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.

Forgotten Writers, Anna Kavan and Denton Welch

Why is it that certain writers get forgotten or as Jeremy Reed puts it of Anna Kavan, discovered anew by each successive generation? Often these are writers that belong to no particular sect or school of writers. They are literary exiles, needles in a haystack that are rarely found. Why is it that Kafka, Woolf and Ballard are stocked on the shelves of any bookshop worth a diversion, but the peculiar delights of Anna Kavan and Denton Welch require dedication and perseverance.

In his Anna Kavan biography, A Stranger on Earth, Jeremy Reed writes, “If the author does not network or promote a book, it is as good as dead. Unless they are in the know, how does anyone differentiate the good from the bad? How do you find Anna Kavan?” I’ve known of Anna Kavan’s existence for some time but it was a Twitter comment from @FarSouthProject that drew an analogy between Julia and the Bazooka and Denton Welch’s A Voice Through a Cloud that compelled me to urgently explore Anna Kavan’s work.

As I read Julia and the Bazooka, I laughed grimly. The analogy is perfect in some ways, not for the books’ subject matter but for their supersensitive and singular way of interpreting the world. I am too accustomed to that strange and formative concoction of a parent that dies in early childhood, followed by neglect, and being passed from household to household until old enough for boarding school. I come to Denton Welch and Anna Kavan as a familiar and can promise little objectivity. I recognise the emotional numbness and dissociative state that continually compromises social relationships. I recognise also the tendency to fantasy but unlike Denton Welch and Anna Kavan have been unable to turn that world of imagination into beautiful stories. Instead of writing I have a pleasant supply of rich books to distract me, and now and then I jot down here or in my notebooks some thoughts about them. I am a dabbler that wrestles between dreams and realities.

I have dropped my mask a moment because it is precisely what Anna Kavan does in the fifteen stories in Julia and the Bazooka. These, like Denton Welch’s stories, are deeply personal considerations that deal in different ways with the alienation of self and otherness. It is a mode of fiction that directly engages the imagination to unravel the influence of the unconscious on the writer’s conscious behaviour. It is influenced not only by Anna Kavan’s history, memory and trauma but also by collective and shared memories. Unlike Kafka, Woolf and Ballard, Anna Kavan and Denton Welch are not first and foremost storytellers, but writers that use fiction to try to understand how psychological projections and inflated identifications drive or drain psychic energy and underpin our deceptions.

Anna Kavan reviews Denton Welch’s In Youth is Pleasure

Denton Welch and L. P. Hartley comment upon a hooligan-ridden world from more personal standpoints. Instead of describing situations resulting from a regime of violence, the work of these writers provides material which concerns the origin of such situations, and which is for that reason most relevant to considerations of emotional age. Both In Youth is Pleasure and The Shrimp and the Anemone are above the general level as regards execution as well as interest.
In Denton Welch’s case it is the style which is primarily striking. Mr. Welch writes with gaiety and verve and a vivid individual power of observation. His phrasing is highly imaginative; there are passages of poetic brilliance in his work; yet the charm of his writing is largely due to the fact that words like ‘polished’ and ‘sparkling’ are inapplicable to it. There is a feeling of real spontaneity throughout the book, which describes the summer holiday of a fifteen-year-old schoolboy, rather regrettably named Orvil Pym. Orvil belongs to the cultural minority. He is certainly not on the side of the destroyers, to whom he is none the less linked by the very over-sensitiveness which divides him from them. Orvil is afraid to grow up. The eternal fourteen-year-olds are, of course, unaware of their immaturity, while Orvil consciously clings to his boyhood, even to the extent of asking God to save him from the calamity of becoming adult. In an intelligent upper-class boy, naturally destined to some social responsibility, this is a dangerous attitude. Arising out of a sort of squeamishness, it is the basis of a deliberate self-blinding process that may lead him ultimately to tolerate, or even encourage, violent destructive elements to which his own repressed instincts are really opposed. In emotional development, Orvil is already ahead of the gangster boys; except for the persistence of some infantile sadism, as displayed in an incident which Mr. Welch describes terrifyingly well.

Anna Kavan, Horizon, July 1945, pp. 63-68

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2016

On the last winter solstice I posted some well-intentioned reading ideas for 2015. I always intend to read fewer new (to me) writers to concentrate on my old chestnuts and I closed gaps in my reading of Mann, Coetzee, Handke, Virginia Woolf and Sebald. Even the minor works of great writers display brilliance and this intention to read deeply and not broadly continues. I’m looking forward to new books from Anne Carson, Geoff Dyer and Jan Wilm’s Coetzee study.

