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.

Forster and the Literary Forebears

When EM Forster lectured at Trinity College in 1927, he opened his series of lectures on the novel (collected in Aspects of the Novel) provocatively:

No English novelist is as great as Tolstoy-that is to say, has given so complete a picture of man’s life, both on its domestic and heroic side. No English novelist has explored man’s soul as deeply as Dostoyevsky. And no novelist anywhere has analysed the modern consciousness as successfully as Marcel Proust.

Any thoughtful reader will instinctively see the idolatry in Forster’s remarks, and wish to argue for the English novelist, but ninety years later his charges stand, certainly in respect of English novels. The major figures that come to mind, Conrad, Graham Greene, Woolf, perhaps Doris Lessing, certainly not Forster himself, don’t adequately counter his specific charges.

What of the third more sweeping remark? Can we now favourably compare Proust’s insight into  modern consciousness with Beckett, Kafka or Mann?

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

Stranger Shores: Literary Essays 1986-1999 by J. M. Coetzee

In August I read J. M. Coetzee’s Inner Workings, a book of outstanding literary essays. The earlier collection of essays, Stranger Shores, is also brilliant, worthy to sit on the shelf beside Coetzee’s fiction. It includes superb essays on Joseph Brodsky, Robert Musil, Kafka, Borges and Doris Lessing, as well as a reflection on T. S. Eliot entitled ‘What is a Classic?’ There are twenty-six pieces in total, some less strong but none less than enjoyable.

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

With Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, my tenth book read as part of the Art of the Novella Reading Challenge, I pass Passionate level. Thus far, this tenth novella is my favourite.

Both author and book are new to me. Published in 1899, I am dazzled that Chopin wrote so courageously, prefiguring Virginia Woolf and second-wave feminists like Doris Lessing. (Perhaps Emily or someone who knows more of Chopin can tell me whether Woolf read and found inspiration in The Awakening, which shares some of Woolf’s lyricism and heavy use of symbolism.)

The story is of the growing self-awareness, and need for independence, of a New Orleans housewife, no longer able to suffer the confines of her conventional marriage or societal etiquette.

It sometimes entered Mr. Pontellier’s mind to wonder if his wife were not growing a little unbalanced mentally. He could plainly see that she was not herself. That is, he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world.

Edna, the story’s protagonist, casts aside her fictitious self, rejecting the proscribed model of wife and mother. In the end, this proves too challenging even for the man she loves. His departure catalyzes Edna’s inability to live independently in the society of her day.

Emily wrote essays on The Awakening at school; Frances wrote: “You either already know or can imagine where Edna is headed, but if you have not already, you should read this.” I could not agree more.