My Year in Reading: 2017

Seldom does a writer absorb as much of my year as Dorothy Richardson has done this year. Eight books into Pilgrimage, her thirteen book sequence of semi-autobiographical novels, and I took pause, as much to come up for air as for any other reason. It is mysterious the way a writer’s work slowly acquires urgency and at the right moment finds a sympathetic reader. What Richardson makes clear to me is the degree to which I am drawn to a writer’s personality as expressed through their work, not contextually, or even necessarily biographically, but through what Barthes described as “the hand that writes” or what I’d describe as their physical presence. (Odd perhaps to cite Barthes in this context but his work is often misread and, perversely, better understood-contextually-from his “biography”.)

Reading John Cowper Powys‘ expressive paean Dorothy M. Richardson and Gloria G. Fromm‘s more conventional Dorothy Richardson is pleasurable and useful background to Pilgrimage but by no means essential. Fromm is a good biographer, more balanced than Powys. She concludes her epilogue as follows: “Pilgrimage: many layered but single-voiced, flawed as art when judged by its highest standards but a creation rare and distinctive nevertheless”. This is right on the mark. I hesitate to recommend Pilgrimage as reading tastes are personal and Pilgrimage demands time and attentiveness. If you wish to immerse yourself for a prolonged time into the maturing consciousness of a brilliant, intractable, often unlikable woman, you may be Pilgrimage’s intended reader. Don’t give a thought to its demands as Richardson has space and enough artistry to teach you how to read her book.

My tendency with writers whose personalities I am drawn to is to read omnivorously, hoping, in time, to read everything they wrote: letters, fiction, memoirs, shopping lists. I am as interested in the weaker works as in the magnum opus. Friends sometimes ask of a writer they wish to explore, “Where should I begin?” With Christa Wolf, my response would be “wherever you like”. Her Cassandra and Medea are now old friends I revisit often. I read her last novel, City of Angels, for the first time. I read it twice this year and thinking of it now, I am tempted to do so for a third time. Wolf’s narrator, from the perspective of a working trip to Los Angeles reminisces on her relationship with her homeland, especially East Germany. It is heavily autobiographical and reads well as a companion piece to the extraordinary One Day a Year diaries, also read for the first time this year. Wolf’s struggles with anxieties and doubt, from her earliest memories of childhood in Nazi Germany, through her loss of faith in the East German project, and the sense of meaninglessness that came with reunification, is by turns heartbreaking and sustaining. What survives is her mordant humour, insight and bookishness despite the radical circumstances. I spent time this year reading and rereading Wolf; she is a writer that reaffirms the possibilities, through literature, of inter-human communication. Perhaps I should suggest starting with City of Angels. It has all that is essential of Christa Wolf.

Contemporary literature in any period tends toward mediocre. You have only to read Virginia Woolf‘s reviews of her contemporaries for a sense of that (I spent an enjoyable month this year with Woolf’s essays and reviews). For most of my reading I follow D. G. Myers’ 10-year rule, allowing posterity and serendipity to guide my reading. I did however this year discover Mathias Enard, reading all three of the novels translated by Charlotte Mandell. Each was brilliant in their own different ways, history-minded and cerebral, yet delicate and tender, delightfully out of tune with these barbaric times. When Kate Zambreno publishes a new book, it’s time to put others aside, and this year’s Book of Mutter was more than I had hoped for during its long gestation. A book about grief that never sinks into despair, yet reminds us that grief has nothing to teach.

My other discovery of the year was Jan Zwicky (Thanks Michelle and Des). The calm philosophical gaze she casts over Wittgenstein and his work in Wittgenstein Elegies and Lyric Philosophy took me by surprise. Zwicky takes as her starting point Wittgenstein’s statement that “Philosophy ought really to be written only as a form of poetry”. In Wittgenstein Elegies, Zwicky does just that as a series of poetic meditations on the texts of Wittgenstein and George Trakl. I enjoyed the time I spent with this collection, grappling with ideas of literary form, concepts of language, life and death. Lyric Philosophy develops Zwicky’s project further juxtaposing her own philosophical argument with Wittgenstein alongside quotations, some extended fragments and musical compositions from other philosophers and artists. The premise is that what is to be learnt from the text is more to be found in the spaces for contemplation in the spaces between the texts. There is clarity and beauty in equal measure, and I’m left with an appetite to explore Zwicky’s work more deeply but also to engage directly with Wittgenstein’s work, a task that before reading Zwicky I would have felt ill-equipped. Reading Thomas Bernhard‘s memoir Wittgenstein’s Nephew recently fuelled this interest, something I hope to pursue next year (myriad rabbit holes notwithstanding).