In my year in reading post I wrote of the thrill of discovering Brophy, Welch and Espedal; each writer will undoubtedly make up some of what I read next year. I’m also looking forward to reading more Han Kang, Wolfgang Hilbig, Giorgio Agamben, Pascal Quignard and Ivan Vladislavic, all who produced books that moved me in some way this year.

Writers I don’t yet know but expect to sample in 2016 include Janice Lee, Jean Rhys, Werner Jaeger, Ivan Goncharov, Philippe Jaccottet, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Ingeborg Bachmann, Claude Cahun, Robert Gál, Yves Bonnefoy and Peter Weiss. There’ll be others but these are in my sights at the moment.

At the moment my mind is anchored in ancient Greece and Rome. My reading year is coming to an end with Giorgio Agamben’s and Monica Ferrando’s The Unspeakable Girl, a work of some power published by the brilliant Seagull Books, and Pascal Quignard’s Sex and Terror, which feels like the only book one could read after The Unspeakable Girl.

My inclination at the moment is to dwell in antiquity for some time, perhaps read Chapman’s Homer, which shaped Troilus and Cressida. I’ve acquired some Loebs and assorted ancient Greek plays that I may make time for over the Christmas break. Being overwhelmed by Troilus and Cressida convinces me that I must fill in some of my reading gaps in Shakespeare’s oeuvre.

The fault and glimpse of newness often leads me astray so expect distractions. If the year ahead holds surprises as great as Brigid Brophy, Denton Welch and Tomas Espedal I’ll be a fortunate reader.

Thanks for reading along in 2015 and for taking time to discuss books with me here, in person and on Twitter. I love little more than to discuss books so more conversation please!

A Year in Reading: 2015

Denton Welch’s last work stands at the head of a list that marks a fine year’s reading with the discovery of three writers whose work has changed me: Brigid Brophy, Tomas Espedal and Welch

Denton Welch’s A Voice Through a Cloud is alive throughout though left incomplete by his death. Welch’s characteristic eye for detail and ear for dialogue is clear in all his work but in A Voice Through a Cloud he maintains an unstable tension that keeps his light touch so very serious. The smiles of acknowledgement and tears become impossible to separate. It’s hard to imagine a finer book in any year and his other two novels are small but magnificent.

If pressed I’d name Brigid Brophy’s The Snow Ball as the finer of her novels that I read this year, an elegant tale of female eroticism that splices together Brophy’s twin fixations of Mozart and Freud.

What Welch, Brophy and Tomas Espedal share is the sense that they are all writing their lives in fiction, fulfilling an attempt to smuggle reality into their art and doing so with force of intellect, originality and passion. Any of Espedal’s three translated works would serve as a book of the year but Tramp will be one I return to again and again. That all three are published by Seagull Books simply underlines my deep-seated affection for their vision.

Those writers aside, this was also the year I read Ágota Kristóf’s trilogy, novels that led by precise description and a fierce power that lay in what was left out. Little was left out of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, in HT Lowe-Porter’s translation, a brilliant conception of the demonic, also explored in Wolfgang Hilbig’s disturbing but equally singular “I”.

Two works of literary criticism stood out this year: Rita Felski’s Uses of Literature and David Winters’s Infinite Fictions; both offered profound insight, refined by doubts and perplexities and in both cases suffused with a love of literature.

Espedal’s Tramp was a good companion novel to Jessa Crispin’s The Dead Ladies Project which beautifully navigated the indeterminate space between memoir, biography and travel narrative.

Like Beckett’s Murphy, this year the macrocosm intruded into the freedom of the microcosm, i.e. the job-path became all consuming, leaving less time to read and write here. That said I expect to read seventy or so books by year end, respectable enough given other commitments which include discovering a zest for public speaking.

Discovering Brigid Brophy

So far, this year’s reading has been remarkable. Not only some extraordinarily good first works, some singular nonfiction, and the discovery of no less than three writers to add to my list of old chestnuts, those favourites I will probably read in their entirety. Tomas Espedal, Denton Welch and Brigid Brophy.

I’ve thought of whether anything unites these often flawed but brilliant writers. What is it about their works that has bowled me over to the extent that I wish to read every word they wrote (or will write in Espedal’s case)? I recognise these are idiosyncratic passions that might not command the wide scale appreciation of Mann or Woolf, but for me their work is no less fascinating.

