction. The inimical voice of writers like Beckett, Woolf and Bernhard. This isn’t the first year I read Jon Fosse’s writing, but it is the first in which his voice became a tremendous presence.

I’ve read most of Fosse’s books available in English translation, saving Trilogy, and his writing seems to have that rare transcending quality called literature. In his essay, Anagoge Fosse writes, “Why do we never read with our attention turned towards the thing in literature which makes it so obvious that it both belongs to the world and does not belong to the world? That makes it incomprehensibly comprehensible? Which gives it meaning without meaning? Why don’t we read to see how the paradox of literature is a strange fusion of the extremely heavy and the extremely light, of the material and the spiritual?”

My most cherished literary discoveries encapsulate literature in precisely those terms: writers like Mayröcker, Llansol, Lispector and Murnane. This year, Fosse’s Septology, translated by Damion Searls and Melancholia II, translated by Eric Dickens, left the most significant impression, together with Thomas Bernhard’s Yes, translated by Ewald Osers and Friederike Mayröcker’s brutt, or The Sighing Gardens, translated by Roslyn Theobald.

Much of the summer was spent with Geoffrey Hill’s Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012. A planned chronological reading ended up with the repeated rereading of Tenebrae and For the Unfallen: Poems 1952-1958 before getting entangled, against my usual practice, with explicatory secondary texts. Hill is a highly lucid poet, particularly in his early days. These are poems to get to know throughout a lifetime, but the scholars help to build light.

For a few months, I carefully followed Iain McGilchrist’s prose in The Matter With Things, a book I shall undoubtedly reread, enhanced by my later reading of Geoffrey Hill and Jon Fosse. Perhaps these coincidents only seem so; the future’s roots are buried in the past.

Also notable this year was one of Steve Mitchelmore’s favourites of last year: Ellis Sharp’s mesmerising Twenty-Twenty, which records daily for a year his struggle against the compulsion to write and a return to Beckett’s Company, a reminder to slow down and look back more often.

 

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.

Sphere of Harmony

“we are dealing with living objects of art, they have a shadow, but this must be proven in the practice of language, I say”. Reading Friederike Mayröcker’s brutt, or The Sighing Gardens, translated by Roslyn Theobald. Every written word announces: I have thought this, an affirmation of what appears and disappears in thought. What, I often wonder, would be my character, without the affective shadow of literature?

Mayröcker—”so much to write, suddenly everything is multiplying in front of my inner eye, everything seems to have CAUGHT FIRE again”—is one of a few writers that leave me with the sense that there are things to be sought in literature that have yet to be described. Beckett, at his best, of course; Lispector; Llansol. The old chestnuts. It takes just a simple shift of perspective to stop looking for a pattern in the carpet and see all one has read, all one has become and will be, as the resonance of one vast composition. Or is this a symptom of my immersion in McGilchrist earlier this year?

so we bear witness,
Despite ourselves, to what is beyond us,
Each distant sphere of harmony forever
Poised, unanswerable.

Geoffrey Hill, Funeral Music

Gasping for Air

Echoes of D. H. Lawrence’s Pansies, ‘Darkness submerges the stones’ in the twlight thick underdusk in apprehension of being submerged under one’s books. Peter Kien also appears, cocooned from others by his library. I’ve never been able to finish that novel, equally beguiled and repulsed. A shared thought that arrived during the first lockdown when I began packing up books, some to go to friends, others to my local secondhand bookshop, my library almost halved in volume over the last two and a half years. Not yet old but ageing, and wishing to carry less weight; my mind more likely to weave itself warmly into a cocoon of its own thoughts than require another’s associations.

Reading A Horse at Night, in which Amina Cain writes, “What is it that happens when a narrative allows us to look at an image longer than we are ‘supposed’ to?” Echoes from the evocation of how and why she reads. The network of lines that link two places on the map interest me less than the landscape around the plotline. Voice, images, sense of place, atmosphere. For me these are the echoes long after the memory of the chain is dissolved. The vigorously evoked image of the young lady pricking her finger with a needle is almost all that remains of Byron’s comic cantos. Mariana appears, possibly that shade of blue on the cover of A Horse at Night, or just because this book chimes so well with my sense of autumn, or Keats’, ‘They could not sit at meals but feel how well / It soothed each other to be the other by’. Amina Cain: ‘It means a different kind of peace when he is here with me. It is not pure solitude, but I am not, it turns out, a purist.’

When Paul Theroux visited Borges in his dark Maipú flat, he noted ‘prints by Piranesi and books, a collection of Everyman classics and shelves of poetry in no particular order, all battered and sprouting paper page markers, with “the look of having been read”‘. Borges’ library though was small, his memory carrying what seemed an infinite memory of books.