St. John of the Cross’ Cell

El Greco, View of Toledo, ca. 1598–99

“The unimaginably cramped cell in which St. John of the Cross was once imprisoned for months, beaten repeatedly and virtually starved, but where he nonetheless managed to compose some of his finest verses. / In a building that no longer exists—but can still be seen in El Greco’s View of Toledo.”

—David Markson, The Last Novel.

[I’m not particularly interested in Markson’s work, but came across this fragment by chance. I am however interested in St. John of the Cross’ and El Greco’s work.]

An Idiotically Decorated Box

Both intrigued and undecided by Carole Maso’s Ava. A fragmentary novel, which impels with the force of allusion and cadence of the sentences. As with Markson’s fragmentary novels, I am not certain that the fragments cohere sufficiently as a narrative. But I am only two-thirds into Ava and will finish (and then intend to read her Defiance.) I want to capture here a couple of the fragments that accord so neatly with my view of the world I wish that I had written them (I did in my notebook, uncredited, so in a few years time I will think I did!):

No character in Beckett has ever admitted that existence is other than a cruel joke. But here in Company Beckett reaches into a darker dark than he has hitherto plumbed, to ask if the poor jokester didn’t, after all, create us, his joke, to keep his lonely self company? This is a way of asking if in our profound and agonising loneliness we have invented the jokester, God, to keep ourselves company?

And what is company? What have we not done for its sake? For everything human we have made up, beginning with our names. Our laws, our quaint systems of kinship, our cities, our technology, a Victorian clergyman’s carefully researched study of the Sumerian cosmology-fiction all. We’ve made it all up, to hide the mystery in an idiotically decorated box.

December: Extended Reading Notes

Reading wildly all over the place, but with those converging lines I’ve written about providing more direction to my reading than I prefer to concede. To end my reading for 2013, a few thoughts on those books I finished over the last month.

Robert Fagle’s exceptional translation of the Iliad has superseded Richard Lattimore’s as my personal favourite. It is bright, powerful and pulls you relentlessly through the narrative without sacrificing Homeric style. Fagles has found the balance between loyalty to Homer’s language and the need to remove the cobwebs and find a fresh modern voice. I have his Odyssey to read soon. A conversation with a reader in the Comments to my post on reading the old dead Greeks has convinced me to read both George Chapman’s and Christopher Logue’s Homer, the latter first. At Max’s suggestion I also read Alice Oswald’s Memorial this month and was taken aback at the brilliance of her portrayal of the Iliad, in which she brings to the foreground the minor characters of the Iliad, introduced briefly by Homer merely to die horrid deaths. In doing so, Oswald evokes fresh revulsion for the senselessness but inevitability of slaughter and warfare.

After my thrill of discovering Clarice Lispector’s work with Água Viva, as is often the case I waited a considerable time to read another of her books. In this case, my reticence was misplaced as Near to the Wild Heart and A Breath of Life were no less dazzling. I’m less convinced of the inevitable comparison with Virginia Woolf, but see more resonance with Beckett. I need to think more about this, but there is something of the same apprehension about literature’s inability to express anything, and instead falling away towards silence. In each book, including her phenomenal first, written while in her early twenties (which is astounding), Lispector rises above fiction’s banal conventions. She compels every word to hard labour, extracting every drop of meaning from the fewest words, though she, like Beckett, is not a minimalist in that overworked sense. Like Beckett, Woolf or Duras, Lispector’s work make delicious demands of her readers, though with sentences that are completely available. I’ve lined up The Passion According to G.H. and The Hour of the Star to read in the next few weeks.

I mentioned briefly the personally transformative role that Pierre Hadot continues to have, which deepens with my reading of his Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision. This is part of a self-reflective journey that I feel is to a great extent outside the reaches of language, as in Hadot’s reflection on Plotinus: “… the spiritual world was not for him…a supercosmic place from which he was separated….Neither was it an original state…lost….Rather [it] was nothing other than the self at its deepest level….It could be reached immediately, by returning within oneself.” My contemplation of the relationship between theory and practise of ancient and modern philosophies is taking me back to old dead Greeks with Plotinus and Heraclitus, and further back towards Vedic texts.

What else in December? David Markson’s Reader’s Block kept me curious enough to get to the end, but it felt like style over substance. I’d rather read John Berger for more accomplished minimalism. I came to Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s A Brief History of Yes eagerly, and finished with thanks for its brevity. My first Ryszard Kapuściński book, which I approached with trepidation (because it appears that Kapuściński might have been one hell of a shitty human being), was better than expected: Travels with Herodotus is clunky written (or translated), and I could pick all sorts of holes as a piece of ‘literary reportage’, but I left with a warmth for the voice of the narrator, and expect to read another Kapuściński one day. Finally, Hélène Cixous never disappoints, and Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing in which she writes of her literary loves is one of those books I shall return to regularly for its radiance.