All three are brilliantly subtle, elegant and bookish writers but what sets them apart for me comes down to a certain tone of voice. In Brophy’s case I wrote recently of a stylish but insubordinate edge to her prose, that I got the feeling that Brophy would  look great in pearls but be the first to storm the palace when we all decide to kick the scoundrels out. That description applies equally to Welch and Espedal, replace tweed with pearls if you feel inclined.

Whatever the subject, the strong individualities of these writers emerge, and I find my way of looking at the world transfused with the colours of their thoughts and feelings.  I’ve only limited immersion in Brigid Brophy’s work, first the full, flowing freshness of The King of a Rainy Country and now the pyrotechnic flare of Hackenfeller’s Ape, but the sui generis nature of her voice is clear.

Literary Couplings

The sun is calm and bright, but it isn’t yet quite warm enough to idle outside with Denton Welch’s I Left My Grandfather’s House. So observant Welch’s eye for details of character and architecture, his voice so tender after the cool elegance of Ágota Kristóf’s prose, though the latter’s autobiographical The Illiterate inevitably presents a warmer, more personal note than the novels.

It’s pleasing to tack between Welch and Kristóf, a shot of elegant, slightly oily brandy to accompany a bittersweet, zippy espresso. Now, perhaps back to Kristóf, having tracked down a copy of Yesterday.

Last week, I also read Simon Critchley’s experimental Memory Theatre, a somewhat curious yet thought provoking work. Critchley  as mystic recalls Yeats’ essay on magic, in which he writes, “whatever the passions of men have gathered about becomes a symbol in the Great Memory, and in the hands of him who has the secret it is a worker of wonders, a caller-up of angels or of devils.”

Time, Gin, Denton and Dorothy Sayers

Given the multitude of people on social media confused by the instigation of this year’s British Summer time, we ought be thankful that William Willett’s original proposal to move the clocks forward by 80 minutes, in 20-minute weekly steps on Sundays in April and by the reverse procedure in September, was altered to the deceptively simple alternative of an hour forward in March, then reversed in October.

Mark, a reader of Time’s Flow Stemmed, kindly reminded me that Maurice Denton Welch was born on 29 March 2015. To mark Denton’s centenary I drank two gin and limes, a drink, with gin and French, that he frequently mentions in his Journals.

Like Max Sebald, Denton’s written texts comprise a seamless body of work in which he repeatedly returns to the same themes, experimenting with different forms. The Journals are a delight, patchy as any journals, but with moments of such radiance. Mark suggests that Denton’s short stories bridge the apparent leap in expressive quality between his first two novels and A Voice Through a Cloud. 

While I await delivery of a couple of collections of Denton Welch’s short stories, I’ll read an unusual book I came across in a second-hand bookshop in Cecil Court. The Passionate Intellect by Barbara Reynolds is a full-length study of novelist Dorothy L. Sayers’s fourteen year obsession with reading and translating Dante’s Divine Comedy. I’ve never Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels, but share her fascination with Divine Comedy. 

Reynolds bases much of the book on the remarkable correspondence that Sayers exchanged with Charles Williams, at the time a much esteemed poet, essayist and critic. Sayers became absorbed with Divine Comedy after reading Williams’s The Figure of Beatrice, which I ought also to read sometime soon. Dorothy Sayers starting reading Divine Comedy in August 1944, a period Denton Welch writes of brilliantly in his Journals, when almost ten thousand buzz bombs or V-1s were fired at south-east England. Sayers writes of the hold that Divine Comedy took on her imagination:

The plain fact is that I bolted my meals, neglected my sleep, work and correspondence, drove my friends crazy, and paid only a distracted attention to the doodle-bugs, which happened to be investing the neighbourhood at the time, until I had panted my way through the Three Realms of the dead from top to bottom and from bottom to top.

I’ve never read any of Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey novels. Should I? How about Jill Paton Walsh’s continuation of the series: ghastly or noteworthy?

An Eternal Moment

I thought again of our snug place in the leaves under the fallen tree, looking out on to the rising hill with the smoky curtain of rain falling into the stiff still green bracken, and the curiously high squeaking of some solitary wood pigeons and then their gurgling coo. An eternal moment always dissolving which will yet re-occur a thousand, thousand times to a thousand, thousand other people when we are dead, who will look out in the same way through the windows in their heads and see the falling rain, the bracken, the pattern of the oak bark, and wonder, and go on wondering for years.

Denton Welch, The Journals of Denton Welch, Allison and Busby (1984)

A Balloon of Emptiness

It seems astonishing to me the leap that Denton Welch makes in A Voice Through a Cloud. His two earlier novels show a way of observing the world that often provokes and startles.

