Our Beloved Codex

“We may not see it, as Dante did, in perfect order, gathered by love into one volume, but we do, living as reading, like to think of it as a place where we can travel back and forth at will, divining congruences, conjunctions, opposites; extracting secrets from its secrecy, making understood relations, an appropriate algebra.”

Frank Kermode, The Genesis of Secrecy

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.

Futuristic Howling

Woodcut from A 1564 edition of La Divina Comedia from Arévalo, Spain
Woodcut from A 1564 edition of La Divina Comedia from Arévalo, Spain

If the halls of the Hermitage would suddenly go mad, if the paintings of all schools and masters should suddenly break loose from the nails, should fuse, intermingle, and fill the air of the rooms with futuristic howling and colours in violent agitation, the result then would be something like Dante’s Commedia.

Osip Mandelstam, A Conversation with Dante, as quoted in Alberto Manguel’s Curiosity, Yale University Press, 2015

Holding Fast to Laughter

Studies for the Heads of Two Soldiers in the Battle of Anghiari (1504-05) by Leonardo da Vinci.
Studies for the Heads of Two Soldiers in the Battle of Anghiari (1504-05) by Leonardo da Vinci.

But this laughter is the reason why the Tuscans invented science and the clear Tuscan drawing in their cool paintings; laughter means distance. Conversely: where laughter is absent, madness begins. Every time I’ve had a chance to observe an outbreak of psychosis or a first-rate clinical anxiety neurosis the signal has been given in the absence of humour – one is potentially insane. The whole art of learning to live means holding fast to laughter; without laughter the world is a torture chamber, a dark place where dark things will happen to us, a horror show filled with bloody deeds of violence.

*****

It is related of Leonardo da Vinci that he had a laughter which was so beautiful that those who had heard it could never again forget it.

*****

Of Leonardo we know that he laughed this bubbling laughter of gold, which was the Florentine laughter in the deepest sense. Yet Leonardo was not a happy man, and his laughter had nothing to do with happiness.

*****

Dante also has this laughter.

Jens Bjørneboe. Moment of Freedom. Norvik Press, 1999 (1966)

Notes on Stendhal, via Sebald, Beckett et al.

Sebald chooses soldier, lover and would-be writer Marie-Henri Beyle to open the first section of Vertigo. He never mentions him by his better known pen-name Stendhal, nor does he reveal that his ‘essay’ and photographs are drawn from Stendhal’s fictionalised autobiography La Vie de Henri Brulard.

This first section of Vertigo contrasts the tragedy and comedy of Beyle’s life, using prose and photographs as a form of parallel narrative. Although presented as a historical essay, Sebald uses the text to ask questions of the nature and recording of memory. Aside from drawing me further into his story, Sebald reminds me to continue, at some point, my exploration of Stendhal’s work. A few passages below from notes taken on other writer’s thoughts on Stendhal, and indirectly, comparable writers:

  • “Beckett’s lectures indicate he found paradigms of indeterminacy and incoherence early in the history of the French novel, specifically in the school of the ‘Pre-Naturalists’. Flaubert and Stendhal were his models in this regards, and were given the compliment of being the ‘real ancestors of the modern novel’. What is most important about these writers is that through engaging with the multiple facets of reality through a numbers of modes and perspectives, their work leaves ‘some material indeterminate’. In contrast to Prousts’s vision of aesthetic consolation and transcendence, there is ‘No such solution on Stendhal’.” (Beckett and the Modern Novel. 2012)
  • “[…] reservations regarding linearity and continuity may have directed Beckett’s thoughts toward the tradition of doubting a uniquely rationalist view of the world. In the notes on Stendhal in Beckett’s Dream Notebook from the early 1930s the word imprévu is found three times. In his letter dated 16 September 1934 to Thomas McGreevy, Beckett also quotes from Stendhal: ‘Maintenant la civilisation a chassé le hasard, plus d’imprévu. [Nowadays civilisation has eliminated chance, and the unexpected never happens.] Beckett is interested in Stendhal’s complaint about a world that is ruled by linear sequences of cause and effect.” (Beckett and Musicality. 2014)
  • Contrasting with his aversion to Balzac, Beckett thought Flaubert and Stendhal the ‘real ancestors of the modern novel’; “the former for his ‘impersonality’ of style and the ‘absence of purpose’ in his texts, and the latter for ‘his deliberately incoherent duality’ – his presentation of contrasting components without resolution, and the convenient ‘implication that [the] psychological real can’t be stated, [that is] imperceptible from every point of view.'” (Rachel Burrow’s lecture notes, via Briggite Le Juez)
  • “The secret of Stendhal may be that he conceived of life as a novel, but did not confuse the novel with life. He improvises because he knows that he is not Shakespeare; he cannot write as life does. Who, besides Shakespeare, could? Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Homer, the Bible, and post-Stendhal-Tolstoy, Proust, Joyce. Stendhal would not prevent to be of that visionary company, but he did not need to be.” (Harold Bloom, 2002)
  • In 1914 Ezra Pound wrote of Joyce, about the prose style of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, “[…] His style has the hard clarity of a Stendhal or of a Flaubert.” Also, “I think the book is permanent like Flaubert and Stendhal. Not so squarish as Stendhal, certainly not so varnished as Flaubert. I think [Joyce] joins on to Hardy and Henry James.” (Ellman, Letters, II)
  • “‘I admire him, not as a model, but as a better self, one that I shall never really be, not fro a moment,’ said Elias Canetti. Inspired by the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, he used to turn to Stendhal, reading a few pages of Le rouge et le noir each day to keep his language fit and the detail precise and sufficient. For his part Stendhal dod not go to fiction, but getting himself in voice to dictate La Chartreuse he told Balzac in 1840 that he read two or three pages of the Code Napoléon to establish the objective tome, to be always natural, and never to use factitious means to intrigue the reader. No wonder Ford described him as ‘a cold Nietzsche.'” (Michael Schmidt. The Novel. 2014)

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2015 (updated)

These are not reading resolutions. Writers promising literary gifts lead me astray too easily for these ideas to be fixed in any way.

This year I read widely covering fifty or so writers, concentrating my reading more deeply only twice on Houellebecq and Anne Carson’s work. In 2015 I’d like to read more deeply into the work of some of my favourite authors: alternative Dante and Homer translations (and Adam Nicholson’s The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters) ,  more Ballard’s short stories, always more Beckett, John Berger, Roberto Calasso, more Anne Carson, the new Tom McCarthy, Robert Musil’s diaries, Hélène Cixous, Coetzee, Jenny Diski, Dostoevsky, Marguerite Duras, Pierre Hadot, Houellebecq’s new one if translated next year, Kafka’s short stories, László Krasznahorkai, Clarice Lispector, Bourdieu, Doris Lessing, Nabokov, Alice Oswald, Robert Macfarlane, Nietzsche, Atiq Rahimi, WG Sebald, Thomas Mann, Christa Wolf and Virginia Woolf.

Beyond these ‘old chestnuts’ (as Beckett called his favourite authors) I’m looking forward to unexpected surprises within the pages of the following new books, either missed in 2014 or due in 2015, by authors I have not read before:

  1. Kirmin Uribe – Bilbao – New York – Bilbao
  2. Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric
  3. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor – Dust
  4. Ceridwen Dovey – Only the Animals
  5. Karin Wieland (trans. Shelley Frisch) – Dietrich & Riefenstahl: The dream of the new woman
  6. Can Xue – The Last Lover
  7. Anna Smaill – The Chimes
  8. Han Kang (trans. Deborah Smith) – The Vegetarian
  9. Paul Celan – Breathturn Into Timestead
  10. David Winters – Infinite Fictions: Essays on Literature and Theory

There are several other writers whose older works I’d like to get around to exploring sometime soon including Jens Bjørneboe, Martin Shaw, Ivan Illich, Eva Hoffman, Ivan Goncharov, David Abram, Ágota Kristóf, Rebecca Solnit, Tomas Espedal and Elfriede Jelinek.

As always, distractions are greater than my ambition, but if I manage to take in a decent selection of the above I’m expecting a good year in reading. There are several other titles I have my eye on but I’m mindful of your patience and Molloy’s admission that ‘if you set out to mention everything you would never be done.’

Dante’s Shoe Soles

It’s difficult reading poetry in translation. I’ve read all the usual Russian poets: Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Pasternak, Brodsky, and the elusive Mandelstam, but I can’t imagine that much of the poetry comes through. English translators usually avoid trying to reproduce the metres with any exactitude, and English is a notoriously rhyme-poor language, despite its richness and subtlety.