It’s been a good year of reading. I could easily ramble on about another dozen of the books I read this year. I expect to continue thinking about William Empson and his work, and spending time with Michael Hamburger‘s prose and poetry. I hope to read more of Joanna Walsh‘s stories while awaiting her novel. And while I had mixed feelings about Claire-Louise Bennett‘s debut, I’ve found myself thinking about it all year, and look forward to rereading sometime soon.

Thanks for following me down my various rabbit holes.

Christa Wolf’s One Day a Year 2001-2011

Christa Wolf’s One Day a Year is without equal. With remarkable resolve, Wolf described one day, the twenty-seventh of September, for five decades. This latest edition completes what is available in English translation. The earlier volume is inexplicably out of print but available at a premium. We have translator Katy Derbyshire and Seagull Books to thank for completing the project with the years 2001-2011.

I feel at home within the fluid form of Christa Wolf’s diary of sorts, where you sense that she luxuriates in what feels like a personal composition without the tension of public display. Each twenty-seventh of September, Wolf builds texture from whatever happens in her day, combining her thoughts on weighty world events, private reading and what Virginia Woolf called the dailiness of inessential trivia.

This project situates the fabric of Wolf’s life at its centre. Her anxieties about her weight and ageing, the books she is reading her–now fully grown–children’s birthdays and illnesses, mingle indiscriminately with her thoughts on social and political causes, the latest American wars, and the minutiae of what husband Gerd is cooking for the evening meal.

For compassion and lucidity, Wolf’s One Day a Year bears comparison with similar works, which present daily life as an artistic construct: the diaries of Virginia Woolf, Pepys and André Gide. She succeeds in creating remarkable substance from the impalpable and evanescent fabric of daily life.

Wittgenstein on Europe, America and Whistling Dixie

“I will say, posthumously, that Europe is the world’s sore affliction, that you in America who have taken the best that Europe has to offer while hoping to avoid the worst are, in your indigenously American phrase, ‘whistling Dixie.’ All your God-drenched thinking replicates the religious structures built out of the hallucinatory life of the ancient Near East by European clericalists, all your social frictions are the inheritance of colonialist slave-making economies of European businessmen, all your metaphysical conundrums were concocted for you by European intellectuals, and you have now come across the ocean in two world wars conceived by European politicians and so have installed in your republic just the militarist mind-state that has kept our cities burning during since the days of Hadrian.”

Christa Wolf, quoting Wittgenstein, from a preface in Doctorow’s City of God. I’m unable to find the source of this quotation. If you know, please let me know. I shall clearly have to read the Doctorow, which the NYT reviewed concluding, “The ideas are certainly there — the idea of New York, the idea of God, the idea of literature. But where is the novel?” If anything, that only increases its allure.

[Postscript: I’m reasonably sure that this is a fictional Wittgenstein quote.]

Christa Wolf: One Day a Year: 1960-2000

It might seem, at first appearance, a little daunting, this six hundred and eighteen page book that promises to recount in exacting detail One Day a Year for forty years, those between 1960 and 2000. Daunting, unless, of course, you are acquainted with the writing of Christa Wolf, for this will hardly be your first Wolf. If you’ve been fortunate  enough to read her Cassandra, Medea, or the first-rate City of Angels, you’ll already be looking forward to immersing yourself into this autobiography of sorts, of a writer of such high cultural seriousness as Wolf.

