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.

Sunday Notes

Today is Epiphany II, the second Sunday after Epiphany. About a month ago I decided to listen to each Bach Cantata, as performed by John Eliot Gardiner, The Monteverdi Choir and The English Baroque Soloists. It isn’t a question of religion, (to which I answer ‘yes and no’ when asked), just a way to spend more time with my music collection.

The picture above is one of those currently exhibited at Victoria Miro, a selection of Paula Rego works that are rarely shown. I don’t think any were included in last year’s magnificent Tate Britain retrospective. Those in the Depression series are particularly remarkable.

Peter Bradshaw was right in his assessment of The Father, which I watched last night. It is deeply moving and more than a little scary to anyone closer to the end of life than the beginning. It brought to mind a line from a poem by Hayden Carruth: Words misremembered, ideas frayed like old silk. The economy of that last phrase has stayed with me long after I forgot the poem.

I’m reading The Iliad again, this time in a modern (2015) translation by Caroline Alexander. Is this the first translation of the poem in English by a woman? It is readable, elegant even without rhythmic regularity, but it will have to go far to substitute for Fagles as my favourite.  Alexander’s translation successfully competed for my attention over Clare Carlisle’s Spinoza’s Religion, her pious reading of Spinoza’s Ethics. I found her argument compelling and hope to return to her book later in the year.

Paul Griffiths’s The Tomb Guardians

Antiquity brings to mind a jigsaw puzzle, and the work of a writer, whether historian or novelist, is like the jigsaw enthusiast who must assemble the fragments to establish a complete picture. The analogy is quickly strained as there is neither a pre-established image to use as a guide, nor would each puzzle maker agree on the final picture. Antiquity is perhaps better perceived as a palimpsest in which each interpreter removes older surfaces to present a different picture.

In The Tomb Guardians, Paul Griffiths enters into a dialogue with German artist Bernhard Strigel’s renaissance paintings of the four Roman soldiers assigned to guard the rock-cut tomb of Jesus Christ. Jewish tradition forbade burial within a city’s walls, and the gospel of Matthew introduces the figures of the guards to perhaps counter any claims that Jesus’ body had been removed by his disciples.

It’s a commonplace story interpreted many years after the event in different ways in each of the gospels with added detail from the apocryphal gospels.The attraction of this book comes not from the familiar story, but the performance of the story. Griffiths gives voice to the guards and to an academic preparing a lecture about Strigel’s paintings, taking a familiar tale and revealing inspired variations of it, to elevate something commonplace into both a perfectly composed exploration of human frailty, and some of the finest art criticism I’ve encountered.