The leap Welch makes in A Voice Through a Cloud is in the clarity of access it offers, or simulates, into the mental world of his narrator. It is impossible not to be drawn deeper and deeper into the place where Denton’s perceptivity meets the characters and objects that surround his narrator. This sense of deep intersubjectivity recalls Mann’s The Magic Mountain.

I’ve just reread Welch’s rendering of the scene in which his invalid narrator meets a couple of other invalids from another care home in a blowy, seaside town. It is exquisitely described, the loneliness and isolation of long-term illness that draws these strangers together for the briefest of moments.

They both said ‘Hullo’; I was made to shake hands; there was a little sad heartiness, then nothing. We stood in a circle round a balloon of emptiness which was swelling all the time, forcing us farther and farther apart.

A page or two further, Welch’s narrator is awake in the night and hears a barking dog.

I would imagine his cry coming across the fields, the brimming icy ditches and the bare hedges glittering with black drops of water. Perhaps it came from some lonely farm where he was chained up in a cobbled yard. The chain would grate and clink like a ghost’s as he ran from side to side, barking and waiting for the answer which never came. At last his tail would curve down through his legs and he would huddle back into the dank straw in his barrel.

That balloon of emptiness and that dog’s bark waiting for the answer that never came have sufficient texture to last me for days.

Denton Welch’s Daydreams

The earlier novels are charming, filled with longing and remarkable imagery, but it is in Denton Welch’s A Voice Through a Cloud that his style and way of viewing the world come together to extraordinary effect.

His narrator, highly autobiographical, is in hospital after a horrendous road accident, and prone to daydreams that extract him from the grimness of his surroundings and the tremendous pain he experiences. Here’s a passage I have read so very many times:

In one part of the garden, behind powdery orange walls, a dirty old gardener in leather clothes worked, turning up the damp earth in soft chocolate chunks, or picking dew-sprinkled cabbage leaves, which glinted and changed from purple to grey-green as if made of shot silk. 

Out of doors my nostrils were always filled with the smell of humid earth and dank grass, and my heart with the pleasure-fear of seeing ghosts and apparitions. I would be led to explore other disused wings of the house, where dry-rot was turning the wainscot to dust, and where bird- and mouse-droppings broke the smoothness of the floor, making miniature mountains on a vast plain. In the corners of the rooms velvet bats hung upside-down, and whispering little gusts of wind, which were really evil powers and emanations, swept through the openings where doors had been brutally torn from their hinges. Spikes of wood still clung to the mangled brass. Smashed panels grinned hideously.

With Long Rests

 Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) by Ellen Riley and Cédric Charleuf (2014)
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) by Ellen Riley and Cédric Charleuf (2014)

That portrait of Gerard Hopkins in the Lit. Sup., so quiet, so thoughtful, so almost prettily devout. Strange to think that many, many years ago he actually sat in that position, with folded hands (although they are not there), with secret, slightly hooded eyes, with gentle, posed mouth and soft tongues of hair lying on his forehead, licking sleekly down beside his ear.
Then the verbose article that tells one nothing [plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose] – nothing of the secret from which his genius sprung. It is an insult to hide his secret – to pretend that he was “normal”, in other words ordinary.

The Journals of Denton Welch. Edited by Michael De-la-Noy. Allison and Busby, 1984 (1952)

Remember that its [my poetry’s] performance is not reading aloud with the eye but loud, leisurely, poetical (not rhetorical) recitation, with long rests, long dwells on the rhyme and other marked syllables, and so on.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Felix Randal

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Felix Randal the farrier, O is he dead then? my duty all ended,
Who have watched his mould of man, big-boned and hardy-handsome
Pining, pining, till time when reason rambled in it, and some
Fatal four disorders, fleshed there, all contended?

Sickness broke him. Impatient, he cursed at first, but mended
Being anointed and all; though a heavenlier heart began some
Months earlier, since I had our sweet reprieve and ransom
Tendered to him. Ah well, God rest him all road ever he offended!

This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears.
My tongue had taught thee comfort, touch had quenched thy tears,
Thy tears that touched my heart, child, Felix, poor Felix Randal;

How far from then forethought of, all thy more boisterous years,
When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers,
Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal!

Denton Welch’s Maiden Voyage

I resolved to read Denton Welch this year, enthused by Des’s advocacy, though the timing was determined by catching sight of a rather distinctive edition of Maiden Voyage, his first novel, in one of the Cecil Court bookshops: an American first with dust wrappers and end papers drawn by Welch.