Aside from the fascination of following Wolf’s reluctant self-revelation over such an extended time, her book also provides the sublime backdrop of history as Wolf becomes ever more disillusioned with the communism of the German Democratic Republic, whilst retaining an unshakeable faith in the economic–if not humane–ideals of Marxian socialism.

Juxtaposed with the historical context, Wolf writes of her meals with husband ‘Gerd’ Wolf, the books she is reading, her literary friends and influences–Anna Seghers, Nelly Sachs, Günter Grass, Max Frisch and especially Heinrich Böll–and the unfolding lives–birthdays, marriages, divorces–of her daughters. Beneath the macro and micro history lies Wolf’s agonising struggle to escape the boundaries of her recurring depression, realising early the important metaphysical necessity of writing.

It is impossible to read One Day a Year without bringing to mind another writer’s veiled autobiographical works, that of her near-namesake Virginia Woolf. For both writers, writing was a therapeutic act, a way of transposing trauma into literature. Both found it difficult to write about their inner selves. As Woolf wrote so poignantly in The Waves, “But how to describe the world seen without a self? There are no words.”

I Insist Upon Mysteries

“Addendum, three days later: Interestingly enough, I “forgot” to mention an entire train of thought that occupied me on that day, which lies almost a week in the past. Surprising even to me, during the evening conversation among the four of us, I said that I actually did not believe that I could still call myself a Marxist. Not that I would not consider Marxist economic thought–above all with respect to its criticism of capitalism–to be correct and important. but that thought represents only a small segment of human life–just like politics, which has held us in its clutches for far too long. And, perhaps the most important thing: I doubt that the role the economy plays in the motivation of human deeds and misdeeds is as determining as Marx claims. They, the Marxists, concede themselves very little with human nature, which–even that has developed historically–works against them with enormous irrationalities that transcend their own economic interests. The sober economic calculation: if it would at least prevail! No, it probably lies within Marxism itself, as it has presented itself until now, that it could come down to this purely pragmatic economic doctrine and to this utilitarianism, from which not another spark can be struck and which yields nothing for art. I insist upon mysteries that cannot be unveiled by applying an economic law, and upon human autonomy that the individuals cannot surrender to a higher organisation with its claims of omnipotence, without destroying his or her own personality.”

Christa Wolf, One Day a Year (September 27, 1980) (trans. Lowell A. Bangerter)

Engaging with a Book

There are, I suppose, two ways to read a book. Perhaps many more. I tend to inhabit a book, giving rein to a flight of imagination that affords me the opportunity to see through the eyes of a character. Others, I imagine, spectate from afar like viewers at a puppet show.

I read Christa Wolf’s No Place on Earth twice recently, a kind of double reading on the first occasion, when I read it straight through and started again at the beginning and read it straight through again without a break. It is the sort of book that I’ll read five or six times, and still be ready to read again.

Observing a writer’s world through their eyes, or sometimes, just the eyes of a particular character, can be so ineffable, so very fertile, that I wish to prolong the encounter for as long as is possible. Another time, reading a book like Max Frisch’s Homo Faber, the view is unsettling, discordant even, which is fecund in a different way, but still worth drawing out, only to emerge after a double reading, anguished but purged

There are writers I wish to engage with to the greatest extent, seeking out all they write: stories, letters, diaries, everything. They offer a rare chance to disturb in some small but permanent way how I conceptualise the world. It is the very best form of escapism, a boundary crossing, a chance to step over a threshold from one self to the other, not just intellectually but on a deep, emotional level. These writers that I set out to read to completion disengage me from myself, silently and profoundly. Who would I be, I wonder, without the alchemical transformation caused by writers like Dante, Christa Wolf, Denton Welch, Virginia Woolf, Mathias Énard, Roberto Calasso, Doris Lessing, Samuel Beckett, Kate Zambreno, Homer.

It isn’t only fiction that provides voluptuous literary encounters. When reading nonfiction, without that distinction between a writer and a writer’s voice, it is possible to develop what feels uncannily like a friendship. Such friends are Gilbert Highet, Walter Kaufmann, Plato, Hélène Cixous, Marcus Aurelius, who have each influenced my life for the better. This intellectual endowment, this gift that is reading, is transformative. Sometimes enchanting, not always comfortable or easy, but that is the nature of friendship.

