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.

Sunday Notes

One of the lessons learned late in my reading life is to think in terms of not writers but books. By instinct a collector, repeatedly have I read a fine book and immediately set about acquiring multiple earlier books by the same writer. With some, my fervour is rewarded, watching a writer’s work become more concentrated over time. Clarice Lispector or Samuel Beckett are both writers that are improved by being read chronologically. With others, Iris Murdoch comes to mind, the early works serve to emphasise recurring foibles that detract, for this reader, from the body of work. Would that I had stopped at The Italian Girl. This lesson applies doubly for poets and poems.

My urge for collection building is balanced by a mid-life desire to travel more lightly, so I continue to thin out my library, discarding old books I will not reread, or whimsical purchases for which a momentary fascination has diminished. This week, laid low by a mild edition of coronavirus, my first, I took the opportunity of self-isolation to gather up a few bags for delivery, when I may once again do so, to my local book dealer.

Between sleeping, working and reading, I did, of course, order a few books while confined to my quarters: Philip Mann’s The Dandy at Dusk, Maria Michela Sassi’s The Beginnings of Philosophy in Greece, Benjamin Lipscomb’s The Women Are Up to Something, and Clare Mac Cumhaill’s Metaphysical Animals. The latter two about Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley and Iris Murdoch who all matriculated at Oxford in the late 1930s, follows a review in the LRB; the other two inspired by being mentioned on Twitter.

I finished two books this week: rereading Albert Camus’s The Outsider in Sandra Smith’s translation, and Marguerite Duras’s The Garden Square, an older translation, showing its age, by Sonia Pitt-Rivers and Irina Morduch. Both sustained earlier readings, unlike Coetzee’s Age of Iron, which I reread in part. The latter reads well as a study of South Africa’s apartheid ideology and how such power structures shape identity. Though there is much fine writing, there are no shortage of weary metaphors: have our two hearts, our organs of love, been tied for this brief while by a cord of sound? Or make of this what you will: Huge bull-testicles pressing down on their wives, their children, pressing the spark out of them.

Sunday Notes

This week I abandoned seven paperback books, all non-fiction, by leaving them on a series of trains, to be found, I hope, by curious readers, diverting their reading down unexpected paths.

When acquiring books that are not novels I’m learning that I must read them soon after their acquisition. Such purchases are often driven by whimsy, perhaps sparked by a conversation on In Our Time or some article read in a journal or news piece, or by appreciating when reading a novel that I could understand better, for example, the Byzantine empire, or the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Such momentary fascinations often fade, leaving unread books in my library, a breadcrumb trail of once heated, now cooled passions.

In this unholy spirit I’ve been vacillating over Sarah Ruden’s translation of The Gospels. It might make a fine companion to a small shelf of modern, partly-read, lucid translations of the Bible.

I almost bought Rob Doyle’s Autobibliography, including it in a small pile to take to the tills before replacing it on the table. In it he writes, “When I think about Bolaño . . . invariably I find my way to the conclusion that what I’m primarily in it for is friendship. That may sound corny, but there is no word that better conveys how I experience my relationship to his books.” I understand the sentiment and could say the same of writers like Gabriel Josipovici, Anthony Rudolf, or Annie Ernaux.

The only book I read through this week is Ellis Sharp’s Lamees Najim. The tension of the title is resolved in the final sentence. The book is the antecedent to Sharp’s equally compelling Twenty-Twenty.

Sunday Notes

Finding a writer and book that you never knew existed is a pleasing serendipity. Steve Mitchelmore listed with his favourite books of 2021, Gabriel Josipovici’s 100 Days and Ellis Sharp’s Twenty-Twenty.

Steve’s description of Sharp’s book was compelling. I have some resistance to the term ‘autofiction’, but Twenty-Twenty sits in that mode of life-writing that acknowledges the impossible sincerity of autobiography, but invokes the genre at the same time as addressing its fictional nature. The constraint of both this and Josipovici’s book is time, to record daily for a year. Both struggle against the compulsion to write, but succeed in reshaping the autobiographical genre to their needs, in Sharp’s case to rail against the treatment of Palestinians, Zionism and the way in which the Labour Party dealt with the largely unproven accusations of anti-Semitism. Framing his polemic is an elusive listing of books read, films and television programmes watched, meals eaten, and daily appearances of his  daughter. Twenty-Twenty is as mesmerising as Jacques Roubaud’s The Great Fire of London, which also addresses the question of how language can be coerced to give an adequate expression of lived experience.

I’ve not returned to Caroline Alexander’s translation of The Iliad. Instead I started reading a collection of Ellis Sharp’s essays: Sharply Critical. I went to the bookshop this week to pick up a copy of Byung-Chul Han’s latest book, Hyperculture, Antonio Scurati’s M : Son of the Century, and Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey. In the post yesterday was a copy of George Eliot’s translation of Spinoza’s Ethics.

The picture at the top is a pastel by Chantal Joffe, which has been much in my mind this week.

Rereading and George Eliot

Inevitably, perhaps, distraction came during Book 3 of The Iliad. To admire dedicated rereaders, as I do, is insufficient inducement to compel me to turn to an old favourite again, not often enough to make me a Nabokovian good reader; “A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.” I shall settle for dilettante reader status for now and promise to try better. Ellis Sharp’s Twenty-Twenty kept whispering my name, linked in my mind to Gabriel Josipovici’s 100 Days, both of which Steve listed as his favourite books of last year. I’ve been dipping again into the latter, rereading with great pleasure.

This afternoon I went to a bookshop to buy George Eliot’s Scenes of Clerical Life. Before adopting her nom de plume, Eliot taught herself Latin and spent a decade translating Spinoza’s Ethics, the first translation into English, unfortunately not published in her lifetime. Only after completing this project did she turn to writing fiction, Scenes being her first published collection of stories.

In a letter to Dr. Payne in 1876 Eliot wrote, “My writing is simply a set of experiments in life—an endeavour to see what our thought and emotion may be capable of—what stores of motive. . . give promise of a better after which we may strive to keep hold of as something more sure than shifting theory.” I am fascinated to explore how Eliot’s ideas found expression in her fiction. Clare Carlisle, in an interview, argued that Eliot is a philosophical novelist. My plan is to trace Eliot’s thinking through the fiction. This will, of course, involve rereading Middlemarch as I progress chronologically, if I am able to resist the distractions of a library with over six-hundred unread books.