With measured and precise description, Welch applies a loupe to people and objects. Although my copy is an American edition, I wonder whether an American reader would get the same pleasure from Welch’s empathetic observation of the nuances of that colossal curse of the English, its class system. Welch’s way of noticing the small things of life ends up creating a fictional (lightly autobiographical) world of epic proportion, one that is singularly alluring.

An extraordinary tension is set up in Maiden Voyage. As Michael Schmidt writes in his study, The Novel: “Welch’s prose is full of paradoxes, his stories of themes that are more telling for being undeclared.” The novel’s narrator often appears reserved, almost priggish, though there is a homoeroticism that almost but never quite breaks surface. It is similar to the sexual tension that suffuses Patricia Highsmith’s writing.

Maiden Voyage tells the story of a boy brought up in east Asia, after his mother’s death he is sent off to an absurd English public school, which he loathes, and from which he briefly absconds. As this storyline so exactly matches my own, I’m the ideal reader for Welch’s story. But beyond that, I am utterly compelled by his attention for small things. Elemental truths lie behind the sights, smells and sounds of apparently banal objects. Writers like Woolf, Proust and Welch sharpen our sights for things that would otherwise remain invisible to us.

The Ideology of the Trivial

Another writer, quintessentially English I believe, on my reading radar is Barbara Pym. Any Pym enthusiasts care to stoke my curiosity?

This passage from Judy Little’s The Experimental Self: Dialogic Subjectivity in Woolf, Pym, and Brooke-Rose interested me, both by its references to Denton Welch whose work I’m currently exploring and Virginia Woolf, and also because I strongly support its argument in favour of (apparently) trivial details in narrative of all kinds. I wrote yesterday of my enjoyment of an ingenious sentence using the brand colour of a (once) well-known laundry whitener, Reckitt’s Blue, to pin down in text the precise colour of the Virgin Mary’s robe.

Several times in her journals and letters, Pym records her fascination with the trivial, with the details of everyday, noncrisis activities. Referring to Denton Welch’s request for more details (about food, homes) from writers, Pym suggests that a reader is most interested in these things not because they provide sociological information but “because they are pleasing in themselves.” The everyday experience is not only interesting but valuable. Her romance writer, Catherine Olliphant, says as much in Less Than Angels:
“The small things of life were often so much bigger than the great things, she decided, wondering how many writers and philosophers had said this before her, the trivial pleasures like cooking, one’s home, little poems especially sad ones, solitary walks, funny things seem and overheard”. As she suspects, other writers have indeed affirmed her pleasure in the small or trivial, it may be that Catherine is recalling Virginia Woolf. In the novels and journals, Pym several times quotes or responds to Woolf who advised in “Modern Fiction”: “Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small.” 

Woolf’s The Voyage Out and Denton Welch

Time to sample a new writer’s work. After two rewarding months in the company of old chestnuts WG Sebald and Virginia Woolf, next on my reading list is Denton Welch’s Maiden Voyage. Des, curator of The Far South Project Blog, brought Welch’s work to my notice in his round-up and Judy Kravis at pocketbook rather wonderfully juxtaposed Walser and Welch recently.

The opening pages of Welch’s Maiden Voyage offered up this sentence: ‘I kept waking up so that my dreams were mixed up with the wallpaper, and somehow the Virgin Mary appeared and disappeared, dressed all in Reckitt’s blue.’ Of course, Wilde’s ‘this wallpaper will be the death of me – one of us will have to go’ comes to mind, wrongly attributed as his dying words. Using the brand colours of a laundry whitener to locate in a reader’s mind the precise blue worn by the Virgin Mary is exquisite, as is the idea of dreams being mixed up with wallpaper, in a room described moments earlier with its ‘warm and depressing’ pink tones.

Denton Welch moved in similar circles to Virginia Woolf and it seems only her suicide that stopped them ever bumping into one another.

Before I leave Woolf’s The Voyage Out behind, I ought mention that I found Helen Ambrose one of the most fully-developed, living, breathing characters I’ve met so far in a novel, more tangible even than Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse. It wasn’t any surprise to read in the Dictionary of Real People and Places in Fiction that Helen Ambrose was ‘accepted by Virginia and Vanessa as a portrait in some salient aspects of Vanessa’. Her intimate understanding of her sister poured into a fictional creation gives Helen extraordinary depth. To have read Moments of Being and the early Woolf diaries is to appreciate the degree to which The Voyage Out is, like many first novels (at least to informed readers), is ‘drawing from life’. The novel itself is a bit contrived but far from a minor novel. Forster summed it up well as ‘strange, tragic, inspired’.