There are Monsters Ahead

Mostly unread fiction on these shelves, all monsters exceeding five-hundred pages; some philosophy, or philosophical anthropology in Blumenberg’s case. Tolstoy is missing as is my almost complete set of Heinemann’s Anthony Powell, and two huge Arno Schmidt editions. These are all in my future and the shelves that excite me most, rabbit-holes of discovery that hold in reserve so much promise and mystery.

There are a few novels missing that I’d like to read: William Gaddis’ The Recognitions, another attempt at Infinite Jest, Pynchon, Carlos Fuentes’ Terra Nostra, possibly Louis Armand’s The Combinations, and Cáo Xuěqín’s novel, Grossman’s Life and Fate, Lessing’s space fiction novels. Ever curious about Richardson’s Clarissa, but I don’t think I could sustain myself through its entirety.

‘We have no models, we have only precursors’

It would be easy for this blog to become a whirlpool, rotating obsessively around a small handful of writers that, to my mind at least, carve out a highly individual niche; perhaps a series of whirlpools that interconnect only at the periphery, and in doing so twirl off creating other eddies and vortexes. That sounds like a description of my reading mind. Two writers I keep returning to over the last few weeks, at night particularly, trying to understand why these two have captured so much of my waking and dreaming attention.

What is it that draws close the writing of Mircea Cărtărescu and Maria Gabriela Llansol? They are both European writers in the broad sense that they call upon a common pool of themes, myths and visions. Their writing appears, from what is translated heroically into English, to be marked by a transgression of genre, seeking instead to dance in the spaces between realism, magical realism, poetry, essay and analysis. Both writers summon strange figures to an oneiric imaginary geography, slipping in and out of the dramatis personae that is above all a way of constructing a form of hermitic autobiography. One could argue that their novels’ narrative fabric exists primarily as a device for reflection. There is also the space in which their stories function, bound not by a common conception of time but spatially, an amazing world where time sags and slows, dissolving into seemingly bottomless holes.

Both write in dialogue with ancient sources (the Bible and Ovid came quickest to mind) and also a strange world of literature that explores metafiction and intertextuality, inevitably hearkening back to old touchstones like Borges, Kafka, the Woolf of Orlando, even Nietzsche, and to writers I tasted and disregarded like Pynchon and García Márquez.

[The title of this post is from Roberto Bazlen’s Notes Without a Text.]

A Taste for Extravagant Writing

Moi, elle – Man Ray (1934)

In Nostalgia, Mircea Cărtărescu writes of ‘fear, the attraction of the unusual, chance, the taste for things extravagant’. It is this oneiric quality that I am drawn to in his and Maria Gabriela Llansol’s writing. Both engage in ambitious renewals of form that obliterate genre boundaries and build totalising stories that are monstrously beautiful.

Stories that operate at the threshold of reality and dreams are rooted in Dante, Kafka, Borges, surrealism and oddities like Woolf’s Orlando. Myths, dreams and memories are interwoven to lay a collective path between the brains of writer and reader. Proust employs a similar image in Swann’s Way: ‘All these memories . . . I could not discern between them—between my oldest, my instinctive memories, and those others, inspired more recently by a taste or “perfume,” and finally those which were actually the memories of another person from whom I had acquired them at second hand.’

I am reading Robert Alter’s beautiful translation of Job while awaiting a copy of Cărtărescu’s Blinding. There is also the distant prospect of Solenoid, currently being translated. Perhaps my appetite for cryptogrammic writing that affords a way to interrogate my subconscious is a sort of trapdoor from the despair of our political reality, and if that is so I will have great need of it in the years ahead.

‘Well, there you are! There you are, then?’

Quote

‘The celebrated David Hume, the great historian of England, who is known and esteemed for his writings, has not so much talent for [parlour games] as all our pretty women had settled that he had. . . . He had been cast for the part of a sultan sitting between two slaves, and employing all his eloquence to win their love. Finding them inexorable, he had to try to find out the reason of their resistance. He was placed upon a sofa between the two prettiest women in Paris; he looked at them fixedly, smote the pit of his stomach and his knees several times, and could find nothing to say but, “Well, young ladies; well, there you are then! Well, there you are! There you are, then?” He kept on saying this for a quarter of an hour, without being able to think of anything else. At last one of the young ladies got up and said impatiently: “Ah! I suspected as much; this man is good for nothing except to eat veal!” Since then he has been banished to the role of spectator, but iis none the less feted and flattered. . . . All the pretty women have taken possession of him; he goes to all the smart suppers, and no feast in complete without him. . . .’

Mémoires et Correspondance de Mme d’Épinay (Paris 1818), as recorded in Ernest Campbell Mossner’s The Life of David Hume

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.