I’ve read, on and off, for some weeks Mandelstam’s poem Solominka which, even in English is beautiful and abstruse. As Guy Davenport writes in The Geography of the Imagination, “A Mandelstam poem lives inside itself.” Mandelstam likened the physical quality of the word to a paper lantern with a candle inside. “Sometimes the candle inside was the meaning and the paper and frame were the sound structure; and sometimes the paper and frame were the meaning and the candle was the sound.” Even the poem’s title is rich in allusion, being the diminutive of the Russian word for straw, but also the Russian diminutive form of Salomé, who not only famously danced for John the Baptist’s head (my favourite Strauss opera), but also is the name of a Georgian beauty with whom Mandelstam was in love.

Mandelstam was also a superb essayist, and these offer a more accessible way to his thought, as in the collection in The Noise of Time [PDF]. In particular I adore Mandelstam’s apprehension of the rhythmic cadences “of the Divine Comedy first of all as a literary sublimate of the physical motion of walking”:

The question occurs to me-and quite seriously-how many shoe soles, how many ox-hide soles, how many sandals Alighieri wore out in the course of his poetic work, wandering about on the goat paths of Italy. The Inferno and especially the Purgatorio glorify the human gait, the measure and rhythm of walking, the foot and its shape. The step, linked to the berthing and saturated with thought: this Dante understands as the beginning of prosody. In order to indicate walking he uses a multitude of varied and charming turns of phrase.

JM Coetzee: Life and Times of Michael K

Simon Norfolk
Simon Norfolk

This Coetzee novel, though far from a favourite, stimulates the same thought inspired by reading Beckett and Dante: perhaps I should read only this, only Coetzee, or only Beckett. To read one writer’s oeuvre so deeply, sentence by sentence, that it becomes engrained.

Though I relished most of Life and Times of Michael K, I was impervious to the second part, narrated by a medical officer that attempts to restore Michael K to health. In this section, though the allusion is subtle, Coetzee drifts into a spiritual journey allegory, adopting a messiah/simpleton analogy.

Michaels, forgive me for the way I treated you, I did not appreciate who you were till the last days. Forgive me too for following you like this. I promise not to be a burden.

It is impossible to ignore the symmetry  between Michael K and Kafka’s Josef K. Coetzee’s fiction often reveals Kafka’s presence in the shadows, but perhaps more overtly in Life and Times of Michael K with its idiot savant motif.

Book List

In no particular order, this is a list of my favourite writers/books. Of course, it is incomplete.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Pale Fire and Speak, Memory and literary lectures
Franz Kafka
Geoff Dyer
JG Ballard
Simone de Beauvoir
Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook
Hélène Cixous
Judith Butler
Peter Handke’s The Weight of the World
Søren Kierkegaard
Marguerite Duras
JM Coetzee
Robert Walser
Roland Barthes
Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup
Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
Pascal Quignard’s The Roving Shadows
John William’s Stoner
Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea
AM Homes
Patrick Leigh Fermor
Jay Griffith’s Wild: An Elemental Journey
Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s War and War
Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness
Samuel Beckett
Simon Critchley
Noam Chomsky
Roger Deakin
Carlos Fuentes’s Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone
Ruth Reichl’s Endless Feast
Teju Cole’s Open City
Jenny Erpenbeck’s The Visitation
Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? and The Lessons of Modernism
Virginia Woolf’s later novels and diaries
Jospeh Heller’s Something Happened
WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn
Don DeLillo’s Underworld
Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening
Marcel Proust
Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva
Dante’s Divine Comedy
Kate Zambreno’s Heroines
Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych
James Joyce’s Ulysses
Richard Power’s The Time of our Singing
Will Ferguson’s Hokkaido Highway Blues

Popularity and Artistic Authority

Josipovici develops an argument on the distinction between naivety and simplicity into thoughts on authority:

Not having doubts is a blessed state, but it is not the same thing as having genuine authority. There is something hollow about Balzac, Dickens and Verdi compared with Dante or Shakespeare, but even compared with their older contemporaries, Beethoven and Wordsworth. It doesn’t rest on their frequent clumsiness, for that is to be found in Beethoven and Wordsworth. It rests more on the very thing that is the root of their strength as artists and their enormous success as entrepreneurs: their inability to question what it is they are doing. In that sense they are the first modern best-sellers and in their work one can see the beginnings of that split between popularity and artistic depth which is to become the hallmark of modern culture.