Thoughts a Third of the Way into The Prime of Life

After twelve days I am a third of the way through the second volume of Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiography The Prime of Life. This 1973 Penguin edition is over 600 pages of small, closely set type, but I am reading slowly, fountain pen in hand scribbling page after page of notes. I have no urge to rush.

Once again, de Beauvoir applies her considerable intellect to observing herself as a young adult. The view is microscopic and unswerving. I love the way de Beauvoir tackles self as a perpetual project.

If the bad habits which I attributed to Chantal irked me so much, that was not so much through having observed them in Simone Labourdin as because I had slipped into them myself: during the past two or three years I had more than once yielded to the temptation of embellishing my life history with false items of information. Alone in Marseille, I had more or less purged myself of this weakness, though I still reproached myself for it.

There’s gossip: Sartre and de Beauvoir enjoyed dissecting the personalities of friends and acquaintances. There’s much discussion about literature: her love of Stendhal, of Proust and Conrad, and the excited discovery of the translated works of Faulkner, Kafka and Dos Passos. de Beauvoir also explains why she chose literature over philosophical writing:

[…] I did not regard myself as a philosopher: I was well aware that the ease with which I penetrated to the heart of a [philosophical] text stemmed, precisely, from my lack of originality. In this field a genuinely creative talent is so rare that queries as to why I did not attempt to join the élite are surely otiose: it would be more useful to explain how certain individuals are capable of getting results from that conscious venture into lunacy known as a ‘philosophical system’ . . . I wanted to communicate the element of originality in my own experience. In order to do this successfully I knew it was literature towards which I must orientate myself.

As an aside I came across this wonderful blog that explores “the mind, method and masterpieces of David Markson through the marginalia found on the pages of the books in his personal library.” This snippet made me hoot with laughter:

On which Markson placed a checkmark next to a paragraph discussing the sex life of Nelson Algren:

“My introduction stops here. I knew very little about Algren’s sex life (or about my own, for that matter). I subsequently learned from Deirdre Bair’s Simone de Beauvoir (Summit, 1990) that he helped Miss de Beauvoir achieve her first orgasm. (The only person I ever helped achieve a first orgasm was good old me.) In Iowa City, Algren would refer to her as ‘Madame Yak Yak’ because she had given their relationship so much publicity.”

—-

“Nelson Algren, not Sartre, gave Simone de Beauvoir her first orgasm.”

Wrote Markson on pg. 30 of Reader’s Block, utilizing the above information.

Not only did Simone de Beauvoir not achieve her first orgasm with Sartre, but she was also taller than him, as Markson explained in Vanishing Point:

“Simone de Beauvoir was one inch taller than Sartre.” (Pg. 133).

Though there is absolutely no evidence to conclude that these facts are at all related—and how or why would they be?—am I the only one tempted to draw some sort of ridiculous conclusion?

Reality Hunger by David Shields

The debate is old but David Shields, in Reality Hunger, revives the argument against artifice in the novel. Forget conventional fiction is his manifesto, the energy in literature today is found in essays, memoirs, diaries and non-fiction. His book is a collage, constructed from a mixture of his own content and excerpts and quotations, very hip hop.

A major focus of Reality Hunger is appropriation and plagiarism and what those terms mean. I can hardly treat the topic deeply without engaging in it. That would be like writing a book about lying and not being permitted to lie in it. Or writing a book about destroying capitalism but being told it can’t be published because it might harm the publishing industry.

However, Random House lawyers determined that it was necessary for me to provide a complete list of citations; the list follows …

. . . . . . . .

If you would like to restore this book to the form in which I intended it to be read, simply grab a sharp pair of scissors or a razor blade or box cutter and remove pages 210-218 …

Part of the argument is persuasive. There is terrific vigour in writing that blurs the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction. Ryszard Kapuscinski, Geoff Dyer, W. G. Sebald, and J. M. Coetzee create first-rate novels. The diaries, essays and letters of writers like Woolf, Chekhov, Gide, Musil, Beckett are amongst their finest creations.

The validity of Shield’s contention falls down, for me, on the premise that there is such a thing as a “standard” novel. I’m currently reading Zadie Smith’s essays (terrific by the way), in a discussion about Eliot and the Victorian novel she writes:

What is universal and timeless in literature is need – we continue to need  novelists who seem to know and feel, and move between these two modes of operation with wondrous fluidity. What is not universal or timeless, though is form. Forms, styles, structures – whatever word you prefer – should change like skirt lengths. They have to; otherwise we make a rule, a religion, of one form; we say. ‘This form here, this is what reality is like,’ and it pleases us to say that …

Thankfully the form continues to evolve. David Shields provides many examples of contemporary writers successfully moving the style of novels forward. But the need is for literature to contain multitudes. As much as I am enjoying Zadie Smith’s essays and read Reality Hunger with genuine enthusiasm, I relish the freedom to pick up The Brothers Karamazov, follow it with a David Markson, then segue into Cervantes. Too much reality gets old. Though I don’t entirely buy David Shield’s argument, the book is great fun to read, and there are some terrific quotations, as long as you haven’t taken a razor blade to the citations to know their origin.