A Horrible Vision of the Future (1966)

“I elucidate my observation that there are people, an increasing number of people it seems to me, who resemble those sick people in the realm of normality: who keep their feelings and passions well tempered, never reach the verge of a real conflict, are able to swallow everything, if not process it, never know devotion or even moral steadfastness in love, nor see any reason or it . . .
Yes, he says, that is technology. It produces this human commodity, and we cultivate it–But to have to live among such people is a horrible vision of the future . . .–How so? You can still live among mentally ill people who still have all that. Besides, no hereditary biological mutations occur among these people, everything can be reclaimed in coming generations. If technology is not apathetically imitated, they way the pupil copies the teacher’s A, but if we play with it . . .”

Christa Wolf, One Day a Year (trans. Lowell A. Bangerter)

Christa Wolf, City of Angels

Cassandra, Medea. In Christa Wolf’s retelling of these old stories, there are no more heroes. Her project is ideological, the dismantling of myth to uncover the inherent manipulation. By groping her way into the past, Wolf provides a different way to look at our present situation.

In the earlier No Place on Earth, Wolf’s reference points are taking shape, and will be further developed in the two later works. Though political, she is much more than a mere polemicist, explicitly playing with a concept of memory beyond Socrates’ slab of wax, closer to the idea that memory is what makes perception possible, and that our interpretation of reality, based on our memories, is our principle source of wisdom.

In her last novel, City of Angels, these themes coalesce in a book that blurs all the traditional boundaries between reality and fiction. These are my favourite books, surprising and felt in equal measure. Wolf projects instances of her life onto a protagonist that is simultaneously subject and character. But none of that is what makes this novel so brilliant. It is rather the way we inhabit her protagonist’s mind, Wolf’s mind, as its exploration of its own subjectivity and recollection unfolds. As Brodsky wrote, “Evolution is not a species’/adjustment to a new environment but one’s memories/triumph over reality.”

On Guard Against Herself

“She knows too well the causes which can trigger in a woman some unconscious response to a man: mere self-absorption, the dread of an ignominious loneliness. The man, driven by egotism to think himself irresistible, has the knack of interpreting such signals, no matter how covert, as an open invitation. She must be on guard against herself, all the more so because she considers herself capable on an uncalculating and boundless self-surrender.”

Christa Wolf, No Place on Earth, (trans. Jan van Heurck)

Christas Wolf’s No Place on Earth

This No Place on Earth is whimsy, a dark artifice stage-managed by Christa Wolf, placing Romantic poet Karoline von Günderrode in a succession of frames with Romantic writer Heinrich von Kleist.

There is no evidence that the pair ever met, or engaged in the intoxicating, conversational interplay that Wolf conjures to comment on the patriarchal nature of early nineteenth-century Germany and on the anxiety of post-Goethe German writers of the time. It is, I suppose, an essay as much as a novel in so far as it resists conventional categories; an essay in the true sense of trying something out, testing a hypothesis. I read and then reread No Place on Earth, translated by Jan van Heurck, and found not a single note out of place. It is just shy of one hundred and twenty pages, but contains an immense intimacy, a scrutiny of our chances of vanquishing self-alienation.

Günderrode and Kleist wander away from the tea party, which is the stage set for their encounter, frustrated by the empty chatter of the other guests, and discover during their intense conversation the tantalising possibility that they are intellectual equals capable of recognising each other’s autonomy. “Sometimes,” writes Wolf, “I find it unendurable that nature has split the human being into man and woman.”

Early in No Place on Earth, Wolf writes, “She knows the place where she must drive home the dagger, a surgeon whom she jestingly asked about it showed her the spot, pressing it with his finger.” Suicide, that frequent Romantic release overshadows this novel, and though Wolf closes with a note of hope: “Simply go on, they think. We know what is coming,” it is towards nothing: in Günderrode’s case, by a dagger she carried all the time in her handbag; in Kleist’s case by a bullet.