The First Poems in English

Reading The First Poems in English is preparation for Beowulf, which I plan to read soon. This Penguin Classics edition is made thoroughly engaging by the commentary and translation of Michael Alexander. His enthusiasm for ‘Old English’ is contagious. He is also not remotely afraid to allow his personality to come across on the page:

A number of books have been published with the title The Triumph of English, one of them adding the dates ‘1350-1400’, 1400 being memorable to those who know a little literary history as the year of Chaucer’s death. Those less acquainted with literary history perhaps think of English literature as beginning with Shakespeare.

. . . . . . . . . . . .

Literary history, generally speaking, does not simply progress. Greek literature has not improved on Homer. Italian literature has not improved on Dante. European drama has not improved on Shakespeare.

Quite aside from the enjoyable translations, the book is a succinct introduction to the history of the English language, at least until the Norman conquest.

After 1066, however, English was no longer the language of the rulers. It remained the speech of the people, but local dialects diverged more and more from each other.

My favourite of the selection of poems is The Seafarer (link to a translation by Ezra Pound. I prefer Michael Alexander’s). The emotion of exile is apparent in the opening lines:

Sitting day-long
at an oar’s end clenched against clinging sorrow,
breast-drought I have borne, and bitternesses too.
I have coursed my keel through care-halls without end
over furled foam, I forward in the bows
through the narrowing night, numb, watching
for the cliffs we beat along.
Cold then
nailed my feet, frost shrank on
its chill clamps, cares sighed
hot about heart, hunger fed
on a mere-wearied mind.
No man blessed
with a happy land-life is like to guess
how I, aching-hearted, on ice-cold seas
have wasted whole winters; the wanderer’s beat,
cut off from kind. . . .

The preceding poem, The Wanderer, defines the man:

Wherefore no man grows wise without he have
his share of winters. A wise man holds out;
he is not too hot-hearted, nor too hasty in speech,
nor too weak a warrior, not wanting in fore-thought,
nor too greedy of goods, nor too glad, nor too mild,
nor evert too eager to boast, ere he knows all.
A man should forbear boastmaking
until his fierce mind fully knows
which way his spleen shall expend itself

Admitted: Four Authors Only

In Alberto Manguel’s superb The Library at Night, he writes of one aristocrat’s solution to the recurring challenge of housing a growing collection of books:

In a manuscript kept in the Vatican Library (and as yet unpublished), the Milanese humanist Angelo Decembrio describes a drastic culling system by which the young fifteenth-century prince Leonello d’Este furnished his library in Ferrara under the supervision of his teacher, Guarino da Verona. Leonello’s system was one of exclusion, rejecting everything except the most precious examples of the literary world. Banished from the princely shelves were monastic encyclopedic works (“oceans of story, as they are called, huge burdens for donkeys,”) French and Italian translations of classic texts (but not the originals), and even Dante’s Commedia, “which may be read on winter nights, by the fire, with the wife and the children, but which does not merit being placed in a scholarly library.” Only four classical authors were admitted: Livy, Virgil, Sallust and Cicero.

Deep and Narrow

In defending Beckett from a bitchy put-down, Patrick Kurp of Anecdotal Evidence states:

Had Beckett read only Dante, Milton, Swift and Johnson (odd that Donoghue does not include Shakespeare and Joyce), and read them deeply and across a lifetime, he would qualify as “immensely learned.” Of course, Beckett didn’t stop there. Few writers have woven their learning so inextricably into the texture of their work.

I am struck by the romance of being “immensely learned” from reading narrowly but deeply. How many authors, I wonder, would fit into this ultra-narrow literary canon if one was restricted to four or five choices?

Are there a handful of living authors, four or five, that one could read deeply over a lifetime and be considered learned?

Juxtaposition

Manguel on Borges:

It isn’t impossible that in some way, in order to be with a woman, any woman of the many he desired, to be privy to her mystery, to be more than just a wordsmith, to be or to try to be a lover and be loved for his own sake and not for that of his inventions, Borges created the Aleph, again and again, throughout his work.

But I’d go further. I suspect that Dante constructed literature’s best book in order to insert a few meetings with the unrecapturable Beatrice …